Fst and Selection

Fst by number of migrants

Fst by number of migrants

Greg Cochran had an instructive Twitter exchange on Fst and adaption, which he expanded into a blog post at West Hunter.

Genetic similarity is usually described using the statistic Fst, fixation index. The fixation index is a useful number, but it doesn’t mean what a lot of people seem to think it means.

There are a variety of ways to calculate genetic similarity. Let’s look at the definition Greg gives:

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

N sub e m stands for number of migrants, with the sub e probably reminding you that it is a representation of people who not only moved into a new location, but successfully had kids, along with some simplifying assumptions. Since this is about gene flow, the mechanism is reproduction. If we take this formula, we can see what Fst looks like by number of migrants:

A plot of Fst values

A plot of Fst values

So when Greg says that the number of migrants per generation needed to keep populations genetically similar is 1, he is describing where the knee of that plot is. You get real big changes in Fst to the left of that point, but the plot is basically flat as the numbers of migrants go up.

I think I can see why people get confused. One migrant per generation seems trivially small. And it is! But what does this degree of genetic similarity really mean? Wikipedia has a chart taken from the International HapMap project:

Fst across the world

Fst across the world

An average number of migrants per generations equal to one gets you approximately the genetic distance between white Mormons in Utah plus some Italians (CEU) and the Yoruba people (YRI).

Yoruba dancers  Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Yoruba dancers

Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

In this context, we can see that similar is far from identical. Other than obvious differences in appearance, sub-Saharan Africans like the Yoruba often differ from Europeans in things like malaria resistance or salt retention, so there are real differences in addition to real similarities. In theory, Fst goes from zero to one, but in practice we see numbers of 0.16 or less.

Much of the argument on Twitter was whether you could get any real genetic differences by selection with an average number of migrants per generation around 1. It certainly seems possible to me! Fst is a pretty high level model, and in general is calculated looking at lots of different loci. For selection to occur, you only need the frequency of one gene to change [for simple adaptions], which could readily happen without affecting Fst estimates at all. Based on this, Fst isn’t real useful in determining whether selection occurred. You would be better off looking for selection directly.

The Long View 2006-12-04: Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

John J. Reilly poo-poohs criticizing the high cousin marriage rate in the Middle East, but it really is bad…..

Genetics wasn’t really one of his interests, but I thought it was more widely known that cousin marriage makes your kids dumber and sicker than they would be otherwise.

Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

Does that Other Spengler have the Middle East in a nutshell?

What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi'ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine ...[The new configuration for the region could be something like] the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years' War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century ...Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers...Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran's circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago,

We tried very much the policy Spengler suggests, in the long war between Iraq and Iran. One side eventually won.

* * *

Chaos has other advocates. To loose mere anarchy upon the world, in fact, is one of the options that Paul Starobin explores in his National Journal piece, Beyond Hegemony:

As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.

In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.

All this is in aid of the latest recrudescence of Declinism, the thesis advanced in the late 1980s by Paul Kennedy to the effect the US would soon be joined by peer powers: Japan and Europe certainly, and perhaps more. Pretty much none of the forecasts that Kennedy made have been borne out by latter events, though the piece allows Kennedy some self-congratulatory quotes. In fact, in the list of prospective peer powers we are given, India is the only one without imploding demographics or a Potemkin financial system or both. Even with regard to Iraq, we should note that none of the supposed poles of a future multipolar world seem much interested in actually planting themselves in the region. The return of Declinism is really just part of a campaign by transnational institutions, and particularly the UN, to use the political embarrassment of the Bush Administration to reestablish their credibility. However, it is only after taking us through speculation about China World and Plurality World that the author takes us to the World World scenario:

It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.

The piece actually makes a reference to the way a world government is formed in the Left Behind books, but tactfully omits reference to the Rapture.

* * *

Here is a review of John Derbyshire's review of Mark Steyn's America Alone. (My own review, in length comparable to Derbyshire's, is here.) Derbyshire tells us:

A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject....

For someone so impressed by the book, Derbyshire seems oddly uninterested in Steyn's central argument about the unsustainability of below-replacement birthrates:

Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine. This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to...The earth’s surface is finite, after all...

Does Derbyshire dismiss the concept of social reform? We get a clue to that later. For now, let's see what he says when he's trying to be helpful:

[T]he reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to. For example: Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive? How about we just fence it off...

I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough. For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism. [Quoting Steyn] "John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan 'Rubble doesn't Cause Trouble.' Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales. But in arguing for a 'realist' foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble..." Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble. ...I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs

Well, maybe not very helpful. In any case, we eventually discover that his embrace of popular sociobiology probably has disabled his ability to think about social issues:

And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables...Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite...Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species...What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees? The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on? Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the reaction of early 20th-century cultural anthropologists to Social Darwinism occasioned quite a lot of bogus research. However, Social Darwinism was pretty bogus, too; it's still bogus if you recast it in genetic and neurobiological terminology. Just glance above at Spengler's allusion to the Thirty Years' War, when the Germans blew each other up at least as efficiently as the Sunni and Shia of today. Maybe the German genes have changed. More likely, the same genes have more than one mode of expression.

* * *

If you must recast conservatism in Darwinian terms, then start with this item at Right Reason:

[L]arry Arnhart, recently responded on his blog to [RR's] review of his book, Darwinian Conservatism. [RR's] review, which was published under the title, "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver," just appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics (68.4, pp. 680-82). You can find a pdf of it on [RR's] website....

I'm a great fan of paleontology, and also of popular genetics, but the problem with Darwinism as a pure method is that it explains imaginary animals as readily as real ones. The same, I am afraid, goes for sociobiological accounts of human societies.

* * *

Some political systems are obviously doomed, of course, not least among them Hugo Chavez's patronage socialism:

The boom [in Venezuela] is evident in an economy that has put financial speculation and conspicuous consumption ahead of domestic manufacturing. For instance, foreign automobile companies Ford and General Motors will sell 300,000 cars in the country this year. Economists describe Venezuela as a “harbor economy” because of its lust for imported goods...

Some Chávez economic policies draw inspiration from formulas used with mixed results by countries in the developing and industrialized worlds the 1960s and 1970s. These include price controls for food and gasoline, strict limits on buying and selling foreign currency and caps on everything from lending rates at banks to hourly fees at parking lots....Despite boasting of some of South America’s most fertile land in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, Venezuela still imports more than half its food, largely from the United States and Colombia. An overvalued currency, meanwhile, has been disastrous for Venezuelan industry with the number of manufacturing companies falling to about 8,000 today from 17,000 in 1998, according to Mr. Guerra, the former economist at the central bank.

Castro promised his people blood, sweat, and tears: he stayed in power by meeting the low expectations he had created. Chavez promises ice cream and lollipops, which he can deliver, until the next collapse in oil prices.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Ringworld Engineers Book Review

Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

Turns out, this isn't as good as sex, according to Louis Wu

The Ringworld Engineers
by Larry Niven
Del Rey (1980)
354 pages
ISBN 0-345-26009-0

Alternative title: Louis Wu gets Busy


While not quite the crowning achievement of Ringworld, this is a solid scifi book that explores the concept of human evolution, using the Ring to expand the space of possibilities.

In the dedication, Larry Niven says he never intended to write a sequel to Ringworld. It was the continual efforts of his fans that persuaded him to do so, and provided a lot of material in the process. Including the hook that drives the action in the book: the Ringworld is not dynamically stable in orbit. A Dyson sphere is, any perturbation of the orbit tends to be cancelled out. Not so, for the Ringworld.

Thus, when Louis Wu is kidnapped and returned to the Ringworld, he finds he must save it, and the trillions of humans who live on it. I call them humans even though they are clearly not the same species as Louis, because "human" isn't really a biological concept at all. I get a lot of mileage out of this quote from John J. Reilly, which will be coming up in a blog post he wrote on October 3rd of 2006.

A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences you don't believe in human beings); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. As for person, which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," is conflated with the notion of person, as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

This very well could have been the book John had in mind when he said that. The other humans on the Ringworld do share a common ancestor with Louis Wu, a really long time ago. However, in the intervening millennia, they have diversified into a vast array of different species, filling empty niches in the Ringworld's ecology, and evolving societies to match.

There are small carnivorous herders with sharp teeth, and large grazers with flat teeth, and scavengers, and so on. And this is all just in the one small part of the Ringworld Louis keeps going back to. The Ringworld is just so big, that lots and lots of evolution will occur, because the rate of favorable mutations spreading scales up with population size, and the population size on the Ringworld is really, really big.

However, it doesn't look to me [or Greg Cochran] like Niven got here in this way, but looking at what selection could do in the time and space available. It looks like he thought this was a cool idea, and he just ran with it. So, hardish scifi.

Also, I am still struck that Niven's Ringworld books are a product of their time. The glue that holds all of the various species of the Ring together is ritual sex between species, which he calls rishathra. As Louis moves through the Ring on his quest, he has sex with pretty much everything that moves, because that is just what you do there.

In fact, it turns out that literally the only temptation in the known universe that Louis cannot resist is his libido. Inbetween the first book and this one, Louis ends up spending most of his time "under the wire", Niven's slangy term for having an electrode implanted in your brain's pleasure center. This turns into a providential plot point at the end of the book, but I find it kind of funny that Louis can resist anything but sex. In the era of #MeToo, perhaps this was unintentionally prophetic.

My other book reviews

The Ringworld Engineers
By Larry Niven

The Long View 2006-03-01: Disaster Hype to Darwin Awards

I didn't start following Greg Cochran's blog seriously until after John had died. As such, I can only guess what he might have thought of Greg. Too gauche, probably. Nonetheless, much like John and Steve Sailer, John and Greg Cochran have some interesting overlaps. Like the way higher education is making us dumber, in the long run.

Disaster Hype to Darwin Awards


It is superfluous to quote The Onion, but keep this story in mind the next time the news media report an approaching weather front as if it were an approaching asteroid:

Rotation Of The Earth Plunges Entire North American Continent Into Darkness...

Businesses have shut their doors, banks are closed across the nation, all major stock exchanges have suspended trading, and manufacturing in many sectors has ceased.

Some television stations have halted broadcasting altogether, for reasons not immediately understood.

After a while, you stop paying attention. That could be a bad thing, especially if the next time the story is about an asteroid.

* * *

Television is nontoxic, or so we must judge from this report:

Does television rot children's brains? A new study by two economists from the University of Chicago taps into a trove of data from the 1960's to argue that when it comes to academic test scores, parents can let children watch TV without fear of future harm.

...The result showed "very little difference and if anything, a slight positive advantage" in test scores for children who grew up watching TV early on, compared to those who did not, said [co-author] Mr. Shapiro. In nonwhite households and those where English was a second language or the mother had less than a high school education, TV's positive effect was more marked.

...[Co-author] Mr. Gentzkow...noted that he was not predisposed to a "television is good" argument; he even conducted an earlier study that found that television lowered voter turnout. ..[Co-author] Shapiro noted: "If you look at the top five children's programs in the 1950's and the equivalent list from 2003, the content is not as different as you might have thought."

