Monday, December 26, 2011

Morality: Part 2 (definitions)

This is a multiple part blog on morality:  [Previous]      [Next]

Charles Darwin was very brief in defining morality:  “that short but imperious word ought.”  My dictionaries are also pretty straightforward: "knowing right from wrong,” or “virtuous conduct.” 

I'm not a philosopher but I took an excursion and found a number interesting distinctions.  To deontologists, morality means obeying rules -- the absolutists among them claim there are absolute rights and wrongs, regardless of consequences. Moral consequentialists, on the other hand, judge the rightness of an action by its consequences. Among them are utilitarianists, who apply the standard of “greatest overall happiness” as a measure for morality. The conflict between deontologists and consequentialists is evident in Plato’s fifth century B.C. query: Are things right because God commanded them, or does God command them because they are right?

Elizabeth Anderson, in a paper published in C. Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, answers ...
if the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality. But if the former is true, then God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted. 
she goes on …
We know … that it is wrong to engage in murder, plunder, rape, and torture, to brutally punish people for the wrongs of others or for blameless error, to enslave others to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide. … If you find a train of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that everything, or even just these things, is permitted, this is a good reason for you to reject it.
But this is the relativist approach, which has the same weakness as "common sense." It depends on the momentary perspective of a single observer, which is notoriously ephemeral. Moral issues come and go.   For example, think about seat belts, product safety, flirtation in the workplace, racism, wearing fur, drilling oil, spanking children, toy guns, homosexuality, smoking, organic food, genetic engineering, and more. "Common sense morality" is easily inflamed into moral indignation and self-righteousness, which can itself justify bad behaviors.

But what's the alternative, an unchanging absolute right and wrong?  Who would judge it, and how?  That would put us back into the same philosophical problems defining morality as before, just this time with an autocrat to enforce it.

Even utilitarianists, who seek to do the least overall harm, are faced with the problem of measuring "harm." And they may advocate pushing one person in front of a bus if it would save two lives -- an abhorrent, but possibly moral, thought. Sam Harris took the utilitarian approach in The Moral Landscape, suggesting that we maximize well being. Well being might be defined as happiness.  Some troubling situations arise.  Steven Pinker wonders “should we indulge a sicko who gets more pleasure from killing than his victims do from living?”  

What's more, would the goal be maximizing total happiness or average happiness?  The former would lead to teeming populations, the latter would recommend identifying anyone who was a little less happy than average.  The world would simply be better off without them.

And it gets worse: whose happiness – one’s self, one's family, tribe, nation, all of mankind or -- as many Buddhists would suggest -- all conscious beings?   Animal rights groups square off against the food industry on this last question.   If sentience is required we certainly need a better understanding of consciousness than we have now.  Is an insect sentient?  But then, why should consciousness even be a factor?  Isn't crushing a beetle, mutilating a tree, or defacing property all matters of moral consequence? 

We can wonder forever whether morality should protect non-human species, lower animals, and other living and even non-living things.  A parallel question is whether these things can themselves be moral in their behavior.  Instinct for example.  Can it be considered moral? In one stroke Darwin was certain that it is not: “We have no reason to believe that animals have this capacity; when a Newfoundland dog drags a child out of the water … we do not call its conduct moral.” But then he writes “in the case of man … actions of a certain class are called moral whether performed deliberately … or impulsively through instinct.”
Morality, in the end, seems to be a mix of poorly defined or contradictory notions, and the rules, formulas, or feelings, that govern it are are subject to whim, cultural bias, and rationalization.  Many of the more appealing definitions (to me) require identifying consciousness, measuring harm, placing subjective values on everything,  and making arbitrary decisions which have huge influence on what is "moral" behavior.  And being moral may or may not require consciousness.

So I am going to explore the biological concept of altruism: "where individuals seemingly pay a cost, at least in the short term, to benefit another individual.” I think it's a reasonable compromise.   It's not perfect, as it denies the value of helping one's self, and it doesn't fall neatly within any of the philosophical perspectives above.  But it captures -- I think -- much of Darwin's "ought."  It doesn't require consciousness -- and why should it?  If an ant dies trying to save the colony, does it matter if the ant was aware of what it was doing?  If I toss a bottle out the car window without giving it a thought, does the not-thinking make it less wrong?  There's something even more fundamental and important about reflexive, instinctive, behavior.   

So I take the position that instinctive altruism should be considered along with true morality.  If not moral itself, instinct may give us insight into the origin and evolution conscious morality.

Next: part 3: Seeds of Morality

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Morality: Part 1

This is the first of several part blog on the evolution of morality.  [Next]

A Gallop Poll in 2009, on Darwin’s 200, birthday showed 39% of Americans believe in  evolution.  A BBC poll had just determined that 8 of 10 Americans believed in God.  I suspect these values have a high negative correlation, and if you look at data across countries it does seem to be true.  This is because, while it is possible to believe in both, since they explain the same things, it’s really best if you choose one. 

I doubt that Americans have discovered a major flaw in the theory of evolution, and I bet most know the basic idea.  So it can’t be a logical reasoning about evolution itself, or lack of exposure to the theory, which makes them doubt Darwin.  There must be another explanation, and I think I’ve found it.

I wonder if Americans do see the  fundamental contradiction between religion and evolution, and know that a serious consideration of the latter may take one down a path from which from which religion will soon part ways.  If religion is the source of our moral order, without it people will be bad.  Social ruin will follow.  We need only look within, to see temptations to profit from another person's loss, to find evidence of natural badness.  Catholics call it original sin.  Without God to police our thoughts, and to mete out rewards and punishments, what would stop everyone from misbehaving, all the time?  

It doesn't matter much that you believe (as private doubts are tolerated), but it does matter that there is generally professed belief in a higher power.  The specific denomination is not so important as this.  But if we were not under constant surveilance (by god or by the state) much of our life would be unchecked and anarchy would follow.  Atheists, by this view, are dangerous in voicing their disbelief.  Traitors to goodness.  And the stronger the evidence for evolution, the more sharp its break from religion, so the more it must be resisted.

Maybe Americans don't deny evolution because of mental sloth or ignorance, but rather a love of goodness, a fear of anarchy, and a clear understanding that real science and real religion are fundamentally incompatible.  I respect all of that.   But they also seem to assume that people are inherently bad.  That is the presumption which I would like to explore.  Are we really that bad, to need religion?

First, a quick comment about religion itself.  It is interesting that many people generally consider scripture to be the source of morality.  But the Bible prescribes murder, slavery, rape, theft, looting, genocide, plunder, human sacrifice, animal cruelty, and other things we can safely say are wrong.  It is also capricious.  The second commandment not only prohibited graven images (!?) but promised to punish not just the artist but also his offspring “unto the third and fourth generation.”  Steven Pinker, in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, gives a chilling synopsis of the Bible story, remarking that it is "one long celebration of violence."

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. p10

I've mentioned that for comparison  -- the alternative to secular morality is not all that rosey.  But what then of nature?  The law of the jungle is kill or be killed.  Evolution means survival of the fittest (and death to the weak).  This dilemma -- between Christian and natural morality -- was the point of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, published around the time Darwin was preparing his thesis.

        Who trusted God was love indeed
        And love Creation's final law
        Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
        With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

This may be true of crows and squirrels, but is just too dim a view of the human condition, I think.   

After all, many European countries have parted from the religious paradigm.  Eurostat Eurobarometer poll in 2005 found 80% of Czech and Estonians, 76% of Swedes, 68% of Danish, 64% of Dutch, and 60% of French and British don’t believe in a god. Their belief in evolution is 62% and 61%, 80%, 81%, and 79% and 77% respectively.  Without a moral collapse, I think.

