Friday, November 28, 2008

Of mice and men

Recent research shows that the difference between humans and mice arises mostly from differences in the DNA of transcriptional control regions.

It has long been known that we are genetically not very different from other mammals- 98% identical to Chimpanzees, 85% identical to mice. Indeed, there are many genes that we share to a recognizable extent with bacteria. So how do the evident differences in our characters come about? Experts in evolution and molecular biology have long suspected that differences in encoded proteins are less likely to be the leading cause of differences than are differences in how they are controlled. A new piece of work illustrates this concept nicely.

The article by Wilson et al. in Science (with a review- subscription needed for full access) demonstrates what happens when you place human chromosome #21 into a mouse and ask whether its patterns of gene control / expression resemble that of the similar regions of the mouse genome (mostly chromosome #16), or that of the human chromosome in human cells, or whether it is different from each.

If mouse proteins have changed significantly from human proteins in the ~80 to 100 million years since our divergence, then a human chromosome placed in mouse cells should show a unique pattern of proteins binding to it- certainly different from that in human cells, and probably different from their pattern on the similar (homologous) mouse genes. Recall that DNA is inert in cells until proteins bind to it- proteins that locate genes and tell those genes to turn on or off at specific times and places. We already know that the DNA sequences in between genes are far more variable over evolutionary time than the DNA in the protein-coding regions of genes. That is a key empirical finding of bioinformatics. Coding regions are far denser with information, and changing a protein sequence is more damaging (in selective terms) than tinkering with upstream control regions, let alone non-gene regions that neither code for anything nor control the expression of anything.

What they found was that the pattern of protein binding to the human DNA was ~90% the same as it was in human cells. Likewise, the pattern of gene expression was highly correlated (R~0.9) between the same chromosome in mouse (red graphs in the drawing, from Coller and Kruglyak) or in human cells (purple graph). The message is that those mouse proteins that bind to human chromosome 21 and control its gene expression have changed very little in the tens of millions of years of our divergence from mice, and rather the differences between us arise from differences in the control DNA itself- control that recapitulates roughly as well in mouse cells as in human cells, when directed by the human DNA.

DNA sequence patterns used for gene control are very distinct from those used to code for proteins. The coding region is a linear triplet progression of codons, each coding for one amino acid. If any one is out of register, the whole resulting protein sequence is thrown off, since ribosomes read off the code in strict three-by-three steps. And if the identity of one codon is off, the function of the resulting protein in whatever it does may be changed, often disastrously.

In contrast, DNA sequences used to control genes (typically within a few thousand bases of the coding sequence) are small, degenerate, and modular. They are typically only six to ten bases long, like CCCAGCCCC, which binds the famous regulatory protein SP1. Variations are common, (indeed, it is often extremely difficult to determine what the optimal binding sequence for such proteins actually is), and have subtle effects on the binding and activity of the regulatory protein. These sequences (also called binding sites) can also be relocated, mixed and matched in the gene control region (typically upstream relative the the coding region) with relatively little effect. One gene is often regulated by multiple control regions, each composed of several individual binding sites and each with a different role, such as activating the gene's activity in separate organs, or different times of development.

The upshot is that gene control regions are eminently "evolvable". Duplications of control regions have minimal immediate effects and allow the generation of new patterns of control. Alterations of individual binding sites or alterations of site arrangements are likely to alter only a small aspect of gene expression, such as in one stage of development or an uptick in amount produced, in contrast to protein mutations, which affect the action of the encoded protein at all times and everywhere.

It was already well known that most proteins are very well conserved between mouse and man. Indeed, of the 25,000 or so proteins encoded by each species, only about 100 to 200 fail to have detectable homologs in the other species. It is routine to express proteins from one species (human) in the other (mouse) to study their native function, and indeed to express specifically mutated forms to create models of human diseases in transgenic mice. What was not fully appreciated was the scale of conservation, such that these authors find that huge swaths of one human chromosome are handled in mouse cells essentially as they would be in human cells.

A metaphor for the genome might be a giant pipe organ, where each gene is a key. Over evolutionary time, the keys change very little, but the music played changes more dramatically, programmed as it is by the highly mutable control elements.

This picture indicates that solving the very difficult problem of predicting gene control from known DNA sequence (given knowledge about the binding preferences of control proteins and their activities in regulating gene expression) is even more important than previously suspected, since it would not only allow us to model the gene control circuitry of cells and organisms accurately, but would allow us to model evolutionary history with unprecedented detail and insight as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More "gibberish"

I review samples of a review of my review of the book "Naturalism".

The correspondent (Darrell Lackey) who originally suggested that I read a book on philosophical naturalism was (not surprisingly) disappointed with my treatment of it, and sent an eight-page rebuttal of my review, which I will attempt to sample and respond to here. Doubtless I was far too prone to indulge in ridicule over reasoned analysis, my only defense being that I saw far more humor than reason in the book, which was stultifyingly boring.

Here is a quote from Crick:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is the “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Pg. 22)

Do you agree?
Yes, entirely- both with the hypothesis, and with the difficulty that many people have with it, though I personally do not have such problems. Crick was truly one of the greatest scientists of all time, a far better authority than the authors under discussion, I dare say. Here he was being dramatic to sell his book by this title.

... More importantly, you failed to even address the huge problems with such a view—or why you think there are no problems with such a view.

For instance, the authors write:
“Given the assault of strict naturalism on the very core of our natural view of ourselves, what is one to say about it? One argument against strict naturalism would be to maintain that the view is self-defeating: its proponents believe it is true, whereas if the view is true, then there ultimately is no such thing as believing it is true because there ultimately are no psychological events of any kind, period.” (Pg. 26)

Why didn’t you address this basic problem?
I did not address it because what they pose is absurd and not a problem. It is like saying that if we understand the microbial causes of disease, then we will no longer suffer from disease. Or better yet, only those who understand this principle will no longer suffer from such diseases! It appears to be an example of magical thinking.

