Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Point Well Taken

Jason Rosenhouse, a Darwinian crusader, deals with what he thinks is a creationist in his post on EvolutionBlog. The target – biologist J. Scott Turner – is an expert on termites who has come to the conclusion that Darwinism is inadequate to explain the marvelous adaptations of his sociable subjects. He argues in his book, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice, that there exists a physically present and continuous tendency that exerts itself along with DNA – a self-emergent design force, that shapes the organism to its environment in a way that improves on natural selection. Reading the editor’s notes and the single reader review that now appears on Amazon, I am inclined to label this book as semi-mystical musings that toy with the ideas of Intelligent Design without trying to finesse the science. Relatively harmless, don’t you think?

Rosenhouse, however, feels that there is justification for alarm. Turner has in later writings analyzed and pooh-poohed the alarm that the establishment scientists seem to feel toward his musings. After all, it doesn’t hurt to talk about an idea. Rosenhouse sees this as simply more evidence for a hidden agenda. He is used to dealing with underhanded tactics and leading wedge subterfuges from the Creationist bloc (example). He’s been at it for years. Maybe, I’m thinking, he’s just hyper-sensitized. Let’s just talk about it, hmm?

I think I can justify the idea of Intelligent Design on a scientific basis. As long as the IDer doesn’t have to be an all-powerful, all-knowing kind of entity, then I could just point to Arthur C. Clark’s 2001 concept. Highly intelligent alien societies have an interest in promoting intelligent life. If the society of aliens is sufficiently future-oriented, it could seed suitable planets with previously successful forms, subject the planets to evolutionary accelerants and directly interfere at critical junctures during the unfolding process.

Fred Hoyle presented this idea as panspermia even earlier than Clark. Life evolved, but not just here. The seeds have wafted on aether breezes from planet to planet, perhaps in a sentient Black Cloud of living space dust. (Rebuttal.) In Hoyle’s conception of the Universe has no beginning nor ending – there is enough time and space for Irreducible Complexity to be trumped by random molecular movement.

Another example was presented by Carl Sagan in his book and film, Contact. Sagan postulates that there must be other Life, and if it is still out there, it must be smarter than we are. Sagan goes so far as to imply that the Universe itself might have been created deliberately by an Intelligence of some sort. There are few who would accuse Sagan of being a Creationist. The distinction is that he believes in a rule-based universe and rational explanations.

So why is Rosenhouse so defensive? … so unreasonable?

I, myself, have chosen to reason with people, to argue for my ideas directly with people who have conflicting ideas. I don’t get angry with people who try to convert me, as long as they confine themselves to reason. I know that many people have little patience with door-to-door missionaries, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have heard people bragging about how they abuse these poor people. I don’t do that. I open the door and talk, sometimes for extended periods of time, I present my points of view and politely counter the ideas that they present to me. My wife gets annoyed with me, but I am trying to be fair and decent. All in all, I have an open mind.

A month or so ago, the doorbell rang while I was working upstairs. I wondered who it was. Maybe my wife’s sister had come over for a walk. My daughter went to answer the door. I heard some murmured conversation; it went on for a while. I noted that the afternoon was very pleasant, unseasonably warm. It was Sunday. … I had a sudden moment of panic. I ran downstairs as fast as I could. I confronted the well-dressed, reasonable-looking man at the door, and I shouted at him. "Don’t ever," I said, "speak to my daughter when I’m not here!"

1/30/2007 1:54 AM

Further Polemics and Speculations on Evolution

Harvest of Randomness

Darwin's Malcontents

Darwin's Mouthpiece

Holy DNA


Life  the Universe and Everything

Evolution and Iraq

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ten Myths

Instapundit has lined to a Strategypage post listing ten myths about Iraq. Very concise, reasonable and persuasive to those already persuaded. It makes me wonder how people actually do get persuaded. I think it has more to do with wanting to be with the in crowd than wanting to be right.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Wages of Forebearance

Wretchard has posted a description of our policy failure in the way we have confronted Iran's meddling in Iraq. He thinks that the policy has changed at last. I'm wondering what the situation in the Middle East would be like today if we had responded to the hostage crisis more vigorously in 1979. I left a comment detailing my outrageous proposal on how we should have handled it. It just makes me MAD to think about it.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

An Empty Seat on the Bus

My friend has died of breast cancer after all these years. She always gave Life her best. I talked to her on the phone the last week, and I’m glad I did. I could tell it was getting close. She was full of emotional intensity. She was telling me what to do with my life and she wasn’t making a lot of sense. Her liver function was at 1 on a scale of 1 to 10.

She died early in the morning just a couple of days later. She didn’t want to die in the hospital, but she had somehow turned it into her home. She had photographs of family and friends on poster boards all over the room. The nursing staff had become part of her extended family. They were constantly in her room. The oncologist was reviewing his drug list and had come up with a chemo-drug that she had received only a few times. He was unwilling to let her go, and so was she, but the body can only take so much. She taught me that it can take a lot.

For people with breast cancer, I am linking to her monograph on xeloda that I posted last year and re-posted in September. She was very practical and very determined to live and live well. You could do worse than to read her advice. I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more of it now, myself.

1/24/2007 11:58 PM

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Monday, January 22, 2007

The Harvest of Randomness

Several days ago I described four types of Darwin skeptics. "Physicists" were described as people who love the mathematical structure of the Universe and believe this math is all encompassing. Perhaps a better designation would be "determinists". They are, I suggested, resistant to three pillars of my own faith in the statistical nature of the Universe. I mentioned Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies that there is a limit to the precision with which you can know about a single atom/particle. You can know where it is or how it’s moving, but not both. I believe that this uncertainty is intrinsic, not just mathematical, and the effect of a given object on its neighbor is also subject to a stochastic response. Even identical twins don’t react to each other with perfect accuracy or predictability.

