Books by Usha Alexander

  • A lone woman travels fearlessly into the jungle to confront the enemy. She holds the fate of an entire world in her hands.

  • When Craig Olsen returns to Idaho to say goodbye to his dying uncle, who raised him, he comes face to face with matters he can no longer evade.

  • "A suspenseful narrative weaves the stories and secrets of two generations into one seamless drama ... a worthy literary journey." —Kirkus Discoveries

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October 27, 2007

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I was unaware of Watson's history of such statements until this episode broke. I also did not know about Bell's involvement with the ERO.

Eugenics originated with Francis Galton's ideas of measuring human intelligence. Galton, who was a cousin of Darwin, was a prolific and influential writer. Science and society have still not been able to see through the flaws in psychometry, Galton's contribution to human misery.

Even physicists are not immune to bizarre ideas about eugenics. The Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, was quite taken up with eugenics.


An eminently readable primer on the history of the measurement of human intelligence (which was the primary fuel for the fire of American eugenics) is an old classic by Stephen Jay Gould, "The Mismeasure of Man" from 1981. Though not without problems, I think it's still recommended for those more curious about the subject.


As for the likes of Dr.Watson and Shockley, I would like to propose the following test of their 'superior IQs'. Let's place them each a mile apart from a Kalahari bushmen in the Kalahari desert, provisioned with a couple of gallons of water and a day's worth of food. No compasses, no GPS. We'll determine their 'IQ' by seeing which of these three men will make it to a common station first.

Somehow, I think that the Bushman will prove the superiority of his race over that of Watson and Shockley in this test.


VP: If eugenics had two core components -- science, and how to apply science -- I suppose you mean to say that even physicists failed to recognize it as not-science. I agree with you there. But I submit that on the question of how to apply science (i.e., what social policies and laws to support), physicists have no better track record than your average grandma. Here, ironically, exposure to the humanities provides far better inoculation against bizarre ideas than an education in science.

Sujatha: Indeed, "IQ" is a highly flawed concept. It tests a certain kind of ability but it's folly to equate it with a broad measure of intelligence.

Even physicists are not immune to bizarre ideas about eugenics. The Nobel laureate and co-inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, was quite taken up with eugenics. : VP

But I submit that on the question of how to apply science (i.e., what social policies and laws to support), physicists have no better track record than your average grandma. Here, ironically, exposure to the humanities provides far better inoculation against bizarre ideas than an education in science. :Namit

My own opinion of James Watson and his foul mouth and mind was expressed in the discussion thread on 3QD that Namit has linked to. So I won't go there. But I would like to weigh in on the two comments above by VP and Namit respectively.

It is interesting how I see the difference in the premises on which the two statements are based. VP appears to find it strange that "even physicists" fall prey to harmful pseudo-science. But Namit, not surprisingly, seems to suggest that physicists, or generally all scientists, are especially prone to such pit falls given their limited knowledge of the world, having had no exposure to the uplifting and softening effects of the humanities.

I agree with VP and find much wrong with Namit's conclusion about the "socially arrested" brain of scientists. I do not agree that scientists know as much as the average grandma about the ethics of scientific applications. It will be a dark and dangerous day when scientists themselves are precluded from making decisions regarding the social applications of their discoveries and inventions by deferring solely to the decisions of humanist pundits.

Scientists may not be glib or given to making smooth and sparkling conversation on the "finer" matters of life in general, but most of them, especially those in the academia, are more thoughtful and ethical than the "average grandparent," politician and yes, even many of the honchos of the humanities. The idea that a scientist carries on his/ her work in a moral vacuum is patently false. This stereotype is repeatedly perpetrated in the media and by liberal authors ( Kurt Vonnegut's Felix Hoenikker, the inventor of Ice Nine) to the detriment of the public ever fully appreciating what scientists actually do - not just on the bench but in weighing the impact of their work on society. Racist statements by politicians, religious leaders, philosophers, social scientists, literary or artistic figures do not seem to taint their respective professions in a blanket manner in most people's minds. Yet whenever an egotist like Watson gets carried away by hubris to opine on matters which is not his bailiwick, the knee jerk reaction is to tar and feather "heartless" science rather than lay the blame where it belongs - at the doorstep of the flawed scientist. The funny thing is that religion, politics, to some extent philosophy (caste system, Chosen People, untermensh, infidels and the damned) and not science, have played the principal role in assigning special worth or "unworth" to humans and promoting and propagating our prejudices through the ages. Progress and enlightenment in science on the other hand, have been instrumental in chipping away at those self-serving, exploitative superstitions and for the democratization of the human race.

