Friday, February 25, 2005

Bread and circuses

Sometimes the pessimists among us wonder if the human race is making any progress. Not scientific or technological progress - advancements in those areas are obvious - but moral progress. Are people today any better, any more civilized, than people of one thousand or two thousand years ago?

I think the answer is yes. If you doubt it, you should read Daniel P. Mannix's The Way of the Gladiator, also published under the title Those About to Die. (The book is available at Amazon, here.)

Relying largely on ancient historians, Mannix recreates the atmosphere of the Roman arena - the bloody sand of the Circus Maximus and, later, the Colosseum. His book is a recitation of grisly horrors that is at once difficult to read and impossible to put down.

The Roman "games" (ludi, in Latin) began as contests of athletic skill but degenerated into grotesque barbarism and unspeakably sadistic cruelty directed against criminals, prisoners of war, people out of favor with the government, and vast numbers of animals. The slaughter was horrific. The brutality was unbelievable. The crowd loved it.

Certain historians doubt the reliability of the ancient sources, saying that the writers of the time exaggerated. This is possible, but even if the reality was only half as bad as the accounts, it was still almost indescribable. Consider a few examples quoted almost at random from Mannix's book:

[There were] gladiators called andabatae, men wearing helmets without visors so they could not see. As soon as they reached the arena, these andabatae began to swing wildly around by chance to hit one another.... The crowd [roared] with laughter at the men's clumsy swings....

To keep the crowd amused during the noon hour, women were tied to bulls and dragged to death and little boys assaulted by men dressed as satyrs. A confessed Christian named Antipas was put in a bronze figure of a bull and a fire lighted under the image. The man's screams came out of the bull's open mouth as though the animal were bellowing. Chimpanzees were made drunk on wine and then encouraged to rape girls tied to stakes....

The Romans had a robust sense of humor. At the time of Caligula, a gladiator had his right arm cut off [in combat] so he was helpless. The crowd considered this uproariously funny....

A number of fast-moving novelty acts were introduced. Women were dragged behind chariots and the hounds set on them. "Legendary pageants" were staged showing the castration of Alys, Hercules being burned alive on a pyre, and Mucius Scaevola having his hand burned off. A prostitute and her pimp gave an exhibition of the various positions of sexual intercourse but in the middle of an embrace, [an animal trainer] set the Molossian hounds on the couple and they were quickly torn to pieces. A robber was crucified and bears encouraged to jump up and tear the dying man from the cross. A man representing Prometheus was chained to a rock and a trained eagle turned loose to pull out his liver. By the time the eagle was done with him, Martial tells us, "his mangled linmbs still lived although all the parts dripped blood and in all his body was nowhere a body's shape."

The crowd was driven to orgastic ecstasy by these varied tortures. Women would throw their jewelry and even their clothes into the arena. Fights would break out in the stands. Gangs of sexual sadists would bribe the arena staff so they could get close to the condemned prisoners, fondling them while shouting vivid descriptions of their impending fate.

Almost no one found this objectionable. Rome's emperors all attended the "games," and most of them were enthusiastic about it, although a few, notably Marcus Aurelius, were not. Rome's intellectuals had no moral or ethical qualms about what went on in the arena. They seemed to regard the "games" as a useful mechanism of crowd control, and even as a beneficial instruction in the art of facing pain and death.

Now, I ask you, could the "games" be held today?

Yes, there are still examples of animal cruelty - cockfights, dogfights, bullfights. And yes, there are boxing matches and footgame games and auto races that sometimes result in death or serious injury. But would a modern American crowd enjoy the spectacle of women being dragged to their death by bulls or raped by chimps, or men, women, and children being torn apart by vicious carnivores? I don't think so.

