This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

June 2019: Currently in the process of revising pages for bibliographies and links to posts about SF and NF, as seen above…

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Dawkins v Wilson on Group Selection

A minor irritant in Dawkins’ book just discussed is that he several times describes claims by other scientists and then patiently explains why they are wrong. In one case it’s a recently published paper in a journal. In another he takes on E.O. Wilson on group selection, in Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, that had just been published the year before. These are irritating because he makes the issues a bit too personal.

Without attempting to explain group selection, I note here only that there remains an ongoing debate, or perhaps merely a lingering disagreement, about the concept of group selection vs. individual selection, whether group selection ever applies. Dawkins is insistent upon the position that it does not, and he has several examples in his book of behaviors that may seem to benefit only the group (perhaps by relation) but which in fact can be understood the individual only.

At the same time Wilson has carried forward the banner for group selection, a steady theme through his many books and especially prominent in the last few of his books since The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). In these later books Wilson claims to have developed (along with his students) mathematical models that prove that group selection applies in certain circumstances.

Yet his does seem to be a minority position. Jerry Coyne had a blog post recently wondering why Wilson has hitched his wagon, in his declining years, to an invalidated theory. And Steven Pinker published an essay somewhere a few years ago called IIRC “The False Allure of Group Selection.”

Dawkins, I recall noting, is not quite as harsh on the subject as he used to be. And yet (just now checking several of his later books’ indexes) he’s only ever referenced Wilson once or twice. Wilson, for his part, has never referenced Dawkins at all.

And Wilson in his recent books is persuasive. I suspect the dispute arises in how different analyses make different starting assumptions, or prioritize one kind of analysis over another.

My impression is that Wilson’s analysis applies more at the level of social or cultural evolution. In any case, one of the fascinations of science is watching how some matters are never completely settled. Yes, maybe it’s different starting assumptions or different perspectives, or maybe each side is looking at different subcases of a larger phenomenon. It has to be something like that. If it were a trivial disagreement, it would have been settled by now. The issues still open in science are necessarily not the simple or trivial ones.

Posted in Evolution, Science | Leave a comment


Opening paragraph, of a chapter called “Why are people?”The Selfish Gene3.jpg

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose questions heads this chapter. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posting the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G.G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempted to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’

Here’s a classic nonfiction work I hadn’t read until this past week. (Though I’ve had a copy for decades, and also recently acquired its 40th anniversary edition, expanded with detailed notes.) I’ve said more than once that, in a sense, it’s not worth reading older nonfiction books when newer ones might have superseded them. Perhaps an exception to this rule is for books that do have some classic status, that were influential in their time, that are still cited in bibliographies of so many later books. As one might now read Darwin, knowing how much has been discovered since his time.

This book was published in 1976, while Dawkins was a zoologist at Oxford, long before he became famous as a public intellectual. (That he especially in these days of social media sometimes commits gaffes that attract detractors should not diminish the content and significance of this and his many later books.)

It’s known now perhaps primarily for establishing the idea of a ‘meme’, a cultural counterpart to the biological gene. But that idea is in the last chapter, almost as an afterthought. Upfront, he states that the book isn’t about Darwinism in general, but about the biology of selfishness and altruism.

His major idea is that natural selection is best understood at the level of the gene, and the early chapters describe the idea of replicators (like DNA), of competition, of how our genes are replicators that survive inside us and use us as ‘survival machines’. As are all plants and animals. He goes into considerable detail about chromosomes, sexual reproduction, cell division, mutations. He admits that his very specific definition of a gene is not one every biologist would agree with, but it makes his claim that natural selection operates at the level of the gene correct.

He repeatedly challenges various claims about ‘group selection,’ especially the idea that animal behavior might cause one to sacrifice itself ‘for the good of the species,’ an idea common among certain writers of the earlier 20th century.

An interesting reflection in Chapter 4 is about the difference between plants and animals. To paraphrase: Plants move slowly; animals are fast, and to move fast, developed functions analogous to punched cards in machines: nerve cells or neurons connected to thousands of others, drawn out into axons, bundled together as nerves, a cluster of them forming a brain, that coordinate the control of muscles to the sense organs that detect events in the outside world. In primitive organisms these connections are direct; in higher beings the brain, with its memory, intervenes. The impression of purposiveness is what we recognize as consciousness…

The bulk of the book examines behaviors that do not seem to obviously support the survival of individual organisms—Aggression, altruism, the fallout in ideas first explained in the 1960s and which by now are common currency: kin selection; why aggression; competition between siblings, and between parents and children; and the differing strategies of fathers and mothers. Likely no one before Dawkins had, in a book for general readers, spelled out the remorseless logic of how natural selection explains such behavior – or even had revealed that such behavior exists.

The final chapter introduces a new kind of replicator, which he dubs a meme. Culture, e.g. language, evolves, changing over time in ways that often seem progressive. Memes are units of culture that spread through brains. He consider why the idea of god can become stable in a cultural environment, by providing psychological appeal, or how ideas of hell-fire and faith survive because blind faith can justify anything, thus propagating ideas of faith, and of patriotic and political beliefs.

He notes how a person’s genetic endowment disperses quickly in a few generations, while a person’s contribution to culture – his memes – can last centuries or millennia.

And finally, he notes how humanity has the capacity of foresight, and perhaps for genuine altruism – that is, we can consciously use foresight to overcome the selfish excesses of our genes. We alone can rebel.

On his final point, I often find it ironic that social conservatives, who reject evolution, so often behave in ways that perpetuate the selfish behaviors our genes have endowed us with. I could go on…

Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Science | Leave a comment


This 1959 novel is one of the most popular and celebrated science fiction novels of all time. It’s set in the years following an atomic war, it portrays religion in a relatively favorable way (in contrast to the skeptical or dismissive attitude of much other SF), and it dwells on the theme of man’s destiny, and its possibly inevitable fate in cycles of building and self-destruction. It’s sober and deadly-serious in parts, and it’s also quite funny in parts.

