Wise Cracks     

§ . . . the meaning of life? Good grief. Life. Make babies.

§ In a recent article in The Economist the writer used the expression "new life" in reference to human conception. Phrasing it as "a new life" would be less wrong, but still askew. The separate gametes melding at eucaryotic reproduction are very much alive, only reshuffling the particular organism, not creating life. Getting such facts straight matters. It could damp the zeal of religionists who didn't pay attention in biology class.

§ Developing synthetic drugs as effective as chemicals tested and selected over the course of millions of years is a little like setting uninitiated soldiers down in the middle of a millenia-old tribal conflict and expecting them to defuse the situation. --Emily Monosson, Unnatural Selection, 29.



This land ain't your land
This land is my land
Go getcher own land
Git offa my land

If yew think all land
Is everbody's land
I better tell yeh
This land belongs to me.

§ Extraordinary the power of cheap music. —Noël Coward, Private Lives.

§ All I know is that I’d like to create a morality in which evil is an integral part. . . . What can man do . . . if we admit that evil exists in the world? Jean-Paul Sartre, in Carole Seymour-Jones, A Dangerous Liaison, 365-66.

§ At a Florida middle school a new English program replacing rote grammar with study of world classics began to produce scores well ahead of students at any other junior high school in the county . But excerpts of language occurring in those works, circulated to parents, quickly had the school superintendent banning a long list of masterpieces. A woman opposing the challenged books rose to declare that she and her followers had prayed two hurricanes away during the previous year and there would be grave consequences if the schools continued to profane the name of God. — Herbert N. Foerstel, Banned in the U.S.A., 44.

§ I have wasted too much mental voltage supposing that religion causes war. That's wrong. Religion justifies war. The male urge to kill—kill anything—is not essentially religious.

§ In an amazing miscalculation, we seem to have thought that God was a sort of Aladdin’s genie. If you rub him the right way, he will make more fish after we’ve sieved out the ocean; more topsoil if we’ve stripped it off and paved it over; more drinking water as we siphon dry the aquifers. Manlike, he will respond to pious stroking, and if the poles melt and the oceans brim, he’ll throw us a rope, build us an ark. Of course this is nonsense—but it has been our assumption. — Edward Hoagland, “That Sense of Falling,” in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000, 89.

§ It has been suggested that our almost universal religious concern with salvation, in one form or another, comes from our consciousness of time. The idea seems to be that if we understand the notion of time, then we are confronted slam-bang with with the fact of our own mortality. Animals do not have time consciousness (so far as we know), so they don’t suffer from the same need to be delivered from the now to the eternal. Knowing that we’re mortal, we yearn for salvation, for release from the finitude of life and death. — Diana Kappel-Smith, “Salt,” Best American Essays 1995, 145.

§ Throughout human history, our judgments of right and wrong determine our perceptions of the world. Our judgments of motive are inevitably in error, however, because we cannot see the whole picture. . . . Nature makes no value judgments, so in the forest time is perfectly in balance with events. Only we humans assign values to things, and our preconceived values impose time constraints that hide the true relationships because we bind an infinite Universe in finite time and space. — Chris Maser, Forest Primeval, 127.

§ Any society that depends on growth economics, with elites reaching ever greater levels of material well-being, eventually reaches its limits,” observed the Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest in a 1990 Los Angeles Times interview. — Richard Mahler, The Jaguar’s Shadow, 154.

§ Among parents of the kids at the private school in Texas that ours attended was a pro biologist. One day he got a call from another parent whom an alarming insurgence of household vermin was terrifying. "It's been awful hot and dry," he strategized. "They're probably just thirsty. Put out a little water for them and they'll be fine."

§ Orangutans are the calmest, most patient, most content of all the primates, with none of the nervous energy and constant bickering of other apes. By “other apes” I mean us, too. Why are orangutans like this? Is it possible that living in some of the sweetest tropical forests on the planet may have affected their mood and temperament? I wondered if it would affect my mood, too. Maybe I’m really Sumatran at heart. — Shawn Thompson, The Intimate Ape, 90. What are we apes at heart, really? What shall our kids be, growing up in the meanest urban jungles on earth?

§ I have an entirely new explanation of the so-called subconscious mind and the reason for its survival in man. I think that I can prove that Freud’s entire conception is based on a fabric of fallacy.” [—Eugène Marais, Soul of the Ape]. The kernel of his argument is that the human unconscious, as discovered and described by Freud, is nothing other than the older and more basic conscious mentality of the higher pre-human primates, which has been pushed into the psychological background, but not eliminated, by the newly evolved human consciousness. In other words, the human unconscious is identical with—in Marais’s choice of phrase, and he meant it literally—the soul of the ape. A proposition which, to say the least, has few followers among modern psychologists. —David Quammen, Natural Acts, 75-76.

§ Why do drains stop, but leaks get worse?

§ Here’s an unusually humane take on how astoundingly fast we are changing our ecology: It’s the shifting-baseline phenomenon. We believe that what we experienced when we were kids is how it has always been. Apart from a few reminiscences from our elders, or the insistence of old books, we have no way of knowing that we are growing up in a diminished world. It’s as if, when we were born, we inherited a quilt with a fraying edge that has been unraveling ever since. It’s too fragile to use, thought we still cherish it. We never saw the quilt in good condition with edging intact, and believe that unraveling is simply what quilts do. By the time we pass the threadbare gift to our children, they won’t believe us when we tell them it actually used to keep people warm. — Rowan Jacobsen, The Living Shore, 36-37.

