The Meanest Scientist I Ever Knew

Whether I am reading a book on the history of bees or looking at a particular map of the United States, traces of Charles Darwin continue to swell into conversation. For those who have a predilection for visually compelling forms of communication, here is an infographic on Darwin created by Charles Trujillo that has proven to be good reference material as of late:

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(Source)

Last summer, for admittedly the third time, I picked up On the Origin of Species and read it alongside The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Reading On the Origin of Species wasn’t necessarily a transforming experience, but there are passages that still surface:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

When I read Darwin, I found philosophies referencing body positivity and anti-nationalism. Even the perhaps more boring paragraphs of the book did not compare to the outright tediousness of passages in the Old Testament. Tonight, I hope you look at your bodies and smile, because you are the vision of perfection. Or at least, you are in maddening pursuit. Happy Darwin Day, friends!

Holiday Shopping For Your Token Atheist Friend

The holidays can be an unsettling time for atheists. Once when talking to a family member who is aware of my atheism and verbal about it, she asked: “Does it bother you when you get Jesus stuff for the holidays?” The truth, yes and no.

As self-proclaimed resident holiday gift adviser, here are my guiding rules on how to shop for heathens:

  1. Don’t give your atheist friend anything religious.
  2. Avoid gifts that use “Christmas” or “Xmas.”
  3. Coffee is good. Atheists like coffee.

Most of the following gift ideas center around secular thought, reason, and science.

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Giftcards to Amazon.com or Target can be personalized by packing it inside a secular greeting card, such as this card featuring Charles Darwin or this “Axial Tilt is the Reason for the Season” card from Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry and other secular organizations have a lot of great items for atheists around the holidays. Personally, I have always wanted this “Heresy Makes For Progress” t-shirt. (Size small, please.) T-shirts can be fun. Just don’t buy anything too outwardly offensive, mocking, or with Comic Sans. To play on the safe side, I would recommend sticking to humanist gifts around the holiday season, rather than the more antagonistic options.

I like to suggest minimalist gifts for the holidays, such as this “Freethinker” vinyl sticker or black-and-white Carl Sagan magnet. If you think your friend would appreciate some weird socks, check out these wicked Einsteins from Socksmith. (Who doesn’t appreciate weird socks?!) Skeptical coffee mugs and science-shaped cookie cutters are solid small gift ideas.

Literature can be either a good or a really bad gift idea. Many atheists have strong biases about who they like and don’t like in the realm of secular literature. Prominent atheist thinkers have come out with books in 2015, but not all atheists appreciate these writers. Secular anthologies can also be tricky for reasons involving representation. The best gift will reflect some aspect of the token atheist’s belief system. It’s entirely reasonable to ask your friend, “Which atheists do you look up to?” or “Do you have any favorite scientists or public figures?” This will allow you to narrow down potential shopping flaws. Unlike religious literature, there is no single book binding secularism or novelty edition of said book that can be given to an atheist. Finding the right literature will require careful thought and some background research.

If unable to narrow down a book specifically, I would recommend purchasing a yearly magazine subscription from a predominantly secular publisher. Maybe support the Skeptical Inquirer or Scientific American? Magazine subscriptions are wonderful for the shopper who has waited until the last minute to buy a gift. Some atheists are also touring right now in the United States. Tickets to hear Neil Degrassi Tyson locally or another secular thinker can be an excellent last-minute gift idea.

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild offers an array of religious and non-religious products that are ideal for both adults and children. (I can think of nothing that I would have loved more as a child than an Albert Einstein Little Thinker Doll, except for maybe another Australian Shepherd puppy.) Royal Bobbles has some neat stuff as well, like this glow-in-the-dark Marie Curie figure.

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For the secular art lover, consider making a purchase from Amy’s store, Surly-Ramics! Her work is high-quality and ships quickly. She also runs sales on a regular basis, so feel free to check out her facebook page for more information.

While this entry may seem rather silly or tediously materialistic, it’s important to me. The holidays are challenging for atheists as they are for many people. Having a loved one, relative or friend, give a gift that acknowledges your belief system, particularly a belief system that is adverse to the holiday season, can be one of the most uplifting things in the world. That copy of The Origin of Species may not seem like a big deal, but for an atheist who has felt outcast from his or her family around the holiday, just that small recognition can be an enormous gesture of inclusion and hope.

So leave that Dr. Bronner’s soap on the shelf, and order soon to get your packages before the holidays are here. What are you hoping to get this year for the holidays? Share your thoughts/wish lists in the comments section.

Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.