Saturday, December 26, 2009

A beneficial mutation

In pursuit of that mythical beast, the beneficial mutation.

I was in a brief discussion with another blogger recently about the possibility of human evolution, in light of the vanishingly small rate of beneficial mutation. Given the few million years involved, and the small population sizes, wouldn't it be simply impossible for apes to have accumulated beneficial mutations at the requisite rate to evolve into humans, which required roughly 170,000 such alterations, by one estimate? I will leave the details of that discussion there, but much turned on the probability of beneficial mutations, which I rated much higher than my friend did.

So, an interesting study popped up in Science recently that touches on this problem, and illustrates some of the concrete issues related to mutations in a natural setting.

Ciclid (sounds like "seek-lid") fish are famous in evolutionary biology for their rapid adaptation to new lakes and their diversification within existing habitats. This paper discusses a single mutation occuring in several species in Lake Malawi which borders Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The OB (orange blotch) mutation occurs in the gene Pax7, not affecting the protein sequence of the Pax7 protein product, but occuring in its control region and increasing its expression, though the authors do not give a detailed analysis of where and when this expression takes place. This increased expression allows the OB allele to be dominant over the wild-type BB allele.

Cichlids of Lake Malawi, female (left), or male (right); wild-type (top), or carrying the OB allele of Pax7 (bottom).

Pax7 is known to regulate the development of pigment cells in fish, (its human counterpart also has developmental roles, though slightly different effects). Incidentally, its cousin Pax6 is famous for an evolutionarily conserved role in eye development. So this mutation makes a great deal of sense in view of the phenotype, which is that fish get a mottled coat (bottom) due to fewer but bigger melanophores, where before they had a relatively uniform coat (top).

For females of these species, the mottling is beneficial by being quite a bit more effective camouflage than their wild-type uniform dark color, in relatively light-colored, rocky settings. For males, however, the mottling is a catastrophe, destroying their day-glo coloring and beautiful striping. They go from disco kings to blotchy wallflowers. Much of the paper is devoted to figuring out the odd genetic system which reduces the number of affected males dramatically in these species (about 20 species share this mutation), while maintaining the OB females in high proportion (though the authors don't give population numbers).

But something needs to be said about the basic mutation- it affects a gene which has dramatic effects on development, without deranging that development completely. It is almost as though the developmental genetics of this organism (as is true for many others) is pre-positioned for evolvability, involving a lot of controlling genes with complex regulation, which can be tweeked by relatively minor mutations to alter some features of the organism while the rest of the program goes on with little detriment.

This illustrates (anecdotally, at least) how beneficial mutations may be reasonably frequent. Variation exists in all populations, and living conditions are changing all the time. So while most changes are detrimental versus the optimized mean of the ecological landscape, conditions favor change in many edge cases and novel conditions, creating room for novel phenotypes to take advantage. Ecological landscapes are also a great deal more ragged and chaotic than the smooth abstract surfaces often used to illustrate them. I see this frequently in daily life, where some disruption to my well-honed routine first makes me upset, but then reveals a new way of doing things that I adopt as a new routine. A beneficial mutation has occurred and been selected for, which happens with some regularity.

Getting back to the fish, our males were left with a serious problem- how to minimize their embarrassment while providing the females with these beneficial OB blotches? The evolutionary solution turns out to be to link the Pax7 OB allele with the female version of a novel sex determining locus (W), so that the mutation is tightly linked to the female W, and thus happens only in female fish. Remember that not all species use the X/Y chromosome system of sex determination, indeed there are a dizzying array of such systems.

Thus not only was the OB mutation beneficial, but it was beneficial enough to overcome the harm it does to males, and to induce the resolution of that harm by linking OB with the female W determiner- a gene which the authors claim is yet another beneficial mutation (or transposition, or novel gene) that arose after the OB mutation, over-riding the locus that determines gender in other species of cichlids in the region and resides on another chromosome. Indeed, it might be beneficial enough to switch the sex chromosomes of the species (or incipient species) with OB from the previous #5 chromosome to this new location, #3, illustrating how sex determination mechanisms can shift over time.

