Monthly Archives: April 2006

The Confederate Constitution

In my continuing review of Constitutional law, I have been reading through an assortment of documents and Supreme Court decisions dealing with slavery, and leading to the secession of the South. The most startling of these has been the Confederate Constitution, as adopted by the first seven seceding states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas). This document very closely follows the structure and content of the United States Constitution, but with some immensely significant alterations.

Of course, historically the most important of these is the guarantee of the right to own slaves against Congressional laws, and it is this provision that reduces the entire Constitution to a massive contradiction with the principles of human rights, and the destruction of the very freedoms it purports to ensure. Due to this provision (and similar statements regarding slavery and negroes throughout the document), what follows should in no way be construed as support for the Confederacy.

It is in the non-slavery differences between the USA and CSA Constitutions that we find some extraordinarily interesting improvements:

Article I, Section 7, Paragraph 2: … The President may approve any appropriation and disapprove any other appropriation in the same bill.

Here we have the line-item veto. In addition, we have:

Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 20: Every law, or resolution having the force of law, shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.

Between these two provisions, “pork” would have been eliminated before it began to infuse appropriations bills, and the mass of contradictory, self-defeating and insanely twisted Acts of Congress would have been avoided by eliminating the mechanism of irrelevant amendment.

And there’s more:

Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have power –
(1) To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, for revenue necessary to pay the debts, provide for the common defense, and carry on the Government of the Confederate States; but no bounties shall be granted from the treasury; nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry…

(3) To regulate commerce with foreign nations … but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the Constitution shall be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce…

These provisions, added to the appropriations line item veto, suggest that as early as the 1860s, there were high concerns over the magnitude and nature of government spending. I find it particularly interesting that Government support for industry is the subject of attack, and very disappointing that in the resolution of the conflict the USA did not pass a few amendments to its Constitution along these lines.

In addition to the slavery provisions, there are at least two others that I find disagreeable. The President is limited to a single 6 year term. I disagree with all forms of “term limitation” legislation, and that is a topic for another day. There is also this rather strange statement:

Article IV, Section 3, Paragraph 2:
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations concerning the property of the Confederate States, including the lands thereof.

I read this as the ultimate eminent domain law. On the other hand, it may be possible to read this (assuming a reduce amount of clarity in the statement) to apply only to national government property, which mirrors our US law (though not from within the Constitution, if I am not mistaken).

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The Role of Technology in Human Evolution

There is a rather popular conception that modern technology will result in the end or drastic curtailment of human evolution. With the advent of various medical improvements, those with conditions that would otherwise result in high morbidity prior to adolescence are now much more likely to survive to a reproductive age, and thereby will not be bred out of the gene pool. The result, it is argued, is that we will evolve into an increasingly weakened population, exhibiting a rapid increase in the severity and number of serious genetic conditions.

To counter this argument, we need to recall the unique nature of the human organism. Our primary survival skill is our rational faculty, and its ability to create increasingly advanced understanding of the Universe. This in turn allows the development of a steadily advancing technology. By “technology” is meant a set of tools allowing the modification of our physical world to better suit our needs and desires. While other animals can, in a very limited sense, alter their immediate environment to increase their likelihood of survival through the instinctive actions that they have evolved to exhibit, humans have a much more comprehensive ability to modify their survival environment. The beaver builds a dam to slow the flow of water, allowing the beaver to live in calmer waters. Man builds a hydroelectric power plant to provide electricity to thousands of homes, allowing a city to exist in a sub-freezing climate. Key to the human condition is the ability to pass acquired knowledge from generation to generation, allowing a continually accelerating advancement of knowledge, and commensurate with this rise in understanding, a continually rising level of technology.

Technology allows adaptation of the environment such that the average fitness of the individual in that environment is improved. Acting at a pace relative to which biological evolution is stationary, technology dramatically improves the likelihood of species survival, as it enables rapid adaptive change of the effective environment as the underlying environment changes. As an example, consider the advent of a lethal virus – for concreteness, say the “bird flu” did, as the media scaremongers are suggesting, turn into a human pandemic. When such events occurred in the pre-industrial period (e.g. the bubonic plague), huge segments of population were lost, and it can be envisioned that such an event could lead to rapid extinction, in a time period far too short to allow biological evolution to save the species. In the presence of modern technology, a vaccine can be expected to be developed in a matter of years, resulting in the preservation of a large, perhaps majority, segment of the human species. The effective environment for humans would thereby be modified to neutralize the effect of the bird flu virus.

