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.

Can conservatives manage what baboons can do?

Robert Sapolsky — MacArthur fellow and professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgery at Stanford University — pursued decades long research into baboon societies. He found that most baboon troops were dominated by aggressive alpha males who abused other members of the troop, had pick of the females, and enjoyed good health and low levels of stress hormones. The submissive members of the troop endured much abuse, had high stress hormone levels, and had poor indicators of health. Baboon

Sapolsky admitted, “I don’t really like baboons…They’re these scheming Machiavellian backstabbing bastards.”

Then tragedy befell the troop that he was studying: the members started eating garbage from a human settlement. Some of the meat they consumer was contaminated with tuberculosis. Half the males in the troop died. Significantly, the ones who died weren’t the submissive ones. The ones who died were the dominant ones. Thereafter the troop’s social system changed. They became much less aggressive and much more nurturing. They groomed each other and became more laid back.

The takeaway message from this research is that if baboons can learn to cooperate, then so can humans. An aggressive market system that embodies a cutthroat survival-of-the-fittest ethos is not in any way a necessary — or healthy — way to organize human societies. It’s destructive to the well-being of the majority of humans, causing unnecessary stress. Indeed, there is a slew of research recently about how cooperation, and not just competition, contribute to the survival and thriving of groups.

For more details see “No Time for Bullies: Baboons Retool Their Culture” or watch the video below.

Survival of the friendliest: how cooperation plays a positive role in evolution

The dominant story about biological evolution is a bloody tale of competition and survival of the fittest. There’s no purpose or morality in nature.  There’s no Creator imposing an Intelligent Design.  Rather, random mutations during cell division result in offspring with a diversity of traits. Those offspring with fitter traits tend to survive and breed.  Weaker offspring die out.  Over many generations, beneficial traits accumulate, leading to evolution and the eventual creation of new species.

Kinda brutal. Just what libertarians would love.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed offers a more nuanced story about evolution.  The book presents recent research in biology and mathematical game theory that challenges the primacy of competition as a force in biological and cultural evolution.  According to the new paradigm, cooperation plays a much more significant role in the success of species in than in the dominant approach.

Nowak writes that natural selection is not a sufficient foundation for evolution.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upward to higher levels of organization. It generates the possibility for greater diversity by new specializations, new niches, and new divisions of labor. Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

An important point is that all this lofty talk is backed up by peer-reviewed science. Nowak published, in major journals, articles about mathematical game theory which explain under what conditions cooperation can evolve in communities of competing organisms.

This topic is of particular interest because of its implications for politics.    The political ideology of the conservative movement in America is based on opposition to government and cooperation, in favor of low taxes, deregulation, and laissez-faire capitalism.   Conservatives can point to evolution as a justification of their ideology, much as Herbert Spenser did in the 19th century. But if cooperation plays a much larger role in evolution than previously thought, then the biological argument becomes less persuasive.

Indeed, government-run health care in most countries provides higher quality care at a fraction of the cost of America’s inefficient market-based system.   Competition is useful in some areas, especially in high tech where innovation is important. But in other areas of an economy, including health care delivery, centralized control and planning make more sense, as they eliminate unproductive rent-seeking.

It’s a battle between selfishness and cooperation, between freedom (including freedom to cheat) and justice.

Super Cooperators is written in a lively style by Harvard professor of Biology and Mathematics, Martin A. Nowak, with science writer Roger Highfield as co-author. The book has few equations or diagrams but the exposition and prose are clear enough so that the educated reader, especially someone with a little background in biology or computer science, can imagine how to reproduce many of the experiments.

Since  the 19th century biologists (including Darwin) pointed to the success of the social insects (e.g., ants) as examples of how traits can evolve that favor the group over the individual.  Called “group selection” or “kin selection” or “multilevel selection” or “inclusive fitness”, these mechanisms represent a kind of higher level evolution, wherein groups that are better able to cooperate out-compete groups comprised by more selfish individuals.    But until recently, most biologists have thought that mechanisms such as group selection have limited effect.   On the other hand, it is obvious that evolution has resulted in highly cooperative species, such as ants and homo sapiens.    Nowak and others researchers have laid mathematical and evidential foundations that explain the origin of cooperation and that support a broader role for cooperation in evolution than previously thought.

