Monkey business

An argument made against the theory of evolution is that it is improbable, if not impossible, for there to be random mutations in genes sufficient enough to result in the development of humans from, say, apes. As an analogy, some refer to what is known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. If there were an infinite number of monkeys typing randomly on a keyboard over a sufficient amount of time, could one eventually produce the Bible or the works of Shakespeare? Attempts to demonstrate the plausibility of monkeys typing out works of literature using computer technology have shown that it can happen. Since it is plausible, then the theory of evolution as currently understood is plausible, too, so the argument goes.

Michael Shermer, in his book, The Mind of the Market, explains how this works within the theory of evolution. The requisite principle is called “variation plus cumulative selection.” The idea is that when evolutionary processes get a gene mutation right, it saves the “correct” mutation and then moves on until the next “correct” mutation occurs, at which time evolutionary processes save that one, on and on until you get the complete works of Shakespeare (so to speak). For instance, random typing can produce the phrase “To be or not to be” if, once a random “T” is typed, it is flagged or saved until a random “O” is typed, and so on. Shermer gives this illustration of random typing:

wieTskewkOsdfeB92uE2OseRdl7jeNkseOdseTe3r22TsweOsxBwxseE …

which, if you look for the bolded capital letters, contains “T O B E O R N O T T O B E …”

Interesting idea. But, as I was reading Shermer’s book, it occurred to me that his explanation actually demonstrates the requirement for a God. Think about it. How does a computer program mimicking the random typing of monkeys know when the typers gets the right letters or words unless that was programmed into the software initially? How does the non-random selection process know when to say to the typing monkeys “STOP! There is the letter T we need. Now proceed again. … Wait! STOP! There is the O we need …”? We know to look for the T, O, B, E, etc, to complete the phrase “To be or not to be” because we have the advantage of already knowing how the story ends. Someone has to know what is correct and how and when to save things, if we are to accept the idea of a non-random cumulative saving mechanism. There is nothing in the evolutionary theory, especially once “variation plus cumulative selection” is added, that can explain to me how random mutations can correctly accumulate sufficiently over time for human consciousness to evolve, unless something along the way knew what to save and when.

Scientists love to invoke Occam’s Razor, which says that when faced with two or more explanations for an effect, the simpler one is preferable. So, which is a simpler explanation for humans? Random typing by monkeys with an unexplained non-random cumulative saving mechanism, or a God directing the affairs of things? The answer seems obvious to me.

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Another issue of Agriculture and Human Values is now published

AHV_10460The latest issue of the academic journal I edit, volume 34, issue 4, of Agriculture and Human Values, has been published online (here). This issue contains nine regular articles, a special symposium, Leland Glenna’s presidential address delivered at the 2017 meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society presidential address, and eight book reviews.

Here is a summary of the research articles and the symposium: McInnes et al present results of a survey exploring the potential convergence of different elements of alternative food networks in Canadian food systems. Bain and Selfa assess the relative merits and contrasting approaches of organic and non-GMO labeling organizations. Ellison et al assess the relative rankings of consumers of seven common claims about food products. Miaralles et al study the nature and role of sharing in alternative food networks. Rossi et al link food-, health- and lifestyle-related behaviors to CSA participation. Nichols examines the development and distribution of diets in India that are high in calories, fats and protein. Spilkova compares community gardens in Prague, Czechia, to those found in other developed countries. Bacon and Baker evaluate private food assistance programs in the US, UK and other countries. Porter et al assess the willingness-to-pay of students for food with ‘real’ qualities. Finally, a collection of papers edited by Daniela Gottschlich, Tanja Molders and Martina Padmanbhan focus on feminist perspectives on human–nature relations.

What does it mean when corporations are as economically powerful as governments?

In 2016, a non-governmental organization by the name of Global Justice Now, based out of the UK, produced a report listing the largest governments and corporations by revenue. Their report stated that the “10 biggest corporations make more money than most countries in the world combined and that 69 of top 100 economic entities are corporations not countries.” The complete listing of governments and corporations is here.

