Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I have read a lot about race as a biological or, (more accurately, for humans) as a pseudoscientific idea. There are no human races. There is only one living species of humans, Homo sapiens. We don’t speak of red roses and yellow roses as races of roses.  We speak of them as varieties.  There are many varieties of humans. Some differ in skin color, some differ in hair texture, some differ in the shape of eyes, some differ in size, and when it comes to what we cannot see, like blood groups, HLA types, and “genetic markers” in our DNA, we get even more numerous varieties of humanity.  The varieties measured by skin color are different from the varieties measured by blood group or by DNA markers.  In general darker skin color correlates with equatorial distribution.  In general lighter skin correlates with northern latitudes.  We know that humans had an out of Africa origin about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and spread across the world. When a baby is adopted by an American couple from Africa, from Rumania, from Colombia, or New Guinea, that child will speak English, share American cultural values of the state in which she or he is raised, and reflect the values and culture of the nurturing parents.  What we call race in popular usage is really our perception of cultural or ethnic differences.
I am skeptical that we have innate fear of other races or cultures.  Young children tend to play together without regard to racial difference unless their culture makes them biased. That happens a lot.  It leads to a fear of those who are seen as a cultural threat. The police officer who killed an unarmed black youth (firing 12 times) saw him as a threat, a menacing hulk, although both were 6 feet 4 inches tall. The police officer saw himself as cowering and frightened by this perceived threat. Even if this were true, it tells us that there was something missing in his police training. If our police officers are to shoot first out of fear, civilians would be at risk. Every black youth would have to wonder: Do I respond to a police officer by lowering my head?  Do I say Yes sir at the end of each sentence?  If I lift up my arms in a surrender pose, will he see this initial movement as a threatening movement?  Will I hear him accurately?  Did he say don’ t move or did he say move out of the way?  If I respond will he think I am defiant?  Those questions are not as likely to run through the head of a white youth confronted by a white police officer.
I suggest the following. Use stun guns more frequently than bullet guns when dealing with unarmed suspects.  There are fewer deaths from jolts of electricity to subdue a suspect. Train police officers to deal with their panic and fears.  They could try role playing and imagine how they would respond if they were black and confronted by white police.  Hire more black police.  Use more black police to patrol black neighborhoods (they would help reduce the crime rate in such neighborhoods).  Stress community building in which police help youth with projects that better their neighborhoods.  Provide schools in black neighborhoods that at least have the same standards and quality as most white public schools. Provide opportunities for employment: clearing abandoned property and constructing pocket parks, community centers, and play grounds. Change use of drugs and minor drug dealing to misdemeanors and eliminate mandatory sentencing. Provide more lighting in public streets.

Racism is difficult to eliminate. Changes that improve education, safety, employment opportunities, and fair treatment are easier to change because they are specific and not theoretical.  Remember, too, that those incidents involving the shooting of unarmed black youths happen once or more each year and ask yourself, when was the last time you read about a white officer shooting an unarmed white youth? 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

How the World Works: Great People or the People’s History?

I like to read different slants on topics.  I learned that from my father, an elevator operator, who brought home the discarded newspapers of the clients he took to their floors. He brought home the New York Times, the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and PM. I learned there was a left, right, and centrist view on how the world worked, which included war news, business news, the events of interest to New York City, politics, and World News. I also liked the variety of political cartoons and comic strip pages. Some saw President Roosevelt as First Dictator of the Republic (FDR) and others as a saintly presence who cared for the laboring man and his family.  I enjoy reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I also enjoy reading biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft.  The historians bring out the human side of names that otherwise just test items on an examination.  Implied in Zinn’s history is that “We the people” are both participants and creators of that history.  We like to single out the few great names (Presidents, financiers, scientists, writers) but their work would have been impossible without the ordinary tinkerers in the arts, mechanics, farming, business, and politics. 

I know it is true that every word in this Blog had an individual inventor whose name is mostly unknown to us.  Who first used read, topic, elevator operator, newspaper, comic strip, historian, inventor, or family?   Was it first used in English or did it get translated into English? We could ask that authorship for even simpler words like but, the, a, how, of, in, or that.  We might track down “newspaper” but who first used “the”?  The same is true for the first shirt, underwear, socks, shoes, or hats.  Much of it might be prehistoric. The people’s history of a country or a field of knowledge (like science) brings out the practical people of unknown name who first used the stars to navigate, who figured out how to make fire, who figured out how to harden copper into bronze, and who discovered which herbs were of medicinal value and which were poisonous or inert. The authors of people’s histories also include the stories of who first made bricks or urns or blades from metal instead of from flakes of stone. At the same time, it becomes harder after the industrial revolution for ordinary people to enter science without undergraduate and college coursework and laboratory experience. No amateur could work out the structure of DNA without some knowledge of x-ray diffraction or biochemical familiarity of the nucleic acids and their chemical components. No amateur could work out the function of the mitochondria without some knowledge of how living things oxidize the digested foods we eat to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water as outcomes of the process.  We still need tinkerers and amateurs to improve the original findings, devices, and theories which are often not quite as accurate as they are claimed to be.  Thousands of papers have been published since 1953 clarifying the mechanism and circumstances for DNA replication, structure, and function.  Biographies and histories of fields of knowledge and the arts give us a richer insight into many of the wonderful accomplishments of civilization.  It is not an either/or choice.  Read both. They enrich our understanding of how civilization works. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Holism and Reductionism are to biology as liberalism and conservatism are to politics

I try to read widely so I not only can plug my knowledge of genetics into the liberal arts, but into unconventional ways others see science.  One recurrent theme, as old as the history of biology is the idea of holism.  It is an outlook shared by those calling it vitalism, elan vital, enteleche, or mneme. More modern terms, like Gaia and systems theory, have been introduced in the last half of the twentieth century.  They share a belief summed up in the popular phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Opposed to this outlook are a variety of terms used by scientists who oppose holism.  They call themselves mechanists or reductionists or in an older terminology, positivists.  What they share in common is a belief that the material (non-supernatural) world can be analyzed into its components by scientific methods using experimentation and new technologies.  Their approach has given us the complex composition of atoms worked out by physicists, the combinatorial components of atoms in molecules worked out by chemists, the germ theory of disease, worked out by microbiologists, and the theory of the gene worked out by biologists.
              The danger of reductionism in the life sciences, its opponents claim, is its tendency to oversimplify how life works or how traits and the intact organism are shaped.  The danger of holism, its opponents claim, is its tendency to obscure explanation, substituting a fuzzy explanation or term for complex systems that are not fully resolved. Reductionist virologists claim they not only can take apart viruses into their protein and nucleic components, but reconstitute the viruses from these components, or more remarkable, they can use “off the shelf chemicals” to synthesize the proteins and nucleic acid of a virus and make a live infectious virus from it as has been done for polio.   The debate becomes polemic on both sides when human behavioral traits or human health issues are studied.  Holistic thinkers properly condemn what they call genetic determinism for social traits like pauperism, criminality, psychosis, mental retardation, or inappropriate personalities. They invoke the abuses of the eugenic movements which tried to tie these social failings to Mendelian genes.  The science of that social movement was sloppy and repudiated by many geneticists. Some genetic determinists today invoke molecular lesions in alleged genes for these traits. The media tend to report alleged genes for alcoholism, criminality, phobias, belief in God, altruism, selfishness, territoriality, sexism, and racism. They rarely report in the same detail follow-up reports that fail to confirm such alleged genetic determinants.

              Most puzzling to me is  how to interpret holistic interpretations of life. There is no doubt things are complex.  Cells are complex.  Organisms are complex. Ecological systems are complex.  Cell biologists have worked out functions for many cell organelles.  While viruses can be synthesized from simple chemicals, bacteria or nucleated cells cannot with today’s available techniques and knowledge.  I would prefer acknowledging what we do not know than trying to create an alternative holistic explanation that tells us little about the processes involved. How does such an explanation differ from invoking a homunculus in each living cell? We could call it a “cellular soul” that regulates the dance or symphonic coordination, or multiple systems moving back and forth from the environment to the genes, changing them in subtle ways.  How can this be so plastic if we look at the physical bodies of identical twins throughout their lives from birth to death?  They are usually strikingly similar.  But in behavior, occupation, or personality, they can be quite different.  Doesn’t this tell us that the physical body is more fully controlled by the functioning of our genes?  In contrast, does this not tell us that most social or behavioral traits are controlled chiefly by upbringing and culture?  

