Monday, October 30, 2006

To Whom Do We Owe Our Allegiance?

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill


COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

This isn't exactly "evolution-related," but I've got an essay up at, one of my favorite political websites. For those of you who haven't been there yet, is the most popular libertarian website on the Internet, and the third most popular political website overall. As the masthead proclaims, it's "anti-state, anti-war, and pro-free trade," and Lew describes himself as a "paleoconservative," to distinguish his brand of libertarian politics from the economically and morally bankrupt politics and policies of the "neocons." And, although I don't always agree with some of the viewpoints expressed by some of the commentators on his site, Lew has always acted like a gentleman and a scholar, and I agree so much with the political positions taken by him and his cohorts that I've decided that, if I'm going to dabble in politics at all (and I'd like to), I'll do it at So, to save you all the effort of clicking over there, here is my first attempt at a libertarian political essay, mirrored in its entirety from

To Whom Do We Owe Our Allegiance?

I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the republic for which it stands:
one nation indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.
– Francis Bellamy (1892)

Our family has a flag. It's a variation of the flag of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland. His was a red lion rampant on a field of gold. Ours is a golden lioness rampant on a field of purple. The problem is, to fly it correctly would require us to decide which flag should be flown higher - our family's flag or the star-spangled banner?

This is not a trivial problem. In fact, it goes to the heart of what is wrong with America today. To fly our family's flag correctly (even lawfully, in many jurisdictions), we should fly it in such a way as to make it clear to anyone seeing it that our family's flag - and therefore, by implication, our family - is subordinate to that of the United States government (and to the republic for which it stands). And therein lies the problem.

It is a basic tenet of libertarian conservatism that one's highest allegiance is to one's self and one's family. This principle is enshrined in the founding document of the United States of America. According to the Declaration of Independence, "[A]ll Men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

According to this viewpoint, individual people are sovereign entities, and governments are clearly subordinate to "the will of the people". Far from altering this relationship, the Constitution of the United States codifies these principles into law. It enumerates the very limited powers of the federal government, and then in the ninth and tenth amendments declares that "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" and "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, and reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

What this means is that, except for the powers and responsibilities enumerated in the Constitution, the United States government has no power or sovereignty over the lives of its citizens. In brief, we own ourselves and the government is, at most, our servant.

Today, however, it is clear that to the government and an increasing number of the citizens of the United States this situation is reversed. The government believes (and, more importantly, acts as if) it owns us and we are its servants. This is why the symbolism of the flag is so important: the flag of the United States takes precedence over all others, including the flag of the family of Lyonesse. In other words, in the view of those who would presume to rule us, the president of the United States is our lord and sovereign and we are merely his vassals. He may take from us and from our families anything he desires: our land, our property, our children, even our very lives (via the death penalty and the military draft), and the only justification he needs to do this is the exercise of pure, naked, overwhelming force.

This is not the way it was supposed to be, friends. There was a time in America when the president viewed himself as a servant of the people and abjured all signs and symbols of sovereignty. Grover Cleveland refused to be treated any differently than ordinary citizens at state occasions and is remembered for vetoing a bill providing emergency relief to farmers following a natural disaster, on the grounds that to do so would legitimize the forcible taking of some citizen's money (via taxes) to benefit others. It may come as a surprise to some (especially today's Democrats, and most Republicans) that Cleveland was a Democrat...and moreover, by his behavior, a true democrat.

Now, however, the candidates from both parties freely and openly state their wholehearted support for a government and a presidency that clearly recognizes no restraint or challenge to its power except the use of violent force. Furthermore, the majority of the voting citizenry agrees, and supports those candidates for public office who most vigorously propound the doctrine of unlimited force.

For itself, the government asserts a sole monopoly on the use of force and recognizes no limits to its use. Every president since Lincoln has, in the context of war or the threat of war, justified the unilateral and unlimited use of military force and the suspension of individual sovereignty (in the context of the military draft) with sole reference to the supreme sovereignty of the president and the federal government. Nowhere in the Constitution nor any of its amendments is it stated or even implied that the States may not secede from the union, nor govern their own affairs, nor respect and protect the rights to private property of individual citizens. Yet ever since the administration of Lincoln, the federal government has unilaterally arrogated to itself all of these, and has enforced this usurpation through the use of deadly force.