This observation, however, does not nullify the process of evolution. Rather, it makes humans less dependent on it for survival, specifically with respect to events occuring much faster than evolutionary time scales.

To further illustrate the permanent presence of evolutionary processes, let us consider another (possibly fictional) concrete example. I will conjecture that in the 1800s, the occurence rate of dangerously high blood pressure, caused by genetic defects, in teenagers was much lower than at the present time. My hypothesis is based upon current medical practice, which includes early screening for high blood pressure, and available medication for its treatment. In the 1800s, with these practices not in place, morbidity rates for such a condition prior to reproductive age would have resulted in those genetic conditions being virtually eliminated from the gene pool. Today, the effective environment has changed to neutralize the effects of such a condition, and evolution has been “allowed” to produce an increasing population of individuals with adolescent high blood pressure.

Let us also suppose that at some date in the future, a societal collapse occurs, in which medical technology is no longer available for the treatment of this condition. The effective environment has now changed to put those with high blood pressure at much higher survival risk. In this event, the process of evolution will continue, and will rapidly remove the genetic variation that results in adolescent high blood pressure from the gene pool.

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Thoughts on Evolution : Definition

Our discussion group has occasionally focused on the topic of Evolution, attempting to understand its true nature and recognize both its creative power and limitations. The following summarizes my opinions on both the general topic of evolution, and various specific points we have covered.

The definition of Evolution has itself been a matter of small controversy. Dictionary definitions are somewhat inconsistent. Here are the biological definitions from a few sources:

“The theory that groups of organisms change with passage of time, mainly as a result of natural selection, so that descendants differ morphologically and physiologically from their ancestors” (American Heritage)

“a process of change in a certain direction”, “a theory that the various types of animals and plants have their origin in other preexisting types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in successive generations ” (Meriam-Webster Medical Dictionary)

“a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state ” (Meriam Webster)

“a process in which something passes by degrees to a different stage (especially a more advanced or mature stage)” (WordNet)

My personal understanding of the concept of (biological) evolution is a process of gradual change through distinct generations of individuals of a defined species in which the average fitness of the individuals improves relative to the species’ environment.

A question which we have repeatedly faced is whether a progression from “simple” to “complex” organisms is an intrinsic aspect of evolution. Notably, the definitions given above vary between including or ignoring this further refinement of the term evolution.

Harry Bingswanger, in a lecture given expounding his thesis “The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts”, defined evolution as a progression from simplicity to complexity, and marked evolution as the process by which goal-directed actions (perhaps more descriptively termed “behaviors”) are created in species (as well as physical, structural properties of species). I (respectfully) disagree with including the progression from “simple” to “complex” as an essential element of the concept of evolution.

First, let me provide a thought experiment as a counter-example. Let’s assume that Mars once had an environment conducive to the development of complex living organisms – liquid water was present, the atmosphere was denser, and temperatures above freezing were common – and that complex life forms were abundant. Then, as the planet “aged”, the environment gradually changed toward today’s condition (arid, little or no water and oxygen, continual sub-freezing temperatures). Under these increasingly hostile conditions, it is rather easy to conceive that simpler life forms had a fitness advantage over more complex forms, and that evolution resulted in a reduction in complexity, perhaps ending in microbes [which I can conjecture may yet exist on that planet] as being the dominant life form. A fair response to this “counter-example” is that it is non-existent (to our knowledge), and that the one and only example of the actions of evolution on a global living system exhibits a progression from simple to complex organisms.

My concept of evolution, however, is based upon more than biological evolution. With some considerable experience in the use of evolutionary algorithms to perform optimizations, I have abstracted my concept of evolution to encompass both the mathematical formulations of evolution, as used in optimizations and various simulations of “artificial life”, as well as biological evolution. The variations upon the mathematical formulations of evolution are extremely numerous, while the underlying processes of biological evolution at the DNA level may be as numerous. The definition I suggested earlier for evolution fits my understanding of both the biological and mathematical forms of the process (to my current knowledge, of course).

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