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Why Mueller cannot save us

December 4, 2017

Let’s begin with this. Deporting the million undocumented residents who were raised here from childhood, to nations they mostly don’t know, will be an enormity more cruel and with less excuse than the internment of Japanese during WW II. The political movement demanding that, driven by nativism and resentment and fundamentalist religion, quite rightly is categorized with fascist movements past.

Trump did not create or build that movement. He is just the conman and reality TV star who knew how to ride it to power. He came closest to losing its support when he suggested he might be open to something that would treat DACA recipients decently. Mainstream politicians are pursuing that. It will be interesting to see how Trump responds when his base again rages against it. Their objection to DACA never was a matter of legal niceties. It always was rank nativism. They will turn on Trump again, if he actually gets close to signing a bill that allows the Dreamers to remain and to go to school and to work and eventually to become citizens.

So long as he aligns himself with their rage, they don’t care if he tweets lies every day, enriches his family from his political office, sacrifices ordinary people and the environment as favors to special interests, appoints corrupt officials, bollixes our alliances. and commits impeachable offenses. They enjoy all that, because it irritates the hated liberals and establishment. Trump’s best protection from impeachment is to keep his base angry and on his side. If it comes to that, pardoning his family from felonies or firing Mueller both would please them. It was too late for the usual norms to work the day Trump became president.

The current crisis is larger than Trump. When he is gone, more likely from stroke than impeachment, the movement that he currently gives voice will remain. They are driven by pundits from Coulter and Ingraham to Hannity and Jones. If Trump is removed by impeachment while still siding with them, it will add fuel to their rage. If he loses them, they will search for their next leader. And they eagerly would forward someone more competent and more ruthless than Trump.

Thousands of civic officials now are working their way through the new circumstance of trying to do their job while the president treats them as the enemy. The FBI is but one example. Mueller has to follow his charter and expose crimes related to it. Some of those may have been committed by Trump’s inner circle. Or not. Though reams of ink are spilled doing so, I think it is futile to second-guess such investigations. Either way, I suspect it will have less political importance than many hope.


One up, one down

December 1, 2017

The current moment of awareness around sexual harrassment and rape is long overdue. I am, unsurprisingly but also disappointingly, hearing and reading comments that push back against that, complaining that men are being asked to do something unnatural or that there is too much concern over a pretend problem or some such nonsense. The issue is quite simple: treating people with respect. Tyler Zimmer gets it just about right. Alas, culture does not turn on a dime, and the current moment is but one step along the better path.

Trump’s tweet of far-right propaganda from the UK is embarrassing. His response to Theresa May even more so.

The thigh bone is connected to…

November 29, 2017

The brain? And specifically, the hippocampus?

In rats, a hormone produced in the bones improves hippocampal-dependent memory.  (Cite.)

A bit interesting. Keep in mind previous news that strength training in people lessens cognitive decline. We don’t know why. Strength training affects bones as well as muscle.


November 28, 2017

The notion of a biological species is more subtle than it first appears. A naive math student might try to define it as the maximal subgraph of individuals related by breeding with each other. That definition fails the moment one realizes most populations are so large and the number of mating attempts so few in relation that such graphs are sparse and not fully connected. Another bad attempt would try to pin the notion to which individuals could breed. The problem there isn’t just in the fuzzy semantics of “could,” but also in the fact that there are many distinct species that sometimes interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Not enough that their descendant lines merge, but enough that we know interbreeding is possible. Tigers and lions are one example. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis are a historical example.

Ultimately, the notion of a species has to do with descent. Humans share a common ancestral species because we each can claim broad common ancestry from the same population a few thousand generations back. Looking forward instead of backward in time, it’s a bit more difficult to know that we still are a single species, rather than having split into more. If all our descendants in a few thousand generations can say the same, then we still are one. But we cannot know that with certainty, now, as it depends on future events. There may be some political movement or religious sect, already existing, who will use soon coming genetic technology to modify their future children so that they are fertile only within the group. Given that every human is born with about a 100 mutations, more from their father than their mother (click on graph left), that group’s descendants over the generations would become less and less similar to the descendants of the rest of us.

