Friday, March 03, 2006

Species Preservation Instinct

An interesting post, from Prettier than Napoleon.

Money quote:

I mentioned to a friend last night that I had been underwhelmed by Battlestar Galactica and quit watching after the first few discs.

"I bet I know exactly when you started to lose interest. The part just after most of humanity is destroyed, when we zoom in on a couple and Adama says, 'They better start having babies.'"

"Not true, although I don't understand why they can't just float around in space until they die of old age. Why should the people who are still alive rearrange their own lives for the sake of people who aren't even born?"

"See, this is what I mean. The show is uninteresting to you because you don't find the central conflict compelling. You have no species preservation instinct."

"Species preservation instinct"? Wow. NONE of us have species preservation instinct. Group selection "instincts" at that level are just fabrications of fevered brains.

You go, PTN. Don't back down.

March 15: "Kill an animal and eat it" Day

March 15 is, as it is every year, "Eat an animal for PETA day" or (a variant) "Kill and eat an animal day." (I prefer the second, for reasons I'll let Coturnix explain below).

On the reasons why PETA is worth protesting....

An interesting archive, now defunct in terms of new posts.

And, the classic "People Eating Tasty Animals."

This one is rather fun. And the subtlety and style of Yobbo is always worth savoring.

Thanks, as always, to my Triangle homey Coturnix, who though he is deeply confused about many things, is a shining light of reason on this question (and also on the problem of lateness).

From last year, about this time, my rumination:

At the Mungowitz house, we snack high on the food chain. I don't know if God gave man dominion over the beasts of the field, but She certainly gave me an ATM card and big-ass cart to drive along the Kroger meat aisle. That may be even better than dominion.

A lot of the beasts of the field, and the forest, and the oceans, and the air.... they all smack my plate, and they are soon sacrificed to my enjoyment. And nutrition. Meat is GOOD for you, and the reason it tastes good is that thousands and thousands of years of evolution have selected for taste buds that are pleasurably stimulated by the taste and texture of meat. No other way to get that many calories, AND that much iron and protein, so quickly. MMMMmmmm...burgers.

And, the view from Coturnix:

Nobody knows, understands, and loves nature, animals and ecosystems as well as hunters do. Carnivores require large territories. Urban growth has eliminated carnivores from many areas of the country. In a few places, it is possible to re-introduce them, as has been recently done with wolves. In most places, that is not possible. In the absence of predators, the herbivore populations have a huge growth in numbers and densities, stripping their habitats of food and ending up starving to death. In such case, it is our moral duty to step into the role of the top predator and carefully and selectively reduce the herbivore numbers. Hunters really know how to do it right, often better than ecologists do. It is a tough life. No lion sleeping with the lamb. In such a situation the herbivore has three choices: a) to die a slow painful death of starvation, disease and parasites; b) to die after a short and brutal chase by a pack of wolves that starts eating it before it is even dead, or c) to die instantly of a bullet. For a) death is inevitable. For b) there are some slim chances of escaping. For c) only very few animals are killed, thus chances for every animal to survive and reproduce are much greater. If you were a doe, and these were your choices, what would you choose? "Bambi" has ruined the reputation of hunters among city-dwellers who are alienated from nature - folks who tend to join PETA and ALF out of ignorance of how nature works and under the influence of 100 years of Disneyfication (that is actually a technical term for this) of nature.

I include this last because I was rather flip at the top of this post. I like animals; I am happy to work to prevent cruelty to animals, or prevent their suffering. One can oppose the terrorists at PETA, and still be a big fan of animals. Both of our dogs are "rescue" animals, from the shelter, rather than purebreds purchased from a puppy mill.

But on March 15, I am going to eat fresh game. And still-living plant flesh. Because I'm a plant-killer, too.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Good Stuff

Vegreville posts several very nice thoughts, and links.

Academic AWOL

Why being an academic is pretty great

I agree most, perhaps, with these reasons why being an academic is fun:

3. It's great to see a student suddenly understand something new.
4. It's great to understand something new myself. Learning is fun, and that is what I mainly do.

I almost always teach at least one overload class. If you don't like teaching, what are you doing?

Does it hurt my research output? Probably not. Being a chairman is a lot like a full lobotomy (except the scars last forever), so my research output is hardly impressive anyway.

Price Discrimination

Revealing that, when price discrimination is possible, talk is NOT cheap.

Duke Dinner Dance

There really is a Duke Faculty Dinner Dance, every December.

Very fun. From this year's dance, my lovely wife and I having big times.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Activism and Exceptionalism

A useful note from an old friend, whose anonymity I will respect. Said person left a comment on the post about Bad Dog-morals, and the comment is worth reproducing here in full:

I'm not clear on what it took to get on your lists -- are these supposed to be the five most interesting books you've read in each category? Most influential? Most convincing?

Also, I think you miscategorize Nietzsche because you are conflating two categories into one, and two dimensions into one.

The dimension you say you are trying to get at is the dimension of "exceptionalism." For you, the perspective of believing humans are exceptional leads people to write books trying to define this exceptional sense of morality that they believe humans have, and explicitly or implicitly prescribe the actions that fall under their definition of "right." Rawls falls into this category, as do John Stuart Mills and lots of other classic ethical theorists (I don't remember Nozick, Gauthier, or Frank well enough, but they probably fall in this category as well).

At the other end of this dimension are people who don't believe humans are exceptional and (therefore?) write books explaning the origins of morality in historical terms. Your focus here is on "historical" in the sense of "evolutionary/biological," but to me the non-exceptionalism assumption might well also prompt people to write *cultural* histories of different ethical systems in the sense of an historian or anthropologist.

