Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Daughter's Essay

Hey T, I'm glad you finally trimmed your bangs after that photo was taken. Now I can see all of your lovely face again.

Our second-oldest daughter will be going into the 9th grade in September. Last semester her Social Studies teacher asked everyone in his class to prepare both a written essay and an oral presentation on an issue that they felt particularly strong about.

To my surprise, T decided to present a pro-life argument on abortion. Anne and I are both pro-life without apology, and everyone else in the family is too, to varying degrees of intensity, but even though our views are clear and well-known, Anne and I aren't constantly hammering away at the issue the way we know it occurs in many anti-abortion households.

As far as I can tell, T shaped her own opinions about this topic (like she does with a lot of other things) almost entirely on her own. In fact, I can recall her being full of passionate intensity about this as far back as to when she was old enough to realize what abortion is. She's involved in her Catholicism, wears it and bears it proudly, but from what I could see, embracing the pro-life position seemed self-evident to her as soon as she was old enough to pick up on the message she took out of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who when she was just a little girl. "We are here! We are here! A person is a person, no matter how small..." By the way, when Horton Hears a Who was released as a movie (starring Jim Carrey) in 2008, there was controversy around the pro-life movement's use of Horton... as a parable for their cause and "a person is a person no matter how small" as a rallying cry, with Dr. Seuss's widow claiming that he meant so such thing. Since Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) himself is dead and seems to have said nothing specific about it (other than a claim by his biographer that he threatened to sue a pro-life group for putting his words and images on t-shirts), I don't know what anyone can say for sure about the meaning of a book that was written in 1954, quite some time before the abortion issue was such a divisive topic in America, but people on both sides are bound to take out of it what they want to regardless...

When a boy in her class decided to write his presentation advocating the pro-choice position, and heard that T would be arguing the other side, he said to her "OK, it's on!! This is basically just going to come down to a religious argument, isn't it?" That got under her skin a bit, because while she's glad that her religion teaches the same thing she believes, she says she'd feel the same way about it whether she was religious or not. She found the comment to be dismissive, condescending, and presumptuous, so she was determined to make her case without resorting to religious arguments and language.

As she was getting prepared the night before her presentation she called me over to the computer. She asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to include in her presentation some photos from a Google image search on "aborted babies." As I looked at the gruesome images, I was taken aback, not only due to the graphic nature of the images themselves, but because it surprised me that she would even think of performing a search on that. Anne and I both told her that we didn't think it was a good idea, and would more likely backfire on her than persuade anyone. This was also around the time of the murder of Dr. Tiller too, so this just wasn't a place to go, we advised.

She'd probably be mortified if she new I was posting this, but here it is.
“All men are created equal.” These are the words of our founding fathers in the United States Constitution, our law, and our duty to uphold. How would you react if you were told that every year over 45 million breathing, thinking, living people are killed legally? Where is this loophole in our system? How is this possible?

Forty-five million children per year are surgically aborted. That’s not including chemical abortions and medicines used even more regularly than expensive operations. Many people are still on the edge of being pro-life because they aren’t well informed. Here are some facts that will clear up common myths about abortion:

- Only one percent of abortions per year are from cases of rape or incest, meaning all other abortions are of unwanted children.

- Abortion is extremely dangerous to a woman’s health; it dramatically increases her chance of breast cancer by a minimum of 50%, risk of cervical cancer up to five times more likely, and after an abortion many women have serious issues with the liver, ovaries, and pelvis to name just a few possible casualties.

- Common myth that having baby will be too traumatizing; an abortion doesn’t make the situation less traumatizing. Women who have had an abortion have many more and longer lasting emotional issues.

- There is statistically a 154% higher risk of death from suicide from abortion patients.

Abortion centers do not show women the ultrasounds of their babies before they are aborted. Why? Because what the ultrasound shows is a human being. Babies in the qualified age group for an abortion have fingers, toes, eyes, legs, arms, tongue, a beating heart- all the major body parts are there, and the details are beginning to form. Babies can be seen with the hiccups, laughing, kicking- and thinking. Brain waves can be monitored only 40 days after conception. A baby is usually aborted somewhere around 3 months, and sometimes even later, meaning that baby has already developed a mind for thought. Science has proven that a baby’s entire genetic code is in the very first cell.

