Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Political Scene

Politics isn't exactly one of my favorite topics, but the current situation in the U.S. seems extraordinary, so I'll continue to comment on it occasionally. The scene here in Vermont isn't dramatic and can even be amusing at times: in the Democratic primary for governor, a transgender woman just defeated a fourteen-year-old boy and two others to win the nomination. However, the conditions in Washington, D.C. aren't as sanguine. The recent death of TV personality Robin Leach reminded me of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," which I used to watch years ago. Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire Saudi arms dealer, was a quintessential subject for the program; his grotesque lifestyle was said to cost $250 thousand per day. Khashoggi was no doubt a role model for Donald Trump, who also appeared on the program. Subsequent to a reduction in Khashoggi's wealth, Trump bought his yacht, and, of course, renamed it after himself. Looking back, you can also see how Trump had an affinity for the Gambino crime family, with which he had business connections. Although Trump seems to have been a shameless social climber, he never graduated from the ranks of con artists and crooks, and his self-professed business acumen doesn't stand up to close examination.

I don't have any special insights or information about Trump's probable fate, but it seems unlikely that his presidency will end well for him. He has the looming Mueller investigation, possible criminal charges in New York, potential impeachment after the 2018 midterm elections, and, if he survives long enough, the 2020 presidential election, which I doubt he would win. Before it's all over, we may learn that the Trump Organization is propped up by money laundering for Russian oligarchs. Trump held the illusory belief that he would somehow escape the close scrutiny that all presidents face, and that his indiscretions could be suppressed indefinitely. In most respects, Donald Trump is demonstrably stupid. On the whole, Trump merely seems like an anomaly to me, a sign of dysfunctional times. He is fundamentally less interesting than the conditions that allowed him to be elected. How, one asks, did voters elect to the presidency a candidate who lies constantly, surrounds himself with criminals, has little understanding of foreign or domestic policy, economics or law, and has never shown any interest in public service?

This plays into my narrative about the inadequacy of traditional democratic governmental structures in a capitalist society. The two critical parts that cause failure are the stupidity of voters and the amorality and greed of private interests. At the most basic level, what has happened is that corporate media companies such as Fox News have become proficient at convincing disgruntled white males that Donald Trump can improve their economic status. In a classic case of voter misattribution of cause and effect, Trump has been given credit for the strong economy in the U.S., which would have occurred anyway without him. The reality is that Trump's ideas are obsolete or discredited ones from the 1970's and 1980's, and that his advisers are amateurs and opportunists who lack both the ideas and the skills to produce the results that his supporters expect. Trump's tax cut mainly benefits the rich and will lead to larger deficits in the future, which will restrain economic growth. Trump's tariff strategy is reducing prices of agricultural commodities and hurting farmers, while raising costs in some industries and disrupting international commerce in a manner that is unlikely to benefit anyone. His support of the coal industry, which is economically doomed regardless, may increase global carbon emissions. Trump's supporters fall into two main groups: a majority who are ignorant and a minority who seek immediate financial or political gain from his policies. This is not to say that voters who dislike Trump and vote against him are making better decisions, but that voters in general are ill-equipped to deal with complex national and international issues.

For these reasons I return to the idea that self-governance ought to be replaced by an algorithmic form of government. A sophisticated algorithmic constitution based on principles of equality, fairness and protection of the individual could replace the current U.S. constitution, leaving no room for interpretation or manipulation. The current system of government permits a continuous assault by special interests, both domestic and foreign. Because human status or rank is always relative, people compete to own larger houses and properties, and there is no theoretical upper limit that would prevent them from owning, say, larger planets, if it were possible. If capitalism has in fact played a role in human progress, one can now almost safely say that it has outlived its usefulness. The current trajectory, with an incompetent American president like Donald Trump, is moving us toward a needlessly overcrowded world characterized by pointless competition, which in the long run may benefit no one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Honest Writing

As I've said, I have a hard time finding things that I enjoy reading, mainly in areas other than nonfiction that is written specifically to inform readers on a topic that I think is significant. Thus, a lot of the books that I've found worthwhile over the last few years have been popular scientific ones. However, high quality, nontechnical writing about people is equally important to me, and my efforts to locate it have become increasingly difficult. At this point I have almost completely given up on fiction, and I usually find poetry too narrow in scope to sustain my interest. I used to think that literary journalism had appeal, but I've given up on that too. I have had some success with biographies and memoirs, but, according to my criteria, there aren't many people whose biographies or memoirs are worth reading. At the moment I'm considering journals and diaries to see what I might find there.