In this case, the authors posit that those who believe in the naturalistic, mechanistic foundation of consciousness would not have any psychological events. I think that even you would find that hard to agree with. I certainly have never discounted psychological events, and nor does any scientist who studies the mind or brain. We have only posited that they are explicable in a mechanistic framework, along with everything else in the real world. You (and perhaps the authors) may be confused by the problem of mental causation, which is indeed an issue for dualist theories with soul-body interaction, but not for materialists.

Some materialists may have gotten carried away with reductionist rhetoric to the point of saying that thoughts are nothing but ... packs of active neurons ... just as one might say that photosynthesis is nothing but the transfer of a few electrons, or vision is nothing but a set of parallel computations by lots of connected neurons. That is (temporarily) mistaking the trees for the forest.

(from the book...)
"Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul's thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized." (p.69).

If you don’t understand what is being communicated, just say so—don’t blame the authors—they are, after all, dealing with a very complex subject. If you think the areas being discussed in the above quotes could have been written better, then break it down for us in plain English and tell us where they are wrong. I do not see a single problem in the area of logic anywhere in the above quotes if understood in context. Why don’t you point the logic errors out for us?
I had not thought that the vacuity of this statement needed any explanation, actually. I guess it has long been a staple of theology to "explain" phenomena by positing "capacities" and "powers" that are delicately left unspecified and unplumbed. All I can say is that this mode of argument is totally empty. The only explanation that does any work is one with identifiable pieces that contribute logically to the phenomenon you are trying to explain. Not to mention that it also must have some connection with reality by way of empirical test.

(more from the book, same argument):
"In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities." (p.64).
This statement typifies an idiosyncratic terminology with little point behind it. The authors were trying to figure out how souls can be associated with bodies while having no physical extent, or discernable connection (the pineal gland hypothesis having been discarded some time ago), or indeed discernable nature whatsoever. Here they are simply weaving fantasies- there is no evidence for non-causal pairing relations (which create causal accessibility, no less!) other than conceptual ones we ourselves imagine. There is also no evidence for non-spatial entities- the entire edifice of supernatural propositions is purely imaginary, whether the terms used are abstrusified like "non-spatial entities", or described forthrightly as souls, angels, or Santa Claus. Lastly, there is the reference to "obviousness", which, given the racked terminology, is an affront to the reader, doubly so given the kind of "plausibility" arguments tossed around elsewhere (noted above). If they knew what they were talking about, they could and would have been far clearer.

You forget that the process of choosing, of deliberating, are acts of a mental kind. I don’t think you understand what the authors are claiming. The authors are not saying that naturalists are unaware that thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fantasies, or what have you, exist in their minds. What the authors are pointing out is that according to the naturalist, in the area of the causal explanations of believing- such can never be linked to other mental events like apprehensions and other believings. It is a certain type of mental content/process that is being discussed here:

“In many (but not all) cases, believings (formation of beliefs) are causally explained by apprehending (being aware of) and believing mental contents such as (a) propositions and (b) the logical entailment relationships that obtain among them.” (Pg. 118)

Why didn’t you attempt to deal with their syllogism on page 119?

i. Every effect event is caused only by nonmental events (this is just a statement of the stronger principle endorsed by strict naturalism).

ii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is a mental effect event.

iii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is caused only by nonmental events.
First, the language here is poor- all this believing, entailment, and obtaining is murky, either purposefully or at any rate irremediably, since if they really knew what they were talking about, they would be clearer, as noted above.

Secondly, the first statement of the syllogism is their straw man, not mine. It is false. The nature of mental events is that they can cause each other, and can be stored and recalled at later times, creating a vast matrix of cause and effect relations from the development of the brain, through childhood, to the current thread of thought that one might have in one's head, which even you would appreciate is not a single mental event, but a continuous stream of them, buttressed by an even vaster flow of unconscious mental events. It is true that ultimately, mental events are traceable to outside causes such as sensory data and the genetic code that generates brain structure. But there is room for plenty of interior events twixt these outside causes and any particular mental event, such as a belief.

What strict naturalism means is that all mental events correspond to physical events, which have physical causes, which could all be determined (conceptually, at least) going back in time. I certainly have no problem with mental events. The author's statements to the contrary made no sense, as did so much of what they wrote- they seemed to be misreading the literature, or else be focusing on the poorest rhetorical arguments made by naturalists (if their foils even are naturalists.. see below).

And your own argument is even more murky- "... such can never be linked to other mental events ..." -what on earth does that mean? The whole point of neurobiology is to determine the linkage among mental/physical events, where signals come in through the eyes (to take one example), proceed to the back of the head visual areas, then progressively up the processing ladder of the visual system until they arrive as qualia in the as yet mysterious consciousness, and so forth. Linkage is what this is all about, and to assert that links can never be made- between two beliefs, or between two other mental events- flies in the face of evidence- from brain scanning, from strokes and other defects, etc.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Secondly, note the obeisance to "ordinary understanding", which is often mentioned as the author's touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth's movement, the sun's power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed.”

You are missing the authors’ greater point, which is that in this area of the mind and all those things that makes people feel they are different from a tad-pole, such as free-will, choosing, apprehending beauty, love, the good, the true, and the very sense of their difference from other biological life goes completely against a naturalist understanding of what it means to be human. You need to address why it is that our own view of ourselves is so “astonishingly” different than the philosophical explanation given by the naturalist. And remember, it is not a “scientific” explanation, but a philosophical one based upon an interpretation of the data—we need to know why it has to be interpreted your way, without citing your prior philosophical beliefs.
At last, you touch on an interesting question- why do we have this customary view? There is a straight evolutionary and practical explanation, which is that we (and all organisms) evolved to engage with the outside world, not with our inner world. Our senses are honed to accurately perceive our immediate physical and social surroundings in the interests of survival. There is little need to know how our internal operations are generated, other than having the vague sensations of pain and pleasure that indicate that things are going badly or well. When we eventually create complex (even conscious) robots, their high-level programs will doubtless have similar characteristics, concentrating on external interactions rather than wasting time on knowing whether chip register 24523 has communicated with memory register 89629.

