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Those crazy Finns

Man Of Principle Will Not Touch Euro Notes Or Coins

[74-year-old Helge] Kaalikoski has not laid one finger on a euro note or coin during the twenty months that the common European currency has been legal tender in Finland.

Kaalikoski spends his days in retirement along the shores of Lake Päijänne in Asikkala. He needs to leave the peace and quiet of his rocky cape every now and then to attend to some business in the nearest city, Lahti. Once he gets there, he must park his red Lada somewhere. But as Kaalikoski cannot handle euros, he puts no money in the parking meters.

In the windscreen of the Lada, Kaalikoski leaves a notice for parking inspectors, listing the facts: the legal tender in Finland is the markka. There is no law on the euro, and Kaalikoski is a law-abiding citizen who does not use this currency. In the event that he receives a parking ticket, he will not pay it. The notice is politely signed below.
Free to Marry, Canada's Gays Say, 'Do I?'

"I was dreading the conversation," he [gay Canadian David Andrew] said, fearing that his partner would feel jilted when he told him that he did not believe in the institution. "Personally, I saw marriage as a dumbing down of gay relationships. My dread is that soon you will have a complacent bloc of gay and lesbian soccer moms."

... Gay men seem more apprehensive about marriage than lesbians, and generally, couples with children, or thinking of having children, express more interest in marrying.

-- via Matthew Yglesias

It's interesting how the fears of gays about marriage are the opposite of the fears of social conservatives. Conservatives say that adding gay couples to the mix will dilute the traditional customs of marriage. And their fears seem to focus particularly on gay men. They also insist that marriage is about raising children. But gays like Andrew are afraid that marriage will dilute the non-traditional customs of gay couples. And gay men are less likely to get married, whereas gay couples who want or have children are more likely to get married. If people like Andrew are right (and I'm not certain that they are, or that it's such a bad thing if they are), then social conservatives have nothing to worry about -- marriage is secure.

I also find it interesting that 100 of the 590 gay marriage licenses that have been issued went to Americans. This suggests that American gays want marriage more than Canadian gays. If that's true, the greater strength of anti-gay sentiment in the US (due to this country's greater conservatism and religiosity) may be a factor. Gay marriage gains added value as a symbol of triumph over the enemy when the enemy is stronger. And there's an added incentive to prove, by getting married, that homosexual couples are just like heterosexual couples. (This is in addition to the article's point that common law marriage is more popular and more attractive in Canada, so that the choice between marriage and no marriage is not as stark there.)


Speculation about Genesis

In Genesis, the first (and for a time only) rule God gave Adam and Eve was not to eat from the tree of Good and Evil. On one level, this seems contradictory -- if Adam and Eve had no sense of good and evil prior to eating from the tree, how could they have known it was good to obey God's rule about not eating it? But perhaps the notion of good and evil that they learned from the tree is not so broad. I speculate that the good and evil in question are what the results of this quiz call "moralizing" -- that is, considering things to be morally wrong that don't harm anyone. Adam and Eve's life in the garden was completely without moralizing. God gave them no other rules.

We may perhaps presume that God did give them some instrumental instruction that wasn't recorded in the Bible -- helpful knowledge about how to meet their needs in Eden, since humans don't come pre-equipped with instincts and Adam and Eve had no parents. This is perhaps reflected in God's statement that they could eat any of the other plants in the garden. They weren't allowed to eat the animals, as demonstrated by the fact that God adds meat to the menu after Noah's flood. But the statement is made in a positive way -- "if you're hungry, here's some good options" -- rather than a moralizing way -- "don't eat meat!" and the later shift to omnivory is in similar terms, rather than the lifting of a ban. The result of this is that Adam and Eve would have seen following God's advice as a pragmatic issue, justified by its consequences, rather than orders to be followed because God said so. For this reason they would have presumed the rule against eating from the tree of good and evil to be a similarly good piece of advice. And in light of the problems created by the human tendency to moralize, it was good advice.

The snake played on this pragmatic conception of right and wrong. It told Adam and Eve that eating the fruit would make them as wise as God -- by their pragmatic standards, they would gain God's full understanding of how the world works, and the consequent ability to maximize their own interests by skillful interaction with that world. But they got even more -- they got God's ability to make, rather than simply discover, right and wrong. The ability to make something right or wrong regardless of its consequences, regardless of the real world's adjudication of whether it "works," is the ability to moralize. (I see eating the fruit as a metaphor for activating their inherent ability to moralize rather than gaining a new ability. In a sense eating the fruit was a moralizing act -- putting their own judgement above God's sound advice. But on the other hand, if their trust in God was based only on pragmatic inference, it's hard to fault them for being open to the possibility that God's advice was fallible, especially since the snake offered a seemingly good argument.) This is captured in Adam and Eve's first act after eating the fruit: making clothes. Clothes would serve no purpose in Eden, and thus God hadn't instructed them in making clothes -- and indeed, they say they made them because they were ashamed at their nakedness, not because they were cold or wanted to pass the time by playing dress-up.

Of course, one power Adam and Eve didn't get was the power to give their moralizing actual natural consequences -- for example, to make wearing clothing that covers your genitals be actually beneficial by, say, creating a species of genital-biting flies that need to be warded off. At best they could impose social consequences, deliberately meted out punishments. After this episode, God seems to follow suit (perhaps figuring a moralizing God was the kind of God Adam and Eve wanted). Not content with allowing their own moralizing to bring them problems (such as the effort they wasted on making their leaf garments), God punished them by throwing them out of Eden. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God loves imposing seemingly arbitrary rules, to be followed "because God said so." Violating these rules has bad consequences -- such as invasion by foreign armies -- but they're always consequences that God imposes, not consequences that naturally follow from the misconduct.

There's moralizing in the New Testament as well, especially in the writings of Paul -- hence, perhaps, the strongly moralizing attitude of many contemporary Christians. But I tend to see those elements as what the human writers brought to the story. Jesus' central message of love is, as I see it, a rejection of the moralizing brought about by the fruit of the tree of good and evil, and a return to a consequentialist ethics. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, the golden rule and the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is in essence a summary of utilitarianism, the quintessential consequentialist ethical theory. Perhaps this is the way to understand how Jesus undid Adam and Eve's sin.
A post by Brian Weatherson on a new variant of the "trolley problem" prompted a comment by lawrence solum linking to the Wikipedia article about trolley problems, from which I stumbled across Wikipedia's brief article on Wesley Willis, who I now learn passed away earlier this month. Willis was not hit by a runaway trolley.


