Absurdity of life

The absurdity of life, according to Nagel, is due to “the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.” 

Nagel: “If subspecie aeternitatis (L. lit. under the aspect of eternity; in its essential or universal form or nature) there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” 

Camus: “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” 

Review of Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

By Francisco J. Ayala

ISBN-13: 978-0-309-10231-5

Joseph Henry Press

Washington, D. C.

Reviewed By Bob Lane

Francisco J. Ayala is professor of biological sciences and of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His scientific research focuses on population and evolutionary genetics; he also writes about the interface between religion and science. He is the author of several books, including Genetics and The Origin of Species (1997). Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (2007) [DG] draws on his expertise in biology and philosophy to present a readable, informative and compassionate book which attempts to bring together religion and science in the twenty first century. Ayala presents a strong defense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and a spirited attack on the creationist pseudo science currently calling itself Intelligent Design [ID]. He also argues that Darwin has given an equally powerful gift to religion, and that, hence, science and religion need not be in conflict. The reader will have to decide if his attempt is successful.

Most readers will know Ayala as the National Medal of Science Medal recipient in 2002 and as the chief witness in the creationist trial in Arkansas in 1981 that prevented religion from being taught as science in the classroom. After that trial, as we now know, the creationists’ textbook Of Pandas and People underwent some evolution itself giving us the now famous “cdesign proponentsists” missing link that played an important part in the trial in Dover. The recent release of “Science, evolution, and creationism” by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine was made possible by Ayala who chaired the committee that produced that document. He writes of that in an editorial in the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ayala presents the science side of the book’s argument elegantly, persuasively, and with an eye fixed sharply on showing the emptiness of the claims made by ID proponents. He writes, “Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.”

Darwin’s gift to science? In one sentence: “Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution.” Ayala writes, “Gaps of knowledge in the evolutionary history of living organisms no longer exist.”  [79] “There is probably no other notion in any field of science that has been as extensively tested and as thoroughly corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms.” [132]  So much for the God of the gaps!

As for the gift to religion: Ayala argues that the most serious problem for religion, paradoxically, is the argument from design. The claim that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God designed the universe in all its detail as reported in so many scriptural creation myths makes that God either a trickster or a very poor designer! Look carefully at the many design flaws in the human animal. [As I write this my back like many other human backs hurts from a design flaw.] Look at the “cruelty” manifest in nature. God, according to Ayala, can be relieved of the responsibility for all these design flaws because of the gift of Darwin. God could have set the process of natural selection in motion and then withdrawn from the results. “The design of organisms is often so dysfunctional, odd, and cruel that it possibly might be attributed to the gods of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians . . . For a modern biologist . . .  the design of organisms is not compatible with special action by the omniscient and omnipotent God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” [158]

Darwin’s gift to religion then is to offer a way out of  Hume’s problem: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then evil?” This burden is removed from the shoulders of believers, writes Ayala, “when convincing evidence was advanced that the design of organisms need not be attributed to the immediate agency of the Creator, but rather is an outcome of natural processes.” [159]

Readers of DG need not have special training in biology or philosophy. The book is rich with explanations of genetics, microbiology, and natural selection in non-technical language and with diagrams to help understand the examples from the field of biology. Darwin does for the life sciences what Galileo and Newton did for physics. His discovery is “that there is a process that is creative though not conscious. And this is the conceptual revolution that Darwin completed: the idea that the design of living organisms can be accounted for as the result of natural processes governed by natural laws. This is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how mankind perceives itself and its place in the universe.” [202]

Will this book mend the rift between the New Atheists and the religious fundamentalists? Will we suddenly see that science and religion can coexist in a positive way? Will humility and tolerance be reawakened?

I doubt it, but we could do worse than pay close attention to the gift Ayala offers us.

Bob Lane is a retired teacher of literature and philosophy and a Professor Emeritus at Malaspina University-College in Canada. His book, Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation, argues for the literary value of biblical texts.

Looking Back

Three Important Lessons my Kids Taught me

By Bob Lane

When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel and stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, “What are you going to paint?”

“God,” he said.

“And do you know what God looks like?”

“I will when I finish the painting,” he said as he began to paint.

Isn’t that an amazing insight? Why do I find it important?

We do indeed give form and meaning to concepts and ideas in works of the imagination that we create including paintings and stories. We are the meaning seekers. We are the creators of meaning. The bible, for example, means by means of its stories. Think for a moment of the Christian hero, Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of “salvation”. [Lane, Reading the Bible]

I think of the Biblical Gospel writers as being like my young son.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Do you know Jesus? “I will when I finish my story.”