Take James Watson's own discovery for example. Cracking the structure of DNA has revealed to us that we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees. The Bible on the other hand assures us of ""complete dominion" over the earth and its creatures. Which one of the two ideas is more humbling and "humane?" It may be worthwhile to ponder if the arrogance of some scientists originates and ends in their scientific education or does it have to do with their cultural and "human" background? Was Mengele a Nazi or a scientist first? Is Watson's uncouth mindset a result of studying biology or having grown up as an elite in segregated America? How many of the American southern racists, German Nazis, imperial Japanese, Christian, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists are or were scientists? Arrogance derives from our culture - the humanities. Science has an unerring way of cutting us down to size and demystifying our existence. The fact that racists of all complexions across the world seek validation for their flawed philosophies in science is a long known phenomenon. And that some scientists go along with it or use their scientific acumen to further their own entrenched proclivities have their roots in religious and political culture, not in science. Exposing arrogant humans, scientists or not, to music, art, literature or philosophy is not a guarantee of ridding them of their pre-conceived pompous attitudes. After all, those very fields too bristle with insufferable windbags. The uproar that ensued after the report of Watson's ignoble "foot in the mouth" disease is explained precisely by the fact that he is a scientist. He should have known better.

And pray tell me what scientific text was Gandhi poring over when he wrote these articles?

I was betting you would come through on this one Ruchira, even though you are away on a trip. :-)

I'll first point out some misreadings of my words. I am not attacking science or scientists; far from it. Note that I compared scientists to grandmas. Hey I don't know about your grandma, but mine was a mighty nice person and I would never attack her. I also did not suggest that scientists are "especially prone to pitfalls" and should be "precluded from making decisions regarding the social applications of their discoveries and inventions". That's a big misrepresentation too. As in past discussions, you are being unduly defensive about science and scientists. Nor do I suggest that they work in a moral vacuum -- who does (as a group)? Yet, when it comes to making social policies, I would surely not privilege scientists over others simply by virtue of their professions. A scientist has to prove his mettle here just like any other educated non-scientist.

This is simply because, as Weinberg and other humbler scientists have themselves realized (unlike so many lay science enthusiasts), science deals with "is" questions, not "ought" questions. It is mighty important for us to be clear about the reach of science and humanize scientists. Science is about truth, not values. When it comes to "ought" questions, humanities can better inoculate scientists against bizarre ideas than their science education (*better*, not guaranteed). Even if genuine science underpinned eugenics, scientists would not automatically be better guides in deciding how to alter human rights, affirmative action, safety nets, labor laws, liberalism, habeus corpus, or slavery.

The point is that ethical / moral progress must incorporate the truth revealed by science but is not led by science (as in other professions, of course, scientists too can be humanists at times). A society hinges on a host of moral and ethical "ought" choices -- scientists are no better guides here than non-scientists. That's why scientists will always have their Watsons and Shockleys, much as non-scientists will have their GWBs and Mussolinis. This is so unremarkable to me. Outside their professional domains, I don't expect scientists to be smarter, wiser, or more charitable to their kids and spouses than other educated folks.

You speak of the humanities in terms of the Bible, fundamentalists, Nazis, and other cultural and political dross, and then try to demolish my point about the humanities. Most universities consider the humanities as a rational study of history, philosophy, anthropology, etc. All the socially pathological folks you cite in your last para surely have one thing in common: no decent education in the humanities. Chances are that some of them were moved by the scientific insights of Newton and Boyle, but none I bet were moved by the likes of Cicero and Voltaire.

I knew that when I used the phrase "even physicists ..", I was being provocative, but I decided to leave it in there to see if people were actually listening :-).

First, I must thank Ruchira for a spirited defense of scientists and for having the energy to take up a debate I have given up long ago. For some reason, I didn't react strongly to Namit's demonstrably false assertion that physicists have no better a track record than the average grandma in terms of supporting appropriate social policies. The Federation of American Scientists, upon whose excellent work I have relied frequently, disproves the assertion thoroughly. Nevertheless, I am feeling generous and will forgive Namit this transgression. In another demonstration of how physicists support the right social policies, I will even ask Ruchira to do so :-).

More seriously, the reason I am surprised that physicists fall for this kind of claptrap is that I expect them to be able to see through it a little bit better than other scientists. Physicists are trained to demand a very high, very strict and very quantitative level of proof for theories. Secondly, they also (generally) recognize that simple notions about complex systems can be very misleading.

There have been other physicists who have done strange things like this - Brian Josephson, who made a Nobel-winning discovery as a 22-year old, has now spent many years pushing the idea that human consciousness can influence the results of experiments.

Wow, that's uncanny, VP. My grandma also used to call my assertions false and then forgive me for my transgressions. I am on to something with my comparison after all! My next step is to look for a counterpart site to FAS run by a subset of grandmas rescued by the humanities. :-)

Namit, I am back from my trip. I did not jump into this discussion while away. I did so after I was well rested and comfortable in my home. Although I am not yet a grandma, I will take one more crack at this thought before I follow VP's mellow advice and let your willful trangressions pass with a grandmotherly resignation. BTW, be careful when you evoke "grandmas" casually, as a patronizing put down. Grandmas can be formidable - some of my female relatives of that generation certainly were. I wrote about one such "granny" recently. That one could have run rings around most men when it came to ethics.

As I understand from VP's comment, you have been at this science vs humanities jag for quite some time. There is not much utility in debating to death a point on which we are not likely to ever agree. But I will address a couple of points on which you have with a sleight of hand, compared not just apples to oranges but oranges to orangutans.

You speak of the humanities in terms of the Bible, fundamentalists, Nazis, and other cultural and political dross, and then try to demolish my point about the humanities.

