Human 2.0: The coming age of upgrading minds

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Earlier this year I wrote about mental performance enhancing drugs, an area of interest and research that is exploding like plastics a few decades prior. The allure of it is simply too great; who wouldn’t want to be smarter, more able to focus, more efficient at getting things done? A significant fraction of each day is completely wasted for me; imagine if I was able to use all of that time solely for productive endeavors like writing and programming?

Back in high school and early college I was on ADD drugs (with a doctor’s supervision, of course). I can definitely say that they worked, but they also had rather unpleasant side effects. It felt like I was barreling through each day at an uncomfortably rapid pace. In the end, I decided I’d rather just be myself. I made it through college with a respectable GPA, having survived some severe procrastination crises that I’m sure the drugs would’ve helped. Even now at my job I get the haunting suspicion that I could be a lot more focused, and thus get things done more quickly, with ADD medication. Luckily caffeine is a decent substitute. And I do think most humans have some “form” of ADD; our brains simply weren’t wired by evolution for the kinds of things we use them for in every day working life, and there is so much room for improvement.

So imagine my fascination when I read about one man’s experimental usage of Provigil, an anti-narcolepsy medication that also has the amazing effect of making people smarter (and without any speedy side-effects). Go read about his experiences and ask yourself if it doesn’t sound appealing. If someone handed you a bottle of Provigil, could you resist the urge to try it out? I know I would try it, but I’m kind of afraid of finding out how productive I can really be.

The first stage of humanity, what really separated us from the rest of the animals, was when we developed the ability to hack our environment. Then, through science, medicine, and good-old fashioned body body modification, we started hacking our bodies. The next stage in human-lead human evolution will be hacking our minds. We’re just on the cusp of a revolutionary break-through in this area. Imagine how society will change when the average person will be able to afford mind upgrades to Einstein-levels of genius! The pills we have now are but a first step.

And don’t say we shouldn’t do it. Our present human society is built on a sturdy foundation of violating as many natural constraints as possible (think surgery, medicine, air conditioning, and laws). Surpassing the constraints on the mind is just the next step.

Finally, a good History Channel show

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

The History Channel has been disappointing me lately. I used to watch it regularly, trusting it because, after all, they’re talking about history; how could they get it wrong?! And their programs on actual history are still good. But they’ve aired a whole flood of pseudoscientific bullcrap recently. For instance, one of their new shows is devoted to ‘examining the wonders of ancient ages’.

In one episode I watched, they credulously reported on people firmly in woo-woo territory speaking about a full-sized glider that the Egyptians could’ve used to fly high above the pyramids. All of this speculation was based on a little children’s toy. Oh, and then there was the broach they said looked like a space shuttle and it had to have an aeronautical inspiration because the wings attached at the bottom, not at the top like with birds or insects. Hello?! Whatever happened to Occam’s razor? Isn’t artistic license a lot more likely than those ancient indigenous South Americans being visited by aliens (or time-traveling US astronauts?).

And I’m not even going to talk about “Ghost Hunters” or that show about alien encounters. That crap makes my blood absolutely boil. So the History Channel has been pissing me off a lot recently, and I’ve been wondering how it’s fallen so far from not that long ago when it used to actually, you know, talk about true things.

Well, here’s a redeeming moment for them. They’re making a new show about Evolution, and by all accounts it looks good. Evolution is one of my favorite scientific subjects. I wrote countless thousands of posts on talk.origins debating it, and just recently I’ve been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essay books (again). There’s a gaping dearth of coverage of evolution in American popular media, probably because of the many vocal idiots that inhabit the inland and southern areas of the United States, and I admire History Channel to have the courage to go ahead with this show. It’s going to be awesome, and it really could educate a lot of people.

Now if they’d just have the courage to not air all of that other crap.

Help expose Expelled

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

You too can do your part in fighting for science by linking to the Expelled Exposed website on whatever blog or personal site you happen to run. Expelled is a dishonest intelligent design creationism propaganda film, and Expelled Exposed is a site that gives the viewpoints of actual scientists (you know, the people you should look to for answers when it comes to biology). The idea, obviously, is to increase exposure to a great source debunking that film, and also to get the counter website more highly ranked in Google.

