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.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

In Defense of the West

If any apology is need, and it is, I am no admirer of Donald Trump.  He might not be the most flawed character ever to settle in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Clinton, the 42nd and only, comes to mind).  This President is certainly the man whose character flaws are most on daily display.  I haven’t voted for him yet, and I have a hard time imagining that I ever will.  Nor do I have any admiration for the Polish Government. 
I do have a deep affection for Poland, which I visited last summer.  PoznaƄ is a beautiful city full of beautiful people.  It is in many ways a monument to the Polish capacity for resistance and regeneration.  The old town square looks, I have been told, much as it did before the Second World War; yet it was rebuilt from shambles.  In it can be found many monuments to the Poles’ resistance to tyranny, whether imported from the east or west. 
For that reason and others, I was moved by the President’s speech.  His praise of Poland for the things I just mentioned stands out, as does his testament to the value of Western Civilization. 
I was also moved, in a different direction, by Peter Beinart’s execrable commentary on that speech at The Atlantic.  Here is how Beinart starts out.
In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.
This is the language of the contemporary Left.  Trump’s words are judged not by what they mean to a reasonable person but by what they mean to carefully chosen strawmen.  It gets better. 
The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.
The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.
The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim. 
There is so much stupidity in these words that one can hardly compass the whole of it.  I’ll give it a shot.  The West is precisely a geographic term.  Western Europe lay along a trade route that had two ends.  One was the eastern end, or the Orient.  The other was the Western End, or the Occident.  Geographic terms are frequently uneven.  It is telling that The West did not describe itself as The Center, as did the ancient Chinese Empire.  The West knew that, no matter where you go, there you are. 
The idea that Western Civilization is defined by religion has some truth to it.  Modern liberal democracy, meaning collective government and individual rights, first emerges in Western Europe.  It emerges out of a long history of interaction between Greek Philosophy, Roman law, and the Roman Church.  It fostered the development of deep traditions in art, music, and science.  While Western Civilization was dominated by religious authority for much of its history, that authority began to steadily weaken after Machiavelli wrote Il Principe.  Whereas the Church once laid down the law on Galileo, today the Supreme Court lays down the law on the Church.  The latter is as much Western as the former. 
The idea that it is also defined by race is utterly fictitious.  Who says that Latin America isn’t The West?  Only Beinart’s straw men.  When Martin Luther King Jr. stood up in Washington D.C. and drew upon the Declaration of Independence in one of the most fundamental of American speeches, what color was he?  It is true that India and Japan are not Western, but that is a matter of geographic and historical roots.  Their political systems and economic systems are not indigenous.  They are examples of their profound capacity to learn from The West just as The West has learned from them. 
Let’s take a look at the President’s actual words.  Consider this:
Despite every effort to transform you, oppress you or destroy you, you endured and overcame.  You are the proud nation of Copernicus -- think of that. Chopin, St. John Paul II. Poland is a land of great heroes.
Maybe someone who is “religiously paranoid” can praise Chopin and St. John Paul II.  But Copernicus?  He challenged the Church’s world view. 
Here are a few things that Trump thinks The West should be proud of: 
We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance, we strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.
Symphonies, innovation, the rule of law, free speech and free expression; is it really racism and religious paranoia to praise these things?  Empowering women?  If this is what the alt.right really believes in, then it isn’t alt. and it is hardly right wing. 
How about this:
And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything, so that we can better know ourselves.
And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.
That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies and as a civilization.
President Trump is here attempting to rally the Western nations around these principles.  If you think there is something wrong with that, try thinking. 
Does this mean that Trump thinks the West is the enemy of the Rest?  Not exactly. 
During a historic gathering in Saudi Arabia, I called on the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations to join together to drive out this menace which threatens all of humanity. We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding and their networks and any form of ideological support that they may have.
Contrary to Beinart’s insistence that Trump rejects universal values, here he talks precisely about universal values and a common cause between Western nations and Muslim nations. 
Beinart can’t help himself. 
The most shocking sentence in Trump’s speech—perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime—was his claim that “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” On its face, that’s absurd. Jihadist terrorists can kill people in the West, but unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, they cannot topple even the weakest European government. Jihadists control no great armies. Their ideologies have limited appeal even among the Muslims they target with their propaganda. ISIS has all but lost Mosul and could lose Raqqa later this year.
If there is an Academy Awards for stupid passages, this is a contender.  The Soviet Union didn’t die because it was overcome by military force.  It died because it lost its will to live.  If Western Civilization loses confidence in itself and the traditions and achievements that the President mentions, ISIS won’t have to bust through our defenses.  There will be nothing in their way. 
Civilizations do collapse.  Barbarism frequently follows.  Aristotle identified one of the characteristics of barbarism: they treat their women the same way they treat their animals and their slaves.  It does no good to believe that women should have equal rights with men if you have no heart to support the institutions that protect those rights.  That is something worth saying. 

