Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Brights Movement's Forums

The Brights have now a discussion forum. The purpose of this movement is to form an Internet constituency of individuals, the Brights, having social and political recognition and power. There is a great diversity of persons who have a naturalistic worldview. Under a broad umbrella, the Brights can gain social and political influence in a society otherwise permeated with supernaturalism.
From the Invitation to The Brights Movement's Forums: On behalf of the Brights' Forum Task Team and the Forum Facilitators Group, it is a great pleasure for me to announce the opening of the Brights Movement's Forums. The Forums exist specifically to "discuss the Brights movement and how best to achieve its goals." We want this tool to be the basis of the most successful campaigns for social and civic justice the Brights' community have ever had.
The Forum is powered by the Invision Power Board, which seems very good: With years of experience creating professional forum software, we have created a new standard in speed, efficiency and ease of use. Our product is written in PHP, the web's fastest developing scripting language, and combined with your choice of three database systems (MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle) allows us to create a feature packed and efficient service.

U.S. Gov't Buys 375,000 More Flu Shots

link - Kind of ironic since the "Medicare reform" bill the Republicans just passed explicitly banned bulk government purchases of medicines, since that's socialism.

ACT's Cloning Advances Make Embryonic Stem Cell Therapies More Plasuible

Occasionally critics of stem cell research suggest that, for embryonic stem cells to actually be used for therapeutic purposes, millions of human eggs would have to be harvested from women. But, based on advances in stem cell cloning and the idea of histological tissue matching, ACT's Dr. Robert Lanza here suggests something quite different: "It would take just 40 batches, or lines, of parthenote-generated stem cells to create tissue matches for 70 percent of the U.S. public... Embryonic stem cells are immortal, so it would not take many human eggs to create several dozen lines. "

Tips for Transhumanist Activists

West Coaster Michael Anissimov has come up with a brilliant little essay, "Working Towards Apotheosis", on the things he's learned in his thus-far brilliant career as a transhumanist activist. (He references me as an exemplar transhumanist activist at the end, so be sure to read all the way through.) For instance
  • What you were doing before you became a transhumanist probably isn’t the best way to be a transhumanist activist
  • Use your True Name.
  • Take your potential future life as a transhuman far more seriously than your life as a human, yet take your life (and goals) as a human far more seriously than the average human takes their life.
  • You actually have to get involved in transhumanist organizations to be a transhumanist.
  • The only real transhumanists are transhumanist activists, and donors to transhumanist organizations.
  • It is extremely unlikely that you are in any danger of “seeing things too narrowly” or “becoming an imbalanced person” due to transhumanist thinking.
  • Even if our species wipes itself out or gets taken over by fundamentalist overlords, that doesn’t make transhumanism one iota less important.
  • Please, write something.
  • Being a transhumanist doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.
Pretty much everything he says here is something I've told young socialist activists over the years, except taking seriously their future life as transhumans. Then again Moore's Law and the inevitability of life extension is a lot more solid than the inevitablity of socialism ever was.

All hail the technological control of reproduction!

"The number of babies born through in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive procedures is rising in the United States as fertility clinics become more popular and successful, according to a federal study released on Tuesday. "link

"The maker of a morning-after pill and the nation's largest gynecologists' group asked the government Tuesday to allow emergency contraception to sell without a prescription, saying easier access could slash unplanned pregnancies and abortions. " link

The Fattening of America

Click here to download a CDC Powerpoint slide show that frighteningly illustrates the rise of obesity in the U.S.

Does Apocalypse Need Activists?

Sometimes it seems that techies and futurist-types are an especially fickle bunch. Up-wingers, extropians, singularitarians, dynamists, immortalists, Bionomicists, Bayesians, Brights, they fly from mob to mob like crows at the sight of a shiny object. In fact, for many futurists I think that's all the future is to them... a bright... shiny... Object...

Radical technological development is creating and will continue to create serious problems that need serious people working together to solve them in an ongoing way. What do I mean by serious problems? I mean, the differential development of technology to help avoid existential threats by ensuring safeguards are in place before uncontrollable dangers overwhelm us, for one thing. I mean global regulation and oversight and accountability to ensure that the costs, benefits, and risks of technological development are all distributed fairly. I mean the articulation of culture and the reform of social and political institutions to facilitate and accommodate this development and these outcomes.

All of these are serious problems that want serious people to collaborate and brainstorm for quicker, better, fairer, more robust solutions.

That's why I am so pleased to read transhumanist pieces like the one recently written by Michael Anissimov, Working Toward Apotheosis, a short essaylet about activism that James posted a link to just yesterday on this blog. It has lots of very good commonsense advice in it.

I agree with Anissimov, for example, that radical technology activists should be writing down our ideas to reach a wider audience and using our own "True Names" when we do so, rather than the pseudonyms common in online discourse, to better participate in the give-and-take of serious public critical debate, honing our writing, argument, and critical skills (I would add, emphatically, social skills, too). And he's right that we should all be supporting the many fine organizations that are working to achieve outcomes we claim to desire, like genetic medicine and longevity research, renewable energy programs, open source software movements, support for cognitive liberty, transgender politics, secular culture and science education, space exploration, world federalism, guaranteed basic income, whatever broadly transhumanist projects happen to resonate with us.

But one thing I disagree with strongly is the idea that it is people who identify as "transhumanists" and who contribute to transhumanist organizations in particular who will be doing the most to ensure the kinds of technological outcomes transhumanists desire. I think this is a patent absurdity. As things stand I think at best a vanishingly small proportion of the people who will contribute to the developments transhumanists dream of will themselves identify as "transhumanists". Of the people who work to solve the many social, economic, political, and cultural problems associated with these developments the proportion is likely to be smaller still, if the antisocial and antipolitical attitudes that characterize many self-described transhumanists are any indication.

