I don't mean our private lives, our personal choices and hopes, the plans we make along the years. I imagine that each and every one of us believes our lives do have a purpose, or many. What I mean is life as a natural phenomenon, this strange assembly of matter endowed with autonomy, capable of absorbing energy from the environment and preserving itself through reproduction.
All life forms have one essential purpose: survival. This is even more important than reproduction. After all, babies and grannies are alive but don't reproduce. To be alive is more than passing genes along. To be alive is to want to remain alive. This is an essential difference between living creatures and other forms of material organization, such as stars or rocks.
These forms simply exist, passively allowing the unfolding of the physical processes that define their interactions with themselves and their surroundings. For rocks, it's a give and take with erosion; for stars, they withstand their gravitational imploding while there is enough fuel in their cores. There is no energy architecture, no planning to prolong what is inevitable.
The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.
The confusion with respect to the purpose of life shows up when we consider the amazing diversity of life forms. Given such richness and creativity, it's hard to accept that all of this is just the result of a purposeless accident, without any intention of creating ever-more-complex creatures. Things get worse when we learn that the history of life on Earth shows an increasing complexity.
Life has been around planet Earth for at least 3.5 billion years. During the first 2.5 billion years there were only unicellular bacteria. Only some 600 million years ago did diversity take off. After the Cambrian explosion, at about 550 million years ago, we see the multicellular complexity we associate with higher life forms. From there to here life took over the oceans, land and air with amazing speed and resilience.
No wonder so many people think that life has a purpose, that of increasing its complexity. Of course, the apex of this process would be us, intelligent humans.
This conclusion, however, is false. There is no "plan" to make life more complex so that it can finally generate intelligent beings. (The eminent biologist Ernst Mayr makes a powerful argument against this kind of teleology.) Take the dinosaurs, for example: they were here for some 150 million years and were pretty stupid. We don't see velociraptors using radio telescopes or iPads. Life wants to preserve itself. As long as it is well adapted to its environment it will remain as is, with the possibility of the occasional beneficial mutation.
If the environment changes drastically, life will respond. Either by dying or, for those species that survive, through mutations that may drive radical changes in short periods, as in the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge that — even if somewhat controversial — seems to contain a germ of truth.
If we changed one or more dramatic events in Earth's history, say, the fall of the asteroid that helped eliminate the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, life's history would also change. It's quite possible that we wouldn't even be here.
The lesson from life is simple: in Nature, creation and destruction dance together. But in this choreography there is no choreographer.
World War A (in which Isaac Newton is bonked on the head and still bravely figures out gravity)
World War B (spun off from a VH1 reality show)
World War C (in which two dudes hit each other with cellos for 2.5 hours)
World War D (part of The Great Report Card Skirmish Of 1998)
World War-E (in which a tiny robot rolls around and watches Hello Dolly and then smashes the doubloons out of everything in sight)
World War F (the [bleep]ing best war ever)
World War G (gorilla versus giraffes versus gerbils versus guinea pigs) (brutal)
World War H (sometimes, the war is silent)
World War I (often confused with World War I)
World War J (alternate title: World War Erving)
World War K (cereal warfare)
World War L (ends in Canarsie)
World War M (about the one thousandth world war)
World War N (directly follows World War N-1, followed by World War N+1)
World War O (Oprah's war)
World War P (when you lie on your side, it's just a war between people sticking their tongues out at each other)
World War Q (Almost always followed by World War U)
World War R (pirate war)
World War S (emphasizing that there are always many, many world wars)
World War T (the war between the shirts)
World War U (where we learn to party and chase monsters)
World War V (inside every warrior, there's a space lizard)
World War W (whatever)
World War X (the sexiest World War)
World War Y (the war for men only)
The bluegrass band Bearfoot returns to Mountain Stage, recorded live on the campus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. This was one of Bearfoot's final appearances featuring its current lineup, as singer Nora Jane Struthers and bassist P.J. George are set to step away to promote an upcoming Struthers solo project.
Although the group is currently based in Nashville, Bearfoot has roots in Alaska, where founding members Angela Oudean (fiddle and vocals) and mandolin player Jason Norris (mandolin and vocals) once made their home. They added fellow Alaskan Todd Grebe on vocals and guitar, and before long touring the country. Struthers and George joined not long after, incorporating Americana and honky-tonk flavors into the band's repertoire.
- "Mr. Moonshine"
- "Cowgirl Yodel #3"
This Mountain Stage episode was first published on Oct. 10, 2012.
Another interview with a key IRS employee, another oblique connection to Washington, D.C. and yet still no explosive revelations in the scandal surrounding the agency's targeting of Tea Party groups.
Although his name was blacked out, NPR has confirmed the "screening group" manager's name is John Shafer, a long-time IRS employee who supervised workers doing initial screenings of applications for tax exempt status in the Cincinnati field office.
"I believe releasing this transcript serves the best interest of Congress and the American people by ensuring that there is an accurate and fair picture of the management challenges facing the IRS and that recommendations for legislative reform are appropriately crafted to address the specific problems identified as a result of our oversight efforts," said Cummings, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee's chairman.
Issa shot back with a statement saying the release of this transcript could potentially harm the committee's investigation.
"I am deeply disappointed that Ranking Member Cummings has decided to broadly disseminate and post online a 205 page transcript that will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress," said Issa.
What's so special about Shafer's interview?
