Here’s a man who lives a life

23 01 2013

I’m a big fan of science, and an increasingly big fan of science fiction.

I do, however, prefer that, on a practical level, we note the difference between the two.

There’s a lot to be said for speculation—one of the roots of political science is an extended speculation on the construction of a just society—but while I am not opposed to speculation informing practice, the substitution of what-if thinking for practical thought (phronēsis) in politics results in farce, disaster, or farcical disaster.

So too in science.

Wondering about a clean and inexhaustible source of energy can lead to experiments which point the way to cleaner and longer-lasting energy sources; it can also lead to non-replicable claims about desktop cold fusion. The difference between the two is the work.

You have to do the work, work which includes observation, experimentation, and rigorous theorizing. You don’t have to know everything at the outset—that’s one of the uses of experimentation—but to go from brain-storm to science you have to test your ideas.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that cloning to make Neandertals is a bad idea.

Biologist George Church thinks synthesizing a Neandertal would be a good idea, mainly because it would diversify the “monoculture” of the Homo sapiens.

My first response is: this is just dumb. The genome of H. sapiens is syncretic, containing DNA from, yes, Neandertals, Denisovans, and possibly other archaic species, as well as microbial species. Given all of the varieties of life on this planet, I guess you could make the case for a lack of variety among humans, but calling us a “monoculture” seems rather to stretch the meaning of the term.

My second response is: this is just dumb. Church assumes a greater efficiency for cloning complex species than currently exists. Yes, cows and dogs and cats and frogs have all been cloned, but over 90 percent of all cloning attempts fail. Human pregnancy is notably inefficient—only 20-40% of all fertilized eggs result in a live birth—so it is tough to see why one would trumpet a lab process which is even more scattershot than what happens in nature.

Furthermore, those clones which are successfully produced nonetheless tend to be less healthy than the results of sexual reproduction.

Finally, all cloned animals require a surrogate mother in which to gestate. Given the low success rates of clones birthed by members of their own species, what are the chances that an H. sapiens woman would be able to bring a Neandertal clone to term—and without harming herself in the process?

I’m not against cloning, for the record. The replication of DNA segments and microbial life forms is a standard part of lab practice, and replicated tissues organs could conceivably have a role in regenerative medicine.

But—and this is my third response—advocating human and near-human cloning is at this point scientifically irresponsible. The furthest cloning has advanced in primates is the cloning of monkey embryos, that is, there has been no successful reproductive cloning of a primate.

To repeat: there has been no successful reproductive cloning of our closest genetic relatives. And Church thinks we could clone a Neandertal, easy-peasy?


There are all kinds of ethical questions about cloning, of course, but in the form of bio-ethics I practice, one undergirded by the necessity of phronēsis, the first question I ask is: Is this already happening? Is this close to happening?

If the answer is No, then I turn my attention to those practices for which the answer is Yes.

Cloning is in-between: It is already happening in some species, but the process is so fraught that the inefficiencies themselves should warn scientists off of any attempts on humans. Still, as an in-between practice, it is worth considering the ethics of human cloning.

But Neandertal cloning? Not even close.

None of this means that Church can’t speculate away on the possibilities. He just shouldn’t kid himself that he’s engaging in science rather than science fiction.

(h/t: Tyler Cowen)


Burn baby burn

18 11 2009

I fucking LOVE apocalyptic movies!

Death! Disaster! Mayhem! Whoo hoo!

And if they’re religiously themed? Even better.

Now, I define apocalyptic broadly, to encompass existential ends, partial ends (of countries, cities) as well as the mere possibility of world’s end.

Oo, world’s end—let’s see, Childhood’s End, an Aldous Huxley (Arthur C. Clarke—h/t C.) novel about—yep—the end of the world. Read that one (the, uh, first time) in high school.

So let’s extend the love for all things apocalyptic to novels, as well.

It should go without saying that these movies/novels are often awful. Children of Men was a very good movie (and so-so novel), but that, I think, was an exception.

Terminator 2 was pretty good, but really, really, really long.

Terminator? Okay.

