Being nice is a good survival strategy

Here’s my problem: I started this series on how altruism and moral behaviour may have been selected for. Now I’m to the point where I intended to pound the final nail, culminating my long-winded argument. But, I have had some trepidation regarding my final argument.

I was unsure of how to proceed; on one hand, this unfinished series was hanging over my head like a heavy cloud, slowly dripping raindrops on my head and making me irritable and I wanted to just ignore the bad feeling, plough on and finish it but on the other hand, tackling this with intellectual honesty would occupy a significant chunk of time and energy. Tackling this and admitting that I may have thrown more weight behind my argument than it can support is both humbling and is an opportunity to demonstrate how I go about sniffing out what smells intellectually off.

What I was going to say: 

An attempt to crunching the history of personality down into a few sentences follows: personality researchers constructed lists of adjectives pulled from the dictionary; positing that we have a word for a behavioural tendency indicates its importance in describing our individual tendencies. These words were administered in the form of a test, in which the participant provided a self-rating on a scale for each adjective. E.g., participants answer questions like the following, ‘To what extent does the word ‘organization’ relate to you?’ A statistical technique, factor analysis, was then used to distill all the adjectives down by grouping together traits that correlated strongly with each other but not with other traits. Through this process, psychologists unearthed six personality dimensions: Honesty/Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience.

To be clear, each of these are dimensions on which people differ and are not different types of people and each one of the dimensions is independent of the others. What the latter part means is that although someone may be high in Honesty/Humility, that same person may also be low in Agreeableness; where you lay on one dimension does not depend on where you lie on another dimension. (If you’re curious where you lay on these dimensions, here’s the test:

That variety in all these dimensions is conserved (you can probably bring to mind people who have high, low and intermediate levels of all the dimensions mentioned above) suggests that there may be some selection pressures maintaining both high and low levels of each dimension. For example, people who are high in honesty may be able to secure more alliances with other people and thus be more successful in life. Conversely, people who are low in honesty may also benefit: taking advantage of others can be very good for the pocketbook, provided you don’t get caught.

Given that I’m concerned with altruism and morality and how they may be explained by selection, I’m going to zoom in on honesty/humility (H) and agreeableness (A), ignoring the other four. Here’s a breakdown of what’s encompassed by both traits (copied from here):

Honesty-Humility: Persons with very high scores on the Honesty-Humility scale avoid manipulating others for personal gain, feel little temptation to break rules, are uninterested in lavish wealth and luxuries, and feel no special entitlement to elevated social status. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale will flatter others to get what they want, are inclined to break rules for personal profit, are motivated by material gain, and feel a strong sense of self-importance.

You can imagine that there are some costs and benefits from being on either end of the spectrum: an honest person will miss out on the potential benefits associated with exploiting others but will also avoid making enemies and accompanying retaliation. The converse may be true for very dishonest persons; they may reap the benefits of exploitation but perhaps at the expense of making enemies that may seek revenge.

Agreeableness (versus Anger): Persons with very high scores on the Agreeableness scale forgive the wrongs that they suffered, are lenient in judging others, are willing to compromise and cooperate with others, and can easily control their temper. Conversely, persons with very low scores on this scale hold grudges against those who have harmed them, are rather critical of others’ shortcomings, are stubborn in defending their point of view, and feel anger readily in response to mistreatment.

Highly agreeable persons are more likely to continue to collaborate with others, whether or not they have been exploited. They enjoy the support of some but may get screwed over by others. Conversely, those who are not so agreeable do not put up being exploited and tend not to cooperate with others. While they forego the gains associated with cooperation, they do not incur the cost of being exploited.

Thought Experiment

Imagine a world in which everyone is highly agreeable, A, honest and humble, H, (kind of like in The Invention of Lying). If a few very dishonest people (low H) popped up, they would have the potential to reap the benefits from exploiting others without incurring retribution costs because everyone else is very agreeable, and unlikely to retaliate. These gains would then enable these dishonest people to support more children, giving them an evolutionary fitness advantage over the very honest people. As more and more dishonest people are born, grow up and take advantage of others, it becomes advantageous to have little tolerance for exploitation (low A). If you have very little tolerance for being taken advantage of, you’ll be less likely to be exploited. Then as the average level of honesty/humility declines, so too does the average level of agreeableness. However, is there a limit to the extent of dishonesty and disagreeableness?

Right here is where my old self would argue that dishonesty, exploitation, holding grudges, and being vengeful would prevail without God. But, might there be a fitness advantage to being honest and cooperative? If there is, then God becomes an extra piece of the puzzle that isn’t necessary to explain the development of human morality.

Let’s return to that world, where dishonesty and anger are becoming more and more common. There are more and more people all trying to exploit each other. At some point there will be more people trying to exploit others than can be easily exploited; they will run out of victims. Also, recall that in this world people are vengeful and are not easily taken advantage of, so there will be a cost to being dishonest. At this point, the costs associated with being dishonest and the missed opportunities for being honest balance each other out and there is no advantage to being dishonest. Likewise, while disagreeable people benefit from not getting exploited, they also lose the advantage associated with being cooperative with others. This world will reach a balance of honest and dishonest people and agreeable and disagreeable people.

Neither the utopic nor the dystopic society could be sustained; eventually frequency dependence will balance honest/humility and agreeableness.

Support from the Wild

It’s been shown that societies with economies based on animal herding demonstrate greater violence than do societies with economies based on raising crops. The researchers postulated that animals, being much more mobile than carrots, are easier to steal than crops. Thus there is greater gain from being more willing to steal and more willing to retaliate against thieves in a herding society than a crop based society. However, being vengeful would have no benefits in a crop based economy. Conversely, cooperation in such societies is of mutual benefit to all farmers when it comes to harvesting.

This is potentially a real world example of two situations that select for different degrees of agreeableness and honesty: people with low levels of agreeableness and high levels of dishonesty would tend to do better in a livestock based economy. You could gain yourself a reputation for being vengeful and consequently be less likely targeted for future theft. Or you could be a cunning thief yourself and steal your way to wealth. Conversely, egalitarian people benefit most in a crop based economy. Cooperation with others helps to gain you helpers when it comes to harvesting your own crops. If you’re vengeful and conniving, you’re not likely to have neighbours coming around to assist in the harvest.

What’s my problem?

The real world support is limited: sure, the theory sounds plausible and tidy, but it made me uncomfortable to find that there is very little out there regarding personality traits selected by frequency dependence and fluctuating optimum.

Then shall I throw my hands up in defeat? Is morality an invention of God after all? I think not. There are mechanisms beyond these that I’ve touched on in the development of morality and ethics. My friend touched on morality here, pointing out that objective morality is an illusion and then goes into some really cool examples of altruism in the animal kingdom. Go read the rest here. The main point is, there doesn’t seem to be a singular mechanism for the development and maintenance of morality, but several. And none of them rely on a moral code dictated to us from above.

Can you be a gay Christian?

A few days ago, while perusing the steady stream of stuff on Facebook, my attention was drawn to this article: Can You Be a Gay Christian Rock Star?

I’m not terribly surprised that Christians in the public eye are starting to come out of the closet, as there are some corners of the faith that have openly announced support for LGBTQ individuals (yay!). I even spotted a Mennonite church marching in Calgary Pride a couple of years ago. Here’s the photo to prove it:



I’m excited to see that the world is changing and LGBTQ rights are being recognized as human rights. Instead of pointing out LGBTQ persons as sinners, these people are marching for their rights: not much encourages me more.

This piece though… I’ll admit, it was disappointing to see endorsement for this piece on Facebook. It reveals a broad theology that I wish I knew how to abolish: Straight is God’s default. Anything other is the manifestation of succumbing to sin.

