Archive for February, 2019

The truth about vaccines, autism, measles, and other illnesses

February 26, 2019

The left derides the right for science denialism, on evolution and climate change. But many on the left have their own science blind spots, on GM foods and vaccination.

The anti-vax movement is based on junk science. The fraudulent study that started the whole controversy, by Andrew Wakefield, supposedly linking vaccines and autism, has been totally debunked. The true causes of autism remain debatable, but in the wake of Wakefield there have been numerous (genuine) scientific studies, and now at least one thing can be ruled out with certainty: vaccination.

“But my kid became autistic right after vaccination” — we hear this a lot. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which, therefore because of which) is a logic fallacy. One thing may follow another with no causal link. Kids are typically scheduled for vaccinations at right around the same age that autism first shows up. It’s just coincidence.

Anti-vaxers throw up a flurry of other allegations of harm, and keep insisting science hasn’t answered them. Not so. All such claims have been conclusively refuted. True, it’s possible to have a bad reaction to any injection, but with vaccination such cases are so extremely rare that all the fearmongering is totally disproportionate. The fundamental safety of vaccines is proven beyond any rational doubt.

I heard it reported that parents objecting to vaccination actually tend to be smarter than average. Proving you can be too smart for your own good. Tom Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise shows education often leads people to overrate their own knowledge, making them confident to just reject conventional medical science. They make the mistake of deferring instead to a movement that’s rooted in a mindset of hostility toward elites and experts of all stripes, and receptiveness to conspiracy theories, ready to believe big pharma, the medical establishment, and of course the government, all promote vaccination for evil purposes. People go online and find all this nonsense, and it fits with their pre-existing mindset, so they become impervious to the facts.

Still, we’re told this is a free country and people should be allowed to make these decisions for themselves and their own children. Such pleas resonate with my libertarian instincts; I don’t like government telling us what to do. But the vaccination issue isn’t so simple. Children are unable to choose for themselves. While parents are free to raise kids as they see fit, we don’t allow child abuse. And the law steps in, rightly, when Christian Scientists for example want to deny their kids needed medical treatment.

The same principle should apply to vaccination. Indeed, more so — because parental decisions here don’t just affect their own kids. When a high enough share of a population is vaccinated, a disease is blocked from propagating, so even the unvaccinated are safe. It’s called “herd immunity.” But with enough unvaccinated available victims, the disease can get a toehold and spread. Vaccinated people are still safe, but not babies too young for vaccination, and people who can’t be vaccinated, for various legitimate medical reasons.

Our herd immunities are now in fact being broken by the widespread refusal of vaccination. Thus dangerous illnesses, like whooping cough and measles, that had been virtually eradicated, are making a big comeback, with sharply rising infection rates.

This is a serious public health issue, and for once the solution is simple. Vaccination must be mandatory, absent valid medical reasons. Opt-outs on religious or “philosophical” grounds should be ended. There are no arguably legitimate religious or other doctrines that could justify refusal to vaccinate. These are just pretexts by people suckered by the pseudo-scientific anti-vax campaign.

We all should be free to do as we please, as long as it harms no others. The freedoms that matter are living as one chooses, and self-expression. Requiring vaccination does not violate these freedoms in a meaningful way; while refusing it does harm others. While you might argue that you have a right against unwanted injections, they are a far less drastic impingement upon personal freedom than is quarantining people with contagious illnesses. Their personal freedom is surely trumped by society’s right to protect others from disease.

To anti-vaxers, the minuscule risk from vaccination may seem larger than the risk from illnesses like whooping cough. That’s only because vaccination had practically eradicated those diseases. Anti-vaxers are getting a free ride from the herd immunity conferred by the vaccination of others. Anti-vax parents act as though only their kids matter, other kids and the herd immunity do not. Where is the social solidarity? Doing something because it’s good for all of us together?

