Freedom: Haunted by the Idea

(This is the Introduction to a series of posts on Freedom.  The series is not about political freedom, for that would have less to do with Nature and Biology.  I mean “metaphysical” freedom!  How, in a universe of causes discovered by Newton and Einstein in physics, Mendeleev and Linus Pauling in chemistry, Darwin and Mendel in biology, can People, or any other animal, Freely Choose?  There is a way that it ‘kind of’ happens!   They are published for the sake of the clarification of basic philosophical and scientific positions.  Later posts will contain many of these ideas expressed in a different form.  First published 11/04/2018)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, “breaking bad”.

What could you do?  I mean, what might you choose to do?  Are you free enough to just up and tell your boss, “I quit”, no preliminaries, just “see ya!”  Or your husband or wife, “I’m done, I want a change; I’m moving out today!”  Or maybe you decide to become a monk or a mountain-top sage; you pack a bag, buy a ticket to Nepal and off you go.

Seems possible.  You just turn off your practical consideration of consequences and any moral concerns, and just choose to do it.  Of course, you’re not going to do any of these things, especially in the whimsical, abbreviated fashion portrayed above; but theoretically, abstractly, is it possible?  You choose, and then do!  You choose to make some drastic change.

I used to think the answer was “yes;” I used to think we were that ‘free’, and I was actually somewhat spooked by it.  “I could do that,” I ruminated, “fully responsible humans are capable of such radical choice.”  By “radical choice,” I mean a choice not caused by outside forces, not even the context of the rest of a person’s life and times–physically, emotionally and in terms of character.  Not caused, simply chosen

Four of the greatest Existentialist thinkers: Sartre (bottom right) coined phrase “radical choice,”  Dostoyevsky (top right) wrote Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche (bottom left) wrote one of the first explanations for morality,  Kierkegaard (top left) was one of the original founders and predominately concerned with religion.

The famous French Existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, coined this phrase, “radical choice”, and he suggested we should think of many of our choices in theses terms: They are totally up to us; each in reality is a true ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.’  Each choice is your pure and unfettered act of making you who you are and you’re totally responsible!  Wow, no wonder I was freaked by it; it’s really severe!

What’s the basis for this radical ability?  Sartre thought it was ‘the self’, the ‘you’ in “you choose.” In reality, this “self” is disconnected from worldly causes, necessities and influences, he believed, even though it often seems highly connected.  Where you come from, your momentary mood, your upbringing and even peer pressure is not the true basis of any of your choices.  If you think they are, that’s “bad faith,” says Sartre; it’s a denial of “your existential condition.”  The real “self” is above these: It is not an object that is formed in your upbringing, or held by worldly needs, or gravity, or pushed by the wind.  It is not a part of nature, in fact it is characterized by Sartre in contrast to nature!  It is like an other-worldly ‘thing’, it transcends regular objects.  What it can do—choose to do, we often underestimate.*

Maybe the situation is similar to recovering addicts in twelve step programs, they call upon some “higher power” to stay sober.  And, this is freedom: it is not caused but must be made by a “Self” (or some ‘thing’) that transcends causes — a ‘thing’ kinda like God.

Freedom, for these existentialists, is like ‘reasonableness’ which also takes place ‘above the fray’ of causal forces and mundane worldly necessities.  The “self” that is reasonable and free is an unusual ‘object’; it must avoid many worldly distractions.

Often the commission of a “radical choice” is portrayed as a criminal act.  One of the great novels of all time is based on this theme.  Raskolnikov, the main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, convinces himself that the murder and robbery of a despicable pawnbroker and loan shark would be permissible, and that he will do it.  He is not inclined by his nature or experience to do it, in fact he is a university student.  What he does believe is his freedom to commit the act, and in the logic of it— the reasoning of the Utilitarian Theory of right and wrong.  To kill the scoundrel will rid the world of an evil person whose fortune could then be used for the betterment of all, he calculates.  What is right, is what is good for the majority.

He is also bolstered by the idea, popular then and now, that great people rise above their personal and historical context and act in great and unconventional ways.  Raskolnikov thinks of himself in Napoleonic terms; today we tend to think of some of our great entrepreneurs in this way and shower them with massive wealth.

A more recent example of “radical choice” was the popular television series, Breaking

Image result for pictures of walter white breaking bad
Cancer was the opportunity for Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) to make a “radical choice”.

Bad.  Here, a high school chemistry teacher makes the startling decision to become a crack cocaine “cook” and eventually “kingpin.”  Implausible to the highest degree, the brilliance of the series’ writing and acting is the convincing portrayal of the mild-mannered man and his choices, including homicide.  He makes his decisions, no doubt, and they are radically out of character.

I no longer believe in “radical choice,” or in it in quite the same way.  It has made my life more tranquil.  “I am who I am”, I more often think,and I make decisions along those lines.  I am more embedded in myself than I was as a young man, more connected to an established life.  It’s a good thing.  I’m not the kind of person who becomes a monk much less commits a vile crime; in any realistic sense, I just couldn’t do it!

But, where does that leave the idea of choice and even freedom?  If we think of ourselves as more embedded in our environment and more tied to our past and the world around us, how do we think of the opportunity to do something significantly different, whether good or bad?

I  believe that the Existentialists were not totally wrong.  We can make significant changes. The Self, as it ‘rises above’, as it  gains ‘a vantage point to look back’ and consider itself and its actions, is not a metaphysical ‘thing’, but a biological and human social construction.  The “Self” has this ability because of the way we are raised to be Persons, and take responsibility and hold others to their roles too.  The Self does transcend, but not in the way the Existentialists thought.  More on this in the coming posts in this series!

In the next post, though, I will swing 180 degrees from Sartre’s “radical choice”, to the idea of humans as machines designed to act appropriately in their environment.  This new view brings humans into line with our universe of causes and effects.  We fit in, like clock-work!

3 Panel Canvas Art Clockwork Fine Watch Gears Colored Wall Art Panel Paint : cheap canvas prints wall paintings pictures
courtesy of ASH Wall Art

*Upon further consideration, I am not sure this is an accurate portrayal of Sartre’s position.  It is more of a strawman, an exaggerated portrayal made to make a point and be easily knocked down.




Mother Nature Draws No Lines, Part IV: The Conclusion—There are No Lines but Some Distinctions Do Appear



In The Tree of Life all distinctions are fuzzy. There are no sharp lines between Nature’s products. All is continuous and without rupture. Natura non facit saltum,” (Nature makes no leaps) is a biological principle embraced by Darwin whole-heartedly; it goes back to the Middle Ages but was more recently advocated in Darwin’s era by taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1758) in his first major classification (since Aristotle) of all living things.

But what is important Philosophically and Ethically is that Distinct and Valuable Individuals only exist within The Vaguely Differentiated Whole of Life, a Whole that is itself the only True Unit.

(The System of Nature, its tenth edition was considered definitive. Hey, it took a while, Linnaeus had a lot of sh!# to get together! He was the first to use the binomial nomenclature comprehensively—canus familiaris, for example: kinds within kinds within kinds in a progressive development!)
(DENDOCRAM 8, The Kingdom of Plants: Its first major Division [Phylum] is between having seeds or not. But even this major distinction is softened by spores, for example. Its secondary distinctions [classes] has to do with the many different ways to have or not have roots and stems, and then the many kinds of flowers—from simple to complex, or no flowers at all. Further research into this kingdom would be interesting to grasp its complexities in reference to all the above distinctions.)

These are the points that have been made in the preceding “Wonders in The Tree of Life” in support of the conclusion that Living Nature Is Continuous and Without Rupture. “Life” is a massive Unity of productive Processes and Products. A brief review follows.

WONDER ONE: The bloodline of each currently living thing (and every living thing at any time) runs unbroken into the past to the original living things some 3,500 millions of years ago. And let us not forget that a million is 1,000 thousands, and that you or I will be lucky to live to 100 years, which really does not come to that much. So really, we each go a long way back in a chain of ancestry. (Why is it these days that we talk about millions and even billions in such a cavalier fashion?)

Individual living things are individual, but their connection to the recent past, the far distant past and even to the future (a next generation) is essential to them. The Tree of Life is continuous from its root to the tip of its furthest branches.

(The Royal Family of England: a Tree of Descent. The bloodline from Queen Victoria [1819] and Prince Albert [1819] growing downward to today through eight generations. Note that in the sixth generation, Prince Charles is now King Charles with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth. Note also the bottom row, the current generation of babies. Note further that at about the 85th million generation ago, you, me, and the Royal Family had an ancestor in common, that was something like our modern African Lungfish.)
(Three modern Lungfish and one Ancient Lungfish. Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that sone of these Ancient Lungfish were our Great…Great 85 millionth or so Grandmothers, and then all our line of descent flowed back through their [our] family line to about the origin of life!)

WONDER TWO: Life is a competition that is “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), but it is organized to ensure its longevity; there are always “winners” to participate in the next round of the ‘tournament.’ Similar to an elimination tournament with brackets, The Tree of Life is also different in that many “forms” (as Darwin called them) do not always participate in the competition; they are ‘happy’ to remain (largely) as they are and many continue in that form indefinitely.

(DENDROGRAM 9: Many participants in The Tree of Life did not and do not undergo Evolutionary Pressures to Evolve into obviously different forms. Look to the outer extension of each branch; all these creatures exist today, many in forms much like they did near their origination. This Tree utilizes a classification more general than even “Kingdom.” The Three “Domains” of Life are the three distinctions in basic Cell Types. Is there fuzziness at this most general level too?)

Yet some lineages of living things did ‘stumble into’ Adaptations of their structure and abilities and now obviously display An Evolved and Progressive set of characteristics. For these creatures, Nature Selected ‘winning’ Adaptations that accumulated into creatures more able to survive and reproduce in greater and greater varieties of ways.

(Competitions possessing the above logical form and involving innumerable situations and innumerable organisms have occurred over billions of years, and have been the occasion for a vast number of Adaptations in structure and ability. This logical form is a characteristic of many, of what we can now call, “Algorithms.” )

WONDER THREE: The Tree of Life continues to display its Unity through various Values and Qualities among its many products. It is a Whole of Contrastive Structures and Abilities, each only with significance in relation to the others! Our “Values” and “Qualities” are most meaningful only within this Unit, this Tree of Life on Our Planet. Quantitatively, or more ‘objectively,’ these ideas of Quality and Value can be somewhat understood in terms of numbers of chromosomes and lengths of DNA and sequential variation in DNA seen within the many varieties of living creatures. Dennett spends much effort in his book arguing that Our Tree of Life is Possibility that has been Actualized and Naturalized. And what is possible for “Life,” now, has its limits set by the forms so far in existence!

It is The Tree of Life that is the true individual thing; all its individual creatures are its component parts. It is the Whole of which we are a part.

(DENDROGRAM 10: More Ernst Haeckel and his almost 200 year old notions of the relations of Mammals. Note chimpanzee, gorilla and others as evolved forms of “Ape-Man.” Imagine what the discovery of a planet with Other Life Forms would do to our sense of the possibilities in “A Tree of Life!” Dennett argues that there would have to be significant similarities between them and us—metabolism, growth, reproduction, etc.—for them to be considered “alive.”)

WONDER FOUR: At the core of the broad processes that we call “Evolution by Natural Selection” is a more abstract form of process that is now called “Algorithmic.” These processes build up more complex wholes from smaller and simpler parts—as in one, two, and three digit multiplication; or break down more complex wholes into a simpler unit—as in long division; or guide a process through a series of simple steps—as in a recipe or a computer program. Algorithmic processes often “run” over and over again with the same similar and simple process to achieve outcomes, and often these outcomes can have surprising characteristics. They can build up a simple unit into complex and surprising variations, or they can break down a seemingly unitary thing into surprisingly simple components.

In this way, Our Tree of Life is a massive network of cells built into more and more complex organisms or organic “forms,” or even into biological “machines,” as Dennett and some biologist (like Richard Dawkins) contend. Also, and very importantly, Our Tree of Life is a “River of Genetic Material” (Dawkins) flowing out of the past and into the present. It is a network of strands of genetic units (information stored in a chemical structure) of often growing lengths and sophistications.

(Algorithmic Processes do start simple! Arctic Stone Circles are surprising formations of stones pushed up by the undisturbed and continuous cycle of freezing and thawing of the soil. The same process led to the problem for New England farmers that they solved arduously by picking up the newly surfaced stones each spring at plowing and moving them to the edge of the field forming New England’s now famous system of stone walls. Photo from BBC News)

WONDER FIVE: The Tree of Life displays an amazing Fullness! There are vast quantities of Individual living creatures arrayed in a vast quantity of Kinds of creatures. To add to this Darwin asks us, in his Origin of Species, to imagine all the kinds of creatures (species) that have ever existed returning and added to all those that now exist. He contends that all of life’s kinds would then form an array as finely distinguished as that of the most luxuriant of varieties that exist today. These kinds would be so finely meshed that no formal definitions would be possible to distinguish them! A Tree without gaps!

To acknowledge the fullness of The Tree allows us to understand Gradualism as the core of Evolution. Darwin realized—and Dennett emphasizes—that the great complexity, diversity, and intricate organization of living things was not possible without a God-like Designer, unless it developed slowly and gradually through minute incremental additions and improvements. Something as complex as an elephant or daffodil could not naturally come into existence in one fell swoop, that would be Vastly Improbable.

As stated in Post III (see it for additional detail), Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) a tree-like relationship of kinds and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! And each of these tested in the Competition of Life and built up through eons of time.

The Tree of Life has Gradually built upon itself and displays a marvelous fullness among its different forms!

WONDER SIX: There are not “Firsts!”

Talk about continuity. Talk about counter-intuitive notions! With all the different kinds of creatures in The Tree, it is mistaken to think that at some exact point the original mammal appeared, or fish, or even the original living thing. “There are no firsts” is a corollary of the reality of Gradualism.

Dennett phrases it: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if.” The ‘first’ mammals, for example, were merely a quasi-mammal and a quasi-reptile. Mammals became less and less reptilian and more and more mammalian, but there is No Place To Truly Draw “A Line,” as the title of this post series contends.

(Fossil of a Cynodont, a mammal-like reptile about “the size of a loaf of bread and resembling a scaly rat,” 235 mya and found in South America. A mammal-ish reptile and a reptile-ish mammal. Photo and quote from National Geographic.)

Biologist Dawkins puts it: In our line of human descent, if we go back into our past in “the range of 185 million generations of parents and grandparents and great grandparents…we come face to face with a fish.…[then] your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child…who 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you” (my emphasis). Dawkins resists drawing any firm line; some fish became more amphibian-like, then less amphibian and more reptilian, and so forth to mammals and humans. Mother Nature draws no lines nor makes no leaps: Natura non facit saltum.

An interesting case of “no firsts” that was not mentioned in the initial presentation of Wonder Six involves Prokaryotic Creatures (no nucleus, just a small strand of free floating DNA) and a variety of single-celled nucleated organisms. But this case might be called, “No Seconds!”