In a world dominated by force alone, only force matters, and the only law is the law of force majeur: "might makes right". The founders of the American republic believed otherwise, and tried to structure the Constitution and the government it created so that there would be built-in limits to the unilateral use and abuse of power. They did so because they realized that a government founded on force, rather than the fully informed consent of the governed, is not a government at all. It is tyranny, pure and simple.

To our increasing sorrow, it is clear that tyranny is what we are rapidly approaching. To state the case succinctly, the recent history of the presidency, congress, the supreme court, many state governments, and both major political parties has been a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over the individual states and ourselves, the citizens of those states. Sound familiar?

But, if you've been paying attention recently, you already know most of this. The question is, what can we do about the accelerating slide toward tyranny? The first and most powerful thing we can do is to remember that crucial phrase in the Declaration: that governments, including ours, derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. So, as many did during the last election, we can withhold our consent: we can refuse to vote for those aspiring to be tyrants. We can also assert our personal and familial sovereignty over that of the tyrannical state by refusing to yield up to it that which it most desires: our land, our property, our children, and our lives.

In many cases, we can do this by simply ignoring Leviathan. Ever since George Bush stole the presidency in 2000, I've repeatedly found myself comforting my friends by pointing out to them that the party in power generally has little or no affect on our daily lives, especially out here in the hinterlands. So long as you pay as little taxes as you can legally get away with (yes, even the IRS has been forced repeatedly to admit that this is your constitutional prerogative), the dragon will pass you by, unseeing.

However, the time may come – indeed, it may soon be upon us – when the dragon will thirst for new blood. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Iran, and Syria, and North Korea, and – who knows – maybe northern Virginia) will necessitate the reinstatement of draft slavery. Then we must do what we did a generation ago, and the generation before that, and the generation before that, but this time in overwhelming numbers: we must march on Washington and speak truth to power. And that truth will be, as it was then, Hell no, we won't go!

And we can fly our families' flags: proudly, fearlessly, and freely, secure in the knowledge that there is where our highest and truest allegiance lies.


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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Scientists Endorse Candidate Over Teaching of Evolution

AUTHOR: Cornelia Dean

SOURCE: New York Times

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

In an unusual foray into electoral politics, 75 science professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have signed a letter endorsing a candidate for the Ohio Board of Education.

The professors’ favored candidate is Tom Sawyer, a former congressman and onetime mayor of Akron. They hope Mr. Sawyer, a Democrat, will oust Deborah Owens Fink, a leading advocate of curriculum standards that encourage students to challenge the theory of evolution.

Elsewhere in Ohio, scientists have also been campaigning for candidates who support the teaching of evolution and have recruited at least one biologist from out of state to help.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve who organized the circulation of the letter, said almost 90 percent of the science faculty on campus this semester had signed it. The signers are anthropologists, biologists, chemists, geologists, physicists and psychologists.

The letter says Dr. Owens Fink has “attempted to cast controversy on biological evolution in favor of an ill-defined notion called Intelligent Design that courts have ruled is religion, not science.”

In an interview, Dr. Krauss said, “This is not some group of fringe scientists or however they are being portrayed by the creationist community,” adding, “This is the entire scientific community, and I don’t know of any other precedent for almost the entire faculty at an institution” making such a statement.

But Dr. Owens Fink, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, said the curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Rather, she said, they urge students to subject evolution to critical analysis, something she said scientists should endorse. She said the idea that there was a scientific consensus on evolution was “laughable.”

Although researchers may argue about its details, the theory of evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In recent years, with creationist challenges to the teaching of evolution erupting in school districts around the country, groups like the National Academy of Sciences, perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization, have repeatedly made this point.

But the academy’s opinion does not matter to Dr. Owens Fink, who said the letter was probably right to say she had dismissed it as “a group of so-called scientists.”

“I may have said that, yeah,” she said.

She would not describe her views of Darwin and his theory, saying, “This isn’t about my beliefs.”

School board elections in Ohio are nonpartisan, but Dr. Owens Fink said she was a registered Republican. Her opponent, Mr. Sawyer, was urged to run for the Seventh District Board of Education seat by a new organization, Help Ohio Public Education, founded by Dr. Krauss and his colleague Patricia Princehouse, a biologist and historian of science, and Steve Rissing, a biologist at Ohio State University.

