Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How far should we go to protect "life"?

My personal view of life is that it started several billion years ago, and has been continuing uninterupted ever since. I have never understood the idea that "life begins at conception". Aren't the sperm and egg alive before they merge? And don't they derive from already 'alive' humans? And if you traced back your ancestry, didn't every single person in your lineage start that way -- from already living people? Go back far enough, and you are connected in a very real and ancestral way to those first living things on earth, millions and millions of generations ago.

But there are many for whom "life begins at conception". What they seem to mean is that "humanity" begins at conception, or that the fertilized egg is "fully human" and deserving of all rights and protections as any other person. I wonder -- what could that mean for women and medicine, if taken to it's fullest extent. The following is an hypothetical based on where current technology is, and what the consequences and effects might be if "all abortions" were halted (I'm not just talking about medically induced ones).

Is this the type of situation that you imagined? Do you think such a situation is possible? What other options would you propose to either support or prevent this type of scenario from happening?


While the combination of one sperm and one egg give a unique combination of genes that have the potential to be a full and viable human, that moment is not all that is required. It's estimated that up to 70% of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are flushed out with the next menstrual cycle (1) -- and the potential mother never realizes it. Additionally, of those that do implant, there is a sizable minority which also spontaneously abort over the course of the pregnancy (additional 10-15%) (2) This means that possibly 80% or more of all fertilized eggs (the majority of which actually successfully implant in the womb) are naturally aborted.

Saying "life begins at conception" implicitly ignores the medical reality that only 20% of those "conceptions" actually have a chance at surviving to birth, irregardless of the number of medically induced abortions. And there is no indication anywhere that all of those 80% naturally aborted were not viable -- on the contrary, it is actually far more likely that a large percentage of them are. They just "miss" the uterine lining and pass out with the next menstrual cycle. Even those that are spontaneously aborted after being implanted and medically confirmed (up to and including the 3rd trimester) are not necessarily "non-viable". Many other conditions and situations can naturally induce a spontaneous abortion -- injury, chemical imbalance, hormonal switching, etc.

So my question to all those who say that conception is the start of human life, and that any abortion after that point (including the "morning after pill") is "immoral", what should we do about all those non-medically induced abortions?

Now that we've got the medical technology to detect fertilization of an egg within 24-72 hours after conception (even before implantation), why should we not try and do everything possible to save them? It may be that some women's bodies are not yet ready to carry a child, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way to monitor the women and collect any and all fertilized eggs and fetuses that are developing. It might be an inconvenience to the women (always wearing monitoring equipment -- or having to go in for testing after each sexual encounter), and the protective regimen to save all those fertilized eggs may be considered by some to be extreme (mandatory bed rest, specially designed monitoring and collection equipment worn at all times to alert doctors and prevent the death of a spontaneously aborted egg or fetus, etc).

I can certainly understand the distaste and concern over medically induced abortions -- but those only account for a small percentage of the potential "lost children" that could be saved.

Consider: There were 4.3 million live births in the USA in 2006 (3) If we add in the full number of medically induced abortions (assuming that 100% of those would have been viable and brought to full term) - approximately 1.2 million in 2006 (4) that brings the number of babies to 5.5 million. But wait -- that's only 20% of the total potential births -- because that doesn't count in the 80% that are spontaneously aborted. Even if we assume that half of the spontaneously aborted would be non-viable (genetic malformation, etc), that still leaves a full 40% of the total conceptions that are allowed to die. That's an additional 11 million potential babies that are naturally lost, and through modern medical technology could potentially be saved.

Of course, implementing this to the full extent of medical technology would mean that every female who begins menstruating would require monitoring (either actively via portable hormone monitoring equipment or through regular weekly visits to a doctor) and surveillance. If a fertilization event is detected, the female would need to either have a full-time monitor carried with her (possibly along with a device that could "catch" any spontaneously aborted egg/fetus and protect it -- I'll let your imagination go to work on that idea), or agree to be examined daily by a doctor after positive confirmation of implantation. Once beyond the second trimester, the risk of spontaneous abortion drops, but not completely. Monitoring and surveillance would still be needed, but only once or twice a week. If at any time, signs of a potential spontaneous abortion are detected, the female should be immediately put into a medically supervised environment and maintained on strict bed-rest to ensure the safety and survivability of the fetus. Only after reaching 24 weeks of gestation would the female be released from the facility - but only with continuous monitoring to ensure the safety of the fetus.

