Cloning god

Thanks to this blog, I keep learning interesting new stuff. You may recall that I expressed bewilderment at the possibility that any adult could possibly believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

In response to my posting on the fuss over a college student taking home a consecrated wafer, a commenter Timothy said that the desecration of the wafer was indeed much worse than murder, genocide, etc, if you believed that the wafer was the body of Jesus-god. As evidence that it was, he provided a link to an event that supposedly occurred in the Italian city of Lanciano around 700 CE. [Read more…]

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.

I responded that I agreed with the appeals courts. In my view the child welfare authorities had gone completely overboard and had resorted to such drastic action because the targeted community was a polygamous one and thus was disapproved of by the authorities. They would not have dreamed of entering a village of monogamous, heterosexual couples and separated all the children from their parents on the basis of a single anonymous and unsubstantiated allegation of child abuse. I personally have no problem with the practice of polygamy and think it absurd that we are still trying to regulate by law those things that should be strictly the private concern of individuals.

My visitor from Sri Lanka also asked me my views about gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay people. I said that I had no problems with this practice either and that the kind of prejudice that exists against polygamists was also at play when people argued against the adoption of children by gay couples.

She made the point that the adopted children of gay couples or the children of polygamous families might suffer harm from the stigma associated with their families’ nontraditional lifestyles, and thus such arrangements might not be in the best interests of the children. In addition, she suggested that the lifestyles of these people were not ‘natural’ and that was why it may be appropriate to discourage them by treating them differently.

One hears these arguments all the time, that the norm is that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else is deviant behavior, worthy of disapproval, if not outright banning.

To counter this, some people try to argue that such nontraditional lifestyles are ‘natural’ because parallels can be found to occur in nature, that nonhuman animals often practice homosexuality or have multiple partners. In addition, there is currently some evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic and thus influenced by biology and is thus not a free choice. Such studies are used by gay rights advocates to support the view that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

I frankly do not see the point of this argument. Whether some behavior is acceptable or not should not depend on whether it occurs ‘naturally’ (i.e., spontaneously) in nature or whether it is encoded in our genes. After all we, as humans, do any number of things that are not found in nature or are in defiance of our genetic drives. Practically our whole lives involve activities that do not have analogs in the animal kingdom. That is because we have developed language and culture and technology that enable us to be social animals capable of functioning at a highly abstract level and make collective decisions. Furthermore, there are lots of things going on in the animal kingdom (killing, cannibalism, forcible sex, infanticide, among others) that we consider unacceptable behavior. The idea that we should take our moral cues from the nonhuman animal world seems bizarre. We would not accept a defense of murder, for example, that argues that it is ok because animals do it to each other.

It seems to me that the evolved ability to converse and create culture enables us to transcend out biological drives, to be more than our instincts. Because of our ability to converse and arrive at agreed-upon norms of behavior, we can develop general principles as to what is acceptable and what is not that are independent of whether other animals do similar things. The principle of ‘justice as fairness’ advocated by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice seems like the kind of thing we should be seeking to order our lives and society, not borrowing from animal behavior.

So if it turns out that future research shows that there is no genetic basis whatsoever for homosexuality and that it is purely a matter of choice, so what? As long as they are not harming others, why is it of any concern to me if other people choose partners of the same sex or opposite sex? As for the argument that adopted children of gays or the children of polygamous families might suffer from the stigma, the only reason there is a stigma at all is because the rest of us have an intolerant view of such lifestyles. It is we who have a problem and who should change, not them.

Similarly, if a woman decides that she wants to marry three husbands and they all freely consent, why should I care? If for whatever reason, two men and three women decide that they would like to all be married to each other and live together as a single family unit, they won’t get any objection from me.

I think my relative was a little startled by my views. Since I have lived in the US for about three decades, many of the people I grew up with in Sri Lanka have little idea of my thinking on many issues and these often come as a surprise to them. She did ask if my views have changed as I have got older and I had to agree. As I age, I have become more and more accepting of the lifestyle choices made by others. Perhaps it is because I have an increasing sense that life is a precious gift that we each possess for just a short time and thus people should not be denied the harmless pleasures that life affords.

