The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters

Smriti Mallapatty in Nature:

It was the news Sophie Gryseels had been dreading for months. Almost a year into the pandemic, a seemingly healthy wild mink tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Utah. No free-roaming animal was known to have caught the virus before, although researchers had been watching for this closely. “It’s happened,” wrote Gryseels, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, in an e-mail to her colleagues. Ever since the coronavirus started spreading around the world, scientists have worried that it could leap from people into wild animals. If so, it might lurk in various species, possibly mutate and then resurge in humans even after the pandemic has subsided.

That would bring the tale of SARS-CoV-2 full circle, because wild animals probably brought it to humans in the first place. Strong evidence suggests that the virus originated in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus spp.), possibly hitching a ride on other animals before infecting people1. In the current stage of the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of confirmed COVID-19 infections every day, people are still driving transmission of SARS-CoV-2. But years from now, when community spread has been suppressed, a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 in free-roaming animals could become a recalcitrant source of new flare-ups. Wild animals are not the only ones to have drawn scrutiny. Studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can infect many domesticated and captive creatures, from cats and dogs, to pumas, gorillas and snow leopards in zoos, and farmed mink. Outbreaks in mink farms have already shown that infected animals can pass the virus back to humans.

More here.

Daniel C. Dennett: Herding Cats and Free Will Inflation

Dan Dennett’s Romanell lecture delivered at the one hundred seventeenth annual Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association:

Causation and control are not the same thing. Not all things that are caused are controlled. Things that are controlled are caused, like everything else, but control requires a controller, an agent of sorts designed to control a process, and that requires feedback: information about the trajectory and conditions that can be used by the controller to modulate the action. This is a fundamental point of control theory. Think about firing a rifle bullet. You’re controlling the direction of the gun barrel and, with the trigger, the time of the bullet emerging from the gun barrel. Are you controlling the course of the bullet after that? No. Where it goes after it leaves the muzzle is out of your control. Now, if you’re a really good shot, you may be able to calculate in advance the windage and so forth and you may be able to get it in the bull’s eye almost every time. But you are unable to affect the trajectory of the bullet after it leaves the gun. So it is not a controlled trajectory, it is a ballistic trajectory. It goes where it goes and, if your eyes were good enough to watch it and see that it was going “off course,” you’d have feedback, but you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Feedback is only useful information coming back to a controller if the controller also maintains an informational link back to the thing that’s being controlled. You fired the gun. You caused that bullet to go where it went, but you did not control the bullet after it left the gun. Compare that with a guided missile. A guided missile, after it’s launched, can still be controlled, to some extent, often to a great extent (as in a cruise missile). As you know, one of the chief inventions of technology in warfare in the last fifty years is the development of remote control missiles and, of course, remote control drones. Remote control is real, and readily distinguished from out of control. Autonomy is non-remote control, local or internal control, and it is just as real, and even more important.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Roderick Graham on Cyberspace, Race, and Cultural Conservatism

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

The internet has made it so much easier for people to talk to each other, in a literal sense. But it hasn’t necessarily made it easier to have rewarding, productive, good-faith conversations. Here I talk with sociologist Rod Graham about what kinds of conversations the internet does enable, and should enable, and how we can work to make them better. We discuss both how social media are used for nefarious purposes, from cyberbullying to driving extremism, but also how they can be mobilized for more lofty goals. We also get into some of the lost nuances in conventional discussions of race, including how many minorities are more culturally conservative than an oversimplified narrative would lead us to believe, and the tricky relationship between online discourse and social cohesion.

More here.

A Realist Reset for US-Saudi Relations

Richard Haass in Project Syndicate:

The report issued Friday by the US intelligence community on the murder of Saudi journalist and permanent US resident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey mostly confirms what we already knew. The operation to capture or kill Khashoggi was approved by Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and in many ways already the Kingdom’s most powerful person. MBS, as he is widely known, wanted Khashoggi dead, both to rid himself of a nettlesome critic and to intimidate other would-be critics of his rule.

We are unlikely to find a smoking gun, but MBS’s fingerprints are all over Khashoggi’s killing. There is not only abundant photographic and communications evidence that it was carried out by people close to the Crown Prince. There is also the simple reality that nothing of significant political magnitude happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS’s authorization.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration looked the other way at the time, as it often did in the face of flagrant human rights violations. Moreover, Trump wanted to avoid a rupture with MBS, whose anti-Iranian policies were appreciated and who was seen as central to his government’s willingness to purchase armaments from US manufacturers.

