Voice of Sanity – February 2014
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Editor: Joyce Bates
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The Voice of Sanity
THE NEWSLETTER OF THE UPSTATE S.C. SECULAR HUMANISTS
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Second Saturday Brunch, February 8th, 10:00AM to 12:00 noon, at Denny’s restaurant, 2521 Wade Hampton Blvd.
The Sunday meeting and discussion is from 11:00AM to 1:00PM every Sunday; location: the Earth Fare 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville
The Free-Thought group meets 7:00PM, every other Thursday (February 13th and 27th); location: Palmetto Steak House; 102 East Beacon Drive; near Pelham Road exit off I85.
CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)
To begin with, Charles Darwin came from a family that was not without curiosity about the natural world and the financial resources to investigate it. His paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a successful medical doctor who was interested in a wide variety of 19th century developments in natural science, sociology and technological inventions such as the steam engine. There is no doubt he was aware of the concept of evolution because it appears in his own writings.
Charles’s maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood owner of the famous Wedgwood pottery works. Surprisingly, Josiah was self-educated because his formal schooling ended when his father died. He was put to work at the factory at the age of eight. His business inventions included a process to insure easy stacking of plates, teapot handles that never burnt fingers, better glazes, more flexible clays, and improved mass production.
The two grandfathers were close friends and members of an unusual group called the Lunar Society of Birmingham. This organization is little known today but was an important center for oiling communication among those who pushed forward the inventions and scientific work of the 18th century enlightenment. Members who lived in Birmingham communicated on a daily basis, and those outside the city were in touch weekly. Communications extended outside of the country and formed a network of contacts between non-members that is amazing. A few of the names associated with the Society are: James Hutton, (father of modern geology); James Watt, (inventor of the steam engine); Matthew Boulton, (inventor of the prototype for the steam engine); Benjamin Franklin, (along with all his other accomplishments conducted experiments in electricity with Boulton); Joseph Priestley, (discovered oxygen), William Small, (professor at the College of William and Mary and instructor of Thomas Jefferson).
Darwin’s network of knowledgeable people was already in place before he was born. So were all the financial resources to enable his experimentation and research. Darwin was never obliged to earn a salary and never had to compete for a professorship at any university. In his entire lifetime, all of the books he wrote including Origins, brought only 10,000 pounds. When he married Emma Wedgwood in 1839, both families set the couple up with what, in American dollars, would amount to $1,250,000 capital yielding an interest of $83,000 yearly income. He was free to pursue any career he wished, and pursued careful biological research almost exclusively for the rest of his life.
It’s true he studied medicine in Edinburgh. After only two sessions his father insisted he switch to Cambridge for an “Ordinary” degree in Divinity where he successfully completed his studies. One may wonder how he could have been successful studying to be a parson. The truth is that he was also out shooting, hunting beetles, and forming ties with scientific minds at the university. Among them were Reverend Adam Sedgwick, professor of geology and Reverend John Stevens Henslow, professor of mineralogy and biology. Henslow was the one instrumental in obtaining Darwin’s passage on the Beagle.
The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years (1831-1836). It made stops on both coasts of South America where Darwin explored such contrasting environments as the jungles of Brazil, the barren cold of Tierra del Fuego, the earthquake region of northern Chile, and the unique biology of the Galapagos. He also found time to read Sir Charles Lyells work Principles of Geology during the voyage. The Beagle made other stops at Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and the coral islands of Cocos and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Darwin compiled his journals of the voyage into a popular book that is still available today. More importantly he brought back many biological and mineral specimens for examination by the scientific community. There is no doubt that the voyage established his reputation as a major biologist and naturalist. He was 27 years old.
The question still remains as to why he took so long after the voyage to get around to writing the Origin of Species (published until 1859). He had outlined ideas for the book as early as 1844. Some say it was to avoid offending the religious beliefs of his wife, but it is known she was aware of his doubts before they were even married. Others say he didn’t want censure from the religious community, but surprisingly clerics of the day were too busy waging internal wars on doctrine to care very much. The only real uproar was an incident during reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers when Robert Fitzroy, captain of the original voyage of the Beagle, held up a huge Bible and begged listeners to “believe God rather than man”. Contrary to popular myth, the Reverend Samuel Wilberforce (of the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate) never was Darwin’s arch-enemy. In fact he gave a respectable review of Origin in a widely circulated publication.
Still, it must have been a shock to Darwin to receive Alfred Russell Wallace’s 4000 word manuscript on evolution in the mail one morning in the late spring of 1859.
Lyell had repeatedly warned him that others including Wallace were onto the idea of natural selection. In a way, the post from Wallace caused Darwin to write a much shorter and more readable book to interested readers. As a result, the first publication of Origin the following November quickly sold out and was reprinted in January of the next year. It’s appeal spread well beyond the scientific community to important literary and social figures in Europe and the United States.
