About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Monday, June 10, 2013
I recently saw Hannah Arendt, a rare movie whose protagonist is a philosopher. And an exceedingly well done movie, it is. I was lucky enough to go to the US premier of it, held at Film Forum in New York, and which was attended by the director, Margarethe von Trotta, the leading actress, Barbara Sukowa, the screenwriter, Pamela Katz, and the main supporting actress, Janet McTeer. This sort of thing is a major reason I love living in New York.
The movie centers around a crucial period of Arendt’s career, when she covered the trial of former nazi officer Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, on behalf of the New Yorker magazine. The result was a series of five articles that were then collected in a highly influential book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Yes, you’ve heard the phrase before, and that’s where it comes from.
Arendt was already famous at the time, a leading faculty member at the New School in New York, and the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is why the notoriously picky New Yorker immediately accepted her offer to cover the Eichmann trial. Little did they know about the fury and heated controversy that Arendt’s writing would soon generate, a controversy that alienated her from some of her closest friends and family members, though it also made her the talk of the town and the idol of her students.
As I said, the movie is well worth watching because of the superb screenwriting, directing and acting, and von Trotta stressed — during the q&a following the first screening — that it is based on a painstaking analysis of the available documents, including letters from Arendt to her friends and family. Indeed, Arendt doesn’t come across as an unquestionable hero in the film. She was a complex woman and superb intellectual, embodying plenty of contradictions (she was the lover of famous philosopher, and nazi sympathizer, Martin Heidegger), and who had suffered personally at the hands of the nazis (she fled Germany, was interned in a camp in France, escaped and moved to the US).
The time of the trial was also highly sensitive: the new state of Israel was only 15 years old, headed by prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and the public trial of a high-level nazi operative was a defining moment in the identity of the new nation.
Arendt’s basic ideas where two: first, that Eichmann and many others committed their atrocities without deep moral awareness of what they were doing, more like bureaucrats who were chiefly focused on a desk job that simply had to be done (hence her concept of the banality of evil). Second, that part of the scale of the Holocaust was the result of the complicit attitude of the Jewish Councils in both Germany and Poland, since they helped the nazis to confiscate Jewish property and round up Jews to be sent to the concentration camps.
Predictably, the Anti-Defamation League branded Arendt a self-hating Jew (whatever that means), and began a vilifying campaign against her that almost cost her the position at the New School. Other Jewish organizations actually paid researchers to go through her book intensively searching for errors with which to discredit her. She certainly seemed to have touched a nerve.
A fair assessment of the whole story seems to be that Arendt did have some novel insights into what had been going on in nazi Germany, particularly the idea that a whole nation had participated in mass genocide not out of fear of reprisal from Hitler and his henchmen, and not even necessarily because they bought wholesale the nazi rhetoric, but simply because that was the zeitgeist of the time and because most people most of the time just go along with what they are told to do (as plenty of psychological experiments have shown since).
However, Arendt also did get some things wrong. Eichmann, as it turns out, was well aware of what he was doing, and he did it with gusto. To be fair, some of the documentation establishing this came out after the trial and the book, but an argument can be made that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s own defense, displaying a contradictory combination of insight and naiveté about her subject. To quote the New York Times review of the movie, “Arendt misread Eichmann, but she did hit on something broader about how ordinary people become brutal killers. The postwar generation of young Germans took Arendt’s book as inspiration to rebel against their parents, who may not have personally killed Jews during the war but knew what was going on and did nothing. In America, protesters invoked the ‘banality of evil’ to rail against the outwardly decent family men who dropped bombs on North Vietnam or sat in nuclear-missile silos, ready to push the button — seeing them as the cold war’s version of Arendt’s ‘desk murderers.’”
To me Arendt represents what is positive and what is questionable in the kind of philosophy she practiced, what is known as the “continental” (as opposed to analytic) approach. Continental philosophers, like Foucault for instance, are much more interested than many of their analytic counterparts in things that actually matter: social and political issues, rather than neo-Scholastic hair splitting about fine points of logic and semantics. However, and discounting those who make little if any sense (Derrida immediately comes to mind, and — more controversially — Arendt’s own mentor, Heidegger), continental philosophical writings often pay scarce attention to hard facts and tight arguments, preferring an almost literary style of essaying about their subjects. In Arendt’s case, her trust in her judgment over the available facts led to a botched job: her book was important and influential, but it could have been great and enduring had she had a bit of an analytic penchant for the factual details of the story.
Thursday, June 06, 2013
And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
— Hippocrates, Protagoras
In the tradition of publisher Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, I’d like to use the popular Food Network reality show Chopped as a springboard for an exploration of the types of individuals and corresponding lifestyles that exist in society. The show itself has no explicit philosophical angles, but recently I’ve been thinking about how the art of gastronomy parallels the art of living, which can be called the pursuit of eudaimonia.
