How to build a human

Ok, I tried reblogging this from Why Evolution is True, but it just made a formatting mess.  So here’s the graphic.  Click through to see the post with the full sized version.

via How to build a human.

h/t Why Evolution Is True


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Wealth may have driven the rise of moralizing religions

One of the things that a lot of people are often surprised to hear, is that most scholars don’t believe that religion was always concerned with morality, that moralizing religion didn’t exist to any significant extent before the ‘Axial Age’ circa 500 BC.  Psychologist Nicolas Baumard has a theory about what may have led to moralizing religions: Wealth may have driven the rise of today’s religions | Science/AAAS | News.

Religion wasn’t always based on morality, explains Nicolas Baumard, a psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. For the first several thousand years of human recorded history, he notes, religions were based on rituals and short-term rewards. If you wanted rain or a good harvest, for example, you made the necessary sacrifices to the right gods. But between approximately 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., a radical change appeared all over Eurasia as new religions sprung up from Greece to India to China. All of these religions shared a focus on morality, self-discipline, and asceticism, Baumard says. Eventually these new religions, such as Stoicism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and their immediate successors, including Christianity and Islam, spread around the globe and became the world religions of today. Back in 1947, German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the pivotal time when these new religions arose “the Axial Age.”

So what changed? Baumard and his colleagues propose one simple reason: People got rich. Psychologists have shown that when people have fewer resources at their disposal, prioritizing rewards in the here and now is the best strategy. Saving for the future—much less the afterlife—isn’t the best use of your time when you are trying to find enough to eat today. But when you become more affluent, thinking about the future starts to make sense, and people begin to forgo immediate rewards in order to prioritize long-term goals.

Baurmard has discussed this theory before, that agricultural productivity led to moralizing religions.  I’m not sure I buy it, primarily related to the correlation is not causation maxim.  It looks like some scholars agree:

Some religious studies scholars are skeptical, however. “It’s an interesting hypothesis” that deserves to be investigated, allows Edward Slingerland, a historian who studies religion in ancient China at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada. But when it comes to the transition from ritual religions to moralizing religions, the authors drew on outdated ideas, he says. For example, religion scholars now doubt that this change took place entirely during the narrow window of the Axial Age. “In early China, a lot of the moralizing stuff is arguably earlier than that,” whereas in the Arabian Peninsula it didn’t appear until about the 7th century C.E., Slingerland notes. He favors a hypothesis that has less to do with a certain fixed time period and more with the size and complexity of a given society; as people find themselves needing to cooperate with more and more strangers, belief in a high god encouraging morality helps smooth those new interactions and contributes to the overall success of the culture.

But both the political complexity and affluence hypotheses suffer from a lack of recent statistical data on religion, Slingerland says.

The “size and complexity” theory seems similar to the one presented by Ara Norenzayan in his fascinating book ‘Big Gods’, which I review last year.  Norenzayan has asserted that moralizing religion goes much further back than is commonly accepted among scholars.  I’m currently reading his primary source for this assertion: ‘Religion in Human Evolution‘ by Robert Bellah, which will likely generate a post or two in the future.  (Possibly in the far future.  The book is massive and a very slow read.)

But the idea that larger societies need moral codes more than smaller societies, doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial.  Nor that those moral codes would have been entangled in their religions, since religion permeated everything in pre-modern societies.  In fact, one way to think of religion is as old cultural systems that we in the west cordon off and label “religion” to separate them from our overall secular culture.

Anyway, as the article suggests, both hypotheses are badly in need of more actual data.  But they’re both still interesting ideas.

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xkcd: Spacecraft and launch vehicle payloads, in horses


Similar to the relative spacecraft and rocket sizes I linked to the other day, here’s xkcd’s version, in horse units.  At first I thought he was referring to horsepower, but then I realized it was horse mass.  (Click through for full sized version.)

via xkcd: Payloads.

It’s worth noting how large the Saturn V and planned SLS Block 2 rockets loom in their payload capacities.  And how much heavy lift capability we gave up when we discontinued the Saturn V in the 70s.

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Worm ‘Brain’ uploaded into robot, which then behaves like a worm

Steve Morris clued me in to this article: Worm ‘Brain’ Uploaded Into Lego Robot | Singularity HUB.

