Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Without God, gall is permitted?

Thanks to a friend for this link:
To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the "eternal note of sadness" sounded when the "Sea of Faith" receded from human life. In one testament after another--George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself--the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes--and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and--fatally--by politics.

There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism--to find it, one has to look to believers. Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background--Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon--who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more "open-minded" homes--rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.
Yes, that’s precisely the part I have found most remarkable - the contented ignorance of most of the current atheist flock. Mario and I discuss that in The Spiritual Brain.

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A defense of Apes r us - an insider look at the pygmy chimpanzee enthusiasts

Recently, I blogged on an interesting article by Ian Parker who looked into the world of chimpanzee enthusiasts, quarrelling over the nature of our inner ape. I suppose he’s still recovering from the hail of rotting fruit (from the enthusiasts, not the chimps).

I caught a whiff of it myself, actually.

But, better luck, I also received a most interesting comment from Dr. Susan Block, an admirer of the bonobos, who put a lot of things in perspective, and - with her permission, here it is (it’s also here at her blog):

When I first fell in love with bonobos in the early 1990’s, none of my acquaintances knew a bonobo from a bonsai tree. Now, these amazing apes, who swing with each other as well as from the trees, have become rather famous.

Of course, with fame comes defamation. So I wasn’t surprised to see Ian Parker gently but firmly attempting to deflate the bouyant, mystical aura of the bonobo in the esteemed pages of The New Yorker, subtly deriding the work of some of the bonobos’ best friends in the human world, and hinting ominously that his article would be debunking the central ideas of what I call “The Bonobo Way.” These include the notions that 1) bonobos engage in various, rather elaborate forms of pleasure sex, not just reproductive sex, 2) they do not seem to deliberately murder or make war on members of their own species like common chimps and humans do, and 3) females wield considerably more power than in other primate species.

Parker does provide a fascinating, sometimes breathtakingly descriptive look at the daily life of a bonobo researcher in the Congolese Rainforest, as well as a comprehensive overview of bonobo primatology politics. He is particularly telling when he writes “The challenges of bonobo research call for chimpanzee vigor, and this leads to animosities,” including, I would add, the strong, almost vicious desire to debunk one another.

But in the end, Parker’s article debunks nothing. He gives a few examples of bonobos committing acts of violence, but not murder, at least not with any real evidence. No one has ever said bonobos are angels, just that as primates, they are relatively peaceful. They have never been observed engaging in calculated murder or organized warfare such as has been observed in common chimps and, of course, humans. Parker’s piece doesn’t include anything even approaching a bonobo war party. Interestingly, almost all of the examples of violence mentioned in the article are perpetrated by females, buttressing the notion that females rule, at least in certain vital areas of life in Bonoboland.

Then there’s the sex. Most experts agree that bonobos tend to combine food-sharing and sex. This is one reason why Japanese Primatologist Takayoshi Kano got to observe so much sex and sensuality among bonobos in the wild: he fed them. Gottfried Hohmann, the primatologist “star” of Parker’s piece who takes him into the Heart of Darkness, doesn’t feed the bonobos. Both approaches seem to be legitimate ways to gather information, each having its pros and cons. When you feed or “provision” bonobos, they’re a lot more likely to hang around you, engaging in intimate activities. When you don’t feed them, you’re not influencing their behavior so much. But they’re also not so inclined to get near you, let alone have sex in front of you.

They’re also more likely to catch and kill their own food. After all, they’re hungry! Wild bonobos must be especially famished since their rainforest home has been decimated by constant human warfare, bushmeat poaching and the logging industry. The stress of all this ecological devastation and the reduction of their normal food supply, as well as constantly seeing their family members and friends being violently slaughtered by hunters, must have a traumatizing effect on the bonobos still left in the jungle, just as polar bears have lately been turning to cannibalism because longer seasons without ice keep them from getting to their natural food. It will be illuminating to hear from Hohman when he finally publishes papers on his recent discoveries in the wilds of war-riddled, ecologically damaged Lui Kotal. But the observations he has made thus far do not negate the earlier, pre-war findings of Kano and others.

By the way, I had never heard from any of the experts that bonobos were vegetarians. Kano had reported that bonobos occasionally eat meat of other species, like we do (actually, a lot less than we do).

Hohmann’s oddest observation is about female bonobo “g-g rubbing,” genito-genital rubbing, “hoka-hoka,” or what Parker refers to as “frottage,” when one female rubs her swollen vulva against the vulva of another. Hohman and his team have observed this numerous times, as have many other primatologists. “But does it have anything to do with sex?” Hohman asks and then answers himself, “Probably not.”

Since when is rubbing engorged genitalia against your partner’s engorged genitalia, often while embracing, French-kissing and/or having what looks like an orgasm, not “sex”? Is Hohmann limiting his definition of “sex” only to intercourse? That is hardly appropriate for a creature that is known for engaging in sex for pleasure (including what we might call “bisexuality”) more than reproduction.

Hohman goes on to wonder why “the males, the physically superior animals, do not dominate the females, the inferior animals?...It is not only different from chimpanzees but it violates the rules of social ecology.”

Well, it doesn’t violate The Bonobo Way. As Kano, Franz de Waal, Amy Parish and other primatologists have observed: bonobo males appear to be more docile than chimp males (or even than bonobo females), in part because they remain under the calming influence of their mothers until they die. And then there’s the fact that bonobo males get a lot of sex from those so-called “inferior” but sexually aggressive females. That's right: Peace through pleasure. Good sex diffuses tension. And you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.

