2024-05-26

A Reasonable Origin for Belief in Astrology

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by Neil Godfrey

I suppose I have always heard, read and assumed that the science of astronomy grew out of the pseudo-scientific practice of astrology. Well, maybe not so. I translate from a German study of the history of Mithraism first published in 1984.

The Stoic school, however, proceeded somewhat differently [from Plato’s proposal that the planets were self-willed and self-moving gods]: the logos (“thought”) governs the entire cosmos, within which there is harmony that regulates its parts. On Earth, the sun determines the alternation of the seasons, and the moon influences the female cycle; in the early 1st century BCE, the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea in Syria observed that the moon also caused the tides. Since the two great celestial bodies induced such effects, it was hypothesized that the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn also influenced human existence. Observations were collected regarding the connection between zodiacal constellations and human fate, initially with the legitimate intention of verifying a scientific hypothesis based on observed facts (a false hypothesis, but this was not known a priori). This led to the development of a vast astrological system, within which analogies and coincidences continued to be considered as probative elements.

(Merkelbach, Mithras 65 — translation from the Italian edition and compared with the German original)

Put like that, the claims of astrology become an entirely reasonable hypothesis. At least it seems very reasonable given a pre-Newtonian understanding of the universe. Unfortunately the testing that verified it for many was and has remained circular.

Another assumption I have long kept within arms reach is that a precise knowledge of regular planetary movements long preceded the Stoics. It was, I understand, a child of Babylonia. According to my Merkebach text however, that is another erroneous assumption long since superseded. I hope anyone who has a more up to date knowledge of the scholarly research into this question can correct me if needed.

During Plato’s time, an important astronomical discovery occurred. The planets—the Greek word means “wandering stars”—had always been considered celestial bodies that, unlike the others, wandered aimlessly. But Philip of Opuntius, a member of the Platonic Academy, observed that the planets moved “around the Earth” with regular revolutions.* They were not “wandering stars” after all, and law and order reigned in the heavens. Why did the planets follow regular, albeit complex, trajectories, the understanding of which would await the discoveries of Kepler and Newton? An unprovable hypothesis was formulated, which nevertheless seemed convincing: the stars were animated and followed regular orbits by their own will and judgment, as they were “visible gods.”

* It is not clear whether the regularity of the revolution of the planets was observed first in Greece or in Babylon. It was once assumed that, since ancient times, the Babylonians had precise knowledge in this field, but this hypothesis has proven to be unfounded.

(Translation of Merkelbach 65)


Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mithras. Konigstein/Ts : Hain, 1984. http://archive.org/details/mithras0000merk.
Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mitra. Il Signore Delle Grotte. Translated by P. Massondo. 2nd ed. ECIG, 1998.


 


2024-03-15

The Difference between Magpies and Chooks

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by Neil Godfrey

I have moved to a new residence and am thrilled to see that we still have magpies as company. I know we are not supposed to feed wildlife but, well, we are not supposed to eat much chocolate, either. Once in a while I was so taken by the magpies where we lived that I could not resist the occasional giving them a handout of a few crumbs. A few were so bold as to approach me within touching distance and when I held out my hand with some bread crumbs they looked at me “just to be sure I knew what I was doing” before crocking their heads sideways so that their beaks would pick up the crumbs with a sideways approach. Thus they avoided the risk of punching my hand with the sharp end of their beaks.

I was reminded how as a child I fed chooks and how they would just peck peck peck away into the palm of my hand without any thought of the punches they were inflicting.

Magpies? No, not like that at all. They would carefully turn their heads sideways to be sure that they lifted a crumb from my hand without any risk of their beak’s sharp end poking me. Magpies — humane, thoughtful, aware. Chooks — thoughtless, dumb.

 


2023-11-01

The Evolution of Free Will

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by Neil Godfrey

After having posted sympathetically about the possibility of our lacking free will (so much so that I am not even sure I know what “thinking” entails at the most fundamental level) — I’m pleased to imagine that I am freely choosing to post a link to an argument for us having free will:

by Kevin Mitchell, a scholar of genetics and neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin.

