That Humanist

Wired for Empathy
July 31, 2008, 8:17 pm
Filed under: All

I’ve just listened to a though provoking podcast by Dr Marco Iacoboni on mirror neurons, which made me think a little deeper about me, you, free will, empathy and what it means to be human.

Mirror neurons are fascinating. From wikipedia: “A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting.”

Some of the implications of this (discussed in said podcast) include questions about empathy. We might think someone is cruel, he just doesn’t “get” or empathize with our emotional state. But perhaps he is just wired with “fewer” mirror neurons. Meh.

Another question he raises is that about free will. If by just looking at you my brain fires off behaviour based on what you’re doing, do I really have free will? Perhaps I’m only truly free if I lock myself in a sealed box. Meh.

Finally, is the mirror neuron activity mirrored in animals? Perhaps that’s why we sometimes feel that they are aware of our emotional states. Meh.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I find it fascinating and somehow very relevant to living. We need to understand each other better if we’re to get anywhere.

PS. My linguist friends will be pleased to hear of a connection between empathy and Broca’s area…

Death to the orangutans!
April 26, 2008, 8:16 am
Filed under: All | Tags: , ,

A week ago today I visited the legacy of one of my childhood heroes, Gerald Durrell. He created a wonderful zoo on the Bailiwick of Jersey, using a lot of the money he had accumulated from his books. I read all of his books as a child; they were inspirational. They gave me a sense of wonder about nature, a curiosity, an appreciation, and a good laugh for they were often quite funny as well. (If you don’t own any, buy some!)

The zoo is as depressing as it is uplifting. It is a wonderful zoo, filled with exotic animals. However, many share a common fate: they’re almost extinct. How disheartening to see these marvelous animals and know that they’re on the brink of extinction.


I went to a few talks, given by the staff. The talk given in the orangutan enclosure was particularly moving. So much so that I didn’t even take any photos. Sarah, the member of staff, obviously cared enormously for these intelligent creatures, and was pretty depressed about their plight.

There are only about 7000 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. Apparently, this figure is decreasing by close to 1000 a year. And why? Well, two major factors: logging and palm oil.

How often do you look at a piece of furniture and say: I wonder where that wood comes from?

How many of us eat processed food that contains vegetable oil. Or margarine. Or cook with vegetable oil. And how many of us stop and think: I wonder where this oil comes from.

How many of us want a “greener” earth and praise moves like decreasing emissions by using more biofuels. However, do we stop and think: where does that biofuel come from?

Well, the hard wood comes from Borneo. A good percentage of the vegetable oil is often palm oil (they simply label it vegetable oil) and comes from Borneo. And guess what, palm oil is being used in the manufacture of biofuel as well.

So, death to the orangutans. Many of us are contributing to their demise, unwittingly.

I wonder what the answer is. If we knew the source of all we eat, would it make a difference?

Here in the UK, showing the intensive farming of chickens on television has raised awareness, and now folk are thinking a little more about where there chickens are sourced from. Do we need to go further? I would love to see statements about the origin of the ingredients used in the food I eat. Is this available somewhere? Can we create a website? Will companies even oblige us and actually give us this information?

And finally, will it even matter? My fear is that animals such as the orangutan are so abstract to most people. Meat now comes from supermarkets, and the link back to the cow is becoming more and more tenuous. Luckily, the meat from a chicken is called chicken. But orangutans. Those are just animals you see in national geographic and the occasional whispered wildlife documentary.

PS. Thank you Clare and Daniel for the prod!

123 meme
February 5, 2008, 11:02 am
Filed under: All | Tags:

Tagged by This Humanist. Here are the rules:

  • Pick up the book nearest you with at least 123 pages. (No cheating!)
  • Turn to page 123.
  • Count the first five sentences.
  • Post the next three sentences.
  • Tag five other bloggers.

Here goes:

Once a year, the skies were full of Color-by-Deluxe clouds: pink and purple, magenta and vermilion, saffron and green, these powder-clouds, squirted from re-used insecticide guns, or floating down from some bursting balloon-cluster wafting across the sky, hung in the air above the deities ‘like aurora-not-borealis-but-bombayalis’, as the painter Vasco Miranda used to say. Also sky-high above crowds and gods, year after year – for forty-one years in all – fearless upon the precipitous ramparts of our Malabar Hill bungalow, which in a spirit of ironic mischief or perversity she had insisted on naming Elephanta, there twirled the almost-diving figure of our very own Aurora Bombayalis, plumed in a series of dazzle-hued mirrorwork outfits, outdoing in finery even the festival sky with its hanging gardens of powdered colour. Her white hair flaying around her in long loose exclamations (O prophetically premature white hair of my ancestors!), her exposed belly not old-bat-fat but fit-cat-flat, her bare feet stamping, her ankles a-jingle with silver jhunjhunna bell-bracelets, snapping her neck from side to side, speaking incomprehensible volumes with her hands, the great painter danced her defiance, she danced her contempt for the perversity of humankind, which led these huge crowds to risk death-by-trampling ‘just to dumpofy their dollies in the drink,’ as she liked incredulously, and with much raising of eyes to skies and wry twisting of the mouth, to jeer.

