Monthly Archives: May 2009

Like Darwin said, the differences between species are one’s of degree, not kind

The more science learns about non-human animals, the more we learn that characteristics once thought to be uniquely human are shared (albeit not always to the same extent) with other animals. The article reprinted below from the Telegraph makes this point regarding an innate sense of morality.

At some point, we need to take seriously the status of humans as ANIMALS. We are not divine, we are not specially created, we do not have a soul that other animals lack. We are the product of blind evolutionary processes just like every other species. And thus, if we would grant certain fundamental rights to all humans, we need to extend that protection to other sentient creatures.

Here’s the article:

ANIMALS CAN TELL RIGHT FROM WRONG

Animals possess a sense of morality that allows them to tell the difference between right and wrong, according to a controversial new book.

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
Last Updated: 5:40PM BST 24 May 2009

This finding has suggested that complex emotional judgements such as empathy may have evolved considerably earlier in history than previously thought and could be widespread in the animal kingdom.

Animals can tell right from wrong

Research suggests that it’s not just humans who have a moral compass Photo: GETTY

Scientists studying animal behaviour believe they have growing evidence that species ranging from mice to primates are governed by moral codes of conduct in the same way as humans.

Until recently, humans were thought to be the only species to experience complex emotions and have a sense of morality.

But Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that morals are “hard-wired” into the brains of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups.

He has compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to have an innate sense of fairness, display empathy and help other animals that are in distress.

His conclusions will provide ammunition for animal welfare groups pushing to have animals treated more humanely, but some experts are sceptical about the extent to which animals can experience complex emotions and social responsibility.

Prof Bekoff, who presents his case in a new book Wild Justice, said: “The belief that humans have morality and animals don’t is a long-standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case.

“Just as in humans, the moral nuances of a particular culture or group will be different from another, but they are certainly there. Moral codes are species specific, so they can be difficult to compare with each other or with humans.”

Prof Bekoff believes morals developed in animals to help regulate behaviour in social groups of animals such as wolves and primates.

He claims that these rules help to control fighting within the group and encourage co-operative behaviour.

Recent neurology work has also revealed that distantly related mammals such as whales and dolphins have the same structures in their brains that are thought to be responsible for empathy in humans.

Other findings have also suggested that some animals may even be capable of showing empathy with the suffering of other species.

Prof Bekoff, who co-wrote the book with moral philosopher Jessica Pierce, also from the University of Colorado, added: “There are cases of dolphins helping humans to escape from sharks and elephants that have helped antelope escape from enclosures.

“While it is difficult to know for certain that there is cross species empathy, it is hard to argue against it.”

His ideas have met with some controversy in the scientific community, but many admit it is difficult to argue that animals do not share many of the psychological qualities previously only attributed to humans.

Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviourist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, said: “I don’t believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species.

“Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality.”

WOLVES

Wolves live in tight-knit social groups that are regulated by strict rules. If a pack grows too large, members are not able to bond closely enough and the pack disintegrates. Wolves also demonstrate fairness.

During play, dominant wolves will “handicap” themselves by engaging in roll reversal with lower ranking wolves, showing submission and allowing them to bite, provided it is not too hard.

Prof Bekoff argues that without a moral code governing their actions, this kind of behaviour would not be possible. If an animal bites too hard, it will initiate a “play bow” to ask forgiveness before play resumes.

COYOTES

In other members of the dog family, play is controlled by similar rules. Among coyotes, cubs which bite too hard are ostracised by the rest of the group and often end up having to leave entirely.

“We looked at the mortality of these young animals who disperse from the group and they have four to five times higher mortality,” said Bekoff.

Experiments with domestic dogs, where one animal was given a treat and another denied, have shown that they posses a sense of fairness as they shared their treats.

ELEPHANTS

Elephants are intensely sociable and emotional animals. Research by Iain Douglas Hamilton, from the department of zoology at Oxford University, suggests elephants experience compassion and has found evidence of elephants helping injured or ill members of their herd.

In one case, a Matriarch known as Eleanor fell ill and a female in the herd gently tried to help Eleanor back to her feet, staying with her before she died.

In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants rescued antelope who were being held inside an enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa.

The matriarch unfastened all of the metal latches holding the gates closed and swung the entrance open allowing the antelope to escape.

This is thought to be a rare example of animals showing empathy for members of another species – a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind.

DIANA MONKEYS

A laboratory experiment trained Diana monkeys to insert a token into a slot to obtain food.

A male who had grown to be adept at the task was found to be helping the oldest female who had not been able to learn how to insert the token.

On three occasion the male monkey picked up tokens she dropped and inserted them into the slot and allowed her to have the food.

As there was no benefit for the male monkey, Prof Bekoff argues that this is a clear example of an animal’s actions being driven by some internal moral compass.

CHIMPANZEES

Known to be among the most cognitively advanced of the great apes and our closest cousin, it is perhaps not surprising that scientists should suggest they live by moral codes.

A chimpanzee known as Knuckles – from the Centre for Great Apes in Florida – is the only known captive chimpanzee to suffer from cerebral palsy, which leaves him physically and mentally handicapped.

Scientists have found that other chimpanzees in his group treat him differently and he is rarely subjected to intimidating displays of aggression from older males.

Chimpanzees also demonstrate a sense of justice and those who deviate from the code of conduct of a group are set upon by other members as punishment.

RODENTS

Experiments with rats have shown that they will not take food if they know their actions will cause pain to another rat. In lab tests, rats were given food which then caused a second group of rats to receive an electric shock.

The rats with the food stopped eating rather than see another rat receive a shock. Similarly, mice react more strongly to pain when they have seen another mouse in pain.

Recent research from Switzerland also showed that rats will help a rat, to which it is not related, to obtain food if they themselves have benefited from the charity of others. This reciprocity was thought to be restricted to primates.

BATS

Vampire bats need to drink blood every night but it is common for some not to find any food. Those who are successful in foraging for blood will share their meal with bats who are not successful.

They are more likely to share with bats who had previously shared with them. Prof Bekoff believes this reciprocity is a result of a sense of affiliation that binds groups of animals together.

Some studies have shown that animals experience hormonal changes that lead them to “crave” social interaction.

Biologists have also observed a female Rodrigues fruit-eating bat in Gainesville, Florida, helping another female to give birth by showing the pregnant female the correct birthing position – with head up and feed down.

WHALES

Whales have been found to have spindle cells in their brains. These very large and specialised cells were thought to be restricted to humans and other great apes and appear to play a role in empathy and understanding the feelings of others.

Humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and sperm whales have all been found to have spindle cells in the same areas of their brains.

They also have three times as many spindle cells compared to humans and are thought to be older in evolutionary terms.

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The Danger of Dogma – One More Time

ABUSE OF CHILD ‘WITCHES’ ON THE RISE, AID GROUP SAYS

By Faith Karimi

(CNN) — Christian Eshiett was a rambunctious pre-teen who spent a lot of time cavorting with his friends in southern Nigeria. He would skip school and run away from home for days, frustrating his grandfather, who oversaw the boy’s care.

Children branded as witches protest on February 26, 2009, in the southern Nigerian city of Eket.

Children branded as witches protest on February 26, 2009, in the southern Nigerian city of Eket.

“I beat him severely with canes until they broke, yet he never shed a tear,” said Eshiett Nelson Eshiett, 76. “One day, I took a broom to hit him and he started crying. Then I knew he was possessed by demons. … Nigerian witches are terrified of brooms.”

From that day two years ago, Christian, now 14, was branded a witch. The abuse intensified.

“They would take my clothes off, tie me up and beat me,” he told CNN in a telephone interview.

The teen is one of the so-called witch children in Eket, a city in oil-rich Akwa Ibom state of Nigeria.

They are blamed for causing illness, death and destruction, prompting some communities to put them through harrowing punishments to “cleanse” them of their supposed magical powers.

“Children accused of witchcraft are often incarcerated in churches for weeks on end and beaten, starved and tortured in order to extract a confession,” said Gary Foxcroft, program director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a nonprofit that helps alleged witch children in the region.

Many of those targeted have traits that make them stand out, including learning disabilities, stubbornness and ailments such as epilepsy, he added.

The issue of “child witches” is soaring in Nigeria and other parts of the world, Foxcroft said.

The states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River have about 15,000 children branded as witches, and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets, he said.

Christian ran away from home and wandered around for two years with other children similarly accused. He said they stole, begged for food and performed menial jobs to survive.

The plight of “child witches” is raising concern among aid organizations, including the United Nations.

“It is a growing issue worldwide, among not just African communities, but in countries such as Nepal as well,” said Jeff Crisp, head of policy development and evaluation for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are trying to see whether it is a neglected protected issue.”

Belief in witchcraft thrives worldwide. About 1,000 people accused of being witches in Gambia were locked in detention centers in March and forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion, human rights organization Amnesty International said.

In 2005, relatives of an 8-year-old Angolan girl living in England were convicted of torturing her for being a “witch,” according to the Times Online.

Pastors have been accused of worsening the problem by claiming to have powers to recognize and exorcise “child witches,” sometimes for a fee, aid workers said.

But some are true believers, such as one minister in Lagos, Nigeria. He pinpoints children affected by witchcraft for free, he said.

“Sometimes, we get a dream that shows us a certain person is suffering from witchcraft,” said the Rev. Albert Aina, a senior pastor at Four Square Gospel Church. “Sometimes, you have a child who has inexplicable body marks because of struggling in the night. They are easy to identify, but why charge when you have been given a gift by God?” Aina said.

Once a child is branded a witch, the stigma can last forever.

Christian was reunited with his grandfather, a former theater instructor at a university in Nigeria. Eshiett said he let his son’s child return home because he loves him and he advocates for youth education.

But, he added, he does not think Christian has been or can be freed from witchcraft.

“When you are possessed, you are possessed; no one can deliver you from Satan,” Eshiett said, adding that his grandson is a witch because he still exhibits unruly behavior and does not take education seriously.

Aid organizations acknowledge that the belief is acceptable and popular in some communities.

“It is not the belief in witchcraft that we are concerned about,” Foxcroft said. “We acknowledge people’s right to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to child abuse.”

Foxcroft, whose documentary, “Saving Africa’s Witch Children,” was broadcast last year, spoke to a U.N. panel on the issue in April.

The aid worker said he is planning a global conference in 2010 and public awareness campaigns, including addressing the issue in Nigerian movies. The nation’s film industry, dubbed Nollywood, is a popular form of entertainment in African countries.

Government officials also have joined the fight.

Akwa Ibom recently added a clause into the Child Rights Act, saying that anyone found guilty of branding a child a witch would get up to 12 years in prison.

“This is groundbreaking, and Stepping Stones Nigeria applauds the Akwa Ibom state government for this,” Foxcroft said.

But, he added, there is more work to be done, and other groups, especially churches, have to team up to resolve the problem.

“The role of the international Christian community in this cannot be underestimated,” Foxcroft said. “Unfortunately, the fact remains that this belief system is being spread by so-called Christians.”

CNN’s attempts to reach Akwa Ibom state officials through phone calls and e-mails were unsuccessful. A Nigerian federal communications official declined to comment.

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Amazing Photo – Silhouette of Space Shuttle Against The Sun

In this tightly cropped image, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had grappled the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)  Thierry made this image using a solar-filtered Takahashi 5-inch refracting telescope and a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)  You can see more of Thierry's fine work at: www.astrophoto.fr/

In this tightly cropped image, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had grappled the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault) Thierry made this image using a solar-filtered Takahashi 5-inch refracting telescope and a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault) You can see more of Thierry's fine work at: http://www.astrophoto.fr/

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I don’t know what to do with my anger over this…

APPARENT POISON GAS HOSPITALIZES 84 AFGHAN GIRLS

MUHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan (AP) — Officials accused extremist militants of launching a poison gas attack Tuesday that caused dozens of schoolgirls to collapse with headaches and nausea as they waited in line for a Quran reading at their school in northeastern Afghanistan.

Nabela 9, an Afghan school girl looks on as she recovers in a hospital after she feels sick in a school in Kapisa province eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. At least 84 Afghan schoolgirls were admitted to a hospital Tuesday for headaches and vomiting in the third apparent poison attack on a girls school in as many weeks, officials and doctors said. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Nabela 9, an Afghan school girl looks on as she recovers in a hospital after she feels sick in a school in Kapisa province eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. At least 84 Afghan schoolgirls were admitted to a hospital Tuesday for headaches and vomiting in the third apparent poison attack on a girls school in as many weeks, officials and doctors said. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists have regularly attacked girls schools in Afghanistan and the second apparent poisoning in two days has raised concerns that they have now found a new weapon to scare girls into staying at home rather than going to class.

Students were gathering in the yard of Aftab Bachi school in Muhmud Raqi for a morning reading of the Quran when a strange odor filled the area. First one girl collapsed, then others, said the school’s principal, Mossena, who fought for breath as she described the event from her hospital bed.

“I saw several students fall down on the ground,” said Mossena, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

Teachers told the rest of the students to go home. Mossena said she did not know what happened next because she collapsed and woke up in the main hospital in Muhmud Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province, which lies just northeast of Kabul.

At least 98 people were admitted, including 84 students, Mossena, 11 teachers and two cleaners, said Khalid Enayat, the hospital’s deputy director. He said they were monitoring about another 30 students to see if they developed symptoms.

Tuesday’s incident is the third alleged poisoning at a girls school in about two weeks. On Monday, 61 schoolgirls and one teacher went to the hospital in neighboring Parwan province with a sudden illness that caused some to pass out. In late April, dozens of girls were hospitalized in Parwan after being sickened by what officials said were strong fumes or a possible poison gas cloud.

“The enemies of Afghanistan are behind this poisoning,” said Kapisa education director Abdul Gani Hedayat, using the government’s typical term for the Taliban and other militants.

“I am 100 percent certain it is poison,” he said. “Ninety-eight people suddenly fell sick. This isn’t something that happens just normally.” He said blood samples had been sent to Kabul for testing.

An Afghan school girl cries as she receives treatment in a hospital after she felt sick in a school in Kapisa province, eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. Officials and doctors say 89 Afghan schoolgirls have been hospitalized in the third case of alleged gas poisoning in eastern Afghanistan in less than three weeks. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

An Afghan school girl cries as she receives treatment in a hospital after she felt sick in a school in Kapisa province, eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. Officials and doctors say 89 Afghan schoolgirls have been hospitalized in the third case of alleged gas poisoning in eastern Afghanistan in less than three weeks. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemeri Bashary was more tentative, saying officials suspect some sort of gas poisoning in Kapisa, but that police were still investigating.

The Kapisa patients complained of similar symptoms to those in the Parwan incidents, including headaches, vomiting and shivering, said Aziz Agha, a doctor treating the girls.

Eighth-grader Sonya Sidiqi said she smelled something like cigarette smoke, “then my head started hurting and I started throwing up.” The 13-year-old said she was feeling better after resting at the hospital but that she was still dizzy and felt as if she might vomit again.

Eleven-year-old Tahira said she planned to go back to school when she felt better, but that now it would fill her with fear.

“I’m going to be scared when I go back to school. What if we die?” the fifth-grader said.

The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups in Afghanistan oppose education for girls, who were not allowed to attend school under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.

Though it was unclear if the recent incidents were the result of attacks, militants in the south have previously assaulted schoolgirls by spraying acid in their faces and burning down schools to protest the government and girls’ education. Scores of Afghan schools have been forced to close because of violence.

Still, the three recent apparent poisonings have taken place in northeast Afghanistan, which is not as opposed to education for girls as Afghanistan’s conservative southern regions. No group has claimed responsibility for the mass illnesses.

The sickness could also be a result of a group hysteria. A Parwan education official said they had not found any evidence of an attack in Monday’s incident. He said one student had fallen seriously ill before the others and suggested that some of the illnesses could have been psychological. A Parwan health official said they were still awaiting blood test results.

Yalda 8, right, an Afghan school girl with her school mate recovers in a hospital after they became sick in a school in Kapisa province, eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. Officials and doctors say 89 Afghan schoolgirls have been hospitalized in the third case of alleged gas poisoning in eastern Afghanistan in less than three weeks. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Yalda 8, right, an Afghan school girl with her school mate recovers in a hospital after they became sick in a school in Kapisa province, eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2009. Officials and doctors say 89 Afghan schoolgirls have been hospitalized in the third case of alleged gas poisoning in eastern Afghanistan in less than three weeks. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Research has borne out the possibility of a psychological cause. At a Tennessee school in 1998, dozens were hospitalized for dizziness, headaches, nausea and shortness of breath after a teacher noticed a gasoline smell in a classroom, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that there had been no toxic exposure and that the sickness appeared to be psychological, noting that the symptoms were subjective.

But if the illnesses are the result of poison gas, then militants have found a more subtle, less personal way to scare girls away from school than the acid attacks in the south, which sparked an international outcry.

Education Ministry Spokesman Asif Nang said they were helping the schools in Kapisa and Parwan to tighten security.

“This was an attack by the enemies of the Afghan people, enemies of education, enemies of development and enemies of the future of Afghanistan’s people,” Nang said.

Heidi Vogt contributed reporting from Kabul.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Irshad Manji and Reza Aslan debating Muslim reform

Who is Irshad Manji? A Canadian jewel. To quote from Wikipedia:

Irshad Manji (born 1968) is a Canadian feminist, author, journalist, activist and scholar. Manji is Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. The Moral Courage Project aims to teach young leaders to speak truth to power in their own communities. Manji is openly lesbian.

Manji is a well-known critic of traditional mainstream Islam and orthodox interpretations of the Qur’an. The New York Times has described her as “Osama bin Laden‘s worst nightmare”. Manji is founder and president of Project Ijtihad, an international charitable organization working to “build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies.”

Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam Today, has been published in more than 30 languages, including Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Malay and Indonesian. Manji has produced a PBS documentary, “Faith Without Fear”, chronicling her attempt to “reconcile her faith in Allah with her love of freedom”. The documentary has been nominated for a 2008 Emmy Award. As a journalist, her articles have appeared in many publications, and she has addressed audiences ranging from Amnesty International to the United Nations Press Corps to the Democratic Muslims in Denmark to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She has appeared on television networks around the world, including Al Jazeera, the CBC, BBC, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNN, PBS, the Fox News Channel, the CBS Evening News, and Real Time with Bill Maher.

And Reza Aslan?

Reza Aslan… was born 1972 in Tehran, Iran, is an Iranian-American Muslim writer and scholar. Aslan is also a regular commentator for American Public Media‘s Marketplace and the Middle East Analyst for CBS News. He writes columns for The Daily Beast and many other publications. His books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (published 2005), and he is currently Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside. Aslan is a Shi’a Muslim.

Recently, they debated the issue of reforming Islam.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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Swine Flu Scam Alert

The Skeptics Zone of Australia and the Young Skeptics of Australia have combined efforts to create a downloadable PDF for an advertizement that warns people of the dangers of turning to homeopathic “remedies” for swine flu. If you haven’t read any reliable and well-researched information about homeopathy and its bogus claims (essentially it’s effects are simply placebo), here’s a helpful link to an interview by D J Grothe on Point of Inquiry with Simon Singh, author of Trick or Treatment.

Here’s a picture of the ad:

swine-flu-scam-alert

To download the PDF version of this advertizement, click swine-flu-scam-alert.

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