Each episode of Chopped consists of four chefs competing against each other for three rounds: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. In each round, the chefs must take a basket of mystery ingredients and create a dish that is judged on three areas — presentation, creativity, and taste — with only twenty minutes to plan and execute. One chef gets “chopped” from the competition at the end of each round. The winning chef receives $10,000. A panel of expert judges, all chefs and restaurateurs themselves, dole out accolades and criticisms — and the final verdict.
I. Socrates’ Tripartite Soul Food
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces a description of the human soul that attempts to account for human behavior, and to his lights the soul is comprised primarily of three parts: reason, spirit and appetite. Additionally, Socrates shows that individuals can come to be ruled by any one of these tendencies: some may be ruled by reason, which would manifest itself as a love of truth and wisdom; others may be ruled by spirit, which corresponds to a desire for victory and honor; and still others may be ruled by their baser appetites, driven by a love of money and the satisfaction of unnecessary desires. As mentioned, on Chopped there are three areas on which individual chefs are judged: presentation, creativity and taste. I like to think of these as corresponding to Socrates’ tripartite soul as follows.
When creating a meal, the presentation should be pleasing, both to the eye and to the intellect. A ghastly appearance isn’t appetizing, and a disordered plate is inimical to our desire for harmony and coherence. In other words, our faculty of reason likes to experience lawfulness and congruity; it wants things to make sense.
In addition to creating an inviting dish, every chef wants to showcase her creativity. Making a standard spaghetti marinara, for example, is one thing, but to “kick it up a notch” enables her to be proud of her penchant for flair and ingenuity. In other words, our spirited side relishes the accolades heaped upon our imaginativeness and innovativeness.
And of course every chef wants her dish to taste good: our basic appetite wants to be satisfied; and once it gets a taste of the good stuff, it wants even more! It can be, as they say, insatiable.
Socrates describes to his interlocutors the salient characteristics of individuals ruled by each of the three soul-parts, as they find expression in the various forms of government. There are five forms of government which Socrates distinguishes, in descending order of value from the best form (aristocracy): timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and, finally, tyranny. Socrates also takes the time to explain how each type of government evolves (or devolves) out of the one preceding it, and then asks what type of individual answers to each form of government. It’s this latter analysis that most interests me.
II. “There are some who call me... Tim.”
Socrates describes the Timocratical Man — let’s call him Tim — as follows:
... they have neglected her who is the true Muse, the companion of reason and philosophy, and have honoured gymnastic more than music... but one thing, and one thing only, is predominantly seen — the spirit of contention and ambition; and these are due to the prevalence of the passionate or spirited element... he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler... because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms; he is also a lover of gymnastic exercises and of the chase.
Clearly, anyone who goes on a reality TV show in the hopes of winning a large sum of money has a certain level of ambition beyond the norm. And the contestants on Chopped are on various levels of the restaurant ladder of hierarchy, from Line Cook to Sous Chef to Chef de Cuisine — with the ultimate aim of achieving the culinary crown of Executive Chef, not necessarily or merely by virtue of any intellectual abilities, but because they have “performed feats of arms.”
In American society, Tim seems to me to be the most common type of individual. One striking example in support of this is the American obsession with sports. You may have seen the graphic floating around Facebook and other sites, according to which college sports coaches are by far the highest paid public employees in the country. It’s not as surprising as it may at first seem: our society is saturated with sports personalities and sports advertisements, and sports is intimately and inescapably tied up with all manner of products and services churned out by marketing firms.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sports myself: I played varsity soccer in college, and continued to play in competitive recreational leagues well into my thirties. I even staunchly root for my home-state NFL teams the Steelers and the Eagles (though I must admit I’ve given up on the Eagles!). And participating in competitive sports does more than just enhance one’s physical health: as my father wrote to me in a letter while I was in college:
I think you will have to admit, your continuing participation in athletics at a high level of competition has been a very important element in your educational and social development... The character traits you are building by facing/overcoming the problems and challenges you meet in the heat of athletic competition mold the way you will respond to far greater and vastly more important problems / challenges far from the confines of those carefully drawn chalk lines of the playing field.
Of course, one has to have the presence of mind, or the discipline of will, to capitalize on the experiences of sports participation. One need only consider some professional athletes, whom many people lionize or emulate, to understand how seductive and prevalent the baser desires of a Tim are: the love of money, fame and influence — a personality ruled by spirit and passion — gets many a putative role model in all sorts of trouble; just think of the shenanigans of people like Tiger Woods, Pete Rose, and Lance Armstrong. It’s not unreasonable to think that the aforementioned individuals have forsaken the rational principle in their souls, having lost their “best guardian [i.e., Philosophy] who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life,” as Socrates declares when describing the Timocratical man. It would seem that the spirited desires in pursuit of honor and ambition have a firm hold on the reins in these men.
III. “Everybody looks like ants!” — Ollie Williams
Socrates thinks that the Oligarchical Man — let’s call him Ollie — is even less virtuous than Tim. An oligarchy is, according to Socrates, “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.” One need not look very far for an Ollie in American society. There are numerous examples of the powerful rich throughout American history, up to the present day, looking down upon the rabble as if they were ants.
American society today is characterized by an inequality of wealth never before seen in its history. And consider the history of government participation in the United States, vis-à-vis voting rights: the privilege of participating in the newly-formed government was originally restricted to rich white men. Even Thomas Jefferson, a man who could be said to be primarily ruled by reason, kept slaves, who owned no property — indeed, they were property. It wasn’t until the 1820s that universal manhood suffrage was enacted; it took another 50 years or so before the 15th Amendment was added to include non-white men; another 50 years after that to include women; and another 40 years to get rid of a prohibitive poll tax. The aforementioned groups, as disparate as they are, have one thing in common: they were all without property or poor, or both.
Socrates speculates about the devolution from timocracy to oligarchy, or from a Tim to an Ollie, when he claims that somewhere along the line Tim develops a tendency to hoard wealth, and others seek to rival him by doing the same; and thus the arms race of wealth accumulation takes off, and a love of money and possessions supersedes a love of honor and fame. Socrates says that “the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue.” Spirit gives way to appetite.
Since “what is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected,” society begins admiring the powerful rich man and despising the poor man. A perfect storm of culture and politics in the 1980s seems to have solidified this mindset in America. Movies like Wall Street and Scarface, TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, and garish and kitschy popular music all combined with so-called “Reaganomics” to create caricatures of the rich and the poor. Of course, President Reagan didn’t do himself any favors when he opined about the homeless in 1988:
In an interview broadcast tonight, President Reagan dismissed the idea that his Administration bears any responsibility for the problem of homelessness and he said “there are always going to be people” who live in the streets by choice.
Socrates, ever the champion of harmony and unity, bemoans the fact that an oligarchical society will necessarily be divided; and what’s worse, the rich and poor will conspire against each other. Additionally, Socrates thinks that a third class or type of individual arises in this state of affairs, which he likens to the drones of a beehive who do no real work but can still sting and stir up trouble for both the rich and the poor:
... there they are, ready to sting and fully armed, and some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship; a third class are in both predicaments; and they hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution.
In other words, society is well on its way to becoming a hot mess.
Likewise does the soul of an Ollie begin to exhibit this juxtaposed, antagonistic state:
The man, then, will be at war with himself; he will be two men, not one; but, in general, his better desires will be found to prevail over his inferior ones... For these reasons such a one will be more respectable than most people; yet the true virtue of a unanimous and harmonious soul will flee far away and never come near him.
The Ollies of society are still largely esteemed because it is presumed that they have achieved their position and fortune through hard work and sacrifice, and that they are probably therefore self-made men. Also, there isn’t any overt lawlessness or necessarily any lack of rational discipline in their appetite for wealth. Indeed, their reason is in the service of their appetite; and this, perhaps more than their hard work and sacrifice, is what makes their wealth possible.
The Ollies of American society are essentially its Baby Boomers; and they are the possessors of the most political and economic power.
IV. “Demi Lovato is a Work-in-Progress”
The Democratical Man, or woman — let’s call her Demi — continues the downhill slide into multiplicity and internal conflict. The combination of political liberty and cultural equality is what produces, or at least contributes to, this next permutation of society and individual:
In the first place, are they not free; and is not the city full of freedom and frankness — a man may say and do what he likes? And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases? Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human nature?
And what goes for the general mien of society goes for the internal state of the individual: being free to speculate about and evaluate everything under the sun according to one’s own lights tends to produce conflicting valuations and, therefore, innumerable conflicting drives within a single soul. These opposing drives constantly vie for supremacy, for the commandeering of one’s attentional resources in the pursuit of various ends.
The relatively uninformed, undisciplined approach to evaluating life characteristic of a Demi creates an unstable emulsion of impulses which, when things start to fall apart, can compel her into seeking out the most immediate and expedient palliatives she can find. These may be as banal and innocuous as junk food and reality TV (the irony is not lost on me), or as daring and destructive as self-injury or illicit drugs. Thus when a Demi gets a “mystery basket of ingredients” thrown at her, as a result of her toleration of her overflowing inner plurality, undoubtedly she will have the confidence to tackle it, and she will employ all of her energy and ingenuity in her attempt; but a quick failure or a protracted (psychological) war of attrition will lead her back into the refuge of her old addictions.
A Demi is likely to go through this cycle innumerable times — maybe even throughout her entire life. But just as her demons return, so do her better desires. It is this perpetual hope that sustains her, despite the sheer magnitude of options available to her in the 21st Century. Our republic isn’t Plato’s Republic: political freedom combined with an information economy and technological advancement presents an exceedingly larger number of options than were available even a century ago.
Being untethered from any traditional creed or regimen impels her to redefine received norms as best she can.The bricolage that is the modern Demi exhibits no satisfying sense of order or harmony; thus the Democratical Man or Woman is a continual work-in-progress, likely being a member of the Nones from Generation X.
