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Book Review: "Evolution" by Stephen Baxter

category international | sci-tech | feature author Monday February 20, 2006 10:44author by James O'Brien Report this post to the editors

Life will find a way

Front Cover of Evolution

Stephen Baxter has written a novel for the long haul – we humans are notorious for believing that our brief existence is of pressing importance, so any novel that spans 600 million years can reasonably be described as taking “the long view”

Two Stephen Baxter sites:


Popular science:


In 1859, with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, science significantly advanced the naturalistic explanation of the world, and in particular our place in it. Though many people in the intervening years have recoiled from the forced retreat of religion, perceiving in that retreat an emptying both of meaning and moral values, evolution with its immensely long spans of time, suffering, ingenuity, and sheer abundance of life provides a kind of beauty of its own.

Warning: Plot Spoiler

Stephen Baxter has written a novel for the long haul – we humans are notorious for believing that our brief existence is of pressing importance, so any novel that spans 600 million years can reasonably be described as taking “the long view”.

But for a novelist this is a tricky task. Good novels generally have either mesmerizing plots or memorable characters. And these usually take place in a single lifetime or, in the case of historical novels, over the course of a few centuries. Evolution does have a memorable plot and fascinating characters, but in a unique way. Like a Shakespearean play we already know the outlines of the plot, but this only makes it all the more interesting, for we grapple to understand how, exactly, things turned out as they did.

Like others of Baxter’s novels, Evolution keeps close to actual scientific research. While some of the scenarios are ultimately speculation, it is speculation built on a thorough knowledge of research in evolutionary biology.

The book picks out key moments in primate, (roughly, ape) history, using a central character to illustrate the achievements and limitations of the ever-changing species at critical points in time. Our ancestors weren’t just apes; at one stage they were little rodent-like creatures that ventured forth at night. Yet even at this early stage, we can glimpse some enduring primate characteristics such as the strong maternal-child bond. We see the gradual evolution to animals more like ourselves, with all the violence, friendship, Machiavellian tactics, big brains and so much more that defines humanity.

Baxter starts the novel 30 years into the future with civilisation at its apex, yet simultaneously threatened by the damage it has done to the ecosystem that supports it. Then the novel shifts back to the last days of the dinosaurs.

The Democracy of Death

George Williams, one of the foremost evolutionary biologists of the late 20th century, described Natural Selection as an evil. And in the opening chapter it’s easy to see why. It’s 65 million years before the present and the dinosaurs still dominate. Though the planet’s climate has long facilitated life, the earth is overflowing with death. Every niche where an organism could make a living is filled. And that means lots and lots of predators making their living out of chasing down and savagely devouring prey.

More often than not it's a dirty messy death and Baxter prefers gritty realism in presenting it. Animals aren't quickly and painlessly killed. The are viciously wounded and then the predator may hone it's skills by playing with the agonised prey, like a cat with a mouse, before finishing the creature off.

But as long as the prey can survive long enough to reproduce, the personal annihilation that death brings is a price worth paying.
At the close of the Cretaceous era the mammals are firmly dominated by the massive variety of dinosaurs who, thanks to their efficient use of energy, are able to prevent the mammals from expanding into their niches. Just like human dominance is preventing the domination of, say, rats, dinosaurs are simply too strong for the mammals.

Baxter describes lots of the creatures thought to exist then; the detail fascinating – if you’ve an interest in natural history, perhaps exhausting if not.

And then a comet which had been orbiting the sun for 5 billion years swings in towards the inner solar system, bypassing the massive gravity well of Jupiter and Saturn and crashes into the earth, creating such devastation that upwards of 80% of life went extinct – as opposed to just dead.

While evolution is mainly about adopting to the environment, pure luck also plays its part. Neither mammals nor dinosaurs had evolved any mechanisms to cope with such massive blows because these impacts are so rare that even the long span of evolution is blind to them.

But eventually the mammals did adapt. When the twenty kilometre-wide comet hit, it didn't “matter how well adapted you were, how well you evaded the predators or competed with your neighbours, for the most basic ground rules were changing. During a mass extinction it paid to be small, numerous, geographically widespread, to have somewhere to hide.”

Also it helped being used to living in marginal environments as well as being able to reproduce very quickly. The dinosaurs were vulnerable in this regard and, as there were less of them to protect their eggs, the little mammals greedily devoured dinosaur eggs thus never giving them the chance to rebound.

Although vastly different species to humans, the fate of the dinosaurs is relevant to us given both our dominance and dependence on a complex ecosystem. We are still far from understanding this dependence and are only now becoming aware, albeit dimly, of importance of this web of life.

The twenty kilometre comet delivered not only mass extinctions directly, it also indirectly brought devastation as it cut the ecosystem from under the kingpins’ feet. Given that humans are in the middle of carrying out the biggest extinction since the fall of the dinosaurs, with half of the earth’s species due for permanent oblivion within 50 years, we may well end up cutting out the ecological base that supports us.

Our very complexity detracts from our capability of surviving a catastrophe. Pretty much everybody in Europe, for example, is now wholly dependent on electricity and would be unable to survive its disappearance. How many of us, for instance, nowadays know anything about hunting and gathering or sheltering in the open, let alone how to mill or forge iron?