So our sense of consciousness seems to us magical and perfect, even though a bit of experimentation can show that it is quite a hodgepodge of ignoring 95% of what goes on and splicing together the rest with appropriate time-shifts into a plausible video-experience. That is why TV works, for example, since our eye/brain processing is slow enough to see its jagged line-scanning as continuous motion. It is also why we sense a complete visual field, even though it actually has a big hole near the middle. Our sense of the world is smooth because, by practical / evolutionary argument, its operations must not get in the way of actually sensing the external world, however defective its mechanics are. It would be fatal to be spending time monitoring our senses (or, god forbid, our inner processing), rather than monitoring what is actually interesting ... the world.

There is no question that we are different from tadpoles- in scale, but not in kind. Tadpoles have likes and dislikes that guide their lives, and senses that accurately portray what is going on around them. It is not the most interesting life, perhaps, but they may indeed have senses of beauty as well as morals. They have a discriminating appreciation of mating partners, which in my book counts as a sense of beauty, and insofar as they have social lives, they restrict their behavior in order to socialize with others, thus expressing moral senses, where presumably it is frowned upon to eat each other, for instance.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic "god of the gaps" approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.”

Again you miss exactly what aspect of mental activity the authors are speaking to, which is choice, apprehending and believing based upon other beliefs. No one is suggesting that the physical and spiritual can be divided in the way you are assuming here. It appears you were looking for a ridiculous argument like, “We think the soul is located in the left quadrant of the cerebral cortex.” This would be similar to talking about God as if such a being were just a really- really powerful human-like creature (Superman) living on a planet somewhere called heaven and if we just had our telescope turned to the right place, we could see God! We see here the same comic-book understanding of the soul.

The authors readily admit that this is a mystery (dualism, whether Cartesian or Non-Cartesian), but every honest scientist admits many mysteries to this universe and especially as to humans. So what? The authors point to a dualism posited by Kant, which simply located the soul as present “as a whole in [the] body as a whole in every part of it.” (Pg. 66) So, in fact, the areas the authors chose to attack naturalism are indeed their weakest, but they are each weak—only in different ways.
The activities of "choice, apprehending, and believing based upon other beliefs" are exactly the objects of current neuroscience. The effects of physical and chemical perturbations to the brain, which alter moral, economic, and other forms of choice, testify eloquently to their physical substrate. The mystery of dualism is belied by its complete poverty of either explanation or evidence, other than the personal sense of it, which is accounted for (though not explained) as I outlined above. So as with other mysteries that theists insist upon, such as god, miracles, and divine trinities ... they are more phantasms than mysteries. True scientific mysteries are characterized by problematic evidence, such as the equivalence of the speed of light in all directions, which stumped Newtonian models of physics. The problem of consciousness has only one piece of evidence indicating that materialism is insufficient- the way it feels/seems from the inside. All other evidence from neuroscience, logic, pharmacology, physiology, etc. converges in the opposite direction.

Indeed, a supernaturalist might claim that any evidence that arrives in this natural world is automatically skewed to naturalist forms of understanding and can not count- a sort of catch-22 that discounts any detectable phenomenon as evidence. Thankfully, that is not a problem for the naturalist.

I might even suggest that the whole book would have been better replaced by an exposition of the simple radio metaphor, where theists posit that even though a radio (brain) can be damaged in many ways to make us think that its programs arise from within itself, its signals actually come from outside, just as the brain might be getting signals from god, or the soul might be some kind of extra-mechanistic signalling device, etc.. Such a discussion would be been far more clear than what these authors offered. This could be addressed by a non-theist by the absence of any evidence for external signals or the design of the brain for their reception, or indeed for any signaling mode (other than magical) that might be relevant. (Unfortunately, all these arguments have a negative character and are not entirely compelling, since we do not have a complete mechanistic theory of how the brain works, yet.)

(Following my discussion of how consciousness follows, rather than leads, other brain activities)
Okay, let’s apply such a view to the process of your book review: So your review is just a non-purposeful, random, “caboose” like rambling, neither here nor there, of a person who believes that conscious will (which he would need for a review like this to even happen) is an “illusion.” Since you are not the “master of your own house” I can assume this review then is perhaps something you really don’t even believe…perhaps you wrote it in a ghost-like trance…you tried to force your fingers into typing the exact opposite, but to no avail. Now, we both know that is not what happened and yet, for you to make your case, you have to speak, act, and think as if the authors’ views are truer to reality than your own.

And you cite Freud? He is seen as an influential popular figure now (a celebrity), not in any serious scientific way.
Freud is still appreciated in just the way I cited- he established the idea and power of the unconscious, even if his detailed theories of its composition and modes of treatment are no longer followed. You understand the concept, I assume? The concept that most of what goes on in our heads is not known consciously? That our thoughts first incubate at various levels outside consciousness before arriving there in a blaze of either glory or shame? Whether one views it as a caboose or a conning tower, consciousness is a small part of what goes on in our heads, and clearly has to interact with many other processes in some way, sending or receiving data.

At any rate, the idea is not that my thoughts don't exist, or are random, but that consciousness is not where they take shape. Consciousness reports them, but does not form them. Surely that should be understandable to someone who believes that thoughts come from extra-terrestrial sources? The question is whether we can, by technical means, determine where they really do come from, or whether we renounce (and ignore, as the book did) the entire enterprise and go on spinning empty theories of "powers" or "capacities" to think/believe, imputed to nebulous "non-spatial" entities.

