Tending the Garden with the Youth

I had the great pleasure of discussing Epicurean ethics with a group of about twenty students from the Philosophy Club at Jones High School in Chicago yesterday. After introducing myself and explaining what led me to write Tending the Epicurean Garden, I read Principal Doctrines 26, 29 and 30, as well as the portion of the Letter to Menoeceus that talks about how–although pleasure is choice-worthy for its own sake and pain is avoidance-worthy for its own sake–not every pleasure is to be sought and not every pain to be avoided. I also discussed the differences between the natural and necessary desires, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are empty, and the importance of having some kind of standard for our choices and avoidances, and explained hedonic calculus.

We considered real-life scenarios to apply hedonic calculus, and mentioned questions about access to information, as many of the Herculaneum scrolls are not available to everyday people due to the high cost of academic translations available. I also discussed some of the contemporary research on the science of happiness, went over some of the findings, and talked about how much of this research is actually taking place in universities here in Chi-Town.

But one thing that struck me was how easily they understand issues of power and how power affects narratives. When asked why Epicurean philosophy hadn’t been more widely taught, I simply mentioned: “Plato. And Christianity“. And it seemed immediately like they understood. I shared a bit of the counter-history of philosophy angle when I explained that Epicurus was reacting mainly to Plato when he offered a materialist philosophy, as Plato had de-contextualized and de-naturalized philosophy. On contrast, Epicurus wanted to reconcile us with nature.

The modern efforts to bring creationism and superstition into the classroom are nothing new, in fact they are an ancient cultural war: it has take the form of science versus theology, materialism versus idealism, and other forms. But the Jones students fill me with hope: the high school philosophy club was initiated by students, who get no extracurricular credit for it. They are genuinely interested in the philosophical questions and in critical thinking. Jones is a college prep school and is one of the best in the city of Chicago. My overall impression is that the youth were super smart, organized, curious, respectful and attentive, and my visit there, their hospitality, and their passion for philosophical questions will be quite memorable to me for some time.

Yes, there’s a cult of ignorance taking over America. But there’s still MUCH reason to hope!!!!

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On the Virtue of Coolness

Coolness is the proper way you represent yourself to a human being. – Robert Farris Thompson

A happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens

Coolness (itutu), in Yoruba African aesthetic and spirituality, is associated with the river Goddess Oshun (Aphrodite), who is said to be in charge of “refreshing the world and refreshing all the heads with her sweet river waters“. Beauty is also a part of coolness: it adds to a person’s confidence. This coolness is opposed by gbona (heat, warmth), and is frequently applied to one’s head (as in, keeping a cool head versus being hot-headed) in Yoruba parlance.

The term cool in colloquial English may have been coined by imported Africans to America who were attempting to express ideas peculiar to their worldview. Here, it continued to evolve and, today, coolness is a reincarnation of itutu. We hear expressions such as:

losing one’s cool

keeping one’s cool; cool off (as in, calm down)

chill; chill out (perhaps America’s answer to Danish hygge)

being cool (likeable, sociable, easy to get along with)

Obatala, Yoruba God of Wisdom

Obatala, the Yoruba God of Wisdom, is believed to always keep a cool head

We can also think of a cool pose, a cool and confident way of carrying oneself, and therefore of the connection between coolness and popularity.

The aesthetic ideal of itutu is seen in the dignified, collected, untroubled, calm, peaceful demeanor in African statues and masks. We can immediately see a connection with the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia (equanimity, imperturbability), and in fact both notions denote a certain maturity of intellect and character: gentleness, conciliation, an ability to defuse fights and disputes, self-control and diplomacy. All of these are desired traits in an elder, mentor, or role model.

Coolness of head is also a tangible, physical experience that a hedonist can bring about in his body, literally, by refreshing his head with cool water. In my book, I make mention of the Afro-diasporic therapeutic practice of washing one’s head (known as rogación de cabeza or head rogation, lave-tete or head washing, and by other names in various traditions), which is usually done as a ceremony either with cool water or coconut water. It generally involves washing the crown, the sides and the back of the head. It’s a great practice for when we are in a bad mood, confused, exhausted, or sad.

Notice that cool is distinguishable from cold in our language. Expressions like “cold-hearted; cold and calculating; cold as ice” denote apathy or antipathy, or even lack of humaneness, cruelty.

