Friday, February 29, 2008

“Billy Boy The Sunday Soldier of the 17th Maine” by Jean Mary Flahive* is a novel based on a real story, one I grew up with. Billy was William Laird, a “slow” boy from Berwick, Maine, near where I live. Though illiterate and most likely not able to understand what he was doing, he was enlisted in the Army during the Civil War along with a group of other boys from his town, deserted after he’d been separated from them by the Army, walked a long way home from Maryland, was arrested and was shot by a firing squad for desertion. That much of the story is pretty solid fact. The town lore is that he was badly harassed and likely abused in the Army and that Abraham Lincoln, when informed of his story, pardoned him but that the pardon arrived too late. Though it seems the last part is not able to be confirmed. The author points out that the Anti-Conscription riots might have had something to do with a pardon being lost at the time he was killed. It’s impossible to know.

I got the story from the same source the author did. She was given an account written by Richard Stillings, a history teacher, local politician, and career military officer, after his funeral. Richard Stillings was a friend of my parents, he told me the story, himself. His family lived in Berwick at the time Billy Laird lived, I think it is certain that his ancestors would have known the Laird family, so he probably got it from a line of transmission that began close to the facts.**

Dick was a history major and not a bad one. I once read one of his college papers and it was pretty good if quite conventional. He was smart and honest about history, though he was a liberal Republican of the sort which doesn’t exist anymore. You won’t be surprised to hear we fought about everything to do with politics if it came up. Since he knew I’d fight at the drop of an implication, he must have enjoyed it. He certainly provoked me often enough. Dick died twelve years ago and I wish I could ask for his comment. Jean Mary Flahive did a lot of additional research but said that she really only found the beginning and the end of the story so oral history a generation removed is probably as good as is available.

The book is a real novel so much of what it contains is either guessed at or invented, the author makes it pretty clear at the end of the book what is which. I think that her guesses were generally on the mark. The irresponsibility of allowing a mentally retarded boy to enlist in the army, the ill treatment he would have gotten, especially when he was separated from people he knew, the injustice of the military justice system that killed him with brutal indifference, though I’d guess it was with a generous measure of petty official enthusiasm. I have wondered if he wasn’t killed just as an example to others, a specimen of the institutionalized terror that all war machines practice as a means of forcing people to make war. I’d wondered if a mentally retarded boy might have been seen as expendable by military officers with too little to do stationed in Augusta, Maine where he was tried.

The completely invented material fills out the story into a narrative that tries to explain how he might have made it home. It’s suitable for its intended audience, though it goes farther than I’d have dared try.

I think the picture of his family and their reaction to the execution of a beloved son must be close to true. They recovered his body and buried him on their farm, where his grave still lies.** They must have loved him enough to overcome whatever shame would have accrued to them for having produced a deserter during the Civil War. I hope that is what that means. The story I heard was that they eventually left the town, having had their hearts broken by the injustice of it. The sadness of the story survived for the next hundred years as part of local history so I think there must have been more than a little affection for Billy Laird while he was alive.

“Billy Boy” is a good book for middle-school aged children and older to read, something to counter the constant pro-war propaganda that saturates the media in the United States today. Every decade or so there is a story about someone who was inducted into the military who shouldn’t have been due to their intellectual limits. Sometimes they are destroyed by the sadism or indifference of the military and its officers, sometimes it amounts to no more than cold blooded murder. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to change as the imperial wars the United States is brought into by corrupt presidents with real absolute war making powers continue. William Laird’s story is only a small story of a hapless soldier, one of those whose blood regularly runs down the palace walls of our pretend republic. It pulls back the curtain on “supporting the troops” in a way that wouldn’t ever remain buried in a real democracy.

* ISBN: 978-1-934031-13-1

** He told me on another occasion of having shaken the hand of someone who shook hands with Lincoln so he knew people who had been alive in the 1860s

*** Laird, William H., d. July 15, 1863, aged 30 yrs. 6 mos. 14 days. (53) (Executed as a deserter, but irresponsible.) BURIAL INSCRIPTIONS And other Data of Burials in Berwick, York County, Maine to the Year 1922 by Wilbur D. Spencer . I believe the age should actually read 20 yrs. I’ve never visited the grave, though I know people who have seen it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dissing An Idol and Feeling Better For It
by Anthony McCarthy

The furor over the essay posted below produced some good points to consider and a lot of silly fun over at Echidne’s blog. I did get too much of the latter by citing Thomas Huxley and Richard Dawkins to refute the instantly arrived at piece of erudition from the Wiki Rangers and Knights of Sagan that “only creationists use the word ‘Darwinism”. Though even that obvious refutation didn’t matter. You wonder at the phenomenon of people who won’t read or think but who frequent blogs that deal with somewhat complicated ideas.

The most ridiculous, though, didn’t come from the post-adolescent Sciblog wannabees but one Word Search able scholar who went into paroxysms of indignation over the use of the word “cull” to describe what Darwin lamented mightn’t happen in ‘civilised’ countries due to the level of charity available to people in the work houses of Victorian England. I got the feeling that the guy didn’t know the word before reading it in the essay. Come to think of it, he probably doesn’t understand the New Poor Law or have the skills to find out what the reference to work houses means so this will probably set him off again.

Darwin used a metaphor to describe the unchecked breeding of the “weaker members” of the human species and the bad results it would have for future generations. He said:

Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

He introduced the idea that it was stupid to allow certain people to have children after lamenting that they would survive to child bearing age. By comparing people to farm animals in this context he was clearly lamenting that people wouldn’t be treated like animals in a commercial breeding operation.

Let me stop here to ask, isn’t that outrageous enough in itself? Not even animals in the wild, but comparing human beings to animals in a commercial breeding operation? Where else have we seen that idea not only posed by carried out?

Darwin’s Defender didn’t seem to realize that animals selected as not to be bred are not kept as pets on a farm but are marked for early slaughter. I’ll point out that this is entirely in keeping with the earlier part of the paragraph where Darwin laments that human beings will survive long enough to breed.

The mechanism to prevent this happening in the human population, the one he approves of, the one he heartily approves of among the ‘savages’ is through the deaths of the “weaker members”. That the gentleman's son, Charles Darwin, would leave the culling to the 'savages' signifies absolutely nothing.

By the time Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, where the passage comes from, he was a very experienced writer who was used to having his language dissected by both those hostile to science and by scientists. To think he didn’t mean what he wrote is the kind of double-talk you get from idol worshipers, ironically, it is tantamount to saying he was ga-ga when he wrote it. I think he knew what he was writing and that it is clear he knew what happens to animals on the farm, he cited exactly the practices of commercial animal breeding in his work and would have known about its enormous usefulness to his great idea, which isn’t evolution but natural selection. The subsequent and dishonest assertion of his humanity does nothing to dissuade me that he knew the horrible conclusions that had to come from believing what he had just written.

I won’t write down to the level of people who don’t read what they comment on or who won’t look up references they don’t understand. It’s a waste of the time of those readers who do read and do the bother of thinking about what is on the screen in front of them instead of automatically looking to their database of skimpy, pre-fabricated, cliches and prejudices in order to fit in ideas that don’t match any field they’ve got in their heads. Writing down is an insult to people who deserve respect and it’s my experience that the ones who choose to be idiots aren’t going to change no matter how hard you try to explain what you’ve already written.

I will also not hold back because “creationists” might find useful material in what I point out. If it’s there, they’ve got the resources to find it . If the proponents of Darwinism are so worried about ‘science’ that they think covering up the truth will protect it, they care more about their ideology than they do about science. I have no obligation to join in with their cover up efforts.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


EVOLUTION, evolution, ideology and the continuation of LIFE.

For my sister-in-law, Dr. M.L.D., the ecologist who has talked through some of my questions with me.

Part one

EVOLUTION is long. Really, really long. It encompasses the entire duration of life on the planet Earth. Most commonly that is thought today to be a period of more than three billion years. That’s a number we are all familiar with hearing but getting your mind around what even one billion - 1,000,000,000 - years really consists of is impossible. What could a billion years mean to a person? What would the first, the last and all of the varied unknown and unrecorded days, seasons, years and ages in between years one and one billion mean. They are incomprehensible in their vast duration and compass of possible experience in terms of even the longest human life span. We have no frame of reference.

And not only is EVOLUTION (upper case) long, it is also large in numbers, encompassing, literally, all of the lives of all of the organisms that have ever existed. All of the organisms which have reproduced or been produced. That number is of many magnitudes larger than even the incomprehensible billions of years already mentioned. Consider, just as a sample of the complications, the known time periods between generations of living species of rodents, and of one-celled organisms. Consider the number of fertile eggs some species of plants, insects and mollusks produce in one reproductive cycle. Each of the surviving, reproducing individuals was and is a variation, many have the possibility of having an effect on future generations. Leaving the entirely relevant question of individuals aside, imagining even the number of what we might classify as species, each comprising subspecies, varieties, and other sub groupings is incomprehensible.