§ Real ignorance is impenetrable. Those who are blessed with it know this. Don't try to reason with them.

§ I’m not saying that it isn’t in my book,” confessed the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese in response to a critic who pointed out a metaphysical theme in his work. “I’m only saying that I didn’t put it there.” — Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading, 210.

§ According to the recollections of a family friend, when Lise (Meitner)s grandmother cautioned that she should not sew on the Sabbath or else the heavens would come tumbling down, Lise decided to do an experiment. The little girl lightly touched her knitting needle to some embroidery and looked up. Nothing happened. Then she took a single stitch, waited, looked up. Again, nothing. Finally, she was satisfied that her grandmother had been mistaken and went happily about her sewing.Alan Lightman, The Discoveries, 306.

§ It is a sobering thought that something as simple as a minus sign in an unobservable wave function can account for the exclusionary behavior of electrons that is responsible for the entire structure of the periodic table and for the fact that you and I are here to think about it. — Kenneth W. Ford, 101 Quantum Questions, 130.

§ Liberalism, Cardinal Newman wrote in the 1860s, “is scarcely now a party: it is the educated lay world . . . It is nothing else than that deep, plausible skepticism, which I spoke about being the development of human reason, as practically exercised by the natural man.” The tolerant, questioning mind Newman wrote about almost always drives extremists of the left and right to frantic hatred. –Fritz Stern, Five Germanys I Have Known, 10. Not only can we not, ever, reason together. Trying to is exactly what lights the fuse.

§ You liberated the tribal despot with your gift of freedom? And he tried to kill you? You didn't know that he fears, beyond all else, freedom?

§ What's the ultimate cause of all this rage? I have never seen or heard this idea expressed, exactly another hazard of its cause. That cause is fear. Fanatic adherence to religious doctrine which cannot be empirically authenticated, or remains unfalsifiable, as a scientist would classify it, can only be defended by drastic revolt, while reason is inadmissible. The fear is real. No apostle of salvation, whatever its dogma, fails to threaten utter retribution for apostasy. Adherents simply cannot afford to hear "aw, come on, you don't believe all that nonsense." But if it's a tiny voice within, the only effective defense is suicide, as publicly destructive as possible. This morning (19 Sept. '14) as I write, NPR reports discovery of a scrap of ancient Coptic text in which Jesus mentions a wife. They will be wise to double security at their studios.

§ . . . a battle now is truly nothing else than a huge conflict of opposite engines worked by men, who are themselves as machines directed by a few ; and the event is not so frequently decided by what is intentionally done, as by accidents happening in the dreadful confusion. — James Boswell, “On War” (1777), Oxford Book of Essays, 102.

§ . . . the mustiness of the Middle Ages, that epoch when mankind tried to stand still in a monstrous illusion of final certitude attained in morals, intellect and conscience. --Joseph Conrad, “The Censor of Plays” (1907), Oxford Book of Essays, 326.

§ Dawkins (The God Delusion, here under review ) treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers on in the Muslim world, and the harm it does. Dawkins’ even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share Dawkins’ lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally. --Steven Weinberg, Lake Views (2009), 217.

§ Really to qualify as an atheist, you need to have a lot of missionary in you.

§ Discussing East-West tensions, [Khrushchev] gave his own version of Scripture: "If someone strikes my left cheek, I will hit his right cheek so hard it will knock his head off."--Daniel Schorr, Staying Tuned, 117.

§ Recall, before you murder me for unbelief, that mine is itself a religious conviction, with the same proofs differing in no wise from yours as to scriptures, authorities, and revelations.

§ Politics—the most miserable of human activities. –Borges (in Alberto Manguel, With Borges, 67.)

§ Speaking of politicians, what’s the difference between our Mexican government and your president Bush’s government?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“Our government is run by a crook surrounded with idiots. Your government is run by an idiot surrounded by . . . “
--Ferguson, Price, and Parks, Crossing with the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail, 37-38.

§ For my proper amusement I then [1928] made a short sketch of a utopian novel which was supposed to have the title ‘Gulliver’s journey to Urania’ and was intended as a political satire in the style of Swift against present-day democracy, namely against everything that even remotely smells of elections, parliaments, votes and majorities. –Wolfgang Pauli, in Charles P. Enz, No Time to Be Brief, a Scientific Biography of Wolfgang Pauli, 175.

§ Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself. –Willa Cather, The Novel Démeublé, in Joan Acocella, Best American Essays 1996, 8.

§ Mary Doyle (Arthur Conan's mother) . . . suggested . . . that he should concentrate on what he did best, which was historical novels. . . . "Take us out of the little tick tack of our daily drone to the clear bracing atmosphere of our forebears when there were no problems, less complexity and more room in the world. To so few is it given to be able to call it up—the sun that shone, the life that stirred, the love and beauty and charm that were in those ‘spacious’ days when we were not—it is such a gift, a true inspiration. Man today I find such an introspective, carping, fussy, perplexing atom, and if man—then woman ever so much more so—let us go back to the old days.” –Andrew Lycett, The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes, 260. Cather would have liked that word "spacious." But there remains the Moriarty problem, then as now.

