Thursday, March 19, 2015

Paths to Uplift

== Increasing brain size ==

According to new research, just a bit of DNA explains human's big brains: The 5% or so DNA difference between chimps and humans is being explored, bit by bit. “One stretch of DNA looked promising because it was near a gene that's known to be involved in brain development. The researchers took the chimp version of this DNA and put it into mouse embryos. They took other mouse embryos and put in the human version…. Just before birth, mice with the human DNA had brains that were noticeably larger — about 12 percent bigger than the brains of mice with the chimp DNA.” Will we soon see... Planet of the Mice?

Most of the genetic differences between humans and chimps are actually found in DNA that codes for regulation rather than actual proteins… when genes get turned off and on.

Indeed, it now seems so simple to insert human-style neo-cortex genes into chimpanzees that the very idea that someone, somewhere won’t do it is simply laughable. (Coincidence, last night we watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” - better than expected! Very well-written-directed.) 

Face it -- this experiment to alter one or two chimp genes will happen! We need to discuss this now, and not from the reflexive left or right-handed puritanical perspective, but beginning the long, pragmatic discussion over how to do it right, minimizing bad outcomes. Maximizing “good.” But above all, keeping it in the open, where mistakes can be caught. Driving it underground is a sure fire way to get exactly your simplistic, Hollywood-Crichtonian nightmares.

What I find strange is that no one sees this as a two way street. How egotistical and contemptuous to assume that chimps have been doing no evolving of their own, during the last 6 million years! Me? I want their gene for different ligament attachment points, making them twice as strong as humans. What? We do uplift and get nothing in return?

Oh, and please find for me where you saw THAT ever mentioned, before. If not, then let’s call it... the Brin Swap.

But the genetic revolution goes way, way farther than that.  You will deem this lengthy article way, Way interesting: Engineering the Perfect Baby.  Such times.

Which  prompts a question — which science fictional scenario are we on the verge of unfolding? Resurrection of past species? (Not dinosaurs but perhaps Mammoths and Neanderthals, as in Existence.)  No, that’s not what this is about. Augmentation of higher animals, as in my Uplift  Series?  Oh certainly there will be some eager beavers who will splice human hare5 genes into chimps — get ready for that fire storm! (See my article: Will We Uplift Animals to Sapience?)

But other scenarios leap to mind. Like, well, have any of you read Poul Anderson’s novel Brain Wave? Seriously. What if this spread to all mammals? Then we had better get smarter, too. An outcome both to be desired… and to keep us up at night with fretful imaginings.

== Uplifting children..and robots ==

In the French newspaper of record - Le Monde - here’s an article about "uplifting animals" - with a section quoting yours truly: Faut-il augmenter les animaux? as well as this French piece about Optimistic SF.

Neoteny - the extension of childhood for ever-longer periods - was part of how we humans developed agile and adaptable intelligence. (So I argued in a paper, twenty years ago.) Now research shows this trend to be extending even farther in the latest generation: True adulthood doesn't begin until age 25. This has many aspects, beyond offering hope for the parents of slow-maturing teens. It also sheds light on the one process that ever created "sapience," that we know of.  Yet, it is a process seldom discussed in artificial intelligence circles! …

And what about raising robots?  Robots are increasingly able to learn and adapt. Alva NoĆ« is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who writes that we have no right to impose any "values" on new AI who might be smarter than us.  He asserts the concept is ridiculous and unprecedented. ... Um... tell that to ten thousand generations of... parents

== Our Evolutionary Roots ==

For a new view of Earth's evolutionary past...the world's largest Tree of Life visualizes 50,000 species across time as a spiral, developed by researchers at Temple University. 

Extreme adaptation: Scientists studying squid have found the first example of an animal editing its own genetic makeup on-the-fly to modify most of its proteins, enabling adjustments to its immediate surroundings. "It was astonishing to find that 60 percent of the squid RNA transcripts were edited. The fruit fly, for the sake of comparison, is thought to edit only 3% of its makeup.”  And… "We would like to understand better how prevalent this phenomenon is in the animal world. How is it regulated? How is it exploited to confer adaptability?"

Swansong biospheres: refuges for life and novel microbial biospheres on terrestrial planets near the end oftheir habitable lifetimes. Take a look at this article by Jack T. O'Malley-James et al. The future biosphere on Earth (as with its past) will be made up predominantly of unicellular micro-organisms. Unicellular life was probably present for at least 2.5 Gyr before multicellular life appeared and will likely be the only form of life capable of surviving on the planet in the far future, when the ageing Sun causes environmental conditions to become more hostile to more complex forms of life. Therefore, it is statistically more likely that habitable Earth-like exoplanets we discover will be at a stage in their habitable lifetime more conducive to supporting unicellular, rather than multicellular life.   

You might enjoy Evolve: The game of Unnatural Selection: A card game from New Horizon Games where you "build your own animal," based on evolutionary principles, then mutate your creature to survive in diverse ecological settings and challenges. Evolve your path to success!

== Where we were ==

Archaeologists reveal how past civilizations, though technologically less potent, still affected the environment. “What the scientists found was that while evidence showed a spike in trace element levels around 1480 – when the Incas began to expand their empire and use bismuth deposits to make a new type of bronze alloy – the period following the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire in 1533 saw a huge jump in the levels of chromium, molybdenum, antimony and lead that was not surpassed until the industrial revolution.” 

The Stoned Age? This professor compiled evidence from around the world that Neolithic people were taking drugs derived from cacti in 8,600BC and that they were cultivating opium poppies by around 6000BC.

Across that long era, the drug related death rate must have been phenomenal, because humans are vastly better than other mammals at "saying no to addictions." That kind of trait can only come from... death.

Finally...Have we found alien microbes? A fascinating article about a whole new realm of microbes. These strains must be grown on a cathode, not in a petri dish. And they indicate an immense and largely alien ecosystem here on Earth. The National Science Foundation calls it the “dark energy biosphere” and is funding studies of this parallel microbial universe, in which some bacteria can use electrons directly, instead of taking them from glucose… or deposit electrons by converting magnesium dioxide, instead of dumping them into Oxygen.

This discovery may be related to an earlier bacterial talent that I told you about…  the ability to connect into sausage-link cables thousands of cells long. “As yet there is no indication whether Rowe’s electric bacteria form these kinds of cables… but (a researcher) speculates that the cables are like drinking straws, allowing bacteria buried deep in sediment to breathe from the top of the pile by pushing electrons up through the tube, from one cell to the next.”


Alfred Differ said...

In the last Cosmos series, there was a segment that laid out a panspermia scenario where planetary impacts eject microbial refugia that make the short hop to a neighboring star and rain down on a possible water world or roofed water world. That scene reminded me a lot of those ‘messages’ from Existence, but I’d never really seen the explanation laid out visually like that. I was moved and came away from it realizing that I should probably expect the unexpected from our microbial overlords. There is no good reason to assume they all evolved here or that they didn’t inherit a little something extra from out there. The odds might be against it, but unlikely things can happen after gigayears pass by.

Regarding genetic swaps, I’d like a small helping of randomness to help confuse the parasites that try to make a living off me. Please? May I have seconds and thirds as I get older? 8)

Treebeard said...

Surely human intelligence is vastly overrated, if not an evolutionary dead end. Someone once compared the over-developed human cerebrum to the massive antlers of a certain extinct species of deer, which became so heavy that they were an impediment to survival. It seems that clever homo sapiens, capable of inventing world-threatening technologies and intent on developing more, may have reached this stage.

The universe shows no signs of intelligent life in any form we recognize – maybe because human intelligence itself is of negative evolutionary utility in this cosmos as constructed?

Nietzsche and Lovecraft expressed this sensibility a long time ago, and I don’t see anything in the intervening years of scientific progress that discredits their observations. To wit:

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history” — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.”

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

What will the true believers in Star Trek futures do if and when the universe fails to send us any message of hope, no cosmic brain wave or Overmind arrives to save us, and mankind is unable to escape its terrestrial prison in any substantial and sustainable way? Surely a new dark age awaits us -- perhaps similar to the one described in Clark Ashton Smith’s story of the same name (see ):

Yet despite what the scientific priesthood would have you believe, such a post-progressive age -- when men no longer pursue such bizarre Faustian projects as “uplifting animals”, “genetic engineering”, “artificial intelligence” and “starships” – will have its charms:

“Torquane, peering down at the still, inscrutable face of Varia, was filled with a blind mingling of sorrow and bafflement. It was not thus that he had dreamt of entering the guarded citadel and winning the Custodian's daughter. Never would he retrieve the mysterious lore of the Custodians or understand their machines, or read their ciphered books. It was not for him to finish the Promethean labors of Atullos, and re-illuminate the dark world with science. These things, with the girl Varia for mate and instructress, he might have done. But now, many centuries and cycles would pass, ere the lifting of the night of barbarism; and other hands than those of Torquane, or the sons of Torquane, would rekindle the lamp of ancient knowledge.

