Friday, May 30, 2014


I was born in Brooklyn in 1931 so I did not have to do anything to earn my US citizenship.  My father, who was born in Stockholm came to the US not as a place he sought but as a place he liked in his merchant marine days in the early 1920s. He worked in New Orleans and at West Point before settling in New York City. He never became a US citizen because he said he had nothing bad to say about Sweden.  He read a Swedish-American newspaper to keep up with events in Sweden and faithfully wrote to his mother in Stockholm.  My mother was also born in the US, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  Her parents were immigrants from Tarnapol then part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire and now part of Ukraine. She was placed in an arranged marriage by her father to a Russian immigrant and in those days that meant she lost her US citizenship and became a subject of Russia (she belonged to her husband under then US law). After she divorced and remarried my father, she became stateless.  In order to vote for Roosevelt she had to be renaturalized and my brother and I went with her to be sworn in, in 1940, as a US citizen even though this was the land of her birth. 
I pledged allegiance to the flag every school day K-12 before it was modified to include the phrase “under God.”  Since I had no religion I would have found that offensive or at least compromising to my beliefs. Whenever I have an occasion to recite that pledge, I omit the inserted two words because I feel it is unconstitutional to impose religious beliefs by the state.  I admire the America of our Founding Fathers who mostly embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment.  They established a country based on the consent of the governed and not an imposed government by monarchies, tyrants, or the privileged few.  I admired Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, the non-violent abolitionists, the early feminists, the first labor union organizers, the preachers and journalists who denounced child labor, the social reformers who built settlement houses, the pioneers who settled small farms in the Midwest, the educators who established free public schools, the public health programs that introduced immunization against infectious diseases,  the inventors who built our bridges, roads, railroads, and ships, the philanthropists who established public libraries and outstanding universities.  I also admired our critics – Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, Ida Tarbell, Eugene Debs, Ralph Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and other men and women who braved the condemnation of the rich and the powerful.

We oscillate from decades of progress and hope to decades where the few dominate our lives and attention.  We shift from generations that live in peace and generations stuck in wars that are elective.  We believe in merit and earning our own reputations and lives but we also believe we are innately exceptional.  We  fear immigrants as often as we welcome them and appreciate what they have contributed to the diversity of American culture. We have done wrongs like passing compulsory sterilization laws, like establishing internment camps for the Japanese in WWII, like the fugitive slave act, like “separate but equal” segregation laws, like making corporations “people,” like tolerating laws that target students, minorities, the poor and the elderly so that they find it difficult to vote.  America has always been a land of contradictions.  It requires the diversity of its critics, reformers, and activists to counter the tendency of the selfish to purchase legislation that favors their interests.  

Friday, May 16, 2014


The last person convicted of blasphemy in the United States, in 1834, was Abner Kneeland, a minister who lived in Massachusetts and who was shifting his views as he read more about religion and corresponded with other ministers of different faiths.  He argued that there was no evidence for miracles, no evidence for the Trinity, no evidence  for the existence of souls, and no evidence for any specific god.  He did not consider himself an atheist, but described himself as a pantheist.  He did so because he felt the entire universe or what is called Nature could be considered as God.  In his correspondence with other ministers he wrote lengthy arguments to defend his views and they wrote equally lengthy replies. The letters are friendly, unlike those of John Calvin and Michael Servetus, where Calvin was so outraged over Servetus’s arguments against the Trinity that he ordered him arrested if he ever set foot in Geneva.  Servetus unfortunately did come to Geneva to plea his position personally with Calvin and instead Calvin turned him over to civil authorities where he was burned at the stake for heresy.  Kneeland had two trials and was convicted in the second trial and served 60 days in jail and paid a fine.  He then moved to Iowa to live out the rest of his life as a farmer.
In his speech to the jurors at his second trial, Kneeland argued that one of the charges, obscenity, was spurious because he used satire to reject the conception of Jesus by the Holy Ghost.  He argued that the Holy Ghost is not a material being and his name implies he was a spirit and immaterial.  As such, he claimed, he lacked the male genitalia to impregnate Mary. Neither the prosecutor nor the ministers who brought charges against Kneeland were amused.  When the jury found him guilty, the judge denounced Kneeland as a cantankerous person who deserved punishment for libeling religion.  Ministers were divided.   Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, early Unitarians, were his supporters.  But other Protestant ministers, including some Unitarians and Universalists (otherwise thought to be  liberal) condemned Kneeland.
You can read Kneeland’s correspondence and his speech to the jury on line if you go to the Digital Library of America and select “bookshelf” and then enter “Abner Kneeland” and then select “Speech of Abner Kneeland delivered to the City of Boston in his own defense for blasphemy, November term 1834. 

