Freethought of the Day

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There are 3 entries for this date: E. O. Wilson , Nat Hentoff and Maurice Sendak
E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson

On this date in 1929, Edward Osbourne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. Wilson grew up in Alabama, north Florida and Washington D.C. As a child, he participated in the Boy Scouts and gained a great appreciation for the outdoors. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama, and in 1955 received his Ph.D. at Harvard. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956. Left mostly blinded by a fishing accident as a child, Wilson's research focus has been in the field of myrmecology — the study of ants — which he says he chose because it's easy to look at an ant up close. Wilson has written several books about ants and other social insects, including The Insect Societies (1971) and The Ants (1990), co-written with Bert Holldobler, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. However, Wilson is perhaps best known for his intellectual syntheses, often connecting evolution and biology to ideas from other disciplines. His 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which develops the mathematics of how species evolve in geographically small habitats, is influential in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. In 1975, Wilson published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, which connected ideas about the evolution of the behaviors of social insects with those of other animals, including humans. At the time, the idea that human behavior is genetically influenced was very controversial, and Wilson was publicly attacked as racist; however, the ideas that Wilson first propounded in Sociobiology and later in On Human Nature (1978) spawned the widely-accepted discipline of evolutionary psychology. Wilson's first Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1979 for On Human Nature. Wilson has continued to be influential in the fields of conservation and ecology, as well as entomology, and writes and speaks about a wide range of scientific and intellectual topics.

Wilson's parents were Southern Baptists, though he was also raised by conservative Methodists. He was baptized at age 14. Wilson had abandoned his childhood Christianity before college, and now typically describes himself as a secular humanist. He is fascinated by the questions of the evolution of religion and religious emotions, such as the spiritual impulse in humans and the concept of the sacred. Wilson believes that these emotions and impulses should be used for humanist ends, for example that the environmental movement should work to view nature as in some sense sacred, and as a place with spiritual value within a wholly naturalistic framework. He has been honored by the American Humanist Association twice, in 1982 with the Distinguished Humanist prize and again in 1999 as the Humanist of the Year. In 1990, he was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Science's Crafoord Prize in ecology, considered the field's highest honor (as no such Nobel Prize exists). He has received many awards for writing and achievement as well as honorary degrees over the course of his career. He was awarded the 2007 TED Prize. He lives with his wife, Renee, and has an adult daughter, Cathy. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Harvard.

Photo by Jim Harrison under CC 2.5

“If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.”

—E.O. Wilson to Esquire magazine, Jan. 5, 2009 

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

On this date in 1925, First Amendment devotee Nat Hentoff was born in Boston to Jewish immigrants from Russia. As a freedom fighter who referred to himself as a “Jewish atheist,” he was characterized by a love for rabble rousing. His New York Times obituary told the story of how Hentoff, as a 12-year-old, sat on his outside porch on a street leading to the synagogue and ate a salami sandwich on Yom Kipper, the Jewish day of atonement and fasting. In his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy, Hentoff described that he had done so to experience what it was like to be an outcast. He wrote that despite infuriating his father and getting sick, he enjoyed it. (McFadden, Robert D. “Nat Hentoff, a Writer, a Jazz Critic and Above All a Provocateur, Dies at 91.” The New York Times 7 Jan. 2017: B6)

Hentoff attended Boston Latin, a public school, where he read rapaciously and developed an impassioned ear for jazz musicians. While attending Northeastern University, Hentoff became the editor of a student paper. As a journalist he developed an ardent commitment to uphold the First Amendment. After graduating in 1946 and working for several years at a Boston radio station, Hentoff moved to New York in 1953 and covered jazz music for Down Beat until 1957. In 1958 he started his longtime job as a writer and columnist for The Village Voice, a counterculture weekly paper, where he remained as a columnist for 50 years. Hentoff also had a flourishing freelance career contributing to Esquire, Harper’s, Commonweal, The Reporter and The New York Herald Tribune. He wrote for the New Yorker from 1960 to 1986 and for the Washington Post from 1984 to 2000. Hentoff also lectured at schools and colleges and was part of the faculty at New York University and The New School.

Hentoff wrote over 35 books in his lifetime including The Collected Essays of A. J. Muste (1966), Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism (1970), Blues for Charles Darwin (1982) and Speaking Freely (1997). His writing expressed his left-wing views on issues focal to civil liberties such as censorship, which he ardently opposed, and education reform. He also produced profiles on political and religious leaders, educators and judges. Henoff held some extremely controversial viewpoints throughout his life, one of which being his stance against abortion.

Throughout his lifetime Hentoff received several awards including the National Press Foundation’s award for lifetime achievement in contributions to journalism in 1995. In 2004 Hentoff was the first nonmusician to receive the honor of being named one of six Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts. D. 2017.

“This despicable twelve-year-old atheist is waiting to be stoned. Hoping to be stoned. But not hit. I am, you see, protesting a stoning, or so I will say later that day when my father has discovered how his only son has spent the morning of the holiest day of the year disgracing himself and his father.”

—Hentoff, describing how as a young boy he publically ate a salami sandwich on Yom Kipper in his auto biography Boston Boy: Growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions, 1986

Compiled by Molly Hanson

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak

On this date in 1928, children's book illustrator, writer, and artist Maurice Sendak was born in New York City. Sendak graduated from The Art Students League of New York, a New York City art school. Sendak's career spanned more 50 years. He began to illustrate other author's children's books when he was in his twenties. Throughout his career he illustrated more than 75 books, and wrote more than 20 books. Sendak is best remembered for writing and illustrating Where the Wild Things Are (1963). His other works include In the Night Kitchen (1970), Seven Little Monsters (1977), and Outside Over There (1981). His iconic books and illustrations have spawned movies, stuffed animals and other toys. He received numerous honors for his work including the Caldecott Medal (1964, 1974), the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1983), the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1970), and the Astrid Lindgren Award (2003). Sendak's lifelong partner of 50 years, psychoanalyst Dr. Eugene Glynn, passed away in 2007. D. 2012.

"I'm not unhappy about becoming old. I'm not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me and life is emptied . . . It's harder for us nonbelievers."

——Maurice Sendak, interview with Terry Gross for National Public Radio, Sept. 20, 2011.

Compiled by Sarah Eucalano; Photo by Dylan Armajani, Shutterstock.com

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

If you would like to be placed on the "Daily Freethought" email info@ ffrf.org. To become an FFRF member, click here.


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