Much of the book describes computer simulations of competition in which virtual individuals compete in a virtual ecology (economy).   Researchers have experimented with different strategies for competition.  Depending on the how the economy is set up, the best strategy may involve either selfish competition or cooperation.  Sacrificing one’s own short-term gain can lead to an outcome in which everybody benefits (as in the tragedy of the commons).  Research shows under which conditions one strategy (e.g., “cooperate if the other person cooperated in the past”) can make inroads against individuals using a different strategy (e.g., “always be selfish”).    The research paradigm appears under the name of “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

In the new framework for evolution, not all is rosy. “There is a dark side to cooperation that comes in the form of parasites, cheats, defectors, and other lowlifes.”  In an ecology of cooperating individuals, a “defector” can exploit the kindness of strangers and disrupt the cooperative strategy.   Cancer cells in the body are an example of non-cooperators.  In a political economy, defectors can take the form of welfare queens who refuse to work. Alternatively, the defector can take the form of wealthy individuals who benefit from government contracts and protections but offload costs (e.g., pollution) to others, don’t pay their taxes, and subvert government laws and regulations to be in their own favor.

Nowak identifies five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: (1) direct reciprocity; (2) indirect reciprocity — reputation, via language; (3) spatial selection — organizing into small, local groups helps to protect against defectors and parasites and to increase mutual trust;  (4) multilevel selection — selection at the group level — e.g., tribes that cooperate better out-compete tribes consisting of selfish individuals; and (5) kin selection — people naturally cooperate with people related by blood. For each of the five mechanisms, Nowak presents simple mathematical formulas that describe under what conditions cooperation can out-compete selfishness. For example, if the product of the benefits deriving from cooperation times the probability that you’ll encounter the same person again exceeds the short-term cost of cooperation, then it pays to cooperate. This and other cases imply that cooperation works better if people divide into small groups and cooperate in such groups. The theory explains the prevalence of groups such as families, villages, gangs, cults, corporations, policies, and factions in human societies. It also implies that humans should organize politically at different levels of granularity.

In the final chapters Nowak makes a (somewhat sentimental and melodramatic) call for greater worldwide cooperation, especially on the issue of climate change. He says:

The story of humanity is one that rests on the never-ending creative tension between the dark pursuit of selfish short-term interests and the shining example of striving towards collective long-term goals. …. 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.

One can view this area of research as giving a naturalistic explanation for morality.

The research gives intellectual succor for progressive-minded people who want to push back against the regressive forces in American politics who wish to dismantle the New Deal and return the country to the small government, small-minded days of the Articles of Confederation.

Former Fundamentalist and Father of Eleven Now an Evangelist for Evolutionary Biology

Suominen - Evolving Out of Eden coverAn interview with former fundamentalist, Ed Suominen. Ed Suominen was raised in a small sect of Lutheran Christianity called Laestadianism. Of the 32,000 denominations into which Christianity has fractured, his is one of the more conservative. Members believe in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation story. They eschew sins like drinking, dancing, watching television, wearing earrings, and playing school sports. They marry only within their own sect and believe God alone should decide how many children they have. Suominen followed the rules; he met and married the right kind of girl; and together they have 11 children.

But Suominen is also an engineer, trained at the University of Washington. He has been a patent agent and inventor, and eventually his work with electrical and digital systems led him to notice something his church hadn’t taught him about—the power of natural selection. He was trying to optimize a design, when he came across a useful software tool:

“You set up an artificial chromosome with each digital “gene” determining a parameter for some widget you want to design. Then you created a population of individual widgets by running simulations with different sets of randomly chosen parameters, and had the widgets “mate” with each other. You repeated this process over many successive generations, throwing in some mutations along the way. Those widgets that worked best in your simulation had the best shot at having “children” in the next generation.”

It was the beginning of the end. After discovering the practical value of evolutionary computation, Suominen began reading about evolutionary biology. The Genesis story fell apart and frayed the fabric of his Christian belief.

Outsiders sometimes scratch their heads about the dogged insistence of creationists that Adam and Eve actually existed 6000 years ago in a perfect garden without predators or pain, until they took Satan’s bait and bit into a world changing apple. How is it, 100 years after Darwin, that we are still fighting about what will get taught in biology classes? Why, in their determination to refute evolution, do some Christians seem intent on taking down the whole scientific enterprise?

The answer lies in Suominen’s lived experience. As he puts it, “You don’t have Original Sin without an original sinner. And without Original Sin. . . you don’t need a redeemer.” In other words, the central story of Christianity, the story of a perfect Jesus who becomes a perfect human sacrifice and saves us all relies on the earlier creation story.

After evolutionary computation cracked the walls of Suominen’s information silo, his curiosity and training as an engineer took over. He spent the next year consuming books about Christianity, books by defenders of the faith and by critics. He wrote about his spiritual journey in a series of musings now published under the title, An Examination of the Pearl.

Since evolution is what most compelled his fascination, he began exploring the various ways that Christians try to reconcile biblical teachings and biology. The end result was a second book, Evolving Out of Eden, written with Robert Price, a Bible scholar and former Christian. Suominen launched the project torn between curiosity and a desire to affirm old beliefs. By the end, he confessed: “I was raised a fundamentalist and spent four decades living as one; I’m still not ready to call myself an atheist. But after co-authoring this book, I just can’t see where there’s any room for a god.”

In this interview he discusses his life-changing journey.

Your book is about evolution, both biological and personal. You’ve been through a change in worldview that most people can only imagine. Does it feel disorienting?

Yes, it’s a tremendous change. But I feel much less disoriented than when I was battling cognitive dissonance every day trying to maintain a coherent worldview out of pieces that just wouldn’t fit together. I’d come home from church on Sunday and spend hours or even days trying to recover my intellectual integrity. One part of my brain would continuously play the ominous soundtrack from my childhood indoctrination, repeated in church every Sunday: Believe or be damned. Meanwhile, another part would list off the hundreds of issues that made “belief” impossible and dishonest. And evolution with all of its theological dilemmas headed up that list.

It’s wonderful to be able to stand up and look over that toxic fog of piety and just see, accepting reality for what it so clearly is. I am happier now than I ever was in the church, despite the social loss of leaving it.

Do you ever find yourself wishing that you’d never opened Pandora’s Box?

My old church had its annual nationwide summer services right near our home this July. Here I was, within 20 miles of a gathering of around 2,000 members of “God’s Kingdom,” which considers itself the only true church on earth. There were people I’d grown up with, people I’d been with in the pews and on camping trips for my whole life. They stayed in their place, and I stayed in mine, an outsider now. I certainly felt some pangs of longing. But it was only about the people, not the institution that envelops and controls them.

When I listened online to the sermons preached during those services, I wondered how I’d ever taken any of it seriously. One was all about Noah and the Ark, and how God’s patience had run out when believers started intermarrying with people from “the world.” It’s an ancient myth copied from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and this guy is sitting there doing a gross misreading of the text while taking it all very literally otherwise. The story itself is so ridiculous that many people in the church don’t really buy it. Yet it’s one of those things that you really are expected to believe—the Bible is God’s Word, not to be questioned.

How have your eleven children and wife responded to your changes?

While I was still wrestling with all this, my wife turned to me one Sunday morning and said, “I know this is how we were raised, but I’m not buying it anymore.” She had been doing some reading, too, and that was that. I had to study and ponder and write, even for a while after she made her quiet, no-nonsense departure from the church. She is a wonderful, bright woman whom I love and admire very much.

I respect my children’s privacy too much to talk extensively about their beliefs or lack thereof. That’s their business. But I will say that they seem to all be doing just fine with the changes in my wife and me, from the oldest to the youngest. Our home is a place where they can be free to think and believe, or not believe, for themselves.

Would you say you lost your faith gradually—or might you describe it as a series of plateaus, punctuated equilibrium?

Your “series of plateaus” analogy is an excellent one. I recall a few defining moments, starting with the realization that my God of the Gaps was gone. Evolution provided an elegant and tangible answer to the question for which the guided, supernatural process of creation previously had been my only answer: “How could all of these amazing forms of life, myself included, have just happened to arise?”

Then there was the upsetting day when I spoke with a preacher whom I respected (and still do) after sharing with him some of my thoughts about evolution. I asked him if I really had to reject human evolution and believe in Adam and Eve to be a Christian. He was thoughtful about it, but his response made clear where I stood with respect to the faith we both held dear: Yes, the Fall of humankind in Eden is a foundational point of Christian theology. I wandered around in a daze for a while, sad and scared, but realizing that he had only told me what I already suspected.

I enlisted my friend Robert M. Price to see if there was any plausible theological solution. Dr. Price had been serving as a sort of spiritual therapist for me, helping me deal with the issues I’d been finding with my religion once evolution had “cracked the walls of my information silo,” as you adeptly put it. At this point, our work together turned into a full-blown writing project, and together we plowed through books by Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, and others who claimed to make sense of Christianity in view of evolution. But to us, despite trying to approach the theology with an open mind (which Price does even as an atheist), the only thing sensible about their books were their eloquent defenses of evolutionary science.

Most creationists seem pretty adept at deflecting the evidence for evolution. Why did it get you?

I saw it happening right in front of me on my computer screen. As an engineer with lots of software experience, I understood what the computer was doing. Simulated organisms were evolving remarkable abilities to move, swim, etc., and nobody was designing them to do that. Random mutations and genetic crossover between the fittest individuals in the population produced a new, slightly more evolved population. Repeated over hundreds of generations, it worked.

My reading did nothing but confirm this. All of the arguments I saw against evolution were made by believers in defense of their faith. I tried to look at both sides of the story, but it became obvious that there was only one side with any credibility. The other was just wishful thinking and denial.

Out of all of the ways in which believers have tried to reconcile evolutionary biology and the Christian tradition, which seem to you the most robust or credible?

That’s an insightful and difficult question, because the plausibility of these writers in the realm of theology seems to be inversely proportional to their acceptance of the science. You can head in one direction or the other, but you can’t have it both ways, despite their protests that they can. One of the most eloquent and level-headed about the scientific findings and issues for traditional theology is John F. Haught. Yet his tedious appeals to the “drama” and “aesthetic intensity” of evolution are so far off our credibility meter that it would be difficult to summarize our conclusions without sounding uncharitable. Our view of all these sorts of evolutionary apologetics, his included, might be apparent from the title of one of our subheadings, “Shoveling After the Parade.”

The most robust attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable may well be Philip Gosse’s “omphalos” idea that the universe was created recently with the appearance of great age. Of course God created Adam with a navel and trees with rings! They wouldn’t be recognizable without those “retrospective marks,” after all. (Christians are faced with the same issue concerning Jesus and his magic Y chromosome.) It’s ridiculous and reduces God to a cosmic cosplayer, but at least it doesn’t try to dismiss all of the Bible’s clear teachings about a young earth and special creation, or fancifully reinterpret two thousand years of Christian theology.

Your story makes people feel hopeful that change is possible, that individually and collectively we can change and grow. What should people who are invested in science and progress say to creationist friends and family members? Anything?

The stakes are too high to expect much rational deliberation of the evidence, I’m afraid. For me, the evidence of evolution snuck in the back door when I wasn’t looking.

Perhaps the best thing to say to creationist friends and family is that you understand why they believe so strongly, and that you’ll be happy to help them whenever they might wish to look beyond those beliefs. The first and most productive step might be getting them to acknowledge, to themselves at least, that religion is the real motivation for every single argument against evolution.

Originally published at

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at


Extreme Weather Events! Get used to them.

Lots of news coverage of Frankenstorm, but not much mention of the role that our carbon economy plays in the production of this storm.

Hey, mainstream media, can you say Global Warming?

Here is what Joe Romm has to say about Hurricane Sandy:

Why Hurricane Sandy Has Morphed into a ‘Frankenstorm’ — And Why We Should Get Used to Catastrophic Weather

Here’s how manmade carbon pollution is making many of the most destructive kinds of extreme weather events — Frankenstorms — more frequent and more intense.

October 28, 2012 |




This GOES-13 satellite image provided by the US Naval Research Laboratory shows the eye of Hurricane Sandy it churns just off the eastern coast of the US.
Photo Credit: AFP





What would you call an “ unprecedented and bizarre “ storm that is:

  • The “largest hurricane in Atlantic history measured by diameter of gale force winds (1,040mi)” [ Capital Weather Gang ]
  • “A Storm Like No Other” [National Weather Service via AP]. NWS: “I cannot recall ever seeing model forecasts of such an expansive areal wind field with values so high for so long a time. We are breaking new ground here.”
  • “Transitioning from a warm-core (ocean-powered) hurricane into an extra-tropical low pressure system, a classic Nor’easter, fed by powerful temperature extremes and swirling jet stream winds aloft to amplify and focus the storm’s fury” [meteorologist Paul Douglas ]
  • Being fueled in part by “ocean temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast [] about 5°F above average,” so “there will be an unusually large amount of water vapor available to make heavy rain” [former Hurricane Hunter Jeff Masters ]
  • Also being driven by a high pressure blocking pattern near Greenland “forecast to be three standard deviations from the average” [ Climate Central and CWG]
  • “Stitched together from some spooky combination of the natural and the unnatural.” [ Bill McKibben ]

Read the whole thing? Good idea. Alternet is carrying the story, but Joe Romm sets up shop at Climate Progress.

Ocean Report

A couple of items on things oceanic came to my attention this week.

NYT had a story on collapse of the cod fishery:

The Shocking News About Cod

The ideal fish for human consumption would mature quickly and reproduce in staggering numbers.

Courtesy Wiki Commons NOAA

This does not describe the Atlantic cod. Cod mature late — at 4 to 6 years old — and they can live as long as 25 years. Female cod do, in fact, produce astonishing numbers of eggs. But older cod lay two or three times as many eggs as younger cod. This means that a healthy cod population must include relatively large numbers of older fish.

A recent survey of cod catches in Northern Europe shows exactly the opposite. Extrapolating from survey numbers, scientists at a British government fisheries agency estimate that there are nearly 200 million 1-year-old cod in the North Sea but only 18 million 3-year-olds. As for older cod, the numbers are shocking. The survey team estimates that in 2011 there were only 600 12- to 13-year-old cod, a third of which were caught, and not a single fish older than 13 has been caught in the past year.

Read the whole article? Important stuff.

Paul Pickett in Oly shared this new NOAA app that shows sea level rise and coastal impacts. We have been talking in Oly about actions by the Washington State Department of Ecology. DOE has blocked a shoreline plan in Jefferson County that prohibited pen fish farming. This is the industrial practice of raising fish such as Atlantic salmon in pens. We won’t have healthy fisheries if we raise fish to eat in pens. Ecology is also stepping in on the the Olympia shoreline plan in ways that may help the Port of Olympia and thwart environmental action that has wide public support. We are talking in Olympia about how regulatory agencies can be captured by the industries they regulate and what we can do about it.

I think we have to ask the right question and that question is “why would regulatory agencies thwart reasonable environmental actions?” The answer is profit, capitalism; economic interests are in control and dictate to us all. Disaster capitalism. Disaster, capitalism. Disaster. Capitalism.

