When survival of the fittest is the survival of the weirdest.
In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin argued that competition is fiercest between animals of the same genus and especially of the same species:
As the species of the same genus usually have, though by no means invariably, much similarity in habits and constitutions, and always in structure, the struggle [for existence] will generally be more severe between them, if they come into competition with each other, than between the species of distinct genera... We can dimly see why the competition should be most severe between allied forms, which fill nearly the same place in the economy of nature; but probably in no one case could we precisely say why one species has been victorious over another in the great battle of life. (Darwin 1876: 59)
As a result of competition between allied species, there are selective pressures operating in nature by which a species can discover a niche otherwise uncolonized, so to speak, by its close relatives, and thereby thrive. The demands of that new niche can have curious consequences.
For instance, the slender loris is able to cope with the toxins in its insectivorous diet by slowing down its metabolism, and by using much of its energy to process the toxins that it consumes along with the calories it needs to live. As a result, the loris is a slow animal, apt to spend much of its day asleep, which is much like another animal that has found its place in the economy of nature eating what others don't want: The koala. The Eucalyptus leaves that a koala munches on are toxic in large quantities, and they provide little nutrition, so the koala bear has adapted with a slow metabolism and a sedentary lifestyle. The relative smallness of a koala's brain compared to its overall weight may very well be an adaptation to a life spent eating the little nutritious food that other species turn away from.
Both the koala and the slender loris are able to secure their place in the economy of nature by staking out a place for themselves where there is little competition. If competition between their progenitors had not been so severe, then there probably wouldn’t have been a sufficiently strong pressure for them to turn to their curious diets. Here, we can see the very same principles affecting human entrepreneurs’ specialization in the international division of labor — away from where competition has eroded profits away — affecting the specialization of species in their novel niches in what Darwin called “the economy of nature”, which I think is a most apt phrase considering the forces at work.
1) Arnold Kling provides his initial thoughts about Francis Fukuyama’s latest volume, Political Order and Decay. Of note is Kling’s taxonomy of governments based on whether or not a government is good at providing public goods in an egalitarian manner.
2) A femur found in 2008 in western Siberia has led to the creation of the oldest human genome that has yet to be sequenced at 45,000 years-old. Svante Pääbo, a director over at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has concluded “It’s almost twice as old as the next oldest genome that has been sequenced.”
4) The Economist writes about how Nigeria has controlled the spread of Ebola within its borders, and the lessons that can be learned in “Ebola in west Africa: Not necessarily a death sentence”. It’s all really about institutions and civic trust. Liberia in particular lacks those two, being a poor nation that is recovering from a brutal decades-long civil war. In Arnold Kling's taxonomy, Liberia would be a predatory government.
5) Bill Vallicella turns to the golden age of American philosophy in “Josiah Royce and the Paradox of Revelation” over at Maverick Philosophy. Oh how the state of American philosophy has fallen since the days of Royce, and the Jameses.
Discourse about method all too often starts from an unfortunate starting point. In such discussions, focus is on metaphysics and epistemology, yet away from view is one of the most important questions facing any theorist: What is their craft? What is their final cause that gives meaning to their efforts? There has to be some reason why they are doing what they are doing, and there has to be some problem which vexes his mind that he seeks a solution to.
Aristotle started from this problem in the very first chapter of The Nicomachean Ethics. There he establishes that every inquiry must have some purpose, some final cause:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity—as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others—in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned. (Translation by W.D. Ross)
Method is a tool. As a tool, it must fit into the theorist’s craft. If a theorist is studying black holes, for instance, he will deploy different tools than if he is studying, as Georges Cuvier did, the similarity between extant Indian elephants and the Mastodon fossils that were brought to him from Ohio. Metaphysics and epistemology will certainly figure into the picture, but only insofar as they relate to the craft that the theorist practices.
For the craft I’m more familiar with, economics, concern about the craft of economics has certainly motivated my concerns about method. The more and more I think about what the craft of economics is, the less and less I am satisfied with the picture Llionel Robbins gives of it in his Essay on the Nature of Significance of Economic Science. In fact, I have come to think that Robbins actually doesn’t capture the nature of economics as a craft.
