Kia ora: I am bereft of thoughts this month and delighted to have contributions from Jeff Hunt and Peter Clemerson. Jeff writes about a past Humanist project helping re-settle Cambodian refugees. Peter shares with us the results of his thesis research towards his Ph D in Evolutionary Psychology. I feel bereft of thought because there is so much for thought to contend with – the suffering in Italy caused by the natural occurrence of an earthquake, the suffering of refugees caused by humanity’s inhumanity, the morass of USA politics, our political morass with child poverty, the Auckland housing crisis, the unethical investments by some Kiwisaver funds. The list goes on and on – is ever there an end?

Monthly meeting: Monday 5 September 6.30 pm

A Warm Welcome to Wellington

Mohammad and Akram, refugees from Iran, have recently arrived in New Zealand. This month’s meeting is an opportunity to welcome them to Wellington. Join us for a fun evening to share slices and snippets of NZ life:- our idioms, our food, our favourite places and music. All welcome. There will be nibbles provided.

All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.

Venue: Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St in the George Room

  •   Member Subscription for 2016: Thank you to members who have renewed membership. Your support is much appreciated and helps lend weight to our campaigns. Visit our website humanist.nz/join if you are either renewing your membership or signing up for the first time.
  •   FREE Film Screening: Tuesday 27 September 8.00 pm Penthouse in Brooklyn, Wellington

A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy & Meaning in a World Without God’

There is no God. Now what? If this is the only life we have, how does that affect how we live our life, how we treat each other, and how we cope with death. As a follow-up to one of Kickstarter’s most successful publishing projects, photographer and filmmaker Chris Johnson introduces us to some of the many voices from his book. In this fascinating documentary — learn the stories behind the book in interviews with some of our greatest thinkers. Join Chris as he explores issues of joy & meaning and travels around the globe meeting people from all walks of life and backgrounds who challenge the false stereotypes of atheists as immoral and evil. From Daniel Dennett and A.C. Grayling, to Julia Sweeney and Robert Llewellyn — learn the various ways many atheists have left religion for a better life filled with love, compassion, hope, and wonder!

Come and enjoy watching this film with other persons with a secular, humanist & rationalist viewpoint.

A Better Life’ will also screen in Napier and Auckland.

  •         Napier: Wednesday 28 September, please contact John Timpson for details 06 877 6678
  •         Auckland: Tuesday 4 October, please contact Peter Harrison for details 021 046 8700

Times and Venues will be advertised on our webpage humanist.nz, on our Facebook page & on abetterlife.nz

  •         2016 AGM October 16 2016: Late Lunch with Guest Speaker @ The Thistle Inn. Mix & Mingle from 11.30 am, AGM @ 12 Noon, followed by lunch 1.00 pm. Further details will be in the October newsletter.
  •         A Thank you from Peter Clemerson:

At a Humanist monthly meeting in 2012 Peter asked for volunteers to assist him in collecting data for his research for a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology at Massey University which he has now completed. Peter requested volunteers to read a series of 12 short stories of 11 lines each on a computer screen and answer four questions after each story. Altogether, 912 people assisted Peter. Peter now wishes to thank his volunteers – “Thank you all! I promised you I would send you a summary of the purpose and results of the research. Here it is.”

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a newish branch of psychology, which seeks to answer the question: ‘Why do we have the psychological attributes that we do have?’ From a Darwinian perspective, the question can be rephrased as ‘How have reproductive advantages been conferred by each of the attributes we have evolved?’ Although people associate Darwin with survival, survival is important only as an essential prerequisite to reproductive success. As far as evolutionary changes are concerned, survival without reproductive success is equivalent to non-survival: Darwinian considerations are all ultimately about relative reproductive success. My research applied the two questions above to the psychological attribute known as cognitive dissonance  CD). This attribute has several facets; (1) we are able to compare a new cognition (a thought expressible in words although not necessarily encountered in words) with what we previously believed to be true, (2) we determine whether they contradict each other or not, and (3) if they do conflict, we feel uncomfortable unless and until we can find a way to reconcile them. As an example, if someone tells you about a credible news article indicating that heroin is not addictive when everything you have ever believed says that it is, you will feel a vague sense of unease or discomfort (CD) until you have found out the truth. Indeed, removing that uncomfortable feeling would be the motivation for further fact-finding. One outcome may be a sceptical dismissal of your informant as unreliable, while another might be to ask to see the article yourself, in case your informant has misread it. Whatever you do, the feeling of discomfort or puzzlement resulting from two contradictory cognitions – heroin is and is not addictive – held in mind simultaneously will motivate you to act.

Some years ago, I realised that there must be two categories of contradictions: those that are adaptive and those that are not. ‘Adaptive’ means pertaining to survival, reproduction and prosocial reputation. The latter is important because Evolutionary Psychology claims that over millions of years we were very dependent for our survival upon mutual assistance. To ensure that we were on the receiving end of other people’s good deeds, important for survival and reproduction, it was crucial to maintain a good reputation for returning favours.

As an example of an adaptive contradiction, imagine a tribal neighbour approaching you while carrying a spear. Is he angry? Cheerful? Resolving your own conflicting thoughts about his state of mind could be relevant to your survival. Resolving conflicting accounts about whether he can swim or not would probably not affect your future.

If the resolution of adaptive contradictions led to enhanced survival and subsequent reproduction, the reproductive benefits of resolution formed a selection pressure. Those who resolved them by getting answers to questions about what was true and what was not, would usually make better decisions than those who did not. They thereby enhanced the likelihood of their genes going into the next generation via their reproductive success. On the other hand, spending effort on resolving non-adaptive contradictions would provide no reproductive benefit and be a waste of energy, a scarce resource in the harsh environments in which humanity evolved. Given this logic, the selection pressure mentioned above could have led us to be more sensitive to adaptive contradictions than non-adaptive ones over thousands of generations. In each generation, those people who were more sensitive to adaptive contradictions would have been marginally more reproductively successful than those who were less so or not at all. Put another way, we would have evolved a bias in our sensitivity to contradictions according to the content of the contradiction. I hypothesised that there exists such a bias and its existence would constitute evidence for this account of the evolution of our capacity for cognitive dissonance.

This evolutionary logic leads to testable predictions, which you helped to test via what is known in experimental psychology as the contradiction paradigm. When people read a story line on a screen and have to press a key to display the next line, the space bar in your case, people hesitate before pressing the key/space bar if the line they have just read contradicts an earlier one. They are a bit puzzled. In my terminology, they are feeling cognitive dissonance and they are aware, perhaps only dimly, that they have read two conflicting statements. The computer was recording the times when you pressed the space bar. By subtraction, it calculated the length of time you spent reading each line of the stories. Hesitations or long response times to lines which contradict earlier ones are interpreted as the contradiction having been noticed. I observed some people grimacing or frowning when they read contradictory lines. Six of the stories you read contained contradictions, line 10 contradicting line 3, and six did not. In those that did, the contradictions were of the two types mentioned already; adaptive and non-adaptive. If the evolutionary logic described above is valid, there should be longer response times on average for adaptive contradictory lines 10s than for non-adaptive ones. Statistically significantly longer response times for adaptive contradictory lines would be evidence for the existence of a bias in our sensitivity to contradictions according to the subject matter. It would also constitute evidence in support of my hypothesis that we developed a capacity for cognitive dissonance because of its reproductive benefits.

Using standard psychological statistical methods, I did find a bias. Line 10s contradicting line 3s in adaptive stories had statistically significantly longer response times than the equivalent non-adaptive ones. The non-adaptive ones were either about socially important issues such as traffic offences or about socially unimportant articles made of paper. Although my hypotheses were validated by the results, there were a few surprises. Male contributors were more sensitive to survival contradictions than female ones and the sensitivities were reversed for reputational ones. The sexes were equally sensitive to reproductive contradictions. I also found that females read slightly faster than males, something that was first proposed back in 1933 but has been disputed since. The reading results were reasonably convincing but the difference is very small.

In summary, the experiments that you participated in did two things. First, they demonstrated that we have evolved a bias in our ability to notice contradictions according to their adaptive relevance. Second, they produced evidence that we evolved our capacity for the feeling of cognitive dissonance, and the inclination to action it gives rise to, in order to enhance our reproductive success. Like other psychological attributes, there is a Darwinian explanation for its existence. As far as I have been able to ascertain from many searches of the relevant scientific literature, these experiments are the first to produce evidence for such an explanation.

I apologise for the length of this article if the amount of detail in it exceeds your degree of interest, but one cannot explain a PhD thesis in three sentences. Thank you very much indeed for your contribution.

Jeff Hunt Reminisces: Humanists, Refugees, Land Lording and Me

Helping Cambodians re-settle in Wellington 30 years ago

In the early 1980s, I was a thirty-year-old with a toddler and an ill wife. I was also a land lord with a basement flat which I liked to keep filled, partly for the money, but also for the social contact and as a social service to provide cheap accommodation for mostly young people saving for a house. When my flat became vacant in 1983, I answered an advertisement in the newspaper asking for accommodation for Cambodian refugees. My reasoning was that new refugees would be unlikely to have many possessions or be demanding or awkward tenants and at the same time, helping people with very little would be satisfying and expand my horizons. How right I was! The decision changed my life and today, I still live with the pleasure and satisfaction that meeting the Humanist Society and the Cambodian families brought.

Details are becoming dim in the memory but I know that Peggy Slater, Jim Dakin and Eileen Bone were prominent in accepting the flat and introducing me to Chuun, Thary, Prida, and Te Phin. I think that Satya must have been born later but I can’t recall the birth so perhaps he arrived as a baby. A very big family for a small two bedroom flat but as I learned of what these people had been through I accepted that it may have seemed like luxury. Thary and Prida were sisters. Survival in circumstances such as they had been through is paramount. Sometimes a dead person’s identity was adopted to create a family link that would allow a person to come to New Zealand. It is years before they dare to use their real name again. How could they be sure that the deception would not be detected and that there would be big trouble and possible deportation. I learned later of another family that took five years off their ages to assist in being accepted for New Zealand. The result was that 30 years later they had to wait another 5 years to receive the old age benefit.