Once again Namit, you are stuck on the sublime and hitherto unattained ideal and I am dealing with mundane and brute reality. The reason I bring up the Bible, fundamentalists, Nazis, and other cultural and political dross is because these are the very "humanists" and "humanities" that have decided the political and cultural fate of society for centuries. The common folk vote for Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Narendra Modi and G. Dubya Bush (none of them science students, as far as I can tell) so that trains will run on time, blood lines will remain pure, subversives and minorities will be terrorized, rotted in jail or exterminated and the pride of the motherland/ fatherland will flourish "über alles." Until Voltaire or Cicero is elected or appointed to cabinet and policy making posts and ethical decisions become divorced from the Bible, Quran or the Gita, the type of "humanities" that matter is what the "political dross" dish out, not what is ensconced in leather bound volumes within venerable libraries. Injecting the rational voice of scientists will be an improvement over the long tradition of the "humanistic" status quo.

All the socially pathological folks you cite in your last para surely have one thing in common: no decent education in the humanities. Chances are that many of them were moved by the scientific insights of Newton and Boyle, but none I bet were moved by the likes of Cicero and Voltaire.

What evidence do you have for this? That Newton and Boyle moved them more than did Cicero and Voltaire? And what if they did? Where is the verifiable data that the former emotion is in any degree inferior to the latter? Are you not getting into the same slippery slope as defining "higher" art?

This is simply because, as Weinberg and other humbler scientists have themselves realized (unlike so many lay science enthusiasts), science deals with "is" questions, not "ought" questions.

Weinberg (as also probably most other scientists) rightly admit that science can only tell what "is" but not what "ought." But have they also admitted in their humility that scientists cannot make the distinction?

I may be a lay science enthusiast but I am not, to put it bluntly, a science groupie. I have on several occasions written in my own posts the beneficial outcome of an all round education and scholarship. So yes, scientists definitely improve and broaden their perspective by looking beyond their cubby hole. The reality is that most do - it is not such a hard thing to accomplish. Scientists, at least the good ones, much as you have attempted to narrowly portray them, are not blindered horses. Which is what I was trying to get across. (Perhaps you and I have just met different breeds of scientists.) I would take your tirade against scientists with more equanimity if you made a similar din demanding that the humanists too descend from their hot air balloons occasionally to take clear eyed measure of what "is" and not just what "ought" to be in life.

VP:
There may be some correlation between early scientific success and addled brain later in life. Elatia Harris has a hilarious but somewhat bloody eugenics prescription for curbing such deterioration:

Now that Watson is good and crazy, though, it's time he heard about my own eugenics project: the pre-emptive euthanizing, at about the age of 30, of all scientists destined to make but one great youthful discovery. We as a society -- and I as a person -- have after all had half a century to see that sometimes genius gives over to hubris, with a great discoverer filling out his days as an administrator, honorarium collector and gale-force wind bag. I say, find the gene for that sad pattern. I'll bet it's rather easy to find too, because if there is one gene for it, it's highly prevalent among male techies, mathematicians especially. They say there is intense hormonal pressure to perform feats of genius at mating age, that it eases up later on -- Watson himself wrote a book about this, so he'll know what I mean. We could soon be in a unique and exhilarating position to manage compassionately our geniuses with that early productivity marker -- simply by sparing them the ignominy of the next 50 years. No, it wouldn't be bloodless -- but neither is aborting a gay fetus or thoroughly subduing a black man you think is your inferior.

When you think of the money saved in encouraging prizes going to men who will never again do squat, it all begins to make sense, jah? And don't imagine I dreamed this up all on my own, either. I've been sitting here channeling Rosalind Franklin...

Ruchira,
Your favorite debate seems to be unfolding in your head: scientists vs. religious-political bigots. That's not my debate here at all. I tried to clarify that the latter do not represent the humanities to me, nor to most universities (where scientists also study). To refuse to confer on scientists -- in matters outside science -- greater a priori wisdom than other educated folks is to attack scientists?

But since we only seem to be talking past each other, I'll stop here -- others can judge if what I have said about scientists is a "tirade".

Okay Namit, don't feel bad. You were not having a tirade - I was. The favorite debate in my head is not an imaginary obsession. True, it irks me that scientists are often looked upon as robotic yahoos who should not be allowed to participate in adult conversations. But here is what I should have explained from the get go rather than defend scientists against what I perceived to be an unfair and flippant characterization.

As far as I am concerned (and this is just my own opinion), outside of verifiable knowledge (science, engineering, agriculture, craftsmanship) or areas where agreed upon rules have been laid down (law, grammar, sports) I am not willing to extend the benefit of a priori wisdom to any stalwart - Voltaire, Einstein, Cicero, Newton, Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus or grandma. Social sciences and the humanities, like art, are to me areas of subjective human enterprise. Hardly anything, including economics and history tell reliable truths defined by verifiable parameters. Philosophy (except logic) is a matter of speculation and opinion. Religion scrapes the bottom of the barrel because it more than others, stakes its claims to truth without a scintilla of evidence. Our ethics and morality are, have been and will forever be a matter of common consensus. I just wish they would be based on rational understanding of the world rather than centuries old ideas contained in musty books. Different political and social philosophies will emerge, tried, rejected or accepted. The trajectory of civilization should be shaped by our willingness to revise age old wisdoms to fit new found knowledge. In such nebulous and transmuting areas of human discourse and understanding, the scientist, the peasant, Voltaire and grandma ought to have an equal shot in contributing to our collective wisdom.