Now it’s necessary to make a distinction between EVOLUTION, the actual fact of life in both its ancient and contemporary diversity and numbers, and the human science of evolution (lower case), which attempts to study the mechanisms and artifacts of all those lives and to understand many different aspects of them, including the attempts to make general assertions about them. Let’s allow the conventional beginning of the science of evolution as the publication date of The Origin of Species, 1859. In that case, evolution as a formal, scientific, study has been going on for about a hundred fifty years.

Immediately we have come on something remarkable, the difference between the billions of years that EVOLUTION has been operating and the mere one hundred fifty years that it has been studied to date. The fraction which would represent the part of EVOLUTION which is taken up by the human study of it looks something like 150 over 3,000,000,000+. A hundred-fifty years outstrips the conscious experience of most human beings by about twice, but it would appear to be like the briefest noticeable moment when opposed to the time that EVOLUTION has been continually in process*.

As a way of beginning the approximation of how complete a picture our science of evolution can give us today , other factors, of equal and even greater importance than the number of years, species, and individuals, have to be considered. While the numbers yielded by these aren’t known we can know that whatever it is would tax our imagination so as to be incomprehensible even before multiplication of factors to be considered begins. It is far from the end of it.

There is much more to consider such as the individual physical aspects of the bodies and lives of all individuals which could impinge on the processes of EVOLUTION, those which we know about, those which we will never know about due to the fact that their traces are lost for all time. The physical record available to us represents an infinitesimally small number of the physical variations that must have had some impact on the species and individuals alive today. Many of the examples available to us may or may not be representative of whatever species we might assign them to, if we were able to. Added into that the impacts of climate, pathology, nutrition, and those entirely unavailable variables, behavior and chance happening, which would properly enter into the study, the data available to study might be seen as nugatory. We can be certain that the information we have available or will ever have available is inadequate to present even a general picture of EVOLUTION, our study must, therefore, be limited to only a small part of it.

If, by some miracle, the reproduction by a single strand of life continued unbroken over more than three billion years it would produce astonishing physical variation if only as a matter of chance mutation over time. To say ‘by some miracle’ is not accurate, though, because that is literally the case of every single organism alive as you read this. It has been a single unbroken strand from the beginning of evolution that has produced each of us, no two alike. And that is entirely too simple, because we are at the ends of intertwining stands through innumerable exchanges of genetic material among different organisms, all of them subject to the possibility of mutation. Reproduction by the numbers we are considering clearly produces variety of results, in ways and almost certainly by means which we can not begin to imagine. It would be literally miraculous if it hadn’t. One thing that it is essential to keep in mind, at every moment in that three billion years there was a living being that was the offspring of living beings and which produced living beings all living in an environment that allowed them to survive.

This experiment could lead us to an important conclusion, while EVOLUTION is a fact supported by the relevant science, the belief that we know more than a tiny part of that phenomenon is absurd. EVOLUTION, in terms of human capacity, is effectively of infinite complexity**. It is almost certain that much many more facts will be known if the study continues, maybe many times more than what we have now. I would propose that it is certain we can’t even suspect enormous parts of even what will be knowable.

But this daunting picture doesn’t mean that what we do know is unimportant. A mathematician once pointed out that given the infinity of topics that could possibly be taken up to study in mathematics, the question of interest becomes a matter of greatest importance. And as we have seen the possibilities surrounding EVOLUTION are equally taxing of the attention of the human species.

What do those who study evolution want from it? What uses can it be put to, what uses is it put to? To what extent do people who hope to make a profession out of the study of evolution allow their personal interests to effect their ideally objective science? Do they hope to get a certain job with people of a certain ideology? It could be the hope of professional acceptance that might shade what is concluded. It might even be that the science itself, what has been published to date and what is currently fashionable skews consideration. Does the professional study of evolution limit the science itself ? Do those engaged in it find what they are looking for and miss other things?***

And, by all means, we have to limit the consideration to those who accept that EVOLUTION is a fact and who do not try to impose an agenda which cannot be evaluated with the legitimate tools and methods of science. To do that removes someone from serious, scientific, consideration.

I have said that the science of evolution is important but it isn’t the most important thing in life. Life has gotten along for billions of years without our science, as shown in the fourth paragraph above. Somehow its having done so without the custodial care of human science almost leads to a feeling of anxiety. And yet it happened unobserved and unremarked by us.****

There is a consideration made much more interesting than evolution by necessity, today. We are in the midst of a mass extinction event caused by human activity. It endangers a huge part of the diversity of the biosphere, shutting off the lines of huge numbers of species, entire biotas are in danger of extinction. It is entirely possible that the products of science, technology, economics, politics and other human activities could kill us all.

EVOLUTION compared to the human study, evolution, is infinitely more important. Preservation of the thing studied is more important than the study of it. Our most important tool to preserve the biosphere, the only link between the entire past of life and the entirety of what life there is in the future, is politics. Politics is one of the greatest tools we have to correct human actions that endanger us all. The political success of environmental protection and species preservation is far more important than protecting any dearly cherished ideology of humans. Capitalism, communism, socialism, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, Darwinism - which, many of you will be surprised to realize, isn’t the same thing as evolution -, creationism, etc. None of these are as important as saving the planet, none of them would have the possibility of existing without the life of the planet being saved.

Even these cherished ideologies and theories which our educations falsely lead us to believe are paramount, are entirely dependent for their existence on the future of EVOLUTION. Whatever they can lend to that effort is necessary, whatever preserves the life of the planet is necessary, whatever endangers it must be rejected. This includes whatever these ideologies, sciences, fads, etc. do which results in preventing political change that is necessary to save the environment. Environmental science, in so far as it is used to preserve the basis of life is the most important science we have ever devised. It is the science that deserves our greatest concern and effort. It is the key to our survival.

* We could also consider the number of researchers in evolution and its allied fields and wonder how that number could compare with the range of what is included with Evolution.

** The opponents of evolution and those who deny EVOLUTION aren’t stupid. They are quite able to read and figure out the weak spots in the man made theories about it. Not being honest about those weaknesses, pretending that the fact of EVOLUTION stands or falls on the basis of current ideologies within evolution plays into their hands.

*** Maybe it is right to look at the body of professionals who make their living in evolutionary science as being the product of selection pressures, or of adaptation to their profession’s environment. While EVOLUTION is a fact supported by an amazing amount of science it is large enough and unknown enough to produce different ideas. Perhaps a different species of evolutionist would dominate the field if the cultural environment and, especially, those with the ability to fund it hadn’t favored a particular point of view. Being a casual witness to just the death match over the rather modest idea of “spandrels”, in the 90s its clear there was a struggle for survival and reproduction. How could they object to these questions being raised about their profession?

**** It is undeniable that EVOLUTION would have fared better in species diversity and, most likely, in the possibility of its continuing at all, if humans and our culture, hadn’t evolved. Though they are not entirely to blame, science and technology are some of the primary causes of the destruction of the environment. They have accelerated the process of destroying the environment through magnifying the powers of human despoilers and they have provided chemicals and mechanisms not found by those without science and technology. They have done this at a rate many times faster than they have generated the knowledge needed to preserve the planet. To deny that is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous. To allow that fact to go unsaid precludes possibilities of reform and we need reform in the behavior that results from science. Science is almost as important as politics in the struggle to save the planet.

Applied Science: Interlude Scherzando

Living on the left you may eventually come across a very rare species, the principled, Hegelian cheap-skate. The few I’ve met have been Marxists, though I’ve read about other varieties, even anarchist skin flints. This scruple against giving alms or charity avoids corrupting the destitute into complaisance by making life too easy for them. You might ask what separates the leftist tight wad from those who make up a far larger percentage of the right? The ones who we justly think of as selfish swine? As usual, it’s different because it’s a matter of science. “Science” is supposed to settle all questions of motivation, isn’t it? You see, in addition to affording the poor the moral benefits of the strenuous life, whether or not they like it, depriving them the price of a sandwich is a means to force them to shake off their torpor and do their part in pushing the dialectic ever onward, back and forth, until the glorious day of its arrival at its scientifically determined destiny.