Fortunately blasphemy is rarely used as a criminal charge in municipal, state, or national law.  It would likely be found unconstitutional.  Blasphemy is usually considered an insulting way of describing God or the religion of other people.  Blasphemy was usually selective and invective descriptions of non-Christian religions were quite common when I was growing up.  “Bible belt” Protestants often equated Roman Catholics with Satan.   “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was even a campaign slogan against Democrats in the 1896 Presidential election because Democrats drew a large portion of Irish voters on the East Coast. 

Monday, May 12, 2014


 I consider myself a person because I am self-aware.  There are probably not more than a dozen people in the US and perhaps a hundred in Sweden with my name, Elof Axel Carlson.  I can be identified by my anatomy which includes photographs of me at different stages of my life cycle. My 83 year old portrait is not too different from my 55 year old portrait but it is considerably different from my 30 year old unwrinkled appearance. My fingerprints, of course, have not changed since I was a youth. A very complete autopsy at my death would reveal a considerable amount of information about my various organs and tissues. I am also a person defined by the artifacts of my life.  I have a personality that is known to my family, students, and colleagues over the years. Readers know me through my books, articles, and this Blog.  For some of you it is as if I am conversing with you. I could add those items to a variety of social and historical facts to make a CV or curriculum vitae, which I used to use when I was seeking a job. It was used by deans and committees to create an overall impression of who I was as a person.  For the most part my written record would not give many clues to others about how I look or what my personality is like.
At a genetic level, I have a unique genome that no other person alive or dead has.  Our genomes can give some information about us as persons.  If there is an abnormal chromosome number, we could predict that a person with trisomy-21 has Down syndrome, trisomy-13 has Patau syndrome, trisomy-18 has Edwards syndrome, and for the sex chromosomes, individuals who are XXY have Klinefelter syndrome and those who have an unaccompanied X are said to have Turner syndrome.  Today people can have their genomes sequenced, partially or completely, depending on how much they are willing to pay. They can learn about their risks for a variety of disorders and get some insights into their ethnic or racial ancestry.  Their DNA might also reveal a number of physical traits.  But reading my entire genome will not tell you what books I wrote, what field I worked in, or the type of information you could obtain by reading my CV. At a physiological level, you could learn about my blood types, my HLA tissue antigens, and a variety of health conditions and past illnesses I have had. When my physicians do laboratory tests, they are interested in my risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases. If I were consumed by a fire and my jawbones were left relatively undamaged, my current dentist would be able to identify me from my extractions, implants, crowns, and fillings.

I have no conscious awareness of who I was before I was about three years old. I would be unaware of my name as a fetus, unaware of existing as a fertilized egg.  I think of personhood as a process of becoming rather than an event that is assigned by society as fertilization in an oviduct, implantation into a womb, birth that is recorded on a birth certificate, or concluded with a death certificate. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes of people through their contributions to civilization – thousands of words coined over centuries, hundreds of ideas and values that I was taught and absorbed into my personality, and,  of course, some 25,000 genes that were transmitted from Swedish farmers, pious Lutherans, polytheistic Vikings, Orthodox Jews in Ukraine, survivors of pogroms, who some 1900 years ago were scattered by a Roman conquest of Jerusalem. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014


     I enjoyed reading Margolit Fox’s new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth which discusses the decipherment of Linear B in the early 1950s.  The book discusses the major players in the process.  Arthur Evans found the tablets with the unknown script at Knossos in Crete. He tried for 40 years but did not succeed.  Alice Kober figured out what type of language group it was by studying (before computers) the associations and endings of syllables or words.  Michael Ventris finally realized it was an ancient Greek language using a totally different alphabet system.  Each of the contributors was flawed and yet each had some major insight that turned out to be correct. The book raises questions about their personalities and the influence social circumstances had on their careers and personal lives. As I read the book, I thought of the relation to coding, translating languages, and linguistics which does a comparative study of languages including their evolution.  At the same time I thought how this field differs from genetics with its genetic code, role in translating nucleotide sequences into amino acid sequences in proteins, and the evolution of life from a molecular level to an organism and population level. 