What you are forgetting is that yours is the argument from ignorance. You don’t know why or how, in a strictly natural sense, consciousness and the mind operate the way they do. You think it will be reduced to an entirely mapable physical construct one day, but until then you posit and argue from…ignorance. However the authors are suggesting that the soul is the “how” as to these dilemmas and since they do not start with your presupposition that the material is all there is- they are not making an argument from ignorance—but from experience, philosophy, theology, logic, science, and history. To admit that one possible solution is a mystery, not reducible, is not the same as arguing from ignorance. Your argument is: “I don’t know, but it has to be reducible to a physical-material cause…because I’m committed to philosophical naturalism.” Their argument is: “We think we know—it is the classical view (a soul-we are more than physical) of such matters—and it indeed is a mystery.” So is love, evil, the good, the true, and the beautiful. So is life. So what? To recognize such is hardly to argue from ignorance. In fact, it is to argue from wisdom.
Very well put. But consider how many other times the classical view of "more than physical" phenomena has actually been proven out. The answer is never. The second question is where the currently available evidence leads. There are endless cases of specific damage to the brain that result in specific defects in perception, action, morality, language, and other mental functions. Chopping off one's head also has a routinely definitive effect. There is simply no other plausible avenue to analyze mental functions than by studying the brain. No dis-embodied intelligence has ever been demonstrated, except by charlatans. And even our most fervent, drug-induced experiences of divinity are never corroborated the morning after in any concrete way, other than by the confabulation of miracles that seem so very scarce nowadays. There is no doubt that we can think and feel amazing things, just no evidence that they signify anything disembodied, whether consciousness or divinity.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Why do values need to be normative at all?”

Yes, that is exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and serial killers asked themselves. And why do ecological values need to be normative? And why should how we treat animals be normative? Of course, you want your values to be normative, you simply can’t tell us why and when you attempt to, we learn that there really are no such things as morals or values—there are only assertions of power.
No comment.

As noted by Fagerstrom: “Darwinism does not provide us with values about whether [a particular state of affairs] is a better or worse state of affairs. Period!” (Pg. 91)

One might respond that Naturalism is different than Darwinism. However that will not do. They both lead to a world where “better or worse” are meaningless. And if one responds, “Well, Darwinism or Naturalism might not provide values, but we can from our own imaginations,” he still has not told us why the values produced by the imaginations of the Nazis could not or should not be normative. Why should we resist those values? In fact, he has removed any way for us to talk about what “normative” would even mean
I never said that Naturalism per se is related to morals, actually. Morals come from our study of ourselves, our desires and needs, and whatever reason and foresight we can bring to bear on reconciling them all (especially with those of other people). Naturalists are typically also humanists, since they do not believe in extraterrestrial sources for human morals, or any of the other fabulous sources that have been prophesied over the years. Indeed, they do not believe in an end to history or a coming judgment, whether rapturous or apocalyptic- only that our future is in our own hands.

It is funny to hear theists prate that the origin of morals is in their authority, in their books and in their apparently not very omnipotent god. That they are the only valid judges of others- that anyone who disagrees with them has no basis to judge others, and moreover should be compared to Nazis. Have they no faith ... in their fellow man? Apparently not, even after such an election as we have just had! Religious leaders preached hate and fear in this election, especially against gay marriage in California. It should be deeply shameful.

What a disappointing review. You failed to grapple with this book in any significant way. Unlike the authors who addressed naturalism in a charitable, fair, and professional way, you chose the exact opposite route in your review. Very bad form.

What the authors were discussing in their book and the entire conversation around these things require, at a minimum, some background, some presumed familiarity with the philosophical, historical, theoretical, and scientific context to the areas under discussion. Most of us simply need to read more, take some classes, get out and talk to more people who differ and have different perspectives. But the greater issue is one of sensibility. Our wills, our emotions, our choices, our loves are involved in these matters. There is a mystery as to why one person might see a man smile as his son scores a touchdown and reflect, “There must be causal electrical pulses going from eye to brain to facial muscles happening” and a different person reflecting that, “The father sees perhaps himself again, or maybe what he wanted to be, in his son now, and he loves him so.” In other words, what do we believe is really happening at such a moment and what can it be reduced to? It is here, in the area of sensibility, aesthetics, and beauty where we see the greatest difference between the two of us (and Christians and Naturalists as a whole) and for which there is no quick or obvious remedy.
This is the conclusion, and what can one say? I found the book tedious, incoherent, and laughable. Scientific context? That was one area where the authors offered nothing.. the very field where souls should be investigated, in comparison or conjunction with real brain science, the authors offered pathetic, completely untethered arguments about whether the soul is point-like or extended, its "capacities", "powers", and the figurative ruminations of Paul of Tarsus. I was incredulous that anyone would have such low intellectual standards as to publish it.

There is indeed an issue of sensibility here, one that is critically important. This book was not about our "loves", it was about reason- reasons to believe in one or another model of reality, either naturalistic or supernatural, written in a putatively scholarly way in order to persuade the intellect, not the heart. On this count they failed miserably, not even trying to engage the leading intellectual findings about the actual brain, but focusing what fire they have on their fellow-philosopher Jaegwon Kim, who may not even be a naturalist.

I'd suggest that philosophers have had nothing interesting to say about the field of cognitive science for decades, if not centuries. This field, like others that have anything to do with the natural world, has been handed over to science for resolution based on actual data, (for instance to Francis Crick, as you cite above), as was the case with the natural philosophies of atoms, of ethers, of vitalism, of diseases, of celestial bodies, etc. At best, philosophers (like other philosophers of science) are following the science closely and considering what it means for the old questions they are familiar with and what it means for the lay person (John Searle and Oliver Sacks come to mind). At worst, they retreat into ancient formulations and abstruse terminology, playing games with each other that bear no reflection of current knowledge, and deserve prompt obscurity.

