September 23, 2009

An "explanation" for life's origins that falls way short

David Brin is a Sentient Developments guest blogger.

This rather lengthy posting is for all you astronomy junkies who are interested in the Origin of Life question... but also to offer you a glimpse of the seamy and immature side of scientific paper publishing. Warning, it is not an ankle-deep puddle-splash. You'll need to wade in, at least hip-deep.

Recently, I was asked to offer a peer review of a paper submitted to the "Journal of Cosmology," an online venture backed by the famed astronomer-iconoclast and former colleague of Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe. Despite a new-Agey look, I had high hopes, perhaps because of the journal's name, or because the chief editor is a neighbor of mine and works in a building where I did graduate school.

Alas, my hopes ebbed as I ready the paper: "Life on Earth Came From Other Planets," by Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D. (His bio, at the end of the article, is about as vague as could possibly be - but one should judge a work by its content, which I proceeded to do. Unfortunately, I found much to fault in the lengthy paper, laying down details in the work of many hours.

What I did not expect was for the editor to thereupon go ballistic on me! Accusing me, in emotion-drenched terms, of defaming and insulting Dr. Joseph. In science, one isn't used to having an invited peer review rejected in such a manner, amid vague ad hominem attacks, without actually quoting or citing any of the purportedly unfair passages in question. Having good-naturedly and generously given many hours to this futile exercise, I blinked in appalled wonder as, without any basis, the editor claimed that I had called Dr. Joseph a "Creation Scientist."

Generally, such misunderstandings are settled by asking the question: "Show me where I actually said that, please?" But no such specifics were forthcoming, only more vituperation.

So, why am I even bothering to report on this event, here? Because we are in the internet age. The topic of Dr. Joseph's paper is an interesting one. Indeed, despite some naivete and glaring omissions, it also contains some thought provoking and entertaining passages. Above all, the effort that I put into appraising and analyzing -- and, in part, refuting -- his thesis ought not to be wasted. There are those who may be edified.

(Note, an inveterate re-writer, I edited some of these passages from the version submitted to JoC, for clarity or readability. However I made NO changes in any passages that might have been the skimmed-misinterpreted sources of the editor's strange vitriol. I leave it to anyone to find justification for claiming that I clearly "hate Dr. Joseph." (???) )

So make of this what you will. Or not. Don't feel obliged. Believe me; there are far more important things going on, in science, right now. All told, I wish I had never heard of these guys.

==== David Brin Ph.D appraises and critiques "Life on Earth Came From Other Planets," by Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., Journal of Cosmology (2009) =======

While this paper is interesting and fun to read -- and shows an ambitious eagerness that does Dr. Rhawn Joseph credit -- there are some glaring faults. The central one is that this article creates a "just-so story" about Earth's early seas having been seeded by the process known as "panspermia." This notion credits the origin of Earth's biology not to the evolution of cells out of proto-biochemistry, but to the arrival of spores or other living material that may have crossed interstellar space from some earlier biome, a concept that goes back more than a century to Svante Arrhenius.

Dr. Joseph's core innovation is to propose that these seed materials were driven into the coalescing cloud of dust and gas that formed our sun and solar system by the very same supernova that created most of the heavier elements out of which the Earth was formed. The star that went supernova is posited to have had planets that were demolished by the cataclysm, but without destroying all dormant life-material, since those planets would -- Joseph proposes -- have been driven outward some distance, earlier, during an intermediate, giant star phase, before the supernova.

An entertaining scenario, indeed. But even were it to be plausible, without the flaws that I shall elucidate, it would nevertheless remain just a story, one of many ways that dormant life-material might enter interstellar space and eventually arrive at Earth. Hence, it would merit only one place among many such scenarios, rather than being placed on a pedestal, as The Answer.

Indeed, the literature of panspermia speculation offers quite a list of alternative sources of drifting life-material that might enter the atmosphere of an early water world, such as the Earth was (presumably) half a billion years after its formation. For example, Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, and separately Nobelist Hannes Alfven, posited that large COMETS, measuring above ten kilometers in radius, might -- soon after their formation amid supernova debris -- contain copious amounts of the radioactive isotope Aluminum 26. Decay of this substance might thereupon heat and melt internal spaces and fill them with liquid water, protected from space conditions by insulating layers of ice. Within these micro-oceans, water, energy and necessary elements might mix and create pre-biotic or even life-supporting soups. While individual comet chambers might seem small, compared to a planet's ocean, the sheer number of such comets is staggering to contemplate, perhaps pervading every stellar system, not only those with earthlike planets equable, continuously habitable zones. This potentially vast volume of watery reactor vessels led some to suggest comets as the true test-tube sources of life in the universe.

