What animals are thinking and feeling, and why it should matter

 

Chinese scientist who claimed to make genetically edited babies is kept under guard

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese scientist who shocked the world by claiming that he had created the first genetically edited babies is sequestered in a small university guesthouse in the southern city of Shenzhen, where he remains under guard by a dozen unidentified men.

The sighting of the scientist, He Jiankui, this week was the first since he appeared at a conference in Hong Kong in late November and defended his actions. For the past few weeks, rumors had swirled about whether Dr. He was under house arrest. His university and the Chinese government, which has put Dr. He under investigation, have been silent about his fate.

Dr. He now lives in a fourth-floor apartment at a university guesthouse, a hotel run by the school for visiting teachers, on the sprawling campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District, where many of China’s best-known tech companies, like Tencent, have their offices.

In November, Dr. He stunned the global scientific community when he claimed to have created the world’s first babies from genetically edited embryos, implanted in a woman who gave birth to twin girls. While he did not provide proof that the gene-edited twins were born, he presented data that suggested he had done what he claimed. [Continue reading…]

Hume believed we were nothing more or less than human

Julian Baggini writes:

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

While Hume was lying aged 65 on his deathbed at the end of a happy, successful and (for the times) long life, he told his doctor: ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.’ Three days before he died, on 25 August 1776, probably of abdominal cancer, his doctor could still report that he was ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books’.

When the end came, Dr Black reported that Hume ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness … He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’ [Continue reading…]

The discovery of vast populations of subsurface microbial beings is shaking up what we think we know about life

JoAnna Klein writes:

At the surface, boiling water kills off most life. But Geogemma barossii is a living thing from another world, deep within our very own. Boiling water — 212 degrees Fahrenheit — would be practically freezing for this creature, which thrives at temperatures around 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

No other organism on the planet is known to be able to live at such extreme heat.

But it’s just one of many mysterious microbes living in a massive subterranean habitat that until recently has been practically invisible. Over the past decade, scientists from around the world have banded together under the Deep Carbon Observatory to make sense of these hidden habitats. The observatory’s researchers presented some of their recent discoveries last week.

With high-tech drills, ROVs and submersibles, pressurized collection tubes, the latest DNA technology and computer modeling, the researchers have explored volcanoes, diamond mines, deep-sea hot springs, underwater mud volcanoes and other extreme sites beneath our oceans and continents. What they’ve found turns what we know about the world literally upside down.

So science fiction fans, rejoice. The real journey to the center of the Earth has begun.

These Altiarchaeales belong to a domain of nucleus-lacking single-celled microbes called Archaea. Archaea and bacteria make up the majority of life in the deep subsurface, and it’s estimated that there are more of these kinds of microbes below ground than above.

Some 200 to 600 octillion microbes live beneath our continents, suggests an analysis of data from sites all over the world, and even more live beneath the seafloor. Together they weigh the equivalent of up to 200 million blue whales — and far more than all 7.5 billion humans. Subterranean diversity rivals that of the surface, with most underground organisms yet to be discovered or characterized. [Continue reading…]

Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and transition

The Washington Post reports:

The Russian ambassador. A deputy prime minister. A pop star, a weightlifter, a lawyer, a Soviet army veteran with alleged intelligence ties.

Again and again and again, over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency, Russian citizens made contact with his closest family and friends, as well as figures on the periphery of his orbit.

Some offered to help his campaign and his real estate business. Some offered dirt on his Democratic opponent. Repeatedly, Russian nationals suggested Trump should hold a peacemaking sit-down with Vladi­mir Putin — and offered to broker such a summit.

In all, Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show. [Continue reading…]

If dying could be sweet

When former presidents or other famous people die, the news of such events is always dominated by recollections of their lives. Generally we learn only the most abbreviated details of the circumstances in which life came to an end.

The final days of George H W Bush’s life were unusual in that they were shared with his lifelong friend James Baker and other friends and family members who then graciously provided the New York Times with an account that conveys tenderness and humanity. It resonates on a level that makes irrelevant the political views any of us might have about the Bush dynasty.

When Mr. Baker came to the house early on Friday morning, Mr. Bush seemed to rally a bit, and it appeared that he would defy death one more time. He began to eat again. He had three five-minute soft-boiled eggs, a favorite, as well as a bowl of yogurt and two fruit drinks. “Everybody thought this is going to be a great day and he’s back and he’s bounced back again,” Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Baker left around 9:15 a.m. but decided to return in the evening when he and Mrs. Baker were on the way to dinner with some friends. “He was sitting up in bed and was able to converse with people,” Mr. Baker said.