I suspect what you are trying to say is similar to the perennial notion that science drains wonder, beauty, and sacredness from the world and from ourselves. As a fan of Carl Jung, I certainly understand the attraction of holding things, experiences, and each other to be numinous and sacred. I just fail to see how these can be joined to a failed model of reality- one that simply is not true. Taking biology as my prime example, the truth of billions of years of painstaking evolution, ramification and suffering far outstrips the story of god whipping up the plants, fish, and beasts over a few days, and then scheduling everything for a do-over a couple thousand years later. The true story (as testified by every nature show) is far more likely to inspire dedication to the precious and beautiful life of this planet.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A new NATO

Has NATO gotten too big? Let's make it bigger! Has NATO lost its purpose? Let's give it a newer, bigger purpose, and a new name!

About the only thing I liked about John McCain's foreign policy proposals was an international league of democracies that would put a bit more muscle behind democratic principles around the globe. It would invite only real democracies to join. His version seemed to be a replacement for the UN and a stick to beat over the head of Russia and China, playing a game of social ostracism.

The fact is that international relations are still chaotic and lawless, stuck in a Victorian age of nationalist competition. While international crises mount ever higher in number, complexity, and significance, the international system is unequipped to deal with them. The UN has proven to be utterly incapable of taking action on any controversial issue, and is even corrupted itself to the point of betraying the very ideals that it putatively upholds.

What I would propose is a transformation of NATO into an ethics-based international group with broad membership and representative governance, and with military power to bear on critical international issues- essentially a constabulary body. This group would not supersede the UN, since it would not be universal, and would have stringent membership criteria open to countries that achieve certain levels of human rights, transparency, good governance, etc. A re-naming might also be in order, such as to "GETO"- the global ethics treaty organization.

NATO was founded to counter the Russia of the cold war- to seal Allied gains made in World War II by a strong Western military alliance where all powers pledged to defend each other in the context of classic maneuver warfare (and eventually, with nuclear weapons as well). This purpose has evaporated, and now NATO is a feel-good organization that promotes the inclusion of various Eastern European countries into a vague sense of European-ness, and annoys Russia deeply with every new member. This dynamic has to stop. Relations with Russia are too important to be playing keep-away with an almost meaningless clique reminiscent of junior high school.

NATO has to be retooled and fundamentally rethought so that it is not in an automatically adversarial position vs Russia, and so that it gains a sustaining purpose in line with the challenges of today. The Euro-Russian landmass has calmed down enough that we no longer need to maintain the Metternichian alliances and balance of power strategies of yore. There are far more pressing matters at hand, such as climate change, economic meltdowns, failed states and rogue terrorist organizations. Thus this would be a good time to pivot NATO from a European defense organization into a global constabulary organization, based on explicit and modern ethical principles.

Glimmers of this change are already afoot, with NATO's first military efforts in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of these actions was widely accepted (except by Russia in the former case, mostly for reasons of ethnic sympathy). This legitimacy is crucial, and can be increased by making NATO into a more open organization. NATO also has a far greater ability to act, and greater effectiveness, than any version of UN force, such as its peace keeping units. The UN system, with its ossified security council, deference to sovereignty, and excessive need for consensus, is a perfectly fine place to discuss international affairs and to take unexceptional actions such as famine relief and disease eradication. But it is structurally unequal to serious policing issues. Only when it lends its aegis to another country's actions, such as in the Korean or first Iraq wars, does significant action result, but the legitimacy of such free-agenting is not very high, and nor is its consistency or effectiveness.

The key to this new GETO organization would be a governance index, which rates each country yearly for its adherence to various ethical norms, like human rights, rule of law, political transparency, media transparency, sponsorship of external terrorism and instability, and corruption (many more could be imagined, such as status of women, minorities, environmental stewardship, etc.). Indexes of this kind are currently produced by many non-governmental organizations (NGO's) as well as the US state department. Those from NGO's would be used, flexibly changing sources from year to year as various NGO's gained credibility or developed better research abilities. Their independence from governments would play an important role in keeping the system as inbiassed as possible. Variation in index composition would not be critically important, since many of these measures tend to correlate with each other. The selection of indexes would be up the GETO membership, as would the weighting scheme by which a composite governance index is arrived at. As the values and critical issues of the international system change, the benchmarks of membership can change as well.

Is this kind of system necessarily biased, since all values are subjective? Not really- all countries pay lip service to human rights and elevated values. All countries subscribe to the basic UN documents which express these values in elevated tones. The problem is that none are penalized for not realizing them, and membership and voting powers are given to all, willy nilly.

This kind of evaluation scheme for countries would have several uses for GETO. Suppose it uses a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is best. First would be a threshold for inclusion of new members, say at score 70. Next would be a threshold for expulsion of current members, say at score 60. There would be no limit to membership- if all countries of the world attained good government and high rankings, then all would be members (alternatively, countries might be ranked in order and only half allowed in as members at any one time, creating perpetual competition for better governance scores). There would also not be any extraneous measurements, like for democracy per se, or economic success- this is an organization predicated purely on ethical behavior. Lastly, there would be a threshold for intervention against a non-member country's sovereignty, say 10. Intervention would not be mandatory, but could be undertaken with a voting scheme among the membership. Such voting might take place in proportion to population, perhaps multiplied by the member's governance index score minus 60 (thus making automatic the removal of low-scoring members). The point would be to construct balanced representation and true legitimacy for GETO's mandate, which is a global policing role.

Such a scoring system should bring in the current members of NATO without problems, as well as democratic developed nations world-wide. It might leave Russia and China on the fence. Even if they were members, they would not have veto power over policing actions, as they do now in the UN security council. Non-member states would be welcome to participate in most aspects of GETO operations (except voting) by invitation, even giving military assistance if it proved convenient to GETO to employ them alongside its own forces.