In the next few blogs -- perhaps with some hops, skips, or jumps --  I intend to deal with the question of secular morality.  I will argue that people are naturally good, and that we should thank evolution,  not fear it.

Next: part 2: definitions

*Source of graphic

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Maybe a Good Idea (and maybe not)

I read a book a while ago called the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. My sister-in-law gave it to me because she found it useful as president of her synagogue; she’s faced with the standard problems of leadership and is, like me, a herder of cats. A cat is the correct analogy for a person. Cats are different from one another, they know exactly who they are, and they are very quick to disagree. What’s more they have a hard time seeing things your way. They’re much more healthy people than dogs.

The book, by Patrick Lencioni, lays out a convincing model for teamwork -- first in an intriguing fictional narrative and then in a summary final chapter. The logic is fairly simple: team members must trust one another enough to admit weaknesses and expose vulnerabilities. Only then can they engage in the sort of meaningful conflict which is necessary if even the minority opinion is to buy in to the final decision. If one has been heard, respected, and considered, he/she is more able to go along with the final result; consensus is not always possible, and is not necessary. Once a unified team goal is set, team members can hold one another accountable for progress toward that goal. If the goal is kept in clear focus, it becomes a valuable and objective measure of success.

Me saying that will not convince you of the brilliance of these steps and stages; read the book yourself -- it'll be an afternoon well spent. It might even become a game plan for those in a multi-level leadership position. The scenarios which unfold in the novel narrative are realistic, and the responses of the effective, fictitious, CEO, are difficult to predict. In retrospect you must admire her decisiveness, simplicity, and effectiveness.

I’ve been thinking about conflict and adversary more broadly, and the value of it. Strife, as terrible as it actually is, is also an extraordinary thing. It has overthrown scientific paradigms, it has uprooted many entrenched Bad Ideas. The Earth is flat. We’re at the center of the universe. The continents are fixed. Species are immutable. God is real. It’s really very wonderful (though sometimes painful) to doubt what you believe to be true. Someone’s disputing opinion can often help you do that.

A lot of people don’t like this sort of conflict and do their best to avoid it. But to do that you have to also avoid a lot of other things – like whole realms of experience (e.g., “we don’t talk about politics”) or people who we think are not very much like us. That’s a loss, a pity and a shame. According to the book, the problem in communication is often that there is no underlying layer of trust. The trust is built when people admit their own weaknesses and fallibilitys, both to themselves and to others. The idea is that once universal imperfection of humans has been established, it becomes safe for an imperfect person to float an imperfect idea which some other imperfect person might disagree with. Let them disagree; let the ideas themselves play out. This is positive conflict. It’s truely marvelous to witness a civil clash of ideas when one's own ego is not muddying things up.

But the book doesn’t say much about the type of conflict that does not have the underlying civility. An insult, say – or a perceived injustice, a sudden sideswipe, a put-down or when one player is simply, objectively, wrong. What happens when there is no soft bedding of trust, nurtured from shared vulnerability. What if someone is simply bullheaded about their position, has a hidden agenda, is mean, or paranoid, or hateful, or plainly and objectively a stupid moron idiot.  And they think everything you have to offer is either obvious, worthless, or wrong.

I suspect that some of the more civil lessons still exist in that hostile environment, even if they are more difficult to access.  The impulse --I understand! -- is to flee (withdrawal, collapse, capitulate, ignore them, or give in) or fight (counterattack, dig in, become indignant, angry, derisive or abusive).

But, as my grandmother used to say, there’s no profit in that. If one can avoid those reflexes and actually listen to the challenge -- just give it a moment of thought – I suspect it may make a big difference. The gap one opens in his defenses is not a weak spot. It does not mean defeat or agreement, it's not an admission of wrongdoing or bad thinking. It is not even a show of respect or deference. It simply admits fallibility, the possibility of error. That was the first step in the Lencioni book -- accepting of your own imperfection. 

But maybe, I'm suggesting, it can be applied when things aren't predictable or civil --  in the heat of it.  Maybe with effort, maybe with practice.

This is the key to growth, maybe. In challenging situations, just a tempering moment of real reflection, that is all. Nothing may come of it, and perhaps usually nothing should.    But there may be a situation where I'll see something, in that gracious moment.  Something that I really should see.

And-- big picture --  the Good Ideas, playing against the Bad ones will – I expect, I hope -- persevere.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Are There Species?

When Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859 he kick started modern understanding of how things work but, oddly, he didn’t explain how species originate. He didn't even really distinguish between species and varieties -- he thought all variation was on a continuium and the lines drawn were arbitrary.  This is not a popular position today, but I'm not convinced he was wrong.   Today, species are typically defined as having the ability to produce fertile offspring, in nature.  But what is "nature"?  And how fertile is "fertile"?  The complete gradations in each of these does pose an awkward problem. 

But let's accept that there are species, as there clearly are organisms in nature that can't have offspring with one another.  Others do mate, produce strong offspring, but the offspring are infertile. 

It's easy to understand the incompatibility of a starfish and a crow. Probably it physically can’t reach. If so, it wouldn't fertilize, and if it did the fetus would not develop and if was born it would not be viable but imagine a starfish-crow cross anyway. Where would it live? What would it eat? There is no half-way between the sea and the land.   Clearly, utterly, and permenantly separate species.

But sheep and goats can’t breed, either, and they run in similar circles.  Neither can robins and sparrows, rats and opossums, orb spider and garden spider. When wolves and coyotes mate, their offspring is fertile, but strange.  Neither parent species want to breed with them, and they don't much care for their own kind, either.  For some good reason there are lots and lots of different species. Two million species have been named, there are probably 10 million more. Why so many species?

One situation is understandable -- genetic isolation.  Allopatric speciation is when a new boundary separates populations -- say a new river, contintental drift, a desert or glacier.  Paripatric speciation is very similar.  Say, a crew of critters floats to another island and morphs over time into something altogether different.  In either case it could be natural selection or genetic drift that does it -- drift will actually occur quickly when the founding population is small.   And if a population doesn't travel much groups on the periphery (expecially) can also develop local variation that eventually crosses the threshold of speciesdom.  This is a perapatric process.  All of these are fundamentally geographic.

But geographic isolation is not necessary for species to develop.  Someone fogged 19 trees of one type in Panama 1,000 species of beetle fell out. No, something is definitely going on besides geographic isolation.  When speciation occurs in the same area, with no geographic or temperal separation, it's called sympatric.  This is much much harder to understand.

First there are the infertile hybrids, like mules, which sometimes have excellent characteristics of both parents; Mules have "hybrid vigor" like the strength of a horse but the steadfast temperment of a donkey.    Ligers, the cross between lion and tiger, are huge.  In a sense hybrid vigor is the genetic opposite of inbreeding – the vigorous hybrid offspring are fast growing, large, and healthy -- better, you might say, than the originals. They are not uncommon.  Modern corn crops are hybrid vigorous. Black Angus crossed with Hereford, and Hampshire swine crossed with Yorkshire make vigorous hybrid livestock. The big eggs we eat come from hens with parents of different stock.  Mules come from high-strung horses and little donkeys.  Not all hybrids are robust of course, in fact most are inviable or sickly but there does seem to be a sweet spot between species.

Now think of what this means. If there was no hybrid infertility near species which drift apart but then chance to mate would fill the gap between them with a possibly vigorous intermediate. The result would be no distinct species at all, just a grand smear of life forms from bacteria to fruit fly to crow to giraffe to human. Imagine putting all dog breeds in a gymnasium for 5 years, but at a global scale, with everything.