As this book is so well-known, I’ll summarize the plot only briefly. The book is in three parts.

The first part, Fiat Homo (Let there be man), is set some 600 years after a ‘Flame Deluge’ has destroyed civilization. (Some years pass in this section, at the end of which it’s the year 3174, so the book’s nuclear war apparently doesn’t take place until the year 2500 or so.) In the desert southwest Brother Francis Gerard at the Leibowitz Abbey stumbles upon (what we recognize as) an ancient fallout shelter, and discovers artifacts which may have belonged to Leibowitz himself – including what we realizes are radio parts and a blueprint, but which no one at the abbey understands in the slightest. Messengers arrive from New Rome, because Leibowitz is under consideration for canonization, and there’s a concern the artifacts may be fake and would jeopardize that process. Eventually New Rome approves, and Brother Gerard is allowed to attend the ceremony, though on his return journey (– spoiler –) he is killed by mutant ‘sport’.

The second part, Fiat Lux (Let there be light) is set 600 years later. Society is recovering, as a political leader in Texarkana is anxious to unite the continent, dealing with various local tribes to do so – planning to wipe them out with cattle plagues if necessary. A secular scholar, Thon Taddeo, still curious about the authenticity of the Leibowitz documents, travels to the abbey, where the brothers have managed to re-invent a dynamo and an arc lamp. Taddeo studies the documents and reports his findings, careful not to offend the brothers. News come of another war, and a message that the surviving mayor of Texarkana has broken with the church.

The third part, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy will be done) is set another 600 years later. Technological society has recovered, and there are spaceships again, and even colonies on worlds of several stars. This section reads like a contemporary political thriller, with rumors about use of atomic weapons. A secret plan of the church goes into effect – to launch its own starship to Alpha Centauri, with sufficient volunteers to establish a new church hierarchy. As the bombs fall and the abbey is destroyed, priests at the launch site in New Rome lift children into the rocket ship, and the ship takes off, escaping the earth.

Major points

  • What I had mismembered from reading this novel decades ago was the nature of the escape at the end. The novel’s arc goes from destruction to civilization to destruction again – with the rocket launched by the Church implicitly saving the last gasp of humanity to survive on another world. But – humanity has already settled other planets! (We’re told this at the beginning of Part Three.) The only thing being saved at the end here is the church itself. That’s why there’s concern in the final weeks about the proper composition of the crew on the rocket—they need the correct church officials on the new planet so they can perpetuate church hierarchy. The book leaves you with the flavor that the church has saved humanity. But it hasn’t.
  • Given that understanding, the novel still gives great credit to the church for preserving knowledge over hundreds of years that otherwise would be lost. But—it’s always ‘the’ church, the Catholic church of course, and there’s never the slightest acknowledgement that there might be other religions in the world, or even protestant churches. (Ironically, it was Islam in Europe’s Dark Ages that preserved knowledge of the Greeks that the Christian church condemned.)
  • At the same time, as the author takes the church business very seriously – as another example, the passionate debate about euthanasia for those poisoned by radiation (Ch 27) — he surely is wise to the ways of human culture and how stories grow in the telling, how other species might think the world created for themselves, and so on.

Other interesting notes and quotes

  • P62, how after the first atomic war, the populists strike out at the elites [to use modern terms] to destroy what’s left:

    So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, and plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rate, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever person the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helped to make the Earth what it had become. Nothing had been so hateful in the sight of these mobs as the man of learning, at first because they had served the princes, but then later because they refused to join in the bloodletting and tries to oppose the mobs, calling the crowds ‘bloodthirsty simpletons.’

  • Is it odd that Brother Francis takes it upon himself to create an illuminated copy of the ancient blueprint he’s found? Perhaps, like the medieval monks, these latter brothers have little else better to do.
  • There’s a fantasy element in the novel in the implication that the pilgrim at the beginning is the actual Leibowitz – or is he the famed Wandering Jew? Note, p168b, how the hermit seems to remember thirty-two centuries.
  • There is occasional broad humor. How Brother Francis is dimwitted; the battle with the Autoscribe machine in Chapter 24; the story of the brother’s discovery grows in the telling, p88:

    Brother Francis closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He had told the simple truth to fellow novices. Fellow novices had whispered among themselves. Novices had told the story to travelers. Travelers had repeated it to travelers. Until finally—this!

    “No halo?” “No heavenly choir?” “What about the carpet of roses that grew up where he walked?”

  • Who decides? 220b; debate 221.9. On the responsibility of academicians to control the power they give rulers: p220.8

    But you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over Nature. But who will govern he use of the power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check?

  • In Chapter 22 (p228) the scholar discovers a book that suggests the man is not descended from Adam, but is a servant species created by the original humanity. Others reply that what he is reading is just a play, and speculate on his motives. (After enough time has passed, how can you tell between history, myth, and fiction?)
  • Ch 12, a scholar and a politician debate why civilizations fall.

    “How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?”

    “Perhaps by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.”

    “…during the time of the anti-popes, how many schismatic Orders were fabricating their own versions of things, and passing off their versions as the work of earlier men. You can’t know, you can’t really know. … But where is the evidence of the kind of machines your historians tell us they had in those days? Where are the remains of self-moving carts, of flying machines?”

    “Beaten into plowshares and hoes.”

  • Each section ends with an appearance by buzzards, Section 2, p239:

    As always the wild black scavengers of the skies laid their eggs in season and lovingly bed their young. They soared high over prairies and mountains and plains, searching for the fulfillment of that share of life’s destiny which was theirs according to the plan of Nature. Their philosophers demonstrated by unaided reason alone that the Supreme Cathartes aura regnans had created the world especially for buzzards. They worshiped him with hearty appetites for many centuries.