I do not put science and other mechanical pursuits on a higher moral pedestal than the humanities - not as worthwhile human pursuits. But I do trust the former more to reflect reality and outcomes that stand up to time. I love literature, art, philosophy and politics. But they are all debatable principles for me. While much has touched my heart in those areas, none of it is above a second look. No humanist however great, is going to speak to me, you and a third person with equal authority. And that is just as well.

I have no disagreements with your last comment. But I can't help sensing a degree of frustration with humanities' espousal of ideas that are not verifiable like theories in science. Well, such is the nature of the beast. We can't hold it against a cat that it doesn't obey commands like a dog. I myself expect the humanities to be rational and critical, not empirical and testable. I am at peace with this difference. I do not say: a theory that links suffering to craving is less significant because it is not verifiable. That said, I implicitly trust a scientist on scientific matters (due to the scientific method and peer reviews) -- but like you, not a humanities stalwart on anything; I will decide that after due consideration. This is the most one can do in matters beyond science and there is nothing lamentable about it.

Individuals apart, history, literature, and moral philosophy, however, offer a lot more for social policy than science. The study of history as a record of social experience better inoculates a citizen against bizarre social experiments than does electro-magnetism (will you ask me for verifiable proof for this assertion?). Sure, it's not verifiable like thermodynamics, but it can always be rational and analytical. I can name several humanists (who include historians, scientists, lawyers, grandmas) that pass this test for me on various topics.

Do I hear you suggesting that humanities is frozen and comes from musty books? Not so, I submit. Human rights, liberal constitutions, various codes of ethics in peace and war (Geneva convention, for instance), are new concepts that attest to progress on the frontiers of morality. That they're unreliable, that they depend on subjective consensus, that ideas from musty books still thrive -- is part of the messiness of life beyond science. We can't stand wringing hands and saying: it's too bad science doesn't apply here.

You speak again of religion as something that "scrapes the bottom of the barrel" but such religion is not part of the humanities. Most universities produce scholars of religious studies, not jihadis. The problem with those who scrape the bottom of the barrel and those who experiment on people like guinea pigs is that they have not thought about what it means to be human, they lack empathy, compassion, and historical awareness, they do not know themselves, etc. These bigger gaping holes are not really addressable by science (which can debunk their faulty explanations of nature, of course -- very necessary but not enough). Arguably, the problem today isn't that enough people don't study science and engineering (they're financially lucrative after all), but that not enough (also) study the humanities.

And finally, why be ticked off by the stereotype of "robotic yahoos" for scientists? Such mollycoddling will make other professionals very jealous: lawyers (especially), politicians, engineers ("emotionless geeks"), cops, stock brokers, philosophers, abstract artists ("paint drippers"), etc. A secure scientist will laugh it off. In fact, in modern nations, most people have far greater respect and fascination for scientists than other professionals; even crazy social theories have to be couched in scientific terms to gain respectability. The mad scientist stereotype is now mostly used in charming stories, devoid of fear and loathing. If the public knew more scientists from personal experience they would see scientists as they really are: ordinary humans pursuing an honorable vocation.

I was resisting playing peacemaker, but the provocation is too much !

* Namit: Relax. People here are not trying to prove that the various disciplines of the humanities are worthless. As far as social policy goes, I don't think anybody is making the case that a blinkered, science-only perspective is helpful. I think we would all agree that some perspective on history, politics, sociology and human behavior would be basic requirements for clear thinking about social policy.

As for regarding one discipline as more valid than others, I think we are all in substantial agreement that the sciences are amenable to substantial empirical verification. If you ordered academic disciplines according to verifiability, the sciences would rank higher than most humanities disciplines. That's it. It is a simple point, and nothing more or less is implied by it.


*Ruchira: I think Namit has been provoked by naive IIT defenders into heroic rearguard action defending the humanities from the unthinking, unfeeling science hordes. His one other weakness is the occasional unsupported rhetorical flourish, which is what triggered the response(s) from you. I can assure you that the man is not a bad sort actually, though he could do with a little more empiricism in his life :-)

Thank you VP, for jumping in and saving me the effort of flogging the same tired horse. Although I don't know Namit as well as you do, I have not the slightest doubt that he is at heart the "good sort." But I too have detected in some previous discussions, his excessive veneration of the wisdom contained in the humanities and a slight suspicion of the value of empiricism.

Just a couple of addendums. Although many saints, sufis and other humanists have appealed to our higher nature in the past, the modification in civil liberties, human rights and issues of war and peace have been most facilitated by science which has matter-of-factly and unequivocally revealed our common humanity by pointing to the commonality of human physiology and psychology. That is what I meant by the democratizing and demystifying effects of scientific data. Also, while Namit is focused always on ivory tower humanities and religious studies, I annoyingly bring the debate down to the dirty, bedraggled and blood soaked streets where "real" politics, economics, ethics, morality and religion are on unwholesome display.

