Return to Top
Our Choice Al Gore
Feb the all 2010
Subtitle: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis
INTRODUCTION Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "If flying-saucer creatures or angels or whatever were to come here in a hundred years, say, and find us gone like the dinosaurs, what might be a good message for humanity to leave for them, maybe carved in great big letters on a Grand Canyon wall?" His suggestion for the message our civilization ought to leave was: "We probably could have saved ourselves, but were to damned lazy to try very hard ... and too damned cheap."
Gore reports that an old African proverb says, "If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." Gore adds, "We have to go far ... quickly.
We have a lot to do, we can solve the climate process. We just need the collective will to do it. This book is focused on the collective decision that we now face: to make the rescue of civilization the central organizing principle of our politics, economics, and social action. Even now there are many signs showing that we are responding. Global population growth is slowing, the global economic crisis of 2008 is showing that we are all interdependent, peak oil is coming and it may have already passed, oil is getting more and more expensive, and China is beginning to take notice of and respond to its many environmental and energy problems. The main thing that we must understand is that the sooner we take action the less severe the crisis will be for ourselves, our children, and our children's children.
C 1 WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN There are six major factors that cause man made global warming, these are:
Our Sources of Energy
C 2 WHERE OUR ENERGY COMES FROM AND WHERE IT GOES Coal and oil are the most common fossil fuels. Coal is more commonly used in power plants or industrial processes and oil is more commonly used in vehicle fuels because of its higher energy content and ease of moving. Gas is used in industry and in electrical power generation. In America about 18% of electricity is produced by hydro-electric generators and about 15% by nuclear power. Wind and photovoltaic electricity are small but increasing rapidly.
C 3 ELECTRICITY FROM THE SUN There are two methods of accomplishing this, using the sun's heat to power a generator (concentrated solar thermal - CST) or by converting sunlight directly to electricity using solar cells (photovoltaic power - PV).
CST uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight which heats liquids (often water) to run generators. One technique is to use curved mirrors (parabolic trough mirrors) to focus sunlight on long tubes containing liquid. The second major technique is to use an array of flat mirrors surrounding a "Power Tower". The mirrors are all individually controlled to focus the sunlight on the top of the tower which is heated to a very high temperature heating the liquid. A third, as of yet not commercially available, technique is to use each parabolic mirror as a heat source for a Sterling engine which powers a generator.
Photovoltaic cells use silicon chip technology to produce free electrons from solar photons. The technologies associated with this are not as mature as those used in CST but they are progressing rapidly. The advantages of PV are that it can be used in a distributed manner and it produces electricity when the sun is covered by clouds, although not as efficiently as on a cloudless day. It is also possible to use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on smaller, high-efficiency PV cells.
A final way of utilizing solar energy is by the use of passive solar where heat from the sun and cooling from the wind is used to regulate the temperature inside of buildings.
C 4 HARVESTING THE WIND Wind is a byproduct of solar energy being differentially stored or transferred from the surface of the earth. Generation of electricity from wind is a mature technology and can be used in all areas of the earth. The drawback is that the wind does not always blow. Wind is superior to all forms of energy except PV in terms of need for water, once constructed no more water is needed. One problem with both wind and solar energy is that the best areas for production are often far from usage centers, this will require the deployment of a higher capacity smart grid.
C 5 SOAKING UP GEOTHERMAL ENERGY Geothermal sources have potentially more energy available than all of the coal, oil, or natural gas combined. It has not been used very much because of the lack of appropriate technology. Where hot rock is fairly close to the surface it is often possible to use this to generate electricity by boiling liquids to operate a generator. Where temperatures are cooler it is possible to use the heat directly to heat structures and for industrial processes. Where temperatures are cooler yet it is possible to use a ground source heat pump to heat and cool buildings.
C 6 GROWING FUEL Biofuels are a very complex area. Most people think that biofuels mean the growing of corn to produce alcohol or the use of vegetable oils to produce a diesel fuel. These are being done but are only the first of many options. Since there are so many options, Gore lists several steps that should be taken to insure that biomass feedstocks are produced in a truly sustainable manner:
C 7 CARBON CAPTURE AND SEQUESTRATION The idea sounds great, capture all of the CO2 released when fossil fuel is burned and store it away where it won't get into the atmosphere. Unfortunately it is not that simple. To capture it and pipe it down into the earth or ocean is very expensive in terms of both energy use and effort and there are no guarantees that it will stay where it is put. It may also change the chemistry of the deep oceans in unexpected ways or change the geology of the earth, perhaps causing earthquakes. If it escapes you have wasted all of the cost of putting it there and it can easily suffocate any people or animals living in the area where it is released into the atmosphere. The only methods we are sure of at present are the slow geologic processes of creating carbonate rock, growing plants (forests, grasslands), and perhaps burying carbon (charcoal) in soil. Artificial Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is still in the research phase and it may or may not work in the future, it does not now.
C 8 THE NUCLEAR OPTION Gore does not like the politics of nuclear power and it shows. The problems of nuclear (fission) power are: atom bombs are made using fissionable materials, two nuclear reactors have had serious accidents, and the disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear opponents have leaped on these and make all sorts of dramatic claims, some of which may be true. For people who dispute this I recommend Physics for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller and The Revenge of GAIA by James Lovelock. I personally believe that the main problem is that peoples fears were not answered in an accurate manner and that many of the decisions were made in response to imaginary problems and not to realistic problems. Nuclear power will become a solution but first the inaccurate myths will have to be overcome. Nuclear fusion is still an attractive possibility but it is in the basic research phase with no clear signs of a usable product in the near future.
