Book Club: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Nathaniel Rich offers an excellent and thought-provoking review of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf, a biography of Darwin’s inspiration and, arguably, the inventor of our modern world Alexander von Humboldt:

Humboldt’s most consequential findings, however, derived from his conception of the world as a single unified organism. “Everything,” he said, “is interaction and reciprocal.” It seems commonplace today to speak of “the web of life,” but the concept was Humboldt’s invention. Into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thinkers like René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Carl Linnaeus were still echoing Aristotle’s view that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.”

Particularly heterodox was the implication that the decline of one species might have cascading effects on others. The possibility that animal life might not be inexhaustible had been proposed by the German anatomist J.F. Blumenbach (who taught Humboldt at the University of Göttingen), but was not widely accepted. “Such is the œconomy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct,” declared Thomas Jefferson in 1784, an opinion shared by most naturalists. Convinced to the end of his life that mastodons still existed in North America, most likely in the “unexplored and undisturbed” regions of the continent, Jefferson urged Lewis and Clark to look for them during their expedition.

Humboldt traveled so far, saw so much, and observed so closely that he began to notice similarities across continents. Rhododendron-like plants on the mountains near Caracas reminded him of alpine trees in the Swiss Alps; a sea of cacti, seen from the distance, recalled the grasses in the marshes of northern Europe; a moss in the Andes resembled a species he had found growing in German forests.

This comparative approach allowed him to take staggering intellectual leaps. He looked beyond the characteristics of organisms and tried to determine the structures underlying nature, leading him to formulate the idea of ecosystems. He was the first to understand that climate emerged from the “perpetual interrelationship” between land, ocean, wind, elevation, and organic life. He introduced the idea of classifying plants by climate zones instead of taxonomy, taking into account altitude, temperature, and other conditions related to location. He invented isotherms, the lines used on maps to connect regions with the same average temperature and atmospheric pressure. The similarity of the coastal plants in Africa and South America led him to postulate an “ancient” connection between the continents, anticipating plate tectonic theory by more than a century. He also studied how different systems interacted with one another. Nobody before Humboldt, for instance, had been able to explain how forests, by releasing oxygen, storing water, and providing shade, have a cooling effect on climate.

Read the whole review here, or click here to buy the book. And any readers in the northwest: please post here if you’ve stumbled on any of Jefferson’s mastodons.

Ben Carson: Political Correctness personified

So now, thanks to Ben Carson, we’re actually really having a public conversation about whether the Jews resisted the Nazis vigorously enough. The kinds of thoughts that would be just too absurd, too obscene, too flat-out stupid and deranged to even contemplate, are now just grist for the mill. They apparently require adamant and ludicrous defense from the fever swamps at Fox News; and almost as ludicrous, sober point-by-point rebuttal from those who haven’t lost their minds.

While Carson continually inveighs against “political correctness”, his nuttiness finds its echoes because of political correctness.

What is political correctness? It’s a term that’s been tied to the left, especially academia, since the late 1980′s (to my memory). But really it’s a phenomenon where there’s a rush to the political margins, away from a seemingly discredited, stigmatized “center.” It’s when the sense of safety, of identity, and mutual approval, can only come from guarding one’s outer political flank.

(I remember it well from Oberlin College in the early 90′s: The “whole foods” co-op would be paralyzed by a rump group of militant vegans who would accept no compromise in the ingredients of bread. No white flour. No honey – it’s an animal product. The worker bees must own the means of production! This was in spite of the obvious preferences of seemingly everyone else, who just wanted bread that was tasty and not the consistency of sandstone. And then there was the male feminist writer who warned that men were merely posing as feminists to get laid. Good times, I tell you. Now we’re responsible for the advent of “trigger warnings” in case you might read a book or hear an account of some event that might provoke strong feelings. Never change, Alma Mater.)

What circumstances encourage this rush to the margins? The faction has to be seen as under threat. There has to be little satisfaction, numbers, or “safety” outside of the margins, so that those who might be uneasy with maximum guns (say) keep their silence. There has to be the threat of ostracism — or at least unpleasant friction — for insufficient fidelity to the outermost view. The core must be protected. And so you will see very little vocal demurral from GOP luminaries. Particularly during a primary, it’s more controversial for them to disavow even the nuttiest statements of the fringe candidates, than to simply swallow it, excuse it, or look the other way.

