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Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility


Issue #189            September 17, 2013


A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

On the Web: http://netfuture.org


This issue of NetFuture on the web: http://netfuture.org/2013/Sep1713_189.html

Dear Readers,

This issue of NetFuture briefly introduces, and provides links to, the latest articles for the project I’ve called, “Toward a Biology Worthy of Life”.

You’ll see in the first item below that I’ve finally written something about intelligent design — and the conventional opposition to it. I imagine the piece will get me in trouble with just about everyone, regardless of their intellectual leanings. I’ve become more or less resigned to this over time, because it is my usual position: on all highly controversial issues, I seem to find myself “outside the pale” so far as both sides are concerned. Whether the battle pits liberal against conservative, the religious against the irreligious, or mainstream science against alternative science, neither side is likely to find unmitigated encouragement in what I write.

My one solace is the realization that most unresolvable controversies in any era are likely to be unresolvable only because both sides are immovably rooted in a shared set of insupportable assumptions. These assumptions are part of their unquestioned cultural inheritance, dictating habits of thought that are so basic they can scarcely enter into awareness. When a dispute arises from such assumptions, it can result in endless arguments that are always somehow missing the point.

One of those contemporary habits of thought concerns thought itself — thought that we today, unlike those in earlier eras, can imagine occurring only in our individual heads, not as a reality actually belonging to the world — as if we with our heads were somehow expatriates from the universe! Anyway, this is one of those convictions that bind the intelligent design proponent and the neo-Darwinian together in an uncomfortable and fruitless marriage.

But why spoil the article? Read and come to your own conclusions.

A sectarian quarrel? Intelligent design and neo-Darwinism (September 12, 2013)

I’ve just finished reading Darwin’s Doubt, a newly released critique of mainstream (neo-Darwinian) evolutionary theory and a defense of intelligent design. The author is Stephen Meyer of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, an organization often considered to be the chief incubator of the intelligent design movement.

Here I offer no summary or review of the book, but only a single and (so I believe) decisive line of thought. I should say first, however, that, as an assessment of the challenges facing evolutionary theorists on several fronts today, the book seems to me at least as creditable as many productions by contemporary neo-Darwinian biologists. And, in his attempt to convince the reader through calm argument, the author rises above the shrill, apparently frightened, and scarcely scientific rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years from some of the more militant, self-identified atheists and anti-intelligent design types.

As most long-time readers will have recognized, I am no more an intelligent design type myself than I am a conventional Darwinian thinker. And in fact my aim now is to characterize the common ground upon which those two camps have taken up arms, and to suggest that they might achieve a healthy détente by simply abandoning their unproductive field of battle and turning toward the organism itself.

Read more ...

Will the real Walter Gilbert please stand up? (August 12, 2013)

In 1992 the preeminent geneticist, Walter Gilbert, memorably dramatized the significance of the Human Genome Project by telling audiences how in the future every individual’s genomic sequence will be inscribed on a digital disk. He then illustrated this future by pulling a CD out of his pocket, holding it up, and saying, “Here is a human being; it’s me”.

It now appears likely, however, that when such a future comes he will need to carry around many disks, each containing a unique digital sequence corresponding to one of the multiple genomes in his own body. His problem will then be to decide which disk holds the real Walter Gilbert.

Read more ...

Shattering the Genome (August 2, 2013)

A dose of ionizing radiation equal to 10 grays (a measure of absorbed radiation) is lethal to the human body. Most bacteria cannot survive 200 grays. But then there is the bacterium known as Deinococcus radiodurans: it can endure over 17,000 grays and do quite well, thank you. Never mind that its genome is thoroughly shattered by the assault.

Here’s what happens. Ionizing radiation can damage DNA in various ways, perhaps worst of all by causing double-strand breaks. These are breaks across both strands of the DNA double helix. The familiar bacterium, E. coli, not at all untypically, dies when it suffers about four double-strand breaks per each of its four-to-eight circular DNA molecules. Deinococcus radiodurans, by contrast, can survive over a thousand double-strand breaks. This means that it continues life after its genome is broken into hundreds of small fragments. It does so by proceeding to put its genome back together again when living conditions improve — a daunting task, to say the least.

[The story of this extraordinary organism tells us a great deal about organisms in general, and how the genome is subordinate to the wisdom of the organism as a whole.]

Read more ...

Useful URLs Relating to the “Toward a Biology Worthy of Life” Project

Stephen L. Talbott

NetFuture, a freely distributed electronic newsletter, is edited and mostly written by Stephen L. Talbott (http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st), author of Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in the Age of Machines. Copyright 2013 by The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

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Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #189