Monthly Archives: September 2015

The False Security of our Wall

wwzPeople build walls of all kinds and trust in them for protection. But walls are defenses of last resort. If determined enemies reach your walls, you are probably already doomed. Your walls may repel the initial wave, they may block a host of arrows, but eventually they fall to sappers, they’re breached by catapults, or they’re simply overrun by sheer unrelenting numbers. Even the Great Wall of China did little to defend against the Huns who never ceased probing for gaps, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Nor did it offer protection against the Manchus who simply bribed their way through a major gateway. The seemingly insurmountable wall built in the movie World War Z to keep the world on the other side did little to protect civilization in the end.

Still, we continue to imagine that walls will protect us against most any threat. Many think a wall will protect them from the imagined threat of illegal immigration. Many think the walls of their gated community will protect them from the increasingly impoverished masses. Many think flood walls will protect their cities from the inexorable tides of rising oceans. Clearly they are all tragically mistaken. If Mexicans really wished to find ways into America, a wall would prove to be little more than an inconvenience. A gated community is not a self-contained biosphere and the poverty of the surrounding world will still have deadly impact on those barricaded within. And if we have not taken action to halt greenhouse gas emissions before the oceans rise to claim our coastal cities, our seawalls will prove to be no more than pathetic proof of our folly.

It is similar folly to imagine that our great Wall of Separation of Church and State truly protects secular society from the relentless incursions of religion. For every religious initiative it blocks, many more get through. This Wall, like any physical wall, cannot endure continual attacks without continual vigilance. And the reality is that its defenders are few and they get tired and need to rest while their attackers are endless and inexhaustible. If we naively hope to limit the harmful impact of religious delusion, to contain it harmlessly segregated outside the Wall, we are doomed to either suffer the slow death of a thousand religious slings and arrows or fall beneath an eventual catastrophic collapse.

This is not to say the Wall is not important. It is vitally important. But it is only a seat-belt that can limit injury but cannot address fundamental car safety. It is a pair of safety goggles that helps minimize some accidents but cannot hope to protect against unsafe lab practices. The Wall can shield us somewhat but if we rely solely upon it for our protection and safety, we cannot long survive.

Yet far too many secular leaders see protecting the Wall as a sufficient end goal of secularism. Even worse, they argue that it is not our place to dictate what goes on beyond that Wall. They imagine that as long as we have the Wall, secular and religious folk can coexist happily, separate but equal, on their respective sides.

This is folly. It is folly not only because religious people will never cease their efforts to breach the Wall – though they certainly will not. But moreover as long as we condone their ideas by giving them undue respect, as long as we give mass delusions any credibility or any benefit of any doubt, the believers conclude that their beliefs have as much legitimacy as our conclusions and they will understandably never be satisfied with anything less than a decisive voice in public policy decisions.

Consider the inevitable result of halting our secular outreach at the Wall. Religious people then have the relatively unchallenged freedom to exercise their delusions on their side. On their side they will continue to educate their children to believe fairy tales. They will continue to preach to the faithful to ignore science and reason. Some will continue to incite religious radicalism. These believers can then reach right through our mighty Wall at any time with their vote and their representatives are duty-bound to represent their religious views in public policy.

The only way to ensure a sane and stable society is to eliminate the need for any Wall. And the only way to do that is to evangelize science and fact-based thinking and stop showing undeserved respect or deference for religious or new age thinking. If we do that, if we venture outside the Wall and fight for a society where science and reason are taught to all and respected by all, religion simply fades away on its own. If we do not, if we trust in our Wall to protect our secular way of life and let religious thinking fester and grow, then we cower inside the false security of a death-trap.

It is naïve, even cravenly irresponsible, to set merely protecting the Wall as the boundary of our legitimate self-interest as a secular nation. No beliefs are benign and no beliefs are without wider consequences. They are all infections that compromise the rational capacity of the greater society. We must take the fight of reason and rationality directly to religious people. If we do not eventually eliminate the magical thinking that makes us require a Wall, and probably quite soon, then we will one day look around to find that it has been trampled to rubble under the march of believers.

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The Damage Done by Dawkins

I am really, really frustrated by the spineless unwillingness of my fellow atheists to just say simply, clearly, and without qualification that god does not exist. Period. End of story. Not worth debating. Drop the mic.

