Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body
by Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin, a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, writes an entertaining book that feels much more like a journey through time in which we can watch the evolutionary process take place. But, instead of going back to the much visited time of our primate ancestors, he takes us way way back to the time when fish were the most advanced creatures on the planet. Along the way he tells us about some interesting remnants of our fishy past; like the evolution of hiccups, which is an anotomical remnant of the breathing method of tadpoles.

Our anatomy is, of course, just a derivation of our ancestor's anatomy. But, once we took beyond mammals, it can get pretty difficult to see our resemblances to the other creatures of our planet. Shubin points out the origins of our eyes, ears, nose, and other body parts and shows how they developed from early fish. It's an interesting anatomy lesson that will make sure you never think of your body the same way again.

By interweaving the science in between tales of the day to day aspects of fossil hunting, Neil not only makes the narrative intriguing and profound, but he makes the world of paleontology much more accessible.

~ Victor Tanner


The Bible and Its Influence by Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson

It may be argued that Bible literacy is the first step to a realization that the Bible is not as it claims to be - "God breathed" or "inspired by God."  - 2 Tim. 3:16.  It may be argued that a public school should teach the Bible as literature, so that students will be able to experience Western literature more fully by recognizing the Biblical allusions.  You perhaps would agree that in teaching the Bible a supplementary textbook would help in giving background to the historical context.

The first problem in teaching the Bible is the selection of the translation to be used, (There several dozen translations available).  The New Jerusalem Bible is a fine translation by Catholic scholars, however, it is not mentioned by the textbook being reviewed.  The New International Version is a good conservative Protestant translation.  The New Revised Standard Version is an acceptable translation by Catholic and many mainstream Protestant groups.  However, none of these would give the allusions, quotations,  and references that the King James Version would..  It has influenced more literature and speeches than any other literature. 

The second concern is what supplementary reading you would select to explain context and history of the Biblical books.  In a public school, you must search out the textbook with no theological influence and bias.

This review examines the supplementary textbook, The Bible and Its Influenceby Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson, 2006.  It is widely advertised on the internet as a, "break through public school Bible textbook", and "an unparalleled accomplishment."  To appeal to the insecure, it states, "Many schools will simply not feel comfortable teaching this subject without a companion student textbook."  Their book is the companion book that will answer all the questions.

The book is heavily illustrated with iconic pictures from Christian art.  It has the appearance of a coffee table book on the Bible.  However, beneath this veneer of art is a biased religious text.  The content contributors: Joanne McPortland has written a book on the Mass, which does not appear to be of a scholarly type; Marjorie Haney Schafer, Ph.D, has taught religious studies and English at the college level and is a freelance author; Marc Stern, J.D., writes on political topics from a conservative point of view; and Eve Tushnet, who blogs as a conservative social commentator.  None of these contributors are Biblical scholars or unbiased in their view.

The purpose of this book is to help in understanding the Bible's influence in, "literature, art, music, culture, public policy, and public debate."  It repeats over and over how the book does not violate the separation of church and state and presents the material in a legally acceptable way.  It does indicate, "you will encounter differing religious views, but the views will neither be encouraged nor discouraged."  No one "will ... be asked to conform to any of the beliefs you encounter in this course."  Is it necessary to present Biblical references in a theological context?  The selection of Genesis 2: 18-23 (p. 32) illustrates the theologizing of the text.  In the comment box, this scripture is described as portraying,"marriage as part of God's intention for humans, a sexual union for companionship, and the rearing of children."  To draw this conclusion, you must reject a theology that would argue for gay marriage.

A second example comes from John 1: 1-5, 10 - 14.  The text is described as a "view of Jesus as both God and man."  It is "...a foundational belief of the Christian community"...created by "... church councils such as that of Nicaea in the year 325 ...."  The Council of Nicaea, "begins to articulate the Christian doctrine of the incarnation... and the Trinity..."  This is theologizing of the text.  Not all Christian faiths draw this conclusion.

In explaining the short and long version of the Gospel of Mark they comment, "the alternate endings show how the manuscripts for the gospels grew and developed."  The scholarship that exposed this is not acknowledged, and it is presented as a normal development of scripture.  It does not raise questions about the two endings as examples of tampering with the text.