An abortion is an operation. If these babies have all these body parts, and they take the baby out of the mother’s body, then what do they do with all those little limbs? Well, they must be disposed somehow, right? Some abortion centers decide to chop up the little limbs and take them somewhere to be “disposed of properly.” One abortion clinic owner said, “We put them down the garbage disposal. Some second and third trimester babies' muscle structure is so strong that the baby will not come apart, so they must be disposed of through trash receptacles.” Others decide to burn them, or use them for medical testing. (Just searching aborted baby on Google images will bring up incredibly disturbing yet real pictures. After seeing these, it’s impossible to deny a fetus is a human being.)

Many people are pro-choice because they think abortion is just in rape situations. Its important to acknowledge that the amount of abortions for rape and incest added together equals less than one percent. But, of course, there still are girls who have been raped unfairly, and are not ready for the responsibility of being a mother. I read the book "Why Pro-Life?" By Randy Alcorn. There was an interview with a girl who had had two abortions but also had one baby by rape that she put up for adoption. She, along with many other women, said that the abortions were much harder on her than having the baby. Years later, she feels guilty and horribly responsible for the death of a person that would have been someone’s parent, sibling, friend, or spouse. Every baby killed takes that person out of someone else’s life, something that is hard for us to conceive. Imagine all the people we could have potentially met if it was not for abortion, all the people who could have made a difference in the world. The rape wasn’t her fault, but it wasn’t the baby’s either. Neither should have to take punishment, but whether she likes it or not, the situation cannot be put in the past. An abortion may take the baby away, but not the memory. Knowing that one of her babies is alive and safe is a comfort to her, and that her child got the chance to live their life.

Many pro-choice activists raise the point that a disabled person or child that was adopted might be living a horrible life. But isn’t it unfair for the parents to decide because their child’s life might be hard they should die? Dying is obviously worse than not having a chance to live. That’s like saying it’s justified to walk around a heavily impoverished area shooting people because they didn’t have great lives. It doesn’t make it right. Look at all the important people who came from a horrible start! No one should determine someone’s life from before they are born.

Anyone who was adopted instead of aborted would find the question, “Do you wish your mother had decided to kill you at birth so you wouldn’t have to be alive right now?” to be completely ridiculous. Everyone has a chance to live a wonderful life. There is also the preconceived notion that children who are adopted not aborted will be left on the streets .For every child aborted, there are forty eligible couples waiting for a child to adopt, so there is always the chance for any child to live a happy life.

It it’s true that having a baby means many difficult sacrifices for a mother. But it is irresponsible and unjust to take a mother’s mistakes out on another human being. Either way, the situation cannot be put in the past and forgotten, and no matter how much pain it may mean to one person, everyone deserves to live. Don’t deny the murder, if you feel like you couldn’t explain abortion to a little kid, you know that the situation is wrong.

Here is how you can help:

Continue researching. It’s hard to form an opinion until you are well informed. There's tons of interesting music, articles and books on the subject. I highly recommend the book, “Why Pro-Life?” By Randy Alcorn. Join the Pro-Life movement. Help protest outside abortion clinics, or walk for the pro-life movement. Signing for a mailing list on most pro-life sites will send you information on dates for rallies near you.
The next afternoon, I asked her how it went. She said that even though her teacher disagreed with her (no big surprise there), he gave her a pretty good grade. His only real criticism was not the same one I offered her (that it seemed to end rather abruptly, without much of a concluding set of statements), but that he thought it was a weak argument to state that "Anyone who was adopted instead of aborted would find the question, 'Do you wish your mother had decided to kill you at birth so you wouldn’t have to be alive right now?' to be completely ridiculous." Neither T nor I can figure out why he thought so.

