Friday, April 28, 2017

India Rising! And our decline…

We’ll go all “good news, bad news” on you, today, contrasting one of the globe’s astonishing bright spots with the decline of the erstwhile Leader of the West.  

But first: Have you been floundering to get a handle on this weird time we are in?  Lately there’s been a surge of interest in my “Horizons Model” to explain why our divides - especially in America, where market enterprise does better, under democrats - have less to do with any classic “left-right axis” than how far outward - in time and space - extend your horizons of worry, hope, and inclusion. 

Why do so many of our neighbors seem drenched in fear, and thus are prey to angst-propaganda? Why do other neighbors seem obsessed with rights extension and nothing else?

Have a look at my own incantation-explanation. And - whether or not it convinces - I promise more new concepts that make you go “huh!” than anything else you’ll read this month.  

== A new leader of the renaissance? ==

Sometimes – as forecast in Earth and The Transparent Society – positive trends can be rooted in sapient use of technology.  And this may be a big one.

According to investment maven Raoul Pal: India’s Project Aadhaar became the largest and most successful IT project ever undertaken in the world. As of 2016, 1.1 billion people (95% of the population) now have a digital proof of identity, including biometrics of fingerprints and retinal scans. The next phase was to get them into the banking system. The Government fostered the creation of eleven Payment Banks, which can hold money but don’t do any lending. To motivate people to open accounts, it offered free life insurance with them and linked bank accounts to social welfare benefits. Within three years more than 270 million bank accounts were opened and $10bn in deposits flooded in.

(Note, if we did this - or even just re-opened the Post Office Savings Account system with ATMs, poor Americans would overnight be richer, no longer having to use parasitical check-cashing services. Those who have opposed this in the U.S. are evil people. Period and full-stop.)

Pal continues: "The Aadhaar card holds another important benefit – people can use it to instantly open a mobile phone account. Mobile phone penetration exploded after Aadhaar and went from 40% of the population to 79% within a few years. Payments can now be made without banks, using mobile phones, fingerprints and an Aadhaar number. And with IndiaStack it is all cloud stored and secure."

Prime Minister Modi then risked his career on a sudden ban of the 100 rupee cash notes (with 1 month deposit deadline), which pushed the largely cash Indian economy into Aadhaar and undermined corruption and the black economy. To everyone’s surprise, it worked. (Russia is now the #1 cash economy. Guess why?)

I have two quibbles with this picture: First, India was not the first country to roll out such an integrated system for its citizens and economy.  Estonia was there earlier (see e-Estonia). I would wager that Estonian consultants played a big role in formulating Aadhaar.

Second and obviously, we are propelling toward systems that could be horribly abused by national elites who control the guts of such a system. Technologies like these are unrolling in China, with added layers like “social credit” that seem chilling. 

On the other hand, as the world’s biggest (and possibly now greatest and most genuine) democracy, India is positioning herself to be the leader of the “Western Enlightenment Experiment.”  Make that “Global Enlightenment Experiment,” and hurrah for our successor!  

With the USA floundering in mania, lunacy and phase 8 of its recurring Civil War, we had better hope that the seeds of liberty, science, accountability and grownup maturity that we spread will bear wondrous fruits of freedom and productivity and factual knowledge and adventure, in better soil. 

== Ah, La Belle France ==

It’s said that history repeats, as farce. 

We’ll know in a week whether Vladimir Putin will achieve his hat trick, getting another puppet into a western presidency.  

If so, then one of you who wrote in will be a prophet. "We might see a final confrontation -- with the US, Britain, France, and Russia lining up to impose fascism on the world... while Germany and Japan defend freedom."

And India, it seems.

Who wrote this simulation we're in?

== Alas, it couldn’t last for us ==

I’ve referred before to novels that foreshadowed a possible hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. Most phases have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating, and some think that the current one (phase eight, by my reckoning) could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like Steve Bannon.

(Note that the rebooted Omni-Online has featured Ten science fiction books that "changed the genre forever." Very flattered to be included on this list - though not sure I deserve to be.)

