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Our Lady of Cupertino

I have long maintained that the religious impulse is a core part of our evolutionary biology, because every human being I have ever known is religious about something.

Even—and especially—the unreligious, who will not realize they are in the throes of it because they may define religion as “believing in something for no reason at all”, rather than a rational faith that asks questions, observes data, records answers, and believes on the strength of the evidence that it has thus far.

Given that every known human civilization has objects of affection, inspiration and veneration, it is not surprising to see that religiosity extends into the secular realm and may even be actively cultivated by savvy marketing.

Just as the Genius Bar has proved to be genius, the now-classic Apple slogan “Think Different” also turns out to be more than just words: The brains of Apple fans really are different. When Martin Lindstrom, a brand consultant and author of Buyology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, examined those brains under a functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scanner, he discovered that Apple devotees are indistinguishable from those committed to Jesus. “Apple’s brand is so powerful that for some people it’s just like a true religion,” Lindstrom says.

Apple cultivates religious fervor among its adherents in a number of subtle ways, including its mysteriousness and its suggestion that customers are among the chosen ones. Perhaps most important, though, is Apple’s devotion to symbology. Its most effective marketing efforts, Lindstrom says, are built into the products themselves. Think of the iPod’s white earbuds, the Mac’s startup sound, or the unmistakable shape of the MacBook’s back panel. None of these choices were accidental. Apple understands the lasting power of sensory cues, and it goes out of its way to infuse everything it makes with memorable ideas that scream its brand.

— Manjoo, Farhad. “Invincible Apple: 10 Lessons From the Coolest Company Anywhere.” Fast Company, 1 July 2010.

It would be easy to go for the cheap laugh and say “See? It is a cult!” But I think the story reinforces a broader truth about human nature.

My sense is that asking humans to not indulge their religious nature is akin to asking sharks not to swim or eat seals. When people draw pleasure and inspiration from something—be it a relationship with the Creator of the universe or merely Apple Inc. of Cupertino—they will continue to seek out that experience and strengthen that bond.

One hopes that those who experience their religion as a purely secular phenomena can have some understanding of what draws believers back to churches and hymns week after week.

RELATED: The Atlantic Monthly‘s interesting piece on Apple as religion, detailing the company’s creation, hero, devil and resurrection narratives.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean

The planet we know today won’t be quite the same one our descendants inherit.

Africa is witnessing the birth of a new ocean, according to scientists at the Royal Society.

Geologists working in the remote Afar region of Ethiopia say the ocean will eventually split the African continent in two, though it will take about 10 million years…

In 2005, a 60km long stretch of the earth opened up to a width of eight metres over a period of just ten days.

— McGrath, Matt.  “Africa ‘witnessing birth of a new ocean’.” BBC News, 25 June 2010.

(Via Paul Jané, of the now-defunct All Agitprop, All the Time blog.)

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Studying religion with a degree of seriousness

Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and one of two Research Directors of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Dr. Tiger has spent four decades trying to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.  Most recently he has done the religious and irreligious a favour by examining humanity’s adherence to religion in the light of cognitive science, and treating it with a respect and seriousness of purpose that is usually lacking.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?

A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.

— Bethune, Brian.  “Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger.” Maclean’s, 4 March 2010.

I appreciate the doctor’s candour and lack of condescension.  Too many opponents assume that those with religious beliefs were raised into it, or are mentally deficient, and thus have no other framework for understanding the universe (i.e. those poor, ignorant religious dears).  I find that reductionist assumption more than a little simplistic.  As a child I was not raised in any such faith tradition and did not attend church regularly.  I had a general familiarity with the superficial aspects of Christmas and Easter (i.e. presents and chocolates), but we did not attend church on those holidays.

I came to my beliefs partially because of the good and humble example of religious neighbours, and a spur-of-the-moment decision (previously detailed in this space) to find out whether God was really out there.

The frequently-debated aspects of religion (whether the universe was formed according to a literal reading of Genesis, or not) I find a little tiresome.  It is like debating whether all vehicle operating manuals are worth reading because the specific instructions for a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom can not be applied with equal validity to a 2010 Aston Martin Vantage.  I do not read Genesis for its astronomy and biology any more than I would read the Guide Star Catalogue for its insights into human interpersonal relations.  It was not compiled for that purpose.

So it is with some relief that I find that a scholar takes the examination of religion (and not just one of them, either) with a high degree of seriousness.  My own perception is that every human is religious about something, whether or not they consciously understand it as a manifestation of that impulse.  There is always an instrument, activity or pursuit to which a person repeatedly devotes their focus, and draws from it a sense of enjoyment, fulfilment and renewed purpose.

Clearly, it is a phenomenon that the species finds useful, and we will continue to find it present wherever humans are.  Imagining this species without its religions is like imagining one without happiness or sadness or love.  Religiosity appears to have a significant physiological component, not merely a social one; we are not likely to evolve beyond it even in many millions of lifetimes.

