Sunday, February 24, 2013

Evolution and Intelligent Design

I recently bought a new motorcycle,1 another BMW. This one is my fifth “R” model over the years and is much the same as my first BMW, bought back in 1974, with its flat twin-cylinder, or “boxer”-style, engine. The new bike is completely different, and no single part on this machine is compatible or interchangeable with that older one. And yet they share a common design that goes back to the first BMW motorcycles designed by Max Friz in 1923 and using a 500 cc boxer engine.

As with most other technological artifacts, motorcycle designs evolve and branch just like biological genuses and species. Each generation of the boxer engine in the BMW has been slightly different, slightly more advanced. They’ve gone from push-rod valve actuation to single overhead cam to double overhead cam. They’ve gone from air-cooled to air/oil-cooled, and the next generation will be liquid—although not necessarily “water”—cooled.

But when BMW made its first four-cylinder motorcycle, back in the early 1980s, it changed everything. That model, the “K,” wasn’t just a new species in the progression, but a completely new design with a new engine orientation and new technologies like water cooling and fuel injection—which would not appear on the boxer engine for about a decade. The K-bikes were a new family of BMW motorcycles.2

We would certainly call technological development of this kind “intelligent design.” Someone, or some team of engineers, sits down with paper and pencil, or a CAD system and a mission statement, to draw up plans for the machine. They work out balances, interrelationships, and systems; make choices and reject alternatives; and design everything down to the nuts and bolts before the first steel part is forged or the dies are even cut. Brainwork comes before metalwork.

And yet, as noted above, the designs still evolve over the years. As good as that original team of engineers might be, they cannot think of everything. And the more radically different their first design is, the more potential weaknesses—and opportunities for later improvement by evolving design—it will offer. Human designs require both of these phases: a fresh start to come up with something new, and a period of continuous improvement and adjustment to perfect it … if a design is ever perfect in the sense that it cannot benefit from one more tweak.

The creationist’s argument for “intelligent design” imagines that a Supernatural Engineer doesn’t need this second phase for adjustment. An all-knowing engineer—oh well, might as well say “God”—will foresee all weaknesses and design that final tweak into the original perception.3 In this sense, the horse in the field is not a work in progress for a range-running, grass-fed animal but a perfected design intended to be … a horse. This is a static view of nature, the platonic view, in which each horse in the field is a copy of the perfect Horse that exists in the mind of God.4

On the other hand, the evolutionist sees the horse in the field as a transitional state, heir to the four-toed Eohippus in the dawn time of the mammals, more recently evolved to run on grass or stony ground alike, and ancestor to something that, in the far future of our technological world, will either be extinct or genetically redesigned by humans as a racing replica of Secretariat or Seabiscuit.

The difference between the creationist and the evolutionist, to my mind, is that one lives in a static world that is supposed to be perfect and enduring because it was set up to be a certain way and is incapable of change, while the other lives in a world that is in constant flux, reacting to change, imposing new challenges and responding with new forms and functions. I’ll let the reader decide which kind of world we actually inhabit.5

The exciting thought about evolution is that it does not require intelligence, divine or otherwise. It happens in response to natural changes and permits life to proceed and thrive under adverse circumstances.6 If the horse-in-field could not evolve, its offspring could not adapt to changes in the environment and would quickly die out. True, since evolution depends on random changes that do not always have a positive effect, the mechanism is cruel. For every offspring that is adapted to live in the changed environment, many more are born with mutations that make them less viable in the current environment, or any other, and so die. And in a suddenly changing environment only a few will have the needed adaptations and survive, while the majority of the next generation will suffer and die.

Evolution is pitiless and cruel. Evolution plays favorites. But which is better: that a whole species or genus of individuals celebrate their identity and equality and then perish together; or that some few individuals have offspring that adapt, evolve, produce more viable offspring, and carry life forward into the unpredictable future? Someone wedded to a static vision of the world might prefer the former. Anyone who embraces change and stares into the future without blinking will prefer the latter.