V. “A dark Jedi is nothing compared to the power of the Sith.” — Darth Tyranus, fka Count Dooku
Last of all comes the Tyrannical Man — let’s call him Darth Tyranus. He is subject to the same multifarious and unruly desires as Demi, but whereas the more reasonable parts of Demi’s soul still retain a fair amount of influence, allowing her to achieve a livable protean equilibrium, Darth Tyranus’ soul is characterized by an unrestrained passion that overreaches, and is similar to the way in which our ordinarily unspeakable desires (our wild-beast nature, as Socrates calls it) manifest themselves in our dreams. According to Socrates: “[the Tyrannical Man] becomes always and in waking reality what he was then very rarely and in a dream only.”
Any reasonable impulses that do remain within the soul of Darth Tyranus are subject to the imperious blitzkrieg of his increasingly rapacious desires. When these desires overreach, with the aim of eliminating the more temperate ones, there is likely to be a backlash — as Socrates said, an excessive increase in anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction. So in order to quell this inner anarchical insurrection, Darth Tyranus gets more tyrannical with himself, which has the unintended effect of alienating him further from friends and family. Eventually, his only “friends” are dark associates, other Sith lords, and he can’t even trust them. As Dooku says to his Sith lord, Darth Sidious:
I have dealt out your deaths, your schemes, your betrayals. I have paid for your war with my riches, my time, my friends, and my honor.
Perhaps, in the end, the Tyrannical Man commits suicide, seeing no other way out; or he indulges his desires and addictions to such an extent that he secretly hopes they will lead to his own demise, if he lacks the final courage to kill himself with his own hand. A Darth Tyranus doesn’t seem to be limited to any one demographic of society; the lawlessness and potential energy within his soul bring about the complete domination of it by his irreversibly recalcitrant nature. Fortunately, however, this type doesn’t seem too prevalent; there may be no more heart-wrenching sight than a man or woman destroying themselves in unreachable isolation.
VI. The Judging Round
Socrates sought to judge the level of happiness of each type of man he discusses. For him, the least happy is the Tyrannical Man, and the most happy is the Aristocratical Man, whom I didn’t mention, but who is Socrates’ ideal man, the most stable, the most ruled by his love of reason, truth, wisdom: the philosopher.
Socrates’ judgment could be said to be based on the level of order and harmony present in one’s soul, on how well one organizes and harnesses the disparate parts of one’s nature into a coherent whole and life project. Finding a balance among one’s spirited and appetitive desires with the ascendancy of reason is the ideal because it leads to the happiest life. Tim, on the other hand, thinks the pleasures of recognition and fame comprise the best life; Ollie believes the accumulation of wealth and possessions does; and Demi’s approach is to turn the sails to the prevailing winds. Darth Tyranus could be said to be “not even wrong.”
On Chopped, the chef who manages to create the most harmonic arrangement of presentation, creativity and taste out of a hodgepodge of ingredients is able to satisfy her intellect, receive praise, and win the prize. So, in the culinary vernacular, we may say that, in life as on Chopped, mise en place!
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Learn about why Darwin's theory of natural selection "shouldn't" have worked, why Einstein was confused about the role of aesthetics in physics, why Hoyle stubbornly refused to change his mind about a "steady state" universe - and why those mistakes are central to scientific progress.
Mario's pick: "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error."
Monday, June 03, 2013
I need two things to start my average weekday. One of them is coffee. The coffee, of course, goes into a mug . Mugs reflect our deepest-held values, proudly displaying the logo of a faceless corporate monolith or the title of that conference that you kind of remember attending two jobs ago. My mug features a mural of endangered animal species overlaid with some text. The text reads: EXTINCTION IS FOREVER. The second thing I need to start my day, you see, is a bit of light philosophy.
After I had finished my coffee this morning, a friend of mine shared a link to an article about the recent discovery of woolly mammoth blood. “We’ll probably have new woolly mammoths soon,” he noted optimistically. I glanced over at my mug and sighed. “Time to go to work, old friend,” I said, being the sort of person who talks to his mug when the mug is the only thing that truly understands him.
The article that my friend shared is the latest fuel to fire the current fad that’s sweeping the scientific community: “de-extinction.” This is actually the fad’s second wave: de-extinction was all the rage twenty years ago, too, even if it wasn’t yet being called by that name. (If only we could find some cause that might explain this behavior.) The first wave did not yield many tangible results; at least, I’m personally unaware of any zoos proudly displaying their mammoths. You might think that this second wave stands a better chance of success because of advances in theory and technology in the past decade. There’s a sense in which you might be right, which is why this wave of de-extinction seems to be attracting so much more attention than the last.
Unfortunately, there’s another — better — sense in which you’d be wrong to be more optimistic for de-extinction’s current prospects. It doesn’t work, it can’t work, and it shouldn’t be made to work. I do not choose my mugs lightly.