§ Animals do not want to fight if it is not necessary. The exceptions appear to be humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins, all of which are known to attack and kill members of their own species without apparent provocation. –Tim Friend, Animal Talk, 98. There you have it—what the Big Three in the Search for Terrestrial Intelligence have in common. We don't know why we kill each other.

§ A [dolphin] calf stopped in front of the [aquarium] porthole and watched the trainer blowing smoke in the air near the glass. After a while, the calf swam away to its mother waiting nearby, nursed, and then, with a mouthful of milk, returned to the porthole where it first saw the instructor. The calf slowly released the milk from its mouth, producing a white cloud similar to the cloud of smoke produced a few moments beforehand by its biped counterpart. . . . Another account involved a dolphin and a scuba diver sent into the dolphin tank to remove the algal growth from the underwater portholes. Following next to the diver, the dolphin observed the cleaning activity with great interest . . . the dolphin picked up a seagull feather in its mouth and started “cleaning” the windows with it while releasing sounds and streams of bubbles similar to those emanating from the diver’s scuba gear. Perhaps not entirely convinced it had finished the job, the dolphin then collected stones, paper, and dead fish and used them in the same way.–Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B. Stanford, Beautiful Minds, 158-59.

§ For lots more inhuman smarts, go read Jonathan Balcombe, Second Nature (2010), third chapter. Genius from dolphins to voles. And now comes the Bible of dolphinology: Diana Reiss, The Dolphin in the Mirror (2011), with all the fun and experimental rigor both.

§ I sure like this one: People rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they [this should read we] are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change. To the neocortical brain, rich in the power of abstractions, understanding makes all the difference, but it doesn’t count for much in the neural systems that evolved before understanding existed. Ideas bounce like so many peas off the sturdy incomprehension of the limbic and reptilian brains. The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, its relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation just as it precludes self-help books from helping. The sheer volume and variety of self-help paraphernalia testify at once to the vastness of the appetite they address and their inability to satisfy it.–Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love, 118.

§ The subject of gay animals was one I had raised tentatively from the start. . . .I’d read about a zoo in Holland that exclusively exhibited gay animals. . . .Having lived with a gay dog for fifteen years, over the course of which I met many owners of other gay dogs (roughly 5 to 10 percent of the randomly selected canine population of London parks), I am absolutely convinced that homosexuality has at the very least a strong genetic component, is perfectly natural, and nothing to get excited about. --Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo, 84-85.

§ Much of what is threatened now has been threatened before. Ten years after passage of the legislation that was supposed to protect Alaska’s natural inheritance, the catalogue of ills afflicting the Great Land continues like a kind of threnody. It is an old, wearying fight, and some of those in the room would find wry amusement, if no solace, in the words of scientist Daniel B. Luten almost twenty-five years before: “So long as Americans continue to value both the useful and the beautiful qualities of the landscape . . . for so long will the problems of conflicting demands arise. . . . In such dilemmas, we usually speak of compromise. The compromises are never true ones, for beauty does all the compromising. Splitting the difference between utility and beauty again and again ultimately will leave nature next to nothing: half of a half of a half of a half . . .“ –T. H. Watkins, “The Perils of Experience,” in The World of Wilderness, 242.

§ Mit der Schwerkraft werden wir schon fertig. Der Papierkram aber kann mal überwältigen. --Werner von Braun, trying to manage the lunar landing program.

§ Alabama’s legacy of poverty and segregation made it difficult to attract industry managers to [the Marshall Space Flight Center in] Huntsville. Bob Young [Industrial Operations director, controlling billion-dollar Saturn budget] would not stay mostly because his family refused to move in the face of mediocre schools and the state’s reputation for bigotry and violence—in September 1963 Klansmen had killed four schoolgirls in the bombing of a Birmingham black church. . . . Worried about the impact of the civil rights struggle on Marshall . . . von Braun became a cautious but important voice for integration and racial moderation in Alabama. . . . In March 1965 [George] Wallace’s state police attacked a peaceful voting rights march in Selma. The next month von Braun spoke in favor of black voting rights . . . drawing both praise and scorn from local letter writers, some of them staunch white racists. . . . Wallace’s stop in Huntsville on the eighth, part of a press tour of Alabama he organized to counteract the state’s terrible image . . . provoked a flurry of consultation between NASA headquarters and Marshall. . . . Von Braun gave a speech obliquely opposing segregation, saying Alabama had to “shed the shackles of the past.” Afterward he asked Wallace if he would like to be the first person on the Moon, to which the governor joked: “ Well, better not. You fellows might not bring me back.” –Michael J. Neufield, Von Braun (2007), 396.

