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There is much ado about President Obama’s recent statement “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The overwrought right is abuzz with angry indignation. How dare he! they shout in unison, aghast that this evil communist could so thoroughly declare war on private enterprise. Let’s take a closer look.

First, it helps to have the entire quote before you:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

It’s a bit impolitic, a bit overstated. But how far off is it?

As I said in The War of American Interdependence, there are two cognitive frames in competition here, one which thinks that we are fundamentally, ontologically “individuals,” fundamentally mutually independent, and one which recognizes that we are fundamentally, ontologically members of a society, fundamentally interdependent. We think in languages we didn’t individually invent, using concepts and conceptual tools we didn’t individually invent. Every aspect of our lives implicates and depends on countless others, no matter how much of a rugged individualist one may be: Few frontiersmen built their own firearms, and, if some did, they did not mine the ores that provided the materials for it. And whatever they did, in almost all cases, they learned how to do it from others.

Most of us rely on one another to a far greater extent than that: Most of us don’t grow our own food, or, if we do, we don’t build the tractors and drill for the oil and do myriad other things involved in the enterprise. Most of us don’t make our own clothes, or build our own homes, or make our own tools, or produce our own electronic devises, or, if we do some, we certainly don’t do all. The market isn’t an expression of our mutual independence, but rather a social institutional form which helps deepen and facilitate our fundamental interdependence.

Our laws, as well, are an expression of our interdependence. We forge them in the light of what that interdependence demands of us. The developments of the modern era that led to market economies and popular sovereignty framed by written constitutions with carefully delineated rights and powers are part of the evolution of our interdependence. The concept of “liberty” itself is an expression of our interdependence, of the discovery of both increased vitality and increased humanity achievable by freeing up individual initiative and creativity to as great a degree as possible, while still recognizing and working within the framework of our fundamental interdependence.

Obama was talking about exactly that. It’s not some crazy idea, it’s not even really debatable: It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. We thrive through coordinated efforts and actions, through participation in a society with divisions of labor and mutual reliance on one another. The ideology currently in vogue which attempts to erase that fact from our awareness is pernicious and destructive; it attempts to redefine private wealth as attributable to nothing other than private actions, when that’s simply not true. Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, got it right: Wealth is as much a function of the laws and markets and other social institutions that we forge together, and of the efforts of countless others channeled through those social institutions, as it is of individual effort, because without the former our own efforts have no framework within which to achieve their ends.

So, no, even in the more exceptional rather than more common instance in which a business is built up without any element of relative privilege (the differential material and social inheritances that we draw at birth) having advantaged the entrepreneur, they are not solely responsible for the creation and success of that business; the myriad other human efforts that it implicitly depended on are as well. And the market does not magically reward all of those efforts in ways which serve the ultimate goal of continuing to create the most robust, fair, and sustainable political economy human genius is capable of.

Those who are adamant that human genius cannot intrude on some imaginary pure and absolute individual “liberty,” that to do so is “social engineering” or “communism,” are rather remarkably ignoring how that individual liberty was legally constructed in the first place. Our own Constitution is an act of “social engineering,” and, in the way that too many now use the word, a “communist” plot. Indeed, the framers had to argue that we needed a government strong enough to facilitate effective collective action in our collective interests, “The Federalist Papers” frequently seeming to forecast the later invention of “game theory” and the recognition of what has since come to be called “collective action problems.” (See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).

The right claims to rever our Constitution and our Founding Fathers, and yet can’t seem to recognize that both acknowledged our interdependence. Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution empowers Congress to tax and spend in the general welfare, meaning that “what’s mine” isn’t just mine; the public also has some claim on it. How much of a claim isn’t specified; that’s for us, as the popular sovereign, to determine and redetermine, in the light of growing knowledge and udnerstanding.

And as for the Founding Fathers, their views differed. Jefferson’s and Madison’s are frequently cited, but Ben Franklin’s are generally ignored, even though Franklin alone among them helped to draft and sign every single one of our founding documents and was the undisputed senior American stateman at the birth of this country. Franklin maintained that any private wealth beyond that need to sustain oneself and one’s family “is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it” (Walter Isaacson, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” Page 424, quoting Franklin).

