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Archive for the 'Science' Category

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Sacred Knowledge: Hopkins Playlist for Psilocybin Studies

Sacred Knowledge

“As consciousness is returning to ordinary awareness after intense experiences of a mystical, visionary, or psychodynamic nature, most any style of music can be explored with delight.”

Psychedelics and music have long been linked, but at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where William A. Richards conducts research, music plays an important part in ensuring the stability off entheogen study participants. In this excerpt from Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, Richards explains the role of music in his work. The excerpt is followed by the playlist Richards compiled.

Part of a new guide’s orientation at Johns Hopkins entails becoming familiar with the supportive music used in a particular research study and the rationale for its selection. We have learned that in high-dose sessions, especially during the onset and intense period of entheogen effects, the supportive structure of the music is more important than either the guide’s or the volunteer’s personal musical preferences. In states of ego transcendence, the everyday self as the perceiver of music may no longer exist, having entered into a unitive awareness that is claimed to be quite independent of whatever sonic frequencies are coming into the ears through the headphones or loudspeakers. As the ego approaches its dissolution and when it begins to be reconstituted, however, the nonverbal structure of the music may provide significant support. Thus, sensitivity to the therapeutic potential of carefully selected music may be an important factor in enhancing psychological safety.

One playlist that has been carefully developed through trial and error and has been found to work well with many different people over time is included at the end of this book. It includes a significant amount of classical music, symphonic and choral, as well as some Hindu chant, in the intense portions of the session and lighter selections near the return to everyday reality at the end of the day. We discovered in early research in the 1960s, notably with some alcoholics who had never appreciated classical music, that Brahms symphonies and similar works resonated deeply within them and proved highly effective in providing nonverbal structure and support. Many of those people not only discovered an appreciation of classical music within themselves, but went out and purchased records, tapes, or compact disks to facilitate the continuing integration of their experiences and for future enjoyment. It may be noted that, as consciousness is returning to ordinary awareness after intense experiences of a mystical, visionary, or psychodynamic nature, most any style of music can be explored with delight. At this time, one’s personal favorite selections may be enjoyed with fresh appreciation.


States of Consciousness Research

Antonio Vivaldi. Guitar Concerti. Los Romeros, Iona Brown, Academy of St. Mar­tin in the Fields. Philips 412–624–2
Andante, Concerto RV532 in G Major for 2 guitars, strings, and continuo, 3:30
Largo, Concerto RV93 in D Major for guitar, strings, and continuo, 3:53
Largo, Concerto RV356 in A Minor, 2:20

Paul Horn. Inside the Taj Mahal. Kuckuck 11062–2
“Mumtaz Mahal,” 3:21

“Shah Jahan,” 5:36

Ron Korb. Flute Traveller: A Musical Journey Across Five Continents. Oasis Produc­tions, SOCAN NHCD 205
“Alto Flute,” 2:16

Russill Paul. PM Yoga Chants Gaiam. Relaxation 3142. CD included with the book The Yoga of Sound. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2004
“By the Stream,” 10:54
“Om Namah Shivaya,” 2:27

Edward Elgar. Enigma Variations. Leonard Bernstein. BBC Symphony. The Artist’s Album. DGG 457 691–2
No. 9, “Nimrod,” 6:08

Morten Lauridsen. A Robert Shaw Christmas: Angels On High. Robert Shaw. Shaw Chamber Singers. Telarc20 CD-80461
“O Magnum Mysterium,” 6:13

Russian Orthodox Chant. Sacred Treasures III, Hearts of Space. St. Petersburg Cham­ber Choir, 025041111423
“Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom,” 5:29

Henryk Górecki. Symphony 3, Op. 36. Dawn Upshaw. David Zinman. London Sin­fonietta. Elektra Nonesuch 9 79282–2
Lento—Sostenuto Tranquillo ma Cantabile, 26:25

Johannes Brahms. Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45. Herbert Blomstedt, San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. London 443 771–2
“Selig sind die, da Leid tragen,” 10:36
“Denn alles Fleish, es ist wie Gras,” 14:33

Johannes Brahms. Symphony 2 in D Major, Op. 73. Leonard Bernstein. New York Philharmonic. Sony. SMK 61829
Adagio non Troppo, 10:08

Johannes Brahms. Ein Deutches Requiem, Op. 45. Herbert Blomstedt. San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. London 443 771–2
“Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen,” 5:34

J. S. Bach. Mass in B Minor. Robert Shaw. Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus. Telarc CD-80233
Kyrie I, 10:21
Kyrie II, 4:24

Samuel Barber. String Quartet, Op. 11. Leonard Bernstein. New York Philharmonic. Sony SMK 63088
Adagio for Strings, 9:54

Antonio Vivaldi. Gloria in D Major, R589. Robert Shaw. Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus. Telarc CD-80194
“Gloria in Excelsis,” 2:22

“Et in terra pax,” 5:58

J. S. Bach. Bach Stokowski. Leopold Stokowski. EMI CDM 7243 5 66385 2 5
“Komm süsser Tod,” BMV 478, 5:51

W. A. Mozart. Vesperae solennes de confessore, K/KV339. Kiri Te Kanawa. Sir Colin Davis. London Symphony and Chorus. Philips 412 873–2
“Laudate Dominum,” 5:11

Johannes Brahms. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77. Jascha Heifetz. Fritz Reiner. Chicago Symphony. HMG 09026-61742–2
Adagio, 8:12

Henryk Górecki. Symphony 3, Op. 36. Dawn Upshaw. David Zinman. London Sinfonietta. Elektra Nonesuch 9 79282–2
Lento e Largo—Tranquillissimo, 9:22

Edward Elgar. Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20. Mark Elder. Hallé Symphony. CDHLL 7501
Larghetto, 6:29

Gabriel Fauré. Requiem, Op. 48. Choir of St. John’s College. Cambridge. George Guest. London 436 486–2
“In Paradisum,” 3:41

W. A. Mozart, Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV 622. Jacques Lancelot. Jean-François Paillard. Orchestra de Chambre Jean-François Paillard. Erato 2292–45978–2
Adagio, 7:04