The best definition of evolution I know describes the non-intelligent way to design an airfoil—the curve of a bird’s wing in flight. Here’s the recipe: take a hundred or a thousand pieces of sheet metal, give each one a random whack with a hammer to bend it a little or a lot, and put it inside a wind tunnel. If the bend provides even a tiny bit of lift, keep it. If the bend provides no lift or negative lift, throw that piece away. Add more metal to make up your original number, and give all the pieces another whack. Put them in the wind tunnel and keep or discard by the same criteria. Eventually, over time, these random whacks will produce a perfect airfoil. No one piece of metal is guaranteed this perfection. A lot of pieces that are developing a pretty good lift will suffer from a sudden bad whack and get discarded. That’s the cruelty of evolution: it’s hard on individuals.

The genius of evolution is that you don’t have to be smart to use it. You don’t need to have preconceptions, knowledge, or understanding of things like air flow and lift to use it. You don’t have to be lucky, either. You just have to be persistent and play the spendthrift with your resources.

The magic of evolution is that you can actually use it to design things you can barely describe, let alone have a clue about designing intelligently. All you have to do is use something called “directed evolution.”

Directed evolution is a method in protein engineering to build new molecules not found in nature or to improve on nature’s existing designs. As in the airfoil development, you are making random changes to an existing form, but instead of whacking sheet metal you are making random mutations in a DNA sequence that already makes a protein that’s close to what you imagine you want—for example, an enzyme that speeds up a certain chemical or biological reaction. You start a hundred or a thousand strands of this DNA and make a random mutation in each one. Use each strand to synthesize a copy of the enzyme and test it. Those that come closest to your criteria or that improve on the original design, you keep. The rest you discard. Add more starting strands to make up your original number, and make another random mutation in each strand. Repeat the process, and eventually, over time, one of those multiply mutated strands will create your target enzyme. You don’t have to know anything about protein structure or folding. You don’t even have to be a molecular biologist. You just need a tool kit for modifying DNA, a way to synthesize your proteins and test them, and—most important of all—some criteria for making your selection between winners and losers.

I predict that when directed evolution meets up with advanced computer modeling, human technology will take off in ways we can now only imagine. If you have a sophisticated computer simulation of a wind tunnel, you don’t actually have to whack a hundred thousand or a million or a billion pieces of sheet metal and mount them in an expensive machine. Instead, you let a computer program make imaginary dents, test them in a simulated airflow, and keep or discard the results according to simulated performance. If you have a sophisticated knowledge of protein folding and complex chemical reactions, you let a computer program make imaginary mutations, fold the resulting proteins, and keep or discard results according to simulated performance. You can test a million or a billion generations of evolving design in a matter of hours or days.

Over the course of human development, we’ve seen the evolution of physical tools like hammers and saws that enable human muscles to shape the physical world around us. Now we are using informational tools like spreadsheets and CAD systems that allow human minds to shape the imaginary world around us. The next step will be tools to allow the machines themselves to shape the world through virtual evolution of physical forms.

The question then will be whether we use that power to free people or enslave them, to become more human or to become second-best copies of the new silicon gods.

1. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, I admit that I am powerless before motorcycles and my life has become unmanageable. But what a rush!

2. And yes, I’ve owned six of the K-bikes as well and watched them evolve over the years. See Note 1 above.

3. Of course, there’s a middle ground. If you can believe that God did not design the world exactly as we see it, but instead established the principles by which it evolved, you can arrive at a world that had no fixed, original perception but instead set the stage for the changes and evolutionary effects that we actually see. To my mind, that’s a more enlightened way of envisioning a creator god.

4. And being merely a copy of that ideal Horse allows the horse-in-field to have imperfections like hoof rot, shin splints, and mange, or variations like coloring and stature. Clearly, all the different kinds of animals we recognize as horses—Arabians, Clydesdales, ponies—are variations on a type and not necessarily separate creations … although a literalist would say that one horse cannot be another horse and that each animal of the type we call “horse” is a unique product of its breeding and environment and only similar to any other horse.

