Concerning the Beast Folk

November 22, 2006

On a recent visit to Barnes & Noble (this literary addiction is getting rather expensive) I browsed through a stack of compilations of novels by famous authors. One caught my eye: a collection of works by H.G. Wells. It includes the Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, all of which I’ve been meaning to read, so I found it a new, loving home–my bookshelf.

 

The Island of Dr. Moreau got inexplicably bumped to the top of my reading queue, probably because I was craving something fictional. I saw the movie adaptation some years ago, and had vague memories of it being creepy, scary and disgusting.

 

The basic premise is that Prendick, passenger on a sea voyage, is shipwrecked on an island occupied by the namesake physiologist and his assistant. The only other residents of the island, as the narrator eventually discovers, are monstrous human/animal hybrids.

 

Dr. Moreau was a prominent physiologist in London who was eventually driven away from respectable society by his methods, including his disregard for the pain caused by his experiments. Dr. Moreau moved shop to his island, where he was free to take all manner of beast and shape them into human form.

 

While the science is assuredly outdated in ways, Dr. Moreau’s reality has a potential to become ours. Whole segments of one embryo can be grafted onto another of a different species during development, and many of the results can be both surprisingly revolting and survivable.

 

Our pursuit of cures for genetic diseases in humans will inevitably lead to an ability to alter specific genes for the sake of improvements, not just treatments. (Some, such as members of the transhumanist movement, openly advocate improving the human species in this way.) Surely someone will also realize the benefit of inserting genes for the production of human insulin, antibodies, or blood into a primate. Or what about using animals to grow replacement human organs?

 

Not many are openly calling for the creation of more grotesque human/animal chimeras, but as the ability to perform such experiments becomes more diffuse, it is nearly inevitable that someone will eventually attempt it. So we are left with the question of how we will regard these creations. Fully animal? Partly human?

 

For now, I’ll leave you with some rather disturbing diatribes by Dr. Moreau:

“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels.”

“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life. While you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—Bah! What is your theologian’s ecstasy but Mahomet’s houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came.”

“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.”

For the record, I don’t recommend Moreau’s ethics or theology. But bravo to Mr. Wells: good novel, nice concept, and interesting dilemmas. I think I’ll have to watch that movie again and see what I think now.


Patents and Patients

November 20, 2006

The right to intellectual property is fundamental to much Western innovation. If I write a book, I own that book and can sell it for what I like. If I invent a new type of automobile (or spaceship for that matter) I can profit from its sales. But should intellectual property rights be extended into all areas of creative endeavor?

 

I’ve been telling my friends for some time that much stronger government-provided incentives are necessary to bring the level of research on drugs for the poor to badly needed levels. Funding for HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis have improved in recent years, but their funding is still disproportionate to the scale of their impact. Other diseases that primarily affect the developing world don’t get as much attention from the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation, either.

 

I am always appreciative when someone well-known articulates something that I’ve been telling my friends all along, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (who I’ve written about before) has done just that (thanks Joe). His short piece in The New Scientist, “Award Prizes Not Patents,” offers a workable alternative to patents for drug research.

 

The absolute right to intellectual property has at times been overlooked in many of the fastest advancing fields of science. If Watson and Crick had been able to patent the structure of DNA because they first discovered it, they would have profited beyond imagination from the myriad technological advances that have stemmed from our knowledge of DNA.

 

But their ability to monopolize the use of that knowledge and ask whatever price they desired could also have stymied much additional research, and made its benefits unavailable to the poor.

 

Historically, scientists have published their research in journals and felt free to use the data and techniques originated by others (giving ample credit where it is due, of course) in the course of advancing our knowledge of the physical world. Some scientists and inventors have of course been quick to patent specific inventions which are easier to monopolize/protect.

