Monthly Archives: August 2008

Blind Judo, Worship and Smiling Babies

Although the Beijing Olympics have now come to an end, less able-bodied athletes can be seen competing in the Paralympics that begin on Sept 6th. Regrettably, these games attract only a fraction of the audience, which is a sad indictment on our viewing preferences for the perfect body. However, my interest will be drawn to these games following a recent study of congenitally blind athletes.

Researchers published an analysis of postures adopted by winning and losing blind  Judo finalists at the last Paralympics in 2004 in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They discovered that winning athletes raised both arms in a victory salute despite being blind from birth and having never seen this gesture. One possibility is that this may be a universal behavior, hard-wired into humans and possibly some primates. Looking at these images I was reminded of religious believers and rock audiences who universally seem to raise their arms skyward at moments of worship . I wonder if that is similarly true for those blind from birth.

Smiling on the other hand is uniquely human. A similar facial gesture in primates is indicative of a threat grimace where the bared teeth are used to signal a warning. Smiling is also hard-wired into humans as there are now classic studies of congenitally blind babies who smile around about the same time that this social behavior emerges in sighted infants at around 2-3 months. Although eager parents (and more often grandparents) often report smiling in newborns it truly takes off in a big way after a couple of months.

Here’s the interesting thing. Blind babies may begin smiling at roughly the same time as sighted babies but this behavior can drop out unless parents or caregivers respond to such signals in a contingent way. So the biological propensity for this particular behavior requires the environmental input for maintenance.

Isn’t this universal behavior curious? I wonder what other propensities have been wired into us, just waiting for the right environment to express them?


Filed under In the News, Research

Religion v Science v Supernatural

Last night’s final episode of “The Genius of Charles Darwin,” dealt with the rise of fundamental Christian belief in the West and the clash between creationism and natural selection. Once again, Richard Dawkins championed the cause of reason and evidence in deciding truth about the origins of species against a sea of believers who persisted in various biblical versions or denials.

At one point, Dawkins was aghast that science teachers did not feel it their duty to dissuade pupils of their creationist beliefs and we had a cringe-worthy segment where he interviewed a science teacher who maintained that the world was less than 10,000 years old. Dawkins was exasperated. On the other hand, I sympathize with the teachers; especially those that have to face the threats from families and school governors. Also, just teaching and engaging kids is hard enough, let alone getting them to overcome their intuitive bias that natural selection must be wrong. These are the natural biases that form part of a supersense that there is purpose, order and design in the world. We need to abandon or suppress these  if we are to accept non-intuitive models of the world and I think that this intuitive thinking is one of the reasons why religious accounts are acceptable to so many.

I have also just been sent an on-line article featuring forthcoming studies of beliefs among US college students, which again highlights the prevalence of supernatural beliefs among highly educated individuals. I have asked for preprints of the studies cited and will report back when I have had a chance to read them but the emerging story seems to be the same point made by G.K. Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.”

There is a widespread assumption that education and science training in particular will eradicate the prevalence of supernatural belief in the modern era. Richard Dawkins is spear-heading the neo-atheist movement to make this change come about. Although Darwin himself wrote that he thought that humans would eventually change their mindset about the origins of species, I am much more pessimistic. The various polls and studies and the sheer opposition to scientific explanations simply reflects the deep-seated, almost intractable, nature of belief. Is indoctrination solely responsible for this state of affairs? I don’t think so. Culture and religions may simply resonate with human inclinations. And where did these inclinations come from? 

I am not advocating that we give up trying, but we have to be realistic about the nature of the opposition to scientific models of the world and how strong those convictions can be.



Filed under atheism, Research, Television

The Holocaust Suitcase

Jennifer Anglim Kreder, an associate professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, has recently written an interesting piece on the legal and ethical implications when museums retain personal artifacts. In it, she identifies the conflicting interests of museums to display personal items and the wishes of relatives who want to have such items returned because of their sentimental value. In particular she reports the same story about Michel Levi-Leleu and his father’s suitcase that I discuss in my book, “SuperSense.”

This is the bizarre story of Michel, a 66-year old retired engineer who took his daughter to see a temporary exhibition in Paris on the Holocaust on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This exhibition contained some of the many suitcases that the Holocaust victims were encouraged to pack and label in a cynical ploy used by the Nazis to trick the Jews into thinking that they were being relocated rather than being sent to death camps.

Pierre Levi, Michel’s father was one such individual who disappeared during the war. The last time Michel saw his father was in 1943 when he left the safety of a refuge in Avignon in France with a cardboard suitcase looking for a new home with his Jewish family. In 2005, Michel’s daughter spotted a battered cardboard suitcase in the Paris exhibition bearing the name of her grandfather.

Michel response was immediate. He wanted the suitcase back and was soon locked in a legal battle to get the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to return the item to the family.

