John Hersey (1914-1993, Author and journalist, won a Pulitzer for–“A Bell for Adano”.)
John Hersey is the son of American Protestant missionaries who was born in China.
Hersey is considered one of the first journalists to use a “storytelling” style for news reports. His most well-known news story is published in a 1946 “New Yorker” article, later published and expanded as “Hiroshima”, a book about the consequence of the first nuclear bomb blast of WWII.
“Hiroshima” is printed by Alfred A. Knopf and has never been out of print. Hersey reports an estimated 100,000 were killed by the bomb. His book tells the story of the long-term impact of nuclear fall-out on six Japanese survivors of the June 6, 1945’ blast. (Today, the estimate of those who died from the bomb’s long-term impact is 140,000 to 350,000.)
At least three of the six survivors in Hersey’s story are searching for solace by turning to belief in a Christian God. One presumes, these survivors were chosen by Hersey because of his life as a son of missionaries. As you listen to the six personal stories of Hersey’s choice, one wonders how non-believers cope with the aftermath of the bomb.
Hersey’s report of six survivors tells of broken bones, burned flesh, scarring, chronic fatigue, social isolation, and concomitant unemployment because of symptoms of these six survivors.
THESE ARE THE SIX SUBJECTS CHOSEN BY JOHN HERSEY FOR HIS STORY.
Left to Right–Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto (3,500 yards from explosion, Methodist), Mr. Hatsuyo Nakamura (1,350 yards from explosion, Widow of a tailor with 3 children), Dr. Masakazu Fujioio (1,550 yards from explosion center, a live in the moment hedonist), Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge aka Makoto Takakura (1,400 yards from explosion, a German priest of the Society of Jesus), Dr. Terufumi Sasaki (1,650 yards from explosion, young surgeon at Red Cross Hosp.) and Miss Toshiko Sasaki (1,600 yards from explosion.)
Hersey notes some women who are pregnant when the bomb bursts have children who suffer from the consequence, even though not yet born. He tells of a formally successful physician who must start over again to establish his practice. He has little money and no credit but needs to have a place to treat patients for income. He must work from his home which is only rented because he cannot afford to buy.
Hersey writes of a woman who is too fatigued to work at a regular job and decides to use her sewing machine to work at a pace her health will allow. She finds she cannot make enough money to house and feed herself. She sells the sewing machine and finds part time work collecting subscription payments for a newspaper that pays her fifty cents per day.
Hersey writes of recurring scars that occur from the flash and burn of the nuclear bomb explosion. The disfigurement requires plastic surgery.
Without money needed for cosmetic surgery, the young are reliant on financial gifts from others. Some Americans rise to the occasion.
In one instance, the TV program, “This is Your Life” generates contributions for a few victims’ who need plastic surgery.
Incongruously, on “This is Your Life”, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay meets with a survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. Some consider this among the most awkward TV appearances of all time.
The fundamental point of Hersey’s stories is a nuclear weapon in war goes beyond immediate physical destruction and mental injury. Radiation from a nuclear bomb stays with victims for their entire, often shortened, and always compromised lives. It is more than the death of thousands, it is the remaining lives of every human being, whether born or yet to be born, who is exposed to the flash and burn of nuclear detonation.
Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition
By: The Great Courses
Lecturer: Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is an author, American neuroendocrinology researcher, and doctor of neuropsychology, educated at Harvard and acting professor at Stanford.
Sapolsky’s lectures begin with optimism. He infers one can understand the biological origin of human behavior. However, as the lectures progress one becomes skeptical. By the end of Sapolsky’s lectures, the source of human behavior seems too complex for human understanding. In a future age, it may be possible to reduce uncertainty, but determination of the sources of human behavior are likely to remain a probabilistic endeavor.
Sapolsky begins with neurological, physiological, endocrinological, genealogical, and environmental influences on behavior but ends with no definitive origin for human behavior.
This is not to say these lectures are not interesting, but science is far from understanding how any discipline can effectively or accurately identify the sources of dysfunctional human behavior. Cures for psychological maladies remain elusive because of the complexity of their origin.
There is no nerve that can be cut, no drug that can be administered, no gene that can be removed, no environment created that singularly cures abnormal human behavior. Sapolsky is saying the origin of human thought and action begins with genetic history, is influenced in the womb, is subjected to hormonal disruption, lives to be changed by environmental circumstances, and dies either early or late depending on the circumstances of life.
