The Buchanan-Hitchens interview that Dan posted brings back such a welter of memories and nostalgia. To see the then youngish Hitchens make a cutting “lying us into war” barb about John F. Kennedy! The very Hitchens who, a short decade later, would take pride of place among ”liberal hawks” arguing for the invasion of Iraq, a project spurred far more by lies than Vietnam, which was based on crude application of the quite reasonable and successful doctrine of containment. Yet I don’t want to be hard on Hitchens—for generally in the interview he is lucid and pleasant.
And boy, those were good times. We had just won the Cold War, the economy was gearing up into its first early internet boom, the crime rate topped out and was beginning to decline. Global warming was no more than a theory, and we still seemed to have plenty of time prevent it. You were unlikely to hear (as one does hear nowadays) young adults talking about looming environmental collapse as a reason not to have children.
Of course 1993 was more or less the last historical moment before the internet. Salon has just posted an provocative interview with author and tech guru Jaron Lanier, who sets down some guideposts for sociological analysis of what changes the internet has wrought. This is a critical subject, because in most ways the internet has changed life for the worse. (Of course you are reading and I am writing on a website, but readers and writers could find one another a generation ago, and the experience was no less rewarding—for the writer, probably far more so.) Lanier argues that the digital revolution is a principal cause of the collapse of the middle class, the drying up of jobs which provided the backbone for most American family life. He points out that while we once had Kodak (and its 140,000 jobs), now we have Instagram, which employs something like a dozen. Gone with Kodak are 140,000 corporate health plans, and no doubt countless Little League teams and brownie troops. This argument feels correct to me, and it deserves to be thoroughly explored in the months ahead.
I occasionally bore my grown children by pointing out that the level of technology we had even a generation further back, in the 1960s, was completely fine. You could travel by jet. Antibiotics existed (and were probably more effective than now), no one died tragically of scarlet fever or something. (On second reading, I would note that AIDS, apparently non-existent in the 1960s, was still a death sentence in 1993 and would be for another couple of years.) People could make make a living writing books or working for newspapers, or working in a factory. Email didn’t exist of course, much less twitter, but somehow people were able to communicate. And I don’t want to go overboard and overpraise the quality of political leadership then, but I think the Congress run by Jim Wright and Bob Michel was probably a great improvement over the current one. Is it just me, or is the general tone of the Buchanan-Hitchens exchange far more elevated than political talk you see on TV today?
Human cloning is real.
Yesterday, the prominent scientific journal Cell published a paper by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University announcing that they had successfully derived stem cell lines from cloned human embryos. Some context is necessary, however, to start to grasp the implications of what has taken place.
First of all, a brief primer to the science. Cloning is more commonly referred to in scientific circles as “somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT),” where scientists take the DNA from an adult (somatic) cell and transfer it into an unfertilized egg, which has had its own DNA removed. Normally to begin developing into an embryo, a fetus, and ultimately an adult human being, the egg has to be fertilized by a sperm to which kick off the series of coordinated steps that constitute human development.
Instead of having the genetic material from two parents combine into a unique new life, however, cloning takes the full genetic information from an adult and places it into the emptied egg. These researchers immersed the egg in a caffeine solution and delivered regular electrical shocks, among other techniques, forcing it to enter development, dividing and growing until it reached “blastocyst” stage, where a protective outer layer called the trophoblast surrounds the mass of inner cells (ICM) that will constitute the myriad parts of a human body, and being.
At this point, as is the necessary procedure to obtain embryonic stem cells, they dissolved that protective outer layer to obtain the inner cells rich in total potential, and grew them into an “immortal” line of stem cells. To prove their success, some of those cells were programmed into muscle cells and grown into tumors under the skin of immune-suppressed mice. The muscle cells were made to contract, and filmed doing so.
The controversies and debates about cloning specifically are legion, and will be given new intensity with this announcement, but some points can be made at the outset. For those who believe that human life is worthy of protection from its inception, the creation of a human life for the express purpose of destroying it, and manipulating what could have been a child into reproducible tissue for manipulation and research is abhorrent.
Cloning compounds these considerations by transforming the nature of human life itself. As sexual beings, every child is the product of a union, possessing a unique inheritance unto themselves (identical twins notwithstanding) that will generate and govern their own story going forward. Cloning, however, gives that child the inheritance of a life already once lived. Many of our reproductive technologies already run perilously close to making the creation of life into manufacture, and cloning would drastically advance that by beginning to recycle the very material of life, to some degree inevitably making a newborn into a do-over. The demand is already there, to recover a lost child, to regenerate a dead genius, to live on forever genetically intact. We should not provide the supply.
