complexity, intelligence, scientific arrogance, the brain, Whither Homo sapiens?


We’re maybe about 2 percent in—if that—but by God, we’re gaining on it.

Reading this article about new insights into how “useless” (we think) RNA might have been changed by DNA mutations into mRNA coding for new proteins—which, in turn, made primate brains grow and furrow into human brains—I thought, “We are gobbling from the Tree of Knowledge. And we have our eye on that other tree. This is what we killed off God for.”

How wised-up was the myth that at our very beginning, our creator already saw what we were going to get up to and said, “Not so fast, pipsqueak,” and slammed a couple of restrictions on us one of which we immediately violated (“It’s her fault!”), and then exiled us to millennia trudging through the desert of hard labor in the hope that THAT would keep us out of trouble? But no, here we are, back at the gate, already raiding the apples.

Please, don’t take any of this literally. I’m not a religious person. I just think humans are too big for our britches and that the eerie, intricate intelligence we’re beginning to uncover inside our own cells, often in molecules we’d cavalierly dismissed as “junk,” ought to humble us instead of emboldening us to step up our invasive hacking and splicing. Our own intelligence is way too crude and our motives too rapacious to do much besides botch and exploit. Inside the cell or the brain, we’re basically bulldozing straight roads through the rainforest to bring in the oil rigs and the enslaved rubber tappers. By God, we’re going to bend this thing to our will! and our will is More! Ready or not, we’re the gods now. Isn’t that what we always wanted?

In the decades and centuries to come we’re going to create monsters and disasters, and maybe—in unintended collaboration with the vast intelligence that, like a patient mother, cleans up messes and even finds bright ideas in them—a few miracles.


Creative Destruction?

I was thinking about how anything that escapes regulation, coöpts its environment, and grows unchecked, heedless of its place in a whole, is cancer-like. Wealth in late capitalism. The human population.

But there’s no escaping a larger whole. Even cancer plays its part. It creates opportunities for worms. And funeral directors. And pharma companies and cancer centers. Wealth creates opportunities for merchants and crafters of luxury goods, for services and servants, and for thieves and revolutionaries. The growing human population creates opportunities for pigeons and sparrows, parasites and viruses, inventors of ways to extract more, and now maybe even to extract more while destroying less.

It’s a free-for-all. Everything’s eating and competing, hijacking and hitchhiking on everything else. Don’t be so moralistic. Join the party.

As if you had a choice.

complexity, GMO, scientific arrogance

Not So Fast, Wannabe Baby Designers.

Nature strikes a decisive blow against human hubris.

The ability of CRISPR gene-editing technology to safely modify human embryos has been cast into doubt after several recent papers described massive disruptions to DNA in embryos subjected to editing. 

Each of the three papers, published this month without peer review on the preprint server bioRxiv, intended to edit only a single gene. But results showed large-scale, unintended DNA deletions and rearrangements in the areas surrounding the targeted sequence. . . .

“There’s no sugarcoating this,” Fyodor Urnov, a geneticist and CRISPR researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved with the research, tells OneZero. “This is a restraining order for all genome editors to stay the living daylights away from embryo editing.”

Whither Homo sapiens?

I may have found my prophet.

From The Dark Mountain Manifesto:

[Robinson] Jeffers, as his poetry developed, developed a philosophy too. He called it ‘inhumanism.’ It was, he wrote:

a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence…This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist … It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy… it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

"Science": The Religion, skepticism

Soul brothah!

Here is John Horgan, from 2016, being skeptical of Skepticism. (Debunking and sneering at anything but hard materialism was a big deal in scientistic circles before political conflagration subsumed and consumed all other controversies.)

I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.

When people like this get together, they become tribal. They pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are compared to those outside the tribe. But belonging to a tribe often makes you dumber.

Here’s an example involving two idols of Capital-S Skepticism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss recently wrote a book, A Universe from Nothing. He claims that physics is answering the old question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

Krauss’s book doesn’t come close to fulfilling the promise of its title, but Dawkins loved it. He writes in the book’s afterword: “If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology.”

Just to be clear: Dawkins is comparing Lawrence Krauss to Charles Darwin. Why would Dawkins say something so foolish? Because he hates religion so much that it impairs his scientific judgment. He succumbs to what you might call “The Science Delusion.” . . .

