The World According to John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck made a pretty nifty observation: he said socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I suppose this is why so many of them oppose progressive tax reforms that would be in their interest to support.

American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, i.e. Marx was surely right when he called capitalism a “machine for demolishing limits”. It does a pretty bang-up job of demolishing planets, as well.

And now for the obligatory cat picture.


The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.



Governing by Brand: Trump Inc.

“You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things. But nobody talks about that.”—Donald Trump

If I wanted to take power, Alexander Hamilton wrote, I would mount the “hobbyhorse of popularity, I would cry out usurpation, danger to liberty, etc. etc. I would endeavor to prostrate the national government, raise a ferment, and then ride the whirlwind to direct the storm”.[1] Demagogues and populist leaders not only direct storms, they create them; they whip the people into a frenzy and the minute they relax their hold—allowing people time to actually think instead of feel—the power monger’s influence wanes.

I have a theory about America’s new president. I don’t think he has any intention of actually governing. He governs by decree and executive order (something he and fellow Republicans vilified Obama of doing). This isn’t governing, it’s institutional cynicism. He’s going to continue doing what he did in the business world—sell a brand.[2] He doesn’t know how to do anything else (and he’s good at it). Yet, being good at selling a product doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to lead the world’s most powerful democracy for a four year term.

Trump doesn’t make anything; he slaps his name on a building or a steak and claims it as his own. Instead of actually reading briefings, Trump watches television to get his information. He listens to white supremacist radio shows and thinks he’s getting an accurate presentation of the state of the nation. If the man cracked a book in his adult life I’d be surprised. He isn’t a thinker. He’s a doer. So, instead of attending intelligence briefings or learning what constitutes or what does not constitute overstepping presidential prerogative, he’s back on the campaign trail bragging about his election how he carried Florida. He’s a salesman, not a president. Three weeks into his presidency and there hasn’t been a single day where Trump’s “finely tuned” administration hasn’t made some sort of mis-step. I hear the bell from the news app on my phone and I cringe wondering ‘what’d he do now?’ I still, honestly, cannot believe he won the election; and it wasn’t his smarts that won him the election–it was arguably the ignorance of the average American voter (who appears to be willing to trade the rule of law and pluralism for the prospect of short-term financial gain). I don’t think people understood what exactly they were buying.

A good test of a man’s character is how he reacts to constructive criticism. Trump fails this test. In order to avoid the justifiable criticism of his executive orders and cabinet picks, he directs attention back on the media calling them the greatest enemy of the United States. The greatest enemy of any country is a leader who resorts to special pleading[3] and cries foul whenever light is brought to bear upon one of his many ill-founded policies. Speaking of policies, when the Free World is led by a man so ignorant of history he cannot be expected to develop policies with a context (he just criticizes existing agreements or institutions a either “very, very bad” or “the worst deal maybe ever”); when you elect the intellectual equivalent of Jared the Subway spokesmen to power, you cannot reasonably expect him to make informed decisions around science generally or climate change (a Chinese plot!) specifically, e.g. his pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate change denier.

So, if I have any advice for President Trump it is this: just do it, sir. Build that wall. Think different. Think so differently that it appears you’re not thinking at all. The people will continue to melt in your hands, not in your mouth; because your leadership tastes so good, cats ask for it by name.[4]
[1] Private correspondence from Alexander Hamilton to Edward Carrington (1792). See:

[2] Trump reputedly offered Governor Kasich the vice-presidency. The president told Kasich that he could control domestic and foreign policy. When asked what responsibilities Mr. Trump would take care of it became apparent the businessman turned politician would be the face of the White House, i.e. he’d sell the policies and be the brand for a new order.

[3] The Republican Party recently passed a notion permitting President Trump from not having to release his tax returns. If Trump has nothing to fear and there’s no conflict of interest, why the secrecy? Just like his predecessors he should be required to be forthcoming with information that establishes his trustworthiness and integrity; or we can just take him at his word and trust. When has that ever gotten a people into trouble?


Westminster: Governing Through Reason, Not Tradition

The Westminster system of parliamentary democracy was established on the basis of reason and not traditional authority: after years of civil war (1642-51) between the middle and upper classes in England forced the Crown to eventually submit to the authority of a written constitution called the Bill of Rights (1688). England became a constitutional monarchy effectively ending the problems associated with either a king or queen changing their mind or a law at a whim. With the Bill of Rights in place, the Crown now governed with the consent of the governed while being limited by the law (reason).

The establishment of constitutional law in England introduced an era of unparalleled stability continuing into the present day. Prior to the Bill of Rights authority was exercised more or less on an appeal to either tradition or power, e.g. family dynasties, etc. and an appeal to God’s will, e.g. Divine Right of Kings. The problem with kings or queens is some of them aren’t particularly bright or well-suited to rule. With the establishment of a functional and well-organized parliamentary system, rulers became accountable no longer to something abstract like a good but to something concrete like the law. No one was above the law any longer.  Not even the king.

Since President Donald Trump assumed the presidency this past January, he has been an executive order writing machine. The executive branch of the United States Federal government has been gradually growing in power since the end of World War II. Although federalists like John Adams and George Washington believed in the need for a strong central government, it is unlikely that they would have approved of any president governing essentially by decree; however, these revolutionary brothers occupied a simpler time when factionalism was only beginning in the new republic known as the United States. In 2017, and with the Congress and American polity so divided, it has become more and more common for presidents to govern less by consent and more by fiat.

The Americans do not have parliamentary democracy; rather, they utilize a republican system that nonetheless possesses certain qualities in common with a parliamentary system, e.g. there are three branches (legislative, executive, judiciary), the government governs on the basis of the rule of law, and the law (and separation of the various branches) ensures no single branch oversteps its power. On January 27th, President Trump signed an executive order effectively banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries traveling to the United States. A federal judge, however, took issue with the constitutionality of Trump’s order and blocked it. Specifically, the judge argued the executive order violated the “establishment clause” of the Constitution (1783). The argument, so far as I understand it, is that the Federal government could not show preferential treatment for Christians seeking asylum over Muslims. The United States, despite assertions to the contrary, is not a “Christian” nation but a “secular” one in which Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. are allowed the freedom of worship and equally secure under the law. President Trump argued the courts had failed the United States. In reality the courts (or judiciary) worked precisely how they’re supposed to by preventing the executive branch from overstepping its authority, i.e. when you become president you don’t become “king of the world”. Your powers are limited (and wisely so).

* * * * *

As early as the 17th Century, democratic ideas like equality and liberty had grown in popularity and acceptance among the peoples of the Old and New Worlds. The Age of Reason (also called the Enlightenment) placed into doubt the wisdom of blindly accepting the authority of either the Church or the Crown. The Enlightenment created a fertile environment for philosophers and politicians to dissent and criticize traditional authority; and with every passing year in France of the 18th century, it became harder and harder for a tiny aristocracy to justify its lavish lifestyle while tens of millions of farmers, laborers, artisans and merchants, etc. all tried to eke out an existence.

Across the Channel in England (1685), King James II attempted to make himself something of an absolute monarch. He believed in and appealed to others to believe in the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. According to this superstition, God had made James II king; therefore, if the people wanted to obey God then they would have to obey James. The middle and upper classes of England were not convinced (and disliked the trend of absolute monarchs appearing on the Continent). During the Glorious Revolution (1688), the English people rose up overthrowing James II.  James’ successor was his nephew William of Orange (later known as William III).

King William III accepted the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy when he acknowledged the supremacy of the English Constitution (Bill of Rights (1689)).  Instead of an absolute monarchy, England established the world’s first constitutional monarchy.  Responsible government had arrived as the king could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, make royal appointments, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament’s permission. The King was effectively limited by the law. According to the Westminster System, parliament was divided into an upper house representing the aristocracy (House of Lords) and a lower house representing the merchant class and basically everybody else (House of Commons). The wisdom behind the division is obvious: each house represented the interests of their particular class and new laws (taxes) would have to be approved by both houses (ensuring no clique or segment of society could unilaterally rule the nation). This meant that in theory no one segment in society would have more power than another. For a new law to be passed it had to be demonstrated that it was reasonable, fair and did not violate the Constitution. Gone were the days when the king made up the rules as they went along. Arrived now were the days of responsible government whereby the king and Parliament were held accountable for their actions or inaction.