Those are admittedly some bold claims I’ve just made. I’m a philosopher, that’s part of my job. The other part is justifying the bold claims. This, then, is my plan: I’m going to explain what de-extinction is and then I’m going to explain why it’s problematic — on a practical level, on a theoretical level, and on a normative level. Then I’m going to have another cup of coffee.
Paleobiologist David Raup once estimated that more than 99% of the biological species that have ever lived are now extinct. To get some of those species back would be a boon to science — either by providing valuable new information  or by assuaging our collective guilt for those times we’ve been responsible for their extinction. Given advances in our understanding of genetics and development, along with attendant improvement of technology, this “de-extinction” of extinct species is (supposedly) possible .
The technology spurring de-extinction’s second wave of interest is a sort of reverse engineering. This method depends on one of the insights of evolutionary developmental biology: that the evolution of biological form can sometimes be derived from changes in the timing or composition of genetic switching mechanisms. Consider the development of bird wings (quick and dirty version™). Normally, the cells in a developing tetrapod forelimb have genes that direct the development of digits in five places; birds have those genes switched off in the places that would normally correspond to the ring and pinky fingers . After the three remaining digits develop, another set of genes directs those digits to fuse together, forming the familiar melty-looking bird hand. The fusion switch is normally turned on during embryonic development, but is delayed past hatching in the species Opisthocomus hoazin, resulting in chicks with distinct fingers and claws. What this means is that we can reverse engineer dinosaur claws from, say, chicken wings: just switch on or off the relevant genes directing digit development and suppress that fusion switch indefinitely. Similarly, birds have structural genes that would code for long tails, but these genes are switched off early in development resulting in the stubby pygostyle; you can draw your own conclusions about what would happen if we switched those genes back on. Paleontologist Jack Horner drew those same conclusions and now proposes that the key to creating new non-avian dinosaurs is to engineer what he calls the “chickenosaurus.” Similarly, if an extinct species differs from an extant sister species as a result of regular developmental differences, or at a few recognizable genetic loci, then scientists could recreate the extinct species’ genome by the same method .
More “traditionally,” the primary method of de-extinction would be somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). SCNT is the way an insecure academic says “cloning” when he wants to sound impressive at a party; hence this essay’s title . Most famously popularized by Mr. DNA, SCNT is a process that many people understand to have three steps: first, assemble DNA; second, Science!; third, collect goats to feed your newly-grown T. rex . Unsurprisingly, the actual process is somewhat more elaborate: there’s quite a bit that gets packed into the vague and ambiguous second step. The full genetic sequence isn’t simply a book of instructions; the instructions are broken into chapters, i.e., chromosomes, and the division of those chapters can make an important difference to the effect they have. Assuming that the geneticist can correctly determine how to divide the sequence into chromosomes, those chromosomes must then be placed into a cellular nucleus along with the various enzymes and organelles that power DNA transcription. The nucleus is also insufficient: DNA contains instructions for protein synthesis, but those proteins get synthesized by cellular components that lie outside the nucleus. To get development going, the geneticist must borrow a donor egg from a member of the same species or a closely-related sister species, remove that egg’s nucleus, and replace it with the cloned nucleus (hence the “nuclear transfer” part of SCNT). The egg then gets zapped with a bit of electricity to trigger the start of cellular processes, after which point it can (in principle) be considered a viable embryo. Embryos, of course, don’t grow in test tubes; they have to be placed in the proper developmental environment, i.e., a mother. If an appropriate surrogate can be found (again, from the same species or a closely-related sister species), then the embryo is implanted in that surrogate and embryonic development can (hopefully) proceed apace. Only then, after all the implanting and hoping and spending of grant money, can anyone proceed to Mr. DNA’s third step.
To be sure, each form of de-extinction faces practical difficulties. Reverse engineering can only work on relatively young species: the extinct species and the extant sister species (from which the extinct species is re-engineered) must have genomes that are largely identical, meaning that the taxa cannot have diverged very long ago. SCNT requires not only a complete genome, but also information about chromosomal divisions (which may not be easily inferred from the genome itself) and extrinsic developmental inputs; even given all that, the extinct species must have extant relatives that are similar enough to bear one of the extinct species’ embryos successfully. Recent attempts to clone the extinct species Thylacinus cynocephalus have failed for these reasons. And even if attempts in the near future prove more successful, most clones could be nothing more than lab animals or zoo curiosities since the cost of breeding a sufficient number of organisms to keep the de-extinct species above a minimum viable population size are prohibitively expensive.
The march of scientific progress will eventually trample these practical obstacles. Some — perhaps many — organisms will remain beyond our capabilities to recreate, but I’m optimistic that we’ll someday see living birds that look for all the world like dodos or shaggy (woolly, if you will) elephants. Even so, I don’t think humans will ever again see dodos or woolly mammoths, because the problem with de-extinction is not a practical one. The problem lies on my mug.
Extinction is forever. Even the lightest philosophy can be a burdensome load.
