Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Few Books

Since I haven't blogged in a while, I thought I might mention a few of the books that I've read in the last couple of months. My reading has fallen off during this time. One reason is because I've been unable to find any novels that are worth the trouble. Perhaps I should take the advice of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and only read the greatest novels over and over again, but I can't limit myself like that. I'm always looking for something new to grab me. Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon almost did. It's a magical realist novel that owes something to the work of Marquez. It's set in an unnamed country in South America at the time of a war against a force of guerillas that is based upon The Shining Path. There was a lot to like about the book and I don't really have anything critical to say about it, but it failed to grab me by the balls, and I really wanted it to.

A topical political book was American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. It isn't marked by any remarkable insights, but it makes clear that these people really are intent upon making America a Christian theocracy. They are every bit as fanatical as the Islamic jihadists, and they wish to install a government that will force all of us to live by the dictates of their religion. Hedges is correct in pointing out that these people must be opposed and aggressively. Shortly after reading this book, I watched the documentary Jesus Camp. It follows these kids through a summer camp run by Christian evangelists. It's criminal what these people do to these children. They frighten them out of their wits, then give them their Biblical fundamentalism to cling to. At one of their assemblies, they so terrified the children that they had many of them crying over their supposed sins. The poor, little bastards didn't stand a chance.

Hedges is an interesting character himself. He graduated from divinity school at Harvard, but he wasn't ordained. He chose instead to become a reporter for The New York Times. For a long time, he was a war reporter, and he wrote a book about it, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. There he talks about how addicted he became to the coverage of war. This was in spite of the horrors. I know how he feels. I've always been fascinated with war. Yes, it's horrible and it's immoral. It represents the worst in human nature. Still, I've always found it intriguing. One of the most terrible things about it is the beauty of so many of the machines of war. The tanks, planes and helicopters are truly magnificent creations. At sufficient distance, I'm sure that the disciplined legions of Rome were a sight to behold as they advanced into battle. If only all of that energy, engineering, and organization could be applied to the betterment of humankind.

Unfortunately that isn't possible if Gwynn Dyer is to be believed. He's a Canadian military historian and, about twenty years ago, he hosted a series on PBS that was entitled "War". His outlook was pessimistic. He attempted to demonstrate that war is encoded in our genes and he felt that it was all but inevitable that the human race would eventually destroy itself in a nuclear holocaust. Dyer wrote a book, also called War as a companion to the series. A couple of years ago, an updated edition of he book was published. He ends on a more hopeful note in the recent edition, but it's not very convincing, given that the whole thrust of his argument throughout the book is so thoroughly to the contrary. One interesting point he makes is that in World War Two, and most preceding wars as well, only about 20 percent of the soldiers actually took an active part in battle. By that he means by actually firing his weapon at the enemy. There is a real reluctance on the part of most people to kill anyone else, even in an environment like battle. Modern militaries have since developed training techniques that are geared toward inuring their recruits to killing. The result has been that over 90 percent of soldiers used their weapons in Vietnam. This is perhaps why there have been so many cases of post-traumatic stress syndrome in Vietnam vets. Most soldiers can be taught to kill, but many of them are going to be tormented by it later on.

Something I've always wondered about is the fall of the Roman empire. In the late eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon wrote his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In Gibbon's view, the barbarian invasions were the agency of the fall of Rome, but it was the decadence and corruption of the empire that were truly responsible. That was pretty much the accepted explanation for over 150 years, and it was the one that I was taught in school. Oxford historian Peter Heather puts forth a different view in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. He contends that the Roman empire was no more or less decadent and corrupt than it had been in the past. Economically, it was stronger in the period just before its fall than it had ever been. However, the historical forces that it encountered in the fourth and fifth centuries were more than it could handle. There was little it could do to any effect and it was, as Rutger Hauer's character put it in Blade Runner, "Time to die."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


First off, I have been remiss in blogging. I hope I can remedy that. However, I cannot promise that I will. There are other writing projects that I am engaged in. Whenever I write entries for this blog, I feel that I could better use my time by working on those projects, but I don't really want to abandon blogging. It's a quandry. Perhaps I'll do what my friend David Matthews has done, which is to publish portions of my novel in my blog. I haven't made my mind up about that yet.

The Science section of today's New York Times discusses the most recent advances in the study of evolution. One of the hot fields right now is apparently what is called evo-devo. That is the study of the interaction between evolution and biological development. It is becoming clear that, at least in some cases, they are intimately connected. Some evolutionary changes that were thought to be due to mutations turn out to be caused by changes in the expression of pre-existing genes. For example, it had been thought the development of the hand and wrist structures in land animals was due to a mutation in the genes that control the development of the front fins in fish. This turns out not to be the case. Change the timing and length of expression of the gene that controls the growth of fins and you end up with the hand and wrist of amphibians and higher orders of animals. Interesting stuff. Perhaps that's why certain developmental disorders lead to children born with "flippers" instead of limbs.

The extent to which evolutionary changes are caused by mutations as opposed to gene expression is still an open question. I suspect that it will turn out to be some mix of the two but, after reading about it this morning, I've been mulling this over quite a bit. In scientific circles, it is generally agreed that the appearance of human intelligence was a fortuitous accident. If conditions had been a little bit different, perhaps humans never would have evolved. Perhaps an intelligent species of reptile would have come to dominate the earth, or something like that. What if that's wrong? What if human intelligence is immanent in the structure of the universe? Here's what I mean. What if the development of RNA and DNA, under favorable conditions, were the only means by which genetic coding could arise? I'm not talking about Divine edict or anything like that. Perhaps it's just the way the physics and chemistry of it work out. Perhaps it's also the case that the only way in which intelligence could arise would be in the way that it has arisen here on earth. No Adam and Eve would be necessary. It could just be the way the biological chemistry works out. Think of the implications. If there's alien intelligence on a planet orbiting some far star, it would have to be human intelligence. The flora and fauna of the planet would be much like ours.

This is all pure speculation of course. I suspect that the theological types would love it. God snapped his fingers and there went the Big Bang. Everything else was mere consequence. Yeah, right.