Why celebrate Earth Day? Here are 12 reasons.

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Why celebrate Earth Day? Here are 12 reasons.

25 Strangest Sights on Google Eart25 Strangest Sights on Google Eart

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25 Strangest Sights on Google Earth

The Earth, Google Style

Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters

The Last Animals, Photojournalist Kate Brooks’s Poaching Documentary, Is a Quietly Stunning Call-to-Arms

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The Last Animals, Photojournalist Kate Brooks’s Poaching Documentary, Is a Quietly Stunning Call-to-Arms 

Today 1:00pm

A herd of elephants in the desert near Lake Chad; there are less than 800 elephants remaining in the country. Kate Brooks for The Last Animals.

When director and photojournalist Kate Brooks began filming The Last Animals, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, there were seven Northern White Rhinos left on the planet. Now there are only three, all living under 24-hour armed protection at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhinoceros, recently appeared on Tinder as the “most eligible bachelor in the world” in a campaign to raise money for reproductive technology research. After unsuccessful attempts at natural breeding, scientists are frantically trying to stave off the species’ extinction using in vitro fertilization.

The Last Animals is an ambitious, agonizing documentary that weaves the plight of the dwindling Northern Whites into the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade and its connection to international trafficking organizations and armed groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army and the SPLA. The film, shot by a team of mostly women, covers the trial of Feisal Mohamed Ali, one of Interpol’s most wanted fugitives, who was eventually sentenced to 20 years on ivory smuggling charges. “The foot soldiers doing this work are cogs in a much bigger machine,” Brooks said. That machine, it’s noted in the documentary, wouldn’t run quite so smoothly without government assistance.

The scope of the film is wide—we’re spirited across southeast Asia, Africa, the Czech Republic, even a lab in Seattle—but it never veers far from the deeply emotional core of this subject. The camera gazes delightedly as a trio of squeaking baby rhinos toddle curiously over; catches the gleaming sweat running down a park ranger’s face; drinks in the quiet, radiating fury of tireless zoologist Sam Wasser as he stands surrounded by the tusks of a thousand dead elephants. At its world premiere screening, Brooks and the rangers featured in the film received the Disruptive Innovation Award for their work combating illegal wildlife trafficking.

 Image result for images of Northern White Rhinos

“There were a lot of people who were like, you can’t make a film about elephants andrhinos,” Brooks told Jezebel in a interview last month. “[But] why not? It definitely complicated things, but if you’re in a healthy ecosystem, elephants and rhinos live side by side.”

Healthy ecosystems are tough to find these days. Between 2007 and 2014, the African elephant population declined by 30%, and the African rhino population has declinedover 97% since the ‘70s. In South Africa, home to 80 percent (about 20,000) of the world’s remaining rhinos, a court recently overturned a national ban on the domestic sale of rhino horns, a move activists warned would spur an increase in poaching levels. The last Northern White Rhino was seen in 2006 in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where much of the film takes place, and the remaining elephants in the park are being annihilated in increasingly militarized and sophisticated attacks along with some of the park rangers fighting to protect them.

Guards protecting the three remaining Northern White Rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Kate Brooks for The Last Animals.

In Garamba, “it’s like a war zone—you have days and weeks and months where it’s totally calm, and then all hell breaks loose,” Brooks recalled. “So that’s the fear that rangers have every day.” One of the major characters in the film, the brisk, crinkly-eyed Colonel Jacques Sukamate Lusengo, was killed by poachers along with three rangers in 2015, shortly after the film crew left the park.

As a conflict journalist, Brooks has witnessed an enormous amount of death and misery. But “all of the loss of life I’ve seen in various conflicts that I’ve experienced certainly hasn’t made me numb to it,” she said. “When I woke up to the news [of the colonel’s death] that morning, I just wept and wept for days.”

Over time, Brooks did begin to more carefully consider which assignments to pursue. “Having lost a lot of colleagues and lost a lot of friends, I’m very cognizant of the risks I take and deciding whether or not it’s something I’m really willing to put my life on the line for,” she said. “With this particular project, it was worth the risk.”

