Friday, June 26, 2009

Iran again, a second time

Once again, Iran is being used as a political tool to rally and motivate a segment of Americans into fury. The Bush administration used Iran to solidify their opposition to diplomacy, and further drive their extensive need to show solidarity with Israel. Obama's more measured response during the Iranian presidential election crisis does not sit well with the same segment that not one year before, were calling for the destruction of Iran. These neo-conservatives, who once had unopposed access to policy have been largely eviscerated by a more pragmatic administration. Ultimately, the attempts by the squealing chicken hawks to derail the diplomatic efforts of the current administration are transparent exercises in destabilizing Iran.

Currently, Iran is undergoing a crisis of identity, with a large dissatisfied segment of the population upset at the landslide victory that they see as stolen by Ahmedinajad. As with the Islamic Revolution of the late 70's, this current revolution for greater access to freedom is spurned by students and women, and has met a great deal more resistance. Iranians, regardless of the West's attempts at painting a singular picture are a variable and proud people with a history that rivals any nation in the world. Throughout Iranian history, changes have come and gone, and the people know the power of revolt and uprising. This is not for Americans to dictate, or Europeans, but for Iranians alone. We have no right to involve ourselves in Iranian politics, because they do not want our support. The demonstrators want to absolve their nation of tyranny, and they do not look for foreign support. There may be a few disparate segments who may, but in general, most Iranians, even those who expect an overturning revolution, want it from within. The US has shown its unreliability when they deposed the democratically elected Iranian government, headed by Prime minister Mosaddeq in 1953. Their expected exploitation of Iranian resources backfired with the revolution of 1979. This was Iran's answer to US involvement in politics. The same mistakes must not be made again.

The neo-Conservative cry to support Iran's dissatisfied masses has little to do for empathy towards Iranians, and everything to do with quelling Iran's growing economic potential. By destabilizing Iran in this manner, two possible outcomes are expected. In one, the demonstrations grow to a point where a new revolution is made. With supposed international support, those newly elected in power may be more willing to allow Iran's economic resources to be exploited. A second, far more likely scenario, is the continued demonstrations, and crack-downs, resulting in widespread chaos. With Iran in such turmoil, the Iranian government would have problems developing their economic potential in their own terms. Ultimately, this all comes down to the West's persistent attempt at controlling Iran's growth. The opposition to nuclear technology has little to do with Iran's potential nuclear arsenal, and more to do with their energy needs of the future. With an energy surplus, powering an economy that's basically off the grid of Western control, Iran can move in many different directions. Russia and China may realize that uniting with Iran can create a block against Western interests. Further, the danger that Iran may attack Israel is negligible, when Israel has nuclear weapons that are readily capable of turning Iran dust. Yet, the threat from Israel attacking Iran pre-emptively is quite high. Again, this is directly tied to Iran's separate economic potential. Further, with Iran's large, educated populace, their untapped economic potential is vast. All these indicators point towards every possible means of destabilizing Iran's current progress. Ideology is not as powerful as economics, and sadly, this is what dictates modern thinking. Driving Adam Smith's economic theory into every possible orifice of every possible culture so they can be a known element. Far be it from allowing a theocracy to develop economic potential on their own terms. It must be Western-style democracy and nothing else.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Reality Tunnel

In my frequent conversation with believers who place part of their inherent philosophical world-view on faith and their internal feelings of extra-sensory revelation, I'm often accused of being narrow minded and rigid. Before tackling the errors of this argument, it's important to frame it in the proper context. Many people have an "intuitive" feeling that there's something more to the physical universe. They may project these feelings towards concepts such as alien life visiting Earth, or ghostly phenomenon, or even theories of the Egyptian pyramid construction that bypasses ancient-Egyptian civilization. For some, these intuitive reactions are a product of their distrust of institutions that dwell in realms too complex to understand. Though true that some branches of science, technology, engineering, architecture, etc., may seem beyond the understanding of the average layman, there is no reason to think that these branches are completely unattainable. As education in one area is increased, the subject becomes easier to grasp, and eventually, a point is reached where one's background level is at par with the basics of a given area of knowledge. Those who distrust this premise may remain suspicious of individuals who have achieved higher educational levels of a given subject and maintain that they are lead by their knowledge more than their intuitive feelings. This may be true, but intuitive feelings with no basic knowledge are often unrealistic. Before modern science, various cultures had developed intuitive feelings of how the Earth was maintained. Most accepted that the center of the universe was the Earth, and everything revolved around us. Their explanations for what held up the earth was imaginative and blatantly wrong. Neither tortoise, elephant, giants, stellar winds, or gods assisted in keeping the Earth in place. Their whole understanding of the world was skewed in simplistic ideas, and it wasn't until pillars of learned people through thousands of years eventually contributed and collaborated on previous work that we reached a realistic consensus. As science has progressed, we have come to realize that we're not the center of anything. Further, even the wildest imagination could not have conjured up the concepts of gravity, nucleogenesis, expansion of the Universe, natural selection, etc. What we do know of the universe was not based on eyewitness accounts, imagination, intuitive feelings, revelation, gods, demons, sorcerers, or anything other than empirical data and the scientific method. Every aspect of our modern lives has been impacted by scientific reason and discovery. This may seem esoteric, but even necessities like modern medicine have come about because of rigorous science. This should not mean that one should automatically think that certain areas of medicine, like pharmaceutical companies, are functioning for the benefit of mankind. In the real world, everything functions under principles of economics. Even seemingly unethical corporations like pharmaceutical companies would go out of business if their products were completely ineffective. The market dictates that to generate capital and continue to operate as an entity, a perceived useful product must be made. Generally, there are many placebos on the market that although useless, do seem necessary to misguided people. The difference is that pharmaceutical drugs are required to undergo rigorous testing to validate their function. Although some unethical researchers or statisticians may purposely skew the results, or use flawed tests, this should not lessen the impact that reducing human errors and biases in experimentation can indicate efficacy in a quantitative manner. Anecdotes and life experiences are poor excuses for rigorous analysis involving double blind studies, statistical methods of analysis, and the scientific method in determining quantifiable results.

