Class Warfare Blog

August 5, 2018

Free Will and Neuroscience … at Odds?

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:13 am
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I have written quite a bit about Yuval Noah Harari, who is an Israeli historian who has written the bestselling book Sapiens, which examined the course of early human history. Now that he is a public intellectual of some note, what he says carries weight. In a recent interview in The Guardian, he is quoted as saying:

This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.

I do not want to address the topic he is zoned in on, just one of his toss off lines, namely “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will.”

I would hope that this is something an historian might say and a scientist would not. (Actually I hope that an historian would be even more circumspect than a scientist, but that is just me being an eternal optimist.) There is an argument one can make, a fairly strong argument, that free will isn’t free, that we live in a deterministic universe, one full of just causes and effects. But the line Harari uses sounds like a fact, like something proven that we should accept.

I believe that any conclusion, at this point, regarding free will is premature and I offer an example for your consideration.

In the recent conclusion of this year’s World Series of Poker, the finalists played “head-to-head” for ten hours. There were 199 hands of Texas Hold’em played this way. The final nine players played 300 hands to reduce the field to the final two. So, ask yourself: was every decision of the two finalists made deterministically? Did the cards and the situation determine every decision made? If you answer “yes” you are a determinist who believes there is no such thing as free will.

I cannot accept this explanation right now as I have seen a top player throw away the winning hand at one point (he had a flush) because he missed seeing it. So, was the hand determined by the fact that he didn’t see the flush in his own hand? His hand was, I suggest, but what pray tell is the cause of that effect? I think you can speculate for days and not really answer the question. He was fatigued? Maybe. Was he was focused on other things? Maybe. Did his eyes have a glitch in visual processing in his brain? Maybe.

I think the identification of the cause and the effect is at the crux of making a claim of a deterministic universe and I still see this as an inexact procedure.

Most determinists conclude the universe is this way because of problems with the “other way,” the way of free will, being able to decide “otherly.” But that doesn’t automatically make determinism the correct way by default, not unless you can show what determines what in an unbroken chain leading to decisions over and over.

Poker players get the same hand (roughly equivalent to exactly equivalent hands) quite a number of times. Occasionally they get the same hand two or three times in a row. (In Texas Hold’em, the player’s hand is only two cards.) I have seen players play the same hand completely differently, one time aggressively and one time passively. They change their playing persona from time to time (from being “tight” and only playing premium hands to ATC, Any Two Cards will do). They change the conditions they will play hands from time to time. One player of note changes his approach based upon what time it is. There are many subtle things going on, but my point is how to answer the question “what are the causes for each of these decisions?” Is there no room for “the fog of war” in which decisions get made haphazardly? Why are some of the decisions made perplexing even to the players who made them (they cannot explain why they did what they did)? What role does fatigue play? Frustration? Hope?

I am not saying that all of these decisions (200 hands, each player makes 6-10 decisions per hand in the final stage alone) cannot be deterministic but I do not yet see that they have to be.

A basic problem I have is with the microscopic slicing of holistic processes. Consider a golfer’s swing. Coaches, using their eyes and high speed video, have broken down golf swings into finer and finer bits. They talk about the bits ad nauseum. But really, what real difference is there between a back swing to 90° from the ground and one that is 89° from the ground? Each golfer’s swing is unique with common elements, but none of the fine slices is necessary as some very accomplished golfers do without them. If you look at finer and finer slices, you get farther and farther away from things that really affect the outcome.

The same is true for determinists. They talk about neuron A being connected with neuron B and if A is stimulated, then so will be B … see determined. This is too simplistic. Individual neurons in the brain have, on average, 1000 connections to other neurons, even as many as 10,000 connections. This is not like an electronic device in which we can trace the pathways of electrons through the conductive paths. The number of paths for neural impulses is completely mind boggling. The number of connections in a human brain (synapses) is a thousand or more times the number of stars in the Milky Way. One neuron does not lead to the next in an easy to describe chain, it leads to many, many nexts.

So, while arguments can be made that our decisions are determined, that argument hasn’t been completely made yet.

