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.