I asked her how it went over with her classmates. She said it was fine, but she seemed subdued and wistful afterwards. Despite what we'd counseled her, I think she regretted in a way that she hadn't included any images, saying "People just don't think it's anything real, dad... they think it's just a blob of tissue." It's the sanitation of it, the refusal to face what it is, that really bothers her.

I know that most of the people who participate here don't necessarily agree with all this. I'm not looking for a debate and I'm not trying to hide behind my daughter for a debate. Whether anyone agrees with us or not, I'm proud of her for taking what she knew would be an unpopular stand in a public school setting. I don't write about abortion much here. I can't think of a lot to say that hasn't been said ad nauseum elsewhere. It almost always turns into a slanging match. Having seen the warring sides at clinic protests first-hand, I've seen how ugly it can get... I've tried more to find common ground here and to cover other things that don't get discussed and debated as much, but maybe I've tried too hard not to offend. T, on the other hand, likes to debate. To turn an old phrase slightly, youth rushes in where old fools fear to tread.

P.S. The image above is a staged photo from her digital art class, and has nothing to do with the presentation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is it the "Religion" Gene or the "Tribal" Gene They Should be Worried About?

Where do the real seeds of violence come from?

In relation to this previous post, I’ve been thinking a bit more about Matthew Alper’s book, The “God” part of the Brain. You know, I have to admit I’ve never really given atheism and agnosticism much serious thought. I’ve always considered the existence of God to be intuitively obvious even when joined with a concurrent faith in the scientific method, so most of the apologetics I’ve bothered to follow have been focused on intra-Catholic and inter-Christian debates. I’ve never really looked at Christian apologetics in confrontation with atheism before, but it might be time, because my kids who are in public high school and middle school are telling me that aggressive atheism is very much in vogue with kids these days, and I’ve also heard that a sizable segment of a recent confirmation class in our town was openly challenging the pastor as to whether or not God was even necessary in our lives anymore.

I found Alper’s book to be challenging and very interesting, despite the fact that there are some obvious factual errors in it. For example, this website takes him to task for faultily claiming that if mass (matter) is accelerated to the speed of light, it will become energy (page 26). And in a dubious and highly “unscientific” chapter in which he suggested that religious belief leads to material and social backwardness, he observed that the most prosperous and advanced countries in the world were the ones in which religious practice was statistically low (meaning Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Canada, Japan and so forth), and that the poorest countries in the world (meaning India, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East) were the ones in which religious adherence was statistically high, and while endeavoring to explain why the United States is the anomaly to this trend (by claiming that we are presumably the progeny of spiritual seekers with a dominant set of “God” genes), he claimed that George Calvert’s charter for the Settlement of Maryland in 1634 was the “first Roman Catholic settlement in the New World” (page 200). Hmmm.

Leaving that aside for a moment, I guess we are to infer that having an overdeveloped set of spiritual genes makes us slothful and lacking in creativity as well. It’s funny… I used to hear the same kind of specious arguments applied to the difference between Protestant and Catholic countries (with Catholic countries supposedly suffering from the lack of a “Protestant Work Ethic”), the difference between countries that had and had not ever been colonized, the difference between countries that benefited from having “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and those that lacked the flora and fauna to support the benificent development of these, and just today I heard a radio program flatly putting the difference on the temperature. Apparently, it’s just plain harder to get productive work done in those hot equatorial zones. :-/

