Biodiversity, before it’s too late

Some time in the 19th Century, science became identified with reductionism.  Everything has to be explained from the bottom up, starting with atoms.

There is, of course, another science, a science of holism, but it is out of step with the scientific culture of the last 2 centuries.  It is difficult for physicists to think in terms of many-particle wave functions, and it is difficult to get the biologists to put down their DNA sequencers long enough to think about ecosystems.

Since the dawn of agriculture, mankind has learned to grow crops more efficiently by isolating a single species, then a single type of a single species, then a single clone of a single genotype.  Monoculture became more and more extreme throughout Europe and Asia.

But at the same time, a different kind of agriculture was developing in the Americas. Native Americans planted trees within existing forests, surrounded by other vegetation that supported them. They grew their corn and vegetables and beans side-by-side in time-honored combinations that tradition had taught them would protect the plants from pests and support the soil for future generations.

Living things are not isolated individuals, but elements of complex, co-evolved ecosystems. Sustainable agriculture is diversified agriculture. American natives new this thousands of years ago, and the modern science of ecology is re-discovering the principle now.

Caroline Ash writes for Science Magazine
PNAS journal article

Increasing crop heterogeneity can be an effective way to mitigate the impacts of farming on biodiversity without taking land out of production.

Meng = Youthful Folly

Image result for i ching hexagram 4

The heart of wisdom is humility—
Admitting there is much we cannot know;
Our plans in danger of fragility
If we presume to cotton whence we go.
The youth who seeks enlightenment, ensnared
By haughty mentors who abuse his trust.
Poor lad! His only sin the learning-lust
That renders him for learning unprepared.
So many frauds who willingly advise—
Life’s only recourse is experiment:
How can we know, if not already wise,
If chance or heaven ’twas this guru sent?
Some day when ripe, exalted age I reach,
I’ll know that I for one have naught to teach.

— JJM (#4 from the I Ching Sonnet Project)


Evolution Evolving

The idea was that all life on earth, and we within it, came from a random and meaningless process of struggling to make more copies of DNA snippets.  It wrought its damage on us, convincing us that all pretense to value or meaning was an unscientific illusion. Fellowship was reduced to calculation of the gain to be had in a bargain, and love became a strategy for increasing reproductive success.

A century of loneliness and depression followed Darwin’s theory.  All dissent from the canon was mocked with caricature of Grandfather with a white beard calling down from heaven to create the world in seven days.

Only after powerful computers allowed us to actually try out the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy in simulation did skepticism become scientifically respectable. Darwin’s greatest fear about his theory was that all diversity would collapse in short order, and natural selection would grind to a halt once there was no variety from which to select. This proved to be prescient. Mendelian inheritance can’t prevent the collapse of diversity in a brute contest for maximizing reproduction.  Nor could the standard model explain community, or the vast scale of cooperation or the complex web of interconnectivity characteristic of ecosystems.

Most difficult of all has been the question of the origin of life. The gap between the most complex system that might arise by chance alone and the simplest system capable of reproducing itself in the oceans of a proto-Earth only gets wider the more ingeniously we try to bridge it.

And the very process of evolution didn’t come for free.  Most genotype-phenotype maps are not capable of evolving at a decent rate.  How did evolution evolve?

Questioning the plausibility of the simplest neo-Darwiniian models became scientifically respectable, and now it is almost mainstream.  Evolution’s capacity for creating diversity and complexity is far more efficient than we can yet explain.  Evolution creates a powerful illusion of foresight and planning. The Great Chain of Being holds its mystique.

Article by Richard Watson
Response by Marion Blute

Image result for durkheim great chain of being

Lincoln Left his Mark on PT 109

The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.
— Abe Lincoln

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On this date in 1943, young John Kennedy was skippering a small torpedo boat on a mission to sneak up in the dark on a Japanese Navy outpost in the Solomon islands. Instead, a Japanese destroyer rammed Kennedy’s boat and snapped it like a matchstick.

Kennedy sustained a spinal injury that would cause him chronic pain throughout his short life.  But that night, he had strength and gumption enough to swim to shore, leading the crew who could swim, instructing them to push with them a piece of the wreckage where those who could not swim were clining.  As the legend goes, Kennedy held in his teeth a rope that towed a crewman who had been badly burned.

17½ years later, Kennedy was inaugurated President on the Capitol mall, and he invited to the ceremony not only the two Island natives who found and rescued Kennedy and his crew, but also the captain of the Japanese destroyer who rammed PT 109 on the night of August 1, 1943.

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Chaitin’s Constant: What are the chances?

Every computer program can be expressed as a string of ones and zeros.  So, let’s pick a particular language, just to be specific.  Then it makes sense to talk about a “random computer program” as a random string of ones and zeros in that language.

Feed the program to a computer and maybe it will go into an infinite loop and run forever, or maybe it will chug along for a finite amount of time and then stop.  (Maybe it will even spit out some useful data along the way, but we’re not concerned with that.)

Some of the random programs will halt, and some of them will run forever.  What proportion of them will come to a halt?  This is the definition of Chaitin’s Constant.

                     Ω = probability that a random computer program will not run on forever in an infinite loop.

Image result for random computer program

What is the value of Chaitin’s Constant?  Wouldn’t you like to know!  Math geeks who work on the theory of computation have proved that if you knew the value of Chaitin’s Constant, you could solve every math puzzle and answer every question that can be posed in the language of mathematics.

Renouncing Selflessness


Doing good seeking rewards
Is contaminated virtue.
Doing good without thought of reward,
Dedicating it to enlightenment,
Is uncontaminated virtue.
Contamination and non-contamination
Refer to the state of mind of the doer,
Not to the good deed itself.

Muso Kokushi (1275-1351)

Suppose I give up on the lesser reward of praise or goodwill from others because I’m after the greater reward of enlightenment?  Is that just as bad, or is it actually worse?

Suppose I offer you kindness and acceptance because behaving magnanimously supports my secret belief that I am a better person than you.  Suppose you sense my patronizing attidude, and you’re mad as hell.  Suppose I continue to smile and offer a gentle acceptance in the face of your angry tirade, because it confirms belief in my innate superiority.

Maybe it would be better for me to scream back at you. Or maybe it doesn’t make a whit of difference whether I scream or I hide behind Mona Lisa’s smile…We will only find our way to one another once once you get over trying to change my behavior with your disapproval I outgrow my preference for lonely self-esteem over vulnerable relationship.

Where did the recipe for our universe come from?

To a physicist, the “recipe” consists of a specification of a list of laws for the way particles and fields interact, plus a list of numbers, the fundamental constants of nature.  The puzzling thing is how many “useless” recipes exist, in which nothing interesting ever happens—certainly nothing so complex—compared to a tiny number of combinations in which complexity can arise.

Multiple choice—either

  1. Every possible combination of laws and fundamental constants “exists” in some universe or others, and we find ourselves in this one because this one has the physical prerequisites to support us
  2. God kicked the universe off, set it in motion with laws and constants deliberately chosen to support living beings “in his own image”.

Once you’re done presuming you know anything about anything and, more importantly, you’ve gotten over your need to know anything about anything, then you can actually learn some cool shit.
— Night Sky Sangha