Archive for April 2006

The Aristotelian Categories

April 26, 2006

On pages 123-35 of Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Michael Loux argues that both bundle theory and substratum theory provide unsatisfactory descriptions of the nature of objects.  Bundle theory, he says, is empirically sound but requires us to accept the illogical Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles.  Substratum theory evades the PII but requires us to accept the existence of bare particulars.  No one can say what a bare particular is, and none appear in the world, so this concept seems to violate the Correspondence Theory of Truth.  Loux claims that we can evade the problems of both theories if we accept the existence of categories, Aristotle’s name for irreducibly complex concrete particulars.  These categories include living organisms and any irreducible physical objects, such as quarks and photons, which exist.  James Van Cleve, in his “Three Versions of The Bundle Theory,” characterizes category theory as a form of bundle theory which contains the same difficulties as bare particulars (Red Book page 125).  In this paper, I will argue that Van Cleve’s criticism shows that he does not understand the categories.  I will first explain how the categories differ from bundles and then how they differ from substrata.  To conclude, I will give some reasons why categories surpass them both.

Van Cleve describes a category as an object F with a bundle of essential properties “X” and a bundle of non-essential properties “Y.”  Whereas the X properties are necessary for the continued identity of F, the Y properties came to F accidentally; F can possess as many or as few of them as he likes.  This description, innocent as it is, is incorrect.  A category is neither a bundle of properties nor a set of bundles.  Bundle theory, after all, stipulates that objects are dependent upon their properties for existence.  Categories, however, are not dependent on their properties.  They are clearly not dependent on the non-essential set of properties “Y.”  As for the essential set of properties “X,” these things are actually dependent on the category.  The category theory denies the basic assumption of bundle theory.  It asserts that an object has properties because it belongs to a category, not vice versa.  Just as a caterpillar develops into a butterfly, so a category develops its own properties.

Van Cleve also describes the category as something similar to a bare particular.   He argues that the set of essential properties X is too small to instantiate any actual individuals.  His example of this is the category “human,” which he imagines would contain the properties “rational” and “animal.”  He argues that there is no human whom we would reduce to these traits alone.  I agree with him that these two are not the only essential traits for humans.  I would at least include emotions and self-awareness in this set.  Van Cleve’s incomplete assessment of the essential qualities of humanity does not disprove the existence of essential qualities, though.

Certainly, there are necessary properties for each category which are not filled until the instantiation itself.  For instance, every human must have a mother, but the identity of each mother is not included in a human being’s category description.  Rather, the property of having a mother is a necessary part of being a mammal, and the specific identity of the mother is a non-essential fact which we determine later.  Any traits which seem to be lost in a category’s description are probably folded into the complex universals which the category possesses.

Van Cleve further argues that the many empty spaces within the categories could lead their instantiations to fill their blank property spaces with contradictions.  For instance, one instantiation of humans could be wise while another could be foolish.  The category “human” would contradict itself.

I do not understand this particular criticism of the category theory.  Yes, different instantiations of categories could have contradictory properties, but this seems to mirror the real world.  There are both wise and foolish humans.  It would be a bigger concern if the same instantiation could have two contradictory properties – a dog that is both sick and healthy, for instance – but this still seems impossible.  Contradictory essential properties would indicate serious problems with our classifications, but contradictory non-essential properties are feasible.  Each human has a unique genome, so we all contradict each other in this property, but we do all have genomes.

I am sure that Van Cleve meant well in his criticism of category theory; he simply didn’t understand it.  In my opinion, category theory is the most satisfactory account of concrete particulars which we have.  With categories, we can have objects which are as irreducible as substrata but far more coherent, breaking our dependence upon properties.  We can account for change in objects without committing ourselves to the Heraclitean view that objects constantly lose their identities.  We can give a satisfactory answer to Descartes’s wax example: the wax can burn all it likes, but if it changes its properties in the radical way which he describes, it is no longer the same object, regardless of its spatiotemporal continuity.  If it changes color, shape, hardness, and so forth, but still is a wax, it is the same thing.  If a piece of paper is burned, the pile of ashes which it leaves behind shares continuity with the paper, but it is no longer paper.  The paper is gone.  Only ashes remain.

