Category Archives: Science and Society

Scientific and Social Activism

Please join us for an intimate discussion with eminent microbiologist and geneticist Jon Beckwith of Harvard Medical School. Beckwith is the author of Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science. He discusses the history of scientific and social activism and the teaching of social issues in biology.

Along with having a successful scientific career, Jon Beckwith has been one of the scientific community’s most influential champions of social justice and civil liberties. He has openly supported the Black Panther Movement and was among the first in his field to warn the world about the danger of genetic engineering. He has over 50 publications dealing with issues such as discrimination and misuse of behavior genetics. He was a member of the Working Group on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications committee of the Human Genome Project and was an important organizer of the international organization, Science for the People. Since 1983, he has taught a course on Social Issues in Biology at Harvard University, one of the first courses of its kind.

Watch A Deep Conversation with Jon Beckwith: A History of Scientific and Social Activism and the Teaching of Social Issues in Biology.

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Impact of Early Life Deprivation

Unlike most other animals, much of human brain development and maturation occurs after birth, a process that continues into early adulthood. This unusual pattern allows for greater influences of environment and culture on the emergence of the adult mind.

This series of programs from the recent CARTA symposium addresses the interactive contributions of nature and nurture in this process, ranging from experiments by ancient monarchs and lessons from “feral” children of various kinds, to the follow-up on Romanian orphans.

Distinguished speakers address comparative and neurobiological issues which likely played a key role in the origins of the human species and in the evolution of distinct features of our minds.

Browse more programs in Impact of Early Life Deprivation on Cognition: Implications for the Evolutionary Origins of the Human Mind.

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Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction

What makes us human is a question that not only science asks, but all disciplines of mind from philosophy to religion to sociology and ethics, and even to storytelling and the arts.

Tim Disney’s new movie “William” is about a Neanderthal living in the modern world and forces us to ask about humanness and many other questions.

Disney’s movie provides a foil to explore many facets of human nature and sociology, and raises questions about technology and its present and future effects on the human phenomenon.

With research interests and experience exploring the distinctions in the Neanderthal and Human genomes, Alysson Muotri, Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, brought together a panel of experts from across a spectrum of disciplines to explore these issues in a lively and engaging forum with the movie’s creator.

Watch — Neanderthal Among Us? Science Meets Fiction – A Discussion of Tim Disney’s Motion Picture “William”

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Updating our Views on Nature and How to Save it

What is nature? What does it mean to preserve, or save it? Science writer Emma Marris says one common definition of nature in North America is the way any given place was before European explorers arrived and began changing the landscape. Therefore, saving nature would mean returning the land to how it was before their arrival. But, she says that idea is flawed because there are countless examples of land management by indigenous people: relocating useful plants to new environments, creating systems to manage rainwater, and clearing land for crops. And, human impact on the environment goes back much more than a few hundred years. Marris notes that pretty much anywhere you look, there is evidence of major changes with the arrival of humans – in particular, the extinction of large land mammals like the woolly mammoth.

Today however, the planet is largely tailored entirely to human existence. Nearly 40% of the ice-free surface of the earth is agriculture. Domesticated livestock far outweighs wild animal life. Species have been moved around, in some cases wreaking havoc on ecosystem. And of course, there are growing impacts of climate change – even hitting places on the planet where humans have never lived.

Marris argues that in order to effectively conserve nature, we have to change our perception of what nature means. She says her old way of thinking, that nature was a pristine untouched and unchanged place didn’t match reality, because if left alone, all places will change. So, she came up with new definitions, including the idea of resource-intensive land management to keep certain culturally important lands as unchanged as possible, and also the idea of novel ecosystems where uncontrolled landscapes have transformed themselves.

With this updated understanding of what nature is, Marris proposes an updated take on conservation. She suggests dividing land into three different styles of management: restoration, innovation, and observation. In her exciting and hopeful talk at UC San Diego, Marris goes on to give concrete examples of how these strategies have worked, and might continue to work around the world.

Watch — The Future of Nature: Conservation in the Anthropocene with Emma Marris – Institute for Practical Ethics

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Combatting the Scourge

Malaria has been described as “the perennial scourge of mankind,” with over 200 million cases reported annually resulting in up to 750,000 deaths and incalculable misery. The disease is most common in the tropical and subtropical regions that surround the equator, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but it may be found in any region where climatic conditions favor the growth and spread of the mosquito-borne parasite.

On-going global eradication efforts employing pesticides have been successful in southern Europe and the southern United States, but less so elsewhere. In recent years genomics has taken center stage in malaria research with the sequencing of both the malarial parasite and the human genome. One experimental application of this research is the production of genetically-modified mosquitoes that do not transmit malaria. Another new and promising technique is the gene drive, which combats malaria by introducing disruptive genes into wild populations of mosquitoes that interfere with the development of females.

The use of such radical measures unavoidably prompts serious bioethical concerns, including the possibilities of unforeseen mutations and broader ecological impacts. Ethicists also question whether we have the right to potentially eliminate a species. In her self-described role as a “moral philosopher” Laurie Zoloth (University of Chicago) has written and lectured extensively about these issues, arguing that:

In the 1960s, the world agreed that smallpox was a species worth eliminating. We should feel the same way about A. gambiae. And isn’t deploying a gene drive that specifically targets the mosquito species that carries malaria far better than using chemical sprays, such as pyrethroids, organochlorines and DDT (still used in some countries) that indiscriminately target any insect?

Though malaria and other insect-borne diseases have historically been associated with Third World poverty, Zoloth notes these maladies are no longer the exclusive province of underdeveloped tropical countries. As climate change results in greater and more widespread extremes of temperature, rainfall, and humidity, the range of mosquitoes is likely to increase, and with them the diseases they transmit including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and Zika. While acknowledging the dangers of meddling with the genetic status quo, Zoloth maintains that preoccupation with those risks is a luxury afforded only to those who are not at risk of losing a loved one to wrenching fevers and severe dehydration.

Zoloth concludes that in that light, gene drives and other genomic-based eradication methods represent the most moral and ethical choice available to scientists.

Watch May We Make the World?: Religious and Ethical Questions with Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Burke Lectureship

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