an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘debate

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

leave a comment »

Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.

 

A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

Our recent power outage – how to prevent a recurrence. part 1 – preliminary remarks

leave a comment »

transmission-towers

Canto: So we’re tasked with solving the problem or problems in SA’s energy system.

Jacinta: We are? What problem? Or should I say crisis, what crisis?

Canto: That’s a good question Jass, because as you know the first step in finding a solution is to define the problem.

Jacinta: Yes I knew that. So we’re talking about how all the power died for a period of – what, 24 hours or so, statewide here in South Africa.

Canto: South Australia, don’t confuse our international readers. So I’ve heard the crisis framed in a number of different ways. First, in terms of the SA government’s irresponsible, unrealistic go-it-alone pursuit of risky renewable energy. Second, in the more or less opposite terms of other states’ and especially the federal govt’s foot-dragging and negative approach to said energy, leaving SA unsupported. Third, in terms of privatisation – a number of electrical pylons fell down like ninepins in the outback, because, it’s claimed, the private owners are pursuing profits over infrastructure maintenance. And a fourth and most comprehensive framing invokes climate change itself – SA was subjected to an unprecedented weather event likely caused by the emissions our gallant state government is trying to reduce..

Jacinta: And our little Torrens River has been torrenting like the mighty Amazon.

Canto: Yeah right. So with all these and more framings of the problem, it looks like we’ll have to spend a few posts on this issue.

Jacinta: Or a lifetime. But yes let’s try to be thorough. And positive. I thought we might start with the 9-point plan for solutions to complex problems which we found in the enlightening book The origin of feces by Stuart Waltner-Toews, and which was presented in simplified form on the Solutions OK blog.

1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?

2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?

3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?

4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?

5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?

6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?

7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?

8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?

9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.

Canto: Yeah, that’s pretty comprehensive all right, maybe too comprehensive.

Jacinta: No I think it’s a good basis. Take point 1. What’s the problem? That’s easy. The problem is that SA had all its power cut for the best part of a day, and although many are saying this was a one-off, freak event, many others are saying it could happen again and that SA’s the most vulnerable state, it wouldn’t have happened to any other state.

Canto: Though I think our Premier said the exact opposite, it could’ve happened anywhere. Lots of conflicting narratives and opinions. So let’s get started.

Jacinta: Well let me first say that, whatever the cause, we are experiencing extreme weather here for October – rainy and stormy conditions which have certainly never been experienced here in a good long lifetime. And right now we’re got rain and strong wind conditions. There’s been little let-up for some time.

Canto: Interesting – we’re only a few days into October, but the average rainfall for September in Adelaide, since records have been kept, is about 58 millimetres. This year it was over 130 millimetres. October, though, might be the most interesting month for records. Certainly I can’t recall anything like this, and we have flooding in many parts of the state.

Jacinta: So we have extreme weather conditions, and the direct cause of the outage, according to our Premier, was freak weather conditions north of Adelaide, including two tornados which knocked over transmission towers near Melrose. More than 20 transmission lines were damaged. The question being asked, of course, is how could these storms knock out the power for a whole vast state for a long period? What were the back-up arrangements?

Canto: Well the back-up apparently relies on two interconnectors to the east coast. Presumably there must be some arrangement so that when local power isn’t forthcoming, the interconnectors receive a signal to transmit. However, only one was operational at the time of the outage. Now I don’t really understand this interconnector thing and how they work. I’m not clear on why one interconnector was shut down and why the other one didn’t just do the job. Is it just a matter of ‘firing up’ an interconnector and a whole state’s lights come back on? How simple or complex is it?

Jacinta: And what, if anything, has this got to do with renewable energy and the shutting down of the coal power station in Port Augusta?

Canto: We might get to that later. I haven’t been able to find exactly how interconnectors work, and nothing much at all on interconnectors in Australia, but currently in the UK there are four interconnectors, linked to France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of which the France one is largest, with 2GW capacity. It would be interesting to know the capacity of the two interconnectors linking us to the east, and whether that has any relevance. Anyway, these interconnectors are spruiked as providers of energy security and flexibility, so the more interconnectors the better. Maybe there’s a case for having a third interconnector, so that we’re never, or rarely reduced to having just one to rely on.

