December 12, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationDid Affluence Lead to the Emergence of Moralizing Religions?
Researchers have long puzzled over when and why religions moved away from a singular focus on ritual and began to encourage traits such as self-discipline, restraint, and asceticism. Now, a new study proposes that the key to the rise of so-called moralizing religions was, of all things, more wealth. The new study “is by far the most significant advance I’ve seen in a long time,” says Richard Sosis, an anthropologist who studies the evolution of religion at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. “They’re offering what I think is a really novel theory to address this long-standing problem in the study of religion.” (Lizzie Wade, Science)

When Humans Mastered Fire
Mastering fire was one of the most important developments in human prehistory. But it’s also one of the hardest to pin down, with different lines of evidence pointing to different timelines. A new study of artifacts from a cave in Israel suggests that our ancestors began regularly using fire about 350,000 years ago—far enough back to have shaped our culture and behavior but too recent to explain our big brains or our expansion into cold climates. (Nala Rogers, Science)

Catholic Bishops Call for an End to Fossil Fuel Use
On climate change, some bishops have previously called for rapid decarbonization and argued for moves to protect the most vulnerable. But this is the first time that such a global collection of senior priests have made such a call. In their statement, the bishops say they want a “deepening of the discourse at the COP20 in Lima, to ensure concrete decisions are taken at COP21 to overcome the climate challenge and to set us on new sustainable pathways.” (Matt McGrath, BBC News)

Wanting to Go on a One-Way Trip to Mars
When Seth Shostak, an astronomer who scans the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, asks middle school students how many of them want to go to Mars, all hands shoot up. When he asks how many would rather design robots that go to Mars, most hands drop back to their desks. And when he asks general audiences how many would go to Mars even if it meant dying a few weeks after arriving, he invariably finds volunteers in the crowd. “I kid you not,” said Shostak, the director of the Center for SETI Research. “People are willing to risk everything just to see Mars, to walk on the surface of our little ruddy buddy.” (Natalie Angier, The New York Times)

There’s Now an International Day of Yoga
The United Nations on Thursday declared that June 21 will be International Day of Yoga, adopting a measure proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said yoga lets people “discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.” The 193-member U.N. General Assembly approved by consensus a resolution establishing a day to commemorate the ancient practice, which Modi called for in September during his inaugural address to the world body. (Michelle Nichols, Reuters)

John Figdor

When students come to John Figdor, the humanist chaplain at Stanford, they’re often comfortable with their atheism. Big questions about God aren’t necessarily on their minds. Big questions about ethics are. “I began to notice that students were less interested in debating the question of whether God exists than in discussing what to do and how to live,” Figdor writes in Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, a new book that he co-authored with Lex Bayer. In step with many millennial atheists, Figdor and Bayer are looking for principles by which to live. In Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, they rewrite the Ten Commandments. (Michael Schulson, Salon)

December 11, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationTorture and the Ticking Time Bomb
The ticking time bomb scenario is usually presented as a “utilitarian” argument for the moral good of torture in certain circumstances, when one person’s suffering is preferable to the deaths of many. Some commenters have gone as far as claiming that most people endorse torture in the ticking bomb situation. A new study puts this to the test. Joseph Spino and Denise Cummins surveyed hundreds of people online asking them for their views about the acceptability and appropriateness of torturing a suspect in variations of the classic ticking bomb scenario. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Water on Earth Probably Didn’t Come From Comets
That’s according to the latest data from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, which has been analyzing the water content of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and found it doesn’t match the water on Earth. The question of where Earth got its water—whether from asteroids, comets, or in some other way—is a subject of ongoing debate. So analyzing comet 67P’s water was one of Rosetta’s main goals. (Jacob Aron, New Scientist)

Lawsuit Trying to Keep Kansas From Adopting the Next Generation Science Standards Is Dismissed
In September, a Kansas group filed a lawsuit attempting to block the state from adopting new science guidelines, saying it was an attempt to indoctrinate students into a “non-theistic worldview.” But a federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that it failed to sufficiently demonstrate any specific injuries. (Mark Strauss, io9)

What If Atheists Were Defined By Their Actions?
Tania Lombrozo: Why do we define theism and atheism first and foremost in terms of belief? What would it look like if religious (and areligious) categories were instead a matter of behavior? (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