Instead, most are agnostic atheists who have followed the misguided lead of Richard Dawkins. Like him, they feel incessantly compelled to show how reasonable they are by pointing out that “of course scientists cannot say for certain that god does not exist” or “we can only say that god probably does not exist.” Even rabid, angry atheist “firebrand” David Silverman appends his comments with the same expected declaration of reasonableness.

The British Humanist Association did a now famous series of bus ads which said “there’s probably no god” (see here). Organizer Ariane Sherine defended the use of the word “probably” by invoking Dawkins:

There’s another reason I’m keen on the “probably”: it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there’s no scientific evidence at all for God’s existence, it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist (or that anything doesn’t). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying “there’s no God” is taking a “faith” position. He writes: “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”.

I do understand some of the motivations behind this. First and foremost we atheists over-compensate out of fear of being called dogmatic. And we are cowered into sissy-talk to avoid the criticism that we too rely upon faith in the end. Finally, we are buffaloed into believing that a good scientist must be “open-minded” (agnostic) about everything.

Look, whenever you need to judge the reasonableness of any statement regarding god, just substitute “Easter Bunny.” It is neither dogmatic nor an expression of faith to state with absolute certainty that the Easter Bunny does not exist. You are not a bad scientist if you dismiss the Easter Bunny hypothesis out of hand. Quite the opposite, a good scientist is not a gullible scientist and good science does not require the suspension of rational thinking. A good scientist does in fact reject fundamentally implausible propositions out of hand. A good scientist does not acknowledge any possibility that perpetual motion machines might exist or that one might be able to chemically change lead into gold or that god might exist.

Although Dawkins has done a huge amount of good, this is one place where his tremendous influence has greatly undermined the cause not only of atheists but of rational thought. It does not show reasonableness to entertain unreasonable ideas and it is not enlightened to give any measure of credulity to absurd propositions.

This idea that “we cannot know anything with absolute certainty” may make for a stimulating discussion in a Philosophy 101 class, but science is built upon the foundational bedrock that we can indeed know the cosmos with certainty. Might we actually be hooked up to The Matrix being fed a simulated reality while we lie in suspended animation in a huge alien complex? Maybe, and that’s actually more plausible than granting any shred of doubt as to whether god exists. But we do not feel coerced into acknowledging that the idea we are all sleeping in The Matrix is a real possibility. Maybe when The Matrix becomes our next religious mass delusion, Richard Dawkins will feel compelled to point out that he cannot be certain it is not true.

Many argue that expressing this uncertainty is merely intellectual honesty. However it is not insignificant that no one goes to such great lengths to append this caveat to other absurd propositions. I have never heard anyone take pains to point out that “of course we cannot be certain that suicide bombers will not be greeted by 77 virgins.” We apply this only to our own Christian god proposition. And that is because this is not a principled expression of general intellectual integrity. This is a matter of showing a particular undeserved deference to our own preferred delusion. Our exceptional application of this disclaimer gives it disproportionate weight and distinction.

This is not just an academic nitpick. Repeating the meaningless truism that we cannot know anything with certainty in the context of our belief in god is highly counterproductive. When you say it, most listeners only hear “even you atheists have doubt,” and “even Richard Dawkins acknowledges that we cannot know for sure that god does not exist,” and “even David Silverman admits that we could be right.” Christians turn this language back against us with great success. Most believers or even impressionable fence-sitters are not impressed by Richard Dawkins philosophical honesty. They’re more like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber with Richard Dawkins playing the role of Mary Swanson.

chanceLloyd Christmas: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me? One in a thousand?
Mary Swanson: Um, more like one in a million.
Lloyd Christmas: “So you’re telling there’s a chance then! YAAAY!!”

Mary should have simply said “no chance whatsoever – not gonna happen!” So come on atheists, stop being namby-pamby agnostics already. We can say with absolute certainty that pigs cannot fly and we can say with equal certainty that god does not exist. We can say this because there has never been any evidentiary proof of god when we should expect to see some, and there is no logical inference anyone can make based upon what we do observe to suggest he might exist in the way we might postulate a form of life on a distant planet or an evolutionary descendent in our far future.

I am an Absolute Atheist and proud of it. Does that make me arrogant? Well if it is arrogant to claim certainty that the Easter Bunny does not exist, call me arrogant. The day any legitimate evidence of an Easter Bunny is credibly reported, I’ll change my mind. Wait, I take that back. Even that qualification imparts way too much undeserved legitimacy to the beliefs of the Church of the Holy Easter Bunny.