    And the book ends with a rather different passage about sharks.

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Today I spent a couple hours setting up a ‘Projects’ page that is linked in the menu at the top of the site. And I’ll be setting up bibliographic pages for SF and NF to organize links to my posts of comments about books.

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Links and Comments: Religious Morality; Natural Law

On the heels of yesterday’s post is this “Jesus ‘n’ Mo” comic, posted by Jerry Coyne, on exactly the subject of deciding what seems right to you first, and looking for scriptural authority to support it second.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ religious morality.

He embeds the actual comic in his strip; can I? Yes!


Then there’s news lately about the current administration appealing to “natural law” as a basis for human rights. The Center for Inquiry’s blog today offers this comment.

The problem is the term “natural law.” Although many Americans may not realize it, that’s a loaded term – code language, really. It’s often used by religious conservatives to undermine church-state separation and argue that public policy should be anchored in faith-based rationales. A better term for it is “God’s law.” …

The problem with natural law is that while it’s often dressed up in a lot of academic jargon, pseudo-philosophizing and claims to be a reason-based system, at the end of the day, its fundamental argument is this: “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m convinced that my religion is true, so let’s base ours laws on it.”

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Links and Comments: Suffering Death without Religion; Fox News; Fundamentalism

New York Times: Surviving the Death of My Son After the Death of My Faith, subtitled, I had lost the one thing that could have numbed my pain. By Amber Scorah.

A woman leaves her religion, gets on with her life, has a son, and then the son dies at age 4 months.

And slowly, over these days, came letters, like dispatches from another dimension, from people all over the country. They landed on my doorstep and on my computer screen. Words from names I did not know, telling me how to survive this, like the strangers in the ancient books had done, telling me that my son was in heaven, that he would come back, or I would meet him again one day, that he was watching over me, that though gone, he was not truly gone.

I was moved by these words from strangers. And I wanted to believe these messengers who told me my son lives or will live again. Perhaps these were the people we in my old religion called prophets and apostles — people who dispatched words of hope to those in distress.

But though they were sincere, none of what they said was true. There is no heaven, no door at the end of my life that I will find my boy behind, no paradise Earth. He simply had ceased to exist.

I suspect that these people rushed to save me because, deep down, somewhere unacknowledged, they too knew the truth. We all know that there is something desperately sad that we have to protect one another from. Our stomachs know it, our spines know it. Our humanity doesn’t want to let us believe that this is all there is, that a child can just disappear. And that is why these strangers cared so much about a stranger like me.

I am not saying there is no God, but I am saying no God would do this to someone.

If belief were a choice, I might choose it. But it’s not. I don’t trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it’s not something we know. If we can’t even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die?


New York Times, Farhad Manjoo: Worry About Facebook. Rip Your Hair Out in Screaming Terror About Fox News. Subtitled, Novel forms of digital misinformation still pale in comparison with Fox News’ full-time hall of mirrors.

So, Facebook wouldn’t take down a video doctored video to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk, and everyone raised a ruckus. But Fox News did the equivalent, and no one cared, because we’re used to Fox News’ duplicity.

Worry about [Facebook], sure, but not at the risk of overlooking a more clear and present danger, the million-pound, forked-tongue colossus that dominates our misinformation menagerie: Fox News and the far-flung, cross-platform lie machine that it commands.

Indeed, what was remarkable about Fox’s Pelosi video was its very ordinariness. Instead of slowing down Pelosi’s speech, Fox Business misleadingly spliced together lots of small sections of a recent news conference to make it look as if Pelosi stammered worse than Porky Pig.

While Facebook moved quickly to limit the spread of the doctored Pelosi clip, Fox is neither apologizing for airing its montage nor taking it down, because this sort of manipulated video fits within the network’s ethical bounds.

I understand the fear about digital fakery. But to focus on Facebook instead of Fox News is to mistake the symptom for the disease.

The disease is an entrenched, well-funded, decades-in-the-making, right-wing propaganda network, one that exists to turn faintly sourced rumors into full-blown, politically convenient narratives. The propaganda network’s tentacles now infiltrate every form of media — magazines, books, talk radio, social networks — but it still finds its most profitable and effective outlet in the Murdochs’ cable empire.

And it is devastatingly effective: Just about every political lie that has dominated American discourse in the past two decades — the Swift Boaters and the birthers, death panels, the idea that undocumented immigrants pose an existential threat but climate change does not — depended, for its mainstream dissemination, on the Fox News machine.


This dovetails with a long article in the new issue of Free Inquiry called Why Do Fundamentalists Lie about the Bible? (subscriber protected).

The article discusses “fundamentalist bibliolatry” and its attendant concepts including Biblical inerrancy.

The puzzling question that naturally arises is why fundamentalist bibliolatrists adopt and tenaciously defend theopolitical positions that are not supported by or are even flatly contradicted by God’s perfect word. Before considering the question of why fundamentalists lie about what the Bible says, I will document the assertion that they do, in fact, lie about what Holy Writ actually says and doesn’t say.

The writer then goes on to describe ten issues about which fundamentalists claims Biblical support, despite obvious lack of such support or even contradictory texts on those issues in the Bible itself. With numerous scriptural references.

Abortion, animal welfare, capital punishment, decalogue displays, family values, Jesus’ teachings, public prayer, same-sex marriage, slavery endorsement, and sworn oaths.

He then describes the three strategies whereby fundamentalists misrepresent the Bible on these issues: textual selectivity; “proper exegesis”; and pretending the New Testament doesn’t endorse the Old.

But the more interesting question is *why* fundamentalists lie about the Bible. (Why does Fox News lie?)

Despite overwhelming evidence, they won’t even concede that their theopolitical positions are not supported by scripture. Of course, they can’t acknowledge this well-documented truth, because to do so would force them to admit that their strong commitment to biblical inerrancy is untenable.

The truth, the writer suggests, is that commitment to positions on those 10 issues arose for nonscriptural reasons –

When did they emerge in the fundamentalists’ war against modernity? How were they derived and verified? Who pronounced them to be official doctrine? By what process was abortion declared to be murder, same-sex marriage asserted to be contrary to God’s plan for humanity, and so forth? Careful analysis could locate the historical antecedents of these theopolitical opinions.

As a final question, we can ask why fundamentalists don’t acknowledge some degree of disparity between their views and scripture as a basis for adjusting some of their positions to conform to biblical truth. To do so would require them to rehabilitate their “Christian worldview” and adopt some positions that they have condemned as contrary to God’s word for as long as a century or more. This is probably not going to happen across the board, but it is the only reasonable course of action if they want to respect the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy without continuing with their ongoing program of public deceit.

The similarity between Fox News and fundamentalists is that are both committed to political and social positions and will twist the evidence to fit; they don’t consider the evidence and draw conclusions from them.

And here, as in so much else about the modern world, we see the irrational human mind at work. Haidt describes humans as, not instinctive rationalists, but instinctive lawyers, always conniving to justify conclusions reached for emotional reasons. And those reasons are often those of tribalism and group solidarity, of fear of the other, from the conviction that everything must ‘mean’ something, of magical thinking about how the world works. Science is hard; religion and other ideologies are easy. That’s human nature.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Psychology, Religion, Ten Commandments | Leave a comment


This science fiction novel, from 1957, is by an author known for anthropologically informed works;

(The edition I read, the only edition I have, is a 1975 Avon Equinox trade paperback, one of its “SF Rediscovery” series that ran some 27 volumes. ( Alas, I didn’t acquire all of them, but I do have at least half of them. Page references are to that edition.)

The novel opens as a contemporary man, Weston Chase, is caught in a storm in the Colorado mountains and stumbles into a cave occupied by, as it turns out, an alien being, Arvon, who has hibernated in this cave, along with four associates, for thousands or millions of years.

A huge chunk of the middle of the book is devoted to Arvon’s tale. (In a recurring plot crutch of SF novels of this era, the aliens quickly learn English, rather than human characters learning the alien language or pretending that some kind of translation device exists.) Arvon tells about his ship, the Good Hope, that traveled through ‘not-space’ using a ‘distortion field’, from the planet Lortas, with a crew of nine. Their mission was to find other planets and other species whom they might connect with. Their own culture has peaked, and they need others to contact, to learn from and grow. But again and again, they’ve found only three types of natives on other planets: primitives in the Stone Age; pre-industrial, war-like cultures; or technological cultures that have blown themselves up. He describes having landed on a planet of Alpha Centauri, and finding only a dead city, overwhelmed with sand.

Their next try took them to Earth. But their field drive failed and their ship was wrecked. And so they used their ‘sleeping technology’ to wait thousands of years until, perhaps, a technological society might emerge on this planet. There are some vivid scenes depicting their encounter, in what is later called Asian, with local tribes, before the survivors’ retreat into a cave…

And so in the present Weston Chase is faced with trying to help these aliens build a spaceship to return to their own planet, here in 1956 America. They head for Los Angeles, and..

(spoilers follow)

Chase, still nominally a captive, is cooperative, but the surviving aliens soon survey LA and decide their cause is hopeless; the technology doesn’t exist to build the spaceship they need. They release Wes, who returns to his home to find his wife has given him up and taken up with another man. With nothing left of his old life, Wes gets an idea: using the aliens’ sleep serum, he convinces them all to go back into sleep, himself included, and wait. He knows Earth won’t blow itself up. And so thousands of years later they all awake, emerge, and see a gigantic spaceship flying overhead. They made it, he’s still young, and still has time.


The overriding concern here is about whether an advanced industrial society will blow itself up or not. This was a grave concern in the 1950s, only a decade or so after Hiroshima, and though the Cold War has passed, that concern hasn’t gone completely away. It’s an obvious answer to the Fermi Paradox—if planets and presumably life are so common, why haven’t we met, or at least heard from or seen evidence of, other intelligent species? Well maybe because they all blow themselves up, within a time-scale that makes coexistence of intelligent species over billions of years unlikely. Indeed, some current thinkers aren’t sanguine about humanity’s future; Harari, e.g., thinks we might have only another 1000 years, and sooner than that the effect of climate change might curtail continued technological development by its survivors.

As science fiction, this book is all too typical of the way aliens are depicted in most early science fiction, and in some varieties of ‘space opera’ to this day. They act and sound just like humans. The play similar roles: captain, navigator, novelist, anthropologist, etc. Their ship has a library, and even a bar, on board. SF has only rarely tried to imagine truly alien beings, but the standard of aliens as just like humans except for funny clothes or facial features has become entrenched in popular culture via Star Trek and Star Wars. Indeed, reading some of these 1950s SF novels, as I’ve been, it’s been startling to see how exactly the clichés of that era inspired Trek and Wars in the ‘60s and ‘70s and have become unshakeable decades later.


Other interesting notes and quotes:

  • The aliens’ reasoning about the plausibility of other intelligent races, referring to themselves and equivalent creatures as ‘men’ and ‘human beings’, p48-9: “Man was not a rare animal in the universe, and it was the height of egotism to imagine that he was. All isolated peoples believe that they are the only human begins in the world, and when a planet thinks itself alone, before the ships go out into space, it is difficult for the people on that planet to conceive of other human beings elsewhere among the stars…  It was not that man was foreordained, built in from the beginning. It was simply that the evolution of intelligence, of the ability to develop culturally, necessarily proceeding along the road of trial and error, change and modification. A culture-bearing animal had to be warm-blooded, for he needed the energy, he had to be big-brained, he had to have free hands and specialized feet. A manlike form was the mechanical answer to one trend of evolution, and if conditions permitted he came along sooner or later.”
  • There’s also a clever line of reasoning, p74, about the wisdom of finding a cave to hide in. The aliens came down in Asia, but decide to hole up in what was then a mostly empty continent, in Colordao. “He pointed again to Europe. ‘One day, when ships get good enough, men with a fairly complex culture will cross this ocean here, or possibly the other one; it doesn’t matter. They’ll find a virtually untouched land, and they’ll take it from its original settler. Then that area will boom, and that’s where you’ll want to be.”
  • There’s quite a bit of detail at the end about Los Angeles, covered with “a gray pall of fog, mist, smoke, and that special urban effluvium called smog” p127. Union Station, Hollywood Freeway, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Glen, UCLA, Santa Monica. The opening of the story, p16, mentions Chase’s “home on Beverly Glen off Sunset” and his “Westwood office.” Oliver seems to have known LA, and the Colorado mountains, fairly well.
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This short novel is from the late 1950s, and is the first of four novels for which Heinlein won the Hugo Award. It’s short and snappy, notable in part because it’s not essentially a science fiction novel. It’s about politics and an actor/impersonator, and the SFnal passages are interesting, but not crucial to the plot.

(The photo shows the 2012 Library of America omnibus of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, where this novel fills the first 147 pages, and to which page references below refer; the Signet paperback edition I bought in 1972, for $.60, with a cover by Gene Szafran, running 128 pages (though I’d read it earlier, in 1970, from the library); and a more recent 2015 trade paperback edition from Phoenix Pick, running 167 pages.)

The story, in brief: the first-person narrator is Lorenzo Smythe, a down-on-his-luck actor who nevertheless thinks very highly of himself. The setting is (presumably) some hundreds of years in the future when the Moon has been colonized and intelligent races have been discovered on Venus and Mars, while a human Emperor rules the solar system from the Moon. As the story opens Smythe is sitting in a bar watching how spacemen walk – slightly leaning forward, etc. (in an off-hand speculation about future astronauts and living in zero G). He meets a man who offers him a job, not acting exactly, but to impersonate someone, a job that should last only a few days.

Despite some reservations Smythe finds himself on his way to Mars, only then learning that his job is to impersonate Bonforte, a leading politician and head of the Expansionist part, a man loved and hated throughout the solar system. The real Bonforte has been kidnapped, yet must attend a crucial ‘adoption’ ceremony with the Martians, who have an extremely rigorous, stylized system of hierarchical rituals and manners. Smythe is tutored by Bonforte’s secretary Penny, and he succeeds in the impersonation at this ceremony.

The plot then ramps up, again and again. The real Bonforte is found, but damaged; Smythe is persuaded to keep playing his role, studying Bonforte’s speeches and Expansionists’ policies to be able to speak to the press. On the Moon he meets the Emperor – an old acquaintance of Bonforte — who understands. And so on…

[[ spoiler!! ]] The real Bonforte has a stroke. Smythe takes his place indefinitely. An aide defects and tries to expose Smythe; Bonforte dies, yet wins the election, and Smythe becomes him. The story we’ve read is from 25 years later, as Smythe looks back at his – at Bonforte’s – career.


Given the story there’s not a lot in this book, compared to some of Heinlein’s others, that speak to big themes of history or science or philosophy.

One takeaway is the political system, described in some detail in the Wikipedia entry (, and in particular the political conflict between the ‘Humanity’ party, which favors continued domination of humanity over other races in the solar system, and the ‘Expansionist’ party, which favors expanding rights to include other intelligent species. The distinction is echoed by the current tensions between nationalists and globalists in our current era, of course. And the distinction characterizes a story arc in which Smythe is initially a Humanist, and despises Martians for their appearance and behavior, and as he’s forced to understand and espouse Bonforte’s views, becomes more sympathetic with them.

A second is the exotic nature of the Martians, the only intelligent aliens we see in the book. Each Martian belongs to a ‘nest’ and carries a ‘life-wand’; they have ‘conjugate-brothers’; their language reflects their complex social system, e.g. “High Martian is polysynthetic and very stylized, with an expression for every nuance of their complex system of rewards and punishments, obligations and debts.” (p48). And how the Martians split via fission to reproduce, taking “almost five years, after fission, for a Martian to regain his full size, have his brain fully restored, and get all of his memory back.” This is all fascinating, if almost gratuitous given the nature of the plot, but a good example of science fiction imagining intelligent species that aren’t simple analogues of ourselves.


Other interesting notes and quotes:

  • Heinlein as always is convincing and authoritative; he always seems to know what he’s talking about, whether it’s about politics or torture or how governments really work. (At the same time, the fp pov isn’t always appropriate to this expertise; why should an out of work actor know so much, or care, about the history of brainwashing?)
  • People still light cigarettes, even on space ships.
  • p80.4, a cute line about kittens: “The trouble with adopting a cat is that they always have kittens.”
  • p87b, “Politics is a dirty game!” “No, there is no such thing as a dirty game. But you sometimes run into dirty players.”
  • p121.3, how politics is the only sport for grownups: “Brother, until you’ve been in politics you haven’t been alive. It’s rough and sometimes it’s dirty and it’s always hard work and tedious details. But it’s the only sport for grownups. All other games are for kids. All of ‘em.”
  • p125b, how political rallies are only for the converted: “There are no new votes to be picked up by personal appearances at political rallies. All it does is wear out the speaker. Those rallies are attended only by the faithful.”
  • p146b: “The people will take a certain amount of reform, then they want a rest. But the reforms stay. People don’t really want change, any change at all—and xenophobia is very deep-rooted. But we progress, as we must—if we are to go out to the stars.”
Posted in Book Notes, Heinlein, science fiction | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Fiction and Truth, Ignorance and Knowledge, Science Denial and the Scientific Attitude

Three interesting essays this week.