“In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident,” Karen Armstrong says on the book’s first page. It follows that the main hope for peace is to keep faith and statecraft separate. Armstrong, a onetime Roman Catholic nun and the author of several influential works on religion including “A History of God,” argues that this is an incorrect diagnosis leading to a flawed prescription. (James Fallows, The New York Times)

December 10, 2014

A Grazing Encounter Between Two Spiral GalaxiesInfluence of Religion on Attitudes Toward Future Space Exploration
A new study by a political science professor in Ohio has taken a close look at how a person’s religious beliefs can influence personal opinions on space exploration. University of Dayton political science assistant professor Joshua Ambrosius used data from the General Social Survey and three Pew surveys to compare knowledge, interest, and support for space exploration among Catholics, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Jews, Eastern religions, and those with no religion. His research, “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Support for Space Exploration Policy” was recently presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis. (Leonard David,

Long-Lasting Painful Memories
Memories of traumatic events can be hard to shake, and now scientists say they understand why. Studies on laboratory rats have revealed, for the first time, the brain mechanism that translates unpleasant experiences into long-lasting memories. The findings support a 65-year-old hypothesis called Hebbian plasticity. This idea states that in the face of trauma, such as watching a dog sink its teeth into your leg, more neurons in the brain fire electrical impulses in unison and make stronger connections to each other than under normal situations. Stronger connections make stronger memories. (Christopher Wanjek, Live Science)

Honesty and Punishment
According to a new study by McGill researchers, punishment is actually an ineffective way to deal with lying kids. It might just make them lie more. (Max Ufberg, Pacific Standard)

REACH Forgiveness
With all the turmoil in the world, it’s hard to imagine people learning to forgive, but a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University has come up with a method that works, and he’s just won a million dollar grant to take his method abroad. (Sandy Hausman, WVTF)

We were told for years, by Oprah and others, that positive thinking was the key to achieving our goals. Now mounting evidence suggests exactly the opposite: that spending a lot of time thinking about your hopes and dreams may make you less likely to put in the work required to actually achieve those dreams. So if positivity is out, what should goal-oriented people replace it with? This week on the “Psychology Podcast”—a newish venture from cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen talked about a four-step plan she’s come up with from her years of research. (Melissa Dahl, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

December 9, 2014

NASA:JPL-Caltech:ESA:DLR:FU Berlin:MSSSCuriosity Rover Finds Evidence of Ancient Lake in Mars Crater
Gale crater, the bowl on Mars that NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring for 2.5 years, was once filled with water over the course of millions of years, and maybe even longer, scientists reported in a press conference. That’s good news for astrobiologists who hope that the ancient environment on the Red Planet was habitable for a sustained period of time. (Eric Hand, ScienceShot, Science)

Huge Impact on the Origin of Life
Scientists in a lab used a powerful laser to re-create what might have been the original spark of life on Earth. The researchers zapped clay and a chemical soup with the laser to simulate the energy of a speeding asteroid smashing into the planet. They ended up creating what can be considered crucial pieces of the building blocks of life. The findings do not prove that this is how life started on Earth about 4 billion years ago, and some scientists were unimpressed with the results. But the experiment does bolster the long-held theory. (Seth Borenstein, Associated Press)

How Ideas Spread
It’s appealing, the notion that ideas can spread like viruses, but even those fond of the analogy acknowledge it’s not necessarily a perfect one. A recent experiment might help clarify the matter, though. Studying the spread of a lab test at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit suggests that, in some contexts, it takes some persuasion on top of exposure for doctors to adopt a new idea. (Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard)

Allen Institute for Cell Science
Software billionaire Paul Allen says he’s committing 100 million dollars to create a new institute in Seattle focusing on the mechanics of human cell biology. The Allen Institute for Cell Science’s first project, the Allen Cell Observatory, will focus on creating computational models for the kinds of induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells, that have the ability to turn into heart muscle cells or the epithelial cells that form the inner linings of organs as well as skin. Such cells hold promise for facilitating research into how cells become diseased, and potentially for growing replacement tissues. (Alan Boyle, NBC News)

Exoplanetary Flowchart
A team led by University of Texas biologist Louis Irwin devised the Biological Complexity Index. Published in May, it scores exoplanets on how amenable they’d be to living things. “The conditions for the evolution of complex life are quite rare,” Irwin says. So far, only a few exoplanets have made the cut. But the galaxy has an estimated 100 billion left to analyze. Here we map out the index so you, too, can test newfound exoplanets. (Shannon Palus, Popular Science)

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