Sunday, February 26, 2023

Was Man Created in God's Image? Or in the Image of Primates, With 16 Billion Neurons in His Cerebral Cortex?


                                  The Hidden Neuroscience in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"


Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" is his visual depiction of the teaching in Genesis 1:27--"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (KJV).  Remarkably, Adam's body is already fully formed, but God is going to transmit to him something essential to his humanity through God's extended finger.  Presumably, God is endowing Adam with a human soul.  But how exactly is that to happen?  

We should notice that Michelangelo chose not to depict another image of Adam's creation from Genesis: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (2:7).  Michelangelo decided not to show God breathing into Adam's nostrils the breath of life as the source of ensoulment.

So what is it about the image of God flying through the air and stretching out his arm towards Adam lying on the ground that conveys the emergence of a human soul in Adam?  Some neuroscientists have pointed out that one can see a hidden drawing of the human brain in the image of God.  And God's right arm is extended through the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the cerebral cortex responsible for decision-making, planning, creativity, working memory, and language.  Previously, I have written about how the liberty or freedom to choose between alternatives is a function of the cerebral cortex, under prefrontal control, in its reciprocal interaction with the environment. 

Is This a Hidden Drawing of the Human Brain?

We know that Michelangelo studied human anatomy carefully, and that he dissected human bodies and brains.  We know this from his anatomical drawings.  (Leonardo da Vinci--a contemporary of Michelangelo's--was also a talented anatomist of the brain.)  But of the thousands of Michelangelo's drawings, he destroyed most of them, and only about 600 have survived.  Some of these show drawings of the human skull and brain, but none of them show the exact outline of the cerebral cortex that some neuroscientists have seen hidden in Michelangelo's pictures.  And there is certainly no evidence that Michelangelo understood the cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex and the prefrontal cortex.  Seeing a hidden neuroscientific message in Michelangelo's picture seems fanciful.

Nevertheless, we could argue for a modern neuroscientific revision of Michelangelo's picture, in which the image of God could be replaced by the image of the human cerebral cortex.  This would not have to be seen as an atheistic revision of the picture.  Because if the theistic evolutionists (like Francis Collins, Deborah Haarsma, and the last three Catholic popes) are correct, then God works through the natural laws of evolution to execute His creative design.  Some of the theistic evolutionists (like Pope Francis) say that while God works mostly through natural evolution rather than miracles, the creation of the human soul did require an "ontological leap"--a supernatural miracle--that transcended natural evolution.  But as I have argued, there are good reasons to believe that the natural evolution of the primate brain can explain the emergence of the soul in the human brain, so that no miracle was required.  And yet we still have to wonder what properties of the evolved human brain explain the amazing intellectual and emotional capacities of the human mind.


Over the past fifteen years, the research of Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Brazilian neuroscientist now at Vanderbilt University, has shown how this natural evolution of the human brain can be understood as based on the remarkable number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex, as it has emerged from the evolution of the primate brain, and thus we can see that we were created in the image of other primates, just as Charles Darwin suggested in 1871 in The Descent of Man (Gabi et al. 2016; Herculano-Houzel 2016, 2021; Herculano-Houzel and Lent 2005).  I am persuaded by most of what Herculano-Houzel says, although I will identify two points of disagreement with her.

                                                Suzana Herculano-Houzel Counts Neurons

How many neurons are in the human brain?  For many years, the answer from many scientists was 100 billion.  But, surprisingly, when Herculano-Houzel began some years ago looking for the original scientific research that provided evidence for this number, she found nothing.  She discovered that neuroscientists had repeated this number over and over again without realizing that there was no scientific verification for it.  

Moreover, she discovered that scientists had no reliable method for counting brain cells.  The most common method for attempting to do this was stereology: virtual three-dimensional probes are placed throughout thin slices of brain tissue from some part of the brain, then the number of cells within the probes are counted, and finally this is extrapolated to the total number of cells in the entire tissue volume.  The problem is that this works only for tissues with a relatively homogeneous distribution of cells.  In fact, the highly variable density of neurons across different structures of the brain, and even within a single structure, makes stereology impractical for counting the cells in whole brains.

Herculano-Houzel developed a new technique for counting neurons that starts with creating brain soup.  She dissects the brain into its anatomically distinct parts--such as the cerebral cortex, the cerebellum, and the olfactory bulbs.  She then slices and dices each part into smaller portions.  Next, she puts each small part in a tube and uses a detergent that dissolves the cell membranes but leaves the cell nuclei intact.  By sliding a piston up and down in the tube, she homogenizes this brain tissue into a soup in which the nuclei are evenly distributed.  She stains all the cell nuclei blue so that she can count them under a fluorescent microscope.  She then adds an antibody labeled red that binds specifically to a protein expressed in all neuronal cell nuclei, which distinguishes them from other cell nuclei such as glial cells.  Going back to the microscope, she can then determine what percentage of all nuclei (stained blue) belong to neurons (now stained red).  Finally, she can estimate the number of neurons for each structure of the brain.  She has done this in studying the brains of many mammalian animals.

Now she can tell us that the total number of neurons in the whole human brain is not 100 billion but 86 billion.  Of that total, 16 billion are in the cerebral cortex, which includes 1.3 billion neurons in the prefrontal cortex.  The cerebral cortex is the outer covering of the surfaces of the cerebral hemispheres.  The prefrontal cortex covers the front part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex located behind the forehead.


Comparing the numbers of neurons for the human brain with the numbers for other primate brains and other mammalian brains allows Herculano-Houzel to explain the conundrum of how the human brain can be at once so similar to and yet so different from other animal brains.  She makes four arguments about how the human brain gives human beings four kinds of advantages in their mental abilities: the primate advantage, the human advantage, the advantage of cooking, and the advantage of cultural learning.

Her claim that differences in cognitive capabilities across species can be explained by differences in the absolute numbers of neurons depends on a fundamental assumption.  If neurons are the basic units of brain networks for processing information, and if the networks are structured in similar patterns, then the greater the number of neurons in a network, the greater the capacity of the network for processing information.

The primate advantage.   Not surprisingly, larger brains tend to contain more neurons than smaller brains.  But different groups of animals show different scaling rules in proportioning brain size to number of neurons.  For example, a rodent cortex will have fewer neurons than a primate cortex of similar mass.   Primates always concentrate larger numbers of neurons in the brain than rodents of a similar, or even larger, brain size.

So here a capybara brain of 76 grams has 1.6 billion neurons, while a capuchin monkey brain of 52 grams has 3.7 billion neurons.  Comparison of primates with other mammals shows the same primate advantage:  in primate brains, the neurons are packed more tightly in a similar volume.  As primate brains, human brains have the same primate advantage over other mammals.  Thus, while the number of neurons in the human brain is remarkable, it is not extraordinary, because it falls on the primate scaling line: it's what one would expect for a primate with a body the size of the human body.  As Herculan-Houzel says: "The human brain is just a scaled-up primate brain: remarkable but not special."

