Friday, May 21, 2010

Artificial life – has it happened, and if so, then what?

Today the news is that Craig Venter claims to have made a synthetic cell.  Already this is being disputed.  Whether he really has, might be a matter of definition. Even he doesn’t claim to have made "artificial life". Story in New Scientist. 
And as usual excellent discussion on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. They’ve won an award recently and quite right too.
Is it an astonishing scientific achievement, on a par with the other defining moments in science over the last five hundred years?   Some say yes - some say within a century, this discovery will be at the root of a total overhaul of how we perceive life and ourselves. Someone compared it to the 1903 Wright flyer. If that’s a valid comparison, compare the Space Shuttle to the Wright brothers plane, less than 80 years later.
Could artificial life escape into the wild by accident or design, and destroy Earth’s ecosystem?  If so would that be a reason to ban research?   If so what else should be banned?
Are remarks about Frankenstein, playing God, tampering with Nature, meddling with the unknown, called for?  Not at all. The most disturbing aspect is that the discovery should be made by Venter and his team, who are committed to the financial exploitation of any such discovery, as their earlier attempts at the patenting of naturally occurring genes have shown.
I used to align myself firmly with the anti-genetic engineering lobby. And this “synthetic cell” is genetic engineering with knobs on.  But having listened in to scientists discussing genetic engineering, I now recognise that what I was actually objecting to was genetic engineering was being used for the enrichment of Monsanto and the impoverishment of Indian farmers.
As a postscript, whilst this may not be the creation of artificial life, if it’s a step in that direction, is it also a step in the direction of understanding how Nature did it?  Whether the genesis of life is an easy or a hard trick?  Towards answering the question: how probable is it that life has evolved many times independently in the universe, as opposed to only once?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The great scientist and the lucky horseshoe

A fellow scientist once visited Niels Bohr in his office and was amazed to find a horseshoe nailed to the wall above the great man’s desk. “Surely”, he asked Bohr, “you don’t believe that horseshoe will bring you luck?”
“I believe no such thing my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you luck whether you believe in it or not!”
Related by John Humphrys in In God We Doubt, p 70

Monstrous races, slavery and pictures in a museum

I am puzzled by some drawings in a museum in Madrid.

A couple of years ago I visited the Museum of the Americas. The first gallery is devoted to early European representations of the Americas, and I was particularly struck by some very carefully proportioned and detailed drawings, 15th or early 16th century I suppose, of native American people. They were life-size if I remember right. What was so striking was that there was just one thing wrong with these representations.  They were monstrous.  Heads in the wrong place.

Why were these drawings done, by whom, for whom, what purpose was to be served? I was hampered by not being able to read Spanish, other than by guesswork. Too late, I wished I had paid more attention to these exhibits, and found someone I could ask.  I've asked in University College Cork but haven't found anyone who is acquainted with them. The Museum of the Americas has disregarded my emails. Quite right too as I wrote in English.

My curiosity was renewed by attending a lecture given at UCC in 2009 about depictions of peoples on the Scandinavian peninsula by Adam of Bremen, an 11th century geographer. The Scandinavians were supposed by some at that time to be dog-heads, so there seems to be a parallel impulse at work.

My suspicion was that the monstrous depictions I saw in Madrid formed part of a campaign to convince the church authorities back home that the peoples of South America were non-human and could be enslaved.  The Vatican actually ruled them to be human, with souls in need of salvation.  This was due to the tireless efforts of certain Jesuits and Catholic priests which is an interesting story in itself.  16th century Spain was amazingly sophisticated compared to northern Europe. In Spain slavery was a matter of debate 200 years earlier than in England.  (I got this from a lecture on slavery by Nini Rogers, Queens University Belfast.)

Of course none of this actually stopped slavery.

Monstrous races image (Madame Pickwick Art Blog)
Back to the Madrid images. Prof Terence O'Reilly of UCC told me that whilst he hadn’t seen the drawings himself, “the deformed features you describe make me think they may show the influence of medieval maps (mappaemundi) in which the inhabitants of the remote regions of the world, then unexplored, were imagined to be 'strange and monstrous'. Early Iberian perceptions of the New World were shaped by biblical, classical and medieval images and legends, of which this tradition is a part.”

He referred me to the Hereford map. This is a map of the world produced in England around the year 1300. I was directed to a book in the UCC library by Scott D. Westrem The Hereford Map : a transcription and translation of the legends with commentary (1953). The map is circular, its centre is Jerusalem, with Europe from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, Asia from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, and Africa 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock. Monstrous races and south-western islands form a ring at the edge of Africa.

The Hereford mappa mundi

The top image depicts monstrous races and is the best I've found through Google, though it doesn’t really do justice to the figures on the Hereford map. The man sheltering from the sun under a huge foot is located in India. There’s a doghead. And the one with mouth and eyes in his chest is a Blemmye.

All these monstrous races and indeed most of the information on the map seems to rely on the authority of ancient Greek and Roman sources.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that both explanations apply to those depictions in the Museum of the Americas. That is, they were shaped by biblical, classical and medieval images and legends; and simultaneously they were part of a campaign to demean the American population to remove their human status and any legal barrier to their exploitation.  What was unsettling about the drawings in the museum was that were designed to create the impression that they were done from life.  And the more I think of it, the surer I am that they had a sinister purpose.

One day I'll go back to the Museum of the Americas and find someone who speaks English. Or I'll have to learn Spanish.

Recommendation of where to stay in Madrid : Hostal Barrera, c/ Atocha 96, 2ยบ- 28012 Madrid.

Finally, does the Hereford map show any dog-heads in Scandinavia? No, however there's a man on skis, a bear and a furry monkey-like creature. According to the ancient source Aethicus Ister, the Scandinavians are non-human and evidently form part of the diet of Gog and Magog.

Notes: (1) Here's a Wikipedia article on Cynocephali (having the head of a dog).

(2) According to Tony Luppino on CBC radio, Marco Polo did not talk about monstrous races in his 13th century travels, but everyone thinks he did, because one of the first editions of his book had monstrous races illustrations. The Wikipedia article just cited claims gives a different account. Polo's Travels mentions dog-headed barbarians on the Andaman Islands, it claims. Though I wonder if the quotation supplied fully backs this claim up, as Polo is quoted as saying that these people are cruel and "are all just like big mastiff dogs".