UPDATE 220239Z MAR 10: I forgot to note that the interview was conducted as part of a book review; the book being God’s Brain, by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire.

Devil’s Pool

In The Devil’s Pool, originally uploaded by afric_photos.

There is a spot in the Victoria Falls (a.k.a. Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the Smoke that Thunders”) where the brave can test their courage against the slow but unyielding erosive power of the mighty Zambezi River.  In the months of September and December, when the river’s water levels are low, it is possible to swim in a natural pool—nicknamed the Devil’s Pool—located at the very edge of the 360-foot falls.  A natural rock wall slows the current in that spot and prevents swimmers from being swept over the precipice and into the gorge.  At other times of the year, of course, the rock wall is too far underwater for anyone to swim safely.

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Carl Akeley’s African expeditions, 1896-1927

Adventurer archetype Carl Akeley (1864-1926) was an exceedingly productive taxidermist, sculptor, explorer and inventor.  His interest in ornithology begat a need to preserve specimens, so young Akeley read up on the subject and taught himself the basics of taxidermy.  He subsequently landed a job with science education supplier Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, then further refined his craft in jobs with a series of increasingly prominent museums.

Hearing of his achievements the British Museum in London offered him a position, but on his way, he stopped in Chicago where he was enticed to join their Field Museum of Natural History instead. Winning Carl over by the promise of African travel, he led two major expeditions while in their employment, the first in 1896 and later in 1905.

— “Carl Akeley.”  Wild Film History.  Web.  17 February 2010.

Chicago’s Field Museum has posted 136 of Akeley’s hand-coloured slides and black-and-white photographs to Flickr, a selection of which I have excerpted below.  See their Africa Expeditions set for more.

View of trees, hills, grass. Lake Elementeita, Mau Escarpment, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Trees and scenes, mountain in background. Diorama accessory study. Voi, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

View on river shore with large canoe or boat, abandoned. Mombassa, British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Expedition camp, three tents with members inside. British East Africa, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Small child in front of tents, holding an unidentified object. British East Africa, c1906. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Young cheetah growling at camera, teeth bared. British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Young mammal, possibly Bovidae Oryx. British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Berbera at night. Berbera, Woqooyi Galbeed, British Somaliland, c1896. Flickr: originally uploaded by The Field Museum Library.

Akeley died during his fifth and final African expedition, and is buried in Albert (now Virunga) National Park.  He left behind an enormous and meticulously catalogued collection of specimens—his crowning achievement.  Today, three-quarters of a century after it was first opened to the public, that collection of 28 stunning dioramas continues to amaze visitors to the American Museum of Natural History.

In total, Carl launched five collecting trips to the African subcontinent, joining Theodore Roosevelt on his 1909 expedition while he was working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Filmed by Cherry Kearton for the feature, With Roosevelt in Africa (1910) it also provided many specimens still on display in the museum in a wing named in Carl’s honour – the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

— “Carl Akeley.”  Wild Film History.  Web.  17 February 2010.

Pick only one: A sound mind, or a sound body

Mr. David Meadows, author of Rogue Classicism, links to a fascinating if depressing post in Psychology Today‘s Adventures in Old Age blog.  Dr. Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D, compares the situation of Thaao, a long-lived captive Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) with that of elderly humans—also captive, in a way—requiring care in nursing homes.

Would you like to be 80 and be physically health with dementia, or with a sound mind in a ruined body?

Pick only one.

In my work, I get to ask questions from the Geriatric Depression Scale like, “Do you think that most people are better off than you are?”

The 80something, I asked this of said, “No, not most, particularly some of the other people around here, whose minds are totally destroyed,” the fairly common response from many who still have a mind that always reminds me of the first line of Ginsberg’s Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”-a line appropriate to the most garden variety of nursing homes.

I’ll call him Mr. Jones. He was a long-time, semi-prominent classicist who forsaking Herodotus–I told him I could barely finish the first book of The Histories, in English–now lies in bed when he’s not in his wheel chair, mostly watching TV. A Yankee fan, he’s happily waiting for the first spring training game only weeks away.

“If only I kind walk,” a refrain I’ve heard scores of times over the years, “my life would be so much better.”

But Jones, unlike some others or possibly me in the future, is making–pick your platitude–the best of a bad bargain and playing the hand fate dealt to him.

Jones told me that, like Thaoo, perhaps, he never expects to leave the nursing home.

“I recognize I can’t live on my own. My son says its an ordeal just to take me for a car ride. But my friends still visit.”

…Although he admitted, who wouldn’t? that he’d like the sound body as well as the sound mind, but he’ll settle for the mind.

— Rosofsky, Ira.  “World’s Oldest Condor Dies–In A Cage.” Psychology Today | Adventures in Old Age, 30 January 2010.

