Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

29Aug/08Off

Carnival of Evolution #1

Well, I've done it. I've created a new Blog Carnival.

It's called "Carnival of Evolution" and you can find the first edition HERE, which includes my own post on Building a Better Human.

Despite the presence of several really good blog carnivals dealing with science, skepticism, or atheism, which all touch on evolution now and again, there is a dearth of carnivals devoted to evolution (at least I couldn't find any). Thus I think this could fill a much-needed niche.

Now, mine is not a particularly well-read blog, though my traffic has been increasing by the week. My hope is that the purpose and content of this blog carnival will be enough for it to take a life of its own. As such, I now beg any of you with an interest in evolution to host future editions or contribute posts. Spread the word to anyone you know who blogs on evolution, whether from the perspective of the (nonexistent) debate on evolution or on recent science in the field. Hopefully we can get a schedule for it up and running.

I have never hosted or run a blog carnival before, so if anyone has advice I'd be glad to here it.

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22Aug/08Off

Democrats, Religion, and Faith-Based Initiatives

Obama "loves" Jesus

Today in his Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers went off on Democrats for highlighting their commitment to religion and faith and the compassionate accomplishments faith-based groups can make in the world.

Let me first say that in essence, and in principle, I am in complete agreement with PZ. Liberals, progressives, and the Democratic party that we liberals, in general, vote for would serve in an ideal world as the pusher of the rational, scientific, and secular agenda. Instead, what we have seen with Barack Obama is a re-cooption of the Christian and evangelical vote – or at least an attempt to get those voters back – by reemphasizing the Democratic Parties Christian roots.

However, from purely a practical standpoint I think this is the only way we can ever hope to have our government even begin to govern in the progressive way we think it should. Before I expound upon this, I want to mention Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives plan.

Obama’s Faith-Based Initiatives
When I first heard that Obama wanted to expand Bush’s Faith-based initiatives, I was initially disgusted – for about thirty seconds. The time of disgust was so short because I learned what he really wanted to do. I found out about it by listening to his speech. In it, what he basically says is that the Faith-Based Initiatives were never run properly – they were only a photo-op for Bush to continue to receive evangelical support. Obama, on the other hand wants to rebuild the initiaives. He wants to support compassionate work and community service that these religion-backed organizations claim to want to work for. That’s fine with me for this reason:

“I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike – to meet the challenges of the 21st century…

…First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we'll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.”

He’s essentially tearing down the faith-based initiatives and instead building secular-based initiatives, with the religious folks doing the work. Works for me. Personally, I could care less what your beliefs are if your focusing on helping others, regardless of their own faiths. If religion must exist – that’s the direction that I think it needs to focus its efforts. Personally, I think this was a genius move on Obama’s part for the reasons below.

Democratic Christianity
Based on everything I’ve read of Obama, I don’t believe that he is in reality a Christian. Everything about him (except what he actually says on the subject) screams agnostic. But he knows that this is a Christian nation (about 75%). You CANNOT get elected President if you are not Christian or at least deeply religious. So he has spent years crafting his Christian beliefs, developing his Jesus cred. And I’m glad he did.

Only by reclaiming the Christian vote can progressives ever hope to reshape this country. Thus, by highlighting the commitment and accomplishments of the Faithful within the Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, the Party may yet recapture those religious votes (or at least a small proportion of them).

Once we get more progressives in place, we can fix this fucked up educational system we have (No Child Left Behind? Don’t even get me started). Only by actually getting rational-minded people into office can we hope to erase the anti-intellectual blanket that has fallen over this country. It may be slow – or it may not happen at all – but you can be guaranteed that the Republican party cares not an ounce about education on true science, intellectualism, and reason.

Thus, the Democrats must, at minimum, act Christian. They must, as Obama has done many many times, proclaim that they have accepted Jesus Christ into a personal relationship. Some may believe it – others may do it for political reasons. But there is no doubt that this is absolutely necessary.

It would be nice to maintain my principles and say “no – we should not put faith and religion on a pedestal – we must not even allow it place within our politics.” But I feel this is naive (Note: I do NOT mean to imply that PZ Myers is naive - we absolutely NEED people like PZ in this world and in this debate - He understands all this much better than I, I'm sure. But he honorably sticks to his principles). Most adults in this country are too indoctrinated to ever be swayed with rhetoric. Most don’t even know what science really is. Consider the fact that somewhere between 50 to 70% of this country believes God had a direct hand in our own creation (depending on the poll), while a reciprocal percentage believes in evolution. Do you really expect that any of these people will vote for a self-proclaimed atheist?

