Saturday, April 29, 2006

What's in a Wikipedia Name: The Genesis of an Idea

This is an email query I received from a friend, along with my response. I think the basic question - how do ideas, generally speaking, come to be named? - is an interesting one, and I'd welcome further feedback and contributions from you all on this topic.

[initial email: tom]

one time a while back, you and i were having one of our typically long phone chats and i think one of us raised the idea that climates dictated the behaviors, attitudes, and even thinking patterns of populations. (so on the Med you get more laid-back loungers; in the colder climes you get more philosophers and readers--that sorta thing. cf America.) anyway, i know that either i suggested it, or you suggested it and i inserted that i had also read of that notion in Byron, where he talks about the sexual licentiousness that often accompanies warm climates. i think the conversation ended there because it was just sorta that: 'huh...yeah, that's
kinda interesting.'

turns out it goes back as far as Montesquieu in the Enlightenment, and to one of his favorite writers Tacitus before that, and before that...? here's from Wikipedia on M:

'One of his more exotic ideas, outlined in The Spirit of the Laws and hinted at in Persian Letters, is the climate theory, which holds that climate should substantially influence the nature of man and his society. He even goes so far as to assert that certain climates are superior to others, the temperate climate of France being the best of possible climates. His view is that people living in hot countries are "too hot-tempered," while those in northern countries are "icy" or "stiff." The climate in middle Europe thus breeds the best people. (This view is possibly influenced by similar statements in Germania by Tacitus, one of Montesquieu's favourite authors.)'

so i guess my question is this: is there a way to catalogue certain ideas? then how does one access/search them? could it somehow be as efficient, or nearly as efficient, as a dictionary? i'm assuming this particular theory doesn't have a name, and maybe that's all that is required--to make one up. e.g., let's call it psychoclimatology, give it a Wikipedia page, give it a bit of history (and always inviting people to add places in other literature where the notion may have first appeared), any scientific backing it may have, any recent developments, where it stands now (credibility-wise), etc. this is, then, how it is actually 'entered' into our world of data, and how it becomes searchable and usable.

but is this the only way? and what if it doesn't have a name? would the Wikipedia entry be, 'Theory_That_Climates_Affect_Human_Evolution_And_Development_And_Behavior'? what about for even more nuanced theories?

ok, i'm on the brink of deleting this whole email because i don't know where i'm going with this...but i'll send it anyway and see if it inspires any random musings from you.

[and a reply email: tim]

I don't remember the specific discussion about climate theory but we must've had it some time ago, otherwise I'm sure I would've gone on about all the evolutionary explanations that convincingly tie climate to behavior, activities, etc. in human beings, and in countless other species as well. Don't remember anything about Byron or Montesquieu but I suppose that's not really your point...

Your question is how we define and delineate ideas, but I think that you might be thinking about it too rigidly. I don't think this particular idea, or many other ideas, need to be easily defined and labeled for purposes of their own Wikipedia page (or some other system of cataloguing). I think that ideas like this one aren't discrete and bounded in a way that lends to their easy description in one topical name, or one sentence, or one webpage. The notion that climates affect human evolution, development, and behavior is one that can be addressed from many different angles, and relies of numerous other ideas (I won't call them "sub-ideas" because some are as or more encompassing than this particular one) from a whole host of disciplines: evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, social psychology...just to name but a few.

I think it's tempting to want to isolate every idea from every other ideas - to show their connections (think html links), yes, but also to show their boundaries as well. Only, I don't think it works that way. To do so would require placing such a vast amount of material in so many different places - consider the importance of something like natural selection to this idea, to Darwin's theory of evolution, to the development of common law jurisprudence, etc., etc., etc. - that it would be an impossible feat.