(Note: my own doctoral work was on comets and my novel HEART OF THE COMET featured discussion of these issues.)

Offering vast amounts of liquid water volume for pre-biotic chemistry is not the only advantage of this earlier model. In addition, we are not asked to believe that the seeding material will survive a nearby supernova.

Nevertheless, I bring up this previous scenario not so much in order to contrast it against Dr. Joseph's proposal, as to point out that such scenarios are abundant. It was Joseph's duty to both understand all competing theories and present them in full light. His mere mention of comets as delivery systems, to inject life-seeding material into the early Earth, was insufficient and remiss.

Before getting down to nitty gritty specifics of Joseph's particular scenario, let me pause and step even farther back. Dr. Joseph's central tenet -- contending that life cannot arise from non-life, and hence must be traced farther back in time, to earlier living sources, is made plain where he says: "Given the complexity of a single-celled organism and its DNA, the likelihood that life on Earth began in an organic soup is the equivalent of discovering a computer on Mars and claiming it was randomly assembled in the methane sea."

(Let us put aside the strange "methane sea" non-sequitur... could he have been thinking about Titan?... and proceed.)

This premise, shared by the so-called Creation Science movement, is not well thought-out. It is one thing to suggest that there are missing steps, between the complex precursor molecules derived so far, in later versions of the Miller-Urey-Orgel experiments, and truly self-sustaining cellular life. Skeptics about the missing steps may turn out to be right, after all.We'll see.

It is quite another thing to trot out this old horse chestnut -- that in order to arise out of pre-biotic material, life must self-assemble completely randomly, directly from raw materials into all the perfectly interacting gears and wheels of a living cell. Anyone who pushes that line simply has not allowed himself to grasp the well-observed phenomenon of Successive Selection and Accumulation, which renders such "clockmaker" arguments not only irrelevant, but ignorant.

Let me clarify this point, to eliminate any chance of misunderstanding. I am not saying that the Standard Model maintained by the vast majority of working evolutionary biochemists is automatically true, just because it is the majority consensus! Standard Models have been proved wrong, on occasion, in the history of science. Nevertheless, those who rebuke the consensus in any scientific field do bear the burden of proof. Above all, they should be able to describe -- even paraphrase accurately -- what that consensus view is and what its strongest supporting arguments may be, before seeking to systematically disprove those arguments.

In this case, Dr. Joseph is not merely suggesting a method by which Earth MAY have been seeded by interstellar life. He ridicules the very notion of "life from non-life" dismissing the majority view with little more than a rhetorical shrug. That is not how rebel scientists systematically disprove a standing consensus.

Please note that I do not go so far as to class Dr. Joseph categorically with Creationists, any more than Chandra Wickramasinghe was one. Both men avow belief in actual astronomy in a vast and ancient, physics-propelled cosmos. Indeed, Wickramasinghe did accept Successive Selection and Accumulation; he simply believed that the early Earth lacked sufficient time and working volume to accomplish the task. His favored cometary chambers, on the other hand, would. Or so he contended.

Dr. Joseph, in contrast, appears to simply be pushing the critical question further back in time. Allegorically, it is like claiming that the Earth-supporting turtle stands on the back of another turtle, then another, "all the way down."

So let me put the question: if life did not arise from non-life on the Earth itself, then when and where did it begin? Alas, if we go back too far, we enter an era when the Milky Way's metallicity would be too low to support life. Indeed, that wall is encountered only one stellar generation before our sun. It had to start somewhere!

As for Dr. Joseph's particular proposal, there are problems which I'll attempt to shed light upon... though for lack of time, I'll be brief.

1) His scenario posits that our solar system condensed rather immediately after interstellar space was seeded with detritus from a supernova. While it is true that supernova-generated isotopes were the crucial ingredients for rocky planets and for later generation, metal-rich stars like our sun, this scenario is implausible. Propulsive dispersal from a supernova encompasses many light years and substantial periods of time. Condensation episodes are thought to take place only later, after the ejected material comes into contact with pre-existing molecular clouds, whereupon hydrodynamic complexities can occur. We are talking about vast distances of many parsecs. The odds of any pre-existing planets, formerly in orbit around the supernova star itself, being involved, would seem -- well -- astronomical.

