Sunday, August 13, 2017


Eclipse in St. Petersburg; Alexandr Petrosyan

At times … I wish

I could meet in a duel

the man who killed my father

and razed our home,

expelling me

a narrow country.

And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last, 

and if I were ready— 

I would take my revenge!


But if it came to light,

when my rival appeared, 

that he had a mother 

waiting for him,
or a father who’d put 

his right hand over

the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set— 

then I would not kill him, 

even if I could. 


Likewise … I
would not murder him  

if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters  

who loved him and constantly longed to see him. 

Or if he had a wife to greet him 
and children who 
couldn’t bear his absence  

and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had 
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison 
or a hospital room, 
or classmates from his school …
asking about him 
and sending him regards. 



But if he turned 

out to be on his own— 
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,  

colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—  

not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content 
to ignore him when I passed him by   

on the street— as I 

convinced myself 

that paying him no attention 

in itself was a kind of revenge. 

~ Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011); translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin

Just the second stanza of this poem makes me tear up . . . 

But if it came to light,

when my rival appeared, 

that he had a mother 

waiting for him,
or a father who’d put 

his right hand over

the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set— 

then I would not kill him, 

even if I could. 

This is one of the most humanitarian poems I’ve ever come across. Talk about the power of poetry to touch our heart. 

It's the kind of poem that makes us feel more human; it expands our circle of empathy. 

Like most great poems, it’s amazingly simple: mother waiting, father touching his heart when the son is late, children thrilled by their father’s little gifts.

Mary: The best revenge may simply be survival. Avoiding the trap of becoming an echo of your enemy.

Oriana: Yes, becoming like your enemy is giving them victory. And it's always a defeat for humanity.

Taha Muhammad Ali

~ “There are three pervasive myths that are widely circulated about the "roots" of the Middle East conflict:

Myth 1: Judaism has nothing to do with Zionism.
Myth 2: Islam has nothing to do with Jihadism or anti-Semitism.
Myth 3: This conflict has nothing to do with religion.

To the "I oppose Zionism, not Judaism!" crowd, is it mere coincidence that this passage from the Old Testament describes so accurately what's happening today?

"I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods." ~ Exodus 23:31-32

Or this one?

"See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers — to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and to their descendants after them." ~ Deuteronomy 1:8

There's more: Genesis 15:18-21, and Numbers 34 for more detail on the borders. Zionism is not the "politicization" or "distortion" of [ancient] Judaism. It is the revival of it.

And to the "This is not about Islam, it's about politics!" crowd, is this verse from the Quran meaningless?

"O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you — then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." ~ Quran, 5:51

What about the numerous verses and hadith quoted in Hamas' charter? And the famous hadith of the Gharqad tree explicitly commanding Muslims to kill Jews?

[“The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, oh the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the Gharqad tree (the boxthorn) would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.”]

Please tell me — in light of these passages written centuries and millennia before the creation of Israel or the occupation — how can anyone conclude that religion isn't at the root of this, or at least a key driving factor? You may roll your eyes at these verses, but they are taken very seriously by many of the players in this conflict, on both sides. Shouldn't they be acknowledged and addressed? When is the last time you heard a good rational, secular argument supporting settlement expansion in the West Bank?

Denying religion's role seems to be a way to be able to criticize the politics while remaining apologetically "respectful" of people's beliefs for fear of "offending" them. But is this apologism and "respect" for inhuman ideas worth the deaths of human beings?

People have all kinds of beliefs — from insisting the Earth is flat to denying the Holocaust. You may respect their right to hold these beliefs, but you're not obligated to respect the beliefs themselves. Religions don't need to be "respected" any more than any other political ideology or philosophical thought system. Human beings have rights. Ideas don't. The oft-cited politics/religion dichotomy in Abrahamic religions is false and misleading. All of the Abrahamic religions are inherently political. . . .

Settlement expansion is simply incomprehensible. No one really understands the point of it. Virtually every US administration has unequivocally opposed it. There is no justification for it except a Biblical one, which makes it slightly more difficult to see Israel's motives as purely secular.