One common objection to this is that the bodies of gorillas and orangutans can be as large as human bodies, but the brains of gorillas and orangutans are only about one-third the size of the human brain.  Gorillas and orangutans can weigh about 165 pounds, but their brains have only about 30 billion neurons, in contrast to the 86 billion neurons in the human brain.  Doesn't this show that the human brain is three times larger than what one would expect for a primate with the same size body? 

Herculano-Houzel's answer is that if one excludes the great apes (gorillas and orangutans), the scaling of the human brain in proportion to body size follows the same scaling rule as all other primates.  So the outliers here are not human beings but the great apes: it's not that human brains are too large for their bodies, but that gorillas and orangutans have brains that are too small for their bodies.

She explains this as showing that as primate evolution reaches the outer limits of the primate energy budget--the extra effort to find food--there is a tradeoff between brains and brawn.  More energy for a big body means less energy for a big brain.  The evolutionary history of the great apes shows a tradeoff  favoring big bodies and small brains.  By contrast, the evolutionary history of the human species shows a tradeoff favoring a typically primate slim body but a big brain.

The human advantage.  Herculano-Houzel's counting of neurons has allowed her to see that we human beings have one great advantage over all other animals: "we are the species that owns the largest number of neurons in the cerebral cortex--the part of the brain responsible for finding patterns, reasoning logically, expecting the worst and preparing for it, developing technology and passing it on through culture" (2016, x).  Notice that she is not saying that we have the largest number of neurons in the whole brain.  The African elephant brain has 257 billion neurons, three times our count of 86 billion.  But an amazing 98 percent of the elephant's neurons are in the cerebellum.  Although the elephant's cerebral cortex weighs over 6 pounds, it has only 5.6 billion neurons, far fewer than the 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex weighing 2.6 pounds.  The sperm whale has the largest animal brain--weighing about 18 pounds--but Herculano-Houzel predicts that the number of neurons in the sperm whale's cerebral cortex is probably far fewer than 16 billion.

What Herculano-Houzel says about this human advantage confirms what I have argued about how the human mind or soul can arise from a natural process of emergent evolution in which differences in degree become differences in kind after passing over a critical threshold in the size and complexity of the primate brain.  As a consequence of her research, I can now identify that critical threshold as the remarkably large number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex and particularly in the prefrontal cortex.  Unfortunately, she herself does not see how her research supports the idea of emergent evolution.  That's my first disagreement with her.

In her book chapter on Darwin's Descent of Man--particularly, Darwin's chapter on "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals"--she supports Darwin's claim that human mental powers differ from the mental powers of other animals only in degree and not in kind, and that if this difference were a difference in kind, that would deny his theory of human evolution from lower animals (Herculano-Houzel 2021, 48-49, 51, 61).

Herculano-Houzel does not see that Darwin in The Descent of Man is forced to contradict himself by both affirming and denying that there are differences in kind between human beings and other animals in their mental capacities.  Despite Darwin's explicit statement that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals, he implicitly recognized differences in kind.  That is to say, Darwin recognized that human beings have some mental traits that other animals do not have at all.

Darwin noted that self-consciousness is uniquely human: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (Descent, Penguin edition, 105).  Morality is also uniquely human: "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity. . . . man . . . alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being" (135).  And language is uniquely human: "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).

Darwin could implicitly affirm such emergent differences in kind without affirming any radical differences in kind.  Emergent differences in kind can be explained by natural science as differences in kind that naturally evolve from differences in degree that pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  So, for example, we can see the uniquely human capacities for self-consciousness, morality, and language as emerging from the evolutionary increase in the neurons of the primate brain, so that at some critical point in the evolution of our ancestors, the size and complexity of the brain (perhaps particularly in the frontal cortex) reached a point where distinctively human cognitive capacities emerged at higher levels of brain evolution that are not found in other primates.  With such emergent differences in kind, there is an underlying unbroken continuity between human beings and their hominid ancestors, so there is no need to posit some supernatural intervention in nature that would create a radical difference in kind in which there is a gap with no underlying continuity.  

Like Darwin, Herculano-Houzel fails to see how evolutionary science can recognize emergent differences in kind that arise from natural evolution while denying radical differences in kind that would require supernatural miracles.

The advantage of cooking.  If human beings are created in the image of primates, and yet they are unique among the primates because of those 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex, why are human beings the only primate species to evolve such an increase in those neurons?  Herculano-Houzel's answer is that the evolutionary expansion of the human brain was made possible by the human invention of cooking.  Here she adopts the cooking hypothesis of Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009).

The energy cost of the human brain is huge.  The brain is only 2 percent of the total body mass, but it consumes on average about 25% of the daily total energy budget for the human body.  On average 3.3 billion molecules of glucose are consumed per human neuron per minute.  6 kilocalories are consumed per billion neurons per day.  And so the more neurons in a brain, the more energy that a brain costs.

The caloric intake from the typical raw food diet of primates is not enough to supply the energy needs of the human brain.  The human controlled use of fire and the invention of cooking about 1.5 million years ago expanded the daily supply of energy to support the evolutionary expansion of the human brain, which can be seen in the fossil record of the huge expansion of the brain from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens.

The slicing and dicing of food and cooking with heat start the process of digesting food before it enters the mouth.  Cooking with heat breaks down the collagen fibers of meat and softens the hard walls of plant cells.  Cooked foods yield 100 percent of their caloric content to the digestive system.  Without cooking, our ancient human ancestors could never have fed their hungry human brains.

In a previous post, I have suggested that this cooking hypothesis for human evolution confirms what Lucretius said about the importance of fire and cooking for the evolutionary emergence of a fully human species.

The advantage of cultural learning.  The controlled use of fire and cooking are technologies that are invented and passed down across the generations by cultural learning.  As Herculano-Houzel observes, this shows us that "plenty of neurons aren't enough," because while having lots of neurons endows a brain with the capacities for complex cognition, turning those capacities into abilities requires cultural learning across an individual lifetime and across many human generations.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, cultural learning is not uniquely human because some other animals have cultural traditions of behavior.  But human beings are unique in their capacity for symbolic culture.

The behavioral inheritance system is the transmission of information among animals through social learning. For example, among some animals (including human beings) mothers transmit food preferences to their offspring, because information about what mother is eating is transmitted either in the womb or through suckling, so that the offspring inherits a preference for that food. More complex forms of social learning come through animal culture. For example, some chimpanzees can discover how to open nuts with a stone, and then pass on this practice within their group so that it becomes a social tradition. Different communities of chimps in Africa have different cultures based on distinctive profiles of traditional practices transmitted by social learning. As opposed to genetic evolution, cultural evolution is not blind but targeted to functional change.

