Where to (re-)start…

April 16, 2015

In the months since my last post, hardly a week goes by without something in the news or everyday life that makes me think “I should post something on that;” but by the time I get to where I can sit down and do it, I have other things on my mind and it never happens.

Maybe the trick is to stop feeling I have to clear enough time and attention to do a long fully-argued post before I can write anything.

But I like spinning out long fully-argued posts.

OK, here’s a quickie. This thought underlies a lot of my thinking about politics, morality and religion topics, and almost everything I start spinning out on those topics leads back to it, so I’ll say it once here, and maybe unpack it in the near future:

The history of all human society is, above all, the history of society.


November 26, 2014

This op-ed by one Razib Khan in Tuesday’s NY Times, on the evolution of domesticity in cats and humans, reminded me of a train of thought I’ve taken from time to time over the past few years, so now I feel like posting something on it.

It started for me in 2006 when another Times article introduced me to Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who boldly defended modern evolutionary theory in the age of Stalin and Lysenko, and went on to begin a long-range experiment with Siberian foxes and other wildlife. His goal was to establish and study the heritability of characteristics tending towards domestication, and his method was the classic method of animal breeders throughout time, such as those who inspired Darwin: collecting a batch of animals, selecting and separating out for breeding those with at least some trace of the trait desired – docility in this case, or (for the sake of contrast) aggression – and repeating the process for each generation so as to create in the end two distinct populations: one with the temperament of house pets, the other so aggressive it cannot be handled at all.

More recently, the work of Belyaev was referenced by Harry Turtledove, the Byzantine historian turned alternate-history writer, in a short story called It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And We Feel Fine (Analog, March, 2013). Turtledove describes a future in which humankind has finally dealt with the danger of totally destructive warfare by deliberately breeding all the aggression, nastiness and egotism out of itself. In this world almost everybody is compulsively nice; also rather plump, and with other physical markers that go with domestication (I don’t recall whether they have floppy ears as well). The reader may well sense (at least I did) a certain authorial dyspepsia, an attempt to communicate that there’s something’s wrong with this picture and that something essentially human has been lost, but the story is well-enough written to avoid excessive heavy-handedness; the future is presented fairly on its own terms.

(Just a day or two before I read “End of the World” I had been leafing through a book in the self-help and business management category, suggesting among other things that we can improve both our mood and our effectiveness by toning down the words we use to think of and describe situations; dialing back from “catastrophe” and “disaster” to maybe “misfortune, problem, unpleasantness.” So I was delighted to find that Turteldove’s characters call the near-total war that led to their Belyaevization “The Big Fracas.”)

But what I have been thinking on and off since 2006 is more along the lines of the Razib Khan op-ed – a kind of long-term natural Belyaevization, going back to the first human societies and intensifying as communities have grown larger and more complex. With each stage in our history, reproductive advantage has shifted away from the wilder and tougher among us, in favor of those who are best able to get along and follow the rules of their community. It can’t be helped; this is how we are, for better or for worse; probably for better, as the alternative would be for us not to have made it this far.

It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated with lactose tolerance – for significant differences in heritable traits to have developed among human populations within the relatively short span of human history. Maybe some of the alleged differences in personality and aptitude that have been taken (disparagingly) to correlate with primordial “races” might in fact really exist at some level, but only as a fairly recent development, depending on whether or not a given population has within the past couple of millennia gone through the Belyaev pressure-cooker of agriculture and urbanization.

In the months since my last post, lots of things have happened. We’ve had a national election, for one thing, which by most accounts has assured us two more years of political gridlock and confirmed the deep polarization of public opinion. At the same time, the drive for marriage equality has gone from one success to the next, with only an occasional glitch. (One – only one – circuit of the Court of Appeals has taken a stand against the trend, increasing the chances of the Supreme Court taking a case soon and deciding once and for all whether the Equal Protection clause requires equal marriage laws.)

And as usual I’ve been reading lots of stuff.

The polarization thing has drawn me back to my interest in the roots of representative democracy as we know it, in 17th and 18th century England. This is something I may be able to cook down into a series of blog posts. The latest soundbites from the conflict of Whigs and Tories. Actually, most recently I’ve been looking at the earlier history of Scotland, because it was Scots Calvinist resistance to royal imposition of Episcopacy and its trappings that triggered the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Which wouldn’t have happened if the crowns of the two countries hadn’t been united since 1603. That’s one of the things I’m getting from my study of history – a sense of how things could have turned out very differently if some heir to a throne had lived longer, or died sooner, or been born a different gender.

So let’s see if I can get myself to write up some of this stuff, and whatever else comes up.

Wish me luck!

Atheism: What Is It?

