Friday, October 13, 2017

The Haunted City: on Horror Fiction

I have always loved horror.  When I was a wee lad, my favorite television show was Fantastic Features, which presented horror movies each Friday and Saturday night.  The host wore a vampire costume with cape and medal included.  He announced himself this way: “I am Sivad, your Monster of Ceremonies!”  You can see the lead clip at the link above. 
I mentioned my theory of genres in a previous post.  I repeat it here. 
I have a theory about genres.  Each is centered on some essential idea, usually attached to certain special signs.  Westerns, for example, are essentially about the frontier: the grey land between civilization and the utter lawlessness of the uncivilized territories, coupled with the signs of horses, hats, and handguns.  The samurai movie genre is very similar, if you trade swords for guns and modify the architecture.  Horror is about the idea that evil can be a real force in the world, like gravity or electricity.  Science fiction rests on the idea of a constantly expanding scientific view of the Kosmos and the surprises that such a view might hold.
Horror fiction is very popular.  Scan the Apple Movie Trailers site and you will always see a few horror offerings, even when Halloween is not approaching.  But it is approaching, as so my mind turns toward the October side of life.  It is a good time to think about the dead.  Summer is sinking as fast as the sun in the west, and much of what makes life rich is sinking with it.  Death, I read somewhere, is always behind us; but sometimes it turns off its lights.  In October, its lights are one and glowing with an orange titled just a bit to the side of crimson. 
Horror, as I say above, is about the idea that evil is a real force in the world.  It is frequently personified, as in all the vampires and devils that populate the genre.  Occasionally, it gets biologized.  In a very good film, The Creeping Flesh, starring two horror superstars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, evil is a microorganism with a nucleus and tentacles.  That same idea animates almost all zombie films, including a recent superb offering: The Girl with All the Gifts
The above are examples of the cross-pollinization of horror and science fiction.  A lot of science fiction falls into this category overlap.  Consider “Who Goes There?”, the novella that was filmed as The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s brilliant remake, The Thing.  In the novella, a scientist and a military officer are looking at the frozen corpse of the monster.  The scientist can see only a hopeful possibility.  Perhaps the scary look on its face is only scary to us.  Maybe on its world that was a look of compassion.  The soldier is not fooled.  He recognizes it as malevolent, and unfortunately, he is right. 
More often, horror depends on premodern notions of good and evil.  In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the vampire and his henchman worship the Devil.  “I bring you spoiled flesh…”  Even then, modernity presses in.  In Salem’s Lot as in almost all horror rooted in ancient mythology, evil is very vivid and personal.  The vampire has a name and speaks.  Good is perhaps more powerful, but it is anonymous and silent.  When the hero finally faces the vampire, he pours holy water over his axe.  The water glows with eerie green light but we are told that it is older than any mythology we still have. 
Why do we like this sort of thing?  I have an idea.  It’s the same reason I like English beer.  It’s bitter.  Our response to bitter is an evolved psychological mechanism.  It alerts us to a possible poison in what we are tempted to eat, just as the smell of spoiled meat alerts us to the same.  Pregnant women are especially sensitive to both, so much so that they sometimes faint after exposure to the latter. 
And yet, most of us can adjust to the taste of bitter, if we consume it without ill effects.  This is another of our great gifts: the ability to adapt to new items on the smorgasbord.  Genuine fear is hardly pleasant; however, fear in small doses, in a context where we feel safe, stimulates us.  More exactly, it engages us.  We sit around the fire and listen the story.  By scaring us, the evil binds us together.  All of us are threatened.  We get behind the hero as we listen and so invested, we enjoy his triumph. 
That is an interpretation of our horror genre as an adaptation.  A lot of our pleasures are not adaptations but by-products of such adaptations.  The hero does not always triumph.  We enjoy tragedy as much as triumph.  That is a consequence of our extraordinary capacity for adaptation to new environments.  We can put together our emotional responses and assemble tales and tastes that have no adaptive value; they merely please us. 
We are fond of stories that end well and of stories that end badly.  The latter may teach us something and that may be one reason we tell them.  It is not why we enjoy them.  We enjoy them because they speak to parts of our souls that add up to the beautiful.  This is what makes it possible for us to appreciate being human.  Horror fiction composes its tapestries from such materials as I have described.  It is occasionally edifying.  It is always entertaining. 
Horror fiction may be edifying in so far as it teaches us to stand together against evil.  It is also edifying in so far as it teaches us that evil is real.  Most of the bad things that people do they do for reasons that all of us can easily understand.  The thief wants money.  The jilted husband wants revenge.  It is easy to dismiss such things as just human nature.  Someone firing down on a crowd, someone neither insane nor motivated by a murderous ideology or religion, that is something else. 