Coolness has always been in danger of being coopted by consumerism. I believe it should be appropriated as part of a specifically American art of living by our street philosophers, by our everyday intellectuals, and reclaimed as an Epicurean virtue. Everyone can benefit from learning to keep a cool head and from associating with people who are cool in the truest sense of the word.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Epistle to Peter Carr

After writing my Bonobo and the Atheist book review, a friend pointed out a quote by Jefferson where he also argued that morality is a nstural faculty. Here’s the relevant portion, from his Epistle to Peter Carr:

He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the to kalon[beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

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The Bonobo and the Atheist Book Review

This book review was originally posted in societyofepicurus.com.

Today I’m reviewing the amazing book The Bonobo and the Atheist by Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal. The author takes a soft, humanist approach to atheism and morality, focusing on the study of human and ape (and even mammalian) nature and focusing more on the similarities between us and other animals than on the differences.

This book crushes human exceptionalism and argues that complex human morality, just like our limbs and body parts, comes from earlier, simpler forms. In other words, the book treats morality as the product of natural selection and as a strictly natural phenomenon.

The Question of “Selfish Genes”

The book defines and cites examples of both altruism and reciprocity, both of which are seen in nature and evolved among animals. It is perhaps unfair to limit morality to altruism and reciprocity (or as interpersonal ethics expressed in terms of help / harm), but as we must begin somewhere and as the book is premised on the idea that morality, being a natural phenomenon, evolved from simpler and more rudimentary forms, these are good starting points–which also imply that morality(ies?) must be subject to evolutionary pressures, and evolve with the species.

There underlies animosity against the “new atheists” in the book, although the author admits that he himself is an atheist. They are characterized sometimes as narrow-minded, even bigoted, but not for the reasons that religious people would argue. The book rebels against scientism and against the “doctrines” established by biologists and other scientists. The author argues insistently that genes are not merely selfish, as Richard Dawkins and other brilliant biologists have argued. Yes, they do serve selfish purposes, but it is unfair and uncritical to argue that, if a behavior does not serve an obviously selfish motive, that it is unnatural, or a “misfiring” of a vestige instinct, or some other “error” of nature.

In this, the anthropologist is reminiscent of the ancient Epicureans, who often sought more than one interpretation of data and accepted them all, as long as they did not contradict each other and as long as they did not contradict the evidence. For instance: Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura, specifically argues that body parts evolved, and only later acquired their various purposes, functions, and uses–which may be varied, and not mutually exclusive. (See the Section in Book IV that says “No speaking ere the tongue created was“, or read this blog).

The author also argues that those that engage in atheistic activism may have experienced trauma earlier in life, which might be true for many, but then he goes as far as stating that he is anti-conviction, as if it was wrong to have definite views on things that are demonstrably clear. I don’t know if this is the answer to the problem, but he clearly is tackling some of the same issues that I tackled in Atheism 2.1.

He does have a point when he argues that philosophy is distinct from, and a necessary companion to, science.

Anti-something movements will go way of the dodo unless they manage to replace what they dislike with something better.

The author also engages in a bit of religious apologetics when he describes the play behavior of some apes who play with dolls. Some religious “make-believe” behavior that we see in humans cannot be compared with the innocent play of a human girl or an ape. Deeply held religious beliefs do have (sometimes awful) repercussions, and to confuse make-believe with proven truth–like religious people do–is infantile and irresponsible. As theater, or as play behavior, make-believe is fine.

Hedonic Kindness

The author coins the term “hedonic kindness” to speak of how doing good deeds and being altruistic releases feel-good hormones, citing maternal care as the possible source of this adaptation.

Invariably, nature associates things that we need to do with pleasure. Since we need to eat, the smell of food makes us drool like Pavlov’s dogs, and food consumption is a favorite activity. We need to reproduce, so sex is both an obsession and a joy. And to make sure we raise our young, nature gave us attachments, none of which exceeds that between mother and offspring. Like any other mammal, we are totally preprogrammed for this in body and mind. As a result, we barely notice the daily efforts on behalf of our progeny and joke about the arm and leg that it costs.

Not only does the author reject the “selfish gene” view that exceptional acts of altruism (like adoption of an unrelated creature) are errors, vestiges, or “misfiring” of our instincts, he also reminds us that human brains are wired for empathy, unlike insects. Social animals in the insect kingdom are highly efficient and have complex systems of communication and social interaction, but they do not have the neural complexity of a mammal. We are social and altruistic and moral in a different way from collectivist insects.