And if you don’t quite know what I’m talking about, reading up on some more background information might be in order.

Hey look, more creationist dishonesty!

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Last month, PZ Myers, famous atheist blogger and evolutionary developmental biologist, was at the center of a bit of a furor when producers at a screening of the creationism propaganda film “Expelledhad armed thugs kick him out of the theater, while completely ignoring his guest Richard Dawkins, an even more famous atheist. My blog post attracted a bit of discussion in the comments. But now it looks like that favorite mouthpiece of the Intelligent Design Creationism movement, the blog Uncommon Descent, has commented on what I said. And, as creationists are wont to do, they did it in a thoroughly dishonest and misleading fashion. Here’s a piece-by-piece vivisection of their attempt at framing this incident as anything other than a complete embarrassment for the creationist movement.

To recap, thuggery or scams that have persisted for a long time and are endorsed at the highest levels of the establishment come to seem “normal.” So the “problem” is not the behavior of thugs and scammers but the attempted responses of those they attack.

Playing the victim card is a very common creationist tactic. “Oh no!”, they shriek, “The entire scientific establishment is out to get us!” And I guess they’re sort of right about that. But it’s not because of the reasons they claim — it’s not that they’re being persecuted, or “thugged” or “scammed”; it’s simply because they are using dishonest tactics to try to pervert real science and ruin students’ educations with non-reality-based nonsense. They claim some overarching conspiracy, as if all scientists “know” evolution is fake but just keep hush hush about it for their own reasons. I guess they’re just projecting?

That’s what the Expelled film is doing in the ID vs. unguided evolution (Darwinism) controversy. It shows both the evidence for intelligent design of life and the unconscionable lengths to which the Darwin fans are willing to go, to keep both students and the broad public from knowing why their ideas about the nature of life are probably wrong.

Actually, it’s the other way around. Expelled shows the lengths to which creationists are willing to go to distort the truth and resort to propagandist tactics to spread their false ideas. They even go so far as to compare scientists who believe in evolution with Stalin and Hitler, complete with a visit to an actual Nazi concentration camp. But yeah, it’s really the scientists who are going to unconscionable lengths for having the audacity to speak the simple truth about the world.

Read the rest of this entry »

Now everyone’s been expelled from Expelled

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

The blogohedron was full of great vengeance and furious anger last week when PZ Myers, renowned atheist blogger, was expelled from a screening of the creationist propaganda movie Expelled. It was glaringly obvious that the movie’s promoters had pulled off a stunning act of shooting themselves in the foot for the ages, and then continued to make it worse by repeatedly changing their story about what had happened. Now they’re in full damage control mode, and it appears that they’ve shut down all upcoming screenings of the film.

I was going to go see a local screening of Expelled here in Maryland on April 1 (quite the fitting date, actually) with my friend Andrew, but it was canceled. Andrew registered his name to attend and everything, but now the screening has simply vanished. I think Andrew and I just have a certain effect on creationists. In 2005 we went to go see Kent Hovind rail against science at a local church, and not a year later, he was serving ten years in prison on federal tax evasion charges. Whoopsies. Guess the promoters of Expelled didn’t want to take a chance of something similar happening to them if we managed to attend a screening?

PZ Myers is expelled from Expelled

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Notable atheist blogger and professor PZ Myers was prohibited from attending a screening of the movie Expelled tonight. Expelled is a piece of abominable dishonest creationist propaganda dreck produced by Ben “Bueller” Stein that plays the “Ohh, big bad science is persecuting us poor little honest religious folk!” card. Naturally, they’ve been hypocritical about it at every turn, excluding people from commenting or seeing their work much like they accuse the scientific establishment of (really, it’s just a case of projection). They secured an interview with PZ Myers by completely lying about who they were and what the movie was about, then carefully edited what he said to put science in the most negative light possible. Yes, that’s right, they prohibited PZ Myers from attending a movie that he appears in! So much for creationist honesty.

Oh, but that’s not the best part of the tale, not by a long shot. You really have to read PZ’s account for the punchline. It had me laughing out loud. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot!