Homo Ergster III
Primeval Loneliness

The novel explores the increasing social complexity of the primates as they grope out of the loneliness to which minds dedicated to pure survival condemns them and every other species on the planet. There simply isn’t the processing power in the heads of most animals to understand other points of view, that another being has thoughts and feelings unique to themselves. There are moments of sympathy that affects other animals, but ultimately, affection and love are resource hungry behaviours and dependent on a big brain to track whose is a friend, who owes you a favour and so on.

As millions of years drift by, the primates – or a few of them at least - get locked in a virtuous cycle of living in bigger groups, which puts their food supply under pressure, and so they have to become smarter to survive, which, when successful, leads to bigger groups, which in turns forces them to get smarter and so on, until today.

Living in a group was pivotal not simply because it forced primates to get smarter about getting their food, but because the most important factor in any primate’s life was her fellow primates. And the more people in the group the more processing power was required. She would have to guess what fellow members of her troop were thinking and going to do. If not she'd find herself isolated and without allies. Not a good situation for an animal that depends on others to share the toil of finding food and the burden of protecting each other against the big cats and other predators.

Figuring out what fellow apes intend required imagining that other apes had thoughts and intentions of their own, that they were more than a stimulus-response machine. The more one imagines this, and think, for example, “if I were that ape over there, I’d try to fool the dominant male that one of his subordinates is trying to get it on with his favourite female. Then he’d leave his pile of nuts and I could swipe a few”. You'd have to be able to hold not only your intention to get the nuts, fool the dominant male but also keep in your mind that he could have a false belief. Humans are masters of this deviousness and it appears that chimpanzees are good at it too, albeit in a more limited way. In any case, figuring out what trick a smart cousin is trying to pull on you necessitates a hell of a lot more intelligence than gobbling down a load of wild fruit.

In short, a sense of self gets constructed from interacting with others. From these rudimentary beginnings, Baxter conjectures that consciousness itself arose. This isn’t a wholly new idea; social thinkers like Bakunin were advancing such ideas a long time ago, but evolutionary science has managed to flesh such insights out with commanding evidence.

But it was still a very isolated form of intelligence, which flowered only in relation to other members of the same species. Similar levels of brain power had yet to applied to tool making or interacting with the natural world. This meant that an ape could be conscious while interacting with other apes but drift over to an automatic drive when using a stone to smash open a nut, kind of like adept motorists who can compute the complex information necessary to stay alive yet be on autopilot.

Over time some lines of apes – the homo line - developed these specialist modules, and eventually our particular line homo sapiens arrived at a unique arrangement where the specialist processing power of the individual modules of intelligence (e.g. social, mechanical, natural) remained but the walls between them were overcome. The information gathered in one module could now be applied in other areas. This integrated intelligence, resulting in rich human consciousness, is what we are lucky to have today.

An example of this integrated intelligence is when we curse our stupid computer for being slow. We are anthropomorphizing, that is treating the machine as if had a social intelligence of its own. A computer or dishwasher isn't silly or stubborn or cute. But such symbolic thinking, while it may appear to be merely a simple curiosity, contains within it the germs of science, art, and religion.

The Arrival Of Humans

From 150,000 to 60,000 years ago, modern anatomy was in place, but the explosive culture that is so part of human life was absent. The cave paintings of southern France were still a long way off. Something was missing...

In one of the most fascinating, if speculative, chapters of the book, set 60,000 years ago, Baxter outlines the final transition to humanity. We already looked human and the people very nearly thought as humans do. All the foundations have been laid, the walls perfectly constructed; all that is left is a little...rewiring.

The lead character, known as Mother, a word to become a universal across thousands of cultures, is oddly disturbed.

“The difference between Mother's brain and those of the people around her was tiny, the result of a minor mutation, a small change in the chemistry of the fat in her skull, a slight rewiring of the neuronal circuitry that underpinned her consciousness. But that was enough to give her a new flexibility, a breaking-through between the different compartments of her intelligence – and hugely different perception. But the rewiring of so immensely complicated an organic computer inevitably had side-effects, not all of the desirable.”

She suffers from migraines and a kind of schizophrenia. Humans are smart enough to be insane. But insanity can be adaptive.

Mother has a talent for seeing patterns and connections, networks of causes and effects that intrigued and baffled her. She is able to apply the intelligence available to all humans in social situations to the natural world. Why have the clouds stayed away, causing drought? The very question is revolutionary. There is a cause. It is no longer a brute fact. It something to be thought about.

Thinking about patterns in nature resulted in the invention of religion, itself a primitive form of science in that at this point religion still attempted to understand the world. What does cause the clouds to stay away?

Mother hypothesises that the rain stays away because the earth and the sky are angry. She is applying her social intelligence to the natural world. Yes she is getting the wrong answer. But she is beginning to ask the right question. There is a cause. “The drought had a cause; of course it did. Behind every cause there was an intention, a mind, whether you could see it or not. And if there was a mind, you could negotiate with it.”

But if the sky is angry, what is at angry at? Conveniently enough, those who do not support Mother's approach. A blood sacrifice is needed to appease the dry Earth. An opponent of Mother is chosen. Nothing happens, the rain stays away. Clearly one sacrifice is not enough. There is another. The rain arrives. Mother and her supporters perceive it as confirmation of her beliefs. Religion is born. And right from the start it is permeated with considerations of political power. That ridding oneself of troublesome opponents just happens to coincide with one's deeper beliefs has long been a happy coincidence throughout human history.

