Consequences: Good and Evil, Part I

Good and Evil. They are only real within our minds, impossible to extract from a thicket of emotions and predispositions. They are inseparable from our consciousness. They are subjective, but they are real, they exist. It is impossible to set them aside for detached, objective analysis because they are a part of us. Studying them is like trying to study a raging whirlpool when you are caught in the middle of it. Their existence predates that of our species by millions of years, and they first evolved in minds incapable of even attempting to understand or second guess them. We have inherited them from our hominid ancestors, and experience them as absolutes, just as other animals do. They defy understanding because they are part of us, can never be “turned off,” and so are not subject to cool, logical analysis from a distance. We cannot think about them without feeling them in the background, insisting, “Yes, we do exist outside of your mind, yes, we are real, yes, we are absolute, yes, we are universally valid.” It is easy enough to understand morality and why it exists. It is much more difficult, once we do understand it, to come up with logically supportable, objective reasons why we really “should” do anything at all. Obviously, we cannot deal with the topic of human moral behavior and all its ramifications in a single post. We will make a start.

To begin, let us consider why morality exists to begin with. As with everything else I will write on the subject, what I write here are hypotheses. Some of the hypotheses will be “stronger” than others, depending on how much supporting information is available to back them up. When it comes to understanding the fundamental nature of morality, it seems to me the hypotheses presented here are very strong in that respect, but certainly not complete. To confirm them, we must understand the fundamental physical processes in the brain that result in consciousness, including consciousness of what we perceive as right and wrong, and how those processes are affected by what we experience. Such knowledge is not beyond our reach, and I am confident we will acquire it as long as we remain free to search and inquire.

My first and basic hypothesis, then, is that morality is an evolved characteristic. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it is not difficult to understand why it evolved; “We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.”

The concept of morality as an evolved characteristic, hard-wired in our brains, appeared shortly after Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” Indeed, Jean Meslier had suggested that our concepts of good and evil existed as a result of natural causes more than a century earlier; “The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.”

Much more could be said about the reasons for the hypothesis that morality evolved. Those reasons have been set forth convincingly and in great detail by many writers more capable than me. For example, copious supporting evidence as well as citations of much related work by others may be found in the works of Robert Ardrey and Sir Arthur Keith. In particular, see “A New Theory of Human Evolution” by the latter. For more than a hundred years after Darwin published his theory, these thinkers were largely ignored by those whose minds were closed by blind faith in religious or ideological verities. It’s encouraging to note that, as these religious and dogmatic blinders have weakened and frayed, a little light has begun to trickle through. Forty years ago the very mention of human nature based on innate predispositions was politically incorrect. Today, it is accepted almost as a commonplace.

What, then, are the consequences? If morality, like everything else about us, exists because it has evolved, the theological basis for good and evil disappears. If they did not come from God, then the basis for claiming that they are absolute and have an objective existence independent of the human mind disappears as well. If we accept the hypothesis, then morality is subjective. If human beings ceased to exist, then human notions of good and evil would cease to exist with them. In later posts, we will examine the implications of these conclusions.

Hegel and the Pitfalls of the Abstract

Hegel
Hegel
Here’s a comment on Hegel that appeared in the December 1848 issue of the Tory London “Quarterly Review,” long before the Communists had appropriated him once and for all:

For a long time (during the third decennium of the present century, and even later) the Prussian Government patronized the system of Hegel as a kind of state-philosophy, and those persons who adopted the terminology of this system were regarded as good subjects, and were readily promoted. Hegel’s system, however, was then very unpopular amongst the Constitutionalist party of south-western Germany, whose leaders for the most part were practical men, or belonged to the older school of Kant or Fichte. But when Frederick William IV succeeded to the throne of Prussia, the system of Hegel was abandoned for a kind of romantic pietism of the middle ages, whilst the Hegelist school assumed a decided attitude of antagonism against religion and the state. Some few years before Hegel had been regarded as the philosophical defender of Crown and Altar. Now the New Hegelians proved, by philosophic deductions, the necessity of abandoning all religion; they utterly scouted the principle of faith; they attacked the Prussian system, and went beyond the most extravagant lengths in liberalism.