Vaccination is a fantastic accomplishment of humankind, conquering the dread specters of so many diseases that afflicted life, and brought early death, throughout most of history. If you want to shout from the rooftops arguing that vaccination is a devil’s plot, you should have a right to do so. As long as you’re vaccinated.

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — a novel of identity

February 22, 2019

Min Jin Lee

I read this 2017 novel for a book group. A nice thing about such groups is exposure to rewarding reads you’d never otherwise pick up.

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Sunja is born there around 1916. Her mother subsists running a humble boarding house. Teenaged Sunja is pursued, and impregnated, by businessman Koh Hansu. She vaguely expects marriage; but surprise surprise, he already has a wife back in Japan.

Then an ethereal young Korean Christian minister, Isak, rescues Sunja by marrying her. They relocate to Japan, where he has a posting waiting, and live with his brother and sister-in-law. The child is named Noa; later Isak and Sunja have their own son, Mozasu. (Their names are derived from Noah and Moses.) Both eventually wind up running pachinko parlors; pachinko is a pinball-like game very popular in Japan.

But the book’s main focus is on Korean identity in a Japanese culture that despises Koreans. They are stereotyped negatively and suffer systematic discrimination (despite the impossibility of identifying Koreans by appearance). Japan’s forcing many thousands of Korean women into brothels for soldiers during WWII is well known. Japan (unlike Germany) has been recalcitrant on repentance for this and other crimes.

The novel barely mentions those “comfort women,” but describes much other mistreatment suffered by Koreans. Isak is jailed, suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Emperor, and dies from his horrible ordeal.

Koreans living in Japan remain distinctly second-class citizens — if allowed citizenship at all, after generations of residence. Mozasu’s son, in 1989, works there for an investment bank, until he’s screwed over because he’s Korean.

But what really prompts me to write is Noa’s story. (BIG SPOILER ALERT) He didn’t know Koh Hansu was his real father. Koh reappears, now quite wealthy, as Noa’s benefactor, financing his much coveted university education. Noa and his mother Sunja are resistent, but accept Koh’s largesse. But then Noa’s girlfriend meets Koh, sees the resemblance, and taunts Noa with the obvious. Also that Koh must be a yakuza— a gangster.*

These revelations crush Noa. Cursing what his mother did, he runs away to start a new life, cutting all ties to his family, and starting his own new one, with a wife and children (and passing as Japanese). He sends Koh money to repay what he’d received. He also sends Sunja money but never divulges contact information. For sixteen years.

Finally Koh locates Noa, now 45, and Sunja goes to him, in his office. The reunion is difficult but doesn’t go too badly. Noa promises to come visit her. Then he shoots himself.

He had thought he’d escaped his parentage, but now must have realized he could not. And he could not live with that.

Koh was indeed a gangster. A nasty piece of work, as revealed in only a few glimpses. But as far as Sunja’s family knew, he was just a “businessman.” Noa’s girlfriend could not have known the truth about Koh, nor could Noa, it was just an unsubstantiated suspicion. Perhaps Noa should have probed further before shooting himself.

Or perhaps that’s nitpicking. The real issue here is the heart of human identity. Noah felt himself irremediably contaminated. He had bad blood.

This idea of “bad blood” reverberates throughout human history. The sins of the father visited upon the sons. How many people have indeed been punished for crimes or derelictions (real or just imagined) by forebears?

It’s the heart of racism. The notion that all members of some group are birds of a feather, sharing some (stereotyped) characteristics. As vividly depicted in this book, where the antipathy of Japanese toward “those people” (Koreans) is a constant.

Here’s some science. Biology is not destiny. Even where genes are indicative of certain behavioral traits (and there are such), genes never determine how any individual will behave in any situation. At most, they may delineate proclivities, but an individual’s actual behavior results from too many variables to be predicted by genes or anything else. And it’s certainly untrue that any human subgroup shares biologically determined behavioral traits (different from other subgroups).

Of course there are human behaviors, genetically evolved, which we share as a species. But they don’t differ among subgroups. And even if there were such subgroup-specific genes, their effect would be overwhelmed by all the other factors influencing a given individual’s personal behavior.

