Sunday, June 14, 2009

Azure Bluet: Evolutionary Biology, Nontheistic Friendly Community, Connectedness and Loving Bliss


{The following letters are a synthesis of a number of recent letters I've posted to a nontheist friends' list}.

Nontheist Friends,

I'm writing to see if we might develop a far-reaching conversation about evolutionary biology vis-a-vis nontheist friends.

(By way of introduction, I've attended about 7 different unprogrammed Friends' {Quaker} meetings over many years, and teach about and study anthropology, sociology and information technology).

Here's an overview of one possible way of thinking about evolutionary biology and nontheist friends, involving a kind of historicization of biological developments, as I see them.

There are so many tens of thousands of generations that precede us, and a predisposition for people affiliated with even atheism / nontheism not to engage questions concerning evolutionary biology. This is curious to me, perhaps because this seems to represent a significant disjunction between human biological legacies and cultural ones, to use language I'm engaging.

So, a quick sketch from my perspective vis-a-vis life and nontheistic friends: In the Cambrian explosion some 550-515 million years ago, a little cordate creature (and 23 phylla) developed, perhaps something that could have been an ancestor of ours. (See Gould's "Wonderful Life" on how evolution works, and the fossil finds in the Burgess Shale). 65 million years ago, dinosaurs disappeared in the K-T extinction, but frog-size reptiles and squirrel-size mammals survived. (It was warm and there was food, even if it was dark for extended periods of time, is one main hypothesis). Around 7-5 million years ago homo sapiens emerged, standing upright.

Language's emergence is lost in the depths of time and generations (although see Terrence Deacon's "The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of the Brain and Language" for an explanation of how the human brain got bigger due to articulation of symbols (his thesis)). 5500 years ago is the first evidence for the beginnings of writing. There's lots of history (memes) to 1660s, when Friends started to sit in silent meeting, and conduct meeting for business, and develop the peace testimony, generating social forms that have continued through to today. They did this in a very turbulent time in Cromwellian (is one way of characterizing it) England.

Staying with the biological, I wonder if the centering down that occurred in a) silent meeting, and the listening that occurred in b) meetings for business, as well as the orientation to c) peaceableness, were forms of the relaxation response (Herbert Benson MD 1972 - a biological phenomenon, which can be very harmonizing and integrating), leading to calm, group, social networking, and a successful approach to age-old, human, group, conflictual tensions through nonviolence, in an increasingly prosperous, yet industrializingly-chaotic Britain - with long, evolutionary biological antecedents. (Were Quakers somehow more like Bonobo chimps, about whom data so far shows to be peaceful, egalitarian, with very little violence and without war or homicide, than common chimps, which have war and commit homicide? These behaviors may have emerged over millions of years, and tens of thousands of generations). In this privileging of biology, early Friends would have troopbonded (Money 1988) around the above practices, as well as early Friends' language, which they found beneficial and socially integrative for the group, but wouldn't ever have considered explaining these in biological terms, since evolutionary language didn't exist 350 years ago.

Nontheistic friendly thinking emerges (Atheism and Quakers), and the 'biological' logically (if not theism, or, if nontheism, then biology ...) comes into this conversation, but with thus far a lack of engagement with questions of biology by nontheist friends, that I have read.

Originating from anthropological, sociological and information technological interests and skills, I think that engaging questions of biology & nontheist friends' discourse, exclusive of identity questions (viz. anthropology), if possible, has merit.

And given the centrality of the Internet (a new, far-reaching cultural development) to our nontheistically friendly conversation, perhaps giving rise to a new Quaker discourse and identity, where are nontheistically friendly kids (biology)?

I think it would be fascinating to engage questions of evolutionary biology to complement the questions nontheists have been exploring thus far. Looking forward to further conversation with nontheists.

I've sent a version of this to this list before, but wanted to re-send it, as part of a friendly Humanist conversation. As a non-Christocentric Friend in what I see as a problematic Judeao-Christian tradition, which I find limiting due to its narratives, and appreciative of the Quaker historical orientation toward good deeds while eschewing engagement with theology (Barclay's "Apology" was in a way the first and last of its kind, as I see it), I think it's sensible to develop a healthy distance from nontheistic theology (if there is such a thing), as well as Judeao-Christian history and narratives, while exploring how nontheist friends might continue to do good deeds, as well as shape a broad conversation which engages the above, and shapes something new, in relation to the unprogrammed tradition of the Society of Friends. Ever chary of language which even touches on even something faintly theistic - words like 'spirit,' 'worship,' 'church,' 'religious,' and 'ministry,' let alone deistic or pantheistic terms - I hope we can shape a space, as Friends have historically done, for discernment in new directions that begin to engage questions of evolutionary biology vis-a-vis nontheistically Friendly Humanism, as conversation.

