Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ethics predates us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, primatology, morality, atheism, theism

An experimenter enters an enclosure containing an ape, and sets down two small boxes. If the ape puts one on top of the other, it is rewarded with a carrot. It soon learns to stack boxes, happily eating the carrots. Then the experimenter leaves and goes into an enclosure nearby containing another ape, which has been able to see this whole procedure. The ape soon sets one box upon another, and happily receives a carrot to eat. After a few repetitions, the experimenter returns to the first enclosure, presenting the same two boxes. This time, when the ape stacks them, it receives a grape. Several repetitions yield several grapes. Now the experimenter returns to the second ape. This one immediately stacks the boxes, so the experimenter presents a carrot. Angrily, the ape rejects the carrot. Clearly, it wants a grape.

The sense of "fair play" is not unique to humans.

Observations of apes and other primates "in the wild" confirm not only the sense of fair versus unfair treatment, but also social morals. In one instance, two families of baboons came upon a small fruiting bush. There was not enough fruit for both families. Rather than fight or even confront each other, both families ran off in opposite directions. This is but one of many, many indications that the Hobbesian notion of "nature red in tooth and claw" is quite wrong-headed.

Even further. You may have seen the Disney movie in which Akela, the alpha wolf, misses a kill, and the troop turns against him. This doesn't actually happen, among either wolves or apes. Even when a "beta" displaces an "alpha", the deposed leader is not exiled. In fact, when an animal has become ill or disabled, its fellows help it. For example, an ape dying of infection is comforted by other apes, who groom it more than usual and bring food. And the internet is full of pictures and videos of cross-species animal adoptions and "friendships", between dog and cat, sow and puppies, and the gorilla Koko with her pet kitten All Ball. The Tarzan stories, in which an ape adopts a human infant, would not resonate with anyone if adoption were not a common occurrence.
Most human adoptive parents do a good job raising the totally unrelated child. So do most cross-species adoptive "parents".
Social consciousness and altruism are not unique to humans.

Primatologist Frans de Waal has studied chimpanzees and bonobos, and the striking differences between them, for decades. While bonobos (formerly "pygmy chimpanzees") are more peaceable, both species of ape display ethical and moral behavior. Of course, moral lapses result is fierce chastisement, in both species, but, then so do moral lapses among humans. Think how you were raised. Maybe your parents spanked you, and maybe not, but "time out" and other forms of correction still train the conscience, and it is well known that parents who eschew all forms of "punishment" raise spoiled brats.

In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal demonstrates that the conscience is not only a human attribute: all social mammals (and perhaps all mammals) show evidence of having a conscience to be trained. Don't we speak of a psychopath as someone lacking a conscience? In spite of parental training and other social sanctions, a psychopath behaves amorally. Whatever mental "organ" it is that makes most of us into rule-keepers (at least most of the time!), is absent in a psychopath. If we had no innate tendency to "goodness", however defined, no training method could make us capable of goodness.

The author's thesis is that morality predates religion. As an atheist, he distances himself from "neo-atheists", or "evangelical atheists" (who are actually anti-theists). He recognizes that nearly all of us have the "God-shaped hole" (a paraphrase of Pascal), such that, as Voltaire said, "If there were no God, we would have to invent him." Of course, many evangelical Christians claim that the God-shaped hole is universal, but to my careful observation over many years, I would have to say, not entirely. There are some quite contented nontheists (a word I prefer to "atheist").

The impetus to write the book arose from responses to a blog posting by the author, "Morals without God?" He realized he would have to explain himself further. Many folks did get his point, but some, particularly neo-atheists, missed it. He does not desire to drive God or religion out of society. Indeed, he spends half a chapter outlining the three Twentieth Century attempts to do so, by Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. Stalin's effort resulted in at least 15 million killed; Pol Pot's attempt killed 3 million; and Mao topped them all, killing more than 100 million Chinese. The anti-religious effort he doesn't mention is that of Hitler, who attempted to exterminate one particular religion. In doing so, not only 6 million Jews were killed, but so were nearly 6 million Christians, plus tens of thousands of homosexuals and other "undesirables" (in Hitler's view). Yeah, it is true that misapplication of religion has led to many killings, but the greatest evils arose from trying to eliminate religion. This exposes the mis-aiming of the anti-theists. They clearly hate religion, and any one of them could become another Pol Pot or Mao as a result.

de Waal posits that small pre-agricultural bands of humans didn't need religion, that religions arose along with the need to manage large populations. Since I sharply distinguish between faith and religion, I mostly agree: faith is all about how the individual relates to God or gods, while religion is all about organization of the faith-full. The larger the number, the more organization is needed, which is why I prefer smaller churches. The trouble is, religion also provides hierarchy, rites and rituals, all human-created structures in which the faith-less can fake it, to the point that many churches are simply social clubs with barely a nod toward a mostly absent deity.