At its very core, this is a tribal religious conflict that will never be resolved unless people stop choosing sides.

So you really don't have to choose between being "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine." If you support secularism, democracy, and a two-state solution — and you oppose Hamas, settlement expansion, and the occupation — you can be both.” ~

 the gharqad tree (boxthorn)

This is the most intelligent article I've ever read on this complex topic. I am afraid that only secularism can save the region. It won't happen in our lifetime, but eventually, I hope, eventually . . . 


I see no solution as long as people cling to their “Holy Books” which do exactly as the article says—instruct believers in hatred and violence toward those outside the “Chosen” group, whose struggle for dominance, and the ERADICATION (this must be understood) of the other groups is sanctioned, even demanded, by their particular “God.”

Those apologists who deny these instructions exist in the “Holy Books” are simply cherry picking what they want and ignoring what they don’t want to acknowledge. “Scripture” has been and continues to be used as justification for hatred and injustice—and it’s all there, without any need to edit or change anything. Words of a “jealous” “vengeful” and “angry” god.

To move forward, humanity must move away from these primitive, tribal divisions and demands toward a more enlightened, inclusive and humane model for social behavior. Us and Us, not Us and Them.


Apologists will always fish out some passage that appears universalist rather than tribal. But let’s face it: once you see the passages urging genocide, that’s pretty overwhelming.

Can we somehow salvage the poetic parts, and leave out the bloodthirsty tribalism? We could, say, have the beauty of Psalm 147 (By the rivers of Babylon) if we delete the ending about dashing the heads of the enemy’s infants against stone. But that’s messing with the truth, always a dubious act. First, let “the faithful,” the sheep, become aware just what it is that the “holy” scripture contains.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ~ Oscar Wilde

~ “Ours is a ‘banality of evil’ approach,” says Hammad Sheikh. Sheikh’s personal interest in the psychological origins of group violence began when he was growing up in Germany. “I could never believe that the Nazis were these evil people who had taken over. Millions of ordinary people had followed Hitler, and I met them. They had been fanatics. But in my childhood, they were nice old people shaking my hand and giving me chocolate.”

Not only are perpetrators of conflict not the cold-blooded psychopaths they’re often assumed to be; they may actually be distinguished for having an unusually high degree of compassion. In his studies of the neural mechanisms of prejudice and empathy, Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, has found that some terrorists scored higher than average on measures of empathy. Their intense empathy is limited, however, to members of their own group. “The problem is not that they lack empathy,” Bruneau says. “They have plenty. It’s just not distributed evenly.”

Leaders of modern states frequently assume that their opponents are out to maximize their largely material rewards and minimize their pain. They are thought to respond to incentives (“We’ll give you food and other aid”) and avoid disincentives (“We’ll bomb you”). But Atran, who has talked to far more terrorists and likely received far more death threats than any other social scientist, has found that this kind of horse-trading is usually anathema to people in conflict zones.

In fact, it’s anathema to most of us. That is because people of all cultures hold “sacred values”—things that are too cherished to be compromised. For example, you might relinquish a weekend day to work for money. But if your religion prohibits working on the Sabbath, no amount of money can compel you to do so. Anything—a nation, a religious landmark, a legal status—can be construed as sacred, at which point defending it is perceived as a matter of right and wrong, not of costs and benefits.

Negotiating transactionally with people who are motivated by moral imperatives is bound only to infuriate them. As Jeremy Ginges, a psychologist at the New School for Social Research, wrote in a paper published last year, “Regardless of the specific issue (whether it concerns the right to make salt or to protect an old growth rain forest, a ‘holy’ city, or a national boundary), all sacred values appear to be defined by a taboo against material trade­-offs.”
Ominously, a survey of some 1,400 Iranians conducted a few years ago by Atran and his colleagues found that 14 percent of them saw the maintenance of their country’s nuclear program as sacred.

A survey by Sheikh, Ginges, and Atran in 2013 found that 86 percent of Palestinians consider “protecting Palestinian rights over Jerusalem” as a value ranked just slightly less than “protecting the family” and equal to “fairness to others.” The “right of return”—the demand of Palestinians to be able to return to the ancestral homeland from which their families fled during Israel’s establishment in 1948—was held sacred by 78 percent.

