Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Piltdown Man

December 19, 2016

The intellectual process of developing theories and hypotheses based on observations and experiments and checking those hypotheses with further experiments and observations that we refer to as science has proven itself to be the best tool human beings have ever developed for understanding and making use of the world around us. This process is not an easy one, however.  Not only is it a lot of work to conduct the necessary experiments and interpret the results, but the process demands a  rigorous honesty that does not come easily to anyone. Most people are less interested in discovering the truth than in being proven right, and there is always a tendency to consider only the evidence that confirms existing ideas and ignore the evidence against them. As Dr. Richard Feynmann put it in his lecture about cargo cult science:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The problem is that this level of integrity is almost contrary to human nature. There is a great temptation to cheat, particularly when the rewards of fame and fortune are present.

One of the most famous instances of scientific cheating is Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man was a hypothetical “missing link” between human and ape discovered by an amatuer paleontologist Charles Dawson at the Piltdown gravel quarry in 1912. Dawson stated that workmen at the quarry had discovered skull fragments which they had given to him. Dawson had been able to reconstruct the skull with these fragments and other pieces that he had found at Piltdown. The resulting skull had a roughly human cranium, although only two thirds the size of a modern human brain, but an ape-like jaw with large canines. Clearly this was the remains of a creature caught midway in the transition between human and ape, the missing link of the chain of evolution.

Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson

At first, there was some skepticism about Dawson’s find. The canines seemed too large for the jaw and the whole thing seemed to be just a little too neat a combination of human and ape. Then, Dawson found another skull about two miles away. It might be possible for a human skull and ape jaw to have somehow been put together once and fossilized . Surely that couldn’t happen twice. Piltdown Man was accepted as a legitimate ancestor to homo sapiens.

 

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

 

At the time of Piltdown Man’s discovery, relatively little was known about the details of how humans evolved from their apelike ancestors. Over the years, more early human fossils were discovered and much more was learned about how humans became human. As the missing pieces were fitted together, it became increasingly obvious that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in. Paleontologists began to suspect that Piltdown Man was either an aberration, perhaps a mutation of some sort, of a hoax. In 1953, the question was definitely settled. Piltdown was shown to be a hoax. Piltdown Man was actually a rather crude forgery. The skull was that of a medieval man with a small head. The jaw was from an orangutan and the canines were the teeth of a chimpanzee.

The only remaining question was whether Charles Dawson was the forger or whether he was merely an innocent dupe. Dawson was the obvious suspect, but there were others associated with the discovery of Piltdown Man, who might have been able to perpetrate such a hoax, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Recent research, however, has indicated that Charles Dawson was indeed the forger. He actually had something of a history of perpetrating such hoaxes and was well known for his skill at making unexpected archaeological finds, invariably later discovered to be forgeries.

Why did it take so long to expose Piltdown Man? The forgery was not very sophisticated and the discoverer had a reputation for not being particularly honest. To be fair, a space of forty years between the discovery and the exposure is not an unreasonable amount of time considering how much was discovered about human development in that time. Still, one might have expected more skepticism to be shown, especially considering how important the find seemed to be at the time. It seems as if everyone involved in the research involving Piltdown Man showed a disregard for the sort of scientific integrity that Dr. Feynman was talking about. For years no one seemed to want to consider the increasing evidence that Piltdown Man wasn’t real.

I think that was the problem. Piltdown Man was exactly what most paleontologists were expecting. At the time of his discovery, the general consensus was that human beings developed large brains first, while retaining a more apelike physiology such as a large jaw and lack of bipedalism. Only later, they believed did humans began to walk erect and to develop a flatter, more human face. It was also generally believed that human beings developed somewhere in Eurasia, Perhaps even in Germany, where Neanderthal Man had been discovered not long before, or in England. There was a certain amount of nationalistic pride in being the area where humanity began. It is not that surprising, then, that British paleontologists were the least likely to be skeptical about Piltdown Man.

In any event, these assumptions that Piltdown Man seemed to confirm have proven to be wrong. Primitive humans, such as the Australopithecus (Lucy)  began to walk erect on two feet long before developing larger brains, and the human race arose in Africa, almost the opposite of what was generally believed. I wonder how much these widely held but wrong assumptions held back the science of paleontology.

