Silly Rynchops niger

In one of the few breaks in the rain this week, I managed to take a walk along the old salt ponds at the edge of San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, now the Baylands nature preserve. It was low tide, so there were birds everywhere: shorebirds, gulls, diving ducks and dabbling ducks, egrets, grebes, geese, a White-Tailed Kite out hunting. And sitting among some California Gulls were half a dozen Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), standing on the mud flats, all facing in the same northwesterly direction. Black Skimmers make me smile; they are such silly-looking birds, with their ridiculously large orange-and-black bills with the lower mandible sticking way out past the upper mandible, and black-and-white plumage on their heads that makes them look as though they’re wearing a baseball cap pushed to the back of their heads, and gawky red-orange legs.

But they’re not ridiculous at all. Their bill may look silly to me, but it is a precisely engineered product of natural selection and evolution, allowing the birds to skim fish from the surface of the water as they fly along. No doubt their plumage also has an evolutionary function; their legs only look a little gawky because these are birds that are meant for precision flying, not for walking around on dry ground. Black Skimmers are not silly at all, they are amazingly successful organisms: “This skimmer has undergone a remarkable range expansion north from Mexico into California since 8 Sept. 1962, when the first bird was found at the mouth of the Santa Ana River…” Arnold Small, California Birds: Their Range and Distribution, 1994.

Moral decisions about eating, pt. 2

A distinction that I’ve found provocative when thinking about moral decisions about eating is the three-way distinction between those decisions give priority to other human beings, those decisions that are most concerned with one’s own self, and those decisions that give priority to non-human beings. For example, one can distinguish between three types of strict vegetarians:

  1. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat and animal products because they are concerned that animal food products can use up to 16 pounds of grain per pound of animal, which could mean that raising animal products could take food out of the mouths of starving people;
  2. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that meats may adversely affect their health;
  3. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that raising and slaughtering animals for food leads to unnecessary pain and poor lives for the animals.

In reality, of course, many strict vegetarians use all three types of moral reasoning; but even so, usually one of these three types of moral reasoning generally will feel most important to any one person.

The first type of moral reasoning above is likely to be acceptable to nearly all religious liberals. Even though we will argue about the specifics, we commonly hold an ethical standard that we should act in such a way that we minimize harm to other people. Thus, if we all agreed that eating meat is really going to take food out of the mouths of starving people, causing them serious harm, we would generally agree that we should stop eating meat. (Of course, we don’t all agree that eating meat is going to harm others; the devil in moral reasoning is often in the details.)

The second type of moral reasoning above is least likely to be given much weight by religious liberals. While most of us would agree that it’s important to take care of oneself and to refrain from damaging oneself, nevertheless we are not particularly concerned with treating our body as a sort of holy temple; we’d place a much higher priority on making the world a better place for all persons. (I’d even say the reason many religious liberals take care of their health is to have more energy to make the world a better place for all.)

The third type of moral reasoning above remains under contention among religious liberals. While every religious liberal that I know feels that taking care of the entire ecosystem is a moral imperative, some religious liberals want to do this because we humans depend on the health of the ecosystem for our own health; that is, not harming the ecosystem is of secondary importance to not harming human beings — whereas other religious liberals want to take care of the ecosystem because they feel it is more important than human beings. (This latter position is sometimes referred to as Deep Ecology, or being “deep green” rather than merely “green.”)

If we let it, this conversation can take us to some interesting questions:— What’s most important in the universe: humanity, or something else? — and what do we name that something else? —God? —creation? (which begs the question, created by what or whom?) —earth? —the universe?

And those interesting questions, and others like them, can lead us to examine the roots of our theologies. Thus, one of the reasons I can’t call myself a humanist is that I can’t place utmost importance on human beings; I would call myself a Transcendentalist where my understanding of the universe tells me there’s something that transcends humanity, something before which I and all humanity must feel very small and insignificant; and this leads me towards some kind of Deep Ecology. By contrast, many of the liberal Christians I know are humanists; that is, even though they are committed to protecting God’s creation, they would consider human beings to be of utmost importance. (Here I’m using “humanist” in the broader sense of the word that goes back at least to Erasmus; I’m not using “humanist” in the new, reductive sense of the word that merely means “rejecting God”.)

