27 March 2018

The key adaptation

For some time now, I've been fond of pointing out to people the view that the evolution of human intelligence, with its capacity to transfer technology culturally rather than only as biological adaptation, is very probably the most important development in the history of life on Earth at least since the evolution of photosynthesis, about 2 billion years ago. Another contender, actually even more fundamental from the point of view of the evolution of complex organisms, especially animals, would be the evolution of Eukaryotic cells, which resulted from the chance merger into what's called endosymbiosis of two bacterialike precursors (actually a bacteria and an archeon). This chance event required not only that two cells merge and one not have eaten the other but both continue to live in one envelope, but that they reproduce together and continue as one organism with diverse ancestry... a very unlikely event, which almost certainly only happened once. Virtually all macroscopic life is descended from that first eukaryote. 

From Daniel Dennett's From Bacteria to Bach and Back, here's an illustration of the point, which he credits to the polymath Paul MacCready (of Gossamer Albatross fame). MacCready calculated that at the dawn of what's sometimes nowadays referred to as the Axial Age, i.e., the invention of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, humans and their dependent pets and livestock consisted of roughly 0.1% of the land vertebrate biomass of the Earth. Today, after 10,000 years of cultural evolution, the figure is 98% (mostly cattle). No doubt Homo sapiens is part of "nature," but there can be no doubt that our species has changed the biosphere of this planet more than any other single species ever, and we're just getting started. When the time comes when terrestrial life is found on thousands of planets across this section of the Galaxy, which will happen unless we commit species suicide, it will be safe to say that this thing we think of as intelligence is the key adaptation for the long term survival and expansion of life in the universe. 


08 March 2018

Reply to DCCC

 My reply to one of the many emails I receive almost daily from the DCCC asking for money: 

«I would consider contributing to the DCCC if it were actually doing what it says it's doing, "fighting to elect Democrats and advance a progressive vision in the states." The recent shameful conduct of spending Democrats' contributions to DEFEAT a Democrat in Texas (Moser) is exactly the kind of thing that will divide the party and make it LESS likely that we can retake the House. THEREFORE, UNTIL THE DCCC ANNOUNCES THAT THIS WAS A MISTAKE THAT WILL NOT BE REPEATED, I WILL CONTRIBUTE ONLY TO LESS DIVISIVE DEMOCRATIC ORGANIZATIONS. This message will be cross-posted so Social Media. I hope you do not ignore important (and serious) feedback like this. Thank you. »

Free Trade, Trans Pacific Partnership

During the 2016 election season, I opposed the TPP as it was then formulated (as did Sanders AND Clinton) on the grounds that it favored corporations excessively, especially in the arbitration system for dispute resolution. But that is PROCESS, not PRINCIPLE. I do very much believe in free trade, and would like to see the TPP tweaked so as to improve protections for consumers and citizens as opposed to corporate interests, and then JOINED by the US in the post Trump era. The Democratic party needs to make clear that it represents the interests of ordinary working people, and that sensible, carefully crafted Free Trade pacts are actually IN the interests of all Americans.

05 March 2018

Read this and weep

The mainstream Dem campaign committees are BLOWING the chance to engage with the activist base. It's clear they've hardened their tribalist stance against the "Bernie Sanders types," failing to realize that it is the "Bernie Sanders types" who are the future of this party. 

If this kind of myopic approach continues, the truth of the old saw will come out: Democrats never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity. If the DCCC and DSCC succeed in alienating progressive younger voters, as it sure looks like they're on track to do, they will be handing the Republicans victories in races we should win, and I can think of no greater political sin at the present moment. 

Already, I can tell you, I contribute directly to campaigns, or to alternative organizations like Progressive Change or Move-on. I am NOT giving money to organizations that are supposed to work for all Democratic candidates but who in fact work against Democrats not of their mold, and/or fail to support Democrats who can win. 

And I will say it: the House and Senate leaders should step aside in 2018-19. Both of them. It is time for new blood in the Democratic party. The old guard, including Hillary Clinton, failed miserably in 2016. Sure, there were a lot of reasons for it, and some, maybe most, of those reasons were beyond the control of the candidates. But it doesn't change the fact that what Democrats did to gain seats in Congress and win the presidency in 2016 did not work. Ultimately, in politics, you either win or you step aside. So new people should be given a chance to move forward. 


04 March 2018


Farflung correspondents, 

I think this quote encapsulates a pragmatic sort of very ​long term optimism better than any other I've seen.
"Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge."    --David Deutsch

I might add "and technology," but technically, that's probably ​redundant, since technology, what Americans used to call "know-how," is a form of knowledge. This is one of two frontispiece quotes in Steven Pinker's new book Enlightenment Now, the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.  This isn't meant to be a review of that book, which maybe I'll post another time. I think what Deutsch is saying in this quote, however, is really important. I've given it a lot of thought, and if come to the conclusion that modern humans, for the past century or so, I've been wallowing in self-deprecation, when the reality is that our capacity to more or less accurately model the way the universe works is the single most significant biological adaptation on Earth since photosynthesis, which took place about 2.4 billion years ago. I would argue that the evolution of this capacity makes it quite likely that we, or our descendants which share, and improve upon, this adaptation, will flourish and prevail over the long long future of life originating on Earth. If you really think about it, what has limited the development, and expansion, of life on our planet over almost all of its 3+ billion year history has been its lack of coherent awareness and intelligence. Now that we have evolved these qualities, the sky is literally the limit. Life in the universe is just beginning to get going. And we, as a species capable of reason and technology, are an absolutely essential part of its future, at least around here, in this little part of the universe where we happen to find ourselves. The existence of beings with this capacity is almost literally in its infancy on Earth, and the effects it will have on the future of life have only just begun to manifest themselves. We can't predict what life will develop into, but human or human-derived awareness and intelligence will be key to its future development, and expansion into environments beyond Earth. If you don't see it that way, I would suggest you might care to give it some more thought.

The idea of progress has become unfashionable, but Pinker pretty clearly demonstrates that it actually is occurring. Not in a linear fashion, always up, up, up, of course, but over time, the sum total of knowledge, and its use to improve the survival and flourishing of human beings and other forms of life, have increased. Any reasonably long period of time (say, a few centuries) of our history will show, globally, a net gain. And if anything, this process has been accelerating, right through the environmental crisis, peak oil, supposed food crises, etc. of the recent past. If you doubt it, consult the sources in Pinker's book. It is undeniable.