One of the most amazing claims of Alper’s is that humans are the only species that murders its own kind. I can’t believe there are people out there who claim to be of a scientific bent who are still saying this. I used to hear this nonsense all through my school years, but it has been known for some time now that intra-species killing is quite common. This is an important point to contest, because like a lot of the “new atheists,” Alper lays a lot of the blame for human violence on religion.
In our frivolous attempts to either oppose or escape unavoidable death, we channel our energies into a morbid array of self-destructive behaviors. In our futile efforts to oppose the unopposable, we have become the only animal that will needlessly kill one another as well as our own selves. Unlike any other creature on Earth, we are capable of acts of suicide, genocide, sadism, masochism, self-mutilation, and drug abuse, along with a multitude of other disturbed responses, all of which result from our species unique capacity for self-conscious awareness and with it an awareness of death…. Generally speaking, humankind’s spiritual propensities are pretty harmless… It’s really only when our spiritual sensibilities get bound up by some restrictive and dogmatic religious creed that problems arise… For all the advantages of possessing a religious instinct, for all the social cohesion it brings, the sense of community it fosters, and the alleged purpose and meaning it provides, religion has proven itself, time and again, to be a potentially hazardous impulse in us… religion continues to act as a divisive force, promoting discrimination and intolerance, inciting enmity, aggression, and war… Moreover, our religious functions instill us with an inherent belief that we are immortal. Because each religion possesses its own unique interpretation of what immortality represents, each religion views every other as a threat to its notion of an immortal soul… As a result, our species tends to engage in what could be termed religious tribalism, a predisposition to justify territorial conquest in the name of one’s Gods, a tendency that has marked our species violent and bloody history…. How many more times must we justify acts of cruelty, murder, and genocide in the name of God and religion before we learn to tame this destructive impulse in us… Only once the human animal comes to terms with the fact that it has been born into a mental matrix – a neurological web of deceit – will we have a chance of offsetting this potentially destructive impulse in us….It is time that the study of spirituality and religiosity be taken out of the hands of philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians and “biologized.”
This is a recurrent theme that’s been showing up in the last few years, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001. It’s the same type of argument we see coming from Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins…. That religion is a destructive impulse which is to blame for the genocide and endless war and violence we see in the world, and that the self-knowledge to be found in the study of scientific Darwinism supplies the only hope we have to keep from destroying ourselves.

There are a number of things wrong with the statements made by Alper above, such as the sweeping generalization that all religions have a notion of an immortal soul, and that they can’t abide competing truth claims with respect to their own conceptions of immortality. Some religions have very little or no concept of an afterlife at all. Some are universalist. Some believe that salvation is not limited to their own sect alone... I also think Alper goes a little too far in his book in stating that humans are the only creatures with highly developed self-consciousness. I think apes have a sense of shame and are self-aware enough to pick up the idea of universal mortality. They are not the only ones. Elephants mourn.

In any case, I reject the idea that a religious gene or set of neurological functions is responsible for human violence, and I will attempt to take the Alpers of the world on in their own terms…

Let’s accept Alper’s basic premise and accept this argument:
Essentially, what I'm suggesting is that humans are innately "hard-wired" to perceive a spiritual reality. We are "hard-wired" to believe in forces that transcend the limitations of this, our physical reality… Here lies the origin of humankind's spiritual function, an evolutionary adaptation that compels our species to believe that though our physical bodies will one day perish, our "spirits" or "souls" will persist for all eternity. Only once our species was instilled with this inherent (mis)perception that there is something more "out there," that we are immortal beings, were we able to survive our debilitating awareness of death.
This is not especially troubling to me, it doesn’t surprise me that God made us and “hard-wired” us to want to know Him, but what does trouble me is the accusation that this religious impulse is the source of human violence that may someday annihilate us if not curbed somehow.

Alper says that “we have become the only animal that will needlessly kill one another as well as our own selves." He may have the suicide part right, but we are not the only animal that kills it’s own kind “needlessly.” Intra-species killing has been seen in lions, wolves, and spotted hyenas, but most importantly in our closest relative, the chimpanzee, with whom we share 98% of our genes, as evolutionary scientists are fond of pointing out (we also happen to share 50% of our genes with bananas).

I suppose Alper may know something about intra-species violence, which is why he tried to make a distinction around “needless” killing. Let’s have a look at the chimps...

Chimpanzees have long been considered by humans to be playful, impish, gregarious and peaceful primates, and to a large degree they are, but we’ve had some misconceptions about them too. It wasn’t known until the last few decades, for example, that chimps will occasionally hunt and eat meat. The renowned primatologist Jane Goodall was also distressed and saddened when during the course of her decades-long study of chimpanzees she observed that they will at times practice a sort of rudimentary form of raiding tribal warfare against each other. Over a period of months in the late 1970s, in Tanzania’s Gombe National Forest, she and other researchers witnessed a band of chimpanzees systematically hunt down and kill all the members of a neighboring group, one by one. This type of behavior has since been noted by other primatologists as well.