C 9 FORESTS CO2 emissions from deforestation is our second only to the burning of fossil fuels as the largest slope source of global warming pollution on the planet. Many governments throughout the world have tentatively agreed to efforts aimed at sharply reducing before station. However, they have found that, in order to be successful, the world will have to address the underlying causes of deforestation, which are:
Two factors make the destruction of tropical forests so critical. The first is that tropical soils are typically very poor so when forests are destroyed, they take a very long time to grow back in the second is that much of the biodiversity in the world is contained within tropical forests.
Temperate forests throughout the world are being stressed as higher temperatures reduce available moisture and they become more vulnerable to fires and less days of extremely cold weather are allowing the larvae of bark beetles to survive warmer winters.
On a more positive note, many countries have begun tree planting programs. Some of these are China, Kenya, Spain, Vietnam, and others.
C 10 SOIL A fact that was not widely known into very recently is how much carbon in soil contains. Just the top few feet of soil contains between 3 and 4 1/2 times as much carbon as the plants and trees growing on that soil and more than twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. Three of the most serious areas of soil carbon loss have been the United States Dust Bowl of the 1930s, soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the loess plateaus of China. The soils with the greatest amount of carbon are those in wetlands, especially peat, and in the tundra and boreal soils of the Arctic and subarctic. Global climate change is a especially dangerous for soils that are used for agricultural production. Another little known fact is that for every ton of nitrogen fertilizer put on the soil, soil bacteria consume 30 tons of soil carbon. Biochar, a form of fine-grained, porous charcoal, can be fairly easily made by burning biomass in an oxygen-free or low-oxygen environment. If this is plowed into soils it has the capability of raising carbon content and being remarkably resistant to destruction in the soil.
Gore presents a number of methods of sequestering more carbon in the soil:
C 11 POPULATION The world's population has increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to about 6.8 billion today, more than a fourfold increase. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up greatly since about 1850, where will both of these stop? There are four factors which are very important in stabilizing population, these are:
How We Use Energy
C 12 LESS IS MORE The easiest way to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions while saving money and increasing productivity is to increase efficiency. Some of the easiest ways of accomplishing this are:
C 13 THE SUPER GRID Hundred years ago our new electrical system was the envy of the world. It is no longer so. As usual the author starts off with a set of points he wishes to make about the new and upcoming super grid, There are four interconnected elements that make up a unified national smart grid, or super grid:
The Obstacles We Need to Overcome
C 14 CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK A very wide-ranging chapter going from Easter Island to neuro-biology and behavior research. One way to phrase this is to just read several of the books by Lakoff and others.
C 15 THE TRUE COST OF CARBON The problem is that in the past we haven't worried about CO2. And many people feel that if we didn't worry about it yesterday, we don't have to worry about it tomorrow. Unfortunately CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless and it is also largely invisible to market calculations as well; it is easy to pretend that it doesn't exist. The market treats it as a "negative externality". In military terms this would be "collateral damage". The problem is that nature does not consider it an externality. When the economists in the 1930's determined the constituents of the gross domestic product they use common terms like "depreciation" to apply to man-made capital assets like equipment, buildings, factories, etc. but they did not apply this concept to raw materials which at that time seem to be available in almost limitless quantities. These are no longer limitless.
The next problem is the length of time that an asset is held before it is disposed of. When assets were primarily stocks in a company they were routinely held for years before they were sold, now they are much more likely to be held as financial obligations in banks, and held for only a few months before they are sold.
Final problem is one of ecosystem services. When the "footprint" is only a small proportion of the ecology of the planet, ecosystem services can be considered unlimited. However when this footprint becomes a large proportion of the total ecology than the services become disrupted and must be protected.
C 16 POLITICAL OBSTACLES This is a fairly long and somewhat disappointing chapter. Perhaps it was necessary for the author to do this but it will not convince the disbelievers to change their ways nor will it give the believers the tools to fight and win the battle. In my view this is best described in the books written by George Lakoff. He describes this as the political battle between two philosophies or religions. He describes these as being the conservative or strict-father beliefs and the progressive or nurturant-parent beliefs. Lakoff sees both groups as being true and moral in their beliefs and conclusions, they just have very different ideas as to how humans and the world operates. Either read some of the books by Lakoff or the summaries elsewhere in these documents.
Going Far Quickly
C 17 THE POWER OF INFORMATION More bullet points -- how we can make the fullest and most creative use of information technology to help us:
C 18 OUR CHOICE The chapter opens with a photograph of two streams converging in the Costa Rican jungle. The stream on the left is very muddy and the stream on the right appears to be pristine water. This reminds me of 1973. I had just taken a job with the Bunker Hill mine in northern Idaho and we moved into a home in an adjoining canyon. This Canyon split into two just below our home and the smaller canyon on the left had been the dumping ground for considerable mining whereas the one on the right contained no minerals and was a delightful place to live. Where the two streams that joined in these two smaller canyons came together there was a community swimming hole. The stream that ran through the canyon when the mine spoils had been dumped was very warm, the other stream was quite cold. By picking your spot you could have a nice hot tub environment, a cold invigorating area, or an intermediate temperature.
Gore asked the question, what will our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren think of what we did? Either they will ask, "What were you thinking? Didn't you see the entire north polar ice cap melting before your eyes? Didn't you hear the warnings from the scientists? Were you distracted? Did you not care?"
Or will they ask instead, "How did you find the moral courage to rise up and solve a crisis so many said was impossible to solve?"
