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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/06/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 28, Whole Number 1316
Table of Contents
Fantasy World Faux Pas (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I thought I was getting along all right with Mr. Beaver, in spite of the fact he clearly did not like the huge fur coat I was wearing. He made clear that beavers did not like to see people wearing fur coats, and I really couldn't blame him. Still overall he was the friendliest talking animal I had found since I came through the back of the wardrobe. But I quickly discovered there were certain subjects *not* to bring up. I asked him what line of work he was in when he wasn't fighting for Aslan's return. He looked perturbed and was quiet for an instant. Then he turned on me with a sneer on his lips, He snarled, "Narnia dam business." [-mrl]
Religion, Ethics, and Genetics (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the 07/23/04 issue of the MT VOID, I made a rather flip and whimsically-intended comment: "When we see the world enflamed in fighting in the name of religion, it is easy to forget that religion's original intent was to save the world from the moral evil of atheism." It is an irony that has more recently and expressed by other people is currently the center of some controversy.
The standard Sunday school view of history is that the natural state of humanity is evil and degradation, or at the very least naughtiness. Frequently the concept of Original Sin is involved. People have a view that religion came into the world to redeem humanity and bring them to God's Will and His Grace. Humans without God are programmed for evil. Some define virtue as doing God's Will even if the actions otherwise seem immoral. There also is the belief that nobody would be virtuous without a fear of God's post-mortem judgement, that this is the only motive we have for morality. The belief is that atheists must be immoral because they do not believe in God's judgement, so have no reason to be virtuous. Dostoyevsky said, "iIf God does not exist than everything is permissible." Some believe that just not believing in God is in itself immoral.
In any case we have a very Cecil B. DeMille-like image of people without the enlightenment of religion falling, sometimes almost immediately, into bestial orgies of sin, perversion, and other pagan depravity. The moment people abandon the true religion, as the Israelites in DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, they degenerate, and it is only the word of God that brings them back to decency and right. And that really seems to be the prevalent belief of how it was, particularly when cultures clashed in Biblical times. We have the view of all the sinning that was being done in the time Noah or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. Much of the American population believes that most of ethical belief has its root in religious rules.
Today most religious people feel that the Israelites had a moral superiority over the believers of pagan religions. The Sunday school viewpoint is that the Israelites brought a wave of morality sweeping into the ancient Near East. We like to think that believers in Dagon and Baal were terrible and degraded people. It is easy to believe that. None of them are around to defend their creed, so we do not really know. When Christianity spread to places like Hawaii in better documented times, the morality of that action is easier to question. It is not as easy to say that the pre-Christian Polynesian religions were morally or ethically inferior to the religions brought to them by missionaries.
Some philosophers, notably Rousseau, believed instead that humans were born virtuous. I would like to consider the possibility that ethics do not necessarily come from religion. In my opinion there actually may be a genetic basis for ethics and morality. It may well be that humans have some instinct for morality and ethics without having to be given these concepts by religions. It may well be that our ethics are programmed into us genetically, not necessarily taught to us by religions.
The question one might ask is whether any ideology--and a belief in morality is an ideology--can have a genetic basis. Do genes have the possibility to inspire thought patterns along a certain line? I think that they could, and what convinced me they could is what I have heard of canine behavior.
So do I believe dogs have an ideology? In a way they do. They decide that certain behaviors are a good idea. Somehow retriever puppies all get the same idea that it is a really great game to have someone throw them a stick, to find it, and to bring it back. It is a behavior that seems very natural to retriever puppies and they all get the same idea. This does not seem to be passed to them culturally from other dogs. They get the idea on their own. Terriers somehow similarly get the idea that it is great fun to dig in the ground. Husky puppies will on their own decide that it is fun to pull things. These are not what we consider full-blown ideologies, but they are ideas. The concept of instinct, I think, comes and goes from favor in the scientific community, but a much of animal behavior is hard to explain if behavior and belief is not part of their genetic programming.