§ Jha, Ve shoot dem up, but vhere dey come down, dat's not my department, says Vherner von Braughn.--Tom Lehrer

§ Along with peanuts and manioc, maize came to Africa and transformed agriculture there too. “The probability is that the population of Africa was greatly increased because of maize and other American Indian crops,” says [University of Texas historian Alfred] Crosby. “Those extra people helped make the slave trade possible.” Maize conquered Africa at the time when introduced diseases were leveling Indian societies. The Spanish, the Portuguese, and the British were alarmed by the death rate among Indians, because they wanted to exploit them as workers. Faced with a labor shortage, the Europeans turned their eyes to Africa. The continent’s quarrelsome societies helped slave traders to siphon off millions of people. The maize-fed population boom, Crosby believes, let the awful trade continue without pumping the well dry.Charles C. Mann, 1491, reprinted from Atlantic Monthly in Best American Science Writing 2003, 39. Whom does how monstrous a yield Cortés and his handful of desperadoes produced not boggle? File this, perhaps, along with the Green Revolution in the Law of Unintended Consequences folder. A lot of unthinking folks would put the Iraq war in here too, as a massive endeavor gone 180º wrong. But not the megalomanic prevaricators who hatched it. For them it worked and kept working exactly as intended. Georgie, the decoy, with his handlers got fifty-five million devout morons, including the ones on the Supreme Court—where but America would you find such a constituency—to hand them the two-term political jackpot—yes, twice—plenty of time to scoop the whole fisc, on hand and payable for the unknowable future, into their own private boodle. So splendidly vicious, global-scale, tenaciously successful a theft can only credit the kind of results we and our children now have every right to expect from the efforts of my own profession, the American public education system.

§ For his birthday Laura has bought George a parrot. "It's amazing," she tells Dick, "how quick he learned to talk. He says 'freedom and democracy—squawk—freedom and democracy'."
"Well, yes," says Dick, "but of course he's just repeating the words—he doesn't really understand what they mean."
"Oh, sure, I know that," says Laura. "Neither does the parrot."

§ Since Aristotle and even before him, the occasional scientist has tried to reconcile his business with that part of the public who regard him as the archenemy of belief-based thought. They all fail, always. As perhaps the wisest and most concerned in this company, Darwin faced, and still faces, the most organized of campaigns for our inalienable right to ignorance.

§ Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. –Darwin

§ A quarter of the (Saudi) university students devote the main part of their degree course to Islamic studies, more than in engineering, science, and medicine put together. And despite changes to the Saudi curriculum, religious study remains obligatory every year from primary through to university. . . . It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment.The Economist, 17 October 2009, 60.

§ To my mind, the history of science is most illuminating when the frailties of human actors are put into juxtaposition with the transcendence of nature’s laws. –Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel, 16.

§ With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. (Steven knows his Twain.) One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. –Steven Weinberg, “A Designer Universe,“ New York Review of Books, 21 Oct. 1999.

§ And for salvation you profess fables so absurd that you must kill everyone who doesn't?

§ Washington, Lafayette, and others like them forswore religious faith not from reading or thinking deeply about the matter (asked why the Constitution did not invoke God, Hamilton supposedly said, “We forgot”) but in the spirit of the times, which was characterised by the Enlightenment’s confidence in observation, empirical experiment, and the rigorous application of reason grounded in fact rather than abstractions. –James R. Gaines, For Liberty and Glory, 15-16. All you now so obsessed with wedging God into every affair of State—forget it. Statecraft has to negotiate for advantage with dignity. Not God's style at all.

§ Mark Twain, you know, observed that he had not been alive for millions of years before he was born, but found it no inconvenience. And I don't know of any record, over the century now since he died, that he has complained.

§ When the history of this century [the 20th] is written, we shall see that political events—in spite of their immense cost in human lives and money—will not be the most influential events. Instead the main event will be the first human contact with the invisible quantum world and the subsequent biological and computer revolutions. –Heinz Pagels, in World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics (ed. Timothy Ferris), 108. I haven't noticed that politicians in this one [the 21st] waste fewer human lives or less money, while contact with reality lapses ever deeper into disuse.

§ There's the story Richard Feynman tells about how Gweneth stopped him on his way to lecture about science and religion, because he was in casual dress. He protested that he always lectured that way. Yes, but this time, she said, you don't know what you're talking about. Put on a tie. (I think this is in John Gribbin's biography Richard Feymnan: A Life in Science.)

§ More Feynman wit: The Director of CERN [European physics lab, now home of the Large Hadron Collider] was halfway through explaining that the purpose of the experiment was to test a theory, when all of a sudden he stopped and said, “Oh! Excuse me! It’s testing your theory, Professor Feynman, . . . that such and such would occur. We’re going to test that with this experiment.”
Feyman looked at the stuff all around in the cavernous room and he said, “How much did it cost?”
The Director said, “Thirty million dollars.”
And Feynman said, “You don’t
trust me?” --Tom van Sant, “An Exercise in Honesty,” in The Art of Richard P. Feynman, 56-57.

§ The twenty-first century seems preoccupied with reversing each and every one of the advances made in the eighteenth. –Gerald Weissmann, Galileo’s Gout, 150.

§ When it was observed to T.S. Eliot that most critics are failed writers, Eliot replied: "But so are most writers."—Joyce Carol Oates, in Pushcart Book of Essays, 87.

§ The Quranic literalist, the Bible tyrant, the divine-law fanatic of whatever cant, priest, patriarch, imam, seer, all of them, are out to bulldoze reality's splendid terrain for a parking lot with numbered spaces.

§ How it came to be that the highest achievement of the most famous scientist of the twentieth century has been virtually ignored by most of those clamoring to follow in his footsteps is one of the strangest stories in the history of science. . . . Indeed, you might wonder, given that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is so well accepted, why anyone would try to develop a new theory that did not take on board its central tenet : the geometry of space is not part of the laws of nature. –Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, 81-82.

