The monthly programs are an essential element of CDHS. Our programs support our humanist goals of exchanging ideas, heightening our knowledge of the world and ourselves, fostering moral and ethical growth, and promoting the principles of secular humanism. This archive of summaries of past programs provides an overview of the varied subjects addressed.
The Biology of the 2020 Pandemic
Dr. Ricki Lewis is an Adjunct Professor at the Alden March Biocenter; author of numerous textbooks, scientific books and papers. Her topic was the Biology of the 2020 Pandemic.
She began with a Joshua Lederberg quote saying humanity's biggest threat is viruses; and by harking back to the great past fear over polio (another virus); as well as the once-common childhood illnesses Measles, Mumps and Chicken Pox; all now defeated by vaccines [at least until the anti-vax movement came along — FSR.]
SARS-CoV-2 is the name of this virus. Covid-19 is the illness it causes. It's common for viruses to jump to humans from other animals. Particularly bats; they're a quarter of all mammals, can harbor viruses without dying, and spew them all over. This is a natural enough explanation for Covid-19. Lewis noted that no part of its genome matches anything in labs, though she couldn't rule out its originating in a lab without human intentionality.
A virus is not a living thing, being much simpler than a bacterium or other kind of cell. It straddles the boundary between the biological and the chemical. Now, our genetic material is DNA; DNA is a molecular template for making RNA; and then RNA makes proteins. The genetic material for a virus can be either DNA or RNA. That genetic core, in a virus, is encased in a capsule of fatty stuff. "Coronavirus" gets its name from its crownlike exterior of spikes that lock into what are called ACE2 receptors on the outsides of our living cells. That enables the virus to inject its genetic material into a cell, and grab its chemical innards to make copies of itself. Then the cell bursts, spewing out more viruses.
We have a hierarchy of defenses. First are simply physical barriers, like skin. Then there's "innate immunity," mainly white blood cells tasked with combating invaders in general, through what we call "inflammation." The third level is "adaptive" immunity, when the body manufactures antibodies specific to a particular invader. But that takes a while. Lewis noted that Blood Type O seems to block the covid virus better than other types; whereas Type A is overrepresented among the victims. She also said that Africans may be suffering less than us from covid because their immune systems are already revved up due to all the various illnesses they're exposed to.
We get infected mainly by taking in viruses in droplets spewed out in coughs or sneezes, or just breathing, by infected people. Lewis discussed the possibility of getting viruses from touching surfaces where they've come to rest. While this can happen, she didn't think it's much of a factor.
Most who get infected with the covid virus suffer only mild symptoms, or none. It's actually better from the virus's point of view if it can do its thing without killing the host; hence Lewis saw some possibility that covid could mutate its way into such relative benignity. Meantime, however, it does make a minority of victims very sick, in ways she described. A lot in the body goes wrong. We have endothelial cells that kind of hold things together; and they "come apart at the seams." The alveoli in our lungs, which transfer oxygen into our blood, fill up with "stuff," and blood oxygen plummets. The blood clots, you get heart attacks, strokes, and organ failure. Your own immune system goes haywire trying to fight this, resulting in a "cytokine storm" with nasty positive feedback loops.
As for treatment, the drug remdesivir seems to inhibit virus replication, somewhat hastening recovery. But Lewis was skeptical about a vaccine, saying we don't actually know if that's even possible, and anyhow it would take a lot longer to deploy safely than optimists currently contemplate. Meantime "herd immunity" would deprive the virus of enough potential victims to keep itself going; that would happen once about 70% of the population has been infected and are presumably immune; though we don't yet actually know they actually are immune from reinfection. And we're a long way from herd immunity levels. Reopening economies could accelerate that, with a "second wave" of infections. Lewis said she initially expected that in the fall, but now thinks it could come within weeks due to the George Floyd protests likely having spread the virus.
The Decline of the Middle Class: How and Why it Happened and What to do About it
Paul F. Cole is a former Secretary-Treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO in addition to other prominent labor and public policy posts. His topic was "The decline of the middle class: how it happened and what to do about it."