So we have chunks of ideas. And they float out there, in the collective knowledge of history, attached and detached from other chunks of ideas at various points in time. Sometimes they coalesce in a way that lends itself nicely to a Wikipedia name - the theory of evolution, the theory of global warming, philosophical skepticism, etc. - and sometimes they don't. I'm not sure it's something that can be forced other than...well...other than pulling together all of those disparate idea nodes and writing yourself a paper or a book or a treatise that makes sense of them all, that binds them in a way that other people find believable and compelling. In many respects I think that is what lies at the core of most academic scholarship. Very few people, academics or otherwise, describe something entirely new in the world. Much more often, it seems to me, the role of the academic is one of synthesis: taking all those ideas that are more or less fairly related to something that interests her, pulling them all together, and spitting out something that is nicer, clearer, and lends itself to a Wikipedia page. Do that and you've probably earned yourself tenure at a university somewhere.

Don't know if that was helpful it all - but those are my quick thoughts...

Looking forward to some more opinions on this topic...

Friday, April 28, 2006

More Stem Cell Politics

Anybody who thinks that stem cell research is anything other than political ought to have a talk with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

This week, Blagojevich awarded $10 million in state grants to encourage stem cell research. Where did Blagojevich come up with the money to support research that state Republicans oppose? He slipped it unnoticed into the state budget. And he'll do it again:

"If there are other ways, unilaterally through executive action, I'll do it. I'm not going to wait for a bunch of politicians in Springfield who won't do the right thing to help cure diseases."

Though I strongly support stem cell research I'm not a fan of this sort of unilateral executive action. Whether or not you personally agree with the decision, these sort of end runs around the democratic and legislative processes make a sham of the political process.

Nevertheless, Blagojevich's frustration is understandable. With embryonic stem-cell researchers hamstrung by federal funding restrictions, and politicians doing their best to muddy the debate about the merits, efficacy, and morals of ESC research, some politicians and researchers have had enough.

It's time for Congress to get its act together and authorize federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Cows Mad No More

Chinese scientists claim to have successfully cloned a calf that is resistant to the infamous mad cow disease (more properly known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy).

Monday, April 24, 2006

What I’ve Learned from Terri Schiavo

This evening, before dinner, I spent two hours in discussion about the legal and bioethical arguments surround the Terri Schiavo case. For all of the discussion and controversy surrounding Schiavo’s case, what has become abundantly clear to me, above and beyond any question about whether the right thing (legally or ethically) was done in Terri’s case, is that end-of-life decisions are something that must be faced before that time comes.

Of course I understand that, in some cases and for some people, to expect advance planning on this topic is unlikely. Unfortunately there are those in life who die young or who have more immediate problems to consider, such as feeding themselves or their families. And, for these reasons, as well as for others, the issues that Terri Schiavo’s case raised to the level of national consciousness are indisputably important ones that must be carefully considered.

But for those of us with the dual luxuries of health and leisure – and I can only assume that most, if not all, readers of this blog fall into that category - we have the ability, and the responsibility, to avoid situations like Schiavo’s by making end-of-life decisions on our own behalf; and making them well in advance. In so doing we can avoid the uncertainty, and the type of gut-wrenching decisions, that tore apart the Schiavo family.

Tonight, shortly after I concluded the discussion on Terry Schiavo, I learned that my grandfather had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. My grandfather has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for over a decade and, according to his doctor, in his current deteriorated condition attempting to treat the pneumonia, even if successful, would leave him dependant on life-sustaining technologies of some sort. I'm thankful that, within my family, there is no confusion over what is to be done next. My grandfather and my grandmother discussed this scenario years ago – with each other and with their children. Though I’m saddened, and though I miss my grandfather more acutely today than yesterday, I am happy for him in a way. I am thankful that he made his wishes clearly known and that they will be obeyed. Most of all, I am proud: he lived a full and admirable life, and a long life as well – and his sun is now setting.

We should all of us be so fortunate in our own lives.

[Note: For those seeking information on advance directives and living wills, Caring Connections offers comprehensive information on the subject, along with official forms (available as .pdfs) for all fifty states.]