 

But the patenting of a new drug by a pharmaceutical company makes as much sense to me as Watson and Crick patenting the shape of DNA. They were only able to discover the double helix because they stood on the shoulders of giants. And despite their lack of a patent, the rewards for research were still strong; professional respect, international fame, a place in history, career stability, and the not-insignificant monetary compensation of a Nobel Prize.

 

As Stiglitz writes, what is needed is a strongly funded program that provides large prizes for drug development based on the national and global need for new treatments. Breakthroughs in treatments for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS would be rewarded prizes similar in proportion to their need, giving research companies more than enough incentive to pursue new drugs. Once developed, drugs could be distributed at cost.

 

Sound socialist to you? Well, some goods, like having drugs available to treat HIV and tuberculosis (where treatment also slows the spread of disease), are social goods that benefit entire communities, nations, and the world. Funding medical research based on the impact of disease is merely a recognition that the development of new drugs should be guided by the extent of someone’s suffering, not the depth of their wallet.

 

In addition, this particular alternative system would maintain the current level of competition among pharmaceutical companies (which is what makes the U.S. the world leader in drug development) while focusing research on drugs that would lead to the greatest public good, not the diseases for which rich people are willing to expend millions.

 

We are not isolated—disease has no respect for international boundaries—and the perverse incentives our current system gives pharmaceutical companies to research impotence and baldness have a very really cost on the poor of the world.


Gentlemen, we can rebuild them. We have the technology.

November 16, 2006

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Well, not exactly. But if we can sequence the human genome (in record time and underbudget, thanks Mr. Collins), why not the Neanderthals genome too?

There have been some big potential holdups. First, there’s the problem that they’re extinct. And then the fact that genomes start degrading right away. And that 95% of the DNA recovered from Neanderthal bones is bacterial DNA. And most Neanderthal bones that have been recovered are hopelessly contaminated by the DNA of the humans who found them.

But new advances in technology appear poised to overcome what used to be seen as insurmountable obstacles (a recurring theme in the biological sciences). The New York Times reports that scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany are using a new technique that can combine small fragments of ancient DNA (usually under 100 base pairs in length) into complete genomes.

The process filters out bacterial DNA and slowly pieces together the larger genome. It’s been used on ancient cave bears and mammoths, but the application to Neanderthals would shed light on a particularly controversial area of scientific investigation; whether Neanderthals are direct human ancestors or merely a related line that died off (or that we out-competed or killed off).

Sequencing the Neanderthal genome (which at ‘first glance’ is 99.5% identical to human, whereas chimpanzees are at least 95% identical genetically) will give us better evidence on the question of whether humans crossbred with Homo neanderthalensis, picking up important genes along the way, or simply displaced Neanderthals in Europe around 35,000 years ago. While most scientists seem to agree that there is no hard evidence for crossbreeding, not everyone agrees.

Some scientists have recently asserted (in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences) that humans picked up an important gene (microcephalin, MCPH1) necessary for brain development from Neanderthals.

One reason this research will be so fascinating to follow is that the relation of Homo sapiens (us) to Homo neanderthalensis (them) is anything but certain. Neanderthals (see Wikipedia) had tools, likely had language (their hyoid bone was nearly identical to ours), buried their dead, constructed complex shelters, controlled fire, and possibly even made rudimentary musical instruments.

So what we Neanderthals really like? Only time (and good genome sequencing technology) will tell.


Croatian Vacation

November 16, 2006

I think this post may be the first of many that will explore my love for travel photography; i.e., it’ll probably become a regular series. I have a lot of pictures from places around the world and I might as well share them. Today’s subject is Dubrovnik, Croatia, which has well-preserved medieval walls perched on the edge of the ocean, a beautiful harbor, red-tiled roofs, and is nestled into the side of a mountain. It would’ve been about perfect had it not been for all those Italian tourists…

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Bad Theology

November 14, 2006

Like rocket fuels and cantaloupes, not all theologies are equal.

