Sunday, November 11, 2018

What Is Good?

Vitruvian blood vessels

I have never concealed the fact that I am an atheist—although I sometimes sail under the flag of agnosticism, the state of “not knowing,” in order to avoid bar fights. I do not accuse or belittle people who have had an actual religious experience, heard the voice of God or the rustle of angel wings, and are guided by the principles of their religion. Peace be unto them. But I never had the experience, and I have neither the genetic makeup nor the cerebral or psychological components necessary to perceive that unseen whisper. But at the same time, I am not in G. K. Chesterton’s famous line, “capable of believing in anything.” I have my own principles, after all.

One of those principles is evolution. I have worked at both a manufacturer of biological pharmaceuticals and a developer of genetic analysis equipment. I know enough biology and have read enough about genetics and cladistics to appreciate that all life on Earth is related. The octopus is not an extraterrestrial alien dropped into this planet’s oceans—as some sources have recently claimed—but is cousin to the squid and the cuttlefish in the class Cephalopoda, just as human beings are cousin to the mouse and the lion in the class Mammalia.

Evolution is not just the “survival of the fittest,” as the popular saying goes. The evolution of a biological organism takes tiny changes in the genetic code, potentially effecting tiny changes in form and function, and then either implements them immediately—especially if the change is harmful or fatal to the bearer—or holds them quietly in the genome as a recessive or alternate copy of the gene until the features engenders can come into play. The DNA/RNA/protein coding system has many built-in safeguards that make most random changes in the code neither immediately fatal nor immediately helpful. For example, each three-codon reading frame, in which three base-pair sequences call for any one of the twenty amino acids used in assembling a protein molecule, usually has several alternate forms for calling each amino acid; so a change in just one of the “letters” will usually still create the intended protein. The system is robust—so that we can still have viable offspring and recognize them as human—and yet just fragile enough that changes are possible over generations.

And those changes and their effects are not necessarily crude, achieving just basic survival or writing off the individual organism with a lethal deletion. The cheetah was not born to limp over the veldt in pursuit of its ambulating prey. Time and the millions of minute alterations to the genetic code governing the cheetah’s musculature, metabolism, and nervous system allow it to lope gracefully and efficiently, outrunning the swiftest antelopes and wildebeests, which are themselves adapted to run just fast enough—most of the time—to elude their predators. Evolution is not just a mechanism of survival but a mechanism of optimization, efficiency, and ultimately of temporary perfection.

I have called DNA the “god molecule,”1 but that is not because I worship it or think it has supernatural powers. The DNA/RNA/protein system is simply the instrument of evolution. It has created not only all the varied life we see on this planet but also, because of the impact that life has had on shaping the atmosphere, seeding the oceans with abundant life, and covering the hills with vegetation and grazing animals that change their erosion patterns, it has changed the surface of our world itself. The original Earth, before the first bacteria and blue-green algae evolved to give it an oxygen-rich atmosphere, was as hostile to our kind of life as the surfaces of Venus or Mars are today.

But the principle of evolution applies to more than just organic structure and function. Most of the structure and function of human society and the approaches in any human endeavor, from technology to the arts, have advanced by a form of social evolution: small—but sometimes large—changes introduced into a complex situation, there to be either discarded, adopted, or further adapted. In rare cases, like the mathematical thinking of a Newton or an Einstein, a single person will make a significant change in human society and history. But for the most part, what one person starts another will then adapt and improve on, so that the seminal invention is lost in a continuous flow of minor and incremental developments. The invention of the stirrup and the wheeled plow, with their migration during the Middle Ages from Asia into Northern Europe, are such examples.

In the same way, the structure of many human social concepts like love, justice, honesty, reciprocity, personal freedom, and other exchanges that we consider “good” and weave into the stories we tell are the products of social evolution. Human families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations learned over time by piling one experience and its consequences on another that certain strategies of exchange either worked or did not. For example, they settled early on the basic understanding that habitual lying is harmful both to the people who must deal with the liar and ultimately to the liar himself. That fair dealing and reciprocal trade are a better system of exchange than theft and plunder. That hereditary servitude is not proper treatment for any thinking human being, and a society that practices slavery may flourish for a time but will eventually collapse. That love is a stronger bond and lasts longer than hate. And on and on. We learned these “home truths” at our mother’s knee and passed them down through the cultural wisdom of our clan and tribe long before some prophet wrote them on tablets of stone or bronze and suggested they were the teachings of the gods.

This does not mean that dishonesty, plunder, slavery, hatred, and other injustices don’t exist in the world. Or that sometimes these strategies of exchange will not work just fine in some situations—especially if there is no one stronger around to keep you from getting away with them. Ask the Romans, or the Mongols, the Nazis, the Soviets, and any of history’s other bent and crooked societies that have made a bad name for themselves. But thinking human beings, left on their own to study and consider the situation, will conclude that these negative strategies do not work for the long haul or for the greatest good of the greatest number of people.

Not only has human society as a social construct but the human nervous system as a response mechanism evolved in tune with these beneficial strategies. Try taking from a toddler the treat that its mother has given and see if that tiny human brain does not immediately register and react to the unfairness of your action. Hear children on the playground taunting each other—perhaps even with names and descriptions having a superficial gloss of truth—and see if the recipient does not explode with anger at the perceived dishonesty. We all understand how the world works and know when others are practicing falsehoods and injustices upon our person and our sense of self.

It does not take a god from a burning bush with a fiery finger to write out the rules of what is proper and good in any human exchange. We know it from before we were born, because our brains and our society had already supplied the answer, hard-wired and ready to function. In the same way, we see the world in the colors for which our eyes were adapted, breathe the air for which our lungs were optimized, and recognize the adorable cuteness of babies and puppies because it is beneficial to both that our brains release the right endorphins at the sight of them.

Evolution says that we are at home in this world because we are the products of this world. And that is enough of a natural wonder for me.

1. See, for one example among others, The God Molecule from May 28, 2017.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Next Civil War

War devastation

It has been suggested for some years now, at least for the past decade, that this country is in the midst of a “cold civil war.” Disagreements of both policy and principle between the progressive left and the conservative right have reached a fever pitch. Factions are marching in the streets and attacking each other with bats and chemical sprays—although the fighting hasn’t reached the stage of firearms yet. Friendships are breaking up, sides have formed, and the lines are drawn on social media. I even know of one Facebook friend who seems ready to divorce her husband over his political views.1

We’ve been here before, back in the late 1960s, when I was at the university and the young people in college and the radical activists were protesting against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights and free speech. Back then, we had campus demonstrations, protest gatherings on the Washington Mall, and rioting in the streets—most notably outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The difference between then and now is that in the ’60s the radical view and its hard-line conservative response were both on the fringes of the political spectrum, while the two main parties could still conduct business in a relatively consensual, bipartisan fashion. Today, the two parties function in lockstep with their most radical elements. Discussion and votes in the Congress and decisions on the Supreme Court are divided along party lines with almost no crossover. The White House and the top echelon of the Executive bureaucracy swing back and forth with whichever party captures the Presidency.

On the one side, we have people who want to create and celebrate a “fundamental transformation” of the country’s political, economic, social, and environmental relations according to a perceived “arc of history.” On the other are those who don’t mind moving forward into the future by evolutionary steps but resist being pushed bodily through revolutionary action. Frustrations abound on either side, and with them come name calling, social shunning, brick throwing, and tear gas.

Some people are even speculating—myself among them, and mostly since the upheavals of the 2016 election—that the cold civil war will eventually turn hot. That our political and economic differences, our social and environmental positions, will reach a point where they can no longer be resolved by discussion and bargaining, by yielding on some points and advancing on others, to arrive at a national consensus. That the political crisis will demand a clear-cut winner and loser. That internal peace will only be achieved when one side or the other can no longer stand up for its position because its politicians and their supporters have—each man and woman—been economically subdued, personally incarcerated, or rendered dead. Or when the country has been divided by physical partition and personal and familial migration, as occurred between India and Pakistan in the late 1940s, with each party maintaining its own new national government.

The first American Civil War of the 1860s was a dispute between cohesive regions, North and South, Slave State and Free. But many people think the current differing viewpoints are too intermixed for the country to break and go to war along regional lines and across state boundaries. This view says that the coming hot war will be more like the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, with neighbor fighting neighbor for control of the cities and the countryside for each party.

I can see the reasoning for either approach. In many ways, the opposing sides in this country reflect a divergence between urban progressives and rural conservatives. We keep seeing that map comparing the votes cast in Los Angeles County—which is just the urban core of the big place we think of as “LA”—and those in the seven states of the Upper Northwest, from Idaho to Minnesota. And really, even California is not a homogenous polity, because the feeling in communities of the foothills of the Gold Country and in the Sierra is more conservative than the progressive politics of the big cities in the Central Valley and along the Coast.

But I can also see a breakup between regions. The states along the Pacific Coast, in the Northeast, and across Upper Midwest are typically progressive, while the middle of the country is typically more conservative—with a few isolated exceptions like Colorado and New Mexico.

The question of how the country will break apart if and when war comes depends, in my mind, on what incident, what spark, finally sets it off. If the decisive point is internal, say, an election that fails to satisfy one party so greatly that it simply revolts, then we might see a piece-meal collapse as in the Spanish Civil War. But if the incident is external and the shock is to the whole country, then we might see a response that takes shape along regional and state lines.

The latter is the picture I painted as a leitmotif to my two-volume novel about life extension through stem-cell organ replacement, Coming of Age. There, the incident was the repudiation of the national debt.

When I was in college, my economics text book said the national debt was irrelevant because it was just money that we owed to ourselves, financed by Savings Bonds held among the citizenry. No one was going to call in that debt; so the government could just keep financing it by issuing more bonds. As recently as 2014, however, almost half of our publicly held debt in the form of U.S. Treasuries, and a third of our total debt, is held by other governments and offshore banks. The biggest holders are China, Japan, Ireland, Brazil, and the Caribbean banks.

If these external holders wanted to collapse this country—which, given that our global economy is so interconnected, would be a foolish thing—they could simply sell off huge blocks of the U.S. Treasuries they now hold. The federal government would then have to scramble to make good on the sales, and so would likely impose massive economic restrictions and additional taxes on the American public. In my book, this prompts many of the states in the central part of the country—whose residents don’t feel they are well represented in the federal government’s spending decisions—to renunciate the debt and along with it their allegiance to the Union: either secede from the union or go broke by staying in it.

Under those conditions, many of the National Guard units would side with their home states. And many U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force bases located in these states might weigh their allegiance to the national government against the conservative political instincts of their commanders and troops. The split would not be uniform. The choices would not be pretty. And once initial blood was spilled in the breakup, it would not be much more of a step to spill blood in establishing either national dominance or domestic partition.

In my novel, the breakup along these economic lines came in the year 2018. Of course, that year has now come and is mostly gone. But the weight of the national debt and the simmering divisions of our domestic politics still hang over us all.

I don’t look for war or want it. But my novelist’s ear listens to the rhetoric that is now splitting the county along its fracture lines, and I cannot discount the possibility of a shooting war coming to these United States sometime soon.

1. My late wife and I had opposing political views: she an old Berkeley liberal Democrat, me an unreformed Eisenhower-era conservative Republican. But we fell in love and married in an earlier time, some forty years ago, when political differences were treated in the same way as differences of religious doctrine and practice: a private, personal matter that did not touch on the essentials of what made a good person. My wife and I shared the same values about honesty, integrity, kindness, education, and fair dealing—and that was what mattered. For the rest, we joked about making sure we each went to the polls on election day so that we could cancel each other’s vote.