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Kiosk Update

This John Quiggin post is hardly the worst example of the genre, but it does remind me of something that annoys me. So I have updated the Kiosk to reflect the fact that I'm tired of people complaining about how they don't like the word "blog."


Maathai Goes Mainstream

Kenya's Maathai Upbeat On G8, Unhappy At Evictions

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai condemned the brutality used against thousands of peasants in Kenya's forest eviction programme but defended the policy as vital to save the east African nation's environment.

... The government says the clearances are the first in a long-term project to reclaim Kenya's once-mighty forests, which have dwindled to a mere 1.7 percent of national territory and collect water vital to agriculture and wildlife.

-- via Gristmill

I don't know the details of this particular scheme, but what I know of the history of conservation in Africa makes me suspicious. It's unclear what, precisely, the evictees were doing in the forest -- though I don't doubt that for many observers, "being there" was enough of a sin. Colonial and postcolonial governments have seen the environment through a lens of wilderness worship. It's troubling that someone who once argued that "If you want to save the environment, you should protect the people first, because human beings are part of biological diversity" would now limit herself to asking for a kinder, gentler exclusion of humans. Kenya has a long history of shuffling populations around to solve political and environmental problems (which were often caused by the previous shuffling). Too often in the Third World, when the environment is at stake, it's the poorest and most marginalized people who are asked to make sacrifices.


Once More On Jared Diamond

I'm winding down what I have left to say about Jared Diamond given that it's been so long since I read GG&S. But I'd like to bring up one more point, which was mentioned early in the debate, lost in the shouting over whether Diamond is a crypto-racist or anthropologists are jealous, then hinted at in Tim Burke's critique (which largely agrees with mine in questioning Diamond's practice of reaching back too far for causes and ignoring the role of historical contingencies). The point is this: insofar as Diamond is successful, he only explains why Eurasia could conquer the rest of the world, not why it did. Why were the resource-mobilization advantages of one civilization directed toward developing military might and using it against their neighbors? (The impacts of disease are less intent-dependent -- smallpox wiped out tribes the Europeans had never heard of, much less planned to conquer.) Why are "Pizarro conquers the Incas" and "Atahualpa conquers Spain" the only options once trans-Atlantic contact becomes technologically feasible?

Implicit in Diamond's work is a sort of Hobbesian/Darwinian model. Even if all people aren't selfish militaristic bastards, they have to act that way lest the selfish militaristic bastards wipe them out. That sort of thinking only works if (as Hobbes argued) all parties are roughly equal in power. If you realize that you could squash your enemies with your pinky, you have no Hobbesian incentive to develop better armies, or even to use the armies you have against anyone. To reconcile this explanation for conflict with the clear resource superiority that makes the victor inevitable, you have to assume that none of the civilizations involved realized how unequal the fight was.

Both the "selfish bastards" and Hobbesian theories are useful starting points. But by leaving them implicit, Diamond's theory winds up with an underdeveloped hole. There's quite a lot to say about how different societies make decisions about how to develop and use their potential might -- how they define their goals, gather information about possible courses of action, and select among them. The need becomes obvious when you look at something like this article, in which Diamond explains how, because of Japan's greater biological productivity as compared to Korea, Korean dry-rice agriculturalists initially weren't able to conquer the affluent hunter-gatherers of Japan, but the invasion was only a matter of time once the Koreans got hold of iron and wet rice agriculture. Yet Diamond seems to expect that modern Koreans and Japanese can choose to end their (at times violent) feud.

Of course, some people go much too far in the other direction. A Marxist mailing list picked up my original GG&S post, and among the replies was a strange argument (I can't name the author or link to it because the archives apparently only go back 100 posts and I neglected to blog it while it was fresh.) The Marxist in question pointed out the decision-theory hole in Diamond's argument, then asserted that the lust for conquest is a uniquely European cultural feature, dating back to the glorification of war in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. The people vanquished by the Incas, Mongols, or Malians would be surprised to hear that.


More On Guns, Germs, And Steel

Apropos Brad DeLong's comments to my previous post, I should clarify the intent of my criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Geography's "GG&S problem" as I defined it there is a problem of the lay public's understanding of Diamond's argument. Thus we have to respond, not (only) to the book as Diamond intended it, but to the book as it's understood by the general readership. In particular, DeLong points out that the aspect of Diamond's argument that I spend the most time criticizing -- his attempt to explain why, of all the parts of Eurasia, it was western Europe which ultimately took the lead -- is a relatively minor part of a book mostly devoted to explaining (with mixed success) the rise of Eurasia by 1500. But I think most readers of GG&S take it as an explanation for the rise of Europe, and thus it's important to respond to that framing. One element of that response may be the sort of internal critique that DeLong's comment suggests -- pointing out that even Jared Diamond doesn't have a lot of confidence in GG&S's ability to explain the last 500 years.


Geography's Guns, Germs, And Steel Problem

Ozma at Savage Minds argues that anthropology has a "Guns, Germs, and Steel problem" -- that while Jared Diamond's book has popularized a set of answers to questions anthropologists have been wrestling with for ages, anthropologists lack a pithy response that can raise the discipline's profile and outline Diamond's successes and errors. I'd argue that geography has even more of a GG&S problem, as Diamond's explanations are all explicitly geographical, in both senses of the word -- that is, they are based on spatial relations among places and on human-environment interactions. It's been a few years since I read GG&S, so my recall of the details of the argument may be sketchy. But as one of the few geographer-bloggers, I thought I'd take a stab at it.

First, what Diamond got right: he is correct to point out that the environment influences the course of history, and that racial superiority is not a valid explanation. He's also right that technological superiority was a necessary condition for the emergence of a dominant civilization. And I have no quarrel with his explanation of the role of disease in the conquest of America and the Pacific.

Second, knocking Diamond down to size: he, and many of his supporters, exaggerate the originality of his thesis. Most of the supporting arguments he uses are drawn from decades of work by archaeologists and human ecologists (and the ones that are more original, like the "continental axes" thesis, are the weakest). Diamond's contribution was not a de novo theory, but a synthesis that brought together a set of existing arguments and declared them to be a reasonably complete explanation. It should also be noted that (contra Diamond's explicit claim), his theory is not the sole alternative to racism.

