The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Monster is just another name for life

Posted by Matt on October 2, 2011

It’s back to class, which means back to actually reading books on a regular basis. I like reading books, even if it’s for reasons other than my own curiosity or enjoyment. It’s good to be exposed to material that you might not have checked out otherwise, which is why I really do enjoy these English courses. I think I might take them for the rest of my life.

But here’s what I’m getting at:

One of my recent reads was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I had read Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, so I have material for comparison, I guess. Oryx is certainly more sci-fi, in that old-fashioned sense where morals are explicit and technology dooms us all. That’s not to simplify the book, it’s certainly not another wailing lament of what a mess we’ve made. Atwood’s way too smart for that. It’s running with far sillier concepts than Handmaid’s Tale (it’s hard not to chortle at least once with names like Pigoon, Rakunk, Wolvog, and the like being constantly tossed about), but that is certainly a side-effect of the subject matter. You get silly names when you’re dealing with gene-slicing and corporate culture, but not when you’re talking about theocracy, you know?

It also amazes me that an 80-year-old woman can write material that reminds me of…well, me, and other people like me. You know, the kids of today. She’s pretty up with the youth culture.

It’s the aforementioned genetic science stuff that makes me a bit…apprehensive. I find the satire of corporate culture funny and fascinating, and it is often grappling with the same ideas I have found very interesting (the segregation between the ‘corporate citizens’ and the people in the cities is an idea I’ve had before, and it’s an idea that looks increasingly plausible). In a way, I want to simply dismiss the problems with the science aspect of the novel by saying it’s a byproduct of the corporate stuff. Essentially, that this is not so much a screed against genetic engineering entirely, but against the possibilities of genetic engineering under the control of for-profit entities. The relationship between science and commerce is a tricky thing. For every new thing we discover, there’s a capitalist asshole who’ll exploit it for money. As the novel itself points out, the scientists under the illusion that these discoveries help people will often ignore how the byproducts of their work are used to bilk the desperate. As a primary example, we know of many cases where advances in agriculture are almost immediately co-opted by evil corporations like Monsanto (and while the ‘evil corporation’ pejorative is a cliche for aimlessly angry youth and aging hippies, if you do any reading about what Monsanto has done in the past, you’d agree with me that those guys are fucked up) and turned into copyright so they can drain farmers for upkeep and sue if their hybrid seeds accidentally land on another’s guy land, if that guy actually owns his own land instead of tending official Monsanto Land.

Yes, that’s what I’d like to believe, just to make my brain happy. But I can’t. I know I need to face these criticisms head on.

I don’t think Atwood is anti-science. And make no mistake: the irrational fear of what can come about from genetic engineering is anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-discovery. The “Frankenfood” meme comes from people who seem to forget that all agriculture is based around altering plants and animals to our liking, with the only difference being that corn and dairy cows were bred into existence eons ago by simple farming folk, and the stuff today is being done by guys in lab coats, who they have been trained to dislike because they do…stuff. The creation of these animals are often based on real ideas being tossed around, but they are exaggerated. The thing is, things like man-animal hybrids aren’t real, and have no scientific reason to ever be real. Getting a skin graft from a pig is not the same thing.

A lot of people, including possibly Atwood, seem to have this invisible line between what is natural and what is artificial. Nature is sacred, even if you take spirituality out of the equation. You can learn and tinker with only so much in the ‘natural’ world before you’ve gone too far. Making life in a test tube is going too far.

Here’s the thing: those lines? They don’t exist. They’re made up. Because the brain we’ve evolved with lets us do stuff like that.

This is not to say that humans cannot fuck up with environment with their meddling. They most certainly can. But that shouldn’t be used against learning how the our biology and the biology of the things all around us works, and using that knowledge to benefit us. Nothing we do is entirely separate from the natural world, and testing out new ideas shouldn’t be seen in a negative light automatically. The same rational minds that genetically engineers corn will know that introducing a new species into the ecosystem can cause major damage if it’s not contained, and will attempt to connect it. We even see that in the novel, albeit it ends badly anyway.

I’m tired of the cliche of the cold, calculating scientist, screwing with shit in his or her lab, reveling in their god role. In the context of Oryx and Crake, this can be seen as a product of the corporate environment, where the goal in science is not for human advancement, but in creating products. This is an issue that we all have to deal with; but more often than not, it’s simply used as a justification for bludgeoning real science if it makes people uncomfortable. It switches the target, and let’s the real crooks get away. So while people hack away at the ethical/moral issues of genetic engineering, that issue of corporate control (which is brought up as an argument and subsequently dropped, or bundled into the case against the science itself, as if they will always be one and the same) gets away with minor cuts and bruises. Once again, one of the things I like about this novel is that it doesn’t immediately drop the criticisms of the corporate mindset just so we can gasp at how awful the very idea of genetically engineering animals is; both are targeted equally, each on their own terms.