(As an aside, when I was a teenager, I remember relating to the apostle Paul’s struggles with doing what he did not want to do. To me, all things sinful were the devil’s way of luring us away from God and they were universal. I.e., we all tend to have the same temptations: lying, being harsh to others when we’re supposed to love them, caving to our selfish desires before God’s, as a few examples. Then, are same sex desires common to everyone, only some of us suppress them? Or does the devil use that lure on some people but not others?) I digress…

Here’s a quick background, to bring you up to speed on the story the article is about:
Trey Pearson, a member of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, recently came out as gay. He reports that he never wanted to be gay (really, who would choose that road, it’s clearly not an easy one to walk) and tried to live a straight life, marrying and having two children. Now he and the mother of his children are navigating the challenges of co-parenting.

Michael Brown, author of the piece, opens by extending heartfelt sympathy for Trey. Initially, I was heartened; Brown seemed to empathize Trey and the struggles he endured throughout his experience of trying to fit a role that wasn’t his and finally coming to terms with his identity as a gay man. But then Brown reveals what he means by his empathic beginnings,

The reality is that Trey has made a tragic, destructive choice. He has found his identity in his romantic attractions and sexual desires rather than in his relationship with God, and he has decided that personal fulfillment is more important than obedience to the Savior.

This grates on me for many reasons. Choice? We’ve hashed over this again and again – do you, Michael Brown, really think that people choose to have people like yourself cast judgment on them and to be recipients of abuse that far overshadows your judgment? This is the last straw for Trey, who has been trying desperately to fit into the identity that you believe God has made him for. He tried. You fail to recognize that he tried his darned hardest, to the point of exhaustion, and came to recognize that God makes gay people, too.

And, speaking of ‘obedience to the Savior’, can ya’ll (not limited to Brown) put things in a little perspective and recognize that the proportion of the Bible that addresses homosexuality pales in comparison to the proportion that addresses loving people? I’m no longer an adherent of The Bible and I don’t subscribe to any religious beliefs and you know what I think is insane? Some people love people of the same sex and some people love an invisible sky-dude. Only one of those relationships strikes me as off the deep end of crazy and it’s not the former.

“I don’t know if he received serious ministry or counseling to help him get to the root of his same-sex attractions…”

Another theme that just doesn’t die: if you have same-sex attractions, there’s something wrong with you. Once we’ve fixed you, you will be cured of your same-sex attractions and you can move on with your life, unencumbered by the burden of sin. Okay, that last part was inferred, but I don’t think I’m far off the mark. No. No. No! The “root of his same-sex attractions” is irrelevant to this discussion. His identity as a gay man is legitimate, irrespective of its origins.

Michael then points to one of his readers, also named Michael, who shared his story:

“I have had same sex attractions since I was a young boy. I started to go to church as a teenager and became a Christian. For years, I have prayed for (and been prayed for) these tendencies to go away, but they have not.”

If I was a god, creating people that I loved and wanted to spend an eternity with, I would not create them with an unquenchable desire to sin. That is just, well, cruel. Recently, I’ve been thinking about designer babies. I consider what it would be like to be able to choose certain traits and suppress others and create the best child you could with the genetics you have to offer. Now, what if you weren’t limited by your genetics and you could create the optimal child? What characteristics would you choose? Almost certainly you would not tick the box ‘inclination to do the opposite of what you’ve told them to do’. That would make your life, and your child’s, very difficult (evidently, the omnipotent God is limited in what he can do after all).

(Note: this isn’t even considering that the repercussion of failing to obey results in eternal damnation! The stakes are even higher for God to create children who have a desire to follow him. But this is a problem that can be generalized to all sin – why in the world is the punishment for doing what you’ve been designed to want to do eternal damnation?)

“In spite of that, I got married many years ago and have children and grandchildren. My wife knows of my struggles, although because I knew it was sin, I have never acted on my feelings. Is it easy all the time? No, although with time it has gotten easier. But I have made a choice that I will be faithful to God and to my family.

Tell you what, if my husband told me that he was more attracted to other men than he was to me, I would first of all be crushed, then I would tell him to follow his heart. I would not want to be responsible for holding him captive. I can’t speak for Trey’s wife, but I would not want to be together with my husband if he was more attracted to men than to women.

