an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘origins

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

with one comment

2500 years of this BS? Time for a change

 

So now we come to the writings on the god we’ve come to call God, and his supposed activities, nature and purpose.

I’m no biblical scholar, and this is a daunting prospect, but here are some questions I need to ask myself. When? What language? Who? How many authors? Is ‘the Torah’ the same as ‘the Pentateuch’? Don’t look for too many answers here.

The first five books of the Bible, and presumably all of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written in Biblical Hebrew, and this is important to always keep in mind for English readers, who so often fail to realise they’re reading translations of translations. The first traces of Biblical texts discovered, the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, date back about 2600 years. They are fragments from Numbers, the fourth book. Of course we may never know if these are the oldest texts, but it’s unlikely they’ll find anything too much older. They date, therefore, from a little before the Babylonian exile, written up in various books (Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Daniel). According to Wikipedia and its sources:

The final redaction of the Pentateuch took place in the Persian period following the exile, and the Priestly source, one of its main sources, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.

There were multiple authors, it seems. Famously, there were two origin stories, written presumably by separate persons. They’re designated as Gen 1 and Gen 2, and they each use a different name for the creator. The first, starting at Genesis 1:1, uses the Hebrew word Elohim, whereas the second, starting at Genesis 2:4, uses a tetragrammaton, YHWH, for Yahweh. Stylistically, they’re also very different. The first is fairly tightly organised and brief. Importantly from my perspective, the god, though male, is described as creating ‘man’ in its two forms, male and female, together. Here’s the the King James English version:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepers upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The second story begins immediately after the first story ends, and it is more detailed and lyrical, describing the garden of Eden, the river out of it, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the lands fed by the rivers, divided from the original, flowing from the garden. God spends a lot of time chatting with Adam (the name suddenly pops up), getting him to name all the beasts of the fields and the fowl of the air that he, the god, conjures up. He also tells him that he will create a help-meet for him, but Adam has to remind him of this later. So, the great moment arrives:

And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:21-23).

So the male has the naming rights, and the woman provides unspecified help, and they quickly notice that they’re both ‘naked’ – though what might that mean? – but it didn’t apparently bother them – because, it seems, they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE), a useful tree for any garden. Clearly, none of this makes sense from a modern perspective, but the story goes on, with a talking serpent, who addresses the as-yet unnamed woman, convincing her that she should eat from the TKGE, to become wise. This sounds like good advice, and the woman judges the fruit of the tree to be good, and so she eats, and gets the man to eat, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from the god, who, being omniscient, eventually finds them. He asks why they’re hiding and Adam explains that they’re naked – sophisticated language already! – to which the god asks the very interesting question, Who told you you were naked? There’s no answer, and the god assumes that they’ve eaten from the TKGE. But he doesn’t appear to be sure, he has to ask them. So Adam blames the woman, who blames the serpent, though of course there’s no explanation as to why ignorance is bliss and devouring knowledge is bad.

Most important for my purposes here is the god’s treatment of the woman:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16)

So that sets the pattern of male-female inequality in Judaism. Pretty flimsy, needless to say.

Now to turn to the warrior god, who is also a jealous god (which is certainly not the same thing). The god of the Israelites, essentially YHWH, is deliberately mysterious, and amorphous. He must not be represented (this is called aniconism, against icons), to make a graven image is toto forbidden. The religious historian Christophe Lemardelé, in an essay of great complexity, finds that the tension between a jealous god, who seems in some kind of marital relation with his people, and a warrior-god seeking to save his people and fight for them, as in the books of Exodus and Judges, can best be resolved by examining the anthropology of the peoples who created this god:

The figure of the patriarch Abraham echoes a pastoral population located in Hebron and therefore leads to suggesting that the patriarchal ideology of Genesis—a book of Judean and rather late origin (Persian period, around the 5th century)—would have its background in the family and kinship structures of these nomadic groups. It seems difficult to us to envisage, without any migration, a late Iron age diffusion, however slow, of the Yahweh’s religion from south to north through these groups. The divine covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not at the origin of God’s privileged relationship with Israel but rather one of its final elaborations.

