Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Nietzschean Morning

The Christian should be far more fearful of the atheist than of devil worshipers. Those who worship the devil confirm several important conceptual elements of the Christian world. First, that there is such a thing as the Devil, and consequently God. The devil worshiper also confirms the concept of the human faculty of choosing good over evil. The devil worshiper confirms that great power to choose that which is Holy.

The atheist just laughs at all this nonsense. And destroys every last vestige of Christian doctrine. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Some links. And the fulfillment of our telos.

More on genes and origins at Aeon.

Ed Yong, who is on fire with some good articles, has a piece on the 3-D structure of chromosomes.

Also Ed Yong on the electric eel. Exotic sensory systems are good gateways into how evolution proceeds and the diverse life forms and neuronal systems that can be created.

Ken Weiss on the unknowables of Biology

Two articles on free will. Greg Caruso has a new blog at Psychology Today. Jerry Coyne responds to his first post.

This New Yorker article, "The Strangers in Your Brain," about the expression of transposon genes in neurons, is rather fascinating. An aside on the article, Clancy brings in a study about measuring the behavior of genetically identical mice. I always find this study to be underwhelming. I read it as they released ten mice into the same cage or environment and then measured their behavioral programs. They then point to the expression of vast differences of behavior in genetically identical mice. It is underwhelming because once you release identical creatures into an environment together, you are already gearing up for significant behavioral differences. For instance, say we have bad tasting water over here. Well, the first mouse, by chance, goes and tastes it. His identical sibling is slightly behind and watches him (his facial expressions). These identical siblings just had a significantly different “environmental” experience. When you have multiple beings together, and they are not perfectly mirrored somehow (if such is possible), then you are already gearing up for a “significantly different environment” between them. That is, you quickly lose the idea that these identical creatures were released into the “same environment.” Now, if you release identical mice into their own banal environment, and you see significant behavioral differences, that may be more informative, but you would still have a great many confounds. 


Though it's a bit obsolete now, John Oliver had a good segment on the Canadian elections, urging people not to vote for the Conservative candidate Harper.

And lastly, humans have now fulfilled the purpose they were put on this planet to fulfill: Star Wars.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Humans, Nature/Nurture, The Future

An enjoyable article about cognitive enhancement and a changing social world has encouraged some parallel thoughts by me. The article, "Brain Gain" by Nayef Al-Rodhan, goes through possible social changes as we move into the ability for cognitive enhancement. He is mainly worrying about how cognitive enhancement will drive inequalities into even further extremes than today. 

My story below is not really a response to the article, more a side rant, but there is something a bit off in the article. This has to do with a belief by Al-Rodhan that going forward into ever greater enhancement of our cognition by medicine, that we will not eventual make significant alterations to social institutions. If our social dynamics stay the same, say nationalistic, highly-capitalistic social structures, then his worries make sense. But also, as he highlights, as societies in general come to accept a physicalist notion of the brain/mind, there should be changes to how we in general view human social encounters, such as agency. Having acknowledged that we should and will have different views of humans and the social beliefs surrounding humans, he turns back to standardizing our psychological and social beliefs of today going into the future. He assesses the impact of cognitive enhancement within societies and psychologies that look like our's today. If he is right and most people come to accept physicalism in the future, then the kind of psychological and social straight-jackets that make inequality such a given today, hopefully may change in the future. 

There is some reason to think a mechanization of the human means changes to our social beliefs and institutions, as we come to understand our psychologies and emotions to greater extents. I think our naive, folk psychologies and beliefs are one of the things that have us reifying the present order, the present gross inequalities. So, if he is right and people come to accept the "mind/brain identity thesis," then there is also reason to think we will deal with inequality and general societal structures differently in the future. Fears about cognitive enhancement only exacerbating inequality will therefore be shortsighted.

Or maybe Bernie Sanders will solve all our inequality problems before then.

A Different Self

Stories that disrupt our view of selves and our view of humanity.

We can imagine 2000 years in the future, the following procedure: A fetus is developed rather normally. We have standard DNA/epigenetic structure, perhaps slight cognitive enhancement, but still very much human.

Then at birth, we prepare the baby to become a half-mile wide, planet hopping space ship. We remove all limbs, and plug peripheral nerves into ship sensors and into thrusters and flaps. We carefully remove the eyes and ears and plug those sensory systems into new “eyes.” These can be sensory systems that see a great range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and plug other visual nerves into instrument converters that feed the brain with other information, about radiation for example. Our newborn human, our slightly enhanced brain, is now learning to govern the motion and sensory systems of the ship. Where brains once navigated through the body, they now govern a ship-body, that is hooked into their body/brain. For the most part, we can still imagine this brain as running through many of the thought processes of us today, including of the representations that it has of its self. We can allow it to still run on emotions, if we want. He could still have desires, fear, and doubt. He could still have many of the characteristics that we see in us today, at least within our brain/minds.