There is far more to policing the globe than attending to states in identifiable free-fall, such as perhaps Zimbabwe or Afghanistan. There are also border disputes, incursions, proxy wars, ethnic cleansing, and countless other problems. GETO would not aim to solve all conflict, but be a backstop to address outrageous suffering, requiring a supermajority of some kind to take action. It would then separate warring parties, create buffer zones, administer countries or parts of countries on a temporary basis, begin social and physical reconstruction, and begin grass-roots civic and election processes, building local governance from the ground up, not from the top down.

The example of Darfur is most pressing- we are paralyzed out of a lack of institutional resources, stymied by a few corrupt vetoes from stopping a contemporary horror. The UN has been unable to generate consensus, NATO has no jurisdiction or interest, and the African Union has neither the will nor the capacity to be effective. GETO would easily identify Sudan as a failed state (or at least a state that is failing an identifiable population), and step in to cordon off warring parties, carving up the territory of Sudan as needed to restore calm. These partitions would then last as long as either party wanted them to, becoming new nations if they proved durable and cohesive enough.

One problem with this GETO scheme is that it might promote a moral hazard- the profusion of splinter movements eager to be backed by GETO into separate mini-nations of their own, on the basis of little more than ethnic hatred or greed for local natural resources. Would California be interested in seceding from the US? Or would Quebec wish to break from Canada? More realistically, there are countless ethnic communities in countries such as Georgia, Iran, or Turkey that would love to take advantage of an offer of intervention and protection from GETO. How are the irremediable conflicts to be distinguished from those that are opportunistic, and how should GETO treat nations plagued with secessionist groups, including Iraq and India? The governance index of the host country will be one important guide- if they have good governance (especially if they have significant local decentralized control), it is unlikely that a secessionist community will have to resort to arms or terrorism, but will have peaceful means for self-determination.

A profusion of minor countries, as has taken shape in the Balkans, is not necessarily a problem at all. It is only an issue in a Darwinian international order, where the big eat the small and the small need Mafia-like protection. Luxembourg and Lichtenstein have survived splendidly in the modern European system. If they wished, they could merge with another country of their own free will, participating in a dynamic international system where change comes from orderly self-determination rather from the competing imperialist impulses of great powers. In order to grow, great powers would need to be attractive rather than ruthless.

The case of Chechnya is instructive- it is unlikely that GETO would have the power to intervene against Russia, but the need to do so is readily apparent. Russia has waged a campaign of unrelenting brutality, scorching Chechnya to a cinder to save its own military self-esteem. It is simply a moral necessity to cordon off such territories when possible to prevent unspeakable atrocities and suffering. If such a system of GETO-sponsored intervention raises the power of separatist groups vis-a-vis central powers, so be it. This re-balancing of power would be a way of granting human rights of self-determination to previously oppressed populations, in turn encouraging more tolerant central governance and correcting the hastily-drawn maps of long ago. In this proposal, actions against a GETO member state would not have any special encumbrance, subject only to the regular voting rules and to a minimalist principle to only contain the problem and separate warring parties, not to threaten the host country if it does not present additional serious governance problems.

Conversely, the separated area would not be left to its own devices to devolve into crime and mini-despotism (also e.g. Chechnya), but would be strongly managed by a temporary GETO mandate, encouraging only serious separatist movements to engage in such a risk. GETO would be experienced in running small governments, unlike what the US has attempted in Iraq, and would engage in an orderly process to bring the territory out of receivership as soon as possible.

Afghanistan presents a case in point. It is unrealistic to think that Afghanistan will become a western-style democracy on a timetable consistent with outside management/involvement. Indeed it is hard to imagine how an outside power, however benevolent, can make progress towards any kind of modern government there. The current NATO occupation/rebuilding effort needs to take thorough stock of the materials at hand and indigenous desires and culture. The culture is heavily tribal, so the best approach would have been to put NATO in central control for a temporary period (as a neutral party) while sorting out how to upgrade the governance of each tribal unit (empowering individuals over their customary warlords), and how to construct a federal system that does not put each tribal unit at each other's throat when NATO leaves. Cultural engagement and judgment is essential, as we learned so belatedly in Iraq. But approaching the task from an orderly international position of legitimacy would also be extremely helpful.

The GETO proposal is a mechanism to renovate and rejuvenate NATO to face contemporary problems, while advancing global goals of improved governance and happiness. These happen to be identical with US goals of a peaceful and prosperous international system, but achieving them will require surrendering some measure of sovereignty ourselves, to carefully constructed international structures with legitimacy, durability, and power.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is Obama green?

After all the promises, will an Obama administration make progress on green issues?

Now that the long nightmare is over and Barack Obama is measuring the White House drapes (and ordering up a presidential dog house), it is time to ponder what the future will hold under his administration (For an intriguing framework to evaluate the election, see here). For those of us who view climate change, biodiversity, and sustainability as the defining issue of our time, we have to ask- what is in store?

Although John McCain stated his understanding of climate change and support of measures to mitigate it, it became clearer as the campaign progressed just how shallow that commitment was. When gas prices went up, he suggested a gas tax holiday. Not only would this have been ineffective in reducing gas prices, given a supply-constricted market, (effectively transferring money from the government to the oil industry), but insofar as it reduced gas prices at all, it would have been counterproductive to the central policy problem: reducing fossil fuel use.

The need to reduce fossil fuel use came up in the campaign in the guise of energy independence from foreign sources of oil and gas. In the absence of an actual debate on climate change and sustainability issues, that was welcome enough, but did not provide a direct contrast. The gas tax episode, McCain's choice of the retrograde Sarah Palin, the fact that his campaign was run by a bevy of lobbyists and former Bushies, its championing of off-shore drilling (remember "Drill, baby, drill!"?), its wildly opportunistic tenor as it drew into the station, and of course the fact that his administration would be staffed by Republicans and lobbyists, all indicated that a McCain administration might easily have been as environmentally paleolithic as the previous one, hard as that is to imagine.