President Joe Biden’s administration feels differently. It has already distanced the United States from involvement in Saudi military operations in Yemen. And human rights are occupying a central role in its approach to the world. The fact that Biden has not communicated directly with MBS, and instead called the ailing King Salman, underscores Biden’s desire to separate the US relationship with the Kingdom from the relationship with the Crown Prince.

But this separation will likely prove impossible to sustain.

More here.

Elena Ferrante’s Class Fictions

Jennifer Wilson at The Nation:

In Ferrante’s most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults, we are pulled yet again into the story with the tale of a missing woman, Aunt Vittoria. Unlike Lila, she has not disappeared altogether but is estranged from her brother, Andrea, and her 12-year-old niece, Giovanna, who narrates the story. While Giovanna and her parents live in a middle-class section of Naples, Vittoria has remained in Pascone, the working-class neighborhood in the city’s Industrial Zone where she and Andrea were raised. Throughout the novel, we get conflicting stories from Vittoria and Andrea about what led to their estrangement. A dispute about who should inherit their mother’s apartment following her death was certainly the breaking point, but there had long been tension between them. Early on, it becomes clear that Andrea is frustrated that his sister did not respond to the poverty of their childhood in the same way he did: by leaving Pascone behind with no qualms or doubts and embracing the tastes and habits of the Italian bourgeoisie. But what takes longer to be revealed is that Vittoria is perhaps no better, that her working-class pride may not be as sturdy as she wants her young, wide-eyed niece to think.

more here.

Chatting With René Girard

Costica Bradatan at Commonweal:

The interviewers often push Girard to explain how his theory applies to real life, and he is happy to oblige. The theory’s journey into the world is a great story in its own right. No sooner did his argument reach a certain “elegance” than Girard started to realize its growing applicability: “You suddenly see that there is a single explanation for a thousand different phenomena.” He first formulated his theory in a book of literary history, then went on to apply it to the study of mythology and religion, then to politics and international relations, then to society and economy, fashion and eating disorders, and whatnot. Just open a newspaper and pick something, anything, at random. Even the stock market? Especially the stock market, Girard would respond. That’s “the most mimetic institution” of all—indeed, a textbook illustration of how mimetic theory works: “You desire stock not because it is objectively desirable. You know nothing about it, but you desire stuff exclusively because other people desire it. And if other people desire it, its value goes up and up and up.” There is hardly a field, sphere of life, or situation, where Girard’s theory does not apply. He finds that fascinating. Some of his readers find it too good to be true. Others find it scandalous.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

It was a field before it was a battlefield

for Luke

It was a green before a fiddler stood on it,
and made mirth, and never stopped playing.
It was grass. Or maybe a greenwood. Maybe
underbrush, thick at your knees. Unparsable.
We have each taken something that belonged
to itself first, something that was once a wide
and open green. What turns red in spring
before it greens? The redbud trees along
the highway. Also the human heart. Each
glows lamp-like on the road to church.
Virginia rolls with fields and when I say:
it was a field before it was a battlefield,
you say: “And after.” Yes, and after.

by Hannah Vanderhart
The Ecotheo Review

Albert and the Whale

Laura Cumming in The Guardian:

Albrecht Dürer was the first great sightseer in the history of art, travelling Europe to see conjoined twins, Aztec gold, Venetian gondolas and the bones of an 18ft giant. He crossed the Alps more than once and voyaged for six days in the freezing winter of 1520 to see a whale on a beach in Zeeland. The ship was nearly wrecked, but somehow Dürer saved the day and they eventually reached the shore. The sands were empty. The great creature had sailed away. 

This magnificent new book by Philip Hoare takes its title from that tale, but only as a point of departure. The narrative soon turns into a trip of another kind entirely, a captivating journey through art and life, nature and human nature, biography and personal memoir. Giants walk the earth: Dürer and Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, WH Auden, David Bowie. Hoare summons them like Prospero, his writing the animating magic that brings the people of the past directly into our present and unleashes spectacular visions along the way.

Just to follow him to that same beach in Zeeland, for instance, is to be entranced by his descriptions of deserted ports, windblown flatlands and shadowy waters. Hoare sees the creatures Dürer never saw, as if on his behalf. He offers the poignant revelation that the giant’s bones were actually those of a bowhead whale, knowing what it would have meant to the artist. Shown the day’s catch in a local restaurant, he marvels at the orange spots on the glistening brown plaice – “the fingerprints of a saint” – and imagines Dürer immediately drawing the fish on his napkin. Both men are present in that moment; both of Hoare’s pictures are perfect.

