Category: Philosophy

Voting Day


29 below Farenheit when I left to cast my vote. How about you?

With 550 posts as of today, I’ve started to have problems remembering what I’ve already put on here. This is particularly a problem with posting existing content such as poems, short pieces from the Summer Arts Festival, or science explanations originally written for the Alaska Science Forum. I can’t remember which books or DVDs I’ve posted reviews on. It also is starting to be a problem when I want to link to a previous post and can’t remember when it was put up or what the title was. And there are posts on this blog that have permanent information, like the series on planet building and the one on horse color genetics, or the book and DVD reviews. I want to make it easier for my readers as well as myself to find things.

I made a start some time ago by adding an index page, which can be accessed from the menu at the top of any page. Right now, the only links are to index pages on my author site. This takes you out of the site and sometimes back in, which is rather clumsy. The index list is also incomplete.

I’m going to start posting an occasional entry which is strictly an index of past posts on a particular topic. These posts will be linked from the index page, and will link forward to the individual blog posts. As it takes a while to find all the posts that belong together, this will be a slow process—probably extending over the next few months. The first in this series, on DVD reviews, is already queued for January 3. Others will follow, most on Thursdays.

I probably won’t be indexing every post. Some, like those early posts which were simply glossary entries for my books, are on the author site and really belong there. Others, like the regular Monday updates on North Pole weather starting in November 2010, can be found easily enough just by using the calendar on the site. But I hope that by the time I have finished this, older posts of interest will be easier to find.

I don’t often repeat posts, but with the projection of the  world population passing 7 billion this week, I thought it was time to bring this one out again.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned.

Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman, Famine, ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land. Desire for more energy, often perceived as a need, is a rising cause of wars today.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.

This is Post 486. Comment to join the drawing.

Now and then a character simply invents himself, invites himself into a story, and stays. Win, who appears in both Homecoming and Tourist Trap, is such a character. But what is he? Even Marna, to whom he is most real, isn’t sure whether he is a ghost, her guardian angel, or her own slightly schizophrenic subconscious.

Who he was is no problem. Like Marna, he was a Healer, though he specialized in creating consciences for those born without empathy. He and Marna were effectively married and trying for a child at the time she went off to the isolation satellite to research a dangerous pathogen. She was protected from the unrelated epidemic that killed Win and every other inhabitant of her home planet because she was on the satellite. There is no question that he is dead.

But he starts talking to Marna. Granted she is just a little crazy after 200 years without contact with another person, and his voice might be all in her head, but he’s the one who urges her to leave the station when the life-support systems fail. Later on he keeps her company, rescues her from an avalanche, and urges her to accept a new relationship with Lai:

            By sunset Marna had meandered through most of her favorite places on the island, and reached the little meadow that was her goal. She’d come here the first time with Win, two centuries ago. It was here they had pledged to give one another a child, and here, much more recently, that she had come to die. She couldn’t actually see the sun set because of the trees surrounding the meadow, but she could and did look at the sky overhead, watching the red and gold fade from the scattered clouds and the first stars appear.

            She hadn’t really tried to contact Win before, aside from that one unplanned appeal for help after the avalanche. She felt rather silly, sitting on her sleeping bag and calling the name of a dead man into the dusk, but he was with her almost at once, arms around her and breath warm on her hair.

            Win, what shall I do? I can’t stand to be alone again. And I can’t stand to leave you, either.

            His laughter bubbled in the back of her mind. Leave me? You can shut me out, love, but you can’t leave me. Place–I’d almost forgotten that. You’ve done the job Tyr set you, and done it well. It’s time to move on, love. Go with Lai. How else can I give you the child we promised each other?

            But the crossbreeding, Zhaim…

            Part of your new task, love. His voice took on a touch of sadness. Riya’s not ours any more, Marna. Still, she deserves to be loved. That’s your job now, too. But for now you need rest. Sleep, love, and then face your new life with courage.

            And she did sleep then, deep and dreamlessly. When she woke the meadow was still beautiful, but no longer a place it would break her heart to leave. She took a last look around as she gathered up her belongings, saying good-bye, and started down the trail.

So what is Win? A ghost? A guardian angel? Marna’s subconscious?

I don’t know. As I said, he’s one of those characters who invented himelf, and he never told me.

Why is health care growing steadily more expensive?

Well, there are quite a lot of reasons. But the most obvious to me, the elephant in the room (and I’d don’t mean the GOP elephant) is something never mentioned by politicians. What’s more, we all cheer it on.

I mean the advances in medical science.

