Weather Report from Portland

I’ve been living baroquely lately, coming into the new year, the confused seasons out of control – fall to winter for now though here seemingly obvious. It’s cold and wet and dark out, the darkest days of the year, the longest nights, the hardest streets. The homeless are between a rock and a hard place. They are the meek inheriting the earth, for what that’s worth. A week ago, when it started to snow, we were exactly six months from the freak heat wave of late June when one day we reached an absurd 116 degrees. Where I came of age, the southwest side of Los Angeles County, near the beach at the north end of South Santa Monica Bay, South Bay, for short, the mostly small, originally factory lodging, houses, and our little corner house, were plotted between the oil refinery and sand dunes and ocean and the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant and the sprawling airport and the growing aerospace industrial parks, while there were on the east side of our small town still strawberry fields, a few horses in stalls, and a railroad track from the east running behind our backyards through a curving dusty chasm, what the kids called Devil’s Path (or Devil’s Pass), a short cut along the tracks into town, that ended at a small depot near Main Street and Grand Avenue. But in spite of all the brouhaha surrounding us, the ocean nearby was the weather.

There were only two seasons in my childhood: summer, which was the school vacation season, and the school year, the months on either side of vacation. The weather had little to do with our sense of seasonality. The sky was close to blue, the water almost blue and hues of such, the yards and parks and baseball diamonds multi shades of green, the streets mostly clean. Of course there hung about our heads the gunbarrel-blue cake of atrocious smog, though not so much nearer the water, unless the Santa Ana winds were blowing, maybe for a week or so once or twice a year was all in those days. And June might have been the foggy season, but the breezes off the ocean usually pushed and cleaned as they blew east across the big basin, through the canyons up into the hills and up the long boulevards that ran east and west, and blew too through our house because there was always a window open (or broken) somewhere or a door might open or close any time of the day or night as we came and went to and fro through the blues and greens and sandy yellow days and well lit nights of Los Angeles and environs.

Why did humans leave Africa? If that’s what happened, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that our history, what little we can be sure of, might be a bit more compound-complex. In any case, I can’t answer that; I don’t even know why I left Los Angeles.

We live, it’s been suggested, but I don’t remember where I first saw or heard this, at the bottom of a sea of atmosphere (I googled the phrase just now and came up with about 30,000 results, so instead of quote marks, I’ve italicized it). But nothing like water, the rain, to wash out one’s punctuation marks.

Punctuated equilibrium suggests a paragraph whose flow of ideas is steady and stable, one thought logically following another in a gradual evolutionary movement that can be traced forward and backward and annotated. Sudden changes are more difficult to explain.

In Steve Martin’s movie “L. A. Story,” the main character is a television weatherman. But there is no weather in his Los Angeles, by which is meant change in weather. That is a paragraph without a main idea.

Locally, on the television news, consisting mostly of stable formatting, the studio news teams, that is, the players on camera, consist of an anchor, the sportscaster, and the weatherperson – the great American Triumphant (one pictures Benjamin Franklin flying his kite in a lightning storm, the on location camera crew shaking in their boots). The weatherpersons rarely seem to be given enough time to elaborate, as evidenced by their speed of speech. They sound like hawkers at an auction. The numbers and maps, highs and lows, radar of fronts, systems, and directions all whiz by, “put in motion,” and “hour by hour,” as they say, so quickly that as if to include the weather at all in the newscast seems to have been an afterthought. And the channels devoted to weather 24 by 7 are no different, everyone in a hurry to get out of the weather, whatever it is.

The newshour (or half hour, as our attention spans continue to wane) is not an essay, even though the principal parts may seem like paragraphs in some unified whole. The news relies on something new happening, but not even sudden changes in the fossil record can satisfy our quest to know, let alone understand, what’s going down.

Are we in the midst of a sudden change in the fossil record? Story at 11.

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.