All that we touch

“Humans are the tool makers of the world” is a well known trope. At the AAAS meeting yesterday, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis asserted that this concept doesn’t go far enough in describing the nature of humans.

Speaking of the brain’s relationship to the body, he said: “We are not just tool makers, We are tool assimilators.” Specifically, as we use our brains to make tools, those tools become extensions of our bodies. A human brain operates by continually extending its concept of “body”, mentally assimilating ever more of the world to form a more powerful virtual body.

Any that tool we craft or use becomes part of this extended body — a hammer, a piano, an automobile, a computer. As our brains create a mental map of each new tool, that tool becomes part of the brain’s ever extending reach, like another set of hands.

Over time, whatever we can manipulate becomes absorbed into our brain’s virtual body, and all that we touch becomes us.

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea

Today at a session of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science on the topic of direct brain/body interfaces, one of the speakers was a devout Christian. The entire focus of his talk concerned the moral implications “as a Christian” (his words) of everything the other speakers had been discussing. He wondered aloud whether God would approve such doings, whether advancing technology is compromising our sacred humanity, and what it all might mean for our immortal souls.

To put this in context, the other speakers had been very thoughtful about ethical questions. Not one of them had merely discussed the technology. Rather, each presentation had included carefully nuanced points about what a direct brain/body communication interface might mean for privacy, patients’ rights, interpersonal relationships, the limits of government intervention and other matters.

And yet, suddenly, God was in the room. At a conference about science, we were treated to such phrases as “God, who created us all”, and similar sentiments. I have to admit that my very first thought was “What the hell?”

It could be argued that we scientists have no right to expect a safe place to discuss evidence based reasoning, that the special privilege of some particular religion or other is so paramount in our society that a dominant faith has free license to grandstand in the middle of any scientific discussion, trampling over the principles of logical inference and empirical evidence.

But does it go both ways? Do scientists have the right to force their way into the nearest church, perhaps in the middle of the most sacred and holy rites, and shove the priest aside in the name of science?

“Get out of the way,” I can envision them shouting, this gang of rogue empiricists with no respect for decorum, “we are here to conduct some experiments!”

As these scientists, having taken the church by force, rudely sweep the holy wine and bread of Christ onto the floor to set up their beakers and test tubes upon the sacred altar of God, could the stunned priest really be faulted for wondering “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

Race condition

Today, at the annual AAAS meeting, I attended a great talk by Nina Jablonski explaining very clearly and unambiguously why “race” (as in black, white, etc), is a complete myth. Interestingly, she noted that in the U.S. health agencies still use the concept of race — apparently because it makes everyone feel comfy, even though scientifically it has no meaning whatsoever.

I learned that Lucretius was apparently the first person to classify people by color. In his early work he was value neutral, but about ten years later he started associating personality with skin color.

But it seems that the real villian was Emmanuel Kant. He was the first to start ranking people, based on their skin color, from inferior to superior. Because he was a well regarded thinker, this nonsense was taken seriously.

The rest is history.

The key high order bit of the actual science is that dark skin is highly selected for in dry equatorial climates (where people with light skin tend to die off because UV-B from sunlight attacks their folic acid, which is necessary for proper embryonic development), whereas light skin is highly selected for far away from the equator (because absorbing some UV-B is necessary for vitamin D production, without which bones cannot grow properly).

Various populations have changed from dark to light and back again quite often over the last 70,000 years (when the first humans wandered out of Africa). For example, the ancestors of many people now living in southern India went from dark to light to dark again.

During the first 130,000 years of humanity’s existence, everyone lived in Africa. Genetic diversity during that time was vast, yet of course all those genetically diverse peoples were dark skinned because of selection for protection against UV-B.

Meanwhile, the light skin of caucasians and of east asians evolved via completely different mutations. In both cases, some genetic mutation arose that helped guard against deficiency in vitamin D — but implemented by unrelated genetic pathways.

So in reality, it’s all a tangle of genetically diverse subpopulations. Yet the U.S. we still indulge in the fantasy that there is something genetically meaningful about such words as “black” or “white”.

Vision for the future

An article on the front page of today’s New York Times caught my eye. It marks FDA approval, after ten years of research and development, of a working artificial retina.

Of course the tech isn’t quite like an actual retina at this stage. Resolution is extremely low, color is pretty much non-existent, and the externally worn component of the device is large and unsightly. But for people who have had essentially no vision, it is transformative.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will probably be able to see where this is going: Today the quality might be low, but eventually such a device will be as good as a natural retina, and then, at some point, it will be better.

Looking forward, as the technology improves this kind of implant will no longer be seen as a prosthetic to correct a problem, but as something integral to our everyday experience of the world, like electric lights, or cars, or clothing.

And then everything will change.


One afternoon quite a few years ago, when “Sex and the City” was still on the air, I saw Christopher Noth — the actor who plays Carrie Bradshaw’s love interest “Mr. Big” — walking with a friend near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. He was dressed in a nice suit, more or less like the one he generally wore on the TV show.