The Language of Reason

reasonWe routinely use a large number of very similar words when we talk about thinking: rational, rationale, rationality, irrational, rationalize, rationalization, reason, reasonable, and even superrational. We all kinda-sorta mostly generally understand the nuanced differences between these words, but since they are so very important and so often confused, it may be helpful to put them all on the table where we can clearly compare and contrast them.

Rational describes thinking that is based upon true facts and sound logic. This is the good kind of thinking. It requires that the thinker is unbiased, fact-based, sane, logical, and as objectively correct as one can be given the best information available. Note that the threshold here is quite high. It is not enough to merely follow “my own logic” to reach a conclusion, but that one follow independently valid logic and adhere to independently validated facts. One cannot merely feel they are being rational; they must in fact be objectively, measurably, demonstrably rational. A certifiably crazy person may be absolutely convinced they are perfectly rational in concluding that aliens are beaming signals into their brain, but that does not make them so.

Rational thinking implies that one meets all these requirements in a particular line of thought. A rational thinker is one who generally employs rational thinking. Often this term implies that one consciously values rational thinking as well. Although religious thinkers insist upon being shown respect as rational thinkers, it is difficult to see how their claims in any way reach the threshold of rational thinking. They seek to dilute and diminish the term so that it applies to them.

The term rationality is generally used in the context of questioning one’s rationality. That is, when we wish to make an assessment of a person’s capacity to be rational, either generally or at a given time.

Superrational is a term coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter to describe a cooperative group behavior in game theory. However like many scientific concepts it has been incorrectly hijacked by New Age types. They invoke it to suggest that there is some intuitive mode of thought that transcends normal rational thinking – which they then invoke to justify any magical thinking they wish. They might say, for example, I believe in psychic powers because I’m a superrational thinker.

The word reason is trickier. In its basic form it is inherently neutral with regard to truth or rationality. It simply describes the cause, explanation, or justification one uses to explain their conclusion or action. But we also use it more generally to describe our rational capacity. It is in this sense that it is used for example in the “Reason Rally.” It sounds better there than would the “Rationality Rally.” The word reason also has the benefit of invoking feelings of reasonable or reasonableness.

However the connection between reason and reasonable is also a problem. Reason shares the fairly high bar with rational. But to be reasonable only requires that one be fair, moderate, and sensible. That’s why the word reason is a dangerous one to substitute for rational. Using reason as a synonym for rational can lower the bar for rationality in the minds of many people who might like to claim that their “reasonable” beliefs are rational conclusions because they are reasonable. Reasonable people can agree to disagree. Rational people cannot disagree for very long.

And that is a great segue into the biggest source of confusion amongst these terms. Just as the word reasonable dilutes the word reason, the word rationalization dilutes the word rational. Even worse, it totally reverses it!

Although it seems like they should be different forms of the same word, rationalize is almost the complete opposite of rational. To rationalize is to contrive some rationale, some apparent logic, to make the illogical appear perfectly rational. It is to “rationalize away” facts, logic, and reason. It is the process of deluding one’s self into thinking that some possibly preposterous idea is sound and credible regardless of the facts of the matter. We rationally reach scientific conclusions, but we rationalize our religious beliefs to convince ourselves that we are rational thinkers. These are not remotely equivalent.

This is insidious because once we have rationalized something, it then seems completely rational to us. Once rationalized, we become certain that our thinking is perfectly sound and reasonable. And we have evolved to be incredibly good at rationalizing. From the evolutionary perspective it was evidently far more important that we feel certainty in the face of ambiguity or the unknown; that we reach harmonious consensus in a delusion, than that we know the real facts of the world. There is also evidence that belief served a benefit of requiring less energy consumption as well (see here). But belief is no longer a beneficial or even harmless adaptation in our modern world.

Despite the fact that it no longer serves us well, we as a species remain incredibly good at rationalizing. Clinically delusional people are often completely certain that their delusions are perfectly rational. But this isn’t just an affliction of the insane. Rationalization is our normal human brain function that we are all susceptible to. Once rationalized, we normally continue to believe any ridiculous belief without reevaluation. We don’t need to be beyond the threshold of insanity to hold some insane rationalizations.