July 25, 2014

There’s a (probably apocryphal) tale about a German scientist who proved conclusively, by the laws of aerodynamics, that hummigbirds cannot fly. In a similar vein, this article has been circulating around the web recently, purporting to show that atheism may not be psychologically possible.

It would seem that the author is using the word differently from the growing number of people who claim to be, in fact, atheists. The cognitive scientists he refers to speak of unconscious metaphysical presuppositions that seem to be hard-wired in the brain. Maybe they’re right. Self-described atheists are talking about something else, which is a conscious, as-rational-as-possible evaluation of evidence leading to a conscious, as-rational-as-possible conclusion regarding a specific proposition about the real world, namely the existence of a being or beings that can be plausibly called a “god.” Many people claim to have made this evaluation and to have decided the question in the negative; writers like Mr Vittachi can hardly dismiss this fact out of hand. If the metaphysical hard-wiring he claims is really there, then there must be a way we can consciously override it, at least under certain conditions and for certain purposes. If this is not possible then it is hard to see how any sort of science is possible. The very authorities that Mr Vittachi calls upon to support his conclusions are not possible. His own article is not possible. And if it is not possible, I see no reason to say any more about it.

It is true though that the word “atheism” has collected a lot of baggage. Theism is so deeply engrained in Western culture, education, and our sense of the ethical that to deny it can easily seem to be a denial of everything good in the world. If atheists were necessarily amoral, they would never admit to being atheists, given all the trouble it gets them into. Give them credit for honesty at least.

On the other hand, the most outspoken atheists like Dawkins seem to me at times to err in the opposite direction, treating everything that goes by the label “religion”, every attempt to find comfort and joy in metaphysical possibility, as just as evil as the most rigid fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not essential to religion. Strict doctrinaire theism is not essential to religion. Fundamentalism exists, and Dawkins exists, and on all the issues clearly dividing the two I side with Dawkins, but there’s a lot of ground in between and a lot of other dimensions on which to agree or disagree, which are to me often more interesting than simply saying Yes or No to “god.”

Enough for now. I’ve managed two posts this week, that’s pretty good, I think I’ll save some material for a few more.



Religion: what is it?

July 21, 2014

A few words on a favorite topic of mine, to see if I can get back into the writing habit.

A few weeks ago I noticed a brief theater review in the New York Times. In the play, “The Religion Thing,” a young couple with successful high-powered careers find that a visiting college friend has joined an evangelical megachurch, married a fellow she met there, and is giving up her partnership in a law firm to prepare for motherhood. This naturally leads the couple to reappraise their own plans and the role in them of their own conflicting but largely ignored religious traditions. The review is generally positive regarding the staging and performances, but ends with this paragraph, which is what really held my attention:

Crucially, though, for a play called “The Religion Thing,” there is surprisingly little real discussion of theology. Patti and Jeff briefly describe the crises that brought them to their church, while Mo and Brian mention the rituals they have set aside. But virtually absent is any true talk of spirituality, of what role it plays in their lives. Without that, religion is just another weapon for people to wield against one another.

You see, I have increasingly come to believe over the years that for most adherents, both now and through history, this is just what religion is like. Something that can provide a useful social/cultural framework for life, a set of rituals to follow or not, a sense of belonging to a community, help from time to time with severe emotional needs, and yes, all too often a weapon. Theology has never been the concern of more than a handful of experts; very few of the loyal church members I have known over the years have known or cared much about the details of it. Nor have I known many to profess any really profound distinctively spiritual experience. And I doubt that this is just a function of my having lived my whole life in an urban secularizing environment. I doubt very much that many of the Catholics and Protestants who only recently stopped killing one another in Ulster could have given an articulate explanation of why they endorsed one faith over the other, beyond the fact that they were born to it; likewise the Sunnis and Shi’ites who are still very much engaged in killing one another in the Middle East. Religious wars, no less than political ones, are conducted by organized social groups most of whose members support with more or less fervor the side they happen to find themselves on, with no real say in the matter.

Not that theology and spirituality are not interesting topics worthy of study; I just think their role within the vast complex of phenomena we label “religion” tends to be overrated.

Although it was pretty clear that the caveats in Monday’s Hobby Lobby decision – along the  lines of “we are only deciding the specific case before us, our decision says nothing about other possible cases” – wouldn’t hold much water in the long run, I was expecting the Court would manage to maintain the pretence for at least a term or two, until other cases had a chance to percolate up through the system. No way. The very next day they issued orders extending the effect of the decision to the whole range of contraceptives covered by the ACA, not just the four which Hobby Lobby claimed to “believe” were abortificants.  Then two days after that, they granted an injunction to Wheaton College effectively invalidating the “less restrictive alternative” whose presence they’d cited to justify the original decision. Even having to fill out the paperwork to trigger alternate means of coverage, it seems, can be claimed as an “excessive burden.” If the Wheaton case ends up being decided in favor of the College, doesn’t that invalidate the logic of Hobby Lobby?

