Saturday, June 12, 2004

Time to Repair Your Bicycle?

Since there isn’t room for Reagan on Mt. Rushmore, the Republicans are petitioning the Reverend Moon to promote the late president to the third person of the Trinity—not so radical a tribute, when you think about it, since nobody is sure what the Holy Ghost is anyhow. Meanwhile, back in the sublunary sphere I continue to be troubled by the possibility that I was right about something. It’s sure looking likely that Saudi Arabia is going to go Iranian on us over the next several months.

The Iranian revolution began a parenthesis in American political history what with the hostage crisis and Carter’s subsequent defeat, the rise of the Neocons, the Iran Contra affair, our sponsorship of Saddam Hussein, the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwait, and the various Desert Storms, and 9/11. It would be satisfying, though only from a formal point of view, if this era of skullduggery ended with the ) of a second Islamic revolution. Unfortunately, the foreseeable bad consequences of the collapse of the House of Saud trumps the advantages of any possible Schadenfreude, especially in view of the possibility that Fundamentalist insurrections are also possible in other Muslim countries such as Pakistan. Well, I solace myself with the thought that I’m reading too much into the bombings and assassinations in Saudi Arabia, though granted the incompetence of our Press one may perhaps be forgiven for reading corpses like tea leaves—who the heck knows what’s going on? The trouble is, even on general considerations, you’d have to figure that our activities in Iraq and our attitude towards the Palestinian problem would set off an explosion if an explosion were possible at all.
Second Story Man

I’ve never been a big Stanley Fish fan, but I share some of his suspicions about abstract principles. My problem with immutable truths, however, is not that they are too abstract but that they often aren’t abstract enough. Partisans nail their flags to privatization or state’s rights or multiculturalism or some other slogan masquerading as a transcendent principle when these policy themes are at best means to end. To suggest that these ideas are good or bad depending on time or circumstance is not to embrace some sort of moral relativism, any more than the infinity of possible viewpoints in perspective drawing implies the nonexistence of an objectively real landscape. Just the reverse. Tactics are properly judged in terms of the strategies they realize, and policies by the higher purposes they serve.

I don’t favor the public ownership of utilities or the private ownership of utilities. I favor ensuring safe, reliable power at reasonable cost and with minimum damage to the environment. I don’t think it is decisively important whether health care is largely private or largely public, but I do care that it is available, efficacious, and universal. Sometimes a national news service promotes free debate and accurate news, sometimes it is merely the ministry of propaganda just as a privately owned press at times serves as a marketplace for ideas while at others, as in contemporary America, it is just a whorehouse.

People would like to believe that simple answers are available to problems just as they prefer to follow a preadolescent morality based on concrete prohibitions because, contrary to appearances, situational ethics are too rigorous. In politics, as in private life, the only reliable moral compass is gyroscopic, a complicated machine that allows an individual to maintain a sense of direction despite the turbulent motions of his or her surroundings.

The would-be student was disappointed with the Sufi master because he blew on his fingers because they were cold and blew on his soup because it was hot.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Saints' Lives

We all know that TIME magazine will never have a cover that reads: Latest Scientific Discoveries Imply the Nonexistence of God. The reverse proposition, on the other hand, has been repeatedly floated by that publication and many others. Hence the widely trumpeted theological significance of every local flood in Anatolia, every splinter on Ararat, every Palestinian graffiti that includes a Biblical name. The middlebrow press may be too proud to emulate the checkout tabloid that once led with a picture of a bear skull with a hole in its forehead and the caption “Goliath Found!” but the principle is the same. Since journalism is the business of telling people what they want to hear, so long as it’s something the owners want to tell them, it doesn’t matter how feeble the connection may be between each reported discovery and some popular religious or ideological thesis. The people want to believe and the advertisers want them to believe so that facts and logic don’t matter.

Mass-market journalism has a natural affinity for the great retail religions; for like them it depends on crude, endlessly repeated story lines. Because its core activity is the creation of prejudices, journalism is far better suited to promoting credulity than to providing a forum for critical thinking. Religious genres suit it. Thus, though the deification of Ronald Reagan doubtlessly serves the interests of the conservatives who dominate the media, Gipper hagiography would come naturally to these folks in any case. “Let your speech be Yea, Yea and Nay, Nay” is more fundamental to press practice than the business about Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Granted its formal requirements, the press is never going to get science right, even if, for some reason, the powers that be became markedly unreligious. In that case, as in fact used to happen regularly in Pravda, atheistical conclusions will be promoted by sound bytes every bit as irrelevant as the line about Goliath. “Our Cosmonauts have encountered no angels.”

