Monthly Archives: August 2019

Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

We have some animals and some astronomy today. First, three photos from reader Tim Anderson of Australia, who appeared in “photos of readers” two days ago. His notes are indented:

Last night [August 26] was an extraordinarly clear and still night here at the Manor to Which I Have Become Accustomed. I managed to get decent images of four of the glories of the southern skies. I will send them as separate emails in case their size overwhelms your inbox.

This is an image of the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC253). Sometimes it is nice to see a view of a distant galaxy in the context of its starfield rather than close up.

This is a composite of one hundred 60-second images taken with a Skywatcher Esprit 100mm refractor, ASI071MCPro camera, UV/IR cut filter, and an EQ8 mount

This is an image of the Centaurus A Galaxy (NGC5128). It is…

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A vegan claims that eating tofu is cultural appropriation

Why Evolution Is True

I’ve written a fair bit about accusations of cultural appropriation, and I do so for several reasons. First, these accusations are almost always totally misguided, mistaking admiring imitation for bigotry and theft. Second, they clearly show the folly of the Authoritarian Left, both its virtue-flaunting and its adoption of “actions” that are completely useless in changing society. Really, how much “inclusiveness” is promoted by picketing a show of kimonos at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts? Or the demonizing of white women who wear hoop earrings?

Finally, the claims often blend Wokeness with unintended humor, showing that many claims of cultural appropriation are almost indistinguishable from satire. The claim at hand is one of these near-satirical arguments, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. Or at least Yahoo UK thinks so (click on screenshot):

According to the article, this exchange appeared on a reddit site:

There we have it, ladies, gentlemen…

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Trump administration weakens Endangered Species Act

Why Evolution Is True

Everything the Trump administration does seems aimed in the wrong direction, but as a biologist, I’m really pissed off at this latest bit of stupidity. Read the NPR or NYT articles below (click on screenshots) to see the latest debacle:

NYT:

Here are some of the changes. The new regulations:

  • weaken protections for species listed as “threatened”: one step below “endangered”;
  • allow future listings to be based partly on economic assessments (the NYT says, “for instance, lost revenue from a prohibition on logging a critical habitat”) rather than on science alone. This is a first, and something the original Act aimed to avoid.
  • make it easier to remove species from the “endangered” list;
  • limit the nature and amount of habitats are considered when deciding whether a species is listed as “endangered”. Environmental groups claim that this will make it harder to protect species at risk from warming climates, which alters…

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A tidal wave of beneficent trends

by Martin Bridgstock

(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2018, Vol 38 No 3)

 

Some years ago Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Pinker 2012) made a great impression. In this book – using over a thousand pages of text and 100 diagrams – Pinker supported his case that, over the long run, human beings are becoming less violent toward each other.  There were exceptions to the decline in violence, but Pinker seemed to make a powerful case for his argument. In addition, he presented a list of factors which, in his view, led to this decline in violence.

Since that time, Pinker’s argument has been verified. Johan Norberg (2016), a Swedish writer and Angus Deaton (2013), a Nobel prize-winner in economics, have come to the same conclusion. The key finding, the long-term decline in interpersonal violence, has to be welcome to everyone. Its sheer magnitude sometimes takes an effort to grasp. For example, an Englishman living in the 1300s was twenty times as likely to die violently as an Englishman in the twentieth century (Pinker 2016:73). Overall, Pinker’s case for the trend away from violence seems to be well supported.

Many wonderful trends

Now Pinker has returned with another book, titled Enlightenment Now (Pinker 2018). It is short compared to the other book – only 550-odd pages and 75 diagrams – but far more ambitious. He documents the evidence that the human condition is improving on more than a dozen important measures. And he has a single underlying theory to explain this.

Rather than list all the trends, I will put them in a separate table, with an example or two for each. Cast your eyes over the table. I suggest looking at the examples for Life, Wealth and Knowledge. Let me stress that in the hundreds of pages and dozens of illustrations which make up Pinker’s book, there are far more trends than I can list here. And all point in the same direction: the human condition worldwide is improving. Usually these improvements took place first in Europe and North America. However, the other parts of the world are improving too, and usually catching up with the leaders. 

Table 1. Major trends charted by Pinker, with selected examples

 Life. Life expectancy is increasing Around 1780, world life expectancy for humans was about 30 years. Today it is 71.4 years. (Pinker 2018: 53-4 )   Major diseases are in decline, often because of mass vaccination (Pinker 2018: 64).

Sustenance. The food supply per person is increasing and so childhood stunting and famine deaths are in decline (Pinker 2018: 70-71). The size of families is decreasing, too: apparently once parents are reasonably sure that their children will survive, they stop having large families (Pinker 2018: 125).

Wealth. GDP per capita is increasing worldwide and as a result extreme poverty is falling. In 1820, nearly 90% of the world’s population lived on US$1.90 (2011 dollars) or less. Today only about 10% live on so little (Pinker 2018: 87).