It’s not about denigrating individual effort and initiative, or failing to respect the vital role they play in our shared social existence. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll tell you clearly: I respect and admire individual effort and initiative, and recognize it as absolutely vital to our collective welfare. It’s not about failing to recognize the need to frame our shared social existence in ways that take that into account, and work to liberate rather than stifle such individual effort and initiative: I am adamant that it is imperative that we recognize the importance of that dimension of our shared existence in every public policy debate.

But it is not the ONLY dimension that we need to consider; it is not the ONLY value that we must respect and maximize. Our nation today has the highest gini coefficient (statistical measure of economic inequality) of any developed nation on Earth, and the statistical reality of one’s socioeconomic status at birth predominantly determining throughout life is inescapable (see This is not only unjust, but also systemically dysfunctional: The two most catastrophic economic collapses of the last 100 years in America were immediately preceded, by a matter of months, by the two highest peaks in the concentration of wealth in America in the last 100 years, in 1929 and 2008, respectively.

Such gross inequality of opportunity and in the distribution of wealth hurts us all, and violates fundamental American values of fairness. It is one of the challenges facing us as nation, that we have to meet and address as a nation. It’s not wrong to remind those who succeed by some combination of individual effort and good fortune, facilitated, in either case, by our entire social production function, that they succeeded by virtue of their membership in this society, and that their success does not come without reciprocal responsibilities to the society that made it possible.

And that was very clearly and explicitly Ben Franklin’s view as well as mine (in fact, his was a stronger statement of it), so if you want to vilify me for daring to recognize that the public has some claim on private wealth, be sure to vilify him as well.

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History is unpredictable. As George Will has aptly put it, historical patterns repeat themselves until they don’t. I’m not going to proffer a grand theory about fanatical overreach and inevitable reaction, as though it were an immutable universal truth. But I will point out that, from time to time, when things swing too far in one direction, the reaction gains the more lasting victory.

There is another pattern that frequently reappears, perhaps a more constant one, one around which a simple military motto formed millenia ago: “Divide and conquer.” Or, as Ben Franklin put it, accompanying his famous sketch of a dissected snake, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

The Tea Party has been gracious enough to put the modern Republican Party on the wrong side of both of these trends. They have zealously and implacably tried to move the country farther right than even our right-leaning mainstream can easily stomach, and they have done so in a way designed to fracture by far the largest, and currently only viable, conservative party in the United States.

There is a lesson in this for the Left as well, a lesson many of my friends on the left are as ill-equipped to learn as their emotionally if not ideologically, similar counterparts on the Right: Don’t demand everything you are certain that reason and justice irrefutably recommend, but rather act with an eye to long-term sustainable success. I’ve often been critical of many on the Left for failing to heed this advice (see, e.g., “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” and Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals).

We should not see-saw with zealots on the Right, taking turns yielding our advantage to the winds of our passions. Rather, we should actually be the party of reason and humanity, of patience and foresight and goodwill. If we could just commit to that, we would inevitably win the future. Instead, we are as committed to shooting ourselves in the foot as our more foolish opposition is, leaving everyone hopping and howling but no one leading the nation and world into a brighter future.

The last most famous moment when the Left threw its advantage was during the 1960s and 70s, when the country was reacting against Vietnam and Watergate, when hippies were culturally dominant, when Broadway sang of “the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” Thanks to that excessive euphoria, that overconfidence, in service to an unbalanced and unrealistic (even if somewhat refreshing) idealism, it became the prelude of the Age of Reagan Conservatism instead, which laid the groundwork, in a way palatable for that age, for the more extreme right-wing fanaticism of today. (Reagan, of course, the modern conservative messiah, would be drummed out of today’s Republican Party in a heartbeat, far too liberal was he for the new breed of glassy-eyed conservative cultists).

