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Creating Sustainability in the 21st Century, and Things Related


Monday, April 21, 2014

Emancipating the American serf

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
(from 'The Merry Minuet,' sung by Kingston Trio 1959)


Loosely translated, the word “maskirovka” means masked warfare. It could refer to Putin's use of local thugs, volunteers and disguised Russian Special Operations troops in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the region, thus avoiding the use of traditional forces crossing the border as an invading army.

Of course, we Americans know quite a bit about “special operations” across the globe; however, we know a good deal less about masked warfare inside our own country, partly because we're largely unaware of what is is but, more importantly, the idea is not to know it's actually happening. There are no men dressed in uniforms carrying automatic weapons and speaking in halting English. But our own unique masked warfare has been going on for a very long time, from the very beginning of the republic actually.

The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth
(H.L. Mencken)

It's all mine

The confirmations continue to pile up on the expanding dung heap. Following rapidly on the heels of Thomas Piketty's “best seller” Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see previous article), detailing the level of American inequality, we now have Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (see Additional Reading below).

Getting beyond the political science jargon and supporting data, all of which is revealing, the report pretty much demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of the American public has very little influence regarding the policies our government adopts. The full report will be available in the Fall.

Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners
(Vladimir Lenin)

The sound of black helicopters

Special operations at its very best are good at deliberate misdirection, pitting various groups against one another, stirring up old fears and superstitions, manipulating ignorance, creating new historical “facts,” which oftentimes includes nostalgic myths about the "good old days." The final act of the very best special operations is instilling fear in the dominant culture, be it at the local level or even throughout a nation-state. “My god, 'they' might take it from us.”

Picking on white America

There's something to be said for a national upheaval, even revolution in some cases. It can clear out the accumulated rot and fanciful misconceptions, as well as rid the nation of a corrupt and useless status quo. But, there is also a downside. In the U.S. in the 1930s it took a worldwide economic Depression and an extraordinary political leader like Franklin D. Roosevelt to create serious political, economic and social change.

In Europe the same Depression led to Fascism and WWII.. The 1918 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, by the 1930s, had turned into a reign of terror and the leadership of the sociopath Joseph Stalin. The world is full of similar dismal examples.

White America has been fortunate, in that it has not had a foreign army in its country since the British invaded the U.S. in the War of 1812. The same certainly can not be said of the Indian nation occupying the same territory as European-Americans but for a longer period of time. As for African-Americans, well, they were considered property until the 1860s and were subjected to second class citizenship until well into the 20th century. No, the American Civil War was not about state rights.

Louis Hartz, in his classic The Liberal Tradition in America, said in the mid-1950s, “that instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it. As for a child leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America.”

Your 'people', sir, is nothing but a great beast
(Alexander Hamilton, June 18, 1787, Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia)

Our Founding Fathers, while an extraordinary group of men, were not gods from Mount Olympus, and they certainly never put “democracy” on some elevated platform as we tend to do today. They were, understandably, fearful of excessive concentration of power. For our Founders, democracy meant preventing “mob rule and the triumph of passion over reason to serve the ambition of the demagogue.” They created a government which ended up over time serving the needs of the status quo. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a television interview during a visit to Egypt said, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.... Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow....
(Abraham Lincoln, 1864)

Had Lincoln not been assassinated, might the history of the United States been far different? Historians will likely be debating this question for years to come. Regardless, white America did not choose the high ground after Lincoln was killed. Four million former slaves were emancipated in 1865. At the same time some 8 million whites, largely illiterate, never owned slaves, but ended up regarding the freed African-Americans as competitors. The whites were easily manipulated, usually by the same people that were in control before the Civil War. By 1874 the white power structure had regained control and the former Confederacy descended into a “heart of darkness.”

The death of Sitting Bull removes one of the obstacles to civilization. He was a greasy savage, who rarely bathed and was liable at anytime to become infected with vermin. During the whole of his life he entertained the remarkable delusion that he was a free-born American with some rights in the country of his ancestors
(St. Louis Republic newspaper, December 17, 1890)

Abraham Lincoln wanted the West opened for all Americans after the Civil War ended and for the average American to own some land and be a citizen and a full participant in a democratic country. Well, once again white America did not choose the high ground. The opening of the West became the on-going story of genocide, violence, environmental destruction, class warfare and corporate predation and corruption. (For an excellent understanding of the role of the railroads in the West and the rise of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, read Railroaded by Richard White.)

Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power
(Adam Smith)

Cow billy liberty, freedom and farmer Bundy

Today, in 2014, mythical American exceptionalism is all pervasive, reinforced by info-entertainers on cable news, politicians, corporations and certainly the many oligarchs with their own anti-democratic agenda. We Americans are somehow special and different we are advised and, if truth be told, a little better than all the rest. The glow, however, is wearing off the glorious fable, rather quickly. But remember what masked warfare is all about.

Cliven Bundy, a millionaire cattle rancher in Nevada may be an apt metaphor for a certain delusional albeit influential segment of America, wallowing in white entitlement and demanding its proprietary welfare capitalism in perpetuity.

Farmer Bundy has been grazing his cattle on “public” lands and has not paid the range fee, hardly onerous by any rational standard, to the Bureau of Land Management in some twenty years, which clearly begs the question: What the hell has the BLM been doing all this time?

Part of the land that Bundy grazes his cattle on has been reserved for the endangered desert tortoise. The land does not belong to Cliven but is held in trust for all Americans, thanks to the intelligence and foresight of the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. Supposedly the fee Mr. Bundy now owes to the citizens of the United States is approximately a million dollars.

Recently, like a tired cowboy fable, when the BLM decided it was about time to enforce the law and round up Bundy's cattle, this odious freeloader claimed he didn't “recognize” the Federal government and started yapping on cue about his freedom and liberty, which naturally brought out the various “patriot” groups and the lunatic militia movement, who were armed to the teeth and threatened violence against BLM officials. This dreary “range war”story is not yet over.

A judicious hanging in Wall Street would be a good measure with which to begin the reformation
(Ignatius Donnelly, in The Representative, August 29, 1894)

No fairy tales to believe in anymore

The population of the United States is over 300 million people. The total number of eligible voters is approximately 206 million people. The number of registered voters in the U.S. are approximately 169 million, with some 86 million registered Democrats, 55 million registered Republicans and some 28 million falling into various categories. Now consider one to five percent of the population.

Oligarchy, for all practical purposes, is the government we now have in the United States. Masked warfare has been quite successful. The obvious question is what will be done about it? Who will do it?
How many people constitute a serious movement with the discipline, the knowledge and the ability to sweep out the accumulated rot and toss out a corrupt and useless status quo? There will be in the near future no national uprising, no college students successfully confronting para-military police forces on a part-time basis, and most definitely no “glorious” revolution. It will, however, not be pain free.

Five percent of 86 million registered Democrats is some 4 million people; three percent of 169 million registered voters is 5 million people; two percent of 300 million residents of the U.S. is 6 million people. The numbers are there.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, and his majority of reactionaries could be dressed in top hats and tails and sent back to the late 19th century. They'd fit right in. Antonin Scalia could ponder his doctrine of “original intent” until the cows come home.

From voting rights to unlimited money in politics, the Roberts court has done its duty well. It was a television comedian that said of the Chief Justice that he was either a liar or too naïve to be serving on the highest court in the land, if he believed that large sums of money did not corrupt the political system.

The U.S. Congress, a corrupt, pompous debating society for millionaires, is merely irrelevant. The Executive branch—who knows? Certainly having a political system allowing for a wider pool of talent to run for the presidency would be a good beginning.

Our 18th century Constitution, a remarkable document for its time, is now a relic of a distant past and needs to be rewritten for the 21st century.

Who will rid this country of the oligarchs?

Additional Reading:

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Friday, April 11, 2014

A sociopath and an oligarch go into a bar....

I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half
(Jay Gould, 19th century financier and speculator)

Exceptional American exceptionalism

Thomas Piketty, the French economist, with the publication of Capital in the Twenty-first Century has seemingly stirred up the sleepy and bloodless world of modern economic theory and its bland, oftentimes, pseudo-scientific gibberish. Yes, inequality cannot be understood independently of politics. Some of those 19th century economists, like Karl Marx and David Ricardo, did have some extremely important insights about how the world actually works—then and now.