Inequality. Inequality may be increasing, but the general trend is for everyone to become richer (Pinker 2018: 120)

The Environment. Because of advancing technology, the risk of environmental catastrophe is receding, and most environmental indicators are improving (Pinker 2018:132-3).

Peace. The peaceful trends discerned in Pinker’s earlier book are shown to have continued (Pinker 2018: 157-9).

Safety. Steady reduction in vehicle accident deaths, plane crash deaths and most other forms of accidental death (Pinker 2018: 179-182).

Terrorism. Worldwide, deaths by terrorism are dwarfed by those from war and accidents (Pinker 2018: 192)

Democracy. Despite recent hiccups, Pinker cites the Polity Project as showing a steady advance for democracy in the world (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity1.htm) (Pinker 2018; 207).

Equal rights. A general rise in liberal values in nearly all areas of the world over the last 50 years (Pinker 2018: 227). A decline in racist, sexist and homophobic jokes on the internet (Pinker 2018: 218).

Knowledge. Great rises in literacy worldwide (Pinker 2018: 238). Back in 1475 20% or less of the people in European nations were literate. Today over 90% are, and the rest of the world is improving too.

Quality of Life. Decline in working hours in Europe and the USA, decline in housework hours, rise in useful household devices. Increase in leisure time (Pinker 2018: 249-256)

Happiness. Reported life satisfaction is correlated with physical wellbeing, and seems to be improving (Pinker 2018: 269-279)

Existential Threats. The worldwide stock of nuclear weapons is diminishing (Pinker 2018: 318), and doom-laden predictions have repeatedly been proved wrong  (Pinker 2018: 309)

The Cause of It All

However, Pinker is not simply a Pollyanna, exclaiming at how wonderful everything is. He has a theory as to what underlies all these wonderful trends, and he also thinks that there is a threat to the entire process. As the title of his book suggests, he regards the Enlightenment as being a key cause of all this human improvement.

What do we mean by the Enlightenment? Pinker concedes that, unlike the Olympics, there was no opening and closing ceremony: you can argue about it endlessly (Pinker 2018: 7-8). However, he distinguishes some features of Enlightenment thinking.  One theme is the use of reason, which leads to doubt and questioning. Another is the refinement of reason to understand the world. (Personally I regard this as an extension of reason, or using it in a special way.) Part of this understanding involves knowing ourselves, and how our minds and bodies work. A third attribute is humanism, involving a morality which privileges human welfare. Finally there is a belief in progress. Pinker stresses that these basic themes are not absolute: people are not completely reasonable, nor is progress guaranteed.

As he works through all the trends operating in the world today, Pinker tries to link them back to Enlightenment influences. For example, Enlightenment thinking values commerce because it involves free exchange and economic improvement. Although commerce can be tough at times, it creates wealth and is far, far better than war, destruction and murder. Again, Enlightenment thought leads to the questioning of cruel judicial punishments.

In my view, the least convincing of Pinker’s arguments is the one over inequality. His chapter on this is largely a response to the French economist Thomas Piketty (2013). Using massive amounts of evidence, Piketty argued that western nations are becoming less equal. Capital, for several decades, has grown faster than wages, and this means that the top few per cent of the population are accumulating more and more wealth, while the bottom half are making almost no progress at all. Pinker’s counter-argument is that, in absolute terms, even the poorest people are better off than they used to be (Pinker 2018: 97-120). My personal view is that if some people are becoming poorer relative to everyone else, it is little comfort to learn that they are better off than previous generations. I suspect that events like the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit are at least in part an outburst against adverse economic trends.

Unlike the earlier book, Enlightenment Now has attracted a great deal of criticism. One reason is that Pinker focuses a good deal of scorn on western liberal intellectuals, who are overwhelmingly gloomy about society and the way it is going.  As Pinker points out, this gloom is not based on evidence, and again and again has been shown to be unjustified (Pinker 2018: 39-52). He has a series of explanations as to why intellectuals argue — wrongly – that things are getting worse. One explanation is the relentless focus of the popular media on violence: no matter what the overall crime rate, if there is a drug-crazed shooting or an atrocity, the media will focus upon it. This distorts our understanding because we use the ‘Availability heuristic’ (Pinker 2018: 41-2). When we readily remember an event, we assume things generally are like that event. So we may be disgusted by what has happened in Syria or the Yemen, or what was done to the Rohingya and regard these as characterising our age. As Pinker argues, however, in previous ages there were far more such atrocities, and they were accepted almost without comment. In addition, gloomy pessimism is often regarded as being far more profound than optimism – even when the optimism is supported by evidence and the pessimism isn’t.

Another reason why Pinker’s book has attracted criticism is because of what he calls ‘counter-Enlightenments’ (Pinker 2018: 29-35). The Enlightenment has suffered a series of reactions from religious and nationalist groups, and also from ideologies of the right and left. These movements do not accept evidence-based arguments and so are uncomfortable with the optimistic message of Pinker’s book. He makes this explicit when, partway through, he writes:

In writing the chapters on progress, I resisted pressure from readers of earlier drafts to end each one by warning, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Threatened it certainly is (Pinker 2018: 334)

Then he reviews the progress achieved in various fields, and points out that President Trump’s actions and words appear to oppose nearly all of it. In addition, the various nationalist outbursts in Europe could also threaten further progress. There is, Pinker stresses, nothing certain about continued improvements, and so the Enlightenment is well worth defending.