The Tea Party was heady with its brief ascendency, deluded into believing that they represented mainstream America, certain that God and Truth were on their side. They became a magnet for religious fundamentalists and libertarians, not always compatible ideologies but somehow generally hypocritical and inconsistent enough for many in their respective ranks to believe that they were one and the same. And as they held the country hostage (by refusing to vote for a raise in the national debt ceiling, a vote which had heretofore been routine due to the national self-destructiveness of failing to do it) in service to what virtually all economists, conservative and liberal, considered bad fiscal policy (extending the Bush tax cuts), forcing a downgrading of our national credit rating in the process, more and more people began to recoil in horror and disgust, as they should have recoiled long before. (See, e.g., Bargaining v. Blackmail, Why A Bad Deal Might Be The Best Deal Right Now, and Response to a Right-Wing Myth for discussions of that shameful episode.)

The Republicans had a real chance to defeat Obama this year, not necessarily justly, but simply due to the criteria by which people vote. The economy is still soft, and unemployment is still high. The current president is always held responsible for such things, no matter what the reality he inherited, and no matter how successful he was in turning the tide in a positive direction.

Obama, a black intellectual moderate liberal with a Muslim name who spent much of his childhood in an exotic foreign country, triggered a complex web of deeply entrenched American bigotries, failing to be innocuous enough to hopeful but easily disillusioned moderate supporters, failing to be zealously unrealistic enough to starry eyed believers that he could snap his fingers and change the world into their vision of what it should be, and continuing to be “foreign” enough to maintain the enmity of the ultra-conservative xenophobes who saw in him something inherently “un-American” and never liked him in the first place. A united and focused Republican Party would have had a relatively easy time toppling him in 2012.

But, thankfully, it apparently was not to be so. It looks like it is the Republicans’ turn to shoot themselves in the foot, overzealously demanding what too few Americans identify with, rejecting their best candidate and insisting on horribly defective alternatives (Santorum, the religious nut-case; Perry, the intellectual light-weight; Gingrich, the unlovable grinch; Paul, the extreme libertarian who would have surrendered to Hitler and left Jim Crow intact in service to the purity of his understanding of “liberty”). Despite the fact that Romney is the last man standing, Santorum and Paul supporters remian implaccable, unwilling to accept the “moderate” (oh! horror of horrors!) Romney.

Let this be a lesson, fellow progressives: Press our advantage when we have it; don’t squander it by overreaching. The world is moved by inches, sometimes over a threshold, but only when that threshold has been arrived at. Don’t mistake what’s right for what’s immediately possible, and don’t insist on what can’t be currently attained at the expense of what can be. But, all the while, lay the foundations for the giant leaps of the future, for those foundations are laid through work that does not register immediately, and only culminates after many unsung but vitally important labors. If we were wise enough and disciplined enough to follow this advice, the world we bequeeth to our children and our children’s children would be that much closer to the ideal we aspire to.

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(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)

It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.

There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.

All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.

Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.

And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.

Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.

We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.

The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.

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When you’re mugged in a dark alley at gunpoint, a win could be losing your wallet but keeping your life. America is being mugged in plain view at economic gunpoint, and too many of the 300 million American bystanders think the ones holding the gun are the good guys and the nation being mugged will be better off for being deprived of its wallet. Under such conditions, a win might be getting out of the situation with our national life still intact.

The political reality is that enough of the American people, extremely foolishly, helped put into place enough inflexible fanatics with an irrational agenda that arriving at a reasonable policy solution to the current combined debt ceiling/national debt reduction “crisis” (a crisis created by the gun now pointed at our head by those who claim to be dedicated to averting the crisis) may simply be impossible. Those elected fanatics and their fanatical followers wield enough pivotal political power in Congress that their insane will cannot simply be shunted aside. And they have dug in on the notion of not compromising.

The left complains that Obama did not stand firm enough, but does anyone really believe that having stood any firmer would have led to any other conclusion? Without Congressional approval, the nation (those of us that are rational and sane, that is) is left with a few extreme possible maneuvers, such as the president unilaterally invoking the 14th amendment provision (section 4) stating that ” [t]he validity of  the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.” That, or another similar legal maneuver, might well be the right choice, but it might not be. A careful cost-benefit analysis is required to make that determination, and such maneuvers are by no means costless.