And I really wish public intellectuals would not state hypotheses as if they were facts. Instead of Harari saying “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will …” he could have just as easily said “Even though neuroscience seems to be telling us that there may be no such thing as free will….”

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August 2, 2018

Evolution Disbelief: Understandable … But Why?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:36 am
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It is clear that a rejection of the theory of evolution, the cornerstone of all of biology (and other sciences) stems from religious beliefs. The question I have is: why? There are some who put all of their chips on the table (All in!) regarding this issue. They say that “if evolution is true, then Christianity is false.” This does not necessarily follow but clearly if the theory is correct (and it is as correct as a theory can be at this point in time 150 years after its first exposition) then parts of Christianity are incorrect, but there are more than a few biologists who use the theory almost daily and are also Christians.

In this argument, I think they flaw is in the “all in” attitude, making much more at stake than there really is. (This is a common ploy—over exaggerating the danger of <fill in the blank> to. Consider the early environmentalists claiming that we are destroying the planet, which is ludicrous; we are just destroying the ability of our planet to support a large population of human beings. The planet will be fine, no matter what we do. [Hint: Subduction cures all damage to the crust over time.])

In reality, most of the religious do not know enough to understand the theory in order to have an opinion. Their opinion was handed to them by their religious leaders.

But do you go to a car mechanic for medical advice? To a dentist for financial advice? Why would anyone take science advice from a cleric?

I think there is a healthy dose of wish fulfillment involved her. As much as some Christians go around preaching Christianity as the way to eternal life, according to them, everyone gets an eternal life! The only question is do you want to got to Heaven to spend all of that time or do you want to go to Hell?

Most Christians have only the vaguest idea of what Heaven will be like. I haven’t yet met one who could talk on the topic for more than a minute or two, even though they could describe their most recent vacation for hours if you would let them. So, I don’t think it is the attractiveness of Heaven that is involved, rather the fear of Hell.

Here’s the conundrum. If, as the clerics are saying is true, that the Theory of Evolution directly contradicts divine scripture, that if that theory is true, then scripture is false, why hand only scripture. The motivating factor is the avoidance of hell and you could avoid it big time … if it just didn’t exist.

I suspect that the idea of pursuing those thoughts is just too scary for most, that the warm, fuzzy ideas of Heaven and Hell (Warm?) are too familiar and besides everyone assumes they are going to Heaven, so everything is cool.

A moments thought would dispel such myths. Think back on the most pleasurable five minutes of your life. Now think of an eternity of that feeling. Boring bordering on torture! (Realize that the logical extension of just getting “some peace and quiet” is called solitary confinement which is coming to be recognized as a form of torture.) Variety is the spice of life, no? I suspect many people think their life will just continue as it has but will be much, much better. Your kids will be good looking, do well in school, taxes will be low, etc.

If you think about it, both Heaven and Hell sound like places of torture. (I just remembered the episode of The Twilight Zone in which a gambler thinks he has died and is in Heaven. There are casinos in Heaven (of course) and he wins easily when he plays. What a life. Then he twigs to the fact that not only does he win easily, but he never loses. There is no skill involved, no risk, no reward, and no pleasure. He questions his host as to why Heaven would be this way and his host comes back with (I am working from memory here) “Why do you think this is Heaven?” (Bwah, hah, hah!))

Any pleasure, ecstasy, carried to extremes creates dullness and apathy … at best. But Heaven will be different … right? Let’s ask the guy who gave us the good science advice!

 

July 10, 2018

The Effing Elites Do Not Care About You or Me … Unless We are Making them Money … and Possibly Not Even Then

Filed under: Culture,Politics,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:25 pm
Tags: , ,

Read it and weep.

https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-epa-and-the-pentagon-downplayed-toxic-pfas-chemicals?utm_source=pardot&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter

June 21, 2018

Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God?

The above title is that of an article in Scientific American (July 2018) by no one less than the inestimable Michael Shermer. The subtitle is “Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?”

Even more fascinating is Mr. Schermer’s answer: yes!