 Image result for images of Northern White Rhinos

What draws a person to such dangerous work? “Even though I started working in war zones when I was quite young, I also quite cautiously moved in that direction,” she explained. “On a journalistic level, on an emotional level, I was always amazed what war photographers were able to capture, but never was completely convinced that it was something that I was brave enough to be able to do.”

In the late ‘90s, at age 20, Brooks published shocking photographs exposing the brutal conditions inside Russian orphanages, where children were permanently institutionalized if they were classified as an “imbecile” or “idiot.” A few years later, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, she was sent to Pakistan for a few weeks on a story, and decided to stay to continue documenting conflict across the Middle East, where she was based until last year. Brooks became interested in covering wildlife issues while on vacation in Kenya several years ago—prior to the trip, she’d been embedded in southern Afghanistan with a medevac unit “essentially photographing double and triple amputees day in and day out.”

“I was with the Maasai Mara, and this herd of elephants walked by while I was completely consumed with my thoughts of what I had just witnessed [in Afghanistan],” she recalled. “It made me sit up. It just reminded me that in spite of all the human destruction on the planet, there’s still a natural order. It really led me to want to help these animals.” She’d long felt “a gravitational pull” towards filmmaking; after exploring the basics in a video workshop, she had been invited to shoot The Boxing Girls of Kabul on “virtually no experience.” That same year, in 2012, she was awarded the Knight Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she began researching the connection between terrorism and the ivory trade.

A ranger in Garamba National Park. Ryan Youngblood for The Last Animals.

Brooks is well-acquainted with shooting desperation at close range, and The Last Animals is, above all, a story about desperation: of the researchers and activists trying to maneuver some of our most beloved and iconic large mammals away from extinction, of the heroic park rangers regularly hurling themselves into the line of fire, and of the poachers themselves, who are often poor locals. “It’s tragic. I mean, it’s all happening because somebody wants to buy a bracelet?” she marveled.

It’s notable, too, the occasionally brutal level of intervention necessary to try and outpace the destruction reaped by our own species. One devastating scene shows scientists tagging a tranquilized, half-conscious Southern White Rhino they’d hoped to use to cross-breed with one of the remaining Northern Whites. Shortly after being dehorned (for protection from poachers) with a chainsaw, the shaking, terrified animal turns immobile and dies as five grunting men attempt CPR.

Although Brooks remains hopeful that more can be done—“I don’t feel that this is a lost cause,” she emphasized during the interview—The Last Animals inevitably carries within it a tone of deeply felt grief.

“You asked yourself whether time was spent wisely,” IZW senior scientist Dr. Robert Hermes says in the film, a note of despondence in his voice, amid failing efforts to breed new Northern Whites.

“It’s an abstract process, because extinction doesn’t happen in front of your eyes, it just happens by disappearance,” he explains. “In this very example, extinction happens in front of our eyes. We have the last of their kind in front of our eyes.”

Go to thelastanimals.com to learn what you can do if you live in one of the 44 states in the U.S. that haven’t passed strict legislation restricting ivory and rhino horn sales. To support a ranger, click here.

