Archive for the ‘life’ Category

“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

January 18, 2020

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part II — Is it OK to eat animals?

January 8, 2020

I eat meat; not a lot, but am troubled by the ethics. Michael Pollan too, discussing this in depth in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like me, he’d like to be able to justify meat eating. While recognizing that bias.*

Descartes saw animals as just machines without feelings. We know better. Pollan quotes Jeremy Bentham in 1789, that the question isn’t animals’ mental abilities, but can they suffer? (Note, we’re really talking about higher animals; seafood creatures don’t have much inner life to fret over.) However, Pollan notes, pain and suffering are different things. Humans suffer from pain in great part due to the mental constructs we form around it, which animals generally cannot do. (Having no conception of death or really, even, the future.)

Eating them is defended on the basis of nature. We evolved to do so, part of the overall natural schema of predators and prey. Certainly the ubiquitous animal predators think nothing of eating other animals alive. Ethics is indeed a purely human thing, evolved to regulate relations among ourselves, and absent in the rest of nature.

So we don’t treat other humans like animals, don’t eat our weaker kin. Just because they’re “humans” and animals are not? Thusly privileging humans in a way denied to other animals is called “speciesism.”

Its basis is dubious. As Peter Singer (the leading animal rights thinker) argues, most of us subscribe to an ethic of human equality. But that’s a moral, not a factual, idea. We recognize humans vary greatly in, say, intelligence, yet hold everyone’s lives and interests nonetheless entitled to equal consideration. Hence you may not exploit another for your own ends. Why then are humans entitled to thusly exploit animals — those that are sentient, feeling, and certainly possessed of lives with interests?

While cynics and pessimists deny it, humanity has in fact made great moral progress over time. Yet again, read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. People used to accept practices — like slavery — now condemned morally. Will that one day be true of meat eating?

Pollan suggests, however, that Singer is looking at the matter from the standpoint of an individual animal, but he urges a wider species-oriented perspective, positing that species have interests too. The domesticated animals we eat actually represent a mutualism or symbiosis between their species and ours — rooted in an opportunistic aboriginal deal with us, enabling them to survive and prosper better than if on their own. And their populations are now vast, while those in the wild have shriveled. So the deal is advantageous even while individual animals do die. Which of course is true of all individuals in any case. “As a rule,” Pollan says, “animals in the wild don’t get good deaths surrounded by their loved ones.”

(One might counter that a species has no consciousness; only its individual members do. So a species cannot value enjoyment of life as an individual can, and its having larger numbers serves no moral value.)

But meantime, also looking at the big picture, Pollan deems it “doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production.” He doesn’t think it’s practicable for all of us to become vegetarians. A totally plant-based food chain would consume even more fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, and might actually kill even more animals as collateral damage. If our goal is the fewest animal deaths, we should all eat the largest possible ones grazing the least cultivated land.

But all this assumes animals, before and during slaughter, are at least treated humanely. Finally returning to Bentham’s suffering point. Whatever else can be said about our overall interspecies relationships, inflicting suffering on innocent sentient beings is indefensible. And while it can be avoided, as Pollan’s reportage about a model farm showed, our vast industrial American meat-producing machine tends to sacrifice such niceties to economic efficiency. Though it’s true that absent that industry, the animals would not even exist, their existence is no boon either to them as individuals or to their species when it’s an existence of misery.

Consistent with the book’s title, for Pollan this issue remains a dilemma. He does not advocate vegetarianism. He sees the problem as our simple obliviousness to the reality, modern consumers being thoroughly insulated from how food gets to us.** Transparency is his answer; if only we really knew, we wouldn’t tolerate the animal suffering. Producers would have to heed consumer qualms. Making meat costlier. We’d eat fewer animals, and “with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

When pigs fly.

And what about me? Giving up meat entirely is hard; making ethical distinctions among meats even harder. Being human, my morality is imperfect. I live with that, perhaps consoled by being at least above average. Of course, everyone thinks that.