That’s from “The Moor’s Last Sign” by Salman Rushdie. I’ve read the book and I’m currently listening to another of his, Shalimar the Clown.

Faith Schools
February 4, 2008, 4:35 pm
Filed under: All | Tags: ,

Faith schools (Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and now Hindu, Jewish), paid for in the most part by British tax payers, are growing stronger and more isolated. Imagine a Jewish faith school in the heart of London, which shields its trusting students from the rest of society so much that the students have heavy Jewish accents, without a trace of that London cockney. Schools where children are taught evolution, but where most students don’t end up “accepting it” (in the words of a teacher at said school). Or a similar faith school, that teaches Noah and the ark together with lessons in science. How is this anything other than miseducation, under the guise of “faith education.”

The BBC has an interesting article about how Faith schools are to get their own vetting. Moreover, this body has been set up in the name of “community cohesion.” Why should “some private Muslim and Christian schools in England” have their own joint inspection body? What is so special about these schools?

Will this joint inspection body overlook the teaching of science and creationism in the same class, overlook those students that don’t “accept it” because of a dogmatic bias in the education, but now do so uniformly across two religions and with a better understanding of why said schools have such a bias? And how does this contribute to community cohesion? When you don’t even have the accent of the country in which you are born, how can we really expect cohesion? How can we expect integration, feelings of shared welfare?

Here‘s a story of a Jewish school reprimanded (by the “powerless ombudsman”) for not taking on a non-Jewish student. Their rules of admission state that the “school gives preference to Jewish children, then siblings of pupils, and thirdly to ‘children of families not of the Jewish faith demonstrating particular moral and/or religious strengths which are not likely to conflict with the Jewish ethos of the school’.” Perhaps their idea is that they’ll accept students outside of the faith if there’s a good chance of converting them to the faith.

The British Humanist Association web site has some great information about faith schools, which I won’t repeat here. As humanist though, surely these faith schools demand our attention. These schools are teaching ignorance to the young – to those that aren’t in a position to know otherwise. Many would I find this repugnant, immoral, and an abuse of authority.

Post Script: The Telegraph has an article on how Female Muslim medics ‘disobey hygiene rules’. Apparently the medical students are not washing their hands properly because the indecency of exposing their arms appears to outweigh their knowledge of science, bacteria and the spread of diseases. So strong is their sense of morality, that they’d rather indirectly spread disease (and perhaps death, albeit inadvertently) – quite contrary to their chosen station.

So how do you deal with religious belief in someone you like?
January 25, 2008, 3:57 am
Filed under: All | Tags: ,

Wherein I consider how I treat my friends, and how a government agency considers “three little pigs” offensive to Muslims.


A friend recently asked me how I dealt with religious belief in someone I liked, and in particular, if I would be bothered by their beliefs and how they spent their time.

I responded with, “Well, I guess I tend not to behave any differently,” and “I respect people – but I don’t respect religions,” which sums up the situation quite nicely.

I have a wonderful friend who is religious. That doesn’t stop me from talking to her, nor does it make me switch into some evangelical atheist mode. At the same time, if she said something that did relate to her belief system, I may say something about it if I didn’t agree. It would also not stop me from discussing one of my passions, evolution or humanism for example.

In other words, I treat my friends equally, irrespective of their religion, without tiptoeing around topics. I believe this is honest and respectful. Perhaps I have lost potential friends due to this. I can quite imagine someone being offended by something I’ve said, though without them telling me their belief system I would not know.

Should we go around assuming someone may be offended by secular humanism given that we know that (depending on context) many people we meet may be religious? No. Do you go around assuming someone may be offended by a description of the wonderful cannelloni you had last night given that there is a probability that you may be talking to a vegan?


My relationship with my friends is quite different to that of a government and its people. How does a government deal with religious belief in its people? In Britain there is a push to respect multiple faiths in schools and elsewhere by the government (at least I perceive that there is – I should find proof).

But how far do you take this? Clare wrote about “a test to see whether a particular decision is secular or whether it privileges religion.” Now take for example this BBC story that Three Little Pigs considered ‘too offensive’ by a government body . I’m not sure if this is respecting Muslims, or insulting them.

It’s obviously a decision that privileges a religion. Perhaps they’re doing it for “respect” of that religion, or to promote “multi-faith”.

But this brings with it a host of questions: Why only that religion though? Should we expect a ban on the phrase “The cow jumped over the moon?” Does the size and vociferousness of the religion determine how much respect the government should give it? What about my beliefs about a secular government?

I’m hoping this particular case is simply a bad decision by a few individuals obsessed with political correctness, but it does highlight concerns about just what respect means to a government. Unlike the situation with a friend where there are only two parties involved, here there are multiple parties, each with their own beliefs, rights, wishes and traditions. I like to treat my friends honestly, equally: the government, it seems, has no such desire.