Bear Ears Buttes in Utah

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Bear Ears Buttes in Utah


Known as Bear Ears for the pair of purple buttes at the region’s center, the newly proclaimed 1.9 million-acre National Monument will preserve a photographer’s checklist of high-desert drama: spires, bridges, canyons. Yet the region’s true distinction is not its topography, but its cultural significance; perhaps no place in America is as rich with ancient Native American sites as Bear Ears. In October 2015, a coalition of five Indian nations, including the Hopi, Ute, and Navajo, formally proposed the monument, attempting to preserve the parcel’s 100,000 archeological sites from ongoing looting and grave robbing. Last June, in a letter to President Obama, more than 700 archeologists endorsed the proposal, saying that looting of the area’s many ancient kivas and dwellings was continuing “at an alarming pace” and calling Bear Ears “America’s most significant unprotected cultural landscape.” President Obama designated Bear Ears Butte and Gold Buttes in Nevada as protected National monuments at the end of last month. The incoming Trump administration, along with the Republican-controlled congress, and Utah state officials, could mount a legal challenge against that designation.–By European Pressphoto Agency.
Muddy water fills a small slot canyon in the Bear Ears National Monument near Fry Canyon, Utah, USA on Nov.12. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
A nearly-full ‘supermoon’ rises at dusk above the Valley of the Gods in the Bear Ears National Monument. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The 1000-year-old Wolfman Petroglyph Panel adorns a rockface within the Bear Ears National Monument near Bluff, Utah, (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The sun sets on Cedar Mesa (top), while Utah Highway 261 (bottom) stretches into the distance in a car’s side mirror within the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Two thousand-year-old petroglyphs carved into a rock panel known as ‘Newspaper Rock,’ part of Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument, are within the boundaries of the Bear Ears National Monument near Monticello, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Two trucks drive near U.S. Route 163 within the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The Colorado River winds around the northern reaches of the Bear Ears National Monument (center), with Canyonlands National Park in the background, viewed from Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The 8,700-foot-tall Bear Ears Buttes, namesake to the Bear Ears National Monument, are seen from Utah Highway 261 near Blanding, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Sandstone formations rise from the Valley of the Gods under a full moon in the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
A long exposure picture shows moonlight illuminating four sharp bends in the Colorado River, viewed from Goosenecks State Park, in the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
A car travels along Utah Highway 261 across a sandstone valley known as the ‘Valley of the Gods’ in the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Moonlight illuminates sandstone buttes in the Valley of the Gods in the proposed Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Eight hundred-year-old Ancestral Pueblo ruins, known as ‘House on Fire Ruins’ for the smoldering color of its sandstone, are among the 100,000 archeological sites within the Bear Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Two thousand-year-old petroglyphs carved into a rock panel known as ‘Newspaper Rock,’ in Bear Ears National Monument. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The view from Cedar Mesa, which is within the Bear Ears National Monument, extends 18 miles (29 kilometers) south to the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (which is not part of the monument) near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
In a long-exposure image at night, car lights illuminate the Moki Dugway, a series of steep switchbacks that climb 1,200 feet (366 meters) from the Valley of the Gods to the top of Cedar Mesa in the Bear Ears National Monument near Mexican Hat, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
A Navajo woman sells jewelry from the hood of her car to raise money for her daughter, in the framed photograph, to make a class trip within the Bear Ears National Monument near Monticello, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
The moon rises above the Colorado River as it winds around the northern reaches of the Bear Ears National Monument near Moab, Utah. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
A nearly-full ‘supermoon’ rises at dusk above the Valley of the Gods in the Bear Ears National Monument. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

10 Of The Most Beautiful Maps Ever Created

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10 Of The Most Beautiful Maps Ever Created



During much of history, maps were designed as much for beauty and display as for accuracy. When maps were hand-drawn, they were difficult and expensive to produce, and ones designed for personal libraries were appropriately lavish to reflect their status as luxury items. Even in modern times, some map makers design their works to make a point. Others designed them for beauty, and sometimes a map designed for entirely practical purposes is also beautiful.

10Planisphaerium Arateum Sive Compages Orbium Mundanorum Ex Hypothesi Aratea In Plano Expressa


Photo credit: Andreas Cellarius

The planisphere of Aratus, or the composition of the heavenly orbits following the hypothesis of Aratus expressed in a planar view, was designed by Andreas Cellarius and published in 1660 as part of his Harmonia Macrocosmica (harmony of the macrocosm). It shows a model of the universe according to the Greek astronomer and poet Aratus. It shows theEarth at the center of the universe, with the Sun, Moon, and other planets orbiting around it, and the signs of the zodiac orbiting around those.

The orbits are particularly graceful, and all the details are clear and precise. Every map in the Harmonia is stunningly beautiful, but this one combines some of the virtues of each.


9The Cedid Atlas Tercumesi


Selim III, then Sultan of the Ottoman empire, engaged in many reforms and modernizations during his reign, and this 1803 atlas was the first known complete printed atlas in the Muslim world to use European-style cartography. Only 50 copies were printed, and many of these were burned in a warehouse fire during a Janissary uprising of those opposed to Selim’s reforms, so it is also one of the rarest printed atlases.

The lettering is remarkably well done, even by the high standards of the day. Each page was mounted on cloth, rather than paper, to make it more durable.