Dave Pollard asserts, as one of his three "premises that have upset my readers the most" in his environmental philosophy that:

That humans are not meant to live in cities or other crowded habitats, and that any utopian society must allow and encourage people to spread out and live in close contact with the rest of nature;

I can agree with a weaker version of this point on an ecological level. I see it as a counter to the idea that we should sacrifice a few areas to be high-density cities and let everything in between revert to wilderness -- an outgrowth of the idea that humans inherently pollute nature that I criticized before. But interestingly, much of the commentary on this point in his comment thread dealt with the social aspect of city versus small-town life (a common enough discussion that I won't limit myself to the points made by Pollard's commenters).

Proponents of small towns praise the "you know everyone you see" aspect, while deploring the anonymity of the city. City-lovers respond by talking about the excitement and vibrancy of the city versus how boring small towns can be. But what both seem to like is a density of social interactions. Both see their less-preferred scenario as socially anemic -- a city full of strangers, or a town full of the same old people doing the same old things.

The difference may perhaps be conceived of in terms of organic versus mechanical-supplemented-by-familial solidarity. Fans of the city tend to thrive on a wealth of social functions -- clubs, museums, shops, concerts, etc. It's the scenarios and the roles, more than the people in them, that get them hooked. Fans of small towns, on the other hand, see more value in establishing social connections (though not necessarily kinship ones, particularly in the case of left-leaning people) with particular individuals.

To truly argue for preferring (on a policy, rather than personal, level) one size settlement, then, requires attention to the type, rather than just the ammount*, of social interaction.

*I originally wrote "quality, rather than just the quantity" here, but that seemed misleading. We often think of quality as something that can be measured on a scale -- i.e., as a quantitative measurement. This is a useful notion when talking about the value within an item versus the number of items, especially when it allows a clear tradeoff between the two (e.g. 20 sheets of 2-ply toilet paper versus 40 sheets of 1-ply). But it's confusing when you're trying to indicate the idea of a non-ranked (or not-yet-ranked) difference of kind or type.
Supporters of Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument often decry the creeping influence of secularists (which presumably includes the large number of religious people who support the separation of church and state) who want to eliminate God from the public sphere. Generally this complaint is treated as either the morally incorrect assertion that God ought to be positively endorsed by the government, or the factually incorrect assertion that government neutrality on matters of religion is tantamount to a positive endorsement of atheism. But I think it might be proftable to look at it as a confusion between two types of public/private distinction that shows up elsewhere in social conservative thought.

The public/private distinction turns on the distinction between individuals (and voluntary associations thereof) and collectives (i.e., the whole society, with membership not optional). In legal terms, this distinction is important because of its association with the coercive nature of the collective. Public things -- those done by the collective, generally through its agent the government -- are done in the name of, and with the willing or unwilling support of (e.g. though taxes), everybody. This fact is the ground of the restrictions, such as separation of church and state, laid on public actions in order to prevent them from being unduly oppressive to the views and desires of minorities (or majorities, in the case of non-democratic systems that espouse liberal values). On the other hand, the fact that private conduct is to some degree voluntary on the part of all involved, and is forbidden to be coercive (through the public monopoly on the use of force), is the ground for ascribing broad freedom to private conduct.

The other public/private distinction is based on access to an activity -- what I'll refer to as "visibly" public and private. Public activities are those open for viewing, and perhaps even participation, to anyone who happens by (i.e., things said to be done "in public"). Private conduct, on the other hand, is done out of sight of those not invited, often sheltered by the walls of a home. The idea of a right to privacy is based on this notion of privacy.

When Ten Commandments supporters and others talk about God being removed from the public sphere, there is a sense in which they fear God's removal not only from the legally public sphere but also from the visibly public sphere. The extreme version would be a situation in which a sort of anti-religious speech code bars legally private but visibly public religious behavior, forcing Christians to worship in secret. The gap between the two notions of public/private is bridged by the blurry line between coercion, pressure, and influence. If (say) a school wall displaying the Ten Commandments is harmfully coercive, the reasoning goes, it must be just as harmful, and hence just as prohibitable, to see (for example) people all around you with Jesus fish on their cars. Legally private peer pressure can indeed be quantitatively more powerful than public endorsement, which threatens to swamp the qualitative difference. The problem is that traditional liberalism assumes a highly atomistic model of humanity, and thus has trouble explicitly dealing with the unavoidable interconnectedness of people (unless it resorts, like libertarianism, to the very high bar of "physical violence or the threat thereof" to define coercion and assumes all other pressures and influences to be negligible).

Liberals often reinforce this confusion -- most notably through the rhetoric of things done "in the privacy of your own home/bedroom" used in sexual rights issues. This sort of claim defends legally private conduct on the basis of being visibly private. When such conduct is not hidden away in a visibly private situation -- for example, if a gay couple walks down the street holding hands -- those who object to such conduct take its visible publicness as similar to legal publicness. Their complaint that acknowledgement of homosexuality is being "forced on them" by the couple recalls the idea of coercion associated with the legal public sphere. (Note that a similar argument is made by many secularists who complain of having religion forced on them. Both seem to indicate a translation of a fear of legally private peer pressure into the language of legally public coercion.)


Christian Conversion Threatens Hill Tribe Culture

The hill tribes of northern Thailand have survived centuries of displacement, hardship and discrimination. But now their uniquely colorful culture is under a new threat, albeit a well-meaning one: Christian evangelism.

... the shaman turns melancholy as he ponders on how long this essential feature of Akha life will be around. "I am worried about the change. Because to be Akha, you have to follow all the rituals," said Ake, who cuts a quiet figure with his small build, his watery brown eyes and his soft voice.

... One day, [Matthew] McDaniel [of the Akha Heritage Foundation] argues, the Akha identity in this part of Thailand may well cease to exist. "Their rituals, the spirit healing, belief in animism is what makes them Akha. It gives them their cultural identity, their unique place in the world."

Pastor Kenu Chalermliamthong, however, sees it differently. The hill-tribe people can still retain their culture even after converting, since it is "only one aspect of their lives - religion", said Kenu, a Baptist minister who belongs to the Karen hill tribe.

-- via WitchVox

This is an interesting twist on the idea of collective rights that I wrote about earlier. We tend to think of religious rights as individual rights, because we conceive of religion as belief and private practice. But to the degree that religion is community practice -- which it often is, and which gives religion much of its value -- it's collective.

But not only are the villagers' religious decisions impacting the ability of other villagers to fully practice their religion (e.g. the shaman with to believers to minister to), the story points out a little farther down that they're impacting touyr guides' livelihoods. Tourists come to the area to see "authentic" animist Akha people. While I'm not happy with the implication that someone who has given up their old way of life is somehow necessarily inauthentic or fake, it remains true that the tourists aren't interested in seeing Christian hill people. This reveals how the tour guides were, in essence, making use of a public good -- animist religious practice -- provided for free by the Akha. So perhaps what they need is to take on a more privatized cultural tourism model, in which some Akha are recompensed for the service of showing off their traditions to tourists (though personally I would count that as more inauthentic than Akha Christianity).

The quotes from McDaniel and Chalermliamthong raise a related point. Both seem to say that the Akha have a choice between a traditional unique Akha identity and no identity. That seems like a problematic statement. I know that I, and many other Christians, value our religious identity in part because it's so widespread -- it links us to the millions of members of the Christian community around the world. This is the question, raised in my earlier post in the context of language, of whether diversity should be maintained (or even created ex nihilo) for its own sake.

Most of my discussion has been premised on the idea that Akha conversion to Christianity has been a more or less free choice, subject only to the inevitable pressures exerted by the religious composition of the community as that relates to the ability to carry out collective religious practice. And the article tends to work that way as well, treating conversion as a bad thing in itself rather than the symptom of an injustice such as forced conversion. However, one paragraph suggests that the tactics of Christian evangelists have crossed the line from "the benefits that maintain the Christian community" to "bribing people to convert":

Studies done by Chayan [Vaddhanaphuti, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University] have revealed that the hill-tribe people often convert because of the perceived benefits church groups offer. "They are assured education, scholarships and health services," he said. "It is these benefits and not religious passion that have attracted more hill-tribe people to convert."

If the Christians are premising education and health services on religious conversion, they're being very (but, sadly, not unusually) poor Christians as well as poor people in general. And it's that sort of bribery that's the problem, not the fact that more Akha are becoming Christian.


Bill Moyers Speaks His Mind On Bush-Brand Environmental Destruction And More

We had Devra Davis, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon, on the show ["NOW" on PBS] recently. She described how Laura and George Bush designed their ranch at Crawford to be environmentally efficient, with solar paneling and lots of new technology. She pointed out that they seem to understand these issues somewhat on an individual level, and yet they don't understand that the personal is not enough. It takes policy to translate. There is a disconnect between how they live privately and how they act publicly.

On the surface, Davis' point seems strange -- environmentalists are used to seeing Bush as anti-environment, nearly to the point of being willfully destructive of the environment as an end in itself. But on further reflection I think it does match well with Bush's overall attitude toward the environment.

I think that on some level Bush really does care about nature and want a clean environment -- at least that much of his midwestern conservatism is sincere. But those feelings stand alongside another important element of that very same midwestern conservatism -- its self-reliant individualism. This means a confidence in "regular folks" as trustworthy and capable of taking care of themselves. Libertarian-influenced economics, with its praise of private enterprise, allows him to transfer this sort of attitude to corporations. Trust of the people tends to translate into a deep suspicion of regulations that would constrain the people and their corporations, regulations that send the message that the people don't know how to take care of themselves. The same goes for "elitist" scientific proclamations about the state of the environment coming from academics who presumably sit in their ivory towers rather than live directly on the soil, perhaps indicating that it's more populism than religion that is at the root of Bush's anti-science attitude (though interestingly a similar idea of the superiority of the knowledge held by "people on the ground" is popular among leftist academics). Surveys have shown that conservatives tend to trust corporations but distrust government, whereas liberals distrust both -- perhaps because liberals see both as external institutions, whereas conservatives see private enterprise as continuous with the people.

All this manifests in Bush's commitment to voluntariness as a centerpiece of environmental stewardship. Bush can see his eco-friendly ranch as a demonstration of the ability of a private individual to do right by the earth without being forced by law. Protecting the environment ought to be good for those with influence over environmental management, as in the case of the rancher who doesn't want his pasture ruined -- and if not, it's not the government's business to butt in.


Science As Democratizer

Does the pursuit of pure science make sense in a world of scarcity and strife? With so much poverty on the planet, why spend vast sums of money on, say, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to replace the Hubble at the end of the decade and observe the first stars and galaxies in the universe; or the Terrestrial Planet Finder, whose mission is to detect other habitable worlds—discoveries that, however astounding, can bring no tangible benefits here on this barely habitable world called Earth?

... That science, even "pure" science, can strengthen democracy and promote public participation in the political process, both in the United States and throughout the world, is hardly ever mentioned. It should be. Scientific literacy energizes democracy, I suggest, and this is an important ancillary benefit of the promotion of science.

... A key to changing the way people think is "critical thinking," the ability to draw logical conclusions, or (more often, in the messy world of social issues) the reverse—to discern gaps in logic, to detect broken conceptual links in the causative chain of, say, campaign promises. Science amplifies our power of discernment; the scientific way of thinking enables us to assess whether facts fit theories, or, in the political arena, whether actual circumstances support proffered positions. Critical thinking is the essence of the scientific method. Knowing the difference between assumption and deduction, and between presumption and proof, can alter one's outlook and transform an electorate. The cognitive skill to distinguish among hope, faith, possibility, probability and certitude are potent weapons in anyone's political survival kit and can be applied in all areas of life and society.

-- via Arts & Letters Daily

Kuhn (the author) makes a decent case, but it's not the case his opening suggests. The democracy-bolstering effects of science as he describes them are not unique to pure, as opposed to applied, science. In fact, I think the opposite case could be made -- that applied science is more beneficial to democracy than pure science. Participating in a democracy is essentially an exercise in applied science (and applied moral philosophy, an element that Kuhn seems to dismiss as mere opinion). A voter is, implicitly or explicitly, registering a decision about such matters as whether a tax cut will stimulate the economy or whether the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is safe, applying his or her judgement about economics or geology in a great social experiment. This goes even more so for those who participate more fully (writing letters to the editor, campaigning for causes, filing lawsuits, etc.).

To the extent that pure science is beneficial to democracy, it ceases to be pure science -- "it improves democratic critical-thinking skills" is an application. Kuhn does seem to recognize this, saying he would "prefer to argue that pure science needs no extrinsic justification -- that to seek knowledge for its own sake is among the grandest of species-affirming human endeavors." My response (in the absence of a more thorough explication of this idea) is to wonder whether pursuing knowledge that can also improve the human condition is not more species-affirming -- indeed, we owe nearly everything we've accomplished as a species to knowledge that helps us operate more successfully within the world. The subtext of Kuhn's praise of pure science seems to be that the knowledge generated by applied science either is somehow less grand (taken as knowledge for its own sake without reference to its use), or is somehow sullied by its contact with the real world. Neither of those seem to be appealing judgements.


The Hamster points to this cartoon that reminds me why The Maroon-News used to get Nick Anderson's cartoons back in the day before I became the staff cartoonist.