Sapolsky begins his lectures with a lesson in physiology and discussion about cells and the nervous system and how it works.
He explains limbic and autonomic nervous systems. A limbic system is where subcortical structures meet the cerebral cortex. It influences the endocrine system and the autonomic (breathing, heartbeat, and digestive system) functions of the body.
Sapolsky explains how regulation of body function is affected by hormones that come from many organs of the body. These hormones affect brain function (which is also a hormone producing organ) that have a great deal to do with how one acts. The physiology of the nervous system and blood circulatory system carry hormones throughout the body.
Sapolsky goes on to explain evolution of behavior that comes from genetically inheritable social history. What is revelatory is the myth of evolution based solely on a genetic singularity which preserves itself at all costs.
Sapolsky argues preservation of species, not specific gene preservation, is the key to understanding evolution. (This is a partial disagreement with the “selfish gene” postulated by Richard Dawkins.)
The example Sapolsky offers is the Wildebeest herd that plans to cross an alligator infested river.
An early interpretation of that crossing is that a leader of the herd voluntarily steps into the river to sacrifice itself to allow the herd to cross the river while it is being feasted upon by alligators. Sapolsky explains the Wildebeest is not sacrificing itself. Careful observation shows an older Wildebeest is forced into the river by the herd. It is not a voluntary action but a heritable social behavior of the herd to preserve itself.
Sapolsky identifies myths about what causes abnormal human behavior. The idea that testosterone levels are a cause for aggression is untrue. The National Institute of Health found that increased or decreased levels of testosterone have a weak correlation with aggression. Sapolsky notes that testosterone levels vary based on environmental circumstances and interaction with other hormone producing organs. It is not found to be a hormonal cause of aggression.
Every country of the world is populated with people like the wildebeest. Until the world is one herd, it seems humans are destined to lose their way as a species. The river to cross is the world’s environmental crises. With disparate herds in the world, the alligator in the river (our environment) will eat us all.
Stephen Nowicki (Professor of Biology at Duke University.)
Professor Stephen Nowicki offers a 36.5-hour lecture on Biology. From the origin and growth of life to the chemical and neuronal function of living things, Nowicki systematically reveals experimentally tested knowledge of the “…Science of Life”. This brief review only addresses a few of the many fascinating details Nowicki explains.
Nowicki suggests, cells evolve from the agglomeration of detritus from the “Big Bang”.
The early formation of these cells is missing two ingredients for life. Nowicki explains these early cells evolve from violent volcanic and electrical activity of the “Big Bang”, an environment in which those two missing ingredients are created.
Nowicki explains early non-living cells are bombarded by electrical storms that generate amino acids (organic compounds) and sugar from violent atmospheric conditions that include water.
In the early 1950s, these conditions were tested in laboratory conditions and found to create two essential building blocks of life. Nowicki explains, these building blocks (amino acids and sugars) became part of non-living cells.
The eukaryotic cells had a nucleus containing genetic material while prokaryotic cells carried free-floating genetic material without a nucleus. Nowicki then explains the role nucleotides (protein) play in activating genetic material within these cells.
Nowicki notes DNA is present in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, but they need to have a way of being activated. With replication, molecules (chemical compounds) could form. Nowicki explains living matter originated from the clumping and replication of these molecules.
Nowicki explains ribonucleotides (proteins) were created in the primordial soup of early earth. These ribonucleotides transformed into RNA which activated DNA genetic material and replicated both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.
Evolution of species, established by Darwin in the 19th century, appears quite consistent and reminiscent of the primordial process Nowicki outlines.
With that reflection, Nowicki reminds listeners that evolutionary process should not be thought of as a necessarily progressive improvement. Evolution is chancy. It can either preserve or destroy species. Nowicki wanders back in history to explain classification of species as theorized by Linnaeus in the early 18th century.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, physician.)
The second doubling of a zygote creates four cells separated in a vertical axis with all genetic material present in each cell. Subsequent doubling is separated on a horizontal axis. These new cells do not have all genetic material enclosed. The new cells have a more limited genetic role. There is significance in that axis change because of the location of genetic material in respective cells. With a change in axis, the viability of one cell carrying all the characteristics of its host goes from certainty to doubtful. The specialization of cells removes some of the genetic material that would contain all the characteristics of the life form.