Robbins is famous for promulgating the definition of economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which has alternative uses” in that book. A nice, tidy definition, but one I think doesn’t capture really what I believe the craft of economics is about. Yes, microeconomics and concerns about the tradeoffs present in human behavior are vitally important to the economist’s craft, but they cannot be all that economics offers. After all, the emergent properties of the markets cannot be perceived from the first-person point of view of those within in; instead, economics needs reference to a third-person spectator who can behold the growth and change that happens to the commercial society. Simon Newcomb recognized that in Principles of Political Economy when he discussed how the coordination of society is manifest in its life:
We readily perceive that the system by which the body of farmers on the prairies of the West exchange goods with various countries in Europe, Asia, and South America is exceedingly intricate in its details. Its successful operation depends upon the proper co-ordination of the efforts of manufacturers, merchants, ship-owners, and managers of railways. There being little real concert of action among these widely separated individuals, the co-ordination of their work is a matter of slowly growing habit (Newcomb 2012, 138).
In my own view, the economist’s craft is to understand how the commercial society operates, and how it serves universal benevolence in doing so. That it serves universal benevolence is not a given and obvious fact; instead, the work of economists is necessary to morally legitimate the commercial society, and those who pursue honest profit within it. Daniel Klein puts the policy angle well in Knowledge and Coordination when he writes that “Wisdom in economics resides principally in know-how in explaining that we do not know-how in explaining that we do not know how to intervene in a way conduces to concatenate coordination” (Klein 2012, 250).
Such wisdom cannot come from studying the economy from the point of view of pure economic agents alone; instead, it needs an external spectator, and so the craft of economics must be about appreciating the economic order as a whole.
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
"Ozymandias." First thing to come into my head upon hearing Ultron speak. Seems pretty relevant to the plot. It's going to be a long wait til May.
Professor Thorne's diagram for how a black hole distorts light
The beauty, and utility, of computer simulations is that they can bring out emergent properties of an equation that would have otherwise gone unnoticed had a programer not brought the equation to life in silico. Iain Couzin’s work on simulating bait ball behavior is a great example for how complex behavior can be distilled down to a simple equation, and how we can really only notice the emergent behavior once we see equation finally simulated. Just looking at it on paper, its emergent qualities would escape notice. Once those equations are simulated, though, and suddenly those emergent properties jump out.
In an article at Wired, “Wrinkles in Spacetime: The Warped Astrophysics of Intersellar”, Adam Rogers discusses how Christopher Nolan’s collaboration with Kip Thorne, the former Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, in the creation of stellar set pieces for Interstellar has created at least two paper’s worth, by Professor Thorne’s reckoning, of new scientific findings. As a result of the demands of the plot, Christopher Nolan wanted to depict celestial phenomena that would fit the demands of his script, and to do so “he asked Thorne to generate equations that would guide their effects software the way physics governs the real world.” As Adam Rogers writes:
They started with wormholes. If light around a wormhole wouldn't behave classically—that is, travel in a straight line—what would it do? How could that be described mathematically?
Thorne sent his answers to Franklin in the form of heavily researched memos. Pages long, deeply sourced, and covered in equations, they were more like scientific journal articles than anything else. Franklin's team wrote new rendering software based on these equations and spun up a wormhole. The result was extraordinary. It was like a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in spacetime. “Science fiction always wants to dress things up, like it's never happy with the ordinary universe,” he says. “What we were getting out of the software was compelling straight off.”
Their success with the wormhole emboldened the effects team to try the same approach with the black hole….
Still, no one knew exactly what a black hole would look like until they actually built one. Light, temporarily trapped around the black hole, produced an unexpectedly complex fingerprint pattern near the black hole's shadow. And the glowing accretion disk appeared above the black hole, below the black hole, and in front of it. “I never expected that,” Thorne says. “Eugénie just did the simulations and said, ‘Hey, this is what I got.’ It was just amazing.”
In the end, Nolan got elegant images that advance the story. Thorne got a movie that teaches a mass audience some real, accurate science. But he also got something he didn't expect: a scientific discovery. “This is our observational data,” he says of the movie's visualizations. “That's the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne says he can get at least two published articles out of it.
The entire article is worth reading just for the fascinating potential for computer simulations to reveal the emergent properties to the world to human eyes.
War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.
Kitsch. The problem with kitsch is that it’s predatory. By its very nature, kitsch panders to an onlooker’s sentimental yearnings. It expects nothing of its beholders, and is content to elicit an emotional response. Yes, there may not be anything wrong per se about sentimentality, but kitsch is deviously cynical about its sentimentality. Rather than trying to discover a meaningful source of sentiment, kitsch simply vomits the cultural focal points that its creators know would elicit an emotional response, which is certainly a cynical take on art. Art is supposed to stand for something, not just prey on our emotions.