Now, to the meat of my disagreement. As I see it, the main problem with Diamond's thesis is that he reaches too far back in history to find the roots of Euro-American dominance. He traces the current power imbalance back to the arrangement of continents and biota that prevailed at the dawn of "civilization" some 10,000 years ago. Diamond makes much of Pizarro's easy victory over the Incas, treating it as the proof in the pudding of the superiority that Europe had achieved. But even as Europe was laying the smackdown on the Americas, it was desperately trying to catch up to the much more advanced civilizations of India, China, and the Middle East. It wasn't until the the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was in full swing, that we can say with confidence that (western) Europe was the world's dominant power (see Andre Gunder Frank's ReOrient). This suggests that a historically contingent explanation is likely to be better than one positing a long-standing inevitability.

Diamond begins with pointing out that Eurasia alone among the continents has a long east-west axis. Domesticated plants and animals move much more easily within a climate/ecological zone than across them. This allowed greater exchange of crops and animals between Eurasian peoples, and hence greater exchange of technologies and disease. Jim Blaut rebuts the axis thesis, pointing out that north-south commerce was much better developed than Diamond lets on. More importantly, the great Eurasian axis is a myth -- while Europe and China may have comparable climates, they are separated by thousands of miles of desert, mountains, and jungle. I would add here that Diamond too easily conflates the Middle East -- where he locates the origins of European dominance -- with Europe itself. The climate of Europe, and in particular the countries of northwestern Europe which were to dominate the world, is far different from that of Mesopotamia and the Levant, despite the two being supposedly on the same climatic axis. (Indeed, the difference is comparable to the difference between Mexico and New England -- yet Diamond makes much of the difficulty of spreading maize northward in order to explain why the US did not develop a powerful indigenous civilization.)

Diamond goes on to argue that Eurasia -- and in particular the Middle East -- had a much superior endowment of domesticable plants and animals. I don't have the expertise to evaluate this claim in detail, and in the case of animals -- most critically the horse -- I suspect he's onto something. But I'll just note in passing that while the Americas were home to only two major staple crops, peoples across the Old World quickly exchanged their native grains for maize and potatoes following Columbus's voyage.

But let's accept for the sake of argument Diamond's thesis. Eurasia was doubly blessed -- it was both the largest continent and the one with the best single endowment of domesticables. Now why, of all the countries in Eurasia, did western Europe come out on top? Neither the continental axis nor the biotic endowment seem helpful, as western Europe was neither a heartland of domestication like China nor a crossroads of exchange like Central Asia. Here Diamond introduces another element of geography: capes and bays. Europe, he argues, is dissected into numerous peninsulas which prevent political unification, while China's contiguous landmass made it easy for a single emperor to dominate. Thus Chinese advance could be easily stifled by the centralized bureaucracy, while international competition drove Europe's innovation. If there's anything to this claim of Oriental Despotism as the proximate cause, it's hard to see peninsulas as the underlying driver. The sea need not be a barrier to political unity -- see, for example, the Roman Empire or the Swedish circum-Baltic empire. On the other hand, the late unification of Germany and the continued independence of the Low Countries indicates that an unbroken plain is no proof against disunity. And moving east, while China is indeed a single large landmass (albeit broken up by mountains and deserts), if we look a little north and a little south, we find regions of peninsulas and islands comparable to Europe in Japan-Korea and Southeast Asia-Indonesia. These regions were equally semi-peripheral to the late mideval world system and politically fragmented, yet neither of them went on to dominate the world.

Any geographical explanation of Europe's eventual victory must be more subtle. Direct causality by a major landscape feature runs into the obstacle that China and India were the world's leaders until very recently. Whatever caused Europe's rise must have delayed effects, or become relevant only with the emergence of industrialization.

As Janet Abu-Lughod points out (in Before European Hegemony), western Europe's very isolation from the centers of disease was a factor in its rise. When the Black Death and its associated economic depression hit in the 14th century, western Europe was sheltered from the worst ravages by its lack of integration with the world economy. Yet it was just connected enough that it could parlay this advantage into a leg-up in the next round of global economic growth and integration.

Furthermore, Europe's semi-peripherality motivated it to look west, first for a route to China that would cut out the Islamic middle-men, and then for an even more peripheral land that Europe could exploit for goods and raw materials with which to buy its way into the Chinese-Indian economy, positioning itself to sieze the advantage in the shakeup that accompanied the beginning of the industrial revolution.

I should note that an explanation of this crisis-response form introduces another factor into history: chance. Europe's rise was perhaps not quite such an inevitability as either Diamond or the racists he criticizes think it was. C.S. Holling's model of the adaptive cycle is informative here. Holling argues that all systems (and he has produced detailed mathematical and empirical evidence for this in the case of ecological systems) go through cycles of buildup, crisis, and reconfiguration. The progress of buildup is deterministic and predictable. But during the "backloop" of recovery from crisis, the system is much more open and unpredictable. Varying endowments of the "capital" released by the crisis, and influences from systems at higher and lower scales, certainly influence how the system is reconstructed. But there remains a role for chance and for small events to push the system into quite different directions. The rise of Europe thus can be seen not as a historical inevitability, but as partially the result of happening to sieze the advantage during the world system's backloops.

As you can see by the length of this post, I haven't produced the pithy response to GG&S necessary to solve geography's "GG&S problem." In part, it's because I lack an alternative sweeping explanation for world history. But I think pointing out the relative recency of Europe's rise, and hence questioning its historical inevitability and future persistence, is a start.


Forms of Ecofeminism

This is not meant to be a definitive or expert post, but rather an organization of what I've gleaned from various readings to help myself make sense of it.

In its broad sense, "ecofeminism" can refer to the idea that women have some sort of special connection to nature. This typically means that women have better knowledge of nature, and are more competent at sustainable human-nature interactions. As I see it, there are four basic theories about what this special connection entails and how it comes about.

