Sunday, December 7, 2014

Gift Ideas for 2014

Solstice/Holiday Gift Ideas for December, 2014


New Stuff for Parents/kids:

The new Cosmos:   (great for everyone in the family, with enough different material that the new and classic Cosmos series are great together)  

Mira & the Big Story:This is a really cool story showing how the Universe Story can bridge differences between groups, told in a fun and inviting way - written for kids under 10 years old. 

You’ll never see a Birthday Party the same again!  A fun way to connect us to the rest of the Universe, now in hard copy - Elemental Birthdays   (This is by Heather and I)

 The Universe Story Comic Book, in verse!


New Stuff for the Adults & Teens

 A fascinating tour of our DNA: The Violinist's Thumb, by Sam Kean  (also can be found on audio)

Taking that same story told by our bodies a few steps earlier - The Universe Within, by Neal Shubin    (this is the only book in this guide I have not yet read.  I greatly enjoyed Shubin’s earlier book, and this looks very good as well.)  This also can be found on audio)

Here is a sacred way of seeing our Universe - The Holy Universe, by David Christopher

Big History Resource:  Now the popular Crash Course youtube series has produced a fun Crash Course on the Universe Story/Big History in 8 short videos.  



Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (available on DVD) Carl Sagan's Cosmos is my #1 recommendation to families for giving children the priceless gift of our Universe, which they will carry with them into adulthood.  

For younger kids, the need for evidence is shown by: ”Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: The Complete First and Second Seasons (1969)”. 

Essential Books for all Families:
For the youngest kids, aged 3 to 6, “Our Family Tree” by Lisa Peters is a great introduction to how we got here.  Next, for ages 5 to 10, is the “Born with a Bang” trilogy by Jennifer Morgan.  After that the child can read on their own, so Richard Dawkins book, “The Magic of Reality” is a good choice.  Here are pictures for all three:

Timespirals: A way to show many wonderful ideas, including our Deep Time past, our place in our Ancestry, etc.  

Earth and Sky Calendar:, another way to bring our Great Story to your daily life, updated for 2015.

DNA Kit & Pop Bead DNA (about the same cost, more versatile:   with a description of how to use them at the Epic of Evolution)

The BBC “Walking with” series is also excellent – especially “Monsters”, “Cavemen”, and “Beasts”.
The Great Story Site has a very useful collection of resources for parents and educators  & additional books are at Evolution for Kids


The Ancestors Tale by Richard Dawkins  

The Big History Series on the History Channel is a cool overview of how we got here:

Happy Holidays!

Jon Cleland Host

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Video Blog: Why Ancestors Matter to me.

Ancestors - with us today!
Many cultures have celebrations around this time of year to remember our Ancestors who have died.  For me, our incredible story of evolution shows that our Ancestors include not just great great grandparents, but literally trillions of Ancestors made up of humans, other mammals, reptiles, and even stars!  My son and I made this video about how our DNA can remind us of the love of our Ancestors, and to explain why our Ancestors touch us so deeply.  Do you share some of these thoughts?  Do you revere Ancestors for other reasons?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Death is Life

Life is Death, and Death is Life.

What?  That makes no sense, right?  Aren’t they opposites?
Without the death of stars, life could not exist.

No.  Death and life are two sides of the same coin.  After all, if life didn’t exist, then nothing would die.  And if death wasn’t real, then evolution could not have produced the life we have today.  Death and life are intimately intertwined, like the two sides of the DNA molecule.  Life and death are two dancers that together have spun out our world, both of which are needed for us to exist.  The opposite of death isn’t life, but sterility – like a barren, rocky planet with no life…. and hence no death.  A natural death is a wonderful, necessary, and healthy part of any world able to grow and change.  Death is part of a life well lived. 

That’s the view that my Naturalistic Paganism gives me – and it’s hard for many people to see.  Heck, it was hard for *me* to see at first.  Why? 

Perhaps this is because nearly all of us have been taught the Christian view of death from an early age.  It pervades our culture, showing up in our actions, our daily speech, what we can say out loud, our movies, words, advertisements, and so on.  In Christianity, death is the enemy (not just an enemy, but THE enemy).  Death is evil, unnatural, unnecessary – an abrogation of the divine plan, a cosmic mistake.  Death is portrayed as the opposite of life – as if Life and Death were two cosmic deities battling through the ages, each hoping to rule the Universe alone after the other is killed.  Death is seen in such negative ways that many people cannot even speak about it – they use euphemisms like “passed away” and “asleep”, and so many people in our culture are unable face reality enough to make the most basic and necessary preparations for death – such as a will.  The various Bibles are clear on this view of death, in dozens of verses.  Death as the enemy is extolled in sermons, blogs, and discussions in churches across our world every Sunday.  You can see this easily by googling “death, enemy, Christian” or any similar string. 

But why?  Where did this adversarial view come from?  Well, a full examination would be too long for a blog post, but the Christian view of course largely grew from the earlier Greek views which had an afterlife of comparative misery for everyone, making death a bad thing.  With some Hebrew influence, Christianity greatly amplified that distaste, becoming persuasive with a terrible threat such as a hell, along with a blissful promise, convincing people to join.  Taking a wider view, human cultures have often considered death a transition to an afterlife, but that doesn’t necessarily make death an enemy or an unnatural thing.  These afterlives were often as good as or better than real life, such as many of the ancient Asian views of the afterlife, where the afterlife mirrored a normal life, or included reincarnation – where the afterlife actually was another life on earth itself.  Ancient views of death often viewed it as a normal and natural change, be that karmic or otherworldly.  Buddhism, in fact, reminds us not to think of our life as if it were permanent because everything changes, and that death is simply another change, like all the other change in our Universe.  In this way, we can each remember that the joy of hugging a child cannot last – that the child will grow to an adult – ceasing to exist as a child, and that fact is a good thing.  At the same time, Buddhism seeks an escape from both death & life – instead of embracing both.   (some sources – among many others – are below).

Just as many of these views saw death as a normal part of the real world, my Naturalistic Paganism helps me see how necessary and healthy death is.  (And to be clear - I’m talking about death itself.  Yes, there are plenty of examples of horrible deaths, such as untimely or unjust deaths.  Those are horrible because they are unjust or untimely, not simply because they are a death). Without death, our world could not exist.  Evolution itself works due to the death of creatures and the death (extinction) of species (beautifully included in the video “The Unbroken Thread”).  Here.  Without the death of stars in supernovae, we wouldn’t have the elements to make our Earth or life.  Life all around us survives by eating the dead bodies of other life, and the constant recycling of the atoms of life on Earth requires death as part of the cycle.  You yourself kill uncountable organisms every day, simply by being alive – even if you are vegan.  What about a world without death?  How would that work?  Looking closely at any part of our Earth shows how absurd a world without death would be.  For instance, consider the elegant praying mantis…..

A praying mantis female lays a capsule of hundreds of eggs each summer.  Now, without death, each of those will grow to become an adult mantis, half of which are female (and you wouldn’t want to be a mantis male)….

So using just 200 eggs, that means from one pregnant female we’d have 100 female mantises the next year, then 10,000 in two years, 1 million the year after that, and so on.   No big deal, right?  I mean, we have hundreds of millions of mantises around us on Earth now, after all.  However, at that rate the mantises would cover the Earth to a depth of one mile by year 12, just 4 years later, the rapidly expanding mantis ball would engulf our moon, and in the next year the squirming mass of mantises swallow the Sun, with the rest of the solar system (including the far-flung Kuiper belt) the year after that! This large amount of solid matter would have so much gravity to then collapse into a black mantishole.  Thank you death, for saving us from the Mantisnova!  Absurd?  Of course!

And that same scenario plays out for any life on Earth, no matter how slowly it reproduces.  For every good aspect of our world, we have death to thank. Any aspect of our lives becomes as absurd as a mantisnova without death, and going through more of them would lengthen this already long blog post. 

However, perhaps there is time for one short story.  Long ago, before the world was as it is today, an old medicine woman here in Michigan died.  For weeks after she was wrapped in birchbark and buried, the village continued to mourn her death. The Great Spirit, Gitche Manitou, and many other spirits saw this.  They came to the village, and asked to speak with the grandmothers.  For days they talked with the grandmothers about the secrets of the Universe, and the longhouse was filled with wisdom and knowledge.  The rest of the village watched the smoke from the longhouse, and wondered what was being said.  Finally, Gitche Manitou and the spirits offered the grandmothers a choice between two great gifts.  One gift was the gift of eternal life for all people – no one would ever grow old and die.  The other was the gift of eventual death for all people.  With death, there would need to be children, but without death, there could be no children, because soon there would be no room for them.  The grandmothers saw that the greatest gift was the gift of death, which they chose – and thus gave us all the gift of children as well.