Still, though he knew it not in his sorrow and frustration, there remained other things: the clean, sweet lips of the simple hill-girl who would bear his children; the wild, free life of man, warring on equal terms with nature and maintaining her laws obediently; the sun and stars unclouded by the vapors of man's making; the air untainted by his seething cities.”

A.F. Rey said...

"Planet of the Mice," eh? Now that's a movie I'd pay to see, if only to watch George Taylor yell, "Take your stinking tails off me, you damned dirty mice!" :)

You can almost hear the mice squeeking in suprise...

Matt G said...

Treebeard, there's nothing "surely" about it. Getting past Fermi's Paradox will probably be a very difficult set of challenges, but we can get past it, all without depending on some alien messiah to provide deliverance.

DP said...

AF Rey - actually it would be more like:

"What are we doing tonight,Brain?"

"The same thing we do every night, Pinky. TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!"


DP said...

What is very cool about the Uplift concept is that it makes a space opera that does not rely on magical physics like warp drive or hyperspace.

Hundreds of "alien" species could be created by uplifting. You want the Kzin, uplift tigers. You want the Ferengi, uplift rats. You want Klingons, uplift nasty agressive chimps. You want Wookies, uplift orangutans. Throw in genetic modifications (eliminate emotions - or induce slight Aspergers - in humans to create Vulcans) or cyborg add ons (voila, the Borg). Most aliens in SF are just humans with bumpy foreheads anyways.

Now place these "alien" species on hundreds of terraformed and paraterraformed planets, moons, asteroids, KBOS, Oort cloud planetoids, and moons orbiting nearbye brown dwarfs and you have a pocket-sized space opera that can utilize simple radio for communication and feasible sublight nuclear rockets for propulsion.

In such a setting, the nearest stars would be analogous to the closest galaxies in a traditional galactic space opera. Maybe Capt. Kirk and Darth Vader would be unimpressed, but your could create a true space opera that doesn't break any scientific rules or violate physical laws.

Anonymous said...

Uplift congress please?

David Brin said...

Nietzsche and Lovecraft as archetypes of wisdom and prescience! And accuracy! OMG. Much is explained.

Including the stunning notion that Star Trekkian Humanity+ would WANT an overmind to tell us what to do? Jeez, did this fellow ever actually watch the show?

The true sign of a negative-sum mind? The assumption that you must trade away all of human progress in order to get the "real-ness" of a imple hill woman bearing you children... who will all die in your arms, as will she, while the raging tooth infection makes you cry and moan all night, wishing that your troglodytic romanticism had thought to make one exception... dentistry.

Positive summers have an idea... let's make life better and more diverse for all... so that everyone will get a chance to go native-primitive at phases in their lives, ranging free across the hills, growing their own food, howling with wolves... but heading into town whenever gangrene sets in and letting Dr. Crusher fix that broken leg.

brin in New Mexico

David Brin said...

Another star may pass within half a light year, in a few million years. If one (of many) branch of our descendants are by then swarming the Oort Cloud, they will naturally drift over. Onward conestogas.

Alfred Differ said...

Hopefully we will build a few ramscoops before the next star drifts by our neighborhood. I’m a little too willing to consider Vinge’s point about planetary civilizations and the wheel of time. I’m not convinced we have a few million years. The solar system isn’t that big a place on that time scale. Only 1.5 MYA a tiny number of us were running around with nothing more sophisticated than a spiffy palm-sized stone axe. Heh. What is our equivalent of that axe today?
I told my wife about the mice with the genetic splices. The first words out of her mouth were Pinky’s question. I kicked myself for not thinking of it first. NARF. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

//* Nietzsche and Lovecraft expressed this sensibility a long time ago, and I don’t see anything in the intervening years of scientific progress that discredits their observations.