Face it. One of the man reasons medicine is costing more and more is simply that doctors can do more and more.

Take my own case. A century ago, I would have died before getting my Ph.D., and the most a doctor could have done was tell me that I had diabetes and it would kill me, painfully, probably within a year if not a few weeks. Oh, my life could have been somewhat extended by a starvation diet, but I wouldn’t have lived long, and I probably would not have stacked up much medical cost.

42 years ago, when I was diagnosed as having diabetes, there was a treatment, insulin. It was cheap—a slaughterhouse byproduct. Hypodermics were glass, and my fingertips were often scalded because those glass syringes had to be taken apart and boiled before each use. Blood sugar tests? Those were carried out in a laboratory, and took several hours. Urine tests were available, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I could have urine sugar so high the tests would scarcely read it while I had every physical symptom of blood sugar so low I almost passed out. The medicine of the time kept me alive, but my diabetes was not exactly well controlled. Probably my eye problems today can be traced in part to this poor control.

Since then I have gladly discarded the glass syringes for disposable plastic, swapped beef-pork insulin for genetically engineered (and much more expensive) human insulin, learned to test my blood sugar with a finger prick, begun using artificial insulins genetically engineered to act faster and slower than human insulin, started using an insulin pump, and added a continuous blood sugar monitor. My diabetes is under far better control, and in fact my blood sugar is usually within the normal range. Thank goodness I have good insurance, because all of this is appallingly expensive.

Diabetes is by no means the only disease to see this kind of improvement in care at an increase in cost. Many cancers that were once fatal or “curable” only by gross mutilation can now be treated with far less invasive surgery, drugs and radiation. More and more conditions that were once a death sentence can be treated, even if few can be really cured.

And as one result, medical costs have skyrocketed. People for whom nothing could be done are now treatable.

Greater possibilities are not the only reason medical costs have climbed, and I’ll touch on some of the others later. But we have to recognize that at least part of the cost increase is simply because doctors can do something other than just tell a patient, “You’re going to die soon.”

Be Careful What You Ask For

Watching Brigadoon the other day, and reflecting on age distribution in a society, got me to thinking. What are the influences of age-specific death rates on population age structure? More specifically, what would an “ideal” society look like if all of our dreams could come true?

Suppose every child was born healthy, lived for 80 years, and then died. Preferably peacefully, in her sleep. Suppose further that population is neither growing nor shrinking. What would the age distribution be, and what would be some of the consequences?

In this ideal world, each woman would have on average one daughter. (That would average out close to two children, if the ratio of boys to girls was even.) No doubt some would choose not to have children, and others would want more than two, but the average for a steady population with no premature death would be close to two children per woman.

Since there is no death before age 80, this would give an even age distribution—the number in any age category will be the same as in any other age category. The number under 5 would be exactly the same as the number 75 or over.

We do not expect children to support themselves. In our modern society we can hardly expect them to be truly self-supporting without a college degree—say 22 years of age, and for some careers even longer schooling is needed. And surely some respite from a lifetime of work is reasonable for those who have worked most of their lives. Let’s assume the average working life is 40 years. That would imply that half of the population was supporting the other half—whether through the relatives paying or through taxation and the government paying. It also implies a somewhat longer working life than is now considered ideal. (Note that support may well be work—such as raising and educating children—and not only money.)

In this country, most of the deviations from this picture are health-related. Our elders are often in need of care as well as support—especially for the last few years of their lives, and children are born with crippling health problems. People of all ages die, giving a pyramid-shaped age structure with more young people than old.  Wars can take out most of an age cohort. And we are certainly not keeping our numbers constant!

Let’s look at America in pre-revolutionary days. Assume that half of the children born do not live to have children of their own. Death at all ages is an accepted hazard—in particular, women often die in childbirth. Children are an economic asset—not only as farm labor, but as old-age insurance. The result will be a growing population if the average number of children per woman is more than 4. (From my own family history, it was often a lot more than 4.) It will also be a young population. There will be twice as many newborns as young people of an age to start families. There will be a further reduction through the child-bearing years, especially of women. While the maximum age may not change much, there will be far fewer older people.  Some variant of this as been the norm for most of our existence as a species. We almost expect slow growth in population, speeding up whenever new land is available.  This acceleration is often at the cost of populations formerly inhabiting that land.

What is happening now in third world countries follows neither of these models.

We try to avoid the deaths of children. Thanks to what we now know about epidemiology, immunization, such physical factors as mosquito netting, and the importance of clean drinking water we have cut down considerably on these deaths. Famine relief tends to be targeted at children.

