September 25, 2010

The Hippopotamus

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim,
I wonder how we look to him.

Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
We really look all right to us,
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami. --Ogden Nash

September 24, 2010

Darwin on the left

I've been meandering lately though some musings on the relationship between human evolution and social life. Some recent posts have looked at how Darwin's ideas were received and celebrated on the political right. A look at how Darwin was received on the left seems to be in order now.

One lefty contemporary of Darwin's who eagerly received his ideas was none other than Karl Marx, who saw some similarities between the former's ideas his own materialist theory of history. He wrote in a letter to another radical leader that

Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a natural-scientific basis for the class struggle in history.

Marx was also amused to find that Darwin projected the workings of capitalism onto nature:

It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening-up of new markets, 'inventions,' and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence.'

(Marx had snarky things to say about everybody.)

It seems, though, that Marx believed that once people became human, social relations of labor and interaction (including especially economic relations) were the decisive factor. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," he wrote that

the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.

His sidekick Friedrich Engels followed suit in viewing humans as uniquely developing through conscious production, which he believed "makes impossible any immediate transference of the laws of life in animal societies to human ones."

This basic denial of human nature was to become a dogma of the communist movement, with disastrous consequences.

RIGHT WING BACKLASH? This writer doesn't think so.

"THE WAR ON ARITHMETIC." Paul Krugman was not impressed with the "Pledge to America."

SIX MONTHS DOWN. Here's a look at what health care reform means, with a special focus on primary care. And here's is coverage of a press conference on the same from the Gazette and WV Public Radio.

A NOD TO THE BOSS. This book excerpt celebrates Bruce Springsteen.


September 23, 2010

Survival of the what-est?

Herbert Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." He doesn't look all that fit to me.

It is a great irony of contemporary politics that social Darwinism is alive and well amongst political conservatives who believe in a literal six day creation.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Darwin's ideas--or what people thought were Darwin's ideas--were first seized upon by people on the political right. Such people were quick to draw public policy conclusions from the "survival of the fittest."

As the idea was popularly conceived, evolution worked for the good of all--or at least all the survivors--by weeding out the weak. Therefore, any aid to people who were poor or otherwise disadvantaged was counter-evolutionary.

What is missing from this picture is the fact that one thing that has enabled humans to survive and thrive is our tendency to care for the sick and weak. After all, every human is born pretty helpless and stays that way for several years. Women in or near childbirth are pretty much out of the game and anyone at any time may become sick or injured and require the help of others.

There is even some interesting archaeological evidence along this line from our human ancestors. A severely deformed skull of someone at least five years of age was found dating back to around 530,000 years ago. This finding suggests that early humans at least some of the time cared for the disabled members of their group despite deformities.

This suggests that at least some early or pre-humans knew some things that some modern humans have forgotten.

SPEAKING OF EVOLUTION AGAIN, one researcher thinks our Neanderthal cousins were smarter than generally thought.

MILESTONE. Today marks six months since the passage of health care reform. Some key changes kick in today.

UNEMPLOYMENT. West Virginia's unemployment insurance system could avoid going broke by making key reforms.

TALKING REDNECK. Here's an excerpt from Joe Bageant's new book about the white underclass.

REALLY NOT WANTING TO TALK. Massey Energy officials have filed suit to keep from being interviewed in the Upper Big Branch disaster investigation.


September 22, 2010

A law of nature

Charles Darwin's ideas of evolution by means of natural selection were first taken up (with many misunderstandings) by those on the political right. Part of the reason for this was that early expositions of Darwinism emphasized competition. It would take a while for evolutionary biologists to look at the other side of the equation by investigating cooperation and altruism.

More to the point, in the Gilded Age, robber barons and financial aristocrats found in them a great rationalization for their own wealth and power.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote that while capitalist competition may harm some individuals, "it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department."

(That phrase "survival of the fittest," by the way, has its origin in the writings of British philosopher Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin himself.)

In a similar vein, John D. Rockefeller Jr. wrote that

The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest...This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working our of a law of nature and a law of God.

As the Church Lady would say on the old Saturday Night Live, "Isn't that convenient?"

SPEAKING OF EVOLUTION, this article suggests that our relationships with animals helped make us human.

FORECLOSURES. Here's Dean Baker and what the government could do about the foreclosure crisis but isn't (so far).

FUN LIST. From The Nation, here's a list of the 50 most influential progressive leaders of the 20th century.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB ON STEROIDS. A spider in Madagascar weaves the world's biggest webs with the toughest natural material yet discovered.


September 21, 2010

"This is mine"

I've been blogging off and on lately about the connections between evolution and our social and political life. It seems that recent research has pretty much busted the bubble of those who thought that people are blank slates on which society writes whatever it will.

If that idea was true, then it might follow that all our nasty traits are due to the corrupting influence of society and could be removed given a different environment. If, on the other hand, we carry a lot of evolutionary baggage from our pre-human ancestors, this might not be so easily done.

In a classic passage, the 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau finds the source of human corruption in the primal sin of private property:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.'

Rousseau and others in this tradition believed that with a reorganized society, we might be free of this corruption and spare ourselves any number or crimes, wars and murders.

It can't be denied that greed for private wealth has caused all kinds of carnage. And it shouldn't be forgotten that people like Rousseau played an important role in opposing arbitrary tyranny and absolutism and making real social gains. But the utopian vision has run aground these days, and part of the problem might be the raw materials with which the reformer has to work.

DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS. Republicans plan to kill or weaken health care reform bit by bit if victorious in November.

HAIR OF THE DOG. This sampling from a new book looks at how right wing "philanthropy" helped pave the way for the Great Recession.

COLD COMFORT. Speaking of the Great Recession, the National Bureau of Economic Research said it officially ended in June 2009. Just not so's anyone could tell.

STEPPING UP. In this op-ed, a wealthy entrepreneur argues for ending Bush era tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

INDULGE ME. Longtime readers of Goat Rope will remember El Cabrero's fondness for the martial arts. Here's an interesting item from the Washington Post about how China's newly wealthy are hiring martial arts experts as bodyguards.

SOME BIRD. Imagine one with teeth and a 17 foot wingspan.


September 20, 2010

Best. Sign. Ever.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the words on this picture should be worth a good deal more. We ran across this sign whilst taking the back way to the farm on a hay run. We did not see the deaf dog or a whole lot of butterflies, but the sign was enough.

There's no way I can top content with commentary, so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

"SACRIFICE IS FOR THE LITTLE PEOPLE." Paul Krugman discusses the rage of the rich here.

ONE TO WATCH. Dust samples from Massey's Upper Big Branch mine failed to meet standards.

HEALTH CARE AND WHACKADOODLEISM are addressed in this op-ed by yours truly.

THIS IS WHAT I'M SCREAMING. This AP article discusses how WV could bolster its unemployment insurance fund by modernizing the system.

MEANS AND ENDS are among the themes of the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, we actually have a few figs from the trees at Goat Rope Farm. The trees are pretty small, however, and it would be hard to sit under them and write.


September 19, 2010

Crickets, crows and retrospects

"September's Baccalaureate
A combination is Of Crickets -- Crows -- and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze
That hints without assuming --
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher."--Emily Dickinson