But this does not happen. We have unique species because those healthy hybrids have a fatal flaw: they are incapable of having offspring. That big mule, in essence, is the thick end of a wedge that is being driven between species; it’s the end we can see. The sharp end is its sterility.  The males are sterile (technically it's the XY which is infertile, so it birds it's the females). 

There may be advantages to there being different species.  Take wolves and deer. Each fits into a niche environment, allowing the other to survive, keeping each other in check.   Wolves are programmed to kill deer, and deer are programmed to avoid wolves.  Imagine how much difficult it would be to program these creatures if there were all manner of deer-wolves in between.
But it's not species that are  driving evolution. I am with Hamilton and Dawkins on this point;  not only species or groups, even organisms don’t generally drive evolutoionary change; it happens at the level of the gene.  Genes, in effect, succeed or fail by the number of times they can duplicate themselves. Most mutations are bad -- a monkey wrench thrown in the works -- but a good genetic mutation can succeed self-replicating but work against a higher level of organization (organism, group, a species, etc.).   Genes will naturally "cheat" the higher orders if it helps them.

So is there a genetic advantage of hybrid infertility?  No.  There can't be.  Genes specifically making a hybrid infertile wouldn't duplicate and would be removed from the gene pool. 

So maybe the infertile hybrid offspring – mules – are servants for their parents?  Maybe the mother benefits from the protection a mule may provide so she can have more regular babies?  This can't be either.  The amount of investment a mare would have to put into making a sterile mule would have to be less than the protection she receives from it.  Very doubtful.

What’s more, mule infertility is gender-specific.  In mammals, males are infertile (in birds, females).   What would a male horse gain by making his son infertile -- just so it can protect a mare donkey whom the stud is unlikely to impregnate again? There is just nothing in it for the stud – for his genes, that is.  And therefore, they just won't last.

I've read that maybe speciation is a byproduct of aggressive genetic variation designed to foil bacteria and viruses that go for the dominant form.  The rarer variants simply slip away from the attack.  But it doesn't seem to address the issue of vigorous but infertile hybrids. 

And there is another possibility I found intreuging.  If infertility comes from a combination of obstacles: 1) temperal incompatibility, 2) geographic separation, 3) sexual preference, 4) gamete inviability, 5) hybrid mortality, or 6) hybrid infertility, any one of these would make a variant less attractive, because the effort spent on procreation would be less often productive.  Therefore, once one of these is in place some others will follow.  For example, once red-winged flies become even slightly less fertile with yellow-winged flies, individuals of either color will tend to avoid the other type so to waste less of their precious efforts.  One group may then morph to mating in the morning, the other in the evening to increase the chance of a successful match, and so on until they become so different that they can't or won't mate at all.  As I understand it, this effect is called Reinforcement.

But the way through to hybrid infertility is still not clear to me; even this explanation is riddled with big questions, the biggest among them is why the vigorous but infertile hybrids?  I’m at a loss.  Darwin didn't know, but by now I believe someone does.  But not me.

Can someone please enlighten me.  Why oh why are the vigorous hybrids sterile?  In other words, and this is the point: Why are there species.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nick Lane books

Evolution is such fun.   Just read about Darwin's voyage, the campaign he mounted against the fundamentalist paradigm of the time, the weird and fantastic solutions natural selection creates with simple trial and error, using a code with just four characters.  And it reaches so far that there is, in Dan Dennett's words, no need for a skyhook.  Nothing supernatural, nothing at all. 
But if you follow W.D. Hamliton and R. Dawkins' line of thinking, as I do, you see about all of the biological selection happening not to species, populations or even organisms, but to genes -- then you really need to go down into the cell to look around. And when you do, I'd recommend following an excellent biochemist named Nick Lane; he's one of my top shelf popular science writers. He made something that was perfectly baffling to me just ... incredibly confusing.

I pace myself with Dr. Lane, his books are not easy reading and I've only done two: Power Sex and Suicide (2005) and Life Ascending (2010). He won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books for the latter, putting him in the company of Diamond, Hawking, and Bryson. And Gould.

Power, Sex, and Suicide is about mitochondria, those little captive creatures which live in our cells with their own DNA, all clones from one's mother alone. They make heat and they make little energy pellets called ATP which they ship around the body. They really are essential. So much for being a single living creature, each of our cells has one -- some have thousands of these girls.

It’s believed that bacteria once invaded a cell, or were consumed by one, and they got along so well they're still camping out. Sperm cells use these things for swimming but jettison their tails before penetrating the egg. Why? Because, Lane explains, when different mitochondria meet they fight, and injure each other in the germ cell, so they have "agreed" that the male bits should just stay out and avoid quarrels. Female go, male stay. If there were three genders the solution would be way too weird -- every gender would have to go in some situations yet be prepared to stay in another, like rock, paper, scissors. So most of the animal kingdom and most plants too have just two genders. I just think that's a cool thing to (sort of) know.

Life Ascending takes the same micro approach, and I enjoyed it as much. He takes ten evolutionary inventions in ten chapters, starting with the origin of life. His position on first life is, I think, the dominant one: chemical processes at the pH/heat gradient vents on the ocean floor. Don't worry; he takes you step by step through the process: geochemical mixing in the tiny porous rock, which made a cell-like enclosure, then a reversing Krebs cycle, and finally a proton gradient which allowed accumulation of excess energy. Something like that. At the time I remember feeling like I followed the progression, and I'm still a little proud of myself for it.

Other chapters are on DNA, photosynthesis, the eukaryotic cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Each one made clear and relatively simple without (I felt) cutting a lot of corners.

Lane supports the free radical theory of ageing, one of three ageing theories, I'm told, in which all degeneration of body systems result from a single process which can be slowed by (basically) giving the cells a break from processing calories. "I would be amazed," he writes "if we didn't have an answer within the next two decades ... that cures all the diseases of old age at once." Holy cow. He made this same claim in Power, Sex, and Suicide, convincingly enough (to me) that because of Nick Lane I purposefully lost 20 pounds of my body weight -- that's 12%. Hunger, he convinced me, is my friend.

The chapter on movement may have been the least controversial of the batch but the most difficult to follow. Apparently muscle tissue and the parts of plants which track the sun are similar to, and derive from, systems of mitochondrial transport operating within the cytoskeleton -- the inner cell wall. Who knew!!?

You'll work for it -- at least I did. But I found every chapter do-able, and exhilirating to finish. I'm looking forward to the prequel: Oxygen (2002).

Another page-turner, I'm sure.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Great Humiliation

I'm writing this not because it's particularly interesting, and it's certainly not important or useful information, nor food for thought. I just have to get it out of my system, that's all. I still feel the poison in my blood and you might say I am venting my spleen.

I was taking my son on a college visit to Middlebury College in Vermont. It has a strong Environmental program, and diving, and Chinese, and lots of other things. It seemed a fit for his interests, and we thought we'd check it out. Got a cheap flight with Spirit Airlines and rented a car with Enterprise.

But I left the house without the Garmin -- that was my big mistake.

You'd think that since I have a PhD in Geography and I live in Chicago this would not have happened to me. But I called O'Hare Airport before we grabbed a cab, just to find out what long term parking might cost. Just park in Lot F, I was told: $9 a day. And E was a little closer but just a little more. Great, we'll save a few dollars and do that. So I'm driving to the airport, vigilantly looking for a sign to lots F and E. Surely there would be a sign, right? Wrong. Got right to the airport, pulled over and called O'Hare. Where's the lot?? Oh the lots are on Manheim Road. At this point I'm aiming at the entrance to a large hourly parking lot and must spiral to the top floor and spiral back down again, but finally I'm heading back out looking for Manheim. There. But do I go North or South? Call  O'Hare again: go north. But of course. Finally I park the car and we make the flight.