But the inevitable result is the development of a population structure very heavily weighted toward the young. In particular there is a tremendous age bulge among adolescents and young adults, sometimes with little or no education, and sometimes with an education that leads them to despise the very culture that has kept them alive.

We have also exported our technology, which often means that jobs are available only to those with the education needed to operate the machines that do the labor.

I don’t know what the answer is, but in many ways we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner globally.  Is there an answer?

Have patience.  Sometimes what you say, in words or actions, is not what the other hears.

There comes a time, in every life, when death is inevitable and may even be preferable to continued suffering.

Never be afraid to love, even though the end of love is death.

(assignment from Summer Arts Festival, © Sue Ann Bowling 2006)


“We don’t take vacations, at least those of us who are responsible don’t. There’s always something to do that nobody else can do. Oh, there are hours free, if you’re lucky even days. But it’s never predictable. The only reason that I can even count on being on planet for the next month is because Kaia and I are filling in for your father. And if an emergency comes up I may not even have time to work with you.”

“You make it sound like being a slave.”

“Not that bad. Certainly there’s a lot more choice, and more things to enjoy when you do have the time. But the main difference is that the discipline is from inside yourself, instead of being imposed from outside. I wish,” he added grimly, “that Zhaim understood that.”

from Homecoming.

One of the basic assumptions of my fiction is that the R’il’nai, and other star-faring species, are inherently peaceful. The idea is that any species that cannot learn to get along with other sentient beings will, in the course of developing the technology necessary for star flight, kill itself off or at the least knock itself back to barbarism. “Watch, but watch only,” is the rule for nascent intelligent species. I am assuming that applies to Earth.

Jarn broke that rule, not only by hybridizing with our primate ancestors, but by teaching them the technology needed to get him back to his home. The other R’il’nai of his time were horrified, but could not really blame him for wanting to get home, or blame the Humans for learning what he had to teach them. They did, however, feel responsible for Humans being in space—a responsibility that became deeply ingrained not only in their R’il’nian descendants, but in the majority of the R’il’noids, the crossbreds.

The majority.

For the R’il’noids, the sense of responsibility tends to develop rather slowly with age. Derik’s wild youth is not unusual, but the gradual increase in the percentage of R’il’noids that never feel any responsibility toward Humans is just beginning to be a problem at the start of Homecoming, as is the decoupling of the Çeren index from those abilities of the R’il’noids most needed to help the Humans mature into a race that can co-exist with the other star-faring species.

The Maungs? I don’t really get into them in Homecoming, but they are incompatible, not hostile. They are as upset by the fact that what should be the nervous system of an adult Maung is infecting a Human when it should be one of their own kind as the Humans are—and one of the chief duties of the R’il’nai (and the R’il’noids) is to keep the two species apart.

So what do you think? Should we feel a sense of responsibility toward each other? Should those with exceptional talents use them for the benefit of society as a whole?

Love and Lust

“Bera tried to tell me thirteen centuries ago that I’d get myself into serious trouble someday because I couldn’t tell love from lust. I went back to that memory last night. I wasn’t mature enough then to understand what she was trying to tell me. I hope I am now.”

Derik says that, in Homecoming. But what did he mean? What is the distinction between love and lust?

You might say that they are the extreme ends of human sexual relationships. At one end, love, is a relationship based on mutual caring. At the other end, lust, the relationship is basically one of power, of using another person. It seems to me that where a relationship is along this continuum is far more important than the parties involved.

Often the two are so intermixed that it is difficult to tell them apart. A bit of lust, in the form of sex drive, is probably at the heart of many human relationships. At the extreme, of course, lust is involved in rape and seduction, and the power aspect is perhaps clearest in the use of rape as a weapon of war.

It’s harder to find an example of pure love, but basically both people should feel they are getting at least as much out of the relationship as they are putting into it, and each feels happier together than they would apart. It’s probably not possible in a pure sense, as we can never know what the other person’s true feelings are.

So why does Derik, who is basically a pretty decent sort, have a problem telling love from lust?

Derik is practically sterile, and the women of his own class want nothing to do with him. All his long life, he has taken human slaves as long-term lovers. These slaves are cosseted and cared for throughout their lives.  Derik is a mind reader, but he has always felt it was immoral to read the minds of non-telepaths. The day before the statement above, he accidentally read the mind of a young slave he was trying to seduce—and who seemed quite willing to seduce him in turn—and found out what the youngster really thought of the situation.

Now he faces a dilemma. Will his powers prevent him from ever finding love?

How can we, as limited humans, tell where we are along the line between love and lust?