An article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago provides the following commentary about corporations that rival the size of governments:

In some cases, these large corporations had private security forces that rivaled the best secret services, public relations offices that dwarfed a US presidential campaign headquarters, more lawyers than the US Justice Department, and enough money to capture (through campaign donations, lobbying, and even explicit bribes) a majority of the elected representatives. The only powers these large corporations missed were the power to wage war and the legal power of detaining people, although their political influence was sufficiently large that many would argue that, at least in certain settings, large corporations can exercise those powers by proxy.

The 2015 list produced by Global Justice Now consisted of 26 governments and 24 corporations in the top 50. Walmart was number 10, ahead of Spain, Australia and the Netherlands. I’ve updated the list for 2016 (see below). Walmart is now number 9 on the list, and there are 26 corporations in the top 50 in terms of revenue.

What does it mean when corporations are as large and economically powerful as governments? Is this a good thing? Governments can coerce people, while companies grow by persuading people to buy their products, unless businesses use their economic power and resulting political influence to suppress competition—a common practice in both the developed and developing world. But are governments a more effective and appropriate steward over the vast wealth they control than corporations? Politicians and government bureaucrats are not likely more altruistic or caring of people than business executives and managers. (This reminds me of an excellent interchange between the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist and academic at the University of Chicago, and talk show host Phil Donahue about the relative greed of people in business and government, here). Perhaps the more important question is whether appropriate checks and balances remain between business and government when businesses rival the size and economic power of governments. I don’t know. I’m just asking questions.

Here is the ranking of governments and corporations by revenue in 2016. Data on government revenue (not GDP) from the CIA World Factbook for 2016 and on business revenue from the Fortune Global 500 list.

Rank Type Name Revenue, $billion
1 Government United States 3,363.0
2 Government China 2,300.0
3 Government Japan 1,696.0
4 Government Germany 1,523.0
5 Government France 1,308.0
6 Government United Kingdom 996.3
7 Government Italy 842.5
8 Government Canada 594.7
9 Corporation Walmart (US) 485.9
10 Government Spain 461.3
11 Government Australia 420.5
12 Government Netherlands 340.8
13 Corporation State Grid (China) 315.2
14 Government Brazil 311.9
15 Government South Korea 297.3
16 Government India 273.3
17 Corporation Sinopec Group (China) 267.5
18 Corporation China National Petroleum (China) 262.6
19 Corporation Toyota (Japan) 254.7
20 Government Sweden 248.3
21 Corporation Volkswagen Group (Germany) 240.3
22 Corporation Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands) 240.0
23 Government Belgium 232.3
24 Government Mexico 224.3
25 Corporation Berkshire Hathaway (US) 223.6
26 Government Switzerland 215.9
27 Corporation Apple (US) 215.6
28 Corporation Exxon Mobil (US) 205.0
29 Government Norway 199.8
30 Corporation McKesson (US) 198.5
31 Government Austria 187.3
32 Corporation BP (UK) 186.6
33 Government Russia 186.5
34 Corporation United Health (US) 184.8
35 Corporation CVS Health (US) 177.5
36 Corporation Samsung Electronics (South Korea) 174.0
37 Corporation Glencore (Switzerland) 173.9
38 Corporation Daimler (Germany) 169.5
39 Corporation General Motors (US) 166.4
40 Corporation AT&T (US) 163.8
41 Government Denmark 156.9
42 Corporation Exor (Italy) 154.9
43 Corporation Ford Motor (US) 151.8
44 Government Saudi Arabia 149.7
45 Corporation Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (China) 147.7
46 Government Turkey 146.4
47 Corporation AXA (France) 143.7
48 Corporation Amazon (US) 136.0
49 Corporation Foxconn (Taiwan) 135.1
50 Corporation China Construction Bank (China) 135.0

The next issue of Agriculture and Human Values is now published

AHV_10460The latest issue of the academic journal I edit, volume 34, issue 3, of Agriculture and Human Values, has just been published online (here). There are 17 articles published in this issue along with four book reviews.

