Should Same-Sex Couples Be Allowed To Adopt?

Of course they should. But I was at a wedding last weekend and found myself listening in to a heated argument that centred on whether or not gay men should be allowed to adopt and raise children. The opposition to said rights was shocking in his distorted understanding and use of the principles of evolution and what is natural, in defending his position. He passionately argued that since gay men could not naturally produce a child together they should never be provided with this opportunity. “It’s not natural, it’s not natural”, he kept repeating. He is right about the impossibility of two men conceiving a child, however his beliefs were a perfect example of the naturalistic fallacy, as I pointed out to him. This fallacy is easily simplified as ‘the misunderstanding that everything that’s natural is good, and everything that’s unnatural is bad’. Infanticide, rape and war are all perfectly natural components of many animals’ societies, including our own, but this does not mean that they are right or good. As an intelligent and moral species we can see that these behaviours are terrible and should be penalized in order to reduce their occurrence.

Coming back to the topic of having children, many heterosexual couples find that they are unable to conceive naturally, but IVF treatment allows them the joy of bringing a child into this world. The process is as unnatural as you can imagine, and using a Darwinian moral compass they should be denied this right along with homosexual couples. But nobody in their right mind uses this compass and falls for the naturalistic fallacy so completely that they would seek to deny the right to have children to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

That being said, this man’s beliefs ran further still and he went on to argue that homosexuals in general were not natural since they couldn’t reproduce. This simply isn’t true. Being homosexual is partly genetic and there are no right and wrong genotypes; there are many variations each with their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the environmental conditions. Being homosexual usually results in less offspring but may allow greater care of nieces and nephews, resulting in overall greater fitness. The frequency of male and female homosexuals worldwide is far higher than would be predicted, given the fact that they don’t directly pass on their genes. So it is probable that their relatives (who share their genes) have a corresponding increase in reproductive output, which their homosexual kin lose, thus maintaining the genes for homosexual orientation. There is absolutely nothing unnatural about homosexuals. And there’s nothing unnatural about homosexuals raising children that aren’t their direct descendents. If there were evidence suggesting future psychological problems for adopted children then this would need considering, but there is no grounds for denying these rights by virtue of it being unnatural.

This is a classic case of people twisting and distorting principles of natural selection in order to justify their prejudices. Some people dislike homosexuals so they try to demonize them and limit their rights as human beings. It is the exact same principle as eugenics that the Nazi’s infamously took to extremes. But the idea is completely flawed. There is no right set of genes that make up a human or any other animal, so there can be no perfect specimen to try to breed towards. Any person advocating or subjugating a particular race or trait is simply imposing their opinion with absolutely no scientific evidence to support it. And we must not take such behaviour lying down.

Medical Advances and their Limitless Potential

Extraordinary genetic and medical advances are becoming ever-more frequent occurrences it would seem. The possibilities are endless and we are rapidly increasing our repertoire of extreme, life-saving and unbelievable therapies. For example, this woman in Holland had a rare condition that caused the bone in her cranium to thicken to the extent that it was crushing her brain, causing loss of sight and severe headaches, which would eventually have killed her. So she had her cranium scanned and then a perfect 3-D printed version made for her and implanted as a replacement to her own. This photo shows her with the new plastic skull as it was fitted during the operation.

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Insane. But 100% real and hopefully life-saving for her. We can allow ourselves to imagine that we’ll soon be able to create synthetic versions of any organ or structure and make it personalized to an individual’s DNA, so the chances of it being rejected are extremely slim. We’ll be growing spare organs that are made-to-order and perhaps even providing genetic and tissue enhancements too. It reminds me of the film ‘Robots’ where they buy new parts in order to grow or make improvements, but only the richest individuals can afford the most desirable and powerful upgrades.

However, it’s unlikely we could ever recreate a person’s brain, as it is incredibly difficult to understand and attempt to replicate the relationship between neuron signalling and memories, thoughts, feelings and emotions, although we are improving all the time. Maybe one day it will be possible to upload the content of a brain, and to download this on to a replacement, in essence allowing someone to live forever. The film ‘Transcendence’ uses this idea to suggest that an uploaded brain could be given access and control over the power of a super-computer, forming a sort of Artificial Intelligence/Human hybrid. I can’t help but think that film is about Ray Kurzweil. But I would hasten a guess that if we do hybridise in some way with machines, it is more likely that we would be incorporating computer power into our heads, rather than our minds into a computer. It just seems simpler.

Mass Extinction Event, BEWARE!

Most people probably don’t realise it but we are currently in the 6th mass extinction event that our planet has ever known! The last one, the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) extinction 65 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and 75% of the species alive at the time – another saw as many as 95% of species disappear. The KT extinction was probably triggered by a large asteriod hitting the earth and causing major changes to the global climate, which could have lasted thousands of years. This one has been called the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction and is being clearly caused by HUMAN ACTIVITY. When we think of it in geological terms it becomes frighteningly obvious that we are making very rapid and unnatural changes to the biodiversity on this planet. Most extinction events lasted for thousands of years yet the current one has been noticeable in just the last 50! This does not bode well for the future; this is our warning! It is our responsibility to recognise and react to this devastating situation and start making serious conservation progress, before we see mass ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a moral obligation but a matter of the survival and well-being of our own species as inhabitants of this planet. So spread the word and stop hoping that someone else will sort out the world’s problems.

Extinction Symbol

This symbol represents the current mass extinction, click it, draw it, spread it around and help raise awareness.

Brains Online in 2030’s?

Over at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, California (of course), some of the brightest (and richest at $29,500 per 10 week course) technology-loving futurists gather to discuss, imagine and create. Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of the ‘university’, has recently been speaking about some of his work as the Director of Engineering at Google. He describes their current mission as “reengineering the human brain” in such a way that we can eventually connect it to the internet, which he predicts will be realised in the 2030’s. As a leader in this field and proven predictor of such things as the year a computer would beat a human chess grand master and the explosion of the internet, it’s hard not to take his word for it.

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Perhaps the most shocking part of Kurzweil and Google’s work is not that they are trying to hook us up to the cloud by inserting nanobots into our brains, but the potential resulting brain power that could come from such a process. Were it done correctly, and by that I mean accurately mimicking existing brain connections and hierarchical structure, then it could create a super-intelligent network of brains. Imagine linking the neocortex of the members of a lab group, allowing them to more efficiently trade ideas, innovate and discover using a ‘multi-brainstorm’ approach. Teaching would be transformed – think Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Paige designing radical architecture while dream-sharing in the film Inception – but in danger of imposing ideas instead of just presenting them.

Picture world leaders plugged into each other’s heads discussing the future on behalf of the rest of us. Could they not easily do away with transparency, leaving the public out of the loop? Or would it allow great collaboration, democracy and openness in politics and worldwide, unified action? There is also danger that the experience of linking minds itself may be so overwhelming that any group risks an explosion of power-thirst and ambition from among its members. More likely not.

There is no shortage of volunteers to scout, pioneer, and trial new technologies, even when there are unresolved ethical dilemmas and questionable futures. The “Explorers” that bought the first Google Glass models and have been using them ever since are just one such example – cameras in contact lenses could be next. Whatever new tech is released there is always someone willing to test it, so the progression towards greater technological dependence and enhancement of humans is in some ways inevitable (if such things are mechanistically feasible, which they probably are).

Are Religions Evolving?

Last night Dr Mike Taylor came to Malmesbury Abbey to talk about Dinosaurs and God (see pic). A self-proclaimed ‘armchair Palaeontologist’, with a PhD no less, he spends his spare time trawling through fossils in museums across the world. He has particular fondness for the long-necked dino’s called Sauropods, two of which he has been able to name – Xenoposeidon proneneukos meaning “alien earthquake god” and Brontomerus mcintoshi meaning “thunder-thighs”. These choices of names perhaps reflect his controversial belief that taxonomy is merely an art. Besides this, the reason for Mike’s talk was that he is an avid Christian who believes science and his (blind) religious faith can co-exist in harmony, and don’t contradict one another.