Such hugely beneficial mutations will be rare, but based on these observations of genomic, developmental, and ecologic plasticity, I'd suggest that beneficial mutations of more modest effect are more common than the vanishingly small rates that were assumed in the analysis cited above.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deficit terrorism

An interesting blog makes the case for liberal economics

Second only to theoretical physicists, economists carry a professional mystique of abstruse knowledge in the service of vast power. Vaults full of gold, trillions on "balance sheets", jargon swirling, and schools like the Chicagoans, Austrians, and Keynesians at each other's throats. Those employed at the central bank can create money ex nihilo, with god-like powers! The current crisis has made us painfully aware that while economists may use mathematics (and hopefully arithmetic) for pedestrian activities, the heart of their profession is a kind of psychoanalysis, along with a bit of conjuring. Who will ever forget Gerald Ford's Whip Inflation Now program?

Understanding is a precious commodity, and for all the critique raining down on the current administration, very difficult to come by. We can take it as given that the Republican talking points are, as usual, self-serving idiocy. Yet even discounting that, the situation is murky. I've recently gotten interested in a blog by a liberal economist who takes even Paul Krugman to task for basic blunders of macroeconomics! Not an easy thing to do with a nobel prize winner, but as I said, economics ain't physics.

I am no expert, (as usual), so bear with me (if you like) while I work out below what is going on in our economy, with the guidance of Bill Mitchell (interview), of Australia's University of Newcastle. His blog is something of a firehose of solid economics, indifferent spelling, and tart sarcasm directed at the leading lights of the profession, particularly conservatives who have suddenly found deficit religion, after eight years when "deficits don't matter". Thus Mitchell refers to the "deficit terrorists" of the present day who are prolonging the agony of this economic ... repression? decession? You make the call.

Let's start at the beginning, when the government prints money. Sovereign governments that print their own money and demand that legal tender back for taxes and the like are in a quite special position, relative to those sad-sack organizations like households, businesses, and states, that have to balance their books. Governments can print more money to cover their spending, and indeed have to do so as the economy they are responsible for grows and demands more money at stable value.

The current crisis was a bit of an error by the banks, which have another role in printing money. They make loans on the basis of small reserves, (the fractional reserve system), creating money out of thin air when they make a loan, and destroying that money again when it is paid back, while keeping the interest. Normally, the central bank keeps close tabs on the reserves underlying bank activities, so that this creation is held in check, tracking economic growth. In normal times, (again), tweeks to the interest rate charged to banks for this reserve money controls interest rates throughout the economy, thus lending activity, and thus money creation, and thus inflation.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the current unpleasantness, which was that banks, non-banks, and quasi-banks got into a low-reserve (i.e. overleveraged) lending game through esoteric "instruments" (we wouldn't want to call them loans- loans have standards!). The Federal Reserve completely lost control of the fractional reserve lending system, and the various lending "innovators" blew up when the markets they were overleveraged into began to decline.

Why wasn't this inflation of the bubble accompanied by monetary inflation? Ungodly trillions were being minted by the "banking" system, causing an asset bubble, not money-value inflation. This is perhaps where the psychoanalysis part comes in. Those of us buying houses during this period would call it inflation pure and simple, and of a particularly painful kind. But the CPI was not paying attention, since rental rates were not going up in lock step (one sign of housing market imbalance, incidentally). Most of the economy also had spare capacity for production, and offshoring/importing kept wages low. So as long as most indicators were stable, few businesses were raising prices, and the Fed, keeping its eye on the CPI, wasn't raising rates, and all were happy, except for one or two corners of the economy that were going absolutely bonkers.

Doubtless there is more to the story, but that is as much as I understand. When all that money from "innovative" banking was extinguished out of the system, we were in great danger of spiralling deflation, which prompted the Fed to flood the banking system with extra reserve money, buy up hundreds of billions of questionable assets, and reduce interest rates to zero. The extra reserve money made the banks more secure, (except those saddled with the most toxic leveraged garbage who couldn't cop a bailout from the Goldman, er, Treasury overseers), but it didn't induce them to lend. Lending depends on the customer's future prospects, and prospects suddently turned rather sour, even while businesses were pounding on the doors for money to tide them over this difficult time.