One "new civil war" novel that I’ve touted is the recent Tears of Abraham, by Sean T. Smith, that takes you through a disturbingly hot and deadly struggle against ourselves. 

Another just hitting the shelves – that I haven’t yet read – is American War by Omar El Akkad - a dystopian novel about 'a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074, after a presidential assassination, a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus and a militantly divided North and South. A doomed country is beset by refugee camps, guerrilla raids and relentless violence.'  In other words, a triple whammy, like the one I look back on, in The Postman."

Also worrisome, given recent absolutely proven efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, by Frederik Pohl.  In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intel communities.  Even the popular WWIII novel Ghost Fleet does not penetrate as deeply to reveal a nasty way the whole world might turn.

== You don’t think there are world leaders that crazy-fierce? ==

The brazen daytime slaying of a Russian politician outside a Ukrainian hotel this week brings to eight the number of high-profile Russians who have died over the past five months since the US presidential election on November 8,” reports CNN.  


Hey, fools who claim “we’re no better.” How about an actual tabulation-comparison of freedom and productivity and happiness and any other measure of humanity between America and Russia?  And yes, democracy and behavior in the world?

You: "we're all the same" jerks are really something. You dropped American Exceptionalism like a live grenade, when it inconveniently pointed at your Russian pals. Sure the U.S. has  done some bad things, that we ourselves usually uncover and criticize, in order to improve. We are doing that now. With your weird choice to lead us.

Oh but clarity can be found: "In a fiercely defiant statement, White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, denied that any member of the White House staff has ever worked “in any way, shape, or form” for the benefit of the United States." (Okay, that’s a snork! But we’ll need laughs as we gird ourselves.)

== Want a clear view of the problem? ==

Last time I revealed eight underlying factors driving our current civil war. Some are deeply painful. A couple of them are even "our" fault.

A disturbing and credible description of the rock-ribbed obstinacy that underlies hard-shelled rural-white-christian-fundamentalist Red America.  It verifies what I’ve long suspected, that these neighbors and fellow citizens of ours will never admit that we are neighbors and fellow citizens. They passionately support the most opposite-to-Jesus person they could ever have found, for one reason – he galls and infuriates and hates the same smartypants types that they hate. And that's good enough to ignore everything else.

It is the same underlying – confederate – fever that has periodically tormented our national character since 1778.

This doesn’t mean we should stop empathizing! Indeed, as I described last time, one of those eight underlying reasons for civil war is deeply traumatizing -- the "theft" of our neighbors' children!

One can feel for the rural(ish) trauma that happens every June, when the local High School -- center of all life in most towns -- holds graduation. The teens who are the pride of the community hug and cry... whereupon the best and brightest then streak out of town as fast as their legs can carry them, heading toward the city strongholds of The Enemy. 

That implicit rebuke happens every single year and it must wear on the souls of those who stay behind, who thereupon create a mythology of the city-as-Mordor. A cesspit  of iniquity, lacking all the wholesomeness of small town America...


...despite the real truth about which America has higher rates of teen sex, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, divorce, STDs, unwed mothers, dropouts, gambling, alcoholism... and if you leave out a few truly dismal cities, higher crime rates. See the New York Times bestseller, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.

The remainder of Blue America pays vastly more taxes, gets less back (yet whines far less) while Red America suckles net benefits, then bitches about taxes.

Oops!  Facts are inconvenient to the narrative .  And hence...

...fact-based thinking itself becomes the enemy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Declining trust in our expert castes: what are underlying causes?

Having recently participated in the worldwide March for Science, I can only repeat my assertion that the "War on Science" is about a lot more than nerds and EPA grants.  You cannot name a fact-centered profession -- from teaching and medicine, to accounting and economics, to the U.S. military officer corps -- that's not under direct assault. 

Given that these professions created the vast profusion of wealth that uplifted our nation and planet, this is not a matter of classic "left" or "right." So how in the world did we get to this point?