[Skeptics pick off low-hanging fruit, like belief in Bigfoot, and] neglect what I call hard targets . . . dubious and even harmful claims promoted by major scientists and institutions. In the rest of this talk, I’ll give you examples of hard targets from physics, medicine and biology. I’ll wrap up with a rant about war, the hardest target of all.

A must read.

"Human Nature", Conservation, extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Resistance is futile!

This post on the scienceblog The Last Word on Nothing is both a lament and a confession. The writer laments sport fishing’s role in disrupting ecosystems by heedlessly stocking native waters with imported species; and he confesses complicity, in that he has enjoyed catching trout that didn’t evolve where he caught them, and that have muscled out native species with a cascade of consequences.

Conservation is certainly a worthy cause. An ecosystem in balance is like an irreplaceable work of art; a species is a master brushstroke, and biodiversity the whole gallery. To appreciate these treasures, and to recognize that what we gain long-term by studying them could far outweigh what we gain short-term by destroying them, is uncommon sense.


We’re finally just a part of nature, a rampaging, disruptive part that stirs the pot on a scale that probably no other organism bigger than a bacterium can rival. Before we go, we will cause tragic losses and also unimaginable gains. Life will evolve and adapt, perhaps even to microplastics.

Feel guilt, by all means, but feel it with a grain of salt. Some superintelligent rat of the future will thank you. By existing.


"Human Nature", Whither Homo sapiens?

Status and Stature

Our brains are made to reward us with pleasure when we accomplish something. The purpose of this mechanism (the dopamine system) evidently is to motivate us to anticipate the reward and so to repeat the survival-promoting effort, such as hunting. (We have a predator’s version of this instinct; we stalk an insight as intently as a cat fixates on a spider, and make a “killing” on the stock market much as Paleolithic tribesman drove mammoths off a cliff.)
In an unanticipated kink of evolution, though, our brains are also clever enough to figure out how to take a shortcut to the pleasure reward and bypass the effort.
This arguably backfires in the long term—the pleasure loses potency when it’s pursued as an end in itself, leaving us trapped in addiction or stranded in meaninglessness. But in the short term it works very well, and there is loads of evidence that our natural focus, very hard to overcome, is on the short term.
There are a million illustrations of this, but the one I was thinking about this morning was status.
There are people who merit admiration by being masters of what they do, and there are people who go after admiration as an end in itself. You could actually call the first kind of reward “stature” and the second “status.”
The first group of people may enjoy admiration, but they wouldn’t enjoy it without earning it, and it makes them uneasy because they often wonder if they have really done enough to deserve it, and if they will be able to do it again. Such people are intently focused on what they do, and the reward of status, if it comes, is a byproduct—it may even be perceived as a dangerous distraction (the Book Tour Trap), a temptation to rest on one’s laurels and lose one’s mojo.
The first group of people are often not very good self-promoters, because self-promotion doesn’t really interest them. It would be a waste of their time. An example is the great artist who isn’t “discovered” and whose genius isn’t recognized until dead. (Not to get too Romantic about it, there have been exceptions—great artists who are also great self-promoters. They must be people with a double or triple helping of energy, because for most of us either art or self-promotion would be a full-time job.)
The second group of people are interested in a shortcut to status, and their art (think: a banana duct-taped to a wall) becomes a means to that end. They are assiduous self-promoters, often gifted at taking the public’s pulse and riding, or even creating, market trends for the kind of thing they do.
The catch is that people in general have a tendency to be dazzled by status and to overlook or underrate stature, which is loath to blow its own horn. The audience can’t always tell the difference, and their senses are attracted to what makes more noise and draws a crowd.
"Science": The Religion, evolutionary theory, intelligence

Science is the religion of our time

I’ve said this before; I hereby repeat myself.

Eliezer Yudkowsky on his blog Less Wrong wrote (in 2007),

Probably an actual majority of the people who believe in evolution use the phrase “because of evolution” because they want to be part of the scientific in-crowd—belief as scientific attire, like wearing a lab coat. . . . Its only purpose, for them, is to identify with a tribe.