Here is the sea level rise app. NOAA is not a regulatory agency per ser, more of a pure science agency. It’s harder to capture science agencies than it is to capture regulatory agencies who are able to weigh science against economic interests.

It’s kind of tragic and ironic that we are both depleting the ocean and increasing the ocean’s coverage of the planet at the same time. The Greenland ice cap is melting. Start looking hard at the sea level rise application and plan accordingly. There are going to be some opportunities for profit in the coming troubles.

Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer

NOAA Coastal Services Center


  • Displays potential future sea levels
  • Provides simulations of sea level rise at local landmarks
  • Communicates the spatial uncertainty of mapped sea levels
  • Models potential marsh migration due to sea level rise
  • Overlays social and economic data onto potential sea level rise
  • Examines how tidal flooding will become more frequent with sea level rise


View the current status of the tool.

Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

Launch Now


The NOAA Coastal Services Center would like to acknowledge those organizations that provided direct content used in this tool or feedback, ideas, and reviews over the course of the tool’s development. Specifically the Center would like to acknowledge the following groups.


Political Fables for a Political Year

The WA Post has back to back stories in my digest this morning that I found interesting.

In the first story, the Government Accountability Office found that the Republican’s budget showdown over the debt limit coast the county 1.3 billion dollars last year. That is money that we could have used somewhere else in my opinion. But it shows the hypocrisy and stupidity of the current republican congressional legislators. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the democrats are just chomping at the bit to pass the kind of legislation that the country needs, look at their record in 2009-10 when they controlled Senate, House and White House and we could get banker bailouts, but not the public option for health care. Single payer was not even on the table. The dems are clearly beholden to their corporate funding sources, but they don’t engage in wasteful theatrics like the debt ceiling fight or endless votes to repeal legislation that clearly go nowhere. There are significant differences between the parties, but both parties understand that they cannot legislate against the interest of the wealthy interests that now decide our elections (thanks to Citizens United and Scotus Inc.)

GAO: Debt fight cost at least $1.3 billion

Last summer’s fierce political debate over raising the federal debt limit cost taxpayers more than $1 billion in extra borrowing costs, including hundreds of hours in overtime for federal employees responsible for avoiding default, according to a new government report.

Delays in raising the debt limit forced the Treasury Department to pay an extra $1.3 billion in borrowing costs — and the final sum is expected to climb higher as multi-year obligations and other outstanding costs are added later, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Monday.

In the second story, the League of Conservation Voters is reported to planning to launch a global warming campaign to unseat 5 flat-earth Republicans who have been a little too vocal about their ignorance.

I think it has become more and more difficult for the red-staters to deny global warming. What’s wrong with Kansas is starting to shift from the question about how they can vote against their own best interest over and over to just how bad is the drought going to be? As folks see the crops dry up and experience the consequences of supporting electoral candidates and parties who guarantee that we do nothing about global warming, they may have an epiphany. A lot of folks are going to become believers in global warming through the rough lessons of direct experience.

Torrential rains, floods, derecho windstorms, super tornados, droughts, may provide a wake-up call to folks in the heartland that was never going to be delivered by the threat to polar bears and penguins or rising sea levels that are threatening the coastal states that can’t afford to harbor politically-rooted doubts about climate change.

Here is a bit of the second story and link to the whole thing:

Environmentalists target 5 Republicans who question humans’ impact on climate

The League of Conservation Voters will launch a $1.5 million campaign Tuesday targeting five House Republicans who question the connection between human activity and climate change, in an effort to test whether the issue can sway voters.

Prominent conservative Republicans have challenged the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and other sources are transforming the Earth’s climate. But it has not emerged as a central issue in a national political campaign, and President Obama, who pushed unsuccessfully for national limits on greenhouse gas emissions at the start of his term, has played down the issue over the past two years.


