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Envisioning Transhumanism A Great Success! April 29, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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To those unable to make it, you missed out.  Envisioning Transhumanism, a TEDx event, was held today at the UCSD Price Center.  With speakers from around the world including transhumanist heavyweights like David Pearce, John Smart and David Brin it was truly a stimulating and enriching event.  Big thanks to Jamie Dunbaugh for spearheading it and I look forward to more like it in the future.

For those interested in becoming for involved with the San Diego transhumanist community I recommend signing up on the Facebook and MeetUp pages.  Also keep you eye on this blog for updates about future events.

Longevity Link Dump April 27, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Occasionally I remember that my original blog, long since lost to the unforgiving maelstrom that is the internet, was focused on healthy living and that what originally got me into transhumanism was an interest in longevity, anti-aging and overall healthy living research.  It’s still sort of a side interest for me but nowadays relegated to little more than trying to keep up with what’s actually going on in the field via science websites.  In that spirit here are a few interesting tidbits that have popped up in the last few weeks.  Give them a read if you missed them the first time around.
Dark chocolate helps prevent cardiovascular disease – Science has given you an excuse to eat chocolate.  What more do you want?

Berries may prevent cognitive decline among elderly – Berries too!

Oregano kills prostate cancer cells – If I could put oregano in everything I would.

Secret to staving off age related declines? Stay stimulated – You don’t use it, you lose it.

Island evolution may select for longer lived animals – Lack of predators seems to be the main driver but I was more interested in the role resource limitation plays.  Why?  Because it sounds familiar.

Salad may prevent oxidative damage after workouts – I hate salad.  I may desire immortality but I have my limits.

You may have noticed that a lot of these have to do with “natural” solution like eating a healthier diet.  Why have I neglected supplementation?  Well, mainly because I’m not a fan.  Part of that may be the fact that I had to sell them at one point in my life and am thus intimately familiar with the sheer amount of crap peddled by the industry.  More importantly though I just don’t think the concept is a sound one.  Given our current understanding of the human body and the relative primitive nature of our tools to fix it I’m not convinced that supplementation is a viable path to longevity, especially given the massive dosages that supplements are usually given in when compared to the concentrations of those same compounds found in food.  Call me a luddite if you want but occasionally I put my trust in evolution and life rather than human ingenuity.

Artificial DNA Created April 20, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth, Genetics.
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In what appears to be a first scientists have created the first synthetic genetic material that can store information and evolve in a similar way to DNA.

Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, developed chemical procedures to turn DNA and RNA, the molecular blueprints for all known life, into six alternative genetic polymers called XNAs.

The process swaps the deoxyribose and ribose (the “d” and “r” in DNA and RNA) for other molecules. It was found the XNAs could form a double helix with DNA and were more stable than natural genetic material.

Cool news by anyone’s standard.

I will however take issue with one things stated by the authors.

“There is nothing Goldilocks about DNA and RNA,” Holliger told Science. “There is no overwhelming functional imperative for genetic systems or biology to be based on these two nucleic acids.”

That is overstepping bounds to me.   While this has certainly proved the possibility of other molecules forming the basis of genetic material it says nothing about the probability of said molecules actually forming on their own.  As of right now the only truly concrete thing we can say is that despite a very long time to try out different options the only type of genetic material to evolve are DNA and RNA.  Their prevalence, and the lack of any competitors, are the only evidence we have for how successful different types of genetic material are.  DNA may no longer be the only possible configuration but it still may be the most likely one and therefore the most likely basis for life on other worlds.    Far more work needs to be done in order to knock DNA off it’s pedestal.

New Solar System With More Planets Than Sol April 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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I always like hearing news like this.

An astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire has discovered the presence of multiple new planets surrounding the star HD 10180 — enough to give it the crown as the only solar system discovered to date with more planets than ours.

In total, researchers have found nine planets, one more than our Solar System’s eight. None of the planets in the 127 light-year away solar system appear to be capable of sustaining life — most are so close to the sun that their scorched surfaces can’t even sustain solid metals.

A little more than a decade ago I was having a “friendly discussion” with a particularly devout Christian high school classmate of mine.  We were debating evolution and I was making the argument that given the sheer vastness of the universe their must be other forms of life out there.  His retort was “Then where are all the alien planets?”  How much can change in a decade. Unfortunately while new planets seem to be popping up every week life remains stubbornly elusive.

Incidentally, you may now begin the countdown to the inevitable whining chorus of “But what about Pluto!?!”

How Will Transhumans View The Natural World? (Part 1) April 8, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics, Transhumanism.
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(This is a three part series.  Come back for parts 2 and 3.)

Humans have, shall we say, a “complex” relationship with nature.  While we quite clearly depend on the services provided to us by the various biotic and abiotic forces at work in the world we tend to go about our business perfectly oblivious to that fact.  While we may enjoy having vibrant wilderness around us for aesthetic reasons protecting that wilderness usually takes a rather distant second (if that) on our list of priorities.  The past few decades have seen a huge shift in parts of our collective understanding of our relationship with the natural world but on the whole it seems most humans still view nature as a resource; something to be exploited.

How might transhumans and posthumans differ?  For posthumans the answer is we simply don’t know.  That may sound like a copout but the truth is predicting the actions of such beings would be like a bacterium predicting whether or not a human will have pancakes or waffles for breakfast.  The actions of transhumans on the other hand, who are not nearly so far removed from their human forebears, can be predicted or at least guessed at. It seems likely that transhuman opinions to the environment will fall into the same schools of thought that human opinions have.   Said current human views on the subject can be largely broken down into three viewpoints: anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric.