Arvo Pärt. Sanctuary. Richard Studt. Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Virgin Classics. CSC 7243 5 45314 2 2
“Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” 6:10

Bohuslav Matéj Cernohorsky. Cernohorsky Religious Works. Czech Madrigal Singers. Frantisek Xaver Thuri. Gioia Della Musica. Supraphon 11 1598–2 931
“Quare Domine, iraceris—Memento Abraham,” 8:58

Ludwig van Beethoven. Piano Concerto 5 (Emperor), Op. 73. Leon Fleisher. George Szell. Cleveland Orchestra. Sony SBK 46549
Adagio un Poco Moto, 8:25

Charles Gounod. St. Cecelia Mass. Barbara Hendricks. Georges Prêtre. French Radio New Philharmonic. EMI, CDC 7 47094 2
Sanctus, 5:18
Benedictus, 3:16

Russill Paul. The Yoga of Sound, Shakti Yoga. Relaxation, CD 3133
“Om Namah Shivaya,” 17:35

Richard Wagner. Tristan and Isolde. Jesús López-Cobos. Cincinnati Symphony. Telarc CD-80379
Prelude and Liebestod, 17:24

W. A. Mozart. Grosse Messe C-Moll. Leonard Bernstein. Chor und Symphonie­-orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Deutsche Grammaphon 431 791–2
“Ave Verum Corpus,” KV618 3:56

Gustav Mahler. Symphony 5. Lorin Maazel. Vienna Philharmonic. Sony SBK 89850
Adagietto, Sehr Langsam, 10:33

Alan Hovhaness. Symphony 2, Op. 132: Mysterious Mountain. Gerard Schwarz. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Telarc 80604
Andante con Moto, 7:42

Joseph Canteloube. Songs of the Auvergne. Dawn Upshaw. Kent Nagano. Orchestre de l’Opèra National de Lyon. Erato 0630–17577–2
“Bailèro,” 5:36 “Perl’èfon,” 3:09

Richard Strauss. Death and Transfiguration. André Previn. Vienna Philharmonic. Telarc CD-80167
Moderato, 2:20
Tranquillo, 6:03

Russill Paul. The Yoga of Sound, Nada Yoga. Relaxation CD 3133
“Evening Shadows Fall,” 23:29

J. S. Bach. Bach Stokowski. Leopold Stokowski. CDM 7243 5 66385 2 5
Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BMV 582, 14:51

Enya. Watermark. Reprise 9 26774–2
“Storms in Africa II,” 2:59

Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Shaka Zulu. Warner Brothers Collection. Rhino/ WEA 081227998622
“King of Kings,” 4:07

Adiemus. Pure Moods. Virgin 724384218621
“Adiemus,” 3:59

John Lennon. The John Lennon Collection. Abbey Road Capitol 077774644624
“Here Comes the Sun,” 3:03

Gipsy Kings. Mosaique. Nonsuch 075596089227
“Caminando Por la Calle,” 4:22

Mercedes Sosa. Polygram International, Serie Millennium, 042283231429
“Gracias a La Vida,” 4:22

Leontyne Price. The Essential Leontyne Price: Spirituals, Hymns, and Sacred Songs. RCA 090266815722
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” 3:24

Louis Armstrong. What A Wonderful World. Intercontinental 600 607707405826
“What a Wonderful World,” 2:21

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Sacred Knowledge: The Mystical Experience Questionnaire

Sacred Knowledge

“You are convinced now, as you look back on your experience, that in it you encountered ultimate reality (i.e. that you “knew” and “saw” what was really real).”

This week, our featured book is Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by William A. Richards.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Sacred Knowledge!

In Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, William A. Richards uses the potential of entheogens to occasion mystical experiences to call for their responsible medical use. In the New Yorker, Michael Pollan detailed the psychological evidence for this claim, based in part on a Mystical Experience Questionnaire co-developed by Richards, a 2006 version of which is reproduced below.

Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.

Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics.

The questionnaire, a scientific research document, asks participants to reflect on their experience.

States of Consciousness Questionnaire and Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire

Instructions: Looking back on the extended session you have just experienced, please rate the degree to which at any time during that session, you experienced the following phenomena. In making each of your ratings, use the following scale:

0 – none; not at all. 1 – so slight cannot decide 2 – slight 3 – moderate 4 -strong (equivalent in degree to any previous strong experience or expectation of this description) 5 – extreme (more than ever before in my life and stronger than 4)

Items and Scoring: There are 100 items in the States of Consciousness Questionnaire. Forty-three items on this questionnaire comprise the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire which provides scale scores for each of seven domains of mystical experiences: Internal Unity (6 items); External Unity (6 items); Transcendence of Time and Space (8 items); Ineffability and Paradoxicality (5 items); Sense of Sacredness (7 items); Noetic Quality (4 items); and Deeply-Felt Positive Mood (7 items). Data on each scale are expressed as a proportion of the maximum possible score. The remaining 57 items in the questionnaire served as distracter items and were not scored. Numerals associated with each item indicate the numerical sequence of the items.

I. Internal Unity
26. Loss of your usual identity.
35. Freedom from the limitations of your personal self and feeling a unity or bond with what was felt to be greater than your personal self.
41. Experience of pure Being and pure awareness (beyond the world of sense impressions).
54. Experience of oneness in relation to an “inner world” within.
77. Experience of the fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.
83. Experience of unity with ultimate reality.

II. External Unity

14. Experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons perceived in your surroundings
27. With eyes open, seeing something in your surroundings more and more intensely and then feeling as though you and it become one.
47. Experience of the insight that “all is One”.
51. Loss of feelings of difference between yourself and objects or persons in your surroundings.
62. Intuitive insight into the inner nature of objects and/or persons in your surroundings.
74. Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.

III. Transcendence of Time and Space

2. Loss of your usual sense of time.
12. Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.
15. Loss of your usual sense of space.
29. Loss of usual awareness of where you were.
34. Sense of being “outside of” time, beyond past and future.
42. Feeling that you have been “outside of” history in a realm where time does not exist.
48. Being in a realm with no space boundaries.
65. Experience of timelessness.