That’s not to deny cultural differences. Cultural groups do have their own characteristics, that’s the definition of culture. But it’s not genetic. Remove an individual at birth from their specific culture, and there’s no innate biological reason for replicating behavior particular to that culture.

So Noa’s human identity was not dictated by his father’s gangsterhood. His blood was no more bad than anyone else’s. It was up to him to shape his own life. And, even if there were gangster genes inherited from his father (a dubious idea), those genes would not anyway determine his own character, which would still be his to create.

You can be what you choose to be.

*An echo of Great Expectations? Noa studies literature — he loves Dickens!

The Green New Deal

February 18, 2019

Green Nude Eel

It’s green. It’s new. And it’s a deal. What’s not to like?

Ah, the power of words. These three do make for a potent combo that’s caught the zeitgeist of today’s Democratic party. Don’t even try running for president if you’re not for the GND.

Columnist David Brooks writes that while “[t]he productive dynamism of capitalism is a wonder to behold,” this doesn’t today give the middle class, and the less skilled, economic security; nor help address “social decay.” Democrats in particular are increasingly disenamored of free market economics, blaming it for inequality and also seeing capitalism as the culprit behind climate change.

Their Green New Deal is intended as a response for all this. It envisions broad-scale government mobilization to reduce carbon emissions — to zero within a decade or two — with jobs-for-all thrown in.

Climate change is real, human activity is a cause, and the ill-effects will be costly. But the GND is a bad answer, for several fundamental reasons.

First, it does behoove us to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, to the extent it’s reasonably possible. (Leaving the Paris agreement was brainless.) But zero is not reasonably possible (given existing or foreseeable technology) without sacrifices vastly disproportionate to the resulting climate benefit. Climate zealots seem to regard economic growth, indeed wealth itself, as an evil, urging us to scale back our lifestyles. (As though humankind is a criminal deserving punishment.) Yet these are the same people who bemoan inequality and poverty. They seemingly imagine both reversing economic growth yet also redistributing its fruits.

Economic growth, in recent decades, has in fact tremendously reduced world poverty. We shouldn’t want to reverse that, which zeroing out global carbon emissions would currently require. Indeed, the costs of basic poverty, to human well-being, far exceed climate change’s potential damage. Moreover, to deal with that damage, we’ll need the resources economic growth provides. So we must accept some temperature rise, as a necessary price to sustain our economies and global living standards.

In fact it’s not a choice. Because rising temperature is already baked in, even if emissions are cut to zero. Global warming will still continue, just a little less rapidly than if we do nothing. Thus the hair-on-fire zealotry for emission reduction is misplaced.

But if we really want to reduce emissions, nuclear power produces none. Yet greens ignore that option because . . . well, because it’s “nuclear.” (Dangerous? Fossil fuel power generation is estimated to kill around 20,000 Americans annually with lung disease. Nuclear power’s U.S. death toll: zero.)

And if we really want to stop warming, we’d have to consider geo-engineering initiatives to cool the planet. It could be done, maybe even cost-effectively. But climate zealots oppose even researching such options, because it would undermine their emissions fixation and (the horror!) enable economic growth to continue. So the GND ignores geo-engineering too.

Meantime, absent action to reverse otherwise inevitable warming, our main focus should be not on largely futile emissions reductions but, rather, preparations to combat warming’s effects. This the GND also ignores.

But meantime too, if we do insist on emissions reduction as the aim, economics gives us a clear answer for achieving it: to reflect, in the prices of things, the societal cost of their associated climate impacts. That is, a carbon tax. It would give people proper price incentives to reduce carbon and seek alternatives. (A scheme of emission permit trading would be somewhat analogous.)

However, efforts to enact a carbon tax have gone nowhere. Well, nobody likes taxes. But recently, a group of leading economists proposed, in the Wall Street Journal, a carbon tax whose revenue would be rebated via a universal dividend. That wouldn’t negate the tax’s carbon-reducing incentives, thus a win-win.