As for the rhetorical flourish about scientists which VP correctly guessed got my goat in the first place, I assure you that I don't want to mollycoddle just scientists. Although given to eviscerating and often sarcastic rhetorical flourish against offending individuals of any profession, I have never much relished the mad scientist, bloodsucker lawyer, smart /calculating Jew (Hindu), dumb Pole (Sardarjee), passionate Latin lover, harridan mother-in-law, Men from Mars, Women from Venus type of characterizations of entire groups. I know all the jokes - just don't like them very much. But then that's just me and my personal bête noire.

Nice try, VP. Just for the record, my very first comment began with a simple idea that outside science, average scientists are not any wiser than average (non-science educated) grandmas. You disagreed and Ruchira reacted strongly against this statement -- your submerged beliefs that scientists are more rational / wiser beings came tumbling out. Providence then laid it upon me to oppose it!

Take James Watson's own discovery for example. Cracking the structure of DNA has revealed to us that we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees. The Bible on the other hand assures us of ""complete dominion" over the earth and its creatures. Which one of the two ideas is more humbling and "humane?"

Ruchira:
It would be humane if the scientists (and non-scientists), after finding out the 99% DNA commonality, also stopped cruel and unnecessary testing on those chimps as a result of this new knowledge. And you juxtapose that knowledge with words in the bible - aren't there other religious texts that actually take a much different approach toward non-human animals and our relationship with them, if you wanted to compare the two? :)

Dog-owners (or perceptive folks who interact with dogs) soon find out that their dogs have personalities and show emotions, and as a result, most of them treat their pets with love and compassion. Their first-hand knowledge may not be objective or scientific, but in this instance, I'll take the personal knowledge any day over a scientist coming up with the same knowledge as a result of exposing dogs to electric shocks and such, or finding out that there's x% DNA match between homo sapiens and dogs (which won't necessarily lead to the scientist who discovered it to start treating dogs more humanely). The former does not need the scientific knowledge to treat his dog with love, though the scientific knowledge will be useful when he takes his sick dog to a vet.

Amit:

If you read my comments carefully, you will find that I have not claimed once that science makes an "individual" a better person. My contention here was merely that ethics and morality are better debated when there is a scientific basis for the argument. Even humanists are better off with scientific evidence on their side when they argue a point. As such, scientists should be allowed a seat at the table along with others when social policies regarding health and ethics are formulated. That's all, nothing more. Nowhere have I made the assertion that scientific knowledge makes a particular individual a more moral person. James Watson himself is a glaring example.

The reason I quoted the Bible is because therein lies the contradiction to evolution and other biological facts - a contrast to Watson's own findings. A narrow point. If you want to draw on other religious texts which are animal friendly, go ahead. I too am aware of their existence. Just show me that they have made the life of animals better. Except for the Jains in India, who act to some extent on their beliefs and even build bird hospitals (only birds), which other Hindu vegetarian is going around rallying for the ethical treatment of animals except to riot when a cow is killed by Muslims? The plight of animals in India is very, very sad. There is much less organized and commercial cruelty as is the case with corporate chicken and pig farms in the US, but thoughtless and random cruelty abounds and not all of it can be explained by poverty and lack of resources. (Think the treatment of stray dogs, cats, beasts of burden like donkeys and horses. And our skeletal Gai mata roaming the streets). PETA has some interesting stories about Indian slaughterhouses and transportation of animals. Have you ever noticed that most Indian vegetarians do not own pets like dogs and cats? They consider them dirty because the animals are meat eaters. Do you think they care much for animals even when they don't eat them? Utter indifference is also cruelty. And have you ever tasted the cuisine from Buddhist countries like Japan, Thailand and Vietnam? What about Confucian / Buddhist China? Namit had an interesting post on what the Chinese find palatable on their dinner plate (no, communism has nothing to do with it. Chinese cuisine pre-dates those godless days). So, what good did those non-violent religions do for the animals?

Ruchira,

Actually, I do think that poverty and lack of resources can explain about 99% of the cases- i.e. the tendency to try and inflict physical torment on a cowering animal as a means of expressing one's anger against injustices whether perceived or real. The remaining 1% (which would still be a large number in a populous country) could be attributable to inexplicable malice.

Apart from the 'dirty animal' theory for vegetarians not owning meat-eating cats and dogs, how about the practicalities of providing sustenance for pets when the kitchen is off-bounds to cooking meat that is essential to nourish them? Some do take the leap and maintain the pets, by providing separate vessels, separate people to take care of these. Others (like my mom), go with vegetarian pets like parakeets, fish and rabbits- a little less colorful in personality perhaps, but pets nonetheless.

P.S. I guess fish couldn't be called 'vegetarian', but I suppose they are easier to maintain on a few pellets of 'fish food', easily purchased at a pet store.

Umm...Ruchira, I was responding to your question 'Which one of the two ideas is more humbling and "humane?"' and you citing the 99% DNA match with chimps. So, is there a cut-off percentage where we start treating other non-human animals humanely? :) This genetic knowledge hasn't made us humans treat other fellow-humans more humanely, even though we share higher percentage of DNA with them than with a chimp. I agree that science has its role to play, but I'm not gung-ho about it, like you are. Given that much of the work for stopping cruelty to animals has come from ethologists like Dian Fossey, Roger Fouts etc. and not genetic biologists, (unless the latter get less media attention - which is a possibility) should tell us something.