Chaos Theory basically says that a relatively complex system may well be so sensitive to precise original conditions that the future of the system is not predictable through deterministic equations. Although a system might be technically deterministic, original conditions can never be measured with sufficient accuracy to emulate reality. The butterfly in Beijing flaps its wings thrice instead of twice, and two weeks later an unpredicted hurricane threatens the Caribbean. Weather, though possibly not climate, is one of those systems so complex that physics-based models predict radically different results when a single bit is changed in the data. It may be that the required quality of the input exceeds the measurability limits specified by Heisenberg, which is to say that the Universe is neither predictable nor repeatable.

What Kurt Gödel proved is that even the mathematics of a sufficiently complex system is immune to prediction or complete understanding. There will be true things within the system that cannot be proved within the system, and false things that cannot be disproved. Even if a precise mathematical model of Life the Universe and Everything were developed, it could not be counted on to explain everything.

These three ideas shook the foundations of physical science in the twentieth century. Statistical analysis became not just a way to approximate the Truth, but an essential component of the Truth. Things are stochastic. There is an irreducible element of randomness, and Life flourishes, free of determinacy, because of it.

1/22/2007 2:05 AM

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pipes Inspects the Leaks

Daniel Pipes has been trying to explain the Islamist threat for a long time. He works too hard, but I guess he thinks the subject is important. His latest attempt, before shipping off for a working vacation in Malibu is another in his series of speaking-slowly-so-we-will-understand wake-up calls. He wants us to know that radical Islamism is not the passing fancy of a couple of guys sitting around a hookah. We should not judge the threat with referrence to our obvious military superiority. We should not underestimate the enemy.

He points out that there are a few critical weaknesses in Western Culture that could give them the leverage to defeat us, to our belated surprise. The three weakness that he chooses to name are 1) pacifism, 2) self-hatred, and 3) complacency. Let me name some more: 4) isolationism, 5) compassion, 6) tolerance, and 7) self-involvement.

We children of the Enlightenment do not honor that which we have. We do not realize our virtues and we do not recognize their absense. We are fish swimming in the gifts of Western thought, so oblivious that we don't even take these blessings for granted. We just don't know they're there.

Those who do not share these gifts are envious, but they would rather die than emulate us. And yet we are constantly trying to find ways to reason with them, fully expecting sense to prevail, like Theo van Gogh, perhaps, who reportedly went down asking, "Can't we talk about this?"

1/20/2007 1:18 AM

More on Daniel Pipes.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

LEAP for Sanity

Steve at Skepticals has posted a piece on LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a name that harkens back to a time in our history when we should have learned how to fight a Drug War. He quotes an extensive article from Radley Balko in the comments, which is also worth reading.

OK, let’s assume (which I do not) that the elimination of certain drugs is a legitimate goal for society. How should you go about making it happen in these modern times? Take the question seriously. Your suggestions are welcome. But I think we can safely say that whatever it is we are doing now has the opposite effect from the one desired. The system, as my father explained to me and any competent police officer can tell you, is so full of holes and counterproductive procedures, that it is not just as bad as doing nothing at all, but actually much, much worse. The current system promotes smuggling, international instability, gang violence throughout the world, corruption of border guards, corruption of police and officials from the lowest to the highest, cabals of local officials, mal-distribution of income, inefficiency in economics, environmental destruction, terrorism, proliferation of lawyers, protectionism, dangerous formulation practices on the part of the providers and destructive behaviors among the users. It also encourages people to use these drugs. Repeat. The current system encourages increased use of the drugs that it is trying to eliminate.

OK, so what’s my plan? I imagine that nine out of ten people can’t begin to accept what I’ve said here, and I’m not really going to take the time to explain. Instead I’ll just give you my plan and see if you can wrap your mind around it.

The three most important steps are these: 1) take away the profit motive, 2) take away the profit motive and 3) take away the profit motive. OK, do I have you so far? Of course, everyone understands basic finance. If there’s no money in it, people aren’t going to be so determined to trade in it.

But, you may think, that would be impossible. There’s no way to take the money out of it. Well, you would be wrong! It’s very easy. You just continue with the present enforcement structure while allowing the US government to sell the same drugs, in their purest, most hygienic, and powerful form. And cheap. Don’t play around. Make it cheaper than aspirin.

But, you may say, that would be immoral! Yes, I know. But by the same standards, it would also be immoral to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Look at it this way, you have just eliminated the incomes of every petty criminal and anti-social monster in the country who wants to make money by selling those drugs. You have also completely dried up the pool of money that flows into the pockets of crooked cops. Not only that, you are making money for the government without raising taxes!

But what about the poor drug users? What about them? Think about all the people who wouldn’t use it before because it was illegal and dangerous? Now there will be nothing to stop them from destroying their lives. (Not very bright I guess.)

Well, let’s try a little thought experiment. Right now, the most addictive drug, and one of the most dangerous drugs, is being distributed and sold right under your eyes. Every convenience store outside of Utah is selling this stuff (I don’t know about Utah). You know where I’m going, right? Cigarettes!

Now suppose that the franchise on cigarettes were revoked. Only the government could sell cigarettes. What do you suppose that product would be like? I can promise you that it would be clean, standardized, mass-produced and boring. There will be a picture of an eagle on the front and a grim warning on the back with, perhaps, a depiction of cancerous lung tissue. No government official would ever take a chance of generating buzz or effectively promoting this product. Sales procedures would be anything but smooth, and sales revenues would surely and steadily fall. A smoker would be given no fantasy to connect to, no courtesy, no comradery and certainly no respect. The advertising budget would be for laughs only.