Jacinta: So why did we have no power? Why didn’t the interconnector provide it for so long? Or was it the interconnector that provided it, or was it the local system?

Canto: Well there was certainly local work going on from the start, as soon as conditions allowed, to fix local faults, but I can’t find too much info on the role of the interconnector. However, word has just come out that there’ll be a state inquiry into South Australia’s unique situation, so maybe there’s no point in us continuing this conversation.

Jacinta: Wait up, I think it might be fun speculating on and researching the matter, and then comparing our findings with the inquiry.

Canto: Which’ll come out in, what, five years?

Jacinta: An unnecessarily jaded remark. So let’s get stuck into some research, and look for solutions, always keeping in mind that 9-point plan.

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

beyond feminism – towards a female supremacist society

leave a comment »

image

Canto: I’ves decided to declare myself as a female supremacist.

Jacinta: Really? I thought you had nothing to declare but your genius. So you’ve come out at last?

Canto: Well it’s not as if I’ve been stifled in the closet for years. I’ve rarely thought about it before. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but recently we’ve been looking at female-male differences, and it’s been making me feel we need more than just equality between the sexes.

Jacinta: You’ve got a hankering for that bonobo world, haven’t you? Females ganging up on you and soothing your aggressive macho emotions with a bit of sexual fourplay.

Canto: Well, yes and no. I first learned about bonobo society almost twenty years ago, and of course it excited me as a model, but then the complexity of human societies with all their cultural overlays made me feel I was naive to imagine a non-human society, without even its own language, could teach us how to improve our own. And the sex stuff in particular – well, that really got me in, but then it seemed too good to hope for. Too much self-serving wishful thinking, to model our society on a bunch of oversexed, indolent banana-eaters.

Jacinta: Do they have bananas in the Congo?

Canto: Absolutely. They have a town there on the Congo River, called Banana.

Jacinta: Oh wow, sounds like heaven. I love bananas. Let’s go there.

Canto: Anyway, now I’m thinking that a female-supremacist society is what we need today, though not necessarily based on bonobos….

Jacinta: That’s disappointing. I think it should be based on bonobos. Bonobos with language and technology and sophisticated theories about life, the universe and everything. Why not?

Canto: Well then they wouldn’t be bonobos. But do you want to hear my reasons for promoting female supremacy?

Jacinta: I probably know them already. Look at the male supremacist societies and cultures in the world – in Africa, in India, in the Middle East. They’re the most violent and brutish societies. We can’t compare them to female supremacist societies because there aren’t any, but we can look at societies where discrimination against women is least rampant, and those are today’s most advanced societies. It might follow that they’ll become even more enlightened and advanced if the percentage of female leaders, in business, politics and science, rises from whatever it is today – say 10% – to, say 90%.

Canto: Yes, well you’re pretty much on the money. It’s not just broader societies, it’s workplaces, it’s schools, it’s corporations. The more women are involved, especially in leadership roles, the more collaborative these places become. Of course I don’t deny female violence, in schools and at home, against children and partners and in many other situations, but on average in every society and every situation women are less violent and aggressive than men. In fact, all the evidence points to a female-supremacist society being an obvious solution for a future that needs to be more co-operative and nurturing.

Jacinta: So how are you going to bring about the female-supremacist revolution?

Canto: Not revolution, that’s just macho wankery. I’m talking about social evolution, and it’s already happening, though of course I’d like to see it speeded up. We’ll look at how things are changing and what we can hope for in some later posts. But the signs are good. The feminisation of our societies must continue, on a global level!

Written by stewart henderson

September 22, 2016 at 12:06 am

ten negatory claims about same-sex marriage

with one comment

bd5496a07bfad40db17c779335cfafb8

percentages of those favouring same-sex marriage (in the US) over twenty-odd years – one of the fastest changes in public opinion in human history

What are the arguments against same-sex marriage? That’s a question I’m asking myself as I hear that conservatives want public money to run a campaign against it if Australia holds a plebiscite – which I’m not particularly in favour of, but at least it makes me reconsider the ‘no’ arguments. Presumably they’d be along the same lines as those of the TFP (tradition, family, property) organisation of the USA, but Australia as a nation is less religiously fixated than the USA, so the weak arguments found on the TFP website would seem even weaker to people over here. But let’s run through their 10 arguments just for fun. You can read them in full on the website if you’ve nothing better to do.