There is yet another important way that death fills my life with meaning and joy.  Death means that my life is finite – that I’ve got around 17,344,882 minutes left to live.  Each of those minutes is irreplaceable - making each one a precious gift from my Ancestors to me.  If not for death, then they would be valueless.  If I were going to live forever, then why value an evening with friends? After all, if I was going to spend an infinite number of evenings with them in an infinite afterlife, then one such evening now is infinitely worthless.  But I know that’s a fantasy.  Every minute I have is a precious, irreplaceable treasure.  That makes everything I do, every choice I make, a sacred choice.  It means that I deeply value this blog post, or else I would have used the ~191 minutes in some other way, because this blog post brought me ~191 minutes closer to death.  It means that every moment spent with my kids, my wife, my friends or anyone is an affirmation of how much they mean to me.  This helps me remember to keep my priorities straight, to see the deep meaning in my life, and to enjoy the moment – even when stuck in traffic.

So yes, the existence of death brings me great joy – because it brings me our world.  It brings me the joy of children, the clean water and air, the preciousness of every moment I have here.  Death and Life are two sides of the same wonderful coin, and so I celebrate death as much as I celebrate life.

Blessed be-

Jon Cleland Host


Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Wonder Amplifier

The Wonder Amplifier

 Years ago, Dr. Richard Feynman was told he couldn’t see beauty.  As he explains:

"I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, 'Look how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says, 'You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing."

Dr. Feynman goes on to explain how he sees all the beauty in the flower that anyone else does, and that on top of that, he sees inside, imagining the networks in the petal, then down to the cells themselves, and the complex dance of the many intricate molecules working together, and then, even more!  Behind all of that is the deep time history, the long process of evolution which – more than 100 million years ago, drew together insects and plants in mutually beneficially teamwork.  He describes how he sees all of this, each level adding to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a simple flower!  He concludes:

“It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

      I know that rush.  It’s incredible.  I see it unfold, level upon level, in the blink of an eye, time and again in my life, all around me.  That tree, this rock, that cloud, a blue jay, this computer, and on and on!  And that’s not even getting into seeing other people.  I can’t imagine living without it, and for anyone who hasn’t experienced it, it’s indescribable. For someone to suggest to Dr. Feynman, that he sees less beauty in a flower, when he sees so much more, just shows that this friend doesn’t understand what knowledge can do.  When I first read Feynman’s flower story, it hit me – Here was someone who sees the world as I do, and experiences that beauty of so many things as I do!  Wow, it works with other people too!

I caught glimpses of it in others too.  Carl Sagan comes to mind, as does this quote from Charles Sherrington, 1942:

The brain is a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. It is as if the Milky Way is engaging in a cosmic dance. The cortex is an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never a lasting one; with a shifting harmony of entrancing subpatterns.   

That’s why I just simply don’t get how anyone could suggest that a Naturalistic worldview somehow decreases awe and wonder, when the opposite has been so true for me.  Have they never learned anything about things they see?  For me, a Naturalistic worldview, coupled with some knowledge, has taken my awe and wonder to undreamt-of levels, drawing from deep wells of spirituality that I hadn’t known existed. 

Any attempt at examples will fall far short of reality, but a few come to mind. 

 We just saw how someone could describe our brain as an “Enchanted Loom”.  How our brains work, on a basic level, isn’t that hard to understand.  We can start with our senses that feed into the brain.  For instance, well understood cells in our eyes convert light into electrical pulses, sent along nerve cells to the brain.  Nerve cells are also called neurons, and each has many long, thin branches connected to other neurons.  It takes many electrical pulses from many neurons to cause another neuron to send its electrical pulse, which may then reach many other different neurons.  A number of connected neurons make simple “logic gates”, similar to those in computers.  Many logic gates linked together can process information like a computer does.  But how do they get connected the right way?  Our genes, built by trillions of our Ancestors over millions of years of evolution, give us the starting structure, and our history builds the rest, ending up with trillions of neurons, and a hundred trillion connections between them! 

The incredible realization here is that this shows how the mind works.  These basic chemical reactions and electrical pulses, all working in milliseconds, make up your every thought from “where did I leave my keys?”, to “Yes!  I’ll marry him!”.   I don’t know about you, but I find that realization to be mind blowing.  We are our brains, without a need for the idea visiting ghosts from some imagined supernatural realm.  There are no disembodied “minds”, and so any damage or chemical change to our brains affects (or even eliminates) our thoughts.  My thoughts seem to me to be the essence of who I am, yet, at the simplest level, they are undeniably made up of basic chemical reactions!  And it’s not just my brain that is this amazing, but your brain, or his brain, or her brain, too!  We are surrounded by so many of these incredible thinking chemical, biological machines!

And what if we turn our gaze skyward?

As a ball of plasma a million times bigger than the entire Earth, the Sun is *not* a ball of fire – it’s much too hot for even fire to exist!   A few numbers can show us nature more clearly, and for a person like me, practically everything about nature is spiritual.