5. I tend to laugh at the people who are afraid of “anthropogenic global warming.” While they pretend to be so modern and scientific, they actually think they live in a static and relatively unchanging world that, but for the harm done by human technology, would not vary its temperature much, would hold its seas at a constant level, and would permit them to plan indefinitely for a safe future. But we have evidence all around us that temperature and sea level have risen and fallen throughout history, and when the cycles are not evolving at their own pace, rocks sometimes fall from the sky or vents open up in the earth and hurry the changes along. This is not and cannot be a safe world—even though it’s the one we grew up with—and confident long-range planning is for fools.

6. If you can’t see this as an inherently positive and optimistic message, then you might as well stop reading right here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

If You Can Believe …

I am an atheist. I believe that the universe in all its complexity is a found object—that its being does not require a supernatural creator to design it, as if it were a human handiwork. I also believe that the universe functions well as a complex expression of energy and matter—that its continued existence does not require a supernatural caretaker, as if it were some palatial estate or business enterprise.1 I also believe that human beings, rather than some kind of flawed angel, or a parasite on the Earth, are the best thing going within at least a couple of parsecs of here. However, I try to keep an open mind.

I believe humans now know enough science to begin making a first-order approximation of how the universe came into being, to explain the origins and nature of the planets, of life, and of human consciousness. What do I mean by “first-order approximation”? Well, something like “first wrong answer, but still pretty close.”

For example, I take exception to the Big Bang as a creation story. A universe that originated in a pinpoint of infinitely dense, infinitely hot matter was the first answer to Edwin Hubble’s observed red shift in the light from distant galaxies. If the energy of that distant starlight is decreasing in proportion to the distance between its origin and us, then according to Big Bang theorists, the fall-off must be due to a Doppler effect as those galaxies recede from us. And if those galaxies are receding, then where did they and all the matter in the universe start from? Why, from some kind of explosion of a single hot, dense point right around here.

Some evidence supports the Big Bang, like the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, presumed to be the original energy fallout from that explosion, which has cooled and stretched as the universe expanded. And some evidence disputes it, like the nature of the universe we can see today. That is, the universe we have is flat, homogeneous, and isotropic—or, in English, pretty much the same all over and in every direction we look. That’s not what you’d expect given that the universe has been expanding steadily like a bomb blast for all time and should be highly curved and heterogeneous—that is, not really the same here as it appears to be over there.

To fix that little problem, cosmologist Alan Guth came up with the theory of inflation. That is, at some early point between BANG and today’s ever-expanding residue, the universe and all its matter accelerated at incredible speed, even greater than lightspeed, and this allowed the universe to become homogenized and develop the structure we see today.

Uh-huh. While according to some theories of physics nothing can move faster than the speed of light, according to this theory of physics, at some point in the distant past everything was moving faster than the speed of light.2 So I’m going to add light, its exact nature, and the effects of its speed to the number of things we just don’t understand yet.3

The universe that we can observe defies common sense when we try to understand it. Not only does our current creation myth, the Big Bang, require the universe to accelerate faster than light, but the study of physics requires other oddities.

Black holes, for one. We now understand that the universe is riddled with them. A black hole apparently lies at the heart of every galaxy. According to theory, the universe should contain more than galaxy-size black holes and black holes as a residue from the expiration of massive stars. The original roil of that Big Bang should have created myriads4 of micro black holes—masses the size of mountains compressed to points with event horizons smaller than a proton. These would be swarms of dangerous little entities—but we just don’t find them anywhere.5

To explain this failure of theory, cosmologist Stephen Hawking posited that the simultaneous creation and destruction of virtual matter and antimatter particles in empty space caused the micro black holes to evaporate long ago. Now, in theory, nothing can ever leave a black hole, because its escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. But if a virtual matter/antimatter pair pops into existence right at the event horizon, and if one of the paired particles falls into the hole, then it robs the hole of energy potential while its partner emerges as a real particle. If this happens often enough—and in dealing with virtual particles and virtual events, the mathematics of probability allow you to imagine as many as you like occurring wherever you like—then the black hole eventually evaporates.

Uh-huh. Why not just say that the pixies have eaten up all the black holes?