Friday, September 26, 2014


I was invited by the Molecular Biology Institute and Biology Department at Indiana University in Bloomington to give a talk in their weekly seminar series. My host was Michael Lynch a well known molecular population geneticist whose work on mutations, evolution, and mutation rates is well known and appreciated among geneticists.  I gave the lecture on H J Muller, my mentor and Indiana University’s first Nobel laureate.  I had never used Power Point before and the day before my lecture I visited Lynch at his office in Jordan Hall.  He downloaded my disc onto his computer and showed me what I would have to do to move slides back and forth.  The lecture was in Myers hall where the Molecular Biology Institute is housed.  The auditorium holds about 300 people and at 4 PM it was packed.  I botched the moving of the slides from the computer to the large screen but fortunately Lynch came to my rescue.  But I was in full control in delivering the lecture which was rich in anecdotes.  Nedra said that I hadn’t lost my touch (she took my genetics course in the summer of 1958). Equally engaging was the question and answer period.  I showed two pages from my notebook for Muller’s course in Mutation and the Gene which I took in early 1955. I was interested in Muller since my high school days and when I took his course I wanted to see how he thought. So not only did I take notes on the “winning of the facts” as he called it, but his reasons for the course and the value of knowledge of the history of genetics.  My talk was well received and afterwards Nedra and I were invited to a dinner at a steak house where I enjoyed a margarita (which I shared with Nedra). It was delightful to have two hours of conversation and a superb filet mignon. I thanked my host because I felt rejuvenated.  It has been about 14 years since I have given a lecture to a large audience.  It carried me back to the endorphin rushes of lecturing in my Biology 101-102 course at Stony Brook University.  It gave me great satisfaction to discuss Muller’s life and the significance of his work in radiation genetics and evolutionary genetics and his efforts to help humanity. Muller denounced the racism, sexism, and class prejudice of the eugenics movement in the United States. He condemned (in Moscow in 1937) the attacks on genetics by a politically backed view of heredity whose advocate in that audience (T D Lysenko) Muller denounced as a charlatan.  During the Cold War, Muller was a leading critic of the abuses of radiation exposure.  It was also important, I felt to show his flawed personality, and I included a photocopy of his suicide note in 1932 in Texas when psychological depression made him feel unworthy of carrying on his career or life.  Fortunately he recovered and found positive outlets for the insecurities he harbored. The capstone of my pleasure was that I was giving this lecture at Indiana University where I had gotten my PhD working in Muller’s laboratory.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


In my youth I read with great excitement Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.  In it the hero, Dr. Stockmann, warns his city officials of a potentially dangerous outbreak of typhoid fever from bacterial infested waters of the town spas. Instead of springing into action and responding to Stockmann’s advice on how to prevent the epidemic, he is castigated and branded as an alarmist whose concerns would scare away tourists and shut down commerce.  I think of Ibsen’s play when I listen to the slow as molasses response the world is making to the outbreak of Ebola virus in now four African countries. The infections are spreading and shifting to exponential growth (every 21 days) because of public ignorance, a mixture of fatalism, belief in magic spells, suspicion of foreign sources spreading the disease, and denial.  When Nedra and I were on Semester at Sea and visiting Capetown in 1992, I found a similar wishful thinking that the spreading epidemic of AIDS in Uganda and Kenya would not reach Capetown. In Madras (now Chennai) I was told by some Indian professors that AIDS was not a problem to worry about because Indian males are monogamous and faithful. Sadly, both Capetown and Chennai have experienced a different outcome than their wishful thinking. No doubt, if tens of thousands were dying from Ebola virus infections each day, the world would spring into action but the problems of containing the epidemic would be far more challenging than early intervention with public health measures and effective quarantine and treatment. This indifference is unlikely to happen in the US because our Centers for Disease Control would quickly isolate each new or suspected case.  A very similar response occurs to concerns of the overwhelming majority of scientists who study oceanography, geography, atmospheric science, marine biology, and meteorology.  Despite the overwhelming physical evidence of climate change from the contributions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other industrial pollutants deniers have stymied action in the US and many other industrial nations.    They deny that massive discharges of these gasses from industry, home heating, outdoor cooking (for much of the undeveloped world), and energy used to drive cars, locomotives, jet planes, and ships at sea, have anything to do with the climate changes published in peer reviewed journals.  Instead, a number of reasonably educated individuals, like Dr. Stockmann’s peers in Norway, prefer to blame the messenger for false information, seeking to profit from worthless attempts to solve a problem that doesn't exist in their minds.  Unfortunately many people do not know the difference between science and magic, between pseudoscience and carefully reasoned, tested, or controlled evidence. Most of our elected officials have had no more than one year of science in a college liberal arts degree.  Most of those who complete a high school degree are fortunate if their biology course has not been purged of any science that might contradict religious, ideological, or political beliefs because of a fear that science will question the wishful thinking that governs much of our lives.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Thought Experiment on Imagining the Future

Suppose you could go back 200 years to 1814.  Imagine that you could hear and ask questions but were not allowed to reveal anything of the future you knew. You would enter a world where no would know that our body is composed of cells, that fertilization involves the union of one sperm with one egg, that there are components of cells called chromosomes, that chromosomes contain genes, that genes transmit hereditary information to the offspring, that genes are composed of nucleic acids, that there are organic compounds made of carbon associated with living matter, that there is a metabolism that takes place in our cells, that organisms evolve by natural selection, that infectious diseases are caused by microbial organisms called bacteria and fungi, that the warmth of our bodies is caused by oxidative phosphorylation in our mitochondria.  People would not know that there are galaxies as big or bigger than our own Milky Way.  They would not know there is an expanding universe consisting of billions of galaxies. They would not know how stars generate their light and heat. They would not know there are x-rays that can penetrate solid objects and can be used to locate foreign objects or reveal their skeletons. They would not know that mass and energy are related. There would be no photography, no electricity to light up a home, no telephones, no jet travel, no railroad system, no postal system, and no automobiles. 
During this trip to the past you would be frustrated because you could not tell those with whom you converse any of this future information and you would have to listen to debates in which one wrong approach is contested against another wrong approach. One physician might argue that illness is caused by unhealthy air and another physician might ague that an imbalance of vital humors was the cause of illness.  One might treat disease by copious bloodletting.  Another might recommend warm enemas to purge the toxins from your system. If you were talking about an epidemic of influenza, you would be frustrated that the idea of flu viruses is not mentioned and immunization against the disease was possible but no would think of this future possibility.

I suggested this thought experiment because I think of it when listening to debates today on topics where we have incomplete knowledge.  Is consciousness a biological phenomenon or is there some sort of non-material soul or being that exists in your body, especially your brain? Neurobiologists will favor a mechanistic explanation and use present day tools to find genes associated with brain formation and function or tools that reveal where in the brain different activities take place. Theologians and philosophers who see the mind as separate from the body will invoke either a divine insertion of a soul or some emergent property of matter that cannot be detected by reductionist techniques and tools. Neither side says that we cannot answer that question because we do not yet know enough about how the brain works or what the genes do that make our brain an anatomical and functional unit.  Confessing ignorance is often considered a cop out.  Just as the answers to the questions raised in 1814 required hundreds of findings, experiments, and new tools to reveal the very small and the very large and to tear cells into their components to see how they worked, a similar abundance of new tools and new findings and new testable theories will emerge in the decades or centuries ahead before we have answers that cannot be imagined today. Humility is not rejecting science in favor of guesswork going back some two to three thousand years ago, but recognition that we cannot know the future and it takes patience to get reason-based answers, not all of them coming in our own life times.   