My point is not that what The Economist magazine has called an “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” refusal to include revenues as part of any debt-reduction plan is in any way defensible policy -it isn’t (it will cost jobs, reduce services, shrink the economy, and, in the long run, both exacerbate our national debt problem while simultaneously decimating our quality of life)- but rather that the question now may be one of how little self-inflicted harm we escape from having to suffer.

I use the word “might” in the title of this post very purposefully: All hope is not yet lost, and we might indeed be able to escape this situation with a better deal than the one we seem now to be careening toward. But it is not at all clear that that is possible, and it is quite clear that it may not be, so we (that is, again, the rational and sane among us) need to brace ourselves for the possibility that we are indeed going to be victims of an act of political sabotage of our national and world economy, and that the goal for us (again, the rational and sane among us) might indeed be minimizing the damage caused by that act of political sabotage.

I suspect that this will be one of my least popular posts among those who appreciate my perspective, and I hope that their greater optimism and faith in our ability to ensure that reason prevails, at least to some degree greater than the almost non-existent degree that I am conceding may be the greatest degree currently possible, is warranted and that I am proven wrong in my present pessimistic caution about what can be expected, and about what can be immediately accomplished by the rational and sane among our elected officials. But my purpose in writing this unhappy post is to advise my friends that we can suffer great acts of violence from within or without, whether physical or social institutional in nature, and survive to recover and grow stronger and wiser and healthier even so. And that completely or largely averting such acts of violence and their consequences, as we so often see throughout human history, is not something that the rational and sane among us always have within our power to do.

When dealing with irrational people who have acquired some form of power, whether it is a gun with which to mug a stranger in the street, or elected office with which to mug a nation in plain view, it is not always possible to arrive at rational or fair or productive outcomes. Sometimes, you just have to deal with the fact that irrational people have power, and act rationally within the context of that reality. Brace yourselves for that possibility, and spare those who were forced by their own sense of responsibility to give in from the brunt of your just rage over the crime which forced them to do so.

Yes, shame on those fanatics, both those elected to office and those who voted for them. But there is indeed a gun to our heads, and while we don’t want the muggers to get away with the crime they are committing against us, we even more definitively don’t want them to pull the trigger.

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In a modification of my last post,  The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.

Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)

But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.

As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.

(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting “purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)

While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.

New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).

But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.

A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.

The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of  jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).

The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:

Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.

I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.

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A new perennial question in American politics is: How much of the rabid opposition to Obama is due to race, and how much is due to other factors? This question was taken up The Economist, in its Lexington column, concluding that race has little to do with it ( I think Lexington is mostly right, but underestimates the effects of synergy.

Obama combines a set of defects, from the point of view of his ideological opponents: He is an elitist member of the intelligentsia; he has a foreign (Muslim) sounding name and a cosmopolitan history; he seems to lean toward European-style social democracy (“Socialism!”); he represents a commitment to conscious and intentional progress over political idolatry. In short, he is “the threatening other” that populates the manufactured hysteria of right wing zealots. It is not that he is black, in and of itself, which motivates most of the antagonism toward him, but rather the reality and mythology of who is, which is only more dramatically underscored by the sound of his name and the color of his skin.

It’s completely true that Obama would have problems with the Right even if he were a white guy named Jack, but that doesn’t mean that the marginal symbolic accelerants he’s saddled with are irrelevant. By analogy, a fire that started in the kitchen and is raging through the house would have happened with or without the overly combustable material in the walls, but how hot it would have been, and how much damage it would have done, is hard to estimate. It’s hard to look at the widespread “birther” nonsense and insistence that Obama is a Muslim (both involving myths adhered to by a significant percentage of the American people) without recognizing that it isn’t just his liberalness, but also his “otherness,” that is in play.

