Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New Wine in Old Wineskins

In their 1981 book The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch and John B. Cobb wrote, “It is remarkable how much new wine we can put into old wineskins.” Making reference to the metaphor used by Jesus, they meant that humans have shown limitless creativity when it comes to cramming new discoveries into old world views.

This book, rather tedious and not much read today, a theologian and a biologist joined forces to examine how a spiritual view of life—not a view based on religious doctrine, but on spiritual sensitivity—might transform both religion and science. I’m afraid I missed most of their points, even when I re-read the marginalia I wrote back when I originally read it. But I want to share a couple of insights that these authors presented.

One of these ideas, which sounds like something from the writings of Ernst Mayr, is that it was not so much the idea of evolution by which science changed our view of the world as it was population biology. In the earliest days of science, the “balance of nature” view prevailed. In this view, providence maintained populations and species by creating them with different birth rates. Balance was maintained because prey reproduced rapidly and predators reproduced slowly. This was a view expressed by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Today we understand that there is a struggle for existence, as Darwin called it, and that the rapid reproductive rate of many prey species has evolved as a response to predators. That is, from the pre-Darwinian view, Darwin not only disrupted belief in the orderly realm of supernatural creation by saying that life evolved, but he upset belief in the balance of nature by writing chapter 3 of the Origin: The Struggle for Existence. Darwin’s opponents tried and failed to put new ideas, about the struggle for existence, into old balance-of-nature world view.

Another example is one that remains with us today: the idea of limitless growth. We talk as if we believe that the world economy, and the economy of each country, should grow forever without limit. The alternative gets labeled “stagnation” rather than “equilibrium.” But, as Birch and Cobb pointed out, nobody really believes this. We all know we live on a planet of limited resources. In some cases technology can raise the limits, as with breeding and the invention of fertilizers that boosted crop production. But we all know that we have to make the transition to a sustainable economy—as a whole planet, and as separate countries. The consequences are sobering: the economic and political leaders of the world are lying to us and they know it. And we progressives play right along with it when we say that a sustainable economy, based on solar energy, will continue to allow unlimited growth. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.

The old wineskin of the balance of nature was born from a view of the Earth as a peaceable garden, like Gilbert White’s garden (The Natural History of Selbourne), and the old wineskin of unlimited growth was born from the period when empires were expanding. Empires could expand only because the cultures with powerful military forces conquered and usually killed the people who had less military strength. We need new wineskins (new concepts) in our world. Actually, they are no longer new, but as 2018 begins, we find that they remain largely unaccepted.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Shift in the World

It may not seem like the most important news of recent times, but I believe that Trump’s recent declaration that countries with dark people are “shithole nations” marks a major shift in the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world—not just with the countries that Trump insulted, but also with our European allies. As of this writing, Trump has refused to apologize for his words. (He admits insulting other countries, and only denies using the word shit.) He never apologizes for anything. He just blames Hillary for everything he says.

No longer does the United States, embodied now in the figure of Trump, oppose only its enemies such as North Korea or its economic rivals such as China. Trump, who insists that he is a “very stable genius,” has made it clear that he hates every country that is not pure white. Clearly, the United States no longer wants other countries as friends. We Americans want them to either hate us or to fear us or both.

It is not just Trump. The entire Republican Party, even if not completely sharing Trump’s sentiments, has supported him. America elected him, and knew what kind of person he was when doing so.

The majority non-white countries of the world have been pushed away from the table of friendship with America. Naturally, they will turn to one another for cooperation. And the majority-white European countries such as France and Germany must be perfectly ready to form coalitions with these countries. Perhaps even more importantly, when the United States insults most of the world, the Russians and Chinese will say, “Come and join with us, make special trade arrangements with us, at least we will not insult you.”

I do not mean the other countries of the world will become military enemies of America. But, starting now, and increasingly with time, they will consult with each other but only negotiate with the United States. It is quite clear to them that there is no point in talking with America except from a position of their own solidarity and power. We do not need to be at war with the other countries of the world in order to be overpowered by them.