He states briefly a possible answer to the first question but this is -- "it is almost too painful to write."
He spends the rest of a short chapter describing how he would like to answer the second question. Unfortunately the changes he reports that were made in 2009 have not yet come about. We can only wait and see about the rest. The
The book ends with a five-page index and a five page Acknowledgments and Credits.
The book is sort of an informational coffee table book. It has a lot of facts and figures and a lot of great photographs. It doesn't have enough space to thoroughly describe the problems or to discuss the possible solutions in detail, that book would have been much too large to carry. It is well worth reading and I would recommend it, but it is not the final answer.
Return to Top
Evolution For Everyone David Sloan Wilson Feb 2010
Subtitle: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives
Web site for the author, http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/
C 1 The Future Can Differ from the Past Why is there so much disbelief about evolution? A brick wall has been raised between humans and the rest of biology. This extends well into the biological sciences. The "blank slate" idea of the mind is a major contributor to this. Human "biology" is bad enough but the idea that there is a link between human social behavior and "lower" animals verges on heresy. A 1979 survey of 29 introductory Sociology textbooks found that everyone assumed that biological factors were irrelevant to the study of human social behavior. In large part this attitude still holds today. This is changing. He cites the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences as well as a course he teaches and a program at Binghamton University. (www.bingweb.binghamton.edu/~evos)
C 2 Clearing the Deck Some of evolution's early "friends" were worse than their current enemies (creationism and intelligent design). Herbert Spencer thought that evolution supported the English class system, Eugenics (selective the breeding of humans) was supported by many, there were laws forbidding members of some groups from having children passed. Social Darwinism which is using evolution to justify social inequity. Hitler wanted to select those who were to be bred to create "the master race."
Scientists are regular people who hold regular jobs -- they have no special moral features worthy of extreme trust. All people, and especially institutions, need accountability. The strongest and most successful religions owe much of their success to accountability. Science is largely a way to ensure accountability for factual data. Some example facts that have been believed but aren't true:
How should we respond to someone who uses a scientific theory to justify acts that we regard as reprehensible?
The social sciences developed in an era when there was no knowledge of evolution.
C 3 A Third Way of Thinking Darwin's theory of natural selection is like a recipe with three ingredients. We start with variation. Individuals differ and just about anything that can be measured, such as height, eye color, or quickness to anger. Then we add consequences. The difference between you and me sometimes make a difference in our ability to survive and reproduce. Finally we add heredity. Offspring tend to resemble their parents. Darwin didn't know how this worked (this had to wait for Mendel and the discovery of DNA) but he had bred pigeons for a number of years and he knew that it did.
The idea of evolution is very simple. Once you have these three ideas: variation, consequences, and heredity; it is easy to understand how many seemingly confusing aspects of the world become very simple.
C 4 Prove It! Evolution is a great theory for predicting the properties of organisms. Unfortunately that doesn't make any difference, the important thing is does it predict accurately the properties of organisms. The only way we can determine this is by testing the theory, experimentation. In the author's classes he asks the students when evolution would predict that parents would kill their offspring, infanticide. One of the answers that always comes up is, when there is a shortage of food.
He has studied burying beetles, they find a small dead animal, bury it, lay eggs in the surrounding soil, prepare the carcass for consumption, maintained the carcass by cleaning fungus and bacteria from it, call the newly hatched larva to the carcass, feet on the carcass and regurgitate food for the larva to eat, and when the larva become big enough to tunnel into the soil and turn themselves into adults the parents fly off to find another carcass. One problem, not all carcasses are the same size. The females lay about the same number of eggs no matter the size of the carcass. Their solution is to eat the excess larva. The result is that all adults that survive are about the same size. Another interesting fact is that these beetles are one of the few insects with "family values". It takes two beetles to bury and prepare a carcass however once this is done a "single mother" is perfectly adequate to care for the young. The mail stays around strictly to fight off competing beetles. If another beetle finds the carcass, it will kill all the larva, chase off the beetle of the same sex, and mate with the remaining beetle of the opposite sex, raising a new batch of beetles on the same carcass.
The important point here is not the details of how a burying beetle leads its life, it is that the theory of evolution predicts that there will be some animals who lead a life in this manner. Creationism fails because it does not predict that some animals would act in this manner. How can you predict what God's will is for burying beetles? Many of the facts and are one used in support of evolution were from observations made by creationists. Darwin's genius lay not in his discovery of so many new facts, but that he was able to put together facts discovered by many people, including creationists, and come up with a theory that was able to explain how these facts fit together.
C 5 Be Careful What You Wish For An interesting thing to do is to apply the above facts to human family. It has been a hard year, food has been scarce, the roast you sit down to eat is not a turkey, it is Bobby your youngest child. Then a huge woman bursts into your house, chases your wife out the door, kills all your children, and then say she wants to mate with you. This is horrible, you respond with outrage and disgust as would all humans. The problem is that the evolutionary concept of adaptation frequently departs from what we regard as benign in the everyday sense of the word. How do we respond to the facts and theory of evolution?
At the end of the experiment he took pictures of the hens in each of the final pens. The pen composed of offspring of individual chickens which were the most productive in their pen, consisted of only three, somewhat beat-up, chickens. The pen consisting of chickens from the most productive pen consisted of nine pump, fully-feathered hens who produced more eggs than the average for the source population.
It turned out that the most productive individuals achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of their cagemates. Unknowingly he had selected for the meanest hens. The chickens in the most productive pens had been selected for their ability to get along with their cagemates, the most loving and friendly hens.