Discussing whether a particular theology is an accurate depiction of reality is one way to judge between them. That path leads one into deep questions of epistemology, authority, canonicity, exegesis, and all that jazz.

But theologies can also be judged by their impact on those who believe them, as well as those around them. I think all people, believers or not, could agree that some theologies have lousy results.

For example, I would prefer living next to a moderate Muslim as opposed to a community of Islamic fundamentalists. Others bloggers are less hopeful, doubting that religions such as Islam are capable of moderation. So religions that desire physical takeover of the world and theocracies go unequivocally into the ‘bad’ heap.

Another example is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as represented by Warren Jeffs and described in Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Believing that one can kill for one’s faith or force young women into multiple marriages with you also lands you in the bad camp.

One of the reasons Joseph Smith’s sect has had so many fascinating little splinter groups was Smith’s early emphasis on direct revelation from God. While Smith later tried to suppress others’ prophetic leanings (leading to many early divisions) the trend was set. A person who truly believes that God has spoken directly to them with explicit commands is not likely to compromise. So wandering prophets also mostly get tossed into the bad pile.

Last Saturday I drove to Memphis for a rocket launch and was entertained on the drive back by a rather frightening radio program. In it, a breathy, tearful-sounding preacher spent most of his time railing against liberals like me. But he also took special interest in the state of Israel. (Mike Cope recently linked to an article on evangelical support of Israel.)

The preacher said anyone would be a fool to read the Holy Book and not realize the urgency of prophecies regarding Israel. Surely the world is in its last, final days, the true End days. It will all come to a glorious finale within his lifetime. And we should continue to support Israel, he said, because God will work through them to bring about Judgment Day on sinners (like me). For as we bless Israel so God will bless us.

And the clincher: “And we know that the reason America has always been more than just friends with Israel is because of the faithful Christians who have a voice in our government. We can never allow anyone to wrestle that support away, or to use the power God has given us to criticize Israel instead of supporting her. Every iota of freedom America has, every iota of wealth we have, is all because of our support for His people in Israel.” And this guy has a radio program.

Over the last year I’ve come to dislike the idea of a “chosen people” more and more. The history of Judaism (and to a lesser, often more spiritualized extent, Christianity) is chock full of the “chosen people” concept. God is on the side of the Jews. The Jews are His people. Christians are God’s chosen people. Through most of my upbringing, I had accepted this concept from the inside, without realizing how ugly it looks from the outside.

Believing that God would endorse your genocide of entire populations to make room for you, his holy people, is so blatantly racist that now I am constantly amazed to hear my peers justify it. If your theology leaves any room for doubt that genocide is always wrong, maybe we should reopen discussion on whose moral values are ‘absolute.’

The likes of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are delusional if they think this sort of religious passion is going to disappear overnight. Also, Harris’s vindictive style isn’t likely to win many converts. But there’s a grain of truth in it as well, that there are limits to tolerance.

We do not tolerate one who will kill for his faith. And while we may legally tolerate diverse religious views, it may also be wise to offer little respect (on the level of personal interaction) to those whose views are dangerous to society—like the Fundamentalist Mormons, or militaristic premillenial evangelical—in hopes that the social awkwardness of holding certain views will decrease their popularity.

All people who attempt to inform their worldviews at least partially with reason, be they secularists or religious moderates and liberals, should try their hardest to make theocracy, jihadism, ethnocentrism, and other bad theologies go away.


Octopi: The Einsteins of the Invertebrate World

November 14, 2006

Biology Seminar isn’t always the most interesting time of the week, but here are some tidbits I learned today that are truly amazing that will make your tentacles squirm with amazement.
First, an octopus can be very smart- it can learn behavior through conditioning similarly to a dog. Also, an octopus can see another octopus do something and then do the same behavior.

Octopi also have “camera eyes” similar to our own (though, since they’re invertebrates they evolved them separately). Octopi eyes receive light through a lens, but they lack an optic chiasma (i.e., the pictures are not reversed) as well as rods and cones (so they can’t see color, just light/dark).