At the group’s invitation, Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, will be in Ohio today through the weekend campaigning for other school board candidates who support the teaching of evolution. Dr. Miller, an author of a widely used biology textbook, was a crucial witness in the recent lawsuit in Dover, Pa., over intelligent design. The judge in that case ruled that it was a religious doctrine that had no place in a public school curriculum.

After that decision, Dr. Owens Fink said, the Ohio board abandoned curriculum standards that mandated a critical look at evolution, a decision she said she regretted. “Some people would rather just fold,” she said.

But Dr. Miller said it was a good call, adding, “We have to make sure these good choices get ratified at the ballot box.”


Once again Ohio is the battleground in the ongoing culture wars. A similar change in the composition of a state board of education happened in Kansas earlier this year. It will be interesting to see what happens in Ohio, especially in the context of what many are beginning to perceive as a "glacial shift" in Ohio politics, away from religious conservatism and the Republican party and toward a more tolerant and pluralistic libertarianism, as exemplified by Tom Sawyer (even his name resonates in American cultural history). Whether the Democrats can finally become vertebrates and take a principled position on this and related issues remains to be seen...


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Thursday, October 12, 2006

New Definitions of a "Gene"


SOURCE: Evolgen

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

RPM at Evolgen has a new post about evolving definitions of a "gene". Here are my thoughts on the subject:

For years I have been teaching my students that a gene is a segment of DNA that codes for a single RNA molecule with a complementary sequence, regardless of whether that RNA molecule is translated or not. This definition takes into account the genes for the various rRNAs and tRNAs, which are not translated, and also other forms of non-translated RNA that have recently been discovered. By this definition, genes that code for mRNAs that are actually translated are distinguished as "structural genes," using terminology that was first developed to describe the Jacob-Monod model of the lactose operon. Using this same terminology, the gene that codes for the lactose repressor protein is a "regulatory gene," insofar as the repressor does not function in an "extrinsic" biochemical pathway, but rather participates in the regulation of other structural genes.

However, the distinction between "structural" and "regulatory" genes outlined above is insufficient to describe the various kinds of genetically significant DNA sequences now known. For example, it does not include regions of the DNA to which protein regulators bind, but which are not themselves transcribed. It also does not distinguish between RNAs that are translated into proteins (either enzymes or repressor/regulator proteins) and those that are transcribed into RNA but never translated (such as rRNA, tRNA, and the newer non-translated RNAs).

Given the foregoing, it appears to me that there are four (possibly five) functionally different kinds of DNA coding sequences:

(1) translatable sequences: those DNA sequences that are both transcribed into mRNA and later translated into proteins, regardless of function (these can be further subdivided into proteins that participate in non-DNA related biochemical pathways and those that directly regulate DNA, but those seem to me to be classifications of the proteins, not the DNA sequences that code for them);

(2) transcribable sequences: those DNA sequences that are transcribed into RNA (i.e. rRNA, tRNA, etc.), but are not later translated into proteins/polypeptide chains. Again, what the RNAs do after being transcribed is not a function of the DNA, but rather of the RNAs, and therefore should not really be used to classify DNA coding sequences;

(3) binding sequences: those DNA sequences that are not transcribed into RNA nor translated into protein, but which function as binding sites for regulatory molecules such as repressor proteins, homeotic gene products, etc. While such sequences do not code for the production of a transcribed or translated gene product, they still participate in the regulation of other genes by serving as regulatory binding sites; and

(4) non-binding sequences: those DNA sequences that are not transcribed into RNA, not translated into protein, nor function as binding sites for regulatory moelcules. Such sequences would include highly repetitive sequences, tandom repeats, "spacer DNA", pseudogenes, retroviral and transposon inserts (both "dead" and potentially "alive"), etc. This latter category could be further subdivided into "functional" non-coding/non-binding DNA sequences versus "non-functional/parastitic" non-coding/non-binding DNA sequences, depending on whether they arise as part of the functional architecture of the DNA (primarily of eukaryotes), or whether they arise as side-effects of the action of parasitic genetic elements, such as retroviruses or transposons.

There may be other categories of DNA sequences that have other functions, but right now I can't think of any. Therefore, this is how I intend to teach the concept of a "gene" to my students at Cornell from now on.

So much for the Beadle/Tatum "one gene, one enzyme" model, eh? And the classical Mendelian definition of "one gene, one phenotypic trait" is no longer viable as well...


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