IV. Ineffability and Paradoxicality
6. Sense that the experience cannot be described adequately in words.
19. Experience of a paradoxical awareness that two apparently opposite principles or situations are both true.
23. Feeling that you could not do justice to your experience by describing it in words.
59. Sense that in order to describe parts of your experience you would have to use statements that appear to be illogical, involving contradictions and paradoxes.
86. Feeling that it would be difficult to communicate your own experience to others who have not had similar experiences.

V. Sense of Sacredness
5. Experience of amazement.
8. Sense of the limitations and smallness of your everyday personality in contrast to the Infinite.
31. Sense of profound humility before the majesty of what was felt to be sacred or holy.
36. Sense of being at a spiritual height.
55. Sense of reverence.
73. Feeling that you experienced something profoundly sacred and holy.
80. Sense of awe or awesomeness.

VI. Noetic Quality
3. Feeling that the consciousness experienced during part of the session was more real than your normal awareness of everyday reality.
9. Gain of insightful knowledge experienced at an intuitive level.
22. Certainty of encounter with ultimate reality (in the sense of being able to “know” and “see” what is really real ) at some time during your session.
69. You are convinced now, as you look back on your experience, that in it you encountered ultimate reality (i.e. that you “knew” and “saw” what was really real).

VII. Deeply-Felt Positive Mood
10. Experience of overflowing energy.
18. Feelings of tenderness and gentleness.
30. Feelings of peace and tranquility.
43. Experience of ecstasy.
50. Feelings of exaltation.
60. Feelings of universal or infinite love.
87. Feelings of joy.

Source: RR Griffiths, WA Richards, U McCann, R Jesse. 2006. “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Psychopharmacology (Berl). 187(3), 268-83, commentaries 284-292. Available on the Council of Spiritual Practices’ Psilocybin Research page (pdf).

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Mysterious Molecules: The Sacred Knowledge of Entheogens

Sacred Knowledge

“How can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”

This week, our featured book is Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by William A. Richards. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Sacred Knowledge!

In Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, William A. Richards argues that, if used responsibly and legally, psychedelics have incredible potential to assuage human suffering and constructively contribute to the quality of life on our planet. Richards’ book comes at a time when many are questioning the blanket prohibition on and demonization of such substances. In the New Yorker this February, Michael Pollan’s article “The Trip Treatment” delved into the ongoing second wave of psychedelics research, with an assist from Richards. And in an interview with Noah Berlatsky in The Guardian, Richards explains the promise of his research.

As the drug war subsides, scientists are eager to reconsider the therapeutic potential of these drugs, beginning with psilocybin… The effects of psilocybin resemble those of LSD, but, as one researcher explained, “it carries none of the political and cultural baggage of those three letters.” LSD is also stronger and longer-lasting in its effects, and is considered more likely to produce adverse reactions. Researchers are using or planning to use psilocybin not only to treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression but also to study the neurobiology of mystical experience, which the drug, at high doses, can reliably occasion. Forty years after the Nixon Administration effectively shut down most psychedelic research, the government is gingerly allowing a small number of scientists to resume working with these powerful and still somewhat mysterious molecules.

As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.

“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.” (more…)

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

One Discovery of Transcendence – William Richards, “Sacred Knowledge”

Sacred Knowledge

“For the first time, I had encountered the limitations of language in trying to express mystical forms of consciousness.” — William A. Richards

This week, our featured book is Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by William A. Richards.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Sacred Knowledge!

In Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, William A. Richards argues that, if used responsibly and legally, psychedelics have incredible potential to assuage human suffering and constructively contribute to the quality of life on our planet. In the preface, he recounts what transpired during his “first deep foray into transcendental forms of awareness.”

When my own first intense encounter with mystical consciousness occurred, I was a twenty-three-year-old graduate student of theology and psychiatry. Studying at the University of Göttingen in Germany, formally known as the Georg-August Universität, I had volunteered to participate in a research project with a drug I had never heard about called psilocybin. Synthesized and distributed to psychiatric researchers and clinicians by the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Switzer­land, this new drug was the primary psychoactive substance in the psilocybe genus of mushrooms that indigenous peoples had called “magic” or “sacred” and appear to have used in their religious practices for at least three thousand years and perhaps since as long ago as 5000 BCE. On this date in the modern world, December 4, 1963, however, the dark ages of psychedelic research still prevailed and, in the context of Western psychopharmacological investigations, drugs like psilocy­bin usually were administered without preparation or guidance.

At the time, it was hoped that the radically different, sometimes disorganized or psychotic states of consciousness that often ensued, fortunately temporary in duration, would advance our understanding of schizophrenia and similar states of mind. Hanscarl Leuner, the professor of psychiatry conducting the investigations in the Nervenklinik in Göttingen, just had published a scientific monograph on his observations titled Die experimentelle Psychose (The Experimen­tal Psychoses). In those days psychedelic drugs were freely available to qualified researchers in Europe and in the United States, sent through the mail. Psilocybin was marketed as Indocybin. The distribution of LSD, known as Delysid, as stated in a 1964 Sandoz pamphlet, was simply “restricted to psychiatrists for use in mental hospitals and psychiatric clinics.”

Not only did I know nothing about psilocybin, LSD, or mescaline, I had not yet even heard the term “psychedelic,” though it had been coined seven years earlier by Humphrey Osmond, a British psychiatrist, in a letter to Aldous Huxley. However, two of my new friends reported to me that they had volunteered for an interesting research project in the nearby psychiatric clinic that entailed receiving an experimental drug. Its name was hard to remember, but it was reputed to provide some insights into early childhood. One friend had experienced himself sitting in his father’s lap and, since his father had been killed in World War II, this was profoundly comforting and meaningful to him. The other had seen visionary imagery of Nazi SS soldiers marching in the streets that he called “a hallucination.” I was intrigued and, being curious about the psychodynamic processes in my early childhood and having never seen a “real hallucination,” decided to walk over to the clinic and inquire whether I also could qualify as a participant in the research project. I viewed my own mind as a psychological laboratory in those days, took myself much too seriously, and sometimes went without breakfast to write down my dreams in the morning. Somewhat pompously, I called this discipline “collecting my phenomenological data.” (I was fond of big words then! In retrospect I realize that a healthy breakfast might have done me much more good.) (more…)