One example, who could be named but who may still be alive and, one imagines, might be litigious, was a fixture of the New York left of earlier decades. He was a noticeably comfortable psychotherapist who on at least one occasion said that he had held to the principle against charity since learning it as a red-diaper baby. And, being what he turned out to be, I’d guess he still holds to it. In less charitable moments one suspects that his subsequent drift from Marxism to neo-conservatism in the great migration of the late 60s and 70s was due to his realizing he wasn’t quite the figure in the left that he had believed himself to be. Though, thinking it over perhaps the former Marxist was doing his part to move history onward. No doubt, if this is true, he is just awaiting the word, printed in some small magazine with a plain cover and chaste type face, that the dialectic over Manhattan is on the move again. Propitiation sufficed. And, if he hasn’t since died, he will end his days as a neo-com.

None of the devotees of principled stinginess who I’ve observed, though, have undertaken self-improvement and applied their principle to themselves, voluntarily making their own lot more desperately miserable in order to rouse themselves from the coffee house table or book shop stall to the barricades and a more active part in the workings of history.

As we see, some principles of science are easier to put into practical effect than others.

Early Selections

Part Two

Due to habits formed in the defense of the wall of separation and public school science against creationism it can be difficult for a leftist to read Marilynne Robinson’s essay, “Darwinism”. It is also uncomfortable for someone on the left to talk about Darwin’s language as she does because many will immediately assume you are a creationist, or accuse you of some other form of apostasy by stealth. This is guaranteed to happen no matter how explicitly you endorse EVOLUTION or a belief neutral, democratic government.*

But you can’t have integrity unless you say what you mean. You also can’t be a decent person if you don’t believe and act as if people are not objects, abstractions, mere ideas or actors in your dearly loved fantasy scenarios playing out what you take to be the grand forces of the universe.

In her essay, Robinson is unsporting enough to read Darwin and others and to believe that they mean what they have written. Asserting that someone didn’t really mean what he continually and lucidly writes should mean that he isn’t to be trusted. But in polite society you are expected to pretend it doesn’t in cases such as this. You are also to concentrate on the demurral appended as an obligatory afterthought and ignore the bulk of what is clearly proposed

As an example, among the quotes she dares to take directly from Darwin and others, I’ll concentrate on this one.

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The Descent of Man

Darwin regretted that the lower orders will be saved from necessary pruning by our sentimentality. That is as clear as the words he wrote. He was afraid that the level of charity current in mid 19th century, the time of Dickens’ England, was too much charity due to its impeding natural selection. Not that Darwin means to subject himself to natural selection. One assumes that the Darwins and the mostly well off families of his followers didn’t gave up the practice of vaccination or seeking medical care themselves. I’ve looked and can’t find evidence that early Darwinists refused medical care as a matter of principle, if you know of any I will revise. Thus these advocates of the benefits of universal human culling allowed sentiment to overtake their responsibility as members of the rational class, to husband their own stock to a higher state through the death of the underbred.** Perhaps this is something more noticeable for people who have reason to suspect they or, as in my case my great-great grandparents, were included in Darwin’s underclass. Perhaps your ancestors in the 1870s were also among those referred to above.

It is especially interesting to think about this passage due to Charles Darwin’s history of hypochondria - which seems to have begun before his marriage and his decisive reading of Malthus - his history of seeking treatments, cures and just about anything available to, how did he put it, have medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of Charles Darwin to the last moment. Was not such an unfit specimen as Darwin clearly judged himself to be, and he did apprentice as a doctor, marked as one for whom nature should be allowed to take its course?

Some sources say that he worried that his malady was heritable. Charles Darwin was the last person in the world to have missed that possibility. Wasn’t he an example of the worst kind who should be discouraged, at the very least, from breeding? Eventually he produced ten children, two of whom died in childhood, one a famously beloved daughter. You wonder if he thought about his own daughter’s death when he wrote this.

If you think it’s harsh of me to bring up his daughter’s death, do you think it was harsh of him and his admirers to meditate dispassionately on the benefits of untold other peoples’ children being weeded out of the breeding stock by small pox, other diseases, violence and starvation? Does it being called ‘science’ make that noble and good, or at least all right? Does it being “science” preclude further consideration of these matters?

How does this clear warning of dire consequences stemming from the vaccination of the lower orders differ in kind from the Imams in Nigeria advising people not to have their children vaccinated for polio several years ago? That is a real question and there is an answer. The difference is that the Nigerian Imams were afraid of the vaccine being tainted. There had been a drug test in Nigeria several years before which, they believed , had killed eleven children and disabled 200. ***They were also concerned that HIV might be spread through contamination during the immunization program. The clerics and government officials in Nigeria acted through ignorance and paranoia, perhaps, but their crime, for which they were roundly condemned, was an ill informed and ignorant attempt to protect children, not a tacit approval of their culling for racial hygiene. Does anyone reading this doubt that Darwin would have classed these children among the ‘savages’.

Saying that Darwin wasn’t actually advocating that many people die is dishonest. Does anyone really believe that with the thinnest of alibis for cover, he didn’t endorse the idea of allowing people to go unvaccinated, untreated, unfed and allowing a huge number of them to die of disease, starvation or in a horrific, violent struggle for food? He was informed enough about the governmental and economic practices of his time to know that his suggestions could easily have been put into effect with the slightest encouragement, almost by accident.

And he had seen the people he believed it was a folly to save on his travels and at home. Here is his list, “the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick .... [the alleged beneficiary of] poor-laws ... the weak members of civilised societies” all of these should be allowed to undergo what he approves of as the brutal culling found among “savages”. Does this list contain no actual people? Do you really believe that? With the benefit of reading this after witnessing the brutality of the self-professed, scientific regimes of the twentieth century the list should seem all too familiar to us. The word “selection”, also.

The effect of the Darwinists’ casual dismissal of the lives of people in marshaling opposition to the fact of EVOLUTION isn’t considered nearly often enough. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is a part of the opposition to the study of EVOLUTION is deluding themselves. The links between Darwin and those who overcame sentiment to put his ideas into practice are real and the opponents of evolutionary science know about them. Look at their websites if you think this isn’t true. Darwin shouldn’t remain the public face of evolutionary science.

Maybe less noticeable at first reading is that there is no supporting data given, at least in the edition I’ve got, to demonstrate his contention that vaccinating for small pox actually has the degrading effect he suspects. It’s a speculation based on his supreme theory, which isn’t evolution but the origin of species by natural selection. Darwin predicts dire consequences in vaccinated populations. I’ve not been able to find science from his time or up to today which supports his contention that it has this degrading effect. You wonder if the WHO shouldn’t suspend their efforts if such evidence existed. You also wonder what contemporary advocates of mass vaccination would make of this passage.

It is impossible to read Darwin and his circle and not be reminded of these things, once you have gotten over the habit of ignoring what’s right there in front of you. That was the greatest effect of reading Robinson’s essay, it is a slap to wake up and admit what is there to be seen. I’m sure she knew it would be misunderstood and misrepresented, yet she wrote it and her bravery deserves to be noticed.

Robinson points out ironies in her essay, none greater than the fact that the Darwinists and those who agitate for creationism effectively share the same economic morality. Looking at Republican social policy of the past thirty years, you see a practical attempt to remove any barriers to brutal selection forces. Only it’s called ‘competition’.

My question is how can the very basis of the left’s agenda survive the idea that our reason and morality don’t matter or that it is incompatible with what’s purported to be scientific truth. Equality, justice, democracy, a decent, peaceful life in a habitable environment. If the left really comes to believe that biology is destiny, that free will and good will are illusions or impotent, that the market of natural selection is the inevitable law that governs human lives, our agenda is wrong.

I don’t think it is. I think that the history of the past century proves it isn’t and that there is no realistic alternative to it. Too many of us have been duped through public relations into accepting fundamentally anti-democratic ideas that are based in the assumptions made by self-interested people with an agenda basically at odds with our ideals. I believe that the depressing, dispiriting effect of falling for various species of biological determinism leads to impotent cynicism. Those ideas have been given the test of time. They produce a nightmare.

That is the subject of the third part of this series.

* “Darwinism” is from the collection of essays, The Death of Adam ISBN 0-312-42532-5
Many, especially the throng of devout blog Darwinists who have never read him, might be surprised that Robinson concentrates first and foremost on the economic origins of Darwinism. They should go look at him and see that for him reading Malthus was his breakthrough event, literally everything springs from that moral atrocity. Malthus isn’t simply an implication or a starting point in the line of biological determinism stemming from Darwin he permeates it. Malthus is the seed, Darwin sewed it and it grew.

