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Bryan Cranston
Actor
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International Poker Champion
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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How Far Should We Go to Manipulate the Genetic Code of Human Life?

Humans already know how to manipulate animal genomes through selective breeding, but there has been no appetite to try on humans what is the norm for dogs. That's a good thing, says Dawkins.

RICHARD DAWKINS: I think it’s - I’m a believer in the precautionary principle as I’ve just said, and I think we have to worry about possible consequences of things that we do, and the ability to edit our own genomes is one thing we ought to worry about. I’m not sure it’s so much an ethical problem as a more practical problem. What would the consequences be? Would the consequences be bad? And they might be. 

I think it’s worth noticing that long before CRISPR long before it became capable of editing our genomes in anyway we have been editing the genomes of domestic animals and plants by artificial selection, not artificial mutation, which is what we’re now talking about, but artificial selection. When you think that a Pekingese is a wolf, a modified wolf, a genetically modified wolf—modified not by directly manipulating genes but by choosing for breeding individuals who have certain characteristics, for example, a small stubbed nose, et cetera, and making a wolf turn into a Pekingese. And we’ve been doing that very successfully with domestic animals like dogs, cows, domestic plants like maize for a long time, we’ve never done that to humans or hardly at all.

Hitler tried it but it’s never really been properly done with humans I’m glad to say. So if we’ve never done that with humans with the easy way, which is artificial selection, it’s not obvious why we would suddenly start doing it the difficult way, which is by direct genetic manipulation. There doesn’t seem to be any great eagerness to do it over the last few centuries anyway. 

A lot of people have problems with what they call designer babies. You could imagine a future scenario in which people go to a doctor and say, "Doctor, we want our baby to be a musical genius. Please edit the genes so that we have the same genes as the Bach family had or something like that to make them into a musical genius." I mean that horrifies many people.

It’s got totally obvious why that’s anymore horrifying than parents who are ambitious for the musical future of their child forcing the child to practice the piano three hours a day. There are differences, of course, forcing it to practice is maybe unpleasant for the child but it doesn’t go into the next generation, changing the genes does so there is a difference there. But at least people who shudder with horror at a designer baby who’s a musical genius, people who shudderat horror at that, why don’t you shudder with horror at forcing a child to have music lessons when it doesn’t want to or practice music when it doesn’t want to? 

I think although there is an analogy between technological evolution and biological evolution, it’s dangerous to push that analogy too far. I’ve just been decrying the view that everybody is an expert. And I’m not an expert in technology and I think that every scientist needs to admit when they don’t know. The analogy is there, things change gradually, the evolution of the airplane starting from the Wright brothers in the beginning of the 20th century until the present, it’s been spectacularly fast but it is gradual evolution and it looks, to some extent, like biological evolution. But whether it occurs by natural selection that’s open to argument. You could say that it does occur by a form of natural selection, but it’s not the same kind of natural selection. So I don’t regard myself as a biological evolutionist as qualified to talk about technological evolution. I’m interested in the analogy but I think it only is an analogy and it doesn’t go too far. 

The announcement of CRISPR technology, which allows precise editing of the human genome, has been heralded as the future of individualized medicine, and decried as a slippery slope to engineering individual human qualities. Of course, humans already know how to manipulate animal genomes through selective breeding, but there has been no appetite to try on humans what is the norm for dogs. That's a good thing, says Dawkins. The results could well be dangerous. Does technology as a whole represent a threat to human welfare if it continues to evolve at its current rate? Not so fast, warns Dawkins. Comparing biological evolution to technological progress is an analogy at best. His newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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R.P. Eddy wrote about a coming pandemic in 2017. Why didn't we listen?

In his book with Richard Clarke, "Warnings," Eddy made clear this was inevitable.

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Coronavirus
  • In their 2017 book, "Warnings," R.P. Eddy and Richard Clarke warned about a coming pandemic.
  • "You never get credit for correctly predicting an outbreak," says science journalist Laurie Garrett in the book.
  • In this interview with Big Think, R.P. Eddy explains why people don't listen to warnings—and how to try to get them to listen.
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Creativity: The science behind the madness

Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.

Videos
  • An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
  • According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
  • Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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New study explores how to navigate 'desire discrepancies' in long term relationships

With the most common form of female sexual dysfunction impacting 1 in 10 women, this important study dives into how to keep a relationship going despite having different needs and wants in the bedroom.

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Sex & Relationships
  • A new study highlights the difficulties faced by women who struggle with decreased sexual desire, and explains how to navigate desire discrepancies in long-term relationships.
  • Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is one of the most common forms of female sexual dysfunction, impacting an estimated 1 in 10 women.
  • Finding other ways to promote intimacy in your relationship is one of the keys to ensuring happiness on both sides.

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