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A four generation perspective on living in the United States

I am now living into my fourth generation. When I was born in 1931, Herbert Hoover was still President of the United States.  I grew up in New York City during the Great Depression when a subway ride or a hot dog at Nedick’s was five cents. During World War II in public school I collected tin foil, rubber bands, and newspapers for the war effort. My second generation began with the birth of the United Nations and the start of the Cold War. It led in turn to a wave of hysteria about Communist influence on American life.  The witch hunt for current and former Communists made me nervous.  My oldest brother quit the Communist Party when the Lysenko Controversy erupted. As an undergraduate at NYU, I associated with fellow students of the Beat Generation. I left New York for Indiana University and learned to be a geneticist. Some of my high school classmates were killed in the Korean War. My second generation came to a close at UCLA where I witnessed the first Peace Corps volunteers and students who registered African American voters in Mississippi.  Our children formed the Baby Boom generation. The 60’s were transforming and I shifted my emphasis to teaching non-majors biology courses. My third generation was mostly lived while teaching at Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York State. It was an age of greed, the pursuit of wealth, the tearing down of the New Deal that Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson had built. We became the world’s policeman or bully depending on your politics. We became a nation of winners and losers, makers and takers, patriots or subversives.  There was no middle ground and the middle class was disappearing.  My fourth generation began as we entered the twenty-first century.  I retired. I shifted to full time writing.  We moved to Indiana to enjoy its university setting and opportunities to enjoy its theater, libraries, music performances, and ease of access and cost. After 9/11 and the endless wars of a nation engorged with armaments waiting to be used, we are still trying to define ourselves.  We can smash armies that are well armed but we are stymied by terrorists, guerrillas who melt into the jungles, and an amorphous enemy of uncertain size, location, and objectives, partly created by our own failed international policies which reflect our own domestic shift towards a plutocracy dictating legislation favoring the wealthy. The two iconic images of these four generations are the bombing of Pearl Harbor that inspired what some call “the greatest generation” in our fight against fascism and 9/11 which sadly inspired fear, lashing out at the wrong enemies, the loss of privacy, the shift to the perpetual military state, the crushing of labor unions, the demeaning of liberals, the rejection of science, and a contempt for teachers and scholars.  

Monday, September 1, 2014


While in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, my sister-in-law gave me three articles to read that a friend of hers recommended.  My sister in law is the widow of Congressman Ted Weiss (D., NY) so she likes to keep informed.  One article was from the Harvard Business Review and the other two were from Forbes magazine.  These are not left-leaning magazines.  They discussed what went wrong with the last market collapse and why the gap between the rich (the 1%) and the poor (the bottom 10%) has been widening.  I consider myself poorly informed about economics.  I try to be a Platonic liberal arts thinker who avoids mundane things like making money, investing, or admiring those who amass personal fortunes. But I listen to a lot of news commentary on cable TV and this story has not been explained with the detail and clarity these three articles convey.
The Harvard Business Review article was by William Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell [“Profits without prosperity”].  He argues that our inequality gap was largely due to a policy of “buying back” the stock of one’s own company to drive up the value of the stock.  Why this is not seen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as manipulating the stock market is a puzzle to me, but It is apparently legal (loop holes generally are).  This short term gain is offset by using the increased value to pay executives and major shareholders generous salaries, bonuses, and returns.  But it is not used to invest in expanded business, research and development, or salary increases for the vast number of employees whose higher productivity made the initial high value of the company’s stock.  Lazonick argues that corporations use the credo that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize stock value.  He argues that the function of a company is to make a useful and desired product.  The higher stock value should be a consequence of the sales of those products. The Forbes editorial comments supported Lazonick’s thesis and warned that if the gap continues to widen and if the wealth generated by a company does not go into the processes that benefit the long term interests of a company, there will be a collapse of massive proportions when the over-inflated bubble bursts.  Corporate boards do not usually take up this issue because its members are usually fellow CEOs who benefit from such inflated salaries and bonuses.
What puzzles me is the relatively scant discussion of the “buy back” policy, the lack of curiosity by the press to go after the SEC, major corporations, and congressional supporters of this dangerous policy that the Forbes articles described as a “negative Ponzi scheme.”  The “buy back” practice depletes funds from the company, puts a lid on worker pay raises, reduces or eliminates health and retirement benefits, and shifts the burden of stagnant or reduced worker income to the taxpayer.  This leads to worker discontent and loss of loyalty.  

In the 1890s and early 1900s there were journalists and writers like Ida Tarbell, Frank McClure, Upton Sinclair, David Phillips, and Louis Brandeis.  We need more “muckrakers”, as they were then called, for the twenty-first century.  Where are they?  What are they waiting for, another 1929 type of stock market crash?

Sunday, August 24, 2014


I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in New York City. My ideas of race were influenced by the movies I saw, the radio programs I heard, and the conversations on the city streets where I lived. I think of the Marx Brothers as they formed a type of conga line with African Americans (then called negroes) in Cocoanuts. I think of Al Jolson, in blackface, on his bended knee singing Mammy.  I think of Amos and Andy and their comic characters (whites playing blacks on radio, but black actors in the 1950s when it shifted to television).  I also think of Jack Benny’s sidekick valet, Rochester [Eddie Anderson], and their comedy routines. I think of the song lyrics “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-choo?  Track 29.  ‘yes, sir’  … then, boy, you can give me a shine.”   Offsetting this I recall two black friends, one when we lived in the Bronx near Brook Avenue and I was in third grade who taught me how to make a ring from a peach pit. The other was a classmate in junior high school whose father was a movie house film projectionist and whose house I visited in Brooklyn. But by far the most influential experience I had on who African Americans were came when I walked into the freshman English class at NYU.  My teacher was Charles Davis (then Mr. because he was still working on his PhD).  He was brilliant and took an interest in his students and read their essays aloud to the class with the same analysis as the short stories and published essays we had as homework to read.  Later he would take me to coffee at a nearby Chuck full o’ Nuts and ask me about my progress.  When I thought of switching from Biology to English he talked me out of it because he said the books I was reading showed my love for science.  Davis later became the first black professor at Princeton and the founding director of the Black Studies program at Yale. I learned from him the importance of mentoring students and I frequently took students to lunch to teach them generosity as he did for me.

There is an erratic zigzag path to finding our “better natures.”  The abolitionist movement before the Civil War was supported by many white intellectuals, ministers, and men and women of conscience. The Civil rights movement had numerous white supporters of a movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr who spoke to the moral sensibilities of white people.  The Supreme Court set aside prejudicial laws and the federal government took an active role in enforcing civil rights in the old segregationist south. Despite these victories, discrimination in housing and social discrimination lagged behind.  We also liked to believe that electing an African American as President was the last nail in the coffin of segregation and racial prejudice. The response to the deaths of young black men seen as “uppity,” confrontational, or potentially murderous has led to tragedy with largely unarmed men in their teens being shot in a country that still has too many citizens who believe in shoot first, ask questions later, for perceived threats.  Despite these setbacks generating self-doubts about our progress, we need to remind ourselves that there has been progress and there will be progress as we learn to accept our diversity as a nation and see our nation as one that fosters the liberty and equality of opportunity that motivated so many of those who framed our founding documents as a nation. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Identiying our ancestry can be far from simple

My father was born in 1901 in Stockholm his ancestors, maternal and paternal, came from southwest or southeast Sweden.  My Swedish grandmother was born near Goteborg but spent part of her youth in Normandy in France, where she met her future husband who was visiting from a trip to Germany. I can say in good conscience that paternally I come from Swedish ancestry but I can’t claim any French ancestry.
My mother was born in 1893 in Bound Brook, New Jersey, so that makes her American.  Her parents came to the US as immigrants from Tarnapol, then a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the US census records for 1900 my maternal grandparents are listed as “Austrian.”  After World War I the region that includes Tarnapol was given to Poland, so as a youth I thought first that they were Polish. In 1939, however, Tarnapol was carved out of Poland and given to the USSR so Tarnapol became Russian.  When the USSR collapsed in 1988 Tarnapol  became a part of Ukraine, a country now independent of Russia.  This might seem just a question for map-makers to settle, but it had profound implications for many Americans.
My mother was married twice.  Her first was in an arranged marriage, as was the custom of Orthodox Jews, and the husband her father selected was an immigrant from Chernobyl.  As was the legal policy at that time in US immigration law, my mother became the property of her husband and thus she was a subject of Russia.  She did not know this until she tried to register to vote for Roosevelt in 1940. My brother and I went with her to be re-naturalized as an American in downtown Manhattan.