It seems the god evolved with an increasing patriarchy – the origin stories were by no means the first written, and their misogyny, such as it is, is partial witness to an increasingly endogamous patrilineal society. This god, through the stories of Judges, Deuteronomy and Exodus, becomes more tightly bound to his chosen people, increasingly jealous of other gods, and increasingly demanding and unforgiving. Such is the legacy of the Abrahamic religions, if you want it.

There is of course a great deal more to say and learn, but the WEIRD world continues to move away from these tales and life examples, into hopefully something more bonoboesque, something more in keeping with our actual and potential human nature. The religion that reinforced over a millennium of misogyny is failing, all too slowly, in its Western European heartland, and it would be nice if we could speed that up. We understand our world now well enough to know that keeping women out of positions of power, demeaning them, pretending that they are inferior, or that their roles should be circumscribed, has been disastrous. Nothing short of disastrous. I want to argue for a worldwide release of female power, and a promotion of female dominance. It’s happening slowly, but I’m impatient. I want to present the evidence and I want to continue to see changes bearing fruit. There are parts of the world that are going backwards, certainly – in Afghanistan, in Burma, in China and many other regions. We need to show them by example how good it can be. We need to work to reduce the macho thugocracies (the majority of the world’s nations), and find ourselves in a less brutal, more collaborative, more caring, inclusive and thoughtful world. The rise of female power, I believe, is absolutely central to that transition. Without which not.

References

https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/two-creations-in-genesis

Click to access the-jealousy-of-god.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2022 at 11:50 am

on religion and explanation

leave a comment »

it’s true

Jacinta: I’ve been thinking about religion as the earliest form of explanation for a while, and about when we – our species, or our ancestors – began to feel the need for explanations, about everyday regularities and irregularities, such as why the blinding white disc travels across the sky, disappears, plunging the world into darkness, then reappears on the opposite side and retraverses the sky again. And again and again. Or why these periods of light are sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler. Or why water pours from the sky from time to time. Or why, in the darkness, there are patterns of tiny white lights in the sky, together with a much larger pale white disc that seems to be slowly eaten away to nothing then replenished over a period of many ‘days’ and ‘nights’. What were these things, and why did the ‘air’ around us whizz by, sometimes with such force as to blow the trees down and blow our children off their feet and make them cry.

Canto: Hmm. Dogs and cats certainly don’t seem to wonder about such things. What about bonobos? They certainly display curiosity. I’ve seen monkeys crowd around an exotic animal, poking and prodding and jumping away when they get a reaction, just as I’ve seen the forest people of the Congo crowding around a white man, something completely new in their lives.

Jacinta: Yes isn’t the internet a grand thing for the armchair-bound. That sort of curiosity, as you say, is for new things, and it is on display in cats and dogs. And the questions for them are – can I eat it? Is it dangerous? But the queer regularities that have been with all these creatures from the beginning – night and day, warmth and cold, rain and shine, earth and sky – it seems unlikely that any dog or cat has felt curious about such things. Bonobos I’m not so sure about, but I’m doubtful. At some stage in our ancestry, and it would be obviously linked to neural development, we started asking ourselves – why is this happening?

Canto: Language. To ask these questions, even of ourselves, wouldn’t we need language?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Maybe. But imagine some highly irregular natural event, like a solar eclipse, being experienced by our pre-lingual ancestors, whether Homo erectus or an Australopithecine. They’d be shocked, scared, and they’d be hanging together, maybe huddling together, communicating their fear, and maybe their wonder.

Canto: Thinking mostly, is it dangerous? Should we hide? And even with language, with a singular event like that, they wouldn’t have an explanation.

Jacinta: Well, they might have a go at an explanation – okay, maybe you’re right, maybe some kind of language would be necessary, which is kind of the same thing as neural development. I mean, language clearly didn’t just come about, it evolved, over who knows how long. And we still don’t know if Neanderthals had it, or some rudimentary version of it, like us, 100,000 years ago or whatever. Think of fire. Once someone learned how to create and control it, and utilise it for warmth and to ward off predators, and, presumably later, to transform our food, they needed to communicate these skills. And from there, or somewhere, they might go on to communicate other things, like navigating by the stars, or how those stars crossed the sky, like human travellers crossing the land in search of food. Stories, of a kind.