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences

Sacred Knowledge

Sacred Knowledge is not only timely and relevant to a whole host of current social/legal issues, but also addresses, with seemingly effortless ease, many of the deeper/subtler metaphysical implications of psychedelics—their therapeutic and spiritual potential. Richards’ clear prose makes articulating such difficult topics look easy.” — G. William Barnard, Southern Methodist University

This week, our featured book is Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, by William A. Richards. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Sacred Knowledge. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, December 18th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Michael Mann on the Assault on Climate Science

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, Michael Mann

“Let’s end the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world. Our nation is better than that.”—Michael Mann, New York Times

Yesterday, we linked to Michael Mann’s important op-ed in the New York Times on social media but also wanted to feature it here on our blog. In his piece, The Assault on Climate Science, Mann describes the recent efforts of Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, to challenge and obfuscate the findings of scientists regarding climate change. Smith, a climate-change-denier, has “issued various subpoenas to Kathryn D. Sullivan, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demanding all internal notes, emails and correspondence concerning a study its scientists published in the journal Science.” As Mann argues that while Smith is entitled to ask for all pertinent scientific data and findings — and should do so — asking for correspondence between scientists risks the confidentiality that is crucial for frank discourse.

As Mann points out, this kind of intimidation of scientists is not new — Mann himself was the victim of it in 2005. At the time, many politicians — both Republicans and Democrats — came to his defense. The picture in 2015 is far bleaker as Republicans have done nothing to rein in the actions of Lamar Smith.

Mann concludes by writing:

While there is no doubt climate change is real and caused by humans, there is absolutely a debate to be had about the details of climate policy, and there are prominent Republicans participating constructively in that discourse. Let’s hear more from these sensible voices. And let’s end the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world. Our nation is better than that.

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

The Science of Cooking Your Thanksgiving Turkey via Herve This (and a Dishwasher!)

Thanksgiving, Turkey

“Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine.”—Herve This

With Thanksgiving just a couple of days away, we thought we provide some more practical (or somewhat practical) advice on cooking a turkey from none other than Hervé This, author of several books that explore the coming together of food and science to develop new ways of thinking about cooking, flavor, taste, and how we eat.

In an interview with Nature, This suggested the dishwasher as a possible cooking method:

Q: Another professional technique is to cook food for long periods at low temperatures in a vacuum-sealed bag. How might a home chef emulate this ‘sous-vide’ method?

Herve This: Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine. In this way, you can get low temperatures. Butterfly the other turkey and cook it on the grill, creating the maximum expanse of delicious crispy skin. Then serve the moist, flavourful meat from the dishwasher turkey with the grilled skin. A good accompaniment would be foie gras, also cooked in the dishwasher at low temperature.

Now for those not comfortable with Maytag cuisine, here is an excerpt from Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, also by Hervé This, on the science of roasting a turkey:

Since it is juicy, tender meat that we want, it is clear why there is no question of opening the oven while the meat is roasting. The water vapor that is released in a limited quantity could escape and then be replaced by the vaporization of a certain quantity of the juices. Opening the oven dries out the turkey. Neither, however, should one humidify the oven before putting the turkey in. In the presence of too much water, the surface water cannot evaporate, and the skin will not get crispy.

Having thus resolved the problem of the surface, the serious problem of tenderness within remains. We cannot disappoint our guests, who fear the pro­verbial dryness of the turkey.

Since tenderness results necessarily from the deterioration of the connec­tive tissue, let us consider this tissue. It principally contains three kinds of pro­teins: collagen, already discussed many times, reticulin, and elastin. Neither reticulin or elastin are notably altered by the heat of the oven, but the triple helixes of the collagen molecules can be broken up and form gelatin, which is soft when it is in water, as we all know.

Calculating the cooking time requires some skill, because the denaturation of the collagen and the coagulation of the muscle proteins (actin and myosin, mainly) take place at different temperatures and different speeds in the different parts of the turkey. It is necessary to know that the temperature of 70° (158°F) is essential for transforming the collagen into gelatin and tenderizing the mus­cles. But the longer the turkey remains at a high temperature, the more water it loses and the more its proteins risk coagulating. The optimal cooking time, consequently, is the minimum time it takes to attain the temperature of 70°C (158°F) at the center of the turkey.


Friday, October 16th, 2015

How Evolutionary Psychology Can Affect Political Change — Gillian Barker

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“[P]o­litical discussion needs to be informed by the fullest available understanding of human patterns of development and behavior and their broader ramifications. This means that it must be grounded in a grasp of the workings of evolved and evolutionary processes of change in human development, behavior, and social arrangements. But it will benefit too from a lively dialogue with older traditions of thought about political change that look far beyond a narrow and economistic cost–benefit analogy…. Evolutionary thinking about human behavior—evolutionary psychology properly understood—can be a useful and vital part of that discussion.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an excerpt from the conclusion to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker. In it, Barker argues that evolutionary thinking and evolutionary psychology—properly understood—can play an important part in affecting political and social change:

The critique of the syntheses of evolutionary psychology by writers like Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, and Richard Dawkins shows that a proper understanding of the dynamics of evolution, development, and behavior does not support the conservative interactionism that they espouse. Their point of view is that the inbuilt qualities of human nature impose powerful restrictions upon the kinds of social change that are feasible and acceptable. But the arguments supporting this view make use of misleading metaphors, misapply cost–benefit thinking to the evaluation of change, and blur the distinction between fact and value in consequential ways—making assumptions about values that bias their judgments of matters of empirical fact and treating normative conclusions about what is good for humans and human societies as if they emerge straightforwardly from the facts of human evolutionary history.