I think the best part of Nietszche's project is the cultural history of the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is NOT the kind of thing an exceptionalist would usually be interested in doing. The reason you are tempted to lump him in the second category is because you see him making prescriptions and assume that that makes him an exceptionalist.

But that is where you are conflating two dimensions. The dimension of exceptionalism is separate from the dimension of, for lack of a better term, "activism." It is quite possible and consistent to reject exceptionalism and still make prescriptions in one's writing -- in fact, I dare say, your blogging is an excellent example of this. The goal of impacting others' behavior, including behavior in the realm of what we commonly term morality, through one's writings is not contingent upon the exceptionalism premise.

(NOTE: In a technical (but important) sense, all writings have activist projects -- the goal might be to affect the behavior of the committee making tenure decisions, for instance. But I'm using activism here in a much less inclusive sense of self-conciously attempting to influence the ethical norms of others)

Hence, I think that Axelrod and probably the other books you listed in your first set (I haven't read them) have non-exceptionalist, non-activist projects. Rawls (and probably some of the others in your second set) have exceptionalist, activist projects. But Foucault, me, non-exceptionalists who make policy recommendations, and (under some readings, at least) Nietzsche have non-exceptionalist, activist projects.

To which I say: What would Troester say to this, if he still blogged at all? I'm calling you out, man. I don't know enough deontological Kierkegarrdians to ask anyone else. A leap of faith on human exceptionalism? Or is "activism" a better way of thinking about it, requiring only a plasticity of moral sensibilities?

Or anyone else, for that matter. It just seems to me that this is a question that is amenable to answer, even wrong answers.

Voting Outside the Box

This is really quite disturbing.


The internal logs of at least 40 Sequoia touch-screen voting machines reveal that votes were time and date-stamped as cast two weeks before the election, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Black Box Voting successfully sued former Palm Beach County (FL) Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore to get the audit records for the 2004 presidential election.

After investing over $7,000 and waiting nine months for the records, Black Box Voting discovered that the voting machine logs contained approximately 100,000 errors. According to voting machine assignment logs, Palm Beach County used 4,313 machines in the Nov. 2004 election. During election day, 1,475 voting system calibrations were performed while the polls were open, providing documentation to substantiate reports from citizens indicating the wrong candidate was selected when they tried to vote.

Another disturbing find was several dozen voting machines with votes for the Nov. 2, 2004 election cast on dates like Oct. 16, 15, 19, 13, 25, 28 2004 and one tape dated in 2010. These machines did not contain any votes date-stamped on Nov. 2, 2004.

You can find the complete set of raw voting machine event logs for Palm Beach County here:
Note that some items were not provided to us and are ommitted from the logs.

The logs rule out the possibility that these were Logic & Accuracy (L&A) test results, and verified that these results did appear in the final totals. In addition to the date discrepancies, most had incorrect polling times, with votes appearing throughout the wee hours of the night. These machines were L&A tested, and the L&A test activities appeared in the logs with the correct date and time.

According to the voting machine assignment log, these machines were not assigned to early voting locations. The number of votes on each machine also corresponds with the numbers typical of polling place machines rather than early voting.

Many of these machines showed unexplained log activity after the L&A test but before Election Day. In addition, many more machines without date anomalies showed this log activity, which revealed someone powering up the machine, opening the program, then powering it down again. In one instance, the date discrepancy appeared when someone accessed the machine two minutes after the L&A test was completed


(Nod to NP, who is always outside one kind of box or another)

UPDATE: Props to ST at Poliblogger, who has been saying for a while that cards are better.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bad Dog: Morals, Pavlov, and Two Lists

Okay, this is reprehensible. I know pretty much BAGEL about actual science, and what I have read about morality has mostly confused me.

But, continuing on my list mania (it's like crack, I tell you!)....Five books at the intersection of "morality" and science (note that the use of quotes reveals some bias, almost certainly, the nature of which you are welcome to speculate about). And five books that tell a very different story of morals. Not that there is much agreement among books WITHIN categories.

The question comes down to this: When I say, "Bad dog! BAD dog!" because the dog got in the garbage, the dog cowers and runs to the other run. The dog gives every indication of feeling bad. Now, is that the way morals work in humans? Or do we have something else, a developed sense of the moral status of actions, separate from our fear of punishment, or avoidance of shame and shunning?

Note that believing that humans have an innate moral sense is a claim of human exceptionalism in evolution. (Creation would solve the problem, of course, since then humans ARE exceptional, since G*d created them to be exceptional, and to have souls, and a moral sense).

Science and Morals

Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems
Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation*
Dugatkin, Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees
Ridley, The Origins of Virtue
Skyrms, The Stage Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure

*Though I do buy Binmore's counterclaims about TFT specifically. Still, you get credit for failing in a cool and clever way.

Morals and Reason

Frank, Passions within Reason
Gauthier, Morals by Agreement
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals
Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
Rawls, Theory of Justice

Are the distinctions between those perspectives as clear as I am making them? And do these readings simply reflect an idiosyncratic random sample, leaving out the important works everyone ELSE takes for granted? I restricted myself to books I have actually READ, so that list may not be representative....

I have to admit: I have trouble with the human exceptionalism idea, EXCEPT that reason and living in groups may have endowed us with quantitatively different capacities for cooperation. But we are clearly NOT like eusocial species such as honeybees or ants. In fact, emotions may well exist precisely because we do NOT expect others to be morals, and norms have to be enforced. A flush of adrenaline when I see someone violate rules means I provide the public good of enforcement even when it is individually irrational to do so.

Anyway, I rambled. I really wanted to know about more and better books.