Canto: So, I’ve been investigating a bit more, and there’s been some observed behaviours in chimps – and clearly they don’t have language, unless you define language very widely – that some have described as proto-ritual, such as slow-dancing in the face of fires. Fires caused by thunderstorms would be a highly irregular feature of life for chimps, living half in savannah grasslands, half in forests. And ‘dancing’, or ritual movements, might be a way of trying to placate or somehow communicate with this apparently living, dangerous force. And they’ve also been observed performing such ‘dances’ when the rain pours down.

Jacinta: Hmmm, and those movements might be meant to convey something to the fire or rain, or some other phenomenon, but also to other chimps. Something about communicating to others that there’s maybe a way to deal with these phenomena. This might hardly be in the realm of proto-proto religion, but surely the first religions were animistic – according significance and even some kind of intention to the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, lakes and streams, hills and valleys, specific trees and so on.

Canto: Yes, much fuss has been made of a tree hollow in which chimps were found placing stones, for no non-ritualistic purpose human observers could think of. If nothing else, it indicates that the more we observe other species, the more complex and multi-faceted they tend to become. Remember when we used to talk about bird-brains?

Jacinta: I also saw, on a video, that during a firestorm one of the chimps, apparently a king-pin, appeared to be raging at the fire, seeming to suggest that he – it would surely be a male, given chimp society – could, or thought he could, tame the beast, like old George slaying the dragon. Intimations of future shamanism?

Canto: Yes, or maybe he was just pissed off after a fight with the missus. Jane Goodall, on noting chimpanzees sitting for a long time staring ‘dreamily’ at a waterfall, used the term spirituality, which she roughly described as ‘the experience of appreciating magnificent, unknowable powers at work in the world beyond ourselves’. I believe Franz de Waal has used the term, in a different context, for bonobos too, but I’m not so comfortable with the term, it’s way too vague, and it drags religion behind it too emphatically. A feeling of awe, or wonder, of being overwhelmed, etc, can be described as just that.

Jacinta: And yet. A noisy, crushing, powerful waterfall, a raging, dangerous, painful fire – attributing something like intention to these things seems like a step forward. And also the desire for mastery of these forces, by somehow understanding and manipulating their intentions, that might seem an advance. But it’s hard to tell, with our smug hindsight.

Canto: And talking about hindsight, many of us consider, from the pinnacles of science, that religion is just a hangover from the days of pre-scientific explanations. Why are we here? Because the god called God created us to have dominion over the birds and bees and beasts of the field, and after a female was built from a male rib (which must’ve contained some pretty impressive pluripotent cells), and after some snakey female behaviour, we were sent forth out of Eden to multiply, and the god left us to our own devices, but when he came back from wheeling and dealing in foreign parts, he found we were wrecking everything – female trouble again, doubtless. And so he decided to drown us all, so as to Make his Arcadia Great Again, but, presumably feeling a bit tired of the creation process, he chose a human family and unspecified number of species to float about in a boat for a while, watching their friends and neighbours drowning, so as to begin it all again, but definitely for the last time, because, having discovered golf, he’d really lost interest.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s one variant, perhaps not the orthodox one, but as Mary Midgley used to say, these sorts of stories provide a far richer account of our origins than anything scientism has to offer. I mean, life from non-life in a warm puddle? Boring. 

Canto: But seriously, these creation stories, and ancilllary stories of the fruitful, deadly forests and the deserts and their oases, and the wind and the rain and storms and fevers and the patterned, watching stars and the smiling, burning sun, and the cool steadfast moon, these were as rich and comprehensive as they could possibly be, and those who remembered and told these stories best, and had the most intimate relations with all these insidious, ineluctable forces, would be precious persons indeed.

Jacinta: Mmmm. It’s a beginning.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/

 

creation stories – a critique and an appreciation

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2021 at 8:06 pm

how did life begin?: part 2 – RNA, panspermia, viroids and reviving the blob

leave a comment »

1280px-Difference_DNA_RNA-EN

Jacinta: So you’re going to talk about RNA, I know that stands for ribonucleic acid, and DNA is deoxy-ribonucleic acid, so – RNA is DNA without the oxygen?

Canto: Uhhh, you mean DNA is RNA without the oxygen.

Jacinta: Whatever, they’re big complex molecules aren’t they, but RNA is simpler, and less stable I think.