I think Aristotle’s insight that living beings are irreducible particulars is especially profound.  We can create tools, pictures, even lakes and mountains with their hands.  We cannot produce life in the same way.  Each living being is the product of a cycle of natural reproduction.  Only frogs and make frogs; only oak trees can make oak trees, and so forth.  When a tool breaks, we can fix it, but when a living being dies, we cannot revive it.  I believe that this lends inductive evidence to Aristotle’s contention that animals, plants, and so forth are irreducibly complex.  It seems that bundle theorists and substratum theorists, rather than sitting in their ivory towers and assuming they had each solved the mystery of objects, should have spent more time examining the world outside their windows.  Category theory explains the mystery of life in a way the other two theories do not.

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The Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles

April 26, 2006

According to Leibniz’s Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles (PII), it is logically impossible for two completely identical objects to exist.  If any two things share all their properties, they are but one thing.  (In other words, if two objects are qualitatively indiscernible, they must also be identical.)  Michael Loux expresses this principle more formally in Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction:

Necessarily, for any concrete objects, a and b, if for any attribute, φ, φ is an attribute of a if and only if φ is an attribute of b, then a is numerically identical with b. (112)

This is both a controversial claim and a complex one because each philosopher who evaluates this claim first has to give his definition of an attribute (or property).  Does it include spatiotemporal location?  Do relationships with other objects qualify as properties?  I believe that the truth of the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles depends on these questions, so I will provide a complex argument: (1) PII is true but trivial if spatiotemporal location is a property; (2) Leibniz’s theological justification for PII is wrong; (3) PII is true but trivial if relationships with other objects are properties; (4) PII is false otherwise; (4’) the trope theorist’s defense of PII is valid, but it is false because trope theory is false.

If we include spatiotemporal location as a property, we can safely accept the PII.  Only maniacs and quantum theorists would argue that two different objects can occupy the same space at the same time.  Such an occurrence would violate the very concept of space.  Thus, if two objects occupy the same space at the same time, and they share all their properties, they must be identical.  Under these circumstances, the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is true, but it is also trivial and carries no interesting results for philosophy.

Leibniz, the progenitor of the PII, would have agreed.  He does not believe that an object’s locations in space and time qualify as properties.  These attributes place an object in a certain position in relation to all other objects, but they do not tell us anything about the object itself.  If I pick up my book, the book does not change.  The passage of time itself does not make milk spoil; rather, the milk changes because of the chemical reactions that happen during this time.

Space and time are purely relational properties to Leibniz.  Since the Earth is rotating and orbiting around the Sun, and our very solar system is in motion, it is ludicrous for us to consider anything in our world to be stationary.  Due to inertial effects, even if something in the universe was stationary, we would not notice it.  Furthermore, our universe is practically infinite.  Thus, it is ludicrous to say that an object A could have an absolute location; it would require boundaries which we don’t have.  We can only define an object’s location in terms of its proximity to other objects.  Time, like space, is apparently infinite; thus, we can only place objects in time by saying what came before and after them.  Our BC/AD system of counting years is as arbitrary as any other.

In his correspondence with Samuel Clarke, Leibniz proposes the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles as a necessary consequence of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and his theological beliefs.  According to the PSR, there must be a sufficient reason for everything which happens.  According to Leibniz’s theology, God has an active role in the world.  He is all-powerful, so He can move the parts of the universe however He likes.  Since He is all-knowing and also all-good, all His actions are perfect.  Thus, He must have a logical, a sufficient, a good reason for everything He does.