Writing about the same time, Herzen fills us in on what happened to Hegelian philosophy once the leftists hat gotten hold of it:

They discussed these subjects incessantly; there was not a paragraph in the three parts of the Logic, in the two of the Aesthetic, the Encyclopaedia, and so on, which had not been the subject of desperate disputes for several nights together. People who loved each other avoided each other for weeks at a time because they disagreed about the definition of “all-embracing spirit,” or had taken as a personal insult an opinion on “the absolute personality and its existence in itself.” No one in those days would have hesitated to write a phrase like this: “The concretion of abstract ideas in the sphere of plastics presents that phase of the self-seeking spirit in which, defining itself for itself, it passes from the potentiality of natural immanence into the harmonious sphere of pictorial consciousness in beauty.”…Perevoshchikov, the well known astronomer, described this language as the “twittering of birds.”

Far be it from me to pretend to a more perfect knowledge of Hegel than Herzen’s dueling intellectuals. I merely point out that, when ideas become so abstract and obscure that no one can agree on what they mean, they are of little practical value. In looking at our history, one cannot escape the conclusion that we are creatures of limited intelligence, liable to wander off into intellectual swamps unless we keep things simple. If at all possible it behooves us to check our speculations against experiment as we go along. Unfortunately, we can’t always do this. Not all of our ideas are subject to experimental confirmation. Religious beliefs, or the lack thereof, are a notable example. Yet even when our knowledge isn’t perfect, sometimes we must act regardless. Then, it seems to me, we should base our actions on what is most probable. Keep it simple, and apply Occam’s razor.

That’s why thinkers like Ardrey appeal to me (see my earlier post). He writes on human nature, a subject that has always invited speculation leading to conclusions as disparate as those of Marx and Freud. Unlike them, and many another thinker before and after him, Ardrey avoided the pitfalls of the abstract. He presented profound ideas clearly, illustrating each step along the way with copious examples from nature while citing the related ideas of others, both pro and con. He was no more infallible than any other human being, but he made his points. One could agree or disagree with him based on the merits of the evidence he presented, but one didn’t have to try and follow him as he disappeared into a mist of jargon, or lost himself in the swamps of the abstract. Today he lacks the intellectual gravitas of others with similar ideas, such as Konrad Lorenz and Edward O. Wilson. No matter, I still suspect his “pop ethology” comes closer to the truth than Lorenz’ German abstractions in “On Agression,” or Wilson’s high falutin’ “Consilience.”

Robert Ardrey and the Amity/Enmity Complex

DL002359

Robert Ardrey was a man who had the unusual combination of a brilliant mind, and a rare talent for explaining to a broad audience what he was thinking.  The series of books he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s emphasized a common theme; the effect of innate predispositions, or human nature, if you will, on human behavior.  One aspect of our behavior that has had a profound and decisive impact on our history, and may well bring that history to an end one day unless we learn to understand and control it, is the Amity/Enmity Complex, our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups.  Ardrey describes it in a chapter of his book, “The Territorial Imperative,” taking the reader through a review of the origins of the idea, salient observations of human and animal behavior that support it, and the logical basis for the hypothesis.  If you read nothing else of Ardrey’s writings, read this chapter.  If you do so with an open mind, I think some of the constantly reccurring manifestations of the Complex, including such notorious examples as the anti-Semitism that has stained the histories of so many European countries, the racism that has justified slavery and rationalized discrimination in the United States and many other countries, and the religious bigotry now fomenting such violence in the Middle East, although it is hardly unique to that region of the world, will begin to make a lot more sense to you.  One would think that the innumerable irrational and devastating wars that have been such a constant and persistent phenomenon in human history would have tipped us off by now when it comes to this aspect of our nature.  It seems that, when it comes to understanding ourselves, we are remarkably slow learners.

The Amity/Enmity Complex as an aspect of human moral behavior and most of the other ideas Ardrey presented weren’t really original.  He made that clear himself.  In addition to his other talents, he had a rare grasp of history, and was well able to follow the intellectual paths leading from his own theories back to their sources.  His books were very popular at the time they were published, and enlightened many.  They also made him many enemies, because his theories flew in the face of cherished ideological certainties posing as science.  Those enemies reacted with a vehemence and bitterness that had little to do with disinterested logic, but which I’m sure Ardrey understood very well himself. One can still trace the effects of their malice on the web today, where Ardrey’s “biographers” continue to bowdlerize his thought as “The Killer Ape Theory.”   Ironically, they proved his point.  By threatening the shibboleths that made up the ideological boxes they lived in, Ardrey put himself squarely in their “out-groups,” and elicited all the rage that he himself had so clearly described and predicted. 

Writing in 1966, Ardrey described the Amity-Enmity Complex as “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist.  The paradox may be simply stated:  If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence?  If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?”

After describing some of the behaviorist and other psychological myths that, being more in tune with the preferred ideological narratives of the day, suppressed the theory for so long, Ardrey goes on;

“All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.  But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”

He goes on to do just that with compelling arguments based on a profound knowledge of the history of evolutionary thought.  In the process, he gives us thumbnails of the ideas of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the development of the theory.  One of them already mentioned above, Sir Arthur Keith, is almost forgotten today.  It would be well if we recalled some of his words, and took them to heart.  In one passage of exceptional insight cited by Ardrey he said,

“Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love.  Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier:  it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”

It grieves me to think that ideas as seemingly simple and self-evident as this have not become commonplaces of human knowledge.  They explain so much, and could help us to understand and control so much that is destructive and self-defeating in our nature.  Must we eternally experience the misery, pain and death accompanying each new manifestation of the complex, slowly come to the realization that it is an evil that must be controlled, and then invent some new “ism,” whether racism, anti-Semitism, or what have you, to finally categorize the behavior as an evil and place it in its own out-group in turn?  Instead of dealing with each one of these manifestations of a common behavioral trait piecemeal, one-by-one, and applying palliatives after they have already done their damage, would it not be better to finally grasp and understand the unifying phenomenon that is the basis of them all? 

Sometimes it takes a long time for our species to grasp the obvious.  Actually, we have come a long way since Ardrey’s day.  Nowadays one begins to see many of the ideas about human nature he so ably presented accepted as commonplaces in the popular media, often described as if they were novelties of modern research, with no allusion to the fact that they have a history going back to the time of Darwin, or that they were suppressed for so long by ideological obscurantism.   Still, it is unfortunate that it has taken us so long to come this far.  I am confident that, as long as research into uncovering the secrets of the human mind can go on freely without ideological suppression of inconvenient truths, the recent encouraging progress we have made in understanding ourselves will continue.  One must hope so, because we have also been making rapid progress in acquiring the means of self-destruction.  Unless we learn to understand and control the Amity/Enmity Complex, it may very well become the reason for our final demise.

Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

The Case of Sarah Palin, or Why do the Heathen Rage, and the People Imagine a Vain Thing?

I’ve never been particularly impressed by Sarah Palin. She seems to me a rather commonplace person trying to react to very unnatural, unusual, and, of course, hostile circumstances. The reactions to her one can find at websites such as this, this, and this are irrational but very predictable and typical manifestations of amity-enmity behavior. Sarah Palin was the personification of an out-group for the liberal/progressive in-group from the moment she left the gate. They duly trooped to the boundaries of their intellectual territory and began shrieking at her like so many howler monkeys. The reaction in the “objective” mainstream media was remarkably slanted, even for this day and age. They were so intent on making sure the rest of us were aware she was the “bad guy” that they completely lost their bearings. One felt sorry for her in spite of ones self.

Well, we can expect more of the same until those for whom she has become the manifestation of evil are convinced that they are, after all, beating a dead horse. I rather suspect it will go on much longer than necessary, as good “bad guys” are hard to find.

The Evolution of Morality and the Shifting Standards of Political Correctness

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey
An interesting article appeared in the German news magazine, “Der Spiegel,” recently. It was entitled, “How Mankind Learned Humanity,” and discussed recent developments in the field of evolutionary science relating to the evolution of morality in human beings. Why was it interesting? Well, there was a time when the appearance of anything of the sort in a left-leaning publication like Spiegel would have been virtually unthinkable. You see, back in the day, Marxists, socialists, and dwellers in various other ideological straightjackets found such notions politically unpalatable. They were in conflict with the preferred version of human behavior as infinitely malleable, and determined entirely by environment and learning. Creatures possessing such ideal characteristics were indispensible if the various utopias then under construction for us were ever to work as planned.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, a brilliant thinker named Robert Ardrey and others like him began publishing books, such as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative,” pointing out the rather obvious absurdities of such notions, and reviewing studies of animal behavior and other research that pointed to the conclusion that our capacity to act as moral beings had evolved, along with the rest of our characteristics. They were promptly demonized as fascists, racists, and “pop ethologists” by the puritan ideologues. Notions to the effect that there was any genetic component to human behavior became distinctly politically incorrect. References to such ideas in the popular media became few and far between. When they did, it was usually to the accompaniment of some slur about the moral turpitude of those harboring such notions.

For those of us who lived through those times, and witnessed the shameful attempts of scientific poseurs like Richard Lewontin and Ashley Montagu to silence Ardrey and his colleagues with ridicule and spite, the unconscious vindication of his ideas represented by the Spiegel article and many others like it is both welcome and encouraging. I never doubted that vindication would come, because it seemed that, unless the Lewontins of the world were somehow able to cow the rest of the research community into suppressing every “inconvenient truth” that didn’t quite agree with their ideologically conditioned preconceptions, the weight of evidence for ideas that really amounted to little more than common sense would become overwhelming.

In the end, it did become overwhelming. The Spiegel article and the ever increasing volume of others like it are a reflection of that fact. The genetic basis of morality, and of human nature in general, is now treated as a commonplace in the popular media, as it is in the scientific research community in general. To tell the truth, I never thought the day would come as quickly as it has. It’s a hopeful sign. In the end, as long as free research can continue, the truth really can prevail.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

I must leave the question of our ability to know the truth with absolute certainty for others to debate.  For my part, I act according to what appears to me to be closest to the truth, although I realize I can’t be perfectly sure it really is the truth.  Rather, I accept the conclusions that seem to me to have the highest probability of being true, and act on them as if they were the truth.  It seems to me that actions based on the truth are more likely to have a positive outcome than actions based on falsehoods.  Therefore, I reason, investigate, and experiment in order to approach the truth as closely as I can.

Human beings have accomplished some remarkable intellectual feats, but usually by confirming their hypotheses with experiments every step of the way.  Take, for example, the conclusions of several talented physicists regarding the discovery of nuclear fission.  Although they were dealing with processes they couldn’t actually see, they predicted that it would be possible to build a nuclear weapon.  They proceeded to build such a weapon.  The weapon worked.  Therefore, there must have been some element of truth in their original conclusions.  Terrible as its result may be, the development of the bomb was, nevertheless, an awesome achievement of the human mind.  However, it did not result from much spinning of complex intellectual webs, carried out purely in the realm of theory.  Rather, to the extent possible, theory was confirmed by experiment every step of the way.

Despite such remarkable achievements, however, we are far less logical and intelligent than we give ourselves credit for.  Our conclusions about what is true are subject to a host of emotional biases having their origin in “human nature,” the way in which evolution has hard-wired various predispositions and responses in our brains.  We experience reality conditioned by a host of preconceived notions.  As a result, the more complex our theoretical and ideological speculations become, and the further we depart from the realm of experiment, the more likely we are to wander off the path of truth into intellectual swamps.  History is full of cautionary lessons to this effect.  Communism is an outstanding example.  Many others can be drawn from our endless quarrels over obscure matters of religious doctrine. 

The conclusion?  The truth is never “crystal clear,” and no individual or sect, whether political or religious, has a monopoly on it.  It is elusive, and easily lost sight of in the mist.  If you would approach it, do so with due humility, never assuming that you know it in advance.

Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”

“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”  

The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 

It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.  

We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.

The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 

In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?

As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 

Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

H. G. Wells, H. L. Mencken, and the Baby Boomers

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
I like reading old magazines, especially when I get tired of seeing today’s political agendas, and today’s political correctness between the lines of the modern ones. I suppose they have political agendas of their own, but at least they have the virtue of being different. A while back I was paging through a copy of “The American Mercury,” published in the days when H. L. Mencken was still its editor. If Mencken wasn’t the best editor this country ever produced, he’s definitely on the short list. When he praises a novel, you can be sure it’s not a puff piece for a literary pet. Well, in this mag, I was not a little surprised to find him waxing effusive over a novel by H.G. Wells, and one I’d never heard of: “The World of William Clissold.”

Now, I enjoyed reading “The Time Machine,” and “War of the Worlds” once upon a time, but never game them a second thought as serious works of literature. They certainly never impressed me as the sort of thing Mencken would waste time reviewing. My curiosity was duly piqued. I got the book. As usual, the Sage of Baltimore was right. “Clissold” is the genuine article.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll be fascinated. Wells wrote the novel when he was about 60, and it’s full of interesting insights and observations about the significance of reaching that age, what a post-60 future might look like, his observations on how others that age were dealing with life, etc. As with any great work of literature, I’m sure you’ll find reflections of your own thoughts as well, assuming you’ve managed to attain such a ripe old age.

Again, as with all good novels, “Clissold” is full of anecdotes that were surely drawn from Wells’ life experiences. For example, he tells the story of his visit to Geneva during the heighday of the League of Nations in 1922. There, among a host of other interesting types, he tells of meeting an old Indian. In his own words:

“I remember a charming Red Indian from Canada with a wonderful belt of wampum; it was a treaty all done in beads; by it the British Government gave sovereign dominion for ever and ever to the remnants of the Five Nations over a long strip of country running right through Canadian territories, territories in which prohibition and all sorts of bizarre moder practices now prevail. The Canadians were infringing the freedoms of that ribbon of liberty by sending in excisement and the like. So the Five Nations, with a grave copper face, wampum treaty very carefully wrapped in tissue paper, were appealing from the British Empire to mankind.”

As the cliche goes, “he couldn’t make stuff like that up.” And sure enough, one finds several references to the incident on the Web, for example, here and here. You’ll find more on wampum, along with a fascinating history of the Five Nations here.

There is much other food for thought in “Clissold,” including a rather heavy handed exposition of his world view and his rather Rand-like version of what mankind needs to do to save itself, a summary of which may be found in the Wiki article linked above. A closer look may be found here. Another chapter is devoted to a review of the news media of his day. Modern connoiseurs will surely find it fascinating. Other than that, I can only echo Mencken’s recommendation. This novel is well worth a read.

Genesis, the Firmament, and Christian Fundamentalism

Drawing attention to the many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, as well as the verses that contradict what we’ve learned about the age of the earth, the size of the universe and the earth’s place in it, etc., can occasionally open minds if they are open to reason to begin with. Some of the best and brightest among us have always had the ability to find these discrepancies on their own, and the honesty to point them out to others. Such a one, for example, was Jean Meslier. This simple French priest composed three copies of a testament that demolished Christianity, not to mention all other versions of belief in a Supreme Being, more than a hundred years before Darwin published his theories. Somehow Voltaire and a few other kindred spirits got wind of the Testament, and so preserved it for later generations. Since then, it has been an inspiration to many who have also had the courage to think for themselves. Unfortunately, minds that live in little steel cages of “faith” aren’t so accessible. They can always adjust reality to fit scripture as needed.