1. It is not marriage.

The claim here is that you can’t just redefine marriage to suit changing situations. ‘Marriage has always been x’, (x usually being identified as a ‘covenant between a man, a woman and god’ or some such thing). The response is, we can and always have done. Marriage is a human invention, and like all inventions we can modify it to suit our needs. A table is a human invention, and it can be a chess table, a bedside table, a coffee table, a dining table or a conference table, and none of these uses threatens the meaning of the word ‘table’. Marriage is ours to define and use as we wish, and historically we’ve done just that, with polygynous marriages, which have been commonplace, polyandrous marriages (much rarer) and other more or less formal arrangements, such as handfasting and morganatic and common-law marriages. Of course, marriage has rarely been recognised between individuals of the same sex, though same-sex unions, some of them highly ritualised and contractualised, have had a long history. But the reason for this is obvious – throughout history, homosexuals have been tortured and executed for their feelings and practices. The history of exclusive male-female marriage coincides with the history of homosexual persecution. The two histories are not unrelated, they’re completely entwined.

2. It violates natural law.

WTF is natural law, you might ask. A TFP fiction apparently. Their website says: Being rooted in human nature, it [natural law] is universal and immutable. But human nature is neither of these things. It’s diverse and evolving, socially as well as genetically. Marriage and child-rearing arrangements vary massively around the globe, with varying results, but it seems clear from voluminous research that children benefit most from close bonding with one or two significant others, together with a wider circle of potential carers and mentors. It’s notable that when this organisation lays down the ‘law’ on matters of marriage, sexuality and families it cites no scientific research of any kind – its only quotes are from the Bible.

3. It always denies children either a father and a mother.

Leaving aside the fact that there are often no children involved, this argument relies on the assumption that a father and a mother are indispensable to the proper rearing of children. Research reported on in Science Daily found that ‘children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well’.  Melvin Konner in his 2015 book Women after all puts it this way: ‘One of the most impressive discoveries of the last decade in child development research is that when babies of either sex are adopted by lesbian or gay couples – and this has been studied very extensively and carefully – the main way the resulting children differ from controls raised with a father and mother is that they turn out to be less homophobic.’ Of course, this is exactly what organisations like TFP are afraid of, as promotion of homophobia is what they’re all about.

4. It Validates and Promotes the Homosexual Lifestyle

And that’s precisely what it aims to do. Of course TFP argues, or rather states without argument, that this would ‘weaken public morality’. Humanists would argue precisely the opposite, that such validation is long overdue, and would strengthen a morality based on the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of diverse individuals.

5. It Turns a Moral Wrong into a Civil Right

In its discussion of this reason to oppose same-sex marriage, TFP again refers to its bogus ‘natural law’. Same-sex marriage (always in inverted commas on its website ) is opposed to nature, according to TFP. Again this is stated rather than argued, but as I’ve often pointed out, bonobos, our closest living relatives, engage in homosexual acts on a regular basis. Of course, they don’t marry, because marriage isn’t natural, it’s a human construction, and mostly a quite usefiul one, though not necessary for child-rearing, or for permanent monogamous relationships. Further to this, researchers have observed homosexual acts in between 500 and 1500 non-human species, so it seems to be natural enough.

6. It Does Not Create a Family but a Naturally Sterile Union

Again TFP makes ad nauseum use of the word ‘nature’ to give credit to its views. But the fact that same-sex couples can’t have offspring without outside help isn’t a reason to debar them from a union that serves multiple purposes. Moreover, it’s quite reasonable for homosexual males or females to feel that they would make good parents, and to yearn to be parents, and there is no reason why this should yearning should be opposed, if the opportunity to parent a child arises. Adopted children are often brought up in loving and happy environments, and succeed accordingly.