From what I’ve seen, there’s an almost unresolvable difference between those who place humanity at the center of the universe, and those who place something else at the center of the universe. And in the latter group we can also find some unresolvable differences; there are those like me who place something hugely and transcendentally larger than humans (the ecosystem? God? Gaia?) at the center of universe; there are others who are more concrete and specific about what’s placed in the center of the universe (animals including perhaps human animals, etc.). All these nearly unresolvable differences help explain why our moral arguments about eating don’t often seem to get very far — we are often arguing from very different frames of reference.

Cheap flights, with subtitles

Just in time for St. Patrick’s day, an Irish ballad about flying on one of those cheap airline flights. As is true with any great tragic aria, the gist of the song is simple: in spite of what airlines promise, there’s no such thing as a flight for 50p (that’s 50 cents for you Yanks). But the rhymes, the singing, the subtitles, the dancing, and yes even the bohran player allow the song to transcend its simple gist. And I apologize if you’ve already seen this — what the heck, watch it again. Happy St. Patty’s Day.

Oh, um, not quite safe for work.

Thanks to Will! And if you’re wondering, that’s Dillie Keane (yes she was born in Tralee though she now lives in England) with Fascinating Aida.

Moral decisions about eating, pt. 1

Yesterday’s “Science” section in the New York Times has an essay by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on the morality of eating meat as compared to the morality of eating plants. During a period when she was a vegetarian, Yoon said she struggled with the question of why she thought it was moral to eat plants, but not animals:

…I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.

Surely, I’d thought, science can defend the obvious, that slaughterhouse carnage is wrong in a way that harvesting a field of lettuces [sic] or, say, mowing the lawn is not. But instead, it began to seem that formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.

“No Face, but Plants Like Life Too,” Carol Kaesuk Yoon, New York Times, 15 March 2011, p. D4.

This is a classic moral problem, and it has been resolved a number of different ways. At an extreme, there are fruitarians, those humans who will eat only ripe fruits, nuts, and seeds that can be used without killing plants; and some fruitarians won’t even eat seeds or nuts since they destroy potential life. Following that, different groups of humans may draw the line in different places. A rough list of moral stands on eating various organisms, in decreasing order of strictness, would look something like this:

  1. Fruitarian — eat only fruits whose harvest won’t damage plants
  2. Vegan — eat no animal products at all (incl. no milk, honey, etc.)
  3. Strict vegetarian — eat no animal flesh or eggs (may eat milk)
  4. Ovo-lacto-vegetarian — eat no animal flesh (eggs and milk OK)
  5. Non-strict vegetarian — “eat nothing with a face”
  6. Omnivore

The above list is based on moral stands against taking life. There are, of course, other moral considerations that may affect food choices. The list below has some of these other moral stands, listed in no particular order:

  • Self-sufficiency — eat as much food raised by self as possible
  • Locavore — eat local foods as much as possible
  • Sustainable foods — eat foods raised organically, biodynamically, or under some other criteria for sustainable production
  • Global food security — eat foods that maximize yield per acre (e.g., Diet for a Small Planet, etc.)
  • Healthful foods — eat so as to maintain the health of one’s own body (e.g., no refined sugar, etc.) (Thanks to Steven.)
  • Unprocessed foods — eat foods that have been processed as little as possible
  • Non-corporate foods — eat foods not produced by the handful of major food processing corporations (i.e., Nestle, Kraft, etc.)

Obviously, being able to take any of the above moral stands presupposes that you are in a position to make decisions about what food you eat — i.e., you have enough income to be able to make choices, you live in a place where you have food choices, etc.

I’d love to hear from you about whether you take any of these moral stands. And let me know if I’ve missed any important moral stands on food. Then in later posts, I’ll look at some moral stands on food more closely.

Spring

Driving over the high point of the Dumbarton Bridge at the end of the day yesterday, I saw the Bay area at its most beautiful. The light rain had stopped. The land was green, and looked greener still because the light was diffused through the cloud cover. The dikes around the old salt ponds were green, and the water they contained ranged from silver to black depending on the thickness of the clouds above. And the hills of the East Bay were incredibly green, their low summits invisible in the low-hanging clouds.