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s classic novel The Human Factor, about a British double-agent who defects to the Soviet Union. But this man was not a communist. He thought communism was evil. Why, then, did he do it? He did it because, when he was a representative of the British government in South Africa, he fell in love with an African woman. In South Africa, love between blacks and whites was illegal. He had to escape from South Africa in order to marry the woman. The only people who were willing to help him escape were the communists, and in gratitude to them for this help—not because he agreed with their politics—he became a double agent. (Leave it to Graham Greene to make a spy novel into an empathetic exploration of the human spirit.)

In a similar fashion, the countries that will begin to form an alliance against America—whether a few or many or all other countries—do not necessarily disagree with democracy nor do they necessarily agree with Russia or China. They will do it primarily because America hates them.

I imagine a future in which the other countries of the world form a new version of the United Nations, one in which America is not invited to participate. As I have so often said in this evolution blog, human altruism has been the greatest achievement of evolution. It will continue into the future, but the form in which it continues may be as mutual aid among countries who have had their fill of American hatred and arrogance.

And I think that future historians will look back and see that this shift started to take organized form in early 2018.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Welcome Again!

I began this blog in late 2009. For those of you who have begun reading this blog more recently, I would like to continue summarizing some of the previous entries. The first entry for 2017 summarized some of the 2009 and 2010 entries..

I now review some entries from 2011. Please check them out!

  • January12, 2011. Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Three. Goldilocks’s Earth. A continued overview of the ways in which Earth got lucky in its evolution.
  • January19, 2011. Parasite Load. Financial corporations are parasitic upon us the same way that parasites can build up to deadly levels on a host.
  • Starting on February 11, 2011, I posted four entries called The Evolved Capacity for Evil, all based on Barbara Oakley’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.
  • Starting on March 14, 2011, and through April 16, I posted a series of eight reports, My Fun Creationist Weekend, about the weird things I learned from visiting local creationist museums: The Creationist Museum in Rural Oklahoma; Noah’s Ark! Wow!; Into the Land of the Dinosaur Preacher; The Lost Paradise of Carl Baugh; Mysteries of the Cretaceous World at the Baugh Museum; Lies and Damned Lies at the Creationist Museum; The Ghost of Marlyn Clark; and a final instalment.
  • April 26,2011. Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Ples—Your Cabin is Number 10,587,282A. Where would human evolutionary ancestors have fit on the Ark—in the animal pens, or in a cabin?
  • I posted two entries, the first on May 13, 2011, about John Avise’s book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design.
  • Starting on May 27, 2011, I posted a series of four essays that remain even now one of the most extensive critical reviews of the Near Death Experience and how it is an internally-generated experience by the victim rather than a vision into the afterlife. Yes, I present the evidence. I really wanted to believe there is an afterlife, I still do, but my arguments remain unanswered. I also speculate about how it could have evolved.
  • If you want to read about the meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution at the University of Oklahoma, I have a series of entries starting June 22, 2011.
  • On August 19, 2011, I posted an essay, What Rick Perry Thinks about Science, which I assumed would be part of the dustbin of history by 2018, but sadly it is not.
  • Starting on September 1, 2011, I posted a series of brief excerpts from my book, published the next year by Prometheus Books, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World. I think you would enjoy the book, still available for purchase, but alternatively you can check out the essays I posted from it. The first essay is Hurry up and Wait, about how evolution is sometimes fast and sometimes slow.
  • Starting on October 7, 2011, I published a series of five essays called Dinosaur Adventure, my first visit to the Paluxy River with Glen Kuban. This is the set of dinosaur trackways that creationists claim include human footprints. But there are a lot of things to learn from them besides just the tired old conclusion that creationists are wrong. See the photos!
  • On November 10, 2011, I posted an essay, Darwin Has a Sense of Humour. Did you know there was a really funny passage in The Descent of Man? Check it out.

I would like to call attention to an entry I posted on May 24, 2011, about altruism, and how it is fundamental to our human species. Let me repost a brief passage from it:

“On a news program on NPR, one of [the richest people in America] called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.”