This plan would ensure not only the prevention of all medically induced abortions, but would potentially save millions more who would otherwise die due to spontaneous abortion. If every fertilized egg is "fully human" and deserving of all the rights of humanity, and if we have the medical technology to detect fertilization, monitor implantation and gestation, and either prevent spontaneous abortion or safely collect and re-implant those that do -- shouldn't we make the attempt?



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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Science News: Cheap sequencing!

Wow! I remember the days only a little more than a decade ago when the Human Genome Project was started and expected to take several billion dollars and 20-30 years before the first complete sequence was finished.

Technology, knowledge and computing power have completely shattered those limits -- at least one company expects to be able to sequence a complete human genome (all 3 billion bases) for less than the price of a used car and in only a few days.

What do you think this will mean for the future? What effects do you forsee happening in insurance, government, social sciences, etc? Is this a good thing, or not?


Logical Fallacies vs. Life's Work: Which is more important?

Is using out-of-context quotations and selective opinion pieces a reasonable means of determining an person's overall viewpoint and opinion, or is it better to evaluate an author's entire body of work and acheivements? And should a person's accomplishments and successes be undermined or discarded because some of their views and statements are hateful and offensive?

This has been a topic of discussion in several threads on the KC Freethought Forum, and it made me wonder why anyone would try to use such an obviously flawed argument to try and demean and de-legitimatize the prodigious works of a man like Charles Darwin. In the case of Charles Darwin, one of the frequent posters to that site, Will Graham, linked to several sites that take only a few dozen sentences from his massive volume of professional and personal writings, and those are often mischaracterized or misinterpreted as being "racist" or "sexist".

I have no problem recognizing that compared to today's more "enlightened" culture, his overall views would be seen as bigoted and prejudicial -- but in the context of his timeperiod and culture, he was without doubt a very liberal abolitionist. On particular example of this is the attempt by creationists to use the sub-title of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, to imply that he was racist. And yet, although the term "races" appears on the cover, it is clear from historical conventional usage at the time, as well as the full context of the book itself, that he was referring not to human cultural races, but to subspecies and breeds of species. That is blatant misquoting and purposeful misinformation, and should be condemned by all as unethical behavior.

Darwin is the subject of a very recent book, Darwin's Sacred Cause, which explores the abolitionist spirit and values of the man, and how his ideas and opinions drove him to understand and appreciate the value and interconnectedness of all humanity, and that the cultural definitions of race were a false construct of man, not an actual biological phenomenon.

Contrast that to someone like Martin Luther. While he gets great credit for challenging the archaic, bloated and hypocritical megalithic Catholic church, there is also little debate about his virulent antisemetic views. And in contrast to Darwin, whose views on race became much more enlightened and abolitionist over his lifetime, Luther became more and more antisemetic and hatefilled as he got older. Not only that, but he wrote entire books about the subject of how to demean, destroy and dismantle Jewish property, synogogues, homes and families in order to "purge" them from the face of the earth.

Luther on the Jews

More Luther

Even More from Martin Luther on Jews

In comparing the two, Darwin and Luther, we see that one grows over the course of his life more tolerant, more forgiving and more understanding of the connections between all humans and life, while the other grows harder, more intolerant and far more virulent as he ages. But neither the fact that their views changed, nor the fact that either or both were racist, antisemetic or otherwise bigoted, has anything to do with the overall contribution to human society that they both had and are rightly recognized for.

Luther helped overthrow a tyrannical, overbearing, overindulgent and corrupt church. Darwin gave a comprehensive and overarching explanation for why life is so diverse and yet so similar. So why is it that we often see attempts by those opposed to one or the other use the out-of-context quotes of Darwin, or the irrelevant-to-the-issue antisemetic views of Luther to attempt to poison the well of discussion? Rather than actually addressing the achievements of these great men, people who use such tactics are trying to avoid addressing the actual issue of their accomplishments.