I had watched Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, titled Generation War on Netflix (I suppose English-speaking viewers would not get the emotional oomph of the title), and my growing realization that the mini-series was first-rate kitsch inspired me to write about kitsch. Just after watching it, I had an overwhelmingly positive opinion of the mini-series. It was good to have a German perspective of the Second World War, and all of the emotional moments in the series certainly hit home. Thinking back upon the series, though, I cannot escape the conclusion that it was kitsch.
Looking back at the title, Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, it’s very easy for the German viewers to look at the five sympathetic protagonists, and to actually think that they were their ancestors. The genuine Nazis are kept at a sanitized distance as secondary characters with whom we never entirely get to sympathize with. Yet, if the mini-series is truly going to be about Our Mothers, Our Fathers then where are the Germans who were members of NSDAP? Rather than actually grappling with war guilt, the series simply depicts the people with whom we are meant to sympathize with as victims, which is disappointing.
Scene after scene, the message that human beings are just cattle for the slaughter when nations clash is hammered into the viewer’s head to the point one can be for forgiven for forgetting the popularity of the war among Germans. Yes, there are Nazis in the series, but they are always other people. The protagonists are much too clear thinking to fall for such propaganda, which fails to grapple with the material the title promises: the war-time experiences of that generation of Germans. Instead, the writers simply exploit the audiences sentiments from scene to scene as we watch sympathetic protagonists, who don’t really even participate in the more unnerving parts of the Third Reich’s war, be ground into the dirt underneath the machine of war. It’s effective, it’s emotional, and it’s complete kitsch. There are two scenes (no spoilers), each with one of the two brothers, that kind of break the grand arc of protagonist-as-victim, yet I think it’s much too little, and still carrying a protagonist-as-victim vibe.
Needless to say, I’m not the target audience of Unsere Mütter, unsere väter. Nor do I believe it was terrible. It’s certainly worth the time to watch, yet it’s sadly just isn’t as good as it could be. Where Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter fails is recognizing that all good plots are matters of choices and then those choices’ consequences. Instead, things simply happen to the protagonist in this series, and then we, as an audience, are supposed to then sympathize with them as little more than victims. Not human beings with moral agency, but as passive victims.
The Blue Tend Sky: How The Left's War on Guns Cost Me My Son and My Freedom by Brian Aitken. I have just finished reading Brian Aitken's tale about what can happen when the justice system makes an example of a man who has been shanghaied every step along the way, whether that's by a police officer who (to avoid perhaps a less than charitable view) doesn't understand the law he is supposed to enforce from a judge who seems hell-bent on getting the jury to come down to the acceptable verdict. After having done that in a single sitting, there's not much that I can write about Mr. Aitken's book other than everybody should buy it and read it. I've included an Amazon link in this post; so, really, go buy it now.
I had contributed to the Indiego campaign to get his tale published, so I knew the broad outlines of Mr. Aitken's story already having first learned about him after his appearance on Judge Napolitano's FreedomWatch made him a cause célèbre. Nevertheless, The Blue Tent Sky didn't disappoint nor did it settle with rehearsing the story many of us had already become emotionally attached to before Governor Christie commuted his sentence. Yet, I was never bored, and I was kept in suspense, wanting to know what happened next.
Moreover, perhaps the most damning part of the book is the part of Mr. Aitken's experience that wasn't really unique to him, and that was his time in prison. He gives a first-hand account of a barbarous institution that is in desperate need of reform. Whether its in the dilapidated buildings, the overcrowded cells, or the cruelty guards regularly showed towards prisoners, any impartial reader would have a difficult time wanting to call the prison system that Mr. Aitken spent only around half a year in their own. Yet, there are human beings, many of whom guilty for nothing less than possession of a drug less deadly than alcohol, who spend years there, and who are then expected to become functional citizens when the, dare I say, criminal War on Drugs has done everything it can to destroy the communities that any normal human being would rely upon to rejoin society.
So, even though it's "The Left's War on Guns" that gets specifically called out, Mr. Aitken's book really is a much wider indictment on the entire American justice system, and it's a visceral indictment at that. It's one of those memoirs that makes one realize just how monstrous the society one lives in can be towards those who are often the most vulnerable.
The book brings to mind the question of how many young black teenagers who didn't have the communities and recourses many white bourgeois people like myself enjoy whose lives were ruined, much like Brian Aitken's, by a hard-on-crime justice system that sought to make examples of them. Unlike Mr. Aitken, though, they won't have the blessing of becoming a white bourgeois cause célèbre.