As long as decisions are being freely made by consenting adults and do not harm others, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyles that suits their needs.

What surprises me is that such a viewpoint is not more universally held.

POST SCRIPT: Solar powered car

See the video of a completely solar-powered car that is on a round-the-world trip without using a single drop of gas. It has already been to 27 countries and the US is the 28th. Quite amazing.

(Thanks for the link to my daughter Dashi who was lucky enough to actually see the car in Berkeley, California and listen to a presentation by its inventor Lewis Palmer, a Swiss schoolteacher.)

Much ado about transubstantiation

In the previous post, I suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood, was a fairly bizarre thing to believe in this day and age and raised the possibility that perhaps even Catholics did not really believe in it but were just humoring the church by going along with a doctrine that came into being a long time ago.
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Why religions expect you to believe preposterous things

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the mother of an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to religion. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic. She had thought about converting to Catholicism but in the end found it impossible to do so. She said that she found she could not accept three things that the Catholic Church required you to believe: transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, and the assumption of Jesus’ mother Mary (i.e., the belief that Mary did not die but was ‘assumed’ directly into heaven).

These things are pretty tough to believe. Transubstantiation alone is enough to give anyone pause. This doctrine asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

I have often wondered if, in their heart of hearts, Catholics actually believe this. It seems to me that if they did, it would be hard to avoid having the gag reflex that accompanies the thought of engaging in what are essentially cannibalistic practices. Yet millions of Catholics go through this ritual every week with seeming equanimity. Perhaps they don’t really believe but convince themselves that they kinda, sorta do in order to not seem like heretics. Or maybe they just don’t think about it.

But although this is a particularly striking example of the kinds of extraordinary things that religious people are expected to believe, it is not by itself more preposterous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead or that god ordered the sun to stand still during the battle of Jericho or that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed.

In fact, organized god-based religions sometimes seem to go out of their way to create difficult things to believe in. It seems like if you are a member of any organized god-based religion, you are expected to believe preposterous things. Abandoning reason and logic and evidence and science and accepting preposterous things purely on faith is deemed to be a virtuous act.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that it is easy to believe impossible things. “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” She says her trick to believing in something that is wildly improbable is to simply draw a long breath and shut her eyes. Sounds a lot like praying.

Of course, many people find it hard to abandon reason and believe impossible things, and thus leave religion and become atheists or at least agnostics. Some modernist theologians have tried to counter this problem by stripping as much of the extreme forms of the supernatural as possible from religions to make it more acceptable intellectually. They argue that god is some mysterious essence, some life force that gives ‘meaning’ to our lives, a ‘ground of our being’, and so on, but is not a physical human-like entity that we communicate with or can expect to intervene in our lives. In this approach, it is attempted to free religion from all those difficult beliefs that are hard to accept.

Would such a trend make religion more acceptable to more people, largely freeing them from having to choose between religion and common sense? Superficially, one would think so but some research suggests otherwise. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. “[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior.” (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)

This may be why those religious doctrines that are really hard for a rational person to accept (fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism) don’t seem to be in any danger of going extinct in the face of modern science that undermines their doctrines. They may even be experiencing growth, while it is the more open-minded liberal religious traditions that are in decline. It is as if people want their thinking to be bound and confined and that they fear intellectual freedom. It seems like a form of intellectual masochism.

Why is this? I don’t really know. Perhaps it is because once you have convinced someone to believe an impossible idea as an entry point to membership in an organization, they have crossed a threshold that makes them accepting of all the other impossible ideas that come as part of that religious package. Since people pride themselves on being rational, getting them to accept something bizarre at an early age, like a virgin birth, means that they will then try to construct reasons why such a belief makes sense or suppress any questions and doubts. I find it interesting that believers in a god, instead of frankly saying, “Yes, it is irrational but I believe anyway”, will go to great lengths to try and use reason and logic to convince others that their beliefs are rational when they are manifestly not.

Once you have got people to suspend their rational thinking in at least one part of their life, all the other seemingly small, but equally preposterous, beliefs that are required don’t seem so hard to swallow. This may be why religious organizations carry out induction ceremonies for new members mostly when they are children, before their skepticism is fully developed and when the desire of children to join the organization of their parents is still strong.