In science, the more you learn, the better you frame and understand complex problems. Science allows not only answers, but paves the way for asking the right questions. Any faulty reasoning, errors, or questions that don't make sense within a given context can be culled to help form a more comprehensive picture. This constant trimming and hedging is beneficial to scientific understanding. Without questioning results, asking questions, and skeptical analysis, science becomes hampered in error. People must not confuse scientific results with democratic ideals though. The majority opinion can fall to the wayside when a more comprehensive theory comes along that better explains a concept. Some theories are so well articulated that they're as near a fact as is possible with near 100% certainty. Evolution through Natural Selection is one of these theories. It has been shown to explain biological development better than anything one can invent or imagine to explain the diversity of life and its presence in the fossil record. Further, a great theory is able to predict certain results, and without a doubt, knowing the concepts of mutations and evolutionary changes within populations, extrapolations can be made to explain changes in the populations of a given species. Trying to determine why black moths have increased in number, while white moths of the same species have decreased cannot make sense outside of evolutionary thinking. For those who are fully immersed in their field of study, a consensus is often reached the at any given moment demonstrates the apex of scientific understanding. Although many such platforms of thought have overturned as greater data is accrued, generally, better use of bias control, screening protocols, and peer review prevent extensive overreaching. It would be a loud proclamation to claim that nothing in the future will overturn our understanding of the current scientific process, but as our detailed knowledge of the universe increases, we become better at asking questions, discarding false notions, and maintaining our progressive march towards intellectual growth.

Thus, it is possible to be too open minded and lose sense of reality. Some may argue that even the concept of reality itself is too difficult to ascribe, but then, if reality is something unattainable in every facet, than there's no point in asking and answering questions. To understand the universe we live in, even if it's a figment of a pan-dimensional being's imagination, we need tools. We need to develop processes that allow us to make informed and rational decisions. Miracles, myths, anecdotal stories are not the best tools to investigate reality. What we know as reality Reality tells us that eggs break, and cannot suddenly reform, just as a dead person cannot come back from the dead, or an amputee suddenly regrowing a limb. Looking through the physical concepts available, we find that this occurs because of entropy, or the increase of disorder in the universe. It is present in everything we do, and everywhere we look. To achieve greater order larger amounts of work must be put into a system. The universe as a closed system is always increasing in disorder, and even the ordered form of a human body required inordinate amounts of energy to maintain. Upon death, when no further work is put into the body, it decays into constituent molecules and atoms that then get dispersed into the universe, further adding to the entropy. Even after death, we continue to contribute to the entropy of the universe. Our very atoms disperse from each other on the moment of death until the end of the universe. Having drifted on a philosophical tangent, it's important to realize that too much imagination can leave us completely untethered from the reality we know of this world. It's great to imagine what it would be like if there was 12 supreme deities, or 3, or one, but the fact is, reality is not dictated by the whims of our imagination. Even if every single person on the planet thought that stars were holes in a celestial sphere, the universe itself would not be different. It is our job, as an inquisitive and industrious species to use the most rigorous and empirical methods of analysis to determine the nature of the universe. We should see this ability as a fortuitous gift, with no deterministic sense of reason. The tunnel with which we view reality must be rigid, and if we wish to express abstract ideas, esoteric thoughts, it's reasonable to breach the walls. Yet, if we're using this tunnel to address the physical nature of the universe, there are only finite ways of viewing that will allow us to proceed. With science, we can make and test predictions based on a slew of accumulated information. This mountain of data, through thousands of years of human ingenuity and reason must not fall prey to whims of fancy, and processes that though comforting to some, do nothing to explain the nature of the world.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Obama's Armenian Genocide Remembrance message

Apparently, now that Obama has made his Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day statement, it is clear that Genocide remains an elusive word. G, according the the new Commander-in-Chief is the new N word. The following is Obama's statement regarding the Genocidal massacres that effected the lives of every single Armenian alive today.

Ninety four years ago, one of the great atrocities (Genocide) of the 20th century began. Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The Meds Yeghern (Genocide) must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people.

History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Just as the terrible events (Genocide) of 1915 remind us of the dark prospect of man's inhumanity to man, reckoning with the past holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation. I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.

The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward. I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open, and constructive. To that end, there has been courageous and important dialogue among Armenians and Turks, and within Turkey itself. I also strongly support the efforts by Turkey and Armenia to normalize their bilateral relations. Under Swiss auspices, the two governments have agreed on a framework and roadmap for normalization. I commend this progress, and urge them to fulfill its promise.

