I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

What We Can Learn from Bigfoot

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by cryptozoology, the science (or pseudoscience) of studying unknown animals. As a child, I really wanted to believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and their many brethren. Alas, as the years rolled by and I actually started looking at the evidence for such creatures, I found myself becoming a skeptic.

I have sympathy for people who do believe in such creatures, however. First, there’s an issue of basic fairness. Cryptozoology has seen a few mythical beings actually come to light, most recently with giant squids finally being captured on film and proving the existence of the kraken. Other creatures were based on misinterpretations of actual evidence. Fossil elephant skulls were taken as proof of the existence of the Cyclops, for instance. Unfortunately for cryptozoologists, the deck is stacked. Whenever an unknown creature is finally proven to exist, it no longer belongs in the realm of cryptozoology. It’s merely zoology. Over time, all the mysterious creatures that actually do exist get claimed by science, and cryptozoologists are left with an increasingly dubious bestiary.

But I think cryptozoology has one interesting spin off that does fit into the realm of science. There’s something we can learn about how our brain works by looking at what’s perhaps the most universal and persistent superstar of cryptozoology, Bigfoot. While Bigfoot as a specific creature resides in the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous large hominids reported around the world in a variety of terrains. Swamps produce skunk apes, mountains produce yetis, and the previously mentioned Cyclops resided on a Mediterranean island. The Bible reports on the existence of giants. The notion that there’s big, wild man living somewhere in the nearby wilderness is something that a lot of people throughout the ages have been willing to believe in.

The easy answer to why so many people throughout history believe in these large hominids is that people are stupid. Some people let their imaginations run wild in barren lands and start jumping at their own shadows. They tell their stories to people who are insufficiently skeptical, and eventually a significant percentage of the population believes in beasts that simply do not exist. For a long time, I was satisfied with this easy answer.

Then I found out that dogs recognize other dogs and changed my mind.

You may be wondering what dogs have to do with Bigfoot. You may also be wondering why I would find it even vaguely interesting that dogs recognize other dogs. But, if you think about it, dogs have such variable body shapes that it’s difficult to define on a purely surface level exactly what a dog looks like. A pug looks nothing like a Doberman and a Chihuahua bears only the slightest resemblance to a Saint Bernard. Yet, when the pug sees a Saint Bernard, it somehow knows it’s a fellow dog. This makes sense if the dogs meet and can smell each other. However, the study I read about eliminated this by only showing the dogs pictures. The study dogs were shown two pictures at a time, one of a dog, one of a non-dog mammal. If they picked the picture of the dog, they got a treat. They got nothing if they picked a cat, horse, or goat. The dogs weren’t fooled by the non-dogs. Something in their brains seems to be hardwired to hone in on the defining features of a dog, whether it be a dachshund or a Great Dane.

The human mind likely possesses similar built in templates. Humans evolved in a world with numerous rival hominid species competing for the same habitat. Lions and tigers and bears were threats, but none were as dangerous to our survival as other large hominids. If one was in the neighborhood, spying at us from behind a tree or a rock, we had to be able to spot it fast or we might not live to pass on our genes. Our hominid spotting senses didn’t need to be too finely tuned to weed out false positives. If we mistook a shadowy tree trunk for a giant, hairy man and ran away, we’d live to tell our tribesmen about our close call. If we mistook a giant, hairy man for a tree trunk, we might not get to tell anyone.

It evolutionary years, it’s practically yesterday that we were sharing the planet with other large, tool-using hominids. We probably still have the built in templates for seeing these dangerous beasts out of the corner of our eye. Of course, all we get now are false hits. But I suspect that a fair number of Bigfoot sightings are honestly reported by sober people who actually saw something suspicious because our brains are on the lookout for something suspicious. The hunt for Bigfoot will probably never actually produce a Bigfoot, but I think it does provide us an interesting window into the lives of our early ancestors.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The End of Atheism?

A study put out by Duke University a few weeks ago caught my attention, with the revelation that only 45% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 say they have no doubt that God exists. 55% aren't sure that there is a God. The exact wording of this statement doesn't mean that a majority of young Americans are atheists, however. As near as I can tell from most surveys, only about 3% of Americans identify themselves as atheists.