I also wonder how many other Piltdown Mans there are out there that are holding back the progress of science. I don’t mean hoaxes or forgeries necessarily, though that is a greater problem is science than many realized, but ideas and theories that are held to be settled science but aren’t. I wonder how much that everyone “knows” to be true and so not worth questioning, are not true, and how long it will take before anyone thinks to question it.

Growing Crops on Mars

June 27, 2016

We may have already a taken a step towards the colonization of Mars. Any colony on Mars whether a permanent settlement or a long-term scientific research expedition will have to be largely self-sufficient because of the long travel time from Earth. At the very least, humans living on Mars for any great length of time will have to be able to get food and water on Mars, if possible. Obviously, given Mars’s thin atmosphere, it will not be possible to plant fields of crops out in the open, but it may be possible to create domed habitations in which vegetables can be grown. This would be a lot easier if Martian soil could be used or modified since bringing soil from Earth, or hydroponic equipment would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Mars

It is not clear whether terrestrial plants can grow in Martian soil, given the lack of organic matter and different chemical composition. There is some encouraging news from The Netherlands in this article in phys.org.

Dutch scientists said Thursday crops of four vegetables and cereals grown on soil similar to that on Mars have been found safe to eat, amid plans for the first manned mission to the planet.

Abundant harvests of radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes all grown on the soil were found to contain “no dangerous levels” of heavy metals, said the team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“These remarkable results are very promising,” said senior ecologist Wieger Wamelink.

“We can actually eat the radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes, and I am very curious what they will taste like.”

Future Mars settlers will have to take food supplies with them and then plant crops in order to survive.

So using soil developed by NASA to resemble that of the red planet, the university has been experimenting since 2013 and has managed to raise 10 crops.

But uncertainty remains about whether they would absorb the high levels of heavy metals such cadmium, copper and lead, present in Mars soil.

Further tests are now needed on the remaining six crops, including potatoes, in research which is being backed by a crowd-funding campaign.

NASA plans a manned trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years or so, and similar projects are also being pursued by US billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet.

The Mars One project has backed the Wageningen experiments and is currently undertaking a third selection to whittle down the remaining 100 candidates hoping to be among their astronauts to 40.

“It’s important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources,” said Wamelink.

When I read the headline, I thought that they had grown the vegetables and grains in actual Martian soil samples and I was a little disappointed to learn that the soil used was Earth soil made to simulate Martian soil. It does show that it is at least possible to use Martian soil, though I think it would be better to obtain actual Martian soil to be sure. No matter how well designed our probes are, there is always a possibility that we have overlooked something that could be only be discovered by human beings in laboratories on Earth.

If the members of a Martian expedition do grow their own food, they will need to bring along bacteria from Earth to add the necessary organic components to make the soil more Earth-like. Such bacteria could be genetically modified to flourish in Martian conditions. No form of terrestrial life can survive on the surface of Mars, at present, the thin atmosphere cannot shield the surface from deadly ultraviolet radiation, but there is no reason Terran life couldn’t survive underground. Conditions wouldn’t that much worse than in Antarctica. This bacteria, adapted for Mars could be the first step in terraforming Mars for human habitation.

So, when can I leave for Mars?

One of these days, I'd like to look out my window and see this.

One of these days, I’d like to look out my window and see this.

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

Maze of Stars

Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

Have We Found Aliens?

January 25, 2016

It is just barely possible that we have discovered the first evidence for some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. At any rate, astronomers have discovered a star that is something of an anomaly, according to this article.

Three months ago, news broke that a giant “alien megastructure” could exist around a bizarre-looking star 1,500 light-years away.

While the prospect of aliens was first launched by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, almost everyone in the astronomy community agreed that the chances that this was the case were “very low.

Now, the latest investigations into this strange star by Louisiana State University astronomerBradley Schaefer have reignited the alien theory, New Scientist reported.

