Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Antagonistic Pleiotropy

I’ve been thinking about this rather forbidding term ever since I ran across it in a book called Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World, by Charles Fisher (2007). Now, in light of the Israeli attack on Gaza for the usual reasons of “security,” the term comes to mean even more.

Antagonistic pleiotropy, or negative pleiotropy, refers to the phenomenon that occurs when a gene which confers an evolutionary advantage in one situation turns out to have negative effects in another. Fisher uses sickle cell anemia as his type case. In Africa, the gene that codes for sickle-shaped blood cells survives because it confers resistance to malaria, which is endemic. In the United States, however, where malaria no longer threatens survival, the gene’s negative quality emerges: it leads to sickle cell anemia among African Americans. Thus we have antagonistc pleiotropy, where a condition that promotes human survival in one circumstance becomes a malignancy in another.

Fisher points to an even more vivid example of this phenomenon in the human taste for sugar. In the hunter-gatherer world where humans evolved, sugars were scarce, so our genetic attraction to them did not constitute a problem, but rather led us to needed carbohydrates and higher rates of survival. This situation pertained throughout most of human history. But when refined sugar became widely available, the human taste for sugar became problematic and even life-threatening. With no natural limit to our desire for sugar, suddenly the massive addition of sugars to all kinds of corporate-produced foods and beverages has in our time contributed to an epidemic of sugar diabetes, overweight children and all the ills attendant upon such conditions. Again, the genetic craving for sugar aids survival, but when it becomes an addiction to soft drinks and artificially enhanced “carbs,” it can turn deadly.

Now we come to the human desire for “security.” We all have it, so one might say it is more or less innate or genetic. We all want to be secure from want, from attack, from untimely or painful or humiliating death, and that desire helps us survive. To be sure, this craving for security surely differs, not just between humans, but among human societies themselves. Some people seem to be natural risk-takers, willing to risk even death to live at a high pitch. Others seem more determined to construct their lives in a way that minimizes risk, minimizes any situation that could prove dangerous. Experience surely has something to do with it, especially where whole cultures are concerned, as does the era in which one lives. As someone who lived through both World War II and the Cold War, it seems to me that today’s Americans—with their exaggerated fear of aging and penchant for life insurance and a “nest egg”—worry more about personal security than ever.

What really sets the concern for security into high gear, however, are external events. Living through the Depression was one such event that never left those who went through its worst days. Saving every item that might one day be useful, and never wasting anything of value, are some of the results. In our time, the attacks of 9/11 have had a similar effect on today’s Americans. The retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq (however mistaken), the huge industry that arose with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the willingness of many Americans to forfeit their constitutional rights to allow the government to spy on them and others, can all be attributed to this transformative event.

In the same vein, the experience of the holocaust in Nazi Germany can be seen to have had a similar effect for most Jews. To the extent that they are able, most vowed that “never again” would they be reduced to such depths of vulnerability and humiliation and near-extermination. The flight to the newly-founded state of Israel was one manifestation of that “never again” thinking. The determination to make that state safe from all threats, whether real or imagined, became concretized in a state apparatus that built itself upon a military capability so fearsome that it could never be challenged.

It takes little thought to see that here is where the natural human urge to be secure can take a negative turn, can manifest in antagonistic pleiotropy. That is, circumstances have changed, the human population has changed, human technology has drastically changed. This means that where once the urge to be secure could mean “saving for the rainy day,” today it means being determined to earn so much money that one must be prepared to wipe out all competition, ethics be damned. Where once one simply saw the need to cooperate with one’s neighbors to be secure, today it can easily morph into rejecting all associations with the herd and colluding only with like-minded fellows hiding behind armed guards and gated communities. It also means that where once one prepared to fight off an attacker by arming oneself with a club or a sword or even a gun, today that urge very quickly escalates to devastating weapons and plans for their use that involve not merely defense but mass destruction and even annihilation.

Both Israel and the United States of America have done precisely this. Not content with having the most advanced conventional weapons and the most bellicose policies aimed at their presumptive adversaries, both have amassed nuclear arsenals that can be unleashed, and that are meant to be unleashed on any enemy foolish enough to even consider a confrontation. During the Cold War, this meant that on more than one occasion, the nuclear warheads mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles in both the United States and its perceived adversary, the Soviet Union, were placed on high alert. Thousands of such missiles could have been launched in minutes if given the proper signal. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Russian ICBMs were placed on the island of Cuba, that signal very nearly arrived, and the world came closer to an all-out nuclear conflagration than ever before. And the root of the crisis was the same human desire or demand for security raised to the level of mutually assured destruction.

