Friday, April 22, 2005

Another Nightmare Scenario: Garage Bioengineers

Futurepundit ponders another of the possibilities that keep me up at night: What happens when anyone and everyone can do genetic engineering?
The DNA-based biological organism nightmare scenario that attracts the most attention is the release of genetically engineered killer viruses or bacteria that could wipe out much or all of the human race. I grant that threat is plausible and the attention that threat receives is understandable. However, in the future we will face a more general biological threat that has received far less attention: the genetic engineering of organisms that either through infection or environmental competition wipe out or greatly decrease the size of other species.

....Genetic engineering will inevitably become accessible to low skilled hobbyists working with small budgets. That is going to create enormous potential for mischief and worse. Think Rottweilers bred for ferocity are a threat at the local park? Wait till homies decide to compete to genetically engineer dogs that are the most dangerous in the neighborhood....

You see the problem here? People are going to take many existing species and modify their DNA for fun. This will be easy to do. One doesn't need to be a mechanical or electrical engineer to modify and enhance a car in all sorts of ways. Well, the same will be true of all the species of biological life.

And unlike many of his commenters -- who seem to think "religious fanatics" are the only ones to worry about -- Futurepundit understands what a wide range of motives people would have to do these things:
Why will people release their own genetically engineered species into the wild? For kicks. For fame. Out of anger. To see if it can be done. To immortalize themselves by having their own species live all over the world. To remake some part of physical geography in their image. Vanity, pride, a desire to be noticed, a desire to strike out at the world, all the normal human failings will be at work.

Anyone see reasons why this won't happen? Strikes me as inevitable.

Me too... me too.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Life Extension: Perpetual Papacy?

It seems the same thought occurred to Rand Simberg as did to me this week: What might radical life extension mean for the Papacy?
In a world of conventional life spans, we can always console ourselves with the thought that, if we're stuck with a dud pope, or a particularly nasty and competent dictator, or an overactivist judge, no one lasts forever.

But what if they do? What are the implications of this for the future of the Church? Or of dictators (who are usually the first in their own nations to take advantage of new medical techniques)? Or the Supreme Court? Or indeed, any position which, in our current finite-lived reality, is defined as a term for life?

I think Simberg is overstating the likelihood that RLE breakthroughs will occur during Benedict XVI's lifetime, but regardless, the issues he raises will have to be faced in the future.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bad Advertising for Marijuana, Case #2319: Rastafari

I feel like burnin' a church
Now that
[some ignorant pothead convinced me] the preacher was lyin'...

"Nooo, mon! That baldhead be lyin'! The people of Is-rah-ell, dey's not the Jooos! (puff, puff) Dey's us black Jamaicans mon!"

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Pornographic Stone-Age Just-So Stories, Redux

Ghost of a Flea offers a less strident and more insightful -- though still critical -- opinion on this topic.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Life Extension: Euthanasia

Radical life extension (henceforth RLE) will likely fuel the drive to legalize and expand euthanasia. One reason is that being actively killed from the outside may become the only certain way to die. Particularly if the medical technologies involve automatic, ongoing repair of the body (such as via perpetual nanobots or infection with bioengineered germs) it may become extremely difficult to die by simply being "left alone." (One can even imagine a body that takes incredibly long to starve or dehydrate because of these repairers constantly fixing the damage from deprivation.) In such a situation it might be possible to shut off or remove the treatments and die through some "internal" means such as starvation or aging, but this approach is unlikely to be acceptable in a RLE society. Both the ravages of aging and more-than-minor physical suffering are likely to be looked upon with horror and as nothing that a sane person would subject himself to. Thus a painless, certain means of death will be demanded for those who wish to die. (These may ultimately become few in number, as I will discuss later.)

Even if direct killing methods are not strictly necessary for death in a RLE society, euthanasia will fit with the expectations of direct control and medicalization being a part of any and all life- and health-related actions. Both an ever-expanding place for medicine in one's life and an ever-growing sense of control over one's body will likely mean that leaving death to chance or resorting to violent, "messy" means of suicide will not be acceptable. In other words, euthanasia would be a natural and fitting in outgrowth of a RLE culture.

In addition to these factors, euthanasia offers a means of mitigating the population-related problems I outlined in my previous entry. If dramatic overcrowding develops, then any means of getting rid of people will likely be encouraged. The free creation and storage of a computer-based simulation of any euthanisee's brain (falsely billed as "mind uploading," no doubt) could be offered as an incentive for self-termination. ("Tired of a bodily existence? Transmigrate into a realm of infinite possibilities -- Become one with the digital universe today! Visit your local Thanatos Center for more information.")

Chesterton on Stone Age Speculations

As usual, G.K. Chesterton already beat me to it. From The Everlasting Man:

Another distinguished writer, again, in commenting on the cave drawings attributed to the Neolithic men of the reindeer period, said that none of their pictures appeared to have any religious purpose; and he seemed almost to infer that they had no religion. I can hardly imagine a thinner thread of argument than this which reconstructs the very inmost moods of the prehistoric mind from the fact that somebody who has scrawled a few sketches on a rock, from what motive we do not know, for what purpose we do not know, acting under what customs or conventions we do not know, may possibly have found it easier to draw reindeer than to draw religion. He may have drawn it because it was his religious symbol. He may have drawn it because it was not his religious symbol. He may have drawn anything except his religious symbol, He may have drawn his real religious symbol somewhere else; or it may have been deliberately destroyed when it was drawn. He may have done or not done half a million things; but in any case it is an amazing leap of logic to infer that he had no religious symbol, or even to infer from his having no religious symbol that he had no religion.

