Flying out to the Phils a while ago I watched an excellent show presented by the late Professor Stephen Hawking about time travel. This has fascinated us for over a century, leading to all sorts of speculation about time machines. HG Wells’ eponymous book is perhaps the first and defining of the many books about this and, of course, the beloved Doctor Who is dependent on the notion.
Time and Space
Wells’ vision, however entertaining, overlooked one major problem with time travel: even if you could move to a different when, establishing where that would be is staggeringly complex. The Earth is not stationary, indeed nothing in the Universe is. You would need to calculate precisely where in space you wanted to be at the time you wanted to be there. Suppose you just want to go back a week. It’s not just a matter of going back a week where you are now, because last week, where you are now was 11.25 million miles away.
Cooking is now seen as the definitive characteristic of modern humans, from which all others followed. It seems to have directly led to the development of tools, especially blade design, but it had many other consequences.
Cooking, particularly of meats and fats but also starches, partially pre-digests the food, making more energy available to us and allowing us to use less to digest it. We put this extra energy into growing brains. Growing big brains burns many calories and just running them consumes a significant part of our daily food intake. We know that the physical structures which allow us to speak were evolving at the same time as our brains were growing larger. Speech allowed more complex and efficient communication and cooperation. This encouraged conceptual thinking and other intellectual skills, again leading to the development of bigger brains.
Modern humans first appeared in Africa around 150,000 – 180,000 years ago; one of a closely-related group of hominids that had populated the savannah over the preceding three million years. During that time, our ancestors learned how to talk, how to make fire and cook and how to cooperate in groups. We probably lived in a similar way to earlier hominids, but something extraordinary happened: we developed culture.
In an oral culture — one that is not written down — mythology evolves as it is passed from storyteller to storyteller. The Jesus myth was created in exactly this way, pasted together from earlier sources. This process is called ‘syncretisation.’
There is no fixed record of an oral tradition, by definition. In an oral culture or tradition, myths grow and develop to reflect the lived experiences and cultures of the people telling them. It was only when writing was invented that these traditions could be codified and by that time, they had been evolving for thousands of years. This means that there are many versions of the same myth, as different peoples carried it forward.
So we cannot say that, because detail differences exist between two similar myths, they are different or have different origins.
The name of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland is one that every European should know and speak with pride.
In September 1683, the city of Vienna was near to collapse. For months, it had been under siege by the Islamic hordes of the Islamic Ottoman army. Every day now, starvation and surrender grew closer. The city had long since run out of horses and pets to eat and even rats were few and far between now.
Worse, the Viennese knew that other Europeans had been the instruments of their doom. Swiss Calvinists had begged the Turks to attack, so that they could sweep away Catholicism. It beggars belief that Christians could call down the hounds of Islamic hell on their fellow Europeans, but that they had, hoping, no doubt, to negotiate some deal, a reward for their treachery, that might spare them the scimitar or a lifetime of submission to the foul creed of Islam.
The city’s defenders, listening in its basements, could hear the scrape-scrap of pick and shovel as the enemy’s sappers undermined them. Soon they would plant another huge mine and blow up a section of the city’s curtain wall, breaching it and allowing the enemy in. Nobody in Vienna was under any illusion as to what would happen then: the men would be tortured and killed or enslaved, the women would be raped and killed or enslaved and the children slaughtered. The behaviour of triumphant Islamic armies was well known.
Today, the Twelfth of September, was the last. The government of the city knew it. The people knew it and worse, the enemy knew it. They were ready: their final attack was to come on the twelfth of the month. There was nothing left. Vienna would fall. Without a miracle, Vienna must fall, and with it, Europe.
Gender is innate. It is not a social construct This article discusses how it evolved.
Early human society was fluid, with survival always the goal. It was, in general, divided by sex. Women and children formed a home group, which focussed on protection of the children and nursing mothers, foraging, perhaps trapping small game and birds, and the preparation and cooking of food. This group would have been a sisterhood of equals, but led, in all probability, by the elder women, the grandmothers, who were also the teachers, the midwives and shamans.
The other group was of men and older boys, based on the hunt. This group had to be able to respond quickly to the changing circumstances of the hunt, which could, especially when hunting large game, be lethal. A command system developed, probably around the best and most experienced hunters. We call this the ‘away’ group.
These two groups have long been identified and are still obvious in non-Western societies today. They are the evolutionary basis of gender.
The New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and many others, purported to offer a sane, secular attempt to roll back religiosity for the betterment of society. Instead, their efforts have begat the mother of all calamities.
How did this come to pass?
Scientific atheism, as promoted by the New Atheists, lacks any unifying central structure or code. Essentially it is based on a negative — not believing in God. So it can’t have a defining structure. Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent New Atheists, tried to answer this with his ‘brights’ — which was an embarrassment. (Since at least 2014, Dawkins has self-identified as a ‘secular Christian’ anyway.)
After the Enlightenment and especially the French Revolution, European secularism based itself around Reason as the core methodology that would replace, in the minds of those who were atheist, religious belief. This reflected a rejection of hierarchical religious authority, which had begun in the Reformation. The works of philosophers like Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and Paine promoted the idea of the free-thinking individual whose intellectual scalpel was Reason. Both of these were exported to the US.
Being a European, of course, I had no direct experience of Southern Baptism or any of the other so called ‘Evangelical’ cults until about five years ago, and even then it seemed relatively harmless. They were just a bunch of crackpot fringe-dwellers, somewhat like the Moonies or the Baha’i. Still, I was beginning to see pattern, as I read the writings of Baptist seminarians and ‘thinkers’. Was there any substance to this cult at all, or was it just anything anyone wanted it to be? Was it, indeed, actually dangerous?
I’m going to become a Hedonist. No really, I am. Seriously. I am going to join the Church of Hedonism. Yup. Before this happens to me.
Of course, no such church actually exists, and most religions seem to be mainly concerned with stopping people having fun. But anyway. If there isn’t one, I think it’s time we started one.
I am rapidly approaching that watershed in life, the dawn of my seventh decade. I don’t have that much time to waste any more. I quick demographic of my parents’ families suggests that if I remain a non-smoker, keep the drink to a moderate level and eat reasonably healthy food, I have maybe another fifteen years of active life, and another five or so of winding down, before parting the mortal coil and becoming one with the Earth again.
That is not an awful lot of time. And I am beginning to resent every moment of it that is not spent, basically, having fun.
I am proud to be a European. Our culture has many faults, yet at the same time it has given the world so much. Science and democracy, equality under law and social inclusion simply would not exist without it. And across culture, art, science, engineering and technology, our culture remains a brilliant star, without which light, we would still be in the Dark Ages. I am very proud and lucky to be a part of that.
Despite this, I believed, for many years, that other cultures were equal.
But I was wrong. Culture is not a level playing field. The very qualities that define Western culture represent a system of morality, which allow us to judge other cultures. And we definitely should judge them.