Actually, this answer is quite puzzling. In his piece Mr. Shermer quotes British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar who wrote: “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” This, I think is correct. The scientific ego is boosted by actual results and so scientists shy away from problems deemed intractable, unsolvable. But, until one tries to solve a problem, how does one know whether it is beyond them? And, even if it is beyond us now, how can we know it will be beyond us forever?

I am of the camp that we will understand all three and, in fact, have good starts on all three questions. The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions.

For example, if you came up with an ironclad proof that the Christian/Jewish/Muslim god did not exist, how many people would say “Well, dang, and all along I though God was real. Foolish of me, don’t you think?” And how many would say “I don’t not believe such secular nonsense!” (Go ahead, guess; I dare you!)

The audience here has a different standard of proof than scientists have. If you accept something as proven only when it reaches the standard of a mathematical proof, no scientific proofs could be had at all, but if you establish the level of proof to be as good as “the sun will come up tomorrow,” then the Christian, etc. god is proven to not exist already (in short, the claimed supernatural powers are in conflict with one another). This level of proof is good enough for scientists who use no divine mysteries in their works, even though they may still participate in their local church communities (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the existence of any god or gods).

Similarly, the general public will never accept the idea of a deterministic universe as they feel, that is feel in the first person, that they are “free” to make their own decisions. The idea that we are not free to do just that undermines all religions, social justice structures, etc. so do not expect the general public to accept that there is no such thing as free will. (I do not accept the deterministic arguments at this juncture as there are any number of problems with the current deterministic interpretations, including a signal-to-noise problem of immense size.)

It is rare that I find myself in disagreement with Michael Shermer, but one of the rock bottom principles in science is that authority has no place. So, in this case, our opinions differ.

June 17, 2018

Ignorant or Duplicitous? … You Decide

I ran across the oft repeated quotation from Isaac Newton just now “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.” This quotation is from the second edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), one of the most important scientific publications in the entire history of western science.

Like Einstein, Isaac Newton is oft quoted as an example of a scientist who “believed.” Exactly what they believed is often overlooked.

Isaac Newton was notoriously thin-skinned and he received a great many objections and criticisms from the publishing of the first edition of the Principia with dismay (like Michael and Beyonce, the book only needs its first name). One of the criticisms was that Newton’s work explained the motions of the planets so well there was no longer a need for God’s guiding hand to keep the planets moving in their perfect orbits. In a direct response to that accusation, Newton inserted a new paragraph into his second edition making it clear that he still believed all his laws had been created by God. In other words, he didn’t think such a statement was necessary in the first edition!

Make no mistake about it, Newton was a creationist. He did believe in “God,” but this was the mid to late 1600’s and the consequences of not believing were quite dire. Plus, what Newton actually did believe would not pass muster with the theists constantly repeating the quotation above.

From Wikipedia, “According to most scholars, Newton was Arian, not holding to Trinitarianism. In Newton’s eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin. As well as being antitrinitarian, Newton allegedly rejected the orthodox doctrines of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons.

Now, what do you call someone who rejects the trinity, didn’t hold with Jesus being called a god, didn’t believe in immortal souls (and therefore the afterlife, Heaven, Hell, etc.), the devil, and demons? Is there a Christian sect today which can check off all of those boxes? Like Einstein, Newton was at most a theist viewing nature as the only god worth studying.

Also, Newton’s “daily” Bible studies weren’t exactly orthodox. Also from Wikipedia:

“Newton spent a great deal of time trying to discover hidden messages within the Bible. After 1690, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704 he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible. He estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said ‘This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.’”

So, those who quote the above statement incessantly as an example of a “scientist who believed” thus supporting the idea that faith and reason are compatible, are they ignorant or duplicitous? Personally I think more people grasp upon anything that supports their beliefs out of plain old confirmation bias than there are theists who actually know what is what and who are deliberately obscuring the truth to show The Truth™. This I believe is a consequence of evangelism. Few are equipped to do it correctly.

