Some comments that have appeared on the backup site

I maintain a site on blogspot that consists almost entirely of reposts from this site.  This site is a backup, so that I won’t lose too much of my work in case something happens to WordPress.  As of now, there is little reason for anyone to read that site.

Every so often, a person offers a comment on the blogspot site.  I rather feel for these people, since there is virtually no chance that anyone but me will see what they have written, and I will occasionally go for weeks or even months on end without checking.  So, early in July, someone posting under the screen name “erplus” wrote this, in reply to my notes on an essay on theoretical studies in biology that Miriam Markowitz wrote for The Nation magazine last year:

please see the reader letter below which The Nation refused to publish neither in print nor online; tell me about esprit du corps.
Miriam Markowitz did not do her home work for an article that contains way too many platitudes imported from secondary sources. Just two examples.
A) Markowitz writes that Darwin’s “only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.” This is a lie long peddled by Hamilton and his sycophants. In the The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote clearly that “This difficulty, though appearing insuperable, is lessened, or, as I believe, disappears, when it is remembered that selection may be applied to the family, as well as to the individual, and may thus gain the desired end. Breeders of cattle wish the flesh and fat to be well marbled together. An animal thus characterized has been slaughtered, but the breeder has gone with confidence to the same stock and has succeeded” []. Here “the family” does not stand for the mafia and “stock” does stands for a kin group. These passages and others by Darwin about “kin selection” are highlighted and justly celebrated in DJ Futuyma’s textbook of reference Evolutionary Biology and in EO WIlson’s Sociobiology. This intellectual heist by the late Hamilton and his sycophants is perhaps the most brazen ever, since it’s literally Darwin whom they insist(ed) in trying to rob!
B) Markowitz treats Dawkins as a scientist but he is not. In the said “Evolutionary Biology” textbook, e.g., Dawkins’ popular-science books are cited for the metaphoric syllogism about genes with intentionality; otherwise there is only a citation for a paper with trivial applied math. Dawkins indeed has never made a discovery. Had Markowitz talked to say E.Sober or even Futuyma, she would have written a much better article.
Given the above and much much more, Nation readers stand warned that almost nothing in Markowitz article has any depth, especially her cheapo-melodramatic pieties towards the end (albeit certainly not because Dawkins and Co. are right about anything).

I didn’t see this comment until Sunday, almost two months after erplus posted it.  I felt bad about that, especially since he had asked us about the original posting before turning to the blogspot site.  I apologized for my negligence there, and repeat that apology here.  Sorry, erplus!  I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me.

I have served a couple of other commenters slightly better, at least to the extent of reading their comments in a timely fashion.  Charles J. Shields gave us the following:

Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at

All the best,

Charles J. Shields
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

That was in response to my repost of “Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, on Extended Families.”  Writing Kurt Vonnegut is worth a look, and so I thank Mr Shields for letting me know about it.


Helping others, hurting oneself

In a recent issue of The Nation, Miriam Markowitz reviewed a biography of a remarkable figure named George Price.  The opening paragraph is an attention-grabber:

George Price was born a Jewish half-breed to parents who kept his Semitic side a secret; lived much of his life an aggressive atheist and skeptic of the supernatural; and died a Christian, twice converted, albeit, to his mind, a defeated one. Several years before he abandoned his career in a mission to shelter and comfort homeless alcoholics, he made a number of extraordinary contributions to evolutionary biology, a field in which he had no training. Educated as a chemist, Price had worked previously for the Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment, helped develop radiation therapy for cancer, invented computer-aided design with IBM and dabbled in journalism.

I suppose if your name is Miriam Markowitz you can use phrases like “Jewish half-breed,” though I for one would just as soon you didn’t.

In 1970, Price used a mathematical model rooted in game theory to revise an equation that William D. Hamilton had proposed as a means of analyzing altruistic behavior.  Hamilton and others saw that Price’s equation made it possible to analyze self-sacrificing behavior at many levels of selection at once, and to do so without appealing to notions of group selection.   This last point was especially attractive to Hamilton; as Markowitz explains, “Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness was a riposte to what he considered the naïve and ‘woolly’ group selectionism in vogue until the late 1960s, which explained altruistic behaviors with vague gestures toward ‘the good of the species.'”  Hamilton’s consistent opposition to all forms of group selectionism, be they woolly or threadbare, was one of the reasons Richard Dawkins named him as one who may have been “the greatest Darwinian since Darwin.”   Price’s theoretical work is basic to biological explanations of altruistic behavior; his own personal determination to lead a life of altruism, however, was infinitely less successful.  None of the homeless alcoholics he sought to help took much interest in his ministrations.  Despairing, Price committed suicide in 1974.