A third example of conservative influence is on the dating of when the Gospels were written.  Ten years may not seem important; however, if that Gospel is prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, it has an influence on credibility.  Because we do not have original copies of the Gospels, we must estimate the time period based on information in the text, secular history, and archeology.  The fragments we do have date from around the third century.  In addition, the Codex Siniticus, containing the complete New Testament, dates from around the mid-4th century.  This textbook fails to refer to any of the scholarship done on the early manuscripts.  Compare their dates with those of Raymond Brown, an internationally recognized New Testament scholar in his book, An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, 1997,:

  Bible and Its Influence   Brown’s N.T. Intro.
  Matthew  – 50 – 60 CE  80-90
  Mark      -  50 – 60 CE  68-73
  Luke       - 60 – 70 CE  85
  John       - 90 – 100 CE  80-110

Rome destroyed the temple in 70 CE.  Only Mark might have written before the destruction of the Temple, but his book is also under question as to its date of composition.  The Bible Literacy Project clearly sets dates that would accommodate the credibility of prophecy but not the credibility of scholarship.

The fourth example is one of omission, and this one highlights the failure of the textbook to come to terms with scholarship.  In John 7:53 - 8:11, we have the famous scene of Jesus forgiving the adulteress.  The saying that has become infamous and important to Christian teaching is: "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."(King James Version)  Most Protestant groups reject this as authentic material.  A textbook dedicated to allusions, sayings, and scholarship surely would comment on this problem so as to set the Biblical record straight, but no they do not.  What else does this textbook cover-up or omit?

The book does not reference or recognize new critical scholarship to any great extent.  In fact to this reviewer, they have gone out of their way to avoid any serious critical examination of the Bible.  In the introduction they explain the writings of Paul as being in part not written by him.  However, they fail to acknowledge the scholarship that identifies the problems raised by such a discovery.  But remember these small problems do not change the Bible's mission, as this text would  describe, and that is  to be God's word.  Or as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3: 16, "All scripture is inspired by God (breathed out of God), God-breathed, or given by God for teaching and showing right from wrong."  For scholars, the identification of errors in the Biblical text is not a sign of God's dictation or being "God-breathed" but of the human origins of the Bible. - Grant Steves

Moral Minds by Marc Hauser

If all moralities were rooted in the Bible or the god of the Bible, we would have the solution to all moral questions. However, did the morality of indigenous people's from the Australian aborigines to the Amazon tribal groups develop their morality from the Bible? In both cases, they were not exposed to the Bible to any degree until the 19th century. Millions of people were never exposed to the Bible as a source of law and wisdom until the 20th century. Nevertheless, we know from historical accounts that the phrase, "do unto others, as you would have them do unto you," is universal. The principles of fairness and justice are in all cultures but are not derived from holy writ. Where do these principles come from? How have they come to be?

The book, Moral Minds (2006) by Marc Hauser (professor of Psychology and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University), proposes that morality has evolved.  He believes that the answer to what is moral is not to be found in a burning bush but in the study of how we have evolved.  The theory that he develops is descriptive of morality evolving.  Professor Hauser provides a description of the unconscious and inaccessible principles that operate our moral judgments.  At no time does he provide a directive as to what people ought to do.  This is a book descriptive and not prescriptive of morality.

It becomes apparent that an understanding of his major influences helps the reader.  His theory is constructed on the general insights of: Noam Chomsky's linguistic analysis; John Rawls' theory of justice and fairness developed in the PhD thesis of J. M. Mikhail; Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning; and M. Hoffmans's study on empathy and morality.  From these influences Professor Hauser believes we are born with abstract rules or principles with nurture entering the picture to set parameters and guide us toward the acquisition of particular moral systems.  These abstract rules or principles incorporate "a universal moral grammar, a toolkit for building specific moral systems."  Our knowledge of this system (somewhat grounded in Noam Chomsky's grammatical formulations) will enable us to understand the moral domain.  However, Hauser has not fully developed the grammar and moral refinement, but it has clear possibilities.

If you were to agree that fairness is one of the basic moral responses (this was derived from John Rawls' Theory of Justice), you could believe it is one of the components of the moral grammar.  For example, fairness or justice seem to have evolved into a complex political concept; but in its less complex form, in human relations, it is about the treatment of others in an equitable manner.  Hauser views fairness through George Lakoff's ten-tiered taxonomy.  Fairness is how we treat distribution, opportunity, rights, responsibility, and power.  How we permit each of these to be applied brings about fairness.  Power is treated fairly in a democratic manner.

Hauser draws upon research with animals to support his theory.  He uses the example of the Rhesus monkey to generalize about human behavior.  It is acknowledging that what is observed is subject to interpretation.  It is observed that when a Rhesus monkey sees a fellow monkey in pain, when they are eating, they will stop eating to prevent this pain from happening to the other monkey.  This could be a form of empathy and the reaction a form of compassion.

We also see this in the feeding habits of the vampire bats.  When a bat fails to find food and returns to the colony, the others will feed it.  This could be considered a form of altruism or tribal preservation.  The test of this theory was observed when the bats returned and fed a bat that was not related to their tribe.