The book is full of fascinating research findings, that illustrate how other animals, not just us humans, display compassion, fairness and altruism. Dogs know when they are treated fairly, or not; elephants try to help a fallen comrade, whether a relative or not; and one story tells of a camel that was beaten savagely, frequently and unfairly, that meekly bided its time, and when alone with the drover, bit the top off his head! Self-defense is a moral value also.

de Waal picked bonobos to compare with us, because physically they more closely resemble early human ancestors such as Ardipithecus. Bonobos are more slender than chimpanzees, have longer legs and can more nearly walk upright. Whether "Ardi" also had the peaceable nature of bonobos is unknown. We need to constantly recall that, not only do we have millions and billions of years of evolution leading up to us, but so do bonobos, and chimps, and parakeets and oak trees. The hominin family tree branched from other apes around 7 million years ago, while bonobos and chimps probably branched from one another 4-5 million years ago (the moist forests in which both live are notoriously bad for fossil preservation). Which ape diverged most from that extinct ape species of 7 million years ago that gave rise to all three of us? The human, the bonobo, or the chimpanzee? I think it is more like the 3-legged stool. We all diverged about equally, in different directions.

We can say that our behavior is some mixture of both bonobo and chimp behaviors, plus some additions (not many). But a chimp scholar might make the same claim, that chimp behavior is some mixture of human and bonobo, with some additions! And so forth. The singular added factor for humans is our ability to function in larger and larger groups. de Waal makes a good case that religion has facilitated that ability. He hopes that morality can gradually be disentangled from religion, because he has also shown that we are moral, or at least have moral ideals, whether or not we are religious. He does not propose a different organizing principle. His book gives us all much to ponder.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

She is not only ape about apes.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, plants, memoirs, polemics

Jane Goodall is known for her lyrical writing, and her new book—which hardly mentions chimpanzees!—is, if anything, even more lyrical. With the help of Gail Hudson, she has written Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants. At first, a reader may wonder why a primatologist would write about plants. As she tells us in the opening chapter, her first love was a tree, a beech (named Beech) in which she sat and read or drew or wrote for many a childhood hour. That is not all.

By the second half of the book, her hortatory purpose emerges in full. She has seen a good deal more of the world than most of us ever will. Everywhere, among the wonder and beauty, there is damage and tragedy. Of course, her beloved chimps are in danger, but their greatest peril is the shrinking forest. Where 50 years ago the tiny Gombe reserve was surrounded by forest and a piece with it, now it is an isolated enclave, with bare ground, or monoculture farm fields, right up to the boundary. If we save and restore the forest, we will also save the apes…if not, not.

This is happening everywhere. At one time, the First World exemplified the "taming of the wilderness" in favor of agriculture and agribusiness. For example, nearly every acre of the United States that is arable is devoted to that purpose. While this comes to just under half the total land area, and cities and roads and other pavements take up only about 5%, much of the rest is logged or otherwise exploited, including an increasing proportion of our national parks and monuments. And this is the "new world"! Now the Third World is going full steam ahead, building, plowing and planting, polluting, and generally straining to outdo all our worst sins.

The first half of the book is descriptive, of the author's life and of a systematic trek through the plant world, from the various aspects of the plants themselves to the uses made of them by animals and humans. Starting in chapter 11, things turn dark. Its title is "Plants that can harm". Why do plants make so many chemical substances? Many, many of them are insecticides, bitterants (to discourage browsing mammals) or downright poisons. Some of these substances can be used as medicines (the subject of Chapter 10); indeed, nearly every medicine is either extracted from a plant or chemically derived from a plant chemical. But so are many poisons and "recreational" drugs. All the ways a plant can heal or harm are a product of human redirection of chemicals the plants make for self defense.

But even "good" crops are not without their dark side. In the West, we may have outlawed slavery, which was largely agricultural, but agriculture, particularly the picking of fruits and vegetables, is still an area rampant with abuses, of workers, of the land, and of domestic animals. And in "developing" countries the abuses are the worst, including continued slavery. Think about that the next time you buy cotton underwear without checking whether it was both organically and ethically grown.

The last five chapters describe suggestions for taming agriculture itself. It has become the master and we the slaves. This can be turned around, and the featured initiatives, including Roots & Shoots, which Ms Goodall and a group of teens started in Tanzania 22 years ago, show at least part of the way. Crops such as coffee and cacao (chocolate) grow poorly in monoculture, compared to polyculture with appropriate plant companions. With more time and research, we are likely to find that many crops share this characteristic. This in not new: read Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield; the farm has been in operation since 1939. One tidbit: corn grows better when it shares the field with alfalfa. Other innovative ways of growing crops, some of them thousands of years older than agribusiness, just might feed more people than the current "big business" way we have fallen into in the West.

Even at her most polemical, Jane Goodall writes lyrically, and manages to avoid being too "preachy". But we need out preachers. She is one of the best.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reading this book could be hazardous to your health…or not

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, warnings

You know you're in trouble when it makes you laugh and you don't know why. Encyclopedia Paranoiaca by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf (with others) struck me that way at times. Consisting of a few hundred very short articles, from less than a half page to a page or so, it presents all the things you need to avoid to be healthy and safe…or so they claim.

In keeping with the Encyclopedia image, there are nearly a thousand sources referred to. Nearly all are web articles or blog posts, undoubtedly dredged up by "the staff of the Cassandra Institute". At first I found the titles of some articles puzzling. Then I realized the meta-joke of the book. They were selected to put two or more opposing phobias one after another. For example, "sun exposure" is followed by "sun exposure, insufficient" and then by "sunscreens". The last article warns of the dangers caused by slathering on the SPF 50 stuff, though the primary risk is overconfidence: people not wearing any sun protection are likely to be cautious, while those who think they are "protected" may stay out in the sun so long they burn anyway.

Another juxtapositional joke is "escalator handrails", about the horrible germs that coat them, followed by "escalators", in which we are cautioned that these devices are so risky we absolutely must cling tightly to the handrail for the entire ride. And then the dangers of "hand sanitizers, alcohol based" weigh in on one side, while "hand washing" discusses the dangers thereof, and advises that hand sanitizers ought to be used instead. And when it comes to sleeping positions, after four articles one might conclude it is best not to sleep at all (and, sadly, there isn't an article about the genuine dangers of extended sleeplessness).

Of course, Beard and Cerf have more tricks up their sleeve than these. The "experts" they reference include one fellow who calls U.S. treasury bonds "worthless confetti", and prefers to invest in things "Bernanke can't destroy", such as bottled water and flashlight batteries. A few are more credible, but only a few.

Some worthwhile advice is to be found hidden among the jokes. For example, it actually is a good idea to carry a few clean plastic bags on a trip; one can be used to hold the TV remote in the hotel room because the maids never clean them, and they are devilishly hard to clean anyway (dunking in soapy water will degrade their performance). I am sure a sufficiently paranoid person can find other uses for plastic bags when in a hotel room or other public places.

A lot of the "dangers", such as burning candles at dinner time, are played straight from the source, which has overstated the case all by itself. Sure, burning candle wax emits some benzene and toluene. In large amounts these are toxic and cause all kinds of distressing symptoms, including death (like if you drink some). But the editors conveniently leave out any indication that you'd have to burn hundreds of candles to breathe a measurably toxic dose of toluene, and then you are more likely to burn your place down, or simply pass out from heat stroke.

For most of us, the book is a fun read. The genuine fear I have is that someone truly paranoid will read this book and think it is serious.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

A science book? Hardly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, art, science

Give an artist an inch and he'll take an easel. In this case, an artist named Hancock was commissioned to illustrate a very short article (~300 words) titled "Where does Earth's water come from?" It appears he did read the article, but the very first fact is mis-stated (see upper left). The Earth is not 3/4 water; water cover's 3/4 of the planet's surface. By mass, water is less than 1/4,000 of Earth, and by volume, less than 1/1,000.

At least Mr. Hancock has read the item, which appears on page 42 of The Where, the Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe. Many of the artists seem to have read no more than the article's title, and taken off from there, and neither the article's author nor the editors checked them for anything approaching factual accuracy.

All but a very few of the "illustrations" are impressionistic interpretations, and illustrate nothing. This makes the image above quite a bit better than most. Of course, the articles themselves are too short to do more than skate the surface of a subject and list a few semi-relevant items; none is longer than 400 words, about the size of the abstract for a scientific monograph. Of course, they make better reading than monographs!

In a few cases, the artist did a much better job, possibly because he or she actually knew some science. The title of the article on page 40 is "Are earthquakes predictable?" and this image by Isaac Tobin accompanies it on page 41. While also a bit impressionistic, it shows the principle of a fault, or fracture, in the rock layers underground. The locations of faults is the single most important factor in predicting earthquake locations, if not their timing.

Of course, the article dwells more on our failure to determine the timing of earthquakes, as it ought to. But an illustration showing the seismometers and other equipment used to attempt such predictions would make poor visual fare. So I like this image.

In one case, the artist seems to have done a better job than the scientist.  On page 70 we find, "What explains latitudinal patterns in species diversity?" The writer, Professor Joanna E. Lambert of UT San Antonio, presents a "maybe this, maybe that" approach that doesn't really answer the question.

This image neatly illustrates the question, and leads a viewer to the conclusion, "Well, DUH, life is harder near the poles!". Dr. Lambert did hit on this issue late in the article. Deserts and mountaintops at low latitudes have lower species diversity also, because life is harder there. The reduction of diversity with latitude is only part of a larger picture, that wherever life is better served by energy balance, plus sufficient water and nutrients, there will be richer diversity. Fewer plants and animals can make a living where these are in short supply. The illustration is by Lotta Nieminen, and is one of the best in the book.

There are two cases of total scientific blunder. In the article on page 28, "What happens to time as you approach the speed of light?", the premise is flawed. The question implies a fixed reference frame, and Einstein showed that there is no such thing. An object may be moving at some high velocity relative to our solar system, but from the viewpoint of someone in or on that object, it is the solar system that is moving fast. Because of the false premise, the author states that an observer in a fast-moving spaceship would see a clock on Earth "moving so fast that you would not be able to see the hands." Totally false. The Earth observer would indeed see the spaceship's clock moving more slowly, but the spaceship observer would see a clock on Earth moving equally slowly! That is the prediction of Special Relativity. It is called the time dilation paradox, and Special Relativity cannot resolve it.

So why did a clock put on a satellite that circled the Earth really fast come back showing less time had elapsed, than on Earth? General Relativity provides the answer. Acceleration and Gravity, which are equivalent in their effect on time, perform their magic on the clocks. In addition, Lorentz contraction makes the "traveler" experience a shorter trip. Thus, to the spaceship observer, a trip of a light year is shortened to something much less, while the ship clock seems to run at normal speed. In a sense, you could say that the contraction of space and the dilation of time balance out, while the acceleration required to get the spaceship "out there" and back, makes the system unbalanced, so that the clock that speeds up, turns around and slows again upon return is the one found to be slowed during its trip. Now my digression is longer than the article that triggered it! And I have given only a portion of the answer.

However, I must go on to another blunder. The illustration on page 31, for the article "How are stars born, and how do they die?" is a howler. It shows a nursery full of bassinets containing glowing clouds. They are labeled, "baby main sequence star", "baby supergiant star"—so far so good—, and then "baby red giant star", "baby neutron star", "baby red dwarf star" and "baby white dwarf star". Yeegads! A red giant is an aging star, while a white dwarf and a neutron star are two kinds of very elderly star. You can't have a "baby neutron star"!!! Also, a red dwarf is just one kind of main sequence star. The article's author, or at least the editors, really ought to have caught this. A better illustration would have shown a couple of bassinets, but shown the other kinds of stars with canes and hearing aids, or in rocking chairs. At least there was no "baby supernova". OMG: I just looked again…there is a "baby black hole"! That may have been possible a few microseconds after the Big Bang, but not any time since. A black hole is one kind of dead star, or if you will, a zombie star that can eat other stars. Hmm, put that into your illustration. P.S. The artist is one of the book's editors.

Efforts to bring together the arts and the sciences are commendable. Illustrators of scientific books and articles have always known that art can often illuminate science (and so have the scientists who hire them!), which is why they stay in business. A good illustration can show you something no photo can properly capture. However, while an illustrator is an artist, not all artists can be illustrators, as this book amply demonstrates.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

New or old, some ways are good and some are not

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, social anthropology, syntheses

In his new book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, we learn that Jared Diamond has spent 3-4 weeks every year, for some 50 years, in New Guinea. He wasn't there to study the people, but the birds. But he had to learn a number of the languages—or at least know the names of common birds in the more common languages used there—, interact with the people, and live among them. You could say that cultural anthropology came along for the ride. He is a synthesist (AKA a systems analyst), as amply shown by his books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel. In this book he seeks to answer the question embedded in its title, by finding what is different, and what is the same, between large-scale, modern, "state government" societies, and smaller-scale traditional societies.