The zygote at four cells is mature. The next doubling becomes an embryo. All four cells have the genetic material of a male’s and female’s contribution. Each multiplication reduces the size of sister cells until they form a mass that surrounds a vacant space within its middle. This vacant space is the blastocyst stage. The blastocyst is made up of an exterior shell, a middle shell, and an inner shell. Each shell becomes the seat of design for what is to be born.
All amassed cells around the blastocyst carry site specific genetic material of life that forms a living thing.
The process of design in a human begins with an intrusion into the blastocyst without breaking its shells. That intrusion (a human gastrula), around the 7th or 8th day, uses the membranes as laboratories within which genetic codes create skin, bone, internal organs, and the digestive system.
Each of the three membranes are the laboratories of creation. The exterior or outer shell for example would become skin, the middle shell would become organs, the inner shell would become the digestive system.
The next exploration of biology by Nowicki is more suited to students of biology. Nowicki makes a valiant effort to explain the chemistry of ADP and ATP phosphates that provide energy needed for growth and maintenance of life. This part of the lecture series becomes too technical.
As molecules of ATP and ADP break down, they fuel cells of life to act in specific ways to promote growth and maintenance. Like the importance of protein messengers for activation of genetic material, life cannot exist without the energy provided by ATP and ADP. Nowicki diligently tries to explain the mechanics of this phosphate process but loses this reviewer’s interest.
The first inkling of cause for plant growth is noted by Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century. Nowicki explains Helmont planted a tree in a tub of soil. He carefully weighed the soil and tree at the time of planting. Over several years, he observed the growth of the tree. At the end of those years, Helmont weighed the soil and tree. He found a small decrease in the soil’s weight and a gigantic increase in the tree’s weight. Helmont speculates the difference is from water added over the years. Though his conclusion is only partly correct, he paved the way for discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Baptist van Helmont , a Dutch chemist and physician (1580-1644, On the left with his son on the right.)
That synthesis is a more complete explanation of the weight gain noted in Helmont’s experiment. The fundamental point being made by Nowicki is that species growth and demise is based on resource availability. Jan Ingenhousz completes Helmont’s theory with the discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799, Dutch physiologist.)
Around 1779, A Dutch physician named Jan Ingenhousz found that green plants use sunlight to synthesize food for plants from carbon dioxide and water.
The remaining lectures are about Malthusian limits to life. There are natural and societal actions (meaning acts of war) that affect species survival. For natural calamities, one is reminded of the Black plague in the 14th and 17th centuries, the Spanish flu after WWI., the Irish famine in 19th century, the great Chinese famine during the “Great Leap Forward”, and now Covid19.
From man’s inhumanity to man, there is the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, two 20th century World Wars, the holocaust atrocity of WWII that murdered 11,000,000 (6,000,000 of which were Jews), and most recently, an estimated 600,000 dead in the Syrian Civil War.
How many more deaths will there be from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Of course, Nowicki’s attention is on the biology of life. Nowicki explains, the key to balance of nature is biodiversity. Nowicki notes the unprecedented loss of species in the post 20th century world risks life’s future. Nowicki briefly explains how drug discoveries and loss of genetic material from species extinction affects the balance of nature by diminishing the sources and utility of future medical discoveries.
The fundamental point of Nowicki’s view is that no species escape the natural biological limits of life. Nature balances life based on resources available. A listener may imply Nowicki believes humanity is threatened as much by ignorance of biology as of “man’s inhumanity to man”.
Will Buckingham (English Author, novelist, philosopher, masters in anthropology, PhD in philosophy from Staffordshire University.)
Will Buckingham succeeds in telling the story of philosopher’s big ideas. Buckingham takes listeners on a journey through the ages of philosophy. Beginning in the pre-Julian Roman calendar of 585 BC, Buckingham explains how Thales of Miletus began humanities’ journey from belief in mythology to observation and prediction. Miletus predicted a solar eclipse, presumably based on astronomical observation.
Thales of Miletus (626 to 623 BC to 548 to 545 BC, Pre-Socratic Philosopher known by some as the Father of Science.)
Socrates is believed to have lived from 470 to 399 BC when he chose to take his own life when found guilty of charges of blasphemy and corrupting youth.
Plato (428-423 BC to 348-347 BC, died at the age of 80.)
Socrates could have escaped execution according to Plato’s writing in the “Phaedo” but chose to drink Hemlock tea, the poison of capital punishment.
Socrates denies both accusations against him. Plato writes Socrates mentions the god Asclepius (one of the gods noted for healing) in his last moments of lucidity. The implication of Plato is that Socrates believed in the gods. Socrates flatly denies the corruption of youth for which he is accused.
