Thursday, January 24

What is it to be human?


There can be no argument we are the dominant force on planet earth, the top of the food chain if you will, but what are the distinct characteristics of what it is to be human?  
In the upper echelons of the animal kingdom, such as in chimpanzees, elephants and whales we find the full range of human emotions. We can identify their dazzling array of sounds as if in songs, their learned behaviours, devotion to infants, long periods of nurturing, complex social orders and intelligence.

Hence any quest for distinguishing features can only conclude we do lack their rather obvious superior comparative physical strengths and enhanced tracking ability. In relation to the senses and navigation skills, as they pertain to birds and bats, they are vastly superior.

But in terms of technology we have observed many remarkable feats of nature that we have very successfully imitated in technology. So that on the material side we have an immense advantage in terms of technological power.   
That has resulted in human activity becoming such a dominant influence it risks decimating the environment upon which we depend for our existence.
The only difference one can reliably conclude in being human is our advanced use of language. That involves the ability to tell stories, so that we embrace narratives in our culture and construct monuments, until such time as new discoveries prompt changes.  

The hope is that narrative will continue to change markedly as we understand much better just how co-dependent we are on nature and the environment.     
Although there is a culture surrounding the animal kingdom, to date we don’t believe they are able to tell stories as we do. In all other respects one can demonstrate we are an amalgam of nature from which we evolved. Increasingly, when we look in the mirror of nature, we also see a reflection of ourselves. This is what I seek to demonstrate.     

Human reflections in the animal kingdom.     
Anthropologist Jane Goodall, remained defiant in her writings to attribute human characteristics or behaviours to animals, despite pleas from her editor, such was her passion for them. That’s because in her lifelong study of chimpanzees in the wild, she uncovered many startling new discoveries, from the fashioning and use of tools, to observing their complicated social hierarchy, in noting their development of friendships and the formation of a coalition of groups, even in preparation for warfare. 

Biologists also rate Octopuses, the smartest among the invertebrates, noting their impressive short and long term memories. Like us, their individual personality traits are passed on to their offspring through their genes and in learned behaviours. Their intelligence means they can die from boredom in captivity. One example was an octopus housed at the San Pedro Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, who removed the drain plug overnight from his tank and was found dead at the bottom the following morning.

In another German aquarium, Otto, has a habit of squirting water onto the light above his tank, which short-circuits the lights in the building. He only does this in the winter when the aquarium is closed and boredom sets in. Additionally he juggles hermit crabs, throws rocks at the glass, and redecorates the enclosure by moving everything around into different locations.

In a research centre in Pennsylvania an octopus, registered a dislike for the food provided - upon return of the researcher, the octopus waited until eye contact was made, then proceeded to shove the food down the drain.
There are numerous other examples of their cognitive ability, to annoy staff, shield themselves from visitors and escape from jars. Ingenuously, large octopuses have been observed squeezing through an opening the size of a walnut escaping from a large jar, to move across the deck of a research ship, to freedom and into the open sea.

They form life-long bonds with their keepers whilst in captivity and register their emotions by changing colour in pleasure. They engage with those to whom they are familiar whilst ignoring others.

Researchers think their cognitive ability is linked to the evolutionary branch that favoured cleverness over physical size and strength, since they have no natural defence against larger predators.    

Material progress of mankind.
However, considering the magnitude of our material advancement, might not technological capability be a unique characteristic?
But that in turn, is mired in the half a billion years of evolution, with the very recent fork favouring cognitive ability over strength and physicality. For one could ask the same question as to why certain indigenous tribes existed at one level versus others, who, very late in the cycle, ushered in a mechanized age. If we compare the relative cognitive abilities there is no difference. Rather, it is the different cultures exhibiting factors relating to inventiveness, triggered by way of a necessary adaptation in one region as opposed to another, which remained largely self-sufficient and isolated. That region might remain hostage to the more basic tools such as stone axes and so forth, cut off from the cultural influence of the other tribes and their slow advancing technology.   

The question then arises as to the only discernible difference which relates to the use of language. The question is do animals have a language? 

That depends of course on how you define a language and although animals have been demonstrated to have a language of sorts, most scientists think it is confined to the present time and space.

That is, animals use different sounds to warn of dangerous situations or to identify objects, whose dialects might be specific to certain clans and signal a call to learned behaviours. 

But we can’t identify any ability to string together a series of sounds so as to denote an abstract idea. That might be the case, but we have no evidence for it. Certainly they can remember a complicated sequence and apply it to find a solution and adapt ingeniously to improvise. Such an example is crows placing nuts in front of traffic stopped for red lights so that the vehicles subsequently crack open the nuts for them. 

There is any number of examples where some species can think and learn quickly how to solve complex puzzles. What we don’t know is the extent to which animals can associate past events and stories as they relate to their current existence, as we do routinely. For instance, what is going on in the minds of elephants observed mourning over old bones of the long since deceased? 

To be human is to exhibit a fascination and wonderment about everything, which potentially increases with experiences. But this is more a question of degree, since we can find ample evidence of this in the animal kingdom. What seems to be a marked discernible difference, is in the cognitive ability to share and tell stories which can make a material difference to our future. 

