## Sunday, April 26, 2015

### Reduced Instruction Set Arithmetic

I see recurring comments on Facebook and elsewhere about the new Common Core arithmetic, particularly the method of subtraction. People are indignant, confused, and upset, because this is a marked departure from the method we all learned in grade school.1

In the traditional method. you start by subtracting the numbers in the one’s column, and if the top number is smaller than the bottom number, you borrow a ten from the ten’s column, reducing the number there by an imaginary one. Proceed in like fashion across the pairs of top and bottom numbers in each decimal column, writing the result of each single subtraction below the line. Watch the result build up from the one’s column across out to however many places the answer happens to go.

This method reaches an exact answer most directly. So it’s good for accountants and other people who need to deal exclusively in exact quantities. But I was raised by an engineer. Now, I was never very good at math, no matter how hard my father tried, but one notion I did learn from him was the idea of approximation.2 That is, in most situations you don’t need the exact figure down to the one’s place and all the decimals,3 but instead you want a shot at the “close enough” answer without a lot of work. I think the Common Core teaching of subtraction is an approach to this.

In the Common Core method, you start with the lower number—the one you’re subtracting from the upper number—and add a comfortable, easily recognizable, rounded-off amount that takes you closer to the upper number. In the example most often given, subtracting 12 from 32, you add 3 to the starting 12 to get up to 15, then you add 5 to 15 to get to 20, then 10 to 20 to get to 30, then 2 to 30, to get to 32. Once you’ve made all these approximations, you add them up to get the answer: 3+5+10+2=20. And the difference between 32 and 12 is indeed 20.

This seems like a lot of work. And it is, if you go about it that way. A shorter route might be 3+12=15, 15+15=30, 2+30=32; so 3+15+2=20. Or 10+12=22, 10+22=32; so 10+10=20. In the Common Core, these would all be right answers—unless, of course, the hidden purpose of the exercise is to take the tiniest, most eensy-beansy steps in order to drive the child mad with all of those follow-up additions.

I wouldn’t teach children the Common Core method as the only way to subtract two numbers. First, because the “old way” is fast at reaching an exact answer. Second, because the child’s parents—at least for the next generation or so—will know the old way but not the new. Turning numbers on their heads is a dandy way to exclude parents from involvement with their children’s homework, or to blunt the child’s understanding when he or she hears a lot of parental muttering over an assignment.

But this method of approximating the answer from the bottom up is an excellent alternative to be taught alongside the old top-down subtraction. First, it teaches the child flexibility. It shows that the number system works both ways, and that subtraction can be thought of as another type of addition. Second, it works better with large numbers to get an approximate answer when a sense of proportion is all you’re actually looking for.

For example, suppose I have two large numbers: 53,246 and 34,152. I want to know approximately how much bigger the first is than the second. Say, I have two different makes and models of cars I’m thinking of buying, and I want to compare their two prices generally, without getting bogged down in the weeds with just a few dollars in pocket change. In the old way, I would start by subtracting 2 from 6 to get 4 and write down “4.” Then, because the upper number’s 4 in the ten’s column is smaller than the lower number’s 5, I would borrow 1 from the 2 in the hundred’s column, subtract 5 from 14 to get 9 and write down “9.” Then I would subtract 1 from 1 in the hundred’s column and write down “0.” All that work, and I’ve not yet reached the thousands—the biggest parts of both numbers.

With Common Core subtraction, I would say 34+20=54. That’s too large by a thousand, so I back that off to 34+19=53. The approximation is a difference of 19,000 and change. If I wanted an exact answer, I could go after those hundred’s, ten’s, and one’s places. And if the number there turned out to be negative, then I could subtract it from 19,000.

Accountants wouldn’t like this way of thinking. But a scientist managing data in terms of thousands and millions of cells, seedlings, or stars would find this a quick way to get into the right decimal ballpark. This is arithmetic you can do in your head, without paper and pencil and writing down phantom numbers loaned from one decimal place to another. It’s an instinctive way to get to the “big pieces” answer rather than starting out with the “little pieces.”