All these creatures reproduce Asexually through “binary fission.” They double their size by duplicating the relatively little internal machinery they have, including their DNA, and then splitting in two. Biologists call the two new cells “daughter cells,” but what happened to the “parent,” so to speak?

Dawkins rightly points out an issue here. The ‘daughter’ organisms are identical to each other but also identical to ‘the parent’ and that includes its genetic material! Further, the parent’s doubling occurs through mitosis, the normal means for cell Growth in sexually reproducing organisms. Dawkins contends we could say that an Amoeba, for example, grows from one to two to four to eight.. Amoebas, and all copies of itself. Its Reproduction is not much different from what is often called Growth! It grows more copies of itself.

Biologist Ralph Buchsbaum, in his 1948 text on invertebrate animals (that I picked up at a garage sale decades ago), contends, “since an ameba (old spelling) continues to exist in its offspring, it may be said to be “immortal”; and every ameba which now exists is directly continuous through the ages with the first ameba” (my emphasis). Now there is Continuity! Is it One or is it Many?

(Hail, the Immortal Amoeba! They inhabit all all freshwater ponds and streams.)
(Amoeba: It eats by surrounding a food particle with its pseudopod and enclosing it to become a food vacuole. But only one of the parasitic species will feed on a human’s brain! What a vicious way to make a living.)

(The World’s Largest Organism, The Pando Aspen Grove in Utah. These are not individual trees, we can reasonably say. They are connected by a single under ground root system. Each tree grows up as a “sucker” from the outgoing root system of a tree near it. Each is genetically identical. But, an individual tree will survive alone if cut from the system. Are they One or are they Many?)

So here in WONDER SEVEN, I hope we can Convincingly Conclude, that THE TREE OF LIFE IS AS MUCH ONE AS IT IS MANY. The DISTINCTIONS it contains are GRADUAL AND CONSEQUTIVE and are based upon Each Other TO FORM A SINGLE ARRAY OF LIFE.

More kinds of kinds:

Next week, The Conclusion concludes with the recognition that Distinctions—gaps—do appear in The Tree, and the sources of those differences will be outlined. After all, a Daylily is not an Elephant (see Part I), and it would be very hard to mistake the two.

Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by Ernst Haekel, 1904——-Thanks for Reading!!!

The Feeling of Connectedness

(The tree of life (1948) by Marc Chagall. There are “Wonders In The Tree,” I contend in my latest post series. So did Marc!)

A feeling of connectedness, is yet to come. The final entry in the Mother Nature Draws No Lines series will be forestalled until next week. I have had some supply chain issues in my brain. I hope I have worked out some of these final problems that I have been struggling with. It’s a good series I believe, and the ideas in it are fairly profound, it seems to me. I’m searching for a more active, a more vibrant, a more hopeful, sense of belonging to my own life and to this universe.

I feel a fog is lifting. The last year or so has been difficult; many things have happened both personally and generally. Many of those things have weighted upon me and weakened me; they have made me less optimistic and energetic. One of those is that I am now 70 years old. That seems a long time, and much has changed. Older, weaker, sick; stiffer and flabbier is how I often am; and the idea of decline and death seem far too obvious. Yet, now I am struggling to see—and a light is dawning—how much is left to be hoped for and accomplished. All has not been in vain.

I have been moved by some recent events. My dear Ohio has once again disappointed me in its political choices. Strange that I even feel such allegiance to My State—O-H-I-O; why should I care about such often insignificant geographic boundaries? But I do. Boundaries are important, and yet not. That is the message of Mother Nature and The Lines She Does or Does Not Draw.

A concluding story, the pertinence of which I am not sure.

Recently I went up the road one weekday morning to get some eggs and coffee. It is a little local diner at which I have eaten breakfast fairly often. Owned and run by a Greek man and his family; he has made the local paper for his efforts, working his way up and through the Columbus restaurant industry and now running his own rising little establishment. The music played there is inconsistent and often rather bad, but not obtrusive. This recent morning it was obtrusive to me. It was contemporary country-style Jesus music. It was laying it on pretty thick and soon I noticed.

“God this” and “Jesus that” it heartfully contended, and continued in that vein song after song. Once I had noticed, I could not shake it. Soon I called the waitress over and asked her, “Since when have you started playing such religious music?” Her eyes got large and round and astonished, “Why every weekend, we play it,” she informed me. “But it’s Jesus-music,” I said, “I come here for eggs and coffee, not a double-side order of Jesus.”

She paused and then replied, “Sir, if you do not like it, do not eat here.” I was now somewhat astonished. I had expected at least some respectful sympathy and maybe even an apology, but that not at all.

I was finishing up, anyway. I saw her talking to the owner’s wife and looking back at me. As I left, I approached the owner and politely told her I did not appreciate this kind of music with my breakfast. To which she replied, “I love you, sir; but we like this music and if you do not like it do not come here.” That galled me; I’m not sure if it was the “I love you, sir,” or the “do not come here” that bothered me the most. I assured her she would not be seeing me again, and left without a monetary “tip,” only the clue thus far given.

I have seen other signs of this kind of insidious anti-modern mythology growing in my neighborhood, and I vow to fight it. We can feel connected in other and more truthful ways, I say.

For those ways of understanding our real connections to Larger Realities, see the first three parts of Mother Nature Draws No Lines in this section of The NatureReligionConnection! Next Sunday the Concluding Part, I promise. Sorry for the delay.

The Fight Against Crime and Insidious Religious Mythologies Continues here in The O-H-I-O!

Mother Nature Draws No Lines, Part III: The Tree of Life is Full and It’s Distinctions are Narrow

(In this series we have been exploring Distinctions, and especially distinctions within The Tree of Life. In this edition we will find that The Tree is very Full and the space for radically different Kinds of things is limited by the plethora of Individuals that already exist or have existed. Where do we, or Mother Nature, draw the lines for any “kind” of living thing among this array of “individual” living things? Is a Flower really that much different than an Mammal?” Are the lines disappearing?—–see the previous two posts in this section for parts one and two.)



(Varieties of Spaniels Darwin asks us to imagine the different species in the Tree of Life as finely arrayed in their Distinctions as these varieties of Spaniels. About 21 breeds of Spaniel are generally recognized.)

In his Origin of Species, Darwin imagines, “If every form which has ever lived on this earth were suddenly to reappear…all would blend together by steps as fine as those between the finest existing varieties,” (my emphasis).

(Beetles, the most finely arrayed Order that we know. Some 380,000 species have so far been recorded and they are “the most species-rich group of insects—and insects are the most species-rich group of animals.” Above is a drawing of some species of Bark Beetle and Skin Beetle. Darwin askes us to imagine the entire Tree of life this Necessarily Detailed! One of the most famous quips in the Evolution/God debate involves these critters. Asked what he can conclude about God, from his knowledge of biology, famous British biologist JBS Haldane said, “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Quote thanks to The Economist magazine.)

The Tree of Life is full! Just as we saw that it was an unbroken chain of reproduction from bottom to top (First Wonder), so now we must understand it as full laterally around and along each branching point. Intermediate forms must have existed (and then perished).

(A return to Dendrogram 2 from the First Wonder. Theoretically a tree could be drawn that included a line for each living thing that ever existed! Now that would be Full, even in comparison to the above tree where each line should be thought of as many multiples of closely related Kinds of creatures. The origin of life is bottom middle and spreading left to right. The outer arching fringe is modern times. )

Dennett insists that “Gradualism” is at the core of Evolution. Darwin realized that the great complexity, diversity, and intricate organization of living things was not possible without a God-like Designer, unless it developed slowly and gradually through minute incremental additions and improvements. Something as complex as an elephant or daffodil could not naturally come into existence in one fell swoop, that would be Vastly Improbable.

Darwin realized that the world of living things and the fossil record suggested (was evidence of) its tree-like relationship of kinds (“forms,” as he so often called them) and its gradual historical development. Large improbable leaps were replaced in his thinking by very small developments! Any singular species or kind came into its own only by the narrowing of (the Selection from) a large array of similar forms. (This point will be returned to and developed.)

(Cichlid Fish, my do these little critters love to speciate! A favorite of aquarium hobbyists worldwide, in Lake Victoria alone there are over 500 species. Now imagine each species with more diversity—varieties—than the number of species themselves! Chart thanks to Seehausen, 2006.)

At any one time, every species contains a huge amount of diversity. At any point along the growth of The Tree, we can surmise “a luxuriant growth of short-lived alternatives,” says Dennett, that are too temporary and singular to be represented in our dendrograms that encompass billions of years and vast numbers of creatures and kinds of creatures. Any line in our dendrogram should be imagined fuzzy with variants that met with little reproductive success!

It is here that we come back to that original issue of individual and kind. Each individual must be (not its own species) but almost its own variety of a species, and Darwin emphasizes that every variety is “an incipient species” because it could be naturally selected to become the dominant “form” of its historically developing interbreeding and morphologically similar kind, i.e. a species. Varieties are “a less distinct and more fluctuating form,” he wrote, but “the term species…does not essentially differ from the term variety.” Nor is the term “variety” essentially different from the term individual, I think we should conclude.

(The species Domestic DogCanis familiaris–represents an extreme; there are huge anatomical differences among its varieties, yet still one species capable of interbreeding, in an extended kind of way.)

Both Darwin and Dennett strongly object to the traditional idea of “an essence,” especially for biological phenomena. In Darwin’s day, each species of living thing was thought to have its own essence to distinguish its absolute uniqueness. In this way, Essentialism is the opposite of Gradualism. An essence was considered timeless; it was a piece in the creator’s mind—God’s Eternal Plan. An essence was considered a kind of immaterial cause that was not a part of history, nor were living kinds considered to change in time.

Today, we still occasionally use that term (as above) by saying two things are “essentially” the same or different. Technically, in philosophy, an essence is the total uniqueness and singularity of a thing as its prime quality. These are “the cuts made at the joints in nature” that Plato wanted to make, as mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts. They are the lines that delineate nature’s true individuals and kinds.

But these “joints” do not exist in the world of living things, Darwin and Dennett argue. In The Tree of Life, only The Tree itself is a singular unit approaching an essential quality; all that is in it exists only by relation to all else in it, and all that has been in it. In Dennett’s heralded book, he concludes his chapter titled “The Tree of Life” by saying, “Any acceptable explanation of the patterns we observe in the Tree of Life must be contrastive,” must only be understood in relation to the rest of the Tree and its history. To be “alive,” is to be a part of this larger whole.

(Humans in contrast to some other primates, and now add to these, in your imagination, numerous additional intermediate cases. Comparatively” is how all living things exist and must be understood.)
(Comparative Brain Sizes of Mammals. Making sense of the creatures in the Tree of Life is by comparison to each other. Numerous small distinctions must be made. Plants are not nearly so complex or integrated to have a brain or nervous system. Insects have very tiny brains that do not do much for them. Most of their behaviors are controlled by various ganglia [small neural junctions] spread throughout their body.)

There are other examples of the tight blend of various kinds of living things.

Separate species do sometimes interbreed. Wolves, coyotes and dogs not only have great morphological similarity (“form”) but can and do occasionally interbreed and bare fertile offspring. Domesticated dogs are of one species (Canus familiaris) though many of their varieties are incapable of actually mating, but due to the large and varying degree of intermediate sizes and shapes of dogs, genes from the most different varieties can co-exist and form a vast array of “mutts.”

And at the other extreme, in some cases, a difference in species and a lack of interbreeding can arise from changes that are insignificant at many other points. The Herring Gull of England apparently interbreed with the Herring Gulls of Iceland and Greenland as their range stretches westward to eventually circle the North Pole. In North America this interbreeding continues but some slight coloration variations are evident. As this species’ range crosses over to northern Asia interbreeding continues and coloration differences increase. This trend continues across Siberia and back through northern and eastern Europe until this range of birds returns to England as two different species with some color differences and a refusal to interbreed! Maybe these birds see or hear or smell something more subtle and important in their slight differences than is apparent to humans! These Gulls represent the other extreme from domestic dogs: two separate species but little anatomical (and geographic) distinction between them.

(Two Species of Gull: Herring Gull of England will breed with its kin to the west. (photos thanks to
(Lesser Black-Backed Gull of England will breed with its kin to the east, but not with Herring Gulls.)

At any one time, The Diversity of Kinds of living things is Vast and it can also be subtle. Each individual living thing is not its own kind, but almost its own variety of a kind. The Tree of Life is lush with Kinds within Kinds and Varieties within Varieties. In this sense, it exhibits an amazing Fullness.

(Dendrogram 7 [an upside down Tree]: Animals as Kinds within Kinds, and Kinds composed of Individuals. Notice the Ant, in the middle of this Tree, it is an Insect. Scientists have identified 900 thousand different species of insect and estimate there are twice that still unidentified. Total individual insects in the world is estimated to be 10 quintillion—a 10 with 18 zeros behind it. Now there is an amazingly full branch in a very full tree of life!)

Especially if we consider the Tree of Life historically, its Distinctions between species and individual living things within each species (their varieties) are very fine-grained. The Principle of Gradualism is essential to this Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The reality of Gradualism is supported by massive amounts of data along with the logic necessary for any Materialistic and Naturalistic theory of the character and origins of living things.

The following Wonder Six in THE TREE OF LIFE is an additional corollary of The Principle of Gradualism. AMAZING HOW SUBTLE ARE THE DISTINCTIONS IN THE WORLD OF LIVING THINGS!



(THE SPECTRUM OF VISIBLE LIGHT: Let’s talk about making Distinctions: where does the color Green start?)

A shocking contention. Our ordinary intuitions deeply mislead us when we think that there must have been “a first human,” “a first mammal” and even “the first living thing.” It is as if we believe, at some exact point, a fish gave birth to an amphibian, or a lizard gave birth to the first mammal, or life suddenly sprung from non-life. That did not happen and we must learn to give ourselves over to the spirit of Gradualism and the seamless character of The Tree of Life and we will see that the idea of a “first” is only a “supposedly important question,” says Dennett. The idea of “The First…” is misleading and means a radical change at some exact point, a break in continuity. But how else can we understand it?

Biologist Richard Dawkins makes the point in the following way. In our line of human descent, if we go back into our past in the range of “185 million generations of parents and grandparents and great grandparents…we come face to face with a fish.…[then] your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child…who 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you.” In this way, Dawkins resists radical jumps, his point is No Firsts,” just infinitesimal developments all the way up (and all the way across) The Tree of Life.

Primates, a line of successive adaptations. “Primates have many features in common. In general, they have large brains, eyes that face forward, and thumbs that can bend to meet the other fingers.But can we supply further ‘missing links?’

A more formal way to think of this is that complex things, like “human,” “mammal,” and “life,” have no essence. As discussed earlier, they are not primarily one overwhelming characteristic (an essence) but a collection of traits highly associated. And when living things change, it is not because they are finally displaying what was really already there ‘deep down’ and “intrinsic” to them, i.e. their essence. Dennett phrases the point made above by Dawkins in the following way: new kinds of living things “must grow out of something less, something quasi-, something merely as if rather than intrinsic” (his emphasis). It is not that ‘in the heart’ of the ancestor that was common to both ourselves and the gorilla lurked the goal of being human. Living things are not related that way; they are far more contingent.

