Recently I was given the opportunity to review Edward O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) for the July/August 2015 issue of The Humanist, the official magazine of the American Humanist Association. Though I think the book serves more as an addendum to On Human Nature (1978) and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) than a single, independent work, it's undoubtedly worth the read. Though he tries to cover a lot in this book, its best chapters are those when, rather than approaching the humanities with a fist, he opens his hand.
In an article titled "Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?" William Egginton, professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, cautions us to be careful in how we use the natural sciences to shape public policy. In this case, abortion rights. Egginton writes about attorney Rick Hearn's suits against Idaho's Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act "and others like it that cite neuroscientific findings of pain sentience on the part of fetuses as a basis for prohibiting abortions even prior to viability." The reason for this is because Hearn believes that the government is using results from the natural sciences "as a basis for expanding or contracting the rights of its citizens." The logic goes like this: if it can be proven that fetuses are capable of pain then they are conscious and thus a person deserving of their full rights under the constitution. This clearly has political overtones. ...
Ever since I read Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972) and David Eagleman's Sum (2009), I've been interested in magical realism -- a playful, imaginative curiosity that, lately, has even snuck into my own writing. Shortly after reading their work, it did not take long for me to find Jorge Luis Borges and Alan Lightman (whose Einstein's Dreams I reviewed last year). Lightman's perspective on the genre I've particularly enjoyed given his background as an MIT physicist. So, I was excited when, once again prowling the stacks of Half Priced Books, I came across Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation (Vintage, 2012). ... Mr g is a first-person-except-when-it's-not narrative about God's creation of the universe (or rather a universe). Tolerating the squabbles and input of his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g introduces space and time to "The Void" (the non-dimensional realm they inhabit), deciding thereafter to create a universe merely to keep himself occupied. Beginning with a few "organizing principles" (natural laws), he spends most of his time fawning over the harmony of the cosmos' as they effectively create themselves. In the book as in nature, it is rules that govern and build not a spirit's hands. Thus emerge stars and the fusion of basic elements to create more, which in clicks of the atomic clock form the richness of planets, solar systems, galaxies. The way Lightman lies out this natural progression -- leading to the emergence of life -- was where I found his prose most engaging. Unfortunately, when this life becomes intelligent, moral, that his writing slipped away. ...
For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.
So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by…
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According to neurolaw, a successful and just legal system will be one that concerns itself with the steps moving forward with the specific brain on trial. If our behavior is influenced by our biology and circumstance, it is irreducibly complex to assess a criminal’s culpability in a way that is both satisfying and scientifically-informed. Instead of comparing and judging the sizes of one’s frontal lobe or another part’s propensity for firing (or not firing) certain chemicals while also factoring in one’s upbringing and the effects social institutions can have on our behavior, our legal system should focus on rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. ...
This is my “Voices in Bioethics” write-up of last month’s Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium. It was my first foray into the law and neuroscience world — and I loved it. What I don’t talk about is my experience using Couchsurfing.com (great!) or why I missed the Sunday panel.
With my flight leaving Sunday evening, I spent the morning walking to the Carter Presidential Library but gave up when I realized I’d never make it. Compensated by visiting the Martin Luther King Historic Site. Very good.
by Joshua Preston •
Recently, I attended the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium’s (ANEC) conference on Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity (September 12-14). Hosted by Professor Dr. Nicole Vincent, it was my first foray into the “neurolaw” world. Most of the attendees and keynote speakers were pulled from the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Research Network, and because of this, I was impressed by the cross-disciplinary representation. The conference included experts in the biological sciences and psychiatry as well as legal scholars and practicing judges. Additionally, I must add, it was free, which is the best price.
The opening keynote from Vincent laid out the major topics that would be explored over the next three days. In it she outlined her taxonomy of the relationship between responsibility and mental capacity (i.e., how does an individual’s cognitive abilities affect our expectations of them?). Each panel addressed…
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Here’s my second article for Columbia’s “Voices in Bioethics.” In it I review a paper by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet and discuss the problems inherent at the intersection of bioethical “expertise” and government. In short, there’s no such thing as the neutral state.
by Joshua Preston •
In a new paper published by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, an associate professor of political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, she asks whether government bioethics experts bolster or inhibit democratic control of policy. To answer this, she cites the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies’ (EGE) role in the European Union’s early-2000s debate on whether to fund human embryotic stem cell research. Drawing upon news articles, reports, and personal interviews, Dr. Littoz-Monnet observes that when the debate reached a stalemate, the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) sought out the EGE’s recommendations. What followed was the use of the EGE as a means for “control[ling] the policy process despite the presence of a salient and publicly debated conflict (17, italics in original).
Although the case study is itself interesting, the value of Dr. Littoz-Monnet’s paper lies…
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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending The UP Experience in Houston, TX, and, just to be clear, it was awesome. I was invited through the Eagleman lab and I hope I can attend next year. There were plenty of interesting people (not just the speakers) and seeing everyone's excitement over community service, science, and … Continue reading Allan Savory is not Galileo
"You know, I'm basically a scientist; I don't really think of myself as a writer," says the neurobiologist and author Robert Sapolsky. "And it's something that I need to discipline myself to do less of because it is much easier for me than doing the science ..." If you aren't familiar with Robert Sapolsky, he … Continue reading Robert Sapolsky on Writing and The Popularization of Science
I'll admit that at times it can be hard to defend the Humanities without launching into esotericism or dramatic monologue, were it not for literature, art and philosophy where would we be? Even as science allows us to understand what is it leaves us grasping for what ought. The Humanities are the structures hidden before … Continue reading Believe it or not, the Humanities matter