Tag Archives: Biology

“Democracy beyond anatomy”

Yet another brilliant TED talk. Bioethicist and social activist Alice Dreger talks about the fuzzy boundaries between our disconcertingly unstable biological categories; the shift from supernatural to natural explanations for the world; the basis both within and beyond biology for our notions of political rights; the genius of the Founding Fathers in envisioning a “democracy beyond anatomy”; and more:

It’s an impressive synthesis of several themes I’ve expressed interest in: identity beyond ethnicity (or biology in general), the relationship between science and democracy, and the reasons for expanding the circle of our moral concern, among others. One quibble: the music from 1776 is not forgettable! Otherwise, highly recommended viewing.

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The future of human evolution

As our understanding of human genetics grows, and as we increasingly gain the ability to reprogram life itself, Harvey Fineberg considers the possibilities of self-directed evolution:

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan, whom I’ve written about before, explores the ethical implications:

His full talk here. (Michael Sandel offers a rebuttal; if pressed for time, you can skip ahead to clip 10 — an argument on “humility, responsibility, and solidarity” — and watch from there.)

Lots of food for thought. Yet another reminder that we’re living in incredibly interesting times, and it’ll take all our best and clearest thinking to weather the quandaries and dilemmas ahead.

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Only in dark the light, cont’d: We all shine on

I’ve mentioned the work of photographer Phil Hart, who captures breathtaking images of bioluminescent phenomena. Deep-sea explorer and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder delves even more into the mystery of living lights in the deep:

An earlier and more extensive presentation here.

Considering how much we don’t know about the universe at large — we’re apparently ignorant of what makes up 95 percent of it — it’s incredible how much we still have to learn about our own planet’s ocean: it covers nearly two-thirds of the Earth and yet the vast majority of it (the figure is also, coincidentally, 95 percent) remains unexplored. These percentages should remind us how many more questions and discoveries lie ahead — a daunting or exhilarating thought, I suppose, depending on your tolerance for ignorance and curiosity. And they should also lend urgency to the need to preserve and protect our marine environments, lest we heedlessly destroy what we are only beginning to understand.

A final cool thought: humans, too, are bioluminescent. Apparently, all living things are, to greater or lesser extent. We all shine on, indeed; John Lennon was more right than he knew.

(via TED)

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Science and poetry, cont’d: Metaphors and the brain

As always, when in layman’s fashion I stumble upon some interesting notion (as I did with the idea of how “reincarnation” might feel absent a divine force, in a completely material universe) it’s fascinating to learn how that notion gets explored in more academic circles. In this case I had mused a bit about the relationship between religion, science, and poetic language, and was pleased and intrigued to read Robert Sapolsky’s essay on the biological underpinnings of metaphor:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

Sapolsky explains how: Continue reading

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“The Poetry of Science”: Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about everything

Got an hour and a half? Here are evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about — well, quite literally, life, the universe, and everything. I highly recommend the whole thing, but if you’ve only got a half-hour, the Q&A period (starting at around 50:25) has some thought-provoking discussions about the role of philosophy in science; the imperviousness of certain rigidly religious minds to evidence; the decline of America’s prominence in science; the notion of people as extremophiles; Tyson’s views on mortality; and the best manuscript typo ever.

Settle in. Enjoy.

(via RichardDawkins.net)

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