In the New York Times Sunday Review section, an essay by Yuval Noah Harari: Why Fiction Trumps Truth, subtitled “We humans know more truths than any species on earth. Yet we also believe the most falsehoods.”

We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth. Rabbits don’t know that E=MC² , that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that DNA is made of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. On the other hand, rabbits don’t believe in the mythological fantasies and ideological absurdities that have mesmerized countless humans for thousands of years. No rabbit would have been willing to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center in the hope of being rewarded with 72 virgin rabbits in the afterlife.

Fiction has three advantages over truth, Harari says.

First, whereas the truth is universal, fictions tend to be local. Consequently if we want to distinguish our tribe from foreigners, a fictional story will serve as a far better identity marker than a true story.

The second huge advantage of fiction over truth has to do with the handicap principle, which says that reliable signals must be costly to the signaler. … If political loyalty is signaled by believing a true story, anyone can fake it. But believing ridiculous and outlandish stories exacts greater cost, and is therefore a better signal of loyalty. If you believe your leader only when he or she tells the truth, what does that prove? In contrast, if you believe your leader even when he or she builds castles in the air, that’s loyalty!

Third, and most important, the truth is often painful and disturbing. Hence if you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.

Furthermore, people compartmentalize; they can be rational about some things, tribal and irrational about others, reflecting the way our brains works. He concludes,

Even if we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history. Scholars have known this for thousands of years, which is why scholars often had to decide whether they served the truth or social harmony. Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same fiction, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? Socrates chose the truth and was executed. The most powerful scholarly establishments in history — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.


A complement to Harari’s recognition that people are irrational in order to bolster social cohesion is the realization that it’s possible – perhaps only at an personal level – to realize what is actually true.

From Forbes (via a Fb post I saw): Ethan Siegel, Your Glorified Ignorance Wasn’t Cool Then, And Your Scientific Illiteracy Isn’t Cool Now, subtitled, “The Universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.”

There are so many remarkable things that we — as a species — have figured out about existence. We know what life is: how to identify it, how it evolves, what the mechanisms and molecules are that underpin it, and how it came to survive and flourish on Earth. We know what reality is made of on a fundamental level, from the smallest subatomic particles to the nature of space and time that encompasses the entire Universe. We know how matter behaves under extreme conditions, from the vacuum of space to the centers of stars to the ultra-cold conditions we can only achieve in laboratories here on Earth.

Our most valuable explorations of the world and Universe around us have been scientific ones: where we learn about reality by asking it the right questions about itself, and listen to the answers that it reveals.

Of course, not everyone knows all (or even most) of these answers. It’s impossible, in this day and age, to be an expert in all possible things. Most of us learn this at an early age: that most of what is known to humanity is not known to us as individuals, and that we can either study to gain that expertise and learn it, or go find the appropriate expert to learn what the answer is from them.

At least, that’s how you behave if you’re genuinely interested in learning the actual answer. You’ll either undertake the research yourself to reach expert-level competence, where you’ll learn how to perform critical tests and experiments that determine the answer, or you can learn to discern whose expertise is worth listening to and why, and then to take that expert advice. That’s how you gain meaningful knowledge.

But many of us don’t choose that route for a number of reasons. First off, it requires making a series of admissions to ourselves that are very difficult to accept. These include:

  1. admitting that we don’t know everything,
  2. admitting that we might be wrong about something that we’ve thought or even publicly espoused,
  3. admitting that we might have been swindled or conned by a charlatan,
  4. requiring us to do additional research, work, and mental labor,
  5. and to admit to ourselves that our heroes — the people we admire most — are often flawed or incorrect.

This is not an easy situation to be in, regardless of your education or background. It’s human nature to want to save face and appear like we knew the right answer all along. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, that isn’t a real solution.

Some of the ways this manifests in society might seem like low-stakes affairs that aren’t worth much effort. Maybe you laugh when you hear about a rapper claiming the Earth is flat. Or a basketball player saying we never landed on the Moon. Or at the 25% of the population who thinks the Sun orbits the Earth. But it’s not laughable; it’s something we should all be ashamed of.

When we trust our own non-expertise over the genuine expertise of bona fide experts, terrible things happen. We wind up with cities without fluoridated drinking water, increasing cavities by 40% in the most low-income populations. We get vaccine-preventable diseases causing outbreaks and epidemics. We continue to pollute the Earth with greenhouse gases even as we’re experiencing the early consequences of global climate change.

Glorified underachieving, proclaiming falsehoods as truths, and the derision of actual knowledge are banes on our society. The world is made objectively worse by every anti-science element present within it. Nobody likes to hear that sometimes, they’re the problem. But sometimes, it really is on each of us to do better. The next time you find yourself on the opposite side of an issue from the consensus of experts in a particular field, remember to be humble. Remember to listen and be open to learning. The future of our civilization may hang in the balance.


This essay in turn links to another in Newsweek by the author of the just-published nonfiction book The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience. The essay is Flat Earthers, and the Rise of Science Denial in America.

Every day in the media we see once-unthinkable science headlines. More than seven hundred cases of measles across 22 states in the U.S., largely due to vaccine deniers. Climate change legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate—due mainly to partisan politicians who routinely confuse climate and weather—even as scientists tell us that we have only until 2030 to cut worldwide carbon emissions by half, then drop them to zero by 2050. And, in one of the most incredible developments of my lifetime, the Flat Earth movement is on the rise.

With the growing realization that you can’t convince people with evidence; people dig in to their prior beliefs in the so-called “backfire effect.” (Haidt characterized this as people aren’t characteristically rational, they’re characteristically lawyerly, defending positions they’ve arrived by non-rational grounds.)

The author visits a Flat Earth conference in Denver, talks to people, and tries to understand how they rationalize their beliefs.

The arguments were absurd, but intricate and not easily run to ground, especially if one buys into the Flat Earthers’ insistence on first-person proof. And the social reinforcement that participants seemed to feel in finally being “among their own” was palpable. Psychologists have long known that there is a social aspect to belief.

