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January 04, 2006
Monkeys and marmosets and baboons, oh my.

It's about people. It's about people and monkeys and orangutan and baboons and marmosets and chimps and war and peace and civilization.

About A Natural History of Peace.

The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "All species are unique, but humans are uniquest."

Turns out that's not really all that true. We've been preening ourselves and being all smug about something that...well, that just isn't so. Other animals argue, cooperate, make and use tools, wage war, and choose monogamy, to mention just a few characteristics.

Our purported uniqueness has been challenged most, however, with regard to our social life. Like the occasional human hermit, there are a few primates that are typically asocial (such as the orangutan). Apart from those, however, it turns out that one cannot understand a primate in isolation from its social group. Across the 150 or so species of primates, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex relative to the rest of the brain. The fanciest part of the primate brain, in other words, seems to have been sculpted by evolution to enable us to gossip and groom, cooperate and cheat, and obsess about who is mating with whom. Humans, in short, are yet another primate with an intense and rich social life -- a fact that raises the question of whether primatology can teach us something about a rather important part of human sociality, war and peace.
As field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing.

Patterns emerged. In less aggressive species, such as gibbons or marmosets, groups tend to live in lush rain forests where food is plentiful and life is easy. Females and males tend to be the same size, and the males lack secondary sexual markers such as long, sharp canines or garish coloring. Couples mate for life, and males help substantially with child care. In violent species, on the other hand, such as baboons and rhesus monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

Makes sense. Violence, territoriality, and conflict are aspects of species that live in resource-scarce environments. In resource-generous environments, these things aren't really needed.

Interestingly, it seems to be the males who change the most as a result of the different environments. (Or who developed differently, as the case may be. Aggressive behavior and a tendency toward violence aren't inherently "male" characteristics in environments that don't require those traits.)

That view always had little more scientific rigor than a Planet of the Apes movie, but it took a great deal of field research to figure out just what should supplant it. After decades' more work, the picture has become quite interesting. Some primate species, it turns out, are indeed simply violent or peaceful, with their behavior driven by their social structures and ecological settings. More important, however, some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures. The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick themselves.

It's a long article full of fascinating information and speculation, well worth reading by anyone interested in the human psyche.

In recent years, for example, it has been recognized that a certain traditional style of chest-thumping evolutionary thinking is wrong. According to the standard logic, males compete with one another aggressively in order to achieve and maintain a high rank, which will in turn enable them to dominate reproduction and thus maximize the number of copies of their genes that are passed on to the next generation. But although aggression among baboons does indeed have something to do with attaining a high rank, it turns out to have virtually nothing to do with maintaining it. Dominant males rarely are particularly aggressive, and those that are typically are on their way out: the ones that need to use it are often about to lose it.

There's a certain amount of chest-thumping going on in our society today, making that last sentence of (purely scientific) interest to some of us. Especially considering the next sentence.

Instead, maintaining dominance requires social intelligence and impulse control -- the ability to form prudent coalitions, show some tolerance of subordinates, and ignore most provocations.

Good baboons learn to cooperate and play nicely with others.

The article has everything...innate peacefulness, threatened extinction of a rare species, female choice, even group sex! The rightwingnuts are going to hate it.

More seriously, it brings up some very interesting thoughts about genetics and human nature.

To some extent, the age-old "nature versus nurture" debate is silly. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y. Nonetheless, if one had to predict the behavior of some organism on the basis of only one fact, one might still want to know whether the most useful fact would be about genetics or about the environment.

Highly recommended.

Posted by AnneZook at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)
By the way

My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the 12 people who died in the West Virgina mine disaster.

If you read the Daily Nightly, you'll see a glimpse of how the story seemed to be playing out to one media outlet...and their reaction to the news that 12 had died...not survived.

Posted by AnneZook at 12:19 PM | Comments (0)
They're Actually Doing It

They're reading your mail.

That is, they are if you're an 81 year-old professor of Asian history at the University of Kansas.

I do have to admit that I prefer that my opened mail have been obviously opened, as he experienced, and not unobtrusively opened as he cites the Japanese having done.

I know a bit about the whole topic from various readings about the Cold War. I know it's more than possible to open mail so that no one knows it's been done. (Back in the days of tissue-thin "air mail" paper, you didn't even have to open the envelope to read the letter.)

But that isn't really the point. The point is that someone that no rational person would believe connected with any kind of terrorism has had his privacy inexcusably invaded.