But what does this mean, from the outside? It’s evidence of a shrinking political movement. With every further outrageous statement, Carson, Trump et al carve off a little more of the conservative coalition. One could make the case to an old-school, 70th-percentile Reagan Republican … These folks are not your friends, buddy. You don’t identify with this, do you? Do you really want to stay in this club? New England used to be full of these Republicans. Now right-wing Political Correctness has sorted our region into, say, Paul LePage Republicans (including many in the NH legislature) … and, say, Vermont Republicans, who generally have left the party, leaving our neighbor to the north even more liberal (yow!) than our own Bay State. Even here, when Charlie Baker ran as a fiery “Had Enough??” conservative, he lost; when he played down ideology, he won.

And indeed, since the Iraq War, much of the old Reagan coalition has turned, however reluctantly, to the Democratic fold. This makes the Democratic coalition less orderly, weakly ideological, and less satisfying for those of us 80th-percentile liberals. It also makes it easier to win national elections.


Heh. - promoted by Bob_Neer

in a recent speech Barney Frank summed up the difference between liberalism and democratic socialism this way :  ” The opposite of pragmatism isn’t idealism — it’s wishful thinking.”


I believe that best explains the dilemma of conscience many  Democrats and Independents are struggling with today.

Fred Rich LaRiccia


20 quick points about gun control ...

Right on. No guns, no gun murders. -Bob
Minor clarifications added. - promoted by david

Two school shootings today.  This is a quasi-rant to my conservative friends. 

To my friends who abhor the thought of any type of gun regulation …

  1. You’re being used by gun manufacturers to make money.  They bribed the NRA a long time ago to do their bidding and don’t care about you or the 2nd amendment.  All they want to do is make money and it’s easiest to make money by scaring you. Much easier than trying to sell you guns for sport.  Unfortunately for the country, and fortunately for them, it is very easy to scare you.
  2. The 2nd amendment has the terms “well regulated” and “militia” in it.  It has limits.
  3. Let’s assume it didn’t.  It was written by slave owners who didn’t have electricity.  Things change.
  4. Just want to remind you that this still has nothing to do with the Constitution, it’s about big businesses using/scaring you to make a profit.
  5. If you are scared of a hostile government, remember that an AR-15 can’t shoot down a predator missile.  So if the most powerful and sophisticated military in the world wants you dead, no gun will help you.
  6. On this note, our government is a democracy.  That means you are the government you are scared of.
  7. However, in fairness, big corporations like gun manufacturers have usurped our democracy.  So even though 80% of the population wants things like universal background checks, it doesn’t pass because massive corporations make more money without it.
  8. Remember point 1.  They think you’re a tool, and they’re using you.
  9. Gun control does work.  That’s why we’re the only developed country that has these issues.
  10. Before you mention Chicago, let’s remember most criminals have cars, so if one city has strict gun laws they can simply drive to a place that does not.
  11. Before you mention Israel and Switzerland, let’s remember they have much stricter gun laws than us.  So if you want to replace our laws with theirs, well you my friend are a super liberal.
  12. A gun is not a tool in the typical sense.  It is a tool made only to kill things.  Guns do not kill people, people kill people.  True. But they make it a lot easier.  Never heard of a mass school hammering. [Ed. note: actually, just such a thing happened at a school in China. But, importantly, no children were killed though several were injured.]
  13. That’s why each of these shootings was used with a legally purchased gun.
  14. There is a lot of violence in the media.  We can address that and regulate tools meant only to kill.
  15. We absolutely need to improve our mental health system.  We can address that and regulate tools meant only to kill.
  16. The idea of more guns solving the issue is another example of you being used.  See point 1.
  17. How terrible do you think Americans are that the only way we can live without the fear of being shot at schools or in theaters is that we all need to have guns all the time.  We’re better people than that.
  18. Also these shooters are not normal, they have a death wish for themselves and others.  They don’t care where they attack and for the most part whether they die in the attack.  These are not sophisticated hit jobs.  They’re psychos out for mass destruction.
  19. By the way stop calling yourself pro-life.  You can’t be pro-life and pro-gun.
  20. Finally, here’s what you should really fear; getting sick and not having adequate health insurance.  Because while you cling to your guns, lose all your life savings, and watch your family suffer, you made some elitist rich corporate gun manufacturing CEO even richer…and when he/she gets sick they’ll be taken care of because you were scared and used and made them a lot of money.



I remain skeptical of Sanders' chances. But his candidacy is a Very Good Thing. I just hope that Hillary is able to properly co-opt the proposals and enthusiasm. - promoted by charley-on-the-mta

I attended the Bernie Sanders Boston Convention rally on October 3rd. I have not attended any presidential rallies this cycle but this one was close by and I was curious as to what all the unexpected energy and enthusiasm about Bernie Sanders was all about. If you hear that it was a huge rally with over 20,000 people you can believe them…the convention center was stuffed and apparently a few thousand stood outside. Below are my observations and thoughts on the event:

1. First, and I believe most importantly, Sanders speaks very bluntly and makes specific proposals. Whether you agree with him or not you know exactly where he stands and can clearly envision what his presidency would be like. I can’t recall a presidential candidate ever speaking so specifically about their policies and why they matter. And he clearly believes in his policies. This, I think, is the key to his and Donald Trump’s success. Both of these very different candidates are leading their rivals because when they speak you know what they are saying. I have not been to a Trump rally but if I get chance I want to go. I suspect he is resonating because he also is a breathe of straight talking fresh air. No obfuscations, triangulations, petty rationalizations, half-truths, quarter truths and lots of maybes, what ifs and buts.

2. The audience was huge but visually struck me as mostly very young and white. The Obama rallies I attended seemed to have a wider range of ages and were more racially diverse. If Sanders started drawing a more diverse following his candidacy would grow even stronger. Strangely, many of his policies would substantially benefit minorities and certainly middle and lower income people – but I think these groups need some convincing and, for now, may be staying with more traditional candidates.

3. Sanders spoke substantively for well over an hour and the young audience paid close attention and seemed to listen carefully. Again a tribute to speaking specifically, clearly and passionately. Also a tribute to a new generation of serious, respectful, confident and capable young folks who think about the issues and get involved. A very good sign for our future.
One of the great benefits we all are getting from the Sander’s candidacy is that it’s attracting and involving many new young voters and citizens. This is where he is getting his lead from. It’s great for our democracy that so many young people are getting involved and interested in political discussion and activities as a result of Sander’s candidacy.

4. And, for those who don’t agree with or like Sander’s policies, don’t despair – the interest in and excitement about politics generated by the Sander’s candidacy will reap many benefits all along the spectrum of our politics as time goes on. A number of the young folks attending his rallies will later form different views as they grow and change…and some of them will become leaders in the republican and other parties. But they will have gotten their start by attending such rallies as this one and seeing firsthand how politics and can be both fun and interesting – if not downright exciting.

Syrian refugees coming to Worcester

From Worcester volunteers gearing up for arrival of refugees. They’re being helped by local churches, Ascentria Social Services (formerly Lutheran Social Services), and the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants.

You can well imagine that these folks are going to need a lot of help:

That’s an issue well understood at St. George Orthodox Cathedral on Anna Street where the Rev. Milad Selim rallies the community to donate basic food and supplies to recent refugees from the Middle East.

“They have food stamps, and that’s great, but how are we helping them with other things?” said Rev. Selim, whose own family fled their home in Iraq when IS advanced. “That includes teaching them the language, teaching them to drive, teaching them the laws of the land … there are clusters of families literally being dumped in these areas. It’s fine that they are, but what are we doing to help them stand on their feet quickly?”

Ms. Brennan agreed that many refugees – particularly those coming from war-torn regions and who have seen or experienced trauma – need further services than the organization can typically provide.