This last is a key point: people don’t form beliefs by independent examining evidence and reaching conclusion; they take on the beliefs of groups they belong, or want to belong, to, and rationalize.

After numerous conversations, I came away with the conclusion that Flat Earth is a curious mixture of fundamentalist Christianity and conspiracy theory, where outsiders are distrusted and belief in Flat Earth is (for some) tantamount to religious faith. This is not to say that most Christians believe in Flat Earth, but almost all of the Flat Earthers I met (with a few notable exceptions) were Christians.

Virtually all of the standards of good empirical reasoning were violated. Cherry-picking evidence? Check. Fitting beliefs to ideology? Check. Confirmation bias? Check. How to convince anyone in this sort of environment? You don’t convince someone who has already rejected thousands of years of scientific evidence by showing them more evidence. No matter what I presented, there was always some excuse: NASA had faked the pictures from space. Airline pilots were in on the conspiracy. Water can’t adhere to a spinning ball.

So the author went after their reasoning.

There is a rampant double standard for evidence: no evidence is good enough to convince them of something they do NOT want to believe, yet only the flimsiest evidence is required to get them to accept something they DO want to believe.

(This recalls a point in the first Gilovich book (review) about the notion of reacting to confirming or challenging evidence as being about “can I believe” vs “must I believe”.)

And so,

Instead of saying “show me your evidence” (which they were only too happy to do) or “here’s my evidence” (which they wouldn’t believe anyway,) I asked “what would it take to convince you that you were wrong?” They seemed unprepared for this question.

This is a key point of the writer’s new book: the scientific attitude is always about being to change one’s mind, and knowing what it would take to be required to do so.

…all science deniers use roughly the same reasoning strategy. Belief in conspiracy theories, cherry picking evidence, championing their own experts. These are also the tactics used by deniers of evolution, climate change, and the recent spate of anti-vaxx. How many more years before the Flat Earthers are running for school board, asking physics teachers to “teach the controversy,” just as Intelligent Designers did not too many years back?

In scientific reasoning there’s always a chance that your theory is wrong. What separates science deniers from actual scientists is how rigorously they pursue that possibility.

Posted in Changing One's Mind, Lunacy, Religion, Science | Leave a comment

Simak, CITY

Clifford D. Simak’s CITY, published in 1952 but composed of stories published in magazines from 1944 onward, is a story cycle that tells the future of humanity as it abandons cities for country estates and then moves off Earth to settle other planets, and in parallel the rise of an artificially created Dog civilization. The individual stories are prefaced by the latter, that is, tales of an ancient past from the point of view of the Dogs, telling stories about ‘Man,’ whom they think are mythical. It’s a well-known, enduring work, having won one of the very earliest awards for SF or fantasy, the International Fantasy Award, in 1953 ( It’s Simak’s most popular book along with his WAY STATION, published a decade later.

(It’s also listed in the recent 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, by former A Common Reader co-founder James Mustich, which I’ve just compiled this week at

The book consists of eight stories plus an (later-written) epilogue. The edition I’m reading, with pages references below, is the very handsome Old Earth Books edition of 2004. (

The first story, “City,” is set about 50 years in the future of Simak’s writing in 1944 or so, and it projects the development of several technologies – helicopters, planes, hydroponics, atomics – into a future in which cars are obsolete, cities are unnecessary “huddling places”, and most people have chosen to live out in the country (since transportation is so easy and economical). The story concerns the problem of unoccupied houses in the unnamed city where John J. Webster lives, and what to do with them.

Subsequent stories follow succeeding members of the Webster family. The second, “Huddling Place,” concerns Jerome A. Webster living comfortably on the Webster family estate surrounded by benevolent robot servants, as his son Thomas is about to head for Mars. Jerome is uncomfortable leaving home even to see him off. When an urgent request comes for Jerome to journey to Mars himself, to treat Juwain, a Martian philosopher he once knew, he can’t bring himself to do it, having understood the condition of agoraphobia that has settled into the human instinct.

In the third story, “Census,” a World Committee has formed, planets in other star systems are being settled, and there is a hidden population of ‘ridge runners’ who have chosen to live in the hills unaccounted for – extraordinary people who in the past were successful artists, politicians, or crooks. An enumerator, Richard Grant, visits the Websters in search of them, and meets their talking dog Nathaniel; the Websters have pursued the options of advancing dogs into a sentient species. Grant tracks rumors of a mysterious stranger in the woods, Joe, who has created an advanced ant civilization. Grant reveals he is searching for someone to finish a thesis by that Martian philosopher Juwain, one that might change mankind—and the dogs. But Joe, reading a fragment, sees an error and will not reveal it. He’s not interested.

The single most striking story is “Desertion,” set on Jupiter, in which men are transformed into a creature able to survive on its surface and sent out to explore. (The plan is, p98b, “Man would take over Jupiter as he already had taken over the other smaller planets,” an expression of the manifest destiny common in 1940s and ‘50s SF.) A sixth man, Fowler, prepares for his expedition, knowing that the previous five never returned, and no one knows why, and this man takes his dog Towser. They are both transformed and sent out, and both overwhelmed by the experience, perceiving and understanding more than they ever could before; The man realizes they’re now using their brains fully; “Maybe the brains of Earth things naturally are slow and foggy. Maybe we are the morons of the universe…” 107.7 And 108t: “perhaps because we were human beings… Poorly equipped for thinking, poorly equipped in certain senses that one has to have to know. Perhaps even lacking in certain senses that are necessary to true knowledge.” And they realize, they can’t go back. –Spoiler!—because, as expressed in the last lines,

“I can’t go back,” said Towser.

“Nor I,” said Fowler.

“They would turn be back into a dog,” said Towser.

“And me,” said Fowler, “back into a man.”

