Up, Up, and Away

A few weeks ago, I took my 16-year-old son to a local university for parking practice. (Just to be clear on this — he was practising; I was instructing.) Our timing was good:  just as we arrived, a local company was launching hot air balloon rides. What an easy way to get dynamic pictures!

The italicized text is from Sundance Balloons.

We fly year round, twice a day, seven days a week weather permitting. We require light winds, good visibility and no precipitation.

[Translation:  we can fly about twenty days per year in this God-forsaken climate.]

At the launch site, you will watch with awe as your balloon takes shape before your eyes, ultimately standing more than 10 stories tall.

[Note the large fan at bottom left, forcing air into the balloon.]

Once fully inflated and ready for take off, you climb into the gondola and begin the adventure of a lifetime.

[Read:  …begin screaming for your Mama as you are overwhelmed by terror.]

During your flight you will drift silently over the countryside where you will watch for wildlife …

[“Don’t hit that porcupine, it looks sharp!”]

… and talk with envious onlookers down below.

[“Tell my children I loved them!”]

There is no wind chill and very little feeling of movement or sensation of height. After drifting serenely for approximately an hour we prepare for landing.

[Serenely? Who are they kidding?!]

We fly at approximately 1000 feet above built up areas, but will come down to touch the tree tops or skim across the corn fields if we are out in the countryside.

[If I get anywhere near the ground, I’m outta here.]

Since we fly with the prevailing winds, our flight patterns and landing sites vary due to the changing wind directions. Once on the ground, we share in the oldest of ballooning traditions, a champagne toast.

[Not so. The oldest ballooning tradition is when we change into dry trousers.]

I’m cheating with this photo. I downloaded it from the Web some time ago, with no idea that I would be posting on this subject on my blog. I can’t even direct you to the original site.

Whoever took it is more of an artist with a camera than I am!

p.s. I have posted some photos of a hot air balloon festival here.

Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Dan Brown

Dan Brown, in case you don’t recognize the name, is the author of The Da Vinci Code. The novel, which was published two years ago, has sold more than 25 million copies in 44 languages.

For the sake of his plot, Mr. Brown assumes that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. As summarized in Friday’s Ottawa Citizen:

The novel suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene produced descendants. According to the plot, Jesus’ heirs were able to maintain their secrecy over the centuries because of an international conspiracy; clues to unravelling all these mysteries can be found in various books, architecture and artworks, including paintings by Italian Renaissance master, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. But, according to a new poll, many Canadians have trouble distinguishing fiction from non-fiction:
Almost two million Canadians who read the mega-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, ended the novel convinced that Jesus Christ fathered a line of descendants on Earth, a new survey suggests.

The coast-to-coast survey for the National Geographic Channel conducted by Decima Research found that, among 1,005 adults surveyed June 9-12, 16 per cent had read the book in the past two years.

Among those readers, 32 per cent believed the story that “a holy bloodline exists and that this secret has been protected through the ages by a dedicated society,” the television channel announced yesterday.
Decima Research extrapolates from this data to conclude that 5.2 million Canadians have read The Da Vinci Code, and 1.7 million of them believe that its message is historically accurate.

WARNING WARNING WARNING:  The blogger is about to make a statement that is elitist and therefore not politically correct.
Sometimes I am driven to despair by the appalling stupidity of the masses.

The news item interests me because it touches on a subject that I take very seriously. For fifteen years I was an evangelical Christian. Toward the latter part of that period, I had a spiritual crisis. I had been studying the academic literature for several years. Slowly, reluctantly, I was persuaded that the Gospels cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

I have spent literally thousands of hours investigating the puzzle of the “historical Jesus”. (As distinct from the Jesus proclaimed by the Church.) I have concluded there are very few things we can assert about Jesus with much confidence.

Many people are shocked to learn that there are other gospels, not included in the New Testament. These books are commonly referred to as the “apocryphal” gospels.

Dan Brown has apparently taken his theme from the apocryphal gospels. The most notable passage is found in the Gospel of Philip. (The ellipses, in square brackets, indicate gaps or undecipherable words in the manuscript.):

The companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The significance of such material depends on your purpose. If you want to write a history of the early Church, the Gospel of Philip and the other apocryphal gospels are relevant. If you want to write fiction, like Dan Brown, the texts may provide grist for the mill. But if you are looking for information about the historical Jesus, you’re in the wrong place. The apocryphal gospels cannot be utilized to correct the New Testament record.

People can believe what they want, of course, based on their “feelings”, or what they wish to be true, or superstition, etc. — even based on a rollicking good yarn like The Da Vinci Code. But if you take the question of the historical Jesus seriously, as I do, you should consider what scholars have to say on the subject.