The Essentialist position is often referred to as "ecofeminism" in a narrower sense. Essentialists argue that women are basically hardwired for understanding nature. This position typically entails a sweeping vision of the uniqueness of female thought and practice, holding that women are holistic, non-dominating, and cyclical thinkers and actors. Thus Essentialists rely on a particular view of what nature is -- specifically that it's best reflected in women's way of thinking rather than the opposite mindset held by men. The exact cause of the gender difference in ways of thinking is unclear, though it's often linked to motherhood and menstruation, "natural" processes that women's bodies alone participate in. This view has been widely criticized for taking patriarchal assumptions about women's naturalness and irrationality, and putting a positive stamp on them. The essentialist view is criticized, and used as a strawman, out of proportion to the number of people who actually hold it.

The Psychoanalytic position is in some ways a subset of the Essentialist view. Psychoanalytic ecofeminists agree with the Essentialist view of the differences between male and female thought, and propose a particular mechanism to account for them. Rather than hardwiring, it's child development that gives women their special connection to nature. In the course of their development, boys are forced to break away from their mothers, defining themselves as different sorts of beings and joining the world of men, who can never embrace them in quite the all-encompassing way that a mother embraces her children. This experience of separation sets the foundation for a lifetime of thinking in terms of oppositions and conflict, which puts men at a disadvantage in connecting with nature.

The Shared Domination position emphasizes a more socially constructed female connection to nature, opening the possibility that ecofeminism is a historical phase resulting from patriarchy, rather than a gender universal. The Shared Domination argument says that both women and nature are oppressed by the current social system, and that this shared experience allows women to relate more closely to, if not nature itself, the domination of nature that environmentalists seek to address. The Shared Domination position has been important in drawing attention to the links between environmental destruction and patriarchy -- such as the way women's supposed greater naturalness has been used to justify their oppression. Yet there remains reason for skepticism about whether the link really results in women understanding nature better. After all, their shared experience of domination didn't make white feminists (at least initially) receptive to the concerns of racial minorities. Further, while empathy between oppressed people seems like a straightforward process, it's unclear to what extent such empathy is even possible, or produces useful knowledge, when the other dominated entity is something as different -- for example, in the sense of lacking consciousness -- from a human as nature.

The final variant of ecofeminism -- and the one I find most convincing -- is the Social Position view. This view starts with the premise that practical day-to-day involvement with something will result in gaining knowledge about it and placing importance on it. Societies around the world give different sets of tasks to men and women, thus cultivating different knowledge spheres. In many cases women are given tasks that involve more direct work with nature -- for example, in many areas of the third world women are left to tend the farm while men seek out urban industrial jobs. Social Position ecofeminism also points out that it's not merely a matter of having greater or lesser connection to nature, but of different types of connection. So men in a society might have a great deal of knowledge of, and concern for, cash crops, while women understand how things affect the medicinal plants that they gather and can advocate for that aspect of nature to be taken into consideration.

Gristmill Notices Cultural Theory

Today's exciting discovery is that Dave Roberts at Gristmill has linked to my Wikipedia article on the Cultural Theory of Risk*. Roberts takes the political upshot of Cultural Theory to be a matter of framing. Just showing the other side our facts isn't enough, because the facts are often not fully conclusive while worldviews are deeply entrenched and good at filtering out information that doesn't fit. (Note, though, that Cultural Theory does include a Kuhnian theory of surprises, in which overwhelming contrary evidence can shift someone into a different bias -- unfortunately most modern environmental issues lack the prospect of that kind of smack-you-in-the face falsification until it's too late.) Roberts argues that to make progress, we need to make environmentalist concerns resonate with Individualist and Hierarchist worldviews**.

Left there, Roberts' use of Cultural Theory seems prone to slip into the sort of marketing approach too often seen in the framing debate -- that we need different terminology to sell our ideas to other people. But Cultural Theory -- in particular the work of Michael Thompson -- offers a more complex political approach. Thompson argues strongly that a society dominated by one bias is doomed to failure. Rather, each bias has its strengths and weaknesses, which can be mixed and balanced over space, time, and issue to produce a more resilient society. Here he draws closer to Alan Fiske's conception of a reportoire of basic models of social interaction, rather than the Douglas and Wildavsky theory of all-encompassing ways of life.

What this means for environmentalists, then, is that reaching out to other sectors of society is not just about speaking their language so that we can form an overlapping consensus on Egalitarian-desired policies. We need to listen to the values of Hierarchists and Individualists and recognize what they have that's of merit. The fact that our current society has too much Hierarchism and Individualism and not enough Egalitarianism can't become an excuse for an Egalitarianism uber alles strategy, even a culturally sophisticated framing-based one.

*I also recently wrote an article on risk perception, which puts Cultural Theory in a broader context.

**As I pointed out in Wikipedia, Cultural Theory's empirical confirmation has been weak. Douglas and Wildavsky's claim that environmentalists are Egalitarian was one of the first components to be challenged, with some people pointing out that most of the major environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club or NRDC, have a very Hierarchist organization (and most anti-environmentalist argument is based on the idea that environmentalists are big-government Hierarchists). Yet of all the claims of Cultural Theory, the claim of a correlation between general Egalitarian attitudes and concern with environmental issues has held up most strongly in empirical tests. This perhaps casts some doubt on Cultural Theory's close link between social structure and worldview, if the Sierra Club bureaucracy can be filled with Egalitarians.


Interesting Roberts Clarification

Via the Commons Blog, I found this SCOTUS Blog post, which goes into more detail on Roberts' toad dissent. If SCOTUS Blog is right, environmentalists have less to worry about than they thought. It looks like the court upheld the Endangered Species Act protection on the grounds that the housing development that was going to kill the toads was interstate commerce -- a somewhat less stretched definition of "interstate commerce." Roberts said that whether the killer is interstate commerce is beside the point. What needs to be decided -- and he claimed to be open to the possibility -- is whether the species itself has an impact on interstate commerce. In other words, Roberts is asking that the case be argued on the very grounds that environmentalists want to use, the stretching of "interstate commerce" to cover things that have several-degrees-removed impacts on interstate commerce.

Causality And Blame

I've noticed an interesting flip-flop in some right-wing discussions of terrorism after the murder of a man by British police in the Underground.

The normal right-wing position on terrorism is that the proximate cause of a terrorist act bears full responsibility, while underlying causes bear none. Things that disposed or motivated al-Qaida toward terrorism -- such as US mideast policy -- are innocent, because the terrorists themselves could have chosen not to kill anyone despite the provocation.