It is also perhaps similar to how brutal hazing is sometimes used to bond people to a fraternities or secret societies. Once you have overcome that kind of hurdle, it is emotionally harder to back out, to admit that one must have been crazy to ever do or believe such a thing.

Note: I wrote this post some time ago but never got around to posting it since there seemed to be no urgency. To my amazement, transubstantiation, of all things, suddenly burst into the news late last week down in Florida. I will write about that tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: The propaganda machine at work

In my series on the propaganda machine, I spoke about how publishing houses like Regnery seem to exist largely for the purpose of subsidizing and promoting authors who promote their specific agenda, irrespective of the quality of the work or even that of the author. Here is another example.

Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as ‘friends once removed’. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one’s parents or the parents of one’s friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy’s parents encourage him to call him ‘John’ while in other families he is referred to as ‘Mr. Smith’. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one’s parents is called generically ‘uncle’ while females are called ‘aunty’. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one’s elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one’s parents’ friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything’s fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as ‘uncle John’ or ‘aunty Jane’. Such titles remain the same throughout one’s life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your ‘uncle’ gets. Even now, I refer to my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one’s biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is ‘mama’ (rhymes with ‘drama’) while for aunt is ‘mamy’ (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as ‘me’.) So ‘Reggie mama’ was how I referred to my father’s brother while ‘Uncle Amaradasa’ was my friend’s father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father’s younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of ‘small father’ while the father’s older brother would be called ‘big father.’ If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called ‘big big father’ while the other would be called ‘small big father.’ If he had two younger brothers, they would be ‘big small father’ and ‘small small father’, and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father’s father that distinguished him from your mother’s father.

Similarly one’s siblings would also be referred to by their titles ‘older brother,’ ‘younger sister’ and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of ‘older brother Mano’ by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

POST SCRIPT: Matching product to taste

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s excellent program This American Life, offers some excellent advice to those who do any kind of creative work.

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”

Those words were supposedly spoken by the actor Sir Donald Wolfit on his deathbed.

When it comes to acting, comedy is far harder to pull off well than tragedy. With tragedy, earnestness will take you a long way. Not so with humor. The elements of comedy are so ephemeral that it is hard to script. We all have had the experience of having laughed uproariously at something and then tried to tell the story to someone else and been confronted with bafflement or a polite smile and been reduced to weakly explaining “You had to be there.” We all know people who can tell a marginally funny story in such a way that it evokes great laughs while others manage to make unfunny even the best comedic material.

This is true with writers too. Anyone who has tried to write anything humorous will immediately sympathize with Wolfit’s sentiment. I suspect that most people who see themselves as writers eventually succumb to the temptation to try their hand at humor, usually with disastrous results. The worst culprits are those newspaper columnists who write on serious topics and once in a while try to write inject some humor. What they usually resort to is satire or parody because, being derivative, such forms require the least originality.

A favorite device of political columnists is to describe some fictional conversation between well-known figures on the topic of the day. The result, unfortunately, is usually cringe-inducing because it is usually so heavy-handed. Even satire and parody require a deft and light touch to pull off but most writers tend towards hamhandedness and overkill. The central humorous conceit that triggered the idea of writing a funny piece usually can be told in just a few lines but it takes a lot of skill to stretch it out over a whole essay, let along a book, and very few writers can do that. Because I love reading humorous writing, I too have succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at it and the results have appeared occasionally on this blog (though some readers might have not have realized the humorous intent!)

It is tempting to want to write humor because the experts make it look so deceptively easy. But the words that seem to have been just tossed off casually hide a lot of hard work. In the case of Wodehouse, he would rewrite repeatedly, trying to get just the right word or phrase, carefully setting up and rearranging scenes, and worrying about the pacing of the plot. If he was dissatisfied with the way a novel was developing, he would sometimes ruthlessly throw everything out and start over. That requires real toughness because it is easy to get attached to one’s words and be loath to throw away weeks or months of hard work.

