Thursday, March 03, 2005

An Homage to Chesterton

Anybody who participates in an Internet discussion soon discovers that the range of audible opinions is extremely narrow. It’s not that original notions don’t appear. They do, but for the most part they rapidly disappear because they are not acknowledged. The Law of Least Hassles takes care of that. To put things in a Piagetian way, adults find it far easier to assimilate input to their existing kit of mental structures than to accommodate significant novelties by actually learning something new. But one shouldn’t assume that the apparent deafness of the public is absolute. From time to time, minds do get changed after all. Effect lags behind cause, however, because processing new ideas requires neurological changes and even more because most of us are too vain to lose an argument on the spot—it would be like taking a dump in public.

Like the catatonic and the comatose, normal individuals register more than they let on. Which is why, for example, radicals who become reactionaries and reactionaries who become radicals don’t have to learn any new rhetorical moves; and, more generally, why the Zeitgeist is able to lurch so rapidly from one set of unwarranted assumptions to another—it’s very easy to overlook the long period of preparation. The pattern is especially obvious in the case of intellectuals who support traditional versions of religion. Granted the prideful perversity natural in a strong mind, defending an indefensibly silly set of ideas is a great pleasure; but even great pleasures eventually stale. At that point it suffices to simply give up the game. One hardly has to be convinced of anything since the mere truth of the secular position had been registered long before.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Unspeakable Gods of the Abyss

Creationists and Intelligent Design folks routinely resort to God-of-the-Gaps arguments in order to find room for a creator in the workings of nature, and biologists routinely remind them how many of the gaps have been filled in over the years. Gaps remain, however, including gaps that are perhaps not likely to be filled in any time soon, most obviously in such intrinsically difficult issues as the origin of living things. Even things that happened more recently than 4 billion years ago are also hard to figure out. For example, it has become more and more clear over the last few years that we don’t have a very good handle on what gives with the microbial majority of living things. Only a small percentage of single-celled organisms can be cultured by current methods, but we’ve know from DNA-sequencing experiments on natural samples that there must be many, many unknown forms, including lots of members of the mysterious domain of the Archaea, which, it transpires, are not a handful of weird relics lurking in thermal vents as they first appeared by in 1977, but ecologically important members of many ordinary environments. Our branch of the tree of life also turns out to be bushier than we thought—many unknown eukaryotes are also hidden somewhere if we could only figure out how to grow and identify them. Meanwhile, we have a more general problem than simply accounting for all these cryptic organisms. We have a basic problem in figuring out how to make sense of the phylogeny of all these bugs since they regularly swap genes, thus seriously tangling up the usual diagrams.

Traditional evolutionary theory was devised to make sense of multi-cellular eukaryotes. Indeed, as botanists like Verne Grant have complained, the historical bias of the theory has effectively been yet more parochial, privileging animals over plants, even though flowers and trees don’t evolve or speciate in exactly the same fashion as birds and beasts. In current phylogenies plants, animals, and even fungi occupy the same branch of the tree while most of the fundamental diversity of life lies elsewhere. To the extent that evolutionary theory is based on the usual suspects, it suffers from a serious sampling problem.

All in all, if you want to assert the possibility that big surprises may await us in the understanding of living things, you won’t have any trouble finding plenty of gaps that remain to be filled in. What the Creationists and other theists don’t seem to recognize, however, is that the existence of gaps is not an argument for their view of things. What emerges from dark is much more likely to be even less congruent with theological preconceptions than what is already known because the journey of the sciences is an expedition away from the comfortable territory of the human into an undefined Antarctica. If traditional evolutionary thinking is objectionably zoomorphic, theological reasoning is even more wedded to a view of things dependent on HOX genes. ID, for example, involves the notion of an agent that makes living things, a rather unimaginative piece of theorizing. So far as we know, the only entities in the universe that can be said to act at all are members of certain terrestrial phyla so the God, gods, or aliens who supposedly made life turn out to be a run-of-the-mill bilatrians, real or virtual organisms imagined in our image. Unfortuanately, the trend of discoveries in biology suggest that it’s a good bet that what dwells in the gaps will not turn out to be something so familiar as a deity or a Vulcan. Think of something from a Lovecraft story.
The Lay of the Land

