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Diabetes Drug May Make You Smarter (Also, The Importance Of Unintended Consequences) July 5, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Unintended consequences have led to some of the greatest advances in modern medicine (just look at penicilin).  Well know we may be able to add the name Metformin to the list of We Didn’t Expect This To Happen But It’s Still Awesome.

A drug commonly used to control Type 2 diabetes can help trigger stem cells to produce new brain cells, providing hope of a potential means to treat brain injuries and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, researchers say.

A study by scientists at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found the drug metformin helps activate the mechanism that signals stem cells to generate neurons and other brain cells.

Researchers started by adding metformin to stem cells from the brains of mice, then repeated the experiment with human brain stem cells generated in the lab. In both cases, the stem cells gave rise to new brain cells.

They then tested the drug in lab mice and found that those given daily doses of metformin for two or three weeks had increased brain cell growth and outperformed rodents not given the drug in learning and memory tasks.

One standard test involves a water maze in which the mice must swim around until they locate a hidden platform.

“And the remarkable thing is the mice that got the metformin, what they showed was increased flexibility in terms of the way they learned the location of things,” said Miller, explaining that the drug-treated mice had a greater ability to learn and remember.

There are two main things I like about this.  Firstly, this is further evidence of Metformin shaping up to be a wonder drug.  In addition to it’s main use as a highyl effective treatment for diabetes and this new evidence of it’s use as nootropic it may also protect against cancer and heart disease and do all of this without any serious side effects (with the ever important caveat that no drug is truly safe).

More importantly for me is what this does to the debate over human enhancement.  A common tactic on the anti-enhancement side is to set up a rather arbitrary line between medicine (bringing a person back to a “healthy state”) and enhancement (improving a person’s abilities beyond their “healthy state”).  This is mainly done to get around the problem of having to condemn enhancement technologies as being unnatural while at the same time supporting all the other wonderful unnatural things that modern technology has brought us.  The argument usually looks something like this: It is wrong to enhance human abilities because to do so would alter the human condition, something which is desireable to maintain.  Medicine, while not in itself natural, is acceptable as long as it does not alter our basic humanity by enhancing our abilities beyond what is natural.

Others have pointed out the numerous problems with this line of reasoning so I will only draw attention to two points.  The first is the difficulty involved in defining what is natural.  Is it the state a person is in at that point in time?  Is it what is average for a member of the population or species?  Is it species typical functioning?  If we gave a drug to an 80 year old that returned their physique to that of their 20 year old self would that constitute enhancement since their “natural state” is that of a senior citizen?  If we raised someone’s intelligence higher but not beyond what is typical for humans would that constitute enhancement?  There are far more of these which I will not list here but you get the idea.

The other thing I wanted to point out is the problem of unintended consequences.  A common retort to the medicine/enhancement argument is that given a person with a serious condition and a drug which can cure it but will also enhance that persons abilities it would seem to forbid us from treating said person with said drug.  This puts defenders of the position in a bit of a quagmire, having to refuse to (potentially) save a person’s life because it might cross their imaginary boundary.  To my knowledge this argument has been entirely theoretical.

Until know.

I look forward to Leon Kass telling diabetics to stop taking their life saving and life improving enhancements.

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.

Invasive Species: Harmful Or Helpful February 18, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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Its a well worn trope in the environmentalist movement: invasive species are bad for local ecosystems and must be destroyed and removed at all cost.  In many cases this argument holds true but we may be coming to the realization that this is not always the case.

A recent study out of Penn State found that the presence of an invasive species, in this case honeysuckle, actually resulted in a positive benefit to the ecosystem.  Not only was honeysuckle positively correlated with the abundance of fruit eating birds that fed on it but it also had a positive affect on other plant species.  That may seem counter intuitive since the major danger of invasive species is that they will outcompete local ones.  What seems to be happening in this case is that since birds congregated in areas rich in honeysuckle plants that shared the same space such as nightshade saw an increase in herbivory as well, thus increasing their seed dispersal.  Now it should be stated that this is one case and there is still plenty of evidence of invasive species being harmful to local ecosystems but it does represent of what I hope will be a change in the way we handle invasions.