Ultimately, though, I struggle with talking about this topic in the company of Christians, progressives and traditionals alike. There’s more that I have to say on this topic and because I’m already struggling with keeping this piece cohesive, I think it best to break down my thoughts in another piece. Stay tuned!

Skittish Fishes

I was hoping to get away with abandoning my foray into another mechanism put forward to explain the persistence of variable traits, but since I promised and I’m not one for making an unfulfilled promise, here we go.

An ideal characteristic is not necessarily inherently superior to other variations of the same trait but may be ideal in certain circumstances. For example, white fur isn’t inherently better than brown fur, but white fur is better than brown fur in the Arctic. As the situation fluctuates, the ideal trait also does so.

Do you reckon fishes have personalities? I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘personality’… I’ve heard it argued that yes, fishes do have personalities. Certainly, if you accept ‘bravery’ as a personality trait, then you might find it difficult to argue that fishes do not have personalities.

Trinidadian guppies vary in bravery; some are valiant while others are rather timid. In an environment of high predation, timid guppies will be more likely to survive than their reckless cousins. Conversely, an environment free of predation will reward those fearless guppies. These tiny fish live in streams, unimpeded by the waterfalls that gate off their predators. At the base of the waterfall lives the population of ‘brave’ guppies. Free from the risk of predation, those who boldly swim forth, exploring uncharted territory, enjoy greater success in finding food and mates than those who play it safe. Up at the top of the waterfall, where predators patrol the waters, it’s the timid guppies that secure success in surviving. Their skittishness pays back. Up here, the bold guppies are the losers in the fatal game. While their predators remain at bay at the top of the waterfall, the guppies frequently ride the water’s current to the pool below, thus the population of ‘timid’ guppies, those one would expect would be eliminated from the population, are constantly replenished, maintaining the variability in ‘braveness’.

Now that I’ve explained two mechanisms for why variation may persist, I’m ready to dive into the heart of this discussion. One might wonder how traits associated with being a ‘good person’ (e.g., sincerity, honesty, loyalty) are accounted for when selfishness, greed, exploitation, etc. are often rewarded with great gain? Many would point to a deity at this juncture, but if it is possible to explain morality without pointing to a deity, then the deity is an extra piece of the puzzle that Ockham’s razor slices away. Stay tuned for the good stuff to come!

Why Variation?

My journey into discovering how evolution may explain altruism continues with a look into why variability in traits persists and is not weeded out by natural selection.

Consider, for a moment, a group of gophers (I like to think of them as North America’s Meerkats, but not as cool: erect on hind legs, watchful for predators). Imagine that a few unfortunate gophers are born having only a single eye. Having one eye would put a gopher at a severe disadvantage in looking out for predators, meeting an unfortunate end like these guys:

Over time, the single-eyed gophers would die off at a faster rate than the rest of the population until the entire population would comprise of only two-eyed gophers. Variation in the number of eyes has been whittled down to only one variant: possession of two eyes. There are other such characteristics that have also honed in on the “best” variant, eliminating all others (e.g., having two arms, legs, hands, feet).

If natural selection weeds out all but the “best” characteristic, then why is there any variation at all? Why are there different eye colours? Hair colours? Personality traits? Specifically, I wondered, is there an optimal level of any given personality trait, like “agreeableness”? If personality is largely accounted for by genetics, and natural selection eliminates variation, then variation in personality should decline, leaving one “optimal” level. Clearly, this isn’t the case. There is a fair bit of variation in each of the six established personality factors (honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience). Why?

Although many explanations for the persistence of variation have been put forward, I’ll focus on one: frequency dependence. I’m excited to share some pretty cool examples, both biological and psychological.

Frequency Dependence

Any given trait is not inherently superior to any other given trait. Here’s what I mean by that: a trait is only beneficial if it gives an organism a cutting edge over its competition. For example, consider a bear. White fur isn’t in and of itself better than brown fur, but white fur is better than brown fur in the Arctic. So the advantage of having white fur depends on the environment in which the bear is living.