Your second paragraph, which reads like a rant, wasn't necessary as I'm already aware of it and I wasn't making a case that "religion is better than science." :)

Amit:
Where did you see a claim in my statements so far that X% DNA match with humans confers upon an animal a privilege that should be denied to those with less? Just because I pointed to one single number (99% commonality with chimps) does not indicate that I have recommended any threshold at which we treat humans or non-humans with cruelty or empathy. You can pick on isolated sentences and extrapolate from there to prolong the debate. But I haven't said anything like that anywhere. I have my own thresholds upon which I make my personal ethical decisions. I have not demanded that of others - at least not here. Your "gotcha" (and misplaced) sarcasm is no better than my rant or tirade.

The last I knew, Fossey, a zoologist and Fouts a clinical psychologist are/ were scientists. Your calling them "ethologist" doesn't change the facts. Or perhaps you believe that scientists cannot be ethical. Hence the revised nomenclature.

I am not particularly gung-ho about scientists as a group of "chosen people" (about science and particular scientists, may be more.) The right way to put it would be that I am not gung-ho about humanists either. Ethics are not the private backyard of any particular discipline. See Brian Leiter's post on moral philosophers.

I made a general point about the connectedness of all living beings. Science HAS shed light on that. Whether we wish to act upon it or not, is up to us, our conscience and our own comfort level.

If you already knew everything in my second paragraph (which reads like a rant), why did you inject the issue of "kinder, gentler" religious texts as opposed to the Bible, if it was not to make a point about their salubrious effects? And if religion is not better than science necessarily, what was your point? Or perhaps you just wanted to test if I could be provoked into "ranting?" Well, as per your characterization, you succeeded.

Sorry Namit, for coming across as a bit too angry although I actually didn't "feel" very angry when I wrote the comments. I know that you introduced me as a dragon lady which is why (ironically) I began here with a post about my love of animals. I promise to be on my best behavior ... until the next issue that I see as "rant worthy."

Ruchira:
I'm not done yet, not until, in the spirit of open reciprocity, I make my own observations on what I have "detected in some previous discussions" here and on A.B. :-) While you exhibit an admirable range of interests and nuanced viewpoints on many topics, I see in your take on science and religion a quaint naïveté (or is it the abrasive zeal of a "rational fundamentalist"?). Pardon my oversimplification (a little exaggeration helps make the point), but here is the pattern I see:

a) If the humanities are mentioned in a debate on science, reduce them all to religion first (even against implorations to do so).

b) Invoke the worst ideas from the worst religious texts (or the worst deeds done in the name of religion and other ideologies) and compare them to the logic of science and the work of a few professional scientists ("at least the good ones").

c) Assume that there are only two kinds of people on earth: religious and secular (or ideologues and rationalists, etc.)

d) Attribute the worst aspects of religion to the religious, the best aspects of science and reason to the secular/atheists.

e) Make these straw people forever contending and opposed to each other. Fret and fume because you simply cannot understand why the former refuse to see the light of science and save themselves. Repeat a) to e).

You will disagree and dislike this, I know, but I too write this without rancor. We all have "rant worthy" issues; I know I do. The problem with rants is that people can stop taking us seriously on those issues. I don't know what makes us "go off" on certain topics but we do. Fortunately, we are all the "good sort" here, so we won't make much of it. :-)


Having said that, I can't help chiming in on for the plight of animals in India, which is unhappy indeed; large-scale poultry farms too have sprung up in keeping with global food trends (in India, this equates to American trends). But I think the lives of animals in India are still not comparable with the US:

a) Utter indifference and not rallying for better treatment of animals is not as bad as blithely raising them in captivity to be killed.

b) Not desiring pets is not as bad as scientifically engineering animals for succulence and designing machines to slaughter them.

c) Leaving pets aside, the cruelty against animals in India vs. the US is like the difference between random urban homicides and concentration camps (with their own Mengeles and Eichmanns to boot).

Namit:

I haven't read Ruchira's writing on Accidental blogger very much, so I can't confirm the patterns you claim to have detected. Nevertheless, I do agree with her on one point: your writing does reflect an unnecessary veneration for the humanities. Lately, I have ascribed this to a reaction to the IIT education debate, but maybe this runs deeper.

My own take on this web of issues is fairly simple. Allow me to use my time-tested method of making lists of my points:

*Science and scientific methods in general offer us unparalleled access to some truths about some things. There are other things about the world that are not amenable to scientific enquiry, but are nevertheless interesting.

*As with any human enterprise, the practice of science or the practices of scientists are definitely not above reproach and are in many cases unethical, deeply disturbing and downright evil.

*Those outside of science, whether they are political or religious leaders, philosophers, economists, writers, artists or composers are just as susceptible to prejudice, selfishness, ignorance, foolishness and downright evil.

*Despite the fact that scientific methods are better for establishing the truth about some phenomena, there is no reason to stick exclusively to science when thinking about the world.

*On the other hand, there is no reason to venerate the humanities either.

* The balance one strikes between a preference for science and one for the humanities is a matter of personal taste.