It would seem that, as an atheist myself, I would be cheered by the news that a majority of young people are uncertain if God exists. However, I confess that I think that the decline in belief in God has very little to do with the actual rejection of the idea of God, and much more to do with ignorance, apathy, economics, and spectacular marketing failure on the part of American Christianity.

First, economics. When I was a child, pretty much everyone I knew went to church on Sundays. All stores were closed, and most restaurants. Starting in the 80s, though, Americans began to really assert their rights to shop on any day of the week they wanted, including Sundays. This meant that a lot of potential church goers got pulled out of the pews and put to work. One can blame the evil corporations for making people work on Sundays, but the reality is that businesses wouldn't be open on Sundays if they didn't have plenty of people shopping. I don't have any actual statistics, but it seems to me that if I go into most stores on weekends, Sundays feel a lot busier than Saturdays. Sunday lunch at restaurants is easily as busy, if not busier, than Friday nights, from what I can see.

I will also say, from personal observation, that the sort of workers who wind up working a Sunday morning shift tend to be younger employees, people in their twenties who don't yet have enough value to their employers to demand better shifts. People this age are also people who tend to have young children. So, the young children aren't in church because their parents are working. Which leads to the ignorance I mentioned: many of the non-religious young people I know aren't rejecting religion as much as they are just completely unaware of it. If you aren't indoctrinated into your parents faith at an early age, you are unlikely to spontaneously decide on your own that church is something you really need to get into your life.

Because, really, who has the time? It's the apathy I mentioned. Church used to be a huge resource for entertaining young people. You'd hang out with your friends at Sunday School, you'd go to Bible School in the summer, you'd play on the church softball league, and go to church picnics. Today, these activities are competing with the internet, video games, and a wave of streaming media that fill up our idle hours. Who needs a church for socializing if you've got a smartphone and social media? Why wait for Sunday when you can socialize 24/7? It's not that young people are completely unaware that there are churches out there. I'm sure they drive by them every day. They just don't care.

Lastly, the marketing failure: I don't know who's bright idea it was in the 1980s to weave together Christianity and right-wing politics, but in retrospect you have to think that the religious right didn't do their religion or their party any favors. Christianity did a pretty good job for a long time marketing itself as a fountain of peace and charity. Then, somehow, they threw their support behind politicians with militaristic tendencies and the avowed goals of cutting holes in the safety net of the poor. What would Jesus do? Bomb His enemies and slash food stamp budgets, apparently. I don't even necessarily think that these are bad ideas! There are people and places that probably do need the occasional bombing, and one can also argue that poorly designed welfare systems wind up exacerbating poverty rather than alleviating it. Still, how these came to be marketed as Christian values is mystifying. (I will acknowledge, by the way, that the so-called Christian right probably never represented a clear majority of Christians. Left wing Christians, however, never mastered talk radio and televangelism.)

In any case, once religion got tied to politics, it wound up tied to the ebb and flow of political popularity. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of American history understands that there is no permanently popular political party. Whoever is on top today will be on the bottom in a few years.

For avowed atheists, alas, the decline in religious belief probably also marks a decline in our ranks. Atheism is, despite the protests of its more fervent proponents, more reaction that action. I used to go to atheist meet-ups fairly frequently. As a rule, the sort of atheist who came to these meet ups had been raised in a religious household. A populare topic of conversation was on the struggles we'd had telling our families and loved ones that we no longer shared their beliefs. I seldom met people raised as atheists. To not believe in something, you have to know what it is you're not believing in. I'm not even sure that the growing lack of belief even falls into the category of agnosticism. Most agnostics are aware of the arguments on either side, they simply don't feel that either side has an irrefutable position, and are happy to actively reject that they need to take a position.

The ranks of unbelievers now don't seem to be made up of atheists and agnostics. They instead are filled mostly with the unaware. They aren't rejecting God, or refusing to take a position. They aren't even aware there was ever a need to have a position. A century ago, most people probably had opinions on telegrams and the way the railroads were being run. Today, these topics have all but vanished as a topic of conversation (unless you live in the tiny sliver of America actually served by railroads). Fading relevance is probably the biggest challenge facing religion today, and may mark the beginning of the end of mankind's belief in God. But who would have guessed that it might also lead to the end of atheism?