Buckingham notes what is known of Socrates is only through Plato and Aristotle’s writing which support his innocence by relating stories of Socrates search for truth. An ancient Oracle is said to have told Socrates he was the wisest of all men. By questioning beliefs of those who professed wisdom, Socrates finds others ignorance and understands why the Oracle considers him the wisest “…because I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.” It is through dialog with others about belief that Socrates finds other’s ignorance and his wisdom.
Confucius (551 BCE-479 BCE, died at 71 or 72, Chinese philosopher.)
Before Socrates, Buckingham notes the prominence of Confucius who lived in China, between 551 to 470 B.C.E. Both Socrates and Confucius search for truth.
Both are searching for causes of societal chaos. However, where Socrates looks to dialog with others and communication with the gods for help in understanding life, Confucius looks to what is called the DAO, i.e., the “way”, the road, or the path that gives harmony to human nature. In the DAO, there is a yin and yang to life that leads one to a harmonious code of behavior. It is neither based on God or gods but on the search for harmony in life.
Though Socrates and Confucius seek wisdom, their paths are quite different but with similar objectives.
This seems a beginning of a split between gods, God, and human belief. The Greeks pursue the help of gods for earthly harmony. The Chinese search for a path to human harmony within society, exclusive of gods or belief in one God.
Buckingham proceeds to overwhelm listeners with mostly well-known philosophers of history. He does not make a distinction between belief in gods, God, or what is broadly characterized as science.
In coming to grips with the number of philosophers noted, one tends to rely on a perceived societal direction. To this listener, the direction is away from God, toward science.
This is not to say that science or philosophy excludes God. There are many famous scientists who claim belief in God. Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Gregor Mendel, and Charles Darwin, to name a few. The irony of that truth is that each of these scientists made discoveries that weaken one’s belief in God because their discoveries offer insight to the origin of life and living without God.
The list of non-believers is as long or longer. Some say Einstein was an Atheist. There is Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Rosalind Franklin, Sigmund Freud, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Francis Crick, Erwin Schrodinger, John Bell, and so on.
“The Philosophy Book” offers more information about philosophers than one may want to know. Nevertheless, it offers a well written overview of belief, if not wisdom, in the world. One may ask themselves, what’s next? Artificial Intelligence seems to offer our best chance of survival if humanity is on its own.
Nick Bostrom (Swedish philosopher at University of Oxford, author.)
Nick Bostrom explains the difference between A.I. potential and human brain limitation. With addition of sentient reasoning, Bostrom explains the incomprehensible leap beyond human brain capability with the advent of artificial intelligence.
That leap can be viewed with fear and trembling as inferred by Bostrom or it might be seen as a next step in human evolution.
Bostrom’s concern revolves around human brain limitation in setting standards for A.I.’ programming.
A machine’s ability to recall billions of facts and historical precedence cannot be matched by the human brain. However, the significance of A.I.’s achievement is delimited by how it may be programmed to have moral, ethical, and normative standards that benefit humanity. The difficulty of that programing is humanity’s continual redefinition and lack of agreement on normative standards.
One may ask oneself how good a job has human evolution done in setting standards for humanity? Have authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump benefited the world?
Bostrom notes two fundamental scenarios for human evolution. Both seem more a return to the past than to the future. Bostrom suggests A.I. will become either an oracle or sovereign leader of humanity. As an oracle, one is reminded of Athenian fealty to the Oracle of Delphi. As sovereign, one is reminded of Augustus Caesar, Caligula, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolph Hitler. Humanity has survived all–both false predictions of the Oracle and atrocities of sovereigns.
It is unfair to suggest Bostrom is not revealing the difficulties accompanying the introduction of A.I. to humankind. The reality of advancing intelligence through machine learning far outstrips the ability of any singular past or present scientist, philosopher, or politician. One is intimidated by the shear complexity of programing A.I. and its potential for benefit and harm to humanity.
To understand humanities place in the world, human beings cannot agree on what is moral, amoral, equitable, or unfair in society.
How will input from human beings to an oracle or sovereign A.I. escape the imperfect nature of humankind? Added to that difficulty is A.I.’ potential to ignore the best interest of humanity in the interest of its own self-preservation.
Bostrom’s book is interesting, but he beats the idea of A.I.’s ascendance to death by delving into game theory. Bostrom notes the world’s race to create artificial intelligence has the potential of ignoring safeguards for A.I.’s growth and potential for world domination.