In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Tom Nichols (professor at the Naval War College) appraises: "How America Lost Faith in Expertise And Why That's a Giant Problem." An incisive discussion -- from his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge

Nichols is cogent and on-target. But today I want to dig even deeper, down to the very roots of this phenomenon, showing that the War on Fact People is rooted in core mythologies that all Americans share! (Along with millions of others, around the world.)


I'll get back to that. But first, what some others are saying about it.


== Fear is key ==  


Let's start with civil servants.  “Declining trust in government has spread across nearly all advanced industrial democracies since the 1960s/1970s,” writes political scientist Russell Dalton: “Regardless of political history, electoral system, or style of government, most contemporary publics are less trustful of government than they were in the era of their grandparents.”  

This despite the fact that we are richer and better off by almost any measure you can name.

We all knew that Congress is the least trusted institution in American life, according to polls (yet, in each district, we keep re-electing our own crook.)  But surprisingly, churches have also taken a steep hit, and are now trusted by much less than half. Well, maybe not so surprising, giving the hysterical harpies who make up most of the boomer generation of pastors.  

Moreover “at last count, 1 in 4 Americans supports the idea of their state seceding from the union.”  Oy. What is driving this?


In a recent Stone Kettle blog, Jim Wright says: 

      "Conservatives, and many liberals too, have been conditioned by three generations of fear-mongering. It’s always something to be afraid of. Commies and Rooskies,  Red Chinamen and Black Panthers, Ebola, the brown horde south of the border, gangs and gays and atheism, with terrorists around every corner....

"75 years ago, in America’s darkest hour, a crippled man in a wheelchair told Americans that the only thing to fear was fear itself. Americans hitched up their pants, squared their shoulders and faced their fears. Today? Politicians tell people to be afraid. Media networks  invent things to fear, from Truthers to Pizzagate. Americans are addicted... we wallow in fear. But conservatives own the market...."

Wright is a veteran with a tough, rural background and the sort who might, in a different setting, be amiably libertarian-conservative. But he is also science and progress loving, sane and hence deeply angry over the hijacking of American conservatism. Indeed, he is on target about the role fear plays in our civil war. I'll get back to it soon.

== Don't trust people who know stuff! ==  

All right. I promised a set of different perspectives on why tens of millions of Americans -- who benefited  spectacularly from the rise of science and other kinds of expertise -- let themselves get talked into bilious rage toward all expert professions. I've been exploring this for years. This capsule summary (with links) reveals hidden factors
:


1) Suspicion of Authority or SoA is the central lesson taught in almost every Hollywood film along with countless popular novels and songs, going back to the origins of the Republic. As a general reflex, this core mythology kept us free! No authority figures should be exempt. "Faceless bureaucrats" and "faceless corporations," snooty academics and zillionaire oligarchs. Any power center could be a source of Big Brother -- including elites you happen to like. 

And yes, in theory, one can imagine a technocratic dictatorship of nerdy know-it-alls -- pushy, conformist, patronizing perfessors. It's unlikely, for dozens of reasons! (Have you ever tried to herd cats? Now try getting ten million highly competitive, confidently curious and irksomely well-informed scientific "cats" to agree on an Orwellian agenda.) 


But sure, it's healthy for some citizens to express wariness toward that 'elite.' Even (ungratefully) toward all of the smartypants castes who engendered way more than half our wealth. Skepticism and criticism are fine.  Only...


2) One elite using another as distraction.


... alas, all this ire toward nerds-as-dangerous-oppressors is blatantly a scam! One that has latched onto Suspicion of Authority (SoA) as a propaganda tool. 


We've seen zillionaire oligarchs finance relentless propaganda -- on Fox and alt-right media -- aimed at riling millions into hating knowledge 'elites.' They accomplish this by stirring up that pre-existing SoA reflex to aim in just one direction. Never at neo-feudal aristocrats!  Always at the very fact-people who stand in oligarchy's way. 


(And just to be clear: there is a portion of the far-left that does the same thing.)

