Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Evolution of a New American Religion


In America today, a new religion has evolved: the worship of Donald Trump. Many or most of his supporters (or should I say His?) worship Him. They do not merely support Him. They have made Him into the representative of God upon the face of the Earth. Not all Trump supporters do this, but several million of them do. I will explain and give five ways you can tell that, to many Trumpers (His word) it is a new religion.

Religion is an instinct. Everyone has it, though some people (who consider themselves atheists) have psychologically diverted it into a different form. And religion is a universal instinct within the human species: all humans, and only humans, have it. Religion must provide a strong evolutionary advantage, or else it would not pervade the human species.

Religion evolved because it promoted evolutionary fitness of individuals. First, individuals who are members of a religious tribe benefit from the success of that tribe; a tribe whose religion causes them to fiercely fight other tribes, slaughtering them not merely as enemies but as heretics, benefit from the resources they get from the other tribes. Second, leaders of the religious tribe benefit within the tribe because they get more resource and reproductive opportunities. The rest of the tribe reveres them for their spiritual leadership. Today, many charismatic religious leaders get lots of money and sex from their brainwashed followers; this must have happened thousands of years ago also. The genes of the charismatic leader, including the genes for having intense religious experiences, are thus over-represented in the next generation.

Consider this photo, taken in rural Oklahoma in September 2020, in the run-up to a presidential election many of us are nervous about, since Donald Trump has not been very clear about whether he would give up power even if He loses. In this photo, a rich Trumper (a large house is a mile away surrounded by lawn which must take a couple of thousand dollars to mow, which is done frequently) has two flags: an American flag, and a Trump flag, both at the same height. In flag display protocol, the American flag should be highest, the state flag next, and other flags below them. This supporter, first, considers Trump to be equal to the United States in importance; and, second, that the United States has no value apart from Trump.


Here are the five characteristics that make Trumpism a religion:

  1. They believe that everything Trump says is truth. Truth consists of His sayings, just as the Chinese recently considered the words of Mao in the Little Red Book to be Truth. Trump creates Truth as He speaks. Something that may not have been true before He said it becomes true when He says it. Trump cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound but, to His followers, He is omnipotent in this particular way.
  2. Trump is not only omnipotent, but they think that He is, like Jesus, without sin. Every lie He tells, every promise He breaks, every sexual sin, all are holy in the sight of God. The brainwashed followers of many Christian evangelical leaders feel the same way about their evangelists; Trumpers do the same, which makes it a religion.
  3. Trump’s followers know and care nothing about His policies. It is His image, not His substance, that they worship. Many of these followers (not the one in this mansion, but most of the run-down houses I see that fly Trump flags) are poor, and they cannot explain how His policies have made them any richer in the last four years. This is because Trump has no policies. What passes for policies are whatever Trump happens to get mad about on any given day. In this way, Trumpers are like many evangelical Christians, who follow Jesus but never read the Bible and thus have no idea what Jesus said. They are like the followers of the three generations of North Korean dictators.
  4. There is no good-natured humor allowed. Many of us progressives allow ourselves to be ridiculed in a friendly fashion, and even do it ourselves. On my YouTube channel I often make fun of myself. But Trump hates anyone who makes fun of Him. He can’t stop the flood of anti-Trump cartoons, but if He ever gets the chance to silence them, He certainly will. In this sense, Trumpers are like the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France who dared to make fun of Mohammed.
  5. There is no middle ground. You either adore Trump or else you are a heretic. Just look what has happened to moderate Republicans. Just as in the late Middle Ages Catholics hated Protestants more than they hated Muslims, so Trumpers hate free-thinking Republicans more than they hate Democrats. Well, except Hillary, whom Trumpers consider to be the devil incarnate. In my lifetime I have watched the destruction of a middle ground, progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats, a process that Trump has deliberately accelerated.