But in the car on the way home from dinner, the Bakers received a phone call urging them to come back to Mr. Bush’s house. They arrived about 8:15 p.m. “He had slipped considerably,” Mr. Baker said.

Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, had called earlier in the day to ask if he could drop by, and when he showed up, Ms. Becker [the former president’s longtime chief of staff] asked him to sing to the president. Mr. Tynan sang two songs, the first “Silent Night” and the second a Gaelic song.

As he sang “Silent Night,” Mr. Baker said, “Believe it or not, the president was mouthing the words.”

Mr. Baker held Mr. Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet for nearly a half-hour. The other children, who live around the country, were called so they could tell their father goodbye.

Dr. Levenson [rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston], who arrived at 9:15 p.m., led those in the room in prayer. “We all knelt around him and placed our hands on him and prayed for him and it was a very graceful, gentle death,” he said. “It was very evident that that man was so deeply loved.”

There was no struggle, no prolonged period of labored breathing. At 10:10 p.m., the former president slipped away.

“If those things could be sweet,” Mr. Baker said, “it was sweet.”

The insect apocalypse is here. What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

Brooke Jarvis reports:

Sune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed?

Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by the melancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eating experience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of loss. “I guess it’s pretty human to think that everything was better when you were a kid,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t like it when I was on my bike and I ate all the bugs, but looking back on it, I think it’s something everybody should experience.”

I met Riis, a lanky high school science and math teacher, on a hot day in June. He was anxious about not having yet written his address for the school’s graduation ceremony that evening, but first, he had a job to do. From his garage, he retrieved a large insect net, drove to a nearby intersection and stopped to strap the net to the car’s roof. Made of white mesh, the net ran the length of his car and was held up by a tent pole at the front, tapering to a small, removable bag in back. Drivers whizzing past twisted their heads to stare. Riis eyed his parking spot nervously as he adjusted the straps of the contraption. “This is not 100 percent legal,” he said, “but I guess, for the sake of science.”

Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, the more his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing their decline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. With other, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is wave our arms and say, ‘It’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t the disappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis and many others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundance that could alter the planet in unknowable ways. “We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon. [Continue reading…]

Humanity is destroying life on Earth

 

The Guardian reports:

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”

“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese government, reversing a 25-year ban, announced on Monday that it would allow the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine, a move that environmentalists described as a significant setback for efforts to protect the animals from extinction.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a policy directive that it would legalize the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for “medical research or in healing,” but only by certified hospitals and doctors, and only from rhinos and tigers raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals.

Still, environmentalists said the decision would likely help fuel a black market for wild rhino and tiger parts, which are revered in traditional Chinese medicine for supposed healing powers, and could lead to increased poaching of the fewer than 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers still in the wild. [Continue reading…]

The rhythm of life

 

Living in ignorance about our ignorance

Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

In 1806, entrepreneur Frederic Tudor sailed to the island of Martinique with a precious cargo. He had harvested ice from frozen Massachusetts rivers and expected to make a tidy profit selling it to tropical customers. There was only one problem: the islanders had never seen ice. They had never experienced a cold drink, never tasted a pint of ice cream. Refrigeration was not a celebrated innovation, but an unknown concept. In their eyes, there was no value in Tudor’s cargo. His sizable investment melted away unappreciated and unsold in the Caribbean heat.

Tudor’s ice tale contains an important point about human affairs. Often, human fate rests not on what people know but what they fail to know. Often, life’s outcomes are determined by hypocognition.

What is hypocognition? If you don’t know, you’ve just experienced it.

Hypocognition, a term introduced to modern behavioral science by anthropologist Robert Levy, means the lack of a linguistic or cognitive representation for an object, category, or idea. The Martinique islanders were hypocognitive because they lacked a cognitive representation of refrigeration. But so are we hypocognitive of the numerous concepts that elude our awareness. We wander about the unknown terrains of life as novices more often than experts, complacent of what we know and oblivious to what we miss.

In financial dealings, almost two thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from Type II diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition is about the absence of things. It is hard to recognize precisely because it is invisible. To recognize hypocognition requires a departure from the reassuring familiarity of our own culture to gain a grasp of the unknown and the missing. After all, it is difficult to see the culture we inhabit from only within. [Continue reading…]