from the world's big
Forget the Anthropocene: We’ve entered the synthetic age
Synthetic biology is changing the way the planet works.
One fact about our time is becoming increasingly well-known. No matter how far you travel, no matter in which direction you point, there is nowhere on Earth that remains free from the traces of human activity.
The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere. Transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless ocean currents, and the capacious cargo-holds of millions of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, nowhere on Earth is free from humanity's imprint. Pristine nature has permanently blinked out of existence.
These planetary changes have been characterised by geographers, geologists and climate scientists as the end of one geological epoch – the Holocene – and the start of the next, the Anthropocene. In this newly designated 'human age', our species' impact on the oceans, the land and the atmosphere has become an inescapable feature of the Earth. This idea that humanity has forced a geological transition is capturing people's attention not just because changes in epochs are rare. It is attracting notice because our species is gripped by the idea that we possess planetary powers.
A second fact about our age is much less widely appreciated. We are changing how the planet works. It is not just that human activities have stained every corner of the entire planet. The simultaneous arrival of a range of powerful new technologies are starting to signal a potential takeover of Earth's most basic operations by its most audacious species. From this time forward, technologies such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR and climate engineering will transform an already tainted planet into an increasingly synthetic whole.
This February, when the entomologist Ruth Mueller pried open a container of genetically modified mosquitoes in a high-security lab in the Italian town of Terni, she wasn't just experimenting with a powerful new tool in biotechnology. She was implementing a change to the Mendelian laws of inheritance that govern all life on Earth.
The mosquitoes she released, each of them carrying a CRISPR-enabled 'gene drive' designed to spread through a group of mosquitoes, would test whether humans could successfully force a trait through the whole of a free-living population. The lab in which Mueller works has been carefully designed so that, for now, the change takes place on a limited scale and securely indoors. But gene drives can theoretically spread themselves unaided to any corner of the globe in which populations of interbreeding mosquitoes live. They change the genetic rules wherever they travel.
If the question is 'How much does your research amend the planetary rules?' the Mueller lab has plenty of company.
Early this summer, a research team from Harvard University will conduct the first field test of geoengineering the climate. They plan to use a high-altitude balloon to place reflective particles into the stratosphere above the arid landscapes of the US Southwest. There they will examine how effectively the particles beat back incoming solar energy. Scaled up appropriately, the technology could in future be used to rewrite the planetary rules in a way that echoes the changes wrought by gene drives.
Anthropogenic climate change has already altered how heat moves through the system. As devastating as this is, up till now, climate change has never been a matter of intentional planning and design. Our species has never before attempted to calibrate what the Sun will deliver. This thermal quotient has been baked into the physics of the solar system. Should a large-scale deployment of reflective particles into the stratosphere eventually happen, it will rewrite this equation in our own hand.
Technologies such as gene drives and climate engineering go a quantum leap beyond what stratigraphers were noting when they recommended renaming this epoch the Anthropocene. Accidental changes are entirely different from deliberate ones. David Keith, one of the researchers in the Harvard climate-engineering project, points out the huge difference between deliberately engineering something and simply making a mess. In the former, the sense of responsibility is much higher. Think of why murder is so much worse than manslaughter.
Unlike habitat destruction, carbon emissions and other signatures of the Anthropocene epoch, the technologies being tested today are designed for consciously taking control of some of the key physical processes that shape our world. The bedrock laws of nature don't disappear, of course, but they become subject to a deeper kind of manipulation. You could think of these as not simply 'cosmetic' changes but 'metabolic' ones. Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and the conventions of atmospheric physics become subject to a delicate kind of renegotiation.
The crossing of this line represents radically new territory for both our species and for the planet. Nature itself will be shaped by processes redesigned and 'improved' by geneticists and engineers. We should call this transition the beginning of a 'synthetic age', a time in which background constants are increasingly replaced by artificial and 'improved' versions of themselves. This remaking of the metabolism of the Earth strikes at the very core of how we understand our surroundings and our role in them.
Researchers, politicians and people of all nations will split on the wisdom of crossing these thresholds. They are no doubt exciting prospects to some. But they are absolutely terrifying ones to others. Technologies this consequential must be subject to the fullest and most inclusive public scrutiny possible.
