Happy New Year!

Random thoughts to kick 2014 off:

– I’d like it better if my comments on other blogs were pending immoderation.

– A clumsy ballerina walks into a barre…

– Who decided that Pachelbel’s canon was Christmas music? And on that topic, you can (pretty much) sing the Green Day song Basket Case over it.

– Along similar lines, Jabberwocky can be sung to Greensleeves. And Home on the Range/Joy to the World works as well. But the winner is Purple Cow/It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.  Next time you have an ‘It’s a Small World’ ear worm, just try that Purple Cow thing – guaranteed to make you long for Disney tunes lickity-split.

Favorite old jokes:

– Two cannibals are eating a clown, when one turns to the other and asks: “Does this taste funny to you?”

– What do cannibals serve at cocktail parties? Donner party mix.

– A spy is sent to rendezvous with a contact named O’Reilly at an Irish pub. In order to get the information, he is to give O’Reilly the password: “The moon shines bright upon the heather.”

When he gets to the pub, it is crowded – hey, its the Irish. Since no likely candidate presents himself, the spy decides to act – he goes up to the bartender and asks, “Say, has O’Reilly been by this evening?”

“O’Reilly?” responds the bartender, “Why, this town if full of O’Reillys – there’s O’Reilly the butcher, and over there’s O’Reilly the baker, O’Reilly the bricklayer – in fact, I myself am an OReilly.”

The spy decided to risk it. Glancing furtively left and right, he says to the bartender, “The moon shines bright upon the heather.”

“Oh, so it’s O’Reilly the spy you be lookin’ for!”

Merry Christmas (for 6 more days! Hurray!) and a Happy New Year!

No, As a Matter of Fact, We Are Not Destroying the Planet.

Back in the age of reason, by which of course I mean the Middle Ages, where the great thinkers were too busy using their minds to waste time crowing over how reasonable they were, it was recognized that people are the only earthly creatures created for their own sake. The rest of the material universe was created, at least as far as we could tell, for the sake of something else. That something else was us.

This bit of philosophizing would, I suppose, strike the desiccated post-post-modern mind as rank hubris. It is in fact common sense, both in the abstract sense of what a sensible person would believe and in the more concrete sense of how we all commonly sense things.

We know, somehow, that we are in charge, sort of, at least on a day to day basis. Caretakers. Sure, stuff happens, and its not like we’re in control of the weather or can boss the whales around – but it’s our job to sort of see to things, keep tabs, and maybe step in, once in a great while, to nudge things back on course. In this sense, we are different from the other animals – if we behaved like any other animal, we’d throw the last panda on the barbeque without a second (or first) thought.

Even crazy people get this. When they complain about how people are destroying the planet* they tacitly admit that we have a duty not to destroy it – a duty shared by no other creature. And we should save it (whatever that means) for what or whom? Is death by red giant in a billion years really better than death by – what, exactly? – right now? Why? Who cares?

Lurking necessarily here is the belief that people are different – better, even – than animals. We are different in that we can in fact be held responsible for what we do to the world. We are different, ultimately, because the world was created for us. We are to live in it, learn from it, love it, care for it, and use it.

Wild dogs text

The real hubris is believing that we have the power to destroy the planet. Ratcheting down the hyperbole a notch or 10, what people seem to mean by ‘destroy the planet’ is something like ‘disrupt some of the ecosystems so much that life becomes difficult and unpleasant for people’. Sure, the language used includes concern for species going extinct slightly before their time, but that just betrays a lack of understanding of Darwin – species go extinct, get used to it – and an assumed point of view where it is natural and good to care about other species – why would that be, exactly? I suppose if we really put our minds to it, we could even kill off all people and other large land animals with a huge nuclear war. However, even in that unlikely event, earth would keep on keeping on. In a few million years, a visitor from another planet wouldn’t even know anything in particular had happened without a Geiger counter. If the recovery from whatever wiped out the dinosaurs is any indication, in a few million years all the niches will be filled and fascinating new animals and plants and fungi and such will be all over the place, and just as inhuman as Darwin can make them.