The processes of cognition are thus mediated by the activities of neurons in the brain, but are not reducible to those activities or driven by them in a mechanical way. What matters in settling how things go is what the patterns mean – the low-level details are often arbitrary and incidental. Organisms with these capacities are thereby doing things for reasons – reasons of the whole organism, not their parts.

and

A common claim of free will skeptics is that we, ourselves, had no hand in determining what that configuration is. It is simply a product of our evolved human nature, our individual genetic make-up and neurodevelopmental history, and the accumulated effects of all our experiences. Note, however, that this views our experiences as events thathave happened to us. It thus assumes the point it is trying to make – that we have no agency because we never have had any.

If, instead, we take a more active view of the way we interact with the world, we can see that many of our experiences were either directly chosen by us or indirectly result from the actions we ourselves have taken. Not only do we make choices about what to do at any moment, we manage our behaviour in sustained ways through time. We adopt long-term plans and commitments – goals that require sustained effort to attain and that thereby constrain behavior in the moment. We develop habits and heuristics based on past experience – efficiently offloading to subconscious processes decisions we’ve made dozens or hundreds of times before. And we devise policies and meta-policies – overarching principles that can guide behaviour in new situations. We thus absolutely do play an active role in the accumulation of the attitudes, dispositions, habits, projects, and policies that collectively comprise our character.

More at his blog — http://www.wiringthebrain.com/

He also has a book titled Free Agents, subtitled How Evolution Gave Us Free Will.

The experience of one friend of mine many years ago still haunts me. He had enormous emotional, mental and behavioural problems, having come from a brutal family upbringing. There was one period when he seemed to have completely changed, to have become “whole” even, and positive. It turned out that he had had a good sleep and a healthy meal for once. I was religious at the time and could not help wondering how God would judge someone whose behaviour depended so critically on a healthy salad sandwich and 8 hours sleep.

 


2023-10-21

Consciousness, Free Will and Artificial Intelligence

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by Neil Godfrey

ChatGPT (or any Artificial Intelligence) lacks consciousness of what it is doing and hence cannot be said to have the “free will” or “subjective impulses” to determine what direction its “thoughts” will take. (See critical comments on an earlier ChatGPT post).

A nagging question persists in the back of my mind, however. Do even humans have “free will” to guide the directions of their thoughts and conclusions? Every time I read a relatively recent work on human consciousness (e.g. Greenfield, Churchland) I am left with the disturbing notion that there may be a possibility that our consciousness of ourselves and what we are doing is an illusion. Although my inner gut resists that idea I do know that my inner gut does not have an infallible record of guiding me in the way of Truth. Ditto for my notion of “common sense”.

So it was with much appreciation and interest that I read posts on a new blog, Black Box Site, especially the second item, The Color of Your Consciousness or, Getting in Front of a Mob and Calling it a Parade. The author, Blackmun, has been keeping abreast of many more publications on consciousness than I have  so it was an immense pleasure to read his survey of some research findings. His overview draws upon…

  • Aitchison, Laurence, and Máté Lengyel. “With or without You: Predictive Coding and Bayesian Inference in the Brain.” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 46 (October 2017): 219–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2017.08.010.
  • Dehaene, Stanislas. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. 2014.
  • Nørretranders, Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. 1998.
  • Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. 1995.
  • ———. Awakenings. 1987.
  • ———. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. 1985.
  • Schurger, Aaron, Jacobo Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene. “An Accumulator Model for Spontaneous Neural Activity Prior to Self-Initiated Movement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (August 6, 2012): E2904-13. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1210467109.
  • Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. 2018, 2002
  • Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves. 2004.

Some concluding gems:

CARTESIAN, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum – whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum – “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made. (The Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce)

. . . .

And as Isaac Bashevis Singer liked to quip: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.

. . . .

. . . exactly what am I?

A rational maximizer? A child of God? A lizard that thinks it knows what it’s doing?

Does the main difference between our thinking and that of AI come down to AI having fewer hidden biases and parameters than the human brain?

It’s a fearful notion. That lizard would have no option but to resist it.


