All Posts By

Roger Heppleston

Human Evolution

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Why has human evolution been so different to other mammal species?  Have you ever asked yourselves this question?

In the old days the answer was obvious. We all knew, because the Bible told us, that man was created by God to rule over the animal kingdom: ‘to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth’. However, since Darwin and the discovery of DNA we now know differently; we are just another species formed by evolution.

But how did we come to be so successful so quickly in geological time?

We’ve only been around: 0 .004% of the time since the Earth was formed 0,.02% of the time since the first multi-cellular bodies and 1% of the time since the first apes. And yet we now dominate the planet so much that we have changed its very nature. We live in a new geological era the Anthropecene.

People think that evolution is only to do with physical development caused by genetic mutation over time. However, the development of behaviour is just as important.  Insect behaviours are instinctive, solely determined by their genes. But for larger animals, behaviours can also be passed on by imitation. These concern how and where they gather food  and how they interact with each other.  Think of the hunting behaviours of lions or monkeys grooming each other.

The word meme was invented by Richard Dawkins to describe the ideas that animals are able to transmit between themselves in order to imitate behaviour. Through the miracle of evolution it is possible for one animal to reproduce the same behaviour as another animal. These instructions in their brains are memes.  Memes behave just like genes in evolution: they can reproduce; they mutate over time to produce different behaviours; and  they confer an evolutionary advantage.

The reason humans are so successful is that they are able transmit these memes in ways not available to other animals. Sometime during the 200,000 years of man’s existence, humans developed the ability to speak. This transformed the ability to pass on memes. New ideas, skills and behaviours were transmitted between hunter gatherers. Homo sapiens became the first species to populate all five continents because of the flexible way he was able to adapt to the environment. Later humans learnt to write, educate and eventually transmit information at incredible speeds and volumes all round the world. Human evolution, memetic evolution, is still accelerating. We are rapidly changing the face of the planet and testing the limits of the Earth’s resources.

 

Is humanism a philosophy of life?

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Humanism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a ‘rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters’. This falls short of being a philosophy of life. The denial of supernatural forces does not provide a positive statement of what humanists stand for.

The British Humanist Association goes further by defining two ‘wants’

  • A world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations.
  • To help non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity

 

A philosophy of life is a view of the nature and purpose of life and the way it should be lived. Defining a vision of an ideal world goes someway to defining how life should be lived but does not constitute a purpose for existence.

 

I believe it is time for humanists to make a much more positive statement about why we are here. The theory of evolution has been in existence for a century and a half. It is over fifty years since DNA was discovered, surely we can acknowledge that the human purpose in life is to pass on our genes to future generations. If we allow global warming to happen this objective will be compromised. We need to preserve the Earth’s ecology for future generations.

Humanism is just a system of rational thought denying the existence of God. If it is to be more effective is has to have a more positive agenda. Eco-humanity provides one such approach; it is a full philosophy of life whose purpose is saving the planet for our children.

 

Refugees

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The problem of desperate refugees from wars, brutal regimes and failing states is one of the most intractable problems facing governments of rich nations. Europe has seen a regular stream of people fleeing Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other states which are failing to provide a secure livelihood to their citizens.

Humanitarian instincts drive us to help people in need and distress. This is reinforced by the UN declaration of rights for refugees ‘everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.

Moderate levels of immigration are usually good for the economy of a country. Immigrants are by and large hard-working and eager for self-improvement. However there is a problem if the volumes become too large. Rich countries have become successful due to their memes; they have successfully developed a secular capitalist political culture which allows their population to maintain a lifestyle unimaginable in past times.  Refugees bring with them the political cultures of failed countries. If these cultures are allowed to develop in ghettos, this can threaten the fabric of a rich society.

There is also an issue with population levels. There so many humans on the planet that they are threatening its future. Population growth rates in rich countries have been slowing down.  On the other hand population growth rates in Africa have been exploding. The UN forecasts the population of Africa will grow from 1 billion to 4 billion this century. Population levels in the troubled Islamic countries in the Middle East are also set to increase substantially.  The problem of immigration can only increase further in decades to come as more governments of poor nations fail to meet the expectations of their citizens. Western nations will try to maintain fortress Europe but this will lead to increasing violence against desperate people.