This is where the government comes back into the picture, printing and spending money. Mitchell's basic point is that government occupies a free position versus the private economy, with outflows:

- Direct spending (fiscal)
- Loans of reserve funds to banks (monetary)
- Purchase of bonds, notes, etc. on the open market with printed money (monetary)

And inflows:

- Taxes
- Debt, which is money collected from the private economy in return for IOUs
- Banking reserves called in and liquidated.

What the government does with its money is entirely immaterial. It could burn all the money that comes in the door by way of taxes and debt issues, and print new money for whatever it wishes to spend. The only stricture is that, as the manager of the monetary system of the private sector, the government (encompassing the Fed, Treasury and all the rest) wants to provide net money to the system such that inflation stays low- i.e. the value of the issued money remains stable. One could adopt the motto- "real macroeconomists care about inflation, not debt".

(Incidentally, due to this fundamental connection between the fiscal and monetary arms of government, Mitchell advocates combining central banks into government treasuries, so that they can act in unitary fashion, as they did in the US in this crisis anyhow.)

As a liberal-left economist, Mitchell adds the extra monetary policy aim of generating full employment, which used to be front and center in the US, but has receeded with the ascendence of Reagan and Friedman. Are these aims at odds? That is a critical question, especially now. Mainstream economists believe in something called the NRU, or the natural rate of unemployment, where the economy is producing as many jobs as could be expected without generating excess inflation, considering the number of malingerers and others reporting to be interested in work, but not really worthy of private sector employment.

As you can tell, this is something of of moral, even theological, concept. Leftists tend to think of NRU as zero, since everyone willing to work should get a job, if only a state-supported minimum wage job. The mid-century in the US stands as a sort of golden age in this respect, where for a long period anyone who wanted to work could find a job, during the huge post-war economic expansion. Rightists tend to think, in contrast, that people need to be "motivated" by the specter (indeed, the reality) of joblessness to be in a properly craven postion vis-a-vis business.

But one point is not really in dispute- however one celebrates the "creative destruction" of capitalism, the destruction of families, life savings, and human capital is no one's ideal. The current bubble-destruction cycle has been deeply damaging, especially to those still desperate for work. Their labor is being wasted- flushed down the toilet due to business, government, and monetary policy mismanagement. And their spirits are being crushed.

So far, the Fed has staved off deflation with its trillions of monetary support. But can the Fed, and the government in general, do more? Here we come up against the deficit terrorists, who say that the government is already in hock up to its ears and simply can't do any more. Hogwash! say liberal-left economists such as Mitchell. Is inflation a threat? No- deflation remains the current threat. So not only should the government be spending more money to replace mismanaged and dried-up labor demand, it doesn't even have to issue more debt to do so, but should just spend outright, leaving inflation management as a bridge to cross when we get to it.

Indeed, with inflation in negative territory, the policy goal is to increase inflation, (the customary goal being ~2%), which would best be accomplished by net government spending, either by sending money into the long-term bond markets, (analysis mentioned below), or directly into jobs programs, especially for our crumbling infrastructure and alternative energy needs. As everyone points out, the Great Depression was finally fixed by the biggest and most spectacularly wasteful direct jobs program in history- World War 2.

Issuing debt into the private economy to "finance" government spending simply takes money out of one pocket of the private economy (the rich who buy bonds) to put it into another (fiscal spending by the administration and congress). In normal times, that is a useful tool for monetary stability and for facilitating saving by the private economy , but right now, a great deal of extra money needs to be added- to stave off deflation, to spur economic activity in general, and to reduce the existing loan burden through modest inflation.

The financial bubble, despite creating vast amounts of money through Alice-in-Wonderland mechanisms, created only pockets of inflation, not general inflation. The subsequent implosion was so severe that much more money needs to be pumped in- about two trillion more, by one analysis which recommends that the Fed buy that amount of debt from the Treasury, effectively printing that amount of money and putting into the bond market, lowering long-term rates. The point is not to resume the over-inflated ways of the top of the bubble, but to provide the right amount to counteract the whipsaw of private lending contraction, allow the resumption of normal economic activity, and ameliorate unemployment.