More here.

Neanderthals Listened to the World Much Like Us

Sabrina Imbler in The New York Times:

If you were somehow able to travel back in time some 130,000 years and chance upon a Neanderthal, you might find yourself telling them about some of humanity’s greatest inventions, such as spanakopita and TikTok. The Neanderthal would have no idea what you were saying, much less talking about, but they might be able to hear you perfectly, picking up on the voiceless consonants “t,” “k” and “s” that appear in many modern human languages. A team of scientists has reconstructed the outer and middle ear of Neanderthals and concluded that they listened to the world much like we do. Their study, published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, found that Neanderthals had the anatomical ability to perceive a similar range of sounds as modern Homo sapiens, including upper speech frequencies that mainly involve consonant production.

The authors believe this research has implications beyond the ear. Any insight into how Neanderthals heard can offer new clues into one of the most-debated, unresolved questions about the ancient hominids: whether Neanderthals spoke. Hearing and speech are often coupled in the animal kingdom, according to Dan Dediu, a language scientist at the Lumière University Lyon 2 in France, who was not involved with the research. “It would be meaningless for an animal to produce a frequency that can’t be heard by conspecifics,” he said.

More here.

Pragmatism as philosophical tool design

by Dave Maier

One problem plaguing contemporary anti-Cartesians (pragmatists, Wittgensteinians, hermeneutic philosophers, etc.) is that it can seem that we are competing against each other, trying to do better than everyone else what we all want to do: get past the dualisms and other infelicities of the modern picture while at the same time absorbing its lessons and retaining its good aspects. We waste our time fighting each other instead of our common enemy. Why is it so hard to see ourselves as all on the same team?

One reason is that when push comes to shove, or even before that, we simply follow traditional philosophical practice by providing arguments to show that we are right and they are wrong, thus construing the differences among our views as constituting differences in belief rather than, for example, the practical differences between different tools or perspectives. It is as if we have internalized the traditional criticisms: that we have abandoned objective truth and the objective world it represents in favor of our own subjective purposes. No, we say, watch us talk among ourselves! We care about truth just as much as you! Phenomenology is false and pragmatism is true, as my fully rigorous and entirely professional argument shows! Assent is required, on pain of irrationality!

Even when we’re not fighting among ourselves in this way, that same metaphilosophical ideal can still cause trouble. For instance, I have chosen to present my particular brand of anti-Cartesianism as a characteristically pragmatist philosophy. Naturally I draw inspiration and/or ideas from philosophers who do not identify as pragmatists (after all, we all reject the Cartesian mirror of nature). But in practice this can lead to some discomfort. If while pushing a pragmatist line I help myself to a Wittgensteinian (or Davidsonian or Nietzschean) insight, the question will naturally arise: what entitles me to enlist these people in my cause? Am I saying Wittgenstein or Davidson was a pragmatist? What should I make of the differences between these very different philosophers? Read more »

Why we need Virtue Ethics

by Martin Butler

Immanuel Kant

For many years I taught ethics to 16-19 year olds, and was often struck not only by how strongly certain ideas resonated with the students, but how unfamiliar they were with these big ideas, the product of hundreds of years of western culture.  Kant and virtue ethics in particular seemed to chime with them. It made me think that these ideas should not be restricted to the narrow group of individuals who happen to have chosen to study philosophy. They are not academic curios but immensely influential and should surely be part of any ethical education. I believe that a knowledge of virtue ethics in particular could help today’s young people navigate the complex and often frightening world that they face.

Traditionally religious education has been the arena where ethical topics are covered, usually with the focus on ethical dilemmas such as euthanasia, abortion, and the status of animals. These are important and interesting topics that need to be discussed but they don’t provide the kind of ethical framework I have in mind. The treatment of ethics at this level can often produce a kind of paralysis of neutralism, a kind of ‘some people say this and others say that – take your pick’ approach, though there are areas where a more assertive line is taken.