Over the last few years there has been discussion as to whether spirituality might be part of some people's genetic make-up. Dean H. Hamer published a book, THE GOD GENE: HOW FAITH IS HARDWIRED INTO OUR GENES. People have been talking about this thing called "the God Gene." This gene would make people more susceptible to feelings of having mystical experiences and make people more willing to believe that these feelings are divinely inspired. In a sense these people with this hypothetical gene may be programmed for religious faith. It is not too much more of a stretch to believe people could be hardwired for ethical behavior.
Certainly many aspects of even human behavior are hard to explain if one entirely rejects the ideas of genetic hardwiring and instinct. There seems to be a sort of genetically programmed ideology even in humans. There is even a mechanism for explaining why some ideas may be in the gene. Richard Dawkins suggests in THE SELFISH GENE that much of human behavior can be explained as subconscious (or deeper) and implicit survival strategies for preserving not oneself necessarily but copies of one's genes. Why are people attracted to the opposite sex? It also happens to be a good strategy for getting genes into the next generation. Nobody thinks explicitly that preserving his genes is important, but if some set of genes do pre-dispose their owner to pass on his genes, those genes are more likely to get into the next generation.
Ethical behavior might be quite likely to have a genetic basis. People who are highly unethical create conflicts that they can easily lose. There would be positive survival value to having genetic programming that makes people greedy enough to fight for their own survival, yet not so greedy that they endanger others' survival. There could be genetic programming to co-exist and to even to team up to help others in society keeps the gene pool large enough so that it does not lead to in-breeding. This could well be a genetic survival strategy. Nature may actually select for programming that leads to ethical behavior. Humans may well have an instinct for morality. And the answer to the religious question of what motive is there for morality if not rewarded by God is that morality may increase the probability for survival.
Some religions would like very much to be associated with ethics. They would like to be seen as the only path to an ethical and moral life. A co-worker who was known for his religious fundamentalist viewpoint debated me on the subject of religion at one point, trying to convert me to his viewpoint. He asked me if the reason I resisted was that I was afraid of the high moral requirements of his religion. He made what is a standard assumption that other fundamentalists have made that he was on what we both assumed was a higher moral plane than I was because he was his religion and I was not. And from his point of view and in the view of his religion that was true. Earlier in the argument we had discussed the ethical treatment of animals. I considered it very important and he just dismissed it with the statement that the Bible says that man was given dominion over animals. He assumed there was no ethical reason for better treatment for animals because he knew from his book that it was not required. His religion had high moral standards because he did not accept the validity of any moral standard not espoused by his religion.
I have always been skeptical of the association of religions and ethics. I have frequently wondered if certain religions were not over-stressing belief and faith and even music, but were not strongly acting as moral compasses for their members. At least if they were they were not moral compasses that agreed with my own.
I think religions would want to take credit for a strong ethical basis that frequently is imaginary. Religions frequently take credit for things that may have nothing to do with them. If a church member gets sick, it is bad luck. If the member gets well, it is God who gets the credit. It is just good business for the church to give God credit for ethical impulses.
The best way to see if ethics are really possible without religion would be to look at atheist societies and see if they devolve into immorality. Certainly in the 20th century some atheistic governments were highly immoral. Dictators like Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot have been responsible for mass murder and even genocide. It would be a mistake to ignore them. But there are several largely-atheist societies today that are much more ethical (e.g., Scandinavia). I would say that if a dictator has control of a country and is bent on very unethical acts, those societies frequently become extremely evil. It is the powerful dictator, not the people, who lack the moral resolve to know right.
Certainly if one reads the headlines of a newspaper, a great deal of the violence in the world today has a religious basis. And wherever it happens it seems it is people who have no doubt that what they are doing is God's will. They may delegate their consciences to a book or a religious leader. Ironically some societies in which religions play less of a role seem to be functioning considerably better. I recently read the article, "My Heroes Are Driven By God, But I'm Glad My Society Isn't" by George Monbiot that appeared in "The Guardian" (http://tinyurl.com/cdrjn). In this article Monbiot presents the idea that secular democracies seem to function better than religious ones. He quotes the following by Gregory Paul writing in the Journal of Religion and Society:
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion . . . . None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction." Within the United States, "the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and midwest" have "markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the north-east where . . . secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms".