8This Fantasy Map Of Sarkamand


Photo credit: Robert Altbauer

This map of a mighty capital in the desert, seat of the Padisha, was created in Photoshop and Illustrator by Robert Altbauer. The lettering style suggests Arabic, and the name references the extraordinarily beautiful city Samarkand,located in today’s Uzbekistan.

The design of overlapping circles almost looks like photographs of cellular structures. Altbauer has designed maps for games, television, and fantasy novels.


7An Ancient Mappe Of Fairyland


Photo credit: Library of Congress

This map, created in 1918, depicts an island that shows the locations of dozens of myths, fairy tales, and folklore. The sources are mostly British, but there are also inspirations from Greek and German myths. You can see Oberon’s kingdom from Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Arthur’s tomb, a mountain where rocs build their nests, Red Riding hood’s cottage, Tom Thumb, Monsalvat (the land where the Holy Grail is guarded by the Grail Knights), and Ulysses’s ship.

Sleigh was inspired by many of the artists of the Arts and Crafts movement, especially William Morris, and this shows in not just the subject matter but the delicacy of the colors. 1918 marked the end of World War I, so it’s quite possible that for Sleigh and those who admired the map, this fantasy land in which even the more dangerous creatures, such as dragons, looked peaceful was a welcome escape.

6Duke’s Plan Of New York


Photo credit: British Library

1664 was the year the English captured New York from the Dutch. This map shows several of the original spellings from that time, including Hudson’s River, Longe Isleland, and Mannados. The map was presented to James, the Duke of York, with the expectation that he would name the city after himself.

The design, copied from an earlier Dutch map, blends ornate elements, such as the decorative border and legend, with plenty of empty space depicting land and much of the water. The British ships, added to reinforce that the city became British territory, are drawn so delicately that they emphasize the empty space.



Photo credit: Wikimedia

This map, created in Korea around 1800, is known as a Cheonhado. The term means “complete map of all under Heaven” and shows the mystical Mount Meru in the center. In Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu beliefs, Mount Meru is not just the physical but the spiritual center of the universe.

Other countries, with little regard for their relative sizes or geographical location, orbit China and Mount Meru.


4Yongying County In China


Photo credit: Arthur William

This map was created in China sometime between 1734 and 1779 and shows the river systems of Yongying County in China. Unlike most Western maps, the south is at the top and the north at the bottom.

It was painted on silk, and the labels were pasted on. The gentle curves and muted colors give the map a rather tranquil appearance.

3Leo Belgicus


Photo credit: Famiano Strada

In 1583, Michael Aitzinger drew a map that depicted the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium in the shape of a lion, inspired by the lions that were so common in the region’s heraldry. He called it the Leo Belgicus, and it started a trend for mapmakers. The most famous version is by Claes Janszoon Visscher, from 1611.

2Geological Investigation Of The Alluvial Valley Of The Lower Mississippi River


Photo credit: Harold Fisk

In 1944, Harold Norman Fisk, a geology professor, published this as part of a report for the Army Corps of Engineers. These maps of the changes of the Mississippi River over time look a bit like the undulations of muscle tissue, a bit like ribbon candy, and a bit like abstract art.

The research behind these maps is just as impressive as the maps themselves. Fisk and his team used approximately 16,000 soil samples from various locations around the river and compared them to aerial photographs to establish the old flow patterns.

1Book Of Navigation


Photo credit: UW Green Bay

The Ottoman admiral Piri Reis designed many gorgeous maps, including the collection in his Book of Navigation, published in 1521. The maps show the delicate precision of Ottoman illuminated manuscripts, and the coloring of the land masses (which were far less important to Reis) has an almost playful note.

His first world map, published in 1513, includes both North and South America. Some people believe the section that shows the southern part of South America and the coast of Antarctica are so accurate that it proves humans explored Antarctica long before the historical record indicates. However, the map has enough mistakes (including an annotation that saysthe region is warm) to make it clear that the points that are accurate are far more likely due to good informed guesses based on Reis’s topography skills.