What makes this star, KIC8462852, so bizarre is the drastic changes in light we see from it over time. Many stars experience temporary fluctuations in brightness, increasing and decreasing in luminosity over time, but KIC8462852’s changes are severe by comparison.

Astronomers refer to stars that experience those fluctuations in luminosity as variable stars. A star can change in brightness either because something occasionally blocks the star’s light, usually a companion star or perhaps a planet, or because the internal processes of the star cause variations in luminosity. Probably every star is at least a little variable. The Sun has its eleven year sunspot cycle, for example. Whether the cause of a star’s variability is external or internal, its cycle of variability tends to be regular. That does not seem to be the case with KIC8462852.

Between 2009 and 2013, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope discovered that it would sometimes lose up to 20% of its brightness. What’s more, the changes didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

That would suggest something gigantic must be blocking the light at random times, meaning that it couldn’t be a planet or other regular orbiting object because that would generate a distinct pattern of dimming light. It must be something that changes shape over time, thereby blocking different levels of light at random intervals.

Could the cause be artificial?

An alien megastructure, called a Dyson swarm, was suggested as one explanation for what scientists have observed, but the most likely reason astronomers came up with was comets — a giant family of them.

But Shaefer says not so fast.

“The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot,” Schaefer told New Scientist. “But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all published ideas.”

To make his discovery, Schaefer had to dig deep down into the astronomy archives at Harvard. It turns out, astronomers have data on KIC8462852 dating back as far as 1890.

By analyzing over 1,200 measurements of this star’s brightness taken from 1890 through 1989, Schaefer found that the irregular dimming of KIC8462852 has been going on for over 100 years. Schaefer published his findings in the online preprint server arXiv.org.

What’s more, he explains in his paper that this “century-long dimming trend requires an estimated 648,000 giant comets (each with 200 km diameter) all orchestrated to pass in front of the star within the last century,” which he said is “completely implausible.”

By killing the comet theory, Schaefer has brought us one step closer to finding out what is really happening around KIC8462852.

At the same time, he’s also reignited the possibility that the source could be an alien megastructure that an advanced alien civilization has been slowly building over time. One thing’s certain for Schaefer: The bizarre dimmings are probably caused by a single, physical mechanism that’s undergoing some type of ongoing change.

“The century-long dimming and the day-long dips are both just extreme ends of a spectrum of timescales for unique dimming events, so by Ockham’s Razor, all this is produced by one physical mechanism,” Shaefer said in his paper. “This one mechanism does not appear as any isolated catastrophic event in the last century, but rather must be some ongoing process with continuous effects.”

Schaefer isn’t the only one interested in learning more about KIC8462852. Late last year, astronomer Doug Vakoch and his team at the new organization called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International — not to be confused with the SETI Institute — went hunting for aliens around KIC8462852.

They searched for signals that an alien civilization might be beaming toward Earth either in radio or visible wavelengths, but ultimately they came up empty handed. So, if it is aliens, then they’re being awfully quiet.

Is it aliens? If this is some structure created by an extraterrestrial civilization, we shouldn’t expect to be receiving any sort of messages from them. They would have no reason to believe that there is any intelligent life here on Earth since any radio waves we have emitted cannot be farther than about 100 light years away by now. Any message to or from KIC8462582 would take 1500 years to reach its destination. They may have sent a message last year but we won’t get it for a long time.

I tend to think, however, that the explanation for the strange behavior of KIC8462582 will turn out to be due to an entirely natural phenomenon.I think that as we begin to explore the universe we will find that life is fairly common. The elements and compounds that make up the basic components of life are found throughout the universe and if the current understanding of the earliest history of the Earth is accurate, it seems that life arose on this planet as soon as it was physically possible. Scientists do not know precisely how life began on Earth, but I think that they will find that where ever the right conditions are found, there will be life of some sort. I think, though, that most of the life we find in the universe is going to be simple and primitive, some equivalent of terrestrial bacteria. Bacteria were the only form of life found on Earth for most of its history. Intelligent life must be still rarer. Human beings have only been around much less than 1% of the Earth’s history and we have only had to capability to communicate by radio for a little over a century. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that the development of intelligent life or a technological civilization was inevitable and considering the strange twists and turns of the history of life it  may not be very probable. I think then, that we will find some few worlds with alien plants or animals, but that we are probably the only intelligent form of life in our galaxy.