** You might want to contrast the content and tone with this passage, not much farther on into the book.

Man accumulates property and bequeaths it to his children, so that the children of the rich have an advantage over the poor in the race for success, independently of bodily or mental superiority. On the other hand, the children of parents who are short-lived, and are therefore on an average deficient in health and vigour, come into their property sooner than other children, and will be likely to marry earlier, and leave a larger number of offspring to inherit their inferior constitutions. But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. Nor does the moderate accumulation of wealth interfere with the process of selection. When a poor man becomes moderately rich, his children enter trades or professions in which there is struggle enough, so that the able in body and mind succeed best. The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labour for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be over-estimated; as all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work, material progress of all kinds mainly depends, not to mention other and higher advantages. No doubt wealth when very great tends to convert men into useless drones, but their number is never large ; and some degree of elimination here occurs, for we daily see rich men, who happen to be fools or profligate, squandering away their wealth. The Descent of Man.

“But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil.... Nor does the moderate accumulation of wealth interfere with the process of selection.” One suspects Darwin’s “moderate accumulation of wealth” which was not yet insalubrious included the wealth of the Darwin -Wedgewood families. Why, since he refuses to consider the possibility that humans’ capacity for reason, moral reflection and self-denial might exempt us from the brutal forces of natural selection, does he seem to think that membership in his notably brutal economic elite should render its members immune?

You also wonder why Darwin didn’t include the laws against stealing in the list of unfortunate curbs on the workings of natural selection. If you doubt that the laws protecting private property are one of the greatest inhibition of the weeding out of the unfit, imagine what would have happened in Darwin’s Britain if it was suddenly legal for the masses of the poor to take from those worthless drones bred to the aristocracy. The resultant struggle might have saved Darwin the embarrassment of explaining how he neglected to discourage their vaccination.

*** “The Pfizer drug test in 1996 is still on our minds. To a large extent, it shaped and strengthened my view on polio and other immunisation campaigns," said Mr bin Uthman. At the time, the US company had used an untested drug on children to fight an epidemic of bacterial meningitis in the Kano area. Lawsuits have since been lodged against Pfizer in the United States and in Nigeria, alleging that the drug trial was illegal and that it killed 11 children and left 200 others disabled.

N.B I’d thought of writing a post about the politics of Darwinism within science, having followed a few of the vicious fights over even minor attempts to introduce additional mechanisms of evolution for consideration (no, ‘intelligent design’ wasn't even considered) but it would have gotten way too long. One of the things found while researching that topic was this abstract by Susannah Varmuza of the University of Toronto. This says it better than I can.

Evolution is an idea that inspires huge emotional responses, in part because it speaks to our very identities. The religious overtones associated with debates about evolution are not restricted to those between evolutionary biologists and creationists (the inspiration for the quote above). Among evolutionary biologists, there is an aura of deification of Darwin that tends to stifle discourse on ideas that are construed by the mainstream to be anti-Darwinian, perhaps, as pointed out by Gould (1981), to counteract the political machinations of the creationist movement. Over the decades, attempts by non-traditionalists to introduce new thinking into the study of evolution have met with either stony silence or rancorous derision. Goldschmidt, Gould, and proponents of Lamarckian inheritance can still raise hackles, even posthumously (‘Goldschmidt is a bum!’ echoed around the lecture theatre at a recent scientific meeting, 44 years after his death.

You should read the entire thing if you’re interested in evolution and genetics. I’ve got the feeling the epigenetics might help open up a lot of new areas into the effectively infinite reality of EVOLUTION. But they will have to stop pretending that Darwin can't be questioned first.

The People Posted by Anthony McCarthy

formerly known as olvlzl

The People are the foundation and the ultimate authority of democracy. Democracy assumes that The People will rule themselves better than despots or elites or even “a government of wise men”. Democracy assumes that The People will act more wisely, more justly, more fairly than other authorities. Most of all, including all of these benefits, democracy assumes that the collective actions of The People will be more beneficially effective in the real world than any other form of government.

In order for democracy to be preferable to any other known form of government it has to pass a fairly low test, to produce a better life than undemocratic governments. The history of the world provides conclusive evidence that The People could hardly do worse.

There are four fundamental prerequisites for democracy to exist, The People must be assumed to have political equality, they must have a sufficient grasp of the truth to make the right decisions, and they have to have a sense of fairness, honesty and decency. It must be taken as given that The People possess the inherent rights to govern their lives and their polity. In order for democracy to really exist, these have to be more than assumed, they have to be made real. Without these prerequisites, democracy is a sham.

But the exercise of rights, though they might be said to be unalienable, cannot be exercised outside of a context which will permit it. Democracy is notably rare in the world, it is gained with enormous difficulty and it is difficult to keep. Would be rulers are always endangering it and elites actively despise it even as they appropriate its words as tools of deception. In the modern world one of the dangers to democracy is the propaganda power of mass media and in the United States that media is owned and controlled by the economic elite. We have the example of the media here perverting the concept of democracy to the point where it is to be held as unremarkable that George W. Bush - brought to office by Supreme Court ruling, approving a clearly corrupted election in a state ruled by his brother - claims the right to impose democracy, by unprovoked invasion, on a foreign country. When words become slogans without any coherent substance, the truth can’t be told. We are at a crisis which is destroying democracy and which endangers the entire biosphere.

An even greater danger to Western democracy is the loss of confidence by The People in our own ability to govern, when we doubt our actions can be beneficially effective. That is seen in low voter participation rates, the cynicism with which government and politics is regarded and the ever lower regard in which The People are led to hold ourselves. An apathetic, demoralized, jaded population is set up for subjugation.


I began with a section about the immense dimensions of EVOLUTION. In the arguments that ensued no one disputed the contention that it was effectively infinite when compared with the capacity of the human population to deal with even those data which could be obtained. Less noticed, since it was unremarked, was the contention that the enormous duration and numbers of EVOLUTION would allow it being known through only as a minute part of the whole. I mentioned that this limit in what was knowable might apply to mechanisms governing the processes of EVOLUTION which the human study of it might devise or even discover. I am going to state that as probable, if not a given.

The “Interlude” mentions, very nontechnically, the Hegelian dialectic, a form of allegedly scientific determinism which has had at least a nominal effect in many countries. It has never been very influential in the United States. Those countries which followed Marx, more in the breach than in the observance, can be said to have followed that form of determinism. I’ll leave it to you to consider the largest of those countries, China, and the results for both The People of China and the Environment in which they will have to try to survive. I will also leave you to consider what it might have to teach about the probability of elites saving the planet.

This “Interlude” was originally meant to be published at the beginning of what became the discussion of Darwinism, but was broken off in a futile attempt at concision. The subject wasn’t specifically Darwinism or the dialectic but political theories which do not start with the assumptions necessary for democracy, but in various forms of determinism, biological, historical, and others. All of these theories begin by aspiring to the objective reliability and prestige of science. Some are more scientific, others take the prestige but make do without the objective reliability. The social sciences are replete with examples.

Darwin, resting on the reality of EVOLUTION, was certainly an important figure in science, no one can deny that just as no serious person can deny EVOLUTION. But from before the publication of The Origins of Species, as that book was incubating, Darwinism was more than just an attempted explanation of EVOLUTION.

We love our pet ideas and in the competitive struggle for attention and professional recognition the promotion of them can outstrip the fact that they are all contingent. The competitive pressures in university departments, the ruthless need for scholars to defend their goods, the need of the would be intellectual descendants of those holding a department or, in the worst cases, entire fields, often lead to the use of less than objective means to render competitors extinct. The desire of elite scholars and their intellectual heirs to promote their ideas to the point of invincibility is, perhaps, a result of scarce resources. I don’t know if it has ever been studied in those terms. It isn’t any surprise that such loudly touted ideas have the potential to leave a cultural legacy that can outlive the position they hold in intellectual life. Freudian psychology is a definite example of that. Such ideas have a life outside of science, They aren’t required to adhere to the requirements of science in the wider culture, though they never give up the pretense to have remained faithful to its exigencies.

It is mentioned in an earlier section that the position of natural selection, like all of the contingencies of science, is open and, in spite of enormous resistance, active. But that isn’t my fight. There is another aspect of natural selection that I believe is more important for democracy and, through it, the survival of the species.

Part Two, analyzed a specimen of thinking which became influential in the general culture. I think any honest observer of evolutionary science and the enormously varied cultural descendants of it would admit that is true. While quotes from other people could have been used, this one encompasses enormous political implications. Since the political implications of this kind of idea are the subject of this essay, that one is entirely fit for the purpose. An idea of science that steps into the mechanics of politics has made itself the proper subject of political analysis. I will finish the analysis begun in Part Two.

Whatever else this application of natural selection* to human populations asserts, it unmistakably holds that not even democratically chosen actions will reliably produce effective beneficial results overriding natural selection.

Darwin clearly didn’t think they would in this case. After Malthus, he warned of dire consequences that were practically certain to result if what he identifies as the “weak members” of the human species happened to leave descendants. He all but guarantees that if they live to reproduce, disaster for the entire population will result. Inequality is assumed as a given, it is assumed to be an intrinsic part of the operation of natural selection, even in its assumed govenance of the political lives of reasoning humans.