2023-06-23

The Nazca Lines

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by Neil Godfrey

Technological advances have opened up new plausible explanations for the Nazca lines (“geoglyphs” for the scientifically minded). — Excuse me if you knew all of this long ago and I am late to the party, but here are a few of the fascinating (for me) things I learned from that lazy moment of watching a bit of TV: The Mystery of the Nazca Lines. I braced myself to turn it off assuming it would regale me with “mysteries” and “space aliens” but I got hooked. Here’s why:

The spiral

The hummingbird

The spider

Were the lines pointing to key astronomical points? That was the theory of mathematician Maria Reiche who first visited the region in the mid 1930s. But no. Yes, if one selects some lines to study they may align with a solstice, but such a theory breaks down when one learns that there are so many more lines to take into account.

Space aliens? That was Erich von Daniken’s theory about alien visitors from another galaxy. But I was never quite convinced that he had the final answer

Science can now determine where people walked over a thousand years ago! A “magnetometry survey” is conducted to establish the likelihood that the lines were tracks for processions. The density of the land beneath the lines that have been cleared of stones (the dry, windless climate preserves the region over centuries), measured by variations in the magnetic field, “prove that the insides of the lines have been pressed down by multiple shocks — as if trampled on many times”. The geoglyphs were paths that people walked — or marched or danced — upon.

It was after this detail had been established that another feature was noticed: each figure is composed of a single line, as if there is an entrance and an exit. Even the circular lines are actually a single pathway. Those spirals have a turnaround in the middle that directs that single line to an exit.

Result: we can imagine people walking / marching / dancing single file through the figure, “experiencing the figure”. Sacred marches to communicate with the gods?

Then we have modern photogrammetry that can enable the production of very detailed 3-D images of vast areas. From these we learn that there are about 50,000 geoglyphs out there. Artificial intelligence helps humans find many of these by alerting humans to hitherto unnoticed patterns.

Related to the trapezoid lines are platform mounds that were determined to be altars for religious offerings, not only offerings of food but also of the spondylus shell imported from the far north.

The images depicted by these lines are all associated with water, we are told. All of the creatures are linked to water habitats, even the monkey and humming bird and spider. The ceremonies were related to the gift of water and fertility.

Underground tunnels were constructed to exploit the underground water through connected wells, some of which are still used today.

But how were the spirals created so perfectly? Not space aliens, as it turns out, but by the simplest technology of a stick and a rope. A people so smart will one day make it to the moon!

 

In the 1980s they discovered the “city” of Cahuachi but it lacks any evidence of a “normal population” (kitchens, cooking places, etc) indicating that it was, therefore, not a city but a vast ceremonial site. Continue reading “The Nazca Lines”


2022-12-18

Walking Sharks

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by Neil Godfrey

I used to think the lungfish was the halfway species between sea and land animals but I was not aware of the epaulette shark until the possible discovery of a new species of them made the news: Here is a five year old video:

According to the ABC news report they can stay out of water for up to two hours.

I can believe the part where they are said to survive on land by shutting down several of their brain functions. Now that might explain a lot about another, more familiar, two-legged creature that has become a land-dweller!

 

 

 


2022-09-03

Viruses, DNA – Close Up 1+ Million Times

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by Neil Godfrey

View the beautiful, scientifically accurate molecular visualisations of the ten most important human viruses, magnified one million times . . .

Drew Berry is a cell biologist and biomedical animator who creates beautiful, accurate visualizations of the dramatic cellular and molecular action that is going on inside our bodies. Since 1995 he has led biomedical animation within WEHI, Australia. His has exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, the Royal Institute of Great Britain and the University of Geneva.

WEHI.TV explains discoveries at the frontier of medical research through accurate and entertaining 3D animations. It answers the ever-growing demand for meaningful and engaging information on complex bodily topics.

 

Interview with Dave Berry: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-art-show/drew-berry-natalya-hughes-drawing/14032604


2022-04-19

If you run out of time or can’t find the time or need more time … stop worrying:

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by Neil Godfrey

Image from IndiaTimes

Time might not exist, according to physicists and philosophers – but that’s okay ….. (the link is to article in The Conversation by Sam Baron)

….. developments in physics suggest the non-existence of time is an open possibility, and one that we should take seriously.