The Common Core method, because it turns subtraction into an addition problem, also strikes me as a kind of “reduced instruction set” arithmetic. Reduced instruction set is a concept from computer programming, where you trade a complex language full of purposefully designed operators for a simpler language with a limited number of operators. In this case, you’re trading an arithmetic with the operators “+” and “-” for a new arithmetic that only knows “+”. Generally, with reduced instruction set coding, as you trade off the complexity of discrete operators, you must accept the need to take more steps to achieve a result in any operation.

Say, for example, you want to program a robot car or forklift. The normal four instructions in a set for driving on a square grid—like a city’s streets or the aisles and rows of a warehouse—would be: Forward, Backward, Right Turn, Left Turn. The reduced instruction set would be would be: Forward and Right Turn. You could still perform all the necessary actions to navigate the regular blocks of a city like New York. But instead of backing up, you would take a turn around the block by executing Right, Right, Forward. And instead of making a left turn, you would execute Right, Right, Right, Forward.

Sounds stupid and silly, doesn’t it? Until you realize that UPS asks its drivers to do something similar in devising and following their delivery routes so that they can avoid hazardous, time-consuming left turns and U-turns in busy traffic.

The point of all this is not to be infuriating to parents or confusing to children, but to teach flexibility, to increase understanding, and ultimately to show that anyone can generally find more than one way to approach and solve a problem. And that’s always a useful teaching.

1. That is, all of us older than twelve.

2. I believe this comes—at least in my father’s generation—from their constant use of a slide rule. The old “slip stick” gives you rapid answers in multiplication and division, exponents, square roots, logarithms, trigonometric functions, and similar complex math. But it usually gives you just the “stripped down” version of the answer—that is, the most meaningful digits on the “big end” of the number, as in scientific and engineering notation. For example, the exact speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second. But a scientist or engineer would write 3x108 or 3e8, or “about three million meters.” In working a slide rule for multiplication and division, you only get the significant figures and you generally have to keep track of the decimal places—the tens, thousands, millions, and billions—in your head.

3. Unless, of course, you are dealing with very tiny amounts to the right of the decimal point—in which case the significant figures are still written as a one-, two-, or three-place decimal but the exponent notation is negative, reflecting the number of zeroes between the actual answer’s decimal point and the leading significant figure.

## Sunday, April 19, 2015

### How Important is Race?

Not very—at least not on a biological, genetic, or morphological level.

I recently took part in a series of Facebook comments addressing a creationist-inspired link that attacked evolution for, among other things, its failure to produce a single “missing link” between ape and human. The discussion got into the issue of the multiple hominid lines, including the australopithecines and the genus Homo, in which these developments are all cousins and uncles to the H. sapiens species that we call “the human race.”

To me—and I’ve done some reading and study in the area of human origins, as well as genetics and morphology—looking for a single link or trying to define these human predecessors and parallels too closely as to type is a waste of time. In classical evolution, the dividing line between one species and the next is failure to interbreed. First, can a male and female from separate groups produce a viable offspring? And if so, can that offspring breed and produce more viable offspring? Horses and donkeys—both members of the genus Equus—can produce living offspring, but they are almost always sterile. So the two animals are considered to be from different species.

We used to think H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis were separate species, too. I mean, just look at the Neanderthals, with their arching brow ridges, disappearing foreheads, heavy jaws, and stocky bodies. Such features simply scream “brute.” Shave one and put him in a business suit on the subway, and you’d still think you were looking at some kind of monkey … right? But since we’ve discovered fossil remains well enough preserved to take an almost complete genome, we’ve learned that many modern-day Europeans—humans from the geographic areas where these two “species” overlapped some 20,000 to 40,000 years ago—actually contain about 4% genetic material that is particular to the Neanderthal genome. So not only could the two lineages breed, but they must have produced viable offspring.

Maybe H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis are subspecies of a wider—and yet to be identified—Homo species. And maybe they are just two sets of human beings with different associated features who can trace their lineage back to a common ancestor in the not-so-distant past.

Looking for distinguishing features and trying to identify all-encompassing “types” is a particularly 19th-century intellectual fetish. It’s probably best reflected in the natural philosophy inspired by the great 18th-century classifier of botany and zoology, Carl Linnaeus. You can see this classifying urge today in birdwatchers, who go to great pains to distinguish various types of jays and woodpeckers. But it can be a trap and lead one to make false distinctions.

