Archive for the ‘quote’ Category

Well, how would you describe it?


From Kaia, my six-year-old daughter:

The time is six, dot-high, dot-low, five, three.

I almost don’t want to teach her the names of punctuation marks, just to see what she comes up with.

Do you have any stories of clever names that kids (or others) have given to common orthographic scratchings?

Enjoying the present


A dear niece told me the other day that she missed my blogging.

I miss it too. Perhaps some time soon I will return to it – I have some ideas that I would love to share with you all.

For now, let me encourage you to enjoy the world outside your computer screen. The Internet – and this blog in particular – will still be here when you need to return. To quote a new favorite author of mine,

Enjoy the present, the “now” that partakes of eternity. (Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory)

Selfish Gene


I just finished reading The Selfish Gene, the first of Richard Dawkins’ many books popularizing the fascinating byways and unexpected consequences of evolutionary theory.

The Selfish Gene was first published the year before I was born. I was fortunate to be reading the 30th anniversary edition, which includes not only the original text, but also extensive notes by the author on more recent developments, as well as two all-new chapters (one of which seems to be a teaser for The Extended Phenotype – now on my reading list). For my money, the original text would have been worth it alone. I know that it’s not cutting-edge any more, but to a layman like me it’s all relatively new (even having read several of Dawkins’ other books – he’s not one to beat the same facts to death book after book).

So here I am, urging you to read it if you haven’t. It’s not stale or unreadable – it’s Dawkins through and through. And if you have read the original version, it still might be worth checking out the footnotes of this edition – they are a beautiful illustration of scientific eagerness to learn and willingness to admit mistakes.

I am not really into book reports, so I’m not going to draw this out too much. (I will say that the worst part of the book for me – through no fault of Dawkins – was the discussion of parasites. I read it while trying to get over a rather nasty bug: not wise. In retrospect, now that my gut is my own again, it is a fascinating and well-written discussion.)

I did want to point out, rather gleefully, a quote near the end. (Don’t worry – it’s not a spoiler.)

Indeed I suspect that the essential, defining characteristic of an individual organism is that it is a unit that begins and ends with a single-celled bottleneck. (p 264)

Why am I delighted? Because it (and the surrounding text backing up this claim) expands on a fact that I have contemplated with wonder in the past – for example, here on this blog not long before my son was born.

Think about it. Between any parent and child on a family tree, there was a time when the line of descent was reduced to a single cell – one fertilized egg. We have each, with the help of billions of years of evolution, built ourselves from such humble beginnings. We each, if we are to leave children ourselves, must humbly do so through a single cell yet again.

How ennobling science is, to give us such narratives from which to understand our place in the universe!

New Atheists?


I often wonder just what is meant by the phrase “The New Atheists”. I think it depends on the speaker – it generally seems to mean something like “atheists who are prominent in the public sphere (unlike the good-ol’ days)” or “atheists who are more aggressive/irritating than they used to be”.

But prominent, assertive, active atheism is by no means new. Consider these quotes from Robert Green Ingersoll:

I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous – if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.

Religion has not civilized man — man has civilized religion. God improves as man advances.

If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.

Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.

In fact, listen to the podcast of his works.

Sound familiar? Now, Ingersoll was no minor figure. According to Tom Flynn (interviewed on Point of Inquiry), he was a very well-known public lecturer in America, as well as a campaigner for the Republican party. That’s over 100 years ago.

In fact, public atheism is millennia old, and the irritation it provides to entrenched religious beliefs is just as old. Consider Socrates, who was executed for spreading ideas considered harmful to the youth of the day. (It may be difficult to disentangle the religious from the political motivations for his prosecution – but I’ve no doubt that his enemies used religion in their arguments against him.)

In fact, I suspect that the main reason many people use the label “new” is that they people would like to consider this latest upswing of vocal religious dissent to be a flash-in-the-pan. They want it to be a fad which, like bell bottoms and mullets, will soon be a thing of the past.

Now, I don’t know if they had mullets in Socrates’ time, and “bell-bottom togas” seems redundant, but the “new” atheism is no passing fad. The only thing new about it, in fact, is probably that it’s the first time many of these individuals have been confronted with confident assertions of atheist belief. So the next time someone uses the phrase “new atheism”, I’ll think “new-to-you, maybe”.