Darwin recognized this when imagining the reappearance of all former living creatures and the tighter blending that would create among species today. No clean and simple “definition” of the different kinds would be possible, only “a natural arrangement” would be evident. “It would be quite impossible to give definitions by which each group could be distinguished from other groups, as all would blend together,…nevertheless a natural arrangement would be possible,” said Darwin. No tight definitions possible; no essences found to sharply distinguish each kind of creature, he is contending. The Tree of Life flows and grows slowly from part to part, branch to branch, time to time.

(A simple array of hominids. Yes, we can further fill the gap between other primates and humans. It is often only a human convention to declare “firsts” and think of all living things in clearly distinguished groups with starts and finishes.)

Even the “Origin of Life” falls to this qualification. Look it up, what are the main characteristics of life? Are there four—sensation, growth, reproduction, self-regulation—are there five, are there eight? “Life” seems to be a collection from many different directions. Regardless, says Dennett, “a good Darwinian” will know how to deal with this familiar problem of “origins”; for each trait “a still simpler form” of it will be sought: a simpler form of genetic code, a simpler form of metabolism, a simpler form of flight…

And what will we find when move back in time—as if in a time machine, suggests Dennett—to this new situation of the simpler form? Will we find that simpler form distinct and outstanding due to its abilities and unusual skills in comparison to its contemporaries? Was our “fishy” ancestor—for example—better, more distinguished, than its other fishy contemporaries? Was ‘The First Living Thing’ more obviously ‘alive’ than many of its contemporaries? No! Only with large amounts of time and many further developments did one such creature turn out to be what we sometimes want to call “The First Living Thing.”

Today, Life distinguishes itself from Non-Life in many important ways, several suggested previously. But in the time span of its origin, Life displayed a “near-invisibility,” to use Dennett’s words. It did not obviously distinguish itself from many of its contemporaries and Only Time Would Tell. In the early stages, ‘Life’ was only one chemical reaction among many.

The idea “Life,” like the idea “Speciation,” has “a curious property,” says Dennett, “You can’t tell it is happening at the time it occurs.” Only many years later, many generations later, is it clear that something important had to have started in the past—many important current distinctions must now be based in some antiquity—and we may begin to search for it. It is a “retrospective coronation,” as we talked about the winner of our coin-flipping tournament in Wonder Two. This ‘origin of life,’ or ‘the first mammal,’ are understood only with hindsight.

So, many of Life’s events are not immediately obvious; they draw no clear line at the time of their supposed origin; their significance is only eventually displayed. In this way, There are No “Firsts!”

Dennett goes so far as to say, “There is not and could not be anything internal or intrinsic to the individual…from which it followed that they were—as they later turned out to be—the founder of a new species” (or even the first living thing), Dennett’s emplhasis. I feel the urge to say, “Not even some trait that was ‘small’ and beneath our notice that was there and the basis of the origination?” But Dennett’s answer is No, it is not our inability to see some break-point; it is Nature’s real and continuously unbroken form! There are no break-points; no exact joints at which to make the cuts.

That is awesome.

(Light of Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe 192

When our ancestors “won” in the game of life, it was much like the coin-flipping tournament from Wonder Two. But unlike the coin-flipping, the winner not only moved on to the next round so did its off-spring that then composed the species, the kind, as it faced its next round of challenges. Its off-spring and those off-spring’s off-spring created an array of varieties or variations even closer than the Spaniels pictured previously. It is from that array that the new winner was naturally selected, but at that time it stood out in no obvious way from its kindred contemporaries.*

And Luck did play a large role in its “conquest.” Lucky that the didn’t get stepped on in its infancy and die, or been eaten. Lucky that all its grandchildren didn’t all freeze to death in a subsequent harsh winter. Lucky that it just happened to possess the mutation in its genome that gave it a slight difference from its very similar co-specifics. Lucky that it had more luck than those others whose lines of descent were extinguished with time. As Dennett said of the coin-toss tournament, and this still applies, the winner was only revealed in hindsight, as the other competitors were pared away: “it is a retrospective coronation,” and “an historical accident.”

Our common sense understanding of Evolution is distorted in this way. We tend to think of the winners as advancing due to their own skill and superiority, smiting their competition in a very clear and deliberate way: head-on, mano a mano. That is not the way Natural Selection works. “The winners” end up chosen through a vast array of circumstances that stretch through a vast sequence of time, but survivors they are. This process is massively contingent, but The Tree of Life continues to grow based on, and shaped by, all these historical accidents!

(Fossil of a Cynodont, a mammal-like reptile about “the size of a loaf of bread and resembling a scaly rat.” 235 mya and found in South America. A mammal-ish reptile and a reptile-ish mammal. Photo and quote from National Geographic.)

Some fish slowly became more amphibian-like, and some amphibians became more reptile-like and then mammal-like and then more human-like. It is our desire for clarity that leads us to imagine sharp and once-and-for-all divergences in Evolution’s developments. It is our convention to think in terms of “firsts,” but it is not nature’s way. “So much the worse for our conventions,” says Dennett.

Dennett’s book is fulfilling its promise to challenge, and even threaten, Our Traditional Ways of Thinking. What are the implications of this extreme form of Gradualism? The Tree of Life is Full of Awe, we may come to believe; to some of us this may be threatening and even “awful” in its more modern sense.

(Awesome and Awful: Marc Chagall’s Moses and the Burning Bush (a work–like evolution itself–with prolonged history of production and revision). I have been unable to determine the meaning of the Hebrew script above the tree.. The two bursts of flame arising form Moses’ head suggest to me that This Tree is blowing his mind. I am working towards a similar response from Our Tree.)

*These are difficult concepts. I am still not sure I understand them or have them accurately stated. The issue may come down to a basic and vague issue of the unit of evolution. Is it the individual organism, the species of closely related organisms, or, as theorist Richard Dawkins has suggested, the genes that compose the individuals? If we are looking for something exact and continuous without change in the history of evolution, it may only be small bits of genetic code, not any of the fleeting phenotypic forms they acquire, i.e. organisms. I am still working on this question.



Mother Nature Draws No Lines, Part II: Is Perfection Attainable?

(Is Nature perfect? Today I continue the exploration of THE TREE OF LIFE, as offered in Dan Dennett’s acclaimed book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Note that Darwin’s idea is “dangerous” because it is so disruptive of traditional ways of thinking. “The Wonders in The Tree” so far revealed are, first, All currently living things have an unbroken chain of ancestry that goes to the origins of Life. Second, that Evolution by Natural Selection “assures winners with huge win streaks!” But, underlying all the Wonders lurks the larger questions of ‘How do we Draw Distinctions?’ and ‘How does Nature itself distinguish its parts?’ What is the relationship of An Individual Living Thing to Its Kind (species…) and even to The Whole of Life, Itself? Wonders Three and Four, here we go!)



[The Value of Organization and the Quality of Beauty: Vast numbers of animals exhibit Bilateral Symmetry. “Animals that exhibit bilateral symmetry typically have head and tail (anterior and posterior) regions, a top and a bottom (dorsal and ventral) and left and right sides. Most have a complex brain that is located in the head, which is part of a well-developed nervous system…They also usually have eyes and a mouth located in this region.” It is no accident that Human Artistic Value with its symmetry and organization and Nature’s Beauty are much the same. Thanks to for photo and quote.]

Often, we can think this world is without value. After all, it is just atoms spinning in the void, and that con man Donald Trump was elected President. We have also just endured a worldwide epidemic, and each day in the U.S. over 300 people die or are injured in gun violence (this includes suicide). I can often feel it, a sense of worthlessness in the world!

But beyond the minimal sense of “winning” as simple luck, in Mother Nature’s Natural Selection, winning can also involve skill and ability. These distinctions—to be skillful, to have abilities— simply comes to “variations useful to an organic being,” that give them “the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life,” wrote Darwin. He declares that this is what he means by “Natural Selection.”

Dennett says Natural Selection is “a relentless culling” and its result can be “an excellence of design.” We can objectively decide, “This is a better knife.” And designs can accumulate, as in “this wing is more aerodynamic.” “A bear is fast and strong,” is a statement true in relation to many other animals. These evaluations of the quality of things are judgements upon the “adaptations” that allow some species “to evolve,” to pass through an amazing sequence of changes (“victories”) through their history. Their lives acquire additional Qualities by comparison to that of their ancestors and in the light of our own qualities. To an Adaptation in the Tree of Life, better and best do exist naturally.

How far can it go, this natural process of improvement?

(Dendrogram 4: The Tree of Life as conceptualized and drawn by biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1879. An early supporter of Evolution but with biases not ascribable to Darwin. Note ‘Man’ at the top of the Tree; a bias, but not completely without justification.)

Dennett calls adaptations a “lifting” upwards in “the Tree of Design.” “Design” is a difficult concept, and Dennett spends considerable time in his book to clarify and justify its use. In some ways synonymous with “organization” and definitely related to “complexity,” Dennett points out its relation to what we often call “Research and Development.” The Tree of Life’s Relations are, in that sense, a massive “research and development program.” Like a literal tree, The Tree of Life rises upwards with time, but it is different in that with time new abilities, new creatures, greater complexity, and enhanced “design” has often also occurred. For living things, Adaptations are “good ways of solving the problems that arise,” says Dennett. These adaptations ,or “mutations,” are structural and behavioral (and ‘ultimately’ genetic) variations, that happen to work! In this way, The Tree of Life rises and expands, and contrary to Ecclesiastes, There are new things under the sun.

The Eye has often been cited as an example of the intricacy and excellence of Design in Nature. It is also the source of New Qualities in the world: the sensation of Light and Darkness; Color, and the perception of A World Beyond Immediate Contact.

From the spinning of a flagellum to the landing on the Moon, the history of human evolution is sometimes an example of great conquest. Biologist Richard Dawkins has charted 37 major developmental steps in the history of our biology that lead back to our kinship with the first living things, bacteria. Each of these “steps” is recorded in the recipe of our DNA and then—often—in the fossil record. For example, at 18 steps back from today, at about 400 mya (million years ago), our great-greatest grandmothers were like modern day lungfish. At about 100 mya, the 9th step back, our ancestors were like

modern tree shrew or opossum. An opossum, that is an unsavory ancestor!

Darwin contended that Natural Selection, by “acting through long ages and rigidly scrutinizing the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature,—favouring the good and rejecting the badslowly and beautifully adapts each form to the most complex relations of life;” quoted from The Origin of Species (1859), his monumental intellectual achievement. What an amazing process he had discovered and explained!

(The African Lungfish is not a very glamorous grandparent! It does possess primitive lungs; it is a transitional form in our evolution, but also a valuable creature in its own right (though not very cuddly!). Darwin speculated that the lungs of land vertebrates evolved from the swim bladder of fish.)

Of course, through much of history, the excellence of the design of living organisms and of their organs has been attributed to a Superhuman Designer. As a human artifact is created by an intelligent craftsperson, so are nature’s creatures; it is often thought. Traditionally, it has been contended that the value and quality of things are derived from “on high,” so to speak. Darwin gave us a different way to think of the emergence of excellence and variety; it accumulates piecemeal “from below” with great time and persistent effort.

How far can this discovery and accumulation of Adaptations proceed? “How good can living things get,” we might ask? “Very good,” “excellent,” and even,” “perfect,” some biologists have argued. “Adaptionist Thinking,” argues Dennett, presumes there are “good reasons that things are the way they are” in the biosphere. “Each part is for some particular purpose” and each organism has proven its “fitness,” argue most biologists, and Dennett concurs.

For example, biologist A.J. Cain has written a noted paper entitled “The Excellence in Animals” (1979), “excellent” because their entire structure and habits have undergone repeated modification and test for millions and billions of years.

An example from early in the history of living things (maybe 3.5 bya) is the ability to Photosynthesize. It occurred in several kinds (possibly) of bacteria and eventually ‘spread’ to other forms of simple creatures as a parasitic relationship, creatures now lived together—inside each other!—and to both their advantage: “symbiosis” we call it. Today, our most sophisticated chemists cannot duplicate this process of turning light and carbon dioxide into sugars. Also, the human Brain, and brain of other more complex animals, seems to surpass the most sophisticated computers in many ways, but not all. Of course, human artifacts should also be considered “natural,” as natural as a beaver’s dam and a spider’s web, contends Dennett, but this is a more controversial point.

(Dendrogram 5: The Tree of Life from the point of view of Domains—basic forms of celled creatures. LUCA is the Last Universal Common Ancestor: as suggested in Wonder One, the ‘first’ living things preceded the latest common ancestor for even these most basic forms of life. Photosynthesis started in cyanobacteria [to the left] and ‘spread’ to become a basic characteristic of plants [to the right].)

In The Tree of Relationships, adaptations are realized vertically, from bottom to top, but also horizontally (or laterally) in the divergence of the branches; its bushing out. It should be noted that in the traditional upright positioning of the tree, rising upward along the trunk or a branch necessarily means the passage of time, but it does not always mean great or obvious changes in design. Some creatures exhibit histories of great adaptations; some do not, some seem ‘happy as a clam’ to be where they are. Have these creatures attained a kind of Perfection for who they are and the situation they are in?

Quality does exist within Tree of Life, but Quality—in this way—exists in an almost totally self-contained context. Dennett uses the example of a great novel; its quality (or excellence of meaning) is not discernible through an analysis of the frequency of its use of the various letters of the alphabet. Only by its relation to other written products, at the time and even through history, does a novel’s greatness (and meaningfulness) appear.

Like a great novel is evident only by comparison to other written products, so does The Tree of Life display its various qualities. Much like language, Life initially struggled to put together its persistent and unitary code. DNA molecules, as strands of amino acids, are far too complex to have originated this process and so we have a simpler form, RNA, but this too exhibits too much Design, too much organized complexity, to have been an adequate intermediary—a way-station—between Meaning and Quality and their lack, a jumble of letters or molecules only organized randomly.

But with Time, many problems were solved. It took billions of years for life and thousands of years for language-use, but more complex working products eventually did appear and did so due to a significant advantage: “Every living thing is a descendent of a living thing, it has a tremendous leg up; all but the tiniest fraction of its recipe is guaranteed to have time-tested viability,” writes Dennett. The same holds for the products of language-use; something like War and Peace arose as naturally within the growing quality of language-use as did flowering plants in biologic evolution. Each rode upon the successes of their predecessors and each persists by comparison to and in competition with the pertinent Qualities and Values of their contemporaries.

Comparative Qualities and Values are natural in the biological world, just as in the world of human artifacts.

(“Darwin’s Finches” A small sampling of the 14 specimens Darwin returned to England from the Galapagos Islands for expert identification. They consisted of 12 new species and a variety of beak design each adapted to best manipulate each species’ specific form of food.)

Quality and Value—so important in our human life—have their ‘root’ in The Tree of Life and Evolution by Natural Selection. IT’S A GOOD THING TO HAVE OBJECTIVE VALUES! Maybe even AWESOME!