[ed.note- Deeper reading of Mitchell's blog informs me that the above prescription, of the Fed buying $2 trillion of treasuries on the open market, would not actually constitute printing money, since the bonds bought would represent private liquid assets that would be extinguished. The result of all this buying would actually be to slightly lower long interest rates, which may be helpful in an indirect way, though already-low rates are not a big spur to lending. Buying this debt from the Treasury would likewise not have any effect unless the Treasury turned around and spent that money fiscally into the economy, like on infrastructure, alt. energy, etc. programs, or through a tax holiday.]

The ~1.5 trillion dollar gap of GDP, due to wasted labor and other resources.

So, do deficits matter? Yes, but mostly from a monetary perspective. The government doesn't need to "finance" its spending with debt. If the monetary system is stable, such financing (or alternately, taxation) is advisable, to keep the net money flows between the government and the private economy stable. (It also may be forced to do so if it has formally separated the central bank from its fiscal adminstration, as we have, even if the central bank then turns around and purchases those debts with created money.)

But it doesn't have to, especially when deflation is the present danger. It can (and should) spend freely without corresponding taxation or debt issuance in a deflationary situation, when the private economy lacks enough money, whether due to trade imbalances, government running net surpluses, or a credit implosion. Interest payments on government debt are certainly an encumbrance on future government spending, and some countries have reneged on such obligations (though never the US). Today's low interest rates are, however, a signal that such debt is, in concrete terms, not a problem now.

Overall, the response of the Fed and the government in general has been better to this implosion/decession than it was to the Great Depression. But the unemployment rate (much higher when one includes the underemployed, discouraged, etc.) says empirically that not enough has been done. That the financial industry should lose jobs after its overexpansion goes without saying, as is true to some extent for the housing industry as well. But the rest of the economy (so-called Main Street) is innocent in this cataclysm, and its suffering is a mark of failure in monetary and fiscal policy. In the future, one can imagine that were this kind of financial implosion to happen again, (heaven forfend!), the government should take even more rapid and forceful steps to replace credit, money stocks, and economic demand so that citizens would not be facing such terrible disruption and chaos.

  • One unemployed person.
  • All that said, who is mostly responsible for our current debt?
  • Frank Rich has a great column on the not-so-great Bernanke.
  • Survivor, for those of you looking for morals.
  • Santa and god- closer than you might imagine.
  • Mr. platitude raises his game.
  • The psychology of denial.
  • Amazing maddening story of abortion in war.
  • A great airline columnist keeps making the case against TSA.
  • Religious zealots run amok in the middle east.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who turned out the lights on the Dark Ages?

Review of Glubb's The Empire of the Arabs

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the first book of this pair, The Great Arab Conquests, by General and Sir John Glubb (1963). This week I conclude with its sequel (1966), which takes the story from the 680's, (the origin of Shiism in the Karballa massacre), 48 years after the death of Muhammed, to the mid-800's, covering both the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties of the early Muslim Empire.

Again, I can not praise Glubb's history highly enough. He writes with sweeping knowledge, genuine sympathy, and prenetrating insight, and with some verve as well. His main flaw is that as a thoroughly military product of the late British empire, he naturally concentrates on military affairs and high strategy, writing in a very traditional historical mode. Here is his reflection on the concept of political freedom:
The citizens of Britain and the United States claim today to be free men and to live in free countries, but their freedom is only relative. In practice they have agreed to a compromise. They have consented to surrender their freedom to a vague entity known as the majority, which can make laws which others must obey. In other words, men who live in settled communities are not personally free. In order to enjoy a limited amount of freedom under such circumstances, they agree to surrender the remainder.

The fact that, under this system, we still claim to be free, makes us fail to comprehend what freedom meant to a nomadic Arab. He knew nothing of the majority. He claimed the right to do as he wished, even if every other man on earth disapproved of such action. The nomad really was free, and the key to his perfect freedom was mobility. As soon as these men came to live in cities and acquired immovable property, they lost their mobility and therefore their perfect freedom. But they did not of course think the matter out in this manner. Personal freedom had become to them an instinct. Although living now in houses and in cities, they were not prepared to take anyone's orders. Those who were trying to organize and rule an empire with such subjects soon found the task impossible. p. 208

Westerners are typically unacquainted with the basics of the Muslim empire (I certainly wasn't, only learning the barest bones of Greek and Roman history in school). Yet the Muslim empire was larger than the Roman empire at its height, had a brilliant, if somewhat shorter, run, and is more of a living presence in our own world, as many of its former subjects still yearn (or even take up arms) for its re-establishment. No one wants to re-establish Rome, except in the most loosely metaphorical sense!