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Stem Cell Wedge Maneuver

Taking a page out of the Discovery Institute's playbook, the Democratic party is angling to make embryonic stem cell research a 2006 campaign issue which will drive a wedge into the Republican party, divide candidates and voters, and reclaim a Congressional majority in the 110th Congress. Will it work? Ask me again in September, after we've invaded Iran and everybody has forgotten about stem cells...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

In Honor of Earth Day, the News is Green

When I fired up my browser this morning I was greeted by a solar powered Google icon. And when I skipped over to the New York Times a few minutes later Earth Day was being advertised there as well, albeit in a somewhat subtler fashion.

Green is all over the front page of the Times today. In case there's any doubt, here's a sampling of the stories:

- Thomas Friedman's current column, "The Greenest Generation," challenges university students to drive their schools toward a carbon-neutral goal. Friedman, toward the end of his column, takes up the crusade of carbon offset, which is also the subject of...

- "Gas Guzzlers Find Price of Forgiveness", a piece by Anthony DePalma, which investigates the various ways fossil fuel fixated Americans are easing their minds, and lightening their wallets, by paying for the carbon dioxide their vehicles emit. Said one SUV owner and operator: "It rounds the edges off of the guilt a little bit, I guess...It's a little like having your cake and eating it too."

Is carbon offset a real solution to global warming? It's hard to see how, largely because it does little to nothing to reduce our total energy consumption. But it's better than nothing, and it's an idea that...

- William H. Hinkle has gotten behind. Hinkle is offering $100 carbon offset challenges - "promis[ing] to buy a $100 pass from one of three carbon-offset programs in the name of the first 1,000 people who" read and pass along his "brief presentation[s] of what he believes is the grim reality of global climate change, and how the rich and powerful make things worse with their limousines, jet flights and big homes."

But Hinkle isn't stopping with carbon offset. He's also offering "$500 rebates to 20 families anywhere in the nation with annual incomes of less than $80,000 that buy a new fuel-efficient Prius before July 31." That's an offer that is all the more appealing now that...

- Oil prices are at record highs and gas is pushing the $3 barrier at many stations nationwide. And Democrats are looking to capitalize. Here's the quote: "Americans are tired of giving billion-dollar tax subsidies to energy companies and foreign countries while paying record prices at the pump." And speaking of billions of dollars...

- Wal-Mart is going green! Well, maybe. This month Wal-Mart joined "a call by a group of energy executives for caps on greenhouse-gas emissions." The environmental community, understandably, was somewhat shocked by this announcement, but is now waiting to see where Wal-Mart's new green streak will lead it next.

So there you have it folks. The headlines are painted green today, Earth Day, and that's a pleasant development on this Saturday morning. At least for today I'm feeling optimistic enough to suggest that, just perhaps, this isn't a conveniently timed tie-in with Earth Day but a real indicator of a shifting public awareness about the environmental issues that trouble us today, and that threaten our future.

Today the devil is not in the details - the specifics of carbon offset programs or Wal-Mart's green initiatives - but in the notion that care for the environment, being green as it were, is important enough to change consumer's habits, affect voter's choices, and tickle the individual hearts and minds of Americans nationwide.

At any rate, happy Earth Day everyone.

A Modest Victory for Stem Cell Research in California

A California Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the Institute For Regenerative Medicine, better know as California's $3 billion end run around federal funding restrictions on stem cell research, is a legitimate state agency. The ruling, a clear victory for the agency and supporters of stem cell research, will be appealed.

And as long as the opportunity for appeal remains open, and the constitutionality of the agency remains potentially in doubt, funding will remain a significant problem for the institute. Still, as the New York Times pointed out,
the agency managed to finance its first research grants this month after six philanthropic organizations lent it a combined $14 million, to be paid back once bond market financing is available.

The grants, totaling $12.1 million, went to 16 universities and nonprofit research centers to set up basic stem cell research training programs.

That's a start, but it won't the funding floodgates remain, in all likelihood, several legal rulings away from opening.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

More Funny: Tiktaalik Bush

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Unknown: Cartagena to Berlin

The unknown.