Evolution is like the waves rolling onto a beach. Over and over, day after day, for millions and billions of years, pushing the sand, rolling the rocks, distributing the materials. It is a churning and unrelenting process that continuously molds and remolds the beach—its rocks, its sand, the animals and plants, its drift wood and the other materials that compose it.

Evolution has “the power” of “an algorithm,” argues Dennett, though Darwin did not have this term available to him. Algorithmic processes have real powers, he argues. The wave- action working on a beach is this kind of process. Our computers work via algorithms. Long division is an algorithm (that sorts a number in terms of a given group, the divisor) and so is the method by which we alphabetize a list of words or names. “First, take all those that start with an “a,” if two words start with “a” look at the second letter…then go to the “b” words, if several start with “b”… over and over through the alphabet till the list is organized. A clock—and especially think of the old mechanical clocks with all the gears—they turn and turn and thereby arrange and tabulate the ongoing stream of time. The game “Musical Chairs” is an algorithm.

Algorithms are not easy to define, says Dennett, but first we can say they are “substrate neutral,” They are embodied in many different mediums because “their power” is in their organization, in their logic, not in the physical materials that compose them. This is why a human brain, a hand-cranked mechanical tabulator and an electronic calculator can all add and subtract. In this way, people, springs and gears, electrical circuits, food (organized in recipes), numbers, the alphabet, waves of water and a beach, can all be organized into, or thought of as, logical structures in pursuit of an objective.

Algorithms are also simple and repetitive processes. “Simple” in the sense that they always work with, or look for, a simple unit (a head or tail, an offspring or no offspring, a given number) and the steps to take with this unit are small and simply defined (as in a recipe, or in long division). Algorithms are also “simple” because the steps often run over and over again until the outcome is obtained (as in a tournament [as in Wonder Two], a number divided by a given unit, a list alphabetized). This kind of process is then, often, correctly described as “blind,” “mechanical,” “automatic,” and “impersonal.” Even the cycling of the seasons and the spinning of our planet play into the additionally developed algorithmic processes of life on our planet.

(God, these machines were fun! My aunt and uncle used to have one in the early 1960s to tabulate the receipts from their dry cleaning stores. They used to let us ‘play’ with it occasionally. I can still hear those gears turning—organized algorithmically–as the handle was pulled. Curious how able—how smart—these machines really were.)

Algorithms are intelligent processes or seem to be intelligent. This may already be evident considering the examples given. Algorithms sort, arrange, guide through a series of steps, and have a logic to each of them. Whether they are truly intelligent, or only seemingly so, is the source of much philosophic debate. Do computers really “think?” is a similar question. Dennett lines up with the “Yes, they do” and the “real intelligence” side of those issues.

Darwin glimpsed what Dennett wants to emphasize, that “the idea of intelligence could be broken into bits so tiny and stupid that they [seemingly] didn’t count as intelligence at all.” (my emphasis). Darwin saw how these bits could then be “distributed through space and time in a gigantic, connected network of algorithmic processes,” Dennett contends, a network of great power and consequence. “Nature is more clever than you,” researcher Stanley Orgel is reported to have frequently reminded himself and his students as they worked to synthesize amino acids for the first time in a laboratory.

Evolution by Natural Selection is “descent with modification,” says Darwin, and then the test of that modification, which is “natural selection.” If the modification to the organism is helpful to the organism’s reproduction, that modification will (often) be “selected” by nature. Evolution is an algorithmic process by being modification-test, modification-test, over and over again for billions of years and for billions of creatures, working away at each one of their traits, “favouring the good and rejecting the bad,” wrote Darwin. And all this is based upon life’s primal reproductive machinery, of course; the DNA molecule duplicates again and again, and occasionally with slight modification.

Dendrogram 6, a slightly fuller pictorial representation. Our Daffodil would be located on the green branch to the right, half way up. The Elephant is toward the upper left corner. Note the more detailed display of human evolutionary forms, top middle.

So, Evolution is a “selection,” a “Natural Selection;” nature making choices like a person. And better, nature is “a Guiding Hand” contended Darwin, and he capitalized the “G” and the “H” as if to suggest evolution’s overarching reality. He used the term “Mother Nature” which strongly suggests nature’s singular character as a proper noun, like a person or a country. All this unusual language, unusual for a scientific theory, is justified by Evolution’s affinity to intelligent activity! And lo and behold, Darwin was fully aware that humans with their language and intelligence where very much a product of this process—though he initially tread gingerly around this particular contention. From this intelligent process arose intelligent products.

Darwin asked, “What limit can be put to this power?” And then answered his own question, “I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.”

We sometimes feel and see—and imagine—great forces moving through The World around us. Not just physical and chemical mechanisms, but Qualities and Values working and working and working toward goals, and with many amazing outcomes as their product. These are the forces of Evolution by Natural Selection, of which we are part and product.

(“Tygre, Tygre, burning bright in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” William Blake)


“What limit can be put to this power?” Logo by Marty!

Mother Nature Draws No Lines, Part I

(Here at The NatureReligionConnection we are getting serious about a source for our awe. If religion is to have some reasonable foundation and some useful form in this modern age, this is it. The science of Evolution justifies our sense of participation in, indebtedness to, and responsibilities toward, Mother Nature and her magnificent work of living art. If we could now acknowledge that, and conduct ourselves in its light, her accomplishments would be greatly glorified. How about that for some old-timey religious talk? The following post series tries to establish what might be truly worthy of awe.)

The Tree of Life, 1909, by Gustav Klimt.


“Distinctions” are those big and little differences that color the world in us and around us. One of our first deep thinkers on the topic was Plato, who sought to “carve nature at its joints,” as if it were some roast pig and he the chef making the cuts—drawing the lines—to create the pieces that would truly worked. Let us continue that effort, and, in the end, we will be able to distinguish some wonderous realities.

Let us, also, begin with living things, and ask what kinds of distinctions lie between them. If we do, we will be in for a big surprise, contends Dan Dennett, a philosopher who has written a brilliant account* of the character and implications of Darwin’s great discovery, Evolution by Natural Selection. Mother Nature, in this her great creative thrust, “draws no lines,” he contends. In amazing ways, boundaries are blurred, distinctions are mitigated, the the separateness and unity of living things becomes fluid.

How could this be? For example, we have daffodils and elephants. A clear “line,” so to speak, can be drawn between them. A huge difference exists; one is a modest sized, flowering plant, the other the largest of all land animals. Yet, they are connected in what Darwin called “a great tree” of relationship. He wrote: “The affinities of all the beings…have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.” It is in the logic of the growth and structure of this “tree” that we shall find our wonders, according to Darwin and Dennett.

*Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) was a National Book Award Finalist. It was glowingly received by biologists such as Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and E.O. Wilson; along with philosophers such as Richard Rorty—one of my favorites. The noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan called it , “A breath of fresh air.” Incidentally, Darwin’s “Idea” is “Dangerous” because it is so disruptive of our traditional ways of thinking, Dennett contends. Let us see if that is true.

Dendrogram 1 and 2

Two diagrams of the relations of living things; from the Greek dendron, meaning tree.

(This depiction of “The Tree of Life” focuses clearly of its unifying “trunk,” “branches” and singular origin, but also the variety of its “fruits.” A daffodil would lie to the top left in the line of flowering plants [angiosperm]; an elephant in the line of vertebrates represented by the poodle. This overall representation is, of course, a gross, gross, over-simplification, but at least it is pictorial and gives a visual sense of the vast differences of the living end-products.)
(This depiction of “The Tree of Life” is much more detailed. It accentuates the density of the “branching;” there are a vast—but not infinite—number of living creatures since the origin of life [bottom center in black], and a vast number of specific varieties [species] are represented in the lines. Note the “holes” at various points, the white, clear areas. They represent mass extinctions among some broad kind of living thing. For example, the big open spot to the right of this fan-out is the extinction of the dinosaurs [a subgroup of the class Reptile, the greenish lines to its left and below it] at about 60 million years ago. In a sense, we can see how that “hole” was “closed” by an expansion in kinds of other reptiles, birds [an earlier descendent of dinosaurs], and then a noticeable surge in kinds of mammals [far right in black].)


So what kinds of distinction has life cooked up in over 3,500 million years of existence? And, how clear-cut are they?

As we look at the outer point of extension of each branch in our tree, we see the prolific production of this natural process—many kinds of distinct creatures exist. All the major categories are present: plant is distinguished from animal, animal from bacteria, protist (single-celled organisms) from fungus, etc. But of course, each category in the end comes down to the Individuals of that kind and of all kinds.

In the understanding of Life, the uniqueness of each living thing plays a central role. There is a surprising and complex interplay between an individual creature and its kind, and this will turn out to be the idea of “distinction” at its greatest importance.

(In our understanding and classification of stars, each star can be broadly classified and its behavior understood without refer to their most individual characteristics. Each star, as an individual, is not that important or complex in contrast to a living thing in the process of evolution. We can abstract from the star many of its individual features and understand it “essentially,” not so for a living thing.)

So what are the wonders of the distinctions revealed in The Tree of Life?

“Nature Forms” (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe



Your great-greatest of all ancestor was possibly among the very first living things (“possibly”—will be explained shortly). So was mine, so was your pet dog’s, so was the cottonwood tree that lives in my backyard or any plant that lives in your yard; in fact, all of us currently living things have the same original ancestor and many others that lie between. Dennett: “All the diversity of life that has ever existed on this planet is derived from this single fan-out; the controversies arise about how to discover and describe in general terms the various forces, principles, constraints, etc., that permit us to give a scientific explanation of the patterns in all this diversity.” What is uncontroversial is that “this single fan-out” is an unbroken chain with a single origin that leads to today.

Our line of ancestry is unbroken, that is uncontroversial, says Dennett. It is almost a logical necessity; by definition ‘living things come from living things’—with only one exception: The Origin. If my chain of ancestry were broken prior to myself, I would not be here. And there is no evidence and even less likelihood of multiple and distinct origins for the life we find about us today. The same unique genetic code runs through us all. We come from the same stalk!

But the possibility does arise that our first ancestor was not the only “first” living thing. Surely Mother Nature conducted various ‘experiments.’ It is probable that other creatures at the same general time, of a similar general character, and likely of the same general environment or situation, were also (what we now call) “alive;” but they or their progeny came to a quick end or relatively quick in geological terms. They left no descendants that are alive today or any trail of evidence that we have found. This topic of “firsts,” first of a kind, will be returned to later. When and how do we draw that line?

How long is this successful run of successors? In human generations (and “generation” is a surprisingly complex term) this means 4 to 5 generations every 100 years, and about 100 going back “to the time of Jesus,” as they say. That means you have about 100 great grandmothers on each side of your family for that span. Every great-grandmother successfully bearing at least one daughter that soon joined that line of your grandmothers, herself, by giving birth to a daughter who gave birth, and that is only the very tip of the chain.

Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that our 50 thousandths great grandmothers were no longer of our species; they were homo erectus with which we, homo sapiens, would not have mated and probably could not have mated successfully (sterile off-spring).

(HELLO GREAT…GREAT GRANDMOTHER! She was about 4.5 feet tall and had no language. She and her homo erectus kin were the first fully upright hominids and had the use of fire and did hunt in parties.)

For fruit flies, there is a similar but more extreme story. A female fruit fly can give birth in about 10 days of its own birth and its total life cycle is only about two weeks; that makes for a lot of turnover! For it, there are about 30 generations in a year (!) and that makes around 60,000 generations in two thousand years! That is quite a family tree and quite a line of successful reproduction.

(Another depiction of Our Historical Ancestry. Thanks to



Barring the destruction of the entire planet (and I mean like the shattering of the planet into pieces as if by The Death Star in Star Wars), evolution by natural selection is a relentless process; it goes on and on. In fact, overcoming challenges is one of its dominant characteristics. Challenges as significant as ice ages, strikes by large meteors, continental drift, climate change and plagues have already been received and responded to. Life continued on; evolution continued.

(Charles Darwin, he spent nearly 25 years carefully formulating his theory and organizing his evidence before he reluctantly published. He knew it would be earth-shaking.)

But “winners,” in what sense? Both Darwin and Dennett use this term and both have faced criticism for it, along with the term “natural selection,” which ‘selects’ the winners, as if nature were some kind of person choosing; like your “Mother Nature.”

In the minimal sense, “winners” are those who succeed in the competition of life, and biologically that means to reproduce. It is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves how powerful a force this is. Reproduction is a chemical chain of reactions. We, humans, with our ‘higher’ goals and wants can sometimes lose sight of this primal ‘urge’ to reproduce. Most species have their entire existence physically and chemically arranged to reproduce. In some animals and at some times, not even the need to eat rivals it. Evolution by natural selection guarantees successful reproducers.

In this minimal sense of a “winner” as reproducer, “there is something strange and trivial,” says Dennett. It is like asking, how proud should I be to have been born? You might want to think (and gloat): ‘I must be very special to be the outcome of such a long chain of success.’ And maybe that is true!

What if I told you that I could produce, on demand, a winner of ten consecutive coin flips. That a person could win in fair coin-flipping at that rate is surely improbable. You might think that this winner was a person of some special ability, or perhaps somehow you were being deceived. Let me up the ante, I can show you a person capable of winning about 28 consecutive coin tosses!

How? Let me organize the entire population of the United States into a giant coin-flipping tournament. I would set up the brackets, massive brackets, especially in the early rounds, but after the first round the population would be cut in half, and in every round thereafter, the remaining winners would also be halved. Finally, by the 26th round (the quarter finals) we would be down to 8 remaining citizens each with 25 straight wins so far! Then the semi-finals, 4 champion “callers” remain; then The National Finals—lights glare, trumpet blare—the remaining two citizens take the stage and the coin is flipped, the call is made, and the anointed one is now apparent; 28 straight victorious tosses! (The math is 2 to the 28th power equals approximately the population of the U.S.) For 10 consecutive correct calls, give me exactly 1024 people and I will arrange them into this coin-tossing tournament. (The math is 2 to the 10th power is 1024.) This is how Evolution by Natural Selection assures us there will be winners.

(The bracket for a 64 team [or person] tournament, the kind used each year in American college basketball. It is “a relentless culling,” an algorithmic process through which a National Champion is guaranteed each year and they will have won 5 consecutive tournament games against the best teams in the country. Also, along the way, the tournament assures other successful runs that fall short of the grand championship.)

Dennett is right, there is “something strange and trivial” about the winner of this coin-tossing tournament. First, we are assured a winner with a huge win-streak, that is guaranteed by the organization of the process. It’s is like a machine, and somebody has to win. Second, we do not know before hand who the winners or grand winner will be. In tournaments and contests that involve large amounts of Luck, we have absolutely no way to recognize a winner from a loser at the outset. We only find that out retrospectively, by hindsight, after the tournament is over. As Dennett says, “It is a retrospective coronation.” (We will return to this later.) Thirdly, what kind of champion will this be? In our coin-tossing tournament our grand winner will have exactly zero special abilities or pertinent distinctions by comparison to the other competitors. That is strange; line up that grand champion in a new tournament and their chance of losing in the first round is just as high as anyone’s, 50%.