And the coolest thing of all is this video (less than 1 minute long). An octopus can change its color and tint to mimic its surroundings, as well as changing the texture and shape of its skin to blend in to avoid predators.

I have now officially worked out my nerdy urges for the day.


My Homeboy Galileo

November 11, 2006

Galileo is in my view one of the coolest people in history. I also particularly like the final resting place of his body, in Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, where he is honored alongside the likes of Rossini, Fermi, and Michelangelo (another favorite).

While famous for his (purported) “Eppur Si Muove” regarding planetary motion, Galileo did a lot of earthly physics as well. In describing falling objects he noted that without air resistance a hammer and a feather would fall at the same rate.

Evidently this video has been around since, well, 1971, but I had never seen it before. Apollo 15 Commander David Scott drops a hammer and feather and observes that they land at the same moment.

Now if someone would just try this with a hammer and sickle...


Why Both Parties Have it Wrong on Iraq

November 10, 2006

For the last few years American politics have been dominated by Iraq, and this isn’t likely to change. In fact, opinion polling showed again and again that Iraq is right up there with terrorism and the economy as the most important issues for voters. While I had a strong preference in this election, it wasn’t based on the war because I believe both parties’ policies (or lack thereof) on Iraq are doomed to fail.

First, as the Republicans haven’t been shy to point out, the Democrats have failed to articulate a clear position. The Democrats seem split between the urge to stay the course and hope things get better and the urge to drop everything now because we’ve suffered too many losses.

The so-called “cut and run” strategy favored by many on the left is exemplified by Cindy Sheehan. Every compassionate person should sympathize with the loss of her son, a soldier in Iraq.

But while some of my peers see Sheehan’s anti-war stance as a clarion call of truth, a prophetic voice in the desert, to me she has all the grating appeal of a shrill reactionary.

Are we as Americans wholly unwilling to sacrifice for a good cause? Regardless of the initial rationale for the invasion, or the morality of that action, pulling out now could result in absolute chaos, and we would be responsible.

The world is full of hot spots, potential genocidal regimes, conflict-induced famines and other situations that may morally necessitate intervention by the U.S. and other powerful nations to prevent atrocities.

Our unique sensitivity to American casualties is to some degree a testament to our dislike of war, but it kept us from doing a lot of good in Somalia (the incident portrayed in Black Hawk Down) and in places like Rwanda and Sudan.

On the other hand, the Republicans have rallied behind President Bush and his mantra of “stay the course”. This was recently moderated (largely due the political pressure of Tuesday’s elections) to having “benchmarks” for withdrawal—a slightly more nuanced view, but quite similar in most respects.

Some Democrats have rather correctly called Bush’s “stay the course” what it is: “stand still and lose.” Our strategy simply isn’t working. Despite the improvements we may have made to some portions of Iraqi society, both the sectarian violence and the flow of refugees out of Iraq have steadily increased.

The only policy direction that, in my opinion seems viable in the long term is largely absent from the debate: a three-state solution.

Why? Iraq is at its heart an unnatural state, a creation of British imperialists who cobbled together long-opposed tribal districts. David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace explores the history of the Middle East after the fall of Ottoman Empire, revealing that Iraq was created for the convenience of its rulers, with virtually no correspondence to ethnic and religious realities on the ground. Following imperialism, it took a tyrant like Saddam Hussein to hold Iraq together.

In a similar situation, Yugoslavia was only held together by imperial and dictatorial communist rule, and ethnic nationalism flared back up after the fall of Tito. While an early military intervention might have prevented a downward spiral of violence in what was to become Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, at some point separation becomes the only workable option.

After Saddam Hussein was deposed, an occupation by a much more powerful American force might have been able to use crushing force prevent anti-American and sectarian violence and secure Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria. But our failure to have a large enough force on hand and a lack of planning allowed an increase in violence that has steadily increased.