C 6 Monkey Madness This chapter makes two points. The first is he makes several nasty comments about creationists and proponents of ID. And in the second he discusses mad monkey syndrome.
Is his first, nasty crack, statement he maintains that natural selection can produce some exquisite adaptions, but this is not invariably so. He offers his bad back and wobbly knees as an example of the latter. He also suggests that if ID proponents wish to make intelligent comments they need to make their predictions before the information is gathered rather than playing Monday-morning quarterback.
It has been observed that a small percentage of young male rhesus monkeys literally go wild, bouncing off the walls of their cage. At first it was assumed that this gave them some sort of advantage. Young male rhesus monkeys usually leave their group and joined a new group when they become adults. Then it became obvious that these monkeys were not accepted in their new groups and were essentially shunned, living out their lives by themselves with no offspring. It was later discovered that the same gene that causes this behavior in males causes female monkeys to become competent capable females who achieve high status within their groups. It was also found that many of the male monkeys who carry this gene did not go wild, a competent mother could keep them in line where as a poor mother would let them go wild and not attempt to correct them.
C 7 How the Dog Got Its Curly Tail At about the end of the second world war a Russian geneticist was sent to Siberia to conduct research on fur bearing animals, silver foxes in particular. They had been raised in captivity for many years and his specific task was to produce a more docile fox as they were very wild. He was successful but his foxes showed other characteristics as well. They became more doglike in that their tails had become curly, their ears had become floppy, their coat color had become spotted, their legs have become shorter, and their skulls more broad. All these characteristics are associated with young animals, what he had done his breed a species of fox that never completely grew up. Much earlier Darwin had noted that all of our domestic animals had characteristics more associated with youth, the especially drooping ears.
The author uses this example and examples from dung beetles to show that many characteristics are associated with a single gene and you can't select for one characteristic without getting the others.
C 8 Dancing with Ghosts Again this chapter makes two points, the first is that evolution is a slow process. It takes many generations for new bodily structures or behaviors to emerge, although in very small or single celled animals this may take only a few weeks or months. He compares this with the speed of human learning and how behavioral change can occur very rapidly. His second point is that for many animals there are trigger points very early in their life. For example if rats are raised on very restrictive diets, spatially before they are born, they become very efficient at utilizing every calorie they get. Then if their food supply increases greatly they become obese. The same thing happens in reverse, if they are well fed while young and later are fed a restricted diet they fail to thrive.
C 9 What is the Function of a Can Opener? How Do You Know? One of the tools that intelligence design proponents use is to describe a complex object, a watch or an airliner are favorite topics, and state that the existence of such a complex object requires that there be a conscious designer. Such a complex the object could not to occur by random chance. All complex objects have been design, some by human beings -- when we design animals or plants it is called breeding, and some by the application of the laws of evolution. It is not always possible to determine what all of the intermediate steps were, but they were there.
C 10 Your Apprentice License Evolution and evolutionary thinking is not really complex in the way that some modern theories of physics are, but it is different from other ways of looking at the world. The author lists the ways in which it is different:
C 11 Welcome Home, Prodigal Son The prodigal son left home with an inheritance that he foolishly squandered. Destitute and ashamed, he returned to his father's house asking only to be treated as a servant, to his surprise and gratitude, he was received with love and forgiveness. Our conception of ourselves as set apart from the rest of nature is a bit like the prodigal son leaving home with an is enormous inheritance. The repeated collapse of past civilizations and the uncertain fate of our own is like squandering our inheritance on a profligate life. Perhaps it is time to return home to a conception of ourselves as thoroughly a part of nature.
First, we must abandon the notion that some special in the quality was breathed into us by a higher power. This does not require abandoning religious faith, but it does require abandoning certain types of religious faith. It has been pointed out that the strongest test of faith in a God that intervenes on your behalf occurs when your car breaks down. If you leave it by the side of the road and pray for it to be fixed, you are a true believer. If you fix it yourself or have it towed to the nearest mechanic, you are acknowledging and that some things have a purely naturalistic explanation. Perhaps God created the laws of physics, but the laws are fully sufficient to explain what's wrong with your car without any other consideration of a higher power.
Humans share characteristics with cellular life forms that have been evolving for more than 1.5 billion years. We share specific genes that control the same processes with tiny flatworms that diverged from our ancestors more than 600 million years ago. We, like the prodigal son, like Alcoholics Anonymous, like many religious traditions, need the humility to realize that we do not have all the answers, we are not unique, and we need to know how the world really works.
C 12 Teaching the Experts He discusses the career of Margie Profet, who is one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur foundation award for her evolutionary theory of pregnancy sickness. Without any formal training in medicine or physiology she was able to use evolutionary thinking to explain more about pregnancy sickness than anyone else ever had.
C 13 Murder City This chapter discusses the book, Homicide, and the theory of homicide presented by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. It is an environmental theory of homicide.
C 14 How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Genetic Determinism Is "Evolution" the same as "Genetic Determinism"? Genetic determinism implies that if our behaviors are determined by our genes, and if or genes can't change, then it must be that our behaviors can't change. The author has already shown several counter examples, If you are a burying beetle, and if you have a small carcass, then reduce the size of your brood.