But the Democratic lefties behind the GND aren’t interested in such economic rationality, using markets and creating incentives to do right. Instead they want government giving us marching orders. Government would design and create massive new energy and transport infrastructures (“air travel stops being necessary”). These gigantic command-and-control institutions would replace much of what we’ve got now. Including most of our cars. There may also be a job for anyone unemployed (no skills needed, presumably).

This hugely consequential policy package is not the product of a careful broad-based consultative process. While lefties and greenies have long been talking in general on such lines, the GND seems to have been slapped together on the fly, on the back of an envelope, in a very short time, by a few members of Congress (including the over-hyped and under-experienced AOC). Paying for it all is another thing left unaddressed.

Brooks says the GND reflects “a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite,” with technocratic government planners in effect mastering the running of a huge and enormously complex part of America’s economic machine. How often must we see such hubristic faith come to tears? Remember the Solyndra fiasco? That was just a teensy foretaste of what the GND envisions. And Soviet central planners too fantasized being economic masterminds. Brooks wryly notes that the GND comes from “people who couldn’t even successfully organize the release of their own background document.”

The Economist moreover points out that the GND’s governmental behemoth would entail a massive redistribution of political and economic power, making big winners and losers. Lobbying and special interests will go into overdrive. While actually, the GND “largely dispenses with analysis of the costs and benefits of climate policy. It would create large opportunities for rent-seeking and protectionism, with no guarantee that the promised climate benefits will follow. [And with] growth-throttling taxes and dangerously high deficits” too.

Is this “Socialism?” The word doesn’t merely mean anything government does (libraries, road building), as some disingenuously suggest. It’s government taking over functions that, in a free economy, nongovernmental actors perform. And while lefties like to call it “democratic socialism,” such concentration of power is quintessentially anti-democratic and elitist.

This is the platform Democrats seem eager to run on.

Republicans, having destroyed their own brand with lies, bigotry, and thrall to a very bad man, have also managed to radicalize the Democrats into being the party of the GOP’s worst nightmare. When Democrats consolidate power — which Republican horribleness makes likely — “the era of big government,” that Bill Clinton said was over, will be back with a vengeance.

I dream of Election Day 2020 as a triumph of good over evil. But it may instead be a Hobson’s choice between Trumpian evil and everything about the left I’ve always opposed.

Sex, religion, and perversion

February 14, 2019

It started with civilization’s Middle Eastern beginnings, with the idea not that sex is dirty, exactly, but that afterwards you had to cleanse yourself, as part of an overall purification, before communing with the divine. But, as people will, some eventually carried this idea to an extreme, seeing sex as indeed dirty altogether.

There was a slight problem, inasmuch as sex was necessary for procreation (which everybody thought good). Well, okay, they said, so sex is acceptable but only for making babies, not to gratify lust. This is the Adam-and-Eve story. God did tell them to be fruitful, but Adam’s sin was doing it lustily rather than mere dispassionate fulfillment of duty. And note that it’s usually called Adam’s sin. There’s a reason. Ancient peoples didn’t read their biology books. They thought impregnation entailed a miniature person, in the sperm, being seeded into the woman’s body. They didn’t understand her genetic contribution. So while Adam’s “sin” was transmitted down the generations via repeated lustful couplings, that was only through the male line. Thus, voila, Jesus — immaculately conceived without sperm — was born free of original sin! Neat!

Eventually though, the Church realized this didn’t square with biology. So to fix the story, they belatedly (in 1854) posited that Mary too was — somehow — herself immaculately conceived.

You might be confused here, thinking the original sin was not lust but disobeying God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Same thing, said Saint Augustine (around 400 AD). The whole convoluted nonsense about “original sin” is traceable to him. Because he was tortured by his idea that the lust he himself experienced was a dirty sin that kept him from true communion with God. And, as Augustine’s legacy, Christians to this day torture themselves over this.