Canto: Okay, I’ll take it from here. We haven’t really known for very long that DNA is the essential material for coding and replicating life, and it’s a very complex molecule made up of four chemical bases, adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine, better known as A, G, T and C. They connect to form base pairs, A always pairing with T and C with G.

Jacinta: What the hell are chemical bases? Do you mean bases as opposed to acids?

Canto: Well, yes. These bases, also called nucleobases, accept hydrogen ions, which have a positive charge. It’s all about pair bonding. The nucleobases – A, G, C and T, as well as uracil, found in RNA – are nitrogen-containing compounds which are attached to sugars… but let’s not get bogged down too much. The point is that DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that code for life, and most of the researchers chasing down the origin of life believe that RNA is a precursor of DNA in the process of replication.

Jacinta: And presumably there are precursors to RNA and so on.

Canto: Well presumably, but let’s just look at RNA, because we have a fair amount of evidence that this molecule preceded DNA as a ‘life-engine’, so to speak, and really no solid evidence, that I know of, of anything before RNA.

Jacinta: Okay so what is this evidence, and why did DNA take over?

Canto: Right, now the subject we’re entering into here is abiogenesis, the process by which life emerged from the inanimate. RNA is probably well down the chain from this emergence, but better to start with it than to dive into speculation. Now as you probably know, RNA has a single helical structure, and today it’s heavily involved in the process whereby DNA ‘creates’ proteins. In fact, all current life forms involve the action and interaction of three types of macromolecule, DNA, RNA and proteins…

Jacinta: But of course these complex molecules didn’t spring from nowhere.

Canto: Well we don’t know how they were built up, and many pundits think they may have been seeded here from elsewhere during the late heavy bombardment, which came to an end about 3.8 billion years ago, around the time that those Greenland rocks, with their heavy load of organic carbon, have been dated to. It seems plausible considering how quickly life seems to have taken off here.

Jacinta: Okay so tell us about RNA, how does it relate to the other two macromolecules?

Canto: Well, RNA is able to store genetic information, like DNA, and in fact it’s the genetic material for some of our scariest viruses, such as ebola, SARS, hep C, polio – not to mention influenza.

Jacinta: Wow, I didn’t know that. But one thing I do know about viruses is that they can’t exist independently of a host, so is RNA the basis of any truly independent life forms?

Canto: Not currently, on our planet, as far as we know, but the evidence is fairly strong that RNA has been central to life here from the very beginning, as it is still key to the most basic components of cells such as ribosomes, ATP and other co-enzymes. This suggests that RNA was once even more central, but in some areas it’s been subordinated to, and harnessed to, the more complex and recent DNA molecule. But, yes, since we can’t look at RNA coding for independent life-forms, we need to wind the clock back still further to look at precursors and other constituents of life, such as amino acids and peptides.

Jacinta: Which are chemical molecules, not biological ones. It seems to me we’re still a long way from working out the leap from chemistry to biology.

a peptide or amide bond - a covalent bond between two amino acid molecules

a peptide or amide bond – a covalent bond between two amino acid molecules

Canto: Yes, yes but we’re bridging various gaps. Peptides are created from amino acids, as you know. They are chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds, and proteins are only distinguished from peptides in that they’re bigger versions of them, and bonded in a particular biologically useful way. You’ll notice when you read about this stuff that the terms ‘chemistry’ and ‘biology’ are used rather arbitrarily – a chemical compound can be referred to as a biological compound and vice versa. But various experiments have cast light on how increasingly ‘biological’ constituents are formed from simpler elements. For example, you may know that meteorites and comets, which bombarded the early earth in great numbers, contained plenty of amino acids – we’ve counted more than 70 different amino acids derived from meteorites, such as the Murchison meteorite that landed in Victoria in 1969. Another probable source of these amino acids, and even more complex and ‘biological’ molecules is comets, which also contain a lot of water in frozen form, but this has raised the question of how these molecules could have survived the impact of these colossal objects, which released enormous energy, some of them partially vaporising the earth’s crust. But an ingenious experiment, described in this video, and elsewhere, was able to simulate a comet’s impact, creating pressures many times greater than that experienced in our deepest oceans, to see what would happen to the amino acids. It was expected that they would barely survive the impact, but surprisingly they not only survived but forged bonds that created complex peptides.

a fragment of Murchison meteorite - of which there are many. This carbonaceous chondrite is still being analysed for organic compounds. Up to 70 amino acids identified so far

a fragment of Murchison meteorite – of which there are many. This carbonaceous chondrite is still being analysed for organic compounds. Up to 70 amino acids identified so far

Jacinta: Mmmm, that is interesting. So, the gap between peptides, or proteins, and RNA, what do we know about that?