* * * * *

Canadians living in British North America rightly believed England’s political institutions to be some of the most “enlightened” on Earth; however, the colonies of British North America had the misfortune of inheriting not the Westminster but a colonial system of government with the passage of the Constitution Act (1791). The Constitution Act actually increased rather than decreased the power and privilege of the aristocratic and business elite in the Canada, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The power of the colonial government was so complete that the governor of Lower Canada could be said to possess more power than even the English king exercised in Westminster. The fundamental reason responsible government was not established in Canada was to prevent another American-style revolution. Westminster reasoned that America had rebelled because it had been given too much freedom; therefore, the logical response (to the English at least) was a reduction of freedoms, a turning back of the clock so to speak to less “progressive” times.

Absolute power was therefore given to the aristocracy of Upper (Family Compact) and Lower Canada (Chateau Clique). The reason the British chose to side with the aristocracy was because they were predictable: they could always be counted on to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the greater population. (Not much has changed to be honest.) To the British Government the elite were “our kind of guys” (so to speak). The masses, unlike the aristocracy, were supposedly incapable of being reasoned with. They had to be controlled. Members of the upper classes argued the poor simply didn’t know what was good for them. Whenever any segment of society possesses privileges not enjoyed by all a condition of class struggle exists; and Canadians in the 1830s no less than the English (1688), Americans (1776) or French (1789) before them desired liberty and responsible government.  Politicians like Louis Joseph Papineau, William Lyon Mackenzie and Joseph Howe, though differing in their means, all wanted the same thing: they wanted the citizens of British North America to enjoy the self-same democratic rights enjoyed by the people of England itself.

In every society (regardless of the century), there is an ongoing struggle between two classes of people: there are those that “have,” e.g. aristocrats, priests, wealthy businessmen, etc. and those that “have not,” e.g. serfs, slaves, plebeians, and industrial workers. The 19th century political philosopher and economist Karl Marx called this condition a class struggle. To him class struggle was a permanent state of affairs; it could only be destroyed by destroying class itself. Further still, Marx argued it was natural for the upper class to try to maintain its privileges. After all, if you were rich, wouldn’t you seek to maintain your standard of living? And it was just as understandable for the lower classes to want to improve their own material and legal situation. Marx argued that the workers and laborers would one day rise up, cast off their chains, and overthrow the ruling class. He further argued that the working class (whom he called the Proletariat) would establish an ideal society where class no longer existed.  Marx of course was completely wrong. There were Marxist or communist revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, a new ruling class always emerged following each revolution that was successful, e.g. the Bolsheviks formed the basis of an economic elite in the Soviet Union while the inaptly named Communist Party (in contemporary fascist) China likewise forms the basis of an elite.

The colonial system in British North America established through the passing of the Constitution Act (1791) was by its very nature unfair; that is, it placed all the decision-making power into the hands of the few (oligarchy) while completely ignoring the needs of the many. For example, the common person had the privilege of paying taxes but no say on how those taxes might be spent. In such a situation, it was inevitable that the lower classes would regard violence as preferable to the status-quo. The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada (1837-38) were a catalyst for such change. The rebellions woke the British up to the fact that maintaining “peace, order, and good government” in Canada did not depend upon building an alliance with the wealthy elite. Instead, good government depended upon the reverse: establishing relevant democratic political institutions that empowered everyone—regardless of class—giving everyone a voice in their own government. The English learned this very same lesson in the 1600s when they removed a would-be absolute monarch in James II.  For some reason the British lacked the foresight to apply the same wisdom to the American colonies in the 1770s or its Canadian possessions in the 1830s.

Society, when governed by laws, runs smoothly; it might be counter-intuitive to people in positions of great power but laws are supposed to be inconvenient; they’re supposed to be limiting, i.e. we cannot rely upon the good character or judgement of men or women occupying positions of influence. Instead, we rely upon a combination of a leader’s prerogative while balancing their decisions against constitutional standards of what is lawful and what is not. While I doubt President Trump is much of a student of history (especially legal history), I suspect he learned a valuable lesson when he attempted to push the ill-advised executive order banning Muslims from traveling to the United States through. Specifically, he is not the “boss” of the United States; he’s the “president” and there things he can do and things, constitutionally speaking, he cannot do.

Canada: A 21st Century Nation

“Canadians often point out that while the American constitution promises “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the constitution of Canada–written in the 1860s in England–sets a more modest goal: “Peace, order, and good government.” This difference reaches into every corner of the two nations. My favorite example is a book of medical advice. It was written by a Canadian, Judylaine Fine, and published in Toronto under an extremely modest title, Your Guide to Coping with Back Pain. Later, American rights were acquired by New York publishers; they brought out precisely the same book under a new title, Conquering Back Pain. And there, in a grain of sand, to borrow from William Blake, we can see a world of differing attitudes. Our language reveals how we think, and what we are capable of thinking. Canadians cope. Americans conquer. Canadian readers of that book will assume that back pain will always be with them. Americans will assume that it can be destroyed, annihilated, abolished, conquered. Americans expect life, liberty, happiness, and total freedom from back pain. Canadians can only imagine peace, order, good government, and moderate back pain.”– Robert Fulford

Canada shouldn’t even exist because we’ve broken virtually every rule where it applies to nation building. Countries are normally fairly simple and straight-forward things—one language, one history, one people. By contrast Canada isn’t one people but many; it is arguably the only genuinely multicultural nation state in history. Yet, appearances are deceiving: according to a 2016 Angus Reid poll Canadians are becoming less and less tolerant of Muslims compared to Americans.[1] The United States breaks a number of rules when it comes to nation building, too; they are a nation of immigrants and just as culturally diverse as Canada. However, Canada is officially multicultural whereas America typically encourages new immigrants to assimilate. This is why the Angus Reid poll is so intriguing: Americans are comparatively more supportive of new immigrants keeping their customs, language, etc. than Canadians are.

Pinpointing when modern nations first appear is difficult. Some scholars assert England was the first nation state by drawing our attention to the year 1689. In this year, England adopted the Bill of Rights which effectively limited the power of the king while centralizing authority around the English people themselves through a constitution. Some scholars suggest the French Revolution (1789) brought into existence the first truly national identity: people residing in Republican France no longer identified first and foremost with their province but with their nation as a whole. This view is not without its challenges; that is, only 50% of France’s people actually spoke French in 1789.[2] If one of the hallmarks of a nation is linguistic unity then France fails this test. No country is without contradictions like France’s: Canadians don’t have one official language, they have two…and counting. Canada’s history is not a single narrative; it’s a shared collection of stories.

Despite Canadian’s living as a patchwork of cultures, Canada has a rich history of intolerance. In shades of Plato’s “one and the many”[3] dichotomy, there are numerous examples in Canada’s history where the English majority (the “one”) attempted to push out or assimilate minorities (the “many”). In 1837 and 1838, rebellions broke out in both French and English Canada. Once the English authorities quelled the revolts, Queen Victoria sent Lord Durham to investigate the causes of the discontent in British North America. Durham, an Englishman, argued English Canadians rebelled because they were tired of being dominated by an unresponsive, selfish governor and ruling oligarchy. So Durham recommended England grant English Canadians more decision-making power and responsible government. However, when it came to the French they didn’t rebel for the same reasons as the English; rather, the French were, according to Durham, simply incapable of loyalty because of their race. Durham recommended the French be assimilated as soon as possible. The rebellions led to a lot of property damage in both English and French Canada. To help English Canadians pay for the damage a bill was passed by the United Assembly of Canada approving the appropriate funds. The French were denied similar compensation (because they were French). In 1848 the Canadian Government experienced some reform under the leadership of an Englishman named Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) and a Frenchman, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807-1864). The two men worked to end the French-English tension by passing the Rebellion Losses Bill into law. The bill granted French Canadians compensation for damage caused by England’s army during the 1838 uprising. English Canada didn’t respond well to the bill—a hoard of them responded to the bill’s passing by burning the colony’s assembly to the ground.