Too often our efforts to eliminate invaders is out of a misguided and somewhat naive desire to return environments to their original, “pristine” condition.  One doesn’t need to be a Vulcan to spot several huge logic flaws in this argument.  First of all is the notion that there ever was an original, pristine environment.  At one point or another every species on earth was an invader going all the way back to the first time life struggled out to the land.  More often than not though people don’t seek to return ecosystems to their mythical original state.  Rather restoration experiments usually seem to attempt to return the sites to their original state when humans arrived.  At times this can be for economic or culture reasons and at other times it can be completely arbitrary but it really doesn’t have much to do with the overall health of the ecosystem.  Please note that my objection is not to the idea that restoration cannot be beneficial, it can and often is, only that it is often driven by motivations other than those usually given.

Expanding on that is the rather obvious fact that if we truly cared about removing invasive species and returning them to there original state than there is one species in particular we should be turning our attention to: ourselves (this was actually the subject of a great paper I read and commented on a few months back.) Its no great secret that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction this planet has seen.  The difference is that this time it is being driven largely through the actions of a single species.  If we truly cared about this subject we would be advocating the widespread removal (read: destruction) of the vast majority of the human species.  Thankfully, outside of a few marginalized philosophers (Linkola comes to mind) this is not a very popular position.

Another reason often given is that the success of an invasive species is leading to the extinction of local ones.  This is another well worn trope in environmentalism, extinction is always bad, and is on far shakier ground.  Quite clearly the extinction of a species is not always a negative thing.  The eradication of smallpox and the ongoing genocide against polio have not been accompanied by the shedding of tears but rather shouts of joy.  The reason for this is simple: those organisms kill and maim millions of people all over the world and we are far better of without them.  On a similar and more controversial note some biologists have advocated the eradication of mosquitoes in order to contain the spread of malaria.  Leaving aside the massive practical difficulties and what effect this will have on the environments they inhabit (perhaps for another time) the idea should not be rejected out of hand simply for fear of causing an extinction.  After all, parasites are a serious problem.

Of course none of this means that invasive species are never harmful only that a more nuanced metric is need before deciding whether or not to remove them.  There are a variety of factors that need to be evaluated before such an action is taken; what environmental effects is the species having, is it a threat to local wildlife, will it damage the local economy, is there some cultural reason to have it removed?  From a strictly utilitarian perspective weighing the various costs and benefits is a simple (though by no means easy) task.  Of course that is remembering that it is not only the interests of humans that need to be taken into consideration.

Do Plants Feel Pain? February 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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Okay I’ll expand on that.

A common though ultimately misguided argument against veganism that often crops up whenever the subject is being discussed is that vegans are hypocrites because they don’t care about the suffering of plants.  In practical terms this isn’t so much a logical point as it is an ad hominem but even were it not a fallacy it’s still based on a rather shaky assumption; namely that plants feel pain.

Let me say this right up front.  There is no empirical evidence of plants experiencing a sensation even remotely close to what we call pain.  Pain has a very specific definition that is often lost in the colloquial use of the word.  Simply put, pain is a negative sensation that occurs when an organism has suffered some sort of physical injury.  Pain signals travel from specialized sensors cells in the body, called nociceptors, through the sensory peripheral nervous system and to the brain.  Depending on the nature of the pain the response could be either unconscious, as when you pull your hand off a hot plate without thinking about it, or conscious, as when you stick your hand under freezing ice water for as long as you can on a dare (I know I’m not the only one to do this.)

I’m not sure where the idea that plants feel pain first originated.  The Jain religion of India teaches that all living things have a soul and preaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards all life.  An unusual (for western vegetarians) result of this philosophy is that Jains will abstain from eating root vegetables such as potatoes or onions because the death of the plant is required to harvest it.  However this practice has less to do with reducing suffering than it does respecting life, two very different things.  It may have had some influence on the idea but does not seem to be where it originated.

Sometimes cited as support is the fact that plants are certainly capable of responding to outside stimuli.  Sunflowers are able to move their flowers and track the sun across the sky while tress have been shown to shift nitrogen (important in photosynthesis) to leaves in heavier sunlight.  However from an anatomical and physiological point of view the idea that plants feel pain finds little support.  Plants lack pain receptors that would allow them to experience negative stimulation in the first place as well as lacking both a brain and a nervous system that would be required to analyze and respond to such sensory information.  There does seem to be evidence that plants release hormones after being damaged much in the same way animals will but plant hormones are quite different from those found in animals.  Furthermore this would not be evidence of a pain response in plants but rather an automatic reaction to stimuli.

More damning for the position though is the total lack a reason for plants to have evolved a pain response.  Pain is a useful adaptation for animals because it helps them avoid dangerous situations.  A perfect way to illustrate this is to look at humans born without the ability to feel it.  The condition is called congenital analgesia or congenital insensitivity to pain.  A rare genetic condition the prime symptom of which is the total lack of any ability to experience a pain response.  As you may have been able to guess suffers often do not live long and those that do must be carefully watched.  Broken bones may go untreated or infections unremarked upon if only because they have no reason to be concerned about them.  Without pain there is no reason to pull your hand out of the fire.