I still have doubts about anime, though.

* * *

Also looking on the sunny side, we have Spengler at Asia Times making The case for complacency in Iraq

Tehran's policy all along has been to support US efforts on behalf of constitutional government in Iraq to bring that country's Shi'ite majority into power by peaceful means ...In fact, the worst outcome from the vantage point of Washington's interest would be a stable constitutional government in Iraq...America's military already has repositioned to the periphery of cities; there will not be another siege of Fallujah...The result will be a low-intensity civil war that can persist more or less indefinitely...But there is not a speck of evidence that Washington has done anything but stumble into a position that is as advantageous for US interests as it is miserable for the Iraqis.

As the emperor said, "Too many notes."

I am beginning to suspect that the attack on the Golden Mosque will be remembered as the Bomb that Won the War: the responsible Shia leadership refused to be provoked, while the insurgency and the Jihad became politically radioactive. The only remaining question is how much influence the pro-Iranian Shia factions will have. Not much, I suspect, but we will see.

* * *

Mark Steyn notes the internal contradictions of multiculturalism:

Sir Iqbal Sacranie [is] a Muslim of such exemplary "moderation" [that] he's been knighted by the Queen. Sir Iqbal, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, was on the BBC the other day and expressed the view that homosexuality was "immoral," "not acceptable," "spreads disease" and "damaged the very foundations of society." A gay group complained and Sir Iqbal was investigated by Scotland Yard's "community safety unit" which deals with "hate crimes" and "homophobia."

[I]ndependently but simultaneously, the magazine of GALHA (the Gay And Lesbian Humanist Association) called Islam a "barmy doctrine" growing "like a canker" and deeply "homophobic." In return, the London Race Hate Crime Forum asked Scotland Yard to investigate GALHA for "Islamophobia."

Steyn argues that this is not a case of two irresistible forces in deadlock. Rather, the cultural left will lose the struggle in fairly short order because it does not reproduce itself. Meanwhile, writing in Foreign Affairs, Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation makes much the same argument in a piece called The Return of Patriarchy:

Societies that are today the most secular and the most generous with their underfunded welfare states will be the most prone to religious revivals and a rebirth of the patriarchal family. The absolute population of Europe and Japan may fall dramatically, but the remaining population will, by a process similar to survival of the fittest, be adapted to a new environment in which no one can rely on government to replace the family, and in which a patriarchal God commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father.

There is something to be said for the thesis that the cultural left will simply win a Darwin Award, but demographic historical determinism is no better than any other kind of determinism (which is not to say that deterministic models of history never have their uses). We should be suspicious of the idea that people have a lot of kids because God tells them to. Children sometimes appear simply because a couple married young and the father happened to have a job with good medical benefits. Conversely, I suspect that no institution has had a stronger sterilizing effect on the professional classes, at least in the US, than the student loan. Ideology is almost irrelevant.

Be this as it may, we should note that arguments like those of Steyn and Longman are close to becoming the consensus.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-01-13: After Roe; Predators; Indigos; Pigs; Panspermia

Lots of fun little bits in this one. There are reasonable protections to extended to protect wilderness, and then there is the Wildlands Project, a scheme to return vast areas of the United States to howling wilderness. This goal isn't particularly hidden, but you can find references to it in the project materials linked in Wikipedia.

I like natural landscapes too, but this is all a little nutty.

There is also a reference to Arthur C. Clarke's creepy book Childhood's End. Many of the mid-twentieth century sci fi authors had really weird streaks, and Childhood's End displays Clarke's. Gnosticism is always lurking somewhere.

Also. Glowing pigs.

After Roe; Predators; Indigos; Pigs; Panspermia


Plausible deniability: this was all the Alito hearings were about. There was never much hope that the nomination could be stopped. The Democratic senators were chiefly concerned to ensure that the cultural left does not strike at them when Roe v. Wade is overturned. As I have remarked, the party will greatly benefit from that event, because the party will be able to field pro-life candidates, or at least candidates who do not have to take a pro-choice position. The opportunities in the Red States are for the future, however. In the near term, the senators had to placate the interest groups that made their election possible.

The hearings were yet more evidence that Roe would have to be repudiated even if it were about double parking. (I know I have said that before; it's a good line.) The cultural left has adopted the position that there is an invisible ham sandwich in the Liberty Clause of the Constitution. Since the existence of this sandwich cannot be demonstrated by text or history, constitutional jurisprudence has become the art of selecting those very special judges who can see it.

I cannot emphasize too strongly that it will not be enough for the Supreme Court to repudiate the holding in Roe (it might be possible to justify the holding in Griswald, the case that found a right to use contraceptives, but with far narrower reasoning). The Court has to repudiate the style of constitutional interpretation that made the decision possible. If the decision that overturns Roe simply declares that the Court, of its goodness, has determined to exercise its discretion in the opposite direction, then we will just be waiting for the next constitutional explosion.

* * *

But foreign courts are worse, as we see in this outrage from Sweden:

A Swedish farmer sentenced to six months in prison for shooting a wolf on his farm in Dalsland, central Sweden, is appealing to the government for a pardon...The man was found not by the district court not to have broken the law, but he was convicted in the court of appeal. It was decided that although the man had reason to believe that the wolf would attack, as the wolf had attacked his neighbour's sheep an hour earlier, too much time has passed between the attack on the sheep and the farmer shooting the wolf.

I am at a loss to understand the fondness of the environmental lobby for dangerous predators. The reasons for keeping dangerous creatures away from farms and homes are primordial:

A South African anthropologist said Thursday his research into the death nearly 2 million years ago of an ape-man shows human ancestors were hunted by birds...[An] Ohio State study determined that eagles would swoop down, pierce monkey skulls with their thumb-like back talons, then hover while their prey died before returning to tear at the skull. Examination of thousands of monkey remains produced a pattern of damage done by birds, including holes and ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets...Berger went back to the [australopithecus child's] skull, and found traces of the ragged cuts behind the eye sockets.

The dangerous animals don't need to be extinct. Because developed countries are rapidly becoming reforested, there should be no lack of places for them to live. That's why they should be shot on sight when they enter inhabited areas.

Tough, but fair.

* * *

Speaking of impending extinction, this lifestyle piece from the New York Times is extremely sinister:

If you have not been in an alternative bookstore lately, it is possible that you have missed the news about indigo children. They represent "perhaps the most exciting, albeit odd, change in basic human nature that has ever been observed and documented," Lee Carroll and Jan Tober write in "The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived" (Hay House). The book has sold 250,000 copies since 1999 and has spawned a cottage industry of books about indigo children.

More prosaically, "indigo children" seem to be intelligent tykes with attention deficit disorders whose mothers prefer to believe that their offspring are the next stage in human evolution than that these kids need either drugs or no-nonsense discipline. "Indigo" is supposed to describe the auras of these prodigies. The term "indigo" is sometimes used these days to mean a young, creative person. There are some links here

I knew from my studies of esoteric fascism that this notion of a mutant generation was the sort of thing that Madame Blavatsky used to go on on about. I quickly discovered that I was not the first to make the connection:

We are the last generation of the 5th root race. Our soul color is violet. Since about 1975 the first generation of the 6th root race has been coming in. Since the year 2000, 100% of the children being born are of the 6th root race. Their soul color is indigo. These are the "new and improved" spiritually evolved humans. Every Indigo Child has a " creative genius" within them waiting to be discovered and expressed. They have something new, something advanced, to bring to the world to evolve humanity, be it in the field of art, science, technology, philosophy, religion, and so on.

We went through all this in the 1960s, you know. Remember Consciousness III in The Greening of America? Now the question is whether sales of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End are picking up again.

* * *

Indigo children may be imaginary, but fluorescent pigs are a fact, according to the BBC:

Scientists in Taiwan say they have bred three pigs that glow in the dark...They claim that while other researchers have bred partly fluorescent pigs, theirs are the only pigs in the world which are green through and through...The pigs are transgenic, created by adding genetic material from jellyfish into a normal pig embryo....In the dark, shine a blue light on them and they glow torch-light bright.

The scientists did not just do this on a bet: it's easier to work with genetic material if it fluoresces. If they begin to work on flying pigs, however, we will know they are not serious.

* * *

The term panspermia does not appear in the NASA pages about the Stardust mission. Stardust is the space probe that collected dust from the comet Wild 2; Stardust is supposed to land in the Mojave Desert this weekend. "Panspermia," of course, is the notion that life spreads through space in the form of living or nearly living spores. If that is the case, then we are relieved of the embarrassment of figuring out how microorganisms appeared so quickly after the Earth formed.

Stardust was dispatched in part to answer questions about proto-biology, but I have not seen any speculation about whether the probe might bring back something living. When samples were brought back from the moon, both the samples and the astronauts were quarantined against the possibility that they might carry an infectious lunar organism. In connection with a comet, though, such precautions would make little sense. Cometary material is always raining into Earth's atmosphere: if Wild 2 carries spores from deep space, they would be here already.

Actually, I seem to recall that an Indian scientist proposed that novel infectious diseases do in fact drift down from space. Better not to think about it.

* * *

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Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-20: Domestication; Wiretaps; Scandals Past

Earlier this week, I said that Greg Cochran's the 10,000 Year Explosion was one of the five books that have influenced me most. I've probably given different answers to this kind of question in the past, but right now this is pretty accurate.

In this 2005 blog post, John Reilly mentions some of the things that Cochran and Harpending discuss in their book.

Domestication; Wiretaps; Scandals Past


The human condition is cast in a troubling light by this finding:

A detailed look at human DNA has shown that a significant percentage of our genes have been shaped by natural selection in the past 50,000...This analysis suggested that around 1800 genes, or roughly 7% of the total in the human genome, have changed under the influence of natural selection within the past 50,000 years. A second analysis using a second SNP database gave similar results. That is roughly the same proportion of genes that were altered in maize when humans domesticated it from its wild ancestors...Genes that aid protein metabolism – perhaps related to a change in diet with the dawn of agriculture – turn up unusually often in [the] list of recently selected genes. So do genes involved in resisting infections, which would be important in a species settling into more densely populated villages where diseases would spread more easily. Other selected genes include those involved in brain function, which could be important in the development of culture.

Am I the only one who remembers the song that goes, "We'll make great pets"? Evidently not.

* * *

More gerbil-brained behavior was evident in the reactions of members of Congress to President Bush's observation that they had, in fact, been informed of the extraordinary wiretaps he had directed the NSA to conduct:

Some Democrats say they never approved a domestic wiretapping program, undermining suggestions by President Bush and his senior advisers that the plan was fully vetted in a series of congressional briefings.

Some now say that they were troubled by this outrage from the very beginning and protested most vehemently:

"I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse, these activities," West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said in a handwritten letter to Vice President Dick Cheney in July 2003. "As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney."