This attitude is itself a kind of sexual perversion. It loads ordinary, natural sex acts with a meaning and significance that make no sense. And, by the way, if humans were made in God’s image, does She feel lust? How does she handle it?

But actually we are products of biology. Even if you close your eyes to evolution, you cannot close them to biology, and the role of genes — with their be-all and end-all the promotion of reproduction.

One thing an organism needs to do to reproduce is to eat. Obviously. But (with very few exceptions) organisms aren’t smart enough to realize that. They need to be programmed by genes to eat; otherwise they’d just die without knowing why. So genes make organisms feel hunger, and feel good when eating.

What has this to do with sex? Everything. Would organisms even think of copulating (a pretty bizarre activity, really) if not biologically programmed to feel the analog of hunger, i.e., lust, and to feel good when satisfying it?

Nobody thinks hunger and eating are dirty or sinful. That would be nuts. So by what logic are the analogous lust and sex deemed sinful? Only by Augustine’s very twisted thinking.

Well, sex does bring a second person into the picture, which complicates matters. There’s always the key principle against gratifying oneself at another’s expense. So rape is a sin. Likewise assuaging hunger by eating another person. But that wouldn’t mean feeling hunger, or sexual desire, are themselves wrong. Only gratifying them in wrongful ways could be. (Which we don’t need God to tell us.)

Yet we so get our knickers in a twist over lust. The irrationality is exemplified by masturbation. Here (generally speaking) there’s no issue of harm to others.

An offense against God? Of course there’s no God, but even if there were, what kind of perverted human logic imputes to her a disapproval of self-gratification? What kind of perverted God would create us with powerful sex drives and punish us for expressing them in harmless ways that come naturally? It’s all hopelessly fucked up.

The ancient idea that conversation with the divine requires purification eventually got transmogrified into the Catholic Church’s priestly celibacy. As though sex is so profoundly dirty that no amount of pre-liturgical cleansing could suffice, hence our interlocutors with divinity must abjure sex altogether. So crazy extreme is this idea that the unsurprising result is to attract into the priesthood a disproportionate share of men whose own relationships with their sexuality are messed up.

Indeed, with more than just sexuality. There’s something deeply awry in the souls of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives to God’s work yet somehow convince themselves molesting choir boys is okay. Or that protecting rapists somehow serves God. Still holding themselves out as moral shepherds of their flocks. And what of the sheep who look to such men as their shepherds?

The Catholic Church may be a special case, but other faiths have similar fundamental hang-ups about sex. They condemn homosexuality as a sinful perversion, while loading up on guilt even over normal heterosexual feelings. Thus denying gays — and themselves as well — the right to feelings which cannot be willed away. Who are the real perverts?

Crime and punishment and sense and sensibility

February 10, 2019

Liberals oppose the death penalty. They’re really not even comfortable with the idea of punishment — “an eye for an eye makes the world blind.” Instead, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and redemption are watchwords.

Except when it comes to crimes against their political sensibilities. No concepts of forgiveness or redemption here. Instead it’s capital punishment — off with their heads! — civic heads at least, their offices, their jobs, their public trusts.

So it is with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose 1984 yearbook page had a racist photo. Was it bad? Yes. Should we condemn it? Yes. Northam acknowledges as much. But is defenestration, the maximum penalty, appropriate? What of all he’s done since then for racial progress and advancing the interests of people of color? Does one decades-old picture trump everything? Where is the sense, the proportionality, the justice, in reducing a man’s entire life to literally this one photo?

Who among us has led a perfect life, a saint having never done a thing wrong?

Predictably, meanwhile, Republicans ascend to new heights of hypocrisy by piling on against Northam and jeering at Democrats over this.* There’s even an idiotic trope that it’s Democrats who are the racist party, the party of slavery even. Ignoring the last half century of history. As if the very raison d’etre of today’s Republican party isn’t to keep down people of color. Republicans bray for Northam’s head while their own Steve King, who recently defended “white supremacy” still sits in Congress — and their king of race-baiting sits in the White House.