Michael Jackson could have avoided all the unpleasantness by becoming a Republican politician. Whether scandals and trials occur in this country has far more to do with who controls the media and the Justice department than anything about the actual behavior of the people involved. Thus Clinton underwent grueling attacks because of old business dealings that proved to be utterly ethical, and Kerry was savaged for his heroic Vietnam record while drug use, desertion, insider trading, lying, torture, and war mongering somehow never counted against Bush because his side controls the machinery of demonization. Politics in these parts is like a game of football played on a hillside where one team permanently defends the heights, though in this case, the desirable terrain is scarcely the moral high ground.

What makes the tilt of playing field especially invidious is the way in which it affects everybody’s judgment and not just the casual observers. Liberals and moderates would very much like to believe that the game is fair even when devotion to fairness impairs objectivity. The strategy of lowered expectations works on all of us so that when something like the Iraqi election occurs, we applaud it for having happened at all even though it is a highly ambiguous development that may have more to do with the initiation of a civil war than the advent of democracy. In a world where everything that can possibly be credited to the maximum leader is hosannahed by a professional choir while everything that is problematic about his administration is excused by legions of well-paid shills, we need to make a general correction for the queered frame of reference of the public arena. Bush’s mistakes and crimes will look even worse, his accomplishments far smaller once the anesthesia wears off.

Monday, February 28, 2005

The Short Circuit

The Assyriologist Bottero liked to imagine the glee with which the Sumerians greeted the invention of prostitution, which at the time must have seemed like the I-pod and sliced bread all in one. As any economist will tell you, money is an excellent way to manage access to scarce goods. Better still, with pros there is no commitment, children, or emotion; and, anyhow, hookers are often more polite than waitresses. But as Heidi Fleisch pointed out, the greatest thing about buying it is not so much that the whores arrive on schedule, but that they can be counted on to leave afterwards. Unfortunately, it would turn out that prostitution is not all that simple in practice for a host of ethical, psychological, and bacteriological reasons. Nevertheless, like many other market-based solutions to a fundamental problem, it surely must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, almost as wonderful as the scheme, recently repopularized by wealthy right wingers, to simply buy the human mind so that it can be counted on to promote the interests of its corporate sponsors.

You can pay somebody to act as if they desire you, and you can pay somebody to tell you that you’re right. Both cases have the same limitation. The love you rent is not real, and the truth you buy is not truth. If you’re rich and powerful enough to be able to ignore reality, that may not matter much. But you have to be careful on one point. One of the things that the journalists, public relations men, and purchased intellectuals were paid to discover was that you are indeed so grand that you don’t need to have any truck with realities because like the Word of God, your actions create a world ex nihilo. The truth of that conclusion, however, is only as reliable as a whore’s love.

Of course politicians and other grandees have been buying the services of flacks for a very long time. Things are getting more serious now, however, because the bought voices include an increasing number of academics, scientists, and supposedly objective journalists whose whole raison d’etre is their independence. The right may imagine that the universities are crammed with crazy lefties, but the profs who matter most are not Native American studies guys vaporing about little Eichmanns or comp lit mavens deconstructing deconstruction but the armies of engineers, scientists, and economists who hire themselves out to corporations and ideologically motivated think tanks at a time when the old ideals of intellectual objectivity and public service are increasingly corroded. Serious journalism is in even worse shape as punditry follows the money as surfers used to follow the sun. Armstrong Williams has a lot of company. His behavior is the rule, not the exception, though more august—and whiter—media hookers are more discrete about the connection between their opinions and the prospects for television airtime and lucrative speaking engagements.

Like wiring, the safe functioning of a civilization depends on the integrity of the insulation. The current set up has been designed to short circuit and can be expected to cause quite a few fires. Appearances aside, it was never that good an idea.