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.

 

Advertisements
Standard
climate change, diseases, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Are We As Smart As Cancer?

I have a split reaction to the rapid spread of Zika virus.

On the one hand, it’s terrifying, especially for the young and fertile. (I don’t have grown children hoping to reproduce, but I do have many nieces and nephews in that demographic.) Our natural self-interest as living organisms and members of a beleaguered species makes it imperative that we understand and control this threat: through immunization, genetic mosquito control, whatever it takes.

On the other hand, through a cold eye, such outbreaks, as well as the cancer plague that now afflicts about one in three Americans during their lifetimes, look like Earth’s immune system trying to control the cancer that is us — sometimes with whatever blunt instrument comes to hand, sometimes with an uncanny laser-guided focus: Zika targets the brain, which is, after all, the source of the trouble. It also appears to be transmitted by sex, the other source of the trouble (being, as it is, what makes more of us).

This leaves me, as a childless human who’s had my three score and ten — so anything more is gravy — feeling that if one of those natural killers came for me, I could have no hard feelings. Why me? Why not? From the host organism’s point of view, I’m one more cancer cell, or locust, or virus. Nature doesn’t care whether you hold environmentally correct views (which would make a difference only if they actually became widespread enough to re-subordinate our collective behavior to the health of the whole and rein in the metastatic human impact). It doesn’t discriminate one human from another. To the ecosystem equivalent of a natural killer cell, it’s not who you are, it’s what you are.

I fear for the young, for whom the stakes are so much higher. Owing their existence to our explosive success as a species, they are also slated to pay its price. They place their hope and faith in the continuing acceleration of our success — specifically, in science’s ability to shield us from Earth’s immune system long enough for us to proliferate and innovate towards some kind of breakthrough. Can we ever be as smart as cancer, which does such a brilliant job of outwitting OUR immune system? Can we be even smarter — figure out how to be fruitful and multiply and still keep our host alive?

We can now say that we HAVE scratched the surface. That is something. But that’s about it.

 

 

Standard
exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
Standard
extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Apoptocalypse Now

Finally starting to read that Atlantic article on “What ISIS Really Wants.” The subhead says the group has “carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

It strikes me that the resemblance between the words “apocalypse” and “apoptosis” is not coincidental. Life forms have an instinct to destroy themselves when they detect their own defectiveness. Thus it seems to be with the human species. The subjective aspect of this instinct is rage which, whatever its purported target, is actually provoked by the unbearable frustration and torment of being human.

Standard
cosmology, Movies, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

“She saved the world by using the information he sent her via the watch from the black hole with the help of a robot,” I said earnestly,

trying to explain the ending of Interstellar to my father, who had just sat through the movie with my mom and me, but couldn’t understand much of what Matthew McConaughey and his co-cast members mumbled. (Neither could I, so it wasn’t his almost-97-year-old hearing.) Then I heard myself. WHAT am I SAYING?? And I became helpless with laughter. The laughter was delicious. It was worth the three hours of confusion, incredulity, and sitting. We continued to laugh about and at the movie for the next couple of hours.

We need to see the elegant 2001 on Netflix to get the taste of this incoherent, overstuffed, unbelievable movie out of our mouths. They lost me before they even left Earth. First of all, if the ecosystem of the Earth had been destroyed, where were they getting their seemingly endless supplies of electricity and gasoline? It’s plausible that if hundreds of millions had died, there might be surpluses of fuel to tap, but then tell us so, for godsake. Also, as always in Hollywood movies, everyone looked way too healthy and well-groomed for their supposed desperate circumstances.

Then the real fun began. People were hurled through space storms and crushing gravity warps and bounced off the surfaces of hostile planets with their spaceships and bodies largely unaffected (well, OK, they did need Dramamine). Helmets off a lot of the time, no seat belts even, and facial expressions that barely rose to those of riders on a small-town roller coaster. Not to mention, where were they now getting their seemingly endless supplies of fuel and oxygen? As in the Sandra Bullock–George Clooney Gravity, it was impossible to suspend disbelief. Our bodies are almost certainly far too frail, short-lived, and dependent on a narrow range of conditions to survive long-range spaceflight—even if we ever figure out how to do it—much less space smash-ups and flying shards of space-suit–piercing debris. And sealing ourselves into Zip-Loc freezer bags full of amniotic antifreeze is a comically hasty, sloppy version of the suspended-animation trope. The sad truth is we’re not likely to get far off this planet, except robotically—and even if we could, we’d take with us the very squabbling selves that have despoiled Earth.

But what’s wrong with the fantasy of doing so? Isn’t this just the epic Enkidu or folkloric Brothers Grimm of our age?

Well, yes, that’s exactly what it is—digitally enabled primitive mythmaking. And I suppose European peasants didn’t think that witches and leprechauns were “fantasy” any more than we think interstellar travel or relativistic redemption is fantasy. My complaint is not with the yearning to search beyond our own planet—it’s the next extension of the hunger to explore that may be the best thing about us—or with the impulse to imagine beyond what we can actually do. My complaint is with the sheer badness of the movies, which believe they can be dramatically slipshod in every way as long as they blind us with CGI. (In any case, the actual images from the Hubble brutally beggar anything Hollywood can whip up.)

Worst of all: in this movie, we turn out to be our own gods. We have met the deity, and he is us. In nothing does swaggering scientism more resemble religion, and a narcissistic and solipsistic religion at that. Without positing a traditional God, there’s an awful lot out there to be in awe of, forces of a grandeur that we will never equal, master, merit, rival, or even fully comprehend. Yet the implication is that the most powerful thing out there is the next release of the human bean. In Interstellar, we’re not looking down a wormhole, we’re looking up our own a**hole.