+A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas Of Europe And Asia

In March, 1904, at the beginning of the Russian-Japanese war, student Kisabur Ohara, published this atlas that showed Russia as an octopus trying to strangle all of Asia and much of Europe. Finland, Poland, Crimea, and the Balkans are already dead and represented by skulls, while Turkey, Persia, and Tibet are caught firmly. Each living country is depicted as a person in the country’s typical costume. One of the octopus’s arms is reaching toward Korea and Port Arthur, ready to throttle those, as well.

Previous maps had shown Russia as an octopus reaching greedily across Asia, but this is the first known one to show Europe at risk as well. Even without the text, the map does a remarkable job of portraying Russia as a bestial menace and other countries at risk.

Ann is a researcher, writer, and currently a job hunter. Learn more or see more of her writing.

Before-and-After Pics of California’s Shrinking Salton Sea Shows a Catastrophe in the Making

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George Dvorsky

Before-and-After Pics of California’s Shrinking Salton Sea Shows a Catastrophe in the Making

The largest lake in California is slowly fading away, and that’s bad news for local residents. As the Salton Sea’s water sources dwindle, southern Californians are bracing themselves for toxic dust storms, noxious smells—and disease.

The Salton Sea is massive, but shallow, artificial lake located on the San Andreas Fault, some 125 miles (200 km) southeast of Los Angeles. It was accidentally created in 1905 in an effort to increase water flow into the area. But owing to policy changes in water apportionments, its overall water level has been steadily declining, and is expected to decrease significantly over the next six years. Conservation, drought, and water laws are all contributing to the problem.

Frighteningly, the drought is not only threatening the economic vitality of the region, it’s also poisoning local residents. Over the years, the lake has served as a sump for fertilizer-and pesticide-laden runoff. As the lake shrinks, thousands of previously submerged acres are suddenly becoming exposed. It’s feared that dust storms will carry fine particles over a wide area, spreading toxins and noxious odors, while contributing to diseases such as asthma.

The before-and-after false-color pics shown above were acquired by satellites over a span of three decades. The first was taken on May 31, 1984, the second on June 14, 2015. NASA explains more:

Tim Krantz, an environmental studies professor and Salton Sea expert at the University of Redlands, notes that the most obvious changes have been to the lake’s southern shoreline. Deltas of the New and Alamo rivers are fully exposed in 2015, whereas in 1984 they represented proper “bird-foot” deltas. The deltas were exposed due to a 2.4-meter (8-foot) drop in the lake’s surface elevation since 1984. The lake spans 960 square kilometers (370 square miles), but it is shallow—just 16 meters (52 feet) at its deepest point. This makes it extremely sensitive to even slight reductions of inflow. As a result, vast expanses of the lakebed are easily exposed.

“The changes from 1984 to 2015 are the result of other water conservation activities in the watershed, such as wastewater treatment going online in Mexicali, and lining of the Coachella and All-American diversion canals from the Colorado River,” Krantz said. “These are all good things, but they mean less water in the Salton Sea.”

Areas of agriculture around the lake have changed as well. Healthy plants with active chlorophyll are highly reflective in the near infrared; they appear red in these images. Over 30 years, a greater amount of agricultural land has become brown and fallow, particularly along the southwestern shoreline.

In response to the looming catastrophe, activists, politicians, and water officials have pleaded with the state water board in Sacramento to do something about it, but progress has been slow, if not non-existent.

[ NASA Earth Observatory | LA Times ]

The 10 Most Controversial Miracles

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The 10 Most Controversial Miracles

The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved

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The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved

Many Catholics reveled in the pope’s whirlwind visit to the East Coast of the United States last month. But as the devout return to life as usual, nonreligious Americans may be left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The vast majority of the U.S. population does not belong to the Catholic Church, and a growing percentage of Americans are not affiliated with any organized religion at all, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centers. So the question then becomes, what role does religion play in today’s American society? Perhaps oddly, that question can be answered by a group of people not usually associated with religion: scientists.

Despite the popular belief that science and religion (or science and the supernatural, more generally) don’t quite go hand in hand, scientists have quite a lot to say about this topic — specifically, why such beliefs even exist in the first place.

Chart of survey results.