That divergence is an inevitable result of the fact that the two populations no longer have a free flow of genes between the them. The genetic distance between two such separated populations can be calculated, given the rate of mutation and the number of generations that have passed apart. (Or mostly apart. We are not neanderthals, even if we carry some of their genes still.) Conversely, the number of generations apart can be derived from genetic distance measured between two species.

Of course, my science-fiction scenario above would be a novel kind of speciation event. Biologists looking at what causes a single lineage to split more focus on geographic divides and allopatric speciation. But there are singular chance events that create new species. A single mutation created the chestnut-throated flycatcher’s different plumage that separates it from its ancestral species. (Photo top.) The fact that subsequent generations don’t interbreed makes them separate. Hybridization created the Italian sparrow. And also the latest Galapagos finch, as much reported in science outlets, from the paper in Science. The new Galapagos finch won’t breed with its maternal species due to difference in size and song. Though not the first time we have observed speciation, it is rather neat that scientists observed the stray individual who fathered the hybrid species, as well as his hybrid offspring, before anyone realized they would make headway as their own separate species.

Many people who don’t know biology misunderstand what speciation is. They are looking for something magical that makes generation n+1 substantially different from generation n. Which is something that no biologist expects. Speciation itself is just the reproductive divide between two populations going forward. As such, there is always some amount of uncertainty at the point it happens, about the “going forward.” The speciation events above are exactly what we should expect in looking for that. The differentiation between divergent species then comes generation after generation as an inevitable result of mutation and separation.

Trump, libertarians, and squishes

November 27, 2017

Trump is on the path to becoming one of the most authoritarian presidents in US history. His AG quickly moved away from community policing, and reinstated asset forfeiture and automatic sentencing. Trump is encouraging the militarization of police departments. He has upended the lives of a million DACA recipients, and is holding them hostage for the passage of draconian immigration law. He is returning to the use of private prisons, and expanding their use for non-citizens. He promises to bring back Bush’s torture program. (But fortunately may be stymied in that.) As posted earlier, he is eager to make the Justice Department a tool of his personal enforcement. And he is booting out refugees.

None of that is surprising. Trump ran on authoritarian rhetoric. Which raises the question: How the hell does anyone who views themself as somewhat libertarian support the right wing and Trump? Thomas Massie provides one hypothesis:

I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.

Whatever its prima facie plausibility, the problem with that explanation is that an undefined craziness isn’t much of an explanation at all. Another explanation is this: While there might be a slice of the right wing who take libertarian rhetoric seriously, for many it serves as a justificatory cover for more practical interest in cutting taxes, removing business regulation, and supporting the privatization of public functions, such as Whitefish’s pricey management of disaster recovery. They want government out of their way when it costs them money, and working with them when it makes them money. They claim that pretty word “liberty,” even while ignoring or taking the authoritarian side of political questions where personal liberty really is at stake, such as DACA, gay marriage, women’s rights, and allowing government the power to torture. They easily partner with social conservatives and worse.

Then there are the worse, those who eagerly want that authoritarianism. As Frank Rich recounts, Trumpism is a quite authentic expression of the American right, a stream that had found its voice earlier in Father Coughlin and George Wallace. Ditch the libertarian and classical liberal rhetoric, which always was more convenience than motive for most, and embrace nationalism, nativism, and the will to power. Adam Serwer has a good essay on how Trump perfectly fits that movement, ever quick to deny what he said or did just seconds previous:

What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs — combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked. .. Most Trump supporters I spoke with were not people who thought of themselves as racist. Rather, they saw themselves as antiracist, as people who held no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities whatsoever — a sentiment they projected onto their candidate.

Note how Trump can tout an alt-right website without it tainting him in the eyes of his supporters. Serwer points out the data that shows how much they are driven by resentment:

Trump’s support among whites decreases the higher you go up on the scales of income and education. But the controlling factor seems to be not economic distress but an inclination to see nonwhites as the cause of economic problems. The poorest voters were somewhat less likely to vote for Trump than those a rung or two above them on the economic ladder. The highest-income voters actually supported Trump less than they did Mitt Romney, who in 2012 won 54 percent of voters making more than $100,000—several points more than Trump secured, although he still fared better than Clinton. It was among voters in the middle, those whose economic circumstances were precarious but not bleak, where the benefits of Du Bois’s psychic wage appeared most in danger of being devalued, and where Trump’s message resonated most strongly. They surged toward the Republican column. Yet when social scientists control for white voters’ racial attitudes — that is, whether those voters hold “racially resentful” views about blacks and immigrants — even the educational divide disappears. In other words, the relevant factor in support for Trump among white voters was not education, or even income, but the ideological frame with which they understood their challenges and misfortunes.