These scientists protest that they have no interest in reproductive cloning, though, and indeed claim that a forthcoming paper will prove that their technique cannot be used to bring a child to term even if they wanted to do so. Even here, their justifications are weak. Embryonic stem cells, far from the promises of universal supply kits of personalized medicine promised at the DNC a decade back, have an inherent limit: human embryos are hard to come by. They require women to undergo highly invasive and sometimes risky techniques not to give birth, but to give scientists material to work with. The women used in this study were paid thousands of dollars, raising concerns over the exploitation of the poor, the commodification of the human body, and the commercialization of women’s reproductive powers. Furthermore, the research shows that while these scientists were very efficient, techniques obtaining more than 16 eggs at once produced eggs drastically less capable of being used for cloning.
Moreover, human embryonic stem cell research has fallen off dramatically since the discovery in 2006 of a technique for turning adult cells back into the “pluripotent” state embryos are so desirable for, at much less cost and without the ethical concerns of destroying embryos. Those cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), won Shinya Yamanaka a Nobel Prize for his efforts this year, and have revolutionized the stem cell research world. That breakthrough, it must be recognized, took place under a Japanese regulatory regime that made experimenting on human embryos almost impossible.
Taken together, a strong case is made for banning human cloning of any sort, and for keeping scientific research within the bounds of what is morally acceptable. Science wields awesome powers for achieving the ends we set before it, and we should not do it so little credit as to assume that medical progress must be ethically transgressive.
Amid loud cries of “Witch! Witch! Burn the Witch!” an enraged throng of ideological activists and media pundits late last week besieged the fortress-like DC headquarters of the conservative Heritage Foundation, demanding the person of one Jason Richwine, Ph.D., employed there as a senior policy analyst. The High Lords of Heritage, deeply concerned about any possible threat to their million-dollar salaries, quickly submitted, though they waited until late Friday, the dead-zone period of national news coverage, before announcing that young Dr. Richwine had been expelled into the Outer Darkness.
Only a week earlier, Richwine had reached a pinnacle of his career, listed as co-author of a widely trumpeted Heritage research study demonstrating that Congressional passage of proposed immigration reform legislation would cost American taxpayers some six trillion dollars…or perhaps the figure was six quadrillion dollars.
But then some enterprising journalist discovered the dreadful evidence of Richwine’s horrific heresy, namely that his 2009 doctoral dissertation at the Harvard Kennedy School had focused on the very low IQs of those racial groups providing most of our current immigrants, with his conclusion being that such inflows must be halted lest American society be dumbified into disaster. Taken together Race and IQ constitute an exceptionally volatile mix in modern American society, and ignited by a six trillion dollar spark, the resulting explosion blew Richwine out of his comfortable DC employment. Read More…
For a combination of demographic and ideological reasons few topics in American public life are more explosive than those involving race.
Racial factors obviously underlie a wide range of major public policy issues yet are almost always ignored by nearly all participants. However, every now and then a careless statement or uncovered document will suddenly bring these subterranean flows to the surface, producing a volcanic eruption of white-hot controversy. Thus American politicians and policy analysts, knowingly or not, spend most of their careers walking through mine fields and occasionally blowing themselves up.
Consider the newly released Heritage Foundation report sharply criticizing the fiscal impact of the proposed immigration reform legislation currently being considered by Congress. For a couple of days the focus had been on the green eyeshades issue of whether the multi-trillion-dollar claims had improperly failed to include dynamic scoring in their underlying econometric model. But then the debate suddenly took an explosively controversial turn when the media discovered that co-author Jason Richwine possessed a long paper-trail of highly heretical racial views, especially with regards to IQ matters.
Racial differences constitute the intellectual pornography of our American elites, and The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a host of web journalists are now eagerly covering this prurient debate, which seems likely to overshadow any analysis of the original 92-page report itself. Most mainstream conservative pundits have been sharply critical of Richwine, but a few associated with the VDare webzine, such as Steve Sailer and John Derbyshire, have risen to his strong defense. Read More…
The notion of a Gay Germ—homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection—probably horrifies many mainstream intellectuals unfamiliar with the details of modern evolutionary biology. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that my recent column discussing that subject quickly provoked a striking example of Internet censorship. But the circumstances were different than people might naively expect.
Most of the responses to my analysis were quite reasonable and respectful. Anthropologist Peter Frost published a column questioning some of my arguments, which generated an extended comment thread. George Mason University’s Genetic Literacy Project also provided a brief summary and link.