Darwin identifies the mechanism of the disaster, the failure of natural selection, and he identifies the cause of the failure, charitable aid and medical care which will allow survival to the point where children are born to these “weak members” . I am sorry if it is difficult to face that analysis but it is inescapable, that is what Darwin said would happen. Unsupported by corroborating data, he confidently expressed that the attempt to take effective beneficial action on behalf of these People would lead to tragic consequences. And notice, he assumes its intended effect, relief to the Wretched of the Earth, would be achieved. Its success was the problem.

After giving his dire forecast in steely, in what I must believe he felt to be, ‘manly’ language of dispassionate science, Darwin looked aside meekly and said that the aid must be given. This subsequent assertion, less vivid in language, that we must give that unwise aid though it lead to disaster, frankly, is irrational unless he pits the interests of the “weaker members” against the good of the rest and opts for the “weaker” ones. You might even say that he opts for them in spite of the good of themselves, since they will also experience the degenerating human population, front row seats, most probably. And in the paragraph, even as he is striking these moral postures, he is continually undermining them. **

That soft insistence on taking cross-starred moral responsibility is not one that all contenders for his mantle would feel it was necessary to observe, despite its having been made by Darwin himself. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the world would know that the demure assertion of moral responsibility would be forgotten while concentrating on the crisis it was clearly stated would result from it. Darwin witnessed the so-called reforms of the New Poor Law. That “reform” slashed aid to the poor, making the lives of the poor of under them even more miserable than before. Yet he condemned it as a too charitable hindrance to natural selection. Like the present “reforms” in the United States, forcing “competition” onto the weakest members of society, producing cohersive misery was its intended result. It is a bitter irony that the party embracing creationism and opposing EVOLUTION, has made this feature of Darwinian-Malthusian morality the dogma and law of the United States.

Though Darwin’s assumption of inequality is corrosive and the callousness infectious, the assumption of the uselessness of reason in the face of natural selection is fatal to democracy. The assumption of the futility of human intelligence to overcome an entirely theoretical “natural force” is the original sin against democracy that virtually every deterministic theory holds. It is in their application to human politics and society that the intended subjects of them have a fully justified skepticism of such theories.

It is one of the strangest features of the writings of many who assert the rational, scientific precision of their thinking, that they discount the effectiveness of human reason to change reality for the better or for humans to govern their lives by reasoning. You wonder how they could put their faith in reason or expect anyone else to care about it, if that is true. As I demonstrated, they tend to hold themselves outside and above the very laws they assert. You wonder how they account for their faith in science if reason is so impotent and it’s application has such notable exceptions.

I think it is because they are trying to force tools that can’t do the job. When Darwin and the rest try to apply science to the effectively infinite complexity of human thoughts and actions, both individual and, especially, collectively, to say they cut corners is one of the greatest understatements made in the history of language.

EVOLUTION is measured in billions of years, the universe of human thought and action is equally measured in the billions, no two People alike, everyone, now and in the past, more than just a variation, changing and dynamic over years of each individual life. The details and infinite variety of behavior, communal interactions, the infinite capacity of human beings to act well or badly, honestly or deceitfully, with hidden motives or little self-reflection, but most of all on the basis of reason and experience, precludes science from ever knowing more than a small fraction of an effectively infinite universe of human life. It is illogical and unreasonable to believe that science can make general laws about it.

Science cannot exist where there is no physical evidence which can be observed, quantified and analyzed. The temptation in scholarship is always to look for the grand unified theory of whatever. In the pursuit of a science of human behavior, of political and economic science, those grand theories have come and they’ve gone. In between, their pretenses of objective reliability are necessary for the professional prestige and funding of these efforts but that is seldom achieved except in studying a small part of the whole. Before they fade from science, they gain currency and have effects that often outlive their reputable lives in science.

Science absolutely depends on the observation of the physical universe, the physical universe is what it was made to study, it can’t study anything else. That is why assertions of intelligent design, even if it was true, have absolutely no place in a science classroom. You would think that religious believers would take it as an act of desecration to assert that science could perceive God who we are told you cannot see and live. If it is an act of blasphemy to put God to the test of statistical analysis, though, isn’t my subject here.

That those trying to subject human beings to the rule of science do not find free will or much in the way of the human rights which are the essential prerequisites for democracy to exist, is a confirmation of the nature of science. In their folly, due to their professional and personal arrogance, they assume and pretend that since they can’t find them they aren’t there. They aren’t alone in doing that, it is the habit of elites of all kinds to deny them, certainly to those less elite than they are. But anyone who seeks after these rights or, most often, the falsification of them, with science in order to make their name as the discoverer of a primary law of the universe is a fool. Unfortunately, their status can make fools of us all.

In The Trial of Socrates, I. F. Stone points out that despite the condescending derision with which the sandal maker is treated by those earliest scholarly enemies of democracy, Socrates and Plato, at least he could make a pair of shoes while Socrates and the entire subsequent 2,500 years of the history of philosophy couldn’t find even one Universal. Not so the world of scholarship has taken all that much notice of the fact.

* With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit*, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind*; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage*, though this is more to be hoped for than expected. The Descent of Man

** Please notice the final note of pessimism and the discouraging, conditional reservations throughout Darwin’s would-be humanitarian demurral.

In addition to my sister-in-law who discussed the scope included in EVOLUTION with me, I would like to thank Echidne who has allowed me to write at length on controversial topics, who has put up with my losing my temper a few times, and who writes one of the best blogs online.

I would also like to thank Marilynne Robinson whose essays provided the missing idea in a piece I’ve been thinking over for a long time. I would also like to thank those who have read and responded to what I’ve written for the past two years.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

from More Just So Stories

Gina Kolata of the New York Times New Service began a recent piece in the usual way, with an explanation steeped in the current fashion for explaining everything as being an expression of an ancient and adaptive genetic heritage:

Everyone knows men are promiscuous by nature. It's part of the genetic strategy that evolved to help men spread their genes far and wide. The strategy is different for a woman, who must go through so much just to have a baby and then nurture it. She is genetically programmed to want just one man who will stick with her and help raise their children.

Surveys bear this out. In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.

Which is an odd way to start when you go on to read the rest of the article which is about the surveys which show that heterosexual men, on average have had about three to four more sexual partners than heterosexual women. You might have seen similar “scientifically conducted” polls bandied about on the blogs, on TV and perhaps even mentioned as yet another prop for biological determinism of gender roles.

However, there is a huge mystery about all this. Who are the extra women these men are having sex with and why are they apparently keeping silent about it. Otherwise, it just couldn’t figure.

- It's about time for mathematicians to set the record straight, said Dr. David Gale, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Surveys and studies to the contrary notwithstanding, the conclusion that men have substantially more sex partners than women is not and cannot be true, for purely logical reasons," Gale said.

Dr. Gale goes on to give a simple demonstration with equation anyone with fourth grade math could master. But not most of those in the media and even on some "Scienceblogs".

Despite all the confident assertions that the reported disparities are “proof” of a genetically programmed difference between mens’ and women’s brains apparently the original reporters of those illogical numbers know that what they’re reporting is bogus.

"I have heard this question before," said Cheryl D. Fryar, a health statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics and a lead author of the new federal report "Drug Use and Sexual Behaviors Reported by Adults: United States, 1999-2002," which found that men had a median of seven partners and women four.

But when it comes to an explanation, she added, "I have no idea."

"This is what is reported," Fryar said. "The reason why they report it I do not know."

While they’re noticing these seldom mentioned lacunae in today's common received wisdom perhaps they might want to notice something else.

Despite the reservations I’ve expressed here about polling and, even more so, the reporting of polls and surveys I do know one thing with absolute certainty. The methods of polling today are much, much more reliable than those of the Pleistocene period, the period about which the stories like the one at the top of this piece, are told with such confidence by biological determinists. We have no idea at all if our early ancestors were swingers, none. If men today, most of whom seem to be able to count, at least on their hands, are unsure about how many women they have had sex with, why would men at the dawn of humanity be more credible? Even with the techniques of modern polling? Maybe cavemen were liars and it is the propensity to lie about such things to people like pollsters (and other interviewers) which is the actual heritage we have from them. At least we know with some confidence that the lie is real.

In the end of Ms. Kolata’s article is this:

Ronald Graham, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego, agreed with Gale. After all, on average, men would have to have three more partners than women, raising the question of where all those extra partners might be.

"Some might be imaginary," Graham said. "Maybe two are in the man's mind and one really exists."

Maybe the stories of evolutionary psychology need to be subjected to similar levels of scrutiny.