The ramifications are great. A human now had the ability to think abstractly about causes. Did the spear cause the death of that man? Yes, but so did the person who threw it. And the person who constructed the spear helped as well. The ability to comprehend causes results in an ability to construct better technology. You can imagine the future consequences of your actions. Of the actions of your technology. But of course once one group of humans get better technology, if only slightly, than their neighbours they will happily use it to overwhelm them. Overwhelm in this case means either slaughtering them or integrating them. Or as is often the case right up to modern times a mixture of slaughtering the males and keeping the child-bearing females.

Religion becomes not merely a consequence of abstract thinking but also a cause itself. From the beginning it is associated with the most intense emotions. Loyalty to your friends, hatred to your enemies. Longstanding primate traits anyway. Religions gives them an extra ferocity. What does it matter if you fall in battle with the neighbouring tribe? You will live again in the afterlife. The combination of superior understanding of causation and the sheer intensity of religion proves to be a winning combination. There aren't that many humans in the world. All are in Africa. All are annihilated or integrated. All subsequent humans are descendants of the religious proto-scientists, and all will carry the traits that made them so successful.

The Pace Gathers
Homo Erectus
Biological evolution has been overtaken by cultural evolution, which although based on similar, though not identical, principles motors along at a much faster, and ever-increasing, pace. A pace with which the biosphere finds impossible to keep up.

The book sweeps through human history: the entrance into Australia 50,000 years and the devastating effect on the mega-fauna there. All mammals bigger than humans go extinct within a couple of millennia. The mammals outside of Africa hadn't evolved alongside humans and are suddenly faced with an unprecedented enemy. There wasn't enough time to evolve a proper sense of fear of the new killing machines. Giant kangaroos get the chop. Only animals small enough and fast enough to dodge the smart humans get to survive. The pattern repeats itself in Asia and America. Despite surviving hundreds of large fluctuations in the climate due to the coming and going of the ice ages, mammoths and all giant mammals succumb to rapid encroachment of humans. The period of mass extinctions has begun. It hasn't ended.

Other human species meet their fate. It's extinction. Neanderthals, cousins to humans from a branching off around 500,000 years ago, are unable to generate enough symbolic logic to compete with the physically inferior humans. At one stage on Earth there were a dozen or species of homo. Soon there is one.

Crisis is opportunity in evolution. Failure leads to success. For some. If the individuals of a species are succeeding nicely then natural selection will not be able to sculpt any of the mutations sufficiently to generate a change in direction. So it is only when a crisis hits that natural selection can quickly make the far reaching changes. Our ancestors didn't leave the security of the African forests because they felt up to the challenge of the big cats on the savannah. They left because they were getting out-competed by similar species or, more likely, individuals of the same species for ever decreasing resources in the forests.

And probably, we didn't take up agriculture because we liked slaving in the fields instead of leisurely plucking fruit from the trees. The big game had been hunted to extinction. The available flora was poor and required some degree of human cultivation. Agriculture wasn't pleasant, but for some it wasn't a choice. And from there more consequences flow: surplus food leads to extra population, which leads to more men to overwhelm neighbouring hunter-gathers. The surplus leads to the creation of institutionalised hierarchies which siphon off resources and which they use to buy loyalty and power. It leads to cities, to learning, to mass war, to writing, to computers.

With chapters on the last of the Neanderthals, the coming of agriculture and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Baxter captures the sadness of established cultures meeting their end. The fall of the Roman Empire, which despite its rapacity kept a modicum of civilisation afloat, presages a fate that could befall a world as interconnected – and as rapacious - as ours.

Future Evolution

Baxter doesn't stop at the present. He makes stunning conjectures about the future, which for risk of totally spoiling the book won't be detailed here. It is wildly speculative, but plausibly so all the same.

Evolution is the designer of all life on earth, and until recently, of all complex entities whatsoever. But it is blind, it has no foresight. Hence the great cost in suffering that George Williams abhorred.

Humans have been isolated to most of the effects, certainly profound ones, of natural selection for millennia. But its relatives haven't gone away. Our modern system of social organisation, which for want of a better description we'll call state-capitalism, shares the same blindness. What matters is short term success, not the well-being of all, either now or in the future. And for many humans and their corporations, if they don't exploit the resources and opportunities, whether it's oil or a selling opportunity, or an invasion of a third world country, then somebody else will. And the opposition will get ahead, while defeat and extinction beckons for the restrained loser. Such is the nightmare scenario. The other guy winning. Such is evolution.

But alone of all the species that, to the best of our knowledge, have ever lived on earth, humans have the capacity of foresight. And of wide-ranging close co-operation. The ruthlessness of natural selection has paradoxically meant that co-operation is often a winning strategy. It makes the co-operators stronger than the robbers. It can make everybody modest winners rather than dividing the world into big winners and pathetic losers. Whether humanity emphatically follows that road is another question. Evolution is a novel. It is there to be enjoyed. But one also to take heed of.


There is grandeur in this view of life...that...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin: Origin of the Species

Second Cover of 'Evolution'
Second Cover of 'Evolution'

author by cranky monday morning - dorm petit@ dormpublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 11:54Report this post to the editors

what source material has he used to justify a true and academically sound historiagraphical account of 600,000,000 years history? Or is he simply another of the Oprah Winfrey dna genome school?

who did he interview?
who did he interview?

author by Shipseapublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 12:20Report this post to the editors

"What matters is short term success, not the well-being of all, either now or in the future."