Yet one of the right-wing responses to the Underground murder takes the opposite view. The proximate cause -- the police -- is innocent, and we should blame the underlying cause -- terrorists -- that provoked the police to shoot. The arguments are thus ostensibly about apportioning the blame between proximate and ultimate causes, but the inconsistency of the rhetoric in different situations suggests that the real principle underlying the opinions is that blame should always fall on the Other and never on "one of us." (The charge that left-wingers make the opposite mistake by always blaming one of us and never the Other is a straw man -- I have yet to meet anyone of any political leaning who would claim that the terrorists are innocent.)

A better approach to apportioning blame would draw on expected utility theory. We should recognize that blame is not a zero-sum game. Blame is proportional to the magnitude of the harm, and to the amount that a person's actions raised the probability of the harm occurring relative to the best choice available to them. Thus the proximate causes of both the terrorist bombing and the police shooting bear the maximum blame for those outcomes, since they had the option of ensuring that the harm would not occur (by not pulling the detonator/trigger), but chose the option that guaranteed it would occur. The underlying causes, on the other hand, bear blame in proportion to the amount they raised the probability of the harm. In the case of the shooting, this is a fairly large share, as my impression is that pre-al-Qaida British police were fairly gentle, while ratcheting up security -- with the risks of false shootings that it brings -- was a reasonable thing to expect in the wake of a terrorist attack. Of course, even a large fraction of the blame for a single innocent death is dwarfed by the blame the terrorists bear for being the proximate causes of thousands of deaths. And insofar as blame is not a zero-sum game, blaming the terrorists does nothing to exonerate the police. (Note that another right-wing response to the shooting is consistent with this approach -- the claim that it was reasonable for the police to think the man was a terrorist and would detonate a bomb if they didn't kill him. Here I simply disagree with the assessment of the facts.)

The Weakness Of Environmentalist Use Of The Commerce Clause

While most of the criticism of John Roberts has focused on his views on abortion, the environmental blogosphere has been tossing around the question of his views of the Commerce Clause. Most federal environmental legislation is justified on the grounds that it constitutes regulation of interstate commerce. Many conservatives have challenged the constitutionality of these laws based on a narrower reading of the commerce clause.

The main evidence that Roberts is among those conservatives comes from a dissent he wrote arguing that the EPA has no right to extend Endangered Species protection to a toad whose range does not cross state lines. Whether this means Roberts would support sweeping reinterpretations of the commerce clause is unclear, but certainly he would be likely to narrow the margins of the environmental regulations that the federal government is entitled to put in place.

This would be a straightforward case of opposing an anti-environment judge -- except that Roberts' reasoning is hard to argue with on procedural grounds. Protecting a Californian toad is only very tenuously related to the idea of interstate commerce. If the toad can be covered by the commerce clause, then pretty much anything can, and so the idea of ennumerated powers goes out the window. Some environmental law -- such as the regulation of transboundary pollution -- fits easily within a reasonable reading of the words "interstate commerce," and the clause's vision of the federal government as mediator among the states.

I support the basic body of environmental law in place in this country. And I think that any modern government ought to have the power to make such laws. I think most Americans would agree that environmental laws are a legitimate function of the federal government. If we were writing a new constitution from scratch, I think we would most likely be able to get a clause in it explicitly granting Congress the power to pass environmental laws.

The problem, though, is that the constitution that we actually have is rather more conservative than the body of laws that rest on it. For most of the past half-century we have been lucky enough to have a judiciary liberal enough to recognize the moral right to environmental regulation, and to treat the constitution as a tool for achieving justice rather than as a constraint on pursuing justice. The courts cut us enough slack in interpreting the constitution that no amendment was necessary to formally expand the government's powers. But by taking that quick and easy route, we made ourselves dependent on a body of precedent advancing a sometimes very strained view of the commerce clause. That basis is vulnerable to a shift to a judiciary with a substantive preference for less environmental law and a willingness to take a narrower view of what the commerce clause entails in order to achieve that.

This is a persistent problem for those who go too far in blurring the line between what the constitution should say and what it does say. The words of any document will always lack the sharp precision implied by facile theories that you should just "look at what it says" -- and all the more so for a document as old and as general as the constitution. But at the same time, words do have central as well as more peripheral senses. Insisting that a right is already in the constitution can be effective in the short run. But the more the derivation relies on peripheral meanings, the more vulnerable it is to changing interpretations. The farther out you are from the central meaning of a clause, the more likely that a change in the size or shape of the boundaries someone will draw on its meaning will overturn your interpretation.


Liberals Against Kelo

Alyssa Katz tries to throw some cold water on the liberal-conservative alliance forged in the wake of the Supreme Court's Kelo decision that eminent domain could be used to sieze property to give to private developers. Both conservative defenders of property rights against government interference, and liberals concerned about government giveaways to corporations have pushed for federal and state level measures to blunt the impact of Kelo. Katz has two arguments as to why liberals should abandon the project:

First is the slippery slope argument. The conservatives pushing anti-Kelo measures have a much more sweeping agenda of property rights protections, aiming to curtail not just siezure but also regulation, such as zoning and environmental laws. As bad as some abuses of eminent domain may be, Katz says, banning them would be the camel's nose under the tent for the conservative property rights movement. She's right that, in their urge to undermine Kelo, liberals shouldn't allow too-broad measures to be slipped through. But I don't think the slope is as slippery as she makes it out to be. And I worry about this kind of politics of spite, where we eschew bipartisanship on the issue at hand because we disagree about what to do down the road.

Second, she offers a version of the heightening the contradictions argument. Armed with a reversal of Kelo, communities can sit back and obstruct development projects. But without such measures, communities would be forced to take a proactive stance and negotiate agreements that let development occur, while securing compensating benefits for those who are displaced. Certainly negotiating win-win development deals is a good thing. But to suggest that Kelo is just the kick in the pants that communities need to get moving is bizarre. With Kelo in place, what incentive does the government have to negotiate? The powerful government-corporate alliance can run roughshod over even the most organized community. But anti-Kelo measures would level the playing field, giving communities the leverage they need to get the government and developers to the table and secure a deal favorable to their interests. Anti-Kelo measures coudl give people the realistic hope of success that's necessary to turn fatalism into activism.