However, right after I finished Pollan’s book came an article in The Economist (“Fake Moos”) about great strides in developing plant-based imitation meat. It doesn’t yet taste quite the same, and costs more, but both problems are on track for resolution. So maybe we can have our cows and eat them too.

* He quotes Franklin that the great advantage of being a reasoning creature is that you can always find a reason for whatever you want to do.

** Unwilling to eschew his inner carnivore, Pollan decides he’s honor-bound to, at least once, eat something he’s personally killed. His successful wild pig hunt is detailed at length, with much nuanced meditation on what it all means. Initial atavistic elation mixes with later disgust and shame. But here too Pollan arrives at no definitive conclusion.

What we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Part I)

January 2, 2020

Michael Pollan is a food thinker and writer. Not a restaurant reviewer; he looks at the big picture of what we eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants; omnivores eat both.)

The book is a smorgasbord of investigative reporting, memoir, analysis, and argument. Pollan does have a strong point of view; cynics, pessimists and misanthropes will find much fodder here. But Pollan is no fanatical purist ideologue. We saw him on a TV piece summing up with this core advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Seems pretty reasonable.

He’s a lovely writer. Here’s a sample, concluding the first of the book’s three parts, talking (perhaps inevitably) about McDonald’s:

“The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat . . . hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger, or French fry, as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full.”

I might disagree with his evaluation, but man, this guy can write.

That first third of the book is all corn. In fact, if “you are what you eat,” we are all corn (well, mostly). Don’t think you eat much corn? Think again. As Pollan explains, a high proportion of our food is derived from corn; even our meat, the animals being mostly corn-fed. Pollan argues that, rather than humans domesticating corn, corn domesticated us. Viewed biologically, that species exploits us to spread itself and increase its population.

Pollan sees food industry economic logic driving us toward a kind of craziness. When the government started intervening in farm produce markets, the aim was to support prices by preventing overproduction. Remember farmers paid not to grow stuff? But in the 1970s that reversed, with the system now incentivizing ever higher yields, aided by technological advances. The resulting glut, in a free market, should drive prices down, signaling producers to cut back. However, if farm prices fall below a certain floor, the feds give farmers checks to make up the difference. Thus their incentive now is to just grow as much as possible, no matter what.

But, even with that government guarantee, Pollan shows, most farmers can barely eke a living, after costs. The bulk of the profit from corn actually being swallowed by the big middleman corporations like ADM and Cargill.

Meantime it’s a challenge to market all that corn. That’s why so much goes to animal feed. The industry has also cajoled the government to require using some in gasoline (ethanol), which actually makes neither economic, operational, nor environmental sense. But it does eat up surplus corn.

Part of the marketing challenge is that while for most consumer goods you can always (theoretically at least) get people to buy more, there’s a limit to how much a person can eat. So with U.S. population growth only around 1%, it’s hard for the food industry to grow profits by more than that measly percentage. But, in Pollan’s telling, it’s been fairly successful in overcoming that obstacle. This contributes, of course, to an obesity epidemic.

The abundance and consequent (governmentally subsidized) cheapness of corn figures large here. It goes into a lot of foods like soft drinks (yes, full of corn too!) that also attract us by their sweetness. Unsurprisingly, lower income consumers in particular go for such tasty fare that’s also cheap — buying what provides the most calories per budgetary dollar.

But the main driver of obesity is simple biology. We evolved in a world of food scarcity, hence with a propensity to load up when we could, against lean times sure to come. Thus programmed to especially crave calorie-rich sweet stuff. But it being no longer scarce, indeed ubiquitous, no wonder many get fat.