It is baffling to Rummy and a frightening prospect to many. As such it is no surprise to learn that Food and Drug Administration is planning to take a closer look at nanotechnology at an upcoming meeting this October. This announcement falls on the heels of a recent recall in Germany where a bathroom cleaner using nanoparticles was recalled after being preliminarily linked to respiratory problems.

With regulators taking a closer look at nanotechnology, and some degree of concern that the long-term effects of pursuing nanotechnologies are largely unknown and potentially harmful, it's perhaps instructive to reflect on the Cartagena Protocol, created in 2000 to protect against the unknown dangers of genetically modified organisms. In a piece last week on, Arnoldo Ventura argues that while caution at the time was prudent, the Cartagena Protocol today serves primarily as a barrier to scientific development, and a drain on resources.

Am I arguing that the FDA is doing the wrong thing by taking a closer look at the emerging nanotechnology and nanomaterials industry? Not at all. But it's important to remember that "unknown" is not synonymous with "dangerous". Prudence is desirable, irrational fear of the unknown is not.

In the words of Horace Porter, "Be moderate in everything, including moderation."

New Face, Old News

With far less fanfare (or consternation) as last November's operation in France, a Chinese man received a partial face transplant on Friday after having been mauled by a black bear. Isn't it amazing the relative calm brought about by even the most modest familiarity with a scientific procedure?

Diagnostic Testing: The Next Big Expense Thing?

Big pharma might be about to get some company at both the bedside and the bottom line.

Thursday's New York Times contained an intriguing article discussing "a new wave of sophisticated genetic or protein tests that are starting to remake the diagnostics business." The article, "A Crystal Ball Sumberged in a Test Tube", is interesting in several respects but I'm fascinated, once again, by the unabashed emphasis placed by the developers of these tests on price and profit margins.

A sampling from the article:

Traditionally regarded as a low-profit, poor cousin of prescription drugs, diagnostic tests are emerging as high-profit products in their own right. Test developers are "trying to do what pharmaceutical companies have done with their drugs," said Jondavid Klipp, managing editor of Laboratory Industry Report, a newsletter.
"They are raising the tide for everyone else," Jorge Leon, the president of Leomics Associates, a diagnostics consulting firm, and the acting chief science officer at Orion Genomics, which is developing tests to detect cancer. He said Genomic Health had done a "fantastic" job of validating its test using clinical trials and then of "packaging it in a Starbucks package at a high price."
Asked about the price, Rob Shovlin, Aureon's executive vice president for sales and marketing, replied, "It's less than the Genomic Health price of $3,500." He added, "Patients have given us feedback that they'd be willing to pay more than that to have this information."

The high prices that the developers and marketers of these diagnostic tests are charging (routinely in the several thousand dollar range), and the willingness of patients to tolerate these high prices is, unfortunately, nothing new.

Like their cousins in big pharma, diagnostic developers justify the price of their test on the basis of how much they believe they can extract from patients. As a result, the price for both patients and insurers quickly becomes unmoored from the actual development costs, as well as the efficacy, of the test. Patients, for their part, demonstrate little or no price sensitivity, allowing test providers to continue to ratchet up prices.

Since I've been down this road fairly recently, I'm not going to rehash all my concerns here. But I remain somewhat baffled by it all...

Blinded by the Sex Appeal of Hybrids

Further evidence that equating "fuel efficient" with "sexy", or "cool", isn't going to quench our thirst for gas guzzling autos: "Life in the Green Lane." This New York Times op-ed piece by Jamie Lincoln Kitman points out what is getting lost in the increasing popularity of hybrid vehicles is actual reductions in gasoline consumption.

As Kitman points out, embracing hybrids because of the green cachet does us no good, as the environment tends to be relatively indifferent to how good we feel about the environmental impact of the cars we drive. The environment tends to be more concerned with how much gasoline they actually consume. Legislators, on the other hand, are concerned with what sells. And right now, anything with the label "hybrid" attached to it is a big, big seller - there's even a certain sex appeal to driving a Prius these days, although it doesn't appeal to quite the same crowd as driving a Ferrari - irrespective of its actual gas mileage.

