Tag Archives: Earth

The Age of Biological Annihilation

By John C. Cannon – The loss of approximately 200 species a century might not seem extreme through the lens of one person’s lifespan, but it’s as much as 100 times faster than historical estimates, according to a 2015 study also led by Ceballos. He explained that under “normal circumstances,” it might have taken as many as 10,000 years for that many animals to vanish.

The researchers discovered that the populations of nearly one-third of these animals in this sample are on the decline. In terms of sheer numbers, the study’s maps show that perhaps half the number of individual animals that once inhabited the Earth with humans are gone—a loss that numbers in the billions.

The team also drilled down into the research on populations of 177 well-studied mammals to see how they have fared since 1900. They found every single one has lost at least 30 percent of its habitat, and around 40 percent of these mammals have lost 80 percent or more of their former ranges. more> https://goo.gl/o4dxkY

End-times for humanity

BOOK REVIEW

Death of the Posthuman: Essays on Extinction, Author: Claire Colebrook.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Author: Naomi Klein.
Antifragile, Author: Nicholas Taleb.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Author: Mary Wollstonecraft.
The Social Contract, Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

By Claire Colebrook – The panic isn’t merely about civilisational threats, but existential ones. Beyond doomsday proclamations about mass extinction, climate change, viral pandemics, global systemic collapse and resource depletion, we seem to be seized by an anxiety about losing the qualities that make us human.

Social media, we’re told, threatens our capacity for empathy and genuine connection.

How did we arrive at this moment in history, in which humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile?

What contemporary post-apocalyptic culture fears isn’t the end of ‘the world’ so much as the end of ‘a world’ – the rich, white, leisured, affluent one. Western lifestyles are reliant on what the French philosopher Bruno Latour has referred to as a ‘slowly built set of irreversibilities’, requiring the rest of the world to live in conditions that ‘humanity’ regards as unlivable.

And nothing could be more precarious than a species that contracts itself to a small portion of the Earth, draws its resources from elsewhere, transfers its waste and violence, and then declares that its mode of existence is humanity as such. more> https://goo.gl/1nriI9

Updates from Georgia Tech

Decades of Data on World’s Oceans Reveal a Troubling Oxygen Decline
By Takamitsu Ito, Shoshiro Minobe, Matthew C. Long and Curtis Deutsch – A new analysis of decades of data on oceans across the globe has revealed that the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water – an important measure of ocean health – has been declining for more than 20 years.

The majority of the oxygen in the ocean is absorbed from the atmosphere at the surface or created by photosynthesizing phytoplankton. Ocean currents then mix that more highly oxygenated water with subsurface water. But rising ocean water temperatures near the surface have made it more buoyant and harder for the warmer surface waters to mix downward with the cooler subsurface waters. Melting polar ice has added more freshwater to the ocean surface – another factor that hampers the natural mixing and leads to increased ocean more> stratification.

Falling oxygen levels in water have the potential to impact the habitat of marine organisms worldwide and in recent years led to more frequent “hypoxic events” that killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms. more> https://goo.gl/3F17TB

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How the U.S. Prepared for Nuclear Catastrophe

BOOK REVIEW

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, Author: Garrett Graff.

By Mahita Gajanan – Raven Rock is the name of the military installation built in the late 1940s near Camp David, in case of disaster during the Cold War. As Graff’s subtitle indicates, not everyone was invited to take shelter.

“It’s too hard to keep people scared enough that every family will have a shelter,” Graff said. “The planners were like, ‘This is going to be too much to save America. So, we’re going to try to figure out how to save the idea of America.'”

As we think about Russia and North Korea, these questions are more relevant today,” he said. “We just don’t know what [Trump] is doing or who might be appointed to some of these secret roles after a catastrophic incident.”

Graff said plans for a nuclear disaster today “absolutely exist,” although they remain classified. more> https://goo.gl/G1DnyD

A world-class long jump to a more social Europe

By Patricia Scherer – Who would not like to go to a free public school in Finland or buy their groceries at a local cooperative in Italy?

Who would not want to receive quality community-based support for their grandparent suffering from dementia in some remote rural village, following the Swedish model?

Which working parent would not want to have access to all-day childcare, as in France?

And breathe in fresh air in a buzzling downtown, is the case in car-free Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital?

Who would refuse the support, rather than stigmatization, that the Danish flexicurity system provides to laid-off workers?

Would you not want to vote electronically from home, as in Estonia?

Or take part in the Irish citizens’ assembly to decide on legal and policy issues facing the society you live in today?