So if pain helps animals survive can the same be said for plants.  Of course not.  Lacking any ability to avoid danger if it arises, such as retracting a branch being munched on by an herbivore or uprooting to a new spot during a fire, the development of a pain response system would be an evolutionary waste.  It would add nothing the fitness of the organism (the ability to reproduce) and the resources that would be used to grow it could instead be put into growth and reproduction.   Plants certainly can respond to threats, many species of algae increase their production of defensive chemicals after suffering damage from herbivory, but such things only indicate a response to outside stimuli not pain.

Some objections, though none of them good, can be raised to the position I’ve offered.  One is that any negative experience qualifies as pain.  Since plants are able to respond to stimuli, and therefore must experience it in some way, and some stimuli are certainly negative plants then would be said to experience pain.  This however is conflating two separate issues; the question of panpsychism and the question of suffering.  As shown above it is quite possible for a human to possess the ability to experience while simultaneously lacking the ability to feel pain.  A similar situation is found in those lacking photoreceptors in the eyes (blind) or who have suffered damage to chemoreceptors in the nose (lack of smell).  One could hardly say that a blind person is able to experience sight or a deaf person able to experience sound even though they are certainly able to experience other stimuli for which they have the proper tools.  In a similar vein a computer is clearly able to respond to stimuli such as the introduction of a virus into its software but very few would say that such an event causes the computer any sort pain.

As it currently stands it makes little sense to extend our moral sphere to encompass plants but that does not mean we may ignore the role they have to play.  As primary producers all life on earth ultimately derives from the ability of plants to provide energy for the rest of us.  The continued happiness and prosperity of both us and the rest of the animal kingdom requires the continued health of the ecosystems we share.

In-Vitro Meat: The Future Of Eating January 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Science.
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This isn’t exactly news since this type of research has been going on for awhile now but it’s always nice to see efforts like this getting recognition.

A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering “cultured” meat.

It’s a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way … on the hoof.

The benefits to this type of technology are numerous and the article does a good job of explaining them.  First and foremost is the obvious benefit of producing large quantities of meat without the need to slaughter an animal.  No one can argue that the conditions for animals in industrial meat production are appalling nor that the animals clearly suffer in such an environment.   Even on more “traditional” farms which like to boast of how well their animals are treated still end up knocking them out and slitting their throats.

Second is the ecological impact of traditional meat production.

Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

I’ve heard some people object that these figures aren’t accurate since cows naturally eat grass, which costs nothing for humans to produce and has little ecological impact.  That’s true, cows naturally eat grass, but anyone who’s taken a look at meat production knows that it’s anything but natural.  The vast majority of animals raised for meat consumption (cows, pigs, fish) are fed on corn.  That’s right, they’re feeding corn to fish.

Speaking of natural, many foresee a major stumbling block for in-vitro meat in the public’s new fascination with natural goods.  The idea is that people will be hesitant to eat food grown in a lab.  Considering the furor over genetically modified crops (see Frankenfood) that’s probably not an outrageous assumption.  However this is more a question of branding than an actual problem with the technology.  Keep in mind, farming is a completely unnatural practice yet there aren’t many people returning to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Ultimately though what will make or break this technology is the price.  Meat production is expensive and a product that promises all the great taste for half the cost, so to speak, has a good chance at succeeding.  After all, much as many of us would like it not to be so people just like the taste of meat.

Animal Suffering vs. Animal Slavery January 3, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Are non-humans deserving of rights?  Does husbandry amount to enslavement?  Is animal testing acceptable if it sames human lives?  These questions and others lie at the heart of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare.  More than simply a theoretical discussion it has important implications for not only what place non-humans currently have in our society but how those roles may change in the coming decades.  Though science fiction stories are replete with examples of uplifted species or hybrid splices society at large has yet to consider what our response to such things should be.  One reason for this is that we still haven’t figured out where non-humans fit into our current paradigm.

Though both groups campaign against cruelty to animals there are deep, fundamental differences between them.  The crux of the argument can be summed up by the question of whether or not non-humans can or should possess the same rights we give to our fellow humans.  What rights these are can vary depending on who is being asked the question but the generally include the more familiar ones: the right to live, the right to liberty (or to not be enslaved) and so on.  The short version is that animal rights advocates support this while animal welfare advocates do not.  The slightly longer version is more complicated.