In a parallel vein, I’m reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. He makes the interesting point that what we think of as “languages” do not actually exist in natural populations. Instead, what we really have is collections of dialects particular to a certain region. In this way of thinking, Italian, French, and Spanish are simply long-isolated dialects of Latin. And what we today think of as English is actually an amalgam of local dialects, from Yorkshire to Cornish, with the corners rounded off in the studios of the BBC to become “standard English.” Each of these dialects bears some resemblance to the others but has different accents, different vowel and consonant sounds, and different and sometimes peculiar word usages.1

The trend toward identifying a “standard” language started with the rise in literacy after the adoption of moveable type. Most notably, people in the areas we now call Germany, ranging from the North Sea to the Alps, once spoke quite distinct dialects. It wasn’t until Martin Luther translated the Bible in the 1520s and ’30s, and then popularized it with his own brand of Protestantism, that a modern, standard German—called “High German” for its predominance in the southern or higher elevations of the region, compared to the lowlands of places like the Netherlands—developed to unite the country linguistically.

Similarly, in France one finds the langues d’oïl in the northern provinces and the langues d’oc of the southern provinces. The former beat out the latter as “standard” French because of their closeness to Paris, which was the center of culture starting in the Middle Ages and home of the Academie Française with its binding rules on language and grammar.

Just as our notion of a “standard” language is made up of amalgams of linguistic variants that developed in relative isolation in a separate places, so our notion of various human races is made up of amalgams of genetic mutations and morphological features that developed in isolation in different places. The features we now associate with “distinct” races—variations in skin and hair coloring, hair texture, nose shape, eyelid shape, and so on—are all just minor genetic differences that were passed down first in families and then in tribal lineages, and finally came to dominate in the community and the region.

Social structure and the prominence of certain families had a lot to do with it, too. For example, genetic analysis has shown that about 10% of the men living within the borders of the Mongol Empire at the time of Genghis Khan’s death carry his Y chromosome. It was good to be the khan, or king, or a tribal chieftain.

Take skin color, for the most obvious example of race. Various populations in Africa, southern India, and Australia are nearly uniform in having dark skin. This is a natural response to their lineage’s long exposure to tropical sunlight. The regulation of skin pigments and addition of melanin as an inherited trait is a protective reaction against exposure to damaging ultraviolet rays. If you put a Swedish family in the tropics for a hundred generations, they will start having dark-skinned babies, too—without having to invoke any interbreeding to explain the phenomenon.

Fair hair and blue eyes are genetic recessives—that is, they readily give way to brown or black hair and eyes in any genetic mixing. But places like Scandinavia came to be dominated by these recessives because the earliest inhabitants of these cold, far northern areas didn’t travel much and managed to avoid invasion. Then, during the three centuries of Viking raiding and mercantile expansion into western and eastern Europe in the late first millennium, their descendants passed these features on to other populations.

It’s not logical to think of dark-skinned people as belonging to a separate race but blue-eyed blonds as just another type of Caucasian.

Or imagine an island in the Irish Sea where people with red hair and freckles—another set of recessive genes—had become so dominant that you couldn’t find dark-haired, pale-skinned people anywhere on the island. Would we then speak of a separate race of redheads and make them into a special variant of the human race?2

Or if you imagine you can tell a person’s race by features like wide lips or flattened noses, think of the famous Habsburg jaw. This was a genetic feature—a long jaw and prominent chin—in the Habsburg family which ruled in Austria and other parts of Europe from the Renaissance to the 19th century. If that family had started earlier or been more prolific, its famous jawline might have become the distinguishing feature of a whole “race” of central Europeans, similar to Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome.

It's clear from biology that all the beings alive today and accepted as human are of one species and not even variants. Genetically, we all trace back to a band of about a hundred H. sapiens wandering through eastern Africa about 60,000 years ago. On that basis, we are all cousins under the skin.3

1. It’s not surprising that the British Isles should be so linguistically broken. They have seen successive invasions and domination in different areas by the Celts, the Romans, the Angles and Saxons, the Danes, the Norse, and the Norman French. Everybody brought their own words, accents, and other linguistic pieces to the puzzle—the glorious pastiche—that is modern English.