I could describe my ancestry on my mother’s side as Austrian, Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian.  Most Jews (especially the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism) identify Jewishness as a maternally transmitted trait so they would consider me Jewish.  But Swedes would not consider me Lutheran, the faith my father had until he was about 10 when he became an atheist and his mother converted to Roman Catholicism.

I much enjoy my melting-pot heritage.  It is very American and in the years when I taught genetics and biology, I sometimes had my classes prepare pedigrees of their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Along with those connections, I asked for their ancestry.  Most of those who have been in the US for 3 or more generations are melting-pot mixtures who have both ethnic and racial mixtures.  The farther back one goes, the more this becomes a reality because of the migratory history of Americans from coast to coast. Oh yes, when asked about where my mother’s ancestors came from,  I now say “Tarnapol; it’s now in Ukraine.”  Unless, of course, I go into Ancient Mariner mode, and tell them this more detailed story.

When you hear the word "evolution" does "neotony" come to mind?

How many ways can we make a home?  I remember as a child walking through the corridors of the American Museum of Natural History and gawking at the many dioramas which combined realistic painting with artifacts or copies of natural and prehistoric settings.  I saw homes of our ancestors built from mammoth tusks in Siberia.  I saw tepees with animal skin wrapped around a cone of trimmed saplings.  I saw igloos built from blocks of ice or compact snow.  Outside the museum I saw the swank apartments of those who lived on Central Park West and imagined the view of Central Park they enjoyed.  I contrasted that with our own Brooklyn cold water flat with a coal stove in the kitchen.  In books I saw castles and mansions that housed the privileged and log cabins that Presidential candidates promoted as their identification with the underprivileged voter or common man.
In a similar way there are many mechanisms by which evolution occurs.  There is natural selection in which adaptive traits survive, thus providing the genetic basis for them that enters a new generation and this in turn changes the gene frequency of the population.  There is the “founder effect” in which a small number of individuals enter a new niche and reproduces rapidly in large numbers to create a population that differs in appearance from its original source.  There are hybrids that undergo a doubling of chromosome number and thus establish a new self-reproducing species. There are developmental mutations that can multiply body parts or organs like wings, limbs, or eyes.  There are other developmental mutations that place organs in different parts of the body producing new variations in a species.  One of my favorites is a process called neotony in which juvenile or embryonic features are carried into adult stages.  In the 1920s such neotonous species were found in salamanders in caves, the fertile adults sporting gills which are normally absorbed in the related species living outside the caves. 

We humans have a neotonous origin from out primate ancestors because we have prolonged child-raising period compared to other primates which are sexually mature and functionally adult in fewer years.  The most recently studied neotonous organisms are the birds that had a dinosaur-like ancestry.  They miniaturized as they shifted from living on land to living in trees and then to the skies as they developed wings for flight.  Their eyes are larger (like an embryo’s) in proportion to their bodies.  We do not reflect as much as we should on these neotonous traits in the evolutionary process, and most of the debates about Creationism and Intelligent design are waged over natural selection which is only one of many ways evolution works. 

"Vain Hopes I gave to Man"

In Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is chained to a rock, his liver devoured daily by an eagle but it regenerates each night. One of his comforters asks him why he was punished by Zeus.  Prometheus explains how he felt sorry for the plight of humans and taught them to make fire so they could keep warm, cook food, and build a civilization.  This angered Zeus and Prometheus was now paying the consequences for his good deed. In one of his darkest moments as he reflected on some of the bad outcomes of his gift to man, he said “Vain hopes I gave to man.”

Idealists imagine that the benefits of their voluntary participation or support will be realized.  In World War I someone coined the phrase that this was “the war to end all wars.”  Among the abolitionists before the Civil War were many ministers who believed that education, preaching, and popular opinion would lead slave owners to voluntarily give up their slaves.  We have had a “war on cancer” for some 40 years without that hoped for victory.  We have had a war on poverty for 50 years and the gap between the poor and the very rich has increased rather than diminish.

There are some victories along the way.  The suffrage movement did lead to a vote for women.  The Civil War did end legal slavery.  The child labor laws did protect children from hazardous work.  Public health laws did provide compulsory immunization against infectious diseases.  The Food and Drug Administration does protect consumers from contaminated or toxic foods and medicines.  It is not as perfect as idealists wished, but certainly it is far superior than doing nothing.

              Pessimists will see the failures and optimists will cite the victories.  Those who lived through triumphs and disappointments will realize that our “vain hopes” are still worth cherishing. 

What makes a happy marriage?

Nedra and I attended our daughter’s wedding on the beach at the Fort Pierce, Florida, state park.  It was a lovely setting and I was asked to give a blessing to Erica and her husband, Dwayne Morrell.  It was a second marriage for both.  I too had experienced a failed first marriage but with Nedra it has been 55 years of happy marriage and it is still a pleasure to be together. I decided to share what makes a happy marriage and I told the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Dwayne and Erica Morrell that is what we learned in our 55 years of being Mr. and Mrs. Elof and Nedra Carlson:

1.       Know that you have common interests that drew you together and let these be a permanent bond you share and enjoy.
2.       Recognize that you also have different interests and learn to respect these because no two people should or can think and experience life alike.  The world is filled with the ideas and contributions of billions of others and we can often learn from those differences.
3.       Learn to sort out the household activities.  I pay the bills; Nedra does the cleaning of laundry and the rooms. We both take turns cooking and shopping. In times of need we pinch hit.
4.       Help other people.  We both find satisfaction and meaning in life when we help causes we believe in and individuals in need.
5.       Appreciate each other’s talents and skills and cheer for each other’s successes.  Encourage each other for your failures or struggles.
6.       Learn to sublimate your discontents and turn disappointments into creative acts and works that benefit others.
7.       Be each other’s confidante and don’t be afraid to express what dispirits you and what your innermost hopes and fears are.

Nedra and I differ in our experiences and talents but we share many of the values expressed in these guidelines.  I admire her gifts in sewing, especially quilt-making. She admires my capacity to write almost effortlessly.  We both love the life sciences with her direction leading to a career in in vitro fertilization and mine leading to a career as a geneticist.  We both have a capacity to be flexible.  I am less secure than Nedra in social settings. Nedra is less secure than I when asked to give a talk in front of an audience.  We still hold hands and tell each other “I love you.” 