If the world has changed, what made the difference? Here it is interesting to quote another passage from Mannix. After observing that Rome's increasingly large population of Gauls, Germans, and Parthians had little interest in the "games" and thus reduced the attendance figures, he goes on to say:

The Christian church was growing in power and did everything possible to stop the games. In 325 A.D., Constantine [the first emperor sympathetic to Christianity] tried to put an end to the games but they still continued. Then in 365 A.D. [after the formal conversion of the Empire to Christianity], Valentinian forbade sacrificing victims to wild beasts. He was able to make his edict stick, and that took all the fun out of the spectacles. In 399 A.D. the gladiatorial schools had to close for want of pupils.

Then in 404 A.D., a [Christian] monk named Telemachus leaped into the arena and appealed to people to stop the fights. Telemachus was promptly stoned to death by the angry mob but his death ended the spectacles. The Emperor Honorius was so furious at Telemachus' lynching that he closed the arenas. They never reopened.

So it was mainly the advent of Christianity that stopped this fearsome, centuries-old exercise in sadism.

Today it is fashionable to mock Christianity as hopelessly "retro" and out of step with our modern, sophisticated, pragmatic and amoral world. Yet if we look at what the world was like before Christianity, we see the "games" - and the crowds who loved them.

Who says we aren't making progress?

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Recently I've been having an interesting email dialogue with a dedicated Christian. In response to some questions of mine, she patiently explained Christianity's view of sin. Her basic point was that sin is impurity and begins with impure thoughts - lust, anger, and so on.

My reaction was that if this is sin, then we are all guilty. If lust is equivalent to fornication, then we are all fornicators. For that matter, if anger is equivalent to murder, then nearly all of us are guilty of murder, too. I certainly am, since I have vividly imagined killing people who ticked me off (rude drivers, for instance). I wouldn't actually do it, but I can dream, can't I?

At least now I have a better understanding of why, according to Christianity, everyone is sinful. I wonder, though, if this approach to morality is really helpful or even healthy.

Years ago I was involved in Objectivism, a cultish movement that grew up around the writings (and the charismatic personality) of the novelist Ayn Rand. As an Objectivist, I was caught up in the idea of perfectionism, because Rand's morality is very perfectionistic. You must be absolutely rational all the time, must never have a thought or feeling you can't justify, must never do anything on a whim, must never give less than 100% concentration ("focus," they call it) to the task at hand, etc.

It was stultifying.

Gradually I learned the truth in the old adage, "The perfect is the enemy of the good" - i.e., in trying to be perfect, we end up paralyzed and can't accomplish anything, whereas if we just try to be good, not perfect, then we can get things done. As a simple example, if I thought I had to write a "perfect" chapter, I would freeze up and not be able to write at all. But if I just want to write a good chapter, or a good-enough chapter, I can do that.

So I have learned that perfectionism is my enemy. I have tried it, and it doesn't work.

My problem with the Christian ethics, at least as it is usually preached, is that it is profoundly perfectionistic. Jesus is even quoted as saying, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Don't have the "wrong" feelings (lust or anger). Always turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Love your enemies.

Within limits, this is excellent advice. But with no limits attached, it becomes an unreal, otherworldly formula of perfection that can never be attained.

If I were bold enough to rewrite the Bible, I would phrase these admonitions differently. I would say, "It's preferable not to experience excessive lust or anger; don't encourage it." "It's often better to turn the other cheek, if circumstances permit it." "It's emotionally healing to make peace with your enemies when you can."

The gist of the ideas is good, but the all-or-nothing quality merely inculcates guilt at not living up to a standard that no one but a perfect being could live up to, anyway.

And I wonder if my interpretation may not be closer to the original meaning of Jesus' words. I think we should consider the very real possibility - and I mean this seriously - that Jesus did not mean to be taken literally, but was exaggerating for effect.

After all, he uses exaggeration all the time. Remember the Pharisee who strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel, or the splinter in our friend's eye and the log in our own? If he could exaggerate with those sayings, why not with others? To say "Love your enemy" might be a rhetorically effective way of making a simpler point: "Try not to hold a grudge; make peace with those you're feuding with, if you can; don't nurse hatred in your heart." If understood this way, "Love your enemy" is very good advice. If taken literally, it becomes impossible. Can anyone who lost a friend or loved one on 9-11 really love Al Qaeda? And should we feel guilty about not loving them?

We can hear the "log in your eye" saying without worrying that there is an actual log in our eye. Why, then, do we insist on literalism in other sayings?

Jesus was speaking to large, restless crowds. He had to hold their interest or they would wander away. He was speaking to simple people; he couldn't get involved in complex nuances that would go over their heads. He was shouting while he stood on a hillside or in a boat - hardly the ideal way to deliver an elaborate ethical treatise. And to connect with his audience, he had to express himself in the colorful vernacular of his day. Arabic idioms are full of exaggerated imagery and rhetorical flourishes.

In short, we may be reading literally what we were meant to hear more idiomatically. "Love your enemy" gets the point across in simple, plain terms. As the condensed essence of a much more complex moral position, it is unobjectionable. If it becomes the entirety of one's morality, with no ifs, ands, or buts, then it is probably impracticable on earth.

That's my way of looking at it, anyhow. And that's why I don't think sinners are as commonplace as Christianity would have us believe. Sin is a term I would reserve for the big stuff - destructive lying and betrayal, violence and murder, abuse of power.

Most of us don't do those things. Maybe we don't have so much to feel guilty about, after all.

Monday, February 21, 2005

An evolving position

When you read books and Web sites dealing with evolution, you can't help being drawn into the controversy between two firmly entrenched camps - the die-hard Darwinists, who believe that every aspect of life on earth can be explained by Darwin's theory of natural selection, and the equally zealous anti-Darwinists, who denigrate Darwin's ideas and consign them to the same scrapheap of 19th Century falsehoods where Freud and Marx have already been laid to rest.

(I use the neutral term "anti-Darwinists" rather than the pejorative and often inaccurate term "creationists," which is favored by the pro-Darwin side. Not all anti-Darwinists are Biblical fundamentalists, and the current debate should not be lazily caricatured as a rehash of Inherit the Wind.)

Personally, I'm inclined to look for the truth somewhere in the middle ground between the two sides, both of which can be dogmatic, stubborn, and unreasonable, even cruel in their personal attacks and invective.

Despite what the anti-Darwin forces maintain, I think there is a great deal of evidence to support the contention that the various species on earth today have evolved from earlier species, a process that has taken millions of years. While the fossil record is not as complete as we might like, paleontologists have found good transitional forms between reptiles and birds, and between land-dwelling quadrupeds and whales. There is an excellent series of horse fossils showing how the earliest horse, Eohippus, evolved into progressively larger horses, along the way losing two of its four toes. Analysis of the genomes of living species also tends to support the thesis of common descent, with closely related animals having more genetic sequences in common than more distant relatives. And micro-evolution, at least, has been observed in the laboratory - in the breeding of exotic mutant fruitflies - and in the wild, where insects have developed resistance to pesticides, bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, and populations of insects and birds have undergone measurable changes in response to environmental pressures.

It is possible for anti-Darwinists to poke holes in some of this evidence, of course. Nothing in science, or any other field of empirical investigation, is ever 100% certain. There will always be weak spots to exploit. But the thrust of the evidence is strong enough to convince me that the general world picture painted by Darwinism is true. The estimable naturalist will not be joining Marx and Freud in the trash heap anytime soon.

Still, the Darwinists, or at least the most vocal among them, are probably overstating the case when they suggest - or even say openly - that evolution by natural selection explains everything. This seems to be more of a philosophical conviction, or even a quasi-religious commitment, than a conclusion actually warranted by the evidence. In fact, the anti-Darwin side, for all its excesses and tendentious nitpicking, does make some good points.

For one thing, Darwinism has nothing useful to say about abiogenesis - the origin of life. How the first living cell emerged from nonliving antecedents remains a mystery - actually a greater mystery than in Darwin's day, when the cell was believed to be a simple glob of protoplasm. Thanks to electron microscopy, we now know that the cell is a fantastically complex assembly of organic machines, more elaborate and sophisticated than any factory. The origin of such dazzling complexity, and above all of the encoded information in the genes that makes it possible, is a question that Darwinism - or scientific materialism as such - seems to have very little hope of answering.

Then there is the problem of the first large-scale emergence of living creatures, the Cambrian Explosion, circa 530 million years ago. Pre-Cambrian rocks show traces of soft-bodied creatures like worms, as well as microscopic organisms, but these relatively minor developments pale in comparison with the vast array of creatures that appear at the very start of the Cambrian Era. Fifty phyla of animals (more than the number of phyla on earth today) pop into existence with disconcerting abruptness and with few obvious predecessors. Something other than gradualism seems to be involved here.

Finally, there are the large jumps that incremental, progressive evolution is hard-pressed to explain. How, for instance, did egg-laying creatures evolve into creatures that bore live young? What sort of transitional reproductive apparatus can be imagined that lies halfway between laying eggs and giving birth? Yes, I know the duck-billed platypus and other monotremes are egg-laying mammals, but that's just the point - they lay eggs. They do not reproduce in some "transitional" manner that involves aspects of egg-laying and aspects of live birth. And it is hard to know what would constitute such a halfway position. In this area, it seems more logical to imagine a sudden jump from egg-laying to live birth - and yet a sudden jump is precisely what Darwinism forbids.

In the end, there ought to be room for intelligent compromise. Darwinism explains a lot, but perhaps not everything. It is only hubris that keeps the extremists on both sides from acknowledging any validity to their opponents' position.

My guess is that Darwinism will eventually share the fate of Newtonian physics. Once thought to explain everything in the physical world, Newton's laws have since been relegated to secondary status, encapsulated within the larger framework of quantum theory. Darwin's views may someday be seen in a similar way - as a useful, groundbreaking, brilliant, but only partial explanation.

And if this happens, should anyone really be surprised? After all, what were the odds that a naturalist writing by candlelight in the age of horse-and-buggies would have the last word, for all time, on the deepest mysteries of life?

Update (Feb. 22): After posting this comment, I realized that one paragraph may have been misleading. Just to be clear, when I say that there were more phyla in the Cambrian Era than there are today, I don't mean to suggest that there was greater diversity of life at that time than there is now. Although the number of phyla has declined from 50 to 37, the diversity within each phylum has greatly increased. As just one example, a single phylum, Chordata, contains all vertebrates - fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Still, the relatively sudden appearance of so many distinct body plans (mostly in a time frame of 5 to 10 million years) is problematic for Darwinism and may require some new thinking.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wronging writers

Ah, the writer's life. Some people are very nice to writers. Others ... well, here's a real-life episode from a few years ago. I was attending a party at an apartment complex where I lived, and met a husband and wife in their late fifties or early sixties. Small talk ensued. They seemed affable enough at first - until the subject of my career came up.

Husband: What sort of work do you do?
Me: I write novels.
Husband: But how do you make money? Do you have some other job?
Me: No, I just write books.
Husband (skeptical): And you make a living at that?
Me: I try.
Husband: How many have you written?
Me: Fifteen by now. I do one a year.
Husband (shocked and disapproving): You're a full-time writer, and you write ONLY one book a year?
Me: Well, um, yeah.

Husband shakes his head in disgust and walks away. Wife lingers.

Wife: What sort of books are they?
Me: Suspense novels.
Wife:: Oooh, I love mysteries.
Me: Well, they're not exactly mysteries.
Wife: Whodunits. I love whodunits.
Me: Mine aren't really whodunits.
Wife: What are they?
Me: Well, they're mostly about, um, serial killers.
Wife (wrinkling her nose and baring her teeth): UGH!

Wife spins on her heel and marches off, leaving me alone.