The symbolic inheritance system is uniquely human because it shows the qualitative leap that defines our humanity as based on our capacity for symbolic thought and communication. Other animals can communicate through signs. But only human beings can communicate through symbols. The evolution of human language was probably crucial for the evolution of symbolism. Symbolic systems allow us to think about abstractions that have little to do with concrete, immediate experiences. Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality. These symbolic constructions are often fictional and future-oriented. Art, religion, science, and philosophy are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution. 

Herculano-Houzel gives a good account of human cultural evolution as driven by six technological revolutions (2016, 206-213).  But she doesn't explain why the pace of that technological progress has become so rapid over the past 300 years.  I have argued that the best explanation for this accelerated human progress is the symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism, which has sustained the freedom for innovation that has made it possible for the Earth today to support a population of over 8 billion people who are living longer and healthier lives on average than has ever been possible.  That is a stunning enhancement of Darwinian survival and reproductive fitness through cultural evolution.


The evolved cognitive capacity of the human brain for symbolic cultural learning includes a propensity to religious belief, which can include the belief that human beings were created in the image of God, and that this endowed human existence with a supernatural purpose.  Herculano-Houzel fails to take that religious belief seriously as a part of human cultural evolution, and that's my second point of disagreement with her.  She does say that the human brain gives human beings "the ability to ponder our own material and metaphysical origins" (2016, 215).  But she says nothing more about how the religious belief in "metaphysical origins" might be rooted in the evolutionary psychology of the human brain.  In The Descent of Man, in his chapter on the "mental powers of man and the lower animal," Darwin comments on a long list of mental powers, concluding with "belief in God, spiritual agencies, superstitions."  In her commentary on this chapter, Herculano-Houzel is silent about this.

If she had examined that last part of Darwin's chapter on the evolution of the mental powers as leading to religious belief, she would have seen that Darwin anticipates the modern evolutionary psychology of religion as an expression of the human brain's evolved theory of mind or the "hyperactive agency detection device."  Darwin conveys this idea when he says that the earliest manifestation of religious belief is "when anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own" (117).  Through symbolic cultural evolution this "belief in spiritual agencies" or animism could eventually be expressed in the belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God who is the "Creator and Ruler of the universe" (116, 118).  This is the God depicted in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"--the God who created human beings in His image.

The evolutionary science of the brain can explain how this ability for believing in the existence of the Creator God evolved through the genetic evolution of the human cerebral cortex and prefrontal cortex and the symbolic cultural evolution of religious belief in monotheism.  But while some Darwinian psychologists (such as Justin Barrett) see this as showing that Darwinian science is compatible with the truth of believing in God, others (such as Jesse Bering) see this as exposing belief in God as a fictional construction of the evolved human mind. For those like Barrett, religious belief is an adaptive truth. For those like Bering, religious belief is an adaptive illusion.

Thus, we see that Darwinian science cannot resolve the Reason/Revelation debate.  But Darwinian liberalism can support the freedom of thought that promotes that debate.

Part of that Reason/Revelation debate is whether human beings have a natural need to see the purpose for their existence that can only come from believing in the revelation of a divine purpose for human life, or whether natural reason alone can give human life some purpose or meaning.  Some theistic scientists (like Deborah Haarsma) say that in answering our questions about the Universe, science can tell us when and how, but only religion can tell us who and why.

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that the cultural history of the "teachers of the purpose of existence" over thousands of years had changed human nature so that human beings had a culturally acquired need to see some cosmic purpose to their lives.  "Gradually, man has become a fantasizing [phantastischen] animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life--without faith in reason in life" (The Gay Science, sec. 1).  Consequently, Nietzsche observed, "I fear that the animals consider man as a being like themselves that has lost in a most dangerous way its sound animal common sense; they consider him the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal" (sec. 224). 

Is this what happens when you have a brain with 16 billion neurons in its cerebral cortex fed by some delicious, cooked meals?


Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd edition.  New York: Penguin Books

Gabi, Mariana, et al. 2016. "No Relative Expansion of the Number of Prefrontal Neurons in Primate and Human Evolution." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (no. 34): 9617-9622.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana. 2016. The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana. 2021. "Remarkable But Not Extraordinary: The Evolution of the Human Brain." In Jeremy M. Desilva, ed., A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's 'Descent of Man' Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution, 46-62.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Herculano-Houzel, Suzana, and Richard Lent. 2005. "Isotropic Fractionator: A Simple, Rapid Method for the Quantification of Total Cell and Neuron Numbers in the Brain." Journal of Neuroscience 25: 2518-2521.

Wrangham, Richard. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Are the Straussian Fascists Showing that Will Altman Was Right About Leo Strauss?

I have written about Bronze Age Pervert's Bronze Age Mindset (here and here).  So I was interested in the recent essay by Blake Smith identifying Bronze Age Pervert as Costin Alamariu, who wrote a doctoral dissertation--The Problem of Tyranny and Philosophy in Plato and Nietzsche--under the supervision of Steven Smith, a Straussian political theorist at Yale University.  Blake Smith shows how Alamariu's dissertation explains the Straussian philosophic grounding for Bronze Age Mindset.

This connection of Alamariu's Nietzschean fascism to Strauss fits a remarkable pattern of Straussian influence with other contemporary exponents of Nietzschean fascism that I have considered on this blog.  Richard Spencer studied under Michael Gillespie at Duke University.  Michael Millerman studied under Clifford Orwin at the University of Toronto, although Orwin resigned from his dissertation committee after some newspaper stories publicized Millerman's fascist political philosophy.  Alamariu, Spencer, and Millerman were all shaped in their thinking by Leo Strauss's interpretation of Nietzsche's fascism as the best illiberal alternative to liberal democracy.

This seems to confirm what William Altman was arguing ten years ago--in a series of three books on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss--that Strauss was the secret theoretician of National Socialism.  Altman presented his "German trilogy" of books as following a tripartite structure suggested by Strauss in his "Three Waves of Modernity."  According to Strauss, the First Wave of modernity came with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; the Second Wave came with Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; and the Third Wave came with Nietzsche and Heidegger.  If each wave comes through a sequence of three thinkers, who is the third thinker of the Third Wave?  Surely, Altman suggested, it must be Strauss himself.  And if the Third Wave leads to fascism, as Strauss indicated, then this would point to Strauss as the thinker who most fully worked out the theory of fascism or Nazism as the anti-liberal solution to the crisis of liberal democracy.