Pollan extensively discusses “organic” food. Largely a victim of its own success. “Organic” is a brilliant marketing ploy, it sounds so good. And farming that conforms to the original purist vision of what “organic” should mean may be environmentally cuddlier than conventional farming (though there are tradeoffs, one being greater acreage required). However, in practice, stuff in stores labeled “organic” is not produced all that differently. A key reason is that once “organic” took off and became big business, producers had to use many of the same large-scale industrial practices of conventional farming. Small operators can’t compete. Another is that the USDA rules for “organic” labeling were lobbied hard by producers to give them more leeway. Pollan cites, for example, a rule saying cows must have “access to pasture.” Sounds nice, but if you think about it, what does it really mean? If anything? Here, and in much of the rulebook, there aren’t real rules.*

Pollan muses that salad might seem our most natural kind of eating. But it gives him cognitive dissonance when considering the complex industrial processes that actually put it on our plates. An organic salad mix takes 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food. If grown conventionally, it would be just 4% more. Bottom line: by and large, “organic” is a pretty meaningless label. (Wifey take note.)

However, Pollan chronicles his stint at one actual farm that might be called beyond organic. This read to me like one of those old-time utopia novels. And that farm is actually extremely efficient. But its model doesn’t seem scalable to the industrial level needed to feed us all. Also, it’s extremely labor- and brain-intensive. Few farmers today are up for that.

The farmer profiled there opined that government regulation is the single biggest impediment to spreading his approach. It gives USDA inspectors conniptions. Pollan shows how the whole government regulatory recipe is geared to bigness. One example: a slaughtering facility must have a restroom reserved for the government inspector alone.

The book also delves deeply into the ethics of eating animals, a fraught issue. I will address that separately soon.

* Well, there are some, like no antibiotics. Today’s organic farming is a sort of kludge — Pollan likens it to trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind your back.

Happy — the movie

December 27, 2019

My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit ends in getting it, what then?

This suggests that a sensation at a given moment, necessarily transitory, is not the true aim. The Greeks spoke of eudaimonia, a life well lived. Not the feelings of a moment, but of one’s life in its wholeness.

The film began with an Indian rickshaw driver. Tough way to make a living. But, surrounded by smiling faces, he was smiling too, as happy as the average (far more affluent) American.

Indeed, studies show such life circumstances account for only about 10% of happiness. Fifty percent is genetic, giving each of us a baseline “set point,” to which one’s mood reverts after the impact of some stimulus, good or bad, tails off. And the remaining 40% is a function of what we do.

Dopamine is a chemical, a “neurotransmitter,” produced in the brain, which induces sensations of pleasure and happiness. There’s a “use it or lose it” aspect to dopamine. Thus a key route to feeling happy is to seek out experiences that trigger dopamine release. Physical activity does this; especially when involving novelty.

Appearing in the film was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave us the concept of “flow.” This is when one is completely absorbed in an activity, subsuming all quotidian concerns. Good for dopamine.

Also appearing was Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness showed how poor we are at judging how any future thing will affect our mental state. In particular we overestimate how good an achievement or acquisition will make us feel, in the long term. A related concept is the “hedonic treadmill” or “adaptation effect” (explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice). We adapt to a changed life situation, now taking it for granted as the “new normal,” so its psychological lift dissipates, leaving one no happier than before. And craving the next lift. This “chain wanting” is what Buddhism declares the root of suffering.

Similarly, we over-estimate the impact of bad turns. Illustrative here was Melissa Moody, disfigured in a horrible accident. She not only adapted to her “new normal,” it actually gave her an enhanced perspective on life, and ultimately greater happiness than before.

Schwartz’s book also distinguishes between two personality types: “maximizers” who aim for achieving the best in any situation, and “satisficers” for whom the watchword is “good enough.” It turns out the latter are actually happier with what they get. And another key aspect of happiness is feeling gratitude for what you do have.

The film portrayed Japan as the least happy industrialized nation. Flattened by WWII, Japan emphasized rebuilding, making for an economic miracle of affluence rising from ashes. However, that went to an unhealthy extreme, creating a culture of all work and no play. They even have a word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork — not a metaphor but an all too common reality. Yet the film contrasted one part of Japan, Okinawa, with a very different ethos emphasizing communitarianism: people enjoying each other. And more reach age 100 there than anywhere else.