The video that follows is only related insofar as I’ve mentioned white fur in the Arctic, but I’ve been waiting far too long to share it and I’ve gotten tired of waiting:

Similarly, the advantage of a trait may depend on the frequency in which the trait exists in the population. Some characteristic may only confer a benefit to the organism if it is the least common variant of the trait. When it becomes the most common variant, it becomes a detriment to the organism that has unluckily inherited it. An example will help…

Male Bluegill fish demonstrate two mating strategies. Parental males mature slowly, growing big, muscular, and sexy. After having attracted the attention of a beautiful female, these males will not only build but also guard the egg nest. Conversely, because cuckold males mature quickly, they are small and can sneak into the nest and surreptitiously fertilize eggs without investing parental care. This cuckold strategy is only beneficial if there are fewer cuckolds than parental males; when there are more cuckolds than parental males, there are not enough nests for all the cuckolds to exploit. Thus, a balance between the two parental strategies is maintained. Neither strategy is intrinsically superior to the other; rather, the advantage in one strategy depends on the frequency with which it occurs in the population. 

In summary, I introduced frequency dependence, one of several mechanisms for the persistence of variation. As an example, two parental strategies of the Bluegill were explored. In the next post, I’ll dive into the meat of this mini-series. We’ll explore specific personality traits and how frequency dependence may explain the persistence of variability in two traits that relate to altruism.

Feature image credit: Daniel J. Cox (

An argument for the hand of evolution in the birth of altruism

Over the next few posts, I shall endeavor to unfold an argument for the role of evolution in altruism. Since the early days of my journey into atheism, I have pondered the origins and development of morality. As a Christian I was satisfied to believe that morality came from God but became increasingly dissatisfied with this explanation the more I learned about the history of human beings. What follows is an attempt to walk you down the same path I traveled.

First, I’ll introduce various mechanisms for selection. Then, two mechanisms explaining the persistence of variable traits in the population will be explored. Finally, I’ll probe the influence of selection on psychological characteristics, which are manifested in altruism and the development of morals.

Natural Selection

Natural selection is perhaps best introduced with an example: a deer that is naturally fearful, startling at the snap of a twig, will be more likely to escape a hungry cougar and persist in surviving and having babies than the brave deer, dismissing the snap of a twig and shortly thereafter regretting its decision as it bleeds out in the mouth of its predator. Traits that increase the chances of survival and reproducing (e.g., fearfulness in prey creatures) become more and more frequent in the population, i.e., they are selected for. Conversely, traits that decrease the probability of individual survival and reproduction (e.g., bravery in prey creatures) become less and less frequent in the population. Those traits are selected against.

Sexual selection

Traits promoting reproductive advantage are often at odds with a survival advantage. At first glance, it seems perplexing how a characteristic associated with a greater chance of dying persists in the population. An example may assist: the peacock’s tail is beautifully flamboyant and, hence, quite likely to draw the attention of a potential predator. Over time, these extravagant males would die off and those genes would fail to be perpetuated. Yet, they remain a part of the population. Why? These conspicuous traits are honest indicators of robust health. Peahens invest a significant chunk of energy into having babies. It is of great importance to them to choose a mate wisely. Males that have managed to survive, despite constantly advertising their whereabouts, are likely to have strong, desirable genes. Peahens choose to invest their own genes and reproductive energies with genetically strong males; leading to a greater chance to produce healthy, strong chicks.

Darwin’s Conundrum

2015-08-17 06.42.33

Darwin, the man himself, sat at the Natural History Museum in London

While it may be relatively straightforward to recognize attributes that may contribute to survival and reproduction, other traits seem to be only deleterious and thus have been problematic to explain from an evolutionary perspective.