Someone doesn't want to live. 8/

I'd rather challenge the heavens. I want to race out there, kick it in the ^%!$, and demand the knowledge necessary to make gods of ourselves. When it isn't given freely, I'll harrumpf loudly and proclaim my intent to figure it out myself. Barbaric? Oh yah!

Fight, scratch, and kick our way to a grand future for our children. None of this surrender nonsense.

Jumper said...

The economy of space is the luminal time lag for tele-presence. If fine control of Martian operations requires a human mind close by to avoid lag times, then humans will live on Phobos. There will be sufficient communications satellites around Mars. Waldoes will be used for surface work. Remote-controlled farms will be constructed on the surface. Tons of food and oxygen tanks stored. Ice railgunned to Phobos. Settlers only once stores are large.

Alfred Differ said...

The economy of space is the time cost of money. None of this happens without figuring out how to engage the private money people invest elsewhere. Government money is peanuts compared to that.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

There's some juicy stuff in this one! Ironically, just a week ago my daughter was brainstorming a short story about an alien race that edits its own DNA, then this article about squid doing the same thing turns up!

On the differences between human and ape DNA, has anyone seen a video called "What Darwin Never Knew"? There was a bit in there toward the end where they found an epigenome difference that relates to the size of jaws. By dramatically reducing the size of the sagittal muscles, which attach at the top of the head, it allows the brain case to grow quite a bit larger. Of course, intelligence is polygenic, so we will probably still be searching for relevant genes for many years to come.

I've already ordered that Evolve card game. Anyone in the neighborhood care to try it out when it comes? (that's the problem with having internet friends - you may never actually see any of them).

The Neolithic drug use thing has been pretty well established for some time. I remember reading a book when I was completing my teaching license about the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the formation of religion almost 15 years ago. Chimps will sometimes leave fruits at the tops of trees to ferment in the hot sun, then get tipsy and fall out of their trees (which brings to mind the old Beer Hypothesis for the rise of civilization - ).

I have been too busy to keep up my reading habit since becoming a teacher and a parent. Does anyone know of any good science fiction that goes does a fair job of looking at our future evolution? The potential for genetic engineering to become the greatest punctuation in our equilibrium is enormous, yet most visions of the future are populated with people who look pretty much just like us.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

An excellent bit of science fiction about manipulating human DNA is the television series Dark Angel.

It was a little too ahead of its time when it was shown in 2000-2002. The entire two seasons that were shown are available on DVD from places like Amazon.

The setting of Dark Angel is 2019-2021. A fictional man named Sandeman decides that human DNA is a total jumbled mess (which is true) and figures how remove the "junk DNA" and fill the human genome with only functional genes, including multiple copies of certain useful genes. This leaves plenty of room to add bits of animal DNA (from various animals) to give humans additional abilities, including enhanced wound healing and general fast recovery from injuries.

A good summary of Dark Angel is at:

The show featured things like small drones and exoskeletons that were quite futuristic in 2000, but are somewhat commonplace now.

Some of Sandeman's genetic creations look just like ordinary humans. Others have notable animal characteristics.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Jerry, thanks for the suggestion. Of course, you probably know that what used to be called "junk DNA" we now know is really epigenetic switching mechanisms (why you put the word in quotes), so the premise is scientifically flawed, but it could be an interesting show in spite of that. A lot of science fiction has that quality, Often the writers get their ideas from what is floating around in the media meme-stream, though in this case if the show started in 2000 few has even heard of epigenetics then. Hell, most people don't even know about this today - they are still thinking in terms of 18th Century genetic determinism.

Paul451 said...

Expect another weird spasm-comment soon from from past poster Ian.

Someone has 3d printed a disposable plastic silencer:

Paul451 said...

Junk DNA is also part of the structural and folding system. Also ensuring that the right part of the genome is presented at the right moments.

Paul451 said...

Combining some recent threads, I noticed that Alfred Differ displays double standards on a couple of issues, relating to his libertarian views.

