This Morning

This morning I’m thinking, Well! That’s quite a line you’re following, there, Dusty! First you rail against science, and then you complain about the foundation of American exceptionalism, capitalism and the profit motive? Why don’t you go for the trifecta?

This morning, I say to my sardonic self (Who uses sarcasm to conceal the quiver in his lip): all righty then.

Capitalism and the profit motive have helped make this country the absolute powerhouse that it is militarily, culturally, and especially economically. The drive to succeed, to win, to gain the maximum benefit for one’s self from one’s labor, have been a powerful motivator for as long as this country has told us we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; though profit and competition haven’t made that particular impossible feat possible, they have allowed us to turn a thousand other impossible things into realities: they helped us get to the moon (because we had to beat the Commies there) and they helped us invent the first atomic bomb (because we had to beat the Nazis) and they helped us lead the way in the information revolution of the 1980’s (because Apple had to beat Microsoft, and Microsoft had to beat Apple). Our continuous growth, our continuous progress, have been driven largely by exactly this: by money, by profit, by competition for limited resources, whether those resources are time or money or fame or love or just food.

I can’t argue with that. I hate competition, hate the very idea of fighting other people in order to gain greater profit; but I can’t deny the results. America is an exceptional place, and our incredible speed forward has been increased again, and again, and again, by this essential underlying system: the one in front, the one on top, gets what he wants, and other people have to make do with what’s left over, with what’s left behind. Our system of government, our great and wonderful freedoms —  and they are great, and they are wonderful — are predicated on that idea, with this addition: anyone, in theory, can be the one on top, the one who gets all the stuff first. In practice it can’t be anyone, and it’s almost  always been the same type of people — mostly white Christian men — but in theory, it could be anyone, and our ability to pretend that that is true, and our desire to push for greater rights for other people mainly because we think those opportunities will reflect some benefit back on us, are what has allowed us as a society to spread those freedoms to more people, in more situations.

Just as long as we can pretend the people gaining the freedoms are like us. When they’re not like us, when they live on the other side of the world and speak a different language and live a different way, well. Then it’s probably all right if they have less freedom. Particularly if we profit thereby, with, say, cheap consumer goods.

Am I being too cynical? Look: the slaves were freed because it served the purpose of the white men who freed them. Woodrow Wilson changed his stance on women’s suffrage from opposition to support because he needed women to continue supporting the American effort in World War I. At least part of Lyndon Johnson’s intention in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure the Democratic party would not fracture along racial lines — and that all of them would support his bid for election in November. And so on, so on. I do agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that those in power do not give up their power voluntarily, only when there is sufficient pressure on them to do so; I know that some of the progress we have made towards greater freedom has been because of grass roots movements and political and social pressure. The will of the people does sometimes prevail. Maybe even often.

But far more often, money talks, and people bend and crawl. And that’s capitalism.

Technology, meanwhile, has often been touted as a means of making life easier for the common man; but all too often, it has in fact made life harder. We have more technology, and we work longer hours and suffer more stress. We have longer life spans, now, that much is certainly true; but more of our lives is spent in misery, and often in ill health. We’ve gotten more quantity of life, but not more quality. And even more true is this: when progress has been made, it pushes us forward  —  off of another cliff. The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, led by Norman Borlaug, saved at least a billion people from starving to death in Asia. A magnificent success, and a great leap forward.

How many billions are going to die now because of climate change? How much of that climate change was driven by the increase in human population made possible by the Green Revolution?

I don’t mean to say it was a bad thing. Lives were saved, and I am in favor of humans, and of living humans over dead humans. The same thing is true of our longer life spans: what I said about quantity but not quality is true, but also, the rise of lingering and terrible diseases that afflict us as we age has come at least partly because we are now still alive to age. We die of cancer now because we don’t die of sepsis like we used to. We have Alzheimer’s now because we’re not all dead at 65-70 from heart disease. Do you realize how many of the world’s greatest authors, along with millions of others, literally drank themselves to death before they were 50? Do you realize how much of that is attributable to a lack of understanding of and treatment for alcoholism? How much was, quite simply, due to the inability of medical science to perform a liver transplant? Medical advancements just mean we die in different ways, and after longer lives — and as a person who would like to live a good, long time before he dies, I see that as entirely positive.