There are my five reasons. One of my Facebook contacts just wrote, “God is all in all. He will guide Trump.” This is a statement of faith—not in God, but in Trump. Why not just admit that Trump is merely a human being, whether you support Him or oppose Him? Because He has made Himself into a Messiah. Fortunately, not all Trump supporters worship Him—I know some who do not—but enough of them do that America could be in for some severe problems.

Could this turn violent? Might Trumpers get out their guns? I hope not. But some Trumpers are piling up weapons—one of them told me so. And it has happened before, when religion has inspired mass slaughter. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572, Catholics killed thousands of protestant Huguenots in Paris. Then as now, Paris was one of the most civilized cities in the world. This isn’t ancient Babylonians we are talking about here, much less savages. Germany was very civilized when the Nazis arose to power.

If the Trumpers do attempt to grab power (if they lose the election) through violence, they will fail. The armed forces, sworn to defend the Constitution, will not support them. But they can cause a lot of domestic terrorism on the way down.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Listen to the Scientists! A Look Back at Harrison Brown


Harrison Brown was a twentieth-century nuclear chemist who developed some of the most important processes that went into making the bombs that fell on Japan at the end of World War II. His role in ushering in the age of nuclear war bothered him, however, and he became an activist not only to work against nuclear proliferation but one of the leading scientists of his time to analyze the prospects for the human future.


One of the earliest books that faced the ecological challenges of human survival was his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future. Remember that this was more than a decade before the environmental movement began. Starting about 1968, dozens of books, some reasonable, some alarmist, came out claiming that human civilization and industry was going to destroy the world. One of these books, by Gene Marine, was called America the Raped, and the cover picture showed a bulldozer destroying the entire natural world. But Harrison Brown’s book predated the alarmism. On the cover, H. J. Muller, Albert Einstein, and (of course) Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas praised Brown’s book.

Brown took into consideration all the data he could find to make projections about the future. First, about human population. He took a close look at human demography: female survival and childbirth rates, for example. His book was one of the earliest to have population pyramids which are now standard in every text. He considered that birth rates might decrease if contraception was made widely available. But he also shared the view of the Malthusians, among whom was a physicist of whom I had never heard (Sir Charles Galton Darwin, who wrote a book in 1953; guess whom he was descended from), that people will have as many kids as they can unless restrained by law.

Then he considered food production. How much food can we produce? Although neither he nor anyone else actually foresaw the Green Revolution, he did consider technological advances in food production, including the possibility, then new, of large-scale hydroponics. He even considered the possibility that humans could get most of their calories from Chlorella, a single-celled alga that does not need farmland to grow. He said the Earth could support 100 billion people if everyone ate Chlorella, but he knew this would never happen.

He also considered the availability of energy and raw materials for transportation, industry, etc. Nobody knew how much, or how little, coal and oil there was. He said that there was a lot of coal and oil, as well as mineral ores, but that we were rapidly depleting the easily available materials. He made his estimates of mineral availability, even such rare minerals as vanadium, based on the assumption that we will not recycle them. Many modern “conservative” economists also do not believe that recycling is worthwhile. Brown said there is a lot of oil, if you are willing to spend a lot of money to extract it. No more gushers. He could not foresee fracking, but this is what happened: fracking is not cheap. Brown considered biofuels. For example, he said that 10 tons of sugarcane have as much energy as 6 tons of coal, but once again it is hard work to use biofuels. Natural petroleum, he concluded, will be a memory of the distant past.

Considering all the data, Brown made predictions of what the human population of the Earth would be in the future. His predictions were pretty good for 1954, but he underestimated human population growth. He predicted 6.0 billion people by 2025, and 6.7 billion by 2050. But we are, in 2020, rapidly approaching the 8 billion mark.