If the critique calls into question the pessimistic conclusions of influential writing on evolutionary psychology, recently pub­lished research in evolutionary and developmental biology has re­vealed patterns of responsive change in behavioral capacities in humans and other species that require a very different conception of evolved human nature. The dynamics of evolution, develop­ment, and behavior that this research has uncovered indicate that there is a much more lively interaction between changes in the be­havior of an organism and its environment than mainstream evo­lutionary psychology has assumed. The mechanisms of responsive change include niche construction and the environmentally cued “switches” characteristic of adaptive developmental and behav­ioral plasticity. Together these indicate that there are sometimes key points at which a small environmental intervention may trigger a distinct new process of sustained and accumulating change. They also suggest that change can sometimes be rapid and relatively smooth. It is as if there are leverage points where an environmental change across some specific threshold opens a new pathway for behavioral change that in turn has an impact on the environment. The new pathway may lead to further change, or it may arrive at a kind of stability or resilience.


Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Interview with Gillian Barker, author of “Beyond Biofatalism”

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“To get beyond [biofatalism] is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than [biofatalism] suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an interview with Gillian Barker, author of Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

Question: What do you mean by “biofatalism”, and what does it mean to get beyond it?

Gillian Barker: When people are discussing aspects of today’s societies that seem to call for change—problems like racism, sexism, violence, economic inequality, and global warming—a certain form of pessimism is very common. We’ll never escape these problems, many people say, because they are an expression of tendencies that are “in our genes” or “hardwired” as a result of our evolutionary history. Sometimes this view is criticized as a form of genetic determinism, but that isn’t really a good label.

Most people who make claims like this aren’t genetic determinists; they think that environment makes a difference to human behavior. But they think that the environmental changes that would be required to create more peaceful, egalitarian, or ecologically sound societies would be extreme, requiring intolerable sacrifices. So according to this picture, our nature—the set of cognitive capacities and behavioral tendencies built by our evolutionary past—traps us in social arrangements that are unjust, unhappy, and ultimately unsafe. Not because environmental interventions are ineffective, but because we can’t stand the kinds of environments that would be needed to create better societies: no environmental change can save us from ourselves. That is biofatalism. To get beyond it is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than this picture suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.

Q: Are you saying that evolutionary psychology is wrong about human nature?

GB: We can learn a great deal from human evolutionary history, but efforts to draw lessons from evolution for our thinking about human social and political choices have drawn on too narrow a selection of evidence. It is time to broaden our perspective to include insights from evolutionary biology more generally, from ecology and developmental biology, and from social psychology. These sciences can offer a picture of human nature that is quite different from the one most familiar in mainstream evolutionary psychology, and can give us reasons to expect that individual human behavior and human societies may both be surprisingly responsive to certain kinds of environmental intervention.

Q: Do you mean that nurture wins out over nature in shaping our psychology?

GB: No—as many others have also noted, these old metaphors of “nurture” acting to shape the material provided by “nature,” or of “nature” resisting the forces of “nurture,” are not very useful ones any more. The interaction between genes and environment is far more complex than they suggest. We are evolved to have “adaptive plasticity,” the capacity to adjust our own developmental patterns and behavior to enable us to succeed in different environments. But we are also evolved to modify our own environments, and each other’s—to engage in what some evolutionists call “niche construction.” The combination of these two evolved tendencies means that we should expect that human social behavior can be remarkably sensitive to some kinds of environmental variation, and remarkably resistant to others. We are only just starting to learn about these patterns of social response, but what is apparent that there is a lot to learn! The picture is much more subtle and interesting than the older “nature-vs-nurture” debate suggested.


Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Gillian Barker Questions the Work of Steven Pinker and Other Evolutionary Thinkers

Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

The following is the preface to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker:

I have watched with hopeful fascination the growing interest of social scientists and a larger public in applying evolutionary thinking to human behavior. Our need to understand the roots of human choices and social patterns has never been more pressing. Climate science, ecology, and the other sciences that examine human impacts on the Earth—and on its capacity to sus­tain us—have demonstrated that the course that the human spe­cies is now traveling is a disastrous one. Indeed, I believe that they show that human survival, especially peaceful survival with a good quality of life, requires some fundamental changes in our patterns of behavior starting as soon as possible. But just what changes are the best ones to pursue, and what are the most effective means for bringing them about? These are ancient and difficult questions, but new tools might help to resolve them. The evolutionary approach has been impressively successful in expanding our grasp in many areas of the life sciences, including medicine and the behavior of other animals, and I have dared to anticipate that evolutionary thinking would open a new avenue to a clearer understanding of how we might begin to make the needed changes. I have been en­couraged in this hopeful thought by the energetic entry of first­class evolutionary thinkers like Steven Pinker, David Buss, and Robert Wright into the task of pulling the quite complex and detailed relevant research and analysis together into an overall interpretation of the main implications of human evolutionary history.

I delved into the resulting works of synthesis with increasing dismay. Though they are rich with illuminating insights and in­triguing empirical results, the overall interpretations that they offer seemed to converge on all-too-familiar motifs of gender differences and tendencies toward aggression, intolerance, and so­cial competition—conclusions that do not square with my own reading of the basic research and my own reasoning about it. The picture that they present is pessimistic, suggesting that human nature is inflexible enough that substantial change to our social arrangements and patterns of behavior may be out of the ques­tion, whereas I see grounds for optimism in many of the same sources. Additional research from related areas of biology, psy­chology, and philosophy, including some that has been published since the major works of synthesis were written, reinforce my sense that the picture these works present is misleading.


Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Beyond Biofatalism,” by Gillian Barker

This week our featured book is Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World by Gillian Barker.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Beyond Biofatalism to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, October 16 at 1:00 pm.

“Had you read only popularizers of evolutionary psychology, you might be forgiven for thinking that the message about human potential from evolutionary theory is grim. Gillian Barker, in this succinct and well-written book, shows that specific empirical findings in evolution, social psychology, and behavioral ecology—evolutionary psychology writ large—suggest that human biology, as biology more generally, is open to more varied social futures than is commonly thought” — Helen Longino, Stanford University

For more on the book you can read the chapter Human Nature and the Limits of Human Possibility:

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — Donald Prothero on the Oldest Human Skeleton

“For only the past 30,000 years has there been a single species of homi­nin dominating the planet. Now Homo sapiens threatens to wipe out nearly every other species, as well as itself, making them just as extinct as the fossils described in this book.”—Donald R. Prothero

Donald R. Prothero concludes The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by examining the discovery “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. In the following excerpt, Prothero examines Lucy’s legacy and the efforts of paleontologists and anthropolgists to discover more fossils of human ancestors:

Lucy’s Legacy

The rush to find hominins from the “Dark Continent” soon spread across East Africa, especially in regions with long sedimentary records in fault ba­sins along the Great Rift Valley. Louis Leakey’s son Richard, who was ini­tially uninterested in anthropology, eventually adopted his father’s mantle. Seeking to escape his father’s shadow, he began to excavate in Lake Rudolf (now Lake Turkana) in northern Kenya in the 1970s. There, many more skulls were found, including the best-preserved specimen of Homo habilis, the oldest species in our genus, Homo. Richard moved on to prominent po­sitions in the Kenyan government (especially fighting the poaching of rhi­nos and elephants). His wife, Meave, working with local people, carried on the Leakey legacy. His mother, Mary, continued to make significant finds, especially the spectacular trackway of hominins at Laetoli in Tanzania.

Kenya and Tanzania were in the news almost every year with the spec­tacular finds of the Leakeys. In the late 1960s, Louis Leakey had lunch with President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The emperor asked Leakey why there had been no discoveries in Ethio­pia. Louis quickly persuaded him that fossils would be found if he gave the order to let scientists explore for them. Soon anthropologist F. Clark How­ell of Berkeley was working on the northern shore of Lake Turkana, where the Omo River flows out of Ethiopia. Howell and his colleague Glynn Isaac spent many years collecting in the Omo beds, which have abundant volca­nic ash dates. Unfortunately, these deposits were formed in flash floods that produced gravelly and sandy streams, which tend to break up and abrade fossils, so no well-preserved hominin specimens were found.

Meanwhile, other rising young anthropologists were eager to make their own discoveries in a region that had been almost exclusively the territory of the Leakeys and their allies. Two of them were Donald Johanson and Tim White. Both were seeking to make their professional fortunes by explor­ing sites not under the control of the Leakeys. Through French geologists Maurice Taieb and Yves Coppens and anthropologist Jon Kalb, they learned about beds in the Afar Triangle, the rift valley that is opening between the tectonic plates where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea. These beds al­ready had yielded numerous fossils of mammals, suggesting that they were at least 3 million years old, which made them potentially older than any hominin fossil found so far in Kenya or Tanzania. Johanson, White, Taieb, and Coppens received permission to work in these beds and began to exca­vate at Hadar in 1973.

After months of exploring and prospecting for fossils, and finding a few hominin fragments, on November 24, 1974, Johanson took a break from writing field notes to help his student Tom Gray search an outcrop. He spotted the glint of bone out of the corner of his eye, dug out the fossil, and immediately recognized that it was a hominin bone. They continued to un­earth more and more bones, until they found almost 40 percent of a skele­ton of a hominin. It was the first skeleton, rather than isolated bones, found of any hominin older than the Neanderthals of the late Pleis­tocene. That night as they celebrated over the campfire, they were playing a tape of the Beatles when “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on. Sing­ing lustily along, a member of the crew named Pamela Alderman suggested that the fossil be nicknamed “Lucy.” Later, it was formally named Australo­pithecus afarensis, in reference to the Afar Triangle, where it was found.

A year after the discovery of “Lucy,” the crew returned to Hadar, where they found a large assemblage of A. afarensis bones. Nicknamed the “First Family,” it was the first large sample of fossils of both juvenile and adult hominins from beds dating to 3 million years ago, and it gave anthropolo­gists a look at how much variability was typical in a single population. This can be important when deciding whether a newly discovered fossil that is slightly different from specimens found earlier should be considered a new species or genus or just a member of a variable population.

When the analysis of “Lucy” was conducted, Johanson and White de­termined that the skeleton was that of an adult female that had stood about 1.1 meters (3.5 feet) tall. The most important evidence was the knee joint and the hip bones, which show the critical features that prove that A. afarensis walked upright with its legs completely beneath its body, as do modern humans. It had a relatively small brain (380 to 430 cc) and small canines, like those of advanced hominins, yet still had a pronounced snout, rather than a flat face. This was yet another blow to the “big brains first” theory of human evolution, which was still in vogue in the mid-1970s. Its shoulder blade, arms, and hands are quite ape-like, however, so A. afarensis still climbed trees, even if it was fully bipedal. Yet the foot shows no signs of a grasping big toe, so its legs and feet were adapted entirely for walking on the ground and its toes could not grasp branches.


Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Mega-Jaws — Donald Prothero on the Rise and Fall of the Giant Shark

Carcharocles megalodon

As the title The Story of Life in 25 Fossils suggests, each chapter of Donald R. Prothero’s book focuses on how fossils reveal something about the history of our planet. Surely, one of the most fascinating moments in this history is when Carcharocles megalodon or “Mega-Jaws” ruled the seas. In the following excerpt from the book, Prothero explains what the fossil record reveals about the fate of these giant sharks:

Monster of the Seas

The sheer size of Carcharocles megalodon raises a question: Why did it grow so big? The most common answer seems to be that sharks were respond­ing to the great abundance of large prey in the Miocene, especially the huge radiation of many types of whales and dolphins that developed in the early and middle Miocene. C. megalodon was bigger than all but the largest whales known from the same beds, so it was a true “super-predator,” capa­ble of killing and eating almost anything that swam in the Miocene oceans.

There is abundant fossil evidence of this behavior. Deep gouges and scratches that could have been produced by only the huge teeth of C. meg­alodon have been found on many fossil whale bones, suggesting that the sharks scratched the bones as they tore flesh from the carcasses. The list of whales with traces of C. megalodon attacks is very long, including dol­phins and other small whales, cetotheres, squalodontids, sperm whales, bowhead whales, and rorquals like the fin whale and blue whale, plus seals, sea lions, manatees, and sea turtles (which were three times the size of the largest extant sea turtles). A C. megalodon tooth was found associated with the bitten ear bone of a sea lion. There were also several finds of C. mega­lodon teeth embedded in whale backbones, and numerous cases partially scavenged whale carcasses (especially at Sharktooth Hill) have been found surrounded by shed C. megalodon teeth.

