Friday, August 21, 2009

report from the trenches

We are like soldiers camping out on the eve of battle. It’s been raining since last night and I am tempted by visions of labs, science colleagues and the Dionysian comforts and shared ecstasies of women in my arms. Also by the lack of ticks, chiggers and poison ivy. Scratching myself does feel ecstatic at times, but makes it hard to focus on anything else and is wearisome after a while.
During our meals, Chris talks about the liberals and how they need the government to take care of them. He rants about the evils of land ownership and capitalism. He bemoans civilization and how it does not meet the needs of men (freedom, adventure, variety, creativity), only of women (comfort and security). I understand where he’s coming from, though I don’t agree completely with him about his generalizations. I also disagree with those who claim that no generalizations can be made at all, that men and women are the same in their needs, that masculine and feminine have only historical meaning. Anyway, capitalism is not our enemy, nor are the liberals, the conservative, women, or any group of people, the bugs, the poison ivy or even the deer who eat our crops. Yet we are at war, in the rainy, bug infested trenches.

Chris tills the beds that Shelby dug long ago, when Shelby was a young man full of hope, with a family to support. They were overrun with grass and weeds when we got here. Shelby put some logs on the edges to rot. We removed the rotten logs from the edges, but then we found more in the middle of each bed, buried. There must be about 1000 logs, in various states of decay. We use a pickaxe to lever them out of the ground, then we pile them in the pickup bed, and from there we load them on the woodpile. I was worried that Shelby might get mad or melancholic about us undoing his work (though the nutrients probably have all left the logs and gone into the soil by now), so we do the piling right after each digging out. “Put them back”, Chris jokes, trying to imitate what Shelby might say. We know that what we plant we might not harvest, and all our work here might not be for us to benefit from.

I am really close to having a self-feeding rocket stove. It is smaller, cheaper and easier to build than the one in the book. I think it is also more efficient. My design keeps changing, and hopefully converging.

The deer are eating our crops because we have no fence. Shelby doesn’t like fences or going through gates. A fence would be yet another investment of money and time that we may not get a return for—who knows when we would have to leave (Shelby could kick the bucket any day and Sara said we can’t have more than just 4 people here—not the thriving community we have in mind, with hundreds of people). A Kelvin Generator fence would be cheaper and less work to put up, so I am looking for metal tubs with spouts—I offered Shawn some money for his, which he uses for washing vegetables from his garden. And then there is the issue that the KG fence is still experimental technology, with some bugs yet to be worked out, and Chris has no patience for that, being a Yankee farmer.

People keep telling us of possibilities for a few acres to buy, or a place to live on someone else’s land. Just yesterday I was helping install a big rocket stove (not my design) for Laura and she and Kent are trying to be so encouraging, but they don’t get it. They think we’re just trying to survive, to find easy opportunities for us to live, to be comfortable. We are not here to be comfortable, though sometimes we indulge in some comforts (like the hot tub made from a horse trough and kept warm with insulation and 5 gallons of propane-heated water every few days).

Though Chris doesn’t know it, my heart is heavy every time we watch a video. Not that the videos are not good, moving, entertaining, informative. It’s the vision in my head and the yearning in my heart for celebration that is much more active and vibrant, a sharing of souls, active vs passive, work mingled seamlessly with play. Like folk dancing after working in the fields together. Like sermons, rituals and workshops that uplift, music that is played collectively, outdoor games full of glee. The video, despite the best intentions of its producers, is a symptom of a society of consumption, extreme individualism, and specialization. It works well in this kind of society. The kind of folk dancing I have in mind does not work well in this society, it doesn’t fit the rest of the attitudes and ways of being and doing. It might be enjoyed by a few people, but without the other ingredients (group communion, shared work, less specialization, agrarian lifestyle), it comes up stale. I try to enjoy the sharing of this passive activity, because at least it is sharing something, though sometimes it feels like a mockery of my yearning, a form of soma in a Brave New World.

We aren’t here to survive, or because we want to be self-sufficient, or free or even happy. We aren’t here for our children, though we miss them as a tree misses its roots and are sad that the Culture has taken them. We are not here to be martyrs—we aren’t trying to get an ego boost from any discomfort or material lacks or suffering.