June 8, 2018

Other Ways of Knowing

In the on-going conflict between science and religion that either doesn’t exist (because the two are compatible) or shouldn’t exist (because the two are incompatible), science types, like me, are accused of scientism, the thrusting of science into areas of human discourse where it doesn’t belong and, more specifically, stepping on religion’s toes. How dare, the critics say, science tell us anything about morality or aesthetics or … religion?

There are, they say, “other ways of knowing” than science. With regard to religion, specifically. they mention: faith, dogma, scripture, personal experience, and revelation.

So, let’s look at this.

First, what we call science is what originally was called “natural philosophy,” which was a branch of philosophy, just like ethics, politics, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and aesthetics. When the scientific method was devised to make studying the natural world more effective, many of the categories of nature (chemistry—the study of the transformations of substances, biology—the study of living organisms, etc.) came to be called sciences. But the employ of the scientific method did not really remove those studies from philosophy. The scientific method can be employed in all kinds of studies that no one would call “sciences.” For example, history, or economics, or sociology, auto repair, or well, you name it. The scientific method is a way to generate new knowledge and can be employed in a vast number of places, even ethics.

So, to say that science is overstepping its bounds is foolishness. If it can be employed successfully it will because it is the only method so far that has demonstrated the ablity to create new knowledge.

Now, on the flip side we have the “other ways of knowing.” In turn:

Faith What is faith but an expression of belief. Both faith and belief are expressions of “knowing” things that are not generally accepted as being true by having evidence. So, where did this “faith” or “belief” come from? Who explained what it is that is to be an object of faith? Can that person be trusted? Are you sure they are not mistaken? How would you tell? This is not a way of knowing, it is a claim of knowing something that is not in evidence. Faith is not a way of knowing so much as it is a claim of knowing. It is an answer to the question “How do you know that?” “What do you know?”

Dogma The dictionary definition of dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Basically if a religion says you must believe something because it is true, but they do not attempt to prove the truth involved, that is dogma. Every church, and there are tens of thousands of them, has their own dogma. How can you tell which of them is indeed correct? Could none of them have been mistaken? How will you resolve contradictions between the various dogmas? In science there is no dogma, nor are there “authorities.” If you don’t accept something scientifically, you are free to examine all of the evidence and test it for yourself. The information/evidence is made public, along with the data and procedures used to acquire the data.

Scripture Scripture is just things written down. Most religions have some sort of scriptures. Most religions disagree with regard to the content of what was written down, so how does one tell whether their scriptures are real or true? Jewish scholars have now admitted that the first five books of their “book” are a fictional back story for their people. This is a form of wisdom literature as fairy tales used to be, that is precautionary tales as to what will happen to you “if …” simply told as if they had already happened as an implication that they could happen “again.”

It has been pointed out repeatedly that all of the books of the Bible have unknown authors who have unknown backgrounds. We not only don’t know who wrote those books, we don’t know why those books were written either. Without those “facts,” we therefore cannot tell whether the books were divinely inspired. Ask yourself, what are the signs in a writing that the writing was inspired by a god? If such signs exist, they could be highjacked by a gifted fiction writer to ends that we cannot necessarily perceive.

It is probably an act of desperation that many evangelical religion’s statements of faith indicate that their scriptures were true and correct in their original versions. (This is a dogma, by the way.) No one alive today has seen such an original document. The texts we have today were mostly created from translations of fragments of copies (of copies of copies …) that were centuries older than the dates they were claimed to be written. That most such fragments differ from one another proves that the copies have errors in them. So, how do we know what the errors are?

Personal Experience There are people who claim they have a personal relationship with a god, that they can feel “his presence.” I have talked with few people who make this claim but I would like to hear how they can tell what they claim they can tell from their feelings. I am willing to grant them their feelings, but not their interpretation. For example, many people can claim the feeling of “a powerful presence.” How is that interpreted as being male or female or is that just assumed? How can the feeling of “power” be interpreted? How do we know we are in the presence of, say, a powerful human? I suspect we read the clues of dress ($4000 suit, military uniform, etc.) and behavior (expecting orders to underlings to be obeyed instantly, etc.) or we know the identity of such a person ahead of time. So, if one is a believer ahead of time and feels a powerful presence when meditating or “praying,” the identification is assumed rather than established. No one seems to report a “feeling of power” associated with the words, “Hi, Bill, this is Yahweh.”

