Weekend Roundup: Gene-Altered GloFish Light the Path to a Bright Human Future. Or Not.
In this age of science nonfiction, the newfound fusion of big data and biological discovery enables the redesign of species, including our own, accelerating evolutionary processes that once took millennia into the span of a few years. As we explore in a WorldPost video this week, genetic modification promises to feed a planet where thirsting crops are plagued by a warming climate, to cure what has long ailed our human immune systems and even to conjure up unique pets like fish that glow in the dark. It also springs the trap of genetic perfectibility and the quest for immortality. Some Silicon Valley tech titans have already declared they are seeking to defy death and are putting their money where their genes are.
Such God-like capacities stir the foundational questions of origin and destiny associated with the religious imagination. And they raise the challenge of which path to take. One path follows the imperatives of ecology, which recognizes that humans are embedded in community and nature. This perspective seeks an equilibrium between human potential and our environment. It aims to protect the dignity and autonomy of the person from a brave new biocracy that would manage life from womb to tomb.
Another path, singularity, seeks to further empower the individual and the species in a kind of hyper-Anthropocene surge, extending the dominion of humankind and the reach of its algorithmic order over all. To some, this rehearses the hubris of the Tower of Babel; to others, it only demonstrates that the limits of Promethean prowess have been consigned once and for all to the dustbin of ancient myth. In this view, we should commit to our mutation and just get on with it.
The WorldPost has addressed these issues before with Craig Venter, who first mapped the human genome, and Ray Kurzweil, the apostle of singularity. In this week’s video, Nobel scientist and former CalTech president David Baltimore cautions against too much caution. We already understand some genetic functions with enough confidence to modify them to the benefit of humanity, he says. “[Another] century of scientific progress, given the rates things are moving now,” he enthuses, will yield “enormous” advances.
Following this artificial intelligence theme, Ariel Conn of MIT’s Future of Life Institute reviews a new book by Robin Hansen on brain emulation, “The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth.” Conn summarizes Hansen’s scenario of a world in which “people will choose to have their brains scanned, uploaded and possibly copied, creating a new race of robots and other types of machine intelligence.”
In what is perhaps the strangest election campaign in American history, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sparred in their last debate this week over how the U.S. should deal with Russia and Vladimir Putin. The fuzzy polemics worry former NATO commander James Stavridis. “It is in no one’s interest to stumble backwards into a new Cold War, and we are not yet embroiled in one,” he writes. “But without a thoughtfully constructed strategic approach ― based on national interests on both sides and a transactional mentality ― we are stepping toward danger. A bear and an eagle can coexist in a relatively small ecosystem, but not if they are repeatedly and deliberately hostile to each other.”
Relations with China have also figured in the presidential election campaign. Our partner publication, the South China Morning Post, examines Hillary Clinton’s 21-year history with China, where familiarity has bred contempt in some quarters of that nation’s leadership.
A hallmark of the Trump campaign has been his continued attacks on Mexicans and Muslims. Writing from Muscoy, California, Muhammad Safwatullah busts through all the hateful rhetoric by describing the work of the Muslim health clinic that he manages. It’s an all-volunteer, free clinic that treats mostly underinsured Latinos based on the teachings of Islam ― “compassion for the sick and service to the needy.” Isis Gaber tells the odd tale of what it is like to be named “Isis” in today’s fraught political atmosphere. “I say Isis, and what do you think?” she asks. “Terrorism, death and pretty much every negative word the media has found in the dictionary.” Her personality in the eyes of others, she says, has been reduced to an association.
Turning to the Middle East, novelist Kaya Genc writes from Istanbul about how the widespread suspicion that foreign forces were behind the recent attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has fueled a new fervor of national independence and self-determination among Turkey’s youth.
The long-anticipated assault to liberate Mosul from control by the so-called Islamic State continued this week. WorldPost correspondent Sophia Jones reports from Dohuk, Iraq on whether the assault will save, or doom, the Yazidi women who have been held in Mosul by ISIS as sex slaves. She also profiles an Iraqi bomb-defusing technician who risks life and limb to remove explosives and reports on fears by the U.S.-backed coalition that they will face chemical weapons deployed by ISIS. Nick Robins-Early explains why the massive Mosul assault matters and how the capture of Dabiq undermines the end-of-times prophecy so central to the ISIS narrative. These apocalyptic images portray the hell-on-earth reality of soldiers engaged in the siege.
Writing from Makhmur, Iraq, Fréderike Geerdink worries that still more ethnic and religious strife could engulf the region after the liberation of Mosul unless the rights of minorities are protected through grassroots democracy.
Fourteen years ago, a government military operation aimed at FARC guerrillas in Medellin, Colombia detained, killed or “disappeared” many innocent residents. Angelika Albaladejo explains how the victims are still seeking justice for the episode, which witnesses say was supplemented by paramilitary forces. Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden look at a new phenomenon in Africa — Chinese “government-organized non-governmental organizations,” or GONGOs, such as the Nairobi-based Care for All Kids.
Film critic Brian Formo reviews a new documentary on Netflix, “Sky Ladder,” about the Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, who creates magical effects using explosives. Cai has also designed the 2016 Berggruen Prize for philosophy, which will be given to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor at the New York Public Library on Dec. 1.
Our Singularity series this week details how nanosensors and urine tests can detect cancer early on.
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