Unusually for her, Molly Ivins misses the point. When Bush says that "this program is conscious of people's civil liberties, as am I", he's probably not lying.

There's a huge gap between "being conscious of" and "protecting" or even "giving a shit about."

But read her column anyhow because she always says things we need to hear. Like, we need to remember that librarians are not gentle, book-loving souls, but radical extremists.

Another reason to be deeply worried about a huge domestic spying operation is that it will inevitably be manned by nincompoops. Just take, for example, this lovely 2003 memo from an FBI agent railing at what he perceived as the dreadful restraints by John Ashcroft's Justice Department: "While radical militant librarians kicks us around, true terrorists benefit from (Justice's) failure to let us the tools given to us."

The mind...boggles.

Posted by AnneZook at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)
War Kills Babies

Not such startling news, but something we shouldn't forget.

I don't know all the facts about this story but it does worry me. We all know that civilian deaths in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) have been woefully underreported by the USofA media. They report only deaths from "suicide bombers" or deaths that are in such high profile across the world that ignoring them would cause more problems than reporting them.

According to the latest UNICEF report (2005), in 2004 the under-5 infant mortality was 122,000 in Occupied Iraq, 359,000 in Occupied Afghanistan and 1,000 in the occupying country Australia (noting that in 2004 the populations of these countries were 28.1 million, 28.6 million and 19.9 million, respectively) [(http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/index.html)].

About 1,300 under-5 year old infants will have died in Occupied Iraq and Afghanistan on Christmas Day alone, 0.5 million will die in the coming year and 1.7 million have died post-invasion due to non-provision by the US-led Coalition of life-preserving requisites demanded by the Geneva Conventions (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/92.htm).

I am completely unable to believe that women and infants have been deliberately targeted by 'coalition' troops. Which doesn't mean it's not true...just that I find it impossible to believe. In short, I don't think it's true. But it's true that there have been thousands of deaths where the USofA public has absolutely no information on what happened or how.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:25 AM | Comments (1)
Lock 'em up and shut 'em up

US to seek dismissal of Guantanamo cases

The US Justice Department will seek to stop more than 180 Guantanamo Bay inmates from pursuing court challenges against their detention.

"Justice" sure ain't what it used to be.

Posted by AnneZook at 11:05 AM | Comments (1)
Opium Wars

But this time, the Brits are agin' it.

Afghanistan is in bad shape and sending a lot of British soldiers in to start a new opium war isn't going to help.

Afghanistan was not a success, we didn't do anything like the whole job, and things have been getting worse since Bush and Cheney distracted the world by waving their weenies at Iraq.

Any stability Afghanistan seemed to possess was, even to my uneducated eyes, illusory. And the country is paying the price for that now, as it slides back into the same condition (only worse, what with us bombing some of the bits that were left intact by previous wars) it was in when we stormed in, flags a'waving.

Posted by AnneZook at 10:41 AM | Comments (0)
Pay As You Go

Looks to me like our national network of OpEd columnists is largely owned by politicians. Maybe the outright "pay for coverage" scandal is less of a scandal than a revelation of what "business as usual" has turned into in politics?

Maybe we should be considering Doug Bandow's words very, very carefully?

But, he added, "this episode ought to do more; it ought to spur a serious discussion about the punditry game. After all, isn't it a little unseemly for Washington to be suddenly shocked, shocked at the fact that those with interests in what government does (such as Abramoff and his clients) seek out like-minded advocates (such as me and hundreds of other commentators and organizations)?"

Bandow said that, over the years, he "created a patchwork of jobs. I ghostwrote Op-Ed articles, drafted political speeches, prepared internal corporate briefings and strategized business media campaigns. All the while, I also wrote commentary and opinion pieces. Clearly, the ethical boundaries in all this aren't always obvious. Virtually everyone I worked with or wrote for had an ax to grind."

The ex-columnist also said: "How can we be sure that newspapers keep advertisers out of news decisions? Don't broadcast media hire consultants and pollsters to contribute to their news coverage, people who could benefit financially from promoting the ideas of their other clients? And haven't reporters sometimes pocketed thousands of dollars speaking at conventions or corporate events and then covered those businesses -- or their issues -- in one way or another?"

Yes, to some extent it's a rationalization of what he did. But looked at another way, it's a warning, loud and clear, that what many of us have been saying is true. We need to take a good, hard look at the "news media" in this country. Who's paying for it, who's supporting it, and who's using it for what?