We are here because we care deeply about this world, because we know that there is something good, beautiful and true that transcends our existence or that of our children, something worth sacrificing our comfort and security for. Our enemies are laziness, ignorance, selfishness, stupidity, both within us and without. Chris thinks our enemy is private ownership of land, but I think that is not a root enemy. Our friends are everywhere, in the midst of our enemies.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


A puzzle in evolutionary theory: how can single mutations be responsible for the kinds of morphological differences among species? To add an extra toe, for example, requires many (10s or 100s) of different genes to be expressed at different times during development. To go from gills to lungs requires even more changes in gene expression and a few new genes. Mutating these genes sequentially, one at a time, is highly disadvantageous, since the original function will be disrupted. This is akin to going from a carburated car to a carburated car with a fuel injector between the carburetor and the intake manifold in the evolution of cars--the mutant won't run. In fact there is no path of single component changes in a car going between carburation and fuel injection, which won't kill the car. These changes have to be done all at once, in a single generation, to produce a viable car.

What if the new fuel injector is not connected between the carburetor and the intake manifold? There is some energy expended in building it, which presents a slight disadvantage to the manufacturer of the car. But if the manufacturer has some resources to do R&D, eventually a fuel injection system can be evolved. Of course the analogy breaks down here as there is no manufacturer in biology. But I think that the part about large changes occuring without a phenotype might happen in nature too, as in lungs being built without being used. Also, the analogy with the manufacturer is a regulatory gene, which controls the expression of many other genes. In technology, the manufacturer is not part of the car, but in biology the regulatory gene is part of the organism.

Several things have to happen in order to produce the multitude of beneficial changes leading to a new species, even after reproductive isolation. First, mutations occur in one or a few regulatory genes, as opposed to hundreds of genes. This enables many genes to change their expression with the mutation of only one or a few of the genes that regulate them, making the probability of change within a (consistent with paleontological record) short time reasonable.

Second, at least one copy of the unmutated regulatory gene has to continue to express normally and be dominant, in order that normal function not be disrupted. Since most genes are recessive, this requires gene duplication, an occasional occurence, followed by mutation in one of the copies, followed by homozygosity of the mutated gene.

Third, either the environment has to change or new phenotypically invisible mutations (either in the originally mutated gene or in cooperating genes) have to occur in order to provide a differential selective advantage for the new gene relative to the original gene. It is possible that the original mutation is good enough to provide an advantage (once the environment changes) relative to the original unmutated gene, with no new mutations, but to me this seems unlikely, even for a mutation in a regulatory gene. Such an event would seem to lead to a new variety or strain rather than a new species. Species are separated by barriers in multidimensional fitness space and most changes, even multi-gene ones, are unlikely to lead to a lower valley on the first try.

Fourth, a new mutation occurs such that the original gene is inactivated, or the new gene becomes dominant.

The fourth event happens many times, most of which are not preceded by the third step, in which case no new species arises. The changes involved in speciation are numerous and interdependent and must remain invisible to selctive pressure until the time is right.

Now I would like to argue that similar considerations apply to cultural evolution, as do to biological and technological evolution. Culture is a hereditable system composed of interacting memes, subject to selective pressure and variation. Gradual, non-regulatory mutations lead to different strains. Reproductive isolation is a necessary (see the entry on gradual vs quick speciation) but not sufficient condition for new species to arise. The four steps above might complete the ingredients necessary for cultural speciation to occur, although I may have missed some. In the pictures below I draw a simplified draft of an outline of the mainstream culture and a culture I would like to speciate into. I try to represent some regulatory memes in the center. These mutations have already occured but they are either conferring a disadvantage or phenotypically invisible. We need a community to work them out, largely isolated from mainstream culture, in an environment where the new culture would have an advantage.

A corollary to the above considerations is that small changes are not going to radically change the culture, even given an infinite amount of time. Herbert Marcuse already saw this many years ago with regards to capitalism, but it is a property of all stable evolutionary systems. In the next entry I will elaborate on why the following changes will not create a new culture.

mono->poly without changing capitalism
greener consumption habits without changing capitalism and empire
changing capitalism without localization
localization of food without participation in agriculture
localization of food without localization of industry
green building without changing attitudes about housing
shared housing without a common vision and common livelihhod
no electricity without common recreation
folk dancing without an attitude of group communion
communalism without consensus