Ritual and Atheism

August 28, 2010 § 5 Comments

When a life altering event happens in a person’s life, we can sometime be left asking questions, or feeling alone and confused. When things like death and catastrophe happen, we will often reach outward to others to try to makes sense of our situation, or simply to banish this feeling of aloneness. And being the social animals that we are, being alone when we don’t want to be is scary.

Likewise, when an event of great joy occurs, we also find ourselves reaching out to others, to share this. The birth of a child, the marriage of two people who are in love, the harvest of crops, etc. make us want to share in our good fortune. We are social, and part of this is the fact that we share our joy and pain with others.

Humans also like predictability in their lives. We use a calendar to tell us what day of what month of what year it is, and by this have some expectation of what the weather conditions will be like. Clocks tell us what time of day it is, we all follow the arbitrary numbering system to know when we’ve worked long enough, or whether our food is cooked. This repetitive cycle we use every day feeds our need for predictability.

For as long as humans have been able to recognise that we all feel the same way about the great events in our lives, and we feel the need to share these event. We celebrate achievements in our lives, and collectively commiserate anniversaries of momentous dates in human history. And a way to make these celebrations and commiserations more powerful, we ritualise them, using props, objects, movements and phrases, collectively, which binds us together in a shared experience.

Humans have ritualised every big occasion in our lives. A graduation ceremony celebrates the end of a learning journey and the transition to another part of life. A funeral celebrates the file of a person who has died, and helps us remember who that person was. A birthday marks the anniversary of the birth of a person, and celebrates looking forward to achievements and potential in a person’s life. A wedding celebrates the joining of two people, and the intense emotion of love that humans can feel for one another. At harvest festivals we gather in joy of having enough food to last us through winter, and in spring we celebrate the end of winter and the potential for new life in our families and communities, as well as in our livestock. These vary from culture to culture, and even within individual societies.

And some of these rituals are outdated, hardly any of us in the western world even have crops, or have to worry about food for the coming winter. As societies change the way they do things, many of the old rites seem to lose their initial meanings, and become so ritualised that we just do them because that’s what we do. But most rituals serve a purpose, even if that purpose is blurred under the veil of dogma or time.

Some of our rituals, which once served a purpose of celebration or commiseration have become loaded with ideas outside of their intended meanings. Religions have loaded our rituals with their own agendas, making our special occasions a way to pander to their beliefs. Religions have hijacked our human rituals and used them as a way to reinforce their ideals, to make the person see them as an integral part of their lives. Prayer, communion, christenings, bar mitzvahs and attending worship ceremonies all lend to this feeling that these religious rituals are necessary. The greatest example of this would be the idea that Muslims need to pray to the east (an arbitrary idea for the location of Mecca) five times a day, or risk being thrown into hell when they die.

Where once people would sing to communicate ideas to their children and others, people now sing hymns to their god figure to reinforce his magnificence. Where we once celebrated the time when the days was the same length as the night in preparation for winter, the Christians celebrate the supposed birth of their man-god. Where we once celebrated the coming of summer, Christians now commiserate the death (and supposed rebirth) of their man-god.

And apart from these obvious usurping of ritual from humanity into the hands of religion, the very structure of our weeks in the west harken to the biblical account of creation, seven days with rest on the sabbath.

I suggest that ritual is a very important part of being alive. We need to feel as though we are part of a community, a society and a culture. And we can still have our rituals, but we should not forget why we are having these celebrations or commiseration. We celebrate being alive, not the glory of a god-head. We celebrate our lives, because each of us has only one, and it is fragile and special. We celebrate our continuance in life, and remember those who came before us, not because they are in heaven, but because they represent the shoulders of greatness upon which we stand now. Atheism does not mean throwing away what we have learned from the past, rather the opposite. And don’t forget that just because religions have hijacked the great moments in our lives and imbued them with their dogma and agenda doesn’t mean they are useless to us in humanity.

Random Mutation and Natural Selection – An Example

August 8, 2010 § 6 Comments

In biology, most random mutations take place on a level that is either unnoticeable or of a nature as to be trivial to a species. Many evolutionary naysayers claim that evolution is false because of their lack of understanding of what mutations are, and how they could possibly be of any benefit to the plant or animal to which it occurs. They tend to see mutations like they happened in the X-Men comic book, granting special powers to the mutant, or like the Elephant Man, rendering the mutant disfigured and deformed. And there are some who even claim that mutations do not exist at all. And because most mutations happen gradually over time, and humans are blinkered to only truly understand timeframes as they relate to a human lifespan, most mutations are imperceptible to the average person, and occur unnoticed.

Enter the picture Acacia Leprosa.

Acacia Leprosa - Scarlet Blaze

Acacia Leprosa - Scarlet Blaze

I love late winter in Melbourne, the garden seems to come back to life after the winter dormancy. It’s still cold, but it’s mild enough that we would probably only get the occasional frost, and snow is almost unheard of in these parts. And at this time of year, all the trees start to bloom and blossom.

The above photo was taken in my back yard yesterday afternoon. It is of Acacia Leprosa or “Cinnamon Wattle” which in itself is a very common tree which puts on a spectacular show of golden blossoms in late winter all across the state. In 1995 some bushwalkers in eastern Melbourne stumbled upon a remarkable find. In amongst the hectares of Acacia Leprosa which were in flower that year, they stumbled upon a specimen that had bright red flowers instead of the standard bright yellow. This was the only time ever this has been documented, and at first the bushwalkers thought they had discovered a new species altogether. They took some cuttings back to Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, where they were able to propagate these cuttings. This plant is now in wide distribution, and I think you’ll agree it is quite spectacular when in bloom. It has since been named Acacia Leprosa “Scarlet Blaze”.

Being a relatively short-lived tree, maybe only 10 years or so, the original tree is now long dead. But the cuttings, of which I have one in my back yard, have spread far across the country with the help of mankind. The only way they were able to cultivate this tree was with cuttings, as seed propagation caused the blooms to return to the normal golden-yellow state.

This find is remarkable for several reasons. This is the only time this kind of mutation has been documented in this species, and the only time a wattle has been seen with a red colouration. The tree, whose DNA is identical to those around it except for the mutation which caused the red colouration. But most importantly, this mutation is a perfect example of how mutations can prove to be beneficial to a species. And through human intervention, we have a brilliant example of natural selection. An important thing to note here is that the “Scarlet Blaze”, unlike most plants which reproduce by the fertilization and germination of seeds, is actually a clone of the original plant, so it retains all the characteristics of the original plant. And in a way, all the commercially bought examples of this plant are actually the same plant, much like commercial apple trees or grafted roses. By human intervention, we have extended the lifespan of this particular tree to more than double what it would have been in the wild, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t continue indefinitely with human intervention.

In earlier articles I have written, I proposed the idea that nothing is unnatural, that everything that happens does so because that is the way the laws of physics and chemistry work. So the idea that just because humans have intervened to propagate this flowering wattle makes it no less of a natural selection than the evolution of a slightly superior eye on a flatworm over its predecessors. The benefit here is that we as a species find the red-flowers to be appealing, and that the novelty value of such a mutation is desirable.

In the same way, humans have taken random mutations of plants and animals and propagated them to perpetuate the trait in later generations of the species. Almost all plants and animals we use for our domestic purposes have been selectively bred to enhance their usefulness to us and our societies. Dogs, cats, cattle, roses, apples, tulips, marijuana, tea, wheat, bananas, you name it, we have altered it to suit us. And we have taken a random mutation in Acacia Leprosa, which is useful to us on a more cerebral level, and have captured it for our own use

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that this mutation has only changed the colouration of the flowers. The rest of the tree is indistinguishable from any other Acacia Leprosa, so the mutation appears to be only an aesthetic one. So humans notice this mutation easily, but to a bee the mutation may seem minor or imperceptible. So this mutation may only be beneficial to the one single tree because of humans and out ability to see colour the way we do, our ability to clone and propagate cuttings of the living organisms, and our ability to distribute these around the country. Had it not been for human intervention, this specimen would have simply died when it reached the end of its lifespan.

In the same way that this plant has managed to  continue its lifespan through being mildly beneficial to another species, many plants and animals, through random mutations and slight changes over a long period of time, have increased their chances of survival by being beneficial to another species. Orchids are a great example of this, and there are many species of orchids which mimic their pollinators to lure them into believing that they are mating with one of their own kind, when in fact they are actually acting as carriers of pollen. This video from a David Attenborough documentary shows this in action.

So natural selection is not only talking about beneficial mutations to the organism itself, as in a kangaroo that can hop faster than others around it, or a bird which has a better knack for collecting coloured baubles to attract a mate. Natural selection also speaks of mutations to a species that benefits it by its effect on other species which interact with it as well. And remembering that most mutations are not as striking as the colour mutation of Acacia Leprosa, they can take millions of generations to occur.

To think that evolution has stopped at us, and with humans and human society as some sort of goal reached, is folly. Evolution is occurring around us all the time, and within us as a species. Evolution continues, and will continue forever, as long as there is a species alive which has an evolutionary past.

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