The Supreme Court has done dumb things before, it has done malicious things, it has done cynical things. This is the first time I am aware of that the majority on the Court has revealed its cynicism so openly, so quickly.  The next step of course is to start ruling for “religious freedom” in cases not involving contraceptives. Like people claiming a religious objection to hiring gay people? Or members of racial minorities? Or will they draw a line and try to claim that contraceptives are different? Why? Because sex is a matter of uniquely religious concern?

And if we ever do get that stupid Religious Freedom Restoration Act repealed, will the Court turn around and say no, Hobby Lobby really follows from the First Amendment itself?

Can we trust anything they say?

Alas, the only way to deal with a bad Court is to get a better one appointed. If the Democratic Party can just hold on to the Presidency and the Senate for a decade or so…


Are we in Dred Scott territory yet?

Not quite.

Chief Justice Taney back in 1857 was determined to settle the slavery question once and for all; he could have just dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, the plaintiff not being a “citizen of any state,” but instead he went on to discuss the merits at great length, so there would be no doubt. The effect of course was to enrage the North and help bring on the Civil War.

The Roberts Court in contrast is issuing opinions so closely tailored, so moderate and judicious, that Justice Scalia has taken to issuing very angry concurrences arguing that the official reasoning doesn’t go far enough. Last week the Court invalidated the Massachusetts 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, but left plenty of space (so to speak) for the State to adopt less drastic measures focused on actual harassment. Women’s groups are understandably outraged at losing their 35-foot safety zone, but Scalia seemed just as outraged that Roberts didn’t strike down the very idea of protecting abortion clinics. The same day, the majority ruled against the President’s power to make “recess appointments” in the three-day gaps in “pro forma” Senate sessions; but it didn’t insist (as Scalia would have) that the only valid “recess” was the adjournment at the end of the year. A ten-day gap along the way, the majority indicated, might pass muster.

OK, the Court is trying to be reasonable, nothing wrong with that. But it’s getting harder and harder to pull off. This week, on the last day of their term, they had a chance to overrule a precedent allowing certain union fees to be imposed on public service employees who are not members of the union. They avoided going that far, by pulling out of its collective hat a new category of “partial public employees” to cover the home-care workers involved in the case at hand.

And of course there’s Hobby Lobby – totally outrageous to everyone on my side of the political spectrum, and still “not as bad as it might have been” thanks to some clever legal footwork. For one thing, the Court did not decide the case under the First Amendment, but rather the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one of those dumb things (like DOMA) that the Clinton-era Democratic Congress passed to show that they weren’t “crazy leftists” out of touch with “middle American values.” This means once we get a really progressive majority elected to Congress, the thing can just be repealed and Hobby Lobby will be out in the cold.

– As to the absurdity of a corporate “person” having religious views, the Court dealt with that by singling out “closely held corporations” which can be regarded as a kind of extension of their owners. Now this kind of “corporate personhood” isn’t quite the same as what Citizens United was about; that followed a more traditional notion of the corporation as an entity distinct from its owners. What will this new argument mean for the “corporate veil”? Who knows? Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

– And the Court insists that its ruling is only about contraception, and doesn’t address other issues like whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right not to pay for employees’ blood transfusions, or whether anyone has the right to discriminate against gay people. At first glance this looks like mere handwaving, but really when you look at the opinion itself it finally comes down where it does by invoking as a “less restrictive alternative” the allowance the administration has already made in the case of churches and religious non-profits, which is supposed to give employees full contraceptive benefits without the employers having to get their hands dirty. So it really is a very narrow opinion, the Court is doing its best not to be outrageous – they just can’t bring it off. They can’t see that in the eyes of a growing majority of Americans, any claimed “right” to discriminate against women is unacceptable, and any right of an employer to “conscientiously” object to paying a mandated benefit is unacceptable.

Also there are voices pointing out that all this fuss would be unnecessary if we had a single payer health care system and employers were out of the loop altogether.

So yes, we’re as polarized as in the 1850’s, and no compromise is possible any longer between the forces of progress and of reaction; the most earnest efforts by Roberts and Alito not to be Taney are doomed to failure. We won’t have another Civil War, because the sides don’t align this time into states capable of raising their own armies. But either the country will be gridlocked forever, or one side will somehow manage to win; and demographics would indicate that it will be the side of progress.




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