The main focus of the chapter is a study by Wilson and Daly. They published an article on "Life Expectancy, Economic Inequality, Homicide, and Reproductive Timing in Chicago Neighborhoods." They examined statistical data on the 77 identified Chicago neighborhoods and used interviews. They found that life expectancy in the "best" neighborhoods was 20 years longer than in the "worst" neighborhoods, ghetto girls had their first child much earlier than up-scale girls because they wanted their mothers to know their grandchildren and wanted to live long enough to know their own grandchildren, ghetto men understood that they would, "get rich or die tryin'" -- they had only a small chance of fathering children and if they didn't take chances and become known quickly they would probably not live long enough.
He shows that specific rules can be formulated that show how humans will react to differing circumstances can predict how we might change society to encourage social change in helpful ways. Religious and secular creationism have always been based on fear of the consequences of accepting evolution. If evolutionary theory can be understood as a tool for positive change it can be more easily accepted.
C 15 The've Got Personality! The first part of the chapter is a brief autobiography of him end his wife Anne and their children. The second part described his wife's early research and other research based upon this. This research has shown that many animals have specific personalities. They are not just individuals that vary around the species mean. They can be grouped into types which have very similar responses to environmental cues and which are quite different from other types. The simplest way of describing it is to say that they have differing personalities.
C 16 The Beauty of Abraham Lincoln What is beauty? At first pass evolution might explain why we make bowls but not why we decorate them. But perhaps evolution can shed some light on beauty. He suggests a scenario in which a coyote is standing on a hilltop surveying the vista below, trying to decide which way to go. He further suggests that the coyote probably does not perform a mental calculation of the relative probabilities of finding food, water, shelter, or a mate. Is more probable that the coyote is carrying out an unconscious "program" of rules that have worked for coyotes in the past which suggest that unoccupied cave amidst lush vegetation with rabbits hopping around it is 'beautiful.
He suggests that an evolutionary theory of aesthetics is based on three claims:
The author starts by examining some current literature to show that the concept of beauty depends upon the environment of the individual. He then goes on to describe a study in which women were shown a photograph of a small piece of skin and asked to write these in terms of the health of the whole person. The results corresponded very well with the results of showing the whole face to the women and asking them to rank the men as to attractiveness and to the results of a genetic test which measured healthiness in these men.
He then describes a number of studies in which attractiveness of people in photographs are evaluated, both by people who know the other person and those who do not know them. In every case judged attractiveness was changed by peoples perceptions of their personalities.
He ends with a description of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime he was often regarded as hideously ugly, he was often compared to a gorilla. He even said, when he was accused of being two-faced, "If I had two faces, do you think I would be wearing this one?" Now when we look at his face we find it symbolic of everything good and beautiful in a politician-statesman.
C 17 Love Thy Neighbor Microbe Points from previous chapters: morally laden terms such as "good" or "evil" have surprisingly simple biological interpretations. Traits associated with "good" cause groups to function well as units, while traits associated with "evil" favor individuals at the expense of their groups. This gets complicated as often groups whose members treat each other in a "good" manner will treat members of other groups in a "evil" manner.
According to St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, the seven deadly sins are lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. How many of these would fit right in to our current capitalist society.
The author briefly describes two species, Pseudomonas fluorescence and Dictyostelium discoideum or cellular slime mold, nicknamed Dicty. The Pseudomonas will form a mat on top of a culture medium that grows quite well obtaining nutrients from below and oxygen from above. A "bad" mutation sometimes appears that uses the benefits of the mat but does not contribute to it strength. This works well for a time but sooner or later the match fails and all fall to the bottom of the solution.
The cells of the slime mold spend most of their time as free living amoeba in damp areas. However when food or moisture start becoming scarce they group together and form an "organism" that looks like a slug. This "slug" travels towards light and when it is ready a stalk forms on one end and an orange ball of spores forms at the top of the stalk. The spores are sticky and can attach them selves to any passing insect or small animal. Here we have supposedly simple amoebas signaling to each other, grouping together in large groups, traveling long distances (for an amoeba), building a stalk, and sacrificing most of themselves so that so that the few at the end of the stalk can reproduce.
C 18 Groups All the Way Down According to legend, William James was once approached after a lecture by an elderly woman who shared her theory that the earth is supported on the back of a giant turtle. Gently, James asker her what the turtle was standing upon. "A second, far larger turtle!!' she replied confidently. "but what does the second turtle stand upon?" James continued, hoping to reveal the absurdity of her argument. The old lady crowed triumphantly, "It's no use, Mr. James -- it's turtles all the way down!"
Well, maybe not turtles, but that's pretty much how it is. For a long time there has been a controversy, should we study individuals or groups? In 1978, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said, "there is no such thing as society -- only individuals and their families." At the same time cell biologist Lynn Margulis was making the opposite claim -- there is no such thing as individuals, only societies. It is now fairly well established that many of the individual elements of cells were at one time freely "living (?)" entities in the wider environment. Probably the most obvious example of this is mitochondria. They certainly look like bacteria and they have their own DNA, they just co-exist very nicely in animal cells. It may not be turtles, but it certainly is groups all the way down.
C 19 Divided We Fall Groups become organisms when selection within groups is suppressed, enabling selection between groups to become the primary evolutionary force. Generally there is no evolutionary change within individuals and very little within interbreeding groups of individuals. The genes you enter the world with are the same genes that get passed on to your children. The same holds true for the gene pool in an interbreeding group. The only exception to this is mutations which effect the reproductive genes. However there is one area within which this is certainly not true, this is called cancer. In cancer, a mutation occurs which allows a cell to grow rapidly and uncontrollably. Most internal body mutations simply die after one or several reproductions. It does them no good, because if they grow enough they simply kill the host body and they they also die. Unpleasant for the host body but it does not effect the species.