Even in tournaments that involve skill, as in the basketball tournament (from above) in which we often say— “the best team won”, luck plays its part. In Evolution with its “survival of the fittest,” luck plays a huge role in who survives and luck does this in disregard for any special distinctions—that’s why we call it “luck.” Sometimes “the best die young,” to alter Billy Joel’s lyrics. But, the idea of “luck” is tricky, and we might justifiably argue that “to be skillful” is itself a product of good luck! (This topic of luck will be returned to.)

But, whether by luck or by skill—or a combination of the two—the game of Evolution produces winners.

(TRENCH WARFARE in WWI. An important qualification should be added to the above: not all competitive contests have a clear winner and loser. Sometimes there are stalemates, and that result is important. In sports, the result is often “an overtime” extension of the contest. In Evolution, the result is sometimes COOPERATION, a very important Adaptation. Aggressive animals have often established territories to mitigate continuous and mutually destructive competition.
In WWI, the competing soldiers on the Western Front became frustrated at the mutual carnage and deadlock. They began to refuse orders to attack, and carried out only ceremonial displays of aggression. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1914, rank and file soldiers wearily crept out of their trenches to meet their enemy in the middle of “No Man’s Land” where they shared food, wine and song. Morality can happen!)

Let me stop here for this post. So far we have encountered the wonderous reality that each of us has a history of blood descent back to near, or at, the origin of Life. That is a shocking realization: my blood-line goes back to the start—3,500 million years ago! A curious fact is then added, Evolution assures that some living things will always live and pass on ancestors within biological struggles, barring some hugely external interference. So, someone had to do it (survive ands evolve), and it turned out to be you and I!

The next post will offer several more Wonders within The Tree of Life! Stay tuned!

THANKS FOR READING, please comment. Logo by Marty.

On ‘Avoiding’ Things

The Stooges made a career of not avoiding things.

What if in your entire life, you never avoided anything? Everything that was ever going to happen to you, did happen. Well, you might imagine that you did not last long; you came to a quick demise.

But what if, the very idea of “avoiding” was some sort of a misperception or a semantic confusion? After all, we can easily reframe many different things as an act of avoiding one thing or another. This very moment, my heartbeats allow me to avoid death. Gravity avoids the problem of my coffee floating out of my cup and drifting about the room. Sitting here avoids additional wear on my shoes. In conclusion, it seems that anything that happens avoids all the things that possibly could have happened in its place.

Philosopher Dan Dennett cites Mark Twain’s musings on these matters: “I am an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Dennett contends that there are confusions in our way we think we “avoid” and also some similar actions, the “preeminent verbs of agency,” he calls them. Verbs like “help”, “avert”. “protect,” “bring about,” “thwart,” are all used to describe us as “actors,” “initiators.” “doers,” as opposed to passive creatures and the mere site of occurrences that happen. We can “make a difference,” we like to believe; we can “change the course of things” by avoiding, protecting, bringing about, helping. (Elbow Room, p.124)

Here are some examples of some prominent events that we have recently successfully avoided: The Presidential Coup of January 2022 (narrowly avoided), The 2018 North Korean Nuclear Missile Attack on Los Angeles (avoided by a much wider margin), The Great Plague of 2019 in which the most virulent strain of Covid Virus killed millions of Americans (avoided by a margin that might have been far narrower than we realize). We can, of course, think of many other important events that did not occur, avoided, at least partially, due to our efforts.

So, what are “the possibilities?” The noted philosopher Willard Quine, one of Dennett’s mentors, was famously skeptical of meaningful talk about “the possible.” He would ask something like the following: “How many imaginary fat men could stand in that doorway? Surely fewer imaginary fat men than imaginary thin men. How many imaginary thin men could fit? Remember, imaginary thin men can be pretty thin.”

“I was going to get hit, but luckily I ducked.” American baseball. Ball pictured on top of the smiling man’s head.

Dennett draws our attention to a more likely case of possibility and avoidance. You are at a baseball game and sitting along the third-base line. A foul ball comes off the bat and it is a line drive right at you. You duck and it misses. “Luckily,” you say, “it missed me; I was going to get hit right in the face!” In what sense were you “going to?”

Now this is an especially interesting case of avoidance because “ducking” is a human reflex. It is a mechanism designed and evolved right into us. Biologists call it “a situation-action mechanism” and animals have many of them, like a clam closing its shell at the least disturbance. Its automatic, considering ample stimulus input. So, not only did the ball not hit you, it was never going to hit you because you were always going to duck (given the situation as it was). Your response was part of the great causal chain of nature, that long sequence of events that started quite a while ago; like billiard balls ricocheting on the universal billiard table.

Dennett then makes a shocking claim: All acts of avoidance are (“merely”) cases of faulty human anticipation (Freedom Evolves, p.59). If you were smarter, you would have known better! You expected the ball to hit you, but it didn’t. Your impending injury was (“merely”) a product of your limited knowledge. From a “wider context,” a perspective now provided to us by our philosopher, you can now see what was always going to really happen and what did happen—not only did you escape the peril, there never was any.

What should we make of these contentions? Dennett allows that maybe we should consider the above case “pseudo-avoidance.” All the above uses of the word “merely” should be taken from their parentheses and scare-quotes and allowed to stand. This level of reflexive avoidance is not “genuine avoidance.” After all, even the simplest amoeba ‘avoid’ some of “the bad” and are ‘attracted’ to some of “the good.” It’s that primitive and that mechanical. Maybe we need to up-grade the quality of our avoidance, from “simple ‘hard-wired’ avoidance responses [to] fancier varieties,” he contends. And so we have.

Polio: In 1988 the World Health Organization reported 350,000 cases world wide, and launched a prevention campaign. By 2012, they reported merely 175 confirmed severe cases. Several strands of this virus are believed to be entirely eradicated in the wild. Polio has been truly avoided and prevented by extensive scientific research, mass public education and vaccination. (Karl Landsteiner identified the virus in 1909 and Jonas Salk invented an effective vaccine in 1955.) Clearly, the course of history was changed; a difference was made: polio has been avoided.

Now Dennett is a product of what is called “Analytic Philosophy,” a modern movement within that profession that started around the turn of the 20th century especially in England. Bertrand Russell (along with Alfred N. Whitehead) used very formal symbols (“symbolic logic”) to attempt to analyze the roots of mathematics, and G.E. Moore used our more traditional logic to analyze various concepts as we use them in our ordinary language. This seems to me to be the source of the following surprising claims.

“If we want to change the course of history we are in for a big disappointment,’ says Dennett. “We cannot point to any real event that was ever avoided...No event that actually has happened, is happening, or will happen is an event that was, is being, or will be avoided.” If we think we have “replaced one future event with another” —lots of polio to very little polio—we are wrong. In fact, that idea is, “in this undoctored form, incoherent,” he argues because “future events” are not real events and are as slippery as imaginary thin men in a doorway.

But surely, we should reply, “Something was changed! We went form polio to no polio; The future was changed!” Well, at least apparently, says Dennett: “All of the verbs of ‘making a difference’ involve a tacit comparison between the way the world was apparently going to go, and the way it turned out to go.” Dennett is arguing that it is not that history was changed, but that our anticipations about history—“the future”—were wrong. It’s an epistemic issue, as the philosophers would say. More polio in the future, and the baseball smashing your face, they were never in “the cards” (the real course of history) in the first place!

That is an interesting contention; it was us and our expectations that were faulty, not that we had the power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around. But don’t we have that ability? Isn’t the future “open” and being determined by us “now?” We “deliberate” a lot; we “think things through” and then “decide,” and “act.” This is where we started this little essay, with “the verbs of action”: avoiding, protecting, creating, doing…and thus “making a difference.”

This “open future” needs more careful consideration. We have the ability “to change the outcome” of events in history, we believe, as if “the future” has some options. To change “one possible future event for a different possible future event” is not a good way to conceptualize it; this we have already decided. So did we “change the outcome,” instead? But this statement is no better, argues Dennett (as an example of analytic philosophy or just careful logical consideration), because “the outcome” is what actually happened or will happen; it’s a single thing and a real thing and it turned out not to be smacked in the face (and no polio); that is the one and only outcome and that is the future. Dennett comments that we often acknowledge that we cannot change the past, but we should equally acknowledge that we cannot change the future! It is the event that will actually happen, and “happen to happen—in the fulness of time,” he insists.

Once again, we are confusing what we anticipated was going to be the future with what the future really was. The future did not change and we did not change it only our anticipations of it are often misguided.

We have other strong evidence that “the real course of history” is already determined. Modern physicists believe that, in principle, the equation that predicts the movements of all the particles that compose our everyday world has already been discovered; it is called “the path-integral formulation of Quantum mechanics.” Yet, we will never have adequate information to practically utilize this equation to “see our own futures.” It is an imagined perspective, writes Dennett, “a God’s-eye view of things,” but that does not make “the view from [this] inaccessible perspective any less true” (Elbow Room, p.102).

The Richard Feynman version of this equation, with annotations added above each section by physicist Sean Carroll to help indicate their contribution. From Carroll’s book, The Big Picture.

The course of events, and things in general, are more sealed up than we anticipated.


So where does this leave us? Should we stop trying “to make a difference” because the future is already set?

Dennett does not recommend that course. Instead, we should regard our fancier varieties of action—scientific research, religious faith and ritual, ethical behavior, and human planning in general—as on par with our more reflexive forms of action. All our behaviors are caused by the past and by our current environment, that they are determined, in this way, does not diminish their stature. “Genuine avoidance” is a confusion, and even as such it offers us no better than “determined avoidance.” In each case, the peril is avoided. A thunderstorm is a real thing, and now that we know they are determined by natural causes, that does not diminish their status. They are still “a thunderstorm,” as powerful and full of lightning and rain as ever, even now when we can fairly accurately predict when and where they will occur.

The same is true for “deliberation,” contends Dennett. It may seem paradoxical to think that “to deliberate,” “to think things through,” makes sense even when from a different perspective the outcome of that deliberation is already determined. But it is not paradoxical in the following way.

We do not know the outcome of our own deliberations! We must carry them out. That particular future seems open to us, just as does the future in general. From our perspective, we must “Act Under the Idea of Freedom,” the title to the fifth essay in Dennett’s Elbow Room. “The course of history” is out of our control; we have very good reasons to believe that, but from the perspective of an actor inside that grand scheme of things, we cannot “see” it. We should “keep our shoulder to the grind stone,” “keep our head down” and concentrate to try to do the best we can with the situation we have.

It’s like “follow-through” in a golfer’s or baseball player’s swing. “The trajectory of the ball [or even contact itself] is already determined before the follow-through commences;” yet follow-through is a wise and rational policy, argues Dennett. We continue our swing and keep our eyes down and focused on the area of potential contact, even after the contact has or hasn’t occurred. It allows for the smoothest swing, a swing that is “most effective” and seems to give us the best results. Follow-through tends “to ensure that the right, desirable sorts of things happen at the crucial time in the swing,” even though it occurs after the outcome (the ball was already hit, or not hit) has already been determined.

And so in life, we have done pretty well acting as if we are free, and responsible, and efficacious. History has often rewarded us with a beneficial outcome, beneficial from our point of view, of course. For a creature with limited abilities, it is possible to see much progress.

This above realignment of ideas is part of that progress itself, believes Dennett. It makes science more compatible with our everyday ideas of ourselves as actors. I believe, it even allows a quasi-religious sense of awe and participation. History is one of those Big Things, that give us a part to play but are outside us and our ability to control. History is our destiny. It is beyond us, and yet still us, at the same time.

PARTICIPATING IN LARGER THINGS, here at The Nature Religion Connection. “Electric Prisms” by Sonia Delaunay, 1914,

The Deep Mystery in The Flip of A Coin

(The mystery of the different Levels of existing things is explored through the example of the simple tossing of a coin. Keeping it pretty lite and pretty curious while trying to popularize the ideas of philosopher Dan Dennett.)

How can a thing be two things? Well, they can and we think that all the time as long as the many different ways we characterize a thing don’t trip all over each other. Some large degree of consistency is necessary.

Two Old Dogs

Like a dog can be my pet, a mammal, a Beagle, Nika, and a congregation of atoms. I guess that means that I have pet atoms, and if I owned two dogs I would still have pet atoms just two different clumps of them. Funny how my pet clump loves to runabout the yard in perfect attunement to the expansion of the universe and the constant decay of her sub-atomic particles. Those adorable little particles sure do get a charge (a different electrical charge?) when my wife comes home! My dog’s brain-waves love my mammalian mate. Its cute little tail (and brain waves, I presume) wiggle and waggle all over the place on those occasions.

Now that didn’t sound quite right to me, but I guess it’s true somehow. We just have to keep all our radically different ways of talking about something in their own compartments. We cannot mix them like a tossed salad. And speaking of tossing…

A Fair Human Coin Flip

When we think about coin-flipping, we have a somewhat similar issue. How should we talk about it? On the one hand, there is “elbow room,” “wiggle room” available, says philosopher Dan Dennett. We don’t know whether a fair human flip will come up heads or tails, but we do know that it will come up one of those. In fact, we have a whole set of “laws,” the laws of probability, that say in the long run heads and tails will come up with equal frequency. So if, oddly enough, you have just flipped a coin five times and they all came out heads, don’t say “Tails, it’s got to be” for the sixth flip, because it doesn’t. Yes, that is elbow room.

Dennett cites the famous English 18th century philosopher, David Hume: we want “a certain looseness” to exist in our world. It “prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual,” says Dennett and is “presupposed in our use of the word “can.” Many things “can” do various things and have various states. This is presupposed in our ideas of human freedom, in the social sciences, biology, engineering, and in statistics and probability (Elbow Room, 1984, p.145)

Meanwhile, we also believe that every flip of that coin is completely determined by all the physical laws and conditions that compose it, in other words, no elbow room.  If we could control, or know, all the conditions, no mystery to the outcome of any flip would remain.  “Mystery gives way to mechanism,” as Dan Dennett has stated in many circumstances.

(Diaconis’ accurate Coin Flipper. The spring must be finely adjusted for each location and time. Heads up will bring you a Heads outcome at a 100% rate for some appreciable time thereafter.. The coin flips from pictured red cup, and then lands there.)

Elbow room or no elbow room? In fact, contemporary magician turned mathematician, Persi Diaconis has developed a highly accurate mechanical coin-flipper. And Pierre Laplace, an 18th century French physicist, postulated that with Newton’s laws, if we had a very powerful intelligence (Laplace’s Demon) capable of discerning the position of all the particles of the universe at one instant, to that knower all past and future would be one, all movements and destinations—including our flipping coin—would be known.

(In Roman times it was called navia aut caput, “ship or head.” The head is that of Emperor Pompey the Great.)

So what is the truth of this two-sided event? Is it designed to allow “a certain looseness” or totally determined?  How do we think both ways about this ‘simple’ event? Dennett has tried to make much of this combination.     