These kinds of thoughts remind us of several things. There is not some endpoint to evolution that was “Human.” There is not an endpoint that looks like our selves today, of us living in an updated, but still rather “normal” social environment. The above story is not an abomination to humans, because nature cares nothing for this false essentializing of the “human” or of the “environment.” All evolution did was end up with a DNA structure like the one that sits inside our cells, and that gives rise to the general body morphology, under certain given conditions, that we see in us today. Importantly, nature was not trying to create a “human” that lives in a standard earth and “pack-societal” environmental. Our DNA may have developed within such processes, but there was not some desire of evolution that humans/DNA remain within those environs.

Furthermore, there is not some genuine self sitting within our DNA just waiting to emerge into existence. Pretty much any kind of characteristic can be grossly changed given a radically different environment. Many of those characteristics can be radically changed through normal social environmental changes that we are capable of today (such as creating a monosexed society). Even today we can radically change, with certain environmental tweaks, the characteristics of our sexuality, our introversion/extroversion, and our general social institutional structures, such as the heterosexual monogamous matrix. As we get pills and oxytocin sprays (or something actual effectual), who knows the kinds of even more subtle changes we can make to the expression of our DNA in our bodies, even within a rather standard environment.

A cheap shot, but you should hit over the head anyone talking about expression of their true self. We can give better descriptions of our selves than that. There are interesting tales to tell about how our DNA becomes what we are. Those stories are only coherent if we keep different environmental, different social structures firmly within grasp. Stories about why we are the way we are will require a rich combination of genes and environment. When we de-essentialize the human condition, when we de-essentialize our selves, we can begin to tell the interesting stories about why we are the way we are.

No, a half-mile wide semi-human controlled spaceship is not an abomination to nature, to humans, or to our selves. We did not create some monster. There are no monsters.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

More and CRISPR links

Gene editing:

Carl Zimmer has a must read on CRISPR pigs in the New York Times. He has a very quick video introduction to CRISPR here.

And for those scared of GMO foods, you should read this on CRISPR editing of plant genomes. For me, I say we need to shut the whole thing down right now, before people start editing human genomes.

Human ancestors:

At Why Evolution is True, Matthew Cobb has a good piece on the geographic spread of Neanderthal genes. From Nature, a finding of Homo sapiens teeth in China puts humans there earlier than thought.

Other links:

Scott Bakker has a short piece on mental functions

And a newer blog, Just More Philosophy, has many posts about ending much of philosophy, and telling philosophers to do more science. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Links: Brain, Genes, and Cancer

At Aeon, Joe Hibbert on the difficulty of repairing the brain. At the Brain Blogger, a new study shows how we can purposefully destroy your dendrites that are important to a given memory. 

CRISPR and the promise of editing our genomes is hot right now. Sara Reardon relays how the "Gene-editing record smashed in pigs." Ed Yong, in the Atlantic, gives a bit of a shrug at the news that this will help us create transplantable pig organs, though he says it is testament to the power of CRISPR. 

Also by Ed Yong, the search for unique human genes.

Turning to cancer research, Carl Zimmer relays new studies about why elephants may not get cancer that often, despite that they have a great many replicating cells. Ken Weiss, at the blog The Mermaid's Tale, suggests that the elephants cancer fighting activity might be mostly useful only to the elephant's biology. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Banning Niqabs

Three links on a problem that is baffling to almost all. And to those who it is not baffling, they are wrong:

Adam Gopnik, "Freedom and the Veil"

Peter Watts, "Squirrel!" (which is more a rant about contemporary Canadian politics)

Zunera Ishaq, "Why I intend to wear a veil at my citizenship ceremony"

These articles are about Canada's struggles at the moment, but they are of course pertinent to many countries, including the United States. The personal rebut by Zunera Ishaq is a few months old but it is moving. If you try to ban a piece of clothing for the good of another adult individual, you are almost guaranteed to have good, intelligent rebuttals saying "how dare you try to save me from my own rational, well-thought out choices." Our only move, for those who think burkas and niqabs are bad ideas, is to say that no, you are making a bad choice that you are not aware of. You are not aware of how drastically you are being oppressed by that face covering. Which is of course why you are almost guaranteed to get push back when you institute such banning of clothes. On a similar note, such a counter-move should have force within the marijuana debate, and it does to some degree, but the wearing of dress has a lot less need for excision than the possibility of brain-altering and life-altering drugs. 

The New Yorker article gets a couple of things wrong. Foreign women may wear a head covering in Muslim countries. Many times this is because it is the law or because of social evisceration. Conversely, as a society, we should not care about abnormal dress from foreign visitors, or socially ostracize such wearers. Obviously, we do have laws against public nudity but that is pretty much the minimum. As a good liberal society, and as an educated one, we should learn to shrug at dress, at least as far as aesthetics or social norms are concerned. That should be the hallmark of an enlightened society. Perhaps we try to fit into the norms of another society, but that does not mean we should embrace any kind of norms (of dress) in our own country.