To help address this, the organization has received a $170,722 grant to work with local social service and health providers to develop a new, collaborative program for helping refugees resettle in Worcester.

“Right now through a combination of funding services, we’re able to provide intense case management for a few months but after that, clients are kind of on their own with the hope that if they need help, they’ll come back or have support,” Ms. Brennan said. She identified increased opportunities for English classes and mental-health services as two major areas to improve.

We’re talking about a few hundred people (275 next year), compared to a total displaced population of a stunning 12 million (within Syria and now outside). There has been movement on the issue – however slow and halting. Gov. Baker has entertained the idea of accepting refugees, with federal help, and Sens. Lindsay Graham and Pat Leahy are pushing for $1 billion in resettlement aid for refugees, showing that there are still pockets of decency in the US Senate.

Here’s hoping that we can provide a place of peace and mercy for these souls.

Joke Revue: Rubio offers staffers for adoption

So incredible, you couldn’t make it up. The Rubio campaign (“Marco Rubio, a New American Store”), plumbing fresh depths of sorrow (although, in fairness, diet pill salesman Scott Brown’s increasingly rapid descent this week gives him a run for his money) is offering its staffers for adoption at $250 per day (The store, incidentally, offers “FREE Shipping On All Orders:” the mind boggles)


Ben Carson: Pompeii Victims Should Have Outrun Lava

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Citizens of the Roman town of Pompeii who were victims of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 A.D. could have survived if they had “just outrun the lava,” the neurosurgeon Ben Carson told Fox News on Wednesday.

“Most of the plaster casts we have of Pompeii victims show them basically just lying down and whatnot,” he said. “If I had been in Pompeii and I heard Mt. Vesuvius erupting, you can bet I would have made a run for it.” …

Carson said he would spend the next week on the campaign trail dispensing helpful tips about how people can defeat earthquakes, tsunamis, and giant asteroids.

Daniel Kurtzman:

“Anthropologists have released more information about a recently discovered extinct human species. We’re finding out all this really cool stuff. They say the species lived in trees, had brains the size of an orange, and plans to vote for Donald Trump for president.” –Conan O’Brien

“Former President Bill Clinton said yesterday that Donald Trump’s campaign has a certain ‘macho appeal.’ And then Trump said, ‘Whoever this Macho is, I want him deported.’” –Seth Meyers

“A lot of people think that when the Republican field clears it will come down to Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. Kind of like the race between the tortoise and the bad hair.” –Jimmy Fallon

“Dr. Ben Carson hosted a Facebook Q&A last night, and said the loss of gun rights is more devastating than seeing people die from gun violence. So if Ben Carson is your doctor, definitely get a second opinion.” –Seth Meyers

“In an interview with Al Sharpton, Hillary Clinton said Donald Trump just says whatever he needs in order to ‘stir up the passions of people.’ Then Al Sharpton was like, ‘You know you’re talking to ME, right?’” –Jimmy Fallon

“Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie said this weekend that he would rather jump off the Brooklyn Bridge than be in Congress. And just to be safe, Mayor de Blasio issued a tsunami warning for Lower Manhattan.” –Seth Meyers

“Ben Carson talks like he forgot he had a press conference and just took a load of Benadryl. This guy is a retired surgeon. Apparently, instead of giving his patients anesthesia, he just talked to them until they passed out.” –James Corden

“There’s another breakthrough moment in campaign fundraising. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s website already features some great merchandise like a Marco Polo shirt, or a water bottle that says ‘Water great nation.’ The fundraising breakthrough on the Rubio website is that for $250 you can adopt a Rubio staffer for a day. That really pulls at the heart strings. I wasn’t going to donate to Marco Rubio but I can’t let his staff who are evidently orphans go unpurchased.” –Stephen Colbert

Dinosaurs could have prevented their extinction had they been armed

The extraordinary thing about Ben Carson is that, for all of his soft-spoken kindly doctorishness, he is actually worse than Donald Trump on just about everything. - promoted by david

Given Ben Carson’s latest excellent addition to all the enlightened statements being made by GOP presidential candidates, I’m sure he would agree that the onerous gun control laws that existed at the time hastened the extinction of the dinosaurs.  They clearly had no way to defend themselves.