7. It Defeats the State’s Purpose of Benefiting Marriage. 

It’s hardly for the TFP or any other organisation to tell us what the State’s purpose is regarding marriage. Most advanced states provide benefits for children, regardless of the marital status of the mother. This is very important, considering the large number of single-parent (mostly female) families we have today. The state also doesn’t distinguish between marriage and de facto relationships when it dispenses benefits. The TFP is obviously out of date on this one.

8. It Imposes Its Acceptance on All Society

States are legalising same-sex marriage around the western world under public pressure. Here in Australia, where same-sex marriage hasn’t yet been legalised, polls have indicated that same-sex marriage is clearly acceptable to the majority. Where it is up to courts to decide, as occurred recently in the USA, the process is too complex to cover here, but it’s clear that the public’s attitude to same-sex marriage in every advanced or developed nation has undergone a seismic shift in a relatively short period – the last ten years or so.

9. It Is the Cutting Edge of the Sexual Revolution

Vive la révolution. Of course, TFP presents the slippery slope argument – paedophilia, bestiality and the like – so hurtful and offensive to the LGBT community. Again, there’s never any presentation of evidence or research, every proposition is presented as self-evident. It’s a profoundly anti-intellectual document.

10. It Offends God

This is, of course, presented as the main argument. Biblical quotes are given, including one in which their god’s mass immolation of ‘sodomites’ is celebrated. I don’t really see much point in questioning the supposedly offended feelings of a supposedly all-perfect, all-powerful invisible undetectable being. It’s all a fairly nasty fantasy.

There’s nothing more to say, and as an intellectual exercise this was probably a waste of time, as people who believe the above guff aren’t listening much. Any critical responses to their 10 propositions on the TFP website will be promptly deleted. There’s definitely no fun to be had with these guys. Their absolute certainty, and their inability and unwillingness to argue cogently or to examine evidence is a very disturbing sign, and a clear indication that they’re fuelled entirely by emotion. A passionate fear of change and difference. It all tends to reinforce the arguments against holding a plebiscite, in which, in Australia, people of this sort would actually be funded to give voice to their certainties with all the indignation of righteousness. They would be ruthless about their targets, and being patriarchal  – because preserving extreme patriarchy is what this is all about at base – they would be violent in their language and tactics. The best way to muzzle them would be to resolve this in parliament as soon as possible.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm

the greatest country on Earth?

leave a comment »

let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

why are our brains shrinking?

leave a comment »

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

Jacinta: So you know that the average human brain mass, or is it volume, has reduced by  – is it 15%, I can’t remember – over the past 20,000 years or so, right? And there’s this theory that it’s somehow related to domestication, because the same thing has happened to domesticated animals…

Canto: How so..?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know how so, we just know it’s happened.

Canto: How do we know this? Who says?

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard about it from a few sources but most recently from Bruce Hood, the well-known psychologist and skeptic who was talking on the SGU about a recent book of his, The Domesticated Brain. 

Canto: So the idea is that humans have somehow domesticated themselves, in the same way that they’ve domesticated other species, with a corresponding decrease in brain mass in all these species, which signifies – what?

Jacinta: Well it raises questions, dunnit? What’s going on?

Canto: It doesn’t signify dumbing down though – I read in Pinker’s big book about our better angels that our average IQ is rising in quite regular and exemplary fashion.

Jacinta: Yes, the Flynn effect. Though of course what IQ measures has always been controversial. And they do reckon size isn’t the main thing. I mean look at all those small critters that display so many smarts. For example, rats, octopuses and corvids (that’s to say crows, ravens and some magpies). They all seem to be fast learners, within their limited spheres, and very adaptable. But getting back to the human brain, it seems to be something known mainly to palaeontologists, who have a variety of theories about it, including the ‘we’re getting dumber’ theory, but I’m not convinced by that one. It seems more likely that our brains are getting more organised, requiring less mass.

Canto: So this has happened only in the last 20,000 years?

Jacinta: Or perhaps even less – between 10 and 20 thousand.

Canto: Isn’t that a phenomenally short time for such a substantial change?

Jacinta: I really don’t know. They say it might be partly related to a decrease in overall body size, so that the brain to body ratio remains much the same.