At their best, that is exactly the reality that most, if not all, religions aim to get away from - to recognise that we are vulnerable to each other and to our environment and that the best means of survival lies in cooperative, mutually sustaining existence. Try though we must, as flawed beings we do not (or cannot) live up to that ideal and whatever 'religion' we subscribe to (communism, capitalism, anarchism, catholicism, buddhism etc) we almost always, often in spite of ourselves, fall back on eliminating or marginalising those who threaten them. That is the human condition. The idea that orthodox ,'modern' religions create this behaviour is surely mistaken. It seems to be taking matters a bit far to project, back through millenia of millenia, a modern preoccupation with blaming modern religion for war, onto what seems a narrowly speculative rationale or interpretation of what 'Mother' may have intended by her interpretation of the world around her. It must be too simplistic to say that religion, right from the start, was merely an expedient justification for eliminating threats - granted that all religions and belief systems have been horribly abused that way at times. Not having read the book of course, it may be that more is said about Mother's emotional, social and spiritual perspectives but there is at least a strong possibility that whatever her 'religion' meant to her it would have had as much to do with understaning the wellbeing and improved chances of survival within bonded communities as with perceived threats - that it recognised the value of love and trust, basically . Our capacity for fear and its associated violence are fundamentally instinctive to us - religion/belief systems of all kinds are really (imperfect) attempts to overcome or to manage those and other instincts optimally.

author by multitouchinteractionexperimentpublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 12:21Report this post to the editors

Look where evolution is going in america ;-)

"Dr Sentamu, the Church of England's second in command, urged the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to take legal action against the US - through the US courts or the International Court of Justice at The Hague - should it fail to respond to a report, by five UN inspectors, advising that Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay should be shut immediately because prisoners there are being tortured.

The report was published on Thursday, as a senior High Court judge, Mr Justice Collins, stated that American actions over Guantanamo's Camp Delta do not "appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations". As a result of his ruling, three of eight British inmates held in the camp are to appeal to the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to intervene with the Bush administration on their behalf."

Related Link: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0218-05.htm
author by Jamespublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 14:44Report this post to the editors

I guess one of advantages of writing a novel rather than a straight book of science is the room for speculation that opens up. That chapter in particular is mostly certainly speculation and is not to be taken as the scientific consensus. Nevertheless it is thought provoking and it speculation built on a scientific foundation.

”The idea that orthodox ,'modern' religions create this behaviour is surely mistaken. It seems to be taking matters a bit far to project, back through millenia of millenia, a modern preoccupation with blaming modern religion for war, onto what seems a narrowly speculative rationale or interpretation of what 'Mother' may have intended by her interpretation of the world around her.”

I very much agree that human violence, or more accurately primate violence, predates religion. Our joint closest relative, the chimpanzee, happily goes raiding neighbouring chimpanzee groups, to the extend that normally noisy chimps will silently move through the forest seeking to ambush and murder a member of the rival troop. (Our other joint closest relative, the bonobo, are much more into sex as a way of resolving social tension). And it has been documented by rather shocked anthropologists that the aggressive chimps will seek to kill all the males of the rival troop. So it’s not a little fight that got out hand. It’s a chimpanzee version of genocide.

The vast majority of human societies studied have all exhibited the capacity for ruthless violence, social hierarchies and the like. That’s an unpleasant fact that us anarchists have to face up to and one I don’t think can all be blamed on capitalism.

I think the argument Baxter is making is that religion harnesses that violent tendency in human nature. It does because of the advantages it brings. That’s the paradox: the good things it starts, in this case a proto-scientific way of understanding the world or the glue of unity it brings to a clan, can also be used for terrible purposes. With things like nuclear weapons it’s a legacy that humans have to deal with in the scientific realm as well.

Religion also has (or had) a benign side, such as comforting the bereaved or providing a framework for making sense of a universe not created for humanity. I doubt that something like religion could survive so long if it didn’t have some important advantages to the believers. Some of the advantages will be ethically ok, but some will not. (Possibly “ideology” is a better word that “religion” to describe capitalism, anarchism etc?)

It must be too simplistic to say that religion, right from the start, was merely an expedient justification for eliminating threats”

I don’t think Baxter is doubting the sincerity of the originators of religion. But it’s the very sincerity that gives them the strength to be so severe. Persuading oneself that killing your opponents is genuinely the right thing to do is a factor of many ideologies, and not just religious ones. I suspect the ability to fool one’s conscious self as to one’s motives is another ancient primate adaptation. Religion gives this tendency an extra strength: it’s got the backing of god.

author by Shipseapublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 16:55Report this post to the editors

Religion is an ideology too, really. Communism consciously leaves God out of it. But they both involve a system of belief aimed at optimising the common good and actually have more in common with each other rather than less, arguably.

The mistake people continue to make in holding relgious ideology up to scrutiny is the baseless idea that it is somehow inherently more evil or corrupt thatn other rationalisations of existence. Its failures and weaknesses are latterly seen as uniquely evil when they are no more so than other imperfectly practiced ideologies.