This is obviously not a new argument. Everyone knows (everyone who cares anyway) that every President we’ve had has been Christian (at least in the public eye). Our only hope is to get our people into office by whatever means necessary, and hope we can train the next generation to use their brains properly.

Side Note: Some Christians may read my argument and say "Oh, so Democrats are only fake Christian." To that I would respond that to a large degree, most of the truly Christian Democrats I know walk alot closer to the line Jesus walked than most Republicans I know. Just take our Commander in Chief for example. I don't believe for one femtosecond that he was ever "born again". He, and every other publicly visible Christian in his administration act about as far from the actual teachings of Christ that you can get. How many people have died in Iraq now? Somewhere between 30,000 and 150,000? Oh that's right - according to Gen. Tommy Franks this administration doesn't "do body counts." And it is a well known fact that Karl Rove orchestrated his "brilliant" scheme to get the religious right behind Bush. This is why Democrats should continue with the course they are on with regards to religion. Bush and Rove already proved that Christian voters, by and large, are incredibly gullible.

Really?

You thought Bush was a leader Jesus would vote for?

22Aug/08Off

A Small Example of the Ignorance of (Some) Rednecks

Black Rat Snake (aka "the only good snake is a dead snake")

Today, once again, I witnessed a not-too-uncommon display of ignorance and primitive barbarism in the rural south.

I was driving along a small country back road near my home in North Carolina, listening to a book on CD (no it’s too embarrassing to tell…OK, fine – it was “Twilight” the first novel by Stephenie Meyer about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. Hey screw you – it has amazing character development and who doesn’t like vampire stories?)

Anyway, I was ambling down the road when I saw what I thought might be a snake crossing up ahead. No one was behind me, so I stopped in the middle of the road and got out to check it out. I’m usually the guy who stops to pick up box turtles and carry them across the road – what can I say? I’m a biologist. Sure enough, it was a black rat snake of average length - about 4 feet long – stretched out across the road and moving as if in no hurry. I was glad he had not been run over - usually when I see a snake in the road it’s already dead.

I see a truck pull on to the road a quarter mile down and head right toward us. “Shit,” I think, “This truck will probably aim right toward him.” So I grab the tip of the snake’s tail with the intention of toss him in one quick movement into the ditch. But the snake’s scales were firmly latched onto the blacktop. Plus, he was much quicker than I anticipated. He lashed out at me and coiled into a raised striking position in the middle of the road. He did not find my actions quite as altruistic as I did. Black rat snake bites can be quite painful, considering their row of tiny sharp teeth. I’ve been bitten by one before. They also have a tendency to chew on you once they grab hold. So I backed off.

The truck was not slowing down and other cars were now moving towards us. My car was parked in the middle of the road. I could not see any sticks or anything to handle the snake with, so I decided to leave it to the fates. Maybe the redneck will see that I was just out looking at the snake and will leave it alone, just for my sake (note: I come from a long line of Arkansas/Texas rednecks myself). I get in my car and quickly start it up. I slowly pull forward, and the truck, which had a long trailer attached to the back pulled to a stop in front of the snake. I watched an elderly man get out of the pickup in my rearview. He glanced at the snake, jumped back into the cab, swerved his wheels into the center of the lane, and squashed the snake.

Yet this old man went out of his way to smash a creature that spends its days protecting the man’s crops, or his neighbors. Out here, I’ve seen people swerve to hit opossums, raccoons, snakes, and any other little non-dog-or-cat species.

I saw it writhing over itself - dying - as the truck righted into the lane.

Why do I taste burning rubber?

The black rat snake is non-venomous. It feeds almost solely, as its name implies, on rodents. The land around where we had been is all farmland, the truck was carrying farm equipment, and the man looked himself to be a local farmer.

It makes me sick. I simply cannot understand the mind that would derive pleasure from brutally snuffing out our animal neighbors, particularly considering that these are people that have been raised in their presence. I’m not a hippie PETA activist. And I’m not a vegetarian. In fact, I do experiments on animals for brain research. But the pointless, barbaric smashing of animals with a car for pure fun simply reinforces my own views about large swaths of the human population – namely that in many people, pure barbarism lingers within their psyches, reinforced by superstition, fears of things they don’t understand, and utter unadulterated ignorance.

17Aug/08Off

Carnival of the Godless #98

C. L. Hanson over at Letters From a Broad: The Adventures of a Friendly Ex-Mormon Atheist Mom Living in France Switzerland (I love that title) has composed the 98th biweekly edition of Carnival of the Godless, a blog carnival containing a myriad links to thoughts on atheism or tangentially related topics. This edition is particularly well done, and contains hours worth of edifying reading and links to make your brain cells hurt.