An Anthropocene epoch requires one kind of psychological adjustment. A synthetic age demands something considerably more.
The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World by Christopher J Preston is published via The MIT Press.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
- E.O. Wilson: Synthetic Biology Will Radically Change the World - Big ... ›
- Welcome to the Hybrid Age - Big Think ›
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Do you get worried or angry? Ever forget to tithe? One minister has bad news for you.
- A recently published article claims to identify the symptoms of "low-level atheism."
- Among these symptoms are worrying, cursing, and not tithing.
- There is a solution to all of this though, not being an atheist. Sending in money is also involved.
Are you worried about literally anything? You're an atheist now!<p>The essay begins by focusing on worrying, an all too common problem and gateway emotion to atheism:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time we take a thought break and begin to wonder about how we will pay the stove oil bill, or the light bill, or what we are going to do if we get laid off from work in six months, we are worrying. We are actually telling the Lord, 'Jesus, you know all that stuff you said in Matthew chapter six about how you will take care of us? I don't believe it. I don't believe that you can do what you promised, so I am taking matters into my own hands; I'm going to worry about it until the situation is taken care of.'"</em></p><p>As it turns out, God plans his days around your dilemmas and will get to them in due course. So, if you are bothered about not being sure where your rent is coming form this month, you're doubting the Lord. Concerned about things like climate change? You're practically an iconoclast. Anxious at the thought that you aren't a good enough Christian? According to this, that exact worry is a sign that you aren't!</p><p>Are you feeling even more worried now? Oh, that isn't a good sign at all. You ought to be worried about that. </p>
Swearing and occasionally being angry, now signs of metaphysical distress!<p>According to Lindley:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"I have only sworn two times since receiving the Holy Ghost. The Lord has the power to change our attitudes and habits. I wish I could say that I never get angry anymore either, but that is not the case. Just like you, I struggle with atheistic tendencies.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time something doesn't go the way we want it to and we get angry, we are telling the world, 'I am losing my temper, because this problem is so messed up that not even God can sort it out.' When we slam doors, swear, yell, break dishes, speed, or shake our fist at somebody we are in the grip of an atheism attack. </em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"You see the Bible very clearly states that there is nothing too hard for God to fix.</em> <em>'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.' </em>(Romans 8:28 NKJV) <em>This is why a person who has been born again can hit their thumb with a hammer and not swear. This is why the sincere Christian can look at a flat tire and say, 'I guess God needs to slow me down, because he has someone he needs me to cross paths with today.' Swearing and getting angry only says, 'There is absolutely no way that God can turn this flat tire into a blessing!'"</em><em></em></p><p>Well, shit. It seems that being angry with things, including things that might seem to be perfectly reasonable things to be mad at, is admitting that you think God is useless.</p><p>How exactly this reconciles with Jesus getting pissed off at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple" target="_blank">the moneylenders in the temple</a> and <a href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+3&version=NIV" target="_blank">healers that refused to save lives on Sunday</a> is unclear. Neither of these incidents seem to be the things that happen to somebody without bursts of anger, though I do suppose it is possible Christ had fits of atheism multiple times in his life. </p><p>Sometimes I don't believe in myself either. </p>
Stinginess, now coming to a den of heathens near you!<p>Lindley points out the final, most advanced symptom of atheism last: Not sending God money. He writes:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"<em>Some people are so greedy that they actually rob God.</em> <em>'…In what way have we robbed God? In tithes and offerings</em>.' (Malachi 3:8 NKJV)) <em>To those who would hold back the tithe the Lord has a challenge</em>: <em>'Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this' says the Lord of hosts, 'If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.' </em>(3:10 NKJV)"</p><p>While the God of Abraham is well known not to need money on account of his transcendental nature, it seems that he is still owed ten percent of everybody's earnings. This is not paid to him, of course, but to his helpers. In exchange for this, God will make good things happen. If you don't send money in addition to swearing or occasionally being grouchy, the minister assures us that <em>"you are at extreme risk for very serious complications from your atheism."</em></p><p>While this may look remarkably similar to a concept used by the mafia, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_racket" target="_blank">the protection racket</a>, it is an utterly different operation. In the case of the mob, the threat of punishment is used as a way to force people into paying part of their earnings to a larger organization. In return, they are promised the protection of that organization from vague threats, often including that organization. <br> <br> In this holy case, vague are threats used to show people the wisdom of paying part of their earnings to the church. In exchange for their payments, they are offered kickbacks from God and protection from vague threats made by the people telling them they need to send in money. </p><p>Luckily, Lindley suggests a solution for all three problems, especially the last one: Don't be an atheist! In particular, start praying and sending God money. This will resolve the third symptom automatically and the first two eventually.</p><p><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhnsHvz7UL8" target="_blank">It's an offer you can't refuse.</a> </p>
