A Memory of William F. Buckley

February 29, 2008

Monkey Typing Shakespeare

When I think of William F. Buckley Jr., I think of a piece he wrote for the New York Times Op-Ed page a few years ago on Darwin and “Intelligent Design.” (I cannot find the piece in the Times archive online, and I’d be grateful for a link. I know my memory of it is correct, because Buckley refers to the piece himself elsewhere.) In that piece, he reprised an argument that he had used before, and that has been popular with religious anti-evolution critics since Darwin first published his theory.

Simply stated, the argument is that organisms are too complex and perfectly suited to their environments to have evolved by random mutation. To bring this home, Buckley and others employ, with various degrees of derision and sarcasm, the reductio ad absurdum of the room with ten monkeys and ten typewriters on which they bang away happily, and randomly. Could we expect this monkey business to produce Shakepeare’s Hamlet? Well…since the play has a finite number of words, and since the number of possible combinations of the letters in the text of the play is finite, albeit unfathomably large, it is possible if there were enough time provided for the (immortal) simians to do their work. Now, Darwin shivered at the colossal lengths of time his evolutionary scheme required, but that was as nothing compared to the duration we are contemplating here! Intelligent Design triumphs?

Of course, the entire argument is based on a complete misunderstanding, a profound ignorance of what Darwin’s theory entails. Evolution is not a random process. Genetic mutations occur randomly, but their selection and propagation is based on their survival value for the organism. As Ernst Mayr says, it’s a two-step process: mutation, then selection. Sort of as if those tapping monkeys had an editor in the room looking at their output, saving the good scraps of random prose, and somehow feeding that back into the process. Except, of course, the “editor” in evolution is not intelligent or active, but only the blind, crushing, indifferent force of the environment that leads to the disappearance by death or disuse of most mutations.

This fundamental ignorance is how I recall Buckley. He was clever and genial, and ever willing to evade a hard question. When verbal puffery wouldn’t do, he would employ snide humor, innuendo, or sarcasm. He was serenely confident of his opinions, bigotted and otherwise, and acted as though it was bizarre that anyone would question them. When an interviewer asked him if he had felt isolated from “real life” as a young man – he was home schooled – he replied that no, of course not. After all, you don’t need to experience things to understand them. He read a lot. Yes, true, reading is wonderful. But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.


Red = Menace

February 28, 2008

So much for the “yellow peril.” It was red all over. During the Cold War, we were used to seeing lots of red ink spilled across maps, portending the onslaught of the communist hordes from the east. You can check out this post at strangemaps that adds some “perspective” to the Red Menace.

Here, I’m talking about a different sort of red, the type that signals danger, alert, alarm, something bad happening! Color is used in maps for all sorts of reasons, including just making them easier to read, but often, in “thematic maps,” i.e., maps that convey information and data about a particular topic, the colors are related to a scale of values that is described in a key, or legend. The image below is from a recent article in the New York Times Science section about the mapping of the impact of humans on the oceans of the world. This map shows the distribution of shipping lanes over the seas.

nytimes_shipping_map.jpg Link to original article.

Notice that red is the highest value, i.e., “most impact.” Clearly, that’s bad, isn’t it? But…how are we to know? Compared to what? Maybe it’s all horrible. Maybe none of it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that’s true, but the map doesn’t illuminate this point, while it does give the clear impression, with all that red splotched around, that humans are just mucking up the oceans everywhere!

Well, not quite everywhere – the southern hemisphere looks okay. What if we had chosen a projection of the earth like this one? The effect would be quite different, less alarming, less informative?


Maps tell stories, and the mapmaker decides what to emphasize and what to downplay…suppress. Color and cartographic projection are part of that storytelling. No problem here, except that for some reason, people tend, I think, to regard maps as purely scientific documents that are totally precise and objective.

One could see the map in the NYTimes, and the others to be found at that link, as part of a sustained effort to propagandize for the view that the earth is fragile, in need of support and tender care, and that the cause of the problem is the brutish, unthinking behavior of stupid, destructive humans. Is this a true story or a myth?

La Recuperation

February 27, 2008

Strummer - The Clash:  London Calling

Next to me on the train in this morning, a woman had the Wall Street Journal open to a page with an article about London and whether its real estate development boom was cooling off. A color picture showed the skyline, with major skyscraper development sites called out. The headline? “London Stalling.

Let Us Damn Godless Men

February 26, 2008

hellfire preaching

The religious right in our country has been busy for some time trying to get over the falsehood that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Yes, the founders were raised as Christians. Yes, only a few were atheists, although many were Deists of the Jeffersonian-Voltairean sort. Yes, the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, but then, neither do the words “separation of powers.” Those two ideas, however, are clearly central to the meaning of the document.

Perhaps no better evidence for the non-Christian, secular nature of the state our Founders bequeathed to us (aside from the fact that God isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence only mentions the Creator, and the only mention of religion in the Constitution is negative, i.e., there shall be no religious test for office) is the testimony of the contemporary evangelists who did not like the point of view of the Founders. Here we have a quotation from the emminent Timothy Dwight, a prominent evangelical of the time who later headed Yale College:

“The nation has offended Providence. We formed our constitution without any acknowledgment of God; without any recognition his mercies to us as a people, of his government or even of his existence. The [constitutional] convention by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessings, upon their labors. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system without God.”

