The editor of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT), Dr A. Wallace Hayes, has decided to retract the study by the team of Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini, which found that rats fed a Monsanto genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and tiny amounts of the Roundup herbicide it is grown with suffered severe toxic effects, including kidney and liver damage and increased rates of tumours and mortality.
they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabri- cation) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
it constitutes plagiarism
it reports unethical research
But none of these applied to the paper by Séralini et al. The journal found "no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data" but that there " is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected."
man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly
as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the
sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca,
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as
much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re
reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does
not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political
fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political
institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been
killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be
afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law:
“every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of
nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is
compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of
anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less
uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of
state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s
proposed emendation of minds [emendato
animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall),
or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7)
also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
In a previous post, I pointed out that a proper understanding of "population" is central for claims about the endangered status of gray wolves under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).* The same is true for a recent ruling reaffirming the endangered status of southern resident orcas. Endangered "distinct population segments" are recognized under the ESA, but even the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) seems to acknowledge that their interpretation of this term may be faulty, having explicitly called for comment on it in their wolf delisting proposal. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), who issued the ruling on orcas, uses a more bare-bones interpretation of "distinct population segment" than the FWS does, considering only whether the population is "discrete" and "significant."
It is time for the FWS and the NMFS to recognize a more robust concept of population, based on the interactions among organisms. As I have argued elsewhere, populations ought to be characterized in terms of survival and reproductive interactions among organisms, with the boundaries of the population as the largest grouping for which the rates of interaction are much higher within the grouping than outside. The Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the Orwellian-named "Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability" and two farms in central California,** argued that the southern resident orcas were not genetically distinct from other orcas. The NMFS found that the scientific evidence did not support this claim, and that, moreover, there are significant behavioral differences between the southern resident orcas and the other orcas: "differences in morphology, behavior, diet and feeding ecology, acoustical dialects and practices." In particular, the practice that orcas are most well known for, i.e., killing other whales (a practice that gives rise to the name "killer whale"), is not one that that the southern resident orcas engage in; rather, the southern resident orcas eat salmon. These differences are sometimes, perhaps with good reason, described as differences in culture.
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.--Xenophanes
"Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.
entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same
recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical
What really matters
now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for
glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes
to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a)
Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not,
how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not
it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die
daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease (and if not, how to stop
it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a
prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t
live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of
philosophy departments should be restructured. The junior members
should cut their teeth on lesser subjects such as the mind-body problem.
As their experience, status and salary rises, they should increasingly
specialise in problems (a) and (b). By the time they have reached the
top of the tree, that’s all they should be doing. Anyone who wants to
spend their lives paddling around in the philosophical shallows, along
with Kant and Wittgenstein, should of course be free to do so, but
should realise that it will condemn them to a life of penury and
obscurity."--Charles Foster. [HT Ingrid Robeyns.]
Foster relies on the -- welcome to me (now that I am balding and greying) -- premise that philosophy has a very long apprenticeship. Let's grant this for the sake of argument and learn to ignore the purported boy-wonders in our midst (there might be other good benefits that flow from not focusing on them). Sadly, Foster does not suggests that ethical reflection requires considerable schooling in life--a point I have long been more partial to. Foster unabashedly endorses [A] a practical conception of philosophy; in fact, in the post he relies on [A] as a tacit premise because while at first he only speaks of "ethical issues," "ethicists," and "ethical cogitation," his conclusions involve the organization of philosophy an sich. This is why Foster's really important ethicist reminds me of Xenophanes' cattle and horses and lions. Foster's post (and the subsequent discussion) is primarily useful for posting what is often said sotte vocce,
especially in contexts where philosophers need to prove their
usefulness. Blessed are those who work in an environment -- primarily
rich private institutions -- where their philosophical lack of utility
A draft summary of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been leaked to the press. Although I don't have access to the draft itself, the reporting alone is interesting, but also potentially confusing to the average layperson. The New York Times tells us that "An international panel of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades," and quotes the document as saying, "It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010." We are also told that whereas in 2007, "the chances were at least 90 percent that human activities were the cause" of climate change, saying that now in 2013 "the odds are at least 95 percent that humans are the principal cause." Reuters words this slightly differently: "it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities - chiefly the burning of fossil fuels - are the main cause of warming since the 1950s." But what do the phrases "near certainty," "extremely likely," "95 percent odds," "95 percent likely" mean? [the emphasis is mine in all of the above quotes]. In this context, I think they all mean the same thing, but that's not entirely obvious.