Now this particular case happens to illustrate the insecurity of these guesses very clearly. For a little while afterwards, people discovered not only paintings but sculptures of animals in the caves. Some of these were said to be damaged with dints or holes supposed to be the marks of arrows; and the damaged images were conjectured to be the remains of some magic rite of killing the beasts in effigy; while the undamaged images were explained in connection with another magic rite invoking fertility upon the herds. Here again there is something faintly humorous about the scientific habit of having it both ways. If the image is damaged it proves one superstition and if it is undamaged it proves another. Here again there is a rather reckless jumping to conclusions; it has hardly occurred to the speculators that a crowd of hunters imprisoned in winter in a cave might conceivably have aimed at a mark for fun, as a sort of primitive parlor game. But in any case, if it was done out of superstition, what has become of the thesis that it had nothing to do with religion? The truth is that all this guesswork has nothing to do with anything. It is not half such a good parlor game as shooting arrows at a carved reindeer for it is shooting them into the air.

Pornographic Stone-Age Just-So Stories

Here is an article discussing how the discovery of new artifacts reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf has reignited the debate over the sexuality of our Stone Age ancestors. The two main camps see them as either evidence that the Pleistocene was a nonstop sexual orgy, or extended inhibition and prudery punctuated by the occasional seasonal outburst of mating. But the article does a poor job of hammering home what should be screamingly obvious:

We do not and cannot know the true nature of these objects.

Sure, we can speculate all sorts of things: maybe they were objects of fertility magic, or simple pornography, or images of divinities, or decorative artwork... or even none of these. The fact remains that we know nothing beyond the physical characteristics of the figures. Anything beyond that is anyone's guess.

It's another example of why so many see sociobiology as little more than a collection of Just So Stories.

The "Life Extension" Series

I've decided to try an ongoing series of posts on the theme of extending human lifespan, along the lines of my previous post. Each short entry will discuss another aspect of the issue. I will first go through all the negative possibilities I see, then come up with potential counterarguments, and finally try to present the most positive -- but still reasonable -- potential scenario of these advances [Good luck! --Ed.].

Look for more in the weeks ahead...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Life Extension: Environmental Cost

One of the supposed benefits of dramatically extending the human lifespan claimed by life extensionists is that it will make people much more inclined to preserve the environment. The reasoning is that if people know they will still be living when negative effects of environmental destruction will start to severely impact society, they will take environmental issues much more seriously and ensure that these are dealt with appropriately. This is a weak argument for two main reasons.

First, this assumes an extended lifetime automatically brings with it improved foresight. There's no particular reason to think that living longer will make people better at long-term thinking. Next week will always loom larger than something that might perhaps conceivably happen 200 years from now. Simply because there is a good chance I will still be alive then will not make it any less distant and intangible.

Second and more importantly, it completely ignores the direct environmental impact of a much longer-lived population. Population size and growth has indeed been overstated as an environmental problem. Current indicators suggest that world population will grow in the next few decades, then level off and begin to drop. In other words, a Soylent Green scenario is increasingly unlikely. However, this assumes that lifespans will change little. If people will soon be able to live 500 years or more, it could be a very, very different situation. Populations will become far larger as people die less and less, and it will mean additional centuries of consumption and pollution for each individual. Add to that the potential for each person to be able to reproduce -- either naturally or artificially -- for all of that 500+ span, and you have the recipe for unimaginable environmental calamity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Terrifying Bike Path Encounter

A cluster of 7-8 chattering sorority chicks on beach cruisers -- easily three times the amount of bicycle each can handle -- executing what is best described as a continuous controlled crash.

I'm lucky to have escaped with my life.

Note to Self

Hey Varenius, do you realize that if you want to practice writing your thoughts down quickly, you might have to actually... know...


Uhh... yeah, good point. Heh.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Weirdness Quotient Plummets in Varenius Household

The long-awaited day has finally arrived: He of the jaw-droppingly insane conspiracy theories, Weirdo Roommate, has moved out. I can't believe I actually managed to outlast him, and with my sanity (reasonably) intact, no less!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

I Want My Fascism!

Dammit, where is that fascist state Lefty moonbats swore Chimpy McHitlerburton would be imposing on us all? I was counting on the extra money I'd get from the secret police for informing on my fellow academics!

Varenius Returns

This is my return to blogging after having decided to retire Anti-Socialist Tendencies last Fall. My focus here will be a little different, though: I'll be using this mainly as a means to practice writing quickly, at which I badly need to improve. My entries here will therefore be mostly dashed-off jottings rather than extended essays.

So, in other words, this blog will be all about me rather than you, dear readers. ;-)