First, we have limited knowledge.  We are not Laplace’s Demon; we are too much in the middle of all things: too much limited in time and in space. The position and velocity of all particles at one instant is beyond our capabilities. We have that Ideal of Perfect Scientific Knowledge as ‘a guiding light,’ but our limitations are well known to us and deeply embedded in our way of thinking.

Second, in a very important sense, The Outcome of a Coin Toss has No Cause.  How could this be?  Some of us might think that a human being can do un-caused, “free,” things, but not a dead and dumb disc of metal!  But, there are ambiguities in our idea of “cause” explored by philosophers going as far back as Aristotle. A sufficient cause and a necessary cause is the distinction Dennett will use here, but at another point a different idea of causation will also be prominent. (Freedom Evolves, 2003, p.87)

A coin-toss has sufficient causes, argues Dennett.  Its outcome was caused by many things, including the character and qualities of the particles of the universe one minute after the Big Bang. Whatever the situation of those particles, they were at least sufficient to allow the outcome of this flip these billions of years later. More immediately, we are sure the outcome was caused by the many, many, specifics of the situation at the time of the coin’s flight (humidity, wind, the specific gravity of its location…), and the various exact features of the flip itself (speed, rotation, height of toss, size of coin…).  All these factor into the exact outcome of any and all particular flips.  In this sense, that event—and all events, you picking a shirt from your closet this morning, for example– have causes sufficient for their occurrence: they are sufficiently caused. 

But who cares?  Dennett says this kind of cause is “diffuse, complex and uninteresting.” We can really do nothing with it. What we really want are Necessary Causes, not sufficient causes, he says, and this is just what a coin toss lacks.  No one or two or three factors exist (or are evident to us and evident to us in time) to determine the outcome in a fair human coin flip. The outcome is “up in the air” so to speak. It has no cause, in that way.  It is a very ordinary event (no “spirits,” no “mind,” no extraordinary “powers”) and it has no (necessary) cause! 

The same may be said for the “choice” of your shirt this morning: it had no particular cause!  And this in spite of B.F.Skinner (a Laplacean scientist of psychology), who contends that all human choices are determined by our prior social conditioning.  But, like the coin, how often do the sufficient causes (our past social training, in this case) serve up an element or two of obvious determination (a necessary cause) of some specific outcome, some “choice”? “I’ll wear the blue shirt, today,” I decide.

We should pause here, and appreciate this recognition. Nothing in particular (no physical force, no environmental condition) caused the coin’s outcome, or maybe even the choice of your shirt.  A coin toss is both caused and determined in its outcome (by sufficient causes) and NOT caused and determined (by a necessary cause) at the same time. Let us explore these circumstances.

Maybe this idea of Sufficient Causation is not helpful to us?  As Dennett has already said, this kind of explanation is all over the place (“diffuse”), extremely protracted (“complex”), and “uninteresting” because it does not exclude much of anything. “Sufficient Cause” seems to appeal to our inclination to think of everything as being involved with everything else, at least in some sense.

(“All is One” : Ouroborus, the Egyptian and Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail in an eternal act of self-destruction and recreation. Pronounced various ways including: ‘Ore-o-bore-us, second ‘o’ is long.)

In this obtuse way, the idea of sufficient causation is helpful, I suppose, and Dennett acknowledges this: we seem to be lucky that the world we are in has the character that it has, because a lot has come out of it.  All the many different things interact and it comes to some notable occurrences.  For example, we know much about the chemical and structural character of the simplest living things, yet we cannot recreate them, cannot produce Life from Non-Life in a lab. There seems to be “many more ways to not be alive than to be alive,” a prominent biologist, Richard Dawkins, has concluded.  We are lucky to have the degree of complexity that we do have, for even in our own universe (let alone other “possible universes”) there seem to be many places where “things” just don’t come to much.

(What if all the interacting forces and particle in this part of the universe almost totally cancelled each other out?  It would be like a galactic Sargasso Sea, a lot stuff but just not doing much of anything together.) 
(A diver swims below the debris of the Sargasso Sea.
But most of our world seems to be highly diverse, interactive and consequential: Simpler things accumulate, bond, congeal, constitute, formulate more complicated “things.” What then is ‘more real,’ the little pieces or the big thing they compose?  Are there any limits to how big this process of accumulation can grow, and on what terms do these processes of congregation occur?)

Often a necessary cause will jump right out at us from all the sufficient causes that were also present for an event.  A traffic accident was “caused” (necessary cause) by the car that ran the light, in addition to the state of particles shortly after the Big Bang and Henry Ford’s invention of the auto assembly line in 1913 that made mass auto transit feasible— all parts of the sufficient causes that do play their role in this car crash.

Dennett cites events such as stock market rises and declines that we rightly often suspect have no necessary cause. Or World War One, the stage was set in Europe for that war, any number of events could have substituted for the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as its immediate precipitator.  It had sufficient cause, but no necessary cause.

Laplace’s Demon is very much at home in this world of massively interacting causes.  The Demon would have the capacity to know them all and precisely trace each exact contribution far into the future (and back into the past).  But we humans do not; we have limited horizons.  We do not even know with certainty the outcome of the day we are in.  “Subjectively our future is open,” says Dennett.  Objectively, from the demon’s point of view, all movements are already determined.

So, we choose by taking hold of (taking advantage of) a more limited pattern that we do see (a necessary cause, hopefully); we act, and then wait to see what happens.  Choice and responsibility, free will and planning (avoiding the bad, seeking the good), information and rationality, all are ideas based in our limited knowledge and abilities, contends our philosopher.

It’s a good thing to be a creature with limitations, we might conclude. It seems like we are free, in a universe that is already determined.  In this way, our freedom and our responsibility are conditions of our epistemic limitations and not our ontological condition. (What?)

(In a universe of interconnected causes, Subjectively we seem to jump in in the middle. This mediate perspective is crucial to our situation, argues Dennett.)

We are free because often we know no necessary causes to explain much of what happens to us.  We are like our flipping coin, no cause seems to stand out as The Cause.  This morning when I chose my shirt, gravity did not cause that, nor did entropy (they were all sufficient causes long ago neutralized), nor was my mother abusive in my childhood by always screaming at me and demanding: “Wear blue on Wednesdays!” Like the coin rotating in the air, we are subjectively free to make “a choice“: head or tail, red shirt or blue.

But “choice” is not always the best word to use. We do not say that the coin chooses head or tail, but we do recognize a new set of standards apply to the outcome of the flip from our perspective. A different way of talking about the coin-toss becomes applicable. It exists and behaves at two different ontological levels: the micro-physical level of the hard sciences and the macro-physical level of everyday interactions.

How is this possible? It is here that Dennett applies that promised Third Form of Causation: Final Causes or Purposes. “Generally” is how things constructed for a purpose work, not forever, not every time, but generally they do what they are designed to do. Purposes are always limited and from a particular point of view. A coin-toss results in heads or tails at generally an equal rate; a dog generally barks in certain situations; a bridge generally stands. Dennett explains how this is possible. The Coin-Toss is designed to “amplify’ all the sufficient causes, he says, and then ‘interpret’ them (“push the digitizer”) into one of two modes—heads or tails.

This may not seem like much, but it is! All the world comes to either a head or a tail, for a coin toss. It cancels out, or is insensitive to, or is a summation of, much of the world around it. It is an example of the origin of “interpretation,” of “representation,” and even of “meaning.”

To return to the original theme, this is how it is possible for a thing to be more than just one thing, by having wide-ranging “significance.” In other words, it is a “sign” of things beyond. This outcome—a head or tail—is a summation of the forces around it, expressed through the situation of—the design of— “a coin toss.”

A different example of purposes at work is an automobile. Similar to the coin toss, its structure counter-balances, or counter-acts, most causal forces around it; they are relegated to the background of sufficient causes. By doing so, its purpose has ‘the space’ to be realized. The auto stands against gravity, it bares additional loads, it corners and it propels itself. When we speak of autos, we generally do not mention the expansion of the universe or the decay of atomic particles; we speak of “the brakes,” “the starter,” “the chase,” “the grip of the tires…” But this is a new way of talking is not arbitrary, it is, and has been, tested against the physical background. It has proved itself.

It is a new way of talking for this new situation, this new mode of existence that we call “transportation.” Relative to the physical background that is apparent to “the demon” (and that is the focus of the physicist), nothing is “really” being ‘carried through’ (“transported”) from sub-atomic moment to the next. Each is a total background of (sufficient) causes shifted in its relation to the next total background of causes. It is us, in our limited capacities, that focus on some specific set of particles and “see” some continuity from moment to moment, from background to background, and understand some purpose for that specific focus. Why, to the demon, Time is not even an essential element of “reality”! To it, past and present and future are all one!

Each automobile is a summation and balance of the forces and conditions around it; just as is each coin toss, and every other designed thing or situation. They are an abbreviated representation of the environment around it, for the sake of carrying out a purpose embedded in their physical structure. Whether an organism or other designed object or situation, they are systems with a purpose, even if as minimally as the tossing of a coin as a method of human choice.

There is a familiar way to alluding to this tight relationship that can exist between the organization of a system and its environment: you say that the organism continuously mirrors the environment, or that there is a representation of the environment in—or implicit in—the organization of the system.

Dan Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1987

(Allegory of Element Earth by Leandro Bassano, 1580)

One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand many of our ordinary and basic concepts as very useful, even ingenious. Ideas like “person,” “reasons,” and “rationality” are not just subjectively real but objectively grounded. The same can be said for “herd,” “skyscraper,” and “Mississippi River.” It just goes to show that in our world—the world as it seems to us—Whole Things and Situations Can Be as Real as the Parts that Compose Them. Physics does not always have the last word.

We are lucky that our world has come to so many interesting, even if often tragic, outcomes.

My pet dog was a loveable animal. For over ten years, she showed great enthusiasm for life. Every day she chased squirrels—a related kind of animal— and never caught a one. She even loved the snow; it seemed to fascinate her that beneath it lay smells—signs of other things—she savored. But she got old, both she and I have limits, but she declined faster than I. At about the age of thirteen, we “put her down.”

I sat next to her as her functioning slowed, then stopped completely. We cremated her remains and still have those ashes, somewhere. My pet dog is now clearly atoms. She always was atoms, of course, but with a very unique structure and encoding. I think I will find those remaining carbon compounds, and release them from that plastic bag and from that tin canister, and return them to the Earth where someday soon they will be free to mingle with my own.

Logo by Marty

Turning the Constitution into an Old Dead Document: A Review of the Overturn of Roe v. Wade

With Friday June 27th’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, I was surprised to hear how little discussion was spent on the exact argument used. Surely to most people the legal justifications were far less significant than the simple fact of its undoing, but still its grounds matter. There is an interesting mindset that lies behind its reversal.

“Jane Roe” was the pseudonym adopted by Norma McCorvey in 1969 when when she sought to abort the pregnancy of what would have been her third child. She lived in Texas, which allowed abortion only when pregnancy was a threat to the life of the mother. McCorvey and her two female lawyers brought suite against the state by proxy through the local district attorney, Henry Wade. Their challenge to the antiabortion law was upheld by the District Court’s three judges and on the case went to the fateful day, January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in her favor: she had a certain right to abort her pregnancy. Meanwhile, McCorvey had had her baby and given it up for adoption.


On that Friday, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority in overturning the prior decision. He was joined by Trump appointees Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch. Justice Thomas concurred and wrote his own opinion that was more radical than Alito’s, contending that other ‘rights’ based in the 14th Due Process Amendment could also be in jeopardy. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the majority but in his opinion he sought to uphold the Mississippi abortion law in question (banning abortions at 15 weeks except for medical emergency) but without overturning Roe.

The crucial point in the Roe decision was the 1973 court’s ruling that a woman had a right to privacy concerning her own body, at least to a point. This right was supposedly based in some combination of amendments and was not explicitly stated in any one of them. Alito, himself, reviews these amendments and the possible combinations, and overall finds them lacking and writes of the Roe decision: “its reasoning was exceptionally weak.” The amendments in question are One, Four, Five, Nine and Fourteen.

The First Amendment has little to do with abortion, other than help to establish some clear limits to government action. An American government cannot be in the Religion Business. It cannot push its own form of religion and it cannot restrict the religious practices of others. Then similarly, the Constitution asserts the broader principle that Government cannot tell people what to say, write and when they can gather together. These limitations do provide a clear background concerning the character of “liberty,” in general.

The Fourth Amendment seems to me to be very relevant. It declares “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,” Granted, its emphasis is on protection from governmental action (“unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the need for a warrant based on “probable cause”); not protection for your acts in your own house or body, but surely the one implies the other. The Fourth seems to declare a Right to Privacy in certain places and situations. This is not how the court’s majority reads it, or at least in terms of abortion. Most damming, they contend that the Constitution’s lack of explicit reference to abortion in any sense, puts an abortion right in grave doubt.

That the lack of explicit mention, or any clear boundaries, of a right has long been a sticking point for Constitutional Law. This problem surfaces repeatedly.  Conservatives have leaped upon the band wagon of “original intent” ( see NYTimes, 6/28),  that the Constitution should be interpreted in a stricter conformity to its exact words and historical context.

For example, all the state legislatures that ratified the Constitution were filled with men, and they perfectly knew well, and agreed with, the Declaration of Independence, that “All men are created equal;” yet “men” was interpreted literally at the time to exclude women from voting and other opportunities, and exclude men of different races from civic participation and protections.  Where in the Constitution is “women” or “race” mentioned? Yet, we almost unanimously agree, now, that gender and race are irrelevant to political rights, and have amended and interpreted the Constitution to say so.

The Supreme Court proved its reason for being and its equality with the other branches of government, early on, by the necessity to interpret the Constitution.  It was not perfectly clear and especially in reference to new circumstances.  Gun law is a good example of the latter.  Automatic weapons were not in existence in 1788.  It took a person many seconds and even minutes to reload a rifle or hand gun after a single shot. Today, we have an abundance of mass gun-murder and the mass murderer in Dayton Ohio, for example, fired 41 times in 19 seconds to kill 9 people and wound 17.. Would the framers of the Constitution have written the Second Amendment today, as is?

To invoke “the original intent” of a document has value, but is clearly not decisive in the above cases.  Conservatives invoke this strategy selectively and arbitrarily to suit their wishes. They risk killing the relevance to modern times of this historically great document—The US Constitution.  Below, the 14th Amendment will be discussed; it too makes a broad reference to “liberty” and one which some “original intent” proponents contend should be held to mean what liberties were acknowledged in 1868, the year it was ratified! Now there is an ossified contention but lets return to the abortion issue of today and its specific grounds in American law.

The Fifth and Ninth Amendments do not seem to me to obviously help the pro-choice position, and Alito declares that it is generally agreed, by judges that support ‘rights’ not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, that the Fourteenth “Due Process” Amendment “does the work.” “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” states the 14th, but Alito quickly dismisses the “due process protection” as not pertinent in this case. The prevention of abortion is not discrimination against women—no “invidiously discriminatory animus” against women exists in these cases writes Alito, quoting a previous lower court ruling. Therefore, no special scrutiny is necessary based on unfair or arbitrary treatment of some citizens, i.e. women. And this is the opinion of the majority of Justices, no matter how firmly this is disputed by numerous feminists. For example, Gloria Steinem has has stated, “the very definition of patriarchy is trying to control women and birth giving.”