Morality – From Altruism through Religion to Neurobiology and Beyond
January 22, 2008, 2:53 pm
Filed under: All | Tags: ,

Panda’s Thumb has an interesting post on Evolution of altruistic cooperation and communication in robot societies. Here we have dumb robots exhibiting behaviour many would think is exclusively in the domain of humanity. This goes some way to “increases our understanding of how cooperation, cheating and altruism arose.” Obviously this in turn sheds some light on morality.

There appears to be a tremendous amount of science uncovering aspects of our moral intuitions. Here’s some of the stuff I’m reading about right now:

  • The theory of reciprocal altruism (introduce by Robert Trivers) shows how we can evolve mechanisms of guilt, altruism, cheating, trust, reputation and cheat detection.
  • Kin selection explains how “some organisms tend to exhibit strategies that favor the reproductive success of their relatives, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction.” In other words, why I would give my life for that of my sister.
  • Inclusive fitness is a generalisation of kin selection, looking at how social behaviours rather than simply kin. For example, how the monkey will scream to warn its troop of an approaching leopard, but at the same time give away its own location.
  • Moral Psychology/Evolutionary Psychology/Neurobiology and more are uncovering fascinating details about how we think and make moral judgements. This includes the role of emotion in making a moral decision, and a set of moral foundations common to all of man, and a weighted universal moral grammar. Here I’m looking at some of the works by Jonathon Haidt, Marc Hauser and others.
  • Anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer theorise about how some of these innate human instincts guide our predilections towards religious belief, as does some of the work by moral psychologists. For example, how our feeling of disgust (in food) is captured by moral notions of disgust (“How could you perform that immoral act? It’s disgusting!”) and how religions (and other social systems) play on this .

Here we have a rich vein of science, spanning everything from philosophy, anthropology and psychology to social sciences, neurobiology and evolution. Yes, we even have robots displaying altruistic cooperation. How much more rewarding than the flat deistic notion of morality—”it is written!” Now we have real insights into how we rationally decide what is right or wrong, and how we evolved to have some innate notion of what is right and wrong, how these sometimes conflict, making us the humans that we are.

The Root of All Morality?
January 20, 2008, 9:33 pm
Filed under: All | Tags:

After admitting that I’m an atheist (and humanist), I’m often asked “but what about morals?”  Morals are very important to all of us, and many believe that throwing out their religious-book-of-choice will throw out morality as well. 

A little reflection should rule this out.  There are many secular countries where the absence of a god does not result in a culture of chaos and iniquity—obviously a justice system, cultural norms and instincts can do the job just as well. The result may be different to what you may wish, but still stable.

I wonder why these people ask about morality in the absence of religion. The Edinburgh University Humanist Society has
an upcoming event on “Humanist Ethics for 21st century” in February, so I thought I’d start exploring this and other aspects of morality in a series of blog posts. In starting out, I’m left with a series of questions I hope to be able to answer one day:

  • Does removing religion from a society leave a gap that needs to be filled? Do we naturally feel the need to have a visible authority on the matter, traditionally handled by the priesthood? In promoting humanism, do we need to assuage any concerns about morality, and if so, how do we do this most effectively?
  • Do we understand enough about our natural moral instincts? For example, here’s what the Amsterdam Declaration of Humanist principles says about morality:
    Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction. If morality is intrinsic, I’d like to know more about it. What are our natural inclinations, and how do they differ across cultures? What are the evolutionary drivers for morality and what can science tell us?

In starting this quest, it’s probably worth defining just what morality is. My dictionary defines moral as:

concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character
concerned with or adhering to the code of interpersonal behavior that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society

Of course, the right and wrong leads me immediately to think about good and evil as portrayed in religious texts. Religious folk would leave the ultimate arbiter to an imagined god. Right and wrong, demands more. Who is the arbiter? This is why that second clause in the definition is so important to me: “considered right or acceptable in a particular society.” But then, is “good” simply relative?

Darn, another question to add to the list…

That humanist
January 15, 2008, 11:37 am
Filed under: All

Rather blatantly inspired by this humanist, here is that humanist!

I hope to write about humanism and living. I care about both. I am currently alive, and trying to figure out this whole living thing. I’m also an atheist secular humanist. Don’t let that fool you though, I’m much more than that.

We humans like labels and labeling things. The Humanist Network News Podcast recently had a number of interviews about “the problem of atheism“. Or rather, with the word “atheism.” It’s a label, generally perceived as a negative one, and Sam Harris suspects that we should qualify it when we use it. As he says:

“We don’t label ourselves non-racists. We don’t advocate non-racism as an ideology. We simply repudiate racism.”

Of course, if more folk thought like humanists then there would be no need for the label of “atheist” – we’d simply be using reason and evidence and perhaps have a word for those that don’t. “Irrational” perhaps, a little tongue-in-cheek.

So now I’m that humanist, the tall one in the corner. The one interested in beliefs, in psychology, morality, fulfillment, genetics, biology, happiness, evolution and what it means to be me. Let’s see where this takes me!