Kreder’s report of the proceedings is astounding. The Museum responded by countering with the precedence that no items had ever been returned and that if such claims were ever allowed then this would compromise the whole future of the Museum ever allowing public access. It then attempted to deny that the suitcase ever belonged to Pierre Levi, despite the fact that the case also bore his prisoner number as well. They then said that there were many Pierre Levi’s but again, the case bore the street address of Michel’s father. In dismissing the over-whelming evidence, the Museum regarded Michel’s claims as “highly dubious.”

Kreder’s article is thought-provoking. In a time when many museums are compelled by law to return sacred objects, there is a question of whether museums would survive if they could not display authentic items. This is because we value authentic items more than copies because of our psychological essentialism.

However, in this case, or suitcase to be more precise, it seems unjust to withhold the item from the Levi-Leleu family. For a start, it is very unlikely that all the suitcases in the Holocaust museum could be identified and returned to relatives and there must be thousands. More importantly, Michel does not want the suitcase simply to stick it in the attic. He stated,

“I’m not asking that they give it back to me and I’ll put it in a cupboard. I want it to be seen by the people who visit the memorial.”

However, Michel also reveals a supersense towards the suitcase. One of his reasons for wanting to keep the suitcase in France is that he, “didn’t want it to repeat the journey that it had already made to Auschwitz.”

For Michel, it is almost as if the suitcase had become his dead father. Kreder then goes into a fine-grained analysis of the legal precedence of individuals making claims for return of items but ends the article by concluding that museums are morally obligated to return symbolic objects that should never have been taken in the first place.

I had hoped to be able to update you about the Holocaust suitcase and expected a legal decision to be reached in May this year, but I understand that proceedings are still ongoing.

I’ll keep you posted on this one.

Anyway, do you think that the museum is right by acting on behalf of the majority rather than the individual? I am not so sure.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

I am enjoying Richard Dawkins’ latest TV series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin” currently broadcast on UK’s Channel 4. I am sure it will rally the atheists and rile the religious.

images1Not only is Dawkins celebrating the brilliance of Darwin and the power and elegance of Natural Selection to explain the origins of species, he looks like he is using the series as a platform to batter the believers again. Good luck to him. They are not easily dissuaded by argument or evidence.

However, there was one moment in Monday’s episode that I simply had to comment on. Dawkins went to London’s Natural History Museum that still house some of the original specimens documented and labelled by Darwin.

As he sat down to examine the collection, Dawkin’s said, “”This is a very weird feeling… these are Darwins original specimens!” 

He then picked up one pigeon and described how it differed from another.

“This one has been re-labelled but this one has been written in Darwin’s original hand”

At that point Dawkins held up the label to the camera in a lingering shot that I suppose the producers wanted to evoke a moment of awe and reverence.

One thing is clear. Dawkins is a passionate man and clearly has conviction in his advocacy of atheism and rejection of supernaturalism. But I wonder if he, like many others, feels an emotional connection to others through the objects they once handled in the same way the religious covet a relic?

I hope he does. It would make him seem more human to many.

Thanks Alice for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under Essentialism, Television

Overkill on Olympic Numerology

Numbers are amazing. If you have the time and inclination, then there are some really fascinating things about numbers. A cursory glance at the web reveals a plethora of sites. Personally, I am always astounded that for any true circle, the circumference divided by the diameter equals pi – a magical number that may go on forever. But some people take numbers to another dimension.

It can’t have escaped your notice or your pattern-detecting mechanisms in your brain for that matter that the forthcoming Olympic Games to be held next week in Beijing commence at 8 minutes past 8 o’clock, on the 8th day of the 8 month in the year 2008. You are also probably aware that the number 8 is considered lucky in China. Personally, I would have preferred to place more confidence in the organization and planning rather than superstitious numerology.

The reason is fairly obvious.  The number ‘8’ sounds like prosperity or luck in Chinese though I am not sure whether that applies to both Cantonese and Mandarin languages. Any bloggers out there who can enlighten me?

“Superstitious nonsense,” you might cry. But hold on a moment, just because there is no natural link between the sound of a number and influencing an outcome, those with a strong supersense can still be adversely affected.

Consider the Hound of the Baskervilles Effect. In the classic Sherlock Holmes story, Charles Baskerville dies of fright at the prospect of the evil hound emerging from the depths of hell to pursue him. The same fear can be generated by numbers. Unlike the number ‘8’ the number ‘4’ is considered very unlucky in Asian culture. The number ‘4’ in Cantonese (‘su’) and in Japanese (‘shi’) both sound like the word for death.

When researchers studied 25 years of death records from 1973 to 1998 in communities of Chinese and Japanese Americans they found a significant increase in death from cardiac failure on the 4th day of each month. The effect was most pronounced in California.

So fear is a factor and while we may entertain the notions of good and bad luck as a bit of harmless fun, the truth is that it can have a consequence for health. On the other hand, if you are of the disposition to fear numbers, then any bump in the night or knock at the door is going to stress your ticker. People just look for good and bad omens.

So my question is this. Is it irrational to believe in the power of numbers if such beliefs produce measurable effects? Is this behaviour truly irrational? 

Looking forward to your comments.



Filed under supernatural