Tuesday, March 24, 2020


I suppose that most people are already tired of hearing about the coronavirus pandemic, but I ought to say something about it, since it is one of the most significant events of the last few years. So far it hasn't had much effect on me, since there are currently only eight known cases in Addison County and ninety-five in the entire state of Vermont. I'm sure that those numbers will increase significantly over the next few weeks, but I'm still unlikely to become infected. Social distancing has always been my habit, and I engage in it even more now that I'm retired. On a typical day I'm less than six feet away from just one person. If she gets it, I probably will, but she's being careful.

Of greater interest to me is how the pandemic relates to some of the thoughts that I've expressed on this blog. In my view, this is an excellent case study on the failure of human cognition, because it is readily apparent that conventional worldviews, particularly in the U.S., have blinded people to the actual fragility of their existence. The American model depends on events playing out according to a familiar script that everyone likes, but which contains significant elements of fantasy and delusion. Several of the problematic aspects of popular ideas are under test now, and I'll discuss a few of them:
1. Democratic processes, even when working properly, are no guarantee of competent leadership.
2. Capitalism alone is insufficient for maintaining social welfare, because the preparation for unlikely scenarios is not cost-effective and makes companies uncompetitive.
3. Countries that emphasize individualism are at a distinct disadvantage when a threat emerges that endangers everyone, because, rather than acting in unison, people follow whatever path they think is in their best interest.

1. As I've been saying for some time now, Donald Trump is an incompetent and corrupt president. First, he demonstrated that he was inept regarding economic policy; he started a trade war that is of no benefit to the country. He has also shown that he doesn't understand international diplomacy by, for example, cozying up with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un and receiving nothing in return, while alienating American allies. Currently, he is attempting to stage the coronavirus response in a manner that will help him get reelected, and in so doing he has demonstrated his ignorance regarding immunology and pandemics. Strangely, he still has an approval rating of about forty percent, which is why I think that the democratic model borders on the absurd. Trump is completely unfit for the job, and at most he should have a ceremonial position, not an executive position that makes him the most powerful person in the world.

2. The economic model in the U.S. requires most people to work for most of their lives. At the moment, retirees and wealthy people are not under as much stress as ordinary workers, who need immediate income to meet their expenses. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in place to assist them when an unexpected event causes their simultaneous unemployment. The capitalist model limits the responsibilities of employers for their employees, and the only recourse during a crisis such as this one is government intervention. In this instance, the intervention is being conducted in a haphazard fashion, with states doing one thing, the federal government doing another thing, and poor coordination between states and the federal government.

3. A noticeable difference regarding the coronavirus is the response by Asian countries compared to the response by Western countries, particularly the U.S. Because there is less emphasis on individualism in China, the leaders were easily able to implement draconian procedures in order to slow the spread of the disease. Those procedures seem to be working, and the U.S. may soon become the new epicenter. There is no uniform response here, and one of the results has been a skyrocketing in gun and ammunition sales. In other words, in the U.S. it's every man for himself. As a result, many infections won't be averted, and the death toll will probably be much higher than it would have been under more austere measures. As usual, Trump is only making matters worse by hoping to end social distancing as soon as possible and create a robust economy by November, just in time for his reelection. Some prognosticators are already surmising that China, with its disciplined and coordinated economic and social policies, may soon permanently surpass the U.S. as a world power, and it isn't hard to see how that could happen.

Well, I don't want to bore you with my usual ramblings, so I'll stop here. Unless I can find something else to read, I'll probably return to Charles Darwin soon.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging VI

I've finally finished this volume. Janet Browne, the author, has been conscientious, but there isn't much evidence of psychological acuity, as I mentioned earlier. When you come right down to it, on a day-to-day basis, Darwin was pretty boring. What has emerged is that he had persistence and an intuitive sense about evolution along with far superior resources than most of his contemporaries.