Flattery is a big part of the technique. Hollywood teaches us to admire authority-resisting underdogs!  So every American political movement (yes, liberalism too) portrays its followers as brave underdogs, striving for righteousness against the momentum of a majority that marches, lemming-like toward cliffs of tyranny. It brings to mind a comment by A.A. Milne.



The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. 
The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. 
The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking. 


This "you are the brave underdogs" approach has been especially effective in neutralizing the Libertarian movement.  In theory, libertarianism - which distills the very core of Suspicion of Authority - should have offered millions of liberty-oriented Republicans a place to flee, upon seeing that their party has gone mad. Given that the GOP now stands for repression of both economic and personal freedom, this should have been a no-brainer. 


Yet, there has been no mass desertion of Republicans to the Libertarian Party. Those would-be recruits nearly all scurried 'home' to the GOP on election day, exactly as the owners of the LP - the lords Steve Forbes, Rupert Murdoch and the Kochs - intended, when they set out to suborn and buy the movement. 

Elsewhere I explain (and even deeper here) why those millions of libertarian-minded republicans have clung to a loyalty that makes no sense, while confident that they are the wise ones, and not tools.

3) An Age of Amateurs.  

There's a wholesome side to questioning the authority of know-it-all experts. As I explain in this video, the 20th century's professionalization of everything served humanity well, but could not continue. That vast trend is fast being replaced by an era when hundreds of millions will have side avocations, wherein they are almost as capable as their day-work. 


It's already happening with burgeoning expertise among amateurs, ranging from black-smithing to inventing to volunteerism to (yes) science!


Naturally, there will be an adversarial edge to this. People rightfully fear that scientists will act like old-time priests and lords and guild-masters, erecting barriers, preventing interested outsiders from joining the fun. And yes, at times we do see glimmers of old fashioned guild-protection. Fortunately, it's not substantial. 


Today's experts have been largely welcoming of the amateur trend. Scientists compete with each other to get on PBS shows explaining the latest discoveries! And there are now countless opportunities for citizen science -- ways for aficionados to get involved in projects in astronomy, biology, ecology and so on.


Still, suspicion of jealous, careerist exclusion lurks, and the oligarchy's propagandists have exploited it.


4) Back to fear


As Frank Herbert put it in Dune -- "fear is the mind-killer." One study showed that just mentioning the word death in passing will bias what fraction of people soon after are willing to sit next to a person of another race, or prioritize terrorism, or even listen to scientific facts. And yes, study after study shows that Republicans are more fearful than Democrats


Says Sheldon Solomon (author of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
in Human Mortality Denial and Terror Management: “When people are reminded of their mortality, they think more about money, alcohol, consumption, short-term satisfactions, close-in loyalties and chauvinistic politics.”

As I've described elsewhere, fear controls so many of our perceptions, such as where we perceive our "horizons."  
   Horizons of worry -- whether you fret over scraping together your next meal, your next harvest or how to preserve an ecosystem a century from now. Fear controls the range of worry.
   Horizons of inclusion -- whether you hunger to expand the tribal circle to include others... or resent constant pressure to do so.
   Horizons of acceptable change -- whether you dread/resent the modern flood of disruptions (and the expert castes who propel change) or else hunger to leave feudalism far behind us and seek a better tomorrow. Perhaps even inspired by science fiction. 

Going back to Jim Wright: "Republicans have been leveraging fear to get elected for decades, they’re coming for your guns, they coming for your religion, they’re coming for your daughters, they’re coming for your jobs, they’re coming for your way of life. Be afraid! Be afraid!  Trump was just better at tapping into that fear than anybody else."

Is this consistent with the bluster and macho preening of so many red-confederates? How can it not be? Blue Americans live in the cities that are terror targets, yet they mostly want to get on with life and big projects, aware that death-by-terrorist ranks way low on any list of likely dangers. 

Our parents in the "Greatest Generation" experienced more loss during any week than we have from the entire War on Terror. Our greatest defiance of terrorists would be to deny them our fear. 