     Languages are clearly created by people but they are not intelligently designed by a creator who invented French, Korean, Swahili, or Greek.  Those languages evolved over the years.  When we read 19th century literature, we find it wordy.  When we read Shakespeare, we need a footnoted copy to figure out the meaning of words and idioms of the past.  Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is easier in translation than in middle English.  Reading Beowulf is virtually impossible without old English dictionaries or footnotes.  In a similar way genes have evolved by mutations over eons.  Just as there is a social selection of which words  survive and which ones get lost, there is a natural selection for mutational expression which leads to extinction (no progeny) or survival (the adaptive conditions won out). We are not troubled that modern languages did not exist some 3000 years ago but have evolved. Yet those who believe in an intelligent designer for the origin of species cannot imagine how humans can be derived from ape-like ancestors or how mammals could be derived from reptiles or reptiles from amphibians, or amphibians from fish working backwards to the origin of early life forms as bacteria-like or virus-like.  

       One major difference is the time scale of evolution.  For languages it is about 4000 years at most for written languages.  They have the advantage that symbols or words written in stone have survived.  In a similar way there are fossils that go back millions or 100s of millions of years.  They are more difficult to interpret than the languages used since humans began writing their transactions and thoughts. But no one would argue that Jesus spoke English or that the Biblical texts handed down were written in English for Moses to read.   Nor should one readily doubt that the life on earth differs in kind and complexity as we examine more ancient rocks.  The human bones in our graveyards are not found in the rock strata that give us dinosaurs.  Whale bones are not found in the ancient seas that teemed with crinoids.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014


When I was in fifth grade in Brooklyn, I recall reading books in the school library on mythology. I was engrossed by the ancient Egyptian and Greek deities.  At the time I had no religion because both of my parents had abandoned their religious beliefs before I was born. This gave me the freedom to think about religion without feelings of guilt.  One thought I had was almost astounding to me.  No one in 1942 believed that Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Aeolus, Medusa, and dozens of other Greek gods were actual gods.  We referred to them as myths of the past.  But at their time (and for many centuries) virtually all of those living in the Greek civilization from Homer to the rise of the Roman empire believed in those deities, worshipped them, prayed to them, and made sacrifices to them.  If gods come and go over the millennia, why do we believe any religion is the one true religion and all others are mistaken? Later, in high school, I took a somewhat different view of religion as an attempt to make sense of the universe, especially our own lives at a time when science was non-existent or knew very little about the universe and how it works and its past history.  
About 1960 I took an interest in Unitarians because it was a creedless religion and Nedra and i sought a place where both of us would be comfortable. Some of the Unitarian ministers over the years have considered themselves atheists or agnostics. Like me, they thought religion provided something valuable but it wasn’t the supernatural.  What attracted me to them was their belief that humans form and need communities.  A religion that does not offer a creed, but instead offers humans a chance to think about questions that are important—like why there is existence, how life began, what meaning do we create for the one life we have on earth, and why we have so many diverse answers to these questions, I found immensely appealing.  Despite efforts of religious leaders to make religion permanently fixed in its creed, rituals, and status among hundreds of other contending religions, religions undergo change. There are hundreds of Christian denominations ranging from liberal to rigid (“fundamentalist”) in their interpretations.  A similar spectrum (but with fewer denominations) exist for Jews. There are many forms of Buddhism. There are different Muslim traditions; the most familiar to those who are not Muslims are the Shiite and Sunni branches in the Middle East. 

Everything changes.  I expect many religions will be demoted to the status of myths and new ones will arise to meet the needs of cultures that may not arise for hundreds of years.  They will have different views of life and society we cannot predict.  If humans can extend life so that most people could live reasonably healthy lives for 100 to 120 years, I expect those with 50 years of retirement will have different needs from those who are considered old today in their 70s.  If we do colonize the moon or Mars in the next two or three centuries, I would not be surprised that their religious views will show the same tendency to diversity as those that have evolved on earth.