A Wind-Powered Wal-Mart

A while back I posted that while Wal-Mart's decision to get into the wilderness conservation business was all well and good, it would be much better if they reduced the actual impact of their stores. Now Organic Matter points out that they're making some small steps in that direction. Good for them, and I hope that Wal-Mart's dominant position makes these kind of things standard industry practice.

The Trouble With Anselm

Joe Carter is doing a series of posts on philosophical arguments for God. His latest is on the Ontological argument. The Ontological argument boils down to the assertion that a perfect (or "maximally great," in the terminology of Alvin Plantinga's reformulation, which Carter prefers) being necessarily exists, since existence is more perfect/greater than nonexistence, and necessary existence is more perfect/greater than contingent existence.

One of the most famous objections was made by Gaunilo, who asserted that by the same logic, the perfect island must exist. Carter points to the Wikipedia article for a refutation:

Such objections always depend upon the accuracy of the analogy. That is, we must be able to show that the objector's argument is sufficiently like the ontological argument for us to be able to conclude that if one works so must the other. There are at least two problems with Gaunilo's version, though. First, what exactly is the concept of the perfect island — the island than which no greater can be conceived? In any group of people, there will be disagreements as to what makes an island perfect; there will be different preferences concerning size, climate, inhabitants, food-availability, etc. There is no single concept of a perfect island, because perfection here can only mean what is perfect for us, rather than perfect in itself. The notion of the perfect being, however, isn't relativised to any individual; it's the notion of a being that is maximally great — not for me or for you, but great, full stop.

... Gaunilo might respond that he means to refer to an island that is perfect in itself, without reference to us. Now, what is an island? It's a body of land surrounded by water. But every island is a body of land surrounded by water (if it weren't, it wouldn't be an island); so every island is a perfect island (every island is perfectly an island). Here, the disanalogy arises because whatever example Gaunilo chooses, it will be a being of a particular type – such a pizza, a pencil, or a Prime Minister – and so its perfection will be relative to that type. In the case of Anselm's premise, though, we're not concerned with a being of this type or that type, but just with a being — a being than which no greater can be conceived.

Gaunilo's hypothetical rebuttal is right on the mark. There is no reason to define the perfection of the island as subjective, but the perfection of God as objective. For either entity, people will dispute what makes it perfect. (I'll note in passing that defining God as perfect doesn't seem to give much aid to Christians, as the God described in the Bible seems awfully imperfect.) On the other hand, one of the few aspects of perfection that most people would aggree to is that a thing that exists is superior to one that does not. So regardless of what other qualities would make an island or being perfect, we can agree that existence is among them.

The reply to the hypothetical rebuttal shifts the definitions enough to make Gaulino's argument empty -- but at the price of making the Ontological argument for God empty as well. The Wikipedia writer argues that a perfect island is not an island perfect in all respects (its climate, its government, etc.), but merely an island that is perfect in its islandness, an island that is perfectly an island. Thus everything that can be unambiguously labeled an island (i.e., once we exclude areas that, for example, are separated from the mainland only at high tide) is a perfect island.

But if we revise the definition of "a perfect X" to be "a thing which is perfectly an X" in the case of islands, we have to keep this definition when we talk about beings as well. Thus the perfect being would be anything that is perfectly a being. Now, I am undoubtedly a being. Therefore I am perfectly a being -- I have all the qualities which define beings. So we have no need to posit the existence of an omnipotent creator in order to satisfy the Ontological argument, since we already have over 6 billion perfect beings running around.


Harry Plamer II

I had a brief moment of hope when I saw that Bush had finally nominated a replacement for O'Connor on the Supreme Court. But the early blogospheric reaction is depressing. The emerging consensus on the left side seems to be that we can't let the court distract us from Rove/Plame. Maybe people will come to their senses -- after all, nothing energizes partisans like a good fight over abortion -- but if not, it's a telling indictment of the soul of modern liberalism. We're faced with a choice of two battles: On one hand, one that gives us the chance to define the contrast between the two parties' visions for the country, and which will shape jurisprudence on countless issues for decades. On the other hand, a battle that will at most bring down one or two bad apples from an otherwise unscathed conservative movement. And yet people seem to want to prioritize the latter.


Harry Plamer and the Half-Blood Presidential Advisor

Every now and then the blogosphere will get fixated on some issue I can't bring myself care about, and thereby drastically cut down the number of posts I have to read. The first big one was the California Governor's recall. Then there was the nonsense about Bush and Kerry's Vietnam records. But now we've got a two-fer: Harry Potter and Plame-Rove. If I ignore those two, I'm left with only a handful of posts that are worth my time. Unfortunately this comes at just the time that I could use a good excuse to procrastinate.


Misguided Deforestation Policy

Biodiversivist at Gristmill has a post up asserting the popular conclusion that poverty causes desperate third-worlders to chop down all their forests, and thus that aggressive use of force to protect conservation areas (combined with some unspecified anti-poverty measure) is necessary to save the environment. At some point in the near future I'll hopefully get my notes together to write a more coherent post on the causes of deforestation. For the moment I'll leave it at pointing out that one of the most common processes seems to be the entry of commercial logging, which creates roads and does the hard work of getting most of the trees out of the way, after which government resettlement programs send poor urbanites out into the forest, where they turn logged areas and other areas along logging roads into permanent cropland or pasture.

For now, I'll just make mention of a process somewhat the inverse of the "poverty causes deforestation" thesis. In many cases we see that rigid conservation policies of the type advocated by biodiversivist can cause or reinforce poverty. In precolonial times, the people of the third world typically made use of most of the landscape, albeit at different intensities in different areas. Colonial and post-colonial governments, fearing the degrading effects of human presence, took areas below a minimum threshold of intensity of use (as measured by the amount of human alteration of the environment visible to them) and made them off-limits to any human use, herding everyone into more compact "civilized" settlements. In many areas this made it difficult for people living near the new reserves to access non-timber forest products, such as mushrooms or small-diameter wood, thus lowering their standard of living.

Another damaging result of the creation of conservation reserves relates to the depredations of animals. Elephants, babboons, and other animals will sometimes come out of the woods and trample or eat crops, causing serious losses for farmers. Ordinarily, the response to this would be to kill problem animals, pursuing them into non-agricultural areas if necessary. However, the advent of conservation reserves put these strategies off-limits, as the animals were deemed to belong to the reserve and hence could not be killed. What's more, the worst-off people are the worst hurt, as their lack of money and clout leaves them stuck with the land closest to the borders of the reserves.


