Essay: Biology and morality

My new favorite podcast is Radio Lab, from New York Public Radio. It’s sort of Nova plus This American Life, with a heavy dose of the Douglas Adams sensibilities that I’ve come to associate with co-host Robert Krulwich. And it’s awesome.

What’s on my mind right now is the episode of 28 April 2006, “Morality”. It delves into emerging studies of the biology of human morals – what parts of the brain are involved in moral decision-making, and how evolutionary history shaped them. A key point is that there are two kinds of moral thinking, rules-based decision-making (“Thou shalt not kill”) and calculating (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). And these two kinds of moral thinking take place in different parts of the brain. When they come into conflict, maybe because you’re thinking about killing someone in order to save several other people, a third area of the brain kicks in to decide between the two. This third area is (apparently) entirely unique to humans – not even chimpanzees have it.

But chimpanzees (and other apes) do have the rules-based moral thinking area. It helps them get along with other chimps. Which means that rules-based morality is evolutionarily primitive. If they could write, chimps could probably come up with most of the Ten Commandments! Where does that leave Christian morality? Is it all just pre-programmed behavior wrapped up in unnecessary mysticism?

No. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Michael Ruse’s excellent book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which addresses exactly this question. And, as Ruse points out, Christ’s teachings call us to live beyond the Ten Commandments – those moral principles that seem to crop up in every human belief system.

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet those who greet you, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:46-8 (NIV)

In other words, Christians are to exceed the dictates of morality that everyone already follows. We’re to transcend our biology, using that part of our brain that sets us above the rest of the animal kingdom.

Essay: Explicable, and sacred

Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle.
— Terry Pratchett

I’m building a career in explaining things. It’s what scientists do: we poke at the incredible spinning mechanism of the universe around us, trying to figure out how it works. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this makes some people (religious people, usually) angry.

This is puzzling to me in part because I’m religious, and I don’t think I’m doing religion a disservice by figuring out how Creation works. As far as I can tell, though, religious people who don’t appreciate science are chiefly upset because scientists try to explain things, things that they (the religious people) firmly believe are God’s doing.

Where did we get the idea that what God does must be humanly inexplicable? Or, rather, how did the term “miraculous” come to mean “beyond any eventual human understanding”? (Maybe it always has) The difficulty, of course, is that if we assume that (1) miracles are evidence of God’s existence and involvement with our universe and (2) miraculous = inexplicable, then we’re naturally going to be hostile to folks who try to figure out how miraculous things like the beauty, diversity, and complexity of life on Earth came to be, because they’re chipping away at our evidence for God.

2006.03.12 - desert sun
2006.03.12 – desert sun,
originally uploaded by Jeremy B. Yoder.

What I know is this: I can explain (or look up explanations for) much of the history of Joshua trees, citing the history of the genus Yucca in general, and how it has been shaped over millions of years by yuccas’ dependence on a group of small, drab pollinating moths; but when I look out over a Mojave desert landscape, with the sun shining through the strange, spiky branches of a Joshua tree forest, I feel something that has nothing to do with natural selection.

Science ultimately aims to explain everything in human experience – it’s actually not possible for scientists to define areas of experience that we cannot now and will never explain. There are two ways that religious people can respond to this: they can choose to reject the scientific worldview altogether, or they can embrace it and seek the spirituality of the explicable.

An extreme example of this might be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist/philosopher. He posited a universe that was evolving toward union with God, in which any gain in understanding of the physical world’s workings was a step toward greater spiritual perfection, too. Teilhard is a bit too optimistic for my taste – the history of humanity doesn’t seem, to me, to bear out the hypothesis that greater scientific knowledge is correlated with greater moral/spiritual understanding.

I see a better option represented in an action most Christians perform every day: saying grace over food. But why do we do this? Recall the episode of “The Simpsons” when, asked to bless a meal, Bart once prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” And technically, Bart has a point.

Why do we thank God for a meal we’ve bought and prepared ourselves? Turn the question on its head for an answer: does God have to make food appear our our plates in a flash of light for us to give Him credit? The answer, of course, is no. Even after preparing my own dinner, I bow my head over it for a moment before I eat. Under this view of the world, everything in human experience is sacred, a cause for gratitude infused with spiritual meaning in spite of (or even as a result of) our understanding of its mechanics. So, when I see a beautiful sunset, knowing as I do that it’s the light from a ball of fusing gases 93 million miles away, my soul fills with gratitude.

Essay: Airports

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”
– Douglas Adams

I hate airports.

I hate their architecture, identical in every city no matter what attempts at local color are pasted over it. Metallic, vaulted, sharp-edged ceilings arc over vast expanses of smudged, dusty glass and stainless steel. Below, acre upon acre of scuffed linoleum and gray high-traffic carpeting is scattered with the minor detritus of a million passing people, microscopic crumbs of food, droplets of coffee and soda, threads and lint from parkas and duffel bags and raincoats and Bermuda shorts, fragments of magazines and books and boarding passes. Departure lounges are full of haphazardly distributed seating – a hundred minor variations on linked rows of narrow seats upholstered with greasy, worn black vinyl over sagging plastic foam padding.

I hate the concourses lined with fast food restaurants selling nearly-identical, overpriced prepackaged salads and fruit cups and bottled water and hamburgers and pizza and tacos and Chinese food; indistinguishable newsstands and bookstores proffering the same bestsellers and magazines and books of crossword puzzles; the occasional clothing store selling t-shirts with cheery messages about the home city and the logo of the local football franchise, to be purchased by people already juggling stuffed suitcases; duty-free stores full of liquor and perfumes and candy to be purchased by people already stupefied and sickened by long hours in air conditioning and halogen lighting.

I hate the crowds of people, hurrying towards narrow seats in cramped quarters for long hours of sitting and doing nothing, pushed by bad architecture and harsh halogen lighting to something like the edge of violence, driven by the force of urgent business, long-unseen family, old friendships. Parents argue with their children about who should carry backpacks full of soft toys and portable video games, or try to quiet babies crying desperately for a breath of unprocessed air, a glimpse of natural sunlight; couples clinging to each other much as they might in the desperate moments before the ship goes down and the lifeboats fill; businessmen focused on their cellular telephones and handheld computers and laptops, forcing themselves to believe that there must be purpose in this miserable place; students dressed already for the activities they anticipate at the end of the ordeal – in ski jackets and surfing shorts and hiking boots.

Nobody who has flown more than once boards an airliner for the pleasure of flying; we strap ourselves into the tight seats in the climate-controlled, can-like cabins because we hope, in the end, the destination will be worth the discomfort, the inconvenience, and the anxiety. Airports are in this way the ultimate expression of a society given over to justifying means by their ends – the hours we spend in airports, taking off our shoes and belts and watches and standing still for the security pat-down while agents paw through our luggage; sitting on uncomfortable benches next to anxious, irritable people and staring at harsh Arrival/Departure boards; eating prepared salads and pale cubes of melon and flat, greasy hamburgers – we accept these things because we have decided that they are necessary, if we are to get to wherever it is that we are going.

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