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Why do we fight wars?  The cop-out answer shunts the blame to our genes invoking some genetic predisposition to aggression. It is a circular reasoning.  It is innate these advocates claim because we always fight wars so it must be in our genes.  That is not good science. Humans also cooperate and form communities that go beyond the family and extend to national identity.  Is it in our genes then to cooperate? The same circular reasoning can be used to justify this.  Also, there is no known aggregate of people who are all rugged individualists to support an alternative theory.  I would use a different argument about the social construction of wars. Take the case of Sweden.  Until the early middle ages they were Vikings and terrified other European shores with raids that were wantonly aggressive. After they were Christianized they shifted to wars with Russia and lost Finland to the Russians. They converted to Lutheranism during the Reformation and under King Gustav Vasa they had numerous wars against Denmark, the Baltic States, Poland, and Russia. Under Charles XII they marched their way south until they were defeated by the Russians. Charles XII returned and attacked Norway only to be killed in 1718.  A century later they joined the countries fighting Napoleon’s army. From 1814 on they have not been involved in any war.  There was no mega-mutation or population shift and mixture that brought this about. It was not biology but social policy of the Swedish government that rejected war and saw Sweden’s future in manufacturing and providing for the welfare of its citizens.  The same can be said for the Swiss. They organized into Cantons that joined in 1386.   Many of their young men made a living as mercenary soldiers hired by other countries to guard their palaces. In 1506 the Papacy employed the Swiss Guards to protect the Vatican.  In 1798 the French invaded but peace was restored after Napoleon’s defeat.  During the Reformation civil war broke out with Protestant against Catholic and erupted episodically until 1847 when the Swiss Republic established its constitution.  Since then Switzerland has maintained its neutrality, but unlike Sweden, it chose to establish universal military training for all its males. This made the prospects of fighting Switzerland a costly one and the Swiss have enjoyed more than 150 years of peace since then.   
              I would argue that the biggest obstacle to a world without wars is patriotism.  All countries indoctrinate their citizens, celebrate their heroes for military victories of the past, and revere those who died in fighting for their country.  For some who are indoctrinated, criticism of military options for foreign policy is bordering on treason.  It took a Civil War to overthrow slavery in the US which was established in the South as a way of life.  It may take a world war with nuclear weapons killing half or more of the world’s population to make the survivors do what the Swedes and Swiss recognized.  Living in peace is a better option than the disruptions caused by war.  I hope that just as most countries gave up slavery without a civil war, a generation will emerge that looks on war as a moral failure as antiquated as rooting out and persecuting  witchcraft or purchasing slaves to do hard, life shortening,  or unpleasant labor.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Nedra and I like to watch the news and we mix MSNBC, PBS, CBS, CNN, and an occasional switch to Fox News, especially when no other news is available. That gives us a nice spectrum of opinions and I find it helpful to know the spin that each commentator gives on a lead story. As I watch the current crises in Ukraine and the Gaza strip I am reminded of a similar range of opinions on the Iraq war.  We are not privy to the debates that take place in our presidents’ cabinet meetings.  We usually start off united and enthusiastic for a war, especially if there is a provocation.  For Iraq it was Sadam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction for first the atomic bomb that wasn’t and second for the mobile poison gas units that were show cased at the UN by our duped ambassador.  As the momentum for war was urged by the neocons and war hawks in the Bush administration, I listened to their spin. The war would be over in a few weeks.  We would use precision bombing that only hit military targets. Guided missiles would spare putting pilots at risk. Once Hussein’s army was crushed (one general called its army “laughable”), the liberated people of Iraq would throw flowers at our soldiers as they marched through Baghdad.  That last image touched my memory.  I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy (accidentally) kills the wicked witch by throwing a bucket of water on her (to put out a fire on the straw man set by the wicked witch), the witch melts and dies.  Her army that terrorized Dorothy and her companions, then turns to her and shouts out “Hail Dorothy!” and the soldiers kneel as they adore her.  I felt then that this is how foreign policy is shaped in our childhoods.  We have a fairy tale image of our virtues and strengths and of our enemies’ evils and flaws.  We do not have fairy tales with shades of grey. What depresses me is that fairy tales are not limited to one country. It is a universal childhood theme of good versus evil. Stepmothers are wicked. Ogres exist. Justice prevails.  It is when the war ends or the war drags on or the casualties are seen and the mistakes are made that the shades of grey — what we call reality – set in. Those murky accompaniments of war disturb us because they do not fit the fairy tale expectations that accompany the start of war.  Instead of a “Hail Dorothy” moment we hear “Get out of Vietnam” or “Get out of Iraq” or “Stop the War” or “Hey, hey, hey, LBJ, how many people have you killed today.”  Instead of invoking “light at the end of the tunnel,” the puzzled war hawks invoke “the fog of war.”  They feel that they and their nation were betrayed by unpatriotic protesters who sabotaged their dreams.  They do not feel that they were betrayed by their fairy tale image of yet another controversy in a war saturated world. 

Monday, July 21, 2014


About 50 years ago I read a column by I. F. Stone. He said “All governments lie.”  That idea has never left me and I think of it whenever a controversy or war erupts.  It was reinforced when I did the research for a book on Agent Orange which I shelved.  I read hundreds of declassified documents and I also attended an International Conference on Agent Orange in Ho Chi Minh City.  I learned that a major reason for classifying documents as secret is not to prevent an enemy to know our plans but to shield our government from embarrassment. Thus in the early phase of the Vietnam War when we were still advisors and not participants, we arranged for US trained South Vietnamese pilots to use our planes modified for spraying but had these painted with Vietnamese identification.  We could then pretend that this was a Vietnamese operation. When I visited the War Museum the North Vietnamese built after the war, its exhibit on the war included some misleading representations of the effects of Agent Orange, including a picture of a child with advanced retinoblastoma in one eye.  No data supporting the incidence of exposed and unexposed populations was used.  The data was misleading but I can understand why Vietnamese would want to blame Agent Orange for any child born with a birth defect. At the conference when I pointed out the low frequency of birth defects among non-exposed populations in a paper presented on Agent Orange and birth defects and why the US and Europe and other industrialized nations have incidences ten to one hundred times higher, he said this was because Vietnam had virtually no industrial pollution.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that most of the data was compiled by self reporting from parents who would claim exposure to Agent Orange if they had a child with a birth defect. Today’s reports on the Ukrainian disaster with a Malaysian plane shot down likely by Russian trained missile operators reflects Stone’s insight as we listen to each side blame the other for an event that should not have happened had more thoughtful people been in the decision making process. Similarly it is small comfort in wars to victims of “surgical strikes” if innocent families are trapped in their neighborhoods to be told that “every effort” was made to avoid civilian casualties.   If they are not “precision bombings” then we invoke another lie.  We say it was to save more lives that would have been lost if we didn’t ….[fill in the blank: kill the Jews in death camps before they destroyed our German culture and way of life; drop the bomb on Hiroshima to end the war and spare American lives; cluster bomb Coventry and London to break the will of the British people; fire bomb Tokyo and break the will of the Japanese people]. The list of rationalizations is quite large.  A corollary of Stone’s comment is “the first casualty of war is truth.”  What is remarkable is how effective lies are in convincing the public that its government is righteous and our sacrifices are both noble and necessary.  It works with the same certainty as Lucy pulling the football as Charlie Brown tries to kick it in Peanuts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Why is Libertarianism such an appealing economic and political movement?  As I understand it, the movement began with the publication by Herbert Spencer in 1855 of his book Social Statics. I read that book as background for a chapter in a book I wrote in 2002 called The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. Spencer believed the state is the enemy of the individual. He opposed all government activity except for protecting a country against foreign invasion.  He rejected the legitimacy of the Monarchy. He believed all colonialism was wrong because it held other people in subservience to a conquering state.  He opposed all public education because he felt the function of state supported education is indoctrination of loyalty to the state and its policies.  He felt all education should be autodidact with children learning to use libraries to educate themselves.  He opposed discrimination against women and felt they had the right to divorce, owning property, and competing with males for any job they took an interest in.  He believed people (not government) should provide insurance for their health, retirement, police protection, fire department protection, and accidents.  Companies should pay for roads, harbors, and other infrastructure and not use the state to do so.  He felt no licensing should be issued by states or organizations.  You would be assessed by the quality of your work not by your degrees or training.  He included lawyers, physicians and engineers in this category. He also believed “unfit people” should not reproduce their kind.   As you can see, many Libertarians today would cherry pick what they like and drop other items from Spencer’s list.  It was Social Statics that led to the “social Darwinism” movement in the late 19th century, especially in the US.    

The problem I see with Libertarianism, then or now, rests on the assumption that just being born gives all babies an equal start.  Each is assumed to be master of his or her fate. Supposedly, rational infants will educate themselves and compete fairly.  He does not believe that wealth or social class or race or sex plays a role in who succeeds or who fails.  He offers the lawsuit as the response to cheaters.  Can you imagine filing hundreds of lawsuits each year (and paying for them) because about ten percent of humanity acts selfishly or deceptively or is ignorant of all the ways their actions have unintended bad outcomes?  After all, there would be no regulations in the free trade markets.  Toxins in your foods?  Sue me.  Clothes fall apart?  Sue me.  Your house collapses because it is shoddy work?  Sue me.  Your kid dies because there are no public health programs and you ate food I prepared with unwashed hands?   Sue me.  What if I can block each lawsuit with a dozen lawyers and you have nothing to speak of to pay for your lawyers?  What if I counter sue you for slander?   Is that the world we want?  How does Libertarianism differ from anarchy? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I enjoyed turning 83 on July 15, 2014.  Nedra and I celebrated with a dinner out (including a margarita with two straws) and she baked my favorite cake – an almond cake with a crispy icing and studded with raspberries.  That takes the edge off the reality of old age with its multiple insults of a less effective body; a feeling of being marginalized by the rush of the present and the recession of the past into history; and a foreboding of a truncated future.  That marginalization came to me when I learned my Life Lines column would shift from every other week to once a month.  I can’t complain because I have done that column for 17 years (over 400 articles) and I am grateful it will continue in its monthly schedule.  But what it tells me is that nothing lasts. Culture constantly changes.  It would be delusional to think of writing a column in the style of Montaigne, or Francis Bacon, or Addison and Steele, or Thomas Paine or T H Huxley. A new generation seeks a new way of saying things as it proves with introducing jazz then swing, then rock and roll, then rap.  In my life time I wrote letters avidly in my youth, did not use a telephone until I was in my 30s, wrote my first books with a fountain pen, shifted to a typewriter, and did not use a computer until the late 1980s.  Now I look at the doings of my relatives, friends, and former students on Facebook.  I regularly use email. But I do not Text or Tweet and I have resisted getting a cell phone so I can enjoy privacy while walking or visiting. I have experienced at least four generations so I have seen lots of changes in culture.  The experience is like driving an old car.  It eventually becomes elevated in status as an antique car (especially if lovingly restored) instead of being seen as a tin lizzy.  

