It’s Cavernpeople, Thankyouverymuch.

Having just read an article entitled “Sheanderthal” in Aeon, yet another set of scales have fallen from my eyes. (Apparently I have quite a few of those.) I’d like to think that I view the world through a feminist lens, but it never occurred to me that our society has given female Neanderthals rather short shrift. It’s so easy to bow down to the patriarchy without even realizing you’re doing so.

Consider this: in the bulk of artistic depictions of Neanderthals, both in painting and sculpture, the person being depicted is a male. If a female appears at all, she is much smaller and subordinate, and is usually off on the periphery somewhere, doing, you know, housewifey, “less important” things. That is, if she isn’t being dragged into a cave by her hair. It’s quite appalling to have that insight.

The article mentioned above goes into detail about what we have learned, and also what we can infer about Neanderthal women. It’s quite fascinating. Here are some of the salient points.

First of all, most of us have been told that the first Neanderthal skeletons were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. Hence their name. But in fact, with hindsight, we now know that the first Neanderthal skull ever found came from Gibraltar in 1848, and it turns out that it was a female skull, but without DNA they just assumed it was male. Since her features weren’t as extreme, it was believed for many years that the skull shape was difficult to discern from the stone from which it emerged, so its identification as a whole new (old) type of human was overlooked. Isn’t that always the way? Even in skulls, we require male validation for something to seem true.

But hey, at least the female skull got to meet Charles Darwin, in 1863, which is more than any of us alive today can say. He was apparently quite delighted with the experience. It was only 4 years after his book, On the Origin of Species, had been published.

And we’re learning from the increasing number of skeletons that Neanderthal females were pretty much the same size as the males. Their features were generally softer, their eye ridges didn’t protrude as much, but pound for pound, they could give the guys a run for their money. I suspect not as much cave dragging actually went on as we once assumed. That makes me happy.

But based on muscle attachments of the bones that have been found, it is clear that there was a division of labor along gender lines. Men and women’s upper leg muscles were equally bulky, but men had more developed lower legs, and their upper arms were more developed than their lower arms. Female lower arms were stronger than their upper arms, and they were more symmetrical, suggesting that they did a lot of carrying, pushing and pulling.

This, coupled with the fact that women’s teeth show more wear, indicates that they did more hide-working. This work was labor intensive and time-consuming, and it’s often done around the fire, so it’s probable that women formed friendships with each other.

These friends may have helped each other during their most vulnerable moments: childbirth. (Even bonobos have been seen attending to each other in this way, even to the point of supporting the baby’s head as it comes out.) Neanderthal women had a 9 month gestation period, just like us. They could feel the baby kicking inside them, just like us.

Their babies were just as vulnerable and in need of constant care as our babies are. Their little bones were bulkier, and they had to eat more. Obviously, the women breastfed their children, and a study of tooth development indicates they did so for more than a year, although they started giving babies solid food around 7 months of age.

Neanderthal children lost their baby teeth sooner, and they entered puberty a few years before our children do. As they became more ambulatory, these children would probably hang out with other children, thus freeing the woman up for other sorts of work, just as happens in modern day hunter-gatherer cultures.

By studying hunter-gatherer cultures today, we can infer that Neanderthal girls had shorter menstruation periods, perhaps lasting 3 days. They were also sexually active, but of course it was unclear if they linked that activity with becoming pregnant. They did seem to understand how each person was related to the other, because only in small, isolated populations do we see rampant inbreeding in DNA.

It seems that Neanderthal women did hunt, but they focused on smaller, less dangerous game, probably because they had to take their children along with them, or they only wanted to leave the children with elderly babysitters for short periods of time.

What about higher culture? Art and religion? According to this article, Neanderthals did, indeed, create art. Rudimentary cave paintings, usually using red pigment and consisting of lines, dots and hand stencils, are found across Europe fully 20,000 years before Homo Sapiens arrived. Much of this art is located in deep, dark caves, which implies planning and bringing a light source. They were capable of symbolic behavior.