It was a four hour drive from Boston. We left Enterprise with simple instructions: three rights and a left, north on 93, then my printed directions will do. I navigated the turns correctly, entered a tunnel and immediately saw a small tube with "93" written above it whizz by on the right. Damn! So I took the next closest number, 90, which of course took us in the wrong direction, at 80 mph. By the time we regrouped and were able to exit, my blood pressure was rising, but when I stopped at a small gas station I happened upon the friendliest man I've ever encountered, who went to an old computer, dialed up google maps, and told me to go back to Boston. But I'm terrified of the tunnel, so he found me an alternate route, west, north, east. He printed it, actually rewrote the important parts in capital letters, and sent me on my way with best wishes. "Tell your wife to give you a Garmin for your birthday."

Perfect! I love him! We made it back on the highway, eventually I caught up with my original route and then followed the directions I had printed from home. Now I'm on 107 and it's dark. When the route turned off onto a perpendicular with no warning, of course I whizzed on ahead, but the road I was on eventually whithered to dirt. Backtrack. There is the stupid sign, down the side road and under a bridge. Nice. So we followed 107 deep deep into the woods, up into the mountains, and passed a disconcerting sign saying road closed ahead "to trucks." I'm in a compact rental. We pushed on. Winding, twisting on and on in the dark. There it is. Closed completely. Barricaded. A helpful sign said "Find alternate route."

Thanks! So we backtrack again. It's late now. My phone is nearly dead, and I learn that Isaac's has been dead for a while. It's 10:30 p.m., we're in the wilderness, no map, looking for an alternate route when even the real routes and regular streets are poorly marked. Isaac remembers passing a Shell station when we first missed the 107 turnoff, so we make our way back there. It's open! Again, the nicest person calmly gave me instructions, and a pad of paper to write them down on, and sent us off over the mountain on route 12. A few towns later, we were in Middlebury.

I had to use the the last volt from my phone to call home, because we had no map, and the bed and breakfast was not answering calls. It took 6.5 hours, when google had said 4. But we made it. Charge phone, print maps and return directions avoiding 107.  All prepared for the return trip. 

Had a nice day in Middlebury.

Armed with plenty of maps and directions, and knowledge about closed route 107, we head for Boston at 7:30, for the 1:30 flight. To be safe, we'll take the same open route over the mountain -- route 12. Forty minutes later, guess what. Road closed. As before, a helpful sign: "Find Alternate Route." I get out and ask a construction worker where this alternate route might be found, as I know 107 is also closed. He advised us to backtrack 30 minutes, then south, then over the mountain on 73 then north and east to catch up with our planned route, 89, then 93 south. We did it; it worked! But now we're cutting it close. No more mistakes.

Hours later everything is going fine.  We're approaching Boston and it's "Isaac wake up, get the directions, get the map, we have to make these turns."  We are prepared.  Instructions, maps, pilot and copilot at full alert;  we are braced for the tunnel and getting close.  It's exit 24B, he says, and there, a sign saying 24B with an arrow pointing straight down to the second lane.  Reassuring.  I enter lane two and into the tunnel I am sucked along with heavy traffic, I'm staying resolutely in my lane but there streaking past on the right is a tunnel exit labeled 24B, like an exact flashback from two days earlier.  I nearly smash into the wall but stop myself, and take the next exit, 23, pull over in front of a fire station and call Enterprise rental.  What else could I do?  Now I am probably going to miss the flight.

"Where are you?" Pearl Street? "What town?" I get out and ask a fireman. Boston already. "Which Pearl Street, there are two." I can see this is not going well, but finally it's settled. I get on 93 back north and exit on 24B. I do find my way back into the helltube and ... no 24B exit, first I see is 25, 26, and 27 which I swerve off onto, to find myself on a long bridge heading out of Boston. I take an exit ramp. I'm in a town called Chelsea now, apparently cut off from the city by a bridge which I am ready to jump off of, but back onto which I can not enter.

Call Enterprise again, this time in such a disassembled state that Isaac must do the talking. My brain has shut down except for the lizard portion which can still steer the car. Fortunately, on the line is a person even calmer and nicer than any of the others. Her name is Stephanie.

Stephanie talked me down from the ledge by describing each turn, each intersection, and every step of the way. We took ramps, navigated an abbreviated round-about, and even got back on track when we once strayed. Turn after turn, she and Isaac were able to communicate, and I could drive. So, we made it to Enterprise, someone was in the lot to take my keys, we jumped on the shuttle, suffered the security delay, and made our flight. Thank goodness.

And a big thanks goes out to what we both call "East Coast helpfulness," and to all the random people who gave us some.

I feel a little better now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Oversights of Aldo Leopold

I saw a screening of the film Green Fire recently, about the life of Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac.  It was held on my campus and organized by a colleague and her Environmental Interpretation class; 200 attended and most stayed for the post-filming panel discussion. The film showed Leopold's life and influences, described in sweeping terms the "land ethic" for which he is known, and the inspiration he's been to generations since. For those who don't know him, he was a turn-of-the-century writer and naturalist.  His most famous book was A Sand County Almanac, published at the end of his life.  He died of a heart attack, running with water buckets to put out a prairie fire.  The book makes the point that humans are part of nature, as are all things, and that natural systems are intricately enmeshed.  At that time the main view of wildernes was that it should be conquered and tamed.  One conservationist interviewee in the semi-documentary said Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold are the three great fathers to the environmental movement.

I noticed that there were two distinct components to the Leopold story. Clearly, he felt connected to the wilderness largely because he experienced it firsthand.  This is the experiential, emotional piece.  But second, he was a Yale-trained forester and he took an academic interest in the world: the scientist's approach.  Throughout his life he would catalog the comings and goings of wildlife and plants -- in his journal: day of first bloom, last bloom, that kind of thing.  Maybe not scientific analysis, but close observation, anyway.

Knowledge,  and emotional connection  ...   You need both to run a planet.

It occurred to me that you really need both components to do much of anything that's good.  The "tree hugger" environmentalists, of the stereotypical sort, love nature in a naive way. Not enough knowledge.  If all living things are simply to be cherished, invasive species will quickly have their way.  The rats and Cowbirds, the Japanese Beetles and Buckthorn will take over, wiping out other species and taking down the ecosystem.  Nature is like a Rube Goldberg machine that is easily thrown out of balance. You may love to watch it whirr, but it takes quite a bit of knowledge to keep it in order. The laboratory scientists -- another stereotype -- may know how the contraption works, but they don't see the big picture, or may not even care.  That is, they don't care in a deep enough way to make sacrifices, to make a difference.

When Leopold died it would be seven years before Bill Gates was even born.  Today we have the Internet, mass media, cell phones and much more --  those wondrous things have transformed the world.  At my fingertips, in my living room, I have more -- and more current -- information than all the libraries Leopold ever heard of.  For example, the entry under his name on Wikipedia was viewed 13,000 times in the last month.  Want to see video of tube worms at the deep sea vents?  Youtube.  Need some inspiration or a fresh perspective on a big topic?  Try TED.COM.  Not to mention Google Maps, Google Earth, social networks, blogs, and on and on.  Many of the ideas Leopold discovered alone in the wilderness were probably not even new at the time -- after all, he had a picnic basket, binoculars, a notebook and a gun.  He did not have a search engine.