How can that be, and what would it mean? It’ll take a little while to explain, but don’t worry: even if time doesn’t exist, our lives will go on as usual.

and it gets somewhat philosophical….

…. we know we need a new physical theory to explain the universe, and that this theory might not feature time.

Suppose such a theory turns out to be correct. Would it follow that time does not exist?

It’s complicated, and it depends what we mean by exist.

and then….

There is a way out of the mess.

While physics might eliminate time, it seems to leave causation intact: the sense in which one thing can bring about another.

Perhaps what physics is telling us, then, is that causation and not time is the basic feature of our universe.

So Jesus has already come and if someone says I’m late I can reply on the grounds of a good physics hypothesis that I am not and if someone wants to book me for parking over-time I will tell the judge….

 

 

 


2022-03-07

Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

In a comment to the previous post, Russell Gmirkin took issue with my explanation of Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm and my conclusion that fields of study outside of natural sciences don’t have Kuhnian paradigms, and hence no “paradigm shifts.”

He quoted from his forthcoming book, as follows:

One may define an academic paradigm as an implicit or explicit theoretical and factual framework that is agreed upon by consensus by a body of professionals within a discipline. (Gmirkin 2022)

As I’ve said before, if you want to propose your own definition of a paradigm, I have no quarrel with it. However, having done so, you will have left the Kuhnian universe of ideas. And once again, I protest not because Kuhn was right in all things, but simply because he had a particular structure in mind, and to appropriate his conclusions based on terminology antithetical to that structure is wrong.

Unright

I apparently must now apologize for calling someone or something wrong, since Mr. Dabrowski has informed me that I am displaying “animus.” Let us say instead that it is unright. Perhaps even double-plus unright.

Gmirkin continues:

Paradigms are typically perpetuated within academic institutions of learning in preparation for professional life within that field. As an axiomatic intellectual framework enforced by revered teachers and respected peers, paradigms tend to be conservatively preserved and are difficult to change except in the face of both deconstruction by new facts that run counter to the accepted paradigm and the construction of a competing paradigm with greater explanatory power (Kuhn 1996) (Gmirkin 2022)

I understand his point. As we discussed in previous posts, anomalies arise when new data arrives that calls the entire prevailing framework into question. The resulting crisis can engender a great deal of backlash. For example, the discovery of X-rays sent shock waves through the scientific community. One might wonder why this should be so, since the prevailing paradigm didn’t exclude the possibility of their existence. Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 3)”


2022-02-25

Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

The previous post generated some interesting discussion. Eventually, I would like to take the time to address the comments in a deliberate, serious manner; however, at the moment I want to take us back around to some fundamental questions.

  1. What did Thomas Kuhn mean by paradigm?
  2. Did Kuhn think his paradigmatic structure applied to the social sciences, arts, and humanities?
  3. Can we legitimately apply the concept of Kuhnian paradigm shifts to theology and biblical studies?

A Definition Might Help

Margaret Masterman-Braithwaite

As you probably already know, Kuhn’s magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, spawned a great deal of controversy. Undeniably, he unleashed a generation of self-absorbed loud-talkers at parties who used the word incessantly. His detractors almost immediately jumped upon the fact that Kuhn used the word “paradigm” in several different senses of the word. How do we know what he meant by the term paradigm shift if we can’t be certain, from one page to the next, what exactly he meant by paradigm?

In the preface to more recent editions of Structure, Ian Hacking cites “an often-cited but seldom-read essay” by Margaret Masterman — who may be the first person to have counted the 21 ways Kuhn used the word. Having recently read the paper, “The Nature of a Paradigm,” I think Masterman’s criticism came out of sincere respect and the desire to clarify Kuhn’s muddy waters. She rightly notes the sense in which a group of scientists latch onto a paradigm before they can articulate a theory. It starts with some achievement that draws like-minded people together into a social relationship.

[F]or Kuhn, something sociologically describable, and above all, concrete, already exists in actual science, at the early stages, when the theory is not there.