So also says:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received several briefings and raised concerns, including in a classified letter, her spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

In contrast, the brighter ones know enough to play dumb. If they had enough information to raise the suspicion that something might be wrong, after all, then they should have done something about it. That is what consultation with the Executive Branch is for. So, we are also getting reactions like this:

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was part of the Intelligence Committee's leadership after the 9/11 attacks, recalled a briefing about changes in international electronic surveillance, but does not remember being told of a program snooping on individuals in the United States.

"It seemed fairly mechanical," Graham said. "It was not a major shift in policy."

And to similar effect:

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he, too, was briefed by the White House between 2002 and 2004 but was not told key details about the scope of the program.

Daschle's successor, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he received a single briefing earlier this year and that important details were withheld. "We need to investigate this program and the president's legal authority to carry it out," Reid said.

Confusion makes merry with a death-wish in this comment from Jonathan Alter:

This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974.

In reality, it is hard to see how President Bush's executive orders in this matter could ever wind up in the Supreme Court: the only people who could file a lawsuit to contest them would be the people whose communications were monitored, and their names are secret. More interesting is the notion, which has been popping up in recent weeks, that a change in the control of the House of Representatives in next year's election would mean impeachment for President Bush, if not necessarily conviction in the Senate.

I may be quoting Instapundit again, but impeachment might be the one issue that could maintain a Republican majority. Many people, including me, had been considering voting Democratic next year, to punish the Republican Party for its irresponsible fiscal policies and its refusal to acknowledge the malfunctioning of the health-care system. If it becomes clear that voting to put a Democrat in office means voting to eject President Bush from office, however, there will simply be a repeat of the election of 2004.

And speaking of the election of 2004, we know that the New York Times knew about the NSA program before that election and considered running with the story then. Why did they decline? Their candidate, John Kerry, was trying to look serious on defense issues. If the NSA program had been revealed, he would have been faced with the choice of saying he would have done the same thing, or opposing what no one denies was necessary surveillance because of some questionable technicalities. Perhaps the Times realized that Kerry would try to say both.

* * *

Speaking of technicalities, the continuing discussion at The Volokh Conspiracy shows how close a question the legality of the NSA wiretaps was. The basis for discussion there is Orin Kerr's analysis of the constitutional and statutory issues. His assessment is that the NSA program was probably constitutional, but that it probably violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by failing to require judicial warrants. That is, by the way, more or less the Bush Administration's position, too. However, the Administration also argues that the Congressional act, passed after 911 to authorize the use of force to prevent further attacks, superceded FISA in this context: intelligence, after all, is part of the use of force, and so the surveillance of communications between al-Qaeda contacts in the United States with al-Qaeda abroad was authorized by the later and narrower statute.

This is a toughie. The Supreme Court did find that the post-911 authorization act did allow the military to make arrests in Afghanistan, but the relevant decision was written by Justice O'Connor, so no one knows what it means. As Kerr point out, it would be a stretch to extend that act to cover wiretaps, but the argument is not unreasonable.

The comments to Kerr's analysis are very good, too. They point out that the NSA program may not have been within the purview of FISA at all, if the intercepts were done outside the United States, or if the people whose communications were being watched could be classed as foreign agents, or if the taps were on email addresses and telephone numbers rather than people. These are factual questions, of course, and they may be the sort of facts that have to remain secret.

A final point, by the way: legality means nothing in an impeachment prosecution, in the sense that no court could review what Congress does in this area. President Bush could be impeached even if the NSA program were authorized.

Perhaps now the impeachment of President Clinton for nothing in particular seems like a less dandy idea?

* * *

Again, I could be missing something, but it seems to me that this will be another case where the accusation becomes the scandal rather than what the accused is supposed to have done.

My favorite meaningless scandal is, of course, the Affair of the Necklace, the baroque (no, roccoco) intrigue at the fringes of the court of Louis XVI. The Affair, a great fraud in which a cleric, who sought to return to the queen's favor, was duped into facilitating the theft of a necklace of legendary cost, went a long way toward persuading the French people that everyone involved, innocent and guilty, was a head too tall. It's a long story, but look how it turned out:

The cardinal de Rohan accepted the parlement of Paris as judges. A sensational trial resulted (May 31, 1786) in the acquittal of the cardinal, of the girl Oliva and of Cagliostro. The comtesse de Lamotte was condemned to be whipped, branded and shut up in the prostitutes' prison, the Salpêtrière. Her husband was condemned, in his absence, to the galleys for life. Villette was banished.

Yes, in those days that had Cagliostro for their scandals. There was never any reason to believe he might have been involved; he was arrested because in the neighborhood. How the world has worsened.

* * *

Merry Solstice! Remember, you can send The Long View a Solstice Present here.

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The Long View 2005-10-04: Marvin the Paranoid Android

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

In a major break from John, I really liked the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and hated the book. My wife suggested the problem was that I tried to read it as an adult, and since the book is literally sophomoric, you really need to first approach it as a teenager or college student. If only I had known!

Marvin the Paranoid Android


I knew it was going to be bad, but I did not think it was going to be this bad. Well, maybe I did. I got around last weekend to seeing the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I stutter in my eagerness to spew invective.

Appalling. Dreadful. Any idiot could make Marvin into a metallic Care Bear, as the makers of this film did, but it took a special attention to detail to botch the orchestration of Journey of the Sorcerer. The signature misstep in this maladaptation is the large prominence given the Vogons. Vogons are not interesting. Two Vogons are less interesting than one Vogon. This film spent a large slice of a generous special-effects budget to realize armies of them.

What is the moral here? When the BBC did their pitch-perfect version of this story many years ago, their single largest budget item seems to have been the cost of Arthur Dent's towel. Nothing ruins the cinematization of fantasy more than the financing of the producer and director beyond their intelligence.

* * *

And that goes double for the nomination of Harriet Miers to the United States Supreme Court.

Shall we be clear on a few issues? Roe v. Wade is a done deal. I don't think that any informed person doubts that it will be overturned. The political class is just positioning itself to accommodate the change. The smarter Democrats know that the prospects for their party will increase markedly when this incubus is taken off them; the Republicans know that a large fraction of their profession-class women voters are libertarians in this matter and so are going to need placating, which will take the form of acquiescence in a liberal abortion regime created by legislation. Both parties, for now, have to continue to embrace the opposite of these realities, but in a few years we will forget which party was on which side.

The cause for outrage here is that the president appointed his personal attorney to the Supreme Court. It is not important that she has never been a judge. What is important is that she's a political hack of no academic distinction and with a narrow range of professional experience. Her chief qualification is dog-loyalty to the person of George Bush.

Frankly, I have been surprised by the caution of the Democrats in reacting to this nomination. The opposition of the Republican base is surprising, too, but chiefly for its cluelessness. Of course this sockpuppet will vote for Movement Conservative issues. The problem is that, when the constitutional changes come, they will come from a court without dignity or credibility, like the Florida Supreme Court in the election of 2000.

* * *

Do you call that an empire? So asks Spengler at Asia Times in his review of Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts : The American Military on the Ground. We read:

Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly longs to be the American Rudyard Kipling, the chronicler of the intrepid subalterns and leathery sergeants who save the empire through pluck and grit.

Alas for Mr. Kaplan, the US military really shows no sign of turning into an imperial military, if by that you mean the militaries of the 19th-century colonial powers. And why is this?

To begin with, the 10,000 or so Special Forces in the US Army are the wrong sort of people: tattooed, tobacco-chewing, iron-pumping Southerners, clever at improvised repairs or minor surgery in the field, and deadly in firefights (although Kaplan never sees one), but without the cultural skills essential to their mission.

He has a point. The American military simply cannot get its act together in the matter of learning foreign languages, for instance. It can build public infrastructure but has little interest in governance. Actually, the officer corps is remarkably intelligent, even well-read, but it works well only with local people who have the same technocratic mindset.

For anyone interested in developing the contrast between the militaries of the 19th and 21st centuries, you might take a look at this piece in Prospect (brought to my attention by Danny Yee), which deplores the passing of the sort of liberal-arts mandarin who used to manage the British empire: From the American founders, Macaulay, Acton, and Mill to de Tocqueville, Guizot, Weber and Ortega y Gasset, the conservative liberals of western Europe and North America feared that universal suffrage would produce "mobocracy." But the nightmare of mass democracy never fully materialised, in large part because of the political and cultural role of the mandarinate, the "new class" of Marxist and neoconservative social theory, the Bildungsbürgertum (cultured middle class) as opposed to the Besitzbürgertum (propertied middle class)....All of this now lies in ruins. Four sources of authority are invoked to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the modern humanism that legitimated the mandarinate: professionalism, positivism, populism and religion.

As for lamentations that America is failing to play the Great Game, I can only repeat that these criticisms are misplaced. The United States is not trying to run a 19th-century empire. It is trying to function as a utility in an incipient Universal State. And look at the flack we get.

* * *

On the topic of Universal States, these remarks by Mark Steyn on the deep reasons for the latest Bali bombings state an important misconception:

Bassam Tibi, a Muslim professor at Gottingen University in Germany, said in an interesting speech a few months after September 11, "Both sides should acknowledge candidly that although they might use identical terms, these mean different things to each of them. The word peace, for example, implies to a Muslim the extension of the Dar al-Islam -- or House of Islam -- to the entire world. This is completely different from the Enlightenment concept of eternal peace that dominates Western thought. Only when the entire world is a Dar al-Islam will it be a Dar a-Salam, or House of Peace."

That's why they blew up Bali in 2002, and last weekend, and why they'll keep blowing it up. It's not about Bush or Blair or Iraq or Palestine. It's about a world where everything other than Islamism lies in ruins.

In reality, Kant's Perpetual Peace and the peace of a universal caliphate Islam are both expressions of the archetype of the Necessary Empire.

* * *

On the matter of misconceptions about evolution, see the essay Stephen M. Barr in the October issue of First Things, "The design of evolution," which answers with some recent attempts to cloud the perfectly satisfactory Catholic position on the matter:

So why did Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, lash out this summer at neo-Darwinism? In an opinion piece for the New York Times on July 7, he reacted indignantly to the suggestion that “the Catholic Church has no problem with the notion of” evolution “as used by mainstream biologists – that is, synonymous with neo-Darwinism. Brushing off the 1996 statement of John Paul II as “vague and unimportant,” he cited other evidence (including statements by the late pope, sentences from Communion and Stewardship and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a line from the Pope Benedict XVI's installation homily) to make the case that neo-Darwinism is in fact incompatible with catholic teaching...Elsewhere in his article, however, the cardinal is another definition: “evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense [is] an unguided, unplanned process of random variation in natural selection.”...[In reality, the] word “random” as used in science does not mean unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated.

Elsewhere in this piece, Barr mentions Simon Conway Morris's argument in Life's Solution as a model in which randomness is compatible with meaning.