In the second installment of his language rights series, Scott M proposes that, in addition to educating minority-language speakers in the dominant language, we ought to be requiring dominant-language speakers to learn a minority language. This evens out the costs of learning to communicate, in contrast to the current system, in which dominant-language speakers can get away with not learning a second language much better than minority language speakers, and thus are less motivated to take on the cost of becoming bilingual. Drawing on the fact that people only really learn languages when they have the social infrastructure to use them regularly, he states that the minority language to be taught to the dominant-language speakers should be the one with the strongest local base, rather than the one that is globally "most useful." Thus anglophones living in California would probably benefit most from learning Spanish, those in New Mexico from learning Navajo, and those in Vermont French. There's much merit to this case. However, its superiority over the current "learn a language, any language" approach rests on the (usually justified) assumption that students will remain close to home for most of their lives. However, that isn't true for many of us. By Scott M's standards, I should have been taught German instead of Spanish in high school (though it's notable that my high school offered German and Spanish, instead of the more common set of French and Spanish). But German would have done me less good once I moved from Pennsylvania to upstate New York (I don't know what the most viable minority language there would be -- perhaps Oneida). And given the neighborhood my new apartment is in, I'd most benefit from knowing Albanian. Certainly I could learn a new language (as I'm struggling to do with Finnish -- a language that's surprisingly useful given the number of Finnophones on the message board I frequent), but childhood is a uniquely productive time for such study. Also, there's the problem of what range of mobility is well-matched to one's second language. Spanish will pay off well for a large portion of the country, imposing no additional language cost on me if I choose to move to any of that area. However, if the appropriate second language for my education had been, say, Hopi, I would be faced with a choice of either sticking within a hundred miles of home, or giving up the utility of my second language.
Ampersand points to a series of posts by Scott M of Pedantry (start here) on language rights. One important issue that Scott highlights is that language rights are inherently collective rights -- knowing a language is merely an issue of intellectual curiosity (as is the case for my attempt to learn Finnish by myself) if you have nobody to speak to in it. Thus language rights differ from individual rights such as free speech that can, in principle, be exercised alone.

In this sense language rights are similar to economic lifestyle rights -- the right to make your living doing a certain thing. This is nearly always something that was a sufficient source of livelihood in the past but which has become unviable because of changing circumstances or context -- similar to the way that linguistic diversity is nearly always premised on preserving and reinforcing old language diversity, rather than introducing a new language to a monolingual community for the sake of making it more diverse (though individual-level newly created diversity is common in places that have a requirement to learn a foreign language -- any one will do -- in education). Economies, like languages, are nearly always collective (the exception being the hermit or self-sufficient mountain man -- though even they depend on the outside society to refrain from encroaching on the individual's resource base). There are certainly unjust infringements on collective economic rights, such as the prohibition on alcohol brewing during Prohibition. This would be analagous to Native American children being punished for speaking their native language during the same time period. However, collective rights are also vulnerable to being undermined by their collective nature. If you can't get enough people to cooperate with you, you lose the ability to make use of your collective economic and language rights.

I wrote a post a while back (it didn't get published into the archives, and I'm leery of republishing at the moment because of my previous bad experience with the new Blogger) that was somewhat critical of this type of presumed right in the case of the Uros of Lake Titicaca. I also have a negative reaction in the case of farming. The stated justification for the enormous and damaging regime of agricultural subsidies handed out by the US is the preservation of the family farm lifestyle. The only economic lifestyle right that can definitely make a claim to being supported by society (that is, one that must be subsidized rather than relying on voluntary tourist/charity support) are those that are beneficial to society as a whole but for whatever reason are not profitable on their own. Of course, where you draw the line of what's beneficial enough to society is less clear -- an argument could be made for supporting the Uros on the same grounds as an argument for government funding of historic preservation in the case of material culture (old buildings and archaeological sites and so forth). This would justify the distinction made between formerly-viable lifestyles and never-viable lifestyles, though the latter may be able to draw on the same justifications that are used for public financing of the arts.

But this seems to blend back into issues that affect individual as well as collective rights -- the question of positive versus negative rights. Certainly a right entails that nobody can directly stop you from doing the thing you have a right to. But does it also entail that society must make sure you have the resources to exercise that right? Does freedom of the press merely mean that the government can't censor anything you manage to get printed, or does it mean that you must be enabled -- persumably by some sort of social subsidy -- to have access of a certain quality to a press, so that external factors such as your economic situation don't prevent you from making good on your right to publish?


Posting will probably be scarce until Sunday.


I recently acquired Weird Al's newest CD, Poodle Hat. While I don't usually write about music here, I figured I'd offer my thoughts anyway.

1. The two best songs were, as usual, originals: "Hardware Store" (featuring a long 16th note quasi-rap about all the items he's going to buy) and "Bob," a Bob Dylan style parody made up of palindromes.

2. Some people think Al's done the "there's so much crap on TV" theme (represented here by "Couch Potato") to death. But I find it interesting how each TV song comes up-to-date, dealing with the TV shows that are popular at the time. So "Couch Potato" deals a lot with reality TV, a phenomenon that was unknown at the time of "Cable TV" (1985) or "I Can't Watch This" (1992). You could also compare how the shift from Alapalooza's (1993) "Talk Soup" to Running With Scissors's "Jerry Springer" (1999) reflects not only Jerry's dominance of the messed-up talk show genre, but also the shift in the type of guests -- from the individual wacko ("I'm just an anorexic codependant bingo addict / Stripper born without a chin") to the dysfunctional family ("Five days since the big surprise / When some loser's wife said that she's still dating twenty guys"). On the other hand, there are themes that Al can do to death, since there isn't as much cultural turnover. "Trash Day" from this album was thematically awfully similar to "Livin' in the Fridge" from Alapalooza and of course there's little in Running With Scissors's "Grapefruit Diet" that wasn't already done in "Fat" from Even Worse (1988).

3. I'm always impressed by how clean Al keeps his humor. He avoids the three topics most beloved by parodists of all ages: sex, drugs, and politics. This fact is quite apparent in "Wanna B Ur Lovr," which is largely made up of bad pick-up lines. Bad pick-up lines nearly always feature subtle (or explicit) sexual innuendoes, but Al largely avoids those without cramping the song.