Part of the thesis of the author relies on a view of morality as a faculty, and therefore as somewhat unconscious. He uses the example of incest to argue that “moral decisions arise from the gut, they are irrational, visceral”. Modern biologists can of course reason why incest makes people so uncomfortable, but primitive man always had taboos against incest, long before geneticists pinpointed the need for genetic variation.

In order to understand hedonic kindness, we must first understand the mechanisms by which people experience empathy. This is where the science gets interesting: the author argues that these mechanisms are physical and neurological. He discusses processes of bodily synchronization, contagion of happiness or sadness, and yawn contagion which are seen in nature among many primates, and what is known as mirror neurons that “fuse people at a bodily level”.

… we activate neural representations of motor actions in our brain similar to the ones we perceive or expect in the other … Frowns induce sadness, smiles happiness. Ulf Dimberg, the Swedish psychologist who conducted this research, told me about the initial resistance, which made it hard to get his findings published in the 1990s … at the time, empathy was viewed as a complex skill under cerebral control. We decide to be empathic, so the thinking went, on the basis of deliberate simulations in our head of how we would feel in someone else’s situation. Empathy was seen as a cognitive skill. Now we know that the process is both simpler and more automatic. It’s not that we lack control (breathing is automatic too, but we are still in command), but science looked at empathy entirely the wrong way. Empathy stems from unconscious bodily connections involving faces, voices, and emotions. Humans don’t decide to be empathic; they just are.

One uniquely human instinct that strongly correlates with morality is blushing, which is a physical signal sent when one experiences shame. The author reminds us that bodily indicators of shame are also seen in great apes. The role of shame in a naturalist morality was discussed in my reasonings about Confucius’ Analects. Like other forms of humanism, Confucianism focuses on the need for good role models: wholesome leaders inspire wholesome citizens and individuals, and the fear or shame tied to the disapproval of these role models is one of the main incentives for moral behavior. The author of The Bonobo and the Atheist provides numerous examples of this from ape societies, and also cites the “the prestige effect” that is observed in primate societies: how apes and humans like to imitate those in higher social standing (role models, alphas).

Without getting too off-track–as this is not in the book, I should cite that gossip is theorized to have a role in instilling shame and building trust among humans and, although it is sometimes looked down upon, gossip behavior seems to also be part of our moral instinct. It helps to enforce shame and guilt when anti-social behavior is observed, and strengthens societal cohesion.

We are reminded that one of the founders of our School, Hermarchus, posited a doctrine that natural kinship contributed to our moral choices and avoidances: this doctrine strongly resonates with our anthropologist’s hedonic kindness. Hedonic kindness reminds us that logic and syllogisms are not the source of moral judgment, and that we must study empathy as an unconscious phenomenon in order to better understand our moral faculty. This also brings us back to our Cyranaic Reasonings, which concluded with the recognition that our way of philosophizing is rooted in the body, its instincts and drives.

External Reinforcement

Moral instincts are innate, but reinforced socially–both in hierarchical and egalitarian models of relationship. We see that respect for authority figures and alpha (fe)males is part of what keeps society in order and that, through bullying, through not sharing resources, through shame and other methods, individuals in a group internalize the rules.

Conflict is needed to reinforce the rules, but after conflict happens, we see in ape communities a huge amount of time and attention dedicated to repairing relationships, making amends via grooming, sharing a meal, and other behavior.

Egalitarian relations also exist among the great apes. The author explains that initially, anthropologists hesitated to use the word friendship for the relationships between unrelated members of a species that were always together, fearing that the term was too anthropomorphic. In reality, friendship is no exaggeration, as friends in ape societies have been observed to mourn after one of them dies.

The ultimate example of external reinforcement in human societies comes in the form of the death sentence, which has acted in human society as a form of artificial selection for certain moral traits: we have been killing off sociopaths for millennia, in doing so removing their strains from modern human DNA and producing an increasingly domesticated variety of human.