For anyone interested in sampling the long tradition of atheist thought, I recommend the Humanist Anthology, edited by Margaret Knight and revised by Jim Herrick. I was given a copy for my birthday this last year, and have been discovering and rediscovering many beautiful nuggets of humanist compassion and reson, from the ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers to modern atheist writers.

Marc on temperance


I quite like this stoic advice from my good friend Marc (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 22):

Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet; when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty. 

This sounds like fine and noble advice. But I also get the impression that, to many of the more fiery folks I know, Marc’s words might seem to limit the human experience. Am I simply getting old, or are these words truly as wise as they seem?


A transitory Yes


From A Room With a View, via my friend Gareth, comes this quote:

Then make my boy think like us. Make him realise that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes, if you like, but a Yes.

Go and read Gareth’s thoughts on this. I would provide my own commentary, but it would amount to something similar. Better to read it in his own well-crafted prose.

(I also encourage you to browse around his blog. Gareth is in full force at the moment, with frequent tasty morsels showing up these past couple of weeks.)

Entitled to our own opinions


From his book Looking in the Distance (pages 101-102), here is Richard Holloway on the intersection of religion and science (emphasis mine):

It is embarrassing when theologians try to conflate the Christian story with the current scientific narrative; and it is a mistake, however understandable, when scientists try to disprove the Christian story as though it were just another set of outdated scientific claims. The scientific attack on Christianity is excusable, however, because fundamentalist groups insist on marketing Christianity as a science rather than as myth. While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts, which is why scientists cannot avoid getting drawn into the quagmire of the science versus religion debate.

That last sentence contains the real money quote for me here:

While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.

This is why scientists and fans of science get so het up when people deny things like the well-established and exhaustively-tested effectiveness and safety of vaccines, or the copious and consistent evidence for evolution.

Quote on love


This quote appeared in a page-a-day calendar recently.

Love doesn’t sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.

I have been unable to verify who the original author is. The page-a-day calendar credits Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors, whose style is certainly consistent with the quote. But in trying to find where she said it, I discovered competing attributions of the same quote to Og Mandino. (There’s even this page, which attributes it to both, though it credits Le Guin with more variants of it.)

I don’t know how to resolve the question. I really wish those sites that deal in quotations would provide more details – where they said it and when, or link to someone who does give those details. After all, I think writers should get appropriate credit for their words. In this case, I suspect one of these two writers quoted the other, and subsequent readers misattributed the words. For what it’s worth, my guess is that Mandino is the original, and Le Guin quoted him because she loved the sentiment. That’s only based on the fact that he was born earlier (1923 rather than 1929), and has already died (1996), so statistically he may have got around to saying it first.

But, at another level, it doesn’t really matter. After all, I share quotes not because I want to connect myself to famous people, nor because I want to help increase their fame. I share them because I find the sentiments valuable – because they reflect or affect my own sentiments.

Anyway, take what lesson you like from this attribution dilemma – the quote itself is wonderful.

What loss is death?


From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), book 2, paragraph 14:

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come – for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bust of Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by user Bibi Saint-Pol and released into the public domain.

Ingersoll on doubt


I offer for contemplation a quote by the great 19th-century orator, Robert Green Ingersoll:

Fear believes, courage doubts.

(from his Lecture on Ghosts – see this collection in Project Gutenberg for the full text.)

I know that this can be taken in different ways by different people, so I offer more commentary than I usually do with quotations.

For those of you whose first impulse is to be insulted, I encourage you to try to step back and see the sense in which it is a valuable sentiment. Note that it does not mean that all belief is born of fear, nor all doubt of courage; it just means that fear is a great motivator of ill-founded belief, and courage an important foundation for honest doubt.

For those of you whose first impulse is to feel smug – that this is a condemnation of someone else – I encourage you to think again. Do you apply doubt to all of your beliefs, or are some “special” in one way or another?

Ingersoll’s quote – from a discussion of witch-hunts and superstitious hysteria – is a warning to us all. It is a statement about human nature, not just about one type of worldview.


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