Standard
consciousness, cosmology, extinction, origins of life, the universe, What is life? What is death?, Whither Homo sapiens?

The Race Between the Two Human Drives

To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?

Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.

So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.

If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.

The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?

* * *
I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.

We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.

Standard
climate change, evolutionary theory, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Our Schizzy Worldview

The worldview of the scientific era (something quite different from “the scientific worldview”), the popular aura that reverently surrounds science as the universal and catholic church of our time—the provider of origin myth, the promiser of redemption from death—this mythos of our time consists of two contradictory parts, as oxymoronic as matter and antimatter.

One part says that we came on the scene some two million years ago as a unique evil, the destroyers of the biosphere. The green stain of human self-hatred that welled up in the Deep Ecology movement has slowly spread to infect all sincere nature lovers, climate Cassandras, devout recyclers, carbon Puritans, alternative-energy evangelists, believers that we’ve destroyed the original biodiverse Eden and that The World Without Us was and would again be a better world. In this religiomimetic myth, becoming human was the Fall. Our drive to be fruitful and multiply, to prevail, to consume, to transform as much as possible of the planet’s biosphere into a pullulating mass of Us, our greedy Willen zur Macht, exceeds that of any other predator or pest, said drive having lost its innocence when it became coupled to an insatiable imagination, a clever pair of hands and a scheming prefrontal cortex. The tone of this dark half of our myth is mourning, self-abnegation, penitence, and shame.

The other part of our era’s myth, perhaps nurtured orclike in the egg of science fiction, asserts that we’re the only intelligence on this planet, if not in the universe, and that now that we have discovered the scientific method, we with our technology-enabled reason will eventually create a better world than blind, bumbling nature ever could. We will become functionally immortal, will banish illness and death, grow wings if we want to, create artificial life-forms to serve us, spin protein out of sunlight to feed billions more of us, and take charge of our own evolution into a godlike superintelligence ourselves. The tone of this bright half of our myth is triumphalism, bravado, and delusional optimism.

At first glance these two halves of our worldview appear to have nothing in common, but they do in fact share one major theme: a comical overestimation of our own importance and power, for good or for ill. Maybe these inflated worldviews arise just now as a defense against the realization of how infinitesimally tiny we are in both time and space. We’ve been Hubbled, but good. How do we square our huge, myopic importance to ourselves, our “It’s the biggest thing in the universe!” grasping after goods and wins and mates, with this mind-boggling insignificance? Every animal (and for all we know, every plant) is caught up in the huge drama of its own survival and self-perpetuation. It’s how life’s drive is experienced by those who enact it. But let’s have some perspective, people. We can’t have much, but let’s have a little.

Earth has seen worse than us. It (or She) will survive; it’s we who won’t, in large numbers, if we temporarily tip the environmental balance against the conditions we ourselves need to survive. Our sudden shock and sorrow at the disappearance of other species (which I certainly share; I’m the one who won’t go to China because of tigers, and this book broke my heart) is, unavoidably, sorrow at our loss—of what we in the developed world have only realized they meant to us now that they’re mostly just being beautiful screensavers and not eating us or competing with us. The species we mourn are proxies for ourselves. When any creature reproduces too successfully in the absence of predation, it consumes its food supply, exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and experiences a population crash. We’re as blameless as a plague of locusts in this respect. Though technology buys us time, enabling us to stretch the envelope quite a lot, the ocean, for instance, is not infinite, and that’s what we’re really afraid of—with reason. Other species are collateral damage.

As vain as it is to fancy ourselves the most destructive force evah (you wanna see destructive?), it’s equally preposterous to presume we are the only locus of intelligence on this planet, let alone others. Just the “backstage” intelligence running our own cells, for starters, is far more complex than the content and operations of our own intelligence. As for sentience and strategy, communication, love, and humor, they are constantly bubbling up—in forms as alien to us as birds, cetaceans, and cephalopods. Every species has an intelligence fitted to (or overflowing) its niche and its way of living, and every species, including us, lives sealed inside its own sensorium, as if its world were THE world. (“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,” wrote Blake, “is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your Senses five?”) The process of evolution itself may turn out to be drenched with intelligence, able to perceive and respond to environmental conditions, to remember, and to improvise. (Just read this.) The intricacy and interconnectedness of life at the molecular level makes it overwhelmingly likely that much of the crude tinkering we do will backfire, and we will be lucky if it is not in spectacularly Faustian fashion. We may do ourselves some good, but at a high risk of far more harm, because our minds at their best are many orders of magnitude simpler than the phenomena they are attempting to manipulate.

This world is magnificent, and in a sense it’s tragic to damage any of its amazing creations—but that is also nonsense, because they are all merrily eating each other all the time, and the whole shebang is constantly revising and trashing its own creations. We’re just its latest way of doing that, as well as part of the dispensable raw material. This is not to say we’re wrong to try to rein in our collective voracity and use our ingenuity to figure out ways to live and let live—for our own sake, our own physical and psychic survival. The life-forms with which we happen to coexist in this geological eyeblink will be collateral beneficiaries in the unlikely event that we can actually manage to do that. But let us admit we’re doing this for our own sake, adapting in a bid to survive. And let it be for the sake of pure curiosity and wonder, possibly the only real value added we bring to the game.

 

Standard