            So how can we conceive of the sheer awesomeness of our Sun?  Size?  Oh yeah, we already did that.  Ok, how about power?  The energy output of the Sun produces over 18 million times more energy in one second what the entire worldwide nuclear arsenal!   Our local star produces that flood of energy by nuclear fusion, turning 370,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 3.7 X 1038) hydrogen atoms into helium, which by Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation, directly converts 4 million metric tons of matter into energy each second.   If every grain of sand on Earth were instead several whole planet Earths, then the total number of grains of sand on all those millions of quadrillions of Earths would still be less than the number of hydrogen atoms fused every second by the Sun! And all that energy is only just barely enough to keep gravity at bay.

            We could go on all day.  It’s truly mindbending.  I find it even more mindbending to realize that all this energy has caused simple molecules on Earth to organize over millions of years to be able to build cities, sing whalesongs, understand DNA, and even to love a new baby.

OK, that’s it for now.  I can’t write anymore…..  I see my fingers moving as I type….  nerve cells firing…calcium ions.... the actin and myosin molecules converting ATP into motion….. motion causing the electron fields of the keyboard to repel……………. the electrical…………………………………

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hope from Flowers?

Blue!  Yellow!  Purple!  Red!  Flowers bring an explosion of color into our lives, especially now as we enter May.  The beautiful sight and smell of flowers soothes our senses like few other things can, explaining why we humans take the time to grow so many flowers on land that could be growing actual food.

Like so much of nature, flowers have a lot to teach us.  Our efforts to understand the real world have given us incredible information – often far more than our grandparents had – and this
 knowledge of the history and workings of the world around us can power our metaphors more strongly than fictional tales.  But what lesson can we take from the flowers that fill our lives with color every May.

One possible lesson from flowers is the wonderful success that cooperation can bring.  Imagine what the world was like sometime more than 100 million years ago, before flowers as we know them evolved.  To our mammalian eyes, the most important feature of our world then may be the towering, fearsome dinosaurs.  But, if we can find a place of safety under the underbrush, and momentarily pull our minds away from the sharp teeth which killed so many of our Ancestors, a discovery awaits us.  Down here, a different struggle of life is playing out, as the same evolutionary factors of competition and reproduction that we vertebrates deal with are carried out in the theater of plants and insects.  Plants often face a greater challenge in moving their sperm than we mobile animals do.  For millions of years, the best they could do was to use things like wind, waves, and the chance movement of insects to move their sperm (pollen).

We see a green branch in front of us – and wonder why there are more insects on this one than others?  Are they eating it?  Apparently not.  Though we can’t smell anything different, those insects can. This plant has a mutation which has resulted in a slightly different scent around the pollen production area, and hence the attracted insects.  Similar mutations include making a normal secretion edible to these insects, which are now being attracted by the scent, and being rewarded with food.  Were these mutations unlucky for the plant, a waste of calorie resources to benefit some other creature?  No.  The benefit was well worth the few calories lost – because these insects have bumped against the nearby parts of the plant, and will carry their cargo of pollen directly to other members of this plant species, instead of it being wasted on the wind.  It’s easy to see how these first fumbling mutations toward flowerhood helped everyone, and so were selected for.  Both insects and flowers benefited so much that many young followed, and the co-evolutionary, cooperative partnership between insects and flowers began.  Later improvements in sweeter nectar, more powerful scents, more visible flowers, and insect brains hard wired to look for those flowers followed.

Moving forward toward today, we see what a successful partnership it was!  As flowers evolved to be ever more alluring, the insects slowly became expert pollinators.  Their partnership spread to fill our Earth, with descendants evolving into literally millions of different flowers and insects.   Though people often associate evolution with competition, flowers remind us of the often unstoppable evolutionary power of friendly cooperation, where everyone wins. 

We could just see flowers only as a nice part of life – but it’s so much richer for me to see their full history too, to glimpse the millions of years of innovation, improvement, and teamwork that gives us each flower we see today, and the incredible detail behind each petal.  May the beautiful flowers at every turn remind us, both now and throughout the year, of the power of friendly cooperation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Treasures Hidden in Plain Sight

Very often, I hear people complain about the weather where they live – including weather which is normal for the season.  This has seemed odd to me for a long time.  After all, in today’s modern world (unlike nearly all of our Ancestors), we often have a lot of choices about where we live.  If one really has an issue with the climate in one place, then why live there and complain?  I personally like a climate that includes winters.  Without winters, the years blur together into a constant string of days, and it becomes easy to lose track of the passage of one’s life. 