Amen to that, Tim!

This quotation can be found in the article linked here.

The Mind is Not a Computer

February 25, 2008


I have just begun reading a fascinating book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge by the Nobel Laureate, Gerald Edelman. I wish that this book had been around thirty years ago when I was stuck in the philosophical quagmire known as “analytic philosophy of mind.” This would have been my Bible! As it was, I could only struggle on my own, a single undergraduate, towards a point of view that was pretty much rejected as irrelevant by the philosophic “giants” by whom I was being taught.

Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine! The mechanistic metaphor is so deeply embedded in our intellectual culture that this notion seems far fetched, wacky, at first if you are the type of person who has been seriously contemplating the riddles of consciousness. For many, the computer has seemed to be the best, if not the perfect model on which to draw for explanations of mentality.

In his book, right up front, Edelman makes the point that the brain, which is the primary seat of mind, is nothing like any machine. It is not like any machine humans have ever have, or would ever think of designing. To call it a machine, however poetically, is to do violence to the facts of biology and neuroscience. Why?

A computing machine runs on a clock – tick – tock – tick…each click of the microprocessor (that’s what all those GHtz specifications in the sales sheets are about, the clock speed of the central processor) sets up the machine to do another teeny part of the programmed algorithm…in order…in sequence. The brain has no such clock. It is massively parallel and massively redundant. The same result can be reached through an infinitude of computing paths. Not only that, the results of the previous activity-state, change the current state and future results. (When we train, we force a groove as it were, into our brain so that something, mental activity, physical motion of a certain sort, becomes easier, unconscious…) No machine behaves this way or is even conceived of to behave this way.

So, the machine metaphor is inadequate, and unecessary, for explanations of mind and consciousness. What a relief!

Sequestro Caracas

February 22, 2008

Caracas - Two Cities

“Sequestro Express” is a harrowing film about the ordeal of two affluent young people who are kidnapped in Caracas, Venezuela. The title translates as “Kidnap Express”. Watching the film is like being one of the victims, and it’s not a pleasant experience – the director was himself kidnapped at one time, so the emotional feel is intense. The female victim comes through with her life – she isn’t raped either – but as the lead to the film tells us, a kidnapping happens once every 60 minutes in Latin America, and most of the victims do not survive – “this is the story of just one of them.”

The criminals are sadistic and brutal, but they are human after all. They take calls from their kids and their parents while they are “working.” One of them wants to be an artist. Another is a bit of a thinker – he tells the woman victim that, yes, everyone gets robbed, but only the ones who “flaunt” their wealth get treated with such hatred. The police are corrupt and criminal themselves.

80% of the country lives in miserable poverty: As the director says at the end, the choice is simple – “Confront the beast, or invite it to dinner.” As he says in this fascinating interview:

…it was even for myself a real journey of education and understanding of the way that people – 80% of the people live in poverty in my country – the way they live, the way they think, and why this is the fastest growing crime in Latin America.”

The opening credit sequence of the film includes an aerial pan over the city showing images like the one above, and I think this one in particular encapsulates the idea behind the film. On the right, the sprawling, unplanned, crowded, ramshackle ghetto covering the hills that surround the city. On the left, the ordered, geometrical, spacious, flatlands of where the city of civil society, capitalism, and affluence is placed. [Unlike the USA, in Latin American cities, the well-to-do live in the center, the poor live in the outlying hills.] Two cities, two geographies, two terrains, both economically, socially, morally, medically…on and on. Can a society be a society and live this way?

Irrational Exuberance

February 21, 2008

The Almighty

Blue money, buyer’s remorse. Did I pay that for this!? What about a Dollar Auction? Yes, a little micro-market, a clever game that was popular at parties frequented by Princeton academics of a certain ilk. (See Poundstone’s biography of von Neumann, Prisoner’s Dilemma). Here’s how it works, according to Wikipedia:

The setup involves an auctioneer who volunteers to auction off a dollar bill with the following rule:

The dollar goes to the highest bidder, who pays the amount he bids. The second-highest bidder also must pay the highest amount that he bids, but gets nothing in return.

Suppose that the game begins with one of the players bidding 1 cent, hoping to make a 99 cent profit. He will quickly be outbid by another player bidding 2 cents, as a 98 cent profit is still desirable. Similarly, another bidder may bid 3 cents, making a 97 cent profit. Alternatively, the first bidder may attempt to convert his loss of 1 cent into a gain of 97 cents by also bidding 3 cents. In this way, a series of bids is maintained. However, a problem becomes evident as soon as the bidding reaches 99 cents.

Supposing that the other player had bid 98 cents, they now have the choice of losing the 98 cents or bidding a dollar even, which would make their profit zero. After that, the original player has a choice of either losing 99 cents or bidding $1.01, and only losing one cent. After this point the two players continue to bid the value up well beyond the dollar, and neither stands to profit.

The similarities to nuclear war escalation are disturbingly clear.