DNA can identify with almost absolute certainty the person that entered a house and stole a priceless artwork, but had carelessly left a tissue with a few cells on it. Each one of us has a unique combination of polymorphisms – genes that often differ by only a single nucleotide molecule (SNP). The same situation applies to our ancestry. Our DNA bears unequivocal nucleotidal evidence of where our ancestors are from – Asia, Africa, Europe, America, etc.

When it comes to our individuality and our ancestry, there is a remarkable degree of specificity in our DNA. Your genes define you, the individual, with almost 100% accuracy.

It appears that the opposite is true for intelligence. No set of genes has been able to sort out ‘smart’ individuals from ‘dumb’ ones, however such odious terms may be defined for the purposes of a study. A review of intelligence and quantitative trait loci suggests that a particular set of genes may contribute 0.1% or less to the intelligence phenotype of a person. Simple genetic correlations do not define intelligence.

This should not be too surprising for evolutionary reasons: hominids have probably been around for millions of years, H. sapiens only for about 200,000. Human intelligence is a very deep and common feature of all of us. There are definite superficial variations, e.g. “intelligence runs in the family”. Geniuses of various kinds are also hard to explain but these variations seems to have very little to do with the totality or core of human intelligence – the amount of ‘information processing’ that is necessary in order for us to perform at any level is vast, beyond comprehension.

Attempts, therefore, to correlate intelligence with ethnicity, culture, race, class or other physical feature are doomed to fail. Phrenology is a quaint example of how this futile goal did lead people astray. Unfortunately and sadly, many communities, cultures or ethnic groups make a huge deal out of such illusions and waste their time in the pursuit of these very harmful fallacies. 😦

In a way it seems that scientists have replaced the priests of old: learned ones appearing out of their mysterious labs explaining findings in a language that only (they and) god can understand fully. Those who do not understand the jargon have a choice: believe or reject. This explains how perfectly reasonable ideas such as evolution are rejected out of hand by many, often religious fundamentalists of various traditions. It actually boils down to a very basic human ‘instinct’ – trust! (There probably is a set of genes for that.) The latest science versus the traditions of our forebears? As a committed scientist, I am very ambivalent toward trust of any kind. Skepticism, on the other hand, does not seem to be a very effective heuristic in the game of survival.

When it comes to scientific communication with the lay community it is of the utmost importance that the highest standards of transparency be applied. Scientists should always disclose their personal agendas in such a manner that the incompleteness of their assessments is always front and center. This almost never happens. Huge errors have occurred that could have been averted by more scientific honesty.

At least, the priests of old were very upfront about their main agenda; their religious theory of everything. It is a lot more difficult to know what the ultimate goal of science is today. It has already been agreed, more or less, that a formal (mathematical) theory of everything is not possible. Thank goodness! The idea of a Bible Mathematical is truly frightening!

Beyond technology, medicine and engineering, science contributes information on every aspect of existence. Psychologically humans have an innate sense of right or wrong that, according to the latest scientific studies, remains essentially the same across all cultures studied. This innate sense must be guided by a unique internal sense of a theory of everything, IMHO. Humans do have opinions on everything, it therefore stands to reason that there are underlying theories of everything.

Are there academic departments that study everything and try to integrate the various disciplines? I think not, but we are now in a place where the extreme excess of information requires some attempt at an holistic approach. In stead, we have a splintering of innumerable disciplines – the famous ivory tower of academia has become a modern day Tower of Babel.

Scientia Salon

fruitflyby John McLaughlin

In both popular culture and the technical literature in biology, the word “genetic” is ubiquitous. Despite its common usage and universal recognition, discussions centered around this concept usually leave its meaning taken for granted. We have the vague sense that it relates to DNA, genes, heredity, and inheritance, but what does it mean precisely to describe a process, trait, disease, or property as “genetic?” Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, a latent hope seems to linger among the general public that genetic causes will be uncovered for the vast majority of human ailments. This hope has been fueled by the often confusing use of biological terminology in the popular media, especially when reporting (often in a sensational manner) on a new study or development in the biomedical sciences [1].

Playing such a central role in modern biology, I believe the concept deserves a thorough and…

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All of us need to be reminded that while race may not be real, race and racism absolutely exist! Getting it right in our heads is therefore very important. This article by Audrey Smedley provides a wonderful historical perspective on the problem:

ORIGIN OF THE IDEA OF RACE

This is one of a NPR series under the heading “RACE – The Power of an Illusion”. Understanding the distinction of what is real and what exists would assist greatly when trying to resolve complex cultural issues. My co-worker, Johannes Lubbe, has done a lot of work on this issue.