No one denies, for example, that we really do have certain rights, this is beyond opinion.  In the UK recently there has also been a push to include in the curriculum what are described as ‘British values’ (I have never been quite sure why they are distinctly British.)  These comprise the rule of law, tolerance, democracy, and individual liberty. Other values such as equality, respect, diversity, inclusivity are also often given prominence.  All of this is important but not enough. It is quite impersonal and abstract and hardly helpful to someone seeking a more direct guide on how their lives might be led. These ethical ideas are also quite static. You either accept them or you don’t, and there is no developmental dimension that could connect with someone wanting to improve their life both ethically and psychologically. Religious belief can give this more personal kind of guidance but there should surely be something that fills this role for those who are not religious. Read more »

“Indians – A brief History of a Civilization” by Namit Arora

by Ruchira Paul

Travelers to India came from all corners of the world through the ages for different reasons. The very first modern humans probably came there in order to escape harsh climate conditions elsewhere in the world. Latter day visitors arrived with varied objectives in mind. Some came seeking material fortune, some for spiritual enlightenment and others merely out of curiosity. A few who came, took what they wanted and left. Others came to conquer and decided to stay and make India their home. Then there were mercenary visitors who looked at India as a vast revenues source for enriching themselves and their own native lands while also seeing an opportunity to instill their religious and “civilizing” values on a foreign nation. They too decided to stay but never thought of India as home. India still attracts visitors from across the world. Most come as tourists to check out its numerous and varied natural and historical vistas (there is always the Taj Mahal). Some may be enticed by more quirky and personal adventures such as chasing the monsoon or seeking the ever elusive spiritual and emotional fulfillment. Scholarly pursuits and business opportunities attract others to the second most populous nation in the world which defines itself as a multi-cultural modern day free market democracy with an ancient checkered past that is a palimpsest of layers upon layers of human foot print left by visitors who crisscrossed its landscape in all directions for many thousands of years.

The author of “Indians…” Namit Arora is a visitor in his own land. Born and educated in India, Arora left for foreign shores to pursue higher education and later a career as an engineer in Silicon Valley. After two decades of living abroad, in 2013 he returned to India to settle there permanently. This book is the record of his travels through India to the same places first in 2006 and a return visit in 2019. The author speaks both as an insider familiar with India as also an outsider who can examine the country of his birth through the lens of a global perspective. Arora is an enthusiastic and informed world traveler and photographer who periodically took time off from work to visit many far corners of the world. Read more »

Monday Poem

icarus flight & gravity

Flight and Gravity

a story,
a recollection
of 79 summer solstices
bundled in one thought
of when I was young—a carpenter
with muscles, sweating,
lugging planks from lumber stacks 
to half-framed houses, stud walls
proud in sun, precise in ranks  
……………………………………….  a thought
that segues into a later solstice
down the line, along the way, a solstice
of love and its making, a tale
with science thrown in,
math and passion, geometry, physics—
stuff I’d read somewhere, sometime,
picked up or always known
in helical dreams, stuff that
fits and shifts, all true:
flight and gravity

Jim Culleny
5/13/19, rev:5/25/20

Upheaval And Migration

by Usha Alexander

[This is the ninth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]

Image of posters with many words, notably: Change! Where do we start? What happens after this? ResilienceChange. Resilience. Where do we start? I’ve got no idea. What happens after this? Listen! The answer is here!—

These words, splashed on posters, jumped out at me from images sent by a friend. The posters were part of an exhibition called We Need To Talk About Fire, hosted at an artists’ gallery along the Nowra River, about halfway between Sydney and Canberra. The Nowra River region had been hard-hit by the catastrophic Australian bushfires of 2019–20, following an unprecedented drought. Fire season in Australia is worsening as the planet warms, just as it is in the western United States, the Amazon, and Siberia. And the 2019–20 Australian season was particularly horrific, igniting a follow-on spate of depression and suicides in the area. What struck me about these posters was the raw simplicity of their messages, which ranged from forceful platitudes to agonized queries.

In their talk about these bushfires of extraordinary fury, worsened by climate change, there’s no mention of technical solutions. No demand for new wind farms or lowered carbon intensity. Instead, the posters surface what so often gets buried beneath the statistics, acronyms, and cost-benefit analyses common in our dialogs on climate and environment. They voice the thoughts of people who narrowly escaped the flames as the sky burned. People who lost pieces of their lives in an incomprehensible inferno—loved ones or homes or a quietude of mind. For me, the posters recalled the millions more, elsewhere, who might also be expressing similar feelings: Survivors of entire towns leveled by fire in the western United States, from Paradise, California in 2018, to the several communities of Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix, and Talent, Oregon in 2020. Survivors of back-to-back typhoons Kenneth and Idai, the two most powerful cyclones ever to strike Mozambique, which hit within six weeks of one another, in March and April of 2019, fueled by rising sea surface temperatures. Survivors of typhoon Goni, the strongest recorded cyclone ever to make landfall anywhere, which hit the Philippines just days after typhoon Molave had hammered the same region, during the Covid-19 pandemic in October and November of 2020. Others too, for whom the damages and dangers of our rapidly changing planet must already feel immediate, existential, and relentless, eclipsing hopes for a return to “normalcy.” Read more »