Before getting to Glubb's insights on the middle ages, I'll touch on a few themes from the rest of the book. The original impetus for Muslim imperialism was religious, uniting an age-old warrior raiding tradition and pan-Arab peace inspired by Muhammed's charisma and theology into a duty to spread the faith outwards by jihad. Almost on a lark, the newly minted Muslims, earlier content to harry each other and the empires on their frontiers while making a living conveying trade goods from the orient, marched on the Byzantine empire in the Levant, the Persian empire in Iraq, the Byzantine empire in Egypt, and the core of the Persian empire in Persia, in quick succession.

As luck would have it, these adversaries had exhausted themselves in prior wars with each other, leaving the way virtually open. The same situation repeated itself as the Muslims entered North Africa in the 690's to 700's, and Spain in the 710's. Only the Berbers in North Africa put up continuing resistance, ironically after adopting Islam, but then finding that the promise of social and political equality in Islam failed to materialize. It was an Arab aristocracy, as it remains today in the deep feud between Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis (dressed in white, in Umayyad tradition), and Shiite Iran (dressed in black, in Abbasid tradition, or green, in Shiite tradition).

The tenor of government gradually devolved, from the popular acclamation of the first two caliphs after Muhammed (who also followed the religious and ascetic traditions of early Islam), to the nepotism installed by the Umayyads (family of the Umaiya, who were ironically descended from Muhammed's bitterest opponents in Mecca) whose capitol was in Demascus, to the more Eastern-themed despotism of the Abbasids (family of Abbas, more closely related to Muhammed, but not descended from him). The Abbasids rose on the back of rebellion from Persia, using the name Ali to rally the Shia partisans against the family that killed both Muhammed's son-in-law Ali and his son Hussain, of Karbala fame. They also had engineered their rebellion through messianic propaganda, charismatic organizers, intrigue, and secret cells- techniques that would be familiar to any Bolshevik.

Imagine the disappointment when the "Ali" meant by the Abbasids turned out to be quite different from the Ali of Shia veneration. Related, yes, but it was a bait and switch, with the truth coming out only after the Abbasids had authored a Mafia-style bloodbath and seated themselves firmly in power. This remains as one example of the much abused messianism of Iranian muslims, who had thought (mistakenly) that a reign of peace, justice, and light would follow the Umayyad overthrow.

Another aspect of the decline from Muhammed's original vision was the increasing violation of his commandment that Muslims were not to kill each other. The first civil war, involving Ali and the Umayyads, produced profound shock among those familiar with the original traditions. But as the decades passed, the empire descended into a welter of civil wars, and the energies once devoted to expansion (which effectively ended by 715) turned inward. Glubb seems to get a rise out of punctiliously reporting the various severed heads transported great distances through the empire, usually to inform the caliph of some great news, whether good or ill. Few chapters pass without such a scene. One can almost sympathize with the recent extremists in Iraq who expressed their nostalgia for the long-lost caliphate with such beheadings.


Now let me focus on the most fascinating chapter of the book, about the European dark ages (entitled "The End of Mare Nostrum"). Glubb digresses to argue that Muslim sea power in the Mediterannean accounts for the sudden autarky of Europe after the long centuries of Roman rule and commerce. The Arabs were far from natural mariners, at first keeping from naval engagements entirely, then gingerly hiring Egyptian and Lebanese ships and crews and using them as platforms to engage hand-to-hand with the enemy. But after several more decades, the Muslims gained regular fleets and control of the Mediterranean, which was the highway of the Roman Empire, early and late. The Byzantine empire was essentially confined to Greece and the Adriatic by ~700.