Now, if God created two identical but separate and distinct objects, A and B, He would not know what to do with them.  Should he place A in Position X and B in position Y, or should he place B in X and A in Y?  Because A and B are identical, it does not matter where God puts them.  A and B will perform exactly the same function in X.  Thus, whatever decision God makes about the two will be entirely arbitrary.  Since God is always logical, though, He is incapable of arbitrary decisions.  Such a God would be stunned, trapped inside a paradox of His own making.

God, being perfect, knows that He cannot allow this to happen, and for this reason, He would never allow any two objects to be absolutely identical.  He would not create two such things, and He would not allow any two objects to become identical, either, because He might have to use them at any time.  A and B might be “practically” identical – in other words, alike in any way our senses can discern – but there will always be something, perhaps even something as small as a missing quark, which distinguishes the two.  This state of affairs which God has arranged is also known as the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles.

Leibniz’s argument is valid, but given its theological nature, we can easily call its soundness into question.  Atheists can reject this argument out of hand.  Other theists can argue that though God created the universe, He now allows everything inside it to function according to the laws of physics which He created.  Since he does not actively move objects like A and B, He does not need to regulate their identities.  (This is a rather Newtonian way of viewing God, so it’s easy to see why an anti-Newtonian like Leibniz didn’t consider it.)  Samuel Clarke argues that God would not need the PII at all because His Will is sufficient reason for anything He wishes to do.  If He wishes to make an arbitrary decision between A and B, so be it.

The other component of Leibniz’s argument for the PII, the PSR, is not as controversial.  Other thinkers merely regard it in a non-theological manner; for instance, one of the basic axioms of science is that every physical phenomenon has a cause.  Even those who believe that human beings have free will believe that each person has a reason, no matter how legitimate, for his actions.

I do not know the thoughts of God, but I am inclined to reject Leibniz’s argument for the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles.  I am sympathetic toward the Newton idea of God: He created the world and His laws, and though He sometimes overrides physics in the form of miracles, He does not do it so much that He has to worry about identical As and Bs.  Even if He does, I do not think God is as beholden to the Principle of Sufficient Reason as Leibniz imagines.  There are plenty of theological points, from the Trinity to omniscience itself, which I don’t think I will ever be able to comprehend.  Surely, God has a way to solve this problem which we do not understand.  Perhaps, He would instantaneously put two identical objects in two different places, so he wouldn’t have to agonize about where he should move each one.  Leibniz’s argument is nothing but an unverifiable assertion, so we cannot contemplate it as a philosophical principle.

Future philosophers were not as theologically inclined as Leibniz was, so they did not argue about the PII on his terms again.  Instead, the PII resurfaced as a component of the argument between the bundle and substratum theories of objects.  Under this framework, we can consider a variety of incarnations of the PII.  Loux details the bundle-substratum debate very well in pages 111-117 of the grey book, much of which I will summarize here.

The bundle theory (BT) states that each object is nothing but a collection of its properties.  Put formally,

Necessarily, for any concrete entity, a, if for any entity, b, b is a constituent of a, then b is an attribute. (112)

In response, substratum theorists argue that BT requires the PII and that PII is false.  They note that the bundle theorist, like all other ontologists, is committed to the Principle of Constituent Identity (PCI), which states that any whole is the sum of its parts.  Put formally,

Necessarily, for any complex objects, a and b, if for any entity, c, c is a constituent of a if and only if c is a constituent of b, then a is numerically identical with b. (113)

According to BT, all objects are the sum of their properties.  According to PCI, if two objects share all their constituents, then they are the same object.  Therefore, if two objects share all their properties, they must be identical (the PII).  So, the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is a necessary consequence of BT and PCI.

Substratum theorists deny the PII on the grounds that it is possible for two objects to share all their properties.  Because each object contains millions of atoms and countless electrons and quarks, it is extremely improbable (practically impossible) for two objects to be identical, but it is not logically impossible like the PII claims.  They then challenge bundle theorists to prove them wrong.

Max Black proves this with a thought experiment in his dialogue “The Identity of Indiscernibles” (Red Book 104-113).  He proposes a world in which only two objects exist: two spheres which are qualitatively identical and which stand a certain distance from each other.  Black then challenges his imaginary critic to prove that this world is impossible.