After a long history of labor conflict, the 1935 Wagner Act enshrined some key rights for unions, which introduced a flourishing of the U.S. union movement. Cole considers this a key factor in building a strong American middle class in the three decades or so following WWII. He showed charts indicating a correlation between unionization and higher wages. But the last several decades have seen a considerable ebbing of union membership and political clout. Cole says this was in considerable part due to pushback by right-wing Republicans, aiming to use political power to re-assert power over the economy. Cole calls this a "revolt of the bosses," and a "vicious, no-holds-barred ongoing war against organized labor." Today the U.S. has one of the lowest union membership rates among rich countries.
Cole also pointed to a fundamental shift from a "stakeholder capitalism" model to one emphasizing maximization of shareholder value. The former sought to balance the interests of shareholders, employees, customers, and the public at large. But that, argued economist Milton Friedman among others, misconceived a corporation's proper role. Arguing the other side was a book by Lynne Stout, The Shareholder Value Myth, which Cole cited.
Cole acknowledged that shareholders are actually the owners of corporations. But he said the idea of maximizing shareholder value has led to a focus on short term profits. Over recent decades, the compensation of corporate CEOs has become heavily tied to profit performance. During 2008-17, Cole said, 466 of the companies in the S&P 500 spent $4 trillion on stock buybacks, equal to 53% of their profits. This boosts stock prices; as opposed, Cole said, to reinvesting those profits in their products or workers.
He presented various charts showing a resulting rise in inequality. Until about 1980, productivity and wages grew in tandem; afterwards, productivity continued rising, while wages have been pretty much flat. [Note, this chart showed "hourly wages," omitting the increasingly large importance of fringe benefits, especially health care, as a part of worker compensation. — FSR] Others showed increasing percentages of wealth and income garnered by the top 1%; the earnings of the top 0.1% grew 15 times faster than those of the bottom 90%. Gates, Bezos, and Buffett between them have more wealth than the nation's bottom half.
That's because the bottom half, in fact has very little wealth stored up. This includes half of Americans approaching retirement. A key reason is a long-term shift away from "defined benefit" pension plans to "defined contribution" models, like 401K accounts. This helps corporations reduce unaffordable pension burdens. [Indeed, the impossibility of meeting looming pension obligations is a growing problem not only for businesses but for governments at all levels. — FSR]
The trends Cole discussed are, of course, exacerbated by the current economic disaster, with levels of unemployment not seen in generations. It is lower-income Americans bearing the brunt, obviously increasing inequality.
As for the "what to do about it" part of his talk, Cole said to rebuild the labor movement. And to be active politically.
By Frank S. Robinson
…and T. rex cried, “the sky is falling!”: the day the dinosaurs died
Frank Wind (pronounced as in "gust of" rather than "wind up") is a retired geologist, professional storyteller, and longtime CDHS stalwart. His presentation on the dinosaur extinction was done over the zoom internet platform, with over 30 participants. This worked quite well.
Frank started by saying Darwin is his patron saint. He also cited a book by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (concerning the one currently underway), and a New Yorker article by Douglas Preston, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. That was actually the fifth and (until now) last mass extinction of species on this planet, 66 million years ago (mya); the first occurred about 440 mya. The most severe was the Permian Extinction, about 250 mya, killing over 95% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial ones.
Those creatures must have really pissed off God. Except, of course, that he only created the whole shebang only 0.006 mya. To be exact, in 4004 BCE. On October 2. At 6 PM. That was the calculation of Bishop Ussher, by parsing the Bible's chronology, in 1650. Which Biblical literalists today still take as gospel. They place Noah's flood at 2348 BCE, which did for the dinosaurs. But even that theory is a bit problematical, unless you suppose every dinosaur species literally missed the boat. Indeed, Frank showed a cartoon with the ark departing, two dinos standing ashore, one saying to the other, "Oh crap, was that today?"
And the dinosaurs could not have died out much earlier because, of course, death itself was introduced into the world in consequence of Adam's "sin." But actually, the Bible has nothing at all to say about dinos, which were not even discovered until the 19th century.