What this debate hinges on (as it appears to me) is the question of personhood.  A person here is defined as a sentient being capable of self-awareness, the ability to contemplate it’s own future and the ability to feel pain.  That last one is arguably the most important as without pain, suffering or something like it becomes very difficult to differentiate between positive and negative experiences.  The animal rights camp, following the works of people like Peter Singer (who oddly enough actually disagrees with a fair amount of their rhetoric) generally believes in extending our circle of personhood to include either some or all of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Note that animal rights groups usually stop at animals and don’t generally push for the rights of plants or ecosystems a la the Deep Ecology movement.  Animal welfarists reject this extension of rights to non-humans out of hand and continue to regard non-humans as non-sentient.

This disagreement leads to drastic differences between two groups that otherwise would seem obvious allies.  Welfarists have no problems with the act of eating meat itself while many rightists advocate veganism.  Rightests condemn, and in some cases sabotage, animal testing while welfarists generally support its use.  Once again, the issue in all of this is one of personhood.  If non-humans are persons than they deserve the rights that we as a society already extend to humans (to do otherwise is speciesism.)  Some of those rights will naturally be the right not to be eaten, not to be experimented on, and not to be imprisoned.  If they are not persons then they are not deserving of any of those.  Thus as God commands in the Old Testament, man shall have dominion over the rest of the natural world.

So who has the stronger argument?  It depends on who you ask but from where I’m standing I’m not sure either one gets it.  The major problem with the welfare approach is that it ignores the fundamental right that all sentient life shares: the freedom not to suffer.  Welfarists may pay lip service to this by advocating the abolition of unnecessary suffering but the question as to what exactly that is is a constantly moving target.  To a welfarist an animal is a tool.  Perhaps a cute tool, one which may provide great service to it’s human masters and which should be kept in the best condition possible, but a tool none-the-less.  The purpose of an animals entire existence lies in what in can provide to mankind; whether that be companionship, testing the next generation of cancer drugs or simply serving to sate a primal urge for dead flesh.

By contrast, animal rightists respect the rights of animals to a fault.  They fully believe that animals should be free from suffering at human hands and attack notions that non-humans exist to serve humankind.  Unfortunately they too lose track of their overriding goal, though they go about it in a manner quite different from the welfarists.  All to often rightists fall into the “Gaia trap,” viewing the natural world in an over-idealized and nostalgic light.  Their position can best be summed up as one of non-interference with the natural world, a sort of “life will find a way” naivety wherein animals are freed from the “tyranny” of human slavery.  There opposition to animal enslavement even extends to companion relationships which, while certainly not without there difficulties, are among the best relationships humans have cultivated.  More importantly this view completely  ignores the horrifying reality of both Darwinian evolution and daily life in the natural world, “red in tooth and claw”, wherein the vast majority of life of those born will eke out a brief, harsh existence of fear and anxiety before meeting their end at the hands, or teeth, of another.

The question of how we treat non-humans is one of the most important debates facing both philosophy and society as a whole.  To those who value the abolition of suffering it is imperative that we choose the right approach.  Neither the welfarist nor the rightist approach will do and as such a third is needed.  Call it animal guardianship.  Call it the quest for Eden.  Or perhaps, just call it the Hedonistic Imperative.

The Problem with Parasites December 12, 2010

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David Pearce is fond of saying that the last instance of suffering in the world will be a datable event. As a supporter of the Hedonistic Imperative I believe it is humanities destiny to accomplish this. However as a student of ecology I am also more than aware of the monumental proportions of the task that lay before us. To not only eliminate suffering but to do it in a way that results in a functioning, self-sustaining ecosystem (there are reasons to do it this way that I will come back to another day) is a task that will take resources, planning and time almost beyond comprehension. I offer one small segment of the problem here: the problem with parasites.

Parasites, even more than predators, are the ultimate challenge to HI. From a strictly logistical standpoint they present far greater difficulties. Firstly, they are generally much smaller. This may sound obvious but the macro scale of most of the worlds predators makes them easier to deal with. Large animals can be tracked, observed and altered with far less difficulty than tiny ones, let alone microscopic ones. Secondly, there are far more parasites in the world than predators. This is related to the first point in that you can fit far more smaller animals into an ecosystem than you can larger ones. Thirdly, parasites are not always obvious. A predator stalking, killing and devouring an organisms leaves tell-tale clues behind (the most obvious of which is a corpse) that are easy to comprehend. Even when direct evidence of predation cannot be found it can be inferred through indirect methods such as large scale changes in the population density or distribution of the prey. Parasitism does not always present such a clear case. Though many parasites can certainly be detected through their negative effects it is not always as clear what is causing the problem. Often times the only sign that a parasite is present is during a autopsy.