I plan to continue the work I started in 2009 as long as I can. Happy New Year to you, too!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Science and Humanities in the Writing of Lucretius

I think most of us realize that the human mind embraces all of reality, not just scientific or artistic reality. Science and the arts (which includes philosophy and writing) are two ways of approaching the same reality.

The Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote a long poem called De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things. This was back when philosophy was the pursuit of all knowledge, and that is pretty much what Lucretius had in mind in writing this work. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers have the reputation—a reputation I have often propagated—of imagining the way the universe ought to be, rather than finding out what it is really like. It took the advent of science to reveal reality. But Lucretius did two of the most important things that scientists do: he was observant, and he tested hypotheses about what he saw. He was extremely limited in what he could see, but he did the best he could.

Lucretius could not see atoms. But he believed that everything was made out of them. He called them by such terms as “primal bodies” and “seeds.” He left to Democritus the distinction of inventing the word “atom,” which means “indivisible.” You cannot see them, but there are a lot of things you cannot see: the wind, scents, heat, cold, evaporation, to name a few. He included both matter and energy as primal bodies, just as we talk about atoms, electrons, and photons. He hypothesized that invisible air consists of primal bodies that are always moving and bouncing. He then tests this hypothesis: How do we know this? A shaft of light shows motes of dust moving; there must be matter pushing them around. Thus, starting with the invisible world of atoms, he moves to hypotheses that anyone can test just by looking at the world around them and thinking about it.

Lucretius speculated about what these primal bodies were like. For one thing, they do not have color. How did he test this hypothesis? If primal bodies did have color, they could not change color, as when a dark sea becomes foamy. It is changes in the arrangements of primal bodies that change the colors of things. One may question the way he tested the hypothesis that atoms do not have color, but he tried.

And matter, said Lucretius, is eternal. Matter cannot vanish. If it could, then by now it would all be gone. In this simple observation is a primitive version of a scientific hypothesis. Instead, Lucretius said, the death of one thing becomes the birth of something else. Things grow, and things decompose, as primal bodies enter new combinations and arrangements. In this way, nonliving matter can become living matter. He gave examples. One of them, worms from mud, was wrong; but he also said that, in terms of matter, grass becomes cow, cow becomes human, and humans become food for vultures. The world is built of primal bodies as sentences are from words and words from letters. From a few letters, as from a few kinds of primal bodies, diversity emerges.

Furthermore, Lucretius said that there are no miracles that make matter and organisms pop into or out of existence. How do we know this? We know this because, if such things ever happened, surely we would have noticed them. Why don’t we see humans popping into existence in the sea, or fish on land? Because they come from pre-existing matter. Once again, this is a primitive kind of hypothesis-testing, regarding things that seem perfectly obvious to us but may not have been to ancient thinkers.

Lucretius applied some of his best hypothesis-testing to religious assumptions. Does the body have a soul? Even today people assume this is merely a matter of faith. But Lucretius made it into a testable hypothesis. If the soul could leave the body, then it would, moving from high concentration to low, leaving a cold dead hulk behind. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the soul. The soul grows then degenerates long with the body. His evidence? When the body is sick, the soul suffers also. People rave or faint when their bodies are ill. When the body gets drunk, so does the soul. The soul, not just the body, can be cured by medicines. Just as a nose will rot if cut off from the body, so will the soul; it must be part of the body. If the soul is immortal, why is it, Lucretius asks, that people are frightened while dying? In fact, why does a soul fear death? And how do they get into human bodies? Do souls wait around for the chance to jump into fetuses? And if our minds are souls, why do we forget things? And why do we assume that souls, like bodies, have five senses? Finally, if the soul is a separate and eternal thing, why do we not remember events that occur before our births? “Look back once more and see how all the lapse of everlasting time before our birth was naught to us.” And so will be the time after our deaths, says Lucretius. If souls are separate from bodies, then why don’t souls and bodies once in a while mismatch? Why don’t you have doves with hawk souls or hawks with dove souls, that is, why don’t doves ever chase hawks? Why are there no animals with human intelligence? You’d expect that a human soul would once in a while end up in an animal. Two thousand years ago Lucretius was applying critical thinking to questions that many people still approach with fuzzy thinking.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