My favorite example of physicists playing with common sense has to do with the dimensions of empty space. Presumably, the mathematics of Einstein’s relativity and the mathematics of quantum mechanics cannot be reconciled in three dimensions of space plus time. However, everything buttons up nicely if space is shown to have a fourth physical dimension—which we cannot see, touch, or understand. Now the proponents of string theory, to make their beautiful mathematics work, need even more dimensions that we don’t directly experience.

String theory supposes that the garden variety particles of quantum mechanics—hard little points of matter like quarks and electrons, gluons and muons, and all the rest—are not actually isolated bits of solid stuff but instead tiny loops of string that vibrate like the strings of a guitar. The energy with which they vibrate, fast or slow, defines their relative size, spin, and other characteristics of quarks, muons, and so on. It’s a really elegant idea. Except that in addition to the three dimensions we know about—x, y, and z—string theory mathematically requires eight more dimensions operating down at the level of the subatomic where, if they exist at all, we don’t happen to stumble over them in everyday life.

I’m not a foe of mathematics, although I was trained in language and literature instead of numbers and mathematics. But I do note that math is as much a product of the human brain trying to fit our imaginations to the observable universe as the word choices of any poet.6 Mathematics is an elegant and useful system, but there are parts of it—consider imaginary numbers, which cannot exist within the rules of the system—that defy common sense.

I don’t require the universe or our response to it to be entirely common-sensical. Good heavens, we’re not Vulcans. We can exercise some imagination. But as noted above, I like to keep an open mind. And I dislike playing favorites.

So my question is this: Why is it acceptable in physics, cosmology, and mathematics—the hard core of our sciences—to create unbelievable and untestable hypotheses, but not in other realms of human thinking? If a scientist can legitimately be asked to believe, to take on faith, the existence and propriety of a universe that flies faster than the speed of light, of depthless black holes that evaporate in the presence of virtual particles which cannot be measured or detected, and of multiple dimensions that operate undetectably below the level of everyday experience—so long as these propositions can be justified through the acrobatics of mathematical proofs—then why must the existence of gods, angels, spirits, sprites, and other unseen beings and forces be ruled out of bounds? Because they don’t play by the rules of mathematics? Because they don’t exist in the realm and curriculum of science?

Science—the word according to its Latin root scire, meaning “to know”—draws its authority mostly from the flowering of reason during the 17th and 18th centuries, the European Enlightenment. Science became a trusted way of looking at the world when deep thinkers worked out the “scientific method.” This is a system for observing reality, posing questions about those observations, predicting outcomes, and testing them through experimentation. People trusted science because it offered logical proof. It didn’t always fit within the framework of what people at the time called “common sense”—for who could believe some of its propositions? That the Sun, which demonstrably rose in the east and set in the west, wasn’t actually orbiting the Earth. That a lightning bolt striking down out of the sky was the same thing as the little tingle you get from shuffling across the carpet? Or that this invisible fluid would one day drive thinking machines and send information from one side of the planet to the other? But still, wherever science and its unique way of looking at the world were applied, it worked.

Yet my intuition tells me that today we’re operating at the outer edges of science. Mathematics and human imagination are building bridges into the unknown: particles that act like waves and waves like particles, forces that are sometimes particles and sometimes fields, virtual particles, dark matter, dark energy. I understand that these words are metaphors. That the photon is neither a particle like a grain of sand nor a wave like those that wash upon the shore but, instead, something different that merely has particle-like and wave-like qualities. I get it. And I also get that mathematics is a language only in metaphor, and that it expresses understanding that cannot be put into slippery English words.7

But ultimately, we must get back to the testing part of observation and hypothesis. With phenomena like the Big Bang’s residual evidence in red shifts and background radiation, or like the nature and lifestyle of black holes, or like the real substrate of that thing we call “matter,” I sense we are facing unknowns and spinning theories and mathematical constructs which cannot, of themselves, be tested.

It might be simpler to say, “God made them to be a puzzlement, and humans cannot understand them.” Except … except that I think we will one day understand them. We’ve just started with the first wrong answer. We’ve got a bit more—maybe a whole lot more—thinking and experimenting to do before we get to the final right answer. Or to the series of answers that will eventually lead to final understanding.

