Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Star Trek and Vitalism

I've been watching all of the original series of Star Trek on CBS classics recently. Star Trek is full of conceptual contrivances for the sake of the plot. The list is almost unbounded. Faster than light travel, "humanoids" on every planet, universal English, teleportation, gravity control, etc. I'm willing to forgive most of these as stagecraft -- they either help advance the plot or are needed for obvious production reasons. There's also plenty of just plain silliness such as in Trouble with Tribbles when it is said "Odors can not travel through the vacuum of space" (of course they can) while we hear explosions from blasted space ships (which, of course, you can't).

However, one theme that annoys me constantly, and most certainly is not needed for plot advancement is the incessant evocation of Vitalism.

Vitalism is the idea that there's some sort of "elan vital" that animates the living. The idea seems obvious: living things are so different form non-living things that, surely, there must be some unseen force that defines the state of life. It is a wonderfully intuitive idea; it suffers only from the small problem that it's completely wrong as has been known now for more than a century.

The falsification of Vitalism and the unraveling of the molecular basis of life is certainly the most significant outcome of centuries of biological research. As counter-intuitive as it seems, everything we call living is "merely" chemistry -- made of the same material as dead stuff. We have explored all the way down to the bottom of the phenomenological stack and all that's there is molecules acting like molecules. There's no magic juju, there's no vital essence, there's no "spark" that separates the living from the dead. That said, just because life is made of "mere" molecules, that doesn't make it any less amazing or mysterious. Indeed, to me it makes it much more awesome and magical. I've talked to some people who seem to think that this deconstruction of biology into "mere" chemistry somehow lessens the magic. To me this is as nonsensical as saying that the transcription of poetry into "mere" letters lessens it's emotional impact.

Unfortunately, the news of the great accomplishments of the biological sciences have not infiltrated the consciousness of even the most well-educated. The ideas of Vitalism are just too intuitive to be undone by facts and thus it is still very much alive and well as demonstrated by its casual usage in "science" fiction such Star Trek.

A common example from the bridge of the Enterprise is that Spock will look into his scanner and announce authoritatively that there's only "one life form" on the planet. Inevitably they beam down and the planet is covered in alien plants. Apparently plants are not "life forms".

A more egregious example of Vitalism in Star Trek is the conflation of energy, life, and emotion. In Wolf in the Fold Spock says, "deriving sustenance from emotion is not unknown in the galaxy..." and later adds, "It's consciousness may survive consisting of billions of separate bits of energy floating forever in space, powerless." to which Kirk adds "But it will die, finally". This idea that emotion is some sort of expression of the vital animating spirit is at least as old as ancient Greece and Egypt. So too are the deistic explanations for the presence of this supposed force. And this too infects Star Trek. In Metamorphsis, Spock says to a nebulous "energy" creature called The Companion: "You do not have the ability to create life." and The Companion replies: "That is for the maker of all things." to which everyone seems to agree.

This lack of biological perspective is hardly unique to Star Trek. Pervasive in common knowledge is the idea that only things with "emotion" are "alive". If you ask people to name life forms on Earth, you'll typically get a list of big-eyed mammals. If you push hard you might get a bird. Only upon noting that things also live in the sea will most people remember fish. Forget invertebrates, nobody notices them except when whacking them with a fly swatter. And the most common life on the planet, micro-organisms, are only considered, if ever, under the heading of "nuisance" despite our total dependency on them for, well, basically everything.

Star Trek's lack of biological perspective is a real let down. Its unquestioning and casual acquiescence to Vitalism isn't a forward-looking intellectual challenge like anti-matter engines, teleportation, or sentient robots but rather is a backwards-looking reversion to pre-scientific superstitions.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Apparently I'm everything that's wrong with the world

Good news: the source of everything that's wrong with the world has been located.
Bad news: it's me

For a Christmas eve activity, my neighborhood decided to have an outing in the park directly in front of my house. My contribution was a bonfire. As tends to happen at such gatherings, you meet some of your neighbors for the first time. One neighbor discovers that I'm the owner / builder of the interesting Gaudi-esque house we're standing in front of and proceeds to tell me how much he loves the house and how great it is that I tried something different, etc. After a little while the conversation changes to the historic housing tax exemptions that are common in my neighborhood (for which I, of course, am not eligible since my house is new). They were discussing how much money they would save on taxes by declaring their expensive beautiful houses to be historic. I casually pointed out that while I understoodd their desire for a tax break, and indeed would probably do the same thing if I was in their position, that surely they'd have to understand that I'd be against such tax breaks for obvious reasons. "Oh but what about the character of the neighborhood?" they replied. "Which character would that be?" I replied, "Faux American Colonial? Faux Craftsmen? Faux Gaudi? It's not that I don't like these houses, I do, that's one of the reasons I live here, but let's not pretend that they represent some great monument to human achievement. Again, that said, I totally understand why you guys would want to use the law in your interest and get a tax break. But if it came up for a vote, I'd vote against it."

This was not greeted well. An aggressive: "You don't think we should save historic things?" is quipped back. "I dunno," I mused, "Life includes a lot of change and renewal, sometimes we should embrace it."

And for this bit of shocking opinion on the meaning of life I am met with my neighbor angrily saying: "I can't talk to you anymore." and storming away. At first I thought he was joking because his reaction seems so out of proportion to the topic. Someone else quietly said that they agreed with me and this brought him back angrily shouting: "He said that he wants to destroy all historic things!" I replied calmly, "actually that's not what I said...." but before I could explain my position, he yelled at me while wagging his finger: "You're everything that's wrong with the world. Money! Money! FUCK YOU!!". As he stormed away I quietly replied: "Merry Christmas to you too."

For the record, my full position is that, of course we should save historic things -- I just think that we should do it collectively by purchasing landmarks with public funds and then leasing them out or preserving them. The current method that permits some people to receive a tax break for living in old, beautiful houses strikes me as an extremely inequitable tax reward exclusively benefiting a small cadre of rich people because "historic" homes are almost always in old, nice neighborhoods where the property values are high. Furthermore, the extremely lax standards of what makes something "historic" are capricious. For example, a house around the corner from me has been declared historic because a man who lived in it once was said to be a "prominent doctor" when they found a 1 inch newspaper column about him from the Statesman decades ago. (He's actually still alive so technically he's not quite "historic" yet). By these low standards, every house that has been occupied by a professional (i.e. practically every house in every well-off neighborhood) will become "historic" eventually.

The absurdity of this to me is that after I die my unique house will probably become "historic" and the owner after me will get a big fat tax break. But I, who actually did all the work to create this unique house, who literally hurt his back laying the bricks, who spent a great deal of money and effort to create something interesting that might be appreciated into the future, I get nothing. Meanwhile, my neighbor who hypocritically likes my new house yet has forgotten that something had to be torn down to build it will get a tax break for living in and maintaining a house that is supposedly in the "character of the neighborhood" despite the fact that his house is only one of maybe two or three adobe-style houses in this supposedly "historic" neighborhood.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Absurd NY Times headline...

"Obama Tells Bankers That Lending Can Spur Economy"

In other news,

Cheney tells plumbers that pipes help keep people hydrated.
Clinton tells IT departments that working computers increase productivity.
Bush tells football players that scoring points increases odds of winning games.
Gore tells doctors that curing disease makes people healthier.
Pelosi tells real estate agents that houses may keep roof over people's heads.
McCain tells rodeo clowns that deflecting bulls' attention may improve rodeo riders' safety.