February 2012


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Stuart Newman <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 29 Feb 2012 22:05:21 -0500
text/plain (11 kB) , CNS Synbio_12.pdf (257 kB)
Dear Kamran,

I agree with you that our modern society has apparently assumed a more 
alienated and instrumental stance towards nature and our fellow humans 
than others have. I also, believe, though, that science, as we understand 
the concept, arose coincidentally with European capitalism beginning in 
the 16th century. 

There were other practices of societies and cultures organized along 
different lines - agriculture, metallurgy, and so on - that yielded useful 
products and principles. The systematic knowledge of hundreds of scarce, 
and at first glance, unpromising foodstuffs and other natural products of 
the Australian aborigines, whom you mention, was probably comparably 
or more sophisticated than any body of knowledge in pre-20th century 
Europe. But none of these practices had the progressive and accelerating 
features of science.

I doubt that a society such as ours can take up the values and 
conceptual framework of a culture that has followed a different path for 
tens of thousands of years. But we may moving in the wrong direction 
even in our own cultural landscape. I have attached an essay I recently 
wrote about the emerging field of "synthetic biology" that argues that 
there are commercial and governmental pressures that are encouraging 
us to abandon some of the best features of scientific theory and practice.


On Wed, 29 Feb 2012 17:56:18 -0800, Kamran Nayeri 
<[log in to unmask]> wrote:

>Dear Herb, Stuart and all:
>I am not a scientist and recent member of SftP. So, I may be naive or
>misinformed. But is there not something in the enterprise of science 
>that goes beyond its (mis)use by the capitalist system?
>Science and technology seem to have arisen in our species quest to
>understand and CONTROL. The curiosity about the world around us is 
>with some other species. But the desire to control nature and society is
>particularly human and originate *before* the rise of class society.
>To understand the scope of the problem let us contrast our collective
>outrage at the example Stuart has brought to our attention  with how
>commonplace is the acceptance of manipulating nature around us, 
>almost any species we have found "useful" to us (think of breeding 
>into dogs of all kinds, including "toy" dogs).
>In such cases at least two factors are at work. First, it is our collective
>desire to control our environment (nature and society). Second, science
>(and technology) is (are) the social processes that make this happen.  Of
>course, when the ends are consistent with our ethical believes we see no
>problem either with the desire to control or science as the means to
>achieve such control. However, when the proposal offends our sense of
>ethics we find fault in the group of policymakers and scientists
>If any of this makes any sense at all, I think a solution might reside in
>merging science and technology with wisdom of the aboriginals who did 
>themselves as part of web of life and tried--at least in large measure
>successfully--to adapt to their environment as opposed to changing it to
>fit their desire. "Science for the people" would become the science that
>show us how to live as part of the web of life without a desire to make it
>in our own image; that is to be in harmony with the rest of nature as 
>with our own kind.
>A modern day example is permaculture that tried to mimic nature in 
>so modified by humans that is no longer hospitable to the web of life.  
>ecological socialism of this kind can be the society in which such science
>will flourish.
>On Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 12:18 PM, herb fox 
<[log in to unmask]>wrote:
>>  Thanks Stuart for your food for thought.
>> Regardless of tthe reactions this article induces (laughter, fear,
>> disregard, etc), recognizing that it is serious thinking by serious 
>> thinkers provokes one to understand what it represents in a larger
>> societal context.  It is a marvelous example of how much the 
>> culture penetrates even the most imaginative and well meaning 
thinkers of
>> today.  It is all clearly laid out in its opening remarks.  What is
>> accepted as immutable: "ordinary behavioural and market solutions 
>> not be sufficient to mitigate climate change."  In essence the 
>> premise is that capitalism is not to be questioned; rather humans are 
to be
>> modified to accomodate it.  Stated in this bald-faced way, one has to
>> accept that this is the dominant thinking among intellectuals in general
>> and among scientists in particular.  Moreover the behavioral 
>> of humans to accomodate capitalism is active in countless ways with
>> scientists participating enthusiastically usually rationalizing their
>> participation as being helpful.  Historically i have in mind Count 
>> whose contributions to themodynamics are admirable and whose 
>> to accomodating the poor to their oppression is less discussed.  (It is
>> also relevant that his understanding of heat came about as he 
>> the boring of cannon.)
>> One of the ways that we scientists in the United States are made 
>> to capitalism and its incessant need to participate in wars, etc is 
>> the generalization of the Mansfield amendment concept.  I was made 
>> aware of this recently when a colleague asked me to be co-PI with him 
on a
>> proposal he was submitting.  The proposal was not being submitted 
to the
>> DoD or NSF or, whatever, but to an internal university source of seed
>> funding.  Upon reading his proposal, which will, if successful ,enable
>> significant improvements in some fundamental research, i found 
>> to how this work will enhance such things as detecting terrorists and
>> making stealth vehicles.  Apparently this is what we must do to obtain
>> support for scientific endeavors.  So we do it believeing we are using
>> "them."  But, in fact, they are using us.
>> We are confronted with the conundrum that, in this society, to do 
>> that requires material resources beyond our individual capability to
>> provide, we usually must participate in enabling the use of our science 
>> anti-human purposes.  The article demonstrates that at one extreme 
>> accept their motivation as ours and are creative in propagating their
>> values in our science.  At the other extreme we abandon science, 
which is
>> itself a conundrum, considering that one who doesn't practise science 
>> no longer be considered a scientist.  Most of us sit between these
>> extremes.  We attach some kind of ethical value to the very pursuit of
>> science and to the production of new scientists, and hold ethical values
>> regarding society, war-work, etc.  Consequently we are almost always 
>> a contradiction of ethical values.
>> All this leads me to wonder if practicing scientists and engineers, are
>> the ones who are going to make over the pursuit of science into a 
>> of science for the people.  It may be that "the people" in the process 
>> reorganizing society will call upon us to break oour ties to the curently
>> hegemonic class and serve instead the people, while providing us the
>> resources to do so.  It is my fervent hope that my students will find 
>> including in their proposals reference to war usefullness and terrorist
>> supression etc will make the proposals unacceptable, while reference to
>> enhancing the value of human life, reduction of environmental threats, 
>> will make them acceptable.
>> Tell me. please, brothers and sisters, what can we do here and now, 
>> scientists, that will advance the practical realization of Science for the
>> People.  For the article is but an exaggerated, gung ho, manifestation 
>> the integration of science into the motivation and maintenance of
>> institutions of the most advanced, creative, inhuman and destructive 
>> of social organization known to history.
>> herb
>> On 2/27/2012 6:24 PM, Stuart Newman wrote:
>> Thanks for these comments, Claudia. I originally thought this might 
be a
>> Swiftian "modest proposal" as well. But then I recognized the name of 
>> Sandberg, a prominent Trashumanist:
>> and looked up Liao and Roache and found that they are also 
philosophers in
>> the transhumanist Future of Humanity Institute, though Liao seems 
to have
>> moved to NYU. They're not kidding.
>> Transhumanism is easy to ridicule, but it is an extension of 20th 
>> eugenics, which also looked like a crackpot venture, until it was not.
>> Transhumanism has gained some traction at the Google-sponsored 
>> University in California. I've written a bit about the history of these
>> movements in the attached article.
>> Stuart
>> On Mon, 27 Feb 2012 13:01:59 -0700, Claudia Pine 
<[log in to unmask]> 
<[log in to unmask]> wrote:
>>  To be honest, after the first few paragraphs I concluded it is a
>> tongue-in-cheek satire on all of this expensive, techno-driven chatter
>> about how we should change the planet - or here, the people - rather 
>> take the simple solution of changing our stupid, shortsighted, 
>> and profit-driven behaviors.
>> After all, their proposals that we genetically and pharmaceutically alter
>> human size, appetite, etc., on a massive scale are no more ridiculous
>> ("worthy of ridicule") than the equally massive geoengineering 
>> that the authors are ridiculing.  Either approach would require so much
>> money, so many kinds of complicated and untested technologies, so 
>> coercive and centralized government, compared to the simple solution 
of us
>> just stopping any substantial combination of the ridiculous 
>> overconsumption of resources, and overproduction of waste that we 
>> engage in, for few reasons other than careless habit and thoughtless 
>> But then, I kept reading their carefully laid-out arguments. They seem 
>> be serious! They advance various examples or experimental data that 
>> suggest backs up the feasibility of their proposals. Of course, the work
>> referenced is heavily cherry-picked. It's highly selective, and ignores
>> many, many other considerations, requirements, and implications, 
that would
>> come into play if you started giving people a drug that causes them 
to eat
>> less beef because it makes them nauseous when they smell it.  
Needless to
>> say, few current hamburger fans would agree to take this drug - and 
>> fewer fast-food chains would agree to add it to their beef!  Talk about 
>> (or beef pie) in the sky.
>> So I'm torn. Do these authors realize they've written a total farce? Is
>> this article meant as a complete, Jonathan Swift-style satire of the 
>> techno-optimistic silliness that has so many scientists and politicians
>> constantly proposing trillion-billion-dollar engineering fixes to far
>> simpler problems of everyday human behavior?
>> At the end, I have taken it as a brilliant satire, whether it was intended
>> as that or not.  It's like Mitt Romney saying "and my wife drives a 
>> of Cadillacs" thinking that this shows he understands the ordinary
>> wage-earner. Whether the speaker is aware of it or not, his words
>> demonstrate how out of touch with reality he is.
>> I'm absolutely delighted Stuart Newman posted the link - thank you, 
>> Claudia Pine
>> Idaho, USA