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.

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.

Doing good makes you want to do more good

Can you learn to be kinder, more charitable and helpful? If so, then what can you do to increase such virtuous feelings and tendencies? A recent study published by economists (no kidding!) showed that there is a correlation between altruistic acts and increased preferences for doing altruistic acts. The study, “Altruistic Capital,” was published in the American Economic Review.

Most economists assume that preferences are fixed. That is, my preference for being kind or for wearing blue colored shirts or for eating chocolate will not change. In contrast, the authors assume that preferences for altruism can change. They liken altruism to a type of capital. Just as physical capital (machinery, buildings, etc) or human capital (learning, skills, etc) can be enhanced through investments in machinery or learning, altruistic capital can be enhanced through investments. What investments increase altruistic capital? Doing altruistic acts. In other words, doing good increases the desire for and perceived benefits from doing good.

The authors conducted a study of persons working in the banking industry and showed that “altruistic capital grows proportionally to the effort devoted to altruistic tasks,” consistent with Aristotle’s assertion that “virtue is an asset that grows through righteous acts” (quoting the authors). Specifically, the authors found that “employee’s perceived returns to altruistic acts … are [positively] associated with more prosocial behavior at work.” In other words, getting people to do good can create a “virtuous circle”, where doing good increases the perceived personal benefits of doing good, which in turn increases the desire for and tendency to engage in good acts, such as cooperation with others.

We need more good in the world. So do some good, and bring someone with you when you do.

Another issue of Agriculture and Human Values is ready

The latest issue of the academic journal I edit, volume 34, issue 2, of Agriculture and Human Values, has just been published online (here).

A brief summary of the articles in this issue is as follows: Sippel et al assess the nature and impact of the financialization of farmland in Australia. Hill and Raster evaluate the rights of the Ojibwe people in Minnesota to control access to and use of wild rice fields in the face of appropriation by university researchers and others seeking to develop hybrid and genetically modified rice varieties. Mills et al examine factors affecting the willingness and ability of farmers to adopt environmental management practices. Clark et al report on perspectives of cooperative extension educators about food system change. Lyon et al assess the impact on women of their increasing participation rates in fair-trade coffee production in Oaxaca, Mexico. Roesch-McNally et al report on a survey of Midwest US farmers to determine factors affecting their intention to adapt farming practices in response to climate variability. Sumner et al study gender differences in the practice of conservation agriculture of smallholder farmers in Cambodia. Liu et al assess the community-building aspect of community supported agriculture in China and the UK. Orozco-Ramírezab and Astier study socio-economic factors expected to affect the genetic erosion of local maize varieties in Mexico. Bergstra et al assess the attitudes of different stakeholder groups in the Netherlands toward specific pig husbandry practices. Mars and Schau examine the role of entrepreneurship in facilitating local food system initiatives. Mason et al use a gendered mobilities framework to understand better how the movement of men and women in rural Tanzania affect their level of food security. Galt et al report on a survey of members of a community supported agriculture project in California to assess how member income affects participation and other considerations. Adolwa et al study how agricultural innovations are disseminated in two farming regions of Kenya and Ghana. Helliwell and Tomei assess the environmental stewardship implications of EU goernance policies on the biofuel industries in the UK and Guatemala. Sarmiento reviews and describes different strands of literature on alternative food networks.

The connection between strong families and secure property rights

While doing background reading for a research project I am conducting, I came across a book by Bertrand Russell entitled Marriage and Morals, which he published in 1929. The purpose of the book is to advocate a new way of thinking about marriage and sexual morality.

Russell is a too liberal for my liking, and he doesn’t hold a high opinion of religion. For example, he gives two objectives for the book. The first is “to eliminate the elements of superstition” or religion in defining what sexual morality ought to be. The second is “to take account of those entirely new factors which make the wisdom of past ages the folly instead of the wisdom of the present.” Here he refers to things like contraception and other “modern discoveries” that supposedly enhance the sexual freedom of people by removing the worry of creating an unwanted child or experiencing other concerns. At one point in the book Russell laments that people still have “fears” that are “irrational,” because of the “failure of psychological adaptation” to the new morality he advocates.

While I disagree with the overall message of the book, Russell makes a rather interesting observation about the importance of the family and the connection between family and secure property rights. In the first chapter, Russell states that one of the most important reasons that people engage in economic activity is to provide food and other benefits not merely for themselves but “for the sake of the family”. He then says that “as the family system changes, economic motives also change.” For example, without a family there is little motive for an adult to purchase life insurance. Moreover, “most forms of private saving would nearly cease if children were taken away from their parents and brought up by the State as in Plato’s Republic; that is to say, if the State were to adopt the role of the father, the State would, ipso factor, become the sole capitalist.” He continues by saying “that if the State is to be the sole capitalist, the family, as we have known it, cannot survive … [for] it is impossible to deny an intimate connection between private property and the family, a connection which is reciprocal.”

In other words, we need private property for the good of the family, and we need family for the preservation of property rights. If property rights are weakened, then we weaken the family. If the family is weakened, then we lose the basis for protecting private property. One feeds the other. In the extreme, if family is incapable of properly rearing children–or if the government claims that the family cannot effectively raise children–so that the State must take over that responsibility, then the power of government to take and control property will be at its greatest. I should add that Russell was an admirer of the Soviet Union, although he never fully embraced communism.

I’ve never thought about the connection between family and property rights until now. I find the connection very interesting. Implications? Well, if you believe in the importance of family, then fight to preserve rights to property. And if you believe in the importance of protecting private property, then fight for strong families. We need both for a stable and healthy society.