4. The CD has some bonus computer stuff that's very disappointing. There are some old home movies from his childhood, with narration by adult Al. I've never found him to be that funny when he's not singing. There are also "bonus mixes" which ammount to karaoke versions of some songs, rather than self-sufficient remakes of the songs.
The August issue of Reader's Digest has an article (not available online) about near-death experiences (NDEs). The article suggests that NDEs are evidence for the existence of a soul, and that naturalistic explanations are insufficient. I wrote a research paper in 9th grade arguing this point, though since then I've become somewhat more skeptical and much more aware of the limits of my knowledge of neuroscience. But what interested me in this article was a paragraph near the end:

What does it mean if the mind persists after the brain is dead? Should we, for instance, rethink the harvesting of organs for transplant from the "brain-dead"?

If anything, I would think that the existence of a soul that is separable from the body would make organ donation more appealing. For many people, their opposition to organ donation is rooted in a feeling that their organs are a part of them. But as one survivor in the article said, "... it's not really me, it's just my body." If a person's identity is fully contained within the soul, giving away a kidney would be no different from giving a shirt to the Salvation Army. Note that the first element of an NDE (and hence presumably the first element of a real, final death) is an out-of-body-experience, looking on your own body from above. Then the soul leaves the body behind to go into the tunnel with the light.

The article's concern about organ donation is probably based on the possibility of recussitation after medical death. It's justifiable to be leery of taking organs from someone who might not have passed away for good. But this concern is unrelated to the question of whether there is a soul that keeps on going after death. The fact that "dead" people have been brought back -- and hence that medical judgements of death aren't carved in stone -- is a fact regardless of whether there is a soul.
Whale Flatulence Stuns Scientists

"We got away from the bow of the ship very quickly ... it does stink," said Nick Gales, a research scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division.

However, the episode did not detract from their mission, which was to collect DNA from whale dung and attach satellite tracking devices in the first research of its kind to track where the creatures go and what and how much they eat.

-- via Quark Soup

If their mission is to collect whale poop, I don't think they have much call to be complaining about the smell of whale farts.


Emile Durkhein theorized that there are two forms of "solidarity" that bind the individuals in a society together. Mechanical solidarity, said to be more common among primitive people, results from the people in a society all thinking alike -- sharing the same worldview and skill sets. As society develops and job specialization increases, societies become more characterized by organic solidarity. People develop different ways of thinking, since different jobs demand different skills, but people are bound together by the fact that they're dependent on each other -- the blacksmith doesn't know how to grow food, and the farmer can't make his own plows and pitchforks.

One problem that mechanical solidarity seems to pose is that people are interchangeable. Since everyone is more or less alike, there's no reason why you in particular are necessary to society -- you can't claim a specialized niche in society. (Tangentially, it seems that to the degree that industrialization makes people interchangeable, it is working against organic solidarity in order to increase the power of the employer -- hence the need for group actions like strikes that take advantage of the fact that, while individual workers may be interchangeable, the whole set of workers stands in an organic solidarity relationship to the rest of society. The proletarian class-consciousness that Marx anticipated developing on the shop floor is essentially a form of mechanical solidarity. Marx seemed to envision a wholesale return to mechanical solidarity, as shown by his musings about being able to pursue a different form of employment every day -- only possible if people lack specialized skill and knowledge sets.) It occurred to me that this interchangeability might account for the prevalence of comkplex kinship networks in "primitive" societies that lack strong job specialization. Kinship networks give everyone a place and a role, a special relationship to each other member of a group. They become linked together by socially constructed ties of obligation (as opposed to total communal sharing) that approximate some of the effects of the interdependence of people in societies with organic solidarity. This also seems to explain the decline in the importance of family ties in modernizing societies. People increasingly identify themselves by their position in the network of organic solidarity (e.g. their job) rather than their position in the kinship network. As job (and consumer?) specialization increases, extended families give way to nuclear families and then perhaps to the dreams of some radical leftists that the family will become obsolete.
I finally got around to reading last month's National Geographic, and it had a big article on sexual selection -- female animals selecting mates based on things like mating dances or fancy plumage. It was interesting in light of the claim by Leonard Shlain (linked to a few posts down) that humans became human because women evolved the capacity to say "no" to sex, leading men to have to woo them. Apparently Homo erectus was behind the trend, since evolving sexual selection by the female is prevalent among other animals. Interestingly, most animal wooing behaviors can be interpreted as signals of reproductive fitness, rather than non-sexual quid pro quos as in the case of Shlain's meat-for-sex trade hypothesis.

The article also reminded me of the fact that, when sexual selection is first explained in kids' science classes and publications, it's portrayed as a contrast to how things work in humans -- the multicolored peacock and the drab peahen versus the slovenly man and the shaven, made-up, fashionably-dressed woman. Indeed, you often hear of how female beauty standards are signals for reproductive fitness -- either biologically (e.g. hip/waist size) or cultural (e.g. degree of suntan). It seems that, in the case of humans, either formulation (men trying to win the favor of women or vice versa) sounds plausible in isolation. So sexual selection among humans is much less one-sided than among animals.

Incidentally, I bet this article got NGM a crapload of letters from angry social conservatives, seeing as it combines evolution and sex.
Ordinary People

Confidence in the genius of the Founders and the conviction that their blueprint for our nation is infallible can lend a patriot a rare sense of security, even in troubled times.

... Although [H.W.] Brands admires the Founders, he argues that their most remarkable quality was their boldness in the face of great risk and uncertainty—the very quality that excessive reverence for previous generations stifles. Through their impressive feat of creating a structure of stability for their political descendants, the Founders created a leadership class with a genuine respect for the status quo, and bequeathed to these new leaders a complicated set of problems, both ideological and practical. Today's leadership class, Brands suggests, would do well to take a page out of the Founders' book and apply all their ingenuity to the nation's needs, reworking the Constitution when necessary to address the issues of the day. He argues that the confidence to do this would be a more important inheritance from the Founders than the particulars of the Constitution, a document produced by a small group of men during three months in 1787.

The Founders' boldness in social experimentation is certainly something to keep in mind. But X doesn't mention another way in which reverence for the Founders betrays them: the epistemological. Founder-reverence in its extreme form ammounts to an argument from authority -- such-and-such is true because Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson said it, not because of the inherent worth of the idea. That's quite an odd thing to do to the ideas of men who signed off on a document that opened "We hold these truths to be self-evident" -- i.e., that their ideas were endorsed by reason and evidence rather than tradition or authority.

On the other hand, I think there are some positive functions served by a degree of reverence for the Founders. The Founders give us a shared ideal. Both liberals and conservatives will tell you that they are trying to uphold the core values of America, values which are frequently legitimated by reference to the Founders. Even something like the abolitionist movement, which brought about two constitutional amendments and eliminated a practice carried on by many Founders, justified itself as purifying the Founders' own vision that "all men are created equal." This gives politics a degree of stability that it wouldn't have if our major factions self-identified as wanting to throw out America's founding principles in favor of communism or theocracy.