The anthropocentric view is easily the most common one found amongst the general populace.  Simply stated it means that the opinions and needs of humans are either given priority over those of other life or ecosystems or, more commonly, are the only ones considered.  This is also by far the oldest viewpoint.  Looking back through history one is hard pressed to find examples where the anthropocentric view was seriously critiqued, let alone threatened.  The natural world has been seen by governments as a resource with which to strengthen their nation and dominate their rivals, by corporations as a source of profit.

The anthrocentric view is enshrined in one form or another in all the major religions of the world.  The Abrahamic faiths hold the man is God’s highest creation whom the Lord tasked with ” dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth,” a line that can be interpreted as encouraging at best enlightened caretakership and at worst mass exploitation.  The older pagan faiths of Europe, though often holding certain natural features to be sacred, were no where near as nice to the environment as their modern neo-pagan pseudo-successors would have you believe.  Slash and burn agriculture and the kind of environmental degradation that comes with city building were common.  The Dharmic faiths, though often possessing a much kinder view, generally hold humans in a spiritually higher position compared to the rest of the biological world.  Even the Jains, whose practice of ahimsa puts many Western vegetarians to shame, view humans as inherently higher on the ladder of spiritual evolution.

While at first glance adherence to the anthropocentric view seems destined to wreak disaster (and often has) it does not inherently result in destruction and exploitation.  The spreading of environmentalism into the mainstream consciousness, and the inevitable transmutation of it’s fundamental values, have shown that a coherent ethos that values preservation of the natural world can be formed simply within the framework of the human centric view.  Apart from a few fringe leftovers most of the support for movements such as sustainable agriculture and green energy is driven less by a desire to protect endangered species or threatened ecosystems than it are the result of simple economic calculus.  From global warming to the Dust bowl it has become more and more apparent that a society which does not care for the health of it’s natural resources will be unable to care for it’s humans, either due to threats to public health and safety (e.g. increased risks of natural disasters, poisoned water supplies, etc.) or the eroding of sectors (e.g. agriculture) necessary for a strong economic base.  As such it should come as no surprise that this form of “ecosystem management”  (i.e. protect nature to protect people) is the dominant policy of the vast majority of environmentally focused government organizations and private businesses.

Will the anthropocentric school become the transhuman-centric school?  It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Many of the notable transhuman technologies (intelligence enhancement, anti-aging, etc.) will likely at first be available only to a select, wealthy elite; the kind of people at the height of the power structures whom as already mentioned tend to favor an anthropocentric view.  While it is nice to think that increased intelligence will bring about increased morality there is scarce evidence to support that view.  The first transhumans to rise will (at least to some degree) be a reflection of the beings they evolved from, sharing at least some of the worldview of the originals.

An important question then becomes what place humans have in a transhuman-centric view of nature.  An examination of the outcomes of the anthropocentric view on other species is not encouraging.  In a worldview that considers only how nature benefits a single species all other species are subject to a cost/benefit analysis, an analysis that often has devastating consequences if the species is question is found wanting in benefits and high in cost.  Though other authors have raised the issue of transhumans actively seeking to destroy humanity that need neither be the outcome of a transhuman-centric view nor necessary for the destruction of our species by transhuman hands.  It is very possible that transhumans, without any malice towards us, may wipe us from the face of the earth simply by exploiting resources to a point beyond which humans cannot survive.   This is not out of the realm of possibility since by their very nature transhumans will likely require large amount of resources to sustain their functioning as things like enhanced intelligence, immortality and heightened physical abilities are all expensive traits to keep around.  Just to illustrate this point keep in mind that the human brain takes up a mere 3% or so of body weight but uses roughly 20% of the bodies energy needs.  Now imagine what sort of energy requirements a being with 10, 100, 1000 times the computing power of the human brain will require.  Now consider the costs of  this plus immortality, megascale engineering, ecosystems redesign and the other needs and wants of an entire population of transhumans.   Humans may in the end simply be the victim of transhuman apathy rather than malice.

Of course it is also possible that transhumans will look kindly upon us, perhaps out of fondness for their creators and closest relatives, and seek to keep us around.  The historical precedent for this is, once again, not encouraging.

1000 Genomes To Be Sequenced By End Of Year April 4, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Genetics.
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Ambitious?  Yes.  Plausible?  Absolutely.

The 1000 Genomes Project, as its name suggests, is a joint public-private effort to sequence 1000 genomes. Begun in 2008, the Project’s main goal is to create an “extensive catalog of human genetic variation that will support future medical research studies.” The 1000 Genomes Consortium is headed by the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute which in turn is collaborating with research groups in the US, UK, China and Germany.

That might not sound like much. Thanks in large part to companies like Silicon Valley start up Complete Genomics perhaps as many as 30,000 complete genomes around the world have already been sequenced. But what is unique about the 1000 Genomes Project is that their genomes will be made available to the public for free, and stored in a place where the world can access the data easily and interact with it.

I’ve been critical in the past of Kurzweil applying his law of accelerating returns to non-computer science fields but when he sticks to what he knows he’s usually pretty accurate and genome sequencing is probably the best current example of that.  Prices have been plummeting and power has been increasing pretty much just as he predicted and the explosion of companies like 23&Me is testament to that.  I look forward to hearing about this project in the future.