In regard to income created by work, inequality (the level of inequality) in the U.S., according to Piketty, is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.”

The Jones Plantation

Mind of the sociopath

Martijn van den Heuvel of the University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands recently announced that they have completed the first detailed map of any mammal's neural network. It's called the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas.

While a similar mapping of the human brain is still many years away, this is a first step in understanding medical conditions such as bi-polar disorders, schizophrenia and autism. It is about connections and the complexity of brain connectivity. Now, if we are able in the not too distant future, to understand human predation and how to make the necessary adjustments to those neural networks, we could possibly look forward to a future where humankind might make a positive contribution to our planet's well being.

Of course, economic theory and neuroscience aside, how do you actually go about—in this day and age—of bringing the existing structure to an end and rebuilding anew? Possibly remembering some old ideas.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Nasty, brutish and short--or not

The sky gods know

Will there be titanium-skinned creatures with oversized heads and bulging eyes running planet Earth in 500 years? Only Steven Spielberg knows for certain. I think the “leash” over the approximately next 50 to 100 years will be climate, religion and economics. What we do or don't do in these areas simultaneously will have a bearing on who or what will be our progeny.

Climate scientists, using such methods as geological analysis, ice cores, fossil remains and historical records, have determined that CO2 levels in the atmosphere remained between 180 and 300 parts per million (ppm) for some half-a-million years, but in recent centuries (the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century) CO2 levels rose to at least 380 ppm. The greenhouse effect is not an obscure hypothesis recently put forward.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said that, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Artifacts of one kind or another at burial sites go back to at least 70,000 years ago. It hardly seems a mystery as to why we have religion. Among other things, religion binds groups, helps take the fear of death away, sanctions the killing of other groups and provides the “answers.” Today there are some 10,000 different religions all possessing the Truth. Religion at this point in time is a genuine obstacle to confronting a potential planetary disaster.

Last but not least is the economic system that entwines the entire planet. It's little more than a perpetual ponzi scheme, regardless of the “wonders” it may have helped produce—for some—in the past. Most important, it's unsustainable. It deserves to be tossed into the ashcan of history along with mercantilism and the “divine right” of kings.

Immortality and the Kurzwellian phantasmagoria

Superheroes are popular and ubiquitous across the globe and not just among children. Immortality, master-of-the-universe, infinite choices, exceptionalism, privilege, entitlement and certainly narcissism all beckon to even the most rational among us. Ca plus changes, ca plus la meme chose.

Ray Kurzwell, inventor and “technical” futurist, who now works for Google, believes that by 2045 machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence in all aspects, which he refers to as the “singularity.” For Kurzwell, human immortality is only a few blocks away.

Well, 2045 seems a bit optimistic, or pessimistic, depending on your point of view. Would Aunt and Uncle Sahelanthropus, whom we haven't seen in some 7 million years, still love us? Of course, many of these superhero dreams violate the known laws of physics. Gravity can be inconvenient, mass increases faster than the fundamental strength of our bones and we can't walk through walls even though the atom is mostly empty space. But … technology springs eternal, and Ray Kurzwell thinks he'll become immortal; after all, he demands to become a system.

Believing what we believe

Why do we do what we do? One of the most interesting new subject areas at the present time and yes, it's controversial, is the field of Genopolitics. Political beliefs may have a genetic component. Feelings about contraception, gay marriage, capital punishment, animal rights, climate change, etc are personality traits that could be ancient and way older than humans.

If the evolution of the human brain was driven by a need for more complex social cognition, then might the understanding of human biology in a “sociopolitical” context be of paramount importance, perhaps for our very survival?

The amygdala in our very old limbic brain is connected to the cingulate cortex, an area critical to self awareness. It is the cingulate cortex that “thinks” about the responses of the amygdala—threat, not a threat, your imagination and so forth.