5) The Strong Father.


Here's one that a few smart pundits have at least mentioned. The brilliant master of language, George Lakoff, tried to tell the Clinton campaign they were combatting Trump in all the wrong ways. 


They decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters."


Indeed, why would fundamentalist Christians support the most opposite-to-Jesus human on the planet? As I explain elsewhere, it is because he so galls and infuriates all the same people they also hate!


Lakoff continues: “All progressives and liberals have a moral worldview, what I described as the nurturant-parent worldview. (But despite his many anti-hispanic statements,) many Latinos voted for Trump. Why? Because “strict father” morality is big in Latino culture. The campaign was not looking at values. They were looking at demographics, and they missed the role of values.”  


Indeed, this is why I will soon post my big demand!  That the Democrats recruit 3000 retired U.S. Army and Marine colonels and Navy Captains to go forth and run in every deep red district in America.  We have stronger fathers - and tough mamas - in the reality-based community.  Strong enough to be calmly confident. Strong enough not to be hysterics. Strong enough not to be afraid of strong women.  Strong enough not to be afraid of facts and science.

6) The Old Switcheroo


Often, lies are rooted in truths. Take, for example, how propagandists justify the War on Science - and against every single knowledge caste - from teaching and economics to medicine and now the Officer corps. They begin by rooting it in an aphorism that everyone knows to be true!

"Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn't automatically make them wise."

Well, when it's put that way, I doubt you'd find a single human on the planet who disagrees. We are all delusional, at one level or another. Which is why science - one of the most competitive of all fields - teaches us to admit "I might be wrong."

Only watch the way the War on Science and Smartypants is conveyed on Fox etc. Listen carefully, and you'll notice that the aphorism is implicitly re-stated as:

"Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that automatically makes them unwise."

It's not a huge leap... one that's easy to imply by leveraging all the other resentments (like SoA) described here. Of course it's also insane, which is why you never hear it said explicitly!  

How else could these svengalis get millions to reflexively despise all the folks who study and  understand ten thousand topics... including fine-grained, cellular, gas-vapor models that accurately model weather and climate on six planets? How else can they cast spite toward the men and women you will run to, when cancer looms?

I have found that the best way to fight this sneaky attack is to lay it bare, as I just did. And then to point out again and again that scientists are among the most competitive humans our species every produced.  And hence, whenever they actually do agree on something, perhaps it's unwise to ignore them.

Question scientists! But also assume that - till proved otherwise - they are wise.

7) Racism and bigotry

Some of you wrote in and -- okay, okay, I admit it -- old fashioned xenophobia, bigotry, prejudice and all that play major roles in the re-ignition of the Confederacy, our 250-year old fever that seems to boil up, once per generation.  The dark side of our force.

In fact, this falls under "fear" and limited "horizons" of inclusion.  But all that seems a bit abstract, in the face of a skyrocketing of nasty racist and anti-semitic attacks.

Still, I believe our average, conservative (red) neighbors are mostly good-hearted people. They don't feel racist, in their hearts, even if their habits are wince-worthy. Indeed, my final listed deep-motivation is a grievance that's based on real (if psychic) injury. Something that "we" in the North-Union-Blue-Urban America do to our neighbors, every single year. 

In some ways, we do to our red neighbors the worst thing you can do to another human being.

8) The June Trauma.

Underneath all the other causes for confederate hatred lies a grudge with some real basis. Something searingly traumatic that Blue America does to Red (or gray) America every year... 


...stealing their children.


What hurts is an annual brain drain. Every June at the local high school (the center of all life in rural towns), the brightest kids weep and hug and swear to keep in touch… then scoot away as fast as they can to universities and bright cities. 



See this portrayed in... Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Those cities and universities and smartypants fact-professions thereupon, at a deep, psychic level, become associated with blandishment and the theft of hope! Quite essentially robbing small town America and Americans of their children.


The city as Mordor. The university as a witches coven. The "fact people" as satanic tempters and ruiners of good boys and girls. 


