Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ category

Monty Python Was A Documentary

October 31, 2014

At least — those bits of mockumentary they’d sneak into the circus (think Kray brothers) may have to be reevaluated in light of the intro to this bit of (astonishing) rock history:

Have to say — I never knew about Clapton’s secret past as a stained glass designer.  But that narrator intro is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.  “The Cream” — priceless.

Condsider this my halloween treat to you.

History Matters (and so does the environoment) — Steven Pinker/Personal Genomics dept.

January 18, 2009

Steven Pinker has made something of a splash with his account of confronting his personal genome, published in the NY Times magazine last week.  The article is interesting, though Pinker’s hint of nervousness about just how much he wants to know of himself genetically gives it a slightly odd list to port.

There was also a problem, IMHO (humble, and without professional expertise, too) with the presentation of the article.  Though Pinker was careful to undermine from time to time what he recognized as one of the fascinations of personal genomics — that “the human mind is prone to essentialism — the intuition that living things house some hidden substance that gives them their form and determines their powers” — the piece still teetered on a kind of 1980s “We’ve discovered the gene for X!” hoopla.

Much of that impression was conveyed by the photos that accompanied the print version of the article, with headshots of Pinker captioned with the trait identified within his genome.  Partly, though, it derived from Pinker’s own ambivalence, as he acknowledged the pitfalls of essentialism in a genome in which so much of the information is not devoted to protein coding, and yet wrote sentences like this:

For some conditions, like Huntington’s disease, genetic determinism is simply correct: everyone with the defective gene who lives long enough will develop the condition.

This is true, of course, and yet…the genetic signature of Huntington’s disease involves the number of repeats of a short section of the genetic code, just three bases or genetic “letters,” associated with the Huntingtin gene.  There is a number of repeats below which someone is not at risk for the disease — less than 27 copies — and a number above which disease essentially always occurs — 39 repeats and up.  In the middle, the issue is more ambiguous, and a repeat total in that range may result in late onset of the disease, or even a progression to overt symptoms that is so slow that the affected individual dies of some unrelated cause before the production of the damaging form of the Huntingtin protein actually does enough harm to notice.

What governs the number of repeats is unclear; it is not, seemingly a matter of pure  inheritance.  Masha Gessen in her excellent Blood Matters tells the story of two brothers at risk for the Huntington gene.  One develops symptoms early, gets tested, and receives confirmation that he possesses the gene with sufficient repeats to account for his relatively early onset of the disease.  The other brother, who presumably inherited the same gene from the same parent, possesses an intermediate number, and may or may not end up with symptomatic Huntington’s at some later point in his life.

What does this all mean?  That even in cases where the overwhelming effect of heritable genes is obvious, where possession of a given form of genetic information directly correlates with a particular observable trait, there are processes involved in the replication and inheritance of that information that produce variation.

I am no biologist, so I’ll defer here to John Maynard Smith, with whom I had the good fortune to have a conversation the one time we met, a few years before he died.  He emphasized what I don’t think has seeped deeply enough into the popular understanding of modern genomics.  In his phrase, (from memory), the environment for a gene begins at the chromosome.

That is, the genes that actually code for a protein do not do their work or move from generation to generation in a vacuum.  Rather they exist in a physical environment that begins with its most immediate context — the DNA that exists surrounding coding regions — and the extends outward through the structure of DNA and other organic material that makes up the chromosome; the nucleus of a cell; the cell as a whole and so on and on and on. Things happen at each level of organization and between them that can affect what happens when the rubber hits the road and a protein gets made.

All of which to say is that even though Pinker certainly did not claim that genes are destiny in any crude way, his article still falls into a tradition that I do not think has fully caught up with the richness and the complexity of modern genetics and cell and organismic biology.

That said, the other matter that made my antennae twitch in Pinker’s article came in this paragraph:

Though the 20th century saw horrific genocides inspired by Nazi pseudoscience about genetics and race, it also saw horrific genocides inspired by Marxist pseudoscience about the malleability of human nature. The real threat to humanity comes from totalizing ideologies and the denial of human rights, rather than a curiosity about nature and nurture.

I agree with the last sentence (though I’d hardly say that it covered the sum of threats to humankind), but the claim that the genocides perpetrated by Marxist regimes are an example of blank-slate ideology gone very wrong is problematical on two levels.

First, it is simply wrong.  For example Stalin’s war on the Kulaks — well-off peasants/farmers — treated Kulak resistance to collectivization as a symptom of an inherant, non-malleable quality, the class identity of the offending farmers. Similarly, Mao’s campaign against landlords (and others) immediately after the 1949 victory of the Chinese Communists, identified class and or occupation as a kind of original sin from which there could be no return.  The same basic notion underlines the horrors inflicted on class or educational level by other regimes.