Penta: "The height of insult ... to her femininity"

As has been previously noted here at BMG, there is an election for Mayor of Medford next month.  The office has been occupied by Michael McGlynn for two decades, but he’s retiring, so it’s a wide-open contest between former Medford City Councillor and budget director Stephanie Muccini-Burke, and current Medford City Councillor Bob Penta.

Penta is a controversial guy, to say the least.  He was nearly incoherent at a forum on Obamacare a few years back, but he sure was mad based on something he read on the internet.  (Seriously.  Read the post.)  And now it emerges that he has expressed some attitudes that are, well … antiquated is perhaps a good word for it.  Give a listen to Councillor Penta at a City Council meeting from January of 2001.

Now, maybe there’s a perfectly good explanation for this.  Maybe this excerpt was taken way out of context, or something, so that there’s actually a perfectly sensible reason that a grown man holding elective office would, in the 21st century, refer to a building contractor who happens to be female as “a lady contractor – excuse me, a lady, woman-owned contractor,” who is “trying to make her stamp in a man’s world,” and declare that her bidding on a particular job (or something – the context isn’t entirely clear) is “the height of insult to her profession and to her femininity,” because she had the temerity to “alleg[e] that she knows more than a man … in this world of building and construction.”

If so, I’d sure like to know what it is.


Boehner's ability to hold together a deeply fractured party was impressive: corporate shills, meet religious fanatics ... the two strongest wings of the contemporary GOP. - promoted by Bob_Neer

WOW !  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy just said he is not the right man to be the face of the Republican Party.  He  announced at the Conference meeting that he didn’t believe he could get 218 votes needed when the vote is taken on October 29.

The Republican Party as we know it is in meltdown.  Stay tuned.

Fred Rich LaRiccia

A viable approach to gun control

Strikes me as a perfectly sensible approach. - promoted by david

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY, introduced an approach to gun control that works — mandatory liability insurance (emphasis mine):

House Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) has introduced a bill that would require gun owners to carry liability insurance.

The Firearm Risk Protection Act, unveiled Friday, would require gun buyers to have liability insurance coverage before being allowed to purchase a weapon, and would impose a fine of $10,000 if an owner is found not to have it. Service members and law enforcement officers, however, would be exempt from the requirement.

While I disagree with the exemption for service members and law enforcement officers, I think this approach is workable and addresses virtually all Second Amendment concerns that so often block effective gun control legislation. Even Forbes magazine (not exactly a liberal left-wing rag) likes it.

Massachusetts once again leads the way on this in a 2013 bill filed by David Linksky:

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts gun owners would be required to purchase liability insurance in case their firearm was ever used to injure someone under a bill being filed at the Statehouse.

Not surprisingly, the insurance industry and the NRA oppose this — sounds like it’s a good idea.

This approach uses market mechanisms to influence the behavior of gun owners (and sellers). For example, parents of killers who effectively act as accessories to murder by providing them with weapons would face severe financial obstacles. Gun owners like the Tennessee family whose unlocked shotgun was used by their 11 year old to kill an 8 year old neighbor would face similarly severe penalties in addition to whatever criminal charges they face (the concept of charging the child instead of his father strikes me as utterly insane, but then again we’re talking about Tennessee).

We use mandatory liability insurance to manage malpractice, reckless driving, building maintenance, and a host of other ills that plague society. This approach will work for gun violence.

I hope that this gets more attention from our Democratic candidates as our election season develops.

Clinton opposes TPP

An interesting development. - promoted by david

Hillary Clinton today announced her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership deal citing concerns about Asian currency manipulation, pharmaceutical price gauging, labor and environmental issues.

This leaves Joe Biden as the only potential Democratic candidate to support TPP.

Republicans Bush and Rubio support TPP, Trump and Carson are opposed and Fiorina is undecided.

Clinton will explain her position tonight in a PBS interview.

This race is getting very interesting very fast.  Fasten your seatbelts everyone.  We’re all in for a bumpy ride.  Damn, but I do love politics !

Fred Rich LaRiccia