Eg 1. He insists on an 80/20 rule (or 90/10), that 80% (or more) of the population must agree to a tax/regulation/etc before he will grudgingly accept it "morally". Others pointed out that he is arbitrarily deciding which issues are on which side of the 80 and 20 divide. But it's more fundamental than that: his 80/20 rule itself would clearly lack 80 support in our society. Yet he doesn't see that as showing that his desire to impose such an extreme system on the rest of society is immoral by his own standards

Eg 2. On the issue of immigration, he decries the "lottery of birth" artificially dividing people into rich nations and poor nations, even calling it "evil". Yet he strongly objects ("foaming at the mouth in rage", in his own words) to something like a universal basic income (aka Mincome, aka Guaranteed Minimum Income) or even just Employer-Of-Last-Resort schemes, and objects to taxation in general and specifically taxing his wealthy tax-dodging friend, even though progressive taxation, welfare, and especially UBIs are intended to address the innate unfairness of the "lottery of birth" within a nation. Doesn't that make his opposition to taxation and welfare "evil" too? By his own standards?

Anyway, I thought the irony (and Alfred's inability to see the irony) was interesting.

Alex Tolley said...

Recent evidence suggests that telomeres are involved in gene activation. As the shorten, they activate different genes.

If human uplift assumes larger brains, there may be a problem, as we would also have to modify the woman's pelvis to handle the larger brains and heads of the child.

The idea that we have smaller jaw muscles than chimps allowing our skulls (and brain) to be larger is interesting. A recent hypothesis is that cooking food which allowed for easier mastication and greater energy extraction selected for this.

A few years ago there was an article in SciAm suggesting that human brains had reached their largest size possible, and that larger brains would not be more powerful. (I cannot recall the reasoning, although I vaguely recall something about connectivity).

As I've noted in the past, there is some evidence that human brain/body ratios have decreased since civilization started, rather as it does with domesticated animals.

For humans, and perhaps for animal;s too, uplift might be more easily achieved with technology and culture, rather than raw brain power. For example, chimps need a better larynx so that they can vocalize like us. Would it be easier to modify their genes, or provide prostheses to do this? What does seem to me more useful is the huge value of culture (knowledge, learning, institutions, etc) that facilitate better minds.

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB SciFi evolution: have you read Stephen Baxter's "Evolution"?

Most SciFi that I read tends towards post-humanism, rather than evolution per se. Technology often replacing teh older idea of gaining "special powers", like telepathy, etc.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul451: I was going to spare people on this thread. I don’t mean to turn everything into a classical liberal diatribe. 8)

If I was imposing the super-majority rule, it would indeed by immoral. I don’t think I am. I’m observing how certain things like the Drug War lack sufficient public support to be effective. A number of drug laws are undermined by a significant percentage of the population making enforcement impossible or arbitrary. I’m observing that we do this when we have moral objections to the laws and most often that means we feel the laws are imposing a moral structure upon us we do not accept. Some drug laws are fully accepted, though, so I’m observing that they have the 90%+ support they need to be effective.

Regarding my rabies foam, it’s obvious I haven’t been clear. I’ve lurked here for years and enjoyed a lot of what many of you write even when I disagreed with political and economic claims. I’ve decided to end my lurk, but not out of some need to convince any of you that I’m right and you are wrong. I enjoy the give and take I’ve seen here and expect my views to take a beating if I write them out well enough to catch anyone’s interest.

Regarding Eg2, I’m appreciative of the good intentions of people who want to do the right thing, but very skeptical of their means when they try to obligate government. It’s not that I distrust government as much as some of the people on the ‘right’. It’s that I trust government to try to serve and I know they will occasionally fail and keep trying anyway. In their failure they will try to cover evidence and prolong their attempt at being useful. If they succeed, that is all wonderful and good, but when they fail it becomes very, very hard to change course and try another experiment to do the right thing. Government efforts should be efforts of last resort if we really care about doing the right thing by people who need our help.

Alfred Differ said...

I forget where I saw it, but I remember a link between the size of our intestines and the size of our brains too. We couldn't grow brain size with so many calories devoted to digestion, so cooking freed us. Smaller guts, larger brains was the take away lesson.

Maybe someone was trying to demolish the Paleolithic diet fad. 8)

Jumper said...

True enough on the "economics of space exploration," Alfred. I meant the economics of human presence in space. Of course AI will be a strong competitor to fast-feedback, human waldoes. However, I envy the future waldo operators on the moon and Mars etc. (Ceres!) as much as the ones who will actually go there.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - here is one source for the intestine-brain size link in primates.