Together, Armenia and Turkey can forge a relationship that is peaceful, productive and prosperous. And together, the Armenian and Turkish people will be stronger as they acknowledge their common history and recognize their common humanity.

Nothing can bring back those who were lost in the Meds Yeghern (Genocide). But the contributions that Armenians have made over the last ninety-four years stand as a testament to the talent, dynamism and resilience of the Armenian people, and as the ultimate rebuke to those who tried to destroy them. The United States of America is a far richer country because of the many Americans of Armenian descent who have contributed to our society, many of whom immigrated to this country in the aftermath of 1915. Today, I stand with them and with Armenians everywhere with a sense of friendship, solidarity, and deep respect.

As can be seen, President Obama had every opportunity to mention this crime against humanity as the textbook definition known as Genocide. Although he did use the Armenian phrase, Medz Yeghern, he still avoided that troublesome G word. Further, he used atrocities and terrible events as another descriptive term to what amounts to a Genocide. I guess from now on, we can avoid calling other Genocides as such, but use the native term for those tragedies. It should be noted that this is the closest any president has ever come to acknowledge the atrocities as a Genocide, and yet avoid the term. This is yet another small victory that brings us closer towards achieving justice. However, justice will remain elusive, as long as Turkey continues to deny the past, and the US government functions complicit with this hypocritical lack of recognition. As usual, a president has reneged on his promise of recognition, millions of Armenians are disappointed, and the Turkish government is sighing in relief. Who knew that watching the annual perpetuation of the status quo would be so dramatic?

Considering the continuous disappointment endured by Armenians throughout the world, perhaps the ultimate message to take to heart is that importance of strength and unity in preventing these occurrences in the world. Regardless of the tragic history of our people, and the lack of acceptance by those playing politics, the onus is on Armenians to not only look to the past, but build a future that strengthens our resolve. We have a nation, a country we call our own, and if we truly want to prevent our ancestor's deaths to be in vain, our lofty goals and expectations should be focused on helping Armenia emerge from obscurity and join the technological stage of the future.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Predictions on Obama's Armenian Genocide Speech

Attempting to predict what an American President may say regarding the Armenian Genocide is often a lesson in exasperation and futility. Every year, millions of Armenians across the globe hope that the leader of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world will finally acknowledge the tragedy that befell their ancestors, and help usher in justice for the generations that followed. Their hopes are based on universal concepts of genocide recognition and the prevention of future tragedies by recognizing those that have come to pass. In addition to the Armenians, millions of Turks await the Presidential words, hoping that as usual, the taboo term Genocide will remain unmentioned. Recognizing a tragedy is one thing, but to Turks, labeling it a Genocide is like spitting in their faces. The attempt for Armenians to recognize past events, and the active obfuscation by Turks to prevent the past to surface always comes to climax on April 24th.

Currently, knowing the problematic security situation in the Middle East, and the attempts by the West to continually check Russia's influences, Turkey shall remain a high priority for regional stability. As much as Armenians hope for justice, there is very little practical reason for America to offend Turkish interests. It's one thing to continuously offend a few million Armenians, which is almost a regular event, but another thing to be the first to offend such powerful economic, political, and military interests as Turkey. In addition to this, Turkey is also somewhat of a safeguard for Israel, which finds itself surrounded by hostile neighbors, and the powerful Israeli lobby, regardless of what they vocalize in support of Armenian genocide recognition, will never fully support offending their regional allies. They may speak of justice when the Holocaust is mentioned, but if there's even a suggestion of a possible threat to Israel's stability justice will conveniently become abandoned.

As a result of this cursory analysis, an attempt at predicting Obama's Armenian Genocide speech should be an interesting exercise. "We are gathered here to commemorate a tragic event in the history of the Armenian people. The fact that the survivors have become so well integrated into American life, and have given so much to the American nation is a hopeful message to the global community. Their children, and their children's children carry the burden of these awful times with hard work, and perseverance. As we have seen in Sudan, the world must be proactive in preventing these occurrences. We have seen how relations lately, between the Armenian and Turkish governments have thawed, and will assist in any way possible to mediate further cooperation. We must not jeopardize the developing relationship, and must be supportive at constructive efforts for regional cooperation and stability. I am extremely thankful for the well meaning support I've received from my Armenian supporters, and wish to express my deepest sympathies to their tragic history. I hope that we can forge a future together of mutual understanding, trust, and peace."

Most of the attempt at guessing the speech is highly speculative, but one thing I believe will be key this year in avoiding the mention of a Genocide is that Obama will indicate that it may hurt the thawing relationship between Turkey and Armenia. It appears that the official position is slowly coalescing into the supposed prevention of meddling in a situation that must be handled by Turkey and Armenia. Never mind the fact that most Armenians effected by the Genocide are now scattered all over the world. Ultimately, we as Armenians must be strong enough to avoid the mentality of victims, and regardless of how the Genocide is actually labeled, should strive to improve the situation of our homeland. Although there is much to be said about carrying on the good fight for Genocide recognition and universal justice, we can equally become energetic towards improving Armenia's condition and situation. What good is Genocide recognition if we don't have a homeland that we can call our own?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ethnogenesis of Armenians -- The currently unpublished blog; Geography

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Striking Similarities Between Language and Evolutionary Biology