The second lesson came from our second son. As I was sitting in the living room after classes one day reading the newspaper, I heard an argument on the front porch and after some harsh words a scream from our daughter. I went outside and she reported that her brother had pushed her off the porch. She was not hurt; just angry.

I looked at her tormenter with my harshest look and said to him, “If I were you I would NOT do that!” He apologized to his sister and they went on playing. I went back in to finish reading the paper.

After a few minutes he came in and looked at me, and when he had my attention he said, “But Daddy, you are wrong; if you were me you would have done what I did.”

The law of identity! I had to explain that we humans are not always to be taken literally and that what I had uttered was a threat.

Third, I learned about the importance of point of view, not from my graduate classes, but from our little daughter in a stroller. As I grow older I find my mind circling back on a few vivid memories from the past. One of my favorites is of a time when our family went to the zoo in Seattle for a Sunday visit. Our daughter, Margaret, was a little girl, still riding in a stroller. We went to see the apes and the lions, the monkeys and the polar bears.

“What do the monkeys say, Margaret?” “Monkeys say, uhhn, uhhn uhn!”

“What does the bear say?” “Bear says, rrroaar, rroaarr.”

We then were walking along one of the many paths, pushing the stroller and trying to keep Margaret’s older brothers from climbing into the fields with the ruminants. At one point we saw a water buffalo grazing in the field just on the other side of the fence that the boys kept looking at as a challenge to be overcome. As we stopped by the fence we watched as the water buffalo walked towards us, curious, I suppose, about this group of non-water buffalo. As it came closer Margaret was equally curious perched there in her stroller at the height of the first strand of barbed wire. It came right up to the fence. Its broad nose was almost touching Margaret as it smelled her to determine, I guess, if she were friend or foe, or food. The five of us stood there looking at the beast for several minutes. If finally made whatever determination it needed to make and continued its grazing in the field.

“What does the water buffalo say?” “Says, woof, woof, woof.”

“Oh, no,” I laughed, “that’s what a dog says.” “No,” she insisted, “ bufflo say woof, woof.”

I thought about that for a moment and then I came to realize an important lesson about reading the world. So much depends upon point of view. From Margaret’s point of view, down there close to the bufflo’s nose,  it did indeed say “woof, woof” – the sound of its breathing through those big silky nostrils. To my ears, four or so feet above hers, there was no such sound, and I also had some preconceived idea of what a bufflo should say! But Margaret simply reported what she experienced. She didn’t know what bufflo were supposed to say, only what that one on that day did say.

Later when I went on to graduate school to study literature I came to realize the importance of that lesson. Literature taught me again, what Margaret taught me that day in Seattle, point of view is important.

Just as a narrative structure is necessary for the story of Margaret and the water buffalo so is a structure necessary for any story. And stories, like other experiences, are both told from and “read” from a point of view.

Fiction. Enjoy!

Remember

by Bob Lane

“Remember the time . . .”

“Want another round here?”

“Yeah. Please.”

As the waitress left to fill the order for the two men sitting at the table in the corner of the VFW hall, she overheard the taller one say “I’d like to take her around.” She was used to that sort of comment from the old guys who came in to drink and talk. These two had been sitting in the corner for a couple of hours, talking, drinking slowly, and not being too obnoxious. “They are telling lies about their time in the service,” she thought. “They all do it.”

“Where was I, Bob?”

“You were talking about the time we went duck hunting on your dad’s farm.”

“Oh, right. Remember the morning we went out to the lagoon to hunt ducks? It was still dark when we walked from the house to the blind that we had made the day before with cane bundles.”

“That was a great blind for shooting.”

“And as we walked along in the dark I thought that I saw a duck.”

“And you whispered, `Bob, there’s a duck roosting in that sunflower. Shoot it.”

“God, I still have dreams about that, Bob. I actually thought for a moment that it was a duck, and I remember pulling the shotgun up to my shoulder and sighting down the long barrel for a sure shot when the “duck in the sunflower” said `Are you pointing that thing at me?’”

“What if I had fired the gun?”

“We would have had a dead duck hunter before the sun came out.”

“And when I heard the voice I pulled the gun down and kept on walking. Then the guy says, `You better wait until it’s light before you point that thing.’ And we kept walking to our blind.”

“Is that the blind we used to think we could get the girls from our class to? We fantasized about screwing them all and then shooting ducks?”

“Hey, Bob, that’s the one.”

“We never did get any girls out there, did we?”

“No, but we made love to a lot of them anyway!”

“Didn’t we though? A couple of real self made lovers!”

“We were self made alright! God, if I had fired the twelve gauge I was using I would have blown the poor bastard’s head off. Jesus, Bob, it could have been a disaster.”

“You didn’t though, Bob, so don’t worry about it.”

Just then the waitress returned with the two bottles of Coors. “Here you go, Bob,” she said putting the bottles on the new cardboard coasters from her tray.

Both men answered her “Bob.”

“Thanks,” they said in unison.

“Oh, that’s right,” she said with a smile. “You are both Bobs, aren’t you? How can I tell you apart?”

“I’m the good looking one.”

“I’m the well hung one.”

“I’m the former Marine,” they both said.

After she left and while the taller of the Bobs filled the two glasses with beer, Bob started to remember.

“Remember that other duck huntin’ trip? We went south of Wray to those lakes down on the Republican River with those other guys from the football team.”

“You mean Gary and Swede?”

“Yeah. That’s right. And we hated Swede. He was such an asshole. Anyway he had just bought four new decoys. Beautiful life like things they were. Inflated they looked like Mallards more than Mallards did.”

“And we helped put them out in the lake.”

“And he had a caller. We all settled down in the blind and Swede started calling those ducks to come join his Mallards in the pond. And you looked over at me and said, “Concavo” and I answered “Convexo” and then we both knew what to do.”

“And when the flock started to settle into the pond we opened fire.”

“The ducks flew off safe and sound and Swede shouts `You sons-a-bitches!’ as he looks out at the ruined decoys losing air through the double ought holes.”

“Hey, Bob, he never went hunting with us again.”

“I know, Bob.”

“Did we ever shoot any ducks?”

“Oh, yeah. Remember the time you took that four-foot long shotgun of your dads and fired it into the sky? A damn duck fell out of the sky!”

“Well, of course. I aimed at it.”

“Sure you did. You lucky shitbird. Anyway you ran way out into the water, picked up the bird by its head, and brought it back to the blind. A little tiny Teal, with most of its ass shot off. God, you looked so proud of your kill. There must have been four ounces of meat there, Bob.”

“Ton jay vous.”

The waitress had been hovering nearby smoking a cigarette. She walked over to put out the cigarette in the ashtray on the corner table.

“What’s with this gibberish you two old Marines talk? This “ton-jay-vous,” “convexo, concavo” stuff?”

“Why it’s a secret language, my dear, a secret language constructed by the only two speakers of this secret language, Bob and Bob.”

“OK. I can keep a secret,” she said walking back to the bar.

“When did we start speaking that gibberish? Do you remember, Bob?”

“I think it was after a math class in the ninth grade. We were studying geometry and the words “concave” and “convex” seemed funny to us so we added some prefixes and suffixes and began to develop our own set of words. And the words were so flexible that they could carry almost any meaning. We used to drive everyone crazy with our sincere utterances of nonsense.”

“Ninth grade. That was the year we got the new home room teacher, that tall skinny guy fresh out of college.”

“Oh, right. And we did our special home room tricks on him.”

“I remember waiting for him to call our names and then we would climb out the window and come around and in to the room again.”

“He didn’t know what was going on. We had him on the run.”

“He could never get the count and the list of names to match. And he had to call the principal in that time to talk to the boys in the class about the smell.”

“The smell?”

“Remember, we used to have the early morning farting contest in home room? He who farted loudest won the day.”

“Yeah. I do remember. Earle was the champion of all time.”

“Right you are. And the principal gave us a tongue-lashing that would peel the hide off a cow. Shortly after that they combined the boys and the girls for home room and that put a stop to that behavior.”

“And after chewing us out and on his way out the door, the principal had to hear the loudest fart in Wray High School history! Earle had the last laugh, and that was so funny.”

“Yes, he was a legend from then on.”

“Then the girls moved in with us and you got in trouble for taking your shirt off.”

“Oh, yeah. Dotty said she was cold. So, being a gentleman of the first order I took my shirt off and offered it to her.”

“Too bad the teacher got some balls just then, and sent you, stripped to the waist, to see the principal.”