Evolution is always hill-climbing via selection for maximum reproductive success. Sometimes sexual selection drives what looks like sub-optimal features, but as long as we look to reproductive success, that is the test.

There has been a suggestion that sex selection selected for larger brains, or at least some features - e.g. ability to sing, maintain rhythm for dancing, tell stories, etc.

Increasing size has proven to be a major driver in evolution.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - there has been some work on overcoming the time lag issue for robots on Mars using probability maps of where a robot has traveled. This overcomes the plan, execute, wait for feedback cycle used today. Of course this becomes increasingly limited the further the robot is from home.

True autonomy (AI) is where the future lies, especially for exoplanet rovers. At this moment, robotic advances seems to be besting human economics improvements.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: Thank you! I know there has to be some kind of sex selection effect for larger brains. The males in my lineage pass down a very short piece of advice to their sons. 'Find a woman smarter than you and marry her.' They don't really have to, though. I can't help but be drawn to the smart ones. 8)

@Jumper: With the recent demonstration of improved capabilities when humans collaborate with our automation, I suspect the economic arguments people have over sending men or machines will be made moot. The answer will be 'Obviously both'. Instead of AI it will be IA. 8)

Andy said...

Somewhat related...body posture affects learning for both robots and toddlers:

And, speaking of evolution-themed games, I have played this one and it is really fun:

matthew said...

Back on Transparency - Here's a short article in Slate that finally gets to the truth about the current state of electronic communication. No surprises here, except that it has taken our media so long to admit that nothing is secret that takes place electronically.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Paul SB: Unfortunately, I know all too well about epigenetics and the results of errors in what was formerly called "junk DNA."

I have a personal problem in an intron that is slowly turning off an important gene that should remain functional. I'm able to overcome it with hormone treatments. I won't discuss it further since I've already discussed it in previous posts on this blog.

An interesting question about epigenetics, though, is whether they could be replaced with functional clock genes that turn other genes on or off at the appropriate time.

When I referred to human DNA as being a total mess, I was referring mainly to human epigenetics. Coding genes are fairly understandable. The way that nature has done epigenetics is both inefficient in the extreme and likely responsible for a large amount of human suffering.

Human telomeres also need to be much longer, especially on chromosome 17 where many of the most important DNA repair genes are located. Longer telomeres on chromosome 17 would probably greatly reduce the cancer incidence in humans.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

The males in my lineage pass down a very short piece of advice to their sons. 'Find a woman smarter than you and marry her.'

Heh. I did just that, all on my own initiative.

And it worked too. We accidentally created a prodigy, and now I can only hope to stay along for the ride when she really blooms.

When my daughter was very young, I was already thinking in terms of the origin of Dr Doom, when young Von Doom's father's dying words to his servant were "protect...", and the servant wisely thinks "He does not mean to protect the boy, but that the world must be protected from the son who bears the name Von Doom."

Alfred Differ said...

Von Doom is such a good example of a character that appeals to the urge within us to make demigods of ourselves and lord it over all the little people who obviously aren't any smarter than sheep. 8)

Teach your prodigy to be gentle with us... and expect that many of us won't accept being sheep. In well-oiled collaborative groups, we can probably match her and make her life MUCH more interesting.

Kids are such a blast.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Jerry, I remember your story about finding the aromatase intron variant, now that you mention it. In fact, I am just finishing teaching a unit on genetics. Would you mind if I discussed your story with my students? I'll leave out the name. It's such a good story about how we can help ourselves to longer years of quality life by being educated and proactive - both things that are not highly valued in the community where I teach. On top of that, they are getting early spring fever - thanks to a sudden decrease in cloud cover, which raises their serotonin levels. Ironically, I had just shown them National Geographic's video called "Born to Rage" which is about a common mutation in the intron controlling the Monoamine Oxidase A gene. While the show is pretty well done, they make no mention of the connection between serotonin and sunlight, which I reminded them of. The irony, of course, is that right after watching the video, two of my students went outside and got into a fight. No lobes!

Telomere extension has been talked about for awhile, but I haven't heard anyone seriously looking at changing the timing on clock genes. That could be huge! And I find it disturbing that the FDA has been pulling the teeth out of genetic testing companies.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex, thanks for the book recommendation. I have never read Baxter, but he co-authored a book with the late Terry Pratchett, My daughter read it and liked it, so I'll ask her if she had any thoughts about the co-author. Have you read Greg Bear's "Darwin's Radio" and the sequel "Darwin's Children"? I found these as books on cd at a local library several years ago, and found them quite entertaining.