2. However, my daughter-in-law—being red-haired herself—collects memes and anecdotes about “gingers,” as if they were a separate group of people with their own mysterious origins, attractive features, talents, propensities, and special powers. I sometimes wonder if she’s being satirical.

3. Of course, all of this discussion is based on the biological dimensions of race: genotypes and morphologies, which are accidents of inheritance. I’m not commenting on the social and cultural dimensions of race: physical markers by which one person recognizes another whom he or she wishes to accept or reject as an associate. Race as ethnicity and a form of social bonding is a matter of self-definition and choice as much or more than it’s a matter of inheritance. But it’s not biologically significant.

## Sunday, April 12, 2015

### Can Evolution Be Disproved?

Science—meaning, from its Latin root, the business of knowing—has little or nothing to do with absolute truth, consensus, authority, or belief. Science is about looking into what is really going on, and in most cases, like most things, it’s complicated. Science is an endless series of guesses and questions and refinements of knowledge which do not assume they will uncover a final and for-all-time answer.

Science is a process, written into the Scientific Method. First, you observe what’s going on around you, especially the occasions and outcomes that don’t seem to make obvious sense. These things make you wonder. Second, you think deeply about them and try to imagine what’s driving the observed outcome, why things work out that way, and what’s really going on here. From your thinking, you establish a guess or a principle, theory, or hypothesis about the part that you cannot directly observe: the part that explains the why or predicts the what. Third, you think of ways that your guess might be proven either right or wrong. Fourth, you devise and conduct one or more experiments under controlled conditions that would tend to prove or disprove your theory, guess, or principle. Your bet is: “If this happens during my experiment, then I’m likely to be right. If that happens, then I’m likely wrong.” Fifth, you communicate your theory, the tests you made, and the results in enough detail so that others can understand your idea, reproduce your test, and compare their own results.

The beauty of this process is that it’s entirely limited and incremental, as well as being purely democratic. You are testing your logic and reasoning in specific cases, and you are exposing yourself to questioning and either confirmation or refutation by independent minds. If your hypothesis covers only a specialized, limited case, or does not consider or allow for alternate theories, or if your test design ignores important variables, then your results will be revealed as possessing limited value and perhaps even no value. You can only lay claim to what you state and what you test, and even then your results are only valuable in terms of what others will accept as having been proved or disproved.

It’s really a difficult and demanding way to acquire knowledge—except for all the others, which are worse.1

The linchpin of the scientific method is disprovability. Your test has to show that your hypothesis and its predictions were either right or wrong. Your hypothesis has to allow for an outcome that disproves it. But this is not always obvious.

Take, for example, the proposition or hypothesis that everything we see and experience in the universe happens according to the design of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing intelligence that stands outside space and time. It may be a comforting belief. It may even be true. But how would you disprove it? Whatever conditional test you proposed, the results could always be explained as part of this intelligence’s deeper intention. It might, for example, be trying to sharpen your wits with a conundrum, or discourage your impertinence with an unexpected result, or simply torment you with doubt. You have no way of knowing or proving anything about this overriding intelligence and its hidden purposes.

Take, for another example—one that claims scientific provenance—the propositions of string theory in physics: that every particle we encounter is actually a tiny loop of stringlike material that’s vibrating in one of a number of microscopic dimensions not observable at the human or galactic scale. It’s an elegant idea, combining notions of both matter and energy. It’s supported by elegant mathematics. It may even be true. But how do you disprove it? How do you physically examine and measure dimensions that we cannot experience? How do you determine where the vibration leaves off and the inert string material begins? Whatever test you proposed, the results could always be explained as applying to a higher and coarser level of existence, under which lies a deeper, more fine-grained level at which string theory actually operates.

This looks superficially like the older conundrums in the physical sciences: that Newton’s laws seem to apply on a human or planetary scale, but don’t exactly work out at the level of galactic interactions or at the level of subatomic particles. At the galactic scale, you have the laws of Newton refined, enlarged, and overwritten by Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. At the subatomic scale, you have Newton refined—and, in some cases, discarded and turned on its head—by the insights of quantum mechanics. The two approaches both work in their respective realms, generate hypotheses and predictions that can be proved or disproved, and answer a lot of important questions. But relativity and quantum mechanics are so far irreconcilable under any form of mathematics, because they take fundamentally different approaches and make mutually antagonistic assumptions.2

One might think then that something similar applies to the disjunction between the older stories of creation and earlier theories about the differences among plants and animals in biology and the insights of Charles Darwin. But Darwin’s theory of evolution is not an enlargement or refinement of earlier ideas but instead a total disconnect. And the people who disagree with and perhaps are offended by the implications of Darwin’s analysis want to attack it along several fronts.3

First, they want to explain that random chance is incapable of creating complex structures. I believe this is a misreading of both the theory and the events of biology. Random chance did not suddenly create a human eye with its ability to focus for varying distances, adjust to available light levels, and detect and discriminate colors among different wavelengths of light. Somebody didn’t roll the dice just once and a full-blown set of eyes came up. Instead, extant organisms and the fossil record show many examples of different stages in this development, from the light-sensitive chemicals in one-celled animals, to collections of light-sensing cells in many different organisms, up through various kinds and qualities of eyes.

Actually, random chance does not operate at the level of structure or purpose at all. Chance only plays a part in the theory at the level of occasional and undirected mutations to the genetic material that controls the nature and expression of proteins. These mutations are happening all the time in every organism, some with positive results, some with negative results, and some making no difference at all. The test of whether a mutation is used and preserved or eventually discarded is fitness for purpose. If the mutation helps the individual thrive and breed, it will likely stay and be transmitted to the next generation. If it hurts the individual, it will either die out immediately with the host organism or disadvantage the next and future generations. If the mutation has no obvious effect, it may either die out or persist, and if the latter, it may prove beneficial or hurtful later under changing circumstances. This test of fitness for purpose is not at all random but rather the most appropriate and important test for organisms inhabiting a dangerous and changeable world. It is the only test that matters.

Second, these people claim that no one has ever observed an “intermediate form,” halfway between one species or type of organism and another. They complain that the fossil record does not show such forms in support of, for example, a transition between apes and humans, or between lizards and dinosaurs, or between any two kinds of animals and plants. They focus a great deal of attention on the 19th-century notion of a “missing link.”4

Actually, such forms exist all over the place and throughout the fossil record. Fossils of the shrew-like mammal that survived the dinosaurs have been examined in detail and demonstrate many features that predate later mammals like rodents, dogs, and humans. Fossils of early snakes and lizards show how elements of their jaw hinge became the ear canal and the tiny bones—hammer, anvil, and stirrup—essential to mammalian hearing. And the process works backward, too, because we can trace in the flipper of a whale the bones from the front foreleg of its ancestral mammal, which walked on land, and associate with its vertebrae the vestigial bones of that ancestor’s pelvis. Life on this planet is a glissando of adaptive changes, from one shape and purpose to the next, one generation to the next.

Third, the people who dislike evolution claim that it’s just a theory and as such can never be proven. This claim has some merit, because evolution as currently understood depends on two separate processes: one, a random change to an organism’s genetic material; and two, the usefulness of that change in an environment subject to many different effects and conflicting factors. Neither the mutations nor the ecological conditions can be completely reproduced in the lab in order to arrive at the major dividing line in evolutionary theory: the creation of a new species. A species is generally defined as a population that can interbreed and produce viable and fertile offspring.5 Development of a new species generally takes a long time, the right conditions, and geographic separation from the ancestral gene pool.

Actually, we can see evidence of morphological and structural changes that take place fairly rapidly. For example, in studying finches in the Galapagos Islands, Peter and Rosemary Grant saw beak shape change from one generation to the next based on the availability of various seed types. For another example, we have been conducting a large-scale experiment with various types of antibiotics that has created new generations of bacteria that are resistant to their effects. For a third example, Craig Venter has organized at least two sea-going experiments that take genetic samples every couple of miles or so in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas and in the open ocean, looking for new bacterial and planktonic genes and charting their associated capabilities for use in synthetic biology. The genetic variations he discovered suggest that what we once thought of as distinct marine species are actually more like whole genuses and families. It would take time and effort to conduct an experiment designed to consciously create an entirely new species of bacteria or plankton—but probably easier there than with any species of finch, because of the faster generations and ease of isolation with microbes—but I have no doubt that eventually such an experiment could be done.