P. S. For all anyone knows it could have been males with strong pair bonds who had a competitive advantage in the Paleolithic period. Maybe men who spent their time hankering after the, one assumes, sparse population of women instead of working were less likely to reproduce. Maybe women thought guys like that were creepy lounge lizards. It seems to me that the evolutionary psychologists, who, perhaps, have more leisure time to spend among college students less than half their age could just be projecting their longings back in time. Stranger things have been known to happen.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Irresponsible Corporate Media Makes Responsible Government Impossible

Note: I was going to write a followup to this piece in light of this weeks bridge disaster and the soon to be laid aside interest in bridge inspection and repair. However, that wasn't possible. The reason the matter, clearly a matter of saving lives this week, will be laid aside is due to the collusion of conservative politicians and the media which supports them. It is the "tax and spend" chanters who have brought us to this. While it is profitable for their campaign supporters to build an enormous and complex infrastructure, it costs money to do do it right in the first place and to maintain and eventually replace a superannuated structure. That's when the howls of the right wing begin and responsible voices are silenced.

The Boston Globe had a column by David Luberoff last year which clearly explains the origins of the emerging Big Dig disaster. He points out that the project, originally funded through the federal highway system, lost a lot of its federal support half-way through. Instead of facing that reality, the politicians in Massachusetts didn't make up the difference with state and local taxes and tolls. One of the truest things in life is that while you often don't get what you pay for, you never get what you don't pay for. You know that's true when you are dealing with a large corporation like Bechtel with armies of bean counters making sure that they get maximum profits from their projects.

What went wrong in the face of warnings by people who knew what they were talking about - Massachusetts has probably the highest percentage of those on the continent- is just beginning to be studied. While they are looking at that I hope someone will look into the more general political atmosphere that led to the bad decisions. I don't only mean the steady stream of Republican governors during most of the Big Dig.

Given their refusal to monitor themselves for accuracy and responsibility, we won't get the media's role in promoting gross irresponsibility in politicians. At least not from them. But it really does largely fall on the media. Through call-in shows, wise-guy on-air personalities, connected owners and those who have created today's media sewer, anyone who steps up and tells the truth, "You want this done, you are going to have to pay for it," gets their head handed to them. They make lying and dereliction of duty requirements for retaining a political office or civil service job. Reporting with enough time or column space to really explain an issue costs more while the truths uncovered are insufficiently entertaining to maximize profits. And some of those truths might be most unwelcome at the club.

The Republican Party, who used to pride themselves on responsibility, now specialize in this kind of winning through lying. With the media fully in support they tell lies designed to win elections. Most people have a weakness for believing what they want to hear. The busy public, without the technical knowledge or time to look at the details buys the lies until reality strikes and they can't ignore it any longer. How else do you think Bush I lost to Bill Clinton despite the insane press adulation following Bush War I and the war they waged against Clinton as soon as it was clear he had a chance to win?

But if you want good government, safe and effective civil engineering projects, the rest of the benefits that only government can deliver, then we can't wait for the disaster to deliver the real news. The cost in lives, time and remedial action are multiplied many times by the lies and propaganda spread by the media.

The often repeated line, "Good, fast or cheap. Pick two." sums up the current political climate that this irresponsibility has produced. But as the Big Dig is beginning to prove, good is the only way to get faster and cheaper. Maybe the same applies to news media getting it right. But getting it right isn't what today's profit-driven and cynically self-interested media is all about.

The Globe had an article in which Michael Dukakis defends his administration's role in the Big Dig. Having read about the project from its beginning, he makes a good case. But Dukakis is just a boring detail guy the press rejected two decades ago

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Science Without Physical Evidence, Dawkins Brings Us Back To The Middle Ages.

"Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question." Richard Dawkins, quoted by H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books, Jan.11, 2007.

he first thing to notice about this odd passage is “Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide....”. Why “whether”? Its an absolute fact that there is no physical evidence available. None. No medical records, not even skeletal fragments. No physical remains of the woman or son or possible father in question are available nor is their possibly surviving lineage known. It's unlikely in the extreme that those will ever be identified. Why try to obscure the fact that there is none of the evidence necessary to examine the question with science when it is indisputable that there isn’t? So, Dawkins proposes examining the question scientifically without any physical evidence. He proposes determining the paternity of a child without anything to go on, whatsoever.*

Perhaps somewhat more understandable, since it’s Dawkins, he says that you can deal with the assertion of something that is claimed to have happened miraculously, outside the usual order of things and exactly once in the entire history of the world in the remote past, with science. With the claims made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth, even argument by analogy can’t address it. When an event is claimed to be unique, there is no possibility of making a comparison with another or even every other event proposed to be similar. Any scientific comparison with any other event would be irrelevant to the claims of a miracle unless you had physical evidence of it**

The total lack of evidence and the claim of uniqueness renders it clearly and most certainly NOT a question science can deal with. And this from the Oxford University Professor of The Public Understanding of Science. Certainly among the first things to understand about science are when there isn’t enough evidence to practice it and when there is. That is something that hasn’t stopped Dawkins in the past, however.

Much as it must frustrate those who would like to deal with some religious questions with science, much cannot be. They might not like that fact but that is just too bad. When the physical evidence necessary to study those is lost to history or non-existent, that is simply impossible. Pretending that you can proceed without the evidence it is dishonest and, beyond doubt, unscientific. You can believe or not believe the claims but using the prestige of the name science to back up your assertions can be done honestly only under specific conditions. It also carries a serious responsibility.

No one has to believe in the Virgin Birth, this short piece isn’t about that. This is about how one of the most famous and arrogant personalities of science can get away with saying something so stunningly absurd. With his status in contemporary culture, it’s just amazing that a person holding a position like Dawkins’ conveniently ignores something so basic to science.

If biologists are content with having Dawkins being the face of their science, they are exchanging short term glamor for long term problems. It is growing clearer that in the political climate in democracies that science can’t support the dead weight of extraneous ideologies unnecessary for it. I will make a prediction that you can check out later, if Dawkins truly becomes the face of evolution it will continue to face fierce opposition by many of those he insults gratuitously. Its research funding will not be secure. In the face of his arrogant condescension, a large percentage of the public will not understand the science or want to.

* While it might be fun to point out, going into the need to give God a paternity test only heightens the apparent absurdity of Dawkins claim that this is “a strictly scientific question. Science not only can't deal with these kinds of things, it makes a mockery of science to try it.

**. Your only hope to determine the accuracy of a claim of a miracle is to look at whatever evidence of the specific event is available and see if the claimed result happened. Modern claims of, for example, miraculous cures of physical diseases, could, very possibly, be investigated by science but only by examination of the physical evidence. Without that, science can’t be used to investigate the claim.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

This Comment Posted By olvlzl Was Not Submitted For Approval.

Finally got to a computer with a fast enough connection to watch digby’s address , which, if you haven’t heard it yet is, of course, excellent. I understand that one of those bloggers in the background was none other than our own Echidne. Echidne, you fully deserve to be on stage with digby and I can’t imagine a greater blog honor than that one.

Echidne of the Snakes is one of the distinctive voices of the internet. Its serious feminism and leftist political content, actual understanding of statistics and other necessary math, mixed with unusual point of view and style, produces a mix that couldn’t be replaced. The community that Echidne has established is, consistently, on of the most civil and intelligent anywhere. Anything else just wouldn’t be the same. The big problem isn’t that those are in danger of running out there isn’t any evidence of that happening.

The problem of blogging is that it is in almost all cases a volunteer activity undertaken by people who are not financially independent. The best bloggers have to find time in a real life to do the reading, thinking and writing necessary to produce good, original work. In full time blogging, producing three or four original pieces a day, it can become the equivalent of a second, full time job or more. I was reminded of just how hard that can be to sustain in the past month. In a life that is relatively free of overhead costs just producing three posts a day on a continuing basis was too much. I don’t think that it is likely that the best bloggers who produce the best work can continue to do so forever, even the most miraculous of them can’t just keep going forever. Burn out is an occupational hazard.

We, the users of blogs, need to take into account what is provided by the best bloggers who write original work. And we should be willing to financially support those who provide us with some of the best thinking available. A reliable support mechanism for the best bloggers is also the biggest obstacle keeping the blogs from providing us with the most necessary of all activities, original reporting of facts. Digby mentioned a support mechanism in her address, that is certainly worthy of looking into (which I will do as soon as I can get back to listen again and take notes) but there isn’t anything to keep us from giving direct support now. Bloggers need to be supported if they are to continue producing excellent work. It’s as clear as that.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who’d of Thunk It?
A paper reports the news and the people read it.
Spending so much of my time bemoaning the media it was good to read a Buzz Flash piece by Rory O'Connor about a small paper that did some reporting, The Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The people at that paper did something like what the Boston Globe did in breaking and pursuing the clergy sex abuse scandal but it was the Boys Scouts and they went up against the Mormon establishment instead of the Catholics.