The Is / Ought Question

From a biological point of view, basic emotions are … nature’s way of orienting us to do what we prudently ought. The social emotions are a way of getting us to do what we socially ought, and the reward/punishment system is  away of learning to use past experiences to improve our performance in both domains. – Patricial Churchland, in “Braintrust”

The author argues that morality exists without reason, and is based mainly on instinct and emotion, and says that “the tension between (is and ought) is felt much less clearly in real life than at the conceptual level at which most philosophers like to dwell. They feel that we can not reason ourselves from one level to the other, and they are right, but who says that morality is or needs to be rationally constructed? What if it is grounded in emotional values?”

In other words, it is unnecessary to go from is to ought. Instead, we can study nature and base our choices and avoidances on what we know about nature–flow with it, not against it–because (and this is one of the key premises of this book) we really ARE good-natured.

The book closes by speaking up against top-down morality. If in fact morality, like our limbs, comes from simpler forms and we are good-natured, then we can speak of grassroots virtue or morality, a subject that I discussed in my Contemplations on Tao as tied to the virtue of naturalness. If we are authentic and true to our nature, we will naturally develop wholesome qualities.

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Review of The 100

I do not usually write pop culture reviews, but the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series The 100 is so well written, and so full of intriguing plot-twists and solid characters, that it deserves its own place in my blog.

The story starts as a teenage drama, with 100 youth from a space station’s juvenile detention ward in orbit around a supposedly uninhabitable Earth, are let loose on Earth to see whether it can be inhabited again. The society that the youth create is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. But when they discover that they’re not alone, that there are grounders who live on Earth in a primitive state, the series turns into a sci-fi version of Game of Thrones. And the kids grow up quickly! Now entering into its fourth season, it no longer feels like a teenage series.

One of the reasons why The 100 works is because it does not attempt to give easy answers to questions of morality and philosophy. It depicts the very difficult choices that leaders have to sometimes make, how they sometimes make mistakes (or not) and then later have to live with regret for the rest of their lives. Many of the moral questions hinge on what we believe about human nature: are we good-nature or evil by nature? What can we expect of others in various circumstances?

I grant that the second and third seasons were far stronger than the first, but that just means that if you stick through the series, the rewards will pile up. Recent episodes have turned more Nietzschean, with the build-up of hostilities between natural humans who know that to live is to struggle and to suffer and to experience the full range of human emotion, versus an unnatural cult of borgs who have assimilated into the collective mind of an artificial intelligence in order to avoid suffering and erase difficult memories. Why are so many willing to erase their human nature, their memories, and their emotions, in order to experience steadier highs? There’s simply no easy answer to that, or perhaps there are many answers explored in the plot.

I won’t give more details away. I was initially biased against what seemed like low-budged sci-fi, but now I must insist: if you enjoy good post-apocalyptic science fiction, watch The 100!

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A Boricua Ponders the Rise of White Supremacy

Hatred never ceases through hatred. Hatred only ceases through love. This is the eternal rule. – Siddhartha Buddha, in the Dhammapada

The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life. – Epicurus, PD 39

In the recent months, beginning with Trump’s preparations for the presidency and later with his inauguration and the aftermath, hate has evolved from a marginal war cry into a pastime, and Richard Spencer has apparently now become the most punchable face in the extreme right. I admit I enjoyed the video and the numerous memes of Spencer being punched, then felt bad for him, and am now just disappointed in what America is becoming. Honest conversations about race are needed, and a process of education should emerge from this junction. But these conversations are likely to be uncomfortable, and passions have to be put aside in favor of cold, sober consideration of facts and–most importantly–of fairness/justice (aka mutual advantage). Trump has forced this conversation on us. Let’s treat this as an opportunity to philosophize.

Spencer heads the National Policy Institute, an organization that is attempting to normalize, legitimize, and market white supremacist ideology in the 21st Century. While his ideology does sometimes raise legitimate concerns and grievances about diversity, these get lost in a complex web of antiquated hostilities, misinformation, and misinterpretation of facts which go on to inform policies that can only be detrimental if implemented BECAUSE they are misinformed and hate-based.

