Eye on Science, Science Blog, Michael D. Lemonick, TIME

France Comes Clean on UFOs!

Plenty of people are convinced the world's governments are conspiring in a massive coverup of the "fact" that UFOs have been visiting our planet for years. In the U.S., for example, it's just obvious that a saucer crashed in Roswell, N.M. in 1947, and that government agents came and removed the little alien bodies. They're still on ice in a secret government lab. Oh, and we reverse-engineered a crashed saucer to discover alien technology too. You think the transistor was invented at Bell Labs, don't you. Ha!

The strongest evidence for all this is that there is no evidence. Naturally--because the government's files on UFOs are still mostly classified. Why would they be secret if there were no actual aliens? Answer me that!

But now the French are coming clean: their government has now released all of its secret UFO documents and put them up on the web. The site has proven so popular that you can't even get to it.

Hmmm......sounds like a conspiracy to me.

The Oz Effect

I refer to the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" where Dorothy wakes up after the tornado to find that she's in Oz--and that the world has suddenly transformed from black-and-white to color. It's how I imagine it would be for me have my red-green color blindness "cured," and to see the world as those with normal color vision do.

It's not that I see in black and white, mind you--that's a myth I have to confront all the time. The way it works is that people with normal vision have three sets of light-sensing cells in their retinas, each one sensitive to a particular color of light. Your brain takes the inputs from all three and calculates what color something actually is. (Which means, by the way, that none of us actually sees color--we see a simulation, manufactured in our brains).

But I have only two kinds of cell, so while my brain creates color too, it's from fewer inputs, so I have a more limited range. So, it turns out, do mice. But now a team of scientists from Johns Hopkins and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have created a line of mice genetically engineered to have three sets of receptors, not two. So like Dorothy, they can suddenly see the world in more vivid color.

They don't quite get the Oz effect, though; they're born with the un-mouselike color receptors. Which kind of saddens me. Because if the scientists had somehow managed to put new color receptors into mice who were already alive--gene therapy rather than genetic engineering--there's a chance they could do it for me too.

It's not that I feel a lack, because I literally cannot imagine what it would be like to see color as others do. How could I? But I'd sure like to experience it.

For a more detailed blog entry on this, go here.

Scott Atran replies

(he replied in a comment, but you might not have read it).

After reading this very thoughtful (but long) reply, I don't think we actually disagree even a little bit.

Dear Michael Lemonick,

I appreciate your trying to get things right. But I still do not understand what you are objecting to, and it may just be my own confusion about what you are trying to say. But let me try to be clear about what I think (as opposed to what I am reported to think).

There can’t be individual fitness advantages of the sort that part-for-whole sacrifice among animals may convey, given that the probability of certifiably obtaining the desired outcome, such as a rewarding afterlife or freedom from catastrophe, ranges between zero and chance. For a bear to sacrifice its paw in a bear trap by gnawing it off, a lizard to leave behind its tail for a predator, or a bee to die by stinging an intruder to save the hive, seem reasonable tradeoffs for survival. Yet, what could be the calculated gain from

- Years of toil to build gigantic structures that house only dead bones (Egyptian, Mesoamerican and Cambodian pyramids)?
- Giving up one’s sheep (Hebrews) or camels (Bedouin) or cows (Nuer of Sudan) or chickens (Highland Maya) or pigs (Melanesian tribes, Ancient Greeks), or buffaloes (South Indian tribes)?
- Dispatching wives when husbands die (Hindus, Inca, Solomon Islanders)?
- Slaying one’s own healthy and desired offspring (the first born of Phoenicia and Carthage, Pawnee and Iroquois maidens, Inca and Postclassic Maya boys and girls, children of South India’s tribal Lambadi, adolescents in contemporary satanic cults)?
- Chopping off a finger for dead warriors or relatives (Dani of New Guinea, Crow and other American Plains Indians)?
- Burning your house and all other possessions for a family member drowned, crushed by a tree, or killed by a tiger (Nāga tribes of Assam)?
- Knocking out one’s own teeth (Australian aboriginals)?
- Making elaborate but evanescent sand designs (Navajo, tribes of Central Australia)?
- Giving up one’s life to keep Fridays (Muslims) or Saturdays (Jews) or Sundays (Christians) holy?
- Or from just stopping whatever one is doing to murmur often incomprehensible words while gesticulating several times a day?