What do we think we know now? Some research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have right-wing opinions. Oxytocin is released in sex and orgasm and believed by many neuroscientists to smother the amygdala responses, which may lead to increased generosity, trust, etc. Lower serotonin levels in the brain have been associated with criminality and anxiety. People with a less active MAO allele “tend” to be more impulsive and aggressive. No, there are no specific genes for criminality, but personality traits are heritable.

In a 1980s sexual preference study conducted by David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, it was determined that the top two qualities in a male for both sexes were kindness and intelligence, outweighing such things as money and physical appearance. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has suggested that our ancestors who were more intelligent and kinder attracted a higher quality mate thus creating our success.

Regardless of what Genopolitics ultimately uncovers, a better understanding of human behavior and how we make decisions is, it seems to me, not merely nice to know but absolutely critical if we want to get beyond the “reptilian” mindset and consider a future beyond something like the unrelenting nightmare of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Back to a future

Every part of the planet has warmed except for Antarctica and at this point in time it may have more to do with circulating winds and the hole in the ozone layer. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a minimum temperature rise of 1.8 degrees Centigrade by 2100. Some 120,000 years ago when it was 1 to 2 degrees warmer, sea levels were 5 to 8 meters higher. Three million years ago when the temperature was 2 to 3 degrees C higher, the sea levels were 25 meters higher.

It's called the tipping point and is a term that has been used in reference to climate change. Is there a point where the change is irreversible? Climate scientists have spoken about such things as a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C and CO2 levels going over 400 ppm. We have now reached CO2 levels of 400 ppm. IPCC estimates have been revised, perhaps because of the sudden collapse of ice sheets and a better understanding of “feedback loops,” which can speed up the process. Several decades of global warming are already in the pipeline. Time, where is it when we need it?

Some of us might recall friends and acquaintances “dropping acid” (LSD) some years ago and having spiritual experiences and “being one” with the universe. We know now there are hormonal and biochemical factors at work in the brain during many of those religious moments, resulting in such things as increases in dopamine levels and serotonin being released. “Spiritual” experiences can change brain activity. A book worth reading on this subject is by D.F. Swaab, a physician and neurobiologist, entitled We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, From the Womb to Alzheimer's

To believe that some supernatural entity gave us the planet and dominion over all life on it is both irrational and narcissistic to the extreme, but also more understandable today. We're also learning that extreme religiosity may be associated with such illnesses as schizophrenia, dementia and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Difficult as it might be, we have to move beyond the supernatural and magic. Even more important is finally realizing this planet is all we have--but--real spirituality is all around us. Turn off your I-Pad and move your head. You can even “friend” biodiversity.

Adams Smith, often cited as the father of modern capitalism, once said of the capitalists, “It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public...” What is striking today among the governments of the world is the apparent obtuseness, be they the corrupt autocrats in Beijing and Moscow, the feckless and uninformed politicians in Washington or many among the rising developing nations who claim it's “everyone else” who bears the responsibility. Our ancient short-term thinking is alive and well … and dangerous.

Mounting scarcities, growing ecological disequilibrium, expanding population, economic stagnation, increasing disparities between rich and poor, individual selfishness (including nation selfishness), human redundancy, unproven economic myths like the market's “invisible hand” are more than likely to lead to greater forms of coercion across the globe, and the amount of coercion can be an approximate measure of the system's validity. Once the system is deemed illegitimate, another tipping point has begun, this time rippling across the planet.

It is very much a matter of enlarging the global tribe and accepting the idea unequivocally of reciprocal obligation.


Gerald Crabtree, a Stanford University geneticist, believes our intelligence may have peaked some 2,000 years ago. It's been pretty much downhill ever since. Really?

Will the last remaining clan of Homo sapiens end up in a cave on Gibraltar squinting at the shadows of their cousins the Neandertals? Does it matter? After all, it's estimated that about 100,000 species are going extinct each year. What's one more, especially the most destructive predator the planet has known. Down deep, we know we're here “by the luck of the draw.”