Chimpanzees have also been seen to cooperatively hunt down, kill, and eat the red colobus monkey, even though they have other sources of protein in their diet. The killing seems to be more of a social group exercise than it is a matter of necessity for them. It’s almost as if they are getting enjoyment out of the hunt, as if it was recreation. Is this “needful” or “needless” killing?

In foraging and hunting-gathering human societies, a type of raiding warfare is seen in patterns not very unlike those of the chimpanzees. If we share this type of behavior with our primate cousins, and if, as Alper claims, the self-conscious religious impulse is unique to humans, what accounts for this behavior in other primates? Mustn’t the roots of aggression and violence lay elsewhere, rather than in our religious and spiritual impulses?

A religious, or a political crime?

The Slaughter of the Innocents, by Carl Bloch (1875)

This is not to suggest that humans have a “beast lurking within,” but like the primates with whom we share a common ancestry, we are highly social creatures whose cooperative bonds also introduce pressures not found in less social species. Matthew Alper himself points out that every evolutionary adaptation that has a benefit may also have a cost. The chimpanzee violence in Gombe seemed to be related to an accompanying stress on resources. As William F. Allman points out in The Stone Age Present: How Evolution Has Shaped Modern Life – From Sex, Violence, and Language to Emotions, Morals, and Communities.
One of the key roles that aggression plays in society is, ironically, to keep the peace, Aggression helps maintain the complex pecking order that typically characterizes primate groups… While being a dominant doesn’t necessarily guarantee exclusive rights to food and mates, such hierarchies typically dictate who among a group will have first access to essential resources. Studies show that encounters in which a monkey peacefully defers to a more dominant monkey occur three times more often than incidents involving overt aggression between the two… The importance of the group’s hierarchical structure in keeping the peace is evident when a newcomer tries to join the group. When a young monkey tries to join a new group, his presence results in a jostling of the social hierarchy as he tries to work his way into the social ladder, and this often leads to fighting… Other studies suggest that aggression within a group is often focused on those individuals who act selfishly… Ironically, it is our own species’ supreme powers of cooperation that make war possible. Chimpanzee group-against-group conflict is similar in principle to warfare among small-scale human societies: Both are carried out by coalitions of males, both are the result of imbalances of power among neighboring groups, and both have their ultimate roots in males’ desires to gain access to females. In the case of the group-group conflict among the chimpanzees at Gombe, the “aggressor” chimps took over their victims’ territory and incorporated several of the females who were attached to the other group into their own community. A comparison of the warfare patterns in forty-two foraging societies worldwide reveals that when people live near vital resources such as fertile land or watering holes, the group-against-group aggression is typically over control of these physical resources. Yet, ultimately, these resources are also tied to access to females: Those individuals in the society who accumulated the most wealth typically had the most wives, and so gaining resources is an important factor in access to women.
According to Alper, Dawkins, and Harris, religion provides the impetus for human violence. According to Allman, it's all about… well, to be coarse and blunt about it… it’s all about the wood.

Therefore, in regard to Alper’s refrain, which Harris and Dawkins would gladly chime in on…

“Our species tends to engage in what could be termed religious tribalism, a predisposition to justify territorial conquest in the name of one’s Gods, a tendency that has marked our species violent an bloody history…. How many more times must we justify acts of cruelty, murder, and genocide in the name of God and religion before we learn to tame this destructive impulse in us?”

...We suffer from a sense of tribalism to be sure. Religion itself, however, seems to have very little to do with it. As Allman has shown, we have inherited a tribal instinct, a hard-wired predilection to be wary of strangers and those who are different from us and may pose a potential threat to our resources, whether that perceived threat is rationally based in fact or not. Those differences could be based upon religion, but also on a host of other factors as well, such as nationality, race, ethnicity, language, or politics. We all know about September 11 and the religious wars throughout history. The conflicts of the 20th century were the bloodiest and the most lethal by far. How many of them were really based on religion? Very few, I’d say.