French Canada has at times acted a little on the tribal side, as well. The Quebec nationalist cleric and writer Lionel Groulx (1878-1967) romanticized France and emphasized the racial purity of the people of Quebec; he asserted the French were victims of English Canada. Although there was some truth to Groulx’s claim, e.g. during the Manitoba Schools crisis in the 1890s English Canadians successfully limited French language and education rights outside of Quebec, etc. the cleric was somewhat paranoid. Later French historians from the so-called “Montreal School”, and even the Parti Quebecois,[4] used Groulx’s thinking to justify Quebec’s separation from Canada. John Raulston Saul, author of Reflections of a Siamese Twin, described Groulx’s influence in the following way:

All [the Montreal School] took from Groulx was the negative. The result was a victim psychosis in the extreme. It is now somehow assumed that the Montreal School is just the past. No longer relevant. But in fact their selecting reworking of Groulx became the intellectual foundation of the current separatist/sovereigntist school…This movement—indeed, the Parti Quebecois itself—has within it two very different, often contradictory, parts. One is social democratic and reform oriented. The other comes from the Montreal School, which was conservative, in many ways reactionary, and was tied to the old clerical nationalism…[sic] anchored their catastrophic view firmly in a highly selective editing and interpretation of the past.[5]

Lionel Groulx argued the racial differences between French and English Canadians was insurmountable.[6] These differences continued to play a role through two world wars, the Quiet Revolution[7] of the 1960s, and during two referendums on separation from Canada (held in 1980 and 1995 respectively). Yet, Baldwin and Lafontaine’s example of cooperation at least suggested Groulx’s pessimism wasn’t entirely justified: when there’s a willingness to compromise and work together people—even ones belonging to different ethnic or religious groups—can live and flourish together.

Following the 1995 referendum a separatist politician named Lucien Bouchard (1938 to present) was elected premier of Quebec. He ruffled a lot of Canadian feathers when he observed “Canada wasn’t a real country”.[8]  In a sense, Bouchard was right: Canada was too complicated a creature to constitute a nation as defined.[9] He was of course appealing to 19th century standards about nationhood. Bouchard didn’t view diversity as a strength so much as a watering down of the French Canadian culture and identity. In the 2001, Prime Minister Paul Martin (1938 to present) argued the opposite observing in an interview “Canada is the world’s only truly post-modernist nation”. Ultimately, he was saying there wasn’t one right way to go about building a country:

I think it is that individuals can actually control their own destiny. That you just don’t simply have to [lie] back and be rolled over by the huge forces of globalization that you can’t control. That it is possible for nation states acting collectively to, in fact, deal with the problems they face. I also have to say something else that really didn’t come out of this meeting, but that this meeting certainly confirmed, and that is that Canada is really, I think, the world’s first 21st century country. We have a very post-modern view. Not only is our economy open, but in fact the waves of immigrants have changed the way Canadians look at the world. I think that we are by far a more modern country than almost any other, and that there is a huge opportunity for Canada to play a leadership role. We are not a dominant power such as the United States. We are not narcissistic as are so many Europeans in the process of building Europe…And we have this much more progressive view of the way in which the world ought to evolve.[10]

Canadian nationalism, with its focus on openness, was the opposite of the nationalism that pushed the great powers of Europe to destroy one another in two world wars during the 20th century.[11] Diversity, tolerance, pluralism, openness, etc. should all be considered strengths; and despite the Angus Reid poll Canada is a multicultural society. We have our challenges (as do all nations, even ones with homogeneous populations). But I’m confident, invoking Abraham Lincoln, that the better angels of our nature will eventually win out and the irrational fear some Canadians have of Muslims will abate. Yet, optimism notwithstanding, tolerance is almost always tied to how well the economy is doing. People aren’t rational but emotional by nature: so when we are personally doing well financially we project a sense of wellness on to others; however, when we aren’t doing well we are more likely to blame others for our own misfortune.

Ultimately, nations are not created simply by passing legislation limiting the power of the King (England) or by lopping off his head (France). Nations are multi-headed and complex creatures. In the Canadian context, Canada breaks the rules and is successful primarily because, to quote John Raulston Saul, “[Canadians] accept their non-conformity with some ease. They live it and so it makes sense”.[12] So, while not every Canadian is necessarily on-board with multiculturalism, at some level most Canadians appreciate why it’s so important that it succeeds: with the rise of racism and nationalist movements in the 21st century in both Europe and North America, Canada is one of the few countries capable of acting as an example of what peace can accomplish when there’s such a huge temptation to go to war with our neighbors.



[2] William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p.4.

[3] In philosophy, the question of the “one” and the “many” concerns whether or not reality can be accurately described as a “single, united whole” or as a something that is “multiple, divisible”. For example, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942 to present), just like Albert Einstein (1879-1955) before him, attempted to establish a single so-called “theory of everything” to describe reality; however, all attempts so far to describe physical reality through a single formula (or theory) has proven impossible. Instead, scientists are forced to describe reality through many different models.

[4] The Parti Quebecois was a French separatist political party founded by the journalist Rene Levesque (1922-1987) in 1968.

[5] John Raulston Saul, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, p. 19.

[6] The French and English do not belong to separate races as defined. Instead, they belong to different ethnic groups within the same race.

[7] The Quiet Revolution was a period of intense socio-political and socio-cultural change in Quebec characterized by the effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state, and realignment of politics into federalist and sovereigntist factions.

[8] Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams, Horror International, p.239.

[9] Nations are supposed to be simple things. Canada is far from simple. According to 19th century standards, nations consist of one ethnic group speaking the same language, worshiping the same God (in the same way), and sharing a common history. For example, Germans and Japanese nationalists insisted their respective countries were the greatest in the world in the 1930s. Around the same time Italians under Mussolini reminded the world his country was once the seat of Roman power. In some respects deserved and in others not so much, France has persisted insisting it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi which sets itself apart from other nations. Turning our attention to China, the Chinese historically have referred to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (a place existing mystically between Heaven and earth) while Americans are notorious for thinking themselves exceptional in absolutely every way. Canadians are different (or at least they think they are); they love their country while not holding themselves up as the standard by which all other countries are measured. Canadians admit they do some things well while acknowledging other countries do, too.

[10] Interview of Paul Martin by Candida Tamar Paltiel (G8 Research Group), November 18, 2001, Ottawa.

[11] Wars make nationalists and nationalists make nations. In the case of the United States, it took two major wars—the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865)—for it to become a modern nation state. In the case of the Dominion of Canada, it became a country in form with the passage of the British North America Act in 1867; however, Canada did not become a nation in fact until its success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917) during World War I. The shared sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers (French, English, German, Jewish, First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) gave Canadians a shared sense of pride resulting in a shared sense of identity. Although war is not the only way to build a nation, it seems to play a huge part in the development of national identity.

[12] John Raulston Saul, p.9.

I’m Not a Scientist I Just Play One on TV

It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”—Noel Coward

November 24, 2009, was the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Charles Darwin’s controversial book Origin of Species. Around this time I downloaded and listened to a series of podcasts on Darwin’s life from the CBC show Ideas.[1] Darwin is fascinating to me personally mainly because he’s such a polarizing figure—depending what you think going into reading his ideas on evolution it seems you either hate or love the man. The reality is both he and his theories on the origins of life are generally misunderstood.

Within the world of science, Darwin is considered at least as important and revolutionary a thinker as either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. However, his biological theory of transmutation or “descent through modification” (typically called the theory of evolution) has made Darwin a villain in the minds of many non-scientists. Three years ago I heard a pastor criticize Darwin in front of an assembly. I remember the talk primarily because he raised a copy of Darwin’s Origin declaring in self-righteous indignation “every copy of this book should be burned”. The pastor’s words reminded of the German poet Heinrich Heine’s warning that “where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”.[2] Darwin doesn’t scare me, people who want to burn books do.