Peter Beinart is an intelligent man.  His dreadfully stupid essay is proof that the President’s speech was necessary.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Pellet Smokers Updated

After many years of grilling and smoking meats on a Landmann sheet iron smoker, I have finally invested in a pellet stove.  My choice was a Green Mountain Daniel Boone. Here are some reflections.

The pellet smoker is a great example of American ingenuity.  Wood pellets as fuel was a solution to the problem of getting rid of sawdust and actually turning it into value.  That lead to pellet stoves for heating homes.  Then it occurred to someone that a pellet grill could keep the market for pellets from collapsing during the summer.  Hence the pellet grill.

The smoker looks a lot like my old smoker, but that is very deceiving.  What looks like an offset firebox is really a hopper for holding the wood pellets.  An augur feeds the pellets into a firebox (or burn pot) under the center of the main chamber.  An igniter extends into the firebox and produces the heat that ignites the pellets.  Under the firebox is a fan that blows air into the firebox.

In the face of the hopper is a computer that control the operation of the smoker.  It allows you to set the target temperature and to monitor both the temperature of the cooking chamber and the internal temperature of the meat by means of a wired probe.

The basic operation then seems quite simple.  Whenever the chamber temperature falls below what you have set, the augur goes into action delivering pellets to the firebox and the fan blows air to create a rush of heat.

Now for the pros and cons.

The single biggest advantage of the pellet smoker is that (so far) it seems to be able to hold a temperature very reliably for as long as you have pellets in the hopper.  That makes it much more precise and therefore more convenient than any charcoal grill or gas grill.  It is as good or better than a good kitchen stove.

It heats up quite fast, about as fast as you can count 150, 151...  The internal temperature of the beer can chicken I cooked last night rose rather faster than I counted on.  I barely had time to finish my martini.  Also, the internal probe seems to be quite accurate, measured against my Thermapen.  I could sit on my deck and watch the temp rise toward the 165+ that I was aiming for.  You can get a model that has wifi capability and monitor it from your phone.  I was too cheap to shell out the extra hundred and fifty.

That degree of temperature control is so valuable that I doubt I will ever go back to anything else except... note below.  Combined with the virtues of smoke and fire, it is a winning combination for the backyard chef.  I can easily imagine doing all of my baking out back, including bread and cakes.

In addition, the pellets burn much more completely than wood or charcoal.  My first two attempts (baby back ribs and veggie pizza) produced about a half a cup of ash in the firebox.  The rest of the unit is easy to disassemble and clean.

I am not sure yet whether running this thing is cheaper than my old smoker.  The hickory logs  and charcoal for the latter were usually more expensive than the meat I was cooking.  The pellets are much cheaper, especially if you get a forty pound bag at WalMart.  On the other hand, the mechanics run on electricity.  I am guessing this will be cheaper, but that will require more data.

Now for the caveats...