Revelation Revelations are second hand compared with personal experience. These come from people who claim “God told me … something or other.” The supposed apostle who helped create “Christianity the Religion” and who claimed he was an expert on Jesus, never met the man; he got all of his information through a great many revelations, or so he said. How can we tell whether these people are not deluded or liars? (Said apostle defended claims he was a liar in scripture!) There are many people who crave attention who make outlandish claims as to their education levels, job histories, friendships, and life experiences. Some of these charlatans are seeking political office or jobs and are often enough caught out in their lies that we all have heard stories to this effect. How can you tell who is and who is not telling the truth?

Also, in the entire history of revelation in your particular religion, has any objective knowledge been reported? Has a method to avoid the plague been told or how washing your hands leads to less disease or that there is a medicine in citrus fruit what will help prevent scurvy? Is this really a “way of knowing?” Do even the major prophets tell us anything we did not already know?

Back to Science Is there any form of increased knowledge that involves anything other than scientific enquiry? How about the other branches of philosophy? (My ethics teacher said that in 4000 years of ethical philosophy, we have not yet been able to define the phrase “is good.”) How about theology? How about apologetics?

In many of these religious and quasi-religious approaches the same people who tell us that “we cannot know the mind of god,” tell us exactly what their god was thinking and going when <fill in the blank here>. Clearly they are making that shit up.

The term “scientism,” is simply a pejorative. The people who write about it cannot even define it. It is an attempt to discredit science before it is applied to ideas they hold dear. Science is, indeed, a way of looking at things, but it won’t go away because of flabby arguments centered on the deliberate misuse of words like “faith.” Scientists do not have “faith” that the sun will show up in the morning sky, we have confidence that it will based upon thousands and thousands (millions really) of observations, in other words evidence. Religious faith is believing something based upon little or no evidence, scientific expectations are based upon pragmatic evidence, which is why science works and faith does not as “a way of knowing.”

So, the next time you hear or read the term “scientism,” or hear or read that someone “doesn’t have enough faith to believe in evolution,” you know you are in the presence of a purveyor of the Big Lie, someone who believes that there are mystical ways of “knowing” that we must acknowledge, even though they cannot show even the slightest reason for us to so believe.

May 30, 2018

Great Minds Think Alike!

Filed under: Business,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 7:41 am
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Over at GFBrandenburg’s blog he comments on the Monsanto GMO study I mentioned in my past post and includes a link to an article detailing it. Check it out.

Surprise: GMOs *Reduce* rather than Increase crop yields

 

May 29, 2018

GMO Skepticism

A recent research effort showed than in some areas, anti-science attitudes are strongly correlated with religion (surprise, surprise). In other areas, there were correlations with science knowledge or rather the lack thereof, supporting those who think that science education is an effective way to combat anti-science attitudes.

One such example of the latter involved the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The researchers found that those who possessed more science knowledge favored GMOs and those with less science knowledge did not.

I have a fair amount of science knowledge and I do not favor GMOs … currently. My attitude was bolstered by the release … finally …. of studies that show that, once again, Monsanto Corporation is bilking the public. Monsanto created “Roundup” a weed killer that actually worked. The problem with Roundup is that if you spray it on a weed and accidentally spray a patch of lawn, it dies too. Roundup is a vegetation killer. So, Monsanto created GMO crops (corn, wheat, potatoes, whatever) that would resist the effects of Roundup, boosting the sales of Roundup as a weed-control agent for farmers and by creating a massive market in their new Roundup resistant seeds.

Monsanto promised increased yields using the new seed and Roundup weed control. So, is that what happened. Well, the study is now in and the difference between Monsanto-focussed fields and control fields is zero, zip, nada. Gosh, you spend that much more money and you’d think it just has to be better. well, it is … better for Monsanto’s bottom line.

Now I will not argue that GMOs do not have benefits, that would be silly. I would argue that we need to look carefully at the benefits and the costs, especially the potential costs. In the Roundup study, the costs were high and the benefits almost nonexistant.