The lesson then is to be very skeptical when anyone insists that their conclusions are rational – even when it is ourselves. Few of us can distinguish between our own truly rational positions and completely rationalized ones. Fortunately science gives us methods to help us assess whether our conclusions are fact-based and soundly logical.

Likewise, we don’t need to train our young thinkers to rationalize problems, as they are innately quite adept at that already. Education in debate, law, marketing, sales, religion and many other fields mostly enhance our innate ability to create any argument that convinces others – to rationalize. We need far more training in science and skeptical thinking so that we can  better judge whether the rationalizations that impact our lives are truly rational.

Not Buying It Hunters

You’ve got to hand it to them. Hunters are doing a really good job of marketing their passion for animal slaughter. Despite the number of hunters inexorably dwindling, despite the public relations debacle of Cecil the Lion, the general public opinion of hunting continues to improve year after year (see here).

This positive public impression is carefully crafted by companies like Danner boots (see here), who caters to gun-loving hunters, law-enforcement, and military types. They have been airing a pretentious series of commercials celebrating hunting. These commercials are reminiscent of those older Marine Corps recruiting commercials. It portrays hunters as the few, the proud and noble protectors of nature. According to the narrator speaking softly over slow-motion shots of hunters in the backdrop of gorgeous nature scenes:

“There’s not enough wilderness left, not on this Earth, nor in the hearts of man, so we hunt. To stand face to face with nature and hold it for as long as it’s allowed. We hunt for balance, for strength, and for a hope that the outdoors will thrive for years to come. Hunting is more than a sport, it’s a calling.”

That’s good marketing bullshit. And the hunting industry is playing a good game on offense too. If you search Google, you’ll find article after article attacking the critics of hunting. They all tout the reasonableness of “science-based” hunting, as if hunters are all thoughtful servants of the planet, out there in the wilderness tirelessly protecting the animals they love – by killing them. Their claim of “science-based” hunting is about as valid as claims of “theological science.” According to Jon Way at Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research (see here):

“State wildlife departments often say they use “science-based management” … their technical way of saying, we want hunters (a small minority of the population) to kill as many animals as possible and as long as they don’t go extinct … then it is science-based.”

hunterPro-hunting organizations have jumped all over this science-based™ claim to portray themselves as the informed, pragmatic, responsible parties. These organizations are highly visible and prolific at spreading all sorts of reasonable sounding arguments to rationalize selling equipment to pander to guys – and increasingly girls (see here) – who love to kill stuff. For example, in an article on Hunting Life, hunter Catherine Semcer makes the following arguments in support of trophy hunting (see here):

  1. Trophy hunting provides fresh meat to local people, improving the lives of children.
  2. Habitat loss is the REAL problem.
  3. Trophy hunting reduces illegal poaching.
  4. Those against hunting just want a “bumper sticker” on their Volvo while Africans suffer.
  5. Africans want trophy hunting, it’s not for people living in New York and San Francisco to decide for them.

Of course these are ridiculous arguments. They are all self-fulfilling partial truths, deflections, and red-herrings that pose false choices. The real truth of the matter is that hunters simply love guns and love shooting stuff with their guns – big living stuff. And the industry that supports them loves making money. As Bill Bryson documents in “A Short History of Everything,” so-called “naturalists” just like them have reveled in shooting animals to extinction for much of the last 200 years. Today’s generation of hunters is no more scientific and nature-loving than the self-proclaimed “naturalists” of the 1800’s who gleefully shot the dodo, the sea cow, and innumerable bird and animal species into oblivion.

Some of you may remember the notable TV series called “Wiseguy” that aired in 1987 (see here). FBI agent Vinnie Terranova goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of mob-boss Sonny Steelgrave. When Sonny is finally brought down, he rages with righteous indignation that the government is the real bad guys. They do far more harm than him. That without him much worse mobsters would have taken over. That he in fact actually helped many people by getting his hands bloody and doing what needed to be done.

Sonny’s rationalizations sound a great deal like the usual arguments put forth by hunters like Catherine Semcer to justify and legitimize what they do.

Not Buying It Sonny. You may want to believe you were a benevolent father figure, but in reality you were just a self-serving thug.

Not Buying It Hunters. You may want to believe you are misunderstood defenders of the environment, lovers of wildlife, but you are just pathetic losers who wanna kill stuff.

