Saturday, 27 November 2004

Notable Sapiens: Craig Venter

Craig Venter is one of the foremost geneticists on the scientific scene. His company, Celera Genomics, tied with the public Human Genome Project to complete a rough draft human genome in 2001. He has made a career of high-profile projects that push the envelope of genetic technology, and is currently heading up two projects to synthesize life and collect genetic diversity on a Darwinesque Caribbean voyage.

He currently heads the Institute for Genomic Research and the Center for the Advancement of Genomics.

Venter is another pioneer whose curiosity and daring are pushing our species to the next level.

Notable Sapiens: Thor Heyerdahl

Thor Heyerdahl: Norwegian explorer, promoter of transcultural understanding, and maverick historical researcher. Sailed the oceans in vessels modeled on ancient designs and proved that travel across the Atlantic and Pacific was possible for ancient people. Traced the origins of the mythological Odin and his Scandinavian aristocracy to present Azerbaijan, and found evidence for Andean influence in Polynesia.

His critics were lazy academics who didn't want their pet theories challenged by fieldwork, and dismissed his ideas without giving them proper consideration. Heyerdahl proved them wrong more than once, and most spectacularly when he crossed the Atlantic in a vessel academic critics universally declared would sink.

This man was a strongly independent thinker who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty testing his ideas in the field. Heyerdahl's historical theories remain controversial, but his basic idea that man has been (or at least, could have been) more mobile than we believe is refreshing and inspiring.

Recent genetic studies have yielded some tantalizing evidence that Heyerdahl's theories might have had merit. Ancestry By DNA's biogeographical studies have found some affinity with Iranian and Indian populations amongst Scandinavians, and some Amerindian affinity amongst Pacific Islanders. Y Chromosome studies have also found links between Norse areas and Central Asia.

Sunday, 21 November 2004

Reading: Karl Marx, Capitalist

Reading: Karl Marx, Capitalist

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are famous as the fathers of Communism, but they also had quite a bit to say about Capitalism, and a reading of their works yields some unexpectedly pithy insights.

A quick definitition: What Marx called the "bourgeoisie" was the urban, property-owning commercial class.

From the Communist Manifesto:

"[The bourgeoisie] has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades."

"...Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."

"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."
"The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature."

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
"The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West."

"The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff."

Sound familiar? Marx described these trends accomplishments of Market Capitalism 150 years ago. Markets are not restricted by national boundaries, to the chagrin of nationalist politicians. Capitalism will not stop until the whole world becomes a market: that is, until people everywhere can freely trade their goods, services, and information. Viva la Revolucion!

Product: Personal Genetic Testing

Product: Personal Genetic Testing

A number of companies now offer genetic ancestry tests to individuals. These tests can determine paternal ancestry via Y Chromosome, maternal ancestry via mtDNA, or biogeographic ancestry via multiple autosomal Ancestry Informative Markers.

AncestryByDNA has two tests, one for continental ancestry (Indo-European, Subsaharan African, East Asian, Native American; ABD2.5), and one for European specific ancestral groups (Nordic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian; Euro1.0). The ancestral groups determined by these tests generally correspond to popular ideas of race and ethnicity, but not always. Test results are based on statistical affinity to predefined population models, and are given with probability estimates. For instance, a self-identified White American might find they are 90% likely to be 95% Indo-European, 3% Subsaharan African, and 2% Native American.

Can people handle the ambiguity of slight continental mixture and fuzzy certainty of identity, or will this kind of information shake up the ubiquitous 19th-20th century ideas of nationalism and racism as identity? Perhaps, along with the rise of people of mixed ancestry, and whole ethnic identities (Latino in particular) that are multi-racial or defy description by traditional categories.

Companies that test nonrecombining sites (Y Chromosome and mtDNA) include Family Tree DNA. These tests are more precise (results are virtually certain rather than probable), but give much less information. Instead of testing a wide ranging diagnostic sample of DNA markers, these tests look at one site each. These are very useful for determining specific lines of descent, but not overall ancestry.

Similar forensic tests of biogeographic ancestry are available to police departments from DNAPrint, including DNAWitness, which gives a range of facial features associated with genetic profiles.

These tests are only the first of many personal genetic tests, with and without medical relevance, that will be offered to the public and used by private corporations and government agencies in years to come.

Reading: The Will to Power

From: The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann
Section: "Order of Rank"

Topic: "The Herd" versus "The Overman." That is, the human Statistical Mean (preponderance of large numbers) versus Outliers.

Entry 866 (Spring-Fall 1887; rev. Spring-Fall 1888):

"The need to show that as the consumption of man and makind becomes more and more economical and the 'machinery' of interests and services is integrated ever more intricately, a counter-movement is inevitable. I designate this as the generation of a luxury surplus of mankind: it aims to bring to light a stronger species, a higher type that arises and preserves itself under different conditions from those of the average man. My concept, my metaphor for this type is, as one knows, the word 'overman.'

"On that first road which can now be completely surveyed, arise adaptation, leveling, higher Chinadom, modesty in the instincts, satisfaction in the dwarfing of mankind---a kind of stationary level of mankind. Once we possess that common economic management of the earth that will soon be inevitable, mankind will be able to find its best meaning as a machine in the service of this economy---as a tremendous clockwork, composed of ever smaller, ever more subtly 'adapted' gears; as an ever-growing superfluity of all dominating and commanding elements; as a whole of tremendous force, whose individual factors represent minimal forces, minimal values.

"In opposition to this dwarfing and adaptation of man to a specialized utility, a reverse movement is needed---the production of a synthetic, summarizing, justifying man for whose existence this transformation of mankind into a machine is a precondition, as a base on which he can invent his higher form of being.

"He needs the opposition of the masses, of the 'leveled,' a feeling of distance from them! he stands on them, he lives off them. This higher form of aristocracy is that of the future.---Morally speaking, this overall machinery, this solidarity of all gears, represents a maximum in the exploitation of man; but it presupposes those on whose account this exploitation has meaning. Otherwise it would really be nothing but an overall diminution, a value diminution of the type man---a regressive phenomenon in the grand style.

"It is clear, what I combat is economic optimism: as if increasing expenditure of everybody must neccesarily involve the increasing welfare of everybody. The opposite seems to me to be the case: expenditure of everybody amounts to a collective loss: man is diminished---so one no longer knows what aim this tremendous process has served. An aim? a new aim?---that is what humanity needs."

Comments: Over a century later, it seems that the increasing efficiency of production has only resulted in a positive feedback loop of increasing mindless dredge work. Despite our technological advancement, our species hasn't intellectually advanced much. People have an apparently endless capacity to invent meaningless labor, but the net result is a very poweful technological infrastructure. Still, most people resent thinking, and instead focus their energy on food, sex, work, and unimaginative play, and we go nowhere as a species.

So, what's the next step? And who will be the key player: an individual who Thinks Big, an emergent or orchestrated collective mind, a cybernetically augmented mind, or even a completely synethetic minda? Or is it happening already?

Saturday, 20 November 2004

Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Topic: Senior year road trip of medical student Ernesto Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado through South America. Che went on to be instrumental in Castro's Cuban political revolution.

Comments: Very good movie about a smart, sensitive guy coming of age and thinking outside the box. Gives a very rich but understated but penetrating panorama of South American life and its problems and the mentally liberating power of travel.