October 29, 2010

Africa Needs A New Map - Maybe, But Not This One....

"Africa Needs A New Map" by G. Pascal Zachary

The author of this recent article in Foreign Policy magazine is either misinformed about the human geography and ethnic composition, complexity and fluidity of modern African societies, or is failing to seriously consider the implications of his call for a re-drawing of Africa's map along ethnic lines, or both.  Citing what is likely to be a successful referendum by the southern Sudanese to create their own ideologically defined nation-state in the southern half of Sudan, Zachary illogically goes further and advocates pursuing divisions in other African nations along ethnic lines:

"Countries could finally be framed around the de facto geography of ethnic groups. The new states could use their local languages rather than favoring another ethnicity's or colonial power's tongue. Rebel secessionist movements would all but disappear, and democracy could flourish more easily when based upon policies, rather than simple identity politics. On top of that, new states based on ethnic lines would by default be smaller, more compact, and more manageable for governments on a continent with a history of state weakness."

The 53 nations of Africa contain over 2,000 ethno-linguistic groups accounting for a total population of over 800 million people.  To redraw the map of Africa in a manner that places this large number of ethno-linguistic groups into distinct nations based on ethnic affinity is an absurd suggestion given the physical dispersion, social mobility and inter-ethnic marriage of Africans within and between their current nations, and the various long-standing political alliances and shared ideologies that transcend ethnicity and in some cases, nationality.  Even if this monumental problem was somehow surmounted, careful scrutiny of the linguistic and cultural diversity on the continent would require the creation of as many as 500 new African countries - a mind-numbing idea to contemplate if there ever was one.  Imagine a ribbon of a country spanning the entire breadth of the Sahel, from Senegal to Sudan, with the predominantly nomadic Fulani or Taureg as its empowered ethnic group!

Obama Is Intelligent, Well-Educated, Caring - "Save Us From Him!" Say Republicans and Tea Partyers

Republicanism as Religion by Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast, September 12, 2011

'Centrism':  The Cult That is Destroying America by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, July 26, 2011

"Think about what’s happening right now (regarding the matter of the debt ceiling). We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

"So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

"The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation. And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.

"What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism...."

What Are They Really Up To?

What?! The New York Times Attacks President Obama For Being Smart, Thoughtful - A Commentary

Here's the Times article:  In Writings of Obama, A Philosophy Is Unearthed

American Political Conservatives, Tea Partyers, Republicans - Madness!  Okay.  Okay.  I accept that there are some sane, reasonable people in each of these groups.  But it is extremely clear by their words and actions that the vast majority have a view of America that has not changed much from the white, Christian, heterosexual dominated ethos that they and their parents basked and flourished in during and subsequent to the World War II afterglow of the late 1940s and 1950s.  A society where people of color were seldom in the news unless they were associated with a problem, and never appeared as actors in television programs or commercial advertisements until the late 1960s.  (Sorry.  The show business success of Sammy Davis, Jr. is not enough to negate this generality.)

For most of our history brown, red and yellow people have too often been portrayed as the enemy in the minds, literature and movies of the cultural core of white, Christian, heterosexual America.  Though they will deny it in the most vehement terms, I am convinced by their words and actions over the past half-century that not all but a majority of white, politically conservative, Christian, heterosexual Americans, who are currently members of or support the Republican Party and Tea Party, also cling tightly and bitterly to an ethos of white privilege.  As such, they are opposed to free-thinking liberalism, progressive reason- and science-based thinking, and government action on behalf of all Americans, especially those who are impoverished or un-empowered.  They see it as a zero sum game where the winner retains their privilege, not a compromise movement toward a social progress of greater inclusion.

October 25, 2010

Trick-or-Treat! - Buying Certain Halloween Candies Helps Exploit African Children

Halloween Candy and Child Slavery: Another Hidden Danger

Ivory Coast in West Africa is the world's largest producer of cocoa, the major ingredient in chocolate.  It's neighbor, Ghana, is also a major producer.  Cocoa producers in Ivory Coast especially are well-documented for exploiting adult and child labor in the industry.  Fortunately, the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana have made efforts to address forced or indentured child labor and trafficking - with more success in Ghana than Cote d’Ivoire.

Also, some chocolate producers such as Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé and Kraft have made efforts to comply with fair trade laws.  However, "Hershey, the largest U.S. chocolate company, has been singled out by fair-trade activists (Raising The Bar) who criticize its lack of transparency about where it sources its cocoa and its failure to shift to independent certification of its cocoa."

What Can You Do?

You can help educate the public and force chocolate producers to comply with international conventions on fair labor.  One way to do this is Reverse Trick-or-Treating.

"Imagine—you open the door on Halloween, and some pint-size Dracula (or is it Edward these days?) hands you a piece of chocolate. Amazing, right?