The right-wing torch-bearing mob forming the mass of the opposition, ready to shoot “commies” and “wetbacks” at the drop of a hat, defining the world in terms of a pretty narrow “us” and an otherwise all encompassing “them,” is not unaffected by Obama’s “otherness.” It’s true, as the argument goes, that he was black in 2008, but one by a tidy margin even so, receiving a significant number of votes from those same white working-class folks who are lined up against him now. His color is not the only variable, or one which creates such an impenetrable racist barrier that he could never have been a viable candidate (obviously, he was). But it is one ingredient in a mix that, when triggered by other ingredients, contributes to a combustion that would have happened with or without his color, and with or without his Muslim sounding name, but which is made hotter by those accelerants.

Obama’s burden is that he combines being a smart, erudite, academic, rational Progressive with being Black and named Barack Hussein Obama, in a country populated by many very tentatively and precariously tolerant of the latter facts, but completely allergic to the former ones. But once that allergy is triggered, the resistence to the latter facts breaks down as well, and all of the ingredients combine to feed the fever and contribute to the reaction.

Yahoo’s Echo-Chamber of Yahoos: The AP article on Obama’s campaigning on behalf of the Democratic agenda and Cognressional Democratic candidates doesn’t offer much that’s new; a reminder of the arguments, and of the reactions to it. But the comments that follow from readers are what’s really striking ( If you scroll through them, there is an overwhelming majority that are rabidly right-wing, the thumbs up and thumbs down votes are overwhelmingly in favor of a rabid right-wing ideology, and most of the few counterarguments are hidden due to “low ratings” (they can be opened up, but they are not immediately visible like the rest). My own first two attempts at posting comments, which used language much like I use on this blog, were not published. (The third attempt, pasting excerpts from “A Choice Between Our Hopes and Our Fears”, finally made the cut). Intentionally or unintentionally, Yahoo has created a nearly perfect echo-chamber, one which reinforces a popular but information-deprived public mania. Disinformation abounds, references to actual data and analyses which debunk it are at best buried in the noise (and at worst essentially censored or muted). What public discourse really needs, and really benefits from, is a robust exchange of information, and attention to how reliable or unreliable that information is. Yahoo’s forum is precisely the opposite: A robust reinforcement of arbitrary assumptions and passionately held but not highly informed political positions. It is the social and cultural equivalent of, upon witnessing an epidemic, working to spread it rather than contain or cure it. (Trivia: The word “Yahoo” was coined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), one of the most brilliant satirical novels ever written.)

Some hope in the crisis of bee colony losses: For the past four years, a phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder” has decimated the bee populations in America and Europe, threatening to wreak havok on agricultural production, which depends on bees for crop pollinization ( This was one of those many potentially devastating crises looming on the margins of public awareness; potentially devastating because without bees pollinating crops, agricultural production could virtually collapse. The October 25 issue of Time Magazine reports that the cause for this phenomenon may have been found: A combination of viral and fungal infections, providing a one-two punch that is either the cause or a side-effect of colony collapse disorder. If the former, there is some hope for a solution. As Time reports: “The virus can be eradicated only by culling infected hives, but the fungus can be controlled with commercially available antibiotics.”

Colorado too easily hijacked by fanatical extremists: The Denver Post argued in an editorial today that the case of Doug Bruce secretly funding draconian (and insanely fiscally self-destructive) ballot measures 60, 61, and 101 is an object lesson in the need for tightening enforcement of current election laws, which require procedures for reporting and tracking information about who is supporting and financing ballot initiatives. But we really need to go farther: We need to make it harder to amend the constitution via ballot initiative. The fact that it is as easy, through popular initiative, to pass a state constitutional amendment (which the state legislature can’t then amend in order to make it workable) as mere legislation means that the preference is for constitutional amendments, a fact which has already turned Colorado’s state constitution into a mess of poorly drafted, poorly conceived, and often contradictory provisions.

