Richard Dawkins Imagines a World Without God

QuestionHow would our public discourse change in a world without religion?

Richard Dawkins: Well, in the moral sphere I think they would be based upon criteria such as suffering, instead of absolutist criteria like all killing of humans is wrong, for example, including killing of early human embryos. We would instead say, well, who's suffering? At what point in the balance does the suffering switch over to the other side, when there's a choice? If we got rid of absolutist moral criteria, we might stop saying human life is absolutely sacred, and you can't put a monetary value on it. And you actually do put a monetary value on it all the time, because you know, whenever you make a decision like shall we have another kidney machine, or shall we -- to what safety standards shall we build airliners, one could always make airliners a little bit safer, but it would cost a lot more money. And so we do already take decisions about that. Military aircraft are built to a less risk-averse standard than civilian aircraft. We already do make judgments of this kind. So that would be the moral -- that kind of thing would change in the moral sphere. In the scientific sphere we'd be able to get on with our science as science, and not have to worry about whether we are giving offense to people who get their beliefs from holy books rather than from evidence, which we at present have to worry about. In the field of education, we could go in for science education free to actually teach children the best science we know and teach children to use the scientific method of thinking. And once again not have to pay lip service to, or respect, the dopey beliefs of their parents who try to interfere with their scientific education.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009. Interviewed by Paul Hoffman.

 

The famed evolutionary biologist describes a world freed from the values of classical religion, highlighting the fundamental changes that would come about in morality, education, and scientific progress.

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Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

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  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.