As he does, let us first classify societies according to scale:
  • A Band consists of "a few dozen" individuals, typically one or a few extended families.
  • A Tribe can contain hundreds, with the characteristic that everyone knows every one. Dunbar's Limit, canonically 150, but in the range 100-230, is the number of relationships a person can sustain.
  • A Chiefdom, which can only arise where agriculture is practiced, consists of a few thousand or several thousand persons.
  • A State ranges in size up to a population of a billion or so.
Scale alone explains some of the differences. Politically, a band or tribe will have a loose dominance hierarchy, of the type we call a pecking order. Chiefdoms require hierarchy, a separation between decision makers and everyone else, while states require much more governmental organization and specialized trades, otherwise the result is not actually anarchy, but instead a quick return to many chiefdoms and bands. As we can see in most modern nations, governing a million to a billion persons requires several levels of organization. France, for example, has 27 R├ęgions, 101 D├ępartements, 342 Arrondissements, 4,032 Cantons and 36,781 Communes, at last count. That is a total of six governmental levels. In the U.S. we have four levels of government, but below the national and state levels, the names vary: counties and parishes are at the same level, just in different states; and for that matter, Pennsylvania is formally a Commonwealth.

There is a bigger, day-to-day consequence of having centralized government. One of the first things a state government will do is assume a monopoly on violence. Vengeance for wrongs done is disallowed by government. Among bands or tribes we find frequent conflict. The book's third chapter is about a "tiny war" that occurred in 1961 in New Guinea among rival tribes of the Dani, an upland people in New Guinea. Two tribal alliances totaling 10,000 people fought a series of skirmishes and pitched battles between February and September. One massacre killed 125, while all other dead numbered 11. 136 dead in 8 months seems tiny to us, but it amounts to about 1.4% of the populace. The number who died in the American Civil War a century earlier was about 625,000 out of a total population of about 34 million. The death toll was thus 1.8%, on the same relative scale as the war among the Dani. Yet it took 4 years, not just 8 months.

The "war between the states" was America's bloodiest war. It was one of only three very bloody wars in 230+ years. But the Dani in New Guinea were at constant war, and some still are. The 1961 war was just one of many. It is exceptional only in that it was well observed and recorded by Western observers. The war I remember growing up was the Vietnam War, during which 58,000 Americans died over a 20-year span. As horrendous as it seemed to us in the 1960s and 1970s, that was the actual "tiny war" (Of course, the number of Vietnamese dead was much greater, from a much smaller population. It isn't tiny to them by any measure!). American dead in all the wars since has yet to rise above 10,000.

To my point: every level of government has its own appointed killers (AKA peace-keepers): police, sheriffs, national guard and the five national armies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard). They and they alone are permitted to use legal violence. It may seem unfair. However, the risk of dying in armed conflict in a modern state is between 1/10 and 1/100th the risk experienced in a traditional society.

As Diamond sees it, agriculture brought new risks and actually led to a lower standard of living for most, that is for everybody except a small number of state-supported elites. Raising that standard of living by government-led distribution of food and goods, by division of labor, and then by public health measures, has been a 9,000-year learning experience. Yet this is only "yesterday", which is the author's thesis. Humans had about 100,000 years to learn to live in bands and tribes. We are just beginning to learn to live properly in larger societies.

The learning experience is ongoing. So far, "The West" has achieved many benefits: doubling of life span, very low infant and maternal mortality, near-elimination of starvation among them. Yet the universal distribution of abundant food, for example, has risks of its own. People in traditional societies (several hundred exist today) typically die before the age of 50 of an infection or by violence. People in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies typically die in their 70s or later of heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

This particular difference shows that natural selection is ongoing. The rate of morbid "late onset" diabetes (AKA Type 2) among Europeans and Euro-Americans is about 6% (ranging from 2% to 10%), while it is in the 30% to 50% range among people recently Westernized. Living in a feast-and-famine environment selects for "thrifty" food storage. But that thriftiness leads to obesity once food is always abundant. Life in a WEIRD society gradually results in premature death for the most thrifty, and selects for those able to maintain healthier weight and healthier blood pressure. Basically, in about half a millennium, the Euro-world has made a head start in doing so. Natural selection in action! It is fascinating.

So, doctors can say all they want to us about eating better and getting more exercise. A few will, but most won't. We are lazy by nature. I suspect there is a genetic influence on how well we listen to our doctors, or at least on how well we actually take care of ourselves. In another 500-1,000 years, if humanity survives, I suspect people will be better adjusted to a world of abundance…unless that has collapsed. Who knows, the world may return to a much smaller human population living in bands and tribes again. Natural selection would then switch course again.

Jared Diamond has a great ability to put together a big picture. I have just skated the surface of a few issues that caught my interest as I read. This book joins a small collection of those to which I periodically return. I don't spend all my time reading only new books.