C 20 Winged Minds The next step above individual cells in an organism are the social insects like honey bees, ants, and termites. In many ways they perform actions that most would regard as intelligent but this intelligence seems to be dependent upon how their societies are organized. Their dances and other methods of transferring information seem to be strictly inherited but the manner in which they are structured results in "intelligent" decisions for the entire group. This "intelligence" breaks down in unusual situations, such as some experimental treatments. It is fairly easy to "fool" the colony to perform stupid actions which may destroy the colony.
C 21 The Egalitarian Ape The three "C"'s of human evolution, Cognition, Culture, and Cooperation -- Cooperation being the most important one.
A description of how many hunter-gatherer groups have turned cooperation into a fine art. Pride is not necessarily punished, but it is made to seem unpopular and unpopular people get shunned in a culture. Many culture have been egalitarian, but this seldom stretched to include women and almost never to members of other groups (tribes). Humans are very sensitive to implications of unfairness. This is easily noticed in children and in experimental situations. Human societies are compared to chimp societies. Chimp males are much more agressive. One hypothesis is that the evolution of the ability to throw made individual strength (the ability to physically dominate) much less of an advantage, several weaker individuals could stand back and throw rocks at a stronger, more agressive individual. (Bonobo's seen to solve some of their aggressiveness by substituting sex.)
C 22 Across the Cooperation Divide In the previous chapter the author mentioned that the divergence of our own species from other species was similar to water cascading down different sides of the Continental divide. Just what are the differences between the traits and why does he call it the Cooperation Divide? One difference is very simple, our eyes. All mammalian eyes consist of the pupil that emits light into the interior, and Iris that acts like the arbiter of camera, and a surrounding sclera that provides a protective outer coat. In humans the sclera is bright white and the irises colored, providing sharp visual contrast. When we look at someone, we can clearly see where their eyes are pointing independently of where their faces pointing. At close range we can see how much their eyes are dilated, we even call the eyes the windows of the soul. In other primate species the sclera is colored to reduce the contrast between the iris and the rest of the face. In short, human eyes are designed to make it obvious where eyes are pointed and other primate eyes are designed to conceal information about where the eyes are pointed. Cooperation requires that we know what the other person is thinking and what they are about to do, competition requires that this information be concealed. Research has confirmed these hypotheses.
Similarly humans understand pointing at a very young age but this has never been noticed in apes except in training experiments they can be taught to point to something they want but in no other circumstances.
From an evolutionary perspective, apes diverged from humans about 6 million years ago. However dogs diverged from wolves and were domesticated by humans about 135,000 years ago. When dogs and wolves (both raised by humans) were given a test to see if they would go to a container with food after it was pointed to, the dogs were much more successful than the wolves, especially at longer distances.
When the author asked one of the researchers in this area about any research concerning the wearing of sunglasses for competitive or hierarchical events when the sun was not of concern, the researcher said he knew of no formal research in the area but he had seen the world poker championships on TV and they all wore sunglasses.
C 23 The First Laugh This chapter concerns some research and a paper on the subject of laughter. The author's wife, Anne, was teaching an introductory biology course and as a follow-up she offered a one credit course exploring interesting topics in ecology, evolution, and behavior. One of the students was so interested that he took a higher division course from the author and as a class project prepared a paper on the evolution of laughter. The student used the paper as a basis for his application for a Barry M. Goldwater scholarship, which he won, and then in his junior year he and the author prepared a lengthy journal article which was widely praised.
C 24 The Vital Arts Until quite recently most dance was a communal activity used to create a sense of unity among the members of the group. Music and dance are and have been very important to humans for a very long time. They are very hard to explain, possibly because they both originated before humans had language to explain what was going on. There is also a very strong feeling among most academics that the Humanities are totally independent of the sciences. The author and a few others are trying to bridge this gap but it is a very slow process.
C 25 Dr. Doolittle Was Right The old question, what does man have that the rest of the animals don't? Terrence Deacon who wrote The Symbolic Species believes that it is symbolic thought. Concrete thought is when you link a word to a specific object (Lakoff would call this a low level metaphor). Symbolic thought occurs when you link an abstract thought to a specific object (Lakoff would call this a higher level metaphor).
The author presents two cases in which Alex, an African grey parrot, and Kanzi, a bonobo. Most animals can be taught to distinguish between (say) two buttons, one red and one yellow and can learn that pushing one of them results in food. Kanzi, for example, has a large vocabulary and he can push the "eat" button and the "banana" button to get a banana and the "drink" button and the "juice" button and get a drink of juice. "Drink" "banana" doesn't get anything. He has also learned that "eat" "grape" or other solid food gets the solid food. He is capable of learning the abstract or symbolic concept of solid vs. liquid. Alex is also capable of similar symbolic thought.
These remarkable animals tell us that it is not some miraculous "intelligence" gene that humans have but rather a further development of capabilities that already exist in apes and even birds (as well as who knows?).
C 26 How Many Inventors Does It Take to Make a Lightbulb? A rather confusing chapter. Basically I think it says that if you have a simple task - give it to an individual, if you have a complex task - give it to a group. Lots of the literature talks about groups doing simple tasks which just doesn't work. The whole process of considering group solutions to problems should be viewed from an evolutionary standpoint. There are some references which may have cleared up the matter but I didn't try to explore them because of the difficulty in figuring out what is going on in the author's web site.
C 27 I Don't Know How It Works! Title for this chapter comes from Disney's the Wizard of Oz, at the very end the Wizard is departing in the balloon and Dorothy begs him to come back, "I can't!" he replies as his voice trails off into the distance. "I don't know how it works!"