The Nation, 10 May 2010

Jerry Coyne asks why so many Americans who are capable of accepting the germ theory of disease in a perfectly calm state of mind become so agitated by the theory of evolution by natural selection that they would rather seek refuge in the most far-fetched mythological tales than accept it.  Coyne remarks on two possible explanations for this continent-wide panic attack:

One answer is religion. Unlike germ theory, the idea of evolution strikes at the heart of human ego, suggesting that we were not the special object of God’s attention but were made by the same blind and mindless process of natural selection that also built ferns, fish and rabbits. Another answer is ignorance: most Americans are simply unaware of the multifarious evidence that makes evolution more than “just a theory,” and don’t even realize that a scientific theory is far more than idle speculation.

I don’t  know if either of these explanations really gets us very far.  After all, before Hippocrates it was widely assumed that health or illness was chiefly a sign of a person’s relationship to the gods and other supernatural forces.  So a healthy person enjoyed the favor of the gods, and one who fell ill had incurred the displeasure of one of them.  Recovery from illness was a sign that the sufferer had made up with the supernatural powers lurking inside the world.  The intimate, ongoing relationship between human bodies and supernatural powers that an idea like that implies would strike me as suggestive of a far more elevated view of humanity’s role in the cosmos than would tales of a single incident long ago in which the gods or a god created or earliest ancestor.  If the Greeks didn’t collapse in anxiety at the advent of Hippocrates and the idea that health might have more to with the body’s chemical makeup and physical structure than with the attentions of the gods, I don’t see why modern biology should have triggered such strange reactions from contemporary Americans. 

As for the notion that “most Americans… don’t even realize that a scientific theory is far more than idle speculation,” that’s easy to believe if you listen to the way the word “theory” figures in the rhetoric of Creationists and their enablers.  However, once the topic turns from evolution to a topic which does not excite their anxiety, those same people behave quite differently.  Hearing about the “theory of gravity,” they do not draw the conclusion that they can jump from the top of a skyscraper and float away.  

Elsewhere in the issue, Kai Bird describes the polarization of society in Israel/ Palestine.  He predicts that “a hundred years from now, people will look back to the early twenty-first century and wonder at the fools who delayed peace with their messianic notions.”  Bird’s description of the loop in which unrealistic ideas feed lawless behavior, which in turn reinforces those unrealistic ideas, might help explain the puzzle Coyne mentions.  Fundamentalists stake the whole truth of their religion on one interpretation of one passage of scripture.  Scientific evidence emerges that makes it difficult to believe that this interpretation could be an accurate description of history.  Rather than adapt their ideas, the fundamentalists try to shout their opponents down.  The more they shout, the less conceivable it becomes to them that they might be wrong.  So perhaps the anxiety with which Creationists greet evolutionary theory is a self-perpetuating loop.  Maybe the Greeks would have fallen into a similar loop in the time of Hippocrates had any group decided they would lose something vital unless they started shouting against him.      

The issue also includes a couple of pieces about US policy in Central Asia, an investigation revealing that a significant percentage of the US defense budget is being funneled directly to prominent families in Kyrgyzstan, and a report on some not-very-attractive characters who are likely to gain influence in that country as a result of the popular backlash there against the enrichment of these families.  As with Israel/ Palestine, so too in the USA militarism feeds on itself.  The more involved Americans become in the occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, the less conceivable it becomes to them that these occupations might be wrong.  So they greet proposals for withdrawal with reactions that show little sign of a thought-through conception of national interest, and everything to do with the fear of losing face.

The Evolution of the Evolution Cartoon

stop following me

Though it may seem otherwise, I do not in fact spend all of my time reading Language Log.  But here’s a short essay that radio personality Richard Howland-Bolton linked to in a comment on a post there.

A planet where apes evolved from men?

He had it right!

He had it right!