And yes, it is that bad. That is how they see us, kids. The very same cities and universities that created the wonders and medicines and toys and wealth that citizens take for granted... the cornucopia that pays nearly all the taxes and where urban populations soldier on, shrugging off the threat of terrorism... those glittering realms are viewed - with some cause - as child-stealing molochs.


Face the truth: it will do no good to use facts and evidence to show we aren't Sauron worshippers. Or that Blue America is in no sense less moral than Red America. Compare rates of teen sex/pregnancy, domestic violence, gambling, divorce, obesity, STDs, crime, bullying, and so on, then show us the purported rural superiority! Think about how urban Americans have been portrayed for all our lives, as rude, immoral, thoughtless, uncaring, deceitful, filthy, cowardly and unneighborly. (Well, that final one seems a fair cop.)  

 Sure we must confront lies and slander, but actual victory - resuming our confident, pioneering push into the frontier of tomorrow - will come only if we start by acknowledging these undercurrents.

There are ways to deal with each of these underlying causes... but we won't accomplish a thing by ignoring that they are there.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Science: steps forward... through a minefield

Girding yourself for Saturday's Science March? This article - Donald Trump Should Not Appoint a Science Advisor - will steam you, offering much more detail on the White House Science Adviser office -- which Donald Trump has refused to fill -- first officially established by President Eisenhower. A partial list of responsibilities:

"Manage NASA strategy and budget. Work with the Office of Management and Budget on federal research and development investments. Deal with climate change, both in terms of mitigating it and diffusing the controversy. Testify before Congress. Oversee the National Science Foundation. Execute whatever the classified work on national security and homeland security might be. Forge science and technology cooperation agreements with nations like Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Korea. Support the State Department on other science-related initiatives. Put the president in contact with top outside experts when necessary. All in all, (Obama Science Adviser John) Holdren worked in approximately 70 different science fields at any given time." - writes Brian Palmer on Slate.


Even when the office was demoted, under George W. Bush, the WHSA - Jack Marburger - was a prestigious scientist who remained in a science-unfriendly administration because of crucial roles in the National Security Council -- roles that are now, under science-hating Donald Trump, deliberately left unfilled.

Now look again at my recent posting about the fellow who was Trump's top candidate for the Science Adviser role - David Gelernter - and see how this whole thing just gets weirder and weirder.


Seriously. Marching and chanting are among the least effective things we can do. But they are at least a bit effective and they take the least effort and can get our blood up for this fight to save civilization. Be out there on Saturday. If you can't make it to the DC March, there are over 500 marches, worldwide. Even if just alone on a streetcorner with a sign: SUPPORT A SCIENTIFIC NATION.

== The Singularity looms? ==

Ray Kurzweil, one of the principal thinkers regarding the Singularity, encourages lively debate about how to make the coming transformation a friendly one.

His popular website has published one of my essays - Preparing for Our Post-human Future - about this very matter: how we can teach "ethics" to the looming Artificial Intelligences... and whether ethics is even the right tactic to try.  While reviewing several recent books on AI, I ask whether more might be achieved using a different set of tools. 

What will happen as...Our computers learn to code themselves?

For more on how we will incorporate robots and AI into our lives, see Novum's latest podcast exploring Robots, Asimov, and... avoiding the Robot Uprising.

We need to rethink the mechanics of how we think. For a century, the neuron was thought to be the active element, turning on and off like a switch. Then the many synapses that flash between neurons seemed to resemble circuit elements in our computers.

Now we realize that dendrites make up more than 90 percent of neural tissue. Dendrites are the pickups that receive input from synapses, and they vastly outnumber the axons that deliver that input. Now it appears that dendrites engage in substantial internal information processing, far more than is done in the soma, or main body of the neuron.

“What we found indicates that such decisions are made in the dendrites far more often than in the cell body, and that such computations are not just digital, but also analog,” one researcher said.

This is an example of what some of us long expected… “intracellular computing” or multiplying manifold the processing power of each neuron. (Note, some speculate that computational or processing elements may exist within the body of the soma, too.)