Graciously included in this latest edition is my own previous post, Hope in the Black Void of the Unknowable, in which I muse on whether we really want every human on earth to see the Universe and ourselves as science sees us, namely "no more than blips of energy in an inconsequential cosmic blink."

Check it out, and if you have your own musings on issues relating to an absence of God, go to Carnival of the Godless and find out which blog is hosting the latest edition and submit your stuff to them.

16Aug/08Off

Building a Better Human

Transhumanism, to quote Wikipedia is

“a term often used as a synonym for "human enhancement", is an international, intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and overcome what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death.”

I often think about the eugenic possibilities of applied science (technology) that may arise in the coming years, decades, and longer. I have long considered myself a transhumanist. That is, I see no general philosophical or moral issues with human enhancement or even directed human evolution, in theory.In practice, however, I think there are several issues that may well prevent our race from ever even attempting such a project. (Don't even think about mentioning the Nazis to me. Though using a warped eugenics, they were NOT transhumanistic.)

Let me first state that I think that external technological enhancement is already in early bloom and will continue to be used to ever increasing degrees. By “external” I mean the use of robotics, artificial limbs and organs, cognitive enhancement, or extension of the senses. However, there is a fundamental difference between this type of enhancement verses the actual altering of the human genetic code and inherent function of human biology.This article will focus almost exclusively on biological modifications.

it's NOT all in the genes

The moral, social, cultural, and philosophical implications of biological transhumanism have been discussed ad nauseum by many thinkers much greater than I. Books have been written (e.g. Brave New World). Movies have been made (e.g. GATTACA). However, it is only now that we are truly entering an era in which it can be discussed and contemplated from a practical standpoint, and in which we may even begin to realize the transhumanist goals. Not only have we now sequenced the entire human genome, but we are developing tools for altering the genetic code in living human beings. (see question 10 from my previous post: 23 Things Science Can Tell Us about Life, the Universe, and Everything)

However, one thing that I find sorely lacking in most discussions of how we might enhance the human condition is a discussion of Developmental Biology. Before we tackle the main question at hand, I feel I must first take a short diversion into describing development.

Most of the public have heard our genomes described as “the DNA blueprint” of humankind. As any developmental biologist will tell you, DNA is not a blueprint for anything – this is a horrible metaphor for DNA’s true function. The closest metaphor we have for the relationship between DNA and a thinking, breathing human is the relationship between a recipe and a cake. DNA does not describe anything about what a human looks like or how it works. There is not a gene that contains the information on how to make an eye, for example, or what the eye looks like or works. All it tells you is which protein to make at which time and in which cell.

As the field of development now knows, the genes encode for RNAs that encode for proteins (vast oversimplification, but lets keep it manageable). In a single fertilized egg, there are an unknown hundreds or thousands of genes and proteins “turned on” and interacting with each other and with the cell, and even with the mother (in the case of humans).

As the cell divides, new genes are turned on, others are turned off, and a new level of complexity is added. The cells now exist in a growing, changing, dynamic network. This network includes genes, RNAs, proteins, different cells talking to each other, groups of these molecules forming modular, yet interdependent pathways, and all of these interactions are now occurring in discrete areas of space and time.

Yet at the reductionist level, all of these things work by more-or-less simple rules about their own behavior. For example, gene A is only turned on when protein B is present. Protein B is only present in cell type C. So in cell type C, gene A is turned on, to make Protein D. Based on its particular shape, Protein D can only interact with Proteins E and F…etc.

This is another vast oversimplification, and one can imagine this network growing to nearly unimaginable complexity, with some proteins turning genes on, others making stuff like muscle, others making neurotransmitters, and a million other effects ensuing. To go back to our eye example, all of these interactions result in subsets of cells growing and shaping themselves into the structure of the eye at specific times and places. The environment around the eye tells the cells where to go and what to become. Some cells produce tons of beta-crystallin and make the lens. Others grow long axons and connect to the brain, while also producing molecules that react to light. We currently know of about 200 distinct cell types that arise from these interactions of genes, proteins, and cells in space and time.

So, given all this amazing complexity, will we ever reach a point at which we can enhance or evolve ourselves? My own answer is: theoretically, yes – practically, no. (again - see Question 10 of 23 Things Science Can Tell Us about Life, the Universe, and Everything).

There is no doubt that we will eventually have all the pieces of the puzzle of our own development (assuming we last long enough). But there is one key element glossed over in discussions of how we apply our scientific knowledge to human enhancement: experimentation and research on developing embryos. I think that regardless of how much data and understanding we obtain from animal studies and studies of human disease and genetics, we will never be able to apply any directed changes without experimentation on humans. This is a simple fact.