I enjoyed reading The 100 Year Old Man Who Crawled out the Window and Disappeared  by Jonas Jonasson.  It makes sport of history and politics and its hero, Alan Karlsson, is like Inspector Clouzot in the Pink Panther films. I wish aging were as  humorous or as free of decrepitude as the novel portrays it. But wouldn’t it be a dreary world to live without some illusions?

Friday, May 30, 2014


I was born in Brooklyn in 1931 so I did not have to do anything to earn my US citizenship.  My father, who was born in Stockholm came to the US not as a place he sought but as a place he liked in his merchant marine days in the early 1920s. He worked in New Orleans and at West Point before settling in New York City. He never became a US citizen because he said he had nothing bad to say about Sweden.  He read a Swedish-American newspaper to keep up with events in Sweden and faithfully wrote to his mother in Stockholm.  My mother was also born in the US, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.  Her parents were immigrants from Tarnapol then part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire and now part of Ukraine. She was placed in an arranged marriage by her father to a Russian immigrant and in those days that meant she lost her US citizenship and became a subject of Russia (she belonged to her husband under then US law). After she divorced and remarried my father, she became stateless.  In order to vote for Roosevelt she had to be renaturalized and my brother and I went with her to be sworn in, in 1940, as a US citizen even though this was the land of her birth. 
I pledged allegiance to the flag every school day K-12 before it was modified to include the phrase “under God.”  Since I had no religion I would have found that offensive or at least compromising to my beliefs. Whenever I have an occasion to recite that pledge, I omit the inserted two words because I feel it is unconstitutional to impose religious beliefs by the state.  I admire the America of our Founding Fathers who mostly embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment.  They established a country based on the consent of the governed and not an imposed government by monarchies, tyrants, or the privileged few.  I admired Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, the non-violent abolitionists, the early feminists, the first labor union organizers, the preachers and journalists who denounced child labor, the social reformers who built settlement houses, the pioneers who settled small farms in the Midwest, the educators who established free public schools, the public health programs that introduced immunization against infectious diseases,  the inventors who built our bridges, roads, railroads, and ships, the philanthropists who established public libraries and outstanding universities.  I also admired our critics – Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, Walt Whitman, Ida Tarbell, Eugene Debs, Ralph Ingersoll, Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and other men and women who braved the condemnation of the rich and the powerful.

We oscillate from decades of progress and hope to decades where the few dominate our lives and attention.  We shift from generations that live in peace and generations stuck in wars that are elective.  We believe in merit and earning our own reputations and lives but we also believe we are innately exceptional.  We  fear immigrants as often as we welcome them and appreciate what they have contributed to the diversity of American culture. We have done wrongs like passing compulsory sterilization laws, like establishing internment camps for the Japanese in WWII, like the fugitive slave act, like “separate but equal” segregation laws, like making corporations “people,” like tolerating laws that target students, minorities, the poor and the elderly so that they find it difficult to vote.  America has always been a land of contradictions.  It requires the diversity of its critics, reformers, and activists to counter the tendency of the selfish to purchase legislation that favors their interests.  

Friday, May 16, 2014


The last person convicted of blasphemy in the United States, in 1834, was Abner Kneeland, a minister who lived in Massachusetts and who was shifting his views as he read more about religion and corresponded with other ministers of different faiths.  He argued that there was no evidence for miracles, no evidence for the Trinity, no evidence  for the existence of souls, and no evidence for any specific god.  He did not consider himself an atheist, but described himself as a pantheist.  He did so because he felt the entire universe or what is called Nature could be considered as God.  In his correspondence with other ministers he wrote lengthy arguments to defend his views and they wrote equally lengthy replies. The letters are friendly, unlike those of John Calvin and Michael Servetus, where Calvin was so outraged over Servetus’s arguments against the Trinity that he ordered him arrested if he ever set foot in Geneva.  Servetus unfortunately did come to Geneva to plea his position personally with Calvin and instead Calvin turned him over to civil authorities where he was burned at the stake for heresy.  Kneeland had two trials and was convicted in the second trial and served 60 days in jail and paid a fine.  He then moved to Iowa to live out the rest of his life as a farmer.
In his speech to the jurors at his second trial, Kneeland argued that one of the charges, obscenity, was spurious because he used satire to reject the conception of Jesus by the Holy Ghost.  He argued that the Holy Ghost is not a material being and his name implies he was a spirit and immaterial.  As such, he claimed, he lacked the male genitalia to impregnate Mary. Neither the prosecutor nor the ministers who brought charges against Kneeland were amused.  When the jury found him guilty, the judge denounced Kneeland as a cantankerous person who deserved punishment for libeling religion.  Ministers were divided.   Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, early Unitarians, were his supporters.  But other Protestant ministers, including some Unitarians and Universalists (otherwise thought to be  liberal) condemned Kneeland.
You can read Kneeland’s correspondence and his speech to the jury on line if you go to the Digital Library of America and select “bookshelf” and then enter “Abner Kneeland” and then select “Speech of Abner Kneeland delivered to the City of Boston in his own defense for blasphemy, November term 1834. 

Fortunately blasphemy is rarely used as a criminal charge in municipal, state, or national law.  It would likely be found unconstitutional.  Blasphemy is usually considered an insulting way of describing God or the religion of other people.  Blasphemy was usually selective and invective descriptions of non-Christian religions were quite common when I was growing up.  “Bible belt” Protestants often equated Roman Catholics with Satan.   “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was even a campaign slogan against Democrats in the 1896 Presidential election because Democrats drew a large portion of Irish voters on the East Coast. 

Monday, May 12, 2014


 I consider myself a person because I am self-aware.  There are probably not more than a dozen people in the US and perhaps a hundred in Sweden with my name, Elof Axel Carlson.  I can be identified by my anatomy which includes photographs of me at different stages of my life cycle. My 83 year old portrait is not too different from my 55 year old portrait but it is considerably different from my 30 year old unwrinkled appearance. My fingerprints, of course, have not changed since I was a youth. A very complete autopsy at my death would reveal a considerable amount of information about my various organs and tissues. I am also a person defined by the artifacts of my life.  I have a personality that is known to my family, students, and colleagues over the years. Readers know me through my books, articles, and this Blog.  For some of you it is as if I am conversing with you. I could add those items to a variety of social and historical facts to make a CV or curriculum vitae, which I used to use when I was seeking a job. It was used by deans and committees to create an overall impression of who I was as a person.  For the most part my written record would not give many clues to others about how I look or what my personality is like.
At a genetic level, I have a unique genome that no other person alive or dead has.  Our genomes can give some information about us as persons.  If there is an abnormal chromosome number, we could predict that a person with trisomy-21 has Down syndrome, trisomy-13 has Patau syndrome, trisomy-18 has Edwards syndrome, and for the sex chromosomes, individuals who are XXY have Klinefelter syndrome and those who have an unaccompanied X are said to have Turner syndrome.  Today people can have their genomes sequenced, partially or completely, depending on how much they are willing to pay. They can learn about their risks for a variety of disorders and get some insights into their ethnic or racial ancestry.  Their DNA might also reveal a number of physical traits.  But reading my entire genome will not tell you what books I wrote, what field I worked in, or the type of information you could obtain by reading my CV. At a physiological level, you could learn about my blood types, my HLA tissue antigens, and a variety of health conditions and past illnesses I have had. When my physicians do laboratory tests, they are interested in my risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases. If I were consumed by a fire and my jawbones were left relatively undamaged, my current dentist would be able to identify me from my extractions, implants, crowns, and fillings.