I won't carry on rehashing Kitman's critique any longer. For more read the op-ed and, also, please see last week's post on this topic: Cleaner Cars: Where There's a Will, There's a Way. The basic problem here is that hybrid vehicles are booming in popularity primarily because they're booming in popularity, not because of their diminished environmental impact. Unless and until that reality is understood, and hybrid vehicles stake their desirability on more than a trendy classification, I fear that it's going to take state intervention if we're to make any real headway in efforts to curb our consumption of gasoline.

Happy Easter

This particular bit of religious satire only demonstrates what an untrustworthy atheist I truly am. Enjoy!

(thanks to Scientist, Interrupted for this one)

I'm The Least Trustworthy Person in America

Because I don't believe in god. I'm also a threat to the American way of life and the perpetuator of "an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism."

Just thought I'd share that with you all.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Confirming the Obvious

The Daily Mail announced yesterday that researchers have discovered a key to happiness: being your own boss. Anybody surprised? Not likely, especially amongst all of the more-independent-than-average bloggers.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The View from Above

If you didn't make it to North Africa or Central Asia for a glimpse of last month's total solar eclipse you missed a great show (or so I hear). But the best view of all came from space. The photograph above was taken by the crew of the International Space Station, while orbiting 230 miles above the Earth, as the moon's shadow passed across the Mediterranean.

(image courtesy of National Geographic)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Few More Thoughts about Sex Selection

Because I think this is an especially sensitive and contentious issue, I'd like to say a few more words in defense of what I wrote a few days ago on the topic of sex-based abortion, and the problems in India it is both a cause and a symptom of.

Why do I think that sex-based abortions, where a woman chooses to abort a fetus based on the indicated sex of the fetus, should be allowed? First, and importantly, there are a number of practical difficulties that attend the criminalization of sex-based abortions. As a friend pointed out to me in conversation:
If we are going to let women decide ultimately whether or not to have abortions, how could we possibly qualify the validity of the choices they make? I fear that if we disallowed sex-selective abortions by law, women in countries that favor boys over girls would either resort to infanticide (whether or not it is illegal) or would abort their children claiming some other "legitimate" reason of their choice.

And I agree. It is difficult to envision exactly how banning sex-based abortions can be brought into concordance with a generally pro-choice view of abortion.

But there's a larger element to this problem: that of gender inequality. While I understand that sex-based abortions are symptomatic of an underlying problem - the stigmatization and diminished importance of females in certain segments of Indian culture and society - I don't think that criminalizing the practice sends the correct message.

What is the message actually conveyed by India's sex-based abortion prohibition, a law which is clearly not respected by many and is largely unenforceable? Rather than acknowledging that gender inequality is a cultural and societal problem that needs to be seriously and immediately addressed, the abortion law pays lip service to gender equality without any real hope of affecting it. As Albert Einstein said, albeit in a different context (the 18th amendment), "nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced."

Instead of half-heartedly pursuing gender equality by trampling on reproductive freedoms, a process that is almost certain to disadvantage women more so than men, I think, perhaps, a different solution is in order. I’m not familiar enough with Indian society and gender relations to speak specifically on this point, and I know that this weakens my argument to a degree, but I think that there are other ways to address gender inequality and skewed sex ratios.

Perhaps I’m being naïve, or idealistic, but it strikes me that we should be able to have gender equality and reproductive freedom, without having to sacrifice one for the other. At the very least, I’d hope we could do more to explore that possibility before resorting to criminalization...

Nanotech Recall in Germany

A bathroom cleaning product, claiming to utilize nanotechnology, was recently recalled in Germany due to reports of respiratory problems.

My first thought is that this is going to result in a hue and cry over the lack of reliable safety and efficacy data for most nanotechnology products now on the market. Beyond that, my next thought was whether or not the nanoparticles are really at fault.