Take, for example, the discrepancy in the genealogy of Jesus between the versions in the books of Matthew and Luke. It would seem that, on reading these two vastly different versions, a logical, open-minded person would conclude that the claim that the entire Bible is infallible is wrong. After all, a God who really loves us and wants us to find our way to a truth so critical to our welfare in the hereafter would hardly make us the butt of crude practical jokes, or allow gross mis-tranlations of his word to bamboozle generations of true believers. However, logical thought and open-mindedness are not strong suits of Christian true believers. They have simply come up with a host of “interpretations” of these contradictory genealogies to “make them right.” The interested reader can find an example here.

Another famous historical example, cited by Voltaire, among others, is the difficulty with the description of a “firmament” in the King James Version of the Bible. Early civilizations commonly believed that the sun, moon, stars and other heavenly bodies were set in a solid, crystalline shell, or “firmament.” That such a version of the firmament was exactly what the author or authors of Genesis had in mind seems obvious on the face of if to anyone who actually reads the book. For example, we read in Genesis 1:4, that it acts as a barrier, and there are waters above the firmament, placing the heavenly bodies beneath this body of water. According to Genesis 1:17, the stars are set in the firmament.

Thanks to Project Apollo, and a few other inconvenient interventions of reality, later generations of true believers didn’t have the luxury of standing pat on the firmament theory. No matter. They simply hand-waved it out of existence by mistranslating “firmament” as “sky.” This was a bit much to swallow for some of the more erudite and honest among the faithful. Christian evangelist Paul Seely is a case in point. He has given us a wonderful commentary on the historical facts relating to the notion of a firmament in many cultures, complete with observations on the original Hebrew as well as the later translations into Greek and English. He demonstrates conclusively that a solid firmament is precisely what is meant in the book of Genesis. Alas, Mr. Seely is a faithful Christian, and so had no trouble squaring the circle his philological inquiries had revealed. He concludes his paper with the observation that, “Certainly the historical-grammatical meaning of (the Hebrew word) raqiac is ‘the ordinary opinion of the writer’s day.’ Certainly also it is not the purpose of Gen 1: 7 to teach us the physical nature of the sky, but to reveal the creator of the sky. Consequently, the reference to the solid firmament ‘lies outside the scope of the writer’s teachings’ and the verse is still infallibly true.” (!!) Faith will always find a way.

Not surprisingly, this rather startling conclusion was rather too much of a mental double back flip for believers of lesser intellectual agility among fellow fundamentalists. They chose, predictably, to rearrange reality to get rid of the pesky firmament in the time-honored fashion noted above. Examples abound, and a few of them can be found here and here. Google “Genesis firmament” and you will find many more.

Of course, the book of Genesis also has a serious issue with the disconnect between its version of the earth’s age, at 6,000 years, give or take, and the fact that vast numbers of heavenly bodies have been discovered so far away from us that it took light thousands of times that long to reach us, and yet we see them nevertheless. There is an interesting discussion of the subject here. A slam-dunk for science say you? Wrong again, oh ye of little faith, For the fundamentalist, the Bible is, a priori, the absolute truth. For one who is determined to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and the absolute truth against all odds, no evidence to the contrary will ever suffice. You see, facts that seem to contradict the Bible simply can’t be true. One accommodates them very easily, by simply readjusting reality.

I know! The same thought has occurred to me. We are living in an insane asylum. Occasionally I am bothered a little by the reflection that I, too, am a human being, just like the fundamentalists who have these fanciful notions. How much superior to them could I really be in matters of intellect? After all, we both belong to the same species. For that matter, if I glance about the asylum once again, I may discover a host of atheist “fundamentalists” with ideological notions that, though secular, are as inaccessible to reason as the faith of a theist. Well, enough of this. I’m not ready to turn myself in at the front desk just yet.