Science and Skepticism

Now the Enlightenment is the basis for two other important features of modern society. One is science, the other skepticism. Pinker (2018: 392-3) points out that science rests on two key ideals. One is that the world is comprehensible to our minds. This is borne out by the success of science. The other assumption is that we should allow the world to tell us what it is like. The traditional sources of belief, and the traditional authorities, are generators of error. Only by carefully formulating theories, and being willing to accept that the evidence may show them to be wrong, can we make scientific progress.

Skepticism, of course, stems from a similar set of ideals. Skeptics examine certain types of belief and question whether they are supported by evidence. It does not matter to skeptics who holds certain beliefs, or whether they stem from one ideology or another. The key question is, does the world tell us that they are true?

Is Pinker right?

Broadly, there are two different ways in which Pinker’s argument can be questioned. Is his evidence for massive, worldwide progress in a whole range of fields justified? And is his stress upon the Enlightenment as a key element in this progress justified? The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes. Pinker makes his sources of information clear, and it is easy to check them. He gets his facts right. The second question is more complex. Norberg (2016) for example, uses the same evidence as Pinker, but traces the improvements to free enterprise rather than the Enlightenment. My personal judgment is that the Enlightenment is a key feature in current progress, but not the only one: If we discard Enlightenment thought, we will suffer in the long run.

As a retiree, I have often worried about what kind of a world we are leaving our children and grandchildren. The short answer appears to be: with some exceptions, a lot better than the world we found. Provided we don’t lose sight of Enlightenment values, the future promises to be much better than the past.

References

Deaton, Angus (2013) The Great Escape. Health, wealth and the origins of inequality. Oxford and Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Norberg, J. (2016) Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. London, Oneworld.

Piketty, Thomas (2013) Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2018) Enlightenment Now.  The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London, Allen Lane.

Pinker, Steven (2012) The Better Angels of our Nature. London, Penguin.

(Reblogged with the permission of both the author and the Editor of The Skeptic).

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The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Books & Boots

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population)…

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What identity politics did to Rosanna Arquette

Why Evolution Is True

The actor Rosanna Arquette, who has become a woke activist, tweeted this out yesterday. When I went back to retrieve it, I found that she had “protected” her Twitter feed so that I couldn’t embed the tweet. Fortunately, someone took a screenshot:

Her feed now (note that “silence is complicity”):

I was a big fan of Arquette’s performances in Desperately Seeking Susan and especially as Gary Gilmore’s girlfriend in The Executioner’s Song, but this self-flagellation is shameful. What does it accomplish? Does it help people of color? I don’t think so. What it does is demonstrate Arquette’s bona fides as a Woke Person, as well as reinforcing the kind of racism that deems all white people as oppressors and “the other”.   I seriously doubt that Arquette was either a racist or an oppressor, and so why is she ashamed? Is she ashamed that she has the skin…

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The Emerald Tablet (Benedict Hitchens #2), by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

This review contains a link to ‘The Sceptical Chymist’ essay on this blog.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

The Emerald Tablet is not my usual reading fare, but I enjoyed it.  Written by Melbourne author Meaghan Wilson Anastasios who has a career in archaeology in the Mediterranean and the Middle East behind her and now uses her expertise to work as a researcher for film and TV, the novel has been described in a Saturday Age review as pure escapism in the mould of Dan Brown or Indiana Jones.’  But though I think the flawed main character has the same kind of charisma as Harrison Ford, I think The Emerald Tablet is infinitely better than anything by Dan Brown on which I confess to having wasted my time.

The book begins with a well-constructed introduction that includes all the central characters, alludes to the quest that drives the narrative, and provides just enough of the geopolitics of the 1956 Suez Crisis to bring the reader straight to the…

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An unwise tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and some statistics on gun deaths

Why Evolution Is True

I guess Tyson was trying to make a point about data and how we receive it when he issued the tweet below yesterday, but it was surely ill-timed—and also somewhat misleading.

It clearly looks crass and uncaring. SFgate discusses some of the pushback, including this tweet from a lawyer and writer:

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Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

Today we have some lovely garden birds from reader Paul Peed, whose notes are indented and whose images available at eBird and Instagram.

Some favorites from my gardens
My gardens are Audubon Native Plant gardens which beside using far less water tend to attract a variety of birds, bees, butterflies and other visitors. The most colorful of the avian visitors is the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris).  Here is a male enjoying my west birdbath.
Painted Buntings have visited my gardens for 5 years running.  This year they fledged 3 young.  Below is the male with an immature male or female newly fledged.

Breeding populations of Painted Buntings have been affected by the illegal cage bird trade.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) visiting a native Yellow Necklacepod (Sophora tomentosa) near the east birdbath.

A Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) visits my west birdbath for…

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