As I have indicated in my posts on Altman, I have found him to be an insightful commentator on Strauss.  But I do disagree with him on two points.  First, I think he overstates his Strauss-as-a-Jewish-Nazi thesis.  In fact, he implicitly concedes some of the weaknesses in this thesis.  He recognizes that Strauss regarded Hitler as a fool.  He also recognizes that there is no evidence that Strauss ever developed any positive program for moving towards a National Socialist society.

Still, I am persuaded that Altman has shown that Strauss is open to the criticism that he was not emphatic enough in defending liberal democracy against the ideas of Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Heidegger.  Strauss never really offered a thorough refutation of these ideas, and instead he showed some attraction to them--most clearly in his lectures on "German Nihilism" and the "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism."  Significantly, these lectures were not published until after Strauss's death.

My second point of disagreement is that unlike Altman and Strauss, I see Nietzsche in his middle period (Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first four books of The Gay Science) as providing an alternative--based on his Darwinian liberalism--to the positions he took in his early and late writings.  Nietzsche's Darwinian writings do not suffer from the contradictions that Altman rightly sees in his other writings.  Nor do the Darwinian writings provide any encouragement to the Nazis who appropriated ideas from the other writings.  Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is intellectually, morally, and politically superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.  Strauss and the Straussians fail to see this as the Nietzschean way to defend liberalism against its illiberal critics.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Payton Gendron's Antiliberal White Supremacist Violence Deserves Punishment--But Also Refutation

19-year-old Payton Gendron is an antiliberal white supremacist who murdered 10 Black men and women in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, last May 14th.  Today, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance for parole.

The anger directed at Gendron in the courtroom today was so powerful that one person charged toward Gendron and attempted to strangle him.  Police restrained the attacker, Gendron was whisked out of the room, and the court was brought back into session after a 10-minute delay.  An article in the Washington Post relates what happened.

Gendron had pled guilty to murder.  Today, he read a prepared statement of apology:

"I'm very sorry for the pain I've forced on the victims and their families to suffer through.  I'm very sorry for stealing the lives of your loved ones.  I cannot express how much I regret all the decisions I made that led up to my actions on May 14.  I did a terrible thing that day.  I shot and killed people because they were Black.  Looking back now, I can't believe I actually did it.  I believed what I read online and acted out of hate and now I can't take it back, but I wish I could.  I don't want anyone to be inspired by me and what I did."

If you view the video of his statement, you can see that he displays no apparent emotion that would indicate true remorse.

It is right that he is being punished in this way, because we have the natural right to punish murderers with life-time imprisonment, and perhaps even execution.

But we also need to refute the arguments he made in a 180-page manifesto posted online to justify killing of Black people.  Journalists and others commenting on Gendron have casually dismissed this manifesto as too poorly argued to deserve any serious response.  Notice, for example, that the Washington Post journalist says that Gendron "posted a rambling online statement that included antisemitic rants and far-right conspiracy theories."

This is mistaken for two reasons.  First, if you read his manifesto, you will see that even if it is a little "rambling," it does make a series of arguments rooted in the biological science of race and human biodiversity.  Second, by not refuting his arguments, we encourage white supremacists to believe that his arguments are correct in justifying white supremacist violence.  Despite what Gendron said today, we should assume that others will be inspired by him to do what he did, just as he was inspired by the manifesto of Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 14, 2019.

Last June, I published my refutation of Gendron's five main arguments in his manifesto: white supremacy, ethnic nationalism, replacement theory, anti-Semitism, and inegalitarianism.

Perhaps the most fundamental assumption in Gendron's manifesto is that human beings cannot have equal rights if they are not biologically identical (158, 165).  "No two different things can ever truly be equal, especially humans.  There is no one person equal to any other, not identical twins, not countrymen, not workers within a class group and certainly not those of differing races."  "Diversity is anathema to equality.  One cannot exist with the other."

This ignores the fact that no liberal theorist of human equality of rights has ever asserted that this means that all human beings are the same.  Natural differences in the average propensities and traits of the human races is compatible with the Lockean liberal principle of equal liberty.  Lockean equality means not that all people are identical--in intelligence or in many other respects--but that all people are similar in resisting exploitation by others, so that no human being is good enough to govern any other human being without that person's consent.  Equal liberty requires not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity in the pursuit of happiness.  In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities.  In such a society, everyone can find valued places for themselves.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Bourgeois Liberalism of Paul Kingsnorth's Wild Christianity

"There's money in mysticism."

That's what Sally said to me when I asked her about her business selling meditation lessons in Zen Buddhism.  We were both students at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, and we met at a student party in a crowded apartment in Hyde Park.  Although the tuition was low compared to tuition today at Chicago, we were all so poor that we were always looking for income to pay our expenses.  Some of us were envious of Sally's success as a spiritual entrepreneur in marketing her Buddhism to other students.

I thought about Sally a few days ago when I read Paul Kingsnorth's essay in the March 2023 issue of First Things--"A Wild Christianity."  Kingsnorth is a novelist, poet, and essayist living in Ireland.

Kingsnorth says he is returning to the "wild Christianity" or "cave Christianity" of the ancient Christian ascetics; and in doing that, he says he is rebelling against the degrading materialist culture of modern secular liberalism.  But a careful reading of this and other essays by Kingsnorth will show that in his longing for Christian spirituality, he is not so much rebelling against bourgeois liberalism as expressing it.  

Like Sally, Kingsnorth is a spiritual entrepreneur who sells his Christian writing to consumers who long for the experience of a Christian transcendence of the world.  There is nothing wrong with that, because it shows that the bourgeois virtues of a liberal society include the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  The natural desire for religious transcendence is part of evolved human nature that will be manifested in a liberal social order where human beings go to the free marketplace of religion to choose among the competing religious traditions in finding the one that is most satisfying to them.

There is something wrong, however, in Kingsnorth's refusal to see that far from working against liberal culture, he is working within it, because he depends on the religious liberty in the pursuit of spirituality that is secured by a liberal social order to live a happy and profitable life as a writer of spiritual literature.  

His talent for engaging writing is evident from the very beginning of his First Things essay:

"Through the mouth of the cave, I watched the storm front move in from the east.  I could already her the approaching thunder; the low bank of cloud was gray with it.  I was perched on a low ledge inside the cave, which was just long enough to accommodate a human body laid prone.  I had filled the place with candles, which guttered and danced in the wind that was rising now with the coming storm."

"The storm broke in an instant, and then everything was roaring.  Great nails of rain hammered down on the hazels, and the rumbles of thunder were replaced by an explosion right above me.  The dimming evening sky was suddenly ripped from horizon to horizon by a great sheet of white lightning.  More rain.  More thunder.  More electricity.  It roared on and then, eventually, it roared past.  Ten minutes later, the rain had slowed, but the pause in hostilities was only temporary.  I could see another front approaching over the mountains."