But the problem is, the problem with all of this is, that we think of our temporary fixes, our incremental advances  — our progress– as a solution to the problem. But it never is. All we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution if not before, is treating the symptoms and not the real underlying problem. We are better at waging war: but we haven’t figured out how to stop fighting. We live longer lives: but not better ones. We make more profits: but we don’t get greater rewards. We live in a magnificent country: but it survives by exploiting and destroying other countries, other people, and it always has.

Progress is not our salvation. Progress is our drug. We’re not making real progress in our real problems — not much, and not quickly, and too often the real progress is swallowed up by backsliding; we have actually gotten more empathetic and more aware, and the backlash from that is the alt-right and Donald Trump. Which is making us less empathetic and less aware, as we draw deeper into our shells to avoid looking at the shit that is piling up outside. And I am entirely guilty of this, don’t think I’m not: I have stopped listening to or reading the news because I feel powerless to do anything about it. I’m not: I have as much power as any person, and more than most because I am a white Christian man, to help make the world a better place, and instead, I’ve done — well, nothing useful. I’ve probably made some progress. But I haven’t solved anything.

 

I don’t think I’ve been clear enough in this blog. I’ve been having trouble lately making my point clear; and this one is a tough one to get across. Let me boil it down and then I will see if I can explain it at greater length in future posts.

What we call progress, in technology, in the growth of our economy, in the expansion of this nation’s military and political power, are rarely if ever actual progress towards a useful goal, a valuable purpose. Almost always the goal is — motion. Like football: you try to get the first down, you try to move the chains. You hunker down and focus on the immediate task, convincing yourself that that one task, that one all-consuming goal, is a good thing. And in the immediate sense, in a single, narrow context, it is good: football players are successful when they get first downs. Soldiers are successful when they carry out assigned missions. Workers are successful when they bring home a paycheck. Scientists are successful when they complete an experiment as it was intended  — say, by injecting human brain DNA into macaques. We see immediate success as progress, especially when it is followed by another success. We’ve taken another step along the path.

But we rarely, if ever, think about where the path is leading. And too often, the successes right now cause even greater problems down the line.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems, nor that we should try not to solve them; winning World War II was the right thing to do, even if it did start the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and so on. Norman Borlaug absolutely should have saved billions from starving, and Alexander Fleming absolutely should have deciphered penicillin, and Dr. King absolutely should have fought for civil rights.

But we need to stop thinking that progress, movement forward, is the answer, is the solution, is the goal. Movement for the sake of movement will not ever get you to where you need to go, to where you should be. Only purposeful, intentional movement can do that. A plan. Understanding.

So maybe, instead of bulling ahead ever farther, ever faster, ever harder, we should– slow down. And think. Even if it means we don’t solve the problems we’re dealing with right now. Maybe it will help us find a real solution, instead of a solution right now that leads to another problem tomorrow.

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This Morning

This morning I  am thinking: what the fuck, China?

Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.

Okay. Let’s be clear. I am in favor of science. Scientific advancements save lives and improve the quality of our lives. I am also of the opinion that our highest calling as human beings is to create beauty, and to discover truth.

But this? This is not beautiful.

Of the 11 transgenic macaque monkeys they generated, six died. The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.

I am, of course, generally not in favor of animal experimentation, nor human experimentation —  I say “Of course” not because I presume my audience knows that I am a humanist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an animal lover, but because I am a thinking, feeling human, and thinking feeling humans should all generally oppose experimentation on sentient creatures. I understand that sometimes animal experimentation is necessary. Medical advancements, for instance: when those experiments move forward, lives are saved and lives are improved, and that is probably worth the cost. It is sometimes impossible to move a project forward without live subjects, and animals are probably better subjects than humans, ethically speaking.