The original article with the formidable title "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" by Gregory Paul, can be found at http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html>
Now a correlation does not show cause and effect, but the correlation certainly does not seem out of line based on experience. It certainly does show that religion is not doing a very good job in limiting crime and extending morality. People with a strong faith that their actions can always be squared with God are very likely to associate that with license.
I suspect that humans are born with conflicting urges, both having their origins in their genetics. One urge is for the social order that will provide their genes with a stable gene pool. The other is aggression, which protects genes more directly. I think that humans, as thinking beings, generally can balance these two urges and that the urge for social order does a reasonable, though not perfect, job of holding the aggression in check. The young learn early to check their aggressive tendencies. Some of the social democracies of Europe are examples of this.
Religion is one of the ideologies that can come along and override the genetic urge for social order. It frequently says that the intuitive morality is a false one and that the true morality comes from only God. As soon as it offers a substitute morality, the conflict between aggression and morality finds an entirely new balance. Morality can come to mean aggressively enforcing some human's interpretation of God's rules. It offers those who would want it what is de facto a licensed exemption from common morality in the name of God. It can bear a message that what is claimed to be the "real" morality allows and may even require aggression against non-believers. Historically the result has been burning at the stake, stoning, and religious wars at the extreme end, but can also include intolerance for non- conformity and rigorous enforcement of tradition. The religion offers some a licensed exemption from common decency and even a moral compass that points in the direction of aggression.
If one looks at the greatest man-made ills of the 20th Century, perhaps all history, they mainly come from ideologies--religious or secular--that offer a higher cause than intuitive morality. They offer a supposed superior morality that allows aggression to be done in a cause superior to common decency. That cause can be nationalism, socialism, racial superiority, or frequently religion. In short, religions are extremely unreliable authorities on morality. [-mrl]
[For science fiction treatments of the "God gene" and similar ideas, see Robert J. Sawyer's HYBRIDS and Greg Egan's "Oceanic". [-ecl]]
Feeding the Birds (letter of comment by Charles S. Harris):
In response to Mark's comment in the 12/30/05 issue of the MT VOID ("[F]eeding wild birds may actually change their migration plans. They may stick to an area where someone is feeding them well now, but will not be in this future."), Charles Harris responds, "Ah yes, but assuredly someone will be feeding them well in *some* future--very likely in an infinite number of them, according to some of my cosmologist friends. The birds just have to figure out which timeline they're on." [-csh]
UBIK(letters of comment by Charles S. Harris and Joseph T. Major):
Evelyn wrote in the 12/30/05 issue, "Our science fiction discussion group read UBIK by Philip K. Dick ..., a novel that we all agreed was fairly incomprehensible the first time through."
