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Talking Snakes October 2, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science, Teaching.

It is irritating and sad that in the 21st Century professors have to spend time in the college classroom explaining that snakes can’t talk. It is frightening that a professor can be fired for it. 

That is apparently what happened to a community college instructor in Iowa, who claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted. The story is here. (And check out the update at the bottom. The video is hilarious.)

Stories like this make research like this important. There is some evidence that rigid adherence to dogma can be explained by underdevelopment of the frontal lobes of the brain.

“Do extremism and an unconditional adherence to religious dogma result from a failure of a portion of the frontal lobe to fully develop or, if fully developed, to activate? Studies suggest that faithful adherence to a single reasoning strategy on tests such as the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test means that parts of the frontal lobes are inactive, have failed to fully develop, or have even been damaged. Thus, unqualified disdain for divergent beliefs,for personal interpretation, and for creative theories like Darwin’s theory of evolution, may indeed have, at least a partial, biological explanation: a reduced utilization of that section of the brain which has played such a vital role in humanity’s creative advances—the frontal lobes.”

Of course it took a lot of imagination for people to come up with stories about talking snakes. But wouldn’t it be interesting to update it a bit?



1. Huan - October 3, 2007

I find this research rather depressing. If it’s true that the tendency to dogmatic approaches to reality is partially biological, that makes it so much harder to overcome such tendencies.
I did not think it was biological at all, that it’s merely sociological and psychological, but if this research is true, theres a lot less hope for humankind then i thought there were.
However, it does seem like we are heading in such a direction that we are slowly evolving away from such biology, any take on that?

2. Michael Mussachia - October 3, 2007

A relative lack of frontal lobe activity may be the result of a dogmatic mind rather than the cause. Any part of the brain that is not used much atrophies, while parts that are used a great deal have an increase in the number of neurons, synaptic connections and signal conductance along their fiber tracks. This suggests that education can help reduce dogmatic attitudes, and all educators know from experience with their students that this is the case. Of course, some individuals might be born with impaired frontal lobes or suffer post-natal damage to their frontal lobes, resulting in simple mindedness and mental rigidity. Gee, does this perhaps apply to our current president? 😉

3. Huan - October 3, 2007

Haha that seems to be the case.
Regarding education being able to reduce dogmatic attitudes, I also believe that is the case, but that’s not the source of my worries.
Even though education can overcome dogmatic attitudes, if this widespread phenomenon of dogmatism does have a large biological basis, overcoming it will be much harder even with massive social changes. That’s what I’m afraid of I suppose.
In the article it has a study done on patients who had parts of their frontal lobes removed, and the result was a clear lack of divergent reasoning. This doesn’t mean people who have dogmatic attitudes are struck with the same frontal lobe impairment, but it is certainly possible. Although it could be overcome, it’s still that much harder if it has biological basis 😦

4. Nina Rosenstand - October 4, 2007

I would be somewhat skeptical of the instructor’s claim that his secular teachings got him fired–there may have been additional issues/conflicts present. Be that as it may, the very suspicion that teaching based on academic ground rules in an academic environment can be derailed by some students’ religious sensitivity is frightening in itself. But let’s cut to the chase: The snake (and thanks for including the video, Dwight, it made my evening!). A literal interpretation of the Genesis story has created a number of fantastic explanations, such as the snake had legs before the curse (see Medieval paintings), and Thomas Aquinas’s very creative attempts to reconcile Aristotle and Genesis. With all this brainpower coming up with neat, but (as most of us in the academic environment today would say) false ideas, I would question the notion that adhering to dogma shows (or leads to, or is the result of) inactive frontal lobes. Rationality used in the service of dogmas can be extremely inventive. It is the lack of questioning of the dogmas themselves that is problematic, and I don’t think this is because of a brain defect–that would be too easy, and an insult to the creative intelligence of some believers. I rather think it is an intellectual choice: Dare to ask the fundamental questions, dare to risk losing one’s foothold, ask why the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes—it’s a hard choice, a choice people must make in every dogmatic situation, including politics, on the left as well as on the right.
But I think it can also be a hard choice to go with the dogma over reason. Throughout the Middle Ages until the time of Thomas Aquinas the rule was “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd. Faith was supposed to trump reason. That must have been hard for inquiring minds—and I have heard the very same argument from Evangelical Fundamentalists today. So if you believe the Devil makes you think, you may try awfully hard to control those pesky rational urges…

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