A brief summary of the articles is as follows: Forssell and Lankoski examine the hybrid nature of alternative food system in their study of alternative food retailers. Trivette elaborates on the mechanisms by which participants in local food systems build trust and develop reciprocity relationships with each other. Inghelbrecht et al use mediation theory to assess how GM crops affect both the human-technology relationship and the ongoing debate about GM crops in the EU. Winson and Choi argue that the concept of dietary regimes can provides insights about the factors that affect the food choices of people and the food environments within which they act. Gartaula et al examine political, economic and social factors affecting the food security and wellbeing of smallholder households in Nepal. Murakami et al present the case of a college sustainable agriculture course to illustrate how to incorporate the study of wicked problems and sociological tensions in a learning community. VanWinkle and Friedman identify the historical roots of farmer perceptions about the environment. Gupta and Makov assess the “localness” of food through two indicators of the origins of production inputs–economic value and physical mass. Minkoff-Zern and Sloat examine how policies and programs of the US Department of Agriculture facilitate or impede farming activities of Latino immigrants. Quark and Lienesch examine how the definition of legitimate science affects policy debates regarding food regime transitions. Laforge et al develop a typology of interactions between farmers and government food safety regulators. Thompson et al study the perceptions of food safety by directors of farm to school programs. Wills and Arundel assess whether online food retailers can be part of or participate in alternative food networks. Baur et al show how bureaucratic efforts to promote and enforce food safety affect the people who work in the food system. Leslie examines Argentinian farmers markets in order to learn how alternative food networks react to and evolve in neoliberal economic environments. Olivier and Heinecken evaluate the potential for NGOs to support urban agriculture projects, promote social capital and benefit and empower women. Eakin et al introduce a typology describing different aspects of food system sustainability.

When should we erect statues of prominent public figures?

The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, centers on a proposal by the city council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leading general of the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. One of many news articles about the statue and the controversy over its removal is here. Some groups approve of the plan to remove the statue. Some groups oppose the plan to remove the statue. Some group oppose the groups approving or opposing the plan. It’s a real mess.

Rpbert E Lee statue

But the situation in Charlottesville is not just messy and ugly. It is also complicated by persistent and unresolved problems of racial prejudice and discrimination that exist in the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that the question of the statue removal has resulted in arguments fueled more by emotion than by reason.

I don’t pretend to have an answer to these problems. But I would like to revisit the plan to remove the Confederate general’s statue. Is removing the statue the right thing to do? The answer to this question depends on understanding why we erect statues of prominent public figures and when it is necessary to remove them.

I can think of two reasons why we erect statues of or monuments to public figures. One is to honor the person and the other is to honor the cause supported by them. For instance, placing the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore would be appropriate because by most standards these men were honorable and the causes they promoted were as well. In saying this we need not approve of all aspects of their lives. But if we can respect persons and want to acknowledge and remember the causes they advanced, then a statue or monument would be appropriate.

What would we say about a statue of Adolf Hitler in Berlin? Well, if we erect statues to honor the person and their cause, then a statue of Hitler would fail on both counts. No reasonable person can argue that Hitler was a good person and that the causes he advanced were honorable. If we want to ensure that we don’t forget our history, then museums, well-written history books, etc, can accomplish this without the need for a statue.

But what if a person was good and honorable but the cause they advanced was not desirable? Of course, we can consider the other possibility, too. What about a statue to someone who was neither good nor honorable but who supported, promoted or advanced a worthy cause? Would we erect a statue to this person? I’m supposing that we would not. So if we won’t erect a statue for someone who is not honorable but who advanced a worthy cause, is it appropriate to erect or maintain a statue for someone who is honorable but who advanced an undesirable cause? I think this question points to why the issue of the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue is controversial. There may be things we want to acknowledge, remember and emulate about General Lee as a person, but is the cause he fought to uphold—a political and economic system based on slavery—one of them?

Regardless of how we feel about the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, we need to agree in principle on the conditions that warrant the creation and maintenance of statues of prominent public figures. Once we have decided on this we can determine whether it is appropriate or not to remove a statue. If statues should exist when these two conditions are met—for honorable persons whose works and ideals promoted socially-desirable outcomes—then the answer to question of what to do about the statue in Charlottesville becomes clearer.

If we can’t agree on general conditions or principles for erecting and maintaining statues of prominent figures in public spaces, then debates about the removal of some will degenerate into claims that all statues and monuments will eventually be removed, an outcome that is neither healthy nor desirable for society.