* * *

And speaking of First Things, the website now has a blog-like entity on the top page. It is not supposed to be a proper blog, I gather. It may be intended to serve as a place to which the journal's fanatical readers can refer if something really bad happens in the world and they cannot wait until the next issue of the print journal to get the party line.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-08-09

Patrice O'Neal explains why Radiohead's Creep speaks to the white soul

I can't argue with this.

Meet Alex, the Russian Casino Hacker Who Makes Millions Targeting Slot

In the grand tradition of Ed Thorp, a Russian mathematician figured out how to beat the house. Of course, Ed chose a slightly different way to cash in.

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

This is a hell of a story! A mad bomber, an initially nonchalant public, and years of official bumbling.

Man Behind Password Requirements Admits He Was Wrong

In fairness to Bill Burr, he was working under pressure, and wasn't able to do the kind of detailed analysis of leaked passwords that is possible now.

More justice, less crime

Joseph Bessette reviews Locked In by John Pfaff.


Genetic evidence for self-domestication in humans

Greg Cochran looks at the idea that modern humans have some of the features of Domestication Syndrome, the suite of behavioral traits observed in animals that are bred for tameness. A helpful commenter linked to The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics, a survey article explaining the science behind this.

More in my continuing series on technological progress.

The Long View 2005-08-23: The Perfection of the Species

The image in the header is the image John referenced in his joke about contributing to the state of perpetual surveillance. The man in the image is Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, scourge of the Boers and one of the few generals who thought the Great War would be long.

I appreciate John's simple computation of the average tenure of each Supreme Court Justice in groups of ten. It is a simple thing in now, and in 2005, to look up such information to double-check something like now Chief Justice John Robert's 34-year old speculation that the framers of the Constitution hadn't anticipated how long people live now.

Justice Roberts made a common mistake, which is thinking increasing average lifespans means that adults live 20 or 30 years longer than they used to. There is some increase for adults, but almost all of the change in the average was driven by changes in deaths under the age of 5. 

Something that struck me just now is that I've seen a lot of things on the subject of average human lifespans that assumes that childhood mortality was as high in Classical times or earlier as it was in early modern Europe. However, we know that what we now call childhood diseases are mostly recent things, largely within the last 2000 years or so. The human disease burden has slowly been getting worse, which might mean that childhood was somewhat less dangerous before the arrival of measles and smallpox.

The Perfection of the Species


Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts had some thoughts many years ago about limiting the terms of federal judges, and was foolish enough to put them on paper:

The Constitution "adopted life tenure at a time when people simply did not live as long as they do now,'' Roberts wrote in an Oct. 3, 1983, memo to White House Counsel Fred Fielding that is now on file at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library..."A judge insulated from the normal currents of life for 25 or 30 years was a rarity then but is becoming commonplace today,'' Roberts wrote. "Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence.''

Term limits for judges may or may not be a good idea, but I had my doubts about the premise of Roberts' critique. The great increases in life expectancy we have seen over the past two centuries chiefly relate to infant mortality; the older you get, the less dramatic the increases become. Certainly it is not the case that maximum human longevity is increasing. How does this relate to the Supreme Court?

On Wikipedia, I found a list of the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in chronological order of appointment. Then I took the average of the terms of service of each group of ten. In the list of these averages set out below, the date is the end of the period in which each group of ten was appointed:

8.9 yrs

(John Marshall appointed)
20.9 yrs

19.2 yrs

19 yrs

14.3 yrs

13 yrs

15.4 yrs

13.3 yrs

17.3 yrs

20.6 yrs

20.6 yrs

The average tenure for the first ten justices was indeed short, but that had little to do with longevity. The Supreme Court was new and not very prestigious in the early days of the Republic. The justices tended to quit in order to move on to better things. It was only during the tenure of John Marshall as Chief Justice that the Court acquired an authority comparable to that of Congress and the President. There then followed a long period during which justices stayed on the court for about as long as they have since the beginning of the final quarter of the 20th century. The composition of the current Court is uniquely old, but again, that's not biology: the continuing Roe v. Wade controversy has blocked the normal turnover of the Court.

John Roberts was probably correct if he thought that the current, long tenure of Supreme Court justices is contrary to the expectation of the Founders, but not for the reason he cited. The Founders probably did not expect that justices, once appointed to the Court, would cling to their office for the rest of their lives.

* * *

Recently I saw Gattaca, a film released in 1997 about a near-future world (though not quite so near as our own, evidently) in which pre-natal genetic enhancements and genetic testing in general put people who are conceived naturally at a considerable disadvantage. The story is about one such Invalid (accent on the second syllable) who steals the genetic profile of a supernormal in order to qualify to pilot the first manned spaceship to Titan.

Gattaca has a reputation as an underappreciated minor film. I can only agree. It comes close to the ideal of science fiction played on a bare stage. The sets are subdued Modern; there are no special effects. As for the cast, no less a person than Gore Vidal has a bit part as Director Josef of the Gattaca organization. He even turns out to be the murderer, though the murder is a red herring. There were several real actors, too.

Since I saw this film, I have been trying to track down a quotation that I am almost sure comes from Tolkien. It runs something like this:

No, I have never much liked the idea of spaceflight. It seems to be promoted mostly by people who want to turn the whole world into a big train station, and then to establish similar stations on other planets.

The journey to Titan (which we do not see) is just a Maguffin, like the statuette in The Maltese Falcon, but it leaves the film hollow, intentionally so. It is not at all clear why the impeccably dressed and immaculately clean personnel of Gattaca would want to do something as crudely industrial as explore another planet. As for the colonization of Titan, we must ask whether the universe really needs another planet covered with office parks and Ikea furniture. Indeed, does it really need any?

The character of the hero is defined by his determination to belie the projection for a mediocre future that his real genetic profile suggested, including a high probability of an early death from heart failure. Though fraud was necessary to allow him to compete for his ambitions, he fought against his fate chiefly through study and exercise. A friend of mine in high school received a similar prognosis. He became the first fitness fanatic I ever met. He died at 28.

* * *

Incidentally, Gattaca is available in Esperanto. So are 14 other films: look here.

* * *

Speaking of near-future paranoia, I have done my bit to bring about a world in which no public moment goes unrecorded; my condominium now has security cameras. To ensure that no one forgets this fact, I made this poster [BIE I put this in the header] to remind everyone to be good.

Speaking of graphics, the Latin Mass folks at Holy Rosary Church asked me to do a simple webpage for them. So, I did this[BIE link removed, since Holy Rosary Church isn't really the point here. A fine chapel though, as I verified]. The sound file of the Magnificat is surprisingly good, considering the microphone we were using; the church has wonderful acoustics.

That page is supposed to be uploaded to the parish website. No doubt it will be, eventually, but getting the authorization is harder than authorizing that expedition to Titan.

* * *

"Nothing Burger" is a good characterization of the whole embryonic stem-cell controversy. Even if omni-potent stem cells turn out to have clinical applications, it is hard to imagine a goofier way to get them than by harvesting them from embryos, cloned or otherwise. In any case, new techniques should soon return the subject to its deserved obscurity, as we see in The Washington Post:

Scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells -- without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, as has always been required in the past, a Harvard research team announced yesterday.

So are we done with the subject? Not quite:

Because it involves the fusion of a stem cell and a person's ordinary skin cell, the process leads to the creation of a hybrid cell. While that cell has all the characteristics of a new embryonic stem cell, it contains the DNA of the person who donated the skin cell and also the DNA that was in the initial embryonic stem cell.

The Post notes this, however:

They do not mention that several teams, including ones in Illinois and Australia, have said in recent interviews that they are making progress removing stem cell DNA from such hybrid cells...Some even suspect that the new technique for making personalized stem cells would still work even if the "starter" stem cells' DNA were removed before those cells were fused to the skin cells.

Nonetheless, embryonic stem cells have become like ethanol fuels to some people: it's something they want the government to subsidize whether it does any good or not:

"I think we have to keep our eye on the ball here," [John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions] said. "If this stuff proves to work, that's wonderful. But we're just not there yet, and it's going to take a long time to demonstrate that. Meanwhile, other techniques already work well. So let's get on with it."

By all means; but the useful research has little to do with the public polemic.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-05-10: The Great Pruning

There is an element of truth in this:

Since I go to these services, I obviously approve of them, but I wonder whether the election of Benedict XVI might have the paradoxical effect of ending the traditionalist liturgical movement. Traditionalists have spent the last 35 years fighting official hostility to the old liturgy. Benedict is not going to call for a general return to the old Mass, but he is likely to take steps to ensure that it can be said (sung, really) wherever a priest and a congregation want it. Suppose there is perfect liberty in the matter, but still only a small percentage of Catholics is interested?

The number of Latin masses using the 1963 Missal probably went up a bit after Summorum Pontificum, but not much. There just isn't much of a market right now. 

The Great Pruning


An otherwise unalarming item in today's New York Times, about blood-doping among athletes, has this remarkable aside:

Dr. Ann Reed, chairwoman of rheumatology research at the Mayo Clinic, who uses sensitive DNA tests to look for chimerism, finds that about 50 to 70 percent of healthy people are chimeras. The more scientists look for chimerism, the more they find it. It seemed not to exist in the past, she said, because no one was explicitly looking for small amounts of foreign cells in people's bodies.

Most of us are chimeras? That explains so, so much.

* * *

Readers will recall that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the favored candidate for pope of the Spengler at Asia Times. Not content merely to enjoy this papacy, however, Spengler is now favoring us with reflections on the true difficulties that Benedict XVI faces. Consider Spengler's latest column, The pope, the musicians and the Jews:

In order to raise the Catholic Church up out of the ruins of European secularism, Benedict looks backward to the biblical background of Christianity as well as to the high culture of the Christian West. In this respect, he may be one of the most innovative popes in history, for he must break with ancient church tradition to do this. Benedict is one of the most cultivated men alive, with a mind that no surviving school could have trained. The trouble is that little is left in Europe, either of high culture or of the Jews. Perhaps he sees his mission under the sign of St Benedict, as a preserver in a dark age.

I suppose that is one way to look at it. Another is that history is starting to catch up with the conservative future of Hesse's Glass Bead Game. These passages, about the world after modernity, express the spirit of Benedict's program:

The world had changed. The life of the mind in the Age of the Feuilleton might be compared to a degenerate plant which was squandering its strength in excessive vegetative growth, and the subsequent corrections to the pruning back of the plant to its roots...

[I]t is also supported by what has long since become common knowledge, or at least a universal sense, that the continuance of civilization depends on this strict schooling. People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer's slide rule and the computations of banks and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization -- technology, industry, commerce, and so on -- also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

Remember now: we already know the future, but we must try to look surprised when it happens.