A highly controversial and successful book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously written by Robert Chambers and published in 1844, set back Darwin for several years. The ideas in it were quite similar to his own at that point, but the book contained several errors and was strongly attacked in a review by Adam Sedgwick, the Cambridge geology professor and friend of Darwin. Among his professional associates, Darwin was the only nascent atheist, and they closed ranks on Vestiges in unison. In this situation, Darwin proved to be the opposite of a revolutionary, and he buried his dissent by withdrawing into a close anatomical study of barnacles that lasted until about 1852. Although the barnacle study seems like a form of escapism, Darwin managed to hone his observational skills while pursuing it, and in the end he emerged with a sense that hermaphroditic barnacles had evolved into sexual barnacles, and that sexual reproduction must play a role in natural selection. He had been intrigued by the fact that men have nipples, and while in that instance he would have been wrong to conclude that humans were ever hermaphroditic, it was still a sign that sexual reproduction has evolutionary advantages.

Emma continued to produce babies, with Henrietta born in 1843, George in 1845, Elizabeth in 1847, Francis in 1848, Leonard in 1850 and Charles in 1858. All of these children except the last survived to adulthood, so Darwin had in total seven surviving offspring out of ten. In 1848 his father died, and he received a substantial inheritance that left him wealthy for the remainder of his life. Much to Darwin's dismay, his favorite child, Anne, died from a disease in 1851. Darwin would be considered a male chauvinist today, because he was careful about sending his sons to college but made no such effort for his daughters. It is apparent that the Darwin household was fairly conventional for the time. Darwin himself was firmly in charge, and Emma managed the daily affairs while Charles continued his research and began to study pigeons, plants and seeds on the property, which included a large greenhouse. One of his pet projects was to determine how plants and animals became distributed across the globe. Darwin's health was always dicey, and he suffered from severe flatulence, which affected his social life away from home. He decided to take the "water cure" with James Gully at a fashionable resort for the rich, and he found it to be a success, despite the lack of real scientific evidence. Emma was more robust, and she thought that Charles was a hypochondriac. The social life in Down consisted mainly of visiting relatives, along with occasional stops by Darwin's colleagues. By the end of the book, Darwin has befriended both Thomas Henry Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, who are going to play pivotal roles in his future as he begins to publish on natural selection. As Browne points out, Darwin was talented at building a large international network of people who could help him both in developing his ideas and in obtaining samples for his research.

It is a little frustrating to me to have read so many pages (543) without even arriving at any of Darwin's most significant work. Yet there is some consolation in seeing how haphazard the process was and how difficult it was to overcome the prevailing belief system, including that of the scientific community. In hindsight, it seems to me that the ideas that Darwin was about to roll out were fairly obvious, even if you allow for the fact that DNA was yet to be discovered and that no one had heard of Gregor Mendel. At a minimum, this is a cautionary tale about how conventional wisdom can neutralize and destroy good ideas, even among well-educated people. For all their scientific zeal, Darwin's friends consisted almost entirely of conformists who took no interest in challenging the status quo.

As you may have guessed, I'm a little burnt out on Darwin at the moment and plan to pause before starting on the next volume. This will provide me with an opportunity to catch up on current events.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging V

Darwin soon rented a house on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, near University College London (the street, coincidentally, where I stayed on my last visit to London). He continued his geological research while adjusting to life with Emma. Their first child, William, was born in 1839. Their second child, Anne Elizabeth, was born in 1841 but only survived until 1851. Darwin was close to his children, while also maintaining a zoological interest in them. He was often in poor health, with headaches and stomachaches, and he was a little stressed out by their living expenses, since his father had not completely showered him with money. He didn't enjoy socializing much, and he and Emma gradually withdrew. Like most English people, he and Emma were not emotionally effusive, and they expressed care for each other by paying attention to each other's illnesses.

