Sunday, December 13, 2015

Science news should be political

Here's an update on some critical science trends, none of them referenced by the candidates in the 2016 presidential race:

1. Scientists are learning how to manipulate human thought.  They will soon be able to erase real memories and implant fake ones; difficult emotions, such as grief over death or unrequited love, will be susceptible to elimination with drugs (“Finding a way to erase harmful memories,” Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/01/17/mit-researchers-find-drug-that-helps-erase-traumatic-memories-mice/6mYYOM1SGW8C2XPYpCgDjM/story.html).

2. There will be no need for fathers in human reproduction in the future, and perhaps no need for mothers (New York Times, “Men, who needs them?”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/opinion/men-who-needs-them.html).

3. Humans will combine with machines, mentally (through artificial intelligence, or AI) as well as physically, through prosthetics.  Many scientists predict an end to current, flesh-based humans by 2020 (see the writings of Vernor Vinge, and research “The Singularity”).

None of these developments is prominent in the news, and, predictably, very few people appear concerned about the imminent re-definition of our species.  Newspaper headlines should be proclaiming: "Human race has 20 years tops, per prominent scientists!"  Instead, we get front page headlines like this from this morning's L.A. Times: "Netflix to pay to keep stream smooth"!

Talk about living in the moment.  It will be maybe a generation before the end of present-day humanity, but people need a smoothly streaming movie now!

That's how it is in our historical juncture. We see the scientific revolution coming to save us from ourselves- and we look away.

It should concern us that there is no consensus on the future humans, no discussion and no awareness.  Not that we won't be able to master the technology; we're mastering it now.   Research and development will continue as a free-for-all that won't even blink at the occasional call for bioethicists to write papers that no one will read.

It's enough to make a guy want to run through the streets shouting, "They're here!  You're next!" like Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 movie Invasion of the body snatchers, where the science is plied by extraterrestrials.  I try to restrain my own impulses to run shouting in the streets, since that approach didn't do much good against the body snatchers.

There must be smarter ways to wake up a sleeping species.  

Here's an idea: Make science political.  There is lots of science coverage in the media, but not in the political stories.  What if the end of humanity as we know it were a topic front and center in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign? Can you imagine the candidates debating the best way to design a new human consciousness? A passing extraterrestrial would think the earth was a rare haven of intellectualism. 

Unfortunately this is not likely to happen. We are comforted by the pabulum of the two-party struggle, the mindless repetition of pro and anti all the sundry puzzles of our age: the relations of ethnic groups and religions, abortion, gun control, homosexuality, et al. We vociferously strive to win our debates, though we lack even the definitions of terms.  The lack of definitions in itself kills any hope of dialogue because our "hot button" political issues are only superficially about the subjects they purport to be about.  Opposition to abortion, for example, is ultimately about a future where not only fetal human life is treated as non-sentient and disposable, but adult human life as well.  Future humans, in many credible scenarios, are no more than production units.  In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) cloned people, produced without biological parents, of the Epsilon caste- the lowest of four cloned castes- are designed to work in factories.  They have no beauty receptors.   The disposable embryo in a test tube is extrapolated to the disposable developed human. Children gather around hospital death beds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  The most obscene word in the language is "mother."  For the upper, managerial classes, mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid, or eager acceptance of it).

Another issue, gun control, is not just about whether you can bear arms in an urban environment; it’s about whether we will need an armed insurrection to protect us from a scientific state.  Most pro-gun groups have extensive literature arguing that without our guns we will be sitting ducks for fascism, though our household guns have proven of zero effectiveness against the NSA’s almost total knowledge of our doings (predicted, in 1949, in George Orwell's “1984").  The Fourth Amendment battle for privacy is already lost without a shot fired.

Today's "War on drugs" will be unveiled as a "War for drugs," as in George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece, THX-1138, in which a highly stressed human population, forced underground by an unnamed holocaust on the earth's surface, is coerced into taking mind numbing tranquilizers to facilitate boring factory work and to avoid feelings of romantic love, claustrophobia and the resulting social unrest (THX-1138, the protagonist, falls in love with a co-worker after avoiding his dose and is charged with "drug evasion").

The struggle over homosexuality is not just about whether men or women can have sex with each other or get married; it’s about a world where any kind of couple is superfluous, reproductively speaking.

If science is not political news, there will be little understanding that we are living in a transition to a revised humankind.  The lack of attention will make possible a covertly planned transition. The perfect distraction and cover for such a transition would be a highly destructive war, such as the one unfolding now.  After we're battered with enough rounds of bio and cyber and conventional military terror, science will come in as the savior for an endangered humanity, and in the aftermath no one will remember that no personal choice was involved.

There is a lot of potential for good in the coming science: relief from suffering, enhancement of intelligence and physical well-being. The problem is that we're taking the next step in human evolution with only a patina of self-determination- we’re evolving into something of unknown design, by unknown designers, whether we want to or not. Personally I’d rather that people had some choice in the matter.

Unfortunately, any chance that the 2016 American presidential campaign might have focussed on the future of the species is rapidly disappearing with the terror of the war on terror.  That war will lead us down a rabbit hole of manipulated, passive evolution.