Though abandoning safeguards is quite true as evidenced by the Crispr revolution that opened Pandora’s box of genetic manipulation, evolution of species is a fundamental law of the world’s existence.
A.I. is a step in the evolution of species. Its consequence is unknown and cannot be known because it follows the randomness of genetic selection. Humanity needs to get over it and get on with it. A.I. will either be humanity’s savior or its doom.
Arabs (A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires)
By: Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Narrated by: Ralph Lister
Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Author, British historian living in Yemen.)
Tim Mackintosh-Smith attempts to unravel a complicated political, and ethnic history of a society broadly identified as Arab. One begins Mackintosh-Smith’s book with a hope to understand the complex socio-economic ambition of the Middle East. In the end, the author shows there is an unresolvable contradiction that historically guarantees Arab disunity.
To be Arab, Mackintosh-Smith explains it is necessary to understand the intricacies of Arab language because language is what maintains and sustains Arab’ culture. He notes language holds Arabic culture together, but its use reveals an unresolvable contradiction, a desire for unity without human leadership.
The faults of human nature, the drive for money, power, and prestige generate Arab distrust of leaders. Of course, that distrust is evident in every ethnic culture, but Mackintosh-Smith suggests that distrust demands supernatural intervention for any chance of Arab unity.
Supernatural intervention came in the form of Muhammad as the messenger of Allah in the seventh century.
Muhammad ibn Abdullah (570 AD-632 AD, Arab religious, social, and political leader, founder of the Islamic religion.)
Jesus, in contrast to Muhammed, separates religion from politics. The devil allegedly offered earth’s rulership to Jesus, but Jesus refused. In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus speaks to his followers, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
One might believe that is true for believers of other faiths, but the difference is that Muhammad ibn Abdullah chose to take Allah’s words as a political as well as religious mandate.
Muhammad did not refuse a political life and chose leadership to create a better world by using the word of Allah, as later revealed in the Koran. Arab experience and distrust of human leadership demands belief in a divinity. As an Arab, Muhammad recognizes the importance of the supernatural in being a leader and chose to take political leadership as an obligation to spread the word and practice of Allah on earth.
The course of Arab history is shown by Mackintosh-Smith to reinforce the importance of divinity in Arab unity. Most great leaders in Arab history led by the sword and the word of Allah, as revealed by interpretation of the Koran. The principle of “great” is not meant to be good or bad but only powerful enough to unite a community of Arabs. These leaders came from disparate backgrounds and nations. The first seven “great” leaders (with exception of Timur and Babur) of the Arabs came from different areas of the Middle East.
1 – Tariq Bin Ziyad (670? – 720) Persia2 – Harun al-Rashid (763?-809)Iran3 – Mahmud of Ghazni (971 – 1030) Afghanistan4 – Saladin (1137/38 – 1193) Egypt5 – Timur (1336 – 1405) Uzbekistan6 – Mehmed II (1432 – 1481) Corner of Bulgaria, Turkey & Greece 7– Babur (1483 – 1530) Uzbekistan
Mackintosh-Smith’s history reveals how many Arab countries boundaries were determined after WWII with France and England intent on creating spheres of influence. These boundaries became solidified with the discovery of oil reserves.
The 19 Arab Countries are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
Mackintosh-Smith notes the Arabic language, despite its many 21st century dialects, remains the glue that holds the concept of Arab together. However, dialects and geographic boundaries reinforced by oil reserves recreate the tribalist instincts of the past.
The internecine conflicts between great powers like Shite Iran and predominantly Sunni Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, is missing from Mackintosh-Smith’s book. On the one hand he makes it clear that religion is a motive force in Arab culture, but the history of the Muslim split is largely unexplored. On the other hand, the author’s detailed explanation of Arab tribalism and its resurgence is a valuable contribution to one’s understanding of Middle Eastern history.
There is a minor note of optimism in the future of Arab culture in Tunisia. But, overall, after wading through this long narration, it seems the Middle East is destined to remain a fragmented tribalist culture for centuries to come.
Livewired (The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain
By: David Eagleman
Narrated by: David Eagleman
David Eagleman (Author, neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine.)
A bright future is outlined for humanity by David Eagleman in “Livewired”. His vision has to do with what is presently known of the brain and its interactions with the world. Eagleman believes what we know of the world from the physics of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr today will enhance human brain capabilities tomorrow.