But this is not a medical advancement. This does not help humans live longer, nor better. This was done entirely, completely, because they could.

Although the sample size was very small, the scientists excitedly described the study as “the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model.” In other words, part of the point of the study was to help tackle a question about evolution: How did we humans develop our unique brand of intelligence, which has allowed us to innovate in ways other primates can’t?

They excitedly described the study as the first attempt to do BIG FANCY SCIENCE WORDS. The attempt to answer that question is nonsense: how a macaque is affected by people injecting weird DNA into its genome has nothing whatsoever to do with human evolution, and anyone with a high school education knows it. There’s no possible way to isolate the variables and find specific information. I’m sure this would give hints that could lead to new knowledge — but six dead animals and five fucked-up ones seems a very high price for hints.

And of course, though I do not like slippery slope arguments, there’s no need to speculate about this experiment leading to more like it, coming faster and going farther: that’s already happening.

The Chinese researchers suspect the MCPH1 gene is part of the answer. But they’re not stopping there. One of them, Bing Su, a geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, told MIT Technology Review that he’s already testing other genes involved in brain evolution:

One that he has his eye on is SRGAP2C, a DNA variant that arose about two million years ago, just when Australopithecus was ceding the African savannah to early humans. That gene has been dubbed the “humanity switch” and the “missing genetic link” for its likely role in the emergence of human intelligence. Su says he’s been adding it to monkeys, but that it’s too soon to say what the results are.

Su has also had his eye on another human gene, FOXP2, which is believed to have graced us with our language abilities. Pondering the possibility of adding that gene to monkeys, Su toldNature in 2016, “I don’t think the monkey will all of a sudden start speaking, but will have some behavioral change.” He would not be breaking any laws.

Ohhh, he would NOT be breaking any laws! Well, shit, I guess that’s fine, then.

The article goes on to make a fairly obscure point, which is that monkeys made to be more like humans will suffer even more in a constricted lab environment; it also points out that “normal” monkeys suffer enough as it is, that macaques have intricate and important social lives that they can’t experience in a lab. This is all true, and makes this experiment unethical — or it would, if there was any ethical argument to be made for this experiment.

Look, I understand that science does not always have clear connections to a practical use. My father, a nuclear physicist, spent his career working on multi-billion dollar projects that had no direct application in the world. But of course practical application was not the point: expanding knowledge leads to better understanding, which leads to both greater expansion of knowledge and, at some point, practical applications, which is where longer and better human lives come in. But we can’t just focus on the eventual positive outcome: we have to consider the cost right now, and the benefit right now, with the potential benefit considered only after that. And the cost of this experiment is much too high, while the benefit from it is — little more than bragging rights. This doesn’t change our understanding of human evolution, it confirms, slightly, something we already thought was true. It can’t confirm it too conclusively, because again, macaques infected with human DNA are not the same thing as  Australopithecines evolving under natural selection. Not even close.

Last two things I want to point out about this: one, Chinese geneticists have already altered human DNA, entirely against any standard of scientific ethics. (They may have arrested the scientist who did it, but really, what does that even mean in China?)

And two, China is not the only nation involved. Of course not.

When it comes to studying monkeys, a researcher gets much more bang for their buck in China, as the Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang reported last year:

A standard monkey in China costs about $1,500, compared to roughly $6,000 in the United States. The daily costs of food and care are an order of magnitude lower as well.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more.

Because of the relative ease of conducting primate research there, some researchers regularly travel from the US to China for scientific work on monkeys. As Zhang pointed out, researchers at Emory University recently collaborated with scientists in China who work on genetically modified monkeys. And Su’s study involved University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner. Styner, who told MIT Tech Review that his participation was minimal, said he considered pulling his name from the study and has come to believe such research is not “a good direction.”