"You're starting to look like your mother"

Let’s look at one example: animal cloning. Animal cloning involves the relatively simple activities of inserting a nucleus from one animal cell into the cell of another, and coercing that cell to become an animal. We now do this all the time. Heard about Booger the cloned puppies from Korea yet? But there is one problem – in order for us to get to this advanced (and retardedly stupid) point of being able to clone a long lost and beloved dog, we had to go through the production of thousands of utterly deformed animals of many different species (remember the breast-gland derived sheep, Dolly?). I once went to a great seminar by Dr. Ian Wilmut (the Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly). He showed us some data from some mouse or other rodent cloning he was doing – I don’t remember the specifics. But I do remember that out of something like 500 animals produces, only a fraction were viable.

So I ask, does anyone really think that we can alter human development without going through similar experimental growing pains? How many seriously deformed or deficient human embryos will need to be produced before we get it right? No matter what kind of fundamental change one wishes to accomplish in an adult human body, that change will have to occur at the developmental level, altering specific developmental pathways in specific cells. No matter how big the "cloud" of data, or how vast our computing power, we will always have to test any technique to make sure it works (despite the fact that some actually think that astronomical amounts of data make science unnecessary).

My guess is that such evolutionary enhancements would cause be far too many deformed babies for any even half-moral or ethical people to allow. There are people right now attempting to clone humans, and even this is morally reprehensible. Why? Despite the fact that I have no God, no absolute or cosmologically meaningful morals, I still have an in built belief that conscious-human destruction or harm is wrong. It is hardwired in humanity to place value on human life (with some exceptions and gray areas). Furthermore, there are no positive benefits of human cloning for reproduction, other than scientific knowledge itself, and it will unarguably cause deleterious effects on an unknown fraction of embryos, leading to suffering. And it will most certainly NOT bring loved ones back, though apparently there are thousands of gullible pet-owners who believe otherwise. But I digress. Granted, we may come very very - tantalizingly - close to achieving directed enhancement through work in animals, in human cell culture and tissue culture, but this will not quite be enough.

In essence, I think it is near impossible that we will be able to progress to a point where we can actual tinker with our own genomes (at least during or before developmental stages), due solely to cultural/ethical issues, though it will be technically possible. We will definitely attempt to change adult cells (e.g. gene therapy to give certain cells the ability to produce insulin, which is already underway), but this is a far cry from the types of changes to consciously evolve our form and function – a far cry from adding, subtracting, or changing pieces within the insanely complex developmental pathways that lead to our construction.

Despite my pessimism, there is one possible work around that I can foresee. It will take at least one mad scientist working in conditions that would never be considered ethical today, but it is at least conceivable. Imagine the creation of a human being without a brain – without a consciousness. This is, in fact, one goal of Regenerative Medicine today, though not explicitly stated. We will eventually at least be able to produce organs outside of the body – to grow them in a dish. Now if we had an entire human body devoid of a brain, one could easily see us performing experiments on such a life form without worrying about pain and suffering. (Note: I am ignoring moral qualms from anyone who believes in a soul, or believes that we are “as we were meant to be,” or anyone who thinks that the word “natural” actually means something). But for us to create such an entity, this will likely involve ethically questionable research on humans as well, and it may not even be possible to develop a human without a brain while maintaining the integrity of all other organs. Nonetheless, such a creature could at least give us a “model organism” on which to test our various enhancement techniques. Of course, none of these enhancements would involve cognitive function enhancement, for obvious reasons.

All of this type of research, should it ever occur in any form, will require a progressive revolution in the populace at large. We will have to overcome our archaic “playing God” ideas – (honestly, in what ways have we NOT been trying to play God since the discovery of fire, and the domestification of plants and animals). We will have to get over this idea that somehow “natural” things are bette
r than “unnatural” - the words have no meaning in reality. Accepting genetically-modified foods - a potential savior to world poverty, though it is admittedly rife with its own inherent issues that WILL be addressed - will be a necessary first step. It will also require computing power many magnitudes greater than what we have now, but I think this will inevitably come.

In summary, I have very little faith that our society and culture will allow such enhancements, despite the fact that this is the only way we will evolve, barring major cataclysm. I also think side-effects such as the class divisions between altered people seen in GATTACA, might prove to be too big of an issue. I’m not sure human nature will ever progress beyond dividing itself on whatever divisions are possible. Perhaps if we changed our brains…ahh Catch-22.

Then again, I am but a product of today. Who knows what cultural and societal changes may come? Perhaps our children, or great, great…grandchildren will embrace transhumanism.

I doubt it. As I’ve said before, multiple times, humans are no longer evolving at a macro scale, regardless of what cultural norms envelop us. I think that our animal natures will always grow to repress any escape we might attempt from them.

I hope not.

I really want my baby to have gills.