Bhutan, meanwhile, has sought to de-emphasize Gross National Product in favor of “Gross National Happiness.” That might sound like gooey happy-talk; and while it does make sense to recognize that there’s more to life than wealth production, one film attendee was disturbed at the idea of Bhutan’s government not just pushing happiness but imposing its own prescription for it. Bringing to mind her one-time home — the USSR.

What actually seems to be the happiest country is Denmark (where religion has almost disappeared). But what Denmark does have is, like Okinawa, strong communal feeling. The film showed a “co-housing community,” where a bunch of families live in close proximity, sharing meals and other aspects of life. A big element of human happiness is, again, relationships with other people.

As I keep stressing, social cooperation was a powerful driver in human evolution; we lived in bands where that was essential for group survival. Studies repeatedly show that the healthiest and happiest people are those with the strongest ties to others. Many strive for popularity, attractiveness, and status in the eyes of others. But such superficialties don’t do it for them; they tend to be less happy, and more anxiety-ridden, than those who relate to others with compassion, caring, and love. This was exemplified by the film’s last profile, a man who gave up “normal” life to devote himself to caring for afflicted people in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sanctuary.

To say one shouldn’t be selfish ultimately misses the mark; “no man is an island” is true but also untrue in the sense that we can only experience anything within the confines of our own skulls — literal islands of experiencing. But the paradox of happiness is that confining one’s concern within that space makes for an unsatisfying life. What happens on other islands is an indispensable source of meaning for us.

Everybody’s Fool, and capital punishment

December 17, 2019

My humanist group had an outing to the wonderful Miss Lodema’s Tea Room, in Sharon Springs. I recognized it as “North Bath,” the (barely) fictionalized town in Richard Russo’s novel, Nobody’s Fool, which I’d just read. So then I read the sequel, Everybody’s Fool.

I previously reviewed Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere — a more accurate title would have been Momma’s Boy.

Nobody’s Fool was Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a decent everyman who does some foolish things. He reappears in the sequel, but the title character is Douglas Raymer, North Bath’s police chief. His wife died a year before, falling down stairs en route to leaving him for her lover. A “MacGuffin” in the book is a garage door opener Raymer finds, believing it will reveal that lover’s identity. (Some big spoilers ahead.)

This combines with an elaborate story about Raymer injuring his hand and obsessively scratching at the itchy wound — with the garage door opener becoming the perfect hand-scratcher. With a predictable denouement in someone’s garage. But by then, by process of elimination, the reader could already guess who that unmasked adulterer is.

All this may seem hokey. But this novel doesn’t aspire to be Crime and Punishment, it’s more like a comic book, and reasonably succeeds as such. Indeed, despite the obviously contrived action, it did succeed in engaging my emotions. I was even saying to myself, why is my heart pounding in response to this?

But speaking of crime and punishment, what I really want to discuss is the role in the book of the death penalty.

My wife and I watch some detective/crime shows. Now, the folks who write and produce them, and most novelists too, are presumably good intellectual liberals morally opposed to capital punishment. Yet normal humans are biologically programmed to crave justice and punishment for crimes. This plays out in their shows and books.

I’ve written about this before, in connection with a sci-fi novel: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/why-liberal-intellectuals-love-the-death-penalty/  Its author entered a comment saying he really does favors capital punishment!

While watching those mystery shows, my wife and I will debate whether capital punishment is coming: whether the murderer will be merely apprehended, or will die. The rule seems to be that run-of-the-mill baddies get caught while particularly heinous ones get killed.

Roy is a character in both Russo’s Fool novels, looming larger in the second. At first he seemed just a pathetic dumb loser. But gradually he’s revealed as a really nasty piece of work, a sociopath. And the reader’s thirst for punishment grows.

However, Roy hasn’t actually killed anyone. Yet. And capital punishment can be meted out only to killers. Then Roy spitefully almost kills his mother-in-law (a good person, who’d been much nicer to him than he deserved). She survives only because Sully shows up to whack Roy with a skillet. One aches for a second whack to finish the job, but Roy too survives and manages to slink away before the police arrive.

He’s been shacked up with an overweight sad sack, Cora, only because he’s got nothing else. She drives the getaway car. Roy treats her horribly and she takes it. You want him dead. But remember the rule: killers only.

Then he whacks Cora. Apparently only aiming to knock her out while he absconds with her car. But it seems Cora is dead. At least we’re not told otherwise in the remaining pages.

That sealed Roy’s fate, I felt sure. And my confidence was vindicated.

Meantime, though, Russo actually violates the rule of capital punishment for killers only. Well, technically. Another bad guy was in a hit-and-run, and tries to hide the body, but the victim actually recovers. There’s a long set-up to culminate in cosmic justice for this villain, by snakebite. Even though he didn’t totally kill anyone (that we know of); but I guess an author has the freedom to make any character die, if he wants.

Probability, coincidence, and the origin of life

November 30, 2019

The philosopher Epicurus was shown a wall of pictures — told, reverently, they portrayed sailors who, in storms, prayed to the gods and were saved. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

He was exposing the mistake of counting hits and ignoring misses. It’s common when evaluating seemingly paranormal, supernatural, or even miraculous occurrences. Like when some acquaintance appears in a dream and then you learn they’ve just died. Was your dream premonitory? But how often do you dream of people who don’t die? As with Epicurus, this frequently applies to religious “miracles” like answered prayers. We count the hits and ignore the many more unanswered prayers.

I usually work with the radio on. How often do you think I’ll write a word while hearing the same word from the radio? (Not common words, of course, like “like” or “of course.”) In fact it happens regularly, every few days. Spooky? Against astronomical odds? For a particular word, like “particular,” the odds would indeed be very small. But the open-ended case of any word matching is far less improbable. Recently it was “Equatorial Guinea!” Similarly, the odds of any two people’s birthdays matching are about one in 365. But how many must there be in a room before two birthdays likely match? Only 23! This surprises most folks — showing we have shaky intuitions regarding probability and coincidence. Most coincidences are not remarkable at all, but expectable, like my frequent radio matches.

So what does all this have to do with the origin of life? I recently began discussing Dawkins’s book, The Blind Watchmaker, and life’s having (almost certainly) begun with a fairly simple molecular structure, naturally occurring, with the characteristic of self-duplication. Dawkins addresses our intuition that that’s exceedingly improbable.

The essence of evolution by natural selection is, again, small incremental steps over eons of time, each making beneficiaries a bit likelier to survive and reproduce. The replicator molecule utilized by all life is DNA,* which maybe can’t be called “simple” — but Dawkins explains that DNA could itself have evolved in steps, from simpler precursors —non-living ones.

Indeed, non-living replication is familiar to us. That’s how crystals form. They grow by repeating a molecular structure over and over. (I’ve illustrated one we own — trillions of molecules creating a geometrical object with perfectly flat sides.) Dawkins writes of certain naturally occurring clays with similar properties, which could plausibly have been a platform for evolving the more elaborate self-replicators that became life.

Maybe this still seems far-fetched to you. But Dawkins elucidates another key insight relevant here.

Our brains evolved (obviously) to navigate the environment we lived in. Our abilities to conceptualize are tailored accordingly, and don’t extend further (which would have been a waste of biological resources). Thus, explains Dawkins, our intuitive grasp of time is grounded in the spectrum of intervals in our everyday experience — from perhaps a second or so at one end to a century or two at the other. But that’s only a tiny part of the full range, which goes from nanoseconds to billions of years. We didn’t need to grasp those. Likewise, our grasp of sizes runs from perhaps a grain of sand to a mountain. Again, a tiny part of the true spectrum, an atom being vastly smaller, the galaxy vastly larger. Those sizes we never needed to imagine — and so we really can’t.