This suggests that the brain has more than 100 times higher computational capacity than was previously thought! Not great news for those who expect Moore’s Law to imitate human mentation “any day now” by emulating the number of processing elements inside our skulls. (See Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human Thought Revealed.)

On the other hand, it makes the Human Leap Forward all the more amazing.

== Altering Our Children ==

Speaking of which... are we ready for human gene editing?An influential science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine on Tuesday lent its support to a once-unthinkable proposition: clinical efforts to engineer humans with inheritable genetic traits.” 

This has long been a red line that worried ethicists. 

“Just over a year ago, an international group of scientists declared that it would be “irresponsible to proceed” with making heritable changes to the human genome until the risks could be better assessed and until there was “broad societal consensus about the appropriateness” of any proposed change.”

Indeed, it’s why Robert Heinlein may be best remembered, a century from now, for the clever solution he recommends in his novel Beyond This Horizon, how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — allowing couples to select which naturally produced sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but forbidding them to actually alter the natural human genome.

Consider the elegance of this proposed compromise. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. (No fashionable feathers or lizard tails, just kids who are the healthiest and smartest and strongest the parents might have had, anyway. Though I would make an exception for the flow-through lungs of birds. I want those!) 

It is a notion so insightful that biologists 40 years later have only recently started to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

A more pragmatic concern driving the committee was the likelihood that the technology would be adopted elsewhere, in countries like China, where some pioneering research on editing human embryos — without the intent to gestate them — has already taken place.

“If we have an absolute prohibition in the United States with this technology advancing, it’s not like it won’t happen,” said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the committee’s other leader. Many European countries that have signed a treaty to refrain from human germ line editing.

== Delusion: our greatest gift and curse ==

A UCSD anthropologist has recently asserted that our ability to persist in a belief despite evidence may be the reason humanity launched to high levels of intelligence – because only denial would let us endure the obvious futility of life and the looming inevitability of death. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind, by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. I do not believe this theory by the way; I have my own explanations for the human launch to sapience, as I discuss in Human Neoteny and Two-way Sexual Selection.

Oh, I avow that delusion is the greatest human talent. Even here and now, in the most scientific and fact-centered civilization of all time, we are awash in subjectivity and made-up narratives. Even scientists - trained to utter the sacred phrase: "I might be wrong" and to seek their own mistakes - only catch some of them.  For the rest, we rely on the greatest of all human inventions: reciprocal accountability through criticism. In which others, who don't share your particular delusions, can point them out for you... and boy will you eagerly return the favor!

When it works, reciprocal criticism leads to the only successful human civilization that ever happened. Ah, but there are those conniving right now, to ensure that it stops working. (A perennial theme of mine, because I believe if we solve this, and restore our delusion-penetrating processes - then all our other problems will resolve.)

Meanwhile, another exploration for the evolution of human intelligence and creativity is offered in: The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional by anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, drawing upon archeological and genetic evidence to pinpoint the roots of the spark that ignited the human mind.

In both Earth and Existence I speculated about resurrecting extinct species, like mammoths and Neanderthals. Now the Mammoth project is looking closer at-hand. And I am involved in an endeavor to grow Neanderthal brain organelles and fly them… in space.

== Tech advances ==

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announces that its subsidiary Jigsaw (Google Ideas) is developing a machine learning technology - Perspective - that will promote more civil discourse on the internet and make comment sections on sites a little less awful, by helping web publishers to identify toxic comments that can undermine a civil exchange of ideas.

Ultra-thin temporary electronic tattoos can now turn body blemishes into touch-sensitive buttons, letting you control your smartphone with a stroke or a touch. 

A biofoam, laid across dirty or salty water, can use sunlight to separate out clear water.

As Earth Day approaches, you might be interested in a passionate essayist’s short piece on ideology, science, politics and sustainability.

Okay, get out there and do something to defend the only real chance at civilization against barbarians from without... and within.