I have no conscious awareness of who I was before I was about three years old. I would be unaware of my name as a fetus, unaware of existing as a fertilized egg.  I think of personhood as a process of becoming rather than an event that is assigned by society as fertilization in an oviduct, implantation into a womb, birth that is recorded on a birth certificate, or concluded with a death certificate. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes of people through their contributions to civilization – thousands of words coined over centuries, hundreds of ideas and values that I was taught and absorbed into my personality, and,  of course, some 25,000 genes that were transmitted from Swedish farmers, pious Lutherans, polytheistic Vikings, Orthodox Jews in Ukraine, survivors of pogroms, who some 1900 years ago were scattered by a Roman conquest of Jerusalem. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014


     I enjoyed reading Margolit Fox’s new book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth which discusses the decipherment of Linear B in the early 1950s.  The book discusses the major players in the process.  Arthur Evans found the tablets with the unknown script at Knossos in Crete. He tried for 40 years but did not succeed.  Alice Kober figured out what type of language group it was by studying (before computers) the associations and endings of syllables or words.  Michael Ventris finally realized it was an ancient Greek language using a totally different alphabet system.  Each of the contributors was flawed and yet each had some major insight that turned out to be correct. The book raises questions about their personalities and the influence social circumstances had on their careers and personal lives. As I read the book, I thought of the relation to coding, translating languages, and linguistics which does a comparative study of languages including their evolution.  At the same time I thought how this field differs from genetics with its genetic code, role in translating nucleotide sequences into amino acid sequences in proteins, and the evolution of life from a molecular level to an organism and population level. 

     Languages are clearly created by people but they are not intelligently designed by a creator who invented French, Korean, Swahili, or Greek.  Those languages evolved over the years.  When we read 19th century literature, we find it wordy.  When we read Shakespeare, we need a footnoted copy to figure out the meaning of words and idioms of the past.  Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is easier in translation than in middle English.  Reading Beowulf is virtually impossible without old English dictionaries or footnotes.  In a similar way genes have evolved by mutations over eons.  Just as there is a social selection of which words  survive and which ones get lost, there is a natural selection for mutational expression which leads to extinction (no progeny) or survival (the adaptive conditions won out). We are not troubled that modern languages did not exist some 3000 years ago but have evolved. Yet those who believe in an intelligent designer for the origin of species cannot imagine how humans can be derived from ape-like ancestors or how mammals could be derived from reptiles or reptiles from amphibians, or amphibians from fish working backwards to the origin of early life forms as bacteria-like or virus-like.  

       One major difference is the time scale of evolution.  For languages it is about 4000 years at most for written languages.  They have the advantage that symbols or words written in stone have survived.  In a similar way there are fossils that go back millions or 100s of millions of years.  They are more difficult to interpret than the languages used since humans began writing their transactions and thoughts. But no one would argue that Jesus spoke English or that the Biblical texts handed down were written in English for Moses to read.   Nor should one readily doubt that the life on earth differs in kind and complexity as we examine more ancient rocks.  The human bones in our graveyards are not found in the rock strata that give us dinosaurs.  Whale bones are not found in the ancient seas that teemed with crinoids.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014


When I was in fifth grade in Brooklyn, I recall reading books in the school library on mythology. I was engrossed by the ancient Egyptian and Greek deities.  At the time I had no religion because both of my parents had abandoned their religious beliefs before I was born. This gave me the freedom to think about religion without feelings of guilt.  One thought I had was almost astounding to me.  No one in 1942 believed that Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Aeolus, Medusa, and dozens of other Greek gods were actual gods.  We referred to them as myths of the past.  But at their time (and for many centuries) virtually all of those living in the Greek civilization from Homer to the rise of the Roman empire believed in those deities, worshipped them, prayed to them, and made sacrifices to them.  If gods come and go over the millennia, why do we believe any religion is the one true religion and all others are mistaken? Later, in high school, I took a somewhat different view of religion as an attempt to make sense of the universe, especially our own lives at a time when science was non-existent or knew very little about the universe and how it works and its past history.  
About 1960 I took an interest in Unitarians because it was a creedless religion and Nedra and i sought a place where both of us would be comfortable. Some of the Unitarian ministers over the years have considered themselves atheists or agnostics. Like me, they thought religion provided something valuable but it wasn’t the supernatural.  What attracted me to them was their belief that humans form and need communities.  A religion that does not offer a creed, but instead offers humans a chance to think about questions that are important—like why there is existence, how life began, what meaning do we create for the one life we have on earth, and why we have so many diverse answers to these questions, I found immensely appealing.  Despite efforts of religious leaders to make religion permanently fixed in its creed, rituals, and status among hundreds of other contending religions, religions undergo change. There are hundreds of Christian denominations ranging from liberal to rigid (“fundamentalist”) in their interpretations.  A similar spectrum (but with fewer denominations) exist for Jews. There are many forms of Buddhism. There are different Muslim traditions; the most familiar to those who are not Muslims are the Shiite and Sunni branches in the Middle East. 

Everything changes.  I expect many religions will be demoted to the status of myths and new ones will arise to meet the needs of cultures that may not arise for hundreds of years.  They will have different views of life and society we cannot predict.  If humans can extend life so that most people could live reasonably healthy lives for 100 to 120 years, I expect those with 50 years of retirement will have different needs from those who are considered old today in their 70s.  If we do colonize the moon or Mars in the next two or three centuries, I would not be surprised that their religious views will show the same tendency to diversity as those that have evolved on earth. 

Monday, March 24, 2014


Instead of abortion, birth control, the war on religion,  socialist take overs of the US, class warfare, investigations into the President's birth, mandatory prison sentences, pulling out of support for Public Radio, and the war on drugs, this is what Congress should be discussing:

·     1)   The conflict of interest between representing the needs of people of the district and representing the interests of those who give generously to finance campaigns for election or reelection.

·      2)  Ways to prevent big dollar tax avoiders pay their share of taxes instead of hiding them in foreign banks, secret accounts, and loopholes placed by Congressional representatives at the suggestion of lobbyists.

·     3)   Ways to prevent self-serving gerrymandered districts that victimize whichever party is not in power in that State. There are ways to make them balanced and not based on race or economic status.

·       4) Ways to prevent states from making it difficult, if not impossible for US citizens to vote in elections.

·     5)   Shifting some of the money given to defense to rebuilding and repairing the nation’s infrastructure of ports, railways, airports, canals, dams, electric grid, roads, and bridges.

·    6)    Giving the same tax breaks, subsidies,  and start up benefits to the non-fossil fuel, non-polluting energy efforts using wind, sun, tides, and geothermal energy.

·    7)    Making sure that every person in the US has access to health care equivalent to that given to our Congressional representatives and military members.

·   8)    Federal regulation of those industries that pollute our rivers and lakes, deplete our resources, endanger our environments, or diminish our national parks.

·       9) Federal regulation of those industries whose products may endanger the health of those users of products that may contain carcinogens, mutagens, toxins, and teratogens.

·      10)  Finding ways to employ those laid off from work so they can support a family.

·       11) What should be an adult minimum wage?  Why is this exempt from cost of living annual changes?

·     12)   Why does our military budget greatly exceed all other nations?  Is it inflated beyond reasonable costs of manufacture and testing?

·      13)  Why are health costs in the US far greater than any other country? Are hospital costs and medical and pharmaceutical costs inflated beyond reasonable costs of production and care?

·       14) What should be done to address the long term prospects that people are living longer after retirement. Should benefits be graduated based on age of retirement? Should Social Security taxes be extended past income caps that are highly beneficial to those who least need social security?