The one decent policy that McCain pushed was permitting new nuclear power plants. Distasteful as they are from mining, proliferation, and waste perspectives, nuclear plants are carbon-neutral, and would provide temporary breathing room (!) while truly sustainable technologies travel down the price per unit energy curve. It is also conceivable that future forms of nuclear power may be highly efficient and proliferation-resistant. However, it is also quite possible that barring government subsidies (including the phenomenally expensive waste repository yet to be built), nuclear power is currently no cheaper than renewable power, so while nuclear might be part of a carbon-neutral mix and benefit from continuing research, it should compete on the level in a system where carbon emissions and other forms of pollution are properly priced.


The Obama campaign had a distinctly more climate-friendly set of policy proposals. It stressed tax credits for renewable energy research, including plugin hybrids, higher taxes for oil companies, and several mandates- for renewable electricity production, higher vehicle fuel efficiency and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. It also proposed higher long-term goals for carbon emission reductions than did the Mc Cain campaign. These are all good policies, but they do not really bite the bullet, which must be to realign the incentives of the entire energy market in line with long-term sustainability to actually achieve those far-off goals.

Simply put, pollution, needs to be priced into the energy economy, raising the prices of fossil fuels in proportion to how dirty they are in all dimensions, including CO2 emission. The problem with renewable energy is not that there aren't enough government programs supporting research and development, but that its market prospects are unfavorable and uncertain, compared with oil and especially with coal. The oil market, though heading towards the crisis of peak oil (as is natural gas), is at the moment still at the mercy of Saudi Arabia, which can turn the spigot on at will and strangle the economics of high auto efficiency here in the US. In the absence of comprehensive pollution pricing, it would be minimally beneficial to set a floor price for oil at $100/barrel in the US (with the difference collected as tariffs by the government, if necessary), so that market participants have a consistent expectation of future prices around which to invest in conservation and alternative supplies.

Coal is even more abundant and cheap- the coal industry is able to externalize the costs of mind-boggling pollution from mining, landscape denudation, carbon emissions, mercury emissions, particulate emissions, etc., etc. Renewable power can never compete with coal, which is a virtually free source of energy, unless coal's external costs are priced in. The EPA has started to price / regulate a
few aspects of coal pollution, such as sulfur dioxide, particulate, and mercury emissions, but we have long way to go before coal's full impacts are accounted for (here in the US, let alone in China!).

Obama has consistently supported "clean coal", truly a black mark on his record and on his campaign. The only way to make coal clean from an emissions perspective (forgetting about its extraction impacts) would be to collect all emitted gasses, remove the witches brew of pollutants, and sequester all the CO2 elsewhere, such as underground. While sequestration is a matter of current research (large pilot plants have been promised, but none are working), my view is that this will never be a viable technology. CO2 takes a great deal of energy to isolate and pump back into the ground (40% extra required). Only a few types of geologic formations are amenable to this kind of sequestration. No one has any idea how well the idea will scale to the vast amounts of CO2 we would need to sequester. And to top it off, accidents could be truly catastrophic. If a CO2 field became uncapped or leaky, the heavier-than-air CO2 would be a deadly cloud, much like those naturally released from lakes in Africa, which killed 1,746 people in just one rural incident. CO2 sequestration (and "clean coal" generally), thus appears to be a high tech fake-out designed to give succor to a phenomenally dirty industry. (Another example is the hydrogen economy, especially the hydrogen-powered car, but that is a topic
for another day!).

Obama also promoted a "$1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate". Thankfully, this was not an energy voucher system that would counter the conservation incentives of high fuel prices, but was a broad per capita or per household payment simply labeled with an energy banner. So this ends up being neutral as far as sustainability issues go, and little was heard about it later in the campaign.

Lastly, Obama has time and again sworn that regular people's taxes will not go up ... not by one cent. This kind of read-my-lips pledge is dangerous, especially when the federal debt needs to be pared down and when the carbon trading, or pollution pricing, or whatever means chosen to fulfill the proposed mandates of carbon emissions reduction and energy independence will doubtless be construed as new taxes by the average person, not to mention the opposing party. There is no way we can do what needs to be done in reducing greenhouse gas emissions simply with tax credits, federal research, and encouragement. We also can not rely on fossil fuels becoming scarce enough (by way of peak oil, let alone shortages of coal) to create the price incentives that will be needed, within the short time frame that we have to forestall increasingly serious climate effects. Even now, Canada is busily tapping its vast tar sand deposits, using precious natural gas and water in one of the most wasteful fossil fuel extraction enterprises imaginable, but which is economical in the current energy pricing system.

Obama's record is one of legislative compromise and accommodation. That kind of leadership alone is not going to cut it to address climate change at the requisite scale, which goes against the short term interest of every single moneyed interest group, and indeed every single American. The lesson that Obama gave us in his campaign is that political change takes people power. He can only act with a political wind at his back, in the form of wide-spread support, developed through painstaking debate, education, and inspiration. So our role as citizens is to keep this issue on the front burner. And to continue to educate each other about the facts of the matter- to push for long term thinking over short term laizzes-faire, and to reinforce the moral imperative to forestall this ultimate tragedy of the commons.

Ideally, Obama would devote some of his time and energy to the green agenda, educating Americans to the seriousness of climate change and biosphere protection generally, its long-term implications, and the sacrifices needed to meet them. But the campaign spent little time on the topic, understandably enough (Al Gore was treated as a somewhat mad uncle). Thus it is not clear that the mandate of the new administration extends to the farther reaches of the public attention span, which is where environmental sustainability languishes. It was very promising that in his victory speech, Obama touched on "a planet in peril" as the second of his pending superhero tasks. Hopefully he will expand on that theme at the inauguration and thereafter. Endangered organisms great and small have no political voice- it is up to us to care about them and care for them.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The meaning of life

Aesthetics, eugenics, religion, and meaning ... is the meaning of life really 42?