This is a subject very much on my mind as I have seen elders in my family age and become ever more dependent on nursing care.  They have all, almost without exception, suffered a mental decline more precipitous than that of their bodies.  While I am not related by blood (and thus have no concerns about heredity of these conditions) to all but one of the sufferers, it is nonetheless disconcerting to see such a transformation.  When a person’s body declines, you may at least maintain some semblance of conversation and inquire after their interests, needs, wants, news and current affairs, et cetera.  Managing their affairs is easy, they can tell you about the state of their health, their income and expenses, how they would prefer for things to be administered, and so on.

But when a mind declines, conversations can become circular or nonsensical.  The person has no ability to make small talk, they cannot impart useful information to their caretakers, or discuss how they want their medical, social and financial care administered.  Worse, the personality that you once knew fades into nonexistence, replaced by some new hybrid entity combining a few ghosts of memory with a childlike innocence of all that was once familiar.

Aging is a bit of a Morton’s Fork; everything tends to deteriorate, and whether it’s the mind or the body that goes, the results are rarely pleasing to those who must endure it.  Dr. Rosofsky notes further one that as we age into the senior years our autonomy decreases, and that in a nursing home “sometimes the only autonomy you have left is to say, ‘No,’ or ‘Go away.'”

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Antarctica’s first aeroplane

The Air-tractor, c1912 / photographed by Frank Hurley (State Library of NSW, Item No. ON 144/H475)

Freed from an icy grave after almost a century, parts of the first aircraft taken to Antarctica—also the very first aircraft produced by Britain’s Vickers factory—have been located in Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay.

Australian geologist Sir Douglas Mawson had planned to conduct an aerial survey as part of his 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, but the plan was scuttled when the aircraft’s wings were damaged in an October 1911 demonstration flight.  Mawson had no time to repair the aircraft prior to departure, so he ordered his electrical engineer/motor expert, Francis H. Bickerton, to remove the wings and convert it into an “air-tractor”—essentially a propeller-powered sled—to haul supplies.  After hauling gear across a plateau for sixteen kilometres, the engine could not cope with the extreme cold and quit.  The aircraft was eventually hauled back to the encampment and abandoned.  When Mawson returned to Australia, the engine was returned to Vickers in the UK to help pay down debts; the rest of the fuselage frame was left behind at Cape Denison, and was visible up to the mid-1970s when it was presumed to have been swallowed by the ice.

The aircraft was found on New Year’s Day by a team of Australians dedicated to preserving the site of Mawson’s first Antarctic encampment.

AN HISTORIC monoplane – a relic of Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-14 expedition – has been found in Antarctica thanks to freakish luck after a three-year search.

An Australian heritage carpenter stumbled on the remains of the craft – the first Vickers aircraft ever made – on New Year’s Day at Cape Denison.

The cast iron framework of the plane was revealed by an unusually low tide and reduced ice cover.

“It’s a remarkable find in remarkable circumstances,” chairman of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation David Jensen said.

“We began the search three summers ago and thought we might have a reasonable chance of finding it with all the equipment provided to us by sponsors.”

Nearly a century after it was abandoned by Mawson, the old Vickers was spotted sitting among rocks in a few centimetres of water during one of the lowest tides recorded at Commonwealth Bay.

“They would not have been found had the tide not been so low and the ice cover at Cape Denison at its lowest for several years – it was a fluke find,” Mr Jensen said in a statement.

— “Sir Douglas Mawson’s monoplane found.” Australian Associated Press / Adelaide Now, 3 January 2010. [Emphasis in original]

Mawson's Vickers REP monoplane No. 1, before the accident that ended her flying career.

The Vickers REP monoplane was designed in France by Robert Esnault-Pelterie (hence REP), but built by Vickers in Britain.

There is also a slight Canadian connection, since the Oxford-born engineer Bickerton made his home in Newfoundland during the Roating Twenties.  He is reported to have travelled between that colony and Britain quite frequently, easily shifting gears between the lifestyles of a New World outdoorsman and a fashionable London partygoer and man-about-town.

For more information on the finding of the aircraft—and the current state of the Mawson huts in general—the Expedition Blog of the Mawson’s Hut Foundation is probably the best source (especially these posts; 1, 2).

Images from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914)

The State Library of New South Wales has posted a collection of images taken by photographer Frank Hurley during Australia’s first tentative explorations of the planet’s ice-bound southern continent.

Students of polar history will know that Mr. Hurley and several other AAE members would go on to greater fame for their perseverance in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916); not to mention service in the Great War.

Wreck of the ‘Gratitude’, Macquarie Island, 1911, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Mushroom ice formation, 1912 / Frank Hurley, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

F. Bickerton looking out over seas near Commonwealth Bay, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Huskies pulling sledge, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Aurora traversing loose pack ice entering the Durville Sea, Dec. 1913, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Australian Antarctic Expedition members in the kitchen, 1911-1914, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Ice mask, C.T. Madigan, between 1911-1914 / photograph by Frank Hurley, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Mertz leaving the hut by the trapdoor on the verandah roof, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

Bage in the entrance to the Astronomic Observatory, Antarctica, 1911-1914 / Frank Hurley, originally uploaded by State Library of New South Wales collection.

See the entire Flickr set for more.