Tag Archives: science

Primitive Science, Ancient Faith

I came across this quote while doing some research yesterday. It’s a little anachronistic — it was written about 100 years ago — but it’s a nice sentiment nonetheless:

The Judean writer of the ninth century B.C. stated his creed in terms of the primitive science of the Arabian desert. The priestly writer of the sixth century B.C. stated his creed in terms of the better science of the Babylonian priests. We of today state our creed in terms of modern astronomy, geology, and biology. Our descendants will state their creed in terms of a still more accurate science and philosophy; but through all the changes of scientific thought it will still be the same creed trying to express itself, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The primitive Semitic science of Gen., chap. 2, and the Babylonian science of Gen., chap. 1, have given place to a better science, but their religious belief in one creator, God, is still the faith of the church.

Lewis Bayles Paton, “Archaeology and the Book of Genesis,” The Biblical World 45 (1915): 13 [10-17].

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de Waal: “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom”

Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and ethologist, has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, in advance of his most recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, which was released today. Here’s an excerpt:

Underlying many of our mistaken beliefs about animal intelligence is the problem of negative evidence. If I walk through a forest in Georgia, where I live, and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight. All I can say is that I lack evidence.

It is quite puzzling, therefore, why the field of animal cognition has such a long history of claims about the absence of capacities based on just a few strolls through the forest. Such conclusions contradict the famous dictum of experimental psychology according to which “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” . . .

The one historical constant in my field is that each time a claim of human uniqueness bites the dust, other claims quickly take its place. Meanwhile, science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.

Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

The Brains of the Animal Kingdom | WSJ

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Kim, “Early Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and Linguistic Variability”

I just finished reading Dong-Hyuk Kim’s dissertation, Early Biblical Hebrew, Late Biblical Hebrew, and Linguistic Variability: A Sociolinguistic Evaluation of the Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (VTS 156; Leiden: Brill, 2013). I may write a longer review here sometime, but I wanted to commend it to everyone before I forgot.

First, despite a few typos, the book is lucid and well-written. It did not feel like I was reading a dissertation, which have a tendency to be dry and technical; instead, it is engaging and concise, which I appreciated very much. Kim’s monograph is an example of scholarly writing done well.

Second, the argument is nuanced and scientific. Over against the two sides in the debate over dating the books of the Hebrew Bible on the basics of linguistics (i.e., Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd against the traditional view set forth by Robert Polzin and Avi Hurvitz), Kim argues for a middle position in the debate. Using historical sociolinguistics, he argues that the language of the Hebrew Bible changes over time; however, this change was gradual and may not be used to date texts whose dates are otherwise unknown (that is, his method is descriptive, not prescriptive). His methodology is cautious and sound, and his conclusions are sure to shape the future of the debate.

Third, in addition to arguing a novel point, Kim’s monograph serves as an excellent introduction to the debate over linguistic dating of the texts of the Hebrew Bible. I started the book with next to no knowledge of the debate (I got it via interlibrary loan simply because the title sounded interesting), but Kim did a very good job of explaining the different sides, such that by the time he got to his own argument, I felt I had a firm grasp on the current shape of the debate.

Kim’s book is solid overall, and I heartily recommend it both to anyone with an interest in linguistic dating of the Hebrew Bible and as a very good example of good scholarly writing.

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An Oldie but a Goodie: “Why I No Longer Believe Religion is a Virus of the Mind”

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal “yes” until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong. . . .

It seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase “bacterium of the mind” or “symbiont of the mind” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

“Why I No Longer Believe Religion is a Virus of the Mind” | Comment is Free

This post is really interesting. The author, formerly a Dawkins-esque anti-theist, was convinced — by empirical data at a scientific conference — of the evolutionary value of religiosity. However, even though she no longer thinks that religion is a Bad Thing, she still speaks in negative terms about it.

Go check it out.


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Arrowheads and Human Intellect

Archaeologists working at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point cave site uncovered a collection of tiny blades, about an inch big, that resemble arrow points, likely belonging to prehistoric bow and arrows or spear-throwers. The researchers say the discovery is further evidence that humans (Homo sapiens) started to act and think like modern people early in their evolution. …

The new study, however, goes one step further. The researchers say the blades were found throughout a geological section of Pinnacle Point that spans roughly 11,000 years (71,000 to 60,000 years ago), indicating people could communicate complicated instructions to build intricate tools across hundreds of generations. This instance of long-term maintenance of a cultural tradition early in human history is evidence that the capacity for modern culture began early and slowly built up, Brown and colleagues say. Previous suggestions that complex culture came and went in the early days of humans is probably an artificial result, they say, because so few African sites have yet been excavated.