My point is that since WWII , knowledge has definitely gotten a goose. But what about inspiration?  Even TED, which is all about inspiration, is not like being outside.  and not at all like what is said to have inspired Leopold so deeply.  The Green Fire going out, in the terrified eyes of a wolf he had just shot in the back, and its pups too.  Listen to the prose:
"[....] We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.  In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.  We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
I can almost feel it; he's an excellent writer.  But clearly this kind of thing, like Leopold's suggestion that we "think like a mountain" is more on the emotional side, his writing was inspirational. 

In some ways he was shortsighted. I've gotten to the critique portion of my commentary.  By calling it the "Land" Ethic he overlooked the fact that 70 percent of the Earth's surface, 99.99% of the habitable area, and about half of all species, is in the ocean.  Why not the "Earth Ethic?"  Wisconsin is too far from the coast to think much about it, I guess, and no one cared much about oceans back than anway.    He was all rabbits and cranes when the world was all plankton and squid.

But my other criticism runs a little deeper.  He was right in recognizing humans as the stewards of the Earth -- we must see ourselves that way, and must manage natural systems with care for the system, not just for ourselves.  The web of life, not just raw materials -- a matrix, a raft. 

But he failed to see that we are also an invasive species, and one which has been kept in check by our own natural predators.   Our main predators were bacteria and viruses.  Cholera, Diphtheria, Dysentery, Influenza, Malaria, Plague, Scarlet Fever, Small Pox, Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever, Typhus.   I wonder if there was a green fire when they died, as they did, in the face of modern medicine; Infant Mortality Rate plummeted.  Leopold had discovered the hard way that killing the wolves and panthers in the mountain range launched the deer population in to unsustainable and destructive growth.  The deer then shreaded their own environment trying to survive.  He stopped killing wolves, the deer populations stabilized and the ecosystem rebounded.  Didn't he notice that humans are deer who have learned how to kill our own wolves. 

Leopold was an inspiration to many because he lived on the land, taking a keen interest in the natural systems around him. This protected his own property, and to the extent that others did the same the world would be a better place. But he was a bad role model in another way: he had five children. If each of them had five, and theirs, there would already be 728 more humans today, because of him. 

When he was born the world population was about 1.4 billion; when he died it had nearly doubled.  Had he read Thomas Malthus's masterpiece "Essay on the Principle of Population," published around 1800, he would have known that populations, unchecked, grow quickly past their carrying capacity, and he wouldn't have had to kill all those panthers and wolves in the first place.  See?  A little more knowledge would have helped a lot.  Leopold even went to Yale, where surely he was exposed to Malthus but maybe he took a walk that day.  

Half a century earlier, fortunately, Malthus had been a key inspiration both to Charles Darwin and to Alfred Russel Wallace, both of whom guessed that natural selection is the driving force of change.  Darwin, the gentleman scholar and most prescient of the two, deserves a high place as a a father of environmentalism, if environmentalism itself would recognize the critical need for knowledge.  It seems all Thoreau and Leopold, not enough Darwin and Dawkins. 
Surely I'm simplifying, but Charles Darwin does provide the complement to Aldo Leopold, as science balances emotion, as knowledge balances feeling. This is not to denigrate Thoreau, but Muir (for politics), Leopold (for visceral connection) and Darwin (for understanding). That's my team.

Think like a mountain?  We can do better than that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What's wrong with religion

Recently, at a local high school, I attended an evening program on religion which featured three local journalists – Chicago Tribune Religion Reporter, WBEZ’s Northside reporter, and an NBC anchor/reporter. The Editor in Chief of the Religion News Service, based in Washington D.C., participated by way of Skype.  The topic was “How to Balance Facts and Faith in the Search for the Truth.”  There was, as you would hope, quite a lot of talk about moderation, tolerance, and understanding.  We heard that while most newspersons focus on "who what when where," religious reporters delve into matters of "why."

A number of students asked good questions, but two comments during the evening stood out for me. In response to a questioner who had asked for situations where faith makes things particularly awkward, the Editor in D.C. offered that a religious community near him does not believe in western medicine, and as a result their graveyard is "full of children."  Everyone shifted uncomfortably, and then the topic soon turned to something lighter.

But wait, I thought.  Parents are purposefully letting their children die because of their religious beliefs. This should be more than an awkward moment, isn't this where the question "why" becomes a question “whatt!!"  This started me thinking about other things about religion which are widely tolerated – but which make me more than a little uncomfortable.

One of them is bad bits in the Bible. Deut 13: 6-10 and 7:2 requires believers in other Gods to be killed, as in 2 Chronicles 15:12-13.  Jesus says the same of unfaithful in Luke 19:26.  Numbers 1:51, 3:38; 18:7 proscribes death for going too close to the tabernacle.  Slavery is proscribed in Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, and 21:7-11, with beatings (Exodus 21:20-21, Luke 12:47-48).  Non-believers’  babies are smashed on the ground, their pregnant women are cut open (Hosea 13:16).  Unruly sons are stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21), women are captured and raped (Deut 21:10), homosexuals killed (Leviticus 20:13), incest is sanctioned (Genesis 19:30), whole towns massacred (Judges 18:27-29; 1:1-8; Jeremiah 50:21-22; Joshua 19:47), children or partners of mixed marriages are beaten (Nehemiah 13:23-27).  That’s just a taste of the bad parts.  The Koran says (of apostates) “slay them wherever you find them” in Sahih Al-Bukhari 9:57.  Similarly in Sura 48:13, 16, 17.  Today, in seven Islamic countries women are buried to their waist and publicly killed with small stones, for the charge of adultery, a common euphemism for having been raped.  There is female genital mutilation and subservience. The Hadith and Quran celebrate martyrdom in battle with non- believers, with the promise of sex and food in heaven. Christian Scientists don’t use modern medicine; the Amish take their children out of school after 8th grade.  The list goes on and on.  Isn’t this all just wrong?

Fortunately most people don’t follow these directives; they reinterpret or ignore or the bad passages altogether. But it does make me raise my eyebrow when I hear people say religion is the source of morality.  Of the good and bad parts, why are the good parts of scripture more often repeated?  The answer, it seems, is that the people are good to begin with. Bad people select the bad parts, good people select the good parts -- it's that simple.  Therefore, perhaps morality predates scripture and requires a different explanation.  And perhaps religion cannot claim morality as it's unique domain.

Another problem I have, larger but more subtle, is the celebration of faith as a reason for belief, when there is a much better alternative (though it’s considerably more demanding): evidence.  Faith can give a feeling of certainty, a sense of confidence – and that’s valuable. It can certainly be comforting.  But evidence-based beliefs can give you real knowledge. Science is much less sure of itself than faith is; it’s always questioning, testing, open to change.  The hypothesis of an interventionist God, for example, can be tested with triple blind studies and large samples.  And it has been studied.  Can prayer -- petitioning God -- speed someone else’s recovery?  No. No effect. Nothing.  When I first learned this it was a surprise to me, and something of a disappointment too.

I do understand the value of introspection, and exploration of the interior realm; I was raised practicing a Quaker form of meditation and studied Therevadan Buddhism for many years.  I still find meditation enormously rewarding.  But this is an internal effect, more in the realm of psychology and brain neurology.  Entertaining supernatural explanations is another thing entirely.

I would not dismiss all of religion as a waste of time, as good things do come from religious practice.  One of the best of these is community.  They can be something like a book club (for the dogma and mythology and scripture), something like a country club (for the social gathering) and something like a sports fanclub (for the rivalry).  The best of these, I think, is community.  But unfortunately, by creating the "us" we also create "other."  And this is an artificial barrier, in my view, which often does more harm than good.