"Four hours it went on.  A night of storm and screaming skies.  In the end, everything was black but for the light the candle flames threw on the weeping walls of the limestone cave, and irregular explosions of light, which would suddenly imprint on my retinas a white cave mouth like an opening to heaven or hell.  The roof of the cave was dripping now.  Outside there was nothing to be sseen unless the lightning came down, seeking the ground like a long-lost brother.  No ruined church, no well, no spring, no wood:  Everything that had surrounded me during the day had been swallowed by the Atlantic winter."

"This was how I spent the eve of my fiftieth birthday."

He explains that his stormy night in this cave was his attempt to relive the experience of the sixth-century Irish Saint Colman Mac Duagh, who is said to have lived a monastic solitary life in this cave for seven years.  Here's a picture of the cave in the Burren, a region on the west coast of Ireland:


In a previous essay for First Things--"The Cross and the Machine" (June 2021)--Kingsnorth recounted his spiritual journey that eventually led to this night in St. Colman's cave.   As a child, he had no interest in religion because it seemed to be irrelevant to his life.  Then, as a teenager, he became an atheist.  But he often visited empty churches.  And he often walked and camped in the mountains of England and Wales, where he felt the wondrous mystery of the natural world.  He thus became an animist or pantheist, and this pantheistic religion of nature was then expressed in his environmentalist activism, which included chaining himself to construction equipment to stop building projects.

Then he saw that there was a deeper issue here: the ecological crisis arose from the refusal of the liberal way of life to accept any limits to human action on the world, and this was a crisis of culture that was also a crisis of spirit.  He saw that every culture is built around a spiritual core that looks to a divinely transcendent reality that limits human action.  Without that spiritual core, no culture can survive.

He saw that every culture might need to look to one of the great spiritual traditions to provide some understanding of a transcendent reality beyond the world.  He chose Zen Buddhism.  On his fortieth birthday, he went on a week-long Zen retreat.  But then over the next five years, he saw that Zen Buddhism would not satisfy him, because he needed to worship, but he did not know what it was that he could rightly worship.

He decided that since he had a reverence for nature, he could worship God in nature.  That led him to become a priest of the witch gods: he joined a Wiccan coven.  Wicca is a modern pagan religion developed in the first half of the twentieth century, in which all Wiccans are priests or priestesses of two gods--the Great Goddess and the Horned God--who are two aspects of a greater pantheistic deity.  Kingsnorth observes: "My coven used to do its rituals in the woods under the full moon.  It was fun, and it made things happen.  I discovered that magic is real.  It works.  Who it works for is another question."

But he still had a vague sense that there was a void inside of him, and that the Wiccan stuff was just play-acting.  Then, he began to dream of Jesus speaking to him.  And, finally, he had an ecstatic experience: "Suddenly, I could see how everyone in the room was connected to everyone else, and I could see what was going on inside them and inside myself.  I was overcome with a huge and inexplicable love, a great wave of empathy, for everyone and everything.  It kept coming and coming until I had to swagger out of the room and sit down in the corridor outside.  Everything was unchanged, and everything was new, and I knew what had happened and who had done it, and I knew that it was too late.  I had just become a Christian."  He explains: "In the end, though, I didn't become a Christian because I could argue myself into it.  I became a Christian because I knew, suddenly, that it was true."  In January of 2021, he joined the Romanian Orthodox Church and was baptized in the River Shannon.

But notice that while now he knows that Christianity is true, previously he knew that pantheism was true, that Zen Buddhism was true, and that Wicca was true.  How is what he knows now to be true any better than what he previously thought he knew to be true?  He doesn't explain.  And yet perhaps his account of his reliving the monastic experience of St. Colman in the cave can show us how his experience of Christian truth rises above his experience of pantheistic truth, Buddhist truth, or Wiccan truth.

Kingsnorth says he was drawn to Colman because from a young age he was obsessed by hermits and mystics like Tolkein's Gandalf.  "Maybe this sort of thing is in my blood, or maybe I just read too many fantasy novels."  Above all, he loves the story of strange men who retreat to the wilds to find wisdom and God.  And so, he loves the story of Colman:

"Colman lived in his cave, it is said, for seven years.  He drank water from the spring, ate hazelnuts and berries from the forest, and wandered the 'pathless woods' praying.  He built a small oratory church, of which no traces remain, though a later stone ruin stands on the same site. . . ."

. . .

"My favorite story about Colman concerns his wild companions.  The saint, the legends tell us, somehow befriended a cockerel, a mouse, and a fly, and trained them to help him out.  The cockerel's job was to crow when he needed to get up in the morning to pray.  The mouse's role was to step in if Colman didn't feel like getting out of bed:  It would nibble his ear until he roused himself.  As for the fly, Colman trained it to walk along the lines of his Bible in the dim light, so he could follow it as he read.  A new stained glass church window in the nearby town of Gort portrays the saint with his three animal companions rather sweetly."

Notice that Kingsnorth identifies this "story" as based on "legends."  Actually, everything he says about Colman comes from a short biography posted on the St. website.  The source for this website biography is a book by Father Jerome Fahey--The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1893)--which can be found online.  I don't see any evidence that Kingsnorth has read the book.  When Fahey tells the story about the cock, the mouse, and the fly, he warns his reader: "It should be remembered that those eminent writers who reproduce those legends never professed to do more than carefully reproduce what they found in ancient writings, without at all holding themselves responsible for their credibility" (60).  Fahey repeatedly makes remarks like this: "some of our medieval writers have added some incredible marvels of the usual legendary character" (62).

So, is Kingsnorth presenting this story of Colman as historically true?  Or does he see it as only a legend that might have little credibility?  He certainly makes no effort to persuade his readers that this story is historically accurate, as if this does not matter to him.

Consider this last paragraph of his essay:

"There is a wild-haired man in the desert clad in camel skin.  He is the start of things.  He lives on honey and insects and he calls us to prepare for the coming of one who will baptize not with water but with fire.  God, he says, will come in human form.  He will be born in a cave, he will walk on the water and battle in the desert and when he comes to the city it will kill him.  But that will not be the end of the story.  We can't write the ending to this story.  We can only trace the lines on the page in the dim light of the cave mouth.  We can only wait patiently for the storm to come over and for the lightning to come down, and illuminate everything."

So, now, Kingsnorth presents the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus as if they are at the same level as the stories of Colman in the cave.  If the stories of Colman are legends, are these New Testament stories also only legends?