Allow me to illustrate my point by considering a scientific fact. Scientists tell us that the earth revolves around the sun. But this is entirely contrary to my personal observation. As far as I can tell, the earth stands still. I have no sensation of the earth hurtling through space or spinning on its axis. It seems to me that the sun moves while the earth stays put.

Nonetheless, I accept that my perceptions are inaccurate. Scientists have investigated this question, and they assure us that the earth orbits the sun. You can evaluate the data for yourself, if you wish:  scientists have published their observations and the reasoning that led them to such a counter-intuitive conclusion.

The same logic applies to any serious investigation of the historical Jesus. If you’re satisfied to have any old opinion, you’re entitled to it. But some opinions rest on a faulty foundation. Anyone who is seriously interested in Jesus as a pivotal historical figure should consider what New Testament scholars have to say on the subject.

It isn’t necessary merely to take things on authority. New Testament scholars publish the evidence on which their conclusions are based, and explain their reasons for interpreting it as they do. Any interested person who is motivated to make the effort can scrutinize the raw data and reach an informed conclusion.

History is not one of the “hard” sciences, of course. But historians have devised various methods by which to evaluate historical accounts:  of Socrates, for example, or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

New Testament scholars employ the same canons of criticism that are applied to other historical figures. They have concluded that the Gospels are unreliable at many points, leaving the field open for much speculation.

Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, probably dates from around AD 70 — i.e., forty years had already passed since the death of Jesus. During those forty years, information had to be passed from one person to the next, to the next, etc. The more time that passes, the more remote you get from the historical events.

As for the apocryphal gospels, scholars have concluded that they were written later than the canonical Gospels. The earliest of them was not written until fifty years or more after the Gospel of Mark.

Beliefnet.com has published an interview with Bart Ehrman on The Da Vinci Code. Ehrman is a liberal scholar (i.e., not an evangelical or a fundamentalist) who has published a book on Lost Christianities. The book

discusses the various forms of Christianity that didn’t make it from the second and third century, including the Gnostics, for example, and various Christian groups who had gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament but that supported their points of view. My editor at Oxford thought I really should read “The Da Vinci Code” because the Lost Gospels are talked about — a lot. But the things that Dan Brown says about them are wrong.
The interview continues:
Q. What do you think of the debate about how important the Gnostic gospels are? Some people say that the Gnostics, like Thomas, should be given as much weight as the Gospel of John because it was written — they say — at the same time.

A. I think that the Gospel of Thomas was written about 20 years after John; my opinion on this is the majority opinion; almost everybody who studies Thomas thinks of it as later than John with a few notable exceptions, including Elaine Pagels. She’s the main one, but most people think Thomas was written in the early second century. And Mary was written some time after that. So I think these gospels are highly important for understanding how people were portraying Jesus, but they’re not as useful for establishing what Jesus was really like, as the New Testament Gospels are.

Q. So in a nutshell, what’s the fallacy that “The Da Vinci Code” puts forth as it relates to these gospels?

A. There are several fallacies — but in a nutshell, the fallacy is thinking that these gospels give a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament gospels. I’m saying this not out of any religious conviction, but strictly on historical grounds — that statement is not true.
If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, I hope you enjoyed it. But it’s a work of fiction, folks, not a historical study. (I can’t believe this needs to be said.)

What can we know about the historical Jesus? That’s a much harder question, and a subject for another day.

He deserved a good mauling

There’s a story of another bear attack in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen (picked up from the Calgary [Alberta] Herald). For reasons I will point out in a moment, I found the story amusing. The first sentence reads:

A Quebec man who camped illegally in a closed section of Banff National Park escaped with minor injuries after a nose-to-nose encounter with a mother grizzly bear, frustrating park wardens who say the man’s actions put the lives of the bear and her newborn cubs at risk.
The victim, Jean Daniel, awoke to find Mama Bear less than a metre away from his sleeping bag, accompanied by her three cubs. He turned over to play dead and the bear merely nipped him.

So why am I amused? Look closely at that first sentence:  “A Quebec man … escaped with minor injuries … frustrating park wardens.”

The wardens think he deserved a good mauling, I guess.

George Lucas vs. Michael Moore

I saw Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith this week. I found it entertaining and satisfying. Having seen the original trilogy when it first came out, I was curious to know the background stories of Luke, Leia, Yoda’s exile, and how Darth Vader became the evil villain we love to hate. The movie works well at that level.

But is there another level to it? Does the movie also convey a political message? One of my favourite blogs, Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, has commented on the supposed anti-Bush bias of Episode III.

There are two main scenes to consider. In the first scene, Anakin — part way down the path of his transformation into Darth Vader — remarks, “You’re with me or you’re my enemy.” This is a near-quote of George Bush’s infamous statement, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.” Obi Wan speaks for the good guys when he replies, “Only the Sith speak in absolutes.”

In the second scene, Chancellor Palpatine is addressing the Senate. He declares that the Republic will henceforth be an Empire. I can’t recall the exact wording, but Palpatine defends the shift by saying that it will enhance security. When the Senators applaud, Queen Amidala remarks, “So this is how democracy dies — to thunderous applause.”

Ralphie at Kerckhoff’s Coffeehouse doubts that Episode III has an anti-Bush message:

According to the Wall Street Journal, Lucas claims he was thinking about the past, such as Nazism. Aside from Obi Wan’s line … that’s what I was thinking. After all, his use of the term “stormtroopers” was not too subtle.

And the stuff the emperor does – such as press the senate to give him additional powers and make overwrought speeches to thronging masses – is Hitlerian indeed.
I don’t quite agree with Ralphie on this one. In my opinion, George Lucas is taking a bit of a poke at the Bush administration. On the other hand, Lucas is not to be mistaken for Michael Moore. I haven’t seen Fahrenheit 9/11 but, by all accounts, it is none-too-subtle.

Lucas clearly has a message, but it’s a broad one. The Wall Street Journal explains:

The director keeps insisting that he wrote the basic “Star Wars” saga decades ago. He was thinking of Hitler, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, he has said at various times; and if recent events have proved him prescient, that just shows that history keeps repeating itself….

In truth, the themes of “Star Wars” are so universal, and so familiar (like Darth Vader, Satan is a former good guy gone over to the dark side), that they can be read any way one likes. The message that freedom and democracy must be vigilantly protected is always worth repeating.
The first point is disingenuous. Sure Lucas planned the movies decades ago, but he made this movie in a post-9/11 context.

So let’s try to achieve a nuanced position. Lucas has a broad, pro freedom message, not a narrow, anti-Bush message. But the movie touches on current events that trouble many Americans (and Canadians like me).

Lucas is more of an artist than Michael Moore. He tells a story, set in a galaxy far, far away, and the story stands on its own. But Lucas doesn’t leave it at that. He throws in an allusion to Nazi Germany here (“stormtroopers”) and an allusion to George Bush there (“if you’re not with me…”).

Lucas expects the movie-goer to think for herself. Emperor Palpatine is a type of Hitler. Does President Bush fit into the same category?

I think the answer is, He could, if he continues along his current trajectory.

I need to express myself carefully here. Very few people are so evil as to be in Hitler’s league, and President Bush certainly isn’t one of them. Misguided? — I think so. Doctrinaire, undoubtedly. But not evil.

President Bush subscribes to a binary worldview (good/evil, friend/enemy, us/them) that I find alarming. And he is in danger of getting the balance wrong:  too much emphasis on security at the expense of civil liberties.

I think George Lucas would agree with that assessment, but he doesn’t say it in so many words. He respects the movie-goer’s intelligence enough to leave the dots unconnected.

As a result, Star Wars: Episode III works on that level, too.

Saying goodbye

This weekend we travelled several hours west to visit Ilona’s mother. We drove past the house that used to belong to one of my sisters (within a few hundred feet of it), which stirred up my memories of her.

Kathy led a paradoxical life. There is a marked history of mental illness in my family, and Kathy struggled with it terribly at various seasons. Even so, she was the funniest person I have ever known — by far.

Any time the family gathered, Kathy kept us laughing. She liked to tell jokes, but mostly she told stories about her own life — the “rotten” things that constantly happened to her. She saw the humour in every situation. No doubt it was a survival skill learned at a considerable cost.

Kathy was also a practical joker. When she got together with another of my sisters, and they started drinking, look out!

The practical jokes were merely outrageous, never malicious. The time they stuck a toilet plunger to the plate glass window of a neighbouring house, for example — it illustrates the spirit of their pranks. (The next morning, when they were sober again, they seriously considered ringing the neighbour’s doorbell to ask for Kathy’s plunger back.) Or the many late-night phone calls to women in the family to ask embarrassing questions about bodily functions. Or the rubber chicken that would turn up in your luggage or the trunk of your car after a family gathering.

My favourite practical joke involved a sign that hung on a neighbour’s door. It was a small wooden cow, painted black and white, hanging via chains from a welcome sign. Kathy snitched it on impulse one evening, and then she and my sister wondered what to do with it. They decided to send it all across Canada and send photos back to its owner:

Having a lovely time visiting Toronto. Had dinner in the restaurant atop the CN Tower — see enclosed photo. Wish you were here to share a Kahlua and milk with me.
To put the plan into effect, they had to enlist any family member or friend who was travelling that summer. The finishing touch was provided an aunt who dutifully took the cow to Japan with her.