The article suggests that the evidence is ambiguous as to whether or not the nanoparticles are to blame and, anecdotally, I'm reminded of the food poisoning outbreak in 1999 that was attributed to a bad batch of Belgian Coke. Malcolm Gladwell uses this example in the final chapter of the Tipping Point to illustrate how anxiety can be incredibly contagious. As it turned out, in Belgium, the problem wasn't that Coke was making people ill; it was that anxiety (produced by a combination of a strange odor in one batch of coke and a recent Belgian scare over contaminated animal feed) is both tremendously contagious and capable of producing very real physical effects upon people.

Is that what happened in Germany? No clue. But it certainly wouldn't shock me to find out that, at the least, rogue nanoparticles do not deserve to shoulder all of the blame. Oh, and the point of all of this is to wonder aloud, again, whether our fear of things that are unknown or uncommon, and the anxiety with which they produce, doesn’t perhaps make some of them more dangerous in the end.

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

This piece, from the Chronicle of Higher Education circa 2003, was brought to my attention courtesy of the fine folks over at the AJoB blog. "The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science" was originally drafted by Robert L. Park, a noted pseudoscience commentator, as a guide "to help federal judges detect scientific nonsense" following the Supreme Court's rulings in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. concerning scientific expert testimony.

It was only later, Park recalls, that he "realized that in our increasingly technological society, spotting voodoo science is a skill that every citizen should develop." And so it is. And so we have Park's list of seven keys for spotting bogus scientific claims or discoveries.

Now this is an old piece that I've just discovered and, for that reason, I'm not going to summarize the whole piece here. After all, that's what links for. I'm including it in the blog in part because it strikes me as just as relevant today as it must certainly have been in 2003 - the recent situation in South Korea, as well as persisting claims that global warming is bogus, come to mind as good candidates for testing Park's seven rules - although that comes as no real surprise. Wherever there is money there are bound to be cheats and liars and scams. And there's plenty of money in science, although not always for the scientists themselves.

Still, it's an interesting (and engaging) piece of writing that, as Park suggests, all of us would do well to familiarize ourselves with. For those of us who aren't scientists, the media, our own limited knowledge and intuitions, and conversation with our scientifically-trained friends and acquaintances fail to provide an adequate or error-proof screening mechanism for the various scientific claims with which we are confronted on a regular basis. As a supplemental guide to evaluating legitimate science, then, Park's seven signs should help any of us cast a skeptical eye upon "scientific" claims that appear too good, or too fanciful, to be true.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cleaner Cars: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Only there's no will.

The message behind last week's NYT article on automotive technology is that clean, fuel-efficient, competent vehicles don't sell. What sells is faster, bigger, showier.
For two decades automakers have been developing technology that could make vehicles go farther on a gallon of gasoline. But instead, they have chosen pep and size — making vehicles like the new Murano accelerate faster than cars like the old Mustang, and making them bigger.

The average vehicle, which 25 years ago accelerated to 60 miles an hour in 14.4 seconds, now does it in 9.9 seconds, a pace once typical only of sporty or luxury cars like Camaros and Jaguars. And vehicle weight now averages about 4,100 pounds, up from about 3,200 in the early 1980's, as many buyers switched to larger, roomier cars or to sport utility vehicles and minivans, and as automakers added safety equipment.

Buyers like the extra zoom and room, but these have come at a cost: average fuel economy has fallen slightly over the last two decades. The government's new standards for light trucks like S.U.V.'s, published yesterday, will require an 8.1 percent increase in miles per gallon over the four model years from 2008 through 2011.

I suspect that, to many, this is old news. It's not that we lack the technology to clean up our cars and, by extension, our environment; it's that we're unwilling to make the choices (I can't even call them "sacrifices") to get there.
If 2005 model vehicles, with their better technology, had the performance and size of those in 1987, they would use only 80 percent of the gasoline they do today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That alone would get the country nearly halfway to the goal President Bush set in his State of the Union address: to cut American oil consumption enough to nearly eliminate the need to import from the Middle East.