Education under fire

Monday, January 21st, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have a good idea of the kind of stuff I was writing about in college. Here is the second of my opinion columns, Education under fire, originally published March 28, 2006.


Science education is under attack again. And this time, it’s not in Kansas, Utah or other distant, faraway lands; it’s right at home. Last month, two bills were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly attacking the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories in public schools and universities, including this university, and permitting the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism.

House Bill 1228, introduced by Emmett C. Burns, Jr. (D-District 10), ostensibly outlaws the teaching of IDC in science classes, but at the same time, requires the State Board of Education to “permit the teaching or discussion of the theory of intelligent design in humanities or philosophy classes.” In addition, it requires funding be provided to develop an IDC curriculum and instructional materials.

House Bill 1531, introduced by the same delegate, states that public school teachers and college professors “shall have the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific information to the full range of scientific views in any curricula or course of learning.” This bill adapts language from a proposed addition to the No Child Left Behind Act by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) that was struck down before the act was passed.

If these bills seem very confusing and possibly contradictory, it’s because they are. After the defeat in Dover, Penn., elected officials wishing to see their religious views taught in public schools are forced to be very sneaky in trying to get their attacks on science to pass constitutional rules. But don’t let the wording fool you; as Judge Jones ruled in Dover, it’s the intent behind these bills that really matters, and the real intent is anything but secular.

The First Amendment to the Constitution was enacted to ensure the separation of church and state and protect religious freedom. Because HB1228 requires the state to spend money on religious instructional materials, it is crossing the barrier between church and state.

The wording of the phrase “full range of scientific views” is specially concerning because IDC does not actually fall within the realm of science. Despite the public controversy manufactured by right-wing think tanks such as the Discovery Institute, there is no real scientific controversy over the basic validity of the theory of evolution. The word theory means something entirely different in the scientific realm than it does in colloquial usage. Gravity is also “just a theory,” but you wouldn’t walk out of a skyscraper window, now would you?

These latest bills introduced into the Maryland legislature are nothing more than the latest in a series of attempts to attack science education and illegally insert religious teachings into the curriculum. It was shot down in the late 1980s with “creation science,” and we’re now seeing it again with “intelligent design,” which merely replaces the word “God” with “intelligent designer.” It’s still no more scientific. At best, it’s a weak philosophical conjecture, though some philosophy professors might resent the association.

There are movements against this latest round of anti-science legislation. A petition is being circulated by the Alliance for Science (allianceforscience.org). The National Center for Science Education (ncseweb.org) provides in-depth information about the defense of teaching evolution in public schools.

Fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible have every right to their beliefs – but they do not have the right to force their views into public schools, where they will be foisted upon kids who don’t hold the same religious views. Religious instruction should remain in churches and secular private schools and should not interfere with the teaching of real science in public schools and universities. When we allow religion to pre-empt science we all lose.

All eyes on evolution

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I can’t trust them to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, so that you readers here can have a good idea of the kind of stuff I was writing about in college, and also so I will no longer be dependent on The Diamondback’s web archive for access to my work in perpetuity. Here is the first of my opinion columns, All eyes on evolution, originally published March 7, 2006.


A month ago, I attended the panel discussion “Beyond the Monkey Trial: Scientific Progress and Societal Debate” in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the topic of evolution. It was held before a partial re-enactment of the Scopes monkey trial put on by the theatre department. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t feel bad, because I was one of the youngest people there. The majority of the audience looked like they might have attended the original Scopes trial. But I digress.

To my great astonishment, especially given the name of the discussion, the panel, composed of four university biology professors, was completely ignorant of the evolution-creationism controversy. They had no concept of how widespread the debate is and weren’t prepared at all to respond to any challenges. After they gave their brief presentations, a creationist in the audience asked a few questions and actually held his own. This is not to say creationism is somehow on par with evolution; in fact, it’s far from it. It’s just that these biologists are so engrossed in their one small area of research that they can’t stand up for science in general.

The creationist made one of those standard, thoroughly refuted arguments creationists nevertheless still want to use: How did the eye evolve? What use is half an eye?