So my question is, given that Darwin Day was just last week, why is it that creationists continually try to use out-of-context quotes from Darwin on race and sex? And why do they not actually address any of the challenges to the use of such logic when I applied those same techniques to Luther's writings? If using such logic works to invalidate all the successes and accolades of Darwin, then it should likewise work to invalidate the achievements of Luther.

And if anything, based on a reasonable comparison of the two men's writings, Luther has far more to answer for, and far more to lose. So if we're going to throw out evolution because Darwin was supposedly a racist, why shouldn't we also throw out the Protestant Reformation because Luther was a self-affirmed antisemite?

Science News: Search for alien life gets boost from Kepler

Back when I worked on magnetotactic bacteria at Iowa State, I remember the frenzy and interest in the "Martian nano-bacteria" in a meteorite found in Antarctica. We still aren't sure about life on Mars, but with the upcoming launch of Kepler, we just might be able to see earth-sized planets orbiting stars far outside our solar system. And with some of the other ground and space based telescopes either already in operation or scheduled for the next few years, we're going to have the potential ability to detect the presence of potential life-marker chemistry (water, oxygen, amines, etc).

This is amazing, mind-blowing stuff. Just a few hundred years ago, we had no clue there was anything beyond our solar system. Even 100 years ago, it was thought that the galaxy was the extent of the universe. Now we're stepping out to the point of looking directly for other planets.

How does the potential of what Kepler might find affect your views of humanity and life on earth? If at some point in the next few years life (or significant indicators of life) are identified outside our solar system, will it affect your personal worldview?

Bee Healthy = Bee Happy / Bee Dead = We Dead

Honeybees are used to pollinate the majority of humanity's crops around the world. Without them, fully half or more of our production of food would fail, leading to massive starvation and death worldwide. Bees have evolved for hundreds of millions of years, and are very good at what they do. But when humans arrived on the scene and started "hijacking" the bee's native abilities for our own uses, we messed with their system -- and not in a good way. Now it looks like we might be on the verge of a very steep, dark and treacherous decline.

Between pesticides, herbicides, genetics, selective breeding, the practice of monogenetic breeding and infection, we've put the honeybee on a path to potential destruction -- and our own health and future in jeopardy, too. While there are many non-honeybee pollinators out there (even many other bee species), the fact is that there aren't enough native pollinators to take up the slack if the honeybee populations crash and fail. We've not had a time in this country's history where such a large portion of the population are at a threat for starvation and disease -- even the great Dustbowl years didn't compare in the potential for overall crop devastation and failure.

What this will mean in the future, I don't know. It's possible that this massive, worldwide die-off is transitory and temporary, and over the next few years, the bee populations will recover. Or, in the worst case scenario, the populations are decimated permanently all over, and it could result in a total collapse of agricultural food production.

Think about it -- we're nearly to 7 billion humans on the planet (and well beyond that number of domesticated animals that depend on our agricultural food supply to survive). Based on conservative estimates, even if we restrict reproduction as humanely and efficiently as possible, the human population will probably not stabilize until well over 10 billion. Our food generating capacity right now is probably sufficient to feed all those mouths, but just barely (and let's not get into the difficulties and costs of distribution of food worldwide -- another great big problem area).

Now imagine if 25-50% of the world's food supply were cut down by the devastation of the bees. What consequences would result? Mass starvation? Rise of totalitarian states? Collapse of international alliances and accords? War?

The rising disaster in honeybees is only one facet of the greater problem, but without doubt, it's one that could have a rapid and devastating effect on the world economy and security within the next decade.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Vaccines don't cause Autism

The science is clear, and the legal rulings are coming faster and faster. The original study (Wakefield, 1998) was flawed and the author is being investigated for misconduct, and over the course of the following decade dozens of studies worldwide have shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccinations and autism.

Does that mean there shouldn't be concern about the number of vaccinations, their interaction with the body, and the safety and health of all people? Not at all. But this autism-vaccine scare has gone on long enough. Autism is a difficult disorder to diagnose, and the symptoms don't all show up with consistent timing and sequence. And the fact that the MMR vaccine is given at 18 months means that there is very little development time for noticing autistic tendencies. In fact, it's not until about 18 months that those tendencies start to appear.

