BOOK REVIEW: How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D JohnsonHow To Defeat Your Own Clone (and Other Tips For Surviving the Biotech Revolution by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson

Bantam Books, February 2010; 180pp; US$14.00 RRP – ISBN13: 978-0533385786

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the cultural opposition to science in the West, it’s a wave of new popular science media. The guiding principle seems to be “make it fun, give it a hook, deliver as much hard material as you can without provoking the gag reflex”, which goes some way to explain the popularity of science blogs – small chunks of science wrapped up in tasty and palatable context is a great format for lay readers with an interest in the topic, but without the specialist knowledge to follow the journal scene. Kurpinski and Johnson’s How To Defeat Your Own Clone is full of bloggy zing, and neatly skewers numerous pop-culture skiffy clichés – the scientifically-impossible clones of cinema and television – in order to entice the reader into a topic that promises to become increasingly controversial and pertinent in the coming years. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson”

Physical gender not determined by XY chromosomes after all

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Via Cheryl Morgan, news of recent research that’s blown holes in a lot of our preconceptions about how the physical sex of a mammal is determined by genetics. I’ll quote Cheryl rather than the article, because she uses less sciencespeak:

We have known for a long time that physical sex is much more complex than simply having XX or XY chromosomes. According to this article we now understand the exact mechanism by which a body will develop either testes or ovaries. Of particular importance is the fact that this mechanism involves a gene that is not on either the X or Y chromosome, and is active for only a very short period in the embryo’s development. There are therefore definite possibilities for things to go wrong in an embryo with perfectly normal X, and Y if it exists, chromosomes.

Even more startlingly (and potentially annoying for feminist separatists) is the following:

“The research challenges several long held assumptions, such that female development happens by default, or that once formed, mature tissues are immutable or fixed.”

And near the end of the press release, there’s this:

… if it is possible to change adult gonad type from ovary to testes or even the reverse, it may eventually allow individuals with gender dysphoria, who feel they are trapped in the wrong sex, to change their gonads appropriately rather than having them removed surgically as part of their treatment to undergo gender reassignment.

Another little step closer to living in Iain M Banks’ Culture universe… 🙂

Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl looking alarmingly predictive

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

Some of the ideas in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent Nebula-winning debut novel The Windup Girl are already alarmingly close to reality. In a future world where all the oil is long gone, all energy has to come from food as processed by animals, human or otherwise; when your food crops start dying, it’s a race against time to cook up new genetic variants that can resist the rapid mutations of virulent viruses and parasites… which means big money for whoever has a patent on the right genetic sequences, and perpetual debt (or intellectual property piracy) for everyone else.

A speculative future, certainly, and one that I’m pretty sure isn’t meant to be taken quite as literally as some reviewers and critics have done thus far… but there’s a definite undercurrent of classic science fictional “if this goes on…” in The Windup Girl, and things are going on. Just the other week we mentioned that poppy blight in Afghanistan. Now, via Paul McAuley, we hear that South Africa has been invaded by a new wheat fungus which could easily spread into south Asia and the Middle East, and from there onwards

“Eventually it will reach North America and Europe,” says Ronnie Coffman, a plant-breeding scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He warns that in the next few years, farmers across the world will need to replace up to 90% of the current wheat varieties with new, resistant varieties to ensure crops are protected against the fungus.

That sound you can hear? Monsanto’s board of directors rubbing their fat hands together in delight.

I’m of the opinion that the “Frankenstein foods” panic about GM crops is reactionary foolishness, and that we badly need engineered crops to support the world’s population… but I have serious concerns about incumbent intellectual property laws, not to mention the sort of genetic tampering (e.g. neutered seedstock – it’ll grow, but you can’t grow more without paying up for more viable seeds) that could turn that urgent need into a captive-market profit margin that’ll make the fossil fuel multinationals look like corner-store philanthropists.

That’s very much a worst-case scenario, of course, but forewarned is fore-armed… and Bacigalupi’s novel (which I really must get round to writing a full review of when my schedule allows) is a timely allegory, as well as a very gripping read. Go buy a copy.

Storming heaven: Craig Venter and team create synthetic life

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Schematic demonstrating the assembly of a synthetic M. mycoides genome in yeast.Unless you’ve been underneath that oft-mentioned hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last twelve hours or so, you’ll already have an idea of what today’s (and probably this year’s) big science story is. It is, of course, the announcement by Craig Venter and his team that they’ve successfully created the first fully synthetic self-replicating bacterial lifeform. There are many bits of coverage, though The Guardian has been good enough to include a document scan of the actual scientific paper on which the stories are based. [image credit Science/AAAS; ganked from Wired article]

The tabloid terror and hand-wringing will take a few days to filter through, I expect, as will the condemnations from religious figureheads and marginal cranks… quality fire and brimstone takes time to write, as any author will tell you. That said, The Guardian (yes, again – I’m just such a Limey pinko leftie progressive at heart, sorry) sets their religion-beat blogger on the matter early, and he manages to ask the questions that everyone else will pose, only without resorting to the apocalyptic imagery and overstatement required to elevate the uninterested to the outraged: has Venter made mankind into gods?

“Life is basically the result of an information process – a software process” says Venter, and “Starting with the information in a computer, we put it into a recipient cell, and convert it into a news species”. But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it’s impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn’t a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn’t material, and it isn’t bound by physical laws. Information turns out to be as elusive and as omnipresent as God once was.

I don’t mean that they are both the same because clearly they are not. What’s important is that neither fits into any kind of common sense category; in orthodox theology, the idea of existence without God is senseless: not meaningless, but self-contradictory. Something similar is true of information in the sense that Venter uses it. It isn’t the things that people tell each other: it is the fundamental regularities of nature that scientists discover. A universe without information could not exist and certainly couldn’t contain scientists.


“We are limited mostly by our imaginations” Venter says. The worry is whether our imaginations will prove up to the task. The trouble with gods, as the Greek philosophers observed, is that they were not any morally better than humans, just more powerful.

Smart people, the Ancient Greeks. I can’t see synthetic life driving any definitive nails into the coffin of faith, myself; that particular battle is a movable feast, and I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never be free of it. But what’s very certain is that we just stepped into a bigger, scarier, more amazing and more science fictional world… and what’s almost as certain is that the real benefits and pitfalls of this new phase of scientific and technological endeavour will probably be very different to the speculative ones that will be kicked around for the next few weeks.

But hey, why let that stop us? Speculation can be it’s own reward, after all – at least, that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy reading good science fiction. So sound off in the comments – is Venter trespassing in the realms of the divine, or is this just the next glorious and inevitable step in the apotheosis of the naked apes?

The Lighter Side of Genetic Manipulation Nightmares

C Sven Johnson @ 19-05-2010

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

After Alba the fluorescent art rabbit was artificially engineered, and genetically modified zebra fish were cleared for sale to the general public, I began imagining various ways in which playing Frankenstein could bite us all in the collective ass. Vivid as it may be, my layman’s imagination has been no match for the professional efforts taking place inside globally dispersed laboratories; strategically located to best align with antiquated laws, corrupt government officials and/or an oblivious local population.

As a consequence, I … we … have been repeatedly blindsided by some exasperating headlines: the Ruakura “sane cow” vaccination backfire in Australia, the Black Gull 17 contagion in Europe, and the Three Pig Inc virus in North America come immediately to mind. However, I can only take so much bad news. Continue reading “The Lighter Side of Genetic Manipulation Nightmares”

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