Evil is real.  It is best to remember that.  Happy Halloween.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Guns & Poses

I do not like guns.  Frankly, I am afraid of them.  Neither, however, am I offended by them.  I have many friends who are hunters and I wish them luck; though, in the case of two of my colleagues, when I know they are at large with rifles I am tempted to stay home and clean up the basement.  In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I once accepted money from the National Rifle Association to travel to New Orleans for a small conference on gun laws. 
As a political scientist, I find the gun control vs. gun rights controversy very interesting for two reasons.  One is the simple policy question.  What kind of policies, if any, would make a significant dent in the rate of gun fatalities in the United States?  The other is the controversy itself.  What moves each side to defend its positions (or go on offense) so tenaciously? 
As to the first question, I am very doubtful that there are any such policies.  The argument for gun control (as opposed to the emotional case for it) rests on the large fact that gun violence is much more common in the United States than in similar nations.  Measured by gun deaths per 100,000 in population, Australia, Austria, and Sweden have rates of 0.2.  The U.S. has a rate of 3.6.  These are 2010 numbers.  Assuming that these numbers are correct, the US rate is 18 times the rate of the other countries. 
It is not unreasonable to view this as a public health problem, analogous to, say, the supposed opioid epidemic.  Here is where my skepticism is aroused.  It is also true that deaths in traffic accidents are much higher in the U.S. than in similar nations.  The rate per 100,000 here is 10.6.  In Sweden, the rate is 2.8.  In Austria and Australia, it is 5.4.  Is this a public health problem?  To be sure.  That doesn’t mean that we have any idea what to do about it.  If we did, wouldn’t we be doing it?  There is no National Reckless Driving Association, with its claws in the Republican Party, preventing reform. 
Interestingly, but probably not revealingly, the number of Americans who died last year by gun fire is about the same as the number who died on the roads: 33,000.  Of the gun fatalities, two-thirds were suicides.  That is certainly a health care problem.  Do we know what policies would bring the numbers down?  No, and it’s not because the National Suicide Association is lobbying Congress.  We just don’t know how to fix the problem. 
If we can’t solve the highway fatality health crisis and we can’t solve the suicide crisis problem, what makes us think that we can solve the gun violence problem?  The answer is obvious.  We can’t or don’t want to take away automobiles and we can’t take away all the means of suicide but we can take away guns. 
Except that we can’t.  There are about as many guns in circulation as there are people in the United States.  Confiscation of those guns is both politically impossible (here you can blame the NRA but also the voters in South Dakota) and practically impossible.  The same neighborhoods that are awash with guns, frequently barking, are also awash with heroin and meth.  Do you really believe it would be easier to get the one than the other? 
I am not saying that we should not attempt any reform.  I am saying that no reform anyone is proposing will make a significant difference.  I wish it were otherwise.  It is not. 
The answer to the second question posed above is that human beings are political animals and politics is always about friends and enemies.  Those who are in favor of gun control do not like guns.  Those who are in favor of gun rights do like guns, for the most part.  What really puts the powder in each of their shells is that they do not like each other.  This leads each side to read any event or information in whatever way gratifies themselves and annoys their opponents. 
Gun control, like abortion and gay marriage, is a cultural marker.  If you are in favor of all three, then you are on one side.  If you oppose all three or any one of the three, you are outside the fold.  A friend and colleague of mine responded to such reflections above in this way:
The tax code, licensing, and insurance requirements provide all the tools necessary. Just look at the effects of pricing on tobacco use, which (God help us) I assume you're not going to make some libertarian argument that people have the 'right' to kill themselves (ignoring second-hand smoke). All that's needed is licensing fees proportional to fire-power (just like automobiles, where in sane states, high-performance vehicles cost more to plate), rigorous training requirements, insurance rates commensurate with the risks, safer guns (owner ID grips, etc.) taxes on guns commensurate to offset the costs inflicted on society, stricter control of getting a gun so that perpetrators of domestic violence, people convicted on a felony, and people who are nuts. It's what we do with drivers' licenses, pilot's licenses, and many other things. Why is this a problem?
None of this is unreasonable and much of it I could endorse.  None of it would have prevented Stephen Paddock from getting all the guns he needed. 

Spinoza was right.  At least about this.  Most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time are governed by passion.  We read atypical events as though they meant something important, which they don’t.  When something like this happens, each side always knows what it means.  That is interesting, at least to a political scientist.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Biology, Geometry, & Platonic Rationalism