Who Are American Catholics?
22 Percent of All Americans are Catholic (source: PRRI’s 2014 American Values Atlas)
59 Percent are White Non Hispanics
34 Percent Identify as Hispanic
7 Percent Identify as Mixed-Race or Other
But age makes a difference:
79 percent of older Americans (those over 65) are White Non-Hispanics, versus 40 percent of 18-29 year olds who are White Non Hispanics
Younger Catholics are also on the cusp of being majority Hispanic, with 49 percent of the 18-29 age group identifying as Hispanic.
Church loyalty:
About 52 percent of people who are raised Catholic leave the church, either for a spell or permanently. Of those, only 11 percent call themselves “reverts,” meaning they return to the church.
What do they believe on sexuality? In large part, they disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality.
66 percent believe using contraception is not a sin
54 percent believe living with a romantic partner prior to marriage is not a sin
35 percent believe it is a sin to remarry after a divorce without getting an annulment
44 percent believe it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior
76 percent believe the church should allow parishioners to use birth control
66 percent believe cohabiting Catholics should be allowed to receive communion
62 percent believe Catholics should be able to remarry without receiving an annulment in order to receive communion
46 percent believe the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples:
What do they believe on environment and social justice?
62 percent believe that working to help the poor and needy is essential to what it means to be Catholic
41 percent say they consider it sinful to buy luxuries without also donating to the poor
Only 23 percent say it is a sin to use electricity, gasoline and other forms of energy without concern for their impact on the environment.
Only 29 percent see working to address climate change as essential to what it means to be Catholic to them.

The ‘god faculty’

There are many theories as to how religious thought originated. But two of the most widely cited ideas have to do with how early humans interacted with their natural environment, said Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Picture this: You’re a human being living many thousands of years ago. You’re out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action?

“On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out,” Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have “agency,” or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.)

But in addition to helping humans make rational decisions, HADD may have planted the seeds for religious thought. In addition to attributing agency to lions, for example, humans started attributing agency to things that really didn’t have agency at all. [5 Ways Our Caveman Instincts Get the Best of Us]

“You might think that raindrops aren’t agents,” Clark said. “They can’t act of their own accord. They just fall. And clouds just form; they’re not things that can act. But what human beings have done is to think that clouds are agents. They think [clouds] can act,” Clark said of early humans.

And then humans took things to a whole new level. They started attributing meaning to the actions of things that weren’t really acting of their own accord. For example, they thought raindrops were “acting for a purpose,” Clark said.

Acting for a purpose is the basis for what evolutionary scientists call the Theory of Mind (ToM) — another idea that’s often cited in discussions about the origins of religion. By attributing intention or purpose to the actions of beings that did have agency, like other people, humans stopped simply reacting as quickly as possible to the world around them — they started anticipating what other beings’ actions might be and planning their own actions accordingly. (Being able to sort of get into the mind of another purposeful being is what Theory of Mind is all about.)

ToM was very helpful to early humans. It enabled them to discern other people’s positive and negative intentions (e.g., “Does that person want to mate with me or kill me and steal my food?”), thereby increasing their own chances of survival.

But when people started attributing purpose to the actions of nonactors, like raindrops, ToM took a turn toward the supernatural. [Infographic: Americans’ Beliefs in Paranormal Phenomena]

“The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively,” said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.”Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,”Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.

This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence ofbeings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists. Collectively, some scientists refer to HADD and ToM as the “god faculty,” Clark said.

In fact, human beings haven’t evolved past this way of thinking and making decisions, he added.

“Now, we understand better that the things we thought were agents aren’t agents,” Clark said. “You can be educated out of some of these beliefs, but you can’t be educated out of these cognitive faculties. We all have a hyperactive agency-detecting device. We all have a theory of mind.”

For the good of the group

But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a “group-level adaptation.” Religion is a “kind of glue that holds society together,” Dunbar wrote in “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks” (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups, Dunbar said. He noted that primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system. Dunbar calls these people “freeriders.”

“Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less,” Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, “The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon.” As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs.”

But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive.

Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans’ predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn’t necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science@livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science..

Survey of the Attitudes of American Catholics (Infographic)

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Survey of the Attitudes of American Catholics (Infographic)

The Alaskan Arctic Oil Drilling Controversy Explained (Infographic)

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The Alaskan Arctic Oil Drilling Controversy Explained (Infographic)