My comment was:

Much deeper than attire, it’s folk religion. “Science” is to our time what the One Church Catholic and Universal was to the fourteenth century — the source of cosmology, explainer of existence, consoler for mortality, generator of culture. The people you cite are analogous to those buying saints’ amulets, genuflecting in church on Sundays, hanging a cross over their bed, reflexively repeating the prayers. They do not have the profound understanding of the “theologians” — the scientists. (How many peasants do you think could explain transubstantiation?) In fact, they have all kinds of wild and superstitious misunderstandings.

Of course, one of the functions of religion IS to delineate, consolidate, and perpetuate a tribe. (As an aside, what was unique about Christianity was that early on it became—as far as I know, which admittedly is not very far—the first predominantly multicultural, multiethnic tribe, united, and later divided, by ideas.) True believers in capital-S Science associate with and even marry fellow atheists and “skeptics.” Many actual small-s scientists are much more eclectic.
Speaking of religion, I had a notion of Eliezer Yudkowsky as the John the Baptist of the AI Singularity, a.k.a. “the Rapture of the Nerds.” Maybe I was confusing him with Ray Kurzweil. If Yudkowsky ever was that prophet (notably, he disowns his own pre-2002 thinking), he is now more of a meta-theologian. He did opine, also in 2007, that there’s nothing wrong with the scientific quest for immortality in principle, and healthy superlongevity in practice. If life is good, what’s better? More life! My point is that many people now believe (not hypothesize, like actual scientists) that science holds the power, in principle, get us there—to a heaven on earth—and that the older conception of a supernatural Heaven was an expression of impotence.

Cold Eye for the Little Guy

Of all the places I could choose to write this, A Cold Eye is plainly the one.

I’m reading this morning about California’s new “apocalyptic” climate change assessment. As temperatures continue to rise, heat smothers cities, wildfires devour the countryside, and rising sea levels and storms consume the coast, no one will escape—everyone has to breathe smoke-laden air, for one—but the burden, especially of heat waves, will fall most heavily on “the state’s most vulnerable residents”: the elderly, the poor, the more than 100,000 homeless.


It struck me that as we as a species struggle to cope with a burgeoning population and a deteriorating environment, one of the “solutions” we will find can already be seen in the making: human life will become cheap again.

Of course, it already is, probably always was, but we protest this strenuously. We still cling to the originally religious, then democratic, principle that every human life, every soul, has absolute value and deserves to be fostered and sheltered, not neglected, exploited, and abused. The struggle to hang on to this principle, however, becomes increasingly exhausting as the flood tide of humans and of human suffering, waste, and malfeasance rises to our nostrils. We mourn, we deplore, we protest and donate, but there is the sense that at some point we will let go and let our humanism drown.

You can see it on the Right, in the tendency to blame the poor and ill for their “bad choices.” (And this is not always entirely wrong.) You can see it on the Left, in the extension of compassion to other species at the expense of that for humans, who have forfeited it by the sins of our species. (Nor is this entirely wrong.) Compassion goes to the innocent, the sinless—on the Right, to fetuses who haven’t had the chance to make any bad choices yet; on the Left, to animals and plants (and colonized, indigenous or displaced minorities), the purportedly noble, unfallen victims of our rapacity. On both sides, our small store of compassion also goes out to “our kind, the good people.”

After all, you can’t care for everybody.

But the abstract notion that there is anything sacred and savable in principle about any human being just by virtue of being human—without being saved by Jesus Christ, without losing weight, without kicking heroin, without raking in billions for your IPO—that’s already gone.

If it ever really existed.

What’s important about this shift is that it opens the door to unbridled exploitation of and indifference to other humans. Not giving a shit may even be a factor in fitness, an advantage in the struggle to survive.



complexity, diseases, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cancer is the Devil at the Door.

The avenger of hubris. Every time we aspire to pry into the cell nucleus and pry out immortality, beauty, genius, perfection, cancer, the fear, the suspicion, the specter, the threat of it, bars our way. Like Lucifer serving God, cancer, that twisted gargoyle double arising out of self, steps into the path and says, Not so fast, Louie. It ain’t that simple.

The schadenfreude of being sure (I’d bet my nonexistent billions on it) that the tech billionaires working so feverishly on the research to immortalize themselves (and apotheosize their offspring) are going to die despite their best efforts is worth the price of having to die oneself.