Within two minutes, I had managed to elicit reactions of unmitigated contempt from two total stangers. I left the party a few minutes later - slipping out the back door like a common thief.

Mamas, don't let your children grow up to be writers ...

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Intelligent Design and the cosmos

There's a little debate about Intelligent Design going on at the Corner, National Review Online's blog. Simply stated, Intelligent Design is the view that the order and complexity of the universe imply a conscious plan. There are many aspects to this debate, but perhaps the most straightforward involves the habitability of our universe. Dozens of things at the moment of the Big Bang had to go "just right" in order for our cosmos to generate long-lived, slow-burning stars; and within those stars, still more things had to work out "just right" so that the fission and fusion reactions would produce the elements of the Periodic Table. Under most scenarios, the Big Bang would have collapsed back on itself, or produced a universe that consists solely of hydrogen, or produced a universe in chaos, or a hundred other dead ends. Yet we got "lucky." Somehow everything fell into place, and carbon-based life became possible. To many people, the degree of apparent "fine-tuning" necessary to bring about this result suggests an intention, a master plan behind it all.

Although this argument seems simple enough, there are some highly intelligent folks who just don't seem to understand it. I don't mean they disagree; I mean they don't see the force of the argument in the first place. Consider this quote from the Corner's John Derbyshire:

"The odds against the universe being the way it is are trillions trillions trillions to one!" [say Intelligent Design proponents.] So they are. The odds of ANY particular event are exceedingly small. SOMETHING has to happen, though. I met my wife in a remote town in northeast China. What, from the point of view of my working-class English mother contemplating me as a newborn, were the odds of THAT? I was bound to marry somebody, though. The odds of it being any particular person -- let alone a person on the other side of the world -- were infinitesimal... but SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN.

Now, Derbyshire is a smart man, but this rebuttal misses the point altogether. The point is not that our universe, as it stands, is merely unlikely. Any given thing that happens is unlikely, in the sense that it depends on a series of contingencies. The point of the Intelligent Design argument is that our universe is extraordinarily unlikely in a very special, very particular way: it is well suited for life. Yes, given that "something has to happen," some kind of universe could be expected. But why this kind, which is so perfectly set up for life, as opposed to the myriad other possible universes in which life would be impossible?

A critic might object: "If life weren't possible in the universe, then we wouldn't be around to wonder about it!" This is true, but irrelevant. Suppose a person, Smith, suffers a terrible car crash. His car is totaled, mangled, yet he walks away without a scratch. Smith might well say, "How did I ever escape from that accident alive?" Jones, a bystander, responds, "That's a meaningless question. If you hadn't lived through the crash, you wouldn't be around to ask about it."

But clearly Jones is wrong. Smith's question is not meaningless. Because the fact is, he did survive the crash, against all odds, and he is perfectly entitled to wonder how things turned out that way.

Nor is his question just idle speculation. Smith can investigate further. He can examine how the car was built, how the airbags deployed, how the brakes worked, etc. He can figure out why the driver's compartment did not collapse even though the rest of the car was crushed. In fact, engineers who run crash tests do exactly this sort of thing, and they learn a lot by doing it.

Coming back to the cosmos, we are perfectly entitled to ask, "How is it possible that the universe worked out in such a way that living, conscious beings like ourselves are here to wonder about it?"

Personally, I see much evidence of intention and purpose in our world, and precious little reason to accept the materialists' claim that randomness underlies everything. Intelligent Design is debatable, and it should be debated - but not by knocking down straw-man arguments. That approach is just, well, unintelligent.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The occasional madness of reader reviews

I like's reader reviews. I really do. They are frequently more helpful and more insightful than the professional reviews posted on the same page. But sometimes they are just plain weird.

Case in point: Currently I'm reading the history book The Last Apocalypse by James Reston, Jr., an entertaining recreation of Europe circa AD 1000. At that time, Europe was under attack from three directions. The Vikings were pillaging and conquering England and France; the Magyars of Hungary were invading Germany and Italy; and the Moors, having conquered Spain, were threatening to make further inroads into Europe. Reston combines colorful myth and legend with dry archeological facts to present a highly readable account of an underreported era.