The Dark Side Of The Benefits Of Climate Change

This is a very interesting story, though my thoughts on it are pretty scattered and preliminary:

The Food, the Bad, and the Ugly

A small but growing body of research is finding that elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, while increasing crop yield, decrease the nutritional value of plants. More than a hundred studies, for example, have found that when CO2 from fossil-fuel burning builds up in plant tissues, nitrogen (essential for making protein) declines. A smaller number of studies hint at another troubling impact: As atmospheric CO2 levels go up, trace elements in plants (such as zinc and iron, which are vital to animal and human life) go down, potentially malnourishing all those that subsist on the plants.

... Scientists have isolated two mechanisms that potentially explain how elevated CO2 levels reduce plant nutrients. The first is a "biomass dilution" effect. As plants absorb more airborne carbon, they produce higher-than-normal levels of carbohydrates but are unable to boost their relative intake of soil nutrients. The result of this dilution effect is increased yields of carbohydrate-rich fruits, vegetables, and grains that contain lower levels of macro- and micronutrients. Put simply, a bite of bread in our current CO2 atmosphere ends up being more nutritious than one in the CO2-enriched atmosphere of the future.

A second problem: Plants exposed to increased CO2 levels start to narrow the stomata through which they inhale CO2 and exhale water vapor via transpiration. This benefits plants by making them more drought resistant, but it also means that fewer waterborne nutrients flow into the roots.

This process seems so obvious once it's explained that I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it -- I suppose I've just been too quick to minimize the yield increases from increased CO2 since that point is most often raised by people who have shown a remarkably poor grasp of other aspects of climate change.

Avoiding increased CO2 is looking more and more like a pipe dream, so the big question is how we can adapt to this problem. The obvious technophilic answer is genetic engineering to address the stomata-narrowing, and fertilizers to address the dilution. Both of these, however, present serious political-economic problems, most notably in increasing the power of multinational agricultural companies. And at present it's the political economy of food and land access, not the volume of food production, that's the major cause of hunger.

Another interesting route is that the increased yields may allow for an undoing of the green revolution. The main effect of the green revolution was to increase the caloric output of crops. This had the benefit of reducing starvation, but brought a number of costs -- farmers are beholden to the companies that supply their seeds and fertilizer, and they wind up monocropping (which is both bad for the ecology of the region and increases vulnerability to disturbances like pests and weather). What I've heard from people doing ethnographic research is that the farmers themselves are similarly ambivalent about the relative merits of the switch.

Increased CO2, however, could increase yields of pre-green-revolution crops so that they were comparable to those of green revolution crops under current CO2 concentrations. Thus they would get an output boost comparable to the current green revolution, while avoiding the overproduction of empty calories that would result from combining green revolution crops and increased CO2. At the same time, the crops would be more adapted to local conditions and more suitable for intercropping, which would reduce vulnerability to disturbances and perhaps even result in more efficient uptake of micronutrients from the local soil.


Moving The Goalposts In Evolutionary Psychology

I'm not usually in the habit of refereeing other bloggers' disputes, but a recent exchange between Todd Zywicki and PZ Myers got under my skin. Zywicki started things off by drawing an implicit parallel between conservative opposition to evolution and liberal opposition to evolutionary psychology. He challenges liberals to answer four questions. In the interest of getting my views on the table, I'll take a moment to answer:

1. Are differences between men's and women's aptitudes solely a result of society and culture, or is there an evolutionary basis for some of those distinctions?
Of course there are evolutionary differences between men and women. But these differences are 1) very small compared with the range of interpersonal variability, and 2) heavily mediated by culture. It's usually a mistake to see genetics as the proximate cause of any human behavior (particularly controversial or politically significant behavior).

2. Do you think that schools should expose children to the scientific hypothesis that evolution has produced innate differences between men and women that partially explains differences in interests and aptitudes, or should they teach that all differences are socially-constructed?
Schools should not be in the business of exposing children to hypotheses -- after all, there are countless scientific hypotheses out there. Schools should be in the business of teaching 1) how science works, and 2) the content of scientific theory -- that is, those hypotheses that have stood up to a great deal of scientific scrutiny and been accepted by most experts in the field.

3. Do you believe that Harvard's faculty was correct in censuring President Larry Summers for offering the hypothesis that differential performance by men and women in math and science achievement at elite universities may be in part the result of differential distribution of natural abilities in math and science between men and women at several standard deviations above the mean?
Summers didn't offer a hypothesis. He asserted a conclusion (albeit couched in some weasel words). And he did so in his capacity as President of Harvard, thus implying that Harvard's training and hiring of scientists would be based on the view that differences in achievement are innate (and hence there's nothing the university can do about them).

4. Do you believe that the theory of evolution applies to the evolution of mental traits as well as physiological traits?
It depends on what you mean by "traits." Certainly the brain has evolved the trait of being flexible and programmable. But it's clearly incorrect to say that all of the ideas, inclinations, and thought processes in the brain are hard-wired by evolution.

PZ Myers responded with a set of answers largely similar to mine, then declared (in his characteristically nasty way) evolutionary psychology to be "a load of poorly done hokum." Let's pause here for a definitional clarification. In his first three questions, Zywicki implicitly defined EP as the claim that there are significant differences in aptitude between the sexes, and that these differences are evolved. This definition -- let's call it EP1 -- is consistent with the issues at stake in most punditry on EP (and with my definition of EP in an earlier post). Myers' argument is that EP1 is at best controversial, and at worst rejected, among those scientists who study these things.

Zywicki updated his original post, charging that Myers's dismissal of EP1 meant that he must disagree with a whole host of widely-accepted findings, such as "the innate ability to acquire culture, the unusual degree of plasticity of human minds relative to other species, ... [and] an innate ability to detect intentionality." Here we see a clear shifting of the goalposts. Zywicki is now talking about evolutionary psychology as implicitly defined in his fourth question -- the more general claim (call it EP2) that the human brain is the result of evolution. There's no reason that rejection of EP1 entails rejection of EP2 -- indeed, Myers's post asserted as fact several of the claims Zywicki lists for EP2, and it's Myers's very commitment to a strong version of those EP2 claims about the evolved flexibility of the brain that leads him to reject EP1's claims of detailed hardwiring. He even links approvingly to an interview with David J. Buller, who makes a distinction between "Evolutionary Psychology" (EP1) and "evolutionary psychology" (EP2), declaring only the former to be bad science.