According to researches into early childhood development, storytelling uniqueness begins from the first communicative exchanges, in language, that shape the infant mind.

As those communicative exchanges take place, in play and interaction with a mother and others, the child, in whatever language it is born into, tells itself a story. It gives each person a unique sense of self. That in turn allows us to make more sense of the world as we grow up and interact more and more with the wider world as we reach maturity.

That innate ability to tell ourselves stories from very early on, to develop further in complexity in the sense of a unique self, is a distinguishing feature to that of the animal kingdom. 
That sense of self, able to adapt to the myths and stories that change with new discoveries, gives expression to what it is that makes us human.
The hope is we will continue to develop that narrative, so that increasingly a tribal perspective diminishes, to acknowledge our universal dependence on nature and the land for our existence.      

Sunday, January 13

How Badly Has the Bible Been Corrupted? ~Daniel Wallace

The large number of textural variations doesn’t necessarily
detract from the validity of early oral traditions that formed the basis of the synoptic gospels. Although we only have copy of copies without an original, that is also the case with many other forms of ancient literature. 
Using contextual analysis we can attest to an overall validity, to accept the many variations, which in effect don’t materially affect the overall consistent meanings attributed to the texts. 

Friday, January 11

The Mystery of St Paul, the tentmaker.

The ancient biblical texts provide a fertile ground for scholars and ordinary folk to discuss various perspectives and inconsistencies.  One such fact concerns Paul’s status as a Roman Citizen and the extent his family wealth may have funded his numerous journeys abroad.
He is described as a Tentmaker and as a Roman citizen. His prior education at the behest of the best scholars leave little doubt he grew up in a very wealthy family of considerable influence.
Imagine tent making then would have been one of the largest industries as tents provided the wealthy and traders with the means to relative comfort in what otherwise would be an unduly harsh environment. 
The material was also used as sails so that possibly the extent of its prominence is hard to imagine for us today. 
Tents were also used in war and possibly Paul’s family business may have been instrumental in supporting the Romans, who in turn elevated the family and offspring to the status of Roman citizens. In Paul’s letters he makes mention at times to complicated financial arrangements involving guarantees and legal terms which would only be understood by the few of the wealthy class. The fact he was able to defend himself in Roman courts on numerous occasions speak volumes to someone who carried a great deal of influence and who was able to possibly hire what was then the equivalent today of top defence lawyers. 
He survived for many years extricating himself from various charges levied against him. Notice that in Luke it is addressed to a single person.  One might speculate it was the equivalent today of a top QC, whose brief was to defend Paul against the charge of insurrection. 
That designated person, possibly was a Roman, given the task of preparing the brief, a task that might have involved several years investigatory activities of the complete ministry and background of Jesus, since Paul’s ministry was to establish the new messianic kingdom of the resurrected Christ. That would be a fitting precursor to examining his many missions abroad, where it would be asserted his activities did not involve treasonable offences against Rome. That explains why Luke is so long and its inconsistencies to the other gospels. Luke might have first been written for that official reason, to take on a later revelatory purposes in the future.  
The cost of such investigatory work would be huge and one could imagine a massive number of interviews and the copying of manuscripts, letters and notices that could only be contemplated by those of very considerable wealth. 
Of course all of this is pure speculation. But Luke, and the following Acts of the Apostles may provide the more comprehensive avenue for biblical study. 
Another interesting text is the very short, but dense letter of Paul to Philemon, whilst he was imprisoned in Rome. We have to understand there were no prisons then in first century Roman Times. Rather, there were designated places you were held, whilst awaiting trial. The Romans used crucifixion and exile for the higher crimes or house arrest for others.  Whilst  under this so called house arrest whilst in Rome, he writes the short letter to Philemon. He implores Philemon to take back his former slave. 'Onesimus'.
We also have to understand that slavery then was nothing like the heinous exploitation of which we are familiar. No doubt slaves of course, all wanted to be free, but Roman conquests meant the vanquished all became slaves regardless of prior rank. Some were treated well and some badly at the sole discretion of the owner. But it was also possible for relationships to develop.
Additionally Rome specifically made provision for all slaves to be freed after serving a form of apprenticeship in what was then the largest metropolis in the world, of over a million people. Arrests could also be made for debts unpaid and an indebted person, could end up as a slave by way of settlement. So we don’t know how Onesimus became a slave to Philemon, but it could conceivably be he was simply unable to repay a debt. The interesting point is Paul asks Philemon not to take him back as a slave, since any amount owing is for his account. That is just another example of Paul’s wealth, even after all of his costly journeys abroad. 
Paul’s letter to Philemon ends on a positive note, saying that he believes that Philemon will do even more than he suggests.

So that maybe we might conclude Luke, the Acts of the Apostle and the letter to Philemon when he was imprisoned in Rome as an old man, represent the more reliable facts as they relate to that time and provide some valuable insight into the mystery of St Paul the Apostle.