2) That fact, plus the rarity of supernovas themselves, means that Dr. Joseph is proposing a "rare life" scenario, and hence a fairly uncommon position among panspermia thinkers, who tend to envision life spreading everywhere. I am not objecting to this, per se. He is welcome to hold that life is rare in the cosmos. There are, of course, philosophical problems, e.g. the Anthropic Principle, that all such rare-life theories must face, compared to hypotheses based upon plenitude. But that does not refute him.

3) In any event, there are astronomical problems with his theory. Most supernovae come either from very large stars or else stars that tightly co-orbit with white dwarves. Neither of these are the type of solar system where one would generally expect to find circumstances friendly to life. The big stars only last some tens of millions of years, hence what can we expect from their planets, which might not even have time to cool and form seas?

In the other class of supernovae, the white dwarf companion would mess up orbital mechanics and would have created many earlier violent episodes. Dr. Joseph should do a better job explaining why such systems seem more likely to engender life than our own placid, early seas, orbiting a calm, long-lived and stable sun.

4) This one is lethal. Let me quote from Dr. Joseph:

"It is generally believed that our sun was created within a nebular cloud produced by a supernova nearly 5 billion years ago. A protoplanetary disc formed from the remnants of the nebular cloud surrounding the new sun, thereby giving rise to the planets of this solar system (Greaves 2005; van Dishoeck 2006)."

Alas, this view is simplistic, misleading and simply flat-out wrong. Experts on the material that first formed in the solar system -- found in tiny inclusions in the oldest meteorites -- have determined that our solar system coalesced from a cloud that contained contributions from AT LEAST THREE, AND POSSIBLY FIVE OR MORE INDEPENDENT NUCLEOSYNTHETIC SOURCES. (The Wasserberg Lab, at Calktech.) In other words, there was not just one supernova cloud but an amalgamation that stewed with contributions from several earlier supernovae and/or novae, over an extended period.

Hence, the amount of mixing time required would be hundreds of millions of years. Since the galaxy, at our distance from the center, takes about 200 Myr to complete a rotation, any conceivable association with the specific planets that once circled a particular supernova would long have smeared out, leaving the odds of Dr. Joseph's scenario happening in the realm of spooky coincidence.

Of course, there may have been drifting particulate matter, instead of larger bodies, dispersed throughout the clouds. But seriously. In that case, who needs a supernova? Living worlds would shed such stuff through meteoritic impacts etc.


I could go on. Alas, I haven't the time. Suffice it to say that there are problems with this scenario.

These problems do not invalidate the notion that panspermia-seeding might have set life in motion on our planet. I find that general concept plausible in a very broad way -- though not a leading candidate. Top position -- until someone comes up with good reason to change -- goes to the Standard Model consensus or life-from-nonlife in Earth's early seas.

Nevertheless, I'll maintain an open mind. Certainly, if the galaxy turns out to be rife with comets that were once great big aqueous/organic reactor vessels, one could imagine them delivering precursors in copious quantities, swamping our own planet's own creative fecundity. It could happen, perhaps.

No, the devil is in the details. And Dr. Joseph's details are, unfortunately, unconvincing.

I do compliment Dr. Joseph for his initiative, enthusiasm, and eagerness to explore fresh ideas. I found his paper interesting and entertaining... but, ultimately, lacking.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

September 21, 2009

On FastForward Radio, Tuesday September 22

I will be on FastForward Radio this coming Tuesday September 22 at 10:30 PM EST. Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon will be talking to me about the future of human enhancement and the mystery of whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.


Freedom in the Age of Technological Contraband: A SentDev Classic

Regulating potentially dangerous technologies is one thing, but stifling research and innovation will lead to a dystopic future we're trying to avoid.

[Note: This article was originally published on May 12, 2003]

Strange. As I held the new Cisco router in my hands -- a simple piece of networking equipment for the office -- it didn't feel like a weapon. But the fine print on the bill sure made it seem that way.