After Myers unleashes some ad hominem in the comments to his own post, Zywicki accuses him of a move similar to that made by Intelligent Design proponents -- picking at disputes and questionable conclusions on the edges of a paradigm in order to impugn the validity of its core. This is only a correct assessment of Myers's argument if you insist on taking "EP1 is bunk, EP2 is fine" to mean "both EP1 and EP2 are bunk." And Zywicki seems to be advocating a move that's just the reverse of the IDers' strategy. He's claiming that since the core of the EP paradigm (EP2) is solid, then controversial propositions at its fringe (EP1) must be true as well.


Ecoterrorism Exists

This article from Grist does a passable job of explaining how the rhetoric of terrorism has been used against environmentalists (though interestingly, in its quotes from right-wing firebrands, you see just as many references to socialism, showing that despite Ronald Regan's singlehanded overthrow of the Soviet Union, the red scare is alive and well in the red states). It's correct to point out the dangers of slippage between criminal environmental organizations like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and law-abiding organizations like the Sierra Club, and to question our government's prioritizing of ecoterrorism. But it goes a bit too far in suggesting that the actions of ELF are not ecoterrorism:

For some, broadening the term "terrorist" to include organizations like ELF is bad for both environmentalists and for our sense of what real terror is. "These people are not environmentalists, they're arsonists," says Eric Antebi, a Sierra Club spokesperson. Antebi also rejects the idea that ELF's actions constitute real terrorism. "Eco-terrorism is not a legitimate phrase -- it cheapens what real terrorism is. We have seen in this country the real forms that terrorism takes," he says.

Clearly ELF is not as bad as al-Qaida -- the former has killed nobody, the latter has launched attacks so spectacular that they altered the course of history. But ELF still fits the definition of "terrorism" better than it fits that of "arson." The key element of terrorism is that it's meant to generate fear all out of proportion to the actual damage done. This is exactly ELF's goal. We impoverish our language if we take "terrorism" to mean only acts basically similar to September 11 -- the result of which is either to fail to see some terror-inducing violence as terrorism, or to treat other forms of terrorism as if they were similar to September 11. In criticizing right-wingers for making the second mistake, Antebi falls into the first.


Evolutionary Psychology: The New Environmental Determinism?

There's been some talk recently about evolutionary psychology -- the theory that modern human behavior, especially that surrounding sex and the family, has been hardwired into our brains by evolution. The stereotypical form of explanation is to show how some phenomenon in modern social life would have contributed to greater survival or reproductive success on the prehistoric African savanna. It occurred to me that envolutionary psychology (EP) bears some interesting resemblances to environmental determinism (ED), a long-discredited theory in geography.

As I discuss it here, ED refers to the theory, popular in the early part of the 20th century, that differences between societies were the result of influences from the physical environment (in particular the climate). The basic explanation is that environmental influences altered individual psychology, and hence the differences in environments across the world led to the differentiation of humans into races. These racial differences then explained differences in level of cultural achievement and predicted which nations would win the inevitable struggle for dominance.

(I'll note in passing that this racial-psychological ED is not the only form of explanation of environmental influences on society -- though its specter is often used to scare people away from examining that link. An economic-cultural ED was popular among Marxists during the heyday of ED, arguing that the biophysical environment determined the range of choices available to a society, thus affecting its economic development. This theme was reinvented in the mid-20th century by the cultural ecologists, who proposed a version both more sophisticated but also more inclined to treat environmental influences as positive. The key difference is that economic-cultural ED sees the human brain as a flexible and open-ended system that is thus able to reprogram itself, i.e. change the learned software, quickly enough that selection pressure is not strongly exerted on the underlying hardware.)

The most "immediate" form of ED was held mostly among laypeople such as colonial officials. In some cases they believed that environmental influences could alter personality within the scope of a single lifetime. So a European moving to the tropics might find himself (or at least his children) growing lazy about work and passionate about sex.

In academic circles, the mechanism was slowed down enough that racial characteristics could be treated, within the scope of reasonable policy horizons, as fixed. So Europeans and Africans coming to America would bring with them the biological adaptive legacy of their ancestral environments. Change might eventually occur (Ellen Semple's most famous study being of how the Appalachian environment turned proud Anglo-Saxons into mere rednecks), but only over many generations.

EP has taken this one step further, pushing the adaptational mechanisms back to our shared past on the African savanna. In EP, no group has spent enough time in any subsequent environment to have adapted in any significant way. We share a universal human nature shaped by a shared ancestral environment. Rather than focus on inter-societal (racial) differences, EP is interested in intra-societal differences (especially sex) and universal traits. It's the same type of explanation -- a theory that an autonomous cultural sphere shaping the expression of biological characteristics is relatively thin, and that behavior has a relatively proximate cause in biologically evolved structures.



Thanks to John Cooley's attempt to add me to the UU news aggregator, I discovered that my RSS feed was broken. I fixed it, so if you've tried to read my blog via RSS and failed, give it another try.


Supreme Court Fatalism

Ampersand has a post up making a pretty convincing case that the Democrats and liberals have already lost the fight over Sandra Day O'COnnor's* replacement on the Supreme Court. By losing Senate elections, they've put themselves in a position where they lack the power to block anyone Bush proposes. In the comments, three arguments have come up as to why Democrats and liberals should keep fighting. I think one of those arguments makes sense. But first, my view on the Democrats' dim hopes.

With only 44 seats plus Jeffords, the Democrats lack the votes to defeat a Bush pick in an up-or-down vote -- even in the extremely unlikely case that they manage complete party discipline. The prospects of a significant number of defectors from the GOP side is likewise slim. Bush and Frist will be leaning on the rest of the party hard, and if he's clever -- which he is -- Bush won't pick someone so controversial that moderate Republicans and those in more vulnerable seats will be unable to support.