Canto: A decrease in body size? What about the obesity epidemic? And I remember way back when I was a kid reading about how we’d been getting taller with each generation since the Great Depression – or was it the Industrial Revolution? Anyway our improved diet, our era of relative abundance, has led to a change in height, and presumably in mass, in only a few generations.

Jacinta: So now you’re saying that substantial changes can occur in a few generations, let alone 10,000 years?

Canto: Uhhh, yeah, okay, but I wasn’t talking about brain size.

Jacinta: Well why not brain size? Anyway, although there have been those recent changes, at least in the west, the story goes that the planet has warmed since the last ice age, favouring less bulky bodies, less fat storage, more gracile frames.

Canto: So what about domestication, why has this led to decreased brain sizes?

Jacinta: Well this is very complex of course…

Canto: I can think of a reason, though it might not be called domestication, more like socialisation, and outsourcing. You can see it in very recent times, with smart phones – it’s even become an already-stale joke, you know phones are getting smarter so we’re getting dumber. But then we always tend to exaggerate the short-term and the present against the longer view. And yet…. I was on the tram the other night, sitting across from this couple, locked into their phone screens, I mean really locked in, earplugs attached, heads bent, utterly fixated on their little screens, completely oblivious, of each other as well as of the outside world. I was reading a book myself, but I became distracted by my irritation with these characters, while wondering why I should be irritated. It just went on so long, this locked-in state. I leaned forward. I waved my hand in front of their bowed heads. I wanted to tell them that the tram had rattled past all the stations and was heading out to sea…

Jacinta: There are some problems with the whole argument. How do we know that domesticated animals have smaller brains? Domesticated cats have a wide range of brain sizes no doubt, but what wild cats are you comparing them with? Even more so with dogs and their immense varieties. Okay they’re descended from wolves so you compare a wolf brain with its modern doggy-wolfy counterpart, but who’s going to agree on type specimens?

Canto: So you brought the subject up just to dismiss it as a load of rubbish?

Jacinta: Well if we shelve the domestication hypothesis for the moment – I’m not dismissing it entirely – we might consider other reasons why human brains are shrinking – if they are.

Canto: So you’re not convinced that they are?

Jacinta: Well let’s be sceptical until we find some solid evidence. In this Scientific American site, from November 2014, palaeontologist Chris Stringer states that ‘skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent’ suggests – only suggests – that our brains have become smaller in the past 10 to 20 thousand years. No references are given, but the article assumes this is a fact. This piece from Discovery channel or something, which dates back to 2010, relies in part on the work of another palaeontologist, John Hawks, whose website we link to here. Hawks also talks about a bucketload of evidence, but again no references. The original research papers would likely be behind a paywall anyway, and barely intelligible to my dilettante brain….

Canto: Your diminishing brain.

Jacinta: Okay I’m prepared to believe Hawks about our incredible shrinking brains, but is domestication the cause, and what exactly is domestication anyway? Hawks doesn’t go with the domestication hypothesis. In fact the Discovery article usefully covers a number of alternative hypotheses, and of course the shrinking may be due to a combo. In fact that’s more than likely.

Canto: So what’s Hawks’ hypothesis, since we’re supposedly admirers of his?

Jacinta: Well Hawks decided to look more closely at this brain contraction – which is interesting because I was thinking along the same lines as he was, i.e. has it been a uniform contraction, or was there a sudden, quick development, followed by a stagnant period, as you would expect?

Canto: Anyway isn’t brain organisation more important than brain mass? Sorry to interrupt, but haven’t we already established that?

Jacinta: We haven’t established anything, we’re just effing dilettantes remember. Hawks started looking at more recent data, over the past 4000 years or so, to see if he could detect any difference in the encephalisation quotient (EQ) – the ratio of brain volume to body mass – over that time. He found that indeed there has. The picture is complicated, but overall there has been a reduction in the brain compared to the body. His explanation for this though is quite different. He reckons that a series of mutations over recent history have resulted in the brain producing more out of less…

Canto: Right, just as a series of modifications have allowed us to produce smaller but more powerful and fuel-efficient cars.

Jacinta: Uhh, yeah, something like that.