Which, one would presume, would be fine with that particular brand of anti-human nature lovers. So, like, why don’t they just shut up already? If what they want is a world free from the pollutant of human beings, and what we are now doing is destroying the planet in the sense of making it unlivable for humans, all that’s required for their particular Nirvana is patience. And if you lack patience, you could always kill yourself, which both helps the process along and improves the mental environment for those of us left behind.

Further, to even want to save the planet from us betrays a certain lack of perspective. Mammalian species typically only last a few million years, tops, so the earth stands a really good chance to be rid of us in short order, naturalistically speaking, no matter what we do. Unless, of course, we’re not just animals.

But, alas! We are not in fact destroying the planet, even in the limited sense a less unhinged view demands. Baring a space princess event, if anything it could be argued that we rather seem to be making it better – a fact certain to infuriate a number of people.

How are we making it better? If, in fact, the world has been created for us (how or by whom doesn’t really matter for the argument), then the more people able to live well on the planet, the better. Right now, there are about 6 billion people living pretty good lives on this planet. They’re not starving, they have a place to sleep at night and clothes on their backs. All they need are family and friends to be pretty happy, as far a human happiness goes. And – here’s the kicker – we’re pretty much aware that, on the whole, life is better and more interesting the more interesting creatures live in the world. We like forests and rivers and lakes and mountains, and so, for the most part, we have begun to take care of them – for our sake. Who else’s sake could we possibly be doing it for?

Nature as imagined by the ‘people are destroying the planet!’ crowd: new life is nurtured to peaceful, harmonious fullness by constipated wood faeries.

Recently, Google published an amazing map showing the world’s forests. It shows places where the forests have, on net, been cut down, increased and stayed the same. While most of the essays I saw used this map for the usual panic mongering (one notable exception was an essay that pointed out that, if trends continue, pretty soon deforestation in Brazil will stop entirely) what I saw was more mixed and interesting. For example, zooming in on Vermont shows a state almost completely forested. Yet, a couple hundred years ago, Vermont was heavily farmed. What happened was simple: once land in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest – much better land and climate for farming – became available, Vermont farms started shutting down. Today, Vermont is one of the world’s major producers of quaint, and the land has gone back to forest (except for a few quaint farms).

So, sometimes forests come back. Darwin** wrote about the primeval mixed chestnut forests of the American southeast, how they had been largely cut down by the native American mound builder cultures, yet, by the time curious English naturalists got a look at them 400 years later, it was all but impossible to tell they were not old growth. America shows vast areas that are now forests that had been cut down at some point. Even here in California, where we stopped cutting down redwoods (more or less) once we were down to 5% or so of the original forests, there are vast areas once clear cut that, in a few hundred years, are going to look very much like primordial forests.

What the map showed me was that it’s not a one way street. In Europe and America, it appears forests are on the whole spreading. When I see the areas in Canada and Siberia where heavy logging is now taking place, I wonder about how those areas looked 100 years ago and how they will look 100 years hence. In 100 years, there very well might be more Brazilian rain forests than there are today – that would certainly fit the pattern.***

And this pattern – people wanting to restore nature for their own pleasure – is everywhere. Out here in California, a number of efforts are underway to restore the Bay and Delta wetlands. Turns out we like wildlife and natural beauty. Chesapeake Bay is being quickly, in environmental time-frames, being restored. Sure, the argument says we care about nature – but we can only care about it means something to *us*.

Of course, there are many environmentally bad things going on. Getting the rare earth metals and other materials for wind farms and electric car batteries, for example, have created this. (The irony, not to mention hypocrisy, involved in creating huge toxic sites and poisoning third world peasants so that rich westerners can feel better about our extravagant use of energy is bracing.) But it is simply wrong to think that, in general, people are careless of the environment. We all like to live someplace pretty, tidy and safe – that desire, barring other considerations, extends to the world around us.

So, no, “we” are not “destroying the planet”. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Instead, people all over the world are working out how to make the earth a more pleasant place to live – for people. Which includes, happily, making it a more hospitable place for life in general.

* The people destroying the planet are not them, personally, of course – they chose paper, drive a Prius and recycle, activities which in some mysterious way save the planet. The problems of logging to make the bags, safely creating and disposing of the batteries in the Prius, or the rapidly diminishing returns on recycling are just better or more easily ignored problems than the problems of, say, frakking, which merely helps supply the cheap energy needed to keep the internet up and running and all their gadgets and gizmos (including that Prius) humming at prices hundreds of millions of people can afford to pay. But let’s not over think this – that would require some initial thinking.