The Northam episode, and Democrats’ extremist intolerance toward any such transgressions, are all of a piece with the left’s whole troubled relationship with freedom of speech and thought. They’re all about tolerance for differences, like sexuality and ethnicity — but not differences of ideas. We see it in political correctness enforced on campuses with Stalinist ruthlessness. Anyone expressing views outside their narrow canon is disgraced, demonized, punished, banished. Like Larry Summers booted out of Harvard’s presidency for daring to theorize that brain differences might lead fewer women into science. Or corporate chief Brendan Eich hounded from his job for having dared to support the wrong side in a public referendum on gay rights. The civic equivalent of capital punishment. Off with their heads.

How is this not exactly the kind of McCarthyism whose denunciation the left has worn as a badge of honor for six decades? They still lionize its victims — people blacklisted and unable to work because of their political opinions. Isn’t that exactly what they themselves did to Larry Summers and Brendan Eich? (But of course repression of the left is a dastardly crime. Repression by the left is all good.)

We see it as well in the excesses of “me-tooism.” Again it’s either you’re a perfect saint or off-with-your head, and nothing in between. No room for repentance, atonement, or redemption. No matter the severity of the offense, or its lack, there’s only one punishment, you must be stripped of your job and all public respectability. And so Al Franken was forced out of the Senate for behavior toward women far less egregious than Trump’s. (Though Sarah Sanders said there’s no comparison because Franken admitted wrongdoing while Trump called his accusers liars.)

It’s an irony that in one part of our culture civil standards are being enforced with Savonarolan severity, when elsewhere they’ve collapsed so far that we elected Mister “grab them by the pussy” as president.

And there he sits grinning and preening in the White House — this monster of depravity in every aspect of his existence — having the supreme shamelessness to tweet “Unforgivable!” about Northam.

* Click here to see a hyperbolic e-mail they sent me.

JCOPE — “Public Ethics?”

February 9, 2019

New York State has a “Joint Commission on Public Ethics.” It was created by the “Public Integrity Reform Act,” to “restore public trust in government.”

Percoco

Last year, Joseph Percoco, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top henchman, was convicted of corruption, taking bribes. The trial also revealed that Percoco, after he’d left his state government post to run Cuomo’s political campaign, continued to extensively use his state office and telephone for political business, in violation of law, and right under Cuomo’s nose.

You might think the “Joint Commission on Public Ethics” might be interested in this. But you’d be wrong. This is Cuomo’s New York. The Commission’s members are appointed by the corrupt Governor and legislative leaders.

“JCOPE” refused even to hold a vote on whether to investigate the Percoco matter. A lawsuit was brought to compel JCOPE to hold such a vote. A judge thereupon ordered JCOPE to do so. Did JCOPE comply, and hold a vote? No, instead it appealed the ruling.

The face of public ethics in New York

But JCOPE has revealed that it is dropping its appeal, saying that it has now actually held a vote on whether to investigate.

Has JCOPE revealed the result of the vote?

Of course not.

(This is why you find a series of quotation marks in my first paragraph.)

Evolution by natural selection is a fact

February 5, 2019

My recent “free will” essay prompted some comments about evolution (on the Times-Union blog site.) One invoked (at verbose length) the old “watchmaker” argument. Nature’s elegant complexity is analogized to finding a watch in the sand; surely it couldn’t have assembled itself by random natural processes. There had to be a watchmaker.

This argument is fallacious because a watch is purpose-built and nature is not. Not the result of a process aimed at producing what we see today; instead one that could just as well have produced an infinity of alternative possibilities.

Look at a Jackson Pollock painting and you could say that to create precisely this particular pattern of splotches must have (like the watch) taken an immense amount of carefully planned work. Of course we know he just flung paint at the canvas. The complex result is what it is, not something Pollock “designed.”