If so, then Jesus exists as a character in a good fictional story, but he does not really exist.  If this is what Kingsnorth is suggesting, then he is still an atheist, as he was as a teenager, but now he's a religious atheist.  He is promoting the same atheistic religiosity that I have identified in people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Roger Scruton, Leon Kass, and Jordan Peterson.

If this is so, then Kingsnorth shows us that there is a global market for atheistic spirituality.  Kingsnorth's global marketing of his writing seems at odds with his vehement scorn for global capitalism and modern technology.  His first novel--The Wake--was published through internet crowdfunding.  Film rights to this novel were then sold to a global group of investors led by the actor Mark Ryland and the former president of HBO Films Colin Callender.

If you go to Kingsnorth's website, you will see how he markets his books and his blog to generate revenue.  A subscription to his "Abbey of Misrule" blog costs 50 Euros a year (about $53 USD).  In his use of internet marketing and in other respects, Kingsnorth has a lot in common with Rod Dreher.  This past week, Dreher was in Ireland to interview Kingsnorth for Dreher's new book on "reinchantment" movements around the world.

                Rod Dreyer and Paul Kingsnorth, Near the St. Colman Tower in County Clare

Just as Dreher argues for the "Benedict Option," in which religious believers form small local communities with their own schools, churches, and social groups of families to live out their religious faith, Kingsnorth recommends that people build voluntary associations of religious families and groups at the local level.  

Notice that both Kingsnorth and Dreher are incoherent in that while they profess to reject liberalism, they actually embrace the fundamental principles of liberalism--such as voluntarism and religious liberty--and they reject the illiberalism of theocratic regimes that would coercively enforce religious belief.  As I have indicated in previous posts, they share this incoherence (both affirming and denying liberalism) with Patrick Deneen.

When I went to Dreher's Substack website, I discovered that to read his blog, I would have to subscribe for $50 a year.  I then received this email message from Dreher:

Hey friend, if you’d like to receive the Daily Dreher, um, daily, please subscribe. It’s only five dollars per month (25 cents per day), or fifty dollars per year. Come on, it’ll be fun. Peel me a grape! French me a fry!

Why is it different from my blog? For one thing, it’s a spiritual exercise for me. On my TAC blog, I chronicle the Continuing Crisis. Here, I write in a much quieter and more reflective mode, trying to train my eye to perceive the beauty, the goodness, and the meaning in the world — reasons to hope. On this blog, I attempt to discover the truth of Auden’s lines: “Life remains a blessing/Although you cannot bless.”

I write more candidly and personally about religion here. Also, about books, ideas, travel, and food — but always striving to do so in a “what’s good about the world” sense. Crazy, innit? I hope you will join me. I also feature reader letters. Let’s make this a collective venture. We’re all trying to figure out how to “stagger onward rejoicing” (Auden again), so let’s help each other.



Notice that for every 2,000 subscribers, this brings in a cool $100,000 of yearly revenue.  And it's only 25 cents per day!

This reminds us of Sally's wisdom: There's money in mysticism.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin: The Evolutionary Science of Liberty, Slavery, and the Bible

On Sunday, Americans will be celebrating their most important national holiday--Super Bowl Sunday.

But that day will also be the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

On February 12, 1809, Darwin was born in England, and Lincoln was born in Kentucky.  They had more in common than just the coincidence of their birth on the same day.  Almost every February 12th, I have posted an essay on some of the common themes in their lives.  I have identified ten points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln.

1. Both saw the Universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life and human beings.

2. Both denied that the Bible was a divine revelation, and they denied the Biblical doctrines of divine special creation in the first chapters of Genesis and the divinity of Jesus in the New Testament.

3. Both were accused of being atheists or infidels.

4. Both spoke of God as First Cause in a deistic sense.

5. Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion that could correct the Bible's moral mistakes (such as the Bible's endorsement of slavery).

6. Both rooted that natural moral sense in the evolved moral sentiments.

7. Both abhorred slavery as an immoral violation of evolved human nature, and they saw the American Civil War as a crucial turning point for the abolition of slavery.

8. Both were moral realists.

9. Both saw human history as moving through a Big History of three evolutionary eras--the foraging era, the agrarian era, and the modern commercial and liberal era.

10. Both were classical liberals.

Although there is no evidence that Lincoln ever read Darwin, we do know from William Herndon that Lincoln was persuaded by his reading of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) to embrace an evolutionary science of the history of the Universe very similar to Darwin's theory.

Now, we have a new book by David Kent--Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln's Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America--about how Lincoln's life-long study of modern science and technology shaped his moral and political life.  Although Kent recognizes some of my ten points of similarity between Lincoln and Darwin, he is remarkably silent about the second, third, fifth, and ninth points.

Kent says nothing about the popular charge against Lincoln that he denied the truth of the Bible and therefore was an atheist or infidel.  When Lincoln ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1846, his opponent--Peter Cartwright, a Methodist minister--circulated a rumor that Lincoln was an infidel.  The basis for this charge was that as a young man, Lincoln had read some notorious books of skeptical deism--particularly, Volney's Ruins of Empires and Tom Paine's The Age of Reason--and he wrote his own pamphlet arguing that the Bible was not divinely inspired and that Jesus was not truly the Son of God.  His friends warned him that the reputation for being an infidel or atheist would ruin his life, especially if he wanted to have a political career.  So, he burned his pamphlet,  and he became very secretive about his religious beliefs.  Darwin was similar.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), Darwin denied that the Bible was a divine revelation and that Jesus was divine; but he wrote about this only in private correspondence.  Kent is silent about this.

Kent has a long section in his book on Lincoln's "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions."  But he does not notice how Lincoln mocks the Bible in that lecture.  As I have indicated, Lincoln suggests that "in the beginning," there is no divine creation of man, and man depends totally on himself "to dig out his destiny" without any guidance from God.

Kent also does not notice Lincoln's suggestion that the Bible's endorsement of slavery needs to be corrected.  While Kent surveys some of the attempts to justify slavery as supported by the Bible, he does not confront the fact that the Bible really does affirm slavery.  Frederick Ross's Slavery Ordained by God (1857) shows that all of the references to slavery in the Bible are proslavery.  Lincoln read this book, and Kent points to Lincoln's note on the book's proslavery theology.  But Kent does not notice Lincoln's failure to refute Ross's reading of the Bible.  Nor does Kent reflect on Lincoln's remarkable observation in his Second Inaugural that in the Civil War between North and South, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

Kent also fails to see how Lincoln's Darwinian evolutionary science of human history moves through three eras--from foraging to farming to commerce.  By embracing the moral progress to the modern commercial society, Lincoln shows the classical liberalism that he shares with Darwin. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

To the Last Breath: Population Growth, Superabundance, and the Problem of Oxygen on the Earth and Beyond the Earth

While I am in my office this morning before dawn thinking about the mind's dependence on oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, I hear my 94-year-old mother-in-law in her bedroom a few steps away from my office struggling against death as she labors to breathe. 