§ Constructive theories in physics attempt to build up a picture of the more complex phenomena out of the materials of a relatively simple formal scheme from which they start out. . . .Principle theories employ the analytic, not the synthetic method. The elements which form their basis and starting point are not hypothetically constructed but empirically discovered ones, general characteristics of natural processes, principles that give rise to mathematically formulated criteria which the separate processes or the theoretical representations of them have to satisfy. –Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (1954), 228 (quoted from Schweber). —For Einstein, the establishment of a world government and of a world court was the starting point and the basis for any proposal to prevent war. –Silvan Schweber, Einstein & Oppenheimer, 99. Einstein mistook world government, which he repeatedly and earnestly advocated, for a principle, not a constructive, theory, hopelessly inapplicable to human societies by any constructive process yet discovered.

§ My attitude is therefore, that we have to be satisfied with the fact—well established by history—that ideas always had a great influence on the course of history and also on politicians, but it is better if we leave the direct actions in politics to other persons and remain on the periphery and not in the center of this dangerous and disagreeable machinery. In this attitude I am—last not least—also influenced by the philosophy of Laotse, in which so much emphasis is laid on the indirect action, that his ideal of a good ruler is one whom one does not consciously notice at all. Wolfgang Pauli, letter (in his English) to Bohr. In Paul Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance, 173. Well. Did you draft your anticipated Nobel acceptance address with the 道德經 in one hand? [It] is not in intention (though anyone may treat it as such, if he so chooses) a way of life for ordinary people. It is a description of how the Sage . . . through the practice of Tao acquires the power of ruling without being known to rule.Arthur Waley, The Way and its Power, 92. Waley's study seems to me still the most scholarly, although he didn't know of the Mawangdui silks, which I saw when I lived in Changsha, or the Guodian bamboos. His translation rather avoids poetry in favor of what we called explication when I was in grad school, a more humane invasion than the unmerciful deconstructionist necropsies theory now demands.

§ We still call our planet Mother Earth, but we have decided to dominate and control our mother. For any species whose members have a life-span of less than a century to think that they can own or control something with billions of years of history is, to say the least, an interesting notion. –Hsu Shan-Tung, Fundamentals of Feng Shui, 11-12.

§ Arthur Eddington’s 1919 eclipse expedition brought the first empirical confirmation of relativity. Einstein tried to push back some of the fame. . .Two weeks after the public announcement, he wrote in the London Times that although the Germans were proudly calling him a German, and the English were proclaiming him a Swiss Jew, if his prediction ever came to be shown false, the Germans would call him a Swiss Jew, and the English would call him a German. –David Bodanis, E=mc², 216-17.

§ The believers in Cosmic Purpose make much of our supposed intelligence but their writings make one doubt it. If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts. Bertrand Russel, in Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang, 305-6.

§ An omnipotent creator who could make such a painful world is to me sometimes as hard to believe in as to believe in blind matter behind everything. The lavish profusion too in the natural world appalls me, from the growths of the tropical forest to the capacity of man to multiply, the torrent of babies. –Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on reading Origin of Species, in Janet Browne, The Power of Place, 186.

§ [Alfred Russel Wallace] was the first of the Darwinians deliberately to apply natural selection to the emergence of human difference. . . . He did so in an article in the Journal of the Anthropological Society, in 1864. In this, Wallace proposed that human beings emerged in a single group from apelike ancestors and then rapidly diverged under the impetus of natural selection. In effect, he gave a chronological, developmental account of human origins that united conflicting theories of single or multiple beginnings. . . . "Most striking and original and forcible," remarked Darwin. Browne, 253-4.

§ Some time ago an architect published attractive designs for high-density urban housing units, to help manage inner-city congestion. A woman replied in the next issue. She had no wish, she wrote, to share living space with someone she would cross the street to avoid. And then added this whack, right on the sore spot: “Drugs and electronics have forever changed the ways we can live together.” (I have lost track of where this appeared. If you find it, let me know: stavenhagen at stavenhagen.net.)

§ Because reversibility was the ideal, never realized in practice, Thomson argued [in 1852] that all natural processes, probably including biological and animate ones as well as purely physical and chemical changes, represented a loss of potential work from heat. From this he jumped to a “cosmic” conclusion: “Within a finite period of time past the earth must have been, and within a finite period of time to come the earth must again be, unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted, unless operations have been, or are to be performed, which are impossible under the laws to which the known operations going on at present in the material world are subject.” –David Lindley, Degrees Kelvin, 109

§ (The heroic sons of Pandu, persecuted by their royal uncle, wander in the forest.) One day at dusk, when they were resting beside a lake after the evening ablutions and prayers, they had a venerable visitor. It was their great-grandfather Vyasa, the Island-Born, and composer of the Mahābhārata. It was a welcome change from the monotony of trudging along in the same company. Vyasa said, “You see those two paths? Follow the one to your left. . . . Your fortunes will change and circumstances will change. But be patient. Ahead I see victory for your principles. Have no doubt that you will again live in your palace, rule the country, distribute gifts and alms to the needy, and perform grand sacrifices.” --R.K. Narayan, retelling the Mahābhārata, 28. Grand sacrifices—divine privilege? I'm island-born (lower-case), and sort of a poet, but I see no privilege in sacrifice, as we like to do it now. Nor can I augur with Vyasa, who's here prophesying what he will ordain for his own poetic creatures. Splendid narrative irony.