We of course do enforce norms, but that is, generally speaking, at local levels. As a society we embrace pink mohawks as well as suits-and-ties, but that is not because we embrace either. We embrace a liberty of dress and style, at least at the widest level. Legally, we should embrace any manner of dress within wide limits, and for the most part we do. Socially and interpersonally we should see beyond whatever aesthetics tickle us and whatever social norms and experiences have shaped us. To cast judgment on others for dress is either an empty aestheticization, or its a power move of social normalization. Many of us, want little to do with the latter. I am more than willing to accept that you are a member of our society, and someone I do not mind having a conversation with or standing in line next to, even if you happen to like wearing green socks. That fact should have no impact on who you are as a person. Now, obviously, if you wear a t-shirt that says “I embrace Neo-Nazism,” I probably will not want to have a conversation with you, but that is because you are likely advertising a personal worldview that will clash with mine. We can and do read such underlying pretexts into dress, but little should hang on it. And certainly nothing that has us banning such dress itself. In the end, we need to rid the world of neo-Nazis, not t-shirts.

So, no, we do not embrace some normalized dress within our country and we should laugh at those who engage in such. And we should call Iranians, and others, idiots for not being more reflective of dress, social norms, and the development of aesthetic tastes.

This gets to another difficult part. There is oppression and social manipulation through dressing demands within certain Christian and Orthodox Jewish institutions. The argument over the niqab is often over the erasing of the face, but the line between it and the simpler head covering of some Christians, Muslims, and Jews is empty. They are clearly made of the same cloth. They all aim, for the most part, to desexualize females for fear of males.

Arguments against face coverings almost always slide into some (strange) belief about the sanctity of seeing another's face. But this claim, and the claim that it is some given cultural and social norm to see the face of another, is rather empty. There is not some society-wide special right or need to see the face of another in most interpersonal transactions. The article by Ishaq shows that such reasons are specious. There are of course certain needs for identification purposes that may be demanded. People should be forced to remove veils in such instances, which of course we can do respectfully. Ishaq agreed and cooperated with such.
Some general, all-purpose ban is not warranted for the reasons of “seeing the face,” and it is not warranted because of homogeneity of culture. It is not warranted.

Contrarily, the general wearing of niqabs or head scarves should be done away with. It is steeped in an absurd treatment of females as part of a larger structure of parallel institutions and norms of behaviors. That larger structure exists in many Muslim countries, as well as in any country or culture until recent times. Those larger cultural structures, which the niqab is part of, are being carried by Muslims into new countries. But we have a history, at least in the United States, at shrugging at these kinds of things when they exist in Mormon culture, Jewish culture, and other Christian cultures, as well as in many other groups. We are slowly undoing all sorts of inequities that were established in our cultures, including in character developments that blind people to the non-reflection of the social culture upon which they are built. But, for the most part, we are doing it in a liberal way and in an organically developing way. Where equality must be enforced, such as schooling, we do not allow cultural exceptions. But, for most of cultural practice and character development, we let individuals and families make their own way. School and cultural exchanges will push most individuals and groups into taking social stances and character developments that many of us regard as important. To illegalize niqabs while shrugging at organizations that deny females the right to hold positions of power (for unnecessary reasons) is to make an unnecessary, illiberal move. All sorts of institutional and cultural inequities should be removed, and for the most part they eventually will be removed through our reflecting on them, as well as through standard social dialectical movement.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Ken Weiss at The Mermaid's Tale has a good article on unraveling Mendel's legacy.

Babel's Dawn, an interesting blog on language by Edmund Blair Bolles, has a piece on the flow of information. He is responding to a book by Nick Lane called the Vital Question which focuses on energy needs within cells. Also, see Bolles next post criticizing sloppy language when describing cognitive features.

Ed Yong on comparing DNA mutations in neurons.

An enjoyable rundown of where it is possible we will find life in our solar system.

Lastly, at BBC Earth, an article by Melissa Hogenboom on human development. The article explores how Homo sapiens outlasted Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo floresiensis (the hobbit people). She speculates, following others, on the possibility that Homo sapiens genetically developed characteristics that made them more socially adept creatures. She points to art, symbolism, and jewelry of early Homo sapiens as compared to the Neanderthals. I think it is difficult to separate some of those factors. If Homo sapiens gained greater language processing facility, then they may have created more complex social structures. But to say that these are strictly social developments may be a misinterpretation. For example, if dogs developed greater language abilities, for any variety of reasons, there social and pack natures may take a very different kind of look. This may be beneficial to the survival and dominance of canines, but it may not be the reason for those characteristic changes. Given canines or any species of hominin, many changes are likely to bleed into slightly different social interactions or into different kinds of clans and clan interaction. If you were to slide an irresistible taste for moon rocks into human genes in some way, then tomorrow you may have a massive trade in moon rocks and cultish groups that form around such consumption. So, certainly such a change would have social impact, and such a change may lead to greater or lesser flourishing of those people, but such a change is not strictly social in nature. Given that humans are social and reflective creatures, pretty much any change to human genes would mean changes to human social structures.