Canto: But we know what those modifications were, we can name them. Can we name the mutations?

Jacinta: Clever question, but we know about cars, we built them and they’ve only been around for a bit more than a century. We know vastly less about the brain and we’re still getting our heads around natural selection, give us a break. Hawks points out that it’s a rule about population genetics well-known in principle to Darwin, that the larger the population the more numerous the mutations, and there was a surge in the human population back when agriculture was developed and large settlements began to form. So a number of brain-related mutations led to streamlining and, as you suggest, fuel efficiency.

Canto: But isn’t this compatible with the domestication hypothesis? I imagine that, if there really is a brain reduction for domesticated animals, it’s because they don’t have to rely on their brains so much for survival, and we don’t either, the collective has sort of magically taken care of it through farming and infrastructure and supermarkets.

Jacinta: Yes but they all have their own complicated networks and issues we have to wrap our brains around. The domestication hypothesis is really about aggression apparently. The argument goes that all animals under domestication become more varied in size, coloration and general build, with a tendency to become more gracile over all. Selection against aggression, according to the primatologist Richard Wrangham, favours a slowly developing brain – one that is, in a sense, in a perpetually juvenile state (think of cute cat and dog videos). Of course, all this assumes that juvenile brains are less aggressive than adult brains, which some might see as a dubious assumption.

Canto: Yes, think of school bullying, Lord of the Flies, youth gangs, the adolescent tendency to extremes…

Jacinta: Well, both Wrangham and Hood offer a particularly interesting example of ‘super-fast’ domestication to illustrate their hypothesis:

In 1958 the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev started raising silver foxes in captivity, initially selecting to breed only the animals that were the slowest to snarl when a human approached their cage. After about 12 generations, the animals evidenced the first appearance of physical traits associated with domestication, notably a white patch on the forehead. Their tameness increased over time, and a few generations later they were much more like domesticated dogs. They had developed smaller skeletons, white spots on their fur, floppy ears, and curlier tails; their craniums had also changed shape, resulting in less sexual dimorphism, and they had lower levels of aggression overall.

Now, how does this relate to juvenilism? Well, in the wild, offspring grow up quickly and have to fend for themselves, which requires a certain ruthless degree of aggression. Cats and dogs, yes, they abandon their offspring soon enough, but those offspring continue to be tutored, tamed, domesticated under their human owners. We hear a lot about school bullying and gangs of youths, but they’re actually the exception rather than the rule, or a last ditch rebellion against the domestication pressure that’s exerted by the whole of society, and they’ll either succumb to that pressure or end up in jail, or worse. It’s a bit like the Freudian concept of sublimation, you channel your aggressive energies into creativity, competitive problem-solving, sports achievements and the like.

Canto: So you’re in favour of the domestication hypothesis?

Jacinta: Well, I’m not against it. It sounds plausible to me. Human domestication, or self-domestication if you want to call it that, is a social-contract sort of thing. You agree to outsource and comply with certain arrangements – laws, government, taxation and so forth, in return for certain benefits in terms of security and resources. So you don’t have to fend for yourself. And that affects the brain, obviously. Though it might not be the whole story.

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2016 at 8:42 am

what should a vegan’s pet eat, and other immortal questions

leave a comment »

catmelon

 

Jacinta: So here’s a question – if vegans have pets – say a cat or a dog – do they feed them only vegetables?

Canto: I don’t know, I suppose it would depend on the vegan…

Jacinta: Shouldn’t it depend on the pet? Cats and dogs are carnivores aren’t they? So it would be a form of cruelty to deprive them of meat. Might even be murder.

Canto: We don’t extend murder to the killing of other animals.

Jacinta: Many vegans do.

Canto: Good point. I once read an article by a vegan philosopher, who gets out of those problems by declaring that using animals as pets is unethical. A form of slavery, I suppose.

Jacinta: So, we free the pets? Along with the cows, the sheep, the donkeys, the camels, the water buffalos, the horses, the chooks and pigeons and all those other creatures we’ve used and abused so horridly?

Canto: Well, from memory – I’ll never be able to hunt out the article – he didn’t address the issue of those animals already under captivity of one sort or another. He was simply wanting to argue on general principles that using animals for our personal benefit was unethical.