The bottom line is that drug use would actually decline once the profit motive was gone. OK, I can accept that you might not agree. Let’s assume therefore, that drug usage is still increasing. What’s my next step? 4) Start raising the prices. Keep raising them until the drug dealers and corrupt cops go back into business, and they will, then back off a little. Now you are at a situation where your product is almost as expensive as the natural market. The price is high, but there is no one out there encouraging the user to buy. Plus, you are making a lot of money, which you can use to enforce the government monopoly.

Now to commence eliminating all drug use: 5) Stop selling to new buyers. Require proof that a user is already addicted before selling to them. The side effect of this, sadly, is to create a secondary market where drug users will sell to non-users for a small profit. 6) Control the secondary market by chemically tagging each and every unit with a complex chemical cipher, a UPC of inactive chemicals. Every new user will be blood-tested and the origin of the contraband can be easily determined. Start the new user and arrest the source. Since you are the only game in town you can count on a return visit.

Am I right? Would it work? Can you poke any holes in this plan?

Actually, I do think it would work, but I don’t think I approve entirely. I think these drugs are a wonderful thing. A gift from God. In this world, believe it or not, people suffer. And I believe they suffer needlessly. People with cancer, people with arthritis or any of a hundred debilitating illnesses, including old age, should be allowed to control their discomfort and distress with any drug that suits them. Since every user is registered, there can be no unpunished violence. Since every dose is clean, there will be no ancillary disease issues. Since every drug is available, there will be no tragic regimen of under-treatment, no throwing doctors in jail for honest care.

If you are interested in more of the rationalist argument against the War on Drugs, you should be reading M. Simon’s blog, Power and Control.

1/19/2007 1:21 AM

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

House He Bite'em ad Infinitum

One of my favorite series is Fox's House. John Hawks does a diagnosis of the show's success:

But unlike most fictional detectives, House and his team average around seven wrong diagnoses per episode before they finally arrive at the right one. That adds to the drama, but it also adds a bit of transparency to what is really going on. House is reading signs.

All medical diagnosis is essentially semiotic: the physician examines the patient, looking for signs. Sometimes these are physical or physiological signs -- a swelling on the knee, vomiting, blood. Sometimes the signs can't be directly observed, but are communicated by the patient: nausea, chills, pain in the chest. The doctor has a script intended to discover these patient-reported signs: "Are you feeling light-headed? Any pain? How often do you have these spells?"

When a physician makes a diagnosis, she has found a set of these signs that point to an underlying disease or condition with some fidelity. Sometimes it helps to know how a disease progresses, but this is not strictly necessary. It almost never requires knowing why the disease exists. The evolutionary origins of many human diseases are mostly or entirely unknown, and physicians do quite well recognizing and treating them without any such knowledge. Together, these facts imply that the mechanism by which a disease causes a symptom is not necessarily of importance to the physician; the symptoms are quite sufficient in themselves as signs.

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Darwin's Malcontents

Darwin's Malcontents

This is the second part of my review of Michael Ruse’s Darwinism and Its Discontents. The first part is here.

The lead paragraph of Ruse’s Introduction is a quote by Daniel Dennett, whom Ruse characterizes as a philosopher. This in itself is very revealing, because Dennett is possibly the most extreme believer in the power of natural selection in print today. Dennett explains natural selection in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea so forcefully and extravagantly that one thinks of Poe as much as Darwin. Ruse likes the way that Dennett shows his respect for Darwin, and so do I. Ruse, though more restrained in his writing, is probably on board with Dennett’s radical interpretations, as am I.

Poe may well be the correct model for what Darwin has to say by implication. Ruse and Dennett are firm in asserting the deep truth of Darwin’s ideas, but they are both negligent in describing the unrelenting suffering, the world of evil implied. Since they don’t say it, let me. Evolution by Natural Selection is a beautiful truth of great explanatory power, but it is not our friend. It has produced the breathtaking scope of life today, left ages of astonishing forms in its wake, but it has been the author of incalculable cruelty. And it has not come to a halt for our benefit. In fact, the best and worst of our nature were extorted from Evolution by blessed Chance and by the power of memes, which is the next of Darwin’s children. And Evolution shows great potential for balancing our success with even more suffering. The unintended consequences of our intelligence represent a grim threat to our future. This, to my mind, is the most important reason for understanding Darwin. If we are to have any hope in this world, we must work together to resist the wretched excesses of Evolution’s iron hand, and we can’t do it if we continue to indulge in self-deception.

In this vein, Ruse describes four types of resisters in the Introduction. They are, in my terminology, 1) creationists, 2) relativists, 3) physicists, and 4) utopianists. I will elaborate extravagantly below, expanding Ruse’s terse descriptions into individual rants. Enjoy:

Creationists are those who cannot give up the idea of the centrality of Humankind. We have a contract with God. The nature of the contract varies. There are Creationists in Islam, for instance. But the feeling ofdivine connection to the engine of the Universe, the power of it, satisfies so many insecurities, inspires such strong esthetic responses, that many cannot relinquish it. It is a divine narcotic. The addiction cannot be treated by methods of access to the Truth, because the attachment occurs, deliberately, at levels below the conscious.

Intelligent Design, while plausible as a theoretical approach, is in actuality not really supported by the intellectual drive of anyone alive today. It is an unnecessary complication, a dead issue, a stalking horse for religious ideology. I say with some regret that it is merely an aspect of Creationism.