Hohmann appears to be a meticulous scientist. But no matter how “objective” you try to be, the human personality still shines through the researcher’s conclusions. While Kano’s image is one of gentle collaboration, Hohmann’s is one of “chilliness,” being “very difficult to work with.” Parker writes about an incident where Hohman “loomed over” a local villager “wagging his finger. ‘It’s good to remind him now and then how short he is,’ Hohmann later said, smiling.” Folks who like to throw their physical weight around in the course of a verbal debate tend to find parallels for their own bullying tendencies in nature.

Well, primatologists aren’t angels either.

Parker’s report on Hohmann’s work is important, especially since Hohmann hasn’t published much himself lately. But the article’s implication that anyone who is inspired by the “Make Love Not War” chimps (both to save them from extinction, as Sally Coxe’s Bonobo Conservation Initiative is working hard to accomplish, and to understand and improve our own lives, as some of us try to do by following The Bonobo Way) is deluded is irresponsible and wrong. In classic New Yorker style, Parker’s critiques are measured and nuanced, even polite. His derision sneaks up on you like a quiet “chimp-bothering” primatologist. In the end, he brings no myth-shattering news that hasn't already been published. Though their lives in the wild are, of course, more violent than in captivity (and with the destruction being wreaked upon their environment, it would be hard to blame them for turning intoa new species of primate-psychopaths), the bonobos still seem to live, relative to other wild primates, by The Bonobo Way of Peace through Pleasure.

Nevertheless, many right-leaning bloggers, including the Wall Street Journal’s gleeful headline ”Bonobo Apes Might Not Be Politically Correct, After All” and Jack Rich’s “Shades of Margaret Mead,” are already picking up this highbrow critique of the “left-bank chimps” and running with it, referring to it as an official indictment of sexual freedom, women’s rights, environmentalism, communitarianism, ethical hedonism, the peace movement and liberal thinking in general, not to mention the bonobos themselves.

I appreciate Parker’s in-depth reporting on the primatology spats and evocative writing about the Congo. I know he worked hard on this piece; he spent an hour talking to me for the sake of just one sentence. I am also grateful for the excruciating fieldwork in which Hohmann is engaged. All research on bonobos - whether Kano studying them as they frolicked in his sugarcane field, De Waal reporting upon bonobo behavior in captivity, Richard Wrangham comparing bonobos with other great apes, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh communicating via computer with her primate “genius” Kanzi, Hohman running after the bonobos as they run away from him in the thick of the jungle, or Martin Surbeck catching tree-dwelling apes’ golden showers in a lacrosse stick-like container – are worthwhile. One observer’s findings have not discounted the others, at least for now.

Bonobos are no angels. But as far as we know, they still deserve the distinguished title of the Make Love Not War Chimpanzees. Hoka-Hoka! Bonobos Forever...

Well, all right. A key to understanding the situaiton is
Hohmann appears to be a meticulous scientist. But no matter how “objective” you try to be, the human personality still shines through the researcher’s conclusions. While Kano’s image is one of gentle collaboration, Hohmann’s is one of “chilliness,” being “very difficult to work with.” Parker writes about an incident where Hohman “loomed over” a local villager “wagging his finger. ‘It’s good to remind him now and then how short he is,’ Hohmann later said, smiling.” Folks who like to throw their physical weight around in the course of a verbal debate tend to find parallels for their own bullying tendencies in nature.

Yes. It was said long ago that everyone finds in nature what he brings to it. Which is the main reason so many of us are skeptical about learning much about ourselves from apes.


Instant sanity moment

When life gets you down, think about where you are in the universe.

If you don’t laugh, see a stress specialist. Now.

More on the twilight of atheism ...

Following up on my earlier Twilight of Atheism post: Before I take Alister McGrath’s book on the twilight of atheism back to the library, I should draw attention to a couple of points he makes. For example, he asks,
What if the great revolt against God of the nineteenth and early twentieth century is not a matter of reason, but of taste? What if the appeal of atheism is culturally conditioned and historically located- in other words, its attractiveness is the outcome of a specific set of historical circumstances that have now ended, giving way to a quite different situation? (p. 174)

Indeed, I think something like that has indeed happened. Three broad causes can be identified: One is the growth of religious freedom in the Western world. Religious freedom inoculates people against atheism as a mass movement because it privatizes grievances with one’s religion.

The United States, for example, is - all at once - the world’s science leader, a conspicuously religious nation with few atheists, and strongly secularist in its laws. I don’t think the confluence of these characteristics is accidental. Quite the reverse.

Second, today’s Western societies impose few constraints on people’s behavior, least of all on account of religious pressure. So again, atheism is deprived of a key source of recruits.

Third, in the twentieth century, atheism was genuinely tried out. It formed part of the basic structure of the Communist system of government, for example. As McGrath puts it,
As the history of the twentieth century makes clear, atheists can be just as nasty, prejudiced, stupid, and backward as their religious counterparts. In retrospect, this was only to be expected. After all, atheists are human beings, like everyone else, and their refusal to believe in God or any other spiritual force makes them no better and no worse than anyone else. Yet many expected that atheism would morally elevate its followers. It was much easier to believe this in the nineteenth century, when atheism held the moral high ground, never having been exposed to the corrupting influences of power and government. When atheists kept a discreetly low profile, nobody could be bothered to look into their beliefs and lifestyles. But when they launched high-profile social and political campaigns advocating an atheist agenda, people started asking awkward questions. And they began getting disturbing answers. (p. 236-37)

Um, yes. I’m going to buy this book for sure.

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Post-atheism: Is this term ever used?

Someone wrote to the combox here to say that the word “post-atheism” was hardly in use, contrary to Alister McGrath’s claim. Today, I got 1440 hits for “post-atheist” and 1260 for “post-atheism”, using Google.

The first few pages of hits indicate uses similar to McGrath’s use in The Twilight of Atheism. So results may depend on the search engine you use.

This morning I installed Google here at Mindful, for your convenience.

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