Approaching language from a biological perspective, one can't help but recognize the similarities in the evolution of both languages and biological organisms. At times, it appears as though they follow similar mechanisms. As such, determining when two languages within a language family diverged through morphological changes is not much different than determining when two species of organisms within the same family diverged. Yet, even in this similarity, a key difference between language and biology remain. We know that every single biological organism on this planet has a common ancestor. Basically, the tree of life, if taken through time in a reverse manner will eventually coalesce into just one root. All existing species have arisen from an ancestral species. To contrast, since linguistic abilities are present in our species cerebral wiring, all languages do not need to have arisen from the same source. Put two human children together in an isolated environment with no linguistic influence, and they will develop their own patterns of linguistic communication, with syntax, vocabulary, and a structure that we will identify as language. It has often been observed that identical twins, at very young ages, share certain words which we would identify as gibberish. Yet, they communicate knowing that the sounds they use are mutually identifiable for a given topic. Thus, not all languages in the world have a universal common ancestor, as do biological organisms. Instead, related languages can be placed together in groups and families, with a shared common ancestor. It's as though 15 different alien species are introduced into a planet's ecology and in time, all thrive and compete with each other, whilst also evolving. If someone then returned, they could easily group the difference species together into their last common ancestors and determine that they evolved independently. With languages though, there is greater flexibility in absorbing content from another language, even one completely unrelated. If biological organisms evolve with independent origins, then it would be much harder, perhaps even impossible, for any admixture.

Determining how languages are related to each other, either through common descent, known unsurprisingly as genetic links, or through shared contact, known as phonetic similarities, is instrumental in understanding human migrational patterns, cultural activity, and oft unrecorded history. The analysis of the contents and structure of language, known as morphology, has its analog in biology, which again unsurprisingly is called morphology (in this case, it's the formative structure, or physical appearance, of the given organism.) To provide an example that I shall endeavor to elaborate on in the next post, is the morphology of the Armenian language. Phonetically, the Armenian language is most similar to those of the Caucases (such as Georgian). In other words, the Armenian language sounds very similar to the South Caucasian languages. Superficially, this seems obvious, considering the proximity between the two. Yet, despite the phonetic similarity, genetically, Armenian is actually an Indo-European language with murky origins that date back over 5000 years. Digging further, one discovers that many Armenian words are actually Iranian in origin. To be more specific, they are loan words that were absorbed into the Armenian language during the Parthian conquest of Armenia in the 6th century BCE. This middle Iranian language of Parthian, has long since become extinct, but its influence in modern Armenian, Farsi, and other regionally effected languages is prevalent. It must be noted that although the Iranian languages also have an Indo-European genetic link, they branched long after Armenian was already an independent language. Attempting to determine which language group within the Indo-European family Armenian is most related to is even harder, because the time for changes has been so extensive, and there are sparse records that attest to early Armenian. It's only when Armenian was recorded, once an alphabet was established in the 5th century CE, that we can understand the modern changes that have been effected by subsequent migrations by Arabs, Turks, modern Persians, and Russians. As mentioned, the details of this will be further elaborated in the next post. To determine the changes that Armenian has undergone, one must look at the mutations that have resulted in pronunciation, which eventually changes the written form as well. Before the creation of a written system, languages were able to more readily change, but as literacy increased, a more conservative echo remained in linguistic features. Due to inherent migrations and proximal influences by other languages, the morphology of spoken language shifted as those of the written remained. It took a considerable amount of effort to change the literary language, and as can be attested by early languages still used in churches (such as Grabar Armenian, or in the case of Roman Catholics, Latin), some institutions were able to retain the most conservative elements. Although the early phonetics of Armenian, as it was retained by the creation of the Armenian alphabet, is used by Eastern Armenians, those in the West, mostly through proximal contact, have become phonetically aligned much more closely with Turkish. It's interesting to note then that Armenian is phonetically influenced by both Georgian and Turkish, neither of which are Indo-European languages. Morphologically, Turkish has more influence in modern Armenian, when compared to early Armenian, because of the near millennium of contact between the two. Any morphological changes to Armenian outside of phonetics due to the Caucasian languages has long since disappeared. Through this, it appears that perhaps phonetic changes are more conserved when compared to other morphological features.

The similarity between language and biology is probably related to the fact that both languages and organisms evolve through incremental changes, otherwise known as mutations. As is typical with human, large or even small populations may migrate so far, that their initial contact with their group of origin may be completely severed. In this instance, the isolated group is suddenly free to evolve their own features. The simplest example of this would be the Polynesian migrations. Each group eventually radiated across the habitable islands of Polynesia, and by analyzing the morphology of each language, whether it's Tahitian, Hawaiian, Tongan, or Maori, a common link can be determined. Further, by observing the archaeological record, as far as human inhabitation, one can correlate the changes in the language over the given time required. Similarly, in biology, by correlating the fossil record with that of the genetic differences, a greater precision is uncovered, and each discipline is further sharpened. When Charles Darwin observed the various finches in the Galapagos Islands, he noted how similar they were in appearance, only differing in the shape of their beaks. This appearance then is what's known as the phenotype of the finch. Darwin rightfully deduced that all these similar birds must have evolved from a common ancestor. Knowing that the nearest landmass was South America, he compared these finches to those of the mainland, and a key moment in biology was forged. Once molecular genetics developed, a new tool was found that was able to analyze the genetic differences between the finches and even determine how, and approximately when, they migrated between the islands. Looking at another species, it's possible that minimal differences in genotype (within the genes) can lead to significant differences in phenotype. In this example, the variable appearance of the domestic dog shows how large phenotypical differences can appear when genotype is minimally effected. Although all dogs evolved from the wolf, they vary in appearance from the teacup Chihuahua to the great Dane. These changes are a result of humans selectively breeding dogs for thousands of years, hoping to enhance their aesthetic appeal, productivity, obedience, task oriented goals, stamina, power, aggression, or any number of traits. In nature, it's the natural environment that acts as a sieve, allowing only those animals that are best suited to survive and reproduce. In human languages, a close genetic relationship can occasionally lead to significant changes in phonetic expression. In mountainous areas of the world, significant variation of dialects occur, rendering them nearly unintelligible. To continue using the Armenian language as an example, the local dialect of Armenians living in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is so different from standard Eastern Armenian that it's mostly unintelligible. Looking at Europe, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French all have their common origins in Vulgar Latin. Initially dialects of common, or Vulgar Latin within the Roman Empire, they became increasingly divergent upon the Empire's collapse. The seemingly profound phonetic differences are muted by the orthographic similarities in the written languages. Thus, once again, one can see that phonetic changes are less conserved than those that occur in the orthographic, or written language.