However, a target of my critique had been Dr. Gregory Cochran, a leading Gay Germ advocate, who had recently ridiculed the intelligence of my old professor E.O. Wilson for remarks supporting the contrary Gay Gene hypothesis. I merely pointed out that to the extent powerful selective pressures would have weeded out any hypothetical Gay Gene, exactly those same selective pressures would have tended to remove susceptibility to a Gay Germ as well, so that to a considerable extent the two theories suffered from similar theoretical weaknesses and were not so obviously distinct.
Now Cochran is a notoriously arrogant and irascible researcher, and he reacted to my views by launching a blistering attack on his own blogsite, sharply questioning my intellect and knowledge. Moreover, when I showed up to explicate my analysis as a commenter, he quickly banned me, possibly because I was defending my position a bit too well, and perhaps thereby “confusing” his coterie of worshipful fanboys. My impression is that publishing a lengthy blog attack against someone and then banning the victim when he politely attempts to provide his own side of the argument is considered “bad form” on the Internet, but there are obviously individuals for whom these usual rules do not apply. Read More…
The twists of intellectual fashion in our society are often quite peculiar, especially when “touchy” topics are involved.
Consider, for example, the analysis of human behavior. Whatever most people may privately believe or say, the vocal academics and activists who control the commanding ideological heights of our media tend to claim that people act as they do largely because of social conditioning, and they often denounce or vilify those accused of the thoughtcrime of “genetic determinism.” Note the example of (former) Harvard President Larry Summers.
But all rules have exceptions, and for some unknown reason those same activists and media organs have decided that homosexuality is genetically based, denouncing anyone who suggests otherwise. Thus, genes officially determine gayness and nothing else, which hardly seems the most logical possibility in the world. But pointing out such inconsistencies can get you into hot water, so few people do.
Given the remarkable dishonesty of our media elites across such a wide range of topics, there is a natural tendency to assume that the truth is probably the opposite of whatever they say about anything. This undermines the credibility of the Gay Gene hypothesis, as does its proponents’ practice of treating scientific disagreement as religious heresy.
But frankly, the other side of the debate sometimes seems little better in its behavior. I think one of the most highly vilified rivals to Gay Gene theory is “Gay Germ theory,” the suggestion that some sort of virus or microorganism is responsible for the behavior in question. And just a few days ago, I noticed that evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran, one of the leading Gay Germ proponents, had viciously insulted the intelligence of my old professor E.O. Wilson for his remarks supporting the Gay Gene side. Read More…
One of my first posts here at TAC was a complaint about the fashionable abuse of the term “evolution,” cropping up as it had so frequently at the time of President Obama’s conversion on same-sex marriage. Allow me to quote myself:
After hedging on the issue for some while, Obama announced he was in favor of legally recognizing the unions of gay couples. Not only had the president’s view on this issue “evolved”; we’re also to understand that this evolution is in some sense “complete.”
This is an abuse of the term “evolution.”
Evolution is not, or should not be, a synonym for progress—however one defines progress. Evolution does not have a linear endpoint. By its very nature, it can never be “complete.”
Now Howard Kurtz is on the case. He writes that instead of “flip-flopping,” politicians are “evolving.” Because, “who could be against that?”
These days, just about everyone in public life is using the E-word.
Sean Hannity said right after the election that he had “evolved” on dealing with illegal immigration. Watching the Republicans get clobbered among Hispanic voters apparently hastened the process. …
Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, is now singing another tune. In a Washington Post op-ed, he said “it was a very different time” when he signed a law decreeing that marriage was between a man and a woman. Now, “I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.” …
Forgive me if I sound a note of skepticism. Does anyone believe the 42nd president, who was burned by trying to allow gays to serve openly in the military, was trying to ensure anything other than his reelection when he signed DOMA (and is now attempting to remove the stigma)? Does anyone really believe that Obama and Hillary didn’t privately favor gay marriage in 2008, but that the politics of the moment required them to fudge?
Kurtz’s skepticism is more than warranted. But politicians with their fingers to the wind is not my primary beef. It’s the terminology, stupid.
For one last time: Individuals don’t evolve. Populations do. Furthermore, the genetic mutations that may beneficially affect the survival chances of a species occur at the embryonic level. Hence, fully-grown mammals like Barack Obama and Sean Hannity do not “evolve.” They can turn tail and run, hide in bushes and trees, or surrender meekly to predators or, um, change their minds. But they cannot evolve. They are going to die someday, and when they do, they will be the exact same kind of critter they were when they were born.