Adherence to exegesis of Founder-derived principles also opens a greater possibility for one side of a debate to win over its opponents, because the sides share at least some basic principles. It's analagous to what would happen if a Catholic were to debate the doctrine of the Trinity with a Muslim and one of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the Catholic vs. Muslim debate, the issue would remain unresolved, because their arguments are based on different axioms (the authority of the Bible vs. the Qur'an). But the Catholic and the Witness may be able to come to some agreement, because they both assert that their stance is based on the Bible.


A further thought on the economic basis of gender inequality among the Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego:

The Hain ceremony involved the men retreating to a lodge, where they would dress up as the demon Shoort and go out to terrorize the women (according to the myth that only the men knew, the women used to do this very thing to the men constantly, extorting food from the men through fear). The Hain was not held regularly, because it was a long ceremony and reguired withdrawing the band's food providers from their hunting duties. So it would be held opportunistically, whenever the band happened upon a large food source such as a beached whale. So the whale could be seen as a necessary condition enabling the Hain.

On the other hand, it seems that the Hain could be seen as a reaction to finding a whale. The presence of a food source not obtained through male hunting would seem to threaten the economic base of the patriarchy for as long as the food lasted -- women weren't dependent on men to hack off a piece of blubber. So the men would respond by staging an ideological ploy for reinforcing their power, to make up for their economic vulnerability. You could call the myth of men upsetting the ancient women's Hain a projection of what the men feared the women would do if they knew enough and had the resources. Note that during the time of the anicent women's Hain, hunter men were the sole food providers, analagous to women's access to food from the beached whale during the modern men's Hain.
Leonard Shlain Believes That Evolution Gave Women An Edge That's Been A Threat To Men

[Author Leonard] Shlain contends that "the history of our species could be written from the perspective that males have spent the last 150,000 years trying to regain the power they so emphatically lost to females when we differentiated away from Homo erectus."

Let's consider some adaptations Gyna sapiens [prehistoric women, as opposed to Homo sapiens men] underwent. First, there's that messy menses thing. Only the human female endures such periodic intrinsic housecleaning. As well, only the human female has a cryptic estrus, experiences orgasm with a capital "O," is sexually receptive year round and has the wherewithal to deny a male her sex, thanks to the annexed brain that can at least partially override sexual urges powered by instinct and hormones. All the while, the menfolk remained more or less as they were. They did, however, modify their behavior (whatever it took to gain a lady's favors). But can you imagine the supreme confusion of the first man who got shut down by a woman?

The oldest and most baffling question ever to bubble from a man's head is this: What do women want? Never shy to put in his two bits, Shlain believes he knows. It's iron -- at least that's what ancestral Eve craved. Iron is the catalytic center of the hemoglobin molecule that transports oxygen to cells. Our big brains require an awful lot of oxygen; that, coupled with a woman's periodic loss of blood, creates a chronic need for iron. So it goes that Mother Nature gives with one hand (the big brain to say no to a man) while taking away with the other (requiring a woman to secure a rich supply of iron by way of meat, by way of a hunter). Man gives woman meat, woman gives man sex.

-- via WitchVox

This theory seems on some level insulting to women. It's based on the old idea that women don't want sex for itself (ironic considering the article just pointed out that human females are unique in experiencing orgasms), so sex is just a bargaining chip they have for getting stuff from heterosexual men. Sex has exchange-value but no use-value for women, to put it in Marxist terms. The same appears (later in the article) to go for children, as well -- the desire for progeny is presented as a male response to the fear of death. Yet if women didn't have sex, there's nothing stopping them from hunting their own meat -- men tend to take on the role of hunter because that role is incompatible with childcare. It's also insulting to men, by suggesting that our desires are that simple and transparent (we just want sex), and that the remainder of our behavior toward women ammounts to a ploy to make sure we can get some. A glance at the women's magazines at any supermarket checkout should suffice to establish that straight women ask "what do men want?" at least as often as straight men ask the reverse.

Then there are the other anthropological errors. First, the explanation of women's shift to year-round fertility and the ability to say "no" applies equally well to men. For all the talk about how men think with their genitals, we've come a long way from animal-like instinctive mating seasons, due to those big brains that both sexes have and can use to regulate their sexual behavior. Men can do without sex, if necessary.

Then there's the misunderstanding of hunter-gatherer food sharing practices. We'll set aside the oversimplified "men hunt, women gather" idea. Shlain's theory seems to be based on a conception of a society made up of sexually active adults, living in independent nuclear families. But that's not how it works. Both men and women in hunter-gatherer societies share with a large social network, made up of people of both sexes and all ages, few of which are having sex with the provider. Unless this wider sharing of meat is an additional price extorted by the hunters' wives in exchange for their sexual services (a proposition consistent with the Goddess feminist idea that women are inherently altruistic), something doesn't add up.

Finally, a need for male hunting seems like something that would confer power on men. Consider the Yamana and Selk'nam people in Tierra del Fuego. The Yamana are a fairly gender-egalitarian society, whereas the Selk'nam strike me as having been among the more patriarchal tribes we know of. The Yamana eat a variety of seafood, collected and hunted by both sexes. The Selk'nam, on the other hand, live almost entirely on guanaco meat, which was procured by men. It's not a stretch to say that male dominance was built in part on their control of the food supply. Interestingly, Selk'nam men seem to have experienced a lot of anxiety about the possible return of a repressive matriarchy, and felt the need to maintain their superiority through the subterfuge of the Hain ceremony. The Yamana later adopted the Hain, but treated it as a joke.


One popular argument against creationism and Intelligent Design is to point out that, if God designed all the speices we see, he did a pretty poor job. Lots of organisms seem jury-rigged in ways consistent with a short-sighted, gradual process like evolution, but baffling under the assumption that everything was planned out by an intelligent being (barring resort to the "God works in mysterious ways" defense*).

It seems, though, that the resulting theory of Incompetent Design is made less religious. ID is generally seen as a way for Christian creationists to advance their goals while claiming that their theory is not religious. Neoplatonism has bequeathed to Christian theology an assumption that God is perfection. This view of religion is deep-rooted in our culture (leading one of the characters in Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion to argue that polytheism is more akin to atheism than to theism, because both deny the existence of a perfect being). Most of the philosophical arguments for God's existence assume that God is a perfect being. The claim that God could not be simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is generally taken by both sides as a refutation of the existence of any God, on the assumption that if God exists, he must be perfect in all ways. Thus, ID proponents are helped in their ostensible claim while their presumable real motivation is undermined.