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More than a mere science discussion

The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than the original.
(Daniel Boorstin, American historian)

Blissfully ignorant

Watching the United States commit its self-inflicted unraveling (budget and debt ceiling nonsense being merely two of many reasons), ought not to give any real comfort to those outside the U.S. Waiting in the wings to “take over” is nothing to make one gleefully optimistic.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently issued its 2-year study, which included 23 countries and thousands of adults. The study tested for skills in literacy, basic math and technology. We Americans—along with the British--didn't do so well, especially in technology and math. See blow for the actual results.

One of the many things the study concluded is that poor educational opportunities in school as children continues on through adulthood. Inequality of access to good education is “harmful” to adults, and the increasing inequality in America is only making things, overall, much worse. While a lot of information that is in the study may appear to be obvious and the correlations striking, it clearly has not translated into any wide scale public policy changes. If anything, we're going in the opposite direction in the United States.

The DNA thing

Shortly after the OECD study came out an interesting article appeared in the NYT entitled, Are OurPolitical Beliefs Encoded in Our DNA? The article was about the new field of genopolitics, which this blog has written about previously. Did my genes make me do it or was it all my mother's fault? I will be surprised if we don't see more articles about this subject, outside of scientific journals.

The science however, as the article points out, is only in the earliest stages and disagreements abound. To say the least, it's complicated. Political scientists have now joined the field along with evolutionary biologists and molecular geneticists. Will we have to understand human biology in a “sociopolitical context.” Did the human brain develop to solve social problems—which are political? But as Thomas Edsall, the author of this article points out, “If genopolitical analysis holds up under continued scrutiny, its explanatory potential is enormous.”

Edsall is right. A better understanding of all sorts of conflicts in the U.S. and across the globe is absolutely essential if we humans have any real chance of succeeding as a species. The “chickens” are coming probably sooner than we think.

Additional Reading:

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Humans are probably not failed chimps

You can sequence genes on a computer, email them to a lab and a week later, for $100, receive a vial of DNA.
(Ellen Jorgensen, molecular biologist)

The approaching brick wall

Paleogenomics is a relatively new field, whereby small bits of DNA can be extracted from small fragments of bones, providing additional data about the history of human evolution. The Neanderthal genome was generated from 3 small bones and later a toe bone. But, to digress for a moment.

Three stories appeared recently about the “human condition,” that reminded me that the last divergent branch of the evolutionary “bush” was likely Neanderthal. While evolution itself is slow, what is different today is that for the first time in human history evolutionary change has the potential to move much faster because of the extraordinary discoveries in genetics.

This of course is hardly a reason to be uncritically optimistic about the future of our species. These stories, however, also raise the question about nature and nurture and the role that both environment and genes play in “who we are.”

The first story is about a National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist  and the killing of an elephant in Botswana. What this particular individual did was not illegal—but will be in 2014. In fact, as the human population increases and we more and more encroach on animal habitats, it is the animal that invariably loses. Authorized “hunts” serve to reduce animal populations and provide funding (hunting fees) to support wildlife reserves, at least this is part of the rationale offered for the killings.

This particular story generated a fair amount of criticism directed at the hunter. In response, this N.R.A. lobbyist called his critics “animal Nazis” and claimed that he was a “hunter” and hunters kill animals. No, he's not a hunter, just someone with a high-powered rifle with too much time on his hands. See the video below and read NRA lobbyist shoots elephantin the face and then celebrates with champagne.

The second story is entitled, Teamof contract killers led by ex-soldier 'Rambo' busted, prosecutorssay. Finally, the last story was produced by documentary film-maker Mariah Wilson. This is a clip from Revealing Hate.

These stories could be replicated across the globe, yet they offer some examples, it seems to me, of a particular sub-species of humankind, an anachronism perhaps, a “throwback” to our past that began over a million years ago. How in fact do we go about increasing such qualities as generosity, trust and empathy in our species. How do we go about “repairing” a poorly functioning cingulate cortex, that part of our brain essential for self-awareness?

The story of the gun lobbyist killing the elephant is largely a story about that minority of privileged human across the globe with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and obtuseness ... yet, what environmental factors, if any, create the mentality of these primitive death eaters? The other two stories speak for themselves.