§ Roderick A. Robinson, Sr., a chief of the Gitlakdamix Niska, in a speech given in 1983 at the sixth conference of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Vancouver, soberly observed that: “Our fight for justice began centuries ago, when a little boat with strange, bearded white men experienced difficulties at sea, with men who landed on an unfamiliar coast and arrogantly claimed ownership to the land. Our people, who had exercised control over 13,000 square km of land since the beginning of memory, have always denied the incredible proposition that the simple act of discovery justifies possession of the land of those who are discovered. When it was our turn to ‘be discovered’ our fathers were surprised at this incredible arrogance". –Maximilien Bruggmann and Peter R. Gerber, Indians of the Northwest Coast, 171.

§ A lone raven clamors loudly near a remote cabin, alerting a man next to it to look up and see a hidden cougar that is about to spring on him. The man thought the raven had alerted him to save his life. [Ravens] are known to lead carnivores to potential prey they cannot overpower themselves, so the bird may have been leading the cougar to the man. –Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar, “Just How Smart Are Ravens?”, Scientific American, April 2007, 64.

§ When the great German anthropologist Curt Unkel—better known by the name Nimuendaju, given him by the Indians of Brazil to whom he devoted his life—returned to the native villages after a lengthy stay in a civilized center, his hosts would burst into tears at the thought of the suffering he must have endured so far from the only place in which, so they felt, life was worth living. –Claude Levi-Strauss, The View from Afar, 7. And where, Nimuendaju, do we relax when the Brazilian forest is all gone?

§ Flying squirrels rely on the brown beard lichen, Bryoria, as their principal winter food source. . . . Flying squirrels, in turn, are one of the two or three primary prey of the northern spotted owl . . . .In summer, the main staple of the flying squirrels is underground-fruiting fungi. As they travel through the forest, the squirrels disperse fungal spores in their droppings. The spores germinate and form mycorrhizal associations with tree roots which are critical to the tree’s ability to absorb nutrients. . . The trees provide habitat for the lichens, flying squirrels, spotted owls and other organisms. –Bruce McCune and Linda Geiser, Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest (1997), ix-x.

§ One cannot discuss the philosophy of conservation with a man cutting the last tree for fuel. –George Schaller, A Naturalist and Other Beasts, 24.

§ Nature’s best thermometer, perhaps its most sensitive and unambiguous indicator of climate change, is ice. When ice gets sufficiently warm, it melts. Ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts. Henry Pollack, A World Without Ice, 114.

§ An irregular line can be drawn roughly east to west across the middle of England. South of this division, people eat breakfast, then lunch, then dinner; to the north, they take breakfast, dinner, and tea. Incalculable social consequences follow. –David Lindley, Degrees Kelvin, 74.

§ The [British] mail-coach system was at its fastest and most efficient in the late 1830s, just before it began to be superseded by the new railways. . . . Even while it was still wholly dependent on horses, the postal system in Britain was faster and more reliable than it is in the 1980s. –Martin J. S. Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy (1985), 36.

§ The ideas of the Mongol Empire awakened new possibilities in the European mind. New knowledge from the travel writings of Marco Polo to the detailed star charts of Ulugh Beg proved that much of their received classical knowledge was simply wrong, and at the same time it opened up new paths of intellectual discovery. . . . The common principles of the Mongol Empire—such as paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity, and international law—were ideas that gained new importance. As early as 1620, the English scientist Francis Bacon recognized the impact that changing technology had produced in Europe. . . . Under the widespsread influences from paper and printing, gunpowder and firearms, and the spread of the navigational compass and other maritime equipment, Europeans experienced a Renaissance, . . . but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn. It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture. –Jack Weatherford, Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, 236-37.

§ From 1979 to 1983, Davey Smith, Frankel, and Yarnell (1997) [“Sex and Death,” BMJ 315:1641-1644] conducted a study on the relationship between frequency of orgasm and mortality in the United Kingdom. At the ten-year follow-up, they found that the mortality risk was 50 percent lower among men who had frequent orgasms, defined in the study as two or more per week, than among men who had orgasms less than once a month. Even when controlling for other factors such as age, social class, and smoking status, a strong and statistically significant inverse relationship was found between orgasm frequency and risk of death—that is, the higher the frequency of orgasm, the lower the risk of death. The authors concluded that sexual activity seems to have a protective effect on men’s health. –Barry Komisaruk et al., The Science of Orgasm, 47. Aha. Or are healthy men just sexier? And how about women?

§ In species where survival of young requires extensive care, the single most important source of variation in female reproductive success is not how many young are born; what matters is how many survive and grow up to reproduce themselves. For such creatures, survival of at least some young requires reproductive discretion. This is why being pro-life means being pro-choice. –Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature, 90. This is one of the great books on human life. Go read it. Now.

Nor can a woman just will herself to love a child, or respond to legal prescriptions that she do so. . . . This book will make clear why efforts to legislate a mother's love—by telling a mother with an unwanted pregnancy, for example, that she must carry it to term—are so often destined to end badly. –Hrdy, 116-17

If a primatologist instead of a politician were president, it's likely that Joycelyn Elders, ex-Surgeon General of the United States, would have been given a medal rather than fired. The immediate impetus for the surgeon general's dismissal was her public comments to the effect that sex education and alternative outlets for libido (such as masturbation) would be preferable to early, unprotected intercourse by teenage girls who are fertile at the unprecedented age of thirteen. –Hrdy, 191.