Over the past two decades I’ve noticed an increase in the type and nature of attacks on Charles Darwin. The pastor’s comment was admittedly distressing. Fortunately his influence on the assembly was minimal. I’m more concerned about what celebrities like Anne Coulter or Kirk Cameron have to say. They speak with the same ignorance, just to larger audiences. Both Coulter (an articulate and presumably capable lawyer) and Cameron (an actor) have taken issue with the teaching of evolution in schools; yet, they don’t attack evolution, they attack Darwin himself.

Cameron has asserted Charles Darwin helped develop the political philosophy of Social Darwinism.[3] The reality is this pseudo-science formed independently and despite of Darwin. Facts don’t concern the likes of either Cameron or Coulter.  Both use logical fallacies, distortion, etc. to take advantage of the average person’s ignorance about the English naturalist; and in so doing they hope to convince people to reject the theory before giving it an honest hearing. Why do I take issue with this? I don’t take issue with it because I necessarily want to defend evolution; it requires no defence from me. I’m worried because if the narrative surrounding Darwin can be so easily re-written or mis-represented, what’s the next chapter of history to be re-written?[4]

Cameron’s Unlikely Villain
In one of his many innocuous YouTube videos[5], Kirk Cameron claimed Darwin was a racist and hated women. Cameron further attempted to discredit Darwin by associating Adolf Hitler with evolution. I’m not entirely sure what Hitler believing in evolution (which he didn’t, really, as I’ll demonstrate later) has to do with anything; nonetheless, I didn’t get all dressed up for nothing. I’m going to break down Cameron’s claims one by one:

obamafascistConscious or not Cameron is making use of a common logical fallacy called argumentum ad hominem (more commonly known as “attacking the man”). By claiming Darwin is a bad man Cameron hopes to establish the evolution itself is somehow bad.  If you attack the man, you diminish his ideas…well, not really. Although this tactic is childish, it’s surprisingly effective. Consider how successful the far-right in the United States was in convincing a lot of Americans that President Obama wasn’t a Christian but a Muslim, not a democrat but a fascist.[6] There are all sorts of videos/websites dedicated to proving Obama was the anti-Christ, as well. Worse still he might not even be an American! All you have to do is put together a website and claim he’s not American and *poof* his country of origin becomes Kenya.

The reality is that even if Darwin were an unsavoury character (which he was not) he still might have something useful to say. Evolution, like all scientific theories, stands or falls based on the existence of supporting evidence, whether the theory makes accurate predictions, and whether the theory is ultimately falsifiable. Darwin’s theory does not depend upon his good standing at the cricket club for its validity.

Cameron also makes use of another logical fallacy in argumentation called “poisoning the well”. For example, Cameron asserted Hitler believed in evolution.[7] Hitler also killed a gazillion people.[8] Therefore, people who accept evolution (like you or the biology teacher at the local public school) are also bad people. If someone has ever asked you the standard anti-evolution question, “If evolution is true then why do monkeys still exist?” you’ve got first-hand experience with the well being poisoned.[9] By equating genocide with acceptance of evolution Cameron hopes to pressure us into rejecting Darwin’s theory outright. Regrettably for Cameron though is we have these things called books that we can read to confirm or disprove his assertions.

Darwin a Racist?
According to Cameron, Charles Darwin was a racist. What is Cameron’s proof? Cameron, a person who couldn’t pass the entrance requirements for kindergarten—like my ad hominem attack there?—connects Darwin the man to a grotesque mis-application of his theory called Social Darwinism. Throughout history Social Darwinists have used Darwin’s ideas to “scientifically” justify racism. The regrettable thing here, really, is the juxtaposition of Darwin’s name on to Social Darwinism; it’s misleading.

For instance, Darwin used the phrase “natural selection” to describe how some creatures are selected by nature to live while some die. Creatures that survive live long enough to reproduce pass on their genes to the next generation. However, less fortunate creatures are selected by nature to die; and since the dead do not reproduce their genes do not get passed on to the next generation. Thus, over time a general increase in the frequency of the successful creatures’ genes shapes the entire specie with a resultant change in overall morphology (or appearance) of that species. Evolution, in fact, is all a reflection of gene frequencies and general populations; the theory is so simple a three year old should be able to understand it (my three year old son Alec was proof of just that).

Darwin did not regard natural selection as a directed process—it was, as David Hume might say, just a brute fact. In reality, the majority of evolutionary biologists today view natural selection as a mechanism akin to trial and error. There’s no ultimate purpose or meaning to it. In fact, if you were to start the whole process of life evolving all over again there’s no guarantee human beings would necessarily evolve again, i.e. Richard Lenski’s work with e. coli.[10]

Social Darwinists (SD), on the other hand, believe wrongly natural selection is somehow driven by purpose or providence. One of the more notorious SD proponents, George Vacher de Pouge, believed natural selection could be helped along so as to purify or make the human race stronger. I remember coming across one of his more peculiar arguments while taking a history of ideas class from Professors Stewart and Grogin at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1990s. De Pouge insisted the government of France should give free alcohol to all the poor people. The idea was to turn the poor into a bunch of homicidal drunks who would kill one another thereby thinning the herd making more room for those that were more fit to live (like, say, the wealthy or the ones who were creating and believing in SD). According to Cameron, therefore, Darwin was a man who prescribed to such principles as racial purity, master races, institutionalized slavery, even genocide.

The problem with Cameron’s claim is Darwin didn’t actually develop the philosophy of Social Darwinism—Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckl, de Pouge, H. S. Chamberlain and a handful of other likeminded racists did.

spencerHerbert Spencer (1820-1903 AD) was an English journalist who believed evolutionary theory could be properly applied to solve various problems like unemployment, disease, and poverty, etc. then confronting Victorian England. Spencer conceived of society as one large organism best improved through natural selection; and it was he (not Darwin) who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”.[11]

I see no reason to believe Darwin would’ve disagreed with Spencer’s famous phrase so much as with the journalist’s interpretation; that is, Spencer used evolution to add a veneer of scientific legitimacy to pre-existing beliefs in the superiority of white Europeans; moreover, Spencer was attempting to justify the class system then (and still) in place in England. Spencer might say something like, “The poor ought not to be helped in any way because doing so would only encourage the survival of the weak; and this hurts the overall fitness and strength of the human race”. Darwin, I assure you, would not have agreed with this interpretation of natural selection.

Darwin knew Mr. Spencer personally. They corresponded. For his part the English naturalist considered Spencer remarkably intelligent. However, there was something about the journalist Darwin did not like. In particular, Darwin did not like Spencer’s tendency to mistake his own personal (a priori) conclusions on matters like evolution for scientific fact. In his autobiography, Darwin provided the following description of Mr. Spencer:

…Spencer`s conversation seemed to me very interesting but I did not like him particularly, and did not feel that I could easily have become intimate with him. I think that he was extremely egotistical. After reading any of his books, I generally feel enthusiastic admiration for his transcendent talents, and have often wondered whether in the distant future he would rank with such great men as Descartes, Leibniz, etc., about whom, however, I know very little. Nevertheless I am not conscious of having profited in my own work by Spencer’s writings. His deductive manner of treating every subject is wholly opposed to my frame of mind. His conclusions never convince me: and over and over again I have said to myself, after reading one of his discussions,—fundamental generalizations (which have been compared in importance by some persons with Newton’s laws!)—which I daresay may be very valuable under a philosophical [my emphasis] point of view, are of such a nature that they do not seem to me to be of any strictly scientific [again my emphasis] use. They partake more of the nature of definitions than of laws of nature. They do not aid one in predicting what will happen in any particular case. Anyhow they have not been of any use to me.[12]

To put it simply, Darwin did not believe in making claims going beyond what the scientific method—when properly exercised—could establish. Though undoubtedly a learned man in his own right, Spencer committed an error many intelligent people do: they mistakenly believe their personal genius is alone sufficient enough a thing to accurately interpret science, reality and history.