We can only address the issue by uniting to address the root causes. We have to reach out and help countries in difficulty and show them the path to self-improvement. This is not just due the way a country is governed, it also means addressing the underlying conventions of a failed society. We need to unite behind and spread a new philosophy of life that can save the planet for mankind.

 

The IBHA approves Memes, Societies and Human Evolution

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The International Big History Association(IBHA) has just approved Memes, Societies and Human Evolution to be added to their extensive bibliography of the history of the universe.

Conventional history   begins with the invention of writing, and is limited to past events relating directly to humans. Big History tries to put the human story in the context of the history of the universe itself. It covers the formation of the universe, stars, and galaxies, and includes the beginning of life as well as the period of several hundred thousand years when humans were hunter-gatherers.

The study of Big History arose from a desire to give a holistic view of the development of life on Earth.  It examines long time frames involving numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, looking for common themes across multiple time scales in history.

Memes, Societies and Human Evolution develops the human part of the story from the great apes to the modern day, explaining how memes have made the evolution of Homo sapiens so different from that of other animals.

Failures in society

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There are three apparently intractable problems facing Western nations: the nihilistic violence of ISIS, the problem of immigration from disadvantaged countries and the attraction of young Western Muslims to fight for a religious cause. They should not be a surprise; they are the inevitable result of failures in society.  For evolution to function there have to be failures as well as successes.  Secular capitalist countries have achieved a level of wealth and health never seen before in human history. However, most of the world’s population live outside these successful countries.  They are fully aware of the difference of their own lifestyle to that of the west through the ease of international communication.  Most countries have failed to achieve the benefits of capitalism because of corruption, religious bigotary, or the brutal behaviour of the ruler and his elites. In the first half of the second millennium AD Islamic states were world leaders.  However they failed to keep up with the developments in the West, stagnated, lost power and eventually collapsed. New secular states in the Middle East: Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq, created post the Second World War in a partial implementation of western ideas of governance, also failed to deliver prosperity.  Most African states have struggled from their inception.

When people despair of their own governments it is no wonder they seek a better life elsewhere. This competitive instinct for self-improvement is totally understandable. The desperate desire of migrants to cross from Africa and the Middle East into Europe is a symptom of failure of their own native societies.

For those left behind the collapse of central state power is very dangerous.  Envy and hate of the disadvantaged against their former masters can lead to revolution and terror. It happened in France in the eighteenth century, in Russia in the twentieth, in Iran in the 1970’s and now with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

What is more difficult to understand is the reverse flow, young people leaving the West to join ISIS. The banner of resurrecting Islam appears to be only part of the story. In his article in the Guardian of 25th July ,Humiliated rage and furtive envy, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/24/how-to-think-about-islamic-state,Pankaj Mishra said  that ‘both phenomenon are failures of a globalised western model [of society] that promises freedom and prosperity to all but fails to deliver’.  Those who find it difficult to succeed become disaffected with Western Society. Identifying with a religious cause allows them fulfilment in a way not available to them at home.  Feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy can be overcome by active participation in a popular movement.  The aggressive violence of ISIS is not an issue. Violent behaviour, when it is justified through religion or feelings of kinship, has been a constant throughout human history.

The implementation of global capitalism has spread health and wealth throughout the world. Most people live longer, have more possessions and live more fulfilling lives than they did a century ago. But economic competition always has winners and losers.  In the past popular religion provided comfort and support  for the disadvantaged, offering them some hope for the future. However the old religious canons are now discredited in the West and active participation is dying out. In this modern materialistic world there appears to be little more purpose in life than the acquisition of wealth and the raising of children.  For those that fail, there is no solace. We need a new philosophy of life to replace the old religions; one that supports all in society. Eco-humanity is one such approach. It should provide a new purpose in life, both to support all of mankind and save the planet for our children.