According to legend, Galileo proved that heavier objects do not fall faster than light objects by dropping two led balls off the Tower of Pisa.  One weighed ten times more than the other, yet they reached the ground at about the same time. 
It is uncertain whether Galileo actually did this or merely proposed doing it.  It doesn’t matter for two reasons.  One is that the experiment has been repeated (on the moon, if I remember right) and the results were the same.  The other is that Galileo already knew that heavy objects could not fall faster than lighter ones.  He knew this not by observation but by reason alone. 
Suppose that heavier objects do fall faster than lighter ones.  Bind a ten-pound weight and a one-pound weight with duct tape.  Now drop them off the top of the tower.  We can make two predictions. 
One, that the object should fall at a speed between the natural speed of the two; for the heavier one will speed up the lighter one by a bit and the lighter one will retard the heavier one by a bit. 
Okay.  So far so good. 
Two, that the two objects conjoined will be heavier together than the heavier one alone.  If so, then the two objects should fall faster than either would alone. 
The two predictions both seem to follow logically from the premise, yet they are contradictory.  When contradictory conclusions follow from the same premise, the premise is refuted. 
Galileo’s thought experiment is strong evidence for the position in epistemology known as rationalism.  Rationalist, like yours truly, agree with empiricists that we learn a lot of what we know from observation.  We insist, however, that we can know a lot of important things by reason alone. 
For example: how do I know that there is no highest number?  I can’t know that by observation, for I cannot observe an infinite series of numbers.  I know it because I can reason that for any number specified, I can always add one. 
Plato stands as the greatest defender of rationalism in the history of philosophy.  He thought that we know almost everything we know about the world by means of intelligence rather than observation.  See my previous post for an explanation of his view. 
I have been reading a wonderful book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.  You won’t find Plato in the index, but I submit that you will find an account of the octopus that is pregnant with Platonic reasoning. 
Platonic reasoning in evolutionary biology is most clearly expressed in Daniel Dennett’s account of design space.  According to Dennett, design space is the realm of all possible organic forms.  Design space is not infinite.  You can’t really have the giant spiders that crawl around in sci-fi movies.  You can, however, have a lot more organisms than those that have actually emerged.  Evolution is the process whereby lineages of organisms explore the library of forms that are potentially available. 
To get a handle on the idea of design space, consider some very simple geometry.  Start with a single geometric point.  This is an altogether dimensionless position in space.  Now push the point a short distance in one direction.  You get a line segment.  Now push the line segment in a direction perpendicular to itself.  You get a square and define a plane.  Now push the square in a direction perpendicular to the plane.  You get a cube.  That is the design space available for objects in a three-dimensional world.  Everything that we observe with our sensory apparatus is confined to that design space.  Fortunately for us, it is very broad. 
Godfrey-Smith, an academic philosopher, is intrigued by octopuses.  He gives us an account, early in the book, of the evolution of animals.  His account is pointed not toward us, but toward our very distant, eight-limbed relatives.  What caught my attention is that this account mirrors the geometry that I describe above. 
We begin, in this account, with relatively flat creatures crawling on the ocean floor.  How do we know they could crawl, rather than swim?  They are always found in the fossil record right side up.  If they were swimming, some of them would have face-planted.  These creatures were almost two dimensional. 
Next they began to rise, probably by means of producing gas in their bodies.  Eventually you get something like a jellyfish.  It has a top and a bottom, but no left or right or front or back. 
It is said to have radial symmetry
By contrast, we are bilaterians.  We have a front and a back and so a left and a right.  The evolution of animals in the beginning was a push into geometric as well as biological design space.  It followed the contours of Euclidian geometry. 
Of course, it was much more complicated than that.  For a long period in the evolution of animals, the lion laid down with the lamb.  There was peace.  The earliest animals had neither claws nor armor.  Some of them, however, found rich sources of nutrients in the decaying bodies of their brethren. 
The efficient scavengers developed better and better devices to exploit the dead and then some of them discovered that such device could be used against living organisms.  The age of peace was over forever. 

I humbly submit that the evolution of animals follows lines that are geometrically coherent.  That is very important.  All philosophy and science proceed on an assumption: that the principles by which human reasoning works are the same principles by which the external world works.  That is the basis of Plato’s theory of ideas.  So far, evolutionary biology supports Plato.  

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Infinite Monkey Theorem & biology

