Monday, October 13, 2008

"Loving" chimpanzee eats its victims alive, new research shows

"Don't be fooled by their reputation for altruism and free love – bonobos hunt and kill other monkeys just like their more vicious chimpanzees cousins, according to new research," Ewen Callaway tells us in New Scientist (13 October 2008), revealing that
"Bonobos are merciless," says Gottfried Hohmann, a behavioural ecologist at Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He witnessed several monkey hunts among bonobos living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and says, "they catch it and start eating it. They don't bother to kill it".

Yet unlike chimps, bonobos live in female-centred societies where sex, not aggression, settles differences and enforces social order.
I'd wondered when all that "bonobos could teach humans a thing or two" stuff would finally hit the bottom of the vast circular file of pop science.

The rest of the article features people talking around an inconvenient discovery. My favourite line: "Some anthropologists suggest that in the million or so years that separate bonobos from chimps, bonobos lost their appetite for violence."

Gentle reader, remind me of that if they are ever ripping us both to pieces, eating as they go.

See "A defense of Apes r us - an insider look at the pygmy chimpanzee enthusiasts" for the "loving ape" view and "Apes R Not Us, and we have to get used to it, revisited!" for another recent skeptical article.


Language: Students cannot form logical position about television's impact?

A reader writes,
The state of Maine gave a test to about 15,000 eighth-graders to assess their writing skills, including their ability to form a logical position. When the state refused to release the results, a newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request and learned that 78 percent of the kids failed, which was 50 percent more than failed the test the previous year. Maine's Department of Education explained the results were "inconclusive", and they discarded them because students reacted emotionally to the test. “Kids got ticked off at the [question],” explained Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, “so it was not an accurate reflection of their writing skills.” The essay-based test asked the students to support or refute the statement, “Television may have a negative impact on learning." (Portland Press-Herald) ...And their inability to form a logical position and refute that is proof that the test is flawed.”
At Bangor Daily, Kent Ward asks:
Just what there is to get so upset about in the debatable proposition that television may have a negative impact on learning, I haven’t a clue. The more so when test instructions clearly gave students the choice of making a case either for or against the premise and provided the pros and cons for making their argument. Which is to say they weren’t exactly starting from scratch, with only a blank sheet of paper and a debilitating writer’s block for inspiration.

In any event, from Kelley Bouchard of the Portland Press Herald (September 7, 2008) we also learn:
Edwards noted that eighth-graders who took the writing test in 2007 were able to draw from their own experience to sustain arguments for or against the following statement: "Rather than maintaining separate teams for boys' and girls' sports, a high school is considering combining teams and having a completely coed sports program."
Now that strikes me as a very emotional question for many students, yet the students could handle it.

Gendron could be right, that the results this year are a fluke. But here's another possibility: Thinking about television induced in many students a state of mind not suited to critical thinking because that is in fact how they react to television. So they were not "ticked off" by the question, they were disabled by it. That's hardly good news, even if it is a fluke.

Let's see what next year brings.

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Commentator challenges "Religulous" documentary producer to a debate

Dinesh D'Souza has a look at Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous:
Maher’s stance in the film alternates between feigned investigative neutrality and unconcealed anti-religious bigotry. At times he says he is an agnostic, who simply holds the rational position that he doesn’t know what comes after death. But if you don’t know whether there is an afterlife, and even if you have no reason to believe in one, it hardly makes sense to attack those who hold a different view. After all, you yourself are in the dark and they might very well be right.

By way of analogy, I don’t believe in unicorns, because there is no evidence for them, but I haven’t written any books called “The Unicorn Delusion” or “Unicorns are Not Great” or made any documentaries denouncing unicorns. Maher’s agnosticism is clearly a pose. Like Christopher Hitchens, he is an “anti-theist” who hates the Christian God. And the main reason seems to be, as Maher himself says at one point, that this God has rules that interfere with Maher’s sex life.
Truth has a way of leaking out, too:
Maher talks to some blue collar guys worshipping at a Trucker’s Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. They are overweight and poorly dressed and they cannot answer all his questions, but one says that he used to be a drug addict and “I gave all that up when I got saved.” At the end of the discussion, just before Maher’s triumphant exit, the truckers hold hands and pray for Maher. This is the sole moving moment in the film, and in a way that Maher doesn’t realize, it raises these simple people entirely above his snide sophistication.
D'Souza thinks that Maher is only comfortable with weak opponents he can embarrass, so it will be interesting to see if the latter takes up his challenge to a debate.