Because the router was exported to Canada, it fell under US export regulations. The invoice warned: "Diversion contrary to US law prohibited." Specifically, US law prohibits the "distribution of such technologies without prior authorization to Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, or Sudan" and using the router for the design, development, production or stockpiling of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In other words, if you're an IT guy somewhere in the Axis of Evildom who needs gear, you may be out of luck. Your friendly neighborhood reseller is unlikely to carry top-of-the-line IT products soon, and you're likely going to be replacing your networking TCP/IP protocol with cups and string. And if you're in Iran holding the Koran in one hand and encryption software in the other, you might as well be holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

There are those in the US and elsewhere who fear that certain technologies, in the hands of misguided rogue nations or nonstate actors, might be used in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or at the very least weapons of mass disruption.

So trade embargoes are no longer limited to conventional weapons and peripheral military devices; they now extend to broader categories of technology, including information technology -- even the type you find at your work or home.

There's also growing fear that enemies exist not just abroad but also within. Some worry that emerging empowering technologies are, well, a little too empowering.

And perhaps worst of all, there is burgeoning sentiment against the perceived root of the problem: Scientific progress and technological innovation itself. As a result, the work of scientists and engineers has been put into question, and in many ways progress itself.

But stopping progress and hoisting the veils of ignorance -- in effect stopping history -- is a sweeping and dangerous proposition. Instead, we must stop fixating on the technologies and consider the best ways to regulate and monitor their use without impinging everyone's right to benefit from scientific and technological advancement.

Killing technology

Our post 9/11 sensibilities have forced a reevaluation of where technology has brought us and where it is leading us. While we still worry about the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, we are now also more concerned with less-sophisticated and more-commonplace technologies that can be easily converted into weapons.

We've seen airplanes turned into cruise missiles, and we now speculate about scenarios of cyber warfare in which combatant hackers turn off power grids and open dam floodgates.

This concern is now being translated into legislation, and much of it for the worse.

Currently in the Middle East, a mobile phone with an attached digital camera is considered technological contraband by the US military. (But for some strange reason, only if the camera is physically attached, as if it would be fine to hold an unloaded gun in one hand while carrying a loaded clip in the other.)

While I sympathize with the military's concern about potential surveillance and espionage tools, most tech contraband rules are less justified. Jumpy legislators -- often guided by industries that can't keep pace with new realities -- are passing questionable laws affecting everyone's use of everyday products.

Take Greece, for example (of all places). Last July, the Greek parliament enacted Greek Law 3037/2002, effectively banning electronic games across the country, including home console systems and portable gaming devices such as Game Boy. Explicitly, the law forbids electronic games with "electronic mechanisms and software" from both public and private places. Failure to adhere could earn you a fine from US$5,000 to US$75,000 and up to a year in jail.

According to a report in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, the law was introduced to prevent illegal gambling. "The blanket ban was decided in February after the government admitted it was incapable of distinguishing innocuous video games from illegal gambling machines," the report said.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And don't go getting smug, North Americans.

For those of you in Michigan, reconsider setting up that virtual private network. In an effort to protect service providers from such things as cable theft, the state passed a law earlier this year making it illegal to possess or use "any communication device to receive...any communication service without the express consent or express authorization of the communication service provider" or "to conceal...from any communication service provider...the existence or place of origin or destination of any communication."

Such restrictions effectively prohibit security measures that people use to protect private communication through networks such as VPNs.

More severe limitations exist in China. Like most things these days, even the Great Wall of China is susceptible to digital conversion. The Chinese government has constructed its very own Not So World Wide Web, isolating citizens from sites it deems offensive or politically incorrect. Banned content includes dissenting political opinions, sexually suggestive material and gambling.

In addition, the Chinese government has blocked users from accessing the Google search engine, and its version of Yahoo! excludes links to an array of content, including content relating to the spiritual movement Falun Gong.

Innovation brings freedom

The Chinese government, thankfully, may be in for a surprise. Crafty Chinese hackers will eventually find weak points in the neo-Great Wall; it's not like it was in the old days of Communism when information could be easily controlled. Maintaining a totalitarian grip in the Age of Information is becoming exceedingly onerous.

Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and an anti-communist agitator, believes there is a strong correlation between technological progress and human freedom. "Communism is a monopolistic system, economically and politically," says Walesa. "The system suppresses individual initiative, and the 21st century is all about individualism and freedom."

Walesa believes that technological development undermines restrictive governments. "When I was fighting communism, there was rapid development of satellite television and cell phones, and communism, to survive, would have to block all these information devices," he says.