Today in my logic class we discussed probability calculations as a way of illustrating inductive arguments.  I amused my students and myself by discussing the infinite monkey theorem and, better yet, actually calculating the odds.  It occurs to me tonight that this has some bearing on one of the big questions in biology. 
The IMT is a famous thought problem in philosophy.  If you had a number of monkeys randomly typing on keyboards, could they eventually produce a copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays?  The IMT is a good test of rationality.  Some students simply refuse to agree that it would be possible, even given infinite numbers of monkeys and time.  That suggests a mental block.  Given those assumptions, the outcome is not only possible but inevitable.  It is also a good illustration of the difference between logical possibility (which the IMT demonstrates) and causal possibility (which the IMT demonstrably fails). 
The monkeys in the theorem are, of course, metaphors for random signal generators.  They are also cute.  To explain my test, I’ll employ metaphorical chimpanzees (they’re easier to train).  I stipulate the following:
a constant team of 100 chimps;
each has a keyboard with twenty-six letters (no other symbols or spaces);
each chimpanzee has an equal chance of hitting any of the twenty-six keys on each keystroke;
each chimpanzee types exactly twenty-six characters per minute;
a full team of 100 primates is working at the stipulated speed twenty-four hours a day;
all the keystrokes are entered in a single line that we test for results;
there is no time limit on how long I can keep the experiment going. 
If you think that these stipulations are unrealistic, you think correctly; it’s a thought problem. 
Now: forget about a whole play; let’s just ask our simian team to produce
Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York
One of my favorite lines, opening Richard III if memory serves.  That doesn’t look so hard.  If my apes are following the above stated rules, each will produce an “n” about once every minute.  To get the first and second letters in the right order, we have to multiply the probability of each: 26 x 26.  So, each 676 keystrokes will produce “no” and our team will produce about four examples every minute.  That’s pretty good.  We’ll be done by lunch.  Bananas all around!
The team will produce the first word in the line about every seven minutes.  Unfortunately, the wonders of geometrical progressions slow us down precipitously.  To get the first two words will require three full days.  Better alert the[KB1]  caterer. 
It gets worse fast.  Given our stipulations, the first three words “nowisthe” are going to appear in order, somewhere in our line, about once every 153 years.  Just to get the next three letters of the fourth word in order will require our team to work for about three million years. 
So how long will it take to get the first four words out?  Forty-seven billion, two hundred and six million, one hundred and four thousand, eight hundred and ninety-four years.  We are going to need a lot of chimpanzees and a lot of bananas.  Unfortunately, the Kosmos is only fourteen billion years old. 
I submit that our thought problem demonstrates two things.  One is that it is logically possible for our chimpanzees to produce Richard III.  Given enough animals, bananas, and time, they could produce the entire corpus.  The other is that it is causally impossible.  Vast stretches of time beyond calculation are necessary even to get going. 
There have been two recent attempts to play out the scenario.  One involved a number of macaque monkeys.  After two months, they failed to produce a single English word (they did have an inexplicable fondness for “s”); they broke the computer and pissed on the keyboard. 
The other was actually interesting.  Someone created a very large number of virtual monkeys, using the cloud to borrow computer time.   He claims to have produced almost the entire Shakespearean corpus by this method.  However…he cheated.  Whenever his virtual monkeys produced nine letters that appeared consecutively anywhere in the corpus, the program took them out and put them in their place.  The monkeys would not have to produce that string again. 
That is cheating because it means that our monkeys can produce Shakespeare only if they begin with Shakespeare as a forced sorting device, even with vast resources.  One might argue that it is analogous to divine intervention. 
It occurs to me that this is analogous to natural selection.  Instead of monkeys we have random changes in DNA.  Very large numbers of organisms constantly reproducing result in very large strings of genetic characters.  Natural selection saves the ones that code for viable traits.  That is how natural selection eventually builds a Shakespeare. 
But what about the UR organism, the first genuine replicator?  Is the simplest such organism that science can yet imagine more or less complex than the Bard’s Dickey Three?  Allow me to suggest that the answer is “more”.  How do you get from inorganic processes to even the simplest organic processes without some kind of preordained sorting? 
I don’t know and neither do you.  No one knows.  I have previously blogged on one attempt to answer that question.  Andreas Wagner argues that evolution worked because nature had a preexisting library of Platonic forms.  As a Platonist, I like that idea and I am pretty sure he is right.  I am just wondering who, precisely, was the librarian? 

Friday, September 8, 2017

The City without Gods: on Noir Fiction

Last week I had dinner at John’s Grill in San Francisco, with several friends from the APSA convention I was attending.  I ordered “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops” from the menu, because I like lamb chops and noir fiction.  It was superb.  Six or seven lamb chops with a baked potato and sliced tomato.  In Dashiell Hammett’s most famous work‑The Maltese Falcon‑that is what Spade ate in that venue.  The restaurant had a small shrine to Hammett’s novel in the back, toward the latrine where everyone would pass it.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was constantly on streets mentioned in the novel: Stockten, Bush, Geary, and Kearny.  
Later, alone, I walked up Kearny to the Occidental Cigar Bar.  This is one of the last civilized places in California.  Apparently, it was “grandfathered in” when the same wise solons who are trying to promote the smoking of marijuana were trying to stamp out the smoking of tobacco. 
It is a narrow room with tables and chairs arranged in the space not occupied by the bar.  When I entered, there were two men dressed in pin stripped suits and hats smoking at the bar.  I had more or less walked my way into Hammett’s world. 
I sat at a table next to the big window, where I could watch people walk or drive by.  I lit a fine, square bodied cigar with a Maduro rapper and sipped on an excellent IPA.  The scotch was unaffordable.  I downloaded the first chapter of The Maltese Falcon and read, occasionally looking up at the passersby.  That is how I do San Francisco.
I have a theory about genres.  Each is centered on some essential idea, usually attached to certain special signs.  Westerns, for example, are essentially about the frontier: the grey land between civilization and the utter lawlessness of the uncivilized territories, coupled with the signs of horses, hats, and handguns.  The samurai movie genre is very similar, if you trade swords for guns and modify the architecture.  Horror is about the idea that evil can be a real force in the world, like gravity or electricity.  Science fiction rests on the idea of a constantly expanding scientific view of the Kosmos and the surprises that such a view might hold. 
So, what about noir fiction?  I submit that the genre is centered on the city without gods.  Almost all of the noir films I have seen or fiction I have read take place in modern cities.  Even those that take place outside it presuppose a larger civilization.  The city is a relatively recent innovation in human history, meaning that it appears only about 12,000 years ago.  For most of that time, cities were watched over by gods.  To be a citizen of ancient Athens was to be a member of the cult of Athena Nike, the goddess of wisdom and victory.  The gods reinforced the social contract on which each city depends and give the citizens‑those who must stand against the city’s enemies‑some reason for confidence and comfort. 
Noir fiction takes place in a realm that is utterly demythologized.  There are neither gods nor ghosts in world laid out by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  The streets are dark and foggy, with nothing but black overhead.  Death is a constant presence, but there is not even a hint of anything beyond it.  Death is the big sleep. 
Evil, on the other hand, is very real.  Nearly everyone is morally comprised and knows it.  “I’ve been bad,” says Brigid O'Shaughnessy to Sam Spade.  What is true of Brigid is true of both the gaggle of lowlifes and the police.  There is no sense of any higher order, no confidence in patriotism, the rule of law, etc.  One wonders what meaning evil might have if there is nothing else in the human world. 
But of course, there is something else.  That is the hero.  Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Spade are heroes.  Neither is a saint or the ideal boy scout.  Yet each has a set of moral rules that he strictly follows and each is the best man in the story.  Both of these heroes risk their lives to defend those who deserve to be defended, or mostly deserve it. 
When I was, very briefly and a long time ago, a psychology major, I was taught that morality was socially constructed.  We only behaved according to moral rules because we were taught to do so by the other human beings amongst whom we lived.  If that were true, noir fiction would be impossible.  The bad would have no sense that they were bad and the good, no sense of what it means to be good. 
Human beings are moral animals.  We think in terms of right and wrong as naturally as we think in terms of pain and pleasure.  Even in a city without gods, we still act as though we are obligated to someone or something with authority over us.  Biosocial theory can explain how we came to be such creatures. 
It cannot tell us whether we can make morality work in the absence of gods or God.  In noir fiction, the hero is a small island in a sea of iniquity.  That is small comfort.  It is nonetheless comforting.  We love the story because the hero is beautiful.  That, perhaps, is what we have to concentrate on. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017