How many of these massive conflicts, for example, were based on religion?

The Napoleonic Wars? The French Revolution which had occurred earlier had swept away the rights of the clergy along with the rest of the ancien regime. Napoleon, who had made himself an emperor by snatching a crown from the hands of a pope and placing it upon his own head, raised the very first nationalized citizen army with his Grand Armee from within the borders of the first modern nation-state, and swept across Europe all the way to Moscow and back.

The American Civil War? Both the Union and the Confederacy expected a short conflict. The ensuing cataclysm shocked them both. Wisely, Abraham Lincoln, upon seeing the cost of this endless savagery, heard the pleas of the abolitionists, and gave the war a moral purpose in the ending of slavery. It was only religion that was able to give meaning to what would have been an otherwise meaningless and senseless slaughter over a States-rights vs. Federalism squabble, and it was reflected in the Battle Hymn of the Republic

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom
That transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on...

World War I? In the age of modernity, wars such as this were supposed to be a thing of the past, even though the European nations blundered into it after a period of relative peace with a shared belief that war was somehow “inevitable,” and the Darwinian conviction held by many that men had grown effete and soft, and needed to be blooded and have their moral fiber restored by the great chivalric adventure of war.

World War II? Out of the ashes of World War I, and from the disillusioned and disgruntled veterans rose the “New Fascist Man,” a man with the willingness to devote his life in sacrifice and service to the state and to the “Fatherland.” Communism, in actual practice, operated upon the same principle. Democracies were literally forced to prove that they had the mettle to survive in the face of these ideologies.

In those instances and to this day, extreme nationalism still provides much more fuel for conflict than religion does. As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that if everything else could be evened out somehow, people could still be convinced to take up arms with each other over something as innocuous as eye color.

Maybe there’s another way Matthew Alper should look at the religious set of genes and how it may have served as an adaptation towards reproductive advantage. Rather than causing tribal conflict, maybe the “God” part of the brain ameliorates the worst aspects of our tribalism. One of the questions frequently asked within the realm of religion is “How should I treat my neighbor?” A corollary to that is “Who is my neighbor?” In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the “other” who acts justly, the one from the despised tribe who shows compassion and love for a stranger from “our” tribe and cares for him. Perhaps those with a strongly spiritual bent, those who could empathize with the “other” from a different tribe, had a better chance at survival than those who were willing to take up arms and fight with strangers at every opportunity. Perhaps the “God” part of the brain made us more fit for survival, and provided something more useful than just a means of coping with the prospect of death.

If the roots of violence lie in our own sense of tribalism, a tribalism which is spurred by our protective instinct towards resources and mating possibilities, perhaps that is a better place for those like Alper, Dawkins, and Harris to concentrate upon. Granted, some people can identify their tribe by their religion, but when the President of Iran says that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, is that really the “God” part of the brain speaking, or is it actually just the “tribal” part of the brain?

If we need self-knowledge, and need to learn how to thwart our worst inbred instincts, rather than the “God” part of the brain, perhaps we should look at the "tribal" part of the brain instead.

Or is it the “We should get rid of everyone who doesn’t think like me” part of the brain?

If they concentrate on religion only, they can’t be too serious about eliminating violence. It must be a bigoted and deeply ingrained bias towards religion only, because apparently there are times when violence must be useful to them. Ask Sam Harris, who openly speculates on the usefulness of torture, and the possibility of having to commit genocide against Muslims.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Steve McNair I'll Always Remember

They buried Steve McNair in Mississippi yesterday. Perhaps this was another case of a celebrity funeral where encomiums go overboard and on-field heroics get badly confused with off-field heroics, but I wanted to say something about him anyway.