And what of the Burken conservatives? The conservatives who view themselves as part of a stream running from classical liberalism? Conservatives who took seriously all that rhetoric from FEE and National Review and American Conservative? They were fooling themselves. Squishes, never loved, no longer needed. For a while, they provided a somewhat sane face for the uglier part of the right, a part that never had before won national power. Now it has, and it will be quick to marginalize those who thought the right meant something else. That chameleon act fooled even historians, such as Rick Perlstein.

Update: Matthew Iglesias says of one squish down for the count that “Woke Bill Kristol is the most surreal 2017 trend.”

The first Pilgrims

November 22, 2017

The first protestants to establish a colony in what later became the US did not go to New England. They were Huguenots, French Calvanists, who settled just south of where St. Augustine now is, in 1564. That colony is little known, because the Spanish Admiral Pedro de Menéndez (portrait left) destroyed it in 1565. After taking the colony, surviving women and children were spared, to be shipped to Puerto Rico. The men were hung. Menéndez also slaughtered a nearby group recently arrvied from France. He reported to King Philip:

I had their hands tied behind them and had them stabbed to death, leaving only six­teen, twelve being great big men, mariners whom they had stolen, the other four master carpenters and caulkers — people for whom we have much need, and it seemed to me to punish them in this manner would be serving God, our Lord, and Your Majesty. Here­after they will leave us free to plant the Gospel, enlighten the na­tives, and bring them to obedience and submission to Your Maj­esty.

Of course, Protestants at the time were no more civil. Most students today don’t learn enough about the religious wars that ravaged Europe for centuries. The English pilgrims who arrived in New England a half century after those ill-fated Huguenots did not come seeking religious liberty. That is a political notion they would have found strange. They came to establish a colony for their particular religion. They hung witches and banished heretics. A bloody time all around.

Roger Williams, who was banished for heresy and sedition, made an early move to separate church and state in his new settlement. The pilgrims who banished him likely viewed early Providence the way most evangelicals today would a hippie commune. Fortunately, it was that view of separation that Jefferson and Madison would work so hard to institute a century later. So when you give thanks this Thursday, be glad that the framers of our Constitution were men of the Englightenment who wanted to keep those religious wars in the past, and who ushered in our entirely secular law.

Science, sex, and reproduction

November 21, 2017

Paul Goldstein, a photographer and professional guide, caught a pair of male lions having sex in the wilds of Kenya. To a naturalist, that is an interesting and not much surprising tidbit. The reactions of human moralists are sad and no more surprising. Ezekiel Mutua, an official censor in Kenya, worries “The demonic spirits inflicting in humans seems to have now caught up with animals. .. The very idea of sex even among animals is for procreation. Two male lions cannot procreate and therefore we will lose the lion species.”

The Daily Mail, infamous for its bad science reporting, gets the basics wrong: “According to Darwin, the sexual impulses of animals are designed to cause reproduction, and are therefore necessarily heterosexual.”

Blech. 1) According to Darwin, biological characteristics are not designed. And to the extent that characteristics are adapted, they all have been because they serve eventual reproduction. 2) Biological drives and abilities often get put to multiple uses. Dogs’ mouths did not evolve to catch frisbees, which are less than seventy years old, but do a fine job of it anyway. 3) Neither lions nor people are going to go extinct because they practice varieties of sex that aren’t reproductive. On the positive side, the article does explain that homosexuality is observed throughout the animal kingdom, and interviews, Petter Bockman, an actual zoologist. I wish they had given his words more space. I like what he says when he ponders homosexuality in birds: “Birds are really complicated. What goes on in birds’ brains is anyone’s guess.”

Dr. Jen Gunter explains why contraception is important to health, taking to task a rather absurd article in The Federalist.