This applies to all very large (or small) numbers. Our intuitions about probability are similarly circumscribed.

If you could hypothetically travel to early Earth, might you witness life beginning — as I’ve explained it? Of course not. Not in a lifetime. The probability seems so small it feels like zero. And accordingly some people just reject the idea.

Suppose it’s so improbable that it would only occur once in a billion years. But it did have a billion years to happen in! Wherein a one-in-a-billion-year event is hardly unlikely.

The odds against winning the lottery are also astronomical. Our human capacity to grasp such probabilities is, again, so limited that many people play the lottery with no clue about the true smallness of their chances. Yet people win the lottery. And I had my “Equatorial Guinea” coincidence.

And what’s the probability that life did not evolve naturally, along general lines I’ve suggested, but was instead somehow deliberately created by a super-intelligent being of unimaginable power — whose existence in the first place nobody can begin to account for?

Surely zero; a childishly absurd idea. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howsoever improbable, must be the truth. But the Darwinian naturalistic theory of life is not at all improbable or implausible. There’s tons of evidence for it. And even if there weren’t, Dawkins observes, it would still be the only concept capable of explaining life. Not only is it true, it must be true.

* That all living things use the same DNA code makes it virtually certain that all had a common ancestor. Your forebears were not, actually, monkeys; but the ancestors of all humans, and of all monkeys, were fish.

Evolution: The Blind Watchmaker and the bat

November 24, 2019

What is it Like to be a Bat? was a famous essay (I keep coming back to) by Philosopher Thomas Nagel. Its point being our difficulty in grasping — that is, constructing an intuitively coherent internal model of — the bat experience. Because it’s so alien to our own.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, though, actually tackles Nagel’s question in his book The Blind Watchmaker. The title refers to William Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology, once quite influential, arguing for what’s now called “intelligent design.” Paley said if you find a rock in the sand, its presence needs no explanation; but if you find a watch, that can only be explained by the existence of a watchmaker. And Paley likens the astonishing complexity of life forms to that watch.

I’ve addressed this before, writing about evolution. Paley’s mistake is that a watch is purpose-built, which is not true of anything in nature. Nature never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead, it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. What we have are the ones that just happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made by a watchmaker.

However, it’s not mere “random chance,” as some who resist Darwinism mistakenly suppose. The random chance concept would analogize nature to a child with a pile of lego blocks, tumbling them together every which way. No elegant creation could plausibly result. But evolution works differently, through serial replication.

It began with an agglomeration of molecules, a very simple naturally occurring structure, but having one crucial characteristic: a tendency to duplicate itself (using other molecules floating by). If such a thing arising seems improbable, realize it need only have occurred once. Because each duplicate would then be making more duplicates. Ad infinitum. And as they proliferate, slight variations accidentally creeping in (mutations) would make some better at staying in existence and replicating. That’s natural selection.

Dawkins discusses bats at length because the sophistication of their design (more properly, their adaptation) might seem great evidence for Paleyism.

Bats’ challenge is to function in the dark. Well, why didn’t they simply evolve for daytime? Because that territory was already well occupied, and there was a living to be made at night — for a creature able to cope with it.

Darkness meant usual vision systems wouldn’t work. Bats’ alternative is echolocation — sonar. They “see” by emitting sound pulses and using the echoes to build, in their brains, a model of their outside environment. Pulses are sent between ten and 200 times per second, each one updating the model. Bat brains have developed the software to perform this high speed data processing and modeling, on the fly.

Now get this. Their signals’ strength diminishes with the square of the distance, both going out and coming back. So the outgoing signals must be quite loud (fortunately beyond the range of human hearing) for the return echos to be detectable. But there’s a problem. To pick up the weak return echos, bat ears have to be extremely sensitive. But such sensitive ears would be wrecked by the loudness of the outgoing signals.

So what to do? Bats turn off their ears during each outgoing chirp, and turn them on again to catch each return echo. Ten to 200 times a second!