It's possible to quibble intelligently with Reston's approach, by criticizing his reliance on oral traditions that may not be accurate. When I checked Amazon's Last Apocalypse page, I found several reviewers who took this tack. I disagree with them, because without the oral tradition there is little to say about this period, which has few written records to guide us (most people were illiterate). Still, it's an arguable point.

But then I found this bizarre opinion, reproduced in its entirety:

Unless you're interested in what Reston had for breakfast on a given day rather than history look elsewhere.

Now, what is this guy talking about? The only thing I can figure is that this "reviewer" read the first page of the book, which begins, "I parked my Vauxall Roadster beside a hedgerow ...", and assumed that the whole book focused on Reston's travels through Europe.

Which it does not.

Having read no further than the opening sentence, the "reviewer" then crafted his unhelpful message. And because Amazon is a democracy, his two-star review counts as much as anyone else's, helping to bring down poor Mr. Reston's average rating.

Another thing I've noticed is that whenever any book on Amazon gets more than a handful of reviews, at least one of those reviews will be sharply and mean-spiritedly negative.

Some folks, it would seem, are so overflowing with hostility that they can't help but release some of it on the Web.

Kind of sad, don't you think?

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Nasty people

Generalizations are dangerous. Nevertheless, sometimes they can be helpful. Consider this surprising admission from Ray Hyman, one of today's best-known skeptics of the paranormal:

“As a whole, parapsychologists are nice, honest people, while the critics are cynical, nasty people.” (The quote can be found here.)

Hyman's cautious qualifier "as a whole" is surely justified. But I think, in general, he's right. Some of the critics are indeed "cynical, nasty people." I found an astonishing example of this not long ago at a Web site created by a grieving father, who lost his young son in a freak accident. The father felt his son's spirit was visiting him at times, and started the site to report his experiences and ask for feedback. He was open to any and all suggestions, including the idea that it was all in his head. He was polite and thoughtful toward anyone who posted a comment.

Now, with these circumstances in mind, look at the following comment by a skeptic, which I reproduce in its entirety, with no corrections:

Subject: For real? Date: Fri, 20 Oct 2000 07:06:34 -0700 (PDT) Is this shit for real? Sounds like a horrible farse to me. Perhaps an experiment in the limits or extent of gullability? I will proceed on the assumption that you beleive this nonsense, and are not duping the fine discerning general public of the net ;) If your wife was stupid enough to dry her hair next to a bathtub full of water and your son, then drop the dryer in, well all I can say is Darwin was watching very carefully! Better her idiot genes not be spread.

Boy, the milk of human kindness is overflowing in this guy, isn't it?

"Cynical, nasty people," indeed.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Okay, so last week I read the manuscript of my friend J. Carson Black's second novel, which I enjoyed tremendously. I offered to give her a quote - not that a quote from me is likely to boost sales, but you do what you can.

Unfortunately I then hit a blank. I went for two days without finding the right words (and without really thinking about it). Today, needing inspiration, I had lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, notebook in hand. As I had hoped, the chicken tostada, sour cream enchilada, and salty margarita precipitated a burst of creativity!

(Well, mainly it was the margarita.)

Anyway, I got the job done - two entire sentences - which constitutes a pretty good day's work, if I do say so myself.

I won't reproduce the quote here, since the book doesn't come out for a year, but I will report that it contained adjectives like "perilous" and "harrowing," as well as an assortment of exciting nouns and a few obligatory but not terribly invigorating prepositions.

New and improved!

Several people have told me that it's nearly impossible to post a comment on this blog. (Which may explain why there are hardly any comments - though it's also possible that nobody is reading ... and really, can you blame them?)

Anyway, I have changed the settings to make it easier to comment. Registration is no longer required. You can comment anonymously.

I hope this helps.