"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." — Elie Wiesel

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Stubborn like a musk ox -- why Homo sapiens can't think straight about nuclear weapons

Editor's Note: David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Since the early 1980s he has actively researched, promoted and practiced the field of peace studies. His op-ed in the Los Angeles times presents a unique, thought-provoking perspective on our thinking about nuclear weapons (and how we might change it "in our own self-interest). David gave permission to reprint his op-ed here, and encourages others to share it as well. I hope it will be shared widely.


Stubborn like a musk ox -- why Homo sapiens can't think straight about nuclear weapons

By David P. Barash

Note: Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2015, Reprinted here with the author's permission

Most people can be forgiven for ignoring the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It might seem surprising, but we have been preprogrammed by our own evolutionary history to engage in such ignorance. The nuclear age is just a tiny blip tacked on to our very recent phylogenetic past, so when it comes to the greatest of all risks to human survival, we are more threatened by the instincts we lack than by those we possess..

And yet, we are genuinely threatened by those weapons we possess, which the United States government is planning to upgrade at an estimated cost of $1 trillion over the next three decades. Partly in response, on Thursday the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset its iconic Doomsday Clock from five minutes to midnight to three minutes and counting.

How does evolution create our ignorance, thereby adding to our danger? Because its two forms — biological and cultural — are disconnected, and so are we, from our own self-interest.

Homo sapiens is the product of biological evolution — a painfully slow Darwinian process — yet we are simultaneously enmeshed in its cultural counterpart, a Lamarckian phenomenon which, by contrast, is blindingly fast and proceeds under its own rules. We have one foot thrust into the cultural present and the other stuck in our biological past.

Individuals, after all, do not evolve in the Darwinian sense; only populations and lineages do. And they are shackled to the realities of genetics and reproduction, since organic evolution is a process whereby gene frequencies change over time. Accordingly, generations are required for even the smallest evolutionary step.

By contrast, cultural evolution is astoundingly rapid. Acquired characteristics can be “inherited,” a la Lamarck, in hours or days, then passed along to other individuals, modified yet again before being picked up or dropped altogether. For example, in just a few decades (less than an instant in biological time), personal computers were developed, proliferated and modified. If they had “evolved” by Darwinian, biological means, as a favorable mutation to be promoted in one or even a handful of individuals, there would currently be only a dozen or so computer users instead of billions.

Just a superficial glance at human history shows today's world is vastly different from that of a century ago, which is almost unimaginably different from 50,000 years ago. And yet a Cro-Magnon baby, magically plunked down at birth in 21st century America, could very well find herself comfortably reading on her iPad, and offspring of today's technophiles could adapt to the world of saber-toothed cats and stone axes.

Consider that stone ax. The history of civilization is, in large part, one of ever-greater efficiency in killing, as in the progression from club, knife and spear, to bow and arrow, musket, rifle, cannon, battleship, bomber and nuclear-tipped ICBM. At the same time, the human being who creates and manipulates these devices has not changed much at all.

As a biological creature, in fact, Homo sapiens is poorly adapted for killing, given his puny nails, minimal jaws and laughable little teeth. But cultural evolution has made it not only possible but easy.

This biology-culture disconnect is especially acute in the realm of nuclear weapons. At the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Albert Einstein famously noted that “the splitting of the atom has changed everything but our way of thinking; hence we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

He might have been talking about musk oxen. These shaggy Arctic beasts have long employed a very effective strategy when confronted by their enemies: wolves. They herd the juveniles into the center while the adults face outward, arrayed like the spokes of a wheel. Even the hungriest wolf finds it intimidating to confront a wall of sharp horns and bony foreheads, backed by a thousand pounds of angry pot roast. For countless generations, their behavior served musk oxen well.

But in more modern times, their primary threat hasn't been wolves, but human hunters carrying high-powered rifles. Today, musk oxen would do better if they spread out and high-tailed it toward the horizon, but instead they respond as previous generations always have — forming their trusted defensive circle — and are easily slaughtered.

Human actions changed everything but the musk ox way of thinking; as they clung to their biology they drifted toward unparalleled catastrophe, until another human action (conservation) intervened.

Humans also cling to (or remain unconsciously influenced by) our biology. That stubbornness is especially evident when it comes to thinking, or not thinking, about nuclear weapons.

Take, for example, this widespread difficulty: When told something is “hot,” most of us readily think in terms of boiling water or burning wood. The biological creature within cannot effectively grasp the meaning of millions of degrees. Before the artificial splitting of uranium and plutonium atoms, nuclear explosions had never occurred on Earth. Even in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are unprepared to wrap our minds around them, including the vast scale of destruction, deaths by the millions, and in minutes.

And so the conflict between our biological natures and our cultural products cloaks nuclear weapons in a kind of psychological untouchability.

But does this mean that things are hopeless, that we are the helpless victims of this aspect of our human natures? As Carl Sagan emphasized, eliminating nuclear weapons — certainly not building more or upgrading what we have — is a basic requirement of species-wide sanity and good planetary hygiene.

The missiles, bombers, bombs and warheads in our nuclear arsenal are our own creation, our own responsibility, not something imposed upon us by a malignant God. And we are the most adaptable of all creatures, probably the only ones capable of acting, consciously, in our own self-interest. Once we stop acting like musk oxen.