As a result, those grievances that ARE legitimate may never get a fair hearing. As I see it, based on (frequently ignored) data gathered by people like Paul Gregory on the statistical link between high levels of religiosity and crime and other symptoms of dysfunction, these grievances concern in part the future population of America and the proliferation of unwanted children–a problem that is likely to get worse if authoritarian Christians successfully ban abortion and continue to disarm responsible methods of family planning. Within one generation, these unwanted children will produce higher rates of crime, mental illness, and other signs of societal dysfunction, which will then produce more unwanted children, and the cycle goes on. But the religious “entanglements” of many in the alt-right keep them from naming the problems named by Gregory. Where white supremacists fail is in recognizing that:

  1. Christianity–particularly in its politicized expression as a far-right ideology–adds to the “population hygiene” or “genetic hygiene” problem in the above-mentioned manner. (Consider how Catholic doctrine has exacerbated the problem of unwanted children at the Mexico-U.S. border)
  2. Early Christianity was the main contributor to the wiping out of the European population during its imperialist expansions, initially through the genocide suffered by the indigenous Europeans for their practice of Paganism, and later through the religious wars and the fact that Christianity has always represented a grave threat to public health–not just in our day. For instance, while the Islamic culture taught that one should bathe oneself daily and enforced hygienic practices, the Christians in medieval Europe linked hygiene to the Muslim infidels and banned daily bathing practices, as a result of which–as rats proliferated and badly preserved meats were consumed–the Black plague claimed a huge proportion of the European population. The plague barely touched the Muslim world. The European peoples have paid a steeper price for adopting Christianity than most people in “Team Europe” are willing to admit.
  3. Another inconsistency in the alt-right‘s–this is the new euphemism for white supremacy–emphasis on White Christian identity is the bankrupt assumption that religion can unite a race. We can quickly cite two examples from recent European history to demonstrate the falsehood of this assumption: Yugoslavia? Northern Ireland? In former Yugoslavia, the hatreds between Serbs, Croatians, Albanians, and Bosnians–who frequently have nothing but religion to differentiate them from each other–still simmer under the surface.

It’s therefore an irony that Christian and White nationalism have found a way to become one and the same narrative, and that so many legitimate grievances have to unfortunately be cloaked in this narrative–their credibility forever affected by its credibility.

We must begin by admitting that not all diversity and not all immigrants are the same: it is wise for a country to welcome doctors and engineers and other educated professionals as immigrants, and it is unwise for any country to welcome people from societies notorious for their fanaticism and religious violence without filtering who’s who. There should be absolutely nothing controversial about this, and in fact many countries have clear policies in this regard. Why should the US be any different? By making such ostentatious and ludicrous displays of hatred while implementing immigration policies–perhaps in order to distract us from other issues–the executive branch of the US government has made itself a target of global criticism, demoralized large segments of the American people, and turned into a circus what should be normal, rational, calculated policy making.

So the first issue here is that people confronted with data that attempts to legitimize white supremacy should be ready to apply factors like cultural corruption and religion to the interpretation of statistics, and should be open to discussing the need to decouple Christianity from the priorities that benefit our society, which is something that white supremacists do not usually do. This is even more imperative when we consider that, unlike ancestry, the act of believing or practicing a religion is a choice, and that people who are informed can make a different choice.

Then there’s the issue of paranoia and self-alienation–perhaps the most dangerous and sick of the tendencies that we see in white supremacist ideology. When think-tanks allow themselves to be inspired by ideologies that give minorities only one choice–the choice of not existing–the policies and ideas that emerge can only be impractical, and are likely to be evil and dangerous to implement.

We can’t un-diversify America at this point in history without degenerating into rampant tyranny. Ancestors of Native Americans got here 14,000 years ago. Black and White people either came or were brought in hundreds of years ago and their fates are forever intertwined. The entire southwest was part of Mexico before it became part of the US, and there are populations in Colorado and New Mexico that have spoken Spanish for over 400 years. People born in Puerto Rico were given US citizenship in 1917, and after a full century of being American citizens and of constant back-and-forth migration, people there are unlikely to vote in favor of giving up their citizenship. It would take a time machine to change these paradigms. We could go on and on and on about the complicated centuries-old history of the United States and its many constituent peoples. Disentangling the millions of networks of human relations would be impossible, impractical, and the price to pay for such a “utopia” if anyone wants to call it that, would be hell on Earth and a civil rights catastrophe. The USA is a cosmopolitan nation, for better or worse. Love it or leave it!

Then there’s the pseudo-scientific claims, which under Trump have gained an embarrassingly high level of visibility. In the white supremacist ideology, we find claims of genetic “superiority”–often without clearly spelling out what exactly “superiority” means in this context. As I discussed in the Nietzsche’s Will to Power reasonigs, nature does not favor “superiority” except as adaptation, which in the case of the naked mole rat produced a race of ugly, hairless, blind creatures. They’re superior for THEIR environment. Without context, superiority lacks meaning.