Relativists reject Darwinism for another emotional reason. These are scholarly people, philosophers, social scientists, literary thinkers, who eschew the theoretical study of the subject, but observe its functioning in society, its misuse in discredited schools of thought, and its negative imagery. Red in tooth and claw. The eugenics of fascist elites. Racism, sexism and laissez faire capitalism. All speak to them of Darwinian rationalization for wretched behavior.

Inadequate inculcation of a gut understanding of Science is responsible for this group. They hear the poetry but not the prose. Logic is used, but strangely. The missing distinction is between representation of objective reality versus the advocacy of public policy. Since the social result is "wrong", the describers must be to blame.

Some relativists hold the opinion that Science itself is primarily a social activity, that one theory is as good as the next. The study of Science is just an operation in group dynamics. Everything you need to know is embodied by who is shouting at whom, not by what they are shouting about. Objective reality is beyond us. If Plato were alive, they would tell him that there is no way for the shadow watchers to be unchained, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Each level of so-called enlightenment leads merely to another type of ignorance. So watch the shadows and enjoy the show.

Physicists, as I shall call them, are usually scientists, hard scientists with a command of mathematics. They are so in love with the universe of possibility expressed in the mathematical world that they imagine Life to be part of an equation. The cell wall, for instance, is said to have spontaneously generated because of the particular tendencies of certain chemical combinations. Presumably, the protoplasm then simply moved in like a Hermit Crab moves into a handy snail shell. These people have heard of Heisenberg, of Chaos Theory and Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, but in their hearts they cannot accept the view that randomness can be harvested. Perhaps Einstein’s rejection of God’s dicing provides the paradigm of their search for order.

Utopianists, the final group, are basically Marxists. These are people who live and breathe such highly structured, intricately detailed prescriptions for social correction, that they have no room to incorporate a mere scientific concept. It reminds me of the famous map of the US as viewed from a New Yorker’s perspective. On this small island we have forty varieties of Trotskyite revanchism, modulated anarchism and Leninist political correctness. Over there we have New Jersey and then all that Science stuff. It’s not that they would disagree with Darwin, but rather that his stereotyped elitist motivations and his privileged extortionistic position in life would be so riddled with obvious counter-revolutionary treachery, that the actual words would be irrelevant.

1/17/2007 10:52 PM

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Evolgen reviews the population dynamics of zombies. The critical zombie behaviors are brain-eating vs. zombie creation (by means of a bite). I don't know what the assumptions are, related to length of life and calorie requirements for instance, but it looks to me that the low levels of human population predicted are not going to be self-sustaining and may be subject to chaotic variation. One commenter was concerned about the possible introduction of werewolves into this mix.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Right But for the Wrong Reasons

Instapundit points out this post by Jane Galt. She is basically saying that the anti-war types have no claim to better judgment than the pro-war people because none of them predicted the reasons for our failure in Iraq. You might remember that the most rabid anti-war people were predicting that ten thousand Americans would die during the invasion and that WMD would be unleashed on our advancing troops. Jane says a mea culpa for not recognizing that the Iraqis wouldn't want to be liberated.

To that, you may guess, I say nonsense! It has not been a failure. Some objectives have been met. The Iraqi dead have been grossly over-estimated. We are damping down a potential bloodbath and standing between two religious antagonists who would love nothing better than direct military confrontation.

Despite the assertions of James Baker, we have very little chance of losing the thing militarily, even with Iran stirring up the pot. We have nothing to be ashamed of, other than Abu Ghraib and a few incidents of excess. We have a great deal IMO to be proud of. The only place we can lose this thing is in the hearts of the American people. Is the public willing to make the necessary sacrifices and take the required bloody-minded choices. Maybe not, and that's what we should be ashamed of. On September 11, 2001, we were willing to make great sacrifices and strike out at the enemy. Today we get teary-eyed at the thought of a mass-murderer losing his pop-top.

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Darwin's Mouthpiece

Michael Ruse, Professor Michael Ruse of the Florida State University, has been in the business of trying to understand Science and its place in our minds for over 40 years. He is the director of the History & Philosophy of Science program, whatever that implies, and has published a long list of books, perhaps three dozen scholarly books accessible to public consumption. Click on his C.V. to see them. I found some of the titles familiar, and certainly interesting. His degrees are in Philosophy, and his focus is Science, more narrowly Biology, and more narrowly still – Darwinism, a word which appears in the title of several of his books. In addition to his original degrees, he has a long list of honors, and I am going to undertake in this blog, having read just one of his books, to criticize him at length. Let me assure you that I myself have not spent my life being showered with praise, apart from that of my wife of course. I take up this task for two reasons. Number one, I want to show everyone how tough I am, and number two, I appreciate what he has written and wish to explore it by challenging it.

The book in question is Darwinism and Its Discontents. I found something in the Acknowledgments that impressed me more than all his honors. He is apparently on close terms with Edward O. Wilson, the founding father of Sociobiology. He also has an indirect connection to the discovery and analysis of Homo floresiensis, the contemplation of which I have been much enamored.

Here is a brief interview, contrasting Ruse’s views with those of a creationist who is pushing Intelligent Design. The question: Why do they call ID a science?

Ruse: I think there are two questions here. One is … to say it couldn't be science, because it appeals to miracles, and miracles in this day and age are not part of science. But I think you need to dig a little bit more deeply. Why is a miracle excluded from science in this day and age? And the answer is because science has been very successful by assuming what's often called methodological atheism; namely, don't allow any miracles whatsoever and see how far you go.

Starting just here, I have two problems. First, Intelligent Design can be a scientific theory simply by avoiding the temptation to attribute the hypothesized intelligence to God. The same idea can be found in a police story. Let’s say a man is killed by a rock as he drives in his car. The possibilities are that, 1) it is a freak accident, 2) someone induced the rock to kill the driver, or 3) Joe Smith killed the driver. Distinguishing between numbers one and two is science. Including item three is an accusation that is far ahead of the question at hand, and thus not yet and maybe never a matter of scientific discourse. The legitimacy of intelligent design comes from pursuing the legitimate question, is there any evidence that the course of Evolution is marked by events that cannot be explained by Darwinian analysis?