§ The use of the spear launcher and the bow were revolutionary techniques that enabled humans to kill from a distance, manifestly altering the equilibrium between them and their prey. There is a tremendous difference between approaching a bison with a lance in hand and projecting a dart or arrow into it from a distance. . . . Many authors believe that the disequilibrium brought about by human technology ultimately caused the extinction of many mammal species. If so, it would have been the first far-reaching ecological impact attributable to humankind, amply illustrating that such sinfulness is neither a symptom of modernity nor exclusive to industrial society. . . .As of yet, there is no proof that humans have caused the disappearance of a single prehistorical floral or faunal species. In this discussion we should remember that the first species to feel the tremendous impact of our expansion were the other humans who inhabited Africa and Eurasia, Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. They suffered extinction thousands of years before the end of the Pleistocene. . . . The final result of our evolutionary history is that two identities coexist within each one of us, one individual and the other collective. To deny the existence of either of these two aspects of human nature is to close one’s eyes to reality. While our individual identities promote egoism and neutralize the impulse to social solidarity, the collective identity can lead to the abyss, because it makes us easily manipulated. In the recently ended century alone, the bloodiest in human history, tens of millions of people died in confrontations between symbolically defined group identities. At the same time, any deviation from intragroup unanimity or resistance to necessary social homogeneity has been viciously persecuted as an intolerable threat to the collectivity. Have we reached an evolutionary dead end, or is it possible that humans may someday overcome this abiding contradiction between the individual and the group? The answer, my dear reader, is blowin’ in the wind. –Juan Luis Arsuaga, The Neanderthal’s Necklace, 193, 196, 303-4. For a more general wringing out of these issues, go read the last half of Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters.

§ In November 1940 Stalin, suspecting Nazi intentions on his Western front, dispatches Molotov to Berlin. A British air raid sends an evening banquet scrambling into a shelter, where talks continue. Ribbentrop, complaining that he had been ‘queried too closely’ by his Russian colleague, made one last effort to pull the conversation back to the agenda which he had proposed. ‘He could only repeat again and again that the decisive question was whether the Soviet Union was prepared and in a position to cooperate with us in the great liquidation of the British Empire.’ But Ribbentrop’s last exasperated plea met with no more response that Hitler’s. To Ribbentrop’s repeated assurances that Britain was finished, Molotov replied: ‘If that is so, why are we in this shelter and whose are these bombs which fall?’"–Alan Bullock, Hitler (1962), 621, quoting Churchill, The Second World War, II, 518.

§ Harry Smyth's call from Washington reached me in our pension one evening that fall [1949]. . . . Would I consider cutting short my leave, he asked, in order to return and contribute to an all-out effort to develop a hydrogen bomb? . . . Over breakfast with Bohr one morning, I told him what was on my mind and how divided I felt. . . . "Do you imagine for one moment," he said, "that Europe would now be free of Soviet control if it were not for the Western atomic bomb?" —John Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (1998), 188-89.

Reasoning like this has made me ask whether the universe is a "self-excited circuit"—a system whose existence and whose history [and perhaps even whose laws] are determined by measurements. By "measurements" I do not mean any observation carried out by a human or a human-designed instrument—or by any extraterrestrial intelligence, or even by an ant or an amoeba. Life is not a necessary part of this equation. A measurement, in this context, is an irreversible act in which uncertainty collapses to certainty. It is the link between the quantum and classical worlds, the point where what might happen—multiple paths, interference patterns, spreading clouds of probability—is replaced by what does happen: some event in the classical world, whether the click of a counter, the activation of an optic nerve in someone's eye, or just the coalescence of a glob of matter triggered by a quantum event. . . . The point is that the universe is a grand synthesis, putting itself together all the time as a whole. Its history is not a history as we usually conceive history. It is not one thing happening after another after another. It is a totality in which what happens "now" gives reality to what happened "then," perhaps even determines what happened then. ibid., 337-38.

§ Already in 1949 Kurt Gödel had condensed eons into instants: Time in the intuitive sense, for Gödel, is something 'whose essence is that only the present really exists.' In particular, it 'means (or is equivalent to the fact) that reality consists of an infinity of layers of "now" which come into existence successively.' —Palle Yourgrau, World Without Time, 128.

§ Even more surprising is the consequence of Einstein's definition of simultaneity that each of us lives in his or her own unique "now." Watching my wife across the room, I suddenly realize that her now, over there, is not the same as mine, here, because the sight, sound, smell of her first has to cross the room to me. For me she exists only in the past. By a very small delay, of course, but while she's on the moon, the difference is quite noticeable. Or on a world at some cosmic distance, she is in my ancient past, my now, which from her perspective can reach hers only in what would be my very distant future. No wonder, then, that the closer we come together the more time, space, and cosmos shrink, to collapse in a hug into nothing.

§ En el vocabulario crítico, la palabra precursor es indispensable, pero habría que tratar de purificarla de toda connotación de polémica o de rivalidad. El hecho es que cada escritor crea a sus precursores. Su labor modifica nuestra concepción del pasado, como ha de modificar el futuro. En esta correlación nada importa la identidad o la pluralidad de los hombres. --Borges, "Kafka y sus precursores," Obras Completas 8, 148.