Good writing of any kind requires repeated rewriting and this is what makes humor so hard. When you are writing a serious piece, it is easy to go back and polish and re-polish, trying to make the point clearer and more effectively, trying to find the correct words and images to convey the central idea.

The reason it is so hard to do this with humor is that an important element of humor is surprise, the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Once the basic joke has been written, it is hard for the writer to go back to revise it and still think of it as funny. And the more one rewrites, the unfunnier it seems to get. This leads to the temptation to overwrite, to adorn the writing with flourishes that makes the humor seem forced.

Just as it takes hard work by a chef with great skill to get the lightness and airiness of a soufflé, the difficulty with comedy is keep it light. I suspect that good humorists have the ability to keep their focus on the central joke and to still see it as funny even after they have rewritten it many times. They are able to keep it light while sharpening it and making it more pointed, while those less skilled tend to weigh it down.

I cannot think of any contemporary novelists who I find to be in the same league of funniness as a Wodehouse. One of the funniest non-novelist writers currently is Dave Barry. His weekly columns in the Miami Herald are consistently good and his many books are a laugh riot. His humor is broader (and coarser) than that of a Wodehouse, funny is a very different way. His quick romp through American history in Dave Barry Slept Here and his travel book on Japan Dave Barry Does Japan are well worth reading. (For a brief excerpt of the latter, see here.)

POST SCRIPT: McCain=Bush in more ways than one

George Bush was notorious for being so insecure that his team would keep out of the audience anyone who looked like they might be even mildly critical of him, even if it was simply on a t-shirt. It looks like McCain is very much like Bush in this regard. At a recent public event, a librarian was threatened with arrest for having a sign that said simply ‘McCain=Bush’.

It is interesting that being identified with the sitting president of your own party is seen as such a threat by the candidate.

The humor of P. G. Wodehouse

There is something very alluring about comedy and humor. Laughter is wonderful. It puts everyone in a good mood, at ease and lowers their defenses. To be able to make other people laugh and be happy is a wonderful talent and people like people who can make them laugh. It is no accident that public speakers often begin with a joke.

I have always enjoyed humor. My earliest childhood influences were the books by Richmal Crompton (author of the William series) and Frank W. Richards (creator of Billy Bunter). As I got older I started reading P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman, and Stephen Leacock and any other writer I could find in the library who was described as a comic or humorous writer. The comedy writers who appeal to me are those who edge on the absurd and who use the nature of the English language itself as a source for much of their humor.

Of them all, Wodehouse was, and remains, my favorite writer to this day. I have read the classic Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings Castle series many times over. He is the perfect choice for those days when one is feeling blah and nothing appeals to you to do.

Wodehouse’s craftsmanship was so meticulous and his use of language so sublime that his readers did not care that the stock plots were contrived and the characters stereotypical, and that you knew that there would be a happy endings all around in which even the villains were let off lightly. With Wodehouse, the pleasure lay on two levels, the surface one in which one is just carried along by the smoothness of the writing and the frantic pace of events, and below the surface by the appreciation of observing a language master at work.

Take for example, the classic The Code of the Woosters. Bertie Wooster, the rich, idle, none-too-bright narrator once again, through a series of misunderstandings, finds himself in the situation in which Madeline Bassett, a woman whose personality he finds revolting, is convinced that Bertie is madly in love with her. Wodehouse, via Wooster, paints a portrait of this ‘ghastly girl’.

I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their mind. A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and daisy chains. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God’s daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort.

With those few deft lines, the reader is immediately made aware of what kind of person Madeline is and what the problem is. She is someone who oozes ‘soul’ from every pore, while Bertie has none.

The sappy Madeline, however, loves the equally sappy newt-fancier (and Bertie’s friend) Gussie Fink-Nottle, and they become engaged, leaving Bertie relieved that he is off the hook. But she has told Bertie that if it should ever turn out that her marriage to Gussie should not take place and she can’t have the happiness she desires with Gussie, she will sacrifice herself and at least make Bertie happy by marrying him. This is a prospect he finds alarming to the utmost but he is too chivalrous to tell her that the thought of marrying her gives him the heebie-jeebies. He has his code of behavior and it does not allow him to dump a girl. Many of the Jeeves/Wooster stories center around Jeeves’ strategies to get the girl to dump Bertie.