To control the free flow of information, says Walesa, Communist governments would have needed to increase secret police forces by a factor of four. "Technology," he asserts, "helped end communism by bringing in information from the outside."

Defending the freedom to innovate

Discussing totalitarian regimes while addressing scientific inquiry and technological advancement is par for the course; suppressing progress and innovation would by necessity require a monolithic authoritarian superstructure -- especially considering today's highly advanced communication technologies.

This was recently addressed at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara last month. Keynote speaker Howard Rheingold, author of Virtual Reality and Smart Mobs, acknowledged that our "freedom to innovate is not necessarily going to be as free as it was in the pre-Internet era."

Rheingold -- correctly, in my opinion -- believes that we are at a "pivotal point in the history of technology and a lot of assumptions should be questioned." Today's technologies, he argues, convert passive consumers into active users who both create and consume content.

But Rheingold also notes that industries and governments have started clamping down politically and economically to protect their interests, including using legislative and technological barriers to innovation such as the broadcast flag, trustworthy computing (or as Rheingold quips, the "don't trust the user" approach) and tight control of the radio spectrum by telecommunication companies.

Concerned about this trend, Rheingold wants people to lobby for their right to innovate, and to conceive of novel ways to navigate political and legislative barriers. "Defend your freedom to innovate," he declares. "An era is coming to an end. Geeks and consumers are under assault. We really have to organize to protect our rights."

Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi writer and Boing-Boing blogger who helped organize the event, agrees that there is a problem and that activism is the key. "You can't change the law unless you participate in the lawmaking process," he says. "Technology is relentlessly lowering the barrier to entry in that process." Specifically, Doctorow looks to the power of text messaging and blogs to politicize the populace.

Rational regulation

We're not about to turn from the benefits brought by technology, be it anesthetics or airplanes. Nor are we about to abort the projects of increasing human understanding and freedom, projects in which science and technology play an essential role.

But only the most naive observer would advocate a laissez-faire approach to monitoring and regulating new technologies.

Rather, we need to consider how new technologies can be misused and act by managing their proliferation. We already have precedents in such things as gun control and licensed gambling casinos. And of course, we have trade embargos to prevent whack-jobs such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il from obtaining potentially dangerous devices (at least more than he already has). We must continue to ensure that new and potentially dangerous tools are used for humanity's benefit and not to its detriment.

But at the same time we must ensure that we don't terrorize ourselves with foolish and unnecessarily restrictive prohibitions against truly harmless technologies. And we must remember that inhibiting scientific and technological progress to prevent disaster will lead directly to a dystopic future that we have long tried to avoid.

One thing is clear: Our freedom to innovate is inexorably tied to all the other freedoms we value.

Originally published on May 12, 2003.

September 18, 2009

Stoetzler: Imagining a sexuality that is free to recreate itself

Marcel Stoetzler has published a fascinating article in Mute Magazine: When Nothing is Produced.

The article is largely about the ways in which gender, sex and sexuality have been co-opted and reframed since the times of the industrial revolution. Stoetzler argues that bourgeois society has reduced sexuality to the logic of (re)production, resulting in a series of rigid dichotomies. In the end, he rejects this sexual dimorphism and the gay/straight split to imagine a sexuality that is free to recreate itself.

Stoetzler writes:
It appears that thinking about sexuality has always been fundamentally shaped by the obvious but perplexing way in which the sexual act confounds, or burdens, lust with procreation. It is easy to see that lust would, certainly in the minds of philosophers, tend to inhabit the realm of freedom and spirit, procreation that of necessity and matter. This cannot but reverberate with the social fact that the concepts ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are similarly charged. The conceptual dichotomy of nature and spirit, matter and form is rooted in ‘the wish to escape nature on which though, one’s life depends’. The crucial contribution of homosexuality to the history of human emancipation lies in its unequivocal assertion of the purposelessness of sexuality...the homosexual becomes ‘the portent of a sexuality alienated from its proper purpose’. To ‘alienate’ sexuality from its alleged purpose – procreation – is, however, the whole point of its emancipation...If, however, the emancipation of sexuality can only mean its alienation from what society claims is its purpose, gender dimorphism, too, loses in the process its real basis. ‘Woman as an alleged natural being is a product of history which denaturizes her’. ‘Male logic’...refers to women only as representatives of a species that in turn is alleged to represent ‘nature’. Therewith it denies the ‘naturalness’ of any particular woman which consists – to the extent that meaningful use of the term ‘naturalness’ is possible at all – in her individuality, in the sense that individuality is any individual’s identity against his or her identification.
Read the entire article.