For example, altruistic behaviours are typically biologically expensive. Take an example from the primate world: some Old World Monkeys will defend other members of their group in squabbles. It is fairly obvious to see the potentially high costs associated with engaging in combat. These sorts of behaviours can neither be explained by natural selection nor sexual selection; they do not appear to increase the chances of individual survival or reproduction in the slightest bit. How might such a trait persist in the population?

Consider for a moment the process whereby traits that are beneficial for survival or reproduction might become more heavily represented in the population. Traits are the product of genes. The more heavily represented a trait, the more heavily represented the genes corresponding to that trait will be in the population. As each individual is part of a wider family tree, the genes responsible for that individual’s traits are distributed throughout the family tree. For example, one individual is cautious because somewhere, in their family history, an ancestor was also cautious and passed on the genes associated with being cautious.

Inclusive Fitness

Now consider the monkey mother intervening on behalf of her daughter. At first glance it looks like a detrimental behaviour for her own fitness but if you extend her fitness to include her daughter, then this altruism is not so vexing. By defending her daughter, she invests in her own genes because her daughter shares roughly 50% of her genes (the other 50% came from her father). Although her behaviour appears disadvantageous on an individual level, her genes are benefitting indirectly. If she saves her daughter, her genes have a greater chance to be propagated through her daughter.


That concludes my introduction to selection. In summary, natural selection is at work when a trait that increases probability of an individual surviving and reproducing becomes more frequent in the population. Sexual selection is evident when a trait that increases the probability of an individual having babies occurs more frequently in the population. Inclusive fitness partly explains why behaviours that appear detrimental to the individual are selected. Next, two mechanisms that explain the persistence of variability in attributes will be explored.

Kindness in Criticism Part II

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am hesitant to discuss religion because disagreements are often misinterpreted as personal attacks. Any criticism put toward a religious belief is an ad hominem attack in the eyes of many believers. My intent is not to attack the believer but rather to question the beliefs.

I am cautious to even mention my own beliefs (or lack thereof) in conversation. Consequently, my religious studies professor thought that I was an Evangelical since I had mentioned that I have family members who are missionaries even though I never said anything about myself.

Is it important to disclose religious beliefs?

Yes, I believe it is important to have these conversations for a number of reasons. It’s my humble opinion that one who has contact with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds (cultural and religious) is less likely to have prejudices against people from that background. Instead of reducing people to their religious label (“Christians”, “Muslims”, “Mormons”, “Agnostic”, etc.) we can see them as fellow human beings having goals and desires just like us. (By the way, I think this also holds for other minority groups, too, such as the LGBTQ community)

Can we talk about religion without arguing about it?

Yes, I think we can and I think it’s key that we do. Learn more about why someone believes what they do and what their beliefs are. Instead of being taught about religions from those in our ‘in-group’, we could talk with someone who practices that religion to better inform ourselves and build a relationship at the same time. Rather than approaching the topic of religion with the motivation to tear it down, approach it with curiosity and willingness to learn.

Don’t I want to expose the fallacy of religion?

If we approach religion with curiosity and eagerness to get to know the people around us better, we can build relationships. Instead of “evangelizing” or blatantly criticizing beliefs, perhaps a better approach is to ask questions. Someday the questions may be returned and then we can share our perspective, not with the intention of tearing down religion but with the intent to share a part of ourselves with our friends. In my (limited!) experience, criticism alone does little in the way of changing minds. A mind that is on the defense is not likely to be receptive to new ideas, but a curious mind may just be. We can foster an environment of curiosity instead of one of hostility and defensiveness. And not just who knows what knowledge we may glean in the process.

Yes, I would like to see a world with no religion but it is not my job to pry away religious beliefs; believers must do that for themselves.

Kindness in Criticism

September 2014

23:30, the night before my first day of classes in the new semester. Determined to get a seat in a restricted course, I was ready to click “enroll” at midnight when the restrictions lifted. Curious, I went to the course listing to see if it was filling up and to my horror the course was no longer available. It had filled up before I had a chance to try to get in. Well, bugger.