In thinking about wolves and the faulty proposal to remove them from endangered species status, my thoughts turn quickly to Aldo Leopold. Leopold, 20th century forester, wildlife manager, conservationist, professor – and hunter – is perhaps best known for "The Land Ethic" from A Sand County Almanac. He is also known for another essay from the same book, "Thinking Like a Mountain." In that essay, Leopold describes a change of heart he experienced upon hunting a pack of wolves:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
But as biographer Curt Meine has documented, Leopold did not, in fact, come to appreciate the value of wolves as a young man. Rather, a lifetime of experiences as a forester and a wildlife manager eventually convinced him of the folly of exterminating wolves to create a "hunter's paradise":
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
With the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone producingpositiveeffects on the local ecosystem, Leopold's views have been vindicated. We would do well to learn from them, remembering that we too are dependent on the other species around us.
Public comments on the proposed ruling may be submitted here.
Even most Kuhn-haters are committed to the popular idea that an important measure of scientific truth is consensus among the experts. The downside of this commitment is on display in Roberta Millstein's important piece on "the removal of gray wolves from endangered species status in the U.S." One could debate the merits of the proposal, of course, but a scary aspect of her account is the manufacture of scientific consensus by a government-agency. I quote the relevant bits first, and comment below the fold:
The problem is, as the authors of the proposal acknowledge, that
there is a lack of consensus among scientists on what species are, what
subspecies are, and how many species and subspecies of wolves there are.
Nonetheless, they declare that one paper, Chambers et. al (2012),
"is the only peer-reviewed synthesis of its kind conducted for North
American wolves and summarizes and synthesizes the best available
scientific information on the issue."...Chambers et al. (2012) appears in the journal North American Fauna,
a publication of the FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] itself; it is unclear why the paper wasn't
sent to a more recognized peer-reviewed journal in the field, such as Conservation Biology. According to the website for North American Fauna,
Chambers et al. (2012) is the only publication since 1991; it appears
as though the journal was reborn specifically to publish the wolf study
only to languish again afterward....In short,
the FWS service has taken one of the most well-studied animals, about
which there is great controversy...and benighted one paper, authored by itself (perhaps by some of the
same people who wrote the proposal) as "the best available scientific
information"....What is the urgency – so urgent that the FWS must hastily designate
itself as the source of the best available science – to make policy when
the science is so unsettled?"
On June 13, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed removing the gray wolf, Canis lupus, from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Under this proposal, the species of gray wolves – which was at one time protected across the 48 contiguous U.S. states – would no longer be so protected. Only one subspecies of gray wolf would be granted protection: the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). This would, in effect, protect only 75 of the wolves in the U.S. (the current size of the wild population of Mexican wolves). The FWS is soliciting comments on this proposed ruling here, where you can also find the text of the proposal. If you find this proposed ruling as problematic as I do, I would urge you to submit a comment.
Philosophers of biology such as myself, many of whom are well-versed in the challenges of defining the terms "species," "subspecies," and "population," not to mention skills in evaluating arguments, are particularly well placed to see the flaws in the proposed ruling. I was first alerted to potential problems in the proposal upon reading this editorial, which blamed the ruling on pressure from "a loose coalition of hunters' groups, outfitters, and ranchers." While I don't have any evidence for this assertion, after reading through the ill-defended proposal one has to wonder, "Why this? Why now? And why has the fact-finding process of the Endangered Species Act been corrupted with a 'government-manufactured scientific consensus'?" (thanks to Eric Schliesser for the felicitous phrase).
I've been reading Walter Cerf's wonderful preface to the Harris and Cerf edition of Hegel'sDifferenzschrift. The nicest thing about it is the long speech that Cerf imagines Schelling and Hegel making upon a visit to Kant, explaining to the snoozing man how critical philosophy leads to speculative philosophy. It's just a wonderful pulling together of so many important dialectical strands in German Idealism.
Another thing kind of weirded me out though. Cerf really interestingly notes how the conceptual divisions that Hegel attempted to overcome were not some kind of abstract game but in some sense constitutive anxieties of the age. The root distinction between particular and universal has all sorts of historical resonances such as issues concerning the relation between an autonomous, yet alienated, individual and the community that both nurtures and stifles him (and it is a "him" with Hegel). In order to be able to be intellectuals, the young Hegel and friends lived in a kind of painful monastic self-denial that exacerbated these tensions (cf. Kierkegaard), and they (unlike Soren) really did for a time at least hope that the French Revolution would somehow be the historical overcoming of them.
Of course existentialism turned necessity into a virtue, taking the very tensions that Hegel and friends analyzed to not be things that could be sublimated, but instead things just constitutive of the human condition. Some strains of Speculative Realism go this one better, and see these tensions as inscribed in the non-human universe itself. Tristan Garcia is to some extent a metaphysical (that is British, not American) Hegelian with no Aufhebung.
