Denisovans and Neanderthals, Sullivan, Sanders, & Lepore

The entrance to Denisova Cave

Credit: Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts

The Neanderthals and Denisovans — both relatives of modern humans — were roommates, literally, for thousands of years in a remote Siberian cave. Back in ancient times, this cave would have been a real estate agent’s paradise. It’s the only place in the world that Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly even modern humans  lived together throughout history,  almost continuously over both warm and cold periods during the past 300,000 years.
By analyzing fossils and DNA, the researchers learned that the enigmatic Denisovans lived in the cave from at least 200,000 to 50,000 years ago, and the Neanderthals lived there between 190,000 and 100,000 years ago. These Denisovans and Neanderthals are estimated to have separated from the lineage that would become Homo sapiens approximately 600,000 to 744,000 years ago and significantly diverged from each other genetically about 200,000 years later.

Evangelical Christians, utterly indifferent to God’s creation,

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research notes, according to the BBC, that “since 1950, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times, and wildfires seven-fold.” Last week, research emerged showing that the insect biomass is declining by 2.5 percent a year, which means that we may wipe out the entire insect population within a century — and lose a quarter of it in the next ten years. This amounts to what Jill Kieldash describes as the “actual structural and functional collapse of the natural systems which have supported life on Earth for the last 400 million years.”
We face literally existential threat to life itself, we have elected a president who denies anything is happening at all, and is, in fact, determined to accelerate the collapse. I don’t know how this paradigm affects you every day, but it is for me the gutting context for everything, a growing nausea laced with guilt and shame. In a century, we will have destroyed this Earth as we have known it — in absolutely full awareness of what we are doing. It’s the greatest crime humanity has ever committed. It distresses and enrages me particularly that one core bloc egging on this devastation are Evangelical Christians, utterly indifferent to God’s creation, indeed, actively hostile to it. How, I wonder, can they be this way?
Andrew Sullivan


In a statement, Sarah Sanders said Trump would sign a funding bill to avert another government shutdown and also take other executive action—including declaring a national emergency—to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.  According to Sanders Trump is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country.
Sarah Sanders, February 14, 2019

Why a Nation Needs a National Story

As the historian John Higham put it, “From the middle of the nineteenth century until the 1960s, the nation was the grand subject of American history.” Over that same stretch of time, the United States experienced a civil war, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, two world wars, and unprecedented immigration—making the task even more essential. “A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects,” the historian Thomas Bender once observed. “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.”
Jill Lepore.  A New Americanism.
in Foreign Affairs, March/April,2019

What is the America as in MAGA…or “Make America Great Again”?

Science is real, Washingon DC is not, and that’s a problem

Hello, This is a tooth (although it doesn’t look like one).

which at one time, about 27000 years ago, belonged in the mouth of a Panamerican ground sloth much like this one:

It’s just one tooth, but it tells us about the sloth. Imagine your own teeth one day, some  27,000 or more years from now when homo sapiens has gone extinct, and your teeth are found and are in the hands of a scientist of the time, whoever or whatever that person or robot might be, and who will have replaced us as the highest form of life on earth.

What would our teeth tell “him” about how we lived when it was our turn to be living on the earth? Not being a dentist, nor a paleontologist, nor not knowing anything at all about the time 27,000 years from now when our teeth may be found by a paleontologist, I have no idea.

Now the fabulous ground sloths are no more with us, all gone extinct. The North American  Eremotherium laurillardi – the six-metre-long animal in the picture  occupied a range that stretched from the southern states of the US to Brazil,

but did not survive the advent of homo sapiens about 11.000 years ago.

But let me get back to the single tooth and what it tells us. It’s kind of unbelievable what we can learn from a sloth’s tooth, at least just  so far if we know how and where to look, about the life secrets of a single animal.

I take what follows from a report by Dyani Lewis in the internet news letter COSMOS  taken in turn from the Journal Science Advances of February 28 of this year:

Grass, shrubs and dryness: a year in the life of a giant sloth.

But why am I writing about the giant sloth? Well I’ve just been watching Michael Cohen being brutally and unfairly attacked by the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee, and I desperately wanted to walk away and immerse myself in something real. The work of scientists is real, the work of the representatives in Washington DC is not. Our president has not yet understood this, about Washington and about science.