Unfortunately for the ID proponents, this question has already been studied. Many proposals have been made over the last century and a half about phenomena that cannot be easily explained. Altruism, for instance. Subsequently, most, but not all, have been explained, and there is every reason to believe that more explanations, and more convincing explanations are forthcoming. I know of at least four different, plausible explanations for how upright stature in humans can be adaptive*. None are definitive, but the plausibility of any is sufficient to refute the assertion of intelligent interference with regard to that attribute. Show me the meddling!

Nevertheless, ID could be a science, but it is presently a very unconvincing science, and as Judge Jones pointed out in the Dover case, the proponents do themselves no favor when they are so easily exposed as creationists who don’t even know their own theory. Since the people backing the theory are so transparently motivated by religious considerations, the current incarnation of ID, but only the current incarnation, has been rejected by the judiciary. That’s fine by me, but it’s also fine if they continue to develop their thoughts from choices one and two, avoiding three. In fact, ID is not a new theory. Some, including Fred Hoyle, the famous astrophysicist (and Science Fiction writer), touted the panspermia hypothesis for the origin of life, with the mechanism of dispersion in serious question. Was there an intelligent Johnny Appleseed in our early history? I have argued previously that auto-catalysis makes such a mechanism unnecessary, but not necessarily impossible. Once again, show me the meddling!

The second objection I have to Ruse’s answer is that the juxtaposition of miracles against naturalism is a false dichotomy. Many things we see in the streets today would be considered miracles in olden days. Perception is complex. If you see something you don’t understand, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a miracle. Alternatively, there is no way to certify that any given event has not been instigated by a miraculous cause, even if the event "seems" perfectly normal. Gravity may be a miracle. There is, furthermore, a continuum between miracle and process. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, repetitive normal activities blend seamlessly, undiscernably, into something that seems impossible. The miraculous is philosophically inseparable from normalcy because the world is all the same stuff to us.

My point is that even if there were miracles dancing like elves between every quantum of time and space, even if we knew there were miracles or that there was nothing else, we would still want to treat the world with law-based science as a way to predict, approximate and model this world in the breach of miracles, or as the tamer of miracles. Even miracles have structure.

One thing I disliked about this interview was Ruse’s gratuitous swipe at the intelligence of the American people, but I did like the associated hypothesis that apocalyptic religion thrived because of the Nuclear Jitters of the Cold War. Being close to the phenomenon, I’m not sure I agree, but it does make me think.

OW: The American public – a large plurality believes in the Genesis story. Why isn't evolution more popular?

Ruse: Well, you tell me. The American public also believed that Saddam Hussein was linked with al-Qaida, didn't they? So I think you've got to be very careful when you make appeals like that to the American public. More seriously, I mean, the answer is America is a very religious country and certainly, Protestant religion has been very, very influential in America. Particularly after the Civil War, in the South this fundamentalist religion provided a security blanket for people who would read the Bible and read all about how God would afflict his most beloved more than anybody else and things like that.

I think that what we're living with is very much is a function of American history, rather than something which is new today. Certainly the 20th century with the wars and the Cold War and the bomb … led a great many Americans into apocalyptic sort of thinking. We're now living in a time where people are really tense, really tense indeed, about the threat from outside and issues like this.

*Plausible Adaptive Advantages of Upright Bipedal Locomotion

  1. Water-wading for retrieving desirable plants and/or gathering shellfish at the oceanside.
  2. Squatting for harvesting multitudinous, but small, items at ground level or below, changes the shape of the hips, pre-evolving the capacity for long term standing.
  3. Prairie-dogging to see threats and treats over the long grass.
  4. Improved efficiency of long-distance bipedal locomotion when feeding ranges had to be extended on the dry side of Africa, where climate change had eliminated the forests.
  5. Shielding infants from the sun required that they be slung below the mother's torso rather than carrying them on the back. Arm support would be helpful.
  6. Dragging or carrying meat for long distances would require free use of the hands.

1/14/2007 11:05 PM

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Friday, January 12, 2007



Some analysts say that an Israeli government leak, suggesting that Israel was ready to bomb Iran in order to delay its nuclear program, was really a message from the US to Iran. War being what it is, sometimes you don't get the response you expect.

Desert Rat, who posts on the Belmont Club site has made the suggestion that a certain highly public gas leak in NYC was really a message from Iran, stating basically that if you try anything, we can get you back.

Guess you fellows were not in NYC when the "Swamp Gas" filtered through the high rise buildings.

Trouble is it was, most likely, not "swamp gas". Just as likely it was a practice run to send a message of restraint? Well at least to Mr Cheney's 1% Standard of Probability.

Only a few hundred thousand dead in NYC, in response to starting a war against Iran. If that stench had been a aerosoled nerve agent.

An event that dropped into the MSM memory hole, in just under an hour. Just a NJ swamp belching.

Why worry about nuclear devices that may or may not exist, when Japanese religous cults can manufacture basic nerve agents, without State support.

If so, it's a wake up call. The US is the biggest safe haven for terrorist sleepers. As long as they don't do anything, they remain unmolested. It's the Middle Eastern version of MAD. We have been at war since 1979 but have been in serious denial. Let at least that part change! The President could do worse than to announce that the smell was really a threat from Iran, whether or not he knows for sure. IMO, it probably was not a real threat, but that doesn't mean that there is no threat. Wake up and smell the gas!