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Do believers in other religions go to hell, Muslim asks?

My friend Mustafa Akyol muses in Turkish Daily News, "Will Non-Muslims Go to Heaven, Too?" (October 11, 2008). He explains,
Is there any chance to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, when it comes to divine grace?

As a Muslim, I have always thought so, and I have a good reason for it: There are verses in the Koran which explicitly say that all people who believe in God and do good things will be saved. Here is, for example, verse 62 of the second sura, i.e., chapter:

“Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.”

The “Sabians” noted in this verse were a south Mesopotamian group which professed some sort of monotheism. From that point on, some Koranic commentators have concluded that the God demands only monotheism and “being good” for eternal salvation. But interestingly, this ecumenical interpretation is not what all Muslims are comfortable with.
It strikes me that this is a good discussion for modern Muslims to be having.

Obviously, different religions teach different things, and they cannot all be right on the disputed points.

But the critical question is, can we respect each other enough to think that the followers of other religions are not necessarily predestined for hell? There is, after all, a critical difference between being mistaken and being evil. For one thing, opposing mistakes is sometimes a duty but opposing evil always is.

Religious tolerance is usually associated with high levels of social development. One reason, I suppose, is that it encourages people to make the case for their own view but relieves them of any duty to forcibly suppress error, which creates a number of bad social effects. Serious error usually confutes itself anyway, in my experience.

I sent Mustafa a note, commenting on the Catholic view, so far as I understand it:
Catholics believe that, in general, people cannot be damned except by their own choice. But if they have persistently lived contrary to God’s will, they may take a long time to be perfected before they can enter Heaven. This is called Purgatory.

Purgatory is thought to exist because no evil can live in God’s presence; it would be instantly destroyed. So people must be perfect before they can live in God’s presence.

Salvation is not a question of what one believes, but of the disposition of one’s heart, to move toward God or away from him. (Obviously one must believe something that brings one closer to God, but it is not articles of faith by themselves that save anyone. God himself saves us.)

In one of Jesus’ parables, there are two brothers, whose father tells them to go work in the vineyard. One of them says yes – but doesn’t. The other says no – but does. Jesus asked the crowd, “Which son obeyed his father?” That, I think, is the basic idea.


Religious freedom: Student threatened with loss of diploma for faith statement

This American case is right up there with France not permitting students to wear crosses, yarmulkes or head scarves, only it's worse. Basically, in May 2006, a straight A student witnessed to Jesus during her valedictory speech. And then
Afterwards, she was escorted to see the assistant principal, who said she would not receive her diploma because of the speech she had given.
Which the Lewis Palmer school district in Denver, Colorado, had no right to do. Then
Under duress, Erica prepared a statement saying the message was her own and was not endorsed by the principal. Brewer insisted that she include the words: "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did." Erica complied because she feared the school would withhold her diploma. She was also afraid that the school would put disciplinary notes in her file and would generate negative publicity, which could prevent her from becoming a school teacher. Principal Brewer sent Erica's coerced statement in an email to the entire high school community. Liberty Counsel tried to resolve the issue, but the school district refused
Liberty Counsel is litigating on former student Erica Corder's behalf.

I've no idea what gives school districts the idea that they have a duty to stop students from making personal faith statements in graduation addresses or wearing religious gear. That has nothing to do with the establishment of religion. The student is not trying to establish a religion, but to speak honestly about personal motivations and aspirations.

One outcome of suppressing faith statements is the growth of social dishonesty and false assumptions. If faith in God is the reason a student stays in school, off drugs, and out of jail - but that fact cannot be confronted - the false impression is created that spirituality has no function.

Of course, maybe some people would like that impression to be created.