But it doesn’t explain away all the attacks on genetic engineering. It seems to, what with the companies all mainly being about selling things like specially grown fried chicken (yes, that old urban legend), or creating vanity products and services. But as much as those are justly ridiculed, we are never presented with a positive alternative. The organ transplant pigs are not seen as any more beneficial, and the fact that they, as mentioned before, get out into the wild and wreck shit (alongside all the other silly names in the book), just seems to reinforce the idea that it’s all bad, even when it’s not immediately recognizable as a useless corporate product (even if it actually is, as it shows). I don’t think I should expect there to be a “well, that’s no good, but this is an okay application!” segment of the book, that would break up the narrative and muddy the point. But it brings that apprehensiveness back, because…well, I just don’t really think that genetically modifying plants and animals (human and non-human) is an inherently bad as this book seems to position it as.

The character of Crake interests me. Crake is, in my mind, a perfect example of a Aspergers supervillain. Now, “supervillain” may be a going a bit too far, even calling him a villain or antagonist in general is wrong, but the guy does kill everyone on earth except the protagonist, so we’re in the same ballpark at least. It’s a character type I myself have tried to work with, and both arise out of that previously mentioned scientist stereotype, but with less of the cold logic and Hollywood insanity, and more general social ineptitude and that very real kind of mania that this type of person can have. To a degree, both the protagonist and Crake share a lack of self-awareness that seem to come with the culture of the novel. They watch porn (including pedo stuff, which brings Oryx into the story) and what essentially amounts of to a combination of reality TV and shock sites, with little to no emotional impact, except at points where the mania seeps in. But the protagonist grows up to be rather petulant, idealistic in a sense but self-absorbed, Crake only goes further into the obsessiveness, eventually making his own race of humans, for no reason other than because he can. There are shines of other motivations in his character, an attempt to always be control being the main one, but it still seems to be simply part of that very specific, very modern-feeling kind of psychopathy. He’s not simply a mad scientist, he’s a guy who became a prodigy and can never stop doing what he’s good at. The urge to create overtakes everything else. It’s a condition that neatly fits into both scientific and corporate environments. I find it to be an interesting bit of characterization.

But that just leads back to the question of scientific ethics: if Crake is the best of the best in his field, what does that say about his field? As I said, I don’t think Atwood is trying to oversimplify things, “these guys are all bad!” or anything like that, but there’s not a whole lot of sympathy shown for them. All the geneticists are either entirely deluded and compromised (like the protagonist’s dad), scheming assholes, or genocidal nerds like Crake. The protagonist, who does not become a geneticist but is raised by them, ends up playing false prophet to a group of naive human spin-offs. In fact, about the only half-decent person in the book is Oryx, but she’s so fucked up mentally that you never really notice. All this seems to show that the view one could gleam from the book is a little more nuanced than simply “you guys are fucking with nature! stop it!”; there are people in the book, people whose actions and reactions are very human. It’s some musty old sensationalist story of science gone wrong. It does attempt to really get into these issues, not simply declare them off-limits.

But no matter how much I want to praise Atwood for her ideas, I just can’t shake the feeling that this delves into anti-science territory. I personally don’t think we should limit what we can learn about and how, even though we should be careful with it. So I have some trouble coming to terms with what this book might be trying to tell me. It’s one of those very difficult matters in art, where something seems to be on the razor’s edge between critical analysis and screeching propaganda. It’s definitely a good piece of dystopic fiction; but I still need to determine what people are taking from it, and whether or not that’s a good thing.

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Posted by Matt on March 20, 2011

Somewhat related to my previous post…

This brings up some salient points about, well, people. To reiterate for the lazy: SETI, that big satellite thing in the desert that’s looking for alien radio signals, is based upon a single, very large assumption that many people seem to take for granted: the idea that alien life is not only out there, but that it has evolved in such a way that they have learned how to manipulate radio waves and are sending out signals to be received by other such beings. As said there, the problem arises that the only example of a species learning how to manipulate radio waves we have us is…well, us. So basically, we are assuming that there has to be an alien species that is, more or less, exactly like us.

Years of science fiction has dulled us to the incredible nature of such an idea. Just think: over the course of millions and millions of years, the earth has seen countless species come and go. A vast, vast, selection of organisms, each with a different set of traits unique to them. How many of them have been like us? Uh…other than us, none, although Neanderthals were there during our rise, so I guess that makes two, albeit two offshoots of the same line. So really, if one or two out of who-knows-how-many organisms on earth ended up being what we would define as sapient, how likely do you think it would be that one would just so happen to evolve on a completely different planet with a different ecosystem, different history, etc.? It would be like expecting to find basking sharks and red squirrels on alien planets. Even with some slight differences in terms, and in evolutionary terms a lot of the proposed ‘differences’ between possible aliens and homo sapien sapien are minuscule, it would still be a huge leap to expect such a thing to occur. We just possess such a specific set of traits, that the odds of something else in a completely different environment coming along and just so happening to have even a few of the same traits are astronomically low.