Given that evidence of evolution seems to be all around us, in terms of structural adaptation, genetic similarities, and traceable lineages, what would it take to disprove the theory of evolution? That is, aside from the claim that genetic mutation is simply the mechanism that an all-powerful, all-knowing intelligence has chosen for the way things work on this planet.

The first disproof—or evidence leading us to doubt the processes of evolution—would be to find a child that differed significantly in phenotype (appearance, structure, and development) as well as in genotype (genetic makeup) from its biological parents.6 Such a “cuckoo” would obviously raise questions of actual origins and the possibility of a hoax: did sperm A actually meet egg B to form a zygote as claimed? But if that chain of custody or provenance could be proved, then we would have a true biological oddity that would throw the principles of evolution into a quandary.

In this discussion, I’m not concerned with one or two single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that could result from mutations occurring sometime between the separation of the gamete from the parent and examination of the embryo. Those happen all the time.7 To be a convincing disproof of evolution, the certified child would have to be so changed from its parents that a preponderance of its genetic material had no connection, its appearance was vastly different, or its genetics and nature were not even of the same genus, species, or family. Such child would represent so great a deviation from what we currently expect of genetics, obstetrics, and medical theory that we would today consider it a miraculous birth.

A second disproof of evolution would be to find two species that appear to be closely related but that had totally different genomes. It’s not hard to find two unrelated species inhabiting similar ecological niches but that have different genomes. For example, bats and birds both fly by flapping their wings, and some species of each make their living by catching and digesting insects in flight. But one is a mammal, descended from that shrew-like creature that survived the dinosaurs, and the other is an Aves of lizard-like heritage and possibly descended from the dinosaurs themselves. Similarly, humans and octopi have very similar eye structures, but one is a vertebrate living on dry land and the other is not, and the two are separated by huge genetic distances.

But what if you had two robins, or a robin and a dove, and the two birds were alike in everything else—their structures, activities, diets, morphology, and phenotype—yet their genomes were as far apart as bats and birds, or humans and octopi? Such a discovery would suggest that something else—maybe a divine and playful intelligence—was ordering the nature of life on Earth.

The third disproof would be to find another type of genetic organization at work. So far, every domain, kingdom, and phylum of organisms on this planet—bacteria, archaea, fungi, plants, animals, and you-name-its—found in the most isolated locations, from freshwater lakes under the Antarctic ice sheets to volcanic vents along the mid-ocean ranges, uses the same genetic system. The four bases of DNA—adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine—are attached to ribose sugar rings, which are strung on a phosphate backbone and arranged in reading groups of three bases each to call for combinations from among just twenty different amino acids to make all the possible proteins used in earthly biology. Aside from minor differences—like replacing thymine with uracil, and dropping the OH group from the ribose ring’s two-prime carbon, in creating and processing RNA—everything we consider to be alive uses this same system. No organism uses just three bases, or up to five, in its genetic material, or assembles them into two-base or four-base reading groups, or makes use of any of the 500 other possible amino acids to make strange and different proteins. And no organism uses some other type of protein-coding system, perhaps based on silicon instead of carbon in its bases and sugar rings, or arsenic instead of phosphorus in its backbone.

If we found another genetic system in operation on this planet, it would suggest a separate and unique creation. It wouldn’t actually disprove “descent with variation,” which is the core of current evolutionary theory. But it would indicate that what is going on in biology is different from what we currently imagine. That would suggest some principle, mechanism, or hypothesis which our biological scientists have not yet considered and discarded.

But we haven’t discovered any such thing. And in the meantime, until we do, evolution as a hypothesis and a working model explains so much of what we see and orders our thinking so clearly—and without those nasty mathematical dislocations that separate relativity from quantum mechanics in the study of physics—that the theory of evolution has no peer. Even if it remains just a theory, it works awfully well.