Glubb observes in one example that papyrus by the boatload was used throughout Europe to keep records, such as at the Merovingian court in France. But that ground to a halt abruptly with the Muslim defeat of Egypt, and Europe was forced to use parchment instead. One can imagine how devastating this was to government, commerce, and learning in general. The Arabs eventually learned the art of paper making from the Chinese, and relayed this to Europe centuries later. In the mean time, the Muslim empire cut Europe off from virtually every trade route of the ancient world- to Africa, to Egypt, to India, and to China and points east. Only Russia, the Baltics, and Byzantium remained in contact, and the latter only tenuously, through a sea lane that made Venice so wealthy.

Likewise with gold:
In the same manner, the supply of gold was cut off. The Merovingians at first alloyed their gold coins with an increasing admixture of silver, but eventually even this became impossible. In Charlemagne's time, only silver coins were in use. When Charlemagne became the ruler of France and Germany in 771, he found himself at the head of an inland state with no external commerce. p. 143
This, despite the Muslim empire virtually swimming in gold and other fruits of their industry and trade with the orient in the days of the Abbasid dynasty.

The question Glubb fails to pose is why- why didn't the Muslim empire continue the trade that was so profitable previously? Why did the Muslim control of the Mediterranean take the form of piracy (up to the US's defeat of the Barbary pirates in 1815, indeed!). Long-distance trade lay at the heart of traditional Arab life, so this is quite puzzling. But traditional Arab life meant raiding and plunder as well, on a freelance basis, so perhaps the net result was anarchy on the sea lanes. Also, once the Muslim empire moved inland from Damascus to Baghdad and became more Persian-oriented during the Abbasid period, its interest in the Mediterranean declined. Much later in the book, he does offer this paragraph:
There was little or no trade between the Arab Empire and Europe, owing to the unending hostility between Islam and Christendom. The Mediterranean, in Roman times the greatest highway of trade in the world, had become a no-man's-land and only war fleets or pirates sailed on its blue waters. A commercial trickle passed from the Arab countries by the Black Sea to Byzantium, chiefly through the hands of the Khazars of the lower Volga.

The only "neutrals" between Islam and Christendom were the Jews, who were permitted to live and trade in the countries of both "blocs". They had the entry alike to France, Spain, Constantinople, Egypt, Syria, and India. Individual Jewish merchants even travelled from France to Suez and thence to India and back.
Such widespread commerce naturally required corresponding financial arrangements, and a system of banking, making use of letters of credit and cheques, was available to merchants. Indeed our English word cheque is derived from the Arabic sek. p. 324

While the decline of Rome is mostly due to endogenous economic factors (such as vast inequality of wealth, with few land-owners and many landless workers), the final blow to the old Roman commercial system was its maritime disappearance at the hands of the Muslims, plunging Europe into isolation, feudalism, and darkness. The Muslim empire would also decline from its heights in the early Abbasid era, and face its own dark age at the hands of the Tatars and Mongols, just in time to send some of its fleeing intellectuals to a re-awakening Europe.

But this kind of thing also didn't help, as noted on page 124:
The Goths who conquered Spain were few in number and constituted merely an aristocratic ruling class, who lorded it over the slaves and serfs, as their Roman predecessors had done. In 587, Reccared, King of the Goths, was converted to the Catholic faith, and in 616 began to persecute the Jews, who were extremely numerous and prosperous in Spain.

  • An interesting analysis of oil price/efficiency sensitivity, arguing that we need to get to $300/barrel to approximate the efficiency incentives of the 70's oil shock.
  • Could we have our masculinity back, pleeeez?
  • PhD thesis on evangelical creationism.. you just can't make this up.
  • The women will save us, continued ...
  • What if the Victorians had had computers?
  • Rick Warren hates in the nicest possible way.
  • Dobzhansky's classic essay on evolution.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Truth is overrated

"Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies" -Nietzsche

As the car talk guys say, do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

As an exponent of the new atheism, I was intrigued by a recent piece by the pro-religion reporter at NPR, Barbara Hagarty, describing a "schism" in the atheist community (nudge nudge, wink wink). Apparently atheists are divided on how strident to be- whether to tell believers in religion, psychic phenomena, and all spiritualisms conventional and unconventional that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, or perhaps rather to stay in the closet, or else to suggest ecumenically that everyone has some "truth" to contribute to the "conversation".