Although the US is not green-lighting studies like Su’s, American universities that collaborate with Chinese scientists on such studies may still be complicit in any ethical harm they cause.

I hope we’re all ready for what comes next.

 

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

Image result for the demon-haunted world

The Demon-Haunted World

by Carl Sagan

Published the year he died, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a haunted book. I haven’t read his other work (Though now I plan to), but this one seems darker than what I had imagined his work would be like. It’s not hopeless or despairing; it’s a serious warning about a serious problem, and what seemed to me like a fairly frustrated attempt to cut through a thick layer of hogwash on a specific issue that obviously bothered Sagan quite a lot: namely the idea of alien abduction.

The general warning about the serious problem is the overall thrust of the book, and it is about the need for a free people to think skeptically. Sagan being who he was, he came at the idea from a scientist’s perspective; he describes at length the need for scientists to be skeptical, to be willing to question anything, most particularly their own most cherished beliefs. He gives example after example of scientists describing the need to build beautiful, elegant theories that explain great answers to great questions – and then tear them down completely when those theories are contradicted by the evidence. He talks about the shift from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, and he talks about how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was able to contribute as much to the field of astronomy when he was wrong as he was when he was right (and in both cases his contributions were prodigious, Sagan says).

Because Sagan is not only talking about science, and because he practiced what he preached, he makes a concerted effort in this book to talk about the flawed nature of scientists, the scientists who did more harm than good, the ones who told themselves they could ignore the ethical responsibility of considering the potential uses of their discoveries – a deception, Sagan argues, as he states unequivocally that the extraordinary power of modern scientific discoveries and the technology that comes from them imposes a greater responsibility than ever before for scientists to act as ethically as possible in considering what potential harm could be done by their work, and taking action to minimize that harm. He talks about the various ways that science can be manipulated and used to do harm; though he is also clear that none of that harm tells us that science is itself harmful or bad or should be feared or avoided. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to do – well, anything; but ignoring the power doesn’t protect us from it, it simply makes it easier for someone else to use it harmfully.

What else is Sagan talking about other than science itself, than the beauty and power of the scientific mindset, of skeptical thinking and a reliance on repeatable experiment and observable data? He’s talking about everything, really. There isn’t an aspect of life or modern society where a skeptical mindset would be inappropriate. The book covers a lot of aspects of society and culture; the exploration of the alien abduction myth, rather than simply being a screed against a continuing falsehood that Sagan, as an astrophysicist, took personally; he goes back through history and connects the alien abduction myth to past myths, of fairy abductions, of divine intervention in the lives of mortals. In addition to showing how a skeptical mindset quickly takes the alien abduction story apart, he also shows how it could be used to remove a dozen other pernicious ideas in our culture, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.

It’s beautifully done. This is a lovely book, fascinating in its ideas and easily digestible in the presentation of them. And as I said, it isn’t hopeless: Sagan also makes sure to express to the reader his unquenchable curiosity and his enormous capacity for wonder, which he also says must be fostered and encouraged along with the skeptical mindset; because when our cherished ideas are disproven by the evidence, when the flaws in our reasoning are found by our own penetrating, skeptical questions, it is our sense of wonder and our need to feel awe that makes us look again for a new answer to replace the one we just discarded. Wonder makes us get up and try again, after we knock ourselves down; and the combination of those two qualities is what gives this book its hope.

The thing that makes it scary is that Sagan wrote it twenty years ago. And on the first page – the first damn page – he said this:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

[…]

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Yeah. This book scared me, all right. I hope it also inspired me. I do intend to use one entire chapter/essay in my classes this coming school year, to try to make that candle burn a little brighter, if I can; and I would like to recommend that everyone read this book when you get the chance, because after Sagan finishes talking about alien abduction, he talks about democracy, and the need for scientific skeptical thinking and also scientific wonder and awe, to save our democracy, to save our country. And I for one think he was right.