I've been reading.
Well, that isn't anything new, I guess. I've had a book in my hand pretty much constantly since I was three years old. But recently I haven't been really taking the time to read as much as I customarily do, and I've missed it. So, I finally decided that I'm going to take the time to read, try to catch up to my self-imposed schedule of one book a week, and read some fun stuff as well as things that are "good for me". I don't know if I'll manage to catch up to the schedule...I'm something like four books behind at the moment. But I'm going to give it a good try.
I've especially made good, the past couple of weeks, on the promise to read something fun. Of the three books I've finished in the past two weeks, two of them have been from one of my favorite writers, Kage Baker. The first, The Machine's Child, is the latest in her series of science fiction novels about The Company - for my money the best science fiction series in years. It tackles two of my favorite sf subgenres, time travel and immortality. I recommend the whole series highly.
The other "fun" book - which I just finished reading this evening - is also by Ms. Baker, a collection of shorter fiction. All the stories in Gods and Pawns also take place in the "Company" universe but don't necessarily require a knowledge of the series of novels, and might not be the worst way to be introduced to the series and to Ms. Baker's writing.
The third book was more serious, an exploration of the evolution of religion from a biological anthropologist. Barbara J. King's Evolving God, is an interesting look at how religion might have become a virtual universal among human cultures. Of course, Ms. King doesn't necessarily define religion in terms that Western monotheists would immediately recognize, but gives it a much wider application that includes various forms of spirituality that don't even necessarily involve belief in a God or gods. And, since her speciality is primate behavior, she begins by looking at what sorts of clues the behavior of chimpanzees might give us about how religious behavior took hold. There are four precursors of religious behavior, according to Ms. King: empathy, meaning-making, rule-following, and imagination. She insists that she sees all of these components in chimpanzee behavior. Ms. King concludes that religion evolved as a response to the primate need to feel they belong to a group of some sort. This sort of belongingness, she says, is a universal need. It is not, however, innate or genetic. It has more to do with intimacy, and begins with the first moments after birth when a child bonds with its mother.
After beginning with chimpanzees and other apes, Ms. King examines the evidence left behind by various primates in and near modern humans' ancestry and finds some interesting indications that symbolic behavior of the type that indicates some sort of religious or spiritual practices go back at least 200,000 years...interestingly enough, about the same time that anatomically modern humans are believed to have first appeared in Africa. There are hints of some sort of symbolic thinking going back much farther than that...she mentions the 3 million year old Makapansgat cobble, for example...but the nature of the evidence is such that there can only be speculation as to what particular very ancient artifacts such as this manuport might really mean.
Evolving God is an interesting book. I'm not sure that I see the logic of everything that Ms. King proposes, but she makes some very good points and supports them admirably with evidence rather than mere speculation. As an interesting sort of final word, she takes on those who see religion as hardwired into the genes as well as both the current crop of militant atheists...Dawkins, Dennett, et al...and and militant anti-Darwinsts. None of them withstand her scrutiny very well.