Darwin worked on a zoology series for several years, apparently in an editorial capacity, before and after marrying. Prior to marriage he had visited Glen Roy, an unusual geological formation in Scotland, and he wrote a long paper explaining its geology in Lyellian terms, as the rising of land from an ocean, with horizontal lines indicating previous shorelines. Adam Sedgwick helped him publish it and also nominated him for membership to the Royal Society. I found this situation remarkable, because membership to the Royal Society placed him among the top eight hundred scientists in the world, and Darwin's first professional paper as a geologist turned out to be completely incorrect. At the time, the work of Louis Agassiz was new and unfamiliar, but it offered a different and correct explanation of the geology of Glen Roy: glaciation. It took Darwin several years to admit that his interpretation was entirely wrong. In any case, this situation reflects how different science was in those days. Because of his family and college connections, he was able to become a leading scientist without an optimal academic background and through amateurish research. It would be impossible to replicate Darwin's career trajectory in the present.

Fortunately for him, there came the opportunity to contribute to a series of volumes on the voyages of the Beagle, with one section written by Captain King, a previous captain, one by Captain FitzRoy, and one by Darwin, in his capacity as naturalist. Darwin's contribution, taken from his journals on the voyage, proved to be quite popular. During its production, he and FitzRoy had new conflicts. FitzRoy thought that Darwin was remiss in crediting others aboard the Beagle who had assisted him. FitzRoy also held conventional religious views, and Darwin's suggestion that the Earth might be far more than six thousand years old irked him. Although Darwin's section was a smash hit, he made little money from it, and, as was common in those days, the publisher took most of the profit. The consolation to him was that he could send copies to a few select people and ingratiate himself with them in a manner that would enhance his professional reputation. He was elated to get a favorable response from Alexander von Humboldt, with whom he was not acquainted, but who was one of his intellectual heroes.

With a growing family, a dislike of Dickensian London and a host of minor illnesses, Darwin and Emma decided that they would prefer to live in the country. He prevailed upon his father for money to buy a house. His father offered a small amount that would be taken from his inheritance, and for which he would pay interest. In 1842, they found a suitable house in Down, Kent, about sixteen miles from London, and bought it. They had enough funds available to renovate it and even moved the road, which had been too close to the house. Later that year, Emma had her third child, Mary Eleanor, who soon died.

At this time, Darwin was already writing about natural selection, but was secretive about it. He knew that his work was extremely important and gave Emma special instructions on what to do with his manuscript if he died. I am finding that although many aspects of Darwin's intellectual and professional development seem haphazard and antiquated, he had the advantage of being able to shape a grand theory at his own pace, something that would probably be impossible to do in the current research environment. To be sure, scientific research is now advancing at a rapid pace, but I can't help but notice that the last two giants in science, Einstein and Darwin, were both solitary thinkers who probably would not function well on a research team. Increasingly, it seems to me that specialization tends to quash big ideas, which have always been necessary for framing reality and have historically allowed us to arrive at broad, empirically accurate worldviews. The absence of large, comprehensive theories which can readily be adopted by many people contributes to splintering and polarization within diverse populations. Without people like Darwin in the public sphere, we face a vacuum in our general conceptual environment.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging IV

After Tahiti, the Beagle made a long voyage to New Zealand, during which Darwin was often seasick. Especially compared to Tahiti, Darwin found the Maori natives violent and unpleasant. The settlers in New Zealand seemed dissolute, adding to his displeasure. From there they sailed to Australia, then Tasmania and then the Keeling Islands, where Darwin had an opportunity to explore coral reefs for the first time. Using Lyell's ideas, he was the first to correctly speculate that coral reefs were formed when land slowly submerged below sea level. From there they sailed across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, where Darwin rode an elephant. Their next destination was South Africa, where he met John Herschel, the son of the more famous William Herschel, the astronomer. John was there to make astronomical observations in the southern hemisphere. Shortly afterwards, the Beagle departed for England, where it anchored in Falmouth on October 2, 1836, nearly five years after it had sailed from Portsmouth on December 7, 1831.

At first, Darwin was almost a stranger in his own country. He disliked family gatherings and the usual chitchat. He decided to move to Cambridge and rented a house there, with the aim of sorting out the specimens from the voyage. Henslow had created quite a buzz about him, and he already had celebrity status in both Cambridge and London. Darwin gradually ambled toward the selection of a lifestyle that would suit him properly. He had never had any desire to be a clergyman, and the idea of being a professor also had no appeal to him. His role model became Charles Lyell, who was a successful gentleman geologist with no academic responsibilities. He soon moved to London, renting a house near his brother, Erasmus. He befriended Lyell and joined the Geological Society of London, where Lyell was president. On Lyell's prompting, he joined the Athenaeum Club, a prestigious men's club. He enjoyed Lyell's company, though he found him to be a social climber and a snob. Erasmus apparently was not practicing medicine and was living the life of a London intellectual while being financed by his father. He moved in the highest literary circles and was a close friend of both Harriet Martineau and Jane Carlyle; science, per se, was not his main interest, and he was known for his witticisms. Browne speculates that, since he never married and spent a lot of time with men's wives without drawing any suspicion, he was homosexual.

Darwin himself settled into a period of study. He found experts to identify his specimens, and they weren't always reliable. He had been negligent in identifying the locations where he had found some of the specimens, and it took a lot of work to rectify the problem. This was serious in the case of the finches from the Galápagos Islands, which later became a cornerstone of his theory of evolution. He was gradually working out a theory which, at the time, he called "transmutation," and from the start he knew that it would be controversial and should be handled carefully. He read Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, which, he realized, showed that death is one of the mechanisms by which the features of a species change over time. He was also interested in how farmers went about developing better agricultural products, whether plant or animal. Thus, it can be seen that, while Darwin lacked formal training in subjects that might have shed light on the theory he was working on, such as botany, zoology, anthropology and paleontology, he was able to synthesize a theory by drawing from multiple sources which were not necessarily academic. Malthus, after all, was a rural curate, not entirely unlike Darwin.

One of Darwin's decisions during this period was whether he should marry or not. He had a long conversation with his father, who accepted that he would not become a clergyman and promised to support him financially, as he did Erasmus. Insofar as marriage was concerned, he said that if Charles wanted to have children, he should have them before he got old.  Charles had made a list of the pros and cons of marriage that consisted mainly of cons: he didn't want to sacrifice much time for his wife and family. However, he then wrote:

One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in one's face, already beginning to wrinkle.—Never mind, trust to chance–keep a sharp look out–There is many a happy slave–

He concluded that he ought to marry. His wife would not be an intellectual or a scientist and would not participate in his work. Furthermore, romance would not be part of the equation. There is no indication at this point whether he had any interest in sex, though one must keep in mind that it was then the early Victorian period in England. Needless to say, open discussion of sexuality was not popular then. Ironically, we seem to be in a similar situation now, because subjects such as gender identity have once again made discussion taboo. Historically, one of Darwin's primary revelations was that humans are animals, yet he was unable to discuss it within his milieu. The marital procedures of the time simplified matters a great deal for him, and his focus quickly shifted to Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin and the youngest daughter of his mother's older brother. Emma was a year older than him and the last available female in that branch of the family. In those days, before the effects of inbreeding were understood, it was common, especially in wealthy families, to marry first cousins. This had the practical advantage of keeping money in the family. Emma was receptive from the start, but Darwin was bashful. When he did finally propose, she accepted, and her father had no objections. They were married on January 29, 1839, two weeks before Darwin's thirtieth birthday.

The end of this book is in sight, and I should be able to wrap it up in one or two more posts. But then there is the SECOND volume. At this point, I can hardly fault Browne, because she is doing an excellent job. The problem may be that Darwin himself is a little boring, and it is possible that he simply happened to be in the right place at the right time with the appropriate resources available to him. He seems to have been quite agreeable and a deep thinker, but in context he wasn't all that revolutionary, because others had similar ideas. He had a steadfast resolve that helped and may have differentiated him a little, but I'm going to withhold judgment on his character and abilities until I've completed both volumes, which, at this rate, will take several more weeks.