It is worth remarking also that, whatever synonym-patterns Kuhn may get trapped into establishing in the heat of his arguments, he never, in fact, equates ‘paradigm’, in any of its main senses, with ‘scientific theory’. For his metaparadigm* is something far wider than, and ideologically prior to, theory: i.e. a whole Weltanschauung. His sociological paradigm, as we have seen, is also prior to theory, and other than theory, since it is something concrete and observable: i.e. a set of habits. And his construct-paradigm is less than a theory, since it can be something as little theoretic as a single piece of apparatus: i.e. anything which can cause actual puzzle-solving to occur. (Masterman 1977, p. 66-67, emphasis mine)

[*By “metaparadigm,” Masterman is referring to the sense in which Kuhn refers to an all-encompassing way of thinking about the world and not merely to a localized pattern, set of habits, or framework for puzzle-solving.]

While many critics (especially followers of Popper) scoffed at Kuhn’s work and claimed he had simply reworked some well-known and understood ideas, Masterman realized he was onto something important. And she recognized that this new way of looking at scientific progress — not as an accumulation of facts and a slow upward march, but as a kind of punctuated equilibrium — was attracting readers and adherents. Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 2)”


2022-02-07

Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Thomas Kuhn

I try to reread Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions every couple of years. I get something new out of it with each reading.

Kuhn’s masterpiece is a rare thing: A groundbreaking work that’s easy to read. This short book contains an array of fascinating new ideas along with a structure for understanding the emergence of new paradigms. The term paradigm has become overused and overworked in everyday English. However, when we talk about the emergence of a new explanatory framework in science, history, literature, philosophy, etc., we can’t help but think of the term paradigm shift.

Shift Stages

Kuhn described the process of one paradigm displacing another, older one in successive stages.

    1. Normal Science. What we do every day within the existing framework. Scientists perform experiments, examine the results, and decide how they fit in with the established model. They publish the results and debate about their ramifications. And then they design new experiments. The process repeats. Essentially, Kuhn said what scientists are engaged in is “puzzle-solving.”
    2. Anomalies. From time to time, certain unexpected results occur. Puzzle-solvers are drawn to the anomalies as they endeavor to make them fit within the current paradigm.
    3. Crisis. Once in a great while, certain serious anomalies cannot be accounted for or ignored. They show themselves as evidence that the current model is inadequate. The prevailing paradigm teeters on the brink.
    4. Revolution. A competing paradigm emerges which accounts for the anomalies. New research tends to use the new framework to solve puzzles. The old paradigm fades away, along with its practitioners. Eventually, we return to a state of “normal science” under the new paradigm.

Stuck in the Paradigm

The power of Kuhn’s revolutionary structure hit home once again as I was reading Varieties of Jesus Mythicism, Did He Even Exist? For example, in the first essay by our friend David Fitzgerald, he writes:

The Historical Jesus question has the potential to be the biggest paradigm shift in the study of Christian origins. And the importance of Jesus Mythicism goes far beyond the Historical Jesus question itself. For instance, it highlights all the uniquely problematic elements plaguing biblical studies historically and currently, such as the pervasive bias affecting biblical studies—a remarkable condition different from any other field of history. (“Why Mythicism Matters,” Varieties, p. 37)

Here Fitzgerald hints at the reason we’re stuck in the current paradigm: namely, the insuperable barriers that prevent the people most qualified to tackle the question of Jesus’ historicity from even taking the notion seriously. If your entire worldview holds that the salvation of humankind depends on Jesus of Nazareth, then the very question is preposterous. Even for a non-Christian, if your job requires you to stay within the guardrails of biblical studies, the subject has to remain in the category of “not worthy of discussion.”

In the preface, Robert Price invokes Kuhn’s name, saying:

In fact, as Thomas S. Kuhn explains in his great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, advances in science proceed at least as much by new paradigms for construing data as by the discovery of new data. New models, theories, and paradigms are suggestions for making new and better sense of the data we already had. These new notions must prove themselves by running the gauntlet of collegial criticism. (“New Testament Minimalism,” Varieties, p. 15, emphasis mine)

At first, I’m inclined to agree with his assessment, but something feels “off” here. According to Kuhn, the discovery of new data that doesn’t fit within the current paradigm eventually weakens trust in the prevailing model. Yes, Kuhn presents several examples of existing paradigms that gradually lost adherents to some new way of assembling and explaining the existing data. However, the actual shift to a radically different pattern of thought requires a set of anomalies that bedevil the old paradigm — anomalies that the new paradigm easily explains or, better yet, confidently predicts.