Darwin & Slavery
In 1861, Charles Darwin sent a letter to the American botanist and slavery-abolitionist Asa Gray. Gray (1810-1888), like Darwin, opposed and found slavery completely repellant. In the 1860s, the United States still had slavery in the southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. In 1861, the American Civil War broke out between the North and the South. The North (states like Vermont, New York) fought for several reasons one of which was to end slavery. The South (states like Florida, Georgia) fought for many different reasons one of which was to preserve slavery. Darwin came clearly down on the side of the North. He hated the idea of any man—regardless of color—being enslaved to any other man. Here’s an excerpt from one his letters to Mr. Gray:

I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. North America does not do England justice [the historical record clearly shows that England officially supported the South in order to weaken the United States] I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, and I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply be repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in…Great God how I should like to see the greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.[13]

Strike one for the former child star establishing Mr. Darwin as a racist. In fact, one of Darwin’s purposes for the publication of Origin of Species was to establish that all people—regardless of race—shared common ancestry. If it could be scientifically proven black, white, yellow, red and people of all colours in between, shared a common ancestor the philosophies and ideas supporting the slavery (and by extension racism) would collapse. Darwin established exactly that through his theory of common descent.

Slavery: The Real Story
Pro-slavery states justified the continuance of slavery not on the basis of Darwin’s ideas but upon a good old-fashioned mixture of religious conviction and racism. In the 21st century, most (though not all) reasonable people would acknowledge Christianity is incompatible with slavery; however, in 1810 it would be an entirely different matter altogether: neither Jesus nor Paul or Peter (or anyone else of any significance in either the Torah or New Testament) said slavery should be abolished. Actually, both St. Peter and the Apostle Paul are quoted as saying “slaves be obedient to your masters” (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22). Instead of finding passages opposed to slavery, you’ll find passages where slavery is justified by pre-19th century Christian theology. In particular, Genesis 9:25-27 where Noah says “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”. He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave”. Canaan was believed to be a dark-skinned person who lived in Africa; therefore, enslaving Africans was religiously justifiable.[14]

If you’re of the mind slavery contradicts the spirit of Jesus’ teachings you’re probably right. Abolitionists were mainly Christians who appealed to such statements made by the Apostle Paul like there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor freeman (Galatians 3:28). Also Jesus’ obvious affinity for the down-trodden and the outcasts of society is well-documented (Mark 2:16, Luke 19:9).[15]

Unfortunately, any person can take any philosophy and make it say whatever he/she/child actor wants it to say. This is one of the reasons I love science: science, unlike other ways of knowing, is a self-correcting way of knowing basing its claims fully upon observable phenomena, evidence, logic, proof, reason, and testability. Certainly there are times when individual scientists err. Nevertheless, in the end the scientific method makes sure we get the facts (at least as we understand them at the time) right. If you make a false claim it gets weeded out; and no matter how rich or powerful you are you cannot establish a claim as true unless it’s supported by the evidence. In the end, truth cannot be bought; it exists independently of belief; a claim does not become true if you have repeated it more than once or if you have yelled it really, really loud over your opponent’s protests.

So what is evolution exactly if it isn’t giving poor people alcohol so they might kill one another in drunken fits of rage? I’ll take a direct quote from evolutionary biologist Ken Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God for a brief description (by the way Miller is a theist and accepts evolution, too):

At its heart, evolution is a modest idea, a minimal concept, just two points, really. First, the roots of the present [life forms] are found in the past; and second, natural processes, observable today, fully explain the biological connections between past and present. On purely scientific terms, these two points leave very little to argue about.[16]

That’s it. It’s a simple theory. Elegant even. It is a theory asserting life/biological systems are changing over an enormous period of time. Nowhere in the Origin of Species are you going to find phrases like “master race” or “racial purity”.  To be honest Hitler didn’t need Darwin to justify the hatred of Jews. Social Darwinism wasn’t the only pseudo-science to come out of the mis-use of evolution: two other pseudo-sciences emerged—ethnology (study of ethnic groups and ancestry) and eugenics (study of racial purity).

Darwin developed no concept of racial purity. In reality, his theory implies every creature on the planet has in fact evolved over an equally long time span; there’s no validity to saying cats are more evolved than corn. They’ve simply taken different paths. Viewed in its own right racial purity is not expressly a scientific idea, in that, you cannot test “purity” because it is a judgement of value and therefore unscientific. You cannot objectively determine one race is overall better than another. You absolutely can measure objective differences between the races comparing the DNA of black to white, red to yellow people, etc. Yet, any assertion that the round eye of the European is superior to the slanted eye of the Asian is not only irrational but stupid.[17]

My Struggle Reading Hitler’s Book
Drawing concrete parallels between Adolf Hitler’s weltenshauung (“world-view”) and Darwin’s work is absurd. Hitler was a power hungry man, a Social Darwinist, a “man of prey” in the Nietzschean sense.[18] He was a rabid racist and nationalist. He lacked objectivity and possessed at best a confused view of history. Hitler saw providence (God) giving him a divine task (to rebuild and bring glory to the German master race). Based on all of this Hitler had more in common with Spencer and Pouge than he did with Darwin. The following is an excerpt from Hitler’s book Mein Kampff (“My Struggle”):

“The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise”.[19]

I’ve taken the liberty of translating Hitler’s nonsense here as best I could to make it readable. Contrary to what popular culture asserts Hitler was not in fact a genius, definitely not a literary one. He was passionate certainly, a true believer in his own greatness obviously, but a muddle-headed man at the best of times.[20] Now for the translation: “Allowing any inferior people (like the Jews for instance) to dilute and hold back the only people (Germans) capable of creating culture is a crime. Anybody who dares attempt to hold back or diminish the Lord’s greatest creation (Germans) commits a crime against God and will be cast out of paradise.”

Here are a few additional quotes from Herr Hitler the so-called “atheist” and evolutionist:

  • What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people…so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.[21]
  • Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew [he apparently didn’t get the irony that Jesus was a Jew or he didn’t get the memo], I am fighting for the work of the Lord.[22]

The Nazi Party actually black-listed and banned Darwin’s Origin of Species.[23] Darwin’s Origin, Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Hellen Keller’s Miracle Worker, etc. were all banned based on the following law:

All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk [German people].

Darwin was banned because evolution provided a challenge to creationism and traditional religion/morality; it also established common descent making any “master race” hypothesis dead in the water. Freud’s work was banned because he was a Jew promoting pacifism, liberalism, and scientific materialism. Thomas Mann (a German author) was banded for writing books with themes empathizing with the weak and questioning the wisdom of war; and Hellen Keller’s work was sent to the flames because she was an “imperfect,” deaf and blind woman promoting understanding, universalism, and love of everyone (not just people who belong to your particular tribe/nation).

I wonder: would Anne Coulter or Kirk Cameron like it if I were to make an argument like the following: you believe in God? What?! Hitler believed in God! You’re a bad person! Nobody in their right mind would think this argument would have any validity; however, it is precisely this line of faulty reasoning Coulter and Cameron utilize in an attempt to diminish Charles Darwin and his theory. They “poison the well” launching childish ad hominem attacks to discourage people from undertaking an honest examination of Darwin’s thinking. In closing, and for those who have a real problem with Mr. Darwin, I’ll invoke some advice from Aristotle: it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. You can study Darwin and scripture. You can accept evolution and believe in God. Admittedly, evolution poses some challenges to traditional beliefs and doctrines; however, if I might invoke Aristotle’s form to fashion my own recommendation: it is the mark of a genuinely faithful person not to mistake blind dogmatism for conviction.



[2] Henrich Heine, Alamaron (play), published 1821.