He is discussing cultural evolution, or perhaps cultural stability. The point is when one is raised in a culture, one absorbs the rules of that culture, and these rules are very difficult to set aside. As a major example here he describes the cultural rules of the American South, at least those related to honor. He described it in much the same way that James Webb does in his book Born Fighting. He also uses the Nuer and Dinka tribes of the upper Nile basin of Africa. The main point here is that we need to understand cultural diversity and similarities in a manner similar to how evolutionists describe biological diversity and similarity.
C 28 Darwin's Cathedral This chapter discusses a book he had just written Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and a course that he was teaching using the book as the text. In the book he selects a number of religions, fairly randomly, and attempts to evaluate them with respect to several hypotheses using evolutionary techniques. The class was designed to partially replicate and expand this study as well as to introduce the students to this method of analysis. His alternative hypotheses were the following:
After examining a great number of religious texts and critiques he found that each of the five hypotheses have at least a small amount of support but his hypothesis number one has the most support.
C 29 Is There Anyone Out There? Is There Anyone Up There? More religion, dedicated to Ray Charles and his song, "Is There Anyone Out There?" This song is entirely about social connections. Religious scholars discuss the vertical (our relationship and submission to God) as well as the horizontal (our relationship with the community of all those who submit as we do). This is similar to the proximate and the ultimate explanations of evolution. An example of the ultimate explanation, flowers bloom in the spring, and of a specific proximate explanation, a specific type of flower will set buds and bloom when the days become long enough.
Religions vary greatly on this dimension, the public pronouncements of Christian Fundamentalists are almost exclusively about our relationship with God, Buddism and Confucianism are all about our relationship with ourself and others. Perhaps most religions are differentiated by our relationships with others and the relationship with God is just something that comes along depending on the background of the founders? Perhaps the success of particular religions depends at first on the success of how they handle the "out there" and once this has been moderately well established, their continued success depends on how their version of "up there" positions the current leaders to maintain the successful community "out there."
C 30 Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot Organized religions have specific belief systems. However there are other belief systems that are typically not identified as being religious, but are very powerful and internally consistent just like more formally defined religions. As his main example he uses the message which is contained within Ayn Rand's books. She was an ardent atheist and her philosophy is founded on the virtue of rational thought. (Lakoff just might call the strict-father vs. nurturant parent difference examples of stealth religion.) The author uses ideas taken from the concept of selfishness, in part from her book, The Virtue of Selfishness.
The author points out that these systems of belief, stealth religions, are very similar to religious beliefs but instead of being based on explicit faith, are based on other premisses, often in Western cultures defined as logic and reason. These belief systems may or may not actually be logical or reasonable but they, like religions, are deeply embedded in the way we are as a species, and the solution requires creating a social environment in which their ideal belief system, and mine, can survive.
C 31 The Social Intelligence of Nations, or, Evil Aliens Need Not Apply How do most (right-wing) politicians talk about foreign nationals and other countries? Right, badly and insultingly. Nations are nothing more than very large groups of people trying to function as collective units. Fifteen thousand years ago the largest human groups were small hunter-gatherer groups. We come together because it is automatic. Since then cultural processes have switched human evolution into overdrive. Huge changes have taken place, some at the point of a sword and some similar to the city fathers of Geneva asking John Calvin for help in designing a new structure for their city. The book on political cultural evolution has still not been written but the author offers the following ideas as possible chapters in such a book.
The average person is a facultative sociopath. Our genes do not require us to engage in violent conflict but they certainly prepare us for violence. Us vs. Them is certainly a constant but nowadays most of the Us vs. Them concerns athletic teams and a lot of us's and them's go out for a beer after the game. We just need to learn to avoid pushing the wrong psychological buttons.
Watch out for the invisible hand. Adam Smith proposed that individuals are lead by an "invisible hand" in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Bernard Mandeville expressed the same idea in his Fable of the Bees in 1705. Two concepts here, self-organization and self-interest. A system is self-organized when its component parts interact in a relatively simple matter to produce complex and unexpected (emergent) behaviors at the level of the whole system. Clouds, tornadoes, and snowflakes are self-organized physical systems, all lifeforms are self-organized. Both Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville clearly included the concept of self-organization but do they go on to include everything that their current proponents call self-interest? The author believes that even if they did they were very likely to be completely wrong. The self-interest of current supporters of Adam Smith's ideas are deeply flawed on the basis of elementary evolutionary principles.
Evil aliens need not apply, part 1. It is common to hear that worldwide cooperation can be achieved only in the face of an invasion by aliens from outer space. However we must remember that evolution is all about differences in survival and reproduction, regardless of long-term consequences.
Evil aliens need not apply, part 2. The other version of this argument is to portray one's adversaries on earth as evil. Examples here is the pertaining of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" as well as the terms "xis of evil", "Red Menace", "Nips", "Krauts". These and similar terms have been used by all political parties in the United States has well as most nations of the world from time to time.
Short-term emotional responses cannot be sustained and become toxic over the long term. Our emotions are designed to mobilize our bodies and minds for short-term events and cannot be sustained over the long run. This is why prolonged stress can cause ulcers and other problems and why disasters, such as Katrina and 9/11, can cause spontaneous outpourings of help but this is not sustainable for more than several weeks
Taking the global village seriously. If the invisible hand and evil aliens can't make us get along, what can? Marshall McLuhan observed in 1964 that rapid travel and electronic communication or turning the world into a global village, the Internet is pushing this metaphor even farther. With the right sort of conditions this global village could really become a reality.
