The Brights' Bulletin


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Issue #188

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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- FEBURARY 2019 


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Buzzing the Brights

One way to spark conversation and make others aware of the Brights is by showing visibly that you yourself are someone who holds a naturalistic worldview.

Whether you live in the northern or southern hemisphere, season changes are on the horizon. So, the timing is right to see if there is apparel of interest to you at either The Brights’ Net’s Zazzle kiosk or at its Café Press Brights’ Shop.

Might you want to go shopping?

Any purchase you make at either online locale sends a small commission to The Brights’ Net that, in a small way, aids its activities to illuminate the naturalistic worldview. In fact, it’s “the smallest way possible,” because items at both vendors carry only the minimum allowable markups. Brights merchandise, including what you will find available via the website, is provided as a service to Brights who want to help disperse the branding images and grow the constituency.

To support The Brights’ Net organization itself, far better to do via direct donation, using any of the several avenues provided on the donation page.

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Oh So Tardy at Grasping Evolution

Americans are still arguing about evolution, long after the general publics in most other developed nations have accepted the fact of evolutionary change.

In fact, it is now nearly 160 years after the Charles Darwin first published his groundbreaking theory on the development of life and what do we find? Nearly a fifth of U.S. adults reject the idea that life on Earth has evolved at all.

In the scientific community today, acceptance of current evolutionary theory is as strong as the scientific theory of gravity, and yet this scientific theory continues to be rejected by that many Americans. Why?

An essay by David Masci (titled “Darwin in America: The Evolution Debate in the United States” and posted online just February 6) offers a nicely concise explanatory look at the issue. This author succinctly traces the historical and religious background, including pertinent court decisions.

Whether looking askance at fellow Americans or with perplexity from abroad, a reader may find the material in this essay to be instructive. 

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Questions Themselves Evolve (USA)

According to Pew Research Center, querying the public about the origin and development of life on Earth “…can be a complicated undertaking – perhaps especially in a country like the United States, where the public’s attitudes about the scientific theory of evolution often are bound up with their religious convictions.

Given its perceived difficulty in performing the task of surveying American adults about evolution, Pew has been looking harder into the matter of how it asks its prompting questions. The pursuits reported out just this month told of Pew’s analyzing whether variations in questioning affect the public’s responses. Some do; others didn’t. The questioning has evolved and may do so further.

Scientific American has produced an essay summarizing the Pew results under the title, “How Many Creationists Are There in America?”

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Wording Supreme

Despite the fact that Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, nones, etc. are represented in the mix of American respondents to Pew’s surveys, its querying process continues to introduce “a monotheistic supreme being” into its survey wording.

Is there any effect of doing so?

As one might ask (and Pew itself eventually did):
Why begin a survey module about evolution with questions about belief in God?”

Experimental testing in 2006 found that asking first about belief in God actually did not affect respondents’ answers to ensuing questions on evolution.

Additional testing along those lines (see the report comparing two-question vs. single question prompting) indicates that respondents who describe their religion as nothing in particular, agnostic or atheist) are least affected by how the matter is couched. Agnostics/atheists exhibit a high assurance of evolutionary change (96% /95% say they believe humans and other living things have evolved over time).

Thankfully, Pew reports as follows: it is “continuing to experiment and report the results transparently” as well as “moving toward a revised wording.”  Further: “What may seem like small differences in question wording can have a major impact on survey estimates of the share of the public that believes in a naturalistic account of human development.”

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Disapproving those “Four Horsemen”

A reviewer at The Guardian has delivered a harsh look at Bantam Books’ recently published The Four Horsemen, a book that centers on a 2007 conversational gathering of four noted atheist authors: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Seemingly, it’s not so much the book itself that the review lambasts, but the “lives-after” actions of the participants in that fairly long ago exchange.

This excerpt from that “Book of the Day” (Religion) review sets the tone for the rest of reviewer Steven Poole’s commentary:

“Contrary to the book’s subtitle, the ‘atheist revolution’ was not sparked by this cocktail-fueled pre-dinner round of chat and backslapping, which took place in 2007. By then the participants could already salute one another for the impressive sales of their books, boast about how willing they were to cause ‘offence’, and reminisce about how brilliant they were when they befuddled this or that bishop with some debating point.”

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Others Give Horsemen a Thumbs Up

Not everyone is frowning about The Four Horsemen book. There’s applause for the fact that Bantam has at last put into print what has been quite a widely viewed and touted conversation. Also, that it then extends and augments the exchange with remarks by the three survivors (Hitchens died in 2011).

Friendly blurbs term the conversation “electrifying” or “colorful” or “delightful” or exhilarating.”

Susan Blackmore, a Bright, says about it: “I was gripped. Throughout this erudite conversation the humility and openness of science shines against religion’s arrogance, hypocrisy, and sheer gall in just ‘making stuff up.’ How refreshing it is.”

And what about that issue of correctly clocking the beginning of the atheist revolution?  Atheist and celebrity Penn Jillette, also a Bright, proclaims “This conversation is as good a place as any to mark the start.

Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything, sees blasphemy creeping back as a crime and frets about the loss of rights gained by champions of the Enlightenment. He frames his affirmation this way: “The words of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett are needed more than ever. These are the heirs to Voltaire.

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Vaccine Topic “Stirring”

A segment in last month’s bulletin raised the growing problem of vaccination hesitancy and drew a bit of constituent criticism for its failure to point out the medical industry’s vested interests when including some of its commentary. Still, given that the segment was even touching on a markedly controversial topic, grievances expressed to BC were minuscule. 

The topic was included in the bulletin to bring a growing health concern to the fore for consideration by Brights. Not everyone is aware of the severity of growing threats to herd immunity where they live. This is an issue on which science speaks strongly, yet maintenance of an adequate threshold of safety has become increasingly difficult, particularly with such readily transmittable diseases as measles, where benefits of vaccination so clearly surpass risks.

Immunizations in some localities can fall to such low levels that risk of disease incidence mounts unforeseen. Generally-science-leaning Brights are as well-positioned citizens as any to explore and engage disquieting topics in their locales. Measles outbreaks are increasing today, not only in areas of conflict and deprivation (e.g., Venezuela), but even in places where vaccines are widely available (e.g., Europe and the United States).

The latest support for expressing some urgency to this topic comes from the World Health Organization, which recently placed vaccine hesitancy among its “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019.” Measles has seen a 30% increase globally. 

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An Evolving Field in Anthropology

Last month’s bulletin provided a link to a rather long Twitter thread by one of the leading scholars scrutinizing moral values in humankind., O.S. Curry, in which he and other scholars were discussing a theory-driven approach that broadens and more precisely states previous cooperative accounts of human morality.

This month’s bulletin is able to provide access to a just-published study by that author and his two colleagues, Daniel Austin Mullins and Harvey Whitehouse, entitled: “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-As-Cooperation in 60 Societies” (Current Anthropology).

Having tested its predictions using the logic of game theory and ethnographic records of 60 societies across the world, the authors conclude that “morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.” They invite (and urge) fellow anthropologists to join in testing the implications of the proposed theory.

The cooperative behaviors proposed as seven plausible candidates for “universal moral rules” (help your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others’ property) were observed in the majority of cultures studied.

You can read the study’s online abstract and posted appendix to see if you wish to pursue the complete study and theory elaboration, which the authors proffer as better than previous cooperative accounts of morality at explaining and predicting within a broader array of moral phenomena. You’ll see in the posted paper that respondents counter, and authors reply - all exemplifying that models of morality today rest within science, far removed from the province of theology and philosophy.

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Self-Control in Chimpanzees

Delaying gratification requires self-regulation, and at least a minimal future-oriented perspective. 

Can chimps exhibit it?

A couple of studies form the basis of this month’s "Hotline Tale", which, like prior ones, is available in both Danish and English language versions). Both studies look into the planning and foresight capacities of chimpanzees, engaging them in situations involving social interactions.

Challenged by a token transfer task with a partner (both individuals are required to jointly participate in the task), chimps showed themselves to be flexible in their decision-making. They would typically choose the option representing the largest amount of food, even if it involved delayed accumulation of the rewards.

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Gentle Surprises and Delights

While only occasionally does a remark appearing with a new Bright’s registration offer a hint of “where s/he is coming from” and “what s/he may be looking for, we at BC tend to be charmed by the expressive diversity, which you can readily decipher from this sampling:

• Raised in the heart of what’s considered the ‘Bible Belt’, it’s been very difficult for me to express my secular outlook among my friends and family. Refreshing to find you. (Mitch, KY USA)

• The only hope for the world comes from true knowledge, although in the short term it is too late. (Bruno, Brazil)

• Greetings my sapien brothers and sisters from a lifelong Dead Head! (Christopher, FL USA)

• Living in god fearing and religion driven community - wanted to be a part of group with something relatable. (Rushabh, India)

• Lifelong atheist raised by a religious mother (the non-fanatic kind). Want to be a part of this necessary movement. (Aron, Iceland)

• Thank you for trying to create a better future for all (John, PA USA)

• Amen (Frank, Austria)

• I am a prisoner and would like to receive the by-mail newsletter please. (Chris, GA USA)

• god help us from those believe in you (Jean, Canada)

• I am so grateful to have found an organization like this. I hope that in the future Brights will be a mainstay in all civics around the world. (Jennifer, TX USA)

Also of “diversity-interest” at Brights Central how the registrant had learned about the Brights. For many, their basis derives from a celebrity Bright (e.g., a wiki or YouTube or writing of Randi, Dawkins, Dennett, Penn & Teller), but just as often it is from some surprising source, such as a lecture by Rebecca Goldstein, or a book by Dan Brown, or a humanist group. Most fun to learn? - that an Arizonan-American first heard from the “Freethinkers of Ajijic, Mexico.”

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