Even if there are extraterrestrial civilizations, our relations with them will not be like Star Wars or Star Trek in which there are a number of different races at about the same level of technology. It is more likely that if two civilizations make contact, one civilization will be millions of years ahead of the other. Any space wars are likely to be short and decisive with the more advanced civilization quickly overcoming the more primitive. With that in mind, maybe we shouldn’t be trying to draw attention to ourselves. I would hate to think that there is a fleet of conquistadors from KIC8462852 heading this way.

Ben Carson and Evolution

November 9, 2015

I got this meme off of Facebook. I think it originally came from the left-wing blog Daily Kos.

Carson Evolution

Why is this an issue in any presidential campaign? Since the duties of the President of the United States do not include teaching a science class, how is any candidate’s opinion on the theory of evolution particularly relevant? I would be more concerned with a candidate’s opinion on the theories of Marx than of Darwin. Marx’s ideas have contributed to the murder of millions and has caused more misery than any opinion on evolution ever has, yet candidates with ideas derived from Marx never seemed to be questioned by the media. The fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist or that Barack Obama had as mentors such left-wing Marxist radicals as Bill Ayers and Frank Marshall Davis seem to me to be of far more concern than Dr. Ben Carson’s thoughts on evolution.

I suppose that the people at Daily Kos would argue that Dr. Carson’s beliefs about evolution disqualify him for the presidency because they show that he is anti-science. If that is the case, that Carson really is against science, what do they imagine he will do as president? Cut all funding for research? Insist that universities that accept federal funds teach creationism? Even if he wanted to do this, and there is no indication that he did, President Carson would find it very difficult to impose creationism on the scientific community. The President of the United States is not a dictator, at least not yet, and cannot single handedly control the education policies of the entire country. I think that science is safe from a president who does not believe in evolution.

But is Ben Carson really anti-science? For that matter are creationists really anti-science? They certainly do not believe that the theory of evolution is a valid explanation for the origin and adaptation of life on Earth and they disagree with current ideas about the age of the planet and the universe, but is this being anti-science? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the definition of science is:

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Science can also mean “an organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, so one might argue that Dr. Carson and creationists  are not knowledgeable in the sciences of biology and geology but that is not the same as saying that they are anti-science in the first sense. In fact, hardly anyone is actually anti-science in the sense of being against the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Even people people espousing wildly unscientific ideas try to assume the mantle of science. Creationists like to say they have scientific evidence for their position, even when it really boils down to, “The Bible says it”. Disbelief in evolution does not necessarily imply disbelief in the scientific process.

The real importance of evolution to the left does not seem to be its status as a scientific hypothesis subject to falsification but as a means to differentiate between the elite intellectual elite and the bitter clingers in flyover country. To them, belief in evolution is a sign to show that you are on the right side of science and history. It, along with climate change is sacred knowledge, not to be questioned or doubted. By demonstrating a disbelief in evolution, Dr. Carson shows that he is lacking in intelligence and should be disqualified from the presidency.

The irony here is that Dr. Ben Carson is probably a good deal more intelligent and educated than the person who put together that meme. He is certainly more accomplished, being a gifted neurosurgeon. It is even possible he is more scientifically knowledgeable, even about evolution. I wonder how much that that person who created that meme really knows about the theory of evolution or can explain why it is accepted as an explanation for the development of life by nearly every scientist knowledgeable in the relevant fields. I would guess that he believes in evolution because it is what was taught in school and that it is what all of the smart people believe. Well, that is not the same as actually investigating the matter for oneself and actually trying to understand why a given theory is believed to be true. You don’t get to give yourself credit for being in the intellectual elite for simply remembering what you learned in school twenty years ago and you don’t get the right to sneer at people better than yourself.