Ideologies are usually objectively defined (as objectively as we are capable of, at least) - and as such they often articulate the best of what we might aspire to. The real problem is not so much the objective ideology itself but that we are incapable of preventing our instincts for selfishness/violence/dishonesty from getting into the ideology in the way we pratice it . We undermine it with the very weaknesses it was originally designed to restrain. And then we blame the ideology instead of our own nature for the hypocrisy that results. We try to make out that we are being consistent with our beliefs and use them for purposes for which they were not intended. Sometimes it's quite deliberate as with Bush and Extreme Islam whose violence and/or greed are stomach churning to all true christians and muslims: certainty is always unattractive and dangerous - agreed. But Russian and other examples of communism have ended up fatally flawed by the same sort of hypocrisy and certainty. And it was the hypocrisy, rather than the communism itself that was by far the greater part of the problem. So with religion.

Richard Dawkins has set his cap at 'disproving' and ridiculing religion. He is in no doubt that it's self -serving nonsense, at odds with all known science. And yet when we read his work a lot of us wish that he might have devoted his great intelligence to something more constructive in this case. He completely fails to understand what religion actually is for the majority of people who try to practice it genuinely. And so his arguments sail over the top of all the real issues. Most 'believers' are left slightly bemused - as if some chap had passed through a room, furiously shadow boxing and out the other side, all red-faced and sweaty. For all the deft footwork and sharp jabbing and punching, he doesnt even touch what we mean by belief with his arguments . Sincerity and faith are not the same thing at all as certainty. They can only be based on humility and consciousness of our imperfections if they are real.

I wouldnt advocate that religion must to be practiced by everyone by any means but if there is something wrong with this world it is surely that not enough of us make a regular space in our lives to reflect on how we behave, to identify where we are being disingenuous or hypocritical on a personal or social level whatever our beliefs. It doesnt make you a better person necessarily if you do so - particularly if you are only maintaining the formal appearnce of it - but at best it is a sort of brake on sliding into total self-indulgence and cynicism - the dominant characteristics of many societies today.

author by chekovpublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 17:40author email chekov at indymedia dot ieReport this post to the editors

The big problem with religion is that it relies upon faith - that is it asks people to believe things which there is no evidence for or even which contradict the evidence.

The big problem with this is that, as soon as you allow yourself to start believing things against the evidence, you are wide open to manipulation by shysters of all hues. Priests, shamans, witch-doctors and so on basically get to decide what you should believe in and, since the believers have explicitly abandoned rationality as a tool for examining these beliefs, they are dependant on the inter-mediaries and these intermediaries are utterly human and given to all the normal failings of humankind - vanity, ambition, lust for power etc etc. We know this only too well in Ireland and the same pattern is repeated all over the world - look at the US where the most obvious and transparent shysters ply the airwaves squeezing money out of the faithful.

The solution is to trust yourself, apply your own intelligence to the world and don't have faith in anything just because somebody says it is so - you have a very powerful machine which is extremely good at coming up with rational answers to the problems of the world - it's a brain use it!

author by vpublication date Mon Feb 20, 2006 23:36Report this post to the editors

... is the word itself!

Its too broad a term and encompasses too much, that anything you say about it can't address the whole thing. Now i know this might go off topic, but whever people start discussing religion, I like to get people to clarify what aspect of relgion they're referring to. At a minimum I like to split it into three functions, personal spirituality, social ritual, and social control.

The primary base of religion is spirituality, which I define as the process of dialogue with your subconscious mind. Basically your left brain talking to the right, or your heart to your head if you will. Now the irrational side of our brain doesn't speak in english, but in feelings and imagery and sound. For instance you might find it hard to get over some trauma by just telling yourself about it, but if you actively dream or meditate or use any of the host of spiritual techniques, you can actually get over a lot of things your rational mind can't tackle alone.

Now the thing with spirituality is its is often dismissed by dogmatic atheists when they throw out religion for other reasons. But its important to note that spirituality does not actually require faith in gods or belief in the suprnatural. At its core, it is a set of psychological techniques for getting to truely know yourself. These tools may be dressed in flowery imagery and wording, but its important to recognize these as simply a language of the subconconcious, not an objective reality in themselves, which i think is where most people make the mistake, and forget to inform their exploration of their irrational mind using the analytical abilities of their rational mind.
Not everyone needs to explore it in depth, and then again some others do.

Now That said I'm not limiting spirituality to a purely pschological process. Neither am i saying it isn't just that, or that you can't avail of it just in that context. However there is enough unknown about the human mind and the burgeoning study of the science of consciousness that there may well be levels of weirdness out there that mean our mind is connected to something else or a greater subconcious if you will. But that is just wild speculation at present and while active spiritual experience may lead you to FEEL it very strongly, the rational mind couldn't possibly agree at present. Either way spirituality is still a useful tool, to the theist and atheist alike.

Now the second function of religion is the social ritual which basically addresses the fact that humans as social creatures often like to share emotion with each other especially at times of great sorrow or joy. Whether spontaneous or rigidly organised, ritual and ceremony often help us deal with this emotion in a subconscious way that our rational mind can't do too well. Ritual is basically a communal form of spirituality. Often people think ritual is nonsense as their only experience of ritual or ceremony is dry or monotonous masses attended as a child with father quick priest just speeding through mass to get to the GAA game. Well the thing with ritual is its a artform, as with all art it can be tediously dull when done badly, and totally engaging and captivating when done well. That said ritual isn't for everyone, its really depends how social an animal you are, and how freeform or organised your mode of thinking is.