Some see God in a similar role, not evolution’s designer but, rather, just setting it in motion. Could life have arisen out of nowhere, from nothing? Or could the Universe itself? Actually science has some useful things to say about that — better than positing a God who always existed or “stands outside time and space,” or some such woo-woo nonsense. And for life’s beginnings, while we don’t have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed (the earliest life could not have left fossils), we do know the basic story:

Our early seas contained an assortment of naturally occurring chemicals, whose interactions and recombinations were catalyzed by lightning, heat, pressure, and other natural phenomena. Making ever more complex molecules, by the trillion. One of the commonest elements is carbon, very promiscuous at hooking up with other atoms to create elaborate combinations.

Eventually one of those had the property of duplicating itself, by glomming other chemical bits floating by, or by splitting. Maybe that was an extremely improbable fluke. But realize it need only have happened once. Because each copy would go on to make more, and soon they’d be all over the place.

However, the copying would not have been perfect; there’d be occasional slight variations; with some faulty but also some better at staying intact and replicating. Those would spread more widely, with yet more variations, some yet more successful. Developing what biologist Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, called “survival machines.” Such as a protective coating or membrane. We’ve discovered a type of clay that spontaneously forms such membranes, which moreover divide upon reaching a certain size. So now you’ve got the makings of a primitive cell.

Is this a far-fetched story? To the contrary, given early Earth’s conditions, it actually seems inevitable. It’s hard to imagine it not happening. The 1952 Miller-Urey experiment reproduced those conditions in a test tube and the result was the creation of organic compounds, the “building blocks of life.”

That’s how evolution began. The duplicator molecules became genes (made of DNA). Their “survival machines” became organisms. That’s what we humans really are, glorified copying machines. A chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.

Of course DNA and genes, and Nature itself, do nothing with conscious purpose. Replicators competing with each other is simply math. Imagine your computer screen with one blue and one red dot. And a program saying every three seconds the blue dot will make another blue dot; but the red one will make two. Soon your screen will be all red.

A parable: A king wishes to bestow a reward, and invites the recipient to suggest one. He asks for a single rice grain — on a chessboard’s first square — then two on the second — and so on. The king, thinking he’s getting away cheaply, readily agrees. But before even reaching the final square, it’s all the rice in the kingdom.

This is the power of geometric multiplication. The power of genes replicating, in vast numbers, over vast time scales. (A billion years is longer than we can grasp.) And recall how genes are effectively in competition because occasionally their copies are imperfect (“mutations”), so no two organisms are exactly identical, and some are better at surviving and reproducing. Those supplant the others, just like red supplanted blue on your computer screen. But the process never stops, and in the fulness of time, new varieties evolve into new species. It’s propelled by ever-changing environments, requiring that organisms adapt by changing, or perish. This is evolution by natural selection.

Fossils provide indisputable proof. It’s untrue that there are “missing links.” In case after case, fossils show how species (including humans) have changed and evolved over time. (The horse is a great example. My illustration is from a website actually denying horse evolution, arguing that each of the earlier versions was a stand-alone species, unrelated to one another!)

We even see evolution happening live. Antibiotics changed the environment for bacteria. So drug-resistant bacteria rapidly evolved. Once-rare mutations enabling them to survive antibiotics have proliferated while the non-resistant are killed off.

Note that evolution doesn’t mean inexorable progression toward ever more complex or “higher” life forms. Again, the only thing that matters is gene replication (remember that red computer screen). Whatever works at causing more copies to be made is what will evolve. Humans evolved big brains because that happened to be a very successful adaptation. If greater simplicity works better, then an animal will evolve in that direction. There are in fact examples of this.

Another false argument against evolution is so-called “irreducible complexity.” Author Michael Behe claimed something like an eye could never have evolved without a designer because an incomplete, half-formed eye would be useless, conferring no advantage on an organism. In fact eyes did evolve through a long process beginning with light-sensitive cells that were primitive motion detectors, not at all useless. They did entail a survival advantage, albeit small, but it multiplied over eons, and improved by gradual incremental tweaks. So the eye, far from rebutting evolution, thus beautifully illustrates how evolution actually proceeds, and refutes any idea of intelligent design.