TransAlchemy video on postgenderism

Been meaning to post this for a while:

On the whole this video is quite good. It's packed with plenty of of pop-cultural references and supported by historic and cultural anecdotes (though the video takes some weird turns at times, including the questionable discussion of alchemy in the third part).

Much of the video is based on the whitepaper I co-authored with James Hughes, Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary and my article, Overcoming Gender.

Also, be sure to check out the TransAlchemy interview with James Hughes.

September 12, 2009

HAL: New assistive walking device

So get this: there's actually a Cyberdyne Corporation out there working on a device called HAL. But it's probably not what you think.

In this case, Cyberdyne of Japan, along with Professor Sankai of Tsukuba University, have developed the Hybrid Assistive Limb -- a device intended to help people walk or carry heavy loads.

The suit makes mobility easier and increases user strength to carry heavy objects. The 10-kilogram (22-pound) machine belts at the waist and has a battery and computer system at the back. The system also has sensors that pick up weak electric signals that are sent along the skin's surface to the brain. This allows HAL to help wearers move in the way they are thinking. The average walking speed with the assist of the suit is 1.8 kilometers per hour. The company began renting out the suits last October -- but at a hefty USD$2,200 a month.

September 10, 2009

J. Hughes: Radical Life Extension, Transhumanism and Catholicism

IEET director James Hughes has written an epistle on transhumanism to Italian Catholics. Hughes offers four suggestions to the Italians as they assemble to discuss radical life extension and human enhancement:
  1. Although transhumanism is part of the family of secular Enlightenment philosophies, many of its elements are compatible with Christianity.
  2. Although some aspects of the transhumanist movement may resemble classical heresies, these are marginal similarities. Transhumanism is not trying to be a life philosophy or religion.
  3. Transhumanists are not really interested in “immortality,” but only in reducing unnecessary death.
  4. Human enhancement technologies, especially neurotechnologies, can support moral behavior and spiritual self-understanding.
Go here for expanded clarification.

These issues are explored more fully in Hughes's essay “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future”

Also see Max More’s contribution to the Italian conference, “Why Catholics Should Support the Transhumanist Goal of Extended Life.”

Postgendered athletes in sports: Should intersexed persons be allowed to compete?

So, the mystery has been solved: world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa has both male and female sexual organs.

Extensive physical examinations of the 18-year-old runner ordered by the IAAF have shown she is technically intersexed. More specifically, she has no ovaries, but instead has internal male testes, which are producing large amounts of testosterone.

It's all about the testosterone

Testosterone is a natural hormone -- but it is a common performance-enhancing doping substance used by athletes. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, testosterone, and other hormones that boost testosterone levels, such as growth hormone, are among the most widely abused performance enhancers in sport.

Women do not have nearly as much testosterone as men. In fact, women have about 15 to 20 times less testosterone. And it's the primary reason why men are men and women are women. After men hit puberty, for example, they grow facial hair, their voice deepens and they develop muscle mass. Men have more testosterone, so they are much more equipped to gain muscle.

A natural edge

There's no question, then, that Semenya's unique physical condition gives her a decided advantage against her testosterone deprived female competitors. Consequently, the IAAF now has a difficult decision: should Semenya be disqualified? And should she even be allowed to compete?

The IAAF has already admitted that Semenya is not at fault here. This is not a doping issue. According to the IAAF, "These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this."

Their decision will be an important one because it will determine whether or not intersexed persons will be able to compete against regular males and females. If they rule that Semenya cannot compete, the IAAF will essentially be saying that there are some 'natural' physical conditions that have to be sanctioned against.

The potential implications are huge.

For instance, should an athlete like Michael Phelps (the 'natural transhuman athlete) -- who clearly has a decided genetic advantage -- be prevented from competing against less-endowed athletes? The question almost seems absurd, but this may be the path we are embarking upon.

If we start to regulate against so-called 'natural physical traits', where would we draw the line? Which genetic advantages would be fine and which wouldn't be? Why? And to what degree?

Sports in the postgendered future?