Thank you for letting me vent.
Dr. Ben Carson, the Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon who rocketed to national fame after a provocative keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, is a 7th Day Adventist and, hence, a literal six-day-creationist.
Carson has not kept his views on biology and geology secret. But since he’s new to the national scene, many will find this a baffling revelation. As in: how can this brilliant scientific mind entertain an outlandish theory that virtually none of his peers shares? Or as Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss implies: how can such an accomplished medical professional reject “Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is the central principle that animates modern biology, uniting all biological fields under one theoretical tent, and which virtually all modern scientists agree is true”?
John Derbyshire put the matter succinctly in a piece about the documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Ben Stein’s attempt at exposing the Stalinesque suppression of scientists at variance with Darwinian orthodoxy: “How could a guy like this do a thing like that?”
The truth is, as I learned throughout my childhood, lots of smart people are literal six-day creationists. They are not all mouth-breathing rednecks who, with Homer Stokes, rail against “all those smart-ass folks think we come descended from monkeys.” Some of them managed to graduate from Ivy League universities and clerk for Supreme Court justices. Some of them even conduct “impeccable” paleontological research. And at least one of them is, yes, a world-renowned neurosurgeon.
For the vast majority of human beings, even modern cosmopolitan professionals, beliefs about the geologic timescale, the processes of biological adaptation, paleontology, cosmology, etc. exist comfortably outside the scope of their core competencies. I get twitchy when scientific illiteracy creeps into the top ranks of our political class, but, at the same time, I’m forced to recognize that a country in which only four in 10 people believe in theory of evolution seems to function pretty well on an everyday basis.
In the event that you found yourself in Baltimore and required emergency brain surgery, would you, proud secular liberal, let a six-day creationist gay-marriage critic cut open your skull?
If you admit the answer is yes, then savor the irony—and maybe dial down the self-superiority.
I’m a bit late on this; following intradisciplinary feuding among academic anthropologists usually isn’t a high priority, but this is an interesting story. Marshall Sahlins, a prominent anthropologist resigned recently from the National Academy of Sciences over the election of his controversial colleague Napoleon Chagnon and what he perceives as the unhealthy relationship between the NAS and the military:
Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century. I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”
To see how the two are even related one has to dig down into two of the discipline’s major contemporary debates; the primacy of science and empiricism, and the ethics of using anthropological research in military campaigns such as the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former is less interesting to laypeople, but the basic shape of it is that Chagnon’s critics accuse him of bad science whereas he accuses them of being anti-science postmodernists. Barbara King, a biological anthropologist and former professor of mine, weighed in over at NPR:
In modern American society, few terms carry the negative and socially disreputable ring of “eugenics,” first coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and later widely advocated by Margaret Sanger, America’s founding mother of birth control and abortion. Denouncing one’s opponents as eugenicists has become a mainstay of political rhetoric across both the Left and Right, while also being an excellent means of attracting attention.
This combination of visibility and negativity left me with mixed feelings when I noticed “Chinese Eugenics” as the lead headline for the earliest discussion of my recent article suggesting that China and the Chinese may have been shaped by a thousand years or more of Social Darwinist forces. Another slight problem was that the headline was totally incorrect.
After all, “eugenics” refers to a conscious, deliberate effort to select future generations according to some particular human ideal, while my own Chinese hypothesis could not be more dissimilar. I had merely suggested that the extremely difficult conditions of life in traditional rural China ensured that only the hardest-working, most diligent, and most able Chinese peasants managed to survive and multiply in each generation, thereby gradually moving the Chinese people in that general direction during a thousand years of intense economic pressure. After all, the accepted explanation for the long necks of giraffes is that in each generation only the tallest individuals gained access to available leaves, while their shorter-necked brethren often went hungry; no eugenics involved.
Indeed, after reading my article a rightwing individual with strong eugenicist leanings dropped me an anguished note, saying that my hypothesis seemed quite persuasive but also very depressing, suggesting as it did that today’s Chinese became smart and successful because their ancestors had spent most of the previous thousand years starving to death. After all, when free market principles are taken to their “Social Darwinist” extreme, the logical result is a society in which economic achievement counts for virtually everything, and insufficiently successful families face starvation. Add in China’s Malthusian population pressure and the relentless downward mobility produced by a strongly pro-natalist socio-cultural tradition, and the consequences seem obvious. Intentional “eugenics” in any sense of the word had nothing to do with it. Read More…