25.2.04

"Why humans are superior to apes"

Anti-humanism: an essay on Spiked-Online looks at how "humanism, in the sense of a faith in humanity's potential to solve problems through the application of science and reason, is taking quite a battering today."

We have all, at some point or other, heard something similar to what John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics has to say on the subject: "Homo sapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover." A not unusaul eco-fundamentalist dream: an Earth emptied of (human) life and given back to the oh-so-wise animals that would never rape the planet the way we have... Part of this ideology is the denial of Homo Sapiens' uniqueness in the animal world, and part of the strategy to prove this, is to show how other animals, primates especially, are more like us than we previously thought. There is even a campaign trying to extend human rights to great apes... Helene Guldberg takes this argument apart, methodically going trhough the state of the art in the research on the behaviour of primates (cultural transmission, social learning, language, capacity to deceive, self-awareness) and comes to the conclusion that "Six million years of ape evolution may have resulted in the emergence of 39 local behavioural patterns - in tool-use, communication and grooming rituals. However this has not moved them beyond their hand-to-mouth existence nor led to any significant changes in the way they live. Our lives have changed much more in the past decade - in terms of the technology we use, how we communicate with each other, and how we form and sustain personal relationships. Considering the vast differences in the way we live, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that apes are 'just like us'. What appears to be behind today's fashionable view of ape and human equivalence is a denigration of human capacities and human ingenuity. The richness of human experience is trivialised because human experiences are lowered to, and equated with, those of animals."

Ironically enough, as an extropian I actually agree with John Gray when he says that Homo Sapiens will sooner or later become extinct (or should we say obsolete?). It is on the subject of what exactly will replace it, however, that we radically differ...

Why humans are superior to apes, by Helene Guldberg

23.2.04

'Off the Shelf' Science

At the ExtroBrit meetings, we have sometimes talked about the possibility of non-professional scientists constructing complex instrumentation, such a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) as a project. The latest design for a PC based spectrometer, linked to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Paris, demonstrates that many research programmes, once limited to universities due to expense and bespoke design, are now opening up to hobbyists.

Using commercial-off-the-shelf cards and RF Engines' cores in FPGAs, institute engineers built an FFT spectrometer that can fit into a standard PC, replacing the huge rack-mounted systems traditionally used, Klein said.

Radio telescope systems have gone through a string of generational design changes over the past 20 years. The analog filter-based spectrometer gave way to an acoustic optical version, later supplanted by autocorrelation spectrometers, Klein said. The digital FFT spectrometer, which Klein called the fourth-generation radio telescope, is designed to handle more frequency channels than previous systems and to see finer resolutions of spectrum.


Whilst the latest version of the spectrometer is still built by engineers, using a combination of bought parts and specifically engineered cores, the next generation will probably be open to the radio telescope hobbyists who dot the globe. Examples can be found here, here in Cambridge and here as a non-profit corporation.

There are plenty of examples. What strikes me as one of the least discussed aspects of the information revolution is the decrease in costs for scientific instrumentation combined with the potential of computing power as digital replaces analogue. For those who are interested in science, the barriers to entry are lowering and the possibilities for achieving research objectives are far higher.

Not everyone wants to work on science, but for enthusiasts who do, it is faster, better and cheaper.

Philip Chaston (22.40, 23rd February 2004)

19.2.04

Therapeutic cloning: it would be immoral not to do it

The lab that brought us Dolly the sheep moves into human therapeutic cloning

The first successful cloning of a human embryo was announced only a few days ago by a South Korean team that succeeded in removing the nuclei from human eggs replacing them with somatic nuclei of the same donors. The resulting cells were allowed to replicate for less than a week, until they developed into blastocysts (clumps of a few hundreds cells), the stage at which stem cells gather together and are easier to harvest. Now the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, has announced its intention to create blastocysts cloned from motor neurone disease sufferers in order to shed light on the causes of the disease. Dr Ian Wilmut, of the Roslin Insitute, replied to those that consider such experiments immoral with a downright extropian one-liner: "Cloning promises such benefits that it would be immoral not to do it."

Immoral not to do it, just like it would be immoral to leave someone to bleed to death at a crash site instead of taking him to a hospital. Immoral, just like not developing those technologies (biotech, nanotech, AI) that promise to relieve human suffering and to take us beyond the human condition.

Cloned human embryos are stem cell breakthrough (New Scientist)

Dolly lab moves on to cloning human cells (The Times)

15.2.04

Running out of Oil

One of the more important obstacles that we face in the next two decades is the possible decline that we face in the production of oil and proven reserves. This will have a significant impact on the current economic structures that depend upon fossil fuels and their input in advanced industrial economies. Moreover, as China, India, Asia and Latin America increase the living standards of their populations, we can expect the demand for oil to jump just as proven reserves reach a limit.

David Goldstein, vice-provost at the California Institute of Technology and an advocate of nuclear technology, has written a new book entitled, "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil". In this text, he examines the problems that society will face in meeting this challenge. In particular, advocates of reliance on the 'hidden hand' of the market, do not recognise that the limitations of the oil economy will apply to its short-term replacements: coal, natural gas and the uranium underpinning nuclear power.

Goldstein argues that there is no technological fix and that the complexities of energy supply require innovation on a broad range of front from new forms of power to greater innovation in existing infrastructure.

''There is no single magic bullet that will solve all our energy problems,'' Goodstein writes. ''Most likely, progress will lie in incremental advances on many simultaneous fronts.'' We might finally learn to harness nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun, or to develop better nuclear reactors, or to improve the efficiency of the power grid. But those advances will require a ''massive, focused commitment to scientific and technological research.

Goldstein argues that the inevitable decrease in oil reserves is a major problem - one that will affect future technological innovation and economic growth if it is not addressed and resolved.

Philip Chaston - 18.24, 15th February 2004

8.2.04

Consent vs Research

Medical researchers have condemned the new Human Tissues Bill as an impediment to teaching and resaerch.

But scientists say the changes go too far and will make teaching and medical research extremely difficult.

There is no discrimination between whole organs and a collection of a few cells on a microscope slide, they say.

Cancer charities and the Wellcome Trust are calling on ministers to make changes to the Bill.


Doctors have to obtain written consent if they wish to use any form of human tissue removed from a person living or dead, even if they are checking for the prevalence of a virus in the general population. Think of the consequences if tests could not have been carried out for AIDS.

There is a quandary since informed consent is surely necessary before the tissues of any individual are extracted, preserved and used for any purpose, even if it s for public health.

However, with 3,000,000 samples and 100,000,000 blood samples, this is another example of bureaucracy run wild. Moreover, public health is often used as an argument to override the concerns of an individual and, on certain occasions, they probably do so.

Philip Chaston (21.36, 8th February 2003)