But here is a little of what the scientists have learned about this fabulous (and lazy?) animal who did survive the last Ice Age. Will we survive the present age of the Great Warming?

Analysis of the tooth, prised from a clay ledge metres below the surface of a water-filled sink-hole in central Belize, reveals details about what the sloth ate, and the climate it lived in.
Jean Larmon from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, and colleagues measured the amounts of specific chemical elements that were incorporated into the tooth when the sloth was alive.
The isotopes carbon-13 and oxygen-18 are particularly useful. Carbon-13 values can tell scientists about the types of food the sloth consumed, and oxygen-18 levels reveal the aridity of the climate at the time.
Because amounts of these isotopes slowly change, or decay, over time, they can also reveal the age of any object containing them….In other animals, the hard outer coating of teeth – the enamel – is usually used in stable isotope analysis. But sloth teeth grow continuously – much like a rat’s incisors – and therefore lack it.
Larmon and colleagues instead took readings from different layers of the sloth tooth. The values varied. Using a technique that measures the amount of light emitted by a fossil, they ascertained that the most reliable values were from a hard layer called orthodentin. By sampling along the length of this layer the team built up a picture of the sloth’s life over a period of about a year.
The animal lived smack in the middle of the last glacial maximum, the most recent time during the Last Glacial Period when ice sheets were at their greatest extent, well before humans arrived in the Americas. At the time, Central America wasn’t covered in tropical forests as it is today. The region was much drier, covered in savannah and juniper scrub vegetation.
The sloth experienced two brief wet seasons, separated by a long dry season. Its diet changed with the seasons, suggesting it was an opportunistic feeder. This could have held it in good stead for adapting to the increasingly arid conditions of the period. During the wet seasons, it most likely ate grasses and shrubs, but no leafy trees.
To understand the biology and the ecology of these animals when they were alive is absolutely critical. Armed with that information,  scientists are better able to assess what factors – a changing climate, say, or the arrival of humans – eventually led to the species’ extinction.
But the reasons for the demise of large animals, collectively known as megafauna, is an enduring mystery. And while this present study describes details of just one individual’s life, it contributes to a greater understanding of the prehistoric environment.  Dyani Lewis

E pluribus unum in the words of Simon Winchester

We’re all familiar with the statement that diversity is our strength, and also with, E pluribus unum, out of the many comes the one, that which we interpret to mean that out of the hundreds of thousands of refugies and other immigrants (the many) to our shores this country was made, was made strong (the one).

Well Donald Trump and his followers don’t seem to get it.  In fact they would build a wall between us and the other, whereas the other has always been our greatest source of strength. I forget just when but on Fox, also known as Trump TV, Trump spokesperson Tucker  Carlson had this to say:

“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?  Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units, in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are?” Implying that cohesivity is somehow better than the much revered by liberals diversity.

Tucker seems to be saying that strength or at least cohesivity stems from having things in common, from being alike. I’m a sometime potter and that may be true of clays, like clays will bond better than unlike clays. But people?

I wouldn’t have called Tucker stupid, like his boss, but what he is saying is stupid. How, he asks, could diversity be our strength, implying that it couldn’t be? Now that’s just stupid.

Sameness, or as Tucker says having things in common,  is in Tucker’s view a good thing. for married couples, for example, and for divisions of the United States army, let alone the American people. Well it’s not a good thing for either the one or the other. In both it’s rather the differences much more than the likenesses that count, that make the strengths of the one and the other. And even more true of the American people.

Even in a classroom, where your experience might lead you to say, why these kids in front of me are all different how ever will I teach them anything at all? But really who would ever want the kids to be all the same, that which by the way will never happen unless the  molecular biologists begin to make them so by gene manipulations, by what’s the word, Crisp, which I read is a kind of gene editing (and of which I know almost nothing).

Why  would you ever want 25 kids all the same in their interests and talents, not to mention their skin colors, their physical characteristics, ethnic and racial backgrounds, even their languages. For it’s the differences that enable kids to learn from one another, and that’s always where most of the learning that does go on takes place, with kids being teachers themselves, not the teachers teaching the kids.

