The Botany of Desire

Last month PBS aired a two hour special on The Botany of Desire by science writer, Michael Pollan. Pollan set out to explore how four particular plants have evolved to satisfy human desires: the apple, which evolved to satisfy our desire for sweetness; the tulip, our desire for beauty; the cannabis (marijuana plant), our desire for intoxication; and the potato, our desire for control.

The documentary shows beautifully how over time man has cultivated, cross-bred, and aided the transfer of these plants from one native environment to another. What’s odd is that Pollan talks about the plants as if they’re the ones in control while all these things are going on. For example, the apple’s existential predicament, Pollan says, was that it was stuck in one place. So the apple evolved to appeal to mammals so they wouldn’t be stuck there, and that’s how they got people to bring them to America.

For the tulip, which Pollan says has no practical value, “the really ingenious ones are the ones that figure out ways to reengage us every generation.” They do this by reproducing themselves in different colors so we won’t get bored with them.

The unique feature of the cannabis plant lay in its ability to make chemical molecules that have the power to alter one’s mental state. “Cannabis recognized that this was the path to world domination.”

The potato? Pollan didn’t ascribe as much intelligence to the pedestrian potato. It evolved, he says, to gratify our desire for control because we can grow huge amounts of it.

To be fair, Pollan shows genuine, contagious wonder at the fascinating subjects of his study, and he does admit at the end of the show that he’s engaging in a bit of anthropomorphism. His conclusion was a fairly accurate summary of the power of nature. “Nature is stronger than any of our designs, and nature resists our controls.” I wouldn’t argue that point.

But what struck me as odd was that all the ingenuity and industriousness was ascribed to the plants, not to the people who were cultivating, growing, researching, cross-breeding, or transporting them. And it was the plants that had plans, will, and intentions. The people were merely objects for plants to manipulate.

Different. Plus, for me, I couldn’t help but think that potatoes satisfy a desire for food more than a desire for control.

This post first appeared in the Salvo Signs of the Times blog.

Here’s the conclusion of the Wall Street Journal: “We believe it is no stretch to say that Mrs. Pelosi’s handiwork ranks with the Smoot-Hawley tariff and FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act as among the worst bills Congress has ever seriously contemplated.”

You can read the article here.

I am open to anyone’s explanation of how this is good for America. Otherwise, I’ll continue to maintain that it’s disastrous for all of us.

The Wall Street Journal commissioned Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong to respond independently to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” Their answers became an article in the Life & Style section last month called Man vs. God.

Richard Dawkins said of Darwinian evolution, “We know, as certainly as we know anything in science, that this is the process that has generated life on our own planet.” Evolution, Dawkins concluded with his characteristic wit, is God’s “pink slip.” In other words, since science says Evolution is, we say God isn’t. (I discussed Dawkins’s argument for the non-existence of God in an earlier Salvo article.)

Karen Armstrong’s response was more artistic. She spoke of two complementary ways of arriving at truth, which the Greeks called mythos and logos, both of which were recognized by scholars as legitimate. Logos was reason, logic, intellect. But logos alone couldn’t speak to the deep question human beings ask like, What is the meaning of life? and, Why do bad things happen to good people? For that, she said, people turned to mythos – stories, regardless of whether or not they were true, that helped us make sense out of the difficulties of life. They were therapeutic. We could think of them as an early form of psychology.

“Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?

Darwin made it clear [that] we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the ‘God beyond God.’ The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry.”

Not only is the veracity of any religious story irrelevant, she seems to be saying, it is incorrect to believe any account concerning God as objectively true. To do so is to construct an idol of certainty. How do we know that? Because of the certainty of Darwinian evolution.

Her response, at bottom, isn’t much different from the atheist’s. Evolution is. God isn’t. But some of us like to imagine that he is.

Notice the source Dawkins and Armstrong consult for certain truth: Science. Why? Because Science proclaims what is.

The questions I’m pondering and posing are (1) At what point do the proclamations of science become imperialistic? and (2) At what point does an appropriate respect for science morph into worship?

Barack Obama admitted in his first book “Dreams of My Father” that he used to carefully seek out Marxist friends.

These two are great fun:

Fidel Castro praises Barack Obama as “absolutely sincere”.

Hugo Chavez says “Hey Obama has nationalized nothing less than General Motors. Comrade Obama! Fidel, careful or we are going to end up to his right!” and says Obama has brought the smell of hope to the UN.

Ron Bloom; the Obama Administration Manufacturing czar agrees with Chairman Mao, Free Market is nonsense.

Van Jones, self admitted Communist, video montage – Obama’s Green Jobs czar.

Valerie Jarrett, White House advisor, praises about Van Jones.

Anita Dunn, White House interim communications director, admires Chairman Mao.

Cass Sunstein, Obama’s new regulatory czar seems to place more intrinsic value on animals than to human infants. Proposed bans on hunting and eating meat and proposed that your dog to be allowed to have an attorney in court.

John Holdren, science czar proposed “compulsory sterilization” and forced abortions to control population, Holdren predicted in this 1971 textbook co-authored with Malthusian population alarmist Paul Ehrlich that global over-population would lead to disastrous conditions unless the government mandated urgent measures to control population, including the possibility of involuntary birth control measures such as forced sterilization. Holdren also openly supports redistribution of wealth and resources and was suspected of divulging vital nuclear information to the Soviets.

Carol Browner, global warming czar, was part of Socialist International and the Commission for a Sustainable World Society groups who call for “global governance.”

Mark Lloyd, Diversity czar for the FCC, praises dictator Hugo Chavez, who forcibly took control of the media in Venezuela.