Maybe my formulation is too simplistic for others debating this thread, but much of the discussion here seems to hinge on personal predilections, and the tendency to take off on stray sentences and tangential strands.

I normally eschew this topic of discussion because I feel like I've been too often up one side and down the other in grad school. But your bulleted list sums up my (unspoken) thoughts so well, VP, that I'm tempted to jump in. And I'd offer one change: It may be that the "balance one strikes between a preference for science and one for the humanities is a matter of personal taste," but I'd suggest that the balance one strikes ought to be examined, remaining true to reason and compassion, and leaning heavily neither to one side nor another.

The bulleted list is good, VP. I've said more about examining the balance that Usha notes on another post (3rd para). The obvious question is: what was it that made you declare my statement that outside science, physicists are not better off than educated grandmas a "demonstrably false assertion"? You relied on one data point (FAS) to "disprove the assertion thoroughly"? Not a stirring tribute to empiricism, was it?

Again, ditto to what VP said. He says it better than I do ie he's not given to rants.

Namit, I don't begrudge you at all for the observations you have made about my predilections ( you too should take my tirades in stride). Not all of them are true though. A lot of it is old hat. I thought you'd have figured me out by now. But I will remind you gently that my opposition to religion is not as draconian as you make it out to be. I explained it once (while talking of my parents, grandparents - some atheist, others believers) that I have no problem, complaint or rancor against religious folks. My one and only true diatribe/rant/tirade occurs when religion is brought into the public square for deciding policy - ethical, moral, personal, war-peace or educational. In the last instance particularly, their anti-science biases. If you pay a little attention to my repeated complaints, you'd notice that is the "constant" in my anger and not against individuals who are religious for their personal peace and health. Most of the people I know are religious to one degree or the other. That doesn't and never has interfere with my having deep and satisfying relations with them. What you say about my bias towards science, I detect that in you - weighted this time toward the humanities. The ordinary grunt in a science lab vs Voltaire, say. When I complain about the ignoramuses on the rioting streets, in the mega-churche$ or the idiots guiding our geo-politics from the caves of Afghanistan and Waziristan or the White House, you bring up sufis, Thomas Aquinas and religious philosophers in universities. Apples and oranges? A bit more serious than that.

As for the animal cruelty issue, again you picked up on a strawman of comparison where none was made. When I criticize India, it doesn't automatically mean that I am cheerleading for America and the west. (I have had to explain this to Sanjay Garg also.) I am appalled and revolted by what goes on in the west re animals for greater and more efficient production of food. I hesitate to bring up my personal habits to prove a public point. But 50% of my charitable contributions each year goes to animal welfare organizations in the US who are fighting exactly these practices. I support no kill shelters, reform to bring about legislation affecting corporate animal farms, rescue of abused and disaster stricken animals, advocacy for oversight in scientific research, retirement homes for circus and racing animals, local and national chapters of the Humane Society and SPCA who are involved in legislation regarding animal cruelty and its ramifications (jail, fines) in the law. I try my best to put my money where my mouth (and my heart) is. My mention of treatment of animals in India was not meant as a comparison with that of the west as you, Sujatha and perhaps Amit have interpreted it. I don't play the "us vs them" zero sum game when it comes to ethics. ("Yes, caste system is bad but what about racism in the west?" Yes, yes, yes! Both are despicable. But do I have to bring up the other when I am criticizing one to be fair, balanced and honest?) Yet it is quickly interpreted as such. My issue with the plights of animals in India and other "non-violent" cultures was only a "not so gentle" reminder to Amit for bringing up "non-violent" religions as a counterweight to the Bible. I pointed out that compassionate religious texts have done diddly squat for the animals. Period.

You have read my blog for some time now. Perhaps the disagreements you have had with me have defined me in your mind more sharply than the areas of our agreement, which I believe are larger in proportion. If you were to take a step back and go for a longer vision, you will notice that I am an equal opportunity "ranter." Transgressors of all sorts - scientists, businesses, religious bigots, politicians of all stripes, the US and India - all have been the target of my rantings and ravings.

I think this thread is morphing into too many things, so I promise to make this my last comment on this set of issues. Thanks to Usha, Namit and Ruchira for finding my list of points acceptable. The only remaining point that I want to comment on is Namit's slight misunderstanding of empiricism, as I see it.

I remember reading something that Einstein said about theories (I am paraphrasing from memory): no number of facts in agreement with a theory ever prove that the theory is correct; a single counterexample however, disproves a theory.

This idea made a deep impression on me. I also learned later that it is the basis of Karl Popper's notion of falsifiability .

So, just one counterexample would suffice to prove that a given assertion is demonstrably wrong. As far as the FAS is concerned however, it is worth pointing out that it represents the efforts of many scientists over a long period of time on a variety of issues - I would argue that labeling these efforts as a single data point diminishes the efforts of many people enormously. In fact, I recommend their work on the global trade in small arms as a good sample of the quality of their work.

Finally, as I was typing these words, I remembered reading specifically about grandmothers working for admirable goals. And just in order to satisfy Namit, I will provide two links instead of one: this one and this other one.