It is the diversity (don’t build that wall!) that enables a country to grow and prosper by drawing on the different strengths of a thoroughly diverse group of people, such as are the Americans who have been coming here by the millions for hundreds of years. E pluribus unum is bringing diverse peoples together,  and while doing so not at all doing away with the diversity and the differences they bring with them (perhaps through that tunnel dug under the wall!).

I’m a bit apologetic, a bit ashamed at having belabored an obvious truism about the merits of diversity. Other people have done this before me, of course, and much better than I.  I’ll leave you with one of these others, with Simon Winchester who has the following to say in the  PREFACE of his book, The Men Who United the United States.

Early in the crisp small hours of November 7, 2012, a weary but exultant Barack Obama was thanking his countrymen for just handing him a second term as forty-fourth president of the United States. His speech was brief, but it rang with an eloquence that moved well beyond the platitudes of the pitiless election season that had mercifully ended in this culmination just moments before. It was a speech that spelled out President Obama’s unyieldingly optimistic belief in the future of a country that had allowed him, a young black man, to be invested, now for a second term, as the most powerful human being on the planet. He had been given this role, he said, with a new chance to perfect still further the immense entity that is the American union,…

“I believe we can seize this future together,” he said, “because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be”—and here he paused for just a beat, to add solemn emphasis to the adjective—“the United States of America.”…

E pluribus unum, since 1782, the Motto on THE OFFICIAL SEAL OF THE UNITED STATES. America is, after all, a nation founded as a home for the single simple ideal of universal human freedom. The country was established as a grand experiment, with people invited from all over the world to take part, to help build a nation of free souls, each to be given an equal opportunity to seek as each saw best the greatest happiness for themselves. …

Lacking the racial and other commonalities afforded in some other countries—Japan, say, or Norway—…the great experiment that is America has had to make a union of its diverse peoples  for itself,…

It has done so purposefully by the deliberate acts of its own people…. But just how has America’s uniquely stable union been achieved?

What factors have ensured that, say, a Chinese migrant in rain-swept Seattle can find himself locked in some near-mystical concord with a Sephardic Jewish woman in Manhattan or a Cherokee student in Minnesota or a Latina stallholder in a market in Albuquerque—all of them being able to enjoy the same rights and aspirations, encapsulated in their shared ability to declare so simply, I am an American?…

Simon Winchester

And most of the American’s achievements—but not all—remain as vital to the nation’s preservation as they were when first they were created. From the very visible nineteenth-century explorations of the Lewis and Clark expedition, by way of the geological surveying expeditions and the highway-building ventures and waterway excavations, to the less easily describable twenty-first-century mystery makings of the Internet communications backbone—there are fully two centuries of inventive zeal that have left as legacy a nation now as comprehensively interconnected and as practically unified as it is possible to imagine….


Adam Schiff: An open letter to my Republican colleagues

Adam B. Schiff, a Democrat, representing California’s 28th Congressional District and chairing the Intelligence Committee of the House wrote on February 6 the following letter to his Republican colleagues.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) speaks on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6.

This is a moment of great peril for our democracy. Our country is deeply divided. Our national discourse has become coarse, indeed, poisonous. Disunity and dysfunction have paralyzed Congress.

And while our attention is focused inward, the world spins on, new authoritarian regimes are born, old rivals spread their pernicious ideologies, and the space for freedom-loving peoples begins to contract violently. At last week’s Munich Security Conference, the prevailing sentiment among our closest allies is that the United States can no longer be counted on to champion liberal democracy or defend the world order we built.

For the past two years, we have examined Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its attempts to influence the 2018 midterms. Moscow’s effort to undermine our democracy was spectacularly successful in inflaming racial, ethnic and other divides in our society and turning American against American.

But the attack on our democracy had its limits. Russian President Vladimir Putin could not lead us to distrust our own intelligence agencies or the FBI. He could not cause us to view our own free press as an enemy of the people. He could not undermine the independence of the Justice Department or denigrate judges. Only we could do that to ourselves. Although many forces have contributed to the decline in public confidence in our institutions, one force stands out as an accelerant, like gas on a fire. And try as some of us might to avoid invoking the arsonist’s name, we must say it.

