First Pre-Human Art Discovered

The news is a bit old, but is no less relevant and amazing: for the first time in history, scientists have discovered evidence that our pre-human ancestors had some concept of art — something previously believed to be intrinsic to Homo sapiens. 

As National Geographic reports:

[N]ew analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.

Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors, Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.

“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”

As it turns out, the source of this art — a geometric engraving on mussel shells — had been unearthed over a century ago by a Dutch paleoanthropologist named Eugène Dubois. They were found among the remains of what we now know as Homo erectus, the first hominids of the genus Homo to leave Africa, as well as the foundings members of the family from which modern humans emerged.

It was only seven years ago that Joordens and an Australian anthropologist, Steven Munro, noticed this unusual and clearly deliberate zigzag pattern. They and their team of nearly two dozen researches meticulously determined the shell to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years-old — far earlier than the previously oldest example of art among humans — and were also careful to rule out alternative explanations; a paleoanthropologist from the esteemed Smithsonian Institution also confirmed that the methodology was sound.

Needless to say, the implications this has for human evolution is, to quote Joordens, profound:

It’s generally thought that humans became anatomically and behaviorally modern  between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago, in a relatively quick stroke of evolutionary inspiration.

In subsequent millennia would come cave paintings and sculpted figures, the full flowering of an ostensible cognitive uniqueness reflected in our very name: H. sapiens, or “wise man.” Neanderthals may also have possessed a rich symbolic culture, but theirs was relatively recent, and they are arguably not so evolutionarily distinct from modern humans as H. erectus.

A geometric artmaking H. erectus challenges the narrative of dramatic human exceptionality. “What we think of as typically modern human behavior didn’t suddenly arise, in sparklike fashion,” Joordens said. “Something like that seems to have been in place much earlier.” (Learn more about H. erectus smarts in “Homo Erectus Invented “Modern” Living?”)

Like goods scientists, Joordens and her group are careful with drawing their conclusions too definitively; they avoid terms like “art”, “symbolism”, and “modernity”, even if those things can be reasonably gleaned from this finding. Indeed, despite the caution, they admit that had a similar finding be found among Homo sapiens, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art” (as has been the case).

“This raises the big, hairy question of what is ‘modern human behavior’ all over again,” said paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University.

Indeed, the very notion of modern humans as being cognitively unique is now “up for reconsideration,” said Joordens.

That will likely be argued for years to come. In the meantime, the researchers plan to further study the collection and revisit the excavation site.

“We’re certain we haven’t found everything yet,” Joordens said.

Clearly, the question of what it is to be human will remain an ever-more dynamic and complex one. It may never have a true answer given the larger philosophical and religious variables involved, but it is great to see more evidence to expand our discussion.

The precursor to the sum of human artistic output may have began with humble zigzags on a shell.


Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.


Research Shows That Haters Will, Indeed, Hate

No, it’s not an article from The Onion, but was essentially the conclusion of a recent study reported in Slate. 

In their paper ‘Attitudes Without Objects,’ psychologists Justin Hepler and Dolores Albarracin show that those who already hold a lot of negative views are more likely to react negatively to new stimuli.

This makes intuitive sense, in the same way that someone who is generally cynical will look at most situations or people negatively. But it’s interesting how the researchers tested for this:

The pair asked a group of 200 men and women to evaluate how they felt about various subjects, such as camping, healthcare, architecture, taxidermy, crossword puzzles, and Japan. They took note of the respondents who rated many of these unconnected prompts harshly (the haters). Then, a month later, they asked everyone to weigh in again to control for the possibility that the grumps were just in a bad mood the first time.

After marking the dependably hateful haters with a scarlet H, the researchers presented participants with information about a new product: the “Monahan LPI-800 Compact 2/3-Cubic-Foot 700-Watt Microwave Oven.” This elaborately titled microwave oven does not exist (except in Jack Donaghy’s mind), but participants didn’t know this and were given three glowing fake reviews and three dissatisfied fake reviews. While people who more or less liked taxidermy and crossword puzzles also liked the oven, the haters drenched their fake consumer surveys in haterade. They were also more likely to hate on recycling and vaccine shots. (To be fair, it’s hard to be a ray of sunshine when you’ve got the measles.)

Hepler and Albarracin write:

If individuals differ in the general tendency to like versus dislike objects, an intriguing possibility is that attitudes toward independent objects may actually be related. So someone’s attitude toward architecture may in fact tell us something about their attitude toward health care because both attitudes would be biased by a disposition to like or dislike stimuli.

Interesting stuff. I wonder if the reverse is true: are people who are exceptionally nice and positive more likely to be generous in their judgment of new people, products, and situations they encounter? I suppose this shows why one’s attitude towards the world matters — too much hate or negativity can poison your view on a range of other things in life.

But what are your thoughts?

On “Geek” Versus “Nerd”

I’ve never seen such an academic and in-depth breakdown of subcultures before. This is pretty interesting stuff.