1. Of course, I allow that my atheism on these terms may be avoiding the question of first principles. The universe seems to have developed and continues its existence according to consistent laws that humans are still trying to work out, including those governing gravity, energy exchanges, the structure of matter, and time. Whether those laws, ensuring the consistency of the universe within its complexity, are a matter of design or just another set of found objects is a deep question. We can all imagine a universe that works differently. For example, any chemistry student could sit down and in fifteen minutes redesign the atom’s arrangement of electron shells so as to yield a wholly new kind of chemistry. Any genetics student could redesign DNA so as to yield a new kind of life. Is that to say that Someone had to pick the shape of the universe we actually inhabit and the interactions that occur within it? I try to keep an open mind.

2. Of course, according to Einstein’s relativity, physical matter moving at the speed of light experiences a vast increase in its mass. That’s not much of a problem if we’re dealing with all the material in the universe which has just escaped a single point of infinite density. Time also freezes for any matter that travels at superluminary speeds—but only for an observer in a frame of reference outside that matter. If you travel at the speed of light yourself, anyone observing you sees a person frozen in mid-gesture. But for you, time and your experience of it go on as before. Again, not much of a problem in a universe whose entire contents are boosted beyond lightspeed and there’s no other frame of reference to consider.

3. See the blog entries titled “Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics” from December 30, 2012 and January 6, 2013. According to these blogs, the three things are gravity, space, and time.

4. The word “myriad” comes from Greek and means either “countless” or, in its plural form, “ten thousand.” I suppose to a nation of shepherds and fishermen, 10,000 was an incredibly large number, equivalent to being countless. I remember, too, that the Persian Immortals, elite guard of the King of Kings, were supposed to number 10,000. They were “immortal” because, no matter how many you killed in battle one day, that night the king promoted the nation’s next-best fighters to make up their ranks. So the next day you were facing 10,000 fighters again. Immortal and, for all practical purposes, numberless.

5. I made use of a micro black hole in my first science fiction novel, The Doomsday Effect.

6. See the blog entries titled “Fun with Numbers” from September 19, 2010 and September 26, 2010.

7. But I also know that you can say ridiculous things with the language of mathematics, just as you can write grammatically correct but factually stupefying sentences in English. You can mathematically relate properties, measure correlations, and compare quantities that have no common-sense relationship in the real world. Mathematical formulas and computer models are only tools to aid in thinking—merely extended metaphors—and not, in and of themselves, proof of anything.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On Valuing Equanimity

We all live in a sea of details. Daily encounters, decisions, opportunities, interruptions, and setbacks confront us. Some are important, some inconsequential. All get in the way of pursuing our own goals and purposes. If you don’t know how to tell the difference between big matters and small, you will spend your life in a constant muddle. And then, as a clever magnet on our refrigerator reminds me every morning: “Some days it’s not worth chewing through the restraints!”

We all must spend a certain amount of our daily allotted time in sorting out all this stuff. And then we must weigh the results against our long-term goals, perceived advantages, and guiding principles. Given that even the busiest among us still gets only 86,400 seconds each day—and we must spend about half of that time in the forced activities of sleeping, grooming, eating, and commuting—it becomes imperative that we manage the remaining 43,000-odd seconds well and not waste them on “the small stuff.”

But where to begin? Where to draw the line between small and big, between inconsequential and important? I’ve learned over the years that the best guide is to cultivate and value my personal equanimity.1 Aside from the usual definitions, I interpret equanimity as seeking peace in my life, harmony in my relationships, balance in my actions.2 I’m not allergic to stress and excitement, nor immune to the allure of battle, but I want the excitement and conflict to be the result of my own choices and not a mindless reaction to circumstances thrust upon me.

In these terms, I’ve come to look at every potential quarrel, every cause that clambers for my attention, every slight and hurt, every lost advantage—and asked if the goal, the recovery, the revenge, the satisfaction, or the sense of justice would be worth what its pursuit will cost to my equanimity. Sometimes the answer is yes. Some hurts are too great to be overlooked. Some intrusions are intended as a probing shot, trying to set a pattern of escalating conflict that will come to no good result. Some causes are right in themselves and demand our defense no matter what the cost: we are willing to stake our lives to them, so peace of mind is really secondary.

Learning to recognize and commit to these deeper, more involved circumstances and causes is necessary. In my rulebook, you can’t abide murder and slavery as offenses against individual purpose and freedom—although some dangerous beasts do need killing and some wild humans need suitable restraints until they can learn to be sociable. You don’t let a man beat a woman or a child—or, by extension, anyone of vastly superior strength and skill abuse someone who is unskilled or unarmed—regardless of the provocation. Some cases of need and suffering are also indisputable and must be redressed. And some situations are fraught with danger: for example, you should never put yourself under obligation in potentially hostile circumstances.3 Conversely, you must not try to box in an opponent.4

But in most situations, the decision to take offense, to seek advantage, to stake a position, or to champion a cause is purely voluntary. Words, actions, and consequences must be weighed. And then you must ask, “Why would I disturb myself over that?” And, “Is that really worth my focus of time and effort?”

All around me I see people who work themselves up over small matters. They take offense at tiny slights and insults—even those resulting from careless or clumsy speech and not intended to cause actual harm. They fight bitterly over transactions involving tiny amounts, being cheated of a few dollars or receiving a smaller portion than others. They set impossibly high standards of cleanliness, precision, or fairness and become angry when those standards are not met. And all this time I ask myself, “Is this really worth the trouble and strife it causes?”

If challenged, they will say, “It’s a matter of principle.” Or, “If you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Or, “All I want is what’s right.” What they’re really doing in squandering some of those 43,000 precious seconds: time wasted, energy expended to no constructive purpose. For me, the larger question of principle is, “Will I trade my equanimity for satisfaction in this cause?”

A life spent on petty issues is usually incapable of achieving great things. A soul disrupted in the pursuit of petty injustices and small claims will not find peace.5 When you learn to value equanimity—peace in your life, harmony in your relationships, balance in your actions—you naturally put aside the small causes and aggravations that, for most people, cloud everyday life. You clear the decks for taking on the important issues, the ones that matter, the ones that will build your reputation, secure your future, and make you glad to have lived. You’ll make each day one that’s truly worth chewing through the restraints.

1. From the Latin aequus for “equal,” and animus for “mind” or “soul,” it means evenness of mental disposition, balance, composure, and even self-possession.

2. Come to think of it, peace, harmony, and balance are almost the perfect formula for good and safe motorcycling.

3. For example, don’t accept favors from anyone with unknown interests when war or litigation may be pending.

4. This goes back to the Dune books and the ethics of the Bene Tleilax, that every trap must have an escape—if only the victim can find it. My personal version of this ethic is, wherever possible, to allow an opponent an escape route, a way to avoid a fight, a way to save face. Even the weakest humans with their backs to the wall, with no escape in sight, can become savage and resourceful fighters; then the battle may unexpectedly go against you. And your dream of cornering and killing your opponent, of obliterating him completely, is usually just that—a dream.

5. My mother used to say, “Pick your battles.” I never understood that she was speaking pure Zen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Worst of Times, Best of Times

A lovely little video is going the email rounds these days called “Our Story in Two Minutes.” It is rumored to be the product of high school students doing some kind of social studies project, but the production values—selection and pacing of the images, quality of the music—seem a bit too professional. Like the opening credits to the popular TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, the video covers the creation of the Earth, the evolution of life and then of humankind, the span of recorded history, the development of modern technology, and the rise and fall of 20th-century dictatorships at lightning speed. It’s lively and fun to watch … until you get to the end.

The final seconds—the coda, if you will, to where we stand today—is a vision of endless war, plague and death, and environmental catastrophe. As horrible as some of the images from the preceding four billion years might be, the future promises to be worse—bleak, damaged, despairing, and ultimately subsiding back into primordial chaos. If this video is indeed a student project, I fear for the students. If this vision of the future is what they are learning in school and parroting back in their assignments, the next generation has some rethinking to do.

As I’ve said before, I’m a technological positivist. I believe that the quality of human life and the human future are, overall, on the whole, and for most people on this planet, pretty good and getting better. I am aware of the hardships and the dangers. I know that many people around the world may be suffering. But taken against the backdrop of human history, I think these are the best of times. Here is why.

Endless War

We have not had a world war—a truly global conflict with armies mobilized, battalions clashing, fleets engaged, beaches stormed, capital cities bombed—in more than sixty years. Not since World War II. We have had global conflict. First came the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, played out in local attacks and vicarious wars in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere, with much churning among diplomats and intelligence agencies in between. Then came the terrorist campaigns of Jihadists from the Middle East, played out in local attacks and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, including a devastating strike at New York City.

These are brushfires. The United States has fought them with less than full mobilization and, in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, put these wars on its credit card instead of making sacrifices at home with national conscription and widespread rationing such as during World War II. War as a matter of invasion of a neighbor’s territory and subjugation of its people, such as Hitler fought in Eastern Europe and then the Soviets fought right back in the final days of the war, is practically a thing of the past.1 Aside from homegrown “liberations” and guerrilla efforts, the modern war is fought with ideology and economics, not with large armies.

I credit nuclear weapons with this achievement. Anyone who marches across a border and tries to capture a capital, as the Third Reich did in Poland and Russia, will be met not with mobilized armies but with a barrage of MIRVs. With total annihilation as the backstop to any argument, you become cautious about the fights you pick. I speak as a citizen of the only country that has ever set off a nuclear bomb in anger—and that was a truly sobering experience. It changed war forever on all sides.

The concern these days is for “proliferation” of nuclear weapons. But … realistically? … the genie is out of the bottle. The technology is known and reproducible although, as the Iranians are finding out, difficult and costly to achieve if you want more than one or two black market bombs that you don’t know how to maintain or mount as warheads. Becoming a serious nuclear power takes effort and dedication—and that’s a good thing. Once a nation, “rogue state” or not, has invested that much time and treasure in becoming a nuclear power, its perspective changes. It knows there are bigger boys with more toys just down the block. That makes them cautious.

No, nuclear weapons have changed the face of global conquest. Today the issues are technological and economic. Why invade a country and subdue its people with soldiers and guns when you can conquer them with ideas, productive capacity, and financial influence?2 It’s easier and less painful to make their Lexuses and iPhones; buy their companies, shopping malls, and treasury bonds; and hold the mortgage on their future.3

Plague and Death

We live in a remarkably healthy time—not just here in the up-to-date western world, but in places that used to be called “the Third World” and “developing countries.” When I was a child, places like India and China were reputed to be pits of misery and starvation. True, most of the population in those countries still has a sub-western standard of living. Some people are desperately poor and subject to diseases that we brush off with a childhood vaccination or a round of antibiotics. But standards of living, levels of education, and access to medical technology are improving all the time.

The Green Revolution is making more food—and often in hardier, more nutritious varieties—available through improvements in agricultural practice, seed and livestock selection, pest control, and genetics. Famine still exists in the world, but in most cases it is due to political disruption, intentional malfeasance, and disparity in economics rather than simple scarcity of supply.

People are living longer, not just in the western world, and not just those with access to adequate health insurance. Infant mortality is declining worldwide along with natural birth rates. Good nutrition, better access to clean water and air, and simple medical techniques like vaccination and antibiotics are improving life chances.

In the western world the old killers, infections and transmissible diseases, are no longer the chief topics of medical conversation.4 Now we deal mostly with the second-rank players—heart disease, stroke, cancer, various forms of dementia—which only become dominant when people reach a certain age. And we’re making headway against them through advancing medical technology and consciousness of healthy lifestyles.

The fact that obesity has become a huge driver of illness in the west is both sobering and heartening. Obese people are clearly not starving, and for most of humanity over most of history, periods of famine have been the norm while periods of feasting have been the exception. And obesity is easily controlled—well, compared to intestinal parasites or a broken leg—through education and modified life choices.

Today we live with bulging granaries and bulging medicine chests, and we wonder how to keep our elderly populations supported, productive, and amused. That is a huge reversal of the human experience in ages past.

Environmental Catastrophe

As a child growing up, I remember smog and air pollution being a real problem. Basin cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, and Pittsburgh suffered with gray skies over a brown layer of haze. I remember being warned about falling overboard in San Francisco Bay—keep your mouth shut so as not to ingest the polluted water. I remember the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire. And I remember rivers in the East running brown under clots of dirty foam.5

Today, through a combination of regulation and technology, we have cleaner air and water with more people, more vehicles, and more industry. We’ve shown that we can clean up local impacts and repair the deterioration. We now live more lightly on the land. We are taking better care of the planet than at any time in my experience.6

We are now concerned with longer-range, wider-impact effects like climate change. Whether the global temperature range is increasing or decreasing, whether sea level is rising or falling, whether the cause is human-made or natural … is not the point. If the immediate cause of climate variation is not the burden of carbon dioxide from industrial activity or the sudden release of methane clathrates from tundra, it will be sunspot activity or changes in the ocean biota or something else. To expect that global temperatures should not drift from century to century, or that the high-tide mark should remain fixed along the seashore, is to live in a fool’s paradise.

As a species, humans—and we’re talking Cro Magnon–type Homo sapiens, not some variant of ancient australopithecine—have experienced an entire Ice Age coming and going, with sea levels falling and rising by hundreds of feet and glaciers covering whole continents a mile deep in ice. True, we went through these upheavals in a nomadic state without having trillions of dollars of development and infrastructure perched on the shoreline, but those things are only money. Humans have been remarkably adaptable. Our ever-accelerating technology makes us better able to cope and adapt, perhaps even to combat the effects of change. Human activity may cause problems, but it usually brings its own antidotes.

I wouldn’t trade life today for any period in the past. You might have experienced a satisfied, enriched, and fairly long life as a Roman patrician or a Renaissance nobleman, but for the mass of people—among whom the birthright lottery would have placed most of us—life was a desperate grind filled with hunger and disease in any society at any time. Today’s population—and especially in the technologically developed West—has it easier by far. And even what we used to think of as the Third World—China, India, Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa—is seeing more advancement through technology. I’m not blind to the problems we have today, but I wouldn’t trade them, and the tools we have for dealing with them, with any other place or time.

1. The exceptions have been (1) the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was an technologically advanced army marching in against a nation of goat herders—and the goat herders did pretty well, with the backing of U.S. arms and money; and (2) the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which the Iraqis always viewed as a former province lost to them during international bargaining, and the U.S. contested that invasion at the behest of the alarmed Saudis. For the rest, modern war has been a matter of infiltration, civil and economic disruption, and active sniping.

2. Go back and ask Hitler or Stalin what they had to pay in terms of military garrisons, continuous police presence, and diplomatic effort to hold down the populations in France, Greece, Poland, or any other non-German-speaking or non-Russian-speaking country they invaded and tried to dominate. Running a slave state is barely economical. You might do it to get some border protection, as the Soviets did in Eastern Europe, but in other terms you’re buying yourself a generation or two of simmering revolt.

3. Of course, as the Japanese found out and the Chinese are quickly learning, competitive advantage has a shorter half-life than the transuranic elements. And, as the Saudis are finding out, great big piles of money or indebtedness erode even faster. The world is a slippery place.

4. Yes, we are currently seeing a rise in treatment-resistant infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and Staphylococcus aureus. The organisms behind these diseases are fast growing—experiencing millions of generations in the course of a single human lifetime—and are subject to the same evolutionary winnowing as any other species on this planet. The competition between medicine and evolution is an arms race. The good news is that the current upward curve of our knowledge and practice in the life sciences makes this a race that humanity is better and better prepared to win.

5. If you look at those old Matthew Brady pictures of Civil War battlefields, you see vast hillsides of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia denuded by logging for fuel and local construction. Today those same hills are green and leafy with trees because we’ve advanced to burning fossil fuels instead of vegetation and building with steel, cement, and glass. Tomorrow, we’ll harvest sunlight, wind energy, and other, less polluting resources. Things do get better.

6. Well, except for the Chinese and their current pollution problems. But they’re a resourceful people. They will learn.