All posts filed under: Science

Should We Be Worried About GMOs?

After shaping life on earth for billions of years, evolution via natural selection is in decline and being replaced by intelligent design. For the last 12,000 years, the survival of species has been primarily determined by their usefulness, and vulnerability, to human beings. Now, finally, we have found a way to do away with even this vestige of our biological past and to design species from the top down, working out what traits are desirable and undesirable to us and genetically engineering organisms accordingly. How much should this worry us? For many, the answer is “a lot.” For instance, Nassim Taleb has made dire warnings about the application of GMOs, arguing that they “represent a public risk of global harm” given their potential to produce unrecoverable losses or “ruin.” According to him this justifies a highly precautionary response of “avoid at all costs,” unless and until GMOs have been proven to be safe beyond doubt. GMOs pose such risks, and justify such a response, because, Taleb argues, their impact cannot be localized or contained. GMOs …

Beaked Up Birds: A Review of Big Chicken

A Review of Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna. National Geographic (September 12, 2017) 400 pages.   People began cultivating plants and animals on a large scale about 10,000 years ago. Farming created a steady supply of nutrients, and acted as an insurance policy so that our ancestors weren’t constantly beholden to the whims of weather and the migration of animals. Of course, weather also affected crops, and farm animals sometimes escaped their pens or were killed by parasites. But settled agriculture allowed us to spread risk over longer periods of time and across more people. Agriculture brought with it enormous benefits, including a larger trading network, a greater division of labor, and even some genetic changes that we’re better off with than without. But it also exposed us to new risks, including a less diverse source of nutrients, and new pathogens (some of the genetic consequences of agriculture are a product of our new diet and new pathogens: those who didn’t adapt were culled by the invisible hand of natural selection). When we began to domesticate animals, …

Against the Demonization of Drugs

For most of us, the word ‘drugs’ comes burdened with negative associations. Run a quick mental check: how many positive associations come to mind when you think of the term ‘drugs’? However, a ‘drug’ is simply any substance other than food that causes a physiological change when introduced into the body (inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed, etc). As such, the term ‘drugs’ is so broad that any sweeping generalization about them is likely to be false. Drugs include a whole spectrum of substances ranging from the highly addictive, such as crack cocaine, to the life saving and pain relieving, such as anaesthetics, to the mind enhancing, such as caffeine, to the purely recreational, such as alcohol. Yet public discourse on the subject is usually limited to the narrow mantra that “drugs are bad.” Where are the people reminding us that “drugs can be good”? There is no doubt that most anti-drug campaigns have good intentions (such as protecting people from addiction), but the simplistic picture they provide makes it difficult to make useful distinctions between …

What is Mindfulness? Nobody Really Knows, and That’s a Problem

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture. But a review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem. The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another. At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, …

Is There a Biological Case for Criminal Justice Reform?

Tell a woman the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and if she doesn’t cry, she’s a witch. In the 1500s, women who failed this test were burned alive. The test—clearly and painfully faulty—was not publicly questioned until Dutch physician Johann Weyer wrote “De Praestigiis Daemonum” (or “On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1564. Weyer correctly argued that many older women couldn’t cry due to atrophy of their lachrymal glands. Prosecutors were presented with a dilemma: reform the witch trial system or potentially kill innocent women. A paltry sum of sanity was brought to the system, and hundreds of potential deaths were prevented. Stanford University neurobiology professor Robert Sapolsky believes that today’s U.S. criminal justice system has similar biological blind spots. Just as witch prosecutors didn’t know about the lachrymal glands’ connection to tears, we don’t fully understand an untold number of connections between DNA, the brain, hormones, and other dynamic aspects of the human body. In Sapolsky’s latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he argues that our justice system falls …

Is It Ever Better Not to Know?

“What wretched doings come from the ardor of fame; the love of truth alone would never make one man attack another bitterly” –Charles Darwin, 1848 (in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hooker) “An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.” –William K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief  Is it sometimes better not to know certain things? Yes, that seems obvious. Very few people would tell a religious parent on their death bed that they have decided to reject the faith their mother or father valued so deeply. We all have illusions we’d prefer to cling to, and sometimes we respect other people’s beliefs, even when we think they’re misguided, because they bring comfort or meaning to that person. Still, we want to argue that over the long run it is better for humanity to know as much as we can about every possible question that might be asked. We think that the intrinsic beauty and instrumental benefits of the accumulated knowledge that …

Not Everything Is An Interaction

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. Whether his famous equation of E=mc2 means much to you or not, I think we can all concur on the intellectual prowess—and stunning hair—of Einstein. But where did his brilliance come from? Environment? Perhaps his parents fed him lots of fish (it’s supposed to be brain food, after all). Genetics? Surely Albert hit some sort of genetic lottery—oh that we should all be so lucky. Or does the answer reside in some combination of the two? How very enlightened: both genes and environment interact and intertwine to yield everything from the genius of Einstein to the comedic talent of Lewis Black. Surely, you cannot tease their impact apart; DNA and experience are hopelessly interlocked. Except, they’re not. Believing that they are is wrong; it’s a misleading mental shortcut that has largely sown confusion in the public about human development, and thus it needs to be retired. Despite strong genetic influences on IQ (and there are strong genetic influences on IQ), we can’t calculate the proportion of credit for Einstein’s intellect that …