Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Go Bite a Stick

[posted by Callimachus]

Well, this is depressing, isn't it?:

Place a rat in a cage with an electrified floor and subject it to repeated shocks. Not surprisingly, the poor animal will show many signs of stress, at first flinging itself against the walls with each shock. But after a while, it just sits there apathetically, showing no inclination to escape from its painful prison. When autopsied, the animal will be found to have oversized adrenal glands and, frequently, stomach ulcers, both indicating serious stress.

Now repeat the experiment, but with a wooden stick in the cage alongside the rat. When shocked, the rat chews on the stick, and as a result, it can endure its experience much longer without burnout. Moreover, at autopsy, its adrenal glands are smaller, stomach ulcers fewer. The rat buffered itself against the stress merely by chewing on the stick, even though doing so does nothing to get it out of its predicament.

Finally, put two rats in the electrified cage. Shock them both. They snarl and fight. Do it again, and keep doing it; they keep fighting. Yet at autopsy, their adrenal glands are normal, and, moreover, even though they have experienced numerous shocks, they have no ulcers. When animals respond to stress and pain by redirecting their aggression outside themselves, whether biting a stick or, better yet, another individual, it appears that they are protecting themselves from stress. By passing their pain along, such animals minister to their own needs. Although a far cry from being ethically "good," it is definitely "natural."

I wonder what happens to the adrenal glands of scientists who conduct such experiments?

From an article with enough irritable assurances to make everyone want to chew on a stick.

Meanwhile, rigorously secular scientists edge toward identifying religious commitment as a brain disorder:

Do extremism and an unconditional adherence to religious dogma result from a failure of a portion of the frontal lobe to fully develop or, if fully developed, to activate? Studies suggest that faithful adherence to a single reasoning strategy on tests such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test means that parts of the frontal lobes are inactive, have failed to fully develop, or have even been damaged. Thus, unqualified disdain for divergent beliefs,for personal interpretation, and for creative theories like Darwin’s theory of evolution, may indeed have, at least a partial, biological explanation: a reduced utilization of that section of the brain which has played such a vital role in humanity’s creative advances—the frontal lobes. By unconditionally obeying religious tenets—or any dogma—some people may be relying on the phylo-genetically older, more posterior portions of the brain that store knowledge and enable consistent or stable behaviors and, unknowingly, circumventing the portion which has been gifted to humans alone through evolution.

But then what do you say about the science-based, secular, yet highly fundamentalist religion of environmentalism?

The appeal of eco-spirituality to so many different religions is a testimony to the powerful influence that environmentalism exercises over contemporary culture. At a time when traditional institutions find it difficult to connect with popular concerns, environmentalism is still able to transmit ideas about human responsibility through appealing to a sense of right and wrong. That is why the authors of children’s books and school officials also use environmentalism as a vehicle for socialising youngsters.

However, eco-spirituality cannot really compensate for the loss of traditional moral authority. Indeed the very embrace of the environmentalist agenda can only accelerate the decline of institutions that cannot give meaning to the religious doctrines on which they were founded. The shift away from God towards nature inevitably leads to a world where the pronouncements of environmentalist experts trump those of the priesthood. It will be interesting to see what will remain of traditional religion as prophecy and revelation is displaced by computerised climate models.

Do we have themes here on this site? I suppose we do, but they're not officially sanctioned. Certainly one of mine would be the dangers secular people (and I'm one of them) unleash when they sweep away religions as old-fashioned and repressive and violent, without realizing that religions are like the rigs and pipes of an oil field. They are flawed, human constructions that channel what erupts naturally into ways that it can be contained and put to use -- for good or not. But without the containing elements, the spew and well keeps gorging out of the human psyche, and you can end up with worse things than churches.