You may notice that I have been calling the unit a pellet smoker and not a pellet grill.  That is because it isn't a grill, it's a smoker.  The Daniel Boone has two plates just under the grates with holes in them.  In theory (read: advertising) you can align the holes so that heat rises directly up from the burn pot to the meat.  Voila!  Grilling.  Okay, but the burn pot is only about the size of the cup on a golf green.  Don't count on grilling with this thing.

That, so far as I can tell, is the only serious drawback to a pellet grill.  On my old smoker, I could move the meat from the smoking chamber directly onto the firebox.  I m currently scheming to get a Lodge Iron grill for the occasional searing and bbq cooking.  An alternative would be to cook on the pellet stove and then sear on a hot skillet or grill in the kitchen.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the pellets produce a lot of smoke at low temperatures (150-250) but little or none at tempertures above 300.  This seems to require both a smoking phase and a cooking phase.  Last night I smoked the chicken at 190 for a hour and then set the temp for 350 for an hour and a half.  The result was a smoky bird that was perfectly cooked.

Bottom line: I am looking at the moon as I type these words.  I am really glad we put foot on her.  I am more impressed by well done brisket.  I am very optimistic that the pellet stove will turn out to be the turn of a great chapter in the history of man and fire.

Update: I have cooked a rack of ribs, a pork shoulder, beer can chicken, hamburgers, and tonight a spatchcock chicken.  The ribs were a failure, though I think that the ribs were at fault.  The hamburgers were so so.  Everything else was wonderful.  

Tonight I cooked the spatchcock chicken under an iron skillet.  I put two ears of corn on either side and just before the chicken was ready I put asparagus into the iron skillet over the chicken.  Everything turned out perfect all together.  Lots of smoky flavor.  Technology good.  Fire good.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Rational Content of Emotions

This morning I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts Invisibilia.  I was doing the dishes.  Put this one on.  It is brilliant.  The topic was emotions, one of two on that.  I haven’t listened to the second one yet. 
The podcast interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett, a research psychologist who specializes in the study of emotions.  She has a book.  How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.  I walked up to the Northern library to check it out and… it is missing.  So I sought out several of her papers and read them this afternoon.  It was very interesting. 
I have long accepted a view that, according to Barrett, is misguided.  That view is what she calls the Natural Kinds View.  Human beings are born with a more or less fixed pallet of emotions (my term): anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness, etc.  When something happens‑I am offended, threatened, disappointed, etc.‑the emotion is triggered more or less automatically.  The emotions are hardwired into the brain and produce all of our emotional experience in the way that a set of colored pixels in the screen produce all the colors of a cooking show. 
Barret says that decades of psychological research have failed to establish or clinically define any of these well-known emotions.  You will have to read her book to see why.  She argues (if I understand the paper) that there are only two fixed biological foundations for emotions: valence (I like or I like not) and arousal (I act or I act not). 
What makes for all the emotions that we think we experience and have names for?  She argues that, in any emotionally relevant context, we interpret the visceral experience according to our concepts.  If I don’t like what is happening, my brain has to supply a context that will tell me what to do or not do about it.  If my brain interprets the displeasure I feel as an offense (he took my fish!) then I interpret it as anger and that is what I feel.  If I interpret my arousal as “I am out of here!” then I run.  The character of the various emotions is largely supplied by the contest and my concepts. 
An analogy occurs to me, and it is mine not hers’s.  Our tongues have only a small number of sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and I forget the other one.  Yet we experience a wide range of tastes: wine, beer, cheese, pan sauce poured over lamb shank, beer…  Our sense of smell provides all the wide range.  Likewise, our biological pallet is just valence and arousal.  Categorization provides all the nuance. 

As a biopolitical scientist, I like the idea of biologically fixed emotions.  As a student of Aristotle and Plato, I like the idea of a rational component to the emotions.  I am pretty sure that when I am angry I am angry about something, and that implies categorization and concepts.  This is worth keeping an eye on.