We Can Do It but We Won't

I am talking about lifting the masses of the world’s poor out of desperation and into a decent life. We can do it. It is autocatalytic: once some people have begun to rise, they can assist us in lifting others. This is already happening in some places where it has been encouraged, places in which the rich overlords have not prevented it. Humankind can rise if it is not oppressed. The Old Testament prophets railed against those who would grind the face of the poor into the dust. This is why they are poor: it is not because they are lazy, but because rich people oppress them. (There are, of course, a few lazy ones, but this is not usually the case.)

One of the most pressing needs is to control diseases such as malaria and intestinal diseases. These diseases thrive in, and reinforce, a spiral of poverty. Poor people with diseases cannot afford medical care, not even in America, and this only allows the diseases to spread more. The economic burden is multidimensional.

  • First, there is the cost of the medical care itself.
  • Second, there is the cost of people not being able to work. This is a cost to all of society, not just to the direct victim.
  • Third, the parasites themselves, living in people with chronic diseases, consume a lot of the nutrients in the food that the people eat. If someone is full of worms, like the dissident who escaped from North Korea a couple of weeks ago, the worms are using up calories and nutrients.
  • Fourth, and this is one I never thought of until I read about it in something that Lewis Thomas wrote, is that the food that feeds the parasites represents a substantial portion of the agricultural output of any nation that has a lot of poor sick people. Lewis Thomas said that fully twenty percent of the food produced by countries with chronic malaria goes to feed the malaria parasites.

The spiral of sickness in poor societies is reinforced by all four of the above forces. To help poor people escape from sickness, especially the mild chronic sicknesses that do not kill them but keep them torpid all of their lives, will help their lives not only directly, but indirectly by improving the entire economy of their nations.

For nations as for individuals, health is a good investment. Will we help poor countries to achieve this investment?

Lewis Thomas said, “The idea that all men and women are brothers and sisters is not a transient cultural notion, not a slogan made up to make us feel warm and comfortable inside. It is a biological imperative.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump and Andrew Jackson

Trump’s Republican worshipers are hostile toward immigrants—though they claim not to be; they welcome even Muslims, so long as they are from countries in which Trump has business investments. But Trump is himself a pure-white descendant of people who immigrated from Europe within the last two centuries. He is of pure immigrant ethnicity.

And then there are the Native Americans. I can just hear full-blood or mostly full-blood Native Americans telling Trump, “Get out of our land and go back home.”

White Americans have always considered themselves the true owners of North America. And none was more convinced of this than President Andrew Jackson. It was his direct action that took all of the tribal lands from the Cherokees, even though the Supreme Court ruled that he could not legally do so. He did it anyway. And he ordered the Army to force the Cherokees to move. General Winfield Scott obeyed Jackson’s orders, and rounded up the Cherokees by force and put them in a stockade, trapped with wastes and disease and malnourishment. Then he forced them to travel, many of them on foot, through the fierce winter of 1839 to what is now Oklahoma. That is how my great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit (later Armstrong) and her little girl Minerva, my great-great grandmother, came to Oklahoma. General Scott hated to do this, and kept apologizing to the Cherokees, and they understood that he was simply following orders. I’m not sure that makes it right, but I do not hate General Scott. I do, however, hate Andrew Jackson, who broke the law in order to grab all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi.

Might Trump do anything like this? Might he believe that Native Americans, while not immigrants, are lesser citizens than whites? (Many Native tribes did not receive American citizenship until 1926, sixty years after black people did.) Might he decide to expropriate tribal lands today? Maybe the Supreme Court would stop him? It didn’t stop Jackson.

But, of course, Trump is not the same as Jackson. Or is he? In January, Trump ordered a portrait of Andrew Jackson to be hung in the Oval Office. Okay, okay, Trump, we get the message. I guess us Cherokees had better get ready to move…where? There’s no place left, unless France will take us. Okay, Chief Baker, start learning French, so you can ask the French government, “Est-ce que nous pourrions nous démenager en France?”