And now, the serious part.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="SuG8OGad" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e1bfda7981ed1abe9eb979157ea0496"> <div id="botr_SuG8OGad_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/SuG8OGad-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>While it is fun to mock the often-ludicrous positions of those who misunderstand atheism, that very misunderstanding is an all too common and all too real issue for the millions of Americans who are not religious. Atheists in the United States face <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#United_States" target="_blank">discrimination</a>,<strong></strong> are not <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-25187-001" target="_blank">trusted</a>, and are barred from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#Atheists_eligible_to_hold_office" target="_blank">running for office </a>in several states.</p><p> In my experience, many of these tend to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism <em>is</em>. I, at various times, have been accused of being a Satanist, a pagan, or an amoralist, among other things. It is little wonder why a person who doesn't understand what atheism <em>is</em> would find a variety of issues arising from it. </p><p>The minister in this case makes a similar mistake: He begins by thinking that atheism is something other than the proposition that there are no gods and then works forward. In this case, he seems to presume it is some kind of psychological condition which manifests as a hybrid of anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, and kleptomania. His use of the word "symptoms" is revealing. </p><p>While it is true that atheism can be anxiety-inducing, this falls more under the category of "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism#Angst_and_dread" target="_blank">existential dread</a>" than psychosis. John-Paul Sartre, the atheistic philosopher who made Existentialism popular, wrote on this extensively. In his essay <em>"</em><a href="http://www.mrsmoser.com/uploads/8/5/0/1/8501319/english_11_ib_-_no_exit_-_existentialism_is_a_humanism_-_sartre.pdf" target="_blank">Existentialism is a Humanism</a><em>," </em>he explains:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist see him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of himself … what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility."</em><em></em></p><p>If choosing what you are and what meaning your life will have doesn't give you anxiety, Sartre would suggest you're doing something wrong. </p><p>However, this anxiety isn't necessarily cured by belief. <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/" target="_blank">Soren Kierkegaard</a>, the founder of Existentialism, wrote extensively on the topics of angst, dread, anxiety, and regretting all of your life choices while being a thoroughly devoted Christian. While he argues that the leap of faith can help, he also argues that we are still fundamentally alone and responsible for our choices when it comes to making that anxiety-inducing <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety" target="_blank">leap</a>.</p><p>The minister's point about swearing as a result of lacking faith is bizarre enough to be left alone. Ten minutes in any bar in the middle section of the country on a Friday night should be enough to convince anybody that any sincere believer can swear while remaining a believer. </p><p>Furthermore, the minister presumes that a believer is going to be of the kind that thinks God is very engaged in human life. While he may suppose God was involved in his tire going flat, many other approaches to the divine reject that idea. Deists, who tend to think that there is a God who created the cosmos but leaves it <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism#Aspects_of_contemporary_deism" target="_blank">alone</a>, would be an example. </p><p>All in all, the essay described above is an unintentionally hilarious look at what some people think being an atheist is like. It is hardly the <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-atheist-be-in-awe-of-universe/" target="_blank">first</a>, and it won't be the last. Anxiety about atheism has a history going back to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apology_(Plato)#Accusers_of_Socrates" target="_blank">ancient Greece</a>—studies demonstrate the continued <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/atheists-threaten-believers-with-mortality" target="_blank">existence</a> of Christian anxiety about atheists—and this essay is another example of people being unduly concerned about it. </p><p>I'd accuse the minister of worrying too much about atheism, but then he'd be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Bnk6VU53Y" target="_blank">one of us</a>. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?