The answer, of course, is that nature has a wide range of eye functionalities, from light-sensitive cell patches on nematodes to the exquisite eyes of a squid. The evolution of the eye has been thoroughly documented both through fossil evidence and by observing living creatures. The human eye is far from perfect, by the way. Light-sensitive cells are located behind blood vessels and other obscuring cells. The optic nerve plunges through the retina, creating a blind spot in the process. Both of these are problems squid don’t have. Yet the best response the biologist was able to come up with was something about eyeglasses.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the scientific community and the community at large. In science, there is no controversy over evolution; it’s simply a fact, backed up by millions upon millions of evidences from experiments and fossils. But scientists would be wise to pay attention to the rising trend of anti-science among the public and stop living in a naive world so they can focus all of their efforts on research. Pennsylvania and Kansas, among others, have recently made the news for their legislative attacks on science. If nothing else, scientists should pay more attention to the public discourse because they risk losing their funding if they don’t. Just ask stem cell researchers and climatologists.

Everyone who considers himself a rationalist should take just a few hours out of his life to learn the responses to the most common attacks on science. Scientists would also do well to hone their rhetoric; although they may be geniuses in their field of study, they will regularly be beaten in verbal debates by the likes of Kent Hovind, a man with a phony doctorate who goes from church to church lecturing how the Earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution is responsible for every societal ill. And the American public needs to realize scientific truth is established not in verbal debates but through experimentation and the scientific method. Hovind, for instance, couldn’t experiment his way out of a wet paper bag. It’s a shame science must be politicized, but if that’s the only defense left against the increasing wave of fundamentalist attacks on science, then so be it.

One of the best places for people interested in the defense of science is www.talkorigins.org. It’s a great resource of scientific responses to common anti-science arguments and it includes many references to scientific literature. I urge anyone who’s interested in this issue to at least take a look. And for the rest of you, please keep what I’ve said in mind. Creationism pushers may outnumber real scientists in the popular media, such as Fox News, but that’s only because the scientists are too busy toiling away in their laboratories toward the next big breakthrough that will improve humanity forever.

My blog has spawned

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

A guy I met in the ##astronomy channel on FreeNode was so impressed with the layout of this blog that he wanted to use it on his own newly-started blog. So I packaged up the theme and sent it off to him. His blog is called Kenspire (and you can tell at a glance that it shares the theme in common with Cyde Weys Musings). I guess I’m flattered that someone liked this layout enough to want to use it for their own blog.

Of course, I cannot take most of the credit. I in turn got this WordPress theme from Andrew Arensburger of Ooblick (with modifications since), so he now has a blog grandchild. The lineage gets even more complicated, as Andrew in turn got the theme from someone else, tracing back through a line of succession eventually leading back to one of the original WordPress themes.

It’s quite interesting how these kinds of things spread across the Internet, slowly changing over time. You can see all sorts of vestigial code in this theme, too (just look at the stylesheet). I never bothered to clean it up, so it has all sorts of stuff that are no longer in use. And Ken isn’t using some of the plugins I adapted the theme to use, so his version has even more vestigial code in it. This is exactly like biological evolution. I wonder when our themes will speciate?

Is norovirus evolving increased virulence?

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

An outbreak of norovirus has caused the temporary shutdown of a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Virginia. It will reopen within a week after a “thorough disinfection”. What is going on here, though? I don’t recall the norovirus ever being this virulent. Now it’s regularly hitting multiple cruise ships each year, and it also hit Catholic University late last year. Is norovirus evolving into a more virulent disesase? Is anyone tracking it?

A few decades from now, are buildings going to be routinely shut down due to disease outbreaks? Or will the virus not ever evolve to be that virulent? Hopefully somewhere in the interim we can come up with a vaccine, so it’ll be a moot point. I’d really like to pick the brain of someone working at the Center for Disease Control. Is norovirus high up on their list of viruses to watch out for? Or is it simply not deadly enough, and its danger pales in comparison to bird flu and SARS?

I have so many questions, yet so few answers. I should go ask the talk.origins people about this. Clearly I’m outside the area of my expertise.