Monthly Archives: October 2014

Do Unto Others

Toilet Seat Battle

Toilet Seat Battle

At this stage in human history, one would think that we have a pretty good idea about human nature and its effect on the way people think and act. So it continues to amaze me how many perfectly intelligent people routinely discount the concept of self-interest and expect everyone to act selflessly whenever they are asked to do so. When people do not do as asked, instead of finding other solutions that work better and are in harmony with human nature, these rule makers get upset and try to enforce their preferred rules.

Let’s start with an example that occurs between people with a strong family and emotional attachment. Surely, this attachment will be sufficient to overcome any self interest that gets in the way, no? Take the toilet seat issue for instance. Yes, we are dealing with huge issues of vital importance to the human race today. Women are constantly complaining about men who do not put the seat down after they use it. I’m simply trying to reduce the divorce and murder rate one issue at a time.

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Barbie & Ken Toilet Seat Fight

Just looking at this Barbie and Ken diorama, it seems self evident that some people take this issue way too seriously. One would think that people who live together and share a significant family bond would be most likely to agree to a simple request such as this. However, it is apparent that even close personal ties are not sufficient to get many men to comply. To paraphrase Einstein, asking for the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Let’s look into this insidious and divisive social problem in more detail to get at the root of the problem. There are three primary reasons for wanting the toilet seat down. To clarify, we are talking about both the seat you sit on when using it and the cover that sits above it. First, it is more sanitary to put the cover down before flushing so that germs don’t go flying into the air with the spray of water. Second, women always need to have the seat down for their own use and don’t want to accidentally sit down in the dark only to find that it isn’t down. Third, it is more aesthetic to have the open bowl covered.

Smart Toilet

Smart Toilet

This problem could be solved technically if there was sufficient demand for the development of a bowl that would have to be in the closed position before it could be flushed. I’ve watched enough episodes of Shark Tank, American Inventor, and other invention shows to know that there are a lot of people out there attempting to design and sell new, improved toilet systems. Really. Lots of them. I guess there must be plenty of time to think about toilet design while using the toilet. I’m sorry to say that I’ve even tinkered with my own toilet designs. In fact, a ton of special toilets have been designed to address the problem of containing germs. The Japanese are known for making smart toilets that can even analyze your health. But since no significant consumer demand has materialized for these devices, it is probably not important enough for people to be willing to pay much for it. Sure, we will complain about it, but when it comes time to put up the dough or shut up, we shut up.

Toilet Seat Flowchart

Toilet Seat Flowchart

So, maybe this issue really isn’t about germs. Maybe it is really just about providing women with the convenience of not having to think about putting the seat down before use. The ability to not have to think does come in handy in the middle of the night. At other times, I would argue that it isn’t exactly a virtue. In this case, why don’t women just get in the habit of spending a fraction of a second to lower the seat themselves? This is the most simple, easy, and foolproof solution. Statistically, if women and men go to the bathroom the same number of times per day, the seat will need to be down more than 50% of the time, but most of the time it will only need to be that way for the women. So, why spend so much effort attempting to transfer the work of lowering the lid from women to men for no other gain? If men are not concerned enough to do it, why spend so much emotional effort complaining about and trying to force them to do something that is not in their self interest?

This leads me to believe it can’t really be about the effort required to lower the seat. Why? Because the seat is also usually covered by a seat cover, so if proper toilet etiquette is followed, then it will always be necessary to lift the cover before sitting down. The act of lifting the cover is hardly different from the motion of lowering the seat. In fact, the act of opposing the force of gravity while lifting up actually takes a greater effort than lowering down. Granted, it is probably too small to actually measure or care about, but if we want to analyze this using proper scientific method, it is an important detail.

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Toilet Seat Etiquette

Maybe it isn’t about effort and is just about appearance. After all, the rim of the bowl often does get soiled by boys and men who just don’t have good enough aim to hit the center of the target. Even if they do hit the target dead on, the taller the person, the more time the stream has to accelerate, the harder the impact, and more likely that fluid will be ejected out of the toilet. In other words, boys and men make a mess that is best cleaned up (fat chance) or at least covered up. Unfortunately, men don’t seem to be bothered by this as much as women. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to hide the mess, but it is still an exercise in frustration to try and go against human nature (i.e. laziness), especially with toddlers or teenage boys. My suggestion, girls, is to stop complaining and ask your guy to buy a new gadget, which he is far more likely to actually do. If you can make a problem go away using technology, I think it’s a much better bet than relying on human nature alone. Find a toilet that closes and maybe even flushes by itself and pay whatever it costs. As soon as I figure it out, you can find me and my gadget on Shark Tank.

Now let’s move on to an example that involves strangers who have no particular incentive to help each other. I have had the great pleasure, during my working life, to experience frequent workplace reorganizations and associated desk moves. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to go into my pet peeve about reorganizations that make managers feel like they are doing something but actually achieve nothing. No, I’m going to stick to the issue at hand. When I receive one of these not-infrequent desk changes, facilities managers often ask people to clean up their desk before moving so that everyone will have a clean desk when they arrive at their new desk. Sounds reasonable, but if you detect something wrong with this request, you already understand human nature.

Dirty Desks

Dirty Desks

I have never, ever, ever, moved into a clean desk that somebody else just vacated. On the contrary, it is always dusty, dirty, and sprinkled with food stains and who knows what else. The keyboard is usually full of crumbs while the mouse and telephone handsets have crud on them. So, of course, I always end up cleaning and disinfecting my new desk thoroughly before use. No problem. It’s what I expect. I don’t expect others to be as clean as me or to do something for me that I’m perfectly capable of doing myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can and will do a better job. If it’s my desk, I have an incentive to clean it. If I’m leaving the desk forever, I have no incentive. This is simple human nature trumping consideration for others.

But back to the original request, which was to clean my OLD desk before moving. If I had actually complied with that request, it would have meant I had to clean two desks every time I moved! For the record, my desk is never that dirty, but I think you get the point. Why would I want to clean two desks so somebody else doesn’t have to clean any, which is what is most likely to happen? Considering the state of most desks I have moved into, I have to assume that many people are actually pigs who don’t even care about their own cleanliness.

Back to the original request again. It runs counter to human nature and there isn’t even any net benefit. The only possible benefit goes to those who break the rules, while the rule followers pays the price of non-compliance. If two desks need to be cleaned by two people, why shouldn’t we both just clean our own instead of somebody else’s? It is absolutely foolish to ever ask one person to do something for you and expect you to do the same for them when both are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. But this kind of request is heard all the time out of some idealistic desire to order the world the way somebody thinks it should be. Why can’t we just accept that people often are not even willing to do something for themselves, so they certainly can’t be expected to do that same thing for anyone else! The lesson we should all know by now, and which will probably work as long as humanity exists, is to stop relying on people to do things for someone else rather than for themselves.

Sick at Work

Sick at Work

I don’t want to beat this into your skull with a bat, but let me provide one more example. This time, people are asked to make a sacrifice for others that actually yields a net benefit to the group. So, it isn’t an unreasonable request and really would be nice if people helped each other out. The issue whether or not people should come into work or school sick and thereby expose everyone else to illness. A bad idea, right? So, why does it happen all the time? You know it does. I see sick people at work all the time and my kids go to school with others who should be home in bed, but instead spread the illness to the rest of the class.

Sick at School

Sick at School

According to many studies, the cost to US employers of people coming to work sick, now called “presenteeism,” is between $150-250 billion per year and growing in tough economic times. A 2010 survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that employees who had no sick days were more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

We all know that it happens and we all ask people to not do this. But it has always happened and will continue to happen because people place the need to get paid over the need to rest at home in bed. Asking people to stay home doesn’t generally work because people do what is best for themselves regardless of the consequences for others. Sure, some people actually feel responsible enough to act in the best interests of all, but overall, it is human nature at work.

Combining all paid time off into one pool doesn’t work because people consider their time off to be for vacation, not for sick days. Overworking people or failing to cross-train others to do their job forces them to come into work to keep up and to protect their job. Tracking “productivity” by the number of days worked instead of by value delivered also deters people from taking time off. Failing to provide any work-at-home options eliminates the chance of staying out of the office when necessary.

So, what are some real solutions to this problem? Many companies offer free flu shots to employees to prevent illness. That’s a good start, but it usually doesn’t apply to families and it doesn’t help if someone still manages to get sick. Other companies offer a generous number of sick days off, offer telecommuting options, cross-train employees, and ensure that employees know that they are not at risk of losing a potential promotion or even their jobs.

School Video Robot

School Video Robot

What about keeping kids out of school sick? Well, we could rely on wishful thinking that all adults will have good enough employers to be able to take the day off and take care of their kids, or we could recognize that this just doesn’t work and think of something else. Perhaps we could provide a school infirmary where some sick kids could stay if parents cannot take time off. If they are still capable of learning, they could view a video feed from the classroom using a video robot so they don’t have to miss the entire day, or maybe they could do some computer-based exercises or work on other assignments if they don’t feel too bad. This would require some additional expense, but might pay off in the long run in terms of educational effectiveness and lower absenteeism.

Unfortunately, we also have to consider the self-interest of the school system. I’ll bet you didn’t know that schools get evaluated and funded based partly on their attendance record, so it is in the interest of the school to deter your kids from missing too much school. When one of my kids was out sick too much one year, someone from the Board of Education actually told us we should just send him to school sick and let the school nurse determine, if necessary, whether or not he needed to be sent home. I’m not kidding. Obviously, teachers don’t want sick kids in their classroom, but there is some pressure on administrators to get them into school anyway, so why not just do it in a smart way that doesn’t threaten the health of everyone else?

OK, I’ll stop this rant with my final recommendation. We need to stop ignoring human nature and start working around it as best we can. Stop expecting to change people in ways that just do not work. The Marxists tried to create a society based on the ideal of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” We all saw how well that worked, although some seem to have forgotten. People look out for themselves and require incentives to do things that benefit others.

We are what we are, and it doesn’t help much to expect people to follow the Golden Rule just because you asked nicely. People are most likely going to do unto others as others would actually do unto them, but not as they would want them to do. Sorry. It isn’t pretty, but it is reality. As Ronald Reagan said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Failing to recognize the power of self interest embedded in our human nature results in poorly-designed laws that benefit law breakers and social rules that benefit rule breakers. Does it really have to be this way?

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule

For further research and discussion, go to the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette (yes, it really exists!).

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Plucking the Goose

Follow the Money to Congress

Follow the Money to Congress

How much fairness is there in our current tax system? Let’s just admit right from the start that taxation isn’t about being fair. Since fairness is a relative and very subjective concept, we will never, ever, have a system designed to be fair. Politicians privately never even seriously discuss what is really fair and only come up with trivial measures of wealth that do not reflect the complexity of reality. So, how can anyone expect to ever agree? The best we can do is to discuss what is tolerable and workable. People who disagree and are intelligent or wealthy enough will usually find some ways to get around the tax system. The tax system is really about power.

The Art of Taxation

The Art of Taxation

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” – Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV of France

For years, people watching Congress have complained about the lack of effective campaign finance reform and how it is needed to stop corruption in Congress. The group Citizens Against Government Waste publishes an annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. In their 2010 Congressional Pig Book, they identify 9,129 projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2010. While this figure has been higher in the past, it is still chump change when compared to other benefits that can be bestowed by Congress on its supporters.

Tax Reform

Tax Reform

Campaign finance reform is a Red Herring. It is merely a futile attempt to limit what members of Congress can receive in return for the favor of campaign contributions. However, it fails to address the way in which favors can be granted that drive contributors to donate to their campaigns in the first place. It also fails to address the issue of favors granted for financial benefits that an elected official expects to receive after leaving office. In other words, it addresses the symptoms of the problem (campaign donations) without addressing the cause of the disease (the power of Congress to grant favors). The tax code is one method that empowers corrupt legislators, so it stands to reason that another way of reducing government corruption is to reduce the power that Congress has to mis-use the tax code.

Income Tax Criminals

Income Tax Criminals

“The income tax created more criminals than any other single act of government.” – Former Senator Barry Goldwater

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and health products sector spent at least $855 million on lobbying from 1998, through June 2005. They also gave nearly $107 million in federal campaign contributions. According to IMS Health, the top 20 pharmaceutical firms had nearly 77 percent share of the $253 billion United States prescription drug market in 2005. What benefit did they gain from such expenditures?

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 barred the federal government from negotiating on prices of drugs supplied through Medicare. In January 2007, the Senate failed to act on a bill that would have allowed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. In May 2007, a drug-import plan that would have eased the process of importing cheaper prescription drugs into the country from Canada and other foreign countries was defeated. In November 2007, legislation that would have prevented reverse payment, or the practice of brand-name drug companies paying generic drug manufacturers to delay market entry of generic medications, stalled in Congress.

One of the largest underfunded benefit programs in the federal budget is Medicare, yet Congress has blocked initiatives to lower the cost of prescription drugs because it would have reduced the profits of the largest pharmaceutical companies. They would rather drive up the deficit and the national debt than allow any attempts to lower prices.

Tax Revenue History

Tax Revenue History

In 2004, President Bush signed into law a bill that created a special low tax rate that a coalition of 60 corporations had spent several years and about $1.6 million lobbying for. It reduced the tax rate on earnings from foreign operations for one year from 35% to 5%, saving them about $100 billion in taxes. Some backers say $100 billion overstates the savings because some of the foreign deals would not have been made without the lower rate, which was essentially taxpayer-subsidized business.

What was so great about the above deal other than the money the lobbyists made? It was the fact that the tax break was only a temporary measure, meaning that they would have to come back and lobby or donate some more if they want future benefits. Their ability to pass temporary measures fuels the power of Congress to extract more money from its supporters later.

Invasion of the Lobbyists

Invasion of the Lobbyists

Why are the lobbyists so powerful? No only are they extremely well paid to influence Congress, they also include former members of Congress and well-connected staffers. As of a 2005 report compiled by a watch group called Public Citizen, 43% of the 198 members who have left Congress since 1998 and were eligible to lobby have become registered lobbyists (86 lawmakers).

While departing Congresspersons are restricted from lobbying for one year after they leave office, they often “advise” other lobbyists during that time. They also have the special privilege of retaining access to the House and Senate floor as well as private gyms and restaurants available only to Members of Congress.

Approximately $2.1 billion was spent on lobbying in 2004, but for organizations to spend that much money, the expected return on investment would have to be several times larger. For instance, the Carmen Group Inc., a mid-size lobbying firm, annually publicizes its clients’ costs and compares them with the benefits they receive. In 2004, Carmen claimed to have collected $11 million in fees while delivering $1.2 billion worth of benefits to its clients.

The bottom line is that pork barrel spending is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits that paid lobbyists are looking to exploit. The tax code, which is responsible for the generation of trillions in revenue per year, holds the key to a much larger source of potential financial benefits. This is why tax reform isn’t so much about fairness as it is about the ability of incumbents to acquire wealth and power.

Cost of Tax Breaks

Cost of Tax Breaks

Campaign finance reform can only hope to try and limit the ways in which Congress can be influenced, and is most likely to fail because of a little thing called the first amendment as well as the innate human ability to avoid or evade rules or get special loopholes. But tax reform is a way to eliminate the power they have to make campaign donations worthwhile in the first place. There is no point in bribing someone who has no power to help you, is there? So, let’s start thinking about how we can implement tax reform in such a way as to reduce the power of Congress to reward supporters.

I don’t care if you think a simple tax system is going to be fair. No tax will ever seem fair. If it is able to reduce corruption in Congress, I’d pay double because it will eventually save us from financial ruin and allow the people to take back its government.

Fix Broken Tax Code

Fix Broken Tax Code

Wired for Destruction

Human Progress

Human Progress

There is a tendency in science fiction writing to assume that our civilization will progress far into the future, but that humanity will retain all its current flaws. That is, we will acquire increasingly advanced technology, but will never really evolve into creatures of greater intelligence with fewer of the social and emotional problems that cause conflict among us. How are we likely to evolve? Will we improve, stay the same, or get worse over the next few million years?

Are we destined to become a society of idiots with blasters and flying cars? Will we spend our time gossiping, watching the Kardashian girls take naked yoga lessons, going to see boxing robots, or going to the Jersey shore while robots do all the real work? Can we look forward to a life of leisure where everything is provided for us, so we have nothing better to do than act like a bunch of spoiled, lazy high school brats? How will this make us happier if we still have the same flaws as ever? Or will we become even more depressed without the distractions of work and family responsibility?

Global Suicide Map

Global Suicide Map

Statistics seem to show that suicide is on the rise worldwide, with a 60% increase in the past 45 years. It is natural to want to know why this is happening, but I prefer to ask a different question. Will this trend continue and, if so, how will it help or hurt our evolution as a species? Could suicide be a major evolutionary factor?

Suicide Rates Rising

Suicide Rates Rising

One of the core tenets of evolutionary theory is that those who are best adapted to their environment will thrive and those who are not well adapted will fail. Does that mean that suicide is another indication that a creature is maladapted to its environment and another way of strengthening the gene pool? If so, it is just a normal part of evolution and can be expected to continue indefinitely. Hopefully, I don’t get flamed for this, since suicide isn’t a trivial issue and it can be devastating to those left behind. But I still have to ask the questions anyway.

Suicides by Race

Suicides by Race

A recent study showed that African Americans had a far lower suicide rate than Caucasian Americans. Since African Americans have generally lower levels of wealth and opportunity, and poverty is correlated with lower levels of happiness, some have asked why suicide rates would be lower rather than higher. No, I’m not going to suggest that there is an inverse correlation between wealth and happiness. One theory is that the suicide rate is actually masked by a higher homicide rate, because many of the homicides may actually be suicides where the victim takes advantage of a dangerous environment to allow himself to be killed. At a minimum, the victim may simply disregard the risks of a situation because he just doesn’t care. If this is true, it follows that, as homicide rates decline within a community, thus reducing the opportunity for an easy way to die, intentional suicide rates will rise.

This seems plausible because there are other indications that suicide rates are masked by other forms of death. Deaths from single car accidents, where only one car is involved, increase at approximately the same times of the year that suicide rates increase. This correlation is significant because it indicates that people are intentionally killing themselves with their cars or engaging in uncharacteristically risky behavior.

Suicides by Method

Suicides by Method

In Scandinavia, where an obsession with safety has resulted in lower deaths from accidents, suicide rates are among the highest in the world. This is another possible indication that people kill themselves by other means rather than the traditional methods, which include firearms, hanging, suffocation, and poisoning.

Joiner's Theory of Suicide

Joiner’s Theory of Suicide

If people commit suicide because they are not well adapted to their environment, then it follows that one way to reduce the suicidal tendency is to provide sufficient social mobility for people to move to a different environment to which they are better adapted. But social and physical mobility today is greater than it has ever been before. People are, in many cases, able to move from their home to a new city or country more easily and quickly than ever before. In addition, people can communicate with other like-minded people via the Internet more effectively than ever before. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense that suicide rates should go up rather than fall if they are more able to change their environment. Unless, greater connectivity provides an even greater feeling of isolation when we compare ourselves to our perceptions of everyone else.

Could it be that suicide rates increase with level of intelligence? If so, it might be a limiting factor in the evolution of our brains. Some studies do show a correlation between IQ level and suicide, but others show an inverse correlation between IQ and suicide. Some studies show that wealth is correlated with greater happiness and lower rates of suicide. A major study conducted in Sweden appears to indicate that people with mid-range IQs have higher suicide rates. Maybe they are smart enough to understand that there are opportunities available to intelligent people that are not available to those of low intelligence, but they just aren’t quite smart or skilled enough to take advantage of them.

In other words, people of low intelligence don’t know what they are missing, so they are happy with what they have, while people of the highest intelligence are generally more able to get what they want. Those in the middle with moderate intelligence fully understand what they are unable to obtain and don’t like it.

Suicide vs. Fertility

Suicide vs. Fertility

Oh, but we’re not done yet. There are more factors to consider. There also seems to be a correlation between lower national levels of fertility and higher rates of suicide. Countries such as Japan and Sweden have a very low birthrate and among the highest suicide rates. The United States and the rest of the industrialized world also have declining fertility rates and increasing suicide rates. It makes sense that people who have kids will feel a greater responsibility to stay alive to ensure their kids survive and thrive, a basic evolutionary trait of successful species.

Even though these are relatively wealthy countries, relative wealth does not seem to be a significant enough factor. While the United States is experiencing a growth in income disparity, Sweden and Japan both have a low rate of income disparity. So, we can’t necessarily say that it is just the have not’s within a society who are the ones more likely to be unhappy enough to kill themselves.

Suicide Rates by Country

Suicide Rates by Country

Of course, suicide also must have a lot to do with mood, and studies show that physical exercise improves mood and therefore feelings of overall happiness. I’m sure there are also associations between levels of physical fitness and wealth, nationality, and many other factors that need to be considered. Suicide prevention is really a complicated issue and is probably better addressed in other indirect ways. We can’t just stop an unhappy person from killing himself if he really wants to. Since men have much higher rates of suicide than women, I feel pretty comfortable using “he” instead of he or she.

Exercise and Happiness

Exercise and Happiness

When you look at what data are available, it isn’t possible to come to a certain conclusion. However, my gut feel is that the factors most likely to decrease suicide rates are wealth combined with high intelligence, physical fitness, and high social and geographic mobility, which may decrease the reasons to commit suicide, as well as high fertility, which may decrease one’s willingness to go through with suicide when the desire is there. The only problem is that the first four factors usually lead to low fertility rates (i.e. fewer kids). Slower population growth is better in terms of resource sustainability, but worse when it comes to suicide.

So, I think the bottom line is this. The intelligent, wealthy people will have less of a reason to commit suicide, but fewer offspring, so they will kill themselves when they feel like it. The unintelligent poor will keep reproducing at a higher rate, but will be less likely to kill themselves in large numbers because they are too busy working and taking care of their kids. Those in the middle will probably just self destruct or slowly disappear. This means that the outlook for a continued increase in overall human intelligence may be kind of low. Just when some of us start to get really smart, we get overtaken by the rest of the dumb masses.

Mongol Empire

Mongol Empire

It used to be that the smartest and most powerful people would and could reproduce prolifically, as in the case of Genghis Khan, who is estimated to be the direct genetic forefather of about half a percent of the world’s population. For all we know, the higher scores that Asians get on academic tests could even be traced directly back to the genes of that one brilliant Mongol conqueror himself! Of course, he was also responsible for the deaths of about 11 percent of the world’s population.

The solution? Intelligent, wealthy people should go back to the practices of our ancestors that served us so well. They should stop being monogamous and start spreading their seed around a lot more than they have been lately. We need to get that fertility rate up to help increase our happiness, decrease the suicide rate, and increase the overall level of human intelligence!

“Really, honey, I’m just thinking of the human race as a whole when I say I need to spread the wealth, and my genetics, around a bit more. We can’t possibly spend a billion dollar fortune now, can we? But if I had a couple hundred kids…. Can we do it for the human race? Sometimes you just have to sacrifice a little of yourself for the good of society.”

This theory has also inspired me to come up with some great new reality TV shows. Here are some suggestions: “Indecent Proposals of the Rich and Famous” or “Hollywood OBGYN” or “The Duggar Challenge,” or “The Billionaire Bunch.” Maybe Forbes will have a special issue covering the most prolific billionaires of the year.

The rich and powerful also had a tendency to wage a lot of wars and get a lot of their people killed, but I’m not saying we need to start killing more dumb people. They usually end up doing that to themselves anyway. As long as we don’t get too crazy with new safety regulations, and we reform tort laws so people can’t sue someone else when they do something really stupid, the dumbest of the dumb won’t survive long enough to worry about!

Intelligent Evolution

I think I can evolve....

I think I can evolve….

The theory of evolution, as formulated by Charles Darwin, proposes that creatures evolve through random mutation and that the subsequent competition among and within species results in the survival of those with the most successful characteristics. There is strong evidence that random mutation occurs and that competition leads to survival of the fittest. But is this theory a complete explanation for the process of evolution, or just one major part?

I knew I could evolve!

I knew I could evolve!

Darwin’s evidence is compelling, but it does not exclude the possibility of other biological mechanisms at work. We cannot, for instance, prove that all mutation is random. In fact, there is reason to believe that some genetic changes may be induced by organisms themselves in response to changes in the environment. This needs to be studied in a rigorous scientific way. The hypothesis would be that non-random evolutionary mutations occur when an organism is subjected to different environmental conditions. We may further hypothesize that mutations can be induced by either changes in the physical environment and the mental, hormonal or other states of the organism.

Microbiome

Microbiome

Deeply religious people who deny the scientific validity of evolution prefer to believe that there is a superior intelligence directing all biological changes. They claim to have a scientific basis for their theories about an intelligent designer, but really have nothing more than a belief in god and their resultant doubts about evolution. But what if organisms actually have the inherent capability to influence their own design? Could it be that our DNA can be easily altered when necessary? Can the microorganisms living within us adapt by prompting changes within our own DNA? Humans are just not singular organisms, we are a microbiome comprised mostly of bacteria and other organisms, including more than 10 times as many bacteria cells as human cells.

A complex organism such as a human might require many generations over an extremely long period of time to adapt to an environmental change through random mutation. But what if we don’t have very long to adapt or die in a crisis? The organisms within our bodies are short-lived and therefore can adapt much more quickly. What if we rely on these organisms to speed up own own adaptation? If these organisms can adapt quickly to our body’s changing internal environment, which is affected by our external environment, and respond by manipulating our bodies, doesn’t that mean that genetic changes can be driven by environmental changes as perceived through our senses of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight? Are changes activated subconsciously or in reaction to conscious mental perceptions of environmental changes or simply due to the influence of our microbiome?

In March 2005, a Perdue University study revealed that Arabidopsis plants, a member of the mustard family that is a favorite experimental subject, can correct defective genes inherited from their parents. Although both parents had mutated versions of a particular gene, they discovered that ten percent of the children had somehow repaired the mutant gene using ancestral DNA. This accidental discovery showed that there is another way that genetic information can be inherited that was previously unknown. These plants, in effect, were able to reverse the process of mutation through use of a “backup” copy of older DNA. We need to understand the conditions under which evolutionary mutations can be reversed. Was this a random event or a reactive response to a bad mutation induced by the organism itself? This ability to reverse the evolutionary process may be infrequent and does not invalidate the theory of evolution, but it should lead to a refinement of the theory.

Natural Camouflage

Natural Camouflage

Is there secret information in our DNA? We know that our DNA is like an incredibly detailed blueprint for the creation and operation of our bodies. It contains instructions for when to activate and when to turn off certain genes. Maybe it also contains information on how our genes can be modified to better enable us to adapt to environmental changes. If adaptability is such an important trait, why wouldn’t it make sense for an organism to gain an advantage by building in the capability to adapt through deliberate mutation instead of just random mutation? We may not be chameleons able to change our color at will, but maybe, given enough stimulus over a long period of time, we can slowly change our eye color, our skin color, our hair color, and many other aspects of our bodies rather than wait for a random mutation to do the job for us.

Not your average bear

Not your average bear

It would be useful to examine that ability of an organism to induce mutations by creating studies to measure the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones. The study would have to create artificial changes in the physical environment such that certain mutations could be clearly defined as advantageous or disadvantageous. An organism that already has advantageous characteristics (e.g. different color scheme, thicker skin, more hair) would be examined to provide a point of reference for likely trait changes that may be observed. If the frequency of advantageous mutations compared to disadvantageous ones is greater in the study groups than in the control group, then we will have some indication that mutations can be induced.

A further step would be to examine the ability of an organism to induce mutations mentally. Such a study would replace changes to environmental conditions with the mental perception of a particular event. The event could be something that clearly benefits an organism with advantageous characteristics and punishes those with disadvantageous ones. The ability of simple organisms to perceive and react to threats to their survival might make such a study possible. However, the threats would have to be perceived rather than real and there would have to be a set of advantageous and disadvantageous responses to that threat that would affect the genetic makeup of their offspring.

Exploding Toads?

Exploding Toads?

The ability of organisms to perceive threats is well known. A mysterious case of exploding toads caught the attention of journalists in 2005. It turns out that in a particular part of Germany, birds had learned that toads had tasty livers and had learned how to swoop down and pluck them out. The toads responded to this increased threat by puffing up their chests so much that they started exploding by the thousands. I wonder if this case of widespread fear will induce a genetic change that increases the ability of toad offspring to puff up their chests or to protect them in some other way instead of relying on natural selection to weed out the bad genes.

Some believe that spiritual or energy healers can cure physical conditions in our bodies. If this is true, can this same process be used to induce permanent changes in our genes? Since a sophisticated study of the ability to mentally induce mutations may require the ability to perceive and understand current events or to anticipate future events, it may be necessary to limit participation to the most intelligent animals or human subjects. The placebo effect is well known and taken into account in all medical studies to ensure that the effect of new drugs can be established separately from the mentally-induced effect upon people who believe they are taking a new drug. Perhaps a similar methodology can be developed to measure the ability of people to induce mutations in their own DNA.

For example, a controlled study could be established that purports to be testing out a new drug designed to cure an inheritable condition. The cure for the condition would have to clearly require changes to a well-known gene. A successful study would require that couples take the placebo before conceiving children and subsequently have children who exhibit the needed changes to that gene. The probability that such mutations could have occurred randomly would have to be statistically insignificant. Unfortunately, the ability of humans to induce specific genetic changes may be extremely rare, so the chance of success in such a study may be extremely low if it does not have a huge sample population.

There may be other ways to test the ability of people to mentally influence the functioning of their bodies that do not require actual genetic changes. The survival of the fittest rewards characteristics that promote the continuation of the species, so experiments that involve reproduction are important. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that human couples have more babies after men return from a war than they would otherwise have had in more normal circumstances. While the variables in this situation are many (e.g. the amount of sex and the effects of long periods of abstinence, restricted diet, and extreme physical and mental exertion) it leads me to ask another question. Are military couples more likely to conceive prior to a deployment for war than they would if they did not anticipate such a deployment? If so, the factors that influence the answer should be limited to the effects of mental anticipation and the number of times they have sex.

There is also anecdotal evidence of people being unable to conceive a child when under extreme stress but able to do so as soon as that stress is relieved. It would be useful to study this and determine if humans have the capacity to suppress the functioning of their own reproductive system through the release of hormones or some other mechanism. If so, it will provide additional support to the theory that a variety of physical changes can be induced mentally and can perhaps even be made permanent through changes to inheritable genes.

I can’t say I’ve seen compelling evidence that changes in DNA can be deliberate as well as random, but I suspect this is because nobody is looking. Scientists usually have no interest in challenging a well-accepted theory, and they are even less likely to do so when the only ones challenging it are non-scientific types like the Intelligent Design crowd. No respectable scientist would want to be caught dead on their side. So, who is willing to take a new, fresh, look at the theory of evolution to refine and build upon it? Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t wrong about classical mechanics, but Albert Einstein corrected his work with his theories of relativity. Who is willing to build on the work of Charles Darwin? It has been long enough. The time has come.

UPDATE: Pressure from scientists to update the theory of evolution beyond what Darwin proposed has been growing. Also see this book: What Darwin Didn’t Know.

Alien Politics

Roswell UFO Crash

Roswell UFO Crash

Many people believe that an alien craft crash-landed at Roswell, NM in 1947. The main problem I have with this has nothing to do with the existence of extraterrestrials, the possibility that they may have been visiting our planet for thousands of years, or the probability that our own government has decided to cover up the evidence for our own peace of mind. Covering stuff up is, after all, something the government is used to doing and does fairly well when it comes to perceived national security issues or illegal activity by government officials.

The main problem I have with the Roswell incident is that I don’t understand why an advanced alien civilization would not have immediately sent out a search and rescue party to recover the bodies and ship debris and, if possible, clear out the memories of anyone involved in the discovery. There could be many explanations for this, so let’s do some postulating.

UFO Observing Earth

UFO Observing Earth

With the rise of smart phones and GPS, we have become pretty good at locating each other. I would expect a super-advanced alien civilization to be even better at locating each other precisely, so there shouldn’t have been any question as to where the ship went down. If we can build an accurate GPS system, they’ve got to have something much, much better.

On the other hand, what if they don’t need all the technological gadgets that we do? We developed GPS mainly so we could do a better job of spying and dropping bombs on each other. Maybe that just isn’t a concern for them. Maybe they really can communicate via telepathy, or via some kind of biological communications technology embedded in their brains, so they don’t need some artificial tracking device to tell them where their buddies are. Besides, would tracking devices even work through wormholes or during time-warping travel? Telepathic aliens  might normally be in contact at all times, so it could be that there just isn’t any market need for tracking devices.

UFO Crash

UFO Crash

What if the ship that crashed at Roswell was disabled before they could send out a telepathic or technical call for help. Maybe the mother ship really didn’t know where they were until the local Air Force base announced the discovery and it was broadcast over the radio.

Roswell Newspaper Story

Roswell Newspaper Story

By then, enough damage had been done and perhaps it would have been too difficult to try and retrieve the bodies that were being examined by military officials. Perhaps aliens have some physical weakness and were afraid to confront too many soldiers with guns. I doubt that extraterrestrial explorers would have much need for specially-trained SWAT/special forces teams to execute covert snatch/grab operations.

Alien Attack

Alien Attack

But somehow, I doubt that our visitors would be totally helpless. Wouldn’t they at least have advanced robotics that could go into harms way for them? How do they explore hostile planetary environments that do not support their form of life? Humans are already sending robots to explore the most distant bodies in our solar system, so why wouldn’t aliens be able to do this too? Besides, there are plenty of reports of alien abductions where people have been paralyzed by an unknown force while they are kidnapped and examined or experimented on, with their memories mostly wiped except for flashbacks and dreams. So, why didn’t this happen … or did it? Maybe there is no evidence because it was later retrieved.

One might envision a scenario would go something like this.

“Captain Kloop reporting from Earth station Alpha. We just had a Grey harvest ship go down on the planet. Two are dead and one is in critical condition. The ship is a total wreck. The ape-men have already spotted the wreckage and several hundred of them are swarming over the area, so we can’t launch a quick recovery mission. We’ll have to wait until they relocate the bodies and plan out a snatch mission after nightfall. We may need a full squad of our best teleparalyzers, some kinetic beamlifters, and a recovery sweeper. Hold on, we’re picking up an ape-man broadcast announcing the crash. We’ll probably have thousands of reporters and other natives swarming over the area in a few hours. We’ll have to get some guidance from the Terrestrial Preservation Committee first.”

Men in Black

Men in Black

“Since it was just a low-tech Mini ship and it’s pretty smashed up, the committee decided to leave it up to the federal ape-man liaison group to cover up the news and retrieve the ship and its crew. We’ll notify the men in black to start working the issue.”

Using humans to work on their behalf would be a natural way to deal with any terrestrial situations that arise. Human empires have always installed colonial authorities mostly run by native peoples as an effective way of governing the locals. Why wouldn’t aliens make at least some use of humans to help them achieve whatever aims they might have? Some believe they even grow their own humans.

On the other hand, perhaps nobody came to recover the craft. What if the ship was exploring on its own and was therefore not in touch with a nearby mother ship? Maybe alien cultures have poachers and smugglers just like us. They could have been on an illicit mission that was not sanctioned by the governing authorities, or maybe there are no governing authorities.

Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens

They could have been looking for gold, or cow blood, or Earth collectibles. Maybe Earth is a wildlife preserve that is supposed to be protected for approved scientific research only and they were breaking the rules. If this were the case, maybe nobody knew that they were even there, never mind that they crashed.

Who knows what kind of alien politics could have been going on behind the scenes after the Roswell crash? Speaking of the Men in Black, could one of these buildings be their present or future headquarters? The Pentagon just doesn’t cut it anymore–it’s just so … 20th century.

GCHQ Headquarters

GCHQ Headquarters

 

Apple's Proposed Spaceship Headquarters

Apple’s Proposed Spaceship Headquarters