Canceling Sunday services for social justice?

Some acquaintances of Carol’s go to a nearby Christian church that is doing a really interesting social justice program. Next Sunday, they’re canceling worship services at both their campuses and doing a program they’re calling “Love Works.” They will be sending the whole congregation out to do good works in the community — “no strings attached.” Their Love Works programs will involve about a thousand people, and I’m quite impressed by the sophisticated organization of this project. For example, check out the Love Works online sign-up page, where work projects are sorted by categories, and you can look through the projects, pick one that suits you, and sign up online.

Note that there are opportunities for everyone to participate, including a virtual service project of spending an hour in prayer for those who are working that day, and providing refreshments at the closing celebration Sunday afternoon. And having a closing celebration is a nice touch, too.

If you have a moment, take a look at this and tell me what you think. Is it too good to be true? Is this something that liberal congregations should be doing (or maybe already are doing)? Would you participate in this, or would you just skip going to church that day?

Two San Francisco scenes

I took BART into the city, and happened to arrive at the Powell BART station just as the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day parade was passing by. People in the Bay area make a big deal about how the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of only three in the country to allow GLBTQ people to march. But the big deal for me was that many of the spectators topped off their bright green outfits with orange-and-black Giants baseball caps. Where I come from, you do not wear orange on St. Patty’s Day.

Overheard in a restaurant: …he wasn’t the best man, but he was going to stand right next to the best man. Well, it turns out he couldn’t hold his liquor. He barfed all over himself five minutes before the wedding started. All down his front. [The best man] took him into the bathroom and cleaned him up, and he looked fine except he had little bits of toilet paper all over him. He smelled pretty funky. But he made it through the ceremony OK.

Spring

One of the houses near where we live is a modest but lovely clapboard house with gingerbread trim, over a hundred years old (that’s really old for a house on the Peninsula), and still occupied by descendants of the family who built it. In front of the house is one of my favorite spring gardens in town; it’s not a formal garden but rather almost looks like the flowers just sprung up on their own; and at the moment, this garden is at its peak.

The garden is attractive from the sidewalk, looking at it over the white picket fence, but then you don’t really see the house. I managed to find a place where I could look down and see both the garden and the house:

“Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”

Carol and I have finally been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the 2000 bestseller that gave a popular account of some scientific research in epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. Like Dr. Johnson, neither one of us has wanted to read the whole book all the way through*, so it lives in the bathroom, and we read bits of it when we’re not looking through the catalogs and magazines that also live there.

But while I haven’t actually read the book, I have been reading the end notes, which are really more informative than the book. In these endnotes I finally came across a reference I have wanted for some time: a reference to the scientific work that helps explain why human organizations with less than about 150 members are qualitatively different than human organizations with more than 150 members. The reference is: Robin I. M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution, 1992, vol. 20, pp. 469-493.

And why should we care about the size of primate neocortexes? The neocortex is the part of the brain through which primates keep track of relationships; the larger the neocortex, the more relationships a given species of primate can keep track of; thus the large size of the Homo sapiens neocortex allows us humans to keep track of all the relationships in a group of up to about 150 members. When, however, human organizations are larger than 150 members, individuals can no longer keep track of all the relationships, and the group therefore feels qualitatively different.

This helps explain why congregations often stop growing when their active membership (measured as the average weekly attendance of adults and children) becomes larger than 150. My guess is that because our neocortex can’t handle any more relationships within that group, we literally cannot relate to any newcomers who may arrive. And if the newcomers can’t make connections with the other primates in the congregation, they’re not going to stick around — we primates are social critters who want to make connections with others of our species. This also helps explain why something like three-quarters of all U.S. congregations have an average attendance of fewer than 200 adults and children — we’re just more comfortable in groups with 150 or fewer humans. 

Whether a congregation is growing or not may thus have less to do with the attractiveness of the congregation’s theology than with the neocortex size of the primates who make up that congregation.

* “Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’” — Boswell, Life of Johnson, Monday 19 April 1773.