Descent with Random Modification … Until Now


In line with my self-appointed mission of cleaning up the language of evolutionary science, I offer this.

The current issue of the Skeptic contains a chapter of a book about evolution. The author writes of “[Darwin’s] discovery of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection”. I submit that the correct description is “the theory of evolution by means of descent with random modification”.

I see the concept of “natural selection” as a purely physical layer atop something more fundamental and more important to the theory. Every inanimate and animate thing changes all the time (time == change). Some living individual things prosper more than others in their current environment. The physical earth-water-air-light environment of an individual living thing usually changes relatively slowly, but the living food-family-competitors environment of an individual living thing often changes quickly. Because an individual living thing’s DNA cannot change, individuals must die. These facts drive why living things must evolve or else disappear, but they are mostly independent of how living things evolve. Living lineages evolve (change) only through descent with modification, which Darwin saw and described clearly although without knowing the mechanisms.

Descent with modification has been completely random for billions of years: random flaws in protein replication, and random recombination of genes in sexual reproduction.

But humans can now carry out purposeful, directed evolution, for example by using CRISPR to wipe out malaria by genetically engineering the mosquitoes through which it spreads, or to wipe out Lyme disease by genetically engineering the rodents through which it spreads.

We are at a singularity. Now.


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Trump and the North Koreans: A lesson in profound ignorance


I’m a physicist, not a diplomat. I’m an amateur student of current affairs and of history.

Physicists have circulated in the halls of power since creating nuclear weapons during WW II, and worked with military people, statesmen, and political leaders to deal with the catastrophic consequences of the detonation of even one nuclear weapon on a nation’s territory and people. These catastrophic consequences must be borne no matter the outcome of any subsequent international struggle.

The Trump administration, like all previous US governments, is concerned with the armed truce dividing North and South Korea, and the often bizarre and threatening behavior of the northern governments.

To understand present circumstances in Korea and with the United States, its allies, and Korea’s neighbors, and to understand what Donald Trump is doing and thinking, I have found a reliable starting point with the proposition that Donald Trump is profoundly ignorant, a malignant narcissist, and a Mafia-style bully. Indeed, Trump is worse than profoundly ignorant. He strongly believes falsehoods, including that he is smarter than others, and that he is knowledgeable. He is delusional. All these traits appear in today’s situation.

All Koreans agree that they are one nation, now divided, and that they should have but one state. Their division dates to the end of WW II. Japan had ruled Korea for 50 years as a harsh colonial master, and their army in Korea collapsed in the face of a massive, violent attack by the Soviet Red Army. By agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, their forces occupied southern and northern regions. Eventually Korean governments arose in each of these regions and then fell into conflict during the Korean War. The armed invasion by the North Korean army nearly won with their initial attack that pushed the South’s army and US forces to a small pocket on the southern coast. The United States, working through the United Nations, organized the defense of the South, and eventually pushed the Northern army backward past its starting point all the way to the Yalu River, Korea’s border with China. Then the Chinese army counterattacked the UN forces with a massive invasion of Korea and pushed the UN forces back to the original boundary between the Koreas. This led to an armistice, a stand-in-place by the armies, creation of a demilitarized zone, and 70 years of tense armed hostility.

The US does not recognize the North Korean government, and they have no ambassador to the United States either. Talks, such as they are, occur at the demilitarized zone between military people, or in New York city between US diplomats and North Korea’s UN people. Over the 70 years of tension, no US president has ever talked directly, by phone or in person, with any North Korean leader. All previous US governments have taken the point of view that the two Koreas must negotiate a peace, and when we have participated in talks we have worked hard to include the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Russians. Originally, I might add, the Communist nations sat on one side of the table, and we and our allies sat on the other. In recent decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic transformation of China, North Korea’s behavior has been weird enough, that everyone sits on our side of the table facing them, or at least on the left or right side.

The North Koreans, on the other hand, profess to believe that the US, their main military antagonist during the Korean War, is still a great threat to them. They wish to talk to us, face to face, without bothering with the US lackeys who rule South Korea. Thus, when Donald Trump tweeted his agreement to meet with Kim Jung-Un, without bothering to discuss the matter with his professional diplomats and military people, he conceded to the North Koreans a major point without receiving anything in return.

There are reasons why normal, non-delusional, world leaders make sure that there are lengthy preparations for any meeting between them, particularly between adversaries. In diplomacy, summit meetings are carefully scripted. Each leader knows what he or she will say and has a good idea about what the other leader will say. This is not at all like negotiations between a couple of real estate or golf course moguls. If one of the Wall Street Masters of the Universe wants to demand that the other guy paint the lobby of his hotel blue or the deal is off, well no problem. That’s not the way it works when the survivals of nations is at stake.

