Sunday, June 27, 2010

What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves

In spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart – Anne Frank

In an article entitled “Human Morality: Innate or Learned” Rebekah Richards writes, “Morality, integrity, generosity, honor – these are concepts our society esteems, rewards, and expects. They are principles embodied by our cultural heroes, and values which we strive to develop in our children. But where do these qualities originate? Are we taught to be good, or do we possess innate virtue? Are we condemned to a constant battle against our ‘lower nature’?”

Richards cites scientists and philosophers from the fifth century to the present day (all male, I might add; like Augustine of Hippo, Michal de Montaigne, Thomas Henry Huxley to name a few) who had in common the notion that humankind’s goodness was just a veneer over a morality that was rotten and self-serving at its core. Some suggest that no act of “unsolicited pro-sociality” (“other-regarding preferences”) can be characterized as wholly unselfish. There is always something to be gained from the act, they insist, even if it is only to “feel good”.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Karma of House and Dog-Sitting in Mahone Bay: the Toulouse way

Some of you might know that I offered to house-sit for some friends who have a house right by the water in Mahone Bay, a lovely sea-side resort town in Nova Scotia. The house came with a young cocker spaniel-poodle (cockapoo) puppy, Oli (short for Oliver). I thought, “Oh, Boy!”... Walks along the beach, playing fetch and rough-play (like I wouldn’t do with a cat…) Toulouse wasn’t so enamored. He agreed …though with some reserve (he’s a great sport!).

What neither of us realized was that Oli was about to change our lives…

Mahone Bay is a very charming and cheerful village along the water in a protected bay (from which it gets its name—go figure… knowledgeable smile). Oli’s house was located right on Main Street in the midst of colorful shops, cafés with al fresco dining and convenient amenities. I had the best of both worlds: the mild resort-style bustle out my front door and a back balcony that faced the scenic bay to the sound of clinking boat masts and the gentle ocean surf.

We soon found a routine that suited Oli and me: of walks in the town, meeting the colorful locals on the street, stopping for café crème (well, close to it, Toulouse would say) at Eli’s Café then a wonderful homemade lunch of soup and scone at the Biscuit Eater or Joanne’s Café, and a final walk in the forest and run on the local beach.

Toulouse really liked that part because Oli came back all pooped and would go lie down while Toulouse and I sipped Lillet and wrote on the computer (What? You didn’t know he could do that? How do you think he writes his blog, Toulouse LeTrek, or writes to all his 200+ fans on Facebook or Twitter? He uses his nimble paws, of course. Toulouse is very talented and knows his language better than I—all six, I might add. He’s my editor, after all… ). Sometimes, Oli needed a bit more play before lying down for the evening so he and I would tussle over a doggie bone or one of his decapitated stuffed toys. It gave me some exercise and much entertainment. But should have warned me…

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Events That Will Change Everything: To Clone or not to Clone

…Ah, but man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?—Robert Browning

In the June 2010 issue of Scientific American, an article called “12 Events that will Change Everything” discusses the likelihood by 2050 of naturally occurring and human-made events that may dramatically change our world and how we perceive it and ourselves. Authors ranked each event on a scale from “very unlikely” to “almost certain”. Events spanned from the wondrous and “less likely” discovery of extra dimensions and first encounter with alien intelligence (Hey! Isn’t that ME? Big grin) to the “more likely” possibility of machine self-awareness, the polar meltdown and the “almost certain” 7.8 magnitude pacific earthquake (Better move to high ground, Margaret!).

The cloning of a human was rated “likely” and creation of life “almost certain”.

In a post entitled “Designer Organisms Promise New Life…at What Cost?” I discussed how researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology (called synbio) envision microbes customized with artificial genes to let them turn sunlight into fuel, clean up industrial waste or monitor patients for the first signs of disease. Ways to combat global warming include a new species of bacteria that can break down cellulose to produce ethanol or soak up carbon dioxide.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Darwin and Lemarck on Soft Inheritance

Evolution is the language of destiny. What is destiny, after all, but self-actualization? Walking the path that we—or something “greater” than us has blazed for us? What is evolution and through what mechanism do we evolve? If evolution is the language of destiny, then choice and selection are the words of evolution and “fractal ecology” is its delivery.

What is natural selection, after all? How do we define today a concept that Darwin originated 200 years ago in a time without bio-engineering, nano-technology, chaos theory, quantum mechanics and the internet? We live in an exciting time of complicated change, where science, based on the limitation of traditional biology, is being challenged and stretched by pioneers into areas some might label heretical. Endosymbiosis, synchronicity, autopoiesis, self-organization, morphic resonance, Gaia Hypothesis and planetary intelligence. Some of these might more aptly be described through the language of metaphysics. But should they be so confined? It comes down to language and how we communicate.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Celebrating Womanhood: I am Woman I am Paradox

That which is yielding conquers the strong and the soft overcomes that which is hard--Lao Tse

There is a new woman out there. You can recognize her if you look carefully. She’s the one who blithely embraces the typical man’s world with panache, style and a confidence that may daunt without being hostile. She has no motive in doing this except to be the best she can be. In truth, she exudes the apparently paradoxical qualities of compassion and strength. She looks you directly in the eye, is openly vulnerable, sincerely human, yet ultimately powerful. She may intimidate lesser men.

Such a woman exudes a genuine self-esteem and warmth that is charismatic, and demonstrates quiet competence with humility. She is intelligent without the need to intimidate. She is a natural leader without being selfish or tyrannical. This is ultimately the power of woman: to lead with compassion. She is defining her world; not letting the world define her.