1. A thought stolen from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

2. I’m not bothered by this and prefer to take a wait-and-see approach as to whether either one will prevail or some third kind of “mechanics” is waiting outside human knowledge and still to be discovered. For now, I’m content to think that, as the biomarkers and medical treatments appropriate for an elephant may be different from those for a flea, so the cosmic experience and the quantum level represent different cases.

3. Let me say here at the outset that I’m a convinced evolutionist, satisfied with the theory’s ability to explain what we see and its every encounter with developments in morphology, paleontology, and genetics.

4. The notion goes back to a creature that is not great ape and not human but has features of both and sits midway between them. The last hundred years has dredged up successive waves of skeletons of varying ages that show this progression. The confusion may lie with the misconception that we humans evolved from any of the present day or recent forms such as chimpanzees, gorillas, or Neanderthals. The truth is, all of these forms are our cousins, and together we all point back to some earlier ancestor.

5. In this context, horses and donkeys are separate species, because their offspring may survive to maturity but cannot breed a new generation. Horses and zebras are in the same situation. Rarely, however, a female mule has been known to reproduce if mated with a purebred stallion.
For a long time, H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis were thought to be in this relationship, as separate species of the genus Homo. However, recent sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and comparison with our human genome suggest that in lineages tracing back to European populations, which came in contact with the Neanderthals between 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, some humans may possess up to 4% Neanderthal genes. This implies interbreeding with fertile offspring, and so the two groups are probably subspecies of an as-yet unnamed Homo species and not truly separate.

6. In this case, I’m not concerned with issues of adoptive parents or surrogacy, but the simple coming together of egg and sperm to form an embryo, regardless of legal conditions or laboratory circumstances.

7. And I’m not talking about chimeras, either. These are organisms resulting from one or more fused embryos, in which the individual ends up possessing cells and tissues with different genetic backgrounds. Such an individual might have both male and female organs or possess two different blood types. Chimeras are strange, but they do not violate any biological or evolutionary principles.
In ancient times, chimeras were strange creatures with misaligned body parts: head of a lion, body of a goat, tail of a lizard. Famous ancient chimeras included winged horses like Pegasus, griffins (head, wings, and talons of an eagle, haunches of a lion), or even the humanoid centaurs (half-man, half-horse) and fauns (half-man, half-goat). Needless to say, as viable anatomical structures, these creatures were and are wholly mythical.

## Sunday, April 5, 2015

### Needs vs. Wants

I actually knew someone who won the California lottery. It was back in the 1980s, and the man lived in my mother-in-law’s San Francisco neighborhood. He was retired from the phone company with a pension, a modest house that he and his wife had lived in for decades, having raised children there, and they now had even more grandchildren. I don’t recall the exact amount of his winnings, but for tax purposes they were structured so that he would receive \$400,000 a year for twenty years. He kept living in the old house and used that money to get a nice car, buy a vacation cabin on the Russian River, and put his grandchildren through college. Being a prudent man, I’m sure he also set up some generous trust funds. The money greatly improved his lifestyle and his family’s prospects.

I also knew a woman in that neighborhood who wished this man well, but she once told me, “Nobody needs that kind of money. That’s excessive. The lottery should pay out at most about \$5,000. That’s enough for anyone.” In other words, keep buying your tickets and dreaming big, but expect to win just enough for a nice vacation—then go back to work.

Shortly after this, the U.S. Congress enacted and the first President Bush signed a luxury tax on expensive goods that people obviously didn’t need. On target were boats costing more than \$100,000, cars costing more than \$30,000, private aircraft more than \$250,000, and furs and jewelry more than \$10,000. (Those were big numbers in those days, but slightly more laughable a quarter century later after years of inflation.) To each of these purchases would be attached a ten-percent surcharge designed to reduce the federal deficit as well as discourage such “conspicuous consumption.” The theory was that nobody would mind seeing the millionaires deprived of their toys.1

More recently, on an episode of CNBC’s Closing Bell, I caught an interview with Thomas Piketty, the Parisian economist and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He was apparently denying that his book was all about income inequality, but he did say that no one really needed a billion dollars. That’s excessive.