Perhaps the real beneficiary of Incompetent Design is the theory of design by non-divine extraterrestrials. This theory is usually encountered as a hypothetical possibility raised by ID proponents in order to defend against the charge that "designer" is just another way of saying "God." It is, however, popular (in the case of human evolution, at least) among proponents of the "ancient astronauts" theory. Extraterriestrials of limited power, knowledge, and benevolence, fighting among themselves, could easily produce the kinds of jury-rigged adaptations that weigh against more perfect designers. Of course, the less perfect we make the designer, the less weight the primary argument for a designer ("it's too perfect not to be designed") has.

* This is a good example of what I wrote earlier about faith. This type of defense is sometimes reasonable as a salvage maneuver when it keeps the book open for later discovery of non-obvious explanations. But it's unhelpful when it's used as a final and positive argument.


I'm secret-ninja-posting while I'm supposed to be away (see previous post) to update the Kiosk with its very first political entry. The honor goes to sarcastic use of the Fox News slogan "fair and balanced." The recent lawsuit against Al Franken has whipped this phenomenon into such a frenzy that I can barely stand to read many left-leaning blogs anymore. Jeez-ma criminy, people, get a grip.


Probably no posts until this weekend (assuming my parents have fixed their computer -- if not, then probably not until the following weekend). After that, we should be back to normal.


Sadly, it has come to my attention that, while the Finns call themselves "swamp people," we Anglophones do not. I had been led to believe that "Finn" was etymologically related to "fen." But Sam Mikes (found via the update to the Eugene Volokh post he's spinning off of) points out that the prevailing scholarly opinion is that "Finn" is more likely related to "find." This means that, etymologically speaking, Anglophones are referring to a certain group of Scandinavians as "hunter-gatherers" (though they do still presumably hunt and gather in the swamp).


Blogger just decided to republish all of my archives, thus sticking them all in this happy green template. I suppose I should be happy that it actually publishes archives now, but all in all I'm not happy with the performance.


In the comments on my post about the origins of marriage, Amanda asked what impact I think the origins of marriage have, or should have, on the contemporary institution. I'd say "little or nothing."

I don't believe that institutions, or anything else, have a purpose inherent in them. There are just functions that they do or can serve at present. This means we're well within our rights to find new uses for things. I'd take as a model the process of evolution. Time and time again throughout the history of life, a feature that had been serving one purpose (say, a leg being used for walking) was appropriated for another purpose (made into a wing for flying). Humans, of course, have an even greater capacity than the natural evolutionary process for coming up with novel ways to use things that came into being for quite different reasons.

Unfortunately, the gay marriage debate is full of claims based on the "true" purpose of something (e.g. marriage, or sex). Such claims seem to me to be an attempt to give the claimant's idea of what purpose an institution should serve the stamp of a higher level of reality, a level of ideal forms without all the ambiguities of the real world. Framing "true purpose" in terms of "original purpose" serves to link the claim back into the real world and put an empirical coating on what would otherwise look like pure metaphysics.

I think the debate needs to be framed in this way: "History has bequeathed to us this institution of marriage. What functions can and ought it serve for us from here on out?" History can supply important information about what works and what doesn't, and offer suggestions as to the consequences of different arrangements, but it can't answer the value-question of which of the possible avenues we ought to pursue.


The quote from JeffScott in the previous post reminded me of certain radical feminist theories about social relations in the supposed days of prehistoric matriarchy, which in turn prompted some thoughts about the study I linked to earlier (and the common assumption that it seems to confirm) about men's inherent promiscuity. One theory about matriarchal sexual relations holds that promiscuity was once deliberately practiced by women in order to foil attempts to determine a child's paternity. The idea of sexual fidelity was then invented by men as part of their consolidation of power once they got control.
Ampersand has been taking on some arguments against gay marriage recently, and in this post he makes a point that I've thought about posting (though unfortunately I've tended to forget about it once I get in front of a computer:

... many of my heterosexual friends have questioned if they'll get married or not because they're not sure they want to be part of an exclusionary and homophobic institution.

At the moment I think the number of people who would see marriage as delegitimized by including gays is greater than the number of people who see it as delegtimized by the exclusion of gays (especially considering that the anti-gay contingent is more likely to be part of a culture that sees marriage as a necessary milestone in life, whereas the pro-gay camp is more likely to see marriage as optional regardless of whether it's open to gays). But the cultural trend is headed in the right direction, and legalization of gay marriage would contribute to that movement, by creating "facts on the ground" that would influence those -- like myself before I got involved with punditry -- who haven't thought much about the issue.

But what I really wanted to post about comes in a comment on Amp's refutation of the anti-gay-marriage argument du jour -- "the purpose of marriage is to have and raise kids." JeffScott replies:

Actually, the primary reason marriage evolved, as is clear from the anthropological and ethnographic records, was to codify and institutionalize monogamy. And the reason for doing that was to minimize competition amoung men for access to women. Legal marriage historically has been an agreement between less powerful men and more powerful men, not between men and women.

I can't vouch for Jeff's anthropology -- indeed, it seems difficult to see how such a conclusion could be reached given that so far as I know, no societies without some sort of marriage institution have been documented. And his logic seems like it would apply just as well to polygamy as to monogamy. A more generalized form of the theory -- seeing marriage as a sort of social contract for sex, much as social contract theories typically deal with agreements about recognizing others' rights to property -- strikes me as having a degree of truth, though I haven't read much of the anthropological literature on the subject.

But let's consider for a moment the version Jeff gives, which specifies a contract among men to codify individuals' rights to sex. By that logic, it seems that those advocating fidelity to the orginal purpose of marriage would be forced to accept (indeed, even encourage) marriage of gay men, while banning lesbian marriage. When two men get married, they essentially take themselves out of the pool of potential competitors for women (not that they would be fighting very hard anyway, with the exception of bisexual men choosing a same-sex partner -- but even when purely homosexual men got married it would at least give some peace of mind to the remaining heteros so that they don't have to worry about those men deciding to enter the field). That makes the odds better for the remaining men. Lesbian marriage, on the other hand, would reduce the number of available women (if women even had the authority to make such a contract -- which seems dubious in the patriarchal situation Jeff indicates). The fact that these women may not have any interest in hetero marriage is moot given the reasonable assumption that in such a society a women could be forced to comply by her husband and father, or just by sheer economic necessity.


Via Tacitus, I came across this set of Washington Post readers' answers to the question "Do Jews, Christians and Muslims all pray to the same God?" The answers are more or less what you'd expect -- some people saying "they're all the God of Abraham" and others objecting "Jews and Muslims don't believe in Jesus."