Overshadowing everything, in 1954, was the real risk of nuclear annihilation, something about which he knew a lot. He considered war to be inevitable. It was “...likely that industrial civilization is doomed to extinction.” The elimination of war, as impossible as it was and is, he considered to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the persistence of civilization. War could, Brown said, destroy civilization, and whatever might emerge in the aftermath would be something very different from civilization as we know it. For example, much of our technical knowledge would be valueless if society collapsed, and would then be forgotten.

Brown said that the United States had a special role to play in the future of the world. “...the destiny of humanity depends upon our decisions and upon our actions. We still possess freedom, our resources, and our knowledge, to stimulate the evolution of a world communtiy within which people are well fed and within which they can lead free, abundant, creative lives. Or we can refuse to take constructive action, in which case man will almost certainly start down the steep incline... Never before in history has so much responsibility been inherited by a group of human beings.” America needed to be a peacemaker. This fantasy is becoming less likely every year.

My conclusion is this. Listen to the scientists! Not to the talking heads paid by corporations, nor to environmental extremists. Listen to the people who analyze and try to understand the data! Listen to the International Panel on Climate Change. And realize that, if the past is any guide, the scientific predictions will be underestimates of the perils we will face, just as Brown’s underestimated our current population by two billion people.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Who Remembers the Threat of Nuclear Holocaust?



Back in 1984, many of us were worried that the election of Ronald Reagan would usher in an era of nuclear conflict. He rattled his sabers and was cheered as a war hero by the conservatives. Then it didn’t happen. Instead, he was open to the overtures of peace from a Soviet Empire that was, we now know, rapidly crumbling.

But back in and before 1984, there was no shortage of books that addressed the existential challenge of nuclear annihilation. One such book was The Caveman and the Bomb, which drew a comparison between the human desire for war and a Neanderthal mentality. It was quite a long and detailed book, but is perhaps best remembered for its cartoons, of which I provide four:

The authors tried to sound upbeat and, in so doing, addressed some fundamental issues. “We can say no to our Neanderthal mentality, to our genes. We are the only creatures on earth who can do this. We have this opportunity because our genes whisper to us, they do not shout…We can be greater than the sum of our genes. If that is our decision, evolution can’t do a thing about it. Making that decision is the supreme test of our humanity…”

It turned out to not be the supreme test of our humanity. As it happened, the Soviet Union simply could not keep up its military expenditures and needed a way to emerge from the arms race without losing too much face. I do not believe that either they or we have become better people as a result.

Today, we may not face an imminent nuclear threat, but the weapons are still there. And Trump, unlike Reagan, is a man who is just unstable, egotistical, and hateful enough that he might goad the other nuclear powers into new confrontations.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Who Remembers Nuclear Winter?


In the early 1980s, a lot of us were worried about what would happen if the United States and the Soviet Union did, in fact, begin a nuclear war. The policy of both the US and USSR was “mutual assured destruction,” the acronym of which was, appropriately, MAD. Both countries enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. And with Ronald Reagan as president, a man who had a reputation for war-mongering and saber-rattling, it seemed like there was no way to avoid the End of the World. Reagan even announced the SDI, or “strategic defense initiative,” as a way to destroy Soviet missiles in Earth orbit before they had a chance to land on our soil. Maybe, then, nuclear war would be something that we could survive: just get out the lemonade and lawn chairs and watch the light show in the sky.

As it turned out, most of Reagan’s statements were saber-rattling. Perestroika and glasnost were the 1980s Soviet terms that reflected Henry Kissinger’s d├ętante, French for relaxation. Both sides should just relax a little. This is what Gorbachev believed, and it led to the crumbling of the Soviet empire before the end of the decade. Nuclear holocaust remains possible, especially as Trump single-handedly pulls out of denuclearization treaties, but nobody seriously expects it, even with a president who makes Reagan look like a flower child.