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Now as a scientist and definite non-believer I find his position quite baffling. I am sure that science can and does answer every single question about how life on Earth (and we humans) came to be here, so I see no need to bother with religion. Mike also fully appreciates the power of the scientific method but argues that there are some questions it cannot hope to answer – what these might be is not quite clear. He is very sure of the evolution of all animals and humans, but suggests that at some point in our relatively recent evolutionary past God recognised that we look close enough to ‘his image’ and waved his magic over us, raising us from mere animals to some higher status that we now enjoy. Mike argues that we are moral, responsible, merciful, forgiving and that these things set us apart from all other animals, contrary to the clear evidence that we are nothing more than a particularly strange ape.

I’m not trying to cause offence, but it’s hard to see why someone who accepts the evidence for evolution needs any further explanation for how and why we got here. Religion seeks to give answers to the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of life and being human, but science adequately answers these questions; most people just don’t like to accept the answers it gives. There is no great ‘meaning’ of life, we are here by chance and the only ‘purpose’ we and all other living things have is to produce replicates of ourselves, thereby propagating our genes and outcompeting our rivals. Perhaps this truth is just too anti-climactic for most to accept and therefore religions have flourished by filling people’s need for something more. Being scientifically enlightened does not make you feel empty and meaningless; it fills one with awe, excitement and curiosity as the wonders of life itself are revealed.

As science continues its unquenchable desire to explain, it is constantly putting pressure on religious beliefs, by falsifying them. Their only strategy to survive as a religion is to adapt and admit that certain passages (more and more it would seem) are not meant to be literal historic accounts but are poetic stories with hidden messages. After countless attempts to scupper the advances of evolutionary thinking, religious groups are finally starting to accept that fighting against science is simply hopeless. The result is that people like Dr Taylor are helping to promote the marriage between science and religion. In this way they hope that their faith can continue despite the mounting evidence that there is no need for religion, as everything is comfortably explained by science. Ironically then, religions are now being forced to ‘evolve’ to stay relevant and maintain the appeal of increasingly educated people, most of whom rightly accept science as fact.

Unfortunately, religion will always be able to fall back on the personal nature of ‘belief’ and the impossibility of disproving the existence of (a) God. But with some luck and much quality education, soon parents and their children won’t see any need for religion when science can successfully explain everything there is to know about life on Earth and Homo sapiens.

Cloning for Lay-Men and Women

How do you clone a dog like they did on the Channel 4 programme “The £60,000 Puppy: Cloning Man’s Best Friend” shown this week? It might seem obvious to some, but for the great majority cloning sounds like something out of science fiction. Let’s break it down as simply as possible. DNA is the recipe that is used by almost all of life on Earth. Every single animal that has ever lived started as a single cell and developed into an adult by following, very precisely, the instructions in its DNA. Using delicate processes scientists are now able to remove the DNA from an embryo, leaving a healthy but information-less cell. The DNA is then taken from a living individual and inserted into the empty cell, replacing that which was removed and giving it instructions to create an adult. This embryo is then implanted in a female and the pregnancy and growth begins.

So an individual’s unique DNA specifies precisely how to ‘make’ that individual from the starting point of an embryo. By replacing the recipe from one embryo with that of a living individual, a clone is produced that is essentially an identical twin, just with a different birthday to the original. This does not mean that the clone is the exact same individual – just look at typical identical twins – they are made individual by the environment they experience through their lives.

Cloning cannot recreate an individual’s personality; it cannot make a copy of a person; it cannot bring someone back from the dead or let them live forever. However, it could be used to exclusively breed the most desirable and valuable animals for agriculture, albeit at greater risk of epidemics.

Human Software Updates?

Will we augment ourselves and become one with machines as futurist Ray Kurzweil (pictured below) predicted many years ago for 2029? It definitely looks like it. Think about it, you already increase your social interactions on a daily basis using a handheld supercomputer. We spend huge chunks of our day browsing, checking facts and ‘socialising’ on the internet. We even have virtual versions of ourselves that allow others to meet and learn about us while we sleep. It is not a question of if we are going to become one with technology – our lives are already heavily reliant and interwoven with computers and electronics and this is only going to become more efficient and subtle. The result? Someone who looks totally normal but has the ability to draw from a vast database of knowledge and communicate online without a sweat. But we don’t seem to be able to multitask at present so I would imagine this will lead to even less attention being paid to reality, despite the intentions of more seamless usage. Let’s just hope we maintain the ability to relax and interact physically with others, else life might lose its joy.20140420-222551.jpg