By the way, I grew up in a large extended family of hunters.

The Accidental God

Copyright © 2009 by Tyson Gill

It’s amazing what a modestly industrious fellow can accomplish with a couple hundred thousand years to blow.

Aaron, Hugo, and I were making a routine freight run to our colony on RJ94b. It was a 7 year sleeper haul that didn’t require much effort on our parts; in fact I guess you could say we were more freight than crew. Aaron and Hugo were traveling to take postings on RJ94b, while I was planning to catch a hop to RJ23e to join the terraforming team there as the Principal Scientist in charge.

Just over 4 Earth years in, the onboard computer tripped the alarms, breaking our hiber. It seemed kind of cruel to wake us up as by that point there was little we could do except appreciate how fucked we were. Some uncharted anomaly had thrown us far off course and the onboard navigation computers couldn’t compensate. We woke to find ourselves hopelessly marooned in a region of space that defied identification. Without determining our location, there was simply no possibility of laying a course back.

We adjusted to our grim situation with surprising calm. No pathetic sobbing, no bemoaning rants, no desperate prayers. We had all known that 6.8% of interstellar shuttles were lost in transit. For sleeper barges like ours, the risk rose to 8.2%. There was still a lot we didn’t know about space and travel was still a crapshoot. The odds had simply caught up with us.

Survival protocols gave us only one option; one that we all knew was little more than a bit of welcome false hope. So we put the navigation computers into search mode and went back to sleep, knowing full-well that the odds of us ever again waking were minuscule.


We were astonished and unwillingly hopeful after being awakened for a second time. That groggy, giddy, euphoria only lasted long enough for us to learn the sobering truth that we had not miraculously arrived at an Earth colony. Instead, a full 26 Earth years has passed and we still had not fixed our bearings.

But ahead, not yet more than a missing pixel in the halo of a nearby star, sat a planet that electromagnetic scans showed to be Earthlike. Scientific curiosity immediately overcame our despair. What a find! What scientist wouldn’t happily give his life to be the first to explore such a world?

After weeks of careful preparation, and a frenzied review of landing procedures that were never intended to be executed, we managed to set down on a hilltop near a large body of surface water at temperate latitude. Of course the huge lumbering freighter could never move again, but dying on an uncharted planet, under a distant sun, was still far preferable to a cold, eternal sleep in dark and endless space.

We spent two days gradually throttling the engine down to a half-percent, but still capable of providing all the power we could use. The elegantly simple fusion cell had no moving parts and could operate indefinitely in idle mode, so we certainly had no worries about power. Next we spent several days reviewing the manifests and cataloguing our supplies. We had access to a hundred thousand tons of machinery and supplies designed to provide a full colony with all the materials needed to remain self-sufficient, so clearly we would want for nothing for the rest of our lives – except humanity.

Only after we had exhausted all our preparations, and repeated and rechecked them several times, did our curiosity overcome our fear enough to venture outside the ship for the first time. As we slid the small access hatch in and to the side, sunlight tinged with the slightest hint of tangerine washed over us. It was followed by a wave of cool, delicately scented air that reminded one of pine trees drenched in spring rain.

Hugo was the first to die.

We had ventured quite a distance from the ship, exploring and cataloguing the myriad of, well everything. Imagine stepping into a world where absolutely everything is brand new. Intricate new landforms shaped by processes of erosion never experienced on Earth, vegetation that had remarkable consistency of form and shape, but at the same time unlike anything back home, and diverse creatures that defied any Earthly phyla classifications.

alien-planet

Despite the strangeness of the environment, one should not overstate the differences. Perhaps far more remarkable were the similarities with Earth.  Our feet trod upon rock and soil, laden with minerals that were quite recognizable. Our arms pushed through photosynthetic fibers that were essentially grasses, shrubs, and trees. Our eyes caught glimpses of creatures that crawled, burrowed, leapt, and flew. We quickly felt quite naturally at home on this distant planet, unknown light-years from our own.

Any why should we not feel at home? We are creatures of the universe after all. Our attachment to our one little planet is merely emotional. All throughout the universe our same familiar chemistry and physics apply equally. It should come as no surprise that on many planets of similar size and distance from their sun, the same weather patterns would emerge, similar life would evolve, and those forms of life would diversify to fill all the same environmental niches; that some would photosynthesize sunlight and others would consume them.