The next story, “Paradise,” was first published two years after the three prior stories, as if Simak thought a while before deciding to continue. It picks up where the last one left off. Fowler decides to return, to explain. The news reaches Earth, where Fowler meets the latest Webster, who worries that the news that Jupiter is a paradise could spell the end of humanity as it’s been, subverting its “destiny”. Joe is still around, revealing that he and the other mutants have stolen Juwain’s philosophy—which has to do with sensing the viewpoints of others, achieving complete understanding, a kind of ‘semantics’. The mutants don’t need it – they have telepathy – but humans do.

In “Hobbies” Jon Webster exists in a world in which almost all humans have left Earth, and those left behind are too rich, and have nothing to do except pursue hobbies, like painting or creating elaborate cocktails, or writing the book he is writing. He returns to the family estate, where he learns about the “cobblies,” perhaps other dimensions or planes of access, that the dogs have learned about. The dogs are building a brotherhood of animals, “in a direction that man passed by without a second glance.” Webster realizes mankind has wasted its time, and returns to Geneva, where the last 5000 humans on Earth live, and seals it off from the outside world – giving the dogs their chance.

In “Aesop” a dog civilization has come into being, having all but forgotten humans, thinking of them as ‘websters’ in lower case. They live by the Canons, which prohibit any destruction of life; animals don’t eat each other, they eat from feeding stations manned by mutant humans or robots. Jenkins, the head robot, is now 7000 years old. The dogs and robots decide the past doesn’t exist; each moment is a new world in a series of parallel realities. But they now face a world of overpopulation, since the animals don’t eat each other. The solution is the parallel worlds the mutants have accessed.

The final story, “The Simple Way,” brings Jenkins and Jon Webster together again, to solve the destiny of the ants, to whom the world is left.

An “Epilog,” written years later in 1973 (and so not in early editions of the book), tells of Jenkins on a world of mice and ants, as he discovers the ants are dead. A spaceship lands, with Andrew, a wild robot, who tells of other worlds: “There are worlds out there, and life on some of them. Even some intelligence. There is work to do.” And invites Jenkins to join them.


There are lots of brilliant ideas here, and startling developments, but at the same time it’s a kitchen-sink novel in which each story develops a new concept, often to solve the problem set up by the previous story. When I finished it, I wrote, It’s a vague mélange of sentimental themes not thought through, especially by current knowledge. Perhaps this is unfair. That Simak could take an initial premise, about the transformation of human civilization by technology, and extend it, again and again, with notions of bootlegging the intelligence of dogs (and ants) and speculations about how the world is must vaster than the tiny portion humans have perceived, and how humanity might well give way to other species, is an impressive achievement.

But I’ll made these specific points:

  • The most striking aspect of the book – in the “Notes” to each tale, added in the book publication – is the retrospective introductions to the stories by the latter dog scholars, who don’t quite believe that humans actually existed. They are a myth. They describe the setting and context for these myths about the strange creatures and their strange concepts. Like ‘city.’
  • The first story especially reveals an antipathy toward technology that recalls Ray Bradbury, in its character’s irritation with an automated lawn-mower.
  • Simak makes an intelligent insight: that as humanity has dispersed from cities, the threat of nuclear war is reduced (since there are no more centralized targets).
  • There’s an aside in the first story about a “Bureau of Human Adjustment” in which it’s revealed that humans are being ‘adjusted,’ mostly covertly, to new ways of life now that the old jobs have disappeared, see p26. This has a modern ring to it [Harari]! And presumably it explains the agoraphobia revealed in the second story.
  • It’s amusing how the Dogs (in the latter-day introductions) assume the robots were invented by them, since the robots’ functions are so ideal – they serve has the Dogs’ hands! This is a clever insight, mocking the way human creationists assume the universe exists for their own sake. (The Dogs also dismiss the notion of traveling off the planet as fantasy, since “everyone knows” that stars are just lights hanging in the sky. p40b)
  • “Huddling Place” emphasizes the idea of country living, away from the cities: “a manorial existence, based on old family homes and leisurely acres, with atomics supplying power and robots in place of serfs.” And with devices [like VR] to transport one’s image and presence anywhere, in order to transact business anywhere in the world, with the twist of a dial, p45.
  • Yes, the stories assume the existence of an intelligent Martian race – as did other books of the era, by Heinlein, Clarke, Silverberg, et al.
  • The first couple stories are highly parochial; what’s happening in the rest of the world? Is *everyone* living on lavish family estates with robot servants? Everybody? The unexamined assumption here is that most people would prefer living on country estates, not in cities. But I suspect this merely reveals the author’s personal bias. Simak grew up in rural Wisconsin, where many of his stories are set, and though he lived most of his life as a newspaper man in Minneapolis, he apparently missed his childhood environment, and presumed that most other people would be attracted to it as well.
  • The third story “Census,” in which it’s revealed that the Webster family has pursued the option of advancing dogs, through surgery, has a Lamarckian element to it, but anyway it’s an “uplift” event, in the term later popularized by David Brin.
  • “Desertion” has a couple crucial themes. First, that perception outside the narrow range of human existence might be extraordinary, full of experiences humans can literally not imagine (however close SF writers like to try). [EO Wilson has emphasized this theme.] OTOH the idea on p107 is off the mark; humans minds are optimized for their environment. More to the point, p108, about ‘true knowledge.’
  • In “Paradise” there’s a reference to semantics, and I know that something called “General Semantics” was something of a craze in the 1950s, but I don’t know enough about it to think if Simak was alluding to that.
  • Again in “Hobbies” we have the idea of a vaguely mystical theme about some higher truth that mere men cannot access.’
  • Here’s a key thought from late in the book: the ants have been successful because they are *stable* in their environment. Humanity, at least in the past 10,000 years, is notably *un*stable – especially in the past few decades and centuries, as humanity is changing the planet’s environment — and that may be why we are doomed.
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