As Bill Gates aptly surmised, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”

Functionalist arguments, including adaptationist accounts, usually attempt to offset the apparent functional disadvantages of religion with even greater functional advantages. There are many different and even contrary explanations for why religion exists in terms of beneficial functions served. These include functions of social (bolstering group solidarity, group competition), economic (sustaining public goods, surplus production), political (mass opiate, rebellion’s stimulant), intellectual (e.g., explain mysteries, encourage credulity), health and well being (increase life expectancy, accept death), and emotional (terrorizing, allaying anxiety) utility. Many of these functions have obtained in one cultural context or another; yet all also have been true of cultural phenomena besides religion. For Marx, religion was an opiate dolled out by governing elits to suppress the masses; for Martin Luther King religion was a principal means for the downtrodden to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. For John calvin, obedience to authority was obedience to God, however corrupt or malicious authority seemed; Benjamin Franklin wanted the motto of the new American Republic to read “rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God.”

Functional descriptions of religion in given contexts (but never in any context-free way that would amount to a general proposition, scientific or otherwise) often insightfully help to explain how and why given religious beliefs and practices help to provide competitive advantages over other sorts of ideologies and behaviors for cultural survival. Still, these accounts provide little explanatory insight into cognitive selection factors responsible for the ease of acquisition of religious concepts by children, or for the facility with which religious practices and beliefs are transmitted across individuals. They have little to say about which beliefs and practices – all things being equal – are most likely to recur in different cultures and most disposed to cultural variation and elaboration. None predicts the cognitive peculiarities of religion, such as:
Why do agent concepts predominate in religion?
Why do supernatural-agent concepts are culturally universal?
Why are some supernatural agent concepts inherently better candidates for cultural selection than others?
Why is it necessary, and how it is possible, to validate belief in supernatural agent concepts that are logically and factually inscrutable?
How is it possible to prevent people from deciding that the existing moral order is simply wrong or arbitrary and from defecting from the social consensus through denial, dismissal or deception?
This argument does not entail that religious beliefs and practices cannot perform social functions, or that the successful performance of such functions does not contribute to the survival and spread of religious traditions.

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that religious beliefs and practices often alleviate potentially dysfunctional stress and anxiety) and maintain social cohesion in the face of real or perceived conflict. It does imply that social functions are not phylogenetically responsible for the cognitive structure and cultural recurrence of religion.

What little scientific evidence there is does seem to indicate that several different cognitive faculties are jointly responsible for waht we commonly recognize as religion but which did not evolve specifically for religion or for any individual or social benefit in particular.

Cheers again, Scott Atran

A Plea to Readers

You've all been great about making comments on various posts (some admittedly a little friendlier than others, but it's all good).

Now I'd like to challenge you a bit further. How about letting me know about topics YOU want to see me post on. I've gotten some of my best blog ideas from people I know--my daughter pointed me toward this one, for example, and one of my students at Princeton alerted me to this.

So you see I'm open to suggestion. Let's have some.

More on the Evolution of Faith

Last week I posted this on an article in the New York Times Magazine on the idea that a propensity for religious belief might have evolved.

I've now gotten a comment from the subject of that piece. Scott Atran, a scientist at the University of Michigan. He says:

"You write that I favor the "idea that humanity’s tendency to believe comes from some sort of adaptation in brain architecture tens of thousands of years ago (or more) that helped us survive, somehow."

This is precisely what I do not think to be the case. Religion is no particular adaptation in any interesting sense.

I think that most adaptationist accounts are "just-so" stories - much like the stories of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide who argued that noses were made to wear spectacles and legs for britches.

Nevertheless, I think that your separation of "culture" from "evolution" makes no sense. Either human cultural phenomena belongs in the class of unicorns or it has a natural origin. The only natural origins science is aware of are biological, chemical and physical. And all aspects of life, human or otherwise, have only evolutionary processes as a natural origin (including chemical and physical processes).

Cheers, Scott Atran"

I appreciate the comment, and I apologize if I misread his research. Evidently, readers of the article in the N.Y. Times did too, judging from these letters. But there's always a danger of confusion when a scientists' views are seen through the lens of a journalist, so I do apologize.

And of course Dr. Atran is right that at the root, everything we are came about due to evolution. But at a deeper level, everything we are ultimately came about due to physics--yet we don't rush to a physics text when we come down with a cold. My point being that while the development of culture is a consequence of evolution, it didn't necessarily evolve per se, as a biological feature.

But here's a question. In the article, Robin Henig charactizes you as thinking "Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival." This seems to contradict what Dr. Atran says above--it seems to suggest he sees religion as a behavior subject to evolutionary pressure. Whether or not he does, I disagree with the quoted sentiment profoundly. Religion has some pretty clear benefits in calming and comforting individuals and in reducing stress. It also has some pretty clear benefits for unifying and organizing society. This is the case whether or not God exists.

About Eye On Science

Eye On Science

TIME contributing writer Michael D. Lemonick fills you in on what's hot, what's cool, what's controversial and what's just plain silly in the world of science. Comments encouraged.


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