Can a digitally simulated brain on a computer perform tasks just like the real thing?

For simple commands, the answer, it would seem, is yes it can. Researchers at the OpenWorm project recently hooked a simulated worm brain to a wheeled robot. Without being explicitly programmed to do so, the robot moved back and forth and avoided objects—driven only by the interplay of external stimuli and digital neurons.

The article comes with this accompanying video:

Now, the C Elegans worm has about the simplest central nervous system in nature, with only 300 neurons and 7000 synapses (compared to human’s 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses).  Still, the fact that putting that connectome (the map of a brain’s connections) into a robot produced behavior that resembles what an actual C Elegans would do is intriguing.

The article ends by asking the obvious question:

In this example, we’re talking very simple behaviors. But could the result scale? That is, if you map a human brain with similarly high fidelity and supply it with stimulation in a virtual or physical environment—would some of the characteristics we associate with human brains independently emerge? Might that include creativity and consciousness?

There’s only one way to find out.

Of course, many will insist that we shouldn’t even try.  But I suspect that train will leave the station regardless.

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Will robots replace humans?

Originally posted on Blog Blogger Bloggest:


Consider this. Nearly every large animal on this planet is stronger than us. Almost every predator has claws, or venom, or sharp teeth. But humans have two advantages that have enabled us to survive and thrive – a large brain, and hands that can pick up and manipulate objects. At the very dawn of pre-history we were busy making stone tools, turning animal skins into clothing, and decorating our own bodies with things that we’d made. We just can’t help it. We have to make things. Give any human a physical object and they will try to do something with it.


In the modern world, we are constantly surrounded by machines and inventions – from the clothes we wear, to the houses we live in, to the cars, trains and planes we travel around in, to the computers and other electronic devices we use for work and leisure. In this article, I want…

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Steven Pinker: Using Grammar as a Tool, Not as a Weapon

I listened to this Point of Inquiry podcast at lunch today, and thought many of you might find it interesting: Steven Pinker: Using Grammar as a Tool, Not as a Weapon | Point of Inquiry.

The English language is often treated as delicate and precious, and disagreements about what is “proper English” go back as far as the 18th century. Then as now, style manuals and grammar books placed innumerable restrictions on what is and isn’t “correct,” as “Language Mavens” continue to delight in pointing out the unforgivable errors of others. To bring some fresh perspective to this remarkably heated topic (and to let some of us who are less than perfect, grammatically speaking, off the hook), Point of Inquiry welcomes Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of the new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Among the things discussed is the singular “they” (it’s fine), ending a sentence with a preposition (also fine), or that passive tense isn’t always bad.  Pinker comes down on the side of grammar being a tool, not a strict authoritarian regime.  He notes that there is no “official” English, just lots of people using language, and people like him (he’s the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage dictionary) examining that usage and recording it in dictionaries and style manuals, and that language evolves constantly.

I’ve never been a strict grammarian myself (as some of you have noticed in the past).  As I admitted to someone earlier this week, I’m pretty dependent on modern text editors for saving me from a host of grammatical sins.  (The WordPress editor just saved me from one in the prior sentence.)  And I usually only notice grammar violations in someone else’s writing if it obscures their meaning.  In my view, clear writing with an occasional grammatical mistake or oddity is superior to grammatically perfect but unclear writing.  So Pinker’s position resonates well with me.

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It’s American Atheists billboards time, again!

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

daveby Massimo Pigliucci

Christmas is fast approaching. So, naturally, American Atheists has launched its usual billboard campaign to nudge closeted atheists to come out and embrace the good news. AA President David Silverman is again spearheading what he calls the organizations’ “firebrand” approach to fighting religion. Despite being a lifetime member of American Atheists, I have criticized the group on this issue before [1], and recently, I did so again, on Twitter, which led to a back and forth with David and some of his supporters [2]. At some point, however, Silverman threw the evidence-based bomb: he claims to have data showing that his approach is working, and since quantitative data is science, and science doesn’t lie, the matter is settled.

Well, not so fast, I think. In this essay I will first explain why I object to “firebrand” atheism and on what principled (i.e., before evidence) grounds. I will…

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