Here’s an embarrassing secret that few biologists admit: for all our worry over it, “extinction” is a very poorly-defined term. On the one hand, extinction intuitively accompanies the death of the final member of the species, or endling. On the other hand, extinction is the species’ analogue of an organism’s death. But these two definitions are inconsistent. The death of an organism follows from breakdown of that organism’s functional integration; parts of the organism, such as individual cells, may survive beyond the clinical time of death. By this standard, endlings (or at least endlings in sexually-reproducing species) would be surviving members of already-extinct species. So if extinction is analogous to death, then our intuitions about extinction are wrong; if our intuitions about extinction are right, then extinction is in a sense worse than mere death for the species.
Extinction is so poorly defined because it is a property of species, and neither biologists nor philosophers can agree on a single species concept. In particular, the permanence of extinction depends on whether or not species are natural kinds.
Because natural kinds are defined by essential properties, a natural kind may reappear after its last representative perishes. Gold is a natural kind, defined by the atomic number 79; we could destroy every gold atom currently in existence, but the kind would reappear as soon as fusion processes generated another atom with 79 protons in it. If species are natural kinds, then they could reappear following extinction.
The conceptual problem with de-extinction is that there are very good reasons to deny that species are natural kinds. Members of a species are fundamentally variable; variation is the fuel necessary to power evolution by natural selection. With few exceptions, biologists and philosophers therefore deny that species have essences, preferring instead to conceive species as nominal groups bound together by ancestry. It is for this reason that Darwin wrote in the Origin: “When a group has once wholly disappeared, it does not reappear; for the link of generation has been broken.”
Paleontologist Louis Dollo proposed that the irreversibility of extinction (along with the irreversibility of single-trait evolution) ought to be considered a law of evolution. Dollo’s “law of irreversibility” has a number of different interpretations, all of which have been fiercely debated. But I think we all ought to agree on at least one point: de-extinction does not turn back the evolutionary clock. Both reverse engineering and SCNT rely on the modification of extant genomes and developmental environments to create organisms that bear a very strong — perhaps even exact — resemblance to organisms from an extinct species. But to qualify this as the resurrection of an extinct species is as silly as claiming that my (alas, hypothetical) clone and I are numerically identical .
It seems, then, that the de-extinction of species that evolved by natural selection is a logical impossibility . In my capacity as a philosopher I therefore consider the case closed. But most people aren’t philosophers, and refutations from logical impossibility rarely carry the weight that I would hope. In presenting the above argument to friends who work in the life sciences, I’m inevitably confronted with either of two responses. Some say, “you’re thinking too much!” Some say, “this is just semantics!” So I have to admit that something beyond conceptual analysis is probably necessary to get the (relative) masses off their de-extinction high.
Fine. Let’s grant that at least one of the two de-extinction technologies can produce viable organisms in sufficient numbers to support a natural population, and that this population is in fact the same species as one that had previously been extinct. Let’s suppose that we will actually have new woolly mammoths tramping about the arctic tundra. Even then, the pursuit of de-extinction would still be prospecting for fool’s gold.
Conservationists are particularly worried about de-extinction. They should be, too. One of the primary justifications for the conservation of endangered species is that we can’t get back what we’ve lost. If de-extinction becomes commonplace enough, then there is less reason to preserve natural habitats, or to combat global climate change, or to alter ecologically harmful dietary habits. This is all true enough, I think. And derivative effects are potentially disastrous: even relatively small, temporary changes to an ecosystem can do irreparable harm, and the extinction of even a single species is potentially a horrendously big change.
These concerns are primarily political and could be resolved politically. Certainly, the cost of conservation is currently lower than the cost of de-extinction, the latter of which has been estimated in the high tens of millions of dollars for just a single viable organism. The average Joe may not worry about the extinction of species that can be resurrected, but one hopes that the Joes who actually wield power might recognize the problems just noted.
For my part, I think that the greatest problem with de-extinction is that it offers little actual utility to science. Consider the example of Dolly, the most famous of non-Star Wars clones. The cloning process that yielded a single viable sheep also produced hundreds of ultimately inviable embryos, and even the one viable organism that resulted — Dolly herself — suffered from a number of aberrant physical and behavioral problems. We could identify these problems because we have extant sheep against which we could compare Dolly. How could we ever know if a cloned mammoth behaves as extinct mammoths did, or if it is developing within the same parameters (growth rate, intellectual development, etc.) as previous mammoths? We cannot: we have no standard of measurement since there are no extant mammoths. De-extinct species have limited scientific utility simply because information gleaned from the de-extinct species cannot justifiably be extrapolated to the extinct species from whence it came.
Heck: de-extinction might actually harm science. As noted above, the cost of de-extinction is currently astronomical and would likely yield a single individual that can serve as little more than a scientific novelty. Funding in the sciences has become increasingly limited: the tens of millions of dollars spent on that work is tens of millions of dollars not being spent on research that might produce useful new technologies or important theoretical advancement. Given all of the problems noted above, to draw resources away from other scientific pursuits in favor of de-extinction only slows the progress that we might make otherwise .