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Just War Thoughts

According to the current incarnation on Wikipedia, the Just War Tradition "is a view that combines a moral abhorrence towards war and a readiness to accept that sometimes war is the lesser evil." The concession, that sometimes war is necessary, is usually overlooked by those who invoke the concept of just war, but that is of course, just the first hurdle. The second is ascertaining that this war is necessary, and establishing a stable consensus on such a predicate. That being stipulated, the definition implies a continuum on the cost-benefit scale depending entirely on how much you value the innocent components of the target entity. What are your "responsibilities" and how much compliance can you expect from yourself? How do you define "valued", "innocent" and "target"?

For instance, there are certain individuals (type A) who will fight you until they die. They may be identifiable or not. They may be embedded or otherwise protected. It may be possible to identify valued aspects of even these individuals. Unfortunately, they may be unwilling to adhere to any concept of just war on their own, and consequently are interested only in optimizing destructive antagonism. These individuals must be neutralized under any understanding of war. If the entire population, or a sufficiently large portion, of our enemies falls in this category, then we must parse our understanding of the word "neutralize". What must we be willing to sacrifice in order to convert them? Can we afford to imprison them? Should we cut off the left foot and right arm of each? Do we have any choices short of killing them? Which would they prefer? Will their numbers grow or diminish as we hold them at bay? Is there any justice to be extracted with such as these?

There are also many who will fight only until their cause is clearly lost (type B). If we value their lives at all, we must give them the opportunity to surrender, to cease fighting. Maybe we feel that we can’t distinguish the first group from the second group. Then we have to decide what probabilities and costs are associated with a Type I vs. a Type II error and whether they can be managed. In the Pacific Theater during WWII, we felt, at least the soldiers did, that there was no way to distinguish, and that the costs were too high. As a result, no prisoners were taken, no surrenders accepted. How do we tell the soldiers how high the costs are permitted to go? Are we willing to punish them for their more merciless evaluation? In fact, we treated the entire country of Japan under the same rule. Only complete and unconditional surrender of the entire nation of Japan would be accepted, which actually led, IMO, to a relatively just result overall. Maybe we were just lucky.

In the ETO we took prisoners by the thousands. My father was involved in that operation and had nothing but praise for the conduct of his German charges. Americans are often accused of racism for treating these people so differently. But think about this, the British soldiers, more so than the Americans, hated the Germans passionately. Some still do, and yet the British also took German prisoners. Do we praise them for that? Or condemn them for their racist attitudes? My point is that the different rules of treating the European enemy vs. the Japanese were dictated, not by the behavior of the Allied soldiers, but by the behavior of the enemy. Given the relative costs of taking prisoners, there was little choice involved.

One of the salient characteristics of the war in Iraq has been the very high effectiveness of our munitions with respect to collateral damage. A target is bombed. It is almost always the right target. It is almost always the only thing destroyed. Maybe, you say, this is merely the way we want it to look. Well, then you have to ask yourself, why do we want it to look that way? Clearly our values dictate that the effectiveness ratio should be as high as possible.

Our failures in targeting are based on judgment calls, not policy. When the type A targets are mixed in with type B, or with total innocents, someone must decide how many unnecessary casualties are acceptable. Furthermore, someone has to decide how reliable the intelligence is. What probability of error is acceptable? This god-like power of life and death invokes suspicion and disdain among some civilian opponents of the war, but think for a second. Do you realize what a luxury this situation is? And do you think any country other than the US and our natural allies would avail themselves of these choices?

Street fighting is another theater in the Just War. Type A targets do not follow the rules of war, so they treat every reservation we adhere to as a wall to hide behind. For instance, the enemy bases itself in areas with high concentrations of civilians, fires from within sanctuary zones, such as mosques,hospitals and schools. There have been reports of grown men firing from behind the backs of exposed children, recruited specifically for that purpose. I have been told that American snipers have the skills and equipment to neutralize such tactics, but still, contemplate the luxury that we have in making that choice. How much is expected of us?

That is precisely the question. How much is expected of us? The answer is that the US military is constantly raising the bar on its own achievements. It expects a lot of itself. Technical sophistication improves constantly. Individual soldiers will, today, be investigated for questionable choices and prosecuted under US law for mistaken decisions. I imagine the citizens of Grozny would find that darkly humorous.

Almost all of the nasty stuff that is going on in Iraq involves Iraqi on Iraqi violence. Criminal gangs, religious fanatics, sectarian extremists and psychopaths are making Iraq unlivable. Most of the rest is caused by Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi support of various factions. The MNF has nothing but a positive influence. Nevertheless, the Iraqis with leadership capacity and anything else to contribute are leaving. Their numbers reach the millions. So, does that mean our involvement in this war has been unjust because of their suffering? Are we culpable for bullets shot by lunatics who want Saddam back? Can we be blamed for not foreseeing the consequences of our invasion?

The US Senate decided with near unanimity, no matter how they characterize their decision today, to allow and support a war to remove Saddam. They thought it was necessary. Once that was done, they supported with very little question, the continuing effort to promote democracy and suppress chaos in Iraq. The Senate is empowered to speak for America on these issues, and you can bet that the senators checked with their constituents. So it’s fair to say that America thought the war and subsequent cleanup efforts were necessary. There have been opponents all along. And today, there are those among them who would say, abandon Iraq no matter what the cost. This faction seems to have the ear of Congress now, and there is more than a little danger that their wishes will be implemented. So what does that imply with regard to Just War Theory?

Are these opponents motivated by the monetary cost of the war or the loss of American life? Let us say that we can save the loss of another 3,000 American lives and maybe a trillion dollars by leaving today. How many Iraqis would that be worth? Seriously. If we knew for sure, which we don’t, that 300,000 extra Iraqis would be killed, would they still want us to come home now? How about one million? Five million?