Latest Headline: DISCOVERY!! Black People are Humans!

The notion that black people are humans is a relatively new discovery in the modern West. The idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity remains problematic and controversial within prestigious halls of learning and sophisticated intellectual circles. The Afro-American encounter with the modern world has been shaped first and foremost by the doctrine of white supremacy, …”

– Cornel West.

West’s main thesis:

…“I shall argue that the initial structure of modern discourse in the West “secretes” the idea of white supremacy…” It is “a particular logical consequence of the quest for truth and knowledge in the West. To put it crudely, my argument is that the authority of science, undergirded by a modern philosophical discourse guided by Greek ocular metaphors and Cartesian notions, promotes and encourages the activities of observing, comparing, measuring, and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.”

In conclusion:

… “The idea of white supremacy is a major bowel unleashed by the structure of modern discourse, a significant secretion generated from the creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian philosophy, and classical aesthetic and cultural norms. Needless to say, the odor of this bowel and the fumes of this secretion continue to pollute the air of our post-modern times.”

– A Genealogy of Modern Racism. Race Critical Theories. Blackwell

Actually, the body of the chapter is a clear, entertaining, even brilliant, survey, from a postmodernist perspective, of a very small part of the cultural events of the enlightenment, from the 17th to early 19th centuries. The ignorance of the Europeans regarding the differences amongst members of Homo sapiens sapiens was almost total, in retrospect, but the consequences have been, and still are, tragic – a true holocaust. My question is, could the outcome have been different? Would it be reasonable to expect now that the Europeans should have, or could have, known better then? West blames the European (white?) interest in knowledge and truth which seems like a complete contradiction. Due to the successes of science we now know and partially understand our similarities and differences down to the level of molecules. The concept of ‘race’ may, in fact, be a fiction, not real! We should rather be talking about ethnic and cultural differences.

Of course, the whole point of Critical Theory, is to understand the world fully in order to change it. With regard to change, it seems that West’s only strategy is to make inflammatory and provocative statements. There is no unifying theory, but, in fairness to West, hidden amongst all the intellectual and rhetorical flourishes, are carefully crafted disclaimers: his genealogical approach “does not purport to be an explanation of the rise of modern racism, but rather a theoretical inquiry into a particular neglected variable, i.e. the discursive factor, within a larger explanatory model.” West, after all, is a public intellectual, i.e. a politician.

But West is correct, we are now living in a ‘post-modernist era’ – in fact, we will always be in a post-yesterday era. We always deal with problems as they exist in the present, whether we want to or not. So, his inquiry into the past does suggest a few clues. But they must be heeded with great caution since it may be even more difficult to make sense of the past than of the present. At least we have a fairly direct view of the here and now, albeit a minute slice. We have no choice, we must consult history and each other, but judiciously!

My small charitable contribution to the conversation on ethnic and cultural differences is to say that there is hope. I am sure we are learning to trust each other, to listen and to disagree, respectfully and peacefully. Angry voices will be heard, ‘non-discursively’ in the street – it is their desperate way of demanding rightful attention. Most importantly, we should try to accelerate the evolutionary changes that are needed. This is probably where I have a philosophic disagreement with Prof. West: a revolutionary way of modeling the problem would be self-destructive. Evolution unaided might be too slow a process, especially since large numbers of Americans still do not even believe that evolution is real.

“You can’t talk about wealth and inequality, you can’t talk about education, you can’t talk about massive unemployment and under employment and you can’t talk about drones being dropped on people in other parts of the world without talking about white supremacy and its ways in which it operates. It doesn’t have to be overt. The president is right about that.

But too many black people are niggerized. I would say the first black president has become the first niggerized black president…. afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy.

… Thank God for Ferguson. Thank God for the young folk of all colors. Thank God for Staten Island and fighting there. Thank God in Baltimore, now the precious folk in Charleston.”

– Cornel West, Professor of Philosophy, Union Theological Seminary and highly visible spokesman equating white supremacy and racism with most of the social evils of this world.

In the days when words had a fairly specific meaning we would have concluded that Cornel West is saying that racist supremacist ideologies of caucasians were directly responsible for our social, moral, spiritual and emotional ills.

