Morality sans Bible

Pretty much every society, culture, and even religion has their own version of the “Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule says, essentially:

Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

This Rule is old. Like, old old. Again, it’s found in the texts of pretty much every major religion. Christianity’s got their version, Islam’s got theirs – even Zoroastrians, Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains. If this is not evidence suggesting the Rule (and what some consider the basis of ethics) is not founded in religion, consider that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians featured it in their texts, and that it can be found in Hammurabi’s code of the ancient Babylonians.

If not because “God made it,” why does the Golden Rule exist? How did we figure out that we need to be good to other people, and that we shouldn’t be bad? How did we even determine what good and bad are? Instead of giving credit to the supernatural, let’s try the practical approach: human evolution.

I should mention right now, before I get ahead of myself, that this doesn’t specifically pertain to human evolution, as some form or another of morality/ethics is evident in other species such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, dolphins, lions, penguins, elephants, and even bats (to name only a few of many). So really, morality has to do not with human evolution, but with the evolution of social animals.

But, being that we’re human, I’ll focus on us.

As far back as when our monkey-like ancestors were still living primarily in trees, we’ve been a social animal, which means particular social “rules” must have existed for a very, very long time. Why? Because without rules, there won’t be cooperation, and a functioning, progressive “society” could not exist.

Close your eyes. Now open them. Magically, you’ve been flung back in time into the body of Bobor, an ancient ancestor of yours, part of a quaint tribe of early hominids living in the outskirts of a forest near the edge of a hot, grassy plain.

Bobor’s role in the tribe is that of a hunter. Every day he and the other men venture into the jungle with crude weapons in the hopes that they will come back in the evening with plenty of food for the tribe. In order to catch their prey, the hunters must cooperate. Sometimes their prey is far larger than just one man, but when two or three work together they are perfectly able to bring it down. The men know that if they do not work together, they will likely not find any food and for that they and their tribe will suffer.

In the evening, Bobor and the other hunters return home with plenty of food. The rest of the tribe is happy because they are hungry, and now they can eat. The women of the tribe cut up the food and prepare it for eating. Soon, the whole tribe is sitting down and enjoying their dinner. Bobor is happy because he got to help feed the tribe. The rest of the tribe is happy with Bobor (and the other hunters) for the same reason.

While they are eating Bobor notices that a hunter, Kraduk, is trying to take food from another tribe member. A fight breaks out, and the tribe member whose food Kraduk was attempting to steal, ended up dead. Bobor and the rest of the tribe begin yelling at Kraduk. The man he killed was another hunter, and so now they will have one less in their hunting party when they go out in the morning.

Angry, the tribe shuns Kraduk for making life more difficult. With Kraduk an outcast, the hunters head out in the morning, now with two less men than the day before. When they encounter their prey, they find it much more difficult to take down. Bobor and another hunter are injured but ultimately they manage to kill their prey and take it back to the rest of the tribe.

Despite Kraduk’s killing of the other hunter, the tribe manages to survive another day, but they will not forget what Kraduk has done, and they will remember the hardships they suffered (one dead, two injured, and one outcast) as a result.

Morality, at least for humans, could easily have spawned from a situation like Bobor’s and Kraduk’s. It was not as a result of religion (though the tribe may or may not have practiced a very primitive form of religion), but simply because of a need for cooperation and cohesion.

Even if Kraduk’s crime had simply been theft, or as petty as lying about something, this could have created distrust which may have shaken the cohesiveness of the entire tribe. So rules are made, whether they’re written down, spoken, or simply understood: don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or kill. The success of your tribe depends on it. Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

These rules would even spread among other tribes, and dictate how members of one tribe should (or should not) treat members of another. If you kill members of another tribe, the rest of their tribe might come and kill you right back. Or they’ll kill someone else in your tribe. And then your tribe may realize you were the cause of this, and you may be outcast, and now your tribe is two members less than it was before and their chances of success have lessened because of it.

Okay. Close your eyes, and open them again. You’re you again. You are the result of millions of years of cooperation. It seems to be working, so please don’t go and screw things up.


Why do we have fish?

…and other questions about Noah’s flood for the layman.

What did the animals eat?
Sure, Noah took two of every species on his ark. As if that’s not believable enough, how did all the animals survive? Some animals have a very particular diet: they’ll only eat certain plants, grasses, berries, or other animals.

What did the vegetarian animals eat? Did Noah also bring plants, trees, grass, nuts, fruits, and berries on the ark? Did he remember to bring eucalyptus for the koalas and bamboo for the pandas?

What about the carnivores? Surely an animal such as the lion would require more than two antelope to survive for five months. Speaking of that, why do we still have antelope if the lions ate them on the ark?

Did Noah also take fish on the ark with him?
If not, why do we have such an abundance (80%-ish) of sea life on the planet? A worldwide flood that covered the tops of all the mountains would have severely offset the saline level in the ocean, killing all the saltwater species. Likewise, as the ocean’s salt water and the land’s fresh water met and mixed, all of the freshwater species would have died.

We would have a mass extinction of approximately 80% of all life on earth in the geologic record taking place only 6,000 years ago. This is not the case. We would have only very few (if any) species adapted to a strictly aquatic life. As the ocean is earth’s most life-abundant biome, that is clearly also not the case.

Why are there trees?
And grass, and bushes, and ferns? No plant could survive being drowned for five months (fact-check that if you’d like; there may be some that can – I’m no botanist). Unless Noah also included some of every type of vegetation on his cruise, a worldwide flood would have killed off all (or most) of the species of plant life on earth to the point of extinction. And yet in no time at all after the flood waters abated, a raven managed to find an olive tree in bloom. This would not have been the case. Six thousand years is not enough time for all the plant life on earth to re-evolve to where it is now.

Why is there still life?
With all the plant life extinct, all of the vegetarian animals who relied on plants would then go the way of vegetation and sea-life, followed by the carnivores and finally, humans. We’re talking about a global mass extinction here, consisting of 99% of all species on earth. You wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here, the berries that became my coffee wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be a beautiful tree standing outside my window, and the lawn wouldn’t be neatly trimmed.

Editor’s note: my wife has explained to me that the animals on Noah’s ark packed their own lunches, and the carnivores depended on a diet of  “tofurkey.

Missing Link? What Do You Mean, ‘Missing’? (an excerpt)

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for E...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a couple posts I’m working on at the moment, but don’t feel either are quite ready for publication. That being the case, please enjoy this excerpt from Richard DawkinsThe Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. This is the particular excerpt to which I was referring in yesterday’s post; the one which introduced me to the writing of Richard Dawkins and ultimately led to my “coming out” as an atheist, as well as to my particularly anti-religious viewpoint:

Creationists are deeply enamoured of the fossil record, because they have been taught (by each other) to repeat, over and over, the mantra that it is full of ‘gaps’: ‘Show me your “intermediates”!’ They fondly (very fondly) imagine that these ‘gaps’ are an embarrassment to evolutionists. Actually, we are lucky to have any fossils at all, let alone the massive numbers that we now do have to document evolutionary history – large numbers of which, by any standards, constitute beautiful ‘intermediates.’ I shall emphasize in Chapters 9 and 10 that we don’t need fossils in order to demonstrate that evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution would be entirely secure, even if not a single corpse had ever fossilized. It is a bonus that we do actually have rich seams of fossils to mine, and more are discovered every day. The fossil evidence for evolution in many major animal groups is wonderfully strong. Nevertheless there are, of course, gaps, and creationists love them obsessively.

Let’s again make use of our analogy of the detective coming to the scene of a crime to which there were no eye witnesses. The baronet has been shot. Fingerprints, footprints, DNA from a sweat stain on the pistol, and a strong motive all point towards the butler. It’s pretty much an open and shut case, and the jury and everybody in the court is convinced that the butler did it. But a last-minute piece of evidence is discovered, in the nick of time before the jury retires to consider what had seemed to be their inevitable verdict of guilty: somebody remembers that the baronet had installed spy cameras against burglars. With bated breath, the court watches the films. One of them shows the butler in the act of opening the drawer in his pantry, taking out a pistol, loading it, and creeping stealthily out of the room with a malevolent gleam in his eye. You might think that this solidifies the case against the butler even further. Mark the sequel, however. The butler’s defence lawyer astutely points out that there was no spy camera in the library where the murder took place, and no spy camera in the corridor leading from the butler’s pantry. He wags his finger, in that compelling way that lawyers have made their own. ‘There’s a gap in the video record! We don’t know what happened after the butler left the pantry. There is clearly insufficient evidence to convict my client.’

In vain the prosecution lawyer points out that there was a second camera in the billiard room, and this shows, through the open door, the butler, gun at the ready, creeping on tiptoe along the passage towards the library. Surely this plugs the gap in the video record? Surely the case against the butler is now unassailable? But no. Triumphantly the defence lawyer plays his ace. ‘We don’t know what happened before or after the butler passed the open door of the billiard room. There are now two gaps in the video record. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my case rests. There is now even less evidence against my client than there was before.’

The fossil record, like the spy camera in the murder story, is a bonus, something that we had no right to expect as a matter of entitlement. There is already more than enough evidence to convict the butler without the spy camera, and the jury were about to deliver a guilty verdict before the spy camera was discovered. Similarly, there is more than enough evidence for the fact of evolution in the comparative study of modern species (Chapter 10) and their geographical distribution (Chapter 9). We don’t need fossils – the case for evolution is watertight without them; so it is paradoxical to use gaps in the fossil record as though they were evidence against evolution. We are, as I say, lucky to have fossils at all.

–Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution

Laziness in humans, a science question.

I thought I’d post my first science question on here.  I was thinking lately that laziness in humans might be related to the tendency in other animals not to waste energy.  The problem is that we have to do so much less in order to get food and survive, so it’s not good for us.  Not everyone is lazy, of course, but not all animals share the same opinion of what constitutes a waste of energy.  Thoughts?  Science to back it up?  See?!  In essence I’m being lazy.

Birds not to eat

Leviticus 11:13-19 forbids us from eating an assortment of birds. It even goes so far as to instruct us which particular birds we cannot eat. Those birds include:

A Black Kite (Milvus migrans)

Image via Wikipedia

  • the eagle
  • the vulture
  • the black vulture
  • the red kite
  • any kind of black kite
  • any kind of raven
  • the horned owl
  • the screech owl
  • the gull
  • any kind of hawk
  • the little owl
  • the cormorant
  • the great owl
  • the white owl
  • the desert owl
  • the osprey
  • the stork
  • any kind of heron
  • the hoopoe
  • and the bat

A pretty reasonable list, if you ask me. Eagles, owls, vultures – I’ve never even dreamed of eating any of them. Different translations of the Bible actually tell us different birds we shouldn’t eat. Swans, pelicans, and cuccoos, for example. Again, perfectly reas– wait, the BAT?!