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150th anniversary of “On The Origin of Species”

Posted on November 28th, 2009 in Evolution,Science by Robert Miller

This month is the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, perhaps the greatest scientific and social publication in history.  Many years ago I purchased a paperback copy of Darwin’s book, a Dover publication as I recall, and read it for the first time, though not from cover to cover. At that time,  reading it more than a 125 years or so after it was first published, introduced me to the arguments, examples and logic that Darwin used to make his case: the genius of his insights and the power of his observations are not subtle in the book.  But then as now, there was little doubt or argument that evolution was the only rational way to interpret biological variance in species and the principle of natural selection seemed like a sensible way for nature to take advantage of genetic mutations, the majority of which probably give a disservice to the propagation of the species. But at the period of my reading and even more so today, evolution had become a proven fact, not a theory, a result of an expansive knowledge of biology, molecular biology and genetics, coupled with increasing clarity from the fossil record, including that of our own Hominidae and Hominina history, which, for human ancestors (Hominina), now goes back more than 4 million years. We know more about evolution than we do about the structure of the atom and each new piece we find in the puzzle, such as the ever-expanding Hominina fossil record, gives us an increasingly broad insight of our ancestors’ culture and behavior, all achieved through slow changes that reveal a story about a species that started to walk erect before it developed its large brain. But at the time that Darwin published his book, there was virtually no knowledge of genetics and only a very primitive grasp of the fossil record that supported such a sweeping interpretation of species origins and connectivity. Darwin did however acquire fossils during his trip to the Galapagos Islands beginning in 1831.  He  made his case for evolution based on the animals that he retrieved for study, including many birds, and the evolutionary-like changes that man had created through domestication of certain species, particularly dogs. Though Darwin had no knowledge that the code for reproduction was within our DNA, which would not be identified until well into the next century, and he did not have knowledge of Gregor Mendel’s work on plant genetics and the nature of inheritability, his  introduction of natural selection as the key to adapting mutational change for  improved chances of species survival, was the most insightful feature of his argument. Darwin’s genius was in recognizing that a vast change in species could be achieved over time, through minute, advantageous and heritable traits that would initially appear to be small. As one example, he used the evolution of the eye from invertebrates to mammals as an illustration of the differences in optical qualities that could be achieved through natural selection, advantageous changes and a whole lot of time. The time required for these changes remains incomprehensible for humans to absorb.

Demilitarization of the American Presidency

Posted on November 25th, 2009 in Culture,General,Politics by Robert Miller

Writer William Pfaff has recently commented on seeing President Obama carry out Presidential functions by himself, when normally one sees a retinue of military personnel with the President to carry out tasks such as holding the umbrella during rainy periods and attending to him as the departs and re-embarks on Air Force One, or walks through the halls of the White House.  Pfaff refers to it as the demilitarization or de-ritualization of the American Presidency. Television coverage of GW Bush always showed a flank of attendees in military uniform lining the hallway as he walked towards the podium to make an announcement and then frame him at the doorway. For Bush, a commissioned aide de camp was always nearby, whereas Obama usually walks down the Hall without military attendees and holds his own umbrella.
Part of the military trappings that surrounded Bush related to his desire to be seen as a “wartime president.” If so, it appears that Obama is trying to disabuse his Presidency of that connection and its militaristic implications. For Bush, the idea of being perceived as a War President might have had special appeal to him, given the effort he put into getting out of his National Guard commitment, where he simply stopped showing up. But when you saw Obama saluting the caskets of returning dead soldiers, he stood saluting without the expected attendees. Whereas Bush saluted military officers in uniform, Obama follows the more traditional protocol of a civilian, by nodding or smiling, but never saluting to an officer in uniform. It was actually Ronald Reagan that started Presidential saluting towards military officers in uniform and now Obama has brought the older protocol back into a more demilitarized style of recognition which contributes visually to his underplaying the role of “Commander-in-Chief.”  While Bush wanted to be viewed and remembered as a war-time President, Obama wants to distance himself from the appearance of that posture and peripheralize the military trappings of a Presidency that, since WW II,  has come to be known for its war-like solutions to international problems and its reliance on the military in both foreign and domestic policy issues, like the establishment of Northcom under Bush for example. If you look back at previous Presidents, it was Washington, a general in war, who wanted to be painted for posterity as a President in an ordinary suit, not a military uniform. Now, if Obama would only start reducing the numbers of military officers in our foreign embassies, we could start getting back to seeing visuals all around the world the way they used to be. Remember, form begets function.

The Senate will debate the healthcare bill

Posted on November 23rd, 2009 in Health,Politics by Robert Miller

By a 60-39 vote, strictly along party lines, the Senate will bring their version of the healthcare bill onto the floor for debate, discussion and probably many amendments, most of which will be designed to weaken the bill or even destroy it. It is already too weak to take very many more hits.  Every Senator if they so choose, will be given the opportunity to clear their laryngeal passages and attempt to make sweeping oratorical history. However, without Ted Kennedy waxing eloquently to make a stirring contribution to the debate, it is doubtful that we will hear any arguments that will sway other Senators to change their preconceived commitments, unless dramatic changes to the bill are made. But, to send the bill to a House/Senate conference, Reid can bypass the need for 60 votes and channel the bill in such a way that it can pass with only 50 votes. Although he would rather not use the filibuster-breaking procedure, he is committed, one way or another to passing a healthcare bill and all Democrats will be under immense pressure, to hold the course and generate a filibuster-proof vote. So, let’s give Harry Reid credit for lining up the votes, giving whatever promises were required to keep all 58 Democrat and two Independents  lined up, and getting the ceremonial voting done to get on to the real drama of the Senate floor debate. We know enough about the Senate and House bills to appreciate that, at best, they are a stepping stone to what the country really needs for a serious health insurance program, something that every other civilized country has in place. We can only hope this bill is a stepping stone and not a road block. If you want to read about the health care systems that exist in other countries, checkout T.R. Reid’s “The Healing of America”, but be forewarned: the comparisons between what other countries have and what we are likely to get with the new healthcare bill will make you question the nature of the political system we have today that prevents rational decision-making because we are so easily imprisoned by corporate headquarters through campaign finance and scurrilous juvenile behavior. The comparisons make you think that we are not a serious country.

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