I speak, of course, of our president, Donald Trump.

The president has just declared a national emergency to subvert the will of Congress and appropriate billions of dollars for a border wall that Congress has explicitly refused to fund. Whether you support the border wall or oppose it, you should be deeply troubled by the president’s intent to obtain it through a plainly unconstitutional abuse of power.

Obstruction of justice is hard to prove, even if Trump makes it look easy. How to prove obstruction of justice: Did the suspect have corrupt intent, and would the actions, if successful, be likely to obstruct the proceeding? President Tariff Man may be learning all the wrong lessons from his trade wars

To my Republican colleagues, hear this: When the president attacked the independence of the Justice Department by intervening in a case in which he is implicated, you did not speak out. When he attacked the press as the enemy of the people, you again were silent. When he targeted the judiciary, labeling judges and decisions he didn’t like as illegitimate, we heard not a word. And now he comes for Congress, the first branch of government, seeking to strip it of its greatest power, that of the purse.

Many of you have acknowledged your deep misgivings about the president in quiet conversations over the past two years. You have bemoaned his lack of decency, character and integrity. You have deplored his fundamental inability to tell the truth. But for reasons that are all too easy to comprehend, you have chosen to keep your misgivings and your rising alarm private.

That must end. The time for silent disagreement is over. You must speak out.

This will require courage. The president is popular among your base, which revels in his vindictive and personal attacks on members of his own party, even giants such as the late senator John McCain. Speaking up risks a primary challenge or accusations of disloyalty. But such acts of independence are the most profound demonstrations of loyalty to country.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may soon conclude his investigation and report. Depending on what is in that report and what we find in our own investigations, our nation may face an even greater challenge. While I am alarmed at what we have already seen and found of the president’s conduct and that of his campaign, I continue to reserve judgment about what consequences should flow from our eventual findings. I ask you to do the same.

Congress did its job on the border deal. It needs to do it again by amending the emergency act.

If we cannot rise to the defense of our democracy now, in the face of a plainly unconstitutional aggrandizement of presidential power, what hope can we have that we will do so with the far greater decisions that could be yet to come?

Although these times pose unprecedented challenges, we have been through worse. The divisions during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were just as grave and far more deadly. The Depression and World War II were far more consequential. And nothing can compare to the searing experience of the Civil War.

If Abraham Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party, could be hopeful that our bonds of affection would be strained but not broken by a war that pitted brother against brother, surely America can come together once more. But as long as we must endure the present trial, history compels us to speak, and act, our conscience, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Lindsey Graham, a strange fish of a man, or a devil?

I would have to admit that I’ve never known an evil person up close. Nor have I ever known evil itself, other than in written history and literature, probably more in history. Today while reading a notification from Live Science, I read: “Was the infamously cruel Nero really as terrible an emperor as Roman historians have suggested?”

And I would ask the question, was Nero an evil man? Do evil acts, make the perpetrator evil? Nero (A.D. 37 to 68) has long been considered a power-mad  despot whose leadership was defined by terrible acts of violence, such as poisoning a teenage rival, arranging his mother’s assassination, setting a fire that destroyed much of Rome, executing Christians and such. Does this make him evil?

And while thinking about this I asked myself, is President Trump, having shown himself capable of “evil” words and actions, does that make him evil? And the people about the president, those who kowtow to him, evidently for their own personal advantage, in particular Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate leaders, those and others of his sycophantic followers (the largest number being evangelicals making up what is called his “base,”) —those who look on their president, know what’s happening, know that with Trump  the rule of law is no longer paramount, no longer protected, while their president with their help, or at least with their non interference, is  shredding our democracy. By not opposing the irresponsible words and actions, the lies of their president, are these men evil?

Now I find myself even with an “evil” man  in the Oval Office, along with his just as “evil” followers, holding the view that there is no such thing as evil, no such thing in Washington like the devil tempting Faust, the devil tempting Jesus Christ, or Iago betraying and undoing his friend, Othello, nor is there even the devil of our stories and myths, those who dress themselves in devil’s clothes, nor even is there a devil-Nero himself.

