In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time.
144. Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being
Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.
The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.
Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:
what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action), evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why, evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?), evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality, Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense? human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language, evolution of theory of mind, how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts, components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making, dog domestication and human self-domestication, Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities, the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy, gender role specialization, monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking, violence and warfare, political and economic systems of belief, and love as belief. Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
143. Nicholas Christakis — Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live
Apollo’s Arrow offers a riveting account of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as it swept through American society in 2020, and of how the recovery will unfold in the coming years. Drawing on momentous (yet dimly remembered) historical epidemics, contemporary analyses, and cutting-edge research from a range of scientific disciplines, bestselling author, physician, sociologist, and public health expert Nicholas A. Christakis explores what it means to live in a time of plague — an experience that is paradoxically uncommon to the vast majority of humans who are alive, yet deeply fundamental to our species. Featuring new, provocative arguments and vivid examples ranging across medicine, history, sociology, epidemiology, data science, and genetics, Apollo’s Arrow envisions what happens when the great force of a deadly germ meets the enduring reality of our evolved social nature.
Shermer and Christakis discuss:
the replication crisis in social science and medicine, determining causality in science and medicine, how we know smoking causes cancer and HIV causes AIDS, but vaccines do not cause autism and cell phones do not cause cancer, randomized controlled trials and why they can’t be done to answer many medical questions, natural experiments and the comparative method of testing hypotheses (e.g., comparing different countries differing responses to Covid-19), the hindsight bias and the curse of knowledge in judging responses to pandemics after the fact, looking back to January 2020, what should we have done?, comparing Covid-19 to the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and other pandemics, bacteria vs. viruses, coronaviruses and their effects, and why viruses are so much harder to treat than bacteria, Bill Gates’ TED talk warning in 2015 and why we didn’t heed it, treatments: hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, Vitamin D. How civilization will change:
medical: coronavirus is here to stay — herd immunity naturally and through vaccines, personal and public health: handshakes, hugs, and other human contact; masks, social distancing, hygiene, long run healthier society (e.g., body temperatures have decreased from 98.6 to 97.9), economics and business, travel, conferences, meetings, marriage, dating, sex, and home life, entertainment, vacations, bars, and restaurants, education and schools, politics and society (and a better understanding of freedom and why it is restricted), from pandemic to endemic. Nicholas A. Christakis is a physician and sociologist who explores the ancient origins and modern implications of human nature. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, in the Departments of Sociology, Medicine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Statistics and Data Science, and Biomedical Engineering. He is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, the co-author of Connected, and the author of Blueprint.
142. Philip Goff — Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness
Understanding how brains produce consciousness is one of the great scientific challenges of our age. Some philosophers argue that consciousness is something “extra,” beyond the physical workings of the brain. Others think that if we persist in our standard scientific methods, our questions about consciousness will eventually be answered. And some even suggest that the mystery is so deep, it will never be solved. Decades have been spent trying to explain consciousness from within our current scientific paradigm, but little progress has been made.
Now, Philip Goff offers an exciting alternative that could pave the way forward. Rooted in an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of modern science and based on the early twentieth-century work of Arthur Eddington and Bertrand Russell, Goff makes the case for panpsychism, a theory which posits that consciousness is not confined to biological entities but is a fundamental feature of all physical matter — from subatomic particles to the human brain. In Galileo’s Error, he has provided the first step on a new path to the final theory of human consciousness. Shermer and Goff discuss:
the problem Galileo’s approach to science solved, Galileo’s error in solving the consciousness problem, that is the qualitative, Dualism, Monism, Panpsychism, Material Monism, Mind Monism, and Idealism, hard problem of consciousness defined, how consciousness is at the bottom of reality, why science cannot discover the ultimate nature of reality, Model Dependent Realism, philosophy, and science, Arthur Stanley Eddington and Bertrand Russell build panpsychism back into science, philosophical zombies and the “other minds problem,” free will, determinism, compatibilism, and panpsychism, objective moral values and science, fine tuning and the multiverse, and implications of panpsychism for attitudes toward nature and the meaning of life. Philip Goff is a philosopher who teaches at Durham University. He is the author of Consciousness and Fundamental Reality and has published more than 40 academic papers. His writing has also appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, and he has guest-edited an issue of Philosophy Now. He lives in Durham, England.
141. Richard Kreitner — Break it Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union
The provocative thesis of Break It Up is simple: The United States has never lived up to its name—and never will. The disunionist impulse may have found its greatest expression in the Civil War, but as Break It Up shows, the seduction of secession wasn’t limited to the South or the 19thcentury. It was there at our founding and has never gone away.
Investigative journalist Richard Kreitner takes readers on a revolutionary journey through American history, revealing the power and persistence of disunion movements in every era and region. Each New England town after Plymouth was a secession from another; the 13 colonies viewed their Union as a means to the end of securing independence, not an end in itself; George Washington feared separatism west of the Alleghenies; Aaron Burr schemed to set up a new empire; John Quincy Adams brought a Massachusetts town’s petition for dissolving the United States to the floor of Congress; and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a pro-slavery pact with the devil.
From the “cold civil war” that pits partisans against one another to the modern secession movements in California and Texas, the divisions that threaten to tear America apart today have centuries-old roots in the earliest days of our Republic. Richly researched and persuasively argued, Break It Up will help readers make fresh sense of our fractured age. Shermer and Kreitner discuss:
what happens if Trump loses the 2020 election and refuses to leave, the possibility of the secession of California, Oregon and Washington, States rights vs. Federal power in issues like climate change, abortion, health care, etc., how Native American tribes and nations governed themselves and what the colonists learned from them, how the 1st colonial revolution was fought not to create a federation but to destroy one when Boston rebelled against the Crown-backed Dominion of New England, separatists movements throughout our history, Aaron Burr’s attempts to create a new nation he would head, spread of slavery to the west and Jefferson’s fear that it sounded like a “fire bell in the night,” why John Quincy Adams introduced a petition demanding the dissolution of the U.S.:
If the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it,) when the affection of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.
how Southern states initially sought to expand the union of slave holding states, not secession, why reconstruction failed, the Civil War of the 1960s, Brexit, Texit, and Calexit, Russia support for American secessionist movements, James Madison’s observation (in Federalist Paper No. 51) about the problem all human groups/tribes/nations must solve:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Kreitner’s summation of America’s irrepressible conflict “The ‘irrepressible conflict’ was not just between North and South, freedom and slavery; it reflected something even deeper. The truly ‘irrepressible’ conflict was between union and disunion, whose forces bringing American together and those tearing them apart.”
Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer to The Nation. He is the author of Booked: A Traveler’s Guide to Lite
140. Rebecca Wragg Sykes — Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
The common narrative of Neanderthals is that they were a group of dullard losers whose extinction 40,000 years ago was due to smarter competition and a little of interbreeding with our own forebears. Likening someone to a Neanderthal was and, most likely, still is a top-rate anthropological insult. But, in the past few decades, Neanderthal finds have greatly contradicted our perception of the species. In Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes combs through the avalanche of scientific discoveries of the species and uses her experience at the cutting-edge of Paleolithic research to share our new understanding of Neanderthals, shoving aside cliches of rag-clad brutes in an icy wasteland. She reveals them to be curious, clever connoisseurs of their world, technologically inventive and ecologically adaptable. They ranged across vast tracts of tundra and steppe, but also stalked in dappled forests and waded in the Mediterranean Sea. Above all, they were successful survivors for more than 300,000 years, during times of massive climatic upheaval. Shermer and Sykes also discuss:
the nature of species and if Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are one or two species, the deep time span of Neanderthals, the wide geography of Neanderthals, how archaeologists work today to discern Neanderthal lives and minds, Neanderthal DNA and what we have learned from it, Neanderthal bodies, Neanderthal brains and minds, Neanderthal tools and what they tell us about their lives, Neanderthal hunting/caloric needs, Neanderthal art, Neanderthal sex and love and social lives, Neanderthal death, burial, afterlife beliefs, and possible religious beliefs, and extinction: what happened to the Neanderthals? Rebecca Wragg Sykes has been fascinated by the vanished worlds of the Pleistocene ice ages since childhood, and followed this interest through a career researching the most enigmatic characters of all, the Neanderthals. After a Ph.D. on the last Neanderthals living in Britain, she worked in France at the world-famous PACEA laboratory, Université de Bordeaux, on topics ranging from Neanderthal landscapes and territories in the Massif Central region of south-east France, to examining how they were the first ancient humans to produce a synthetic material and tools made of multiple parts. Alongside her academic activities, she has also earned a reputation for exceptional public engagement. The public can follow her research through a personal blog and Twitter account, and she frequently writes for the popular media, including the Scientific American and Guardian science blogs. Becky is passionate about sharing the privileged access scientists have to fascinating discoveries about the Neanderthals. She is also co-founder of the influential Trowelblazers project, which highlights women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists through innovative outreach and collaboration.
BONUS: James Randi—A Report from the Paranormal Trenches (1992)
This classic lecture on skepticism was given by James Randi on March 22, 1992 at the inaugural session of the Distinguished Science Lecture Series hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society in California (1992–2015). The transcript for this lecture appeared in Skeptic magazine 1.1 (1992).
James Randi presents an amazing first-hand analysis of astonishing claims encountered in his European visit. New-found freedoms stimulate rampant pseudoscientific practices in eastern bloc nations. With wit and wonderfully illustrative examples, Randi teaches us several lessons on the scientific investigation of unusual claims.
Famed magician and investigator of paranormal claims, Randi is best selling author of The Faith Healers and Flim Flam! Randi was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Grant for his investigation of faith healers.