* * *

On a related somewhat matter: there was a big party for time-travelers over the weekend at MIT. The party was fine, by this account, but it is not certain that any time-travelers actually attended. Various theories were proposed to explain their apparent nonattendance, of which my favorite is this:

4. Time travel is possible, even easy, and there's only one universe. According to "Niven's Law," the only stable configuration in such a universe is a history in which time travel is never invented. So time travelers keep changing things at will until by chance they do something that prevents time travel from being invented every time it might have been. The practical result from our viewpoint would be that every time a researcher was on the verge of building a time machine, that researcher would slip on a banana peel and suffer a fatal injury, or a mega-asteroid would destroy all life on that planet, or the like. Professor Mallett, be careful!

Yes, but if Doctor Who attended, are you sure you would recognize his current incarnation?

* * *

Speaking of English stuff, I recently read Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, which deals with the adventures of a London neurosurgeon on the day of the big anti-war march in 2003. The novel seems to be a bit like the elephant described by the blind men, since every review focuses on different things. My review is the only one I know of to mention Monty Python. However, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the chronic dread of ordinary criminality that is one of the themes of the book. That is not an omission that Mark Steyn makes in his assessment of why the Tories did so poorly in last week's election. He offers these observations about a naturally Tory constituency that voted for the Liberal Democrats:

In Henley-in-Arden, north of Stratford, I parked near the surgery and made my way to the high street via a footpath lined with houses and offices. All had bars on the windows and signs warning that CCTV was in operation. Henley's a pretty town with a charming medieval high street - if you take your tourist snaps in long shot. The close-ups tell a different story...That's post-socialist Britain: materially prosperous, but civically impoverished; wealthy villages and upscale suburbs full of frustrated and impotent citizens.

Except with regard to the immigration issue, this sense of the wheels falling off has become rare in the US: the Giuliani Era ended it. However, Steyn also has remarks of relevance to the US:

[E]conomic conservatism isn't enough for a conservative party. It may have been in the late Seventies when nothing worked and everyone was on strike. But, though it pains a low-tax nut like me, my sense of modern Britain is that it doesn't think of itself as over-taxed.

For the most part, Americans don't view themselves as overtaxed, either; the big exception is local property taxes. The Republicans have been doing well because they have had a near monopoly on values issues for years. This situation isn't going to last, however. The Democratic Party is visibly moving to concede the culture wars (abortion will go first; the gay thing will follow). When that happens, the new Republican indifference to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles will leave them with nothing to say to the public.

* * *

There is mayoral election here in Jersey City today, by the way. I voted after the polls had been open for two hours. I was number 18. That's better than the School Board election two weeks ago: I voted after four hours, and I was number 9.

* * *

By the way, if anyone was planning to attend the local Tridentine Mass at Holy Rosary in Jersey City this Pentecost Sunday, note that it is at 9:30 AM, not 12:30 PM.

Since I go to these services, I obviously approve of them, but I wonder whether the election of Benedict XVI might have the paradoxical effect of ending the traditionalist liturgical movement. Traditionalists have spent the last 35 years fighting official hostility to the old liturgy. Benedict is not going to call for a general return to the old Mass, but he is likely to take steps to ensure that it can be said (sung, really) wherever a priest and a congregation want it. Suppose there is perfect liberty in the matter, but still only a small percentage of Catholics is interested?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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St. Augustine and Saxons

Ross Douthat posted a trio of links to articles about St. Augustine, in the service of criticizing Stephen Greenblatt's anti-Christian animus.

The articles are pretty interesting, but it was the second one that really caught my eye.

Similarly, it is a gross distortion to describe medieval people as “an anxious populace” scanning “the horizon for barbarian armies.” By “barbarian” Greenblatt presumably means the Goths, Vikings and other non-western-European peoples who migrated out of Asia and the Baltic regions beginning in the first century. Scholars of Late Antiquity know that this process of migration was primarily characterized by gradual colonization and assimilation, not decisive battles fought by bloodthirsty hordes. (The battles get more prominent mention in written sources but archeology tells a different story.) 

Greenblatt may dislike Christians, as the article quotes him at length on the subject, but Greenblatt has a better grasp on the reality of death by the sword than Jim Hinch does. We know from ancient DNA that 25-40% of the ancestry of the British is Anglo-Saxon, with a cline from East to West. Earlier invasions in the same place were far worse, with 93% population replacement during the Bell Beaker expansion.

Hinch cites archaeologists as his source, so he is perhaps only guilty of trusting the wrong people. Robert E. Howard turns out to be a better source than most archaeologists on this subject.

The Long View 2005-01-30: Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol

Pensioners apply for relief

Pensioners apply for relief

We are lucky President George W. Bush's privatization of social security never got anywhere. That combined with the housing bubble could have been genuinely revolutionary, in the howling mob kind of way.

Defeats, Victories, Miracles, Chimeras, Fashion Protocol


National Public Radio this morning took care to remind its readers that today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the point after which American defeat in Vietnam was increasingly portrayed as inevitable. (For the sake of completeness, NPR also noted that today is also the date on which Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.] Still, despite this somewhat ominous historical reminder, NPR's reports from Iraq did not disguise the fact that, given the circumstances, the Iraqi national elections were a rousing success. The insurgents were unable to stop the elections nationally. The large turnout repudiated the Islamists and the Baathists. This result is irreversible.

There are two things to keep in mind about this outcome:

First, if the Jihad is seen to fail in Iraq, it cannot hope for success anywhere. It was possible to dismiss the democratization of Afghanistan, a poor and remote country, inhabited by allegedly duplicitous Afghans. Iraq, in contrast, is easily accessible to would be jihadis. The old regime had months to prepare the insurgency, while the kabuki performance at the UN played out to its inevitable conclusion. If the Jihad cannot terrorize the population into stunned docility under these circumstances, then the strategy must be accounted a failure.

Second, we should keep in mind that the calls for withdrawal that are now being made by Democrats in America contemplate a process that is not very different from the wind-down of American involvement that the Administration was hoping to do anyway. Barring catastrophe, obviously the Coalition will reduce its presence in Iraq by the end of the year.

On a smaller scale, we will see a replay of the attempt that the Democrats made after 1989 to claim credit for the victory in the Cold War. It did not work then, and it is unlikely to work now.

* * *

The great humiliation for the Bush Administration, and for the Republican Party in general, will be the collapse of the attempt to restructure the Social Security system. The partial privatization scheme that the Administration has endorsed has been tried elsewhere in the world and found wanting. Chile has been running the most sophisticated system of this type, and as the New York Times put it last week, Chile's Retirees Find Shortfall in Private Plan:

But now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. ...The problems have emerged despite what all here agree is the main strength of the privatized system: an average 10 percent annual return on investments. Those results have been achieved by the pension funds largely through the purchase of stocks and corporate and government bonds - investments that helped fuel an economic expansion giving Chile the highest growth rate in Latin America over the last 20 years....For those remaining in the government's original pay-as-you-go system, the maximum retirement benefit is now about $1,250 a month. The National Center for Alternative Development Studies, a research institute here, calculates that to get that same amount from a private pension fund, workers would have to contribute more than $250,000 over their careers, a target that has been reached by fewer than 500 of the private system's 7 million past and present contributors.

This leaves many Chileans in a situation that has led to the coining of a phrase: "pension damage." There is now even an Association of People With Pension Damage, 157,000 members and growing, that consists of Chileans, mostly former government employees, who find that their pensions, based on contributions to the private system, are significantly less than if they had remained in the old system.

Churchill won the Second World War in the spring of 1945. A few months later, he was out of office because of issues of just this sort. For that matter, much the same happened to the first President Bush.

* * *

Moving to a somewhat different topic, I have never been much interested in the Shroud of Turin. Still, I was among those people who were surprised by the radiocarbon dating test in the late 1990s that gave a medieval date. There was just so much circumstantial evidence from reputable parties that suggested the Shroud dated to antiquity, though of course no train of verifiable evidence linked it to Jesus Christ. Since the radiocarbon tests, more evidence for an early date has accumulated. Perhaps the strongest appears in this report in last week's Daily TelegraphThe Turin Shroud, believed by some to be Christ's burial cloth, is much older than previously thought, a new study has found.:

Research published in the scientific journal, Thermochimica Acta, has reignited the debate over the Shroud's origins, suggesting it is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old....Author, Dr Raymond Rogers, said the 1980s carbon dating test was valid but that the piece tested was from a patch woven in to the shroud at a later date....The tests revealed the presence of a chemical called vanillin in the radiocarbon sample but not the rest of the shroud. The limited life-span of the substance is proof that the original shroud is much older than the patch.

"An analysis of vanillin loss suggests the shroud is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old." said Dr Rogers

Again: interesting if true.

* * *

Though the 21st century has been disappointing in some ways so far, it is at least beginning to meet my expectations for simple weirdness. Consider this story: Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy

Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University in 2003 successfully fused human cells with rabbit eggs. The embryos were reportedly the first human-animal chimeras successfully created. They were allowed to develop for several days in a laboratory dish before the scientists destroyed the embryos to harvest their stem cells. In Minnesota last year researchers at the Mayo Clinic created pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies. And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.

I fully realize that I am missing the point, but I cannot help but reflect about this kind of story: when scientists outrage God and man in this fashion, couldn't they at least do it with cooler animals? A human-jaguar hybrid would be a monster out of myth. A parrot-person would give wonderful interviews. But no: it's always flatworms, weasels, and skunk cabbages.

Those responsible will bear an even heavier burden for this reason.

* * *

Meanwhile, the criticisms from Old Europe about the senior members of the Bush Administration have taken a stridently sartorial turn:

Vice President Dick Cheney raised eyebrows on Friday for wearing an olive-drab parka, hiking boots and knit ski cap to represent the United States at a solemn ceremony remembering the liberation of Auschwitz.

Other leaders at the event in Poland on Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the death camp's liberation, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, wore dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots.

I think they were just jealous.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science

The kind of thing that John Reilly laments in this book review is alive and well. If you want a taste of it, check out New Real Peer Review on Twitter, which simply reprints abstracts of actual, peer-reviewed articles. A favorite genre is the autoethnography. Go look for yourself, no summary can do it justice.

I will disagree with John about one thing: race and sex matter a lot for many medical treatments. For example, the drug marketed under the trade name Ambien, generically called zolpidem, has much worse side effects in women than in men, and it takes women longer to metabolize it.

This effect was memorably referred to as Ambien Walrus. I find this pretty funny, but I delight in the sufferings of others.

You can't ignore this stuff if you want to do medicine right. The reasons for doing so vary, but you'll get a better result if you don't.

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
314 pp, $25.95
ISBN 0-8018-4766-4


The Enemies You Deserve


If you are looking for an expose' of how political correctness in recent years has undermined medical research, corrupted the teaching of mathematics and generally blackened the name of science in America, this book will give you all the horror stories you might possibly want. There have been rather a lot of indictments of the academic left, of course, but this is one of the better ones. However, the book is most interesting for reasons other than those its co-authors intended. To use the same degree of bluntness that they use against the "science studies" being carried on by today's literary critics, what we have here is an expression of bewilderment by a pair of secular fundamentalists who find themselves faced with an intellectual crisis for which their philosophy provides no solution.

Paul Gross is a biologist, now at the University of Virginia but formerly director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They repeatedly insist, no doubt truthfully, that they have no particular interest in politics and that they are not programmatic conservatives. What does worry them is the increasing number of faculty colleagues in the liberal arts who take it as an article of faith that the results of empirical scientific research are biased in favor of patriarchy or capitalism or white people. The people who have this sort of opinion they call "the academic left," a catchall category that includes deconstructionists, feminists, multiculturalists and radical environmentalists.

The authors have a good ear for invective, such as this happy formula: "...academic left refers to a stratum of the residual intelligentsia surviving the recession of its demotic base." There has always been something rather futile about the radicalization of the academy, and in some ways the movement is already in retreat. The ideas of the academic left are based in large part on Marxist notions that were originally designed for purposes of revolutionary agitation. Revolutionary socialist politics has not proven to have the popular appeal one might have hoped, however. Marxism has therefore been largely replaced among intellectuals by that protean phenomenon, postmodernism. Although postmodernism incorporates large helpings of Freudianism and the more credulous kind of cultural anthropology, it remains a fundamentally "left" phenomenon, in the sense of maintaining an implacable hostility to market economics and traditional social structures. However, postmodernists have perforce lowered their goal from storming the Winter Palace to inculcating the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in undergraduates. The results of these efforts were sufficiently annoying to incite Gross and Levitt to write this book.

Postmodernists presume that reality is inaccessible, or at least incommunicable, because of the inherent unreliability of language. Science to postmodernists is only one of any number of possible "discourses," no one of which is fundamentally truer than any other. This is because there are no foundations to thought, which is everywhere radically determined by the interests and history of the thinker. Those who claim to establish truth by experiment are either lying or self-deluded. The slogan "scientific truth is a matter of social authority" has become dogma to many academic interest groups, who have been exerting themselves to substitute their authority for that of the practicing scientists.

The French philosophical school known as deconstructionism provided the first taste of postmodern skepticism in the American academy during the 1970s. It still provides much of its vocabulary. However, self-described deconstructionists are getting rare. Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, two of the school's progenitors, were shown in recent years to have been fascists without qualification at certain points in their careers, thus tainting the whole school. On the other hand, while deconstruction has perhaps seen better days, feminism is as strong as ever. Thus, undergraduates in women's studies courses are routinely introduced to the notion that, for instance, Newton's "Principia" is a rape manual. Even odder is the movement to create a feminist mathematics. The authors discuss at length an article along these lines entitled "Towards a Feminist Algebra." The authors of that piece don't seem much concerned with algebra per se; what exercises them is the use of sexist word problems in algebra texts, particularly those that seem to promote heterosexuality. The single greatest practical damage done by feminists so far, however, is in medical research, where human test groups for new treatments must now often be "inclusive" of men and women (and also for certain racial minorities). To get statistically significant results for a test group, you can't just mirror the population in the sample, you have to have a sample above a mathematically determined size for each group that interests you. In reality, experience has shown that race and gender rarely make a difference in tests of new medical treatments, but politically correct regulations threaten to increase the size of medical studies by a factor of five or ten.

Environmentalism has become a species of apocalyptic for people on the academic left. It is not really clear what environmentalism is doing in the postmodern stew at all, since environmentalists tend to look on nature as the source of the kind of fundamental values which postmodernism says do not exist. The answer, perhaps, is that the vision of ecological catastrophe provides a way for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones in a historical situation where social revolution appears to be vastly improbable. Environmentalists seem to be actually disappointed if some preliminary research results suggesting an environmental danger turn out to be wrong. This happens often enough, notably in cancer research, where suspected carcinogens routinely turn out to be innocuous. However, on the environmental circuit, good news is unreportable. The current world is damned, the environmentalists claim, and nothing but the overthrow of capitalism, or patriarchy, or humanism (meaning in this case the invidious bias in favor of humans over other animals) can bring relief. Only catastrophe can bring about this overthrow, and environmentalists who are not scientists look for it eagerly.

The basic notion behind the postmodern treatment of science is social constructivism, the notion that our knowledge of the world is just as much a social product as our music or our myths, and is similarly open to criticism. The authors have no problem with the fact that cultural conditions can affect what kind of questions scientists will seek to address or what kind of explanation will seem plausible to a researcher. What they object to is the "strong form" of social constructivism, which holds that our knowledge is simply a representation of nature. The "truth" of this representation cannot be ascertained by reference to the natural world, since any experimental result will also be a representation. Constructivists therefore say that we can understand the elements of a scientific theory only by reference to the social condition and personal histories of the scientists involved. This, as the authors correctly note, is batty.

The lengths to which the principle of constructivism has been extended are nearly unbelievable. Take AIDS, for instance, which has itself almost become a postmodernist subspecialty. The tone in the postmodernist literature dealing with the disease echoes the dictum of AIDS activist Larry Kramer: "...I think a good case can also be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority." Some people, particularly in black studies departments, take "constructed" quite literally, in the sense that the AIDS virus was created in a laboratory as an instrument of genocide. Kramer's notion is more modest: he suggests that the extreme homosexual promiscuity which did so much to spread the disease in the New York and San Francisco of the late 1960s and early 1970s was forced upon the gay community by its ghettoization. This is an odd argument, but not so odd as the assumption that you can talk about the origins of an epidemic without discussing the infectious agent that causes it. The upshot is that AIDS is considered to be a product of "semiological discourse," a system of social conventions. It can be defeated, not through standard medical research, but through the creation of a new language, one that does not stigmatize certain groups and behaviors. (Dr. Peter Duesberg's purely behavioral explanation of AIDS, though it has the attractions of scientific heresy, gets only a cautious reception because of its implied criticism of homosexual sex.) The postmodern academy actually seems to have a certain investment in a cure for AIDS not being found, since the apparent helplessness of science in this area is taken as a license to give equal authority to "other ways of knowing" and other ways of healing, particularly of the New Age variety.

The postmodernist critics of science usually ply their trade by studiously ignoring what scientists themselves actually think about. The anthropologist Bruno Latour, for instance, has made a name for himself by subjecting scientists to the kind of observation usually reserved for members of primitive tribes. Once he was commissioned by the French government to do a post-mortem on their Aramis project. This was to be a radically new, computerized subway system in which small trams would travel on a vastly complicated track-and-switch system along routes improvised for the passengers of each car. The idea was that passengers would type their proposed destination into a computer terminal when they entered a subway station. They would then be assigned a car with other people going to compatible destinations. The project turned into a ten year boondoggle and was eventually cancelled. The French government hired Latour to find out what went wrong. Now, the basic conceptual problem with the system is obvious: the French engineers had to come up with a way to handle the "traveling salesman" problem, the classic problem of finding the shortest way to connect a set of points. This seemingly simple question has no neat solution, and the search for approximate answers keeps the designers of telephone switching systems and railroad traffic managers awake nights. Latour did not even mention it. He did, however, do a subtle semiological analysis of the aesthetic design of the tram cars.

Postmodernists regard themselves as omniscient and omnicompetent, fully qualified to put any intellectual discipline in the world in its place. They have this confidence because of the mistaken belief that science has refuted itself, thus leaving the field clear for other ways of understanding the world. They love chaos theory, for instance, having absorbed the hazy notion that it makes the universe unpredictable. Chaos theory in fact is simply a partial solution to the problem of describing turbulence. Indeed, chaos theory is something of a victory for mathematical platonism, since it shows that some very exotic mathematical objects have great descriptive power. The implications of chaos theory are rather the opposite of chaos in the popular sense, but this idea shows little sign of penetrating the nation's literature departments. The same goes for features of quantum mechanics, notably the uncertainty principle. Quantum mechanics actually makes the world a far more manageable place. Among other things, it is the basis of electronics. To read the postmodernists, however, you would think that it makes physicists flutter about their laboratories in an agony of ontological confusion because quantum theory phrases the answers to some questions probabilistically.

On a more esoteric level, we have the strange cult of Kurt Goedel's incompleteness theorem, first propounded in the 1930s. Now Goedel's Theorem is one of the great treasures of 20th century mathematics. There are several ways to put it, one of which is that logical systems beyond a certain level of complexity can generate correctly expressed statements whose truth value cannot be determined. Some versions of the "Liar Paradox" illustrate this quality of undecidability. It is easy to get the point slightly wrong. (Even the authors' statement of it is a tad misleading. According to them, the theorem "says that no finite system of axioms can completely characterize even a seemingly 'natural' mathematical object..." It should be made clear that some logical systems, notably Euclid's geometry, are quite complete, so that every properly expressed Euclidean theorem is either true or false.) Simply false, however, is the postmodernist conviction that Goedel's Theorem proved that all language is fundamentally self-contradictory and inconsistent. Postmodernists find the idea attractive, however, because they believe that it frees them from the chains of logic, and undermines the claims of scientists to have reached conclusions dictated by logic.

Postmodernism, say the authors, is the deliberate negation of the Enlightenment project, which they hold to be the construction of a sound body of knowledge about the world. The academic left generally believes that the reality of the Enlightenment has been the construction of a thought-world designed to oppress women and people of color in the interests of white patriarchal capitalism. Or possibly capitalist patriarchy. Anyhow, fashion has it that the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Now that modernity is about to end, say the postmodernists, the idea is being refuted on every hand. Actually, it seems to many people of various ideological persuasions that the end of modernity is indeed probably not too far off: no era lasts forever, after all. However, it is also reasonably clear that postmodernism is not on the far side of the modern era. Postmodernism is simply late modernity. Whatever follows modernity is very unlikely to have much to do with the sentiments of today's academic left.

Granted that the radical academy does not have much of a future, still the authors cannot find a really satisfying explanation for why the natural sciences have been subject to special reprobation and outrage in recent years. In the charmingly titled penultimate chapter, "Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?", they run through the obvious explanations. It does not take much imagination to see that today's academic leftist is often a refugee from the 1960s. Political correctness is in large part the whimsical antinomianism of the Counterculture translated into humorourless middle age. Then, of course, there is the revenge factor. In the heyday of Logical Positivism from the end of World War II to the middle 1960s, physical scientists tended to look down on the liberal arts. In the eyes of that austere philosophy, any statement which was not based either on observation or induction was literally "nonsense," a category that therefore covered every non-science department from theology to accounting. The patronizing attitude of scientists was not made more bearable by the unquestioning generosity of the subsidies provided by government to science in those years. The resentment caused by this state of affairs still rankled when the current crop of academic leftists were graduates and undergraduates. Now they see the chance to cut science down to size.

While there is something to this assessment, the fact is that the academic left has a point. Logical Positivism and postmodernism are both essentially forms of linguistic skepticism. Both alike are products of the rejection of metaphysics, the key theme in Western philosophy since Kant. The hope of the logical positivist philosophers of the 1920s and 30s was to save just enough of the machinery of abstract thought so that scientists could work. Science is not skeptical in the sense that Nietzsche was skeptical, or the later Sophists. It takes quite a lot of faith in the world and the power of the mind to do science. And in fact, the authors note that Logical Positivism, with a little help from the philosophy of Karl Popper, remains the philosophical framework of working scientists to this day. The problem, however, is that Logical Positivism leaves science as a little bubble of coherence in a sea of "nonsense," of thoughts and ideas that cannot be directly related to measurable physical events.

Logical Positivism has many inherent problems as a philosophy (the chief of which being that its propositions cannot themselves be derived from sense experience), but one ability that even its strongest adherents cannot claim for it is the capacity to answer a consistent skepticism. In their defense of science, the authors are reduced to pounding the table (or, after the fashion of Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's Idealist philosophy, kicking the stone.) Thus, it is a "brutal" fact that science makes reliable predictions about physical events, that antibiotics cure infections while New Age crystals will not, that the advisability of nuclear power is a question of engineering and not of moral rectitude. Well, sure. But why? "Because" is not an answer. Without some way to relate the reliability of science to the rest of reality, the scientific community will be living in an acid bath skepticism and superstition.

The authors tell us that the scientific methodology of the 17th century "almost unwittingly set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries...[that] Newton or Leibnitz sought...to affirm some version of this divine order...is almost beside the point...Open-endedness is the vital principle at stake here...Unless we are unlucky, this will always be the case." In reality, of course, it surpasses the wit of any thinker to set aside the metaphysical assumptions of a dozen centuries, or even entirely of his own generation. The scientists of the early Enlightenment did indeed scrap a great deal of Aristotle's physics. Metaphysically, however, they were fundamentally conservative: they settled on one strand of the philosophical heritage of the West and resisted discussing the matter further.

As Alfred Whitehead realized early in this century, science is based on a stripped-down version of scholasticism, the kind that says (a) truth can be reached using reason but (b) only through reasoning about experience provided by the senses. This should not be surprising. Cultures have their insistences. Analogous ideas keep popping up in different forms throughout a civilization's history. When the Senate debates funding for parochial schools, it is carrying on the traditional conflict between church and state that has run through Western history since the Investiture Controversy in medieval Germany. In the same way, certain assumptions about the knowability and rationality of the world run right through Western history. The Enlightenment was not unique in remembering these things. Its uniqueness lay in what it was willing to forget.

It would be folly to dismiss so great a pulse of human history as the Enlightenment with a single characterization, either for good or ill. Everything good and everything bad that we know about either appeared in that wave or was transformed by it. Its force is not yet wholly spent. However, one important thing about the Enlightenment is that it has always been a movement of critique. It is an opposition to the powers that be, whether the crown, or the ancient intellectual authorities, or God. The authors of "Higher Superstition" tell us that the academic left hopes to overthrow the Enlightenment, while the authors cast themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders. The authors are correct in seeing the academic left as silly people, who do not know what they are about. The authors are mistaken too, however. The fact is that the academic left are as truly the children of the Enlightenment as ever the scientists are. Science was once an indispensable ally in the leveling of ancient hierarchies of thought and society, but today it presents itself to postmodern academics simply as the only target left standing. Is it any wonder that these heirs of the Enlightenment should hope to bring down the last Bastille?

This article originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-12-08: The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage

The Breeder Advantage is related to what Steve Sailer calls Affordable Family Formation. He started talking about this in 2004, at about the same time John posted this. It would be easy to just chalk this up to biology, but I think John Reilly's point is well taken: 

Still, there is something to the Red State Breeder argument, if we keep in mind that it is really about culture, not fertility per se.

But don't forget gene-culture co-evolution.

The Breeder Advantage


First we had Angry White Men, as the explanation for the congressional election results of 1994. Then we had Soccer Moms, as the explanation for reelection of Bill Clinton in 1996. Now we have Breeders as the explanation for the election of 2004. The demographic indictment of modernity, or at least of cultural libertarianism, began to be revived a few years ago, notably by Patrick Buchanan . The notion is now all over the media, as we see from David Brooks's column in yesterday's New York TimesThe New Red-Diaper Babies :

In The New Republic Online, Joel Kotkin and William Frey observe, "Democrats swept the largely childless cities - true blue locales like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boston and Manhattan have the lowest percentages of children in the nation - but generally had poor showings in those places where families are settling down, notably the Sun Belt cities, exurbs and outer suburbs of older metropolitan areas."

As I have repeatedly noted, one should take demographic projections with a grain of salt. If you base electoral forecasts on those projections, then you should swallow all the salt in the salt shaker. Still, there is something to the Red State Breeder argument, if we keep in mind that it is really about culture, not fertility per se.

The term "progressive" has always been used by people who wanted to suggest that their views were on the trajectory to the future, which was presumed to be bohemian, secular, and socialist. What will it do to the Left, then, if they absorb the idea, whether rightly or wrongly, that their current views have morbid effects, and are therefore futureless? They will not take it lying down, not if they want to win elections. They will change in significant ways on reproductive issues, and on the closely related questions about homosexuality. Watch.

* * *

Another persistent advocate of the Breeder Advantage thesis is the Other Spengler at Asia Times . He does it again in a recent column . What I quote here, however, are some further remarks about the prospect that Red State culture could be the future:

Western civilization - the heritage of St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Goethe - may be harder to preserve than America's pension system. Except for Western classical music, which Asians have embraced as their own, the cultural heritage of the West has no natural constituency... American evangelicals have deep roots in the Bible - which is Western only at the margin - and only passing interest in subsequent doings of the West. They are more likely to listen to Christian variants of country and heavy metal than J S Bach. A story (on www.ekklesia.co.uk) from US marines outside Fallujah sums it up:
"You are the sovereign. You're name is holy. You are the pure spotless lamb," a female voice cried out on the loudspeakers as the marines clapped their hands and closed their eyes, reflecting on what lay ahead for them..."Thus David prevailed over the Philistines," the marine said, reading from scripture, and the marines shouted back "Hoorah, King David," using their signature grunt of approval.
Clearly the marines grunted "Hooah!", not "Hoorah." Among its meanings in soldiers' patois is "Amen." For an explanation, see The Urban Dictionary. "Hooah, King David!" Not what I anticipated when first I studied the Psalter, but in lean times one has to take what one can get.

The Actual Spengler, the one who wrote The Decline of the West, coined the term, "The Second Religiousness," to describe the final spiritual condition of a civilization-producing culture. Writing over 80 years ago, he said there would still be several generations before this phenomenon appeared in the West, so there was no way to say just what form it would take. He did offer this speculation:

It is perhaps possible for us to make some guess already as to these forms, which (it is self-evident) must led back to certain elements of Gothic Christianity. But be this as it may, what is quite certain is that will not be the product of any literary taste for Late-Indian of Late-Chinese speculation, but something of the type, for example, of Adventism and suchlike sects.
The Decline of the West, Volume II, page 311n

Hermann Hesse's novel, The Glass Bead Game, presents a very positive Spenglerian future. Hesse was more concerned to describe a renaissance of cultural piety than of the spiritual variety, so we hear more about the refined, post-skeptical intellectual life of the 23rd century than of the condition of popular religion. Still, given Hesse's hints about the revival of monasticism and the renewed prestige of the Vatican, it is a good bet he did not imagine that liturgies of the future would feature people going "Hooah!"

I find this troubling, since I just finished a poster to advertise a local Tridentine Mass for this Christmas Eve. Am I barking up the wrong tree?

* * *

Another of my enthusiasms does seem to be materializing: a new spelling-bee television show in England seems to have injected the question of spelling reform into public consciousness, at least if you believe The London Times:

Tonight they compete in the final of Hard Spell, a programme that has struck a remarkable chord among schools and youngsters. Suddenly spelling is hot: so hot that it’s cool to know your coccyx from your humerus....

"A contest comparable to Hard Spell in Italian would be ridiculous," says John Wells, a professor of phonetics at London University. In Italian, words tend to be spelt as they are pronounced. "Hard Spell reflects the fact that our spelling is hard. It's a pity that we have to have this type of contest."

... Does proper, accurate spelling matter in the age of computers? And could English, a language that millions of foreigners have to acquire, be made easier to spell and therefore easier to learn?

The major British authorities on orthographic reform are quoted in that piece, not unsympathetically. Spelling reform will be important to the Second Religiousness: the pious must be able to read "Hooah!" without ambiguity.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-04-14

Brazil, like many Latin American countries, has a color spectrum instead a color line, the result of not having anything like a one-drop rule defining who is black and who is not. This has interesting implications if you also want to have a binary white/black affirmative action program.

Noah Smith looks at the failures of macroeconomic models.

This is the kind of thing Razib Khan calls being a 'star-man', the result of genetic success. I am a bit non-plussed by the assertion in the article that Lindbergh was being untrue to his eugenic principles by fathering children with women who had difficulty walking due to a childhood illness. Susceptibility to infectious disease has some genetic component, but it is largely random, and so often has little impact on genetic fitness. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of thing was more obvious to Lindbergh. On the other hand, maybe he was just a horndog.

The Library of Congress has a list of books that helped shape American culture. This is a pretty good list, and it seems about right to me. It is also much, much funnier if you read the list annotated with intersectional Pokemon points by Steve Sailer. Intersectionality is largely about status, which is also about class, which proponents would like you not to think about.

Joel Kotkin looks at the disenfranchisement and poverty of rural California.

A recent look at the research on whether videogames cause violence. [short answer, still no.]

A very clever bit of work in making a localizable font for displaying characters in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages.

Michael Anton AKA Publius Decius Mus makes an argument for a Trumpian foreign policy [one that arguably better instantiates Trump's campaign rhetoric than his actual behavior as President].

You need to be a well-educated Westerner to be surprised by this. Almost everyone else in the world is massively ethnocentric, and only cares about people like them. Notable exception, Nelson Mandela, fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who blew people up and spent years in prison for it, negotiated a political compromise that preserved the power of whites in South Africa.

Tyler Cowen riffs on Shashi Tharoor's book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. Some of the claims of Tharoor's book are a little odd, like that deindustrialization was a British policy in eighteenth-century India. I'm not sure traditional artisans count as "industry".

Linkfest 2017-03-26

Tollense Battle

Last summer I posted an article about a battlefield from the Bronze Age. Here is another article about the same archaeological site, with an alternative explanation of what happened. Archaeology always requires interpretation, so it is wise to keep in mind exactly what you found, and how it could have gotten there.

'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death

The end of an era has been planned in advance.

How Aristotle Created the Computer

This is a pretty survey of the developments in mathematics and philosophy that allowed us to develop digital computers. While the article notes that Boole's algebra was seen as spectacularly useless when he came up with it, it also took WW2 and the Cold War to really develop this technology. Also see James Ross' Revenge of the Analysts: Aristotle's Revenge: Software Everywhere.

More evidence for my cocktail theory of science

A long comment at Greg Cochran's blog gets at the cultural difference between East and West that seems to lie at the heart of why Science is a Western thing, via a comparative study of martial arts.

Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny?

Short answer: Yes.

Johan Egerkrans' Balder

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

© All rights reserved by Johan Egerkrans

C. S. Lewis once said he "loved Balder before he loved Christ". Seeing an image like this, I can imagine why.

Charles Murray’s SPLC page as edited by Charles Murray

Murray said he had fun writing this.

Germany's grand First World War jihad experiment

This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time. I enjoyed the Talbot Mundy reference in the article, since I'm currently reading King of the Khyber Rifles.

'Fallout: New Vegas' Writer Chris Avellone: "Fantasy is Not My Happy Place"

Chris Avellone has worked on many of my favorite games, from Fallout to FTL.

American Indian Firewater Myths Are No Myths

The Pine Ridge reservation may be one of the saddest places in America.

The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.

The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages



This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

LinkFest 2016-06-10

A review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops using Chlorin e6

This is pretty nutty, but really interesting. Self-experimentation involving a photosensitizer compound to enhance night vision.

Heavy Boots

I came across this physics teaching post about the effect of gravity, and how a philosophy grad student misinterpreted it. Possibly apocryphal, but it sounds about right. The author of the post tried to be generous, but I think the philosophy TA wasn't dumb, he just didn't know anything, which is a separate problem.

Who Benefited From North American Slavery?

Not who you think.

What is neo-reaction|?

A damn good question. Tyler gives a decent answer to a question that is inherently hard to answer, because this movement is still inchoate. The comments are pretty interesting too.

The Pro-National Suicide Argument

James Chastek gives a pretty good summary of the bad things nationalism has wrought, and why you might seek to get rid of it.

The Soviet Union Series

Pseudoerasmus retweeted one of the entries in this series, and it caught my eye because the inability of the CIA, or anyone else really, to understand the economy of the Soviet Union played a big part in the Cold War. 

Gattaca: Utopia or Dystopia

An older blog post by Razib Khan. Khan rightly notes that genetic engineering could give us the opportunity to help those who have unfairly lost the genetic lottery. I commend this line of thinking, while at the same time suspecting that it won't actually work out that way.

There is no exception in Islam

A more recent post by Razib. He talks about the role of religion, and views of religion, in shaping the world. Razib is not a believer himself, but he takes religion seriously, and knows a lot about it.

The 2016 election will be horrible for America. But also, endlessly entertaining

My thoughts exactly.

The Three Ages of Pixar

I have strong disagreements with Steven Greydanus' assessments of the relative merits of Pixar movies, but I like this piece anyways.


The Long View 2004-03-05: Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is one of those ideas that just won't die. Sure, I'd love it to be real too, but when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Especially in a field that has failed so spectacularly so many times.

Sonoluminescence, the phenomenon mentioned in John's post here, at least has interesting physics. Other kinds of cold fusion, like LENR, are outright scams. It is possible for hobbyists to build machines capable of nuclear fusion, but this apparently isn't sexy enough for scam artists, who insist on coming up with machines that can't even produce neutrons.

Genetic engineering still isn't real, although CRISPR/cas9 is a more promising technology than anything so far. Much like nuclear fusion, it has been just around the corner for a long time. I suspect genetic engineering is far easier to do, so I think it will eventually get here. I don't believe practical genetic engineering will change the world in a heartbeat, as some of its proponents seem to think, but it will cause real changes in the world. I also think that the impact will largely be limited by cost. Genetic engineering is one thing; all of the ancillary technologies that would make it cheap and ubiquitous are quite another.

Turning to European politics, Niall Ferguson gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2004 pointing out that Germany was [and is] the fiscal and political center of the EU, despite a nominal equality of influence of all member nations in the organs of the EU. If you use defacto German dominance as a starting point, and then combine that with the notion that lots of people probably aren't fans of the idea of German dominance, then the politics of the EU make a lot more sense.

For American politics, here is a rather stark prediction. John suggested here that preventing a fascist revolution in the West required the defeat the cultural Left. The cultural Left is at present ascendant, and not particularly generous to the losers in the Culture War. One might argue the that unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States is the form taken by the inevitable backlash against the victors' lack of mercy or compromise.

I do not think Donald Trump is particularly fascist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Authoritarian, yes. Fascist, no. By which I really mean, if think this is bad: just wait, it can get far, far worse.

What far worse looks like

What far worse looks like

Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is back, at least if you believe the Rensselaer Institute. Look:

The research team used a standing ultrasonic wave to help form and then implode the cavitation bubbles of deuterated acetone vapor. The oscillating sound waves caused the bubbles to expand and then violently collapse, creating strong compression shock waves around and inside the bubbles. Moving at about the speed of sound, the internal shock waves impacted at the center of the bubbles causing very high compression and accompanying temperatures of about 100 million Kelvin...Other fusion techniques, such as those that use strong magnetic fields or lasers to contain the plasma, cannot easily achieve the necessary compression....In the approach to be published in Physical Review E, spherical compression of the plasma was achieved due to the inertia of the liquid surrounding the imploding bubbles.

Results this dramatic have a tendency not to be replicated; and even if they can be, the effect in question may have no practical applications. Nonetheless, I was happy to see this story, because cold fusion has long been a running gag for me. I was deeply impressed by the claims for cold fusion made by Fleischman & Pons over a decade ago, though I knew no more about the physics than a pig knows about Sunday. In the aftermath, when people made merry at my expense, I told them, "Just you wait!" In fact, I rubbed it in. When people pointed out other things I was wrong about, I would say, "Yeah, well, I haven't given up on cold fusion yet." Now, at least for a while, I can say, "I told you so!"

Practical cold-fusion is one of the few speculative technologies that would really make everything different. Genetic engineering is starting to look like a real-estate investment scam, and nanotechnology is probably a category mistake. An inexhaustible source of energy that you can use without covering the entire surface of the Earth with windmills and solar panels would be something else again. That really would mean a new industrial revolution. As we say in New Jersey: "Nice work, if you can get it."

* * *

On the downside, we have this talk that Niall Ferguson recently gave at the the American Enterprise Institute:

I want to speak this evening about what may seem a rather dramatic subject--the end of Europe, by which I don't mean its disappearance from the map, but a fundamental transformation in the political and economic institutions of the European Union...

Europe will turn out to be not an empire in the sense that I think the United States is today--that is to say, an expansive geopolitical entity--not a rival or a competitor or even a counterweight to the United States, but almost its antithesis, something that is drawing political energies into it, that is perhaps even being colonized by exogenous forces...

My suggestion is not that the European Union will vanish, but simply that its institutions are in danger of atrophying and that it, too, may one day be no more than a humble data-gathering agency with expensive but impotent offices in the City of Brussels and elsewhere.

Ferguson gives a number of reasons for this. The chief economic reason is that the EU was possible only because the Germans were willing to subsidize it. Today Germany contributes about two-thirds of the Union's budget, even though it has only about 10% of the votes in the Council of Europe. Germany can no longer afford this, especially with the accession of the new states to the Union this year. Germany will be able to afford it less in the future, because its population is actually shrinking. Ferguson is not an economic determinist, however. He attributes these changes to a larger cultural decadence. He says that there is something about Europe's post-Christian condition that is literally morbid:

Increasingly, European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post-Second World War era, but above all to prop up what little remains of their traditional cultures.

There are people who sense that this trend is not merely tragic, but uncanny. Consider this report from an American in Brussels:

Reverend Alan Baker is an American pastor at [the local] Christian Center. He said, "Something I hear a lot is an "ancient spirit of hopelessness."

Baker added, "I've had people tell me, when they come off the plane getting into Belgium, it's as if there are spiritual hands around their throat. They just can't seem to breathe. It's a very heavy, heavy thing, a hopelessness."

In a way, these assessments are a good sign. When decadence reaches the point of palpable spiritual oppression, people will act to save themselves. The problem is that multicultural postmodernism has so discredited liberal institutions that, when the time comes, people may throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is, I think, the role of the United States to work out a model for post-postmodern society that is both religious and democratic; that maintains traditional family structures without being coercive; that is ethnically tolerant while favoring assimilation and keeping immigration to frictional levels. In other words, it is still possible to avoid the world of Imperium. That, however requires the defeat of the cultural Left in the United States.

* * *

This is what we should keep in mind when we read accounts of the recently released papers of Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1971, and who helped affirm it in the Casey decision in 1992. There had actually been a majority on the court to overturn Roe. The chief factors in defeating that attempt were the folly of Justice Kennedy, who had the bizarre notion that voting to overturn Roe would "tarnish his career," and the characteristic stupidity of Justice O'Connor, who has never taken on board the idea that the decisions of a court of last instance must make some sense.

I can only repeat that Roe is going to go, either through being specifically overturned or by a general rejection of the institution of judicial review. Still, how much simpler it would be if this issue had been disposed of before the Terror War started. Though the United States would not have become a kingdom of virtue from sea to shining sea, we would at least have an unambiguously human political ideology. The transnational class would still have come into being, but its evolution would have been nudged in a less morbid direction.

Again, old-fashioned liberal democracy has intrinsic universal appeal. Antinatalism, perversion, and the right to suicide, all of which are implied by the Roe decision, do not. If these things become part of the American message, then the war will fail.     

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-05-06

The 'white squatter camps' of post Apartheid South Africa

The South African apartheid regime was memorably described as "socialism for the Afrikaners, capitalism for the English-speaking whites and Indians, and fascism for the blacks." Now that the boot is on the other foot, the Afrikaners and other whites are either spiraling into poverty, or leaving if they can.

Give us a King!

Ross Douthat was always one of John J. Reilly's favorite political commentators, and here he channel's John's Spengler with a Smile theories of history.

Woman says selfie provoked argument that led to fatal shooting at Texas Walgreens

This should be a case study for people who carry guns. There is a reason cops hate DV calls.

Alton Brown: The Bitter Southerner Interview

I do love Alton Brown, and this is a really interesting interview. I enjoyed learning about Brown's personal history, but I also felt a little sad for him.

Coordinated attack feared after massive cathedral blaze

Several Orthodox chapels across the world were burned on Pascha, Easter as observed by the Eastern Christians.

Myers' Race Car versus The General Fitness Factor

Scott Alexander takes a outsider's look at the argument between Steve Hsu and P. Z. Myers on whether you can genetically engineer smarter humans. I'm rather more sympathetic to Hsu than Myers for lots of reasons, but part of what is going on here is Hsu is making an argument that what we know of genetics means this should be possible, whereas Myers' response is it would be hard to execute. Well, yeah. Thus, Myers is both correct, and completely fails to refute Hsu's point. As a footnote to Alexander's footnote, just because an allele has an advantage doesn't mean it will necessarily spread. The approximate theoretical chance of a gene with survival advantage s going to fixation [100% of the population] is 2s. s is here defined as the extra kids you have compared to others with the current alleles instead of the variant, and it tends to be really small. An s of .1 is big in this context, and thus you would expect an allele with this big of an effect to disappear from the gene pool 4 times out of 5. Most gene variants just disappear, even when they are useful.