And I decided to let Trump know about this. Of course, nobody will ever read this message that I submitted to the White House website but here it is anyway.

“I am a member of the Cherokee tribe. Don’t scoff at me because I am not as white as you are. My tribal tradition reveres the Earth rather than treating it as a conquered mass of resources. And we Cherokees are a conquered nation. Even though the Supreme Court of the United States sided with us, President Andrew Jackson illegally captured our tribe and sent it on the Trail of Tears. Ever heard of this? Andrew Jackson defied the Constitution. But you chose his portrait to hang in the Oval Office. I assume you will be doing more of the same, taking control of our tribal lands today and giving them to your friends? How proud you must be of the genocide of Native American tribes, only one of which was my Cherokee tribe at the hands of your hero, Andrew Jackson.”

Just this past week, at a ceremony intended to honor the last surviving Navaho code-talkers from World War Two (they communicated in Navaho, which was more incomprehensible to our enemies than any code could be), Trump had to put in a little joke about Pocahontas. While he may not have intended offense, he obviously did not try to avoid giving offense. In the photo, you will see the portrait of Andrew Jackson just behind the honorees. What an ironic photo!

Trump celebrates an historical figure who is a hero only to white Americans.

Monday, November 20, 2017

And Now for Some Fake News, Part Two.

I also wrote this one on September 14, 2016.

Prominent Scholar Endorses Trump

Dr. Nikolai Smerdyakov, director of the Karamazov Institute of Scholarly Studies in Prague (a town in central Oklahoma), and one of the most famous scholars of scholarship, today endorsed Donald Trump for President.

“Never in my lifetime,” said Dr. Smerdyakov (who has a Ph.D. from Trump University), “has a presidential campaign been so focused on the factual assessment of important issues. And it is Donald Trump who has kept attention focused on these issues. In all previous campaigns, candidates have talked endlessly about things such as the economy, the environment, race relations, and international relations, which are clearly irrelevant to American national interests in any possible future scenario.

“Instead,” continued Smerdyakov, “Trump has kept America focused on the most important issue: building a wall all along the entire Mexican border. We already have a gigantic fence along the Mexican border, and it has not been very effective. To build a truly effective wall is a challenge for a new generation of engineers: to build a wall so tall and so sturdy, and with an abuttment so deep, that no human being could ever cross it. Not even sending a man to the moon entailed such a design challenge. You want investment in science and technology? Well, here it is!

“The main way that the wall will stop the flow of Mexicans into America,” continued Smerdyakov, “is to make them not want to come. We need another recession and we need it now. If nobody can hire them, then they won’t come. That’s what happened in 2008. No new houses or apartments being built, no jobs for Mexican roofers. Houses abandoned? No lawns to mow. And if spending a trillion American dollars on the wall, or spending a trillion dollars to force Mexico to pay for it, won’t bring on a recession, what will?

“The major result of Trump’s policies,” continued Smerdyakov, “Will be a massive brain drain from America into other countries of the world, so we need the wall to keep Americans in as well as to keep Mexicans out.” When reporters pointed out that most brainy Americans would flee to Canada, Smerdyakov admitted, “Then we will have to build a wall along the Canadian border too. I hadn’t thought of that.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already invited Americans to come to Canada if Trump is elected.

“An added benefit of the wall,” concluded Smerdyakov, quickly recovering, “is that it would block the wind and put all those environmentalist wind generators out of commission. It would also make birds and monarch butterflies take alternative migration routes. But in my scholarly opinion, a good conservative America doesn’t need liberal birds and butterflies crossing our sacred territory.

“And the list goes on,” Smerdyakov continued. “The Apollo program gave us artificial orange juice with artificial pulp. The Mexican Wall program will undoubtedly be able to give us artificial tamales with artificial meat. The market for that will be huge!”

When asked to comment on how America could build the Mexican wall if the scientists and engineers flee to Canada, Europe, and Mexico, Smerdyakov declined to comment.