It was perhaps because of our newfound feeling of familiarity and comfort that Hugo perished.

The tangerine sun was directly overhead, so we had spent about half of the long 37 hour day exploring around the edge of a massive swamp. We were all a bit groggy because our circadian rhythms were still stubbornly insistent upon a 24 hour day. Hugo was in the lead, as he was wont to do, barely able to bridle his energy and enthusiasm. We always seemed to be holding him up wherever we hiked.

Aaron and I looked up casually and halted. Hugo was simply gone. We stood still for the longest while, listening and looking for a sign of him, waiting for him to find us. But there was only the faint buzz and whistling of swamp insects that betrayed nothing.

Slowly, carefully, cautiously, we eventually ventured forth to find some sign of him. Suddenly Aaron stopped, wavering as if on the edge of a cliff. With a growing sickness, we pulled away the web-like vegetation that had grown over a deep fissure, stretching across the top like a net. With each tear, with each clump that dropped into the hole, sunlight streamed down to illuminate more of the bottom.

With one last rip, sunlight spotlighted the body of Hugo twisted into a tangle at the bottom of the pit. We called down futilely, even pelted him with pebbles, but he never even twitched.


The loss of Hugo left us stunned for many months (although clinging to our Earthly notion of months in our moonless environment was purely force of habit). It wasn’t just that we lost a friend and companion, but that we had lost a staggering 1/3 of our total population in an instant. It was the realization that no one would follow us. We were all there was and all there ever would be of human life on this planet, and now there was only us two.

The months drifted into years until eventually we banished all timekeeping devices into the deepest bowels of the freighter. We really didn’t want to know how much time was passing us by – it only filled us with despair to be reminded.

We went through indeterminately long periods where we never spoke. We had long since shared every possible idea we could say to each other. Every spoken thought was a tiresome repetition of what we had heard the other say a thousand times before. Each word was another excruciating drop in some fiendish water torture.

So we mechanically passed our days like mindless automations. Thinking only made us miserable. It became difficult to recognize even whether our behavior was sane. We had no social queues except from each other and we both quit caring what the other did long ago.

This total apathy made it all the more peculiar when Aaron sat down next to me one day and asked a question that was most startling in the fact that it was never brought up before.

“Do I look any older to you?” he asked quizzically.

“What?” I asked remotely, lost in my blissful thoughtlessness.

“Under your beard, you don’t look a day older than the day we landed,” he remarked. “Do I look any older to you?”

“Why should you?” I asked in return.

“How long do you think we’ve been here?” he answered with yet another question, seeming to change the subject randomly.

“I don’t want to know,” I told him dismissively.

“It’s been 73 years Earth time,” he stated flatly.

I don’t know how long it took me to assimilate that, or how long it took me to finally respond. When one has nothing but time, even answering questions doesn’t seem very urgent.

“Impossible,” I said eventually.

“I checked,” Aaron assured me. “It has been 73 years, 5 months, and 12 days.”

My inner scientist took over, my mind raced. It was faced with a contradictory set of observations that could not be reconciled without further facts.

“We have to check Hugo’s body,” I said flatly.

Aaron rose and followed me to where we had buried Hugo. Using our hands, we dug up the shallow grave and brushed away the dirt to reveal the corpse of our long-dead shipmate.

We gasped in shock.

The reason for our amazement was exactly the opposite of what one would fear beholding. His body was nearly perfect. It was like a wrinkled, deflated prune due to loss of moisture, but there was no decomposition. There was no mold, no sign that insects or worms had ever defiled the remains.

We sat back and just stared at the remarkable corpse.

“Have you ever been bitten by an insect here?” I eventually asked Aaron. “Even been bothered by one?”

“Have you had any kind of cold or flu since we landed?” he asked, not expecting any answer.


So another false assumption about alien planets was debunked. It was always thought that since humans would have evolved no resistance to alien bacteria, they would decimate any human exposed to them. It turned out to be quite the opposite for us. In our case, this alien world had evolved nothing to endanger us humans. Bacteria, viruses, insects; none of them even seemed to recognize us as living things. It appeared we were immune to any kind of infection this planet had to offer.

As to our apparent lack of aging, Aaron formed some hypotheses about that. He pointed out studies that had demonstrated that aging is largely a designed-in process that can be dramatically slowed or accelerated in response to environmental stresses. Apparently the conditions on this planet, or more precisely the lack of the factors that stimulate our aging chemistry, had essentially halted those processes.