This is obviously a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy - just because the MMR vaccine (and many others) are given at around the same time that early autistic tendencies are noticed does not mean that one caused the other. It's clear from the research that's been conducted that there is no difference in autism numbers, regardless of vaccination status.

And the risks aren't just for the kids who don't get the vaccines. Herd immunity is critically important for public health. We need about 95-98% of the population immune to a communicable disease to keep from triggering outbreaks. Since this bogus vaccine scare started, the vaccinated numbers have dropped -- from over 97% in the late 90's to less than 85% now.

And what's happened? Outbreaks of measles, polio and other easily preventable illnesses. Not vaccinating your children is a reckless public health threat. There's no other name for it -- it's a threat and a risk for all people.

When you get vaccinated, you not only help yourself by immunizing against the disease, you also add to the blanket of protection that covers all people in your community. If everyone is vaccinated, then no one can get sick. Even if there are a few that don't vaccinate (for whatever reason), they are still protected by that greater public blanket. But poke enough holes in it, and the blanket starts to leak, and the infections, sickness and death follow quickly.

We haven't eradicated the diseases we innoculate against - we've simply put up a shield against them. And these anti-vax morons are trying to rip apart that shield and put everyone -- not just their own selfish selves -- at tremendous risk.

Please, educate yourself about the safety and security that complete vaccination creates. The risks are real, and the idea that these are "old" diseases is a fraud - they still exist, and they still kill, maim and disable. If we succumb to the irrational and fearmongering anti-vaxers, we'll end up with easily preventable, curable diseases making a "killing" on the death charts.

Saving old games for posterity

I've always been a video game player. From the earliest Atari system to the video-game arcades of the 80's, through the Sega Genesis to the PS3, I've owned sysetms and played them for decades. One of the little joys of my life is using a software emulator (M.A.M.E.) to play old arcade and console video games on my computer. Donkey Kong, Galaga, Pac Man, et al -- they're a lot of fun. And the new games -- WOW! High Definition graphics, full 7.1 surround sound, interactive worlds of adventure: what a rush of adrenaline.

But there's a lurking problem. Many of the old games are hardware dependent, meaning that without the proper computer or console, they won't work. Sure, there are some emulators out there (as mentioned above, M.A.M.E.) , but it doesn't work for all games, and there are many consoles that don't have good emulators available.

Now there's an EU funded group that's trying to develop a software that will allow any game, from any generation, to be played. I think this is a worthy effort, but I'm hoping they aren't just looking at the gaming world - there was a lot of relevant and historically significant productive software that is being lost because there aren't any machines capable of running them anymore.

I really hope they succeed -- because we all need a little Donkey Kong now and then.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Maybe This Explains Creationists Too

Well, chalk up another reason why teenagers are so rebellious and dismissive of parental authority. According to this study, teenagers haven't fully developed their "theory of mind" and have a more difficult time figuring out what other people think.

After reading the article, I can say that it sure looks similar to what happens when I talk with creationists. No matter how logical and reasonable the evidence is, no matter how many times the theories are explained, no matter how hard I try to get them to "imagine no religion" (even for a moment) - they refuse to do it.

Based on this report, it may not be because they choose to refuse, but because they can't do it at all. Trying to view things from another's perspective is difficult anyway, especially when that other view is radically different from your own. But if this research is correct, those with younger, less developed minds will have an even greater difficulty doing so. And we all know creationists don't like to think very hard about things -- they'd rather be spoon-fed their beliefs and simply parrot talking points and canards without reflecting on the reasoning and rationale behind them.

Of course, if this does explain creationist thinking, then it also implies that there may be other parts of their brains that are underdeveloped -- I wonder if there's a test for development of critical thinking and skepticism?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Artificially mimicking Natural Selection

There they go again, proving evolutionary theories right!

Darn those dratted scientists!

When will they ever learn that Jumpin' Jebus Jee-horsey-fat preprogrammed every little thing before the start of the universe? Their experiments are all the work of that Evilainous Satan Dervil! I just knows it!

Now those pesky scientists are making artificial brains that actual learn and grow! Their monstrous creations (all the size of a paperback book) can walk, see, and maybe talk.

Someday soon, they might even make a fake brain that works better than the typical creationist brain.

Oops, wait a minute -- the one they started with had six neurons. Guess they've already accomplished THAT feat!