Here's what happened: after receiving a tip that a pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had not two victims (as the paper reported at the time) but actually dozens, Post Register reporters went to the courthouse to look for a civil suit filed by victims, only to be told that there was no such case. They later learned that the national Boy Scouts of America and its local Council had hired two of Idaho's best-connected law firms to seal the files -- thus covering up the entire affair.

Or so they thought... But the Post Register went to court and "dragged the case file into the light of day." What reporters found astonished them; scout leaders had been warned about the pedophile years earlier, but hired him (again!) anyway. Lawyers for the Boy Scouts knew about more victims, but never told those boys' parents. Top local and national leaders of the Mormon Church, which sponsors almost all area scout troops, had also been warned.

The Post Register ran a six-day series about the affair. The first story featured a 14-year-old camper -- "the son of a Mormon seminary teacher and a cinch to become an Eagle Scout" -- who forced adult leaders to call the police about the pedophile.

Then the backlash began. Mormon church members were among the first to complain, characterizing the paper's coverage as an attack on their faith. "The drums banged, and we were flooded with calls and e-mails and letters to the editor from readers who told us that holding the Grand Teton Council accountable was Mormon-bashing," Miller recounted.

The backlash came as well from advertisers, and the economic pressure built everyday the paper ran the series. "It's one thing to lose an account when you're an employee," Miller wrote. "It's quite another when you're also a stockholder; 140 employees hold close to 49 percent of the company's stock. For many families, this is their retirement." Nevertheless, he recalled, "Most of what I heard inside our building were words of support." Publisher Roger Plothow was also staunchly unapologetic throughout, "standing up with a stoic and clear-eyed defense... for the values of journalism."

The attacks weren't just financial, but personal as well -- including the outing of a gay staff reporter, Peter Zuckerman, by a local multimillionaire who bought full-page ads devoting several paragraphs to establishing that Zuckerman is gay. "Strangers started ringing Peter's doorbell at midnight,"

The local paper stood up for the right of their readers to be informed over what would seem likely to be a pretty severe punishment, financially and personally for its staff. Like what Bogart did in “The Front Page”.

But unlike in the movies and beyond what you, and the media itself, might expect, the paper that reported the news doesn’t seem to be suffering.

"One of the sweeter moments of our year occurred when we received figures from our circulation audit. While the sales numbers of other U.S. newspapers were in free fall, we were among the nation's faster growing daily papers."

Now that's a surprise ending. A story of a courageous newspaper staff and ownership that doesn't end in bitter-sweet cynicism. Maybe other papers should stop the presses and do a rewrite of their own story.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cutback In Writing Activity

A sudden change in my situation will apparently force me to cut back on my writing both here and at Echidne of the Snakes blog. I will be drastically cutting back on my comments on other blogs, probably the most positive development in this thing.

I hope to post one or two substantial pieces a week and to share them among the two blogs, maybe better quality will result.

Though the course this change in my situation will take isn't clear, for now it doesn't look as if it will lead to the complete end of my writing.

Thanks to everyone who has read what I've written and responded to it.

Friday, June 08, 2007

What Is This Thing Called Blog?

My partner in blogging has done two quite fine posts off of Joe Klein’s whine about those mean bloggers.

Here is my raw comment on the second of them

Blog comments are revelatory in a lot of ways but, as you note, they aren't a revelation of some aggregated average viewpoint. The way that we’ve become so trained by things like polls and (badly analyzed or conceived) sociological surveys into thinking in terms of some kind of mythical average that we apply that habit in places where it becomes entirely unrealistic. Klein is part of the media system that has replaced the reporting of facts with junk like opinion polling, he has a financial interest in continuing this kind of fraud. Here it suits his purposes, of discounting his most biting and accurate critics. In the old media that isn’t something he has to worry about, they’re all in on the con.

At first blog comment threads were confusing and at times depressing. It took so much sifting of the chaff to find anything worthwhile. But if you look on it as a vital diversity instead of confusion it stops being depressing, though often no less confusing. Freedom, the real thing, not that thing that Bush and his kept media talk about, is good. Freedom both depends on and produces diversity of ideas and opinions, it doesn’t exist without diversity. The old media doesn’t do diversity, the really old media, inexpensive print media, did but electronic media is all about selling their audience to advertisers, not about its content. They latch onto something that has worked somewhere else and try to reproduce it, struggling to keep ahead of the attention wave. And in the largely unregulated cable markets the more violent and sensational the more likely they are to attract the few percentage points available. That crucial market would probably be endangered by real information or thought. The only requirement is that it not endanger profits or the interests of the owners.

Before a sociologist gets peeved at me, there are some good sociologists, just as there are some good cognitive scientists who don't make absurdly broad claims about their research findings. The media can be counted on to do that to their work. The best ones try to correct the distorions. You've heard me on the ones who do their own inflating and distorting so I'm not opening that can of worms today.
olvlzl, no ism, no ist | Homepage | 06.08.07 - 6:28 am

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I’d used part of this article in one of the pieces critical of the behavioral sciences but should have read it through to the end. If I did it would have shown me that even someone who is favorably disposed towards Evolutionary Psychology (EP) doesn’t dismiss the possible political dangers of it out of hand.

Whether or not EP is correct, I hope this Handbook will convince you that it is not scientific window dressing for a political ideology, but rather a compelling scientific approach to human nature. This does not mean that EP is harmless. Critics, fearing EP to be a Trojan horse of the right, have raised countless objections to EP, objections that, as this chapter has shown, would border on the absurd were they raised against one of historys most successful scientific paradigms: the functional, mechanistic approach to organism anatomy. What the surprisingly myopic critics have failed to perceive is that the power of EP will be, not to prevent change, but to cause it.

Fully realized, EP would constitute a functional understanding of the neural circuits underlying our every thought, emotion, and action. With that understanding would come the power to mold our humanity to a disquieting degree. Perhaps it is naïve to believe that EP can keep up with the manipulative expertise of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, but serious critics of EP would do well to re-read their Huxley and Orwell. The dangers of EP lie as close to Brave New World and 1984 as they do to Mein Kampf.

More worrisome, EP challenges the foundations of crucial enlightenment values, values we undermine at our peril. Perhaps the mix of secular and religious values upon which the priceless institutions of democracy rest are like a tablecloth that can be quickly yanked out, leaving everything standing upon some solid, though as yet unknown base. But I wouldnt bet on it. We are at a cross-roads. A vibrant science of human thought and behavior must always be able to question its own premises, and is thus utterly unsuited to be that solid base. Yet if we discard the secular, quasi-scientific notion of the blank slate, or even subject it to genuine scientific scrutiny, we may threaten institutions far more valuable than a science of human nature.

The vital question is not, as most critics seem to think, whether EP is correct, but whether any real science of the brain is prudent.

Having no professional or ideological stake in protecting Evolutionary Psychology but as a student of the history of the past hundred and twenty years I go a lot farther than that.

Evolution happened over a period of 3+ billion years. The studies in behavior and cognition are just beginning to find facts, they haven't escaped their own history of what would charitably be called "speculation". In fact EP indulges in quite a bit of that itself. To believe that the relatively small number of scientists attempting to apply evolutionary knowledge various theories of their own (themselves even more recent) and claiming to have a relatively complete picture of these most unknowable aspects of human experience calls for deep skepticism. To assert that their ideas are applicable to politics or society now is absurd. It is professional wishful thinking of the type that has proven to be dangerous when earlier attempts at “real science of the brain” made outsized claims which damaged and destroyed all too real people. The damaged stemmed from loony theories of sexuality, phony intelligence testing and other methods of labeling people into categories up to and including those put into the line designated as worthy of death.

History has facts that are more tangible than the theories and fables of these sciences. History has run these experiments already and the results are in. Nothing that these infant sciences has produced negates those truths.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Doing The Least I Can Do Because I Didn't Do What I Should Have Done

I'd planned to write about a piece posted at DAS Blog last month but events got out of hand. You can read the original piece here, it's as timely today as it was then.

You might want to also read this piece One for DAS at Adventus.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Classic Example of Why Counter-Bigotry Is A Bad Tactic

Peter Hitchens ruined what could have been a somewhat useful exploration of his brother’s foul personality, bigotry and blood thirsty advocacy of mass violence with a bit of bigotry about third-party atheists he has never met. Other than that it’s a somewhat interesting inside look at a case of imploding ego. In the greater scheme of things Peter Hitchens piece is about as important as anything said about Patricia Heaton’s inner life. If he had stuck to his real subject, his rotten brother, it could have made somewhat larger ripples. Now his own bigotry is the subject.