But looking ahead even further, it may also set a precedent for a prohibition against the deliberate blurring of male and female traits for competitive advantage. It's not unreasonable to suggest that some professional athletes -- women in particular-- may willingly adopt traits of the opposite sex to give them an edge. And as medical biotechnologies continue to advance, there's a very distinct possibility that such interventions may become more available.

It has been my contention that, as the human species enters into a transhuman condition, strictly stratified gender designations will begin to blur. Men and women will consciously trade-off advantageous gender-specific traits (both physical and cognitive), while discarding some gendered traits altogether. Gender may eventually become a thing of the past -- a legacy of our biological heritage.

Now, should the IAAF rule against intersexed persons, and by logical extension postgendered humans (including transgendered individuals), it would appear that the future has no place for these type of athletes.

This will clearly become a problem of discrimination. And it will likely be compounded by all the other 'enhancement' related interventions that future holds.

The IAAF has its work cut out for itself; as time passes, the issue of enhancement in sports can only get more and more complex.

September 9, 2009

Nokia mixed reality [video]

Nothing too profound here, but neat nonetheless. I love the near telepathic connection between our two characters. Bruce Sterling's comment made me laugh: "Boy, blondie here has got a tough life." Must be in some kind of post-scarcity society ;-)

Via Bruce Sterling.

Welcome to the age of weapons containment: A SentDev Classic

Soon after the end of the Cold War, U.S. President George H. W. Bush declared that a new era had opened up in which he hoped that his country would become a “kinder and gentler nation.” Fifteen years later his proclamation appears na├»ve and gushing with idealism, but his optimism was understandable given the times; the Soviet Union had just collapsed with the Eastern Bloc going down with it, and all without a single shot fired from an American gun. The world, it seemed, had been rebooted and started anew.

Indeed, economic and cultural globalization quickly ensued, ushering in what we now regard as the post-ideological, post-bi-polar geopolitical era. Democracies and capitalism began to take root in areas completely unaccustomed to such institutions. One prominent political theorist, Francis Fukuyama, was so taken by these turn of events that he declared the new era to be the end of history.

But things haven’t turned out exactly as hoped or planned. The weight of history is still very much upon us. The events of September 11, 2001 were a wake-up call of sorts, a not-so-subtle reminder that politically instigated catastrophes are still a real and potent threat. In a world dominated by the hegemonic power of the United States, the world was introduced to the muscle of asymmetric agitation.

To be sure, today’s geopolitical situation is one in which asymmetric threats -- a phenomenon more commonly referred to as terrorism -- are taken to be the most pressing security concerns. Yet this is only part of the story. We live in an era in which conventional warfare between two or more combating nations of roughly equal power is all but behind us. Given the political and economic compatibility of so many nation states, the need and desire for war has waned considerably. As Margaret Thatcher once famously said, democracies “do not go to war with one another.” Moreover, conventional war, with all of today's high-tech tools of destruction, would surely be suicide.

As current events reveal, however, wars are still occurring -- but to call them such might be a stretch. The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, are the reactionary spasms of occupation. The current regimes in both countries have been established by the conquerors who are now cleaning up the mess of victory, albeit very poorly and haphazardly.

Still, when it comes right down to it, conflicts such as these are still very 'warlike' in their composition. And despite the decline in all-out war between nations, hostilities are still happening. There are several key factors that can account for this ongoing problem.

First, we still live in an era of the sovereign nation state where war is regarded as the self-justified continuation of diplomacy by other means. Second, there is civilization's insatiable appetite for natural resources – a factor that creates volatility in those resource rich areas whose governments are politically and economically at odds with those who desire the resources. Thirdly, and related to the first point, there are ideological reasons for entering into war, whether it be the spread of capitalism, “freedom,” religion or totalitarian ideology. Lastly, and the one I now want to shift attention to, war is a means to prevent a state from developing and using advanced weapons such as nuclear bombs and bio-weapons.

This last point is a relatively new phenomenon, one that I believe will characterize the 21st century.

The dust is finally settling after the collapse of the Cold War and a new era is starting to unfold before us. It is not an era where anyone will afford to be “kinder” or “gentler,” nor will it be an era in which so-called terrorism is the Great Threat (asymmetric threats cease to be asymmetric when the enemy has access to apocalypic technologies). Rather, the 21st century is revealing itself as the Age of Weapons Containment.