Terminator 3? Okay. (I missed Linda Hamilton.)

Terminator 4? Umm, is that on Hulu? Maybe if I ever sign up for Netflix. . . .

Goofy apocalyptic is good, like Independence Day. Or what was that movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche about the volcano in Los Angeles? Goofy is what it was!

And certainly better than the Pierce Brosnan volcano flick—which, while it had Linda Hamilton, did not have Sarah Connor.

So, too, with Deep Impact Armageddon (Bruce Willis/Ben Affleck comet movie) and the Morgan Freeman/Tea Leoni comet movie (Deep Impact). You’d think the Freeman/Leoni duo would kick Willis & Affleck’s asses, but, no: Deep Impact Armageddon wins by goofiness.

Prophecy, with Virginia Madsen and Christopher Walken—really, you have to ask? Christopher Walken! And bonus with angels and Satan and stuff!

Much better than End of Days, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Too stodgy.

The Ninth Gate? Not really world-ending, but really fucking weird. And Satan and stuff.

Stigmata? Not really at all, but it had visions and angels and stuff. And Gabriel Byrne.

Waterworld? Nuh. Kevin Costner, not in his lovable-crank personna (Bull Durham, Tin Cup), but just annoying crank. But Dennis Hopper was fun.

Day After Tomorrow? Please. (And while I’m certainly willing to watch bad bad-end movies, I’m not willing to pay 12 bucks to do so: 2012 will have to wait.)

War of the Worlds? I have the Tom Cruise version stamped on my brain. Too muted. And Tom Cruise. . . .

Oh, and On the Beach. Odd, but great. The first half is a bit of a caper flick, with Fred Astair and Ava Gardner (man!) and stiff-and-honorable Gregory Peck, but still (SPOILER), no relief: everybody dies.

The Day After played on t.v. in the 1980s, to much hue and cry. I saw it again a year or two ago, and while it was mighty cheesy, still.

Testament was not cheesy. I still (mis?)remember the scene in which Jane Alexander is sitting in next to sun-filled window, sewing, her face determined. It’s only in the voiceover do we learn that this is a shroud for her daughter.

28 Days Later gave me nightmares for a week—then terrified me out of sleep six months later.

Didn’t see 28 Months Later, however—tho’ if it streams on Netflix (if I ever. . .) then, maybe.

I should catch up with all the old George Romero flixs. While I’m not a big horror fan, zombies work.

World War Z, by Max Brooks. Have you read it? A fine bit of reportage. Sparked an unfinished bit of writing from me, on the ethics of zombie-killing and -experimentation.

Margaret Atwood has written a number of apocalyptic novels, although these tend toward collapse-apocalypse as opposed to war/violence-apocalypse. Oryx & Crake was hilarious and cold—just right; her new book elaborates on the O&C theme and is, according to a number of critics, better than the original. Hmpf.

And then, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale—I’m currently using that in one of my pol sci classes. When I polled the class on when/whether they would try to escape the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, most of them were of the I’d-wait-it-out variety. Really? I all-but-yelped. Only one student was with me: as soon as we lost our jobs or our money, if not sooner, we’d be gone.

Turn me into an Unwoman—no suh!

Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway. What? You still haven’t read it? Honestly, what’s your excuse?

There’s more, of course. Fahrenheit 451. Don DeLillo. The Plot Against America. Walker Percy. Peter Hoeg. Jose Saramago. 1984. A couple of Marge Piercy’s. A couple of Mary Doria Russell’s. William Gibson.

Science fiction? Speculative fiction? Whatever. If the earth is in peril/ends, it’s in.

C. was going to start an apocalyptic book club at the bookstore, but a necessary manager bailed. Still, I’d expect that she’d have even more to offer.

And, again, quality is not really the point, here. Even the books or movies I slagged I’d still (re)read or watch (again).

The point is that they are 1) fiction; 2) fun! and/or terrifying!; and 3) the world ends!

Should I mention that a number of us have made plans to see The Road Christmas night?

The director had better not make it ‘inspiring’. . . .