Eagleman details what is known about the brain. He explains the remarkable capabilities of the brain to adapt to its environment. The neuronal activity of the brain interprets the environment in which the body exists.
The body responds to change by sending signals from the environment to the brain. The brain interprets those signals with synaptic transfer of information for thought and action.
Eagleman explains the creation of language in children begins with babbling which is testing their relationship with others and the world. The sensations they receive from verbal and physical contact are connecting their brain function to the world. The brain changes with contact from people and things in the environment.
On the one hand Eagleman is saying the world is what we see. On the other, he notes the world is an interpretation of reality by the brain. Eagleman explains a brain interprets the world of events. The brain is not a recorder. It is a recreator of events.
The significance of that recreation is in unperceived facts of an event. Additionally, Eagleman notes-if an event continually repeats itself, the brain can hide the event because of the constancy of its existence. An example would be a constant machine noise at a factory or the smell of offal at a pig farm. The mind initially notes the noise or smell but if a person is exposed for long periods of time to the same event, the noise or smell disappears.
The fascinating consequence of Eagleman’s observation of brain function is the truth of events may be quite different from reality. This reminds one of the discoveries of Quantum reality which is probabilistic rather than definitive. What we see may not be what is real. The real-world impact of event recreation by the mind is the threat of misidentification of a person accused of a crime.
Eagleman explains older sufferers have learned how to deal with life based on previous experience. That experience is a mixed blessing because it impedes new learning. The ramification is that new discoveries about the world are and will be from the young, much more often than the old.
Eagleman goes on to explain brain input and malleability extend to all parts of the body.
The skin, the eye, the tongue can be used as a source of stimulation to aid the brain in sending signals to malfunctioning appendages. This realization has led to ways of helping patients with palsy to stabilize their condition, for patients to recover from strokes, for the handicapped to walk with a prosthesis, and for epileptics to manage their seizures.
The optimism engendered by Eagleman is explained in one of the last chapters, titled “The Wolf and the Mars Rover”. He recounts the failure of the Mars Rover because of a malfunctioning wheel that ends its productive life. The Rover is unable to decide what to do to overcome a wheel that would not work. In contrast, a wolf will chew its leg off when in a trap because its brain tells she/he will die if not released. The Rover has pre-determined limits to action. The wolf changes behavior based on brain malleability, and unforeseen environmental circumstance.
Eagleman reinforces Rovelli’s argument that information will reveal all there is to know about the quantum world, and the nature of reality. To Eagleman, that information will come from the malleability of the human brain. Despite Eagleman’s optimism, there are skeptics.
Editing Humanity (The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing)
By: Kevin Davies
Narrated by: Kevin Davies
Kevin Davies (Author, Ph.D in molecular genetics, Editor of Nature Genetics.)
The famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard advised “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
He Jiankui (Chinese scientist who used CRSPR to modify genes of unborn twin girls.)
Kevin Davies reports the genie is out of the bottle with He Jiankui’s sloppy edit of genes in unborn twins. Davies suggests science will move forward on gene modification to provide understanding Jiankui’s inept genetic experiment. With that forward movement, Davies implies human extinction will be delayed, extended, or ended by genome experimentation. Proof of Davies conclusion is in Britain’s plan to create a government owned company to investigate genetic diseases and cancer in adults. The pilot project is to sequence the genomes of 200,000 babies according to a May 14th article in “The Economist”.
What remains a danger is that evidence of genomic abnormality is a first step to experiments in changing genetic inheritance at birth. There is a great deal unknown about what some call “dark genetic matter”.
What becomes clear is the potential for great good and great harm in the CRISPR revolution.
CRISPR-This is an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It is a tech tool that reads DNA sequences that are fragmentary and not normal. In identifying what appears abnormal, the fragments can be manipulated to repeat what is believed to be the correct DNA sequence.
With the discovery of base pairing and the DNA double helix by Watson, Crick, and the (often-unrecognized) assistance of Rosaland Franklin, the basis for genome editing became possible.
Davies offers a picture of Jiankui’s life. He was educated at the University of Science and Technology of China and received a Ph.D. from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University in Texas. From a humble life in China, Jiankui climbs a genetic mountain to arrive at a cliff of science. One might characterize it as a cliff because a misstep in gene editing may injure or kill a patient and ruin a practitioner’s professional reputation. Jiankui became a living example of a practitioner’s misstep. Jiankui is serving 3 years in prison and has been fined the equivalent of over $430,000 American dollars. Davies notes the fate of the prenatal female twins is unknown.