Jacinta: Even if it benefits the animal?

Canto: Well I suppose the argument would be that even a well-treated slave is still a slave.

Jacinta: But if you free a dog, say, what would happen to it? You’re actually throwing it out of its home, it has nowhere else to go. And I believe that there’s historical evidence that dogs, and probably cats too, have adapted to live with humans. That it was their choice, in a sense. Like pigeons in the city getting fat on leftover bits of hamburger, with no obvious ill-effects. Do pigeons get diabetes?

Canto: Well there’s an obvious difference between scavenging pigeons and pets. Pets don’t choose to become pets. I think that’s the way the argument would run. Unfortunately there are a lot of current pets who would suffer from being set free, but that’s not the issue.

Jacinta: I think I see. We look after the pets we’ve got, then bury them and don’t have any more. And this wouldn’t mean the end of all dogs because there are plenty of strays – scavengers – to maintain the species. And no more enforced ‘pedigree’ breeding – I’d be all for that. But there’s a problem – in order to get rid of all the pets, you have to stop them breeding and that would mean desexing them – a gross interference of their right to reproduce. And if you allow them to reproduce, you must surely bear responsibility for their offspring as your home is theirs. You’re caught in a trap, you can’t walk out, because you love them babies too much.

Canto: You’re looking at it all from a practical perspective, which is all fine and good and relevant, but I think the issue for this philosopher was, I think – judging from him being a vegan – that all such usage of animals – pets as cuddly toys, dolphins as trained performers, horses and camels as pack animals, etc, not to mention farming them for slaughter – is unethical. What do you think of that as a general principle?

Jacinta: I don’t think it holds up, because species take advantage of other species all the time, and not just by preying on them. Sharks have their remoras, we have lice more or less specially adapted to us, roses have their aphids, in fact everywhere you look you have species making use of other species. And presumably being a vegan he marks a strict boundary between animal and vegetable and in reality that’s quite a fuzzy boundary, like with coral. And what about insects, what’s the vegan take on that?

Canto: Presumably negative – they have eyes and antennae and feelings of some sort.

Jacinta: Yes, well it’s a step too far I think. Yes we have a moral responsibility to avoid causing undue suffering….

Canto: Well what about this argument. Because we can survive – and indeed thrive – on only plants, we should do so. I mean, you’re talking about species that, say, are mostly carnivorous – that won’t survive if their food supply dries up. Sharks, for example, they can’t just become vegan, they’ve adapted to a very specific diet. We on the other hand are omnivores, we can dispense with certain varieties of food, including meat, and still live healthy lives, perhaps.

Jacinta: Hmmm, that’s definitely a more difficult question. I do believe that being omnivores, or being very adaptable in our diet has stood us in very good stead in the past, like in the last major  ice age when we almost died out apparently. So I’m wondering whether confining our diet might not expose us to greater risks…

Canto: It may not even mean confining our diet – we could synthesise many of the proteins and other nutrients we nowadays get from meat. We’ve already done that, probably.

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard they’re still a long way from synthesising anything that really has the nutrients as well as the texture, flavour, odour and je ne sais quoi of meat. At under about $200, 000.

Canto: And if they achieved that feat, and got it down to competitive prices, would you go vego?

Jacinta: Well of course – I’d have no reason not to. I just don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

Canto: But let’s say for argument’s sake that it does – would you feed this synthetic stuff to your pet cat?

Jacinta: Ah so we come full circle. Yes I would, since it would be more or less chemically identical to meat.

Canto: But animals that have adapted to become carnivores have also adapted to become hunters. They go together. Haven’t you turned your cat from its proper course in life?

Jacinta: No, she became removed from her ‘proper course’, if there is such a thing, by becoming my pet, whether by her choice or mine, or the choice of her ancestors. Likely she will keep up her hunting skills, catching flies and insects and mice and small birds, if she can. And she will benefit from being my friend, as I will benefit from being hers. Like all good friends, we’ll use each other for own purposes, which we hope will be, and will try to make, mutually beneficial.

Canto: Okay, no further questions your excellency.

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2016 at 11:37 am