But it seems the line between gods is blurry. Certainly within a polytheistic religion one can draw lines between gods, but between different religions it's less clear. Imagine, for example, that you and I both wanted to write letters to the President of the United States. We both mail them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. But you opened yours "Dear Mr. Bush," whereas I opened mine "Dear Mr. Gore." Have we both written to the same person? Alternately, consider that we both decide to write letters to George W. Bush, but while you open yours "Dear President Bush," I open mine "Dear Governor Bush." Are we writing to the same person?

Perhaps a more telling question would be "does the real God hear the prayers of Jews, Christians, and Muslims?" That is, how accurate does a person's conception of God have to be before God will recognize that person's prayers? In my letter-writing analogy, would George W. Bush respond to a letter that arrived in his office with the mistaken greeting of "Dear Mr. Gore" or the outdated greeting "Dear Governor Bush"? (And to stretch the metaphor even further, would the postal system even deliver a letter addressed to "Al Gore, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" or "Governor Bush, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue"?)

I'll leave it as an excercise for the astute reader to guess how I would answer the God-questions.


In the car this morning, Jocelyn had a Christian radio station on. They did a news segment about a recent study claiming to show that men are genetically programmed to be more promiscuous than women. The segment consisted mostly of clips from conservative theologians denouncing the study and its implications, and ended with a general claim about how belief in evolution necessarily leads to a different (and by implication worse) worldview than creationism.

The theologians' basic point -- that saying something is genetic can encourage people to view it as acceptable -- has some validity, and is raised secularly in the article I linked. But what was interesting to me is the theologians' frequent references to the Fall (of Adam and Eve), which leads to some thoughts on the intersection of natural/unnatural and good/bad.

What the theologians fear is a simple equation of "natural" with "good" (though I wonder how many of them would use that same tactic to condemn homosexuality). They fear that people would be inclined to simply surrender to "nature." But within Christianity, nature comes in two varieties. There's pure nature, which was created by God and declared to be good during the first six days. But there's also corrupted nature, created by Adam and Eve, and bequeathed to all subsequent people, by their original sin. Corrupted nature is natural in the sense that it's programmed in to us, so to speak -- a stain of inclination to immorality (and by some accounts other afflictions like disease) that people have to struggle against as surely as the struggle against gravity. The theologians seem to fear that secular worldviews, lacking the concept of corrupted nature, would thus see all nature as pure nature (indeed, many conservative Christians would say that Adam was not genetically predisposed to want partners other than Eve, and that if later men are genetically promiscuous, the genes that cause that are the biochemical manifestation of Adam's sin).

It's important to point out, however, that the secular "natural/evolved=good" equation that the theologians fear secular people will make is a misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution seems a more tempting place to invoke this mistaken equation because of its association with the idea of progress. If we evolved the characteristic of male promiscuity somewhere along the line, then it must make us "fitter" than those genetically monogamous males who are no longer around. But there is no such thing as absolute fitness. Fitness is always contextual -- more or less fit for a particular environment. A craving for fats was a useful adaptation in hunter-gatherer times, but it doesn't work so well in a food-rich society. Since an organism's environment is made up, in a large part, by other evolving organisms, evolution is more a balancing act than an upward motion. Certainly there are some adaptations that are useful in almost any scenario. But there are no grounds for assuming that is the case with any particular adaptation.


Jeff has a post up about Carl Sagan's statement "Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable." As a counterexample, he offers the fact that the story of Jesus would be valuable in inspiring ethical conduct even if it were proven scientifically that Jesus never lived.

But I don't think that the example Jeff is using does what he wants it to do. It seems quite possible to extract the benefits of Jesus as an ethical model without believing that he was a historically real person -- much as we can be inspired to lead a better life by the example of the tortoise who outran the hare, or by Gandalf. Certainly many theologians would contend that Jesus' teachings are meaningless if he was not real (and not really the Son of God). But even if we grant that premise, it is apparent that on a practical level, dealing with ordinary non-theologian people, the logical contradictions wouldn't impair the pragmatic efficacy of treating the story of Jesus like any other fictional story with a moral. So one can believe that Jesus didn't exist and yet not have to reject the story as irrelevant (indeed, this is my approach to much of what's in the Bible).

The real question, then, is: if we prove that Jesus never existed, should (or may) people continue to believe otherwise? For some people, I would say yes. There's a great diversity in the human psyche, so for some, but not all, people, belief in the historical reality of Jesus may be the optimal strategy for leading a happy and moral life. Of course, taking this pragmatic angle opens up the question of how we prove that Jesus never existed. "Jesus never existed" is not so much a Truth as a theory that is (in this hypothetical scenario) most useful in making sense of historical data, and thus recommends itself to people whose need to have an explanation of a certain set of historical information outweighs their dependence (if any) on belief in Jesus for happiness and morality.

I haven't read Sagan, but anti-fable and anti-pragmatism statements like his often rest on an implicit pragmatism. Rather than showing that belief in the truth is good for its own sake, the argument is that you can't fool yourself forever, and eventually your fable will get you in trouble -- as when Stalin was caught unprepared because of his insistence on believing that Hitler would honor the non-agression pact (my honors thesis was an exploration of how this type of problem plagued Soviet policy toward the Aral Sea). Basically, it amounts to the (important) argument that truth is more useful than many proponents of crude pragmatism realize (an argument also made by one of the original Pragmatists, John Dewey). Their error lies in attributing too high a utility to truth and too easy a separation between truth and fable, often springing from mistakenly assuming that the ends people's theories about the world must serve are mostly the same for everyone.


Co-Existence Good For People And Wildlife, Conservationist Says

[David Western] increasingly believed humans (and their farming activities) and wild animals (and their habitat) could co-exist and benefit from each other. Western became a leading advocate for involving local communities in conservation efforts.

... Similar to what has happened in the United States, much of Kenya's grasslands has turned into thick shrub. On the other hand, as more people have acquired land titles, they have helped curb deforestation by planting trees and terracing their farms.

"It's a surprising conclusion," said Western. "More people, less erosion."

... "When you take the human element out of the [national] park, you always have a slump in diversity," he said.

This shouldn't be all that surprising. But we've focussed so much on the destructive aspects of human impacts on the environment (for good reason) that concerned people tend to see our species as inevitably a blight on the landscape, defiling the purity of nature. Exceptions are sometimes made for hunter-gatherers, who are thought of as "natural." I'd speculate that the classical liberal tradition has contributed as well by raising "leave it alone" to the status of the highest moral duty toward "it" ("it" being other humans in the classical liberal tradition of freedom to be the ideal automomous individual). This attitude has provided fodder for critics of environmentalism (the folks over at the Ayn Rand Institute are masters of this genre) to caricature environmentalists as anti-civilization and even anti-humanity.