Some would argue there are too many unknowns when genes are modified. As noted by Robert Plomin in “Blueprint”, the interconnection of DNA strands is complex.
Plomin notes the results of DNA modification are a matter of probability, not certainty. Clearly identifying defective genes and modifying their code to eradicate disease or mental dysfunction is presently beyond current science understanding.
Adding to the uncertainty of results is the potential for creating a radical human cohort that defies societal norms, e.g., the creation of a destructive or superior race of humans. An infrastructure would have to be formed to make decisions about the course of human civilization. That infrastructure creates potential for radical authoritarian control of humanity by a select group of minders.
DNA modification is extensively used in agriculture to increase field productivity by reducing disease in plants and hardening resistance to blight.
DNA modification opens doors to regeneration when threatened by species extinction.
The light at the end of this tunnel may be a train or a new day.
Davies’s underlying point is that CRSPR is here and will not go away. Experiment will continue whether condoned by government or not. All species on earth have a finite life.
DNA modification is a fact, not just an idea. It is here and will be used. Science is grappling with rules to mitigate its potential downside while trying to insure its upside. In the end, human survival will be decided by nature and the politics of control.
Robert Plomin (Author, American Psychologist and behavioral geneticist.)
As a psychologist and clinical geneticist, Robert Plomin seems well suited to explain how understanding of DNA has the potential of mitigating (possibly curing) many human psychological maladies.
The scientific community notes that 70% of human variability is based on genetic differences among people.
With a perfect picture of a person’s DNA, there is potential for reducing human mental disorders. However, Plomin’s argument seems weakened by his research and experience.
Plomin has spent a great deal of his life researching DNA and genetic inheritance.
What “Blueprint” reveals is how much progress has been made but, at the same time, how far science must advance to clearly understand what the other 30% of human experience has to do with who we are, how we think, and why we act as we do.
Plomin acknowledges there are different patterns of genetic inheritance. These patterns show susceptible psychological maladies and other genetic anomalies that cause Huntington disease, Marfan syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, hemophilia, and others. The inheritance patterns suggest those diseases are probabilities, not certainties.
Plomin acknowledges DNA analysis remains too complex for precise understanding of the correlation between cause and effect. Without precise understanding of genetic manipulation there will be unintended consequence, ranging from disability to death. Further, there is the ethics of gene splicing that implies creation of a utopian society.
Who would have the right to determine another’s role in society? Whether as a philosopher king envisioned in Plato’s “…Republic”, or an Aryan race envisioned by Hitler, genetic manipulation opens a door to predetermined roles for human beings. Who will make these decisions? Is a planned society a good thing? Does a human being want to be classified as a worker, a leader, a thinker, a doer because someone suggests society needs those classifications?
Listening to “Blueprint” leaves little doubt that understanding DNA is important. What is in doubt is how that understanding is used. Humanity has survived an estimated five or six million years. To date, human survival has been based on random modifications of DNA and life experience.
Maybe genetics offer the next stage in human survival, but abandoning natural selection carries risks based on human thought and action rather than natural selection. Should science open Pandora’s box?
Arkady Ostrovsky (Author, Russian-born, British journalist spent 15 years reporting for the Financial Times from Moscow.
Arkady Ostrovsky’s book offers a personal perspective on post-1917 Russian political history. Of particular interest today is in how Vladimir Putin came to power and how he may become an author of his own destruction.
Some listeners may conclude Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will doom his future as Russia’s leader. Others will conclude Putin will survive this political mistake because of Russia’s political history.
Putin’s ascension after Gorbachev/Yeltsin seems foretold by Russian history. As noted in Mark Steinberg’s lectures on Russian governance–since the 16th century, popular leaders (whether Czars or revolutionaries) prudently balanced authority and freedom.
Though Gorbachev and Yeltsin were quite different as Russian leaders, they led Russia with an emphasis on freedom. Both offered freedom without adequate economic support for Russian Citizens. In contrast, Ostrovsky argues Putin emphasizes authority with a measure of economic support that improves Russian lives.
Yeltsin fails because his reforms were largely political with little improvement in economic security for most citizens. Yeltsin’s support base came from oligarch’s economic gain rather than from policies designed to improve Russian citizens’ lives. The early years of Putin’s reign emphasize authority with the help of media to influence public perception.