Charles Harris points out, "This leaves a misleading impression, by not mentioning that at least two people chose to re-read UBIK at least twice, and found it more comprehensible and more enjoyable each time. (One person didn't like it at all--ditto for MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE--and one other's judgment was--and still is--hard to discern.)" [-csh]
And Joseph Major writes, "There is one factor that, I think, makes UBIK so hard to comprehend the first time around, and that is the change-of-pace in mid-novel. At first, the book is a--shall we say --"psi-thriller", about the government's war against the evil psis. Tom Clancy writing for John W. Campbell in the Fifties, in the height of JWC's psi mania, could have done something like that. Then Dick takes the book on one of his reality trips. [-jtm]
GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Familiar monsters are attacking major international cities. Toho again bids farewell to their Godzilla series. This final film offers a lot of sound and fury and weaves fourteen copyright Toho monsters into one plot, but the film offers nothing that is both new and of interest. The plot is a re-tread of that of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. There is a lot of action and some nostalgia, but it is one of the worst Godzilla plots in years. Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
Toho could have called this film SAYONARA KAIJU as they make what is claimed to be their last Godzilla film and probably their last kaiju (or giant monster) film. They clearly wanted to go out on a spectacular note, even if not a very intelligent one. Well, this is a spectacle as Toho's monster films go. It offers martial arts fighting, motorcycle chases, a new alien race threatening Earth, fourteen monsters from previous films, the Tri-Star version of Godzilla, the submarine from ATRAGON (though here it has been re-dubbed Gotengo), and some MATRIX-style imagery. It would be offering a lot if the plot were interesting. It is instead a weak re-tread of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
The countries of the world are tired of being prey to kaiju and have built an Earth Defense Force (isn't that the translation of the original Japanese title for THE MYSTERIANS?). They are a team of special martial artists. (I guess you never know when you will get a chance to use kung fu on 200-foot lizard.) They also carry huge guns the size of tree logs like the ones from MEN IN BLACK. Oh, I should mention that they are all mutants. Their DNA has in addition to the five bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T), they also have a fifth base called the M-factor. The M-base is never specified. Technically you can't have five bases in DNA because they pair up. A and T pair up; C and G pair up. The M-base is left sitting the dance out (unless maybe it pairs with itself?). But nobody at Toho seems to have thought out the science. They are too busy setting up motorcycle chases.
The strange genetic base has something to do with an alien race called the Xilians, (pronounced "Zillions" by the Japanese and "Zailians" by the American submarine commander). Gigan also shares the base. He is the aliens' primary cats-paw, though they do seem to control almost all of the monsters in the Toho catalog. (Sorry, no MechaGodzilla and no Kong, but the Toho Godzilla does get a chance to lambaste the Tri-Star Godzilla.) Most get a short time on screen with the big G before getting trounced. They could have left out the monsters that are not very interesting like Gigan and King Caesar (or Seesar) who looks like a giant version of a Flash Gordon Lion Man. The monsters do behave in ways I have not seen before. The Anguilus, for example, can roll up into a flying ball of spikes, looking not unlike an airborne sea urchin. (Or rather what a sea urchin would look like if it was somehow airborne.) Rodan flies at super-speeds thanks to the partial compromise from man-in-suit monsters to CGI renderings.
The style is way too hyper-kinetic. For the fans at least there is use of some of the classic monster calls. Anguilus has his original call from GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. Rodan has his monstrous version of a bird call. Disappointingly, I don't think we get the original Godzilla voice until the end of the end credits. The film has an unpleasant rock and roll score, and the best music is reused from previous films. There is some self- indulgent scene composition, like posing Godzilla dramatically in front of Mount Fuji. And there are numerous product placements.
For a final film I think that Toho was too anxious to please and threw in everything any of the kids in the audience might want. That includes a lot more bullets and violence than I remember from previous chapters. The result is decent only if you want to see a lot of the old monsters one last time. Otherwise it is a mess and rates only a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
MUNICH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Following the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an Israeli Mossad officer is asked to lead a five-member counter-assassination squad to track down the Munich terrorists and eliminate them. Eric Bana leads a cast of familiar actors in a tense but realistic looks at the dirty business of undercover work. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
I came to this film more or less expecting a dramatization of the 1972 terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics. Somewhat to my surprise after the first ten minutes it appeared that the account of the incident was over. Although there are two sequences later in the film in which the main character imagines how it must have been during the massacre, the film is not really about the events in Munich. Instead it is about a five-man team of agents for Israeli intelligence that is sent out to track down the PLO perpetrators and kill them. I immediately suspected the film was going to be very much like the 1986 HBO movie SWORD OF GIDEON. I did not realize until later that both films are adaptations of VENGEANCE: THE TRUE STORY OF AN ISRAELI COUNTER-TERRORIST TEAM by George Jonas.