Another problem: Typically there’s a zillion bats around, all creating these echos simultaneously. How can they distinguish their own from all those others? Well, they can, because each has its own distinctive signal. Their brain software masters this too, sorting their own echos from all the background noise.

The foregoing might suggest, a la Nagel, that the bat experience is unfathomable. Our own vision seems a much simpler and better way of seeing the world. But not so fast. Dawkins explains that the two systems are really quite analogous. While bats use sound waves, we use light waves. However, it’s not as though we “see” the light directly. Both systems entail the brain doing a lot of processing and manipulation of incoming data to build a model of the outside environs. And the bat system does this about as well as ours.

Dawkins imagines an alien race of “blind” batlike creatures, flabbergasted to learn of a species called humans actually capable of utilizing inaudible (!) rays called “light” to “see.” He goes on to describe our very complex system for gathering light signals, and transmitting them into the brain, which then somehow uses them to construct a model of our surroundings which, somehow, we can interpret as a coherent picture. Updated every fraction of a second. (Their Nagel might write, “What is it like to be a human?”)*

A Paleyite would find it unimaginable that bat echolocation could have evolved without a designer. But what’s really hard for us to imagine is the immensity of time for a vast sequence of small changes accumulating to produce it.

Dogs evolved (with some human help) from wolves over just a few thousand years; indeed, with variations as different as Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards. And we’re scarcely capable of grasping the incommensurateness between those mere thousands of years and the many millions over which evolution operates.

Remember what natural selection entails. Small differences between two species-mates may be a matter of chance, but what happens next is not. A small difference can give one animal slightly better odds of reproducing. Repeat a thousand or a million times and those differences grow large; likewise a tiny reproductive advantage also compounds over time. It’s not a random process, but nor does it require an “intelligent designer.”

Dawkins gives another example. Imagine a mouse-sized animal, where females have a slight preference for larger males. Very very slight. Larger males thus have a very very slight probability of leaving more offspring. The creature’s increasing size would be imperceptible during a human lifetime. How long would it take to reach elephant size? The surprising answer: just 60,000 years! An eyeblink of geological time. This would be considered “sudden” by normal evolutionary standards.**

Returning to vision, a favorite argument of anti-evolutionists is that such a system’s “irreducible complexity” could never have evolved by small steps — because an incomplete eye would be useless. Dawkins eviscerates this foolish argument. Lots of people in fact have visual systems that are incomplete or defective in various ways, some with only 5% of normal vision. But for them, 5% is far better than zero!

The first simple living things were all blind. But “in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Even just having some primitive light-sensitive cells would have conferred a survival and reproductive advantage, better enabling their possessors to find food and avoid becoming food. And such light detectors would have gradually improved, by many tiny steps, over eons; each making a creature more likely to reproduce.

Indeed, a vision system — any vision system at all — is so advantageous that virtually all animals evolved one, not copying each other, but along separate evolutionary paths, resulting in a wide array of varying solutions to the problem — including bat echolocation, utilizing principles so different from ours.

But none actually reflects optimized “intelligent” design. Not what a half decent engineer or craftsman would have come up with. Instead, the evolution by tiny steps means that at each stage nature was constrained to work with what was already there; thus really (in computer lingo) a long sequence of “kludges.” For example, no rational designer would have bunched our optic nerve fibers in the front of the eye, creating a blind spot.

You might, if you still cling to an imaginary “designer,” ask her about that. And while you’re at it, ask why no third eye in the back of our heads?

(To be continued)

* Some blind humans are actually learning to employ echolocation much like bats, using tongue clicks.

** This is not to say evolution entails slow steady change. Dawkins addresses the “controversy” between evolutionary “gradualists” and “punctuationists” who hypothesize change in bursts. Their differences are smaller than the words imply. Gradualists recognize rates of change vary (with periods of stasis); punctuationists recognize that evolutionary leaps don’t occur overnight. Both are firmly in the Darwinian camp.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

What is humanism?