The Cambodian families arrived with very few belongings, no English language and of course a different culture.

The Humanist Society had the matter in hand, social services, basic possessions and training courses and schools were found. Lindley Guzzwell and Jeanne van Gorkom were also active in the refugee programme. Alas, all of these people including some of the refugees are now dead. Younger members still with us include future president Iain Middleton and partner Gaylene and also future president Des Vize who were, and still are, staunch and effective members of Humanism and in Des’s case Rationalism. Rosalie Carey joined both the Wellington Humanists and the refugee team once she had come to Wellington

My earliest recollection of Humanist activity in its own right is talking to Jim Dakin about Humanist principles at Maureen Hoy’s house in Eastbourne. I must have been invited to the summer gathering and gone there to find out more about these folk who sponsor refugees in their spare time.

From that time on, I was deeply involved in both the Humanism Society and Cambodian community. The first family of Chuun and Thary were luckier than some. They were educated and had come to New Zealand fairly early on. Later families had greater difficulty understanding a different culture and had family members mentally and physically damaged by deprivation. For the next several years I had Cambodian families continuously in my downstairs flat, even getting the next generation at one time in Wutee and her partner.

During the mid-eighties, we as Humanists were very conscious that we were a small organisation and sought to expand our membership base. In fact looking back thirty years, it seems like an organisation of giants. We had high quality people working in a number of aspects of Humanism including publications and teaching. The refugee programme was a useful aspect of Humanist endeavour that got us out into the community and gave us a cohesive project. I don’t think we made any converts amongst the Cambodians. The older generation continued to be Buddhist and some at least of the younger generation were seduced by Christians also working in the refugee community and in schools.

Compassion fatigue is a very real thing when helping others and so over the years, Humanist effort was reduced to mostly David McLeod and John Offenberger who persisted with families who came later. I was fortunate that I had made friends of the families and had received help with my son, so my own efforts were changed to visiting families and sharing the needs of the children.

Many refugee families quickly established themselves in their own homes. Chuun’s family bought a house in Johnsonville not far from Onslow College. Their close relatives Heng and Ratha bought a house they still own in Johnsonville near the north end of the shops.

As the refugee families kept arriving the nature of support changed a little. The Humanist effort spread across the families we already knew and helping with relatives that the existing community sponsored.

I was introduced to De Phum and Tai Phan’s family who came to live in my flat. They eventually got a State House in Porirua and I continued to visit and give some support. The older generation have now died but I keep in occasional communication with Vanna and Wutee. Their younger brother Sopear, a contemporary of my own son died recently of a heart problem. Vanna and Wutee are well adapted Kiwis now. Wutee in particular is a successful business woman with four children and close knit family of her own.

With De Phum’s family fairly well settled, I was introduced to Vieng and Loeuth You. Originally, they were housed in a church house in Glenmore Street in Wellington but they saved and struggled their way into their own home in Porirua which they told me with pride recently they have managed to pay off thirty years on! This, despite having six children (two before reaching New Zealand) and never learning English to any useful degree. I am glad that I was part of the practical Humanist approach help to encourage these families into their own homes and set them up for the future.

As the years became decades the next generation have grown to be Kiwis but they have not forgotten, or taken for granted, the people who helped at the start. I have attended several weddings, and unfortunately several funerals. The most significant thing to come out of the refugee programme for me has been the effectiveness of simple love and support. The families which had least on arrival, seem to have achieved most. The next generation is well placed, in terms of happiness, achievement and family cohesiveness compared to any New Zealand family. To be amongst the affection of these Asian/New Zealand families is a very special feeling.

To understand the horrors of war and the situation the Cambodian war refugees came from I recommend the recently published book I Tried not to Cry stories collected and edited by Niborom Young. The first person’s story in this book is of Phalla Chok, who still lives in Porirua and was mostly in the care of Humanists David McLeod and John Offenberger. She is a close relative of Loeuth and Vieng You who I assisted and who lived nearby. r

Jeff was our Web Master for many years and also produced Humanist Outlook, on Radio Access until it was discontinued. Joan McCracken, Jeff ‘s partner, held the role of secretary for a time. Jeff and Joan visited Eileen Bone regularly until her sudden death in 2000. We remember Eileen every year with our Eileen Bone Scholarship awarded to a Year 13 Naenae College student who will be attending Victoria University. Eileen bequeathed funds that have set up the Humanist Charitable Trust. Photos below: 30 Years: A celebration from Cambodia to NZ.r

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Mother, Lane with her children, Vincent, Genavie & Janessa and Lane’s brother Bruce with his nephew ( in foreground) Loeuth, Jeff , Joan & Vieng  on couch.

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Grandfather Loeuth with Jeff & Joan & Grandmother Vieng

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The children enjoying sparklers, bright in the night