In the typically heated way of the culture war, an evangelical correspondent pointed me to a discussion of the sanctity of life as espoused by the pope, written by an adherent of eastern orthodoxy(!). It took as its foil a line of thought called "transhumanism", which promotes complete freedom in the future direction of humanity, including technological enhancements of all kinds. So while the pope promotes a conservative view that humanity is inviolable and should not be tampered with from conception to unassisted death, the opposite view is that human life is improvable in many ways, up to a radical redefinition through genetic tinkering and even wholesale technological replacement of our bodies/minds. Both sides could be painted in either invidious or glowing terms, and what struck me is that the path between this Scylla and Charybdis is quite a bit easier than it is made out to be.

In the linked discussion, note the fascinating admission in the third-to-last paragraph that man makes his own gods, selecting / evoking whichever god matches the philosophy of the age. (Ed. note: the author didn't mean to admit this- he only said that others "invoke", "invite the advent of", and "summon" gods that are presumably false, while leaving unsaid that the god he and the pope invoke is presumably true, for some reason). Note also how moving this essay is, and at the same time how bizarrely hyperbolic. Note at the end the abjuration of any possibility of "conversation" between the two sides, and also the miracle of conversion, versus the tragedy of apostasy. And then the closing words: perfect and unremitting enmity!

On the one side, true conservatives might decry all improvements to the human condition, including relief of suffering with drugs, spectacles, housing, and indoor plumbing. And in contrast, radical improvers might promote human cloning, genetic reprogramming, an arms-race of sci-fi enhancements, and coercion to produce only the highest-"quality" babies and also to abandon life when it is no longer ideally fulfilling. Obviously, both are straw men, but illustrate the extremes between which reasonable people navigate on the issues of what this life of ours means, and where it is going.

We would not be human if we didn't use our minds to ameliorate our condition, so extreme conservatism is definitely out, and has been since well before the paleolithic. On the other side, radical improvement suffers from several problems, though given the length of the probable future of humanity, all radical eventualities will doubtless come to pass in some form. How can we consciously define improvements to the human condition? It is one thing to address discomforts, pain, and suffering along the way, and something quite different to decide collectively to alter the very experience of humanity.

To date we have stumbled into the future by virtue of biological evolution and blind cultural development. Animal breeders have changed other species, for instance changing the minds of dogs so that they love humans, or hate small game, or herd sheep. For ourselves, we have not used this power, other than through the unconscious status-seeking, war-making, child-making instincts that rule our social affairs in what we take as our state of nature. We have not grasped this nettle explicitly, and for very good reason- the hubris involved is overwhelming. The attempt eugenicists (and Nazis, and Spartans) made to consciously improve the species fell afoul of the impossibility of disentangling narcissism and pride from power. Defining the human condition is a god-like power, and however plastic the human condition has been in practice, our awe before the matrix of cosmic parameters that create and confine the human condition makes us reluctant to change them, and rightly so.

Even characterizing the human condition is impossible, it being the object of every work of art, and of every Socratic life that examines and seeks to know itself. The human condition is infinitely protean, diverse both by our biological endowments and by the fertility of culture through which we continually transform over time. Concomitantly, humans are temperamentally torn between seeking change and novelty, and of bemoaning a past golden age while thinking that the current age is going to hell in a hand-basket. We simply lack criteria to guide or justify sweeping change in the human condition, and thus our position must be extremely humble.

So despite the fact that improved understanding of biology puts ever greater powers of transformation in our hands, we will never really know what to do with them. A critical distinction exists between what we may do to ourselves and what we do to others. If I am the only sufferer, I can take mind-altering drugs, get tattoos, and cosmetic surgery, making permanent alterations of virtually any kind. If genetic interventions become available to allow alterations like hibernation, hairlessness, or enhanced religiosity, I would presumably be free to do what I wish to my somatic body, guided only by my aesthetic sensibilities and calculations of risk. But when it comes to my children, let alone those who are unrelated, the ethics change immensely.

Here our moral sensibility and the humility mentioned above become paramount. Each person should be unique, and should have the right to freely explore his or her own existence and potentials. Their nature must not be predetermined by others (which would coercion of an egregious sort). This is an argument against cloning, of course, since making copies of one's self is the most narcissistic and controlling thing one could do, and making copies of someone else would be simply toying with another human.

Restricting debate then to issues of diseases, defects, and suffering to be ameliorated, these still have plenty of complexity. Is deafness a birth defect to be avoided? Down syndrome? Shortness? Huntington's disease? In the first place, it seems wrong to leave this decision entirely to parents, for the same reason that parents do not have total control over their children after birth either. Society should put general bounds on what interventions meet the test of unmistakable benefit (by current ethical consensus), in which Huntington's disease surely fits, but not shortness, gender, eye color, etc., or even deafness. Parents should then be allowed to intervene in the former traits if they wish, and be prohibited from intervening, selecting, etc. for the latter. While life itself is not a right for unborn children (within certain bounds), given the many other interests involved in having children, restrictions on tampering with their nature certainly should be.

All we have to judge these questions are our aesthetic and moral senses (as well as our rather paltry ability to reason out consequences), out of which have arisen so much of what are called the "humanities". One of these humanities is religion- an art of living (and an axiology, or practice of valuation, of life) which makes particularly broad claims while being, along with all the rest, the production of people straining to understand their existence and their limits. It is a bit ironic that religions, while claiming unimaginable knowledge of nature and transcendence over it, are almost uniformly and extremely conservative, holding that whatever nature does is right, no matter the suffering. We hardly need such mystical contradictions to value what we have and step gingerly into the high-tech future of humanity.