The five men are a hand-picked team, though none seems to have had much experience at precisely this kind of work. They are essentially talented amateurs. Eric Bana (of BLACK HAWK DOWN and HULK) plays Avner who was basically an air marshal when he was asked to head the team. He finds himself a denizen of the shadow world of agents and killing with none of his team having the kind of experience or knowledge they would inevitably need. Among the team members are Steve (Daniel Craig, soon to be the new James Bond, here with an Australian accent) and the urbane Carl (Ciarán Hinds who recently play Julius Caesar in HBO's ROME.) This is a humorless account of the serious and dangerous business of assassination. The men find it difficult to make themselves killers or even to accept that that is their occupation. As they go from country to country--Italy, France, Britain, Holland, Lebanon--they have to learn and be comfortable in a world where they are both hunters and quarry, only slowly learning to be either.
This is a nerve-twisting drama of fairly ordinary people dropped into a world in which one never knows his friends from his enemies. In the fog of war one never knows for certain who might be working for whom. One is never sure if at the last moment fate may put someone innocent at the wrong place and time. A high priority is to not injure the innocent. They are both proud and ashamed of their work.
At the center of the story is the question of the morality of murdering murderers. As Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) says "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." And there is the danger that they will find themselves compromising so far that they justify the actions of the other side. And even if their killings are justifiable, do they actually do any good in killing people who will quickly be replaced by others just as bad?
People think that Spielberg's films are light and insubstantial. Yet his MUNICH shows the effects of resisting evil. His SCHINDLER'S LIST shows the result of not resisting enough. Between them they give a bleak outlook. And the best we can do, as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN suggests, is to respect and honor the people who battle in our name to resist such an enemy.
Most of the color is drained from the photography so that it has a chilling and bloodless effect. This film takes place in a world devoid of warmth. The story has the feel of authenticity, though the events of the book it was based on have not been and cannot be confirmed. Still, the story is as intriguing and tense as anything written by John le Carre. I rate MUNICH a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster (available in NESFA Press's FIRST CONTACTS: THE ESSENTIAL MURRAY LEINSTER, ISBN 0-915-36867-6) was recommended to Mark as very prescient. A home computer realizes it can tap the network of such computers (which Leinster calls "Logics") to help humanity in ways that had not been realized before. "Announcing new and improved Logics service! Your Logic is now equipped to give you not only consultative but directive service. If you want to do something and don't know how to do it--Ask your Logic!" So people start asking, "How can I get rid of my wife?" and "How can I keep my wife from finding out I've been drinking?" And they get useful answers. I tried these with "Ask Jeeves", the only search engine I know of that claims to take straight English-language questions; it did not give me anything useful. But the idea that someone could query the network for information about how to obtain a poison or build a bomb is very topical, and possible. Given that Leinster wrote "A Logic Named Joe" in 1946, or sixty years ago, that's pretty impressive. (KIRKUS REVIEWS calls it "the first computer-paranoia yarn.")
BOOKNOTES: AMERICA'S FINEST AUTHORS ON READING, WRITING, AND THE POWER OF IDEAS edited by Brian Lamb (ISBN 0-812-93029-0) is a collection of brief extracts from the C-SPAN interview show of the same name. Each is only four to six pages, just enough time to get some information of the author, the subject, and the book. In the interview with Shelby Foote, for example, we learn that he took twenty years to write the three books of his Civil War history. 1,500,000 words in all. By hand. With a dip pen. And African-American Literary and art critic Albert Murray came to New York in 1962 not for Harlem, but for the Strand and the Gotham Book Mart. British historian Simon Schama responds to a review that said, "Schama stoops to low journalistic devices in order to arrest the attention of his readers," by saying, "That was a very wicked thing to do. How dare I? I'm trying to arrest the attention of my readers--it's much better if they fall asleep." And Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer James Thomas Flexner does not believe in word processors: "I think they make books much too long." (Of course, given that Foote wrote 1.5 million words with a dip pen, I'm not sure one can *entirely* blame word processors for this.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The real object of education is to have a man in the condition of continually asking questions. -- Bishop Creighton
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