Beakers found at Cahokia in the Midwest contain
traces of tea from the southeast
Some teas are not as soothing as others. “Black drink,” brewed from the holly Ilex vomitoria by Native Americans on what is now the southeastern coast of the United States, had the lovely side effect of inducing vomiting (though perhaps from ingredients other than the holly) and was a key part of a 16th-century religious purification ritual, according to European accounts. Researchers were recently surprised to learn, however, that it also seems to have traveled quite a bit: traces of black drink have now been found over 200 miles out of Ilex vomitoria’s coastal range at the site of Cahokia, an ancient city near modern-day St. Louis.
What’s the News: Looking at census data from nine countries, a team of scientists have made the bold assertion that religion is headed for extinction and it’s all based on a mathematical model of the complex social motives behind joining religious groups. As they note in their abstract, “People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing ‘religious’ minority in many countries throughout the world.”
How the Heck:
What’s the Context:
Not So Fast: The model’s limitations are many, including its simplistic network structure, as Weiner told the BBC: It assumes that each person is equally influenced by every other person. It also assumes that mere social utility is the driving reason behind people’s religious affiliations, ignoring a slew of other, difficult to measure, non-social factors underlying faith, such as the strength of deeply personal religious convictions and a (potential) basic human tendency to believe in something larger than ourselves. The study is based on the premise that religious networks behave the same was as do speakers of a common language and non-religious social groups, a reasonable but debatable assumption.
Reference: “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.” Authors: Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, Richard J. Wiener. arXiv:1012.1375
Image: flickr / DominusVobiscum
You know the old routine in sci-fi: Aliens show up, people of Earth freak out. Whether we provoke aliens a la The Day the Earth Stood Still or they arrive foaming with blood lust like in Mars Attacks, storytellers’ general feeling is that the mass of humanity would not respond well to the real presence of extraterrestrial life. We need Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to keep ‘em separated from us.
In 2011—the year after we were supposed to make contact—are we humans still a backwater mob of talking apes who would crumble into pandemonium, or cosmic self-doubt, at the discovery of life beyond Earth? This week, a special issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society addresses that question and more.
You’ve come a long way, baby
Albert Harrison, psychologist at the University of California, Davis, may live to regret saying nice things about humanity. But it’s nice to see somebody giving us a vote of confidence:
The Brookings Report warned in 1961 that the discovery of life beyond Earth could lead to social upheaval. But [Harrison] says “times have changed dramatically” since then. Even the discovery of intelligent aliens “may be far less startling for generations that have been brought up with word processors, electronic calculators, avatars and cell phones as compared with earlier generations used to typewriters, slide rules, pay phones and rag dolls,” Harrison writes in one of the papers. [MSNBC]
SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) hasn’t been successful in its half-century hunt for alien civilizations, but it has ingrained into people the idea of looking for life beyond Earth. The continually increasing exoplanet count (one discovery was announced just today) is showing people just a small glimpse of the variety of worlds out there. Thus, Harrison says the people of Earth would respond to the discovery of alien life with “delight or indifference,” according to the Press Association.
When I attended the University of Nebraska, Martin Gaskell was a professor of astronomy there. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, he was leading candidate to take a position as head of an observatory at the University of Kentucky. Now, Gaskell has a new title: plaintiff.
Gaskell argues that he was passed over for the Kentucky position because of his religious beliefs. The astronomer sued the university, and now a judge has ruled that Gaskell vs. University of Kentucky can go to trial in February.
Both sides agree that Dr. Gaskell, 57, was invited to the university, in Lexington, for a job interview. In his lawsuit, he says that at the end of the interview, Michael Cavagnero, the chairman of the physics and astronomy department, asked about his religious beliefs. “Cavagnero stated that he had personally researched Gaskell’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says. According to Dr. Gaskell, the chairman said Dr. Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern” to the dean. [The New York Times]
The lead-up to the trial has turned up emails that are rather embarrassing to the university, particularly one by staff member Sally A. Shafer to Cavagnero.
