Saturday, March 19, 2005

Two Big Thumbs Up For Kaena: The Prophecy

My friend El Jefe ("He Shall Rue the Day...") over at Gravity Lens thought this film was eye candy without a story.

I disagree. I thought it was a gorgeous looking film with a fairly compelling story. In fact, as I started watching it I wondered why I had never seen it even in Pittsburgh's Indy film theaters. After I finished watching it, I could make a guess. It was produced by French people and featured a doltish fundamentalist lead character who was leading his people to doom. All of this set on a tree of bio tech wreckage, where our female hero disdains hierarchy and gives power to the masses. El Jefe said he saw this coming. Okay. Perhaps El "drowned in Ayn Rand's musky aroma" Jefe didn't like the commie Up With Computer Generated People message at the end. His loss.

Friday, March 18, 2005

A Priest and a Rabbi walk into a bioethics conference...

More from the Religion and Yuck department: William Saletan takes notes as members of the PCB discuss stem cells and embryos as guests of the Catholic Church in Rome. Apparently the debate on whether altering a gene during cloning to produce stem cells without creating the structure of an embryo would be morally acceptable was not without its moments of levity:
The best part of the show was George's cross-examination of Krauthammer on the definitions of "creature" and "human." It was like Socrates trying to carve up a bowl of chicken soup. Periodically, Kass waded into the fray to say on the one hand this, on the other hand that. The original ban on funding of destructive embryo research "wasn't written at Sinai," he joked. "And even the things that were written at Sinai are"—he groped for a rabbinical exit—"under review."
At other moments, insights are offered into different theological approaches to bioethics:

Monday night at dinner, I ask Austriaco if he sees a Catholic-Jewish difference on these questions. He does, particularly among theologians. Jews follow diffuse commentary, he says; Catholics follow streamlined authority. Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason. "You don't have as clear a definition of boundaries as we have," he observes. This is why Catholics have an easier time getting over the yuck factor. "We say, 'Yeah, it looks yucky.' But I'm a molecular biologist. We make tumors in the lab all the time. For a Catholic, if I can articulate what I'm doing, it's not yucky."

Unsurprisingly, as Saletan goes on to note "It turns out that Catholic faith in reason cuts both ways."...

Via Bioethics Blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Chat with Richard Dawkins

You may already know it, but then again, you probably don't; be it as it may, the great Richard Dawkins will be chatting with visitors on March 20 at 9PM GMT (4PM [American] Eastern time). The event is hosted by the Universist Movement. I haven't yet read his two recent books, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution and A Devil's Chaplain : Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (sales benefit Human Rights Watch), though I have heard Dawkins himself recite fragments of the latter for an interview featured in a BBC profile on him (you may find a recording of this program on a peer-to-peer network service, such as eMule). Here is one that may resonate with, after being appropriately reinterpreted by, those transhumanists interested, like I am, in genetic engineering and its potential for improving the lot of makind --and, for that matter, of the sentient world at large.
Exult in your existence, because that very process has blundered unwittingly on its own negation. Only a small, local negation, to be sure: only one species, and only a minority of that species; but there lies hope. [...] Stand tall, Bipedal Ape. The shark may outswim you, the cheetah outrun you, the swift outfly you, the capuchin outclimb you, the elephant outpower you, the redwood outlast you. But you have the biggest gifts of all: the gift of understanding the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence [and the] gift of revulsion against its implications.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Technology and Happiness

From an insightful article by James Surowiecki of

The most important impact of technology on peoples sense of well-being, though, is in the field of health care. Before the Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before the age of 30. Today, life expectancy for women in Western Europe is almost 80 years, and it continues to increase. The point is obvious, but important to note: the vast majority of people are happy to be alive, and the more time they get on earth, the better off they feel they'll be. (Remember, the point about prosperity and happiness is not that prosperity makes people unhappy; its that it doesn't necessarily make them happier.) Now, the picture is a little more complicated than this. Living a few extra years as a geriatric may not be ideal. But until very recently, life for the vast majority of people was (in Hobbess formulation) nasty, brutish, and short. Technology has changed that, at least for people in the rich world. As much as we should worry about the rising cost of health care and the problem of the uninsured, its also worth remembering how valuable for our spirits as well as our bodies are the benefits that medical technology and pharmaceuticals have brought us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Religion and Technology: Yuck, Yum or "Tastes Like Chicken"

Interesting conversation between Alex Pang and Ramez Naam about the problem of religious opposition to new technologies, with a related follow-up from Ramez about The Yuck Factor.

Responding to Ramez' assessment of the difficulty of countering religious arguments on their own terms, Alex writes (emphasis added):
Hard, but I think someone's got to do it. Ramez and I agree that religious objections aren't likely to be countered through appeals either to libertarian "let the markets decide" arguments, or the argument (which I personally find more convincing) that the desire to exceed our biological limitations is a defining feature of human nature. And plenty of people are more likely to focus on things like social consequences or issues of fairness and access, rather than a moral issues.

But to draw a parallel with political campaigns: do you solidify your base of core supporters (people who generally favor unfettered access to technology, think that markets and individuals will ultimately work out for themselves the best uses, and that the dangers will be outweighed by the benefits) while appealing to swing voters (people who are nervous but rational)? Or do you try to get votes from the opposition?

Given that a very large proportion of our fellow Americans describe themselves as religious or very religious, and they are likely to pay attention-- and some would pay lots of attention-- to moral and theological arguments, I think ultimately it'll be necessary to answer Kass et al on their own ground-- to get votes from the opposition. The debate over stem cells offers a pretty remarkable example of how religious concerns can influence what in many other countries is a complete non-issue, probably to the detriment of American biomedical research and its global competitiveness.

Not that I'm volunteering to try to craft such an argument... yet, anyway.

One effort to meet religious opposition at the theology level has been made by Mark Walker, who suggests quite plausibly that God may want us to exceed our biological limitations after all.

As for the political campaign parallel, energizing the base and going after the swing voters tends to be the safer (and usually surer) strategy, but the ability to make genuine inroads with the opposition can have political payouts that last for decades.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Hughes will speak on Citizen Cyborg in Albany NY on April 13, 2005

As part of a traveling exhibit “Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature” J. Hughes will be speaking on
Citizen Cyborg and democratic transhumanism at the University of Albany on April 13, Standish Room, Science Library 4-6 pm. Refreshments will be served.
The Frankenstein series is funded by the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and the American Library Association ( ALA). The exhibit encourages audiences to examine the intent of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Our program lets people view Shelley’s novel from literary, social, historical, and political points of view. Some current artists—working in film, sculpture, painting, and new synthetic forms—also give expression to Shelley’s themes.