When I first became aware of GMOs, the big “product” was a more “machine harvestable” tomato that had better eating properties. The way this was achieved was to splice into the tomato’s genome some DNA contributed by a trout, yes, a fish. My argument to “go slow” on GMOs goes like this:

We have been genetically modifying crops since the beginning of agriculture. We did this first by choosing to use the seed from plants that gave the best harvest or the best quality of produce and eschewing using seed from lesser plants. Further down the road, we learned how plants propagate and learned how to cross breed plants to make sturdier hybrids. (This is how we pulled off the Green Revolution; we made “dwarf” versions of wheat and rice that had shorter, stronger stalks that could support heavier grain heads, then we used chemical fertilizers up the whazoo to boost the seed cluster sizes (and as a side effect, we have polluted our waterways with these chemicals creating dead zones in our seas the size of small planetoids).)

These “traditional” processes allow nature to have veto power over anything we try. Each stage of a hybridization either produces a viable plant or not. If not, it produces no seed and that possibility is vetoed. It is a little like breeding horses. If horses are bred to horses, the offspring are viable and can breed. If horses are bred to donkeys, you get mules which are viable but cannot breed (end of the road). If horses are bred with cats … ? No one has ever tried this you say. Hmm,  I wonder why?

In the modern GMO process, the genetic material itself is changed directly and nature only has a say as to whether the end product is viable. The result has not been vetted by nature other than in this manner.

So, how do you cross breed a tomato and a trout? If you thought a horse-cat hybrid was crazy, what the hell do you think of a tomato-trout hybrid?

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. What happens to the trout genes in the tomato when the tomato’s genome gets out and interacts with the world at large? But, but, but farmers are used to hybrids that can’t reproduce, you argue. You should take it up with the farmers who are in court suing their neighbors who said the GMO crops they planted couldn’t possibly “get out” and start growing in their neighbor’s fields. (They did.)

Plus, hybridized crops do breed, they just don’t “breed true,” meaning you are much more likely to get the parent stock sprouting than the hybrid stock. I remember my father gathering up the tomato plants that sprouted in our compost heap each spring, replanting them, culling the “bad” ones, but then harvesting “heritage tomatoes” before that term was made common. They breed, just not true.

More info here.

May 26, 2018

Very Civilized Don’t You Think?

When we say someone or something is “very civilized,” that sounds like a complement, no? If we look at it objectively, however, such a thing is comparable to saying someone is oppressed. I will explain.

If the venue of major disagreements between scientists and theists, it is biology (actually just evolution) and cosmology that take the brunt of theist’s complaints. The theists apparently have no qualms with chemistry, or physics, or Wi-Fi, per se. But where science disagrees with scripture, there is intense apologetic efforts to either reject the science, or to harmonize it with scripture. There is even a branch of these apologetics called “theistic evolution.” (I am reminded of the old joke of the Russian claiming “we inwented it” for ever scientific discovery. Theists claim every positive scrap of science that supports their viewpoint and claims “God did it.”) The source of these disagreements is the “special nature” of human beings. Apologists don’t have a problem with evolution, full blown evolution, addressing the subject of slime molds or “lower animals,” but when they get to human beings, whoa there, you cannot make human beings subject to basic physical laws (haven’t you heard, we are special!).

In the U.S. our culture is steeped in this “special sauce.” Not only are human beings created in their god’s image (old man, burning bush, pillar of fire, whirlwind?) but, by God, Americans are exceptional among human beings! This general belief has lead to a general belief in the inevitability of civilization (our civilization, of course), I contend. We were destined to end up here, with all of this stuff, behaving the way we do. It was inevitable … and a damned good thing!

When one takes a look back at the historic path of civilization, it is littered with human misery for the majority of us. This, of course, is spun as being due to the sinful nature of man (and the superiority of the white race, and … ), but if you just look dispassionately, it is evidently not so.