I worry for many religious people who seem to me to be struggling with a delusion they were stamped with in their earliest, most vulnerable years (religion becomes more a matter of choice as they mature).  By the religious perspective, often, one or more overlords monitor and judge individual thoughts and actions, and they are able and ready to mete out punishments.  Something like Big Brother, really; but there is no need to imagine these things.  Religion also often comes with a presumption of human supremacy on a scale that does not fit well with the natural world.  Oddly, at the same time it often presents a debasing view of human nature.  I believe many people are distracted by visions of eternal life that this real life fades in significance.  And in their blindness, I am afraid of some of the things that they may do.  At the same time there is a radically different, and far more substantive way of thinking, very simple, really.  It's just evidence-based reasoning. 

When it comes to the various degrees of religious belief, there is also the problem of complicity and accountability.  Why, I often wonder, are fanatics tolerated?  Whenever a religious fanatic is pointed out, it seems, we're quickly reminded that most people are more moderate, peaceful, loving, and reasonable, and this is probably true.  And these reasonable people could speak up against the madness, quite a lot more clearly.   Where is the billion-Muslim outcry against suicide bombers and genital mutilation?  Where are the educated Christian Scientists, pushing for reform?  When Orthodox Jews in Israel tell reformed Jews in America that they’re not really Jewish ...  why does no one say, “no, maybe you’re not Jewish, haven't you noticed that Judaism has matured?”

Its been pointed out to me by a faithful friend that there are gaps in the evidence for the "theory" of evolution, and she'll wait until those gaps are filled before she subscribes, thank you very much.  But in the case of evolution, the evidence is more than overwhelming, and we know all the gaps won't ever be filled; they'll just get fewer and smaller -- that's the nature of science.  But this illustrates another problem I have with religious people -- they leave the hard work of science to others.  In the meantime, help yourself to western medicine when you need it, and the technology, food, transportation, practical knowledge and all else that science provides.  It's freeloading, I think.  For all the criticism they take for using prayer instead of medicine, you have to hand it to the Christian Scientists for at least not being hypocritical in letting their children die.

So religion provides the “why” of being, ok.  I have an interesting “why” question: Why does nearly everyone belong to the same faith as their parents?  The answer is, of course, that one's religion is purely incidental.  We’re imprinted with it at our most impressionable age, like baby ducklings.  Perhaps children should be protected from religion like they are from alcohol and for some of the same reasons.  It’s an intoxicant; it can be addictive, crippling, and can easily become a crutch they carry for their entire lives and one they would be better off without.  Let them choose a religion, if the want one, as adults -- after they can think for themselves.

This brings me to the second comment of the evening which I found interesting, and from a societal perspective, I found it a little encouraging.  The Editor in D.C. pointed out that 18 percent of Americans don’t believe in God, up from 16 percent recently.  The new atheists aren’t like the old ones who were “angry with God,” he said – they are introspective and thoughtful.  That was a generous comment I thought, from an editor of a religious journal.   In many countries of Europe the non-believing portion is more than half, but I’d argue that disbelief is already near 100%, even in the United States.  That is -- a total, sheer incredulity regarding the veracity of every single one of the other Gods.  The 18 percent have just gone one God further. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Watching Wikipedia Self-Correct

When I was young my parents had a white leather-bound editon of Encyclopedia Britanica occupying about two and a half feet of a prominent shelf space.  Most letters of the alphabet warranted their own binding, but for some, like e-f, I guess there just wasn't that much to say.   It isn't used much anymore;  much of the information there was printed just a few years after I was born.  It was bound in more ways than one, you might say. 

Wikipedia is an odd sort of thing.  People I know and respect use it heavily though often with a bit of shame.  It's a grass roots encyclopedia, and of course if you're reading a blog online ... you know that anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, even if they sign in as "Mr. FooFoo."  How good can it be, seriously.

Despite my reservations, I do check in fairly often, and did so after a visit to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.  There's a very long pendulum there that has been swinging, as far as I can tell, since the beginning of time.  It hasn't of course, they start it up daily, but it does mark out time nicely, rotating clockwise in a slow, steady rate through the day.  This is a Foucalt Pendulum.  My problem was that I know the Coriolis Effect which also causes things to turn to the right in the northern hemisphere, due to the curvature of the Earth, and in my mind I couldn't quite figure, once the pendulum moved into a due east/west swing, why would it continue turning?  But it does.

A little lesson on Coriolis may be in order, it's a fun one to turn an auditorium on to.  So much illumination with so little effort.  But skip four paragraphs if you want to miss the lecture.

The Earth's weather all occurs in the zone called the troposphere.  It is bounded by gravity but you can imagine a plexiglass shell around the planet, about 7 miles above the surface.  Because the Earth spins, it drags the air with it, and obviously the Earth and air is moving through space east faster near the equator and not at all near the poles.  To be more accurate, it moves  1,037 mph eastward near Ecuador and 0 mph at the poles.  Ecuadorians don't notice, of course, because they are moving too.

The sun hits the equator more directly than other areas, heats the air at the surface there, and of course hot air rises.  So there's a band of air at the equator that is constantly rising, but it runs into this plexiglass ceiling and is deflected north and south.  We'll follow the northern part but the southern hemisphere is just a mirror image.  It's going merrily along, toward the North Pole where -- because its colder, you'd think the air should drop back to Earth.  The problem is, as that air moves north, it's starting to shift east (from the land's perspective), because the circumference of higher parallels is shorter as we have already noted so the land slows down.    The air at 30 degrees north or so is now slipping east much faster than the ground below.  The band of rising air at the equator has now become a river of air moving east, many miles above the surface.  That's the Coriolis Effect.  But let's continue.  That air, too, must go somewhere.  Much of it, cold now, goes down.

As it rose it had cooled and rained, so as it falls it warms and dries; therefore we get the wet tropics near the equator, and at roughly 30 degrees north and south the world's great deserts.  Hitting the earth, the air divides again.  The part going south merges at the equator with the mirror-image winds in the southern hemisphere.  You may have noticed that the winds have all turned to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the south, so when they merge they are all drifting westward.   These are called the trade winds, as they are steady and reliable.  At the equator we find the doldrums, the intertropical convergence zone where wind, if you want to call it that, goes up.

It's worth completing the system.  Back at 30 degrees north latitude, the other part of the descending air is deflected north, and turns east again just as before and for the same reason, except this time at the surface.  By 60 degrees latitude it's going mainly east again because of Coriolis, and it accumulates and rises, some of it this time making it to the poles before cooling, accumulating, and falling back to Earth, at which point it heads south, tending westward.  One more interesting thing, and the lesson is over.  At the surface the  polar winds flow southwest and the midlatitude surface winds turn northeast so at about 60 degrees they collide; it's the only collision zone of the major winds.  All sorts of storms and unpredictable weather spin off, keeping things in the middle latitudes interesting.  

So here I am, in the museum, thinking about Coriolis causing things in the northern hemisphere to turn right, being in the northern hemisphere, and noticing the pendulum turning right, but wondering why it continues turning when it continues past the E/W parallel.  There would be 0 Coriolis effect at that point.

Mystery.  The description on the wall was of no use, and so I turned to Wikipedia.  It was not of much use to me either.  So when I finally figured it out, I thought I might be able to explain it to others -- give back to humanity.  I will lift a veil of confusion by explaining Foucalt to those who have already been inoculated by Coriolis, I thought.  So I crafted this statement, signed in as ErickH and published it!   It was 4:40 p.m. March 25, 2011.