These findings may sound like grounds for despair, but the researchers argue that acknowledgment of an adversary’s sacred values—even if they conflict with one’s own—can make negotiations more successful. This is not just because it allows negotiators to avoid the error of offering to horse-trade over an issue that’s impervious to negotiation. It’s because people often respond well to having their sacred values acknowledged, even if that recognition comes in the form of a gesture that makes no practical difference. As Atran and the political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote several years ago, by making “symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit”—for example, an apology for a past wrong or an acknowledgment of the other side’s legitimate right to its position—negotiators “might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.” In some cases, an apology means more than a very large pile of money.
The possibility of engineering people away from their natural prejudices and impulses sounds like the plot of a science-fiction story. It’s exhilarating to imagine a scenario where the causes of a suicidal willingness to fight could be identified and eliminated, where propaganda promoting group violence could be instantly negated by a well-tested antidote, and where psychological profiles help tailor a perfect anti-conflict message to each person’s distinct biases. We’re a long way from there, and no researcher is operating under the fantasy of discovering a magic bullet. But addressing these possibilities with scientific inquiry so far appears to be a push in the direction of a more humane future.” ~

Originally I was going to post an image of the American Nazis, but have decided to show a beautiful tree instead:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” ~ Chinese proverb

~ “Hatred . . . is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently. We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu. We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense. TRUE HATRED REQUIRES THAT WE VIEW OUR ENEMY AS THE ULTIMATE AUTHOR OF HIS THOUGHTS AND ACTIONS. Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company. It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking. It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.” ~


~ “Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby's skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they'd kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it's going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that's just confirmed pregnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).

And that's just humans. Outside the human race, you've got giraffes with a vagus nerve traveling ten to fifteen feet out of its way to get where it's going. You've got sea mammals with lungs but no gills. You've got male spiders depositing their sperm into a web, siphoning it up with a different appendage, and only then inseminating their mates -- because their inseminating appendage isn't connected to their sperm factory. (To wrap your mind around this: Imagine that humans had penises on their foreheads, and to reproduce they squirted semen from their testes onto a table, picked up the semen with their head-penises, and then had sex.) You've got kangaroo molars, which wear out and get replaced — but only four times, after which the animals starve to death. You've got digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars — and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze them but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps' larvae with their living bodies.

You're going to look at all this, and tell me it was engineered this way on purpose?

Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, "fixed that for you" kluges and jury-rigs, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (See Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes for just a few of the most obvious examples.) If you're trying to reconcile all this with a powerfully magical creator god who made it this way on purpose, it requires wild mental contortions at best, and a complete denial of reality at worst.” ~


I learned much of this in my first college biology class, decades ago, so for me this was just a neat summary. But I have met those who seriously argue that god "designed" evolution. This is a common cognitive bias: if something exists, it must have been "made" for some particular purpose by an intelligent agent. An excellent book on the types of cognitive bias underlying religious beliefs is Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct.”

A bit more from the article:

~ Evolution is messy. Evolution is wildly inefficient. See #3 above. It's not just the products of evolution that are inefficient, either. The process itself is inefficient -- inherently so, almost by definition. If you're an all-powerful magical being trying to create sentient life, evolution is the long, long, long way around. If you're trying to get from Point A to Point B, evolution is a slow, meandering walk down convoluted dirt roads, with thousands of stops on the way to visit your doddering uncles who never shut up.

And evolution is brutal. It's not just that the results of the process are often uncomfortable, frustrating, even painful. The process itself is inherently brutal. The process ensures that most animals die in dreadful suffering and terror: they die from starvation, from injury, from disease, from birth defects, from being torn to pieces and devoured by other animals.

If there were a god who was using evolution to direct life in the direction he wanted, it immediately begs the question: Why? Why on earth would anyone do this?” ~


~ “In her lead essay for the most recent Boston Review forum, “Beyond Blame,” Barbara Fried points out that the last four decades have been “boom years for blame,” with neoliberal policy increasingly holding the individual solely responsible for his fate. Freedom and dignity have become intertwined with personal responsibility—and blame is our new rallying cry. The growing fragility of our communities and families over the same time period has solidified the notion that one has only oneself to rely on. Former representative and presidential candidate Ron Paul epitomized the spirit of blame in 2011 when he passionately argued in a televised debate that the decision to forego health insurance was a fundamental right of Americans. When the moderator asked him if this would mean that someone without health insurance who was critically injured should die rather than receive government help, audience members could be heard shouting, “Yeah!” Take a risk and succeed, and you are a hero. Take a risk and fail, and you are to blame—even if it costs you your life. Risk and blame are the hallmarks of worthy personhood in contemporary American society.

Blame is clearly implicated in power and inequality, as its attribution favors the powerful. But the puzzling question is why people who do not benefit from a system of blame—that is, most Americans—cling so fiercely to its creed. Seeking an answer, I spent several years researching the American working class, the very people whose homes are underwater and whose college debt goes unpaid. I witnessed how blame was deployed in everyday life to solve problems—to anchor the self, judge worthiness, grant dignity, and make sense of failures. In short, I learned that blame is a strategy to make certain what is uncertain.

When jobs are short-term, families are fragile, institutions are hollow, and trust is in short supply, taking sole responsibility for one’s own fate lends a sense of control and meaning. Blame proves a vital mechanism for coping with the chaos, hopelessness, and insecurity that threatens daily to strip our lives of dignity and order. We numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by reaching for images of ourselves as masters of own fates.

Self-blame is shored up by a multi-million dollar self-help industry. But its true power lies in its promise that we can will ourselves to happy and successful lives, in its ability to make a virtue out of failure, insecurity, and uncertainty. As a young woman, Kelly, a line cook who has lived on and off in her car, explained, “Life doesn’t owe me any favors. I can have a sense of my own specialness and individuality, but that doesn’t mean that anybody else has to recognize that or help me accomplish my goals.” Those who embrace blame tend to have little empathy for those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If I have to go it alone, the logic goes, then everyone else should, too.

As Fried argues, blame is costly, both socially and politically. Blame divides potential communities of solidarity into winners and losers. Even more worrisome, the quest for personal responsibility and the eagerness to blame oneself for failure obscures the larger forces that have weakened our social safety net, our communities, and our families. Doing away with gratuitous blame—directed at others and at ourselves—requires building institutions that restore, carefully and thoughtfully, our collective supply of meaning, trust, and dignity.” ~

Brueghel: Detail of Netherlandish Proverbs

Ours is a highly competitive society where it’s very easy to see oneself as a “loser.” I have suffered from that immensely. Eventually I managed to see the broader context — those “larger forces” that the article merely hints at. I’ve come to redefine “success” — but only after years and years of needless suffering, including suicidal depression.

And it’s true that at least some people who were brought up the harsh way, who felt abandoned and had to cope somehow, appear to lack empathy for the unfortunate. I heard people say, “Nobody helped me, I had to work my way through college, I had to do everything by myself — so why should anyone else have it easy?” Once I heard a woman argue, “There was no birth control when I was young — I either had to take my chances or not have sex. Why should young women today be allowed to have fun and not have to pay for it?”

I find it a peculiar logic: “I had a hard life, so why should anyone have it easy?” It doesn’t follow. But it’s not about rationality: it’s about bottomless RESENTMENT.

But that kind of resentment at least acknowledges external facts such as “I had it rough.” Worse by far is sheer, irrational self-blame. You were told that if only you work hard enough, “you can be anything you want to be” — and that didn’t happen. The first step toward healing is often seeing that “it’s not your fault.” It really is/was the circumstances. We don’t choose the most important factors: when and where we are born, who our parents are. We don’t choose our genes, or whether we are male or female. Our race and religion are typically decided by geography (location, location!) We don’t choose the huge social and historical forces that mold our lives.

(Speaking of religion, it may help to remember that after forty years of wandering through the desert, Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. What a loser!)

I realize that the issue of free will versus determinism is ultimately unsolvable. I like the saying, “I can do what I want to do, but I can’t choose what I want.” Not that we always know what we want — sometimes that’s the most difficult thing to know, especially in big matters: what is it that we most want in this life? If indeed (as so many assume) we are on this earth to accomplish some purpose, some task, what is it? Most people have absolutely no idea, so they hide behind something like, “I just want my family to be happy.” And then what? “I still haven’t decided what I want to be when my children grow up,” I once overheard a woman say — a woman obviously smart enough to realize that she was no longer young enough not to have “found herself.” But truly, how many people “find themselves”? And do we need to bear the burden of having to figure out what our “real self” is like? What if it’s a fiction, like the “soul mate”?

Some people discover their vocation early: Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to be an architect already at the age of nine. But school and the culture at large seem perversely bent on derailing even a strong sense of early vocation — which most young people simply don’t have, and they need to be told that’s OK — and that they will be help and guidance for them, rather than blame. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and “Nobody’s perfect” should be the guiding mottoes for recovering self-blamers. Relax: life itself will guide you, and most people will be supportive.

Karen Horney, one of Freud’s pupils, “thought that both children and adults, overwhelmed by a threatening world, compensated for their anxiety by creating an ideal image of themselves — the ‘idealized self’ — which gradually constituted their sense of who they were. The result was “their self-imposed subjection to the ‘tyranny of the should’. The unending hunt to realize the perfectionist image inevitably trapped them within ‘a pride system, which veiled a hidden self-contempt and alienation. Life became a series of hostile inward encounters, with the actual ‘self’ living in a constant tension, torn between the tyrannical demands of the ideal self and the insistent efforts of the submerged ‘real’ self to express its need for spontaneous growth.” (~ Peter Watson, The Age of Atheists, p. 359)

Except that there is no “real self” either. There is only constant evolution according to circumstances and the stage of life. Relax. Don’t struggle and strive so much. Let go. Go with the flow. Trust your unconscious mind. I can hardly believe that it took me decades to acquire this simple wisdom and undo — never completely, but almost — the damage of self-blame.


On the issue of self blame—I think there are at least two directions this takes today. One eschews all responsibility—my favorite (?) example of this is those ads for rehab places that state “addiction can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime” as though it acts like a contagious disease, or like a lightning strike, and has little or nothing to do with personal choices or personal responsibility.

On the other side, there is the idea that you are responsible for everything, including things like cancer, mental illness, and poverty—if you had just fought harder, worked more, been a better person, and had the determination to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” you would not be mired in any of these situations. Sort of a secular version of the righteous are rewarded and the unworthy punished: good people enjoy health and wealth, sinners are poor and sick.

At the times I was in the deepest stages of depression I felt to blame for everything that went wrong, in widening circles, starting with my own situation and moving outward, past the boundaries of delusion, until I was responsible, almost, for all the worst things in the world. At that extreme I could recognize the folly of this kind of thinking, even if I couldn’t stop it. I also found my reactions to self blame were always more on the order of shame rather than guilt.


Though I lean more toward determinism, I am also keenly aware that anyone who knows me well could say: But look, you’ve decided not to be depressed anymore. You made a CHOICE. And you’ve met several others, both in person and online, who also made that choice, albeit for different main reasons (for two of the women, it was their family — “I didn’t want my family to suffer; I realized I had no right to make them suffer”).

And all I can say is “Ripeness is all.” When there is a confluence of strong influences, a person has no choice, ahem . . . but to make a life-changing choice. Or at least that’s how it feels psychologically — there is the subjective experience of making a choice. I better leave the conundrum right here before it drives me crazy and the imaginary smoke of burnt neural circuits starts coming out of my ears.

Re: blaming yourself for everything. I know it well. Scott Peck makes this distinction: a neurotic feels they are to blame for everything, while a “character-disordered” individual always blames others. Between the two, I’d rather be a neurotic and deal with neurotics rather than, say, with an alcoholic who was in an accident but keeps claiming it was the other driver’s fault (and similar, and worse).

But if there is a confluence (hah! I like that word) between the two extremes it’s that even a neurotic, though it’s all her fault, also feels that life is rigged against her. If I were still prone to depression, there is no way I could have my knee replacement without brooding about the unfairness of it, how some people run around perfectly pain-free while I’ve had these brutal, barbarous surgeries. And I’d have lots of good cries about it. So, let me celebrate PROGRESS. Better late in life than never. Let me celebrate the phrase “It’s too late in life for . . .”

(And my thanks for the poet Jack Gilbert, who helped me see this when I read a line of his: “It’s too late for discontent.”)

(PS: A minor point, but it’s helped me against self-blame, so perhaps it will help others: I imagined appearing in court, being judged for my various misdeeds. And I realized that in adulthood I’ve never done anything truly awful! The highest penalty I can imagine meriting would be “community service.”)



~ “Octopuses can squirt water at an annoyingly bright bulb until it short-circuits. They can tell humans apart (even those who are wearing the same uniform). And, according to Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosophy professor at University of Sydney and City University of New York, they are the closest creature to an alien here on earth.

That’s because octopuses are the most complex animal with the most distant common ancestor to humans. There’s some uncertainty about which precise ancestor was most recently shared by octopuses and humans, but, Godfrey-Smith says, “It was probably an animal about the size of a leech or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.”

This means that octopuses have very little in common with humans, evolution-wise. They have developed eyes, limbs, and brains via a completely separate route, with very different ancestors, from humans. And they seem to have come by their impressive cognitive functioning—and likely consciousness—by different means.

 Octopuses display signs of curiosity, and Godfrey-Smith believes it’s extremely likely that they’re conscious beings. “I think the exploratory behaviors, the fact that they attend to things, they have good eyes, they evaluate, are little bits of good evidence that there’s something it’s like to be an octopus.”

Part of this is impressionistic; Godfrey-Smith acknowledges that they simply look like intelligent, conscious creatures. But they also perform certain tasks that are known to be conscious in humans. “Dealing with novelty, when you attend to a novel thing, is always conscious in humans,” he adds.

Given the distant common ancestry between octopuses and humans, conscious octopuses would mean that consciousness has evolved on earth twice. Godfrey-Smith believes it’s plausible that there are more than two branches of evolution where consciousness independently developed.” ~



Between one grey morning hour
And the next
The TV marine biologist
Shocked me to wonder
At the octopus
Drawn to a pattern
So unlike our own
Solving problems
With its nine brains
With its blood
With changes in the color
And texture of its skin
Learning maybe changing
In ways that seem
More than reflex
Or instinct can explain
Small and beautiful
And poisonous
Or a steaming heap
On someone’s dinner plate
A different answer
To the same long question
True as our own

We really know so very little about consciousness in other creatures; we have only begun to understand our own. And nature is so fond of redundancy, it would be foolish to assume we are the only self-conscious beings in this world, part of the old idea we are the pinnacle of creation, put here by a Divine Creator to take dominion over the earth and all its creatures, put there for our use and entertainment, with no purpose of their own.


This reminded me that in ancient Judaism a woman had no soul, while a man had one soul on weekdays and two souls on the Sabbath. Or so I was told. In any case, even in the developed world a lot of men (most?) seem to assume that the purpose of women is to serve the needs of men. So we don’t even have to go to the animal kingdom for an example of dominionism.


On August 11 there was a concert at the Gniezno Cathedral (near Poznań). Around 8:30, lightning struck. The lights went out and some stained glass shattered and fell out. By the light of a few candles, the musicians played on and finished the concert. Then one of them playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the accordion. No one in the audience left either. 


On the clouds and weather: we are getting smarter, and going in when storms threaten. Apparently Florida is some kind of lightning strike capital, there have been at least three local lightning fatalities and one major fire here in the last few weeks. I still love the energy of storms, and the wonderful sunsets that often follow.


I too love the energy of violent weather. Sure, safety first — I'm glad you’re taking shelter. Nothing like watching a great thunder storm while safe and dry.  Or even with some degree of risk remaining, since nothing is 100% free of risk . . . I would have loved to have been there at that concert in the Gniezno Cathedral.


ending on a baby elephant:

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