Of course, this does not exhaust the list. Most sharks (especially great whites) are indiscriminate, opportunistic feeders and attack anything that moves that they can catch. This is why so many modern sharks have ocean trash (including road signs, boots, and anchors) in their stomachs when they are cut open. So C. megalodon certainly would have eaten smaller fish and most other sharks when it could catch them. But its large size is primar­ily an adaptation to attacking large prey like whales, which no other marine predator could threaten until C. megalodon came along.

The bite marks on one particular whale specimen about 9 meters (30 feet) long suggests how C. megalodon preferred to attack. The marks seem to focus on the tough bony areas (shoulders, flippers, rib cage, upper spine) rather than on the soft underbelly, which modern great whites target. This suggests that C. megalodon tried to crush or puncture the heart or lungs of the whale, which would have killed it quickly. This, in turn, explains why the teeth of C. megalodon are so thick and robust: they were adapted for bit­ing through bone. Another common strategy focused on the flippers, since fossils of the hand bones have the highest frequency of bite marks of all. A big bite to crush, cripple, or rip off one flipper would have been sufficient to disable the prey and allow the shark to finish it off with several more bites.


Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast! — Donald Prothero

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

“So before everyone begins the big party for ‘Brontosaurus’ and celebrates this huge diversity of sauropod names, let’s hold our horses.”—Donald R. Prothero

The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Earlier this year, there has been a big buzz with the media reaction to a study by Emanuel Tschopp, Octavio Mateus, and Roger B.J. Benson analyzing the diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs and figuring out their classification and relationships. As I discuss in The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, since 1903 most paleontologists have regarded “Brontosaurus” as just another junior name for the dinosaur properly known as Apatosaurus.

The Tschopp et al. study itself is a landmark in careful anatomical work, analyzing the problem specimen by specimen (a total of 81 specimens used) rather than generalizing based on previous clusterings of specimens, and looking at far more anatomical evidence than any previous study. Naturally, the press missed the significance of the study completely, and focused on just one minor point: the idea that “Brontosaurus” is again a valid name. ALL the publicity, and all the reactions of the non-paleontological reporters and readers was focused on this rather trivial issue, which is not important to real paleontologists in any way (except that we always get asked about it by the general public). Most of the reaction by sauropod paleontologists who were interviewed were generally favorable, but others were more cautious. Almost all agreed that is the most thorough work on the subject written to date, and it will be the foundation on which all future analyses will be built. Similar reactions could be found on the SVPOW (“Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week”) website, which is the main forum for discussion by specialists and amateurs about sauropods.


Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Interview with Donald R. Prothero, Author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

The following interview is with Donald R. Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Question: How do you summarize the history of life in just 25 fossils?

Donald R. Prothero: That was an incredibly difficult decision, since there are millions of species and thousands of different known fossil species. I tried to focus on fossils that represented important landmarks in the history of life, important transitional fossils that demonstrated the macroevolution of one group from another, and some of the most extreme examples of life illustrated by the fossil record: the largest marine reptiles and dinosaurs, the largest sharks, the largest land mammals, and so on.

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about evolution?

DRP: In the book, I describe many examples of “transitional fossils” (incorrectly called “missing links”) that demonstrate the evolution of one major group from another. This is sometimes called macroevolution, and its existence is denied by 40% of Americans who don’t accept the reality of evolution. We now have snakes with legs (including a four-legged snake fossil that was just published last month, too late for our book), turtles with half a shell (including a new transitional reptile more primitive than the turtles in our book, also published too recently for our book), a creature that is the link between frogs and salamanders, many fossils that show how fish crawled out on land to become amphibians, and many feathered dinosaurs that showed how birds originated from creatures like Velociraptor. These examples could go on and on, so the new book just discusses a few of them. Many more examples are given in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about the origin of animals?

DRP: In Darwin’s time, there were no fossils that showed how the oldest known fossils, such as trilobites, evolved from more primitive creatures. But in several chapters of this book, I talk about the first known fossils (primitive bacteria forming mats and domes called stromatolites, over 3.5 billion years old), the first multicellular animals from 600 million years ago, the first tiny, shelled fossils from 550 million years ago, and the earliest trilobites from 525 million years ago. Contrary to people who argue that the “Cambrian explosion” was an instantaneous event that required divine intervention, we now know it was a “Cambrian long fuse,” with all the stages from single cells to soft-bodied multicellular life to tiny shells to the first large shelled animals, all stretched out over tens of millions of years.


Monday, August 24th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

This week our featured book is The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by Donald R. Prothero.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 28th at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Niles Eldredge says about The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: “Prothero, an outstanding paleontologist and skilled communicator, has written the best up-to-date account of the history of life as revealed by the fossil record that I have ever had the pleasure to read. His lucid prose brings these long-dead organisms back to life, while painting a picture of how all life has been interconnected through evolution. ”

For more on the book you can read the chapter, “Planet of the Scum”:

Monday, August 24th, 2015

The Economic Risks of Climate Change

In the following segment from The Leonard Lopate Show, Michael Oppenheimer and Geoffrey Heal, two contributors to Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus, discuss their econometric research on human responses to climate, and explain private sector risk-assessment tools:

Economic Risks of Climate Change

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: The Great Gift of “Laudato Si’”

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“Pope Francis offers a brilliant explication of the importance of a new form of research, one that I like to call the emergent field of sustainable development, to integrate the areas of specialized knowledge into a comprehensive and interconnected form of understanding.” — Jeffrey D. Sachs

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, the final of the week’s feature, we are happy to present an article on the encyclical by Jeffrey D. Sachs that originally appeared in America Magazine.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

The Great Gift of ‘Laudato Si’’
By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” is a great and timely gift to humanity. To avoid a catastrophic collision of the world economy and environment, humanity urgently needs to change the trajectory and functioning of the world economy. Yet the world economic system is a juggernaut nearly impervious to coordinated changes at the global scale. “Laudato Si’” opens the path to a veritable revolution of ideas to bring about the needed changes.