Snow Monster from Water Spray at -10 Degrees with help from the Kids
So it was fun to watch the wind blow snowy gusts across the frozen fields the other day.  With no trees nearby, it was easy to imagine that I was looking out over the frozen tundra of the Arctic.  In fact, the weather was the same as the temperatures often seen in the Arctic.  It was as if I had been transported there, if only for a little while!  Our Earth gives us a huge variety of environments, from a lush, hot forest to the barren and cold tundra, each with its own charm and beauty.  Yet, travel is often not cheap or convenient, especially for those of us with a family, home and regular job.  Wouldn’t it be a special blessing if the Earth could kindly bring different environments to us, instead of us traveling to them?  I realized that the Earth does exactly that!  For those of us in temperate regions, we see conditions approaching those of the Arctic during the winter, and conditions approaching tropical conditions in the summer.  In some ways, this is even better than traveling to different climates – it’s completely effortless, happening without any work on our part, and we don’t even have to pack!  Our entire homes are brought along with us, along with all our local family & friends!  

It’s so easy to take this for granted – we’re used to it as a normal part of life.  But consider what it would be like to describe the “seasons” to an otherwise similar person who lived on an otherwise similar planet with little or no axial tilt.  It might go something like:

“you’ve got to be kidding me.  You’re saying you sometimes shift Northwards on the planet’s surface?!?”

“Not exactly.  I mean, we don’t actually move.  But the weather becomes like that of the North.”

“….and you don’t have to move?  It just happens?  Like, without warning?”

“Oh, we know when it’ll happen – it happens with one cycle about every 365 days.”

“So one day it suddenly gets cold, then warms back up the next day?”

“No, no – it’s gradual.  It kinda blends into the next season, so we get at least weeks of each climate.  That’s on top of the regular variation like you have.”

“So everyone gets to sample the different climates?”

“most people – it doesn’t change as much near the equator.  Each climate (or “season”) lasts just long enough to fully experience it – much longer and it might get tiring or boring.”

“that would be amazing!  How do you still do your regular work – isn’t everyone fascinated by it, going outside everyday to see the change?”

“everyone expects it, as a fact of life.  Sadly, some even take it for granted!  But it is pretty cool.  In fact, it’s become a major part of many of our different cultures, and is often part our religions, holidays, cooking choices, clothing fashions, and more!”

“But what about the animals?  These ‘seasons’ as you call them, would cause massive extinctions!  An animal from one climate obviously can’t live in a different climate.”

“Some animals have evolved to be able to survive in multiple climates, growing more fur every year just before winter.  Others have evolved to migrate South to avoid the winter.”

“Wow, I knew evolution often gives rise to amazing adaptations, but automatic fur growth and mass migrations of entire species on schedule?  Can you give me a reliable reference source for all this, in a peer-reviewed journal?  Forgive me for being skeptical.”

  “Ok, I’ll find one – but wait until you learn about hibernation!  Some animals, such as turtles and frogs, hibernate through the winter.  Their bodies nearly shut down, and cool to just above freezing (or lower, for those with anti-freeze blood), with their heart rate and breathing becoming so slow that they look dead.   Then, they revive every spring.  Oh, and some trees lose all their leaves, growing them all back a few months later.  The leaves change color before falling off – from green to orange, red, and yellow.”

“Oh, rrrrrriiiight.  You almost had me going for a minute there with the fur, but the zombie frogs and techni-color leaves were just too silly!  OK, funny guy - no, really, what about the animals?  How do they really survive?  I mean, evolution is powerful, so what did it actually come up with?”

“I’m not making this up!  Really!  Look, I’ll get you some pictures, and other sources.”

“sssure, you will….”

Looking over that snowy field, I realized how much our knowledge of our Deep Time history can touch our lives.  Just looking around me at our world often fills me with amazement and joy at our lives today.  Here I am, able to enjoy winter things like building a snow monster with my kids as if I lived in Alaska – knowing that in just a few months, the snow will melt away on its own, and I’ll be in a nearly tropical climate.  And I get to experience this every year!

We are so lucky to live at this time, the first moments in human history when we can understand our 14 billion year history.  Understanding deep time and our Great Story allows me to look back at that Hadean time of collisions in Earth’s history and appreciate how those impacts (including, perhaps, the Theia impact) gave us the axial tilt, and hence, seasons we enjoy today. 

Many cultures have stories of treasures hidden in a person’s normal day to day world – whether it’s gold under the floorboards, a priceless painting on the wall thought to be a cheap knockoff, or similar stories.  Like discovered treasure, I’ve found that Deep Time eyes and knowledge of our Great Story open a window on many of the incredible things we have to be grateful for, which surround us every day, available if only looked for.