Social Control
The third and most insidious function of religion is social control. This has its root I think where people use the imagery and speculation about existence that spirituality brings forth, and try to tie these ideas down as rational observations or objective truths, which they are not and have no purpose or little meaning once rendered in such a way. Doing this in itself can simply be a mistake, resulting from a failure to apply rational analysis or having too few rationally derived facts at hand to discount your feelings, or the feelings being more desirable than the results of rational analysis. All too often however this common mistake can be expoited by others and used to mandate belief for the purposes of social control, this can range from charlatans to full blown organised heirarchical religion and i think we all know what a crock that is.

So the purpose of this now overly long comment is to emphasise that I don't think religion can be discussed or criticised as a single phenomenon, else we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater as everyone actually argues about differnt things, which is why dogmatic anti-religionists are often just as misguided as religious zealots. For what its worth, I think spirituality, communal ritual, and rationaly informed exploration of the unconsious(and its possible connections) is good, while blind faith in rationally unprovable ideas and obeisance to social heirarchies (religous or therwise) are bad.

But before I go I would like to address faith. Faith in the form I mention above, or as chekov discusses is clearly ludicrous, at least to me. However faith sometimes(not always or even most of the of the time) can give the believer a certain gift or ability. What I refer to is an acceptance or surrender to their belief which gives them the peace of mind to approach any situation, diaster or outcome, with a sense of calm acceptance. In psychological terms this is akin to moving on swiftly when someone steals your cheese (read "who stole my cheese" and you'll understand), or accepting change gracefully. This state of mind can often be the great appeal of faith. But I think it is important to remember that this state of mind is just another spiritual/psychological practise and can be achieved by anyone without adherence to religious beliefs, in fact I would argue that without beliefs, the practise of the art of surrender is stronger as it not balanced on the needle of your religous beliefs someday being possibly torn down if exposed to too much rational scrutiny.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is its important to differiate betwen faith, or surrender to god, and the state of mind that such belief can engender. It is them important to realize that this state of mind can be engendered and enjoyed without belief or faith in irrational ideas. If you don't believe me try investigating the non-theist non-supernatural core philosophies of Taoism as a great example of the art of surrender (and atheist morality, for those who doubt its existence). Or if thats too heavy going just reread winnie the pooh as an adult paying particular attention to how he reacts to unforseen circumstances ;-)

Okay too much bullshit, I'm off to bed!

author by Shipseapublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 03:52Report this post to the editors

The underlying assumption of V and Chekov is that our rational minds are a more dependable source of understanding and spiritual life. But the evidence is all to the contrary. Look around: billions starving or living in poverty, murder and corruption everywhere as well as environmental catastrophe - and all of it entirely preventable. Our rational minds have let us down very badly, as a matter of fact. Something else is wanted, not least a little humility about our true place in the vastness of creation.

Ted Hughes has a line in his poem 'Wind' which goes something like:

'the crystal goblet rang out in the note which any second would shatter it'

He uses the image of the goblet to refer to both the fragility of civilisation, and the ringing of the glass is the extreme to which we have pushed it - any moment now it will shatter itself into millions of pieces. The ice caps are melting, the ocean flows are changing because of us. Are we really about to fire nuclear weapons on Iran?

Shouldnt we have noticed something by now - i.e. that our seemingly unshakeable conviction in our own ability to reason and to interpret our surroundings is actually the very thing that is destroying us? We point to our achievements and congratulate ourselves, forgetting that each discovery only opens up another thousand that we will yet have to explore.

Faith is about recognising that this is all laughable. We havent even learned how to feed or house ourselves equitably! We ignite a million gallons of fuel and fire a rocket into the sky and think we are amazing. Some rocks and photographs come back. We struggle with the enigmas of quantum physics and trying to read the noise in space. All we know is that there are endless patterns, all within some immense pattern whose purpose and origins we still have not even begun to understand. We dont even know if there was a beginning or will be an end. We are also limited by the questions we are capable of asking. We notice that other creatures are more limited than we are. We may be limited too, but that thought doesnt cross our minds - not enough at any rate.

The only true choice we have ever had is to fit into the pattern as harmoniously as we can. But even in so far as we have been able to identify natural and physical patterns we have failed to do it. We abuse everything - all our natural resources and each other. It is in our nature to need faith in creation, in the genius power and workings of everything we are surrounded by. It's in our nature that we are capable of it. That sort of true faith is the only thing ever likely to tune us into our optimum chance of surviving harmoniously. We call God the pattern and that being serves a highly rational purpose in this context. To take just one example (and all faiths encompass more or less the same ideas, if expressed differently), some believe the son of God was attuned to and a part of the enormous pattern that we are unable to understand. That whoever he was he recognised all of this and warned us where we were going if we ignored it. In this much, in his ideals at least, he was the son of God. Other prophets have understood these things too and our faith in their core teachings is vital to keeping us anchored to awareness of our vulnerability. We hope the pattern, God, will be revealed to us too one day (isnt that what science is supposed to be about ?) but we need faith in the idea that it can be, that the effort alone is worth it. The pursuit of that objective in humility and respect was always our only hope as a species. It's our true nature and we need to do it together - to share it with one another if it is to be worth anything - that's also in our nature.

People have added nonsensical anti-faith postcripts to their religions everywhere - persecuting gay people, women, and people of other religions. Faith is also used as a disguise for other motives etc. None of that has anything to do with the true meaning of faith or with true religion - even though it's often religious representatives who are the worst offenders. But real faith transcends all that - it's a deeply personal relationship between each person and 'the pattern' - or God. Without real faith we're fatally disconnected from each other.

author by iosafpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 10:50Report this post to the editors


where do you stand on the <em> homoousia ? </em>
where do you stand on the homoousia ?

author by vpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:09Report this post to the editors

>>The underlying assumption of V and Chekov is that
>>our rational minds are a more dependable source of
>>understanding and spiritual life.