Reading Garcia and Cerf together made me wonder if our current time has any constitutive tensions analogous to all of the particular/universal dichotomies that haunted Hegel. With Garcia, I think many of Hegel's are still with us. But to some extent we are used to many of them now. Again, the tension between liberal autonomism and communitarianism, and crap aspects of both, are just facts of life we all unsuccessfully navigate now in ways big and little. What interests me tonight is whether there is anything like this that future Walter Cerfs might describe as distinctive of our point in history? I realize that this is probably a silly game, but I'm interested if anyone has any suggestions.
Obesity is an ethical issue, because an increase in weight by some imposes costs on others... [a]
way to achieve the same objective would be to set a standard weight for
passengers and luggage, and then ask people to get on the scales with
their luggage. That would have the advantage of avoiding embarrassment
for those who do not wish to reveal their weight...the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin,
whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies. It is a way of recouping
from you the true cost of flying you to your destination, rather than
imposing it on your fellow passengers.--Peter Singer [HT Feminist Philosophers.]
I'll leave it to others to dissect the use of racialized/gender stereotypes [e.g., "a slight Asian woman" vs "a man who must weigh at least 40 kilos more than she does"] by Singer in the piece. Let's also grant Singer that air travel is not a "human right" (and stipulate that Singer could grant some exceptions). In effect, Singer advocates differential pricing. This is not uncommon: in higher education Stateside we are familiar with tuition discounts ("financial aid") based on, say, need.
Singer ignores need or ability to pay entirely in his analysis. It is unclear why that ought not be included in this "ethical issue." Evidently, "true cost" does not mean subjective utility. Need is not irrelevant to Singer's proposal because Singer talks about "true cost of flying" without calling attention to all the subsidies offered to airlines, airports, and aircraft manufacturers by the general public (Singer uses the vocabulary of "public transport" without irony by the way); these may well involve non-trivial financial transfers from the poor to the middle classes and rich. Given that Singer selectively focuses on body weight (and shapes) when talking about "true cost" of flying, one cannot help but feel that he is selectively using (Euro/US-centric) upper-class moral sentiments to advocate policies that will disproportionally impact others.
I haven't yet been through this in anything like the detail it deserves, but this new website by my colleague Madison Powers, looks like a wonderful site for teachers, activists, cross-disciplinary researchers and just those who care about the future.
This report introduces a very interesting article, "Property Insecurity," by Terra Lawson-Remer (go to pp. 145), on the complex relationship between property-rights and growth. [HT Michel Heijdra.] I hope to give it more attention some other time.
If you have a minute to kill, take a look at the 1/16/12 cartoon in this Tumblr. Is it mocking the laziness and stupidity of cartoonists for grinding out yet another Al-Gore-in-a-snowdrift cartoon about "global warming" [sic]? If so, then does its inclusion show that the Tumblr compiler is too stupid to know he or she is being mocked? Or is its inclusion a nudge-is-as-good-as-a-wink-to-a-blind-horse that the whole series is a mockery?
Now is a good time to recall President Obama's State of the Union address, delivered just a couple of weeks ago:
...for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late.
It is always impressive when someone is willing to publicly state that they were wrong about a controversial topic. Such things happen rarely, but there have been a number of recent cases. For example, last July Richard Muller declared himself to be a "converted skeptic," saying that he now acknowledges that global warming is real and that humans are almost entirely the cause. Two days ago, another such example emerged when Mark Lynas publicly apologized for having helped to start the anti-GM movement in Europe, thus "demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment."
However laudable such recantations are, they can still be called into question, and indeed, I question the basis for Lynas's, as least as it is presented in the transcript linked to above. He begins by calling the anti-GMO movement "anti-science," a claim that I debunked here and here, at least with respect to the labeling of GMOs. Lynas subsequently states that "one by one [his] cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," and lists six such purported myths. Below, I examine each of these, and show why they are not, in fact, myths.
The U.S. is poised to release genetically modified salmon – the first commercial genetically modified food animal – into the world: onto our tables and into our environment. I can't help but think that, like the other unlabeled genetically modified food that has infiltrated our diets, this amounts to a massive, uncontrolled experiment on U.S. citizens.
Here are some details:
A little over a week ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft Environmental Assessment of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon, dubbed
AquAdvantage; they are calling for public comment through February 25, 2013. (So, if you find this as concerning as I do, please use this opportunity to speak up). The FDA's preliminary finding is that an approval of AquaBounty's application would not have a significant impact on the U.S. environment. Oh, and as with other U.S. GMOs, AquAdvantage won't be labeled as a GMO.
Any salmon that one eats could be an AquAdvantage salmon.