“The principal. His name was Mr. McNaughton. He was OK; really. I can remember going in that time and he made me stand there until I felt really silly. Then he said, “You must stop acting like a little boy.” And I promised that I would. And that I would apply myself to my studies. And I remember so clearly that I really meant it. I was sincere. My promise came from deep inside me with feeling. And then two days later I was expelled for three days for making that stink bomb in the chemistry lab. But I really meant it. I think that is when I learned that sincerity is a second class virtue.”

“I gotta pee.”

Bob hobbled off to the head. He had hobbled for several years now as a result of a back injury he received on the job with the Colorado state highway department. An operation had fused the vertebrae in his lower back, but the nerve damage was severe enough that his left leg was getting smaller and smaller over time. He was retired now but still took the occasional job on the highway as an inspector. The two had known each other for over fifty years now. They had gone to high school together, joined the Marines together, and served in the Korean War together. After being discharged their paths had split and it was rare now for them to be together. The taller Bob, still sitting at the table, had gone to college on the GI Bill and had been teaching literature and philosophy in Canada for the last thirty years. As he waited he considered that their friendship was as old as the 1940 Ford sedan that he had seen in the garage at Bob’s Longmont home. In those high school years they had driven around Wray in either Bob’s Ford or his own 1940 Mercury Club Coupe. They had raced in those cars, put in miles and miles driving up and down main street looking for girls, and spent hours polishing and tuning them so they would run fast and make the Smitty mufflers rumble with the throaty sound of a speed boat.

As Bob sat down again he said, “Do you ever think about the football team we had in those days?”

“Sure. I remember that we went to State every year from 1949 to 1952. And we won the State championship in 1951. It was fun to play for the most part. But then did we really have a choice? I mean if you didn’t play football you were considered some kind of wimp or worse.”

“Did you ever learn anything from the coaches?”

“I learned how not to treat students. I mean those guys were more like Marine drill instructors than teachers. What did they usually teach? Shop or maybe mechanics. But I remember them mostly as cruel and elitist. If you weren’t good football material they never had much time for you. How about you? You were the super athlete.”

“I’ve seen Coach Frank a few times at class reunions. He asks about you. He even apologized for not being a better teacher. Must be feeling guilty about stuff now. But, yeah, as long as you were first string they loved you but they were awful with the poorer players.”

“Mostly what I remember is that initiation we had into the W-club as freshmen. Remember that?”

“Couldn’t forget it, Bob; even if I wanted to. That stuff is against the law nowadays.”

“As it should be. As it should be. I remember particularly three things. One was the walnut race in the gym. We were naked and had to pick up the walnut with our butt cheeks, run down the floor and in relay fashion pass it on to the next runner.”

“Oh, God, yes, and if you dropped it on the way you were supposed to pick it up with your teeth and run it down to the next runner.”

“And secondly, remember the oysters. They had a gallon can of slimy oysters and would put us on our backs, pop an oyster in our mouth, and then when we tried to swallow they horrible thing push on our stomach with a paddle so it would pop back out. Then they would pick it up and try again. The coaches got a real kick out of that. `Make you a man,’ they said. I never could see how any of that hazing shit could help me mature.”

“Let me guess the third. The banana in the commode?”

“Right you are, my concavo friend!”

“They showed us a turd in the toilet bowl, blindfolded us and forced us to reach in and pick it up with our bard hand. At least they had put a banana in instead of the turd. That had to have been the worst of the evening. Reaching in there and believing that you were squishing a turd. Ahh, it took a special kind of human being to dream up that as part of an initiation rite!”

“They stopped most of that the next year.”

“Yes, I think someone had complained to the principal. Never knew who it was, but I’m glad someone did. It was so dehumanizing.”

“Memory is a strange source of information,” he thought. Sometimes it is like a movie that plays in ordered scenes, but other times it delivers just images and bits of dialogue. As the waitress delivered two more beers to the table, she seemed to say something that triggered his memories.

It had been back in 1953 when they were both on leave.

“What are they going to do with all the dead bodies?”

“Oh, I think there is a dog food company that’s sending a truck to pick them up for processing.”

“There will be lots of dog food after this “battle” won’t there?”

“Yep. Just like in Korea.”

The two young men were walking on the outer circle of a jackrabbit drive in the fields just south of town. There were about a hundred men involved in the drive that had been advertised for weeks in the Wray Gazette. “Men needed to join in drive to rid fields of rabbits,” the story said. “Bring a club, a pitchfork or a shotgun to participate. Some will be needed to walk the outer circle of the drive to shoot those rabbits that escape from the main body of beaters.”