And according to this article, the Neanderthals held funerals, built complex structures, created tools and decorated themselves with bird feathers. They buried their dead, surrounding their graves with horns and bones, and often leaving artifacts with the bodies. In anticipation of an afterlife? Who knows? They did plan and carefully execute these burials. They must have loved the people they were burying. They must have thought about the circle of life. Does that constitute religion as we know it? Hard to say.

But it’s obvious that the Neanderthals weren’t the brutes that we’ve assumed they were for so long. I even vaguely recall reading somewhere that they made music and flossed their teeth, sort of. Go figure.

Why is all this important? Because, dear reader, it has been found that many of us have Neanderthal DNA within us, so they are us, just as we are them.

So now I have a new pet peeve. We all say cavemen, as if the women were mere afterthoughts, and as if living in a cave is not worthy of respect and automatically implies a primitive life. Sheesh. It’s cavernpeople, thankyouverymuch.

Uh, guys? Where are the women?

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Science is a Journey

All scientific inquiry begins with a question. How is this possible? Why is that planet behaving that way? How old is that thing? What is that made of? How do we catch the flu? Once you have a question, you can set about determining an answer. That’s science, and in my opinion, it’s a thing of beauty.

What frustrates me most about people who disparage science is that they tend to say, “Well, science used to believe this. But now we know that’s wrong.”

Uh… YEAH. That’s the whole point. You add to science as you increase knowledge and extend your inquiries. Surprise! Blood letting isn’t the best idea for the feverish! The earth isn’t flat after all!

Science, by its very nature, is not rigid and set in stone. It’s a journey, not a destination. It grows. It (dare I say it?) evolves.

The reason science and religion seem at odds with each other, in my opinion, is that religion doesn’t want you to question. It wants you to believe without question. It doesn’t want you to change, other than to get with the program. It says, “These are the rules. Stick to them.” It believes that the way we thought 2,000 years ago is the way we should think now.

Science is messy. It says, “Hold on… what about this?” It’s ever-changing. It’s fluid. That’s a scary concept for some, but I firmly believe that learning and growth make us better people.

This may surprise you, but I genuinely believe that science and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There are questions that will never be answered in our lifetime. If religion helps you with the great unanswered, then more power to you. And if you believe in God, surely you must believe that he or she gave us curious brains so that we could use them.

I am so grateful for both the gifts of intelligence and morality. I will never squander those gifts. (Not that morality is exclusive to religion, mind you. But sometimes it is nice to have a guidebook, even if we don’t always consult it.)

I am very excited by the prospect of knowing more tomorrow than I do today. I look forward to applying that knowledge in a way that benefits mankind. Life is good!

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No Two Churches Are Alike

Now that many churches are putting their services online due to the pandemic, I had the opportunity to virtually attend two services in one day. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, so naturally I chose two churches of that denomination.

I won’t name the congregations in question here. And I’m not attempting to proselytize. That goes against everything I believe. You should choose your own spiritual path.

But I will say that it was really interesting to compare and contrast the two services. They each had basic elements in common, but the vibe was totally different. One was more organized, more tech-savvy, and I got the impression that the members are perhaps more professionally successful and much more formal. The second group was very laid back and relaxed. They were more casual, and their topic was a bit less mainstream than the first one. They joked around more. The service didn’t run quite as smoothly, but it was fun.

Both congregations were warm and welcoming. Both services were comforting during these isolating times. But it was rather like visiting two different families on the same holiday. They each had different dynamics, a different history, different bonds, and different ways of coping. After all, churches are made up of the people who attend them and the people who lead them, so no two are exactly alike.

If you’re feeling isolated and in need of fellowship in these highly stressful times, I suggest that you reach out, online, to whatever group, be it religious or secular, that you feel fits best with your personality and values. You’ll be surprised how helpful that can be.

Stay safe everyone!