I thought I'd write about the specific kind of nontechnical writing that appeals to me and why it may be rare. The main ingredients that attract me are honesty and reflection, and, surprisingly, you don't find much of that in published works. The main obstacle, it seems to me, is that the authors are constrained by market forces. Regardless of what an author or publisher thinks, a book may not be financially viable if it doesn't meet criteria established externally by a market. The market may be anything from the general reading public to academic specialists, but without a specific market in mind, no publisher is likely to print and distribute a book. Therefore, from the beginning, a writer who anticipates publication must think about how whatever he or she writes might sell. I was surprised recently to read that even authors of private journals and diaries want to learn how to follow formats that readers would like. The implicit goal of acceptance by a known or unknown readership, I think, can have a corrosive effect on the quality of writing. For example, in reading, The Life of Henri Brulard, by Stendhal, I detected an honesty and openness that I did not detect in Calypso, by David Sedaris. Stendhal, I think, was more admirable a writer, because he engaged in pure expression in a manner that left him vulnerable, whereas Sedaris has made many conscious calculations and compromises in order to ensure popular success. When I read Stendhal, I felt that I was seeing him as a person through his own eyes, but when I read Sedaris, I felt that I was dealing with a persona. Compared to most other contemporary writers, Sedaris may be more open, but that is also part of his shtick. Stendhal's book wasn't published until years after his death, whereas Sedaris is making boatloads of money from his bestseller. I have had the same basic experience when reading literary publications. When Tim Parks first began publishing online articles at the New York Review of Books, I thought to myself, "This guy is quite knowledgeable about literature and writes well," but after a couple of years I realized that he wasn't particularly honest or thoughtful, and that he was just churning out this stuff to supplement his income, in much the same way that Czeslaw Milosz did in Paris after World War II. Parks has become a hack writer for America's premier intellectual (or perhaps pseudo-intellectual) journal. The literary journal writing formula, I think, is a lot like a recipe for preparing a salad: you throw in a few ingredients, each of which seems to have potential, toss them around a little, and with any luck someone will find the article thought-provoking. Usually it isn't.

Even in the case of a memoir that I thought was good, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir, I had doubts about the author's honesty and spontaneity. After delving quite far into this in subsequent readings, I decided that although de Beauvoir was relatively honest and forthright, she had blind spots regarding the men in her life and protected them when they didn't deserve it. This became apparent in her later memoirs, in which she elided much of Sartre's unseemly private behavior, leaving him solidly placed on a pedestal that I don't think he deserved. Still, I respect de Beauvoir as a writer and attribute this lapse to her weaknesses as a person. She never cared about money, and probably didn't write anything with the thought of becoming rich or famous. Everyone has gaps in their understanding, and I find that more palatable than the conscious production of written material with the explicit goal of financial gain. Falsity of material in the personal voice of an author is probably my greatest concern with regard to fiction, memoirs and essays.

As a result of my reading experiences in recent years, I am thankful to be living at a time when science is making progress at an astonishing pace, yet I am tempering my expectations in the aesthetic realm. Of course, people also write popular scientific books that aren't worth reading, but the research behind the scenes still progresses and makes its way into the public domain eventually. The low quality of contemporary literary production is a byproduct of capitalism and mass culture, which seem to have a deleterious effect on everything they touch. Although there is nothing that I can do about it, understanding what's going on makes the situation easier to bear.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution II

The bulk of the book is devoted to describing experiments that have studied evolutionary changes in specific species over short periods of time. Ever since it was noticed that peppered moths, which before the industrial revolution had an appearance that allowed them to blend in with tree bark, had become dark-colored and blended in with sooty backgrounds, there has been scientific interest in the timeframe of evolutionary change. Several of the experiments included in the book study the effects of predators on the physical characteristics of their prey. When predators were introduced to the habitats of light-colored guppies that stood out against a dark background, the guppies soon became dark-colored. When predators were introduced to the habitats of Anolis lizards that lived near the ground, the lizards quickly evolved shorter legs, which permitted them to live higher up in trees. Other environmental changes also induced adaptations. Grasses that were exposed to different soil conditions tended to evolve different characteristics according to their specific soil composition. E. Coli made rapid biological adaptations according to the food source available. There are also descriptions of experiments with stickleback fish, deer mice, fruit flies, yeast and other organisms.