[3] Social Darwinism is a pseudo-scientific ideology based upon a narrow (and incorrect) interpretation of evolution’s significance. Racist thinkers like Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) and Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909 AD) appealed to Darwin’s theory in order to scientifically validate the idea of superior or inferior peoples. They argued one was born a criminal and that certain people should not be allowed to breed. Hans Frank, the Minister of Justice for the Third Reich in 1938, declared as much in a speech: “National Socialism regards degeneracy as an immensely important source of criminal activity…in an individual, degeneracy signifies exclusion form the normal “genus” of the decent nation. This state of being degenerate or egenerate, this different or alien quality, tends to be rooted in miscegenation between a decent representative of his race and an individual of inferior racial stock. To us National Socialists, criminal biology, or the theory of congenital criminality, connotes a link between racial decadence and criminal manifestations.” Darwin rejected any notion that evolution implied any particular race was better than the next. The reality is one of the main reason he undertook to study life’s origins was in fact to scientifically establish the opposite: people of every race are descended from a single, shared ancestor and that racial variation doesn’t imply either superiority or inferiority; it implies variety (and that’s it). Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration, p.27-28.

[4] Will we re-write history by officially accepting the assertion that the Holocaust never happened? James Keegstra, a teacher of dubious intention and quality, taught Holocaust denial for ten years in a Red Deer, Alberta, history classroom. Teachers are required to teach consensus views in history and science. Journalists, lawyers, and former child stars apparently have no such constriction.

[5] The video has since been removed; however, you can see some similar arguments if you go to the following link ( Cameron was part of an effort to debunk evolution by publishing an edition of Origin of Species with a 50 page preface explaining all the problems with Darwin’s thinking. There’s nothing wrong with criticising the theory, yet there are problems with this edition, in that, Darwin’s views on women, race, etc. are misrepresented and the preface’s authors conflate Darwin with Nazism. What Darwin’s critics don’t articulate in this preface is that the Nazis actually burned copies of Origin of Species during one of their book burning rallies in 1934 Nuremberg.

[6] If you look closely at the image conflating Obama and fascism, you’ll notice three historical figures in the background (none of whom were fascists), e.g. from left to right Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao-tse-tung, etc. all of whom were communists. Fascism and communism are categorically different ideologies in terms of aims and purposes.

[7] Hitler was as selective in his understanding of evolution as he was in his understanding of history.

[8] So many people makes use of the “Hitler argument” to poison the well it has been given its own logical fallacy name, e.g. Reductio ad Hitlerum.

[9] I confess it took me a while to figure out exactly what critics were asking by the question “If evolution is true then why do monkeys still exist?” From what I can tell critics imply evolution demands the following: human beings evolved from monkeys; therefore, monkeys must disappear and be replaced entirely by people. People who think along these lines are grossly misinformed, i.e. evolution doesn’t posit we come from monkeys but rather we share an ancestor in common; that is, at some point in the distant past monkeys went one way and the ancestors of modern humans branched off and went another. In 2005 a scientific paper confirmed the “common ancestor” hypothesis, i.e. Chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes and humans 46. If we’re related, we should have the same total number of chromosomes. The study established that this is the case: one of our chromosomes is actually two chromosomes fused together; this fusion dropped our total number from 48 to 46 (while preserving the original primate information). The paper states: “Chromosome 2 is unique to the human lineage of evolution, having emerged as the result of head-to-head fusion of two chromosomes that remained separate in other primates.” In fact, the molecular evidence for the fusion point is so strong that we can actually identify the exact region where the two chromosome tips were combined, where the two primate chromosomes were pasted together. Human chromosome 2 does indeed contain telomere DNA at its middle, at the fusion point, and it carries two centromere sequences corresponding to the centromeres from chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13. Furthermore, the genes on human chromosome 2 are arranged in an almost exact match for the patterns of corresponding genes on the two chimp chromosomes. So clear is the match, in fact, scientists working on the chimpanzee genome have now changed the numbering of chimp chromosomes 12 and 13 to chromosomes 2A and 2B, to match the human chromosome to which they correspond. The forensic case of the missing chromosome is settled beyond any doubt. Ken Miller, Only a Theory, p.105-107.


[11] Spencer’s use of survival of the fittest implies an aggressive, inescapable intention to selection whereas Darwin saw selection as a non-directed force of trial and error. Thus, a Social Darwinist like Hitler helping natural selection along through the use of gas chambers absolutely contradicted Darwin’s own understanding of the concept.

[12] Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, p.90.

[13] Ricardo Brown, Until Darwin, Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race, p.144-145.

[14] You can read about this in detail at the following site:

[15] When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

[16] Ken Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, p.174.

[17] Liberals would have us believe race doesn’t exist at all. This would be an over-simplification. When it comes to medical interventions race certainly is considered an important factor. For example, individuals descended from east African populations may carry a gene making it difficult for their blood to clot. Thus, it makes sense for a doctor to consider an individual’s genetic make-up when it comes to prescribing certain medications or undertaking certain procedures. Author Dr. Steven Novella discusses this nuance to race on the podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (episode 577):

[18] The thinking of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD) was often used by men like Hitler to justify Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism. Nietzsche actually abhorred the idea of anti-Semitism and would have been critical of Hitler’s blind nationalism. See the following course: Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Nietzsche’s Top Ten” (The Great Courses).

[19] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampff, p.383.

[20] Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed on more than one occasion how useful of an ally Hitler was because the German dictator frequently interfered in making decisions in areas he clearly had no understanding, e.g. economics and military tactics in particular.

[21] Adolf Hitler, p.214.

[22] Adolf Hitler, p.65.

[23] Additional pearls of wisdom from Hitler can be found here:


Ideas: Part 4: Historicity vs. Metaphor

Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”—Mark Twain

When I was six I was gifted a pop-up picture book depicting a series of biblical stories. I recall thumbing through its pages reading about Noah’s Flood where humankind was destroyed by God in a deluge lasting 40 days. I read about the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years following their release from bondage in Egypt. I bible_popupwas a kid. I wasn’t formally educated; and I certainly wasn’t acquainted with either the Hebrew language or its associated idiom. So when I read this children’s book, and later the Bible itself in my early teens, I understood and interpreted numbers I encountered like 40 to mean a literal quantity, e.g. forty days or years. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Israelites frequently used numbers figuratively. Contemporary English speakers do this when they hear and use 13 (which, for whatever reason, they associate with bad luck).

While reading either Exodus or Genesis I assumed I was reading literal history, i.e. when an author said X happened I believed X happened just as described. In reality, since I didn’t grasp the full extent of my ignorance of Hebrew idiom, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In my late teens and early 20s, I concluded it was unwise interpreting scripture in so straight-forward a manner. So, I reasoned, if I genuinely wanted to understand what I was reading, I needed to learn more about the role figurative language played in the meaning and composition of scripture, e.g. why did biblical writers make such frequent use of numbers like 3, 6, 7, 12 and 40?

Contemporary readers attempting to understand ancient texts like the Torah or New Testament re confronted with a series of challenges: firstly, there are always issues when it comes to translating a book from one language into another. There’s no such thing as a perfect translation as even subtle differences in a translator’s usage of a single word can have significant implications for meaning.

In 1994 I took a university course on the thought of St. Paul while completing a minor in religious studies. Professor Donaldson, an expert on the thought of Paul, brought the following issue to the class’ attention: in Romans 3:24-25 the Apostle Paul writes that we are “justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation…” Some translations of this text use the word expiation in place of propitiation. The implication of using one word over the other is not insignificant: although both words share essentially the same root (the Greek word hilasterion meaning “mercy-seat”) there are essential differences, i.e. if Paul meant propitiate then Jesus appeased God by dying on the cross in our place thereby satisfying His anger and justice at us individually; however, if Paul meant to say Jesus was more of an expiation then Christ sacrificed himself as a sort of burnt offering (atoning for the wrong-dong of the nation as a whole). Making a long story short, one word (propitiation) suggests more or less Christ achieved salvation of the individual while the other word (expiation) suggests more of a collective or national salvation. Arguably, either word is usable; however, expiation is the better choice if we want our meaning to reflect Jewish thinking as it existed in the 1st century.