What about the filibuster? Assuming party discipline, and in the extremely unlikely event the GOP doesn't use the nuclear option, the Democrats have enough votes to filibuster. But merely staving off cloture is not enough. A filibuster is a stalling tactic, so it depends on the other side being willing to eventually back down. As Lani Guinier has pointed out, simple majority rule is all well and good when everyone can expect to be in the majority sometimes, but when there's a permanent minority group, you could wind up with 49% of the people getting their way 0% of the time. The filibuster is one mechanism that can let a minority pick an issue or two and push the majority into saying "geez, if it means that much to you, we'll let you have your way this one time." But it breaks down when the majority cares just as deeply about that issue. And there's no issue more important in modern politics than abortion**. The activism of the religious right will give the GOP courage in the face of a filibuster. And in losing the war to define the public discourse, Democrats have ensured that, should the fight drag out, they'll recieve the bulk of the blame.

Even should the first nominee be defeated through some improbable turn of events, the Democrats wouldn't have really accomplished anything. The next Justice has to be nominated by Bush, and he simply will not nominate anyone to the left of Rehnquist, because he knows he doesn't need Democratic votes. The fight will simply start all over again with a new face on the nominee, and with the public's patience for "obstructionism" wearing thin.

Now onto the arguments for why we should fight anyway. First is the "don't be discouraged by long odds" argument. It denies my and Amp's claim that there's no chance of victory, and cites the inspirational example of other fights that looked hopeless when they began but were ultimately won. Beyond simply repeating my arguments above about the impossibility of victory, there are two things to be said against this argument. First, that even more fights that looked hopeless at the beginning turned out to be, in fact, hopeless -- someone wins the lottery every day, but millions more lose it. Second, hopeless causes take a long time to win. But the fight over O'Connor's replacement has a time limit. The larger fight for a liberal Supreme Court and a secure right to abortion is a winnable long shot. But if you expand the definition of the fight in this way, you wind up making argument #3.

The second argument for continuing to fight is that futile resistance is noble. To go down fighting is presented as a virtuous act, whereas picking your battles is tantamount to allying with the pro-lifers. I simply cannot accept this kind of deontological vision. The goal is to secure the freedom and well-being of the American people by establishing a liberal set of laws, not to demonstrate our own tragic virtue. To fight a hopeless battle is a waste of resources.

The third argument is one I find much more convincing. It states that in fighting Bush's nominee, Democrats and liberals can build capital that can be used in future battles -- most immediately, the 2006 Congressional elections. (In a best case scenario, Rehnquist hangs on until late 2006, at which point the Democrats have picked up enough seats in the Senate to twist Bush's arm into nominating an O'Connor-esque moderate.) The Democratic leadership seems to take an inverse version of this view -- that by rolling over and supporting Bush's nominee, they can build capital with Republicans and moderate voters. But this strategy has failed in the past, and is sure to fail again if it's used on such an ideologically charged issue. It would reveal that Democrats are spineless and unprincipled. I propose, instead, that the nomination fight be used to build the image of the Democrats and liberals. We need to show ourselves to have a set of inspiring principles that we're willing to stand behind, and to reveal the GOP as pandering to unpopular and unsavory elements of the country. Unlike the deal-making and advantage-scrounging strategy suggested by the first argument, or the self-righteousness and resource-burning suggested by the second, this third argument pushes us toward a focus on reframing and on public outreach. And it puts a silver lining on the possible nomination of a wacky extremist, as such a person will make better political hay, thus somewhat outweighing their worse rulings.

*It's O'Connor, not O'Conner, people!

**And let's face it, abortion will be the one and only issue in the public battle, despite the hopes and fears many of us may have about what Bush's appointee will do to other areas of jurisprudence.



I know talking about Kelo is so last week, what with O'Connor retiring and all, but I just saw this nice cartoon about it.


Social Models and Consumerism

The commonsense notion that money can't buy happiness has been moving quickly from the status of proverb to that of scientific theory. We're increasingly realizing that interpersonal relationships are much more effective at producing happiness than material goods. Will Wilkinson summarizes an argument by Robert Lane as to why, if that's true, we continue to buy stuff:

What I take Lane to be saying is that companionship adds a subtle positive tone to experience, and we report ourselves much happier when our experience is shot through with that tone. The positive tone is the correlate of an objective organic good. (Not clear the way the causation goes here.) But the quality of the experience is subtle, the source is not easily attributable, and we quickly adapt to its absence, and so are not easily motivated to seek out its cause.

The hedonic surge from material consumption, however, is intense and immediate, and its source is easily attributable. However, due to habituation to the presence of new stuff, there is little lasting satisfaction from consumption. We'd be better off cultivating our relationships. However, because the fleeting hedonic payoff of consumption is more psychologically salient, we're more easily moved to go for a fresh consumption high. Thus, we'll tend to make ourselves less happy, and less healthy, as we consume.

That's certainly a plausible explanation. But why is it that relationships retain their happiness-producing power even when we start to take them for granted, while the happiness of stuff fades not just from our conscious perception but from our real psyche? Here I think our old friend Alan Fiske can help out again.

One of the core elements to Fiske's theory is that all four models of social interaction are inherently enjoyable. Thus, for example, Equality Matching isn't just a useful system for allocating things, it's also fun to engage in in and of itself. Thus we're missing the mark somewhat to think of the pleasures of consumerism as arising solely from the "stuff" itself or the act of posessing it. Certainly we generally must, to some degree, want the "stuff" for its own sake. But the strongest pleasures of consumerism are the pleasures of shopping, the pleasures of engaging in Market Pricing interactions with sellers.

Thus consumerism has a big burst of social interaction pleasure at the beginning, in the process of buying. But that quickly fades once the transaction is over. On the other hand, the social relationships that we're contrasting consumerism with -- hanging out with friends and family -- are continuous. Of all the social models, Market Pricing is least associated with ongoing social interaction. The proliferation of products and stores in our society aids and abets the tendency to have many one-off Market Pricing interaction. The pleasures of consumerism are renewed at a faster rate than the pleasures of relationships (you go to the store more often than you meet a new friend), so we're less habituated to them, and thus they produce the spikes of obvious utility that (as Lane theorizes) fool us into thinking that consumerism makes us happier on the whole.