I learned from my living teachers‑Jeff Wallin, Harry Jaffa, Bill Allen, Bill Rood, and Harry Neumann, among others.  The most important thing they taught me was how to read.  That made it possible to learn from other teachers‑Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, among others.  One of the reasons that I became enchanted with the biosocial sciences is that this branch of modern science deepened, enriched and confirmed all that I had learned from all of the above. 
Tonight, while reading about the early evolution of living organisms, I returned to thinking about Plato.  Unlike Aristotle, who has been largely recognized as the founder of biology, Plato is still usually regarded as a philosophical dead end.  Yes, his moral thought is interesting, but his metaphysics is a joke. 
I think that the dismissal of Plato is altogether wrong.  The argument about justice in the Republic presents for the first time the elements that make up the basis of modern sociobiology.  I won’t go into that here.  Instead I will focus on the most famous Platonic idea, the one that most responsible for his poor reputation.  I mean, of course, the theory of ideas. 
The textbook interpretation of the theory goes like this: Plato believed that there were ideas, or forms, laid up in heaven.  These ideas are perfect and eternal.  All visible objects are visible and comprehensible because they somehow “participate” in these ideas; that is to say, they are expressions of them.  That sounds pretty air-headed, and so it is usually dismissed as such. 
To so whether this judgment is just, we need to see how and why Plato (or Plato’s Socrates) developed this doctrine.  Consider the difference between a painter and a craftsman.  The painter looks at a three-dimensional object and produces a two-dimensional image.  The image may be altogether realistic; however, it is only the image of an image.  It shows us one perspective on the object but lacks the reality of the original. 
The craftsman, by contrast, looks at the object and produces another object that is real.  It is somehow connected to the original and yet it is another thing.  Philosophy and its offspring science cannot hope to reproduce all the objects that they are investigating; they can, however, attempt to gain the same understanding as the craftsman.  The philosopher wants to know not just what the object (a tree, justice, beauty, etc.) looks like but what it really is.  How do we understand the difference?
Consider what it is like to approach a tall tree from a distance.  At first, the tree looks very small.  You can cover it up by raising your hand.  So, the tree is smaller than your hand.  That is what your eyes are telling you.  Now walk towards the tree.  It grows in size as you approach it.  When you are near, it is very large and your hand can no longer conceal it.  The tree is much smaller than your hand.  That is what your eyes are now telling you.  Your eyes are confused, but your mind is not.  You recognize that the tree hasn’t really changed in size.  What has changed is your perspective.  From this, Plato’s Socrates concluded, we do not perceive actual objects with our eyes at all.  We perceive them with our minds.  This tree right here is not in fact visible to the eye. 
If we stipulate that individual, living, three-dimensional trees do in fact exist, then we have to agree with Plato.  We depend on extrasensory perception to be aware of them.  Now walk around the tree.  It looks different from each direction.  Yet these different images all are produced by a single object‑the one individual tree‑that is apprehended by the mind.  No one image is truer than another, yet all are true enough. 
Plato took a leap here.  If this is what happens when we perceive an individual tree, what happens when we recognize a second tree as in some sense the same thing?  Plato’s Socrates suggested that just as one individual tree exists behind the various images it casts as we approach it and walk around it, so the idea of the tree must exist behind all the individual trees that we encounter.  Just as our mind perceives the individual and so integrates our various images of it, so our mind perceives the idea of the tree and so allows us to recognize a general category.  Just as the individual tree changes in our perception of it, so trees come and go but the idea of tree remains the same. 
I say that Socrates “suggested” this because he is very careful in the dialogues.  He frequently says only that it is something like this.  He is also very uncertain as to what should be included in the realm of ideas.  Is it complex objects like trees or simpler concepts like mathematical forms?  There must be something more permanent and comprehensible than the objects we perceive if we can hope to understand anything.  Plato, of course, was right. 
Our ability to categorize species of plants and animals is imperfect.  That we can do it at all is possible because we can perceive something that is more enduring that the individual organisms.  We are perceiving, if only dimly, an object that extends across space and backward in time: the history of a species. 
I submit that biology is pregnant with Platonic forms.  Consider the difference between a jellyfish and a catfish.  The jellyfish has a top and a bottom, but not left and right or a back and front.  This is called radial symmetry.  A catfish has a top and a bottom, a back and a front, and a left and right.  These are Platonic forms. 
I am not sure whether the Platonic forms are laid up in heaven or not.  I am sure that these forms are real and preexist the creatures that participate in them.  You probably have to get bilaterians (creatures with a right and left) before you get mobile creatures and eyes.  There are only so many possible forms in organic design space. 
The first bilaterians probably crawled along dense, bacterial mats harvesting their food.  Eventually, some of them discovered that the decaying bodies of their kind were rich sources of the nutrients they sought.  Then some of them discovered that their living fellows were an even richer source.  This evolutionary trajectory, which made possible creatures such as ourselves, was the result of organized life exploring the avenues made possible by a Platonic design space. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Social Construction & Biology

One of the key ideas in modern sociology is social construction.  This indicates that a person’s perception of reality is to a large extent constructed by the society in which that person lives.  For example, if I perceive the people downstream to be untrustworthy, that may have nothing to do with how they actually behave; it is all to do with how my own people teach me to look at them.  
When the biopolitical sciences emerged in the 1970’s, they seemed to present a stark alternative to that idea.  The way we perceive reality is largely conditioned by natural selection.  My genes determine how I will react in any context because those genes were selected for: the coded traits are the ones that got their genes into my mother and father. 
It has been clear for some time that this dichotomy was an obstacle to the truth.  In even the simplest creatures, genes code for a range of responses to the environment.  Even a tree can learn when to shed its leaves by responding to the coming of winter. 
As I noted in a previous post, cleaner fish are more likely to be honest when they are observed by a number of potential client fish.  The client fish want a cleaner who will confine his appetites to the ectoparasites, thus performing the cleaning.  Doing just that when potential clients are looking on is a good business model. 
That is social construction.  Their perception of the situation is constructed, to some degree, by the social situation.  In this case, the social situation includes non-conspecific organisms. 
I have been reading recently about Norwegian rats (Rattus norvegicus).  These rats are very good at gauging reciprocal exchanges.  They share food, but are more likely to share with an individual depending on the quality of food that the latter shared in the past.  If he/she gave me good stuff last time, he/she is worth repaying. 
That is direct reciprocity.  You return a favor based on your record of past exchanges.  Another kind of relationship is indirect reciprocity.  If C sees A doing a favor for B, C is more likely to do a favor for A.  A is a standup guy.  We see something of this in the cleaner fish example.  Strong reciprocity adds an element of punishment.  If A doesn’t play by the rules, I won’t play with A.  That seems to be at work in vampire bats who refuse to share with a stingy roost mate. 
But there is another kind of reciprocity that is very interesting because it makes fewer demands on the cognitive development of the participants.  In all of the above cases, you have to have a brain sophisticated enough to keep track of individual encounters.  It is difficult to see how that develops unless there is already a lot of cooperation going on. 
Perhaps an easier route to reciprocity is just to measure the general level of cooperation in the group that you happen to be in at the time.  The more cooperative partners you encounter, the more you cooperate and vice versa. 
That is generalized reciprocity, and it has been observed in rats.  In a piece by Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky, female rats where more likely to cooperate if they had received help in the past, regardless of the identity of the potential partner.  Once they sensed they were in a good neighborhood, they became good neighbors.  Of course, if the neighborhood is bad…
It struck me tonight as I was reading a very interesting book‑Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith‑that this an example of the primary social mechanism in living organisms.  Godfrey-Smith offers the example of a glowing squid.  Luminescence provides a big advantage to this creature.  It allows it to blend in with the moonlit background (upground), so that its shadow doesn’t warn its prey.  How does it manage this trick?
The squid provides a home to bacteria that can luminesce.  That, however, is expensive, biologically speaking.  There is no point in bothering if there aren’t enough of your clones around to produce a descent bit of light.  The bacteria rely on their ability to both sense and produce an “inducer” molecule.  That allows each little bacterium to tell how many of his fellows are around.  This is called quorum sensing, a remarkably political term.  When the inducer molecules reach a certain density in the local environment (the Hawaiian squid) the bacteria turn on their lights. 
The rats are much more advanced creatures than the bacteria but the mechanism seems only a little more advanced.  What the rat needs to know isn’t how big the local population is but what is its moral character?  Its own moral behavior (cooperate or not) is determined by its finding.  This doesn’t require anything more sophisticated than the ability to sample and effectively draw conclusions. 
The social construction of individual character is pervasive among living organisms.  It is clearly developed in a high degree in human organisms.  The sociologists were right to put a strong emphasis on social construction.  They were wrong to suppose that this mechanism somehow freed human beings from biological causation or that it could be properly understood without biology. 

