Evolving the Web of Life

Darwin's sketch of the tree of lifeDarwin was first to substantiate the idea of a tree of life.  Offspring an be different from their parents, and over generations the differences can accumulate in different directions until the cousins are identified as entirely different species.  THAT was the Origin of Species.

The idea stood up for 100 years, but we now see a story that is vastly more complicated.  At crucial points in the history of life, evolution proceeded via mergers and acquisitions.   Bacteria have been passing genes around for 2 billion years or more, shedding copies willy nilly, picking up other people’s genes and keeping whatever they find useful.  We worry what monstrosities are being created when Monsanto takes a bacterial insecticide gene and implants it in a patented strain of corn.  But nature has been performing such chimerical experiments for a long time, though it’s probable that the vast majority of these experiments are abandoned before they get very far.  The successes are few and far between, but they have had an inordinate impact on the history of life.

We know much less about evolution than we thought.  David Quammen has a new book.


It was 90 years ago today

We don’t have to dream.  All we have to do is enforce the law.  War is illegal by International Law, and war is illegal by United States law, and any president who sends troops abroad, any senator or congressman who votes to authorize fighting, has reneged on his oath of office.

David Swanson tells the story in a book.  The American people had been hoodwinked into joining World War I.  No one could even explain what the fighting was about, but by 1917, U.S. banks had lent so much money to France and Great Britain that the banks couldn’t afford to let them lose.  Can we, in 2018, imagine a time when the U.S. government was more influenced by what is good for the banks than what is good for the people?  Stretch your imagination.

The cost of the war was devastating.  Idealistic men were loaded onto boats for Europe, partying and singing songs, full of patriotic enthusiasm.  They came back shell-shocked, traumatized, permanently damaged with fear in their eyes and  cynicism in their hearts.   My grandfather was one of those who left America as a happy-go-lucky high school grad, and came back a nervous, obsessive zombie—which is how I remember him 40 years later.  Of course, 100,000 of our boys didn’t come back at all, and another 700,000 Americans died in the influenza pandemic that was carried around the world with the soldiers.

Americans were divided in their opinions about many things, but fully agreed on one thing: never again, would we sign on to someone else’s war.  If attacked, we would defend American soil, but never would we send troops overseas.  Not only was the Kellogg-Briand pact ratified by the American Senate, it was an American initiative from the start.  And it was a grass roots movement, imposed on our leaders by a people united in one voice.

The story I tell in my book is one of a divided and struggling peace movement that united and grew. The Europhiles and the isolationists had to come together. The prohibitionists and the drinkers had to join hands. The outlawrists had to develop a vision of a transformed world and convince people it was possible. The case had to be made to the public with moral passion and urgency. There had to be an endless stream of flyers and pamphlets and books and meetings and petitions and lobby visits. Women’s groups and men’s groups that had sold out during World War I and those that had not had to put their shoulders to the wheel together. Those who wanted a world court and those who didn’t, those who wanted a League of Nations and those who didn’t, and those who wanted to focus on disarmament, and even some of those who wanted to focus on condemning U.S. imperialism in Latin America had to decide that outlawing war was one useful and achievable step and pour everything into it for a year or two, forego sleep, and work literally in some cases to the point of heart attack.

Happy Kellogg-Briand day!

Street with a Pink Corner Store

Gone into night are all the eyes from every intersection
and it’s like a drought anticipating rain.
Now all roads are near,
even the road of miracles.
The wind brings with it a slow, befuddled dawn.
Dawn is our fear of doing different things and it comes over us.
All the blessed night I have been walking
and its restlessness has left me
on this street, which could be any street.
Here again the certainty of the plains
on the horizon
and the barren terrain that fades into weeds and wire
and the store as bright as last night’s new moon.
The corner is familiar like a memory
with those spacious squares and the promise of a courtyard.
How lovely to attest to you, street of forever, since my own days have
witnessed so few things!
Light draws streaks in the air.
My years have run down roads of earth and water
and you are all I feel, strong rosy street.
I think it is your walls that conceived sunrise,
store so bright in the depth of night.
I think, and the confession of my poverty
is given voice before these houses:
I have seen nothing of mountain ranges, rivers, or the sea,
but the light of Buenos Aires made itself my friend
and I shape the lines of my life and my death with that light of the street.
Big long-suffering street,
you are the only music my life has understood.

— J.L. Borges  translator=S.K. ?


Epiphany is an unveiling of reality. What in Greek was called epiphaneia meant the appearance, or arival, among mortals of a divinity, or its recognition under a famailiar shape of man or woman.  Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things or persons.  A poem-epiphany tells about one moment-event, and this imposes a certain form.

A polytheistic antiquity saw epiphanies at every step, for streams and woods were inhabited by dryads and nymphs, while the commanding gods looked and behaved like humans, were endowed with speech, could, though with difficulty, be distinguished from mortals, and often walked the earth.  Not rarely, they would visit households and be recognized by hosts. The Book of Genesis tells about a visit paid by God to Abraham, in the guise of three travelers. Later on, the epiphany or appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies a central place in the New Testament.

Czeslaw Milosz (?)


The Noble Soul of Solomon Northup

I recently completed reading Twelve Years a Slave, the autobiography of a free Negro from New York who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841.  Maybe we don’t need these graphic reminders of the brutality with which slaves were routinely treated in America’s ante-Bellum Deep South, but two things about Northup’s account command our attention.  First, his extraordinary erudition and fine writing style, in a man who had limited educational opportunity early in life, and who, prior to writing this volume, had not been permitted paper or pen for 12 years.  Second, and more remarkable yet, is the generosity of spirit with which he regards the very men responsible for the whippings and deprivations that made his life a living hell.  I can only compare him to Nelson Mandela, who so magnanimously forgave the men who held him a political prisoner for 27 years.

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford [Northup’s first owner, for a brief period]—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves.


‘This has to be wrong’

Science derives its legitimacy from grounding in what anyone, anywhere can observe.  It’s called “empiricism.”  But the very success of science has tempted people in all fields to promote theoretical ideas before there is appropriate empirical support.

String theory had its origins in 1968, and over 50 years it has become the darling of theoretical physicists as a candidate for a Theory Of Everything.  Thousands of scientific papers have been written about string theory, because the mathematics is so much fun and leads to so many interesting places.   But the acknowledged drawback of string theory is that it has so many different forms that it you have to write an exponent within an exponent to write the number.  Hence, there are no predictions from string theory, and no way to test it against the reality of our world.

This spring, finally a general prediction was derived, true of all string theories.  Dark energy must decrease as the universe expands.  But in our universe, dark energy seems to be holding steady.


String theorists are not taking this sitting down, but are applying their creative energies to the discovery of loopholes and exceptions.

Article in Quanta Magazine by Natalie Wolchover

An illustration of upside-down grassy hills topped with cosmic blue spheres