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Mexican Drug Violence. Many recognize that the organized crime and violence associated with the drug trade is closely analogous to the rise of organized crime and violence that occurred as a result of Prohibition in the 1920’s. But a less noted aspect of Mexican Drug Cartel Violence is that, while we bitterly complain about the illegal flow of low-wage workers from Mexico, we also rabidly defend our own laws which help foster a far more disastrous and unredeeming illegal flow of arms to Mexico ( The differences between this two flows across our southern border are that the flow of arms is entirely destructive (as opposed to illegal immigration, which may actually have net economic benefits), undermines Mexican sovereignty and security to a far greater degree than illegal immigration undermines U.S. sovereignty and security, and is a direct product of our own lax gun control laws rather than an organic product of economic dynamics over which governments have limited control. In this light, American indignation about illegal Mexican immigration is just that much more shallow, self-serving, and hypocritical.

An extraordinarily productive Congress. Despite the popular meme to the contrary, the 111th Congress has been one of the most productive in American history, and the impending backlash is similar to the backlash that occurred when the 89th Congress (also Democratic) passed the now extremely popular Medicare and Medicaid programs and additional still much needed civil rights protections for African Americans ( We tend to punish in the moment those who do what history recognizes to have been the politically courageous and responsible thing to do. I hope enough people are wise enough today to recognize the folly of this, and motivated enough to work hard in the days and weeks to come to prevent us from replacing those who are doing the right thing, and governing responsibly, with those who are committed to undermining our economy along all relevant dimensions (robustness, sustainability, and fairness).

Americans talk about The Tea Party. I especially like the guy who said “their anger is very justified and their fear is very justified and their explanations for why we’re having the problems we’re having are almost completely wrong.”

President Obama is going to appear on an episode of Mythbusters Though the president is appearing on an episode addressing the question: Did Greek scientist Archimedes set fire to an invading Roman fleet using only mirrors and the reflected rays of the sun? there are plenty of myths to be busted closer to home.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we have in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently oppose health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

In Colorado, these two sides, these two opposing forces of Hope and Fear, are embodied in our U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial races. In both races, it is the urbane, highly informed, business savvy, pragmatic Progressive pitted against the retrograde, chauvinistic, insular and regressionary Conservative. Michael Bennet, as I have written before at some length (Why Michael Bennet Truly Impresses Me), is a model of reason, civility, humility, and subtle systemic understanding, all focused on how to leave our children with more rather than less opportunity than we ourselves have enjoyed. Ken Buck, his opponent, is a sexist troglodyte who accused a rape victim of “buyer’s remorse”  (though the accused rapist admitted in a taped phone call from the police station that he had in fact raped her!), a candidate who opposes access to abortions even by victims of rape and incest (condemning some pre-teen girls to a premature motherhood that will, in some cases, utterly destroy them). With the same indifference to reality, Buck is committed to the pseudo-economic certainties of his ideological camp, certainties which defy the lessons of history and the prevailing economic models of those who actually study the subject.

In our gubernatorial race, we have a very similar match-up, with Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper (currently the very popular mayor of Denver) as a model of the rational, urbane entrepreneur (who, after being laid off as a geologist in his youth, opened a very successful brewpub in a downtown Denver area –LoDo– which, through his enterprise and hard work, he helped to turn into a very robust restaurant and bar district), opposed by Tom Tancredo, the U.S. Congressman (from my district, CD 6) who became nationally and internationally infamous for his outspoken xenophobia and belligerent anti-immigrant demagoguery. Again, it is a race of hope against fear, a repeat of similar struggles we have seen around the world throughout human history, with prosperity and human welfare flourishing where hope has prevailed, and a contraction of wealth and opportunity taking hold where fear prevails (sometimes accompanied by nightmares of violence directed against the scapegoats who have been identified as personified targets of that fear).

Economically,  Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But this year, in this election, it is not just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle this year is characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should remain warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindendness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

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I was going to title this post “Fate, Genes, Obama, and the Rest of Us,” but decided that “Cousin Obama” might do more to pique curiosity. After all, am I claiming that President Obama and myself have some traceable genealogical link? (Well, sort of.) Am I referring to our President’s “white” half, and the fact that he is as racially related to whites as to blacks? (No.) Maybe I’m referring to his Kenyan family, members of whom could call him by the title in the title. (No.) What I’m referring to is, well, “Fate, Genes, Obama, and the Rest of Us.”