In biology, convergent evolution occurs when two species, from completely different origins (distantly they're all related, but once their ancestral species radiated to form new species, they are now distinct) resemble each other superficially. Bats and birds both evolved wings to help them defy gravity and achieve powered flight. How they actually developed wings occurred in completely different ways, dependent on their inherent genetic structure. Whereas birds evolved from fast moving dinosaurs, with proto-wings that perhaps assisted them in short bursts of flight, bats evolved from small mammals that were probably able to glide from tree to tree by membranes that extended across their arms and legs. Over time, these separate species were able to reach the skies. This convergent evolution then has almost no analog with language. It is possible that two completely unrelated languages may merge, but organisms that are unrelated cannot merge together. They may exchange a few genes through retro viral elements, but for the most part, they do not have the flexibility of language. Yet, before languages come in such proximal contact that they become absorbed, some qualities of an unrelated language may become adapted. Perhaps through extended linguistic contact, the cadence of the two unrelated languages may come to resemble each other. Although phonetically, Armenian and Farsi have distinct sounds, their rhythm and cadence can be quite similar. Especially with Eastern-Armenians, the extended contact with the Persian languages has come to probably effect some qualities in the flow of pronunciation. It's similar to the cadence of Dutch and English, with a resemblance that can be uncanny at times.

Ultimately, the link between biological and linguistic evolution has an all together deeper level of prominence. If it wasn't for the evolution of our species, we wouldn't have the language ability to explain these concepts to each other. Ultimately, all language is best understood with an underlying acceptance of the importance of evolutionary biology. No respectful philologist will ever come to believe that language and evolution are two unrelated fields. Beyond this deep level of semblance, as demonstrated, languages and biological evolution share traits that can lead to mutual understanding and useful analogies for comprehending each system.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Geographical Effects on Armenian self-identity

Of the various elements contributing to the cultural distinctness of a particular ethnic group, geography plays a substantial role. It ultimately effects the technological sophistication and cultural developments of a given region of the world. The advent of agriculture, animal domestication, and metallurgy helped usher in the exponentially developing technological and cultural explosion of the modern world. We have flourished as a species, due in large part to the geographic serendipity of certain population centers, and our highly evolved social networking skills. The complex ability of human beings to continually reinvent their world, and constantly struggle to improve their condition is a milestone in the history of our species. Knowing that modern human beings have been around for 200,000 years, it wasn't until 50,000 years ago that a cultural awakening took place, in which human development and imagination flourished. Some liken it to a reorganization of the brain that may have lead to an increasingly sophisticated linguistic ability. Regardless of the biological shifts, archaeological records indicate that explosions in artistic expression and cultural relevance occurred that has increased in momentum for every progressive generation. It was at this junction in time that we may consider ourselves as having arrived as modern humans. Yet, all the trappings of our success were still thousands of years away. The agricultural revolution had to wait for the end of the last ice age, when global temperatures uncharacteristically stabilized enough for our expansive growth.

Through luck and circumstance, the land that was eventually called Armenia was located in a geographically fortuitous zone for rapid cultural growth. The available wild grains, that were soon domesticated, the wild sheep and goats, that were also quickly domesticated, and the surface deposits of copper, tin, and iron truly providing metallurgical richness were all factors in determining one of the world's first centers of sedentary life and the eventual development of civilization. In essence, the lands of Armenia possessed all the latent characteristics to help plant the seeds of modern civilization. Although ancestral populations to the Armenians were slowly discovering ways to tame nature and shape their world, the resource-rich land was highly mountanous and provided many challenges to hospitable life. The extremely unstable continental climate, raging rivers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and constant human migration through the area were all obstacles to a comfortable life. As is common amongst all humans though, these progenitors were adept at using their mental and physical tools to tame even the most difficult environments. Having a thorough understanding of the rugged terrain, their awareness payed off in ways that effected the technological revolution.

As is often the case with geography, maps will provide frames of reference to visually simplify the topics discussed and the areas in question. Generally, the Republic of Armenia today is but a small portion of the eastern end of historic Armenia. There is no simple name for this contentuous area of the world. It is a zone divided by many various names, but none that simply describe the region that was the technological and innovative cradle of civilization. The following map indicates the present-day political boundries of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, centered on the Western Asia peninsula known alternately as Asia Minor, Anatolia, or Asian Turkey.