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see a live mammoth. The biophile in me hopes that I will. I have literally dreamed — repeatedly! — of seeing extinct animals in the flesh. But if I hope in one hand and hold my coffee mug in the other, the latter is the only one that will get me through any given morning.
 The mug is not the second thing because it is implied by the coffee. I have just enough sense not to stick my open mouth below a brewing spigot.
 Just how did dinosaurs, y’know, do it? Imagine the special issue of Cosmo we’re missing out on!
 Let’s get this out of the way: “de-extinction” is a ridiculous term, saddling an advanced theoretical concept with the sort of name a third grader would give to an ad hoc superpower used to avoid losing a game. My proposal is to go with “extantion.” The species that populate current ecosystems are referred to as extant species, but the process by which those species naturally become extant is speciation. “Extantion” — literally, “to make extant” — is just sitting there unused, waiting to serve as a linguistic counterpoint to “extinction.” It has the added virtue of sounding like “extension,” which is what we’d be doing for the lifespan of formerly-extinct species. Also, I came up with it.
 In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth noting that many embryologists believe that the “reduced” digits in the bird hand are the first and last (normally labeled I and V), rather than the last two (IV and V). The debate over the exact numbering of bird digits is extensive, but largely beside the point here.
 To be clear: chickenosaurus would not be a de-extinct species. It would be an entirely new species, if one created by genetic engineering rather than by natural selection. De-extinct species resurrected by reverse engineering, however, are ostensibly a different story.
 It is certainly not meant to be associated with a different movie. How could it? Any such movie would be so bad that I could no longer acknowledge its existence without suffering residual mental anguish, obviously.
 A fourth step — run and scream — is optional.
 The analogy is made even stronger by the fact that many philosophers of biology consider species to be nominal individuals rather than nominal groups, in which case Mammuthus primigenius and a cloned woolly mammoth would be precisely like me and my hypothetical clone. I’m no fan of the individuality thesis myself, but it does drive the point home: resemblance does not make for identity, especially given separation in space and time.
 Which is the worst kind of impossibility, when you get right down to it.
 And this is to say nothing of what might happen if any of those de-extinct organisms ever learn how to open doors.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Recently I’ve had a Twitter “discussion” with my friend Michael DeDora (I know, the meaning of the term here is a bit stretched: think of having discussions on Twitter as analogous to being forced to write Haiku poetry. You will never get the Iliad out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s all garbage). The topic of the discussion was the morality of lobbying, and it was sparked by my posting a link to this article in the New York Times, reporting that — entirely unsurprisingly, and just as entirely objectionably — lobbyists for large banks are “helping” US legislators write laws about bank regulation... [If I have to explain to you why this is a problem, you may as well not bother reading the rest of this post.]
Michael, who is a lobbyist for the Center for Inquiry, retweeted my tweet, adding a “Hey!” in front of it, in clear protest. [To complicate things, I should disclose that I actually helped Michael find his job at CFI, and am very proud of his career there!] An interesting exchange ensued, during which Michael tried to convince me that lobbying is not just a necessary evil (as I readily admitted, in the specific case of non-profit / non-corporate lobbying), but a positive good for our democracy. Here is why I think he is wrong.
[In what follows I will quote Michael’s objections verbatim, followed by my off-Twitter commentary.]
Michael: I think lobbyists/advocates are necessary no matter how “good” the democracy is, unless it is a form of direct democracy.
Well, no. Democracies have existed for a long time without lobbying, and have worked very well, thank you very much. Indeed, institutionalized lobbying is a recent phenomenon, pretty much exported by the United States, and still relatively young in other Western countries. I’m sure it will spread, but I regard this as yet another case of unfortunate American influence on the rest of the planet, not as something that is necessary for a functional democracy. Michael seems to be assuming that without lobbying organizations the American people would have no way of communicating their priorities and choices to their elected representatives. But this is clearly not the case: not only are said representatives elected (ideally, I know) precisely on the basis of what they explicitly say they will do on behalf of their constituents, but the constituents themselves can (and do) pick up phones, computer keyboards and the like and actually let their representatives know what they want or don’t want. Moreover, it is standard practice for elected officials to go back and visit their districts, and even to periodically conduct polls to assess the priorities of their fellow citizens. So, no, lobbying is not the only alternative to direct democracy. [And by the way, I think direct democracy is a horrible idea, just ask Plato.]
Michael: Elected representatives need to be reminded on daily basis what constituents care about, and to hear from experts on those issues.
I have already taken care of the first part of this argument, but the second part seems to me to mischaracterize what a lobbyist is: lobbyists are not just “experts,” they are advocates of a particular point of view. Yes, they may have expertise on a given subject matter, but that expertise is channeled specifically in the service of a pre-determined agenda. Representatives have other ways to get impartial expert advice (to the extent that impartiality is possible on political matters, of course). First off, they have paid staff whose purpose is precisely to provide them with background research on whatever issue they are suppose to be legislating. They can also ask their staff to contact, say, academic experts or organizations (like the National Academy of Sciences) to provide them with the needed perspective. Going to a lobbyist for education is like going to your bank for financial advice. Wanna bet they’ll tell you that their products are the best on the market?