Of course, anyone espousing such supremacist views are nowadays dismissed as kooky, but, according to Cornel, this white racist ideology of supremacism is now operating subliminally having been incorporated and institutionalized throughout history, in Western language and behavior. We are surrounded and suffused by institutional evil.

This sounds vaguely reasonable and fits in with the utterly modern fad of talking in circles: postmodernism and posthumanism. Narrative and history is dead; the only reason to study these is to identify and then reject the tenets of their source, the enlightenment. Unfortunately, like all revolutionary movements, there is rarely a clear idea of what the future will bring. Destruction of the present order (of injustice, inequality, oppression, exploitation or immorality) is the one unifying goal, what to do after will be figured out later.

Cornel West’s attempt at being politically relevant highlights the problem. The personal insights of one man, no matter how deeply felt, are just that – even if religiously inspired. One man’s opinion, by necessity, will be profoundly incomplete and, therefore, inevitably flawed. Invoking white racism ignores the fact that racism is universal. The real ‘problem’ is the perception of ‘white’ power, but that seems to be waning as democracy haltingly spreads around the globe. Victimhood is a far more interesting political story.

There very clearly is a serious demarcation problem when it comes to our ability to understand reality and existential matters. Nature itself has no such difficulties. Reality, life and culture is a seamless functional unit, albeit quite chaotic most of the time. Our challenge is to deal with the various mysteries

Science, and related strategies, already informs all aspects of human existence – including such unlikely matters as love, beauty, truth and reason. We can, of course debate this ad infinitum, but a human feature that is completely beyond scientific clarification has not been and will not be established, IMHO. However, controlled research has never provided a complete description of anything either. There will always be scientific and/or metaphysical questions remaining after examining a stone or the simplest gizmo.

There are some who believe that physics could explain everything but it seems, in my experience, that they are usually mistaken or ignorant of the complexities. Michio Kaku might be an example. However, their probably futile efforts will surely teach us much.

It is the interface between physics and metaphysics that has repeatedly been focused on at Scientia Salon. These are certainly exciting times for all concerned. The operation, structure and demarcation of that interface is still essentially unknown, but we are now beginning to realize that the volumes of data being handled are truly ineffable.

Even religious thoughts and feelings would be understandable, given the challenges.

Scientia Salon

6a00e554e8195d883301a73d8ae293970dby Paul So

Sam Harris is known for many things, from being one of the leading figures of the New Atheist movement to a controversial critic of Islam. he is also known for arguing that science can provide answers to questions regarding morality [1]. For him, morality is within the domain of science.

How is this possible, exactly? After all, science deals with facts, not values. Harris proposes that the term science is far more inclusive than we normally understand. There is no fundamental distinction, for instance, between a scientist working in a laboratory and a plumber identifying problems in a plumbing system. The distinction between them is merely conventional, because what really counts is that doing science means using reason and observation. As long as a given domain can be the subject of reasoned inquiry and observation, it belongs to the broader domain of science.

Here is how Harris…

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A very interesting wake-up call.

Given our agonizingly dystopian past, a dystopian future is almost guaranteed. However, assuming that more and improved information about the human represents progress, there might even be a glimmer of new hope:
* better understanding of human biology will allow for more human friendly arrangements.
* we have been able to flourish under circumstances of dire ignorance and prejudice for thousands of years. True enlightenment should be harmful mainly to the old order.
* revolutions have been a regular feature of the past but the majority at the time were preoccupied with other, more important matters.

Perhaps we should worry less and be more brave.

Another take on the problem here

Three Pound Brain

[Presented June 2nd, 2015, for the Posthuman Aesthetics Research Group at Aarhus University]

Abstract: For centuries now, science has been making the invisible visible, thus revolutionizing our understanding of and power over different traditional domains of knowledge. Fairly all the speculative phantoms have been exorcised from the world, ‘disenchanted,’ and now, at long last, the insatiable institution has begun making the human visible for what it is. Are we the last ancient delusion? Is the great, wheezing heap of humanism more an artifact of ignorance than insight? We have ample reason to think so, and as the cognitive sciences creep ever deeper into our biological convolutions, the ‘worst case scenario’ only looms darker on the horizon. To be a writer in this age is stand astride this paradox, to trade in communicative modes at once anchored to our deepest notions of authenticity and in the process of…

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