Losos's discussion is loosely framed around the differing views of evolution presented by Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Gould is taken to emphasize chance as an intrinsic element, whereas Conway Morris is taken to emphasize the likelihood of convergence in similar environments. Gould seems to be saying that a one-time change in the distant past may fix certain aspects of the course for all descendant organisms, whereas Conway Morris seems to be saying that organisms from different lineages may be shaped by the environment to become similar organisms. The experiments seem to show that both are partly right, but that convergence is not a universal phenomenon. Gould's views are often confused by his use of stylistic flourishes in Wonderful Life and other books. All of the experiments are limited by technical and conceptual problems. Experiments done in the wild lack controls, since the exact composition of each ecosystem isn't known or replicable. Even in more controlled lab settings, it is possible that, for example, unintended minor variations in vial temperatures produce different results.

The conceptual problems are more serious. From a scientific standpoint, there is always the stipulation that correlation does not imply causation. Thus, particularly in the field experiments, the actual physical causes behind each biological change may not be known. In a lab experiment in which there is a unicellular organism of known genetic composition, causation may be easier to determine, but there are still enough variables to make that difficult. Another basic problem has to do with the repeatability and predictability of an experiment; in biology this is far more problematic than in physics or chemistry. Finally, specific to biology is the question of phenotypic plasticity, or an organism's range of physical variability within its species. For example, a chameleon has the ability to change its color without becoming a different species, while most other organisms do not. Without an intimate knowledge of an organism's genetic makeup, including the genetic basis of its specific phenotype, it may be impossible to know whether an immediate environmental change has caused an evolutionary adaptation, as opposed to a variation within an existing genome.

Losos uses New Zealand as an example against convergence, since it contains no indigenous mammals or animals similar to mammals, though mammals flourish in other parts of the world in similar environments. Thus, the environment doesn't necessarily cause specific life forms to evolve. The experiments seem to show that something resembling convergence may occur when genetically similar organisms are placed in similar environments. However, organisms with significantly different evolutionary histories seem unlikely to respond similarly to the same environmental pressures. Therefore, as a general thesis, Conway Morris's version of convergence seems incorrect.

On a theoretical level, I have been thinking about how the very concept of species may itself be a man-made idea that simplifies the world for us but actually has less applicability than we think it does. Species that reproduce sexually have somewhat arbitrarily been defined as organisms in which the males and females produce non-sterile offspring. Sexual reproduction itself is a primary vehicle of evolutionary change, because parents do not have identical genomes, and one parent may confer a genetic advantage to offspring that the other does not. This aspect of evolution is hardly discussed in the book, because it would be more difficult to test experimentally than the purely environmental tests included. Large organisms such as humans can be seen as symbiotic collections of trillions of microbes. If humans were to become extinct, many of the species of microbes in our bodies would survive and continue to evolve. In that case, one might argue that environmental pressures arose and only the best-adapted microbes survived: perhaps this was merely a habitat change for the microbes. At this level of evolution, humans can be seen as a sort of meta-organism or superorganism made up of symbiotic microbes. Although we have many legitimate reasons to think of ourselves as a species, the fact is that, with the exception of identical twins, every person is different from every other. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of evolution, the processes are so complex that our categories seem inadequate. Ultimately, I think that determinism is at work, but in such a complex manner that we are unable to comprehend it at the subatomic level, and that we cover this up by using terms such as "species" and "randomness," though they can't really do the job.