** I think it was Darwin in Origin of Species. One of those early guys. I haven’t even finished my coffee.

*** Isn’t anybody working on regrowing the north shore Mediterranean pine forests? The ones cut down to make triremes?  That would be cool.

Bit Parts

As is surprisingly often the case, the wisdom of Galaxy Quest illuminates the relevant conundrum:

Guy Fleegman: I’m just a glorified extra, Fred. I’m a dead man anyway. If I’m gonna die, I’d rather go out a hero than a coward.
Fred Kwan: Guy, Guy… maybe you’re the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?
Guy Fleegman: Plucky?
St. Philip Neri
St. Philip Neri, patron saint of plucky comic relief

Who of us does not sometimes, perhaps even daily, feel we are hopelessly trapped by the Sarris Dominion, and that best we can hope to do is go out a hero?

Fleegman faces every man’s existential moment: we are just glorified extras. It takes the wisdom of Kwan to make it clear that we should consider if we are not, in fact, the plucky comic relief.

The real issues, the real revelation: this movie is not about us. We are not the star. The best we can hope for is a bit part, maybe even the plucky comic relief.

The real movie is about this:

What could it hurt?

And this:

Which involves this:File:Marco palmezzano, crocifissione degli Uffizi.jpg

This:

Which leads inexorably to:

Which is first step and type of:

Close up of the big crowd shot right before the closing credits.

You don’t have to carry the movie. In your scenes, which are pretty brief in the big picture,you just need to keep the wheels moving and maybe deliver a laugh line.

And, if you do well, if you provide the needed plucky comic relief, you just might get to be the 323,187th guy in the 57th row on the left in the last scene. And that ain’t bad.

Simbang Gabi 2013 Wrap-up

We made 5 of 9 5:30 a.m. Masses this year, including the big Christmas Eve finale today.

Then we had breakfast in the gym. There was a band:

Band

In real life, they are in better focus. To answer the burning question in the minds of all musicians who have ever performed in public: yes, they were pretty much in tune, and, no, the ratio of time spent tuning to time spent performing wasn’t 30:1. How you tune 6-8 instruments with what looks like about 20 strings each so as to 1) get into the in-tune ballpark; and 2) stay that way for more than about 3 minutes in a drafty gym is yet another Christmas miracle beyond human ken.

There was food, including chicken soup:

soup

The little brown stuff in the nearly empty bowl on the left is roasted garlic to sprinkle on the soup.

And desserts which, like the band, are in reality quite in focus:

dessert

Here’s what it looks like all put together as an artsy still-life:

still life

This bowl of  soup was 50% chicken chunks – luck of the draw, I suppose. The brown noodles are semi-regulars at simbang gabi breakfasts. The desserts consisted of 3 different gelatinous goodies. The purple stuff is quite elastic – the guess is that it’s some sort of taro root thing. One little degenerate square-oid is the right amount, pictured here. The cream and caramel colored ones were quite yummy. In fact, the breakfast as a whole was quite delicious.

Filipinos are happy fun people. The priest mentioned in today’s homily about joy how Filipinos just love to be happy, and said his favorite picture from the late typhoon disaster was of a young mom carrying a baby daughter against a backdrop of destruction – smiling and flashing a victory sign.

Wow. But not surprising.

A happy, holy and blessed Christmas to all of you and yours!

Simbang Gabi! 2013

capiz lanterns

We’ve made 4 out of 8 of the 5:30 a.m. novena Masses so far. Filipinos are such warm people. Tomorrow, for the last day, they hold the post-Mass breakfast in the gym, with live bands and dancing. Seems a good way to wrap up Advent. We’ll be going, finishing up having attended 5 out of 9 – our typical batting average over the last few years.