Nope not what what I meant at all. I think our rational and irrational minds are both as dependable as each other, it is only when one is used too heavily over the other that they can become "undependable". The heart must inform the brain, and brain must inform the heart, to rely one or the other alone leads to all sorts of unbalance. However we must accept that there will always be people who are unbalanced and will rely too heavily on one faculty or the other. I emphasise "too heavily" because we are all wired to lean one way more than the other and this is not a problem, it is just part of the balance of the community if you like. But because this unbalance will always manifest from time to time, we must accept that the horrible scenarios you cite will always crop up. The challenge is not to respond by lurching from one extreme to the other, but to come up with social systems that can contain and give expression to both modes of thought in a non destructive fashion. As it is currently we have social systems which rejoice in rational or religious extremism which is ultimatly responsible I think for giving rise to even more extremism from the opposing mode of thought.

Basically if you supress or denigrate people's feeling side it will eventually erupt in an upswelling of extremist religion or irrationality, and if you suppress or denigrate peoples ability to think rationally it will eventually erupt in a hatred of irrational thought and an entirely secular order.

These reactions can be healthy when coming out of a period of extremism, for instance I think Ireland needs a good dose of secular order at present, but the trick is not to get caught in a cycle of lurching from one to the other and try and achieve some balance that everyone can tolerate and respect.

Its the failure of society to achieve this balance(or the people who willfully exploit extremism for power), and to respect that some people are wired to use one faculty over the other, thats the cause much of the social discord that you illustrated (from a phissophical persepective only, obviously from a political persepective this can be broken down into more detailed forces and trends).

Now the problem most people will have with my analysis if they are overly ideological is that they will most likely believe in some objective truth be it "science" or "religion", and can't see how another mode of thought could be as valid as the other one. Well personally I don't get hung up on "reality" or "objective truth". I put greater trust in a consensus of subjective perception which gives rise to a consensual sense of whats real or isn't. Basically in a philosphical sense I don't think anyone can say anything is ultimatly true or a hard fact, only that alot of us perceive it to be, so we might as well go with it until proven otherwise.

To me faith, in the face of opposing evidence, is willfully ignoring one of your faculties, which is just like poking out one of your eyes, and is just as likely to cause disaster as poking out the other one instead.

>But real faith transcends all that - it's a deeply
>personal relationship between each person and 'the pattern' - or God.
>Without real faith we're fatally disconnected from each other.

On the contrary I think blind faith is a gross act of disconnection from your fellow man and the world around you. It is a limiting of perception, which ultimatly leads to error and discord. If you believe in god (which I don't believe or feel is true at least not in sense you imply, or is commonly held, but thats another argument ;-)) then surely you must also believe that rationality was given to us for a reason and to ignore it is surely an insult to that gift. As I say don't believe anyone "gave us" rationality", I'm just following the god line of argument if you will.

Faith or spiritual belief can be a beautiful thing, and when used in the correct context is a wonderful ability that we humans have. However to use it (or rationality) out of context, is an abuse and missapropriation of these abilities, much like using a hammer where a screwdriver is required or visa versa. We have many tools at the disposal of our mind to interact with the universe and using them incorrectly gets us or our society nowhere.

author by Chekovpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:26Report this post to the editors

I largely agree with V. although I would tend to describe what he calls 'spirituality' as self-awareness as I think that this has less scope for mis-understanding.

On the other hand I have no idea what shipsea is saying at all and it appears very confused to me.

The underlying assumption of V and Chekov is that our rational minds are a more dependable source of understanding and spiritual life

A more dependable source of understanding than what? Dreams? Wishful thinking? Potatoes? I'm afraid that you'll have to posit an alternative in order for anybody to understand what you're getting at or indeed for the sentence to make sense.

Shouldnt we have noticed something by now - i.e. that our seemingly unshakeable conviction in our own ability to reason and to interpret our surroundings is actually the very thing that is destroying us?

I don't think that this is true at all. For a start the only reason that we have any clue that we are endangered as a species is because we have vastly sophisticated mechanisms for examing the world around us and reasoning about it and many of us have noticed that we are in trouble. Unfortunately the tiny minority who hold the power are doing their best to prevent us taking the reasonable and rational steps that we know about in order to avoid such potential catastrophes.

One of Darwin's two key influences was Malthus and it was the Malthusian theory of population which basically says that 'in the absence of predators any species will increase in number exponentially until it exhausts its resources, whereupon the population will collapse" and this is something that is true of all other species without our rationality. The famous population curve of foxes and rabbits from primary school geography is a good example. If it had not been for the scientific revolution of the last 200 years or so we would probably be experiencing famines that might wipe out 90% of the world's population every few generations.

Faith is about recognising that this is all laughable.

That's a very unusual definition of faith.

All we know is that there are endless patterns, all within some immense pattern whose purpose and origins we still have not even begun to understand. We dont even know if there was a beginning or will be an end. We are also limited by the questions we are capable of asking. We notice that other creatures are more limited than we are. We may be limited too, but that thought doesnt cross our minds - not enough at any rate.