This story was reported in our local paper under a headline reading “Apes may have descended from men.”  Dr Zaius wouldn’t have been surprised- that’s what he said all along.  More precisely, Dr Zaius wouldn’t have been surprised by the headline; the actual story doesn’t have much relationship to that claim.  Instead, it reports a recent find which indicates that the last common ancestor of humans and apes was less ape-like than had previously been thought.  But who are you going to believe, the fossil record or the Sacred Scrolls

The Economist, 5 September 2009

economist 5 september 2009I can’t resist quoting some lines of verse that appear in this week’s obituary for Stanley Robertson, a Scotsman who made his living filleting fish in a cheap eatery in Aberdeen and who made his name as a storyteller, a bard who had learned a vast number of traditional tales and songs of the Scottish Travellers and who held audiences spellbound on both sides of the Atlantic.   Here’s a playground rhyme Robertson liked:

Eenie meenie mackaracka,

Rair roe dominacka,

Soominacka noominacka,

Rum tum scum scoosh!

A short article describes “Quest to Learn,” a new school in New York City that does away with the division of the day into class periods themed around particular subjects and replaces it with “domains” in which students work collaboratively using various methods that have been studied by educational psychologists and developed by video gamers.  The video game theme is incorporated so deeply that tests aren’t called tests, but “Boss Levels.” 

Also in this issue, a review of Richard Dawkins‘  The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, takes a rather mystified tone in discussing the existence of so many people in the USA who disbelieve in evolution.  Facing the idea of “Intelligent Design,” the reviewer asks why an intelligent designer would not have created an ecosystem in which all life-forms lived out full life-spans with a minimum of fuss and bother.  “All trees would benefit from sticking to a pact to stay small, but natural selection drives them ever upward in search of the light that their competitors also seek. Surely an intelligent designer would have put the rainforest canopy somewhat lower, and saved on tree trunks?” 


The Funny Times, August 2009

Layout 1Ray Lesser’s “Your Inner Fish” includes these two memorable paragraphs:

In his book Your Inner Fish, [Professor Neil] Shubin describes many of the recent amazing discoveries in paleontology and genetic research to explain human origins and evolution. We quite literally contain the entire tree of life inside our bodies. He says humans are the fish equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle souped up to race 150 mph. “Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems.”

The difficulty of engineering a fish to walk on two legs has resulted in many a sore knee and sprained ankle, not to mention closets full of poorly fitting shoes. The strange loops and detours our nerves and veins have to take to get around various organs lead to other common annoyances such as hiccups and hernias. Four of the leading causes of death in humans — heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke — are mostly due to having at our core a body that was designed to swim around all day, rather than sit on its keister surfing the Internet, or drive truckloads of sardines from L.A. to Indianapolis. Fish don?t get hemorrhoids, either.

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” column collects quotes on boredom.  My favorite is from Henry Kissinger, “The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault.”  Norman Mailer and Bertrand Russell are not as far apart as one might suppose; Russell said, “Boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by it.”  Mailer said, “”The war between being and nothingness is the underlying illness of the twentieth century.  Boredom slays more of existence than war.”  These two are not far from an author Winokur leaves out, Blaise Pascal, who famously attributed most of the trouble in the world to people’s inability to sit quietly in their rooms.  Frank Moore Colby said, “Every improvement in communication makes the bore more terrible.”  Nancy Astor said, “The penalty for success is to be bored by the people who used to snub you.”  Rochefoucauld said, “We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.”

Harper’s Index reports that in April of this year, 27 percent of the respondents to a poll identified as Republicans, while another poll in the same month reported that 20 percent of respondents agreed the “Socialism is better than capitalism.”  So perhaps we should put the GOP on the same footing as socialists.

Seven recent issues of The Nation

Ever since I started writing here, I’ve been referring to “Mrs Acilius.”  Until last month, that was a bit of an exaggeration, as I had not actually married the lady in question.  We tied the knot 12 May.  So lately, I’ve had things on my mind other than this blog.  That’s why I haven’t been posting “Periodicals Notes” regularly.  But I’ve vowed to catch up.  So here are my notes on the last seven, yes seven, issues of The Nation.

nation 25 may 200925 May: It’s been almost 60 years since a jury found that former State Department official Alger Hiss was lying when he denied that he had passed classified documents to an agent of Soviet military intelligence during the years 1934-1938.  The Nation has never let go of the Hiss case, and still publishes articles, columns, and reviews at regular intervals maintaining his innocence.  When Hiss died in 1996, I read a few books about the case.  Hiss’ own book, In the Court of Public Opinion, and his son Tony’s memoir of him, Laughing Last; Alistair Cooke‘s A Generation on Trial; and Allan Weinstein’s Perjury.  I mention the fact that I read these four books not because they qualify me as an expert on a matter as complex and hotly disputed as the Hiss case; obviously they do not.   All I want to do is explain that I have a certain familiarity with the Hiss case, and that I take an interest in discussions of it. 