As far as cybernetics goes, I don't find the idea of attaching machines to my body very appealing. I once had a steel rod in my leg, holding the fibula together after an accident. Whenever the air pressure or temperature would change dramatically, my leg would ache terribly. The doctors said I could leave it in forever, but I had them take it out when I was 19, not wanting to imagine what it would feel like when I was 60. Although it has limits, genetic engineering strikes me as the way to go.

Jumper said...

Off topic, here's a good source showing how a Republican strategist promoted the term "climate change," indicating it's not a trick by liberals:

locumranch said...

Since Larry and Alfred both brought up the topic of children, including their desire for 'prodigies', it's important to point out that this impulse toward uplift, optimisation and genetic augmentation springs from an obsessive desire to 'Dominate the Future' as described by Tu'an in his "Making of Pets".

There is no difference, then, between the obsessively trained human piano prodigy, educated for a specific purpose, and a space-faring dolphin engineered with opposable thumbs. They both exist purely for our pleasure; they are the spiritual descendants of the organ-grinder's dancing monkey; and we will take great pride in their accomplishments as long as they dance to our tune.

Dance for us, little monkey !! What a cute little hat !! You're such a BIG boy, yes you are. Now, dance for us.


Jumper said...

It depends how they are treated. I have seen some remarks here which seemed like the commenters would consider any uplifted entities as slaves. Suppose one of those chimps doesn't want to go to Mars, even if specifically designed with genetic mods to do so?
I was made to take piano lessons, but was allowed to quit when I had had enough.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum "There is no difference, then, between the obsessively trained human piano prodigy, educated for a specific purpose, and a space-faring dolphin engineered with opposable thumbs. They both exist purely for our pleasure; they are the spiritual descendants of the organ-grinder's dancing monkey; and we will take great pride in their accomplishments as long as they dance to our tune."

So in one thread you have decried the "leveling" imposed on those with talent to get ahead. Now you seem to argue against developing talent to get ahead. What are genetically endowed sportspeople and entertainers if not people with genetic predisposition to use their talents, that exceed those of their fellows, to get ahead in life?

Alex Tolley said...

@psb - I have read both of Bear's "Darwin" books. I have to say that I liked Darwin's Radio more.

Baxter has also collaborated with Clarke, co-writing a number of books (notably the Time Odyssey trilogy) with him before Clarke died. He also contributed a superb reworking of one of Clarke's first short stories ("Travel By Wire") for the "Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke".

Alex Tolley said...

As the brain-gut story informs us, augmenting brains by adding functional volume doesn't come for free. We may have to change a number of physiological traits too. Herbivorous animals might need to become omnivores to support their larger, more energy consuming brains, or at least get higher energy diets.

But there are other issues. Imagine a dog with a human level brain. It may need an "uplifted" larynx to be able to communicate and store more vocal information in its brain to use that extra capacity. But then it gets frustrated by having paws, rather than manipulative hands. Unlike us, with no exemplars to compare with, it can see the benefits of having hands rather than paws.

With human uplift, we need to examine the consequences. If only a select few are enhanced, with they acquire "supermen" complexes, treating the non-augmented as inferior. Since we already have ideologies and social systems that allow this today, one can only imagine what a select few with enhanced brains might think and behave.

@psb - we already have prosthetic enhancements. Some are separate from us, like books (memory storage), computers etc. Some are less so, eyesight and hearing, limb or organ replacement. Clarke envisioned the "brain cap" (3001)
which invasively entered the brain, but which all citizens of the future had fitted. The cost was loss of natural hair and the wearing of wigs. Today I think we would want to mount the "cap" on the inside of the skull instead.

LarryHart said...


Since Larry and Alfred both brought up the topic of children, including their desire for 'prodigies', it's important to point out that this impulse toward uplift, optimisation and genetic augmentation springs from an obsessive desire to 'Dominate the Future' as described by Tu'an in his "Making of Pets".

Willfully or otherwise, you missed the significance of "we accidentally created a prodigy." There was no intent about it.