Steve McNair was somewhere he shouldn't have been with someone he shouldn't have been with. His life off the field apparently wasn't something to always admire, but the two deaths and the result of children left fatherless are still tragedies. That's all I'm going to say about that. I just wanted to write for a moment about a player and how he was perceived as a teammate.

My son and I always liked Steve McNair (who had just recently retired) as a football player. He was a gutsy quarterback with the heart of a lion which was often enough to make up for just a slight lack of capabilities compared to other upper-echelon QBs . We both considered him our favorite quarterback of the 2000s after Tom Brady.

There were a lot of great moments in his career, but the performance I remember best was the AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 10th 2004 between the Tennessee Titans and the New England Patriots up here in Gillette Stadium.

The "Big Chill." It was absolutely freezing that night. The coldest game ever played in Foxboro.

McNair was the co-MVP in the NFL that year, and with the Pats opening up a slim 3-point lead with four minutes left in the game, I was still afraid that McNair was going to rally the Titans, even though he was clearly suffering from an ankle bone-spur injury and the Pats were playing quite well. He was being blitzed mercilessly, but it wasn't his fault they didn't win. In a series of passes to 6-5 receiver Drew Bennett, it looked like he would captain the Titans to a comeback victory, but Bennett dropped a ball that was put right in his hands (see the end of the video).

Bennett, an undrafted free agent out of UCLA who became a starting receiver with the Titans, stood before his locker after the game and answered repeated questions about the final play. Yes, the ball hit his hands. Yes, he outjumped the defensive back. Yes, he just dropped the ball.

"It's definitely an image that will stick with me throughout the offseason," Bennett said.

McNair went over and talked to Bennett, and the quarterback said one play wouldn't change his perception of him as one of his great receivers. Bennett said it was his fault.

"He put it right there for me, too," Bennett said.
The Patriots went on to win the AFC Title and the Super Bowl that year. Steve McNair never made it back to the Super Bowl, having led the Titans there once in the 1999 season, losing to the St. Louis Rams.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Of Duck-Billed Platypus, and Gold and Red Papal Pens...

What is the the plural of "platypus" anyway? Absolute must reads on Benedict's Caritas in Veritate

The reviews are starting to come in on Benedict's new encyclical from the usual suspects, and already the fur and webbed-feet are flying and bills are wagging. First, you need to read George Weigel's jaw-dropping neo-con agitprop article on it - Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red... The revenge of Justice and Peace (or so they may think). "Muhuhaha... So they may THINK..." He's really outdone himself on this one. Ah, those nefarious plotters at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace! Communist dupes, fifth-columnists, fellow travelers and useful idiots, to the last man!

It's disappointing and vexing to Weigel when people won't do what the pope says, but it's absolutely infuriating to him when that same old "truly gentle soul" of a professor-pope doesn't do what he says, much as he tries to hide it...

Next, over at America, you should check out the take on Weigel's piece from the guy who's rapidly becoming my favorite Catholic commentator as the epitome of common-sense on ecclesiastical and political matters and where they meet, Michael Sean Winters, called New Heights of Hubris from George Weigel. Winters skewers and eviscerates Weigel so thoroughly and effectively that an obviously stung Weigel felt compelled to leave a peevish reply in the combox.

And lastly, please see the satirical piece on Weigel's review that Morning's Minion wrote on Vox Nova - The Good Pope and Bad Advisors - A Fable by George Weigel. It's one of the funniest things I've read in a long time, and I won't even try to leave snippets and quotes from it, because to do so would be an injustice to the wonderful humor to be found throughout the whole thing.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

No More Need for Love Than for God?

Why they won't be crowding the exits running for atheism

Girl Defending Herself Against Love, by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1880)

The gal portrayed by Bouguereau certainly doesn't look estrogen-deprived, but fighting off love the way that she is, perhaps we may infer that she's deficient in oxytocin and vasopressin, even if she ain't really fighting off Cupid quite so hard.

At least that's what the young philosopher, self-taught science buff, and erstwhile educator, truck-smuggler, and screenwriter Matthew Alper would tell us in his 2006 book The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.