 

Climate change is a moral issue

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Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an adviser on climate change to the German government and Pope Francis, spoke at a recent scientific conference in Paris about climate change. Here are three quotes on what he said:

“In the end it is a moral decision. Do you want to be part of the generation that screwed up the planet for the next 1,000 years? I don’t think we should make that decision.”

“We need a global social movement …”

“ the best analogy for the transition from dirty to clean energy was the abolition of slavery, which was fundamentally driven by ethical concerns. ”

Professor Schellnhuber realises that to change public attitudes to climate change requires more than stating the scientific arguments. It requires the promotion of a new ethical imperative. Lots of scientists have reached the same conclusion, but no one says how it can be achieved. The abolition of slavery was driven by moral concerns of largely Christian nations. These days most people in Europe are non-religious and materialistic in their outlook. There is nothing in our evolutionary make up that impels us to be concerned about actions that create problems decades in advance. Behaviour for the good of all is contrary to our natural instincts. Altruistic behaviour only occurs within communities that share feelings of kinship. In transnational communities this can only be achieved by those sharing a common religion or a philosophy of life. This is why promoting a new eco-friendly philosophy of life such as Eco-humanity is necessary to save the planet for our children.

 

Pastoral Care

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Being in hospital or prison is a time of high anxiety for many and sharing fears and worries with sympathetic listeners is important.  Religious people have access to paid support from chaplains. The majority of us who are non-religious have no access to pastoral care outside our own families. The British Humanist Association is starting to address the issue.  Volunteers are being recruited to attend hospitals and prisons on a regular basis to provide compassionate support to atheists in difficult times. Their website is humanistcare.org.uk.

This is a new initiative and will take time to roll out, but it is a wonderful example of eco-humanity in action.

We need to look forward not back to mediaeval religion

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Sometimes it seems as if many parts of the world believe that reverting to past behaviour will solve future problems. Mediaeval religion still holds onto power; beliefs invented centuries ago are still promoted as if they are inviolable truths. The power of memetic evolution is very strong. Only now, three centuries after the start of the enlightenment in the West have religious beliefs started to lose their hold. Secularist values are now becoming more important in Europe and North America than religious doctrine. The recent approval of gay marriage both in the USA  and Ireland is an obvious example.

The rise in secularism, however, is very threatening to countries with no tradition of enlightenment.  This often results in violence and this violence is now beginning to be directly targeted against secularists.  On 26 February this year, the humanist writers and bloggers,  Bonya Ahmed and her husband Avijit Roy  were visiting the national book fair of Bangladesh. They were attacked with machetes by Islamic fundamentalists. Bonya was severely wounded and Avijit was killed.  The Bangladeshi police stood by and watched. The supposedly secular Bangladeshi  government had been intimidated into turning a blind eye to these atrocities by a politically powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Islamic fundamentalists and other religious fanatics seem determined to re-impose a mediaeval society on the world, one in which women are subservient, homosexuals are stigmatised and independent thought is forbidden.  While at least some Christian groups acknowledge future problems like global warming, for religious fundamentalists ancient dogma appears far more important than rational behaviour.

Training secular values

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A report published on 15th June by Charles Clarke the former education secretary and Linda Woodhead the leading sociologist of religion in the UK said that ‘religious education’ in schools should be changed to ‘moral education’. It also called for religious education in schools to be re-examined ‘in the light of contemporary beliefs and practices’. They were apparently advocating that the young should be properly trained  to understand modern secular values.

These days most Britains are non-believers. The traditional British faiths, the Church of England, Methodism, and Roman Catholicism are in terminal decline; set to be less important as a practising faith than Islam by the second part of the twenty first century. The Conservative government is in thrall to the Church of England and will not take any action that will lessen their power and authority. They wheeled out a Department of Education spokesman who made the outrageous statement that ’ religious education is vitally important  to help children develop the British values of tolerance, respect and understanding for others.’

This is despite the fact that 61% of those surveyed in an Observer poll agreed with the statement,’ These days religion is a negative influence in the world rather than a force for good’. The secular society , not religion, is responsible for the promotion of tolerance and our current moral values.  Religions still promote their own beliefs, not those of other faiths. How can anyone say that by teaching Islam in schools we are promoting British values!