 

The sciences need social sciences

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently completed a report to determine if funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research that included a social, behavioral and economic (SBE) component was worth the investment. In other words, do we need the social sciences to do good science research?

The National Academies of Sciences held a public forum and live webcast to announce their findings and promote their report, all of which can be found online (here).

The answer is an unqualified “yes.” We need the social sciences to do good science research, especially research funded by the NSF. As noted in the report, “the committee concludes that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences advance the missions of NSF and other federal agencies and serve well many of the most important needs of society. SBE research also can be applied to business and industry and has enhanced the U.S. economy.”

The committee made three main conclusions.

First: “Overall, the social, behavioral, and economic sciences produce a better understanding of the human aspects of the natural world, contributing knowledge, methods, and tools that further the mission of the National Science Foundation to advance health, prosperity and welfare, national defense, and progress in science.”

Second: “The understanding, tools, and methods provided by the social, behavioral, and economic sciences—including research supported by the National Science Foundation—provide an essential foundation that helps other agencies achieve their missions.”

Third: “The social, behavioral, and economic sciences have provided advances in understanding and tools and methods that have been applicable to business and industry and that enhanced the U.S. economy.”

That’s good news for someone like me working in the social sciences. The challenge, of course, is getting other scientists to accept these findings.

The reality is that every major challenge we face on this planet has a human component to it and therefore requires a social science perspective. Global climate change is a case in point. Do we really think we will make any progress if scientists studying climate change are not consulting social scientists? Science can get us only so far if its pursuit of answers to problems either caused by or impacting humans does not also include insights from the social, behavioral or economic sciences. “Having a fundamental understanding of how people and societies behave, why they respond the way they do, what they find important, what they deeply believe or value, and what and how they think about others is critical in today’s shrinking global world,” as stated in the report.

I also like this statement: “Like all sciences, the SBE sciences bring a rigorous, methodical approach to pursuing knowledge—collecting data, formulating and testing hypotheses, analyzing evidence—that sheds light on the underlying nature of problems and can help point the way toward remedies.”

So, my colleagues in the sciences, do yourself a favor. Next time you write a grant proposal for research on an important scientific problem, invite a social scientist to be part of your team.

 

Colonel Chamberlain’s speech to Gettysburg mutineers

Our family has a tradition around the 4th of July. We watch the 1993 movie Gettysburg. The movie is based on Michael Shaara’s 1974 book, Killer Angels. The book is an excellent and well-researched account of the Gettysburg battle that combines historical detail with attention to understanding some of the key players. The movie covers the battle at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, where more than 50,000 union and confederate troops lost their lives in battle.

We have this tradition not just because Gettysburg is a great movie (it is), but because it helps us remember the sacrifices so many people have made to make and preserve this great nation of ours, the United States of America. After watching the movie we often read the “Gettysburg Address,” the speech President Abraham Lincoln gave at the dedication of the Gettysburg field as a national park. He ends with the plea “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, the anniversary of the birth of our nation. But we also recognize July 4 as the anniversary after the day of the bloodiest battle on our land since the founding of our country. It was fought in defense of our nation and the principles it was founded upon. Good men died so that children could grow up and become even better men and women. It is important that we remember who we are and who and what came before us, and that we renew our desire to preserve this great nation of ours and make it and our world a better place.

One of the central characters in the movie is Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine, a part of the Union Army’s Fifth Corps. Early in the movie (about July 1, 1863), Colonel Chamberlain was given charge of a group of mutineers from another (disbanded) Maine regiment. One of the best scenes of the movie is Colonel Chamberlain’s comments to the mutineers. Because of it, most of the men took up arms and joined the 20th Maine, which proved pivotal in the upcoming battle at Gettysburg. This speech, as rendered in the movie, is a classic. Here it is.

This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.

This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing.

But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here, is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to preach. You, you go ahead. You talk for awhile. If you — If you choose to join us, you want your muskets back, you can have ’em. Nothing more will be said by anybody anywhere. If you choose not to join us, well you can come along under guard, and when this is all over I will do what I can to see you get a fair treatment. But for now, we’re moving out. Gentlemen, I think if we lose this fight, we lose the war. So if you choose to join us, I’ll be personally very grateful.

I wonder if it would help if our elected representatives in Washington watched this movie together.