I am reading a new book by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley--Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.  Tupy and Pooley challenge the common belief of many people throughout history that there must be an inverse relationship between population growth and available natural resources, so that as population grows, resources become increasingly scarce.  In his 1798 book Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus presented the most influential statement of this idea:  while population grows geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, . . .), food production grows arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . .), and consequently growing population must eventually outstrip food production, and many people must then starve to death.  The modern ecological and environmentalist version of this argument is that the unprecedented growth of world population, which recently surpassed 8 billion people, has long ago exceeded the supply of natural resources necessary to support this huge human population: such a population growth is "unsustainable."  For example, the Global Footprint Network has developed the Ecological Footprint as a measurement of human demand for natural resources.  They estimate that the world currently needs the resources of 1.75 Earths to satisfy the human demand for natural resources, and by 2030, this could rise to 2 Earths.  Obviously, they insist, since we have only 1 Earth, this proves that Malthus was right, because we have now gone beyond the Malthusian limit to human population growth; and to avoid ecological collapse, we must either severely reduce the human population, or we must severely reduce our high modern standard of living that is depleting the Earth's natural resources.

Tupy and Pooley argue that this is not really true.  Over the 225 years since the publication of Malthus's book, there has been a stunning increase in the global human population--from about 900 million in 1800 to over 8 billion today--and yet the Malthusian prediction of apocalyptic catastrophe from unchecked population growth has not come true.  The mistaken thinking in the Malthusian argument became clear in the debate between Paul Ehrlich and Juian Simon.

I have written previously about this debate and how it confirms the evolution of human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment.


In 1968, Ehrlich (a biologist at Stanford) began his popular book The Population Bomb with this paragraph:

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970's the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to 'stretch' the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole" (11).

Ehrlich's Malthusian prediction of catastrophe from unchecked population growth did not come true. Norman Borlaug's development of new high-yield varieties of food grains--the "green revolution"--allowed high-population countries like India to produce so much food in the 1970s that they actually became exporters of grain.  And while the world population in 1968 was three and one half billion, the world population today is over 8 billion, and yet the rate of global famine and poverty is much lower today than in 1968.

This confirms the prediction of Julian Simon--in contrast to Ehrlich--that population growth does not lead to a shortage of resources, because a growing population means not only more labor but also more people with more ideas about how to solve our problems, and as long as there are the incentives of a free market economy, people will make resources more plentiful through more efficient uses of resources, increased supply, and the development of substitutes.  Consequently, Simon argued, a growing population creates not scarcity but abundance!

In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to make a bet with him.  Ehrlich could select a basket of raw materials that he expected would become less abundant and consequently more expensive over some designated time period.  At the end of that time period, the inflation adjusted price of those materials would be calculated.  If the price was higher, Ehrlich would win the wager.  If the price was lower, Simon would win.  Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten; and he chose 1980 to 1990 as the time period.  By 1990, the world population had increased by 873 million from 1980, but all five of the commodities that Ehrlich had selected had declined in price by an average of 57.6 per cent.  Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07.

Some of Ehrlich's supporters have tried to argue that Simon was just lucky, because if they had selected a different time period, Ehrlich could have won the bet.  But in 2016, some economists pointed out that in 2015 Ehrlich's five metals were 22.4 percent cheaper than they were in 1980.

Recently, Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy have developed a new way to measure the availability of resources, which confirms Simon's argument.  They have compiled the latest price data for 50 important commodities covering energy, food, materials, and metals.  They then have calculated the "time-price" of these commodities--in terms of the global average hourly income, the "time-price" is the amount of time that an average human has to work in order to earn enough money to buy a commodity.  By that standard, the real price of Ehrlich's minerals has declined in every year from 1980 to the present.  Pooley and Tupy also found that from 1980 to 2018, the real price of their basket of 50 commodities fell by 36.3 percent, and the time-price fell by 71.6 percent.  As compared with workers in 1980, workers in 2018 were able to buy some 252 percent more goods and services with their hours of work. Over that same period, population rose by 71.2 percent.  Thus, a huge increase in population brought not a scarcity of resources, as Malthus and Ehrlich would predict, but a huge increase in resources, which is what Pooley and Tupy call "superabundance" (1-2).

Their explanation for why Simon won his bet with Ehrlich is based on their Hayekian understanding of how the price system works to generate abundance:

"The relationship between prices and innovation is dynamic.  Relative scarcity leads to higher prices, higher prices create incentives for innovations, and innovations lead to abundance.  Scarcity gets converted to abundance through the price system.  The price system functions as long as the economy is based on property rights, rule of law, and free exchange" (5).

As long as the price system functions in a free society, the ultimate resource is not the material resources of the Earth but the intellectual resources of the human mind.  Increasing population means more minds with new ideas for solving problems, and the pricing system provides the incentives for people to try out their ideas, and the best ideas will prevail in the marketplace.

As I have argued in a previous post, this shows how classical liberals recognize that liberty promotes the growth of population.  Many thinkers of the Liberal Enlightenment in the 18th century saw this.

David Hume, for example, in his long essay on "Of the Populouness of Ancient Nations," criticized ancient nations for having a lower growth in population than modern nations, and he argued: "every wise, just, and mild government, by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure, will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches. . . . if every thing else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people" (Essays, Liberty Fund, p. 382).  Hume believed that population was growing faster in modern nations than in ancient nations because there was more liberty in modern nations: "human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of Europe, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times" (383).  After all, the primary difference between the economic life of the ancients and that of the moderns was the practice of slavery among the ancients.  Like Hume, Etienne Damilaville, in his article on "Population" in the French Encyclopedia, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, claimed that liberty fosters a growing population, because "it is under mild, limited governments, where the rights of humanity are respected, that men will become numerous" (Encyclopedic Liberty, Liberty Fund, p. 502).  It was this belief that growing population was a sign of human progress in a free society that was challenged by Malthus.

In his Foreword to Tupy and Pooley's book, George Gilder explains this Malthusian pessimism about population growth leading to a scarcity of resources as based on the "materialist superstition."

"The materialist superstition is this:  that wealth consists of things rather than thoughts, of accumulated capital rather than accumulated knowledge--that people are chiefly consumers rather than creators, mouths rather than minds."

". . . Thomas Sowell, expounding the argument that wealth is essentially knowledge, not material resources, wrote, 'The cavemen had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.'"

What we need, Gilder observes, is an "economics of mind" that recognizes that wealth arises "not by accumulating matter but by replacing it with mind" (xvi-xvii).