Austan Goolsbee, long time friend and now economic adviser to the President, says that they’re consulting communism’s founding documents: “I mean, it’s been a long, long time since things were this bad, so we kind of had to go back and look at the old textbooks – Karl Marx, Trotsky – and the thing that we found was that it was critical that we do something,”

Dr. John C. Drew, Occidental College acquaintance of Barack Obama, former avowed Marxist, says Obama was a pure Marxist.

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A Socialist Halloween

Someone sent me this today:

As a new junkie, I am dumbfounded that I’ve never heard a thing about it:

I checked it out on snopes and hoaxslayer and they both say it’s true. Has anyone else heard about this?

What do you make of the fact that it’s received little to no press?

In March 2009, the Texas State Board of Education finalized its new standards for science education. Soon thereafter, in the Summer 2009 issue of the The Earth Scientist , the quarterly journal of the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA), Steven Newton, Public Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), took issue with the new standards.

Specifically, Newton singled out a handful of amendments which he said “weakened the standards” and “opened to door … to bring non-scientific ideas into the science classroom.”

He took issue with minor changes to wording concerning teaching of, among other subjects, the age of the universe, changes in the earth’s atmosphere, and fossils. Referring to these amendments, Newton summed up his comments this way,

“[The] amendments sought to cast doubt upon well-established earth science ideas. The language changes are subtle but significant, hinting to students that scientists do not really know as much as they claim to understand.” (page 31)

My personal favorite had to do with the teaching of global warming. Newton complained that the new standards did not require a presumption that global warming exists. Instead the standards allow different views to be examined. Newton contended:

In Environmental Systems, Texas students are now required to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” This is the language of global warming denialists, not of the scientific community.” (page 33)

Is it unscientific to analyze and evaluate different views? Newton is writing here as a representative of the NCSE, so I referred back the NCSE website. Here’s what the NCSE says about its reason for existence:

The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. … Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

I’m left wondering, if science and the scientific method are the guiding principles for science education, why is there a problem with students being allowed to analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming?

I’m also wondering, who is the denialist here?

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An Orthodox pastor discusses here an article I wrote in the latest issue of Salvo.

Austan Goolsbee, long time friend and now economic adviser to the President, admitted last night they’re consulting communism’s founding documents: “I mean, it’s been a long, long time since things were this bad, so we kind of had to go back and look at the old textbooks – Karl Marx, Trotsky – and the thing that we found was that it was critical that we do something,” He was speaking at a comedy club, so I guess his supporters either think Communism’s a good thing or it was meant to be a joke.

But I’m not finding it funny. Given the breathtaking grabs for power and money, it appears to me they’re most certainly enacting a social framework that leads to a Communist government.

I’ve seen the inside of a Communist country. It doesn’t work for you; you work for it. And it’s ugly.

Banquet at Delmonico’s
Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

by Barry Werth

Post Civil War America was looking for a new belief system, says social historian Barry Werth. Across the Atlantic Charles Darwin had proposed a new theory of biology, but had left the popularization of it to others. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth chronicles the spread of Darwinian evolution in America, focusing on the works of English philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Reclusive, never married, and chronically dyspeptic, Spencer introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1851, eight years before Darwin. That Darwin’s name became associated with the concept, even though Spencer had beaten him to publication, seemed to embitter Spencer and fuel his drive to expand evolutionary theory beyond biology. In 1855 Spencer, an agnostic and former civil engineer, had written and self-published Principles of Psychology, applying evolutionary theory to the human mind and behavior, but by 1860, Spencer had undertaken a re-examination of the whole of human history and thought. Calling it, Synthetic Philosophy, he set out to unify virtually all academic disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology, ethics, and politics – under the rubric of evolution.

For her part, America, young and wildly growing, took to Spencer’s suggestion of societal progress like a maiden to a handsome suitor. To be more specific, a diverse assortment of leading figures took to it. In Banquet at Delmonico’s, Werth illuminates these elites who directed the period’s intellectual currents and narrates their decade-long trans Atlantic love-fest, which culminated in Spencer’s 1882 tour of America.

The title comes from an elaborate farewell dinner held in Spencer’s honor at Delmonico’s, a posh Fifth Avenue restaurant in New York. Marking the momentous occasion, William Evarts, a Boston-born statesman, began his toast by declaring to the assembled who’s who of industrialists, Ivy League professors, government dignitaries, and religious leaders that, “Evolution: once an Hypothesis, [is] now the established Doctrine of the Scientific World.”

Few of the dinner guests, though, including Evarts and Spencer, were actually scientists. In fact, there had been dissenting voices among America’s scientists over the previous decade. Harvard paleontologist Louis Agassiz had tenaciously pointed out that the Darwinists furnished an impressive array of “startling and exciting” information, but not a shred of evidence showing one species changing into another. “Hasty generalizing of observation is Darwin all over,” Agassiz had said. “Darwin’s theory … is thus far merely conjectural.”

But Agassiz died in 1873, and other more favorable scientists had taken his place. Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles (O.C.) Marsh, for example, whose extensive fossil collection had been pronounced by Thomas Huxley to be physical evidence of evolution, despite the fact that some of his discoveries were later exposed as overzealous and unscrupulous, if not fraudulent.

Banquet at Delmonico’s depicts fervent proselytizers promoting a revolutionary paradigm to a largely receptive audience, all the while persuaded and persuading that somebody somewhere has proven it factually true. Andrew Carnegie’s adoption of evolution typified many. Already doubtful about religion, Carnegie read Spencer and Darwin and concluded, “Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.”

Advancing as if they truly inhabited a system forged by evolutionary struggle, where the fittest survive by out-propagating the competition, Spencer’s proponents overtook American thought, declaring Evolution to be the de facto established, scientific view. It simply was because all the intelligent people said it was.

This review first appeared in Salvo Summer 2009, Issue 9.