With friendly greetings,

Dear Jerry and Joan,

Thanks for your comments. I think I see nontheist friends as potentially opening conversation about 'religiousness' too. Although religiosity probably won't disappear, perhaps it's relationship with conceptions of the divine will diminish a little, with the emergence of new words for exploring far-reaching issues in our lives, in the context of evolution. I appreciate greatly the experience of connectedness, which I associate with the word 'religious,' with its etymological roots in 'bondedness,' but I wonder if this might be better explained as emerging from troopbonding (I see Quaker Meetings as this) and pairbonding (see John Money's "Concepts of Determinism" - - as one way of conceiving bondedness in an evolutionary context), rather than out of religiousness. In a broad way, I'm interested in neurophysiological experiences of loving bliss, and perhaps vis-a-vis nontheist friends, but this is relatively unexplored in the Society of Friends, let alone religious traditions, and is therefore a creative opening, as I see it. (I've explored some ideas about eliciting loving bliss in these 5 letters:

(In response to some comments Joan made).


I enjoy engaging questions of evolution vis-a-vis the questions you ask, and, while I appreciate your insights, I think engaging evolutionary biology broadens a nontheistically friendly discussion. Positing that we have bodyminds shaped by natural selection over millions of years, that we are primates that comminicate symbolically, that we have agency (choice), and that, as I see it, history (including religious history), is constructed, an interpretation, and arbitrary, I'm glad we have a diversity of views on this email list. For me, causation is not at stake, but rather how friendly nontheism potentially frees us from the constraints of 'religiosity,' (me-ness, identity, etc.), while, vis-a-vis a society of nontheist friends, might continue to affirm the benefits of community (troopbonding) and conversation, vis-a-vis this email list as well as nontheistically friendly workshops.

As an anthropologist, I'm interested in culture, and subcultures (and counterculture - my particular interest), of which I see the Society of Friends as one culture/subculture, with a historic peace testimony. I find the primatological narratives of the two species of chimps edifying as narratives from other species with which we share something like 98% of our genes, but in no way determinative; the lack of violence among Bonobo may be something humans, nontheist friends, and Quakers can learn from. Nontheist friends are a culture/subculture and a community, as are Friends, as I see it, and culture is richly symbolic, so engaging language richly and in new ways may open new ways of understanding. Creating new narratives are yet another example of what I see people on this list, as a diverse group of writers, doing in creating and broadening a nontheistically friendly discourse.

I think people on this list are trying to explain and find new language which both creates something new, and affirms developments emerging out of the Society of Friends' processes over 350 years.


Here's a timeline for human origins:

3.5 billion years ago - life evolves - (how?)

560 - 515 mya (million years ago) - Cambrian explosion - little cordate creature (and something like 23 phyla) in the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada; something like this may have been our ancestor (see Gould's "Wonderful Life")

(250-) 130 mya - emergence of angiosperms (flowering plants) - rich expansion of potential food sources for mammals

{150-145 mya - Archaeopteryx - first fossil evidence for how flight evolved}

65 mya - KT extinction event (Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event) - dinosaurs become extinct - some small mammals and reptiles survive

7-5 mya - homo speciation - line separates from common human, chimpanzee and gorilla ancestor

2.9-2.1 mya - first evidence for stone tool use (flint knapping)

200,000 years ago - emergence of humans - DNA evidence

Origins of language are lost in time - possibly occurring sometime here - development of larynx?

170,000 years ago - mitochondrial Eve (the woman who is defined as the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for all currently living humans - roughly 8,000 generations ago) - development of human line

75,000 years ago - first known art - tiny, drilled, snail shells from the Blombos cave in South Africa - forty-one shells of the mollusc scavenger Nassarius kraussianus, with holes and marks in similar positions for a necklace (?) have been found in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean

70,000 years ago - humans begin migration out of Africa (out of Africa hypothesis)

35,000 years ago - bone flute - first solid evidence of musical instrument

30,000 years ago - Neanderthals disappear -

24,000 years ago - Venus of Willendorf

17,000 years ago - Lascaux murals

10,000 years ago - agricultural revolution

5,500 years ago - first evidence for writing

{2,700 years ago - epic poet Homer - oral tradition - and the "Odyssey" and the "Iliad" are written down}

{2,500 years ago - Laozi - "Tao te Ching"}

1859 - Charles Darwin publishes "On the Origin of Species" - evolution by natural selection as idea takes form

{1972 - Herbert Benson MD publishes "The Relaxation Response"}

{And around 1.3 - 8 million + species have come through millions of generations at the same time ~ DNA is amazing}.