The idea that becoming an explicit self-idenitified transhumanist involves a conversion experience after which things are somehow radically different seems to me to have everything to do with very old-fashioned old-school bloody-minded tribal modes of social organizing that transhumanism should disdain and not embrace.

We should stop squandering energy fighting to become some kind of identity movement and focus explicitly on outcomes. That implies a focus instead on organization, outreach, and coalition building.

There are many transhumanisms, but there are no "True" transhumanists.

At least, if enough people believe this we will squander less time and less energy that could be better devoted to solving problems. If you want a movement to belong to, or to tell you who you are or what you're for then join the Hare Krishnas or read Ayn Rand novels over and over again for twenty years.

Finally, activism, it seems to me, is a worldly activity. A real world activity. The idea of "apotheosis" -- like transcendence, transcension, ascension, hoped-for singularities, most versions of Revolution, and all "Final Solutions" -- these are all about a desire for total transformation that is about the end of the world and escape from the world, and have little to do with making the world better, or engaging in serious activism. If you want apotheosis I recommend a monastery or a whorehouse. Activists with apotheosis on their minds tend to have hell in store for the rest of us.--Dale Carrico

Mathematics could stabilize peace treaties

Game theory might help draw up war settlements, from Nature: A political scientist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico has devised a mathematical method that could help civil-war negotiators to find the most stable peace treaties. Elisabeth Wood calculates that a settlement will be stronger and more likely to last if it finds the ideal way to apportion the stakes. For example, if two warring factions each want control of some part of a disputed region, negotiators need to divide the territory in a way that comes closest to satisfying them both. This doesn't guarantee that neither party will fight on in the hope of gaining more. But it may lead them to decide that further fighting will not substantially improve the eventual outcome. Wood hopes that her technique could provide a general framework for resolving civil conflicts over power, land or other resources fairly and transparently. At present, dispute is addressed ad hoc. She reckons that her mathematical model offers a way to make progress even if the stakes of the conflict are less obviously divisible.

Rich get healthier, poor get sicker

The WHO points out that life expectancy is falling in Africa while it is rising in most of the rest of the world in their annual World Health report. They call for public investment to stem the growing gulf between the health of the rich and poor.

The unselfish gene

From the Guardian Unlimited: The origin of altruism goes to the heart of the gene/culture debate that was launched in 1975 with the publication of EO Wilson's Sociobiology and, a year later, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Sociobiology claims that human nature - and by extension human society - is rooted in our genes: we are, according to Dawkins, "lumbering robots" created "body and mind" by selfish genes.
At the same time kindness and cooperation underpin much of human society. From the Kyoto agreement to arms controls or the state of public toilets, they all depend on individual willingness to commit resources to a common good. But no one has come up with a satisfactory evolutionary explanation of why we do it. In a recent Nature paper, Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher of the University of Zurich claim that the key to promote what they call strong reciprocity is rewarding generosity with kindness but punishing cheaters, even at the expense of the punisher. Strong reciprocity promotes kindness and discourages cheats, but is it a product of our genes or in our culture? It can't be entirely genetic, since different human societies (with very similar genes) vary greatly in their tolerance of cheating. Fehr and Fischbacher argue for gene-culture co-evolution: cultural and institutional environments promote social norms that favour the selection of genes that promote cooperation.
Making strong reciprocity work at both a local level (discouraging anti-social behaviour) and international level (persuading the Americans to sign the Kyoto agreement) would be beneficial to society and the world.

Hunger and homelessness increase in U.S.

Salon: "Hunger and homelessness increased in many of America's largest cities this year, with growing demand for emergency food supplies for families with children, the elderly and even people with jobs."

Ruth Macklin joins the (trans)humanist bioethics resistance movement contra Kass

In this week's British Medical Journal respected bioethicist Ruth Macklin lobs a mortar at the Kassoids with the editorial "Dignity is a useless concept" ( 327 (7429): 1419). In it she says
The US President's Council on Bioethics, appointed by President George W Bush, issued its first report in July 2002. Its title, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, illustrates the prominent place the concept of dignity occupies in the committee's discussions. In one of many references the report says that "a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore their equal in dignity and humanity."4 The report contains no analysis of dignity or how it relates to ethical principles such as respect for persons. In the absence of criteria that can enable us to know just when dignity is violated, the concept remains hopelessly vague. Although there are many persuasive arguments against human reproductive cloning, to invoke the concept of dignity without clarifying its meaning is to use a mere slogan.
Macklin notes that one bioethics group that did define human dignity is the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in their "Genetics, freedom and human dignity."
To its credit, this report goes well beyond the US President's Council in specifying a meaning of dignity in research on behavioural genetics. The report refers to the sense of responsibility as "an essential ingredient in the conception of human dignity, in the presumption that one is a person whose actions, thoughts and concerns are worthy of intrinsic respect, because they have been chosen, organised and guided in a way which makes sense from a distinctively individual point of view." Although this renders the concept of human dignity meaningful, it is nothing more than a capacity for rational thought and action, the central features conveyed in the principle of respect for autonomy.
Why, then, do so many articles and reports appeal to human dignity, as if it means something over and above respect for persons or for their autonomy? A possible explanation is the many religious sources that refer to human dignity, especially but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings. However, this religious source cannot explain how and why dignity has crept into the secular literature in medical ethics.

Macklin is a Professor of Medical Ethics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and author of half a dozen books.

Of course Chairman Bostrom said the same thing, but with a much stronger conclusion in his "In Defense of Posthuman Dignity" a paper that he also gave as a talk at our 2003 Transvision conference (click here to download or stream the 5mb Mp3). Chairman Nick was responding to, among many other things, Wesley J. Smith's piece in the National Review "Transhumanists: The Next Great Threat to Human Dignity."