"Of course, there’s a catch. Or, not really a catch, but a serious side that will kill that sugar buzz: some of the cocoa used by major American chocolate companies could be a product of forced child labor.

"Reverse trick-or-treating was launched four years ago by the organization Global Exchange with the goal of pressuring the major chocolate producers in the United States—such as Hershey and Nestlé—to adhere to fair trade practices. Children who take part in the campaign hand out Fair Trade-certified chocolates, along with an information sheet about the problem."

Finally, here is a BBC article that provides startling insight into the effect of the cocoa industry in West Africa on African children:

AIDS in Africa - New Explicit Books for Ugandan Youth Help Lower HIV Rate

New Children's Books Help Lower Ugandan HIV Rate

"When a lion enters your village, you must raise the alarm loudly."
Yoweri Museveni
President of Uganda

October 19, 2010

One Middle Eastern Worldview From 2000BP For All, For All Time? - We Can And Must Do Better

Dispatches from the Evolution Wars:  Shifting Tactics and Expanding Battlefields
Following "creation science" or "scientific creationism" in the 1970s and "intelligent design" in the 1990s, the current creationist assault on science and reason attempts to discredit evolutionary biology by misrepresenting evolution as controversial.

This linked article by the National Center for Science Education is an excellent primer on what's going on and what can be done to counter creationists' efforts at undermining science, especially the teaching of evolution, science's incontrovertible paradigm for understanding the natural history of life on Earth.

Belief based on faith vs. knowledge based on scientific evidence?  Really?  It amazes and saddens me how so many, especially in the US, can so passionately insist on accepting Abrahamic creationism as a complete explanation of life on earth, and do so despite a preponderance of evidence provided by the fossil record and studies of comparative anatomy and physiology supporting a more plausible and simple understanding - evolutionary biology.

I am beginning to understand and agree with those who think and worry that the greatest threat to the future of our species and planet is posed by those wielding power, and their followers, who passionately believe and make decisions based on faith, not evidence and reason.

October 13, 2010

The Delusions of American Foreign Policy

Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan by Derek Leebaert - A Review
"....a persuasive alarm bell about the dangers inherent in our repeated attempts to put things right in countries we don't really understand and cannot control..."  W. Post reviewer Robert G. Kaiser

The Foreign Legion - Ever Thought About Running Away and Joining?

The Hard Truth About the Foreign Legion
Think again....

October 12, 2010

Earth's Senior Population Is Increasing - So What?

Think Again: Global Aging
"It's true that the world's population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion, according to the U.N. Population Division. But this will be a very different kind of population growth than ever before -- driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. Indeed, the global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of midcentury, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion. How did the world grow so gray, so quickly?"

This article answers this question and re-examines some myths and conventional wisdom about population aging:

Aging is a "rich-country" problem.  No.
The West is doomed by demographics.  Maybe.
The U.S. baby boom has saved it from an old-age crisis.  For now.
Old people will just work longer.  But only if older workers are healthy.
An elderly world will be more peaceful.  Not necessarily.
A gray world will be a poorer world.  Only if we do nothing.

What should be done about the economic impact of global declining birthrates, elders living longer?  The author of this article, Phillip Longman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, senior fellow at the Washington Monthly and author of The Empty Cradlesays:

"The trick will be restoring what, in the days of family-owned farms and small businesses, was once true: that babies are an asset rather than a burden. Imagine a society in which parents get to keep more of the human capital they form by investing in their children. Imagine a society in which the family is no longer just a consumer unit, but a productive enterprise. The society that figures out how to restore the economic foundation of the family will own the future. The alternative is poor and gray indeed."

The question which no-one has yet answered is, says the author:  How do we get to this solution?

Life Is A Brief Time In Light

Life is a brief time in light,
Emerging from darkness.
Work, and grow love and virtue.
At end of light, successful or not,
Surrender, return to dark,
Gently, happy, grateful.

October 10, 2010

A Synthesis of Science and Religion - Is One Needed? Is One Possible?

Two Magesteria? No, We Need Just One
This blog post by Stuart A. Kauffman, author of Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (2008), states his case for the need of a synthesis of science and religion wherein the sacredness of nature and natural processes in the cosmos are given reverence.  Kauffman thinks "we can choose to evolve our sense of God from the Creator Agent God of Abrahamic theistic faith, to a sense of God as the natural creativity in the universe;" that "we need to give up our belief in a supernatural Creator Agent God and live with the fully natural creativity of the universe as a newly evolved sense of God, awesome, and invited to stewardship;" that "we need one Magesterium, a new sense of God to live our full human lives far beyond knowing, in (the) Face of Mystery with a sense of the sacred restored, a shareable sense of values we can find, and a world of diverse civilizations to foster.

Kauffman's focus on emergence, agency, and natural selection, from the origins of the cosmos to economics and other social spheres as processes worthy of sanctity, is compelling.