I fear that it will take a change of guard across the social sciences for the full integration of biology and the former to more fully and fruitfully integrate.  The general fields of sociology and political science are still very resistant to this type of research.  This may amount to a tragedy.  Higher education is changing in ways that are not favorable to either the social sciences or the humanities.  It would be a tragedy indeed if the former would diminished just when the greatest potential for discover and application was at hand.  

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fire and Life

Recently a colleague in the history department at Northern stumped me.  I am ashamed to admit this, as his question went directly to the matters I have been thinking about for years.  The question was this: is fire alive
It is a very good and obvious question.  Fire must breathe.  It consumes fuel and turns it into energy, just as living organisms do.  It also produces waste.  Is there an essential difference between a campfire and a living organism? 
I didn’t think about this seriously until I was actually looking at a fire, after backpacking up into the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  By then, the answer had occurred to me.  I think that this is one of those questions that is a key to understanding.  So here is my reply.  Fire is almost the opposite of a living organism.
A fire begins, necessarily, with a situation of low entropy.  Consider a glass of water with an ice cube floating in it on the dining room table.  If I isolate the glass as a system in thought I note that the system is in a state of low entropy.  All the cold stuff is in the ice cube; all the lukewarm stuff is in the liquid surrounding it.  This is a highly ordered system. 
As the ice begins to melt, the system becomes gradually less and less ordered.  The water locked in ice warms up and releases its energy into the surrounding liquid.  Eventually, the system is at equilibrium.  All the water is at roughly the same temperature: a disordered state.  The system has gone from a state of low entropy to a state of high entropy. 
Fires follow a similar trajectory.  I pile a bunch of firewood in the pit and set it alight.  At that moment, the system is highly ordered.  All the energy is in the wood and much less in the pit and the surrounding air (good thing, that!).  As the wood burns it moves steadily toward a system of high entropy, which is why I have to keep adding more wood.  Fire moves always in that direction: from low to higher states of entropy. 
Entropic processes can be exploited to resist entropic processes.  If I have a pot of water at the same temperature as the surrounding air (high entropy) and I put it on the fire, it will heat up.  Now all the hot stuff is in the pot and the surrounding air is cooler (low entropy).  Boiling water exploits entropic processes to resist entropy. 
Living organisms do precisely that in order to continually recreate themselves.  The sun is constantly bleeding its stored energy into space.  The tree takes that energy and uses it to build its trunk and branches.  I use its bones to build my fire.  I pour the boiling water into a bag of freeze dried food, full of organically sequestered energy, and eat it.  Being a warm-blooded creature, this allows me to resist equilibrium with the steadily cooling air around me. 
Fire is a purely entropic process, as much as an ice cube melting in water.  Living organisms exploit such processes in order to resist such processes.  That is why I am alive and my campfire is not.  I would add one other thing.  Living organisms are always part of a lineage.  I have a mommy and a daddy.  A single celled organism has its predecessor.  My campfire had none of the above.  That seems to me to be more important that it looks. 
I finish with a final, rather depressing note.  My high school physics teacher said that the universe is dying a heat death.  He meant that the cosmos as a whole is basically a campfire.  We living organisms and all the bright lights in the sky will eventually burn out.  All the energy in creation will be evenly distributed and nothing more will ever be done. 

This is not something to be worried about.  The earth will be uninhabitable long before that happens.  It is a reminder to be astounded and grateful that such as ourselves should stand under this canopy of stars.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Logically Moral Animals