Our Neanderthal connection

What is significant about sequencing the Neanderthal genome is that the Neanderthal died out only some 25,000 years ago; we're not trying to find comparisons that go back millions of years. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA, outside of Africa, came from Neanderthal. Our two species most probably met between 65,000 and 95,000 years ago. After that there was no more interbreeding.

Scientist do not know for certain what caused the extinction of Neanderthal but a “popular” hypothesis is that humans out-competed them because of more advanced language skills. We know that the FOXP2 gene, the instinct for speech and grammar, is identical in Neanderthal, but genes in cognitive development are different in humans and Neanderthal,quite possibly to have solved different sets of problems, anticipating prey for example.

Will a certain percentage of humans go extinct or will we manage to destroy our species completely, ideally without bringing misery to all life on the planet?

Additional Reading:

On Extinction

How Your Brain Works

Humans and Lions Sharing Space

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Friday, September 20, 2013

My Amygdala Made Me Do It

The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.
(Erle C. Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental systems, University of Maryland)

An Anthropocentric world

Professor Ellis, quoted above, appears to be an outspoken optimist regarding humanity's future. Earth's environment is going to be pretty much what Homo sapiens decide to do with it. Ellis' point is that from the very beginnings of human existence, we have “used,” various technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain ourselves well beyond what the “natural” world could have done.

According to Professor Ellis, Earth's carrying capacity, at best, is probably no more than a few billion people living at a subsistence level. Today of course we're on our way to reach some 9 billion by 2050. Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of several environmental related organization, said some forty years ago that, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Hm-m. So is this what being a god is like? See Ellis' article in the NYT entitled Overpopulation Is Notthe Problem.

The limbic brain and Genopolitics

Professor Ellis at the end of his article in the New York Times states that only our imaginations and our social systems will prevent us from reaching that “proud” future. Imaginations and social systems, however, might be large caveats.

Possibly some of the most fascinating work in science today is being done in biology, specifically in neuroscience, epigenetics (how genes are both agents of nature and nurture) and synthetic biology, which utilizes engineering principles to life science. In simple terms it means breaking down nature into spare parts so we can rebuild it however we please. We will likely have to make some very serious choices in the not too distant future, choices that will impact our “imaginations and social systems.”

Neuroscience has come up with five classes of personality traits: (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. About 50 percent of these traits are genetic and about fifty percent, on average, are environmental. Interestingly, when we're young, environment tends to have a greater impact on how we behave, but as we get older and more independent our genes play a larger role.

The response to threats is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is what causes those all too familiar feelings of unease most of us get at one time or another. The amygdala is connected to the cingulate cortex, an area absolutely critical to self-awareness. While, for example, the amygdala may be perceiving something as a threat, the cingulate cortex analyzes the amygdala's response and decides if it's a real threat or not.

Needless to say it begins to get complicated when we start talking about neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine being two, and the connection to the cingulate cortex, but suffice it to say that the release of hormones like oxytocin, cortisol or testosterone—and their levels—affect behavior and how we react to a great many thing. This has led to a relatively new field called Genopolitics.

Neurobiologists have discovered that the amygdala acts in different ways in liberals and conservatives. Yes, it appears that political views have a genetic component. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have more conservative opinions. Brain scans have shown that when stressed the cortex and the amygdala light up differently and depending on a number of factors, the connection between these two areas may be strong or weak. For example, oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” which is released in sex and organism, is thought to be the hormone smothering the amygdala, thus increasing generosity, trust, etc. Conversely, when the amygdala response is lowered, a threat from real danger may not be perceived.

The brave new world

Yes, it is possible we may be able to imagine a totally new future along with the development of improved social systems. On the other hand we humans could discover we are as “godlike” as the rock at our feet.

Geo-engineering might be able to reverse the negative effects of climate change. The assumption here of course is that the majority of the inhabitants on the planet will have a basic understanding what climate change is. It's also possible that synthetic biology will eliminate human shortsightedness and predation. Possibly the growing middle class in China will come to realize that bringing the elephant to extinction because they must have the “bling” of ivory is not the action of a “higher” species.

