Last chance for the soggy apes

I’m getting more than a little tired of the long-running wrangle on the wet ape hypothesis thread. I’m closing it and opening a new thread here, with a few rules:

  • No more pointless dismissals of comments from either side as mere opinion or evidence-less, even if they are.

  • Absolutely NO copy-pasting of arguments from other sites. If you’re not going to engage in conversation, but just want to unthinkingly recite rote claims from elsewhere, go away. That will be considered a bannable offense in this thread.

  • If you want to reply to a previous comment, actually reply to it. That involves thinking about and addressing the points in that comment. That means actually backing up your claims with evidence.

  • You’ve got one page of comments to do it all in. If this thread hits 500 comments, I’m simply closing it. You’re done.

  • If you try to run out the clock and spew lots of itty-bitty repetitive posts, I will ban you.

  • If you just snipe and run, I will delete your comment. So be substantive, or shut up.

OK? OK. Go to it.

I expect this thread will promptly die now that the obtuse and refractory proponents of paleontological nonsense are prohibited from regurgi-posting and are expected to actually have a dialog about the evidence. They may surprise me, but they probably won’t.

Besides, Space Ape Rules.

My remarks at #ewts2013

(This is roughly what I said in my panel this morning at Empowering Women Through Secularism. The topic was Secular Values in Society; my fellow panelists were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, and Farhana Shakir.)

I’ve been campaigning for atheism for about 20 years now, and I have a terrible confession to make. In the beginning, I had this naive optimism that leaving religion behind would make people better people — maybe not perfect, but it would set them on the right path to reasonable lives. Obviously, I’ve been increasingly disillusioned, as it has become clear that many atheists are, well, jerks. There’s nothing about atheism that is sufficient to make a good person: atheism is not enough. But also, I would add that there’s nothing about secularism that is sufficient to make a good state. Secularism is not enough; we also have to select good secular values.

But still, secularism is necessary. It’s the floor of basic decency, it’s the start, and not the be-all and end-all.

Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism. By its very nature it imposes a vision of our interactions with each other and the world that is hierarchical and ordered and linear — the orders come from above. You will obey them. And further, the concept of faith is antithetical to transparency — you cannot question those orders, because there is no path for verification. You are expected to trust but not verify, and accept without reason.

Secularism is the rejection of the validity of divine authority as a source of any kind of values: moral, material, political, social, or intellectual. Truth and justice are not meted out by a singular authoritative source, filtered through the interpretations of priests and religious leaders, but are instead derived from we, the people, and anchored in reality by a pattern of continuous assessment against measurable real world effects: not, “how does a god feel about this decision?” but “does this decision improve human welfare?”

Secularists are often told that without a central authority in a god or gods, we lack a source of an objective morality. And I would agree with that — we don’t. I’d go further, and say that believing in divine source of truth and justice doesn’t mean it exists, so even the believers lack a source of objective morality as well. Instead, all values are personal and subjective; you can choose to believe whatever you like, and adding “in the name of God” to a belief does not make it any more valid.

This all sounds rather free-wheeling, and it is: you can have a secular tyranny or a secular democracy. In and of itself, secularism doesn’t imply a particular form of government or relationship between citizens, it only knocks away a prop that supports an authoritarian form of government. But it also says that values have empirical consequences.

As a scientist, I am of course entirely comfortable with the idea of empiricism; it’s a good thing to progress by trial and error. As an evolutionary biologist, I also recognize a metric for “progress”: does a behavior increase the viability of individuals and of a species? It’s actually rather cut and dried: we should promote values that increase the stability and success of individuals and populations, because the alternative is extinction.

And I think I can safely say that any set of values that limits the potential of half the population, that reduces the health and happiness of one gender, or race, or class, is empirically detrimental to the long-term viability of the whole. I can definitely say that there is no objective reason one could argue that being born a woman, or black, or poor should make any individual a lesser contributor to our fully shared humanity.

In short, one significant effect of secularism is that it means we have the freedom to make choices, and more: if we care about the success of individuals and of our society, it means we have an obligation to make choices that benefit humanity, all of humanity, and not just the privileged few. Secularism is about the responsibility to better ourselves, instead of simply accepting the status quo. Ultimately, secularism must be revolutionary and progressive, because it encourages change and improvement — it is an empirical model of governance that demands responsiveness to the real world consequences of our actions.

And that’s really why I am here at all. As a white middle-class American male, I am the recipient of a vast amount of privileged benefits. As an atheist and a secularist, though, I realize that I simply won the cosmic lottery — there is no objective source of my privilege, it’s not that I deserve all of my good fortune, and having a sense of fairness and justice — other good secular values — it is my choice and my obligation to advocate for greater equality of opportunity for all human beings.

Now the fun begins

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act has the right wing in full meltdown mode. Ed is documenting the reaction, Salon has a roundup, and Futile Democracy has some charming tweets. I have a very favorite, though: it’s from someone calling themselves @FreedomWarrior.

Here’s the good news: Massive population losses will be suffered decade by decade in the Gay States!

So, how does that work?

If DOMA had been upheld, would we right now be compelling gay people to go out and have children?

Now that DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional, are all the straight people in the “Gay States” deciding to not have children?

I’m definitely done with having children, but if I were of that age, I’d be more likely to want to bring children into a world where equality and justice were a little more common. And when we did have children, it was never as a matter of asserting our sexuality (or worse, my masculinity) — it was because we liked children and family. Do these people understand that family is not about sex?

I’m a little worried that maybe they don’t. Which would be creepy.

It’s a species-wide problem!

The results of a world-wide analysis of violence against women reveals that it’s common, it’s widespread, and it’s serious.

Three in ten women worldwide have been punched, shoved, dragged, threatened with weapons, raped, or subjected to other violence from a current or former partner. Close to one in ten have been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner. Of women who are murdered, more than one in three were killed by an intimate partner.

These grim statistics come from the first global, systematic estimates of violence against women. Linked papers published today in The Lancet and Science assess, respectively, how often people are killed by their partners and how many women experience violence from them. And an associated report and guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, along with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council in Pretoria, estimates how often women suffer sexual violence from someone other than a partner, gauge the impact of partner and non-partner violence on women’s health and advise health-care providers on how to support the victims.

We’re thinking beings, and we’re aware of the problem (although a lot of people are in denial) — we ought to be able to change this behavior. And speaking as a biologist, it would be an interesting change, shifting the intra-specific social dynamics in powerful ways that would affect the course of our future evolution. Come on, who doesn’t want to do an experiment on our own species? Especially one that reduces fear and increases security?

(via August Berkshire)