Saturday, December 24, 2016

God rest Unitarian Universalists

         No rest for Unitarians, the world’s in disarray
The climate still is changing, race is here to stay
So work for social justice, with meetings every day.
Loud tidings of passion and zeal, passion and zeal,
Loud tidings of passion and zeal.

With apologies to Christopher Raible
Happy Holidays to all!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Little Boxes

Humming along with Malvina Reynolds’ catchy tune “Little Boxes” on my internet radio, for the first time I really listened to the words. “Little Boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”   Not only are the boxes identical, but the individuals living in them are identical as well:  “Then [off] to the university where they are put in boxes and they come out all the same.”  But if you went inside the houses, everybody’s would look different because everybody is different – a unique valuable individual with thoughts and feelings.
I imagine the residents of the little boxes as people who have worked their way up from poverty.  Steven Jay Gould’s family is an example.  “Papa Joe, [Gould’s grandfather] who possessed extraordinary artistic talents that remained undeveloped and underutilized, lived an ordinary life as a garment worker in New York City. He enjoyed periods of security and endured bouts of poverty; he and my grandmother raised four children, all imbued with the ordinary values that ennoble our species and nation: fairness, kindness, the need to persevere and rise by one's own efforts. In the standard pattern, his generation struggled to solvency; my parents graduated from high school, fought a war, and moved into the middle classes; the third cohort achieved a university education, and some of us have enjoyed professional success.” “September 11, 1901"
Shouldn’t  those who sing for ordinary people in songs like “This Land is Your Land”  congratulate rather than sneer at the ones who make it into the middle class?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wheezers, Geezers, and Gimps!

Unitarian Universalist congregations are becoming ever more oriented toward social justice, a trend that has been accelerating since Justice GA in 2012.  This trend is an advantage for the UU movement because being for something unites people more than being against something, such as in the past, traditional religious dogma.  Social justice activism grows congregations and growing congregations make ministers look good.
However, social justice crowds out other concerns.  For instance, some in my congregation want to forego remodeling our building in order to fight climate change.  This group  takes the moral high ground because they claim if energy and resources are focused on the building, the congregation will not have the energy to address the climate emergency. Those in favor of remodeling also take the moral high ground, claiming our current space decreases our ability to live our mission. Meanwhile, there are people in the congregation who are excluded from its programs because they can’t climb stairs or breathe the polluted indoor air.
As Carolyn Zaikoski points out, you have to be able bodied to be a good activist.   Activists have to be able to go to events in inaccessible spaces and to participate in public protests.  So why should a congregation expend its limited  resources for the disabled if its mission is to be social activists?
Wheezers, geezers, and gimps!  Who needs ‘em?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Humans Extinct by 1900!

County Cork, Ireland, 1847, in a time of climate change:  Several wet summers in succession have allowed a blight, Phytophthora infestans, to ravage the Irish potato crop. These potatoes, propagated asexually, have low resistance to the blight since they have almost no genetic diversity.  Even though Ireland has continued to export meat, grain, and dairy products, the peasants live almost exclusively on potatoes.  Now that crop is failing and the peasants are starving.
This is just as the Rev Thomas Malthus predicted forty years ago in 1800.  The Irish, ignorant Roman Catholics, multiplied faster than their food supply.   As Malthus commented, “The population should be swept from the soil.”
There could be more far reaching effects.  As plague jumped from rats to people, P. infestans could affect other members of the Solanaceae family: eggplants, tomatoes, and tobacco.  Not only that, in half a century, it could affect all agricultural crops. We just don’t know what kind of Black Swan event might occur.   When world agriculture fails, so will humanity. Human extinction is possible by 1900!

Well, all that could have happened, but how much to worry about something depends on the probability of it happening. An asteroid could fall on my house, my house could burn down, or a tree could fall on it.  I get homeowner’s insurance, but not asteroid insurance, since there’s only an asteroid landing big enough to create a crater only every five thousand years or so.
Be reasonable!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You and Me or Aedes?