More decades passed and the boredom increased to an almost unbearable level. We tried to remain actively engaged in farming, mechanics, music and art, yoga and meditation, and even many more esoteric pursuits. But it was a never-ending struggle just to come up with any reason to continue living.

Eventually Aaron walked casually out of the ship. Hanging at the end of his arm was a ceramic pistol. There were many such weapons crated in the hold, long given up for lost by their buyers. Occasionally we had taken them out for some recreational target shooting.

But Aaron was not planning any target shooting that day.

“Goodbye James,” he said pleasantly, pausing to give me a sincere and resolved smile before he turned to stroll into the brush. He seemed perfectly sane and lucid.

I could not find it in my heart to stop him. That would only be cruel. Who was I to selfishly insist that he remain alive only to keep me company?

Moments later, the sharp pffft of the air gun resounded across the otherwise quiet valley. The insects momentarily became silent and somewhere in the distance a flock of winged creatures took to flight.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend to Aaron’s body immediately. It would keep.


I really don’t know how much time passed before they arrived. My old notions of time ceased to have any meaning for me. Perhaps my brain had physically adapted to perceive time differently just as I had long since adapted to the 37 hour daily cycle.

Whenever it was, I sensed them approaching my valley long before they arrived. I felt their ripples. Over the uncounted years I had become intimately attuned to all the life in my valley. Every plant, every creature was my family. I watched each generation born and pass on. I knew them all as individuals, helped them. My family warned me of their coming.

Each year the creatures pressed further into my territory. I observed them carefully, first through a telescope and then through binoculars as their annual advancement brought them ever closer.

They were obviously social animals, curious like small mammals. Their family groups bonded together into a greater community. Young ones frolicked playfully but stayed protectively near their parents. Evidently the land they came from held predators which they feared.

The creatures were smooth-skinned and incredibly lithe. Dissection of some recent remains showed that their internal skeleton was composed of something as strong as bone but also extremely flexible. They made peculiar chittering noises that indicated rudimentary vocal communication. I spent my days watching them and learning their ways.

One year I finally decided to approach. They already felt like my own family, a part of my valley. My memories of Earth, even of Hugo and Aaron, were only dim and vague recollections. I recalled that I had once been to a place called Earth. I <thought> it was real, but could no longer be sure if I had perhaps only imagined it.

But the little creatures weren’t elusive memories. They were real and I yearned for them to know me as I knew them.

So each day I approached right up to the edge of their awareness, until they looked my way and chittered anxiously, and there I waited until nightfall. Sometimes I did the same at night. And each week the distance between us contracted ever so slightly.

They little creatures gave me a sense of purpose, of community, that I had never found on this world.


I don’t believe it ever actually occurred to me to play God. I never contrived to alter the normal course of evolution. It was only in my mind to help along the little creatures that I become so fond of.

It started by simply protecting them. Using the pneumatic rifles from the ship, I methodically exterminated the predators nipping at their heels and any new threats that wandered into the vicinity.

Without that pressure to migrate, they seemed content to remain in my valley. I learned their rudimentary language and ever so slowly expanded it, giving preferential care to those with the greatest aptitude.

My efforts paid off well, and each new generation was noticeably more adept with language than the one before. Eventually I began to introduce them to abstract concepts through language.

I gradually taught them how to clean their day to day wounds and how to use local plants to fight infections. Most learned quickly and those that did not learn tended not to survive as long.

Ever so slowly I managed to teach them to cultivate the insect population that they fed upon in a sustainable manner. I taught them to manage their waste and maintain their environment.

Over many, many generations I taught them to make fire and tools and to use them to char their insects so they stored indefinitely. I showed them how to cook the insects along with various plants into soups and porridges that provided better nutrition. Those that learned raised more thriving offspring.

But beyond that, I modeled social skills from the earliest days, starting with a simple demonstration of cooperation in picking parasites off their skin. Little by little, some started to teach those social behaviors to their young.

And yes, there were always some bad actors who displayed antisocial tendencies. I hated to do it, but I had to breed those behaviors out for the good of the community. Typically those individuals would just fall mysteriously dead shortly after their behaviors became evident, creating a helpful superstition that antisocial behavior caused their death…. and in fact it did.