On The Concept Of Education

by Eric J. Weiner

In 1940, at the height of Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe, Walter Benjamin, from Vichy France wrote, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.”[1] In our current historical context, his words are instructive for two reasons. First, they were written in the context of Nazi occupation with death breathing down his neck. In spite of these extreme conditions, Benjamin refused to see the emergency situation he was in as historically exceptional; his refusal to turn his back on the dialectic under these circumstances was extraordinary and, as we know now, at least in terms of ideology, prescient. Second, his theses about the concept of history, 80 years after he first conceived them, still resonate today. From the mismanaged pandemic and Trump’s fascistic incitement of a white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol to the continuing systemic assault and murder of African Americans by police, the failure of capitalism to eradicate poverty, growing economic inequality, deepening home and food insecurity, and the broken promise of public education to become the “great equalizer” of opportunity, the United States is struggling through what many people have mischaracterized as an unprecedented national crisis of existential proportions. It appears we have not learned what Benjamin suggested the tradition of the oppressed ought to have taught us: We have still not arrived at a conception of history that allows us to see the web of current crises as the rule, not the exception. Read more »

Years Ago In Our Futures

by Rafaël Newman

Mourning is in season. Newspapers of record these days publish interactive mass obituaries, images of “ordinary” people fallen to “the opioid crisis” or to Covid-19 (the front page of the Sunday New York Times was recently riven down the middle by a monolith composed of thousands of dots, growing denser towards the base, each representing a victim of the virus: the whole reminiscent of the graphic tributes to 9/11). The inauguration of the US president in January featured, in lieu of most spectators, ranks of flags, symbolizing the past year’s losses. The annual observation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany, held this year as for the past quarter century on January 27 at the Reichstag in Berlin, featured a remarkable ceremony marrying reconciliation with the starkest grief. In his latest book, the memoir-cum-poetics Inside Story, Martin Amis eschews his characteristic charades in a sincere and extended eulogy for Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens, three of the central figures in the author’s professional and affective life. And, 15 years after it first appeared, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s essay on death and bereavement, persists on various bestseller lists.

Public commemoration of the dead famously deploys performative language – that is, it accomplishes what it sets out to do simply by its enunciation. Thus Pericles, in Thucydides’ reconstruction of his funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War, and Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, perform the unity of their respective “peoples” by eulogizing battle dead; while the institution of the cenotaph, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is such a central feature of the performance grammar of national identity that, according to Benedict Anderson, there is no need to specify the provenance of the particular “ghostly national imaginings” with which each discrete tomb is “saturated”. The grave itself has become an eloquent “speech act”. Read more »

“A good way of knowing things”: Eric Hayot’s defense of the humanities

by Jeroen Bouterse

Unfortunately, it is always worth your time to read a book in praise of the humanities. Given the unenviable position of the humanities in public education and in contemporary cultural and (especially) political discourse about valuable expertise, any author that comes to their defense has to find a strategy to shift the narrative, and will thereby almost invariably do something interesting.

They move our focus from economic value to democracy and citizenship, for example. Or they argue that there is not actually a mismatch between the skills provided by a well-balanced liberal arts curriculum and the demands of technocapitalism, or that the humanities themselves produce the same kinds of intellectual goods as the natural sciences with which they tend to be contrasted.

These apologies are intellectually creative, though with luck some of them may grow to be new clichés. In their diversity, they also have something in common, which is that they project a rather straightforward view of the knowledge that the humanities and (other) sciences produce. One point on Martha Nussbaum’s agenda in Not For Profit, for instance, is to “teach real and true things about other groups”.

I feel slightly uneasy about this. Maybe this kind of book is not the place to get all difficult about the words “real and true”, but whenever elevator words like those are used with such confidence, part of me is inclined to get difficult about them – to look for the social and cultural interests that put them there, for instance. What is more, the place where I learned to ask those questions was during my history major; they seem to me to point to something that is particular about the humanities, something that gets lost in these defenses. Read more »