We have lived collectively since hominids first evolved (2-4 million years ago). We traveled in family groups, being social mammals, but primarily for safety. (There is safety in numbers, still.) When families became tribes, sometimes the tribes got a little too large and they had to split up. This was because we were hunting and gathering which most people think means we wandered aimlessly. But we did not wander aimlessly, we followed a normal route. Whether this was like the migrations of butterflies or birds or reindeer or something we cogitated, we moved from site to site, harvesting what food there was and moved on to the next stop. When tribes got too large, they stripped too much food from the land and when they came around again, there wasn’t enough food that had regrown to support the group, hence the splits. When the groups were small enough, they could harvest food for many months in some locals, so they tended to build shelters and hunker down for a while and voila, villages were born. As we became quasi-sedentary, we also became open to the idea of agriculture because we were going to be there to harvest what we planted. Thus the seeds of civilization were born. Civilization began when we decided that a large permanent village was in order, a city. But the problem with cities is that there must be some way to store food to get a larger number of people through the rough patches between harvests. It is no surprise then, that the first civilizations happened when the conditions supporting the growing of grain were prevalent. (Grain could be stored by the simple expedient of drying it in the sun.) These conditions were: fertile soil (usually alluvial), a constant source of fresh water (a large stream or river) and bountiful sunshine. There were usually harvestable animals migrating over land and down the river, too.

The fly in the ointment was that agriculture took a lot more work than hunting and gathering. Evidence shows that people did not want this more arduous life and had to be coerced into that labor. The tools of coercion? Physical force and intimidation (“We’ll stay here and ‘guard’ your children while you go out and work in the fields.”) and religion. Since in the early days a hunting and gathering lifestyle was a short walk away, it appears that a great many “early farmers” took this route (they voted with their feet). This lead to more coercion and more defections and eventually to slavery. If you are going to coerce labor, might as well go whole hog and adopt a slave society. Neighboring villages to cities became sources of manpower (and breeding females).

It should not shock you that all of the early cities failed in short order (in nowhere near 100 years of existence) and that new cities were built atop the ruins of the previous one (Remember all of the Troy’s that Heinrich Schliemann found?). Since all of the factors needed to be there for a city, building elsewhere was silly.

The basic concept of “civilization,” that is living in cities, is that the labor of the many provided a surplus that the elite few could live off of … and not have to work as the many did. This “free time” created through the coerced labor of the many allowed the few to write poetry, paint paintings, sculpt sculptures, etc. but mostly they counted their wealth and worried excessively about slave revolts and how to keep them from getting uppity. (The racial resentment against Blacks in this country is based upon this residual fear, in my opinion.)

So, they expanded and fortified their “soldiers” and their “religions” all directed at controlling the system preserving them at the top. As things progressed, soldiers were needed to protect cities from the soldiers from other cities. So, war became possible because of the resources and needs of civilization. In each city, of course, the religious elites told the secular elites that their gods were on their side.

Science now tells us that when agriculture became prominent, “farmers” became physically shorter, weaker, less tall, and more disease ridden. So, what was in it for the “masses?” In a word, misery was what they could expect for most of their lives. I read one estimate that claimed that as late as the year 1800, half of all human beings were in some state of slavery.

But all of this was long ago, surely being “civilized” now is far, far different, you say. Is it? Most of the controls of the elites are now cultural. In this country, if you suggest that capitalism is not the best economic system for us, you will be shouted down or vilified or both. (Damned socialist! Communist! Heathen!) Capitalism is a system which codifies the coercion of labor of the masses to benefit the secular and religious elites. We use terms like “the one percent” and “the 0.1%” now but they really are just the wealthy elites. Our “democratic” government serves the rich and ignores the will of the people on such a regular basis that it has become “normal.” We talk about “wealth inequality” and do not do anything about it. Our system (Capitalism–US Brand™), is designed specifically to concentrate wealth and that is what it does. For short stints “reformers” can get power over the reins of government and roll back some of the systems in place, but by and large the rich use their money to buy power and use their power to get more rich. You may note that this is a positive feedback loop that always ends up in disaster for the masses (investors get bailed out, homeowners do not).

So, when a plutocrat describes something or someone as “being civilized” they are commending that thing or person as being in their “proper place,” either amongst the elites, taking advantage of the situation, or among the masses, whose “surplus labor” is making the elites richer and more powerful. Think of Sméagol saying “Yes, master, good master!” And while we may harbor evil thoughts against the masters, as long as we do not act on them, well, then we are “very civilized, don’t you think?”

 

May 20, 2018

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

I read a comment the other day that set my head spinning. The comment pointed out that up until around 1970, the only way to increase agricultural output significantly was to put more arable land into production. Basically that had been done to all effective extents by well before 1970. We now note how people are trying to put very marginal lands into production with predictable disastrous results. (Hey, let’s cut down that jungle and raise crops! … jungles have notoriously poor soils.)

But right about that time came the Agricultural Revolution, sometimes called the Green Revolution. We managed to increase crop yields for our staple grains (rice, wheat, corn, barley) by the simple expedient of growing these grains on shorter stalks. Shorter stalks are stronger and they can support heaver seed heads without falling over from being too top heavy. We practically doubled our yields per acre of these grains.

This I already knew. What the comment pointed out that the old “acreage limited” model of agriculture, which took about 10,000 years to run out, supported a global population of about three and a half billion people. The Green Revolution doubled our grain supplies and, if you are not aware, those grains also feed our cattle and other livestock, so represent fairly well the entire food supply of the world. (You will find grain of some type in 90% of the foods you can find in a local market.)

So, we doubled our food supply starting in 1970 or so and now the world population is about seven billion people. It is an axiom of population biology that organisms expand their populations up to the limits of their food supplies. The fact that our doubled food supply (from 1970 levels) matches our now doubled population (3.5 to 7 billion) supports the idea that we are at the end of the effects of the Green Revolution.  This second phase took less than 50 years. (Think about it! Three and a half billion more people in just fifty years.)

So, what is next?

Since there is no intelligence in charge of humanity, it is likely that corporations that are exploring the genetic engineering of food crops will work up a solution. I have written before that these shortcuts to different organisms have more risks associated with them than the procedures used before (up to and including the green Revolution). But let’s say they whip up something that works and it again doubles the yields of these grains, what then?

Well, history and biology indicate that we will double our population again, this time to 14 billion people. Imagine the impact on food distribution and electricity distribution networks, on transportation systems (cars and roads, subways, air travel, on the lives of us all.

What is really scary is that the reliance on the plants created under the Green Revolution has shrunk the number of species under cultivation to a very small number. When there is a much wider diversity of crops, crop failures are not widely catastrophic, but when they are but a few kinds of crops being depended upon, well, think of the Irish Potato Famine.

Nobody predicted the Bubonic Plague, otherwise know as the Black Death. This disease killed over a quarter of the population of Europe. So, what happens if some new agricultural blight, on the order of a plague, wipes out rice or wheat. Since there are only a few types of rice or wheat under cultivation it means that such a blight may wipe out all of the rice or all the wheat or very large fractions of those crops. The repercussions would not be pretty: massive famines, food riots, insurrections, whole countries destabilized, etc. (Take a look at what is happening in Venezuela currently, being a manifestation of just bad management.)

I guess my question is not “what is next?” so much as “to what end?” We haven’t developed enough political maturity to determine a fair and equitable distribution of resources. We still operate on a “get what you can” basis. (Exhibit No. 1 President Donald Trump) Is there any upside to doubling our food supply again, other than corporate profits for Big Ag Science corporations? Do we need another seven billion people on this planet? Are we prepared to handle the changes associated with such an event?

All of the answers to these questions are, of course, no. Herds of lemmings running off of cliffs is a societal meme we created. Lemmings are not so stupid as to do that. So, basically we, as a people, are projecting that behavior onto those animals. And, we seem quite capable from doing just that.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Note The word stupid is used as a pejorative meaning lacking in intelligence. Rather, it means “slow” as in “slow on the uptake” or slow to learn (it has roots similar to those of stupor). Really bright people can distract themselves in sophisticated ways so that what is glaringly obvious gets missed for a long, long time. That stupid, that’s the one I mean.

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