Objectively I knew that this was “Christopher Noth, the actor”, not “Mr. Big, the character”, yet as I saw him dressed like that, with the glamorous backdrop of Manhattan all around us, part of me could not help but think I was witnessing a TV character come to life.

This morning as I was walking along in Manhattan, I found myself, for the first time in years, thinking back on that moment. Perhaps it was because this is Valentine’s Day, when many New York couples dress up and act out their romantic fantasies — their own personal brand of “Sex and the City” come to life.

Then, early this evening, just after boarding a Eighth Avenue local heading uptown, I saw a man in a suit running to catch the train as the doors were closing — he made it through the doors barely in time. It was Chris Noth himself, the embodiment of a certain fantasy of New York romance. I think I was the only passenger in that crowded subway car who recognized him.

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but seeing the man himself standing there, blessing all of those young Valentine’s couples with his presence, was way cool. Particularly on the very day I had been thinking about him.

I wonder how often that sort of thing happens.

What happens next

Recently, as I started watching a movie on video, a scene came up just before the opening credits of a character having a supremely happy and exciting experience. In that moment, I knew for certain that the character was doomed — in fact would probably not survive past the opening credits.

In another recent viewing experience, I saw a supremely self-possessed character — one who had never been defeated — go confidently into battle, expecting an easy victory. Before the contest had even begun I was already cringing with dread at the horrible defeat I knew the character would suffer. The only question in my mind was how much the writers would pile on the shame and ignominy.

I don’t think it’s that I have ESP. Rather, I believe each of these scenes was designed in such a way that the audience is subliminally tipped off about what happens next.

In a sense, most commercial films are designed on rails: The audience wants to be surprised, but the filmmakers artfully ensure that on an unconscious level the audience will see the surprise coming. I believe this is thought of as good commercial filmmaking.

What if a commercial film were to offer a true surprise — without secretly telegraphing its punches? Could it still be successful?

Happy Birthday Charles

Darwin today turns two hundred and four.
A great man who, sadly,
      Is with us no more.

Yet so much of existence is now understood
‘Cause he traveled the world
      As a scientist should,

His time on the Beagle productively spent
Developing theories
      Of species descent,

The practical uses of which still abound.
Yet his message is deeper
      And far more profound:

That whoever you are, and wherever you go,
You are joined with all life.
      That’s important to know.


We’ve all experienced it: Sometimes you are inspired — fire seems to flow from your fingertips, and ideas emerge from your brain a mile a minute. Then there are those oddly fallow patches, when nothing comes.

I suspect this pattern is repeated in pretty much the same way across many creative fields — writer, poet, sculptor, architect, composer, to name just a few.

Has anyone ever done a systematic study of possible causes of this ebb and flow of creative inspiration? What can influence it? Are we more creative when we are happy or sad? When we are well rested or falling asleep? Drunk or sober?

Or is it something more complex? Does each of us have a unique key that unlocks our particular inner flow of ideas? If so, and assuming we want to keep this flow going, how can we each best learn to locate our own inner key?

Faces in a restaurant

Today, while having lunch in a restaurant, I happened to notice that my fellow diners around the restaurant were of a wide variety of ages, from early childhood to perhaps late seventies.

As I looked around the room I caught myself classifying everyone by age, and I realized that I do this all the time, reflexively.

So I started to study individual faces, and tried to imagine them at different times of life — either younger or older. I looked in the face of a man in his sixties and was able to make out the rough contours of the young man he had been — and perhaps still was in his own mind. I saw a young girl, and tried to imagine her as a mature woman.

Then I had an odd thought. Perhaps one day, when we are all seeing the world through augmented reality lenses, we will be able to choose how old we appear to others on any given day, or how old others appear to us.

Maybe one’s apparent age will become as mutable as any other article of fashion, something simply to put on, like a new pair of shoes.

If that happens, I wonder whether it will change the way we think about things.

Richard III goes to Washington

I am thoroughly enjoying the Netflix production “House of Cards”. I’ve seen only four episodes of the thirteen they have posted, and have been desperately holding myself back from watching them all at once. You know, it’s like when you open a box of fine chocolates and you tell yourself you won’t eat them all in one sitting. But of course you really want to.

It’s not a perfect show. There are plot contrivances that are clearly cooked up, and minor characters who respond in ways convenient to the plot, rather than to any recognizable reality. But that’s all part of the crazy gothic fun.

The basic premise is to place a superhero of amorality — Kevin Spacey doing his perfect-pitch Richard the Third — into modern Washington D.C. (which everyone already suspects is a bastion of deals from hell), and to run full-tilt with the premise. The writing is deliciously knowing and evil, and the direction no nonsense and perfectly on point.

This is “Dr. Horrible gets the girl”, with no apologies whatsoever, and I’m loving it.