The whole concept of extinction wasn't really a thing till then, most people (well, Christians) believing life on Earth unchanging. Discovering dinos threw them for a loop. And even science was kind of stumped to explain how such a whole big range of creatures could have more or less abruptly vanished from the scene.
Not until recent decades was a good theory offered, by Luis and Walter Alvarez, father-and-son scientists. They ascribed dino extinction to a huge asteroid smashing into the Earth. There is evidence of such impacts happening periodically, in the form of 190 craters. And the Alvarezes pinpointed remains of the gigantic 66-mya Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan peninsula and coast. They also found much evidence in the geologic record, identifying a distinct boundary between sedimentary layers at just that time, with the in-between layer being notably different, showing a very high iridium content, which could only have come from an extraterrestrial source. Such evidence is found as far away as New Zealand (can't get much farther), proving how dramatically the planet's environment was affected. Frank also showed some fossils discovered in the U.S., showing directly how animal life suffered.
He also described in vivid detail what a global cataclysm that asteroid hit would have caused. (I missed most of this part because I had to reboot my internet connection, which itself fell victim to a small asteroid strike. But you can use your imagination, based on various disaster movies you've seen, to envision the event.)
Not all scientists buy this asteroid theory. They don't deny the impact, but don't think it alone can account for the extent of the extinction. Pointing instead to a spate of big volcanic eruptions that seem to have occurred shortly before. But they accept that the asteroid didn't help.
We may miss having dinosaurs around (though we do have birds, which are their descendants). However, Frank pointed out, it was the demise of the dinos that cleared the way for the flourishing of mammals, which in turn led to the evolution of you-know-who. Though some misanthropic cynics would say this was not such a blessing.
By Frank S. Robinson
How the Trump Administration is Getting Us Ready for Nuclear War
Lawrence Wittner is a SUNY professor emeritus of history and author of numerous books. He spoke about what he said is a "recent drift toward nuclear war."
Starting on a positive note, he acknowledged that despite the 1945 nuclear bombings, and the years since "bringing the world to almost certain brink of destruction," we have avoided that, "an enormous accomplishment." Only nine nations ended up having nukes, and worldwide, the numbers of those weapons have fallen by 80%.
Wittner contended that this de-escalation did not "come naturally" to world leaders, but they were pressured in the 1980s by a "worldwide uprising" by people opposed to nukes. In particular, he said, they forced a turnaround in President Reagan's "hardline" warlike proclivities, leading to "grudging" arms control. Wittner recited a series of such measures from the 1960s to '80s, but said this ground to a halt in the '90s, anti-nuke organizations dwindled in size, and the public forgot the issue.
The UN has passed a treaty calling for total nuclear disarmament, but those countries possessing such weapons have ignored it. President Obama did endorse the idea of a nuclear-free world; he also got the Senate to ratify a new START treaty with Russia. But Wittner lamented that the price was a deal with Republicans to modernize our nuclear arsenal.
Trump is hostile to arms control, has ended the Reagan-Gorbachev INF treaty (which had eliminated thousands of nukes), charging Russian violations; and the mentioned START treaty is "on the chopping block." This would leave no arms control agreement between America and Russia. Meantime Trump, building upon Obama's "modernization," is embarked on what Wittner characterized as the costliest nuclear arms buildup in world history (estimated at $1.7 trillion over three decades).
He said Trump is vindictive and mentally unstable, and more likely than his predecessors to start a nuclear war. Some of his bluster against North Korea and Iran was quoted. Wittner pointed to the "emotional power" of nationalism heightening the danger some leader would start a nuclear war. He also warned that a conventional war could escalate into one; or that terrorists could get hold of a nuke.
Wittner noted that the organization of scientists behind the "Doomsday clock," originally set at seven minutes to midnight, re-set it in 2018 to two minutes, and in 2020 to100 seconds — "the most dangerous situation humanity has ever faced."
But, said Wittner, humanity is not so eager for nuclear immolation. Polls show extreme aversion to nuke use and overwhelming support for arms control. Even half of Republicans favor abolition of nuclear weapons. Maybe, he concluded, people have enough wisdom to restrain themselves and their governments from nuclear destruction.
By Frank S. Robinson