“Early Bow and Arrows Offer Insight Into Origins of Human Intellect” | Hominid Hunting

Very cool stuff! Go on and check out the whole article.


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Crowdsourcing Proto-Elamite

Here’s an interesting article from the BBC: researchers from Oxford’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, led by Jacob Dahl, are attempting to decipher inscriptions in Proto-Elamite — an undeciphered writing system from Elam, in present-day Iran — by taking high-resolution photos of the inscriptions and posting those photos online for anyone and everyone to help decipher. Here’s the BBC’s description of the process:

Dr Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.

The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.

It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.

These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.

Dahl and his team have set up a wiki with links to their photos of the Proto-Elamite inscriptions and tools for studying the language. Interested parties can also email cdli.oxford@orinst.ox.ac.uk to volunteer.

To me, this sounds like a very good opportunity for an undergraduate class project in a Near Eastern Languages and Cultures or a Classics program. Students would get hands-on experience using digital tools for research, as well as providing a great benefit to the field.

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Two Definitions of “Evolutionist” and a Way Forward

Lately, I’ve become interested in evolutionary studies in fields other than the natural sciences — evolutionary linguistics, evolutionary cultural studies, evolutionary religious studies — and, as I’ve been reading the literature, I’ve noticed a definition of “evolutionist” that I was previously unfamiliar with, one that is purely descriptive, in contrast to the polemical sense I had known previously.

I had previously only heard the term used in the sense of “someone who believes in evolution, rather than divine creation of the earth,” often with the connotation of “someone who is non- or anti-Christian, and who holds a religious, or near-religious, belief in science.” In this sense, it is mostly a polemical term: evolutionist in contrast with creationist. Here’s an example of evolutionist used in this sense:

In the secular media, for instance, the debate is often described as “creationism vs. evolution,” as if the “ism” should not apply to “evolution.” This is not accurate, because believing in evolution, like believing in creation, requires acceptance of a certain presuppositional dogma and requires placing one’s faith in a story about the unrepeatable past. …

Also, the term “religion” must be defined clearly. While beliefs and worship practices, procedures, and conduct are involved in religion, any belief system that purports to be a total explanation of reality is more-or-less religion. Thus, insofar as it is an attempt to explain why the world is the way it is, held to with ardor and faith, Darwinian evolution can thus be considered religion. …

Authors should be more precise when they—using a qualification—inform the reader of any assumed vertical change (when one kind of living thing is changed into another kind, as Darwinian evolutionists believe has happened regularly throughout life’s history, yet has not been shown).

Creationism vs. Evolutionism: And Attention to Word Meaning,” Answers in Genesis.

However, I’ve recently come across the term in a completely different context: evolutionist as “someone who studies the process of evolution from a scientific standpoint” or “someone who studies a phenomenon using the evolutionary process.” In this sense, the term carries no connotation of belief or disbelief in any faith. It is also a descriptive term; the -ist ending merely describes the person’s object of study, like in chemist, geologistlinguist, etc. For instance:

Early evolutionists could not resist proposing terms such as “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization” for stages of sociocultural development — terms that would not survive the advent of professional anthropology. A second wave of evolutionists . . . could base their controlled comparisons on richer and more systematically collected ethnographic data. …

In its latest incarnation, evolution is seen as multilinear and can even be divided into topics such as cultural evolution, social evolution, and ethnogenesis. …

When general evolutionists need to ensure that their controlled comparisons and contrasts are being carried out on societies of the same level of complexity or sociopolitical integration, they have tended to create shorthand terms for different social forms or types.

Joyce Marcus, “The Archaeological Evidence for Social Evolution,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 251-266. Quote from 252.


On doing a bit more research, it turns out that both senses of evolutionist are very old. The OED cites the Methodist 1866 Ladies’ repository, and gatherings of the West as an example of the term in its polemical sense. It also cites the 6th edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as an example of the descriptive sense. It is worth noting, though somewhat unsurprising, that the polemical sense has mostly shown up in Christian literature, while the descriptive sense is more or less contained to scientific literature.

One wonders whether the difference in definitions is a contributing factor to strife between non-evolutionist Christians and non-Christian evolutionists. On the surface, they seem to be using the same terminology, but they have loaded the words with two completely different connotations. Maybe a first step to mutual understanding and acceptance would be for the two groups (or representatives thereof) to sit down, unpack the terms from each side’s viewpoints, and hammer out a single definition that both can agree on.

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