Joel-Robison-Reach-Out-For-A-Lift

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Morality Doesn’t Come from Religion

I get so frustrated when people imply that those without a religion-centered life are therefore devoid of a moral compass. Stuff and nonsense. I’m not a Christian, and my upbringing wasn’t particularly religious. Yet I believe in the golden rule. I think it’s wrong to kill and steal and lie and behave violently. I’m a law-abiding person, and do my best to do no harm.

Studies have shown (and this article in Scientific American describes) that even babies have compassion, empathy, and the beginnings of a sense of what’s fair. These things are within them long before any religious instruction is instilled. There’s even evidence that empathy has a genetic component.

Another article, in Psychology Today, posits the theory that we have a rigid moral code because that signals to the world that we are trustworthy. Trustworthiness, in kind, gets others to cooperate with us. Cooperation is how we’re able to survive. So those with a moral code are more likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who do not. That makes perfect sense to me.

What does not make sense to me is the belief that if I don’t hold your exact spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof for that matter), there’s something wrong or evil about me. The sense of right and wrong is a universal trait. And yes, there are people out there who are horrible and selfish and commit atrocities. It’s been my experience that some of these claim to be religious and others do not.

Horrible things have happened in the name of religion. Horrible things have also happened simply because that person was fundamentally a douchebag. It is what it is.

Golden-Rule-1

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Have We Outgrown Religion?

This is a thought experiment that I’ve been conducting with myself for most of my adult life. It will probably offend some people, as religion is a very touchy subject. Please know that I often write a blog post simply to clarify my own thoughts and get thoughtful feedback. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to think or believe or disbelieve.

Recently I came across an article entitled, “A 43,900-year-old cave painting is the oldest story ever recorded. Archaeologists say it might also contain the oldest known religious images.” By Kiona N. Smith. I’ve always been fascinated by cave paintings, so naturally I had to read on. (And I highly recommend that you do, too.) One passage really jumped out at me:

“Before we could develop religion, we had to develop the ability to think and talk about things that don’t exist in the natural, physical world. We had to learn to describe and imagine not just things we had already seen, but things no one had ever seen… In other words, we had to invent the concept of fiction.”

Was the author equating religion to fiction? Or perhaps she was describing the process of faith? I don’t know. Either way I found this to be a fascinating topic.

It is not unreasonable to consider religion to be a philosophical invention of sorts. Religious tenets came about to explain those things that we didn’t understand, and also to set forth a set of rules to define morality. Much of it has to do with a subject that most of us still struggle with: our own mortality, and the acceptance thereof.

The thing is, we’ve learned so much since the establishment of most mainstream religions. The invention of refrigeration alone makes most religious food restrictions unnecessary, whereas at the time they were critical to maintaining life. We’ve also invented planes, trains, and automobiles, so our horizons have expanded and we really don’t need to have such a tribal worldview. And the invention of medical devices, microscopes, telescopes, computers, the scientific method, birth control, and meteorology have changed the way we see our planet and have impacted the way we live upon it.

Because of all this, I find it impossible to live within a rigid, inflexible religious system that is more than 2000 years old, just as I wouldn’t take medical advice from that era. Any philosophy that isn’t living, breathing, and adapting to current circumstances and our increased knowledge base does not serve us well. The fact that the Pope won’t condone condoms, even in countries ravaged by AIDS, is just one example of this.

I think we’ve outgrown religion as it currently stands. If it can’t keep up with the times, it should be left behind. My opinion. You are entitled to yours.

this-cave-contains-the-oldest-story-ever-recorded

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Censorship?

I am on the horns of a moral dilemma. I believe very strongly in free speech and freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Nothing angers me more than a book burning, or a school board that requires teachers to avoid teaching things that are science-based. I am usually the first to read a book if it gets banned.

Because of all the above, it kind of makes me squirm that, ever since I started my Little Free Library, I have been actively participating in censorship. It’s true. I have. And I will probably continue to do so.

Ugh! I’m going to hell in a handbasket.

The way a Little Free Library works is that people can take books and keep them as long as they want. They can return them, too, or they can bring other books. Most things are welcome. But some things I have to remove.

I look at myself as the curator of my library. Just as museums have curators who determine what exhibits they will display and what image their museums shall project to the world, I, too, am in control of the types of messages I put out there in my library. Being a steward is a service that I’ve voluntarily provided, and it is, after all, located on my private property.

But this censorship thing is kind of a slippery slope, and one that I never thought I’d be sliding down. It all started with the pizza flyers that someone stuffed in my library. I’m not here to advertise for local businesses. Those flyers went into the recycle bin, and I didn’t feel bad about it at all.

I also know I wouldn’t feel bad about pitching any pornography, were it to appear. My little library is often used by children. Can you imagine if little Johnny came home with a Penthouse magazine and Mom found out he got it from my box? No. Not appropriate at all.

I also get rid of books that are in poor condition. If the spines are torn off, for example, they get sent to Goodwill. I don’t want to be the dumping ground for everyone’s garbage books. That, and no one will want to take a disintegrating book to read, so it’s just taking up much-needed space. I also get rid of moldy books and ones that reek of cigarette smoke. I don’t want to trigger someone’s asthma. Again, these are situations that don’t feel morally ambiguous to me.

But here’s where it gets a little sticky. I’ve also donated religious books to Goodwill. I’m all for seeking your own spiritual path, but there are other sources for this information. I don’t want to proselytize, either purposely or by accident. It’s just not in my nature. I also know that the people in my neighborhood participate in a wide variety of religions. I don’t want anyone to feel alienated. Maybe I’d include a book on comparative religion, if it wasn’t promoting one philosophy over another. I don’t know.

I’ve also been avoiding putting blatantly political books out there. Mostly the books I’ve come across have been in alignment with my point of view, but if I put those out there, then I’ll have to put out ones I actively disagree with, and that would make me cringe. So, further down the censorship slope I slide.

Since I started my Little Free Library, I’ve met a lot of LFL stewards online. They’ve shared a multitude of moral dilemmas that have made me realize what a complicated task I’ve taken on.

For example, one steward received a children’s book which said, “For Boys Only” on the cover. I don’t think I would include this book in my library. I don’t want to participate in making girls feel as though there are things they cannot do or read.

Another steward discovered a bunch of anti-vax literature in her library. No. No. A thousand times no. I will not actively participate in spreading false information that could potentially lead to death. I refuse. This information has been debunked by the scientific community, so I’m not spreading it. I could not share literature that denies climate change for the very same reason.

Another steward received a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In a world that is experiencing a shocking escalation in hate crimes, would I want to put that lunatic’s poorly written, hateful ramblings out there? Hell to the no. While I think this is an important book, for researchers and historians and people wanting to learn about hate without being sucked into it themselves, it requires context. I am unable to provide that context, and so it wouldn’t be included in my library.

I’ve had my library for less than two months, and I’ve already come a long way from simply tossing out pizza advertisements. Rest assured, there are plenty of amazing books in there. I get excited every time I look. Reading enlivens me. It’s an adventure.

But here’s what is making me lose sleep: Where do I draw the line? Who am I to sit in judgment? Do I have the right?

What do you think?

Censorship

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Spiritual Wealth

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a Christian. But I do believe that there are a lot of important lessons to be learned from the Bible. I think there are lessons to be learned from many other sources as well. The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, the chaff often does not come from the philosophy itself, but from the way that philosophy gets twisted by others for their own benefit. Nothing makes me more angry than seeing people get taken advantage of. Nothing is so heartbreaking as seeing people preyed upon and then cast aside.

I may not be an expert on all things Christian, but I do know this: Jesus did not advise people to crave money. He never said that the way God shows favor is by making you rich in this life. He cast out the money lenders. He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)

Basically, Jesus wasn’t about stuff. He wasn’t about accumulating riches. He wasn’t trying to show people how to game the system so that God would give them prizes.

He did not approve of greed. And he certainly never told anyone to go without groceries so that some creepy preacher could buy a private jet. Jesus would be horrified by the prosperity gospel.

Money is not the key to happiness in this life or any other. Whether you agree with him or not, does Trump seem particularly happy to you? He worships Mammon, and I wouldn’t want his life for anything. Golden toilets don’t make the going any easier.

Love, decency, kindness, generosity, the ability to learn and think critically… these things are priceless. Clamoring for stuff and money… that’s not your kingdom here on earth. It’s just a form of burial before death. If you learn nothing else in this life, let it be that.

Money Church

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12 Things to Discuss before Getting Married

I’m getting married for the first time at age 53, so I’m hardly an expert on the subject. But I’d like to think that my age is a plus. I’m not impulsive. I believe in doing my homework. I am all about looking before I leap.

Lord knows I’ve seen enough marriages fail to get a strong sense of what kills them off. It’s really important to have all the hard conversations beforehand so that you know what you’re getting yourself into. It also helps to know the other person’s hopes, dreams, and expectations in advance, and decide whether you’d be willing to help them achieve them.

Here are a few things you may wish to consider talking about ahead of your big day:

Money. This one is huge. Is one partner bringing a mountain of debt into the union? It’s only fair to bring this out in the open. How will you handle finances? How much credit card debt can you tolerate? What level of discretionary spending are you comfortable with? What are your plans, if any, for retirement? What are your expenses? How will you cope with financial emergencies? What are your long term financial goals, and how do you plan to reach them?

Children. Do you both want them? How many? Do you already have some? Who has custody? What is your philosophy regarding discipline, and child-rearing in general?

What goals do you have for your future? Do they align? If you want to travel and your partner simply wants to retire and watch Jerry Springer all day long, that’s a problem. What do you consider to be a successful life? What is most important to you in terms of a future? Where do you want to live? What kind of home do you want to have? What types of vacations do you like to take? What are your priorities? What are your expectations?

Sex, Intimacy and Fidelity. It’s okay to be who you are. But it’s only fair that you spell it out. If one person is asexual, and the other expects a high degree of intimacy, that’s a problem waiting to happen. If your philosophies regarding fidelity don’t align, it’s a recipe for disaster. If one person hates public displays of affection, and the other feels rejected if her partner won’t hold her hand, this is the tip of a much larger iceberg. Is pornography a big part of your life or do you have any sexual habits that your partner might find unusual? Discuss what you need to feel loved and sexually satisfied now, or your marital ship will sink like a stone.

Individuality. You don’t have to be joined at the hip. You don’t always have to like all the same things that your partner likes. You don’t even have to have all of the same friends. Becoming a football widow isn’t a big deal if you have interests of your own. Are you both comfortable doing things alone? If you have different expectations in terms of togetherness and attention, it’s best to work that out now.

Vices. If you smoke and your partner does not, you should find out if that will become a deal-breaker. If you have a drug addiction, your partner has a right to know. How much do you drink alcohol? How much is too much? You should even put your quirky habits out there. One person’s quirk might be another person’s intolerable oddity.

Health. Does your partner take health as seriously as you do? Are there any ticking time bombs with regard to family health history that you need to be aware of? How will you cope with a medical catastrophe?

Religion. What are your spiritual philosophies? Atheists and Fundamentalists can marry, of course, but they’d have to be extremely tolerant of their differences. If one is expecting the other to make a dramatic, very basic shift, and the other person isn’t willing to do so, then that will be a problem. Also, what holidays are important to you, and how do you celebrate them?

Politics. I’ve seen couples thrive in spite of political differences, but if politics is a huge part of your life, it rapidly becomes a definer of the content of one’s character. And in this current atmosphere of division, it’s not like you can ignore the elephant (or donkey) in the room. Will you be willing to agree to disagree on the issues? It’s never a good idea to go into a relationship with expectations that your partner will change and come to his or her senses.

Family. Unfortunately (or luckily, as the case may be), when you marry someone, you marry that person’s family, too. Everyone has a few nuts in the family tree. Having insane in-laws is not necessarily a problem unless you discover, to your horror, that your spouse expects said crazy relative to live with you in his or her dotage. Will you be okay with that? What does family obligation mean to you? Best to figure that out in advance.

Communication and Conflict Resolution. How do your resolve disagreements? If one is a shouter and the other tends to withdraw, you’ll never be able to meet in the middle. It’s all about respect. Talk about issues before they get out of control. Listen to what your partner is saying. Nip things in the bud as often as you can. Don’t stuff things. Don’t get hostile. Don’t just hope things will go away on their own. Take the initiative. How do you plan to talk things out?

Cleanliness. Can you tolerate your partner’s level of clutter? Can your partner stand your obsessive compulsive need for a spotless home? And how will the cleaning tasks be divided? This is 2018. You can’t assume that both of you are on the same page regarding basic chores. Talk about it.

Communication about all of the above is key. It’s important to know as much as possible about the foundation on which you are building your relationship. A solid foundation leads to a long-lasting home.

Are there any other topics that I’ve overlooked? Please share them in the comments below!

marriage

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Let’s Talk About the Weather, Shall We?

I’m looking forward to a rare day of sunshine here in the Pacific Northwest, and the temperature is expected to rise to a delightful 65 degrees. Spring! Happy dance!

Meanwhile, a dear friend in Kansas had to hunker down the other day in anticipation of 2 to 4 inches of snow. In April. This is not normal. The world has gone mad.

It used to be that the weather was considered to be the safest of all possible topics. We are all told to avoid politics and religion over Thanksgiving dinner, but the weather… we could all agree on that, couldn’t we?

Not anymore. The weather has become political. At a time when California is burning to the ground, islands are sinking beneath the ocean waves, there is severe flooding, drought, dust storms engulfing entire cities, super storms of all kinds, and unprecedented ice cap melting, we are expected to avoid the meteorological elephant in the room. Even governmental websites are deleting any references to global climate change.

I never thought I’d see the day when liberals would be considered the most conservative people on earth, but we are the ones that are wanting to take precautions to safeguard the planet. Even if you don’t believe in the overwhelming science of climate change, even if you refuse to look at the evidence before your very eyes, how can you justify not wanting to take steps, just in case? If this really does turn out to be our last chance to save ourselves, don’t you want to be aboard that ark?

What is wrong with reducing our dependence on fossil fuels? Why not recycle? Would it kill you to plant a tree? Is it really so hard to be a little bit smarter about your water usage? Why is expecting our corporations not to pour their toxic waste into our rivers and streams so controversial?

Seriously. Explain it to me. Because I don’t get it.

global-warming
Surely we can all agree that this isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had.

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Making Plans

When you make plans for the future, you’re demonstrating a delightful amount of optimism. Because life is fragile. It can pop like a soap bubble at any time. I’ve seen that happen more than once.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Sorry, John. You know I love you. But I disagree. I think life is making plans. The alternative, making no plans at all, or sitting back and letting the world kind of wash over you, is a form of death.

We are not meant to live like moss on a tree. The fact that we feel the need for religion shows that we struggle with accepting fate. I don’t think we are meant to be so accepting. We are meant to be the architects of our own lives.

Plans give you purpose. Purpose is what makes life worth living. I find the best antidote for depression is having something to look forward to.

Even more evidence of optimism is making plans with someone. It says, “We’re in this for the long haul.” “I have great expectations for us.” “You are the person I want to spend time with.” “I have faith in our relationship.”

The only thing I can think of that’s better than anticipating your future is anticipating your future while holding someone’s hand.

planning-for-future

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