This hard-hitting review is getting thumbs up from my fellow analyticals. I agree with a core underlying complaint: "The insulation of French philosophy, often marketed as a thoughtful
dismissal of the ideals that underlie Anglo-American philosophy, is in
fact rooted in nothing loftier than a systematic disregard for
linguistically inaccessible literature." If the reviewer's description of De Fontenay's approach (which apparently is highly critical of features of analytical moral philosophy) is accurate, she deserves a lot of castigation. Even so, I do not recall that we analyticals are widely noted for our linguistic prowess and careful citation of French (and other non-English) authors! When in glass houses...
Okay, on to a more philosophically outrageous aspect of this review:
But to suggest that such awareness of shared pain can substitute for
more principled approaches -- as De Fontenay does -- is to regressively
return animal ethics into an extension of sentimental care for animals.
It is (arguably) the lasting collective achievement of animal ethics
from Singer on to show that the treatment of animals should not be
limited to momentary spurts of compassion for cute and furry animals.
Animal ethics should, rather, offer a conceptually disciplined framework
through which moral restrictions on what may be institutionally done to
members of other species can be evaluated and generated.--Tzachi Zamir
After I said that environmental issues loomed large in the U.S. Presidential campaign, we were treated to almost complete silence on the topic; notably, global climate change (GCC) was not mentioned in any of the four debates. Now, finally, with the tragedy wrought by Sandy, we are hearing about GCC and how the different candidates might handle it.
Even Mayor Bloomberg has gotten into the act, endorsing Obama over Romney in part because he now believes that "Mr. Obama was the better candidate to tackle the global climate change that he believes might have contributed to the violent storm, which took the lives of at least 38 New Yorkers and caused billions of dollars in damage."
Is this the point at which Americans will finally start taking GCC seriously and do something about it?
In Part 1, I discussed the accusation that proponents of Proposition 37 in California are anti-science, pointing out that such claims rest on a highly misleading picture of the genetically modified food industry as involving pure "value-free" science. (See, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here. Proposition 37 is a ballot measure that, if it passes, would label GM foods sold in California as GM foods).
Here in Part 2, I take up a second prong of the issue. Even if one acknowledges that the production of genetically modified food is not a value-free endeavor, one still might think that proponents of labeling GMOs are anti-science because they (the proponents) refuse to accept the data that show that GMOs are not harmful to humans. However, there are three problems with this version of the anti-science accusation: 1) it falsely claims that there is nothing new about GMOs, 2) it overlooks the point that there is enough uncertainty about the studies of GMOs on human health to make it reasonable for individuals to want to decide for themselves whether to eat GMOs or not, and 3) it assumes that human health is the only relevant scientifically-based objection to GMOs,
For several years now, I've been telling my students and random passers-by that environmental issues trumped all other political concerns. The degree and likelihood of disaster resulting from the environmental effects of global corporatism simply dwarf all other threats, now or in the past. (Nuclear weapons could have, still could, destroy us all, but the chances of a widespread nuclear war were always very low.) And I take it to be pretty obvious that governments are not going to respond seriously to the crisis. All in, I think there is a very good chance of global collapse within the lifetime of my child. And I don't think I can cruise into retirement not having tried to do anything about that, whatever the chances of success - which I suppose I deem to be low.
On November 6, 2012, Californians will vote to decide if genetically engineered foods, whether raw or processed, should be labelled as such (see details here). If it passes, it would be the first such law in the U.S., even though at least 50 countries worldwide, including all of the European Union, China, Japan, and Russia, already have GMO label laws. The ballot measure, Proposition 37, has generated a lot of heat on both sides.
Although the debate is complex, one meme has caught my eye in particular: those who advocate for "yes on 37" have been termed "anti-science" by members of the "no on 37" camp. Some have even likened pro-labelers (presumed to be anti-GMO, although that is not necessarily the case) to climate change deniers and evolution deniers.
First, let me introduce myself as a new New APPS blogger. I'm a philosopher of biology/science at the University of California, Davis, with strong interests in evolution, ecology, and increasingly, environmental ethics. I hope to blog on a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the above. But let me begin with some thoughts that have been rattling around my brain the last few days, because I would like to get some feedback on them. Ultimately, they are about ethics and environmental ethics.
As you probably know, it's election season in the U.S. And as will happen during election season, even individuals who are very close politically can disagree. Thus, one liberal may say that she is voting for Barack Obama, even though he has been disappointing in some respects and is not really all that liberal. Another liberal will say that he is voting for the person whose values most closely match his own, and that is Jill Stein (the Green Party candidate) not Obama. As it turns out, there are a number of facets to this disagreement about the best person to vote for, including strategies about voting for the lesser of two evils vs drawing a line in the sand now.