Foucault's pendulum is not to be confused with the Coriolis Effect which alters the direction of north- and south-bound fluids traveling long distances. A visualization of each may be useful. For Foucault, imagine a very large plate (1,000 kilometer radius) tangent and glued to the Earth about halfway north of the equator. Or picture a saucer glued to a basketball as it rotates on a vertical axis. Increase the eastward rotation to about 5 seconds. From the point of tangency, fire a slow pistol in any direction horizontal to the plate. As the bullet follows a straight path through space, the plate beneath it slips counterclockwise making the trajectory, from the perspective of the ground, always curve to the right. Using the palm of your hand and an imaginary basketball, you will see how this is true, regardless of the direction fired. The most dramatic turns occur at the poles and it diminishes to zero at the equator. In the southern hemisphere all movements are to the left, and when tangent at the equator, the bullet does not curve at all. These slight but constant motions of swing which cause the actual pendulum (which you can see in museums) revolve throughout the day.

.. .this was followed by a short description of Coriolis, for comparison.

Reading it now, I find it a little long.   But it was my first post and I didn't know how to edit Wikipedia, so for a while this is what people read when they went to to the entry there for "Focault Pendulum."  I can only imagine what a great relief it must have been to read this passage.  But, as it turns out, Wikipedia does accept corrections as easily as it accepts posts, and I noticed that at 4:42 the same day -- two minutes later -- someone named "Minimac" had written "citation needed" at the bottom of both paragraphs.  I saw his/her comment in the editor's remark:  "Both paragraphs require at least a citation." 

Hmm.  But who would I cite, myself?  I thought of trying to find someone who had said something similar, but these thoughts were actually mine.  So I decided to let nature take its course and that didn't take very long.  On April 15 at 7:49 p.m., 21 days after launch, "ShanRen" wrote in the cliff notes "Removing section with bogus arguments."  And he did.

ShanRen was right, my post didn't belong there; Wiki must be concise and what I'd written wasn't very polished anyway.  Anyway, I'm satisfied with all the good I was able to accomplish in 21 days.  But here's the real lesson.  Take a look behind the VIEW HISTORY button NE corner of Wikipedia, and you'll see something wonderful: all the versions, all the revisions, all the corrections and suggestions and removals, the reasons, the times, the people, and even before and after views for every single change.

Foucalt must be one of the more controversial entries because the page has been edited 745 times since PierreAbbat started it at 7:02p.m. August 17 2002.  It was edited seven more times last week.

So what's left after many hundreds of tweaks? Just a short but precise description, the necessary formulae, some links to further references and a reasonable bibliography.  Darwin would have enjoyed Wikipedia.  Not only has the entry under his own name been revised 8,264 times in the past 10 years, but Wikipedia is also one of the finest examples of natural selection you could ask for.

Friday, October 21, 2011

First Life

When my son Isaac was about 4 or 5 he crouched in a little window well overlooking our back yard. The window was open, the cherry tree was stirring, the grass was green and long. Flowers were coming up, the weather was perfect. He and I looked for a while and he finally said “you know what papa, we live in a *good place.” I thought, yes, we have a nice house and beautiful little yard, it’s quiet here in the middle of the block – we could be in the country right now. He went on … “it’s not to hot. It’s not too cold...   (I had to agree, the weather was perfect, but he went on ...)  ...If we lived on Pluto, that would be cold!” 

Reflecting back, he raised a very important consideration. Obviously we’re on Earth, not Pluto, because this is where life occurred. But the conditions on Earth were good – the moderate temperatures, the stable axis of rotation caused by the moon, which was itself a lucky accident ... the right mix of gasses and organic compound. But how did life occur? That's what I think about in this entry, after doing a little reading.


False starts aside, after the first cellular organism divided into two living things it's easy to understand what happened next. It continued dividing. The first living thing probably found a lot of food lying around and there clearly were no predators.A single bacterium, I've read, if provided optimal conditions, could become a mass the size of the Earth in 9 days, the size of our galaxy in 15 days, or the size of the visible universe in 20 days. Early conditions on Earth certiainly weren't that wonderful, to say the least, but once life got started it very well may have been off and running. Connecting the dots from then to now is not only relatively easy, it's also very fun!

But how did life happen in the first place? There is always spontaneous generation, or a spark of life from God, if you want to skip over it altogether.  There's no evidence for either.  But there are several realistic ideas -- one proposal is another sort of  non-solution called exogenesis which just means life here was seeded from elsewhere. In a more bold version, panspermia, the universe is teeming with simple life,and it continues to rain down upon us. Since conditions elsewhere are largely unknown, if it happened there we may never understand how it did. There are those who argue that it was divinely created by a divine being, or it always existed with no start or end. But they can talk amongst themselves, as they do. True panspermians point out the vastness of the universe and the fact that interstellar dust contains many of the building blocks of life, if not dessicated bacterium themselves, though evidence for the latter is thin.

The more popular explanation is that life began on Earth. Life must do two things: survive and replicate, and there's a disagreement over which came first. One of the more fanciful replication-first ideas is called "clay theory;" it suggests that silicate crystals were the first replicants, spreading by wind or in solution, causing a chemical reaction now and then which begat more bits of themselves. If these particles spread or copied more efficiently when coated with organic film, as some minerals are coated today, natural selection could have taken these wrapped bits (more likely, just the wrappings) a few more incremental steps to create a pseudo-cell ... and there you go.

A more popular theory is that life rose out of the "primordial soup," maybe in shallow waters where organic matter could accumulate, maybe jolted by lightning or stimulated by sunlight. Or in volcanos, or deeper underground. After all, little protein-like spheres can be created today with heated lava bits and amino acids in a laboratory setting. Or life could have started in freezing areas; there's some evidence for this as well. The day/night cycle might have caused a pulsating temperature which stimulated interesting reactions. The shoreline might have provided a linear zone of accumulation, and radioactive minerals may have accumulated there. Bubbles provide another haven. Whichever direction it came from, early life likely, at some point, involved RNA, the short assistants to today's DNA.

Maybe the most popular and well developed position is that life happened first in the deep ocean at the hot alkaline vents which still spew. It is said that these pH and heat gradients -- where hydrogen-rich fluids encounter carbon-dioxide rich fluids -- provide for a series of interesting interactions I've had detailed by an expert and won't pretend to understand in full. Tiny crevices in the iron-sulfer formations there may have served as the first pseudo-cells, isolating miniscule areas in which interesting things could happen in concentration. Eventually these units began to replicate, and then mutate, then they developed their own lipid membranes and became mobile. They were probably simple and vulnerable, but were being pumped out in large quantities.

And all this probably took just 500,000,000 years.
I'm reminded of Siddhartha Mukarjee's extraordinary book The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer. Cancer is a disease, not a life form, but it shares some of the same characteristics. It occurs in an organism, a complex environment (analogous of the turmoil at the ocean vents), when an unfortunate combination of genetic mutations (analogous to the chance chemical precursors to life) co-opt an existing unit, a healthy cell (similar to the iron-sulfur crevaces); it's accidental, but appears to be for its own purpose (just as does life itself). It affects the DNA replicator (similar to the probable RNA replication of early life). Because it duplicates itself, like the first life that "stuck", it only has to happen once. It's not that mysterious really; cancer is simply a DNA-jack of several normal functons. It causes the cell to duplicate furiously (like young cells do naturally), it stimulates local blood supply (a normal response after injury), it resists expulsion (like any real body part), it never dies (just as stem cells don't), and it travels throughout the body (like antibodies do). And, like first life, it just takes one such freak convergence of mutations to get going. That is, to exploit its environment, and flourish.
Whether first Earth life suffered the horrors of interstellar travel, or if it rose from the tortured ocean depths, it eventually escaped those nasty environments to become the first invasive species. The atmosphere was not yet oxygenated, but who cares? Life doesn't need oxygen; in fact it's a waste product, a toxin, introducted much later, by plants. Some of our bacterial ancestors moved toward complexity, toward nucleated cellular structure, intercellular cooperation, complex organisms capable of sexual reproduction, then coalitions of organisms, and when one of them developed language it burst into cultures and societies. It's speculative, but other bits may have moved the opposite direction, stripping down to survive in new niche environments -- the intestine of a particular species of insect, perhaps, in magma, or, or very near the core of a nuclear plant. Short, lean, and mean.