Cummings says it "debunks conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases."
For the Maryland Democrat, it certainly can't hurt that Shafer describes himself as a "conservative Republican" and also says the elevating of Tea Party cases for further review started with him, rather than someone higher up the chain.
But much like transcripts of other interviews viewed by NPR, this lengthy interview reveals just a tiny piece of the ongoing investigation.
How It All Started
As Shafer describes it, his team of agents does an initial screening of the approximately 70,000 applications for tax-exempt status the IRS receives each year. Some are marked for approval, others that are missing information or have other issues are sent along to agents who will review those cases.
In February 2010, according to Shafer, an agent whose name has been redacted came to him with an application from a Tea Party group.
"[name redacted] was an agent who worked for me and he came to my office," said Shafer in the transcribed interview with a bipartisan group of investigators. "And he was asking guidance concerning a case that had been assigned to him, and I believe his comment at that point in time to me was that, 'I can't really close this case. I'm going to sent it to inventory.' But because of media attention that he had seen, he had concerns about this being a high-profile case."
Shafer said he agreed it should be elevated, so he sent it to his direct supervisors who then sent it on to an office of tax lawyers in a Washington D.C office called Exempt Organizations Technical.
"[Name redacted] came back and said, yes, EO Technical wants to see this case, then this ends up to be a case that we want to make sure we're consistently going to look at, and that's where this started," said Shafer.
A Bureaucratic Maze
As it turns out, the IRS is a maze of divisions and offices with opaque sounding names. Shafer appears to have been a cog in the machine.
Investigators asked him about the development of the BOLO (or Be on the Lookout) notice that told agents to flag Tea Party files. Shafer said he didn't know much about it. Investigators asked him what happened to the applications after they were identified as Tea Party cases. He said he didn't know. As he explained more than once: "My function, again, was to look at these initial cases with a span of a few days and put them in a proper bucket and just go on with my work. Whatever went on after I bucketed these cases, it was what it was. I was not intimately involved with any of that," said Shafer.
But he did make it clear the initial elevation of the case was his idea, and that it had nothing to do with partisan politics. He said the goal was simply to treat similar groups fairly and consistently.
In fact, he told investigators he didn't think the term "targeting" was accurate.
"I'm not in a position to discuss anybody else's intention but my own, and I know that what I did was not targeting," said Shafer.
Ultimately the Tea Party cases experienced long waits and treatment the IRS Inspector General deemed inappropriate, but how that happened isn't clear from Shafer's testimony.
"At this point in the investigation, not one witness who has appeared before the Committee has identified any involvement by any White House officials in the identification or screening of Tea Party applicants for tax exempt status, and the Committee has obtained no documents indicating any such involvement," said Cummings in his letter to Issa.
Issa, for his part, says Cummings is just trying to obstruct the oversight process. And so, the fight continues.
Update at 10:20 a.m. ET. 'Peace With Justice':
Speaking at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin — the same spot John F. Kennedy made his famous speech almost 50 years ago — President Obama on Wednesday called on the global community to fight for democracy and freedom everywhere.
"Our fates are linked," Obama said. "We cannot ignore those who are yearning not only for freedom but also prosperity. And finally let's remember that peace with justice depends on our ability to sustain both the security of our societies and the openness that defines them."
In the wide-ranging speech, Obama touched on equality, poverty, war, climate change and nuclear disarmament. It was an idealistic speech that echoed Kennedy.
Obama kept referring to Kennedy's "peace with justice" and at one point, Obama used the "ich bin ein berliner" line, which is the most famous line from that Kennedy speech.
"But that's not all he said that day," Obama said to some laughter. "Less remembered is the challenge that he issued to the crowd before him. Let me ask you, he said to those Berliners. Let me ask you to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today and beyond the freedom of merely this city. Look, he said, to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind."
Of course Obama delivered this speech just as his administration is rocked with questions about the country's surveillance programs, his failure to deliver on closing Guantanamo and his cautious approach toward the situation in Syria.
Obama took on all of those things: He said he is still committed to closing the American prison in Guantanamo and that he is confident the U.S. is balancing national security with the protection of privacy.
He dealt with Syria at a higher level, saying: "We must reject the lie that those who live in distant places don't yearn for freedom and self determination just like we do, that they don't somehow yearn for dignity and rule of law just like we do. We cannot dictate the pace of change in places like Arab world, but we must reject the excuse that we can do nothing to support it."
Obama also promised to work with Russia to reduce the two countries' nuclear stockpile.
Our Original Post Continues:
President Obama defended the National Security Agency's surveillance programs today during a joint news conference in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama said that when he came into office, he came in with a "healthy skepticism" about the programs and ordered his administration to "examine" and "scrub" them.
Obama said he is now "confident that at this point, we have struck the right balance" between protecting the country and the Constitutional guarantee to privacy.
As he has on other occasions, Obama described both programs as "circumscribed" and "narrow."
At around 9 a.m. ET., Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. USA Today reports that he will "renew calls for a reduction in nuclear weapons."
The paper adds:
"Obama will address a crowd of 5,000 invited guests at the historic landmark in the center of Berlin almost 50 years after John F. Kennedy made his famous speech at what was then West Berlin at the Rathaus Schoeneberg (town hall). Obama made a speech as a presidential candidate in the city in 2008."
We'll monitor the speech and add highlights to this post.