To understand better what Kuhn meant by an anomaly, consider the following: Continue reading “Paradigm Shifts in Religious Studies (Part 1)”


2021-10-28

Indigenous India-Australia Ties

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by Neil Godfrey

Australia and India were once connected via land, both part of Gondwanaland, a supercontinent that existed until about 180 million years ago. There is some evidence of ancient links between Australia and India – a 1999 study asserts a maternal genetic connection between the two countries, and a 2013 study of Indigenous Australian DNA suggests there might have been migration from India about 4000 years ago. Even disbelievers cannot fail to notice some pockets of similarity, such as the resemblance between India’s Gond art and Indigenous dot painting, or that dingoes look uncannily like Indian street dogs. — Aarti Betigeri

 

From Gond Pradhans and their Art
Indian pariah dog

See also

and

Curnoe, Darren. “An Ancient Australian Connection to India?” The Conversation, March 10, 2016. http://theconversation.com/an-ancient-australian-connection-to-india-55935.

H/T https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/australias-nation-changing-indian-community/13605904 — interview with Aarti Betigeri.


Betigeri, Aarti. “New Wave: Australia’s Nation-Changing Indian Community’.” Australian Foreign Affairs AFA13, (October 2021). https://www.australianforeignaffairs.com/afa-front.



2021-06-15

Australian Aborigines: “Complex Hunter-Gatherers, Not Simple farmers”

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by Neil Godfrey

I enjoyed reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu — drawing on Australia’s early explorer diaries to portray Australia’s Aborigines as living in “villages” of huts and practising agriculture and aquaculture — but with some caveats. I found myself constantly adjusting what he was depicting with what I already knew to be true so that I came away not with a totally new understanding but a revised one. I could not accept on the basis of the argument he presented that Aborigines practised democracy or that they lived as settled farmers. I have heard and seen too much from “primary sources” to dismiss the notion that they were also hunters and gatherers. Besides, I found myself wondering, why is it so important to stress agriculture as an indicator of civilizational advance? Sure, agriculture was important in our tradition, but is it really a universal marker of progress? Progress towards what? I have been fascinated with the Aboriginal concepts of the Dreaming or the Dreamtime. Even in Dark Emu one reads little reminders that technologies practised by Aborigines were performed with a cultic or Dreamtime mythological association or impulse.

Now a new volume has been released that I think will restore some balance to Dark Emu‘s image of the First Australians. Others have commended Pascoe for popularizing views of Aborigines that have long been known among specialists and experts. It would be a mistake, however, to replace the hunter-gatherer view with a settler-farmer construct. So we now have Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. I have only begun to read it but already a couple of sections can be quoted:

Pascoe contradicts the false belief, perhaps held by some, that all Aboriginal people were naked all of the time. Some Aboriginal people sewed animal skins into cloaks (page 89).

He criticises the uninformed view that classical Aboriginal society consisted of constantly nomadic people who simply lived off nature’s bounty, were not ecological agents, did not stay in one place for more than a few days and did not store resources (for example, page 12).

And he gives considerable attention to the storage of foods (pages 105—14), this being a useful corrective to ignorance of Aboriginal storage methods.

(Sutton, p. 5)

And in particular:

Pascoe’s message is built on a simple distinction between what he calls ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers, on the one hand, and farmers; or between ‘mere’ hunting and gathering on one hand and ‘agriculture’ on the other. We consider that the evidence, in fact, reveals a positioning of the Aboriginal people of 1788 somewhere between these two extremes: they were complex hunter-gatherers, not simple farmers. The Old People in 1788 had developed ways of managing and benefiting from their landscape that went beyond just hunting and just gathering but did not involve gardening or farming. They were ecological agents who worked with the environment, rather than, usually, against it. They frequently used slow-burning fires to make their landscapes more liveable. However, they did not cut down bush to clear the land, plough and hoe the soil in preparation for planting, or then sow stored seed or tubers or rootstock in gardens or in fields.