 

 

Hitler’s Illness

October 26, 2015

Not long ago, I wrote about how Vladimir Lenin‘s poor health and untimely death after a series of strokes drastically effected the course of Soviet, and world, history. This time I want to write a little on how Adolf Hitler’s state of health influence the decisions he made just before and during World War II and whether his judgement was affected by  illness. Hitler clearly was not in very good health towards the end of World War II and it seems likely that even if the Germans had won the war, Hitler would not have lived to enjoy his Third Reich for very long. The precise nature of any illness that Hitler suffered from is unclear since he is not available for a medical examination and his body was not autopsied. There has been much speculation about Hitler’s health in the decades since his death, with theories that Hitler was afflicted with syphilis, suffered from the ministrations of his personal physician; a quack named Theodor Morell, or simply was consumed with the crushing stress of leading a losing war. The most likely theory to explain Hitler’s symptoms is that Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, as related in this article from the Daily Mail that I read recently.

Parkinson’s disease may have played a crucial role in Adolf Hitler’s defeat, according to a controversial new study.

The research claims the neurological disease influenced some of the dictator’s biggest decisions, making him reckless and ultimately losing World War II.

But it also goes a step further to say that Hitler’s horrific and inhumane murders were also influenced by his disease, exaggerating his ‘volatile temperament’.

The study was led by Raghav Gupta and a team at the University of Pittsburgh and recently published in the journal World Neurosurgery.

‘The possibility of Hitler suffering from Parkinson’s has long been the subject of debate,’ writes Gupta.

‘Video evidence depicts that Hitler exhibited progressive motor function deterioration from 1933 to 1945.’

By the end of his life, Hitler had a pronounced tremor in his hands, particularly his left hand, which has caused a number of scientists to question whether he had the disease.

Parkinson’s can also cause a slow gait, bent posture and a dull stare, along with cognitive disorders such as a lack of imagination and a general apathy.

The researchers suggest that Hitler’s condition may have led him to attack Russia prematurely in 1941, according to a report in Discover.

A previous study claimed that Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, before defeating Britain on the western front, was a direct result of his failing health.

The study points to other bad decisions of Hitler’s such the failure to defend Normandy in 1944, alongside keeping his forces in Stalingrad in 1942.

They say this was the result of the dictator’s ‘volatile temperament’ which may have been aggravated by his Parkinson’s.

The study also goes on to suggest that Hitler’s lack of remorse and sympathy can be associated with his Parkinson’s.

Assuming that Hitler did indeed suffer from Parkinson’s disease, how did it affect his judgement and the outcome of the war?

Did he have Parkinson's Disease?

Did he have Parkinson’s Disease?

 Hitler always was something of a gambler and a risk taker, preferring to improvise rather than making elaborate plans. This willingness to risk everything on a single throw of the dice, as it were, helped Hitler immeasurably during his rise to power in Germany and in the early years of his rule, especially since he could also be patient when it was necessary. Up until around 1937 Hitler was largely successful in obtaining his goals both inside Germany and in Germany’s relations with its neighbors. Germany seemed to have largely recovered from the Great Depression and regained its place as one of the leading nations of Germany. Had Hitler stopped then, he would possibly be regarded as a great statesman.  After 1937, Hitler seemed to become more impatient and reckless.

Consider the timeline leading up to the Second World War. In March 1938, Germany invaded and annexed Austria. Almost immediately, Hitler began pressing for the session of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that the majority of the population were ethnic Germans and therefore the region rightly belonged to Germany. After the Munich agreement in September 1938, the Germans occupied and annexed the Sudetenland. Then in March 1939 Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Then Hitler demanded that Poland cede the city of Danzig to Germany and when Poland refused, he ordered the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, beginning World War II. Now, each step of Hitler’s path to the war was in itself reasonable and could perhaps be justified in terms of Germany’s national interest. No one in Europe really wanted a war, even Hitler. If he had allowed more time to elapse between his conquests, it is likely that he would have continued to lull France and Great Britain into inactivity. As it was, one move after another in quick succession thoroughly alarmed both Britain and France. They might have gone to war in any case after the invasion of Poland, but if Hitler had waited perhaps longer between conquests, Germany might have been more prepared for the war. As it was, the war really started too early for Germany. The Germans had been rearming almost since the Nazis had gained power but it would have been better if Hitler could have put it off until around 1942 or 1943, especially since Mussolini had advised Hitler that Italy could not be ready for war until at least 1945. Why the hurry?