Somehow, I don't think a lack of neurotransmitters was quite the message that Bouguereau was trying to put across.

In his book, Alper describes his own relentless personal quest to get at the very heart of the matter regarding God’s existence or non-existence. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the thrust of the quest should not be directed at finding proofs in the natural world outside of our own selves, but within ourselves, in our own brains. I admit that I have a certain frustration that Alper probably shares as well. Many people who believe in evolution and accept that our bodies were shaped by the forces of evolution still want to believe that our minds are a tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” as if human evolution stopped from the neck up. As an organ like any other, our brains were shaped by our evolutionary past, and it makes sense to conclude that both our cognitive and emotional traits are there as the result of forces which maximized our chances for survival and reproduction.

Alper’s main premise is that the “God” part of the brain, reflected in a universal human proclivity towards spirituality and tendency to believe in deities, was an adaptation that formed in us as the result of being self-conscious creatures with foresight who needed a coping mechanism in order to deal with the anxiety caused by the awareness of our own definitive and inescapable mortality.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but there is a bleakness and a coldness among scientifically-minded atheists of the most militant stripe that I find chilling. Not only would someone like Alper want to take down God, but even a most basic human raison d'être like being “in love” as well. Must these reductionists ”reduce” everything that makes us human?

From the footnote on page 110:

A research team led by anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has been working to determine the neurochemistry involved in bonding behaviors. Fisher believes the attachments formed by individuals "in love" are caused by changes in the brain involving a group of neurotransmitters called mono-amines, which include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. To plot these changes, Fisher subjected lovelorn couples to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner that could pinpoint minute changes of blood flow in the brain associated with bonding and infatuation.

What she found was that whereas lust is governed by testosterone and estrogen, attachment is governed by the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin. Apparently, even romantic love and attachment can be reduced to neurochemical processes. This hypothesis was later confirmed when Andreas Bartles at University College London found that when students placed in an fMRI were shown photographs of loved ones (versus photos of insignificant others, which had much less effect), specific regions of the brain became highly activated. The areas which lit up were part of the anterior cingulate cortex, the middle insula, and parts of the putamen and caudate nucleus.
Well, there it is. The next time you're swooning and walking on air over someone new, or suffering a broken heart over getting summarily dumped, or mourning the loss of a spouse or a child, just get an MRI, and see which parts of your brain are getting lit up by your mono-amines.

If it's just a matter of your anterior cingular cortex, your insula, or your putamen acting up, heck, maybe you shouldn't take it all so personally...

I don’t know about you, but I’m not letting anyone else have a look at my putamen.

I’m not anti-science. Like a lot of other people, I find evolutionary psychology to be fascinating. I find the logic challenging and compelling, but like the other forms of psychology, it is highly suppositional. If theologians need to show more humility, perhaps darwinists need to be more humble in their claims as well. These days, evolutionary pyschology is even coming under attack for being pseudo-science, like the discredited schools of eugenics and sociobiology that came before it. See Newsweek's June 20th article: Can We Blame Our Bad Behavior on Stone-Age Genes? (Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves)

Science is fine, and religious intolerance and violent fundamentalism are indeed serious problems, but what kind of people would the Matthew Alpers, Richard Dawkins, and Same Harrises of the world have us be? Cold, clinical organic machines who need to accept that “even romantic love and attachment can be reduced to neurochemical processes?” Is that the liberation from the shackles of superstition that they are offering us?

In wanting to wrench our eyes away from heaven they would force our gaze upward to the depths of cold, dark, empty space instead, warmed by nothing but the occasional blast of a solar wind. That’s bad enough, but when they start speculating about the possibility of performing surgery on us to remove the "God" part of the brain in a “Godectomy” or treating the malignant spiritual lobes on our brains with medication, then they start becoming downright frightening.

Long live Love, I say, of both the eros and agape variety... For better or worse, I’ll take my life with a bit of poetry in it please.

For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?
Hail, Poetry, thou heav'n-born maid!
Thou gildest e'en the pirate's trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!