My rules about peoples' ideologies:

- Look at what they do, not what they say they believe. Their actions are the real belief, words are cheap.

- Forgive minor fudging in memberships, unless it's something like Opus Dei, The Republican Party 2007 or some other bigoted and or murderous bunch of fascists.

- If they accept "I'd rather not hear about that, thank you," they get, maybe, up to two minutes (unless their story is interesting). If they won't accept "I'd rather not hear...” proportional increases in rejection up to and including "Leave this house, now!" come into play.

- If they're rude and dismissive of other people on the basis of their harmless beliefs, religious, ethnic, gender, identities... then all bets are off, they have made themselves fair game for the hammer and tongs.

It's how the individual person acts that determines how they should be treated.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

First Posted Sunday, July 09, 2006; With Further Comment on May 28, 2007

Believers and Non-believers on the Left Must Unite For the Common Good Part One: in which I come clean

It would suit me if this blog didn't have to deal with the divisive, complex and extremely personal topic of religion but the fact is most Americans believe in a God and belief has a profound impact on our politics. Religion can't be ignored or dismissed. The participation of both non-believers and believers is essential for the left to succeed politically in the United States.

I don't think that the left would come out the loser in an honest religious fight. Make that an HONEST fight, not one assuming that the imperial religion the Republican right promotes is the alpha and omega of "faith". It's not even the alpha, they, themselves, don't believe most of it but that's for later. Before going on I'm going to let you know where I'm coming from on the issue.

About religion, nothing can be objectively known. Science deals with the physical world as observable and measurable phenomena. No measurements, no science. Science is plainly the most successful way of knowing about the universe. Religion doesn't deal with what is knowable in an objective way. Religion is belief of something beside what can be physically known. Real religious belief can't be objectively passed on by reason or repeatable observations, it has to be experienced personally. Remember, I'm talking about authentic religious beliefs, not about fundamentalism or organized, dogmatic religion. This isn't an encyclopedic survey of asserted beliefs.

I believe in God. I can't tell you what that means. Again, religious belief is an experience not a logical argument that can be transferred. The experience didn't really happen to me until I'd studied non-theistic Buddhism and saw that not surviving death held no terrors. If you are gone after death then there will be no suffering and all you need to worry about is what happened while you were alive. A single life contains as much of the universe and eternity as you can experience. What is outside that life effectively doesn't exist for you. I felt very comfortable with that idea, it gave me a profound sense of peace. The Buddhist doctrine of the end of pain put me at peace with the fate of all those I knew and loved and I expected that to be the end of the search.

But something unexpected happened on the way to where this would lead. I suddenly believed in God, not the God of my youth but an indefinable though deeply felt experience. I also believed in universal salvation, of continued conscious existence, eventually beyond pain, for every sentient being.

If you want to challenge me to account for this belief I fully admit that I can't prove any of it. Anyone who pretends that they can prove it is lying. You are entirely within your rights to reject it. You are within your rights to suspect that it's a psychological aberration, an odd ball quirk of personality or some weakness. Though I hope that you couldn't find anything in my actions to support those accusations.

I don't think the worse of you if you don't believe and don't think that disbelief is a sign of moral failing. Several of the people I have respected and loved most were complete and aggressive atheists who I refuse to believe are suffering in any way due to their honest disbelief. I don't believe that honest atheists enjoy less divine favor than I do, in fact, I seriously suspect that my belief might indicate that the deity doesn't trust me to be a decent person without it. I fully accept on the basis of observable actions that complete non-believers are sometimes fully as moral or even more moral than some religious believers.

I will, however, object if you are rude or rudely dismissive while you are being skeptical of someone's belief on the bases of discourteousness and impracticality.

The practical implications of religion and the left are the subjects of this uncharted and irregular series. The belief is personal and so prone to being entirely wrong, the actions resulting from the political agenda of the left are real. As the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki might say, they are real in every sense of the word. Their reality makes them morally imperative in a way that personal belief cannot be. Religion like political philosophy and economic theory should be judged on the actions and results that arise from it, not from the idealized descriptions and assertions of it.

There, that's about all of that and you shouldn't have to put up with much more first person in this series.

Update: May 28, 2007
How naive I was. It is impossible to talk about these things, even with rigorous attempts to avoid becoming the focus of the discussion, even with this kind of pre-emptive explanation and assurance and to avoid people looking for motives beneath what was said. In what was to become the second of this series, posted here to huge controversy before the fall elections, I tried again.

I am bringing this up because I suspect there is an effort to stir up these questions just now. Articles in MSNBC-Newsweek and elsewhere might indicate an attempt to kick up a religious fight before the fall election. My interest in this is entirely in its effect on practical politics, I want the left to win this election, winning is the most important thing for the next two months. We can live with a certain level of atheist-religionist animosity, we cannot win an election with leftists falling for the bait the Republican right puts out for it. Leftists can be counted on to come to the defense of atheists who are targeted for discrimination. If atheists are in danger of life and limb, we must do that. But this all too timely row has nothing to do with life and limb. It is not pressing.

That piece was attacked by a prominent, anti-religious blogger. Her distortion of it at times resonates within the atheist blogosphere today. It has affected my efforts. I still mean everything I wrote in that post and believe that subsequent events, involving some of those who attacked me before the last election, prove some of it to have been accurate.

These issues are important in politics, that is the reason I bring them up. The subsequently dealt with auxiliary issues in the behavioral sciences and scientism are also important because they have an effect “on practical politics”.

There is a mind set in some materialists that reflexively rejects all ideas that could conceivably imply the existence of a God or anything supernatural, leading, sometimes, to quite tortured effects*. The remarkable and at times uncharacteristically emotional content of many of those rejections leads me to believe that it is more a matter of personality than it is of following scientific evidence. There are some things I don’t care if they reject, organized religion among them. There are things they can reject personally in the most derisive and bigoted language which won’t have any negative impact on the world, those also aren’t worth bothering with.

But I have to confess that there are also ideas that, likewise, cause me to become quite emotional, perhaps for personal reasons. I’m not alone in that. On one occasion Barbara Jordan shocked people by saying that she would be willing to “shed blood” to preserve the right of The People to cast a vote. Barbara Jordan didn’t say so without good reason. She wasn’t prone to empty histrionics on important issues. I will do more than just defend the basic assumption of individual rights, inherently possessed by people simply because they are people. The exercise and extension of those rights were bought at too high a price by people throughout history.

I will not ignore an intellectual attack on personal rights, freedom of thought, freedom of belief and absolute equality before the laws. Not even attacks dressed up as science. If science is incompetent to find these freedoms, history and human experience demonstrate them to be there and fully worthy of cultivation and protection. If you doubt that those are valid mechanisms to find the truth you should consider that science is also based in human experience treated in a very specialized manner to establish a specific type of reliability. Science doesn’t answer all questions. Those freedoms, unless they impinge on the freedoms of others, are absolute. They extend from the most rigorous and brilliant thinker with the greatest of hearts to the most humble of us too caught up in the struggle for sustenance to enjoy an education or a life of the mind. Absent actions that harm other peoples’ exercise of their freedoms, those ideas and the expression of them are theirs.

I will not ignore attacks on those freedoms and allow them to go unanswered. I will not follow any fashion that would lead to their endangerment or that might lead to their necessary precursors being hollowed out or undermined. That kind of fashion will get as rigorous a critique as I have it in my abilities to make.

* This excerpt from “The Atheist Ethicist” might be illustrative:

What we are looking at reasons for action that exist for and against a prohibition on pornography. Yesterday, I ruled out reasons for action that do not exist. Intrinsic value and divine rights are reasons for action that some people bring into this debate. However, these reasons for action do not exist. Desires are the only reason for action that exist.

I also ruled out desires that cannot be fulfilled. A “desire that P” (for some proposition P) is a reason for action for bringing about a state of affairs in which P is true. If P can never be true, then the desire that P cannot be fulfilled in any state of affairs, and does not serve as a reason for any action. Even if P can be true in some states of affairs, but action A will not help bring about that state of affairs, the desire that P is not a reason for action A.

I used this to throw out desires to do God’s will and desires to realize something of intrinsic value (since these desires cannot be fulfilled under any real-world states of affairs).....

Also illustrative of the wider point.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being - Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever* - is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we - all of us, including the secular among us - are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said.

There are many people who would utterly reject what Krauss, quite reasonably, said if he had been a religious believer but who might not since it says he doesn’t believe. What he said would have not been different, his “personal preference” would be used as proof that the reasoning and honesty of what he said was tainted. They don’t subject the rantings of Dawkins et al to the same rule of evidence.

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