Archive | December, 2011

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With a Porpoise in Mind

Posted on 31 December 2011 by Jerry

Our local public television station, KQED, this week aired a story by Lauren Sommer about Harbor porpoises returning to the San Francisco Bay after a 60 year absence.  The thinking is that nets used to protect the bay from enemy World War II submarines and the industrial pollution of the bay in the intervening years kept the porpoises from re-entering all these decades.  With over 250 separate individuals identified so far, we are happy they are back.

 As is so often the case, it is impossible to know definitively why they left or returned.  We do know that many cities surrounding the bay and groups committed to restoring the health and ecology of the bay have been working hard for many years.  Their efforts have produced measurable results for which we all, including the porpoises, can be thankful.

 In thinking about the return of the porpoises to the San Francisco Bay, we can only hope that what was accomplished in the microcosm of the bay can be repeated in the world at large.  We can only hope that if each of us applies ourselves to restoring the planet to a more original state and brings the power of human intelligence and hard work to bear on the problems we face, we will experience other victories as uplifting as watching Harbor porpoises play in the surf.

 Use the following links for more information or to listen to the KQED story:

 http://www.npr.org/2011/12/28/143857342/60-years-after-leaving-porpoises-again-play-in-san-francisco-bay

 http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-11-08/news/24820859_1_harbor-porpoises-biologists-boston-whaler

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NIH Moves Chimps from Chumps to Champs

Posted on 15 December 2011 by Jerry

The National Institute of Health, responding to pressure from animal rights groups, asked the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council to formulate a recommendation on continued use of chimpanzees in NIH funded invasive medical research in the U.S. Today their report was issued.  While not calling for an outright ban of the practice, the committee report signals to all involved in this type of research that they should wrap up present projects and plan to use other research methodologies in the future.

To send this signal, the committee recommended Guiding Principles that included “The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.”  Webster’s defines ethology as the scientific and objective study of animal behavior especially under natural conditions.  This principle precludes the common research facility today which keeps the chimpanzees in cages.

Another guiding principal was that “There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.”  On this last point the committee looked at a number of case studies.  Other than research that is already underway where benefits would be significantly delayed, they could not find research projects that could not be performed in other acceptable ways.

Our article in August 2011, Too Sentient for Their Own Good, raised the issue of use of chimpanzees in invasive medical research in the U.S.  That article pointed out that only two countries in the world still permit this kind of research on chimpanzees, the United States of America and Gabon in Africa. The rest of the world has banned invasive experimentation with many countries not allowing chimpanzees to be used in any research i.e. the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.  The article also identified that great apes (other than gorillas) are one of only three mammals, other than humans, who have sufficient intelligence to demonstrate self recognition.

We congratulate those animal rights groups that have intervened on behalf of chimpanzees and their humane treatment.  Kudos to the National Anti-Vivisection Society, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and the Humane Society of the United States. This is clearly their victory. Kudos also deserved by GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company that has an official policy ending its use of great apes, including chimpanzees, in its research.

Use the following link for more information:

http://iom.edu/Reports/2011/Chimpanzees-in-Biomedical-and-Behavioral-Research-Assessing-the-Necessity.aspx

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Primatives and Unacceptable Opportunity Costs

Posted on 11 December 2011 by Jerry

The financial industry has created havoc in the world’s financial system.  By encouraging people to buy things they could not afford, leveraging their own companies beyond all reason, and creating financial instruments they sold to others and then bet against, brokers and bankers have created a worldwide financial catastrophe.

They have forced the world’s governments to spend the largest sums in history to bail them out to stop a complete collapse of the economy.  It has crushed the average person’s savings and, because of plummeting property values, has left millions of people with debt they cannot repay.  This has eliminated the purchase of goods, services and payment of taxes forcing businesses and governments to lay off millions of people.

This is however only the immediate tragedy.  By squandering the world’s money as they enriched themselves, they have forced us to divert our attention from the world’s most urgent and costly problems.  As we struggle to put people back to work and pay off massive debt the financial industry is forcing us to pay the largest “opportunity cost” in history.