To many people, “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, but in fact they are a little different. Consider the phrase “sports geek” — an occasional substitute for “jock” and perhaps the arch-rival of a “nerd” in high-school folklore. If “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, then “sports geek” might be an oxymoron. (Furthermore, “sports nerd” either doesn’t compute or means something else.)

In my mind, “geek” and “nerd” are related, but capture different dimensions of an intense dedication to a subject:

  • geek – An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
  • nerd – A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.

Or, to…

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A new exposé of Mother Teresa shows that she—and the Vatican—were even worse than we thought

Very disturbing, though it confirms what I’ve already read and seen from other sources.

Why Evolution Is True

First Christopher Hitchens took her down, then we learned that her faith wasn’t as strong as we thought, and now a new study from the Université de Montréal is poised to completely destroy what shreds are left of Mother Teresa’s reputation. She was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, was beatified and is well on her way to becoming a saint, and she’s universally admired. As Wikipedia notes:

[She was] named 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll as one of the ten women around the world that Americans admired most. In 1999, a poll of Americans ranked her first in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. In that survey, she out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.

The criticisms of…

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Are Men Attracted to Psychologically Vulnerable Women?

According to one study mentioned in Gizmodothe answer may be yes.

The researchers, from Texas-Austin University, studied 88 factors that made women appear more “exploitable” in the eyes of both men and women. Then, the researchers showed pictures of women that illustrated these characteristics to a sample of men, and asked them to rate how desirable they found them.

The results show that, across the board, men find women with some psychological vulnerability far more attractive than the average. Comparatively, physical vulnerabilities—such as being short—don’t make any difference.

Sadly, that initial attraction doesn’t necessarily convert into long and loving relationships: when the same men were asked whether they would be interested in pursing a long-term relationships with psychologically vulnerable women, the answers were overwhelmingly negative

I don’t place much stock into the conclusion of a single study, especially one with such a small sample size. But it’s just an inference, and I definitely think that more research should be done.

Indeed, this is still something worth keeping in mind, because based on my own anecdotal experiences, there does seem to be some measure of truth to this observation. I’ve known many men to be drawn to women that could be considered vulnerable – be they younger, petite, emotionally underdeveloped, financially dependent upon them, and so on.

Traditionally, in most societies, strong-willed or “feisty” women were seen as undesirable (think Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew), while obedience and dutifulness were traits to be admired. To this day, many men (and women as well) may regard an assertive female as crazy or “bitchy.” Times are changing of course, but these attitudes continue to linger.

Conversely, some women play the “low-ball” strategy, in which they make the most of this seemingly lopsided power-dynamic by appealing to the man’s patriarchal role as protector and provider (after all, when you claim power over something or someone, you’re also claiming responsibility).

Controversially, there may be some evolutionary component to this, given that a mate who is easier to control is more likely to produce more children for you (indeed, the more patriarchal a society is, the higher their birthrates, generally-speaking). I’m not quite sure what to think. Thoughts?

Five Causes of Belief in God: An Analysis

An article published in Psychology Today by Nathan A. Heflick offers a non-exhaustive list of the main reasons people develop theistic beliefs (and/or believe in some supernatural divine force in general).

I encourage any theists out there to weigh in. What I’m about to share isn’t clear-cut, but is just something to consider and discuss. I know many of your reasons for being religious may be different, and I’d like your own feedback on that.

Obviously, like any belief system, a conviction in God is too complex to neatly boil down to a few core factors (something Heflick rightly concedes). But given that some sort of psychological basis or rationale underpins every human belief, sacred or otherwise, it’s important to be open-minded and explore what motivates the faithful to be faithful.

1) A Need for Control
Research by Aaron Kay (now at Duke University) and colleagues suggests that when someone is feeling personal uncertainty, or a lack of personal control, they are more likely to believe that God is in control. The basic idea is that people have a need for control, and when they receive this via secular routes (like cops or the government) they do not have the same need to believe that God possesses control. Evolutionary psychologists have made similar arguments, citing data showing that when economic and health security are high, people tend to be less religious.

2) A Need to Cope with Death
Reminders of death increase people’s belief in spirits and the power of prayer. Moreover, having people read that there is life after death (even atheists) reduces people’s psychological distress in response to thinking about death.

3) Suffering
Kurt Gray (University of Maryland) has conducted several studies showing that people believe in God more strongly after being exposed to unexplained suffering. For instance, if people read of suffering that can be explained (i.e., a man loses his job) this would not increase belief in God. However, if people read that am unexpected flood had caused a family to die, this would increase belief. Ironically, suffering increases theism.

4) A Need for Justice
When people think that a God that can punish is watching them, they behave more morally. Moreover, they also feel less of a need to punish others. It follows from this research (though the study has not been done) that people should have less belief in God (at least his punishing characteristics) when they are feeling like secular sources of authority are providing ample justice. Somewhat supporting this, religious people have less distrust of atheists after watching a video of police effectiveness. The need to punish others (who have not been punished) is associated with belief in God.

5) Experiential Thinking
There are (at least) two primary modes of thinking and decision making. One is called experiential thinking, in which a person relies primarily on their “gut” or their feelings when making a decision. The other is logical thinking, in which a person makes a decision in a more cold, calculated manner.

