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Thursday, January 06, 2011

2010 Coming down from the reductionism trip ...

Animal cell, Wikipedia Commons
In (surprisingly) the New Scientist, Brian J. Ford observes, "The secrets of intelligence lie within a single cell" (April 25, 2010).
For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and "artificial intelligence" a grandiose misnomer.

I think it is time to acknowledge fully that living cells make us what we are, and to abandon reductionist thinking in favour of the study of whole cells. Reductionism has us peering ever closer at the fibres in the paper of a musical score, and analysing the printer's ink. I want us to experience the symphony.
I recommend avoiding the thoughts and works of reductionists.

Interpret the history of life how you will, reductionism as such has been the most spectacular failure since the perpetual motion machine. I wonder if there is a conceptual link between the two ideas.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


Eugenics and the Firewall: Catching on in Canadian media

Eugenics and the Firewall: Good discussion begins

Jane Harris-Zsovan writes to say that her just-published book Eugenics and the Firewall, about the history of social Darwinism in Alberta (province of Canada), has received favourable reviews so far.

Ian Stewart, reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press opens,
IN this suggestive piece of investigative journalism, Albertan Jane Harris-Zsovan exposes one of her home province’s wretched little secrets.
Published, oddly enough, by a Winnipegbased house, Eugenics and the Firewall retells the story of how Alberta’s progressive and populist Social Credit government abused some of its most vulnerable citizens’ basic human rights for almost half the 20th century. Its message is clear: somebody’s Utopian vision can lead to another’s Orwellian hell.

In 1928, Alberta elected its first Social Credit government, led by the apocalyptic "Bible Bill" Aberhart. The government was under the sway of the burgeoning eugenics movement and quickly passed the British Empire’s first sexual sterilization legislation, which was not rescinded until 1972.
He also cheered her on personally, no surprise from a seasoned reporter who knows when someone is taking a risk to just start talking about the documentary evidence.

Similarly, Lana Michelin for the Red Deer Advocate did, in Harris Zsovan’s view, “an amazing job sorting out all those facts and figures I gave her in lightening time.”
While B.C. used eugenics sparingly, sterilizing only a few hundred citizens, Alberta seized the opportunity from 1928 to 1972 to target nearly 3,000 “undesirables,” including the mentally disabled, chronically ill and sexually promiscuous.

Many of these 2,832 sterilizations were done at Red Deer’s Michener Centre, said Harris-Zsovan.

The author has been interested in Alberta’s dark eugenics history since she overheard, as a young girl, her parents discussing a neighbour’s son who they suspected was sterilized.
I first became interested in the early1970s, when I noticed that the whole episode was a memory hole as far as just about everyone was concerned.

Why does it matter?, some ask. Compulsory sterilization was done in Alberta a long time ago, and the enabling laws were repealed in 1971. Well, two reasons it matters:

First, for the sake of the facts: Social Darwinism (the belief that a government-directed application of Darwin’s theory of evolution to a human population would produce a fitter human) is far more often denounced than it is explained. There is a good reason for that. As Harris Zsovan shows, progressives and evangelical Christians promoted and enabled it, not just goose stepping Nazis. Everyone was wrong, but the last group was socially despised, thus in line to take the fall. While everyone else acted self-righteous, false history drove out true history.

Second, social amnesia is no way to prevent a similar occurrence. Put simply, it happened because it was widely popular, and a similar event would happen today, if it were as popular. So we really must look at what made it popular and with whom. And that’s a fascinating read.

Many Canadians are in the process of recovering our history, and no, it is not always fun, but - as with our bodies - the less fun parts may be the most necessary.

Note: Eugenics and the Firewall, about the history of social Darwinism in Alberta (province of Canada), is distributed by University of Toronto Press.

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Coffee!: If you are going to be a “denialist”, why not be an obesity denialist as well, ...

If you read this blog, you are a denialist already, probably. You doubt that truth flows one way from the Establishment, and there is no hope for you. So, ... Here, Julie Gunlock comments on the response of professional busybodies to people who doubt that The Government Can Make Everybody Thin:
Hiatt also echoes the first lady’s warnings that fat Americans are all going to keel over from obesity-related diseases. This also doesn’t pan out. More recent research on obesity has found only a very slight (and statistically insignificant) increase in mortality among mildly obese people, and that in fact it is underweight individuals who have a higher rate of death than those in the “healthy” weight category.

But the real crux of Hiatt’s piece is to call into question the “obesity deniers” whom he says history will judge harshly (alongside global warming deniers, natch). He asks: Could anyone really be against children eating healthier food and getting more exercise?

Hiatt shouldn’t stoop so low as to question these so-called deniers’ motivations. We’re not some sort of anti-kid cabal set on ridding the world of these loud, sticky creatures. Instead, those who have been critical of the first lady’s mission simply question the efficacy of school lunches and are concerned about the decreasing role of parents in a child’s life. These “deniers” also see this effort to provide children more nutritious school meals as only treating the symptoms of childhood obesity, not the disease. In other words, Americans have to tackle the much bigger issue of just why so many children rely on these school lunches and why parents are so willing to cede this responsibility to the government.

- Julie Gunlock, "The Passion of the Obesity Deniers" (December 28, 2010)
Well, as I have written elsewhere, when I was a kid, it was hard to get fat:
. . . in that pre-microwave era, cooking was labor intensive, so children ate mostly at home at mealtimes. Between home and school we were largely unsupervised—definitely a no-no today—and we rode bikes, swam, or ran for hours on end.

Fat? Most of us couldn't get fat if we tried.

Today, by contrast, the internet turns out kids whose best-exercised body parts are their index fingers.
To say nothing of the fact that, if Mom couldn’t think up chores for kids, Dad sure could. Or Grandma, or ... So it was usually better to be out swimming or cycling beyond shout reach.

As a longtime denialist, I would say that if the government cannot restore those millennial childhood conditions, taxpayer-funded crabbing about the existence of French fries will hardly produce the desired results.


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