In the early 1980s, everyone was worried about the direct effects of explosions and radiation. The explosion would kill people for miles around, but the radiation would kill people for hundreds of miles around, especially since by that time the nuclear bombs were far larger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But in the background, a brilliant scientist was thinking about other possible effects. Carl Sagan was a planetary scientist and knew that planetary atmospheres worked as interacting systems. He did some calculations—simple at first then more complex—about how much smoke would enter the atmosphere from the nuclear holocaust. He concluded that there would be enough to plunge the Earth into darkness. The dust would settle, but not before the Earth had frozen beyond any hope of recovery. Ice would be everywhere. By the time the soot absorbed sunlight and melted the snow, life would already have become extinct. Sagan and colleagues supported this view in a famous paper published in Science. It was the Christmas issue—Merry Christmas, everybody! A paper immediately followed it in which many prominent scientists, headed up by the famous eco-alarmist Paul Ehrlich, explained all the ways in which the cold temperatures would cause the collapse of natural ecosystems. Owen Greene and two other writers published a book in Britain, simply titled Nuclear Winter: The Evidence and the Risks, in 1985.

This was also right about the time that events of global cooling were being recognized in the history of the Earth. Three periods of almost total glaciation of the Earth (“Snowball Earth”) were recognized during the Precambrian time, the most recent one ending just before the explosion of multicellular life at the beginning of the Cambrian period. Earth almost became a permanently ice-bound planet on three occasions. This was also a few years after the initial publication of the theory, now universally accepted, that an asteroid hit the Earth 65 million years ago and plunged the Earth into temporary darkness, from which it recovered. This resulted from one asteroid impact; what might have happened from a planetary-scale nuclear war?


The nuclear winter hypothesis was never summarily disproved. However, it slipped gradually from the attention of scientists and the electorate. Even though nuclear winter was based on complex mathematical modeling, the model was not complex enough. It assumed that the smoke would spread uniformly, and the little clear patches would be spots of warmth that would keep the Earth from falling to the low temperatures Sagan had predicted. Also, the oceans would freeze, but not fast enough to prevent them from being a source of heat to the land areas of the Earth. Nuclear winter moved from being a dead certainty (really dead) to being a possibility. Meanwhile, nuclear war itself became less and less likely.

This is why nobody talks much about nuclear winter anymore. But it does illustrate one important point. In trying to predict the (catastrophic) future, we should think not only about the direct effects (e.g. blasts and radiation) but the indirect ones as well. In estimating the likely effects of global warming, we need to think not only about the warming but the indirect ecosystem effects.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Destroying the Frontier and Native Americans: America in 1700-1900


Some people, unfortunately including some major environmentalists, consider the “westward expansion” of white settlers inevitable. After all, they needed the land for farming, to feed hungry mouths, not just their own but to ship back east to feed hungry mouths in the cities. Native Americans were not using the land efficiently, in their view, so the land had to be expropriated (i.e., stolen) from them. This was certainly the justification that people such as John Sevier used to justify taking Cherokee land to form the Watauga settlement.


But there is more to the story. American farmers were careless of the land they farmed. They allowed soil erosion, precisely because they knew they could always move west and get some more land, as soon as the Natives were cleared off of it. Benjamin Franklin said that Americans were bad farmers because they had so much land. And Thomas Jefferson said that “it is cheaper for Americans to buy new land than to manure the old.”


What do we conclude from this? The westward expansion of white farmers was largely unnecessary. If they had taken care of their land, they could have kept using the land they had already forced the Natives off of. The devastation of Native communities by white settlers was largely unnecessary even for the white settlers. They preferred to kill Indians than to be good stewards of their own land.


This provides an astonishingly different view of American history than you will find in most textbooks. These texts may condemn white genocide of Native communities, but they (erroneously) claim that the expansion was necessary to feed White America.