It is not simply logistics that make parasites our greatest obstacle. The suffering caused by parasites is far greater than that caused by predators. Though terrifying, predation at least ends the suffering of the prey, albeit through death. Parasites by comparison can be present for years, in some cases throughout the whole natural lifetime of the organism. This is without discussing the subject of parasitoids, creatures that lay there eggs within the bodies of their hosts. Anyone who has watched a tarantula being eaten alive from the inside out by a wasps larvae cannot help but shudder.

So how to we fix this problem? One solution is to simply wipe parasites out. Others have considered the controlled extinction of certain species as a means to reduce suffering and though at first glance it may seem crazy it is not as outlandish an idea as it may seem. Many mosquito populations have already been eradicated through the use of pesticides such as DDT to prevent the spread of malaria. Unfortunately, these actions have met with varying and limited degrees of success with the biggest problem being the evolution of individuals resistant to the effects of the pesticides. For this reason and the shear logistical nightmare of attempting to wipe out every parasitic species on earth we must relegate extinction to nothing more than a situational tool.

A better solution is to use the tools that evolution has already provided for us, namely to shift the relationship parasites have with there hosts. Mutualisms are positive interactions between two or more species that result in a benefit for all individuals involved. Arguably the most common example is between various insect and flower species; the insects receive nourishment from the nectar while the flowers use the insects for pollination. This scenario is well known to even non-experts but mutualisms are far more wide spread than most people realize. Pilot fish eating parasites from sharks, bacteria fixing nitrogen for plants in exchange for food, snails eating the fouling organisms from the algae they live on; each of those and many more is a beneficial interaction that took no human intervention to create.

It may seem at first that transforming a parasitic relationship to a mutualistic relationship would be rather difficult but in this case looks are deceiving. The important thing to keep in mind is that mutualisms are not examples of true cooperation between species. Indeed they are more properly identified as systems of mutual exploitation with the positive benefits merely being a side effect of each species taking what it needs. While the evolution how these relationships developed is not well understood it seems likely that many mutualisms originally evolved out of parasitic relationships.

Critics of HI have noted that any attempt to re-engineer the natural world in the name of eliminating suffering will require massive top-down regulation and control, with all the problems associated with such systems. While one can argue the degree to which this is true it seems likely that to some degree it must be. Our goal then should be to look for any opportunity to let evolution do our work for us, allowing us to merely dip our hand into the stream whenever we need to correct our course.

Hedonistic Imperative Slowly Moves into the Mainstream December 5, 2010

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David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative has arguably been one of the most influential ideas within transhumanism.  Even those who don’t support it, and there are many that don’t, can’t help but respect both the scale of the vision and the intellectual vigor behind it.  For myself reading it the first time was an eyeopener.  As a young atheist I had been unimpressed by the ethical stance of the various humanist organizations which seemed to go about the business of ethics without any definition of what constitutes “good” or “evil”.  HI not only provided an ethical framework (negative utilitarianism) that was well-grounded in philosophy but a vision of a better world that rivaled and even surpassed the dreams of paradise espoused by the world’s religions.

As such I am always happy to see these views break into the mainstream.  Jeff McMahan’s article in the New York Times “The Meat Eaters” was groundbreaking in this regard and now we have Oscar Horta’s publication.  Horta’s work, which deals with the problems associated with species reintroduction, strikes particularly close to home for me as an ecologist in training.  It is a complex problem and one that according to Horta we are not going about in the right way.

His article asks the question of whether or not it is moral to reintroduce carnivores, in this case wolves, into their former range.  The ecological argument is that top predators help to stabilize the ecosystem and prevent major changes in community structure that can occur through over-grazing.  This is not a controversial statement in ecology with the spread of sea otters into former ranges along the California coast arguably being the best example of it.  Horta attacks not only the ecological argument of reintroduction but also questions the moral hypocrisy implicit in such a policy.

I won’t go in depth into his arguments since you can and should read it for yourself but I will tell you that some of his arguments are very impressive, particularly those against the deep ecology crowd.  The take home from this is that while he calls into question our current interventions he does not call for them to stop but only to be modified.  Nature is not good simply because it is nature and intervention is not bad for simply being an intervention.  When used properly, such as in the reduction of suffering in the natural world, it can be one of our most powerful tools.