This seems to have come about as part of a natural human mindset that even the most rational people fall prey to it: the idea that we are not simply another organism, that we are special, that we are some evolutionary apex. But we aren’t. Our combination of traits are no different special than any other living thing’s; we have the ability to even have the concept of evolution, yes, but even that is just another adaptation that seemed like a good idea at the time. There is no evolutionary high point; it is simply a process that goes on forever, or at least until everything explodes. So expecting that all other world’s biological development will happen just like ours? Mmmm, not very well-thought out.

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer to some of you people looking to the stars every night, waiting, hoping. If it makes you feel any better, we don’t have all that much data on the subject, so there’s always a chance some things will change. Thus is the ways of science.

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Posted by Matt on March 17, 2011

One of the many things I have to come to realize as a recovering follower of Cryptozoology is just how backwards most of these paranormal research people are, in scientific terms. Most of the hobby Cryptozoologists, UFOlogists, ghost hunters, and yes, even the religious, come into their respective fields with a predetermined idea of what they are looking for. And that doesn’t work.

I mean, every Bigfoot searcher knows it’s an 8-foot tall bipedal primate with brown hair and a combination of features from both humans and non-human apes, right? And the Loch Ness Monster is obviously a surviving Plesiosaur, right? These are the preconceptions I’m talking about. The fact is, there’s no way of knowing that much about either of these things with whatever little evidence the enthusiasts scrounge up, minus eye witness testimony, which is never reliable.

These assumptions are sometimes referred to as phylogenetic roulette. It’s a fairly rampant thing, and it’s simply a case of the conclusion being made before proper evidence is discovered. As the post explained, you can’t just look at a photo of a supposed sea monster skeleton and say “Hey look…it’s a living marine reptile!” and then include all these traits that one simply cannot know given the evidence they provide.

This can, of course, be attributed to the fact that most of the people involved in these are of the ‘hobby’ set, and don’t know how to properly classify a damn thing. And this in turn leads to even more ‘hobbyists’ going out and looking for the same thing the previously people described, leading either to disappointment or, in a desperate attempt to avoid disappointment, the ‘hunters’ being tricked by their own preconceptions and ‘finding’ whatever it is they were looking for, whether or not they actually found it. So there’s where the mass delusion comes from.

You could probably approach some of these things from a scientific angle without it being a complete waste of time, although I suspect that would probably suck the fun out of it for most people. I mean, who wants to “investigate some unknown phenomenon that may or may nor be real, but even if it is real we don’t know what it is and need to steadily gather data and then test our hypothesis to see if it holds water”? Nope, you want to know what you’re after, even if what you’re after is just some bullshit someone made up on the spot, or stole from a movie.

Biology isn’t opposed to finding new species, which a lot of hobbyists seem to be convinced they are, and actually find new species all the time. It’s just not the ones they want them to find; they want prehistoric monsters that still exist even though that wouldn’t make sense. But that seems stupid to me, too. If we want to believe in the Loch Ness Monster, why not believe that the Loch Ness Monster is a completely new species? That, I think, should be the base assumption for this kind of thing. Then you don’t know what to look for, and you’re more likely to find actual evidence, instead of just ignoring stuff that doesn’t match a preconceived notion.

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Posted by Matt on May 22, 2010

Bear with me, I’m on a nostalgic trip.

Early this morning, I saw that CTV was airing OWL TV. I used to watch OWL TV in my preschool days. It was one of those shows that made me interested in Animals!

How many of these kinds of children’s science magazine-format shows do they have now? Honestly, I think one of the easiest ways to get kids more excited about learning and science is to just show it to them, plainly, because nature has a way of being awesome on its own. I’m sure kids still like animals, and animal facts, right? They damn well better.

This, of course, led down the rabbit hole of children’s shows that I watched. Camp Cariboo, Fred Penner’s Place, The Umbrella Tree (fucking horrifying puppets), stuff like that. Then came…PJ Katie’s Farm. Upon reflection, I now realize the utter strangeness of this show.

Here’s the thing: the show was about a woman manipulating little home-made clay figurines to tell a story about farm animals, doing all the voices as well as narrating. No camera tricks, stop-motion, or anything. She just moved the clay figures and told the story in plain view. It’s sub-Manger Babies level television. Yet there’s something to the low-key affair and its public access production values; it makes me kind of glad it exists.

To show you how this show worked, here is a highlight reel:

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