Putin uses secret service personnel and media to detain and restrain public opposition to the government.
Ostrovsky notes the Chechen uprising is brutally suppressed by Putin. Chechens opt for a level of peaceful coexistence as a part of greater Russia.
Russian government control of media coverage emphasizes Chechen brutality while lauding Russian soldiers’ success in abating Chechen independence. Ostrovsky suggests the reality of Chechen brutality is real but Russian soldier’s success in abating brutality is exaggerated by government-controlled media. Ostrovsky reports many Russian’ innocents are murdered in the process of rescuing children and teachers from a school attacked by Chechen rebels.
Ostrovsky explains the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, personally endorses Putin as his successor. Yeltsin is nearing the end of his life after a fifth heart attack. He views Putin as the best hope of Russia to return to national prominence because of Putin’s relative youth and experience as a former KGB officer. Putin has political experience as an aid to the former Mayor of Moscow.
However, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin discounts the paranoia of Putin and how his experience as a KGB officer makes him suspicious of any activity over which he has no control. Ostrovsky suggests KGB training gives Putin the ability to hide behind a persona adopted to sooth the concerns of whomever he meets. That ability disguises Putin’s personal thoughts when dealing with controversial issues.
(The KGB is dismantled in 1991 but its apparatchiks remain in Putin’s government.)
The media during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin years grows as an independent oligarchic organization. The two edges of power in media are telling convincing truths as easily as lies. Yeltsin owes his electoral success to media according to Ostrovsky. Yeltsin, before his last election as President, has a single digit approval rating from the Russian public. With the help of a media oligarch and Yeltsin’s populist skill, he wins the election. On election day, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin is nearly dead from a fifth heart attack.
Ostrovsky explains the growth of oligarchs begins with Gorbachev and gains momentum with Yeltsin. The communist party leaders are losing their hold on governance, but they are well positioned to understand how things get done and can be controlled with acquired individual wealth. Some of these former communist party leaders use their position to start personal companies with the financing of government money over which they have control. They become behind-the-scenes movers and shakers for the Russian economy. Their personal wealth grows, and the general economy begins to improve.
In the short term, these new barons of wealth improve the lives of many Russian citizens. However, this unrestrained capitalist revolution begins to rot at its core. Political power follows money. Money supports political leaders that kowtow to oligarchic demand. An oligarch’s demand may or may not benefit the general public.
When political leaders act in ways that support oligarchic demand, they improve their prospect for re-election. In some cases, dynamic political leaders gain some independence based on their popular appeal. Putin seems to have achieved some level of that power. With the help of popular appeal, public support can become a source of power to challenge oligarchic demand. It seems Putin may have achieved both power bases, but invasion of Ukraine may change that support.
Robert Kagan finely reveals the fundamental mistake made by Putin in a May-June 2022 “Foreign Affairs” article. History reveals the mistakes of great nations like France, Great Britain, Germany and Japan in thinking they could become world hegemons by force.
Robert Kagan (A neoconservative Republican scholar and member of the Council on Foreign Relations of the Brookings Institute.)
Kagan notes America became a world force by virtue of economic growth which led to a choice by other nations to recognize American hegemony. Rather than capitalizing on the natural resources of Russia, Putin chooses to waste his country’s wealth on a war Russia will lose. It is a lesson one hopes China realizes in its pursuit of its sphere of influence. Sphere of influence is determined by economic growth, not military power.
Ostrovsky argues media is reality in Russia. World media is not the same as the Russian media that is tightly controlled by government leadership. Further Ukraine invasion is not a Chechnian rebellion. Chechnya is a small area within Russia–with an estimated 1.2 million people. Ukraine is an independent country of 44.3 million.
Russian media might be controlled within Russia, but the world’s news will seep into Russian citizen’s knowledge, either by the internet or other means.
Russia may be an invention as Ostrovsky suggests but all nation-states in the course of history are inventions. History changes with information. Dissemination of information is increasingly uncontrollable.
In time of war, Nagasaki and Hiroshima show what uncontrolled fission can do in the event of a nuclear bomb. Fukushima shows what uncontrolled fission can do in time of peace.
Invading Ukraine may lead to loss of Putin’s power and influence in Russia. The tragic consequence of Putin’s decision is the unnecessary death of many Ukrainians and Russians. The decision to invade Ukraine may lead to Putin’s dismissal, imprisonment, or execution. It has certainly changed his reputation in the world.