I stepped feebly out of the ship to regard my valley under the moonless sky. My back ached from bending over my labors. I had been hard at work documenting all the technology aboard the ship in a way that my people would understand one day.

The exhausting effort left me feeling like a man of perhaps 80 or more years. It turned out I wasn’t truly immortal after all. I merely aged very, very well.

The delicate tangerine lights dotting the valley below mirrored the myriad of stars above like a clear mountain lake. It brought me great satisfaction to know that my people finally comprehended what the stars are and drew wonder from them as I did, facing  their lighting softly downward to respect grandeur of that panorama.

Some long dead nuclear engineers would have been gratified to know that after so very many years of continuous operation, their fusion cell still hummed along, despite now being powered up to 8% to supply clean energy to the growing population. Over the centuries I had to void the warranty many times over by performing unauthorized maintenance, but fortunately there were ample stores of spare parts, in fact enough to keep the generator running for another few thousand years with the aid of a bit of ingenuity and generous portion of luck.

The fusion core was buried deep within the cavernous ship, which itself was now buried under the mountain of rock forming a great pyramid that overlooked the sprawling city that lay before it. Future archaeologists might conclude that I ordered its construction to satisfy some insatiable egotism, or out of some primitive fear of the afterlife. The truth is that I ordered the century long project as a way to instill an ethic of work and pride in cooperative craftsmanship. It also served the practical function of protecting the precious space vessel and all its precious cargo from natural disasters for use by posterity.

Three million of my adopted children now live in ecologically sound habitats throughout the valleys, and more settlements swell in population all around the globe. Each year throngs leave their workplaces and schools to come to pay homage at my pyramid. I had long since given up trying to assure them that I am not their god, not their almighty father, as my protests only convince them of the contrary.

Although it was never my intent, in the end I am responsible for the selective breeding of an entire civilization of creatures that worship me. But that won’t last much longer. There are far too many for me to manage now. Already I can feel them growing into their own. Soon they won’t need me anymore. They won’t even want me around any longer. Perhaps they will rise up and kill me, to finally rip their cord from the womb of their accidental god.

On that day my work will be done.

Find Your Cause

Why do some people become activists?

Some become activists because they have a natural passion, a deep sense of empathy for the tragedy or injustice felt by others. Jane Goodall is one such example. Her empathy focused on the animals that she fought for throughout her life.

Others become activists after they are personally struck by tragedy or injustice. John Walsh became an activist after his son was kidnapped and murdered. In response to that life-changing event he dedicated himself to hunting down criminals and saving kidnapped children.

John was transformed into an activist, Jane simply was an activist.

Regardless of how you get there, it is admirable to have at least one cause greater then your own immediate self-interest that you are passionate about. It is not only good for society, not only good for the planet, not only good for future generations, but it is good for yourself as well.

But most of us are not naturally passionate activists like Jane Goodall. And thankfully most of us are never transformed by tragedy into activists as was John Walsh. Most of us don’t have a burning passion and most of us don’t become active in causes until and unless we’re personally affected by them.

Sure, I guess I should care more about starving kids in Africa, but frankly I don’t know any of them personally so it’s hard to get too worked up. We’re apathetic about gay rights until our own child comes out. We don’t think much about cancer until our spouse is stricken. We don’t fight to get guns off the street until our child dies to gun violence. We don’t typically offer anything beyond the mildest philosophical support for the heartfelt passionate causes of others, little more than token responses to their pleas for help and support – unless and until we’re personally affected.

You can still find transformed activists out there working hard for every possible cause. It sometimes seems difficult to accept their impassioned urging that we should care, when they never cared until it personally affected them. Sometimes we even wonder, what kind of person are they that they only became concerned about a problem after it affected them or someone they love personally? Was it not a problem before it impacted them? Did they not pretty much ignore the pleas of those affected before they were personally impacted?

activismThe practical reality is that there are way too many important and worthy causes for us to become deeply, emotionally, actively involved in every one. But surely you have room in your life and in your heart for just one. It would be nice, would it not, to choose a cause, any cause, that you really care about, rather than maybe someday simply adopting a cause only because you have been personally stabbed through the heart by it?

There are so many worthy causes that deserve your help before you personally suffer from their effects; quiet causes and loud causes, modest causes and epic causes, surely there is a cause that matches your interests, abilities, and personal style.

Find your cause before it finds you.