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Science Salon

Michael Shermer

30 episodes

Jan 5, 2021

150. Daniel Lieberman — Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding 

“Nothing about the biology of exercise makes sense except in the light of evolution, and nothing about exercise as a behavior makes sense except in the light of anthropology.”

In this myth-busting book, Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we never evolved to exercise — to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health. Using his own research and experiences throughout the world, Lieberman recounts how and why humans evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion. As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise.

Shermer and Lieberman also discuss:

  • evolutionary and anthropological perspectives on physical activity,
  • why we never evolved to exercise,
  • physical activity vs. exercise,
  • sleep: how much do we really need?
  • walking vs. running; speed vs. strength,
  • endurance and aging: why exercise matters,
  • why we age and die,
  • exercise and diet,
  • Should we do weights, cardio, or high-intensity training?
  • Is sitting really the new smoking?
  • Is BMI really a useful measure?
  • exercise and disease: obesity, diabetes/metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease (and cholesterol), osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, depression, and cancer,
  • immune systems and exercise, and
  • How much exercise should you get each week?

Daniel E. Lieberman is Edwin M. Lerner Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He is the author of the national best seller The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dec 8, 2020

146. Donald Prothero — Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet 

Shermer and Prothero discuss:

  • flat earth theories and how we know the earth is round,
  • hollow earth theories and how we know it’s not hollow,
  • the return of Ptolemy and an earth-centered solar system model (and how we know it’s wrong),
  • how science deals with anomalies, fringe claims, and challenges to the orthodoxy,
  • whether humans were in the San Diego area 130,000 years ago,
  • how consensus is achieved in science (and the messy road to get there),
  • from Newton to Einstein and what ultimately determines if a theory is true or not,
  • flood myths and what causes such stories to arise in some cultures but not others,
  • catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism in geology,
  • the age of the earth and how geologists determined it,
  • the myth of Atlantis and what Plato really intended with his account,
  • biblical accounts of the world and how we should read the book as literature, not science,
  • how science won the evolution-creation wars,
  • science denial and how to deal with it, and
  • the real-world consequences of denying science.

Dr. Donald R. Prothero has taught geology for over 33 years as Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and currently at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 33 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiologyand Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC).

Dec 1, 2020

145. Greg Lukianoff — How Free is Free Speech? 

In this wide ranging conversation focused on Greg Lukianoff’s co-authored (with Jonathan Haidt) book The Coddling of the American Mind, and his new documentary film Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story, about the free speech champion Ira Glassner, who headed the ACLU for decades, he and Shermer discuss:

  • the state of free speech today,
  • how coddled today’s students are,
  • the data on rates of depression and anxiety in students today,
  • possible causes of the coddling of the American mind: social media, screen time, culture of safetyism, culture of victimhood, helicopter parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play,
  • cancel culture and its effect on self-censorship and silencing speech,
  • current rates of deplatforming and canceling in academia,
  • the polarization of politics,
  • when self-censorship is healthy,
  • default to truth theory vs. default to skepticism theory,
  • How gullible are we, really?
  • how to combat the negative influencers on social media,
  • a brief history of free speech in the 20th and 21th centuries,
  • why people in power want to silence dissenters (even free speech advocates in power), and
  • the value of viewpoint diversity.

Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Lukianoff is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School. He specializes in free speech and First Amendment issues in higher education. He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate and Freedom From Speech. Read about his new film: Mighty Ira: A Civil Liberties Story.

Nov 24, 2020

144. Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being 

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.

The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.

Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:

  • what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action),
  • evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why,
  • evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?),
  • evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality,
  • Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense?
  • human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language,
  • evolution of theory of mind,
  • how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts,
  • components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making,
  • dog domestication and human self-domestication,
  • Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities,
  • the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy,
  • gender role specialization,
  • monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking,
  • violence and warfare,
  • political and economic systems of belief, and
  • love as belief.

Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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