You also misread my sentiment toward my daughter as something along the lines of "Through her, I will dominate other people", whereas it is more accurately a sense of relief that she will be well equipped to make a good life for herself, as well as a sense of wonder that I had a part in creating such a person. When she was a toddler, my wife and I were the center of her life. Now that she's a teenager, I already see her expanding her boundaries to the point where she'll soom leave me in the dust behind her. And as if I'm not being clear, that's a good thing.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

Von Doom is such a good example of a character that appeals to the urge within us to make demigods of ourselves and lord it over all the little people who obviously aren't any smarter than sheep. 8)

After WWII faded away, comics needed a villain in the mold of Hitler who wasn't tied into the timeline of real-world events. Dr Doom was created in the early 1960s, when Hitler still appeared fairly clearly in the rear view mirror, and still influenced the essence of comic book supervillainy.

Here in the 21st century, I really have no interest in my daughter becoming anything as mundane as a dictator. That concept for a villain's motivation seems almost quaint.

Kids are such a blast.

True confession: Having children was never a big motivation in my life. When my wife was pregnant, I empathized with the Toby Zeigler character on "West Wing" who responded to the admontion that having kids changes one's life with "I like my life. I like who I am now." And I was almost certain that all the great things people told me about having kids was so much propaganda designed to trick people like me into reproducing.

Thirteen years later, I stand corrected. If anything, I identify more with the Romulan defector from ST:TNG who told Captain Picard, "There comes a time in every father's life when he looks into his daughter's eyes, and he realizes, he must change the world for her."

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Paul Shen-Brown: Sure. Go ahead and use my DNA story in your classroom. You can even use my name and my real DNA file. My 23andMe file can be downloaded from:

That file can be loaded into any Excel or similar spreadsheet made since 2007. (Many older spreadsheets won't hold all of the lines of information.)

There are 579,751 lines of information (not counting the headers) in this 23andMe file. If you search for rs17703883 you will find the SNP that was causing me the problem. Your students can see from my DNA file that rs17703883 is the 49,317,389th base pair on human chromosome 15. At this position, I am a (C,C).

This means that at this location, I inherited a C from my father and a C from my mother.

If you go to SNPedia and look up rs17703883, you will see that most people are either (T,T) or (C,T) at this location on their genome. My sister is (C,T) so she apparently inherited a T from our mother.

So we can infer from this that my mother was C,T on rs17703883. My father was apparently (C,C) at this position because he died after his spine slowly crumbled away.

Those who are (C,C) are likely to have an osteoporosis problem later in life, which can be severe enough to incapacitate and eventually kill them.

All of this sounds complicated, but if you actually look at a real case, it starts to become much clearer how this all works.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

One thing that can be confusing to those just learning about DNA is that we have both chromosome pairs and "base pairs." In the case of chromosome pairs, one comes from your father and the other from your mother. The pairs of DNA bases, such as I mentioned in my above post, like the (C,C) refer to one base on a chromosome inherited from your mother, and a second base on a chromosome inherited from your father.

The term "base pair" is something different. It ordinarily refers to the two bases on the two complementary strands of DNA within a single chromosome. In this case, C always pairs with G, and A always pairs with T. In most cases, the + strand is considered to be the reference strand on each chromosome. (Early DNA research often reported on the minus strand, which now causes an enormous amount of confusion. DNA computer software has to check to make sure that each point is referencing the + strand, and make it C/G or A/T flip if it isn't the plus strand.)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin hasn't made his usual "Onward" announcement, but I'm not sure if anyone will even look back here after a new thread has begun. If anyone should, I want to be sure to say thank you to Jerry for his permission. I am at the end of the unit and probably won't have time to go into detail, but I can at least show them a few snippets of the conversation. I'll comment to others (Larry and ALex, mainly) and on other subjects after I have had a chance to read Dr. Brin's latest musings on James Cameron.

Alex Tolley said...

In most cases, the + strand is considered to be the reference strand on each chromosome.

Even this is confusing, as it implies that one strand is exclusively +/sense and the other -/anti-sense. This isn't the case. +/sense should be applied to the segment containing the gene, as genes can be located on either strand. In some cases, usually bacteruia, 2 genes can overlap on the same segment of DNA, ie part of one gene is the complementary coding of the other gene. In that case, both strands at that point are +/sense. Confusing? certainly. Biology can be damn tricky :)