Canto: Well, now you’re getting into highly speculative territory, but it’s certainly worth speculating about. Firstly, though, in trying to solve this origin of life problem, we have to note that the earth’s atmosphere was incredibly different from what it is now. In fact it was probably quite different from the way Haldane and Oparin and later Miller and Urey envisaged it. It was predominantly carbon dioxide, with hydrogen sulphide, methane and other unpleasant gases – unpleasant to us, that is. That, together with the continual bombardment from outer space has led some scientists to suggest that the place to find the earliest life forms isn’t the open surface but in hidden nooks and crannies or deep underground, in more protected environments.

Jacinta: Yeah the discoveries of so-called extremophiles has made that idea fashionable, no doubt, but presumably these extremophiles are all DNA-based, so I don’t see how investigating them will answer my question.

Canto: Okay, so it’s back to RNA. The thing is, I don’t want to go into the properties of RNA here, it’s just too complicated.

Jacinta: I believe it was Richard Feynman who said something like ‘to fully understand a thing you have to build it’. So there’s still this leap from polypeptides or proteins, which don’t code for anything, they’re just built by ribosomes – RNA structures – from DNA instructions, to sophisticated coded replicators. We have no idea how DNA or RNA came into being, and nobody has successfully created life apart from Doktor Frankenstein. So it’s all a bit disappointing.

Canto: You must surely be joking, or just playing devil’s advocate. You know very well that this is an incredibly difficult nut to crack, and we’ve made huge progress, new discoveries are being made all the time in this field.

Jacinta: Okay, impress me.

Canto: Well, only this year NASA scientists have reported that the nucleobases uracil, thymine and cytosine, essential ingredients of DNA and RNA, have been created in the laboratory, from ingredients found only in outer space – for example pyramidine, which they’ve hypothesised was first created in giant red stars – and they’ve found pyrimidine in meteors. So, another step towards creating life, and further evidence that life here may have been seeded from elsewhere. And if that doesn’t impress you, what about viroids?

Jacinta: Uhhh… what are they, viral androids? Which reminds me, what about the artificial intelligence route to creating life? Intelligent life, what’s more exciting.

Canto: Another time. Viroids are described as ‘sub viral pathogens’. We were talking about viruses before, as a kind of halfway house between the living and the lifeless, but really they’re much more on the side of the living. The smallest known pathogenic virus is over 2000 nucleobases long, and the biggest – well, a megavirus was famously identified just last year and revived after being frozen in Siberian permafrost for something like 35,000 years…

Jacinta: An ancient megavirus has been revived…? WTF? Who thought that was a great idea? Wait a minute, the Siberian permafrost, wasn’t that where Steve MacQueen and his mates dropped The Blob? Megadeath, not just a shite band! We’re doomed!

Canto: Well, strictly speaking it’s a virion, a virus without a host, which means it’s in a kind of dormant phase, like a seed. But I don’t want to talk about megaviruses, fascinating though they are – and very new discoveries. I want to talk about viroids, which are plant pathogens. They consist of short strands of RNA, only a few hundred nucleases long, without the protein coat that characterises viruses, and their existence tends to support the ‘RNA world hypothesis’. It was the discoverer and namer of viroids, Theodor Diener, who pointed out that they were vitally important macromolecules for explaining essential steps in the evolution of life from inanimate matter. That was back in 1989, but his remarks were ignored, and only rediscovered in 2014. So viroids are now a big focus in abiogenesis. They’ve even been called living relics of the pre-cellular RNA world.

Viroid

Jacinta: Okay, I’m more or less impressed. We’ll have to do more on abiogenesis in the future, it’s an intriguing topic, with more breakthroughs in the offing it seems. ..

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 28, 2015 at 11:23 pm