This interview coincided closely in my experience with a poster someone was displaying on Facebook: “Why does anyone need an AR-15 with 30 rounds of ammo?” The presumption was that such firepower is excessive. People should be happy with a smaller gun—or maybe with just a cell phone, so they can call 911 when trouble occurs. That’s all anyone really needs.

The presumption in every such case is that, if you don’t need it, you don’t actually deserve to have it. And so you won’t mind if wiser heads decide to take it away from you.

I am averse to all these forms of social control that begin with “Why does anyone need …?” Whether it’s a gun, a yacht, or a billion dollars, the question still presumes that a fair-minded, “normal” person has the right to deny anyone possession of the specified object based on “reasonableness.” Questions of legal use aside,2 this presumption flies in the face of personal freedom and property rights, among others.3

I may not need the object of my desire, or the fortune in the case of lottery winnings, but I do want it. In most cases I must spend time and energy, or their equivalent in money, to obtain the desired object. To have a chance at winning the lottery, I must remember to buy the tickets, seek out lucky numbers or other winning strategies, and sacrifice the other pleasures that the price of those tickets might buy each week. To amass a personal fortune by playing the stock market or climbing the corporate ladder, I must be bold, take risks, focus my talents and energies, and prepare to lose everything during a market collapse or a corporate coup. To acquire that gun, I must—at least in California—take training, pass tests, and submit to a background check. To have that yacht, sports car, airplane, or jewelry, I must spend money that is not available for other purchases or investments. This is my choice. These are my sacrifices. And they are nobody’s business but mine.

The presumption that nobody should be allowed to waste their time, energy, and money on these frivolous desires goes back to the central tenet of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That sounds fair enough—if you are twelve years old, have not yet had to make any tough decisions, and do not yet know how the real world works. But an adult must ponder the parallel questions: Who determines those abilities, and what part do effort and coercion play in exercising them? Who determines what a person needs, and what part do desire and freedom of choice play in acquiring them?

I may have the strength to shovel three tons of coal during an eight-hour shift, but that doesn’t make me willing to do it. I may also have the creative imagination to invent a new kind of energy-efficient light bulb or battery, but that doesn’t mean I want to give it away without what the lawyers call “consideration.” Similarly, I may be able to sustain life on three slices of stale bread and a turnip each day, but that doesn’t mean I won’t beg, borrow, or steal for more. I may be able to survive being packed three to a room and sharing a bed with strangers, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it.

The Marxist presumption is that I do not have either freedom or rights, other than those granted to me by overseers in the name of “fairness” and “reasonableness.” It presumes that my time, my energy, the strength of my body, and the power of my mind do not belong to me but are surrendered to the control of others who act and speak for a vast, nebulous, inarticulate thing called “society.” It presumes that I do not belong to myself, that I have no authority to enter into contracts and seek my own benefit and advantage. It presumes that I am a slave—and a docile, willing one at that.

Who needs a billion dollars, or a yacht, or a thirty-round magazine? Personally, I don’t. But if that’s where you want to put your time and effort, your energy and your money, I won’t stop you. Knock yourself out, as they say. Life is short. The road is hard. And personal salvation comes in many forms.

1. I don’t know what this luxury tax did for the fur and jewelry market, but my family has always been interested in yachting, including cabin cruisers and sailboats in the 30-foot range. At something north of \$100,000, they were in the price range of a summer cabin on the lake, except you could take off and cruise the canals and waterways of the eastern United States. Most of the power boats in this country were made on the Great Lakes, and the tax just decimated that business. The really big yachts—the millionaire’s mansion on a 150-foot hull—are now made in Taiwan or the Philippines, and potential buyers will still pay for them because, in that price range, ten percent more is nothing. But the luxury tax priced the middle class out of the pleasures of boating.

2. The law says I may own a gun, a yacht, or a billion dollars. So long as I don’t use the gun to threaten and/or kill other people, or the yacht to smuggle contraband, or the billion dollars to overthrow the government—or take similar actions which only become illegal through their execution and not because of the ownership of the means—then my right of possession should be secure.
And for those of you who believe that my possession of any amount of wealth denies other people or my society of an equal amount of money, I refer you to my earlier blog It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010. Money expands by being used and contracts when hoarded.

3. Such as the Second Amendment, in the case of a gun.