Fate: The genetic confluence of an obviously gifted left-leaning Kenyan (later) Harvard grad student in economics with a more subtly but similarly gifted woman of English and German descent in a Russian Language class at the University of Hawaii, followed by the rich culturally diverse and sense-of-wonder laden childhood that that mother provided to the immediate product of that genetic confluence, who then goes on to be a very socially conscious, academically brilliant, oratorically gifted politician, experiencing a meteoric rise in prominence, resulting in one of the most exhilarating and emotional presidential victories in the history of the nation.

Genes: We are dealt a hand from the same very large and complex deck, one which defines who we are at birth. Barack Obama clearly was dealt an exceptional hand. The person that Bruce L.R. Smith describes in his Washington Post Column on Barack Obama Sr., reprinted in the Denver Post (, is a father in whom one can see the son foreshadowed, though the father had virtually no hand in the creation of that son other than to contribute his sperm and his memory. And the mother President Obama has described is similarly but differently endowed, creating the kind of genetic and cultural complement that provides the best chance of producing off-spring which combines and transcends the gifts of both parents.

Obama: The dealing of a genetic hand to each new person born, from the constantly reshuffled deck, produces an endless variety of unique individuals. From the distinctly finite emanates the nearly infinite. President Barack Obama is a unique individual, complete with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, natural endowments and flaws. He is not just the (more than) sum of his genes, but also of his experience, of how he was raised (by a mother who instilled in him his sense of both social responsibility and wonder about the world, and by grandparents who instilled in him traditional American values), and of the social contexts in which the narrative of his life spun itself out.

The Rest of Us: The description of President Obama above describes each and every one of us. And it does not describe us in mutual isolation, but as unique swirls and eddies in a shared stream, less “individual” than our hyper-individualistic ideology is wont to acknowledge, non-existent without the stream of which we are a part. The river of reproduction is a single flow of interwoven currents. We are all cousins, all related and interrelated, threads in a dynamic tapestry weaving itself as we weave our ways through our own interconnected lives.

We are indeed all genealogically related, all human beings on this Earth, all descendants of “Mitochondrial Eve” who lived between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago ( And the clusters and branches within that family, defined through the drama of human history, are generated by fascinating tales. According to one genetic study, 0.5% of the male population of the world is directly descended from Genghis Kahn, who, as is known to have had dozens of legitimate and illegitimate children ( How many more such tales exist, that have not been studied, and that don’t always involve historically famous personages?

Who we are genetically, the deck from which our genetic cards have been dealt, was determined most broadly by natural history (carving out the branch of primates that we are), broadly enough to encompass all living human beings in the interim period between natural history and recorded human history called “prehistory,” in broad swathes by both recorded and unrecorded real-life dramas throughout human history, and in most precise detail by the unique (and therefore statistically astronomically improbable) confluence of events which caused the genes of our respective parents to converge in and genetically define each of us.

But there is another, similar, pattern overlaid atop this one, faster, more superficial, but fleshing out the narrative, realizing the potential that the genetic story creates. As I’ve discussed in several essays now (The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), the underlying dynamics of human history echo natural history, the pattern of genetic (biological) evolution being quite closely repeated in memetic (cultural) evolution. The study of geographic and historic distributions and evolutions of languages, religions, technologies, political forms (and social institutional forms in general, including family, community, economy, military, and so on), the combined landscape of all such cultural-cognitive artifacts, maps out a dynamical pattern of how we speak, think, believe, wonder, act, and live that, like the genetic story beneath it, also reshuffles and deals from an ever-evolving deck (one evolving far more rapidly than the genetic one).

We are each instances of these multi-layered narratives, defined by currents both broad and specific, from the general to the particular, determining what kind of species we are, what range of variation we encompass, what developmental branches have been carved out from that range, what sub-branches and twigs have led to the context which produced us, and what combination of particular genes, and unique life experiences, in the end define us each as marginally unique, but deeply similar and tightly interconnected, human beings.