Some demographers believe that the planet could maintain a population of 13 billion humans. Of course, significant changes would have to be made. Who's willing to never eat meat again? How high could we build our vertical structures?

A short while ago I saw a photograph of four hunters from somewhere in the southern United States. They were standing proudly beside a dead crocodile suspended in the air by chains, said to be one of the largest ever killed. The picture elicited in me revulsion and disgust … directed at the four humans. For what reason was this animal killed? For the briefest of moments I imagined myself standing beside four hunters suspended on meat hooks. I must raise my serotonin levels in order to meet the future with optimism.

Additional Reading:

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We crossed the red line and no one noticed

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
(Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967)

The Earth will end when God declares it to be over.
(John Shimkus, Republican congressman, Illinois, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy))

For the sake of our planet, we need to start eating lower down on the food chain and we need to do it fairly soon.
(David George Gordon, science writer)

A story in need of an ending

In case you haven't heard and most likely many haven't, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere of planet Earth has now risen to 400 parts per million. It's been something like 3 million years since so much carbon dioxide has been hanging over the planet.

The “little-bit” of good news is that 400 ppm is part of a scientific model, a very complex model with a lot of complex parts and poorly understood by most people, which is comforting news to many politicians across the globe. Models of course can be changed, modified or discarded. Unlike the politicians, the scientists could be wrong about a lot or a little and, as some people know, science tries hard to be proven wrong.

The actual “good” news is that we have some idea how to mitigate many of the effects of climate change. For example, in terms of things like deforestation, feed production and animal waste, the
livestock industry produces between 18-51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industry as well uses a lot of fossil fuels and water.

Could you imagine eating a little less meat? What if you could be persuaded that the future of future generations would quite probably be bleak, unless significant changes were made starting right now? For that matter, the present is feeling a little less certain; we may not need vivid imaginations. For more on this subject see “Additional Reading.”

Genes made me do it—or not

Genetics has come a long way since Gregor Mendel, in the 19th century, showed how the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants followed particular patterns. Today, with the mapping of the human genome and the ever increasing power of supercomputers, we have arrived at a new scientific Frontier-land. What we do with it is a story searching for a good ending.

I once worked with someone a number of years ago that believed humankind was “d-evolving,” as though the expanding universe showed signs of slowing down and reversing itself. Interestingly, Gerald Crabtree, Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stamford University, has a fairly controversial view on human intelligence. It's declining, according to Crabtree.

He has said that, “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food and shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate.”

Crabtree has suggested that the approximately 5,000 genes, which he believes are the basis for human intelligence, have mutated over the years and modern man is not as intelligent as his ancestors. The professor thinks we may have peaked about 7,000 years ago! At the same time, Crabtree has said that science and technology have allowed us to rise above the “dumbing down.”

Regardless of Professor's Crabtree's thought-provoking ideas, what we know about genes at the present time is quite remarkable. It's not an either or—genetics or environment—it's more like a blending, a mixing and sometimes one is more influential than the other. The answer is frequently that … it depends.

When we're young, environment has a tendency to be more important but when we get older and more independent, genes seem to play a larger role. Certain behaviors, such as criminality, are heritable but only as side effects of genes that affect personality traits. You don't for example have genes for addiction, but you do have genes for impetuosity and risk taking which, under the right environmental circumstances, might lead to addiction.

Neurobiologists have found out that there is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala, which causes the feeling of unease. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have right-wing opinions. There is now a field called Genopolitics, which accepts that political views most likely have a genetic component.

Finally, a little bit of good news to consider. Yes, sex and organisms are healthy, because they release oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.” This particular hormone has the ability to lower amygdala response, which can then increase such traits as generosity and trust. David Buss, a professor of psychology, conducted a “sexual preference study a number of years ago.” He learned that the top two qualities in a mate for both men and women were kindness and intelligence, outweighing things such as money and physical appearance.

Thinking good thought

In summary, how we think, make decisions and frame discussions needs to be understood a lot better. We know now that there is both a genetic and environmental component in decision making, and our survival as a species probably depends on how effectively we can increase the size of who we think belongs in our group. The “clan” is bigger than we think.

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political hack with a degree in biology

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