I believe Iraq has reached a breaking point. Ethnic and inter-religious tensions have been exasperated to the point that maintaining a viable, tolerant multiethnic nation would require a level of force and commitment that the American public is simply not willing to sustain.

Based on the escalation of Iraqi-vs.-Iraqi violence since the invasion of Iraq, we basically have two choices: divide Iraq into three states now, or watch the Iraqis (or more accurately, the extremists on all sides) ethnically cleanse themselves into three states after we withdraw.

The reason a three-state solution of Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni regions hasn’t gained strong support is that Iraq’s neighbors hate the idea. Iran and Turkey fear independent Iraqi Kurds because their countries hold their own Kurdish separatist movements. Also, enclaves in Iraq lack of clear boundaries, Baghdad is divided, and a number of minorities could suffer persecution in divided states just as the states of the former Yugoslavia struggle with minority rights.

These problems might be moderated by moving Iraq toward a loose federation that gives regions significant autonomy, and allows some sharing of oil revenues. This would make Iraq’s neighbors uneasy, but less so than full independence. And again, if segments of Iraq are likely to separate themselves through the process of war after the Americans depart anyway, giving people the choice to move now might curtail future violence.

I hope I’m wrong; the process would be messy and result in more loss of life before the situation could ever stabilize. But regardless of what Democrats and Republicans claimed in their campaign speeches, neither of the presently espoused strategies seems likely to succeed.


Rotten Cotton

November 6, 2006

Globalization and the rhetoric of free trade have often been used to the detriment of the poor. On the other hand, free trade and free markets also have the potential to facilitate positive change throughout the world, if their excesses are moderated. Want a great example of how the principles of free trade and the ethic of rooting for the poor can be undermined in one fell swoop? Let’s try farm subsidies.

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Farm subsidies help our farmers compete in international markets against all natural market forces. These subsidies hurt farmers in developing nations because they are forced out of markets they might otherwise be able to compete in (domestic and international).

Republican and Democratic presidents and legislatures have been equally bad on this count, constantly increasing subsidies for U.S. farmers. Our hypocrisy on this issue is nearly unrivaled; as we call on other countries to open their markets while keeping the poor shut out of ours (the European Union is just as bad, if not worse). Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has written a striking piece on cotton subsidies; “The Tyranny of King Cotton”.

Stiglitz’s piece caught my eye because I got his book Globalization and Its Discontents last year for Christmas (yes, I actually ask for things like that). Greg Mankiw (a Harvard economist) also recently blogged about Stiglitz’s article.

In general, I’ve found that economist speak an entirely different language. I took a macroeconomics class one summer to help me understand a little, but I’m afraid I’m still far from conversant on many issues. But Stiglitz makes things understandable to the layman on a level similar to Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty. Here are some excellent quotes from Stiglitz on farm subsidies:

“Americans like to think that if poor countries simply open up their markets, greater prosperity will follow. Unfortunately, where agriculture is concerned, this is mere rhetoric. The United States pays only lip service to free market principles, favoring Washington lobbyists and campaign contributors who demand just the opposite.”

Stiglitz continues, saying that if we had eliminated farm subsidies,

“Likewise, migration pressure would have been reduced, because it is the huge disparity in incomes more than anything else that leads people to leave their homes and families to immigrate to the US. A fair trade regime would have helped reduce that disparity.”

“Indeed, citizens throughout the rich developed world all stand to benefit from a more prosperous globe – especially a world in which there is less poverty, with fewer people facing despair. For we all suffer from the political instability to which such despair gives rise.”

So eliminating farm subsidies is definitely within our self interest; rational self interest is usually the purview of economists. But when they start moralizing as well, you know an issue is rather clear:

“America’s national interests thus dictate a change of policy. But there is also another powerful rationale for doing so: treating fairly those who are poorer and less powerful is the morally right thing to do.”