Of course, they might say that the killing would probably stop as soon as we leave. Then we would have the best of all possible worlds. My question: Do they really believe that, or do they simply believe that the entire population of Iraq is not worth a single American soldier? That’s a pretty steep cost-benefit curve. Let me just suggest that people who feel this way do not have the right to talk about Just War Theory.

1/9/2007 3:17 AM


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Monday, January 08, 2007

Escape from the Quagmire of Success

I sometimes wonder if there were people in the Roman Empire who could see the causes of its demise, who recognized and tried to cure the diseases that ended its power and beauty and legacy of knowledge. Frank Warner thinks that our reluctance to win in Iraq might lead to a modern era of darkness. He wants us to read this piece by Jules Crittenden. It seems that the phony analogy to Vietnam now has the prospect of becoming real. The failure to fund the war will turn it into a rout of one kind or another. The Fall of Saigon is not far away, and the Killing Fields of Iraq will be coming up next.

Is this alarmism? In fact, according to the talk shows this morning, a decisive majority of Republican senators is uninterested in a troop surge and wants us to pull out with all deliberate speed. Everybody is claiming, of course, that the Democratic base is all for surrender and that the "meaning" of the last election was John Murtha's precipitous dive to the bottom of the political convenience bomb shelter.

How many of these people were once saying that we really had no choice but to prevail in this war? There is too much at stake. They were certainly right. And I think that we will find that allowing a direct confrontation between Iran and the Sunni powers is not a great idea.

Bush is no Lincoln. But I'm hoping he's a lot tougher than old Gerald Ford, much celebrated for leading us through a time of national crisis. We were just lucky to recover from that leadership. This time it might not be so easy.

Just so you know, the beginning of American power, with the thirteen colonies standing together, was exactly thirteen centuries after the end of Roman power in the year 476AD. Roman culture before that, in one form or another had lasted almost as long. Will we?

1/8/2007 12:43 AM

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

T Minus 16 Months

We’re looking at colleges. Some people, who will remain nameless, think that we don’t have to do this, because we already know where we want to go. My response is this:

The college experience is the real beginning of your intellectual life. The people you meet, the mentors, the teachers, the friends, will be critical in helping you become yourself. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of actively making that experience work for you. It’s easy to take less than the best. This effort should not be a random grab at a convenient degree mill. You have to absorb an understanding and a feeling for various places. In order to get a feel for what might help you, you have to get a feel for place and pace and local color. What kinds of places are out there? What are the boundaries of this educational universe? How do the people seem? This is largely a subconscious process requiring exposure. After seeing a place, conversations and reading about that place will have a hook in your brain, a folder where they can easily fit. I suppose it’s easy to make mistaken assumptions based on limited data, and it’s impossible to see every place you might be interested in. Nevertheless, you come to know, for instance, the difference between a state university and a liberal arts college. It’s no longer just a line item in the US News and World Report.

After our first visit, we managed to elicit the following comment. "Well, when you see an interesting campus like this, it makes you think. Maybe city schools are not necessarily the best."

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Vibrations in My Ear

We try to rescue ourselves with knowledge … at least, I do. I have … I thought I had. When I was … sometime ago, I understood my weakness and resolved, as many have, to keep my distance, to be alone. But fronted with the question, the words … they unreserved came … I do; I will; We are.

Plato tried it too. These images … these shades … are merely light upon the wall, he said. The players strut their remarkable deceptions, parading, knowing what they do. Rise above it friend. If you can see it all, you choose how you respond.

I know, and I have read that consciousness … it skips a beat. Cascading down our sloping thoughts after the echo of the shot is fading. Mere software meant to stitch the tattered image back together.

And yet how real it seems, just when I would have it otherwise.

1/5/2007 11:43 PM

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why Not the Men?

I believe I have a completely different point of view on this. I have been noticing commercials on TV lately urging women to get vaccinated against HPV. Frankly, I am appalled!

It is true that women are susceptible to cervical cancer because of HPV. It is true that this vaccine will improve their chances. But let’s look at how this is being done. Women are being encouraged on commercial television to take personal action as a self-help step. This approach could equally suit a campaign endorsing allergy medicine or Pilates. This is a matter of public health policy, not selecting a brand of toothpaste!

Think about how the polio epidemic was handled. Think about smallpox and German measles. Cervical cancer is one of the more wretched ways to die, and it is not a rare disease. The Surgeon General, if we have one, should be giving public service announcements to tell people where and when to get their shots. The President, if we have one, should be appearing on news broadcasts praising the inventors and encouraging people to cooperate. Churches should be announcing special programs for those who cannot afford the treatment.

And let me ask you this. If we have a deadly disease in circulation, why are we passively accepting the easy public exposure to a hundred million Typhoid Marys?

1/4/2007 9:57 AM

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Meme Test

The professors asked me what good this theory of memes was. Did it have any predictive value? Do we have any evidence that a meme can actually influence behavior? That is, do the "infected" individuals show any measurable differences from the rest of the population? Can we say that there is something analogous to population genetics or ecology in memetics? Make a prediction that can be tested.

OK. I was on the spot. Here’s what I came up with:

There is a memeplex associated with the handling of the US flag. People within a certain sub-culture in the US learn the "proper" treatment of the flag and take it to heart. A single element of this plex is the meme dictating that "the Flag must not touch the ground." I, myself, have emotions associated with the Flag, and, although not steeped in these particular doctrines, would not willingly allow a US flag to touch the ground. I am a Democrat, but I will predict that Republicans are more susceptible to this meme than are Democrats. What about Republicans who become Democrats or Democrats who turn Republican? I don’t know for sure, but I have a hunch and I’m proposing the following test. If we were to observe successive randomly selected Fourth of July parades for several decades and count the number of times that flags were permitted to touch the ground, that number would be higher in years when the Democrats had done well in elections. I am postulating that the self-identification of "Republican" provides a more hospitable environment for this particular meme.