And there are potentially 10s of thousands of generations ahead for all species.

And here's a phylogenetic tree of early human phylogeny from the Smithsonian Museum:

And there are potentially 10s of thousands of generations ahead for all species.

I think that engaging evolutionary biological thinking more actively will enrich this nontheistically friendly email list.

The Burgess Shale fossil bed, per Gould, represents a remarkable explosion of life forms at the phylogenetic level - large classifications of life, and his argument is that since that flourishing of life forms of something like 23 phylogenetic categories, evolution has been about extinction (not progress), as we're down to about 4 phylogenetic categories now, mainly because those remarkable conditions of around 530 million years go, that gave rise to such an abundance of life forms, weren't sustained, so these beautiful, tiny creatures, and phyla, went extinct. (See his remarkable book explains how paleontologists unpack 100s of millions of years of life in the form of rock to recreate these amazing, ancient bodies, as well as his views on evolution).

In general in evolution by natural selection, an adaptation (e.g. color vision, prehensile grasp) affects populations, and not individuals, in relation to an ecological niche over 100s of thousands of generations for species relatively high on the phylogenetic tree, and such adaptations are often caused by mutation. Humans have basically stopped evolving in the sense of natural selection.

As a relativist vis-a-vis religious language, I return to Huston Smith's "World Religions," where he outlines salient aspects of the worlds 8 great religions.

Developing nontheistically friendly language and conversation about these topics will broaden this discourse.

With friendly greetings,

Nontheist friends,

Check out the Dawkins' video, "An Atheist's Call to Arms" - - at
around 24 minutes (all of it is interesting),

also at

vis-a-vis humanism.

Respectfully yours,

In a related conversation on the nontheist friends' email list:

Check out Scott Atran's "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" (Oxford 2004). He offers a coherent explanation of religion from an evolutionary perspective, and this book is an important contribution to this conversation, academically and explanatorily. Using the metaphor of landscape of the mind, he suggests that religion as part of a kind of human landscape developed (it isn't an adaptation) because it best helps people cope with the exigencies of life over millions of years. He suggests that humans are trip-wired for belief in the divine, for a variety of reasons. I think this view could dovetail with a nontheistically friendly (if nontheism, then biology ... ) point of view through its active engagement with evolutionary thought. Fortunately, nontheist friends here have multiple view points, so this is obviously just one explanation among many.

This book is also a reference here:



To another friend, as a response to what he wrote to me:


Thanks for your observations. In general, I'm interested in exploring related questions loosely vis-a-vis this email list, while staying focused on a variety of other things in my life (actual-virtual Harbin ethnography, World University and School, loving bliss, family to come, contact improv, music, caring for others). I'm particularly interested in exploring how to elicit the neurophysiology of loving
bliss, naturally, when and as we want it, and that's not a question that I've found neither Friends, nor nontheist Friends, engage readily, on this email list. And then to elicit this ... And discussion isn't perhaps the way to cultivate this neurophysiology either, although discussion can lead to 'flow' experiences, as a starting place. Perhaps Watsu - water shiatsu - is the best modality for beginning to explore my interests which loosely related to questions of eliciting loving bliss, and which I think nontheist friends might also have a possible interest in, but pools - in a parallel to nontheist friends' meeting houses (which don't yet exist) - don't abound, especially yet on the web, (I'm working on developing a virtual Harbin in Open Sim). So, I think I'll stay loosely engaged with this email list, and perhaps write with a little more focus, when I do, in the future. Your engagement both with this list, and in your response here, are great, - thanks. Might you like to facilitate a kind of coherent nontheist friends' body of writings? Where do you find bliss, or comfort, contentment, or whatever you might be looking for, these days, and vis-a-vis nontheist friends? How to get 'there,' and for all? And how can we make the process enjoyable along the way?



How to cultivate the neurophysiological loving bliss aspects of bondedness (viz. troopbondage and pairbondage), when and as we want them?


Enallagma aspersum (Hagen, 1861)

Azure bluet dragonfly

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