These examples from animal behavior may be generalized to human behavior by noting that many animals have developed what appears to be a morality.  If taken from an evolutionary point of view, we might conclude this behavior is innate, and that it evolved.  That would mean to nurture, in the case of humans, refines the application of moral principles that we find within our genetic system by our evolutionary ancestors.

Hauser cautions, however, that this is descriptive and a theory, but it is a theory that is getting considerable attention in several books: The Evolution of Morality (2006), Richard Joyce; The Moral Animal (1994, Robert Wright; Empathy and Moral Development (2006), Martin Hoffman; and Primates and Philosophers (2006), Frans de Waal.  It would be advantageous for the atheist community to explore some of these books in this developing area of moral evolution. - Grant Steves


The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey

The Secular Conscience is a highly commendable statement on the need to reclaim the moral compass from the religious right and left.  The assumption that only the religious people have a moral compass is blatantly false.  Because the Pharisaic religious people pray in public and make a show of their moral compass, does not mean in fact their real morality is better than a secular person who does not make this show.  It is important that secularists must declare their moral beliefs and the basis for their beliefs.

Austin Dacey's, The Secular Conscience goes a long way in helping to rescuer the moral compass for the secular believers.  It is in the openness of a democratic society that we are most apt to discover what the opening of conscience is.  His argument is that science governed by openness has resulted in the development and refinement of ideas.  An open source method, he references the London Think tank Demos, has ten characteristics:

1.     Transparency, 2) Vetting of participants only after they've got involved, 3) Low cost and ease of engagement, 4) A legal structure and enforcement mechanism, 5) Leadership, 6) Common standards, 7) Peer review and feedback loops, 8) A shared conception of goals, 9) Incrementalist - small players can still make useful contributions, and 10) Powerful non-monetary incentives.  When applies to science it is non-sectarian and non-authoritarian.  The product resulting is a ‘public - good.'

Conscience, he argues, should share many of the key features of the open source methods.  It allows for the ethical assumption made to be scrutinized by a public and not just by the private individual thoughts.  I would suggest the forum and blogs on the Internet are achieving this dialogue to some degree.

When the former Iranian President Khatami appeared at the United Nations, he expressed an "earnest hope that through such a dialogue, the realization of universal justice and liberty may be instituted."  While he was expressing this his country was stomping out free press (over 150 newspapers were suppressed), imprisoning more people of conscience than any other government, and is a state sponsor of terrorism.  Dacey would argue that in this religiously based organization (the government of Iran is a theocratic state) the dialogue of conscience was shut down, and it became a dictator of ethics and values.

Even in our own country where we sponsor the economic theory of the free market place, developed at by Adam Smith, we do not reflect as favorably using his economic theory on questions of conscience, as his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, did.  The open society, the free market place is for the development of ideas.  Here the dialogue on ethics looks at the consequences of ethical actions realistically and not prejudicially.  For example, acceptance of gay marriage or civil unions has been discussed but the prevailing sentiments have been from authoritarian sources that pre - judge.  The dialogue does not ask what happens differently from not having this ethical choice.  Does this really undermine marriage more than legalized divorce?  Do we really undermine sexual behavior or choice any more than the religiously guided system we have now?

An open dialogue of conscience allows and encourages this discussion.  Dacy believes that liberty and privacy are not the circumventing of public dialogue on what is right and good but are in fact it is necessary to put our private conscience in the public  dialogue and be prepared to reason why your position is valid or not.  Our "freedom of belief does not free her from examination; it frees her belief for examination."

It is this examination of these beliefs that helps us to discover the principles - the common standards - by which we can evaluate our beliefs."  For Dacey ‘religious experience is not a reliable guide to truth' because it does not allow for the judgment of reason and the opinion of dialogue.

This book is a strong argument for secular ethics based upon a public conscience.  Liberals must not concede the public morality to the private individual or religious groups.  Rather we must examine our belief in tolerance when it tolerates those that are intolerant.  He argues we must call to account those who would support intolerant beliefs or acts against others.  It is to condemn the KKK or Nazis for their bigotry.  It is more difficult to call to account the moderates who keep silent about the atrocities done in society.  Whether it is the silence against jihads, killing others because of the blasphemy against your religion, or murdering a young gay man moderates must speak out. 

In the end Dacey observes that, "Secular ethics begins with the reality of love, the desire for the good of the other for the sake of the other.  This is a foundation for a conscience that, "unites thinking persons and free peoples across ethnic, national and creedal lines, and in its unfolding through public conversation, our moral lives are measured out."  It is lifting up the secular liberal conscience to a public sphere where all ethical systems are examined for validity. - Grant Steves


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