When Gussie sends Bertie a telegram from Madeline’s country estate saying that the two of them have had a tiff and their engagement is off, an alarmed Bertie quickly rushes to his friend’s aid to try and patch things up. This has happened before in previous books and Bertie’s earlier desperate attempts to reconcile Madeline with Gussie have been seen by her as noble self-sacrificial efforts on Bertie’s part, to put his friend Gussie’s interests above his own, and have only increased Bertie’s esteem in her eyes.

On arrival, Bertie immediately runs into Madeline, who is surprised by his appearance at her home, leading to this priceless bit of dialogue.

“Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory, which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel.”

The name was new to me.


“The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge.”

I shook my head.

“Never met him, I’m afraid. Pal of yours?”

“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”

I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

“For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore.”

“Not feeling so good?” I said groping. “Rough crossing?”

“He was dying. Of love.”

“Oh, ah.”

“They bore him into the Lady Melisande’s presence on a litter and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died.”

She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensured.

“Terrific,” I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn’t think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.

I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times and this passage never fails to make me laugh.

Of course, humor is highly idiosyncratic and what brings one person to tears of laughter can leave another mystified. But if you like humor and have never read any Wodehouse, you owe it to yourself to try him. I suggest starting with The Code of the Woosters and Leave it to Psmith, two of my all-time favorites.

POST SCRIPT: Right wing outrage, part MMCMLXVI

What is it about popular culture that has the right wing in a state of perpetual outrage? The latest target? The Pixar animated film Wall*E.

Collective good versus private profit

One of the clichés of academia which even non-academics know is “publish or perish.” In its most common understanding, it implies that those who publish more are perceived as productive scholars, worthy of recruitment and promotion.

But there are other reasons for publishing. One is to establish priority for one’s ideas. In academia, ideas are the currency that matter and those who have good ideas are seen as creative people. So people publish to ensure that they receive the appropriate credit.

Another reason for publishing is to put the ideas into public circulation so that others can use them and build on them to create even more knowledge. Knowledge thrives on the open exchange of information and the general principle in academia is that all knowledge should be open and freely available so that everyone can benefit from it.

This is not, of course, the case, in the profit-driven private sector where information is jealously guarded so that the maximum profit can be obtained. This is not unreasonable in many cases. After all, without being profitable, companies would go out of business and many of the innovations we take for granted would not occur. So the knowledge is either guarded jealously (say like the formula for Coca Cola) or is patented so that other users have to pay for the privilege of using it.

But the open-information world of academia can collide with the closed, profit-making corporate world. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the drug industry. Much of the funding for medical and drug research comes from the government via agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and channeled through university and hospital researchers. These people then publish their results. But that knowledge is then often built on by private drug companies that manufacture drugs that are patented and sold for huge profits. These companies often use their immense legal resources to extend the effective lifetime of their patents so that they can profit even more.

Another example of a collision between the public good and private profit was the project to completely map the human genome. This government-funded project was designed to be open, with the results published and put into the public domain. Both heads of the Human Genome Project, first James Watson and then Francis Collins, strongly favored the open release of whatever was discovered, because of the immense potential benefits to the public. They created a giant public database into which researchers could insert their results, enabling others to use them. (To see what is involved in patenting genomic information, see here.)

But then Craig Venter, head of the private biotechnology company Celera Genomics, decided that his company would try to map the genome and make it proprietary information, and create a fee-based database,. This was fiercely resisted by the scientific community who accelerated their efforts to map the genome first and make the information open to all. The race was on and the scientific community succeeded in its goal of making the information public. Information on how to access the public database can be found here.

Many non-academics, like the journalist writing about faculty cars, simply do not understand this powerful desire amongst academics for open-access to information. I recall the discussion I had with my students regarding the film Jurassic Park. I hated the film for many reasons and said how bizarre it was that the discoverer of the process by which dinosaurs had been recreated from their DNA, a spectacular scientific achievement, had kept his knowledge secret in order to create a dinosaur theme park and make money. I said that this was highly implausible. A real scientist would have published his results to establish his claim as the original discoverer and made the information public so that others could build on it. But some of my students disagreed. They thought that it was perfectly appropriate that the first thought of the scientist was how to make a lot of money off his discovery rather than spread knowledge.