Of course, in China and the Soviet Union, exterminations justified by the identification of a human stain that needed to be eradicated to open the possibility of forging a new Communist humanity had roots that have nothing to do with a real commitment to either essentialism or a blank slate view of humanity — though at different stages of the process, both ideas were invoked.  Rather they were all about power and resistance.

But at the same time, any finer grained look at what happened in the state-massacres of the 20th century does not support the simple-minded notion that as much or more harm was done to human beings through a commitment to a false perfectability of humankind as as was done through a commitment to a false notion of ineradicable genetic defects in particular groups.  Essentialism was an integral part of both Nazi and Communist murders.

And that leads to my second objection to what I see as Pinker’s false equivalence of two evils.  It isn’t just that he admits no complexity to the history; it is that the moral argument he seems to be making is itself highly suspect.

The real question Pinker avoids here isn’t whether evil comes to the world down multiple avenues.  It is whether or not evil flows from a given cause, and if so, what can be done about it.

That dictators have used many justifications to treat other human beings as things rather than moral ends in themselves does not let you — or Pinker — off the hook on the specific issue of the misapplication of genetic ideas to divide humanity into those worth keeping and those it is permissable to destroy.

It is therefore also true that the pursuit of genetic knowledge, of that part of the human condition that is genuinely in ourselves, and not in our circumstances, needs to be concerned about the moral and ethical hazards raised by the research.

Of course, the field(s) are in fact acutely aware of this, as is Pinker himself, no doubt.  But that he dredged up the old shibboleth that the Commies did it as his first response to the anticipated objection against the spectre of genetic determinsm betrays to me a kind of weariness with the argument.

I can understand that too — plenty of heat and not much light has been poured on this argument often enough.  But it is still a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand, and it’s been popping up a bit in defenses of the new genomics.  And that can’t be a good thing.

Update:  I omitted thanks due to Abel Pharmboy and Janet Stemwedel, each of whom looked over sections of the post above to help preserve me from my own ignorance.  Any errors that remain are, of course, all mine.

Image:  Giotto, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1304-306

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.

Quote for the Day: Hilary Putnam, John Dewey, Real Optimism edition

October 15, 2008

One of the great good fortunes I count in my life over the last decade or so is the friendship of  Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam.  The Putnams in their public personae are well known philosophers.  Ruth Anna is best known for her work on the American pragmatist movement, and Hilary is seen as having been one of the dominant figures in American philosophy since the 1960s.  (Check out the link above if you want to feel like maybe you ought to get something done before dinner — and note that among his many, many accomplishments, he has received credit (blame?) as one of the sources of inspiration for, inter alia, the Matrix trilogy through his brain-in-a-vat thought experiment.)

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I was reading one of Hilary’s works this week — Ethics Without Ontology — and in its introduction I came upon a quote from a philosopher that Hilary thanked Ruth Anna for compelling him to engage.  That quote, as Hilary deployed it captures for me the essentially optimistic — and brutally realistic — essence of the progressive world view.

So, as we wait for a third Presidential debate between a pragmatic progressive and a failed ends-trump-means conservative, and over the slightly longer haul, for the next twenty days or so of what is likely to be an increasingly desperate and demonizing appeal to our worst instincts on the part of that failed candidacy, I thought I’d share what that great American John Dewey had to say as Hilary Putnam deployed it.  Its mapping onto our current predicament is extraordinary:

The good can never be demonstrated to the senses, nor be proved by calculations of personal profit.  It involves a radical venture of the will in the interest of what is unseen and prudentially incalculable. But such optimism of will, such determination of the man that, so far as his choice is concerned, only the good shall be recognized as real, is very different from a sentimental refusal to look at the realities of the situation just as they are.  In fact a certain intellectual pessimism, in the sense of a steadfast willingness to uncover sore points, to acknowledge and search for abuses, to note how presumed good often serves as a cloak for actual bad, is a necessary part of the moral optimism which actively devotes itself to making the right prevail.  Any other view reduces the aspiration and hope, which are the essence of moral courage, to a cheerful animal buoyancy; and in its failure to see the evil done to others in its thoughtless pursuit of what it calls good, is next door to brutality, to a brutality bathed in the atmosphere of sentimentality and flourishing the catchwords of idealism. (Ethics, 1908 edition, p. 351.)

As Putnam then glosses this quote:  “Dewey was not someone with a blind faith in progress; he was, rather, a strategic optimist; and strategic optimism is something we badly need at the present time.  (Italics in the original).

To which I say:  Amen and amen.

Image:  US Postage Stamp, issued 21 October 1968.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.