What is needed is to teach the moral values of a secular society. Eco-humanity proposes four principles of behaviour.

  1. Look after yourself so that you can reach your full potential.
  2. Respect other humans. Cooperate, and support them in advancing the lot of mankind as a whole.
  3. Recognise the integrated world of nature, respect how it supports our lives and preserve its full diversity for the sake of our children.
  4. Conserve the Earth’s resources for the benefit of our offspring

Surely we can all unite behind these values, whatever your particular religious or philosophical background. If these principles of behaviour were taught in school it would not only  promote ‘tolerance, respect and understanding for others ‘,  but also underline the importance of saving the planet for our children.

 

The nones

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According to an article by Damion Thompson in the Spectator published on 13th June, 45% of people in the British Election Survey classified themselves as having no religious affiliation. They are the nones.  The decreasing importance of religion in people’s lives is a common factor across all Western Countries. Even in America religious faith is declining, albeit from a much higher starting point. 36% of 18 to 24 year olds in the USA do not claim to belong to a religious group.

If they are not religious what do these nones actually believe about supposedly religious issues such as morality, life after death and communication with God? In the modern Western secular society there is a consensus about these issues but it is not determined by any priest.

Fundamental to secularism is a belief that science can explain the workings of the natural world. The superstitious mind of the Middle Ages has now almost entirely disappeared.  People no longer believe that natural disasters are a sign of God’s displeasure.  The fear of God and malevolent spirits has largely ceased to be a factor in day to day life.

This is helped by the fact that we are living longer. In medieval times, dealing with death was a constant issue in every community. People only lived 30-40 years on average.  Life was hard. Churches preached that life on Earth is only temporary and we should be more concerned about our life after death. Fear of going to hell was truly terrifying. We still fear death but eternal damnation is no longer an issue among secularists.

The control of religion on general issues of morality has largely ceased to exist. Sunday is no longer a day of rest for religious contemplation. Despite opposition from the religious community, sex before marriage and divorce after marriage is now common place. Homosexuality amongst consenting adults is no longer seen as a sin, indeed gay marriage has just been legalised.

Yet despite the declining influence of religious morality there is no evidence of any less ‘goodness’ around. Charity and generosity of spirit hasn’t disappeared. Indeed we have become a more tolerant caring society, concerned for all peoples whatever their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Morality seems to be determined by consensus across society. This consensus has emerged independently in many countries practising Western democracy. It seems to be based on feelings of egalitarianism and fairness combined with a rational view of the world.  It is maintained both by law and peer pressure.

The nones apparently have no need for religion or any set of religious beliefs. There are however dangers in being a none.

In the last two hundred and fifty years the secular society, in which science and industry has thrived, has delivered a massive increase in health and freedom from want in the western world. However, having no priests, the values of the secular society are not explicitly trained on to the next generation. Religious beliefs have survived centuries through training the young. Secularists are careless of their heritage. There is apparently no co-ordinated attempt to train secular values in our schools. There is a risk that at any time these fragile values could be tossed away in reaction to the political situation of a moment. Hitler after all was voted into power in a secular Germany  before he created his racially biased police state.

One danger is if the increasing population of immigrant communities with no tradition of secular behaviour, fail to adopt these secularist values.  Islam may become the biggest religious organisation in the UK in the second part of the twenty first  century. Islam, Catholic and many other religious faiths are supporters of   non-secular values of discrimination against women and homosexuals. It is a scandal that these religious groups are supported by a supposedly secular government in training these negative values onto the next generation.

Another danger is that the lack of any concern for the future has gone too far. Climate change is coming yet most people are relatively unconcerned because  they do not see it as a direct imminent threat.  We live in a materialistic world where everyone is striving to do their best for themselves and their children. Issues that are decades away have relatively little impact on their thinking.

This is why we need a new philosophy of life to be actively promoted, one that maintains the values of a secular society but also saves the planet for our children.