And the media needs to take a good, hard look at itself.

It doesn't really matter that these are the Op-Ed pages and not the news pages. The principle remains. People reading the papers or magazines are entitled to know if the columnist's support has been purchased, or even rented, by some special interest group.

And those people who pretend that the Op-Ed pages are somehow exempt from holding to moral and ethical standards because they're "not the news" are kidding themselves and we all know it. The Op-Ed pages are just as influential as the stories on the front page of the paper.

While people understand that they're "opinions" they also assume that they're the independent opinions of professional, ethical people. Not bought-and-paid-for column inches from hacks available for hire to the nearest political operative with an agenda.

Posted by AnneZook at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

Via Cursor, the story I knew we'd be seeing:

The Sago Mine in Tallmansville, WV, reportedly "received 208 citations from MSHA during 2005, up from 68 citations in 2004," following what is described as "one of the 'unnecessary' proposals canceled by the mining executive Bush appointed to head the MSHA."
Posted by AnneZook at 09:38 AM | Comments (2)
Still Torturer-In-Chief

So, Congress actually rammed a "don't torture people" law down the Bush Administration's throat, but then the White House dished themselves up a heaping helping of "can if we want to" ten seconds later?

WASHINGTON - When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.
After approving the bill last Friday, Bush issued a ''signing statement" -- an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law -- declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said.

''The executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President . . . as Commander in Chief," Bush wrote, adding that this approach ''will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President . . . of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."

Some legal specialists said yesterday that the president's signing statement, which was posted on the White House website but had gone unnoticed over the New Year's weekend, raises serious questions about whether he intends to follow the law.

A senior administration official, who spoke to a Globe reporter about the statement on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said the president intended to reserve the right to use harsher methods in special situations involving national security.

''We are not going to ignore this law," the official said, noting that Bush, when signing laws, routinely issues signing statements saying he will construe them consistent with his own constitutional authority. ''We consider it a valid statute. We consider ourselves bound by the prohibition on cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment."

So, this Administration routinely issues statements that they'll interpret laws to suit themselves?

Or is this some kind of routine feature of the presidency that I didn't know about? Do all presidents find it necessary to issue statements that they'll actually follow (or, not, as the case may be) laws they've just signed into existence? Is there some assumption that the president isn't bound by the law without such a statement?

I need a constitutional law expert.

Update: Ahhh...I see. The "signing statement" already existed, but thanks to Alito, the Bush Administration is trying to use it to order the courts to interpret Laws the Bush/Cheney Way and not according to what Congress meant.

Posted by AnneZook at 09:11 AM | Comments (1)
January 03, 2006
What's Old

So, taking a look back at 2005, I guess it was a successful blog year. Blog traffic around here nearly doubled over 2004. Odd but flattering. 4.

Other bloggers have more interesting things to celebrate, including some really excellent posts, some old, and some new.

Iím here to protect you.

I know your name. I know your address. I know the names of everyone living with you.

I know where you work. I know what you really think about your employer. I know when you called in sick but really werenít. I know your medical condition. I know what your doctor thinks of you.

If you get a moment, pop over to archie's and share your own personal woo-woo story.

Pam's House Blend points us to the 12 Warning Signs of Fascism.

Over at Political Animal, Steve Benen offers us a little Taking 'Stock', wherein we are reminded that the stock market not only ended this year on a down note, but is actually down for Bush's entire time in office. In short, after five years of cutting taxes to help the economy, we're worse off than we were before he took office...and that's saying something.

Over at Republic of T, Terrance links to blogs discussing possible Progressive platforms for 2006 and beyond, plus his own ideas. We all need to be considering this. (My suggestions? Soon. Very soon.)

AVedon Carol offered an excellent handful of links today (don't miss the Iraqi airstrikes story) as well as, from Sunday, Facing a dying nation.

David Sirota offers a link to an excellent LATimes story on the vanishing middle class.

Azael over at Hellblazer has a Black n' White post.

At Hullabaloo, Digby is talking about Contextualizing Basically, bloggers are doing the research journalist don't seem to do any more, which is why it's good we have bloggers. And don't miss this older but good post on The Liberty Platform.

And, last but not least, over at The Poor Man Institute, The Editors have a good entry on partying like it's 1859.

Posted by AnneZook at 09:20 AM | Comments (3)
January 02, 2006