I think Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, the vanguard of the so-called "new" atheists, would not disagree with Kauffman on much of the above, though they would probably balk at the anthropomorphism of Kauffman's new sense of God being "invited to stewardship."

October 5, 2010

♫ He ain't heavy (brow-ridged), he's my brother. ♫

The Downside of Sex with Neanderthals
Neanderthals Live on in DNA of Humans
Neanderthals' Demise Caused by Modern Human Invasion
Neanderthals:  Needles and Skins Gave Us the Edge on Our Kissing Cousins
Neanderthals May Have Feasted on Meat and Two Veg Diet
Scientists Unralve Neanderthal Genome

Photograph: Nikola Solic/Reuters/Corbis

Photograph: Chris Howes/Alamy                    Photograph: Jochen Tack/Ala

A Better Understanding of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis
Artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis crafted this re-creation of a Neanderthal woman whose subspecies roamed Eurasia for almost 200,000 years.

Artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis crafted this re-creation of a Neanderthal woman
whose subspecies roamed Eurasia for almost 200,000 years. 
 (Joe Mcnally/Getty Images)

Africa & US Policy: New "Partnership" Still Includes Leading Africans by the Nose

Secretary Clinton Addresses our Ambassadors to Africa
Old ways of thinking die hard.  Despite Secretary of State Clinton's language choice in describing our government's interactions with the Government of Kenya - "kept hammering on them, we kept calling them" and her description of our diplomatic initiatives vis a vis the Government of Sudan - "a full court press," I like our government's current approach to Africa. This bit of self-congratulatory back patting is expected, I suppose, in a speech from the SOS to our ambassadors to Africa.  But I think it patronizingly and unfairly portrays these particular African leaders as unreasonable, stubborn and stupid when it does not mention their points of view or the complex circumstances that make them think the way they do.  That is, without the US pressing them they don't know what to do and would not do the right things.  The unspoken message is "Thank goodness for the US to keep these Africans on the right course."  If we believe they are ideologically or humanistically in the wrong, we should say so and describe how they are.  Overall, though, I think our State Department approach to Africa under the Obama administration is much, much better than it has ever been.  I wonder if Clinton would have used such word/phrase choices had she been talking about how we interact with the British, Germans or French?  I think not.

Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing A Unified Worldview

UPDATE:  Recent UN Actions Show Policy Shift, Analysts Say

The recent UN intervention "in Ivory Coast action showed the extent to which the United Nations’ legal and moral commitment to protect civilians now held sway over key permanent Security Council members, including France, Britain and the United States. Diplomats noted that even Russia and China, which in the past have avoided interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, were persuaded to support the resolution on the Ivory Coast and also did not veto military action in Libya."

Sam Harris on The Daily Show
This link and the book it promotes inspire me and give me hope.  I think we are on the verge of the second most significant event in our species' evolutionary history.  The first event was our commitment to and reliance upon "culture," what I call our First Fundamental Adaptation to the extremely difficult daily and seasonal challenges of the biosphere.  This sounds like a wisdom-driven choice made by our ancient human ancestors.  It really wasn't a choice.  It was rather an adaptive response born of necessity.  To do otherwise would most likely have meant death and extinction.

Our ancestors' use of culture was initially facilitated by their preadaptive primate sociality and their use of stone hand tools.  At some point, earlier or later, their use of culture and its content was made more adaptive, to a wider range of circumstances and environments, by the emergence of high- or rich-content symbolic language.  This happened to a degree that a distinctive "human" culture emerged that was different only in degree from the non-human culture of other "higher" animals.  That is, the "degree" to which it allowed our ancestors a deeper, more subtle and nuanced form of communication, and the relative degree to which they could survive in and, in fact, dominate their environment.

Culture allowed our human-like ancestors, primates with comparatively unremarkable anatomical traits (small canine teeth and weak muscles relative to those of other predator and prey animals), to survive as individuals and groups in an extremely arduous African environment millions of years ago.  This is not an unproven theory or belief.  It is a scientific understanding of our prehistoric past based on fossils and other demonstrable, incontrovertible evidence.

The Origins of Kindness

Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive, The New York Times, SCIENCE, July 4, 2011
Survival of the Kindest:  The Evolution of Sympathy, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2011
Welcome, Stranger, The Evolution of Generosity, The Economist, July 30, 2011
Evolution of Human Generosity, Science Daily, July 25, 2011

Cartoon by Tony Auth

Do we need religion to be ethical? by Thomas Plante, Psychology Today, March 27, 2011;  Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield - Book Review by Oren Harmon, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, April 8, 2011

The Evolution of Nice

As for human altruism it seems to me there are at least two facets.  First is the degree to which one feels concerned or unhappy over the suffering or danger of another, ranging from none to extremely.  Some care deeply about a wide range of dangers to their fellow humans, others care some while others could care less.  I for one am greatly saddened, even sickened at the sight of human beings physically fighting, street fighting, especially for the one who is being badly beaten by the other.  Others relish such grotesque spectacles and care not, and in some cases seem to enjoy, what the beaten person is suffering.