I took a special interest in these matters when in recent years, biologist Lior Pachter said that Puerto Rican women possess “the ideal genotype of the ‘perfect’ human“. According to this Medical Daily piece,

Pachter then unveiled the perfect human with genetic advantages actually lives in the U.S.

“The nearest neighbor to the “perfect human” is HG00737, a female who is Puerto Rican,” he wrote.

Women who reside in the U.S. but were born on the island have been shown to have a mixture of 50 percent European, 30 percent West African, and 20 percent Native American.

Another DNA study carried out in Puerto Rico reported:

One of these earlier studies, published in PLOS ONE in 2011, found that on average Puerto Ricans’ ancestry is 15 percent American Indian (known as Taino), 21 percent African and nearly 64 percent European. But this ratio varies across the island, with more European background on the west side of the island and more African on the east side.

And the Genographic Project reported:

The average Puerto Rican individual carries 12% Native American, 65% West Eurasian (Mediterranean, Northern European and/or Middle Eastern) and 20% Sub-Saharan African DNA.

There are several problems with the assertions about a “perfect human”–some of which are quite obvious, and even more problems with the assertion that such a human would be Puerto Rican. First, Puerto Rico is and has always been a melting pot. As a result, many people carry DNA lineages that carry disease and other undesirable traits, and it is extremely difficult to make generalized claims about the DNA of a people as diverse.

Furthermore, the way the scientific data was interpreted sounds somewhat tinged with political correctness–he goes as far as identifying the “perfect human” as a Taino woman. Tainos are extinct, and were not particularly genetically diverse, whereas modern Puerto Ricans are a strong stock precisely because of their genetic diversity. On the other end of the political scale, we see that white supremacists also misinterpret data according to their own agenda and based on categories of humans that are a modern invention: for instance, among their references to the lower IQ of “Black people”, we find out about the “gifted 12%”–those Blacks who equal or exceed the average IQ of the so-called majority (“Whites”?) … but then in all the “races” we find such gifted minorities, and Black people are the single most diverse collection of peoples of humanity. Can data be significant when it is interpreted based on Platonic identities rather than real genetic lineages? There are many individuals who would fall into the ‘White’ category whose IQ is extremely low–and there are proven cultural, particularly religious, factors that produce a generalized lowered IQ in entire communities (Islam and Catholicism tend to lower IQ, atheism tends to raise it). Yet much of the white supremacist interpretation of data desperately tries to dismiss culture and to use nature to explain the differences in IQ.

But let’s consider the claims concerning Puerto Rican DNA, as there’s an important grain of truth here. The theory behind the “perfect human” hypothesis has to do with the importance of having a diverse racial background from the perspective of Darwinian natural selection, because this means that a person would have a broader gene pool to choose from. One of the reasons why Native Americans died by the millions during the era of European expansion is because of their lack of genetic diversity: they lacked the necessary immune defenses for the diseases brought by the more cosmopolitan and diverse Europeans and Africans.

If there’s ever in the future a major global cataclysm, and humans are forced to undergo extreme evolutionary pressures, those with the broadest gene pool will be statistically more likely to have the genetic mutations needed to adapt quickly to the new situation, and therefore to pass on their genes. The Medical Daily article, after citing the increased ability of mixed-race Brazilians to cope with stress, paraphrases this:

Science speculates being mixed race may contain biological advantages due to the genetic variation or diversity. Offspring tend to produce unpredictable characteristics that are advantageous to the human population. Diverse genetic ancestry could be the gateway to attaining better health.

… whereas closed groups that rarely breed outside a limited group of lineages are known to be far more likely than other groups to exhibit congenital diseases. Aeon published a piece on this titled The Future is Mixed Race.

The claims made by white supremacists must therefore be confronted with good science and good interpretation of data, as well as with the addition of considerations about culture to the interpretations that only focus on nature.

This lends greater credibility to the theory that populations experience a strong urge and instinct of expansion at certain times in history in order to secure genetic diversity. We see a small scale version of this in ape populations, where once individuals reach puberty, they feel a strong urge to leave their tribe to avoid incest and diversify the gene pool. It could be argued that historical expansions like the Bantu expansion through Africa, the pre-historic Aryan expansion, the Gengis Khan expansion of the Mongols through Eurasia, the European expansion during the age of discovery, and the Viking expansions are examples of large-scale instinct to diversify the gene pool in order to avoid the spread of congenital disease.