Well we know a lot more than that - which we don't know since it's not true. We can identify a few dozen universal constants, and a fair collection of universal rules which allow us to do things like trace time backwards so that we have a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like a few nano-seconds after the big bang. We, who are nothing more than the worked out product of a few simple molecules bashing into each other in some primeval slime can measure wih precision the curves in space time caused by massive stars, we can transplant hearts, bring the dead back to life (as long as the death is very recent), heck we can even build massively complex cooperative networks to democratise communication and allow each one of us to communicate instantly with our comrades around the world. I also don't think that a scientific mindset is at all correlated with an ignorance of our limits - we know that we are a mere temporary combination of molecules of extraordinary improbability and wonder, we know that we will die and cease to exist, we know that our minds are more fabulous than any of the deities that could be imagined by primitive folks and we stand in awe at the improbability of it all.

It is in our nature to need faith in creation, in the genius power and workings of everything we are surrounded by

No it isn't. A belief in a creator, or an intelligent higher power only lasted a few fleeting seconds in the scope of our existence. It was a good and rational answer for a fleeting moment in our existence, but we know that there is no creator, no genius. We are only distinguished from ants through the complexity of our wiring - no spirit, no eternal life, just the wonder of chaos.

author by Shipseapublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:32Report this post to the editors

I dont recommend 'blind' faith at all - exactly the opposite in fact. Fanatical or 'fundamentalist' believers have actually lost true faith entirely. They are driven exclusively by a very narrow fear and practice irrational religion in which they put themselves ahead of God - taking life and oppressing people - mistaking the worst human behaviour as consistent with God's wishes. But secular countries do exactly the same by a similar sort of rationale: there are at least as many secular fanatics as religious.

Your notion of subjective consenus is not unlike my idea of trying to identify the pattern of physics and nature in the world around us and in ourselves. It's very like shared faith except that, if I understand you properly, you are not interested in the overall pattern. How should we fit in to it all and with each other? Similar concern, though?

author by iotapublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 12:05Report this post to the editors

taking time out from their quotidien woes and joys to splice the hairs of material existence, in their own way continuing the dialogue which has unstopped accompanied every generation of man (& woman). But only now can we go to something like the wikipedia page on "homoousia" & see it is both a "christian" and "philospophical" stub. And that it treats upon issues which are not verified sourced or proven. Indeed. Maybe the wikipedia page doesn't exist... just like glenroe.
" a conceit of imagination " ah but whose's image? That people can jump over Aristotle and Aquinas, Jerome and all the existentialists to tackle this things head on - today - here on imc indymedia ought bring joy to the world . Thats it folks, its a wrap no time left, we've answered the question of Life, Universe and everything. Now what do we do with that little (((iota))) ?

Related Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ousios
author by vpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 12:12Report this post to the editors

>if I understand you properly, you are not interested
>in the overall pattern. How should we fit in to it all
>and with each other? Similar concern, though?

Well the reason I'm not interested is I don't believe there is an overall pattern, or if there is, its a purely random occurrence. One of the most useful functions of our brain is pattern recognition, its allows our mind to impose order on chaos, to see shapes and objects where only a chaotic flood of photons exist. One side affect of this ability is that we often impose patterns and seek meaning in things where no pattern or meaning exists or at least exists outside of our perception. I personally believe and feel at an irrational subconcious level that there is no divine plan (or divinity), just a glorious dance of chaos and the only purpose to existence if there can be said to be one is to simply be, and rejoice in the glory of being. To me this is a wonderful thing, and any idea of divine plans or patterns pale into insignificance beside it.

However my rational mind does inform me that the possibility exists that in the future, science, encompassing some irrationality with the study of conciousness, and quantum weirdness, and string theory, may reveal some deeper level of reality which pehaps has some pattern or meaning to it. However if I was a gambling man I wouldn't put any money on it, more likely it will just reveal a new vista of even more glorious chaos that makes the odds of our existence even more amazing, and give us further reason to be joyful.

author by shröedingerpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 12:16Report this post to the editors

well we'll be at the wavicles next, not long to go before we're at the higgs boson. Then we're at CERN v Vatican. did ye read the book? it was fiction.

author by Seán Ryanpublication date Tue Feb 21, 2006 17:50Report this post to the editors

I'm going to jump in way over me head.

I agree mostly with Chekov and V so far, but I want to add my two cents.

I think the concept of God is a natural response to the study of one's self. When we turn our pattern recognition software on ourselves, all is fine and well until it is discovered that the entity which we try to define cannot be comfortably defined . At some point one must necessarily hit a singularity, when trying to define self, not unlike the singularity we hit when we try the same exercise with the rest of the universe at large.

I think that this is ultimately why scientists and religious types are always having a go at each other. Each looks only at that tiny bit of existence that still remains beyond the scope of an intellectual patent.

Much like the gravitational laws, and particularly the three body rule, I think the need for society to culture individuals with a propensity, to favour right-brained activity and thought over left-brained thought and activity, and vice versa, is a chaotic process geared to maximise entropy. It allows for a process that maximises diversity. Boot strapping at its chaotic best.

As diversity increases the singularities that compose the root of self and of the universe, shrinks, or rather their importance boils off. Like Hawking Radiation boils off a black hole. An effect of virtual matter. Potential is the virtual positron in this example.

God doesn't even need to exist.

We may be only as worthy as ants. But there's no ruler to measure their worth.

The soul does exist. It is art and music and us. It is potential and it's boundless.


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