The ancestral lands of the various people that contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Armenians can be further localized. To simplify the nomenclature, I have invented a term for this rugged land; Hurromontania. It will become obvious as we proceed through history that at some point in the late Bronze Age, a people known as the Hurrians culturally dominated this region of the world. Their influence was felt from surrounding empires that developed long after the Hurrian's assimilation and demise. The Hittites, Assyrians, Medians, Phoenecians, and even Egyptians all had their cultures influenced, whether directly or indirectly through contact with the Hurrians. Thus, due to their widespread and lasting influence, and the fact that almost all the territory that was Hurrian was eventually populated at one time or another by their semi-descendants, the Armenians, I have named this region in their honor (marked in Red, with the orange area representing the largely Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni).

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Properly Comemmorating the Armenian Genocide

Every year, as April approaches, Armenians all over the world prepare for the commemoration of the single most tragic chapter in the history of our collective consciousness; the Armenian Genocide. This event was such a stunning development in the long history of the Armenian people, that every aspect of modern Armenian culture is shaped and influenced by this focal point. In a way, it's as though Armenian history before the late 19th century was thrown into a blender and the resulting product is the modern Armenian cultural identity. As April 24th nears, these complex times of somber reflection degenerate into victimization and anger. Questions abound, as to how our ancestors allowed themselves to be slaughtered like sheep. We feel sympathy and anger for the blind and fatalistic acceptance of the approaching fate that many should have seen. We direct this anger and internal disgust at the European powers that watched as this tragedy unfolded. Further, we vilify the Turks, Kurds, and Muslims in general for what some of their ancestors did. Ultimately, the official denial by the Turkish Government, and the perceived apathy by the West is what stings the most. For most Armenians, it's almost a right of passage to raise their expectations that the year is approaching when the Turkish government finally accepts these atrocities as a genocide, and feeling truly remorseful, provides us financial and land reparations. Now, this fantasy is common to almost every Armenian, and allows for the festering of the victim mentality. Although we shouldn't allow these events to remain forgotten, and we should continue to pursue justice and acceptance, we cannot become slaves to this tragedy. Wasn't it enough for so many Armenians to be sacrificed so that those who have survived, can thrive in this world and make something of themselves? How many parents would give up their lives to know that their children would lead a better life? We no longer live under the yoke of foreign repression, and we have a country to ourselves. There is a nation called Armenia, that although small, should celebrate the fact that we've survived and thrived. This message of empowerment often falls upon deaf ears, as Armenians argue about their small differences. Having already tackled this last year (you can follow this link), I would like to commemorate the Genocide in a far more productive manner. I shall endeavor to uncover the history of the Armenian people, mainly focusing on the pre-Christian, largely unknown, era. To understand who we are as a modern community on this global stage, it is of utmost importance to uncover our origins, no matter how complex they may be. In the following posts, I will highlight various chapters of our background, with the understanding that a more complete history will lead to empowerment and self-discovery. Moreover, by celebrating the achievements of our antecedents we honor them in ways far greater than mourning or grief as the events of the past only strengthen the common bond that we all share.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the Celebration of Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday

Every February 12th, on the eve of Charles Darwin's birthday, those of us who have felt the impact that the theory of natural selection has on science and our understanding of the natural environment celebrate his intellectual rigor, scientific accomplishments, and outstanding character (please see the previous posts from the last two years here and here). We do not deify him, nor do we treat him as the exalted savior of mankind. We see him as an exceptionally profound human being who was able to methodically and critically analyze the data present to help us understand the natural processes that allowed us as a species to exist. Up to Darwin's Victorian times, many had already contemplated the possible connection between life forms, known then as the "transmutation" of species. As Western culture evolved, the idea that each creature was created in its present form, known as essentialism, had taken precedence. Some, such as the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, had embraced the notion of evolution, even though his proposed mechanism for the inheritance of acquired characteristics (basically, an example of his theory was that giraffes had long necks because their ancestors constantly stretched it trying to reach higher and higher branches, and this was passed down to their children) was falsified by Darwin. To understand Charles Darwin's seminal publication, "On the origin of Species", one must embrace the intellectual leap required in his day. The fossil record in the late mid to late 19th century was very sparse, the idea of continental drift was 75 years away, the understanding of embryology and developmental biology was extremely limited, and the idea of heritable units of DNA we now call genes completely unknown. In some alternate universe, the theory of Natural Selection would have taken much longer to develop. There were also severe impediments to accepting this theory, such as the age of the Earth (at this point estimated scientifically to about 100 million years, which Darwin knew was not enough time for the complexity of life to have evolved). Yet, after 150 years of publication, his theory still stands the test of time. His revolutionary idea has proven to be so rigorous, that it has stood up to countless new discoveries, and fields of biology that would have utterly shocked Darwin himself. We have come to the point where we now know that every human on Earth, every single functioning aspect that defines us, that we use as the human avatar, is found in only 20,000 genes. That's half of the genes found in rice, and yet, as hard as it is to be accepted by some people, there is no evidence that shows evolution to be wrong. In fact, this can be expanded into stating that with all the evidence at our disposal, evolution through natural selection has proven itself to be as near a certainty as science allows. There is no question that we, as human beings, are linked to all the species that exist and have existed on the Earth. Some of these species have evolved with us, since we've branched form our last common ancestor (concestor) with Chimpanzees. Other's have long since vanished, leaving their traces in the geological record. Their whispers however, occasionally echo through the fossil discoveries, some of them so ground breaking, that they almost instantaneously revolutionize our understanding of the links between early branches of species. With each fossil discovery, it seems that another piece of the puzzle is put together, giving us a picture that is so awe inspiring, that people hundreds of years in the future will look upon our current era as one of the golden ages (especially in genomic and molecular biology). Darwin would surely have been envious of our extensive capabilities in linking the fossil record with our tools of molecular phylogenetics (using certain segments of our DNA to determine an approximate date that a species split).