It was particularly funny because the neighbour had been chosen completely at random. Kathy had no real relationship with them, so there was no reason to suspect her of stealing their cow and sending it off to such exotic locales. Naturally, they would be questioning their family and friends. And they would never be able to pin it on any of the likely suspects, since all of their family and friends were genuinely innocent.

After about three months of holidaying and partying — one picture was taken after a long night of debauchery, with the cow lying on a table littered with empty wine and liquor bottles — the cow was returned without further explanation to its post on the door.

How tragic that a person who could be so much fun should suffer so intensely.

Kathy suffered a marital crisis toward the end of her life, and she was plunged into depression. It was a very difficult time for other family members, who rallied to pull her through. And then, after two years of desperate struggle, Kathy was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

She succumbed to the cancer very rapidly. The sad truth is, Kathy’s will to live was weak; I think she was grateful for an honourable way out.

The last time I saw her, Kathy was at her son’s house. I wasn’t expecting to see her there (the plan was to visit at her house, later in the day), and I didn’t immediately recognize her. She had wasted away in a matter of weeks. I did a double take and had to look closer to verify that it was, in fact, my sister.

After a brief visit, Kathy was tired and she went into the house to take a nap. I went in after her, told her I loved her, embraced her, and kissed her on the top of her head. When I walked out to my car, I knew I would never see her alive again.

That her death was imminent was obvious for two reasons. First, her appearance was radically altered. Second, she had nothing funny to say. It was the only time I ever visited Kathy without laughing.

She was fifty-four years old, and she was dead in about a week.

I am profoundly grateful that I had that opportunity to say goodbye. Families often talk about the importance of this gesture, and it’s true. It’s part of the process of letting go:  of accepting the death of a loved one by stages.

When I think of her now, as I did this weekend, my thoughts always turn to that final interaction between us:  the spoken words, the embrace, the kiss. There was nothing more I could do for her.

Except let her go.

What a difference 2% makes

The following excerpt, from a book by Matt Ridley, discusses the physical similarities between humans and chimpanzees. A 98% correspondence of our respective genes is responsible. It gives rise to all the other physical correspondences:  the three little bones in the middle ear; all the chemicals present in the brain; various systems (immune, digestive, nervous), etc.

All these physical attributes are present, albeit in embryonic form, at conception. Nothing is added in the uterus of a chimpanzee or a human woman that changes the essential nature of what is already present. But here’s Ridley’s account:

Sometimes the obvious can stare you in the face. Until 1955, it was agreed that human beings had twenty-four pairs of chromosomes. It was just one of those facts that everybody knew was right. They knew it was right because in 1921 a Texan named Theophilus Painter had sliced thin sections off the testicles of two black men and one white man castrated for insanity and “self-abuse”, fixed the slices in chemicals and examined them under the microscope. Painter tried to count the tangled mass of unpaired chromosomes he could see in the spermatocytes of the unfortunate men, and arrived at the figure of twenty-four. “I feel confident that this is correct,” he said. Others later repeated his experiment in other ways. All agreed the number was twenty-four.

For thirty years, nobody disputed this “fact”. One group of scientists abandoned their experiments on human liver cells because they could only find twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell. Another researcher invented a method of separating the chromosomes, but still he thought he saw twenty-four pairs. It was not until 1955, when an Indonesian named Joe-Hin Tjio travelled from Spain to Sweden with Albert Levan, that the truth dawned. Tjio and Levan, using better techniques, plainly saw twenty-three pairs. They even went back and counted twenty-three pairs in photographs in books where the caption stated that there were twenty-four pairs. There are none so blind as do not wish to see.

It is actually rather surprising that human beings do not have twenty-four pairs of chromosomes. Chimpanzees have twenty-four pairs of chromosomes; so do gorillas and orang utans. Among the apes we are the exception. Under the microscope, the most striking and obvious difference between ourselves and all the other great apes is that we have one pair less. The reason, it immediately becomes apparent, is not that a pair of ape chromosomes has gone missing in us, but that two ape chromosomes have fused together in us. Chromosome 2, the second biggest of the human chromosomes, is in fact formed from the fusion of two medium-sized ape chromosomes, as can be seen from the pattern of black bands on the respective chromosomes.

Pope John Paul II, in his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996, argued that between ancestral apes and modern human beings, there was an “ontological discontinuity” — a point at which God injected a human soul into an animal lineage. Thus can the Church be reconciled to evolutionary theory. Perhaps the ontological leap came at the moment when two ape chromosomes were fused, and the genes for the soul lie near the middle of chromosome 2….