It is true that nowadays scientists and universities are increasingly seeking to file patents and create spin-off companies to financially benefit from their discoveries. Michael Moore talks about how things have changed and how the drive to make money is harming the collective good;

Thinking about that era, back in the first half of the 20th century, where you had for instance the man who invented the kidney-dialysis machine. He didn’t want the patent for it, he felt it belonged to everybody. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, again, he wouldn’t patent it. The famous quote for him is, “Would you patent the sun? It belongs to everyone.” He wasn’t doing this to become a millionaire. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. During that era, that’s the way people thought.

It may be that I am living in the past and that those students who thought I was crazy about not making money as the prime motivator for scientists and other academics have a better finger on the pulse than I. Perhaps new knowledge is now not seen so clearly as a public good, belonging to the world, to be used for the benefit of all. If so, it is a pity.

POST SCRIPT: Nelson Mandela, terrorist

Did you know that all this time, the US government considered Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist?

What motivates academics

Some time ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article in the business pages that began by noting that when you visit the faculty parking lot of any college campus, you will find very few expensive cars such as Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Porsches, Hummers, and BMWs. The writer made the inference that college professors, while perhaps very smart people in their fields of expertise, were not very smart when it came to managing their money.
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Independence day thoughts

(For this holiday, I am reposting an amalgam of two posts from two years ago.)

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works. I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain’s work and about Twain himself.

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer fits into the latter category, where he explores the dark underside of the seemingly innocuous act of praying for something.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its wholesomeness is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through.

The War Prayer
Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Twain accurately points out that intercessory prayers that ask for seemingly unimpeachable favors always carry with them a dark underside. Prayers that ask for victory in war always carry with them the wish that god will destroy the other side. The losing side in a war must necessarily suffer massive death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be seen as too crass. But Twain says that whether we put those sentiments into words or not, that appeal is always present.

Twain carries this argument even further and says that even appeals for seemingly benign help for one person (such as rain for his crops) may prove to be a curse for someone else.

Any prayer that seeks special benefits for any one group is also a request to deny that same benefit to those who do not belong to that group. When people pray asking god’s help to help find a cure for cancer, aren’t they implicitly also asking him/her to not assist in finding a cure for AIDS or Alzheimers or any other of the countless diseases that afflict living things?

And what about the phrase “God bless America” that is now such a staple of political life that politicians routinely end their speeches with it? Fourth of July speeches are full of such appeals. What exactly is being asked for here? That god look out for the interests of Americans and withhold similar blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? Is God like an immigration officer who checks out the nationality of people before responding to prayers?

All intercessory prayers are premised on an authoritarian/subservient model, with god as a kind of despot who has limited rewards at his/her disposal, and whose favors have to be curried by making special appeals, the more groveling the better, in the manner of kindergarteners with their teacher. Since most religious people also believe in a god who omnipotent and has the capacity to answer any intercessory prayer, and even knows the prayers before they are prayed, it does not even make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived because of the blindness that religion cultivates in its followers. It requires an astute observer like Twain to point it out.

Perhaps the only intercessory prayer that can be justified is the one I saw on a bumper sticker that said “God bless the whole world. No exceptions.”

It is noteworthy that Mark Twain knew that he was asking for trouble with this story, writing it as he did during a major war, when strong and unthinking appeals to patriotism are used to brush aside any opposition, just as was done in during the preparations for the attack on Iraq.

Twain wrote The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper’s Bazaar rejected it as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.” Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish “The War Prayer” elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.

Mark Twain seems to have had a healthy skepticism towards religion that was not shared by his family and those who were charged with executing his estate.

In later years, Twain’s family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually wrote the most familiar version of this story.

Given that Mark Twain had achieved iconic status in his own lifetime and was so well-known and liked, his own apprehensions about whether this story could be published is indicative of how powerful a hold this combination of religion and patriotism has on people. Challenge those twin pillars of dogma and you become an outcast fast.