With all the vile, and irrational criticism directed against the theory of Natural Selection, it must be stated that evolution is a fact, no less true than gravity, thermodynamics, nuclear force, human language, etc. Charles Darwin's greatest contribution to evolution was uncovering the mechanism for it. The mechanism that results in the evolution of species is what he called Natural Selection. He uses this term to contrast the artificial selection that humans have used to help domesticate the natural world around us. He often referenced pigeons, because their shorter life-span compared to ours, and their reproductive fecundity allows a pigeon fancier/breeder to understand the ever-shifting role that selection plays in their external appearance. For example, if a breeder found a pigeon with a novel feature, such as feathery tufts that extended a few millimeters onto the leg, he may choose to continuously breed and cross-breed pigeons of similar appearance until one that has feathery tufts that extend all the way down to the lower legs. He can do this, not only within his lifetime, but within a few years, and thus, relate to the role that selection plays. Likewise, most of the existing breeds of dogs that are represented today have, for the most part, appeared in only the last 200 years, through artificial selection. All the agriculture that we have, has been modified from plants that were collected in the wild. The appearance of wild grapes or strawberries is quite different from the cultivated varieties. Anyone who has ever gathered wild strawberries can attest to their small size, whereas there are artificially selected varieties that are nearly as large as one's hand. There is no controversy when it comes to artificial selection because for the most part, these processes occur within a comprehensible time frame. Yet, the controversy over Natural Selection results because of its implication for the non-existence of God, or a prime directional force. Some people are so clouded with the belief of the existence of a meddling deity, that they're willing to reject a mountain of evidence against it. Since Darwin's time, we have come to realize that natural processes account for all the diversity we see in life today. Before Newton's discovery of the Law of gravity, it was thought by some that God (or insert your chosen deity) kept everything somehow tethered to the Earth. Before the discovery of the Periodic Table of Elements, it was thought by some that all the elements on Earth were composed of a few primary ones, or infused with the essence of something that was created by a creator. Now that we have natural processes to explain physics, and chemistry, Darwin came by, along with Alfred Russel Wallace, to help biology into its rightful place. The concept of natural selection has been the hardest to accept partly because anthropocentric views continue to dominate human thinking. We believe that somehow, we are different from all the other animals. That if we accept that human beings are a complete result of natural processes, with no input from a supernatural entity, we somehow do a disservice to our species. Basically, it's our egos that convince us that we are something special in the eyes of an imaginary entity that we create to feel comfortable in a universe that is apathetic to our needs. The ultimate implication that Darwin's theory of Natural Selection has, outside the sphere of since, is the continued lessening of the role that supernatural entities we create with our imaginations have on life. Philosophically, the eventuality is to accept that the natural processes that govern and dictate the universe are enough to explain everything around us. It is this fear that has resulted in so much unnecessary controversy.

One of Darwin's great weaknesses was the lack of an agent that dictated the heritable changes that are passed on from one generation to the next. Having explained natural selection as the mechanism for evolution, an agent is needed that leads to these heritable changes. In other words, what did mutation act upon so that changes occurred in speciation? Other questions Darwin asked was how did species from vastly separate continents have a common origin? If humans descended from apes, where is all the fossil evidence for it? How many species die and are fossilized in conditions to help preserve them? How does speciation occur when isolation is not involved? These questions were not enough to deter Darwin, but did result in his hesitation in publishing his work for nearly two decades. The impetus for Darwin's eventual publication was Alfred Russel Wallace, another great British naturalist, who had concurrently also discovered Natural Selection as the mechanism for evolution. Although Darwin's insights had come before Wallace, having taken two decades to thoroughly analyze all the collected specimens and attempt at correlating it with other fields, Wallace was ready to publish his data. He further felt that because he lacked the notion of heritable characteristics, which eventually was discovered to be genes, in the form of DNA, his work could become prey to indefensible criticism. Being a considerate researcher, Darwin agreed to publish his work along side Wallace's, and together, they unequivocally established evolution through natural selection as a theory of nature. What had allowed Wallace to publish his findings so quickly was that he was already a supporter of the transmutation of species before his expeditions to the Brazilian Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. What Darwin had observed in the radiation of Galapagos finches, Wallace had observed in the various closely related butterfly species in what's now Malaysia. Darwin needed an extra leap, in which he would have to independently discover the transmutation of species through his own extensive field observations. Eventually, with both fathers of evolutionary biology in agreement, other scientists where able to help further our understanding of biology.