By the end of 1940, Hitler had defeated France and was the master of continental Europe with only Britain still opposing him. Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. This was not an entirely unreasonable course of action for Germany. Hitler had good reason to suspect that Stalin was biding his time waiting for the capitalist powers to exhaust themselves in war before swooping in to bring the revolution to Europe. Moreover, Stalin’s purges had badly weakened the Red Army and Hitler could reasonably consider that it would be better to invade before Russia recovered its strength. Still, why the hurry when Hitler was still at war with Great Britain and it was increasingly obvious that it was only a matter of time before the United States intervened? Surely Hitler could have waited another year. By that time the morale of the British people would likely to have decreased to the point that they would have been extremely receptive to some peace proposal. The Germans had also wasted valuable time in the spring and early summer of 1941 assisting Italy after its disastrous invasion of Yugoslavia. Why couldn’t Hitler have waited until the spring of 1942 to begin his invasion of Russia, giving the Germans plenty of time to conquer as much territory as possible before the cruel Russian winter began.

I suppose the answer is that Hitler knew by 1938 that he was not especially well and that he perhaps did not have much time left. It may be that the best thing Hitler could have done for the Third Reich would have been to retire from the day to day running of the country and appoint a successor. The problem is that Fuehrers really can’t retire, and Hitler was not willing to be known to history as the predecessor to the man who created the thousand year Reich. He did not want to play the role of Phillip the Macedonian to another man’s Alexander the Great.

It is a little strange that Hitler’s increasingly obvious lapses in judgment towards the end of the war did not lead to some sort of coup. There were attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer, most notably the plot by Army officers led by Claus von Stauffenberg, but no attempts to seize power by the members of Hitler’s inner circle who had direct knowledge of his increasing inability to lead the Third Reich. They schemed among themselves for Hitler’s favor right up to the end, but none of them ever seem to have seriously considered replacing him. Perhaps they realized that they were not strong personalities in themselves and their fates were inextricably tied to Hitler’s.

Whatever the precise nature of Hitler’s illness, I think we can all be grateful that Hitler did suffer from ill health that made him more impatient and reckless. A healthier Hitler might have been a more rational Hitler better able to lead his nation in war and peace and perhaps more likely to succeed in his goals. It maybe that Hitler’s illness is the major reason Nazi Germany is not the leading world power to this day.

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.

Lenin

Lenin

Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.

joseph-stalin-and-vladimir-lenin

In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

Transcending Truth

June 8, 2015

Everyone seems to be talking about Bruce Jenner and his transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, so I might as well say what I think, although I am afraid that I have already committed a micro-aggression by referring to Bruce/Caitlyn as “he”, when he, I’m sorry, she, has always been a woman, even though she has had a man’s body most of her life. I may be an incorrigible micro-aggressor who will need to be sent to the diversity  camps since I posted this picture on Facebook last week.

B9SorakCcAAuuKI

 

I should explain that I do not have anything against Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Before this latest adventure, I barely knew he (there I go again) existed. Mr. Jenner’s choices in life are his own business. I don’t have anything in particular against the transgendered. It must be fairly unpleasant to be confused about which gender you are. I do not have any moral or religious objections to this sort of thing. My objections are based on epistemological and linguistic grounds.

We recognize and categorize objects and concepts based on the attributes we observed through our senses and the use of our reason. I know that a four-legged, furry animal that barks is a dog because it has the attributes of a dog. I know that a four-legged, furry animal that meows is not a dog but a cat, because while it shares some attributes (four legs, fur) with a dog it has an attribute, (meowing) that distinguishes it from a dog. I know that a larger four-legged animal that people ride, a two-legged animal with feathers, and a four-legged animal with scales are not dogs but a horse, a bird and a reptile because of the observed attributes that distinguish each kind of animal. All of the organisms I named have the shared attribute of being able to move about on their own. A tree cannot move on its own and since it lacks the attribute that animals share, a tree is not an animal but a plant. This is all a vast oversimplification of a subject that philosophers have debated over for centuries, but I hope you  understand what I am saying.

Now, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner does not possess any of the attributes that distinguish a woman from a man. He has not had any gender reassignment surgery, as far as I know, and even if he has, it still would not really make him into a woman. The best that the most skillful surgeon in the world can to is to give someone something of the outward appearance of the opposite sex. There is not, at present, any medical procedure that can really change someone’s gender. Yet, I feel as though I am expected to say, and believe Jenner is really a woman, despite the evidence of my senses and reason on pain of being branded a bigot and ostracized from polite society. I really do not much care for being put into a position in which I have to say something that is simply not true.

But, there is something else that bothers me about this affair. We use language in order to communicate with one another. We use words to name and classify the objects we wish to talk about. In order for this to work, we have to agree on which words go with which objects and concepts. If you call an animal that barks a dog and I call it a cat, we are likely to become confused. I cannot say that I feel that it is a cat and if you do not agree, you must be some sort of bigot, yet if I say that Bruce Jenner is actually a man because he still fits the definition of a man, I am a hater and a bigot. The idea seems to be that the words we use do not describe or reflect reality but create reality. A woman is not a person with certain attributes that indicate the female gender, but whoever happens to feel like a woman.  A hairy, burly man with a long beard could declare himself a woman and we would have to agree because calling himself a woman really makes him a woman.

Surely, this is madness. If I were to state that I am really Napoleon Bonaparte, I don’t imagine that anyone would believe me since I am not a French Emperor and Napoleon has been dead for a long time. If I were to travel to Paris and demand to be reinstated to my rightful place, I don’t think the French authorities would pay much attention to me, except to send me back to America in the next plane. There would be no question in most people’s minds that I was suffering from a delusion. If I insisted that I was really a tiger and demanded surgery to reshape my body to conform to my true self, no surgeon would comply, at least not if he wanted to keep his license to practice medicine. It would be clear that I had some sort of mental illness.

His modifications were not done by an actual surgeon.  And no, that isn't a good idea.

His modifications were not done by an actual surgeon.
And no, that isn’t a good idea.

 

Yet, if I started to wear women’s clothing and insisted that I was really a woman, I could, after some counseling get a surgeon to make changes not much less drastic that the obviously not entirely sane person pictured above.

This is madness. The simple truth is that there is no way to really change someone’s gender. There is no difference, in principle between the man who wants his penis cut off and the man who wants to have his arm amputated because he feels as though he is really an amputee, except that the one is clearly recognized as suffering from a mental disorder and needs help, while the other has become the latest group of people being used by the loony left to fundamentally transform this country.

Bruce Jenner is not a fruit loop. He is a man with some issues regarding his gender and he deserves our help and sympathy. It is the the people who are enabling and encouraging this sort of madness for their own reasons who are the fruit loops.

God on the Ropes

February 28, 2015

According to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, some brilliant new scientific research has demolished the Christian Right and the Creationists.

The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.

Hatred is perhaps too strong a word to apply to many Christians’ feelings about Charles Darwin, but many Christians certainly do not approve of his theory, judging it to be a direct attack on their faith. They shouldn’t feel that way. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the development and adaptation of organisms to their environment. Like every other scientific hypothesis, evolution has nothing to say about any deities. Questions about the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics, not physics. To say evolution dispenses with the hand of God is a metaphysical rather than a scientific statement. One might just as well say that Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of Relativity dispenses with the hand of God. An Atheist may believe this but a Theist would see the hand of God behind evolution or gravity.

Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined.But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,” he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he’s saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

I hope that there are not many Christians who would make the argument that because we do not know, at present, precisely what natural processes were responsible for the beginning of life on Earth, that no natural process could have began life and therefore life had to have a supernatural origin. This attribution of divine intervention for things that we do not understand is called the God of the gaps argument. God is held to be active in areas scientific research has not yet penetrated. This is a very bad argument because the gaps are always shrinking. It also does not give God enough credit. God is not active just in matters that we cannot explain, but is present and active in the whole world. The observations we make about the motions and relationships of the objects in the universe and which we call natural laws are all ultimately manifestations of the divine will. The hand of God is everywhere and there are no gaps in His providence.

For this reason, I have never been very impressed with the argument that the origin of life on Earth is so statistically unlikely that only divine intervention could explain it. When God created the universe he also created the natural laws by which the universe operates. If God wanted life in the universe, why would He design it in such a way that the formation of life would be very unlikely, even impossible? It seems to me that the idea that God had to step in to correct the natural course of events makes for a rather clumsy and bumbling God. I believe, rather, that God specifically designed the universe to make the formation of life not just possible but likely and even inevitable. Thus, I do not see Jeremy England’s hypothesis, for it cannot yet rise to the status of theory, as any particular challenge to my faith, but as a sort of confirmation how I believe God interacts with the natural world, provided that the hypothesis is found to be supported by data and research.

Just the Facts About Vaccination

February 17, 2015

I read this open letter on the rejection of the proven, life saving technologies vaccination and genetically modified organisms.

Dear Every American Who Doesn’t Believe in Science:

I know you are smart.  I know you care about your kids, your family, your pets.  I know you are a basically decent human being who wants to do right and contribute to society.  And because I know these things, I’m going to try very hard to understand why you refuse to believe in scientific fact, rather than berate you and call you names.

The funny thing is, I actually think I’m reasonably good at seeing the other side of any issue.   There are a few issues where I struggle, but even then, if I’m honest with myself, I can intellectually understand the other side of the issue and why my friend or colleague has positioned himself on that side.

Regarding immunizations and genetically modified organisms, I can’t.

Yes, I view these two issues – though they are definitely in different industries – as intertwined.  Why?  Because the people who are anti either of them have a blatant disregard for science and I just don’t understand that.

Scientific consensus on both of these issues is that both are safe.  Immunizations are safe for the vast majority of people.  GMOs are safe for everyone.

Do you understand what scientific consensus is, my friend?  That means that most of the scientists (maybe even those who don’t usually agree) believe the safety of GMOs and immunizations to be fact.  It’s beyond dispute.  The data has proven safety beyond a shadow of a doubt so that scientists no longer squabble over this issue.

I appreciate what this writer is trying to do and agree with her positions, yet I cannot help but consider that her arguments are somewhat flawed, or perhaps insufficient is a better way to put it. Basically, her argument is that Science has decreed that vaccines and GMO’s are safe because there is a consensus and all the scientists say they are safe. In my view, this is a misunderstanding of what science really is and how it should work.

Science is not a body of lore handed down on stone tablets at Mount Sinai by God or some famous scientist. Science is a method of inquiry used to learn facts about the natural world. It does matter what Einstein or Newton or some other famous scientist says, no matter how great their contributions to science. They can be wrong. It does not matter what the consensus is. The consensus could be mistaken. Not so very long ago, the scientific consensus was that disease was caused by imbalances of bodily humors and bleeding was the most effective treatment. The only thing that matters, or should matter in science is the observations that are made and the logical inductions that are made from those observations Ideally, scientist should be interested in “just the facts”. I think the best arguments on any subject are those based on just the facts.

So, what are the facts about vaccination. Before the widespread introduction of vaccination, people fell sick and even died from a variety of infectious, contagious diseases’ smallpox, measles, whooping cough diphtheria, to name just the ones that spring immediately to mind. These diseases have been virtually wiped out since vaccines for them have been developed. Smallpox, the deadly disease that people feared, is now extinct. Only in backward regions, filled with ignorant and superstitious people, such as the darkest regions of California do these diseases continue to plague humanity.

There have been no credible studies linking vaccination with autism or any other chronic illness. The one study that did propose such a link has been discredited and retracted. This does not mean that there isn’t such a link.There could well be one that has not yet been discovered. But, consider the fact that millions of children have been vaccinated with no ill effects. There may be some danger in being vaccinated, nothing in this world is completely safe, but the dangers associated with not being vaccinated are far greater and more certain. Any rational consideration of the risks and benefits of vaccination must come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks. If you do not get your children immunized, you are putting them at risk of catching  preventable diseases that could cause permanent damage to their health, or even death. Those are just the facts.

 

 


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