An opportunity cost is simply the cost or value of the best alternative choice that is not chosen or is foregone.  In our case the larger opportunity cost we will be paying arises from our inability to focus our attention and resources to aggressively combat climate change and the ozone holes.  Due to an unanswered climate change, a new North Pole ozone hole, and at least a decade of U.S. government inaction, the financial industry’s avarice will cause human suffering and dislocation beyond anything we have seen in history.

But why has this happened?  Is it the result of bad people or is it because of avarice and greed in the business world?  Obviously the overwhelming majority of people in business are just everyday working people trying to do the best they can for everyone.  Unfortunately there is a small group of bad actors who typify a flaw in how we do business. In their view it is expected that the strong and knowledgeable take advantage of the weak and uninformed.  They have taken the phrase “survival of the fittest” and used it in a misunderstood application of science.

British economist, Herbert Spencer, first used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to characterize Darwin’s process of natural selection.  Unfortunately when some business people try to interpret and apply the thought in their daily lives it leads them to misconstrue the lesson of evolutionary progress. The phrase calls to mind imagery of one animal besting another.  The concept gets generalized to rationalize setting aside normal personal moral standards when viewing business as dog-eat-dog. Their conclusion is that anything goes in business which becomes the basis for their primitive behavior of the past.  As “primatives” they cloak themselves in misunderstood science and act as if there is a jungle around them. They have obviously missed the point.

Evolution provides a forward looking definition of “the fittest”. The image of the most aggressive animal in the jungle is backward looking. Evolution defines the fittest human being as the one who can demonstrate success and survival most importantly in the future. The fittest today are those who exhibit an ability to work with and lead others. They achieve the greatest level of consciousness and prescience by establishing future directions and taking actions that produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  This is the standard to which we should hold all leaders of businesses.

Until we do, the greed of business must be counterbalanced by the peoples’ government that insures a set of rules and regulations which protect all of us but most importantly the weak and uninformed.   They must not be allowed to fall prey to unethical and unprincipled business practices because at the end of the day they have the least ability to afford the loss.

Finally, we do not have a choice about making the necessary and sweeping changes required by climate change and replenishing the planet’s ozone.  Because money is not readily available this will be a painful investment.  Nevertheless we must make progress and the sooner the better.  The longer we wait, the more expensive solutions will be and the longer the cures will take.  While we know the solutions will not be as good as we hope, we can hope they will not be as bad as we fear.

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, in Chapter 16 – Transcending Egocentricity, pages 186-187, there is discussion of the phrase “survival of the fittest” and its misinterpretation in business.  This is followed by a list of people who served as contemporary examples of the “fittest” of their time.  

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RNA at the Beginning

Posted on 11 December 2011 by Jerry

In beginning-of-life experiments scientists have looked for that first life that could form and retain a genetic code and replicate the code in another organism.  The farther back in the life process this discovery could be made, the closer humanity would be to understanding how life began.  Over the years many have speculated that before the first life as we know it there was a macromolecule ribonucleic acid (RNA) which developed these properties.  The theory holds that it evolved before deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which today is the main component of our chromosomes.

As reported in the April 8, 2011 Science magazine, researchers Aniela Wochner, James Attwater, Alan Coulson, and Philipp Holliger of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK have created a very general and flexible RNA polymerase ribozyme that can synthesize a wider spectrum of RNA sequences. This is essentially an RNA macromolecule that has its own genetic information and can cause a chemical reaction that expresses its genetic code in another active RNA molecule.

This development adds significant support for the RNA-First hypothesis.  While not yet creating life in a laboratory, this does demonstrate an RNA macromolecule which has its own genetic code and can replicate it in another, different, RNA macromolecule.

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, in Chapter 2: Life, Death, and the Biogenic Sphere there is a summarization of the various beginning of life experiments that led to the present view of the beginning of life.  On page 22 there is discussion of the theory that RNA is where the first self replicating entity evolved.

Use the following links for more information on this topic:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6026/209.full

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v472/n7342/full/472139e.html

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