Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Unintelligent Design

November 14, 2010

Since the American courts have consistently ruled against indoctrinating students in public schools with religious ideas, those seeking to introduce God into school have in the last few years tried a different tactic from Creationism, claiming that the universe (culminating in personhood) is so improbable to be so perfect that it must be the product of some “Intelligence” (not otherwise named, although it’s pretty clear whom they are talking about).

The courts have regularly ruled that Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism with different words, so those seeking to interject religion into public school curricula will have to try again.

Indeed, it is improbable that the universe would have given rise to life as we know it and especially humanity. If conditions weren’t just right for the arrival of homo sapiens, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. Let me examine a few of the more obvious examples, then, to demonstrate that the courts have been right in this ruling.
(1) Not all humans are perfect. While some people, say, with less-severe cases of Down’s Syndrome, can have happy, meaningful lives, others will lead lives confined to the cradle. Some handicapable people can compete in the Special Olympics, but most others will have nothing much to look forward to.
(2) The blind spot shouldn’t exist. In optics, the light has to be focused on the optic nerve for us to see, but we can’t see in that spot, hence the term blind spot. Surely an infinite God could design the human eye without this flaw.
Mostly, though, in this essay I’d like to talk about the difference between short-term pain and long-term pain. Short-term pain (STP) serves a very useful purpose in alerting us that something is wrong. If you burn your hand, STP alerts you not to touch the burned area, or to have any other contact with it. The burn eventually heals, the pain stops, and you return to life as usual, using the hand as you did before (although you might end up being more careful around hot surfaces and substances). No problemo!
However, what if you burned your hand so extensively as to have permanent nerve damage? Then, even when the skin grafts have taken and your healing is complete, your hand continues to throb as much as it ever did. This long-term pain (LTP) serves no biological purpose, it seems to be a mistake in our biological processes. In my own case, it will soon be my six year anniversary of being continuously in pain from migraines; even when I’m not actively hurting, I have migraine side effects like continuous photophobia. Perhaps in the future they’ll be able to either to amputate LTP or at least block it with better medicines or procedures than we have now.

My point is that we shouldn’t have LTP at all, for burns, migraines, or anything else. Some people shouldn’t be born with mental or physical challenges. Troublesome anatomical features like the blind spot shouldn’t burden us. If this is the pinnacle of perfection that creationists site, I want no part of their agenda!

Is Dr. Who Human?

May 1, 2009

I’m afraid I’m not going to have any easy answers on this one.  We have an intuitive sense of what separates the human from the non-human, but pinning it down exactly turns out to be a much more difficult task than it at first appears.  Let’s try some obvious and classical answers.

Humans are rational.

No.  Lots of animals have more rational capacity than newborns, the demented, and some of the mentally challenged.  Besides, if you’re talking computational ability, do you really want to propose a PC as human?

Humans use language.

No.  Creatures as simple as bees use gestures and pheromones that are arguably a kind of language.  Chimps have been taught to use at least rudimentary sign language, and have even been observed teaching it to their offspring.  Admittedly, it’s hotly contested what constitutes linguistic usage and the depths to which chimps genuinely grasp syntax, grammar, and all the rest, but clearly animals communicate with each other and with us.

Humans use tools.

No.  At the very least, chimps in the wild have been observed using sticks to collect ants–then scoot the ants up with their hands and gulp them down in one motion.  Yum!  I seem to recall primates, possibly even birds, using stones to crack nuts and mollusk shells.

Humans are the genetic descendents of the first Homo sapiens.

What?   You say you mean WHOLE organisms?  How whole?  Do amputees not count?  They do?  Then just HOW whole?  What if science were advanced enough to preserve the life of a person whose body had died, but whose brain lived on in a vat?  Would she still be a person?

But aren’t you being a little ethnocentric confining the human family to Homo sapiens?  How about those other branches on the human family tree closest to us, especially the Neanderthals?  I suspect most people would identify them as human, too.  Good thing, as many people believe many modern humans are partially descended from them, although this isn’t yet documented.

And when you start talking about genetics, you’re really opening a can of worms, of course.  We talk about THE human genome as if it were one thing, where there are countless known variations; let me discuss two of the better-known ones:

Down’s Syndrome is when a person has all or part of an extra copy of chromosome 21.  It usually causes mental retardation (although my Philosophy of Biology professor claimed that when she taught at Stanford she had a student with Down’s with an IQ of 140!) and a host of other mental and physical problems, but also a propensity towards less depression than typical.

XYY Syndrome is when a male has an extra Y chromosome.  According to Wikipedia, “most often, the extra Y chromosome causes no unusual physical features or medical problems.”

Since people with Down’s Syndrome or XYY Syndrome are genetically different from your typical person, are they really human?  I think most people would say yes.

And back to Dr. Who (and all the other fictional alien characters literature has given us, who hold a mirror up to our humanity, yet whose ancestors usually did not even spawn in our same oceans), who perhaps we will one day be privileged to meet in person.  Although genetically and internally he is certainly very different from us, yon Time Lord outwardly looks like us, reasons like us, has bad hair days like us, is subject to moral failings like us, uses tools far in advance of us, in short, seems to be meaningfully like us in every way that should count.

So, without a working definition, I want to say yes, I think if the Time Lord will accept us as company, we should accept him as human.