The two friends walking the outer circle were armed with shotguns. Bob Davis had an over/under 4/10 and 22 combination while the other Bob was carrying his stepfather’s 12 gauge shotgun, an old pump model that was aver 4 feet long and kicked like a horse. The first time he had fired it, it knocked him on his ass. The second time he was prepared and it only bruised his shoulder where the stock was driven into it like a hard crisp punch. Finally he had learned how to fire it without serious damage to his body.

Both of the young men were in civilian clothes, blue jeans and white t-shirts, and light jackets to keep off the early morning northeastern autumn Colorado chill. Both were still in the USMC and were on leave after returning from Korea. Both had enlisted straight from high school and when in town they wore their uniforms. They had been buddies from the fifth grade. All the way through high school they were always together.

They shared a couple of shotgun stories as they walked along about fifty yards behind the main collapsing circle of men who were driving the jackrabbits toward the wire pen that had been set up as a holding pen. Occasionally jackrabbits bolted out of the circle and they would take turns shooting them. They were easy targets.

“Remember the time we went duck hunting with Swede?” asked Davis.

“Oh, yeah. That was great hunt! We got our limit that day.”

“Yeah, we got all of his decoys.”

Indeed they had. Swede had just bought six inflatable decoys to bring the mallards in to the pond. He had a duck caller too. The Bobs thought that pretty pretentious so after Swede had set up his decoys and called the birds in a small flock of ducks responded. When they lifted to fly shotguns roared. Swede got one duck, but Bob and Bob each got three decoys.

“Boy was he pissed.”

“Yeah, but he never wanted to go huntin’ with us again!”

Bob lifted the 12 gauge to his shoulder to shoot at a rabbit trying to make it to freedom in the short grass. “Boom.” It sounded a bit like a mortar firing.

“Remember the time we went hunting early in the morning by the lagoon at home?” asked Bob.

“Oh, shit. You almost shot some guy.”

“What a dumb shit. I thought it was a duck and was ready to fire. I would have blown the guy’s head off.”

“You thought it was a duck roosting in a sunflower. Just think, roosting in a sunflower. `It’s a duck roosting in a sunflower, ‘ you said, before you aimed that monster 12 gauge.”

“I have often wondered what would have happened if I HAD pulled the trigger. And what stopped me.”

“Well, the guy said, `Hey, are you aiming that thing at me?’”

“It’s a good thing he did.”

They walked on in silence, watching the field for any escaping rabbits. The main circle of men and boys were within sight of each other now as the circle closed on the jackrabbits. The drivers were almost shoulder-to-shoulder now and the escape routes for the jackrabbits were being eliminated. Not much shooting now. All the rabbits were being driven into the center of the section of land selected for the drive. 

It was a beautiful morning in Colorado with the sun beginning to warm the fields as it climbed out of the eastern horizon into the blue sky. Rabbits were used to grazing in the fields in early mornings here, and were not used to finding hundreds of people in their feeding grounds. Since the coyotes had been killed off by the farmers the rabbits had few predators and had responded with a huge population growth. They were everywhere, eating the first several feet around every wheat field from the safety of the fence line and its tumbleweeds. They could lay ruin to acres of cash crops as well as to pasture land used to graze cattle. The farmers were fed up, and had lobbied the local agricultural authorities to sponsor a “harvest” of rabbits.

“Look at that, Bob.”

As the circle tightened you could see the hundreds upon hundreds of rabbits running side to side, heads turning this way and that, looking for an escape route. They were surrounded and out gunned, but they didn’t know that yet.

“God, they look just like the gooks we surrounded outside of Sokkagae just before Pork Chop Hill. “

“And they are headed for the same fate, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, dog food.”

Corporal Davis had manned the BAR in that firefight and Bob had been his assistant, packing extra ammo as well as his own M-1. They had sucked the communist troops into a trap and the two Bobs were part of the ambush. Hiding in the bushed under the cover of earth and bush they had waited until the communist platoon was pursuing their decoys into the crater at the foot of the hills. When they got the order to fire the enemy was close enough so that the two could see the looks of surprise when the Marines opened up with BARs, M-1s, and 50 caliber machine guns. It was over in minutes. The cries and screams of agony from the dying enemy penetrated the sudden silence as the firing ceased. Bodies were strewn all over the killing field. It had been one of the few times that the Marines were not attacking a fortified position where they were the dog food.

Several of the men with clubs rushed into the enclosure and started beating rabbits to death. Blood splashed all over the ground.

“My God, look at those rednecks go at it.”

“Redneck.” The word brought a rush of memories.