All that is Europe; all those are benchmarks to aspire to. more> https://goo.gl/qXmAUX

Raising good robots

We already have a way to teach morals to alien intelligences: it’s called parenting. Can we apply the same methods to robots?
By Regina Rini – Philosophers and computer scientists alike tend to focus on the difficulty of implementing subtle human morality in literal-minded machines. But there’s another problem, one that really ought to come first. It’s the question of whether we ought to try to impose our own morality on intelligent machines at all. In fact, I’d argue that doing so is likely to be counterproductive, and even unethical. The real problem of robot morality is not the robots, but us.

Can we handle sharing the world with a new type of moral creature?

We like to imagine that artificial intelligence (AI) will be similar to humans, because we are the only advanced intelligence we know. But we are probably wrong. If and when AI appears, it will probably be quite unlike us. It might not reason the way we do, and we could have difficulty understanding its choices.

Plato’s student Aristotle disagreed. He thought that each sort of thing in the world – squirrels, musical instruments, humans – has a distinct nature, and the best way for each thing to be is a reflection of its own particular nature.

‘Morality’ is a way of describing the best way for humans to be, and it grows out of our human nature. For Aristotle, unlike Plato, morality is something about us, not something outside us to which we must conform. Moral education, then, was about training children to develop abilities already in their nature. more> https://goo.gl/cVSt0W

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Are human rights anything more than legal conventions?

BOOK REVIEW

Human Rights: From Morality to Law, Author: John Tasioulas.
The Law of Peoples, Author: John Rawls.

By John Tasioulas – Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation.

Since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. more> https://goo.gl/AXTYg3

Updates from GE

Octopus And Squid Evolution Is Officially Weirder Than We Could Have Ever Imagined
By Signe Dean – They edit their own genes!

Just when we thought octopuses couldn’t be any weirder, it turns out that they and their cephalopod brethren evolve differently from nearly every other organism on the planet.

In a surprising twist, scientists have discovered that octopuses, along with some squid and cuttlefish species, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment.

This is weird because that’s really not how adaptations usually happen in multicellular animals. When an organism changes in some fundamental way, it typically starts with a genetic mutation – a change to the DNA.

Those genetic changes are then translated into action by DNA’s molecular sidekick, RNA. You can think of DNA instructions as a recipe, while RNA is the chef that orchestrates the cooking in the kitchen of each cell, producing necessary proteins that keep the whole organism going.

But RNA doesn’t just blindly execute instructions – occasionally it improvises with some of the ingredients, changing which proteins are produced in the cell in a rare process called RNA editing.

When such an edit happens, it can change how the proteins work, allowing the organism to fine-tune its genetic information without actually undergoing any genetic mutations. But most organisms don’t really bother with this method, as it’s messy and causes problems more often that solving them.

“The consensus among folks who study such things is Mother Nature gave RNA editing a try, found it wanting, and largely abandoned it,” Anna Vlasits reports for Wired.

But now it looks like cephalopods didn’t get the memo. more> https://goo.gl/A1TS6O

Now it’s time to prepare for the Machinocene

BOOK REVIEW

Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Author: Huw Price.

By Huw Price – One way or another, then, we are going to be sharing the planet with a lot of non-biological intelligence. Whatever it brings, we humans face this future together. We have an obvious common interest in getting it right. And we need to nail it the first time round. Barring some calamity that ends our technological civilization without entirely finishing us off, we’re not going to be coming this way again.

If we are to develop machines that think, ensuring that they are safe and beneficial is one of the great intellectual and practical challenges of this century. And we must face it together – the issue is far too large and crucial to be tackled by any individual institution, corporation or nation. Our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, are likely to be living in a different era, perhaps more Machinocene than Anthropocene.

Our task is to make the best of this epochal transition, for them and the generations to follow. We need the best of human intelligence to make the best of artificial intelligence. more> https://goo.gl/dHx4jd

The Spiritual, Reductionist Consciousness of Christof Koch

By Steve Paulson – Consciousness is a buzzing business in neuroscience labs and brain institutes. But it wasn’t always this way. Just a few decades ago, consciousness barely registered as a credible subject for science.

Why were humans able to create civilizations that have transformed the planet?

We don’t have a precise answer. We have big brains and are, by some measure, the most intelligent species, at least in the short term. We’ll see whether we’ll actually survive in the long term, given our propensity for mass violence. And we’ve manipulated the planet to such an extent that we are now talking about entering a new geological age, the Anthropocene.

But it’s unclear why whales or dolphins—some of which have bigger brains and more neurons in their cortex than we do—why they are not called smarter or more successful. Maybe because they have flippers and live in the ocean, which is a relatively static environment. With flippers, you’re unable to build sophisticated tools.

Of course, human civilization is all about tools, whether it’s a little stone, an arrow, a bomb, or a computer. more> https://goo.gl/bmNgK6

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