As Pope Francis eloquently and accurately describes, the economic juggernaut is destroying biodiversity, dangerously altering the climate and undermining the life-support systems of the planet for humanity and millions of other species. On all of this, Pope Francis offers a compelling summary of the scientific evidence, presented with clarity and precision. His concision and precision on these matters exemplifies the church’s profound commitment to the marriage of faith and reason, with its abiding commitment to science.

Yet, as Pope Francis describes, the economy keeps barreling along, seemingly oblivious to these hazards and to the deadly costs they are imposing on the world’s poor and vulnerable people. In the very powerful phrase of his earlier exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the world suffers from a “globalization of indifference” that makes it nearly impossible for humanity to reorient toward sustainable development over the current destructive trajectory. (more…)

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.” — James Lawrence Powell

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, James Lawrence Powell takes a close look at the actual science cited by Pope Francis in the encyclical and asks, simply, did the Pope get it right?

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy of H. H. Shugart’s book!

Is Pope Francis Right on the Science?
By James Lawrence Powell

When most people read “Catholic Church” and “Science” in the same sentence, they are apt to think of the inquisition of Galileo, who narrowly escaped burning at the stake for espousing the Copernican view of a Sun-centered solar system. But that is old news. In 1992, Pope John Paul II stated his regret for Galileo’s treatment and in 2008, the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his pioneering astronomy. The Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno won the 2014 American Astronomical Society’s Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science for his many books.

The Catholic Church has also been forthright in its defense of evolution, Pope John Paul II telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 that “…new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Catholic schools in the U.S. and elsewhere teach evolution both as a fact and as the result of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the updated version of Darwin’s theory.

Though Young-Earth creationists maintain that our planet is only a few thousand years old, the Church has long accepted the antiquity of the Earth and the authenticity of the fossil record as validating the history of life. In 2004, before Cardinal Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict XVI, he endorsed a statement by the International Theological Commission that,

The universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life.

Thus Pope Francis’s recent encyclical — Laudato Si, or “Praised Be”— is but the latest in a series of statements from the Catholic Church that offer increasingly strong support for science. Pope Francis’s eloquent encyclical not only does that, but it also casts the protection of the environment and the prevention of global warming as predominantly moral issues. He introduces the encyclical as an “Urgent appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” Francis asks for “a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

The question I am addressing is whether the Pope gets the science of global warming right. We should not be surprised if he does, for he was trained as a scientist: before becoming a priest, young Jorge Mario Bergoglio trained and worked as a chemical technician. Just as no one can discredit Francis’s moral standing, neither can anyone discredit his understanding of science.

As would any climate scientist today, Francis regards human responsibility for global warming as an indisputable fact. He does not present a list of arguments designed to persuade his readers that anthropogenic global warming is true, but simply says that it is true:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Exactly right. First, the consensus on anthropogenic global warming among publishing scientists exceeds 99.9%. Second, climate scientists do not claim that global warming “caused” a given heat wave, drought, or storm. Rather, they say that global warming has increased the odds of such events and is therefore partly responsible for the broad pattern of extreme weather. The Pope recognizes that global warming is not just something that will happen in the future: it is happening now and we need to respond now.

Further evincing his understanding, the Pope writes:

It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.

Again, exactly right. Several factors affect global temperature but only one can explain the rise in temperature since the 1970s: the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion. A climate scientist might argue that the last sentence of the quotation is an oversimplification in that it does not explain the mechanism by which greenhouse gases increase temperature. But the sentence as it stands is correct and sufficient for a general audience.

The Pope also demonstrates his understanding of the consequences of unchecked global warming:

The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain.

As result [of human activities] some species face extinction.

The effects of climate change will be felt for a long time to come, even if stringent measures are taken now.

As remarkable as Francis’s understanding of science is his powerful and eloquent language:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.

The environment is… on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

The Pope ends the encyclical with the moral argument in the form or a prayer, entreating God to,

Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.

The sentence that I will remember most is this one: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Like climate scientists, the Pope regards global warming as threatening the future of humanity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Reactions to Laudato Si’: Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing

Reactions to Laudato Si'

“[T]he Pope is arguing that in light of this context we all need to practice “failure”: or that which disrupts the “business as usual” notion of progress as solely economic and technological. I’m not suggesting this Pope is queer-friendly (or even feminist-friendly), but I am suggesting that the deeply Catholic understandings of the “common good” and “social teachings” are, in the face of the productionist paradigm, queer.” — Whitney Bauman

This week, rather than focusing on one featured book, we will be posting reactions to Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, commonly referred to as Laudato Si’, from scholars in a variety of fields: scientists H. H. Shugart and James Lawrence Powell, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, and religion scholar Whitney Bauman. In today’s post, Whitney Bauman does a close reading of the Encyclical and comes to some surprising conclusions about the Pope’s message.

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Laudato Si and the Art of Unknowing
By Whitney A. Bauman

There is much to be commended in the Pope’s recent Encyclical on “the environment.” He clearly did his doctrinal, historical and philosophical homework on issues of human-earth relations. There is much one would expect to find in the document: such as the use of St. Francis in the title, couching of creation-care in terms of “the common good” and the prominence of catholic social teaching. There are also some surprises—such as his knowledge of the history of the environmental movement and his use of Integral Ecology which understands nature and culture as already and always together. At times it reads like a traditional Papal document while at others it reads more like something that Bruno Latour or leaders of the New Materialism might have written. In this brief piece, I want to focus on two points that I find most poignant in the Encyclical: the critique of modern technological society and the call for a more robust dialogue between religion and science. Both of these points participate in what Judith/Jack Halberstam calls “The Queer Art of Failure” or what Catherine Keller might call “the Art of Unknowing.”

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure). The creativity of abject identities, of those who have failed to live up to the norms of hetero-normative, anthropocentric capitalism, is indeed the source of creativity for seeking a different planetary future. In other words, failing is precisely what we need in this day and age if we are to find our way forward through the problems brought about by globalization and climate weirding. Pope Francis identifies this problem as well in his critique of modernity found in the Encyclical. He writes (and here I quote at length):

§107. It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.