Trump is notoriously unwilling to follow a script. He is unable or unwilling to develop a plan and strategy with knowledgeable people, since he believes that he already knows more than they, on any subject. He is unwilling to prepare for this same reason. This Time magazine report says that Trump believes he is ready for the talks and doesn’t plan to spend much time, if any, in further preparation. Here’s the headline of that story: “President Trump ‘Doesn’t Think He Needs’ to Prepare Much for His Meeting With North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.”

I’ll just say that these traits and his inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods are the reasons why his lawyers are so concerned about an interview with Mueller’s investigators.

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What’s Wrong with this Cartoon?

From the New Yorker issue of April 23, 2018, this nicely done cartoon brings a chuckle. But it’s nearly all wrong.

The sun began “working” billions of years ago. The sun would emit the same energy whether or not any planets revolved or revolve around it. The sun’s energy is pure physics, a chance result of the Big Bang.

The sun’s emitted energy slams into this planet, which is a mote or speck in its neighborhood. This planet is a hot coal on the inside, a cold coal at the surface except where the sun beats down on it. Outside of gravity, nearly everything we see and feel on the planet is powered by the sun’s energy. In the background the planet grinds away, floating continents and spewing relatively small amounts of energy out of volcanoes and underwater vents. Life on this planet might have started around those underwater vents, but today it’s driven almost completely by sunlight – i.e. by starlight from the local star.

Our sun relentlessly presses life along. The sun doesn’t know it presses life along and it cannot care that it does. The sun does not support life! Its energy sparks and powers life, crashing into rock and dirt and water and air and other existing life, spiraling up more and more complex life forms, dancing, spinning, pushing – but always blindly, without purpose. One asteroid hit could all but destroy life on this planet. The sun could never notice.

We daily give free ammunition to creationists and intelligent-design advocates by anthropomorphizing our environment and unfolding existence. The sooner we start using accurate, unsentimental language and images to describe and discuss life on this planet, the sooner we will mature as a species and recognize our actual origin and place in the universe – as an unplanned and un-designed means by which this planet and this solar system have happened to emerge into self-awareness. I hope you’ll join me in making that happen.

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What Is

Your own personal forever-unique DNA has been billions of years in the making.
The probability that your exact DNA could happen to come into existence is all but zero.
The probability that it does exist is 100%. Here you are!
There is a direct unbroken connection from you back to the very first sparks of life on earth.
Contemplate your navel, and its navel, and its navel, …
Contemplate yourself contemplating yourself contemplating…

You are a process, not a thing.
You could not exist unless other humans existed.
Humans could not have existed unless plants existed.
Plants could not have existed unless single-celled photosynthesis existed amidst water and dirt.
You are an unplanned side effect of starlight pushing around sea water and dirt on this planet.

Wind and water and dirt are all unplanned side effects of starlight – sunlight – pouring onto the earth.
You are unable to live on water and dirt. You can live only by consuming other life and oxygen.
You are able to convert other life to energy only through the bacteria in your gut.
You could be seen as bacteria’s way of moving around, a bus for microorganisms.
Microorganism cells comprise 60-90% of the cells in your body and up to 3% of your weight.
Your immune system, outsourced to microorganisms, does not belong to you.
You are a vibrant community of many life forms.

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Climate Change XVIII – Reply to a comment


Our climate change and global warming correspondent, Greg Tomlinson, posted a comment about my post Climate Change XVI. I moved it here to be easily available to our readers and posted my reply below.


Greg Tomlinson

February 14, 2018 at 7:13 am Edit

At this point, I no longer argue about whether the earth is warming or cooling. As I have mentioned previously, I believe that the integrity of much of the temperature data has been severely compromised by numerous “corrections” or “adjustments”. Also, stories about the declining polar bear population and shrinking Antartica ice shelves are simply fiction. On top of that, there is the problem of much of the AGW community (especially the folks at SkepticalScience) tending to attribute every severe weather event to global warming even though meteorologists generally tend to associate such events with cooling. Severe weather usually occurs when a cold front collides with warm moist air. Finally, there is the issue that many of those living in the lower 48 states are not seeing warming, but instead are getting longer colder winters. Of course, none of this would be convincing evidence at all to the AGW community, and I simply don’t have time nor energy to sort out fact and fiction among their thousands of claims, and as a “non-expert”, they wouldn’t take me seriously anyway.

There is one aspect of this global warming/cooling, however, that I still stand firmly behind. Whether the earth is warming, cooling, or neither, and that is that humans cannot possibly be causing it. The “control knob” theory of carbon dioxide is easily refuted by anyone with a home weather station. If the station reports any relative humidity less than 100 percent, then the control knob effect is disproven. Remember that for carbon dioxide to be the control of the radiative forcing feedback loop, the concentration of water vapor (the stronger GHG) must be dependent on temperature only. But the only way that can happen is if the water vapor concentration is fixed to its saturation value at all points in the atmosphere. If the H2O vapor concentration would ever drop below this value at any location, then by definition of saturtion, more H2O vapor could be added to the air without raising its temperature, thereby contradicting the requirement that the water vapor concentration must depend on temperature only. Since humans would need this non-existant “control knob” to significantly affect temperature, there is no way they can cause any reported warming (or cooling).

BTW, there are other other bazaar, anti-intuitive results that can be drawn from this CO2 control knob, including the “frozen” world prediction if there were no CO2 in the atmosphere at the time the earth was formed.


Mr. Tomlinson,

Glad to hear from you again, and pleased that you “no longer argue about whether the earth is warming or cooling.” Informed people know that the Earth is warming because of human use of fossil fuels. Continue reading

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Global Warming XVII: “… it was getting too cold all over the place.”


In the week of this year’s Davos conference of world poobah’s and muckety-mucks, Donald Trump spoke to journalist Piers Morgan. There was so much ignorance on display that most commentators neglected to mention this disgraceful exchange: (I copied this extract from a transcript here.)

PM: Do you believe in climate change? Do you believe it exists?

DT: There is a cooling and there is a heating and I mean, look – it used to not be climate change. It used to be global warming. Right?

PM: Right.

DT: That wasn’t working too well, because it was getting too cold all over the place. The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records, so OK, they’re at a record level. There were so many thing happening, Piers. I’ll tell you what I believe in. I believe in clear air. I believe in crystal clear beautiful water. I believe in just having good cleanliness in all. Now, that being said, if somebody said go back into the Paris Accord, if we could go back into the Paris Accord, it would have to be a completely different deal because we had a horrible deal, As usual, they took advantage of the United States. We were in a terrible deal. Would I go back in? Yeah, I’d go back in. I like, as you know, I like Emmanuel… No, no, I like Emmanuel, I would love to, but it’s got to be a good deal for the United States.

I think that Trump is trying to repeat the climate change deniers’ truism, that the climate is always changing, getting warmer or cooler. Thus, why concern ourselves about the warming that may, or may not, be occurring now?

But what does he mean by “…it was getting too cold all over the place.” I’m sure that he is referring to his December tweets about the bitter cold Eastern weather, calling for “… some of that global warming now.” He misunderstands, or more likely is ignorant about, climate scientists’ predictions for the fate of polar sea ice, in the Arctic and offshore in the Antarctic, and the ice covering Greenland and Antarctica. None of the experts claimed that the Arctic sea ice would be gone by now. They can’t say exactly but it looks to them as if it will be gone in a few decades. Even now the Northwest Passage north of Canada or across the Russian arctic opens each summer to commercial shipping without accompanying ice breakers.

Skipping over his “beliefs”, which apparently are being undermined without Trump’s knowledge by Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, Trump displays his ignorance of the terms of the Paris Climate Accords and the US commitments to the world as part of that deal. Those commitments are voluntary. Each nation volunteered what it would do to meet the world’s goals. In addition, the wealthy advanced nations each promised funds to help poorer and developing nations to achieve their goals while continuing to increase their nations’ wealth. If Trump thinks that the US made imprudent voluntary commitments, all he has to do is issue new ones. There is nothing to re-negotiate, and, indeed, the deal is not open to re-negotiation.

It happens to be the case that the Paris Climate Accords are an excellent deal for the United States, and for all the other nations of the world, each of which has signed on. Trump is turning the US into a rogue state.

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“The Father of Lies”


The Pope has gotten into the business of denouncing fake news, and we can all applaud his effort. His example of the first fake news, however, has a problem.

The AP reported on the Pope’s annual social communications message (which I read about in the Tampa Bay Times, January 25, 2018). Pope: ‘Fake news’ is evil, journalists must search for truth .

Francis writes that the first fake news dates from the biblical beginning of time, which Eve was tempted to take an apple from the Garden of Eden based on disinformation from the serpent.

“The strategy of this skilled ‘Father of Lies’ is precisely mimicry; that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments,” Francis said of the snake.

The Pope is citing from the second creation account that begins with Genesis Chapter 2, verse 4, and continues into Chapter 3. In case you’ve forgotten your Sunday school lessons from 60 years ago, here are the relevant portions, which I take from the pew bible at my darling wife’s Presbyterian Church, the New Revised Standard Version:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall die.”

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