“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.” [The New York Times]
Physicist Sean Carroll, one of the people behind Cosmic Variance here at DISCOVER blogs, tweeted yesterday: “I think Stephen Hawking could say ‘ice cream is delicious’ and get massive media coverage.” He’s probably right.
Last month the renowned physicists made the news by warning of the great threat of human extinction over the next couple centuries, but kindly softened the blow by saying that we’ll be fine if we can get through our growing pains and get off this planet. Back in April, the wave of attention came from his warning that it might not be such a great idea to attempt to contact aliens, should they be more advanced than us and try to wipe us out.
Now, he’s taking on the almighty. Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, snagged media attention this week because of an excerpt that appeared in the U.K.’s The Times (which we can’t link to, because it’s behind an online pay wall).
“Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” he wrote. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.” [CNN]
Or, to put it another way, here’s a bit from the book’s final chapter about the nature of the universe:
Just how connected are the Jews, genetically speaking? Despite the fact that pockets of Jewish people are spread around the globe, the new genetic analysis by Harry Ostrer and his team says that they share genetic markers that go back thousands of years.
In the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Ostrer investigated Jewish people from all over the world:
Historians divide the world’s 13 million living Jews into three groups: Middle Eastern, or Oriental, Jews; Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal; and Ashkenazi Jews from Europe [ScienceNOW].
Taking nuclear DNA samples from 237 Jews—some from each group—the team compared them to samples from more than 400 non-Jewish people who lived in the same regions.
Former Roman Catholic priest and respected evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala has won this year’s Templeton Prize. The $1.53 million award honors a living person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The John Templeton Foundation cited Ayala’s dogged work through the years advocating the peaceful co-existence of science and religion in its decision. The somewhat controversial prize is often given to scientists who find common ground between religion and science, but previous winners have also included more traditional spiritual leaders like Mother Teresa and televangelist Billy Graham.
Ayala is the former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is respected for his research into the evolutionary history of the parasite scientists have associated with malaria, with an eye toward developing a cure for the disease. He also pioneered the use of an organism’s genetic material as molecular clocks that help track and time its origins [The Christian Science Monitor]. But he is known best, perhaps, for being an expert witness in the 1981 federal court trial that led to the overturning of an Arkansas law mandating the teaching creationism with evolution in science class. In 2001, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.
Does the human brain have a “God spot”–a particular region that regulates feelings of spirituality and connection to the universe? One year ago, DISCOVER reported on a scientific study of spiritual people that couldn’t pinpoint one location in the brain as key to controlling religious feelings. But now a new study proposes that there is a link between the physical make-up of the brain and attitudes towards religion and spirituality.
By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of “self transcendence,” or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation [New Scientist].
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people tend to project their own opinions onto God, according to a new study (in press) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But, the researchers say, they also found that when people tweak their own opinions, they tend to also change their idea of God’s beliefs in order to keep the two in line.
The team conducted seven studies in the US, including four in which they surveyed people about their own beliefs on controversial issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Participants were also asked about what they thought God believed, as well as famous people like Bill Gates and President George Bush [Sydney Morning Herald]. Scientists then asked the participants—all of whom believed in the Abrahamic God and most of whom were Christians—to do things that might change their minds, like writing an essay about the death penalty from the opposite viewpoint of their own. When participants changed their own opinions, their ideas of God’s opinion changed too, though their opinions of what other people thought remained the same.
Had he lived to what would have been his 75th birthday on Monday, Carl Sagan would’ve seen a surprising new collaborator in pondering whether there’s life out there in the cosmos: the Vatican. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a conference of scientists and theologians this week that probed the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the peculiar religious questions that life on other worlds would raise.
Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, became the Catholic Church’s chief evangelist this week spreading the notion that alien life is compatible with Christianity. “This is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom. To say it with St Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, why could we not speak of a ‘brother alien’? He would also belong to the creation” [The Guardian].