Secondly, as modern readers we tend not to precisely interpret texts in ways the original authors intend. Words aren’t static things; they evolve meaning one thing at one time and something else entirely at another. In the 15th century, the English word “nice” was used to mean “silly, foolish, and simple”. Today the term is used as a sort of compliment. (Interestingly, hints of nice’s original usage remain with us, if only subtly, e.g. when a person makes an especially foolish mistake sometimes a bystander will respond by uttering a facetious “nice” while shaking their head in disapproval.) Greek Christians in the 1st century used the word “awesome” to mean “inspiring reverential wonder or fear of God”. There really was no better way to communicate the smallness of humanity before the Almighty. Today we use this word to denote something either bad or unpleasant. We even use awesome as an adjective or descriptor indicating something is especially tasty or high quality. Comedian Eddie Izzard explains the absurdity of the word’s current usage in the following way:

The universe is awesome—using the original version, the meaning of the word ‘awesome’. Not the new one… I saw an advert for ‘awesome hot dogs’ only $2.99. If they were awesome you would be going, I cannot breathe, *gasp* for the way the sausage is held by the bun, *gasp* and it’s speaking to me…we are lips and thighs of a donkey, *breathless* but do not think of us as lips and thighs—or you’ll throw up. America needs the old version of ‘awesome,’ because you’re the only ones going into space; and you need ‘awesome’ because you’re going to be going to the next sun to us and your president is going to be ‘Can you tell me, astronaut, can you tell me what it’s like?’ ‘It’s awesome, sir.’ ‘What, like a hot dog?’ ‘Like a hundred billion hot dogs, sir.’[1]

Thirdly, readers are confronted by problems associated with understanding culturally specific idioms. Idioms are symbols and sayings obvious only to native speakers of a particular language. A few years ago while having a conversation with a grade 11 Chinese speaking student, he asked me a question about the significance of a particular battle during World War II. I answered eventually making use of the following phrase, e.g. “And Germany killed two birds with one stone”. He stood there puzzled wondering why I was talking about birds. Yet, if I spoke that same phrase to a native English speaker, they’d understand my meaning immediately, i.e. that the Germans accomplished two things through one action. Knowledge and awareness of idiom is crucial to making sense of the writing and thinking produced by disparate cultures from time periods other than our own.

gateFor example, in Mark 5:10 Jesus observes “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” A North-American residing in the 21st century would believe themselves justified interpreting Jesus as saying it is impossible for rich people to go to heaven because they cannot physically pass through that tiny little hole (called the eye) used to thread a needle. First off no camels are small enough to pass through the eye of a needle. Does this mean Jesus was saying nobody goes to heaven? To a Jewish person living at the time of Christ, they would recognize Jesus was making an allusion to a small gate in Jerusalem literally called the Eye of the Needle. If we want to understand what Jesus was actually saying, we need to be acquainted with Jewish history and think in terms figurative, not literal.

Lastly, all cultures interpret numbers figuratively.[2] This fact was pressed home for me many years ago while listening to an episode of CBC’s Ideas.[3] The show’s host was interviewing several philologists to discuss the historicity of the Book of Exodus. As luck would have it, they discussed the usage and meaning of the number 40. As I hinted at earlier in the introduction, I’d always suspected 40 connoted something other than chronological days or years. The philologists confirmed my thinking by asserting “40” was not intended to be interpreted literally as a quantity. Rather, Exodus’ authors used 40 figuratively signifying at one time a “time of trial,” at another “a time of rebirth,” yet another “a time of transition,” or a “really long time”.

Israel, as is the case with all ancient civilizations, was an oral culture that transmitted knowledge through, and was in turn shaped by, metaphor.[4] They resisted writing down their stories fearing doing so would direct the Jewish people towards legalism and narrow interpretations of otherwise dynamic teachings, i.e. while the written word preserves the letter of law it does so often at the expense of the spirit of what is intended. For example, the Sixth Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Kill. Interpreting this literally, or according to the letter of the law, one assumes that if they don’t kill someone then they are keeping the commandment; however, interpreting this according to the spirit of the law and the commandment becomes demonstrably harder to keep, e.g. killing by definition is harm; therefore, if I harm or hurt others in any way—gossiping about or conspiring against others for instance—I’m actually breaking the spirit (or intent) behind the commandment.[5]

This second interpretation of the commandment discussed above reflects a process in Judaism called MidrashMidrash was developed by religious scholars to preserve the flexibility of the oral tradition while working within a written or literal framework. Rabbis working within this framework were aware of the associated risks associated with literalism-legalism. So, when an individual comes to a teacher for assistance or to work out some sort of personal problem, rabbis were (and are) careful to explore both the literal and figurative truths communicated through scripture. The dynamic nature of this interpretive process suggests there’s no single correct way of reading the Torah.[6] The conclusions reached through Midrash are not prescriptive. Therefore, the interpretive act, and the knowledge acquired, is shaped by the peculiar factors uniquely affecting the individual in the present moment. Thus, to rabbis the use of Midrash implies scripture is alive—it can mean one thing at one time and something quite different at another. In other words, the Jews valued both free-thinking and flexibility as it related to religious observance and living an ethical life.

We don’t have to go far to find difficulties with biblical literalism or legalism. Many religious people believe Genesis must be accepted at face value, word for word, as a piece of history. If we do not do this, so the reasoning goes, then we are somehow lacking faith. I do understand why people feel this way, i.e. all reasonable people want their thinking and beliefs to line up with reality. If you read Genesis literally today, you’d be justified believing the earth is quite young (in the same sense someone reading the Gospel of Mark today would erroneously conclude Jesus was talking about needles/thread instead of gates). The problem with interpreting Genesis literally is we actually know how old the earth and universe are through science.

If the scientific consensus is to be trusted, and upon a thoughtful weighing of the available evidence I am confident this is case, the big-bangCosmos is approximately 13.82 billion years old while the earth itself (and the life on it) evolved over a period of approximately 4.5 billion years. Genesis presents an entirely different view, i.e. God created everything as it currently exists in exactly 6 days.[7] For the Israelites the number 6 connoted perfection; thus, it stands to reason someone living in either 1000 BCE or the present day who hears “God made everything in 6 days” (given our current scientific understanding) would be more justified thinking creation was perfect as opposed to created “as is” in six chronological days. If we continue favoring literalism over figurative interpretation, and if we want our thinking to line up with what we want to be true (as opposed to what actually is true), the literalist must deny science or resort to special pleading. There is no other way around the inevitable contradiction of believing the world so young given our understanding of the Big Bang, the physics of light, existence of the dinosaurs, and biology.

The literalist is confronted with a dilemma: either reject Genesis or reject science. This is a false dichotomy because there are other options available to us preserving our intellectual integrity and belief in God. We just need to acknowledge three fundamental things: firstly, if a literal interpretation of Genesis leads us to make mistakes this speaks volumes about our limitations, our ignorance, and our assumptions about what is possible or what is not; it says absolutely nothing about God. Secondly, if we want our thinking to line up with reality we must accept the scientific consensus (and there’s nothing about that consensus that says God does not exist). If we do not accept or at least acknowledge the honest challenge posed to literalism posed by science, we’re forced to continually make use of special pleading, e.g. God put dinosaur fossils in the ground to test our faith; and with this kind of faulty reasoning in mind, it seems at least to me hard to accept that the same God responsible for endowing us with sense, reason and intellect would require us to forgo their use in order to have faith in Him;[8] and thirdly, by making greater use of the flexibility afforded to us through Midrash and metaphor, etc. we can see faith doesn’t contradict reality (it complements it). If we do these three things, we can avoid painting ourselves into intellectual corners of our own making.

The virtue of flexibility of interpretation is lost upon most modern readers: living in the West in the 21st century, we are conditioned not to think metaphorically so much as scientifically. Therefore, when we read something, unless we’re aware of the need or are told to do otherwise, we more often than not accept things at face value assuming writers aren’t embellishing or being figurative; we believe they’re saying exactly what they mean. The fact is the ancients—Egyptian, Persian, Jew, Greek, and Roman alike—were poetic-figurative societies[9] unconcerned with historicity or accuracy like we are in our own time; on the contrary, they tended to be more concerned with making meaningful connections between the distant past and an unfolding present. They possessed priorities and values vastly different from our own.[10]

The ancient Israelites possessed different priorities than the Greeks—the Greeks were rationalists while the Jews were ostensibly religionists. Nonetheless, both peoples possessed figurative language, exercised reason, utilized logic, and were spiritual; however, the manner in which these two great cultures employed these things took them in different directions. For this reason it seems likely we moderns too possess different priorities than the ancients, e.g. we tend to look at the world rationally as opposed to poetically; and although we’re certainly capable of understanding metaphors today, we don’t necessarily recognize them when we see them in the writings of the Greeks or the Israelites. With this in mind, let’s take one last look at the Jewish understanding of 40; in so doing, it’s my hope readers will gain a greater appreciation for the role figurative language plays in the justification, and maintenance, of faith in the present day.

Forty was used as a symbolic reference meaning essentially “transition” or “rebirth”; and in that context the symbol was also thought to be an allusion to the 40 weeks it takes—from conception to birth—for a human baby to be born. The best evidence supporting a figurative understanding of 40 is the sheer frequency of its usage (see the list below). In all of these examples, Jews and Christians[11] as well, had a figurative understanding of 40 in mind.

[Exodus 24:18] 40 days Moses was on the Mountain to receive the Law of the Sinai Covenant [Transition]

[Jonah 3:4] 40 days Jonah in the Assyrian city of Nineveh [Transition]

[Ezekiel 29:11] 40 days Ezekiel lay on his side to symbolize the 40 years of Judah’s transgression [Rebirth]

[Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2] 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before his trial of temptation by Satan [Trial]

[Acts 1:3] 40 days Jesus taught His disciples after the Resurrection. On the fortieth day He ascended to the Father [Transition]

[Genesis 25:20] 40 years The age of Isaac when he married Rebekah [Rebirth]

[Joshua 5:6] 40 years The first Pentecost at Sinai to the taking of the Promised land [Transition]

40 years From Christ’s resurrection to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD [Rebirth]

40 years Moses in Egypt [Trial]

40 years Moses in Midian before his return to Egypt [Transition]

[Exodus 16:35; Deuteronomy 29:5] 40 years Israel ate manna [Long Time]

This list is by no means exhaustive.

Most people trust their teachers. I certainly trusted my grade two teacher teaching the class we were all made in the image of God. I was seven at the time and I took her literally, e.g. God had arms, legs, eyes, and basically looked like me. I’m not sure if my teacher meant to imply God was anatomically human or humans were anatomically godlike. Figuratively speaking, if we are indeed made in God’s image, I should think it more likely we resemble God more in our capacity to reason as opposed to sharing skeletal structures in common. Perhaps I’m not giving my well-meaning elementary school teacher enough credit. Nevertheless, if my subsequent years of teaching have taught me anything it is this: the majority of educators tend to content themselves transmitting the parent culture’s assumptions to young people; teachers just don’t know any better; and despite assertions to the contrary, most teachers (not all, but most) tend not to be in the professed business of teaching critical thinking. If anything they are in the practice of creating conformists, not thinkers.

When readers lack context, when they don’t know they should think more deeply about what they think about, they invariably resort to projecting their personal assumptions on to scripture: twenty years ago, I met a Christian fundamentalist named Bob. We met while both studying to be teachers at university. During one spirited conversation, Bob explained to me humans and dinosaurs lived at the exact same time and he could prove it. He directed my attention to the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job.[12] He implied this biblical-based creature was an example of a dinosaur (presumably a plesiosaur) and the people who saw it naturally wrote down a description. I was not convinced.[13] I find it remarkable that no parallel accounts of dinosaurs—from the Greeks, Phoenicians or Romans—exist.[14] If dinosaurs and human beings did co-exist, their interactions would have been global in scale; we should find expect to find evidence of these massive creatures in every culture; yet, there’s a paucity or lack of supporting literary or archaeological evidence.[15] This is because the co-existence never took place.

I took a class on Judaism in the 1990s while completing a minor in religious studies. I asked the professor (Rabbi Pavey) whether Leviathan was a reference to dinosaurs. He looked at me and then looked away furling his brow somewhat. He looked at me again shaking his head in the negative. He understood Leviathan to be a figurative reference (a symbol) to the “objective power of evil and sin over Israel”. If you have the benefit of Hebrew idioms in mind while reading scripture, biblical stories read quite differently. Metaphors are culturally specific. If you don’t belong to the culture producing the book you are reading, you won’t “get” or understand the meaning of specific symbols. You won’t. Bob thinking Leviathan a dinosaur is proof of this. Modern readers, by and large, simply aren’t equipped to understand scripture—without significant guidance—in the same manner as the Israelites.


[2] The most sacred number to the ancient Greeks was 10 (ten symbolizing the completion of a cycle). In different parts of Asia the number 3 is considered sacred: in Japan the Toshogu Shrine presents the Three Wise Monkeys, e.g. Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. In Islam the number 5 is regarded as fundamental to Muslim life, e.g. the Five Pillars of Islam.


[4] Metaphors are powerful teaching and learning tools possessing an innate capacity to mean many things without necessarily signifying anything specific.

[5] Jesus added the following nuance to the keeping of such laws: Jesus observed married people who lusted after others were just as guilty of committing adultery as someone who actually acted upon the impulse. There was no difference. Thus, people are guilty of committing sin at the level of intention. This is drawn from Matthew 5:27-28.

[6] The idea of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

[7] According to Genesis God created light (on the first day) and then the stars (and presumably our sun) on the fourth. Shouldn’t the stars be created before light? For whatever reason, many of us simply ignore the contradictions we find in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

[8] This is an allusion to Galileo Galilei’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615): “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by other means give us knowledge which we can attain by them

[9] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, p.201-203; 305-310.

[10] The Greek writer Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was the first writer who actually tried to compose an accurate historical narrative. Writers before, and well after Herodotus, didn’t worry about composing historical narratives as you and I know them today. Instead, the role of the Western “historian” was that of a storyteller (not scientist), i.e. virtually all histories related to important kings and events produced during the medieval period, and well after, began with what a modern reader would consider an inexplicable reference to Adam and Eve. These writers made a point of connecting historical figures and events to God’s overall plan for humanity. For this reason the mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650 AD) distrusted the history of his time because these narratives had more in common with Aesop than with Copernicus. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History, “Myth, Legend, and Oral Tradition” (The Great Courses).

[11] The first Christians were Jews. They borrowed from Judaism and explained the significance of Jesus within a fundamentally Jewish framework (idiom and all).

[12] The word Leviathan literally means “whale” in Modern Hebrew.

[13] The idea of Leviathan is not exclusive to Israel. The Canaanites referred to the Leviathan using the name Lotan. According to the Canaanite cosmology, Lotan was a servant of the sea god Yammu. Israel assimilated the story through cultural exchanges with the Canaanites. The Canaanites and Israelites intermarried and lived with one another. This is a well-established fact (both scripturally and archaeologically); moreover, the overall evidence for cultural flow between Middle Eastern cultures is considerable given the fact virtually every culture possessed flood narratives, virgin birth narratives, and savior narratives. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, p.99-102.

[14] Some people point to the many and varied references to dragons as evidence of parallel accounts. There are two fundamental problems (at least) with this assertion: firstly, it’s an obvious example of special pleading; and secondly, the ancients did not write history in the same fashion as we do in the 21st century, i.e. in a desire to communicate events objectively. Instead, the ancients—including the Jews—embellished accounts, used figurative language, etc. in order to convey the great meaning and importance of noteworthy personalities and events.

[15] Every major city of the ancient world should have been surrounded by walls and fortifications designed to keep the more ravenous dinosaurs out. Yet, logically speaking, no human civilization of any significance could have developed while these massive reptiles wandered the planet. Mammals, humans in particular, needed the extinction of the dinosaurs in order to become an ascendant species.