October 28, 2019

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.

Greta Thunberg is wrong

October 1, 2019

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior, berates the world (“How dare you?”) for pursuing a “fairy tale” of continued economic growth — putting money ahead of combating global warming. A previous local newspaper commentary hit every phrase of the litany: “species decimation, rainforest destruction . . . ocean acidification . . . fossil-fuel-guzzling, consumer-driven . . . wreaked havoc . . . blind to [the] long-term implication . . . driven by those who would profit . . . our mad, profligate  . . . warmongering . . . plasticization and chemical fertilization . . . failed to heed the wise admonition of our indigenous elders . . . .”

The litany of misanthropes hating their own species and especially their civilization.

Lookit. There’s no free lunch. Call it “raping the planet” if you like, but we could never have risen from the stone age without utilizing as fully as possible the natural resources available. And if you romanticize our pre-modern existence (“harmony with nature” and all), well, you’d probably be dead now, because most earlier people didn’t make thirty. And those short lives were nasty and brutish. There was no ibuprofen.

This grimness pretty much persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Only now, by putting resource utilization in high gear, could ordinary folks begin to live decently. People like that commentator fantasize giving it up. Or, more fantastical, our somehow still living decently without consuming the resources making it possible.

These are often the same voices bemoaning world poverty. Oblivious to how much poverty has actually declined — thanks to all the resource utilization they condemn. And to how their program would deny decent lives to the billion or so still in extreme poverty. Hating the idea of pursuing economic growth may be fine for those living in affluent comfort. Less so for the world’s poorest.

Note, as an example, the mention of “chemical fertilization.” This refers to what’s called the “green revolution” — revolutionizing agriculture to improve yields and combat hunger, especially in poorer nations. It’s been estimated this has saved a couple billion lives. And of course made a big dent in global poverty.

But isn’t “chemical fertilization,” and economic development more generally, bad for the environment? Certainly! Again, no free lunch. In particular, the climate change we’re hastening will, as Thunberg says, likely have awful future impacts. Yet bad as that is, it’s not actually humanity’s biggest challenge. The greater factors affecting human well-being will remain the age-old prosaic problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, conflict, and ignorance. Economic growth helps us battle all those. We should not cut it back for the sake of climate. In fact, growing economic resources will help us deal with climate change too. It’s when countries are poor that they most abuse the environment; affluence improves environmental stewardship. And it’s poor countries who will suffer most from climate change, and will most need the resources provided by economic growth to cope with it.

Of course we must do everything reasonably possible to minimize resource extraction, environmental impacts, and the industrial carbon emissions that accelerate global warming. But “reasonably possible” means not at the expense of lower global living standards. Bear in mind that worldwide temperatures will continue to rise even if we eliminate carbon emissions totally (totally unrealistic, of course). Emission reductions can moderate warming only slightly. That tells us to focus less on emissions and more on preparing to adapt to higher temperatures. And more on studying geo-engineering possibilities for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and otherwise re-cooling the planet. Yet most climate warriors actually oppose such efforts, instead obsessing exclusively on carbon reduction, in a misguided jihad against economic growth, as though to punish humanity for “raping the planet.”

Most greens are also dead set against nuclear power, imagining that renewables like solar and wind energy can fulfill all our needs. Talk about fairy tales. Modern nuclear power plants are very safe and emit no greenhouse gases. We cannot hope to bend down the curve of emissions without greatly expanded use of nuclear power. Radioactive waste is an issue. But do you think handling that presents a bigger challenge than to replace the bulk of existing power generation with renewables?

I don’t believe we’re a race of planet rapists. Our resource utilization and economic development has improved quality of life — the only thing that can ultimately matter. The great thing about our species, enabling us to be so spectacularly successful, is our ability to adapt and cope with what nature throws at us. Climate change and environmental degradation are huge challenges. But we can surmount them. Without self-flagellation.