Overall, I found the book interesting and informative, but its use of conventional publishing gimmicks to avoid scaring off sciencephobes doesn't really change the fact that it is probably of greater interest to evolutionary biologists than to the general reading public. Significantly, according to Losos, evolutionary biologists sometimes have to avoid using the e-word so as not to offend people whom they encounter while conducting their research. One would have hoped that by now science would have come out of the closet.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution I

I'm moving along in this medium-length book by the evolutionary biologist Jonathan Losos. Losos surveys current research trends in the field and highlights the change in emphasis that has occurred over the last few years. In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, published Wonderful Life, perhaps his best-known book, which describes the research of Simon Conway Morris, the British evolutionary biologist, on the fossils in the Burgess Shale of Canada, dating from the Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago. Gould thought that the creatures found in the Burgess Shale were bizarre one-offs that had no current descendants and provided an example of the boundless variety of life forms created by evolutionary processes. Since then, it has been determined that some of those fossils do have living descendants, and Conway Morris has shifted his focus to convergence, in which evolutionary processes create similar organisms that each adapt to specific environments and come to resemble each other in multiple ways. A general example of convergence is the similarity in appearance of three completely different large ocean predators, the shark, the ichthyosaur and the dolphin. A specific example of convergence is the beaked sea snake, which earlier was thought to be a single species; recent analysis has shown that it is two separate species, one of which evolved in the seas of Australia and the other in the seas of Asia. The two species are almost identical in appearance and behavior, but are genetically unrelated.

Convergence is not a new idea and can be traced to Charles Darwin. However, until recently it was difficult to study, and the prevailing view on evolution was that its process was governed by randomness, with no such thing as an optimal organism, and each species haphazardly evolving toward survival in some niche within an ever-changing environment. Convergence can now be better understood by observing the real-time evolution of a species on different islands with similar ecosystems, and this is what Losos has been researching with lizards in the Caribbean. Additionally, DNA analysis now makes it easier to determine relatedness and keep track of speciation.

Some of my views on evolution are probably a little dated, because until now I was unfamiliar with this research. However, I am a little leery of the direction in which Conway Morris is taking the field. As far as I've read, he seems to be pursuing something that resembles teleology, with the evolutionary production of optimal organisms that eventually display perfect adaptation to an environment, as if demonstrating the will of God. Losos discusses a hypothetical scenario in which, if the asteroid that struck the earth about 65 million years ago had missed, the dinosaurs may not have become extinct, mammals may never have become a dominant class, and the dinosaurs may have evolved into a human-like form. The reasoning is that evolution favors higher intelligence, which requires a large brain in relation to body size, and that standing upright with a large head balanced on top of the spine is the most efficient configuration for this to work. Most reptiles have long, horizontal bodies, with small heads on one end and tails on the other for balance; with a large head, this configuration would be physically untenable. Thus, if dinosaurs had remained dominant, we might still be small, furry mammals scurrying around in the woods, and the descendants of dinosaurs might look similar to us.

I don't think Losos is going to end up endorsing any extreme views, and I'll write about that when I finish the book. Losos is a clear writer, but he seems to be consciously writing for a young audience and goes out of his way to present himself as a grown-up high school science nerd: this deviates from my ideal nonfiction writing style, but his content is quite worthwhile nonetheless.

Saturday, August 4, 2018


The visitors have departed, my bout of shingles has almost healed and I am just about back to normal. However, it is still hot in Vermont, and now my grass pollen allergy is affecting me again. The tomatoes are still catching up after a cold June. This year I'm growing a Sun Gold, two Brandywines, two Fantastics and a Ten Fingers of Naples. I have a new book to read, which I'll start soon.

Since the visitors were family members, I have been thinking about how difficult it is to maintain high quality communication with anyone else. It seems that in the U.S. most relationships become impoverished, and the best one can hope for is a modicum of closeness with one's offspring. The prognosis is not good for those who have none. For most there is just work, material accumulation and death, with little pause for reflection and certainly not much commiseration with others. Even this blog sometimes seems like a voice in the wilderness: not many read it, and who knows what they think? One must resign oneself to chatty relationships of the superficial sort and hope that that will be sufficient. I remain appalled by the destitution of life in the public domain, in which intelligent people unanimously agree that Donald Trump is a dangerous and incompetent president, yet he remains in office. No amount of commentary by the news media or biting satire on TV seems to make a dent in his presidency, when it has been clear from the onset that he is unfit for the job. Donald Trump is, so to speak, one of the great problems of our time, and what is being done about it? The congenital inability of Americans to engage in meaningful discourse has been an enabler for Trump, and the media still assists him by pretending that the uninformed views of his supporters should be given credence. There are signs that the Trump presidency is beginning to implode, but the process seems to be occurring in slow motion. I look forward to his exit, though that won't fix the problems that allowed him to be elected in the first place.