Is Exercise a Moral Imperative? November 27, 2010

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Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat, I’m a negative utilitarian.  For those who don’t know what that is here’s the short version: that which decreases suffering in the world is good, that which increases it is bad.  NU is an offshoot of the broader utilitarian tradition that began with Bentham (or Epicurus if you want to have that debate.)  It’s an ethical system that I came to a number of years ago and have followed quite strictly.  The reason I’m telling you this is because in following it has led me to some rather strange places.

If you have so much as a passing fancy in the philopsophy of ethics than you know that one of the most infuriating things about it for the lay person is the seemingly crazy positions a well followed through logical agrument can take you too.  Arguably the most famous for NU is the well worn criticism that the quickest way to eliminate suffering would be to wipe out the human race.  No people, no suffering.  This seemingly crazy position is the direct outcome of NU thought and has been used as a reductio ad absurdum by more than one critic (I personally believe there’s a way around it but that’s a discussion for another time.)  There are however more shall we say “everyday crazy” positions that adherence to an ethical code can lead us to.  One of them for me has been veganism.  Another came to me just the other day.

First the set up.  Health care costs are rising throughout the developed world due.  One of the primary reasons is the costs associated with treating the primary killers in the developed world.  These primary killers, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be largely prevented through proper lifestyle choices.  Increased health care costs place a great burden on society as whole and the poor in particular leading to an increase in suffering.   Starting from these assumptions we would seem, from an NU perspective, to have a moral obligation to keep ourselves in shape.

I’m under no illusions that this will not strike most people as insane.  Hell I thought it was loony when it first came to me and as I’ve already stated I’m a staunch utilitarian.  Unfortunately the more I think about it the more the logic seems sound.  If we value the elimination of suffering we seem to be bound to this course.

Now undoubtably there are many objections that could be raised to this.  One obvious one is that time spent exercising could be spent performing other activities.  If those other activities would reduce suffering more than exercise we would be bound to perform them instead.  Another may be that our individual actions will have no effect on the larger problem (a charge often leveled at veganism and the question of animal suffering.)   These are certainly valid criticisms but none of them strike me as fatal blows.

It goes without saying that most people, whether they accept the logic or not, will never view exercise as moral.  We as a species are quite good at not doing things we don’t want to even if we believe them to be right.  One need only compare the values expressed by the world’s various religions with the way worshipers actually live their lives (not to overly pick on religion as I am quite guilty of this myself.)  I am not attempting some underhanded way to motivate people to exercise.  My reason for writing this is much simpler.

One of the joys I find with following an ethical system is the continuing process of determining how one should live.  Too often we drift through life never considering the morality of the actions we perform.   Ask most people why they do the things they do and you’ll likely get nothing but blank stares.  To know the foundation on which your beliefs are based, even if those beliefs seem odd at first glance, is a wonderful feeling.  Or to put it another way:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”   – Socrates –

The Pope and Unprotected Sex November 23, 2010

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Scratch another notch under “old dogs can learn new tricks.” The Pope came out with a statement today affirming that condom use can be morally justified if the goal is to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.  Now for those of us who do not live our lives bound by Catholic doctrine this may seem to be a rather obvious statement.  After all in a choice between inflicting unwarranted suffering and slipping on a piece of latex I imagine most of us would consider anyone who chooses the former to be a sociopath at best.  For the Catholic Church however this is enormous.

Now it must be said that the Pope by no means endorsed the use of condoms.  The pontiff’s standard position that the use of artificial contraceptives are an affront to God still applies.  But for all the liberal believers in the church this signals a momentous shift in policy especially coming as it does from a very conservative Pope.  More importantly this means that church leaders in Africa, which I will remind you is still mired in the AIDS epidemic, may finally start to put forward some sensible solutions to the problem instead of trying to do what religion has largely failed to do for the past few thousand years (i.e. control people’s sexual urges.)

It goes without saying that I am complete supporter of both family planning and contraception.  I see no problem in either sex before marriage or recreational sex if undertaken in a sensible way wherein precautions are taken to ensure undue consequences are prevented.  Done properly no suffering is inflicted, indeed quite the contrary.  This is in line with my own utilitarian beliefs and a very common viewpoint among much of the western world.  The reason I point all this out is that it is worth remembering that much of the world does not share this view.  Much of the world is still stuck in antiquated moral systems whose precepts are in direct contrast to the furthering of human well-being.  It is a war of ideas and the smallest concession of the other side is cause for celebration.