(p. 7)

For the Andrew Bolts who have savaged Dark Emu as “a hoax” whose purpose is supposedly to accuse white settlers of ignorant and cruel treatment of the first inhabitants here, I further note that Sutton and Walshe share Pascoe’s assessment that white occupation is more accurately described as a “conquest” of the land and not at all “the first settlement”.


Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Melbourne University Press, 2021.

Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu. Black Seeds : Agriculture Or Accident? Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books, 2014.



2021-05-16

Elephants and Dugongs — Who’d Have Thought?

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by Neil Godfrey

Roger Short

Extract from a 2011 interview with Professor Roger Short….

Roger Short: Here in Melbourne, in the department of zoology, I had a very good PhD student, Ann Gaeth. I said, ‘Ann, I’ve got these amazing early elephant embryos. Your PhD project is to serially section them. No one’s ever serially sectioned an elephant embryo ever, and goodness knows what you’ll find.’ Ann goes away and sections them and comes up to my office and said,’Roger, can you come and have a look? The kidneys look most peculiar.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the embryology of the kidney. I’ll get my wife Marilyn to come and have a look.’

.

From DownToEarth

We looked down the microscope and there we saw these amazing structures in the kidney, which are called nephrostomes, which are little tubules penetrating the whole surface of the kidney and ending up in little glomeruli, so that it was a way of bailing out the peritoneal cavity and siphoning that fluid directly into the kidney, and elephants had got them, and no other mammal has nephrostomes in its kidney. Marilyn said, ‘Those structures are nephrostomes. They are a way of bailing out fluid from the peritoneal cavity and they’re only found in aquatic animals. The elephant must be aquatic.’ I thought, ‘God! Hey, the trunk is a snorkel! Wouldn’t that be fantastic?’

We then thought, well, let’s have a look at the trunk. I had dissected one or two young elephant foetuses and I had noticed something strange, that the lungs were stuck to the chest wall. And I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. Then I looked up an American veterinary review and it said that it’s amazing that every single elephant that has died in captivity has had pleurisy because the lungs are stuck to the chest wall. So I thought, ‘Oh, probably that’s normal.’ We looked at these early embryos and foetuses and, yes, very, very early on the lungs stick to the chest wall and there is no pleural cavity at all.

We did some work with a very good respiratory physiologist in San Diego who had spent his life looking at respiration and he said, ‘If you’re a snorkeler, you know that you’re not allowed to have a snorkel tube that’s much longer than that because, if you do, you will actually rupture the blood vessels in your chest cavity, and so it’s illegal to have a longer snorkel tube.’ And here is an elephant with a snorkel tube that is about eight-foot long, so they couldn’t possibly snorkel were it not for the fact that they have managed to glue their lungs to the chest wall so that they can’t get a pneumothorax, which is what you or I would get.

Robyn Williams: Yes. Would the elephants have been living presumably in rivers or lakes rather than anything out to sea?

Roger Short: Yes, I don’t think they were in the deep ocean, although they crossed large expanses of sea to get to remote islands off the coast of California. Santa Catalina Island has got these elephant remains on it and it had never been part of mainland California, so how had elephants got there? They had swum. David Attenborough has lovely shots of elephants swimming under water in the Indian Ocean.

From TheIndianExpress

Now that most fish have disappeared from the North Sea, the trawlers are trawling up the sand banks across the North Sea and coming up with all these amazing elephant remains, of which I have quite a selection here, from tusks to vertebrae to teeth. Mammoths, as they were then, were swimming across the North Sea between England and Scotland and Europe, and they have really been great aquatic animals, and of course they are herbivores. We have been able to do their mitochondrial DNA recently, and guess what their closest relative is? The dugong.

From SnappyGoat.com

Robyn Williams: Really!

Roger Short: And elephants and dugongs arose from a common ancestor, called Anthrobacune, which I saw the first complete skeleton of in northern Hokkaido just recently.

Does anyone have access to an image of the Anthrobacune skeleton? Not even Google could find me one.


Short, Roger. 2021. The Science Show: Professor Roger Short, reproductive biologist Interview by Robyn Williams. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/professor-roger-short,-reproductive-biologist/13342638.