Once James Watson and Francis Crick had discovered the agent for natural selection, molecular biology became to once again prove Charles Darwin correct. In Darwin's time, unbeknownst to him, Gregor Mendel had already explained the process of genetics through the inheritance of certain traits. It wasn't until after Darwin's death, in the early 20th century that Mendel's work was able to become widespread enough for biologists to form a solid link between genetics and evolution. Some of the eventual discoveries have befuddled scientists for generations. Even today, we are constantly reminded of how complex genetics and natural selection can be. We can't afford to become complacent and take our discoveries for granted. Of the various new discoveries which have truly altered the field of genetics and evolutionary biology within the last few generations are horizontal gene transfer, self organization (cellular), endosymbiosis, and epigenetics. I will probably discuss these new processes in another post. What's important however is that we now have irrefutable evidence for the validity of Darwin's theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. We know that mutations are caused by changes to the DNA, either directly to the sequence, or indirectly, effecting the signaling processes. Eventually, these changes are great enough for speciation to occur. Critics often use micro-evolution and macro-evolution in a pathetic attempt at generating artificial categories for species' changes. The truth is that evolutionary radiation is an incremental mutational process that may seem small in human time scales (as micro-evolution), but multiplied by a factor closer to geological scales, seems significant (macro-evolution). When selection is left to the environment, and not an intelligent agent, then the time required for observable and measurable changes often takes much longer than human time scales. This is when fossil evidence from the geological record is used to identify various species anatomically. If every single organism that ever lived on earth was preserved, and we had the fossil record complete, we wouldn't see different species. For example, if we were to follow modern human beings, back to the last common ancestor of us and chimpanzees, and then back to the earliest primates, we would see negligible changes between each generation. If we decided to skip back every 5,000 generations we would see small but noticeable changes. Skipping back every 50,000 generations, these changes would look even greater. Finally, if we skipped back every 5 million generations, the species would hardly look related to the one before (in fact, to do this, we would have to include the earliest tetrapods). Richard Dawkins calls this concept the "genomic library." Thus, observing evolution is often based on the perspective of time. We can't very well observe living changes every one thousand years, but we can observe the geological record and the fossils that have been left in the past. Knowing this, we can perhaps use the models developed through observing the past, to analyzing the possibilities of evolutionary changes into the future.

Embracing Darwin's concept of evolution through natural selection, and extending it to the modern synthesis we've developed in the various different fields of biology, allows us to philosophically examine the impact this theory has on our place in the world, and ultimately, in the universe. In the most basic ways, we are no different then all the other living organisms. Yet, what defines a species of organism is their unique adaptations that differentiate them from other ones. We, as human beings, have acquired many traits through lucky chance, that makes us unique, and does in some way separate us from other animals. We have advanced language, intelligence (most of us), problem solving ability, social cooperation, and even the possible ability to create artificial life. The process of natural selection, does not require a natural environment, but one that applies selective pressures from the environment. The changes that have occurred in species on Earth are non-directed, which again is controversial to some irrational people. They go through fits and loops in an attempt at explaining evolution as a non-random directed process. The evidence however, indicates that evolutionary changes in organisms are completely constrained by the environment, but not dictated by a hidden "directed" force. This is yet another futile attempt at injecting a supernatural conscience to something that does not in any way indicate it. Regardless of all the anti-evolutionary noise, we stand here, on the eve of Darwin's 200th birth day, with the technological sophistication that puts us well on the path towards creating life that was not a product of random changes in the natural world, but may still come to be a product of random changes within the algorithm of programs. Understanding evolution, especially our place in it, does not make us egotistical, but on the contrary, allows us to maintain some humility. We are after all, a product of our natural environment, and hold within us the power to truly change the world. We can either look at the world as our dominion (the Biblical belief) in which we have tyrannical reign over all organisms, or see ourselves as a vital part of the planet, with the unique ability to analyze our impact and address the problems that we cause. Further, we must strive to help our fellow human beings with more than just self-comforting, but ineffective prayers. We must indicate with our actions and deeds, our talents and our abilities, our desire to help further humanities and the planet's best interest. What Darwin has taught us is that we are but one of the many lucky inheritors of the ever changing world. How we choose to deal with this understanding is what ultimately defines our species.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Israel's defense of War Crimes

The shocking Irony in the recent Israeli assertion that they will defend any soldiers from war crimes (Israel vows to back soldiers accused of war crimes) would be funny, if it wasn't for the severe hypocritical nature of the issue. After all the Nuremberg trials, and Nazi war tribunals, these same descendants of people who were murdered in the Holocaust are now actively obstructing the international courts from serving justice. If past history is any indication, the worst part of all this is that they're going to get away with it. Who's going to stand in Israel's way? The West will probably raise a voiceless concern here and there, the Arab world will continue shouting injustice until people are rioting in the streets, but no concrete changes will ever occur. Until the day that the United Nations security force remains a joke, and Israel continues to function in their own political dimension, these Gaza atrocities will continue unabated. Who speaks for the innocent Gaza civilians that were killed? Israel claims it was Hamas accidentally striking their own people, but without allowing independent journalists to view the conflict, how is justice served? While the world accepts Barack Obama as the new President, there are thousands of dead civilians within Gaza, while the rest of the surviving population suffers with little infrastructure, and minimal international support. There is nothing possible that the West can say and be taken seriously if Israel continues these idiotic unregulated policies. The time may come when they will have to stand trial for these consistent abuses of human rights, and perhaps the same hostile, apathetic, and condescending attitude they portray towards Palestinians may be reciprocated back to them.