So, I started hunting for a different course to take: computer science… English… economics… all of them conflicted with my schedule. In an act of desperation, I clicked on Religious Studies 201. Bingo. Ten minutes later I was armed with the e-book text and ready to go to my first class the next day.

Contrary to being a compromise, religious studies turned out to be my favourite class last semester and was a welcome contrast to the dry nature of my mathematics coursework. I expected to come out the other end of the course better armed with an understanding of the major world religions, but in reality, an interest in politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and of course religion was kindled.


My professor put great emphasis on studying all religions from the believer’s point of view. Only when you wear the shoes of the believer can you understand the sincerity and motivation behind a belief system. A weird thing happened to me when I approached religious beliefs this way: my belligerent attitude toward religion softened.

This put me in a difficult place; on one hand I had gained a deeper understanding why people believe what they do but on the other hand I think they are completely wrong. I have found that it is extremely difficult for people to differentiate between arguments that criticize beliefs from ad hominem attacks. In particular, believers and their religious beliefs seem to be welded together; arguments that criticize beliefs are highly susceptible to being misinterpreted as ad hominem attacks.

When I’m chatting with someone who is religious, I’m inclined to avoid talking religion altogether because I don’t want to be thought of as a jerk who tears people apart, when it’s the ideas I’m trying to pull apart.

However, I do think religion is often harmful for society (that’s another conversation for another day). In the past, I have internally dismissed believers as narrow-minded slaves of their own confirmation biases. Now I think religion may meet peoples’ needs and comfort them and may function as a cultural backbone. I’ve developed empathy for believers but not for beliefs. Religious beliefs and superstition are still boloney and should be questioned, but how? Is it even possible to question religious beliefs without coming across as a jerk?

Science: Peeling back layers of the unknown



Welcome to my crazy, unedited thought processes reproduced in written form.

Today, as I was reading a textbook, a familiar thought revisited me. For years I strongly mistrusted science, believing that scientists just wanted to disprove God’s existence and, hence, get a free ticket for rebellion. (Obviously I believed people were only good because deep down inside they knew God was real and were compelled to live by his restrictive rules.) I believed that scientists were making things up to cover up why and how the world was really created.

I thought everything we needed to know we already understood; God explained all the things in the Bible (well, apart from some pretty important things like antibiotics).

Science is a tool for digging deeper into how things are – it’s not a field of making things up to cover up things that are written in the Bible. We build on knowledge and over time we peel back layers of the unknown, discovering more.

I want to get back to my textbook to attempt to make my rant a little more coherent. I was reading about the super rad field of epigenetics when I got all excited about this.

We humans started out with very little knowledge of how it was that we had babies that looked and behaved like us. Then, Darwin came along and had a suspicion that since there are a lot of similarities between species, we’re likely all part of a giant family tree. There’s one layer of the unknown peeled back. Then, Mendel came along and figured out that there must be some ‘factors’ passed from parent to offspring that make our babies look like us. There’s another layer of the unknown peeled back. Then, we saw something weird happening: clones and identical twins (having identical genomes) were seen with very different phenotypes (the physical expression of the genes). How was that possible? Simply put, the environment in which the embryo developed influenced which genes would be expressed and although the same genes were present, the environment influenced which genes were expressed. Another layer of the unknown was peeled back with the ever-expanding field of epigenetics. (This stuff is really, really cool.)

I love that we can use previously acquired knowledge to ask more questions that are unknown and find out more stuff about the world around us. Science is not a field that is attempting to explain away God. Some would argue that the two can cohabitate; that science is a tool that can be used to discover more about what God has created. Others would take the eliminative approach and say that since the existence of the universe is no better explained with God than it is without God, he isn’t necessary to explain its existence. I seriously digress.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that science does not produce conspiracies; it discovers how the world is by peeling back layers of the unknown.

That is super cool.

Humility in Criticism

Maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism in life is challenging. Scrutinizing my own preconceived ideas is not a lot of fun: when I realize that my cherished beliefs are full of holes and toss them, I feel a little sad. It’s a humbling experience. But I prefer to come out the other end of an internal debate better informed and correct than to never ask myself the tough questions and remain uninformed.