If there is evil it has to be in all of us, not in some imagined figure we call the devil. The evil today is, of course, to be found in those who know things are bad but take no action to make things better, and thereby allow things to get worse. In this sense we might even call the Senate Republicans evil. By taking no action they are cutting off the good that could have surrounded them and us through their actions.

To understand what’s happening with Donald Trump one has to give up one’s own beliefs, in particular revise one’s previous conclusion that among the world’s peoples we the Americans were the enlightened ones.  No longer. Trump and his minions, his Evangelical base, have led us away from an adult rule of law, from the voice of reason, in short from responsible behavior.

Trump and company have removed themselves, and a good part of the country along with them, from the two strongest civilizing currents of our recent history —17th. century Science for one (Trump’s science guy doesn’t believe in global warming, in fact, doesn’t believe in science) and two, the 18th century Enlightenment.

Trump himself will have no truck with reason and he has right there with him his millions of followers also having no truck with reason, these including the crazies on the far right, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Ann Coulter, and the crazies settled in at Fox Nation, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Tucker Carlson. Trump and friends are opposing the best of what we have been as a country up until now. Extraordinary isn’t it, what he has done and that we have let him do it!

Trump by coming to Washington would, as he tells his base at the rallies, drain the swamp and build the wall. He has done neither although he still talks with his base at the rallies about doing both, fearing the loss of his base in 2020 if he doesn’t. But he has probably, if anything, only deepened the swamp by his constant assault on such as goodness, decency, fairness, justice, all those qualities that still could but have not yet, made us a truly exceptional people and nation.

Trump has taken us back to when the country was at its worst, to times when the people were truly divided, to times when E pluribus unum was not accepted, let alone realized. Now it’s MAGA, Trump’s personal mantra and fantasy, which means only that Trump is not familiar with, let alone understood, the country’s past history. In the years to come, years without Trump, MAGA will be treated as a hat and a joke, both of which it is.

How has Trump done  it? Well by his own colossal ignorance of history, by the thousands of lies in his almost hourly if not daily tweets, by the untruths during rare interviews and press conferences, by his choice of corrupt and unqualified individuals for his cabinet, in short, by a succession, through the first two years of his presidency, of myriad thoughtless and irresponsible actions.

He has done it by allowing to come out into the open and prosper the very worse traits of the people chosen to serve him, in particular such as Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators and Cabinet members. These people, mostly for some reason that escapes me (it can’t be just to hold onto their Senate seats) have become kowtowing, servile followers of their Emperor-President Donald Trump.
Continue reading Lindsey Graham, a strange fish of a man, or a devil?

Herbicides, insecticides, warming temperatures and now Trump’s wall

Monarch butterflies east of the Rockies typically start the journey in Canada and the upper Midwest, aiming for the Oyamel-fir forests in Mexico’s Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains. Photograph by Sylvain Cordier / Getty

To read the full article in the New Yorker, go to Monarch butterflies migrate.

Walking around my family’s property in upstate New York last summer, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in years: scores of monarch butterflies flying around the milkweed that rings the perimeter of the yard. Six months later, at the end of January, biologists attending the Trinational Monarch Science Meeting, in Mexico City, confirmed what I and many others had been seeing throughout the summer and fall: the eastern monarch population was a hundred and forty-four per cent larger than it had been a year earlier. The announcement offered a modicum of hope amid dire warnings of mass extinctions and ecological catastrophe. Just two weeks earlier, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation had issued a finding that the monarch population west of the Rockies dropped by around ninety per cent in the past year and is on the verge of collapse.

Though they weigh less than a gram, they travel thousands of miles each fall to overwintering sites that provide the right microclimate to enable them to survive for months with little food or water. To track these migration patterns, citizen scientists have been gluing small tags on monarchs’ wings since the nineteen-fifties. The data from recovered tags is continually overlaid on maps that show where the butterflies are going and where they are coming from. That’s how we now know that monarchs east of the Rockies typically start the journey in Canada and the upper Midwest, aiming for the Oyamel-fir forests in Mexico’s Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains. In the spring, the butterflies lay eggs in Texas before dying; successive generations move northward in a kind of relay race that follows the proliferation of milkweed, their host plant. Monarchs that begin their journey west of the Rockies do something similar: after wintering on the coast of California, shielded by stands of eucalyptus or Monterey pine, they move inland to the Central Valley, but also north to Washington State and southern British Columbia, and to Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and possibly Montana….