The second factor is if, and to what degree, the first party would risk his well-being in acting in response to his/her concerns or unhappiness over the harm or danger to another.  Some would face great danger to assist another, other some danger and still others would take no risk at all.  I learned in the Nairobi embassy bombing of 1998 that if I felt I could help someone leave with me while at the same time successfully escape a freshly bombed building, I would do it.  Would I throw myself on a grenade in a foxhole to save my buddies?  I really don't know. Maybe not.  Would I do it for my family?  I think so.  Some would, others wouldn't.

Whether or not a person engages in an act of altruism depends on how dire the circumstances of the other are, how much those circumstances impact the thoughts and emotions of the observer, and whether the degree to which the observer is willing to risk being harmed.

Might there have arisen in human evolutionary history, and still exist, "selective values" for individuals who take risks to assist others in need, especially those in their own group?  I think so.  Those who die for others in their group may have reproduced beforehand or for some unrelated reason bore no progeny thereafter.  Therefore the legacy of altruism is not biological, however, it is cultural.  This legacy is memic, not genetic.  Are there any legacies of such behavior from the past in the human genome?  Maybe.  But to know for certain would require incontrovertible evidence of altruism-producing genetic, physiological and developmental entities and processes.  Are we likely to one day possess such evidence?  I doubt it but I don't really know.  I think human altruism is primarily of a psychological and cultural nature, not biological.  I remain considerably more swayed by arguments for the cultural evolutionary emergence and retention of altruism than I am by arguments that it is contained in and thereby inherited in our genetic makeup.

Suggested Reading:

The Science of Compassion by David DeSteno, The New York Times, Sunday Review - The Opinion Pages, July 14, 2012
Kindness is Adaptive - Practice It
And you thought it was a dog eat dog world and getting worse all the time. Actually, in the long term, it's survival of the kindest and most compassionate....
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (2010) by Oren Harman
"For Goodness Sake" http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/deWaal-t.html
Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, The New York Times, OPINION, May 16, 2011
Are We Really Nicer Than Vampire Bats?, The New York Times, OPINION, Comments on "Nice Guys Finish First by David Brooks, May 19, 2011
The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks, reviewed by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, The Nation, June 6, 2011
The Pathological Altruist Gives Till It Hurts by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Science, October 3, 2011.  See also:  http://select.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?module=talerts&cskey=
Killing With Kindness by John Derbyshsire, The American Conservative, July 21, 2011, a review of What's Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment by David Stove, 2011
New Study Finds First Links Between Genes And Moral Judgments, Georgetown University, October 5, 2011
Make or Break? Social Networking Tames Cheats, The Economist, The Evolution of Co-operation, November 19, 2011

October 4, 2010

Spinoza's God

Recently finished reading Blesséd Spinoza: A Biography of the Philosopher (1932) by Lewis Browne, a marvelously detailed classic account of the Jewish-Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch (blesséd) de Spinoza (1632-1677).  This is my second book about Spinoza, the first being The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2006) by Matthew Stewart.  The Essential Spinoza:  ETHICS and Related Writings (2006) edited by Michael L Morgan is an excellent rendering, with commentary, of the philosopher's major works.

Thank God (Spinoza's God) there was a Spinoza to help begin lifting the smothering spell of the Abrahamic religions, and help open the way for the emergence of reason, empirical science and natural history as honorable, fact-based belief systems.  I'm reminded of Einstein's response when he was asked if he believed in God.  He said:  "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." (Upon being asked if he believed in God by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, Page 502.)

Browne describes Spinoza's philosophy with particular reference to God or Nature as follows:

"Spinoza's God is the elemental Substance, the stuff and essence of all that exists.  ...  According to Spinoza, the universe is all essentially of one piece, and the things we see in and around ourselves are all related.  To call some of them things of the Spirit (or Thought), and others, things of matter (or Extension), is to point out a purely superficial distinction between them.  At bottom the thinking world, the mechanical world, and perhaps other such worlds of which our minds cannot conceive, are all really aspects of one world.  Fundamentally all things, whether men or trees or stones or dreams, are but part of a single homogeneous reality.  And this reality Spinoza called God.  He might have called it Nature; and he did at times.  ... 

Life Beyond Earth?

Planet Gliese 481 g
The link article quotes UC Santa Clara astrophysicist Steven Vogt's as saying he is "100 percent sure" there is life on this planet. I think this statement was taken out of context.  Can't find where Vogt says this in UC Santa Clara's site explaining the discovery - http://news.ucsc.edu/2010/09/planet.html.  He does say:  "Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet." 

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