But because Americans have not insisted on better fuel economy, "we can take the technology in the cars and turn the knob toward performance," said Karl H. Hellman, an automotive development expert who retired from the E.P.A. two years ago.

It's frustrating, more than anything, to know that so much of the struggle to clean up environmental pollution could be addressed by the simple recognition that we don't need our mid-sized sedans to perform like dragsters as they haul us to and from the corner store.

Sex Selection: The First Genetic Enhancement Battleground

In India, a doctor and his assistant have been sentenced to two years in jail for performing abortions of female fetuses. The doctor, Anil Sabhani, used ultrasound to determine the sex of fetuses and routinely aborted female fetuses.

In India, where females are often marginalized and female children are treated as a liability, sex selection is a big issue. The clear cultural preference for men has skewed sex ratios in parts of India, sometimes dramatically. In Haryana, where Dr. Sabhani was arrested, there are 861 women for every 1,000 men.

No one disputes that sex discrimination is a problem, and that steps must to be taken to reverse the marginalization of Indian females. But is the solution to ban sex-specific abortions? If it is, as the Indian government believes, what does that mean for the future of reproductive freedom in India? Would the government ban embryo modification, as opposed to abortion, which was used to influence sex? What about height or eye color?

As we prepare for a world in which we will exert an increasing amount of control over the genetic composition of our offspring (although not as much as we are often led to believe), the debate over sex selection is a crucial one. If we stipulate that being born of a particular sex, either male or female, is not a disability, then banning sex-based selection sets a precedent that could potentially control other attempts by prospective parents to influence the traits of their offspring.

Clearly, India has a sex selection problem. And, equally clearly, sex-based abortion is different from sex-based embryo selection (prior to implantation) or sex-based embryo modification. But how India handles its current problem, and whether or not we accept their position, will go a long way toward influencing how the future debate over genetic modification is shaped.

Update: I just noticed this recent item - Britain is opening a new "designer baby" clinic. Right now the plan is to screen embryos solely for diseases. But that's right now.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Grasping the Holy Grail, but its too heavy to lift

News today that reducing caloric intake, even in people who are of a healthy weight, can produce health effects that may, possibly, extend your life. The New York Times article cites a study, to be published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that tested the effects of rigorous caloric restriction in human beings.

The study authors are quick to point out that its results do not prove that a low-calorie diet will extend your life. A conclusive connection between low-calorie and longevity in humans is years if not decades away. In the meantime, it is clear that "the notion that going hungry could be the fountain of youth has captivated scientists and the public."

Wonderful. Then consider me a freedom fighter for food.

I've asked this question before, in the context of ballooning costs for drug treatments and end-of-life care, but I am continually baffled by the philosophy that death must be avoided and postponed at all costs.

Changing your diet to avoid a coronary at the age of thirty-eight I can understand. Cutting your caloric intake to 890 calories a day - or "four or five shakes a day and a specially formulated 'brownie'" - I find a little much.

Whence comes this absolute avoidance of death? Is it rooted in a fear of the afterlife? As we look inside ourselves and see, clearly, all of the skeletons that we have kept hidden from the gaze of others, do we worry that we might not be passing through those pearly gates after all? Or is it a simple fear of the unknown that drives us to cling as long as we can to what we do know, no matter the sacrifice?

I'm not suggesting that we ignore the prospect of death completely. Clearly, the pursuit of healthier bodies and of cures for our afflictions have created a world in which more people can productively contribute to the enrichment of humanity, and for longer periods of time.

But let us keep our eye on the ball. Let us ask to what end are we intent upon extending our lives? Why do we strive to reach the holy grail of immortality? Fear or ignorance of death, comfort with the familiar - to me these represent an insufficient foundation for the life-at-all-costs philosophy.

To those who urge a daily feast of 890 calories blended into shakes and a special "brownie" I say show me something more compelling than slowing down my metabolism so that I might live a while longer, gaunt and robbed of the culinary pleasures of life, or I'm going back to the buffet for seconds.