Alito then turns to dismissing Roe on various grounds. One, no explicit mention of abortion in the Constitution. Two, no legal history or common law support for it before Roe (which to my knowledge is true, but misses the point that many women felt the need to obtain abortions in spite of its illegality). And three, that a right not mentioned in the Constitution’s previously established rights must be “essential to our scheme of ordered liberty,” a phrase used in previous cases concerning “rights” and possible “rights.”

“Constitutional analysis must begin with ‘the language of the instrument,” declares Alito quoting a ruling from 1824. The Constitution, “the instrument” in question, makes no mention at all of abortion. The majority of these conservative Justices then conclude that Roe was “an exercise in raw judicial power” as contended by Justice Byron White in this dissenting opinion to the 1973 ruling. Alito declares that Roe was “wrong from the beginning.”

And indeed, there is something interesting to this particular point. The Roe decision was like a detailed “piece of legislation.” From not a single direct reference in the Constitution, Justice Harry Blackmun, and his concurring six justices, created an elaborate abortion compromise in their original Roe v. Wade decision.

This was Roe’s Trimester System. A woman had the right to privacy and control of her own body up to the point of the fetus’ “viability.” At that point on, roughly the end of the second trimester, “the State had a legitimate interest in protecting ‘prenatal life,” writes Alito in summarizing Roe.

But here was part of the instability of Roe. Fetal viability has changed due to medical advances—coming sooner than the end of the second trimester, 21 weeks—and increased scientific knowledge has made us more aware of fetal development before viability. “Pro-life” proponents (as they are often called) seized upon these changes to push for decreased opportunity for an abortion. Ohio law, as it now stands in the wake of Roe’s reversal, is that abortion is illegal upon the ability to hear a heart beat (at approximately 6 weeks) and a new law has been proposed to declare conception as the moment of legal protection for what these believers call “persons.”

The final legal milestone preceding June 27th’s reversal, took place in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (known as “Casey”). The state of Pennsylvania had passed a new law requiring a woman to under go a waiting period, notify her spouse, or have parental consent (if a minor) before having an abortion. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood in general, but did uphold the waiting period and parental notification. The new law placed “an undue burden” upon the woman’s right to an abortion the court ruled in a divided decision. A woman has this right to abortion by the 14th Amendment’s “due process” clause, they declared, and supplemented the viability standard with this clarification of “an undue burden” can not be placed on a woman seeking to enact her right. Roe’s trimester system was dismissed, as no longer relevant.

Casey is a difficult decision to understand. The five concurring judges agreed in general principle that Roe should be upheld but could not agree on specific reasons why. The four dissenting judges now for the first time questioned Roe in its entirety. This led to a new significance in this case for the legal principle called stare decisis (as in star-then long a, then the root of our word decision with a long i in the middle)—“to stand by things decided.” The three judges writing the plurality opinion relied heavily on this principle believing that The Supreme Court, and laws themselves, need stability. They could not always sway according to political fashion and varying trends, without losing respect. These three justices voted to uphold Roe on the basis of its character as an achieved precedent and as an established part of American’s sense of liberty. “An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty in defining the capacity of women to act in society,” they wrote in their decision.

(Souter, O’Connor and Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion in Casey. All three were appointed by Republican presidents and voted to uphold Roe partly on the basis that it had become an ingrained element in our society and a part of what had come to be expected as a basic human freedom.)

But for Alito and four of the five concurring Justices did not see it this way. Chief Justice Roberts wrote his own opinion trying to form a middle ground that upheld the the new Mississippi law (banning abortion after 15 weeks) and also refusing to rule on Roe, but this path was accepted by no other justice. Liberal Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer maintained the law unconstitutional as an undue burden on a women’s right to abort.

Of course, the new decision striking down Roe does not make abortion illegal. It turns the issue back to the individual states to decide their own law. Alito contends this is where the issue properly belongs: “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He approvingly quotes Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Casey: ‘The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations, upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” 

And thus the ruling was decided.

And now the war continues on many different fronts. Ironically, Justice Alito in his decision criticizes the court’s previous rulings for not resolving the issue of abortion. He wrote: “far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.” And The High Court in the Case ruling also referred to this role of the court as ultimate arbitrator. The plurality decision contended, “the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution” (my emphasis).

In my opinion this reversal of Roe will “enflame” and “deepen” conflict. Already here in Ohio, the Columbus City Attorney (a Democrat) has pledged to not prosecute abortion cases under the new law. Small towns, without abortion clinics in them, are attempting to enact abortion bans over the objections of many of their residents. And a 10 year old girl, raped and impregnated by a family friend, was forced to journey to Indiana with her mother to obtain an abortion.

The court should have upheld Roe but also allowed various states to modify the abortion right as they saw fit. A decision similar to Robert’s opinion, or the three liberal justices, would have done much to dampen the flames of controversy. The Supreme Court has ample basis to insist upon a basic abortion right based on a woman’s right to privacy; it should have held that line! States that wish to limit that window of privacy should be given that right up to the point that it infringes upon the woman’s privacy and places “an undue burden” on her ability to enact her right. For example, Ohio’s current 6 weak “Heartbeat Bill” should be unconstitutional; 6 weeks is too early for many women to realize and act. The newly proposed Conception Bill is outrageous. As my moderately conservative Republican brother-in-law stated, “to insist that a fetus shortly after conception is a person, that’s just your religious opinion!”

SIGNING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDANCE by Robert Edge Pine. August 2, 1776, the Continental Congress signs the document in he Pennsylvania State House.

“Time and memory are the true artists; They remould reality nearer to the hearts desire.”

John Dewey

THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION—-Thanks for Dropping In, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I Would Love to Hear Your Ideas!

The New Robber Barons and Their Control of Our Future.

(Extracting economic value in the initial Industrial Revolution. Photograph by the great Lewis Hine.)

Two of the greatest scandals of today’s America are Gun Violence and The Lie that the 2020 Presidential Election was Stolen (and that so many people believe that).  But ranking right up there has to be Our Inequitable Income Distribution.  That the Democratic political party has acquiesced in this massive injustice makes it all the worse and even sinister.

For example, in 2018 America’s richest 20% of households brought in 52% of the nation’s income that year, which leaves 48% of income to the bottom 80% of Americans.  This inequality has been increasing.  In 1968, the top 5% of earners captured 16% of the nation’s income.  In 2020, their portion rose to 23%.  Each percentage point of difference represents a shift of around a hundred (or two) billion dollars! Let us recall from the previous post, that a billion is 1,000,000 millions; that’s a lot of millions!

Economically, how did we get to where we are? And what is its significance, anyway? Prof. Robert Reich of U. Cal. Berkley illustrates convincingly that far, far, too much of our nation’s and world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands and pockets of far too few. Political power then follows that money. Reich is one of our leading authorities on “Political Economy,” the old term for economics. That term is pertinent here because there is a circular relation between wealth and political power. It is Reich’s belief that this is true to the extent that currently Big Money (the super rich and giant corporations) control American politics. We have lost our democracy! contends the former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration.

The History

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the first “Robber Barons” ruled our land. This is the accepted historical narrative to describe these times, but also often described as “The Gilded Age,” a period of great wealth accumulation and extravagant consumption. In America, giant railroads were pushing their way across the west. Andrew Carnegie made millions supplying the steel for rails and locomotives. The oil industry was growing and then monopolized by Standard Oil. Children worked six days a week in coal mines and factories . Many cities were growing to an enormous new size.

(In 1869, the first transcontinental RR was completed. For those who bemoan the role of government in society, the connection of the rail systems from east to west was like the modern effort to go to the moon. It was heavily government subsidized and coordinated, and it was full of technical and engineering feats. The Pacific Rail Acts did much of this, and forced the standardization of rail gauge and car specifications to ensure a highly integrated system.)
(Cornelius Vanderbilt and James Fisk built two of the great fortunes of this era, and they were based in railroading. Vanderbilt was the richest American of his day and his family fortune remains one of the largest in U.S. history. Their early and continuing donations led to the name, Vanderbilt University, the renaming of a school located in Nashville, Tennessee. Cornelius was nicknamed “Commodore” from his earliest days as a teenager in the sea transport industry. He was a boat captain for his father’s ferry business in New York harbor.


The Progressive Era

The age of the the first Robber Barons came to an end (of sorts) with an era of reform. A rising middle class, a growing prominence for universities and their professors, the competition and growth of newspapers and magazines, all helped motivate changes. Journalists, government (especially local—like Governor “Fighting” Bob Lafollette of Wisconsin), and a growing labor movement including a rise in popularity of Socialism, asserted themselves as countervailing power to big businesses and businessmen. Some giant corporations were broken up by the first anti-trust suits. Working conditions began to be modified by labor laws. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 attempted to increase the stability and coordination of the banking system.


(One of the famous American political cartoons of all time. The oil tank octopus, Standard Oil of Ohio, owned and grown into far reaching power by J.D. Rockefeller was eventually broken up (1911), partly by the work of Ida Tarbell, famous “Muck Raking” journalist. Cartoon by Udu J. Keppler, 1904.
Magazines became increasingly successful in this era.
(By the famous photographer of child laborers, Lewis Hine, 1910. A twelve year old in a Vermont textile mill. Hine was a professor of sociology that took to photography to document the working conditions of his time.)
(“The Breaker Boys” by Hine, 1912. Paid $.75 for a 10 hour day, these boys sat over coal shoots and removed the debris as the newly extracted coal moved by them. The first child labor reform laws were found to be unconstitutional in 1918! )
(William Randolph Hearst showed that journalism could be profitable and influential. Reputed model for the classic film Citizen Kane, his growing chain of newspapers at the turn of the century employed some of the best writers of the time—Jack London and Stephen Crane. They featured both lurid crime-story headlines and exposes of corruption and abuse in government and industry: “Muckraking.”)

The 1950s

This is where Robert Reich takes up his case in his 2020 book, The System. By the 1950s, a system of “countervailing powers” had become established. Major labor unions existed in many industrial sectors in the U.S. Banking regulations and the Federal Reserve system were fairly effective. Markets and manufacturing were still largely national and not international. A certain balance of power to existed and this was reflected in how major corporations were run and how wealth was distributed.

This balance of power was reflected in A CEO’s pay. A Chief Executive Officer of a major firm in the 1950s earned about twenty times their average employee.  Today, things have changed to 300 times, notes Reich. Corporations were run in a way that Reich calls “Stakeholder Capitalism.” An executive of a major corporation was considered to be “a statesman;” he maintained an accord among the vital components of his business: stockholders/owners, organized workers, customers, and the community in which the business operated. These were all the stakeholders” in a corporation, and all needed consideration. In these days, a CEO had often worked his way up through the ranks of a company and had lived in that community for decades.

The chairman of Standard Oil stated in an address in 1951, that the job of management was “to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the variously directly affected interest groups.” The Business Roundtable, the most exclusive organization of leading American business executives in the 1950s and today, stated as late as 1981 that, shareholders should receive “a good return,” but “the legitimate concerns of other constituencies must have appropriate attention.”

(My home town, Dayton Ohio, former home of NCR (The National Cash Register Company). They supplied a large portion of this nations cash registers for over 70 years. As a child in the 1960s, I remember riding down the road between these large-windowed brick buildings and seeing men at work at their drill presses, cutting parts and assembling the registers. NCR started in Dayton in 1884.
(One of the early mechanical models. Today, NCR has sold their entire holdings in Dayton and most of those buildings no longer stand. NCR is now headquartered in Atlanta and are in information processing.)
(Akron, Ohio, “the Rubber Capital of The World”: During the 50s, the four largest rubber companies were based there—Goodyear, B.F.Goodrich, Firestone and General Tire. 30% of all the nations rubber products came from Akron and some 58,000 workers were employed. Today, only Goodyear remains there with its headquarters and only a few specialty tires are made in the city. Photo from

The Corporate Raiders: Accord Among the Stakeholders Ends

In the 1980s, American Capitalism began to change, reports Reich. Men like Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Carl Icahn— “corporate raiders”—realized large sums of money were to be made, not by the invention of a new product or improvement in the most direct methods of production, but by manipulating the economic resources already available. They would squeeze from them additional “wealth.” Companies who had a stock value that was lower than the value of their other assets were susceptible to takeover. The raiders would sell off parts of these firms, move their production facilities to low wage areas, and bust unions. Robert Reich contends this was the shift from “stakeholder” to “shareholder capitalism.” By the late 90s, The Business Roundtable now declared that “the job of business is in fact only to maximize shareholder wealth,” reports Reich. The former stakeholders of the community and workers are now abandoned to the goal of rising stock value.

(Raider Carl Icahn specialized in hostile takeovers: Worth a reported $13 billion—that is 13,000 piles of $1 million each pile. He has taken over [or made money in attempted take-overs of] airline TWA, oil companies Texaco and Phillips, US Steel and RJR Nabisco. Picture and above info from The Guardian.)

13 hostile takeovers of companies worth over $1 billion occurred in all the 1970s, reports Reich, but in the 1980s there were 150. In the 80s, over 2,000 “leveraged buyouts” of large companies occurred. A leveraged buyout is when money is borrowed by the raiders, usually through the sale of a special bond, to buy a majority control of stock in the target company. These bonds became known as “junk bonds” due to their highly speculative and risky nature, and huge amounts of money were made on just the origination and trading in these bonds themselves (another example of abstract wealth.). A “hostile takeover” is one where the raiders meet opposition to their takeover by the corporation’s management and some of its traditional owners.

As the 80s continued, the management and shareholders of most large firms realized the times had changed and now stock value, shareholder wealth, meant all. The famous (or infamous) CEO of GE (General Electric), Jack Welch, recognized the trend early and by the time he retired in 2001 the stock value of GE had risen from $13 billion to $500 billion. In the early 80s, Welch laid off nearly one quarter of GE’s workers, totaling about 100,000 layoffs. By the end of that decade, the number of Americans working for GE was cut in half again (a decline of 160,000) and the number of foreign workers doubled to 130,000. General Electric has a history in electricity that goes back to Thomas Edison. Much of that history took place in the upstate New York city of Schenectady where in 1896 Edison moved his young company; today, according to Reich, GE has virtually abandoned that city.

GE’s former headquarter building in Schenectady, NY. That city was called “the city that lights and hauls the world,” as the home of GE and its affiliate the American Locomotive Company, maker of electric rail engines. No longer.
Former General Electric CEO “Neutron Jack” Welch: He certainly ‘blew things up’ in Schenectady New York and for many of those who worked for him. Known for a tactic called “rank and yank,” he contended that to stay competitive the bottom 10% of a company’s executives should be fired and replaced each year. Co-author of three books, he was also big on self-promotion.