This elevation of mind over matter as the source of wealth is only partially true, however, because it ignores the simple fact that minds depend on matter, and particularly matter as it exists in the biosphere of the Earth today.  It is not clear, therefore, that the "economics of mind" has any application to anywhere in the Universe beyond the ecological conditions of the Earth today.


What I mean by "matter" is displayed in Charles Cockell's "Astrobiological Periodic Table of Elements":

To read this Table, you will need to enlarge it.

I should say here that I am speaking of "matter" in the ordinary sense, which ignores the Dark Matter hypothesized to exist by many scientists, which might be over 95% of the matter in the Universe.  This exotic form of matter has no direct relevance to life.

Mind depends on matter in the sense that mind can exist only through a particular combination and structure of these elements.  For example, the element oxygen with atomic number 8 is essential for the human mind.  If my mother-in-law is deprived of oxygen for more than a few minutes, she will die, and her mind will disappear, because her brain cannot function without a steady supply of oxygen.  For that reason, we have a tank of oxygen next to her bed, so that we can artificially increase her oxygen.  The elements sodium with atomic number 11 and potassium with atomic number 19 are also essential for the brain, because the sodium-potassium pump found in the membrane of all animal cells provides energy for the firing of nerve cells.  My mother-in-law's low levels of sodium and potassium have caused her to be mentally confused, and so we have been trying to increase her intake of those elements.

Studying the Astrobiological Periodic Table tells us a lot about the material basis of the human mind and life, and how the Earth's biosphere might be unique in the Universe as the one place adapted for supporting human intelligent life, if only for a few million years.

Except for the artificial elements that must be artificially created in laboratories, the other elements found in nature originate from the astrophysics of the Universe--from the Big Bang, low mass stars, high mass stars, supernovae, or cosmic rays.  Most of these elements can have some use in supporting some kind of life.  But six of them are essential in all known life--carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur (known by the acronym CHNOPS).  Carbon is the most versatile backbone of molecules, which is why we speak of "carbon-based" life.

That all of these elements supporting life are found throughout the Universe might suggest that life is pervasive in the Universe.  But actually life requires a structuring of these elements that seems unique to the Earth beginning about 3.5 billion years ago.  If there is any extraterrestrial life, it has yet to be found.  Even if it is found, it is likely to be limited to microbial life, because the conditions for multicellular plant and animal life are so difficult to achieve.

Even life on Earth is likely to endure for what will be only a brief moment in the history of the Universe.  From what we know about the evolution of stars, we can foresee that the Sun will turn into a Red Giant star several billion years from now, and the Earth will be a dead planet.  Even before then, the increasing luminosity of the Sun will extinguish all animals and then all plants.

As indicated in some previous posts, all animal life, including human life, depends on the energy derived from breathing the atmospheric oxygen generated by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms such as plants, algae, and cyanobacteria.    There was little oxygen in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic cyanobacteria began to raise the level of oxygen, and now oxygen is about twenty percent of the atmosphere. 

Electrons are the source of energy for all life.  Like other aerobic organisms, we eat organic carbon as the electron donor, and we breathe in atmospheric oxygen as the electron receptor.  The electron transport chain in the membranes of our cells forms ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the universal energy currency for life.  This all depends on photosynthesis creating organic carbon and atmospheric oxygen.

Only a few kinds of organisms can live independently of photosynthesis.  Methanogens (microorganisms that produce methane) live in the deep subsurface of the Earth.  They use hydrogen as an electron donor and carbon dioxide as both an electron acceptor and a source of carbon for making methane (one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms).  Methanogens might show us the evolution of the first metabolisms, and we might look for that on other planets.

If there were not enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, photosynthesis would shut down.  Right now, that doesn't seem to be a problem because human activity has been raising the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past two centuries.  But scientists project that over the longer term--somewhere between a hundred million and a billion years into the future--this carbon dioxide will disappear, photosynthesis will then stop, and all the life that depends on photosynthesis on the planet will die.

If we're lucky, we can hope to prolong the life of our species and other species for a few more centuries or millennia.  But we cannot hope to prolong life forever, because we live in an evolving universe that does not care about us or for us, and the evolutionary conditions sustaining human life and all living beings are enduring but not eternal.  Eventually, everything we love and everything that lives will die, and the Earth will become just another dead planet.  That's what Leo Strauss identified as "the most terrible truth" of Lucretian evolutionary atomism.

But surely, we might hope, long before the extinction of life on Earth, human beings will have colonized other planets, perhaps even beyond the Solar System.  And if they establish free societies with pricing systems that reward innovative ideas for promoting a flourishing life on those planets, then they can generate the superabundance that sustains growing populations, and human life will proliferate in the Universe beyond the Earth.


But as we have seen, astrobiologists like Charles Cockell warn that achieving such extraterrestrial liberty will require that we solve the "problem of oxygen."  Cockell worries that the extreme conditions in the universe beyond the Earth's biosphere--especially, the lack of oxygen in a breathable atmosphere--will tend to promote tyranny, because those who control the technology for supplying oxygen and the other basic commodities necessary for life (such as water and food) will have tyrannical power over those dependent on this technology of life support.  To counter this tendency to extraterrestrial tyranny, he lays out proposals for how the liberal institutions for promoting liberty on Earth could be applied to the design of human settlements in space, particularly on Mars, the one planet most like the Earth.  As is characteristic of classical liberalism, he looks for ways to limit, divide, and decentralize power to protect liberty and avoid tyranny.

Consider how one might solve the problem of oxygen on Mars in a way that could promote liberty rather than tyranny.  Compared with the Earth, the atmosphere of Mars is very thin, and most of it--95%--is carbon dioxide.  It has only trace levels of oxygen (0.174%).  The Malthusian would conclude that such a severe scarcity of a natural resource necessary for human life must make human habitation on Mars impossible.

It is possible, however, to build machines that can extract oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide--by splitting carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, so that the oxygen atoms combine to form gaseous oxygen.  NASA built such a machine--the MOXIE (Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment) for the NASA Mars Perseverance rover.  On April 20, 2021, this machine successfully produced oxygen on Mars.  This demonstrated in principle that we could build personal oxygen machines for Mars that could be individually owned and mass produced.  A free-market pricing system with private property rights could create incentives for developing the most efficient machines.  And as long as the production and distribution of these machines is decentralized, there should be no central control of these machines that could be used for tyrannical power.

While this illustrates how mind depends on matter (the mind's need for oxygen), it also illustrates how mind creates innovative ideas about how to better secure those material resources such as oxygen, and how this can be done best through a pricing system that secures human life and liberty, and the growth of human populations, even on Mars.