There are already strong indicators that this is the case, at least in theory. The U.S. justified its invasion of Iraq under the guise of ferreting out Saddam’s illusory weapons of mass destruction. George W. Bush was successfully able to garner support for an invasion based around a seemingly tangible and dangerous threat. Sure, the reason for war was falsified, but the incident will prove to be an ominous harbinger of things to come – crises that won't involve red herrings.

Since 9/11 the world’s attention has been pre-occupied with threats of hijacked planes and hassles at the airport. At the same time the United States worked obsessively in the Middle East to guarantee its access to oil (an agenda made all the more pressing as China nears superpower status). During this time, however, the North Koreans were busy developing nuclear weapons. Now the U.S. and the international community are scrambling to figure out what to do about it. North Korea is truly a “rogue” nation if there ever was one, with a psychologically unstable and malicious leader at the helm. The question being asked the world over is: how do you take nuclear weapons away from a country once it has acquired them?

The answer is, you can’t. At least not without engaging in a brutal attack that involves nuclear weapons. Frighteningly, the only option may be to allow North Korea to keep their nukes and work to prevent other countries from joining the Nuclear Club. Yet, as the New York Times recently noted, there are at least 40 countries around the world today that have the technological know-how to develop their own nuclear weapons program. The situation seems untenable.

And it’s poised to get worse. Weapons technologies are increasingly set to increase in sophistication, destructive power, and most frightening of all, accessibility. Nuclear weapons are the first of an entirely new set of apocalyptic technologies that include genetically engineered viruses, self-replicating nanotechnology and robotics, and even malign artificial intelligence. As a consequence of these potential threats, one of two things will happen on the geopolitical stage: either agreement will finally be made on the establishment of transnational authorities, or nations will react with unilateral violence against potential threats in an effort to contain the spread of dangerous weapons.

Unfortunately, it may very well be the latter. The U.S. has already set this precedent by virtue of their invasion of Iraq -- an action in which they disregarded the U.N.'s injunctions. While the U.S. worked to prevent the spread of communism during the latter half of the 20th century, they may very well define their 21st century geopolitical role as the country that works to prevent the spread of apocalyptic technologies.

Rather than rely on international bodies, countries with the resolve and military might will react with force when a perceived threat hits the radar. As a potential example, does anyone think for one minute that Israel will stand idly by while Iran develops their own nuclear weapons? How long will Japan and South Korea hold out before they take action against North Korea?

The goal of world federalism seems as far off as ever. The international community cannot get it together and give the United Nations teeth. The United States bears much of the blame. Consequently, nations are waiting until situations become untenable and they're forced to act on their own.

Looking ahead to the future, similar revelations will occur when when bio-labs are detected in suspicious countries, or as nanotechnology and robotics industries mature. As is the case today, only until the situation looks overwhelmingly dangerous will threatened countries react. It will be an era of reactionary efforts to curtail the development and proliferation of extremely dangerous weapons. Beyond a doubt, the United States will beat a unilateral path as it faces each threat, while all the while undermining the global community and shirking its responsibility to help build a powerful international regulatory regime.

But even if transnational agencies can be created, these institutions will still have to face the same issues. Preventing the wide-spread and unchecked accessibility to apocalyptic technologies will redefine the human condition. We may have to live with a multitude of existential threats in perpetuity. This is not a good situation.

In the meantime, all eyes are on North Korea. How the international community deals with this crisis will be a very important precursor to how they will deal with even greater threats in the coming decades.

Originally posted on October 16, 2006.

New poll: Should economists have been able to predict the global economic collapse?

I've added a new poll (see sidebar):

It's been a year since the global economy imploded -- an event that was largely unpredicted. Did economists drop the ball?
  • No, economics is too complex and susceptible to sudden trends
  • No, economics is not an exact science, but the discipline needs to steadily improve
  • Yes, economists are clearly asleep at the wheel and barking up the wrong trees
  • Yes, but let’s not overstate the degree to which this could have been predicted
Feel free to add alternative perspectives to the comments.

Summer's over, back to blogging

Now that summer is over I plan to get back on track with the blogging. I'd like to keep the posts a bit more focused over the coming months and narrow in on some key areas, namely human enhancement, bioethics, animal welfare (including uplift issues), gender biopolitics and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I'll also keep working to bring in guest bloggers, so keep an eye out for that.

And as always, I'll keep on speculating about the future of intelligent life.