Skip to main content


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry acknowledged a remarkable contribution in to health and medicine: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received it for the development of a method for genome editing known as CRISPR. CRISPR has revolutionized all the life sciences, from plant breeding to genetic therapy.Charpentier is a French microbiologist, and Doudna is an American biochemist affiliated with UC Berkeley. In 2012, they were studying the immune system of a Streptococcus bacterium. They discovered that they could use "genetic scissors" already present in the metabolism of the bacterium so that they could make precise cuts in the DNA sequences.Just as one illustration of the ramifications, consider that early this year researchers tested a cancer treatment in which the body's immune cells are CRISPR-edited to get them to hunt down and attack the body's cancer cells. The results were not such as to declare a breakthrough cure, but they have encouraged continued wo…
Recent posts

A Philosopher Discusses the Idea of Self Defense

"I was defending myself" is probably the most common phrase spoken by anyone with a smoking gun in his hand and a dead body in the vicinity. There is a broad (not universal, very little is universal, but quite broad) consensus that violence, even to the point of fatal violence, can in principle be justified by some version of those words: If, of course, they are supported by the evidence. So: what is to philosophize about?
There is a good deal. Indeed, this is a good illustration of something I have long considered THE DEFINING FEATURE OF PHILOSOPHY. Philosophy is thinking -- about any subject whatever -- that passes the limits that social convention assigns to that about that subject. Social convention (which in turn develops from individual self-preservation instincts) tells us that we should think rigorously about the proper materials to use in the construction of a bridge, for exampl…

What Popper Said About Heraclitus

Karl Popper, renowned as the inventor of falsificationism in the philosophy of science, also popularized the term "the open society," of which George Soros nowadays makes a lot of use. Early in his book THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES, Popper has admiring things to say about the pre-Socratic philosophers. He identifies their views with the open society of which Periclean Athens is a paradigm. He has a particular fondness for Heraclitus. Popper was especially fond of the idea that life is a river into which we cannot step twice. Popper takes this, along with certain other Heraclitean bon mots, as meaning that (in Popper's words now) "all matter, like fire, is a process." This, Popper think, put philosophy off to a promising start. It is this start that was unfortunately shut down by Spartan victory and Plato's codification of that victory in his dialogues. I don't believe this. I believe much that Popper has to say, but he is using Heraclitus as a place…

Amy Coney Barrett and the Question of Race

I'm surprised the issue of race doesn't seem to have entered into the discussions of Judge Barrett's pending confirmation as a Justice of the Supreme Court.In her short career on the appellate bench, Barrett has voted on one sensitive issue of racial civil rights, the Autozone case. Autozone is a chain of auto parts stores that has several stores in Chicago. It seems to have segregated its employees in its assignments, sending the Black employees to the Black neighborhoods and vice versa for their white colleagues. The EEOC brought an action against this policy. A three-judge panel of the 7th circuit (a panel to which Judge Barrett did not belong) ruled in favor of Autozone, holding that these assignments are a matter of managerial discretion. The EEOC tried to appeal this to the whole court, that is, en banc. But the appeal was rejected and the ruling stands. My point? Barrett was one of those who voted in favor of refusing to take the appeal. She gave her support to wha…

More on that first use of "social Darwnist"

Here are some dates.Herbert Spencer, SOCIAL STATICS (1851)Charles Darwin, ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (1859) Henry Maine ANCIENT LAW (1861)Henry Maine, VILLAGE COMMUNITIES (1871) Charles Darwin, THE DESCENT OF MAN (1871)Joseph Fisher, THE HISTORY OF LANDHOLDING (1877)Herbert Spencer, THE DATA OF ETHICS (1879)  Social Statics, the one specific ally cited (and rejected as a constitutional authority) by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Lochner case, was early Spencer, and preceded the great Darwinian controversy.Maine did develop his legal theories subsequent to Darwin, but there is no biologism in them. Maine believed that human societies have passed through predictable stages, and that the overall direction of progress in which the world was engaged in the 19th century was a move away from status toward contract. A movement away from inborn identity to voluntary choices and the acceptance of their consequences. The later Spencer may well owe a lot to Maine (whose picture is above). But probab…

What May Be The First-ever Use of the Phrase "social Darwinist"

As readers may be aware, Herbert Spencer has been much on my mind of late.  As a side effect of this, I became curious about who first used "social" as an adjective in front of "Darwinism," and in what context. 
The answer may well be an otherwise forgotten writer named Joseph Fisher. [In wikipedia, there is a disambiguation page for the name "Joseph Fisher," which lists 13 different men of that name who are notable in various ways. Most of the "Fishers" listed are in blue, indicating that they each have a wikipedia article of his own. The Joseph Fisher I have in mind is the only one listed in red -- indicating no article -- so the only information about him you will find in wikipedia is the one fact used to distinguish him on the disambiguation page, that he "coined the phrase" social Darwinism.] 
In 1877, the TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY ran Fisher's (very lengthy) article on "The History of Landholding in Irela…

Life on Venus

Scientists recently announced that they are now confident phosphine is present in the atmosphere of Venus.  This suggests -- it doesn't prove but it suggests -- that there is life on the planet. (There could be some strange but non-living chemical reactions going on, which would itself be a fascinating discovery but would make for less dramatic headlines than the one I used above.) On earth, phosphine results from the breakdown of organic tissue. It is the gas that produces the distinctive smell of dead fish, or garlic. The issue of life-on-Mars remains debatable. The issue of life-on-Venus may just be getting (excuse the pun) lively. But one can now make the case that life isn't a rarity in the universe. It isn't even a rarity in this one solar system. It may well be the norm given certain broad parameters of planets circling a sun at a given range of distances, and this solar system may simply happen to have three bodies within that range.