In the early 80’s, corporate raiding became a major news story. Many conservative-leaning economists applauded the trend, believing takeovers “…improve efficiency, transfer scarce resources to higher valued uses and stimulate effective corporate management,” said President Reagan’s chief economic advisor at that time. Leading conservative economist, Milton Friedman, had long questioned the management philosophy of respect for all “stakeholders,” but Reich argues that the leading advocate for “shareholder value” was at The Harvard Business School, Michael Jensen. Before crowded seminars, he contended that targeted firms were inefficient, with economic resources “locked up” within them that deserved to be “extracted.”

The Transfer of Wealth

Today, the frenzy of corporate takeovers has cooled, and Prof. Reich sites several reasons. Maximizing shareholder wealth has become the standard philosophy for all large firms, leaving them far less susceptible to takeover. The fate of Unions in our country is a fact that substantiates the contention that the distribution battle has been lost. In 1955, about 30% of all private sector workers were union members; in 2020 that percentage is down to 6.5%!

But “underperforming” firms still exist, and are still being bought and sold, dismembered and manipulated, by “private equity managers” and “private equity firms,” the new and more respectable-sounding name for the old term, “corporate raider,” notes Reich.

Warren Buffet and his Berkshire Hathaway are a prototype for this kind of firm, and probably the most well-known. Buffet calls himself a “value investor” and thus invests in not only underperforming firms but also small firms with growth potential, among other opportunities. Buffet has obtained his funds to expand his assets, not by the use of bonds, but by the acquisition of insurance companies, GIECO for example. Technically, and by law, the money an insurance company receives in premiums is not its own, but it is theirs to invest. (An insurance company has an obligation to meet its payout demands at any point, much like a bank. Insurance is another abstract form of economic product, and Buffet is another example of making money off of money, especially other people’s money.) Berkshire Hathaway can also be considered a “holding company,” and its assets are worth over $600 billion. In 1980, the value of a share of its stock was $275; in 2014 it was worth $186,000 which is an increase of almost 700,000%! Today a share is worth over $500,000 each!!!

“Efficiency” Attained

Here at The Nature Religion Connection, we have often struggled with the problem of Abstract Ways of Thinking. All our experience, and thoughts about it, are to some extent abstract. It is often hard to separate the abstract from the more concrete, or which of the two is more real or important. The economic discussion above has that feature. Abstractions such as The Corporation, Stock, Bonds, Insurance, and even the homely $1 bill are significantly Symbolic and more abstract entities than The House that gives you shelter or The Soup in the pot that you will have for dinner. Among the NOT so abstract are the workers in your company. Yet, in conservative economic theory and in aggressive business practice, Real People become simply “economic resources,” an abstraction to be manipulated and moved about like trucks, buildings and machines!

Abstractions have been a great boon to economics and today seem to often constitute the bulk of it. Also, economic abstractions are currently the greatest problem. The current problem of Income Distribution would not even exist in its current form without a massive apparatus of banking and markets, “investment” and “saving,” record-keeping, reporting, and calculation. Certainly the serfs of Middle Age Europe had a sense of how little they had and how much the Lord of the Manor had. But, in today’s terms of Billions of Dollars, it is difficult to even imagine how much that is had, and what impact it has. Elon Musk, one of the greatest modern-day Lords of Our Land, is estimated to ‘have’ over $200 billion worth of accumulated ‘wealth.’ I find it hard to imagine how much 200,000,000,000 of anything would be: 200 billion grains of sand? drops of water? molecules of oxygen in the air? leaves in a forest?

The economic impact of such massive accumulations of wealth is only occasionally discussed. First, we have discussed the direct suppression of wages and benefits that took place with union-busting by the original corporate raiders, and then the less direct suppression by the placement of new factories and facilities in low wage and non-union areas (as in states with so-called Right to Work Laws and then foreign countries).

GM workers in northern Mexico earned about 1/8th to 1/10th of their American counterparts. One source reported that to be about $25 a day for a 12hr shift. This plant of about 6,000 workers recently (2022) threw out their old pro-company and government supported union after labor law reforms initiated by the new Mexico-Canada-US trade agreement. (US News and World Report)

Second, an economy top-heavy with income distribution, often experiences a short-fall in demand, and this slows economic growth yearly by an estimated 2-4%. Rich people save more of their income than other Americans who largely spend their earnings on very concrete items as soon as they receive it. This spending has an immediate and direct stimulus effect on the economy. Large amounts of savings must find investment (or charitable) outlets that take time and are a less direct positive influence on production. As pointed out several times above, much “Wall Street” activity is just money chasing money; abstract forms of wealth breeding upon themselves. Prof. Reich often refers to much of Wall Street’s ‘wealth’ as gambling, as the “placing of bets” on the success or failure of other Wall Street ventures.

Finally, massive wealth accumulation skews much of an economy’s productive efforts into peculiar directions—like the Pharaoh’s of Egypt had their Pyramids, so Elon Musk has his SpaceX! I suggest that the governments of the Free World heavily tax, and provide no tax shelter, for the world’s super rich. This would take something akin to A New Progressive Era, granted, but with that redistribution of income solar panels, wind turbines, and electric-based transportation could be significantly subsidized around the world. Granted, SpaceX is “cool,” but so is saving the planet from massive climate change. Undoubtedly, we could think of a few other mundane (as in “worldly” and “ordinary”) projects that might also be worthy of the attention and income taken from other forms of modern-day cathedral- building. Excessive amounts of “savings” are always looking for extravagant forms of expenditure, as in the following:

(Top left, Musk’s Starship SN-15 making an upright landing! He envisions such a craft voyaging to Mars. Then rotating to the right, the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, over 1/2 mile high at 2,715 feet—tall and thin and used for luxury apartments, hotel, retail, offices. Prototype of a self-driving car. Bottom left, the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore. Atop its three towers is The Sky Park that features restaurants, jogging paths, and the Infinity’s Edge swimming pool. Finally, the Volocopter, the prototype for a drone-like air taxi for two passengers and no pilot necessary; powered by eight battery-powered, small fan-like motors mounted along the circular track above it. ARE THESE “INNOVATIONS” REPRESENTATIVE OF A FUTURE GOOD FOR US ALL, and GOOD FOR THE PLANET, or a FUTURE BROUGHT TO US BY THE EXCESSIVE CAPITAL IN THE HANDS OF THE RICHEST 10%—1%—OF US? I fear it is the latter.)

Post Script

There is much more to be said on these issues, and I plan to do some more reading on the topic. The overall impact of Globalization (US companies production facilities moving overseas, increased international trade, a global financial system…) is unclear. Several of the trends seem to be U.S. Consumers have benefitted by a drop in prices and a flood of low priced (in relative terms) products produced abroad. In this sense, the same American consumer can benefit by cheaper products but also be hurt by lower wages due to union-busting. Third World Countries can benefit by incoming manufacturing facilities, but also lose by the increased competition for their own companies from foreign giants.

But another of the trends that seems clear is that the world’s economic elite are Not, by and large, among the losers from globalization. The rich are getting richer.

Elm Court, the estate built as a summer home by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s granddaughter. In the rural Berkshire region of Massachusetts, it has 47 bedrooms and 27 baths. It has been the site of many historic gatherings including the meetings the preceded the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One. On sale in 2020 for $12.5 million. The largest shingle roofed building in world.
STAYING PLAYFUL AMID THE RISING HEAT. Drawing by Marty. FOR MORE ECONOMICS—see preceding post in this section.

Too Much in Too Few Hands: Economic Value

Economic Value is an Emergent Value of The Universe. Well, at least here on Earth it ‘exists,’ but not in the terms of Physics or Chemistry—Economics is nothing to them, literally—but in the terms of Human Societies and Social Organization, economics means a lot and especially to the Persons that compose these larger units, our so called “societies.”. In fact, “Value,” itself, is a term not at home in physics or chemistry, yet we are all quite sure that many kinds of value do exist to us and form the basis of our human form of existence.

(The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is considered the most valuable painting of all. Though quite a few paintings are considered “priceless,” this barely smiling lady was insured for a record value estimated at about $860 million.)

It is curious that believers in Free Will, such as philosopher Dan Dennett and physicist Sean Carroll, have argued for its emergent reality by comparing it to music and money (Dennett), and Carroll to baseball, in a rightly noted (and short) article with the title “Free Will is as Real as Baseball.” ‘Things’ like these—free will, money, baseball and persons— have emerged all on the same existential “level,” so to speak.

(Baseball is somewhat like cricket. Played with ball and a bat and a pitcher, both are highly rule-bound activities. If the movements of baseballs and baseball players are determined by the lawful movements of particles originating in The Big Bang, then the rules of baseball are also curiously compatible with this ancient state of the universe that is now determinant of our current situation.)

From the point of view of “the hard sciences,” the universe is a machine that grinds out outcomes that are very predictable and even totally predictable in some ways. A Market Economy can work similarly. It too grinds out products, shifts resources, and creates and destroys new or old component parts (much like Natural Selection and the Evolution of Species in biology).. At its most abstract level, a market system or a Capitalist System (I’m not sure what the difference might be) can be said to “Produce Wealth,” as Adam Smith described in 1776 in his The Wealth of Nations, or David Ricardo in his The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). Both of these intellectual pioneers argued for the mutual benefits of Free Trade between nations, but Ricardo went a step further and argued for the value of increased organization and willful coordination of this growing economic machine by the creation of Central Banks.

“Wealth” can be very concrete and very abstract. Most Americans who have a positive amount of wealth have it in their home and cars. A shockingly large number of Americans actually have No Positive Wealth; their net assets are worth less than their debts. A $20 bill is a concrete form of wealth considering how few of us even carry them any more; we now simply rely on electronic tabulations of how many dollars we have and how many we have spent. But mostly it is very abstract; the bill itself is only a piece of paper with print and pictures with a certain certification as to its integrity. Stocks and bonds are even more “figurative” forms of wealth, and this especially by comparison to a house or your flock of goats. (“How is your flock doing? Mine is very well, thank you.”)

Abstract forms of wealth are much easier to work with than wealth in concrete forms. If your pig is worth $750, you can sell it and buy a round trip air ticket to Acapulco. If you brought your pig to the airport to trade, none of the airlines would know what it was worth, what to do with it, or even want to deal with it in the least. Abstract forms of wealth are not only easier to deal with, but also easier to accumulate and maintain, in some ways. Yet, leave us not forget, that in the case of Economic Value and Wealth, the Abstract is totally based in the Concrete. If you are hungry or cold, it will do you no good to have just a $20 bill. You cannot eat a $20 bill nor find shelter under it. You need real food and real shelter, or someone willing to provide those and accept your abstraction in their place.

It is one of the Central Theses of the Nature Religion Connection, that today we persons have great difficulty intellectually distinguishing and prioritizing our experiences that are Very Abstract from those that are Very Concrete. Each are real and equally important; all experience is a combination of both abstract ideas and concrete experiences. In Economics, we have an excellent example of where abstractions (money, stocks, bonds, credit) have both greatly enhanced our economic life and the wealth it has produced, and often brought the economic system to a halt or persistently diminished its functioning to produce the concrete necessities (homes, food, jobs) upon which we ALL rely.

(Abstract Wealth: Stock certificate signifying your ownership of a very small potion of The Disney Corporation. In the run up to 2008, banks “bundled” mortgage loans into giant packages and sold them to investors. Called a mortgage-backed security (MBS), the practice led to wide-spread abuse and then The Great Recession.)

Some Interesting Perspective on the Accumulation of Economic Value

The Cleveland (Ohio) Browns, an American-style football team, are paying their new quarterback $230 million total in a 5 year contract. That is over $40 million a year to chase around the other boys/men in a game with a ball.  There are 22 women who have filed civil suits against him for sexual harassment and assault. I hope the women get a lot of that money!

Jamie Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  He makes about $20 million a year and is worth almost $2 billion.  In 2013 his bank was fined about $20 billion by the Securities and Exchange Commission for offenses from the Great Recession of 2008 (10 million people lost their homes then to foreclosure).  JPMorgan still had a great year in profits, $18 billion after the fines.  Dimon got a pay raise in 2008 and his company got a government bailout.

A billion is one thousand millions.  Imagine Jamie Dimon with a personal wealth of 2,000 piles of a million dollars each.  Imagine Michael Blumberg (no outstanding legal issues as far as I know, and this has nothing to do with him as former Mayor of New York either), he is about the seventh richest person in the world—he has 58,000 piles each of one million dollars!  That’s a lot of piles, $58 billion worth.

(1962, the first WALMART in Rogers, Arkansas, founded by Sam Walton.)

The Walton Family, originally from Arkansas, are the heirs and owners of Wal-Mart, the worlds largest company (by revenue, and employees). They have an estimated worth of $175 billion. How many piles of a million is that? Let’s see: $175,000,000,000 is $1,000,000 times 175,000! Yes, that many piles of $1 million each. Hell, I wouldn’t mind having 175,000 piles of a single dollar each! They were considered to be the world’s richest family. Yes, they have more money than Bezos and Gates and Warren Buffet, but these guys are in the running, or should I say “in the ballgame.” They are in the contest of who can accumulate the most—abstract—wealth.

My wife is Not in that “race.” She has been a preschool and kindergarten teacher for many decades. She has taught hundreds of children to come to school, to learn to read, to look at science, math, and the geography of our world for the first time in a classroom. She has helped most of them to love learning. How many piles of a million dollars is she worth?

We do alright. My wife and I don’t complain much, but at my wife’s salary it would really take a while. In her entire teaching career, now spanning close to five decades, she will have earned about $2 million. Our Net Worth, our “Wealth,” is far far below even a single pile of a single million. Our new quarterback, he makes 40 piles a year (salary). But to put this in additional perspective, it has been estimated in recent years that over 13 million American families do not have a single dollar of net worth! Their debts are greater than the value of all they own!

In Conclusion

Much of the above comes from Prof. Robert Reich’s 2020 book, The System: Who Rigged It, How to Fix It. It is a good read: not pedantic, full of facts, clearly laid out in ordinary terms. Reich is our greatest progressive advocate and expert on income distribution, economics and politics. That used to be called Political Economy. Reich was our former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration. Of course, he is not responsible for the metaphysical contentions in the above, nor all the “piles of millions that make a billion” stuff. That is my own.

(From the first round of Trust Busting in the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt brought suit against several railroad conglomerates. Today, monopoly power is most often discussed in relation to Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants but also some of the largest American banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.)

His conclusion is that way, way, too much money and power has become concentrated at the very top of our society, and that concentration works to the serious detriment of The System functioning well and functioning well for the vast majority of us and for the planet itself. His solution is To Break It Up! Like in the days of the old Progressive Era, to bring anti-trust action against many of the biggest corporations, seriously re-establish banking regulation, and heavily tax the super rich. His point is that Western European nations already does much more for their regular citizens, and we all should do more of it. We need to help re-establish governments and various community organizations as counter-balancing powers to Big Money and Big Business.

Our species has much Accumulated Knowledge. “Knowledge” is also an Emergent Reality and the above is a little Economic Knowledge that it is time to use to right this ship.

Here at THE CONNECTION, juggling all the factors. Drawing by Marty.