I tend to be on the strident side, concluding after long exposure to religious claims, dabbling in various traditions, and scientific training, that, well, however well-meaning, it is all a load of bunk. But whether to tell everyone this good news is a matter of temperament, of political expediency, and also of basic philosophy- how valuable is truth, anyhow? Aren't lies sometimes better?

As a scientific type, I value truth above all things, by temperament and training. Yet how reasonable is that? Truth serves many useful functions, helping us survive, helping us know ourselves, others, and the world. But truth changes over time, and every person has his or her own version of it, sometimes diametrically opposed to that of others. In religion, this problem is particularly acute, with evangelicals as sure of their truth as atheists are of theirs. If each of us value only truth, then all will immolate each other in proselytizing fervor, particularly if the true message happens to include a dollop of evangelism, whether by insistently spreading the "good news" or by the sword as in Islam.

Another value has to take precedence, and that value is love, or at least communal regard for our fellow humans, however deluded. Truth has its place, but surely, no atheist wants to follow the example of the church in burning heretics for their own good in the hereafter, or Muslims in their early practice of killing infidels for sport and plunder, otherwise known as jihad. Nor do contemporary religionists in our fair land, excepting perhaps the far-out Major Hassans and left-behinders.

That is the essence of our cosmopolitan civilization- that while philosophy (love of truth) is an abiding pursuit and jewel of cultivation, the most important object of cultivation is our regard and love for each other, without which quests for truth can't happen. Thus cosmopolitanism (citizenship in the cosmos) seems a worthy successor to a long line of ethical traditions: Tribalism, Eye-for-an-eye-ism, Christianity, humanism, eco-ism et al.

~~~~~ Bonus post! ~~~~~~

"Freedom and not servitude is the cure of anarchy; as religion, and not atheism, is the true remedy for superstition." - Edmund Burke

I was deeply intrigued by this quote, and thought it might make a brief blog topic. Burke seems to be appealing to the golden mean, where too much freedom is anarchy, too little is servitude. All of which was so starkly demonstrated to him in the dramatic course of the French Revolution. In similar manner, religion is a little superstition, while atheism is none. This connects with other quotes of his, that "Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.", and conversely, "Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts."

The context of the top quote, in a speech about those upstart colonies across the Atlantic, is all about governance, not religion. So the simile of religion was a throwaway comparison in this instance. Yet it is surely a very common sentiment across all cultures. Catholicism, Islam, and other organized religions serve to domesticate and civilize the basic human superstitious impulses which suspect hidden powers at work behind every manifestation. Likewise, much of the horror of colonialization across the Americas and elsewhere involved the destruction of indiginous spiritual traditions, some of which declined to such sad depths as ghost dancing or drowning in a sea of alcoholism.

From an atheist perspective, indeed from most perspectives, superstition is not a good thing, no matter whether in small or large amounts, so Burke's basic comparison is not quite right. The golden mean between anarchy and totalitarianism surely is institutionalized self-government as exampled by the English parliamentary institutions. Whether that can be called "freedom" is another matter, but it seems the best practical approximation, affording as much freedom as possible, in addition to the necessity of well-regulated government.

On the other hand, where is the golden mean between superstition and no superstition? If man is indeed a religious, superstitous animal, then some accomodation may have to be a made, much as we accommodate our many other frailties, without holding them up as ideals. Eating is necessary, but we don't make it a matter of philosophical hairsplitting or organized belief with truth claims about its wonderfulness, sanctity, and relations with a divine gourmand.

That, perhaps, is the crux of the response to atheism, that it turns a supercilious eye on one of our most personal, unrepentant, and inexcusable weaknesses, which makes those under its gaze decry atheists for meanness, inability to experience great things and deep emotions, and the like.

  • Topical interview with Frank Schaeffer on truth vs comity (towards the end).
  • Wonderful article on the genetics, potentials, and risks of gifted children.
  • Hot show on KCRW
  • Nice meditation on being and seeking goodness. No need for theology at all, really, just an appreciation and cultivation of our better natures.
  • But we don't want our brains to fall out, do we, Mr. Huckabee?
  • Blog I am starting to follow.. on cranky, er, stimulating, contrarian, and liberal economics.