From this view it's easy to see humans as reckless, wasteful, ignorant, lumbering idiots, but we're also the pinnacle of complexity. We are a virulent invasive species, which has put its stamp on the planet so thoroughly that many geologists say we're in a new epoch -- the anthropocine. And we're soiling our nest, it's quite clear. We may actually manage to lumber into extinction and we wouldn't be the first. And even if we take all complex organisms with us in in a nuclear firestorm or an environmental catastrophe it gives me some comfort to think that some desiccated, dormant, space dust, or some small bacterium whose ancestors now preen near the warm core of a nuclear reactor, or some wiggly bit in magma -- will yawn, stretch, and get down to business.

And the next interesting era will skip the boring part altogether.

Now comes the disclaimer. I'm not a molecular biologist, please refer to a real molecular biologist to correct any errors herein. My purpose with this post, if any, was to give my best perspective to the most fascinating question on Earth, or anywhere, ever.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My DNA -- a personal story

I couldn't have written this a few years ago. Recently I sent in DNA samples to two organizations to see what they could find. The first one was National Geographic's Genographic Project which geographically traces either the paternal or maternal line back to Eastern Africa about 50,000 years ago, about the time homo sapiens took the "Great Leap Forward," developed language and culture and distinguished themselves from the other hominoids, and left the continent.

National Geographic use genetic markers, mutations on the Y chromosome, to track the male lineage. For females, they use the mitochondria. I ran the test for my Y chromosome which, because only males have one, is transferred intact from the man to his son. No shuffling like the other chromosomes; they only change by mutation.

A few weeks later I received my map, below

My ancestor crossed the Red Sea 40-50,000 years ago, and moved either northeast into modern day Pakistan or northwest into modern Turkey, My haplogroup -- my "tribe," as best as they can tell, is G-M201 of the more ancient M168, P143, and M89 lineage. Today, thirty percent of men in the Caucus Mountains, 14% in Sardinia, 10% in northern Italy, 8% in northern Spain, and 7% of Turkish men are my haplogroup brothers.

Now I'll share a little family secret, or least a family suspicion. Some of us have noticed what appear to be African facial features in some relatives, and by induction my paternal grandmother's line seems implicated. At times, in certain light, she looked like a black woman. And I remember doing a double take on a photo of Mobutu Sese Seko, infamous leader of Zaire, thinking it was my uncle in a funny hat. I'll admit there was a little inclusive pride surrounding this family curiosity.

With National Genographic Project I thought, here is an opportunity to see if it was true. My grandmother, you see, had come from  Kentucky and although they weren't wealthy and I've never heard rumor, it's possible that one of her ancestors at some point owned slaves. There would have been slaves in that area, at any rate.  I've read that if a white man impregnated a black slave and the children were light enough skinned they were sometimes raised in the father's home. This would be great taboo for all sorts of reasons, of course, and it seems likely in the prim southern culture such a secret could die within a generation or two, leaving just the genetic trace which I have mentioned.

Her maiden name couldn't be more Scotts/Irish: O'Bannon but surnames were almost always attached to the Y chromosome, not to the mitochondria which I could now trace.

A short biology lesson.   Mitochondria are the little "cells-within-our-cells," at one time actually invading bacteria, most people believe. They create heat and more important, they package up energy as adenosine triphosphate (ADP), which is sent around the body to do work. The mitochondria are essential to almost all organisms with a nucleated cell: the "eukaryotes."

For the present purpose two things are most relevant. One is that the mitochondria only get passed on from the mother. Males get them, and they become the organelles which propel sperm, but jettison before entering the egg. Matt Ridley, in his excellent "The Red Queen," explains that, in essence, male and female organelles will fight (chemically) if they encounter one another in the egg, so have come to an agreement -- so to speak -- that the males' will not enter. The second thing about mitochondria is that they carry their own DNA. It's circular and there are up to ten copies in each cell, but for reasons explained above it's passed on intact -- except for mutations. National Geographic is able to trace the female line back through time this way, using the mutations or "markers" to do so.

My grandmother is no longer living. But note that while mitochondria are not passed on through males it is passed on to males, so I asked my father to swab his cheek to have her mitochondria genographed, and he did.

Our reasoning went like this: 1) IF there was black blood in the genome it probably happened during slavery. 2) it probably would have been between a white man and a black woman, and 3) if the lineage from that event to my grandmother involved only daughters, then the Genographic Project would trace my father's maternal line back through the black woman in recent history and straight to Africa from there. We might stand to learn which part of Africa some of my ancestors may have come from.

My father's maternal "haplogroup" was U4. It didn't come straight from Africa.

My grandmother's female heritage moved north to Eastern Europe about 50K years ago. So while we don't know there was an interracial affair on my grandmother's side we still don't have any evidence that there wasn't one; a single male along that lineage would sever the mitochondrial chain.

Another thing I didn't learn was much about myself. In each generation, each parent passes on half their DNA to child and the other half comes from the other parent. Of course. So, using the mitochondria test for example, the entire male half of my heritage is lost -- 50% right away. But not only is the father is ignored, so are both of his parents and all their ancestors too. And the mother's father and all his heritage is trimmed off and this happens for every generation -- so what National Geographic has done is lay down a single rather arbitrary thread of ancestry for me, among many pruned branches. All I know is one of my ancestors seemed to have traveled out of Africa 50,000 years ago, moving north.

But at a generous average of 20 years a generation, in 50,000 years there've been 2,500 generations. Raise 2  to the power of 2,500 and you get 375 followed by 749 0's , each of whom would be just as relevant to my own genome as the woman who first rafted across the Mediterranean.  But oddly, back then humans numbered in just tens of thousands.  How do we reconcile these two numbers?  In a word, as Bill Bryson put it in A Short History of Neary Everything: incest, naturally.  And a lot of it. Fortunately most of it was so far removed to not matter a whit, but all told we can conclude that my ancestry is much more convoluted than the thread National Geographic was able to trace, but it's still of academic interest and that's good enough for me.

This brings me to the next study of my genome, done by a company called 23andme which focuses on health. Their report is even more impressive. By referencing medical literature they report how likely the average person is to get any of almost 200 hundred diseases. They indicate how inheritable each disease is, and how much is environmental or behavioral and how certain scientists are of these measures. Then, after looking at your genome they report how susceptible you are, compared to average, and how certain they are of that! Some diseases are highly heritable, the relevant genes few and obvious, the studies are highly reliable, the diseases are devastating, and there's nothing you can do about it. I figured if I had one, I'd recalibrate my personal clock. If you are brave enough to look, I think it's a valuable service.

But I'm concerned here with a minor report from 23andme, a map of my "haplogroups" set at 500 years ago. That is, a map showing where "my people" were living before they could travel intercontinentally with relative ease. Like the Genographic Project, and with a similar method, 23andme did this for both my maternal and paternal sides.

So, before they could sail, my mother's mother's people were scattered around northern and eastern Europe. This sounds plausible; my mother is 100% Czech. My father's father's side was scattered in smaller more concentrated groups in southern and Eastern Europe, western Asia, the Middle East (he claims to be German, Irish, and Scottish). Interesting, they are also in northern Africa.

Well I might have found where those admirable black features came from, after all.