Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 3rd, 2021

The radical aristocrat who put kindness on a scientific footing

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Lydia Syson has an interesting article in Psyche, which begins:

Five years had passed since Czar Alexander II promised the emancipation of the serfs. Trusting in a map drawn on bark with the point of a knife by a Tungus hunter, three Russian scientists set out to explore an area of trackless mountain wilderness stretching across eastern Siberia. Their mission was to find a direct passage between the gold mines of the river Lena and Transbaikalia. Their discoveries would transform understanding of the geography of northern Asia, opening up the route eventually followed by the Trans-Manchurian Railway. For one explorer, now better known as an anarchist than a scientist, this expedition was also the start of a long journey towards a new articulation of evolution and the strongest possible argument for a social revolution.

Prince Peter Kropotkin, the aristocratic graduate of an elite Russian military academy, travelled in 1866 with his zoologist friend Ivan Poliakov and a topographer called Maskinski. Boat and horseback took them to the Tikono-Zadonsk gold mine. From there, they continued with 10 Cossacks, 50 horses carrying three months’ supply of food, and an old Yukaghir nomad guide who’d made the journey 20 years earlier.

Kropotkin and Poliakov – enthusiastic, curious and well-read young men in their 20s – were fired by the prospect of finding evidence of that defining factor of evolution set out by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859): competition. They were disappointed. As Kropotkin later wrote:

We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling, very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies, and Polyakoff wrote many a good page upon the mutual dependency of carnivores, ruminants, and rodents in their geographical distribution; we witnessed numbers of facts of mutual support … [but] facts of real competition and struggle between higher animals of the same species came very seldom under my notice, though I eagerly searched for them.

Kropotkin pursued this contradiction for decades. Observation and wide reading convinced him that what he’d seen in Siberia was no exception, but a rule. In the 1860s, he watched a vast exodus of fallow deer gather in their thousands to cross the river Amur at its narrowest point to escape an early snowfall. In 1882, he was fascinated by a crab stuck on its back in a tank in Brighton Aquarium; it was painstakingly rescued by a band of comrades. Kropotkin collected descriptions from all over the world of the sociable behaviours of ants, bees, termites, falcons, swallows, horned larks, migrating birds, gazelles, buffalo, colonies of beavers, squirrels, mice, flocks of seals, herds of wild horses, tribes of dogs, wolf packs, marmots, rats, chinchillas, as well as apes and monkeys. He wrote that:

[A]s we ascend the scale of evolution, we see association growing more and more conscious. It loses its purely physical character, it ceases to be simply instinctive, it becomes reasoned.

It proved impossible for Kropotkin, a man ‘amiable to the point of saintliness’ according to George Bernard Shaw, to dedicate himself entirely to the ‘highest joys’ of scientific discovery, when all around him he saw ‘nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy bit of bread’, as he put it in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899). In 1872, in Switzerland, he became an anarchist, impressed by the egalitarian fraternity he found among the watchmakers of Jura. Back in Russia, he joined the revolutionary Circle of Tchaikovsky, disseminating underground literature and lecturing to the workers of St Petersburg disguised as Borodin the peasant agitator. His propaganda landed him in prison, but he escaped in 1876 with the help of comrades. By 1883, he was a political prisoner once again, this time in France. This second confinement gave him time to develop his arguments about evolution: he started to address systematically the conflicting interpretations of Darwin emerging in different parts of the world.

In England, the biologist, anthropologist and anatomist Thomas Huxley had quickly emerged as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. Self-described as sharp of ‘claws and beak’, Huxley was prepared to ‘go to the Stake if requisite’ to defend evolutionary doctrine. His views on human nature and political economy were defined by Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Robert Malthus: life was an endless fight for scarce resources. The libertarian Herbert Spencer likewise applied natural selection to economics, using his infamous coinage the ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify laissez-faire capitalism. Popularly labelled ‘social Darwinism’, this view became gospel for Gilded Age industrialists such as John D Rockefeller. Although Huxley himself didn’t recommend the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule as a basis for morality – quite the reverse – he certainly believed that human beings were brutal and competitive, their sociability merely a recent veneer, rationalised by self-interest.

After Huxley published his pessimistic essay ‘The Struggle for Existence and Its Bearing Upon Man’ (1888) in The Nineteenth Century, an influential Victorian monthly review, Kropotkin was in a good position to launch an attack on Huxley’s idea of nature as a ‘gladiator’s show’. By this time, having been released from prison following an international outcry, Kropotkin was established in England, becoming quite a celebrity in the socialist and anarchist circles that blossomed through the mid-1880s. He promoted his political ideas in the international Left-wing press, and cofounded a London-based journal called Freedom, but made a living writing for scientific periodicals.

Between 1890 and 1915, in a series of interdisciplinary essays, Kropotkin drew on biology, sociology, history, (anti-racist) ethnology and anthropology to argue that species can organise and cooperate to overcome the natural environment and ensure their future survival. In 1902, the first eight essays were brought together in a book entitled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, an account of mutual support in action across the animal world (from microorganisms to mammals), ancient and modern ‘barbarian’ and ‘savage’ societies, medieval city-states and, finally, among modern humanity.

Kropotkin sought to recover an uncorrupted Darwin, whose metaphors should not be read too literally. But his call to understand compassion as ‘a powerful factor of further evolution’ cleared the way for a very particular political vision: human beings could overcome competitive struggle by voluntarily restructuring and decentralising society along principles of community and self-sufficiency.

Kropotkin became enamoured with mutual aid after reading an 1880 lecture on the subject by the celebrated zoologist Karl Kessler. Like other Russian naturalists at the time, Kessler didn’t deny the struggle for existence, but his own fieldwork in harsh and sparsely populated regions of the Russian empire strongly suggested that ‘the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle’. But, as Kropotkin mourned: ‘like so many good things published in the Russian tongue only, that remarkable address remains almost entirely unknown’.

Neither was Kropotkin alone politically. The historian of science Eric Johnson has recently demonstrated that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 3:15 pm

“I’m finally done with the Senate filibuster. We’re running out of time to save democracy.”

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Noah Bookbinder, a former criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, writes in USA Today:

I worked as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. I heard senators that I admired repeat the apocryphal story of George Washington supposedly explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was “the saucer that cools the tea,” preventing the House from rushing through ill-advised legislation.

While the filibuster was not part of the framers’ plan — and indeed some of the framers warned against a supermajority requirement for legislation — it seemed consistent with this idea of the Senate as an intended obstacle to tyranny by a bare, partisan majority. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the cycles of control in the Senate. I saw how those tactics of delay and obstruction that drove a majority party crazy one year were lifelines when that party ended up in the minority the next

Those seemed like compelling arguments to keep the Senate filibuster, so I passionately resisted the idea of eliminating it for years. Too slowly perhaps, it has become clear to me that times have changed. The old arguments are no longer enough — in fact, our democracy might not survive at all unless Congress passes reforms that a minority seems determined to block. The Senate must get rid of the filibuster in order for us to maintain a democratic system of government going forward, and the sooner the better.

White minority wants to keep control

Our democracy already teetered on the brink when Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 presidential election by more than 7 million votes and a substantial margin in the Electoral College, falsely and repeatedly claimed to have won and then actually tried to convince officials in multiple states to overturn the results of the voting in those states.

When efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine and overturn the election failed, Trump’s supporters switched to a quieter but no less dangerous tactic. Bills have now been introduced in 47 states to restrict access to voting, curbs which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. Many of these bills are on their way to passing. Efforts are also in the planning stages to aggressively gerrymander districts to benefit the former president’s party.

The cumulative effect of all this is to prevent a mostly white minority of Americans from losing control of the United States government. There is legislation that could prevent this, but it looks like it will be blocked in the Senate by the filibuster, something that has often happened to bills meant to advance racial equity and justice.

Now, the combination of systematic disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters, aggressive use of gerrymandering, and a system of unchecked money in political campaigns could allow a minority of voters to ensure that those who supported Trump’s abuses are ushered into control of Congress and the presidency; once in power, they have already shown their willingness to use it to further degrade checks and balances for their own advancement. The democracy as we know it might begin to crumble.

We need H.R. 1: It would maintain voting rights and voting integrity that states saved amid COVID-19

This sounds apocalyptic and maybe a little crazy. It is not. We need only look at the four years of Trump’s presidency, moving from emoluments violations, obstruction of investigations, embrace of white supremacists, and sidelining of watchdogs and prosecutors who threatened him to full-scale attempts to overturn an election and incite insurrection, to see how quickly and completely the foundations of our democracy can be shaken.

Worry about comity later

Legislation before Congress can stop all this from happening. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, contains crucial voting rights protections that will prevent many of the efforts in states to restrict the ability to vote; it will ensure fair, non-partisan redistricting and reform money in politics, as well as curbing much unethical conduct and many abuses of power. We can also shore up our democracy against attack with bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Protecting Our Democracy Act and an act to finally grant District of Columbia residents the same rights to democratic participation that people in all 50 states have.

GOP ex-officials:We need a voting rights champion like Vanita Gupta at Justice, and fast

But if the Senate’s intractable minority is allowed to continue to prevent all legislation to protect our democratic system, we will run out of time. Efforts in the states to curb voting rights and ensure rule by a shrinking white minority will be able to take effect without any check; after the rules are changed and the deck stacked, it might not again be possible to elect a Congress and a president amenable to protecting democratic participation and checks and balances.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Senate must  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 12:47 pm

Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?

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The above video explores — and makes me want to rewatch — a variety of Wes Anderson films. Ted Mills wrote an interesting post in Open Culture (which includes the above video). The post includes some links to interesting references.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 11:48 am

Posted in Movies & TV, Video

Empathy also means accepting that you don’t know what all is going on in another’s life

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Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 10:58 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

For Easter: The egg-shaped Yaqi Bunny Shave Brush in Blue with a Tuxedo knot

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I had order three brushes from Yaqi. They’re here, and this one seemed highly appropriate in view of the memes of the Easter holiday. The base of the brush has a silhouette of a bunny.

I do like Pan’s Pipe, a soap in the Vol. 3 formulation from Dr. Jon. The lather’s fragrance is pleasing and with The Holy Black’s SR-71 slant I easily achieved a very smooth result, with no damage at all (thanks in part to Grooming Dept pre-shave).

A splash of Diplomat aftershave, and the weekend begins.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 9:59 am

Posted in Shaving

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