Original source URL: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-barash-nuclear-weapons-evolution-20150125-story.html

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It is 3 minutes to midnight (and counting)!!!

Earlier today the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it was moving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock ahead, from 5 minutes to midnight to 3 minutes to midnight.

The Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 "using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet." Each year the distinguished scientists of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board decide whether or not to move the minute hands of the Doomsday Clock.

This year's decision considered many factors, and nuclear weapons figure prominently in it. The optimism that came with the end of the Cold War has disappeared due to two principal factors - "nuclear weapons modernization programs and nuclear disarmament machinery that has ground to a halt." The world is on the brink of a new and dangerous nuclear arms race.

The announcement begins with this:
In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth. 
In 1984, as the United States began a major defense build-up that included the pursuit of a potentially destabilizing ballistic missile defense system, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an icy nadir. "Every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda," the Bulletin wrote then, in explaining why the hands of the Doomsday Clock had been moved to three minutes to midnight, the closest they had been to catastrophe since the early days of above-ground hydrogen bomb testing. 
Today, more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board have looked closely at the world situation and found it highly threatening to humanity—so threatening that the hands of the Doomsday Clock must once again be set at three minutes to midnight, two minutes closer to catastrophe than in 2014.
Today's announcement focuses on the current and potential risks posed to humanity by nuclear weapons, climate change and emerging technologies. These risks, when combined, pose extraordinary challenges to the very survival of humanity, and it is the "stunning governmental failures [that] have imperiled civilization on a global scale." The scientists of the Bulletin make it clear that time is short, and that we as citizens must demand that our nations' leaders take action before it is too late.

Here is how the announcement wraps it up:
The threat is serious, the time short. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists does not move the hands of the Doomsday Clock for light or transient reasons. The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization. 
During the past several years, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board has grown increasingly concerned as world political leaders dithered, leaving an undeniable threat to the future of mankind—climate change—largely unaddressed. In 2014, leaders in the nuclear weapons countries have consented to a mad dash down an expensive and dangerous path toward "modernizing" their nuclear arsenals; in the process, they turned away from reasonable disarmament efforts and allowed an economic dispute between Ukraine and Russia to turn into an East-West confrontation that hinders cooperation on worldwide nuclear security, arms control, and nonproliferation. 
These stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale, and so we, the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, implore the citizens of the world to speak clearly, demanding that their leaders: 
  • Take actions that would cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels sufficient to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The 2-degree target is consistent with consensus views on climate science and is eminently achievable and economically viable—if national leaders show more interest in protecting their citizens than in serving the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry. 
  • Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs. The United States and Russia have hatched plans to essentially rebuild their entire nuclear triads in coming decades, and other nuclear weapons countries are following suit. The projected costs of these "improvements" to nuclear arsenals are indefensible, and they undermine the global disarmament regime.  
  • Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results. The United States and Russia, in particular, need to start negotiations on shrinking their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals. The world can be more secure with much, much smaller nuclear arsenals than now exist—if political leaders are truly interested in protecting their citizens from harm.  
  • Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem. Reasonable people can disagree on whether an expansion of nuclear-powered electricity generation should be a major component of the effort to limit climate change. Regardless of the future course of the worldwide nuclear power industry, there will be a need for safe and secure interim and permanent nuclear waste storage facilities.  
  • Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies. Scientific advance can provide society with great benefits, but the potential for misuse of potent new technologies is real, unless government, scientific, and business leaders take appropriate steps to explore and address possible devastating consequences of those technologies early in their development. 
Last year, with the Doomsday Clock at five minutes to midnight, the members of the Science and Security Board concluded their assessment of the world security situation by writing: "We can manage our technology, or become victims of it. The choice is ours, and the Clock is ticking." 
In 2015, with the Clock hand moved forward to three minutes to midnight, the board feels compelled to add, with a sense of great urgency: "The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon."
The scientists of the Bulletin have provided the blueprint for moving ahead. They have also made clear what many of us have been saying for years - that governments will not take the necessary steps unless we, as global citizens, demand it of them. They have, for far too long, been locked in the grip of massive corporate machines that serve only their own interests. It is high time that those who govern begin the work of "ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

The people who make the decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock ahead do not do so lightly. These are scientists, not alarmists. They employed sound, scientific reasoning to reach their decision, and we must listen and understand the gravity of the situation. As they concluded, "The probability of global catastrophe is very high," and the consequences to humanity would be unacceptable. We must take action, and we must take it now.

Each of us needs to stand up and pressure our government to take action on the issues raised by the Bulletin. Send a copy of the Bulletin's announcement to President Obama, your representatives in Congress, and anyone else you think should read it. Ask them to read it and reply to you, explaining how they plan to respond to the Bulletin's call to action. Do not settle for anything less than a full commitment to action.

We cannot turn back the hands of time, and we certainly cannot undo the damage we have already done. We can, however, make the difficult, yet critical, choices that will provide a livable world for future generations, and thereby turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock.

Time is short, and "the clock is ticking."

Click here to read the full text of today's announcement.

Click here to watch today's announcement and press conference.