I was called on a point recently by a colleague.  He accused me of jumping between two irreconcilable positions.  One the one hand, I argued that human beings are distinct from other animals in kind and not merely in degree (i.e., just more intelligent).  On the other hand, I argued that traces of human intelligence and moral capacity are found in animals.  I replied that I’m a primate; jumping from one tree to another is what I do.  It got a laugh. 
I don’t think I was actually guilty of a contradiction.  Traces of language are indeed found in animals.  A certain call may indicate food or danger.  Yet, so far as we know, no other animal is capable of drawing and recognizing a simple symbol like a stick man.  Differences in kind do not require altogether novel capacities.  They require that something about the way a capacity is exercised be novel. 
Today I have been looking at two studies of logically moral behavior among non-human animals.  Vampire bats have long served as poster children for reciprocal altruism.  These winged mammals feed exclusively on blood.  They need to feed about once every three days.  This presents a challenge as their food sources have legs and can move in unpredictable ways. 
The vampires deal with this problem by blood sharing.  A bat who returns hungry can count on a share of a meal from a luckier roost mate.  This is an insurance policy; however, it invites cheating.  An unscrupulous bat might take from others and then refused to share.  If he gets away with that, his offspring will proliferate and the sharing system will collapse. 
That requires an enforcement mechanism.  Vampires remember.  If bat X refuses to share with me today, I will refuse to share with bat X tomorrow.  Cheaters can be systematically eliminated from the gene pool. 
I doubt that bats are consciously moral.  I am sure that this sharing system is logically moral.  Bat X either fulfills his obligations or does not.  If so, he benefits from the social contract.  If not, then he is excluded from the contract. 
I used this example in the paper I am writing for the APSA this year.  I wanted to be sure that recent scholarship backed up this account, and it does.  Gerald G. Carter and Gerald S. Wilkinson have a piece in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (2013).  They teased apart alternative explanations for the vampire’s behavior. 
Are the bats sharing only because they are related to one another?  If so, then kin selection and not reciprocal altruism would explain their behavior.  In the experiment, relatedness was the least reliable predictor of one bat’s willingness to share with another. 
Perhaps sharing was a response to allogrooming.  Bats share with cuddle buddies.  Perhaps it was influenced by mating agendas: if I share with her, she will mate with me.  Those were the third and second-best predictors of sharing behavior. 
The best predictor was simply that the other bat had shared in the past.  That looks like reciprocal altruism.  Sharing is rewarded with sharing.  Remembering who is a good partner amounts to the construction of a social network. 
The most interesting thing to come out of this study is this: sharing was often initiated not by the hungry bat but by the sated bat.  Why would this be so?  Sharing builds a network of obligations.  If I can get you to accept my donation, you are now obligated to me.  This system is, as the sociologists say, socially constructed.  It depends on reputation, what the other bats think about this one. 
Something of the same kind is going on in a study of cleaner fish.  These fish make their living eating parasites in the jaws, gills, etc., of larger predators.  As in the case of the vampire bats, this arrangement involves mutual obligations and the temptation to cheat.  Client predators can cheat by gobbling up the cleaner after the work is finished.  That is policed by a simple accounting.  A predator who behaves that way will discover that the cleaners no longer come out of their cleaner stations when he swims in for a touch up. 
Cleaner fish are also tempted to cheat.  The parasites they feed on are not quite as attractive as the mucus in the client’s jaws.  What encourages the cleaner to confine itself to the parasites?  Russel D. Fernald explains this in his note Animal Cooperation: Keeping a Clean(ing) Reputation [Current Biology Vol. 21 No 13]. 
It turns out that cleaner wrasses are more likely to keep honest (parasites only) when they are observed by a number of potential client fish.  They seem to value their reputation in the business.  It seems very unlikely that these fish, with their tiny brains, have any conscious awareness of the stakes.  It doesn’t matter.  Natural selection has made the logically moral choices for them. 
Again, the reciprocal arrangement is socially constructed.  The fish do not need to understand the system, but they do need to notice who is watching. 
The old dichotomy between nature and nurture, biological influence and social construction, is long out of date.  Temperature, saltiness, water and nutrients are factors that exert selection pressure on organisms.  Social arrangements and the likes and dislikes of individual interactors for one another also exert select pressure. 
Choice is a powerful influence on the evolution of pretty much everything.  Another powerful influence is moral logic.  Plato was right, at least about the world of living organisms.  The most important idea is the idea of the good. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reverse jump

I have been working on my paper for the upcoming APSA conference, and that has involved a lot of reading about primate social evolution.  As always, I am going back and forth between Aristotle and contemporary Darwinian theory. 
My topic is a chicken and egg question.  Which came first, the family or the political community?  My answer is: yes.  I am arguing that you can’t get the evolution of the family without the evolution of early hominid societies that protected individuals against bullies and so protected the individual male against a bully who wants to take away his mate.  At the same time, you can’t get the evolution of political societies in the full sense without families. 
Relevant to this is the question of how our primate ancestors went from solitary animals, like bears, to political animals, like Thomas Jefferson.  The common-sense argument goes like this: solitary animals cease to be solitary when the male sticks around to defend his mate and family.  Families then come together into clans, and clans into cities.  This is perfectly reasonable and probably quite wrong. 
Susanne Schultz, Christopher Opie, and Quentin D. Atkinson argued in a 2011 article in Nature that the better answer is the Reverse-Jump Model. Here is their chart, laying out the alternatives.

 Refrom solitary life to unstable group life coincides with the transition from nocturnal hunting to diurnal hunting.  This suggests that predation was the original motive for congregation. 
I am also persuaded by Michael Tomasello that the original form of cooperation among our very distant ancestors was based on mutualism.  A group of individuals cooperate in chasing down some prey only when there is enough for everyone to eat.  That kind of cooperation involves no sacrifice or discipline. 
Two more reasons occur to me.  Human males are larger and stronger than human females generally.  That suggests the kind of competition for mates that presents in many primate species and it is what you would expect when solitary animals first come together in groups.  Second, human females do not display conspicuous ovulation.  Males frequently kill unrelated offspring.  One way to prevent that is to make it impossible for them to tell which offspring are their own. 

All of these points support the view that our more or less human ancestors became social first and formed families and more stable societies later.  How the formation of genuine families occurred and how it was both a product and a cause of political evolution, is the topic of my paper.