Umm, not so fast, VP. That doesn't sound right. Had I said that no physicist is better off than the average grandma, a single example would've disproved my assertion. However, my assertion was that physicists on average have no better track record than grandmas on average. How is this assertion "demonstrably false" and thoroughly disproved by just the FAS example? It's late at night but not that late.

Thanks for the links on grandmas. Look what they started on this thread!

Ruchira:
The last I knew, Fossey, a zoologist and Fouts a clinical psychologist are/ were scientists. Your calling them "ethologist" doesn't change the facts. Or perhaps you believe that scientists cannot be ethical. Hence the revised nomenclature.

No, the distinction was to show that it's the scientists who have worked with animals in close proximity are the ones who have had a change-of-heart (Fouts is a good example) and started caring for them, vis-a-vis the scientists who found 99%+ DNA similarity between humans and chimps. As I said in my earlier comment, there may be genetic biologists* who are also working to reduce cruelty (and I'd be surprised if not a single genetic biologist had a change-of-heart after this discovery), but I am not aware of them. And I'm definitely not implying that this genetic research is useless/ unnecessary, or that all scientists are unethical.
*Again, I add a disclaimer that this is to the best of my knowledge.

My question re:cut-off DNA percentage for humane behavior was not directed at you personally - it was a musing.

If we are talking about ideas (and that's what you wrote in your original comment), then humane ideas can be found in religious texts too. Period. It was you who juxtaposed scientific knowledge next to the worst from the bible to make a point. :)

Whether I as an individual, or the society-at-large really understands those ideas or not, and acts on them is another matter (and I am aware of the disconnect in India that you elaborated on - I wasn't even implying anything like Sanjay Garg!!) - and that goes for any human endeavor, including science, like vp's point that "the practice of science or the practices of scientists are definitely not above reproach and are in many cases unethical, deeply disturbing and downright evil."

vp:
Thanks for summarizing the points. Consider me on board.

Namit:
Thanks for providing the space for discussion. Sorry if it went OT and tangential to the issue being discussed.

As for grannies, here's my favorite granny - after my mom's mom of course!! :)
Check out the movie on HBO if you haven't already.

Amit:
You're welcome. Space is easy, it's harder to get participation. :-) And I've read other blogs with multiple interesting conversations on a thread on different facets of the macro issue. People jump in, withdraw, and the morphing feels natural and worthwhile (like here). You made the very relevant point that scientific literacy probably has no correlation (positive or negative) to the problem of a pinched heart, esp. in the context of animals.

VP:
I read your list again and (like Usha) thought of suggesting some amendments. Take it or leave it, obviously. Instead of saying:

* "There are other things about the world that are not amenable to scientific enquiry, but are nevertheless interesting." => "There are other things about the world that are not amenable to scientific enquiry, but are nevertheless essential for civilized life." (Merely "interesting"? Com'on man! Concede more! While true, it suggests a cramped imagination and poor estimation of what is at stake outside the world amenable to science.)

* "...there is no reason to stick exclusively to science when thinking about the world" => "it is a big mistake to stick exclusively to science when thinking about the world" (Your construction made me go -- Duh! Is that all he has said? Again, open up a bit more, take a positive stand!)

Hmmm, yeah. I'd have to second Namit's suggestions for the listed points, well done though they are. Although, on first reading I did take "nevertheless interesting" in a stronger spirit than might have been meant.

Ruchira:
I think you're right that our areas of agreement are far larger. Reminds me of liberal profs fighting over their differences, or the difference that caused Rome and Byzantium to split in 1054. :) Our common ground is precisely what also enables us to debate the issues where we diverge.

A couple of notes. I don't write much about extremisms of various kinds. This is either because I think I understand them well enough and don't have much new to learn through writing, and/or they are not fun to write about. Though I've been an atheist since 13, religion as a sphere of thought and culture, and as articulated by famous minds, interests me more. I don't blog to change the world. So if I begin with Aquinas or the Sufis, I am hoping for an exchange about them and "blood soaked streets" are a distraction. Perhaps I too distract you from your equally valid prerogative of focusing on "blood soaked streets", but I'll try to refrain from it in the future. :-)

You have indeed often focused your "diatribe/rant/tirade" at those who drag religion into the public square or the classroom. I agree this should be resisted but here I personally admire physicist Lawrence Krauss's approach: "be strong but conciliatory, lest others completely shut down" and "demonstrate the wonder and beauty revealed by science to hook young minds." He spoke of this at the Beyond Belief conference (30 mins into video) last year (contrasting sharply with Sam Harris). But I digress -- I'll return to an issue you've raised above and then I should be done.

I pointed out that compassionate religious texts have done diddly squat for the animals. Period. (Ruchira)

Let's be fair and give credit where it's due. Some religious texts have put a premium on not killing animals (ahinsa); in so doing they have done more than diddly squat for them (what might most animals say?). Further, my comparing the plight of animals in India vs. the US mirrored the comparative nature of your comment. Besides, it often makes sense to compare. When we complain that: a) China is politically repressive -- compared to what? b) Indian democracy is a sham -- compared to what? c) There is too much crime in Delhi -- compared to what? In other words, comparisons are natural and instructive. I think what should be avoided is turning knee-jerk defensive (or offensive) as far as possible.

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