Michael: Ideally citizens would be educated and engaged — your “good” democracy — but they still need guidance, support, representation.
Right, which is why we have, ahem, representatives who are supposed to also lead our country in better directions (whether they do it or not is, of course, another matter). Of course, Michael is thinking largely of his own type of activity with CFI, which I do think is — unfortunately — necessary. But recall that the exchange began with an article about corporate lobbying on behalf of banks. Do banks (or any other corporation or industry) really need “guidance, support, representation”? I think not.
Michael: American democracy is enormous; there are many groups which are underrepresented in the political process for whatever reasons.
This is a good point, though again, hard to imagine banks as qualifying here. More broadly, my objection to lobbying is based on the reality that groups who can pay for it get privileged access to legislators. The groups Michael is concerned about, ironically, are the least likely to get such access, because they typically have the smallest budgets. Wanna compare what CFI spends on his activities in Washington with what, say, the oil industry does? Besides, let’s think about exactly what it means for groups to be underrepresented in the political process. People of different genders, ethnicities, religious affiliations, political ideologies, and so forth, all get precisely one vote when it comes to electing representatives. Of course this does not automatically translate into equal representation, but that’s because of problems with the electoral process (e.g., disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor), lack of education, and so forth. Those are certainly problems worth addressing, as they are structural and truly fundamental to a viable democracy, but they have little to do with lobbying per se.
Michael: Special group = constituents. How do you view efforts of Secular Coalition, CFI-OPP, NSCE, Americans United? Necessary evil?
That’s right, that is precisely how I see them. And no, groups do not equate to constituents, but to particular types of constituents, usually with deep pockets and a resulting unbalanced access to Congress (see above).
Michael: Citizens have always formed groups based on shared social/political goals, partially in order to attain better democracy.
Indeed, as they should. But my objection isn’t to social advocacy in general, or organizing in support of social causes, and so on. It is specifically about lobbying, as defined above.
Michael: Define “the rest of the world.” There are activists/lobbyists all over Europe.
Yes, there are. But first off, there is a difference — again — between activists and lobbyists. Second, even a document [download] that Michael himself shared during the course of our Twitter conversation makes my point. The report in question essentially says that the only countries were there are registered (meaning: officially recognized as part of the way the government operates) lobbyists in the Western world are the US, Canada, and Germany. In all other countries, of course, there are people and organizations that try to influence the legislative process, but do not have regulated privileged access to the legislators. Indeed, the report mentions the case of the UK, which I think is one from which the US could learn: “The UK, on the other hand, has opted to regulate the lobbied rather than the lobbyists.” In other words, the focus should be on regulating the legislators and prevent privileged access to them by any group, an approach that hardly diminishes people’s rights to organize in support of their causes.
Michael: I think we need to differentiate between corporate-focused lobbyists (e.g., banks) and issue-focused lobbyists (e.g., church-state).
Indeed we do. Which is why I support CFI but not JPMorgan Chase. Still, it is far too easy for bank (or any other corporation / industry) lobbyists to make the argument that they too are concerned with issues. And being non-profit is hardly a guarantee, as it is all too easy to set up front organizations, like so many Washington “think tanks,” that end up doing the same sort of job that corporate lobbyists do. Once we buy into the idea of legalized privileged access, all bets are off, as far as I’m concerned, and democracy suffers. (I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that current American democracy is not one of the worst in history, with an unprecedented degree of decoupling between what constituents want and what their alleged representatives actually do. And yes, lobbying is a major factor in this abysmal state of affairs — that and the legalized bribery that is the system of private contributions to re-election campaigns.)
Michael: If anything, it makes the situation worse. By not recognizing and regulating, there is more corruption happening.
Here Michael was responding to my observation that most other Western countries do not recognize lobbyists (see above). Well, this is of course an empirical question, and I’ll await pertinent empirical evidence to settle it. But note one thing: in Italy (for instance) corporations do not have special access nor can they give money to politicians to help elect them. This doesn’t mean that the Italian political system is free from corruption (far from it!). But it does mean that if you are caught engaging in that sort of activity you end up in jail. In the US, by contrast, not only is that sort of blatant bribery legal, but the Supreme Court has even magnified the problem recently under the Constitutional right of freedom of speech! (Yes, I know, strictly speaking campaign contributions are a separate issue from lobbying, though in reality the two are highly connected.)
My exchange with Michael ended up on the positive note that we’ll both look into empirical evidence for specific claims and revisit the topic. As one of my followers, Josh Bunting, ironically put it: “I was hoping this would end with ‘USA! USA! USA!’ instead of ‘I'll do some research and get back to you.’” How disappointing indeed.
[Note: I have invited Michael to respond to this post, if he feels so inclined. I hope he will, it’s an important conversation to have, particularly with someone like him, who has actual experience of lobbying from the inside.]