§ This just in: In every person’s body, there are 10 times as many microbial cells as there are human cells. “The microbial part of ourselves is highly evolved,” [say researchers]. “These organisms have learned to adapt to life with us.” . . . In any one human, there are a hundred times as many microbial genes as there are human genes. . . . Now, researchers can extract DNA from a sample and rapidly identify thousands of bacterial [and other microbial] species at once without having to grow each bug in a dish. . . . Called metagenomics, this form of analysis . . . describes the metabolic activities going on within a microbial community. . . . A Human Microbiome Project . . . would create a genetic inventory of the microbial communities inhabiting the body’s major niches, such as the mouth, vagina, skin, and intestinal tract. . . . Microbial communities may vary significantly over small distances within any given part of the body. . . . A community's membership changes from one part of a person's mouth to another . . . as between the front and back sides of teeth, or between the gum pockets of two adjacent teeth. To further complicate matters, different people harbor different collections of microbes. . . . “Ultimately,” [researchers say], “we will have a broader view of ourselves as a life form, as a composite of different species.” –“Our Microbes, Ourselves,” Science News, 19 May 07, 314-316. I like this lots. Now all those languages that mix plain and prissy pronouns of address to send those landmined intimacy signals (Heine: "Madame, ich liebe Sie") can junk all that and just say "y'all" to everybody.

§ Our position has been that higher-order consciousness, which includes the ability to be conscious of being conscious, is dependent on the emergence of semantic capabilities and, ultimately, of language. Concomitant with these traits is the emergence of a true self, born of social interactions, along with concepts of the past and future. —Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness (NY 2000).

§ I am anxious that my children should be bred up from earliest infancy in the simplicity of peasants, their food, dress and habits completely rustic. I never shall, and I never will, have any fortune to leave them: I will leave them therefore hearts that desire little, heads that know how little is to be desired, and hands and arms accustomed to earn that little. Coleridge, Letters 1, 240. He didn't know how fast and how far the price of strong dope was about to go up.

§ "Not ten percent of [the Nazis] were sexually normal,” according to [Ludwig L.] Lenz [Memoirs of a Sexologist, 1954, 404]. Party members wanted relief from sexual obsession, impotence, and urge to cross-dress, a craving to touch young boys. –Pagan Kennedy, The First Man-Made Man, 31.

§ There are plenty of horror stories about aid bureaucracies. Donors often trip over each other and fail to coordinate. I came across one case where three donor agencies each wanted to build a hospital in the same place. They agreed to coordinate, which didn’t always happen, but then faced the problem of having three incompatible sets of rules for how the work should be commissioned. It took them two years to reach a compromise, which was that each agency should build one floor of the hospital under its own rules. You can imagine how efficient that was likely to be. —Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion, 101.

§ Surely after Iraq the chances of a wealthy country attempting external military intervention to transform a badly governed resource-rich country are zero. ibid., 179. Oh, yeah?

§ Against any fanatic with a revealed scripture and an assault rifle, an arsenal of WsMD however monstrous fails. Neither does an overwhelming nuclear stockpile deter others from building one. Precisely the opposite. Nor will a fundamentally suicidal opponent fear your massive retaliation. Precisely the opposite. You celebrate his martyrdom and damn yourself to the perdition his god ordains.

§ We tend so much to the reflexive praise of Greek democracy that it is easy to overlook its inherent weaknesses. Take a gang of people trained in combat, chronically at war, poor by modern standards, confined to a small space, [crazed with religion,] and, emancipated from traditional authority, they would likely proceed to clobber one another even more vigorously. —Ian F. McNeely, Reinventing Knowledge, 8. And, sure 'nuff . . .

§ Why should anybody take one thing from life, and not the rest? — Joan Feynman, in Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary Genius, 91.

§ Clicks might have been part of the first fully articulate human language that appeared among some group of early humans 50,000 years ago. Those with the language gene would have out-competed all other groups, so that language became universal in the surviving human population. That would explain why the metaphorical Adam hit it off with Eve. They just clicked. —Nicholas Wade, “Click Languages,” Best American Sience and Nature Writing 2004, 194. Aaargh.


Earl Bertrand Russell
Carn Voel, Porthcurno
Cornwall, England                                                       June 8, 1931

Dear Earl Russell:
   Will you interrupt your busy life for a moment, and play the game
 of philosophy with me?   I am attempting to face, in my next book, a 
question that our generation, perhaps more than most, seems always
 ready to ask, and never able to answer—What is the meaning or worth 
 of human life? . . . [here follow two pages of anguished obituary
 for efforts by thinkers since antiquity] Life has become, 
in  that total perspective which is philosophy, 
a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth . . . . 
We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history
 was the discovery of truth. . . . It appears to have taken from us every
 reason for existing, except for the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s 
trivial hope. . . .
                                                        WILL DURANT

[he lists his degrees, works, and a page of then-notables from Einstein to Mussolini
 who will receive a copy of this summons]

                                                        20th June 1931
Dear Mr. Durant:
   I am very sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be 
convinced that life has no meaning whatever, and that being so,
 I do not see how I can answer your questions intelligently. 
    I do not see that we can judge what would be the result
 of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered.

Yours sincerely,
                                                        BERTRAND RUSSELL

--The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944 (v.2), 319-22.

§ Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Best possible argument for keeping guns away from people.

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