Monday, June 07, 2004

From Christ to Jesus

A recent Frontline television series was titled From Jesus to Christ. I think they got it backwards. Christ, zillionth edition of the dying/resurrected God, comes before the much more original invention of Jesus, the mere mortal. Granted that the humble carpenter, endlessly glorified in later Christian art and theology, often reverted to his previous status as a normal Hellenistic savior god, the literal humanity of Jesus is absolutely central to the faith, as reflected, or example, in the Creeds. Thus attempts to recover the historical Jesus are anything but heretical or daring. They simply repeat the literary strategy of the evangelists by providing another novelization of the myth. Indeed, even those who deny the resurrection or the divinity of Jesus are simply extrapolating a tendency that was present from the beginning.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Real News

While we obsess about minor wars and Janet Jackson’s left nipple, serious history rolls on in its subterranean channels. In the last couple of weeks, for example, three exceedingly important scientific papers appeared that bear on the origins and nature of animal life. A run down and some discussion:

Bejerano et. al. announced in the 28 May issue of SCIENCE the discovery of 481 DNA segments that are 100% conserved in the human, rat, and mouse genomes and are also extraordinarily similar to corresponding stretches in the DNA of chickens and fugu fish. Analogies between DNA segments are not surprising, but absolute identity is amazing because of the well-known near impossibility of perfectly faithful transmission—even the best Xerox machine will eventually produce a garbled image if you keep copying the copies of the copies. The authors of the paper point out that their findings imply that the duplicated stretches are extremely important to the survival of the organisms and therefore subject to powerful stabilizing selection or that some sort of exceptionally effective and so far unknown editing mechanism is at work on just those base sequences. Interestingly, many of the conserved segments do not code for messenger RNA—only 111 overlap the mRNA of a known protein-coding gene. Presumably they are important because of their role in the regulation of gene expression and RNA processing rather than specifying a protein.

The same issue of SCIENCE includes a paper by Finnerty et. al. that also deals with conserved genes, in this case the Hox genes that pattern the front-to-back axis of development in all bilateral animals, including us. The authors demonstrate that Hox genes underlie the development of the sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, a bilateral organism in a phylum (Cnidaria) whose members mostly have radial symmetry. Remarkably, the top-to-bottom axis of Nematostella is established by the action of the same gene (decapentaplegic) that patterns the top-to-bottom axis in Bilateria. The authors conclude that their data “suggest that bilateral symmetry arose before the evolutionary split of Cnidaria and Bilateria.” Now that was a very long time ago indeed—Cnidarians and bilaterians appear together in Precambrian fossils from 560 to 570 billion years ago. Meanwhile.

A June 3 paper published in SCIENCE on line (Chen, reports the earliest known bilaterian fossils. The authors date these tiny forms (<150 microns) to 580-600 million years before present, just after the end of a period of intense glaciation, hence the name of the organism, Vernanimalcula guizhouena, spring animalcule. The date matches up pretty well from guesses on the age of the earliest bilateral animals derived from phylogenetic analyses, but other scientists are sure to second guess this research. The authors also claim the animals “had paired coeloms extending the length of the gut; paired external pits that could be sense organs; bilateral, anterior-posterior organization; a ventrally directed anterior mouth with thick walled pharynx; and a triploblastic structure,” That’s a lot of structure to identify from minute and ancient specimens. It remains to be seen if these conclusions hold up. However

Taken together, these three papers emphasize how little wobble there has been in the history of animals. It appears that over the last 600 million years or so evolution has been playing with a very small toolkit indeed. Of course it may be possible that there is just one way to put together a mobile, multicellular organism and that the leaping green mice of Mars will turn out also to have Hox genes and hyperconserved DNA; but it certainly looks as if what occurred was the selection of one possible system among many. Of course that version suits my own rather hobbyhorsical view of how the universe operates—on every scale and in every venue relentlessly thinning out an original plentitude of possibilities in favor of a vanishingly small set of survivors. That’s just my take. The results are remarkably suggestive even for those who don’t like to make generalizations in the style of Herbert Spencer.

In other news, Ronald Reagan died. Mr. Reagan is mostly significant as an example of how a handsome nonentity can be turned into a beloved and irreproachable icon by modern public relations techniques.