Research suggests that belief in God is higher among people who more often think experientially. Moreover, forcing people to think experientially in an experiment heightens their belief in God, compared to people who are forced to think logically.

In other words, people’s natural thinking style could, or could not, lend itself to belief in the supernatural.

As I’ve stressed multiple times before, we shouldn’t pounce on these studies as if they were irrefutable. We would clearly need more replication and peer review before we accept their conclusions at face value. But that doesn’t mean we can’t consider their implications and at least make hypothetical arguments based on their claims.

For starters, the article notes a very important caveat: all these studies were conducted along a spectrum of belief, either on a 1-5 or 1-7 scale. Each result thus represents an average from a sample of people with varying levels of conviction: from casual believers to fundamentalist ones, and from agnostics to hard atheists, with everything in-between.

Therefore, giving someone personal control of their lives won’t automatically turn them into atheists – it may, at most, merely moderate their level of piety, as was observed in some of these studies. On the flip side, an atheist who endures a lot suffering won’t necessarily find God and become a Born-Again Evangelical, but they may be more open to the idea than they once were.

There are always exceptions, as I’ve read plenty of testimonials claiming unilateral conversion (or de-conversion) in response to a single catalyst. Even then, one would wonder if they weren’t already leaning to their ultimately chosen decision to begin with.

Furthermore, it seems that if any of these factors persist and/or intensify in the long-run, they may lead to a gradual dilution of one’s preexisting faith (or conversely, a reconstruction of a theistic belief system). Few people simply switch between faith and atheism instantaneously; it is almost always a gradual and nonlinear process.

Altogether, these studies confirm a long-standing observation: that our beliefs (or lack thereof) seem influenced more by personal experiences and environmental conditions than anything else. There are certain individuals whose personalities seem especially conducive to either piety or skepticism. Unless their personal dynamics change markedly, such as if they reach an epiphany or encounter a life-changing event, we simply can’t imagine them being any other way ideologically.

This reminds me of a study mentioned Point of Inquiry (I sadly can’t locate it) that claimed that most people become religious in response to emotional needs – again, a desire for control or a way to cope with tragedy – while those who abandon their faith do so primarily for intellectual reasons, such as finding that their beliefs are illogical or invalid. This isn’t to suggest that all atheists are smart and all religious people are dumb, but that each sides impetus for their particular worldview is fundamentally different (at least in most cases).

We should keep in mind that most people will remain loosely aligned with the belief system they were raised in; I’ve observed that even Christians who seem functionally nonreligious nonetheless identify themselves as such, just as people of a secular upbringing will claim to be nonreligious even if they retain spiritual or deistic beliefs (though that may be a matter of semantics). Here’s something else to note:

What this work does suggest is that moderate shifts in belief can occur when people are feeling things, such as a fear of death, a lack of control or a need for justice, and when they are exposed to suffering or are thinking experientially.

Let’s apply this on a macro level. The most secular societies in the world – such as those of Scandinavia, East Asia, Australia, Canada, and others – just happen to be those that top the indexes measuring standard of living, economic development, low-crime, and robust social safety nets (whether state-based or communitarian). Conversely, all the world’s poorest nations are also overwhelmingly religious.

We see this same trend within the United States: the more secular states are also the more developed ones, while the very devout Deep South suffers high rates of poverty, abortion, crime, and low-educational attainment.

(Note that in both instances, “secular” doesn’t necessarily mean atheistic, but instead describes communities where religion doesn’t figure prominently in either the average individual’s personal life or in the public sphere as a whole).

In conjunction with the study data, this correlation suggests that the factors influencing religious belief apply on an aggregate level too: if people as a whole aren’t worrying about financial insecurity, political instability, crime, or systemic injustice, the overall influence of religion wanes. If you live in a relatively thriving environment, you have less impetus for turning to God – or to religious institutions – to help you through.

That may be why the United States, which is uniquely religious for a developed country, also stands out as far as having high rates of socioeconomic dysfunction. Broadly-speaking, religion seems to be of an emotional and psychological crux. Sure, there are exceptions – many wealthy Americans are still devout – but this seems to be the overall case.

Our Crazy English Language

The following has been making the rounds on Tumblr, and I wish I could determine the source to give due credit. It’s been shared so many times that it’s essentially a part of the web now.

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

Free Science DVDs

The highly reputable Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is giving away free DVDs of its lectures, which deal mostly with biology and evolution. According to a trusted scientific source, Jerry Coyne, the speakers are of good scientific merit, so the videos should be interesting (if it’s good enough for him to share as well, than that says something). 

Click here to being filling out a short form that will allow you to choose from a list of free DVDs (I’m not sure if there’s a limit, but I’ve selected two so far). You’ll receive an order confirmation by email, and the discs should arrive by April. It was a pretty quick and easy process, and you can find webcasts of these same talks here, elsewhere in the site. The site as a whole is worth browsing through too.

It’s always great to see valuable knowledge made accessible to the masses. This kind of project is precisely what I advocate, and is the reason why the internet is such a priceless commodity for proliferating information. We need more initiatives like this.