2010: FTSOS in review, April to June

Here is the second installment of the 2010 FTSOS review. See the first installment here.

Easily the top post of the month (in fact, it is number 5 all time) was the one about the topless march in Farmington. It resulted in a lot of people clicking the Photography tab on FTSOS in search of all the topless women who were marching through the small town of Farmington up here in Maine. Because I guess topless women are rare.

When I set up this blog, I never had the intention of giving a good focus to quacks and charlatans. But I just had to write about the scumbag Lawrence Stowe. The guy was caught on a CBS special stealing from the sick and desperate. He was ought ruining lives and families, laughing all the way to the bank. The guy is easily one of the biggest pieces of shit about whom I have ever read.

There was also the issue of FTSOS commenter Jack Hudson chiding a family member of mine through texts. I made mention of the issue on his blog, but he very quickly edited my comment so as not to reflect his misdeed. As a result – and being someone who hates dishonesty – I had to make a post on FTSOS explaining what had happened. This caused Jack to first deny his actions and then vow never to return to this blog. I later granted the small possibility that he was not guilty, but that did nothing to dampen the hissy-fit. Of course, since the texts came from Minnesota (which is where Jack lives) and since they all referenced a specific Facebook interaction he had with my family member, I had to remain unwilling to retract anything. I stand by that.

The big science news of the month was that Craig Venter created synthetic DNA that worked when put in a cell. It is a phenomenal technical achievement that opens up the door to a whole world of synthetic creations. We can now, at least in theory, go into a computer program, change a few amino acids and come up with new genes and gene products. I suspect this will prove invaluable to cancer research.

About midway through the month I decided to tackle, for the nth time, the idea of objective morality. The truth is, even if theists are right that there is an objective morality, they do not arrive at their conclusions objectively. People are always picking and choosing what they want to believe, how to interpret the things they use for their beliefs, and how those things fit into what they already believe. As I said back in May, even a claim of objective morality is a subjective position.

I also talked about the fact that atheism has never been responsible for an act of evil. Two things arise from this. First, people often go back to that old chestnut, “Ideas don’t hurt people! People hurt people!” Of course, this just ignores the fact that people are composed of ideas. If we are not willing to say that ideas lead to actions, then it is no longer clear that we can even say ideas are good or bad. And what does it even mean to say people – explicitly not ideas – are responsible for actions? If people are not just packages of ideas, then what are they? What does it mean to say “Joe punched Suzy” if we deny that underlying that statement is that Joe had the idea to move his fist towards Suzy? Second, people will point to Stalin, Hitler, etc and say “What about those atheists?” This is silly first because Hitler was an evolution-denying, Christian creationist. The silliness then continues when we look at Stalin (and any other leader who was an atheist) because atheism is not a normative position. Since it is purely descriptive, it does not result in any “ought” or “ought not”; it says nothing of what we should or should not do. Stalin and co never acted out of atheism. It is not logically possible.

The most popular post of the month had to be the one where I told people not to talk to the cops. If the police suspect a person of something, it serves the interests of the police, not the suspect, to get a discussion going. The job of the police is to find out information they can use against people. And even innocent people are at risk. The best way to avoid the whole mess? Don’t talk to the cops. Seriously.

In the race for governor of Maine, we learned that the eventual winner of the election, Republican Paul LePage, is a creationist. He later danced, obfuscated, and dodged the issue. The fact is, the guy is not going to object one bit when some Maine school board thinks it will be a good idea to teach creationism to students.

In skin cancer news, researchers found a certain drug, ipilimumab, which allows the immune system to run free and more effectively fight cancer. Responses to the drug were impressive for those with late stage skin cancers and it is hoped that the treatments can be improved. It was thought the FDA might approve the drug for use this year, but it looks like the decision date is going to be March 26, 2011.

Expect July to September tomorrow.

The most important fact about Venter’s achievement

If not the most important fact about what Craig Venter did is not that it raises ethical questions or anything like that (the questions are overblown anyway). Instead, it’s that what he did was a massive technical feat. It’s long, long, long been known that what he did was possible in theory. Everyone expected it to work. The problem was in making it work. That side of the problem came with different expectations. Almost certainly someday, yes, we ought to be able to synthesize a genome and insert it into a cell, but today? Could Venter’s team do it successfully using such a length of base pairs? The answer is yes, but that wasn’t always clear.

While I’m at it I suppose I can point out two more huge facts: first, the organism has no parents. It was not conceived sexually or replicated asexually. It is a product of pure chemistry, and that tells us something about the cell. Second, this achievement means we can go into a computer, change a few amino acids, and come up with completely different gene products. The first application may well be for industrial use (wouldn’t it be great to produce bacteria that just love to eat up oil spills?). I suspect another major application will somehow involve cancer treatment. The creation of an enzyme which makes it more difficult for cancer to recruit blood vessels (angiogenesis) or which reduces some other product cancer brings about for its own perpetuation may be the next big revolution in the so-called “War on Cancer”.

‘Stop trying to play God!’

There’s a lot of empty rhetoric floating around in light of the immense achievement of Craig Venter. Most of it is coming from anti-science conservatives, as one might expect. The Catholic Church is no exception.

Another official with the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Domenico Mogavero, expressed concern that scientists might be tempted to play God.

“Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity,” Mogavero told newspaper La Stampa in an interview. Scientists “should never forget that there is only one creator: God.”

“In the wrong hands, today’s development can lead tomorrow to a devastating leap in the dark,” said Mogavero, who heads the conference’s legal affairs department.

What makes this interesting is that the Church keeps urging caution for where this will all lead. But if they think Venter is playing God, then we already have a good answer: it will lead to terribly designed organisms which have a lot of junk, non-sense organ routes and parts, and which are bound to the mistakes found in their ancestors – unless of course we keep failing and cause 99% of everything we create to go extinct.

Craig Venter wasn’t lying

Craig Venter is a brilliant scientist who has been working tirelessly to create life in the lab. In recent years he has been really pushing that the event is getting close. It looks like he has made a huge technical step.

Craig Venter has taken yet another step towards his goal of creating synthetic life forms. He’s synthesized the genome of a microbe and then implanted that piece of DNA into a DNA-free cell of another species. And that…that thing…can grow and divide.

Anyone who has worked with DNA for more than 30 seconds can appreciate at least some of the difficulty entailed in such a feat. Most DNA falls apart after a few thousand base pairs using modern molecular techniques of replication. Even with PCR and the use of a high-grade enzyme like Taq, no one sets out to copy something too terribly long. (And depending on what the DNA is needed for, it may only be necessary to replicate a few hundred base pairs – a fairly common event.) So Venter and his team used bacteria and yeast as major components in their synthesis instead. What they created is more or less a copy of a genome of an organism that already exists, but the important aspect here is the transfer of the synthesis into the cell. That’s the major technical feat that’s going to act as the next step in Venter’s quest to create artificial life.