In fact, because our eyes did evolve in the undirected the way they did, they’re very sub-optimal. A competent designer would have done far better. He would not have put the wiring in front of the light-sensitive parts, blocking some light, nor bunched the optic nerve fibers to cause a blind spot. So we can’t see well in dim light. Some other animals (like squids) have much better eye design. And wouldn’t a really intelligent design include a third eye in the back?

Evolution by natural selection is the one great fact of biology. Not merely the best explanation for what we see in Nature, but the only possible rational explanation, and one that explains everything. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Handicapping 2020

February 1, 2019

Ninety-three candidates seek the Democratic presidential nomination. A slight exaggeration. But it’s a lot of them.

Many don’t really expect to win. But as the NY lottery slogan says, “Hey, you never know.” I remember hearing on the radio, “Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter today declared his candidacy for president.” And saying to myself, “What makes him imagine he can get it? Fat chance.”

Some of today’s crop are really seeking the vice presidency. Hoping to make a good impression and get noticed. Yet the sheer size of the field makes that hard.

There’s been speculation that Hillary Clinton is running. Please, please, no! Though I certainly wish she were president now instead of Trump (and the rap against her was insanely exaggerated), politically Hillary is the rancid ghost of Christmas Past. Despite her obvious strengths, which would win her a big chunk of votes, I believe enough Democrats blame her for losing in 2016 that she could not possibly be nominated. While her just running would poison the atmosphere for Democrats.

More likely to re-run is Bernie Sanders. If you were him, why wouldn’t you? Sanders was idolized in 2016 by many Democrats, who also felt he was somehow cheated of the nomination (not so). Certainly he’d enter the race with a big rabid fan base. Remember the early 2016 primaries, with Trump able to rack up wins with like 30% of the vote because the rest was split among so many others. Bernie can benefit from a similar dynamic in 2020.

Then there’s Biden, who would likewise start with obvious strength. Though not as exciting to true believers as Bernie, he’d be a comfortable choice, benefiting from an aura of deep experience, reliability, and gravitas, especially in contrast to all the newbies. He would stand head-and-shoulders above them.

If either of those two doesn’t run, the other will have a huge advantage. If both run, it will probably really be a battle between them, with all the rest far behind.

Yes, both Sanders and Biden are pushing 80, and yes, many voices cry out for fresh blood. And if there were a lone fresh novelty candidate, like Obama was in 2008, he or she would do very well. But, again, this time the freshness mantle is divided among a whole bunch, all vying for pretty much the same votes. Unless one can somehow decisively break out of the pack, none can compete with Sanders or Biden.

Meanwhile, this is not the time to push boundaries with a novelty candidate. We’re in a profound crisis. America (and the world) might be able to recover after four years of this depravity, but not eight. For all his stupendous rottenness, Trump will be a tough, unscrupulous, vicious opponent, helped again by Russian lies. Democrats will need every voter they can get, and cannot afford to turn any off.

NO WE’RE NOT

And surely many will be turned off by a dour old Brooklyn Jew with the word “socialist” a giant albatross hanging around his neck. There’s a fantasy on the left that if they just properly explain socialism to Americans, they’ll hop on board. What a laugh. (George Lakoff, a leftist academic author from Berkeley, explains that it just doesn’t work that way.) Bernie would win Berkeley, Beverly Hills, and Boston; but not America.

(And please, no third party candidate to split the vote against Trump. This means you, Schultz. Whatever you’ve got, bring it to the Democratic primaries.)

A lot of people voted for Trump because they wanted a disruptor. After four years of that, some at least will want a return to normalcy. No more taking chances or flying leaps. Instead, a tried-and-true “safe pair of hands.” That still counts for a lot. It’s forgotten now, but Obama actually won in November 2008 because more people saw him as the sober, serious, capable man.

Do I have to spell it out any further?