Perhaps the clearest modern instance of this condition pertains in today’s Middle East. Israel has, with American aid, made itself the 5th most powerful military in the world—this for a nation of about 5 million people. It has threatened war with virtually every Arab nation and fought and won wars with most of its neighbors, maintaining its occupation over the Palestinians it displaced with ever more brutal methods. It has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), instead using its scientific prowess to amass a nuclear arsenal that insiders have estimated to exceed 200 weapons, mounted on missiles capable of reaching anywhere in its part of the world. It has attacked the installations of neighboring nations such as Iraq and Syria, when it thought they were nearing the ability to build their own nuclear weapons. And most recently, it has several times threatened to attack Iran (a signatory to the NPT), not for having nuclear weapons, but for possibly nearing the point where it might be able to build one. Most ominously of all, its leaders have more than once publicly reiterated their determination to unleash those nuclear weapons if they felt sufficiently threatened.

In short, we are now, all of us, in the realm of antagonistic pleiotropy where security is concerned. What begins as a biological condition that enhances survival—the inborn desire to be secure from want, from danger—has, in the nuclear age, transformed into a mania that threatens not only other persons or nations that appear dangerous to us, but huge swaths of the earth, and perhaps life itself. That is because though no one knows what would happen if thousands of thermonuclear explosions were to go off in a short period of time, the terms “chain reaction” and “nuclear winter” express the grim possibilities.

In the end, whether humans can get control of this fundamental urge depends on belief. If you believe that humans can control their sugar craving, perhaps you will feel confident that the urge to be secure can also be brought within reasonable bounds. If you see nothing but disaster in the proliferation of not just sugars but many other technologies like plastic surgery and genetic enhancement and carbon-based energy, any or all of which threaten to swamp the human ability to control them, then you may not be so sanguine.

In either case, it is time for us all to realize the larger truth, i.e. that the biological equipment nature has given us does not always and forever contribute to our survival. Indeed, what antagonistic pleiotropy tells us is something fundamental: the demand for perfect security is a chimera, an ultimately self-defeating illusion. That is because life is NOT perfection but incessant change; thus perfection would mean stopping the process of change, and that would mean stopping life itself. Though we may yearn for perfection, for perfect security, even coming close to it would be a monstrosity—as the examples we have, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, and now Gaza, should agonizingly demonstrate.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel's Massacre in Gaza

As I write this, the latest reports from Gaza by the AP say that over 350 Gazans, many of them women and children, have now been killed and over 1400 wounded in the latest Israeli assault on the Palestinians trapped in the tiny strip of land named Gaza. More accurate descriptions label Gaza the largest open-air prison in the world, home to 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, all of whom have become civilian targets in Israel’s relentless war again the Palestinian people and its democratically-elected leaders in Hamas.

Israel, of course, contends that it is only acting in “self-defense,” seeking to end the rocket attacks launched by Hamas militants in Gazan territory. It contends that the people it has killed have been the very terrorists who have been launching the rockets, by implication, soldiers in what has now become an all-out, if one-sided war. But aside from the innocent Gazan civilians who have been slaughtered by bombs and rockets and drones that do not distinguish between active terrorists and unfortunate bystanders, even the so-called “security forces” Israel claims to be killing are in many cases police officers and civil servants who have had the misfortune to be housed or working in government buildings. Even more outrageously, Israel’s Tzipi Livni blames Hamas for not conforming to “the requirements of the international community.” But if there is a consistent, repeat violator of international rules and regulations, it is Israel. It has thumbed its nose at countless UN resolutions, including 242. It has built an illegal apartheid wall in Palestinian territory. More generally, as an occupying power, Israel is required by international law to care for the people under its 60-year occupation. Instead, it has increasingly tightened its stranglehold on the Palestinians trapped in their shrinking territory, destroying every vestige of livelihood that could allow Palestinians to survive, including food and fuel and even basic medicines like insulin. In this sense, as Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada points out, Israel’s latest assault, said to have been launched in response to the “collapse” of the truce that had been in place for 6 months, is different only in degree from the prior “truce,” a word the media never questions:

“It is very simple. Under an Israeli-style truce, Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonize their land. Israel has not only banned food and medicine to sustain Palestinian bodies in Gaza but it is also intent on starving minds: due to the blockade, there is not even ink, paper and glue to print textbooks for schoolchildren.
As John Ging, the head of operations of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), told The Electronic Intifada in November: ‘there was five months of a ceasefire in the last couple of months, where the people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence. We in fact at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food.’”

In other words, Israel has been silently killing Gazans for two years by denying its people the most fundamental necessities of life. Its siege has prevented these people from escaping either by land, by sea, or by air. It has prevailed on a quisling Egyptian government to keep the only crossing enabling the transport of precious supplies into Gaza, the Rafah crossing, mostly closed. Its bombs have now destroyed the underground tunnels which Gazans have dug to allow at least some of these supplies to enter. And now it is bombing a terrorized civilian population, including a five-story women’s dormitory at Islamic University, to send them a message: ‘We are your masters here. You have no recourse, no safety, no life to live unless you willingly place yourselves under our heel.’ And it, seconded by the likes of President Bush, expects Gazans to comply. Complying, of course, ultimately means that sooner rather than later, all Palestinians will agree to leave their own lands so that Zionist Israel can finally complete its long-range plan, an Eretz Israel cleansed of its original inhabitants completely.

What Americans, including the new Obama administration, must decide is whether, and for how long, they can keep sending American treasure, American airplanes, American rockets, American ‘moral’ support to implement such a policy—a policy that is like nothing so much as the one that the Nazis once enforced against their own subject population, the European Jews; a policy which, absent that American aid and support, could not continue for even a single day.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Defining Moment

Our now legacy-conscious president made what should be his final surprise visit to Iraq this weekend, and lo and behold, left us with what I predict will be the defining moment of his presidency. As he was giving a talk side by side with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, an Iraqi journalist named Muntazer al-Zaidi threw first one shoe, and then the other at the “leader of the free world.” As he did so, he shouted,

“It is the farewell kiss, you dog.”

Though both shoes missed the U.S. president—he ducked the first, and Maliki deflected the second—the report of the double insult rocketed around the world. For the reporter had not only called Iraq’s self-proclaimed liberator a “dog,” itself an insult, but threw his shoes in a culture where such an act is considered the ultimate insult. Or rather, the soles of shoes are the ultimate insult; after Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in Baghdad, some Iraqis slapped its severed head with the soles of their shoes.

President Bush, of course, was quick to dismiss the incident as bizarre and limited, saying “I don’t think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say, this represents a broad movement in Iraq.” But the damage has been done. Bush has taken the reputation of the United States to such abysmal depths that even a common reporter, one from a country we are told should be grateful for the sacrifice of U.S. lives and U.S. treasure, dares to hurl public insults at its most exalted figure.

In short, though one must worry about what is even now being hurled at this amazingly courageous reporter, it is clear that his act stands as THE defining moment of the Bush presidency. It is more emblematic of what this President has wrought than the Mission Accomplished fiasco, where Bush, in full flight regalia, strutted across the deck of an aircraft carrier after landing in a jet, to assure the assembled sailors and the world that the United States had prevailed in Iraq when, in truth, the most vicious part of the battle was just beginning; more memorable than the “heckuva job Brownie” moment, when Bush praised his head of FEMA for performing so well in the New Orleans drowning, even as New Orleans residents by the thousands were begging for help.

Yes, this moment tops them all. It is more delicious than an assassination attempt, for a Bush attacker could be characterized as a fanatic or a madman. It is more satisfying than an impeachment, for right wing zealots could easily attribute that to “partisan politics.” This attack, by contrast, came from an Iraqi, a journalist who could be expected to know the score. An Iraqi who should have been bowing down in gratitude to his, and the world’s ‘savior,’ the world’s ‘liberator,’ the world’s ‘messenger of freedom and democracy.’ And instead, the man threw his shoe, both shoes. Called the President a “dog.” In full view of the entire world. And while the President may have been right when he said al-Zaidi doesn’t represent a movement, what he did not say, and would be determined not to recognize, is the overarching truth of this moment. For here, for all time, is the historical judgment on Bush’s doomed Iraqi venture, the burial ceremony of his entire Middle Eastern policy, indeed of his entire presidency: Iraqi shoes thrown as a farewell kiss for a “dog;” a dog who has attacked a country without cause, on false pretenses, imposing on its millions of people the kind of suffering that not even a dog should have to endure.

Could it be any richer? Any more ironic? Remembering that the torture (called enhanced interrogation) that the Bush Administration sanctioned for its prisoners, featured snarling dogs to exploit the Arab fear they incite. Remembering all the metaphors of America’s imperial footprint, and boots on the ground, and the famous shoes of America’s first Iraqi Proconsul, L. Paul Bremer. Remembering also that instead of being welcomed by the garlands and kisses promised to American “liberators” in the runup to the war, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation can now count on being greeted with a pelting of shoes, or rotten fruit, or god knows what else. All of which poses the humiliating question: can the United States still consider itself the world’s sole superpower, the most admired empire in history? It hardly seems so. Its economy is in a shambles. Its public figures have become clowns. Its foreign policy a disaster. Its reputation a joke.

And it is all symbolized, perfectly, by this defining moment: Two shoes hurled at the most powerful man in the world, the “farewell kiss to a dog.” How strange is the eruption of truth. How satisfying and unpredictable the eruption of poetic justice. And how accurate was the prediction of Gore Vidal, eight years ago upon Bush’s ascension to, or rather theft of, the presidency. “He will leave in disgrace,” said Vidal. Who could have imagined how thorough, how vivid, how global that disgrace would be?

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moral Collapse

The recent news about the attempt of Illinois Governor Blagojevic to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat inevitably brings to mind other moral failings by public figures in recent years, from Bill Clinton’s Oval Office blowjobs, to the corruption of Republican leaders like Tom DeLay and K-Street cronies of his like Jack Abramoff, to the rampant criminality of dominant members of the Bush Administration in “legalizing” torture, pre-emptively invading Iraq, and trashing the most basic legal constraints such as habeas corpus. These memories in turn immediately invite others: Robert Mugabe clinging to power in Zimbabwe while his people are ravaged by cholera; the generals in Burma jailing monks while floods kill thousands of their subjects; the U.S. president flying over flooded New Orleans while residents call for help from rooftops and receive only displacement and exile; and, of course, Middle East fanatics in commercial airplanes flying them into the Twin Towers to kill as many Americans as they can.

What is happening here? Whatever happened to moral restraint? to adherence to the moral codes that at one time seemed to control not only political figures, but most human beings and their actions? Are we witnessing, that is, not only the collapse of our economy and economies worldwide, but also a general collapse of morals and morality itself?

It often seems that way. Consider the actions of those we traditionally expect to follow basic moral precepts—the preachers and teachers who are supposed to guide us. What we find, instead, are fundamentalist zealots at every level. The events of 9/11 were perpetrated, we are told, by members of Al Qaeda, who apparently invoked the god of Muslims, Allah, as they were crashing their planes into buildings. Three thousand people died as a result of their, and their alleged leader’s perverted religiosity. The same holds for those who perpetrated the recent killings in Mumbai, India; all were allegedly goaded on by yet another Islamic fundamentalist organization out of Pakistan. Then there are the pronouncements of Christian fundamentalists in America. Fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson not long ago openly called for the assassination of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela; General Jerry Boykin, a born-again Christian who led a mission into Colombia some say was intended to assassinate drug lord Pablo Escobar (who was in fact assassinated), asserted in a 2006 speech that he was confident of victory in the War on Terror because his God, the Christian God, was real, while the god of his Muslim adversary was an “idol.” And when it comes to the main focus of Christian fundamentalism in America—the campaign against a woman’s right to abortion—the rabid nature of the argument leads, and has led, inevitably to zealots who have tried to kill, and in some cases succeeded in killing doctors suspected of performing abortions, all in the name of the “right to life.” The fundamental law of all religions—the prohibition on killing other humans—seems not only not to count, but is actually turned on its head, reversed, in the name of religion.

Nor is it just Christians and Muslims who have violated this basic precept in the name of their faiths. Israelis have been doing the same thing for nearly 70 years in Palestine. And the situation here seems, if anything, even more bizarre. For the moral calculus that seems to pertain in Israel is this: we Jews were subjected to a holocaust in Germany, by a leader who used Christianity to justify our extermination; therefore, that gives us the moral right to do the same to our enemies, the Palestinians. We can subjugate them, wall them into ghettos like the ones we were forced to endure, and slowly strangle them to the point where they will leave, whereupon we will have, finally, Eretz Israel, that greater Israel pledged to us by God in our holy book. And if this means that we must consider Palestinians “roaches” in order to justify our theft of their land, to rationalize our exile or murder of millions of that land’s original inhabitants, so be it. God and the holocaust we have suffered combine to justify and bless our cause.

It takes very little reflection to see that this ethic—or lack of an ethic—is reinforced everywhere in our world. Wall Street bankers serve themselves billions in bonuses as they scheme to create ever more complex and illegal ways to multiply their profits, leaving in their wake the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. CEOs of major U.S. corporations do the same, insisting that their obscene compensation plans come before all other considerations. In the process, they think nothing of firing thousands, moving their operations to foreign countries where laborers get a pittance, and devastating communities in the country they profess to love and serve. Major magazines then lionize these “geniuses of industry and finance,” as they have lionized Hollywood stars, who have for years been paid just as obscenely for their celluloid posturing, and star athletes who now follow suit with multi-million dollar contracts for their skill with balls. All the while, society in general rarely questions the right of high-status individuals to be compensated in such outlandish and disproportionate, not to say immoral ways.

The media almost uniformly reinforces all this immorality and amorality with the dramas they present in film and television. We are treated nightly to psychopathic killers who delight in torturing and tormenting women or children, the more helpless the better. TV shows like “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Minds” and the spate of Crime Scene Investigation spinoffs vie with each other to portray the most brutal, the most gruesome scenes of violence, taking delight in depicting the dismemberment and violation of human bodies in every way imaginable. Sitcoms take the opposite tack, proudly portraying puerile men and women whose announced intention is to get “laid” as often as possible, and/or to get even when they cannot get laid. Commercials reinforce the general selfishness by featuring lovers contriving ways to cheat their loved ones of an “invaluable” taste treat like chicken mcnuggets or an overstuffed hamburger. The general idea, both in fact and in fiction, seems to be: this is it, folks, the one life we’re all going to have, so get yours while you can, as often as you can; there is no other measure of success. As to morality, it usually enters the equation late, with a contrived triumph of “justice,” but with the true emotional impact having long since been delivered via the gratuitous violence, sexuality or greed.

What we are shown, daily, hourly, in sum, is the triumph of the most narrow conception of self and selfishness. Self-centered pricks rule the world, morality is for chumps, and we would all do well to satisfy ourselves and only, if we have riches to burn, those close to us or those who share our views. All else is hopeless, outdated romanticism. Waiting for a Godot who will never come.

Does this then mean that the traditional morality that is honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that apparently formed the bulwark against barbaric behavior for so long, is in its death throes? Perhaps. Perhaps traditional morality has been so discredited—by psychology and biology, by economics and history and physics and anthropology, by global overpopulation—that paying attention to the ten commandments or any other moral code seems not only passé but foolish. Aside from a few saints, the people with power, the people in the real world, have never adhered to such constraints. Morality has always applied, if it applied at all, only in families, to a lesser degree in neighborhoods, to a lesser degree among our co-religionists, to a still lesser degree within nations, and not at all beyond those bounds. The behavior we so much deplore, in short, actually describes what has been the rule, not the exception, for years, and will, must increasingly dominate human relations in the global, overpopulated, resource-depleted world we are facing.

Unless. Unless there’s an alternative view—one that sees the death throes of traditional morality as an indication of something more. What if the moral collapse we see around us were signaling not a complete curling inwards toward ever greater selfishness and cruelty, but rather a groping outwards, an attempt to find some greater morality more fitting to a global community? In other words, what if we are being prepared, haltingly, against our wills in most cases, for a morality that includes not just those who are our kin, one way or another, but those we have traditionally seen as NOT our kin, or even our kind? What if we are being asked to join not just the greater human family once described in a famous book as “the Family of Man,” the global family of all homo sapiens (and we are being asked to join that family by everything that has happened in recent years, by the floods, the famines, the wars, delivered so graphically to us on television that it is nearly impossible to ignore the suffering all around us) but the family of all beings--the family that includes the animals and even the plants that we now must realize are not foreign to us, not OTHER, but truly us, truly constructed not only of the same basic genetic code but the same star stuff the same chemicals and proteins and elements and electrons and quarks and strings and life-templates that shape and form each and every one of us? That we, in fact, are.

It could be. It could be that our growing revulsion over torture and war and starvation in the remotest corners of the earth is serving to force us in this direction. It could be that our growing realization about global warming is meant to drag us kicking and screaming into the understanding that we cannot survive on our own, we cannot survive in our little families or our little neighborhoods or our little countries or big countries no matter how big or powerful or armed with nuclear weapons. We cannot. Because the catastrophe our narrow, myopic morality has prepared for us will overwhelm all such small aggregations. Will demand that our concern grow ever larger, our compassion extend ever farther, because if it does not, we are all doomed. Our planet is doomed. The lungs of our planet which we have been so busy cutting down—the rain forests—are doomed. As is the air we have been so busy besmirching. As is the soil we have been so busy poisoning. As is the home we have been so busy befouling. As is life itself, the myriad beings we have been so busy distinguishing ourselves from in our ignorance and thereby destroying—doomed.

Moral collapse thus can be seen in at least two ways. We can choose to see it as the necessary precursor to something larger, something greater, some more universal morality which will have for its concern the care for all life, for life itself. Or it can be seen as the precursor to an even more catastrophic collapse, the collapse of functioning human groups, functioning societies, functioning governments, a functioning planet.

The choice is ours.

Lawrence DiStasi