Darwin published twenty-five books on natural subjects during his life. None were as popular as Origin; all were the results of extensive and careful research; some were quite interesting. Darwin was compulsive when it came to the study of biological sexual arrangements. He spent eight years dissecting and studying species of barnacles and their mixed bisexual and hermaphroditic habits. After this, he tackled orchids and their relationship with insects for fertilization. In The Fertilization of Orchids he gave detailed examples of natural selection in action and demonstrations of co-evolution between insects and plants.
Darwin never became acquainted with the works of Gregor Mendel although they were nearly contemporary. Mendel was only thirteen years younger than Darwin, knew Darwin’s work, and owned copies of both the Origin and the Descent of Man. Unlike him, though, Mendel was skilled in mathematics and spent years tediously sorting out the ratio of characteristic changes through generations of pea plants. The ratio showed that an inherited tendency, such as height, is produced through two units, one from each parent. Each unit can be dominant or recessive. When each of the two units is different from the other, dominant is expressed, but the recessive stays dormant waiting for a chance to combine with another recessive unit in the next offspring. It’s a shame the two biologists did not meet. Darwin was of the opinion that characteristics were somehow blended and had no notion of the math involved in inheritance. Discovering Mendel’s work could have changed the course of his later life. As it was, Mendel submitted his work to a German professor of botany who could not fathom the mathematics. The work was laid aside and fell into oblivion until the 1900s when botanists came across it while pursuing their own experiments.
Although readers are sometimes struck by the prescience of Darwin’s many observations of the natural world, he still had some surprising beliefs. He felt that Lamark’s theory of acquired characteristics was correct; that the acquisition of particular traits through interaction with the environment during a single lifetime could be transmitted by inheritance to the next generation. He disapproved of the practice of both vaccination and birth control. Although he admitted that nature was cruel, he claimed that both practices did not allow natural selection to weed out weaker individuals.
Lastly, he held oddly conflicting beliefs about human culture. On the one hand, the practices of aboriginal peoples he’d seen disgusted him. He felt their societies would be reduced and even extinguished by the influx of the empiricism practiced by the British, and he wasn’t sorry about it. On the other, he thought education of youth was the best way to improve humanity. True to his embrace of Lamarck’s, theory he felt educated people would produce more intelligent children. His book The Descent of Man contained only about sixty pages dedicated to human beings. These views are not surprising because the earliest fossil discovery of any notoriety was that of a Neanderthal in 1854 only five years before Darwin’s Origin. The study of human evolution was probably born with both events. Darwin only whetted our appetite to know our human roots. JB
Darwin, Portrait of a Genius; Paul Johnson; 2012; Viking
The Darwin Archipelago; Steve Jones; 2011; Yale University Press
RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE FOR CHRISTIANS AND ATHEISTS
Two articles of interest involving religious intolerance appeared in January. Columnist Charles Haynes on the 15th of the month featured one in the Greenville News. It dealt with the imprisonment of Christian pastor Saeed Abedin twelve months ago in Iran. He was charged for “undermining the Iranian government”. The condition for his release was renunciation of his faith. The article contained a reference to an advocacy organization called Human Rights Without Frontiers. A quick look at their website showed that they looked at all kinds of human rights including those of women and gays. In addition they listed twenty-four countries practicing the most egregious denial of human rights and listed the names of those incarcerated. I noted there didn’t seem to be any discrimination on the website when it came to agnostics or atheists.
Owen Bowcott, a reporter for The Guardian wrote the second article, dated January 14th. In this article the British government granted asylum to an atheist from Afghanistan. This individual who does not want to be named was brought up Muslim in that country, but was given leave to stay in Britain in 2007 because of political unrest. During the past six years he has gradually lost his faith and belief in God. In 2013 his British leave expired and he sought asylum because of fear of prosecution and possible execution according to sharia law. His lawyers feel that this may be the first time that asylum has been granted to an individual for reason of atheism in Britain. It was their position that lack of religious belief is as thoughtful and seriously held a position as any belief in organized religion.
Incidentally, Australia is another country that treats atheism as grounds for asylum. US courts, however, still hold that atheists do not have defined beliefs or practices that would entitle them to asylum.
Update on previous Voice of Sanity article:
A couple months ago I wrote an article featuring tables comparing the US to other industrialized countries on the subjects of balancing the budget, global competitiveness, healthcare, and military spending. Norway stood out on the table for balancing the budget and I wondered how they could possibly have a whopping twenty-five percent of their revenue left after all government expenditures were paid.
The answer appeared earlier in January in a news article from Reuters. Norway set up a sovereign wealth fund for its citizens in 1990. That fund owns about one percent of the world’s stocks and includes bonds and real estate on both sides of the Atlantic. It has ballooned because of high oil and gas prices and its present worth is 828.66 billion in American dollars. Norway ranks seventh on exportation of oil because of the North Sea reserves. JB
Thoughts for the day from Pat Robertson
Persecution of Christian in the US:
“Just what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It’s no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again. It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-based media and the homosexuals who want to destroy the Christians. Wholesale abuse and discrimination and the worst bigotry directed toward any group in America today. More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history.”
Comment on “gay days” at Disneyworld:
“I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you. This is not a message of hate—this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
And for the ladies:
“(T)he feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”