D. D. Guttenplan reviews two recent books, Susan Jacoby‘s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.  In regard to Spies, Guttenplan’s main goal is disprove the book’s accusation that journalist I. F. Stone was a Soviet agent.  I would be inclined to say that Guttenplan achieves that goal easily.  I haven’t read the book, but unless there is a great deal more to it than Guttenplan acknowledges it would seem that its authors have not only failed to make the case against Stone, but have actually made a compelling case that Stone could not have been the man the Soviets codenamed “Blin” “”Pancake.”)  

Guttenplan’s contribution to the Hiss debate is less of a triumph.  The review goes on and on about the absence of Hiss’ name from declassified KGB documents.  It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant point.  Hiss was never accused of spying for the KGB.  The KGB was an organ of Soviet State Security.  Hiss was accused of passing documents, not to Soviet State Security, but to Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU.)  The man who identified himself as Hiss’ contact was Whittaker Chambers, whom no one denies was an operative of Soviet Military Intelligence.  In the Soviet system, Military Intelligence was a bitter rival of State Security; they most assuredly did not share with each other the names of highly placed agents whom they had recruited. 

Hiss’ defenders are not alone in ignoring this point.  So, those who are most convinced of his guilt often bring up the “VENONA Intercepts,” cables sent by KGB station chiefs in Washington to Moscow and intercepted by the FBI in the years 1946-1980.  These cables use the codename “ALES” to refer to a man who sounds more like Alger Hiss than anyone else, and describe him as an agent of Soviet intelligence.  They do not report direct contacts with ALES, however, nor do they include any intelligence gathered from him.  The likeliest explanation, then, is that the station chief had heard a rumor that Hiss was working for Soviet Military Intelligence and was reporting this rumor to headquarters.  That such rumors were circulating about Hiss in various intelligence services around the world before Chambers made his charges public has been known for some time; in the first edition of Perjury, published in 1978, Allan Weinstein devoted a whole appendix to indications that a number of European intelligence services believed Hiss was a Soviet agent.  VENONA does nothing but add Soviet State Security to the list of these services.   

nation 1 june 20091 June:  Akiva Gottlieb reviews Clint Eastwood’s latest bout of macho self-pity masquerading as a movie.  The last two paragraphs sum up Gottlieb’s view:

In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man’s will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, “on the condition that you don’t chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don’t paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don’t put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads’ cars.” In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood’s raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.



Thanks to LeFalcon for alerting me to this:


The Nation, October 8, 2007

See the post below for an explanation of what I’m doing.

The cover story is a love letter to Keith Olbermann by Marvin Kitman; several pieces deal with the likely impact of the Iraq war on the 2008 elections.  Alexander Cockburn’s column starts with the arresting sentence “I never thought there’d come a time when, even for a moment, I’d trust Fidel Castro less than a former chairman of the Federal Reserve.” 

The best pieces are in the book reviews.  Ian Hacking considers several books about America’s anti-Darwin movement.  He expounds on Imre Lakatos’ theory of science.  According to that philosopher, Hacking writes, the proper “unit of valuation [in science] was the research program rather than the theory.  A rational program is, he said, ‘progressive’ in that it constantly reacts to counterexamples and difficulties by producing new theories that overcome old hurdles.  When challenged it does not withdraw into some same corner but explains new difficulties with an even riskier, richer, and bolder story about nature.”  Hacking favors Darwinism over fundamentalism not because it is the cut-and-dried, incontrovertible truth that a writer like Richard Dawkins would suggest, but precisely because it is confusing, superficially improbable, full of uncertainty.  Hacking even closes with a feint towards a new kind of argument from design, appealing to Leibniz’ description of a God whose plan calls for combining “the maximum of variety with the minimum of complexity for its fundamental laws” and arguing that a God like that  “would have to be a ‘neo-Darwinian’ who achieves the extraordinary variety of living things by chance.”

J. Hoberman reviews a new study of the Communist-inspired American literature of the World War II era, bringing up some interesting-sounding novels, such as Jews without Money by Mike Gold, I Went to Pit College by Lauren Gilfillan, and The Street by Ann Petry.