Who Is Puget Sound Energy? Let's Check the Title and See Who Owns PSE

Thurston County will get to vote to authorize the Public Utility District to expand into electricity in November. It is on the ballot, friends. We did it. No paid signature gatherers, just volunteers knocking on doors.

Let’s talk about Puget Sound Energy for a moment. It is not a Puget Sound based company despite the name. PSE is owned by the Macquarie Group of Australia. I have nothing against Australians, but the Macquarie Group appears to be an investment company. A slinger of high finance instruments including Collateralized Debt Obligations, one of the casino style financial models that create privatized profit and socialized risk.

The SEC is reported to be considering lawsuits against the Mac Group. Should we continue to trust them with an electricity monopoly in Thurston County or should we vote for PUD Power and have them compete with a utility that is locally owned, locally controlled, and locally accountable? Want to know more about Macquarie Group? here’s a piece from The Australian:

Macquarie Group unit faces US probe over deal

MACQUARIE Group is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission over a botched subprime mortgage bond deal from before the global financial crisis.

It was revealed yesterday that Delaware Investments, now a subsidiary of Macquarie Group, and Mizuho Financial Group are likely to face civil charges over the $US1.6 billion Delphinus bond offer in 2007.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the SEC, the US corporate regulator, was about to file lawsuits against the two groups.

It will be alleged that the bond deal consisted of a collateralised debt obligation that “imploded” just months after it was sold to investors.

Want to read the whole article in The Australian? Sure, why not. I don’t think The Olympian is covering the Macquarie Group story. just sayin…

CO2 Emissions are a Planetary Problem

I have noticed that the foolish and/or dishonest folks who remain interested or reimbursed to disseminate misleading information about anthropogenic global warming are repeating the story about the fall in US CO2 emissions. That misleading presentation is being framed as evidence that the burning of fossil fuels and emission of C02 is not a real problem, that global warming is not happening and caused by the activities of human beings.

Tell it to the folks who are suffering through the heatwave in the “red” states today. The issue is emission and concentration of CO2 levels on the global scale, friends. If you measure emissions in a National Park, things look really great. If you measure emissions in any small part of the planet, you can produce data that will make emission levels look great or terrible, but if you measure emissions on the planetary scale, the scale that is our climate, the scale that produces our weather, then we continue to face a catastrophic problem.

Here’s a piece from the Guardian:

World carbon dioxide levels highest for 650,000 years, says US report

Cooling towers at Eggborough power station, near Selby

Cooling towers at Eggborough power station, near Selby. Photograph: John Giles/PA

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a record high, according to the latest figures, renewing fears that climate change could begin to slide out of control.

Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million (ppm), up almost 40% since the industrial revolution and the highest for at least the last 650,000 years.

Read the real numbers. Don’t be fooled by the folks who are engaged in dishonest presentation of limited data. Shame on those of you who do this with knowledge that the data is meaningless and misleading. For those of you who are confused by the data, learn to evaluate when data is being skewed or limited to produce a misleading result and recognize that folks who knowingly provide misleading data are not to be trusted.

Thurston Public Power Initiative!

Thurston Public PowerThe campaign to get the Thurston County Public Power Initiative on the ballot is rumored to have collected more than 11K signatures!   It should be assumed that there are hundreds of invalid, duplicate signatures, so the campaign continues.  We need to round up a couple thousand more signatures to make sure that the public power initiative makes it on to the ballot.   

Puget Sound Energy can be expected to pump a lot of money into a campaign to defeat the initiative, but only folks with short memories are going to forget the ice storm last winter and the long power outages provided by Private, Profitable Power.   We can do better than that.  A public power district will value line maintenance and jobs trimming the trees more than profit. 

If you are a Thurston County registered voter and you haven’t signed the petition for public power yet, come and sign up.  Need more information? 

I am pretty excited by this news. It’s not easy to gather signatures without using paid signature gatherers. The Koch brothers and Tim Eyman are not behind this initiative.