In his 2012 book, Merchants of Despair, Robert Zubrin traces the antihumanism movement, beginning with Malthus, who claimed that population grows exponentially while productivity grows arithmetically; on to eugenics; on to the Nazi Holocaust.  These movements advocated getting rid of excess people.  Malthus urged, “We should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases and those benevolent but much mistaken men who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.”  The eugenics movement sterilized the surplus population;  the Nazis killed them.  Zubrin then explores antihumanism’s modern incarnations, population control and radical environmentalism.
The current incarnation of antihumanism, the school of thought that the balance of nature must be preserved at the expense of human beings, is alive and well. The June 2016 Smithsonian Magazine has an article detailing how genetic engineering techniques could bring the Aedes aegypti mosquito to near or complete extinction.  Since more than a million people die every year from diseases such as yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika virus, transmitted by these bugs, it would seem like a no-brainer to get rid of them. Not so fast say those who value the balance of nature over human flourishing.  From the comments to the article:
Vera Gottlieb says: “As pesky as these critters may be, they are part of the chain of life on this planet.  We are all interconnected and we should NOT upset this balance.  We have already messed up enough.”  Does Gottlieb believe that respect for the interdependent web of life takes priority over respect for human beings?
DV says, “Kill all the mosquitoes and we wipe out the bats, frogs, and numerous bird species.  If we don’t, Mother Earth will come up with some other way to quell the human infection.”  Human INFECTION?  Are human beings no better than Zika virus?
The most outrageous of the commenters, Patturk, says, “Eliminate the diseases and instead contribute to an even greater population explosion of humans, leading to more wars over dwindling resources such as fresh water and  more humans killing each other.  Hmm, death by mosquito or by war.  When will we learn that nature knows best?  Why is so much effort put into curing death?  Or, more humans living longer, crowding out other species until all that’s left are people, sheep, pigs, and cows.  Great idea.”
Is it a better idea to let millions of human beings die of preventable diseases?  Shades of Malthus, the original antihumanist, who likewise recommended not treating diseases.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sexual Dimorphism Denial

The UUWorld Summer 2016 “Families” page suggests that leaving gender specific pronouns out of our speech will ensure fair treatment for all genders. According to the article, girls and boys would not be limited by their gender in such a culture.
Let’s examine a historical example of this thesis.   The Chinese language does not have gender specific pronouns – “he” and “she” translate as “zee.”   Nevertheless, for a thousand years in China, girls were subjected to the cruel and crippling practice of foot binding.  Deliberate disabling is limiting, to say the least. Foot binding was outlawed for the first time in 1912, but continued in the remote provinces.  There are a few surviving elderly women with bound feet, although the last store selling “lotus” shoes closed in 1999.
Due to Western influence, written Chinese began to distinguish pronoun gender in 1917  even as the foot binding custom was decreasing.  It seems gender specific pronouns are not linked to gender-based oppression.
Politically correct or not, a few plants and most animals, including humans, come in male and female, a phenomenon called sexual dimorphism, the technical term for gender binary. The female provides quality gametes; the male provides a quantity of gametes.  The reshuffling of traits at fertilization helps the organism adapt to changing environments.  For instance, bananas, which reproduce asexually, were predicted in 2003 to become extinct in ten years.
Animals have sex; people have sex and gender – the feeling of being masculine or feminine.  Usually sex and gender coincide, but if they don’t, individuals like Ben (trans boy featured in “Families”)  should be treated with kindness and fairness.  Nobody should be forced into doing something because “boys don’t” or “girls have to.”
Many years ago I met a young person whose sex I could not determine.  I felt disconcerted at first.  How should I relate to this person?  Then I realized since I wasn’t dating this person what did it matter?  Maybe at some future time when everyone can be bisexual and attraction depends on the personality of their date, physical sex won’t matter except to get sperm and egg together.
Pronouns are irrelevant, but denial of sexual dimorphism by not using “he” or “she” is as unscientific as climate change denial.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Ten Books that Modified My Thinking

Members of my book group listed the ten books that had modified their thinking.  Here’s my list:

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 1884. An outcast understood the contradictions of slavery, showing individual conscience can be more discerning than the prevailing mores.
The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 1959.  Darwinian evolution is compatible with Catholic theology and symbolism. Important to me because I was a practicing Catholic when I read it in 1961.
Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor 1984.  Dogs and other animals can be taught without force or violence. Applies to people, too.
Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos 1988.   Innumeracy (lack of facility with numbers and probability) is both widespread and has serious consequences.  Do the math and do it right!
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond 1997.  Differences in technological advancement among cultures are not because of differences of ability among races.   Before I read this book I thought history was factoids about dead people, but history written by scientists reveals interesting patterns.
Non-Zero by Robert Wright 2001.   Win-win prevails over zero-sum.  IMHO, the Force that drives the Universe and human history.
Authentic Happiness by Martin EP Seligman 2002.  Optimists thrive, building on their strengths.
The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley 2010.  Although pessimists are considered wise, they’ve almost always been wrong.
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker 2011.  Masses of data demonstrate that humans have become ever less violent over the ten thousand years of our history.
Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin 2012.  Anti-humanist Malthusians, wrong so far, have hijacked environmentalist movements.

I see  all the titles confirm my bias toward bottom-up evolution leading to peace and prosperity for all.  The moral arc is long but it bends towards justice.