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities, not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

One final note on the issue of national or racial pride: it is one thing to be happy or thankful that one is of a certain race or nationality, or to be thankful to one’s ancestors for their sacrifices, but pride is of a different nature than gratitude: it requires accomplishment. One does not have a right to be “proud” of things that are merely accidental, things like race or ethnicity or nationality that one did not bring about through one’s effort–unlike the acquisition of an education, or success in a project or a job. People who are obsessed with racial pride might do well to consider what they have accomplished through their own effort, and if they find (as I suspect that they will) that they have little to be proud of, they should make future plans so that they may deserve and justify the kind of pride that they wish to experience. If you want to take pride in yourself, accomplish something! Don’t rely on your ancestry or other accidents of history to give you the value and the heroism that you long for, without actually being worthy of magnanimity.

Many more things could be said about this, but I will stop here by inviting people to consider Gregory’s research on the correlation between religiosity and dysfunction, and by expressing gratitude to the previous generations that established a clear separation between church and state as one of the values upon which contemporary Western culture is founded. If we Westerners do not appreciate and love our secular humanist heritage, we do not deserve it!

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Happy Twentieth! – On Nature’s Alphabet

Tomorrow is International Mother Language Day–I’ve written previously on my general interest in languages, and specifically my interest in the international language Esperanto–so I thought I’d share an interesting observation that I made while studying De Rerum Natura.  In it, Lucretius frequently posits that nature has her own alphabet. We may think of it as the table of the elements, or perhaps in the case of life we may think of it as the four letters that, using a unique binary code, make up the DNA strands in all known living beings.

This idea stems, it seems to me, from the atomists’ observation that while there may be an infinite number of atoms, there is a limited number of possible combinations of atoms. It would be nearly impossible to discern laws of nature if the possible combinations of atoms was infinite. The fact that we are able to discern some order tells us that nature sets limits to what is possible and what isn’t. The same happens with language and sense: every language has its rules, and what falls outside those rules is nonsense.

With such being the nature of things, if we break up all things to their minimal constituents, we will eventually come across nature’s alphabet: the basic combinations out of which all things are made, just as paragraphs, sentences, and words all ultimately must be reduced to letters. Here is the analogy made by Lucretius:

Nay, thou beholdest in our verses here
Elements many, common to many worlds,
Albeit thou must confess each verse, each word
From one another differs both in sense
And ring of sound- so much the elements
Can bring about by change of order alone.

The above is from Book I. Later in Book II, he elaborates on this metaphor by comparing the laws of nature with the rules of grammar.

Why, even in these our very verses here
It matters much with what and in what order
Each element is set: the same denote
Sky, and the ocean, lands, and streams, and sun;
The same, the grains, and trees, and living things.

It is entirely natural for a poet like Lucretius to draw analogies between his art and the subject of his writing. What he is NOT saying, and we may draw from his metaphor, is that by studying nature, we can observe how she fashions meaning. And by this we mean real, not Platonic meaning, and certainly not magical meaning like the one that students of the runes and of Kabbalah pretend to draw from the Nordic and Hebrew letters.

Many philosophers are concerned with the absurdity of it all and with how they claim that things do not have inherent meaning, but Lucretius is here inviting us to consider both the craft of poetry as an art that confers and creates meaning, and also–most importantly–the possibility that by studying physics and by learning nature’s own alphabet, we can discern meaning in nature that is relevant, useful, and yet no less poetic and Dionysian.

In Book IV, Lucretius refers to “winged words” when speaking of how atoms-waves travel distances and are perceived in the air as scents, in the ocean as waves, or in other things we find in nature. By this he means tho impress us with how the semantics of nature can be directly perceived by our faculties, and there is no need for translation. Nature’s alphabet is real, and the sense it conveys can be directly apprehended. Nature can literally speak to our senses.

Each body produced by nature is a book. Every ecosystem, an anthology. Every species, a mythology. Every planet, an encyclopaedia.

I find this to be a beautiful way to encourage mortals to resist the temptations of other-worldly promises that so poetically insinuate themselves to us frequently, and to instead keep our feet on the ground and be content with the meaning that we can grasp from the study of nature.

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