“I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world.”

I’m always reading, a habit of mind not always appreciated by my wife, as I well understand. And the subjects of my reading are not only thrillers, history, and science, but more often what Donald Trump calls “Fake News” on the internet. which I now mostly access through my  iPhone.

“Fake News” journalists are my heros. They look at the world, the whole word, at what’s happening, at what is, at what was, and at what could be, and they write about it. And now there are more of them than  ever before, and to read them we need only an internet access.

Let me call these journalists, the thousands, tens of thousands of them out there, the principal source of my own learning, much more than ever was school or college. And they are probably in this business, in many if not all instances, for life.

My own life-long learning starts with reading them. That’s probably why I begin my day with such as the Times and the Post for these two publications represent the very best of them, their principal job, that which they do admirably on a daily basis, being to send their journalists out into the world so that we, the readers, can be made aware of what’s out there. By reading them I/we grow in our understanding of the world.

Now I’m going to give you a single example of the sort of thing they do, bringing the world out there to us. This is not from the Times, nor the Post, but from another well known Fake News publication, The Atlantic Monthly. And the subject is not Donald Trump, SCOTUS, or the threat of government shutdown, or now of our illegitimate President claiming emergency powers. The subject is Jainism.

As I first began to read this piece, called What The Crow Knows, I was immediately struck by both joy and laughter, my two favorite emotions, as well as by my sharply revived interest in the subject matter,  Jainism, and from that what our animal cousins, what the crows know.

[Now and from now on, it’s the writer,Ross Andersen who is speaking (writing).]


Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack.

The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals.

A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

Jainism’s highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals; at a bird hospital in Old Delhi, vets treat broken wings, administer medicine, remove tumors, and more. (Hashim Badani)

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse.

In the state of Gujarat, where Gandhi grew up, I saw Jain monks walking barefoot in the cool morning hours to avoid car travel, an activity they regard as irredeemably violent, given the damage it inflicts on living organisms, from insects to larger animals. The monks refuse to eat root vegetables, lest their removal from the earth disturb delicate subterranean ecosystems. Their white robes are cotton, not silk, which would require the destruction of silkworms. During monsoon season, they forgo travel, to avoid splashing through puddles filled with microbes, whose existence Jains posited well before they appeared under Western microscopes.

For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.

Jains move through the world in this gentle way because they believe animals are conscious beings that experience, in varying degrees, emotions analogous to human desire, fear, pain, sorrow, and joy. This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. And not just the obvious cases—primates, dogs, elephants, whales, and others. Scientists are now finding evidence of an inner life in alien-seeming creatures that evolved on ever-more-distant limbs of life’s tree. In recent years, it has become common to flip through a magazine like this one and read about an octopus using its tentacles to twist off a jar’s lid or squirt aquarium water into a postdoc’s face. For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.

No aspect of our world is as mysterious as consciousness, the state of awareness that animates our every waking moment, the sense of being located in a body that exists within a larger world of color, sound, and touch, all of it filtered through our thoughts and imbued by emotion.

Even in a secular age, consciousness retains a mystical sheen. It is alternatively described as the last frontier of science, and as a kind of immaterial magic beyond science’s reckoning. David Chalmers, one of the world’s most respected philosophers on the subject, once told me that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, like space-time or energy. He said it might be tied to the diaphanous, indeterminate workings of the quantum world, or something nonphysical.

These metaphysical accounts are in play because scientists have yet to furnish a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. We know the body’s sensory systems beam information about the external world into our brain, where it’s processed, sequentially, by increasingly sophisticated neural layers. But we don’t know how those signals are integrated into a smooth, continuous world picture, a flow of moments experienced by a roving locus of attention—a “witness,” as Hindu philosophers call it.