Being a good skeptic means I’ve got to not only dig into my own beliefs but also into to others’. When I’ve spotted the holes in an idea, I’ve got two choices: openly criticize it or keep my mouth shut.

Option one often makes me look like an arrogant asshat. Nobody likes to look like an arrogant asshat. I’m trying not be an arrogant asshat. Option two isn’t really sustainable for me. I’m a bit like a pressure cooker in that regard. Once I want to say something that I don’t want to actually say, pressure builds up until the seal blows out and the stuff inside spills out anyway.

Maybe ideas are a bit like apples: some are good and some are not so good. But you wouldn’t toss out an entire box of apples just because a few apples aren’t so good (you’d make cider!). Since individuals are made up of millions of ideas, some of them will be astonishing while others will be terrible. I’m no exception: I’ve had (and probably still have) awful ideas alongside some terrific ones.

This may just be my own experience, but I tend to listen a little less carefully to someone after they’ve revealed a thought or idea that I think is BS. I shouldn’t do this. How many awesome thoughts or ideas have passed me by because I’ve been pretending to listen? Of course, I still need to be on the alert; bad apples often look deceptively crunchy only to reveal bruises when they’re cut open. Which is to say, sometimes an idea can sound plausible until you dig a little deeper and realize that it’s completely unsupported. Like, for example, detox. Detox initially sounded like a good idea to me until I hunted for a bit more information and found that it’s not actually such a good idea since we have livers that do the job perfectly well on their own.

Bottom line: add a good dose of humility to criticism by listening to all ideas with open ears and don’t let the good apples pass you by!

When I call on Jesus

Over the last semester, I’ve slowly been using up my rather large stack of scrap paper. Looking at the used sides of these pieces of scrap has been an interesting trip down memory lane. They’re mostly stolen sheet music, of which I am now ashamed. (Oddly, when I was a Christian, I didn’t believe I was actually stealing.)

“When I Call on Jesus” by Nicole C. Mullen came up one day. I was so pleased and excited the day that I saw her in concert. She was perfect. I even went to a dance lesson to learn her moves for one of her songs. (Which felt scandalous. Why, I even moved my hips a little. Wouldn’t that make the boys stumble into sin?)

The lyrics are comforting, “When I call on Jesus, all things are possible”. I believed that as long as I was doing God’s will, he would enable me with whatever I needed to succeed. (Thinking back, that was rather delusional.)

Fast forward to when I began to realize that I was facing the world completely alone with no supernatural being watching my back. That was both terrifying and exhilarating.

Terrifying because all that supernatural help I once believed I had was a fraud and not actually available to tap into. I had to do everything on my own. Exhilarating because any success I would have would be mine and I would no longer have to wonder how much God had contributed to make my success possible.

I think this feeling is nicely encapsulated in the feeling that you get as a child when you’re learning how to ride your own bike. Once you get the basic idea of how to teeter and peddle but still believe your instructor is holding onto the seat behind you, it’s alarming to look back and realize that nobody is there. You’re doing it all by yourself. At that moment, it’s easy to panic and fall. But also, it’s exciting to proudly keep pedalling, realizing that you did it. You thought there was someone guiding you, but you did it all on your own.

I had both a tremendous amount of fear and excitement at the prospect of doing life on my own two feet. Starting university was venturing into uncharted territory for me and left me feeling uneasy; I desperately wished that God was for real and there holding onto my bicycle seat. But the ownership I had over my success was very empowering. I pedalled to the end of term and then to the end of my first year on my own. (When I say “on my own”, what I really mean is “without supernatural guidance”. I had extraordinary support, particularly from my dear husband, getting me through my challenges!)

I think this is a major contributing reason why people so keenly cling to their faith. It’s comforting to believe that there is someone out there, more powerful than anything on Earth, vouching for you.

One last thought on this: If God isn’t there, watching out for people, then people have to be there watching out for people.