 

More Evolution: Philosophical Genes

File:DNA orbit animated static thumb.pngMore musing on evolution, following this and this. Sometimes, it seems people get confused by genes as the units of selection versus genes as the gene sequencing machines process them. So here goes:

Let’s call the first idea philosophical genes. When one says that a race horse has inherited great speed and fragile ankles from its parents, one is not concerned primarily with the molecules that effect this inheritance. It could be (and seems to be) that inheriting a trait as complicated as running speed involves a constellation of molecules in the horse’s DNA. Be that as it may, for evolution by means of natural selection to work logically, there must be a mechanism or mechanisms by which a) traits that can be selected are generated; and b) such traits can be passed on.

This logical requirement is prior to whatever mechanisms embody it – we wouldn’t even go looking for physical genes if we didn’t require them philosophically to make sense of natural selection.

I’ve gotten my history of Darwin’s theory after its initial promulgation a bit piecemeal, but if my understanding is correct, this requirement of a mechanism for the production and inheritance of traits was seen as a weak spot, since inheritance itself is tricky: offspring do not always appear to be some 50/50 blend of parental traits, or any other simple formulation. Traits can skip generations, then reappear. Actual inheritance as expressed in traits that can be selected appears too messy to hang an entire revolutionary theory on.

Mendel fixed all that. (Eventually – the entertaining Catholic Encyclopedia article from 1917, less than 2 decades after Mendel’s work was finally brought to light, says: “T.H. Morgan does not hesitate to say that Mendel’s laws give the final coup de grace to the doctrine of Natural Selection, and others consider that his views, if finally proved to be correct, will at least demand a profound modification in the theories associated with the name of Darwin.” See the rabbit holes here? Now I want to find out what T.H. Morgan says – and who the heck is this T.H. Morgan, anyway?) Or sort of fixed all that – Mendel’s theories are tidy for very carefully selects pairs of mutually exclusive traits, which are far from all or even most traits that attract our attention. But at least a simple framework within which to investigate had been established.

Within that framework, we can start to see, however dimly, how the mechanical workings of organic chemistry result in, say, slime mold or birds or Yankees fans. But we’d hardly bother if we didn’t have the logical need, under Darwin, to look into it.

Dawkins concerns himself almost exclusively with philosophical genes. How it is, exactly, that perturbations in strands of DNA produce Darwin’s finches isn’t nearly as interesting to him as the existence of the finches in the first place.  The evolutionary biologist needs for there to be a mechanism, but doesn’t necessarily need to know how it works.

In my chicken scratchings here, I likewise focus on the logical fall-out from embracing a gene-centric view of the origin of species. I tend to think it’s the correct way, scientifically and philosophically, to view it. From a gene-centric point of view, predictions can be made that are a bit counter-intuitive – which are the best kind. Key among these is the dizzying perspective of the gene’s eye view, how behaviors and traits that make no sense from the individual organism’s survival can nonetheless make perfect sense.

 

Science: Evolutionary Theory as a Logic Exercise

(An hour* to kill, so let’s muddy the water on, as Dr. Xavier says, Eeeevolution!)

Natural Selection Meets Semi-Intelligent Design: I mean, who thought that keyboard axe thing was a good idea?

So, we last left the topic of evolution by means of natural selection as described by Dawkins in his Summa The Selfish Gene and in his follow up The Extended Phenotype with a couple of bald assertions:

1. The key intellectual assertion underlying Darwin’s Origin of Species is the claim that tiny pressures can, if consistently applied over long enough time, result in substantial, material change. I’ll add here the critical lemma: these changes may appear as if they could only arise by conscious design, but that is an illusion.

2. A key idea implicit in The Selfish Gene is that selection pressure doesn’t need to be applied to every individual in every generation to have an effect, allowing for the possibility that traits might be selected for that promote survival in the face of comparatively rare yet sufficiently recurring ‘pressures’.

To expand: Darwin was famously influenced by the geological uniformitarianism of Lyell and Hutton. (BTW: People who come up with 10 dollar words like uniformitarianism should be taken out and shot. How about calling it the Same Laws Assumption? Two fewer syllables, clear, easy words. That, I suppose, would be too pedestrian for big-time science guys. But I digress…). Tiny, generally imperceptible geologic events can result, over time, in the Alps or the Grand Canyon. And so, the seemingly tiny yet controversial step: same thing applies to living creatures.

Continue reading “Science: Evolutionary Theory as a Logic Exercise”