In the West, consciousness was long thought to be a divine gift bestowed solely on humans. Western philosophers historically conceived of nonhuman animals as unfeeling automatons. Even after Darwin demonstrated our kinship with animals, many scientists believed that the evolution of consciousness was a recent event. They thought the first mind sparked awake sometime after we split from chimps and bonobos. In his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argued that it was later still. He said the development of language led us, like Virgil, into the deep cognitive states capable of constructing experiential worlds.

This notion that consciousness was of recent vintage began to change in the decades following the Second World War, when more scientists were systematically studying the behaviors and brain states of Earth’s creatures. Now each year brings a raft of new research papers, which, taken together, suggest that a great many animals are conscious.

It was likely more than half a billion years ago that some sea-floor arms race between predator and prey roused Earth’s first conscious animal. That moment, when the first mind winked into being, was a cosmic event, opening up possibilities not previously contained in nature.

There now appears to exist, alongside the human world, a whole universe of vivid animal experience. Scientists deserve credit for illuminating, if only partially, this new dimension of our reality. But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That’s a philosophical problem, and like most philosophical problems, it will be with us for a long time to come.
Continue reading “I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world.”

Three illegitimate “Justices,”

The Supreme Court is done for as the respected third branch of government it used to be.

The note below appeared as one of my contributions last week to a private email group including a number of lawyers. Three of them, including a retired Democratic Congressional Representative, endorsed my proposals. A fourth, a former Republican member of the Georgia State House, was “appalled.” The photo was included in my email. The proposal was emailed to the group Thursday, October 5, 2018, the day before Kavanaugh’s confirmation and it hasn’t been altered for this posting.
Melvin Konner

Three illegitimate “Justices,” now one third of the court and three fifths of the ultra-right majority.

Here’s what I think will and should happen now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed:

1. Leading House Dems should start planning (premised on on having flipped the House) ongoing investigations that include every detail of Kavanaugh’s lies, drunkenness, and sexual assault. They should make his life as an illegitimate “Justice” a living hell of legitimate investigations, which in due course should lead to impeachment.

2. They should reopen the Clarence Thomas case and consider impeaching him. Professor Hill deserves reconsideration by panels including women and in the light of new mores.

3. They should begin exploring options for expanding the court to eleven Justices.

4. They should never ever give up the nuclear option unless they have a supermajority in both houses, and then they should revoke the nuclear option in a way that makes it much more difficult to reinstate.

The Supreme Court is done for as the respected third branch of government it used to be. Democrats must do their jobs in legislatures at the state and federal levels to ensure that SCOTUS decisions in the future matter less and less. Private organizations should work toward the same goal.

For example: If Roe is overturned, Planned Parenthood should build a network of clinics at airports in right-to-choose states, and set aside funds to fly women from states that have abolished their right to choose to states that have preserved it, and get them home in time for supper.

For example: Tremendous effort should be put into preventing any reversal of the Voting Rights Act that the illegitimate “Justices” concoct, and into securing voting rights for felons who have paid their debt to society. If voter id’s are needed, there should be a nationwide program to provide them to everyone, funded by our side, and it should be proactive.

For example: Legislatures, not courts, should ensure that ports of entry to the U.S. within blue state borders have every possible protection for immigrants and that immigrants reaching sanctuary states and cities are fully protected.

Bear in mind that “states rights” now means the opposite of what it did fifty or more years ago. It means thwarting oppressive and stupid federal laws and federal court decisions from marijuana to abortion rights to immigration to voting.

We must get into a mind set where we understand that the courts are against us, and act accordingly to work around them. The federal judiciary, especially SCOTUS, is no longer independent, and “the rule of law” no longer includes it. Going forward, the rule of law has to be the rule of legislatures that make laws, not the rule of umpires with one blind eye.

Giving up on SCOTUS is a long slow needed cultural change. It started in 1991 with Thomas & Hill, went on to Bush v Gore and Citizens United, and intensified greatly with the theft of Merrick Garland’s seat. Kavanaugh’s ascent may not be the final nail in the SCOTUS coffin, but it will be a big one. Of course they will still make decisions. What needs to happen is for more and more people to disrespect and disbelieve them, and to work around them any way they can.

Melvin Joel Konner is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. He studied at Brooklyn College, CUNY, where he met Marjorie Shostak, whom he later married and with whom he had three children.


Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité