Review of Martin Nowak's Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

How can cooperation emerge in a world of selfish individuals ruled by a Darwinian competition for survival?

This is the question that Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University, discusses in Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Nowak and his collaborators have published a series of articles in major scientific journals that give partial answers to this question. The book provides a gentle overview of the technical results, with frequent comments about the implications for politics and economics. For example, Nowak repeatedly mentions climate change as an example of something requiring cooperation among humans.

The hope is that if we understand, mathematically, how cooperation emerges, we can better design policies and structures to promote cooperation and deter selfishness.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upwards to higher levels of organization… Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

The book has a few simple mathematical formulas, but the educated layman should be able to understand the gist of the arguments, thanks to generous use of example, analogy and simplification. Indeed, the book’s readability benefits from the aid of Roger Highfield, an author of popular science books, who helped Nowak with the writing.

Darwinian evolution is based on competition for survival, for resources, and for mates. Winners reproduce, losers leave few offspring. Due to mutations, individuals vary in their fitness. Over many generations, fitter (configurations of) genes proliferate, while weaker ones disappear.

In fact, fitness is defined in terms of ability to reproduce, so the fact that fitter individuals reproduce is something of a tautology.

Similarly to evolution, in an economy, people often act selfishly, trying to get paid as much as possible for what they sell, whether goods or their services, and trying to pay as little as possible for what they buy.

It would appear that cooperation is difficult to explain in a pure, evolution-based model or in a selfish profit-based economy. You’d expect that selfishness would always win out. But it’s clear that cooperation is common, both among non-human animals and among humans.

The basic reason is that, in the long run being nice pays off, for you or for your children, kin, or neighbors.

In the context of this book, cooperation basically means: an individual is willing to sacrifice some short-term benefit in exchange for a longer-term reward, either for itself or for related individuals (e.g., children or kin or members of the same group). In other words, cooperation is a form of reciprocity, or reciprocal altruism. This sense of cooperation isn’t as pristine or as self-sacrificing as some religious traditions’ ideals of pure selfless love. But even Christianity relies on a promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife to motivate moral behavior.

Albert Einstein once said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Unfortunately, from the point of view of biology, all we seem to have is punishment and reward, where reward means reproductive fitness: produce descendants who survive and who likewise reproduce. (It is not sufficient to have children: if your kids are too weak to survive, or if they don’t reproduce, your reproductive fitness isn’t really high.)

Yet the bearer of fitness (the entity getting the reward or punishment and that gets to reproduce) isn’t necessarily the individual of a species. Richard Dawkins famously suggests that the unit of competition and survival may be the gene: animals exist to promote the interests of their genes, not the other way around. Moreover, genes, as well as gene networks, span individuals and species.

There are also theories which say the unit of the reward is the group: related kin, or cooperating subgroups, or (at a higher level) cooperating species who live in symbiosis with one another.

Indeed, group-based reciprocity seems to be the essence of cooperation.

We are all in it together.

We are interdependent.

Nowak thinks cooperation, and not just competition, is a fundamental force in evolution.

I have argued that evolution “needs” cooperation if she is to construct new levels of organization, driving genes to collaborate in chromosomes, chromosomes to collaborate in genomes, genomes to collaborate in cells, cells to collaborate in more complex cells, complex cells to collaborate in bodies, and bodies to collaborate in societies.

A set of genes working together is an example of cooperation. And in the primordial soup, sets of cooperating chemical reactions led to the origins of life.

Within biology, there have been attempts to explain cooperation in terms of kin selection (in which an individual is willing to sacrifice itself to aid close relatives who share many genes with it). The social insects are prime examples of cooperators; the worker ants who build and defend the nest are closely related to the queen.

A related notion is group selection (aka multi-level selection), according to which groups which are more fit (e.g., due to being better cooperators) out-compete groups which are less fit.

The idea of group selection seems intuitively correct, and Darwin was aware of the role of cooperation in evolution and of the apparent presence of group selection, both in biology and in culture (where ideas or what are now called “memes” reproduce).

But there are heated disagreements among professional biologists about whether the phenomenon of group selection really occurs and about the extent to which it occurs. Richard Dawkins has famously ridiculed both the idea and the biologists who support it. Nowak seems to be among the latter group.

Examples of cooperation among humans include: lending a cup of sugar to a neighbor, taking the bus instead of driving the car, paying taxes instead of cheating, contributing to the donation plate, bringing in your neighbors’ and garbage bins from the curb, as well as more dramatic examples such as risking your life to safe someone who has fallen onto train tracks. Most parents would instinctively risk their lives to save the lives of their (small) children.

In the mathematical and computer models of cooperation, various individuals interact with other individuals, either in a well-mixed pool; in a network of connections such as on social networks; in various sets of interests groups; or on a grid. Whenever you interact with another individual, each of you decides whether to cooperate or whether you will defect (be selfish). You are rewarded or punished accordingly.

Mathematically, cooperation is formalized in the form of such a two person game. The standard game of this sort is is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  It models the situation where two prisoners who have been arrested by the police and are being interrogated separately. Each prisoner gets to choose, independently, whether to cooperate (keep his mouth shut and deny the crime) or defect (accuse his partner of the crime). If they both cooperate they each get only one year in prison on a lesser charge, because the police have insufficient evidence. If they both defect, they each get two years in prison. If one person cooperates with his partner and the other person defects, then the first person (the cooperator) gets three years in prison and the second person (the defector) gets off free.

From the point of view of each prisoner, it seems the smartest thing to do is defect.

Suppose the other person cooperates and stays mum. Then you should defect, because you get off free.

On the other hand, suppose the other person defects and accuses you of the crime, then you better defect too. For if you cooperate with your partner, you get three years in prison, whereas if you defect you get just two years in prison.

What could prevent defection is loyalty, or the knowledge that in the future, after you’re both out of prison, the other person could punish you. Likewise, in a future similar situation, where cooperation might help he will remember your betrayal.

The tragedy of the commons is a similar scenario.

In the more general game, where rewards and punishments can take the form of money or some other outcome, there are likewise four possible outcomes: Cooperate-Cooperate, Cooperate-Defect, Defect-Cooperate, and Defect-Defect. Each outcome has a (possibly different) payoff for each of you. If you both cooperate, you both get the same reward R for cooperating. If one person cooperates but the other person defects, the first person is punished (S for Sucker) bad but the other person wins a big reward (T for Temptation) If you both defect, you’re both punished slightly (P). Depending on the relative values of P,R, S, and T, and on the structure of interactions — specifically, whether you can learn about the reputation of the person you’re interacting with — cooperation may or may not emerge.The standard Prisoner’s Dilemma game has

T > R > P > S.

Yet cooperation can emerge. This result is non-intuitive, because given the inequalities above, the values P, R, S, and T guarantee that in the short-term the smartest thing to do is to defect. Here’s why. Your opponent is either going to cooperate or defect (and you won’t know which he does til after you make your move).

Assume he cooperates. Then you can win big by defecting. Here’s why. If you cooperate, you get only R. But if you defect, you get T and T>R. So, it seems you should defect.

Likewise assume he defects. Then you better defect too, because if you cooperate, then you’ll get only S, but if you defect you’ll get P, and P>S.

So in either case, the best thing to do, in the short run, is to defect.

But in a community of people playing the game repeatedly, there are benefits from cooperation. A group of cooperating individuals will have a higher fitness (reward) than a group of turncoat defectors, because R>P.

If the last time I interacted with you, you cooperated, and if I remember that, I can try cooperating again, in the hopes that you will reciprocate.

So in the presence of repeated interactions, and memory, cooperation can emerge.

Cooperators are rewarded with help from other cooperators. Defectors are punished by future defection. If cooperators gain a benefit as a group that is unavailable to defectors, then cooperation can flourish. But cooperation is always susceptible to exploitation by defectors: a population of trusting cooperators can be taken advantage of by a few defectors.  Such invasions by defectors are visible in computer simulations.

Cancerous cells can be modeled as defectors.  So can tax dodgers and alleged welfare moms who drive Mercedes.

Using the formalization of Prisoner’s Dilemma, Nowak was able to prove mathematical theorems, and run computer simulations, that show under what conditions cooperation can flourish.

He showed that cooperation emerges if you meet the other person often enough in the future and can remember the previous interactions, so you can punish or reward him. It also helps if people have a reputation that is is public knowledge or that is shared between individuals (indirect reciprocity). Furthermore, it helps if people are organized into small groups; this allows cooperators to shield themselves from being taken of advantage of by nasty defectors; large groups are difficult to police. Finally, it helps if it’s possible to move between groups, to escape defectors.

Even if we can explain cooperation biologically, in terms of kin selection, or group selection, there is still a problem: how inclusive is the in-group?  Does it include people of a different race or nationality? How about individuals of a different species?

As indicated above, the biologically inspired notion of cooperation is somewhat unsatisfying, because it still relies on a form of reciprocity, albeit at the group level. If someone chooses not to identify with the group, then why should they cooperate?

Indeed, conservatives are the consummate defectors: individualists who detest and ridicule cooperation and community endeavors, at least by governments. Conservatives detest the United Nations. They detest the International Court of Law.  Conservatives avoid paying taxes,  but typically like spending money on wars, both domestic (e.g., the wasteful and disastrous war on drugs) and foreign.  Conservatives oppose laws and regulatory agencies that deter their antisocial behavior. They under-fund the IRS, encouraging tax cheats. And they under-fund Congressional staff, so that lawmakers are dependent on lobbyists and outside groups for information.

Like parasites, conservatives destroy the body politic, all in the name of “freedom.”

Conservatives and their ideology can be defeated only when enough people wake up to the lies and the half-truths behind their movement,  and when enough people realize that we’d be better off in the long run by cooperating on building a government that works for everyone, that makes sound environmental, health, and safety policies, and that makes sure tax cheats pay their fair share.

The end of fossil-fuel powered cars

Strangers are poisoning you and your families with toxic chemicals.

Even if you don’t agree with the vast majority of climate scientists about human-caused climate change, you should believe what the American Lung Association says about the effects of vehicle exhaust on health.

In Living Near Highways and Air Pollution, The American Lung Association says living near a highway is bad for your health:

The number of people living “next to a busy road” may include 30 to 45 percent of the urban population in North America, according to the most recent review of the evidence. In January 2010, the Health Effects Institute published a major review of the evidence by a panel of expert scientists. The panel looked at over 700 studies from around the world, examining the health effects. They concluded that traffic pollution causes asthma attacks in children, and may cause a wide range of other effects including: the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular morbidity. The area most affected, they concluded, was roughly 0.2 to 0.3 miles (300 to 500 meters) from the highway.

Dementia in the elderly is also correlated with living near highways.

In short, driving a gas-powered car is like smoking a cigarette in an infant nursery.

But the solution isn’t for people to relocate away from highways, because that leads to sprawl and long commutes.

The solutions include: public transportation, more efficient vehicles, carpooling, electric cars, bicycling, shorter commutes, smarter walkable communities where residential areas aren’t separated from shopping and business areas. Instead of driving to big box stores to shop, people should walk or bike to the corner market, or at least drive shorter distances. Walkable communities are more pleasant to live in and tend to result in higher real estate values.

If you take public transportation, not only do you help save the environment and protect your and others’ health, you also get a chance to read books.  Taking the bike, even to the bus stop, gives you exercise.

Cities should be built for people, not for cars.

A generation ago it was considered acceptable for people to smoke cigarettes in restaurants. Nowadays society has recognized the dangers from second-hand smoke and has restricted cigarette smoking in public places.

A generation from today society is likely to regard driving a gas-powered vehicle with similar disapproval. Indeed, the UK will ban sales of new gas and diesel cars by 2040. Petrol and diesel ban: How will it work?: “Poor air quality is the ‘biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK’ – thought to be linked to about 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK – the government says.”

The Three Splits on the Left

There are three splits on the left: 1. The Democrats are split from the Socialists, Greens,Anarchists and others on the far left, and (2) Within the Democratic Party, the progressive Dems and Berniecrats are split from the mainstream, corporate Dems, and (3) Within the far left, the various factions rarely agree and often have weird rules about needing consensus.

Why can’t groups on the left cooperate and horse trade on various issues?

Sports as an opiate for the masses

Sports are like religion: an opiate for the masses. They distract people from political engagement.

I don’t understand why people “root” for a team. Why should Seattle’s team be better than any other city’s team? And why should residents here take pride in victories? Sports must exploit some deep-seated need of humans to belong and to have an “us versus them” mentality.

Also, sports reinforce the glorification of war, competition and capitalism, instead of cooperation.

Maybe political parties exploit that mentality too, as do religions.

Luke Held responded:

Clearly you don’t like sports. Many people do. You seem to see only the negative aspects of sports. 600,000 people were on the streets to welcome the Seahawks super bowl home. You can see that negatively, or positively, it’s up to you. Sports bring people of many cultures and classes together in support of something. I don’t really hate people from San Francisco, but it’s fun to pretend and give them crap about their team. I can also talk to nearly anyone, anywhere about sports, across generation, race, whatever. Good luck going up to anyone and talking about health care reform without a fight. You might as well take away music too. It’s obviously only distraction, right? Movies? Art? Take it all away because its only distraction?

There is a limit though. ESPN is the most lucrative businesses in the media realm. It exploits people’s love of sports. It also provides crappy non-substantive coverage of sports, but people are desperate for distraction in these times of insecurity and stress. Sports provides a much needed outlet, but the line between over saturation is far too distorted towards the distraction side. Sports in general though are critical to a culture. Balance is key.

David Markham said “Competitive sports are ideal for controlled and healthy aggression – which isn’t going away anytime soon.

I wonder if there is a correlation between sports fandom and religiosity or conservatism.

Indeed, this Forbes article from 2010 is relevant: Study: Sports Fans Skew Republican.

Blame government? Or blame corporate takeover of government?

The Daily Reckoning
January 14, 2017

Snippet: “3. Cartel Cronyism You know the drill: regulatory capture, monopolies enforced by the central state, cartels that eliminate competition via absurdly complex regulations imposed by the state, etc.
One of my correspondents, a doctor, recently sent me an example of cartel cronyism in the Big Pharma sector:

A lot of people don’t know that if a Big Pharma company makes a pill with a new dose, or new method of administration of an old, generic drug – in the eyes of the FDA it becomes a new, on-patent drug, which no other Big Pharma company can copy, thus setting the stage for making billions with minimal R&D costs.
Naloxone was invented in 1961, and was in standard use when I started my medical training in 1974. It is a terrific drug – within 60 seconds it completely reverses the effects of narcotics, making it a life-saver for folks who’ve overdosed. I have used it many times with great success. So far, so good. Per goodrx.com, I can buy two pre-loaded syringes of naloxone for $34.12 today.
There is virtually zero learning curve – it works if injected under the skin, in a muscle, or in a vein. For an untrained person facing an overdose patient, you can just stab the needle up to the hilt into a buttock or shoulder, and push the plunger – it’s that easy. If it’s truly life or death, you can stab it through clothes – sound hard?
Well, kaleo pharmaceuticals have repackaged it in an auto-injecting form, with a little voice-guided thingy – somehow managed to make it a no-copay for folks with health insurance, and you can get it in my area for – are you sitting down? – $3,844.60! That is more than one hundred times the cost of the two pre-loaded syringes.
It MIGHT be worth it if it was really hard to use, and required an auto-injector and voice commands – but it’s easy as pie – I could teach you how to use the pre-loaded syringe in 5 minutes. At a savings of $3,810.48.

The advert claims “$0 copay for commercially insured patients.” So as long as somebody else pays the $3,844.60 — insurers, the government, anybody but the patient — it’s all “free,” right?
Well, actually, no.

The soaring cost of cartel cronyism is paid by all of us when the federal government borrows money to pay the bills or insurers are nailed for fraudulent charges, overbilling, needless tests and Big Pharma’s 100-fold cost increases.

Medicare costs are expanding at a rate that far exceeds the GDP growth of the economy which supports Medicare spending.” – Charles Hugh Smith

 

Highly educated people are liberal

Pew Research reports:

A Wider Ideological Gap Between More and Less Educated Adults

Political polarization update

Two years ago, Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats were more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the previous two decades. But growing ideological distance is not confined to partisanship. There are also growing ideological divisions along educational and generational lines.

4-22-2016_01Highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values. And these differences have increased over the past two decades.

More than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%), based on an analysis of their opinions about the role and performance of government, social issues, the environment and other topics. Fewer than half as many postgrads – roughly 12% of the public in 2015– have either consistently conservative (10%) or mostly conservative (14%) values. About one-in-five (22%) express a mix of liberal and conservative opinions.

Among adults who have completed college but have not attended graduate school (approximately 16% of the public), 44% have consistently or mostly liberal political values, while 29% have at least mostly conservative values; 27% have mixed ideological views.

By contrast, among the majority of adults who do not have a college degree (72% of the public in 2015), far fewer express liberal opinions. About a third of those who have some college experience but do not have a bachelor’s degree (36%) have consistently liberal or mostly liberal political values, as do just 26% of those with no more than a high school degree. Roughly a quarter in each of these groups (28% of those with some college experience, 26% of those with no more than a high school education) have consistently conservative or mostly conservative values.

….. See http://www.people-press.org/2016/04/26/a-wider-ideological-gap-between-more-and-less-educated-adults/

Donald Trump sings: Don't Know Much about History

Don't know much about history.
Don't know much about ecology.
Don't know much about a science book.
Don't know much about the job I took.
But I do know that I'm richer than you,
And I know that if you watch Fox News
What a wonderful world this would be.

Don't know much about politics.
Don't know much about economics.
Don't know much about pollution.
Don't know much about the Constitution.
But I do know how to lie and cheat,
And I know that if you read my tweets
What a wonderful world this would be.

How the Washington State Democratic caucus worked to sabotage progressive candidates

The House Democratic caucus in Washington State supported Democrat Matt Larson over Darcy Burner in the 5th LD primary for House seat position #2.  Darcy is a strong progressive. She worked in D.C. as Executive Director of Progressive Congress and has a big following. The Democratic Caucus contributed $50,000 to Matt Larson. Later, after Darcy trounced Larson in the primary (11,014 to 5,056), the Dem Caucus donated only $20,000 to Burner.

Before the election I’d heard mumblings from a Democratic operative that Darcy was too far left, and after the election this same operative defended the caucus’s decision, saying that Larson would have been more electable.

Darcy Burner on TV

I was told by a knowledgeable source that the Democratic caucus also refused to support Jason Ritchie for state House because he refused to be critical of Darcy.

I asked Jason Ritchie about this, and he agreed that the HDCC didn’t want either him or Darcy in the caucus, so they didn’t target the races for support. He also agreed that both seats were winnable, as the district is trending blue. He went on (telling me I may quote him):

Labor allies stood behind my campaign 100%. I was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution. The problem is the HDCC and the entrenched elite who are not listening to the grassroots. Progressives and Labor need to stand together, not fight against each other, to oust the current leadership and reestablish our party as it was founded, progressive and working class champions.

Jason Ritchie for House

Here’s an early article about the caucus’ opposition to Darcy Burner, from Seattle Met: House Democrats Take Sides in Democratic Primary.

Here are details about the donations. In the 5th LD primary for House seat position #2, the Democratic Caucus contributed $50,000 to Matt Larson, Darcy’s Democratic challenger.

Democratic Caucus contributed $50,000 to Matt Larson
Darcy easily beat Larson: 11,014 to 5,056.   On Oct 10, 2016 the House Democratic Campaign Committee contributed $20,000 to Darcy’s campaign (substantially less than the $50,000 they gave to Larson).

Democratic Caucus contributed $20,000 to Darcy Burner

But Darcy lost in the general election to Paul Graves, who won 39,330 votes to Darcy’s 33,838.

In the other 5th House race, Jason Ritchie was the only Democratic primary candidate.  Republican Jaye Rodney beat Jason Ritchie 37,772 to 34,954 in the general election. That was even closer.

Fact is, the caucus (especially Frank Chopp) tends not to like progressive candidates.

They chose former Republican Rodney Tom over a good Democrat, leading to the Republicans taking over control of the state Senate. State Democratic chair Dwight Pelz later regretted this.

Fact is, the Democratic caucus is wishy-washy on Democratic Party principles:  Frank Chopp allowed Steve Litzow’s charter school bill SB 6194 to come to a vote; over a dozen Democrats voted for it; and Governor Inslee allowed the bill to become law. Despite its being unconstitutional!  See These Dems voted to undermine public schools, contravene the Constitution, and aid Republicans.

In 2012, after Dennis Kucinich’s seat was redistricted out of existence, he visited Washington State to investigate running for Congress here. But Pelz opposed Kucinich’s move and ridiculed him,  angering many progressives.

A similar sellout was the recent votes by Senators Murray and Cantwell against Bernie Sander’s bill to allow re-importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada. There is an effort underway among Democrats to pass a resolution, or possibly a censure, about this issue.   Yes, Trump’s upcoming inauguration is a dark day for America. No, that’s no excuse for selling out principles for the sake of campaign money from corrupt drug companies.

It’s sellouts like these that confuse the voters, cause low turnout, and contribute to GOP victories and defections to the Greens and Socialists.

Dems should support a grand compromise involving reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions

Alternative titles for this essay:

    • “The natural attitude: pro-choice at conception, pro-life at term.”
    • “Late-term abortions are rare and morally suspect. Compromise!”
    • “I’m pro-choice, but not for late-term fetuses.”
    • “A commonsense compromise on late-term abortions”
    • (if I want to pick a fight): “How Pro-Choice Extremists Sabotaged the Democratic Party.”

Are you okay with on-demand abortions late in pregnancy, say in the eighth or ninth month?

The question is almost absurd, for three reasons.

First, such abortions are rare.

Second, no woman would want such a late-term abortion except for a very good reason, such as her health being at risk, or rape.

Third, the fetus is usually viable and has a highly developed nervous system, so chances are you are not comfortable with such late-term abortions.

For these reasons, and because Democrats keep losing elections, Democrats should support a grand compromise: reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions, in exchange, say, for reasonable restrictions on gun rights or, better yet, guaranteed health care for all — something that pro-life people should support.

Many Democrats and women will be outraged at this suggestion, but when you think about the facts, you realize that it’s an obvious step that would help the Democrats at very low cost.

Conservatives like to use purported examples of late-term abortions to illustrate the immorality of abortion.  And Democrats seem unwilling to compromise on the issue. But late-term abortions are extremely rare.

“Of the 1.6 million abortions performed in the U.S. each year, 91 percent are performed during the first trimester (12 or fewer weeks’ gestation); 9 percent are performed in the second trimester (24 or fewer weeks’ gestation); and only about 100 are performed in the third trimester (more than 24 weeks’ gestation).” (source: Fast Facts: U.S. Abortion Statistics)Likewise, “just 1.3 percent of abortions took place at or after 21 weeks pregnancy.” (source)

Data for other countries are similar.

Only four doctors openly perform late-term abortions in the U.S.

Not only are late-term abortions rare. They’re also restricted already. According to Late-Term Abortions Are Rare and ‘Partial Birth Abortions’ Illegal. Why Do They Keep Dominating the Reproductive-Rights Debate?, in 43 U.S. state “abortion is banned—with limited exceptions, such as for the safety of the mother—after the second trimester, after the point of fetal viability (when a fetus could live on its own outside the womb), or after a specified number of weeks (generally 20-24). When exceptions are required, many states require two physicians to sign-off on the procedure before it’s permissable [sic].”

In 2013 the House of Representatives passed a bill to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases of rape, incest, and where the health of the woman is endangered. The Senate refused to consider the legislation and President Obama said he’d veto it.

In January of 2017, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a late-term abortion ban. As the New York Times reports

The Senate rejected a bill on Monday to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a largely symbolic vote aimed at forcing vulnerable Democrats to take a stand that could hurt their prospects for re-election in states won by President Trump.

By a vote of 51 to 46, the measure fell well short of the 60-vote threshold required for the Senate to break a Democratic filibuster. The outcome was not a surprise, and the vote fell mostly along party lines.

But the article goes on to report: “The United States is one of just seven countries — including China and North Korea — that permit elective abortion after 20 weeks, a fact that backers of the failed measure brought up repeatedly on Monday.”

The Supreme Court ruled that while abortion is a constitutional right, the right is not absolute and states can restrict late-term abortions provided they make exceptions for the life and health of a woman and provided the doctor gets to decide what constitutes health, including mental health.  “Although the vast majority of states restrict later-term abortions, many of these restrictions have been struck down….Nonetheless, statutes conflicting with the Supreme Court’s requirements remain on the books in some states.”  (source)

Because late-term abortions are so rare, because late-term fetuses are viable and presumably have feelings, because late-term abortions are already highly restricted, because tens of millions of voters think abortion is a sin and so vote Republican,  abortion rights supporters should be willing to accept national restrictions on such abortions, provided there are exceptions for the health of the mother and for rape and incest.

One can and should quibble on whether 20 weeks was the correct cutoff — 24 weeks might be more reasonable — and one can quibble over whether pregnancy is measured from the last menstrual period or from the date of likely fertilization. And one can quibble about what constitutes the health of the woman. But it sure seems that compromising on this issue would be a reasonable choice, given all the other issues and seats that are at stake in elections, and given the fact that there are so few late-term abortions.

I’ve spoken to conservatives who say they’d gladly vote for Democrats but for this one issue: abortion.

In Why Abortion isn’t Murder I argued at length that until the embryo has a highly developed nervous system, there’s “nobody home” — no consciousness — and so abortion is not the destruction of a person. When I showed that article to some abortion rights activists, they were skeptical. They were uncomfortable with an argument based on consciousness because, they rightly saw, it logically leads to a position in which there are restrictions on late-term abortions.  Abortion rights activists prefer an argument based on privacy rights: a woman should have absolute control over her own body.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, only 14% of respondents think that third-trimester abortions should be legal.

What are the risks for Democrats of compromising on this issue? First, the haggling over the cutoff date — 24 weeks? 20 weeks? — could be ugly. Second, it’s unclear how many votes it would win in elections, because voters are so brainwashed and uninformed.  (For example, they blame Democrats for the deficits when it’s the Republicans who are much more responsible.) Third, conservatives may use the compromise as an excuse for demanding tighter restrictions on abortions.

Perhaps some of my feminist friends will be upset with me because of this stance.  Besides, they may say, I am not a woman, so I have no right to state my opinion.

But face the facts. Trump won; a majority of white female voters voted for him. Republicans control the House, the Senate, and a majority of legislatures and governorships. Soon they may have overwhelming control the Supreme Court. Politics requires compromise.  For tens of millions of Americans, abortion is a moral outrage and is the defining factor on how they vote.  Late-term abortions are rare.  Are you comfortable aborting a nine month old fetus?  Reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions are a worthwhile compromise, if that’s what it takes to avoid GOP control of all levels of government, and if that what it takes to win on other issues dear to progressives.

Chris Hedges suggests a similar position in his article The Coming Collapse. He writes, “It [the Democratic Party] plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.” (my emphasis)

Reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions are like reasonable restrictions on guns: something that a vast majority of people want but that political extremism makes very hard to enact.