There are two side issues here. First, it may be more convenient to measure this phenomenon using survey methods. I agree, but the challenge here is to identify an actual behavior that is effected by the meme. Second, if the knowledge of the test were to become widespread, it would have unpredictable effects on the outcome.

I’m pretty sure that we can come up with more such tests, and easier ones, if we put I minds to it. I suspect that some folks have already done so. I believe that this is the kind of thing that has to be done to prove that the meme concept provides a productive viewpoint for social scientists.

1/3/2007 11:24 AM

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Descent of Theory

Two of my in-laws are social science professors at a major university. As near as I can tell, they have made significant contributions to their fields and are delightful human beings as well as learned and intelligent. I love being with them at family events, but unfortunately for me, they usually are looking for a break from their work. I am always hungry for intelligent conversation, but they would rather talk about something else – anything else, with the possible exception of football. (I found out a few years ago that they did not know the name of their own football team.)

I decided on Thanksgiving vacation to sneak up on them with a tangentially related subject: memes. "So, is anyone in your field using meme-related approaches to any of their problems?" Well, the answer was not just, "No." It was, "No, of course not!" Needless to say, I was stunned. I know they went to school before memes were hypothesized, but seriously, Darwin had already published! The ensuing conversation was pointed and extremely satisfying to me, because one seldom gets seriously challenged, point by point, on things that one believes to be true. The nice part was that I was able to meet each challenge with an explanation and/or example. They were certainly asking the right questions. Even so, it took a good half-hour before one of them summarized that the defining characteristic of a meme was that it "reproduced" by means of imitation.

Apparently, they had not previously understood the concept, which implies that they did not really understand what Darwin had to say, other than the fact that the biological world was an end product of Deep Time and small changes. In fact, they didn’t really care about Evolution. In their minds, they were dealing with a static situation. How do people function under certain circumstances? What are people like? What can they do? How do they do it? What are the important explanatory variables involved in these behaviors? How do people perceive and understand their own behaviors?

In the same position I would be asking, do permanent behavioral changes invade a population? Is there homeostasis in alternative behavioral options? Do suites of behavioral attributes coalesce into clusters of mutually supportive elements? How do behaviors change? What environmental variables influence the direction and nature of those changes?

The model for their questions is the mechanical. How does it work? The model for my questions is ecological. Where is the balance? Why does it change?

I talked to one of the professors the other day. When I asked about progress on the meme front, laughter was my only response. These things take time.


I had a beloved professor of geology who taught courses on statistical concepts. It was his belief that professors did not change their opinions or approaches to Science. Their courses were set, their notes were written, their efforts were focused. Paradigm shift occurred only because these "dinosaurs" died off. His example was the Theory of Continental Drift, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, but not accepted until the 60’s. Everybody knew that this theory couldn’t be right. The Earth did not move for them. Wegener insisted and came up with a different explanatory mechanism every three weeks, one of which was correct. The professors got tired of shooting down these proposals and just stopped listening to him. The young students, however, listened and couldn’t help but look for confirmatory examples. They couldn’t talk about it, but they could think about it.

Maybe this is how memes will work their way into the social sciences. Old Heads will die off.

Maybe my geology professor was right. Individual professors choose a path that can be productive, or they can waste their careers following dead ends and digging dry holes. Students will more often follow the ones who are, by sheer chance, productive. Successive generations of students can acquire significant changes over Deep Time. Ideas thus shift slowly in the direction of productivity.

I prefer to think that scientists can change in real time, can accept new visions of the world. It’s just that they often build walls to cut off change in a given direction. These self-imposed constraints are complicated, often due to personal interactions as much as anything else. Some self-limitations are installed for good reason. For instance, resistance to the O.T. story of Noah made the old geologists reject Catastrophism, to the point that they could not see the story of an actual catastrophe in the stones. Professors are also often bound to the mast. The inertia of their particular academic trajectories drags them along for the ride.

Follow-through is necessary, and obsessiveness is a required trait for the profession. Notwithstanding these limitations, scientists do change. My geology professor was a good example of that. Having made his career as a petrologist, he became so enamored of statistical methods that he retired to teach it. He encouraged random sampling to such an extent, pushing a program for grid-drilling the entire continent, that he became known as the geologist with ten thousand holes in his head. He was proud of that.

1/2/2007 2:21 PM

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Monday, January 01, 2007

One by One

I’ve decided as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I should post at least five times a week.

The reason that I haven’t is not really a lack of desire, or lack of time, or a lack of ideas. Quite the contrary, I suffer from an excess of interests and topics that I would like to discuss. Call it process lock, or mental page-thrashing. I read once that some people have difficulty with decisions and that the cure is to set a priority scheme. E.g., first, you choose as you read. Left first, top first, age before beauty, alphabetically, then flip a coin. If nothing else works, ask a friend to pick.

Maybe that could work for some things, but my problem isn’t a shortage of decisions, but an excess. I decide to write about each thing I come across, and each item pushes the stack one deeper. To know me, you wouldn’t believe it, but I have entirely too much enthusiasm about every thought that crosses my mind.

So what’s the cure? I’m open to suggestions, but here’s my plan for now: I’m going to write about the books I’m reading, one chapter at a time. If I get a post done, then maybe I’ll work on something else.

1/1/2007 11:14 PM

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