The global village cannot consist of village idiots. Before we accept the person as a responsible citizen there are certain things that we require, that a state can keep their word (contract), that they are responsible for their actions, that they get along well with others in social groups, etc. The same holds with nations. They must be able to make and keep treaties, they must be responsible for the actions of their citizens, they must participate in world affairs, etc. When they do all of these things and act as a responsible member of the global community they can be treated as a "corporate unit" can be held accountable as though they were an individual.
Where there is no discipline and excommunication, there is no community. For any organization or community to survive over a long period there must be some method of disciplining or removing members who'd do not follow the community standards. This holds for communities of all sizes, from small social groups to nations.
The most powerful nations should learn the virtue of humility. The balance of power is never exactly equal in the real world. Powerful members who demonstrate their good intentions and humility are rewarded with leadership, while those who throw their weight around are shunned and excluded.
Morality is required for morale. Smalls-scale societies are moral communities. They are not unified by having the same genes but rather by having the same system sense of what is right and the means to enforce it. A shared value system is therefore required at the international scale for the global village to become a moral community.
Moral communities can embody what ever values are deemed good and right. Moral communities have at least two dark sides. They do not necessarily extend their blessings outside of the moral circle, and the way they enforce their norms within the moral circle can be repressive and even brutal. However, the enforcement of norms need not be repressing and need not stifle diversity. Often one of the strongest prohibitions is against meddling in other people's affairs.
Learn from the wisdom of religions and other traditional social organizations. Scientists and other persons in authority are often granted respect. This should be earned not given. As more is learned about so-called "primitive" societies and religious groups it is becoming more and more clear that they incorporate truths that we are just learning to understand.
Do not attempt social transplant surgery unless you are qualified and have the consent of the patient. Western and other nations are quite good at attempting to change other smaller and less powerful nations. Typically the only way this succeeds is by destroying these other nations.
C 32 Mr. Beeper A step sideways. His woodland in New York, his tree house on the property where he likes to write, the animals including the wood turtles who live on the property. A trip to the Bahamas courtesy of the Templeton foundation, what was discussed to at the conference and the people he met, the research project that was inspired by a conversation there.
C 33 The Ecology of Good and Evil The research study mentioned in the previous chapter is called the beeper technique. He had a long chat with the inventor of this technique in the Bahamas. In this research subject wears a beeper which goes off approximately once every two hours and the subject is to answer a number of short questions about what he has been doing every time it goes off. Each subject where's the beeper for a week and the whole process was repeated several times over a period of five years for each subject. In addition to the hourly "beep" data points there was a single much larger questionnaire asked of every individual.
One part of a very large study using this method involved over 1000 young people in middle and high school. The author used the questionnaire data from this set to develop a score for each each individual which he called the PRO score for" prosociality." There were five categories that accounted for much of the variation in the PRO score, these were:
In general, if you evaluate the High-PR0s as good people and the Low-PR0s as evil people the predictions about the desert island and chapter 5 are supported, but not completely. Major characteristic and is more beneficial in all cases. Being a High-PR0 in a supportive environment is probably the best but being a High-PR0 in a negative environment puts one at a very severe disadvantage.
C 34 Mosquitoes Under the Bed The Panama Canal was the largest engineering project of its time in almost failed because of yellow fever and malaria. One of the problems was the severe demoralization that occurred with the deaths of young workers and engineers. At the time it was assumed that these illnesses were caused by moral failure. It was almost unbelievable that so many of these young men and women were so morally compromised. It wasn't until the discovery that both the diseases were spread by mosquitoes that the project was able to be pushed to completion. These mosquitoes were even breeding in the bowls that were filled with water that the legs of the beds were put in to prevent ants from crawling on the hospital patients. Once the scientific facts were known, the moral issue disappeared.
There are times when just knowing the facts is not enough. The author points out three areas where this is the case:
It is easy to find examples of technology used for evil purposes. All one has to do is to examine the history of weapons and warfare to come up with thousands of prime examples. Almost all of these examples are closely related to beneficial community uses. More recently there have been many social scientists involved in questionable moral behavior. Some of his examples are research conducted by the CIA, ice-pick lobotomies, CIA and military torture, and others.
C 35 The Return of the Amateur Scientist This chapter, one of the longest in the book, starts off by explaining that only 150 years ago, the time of Darwin, most science was an activity that amateurs performed in their spare time. Are those days gone forever? He hopes not and doesn't think they are. Next he briefly describes his father, Sloan Wilson, who wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place. Then he describes his own life from its beginning as a not particularly outstanding high school and college student to his career as a college professor and author of several books.
C 36 Bon Voyage A very short chapter discussing events and thoughts between February 3, 2006 and April 11, 2006.
Notes 12 pages of more general notes on each of the chapters in the book.
Bibliography 13 pages of bibliography
http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/ The authors web site
http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~evos/ Evolutionary Studies Program
http://scholar.google.com Provides easy access to scientific and scholarly literature.
http://www.hbes.com Human Behavior and Evolution Society
http://www.hsperson.com/ Highly Sensitive Person Web site, Elain Aron
http://dictybase.org The place for cellular slime mold studies
http://www.aldaily.com Arts and Letters Daily, Denis Dutton & Chronicle of Higher Education
http://www.ayanrand.org Ayn Rand Institute
http://www.nct.org/school The North Country School
http://www.ots.duke.edu The Organization for Tropical Studies
Index 12 pages of index
Return to Top