115) What measures should Congress initiate to protect coastal cities at or near sea level from being inundated in the coming decades by rising sea levels (it does not matter whether the cause was human energy use or natural cycles). 

Friday, March 21, 2014


Nedra and I saw a documentary on the use of drones in warfare. It was a very unsettling experience.  The photographs and films of dead children and the sight of them in hospitals with their healing wounds and lost limbs makes it difficult to accept the term “collateral damage” as anything less than a rationalization that some critics would condemn as  evil.  If it is terrorism to us when a suicide bomber blows up a bus or hotel, it is an act of terrorism to civilians in Pakistan who are sacrificed as “collateral damage” in an effort to assassinate a person on a kill list.  It is also disturbing for those who believe in the importance of law.  To be placed there by an anonymous informant (often the way espionage picks up information) who cannot be challenged in a court of law makes it hard to distinguish from what used to be called “kangaroo court” justice.  The use of kill lists also invites a similar tit for tat response to these killings. Do those who do this not think of the capacity of vengeance among the survivors and neighbors of the “collateral” dead?   What about the psychological effects on those who kill at a distance and do not see their victims, but learn of the collateral dead through TV or newspaper accounts (if they are publicized in their neighborhoods)?  I recall reading Howard Zinn describing his work as a bombardier in WWII.  As the war was coming to an end he was sent on two last minute missions.  One was in southern France.  The other was in Czechoslovakia.  In both cases he dropped the bombs on the targets. When he returned he was told that these were successful military missions with little collateral damage.  A few years later he was in Europe and decided to visit those towns.  He learned to his horror that he killed some 2000 civilians in France as well as German soldiers who had fled Hitler’s losing army and were hiding in what they thought was a safe area until the war ended.  He also learned that some 800 civilians were killed in Czechoslovakia.  He also learned, from a later search of war records that the mission to southern France was added on to bolster the record of a commanding officer who hoped for a promotion.  I have no way of verifying Zinn’s account, but I do not doubt its likelihood because war is rarely clean and ethics are set aside or interpreted  to satisfy rationalizations that argue that these means are essential for survival, honor, or justice.  What worried me most about the documentary on the use of drones is that they are cheaper to make than fighter planes and many countries are now making them.  The technology to target them is also not so sophisticated that other countries would lack the skills to make them. I hate to think what it would be like for those drones to be in the hands of dozens of countries or even home grown terrorist groups who do not like Jews, African Americans, liberals, illegal immigrants, union organizers, Muslims, gays, Tea party extremists, fanatical fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, and billionaires perceived as robber barons.  Both the extreme left and the extreme right are vulnerable to those who make their own kill lists.  I hope we once again bring back “a rule of law” and not this murderous philosophy of by-passing the court protections written into our constitution. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014



I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.  It is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supplemented with the lives of what were later called “the muckrakers,” and what we would today call investigative journalists.  They included Samuel McClure, Ray Davis, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White.  Goodwin writes a compelling narrative and brings to life the Gilded Age which led to the progressive movement as a response to the excesses of the wealthy few and the neglected many.
How bad were those times?  Consider child labor.  It was not thought harmful to send children to fill the coal carts in mine shafts.  No one thought it their concern if the elderly were unable to work because of the infirmities of their bodies or minds.  No one of their employers thought there should be a retirement income for them.  It was their family’s responsibility.  No one of their employers thought there should be a minimum wage.  No one of their employers thought they should be regulated for safe conditions of working (if there was an accident it was the worker’s fault).  If big companies made secret deals with railroads for cheaper rates to force small business competitors out of business, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at work.  If insider trading made the rich richer and the smaller investor broke, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at its best.  Regulate it?  Horrors, that was socialism and big government restraining trade.  If legislation was needed to provide rights of way for the railroads, campaign contributions or outright bribes determined where those rails would be placed and who would benefit.  Bags of money bought jobs – chiefs of police, judges, Senators. 
I loved reading the way the muckrakers did their research for McClure’s Magazine.  When I finished the book I looked up that magazine on the web.  Most of the issues are on-line and free to read. I entered the 1890s and early 20th century. From Goodwin’s book I reversed my judgments and had more respect for Taft as a President and person than I did for Teddy Roosevelt. Of today’s recent Presidents, Bush the younger is most like Roosevelt in his aggressive actions dragging the US into elective wars.  Obama is most like Taft in trying to negotiate, obtaining as many views as possible, and trying to persuade others without using the spotlight of publicity to harass those differing from him. 

It is depressing to see history repeat itself and I do not doubt that a look back at the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the Revolutionary War, would show the same diversity of personalities attracted to government service.  Some seek the fame of being a fighter and conqueror. Some seek to be the peace-makers (but rarely find lasting fame).  Some are corrupt and seek power, money, or prestige.  We try to make government independent of those who govern, and seek laws rather than opinions of those with power and money.  All too often, without regulation or the watchful eyes of muckrakers, our institutions are betrayed by the greedy, the self-deceived, and those who enjoy manipulating others. 

Monday, March 10, 2014


Killing for non violent behavior or for one’s beliefs occurs in almost all eras of history. The Old Testament is filled with episodes of killings based on idol worship, disobedience, dishonoring a parent, belonging to a particular ethnic group (such as the Amalekites), and unspecified offenses against God (see Genesis 38 and the story of Onan and his brothers). The New Testament tells the story of Jesus killed for his beliefs.  The last two millennia are litanies of killings based on religion.  The creed settled by the Catholic Church could not be easily breeched without punishment to heretics. Sometimes they lost their jobs.  Sometimes they were imprisoned.  At its worst, the heretics were put to death.  The Reformation led to the death of Michael Servetus (not by Catholics but by Calvin who was outraged by Servetus’s heresies). It also led to the death of Giordano Bruno in Rome, also burned at the stake for refusing to reject his own beliefs and writings.  Servetus and Bruno are unusual in their beliefs because they were priests of the Catholic Church who both rejected the Trinity. Servetus is a founder of Unitarianism with his book “On the Errors of the Trinity.”  Bruno also rejected the virgin birth of Jesus and the transubstantiation of the blood and body of Christ during the ritual of the Eucharist.
What is also unusual is that both Servetus and Bruno were scientists.  Servetus independently discovered the circulation of the blood (at least the role of the heart and lungs in “purifying” the air we breathe in and out). Servetus taught map-making, medicine, and astronomy as well as courses in theology.  Bruno taught mathematics, mnemonic methods of memory, and astronomy as well as philosophy as he went through seven or eight universities in his teaching career.  None of Servetus’s scientific work was at issue in his condemnation by both Protestant and Catholic agents seeking his arrest. It was luck that he was tried by Calvin’s court in Geneva rather than brought back to Italy for trial by the Church.  Bruno’s science was tied to his religious beliefs and those scientific beliefs were only one of seven charges of heresy against him.  Bruno accepted the Copernican model of a solar system in which the earth was the third planet orbiting the sun. He correctly identified the sun as a star. He then inferred that all stars had planets and that life must exist on most or all of them.  He also believed the universe was infinite and thus life, the material world, and God are all names of one ultimate reality or God.  That heresy the Church identified as pantheism. 
Galileo also endorsed Copernicus’s model and offered evidence from his use of the telescope he made which revealed moons around Jupiter (he calculated their orbits and predicted their positions on any given day provided to him), craters and mountain ranges on the moon, Saturn’s rings (he called them “ears” because of the way they were tilted), the phases of Venus, and the sunspots on the sun which allowed him to calculate the sun’s rotation and proving the sun was not a perfect globe.  Galileo was charged with disobedience because his published works ridiculed the prevailing Ptolemaic model of the earth as the center of the universe.  Luther and Calvin were in full agreement with the Catholic Church that the heliocentric model should be condemned because it implied the biblical account of the universe was false. Galileo lucked out and avoided a death sentence.  He chose to confess his error, denounce his publications, and spend the rest of his life in house arrest.

It took a long time for the crime of heresy to be seen as an error of belief and not as a capital crime.  In many parts of the world heresy can still be used to justify a death sentence.   Even where it may not be a government policy, individuals can convince themselves that heretics should be silenced by death rather than by the superior arguments they should try to muster in defense of their own beliefs.