Apart from the fusion of chromosome 2, visible differences between chimp and human chromosomes are few and tiny. In thirteen chromosomes no visible differences of any kind exist. If you select at random any “paragraph” in the chimp genome and compare it with the comparable “paragraph” in the human genome, you will find very few “letters” are different:  on average, less than two in every hundred. We are, to a ninety-eight per cent approximation, chimpanzees, and they are, with ninety-eight per cent confidence limits, human beings. If that does not dent your self-esteem, consider that chimpanzees are only ninety-seven per cent gorillas; and humans are also ninety-seven per cent gorillas. In other words we are more chimpanzee-like than gorillas are.

How can this be? The differences between me and a chimp are immense. It is hairier, it has a different shaped head, a different shaped body, different limbs, makes different noises. There is nothing about chimpanzees that looks ninety-eight per cent like me. Oh really? Compared with what? If you took two Plasticene models of a mouse and tried to turn one into a chimpanzee, the other into a human being, most of the changes you would make would be the same. If you took two Plasticene amoebae and turned one into a chimpanzee, the other into a human being, almost all the changes you would make would be the same. Both would need thirty-two teeth, five fingers, two eyes, four limbs and a liver. Both would need hair, dry skin, a spinal column and three little bones in the middle ear. From the perspective of an amoeba, or for that matter a fertilised egg, chimps and human beings are ninety-eight per cent the same. There is no bone in the chimpanzee body that I do not share. There is no known chemical in the chimpanzee brain that cannot be found in the human brain. There is no known part of the immune system, the digestive system, the vascular system, the lymph system or the nervous system that we have and chimpanzees do not, or vice versa.

There is not even a brain lobe in the chimpanzee brain that we do not share. In a last, desperate defence of his species against the theory of descent from the apes, the Victorian anatomist Sir Richard Owen once claimed that the hippocampus minor was a brain lobe unique to human brains, so it must be the seat of the soul and the proof of divine creation. He could not find the hippocampus minor in the freshly pickled brains of gorillas brought back from the Congo by the adventurer Paul du Chaillu. Thomas Henry Huxley furiously responded that the hippocampus minor was there in ape brains. “No, it wasn’t”, said Owen. “Was, too”, said Huxley. Briefly, in 1861, the “hippocampus question” was all the rage in Victorian London and found itself satirised in Punch and Charles Kingsley’s novel The water babies. … Huxley, by the way, was right.

A record of our past is etched into our genes. Some two per cent of the genome tells the story of our different ecological and social evolution from that of chimpanzees, and theirs from us. When the genome of a typical human being has been fully transcribed into our computers, when the same has been done for the average chimpanzee, when the active genes have been extracted from the noise, and when the differences come to be listed, we will have an extraordinary glimpse of the Pleistocene era on two different species derived from a common stock. The genes that will be the same will be the genes for basic biochemistry and body planning. Probably the only differences will be in genes for regulating growth and hormonal development. Somehow in their digital language, these genes will tell the foot of a human foetus to grow into a flat object with a heel and a big toe, whereas the same genes in a chimpanzee tell the foot of a chimp foetus to grow into a more curved object with less of a heel and longer, more prehensile toes.

It is mind-boggling even to try to imagine how that can be done — science still has only the vaguest clues about how growth and form are generated by genes — but that genes are responsible is not in doubt. The differences between human beings and chimpanzees are genetic differences and virtually nothing else. Even those who would stress the cultural side of the human condition and deny or doubt the importance of genetic differences between human individuals or races, accept that the differences between us and other species are primarily genetic. Suppose the nucleus of a chimpanzee cell were injected into an enucleated human egg and that egg were implanted into a human womb, and the resulting baby, if it survived to term, were reared in a human family. What would it look like? You do not even need to do the (highly unethical) experiment to know the answer:  a chimpanzee. Although it started with human cytoplasm, used a human placenta and had a human upbringing, it would not look even partly human.

Photography provides a helpful analogy. Imagine you take a photograph of a chimpanzee. To develop it you must put it in a bath of developer for the requisite time, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot develop a picture of a human being on the negative by changing the formula of the developer. The genes are the negative; the womb is the developer. Just as a photograph needs to be immersed in a bath of developer before the picture will appear, so the recipe for a chimpanzee, written in digital form in the genes of its egg, needs the correct milieu to become an adult — the nutrients, the fluids, the food and the care — but it already has the information to make a chimpanzee.

Genome:  the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters
“Chromosome 2, Species”
Matt Ridley

Previous Older Entries