Monday, August 17, 2020

Scientific (and Other) Insights from a Novelist

E. L. Doctorow, who died in 2015, was one of the most significant American novelists. Several of his books were made into movies. City of God was not one of them. It did not really have a plot that one could follow. It was the convergence of numerous story lines, several of them within the minds of characters whom I never quite identified. But City of God was an astounding book. As a scientist, I was amazed at how beautiful and poetic (without sacrificing accuracy) Doctorow was when he wrote about everything from cosmology to ants. And, of course, about evolution. This is an intellectually challenging book. I recommend it to my fellow scientists. The book is thick with theology, which it neither embraces nor hates.

I just want to mention some examples. Unlike most people in the arts, Doctorow understood how evolution works. This includes cultural evolution, a process that is very similar to biological evolution except that it uses memes (ideas) rather than genes. Memes live in human minds, and spread from one human mind to another; their fitness consists not only of how many minds they live in, but how effective they are at getting those minds to spread them to other minds. Memes can have a life of their own. Doctorow’s example was movies. Movies propagate themselves; they are a malign life form. He speculated that maybe movies came to Earth about a hundred years ago, forced us to create them. He called them a tapeworm in the planetary guts. I know it sounds strange to us; we believe that we make movies and decide to watch them. But what if they are manipulating us? This is the discombobulating aspect of cultural evolution; ideas and cultural creations can parasitize us. A current example, which Doctorow did not live to see, is how extremely violent ideas can propagate from one conservative mind to another, turning otherwise nice people into people who are a hair-trigger away from killing you.

He also wrote that “…whatever condition God provides, some sort of creature will invent itself to live in it.” (Invent itself is a figure of speech.) This is a fundamental understanding of where biodiversity came from and why. Evolution is not a stepladder toward greater complexity, as both its detractors and supporters often depict it; it is the generation of opportunists that fill previously empty resources spaces, whether deep oceans or minds.


I previously wrote about how white people, in general, carry a burden of guilt for oppressing darker races, and we whites (or almost-whites) need to take extra steps to prove that we, individually, have broken from our sordid heritage. Some cultural groups have more of a burden than others. Doctorow wrote a lot about the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jews, using a little-known example from Lithuania. Doctorow wrote that the Germans “bent the Jews to the shape of their hatred.” They committed any and all atrocities that they could imagine. They even boarded up Jewish hospitals and set them on fire, with patients and staff in side. It was an offense punishable by death for the people of the countries they conquered to keep a record of their brutalities, much less resist them. A major plot within City of God is the search for a box with a diary in it of what the Nazis did in Lithuania.


I think the German people had, and continue to have, a heavy burden to prove to the world that they are no longer Nazis, and that they are as far away from being Nazis as anyone could be. They have repented, and they need to keep showing the world over and over that they have repented. Everyone has to be nice; the Germans have to be extremely nice. And they are doing this. Germany is, today, one of the least racist countries, and one of the most positive forces for good in the world. They are doing penance for their Nazi past. If you want to find Nazis, you are more likely to find them in America, or France, or Austria. Now, if only the modern descendants and defenders of the Confederacy would do penance! It would make the United States a much better place not just for the former slaves, but for white people as well. Germany outgrew its Nazis; can conservative America outgrow its celebration of slavery?


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

An Early and Amazing Scientific Insight

I found something interesting when I looked through my old copy of Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It was about classical Greek science. As strange as it may seem, at the time, many philosophers thought that air did not exist. It was just space. I am unsure how they explained wind, but they must have had some confabulation to make the wind fit into their worldview.

But the philosopher Empedocles came up with an easy demonstration that air was something, rather than nothing. He used a clepsydra, or water clock to prove it. The water dripped down at a steady rate, and was replaced by air at the top. But if air is not allowed to enter the top, the water will not drip. You can see the same phenomenon if you suck liquid into a straw, then close off the top of the straw, the fluid will not drip out. If the air was nothing, then this could not happen.

There are, all around us, many simple ways to test scientific hypotheses. When I wrote my book, Scientifically Thinking (see my website), I had not thought of this particular example. But you can read about lots of others in my book. Science is just, as Huxley said, organized common sense.