The critic first suggests that if he enters this world, he will be able to distinguish the spheres because one will be to his left and one to his right.  Black responds that he would indeed be able to do this, but it would entail introducing a third party to the world and ruining the example.

The critic also argues that the spheres are different because they have different identity properties.  In other words, A has the property of being A, but it does not have the property of being B.  B has the property of being B, but it does not have the property of being A.  Therefore, A and B are distinct.  In response, Black says that “A is A” is a tautology, not a property.

This impasse pushes Black and the critic into an argument about relationships as properties.  Black is quite hesitant to allow them; he accepts “being one meter from a sphere” as a property but rejects “being one meter from sphere A.”  His argument is epistemological: because we cannot distinguish between the two spheres, it is impossible to give them names.  I disagree with his reasoning.  We may not be able to remember which sphere is A and which is B after we arbitrarily name them, but according to Black, the two are separate and distinct, so we must assume we can name them this way.  In this case, “being one meter from sphere A” is a relational property on the same level as “being one meter from a sphere.”  Since Black tries to pick and choose which relationships he will allow as properties, he fails to disprove his critic.

Indeed, if we accept relationships as properties, we must accept the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles.  Each spatial location carries a unique set of relationships with all the objects placed in spatial locations around it: 5 miles west of X, perhaps, or 2 meters under Y or 5 inches from Z.  For A and B to be separate and distinct, they occupy different locations.  If they occupy different locations, they have different sets of relationships, and thus they have different relational properties, and so they are not identical, and it is impossible for them to be so.  Even in the world of the two spheres, the relationship which A has with B is different from the relationship B has with B, and so the objects are different.

Thus, we must conclude that if relationships are properties, the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is true.  Since this case is so similar to the first case we discussed (two objects share the same location), though, it also seems trivial.  It is interesting to consider that our relationships to our fellow objects are always changing, but that is the only new information this Principle can bring us.

In response to this PII, some ontologists, including James Van Cleve, draw the distinction between “impure” spatial, temporal, and relational properties and “pure” properties (all the rest).  (Leibniz himself seemed to endorse this view, as I noted earlier.)  According to these philosophers, “impure” properties assume the existence of concrete particulars.  For A to have the property of being identical to A, A must already exist.  For Sphere A to have the property of being one meter away from Sphere B, we must assume A’s and B’s existences.  Bundle theorists cannot accept dependent properties, however, because they have already said that objects are dependent on properties for their existence.  They cannot use properties which depend on objects to prove that objects depend on properties.  Instead, they must work with the “pure” properties alone.  We can then amend BT to BT*, which reads

Necessarily, for any concrete entity, a, if for any entity, b, b is a constituent of a, then b is a pure property/attribute. (116)

Our new Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, PII*, says

Necessarily, for any concrete objects, a and b, if for any pure property/attribute, φ, φ is an attribute of a if and only if φ is an attribute of b, then a is numerically identical with b. (116)

I think that this PII, free of location and relationships, is easily proved false.  Black’s example of the two spheres does that very thing.  Though, like I said earlier, it would be highly improbable (practically impossible) for two objects, even atoms, to change to the point that they share all their properties (same mass, hue, shape, etc.), it would not be logically impossible.  All objects can change their physical characteristics, after all, so they could simultaneously evolve into qualitatively identical beings.  We can thus deny the PII* or Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles which considers only “pure” properties.

Loux does provide one way for bundle theorists to save the PII from the razor: they must embrace the trope theory.  Trope theorists are nominalists; in other words, they deny that any properties can be shared.  Each property that an object has is unique to that object.  The blue on my shirt is unique to my shirt; it could not exist anywhere else.  The same goes for the blue on my pants.  Since my shirt and pants are both blue, they seem to share blueness, but this is merely a mistake of the language.  The two colors are similar but intrinsically different.

Under this framework, the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is necessarily true.  Each object contains a set of properties which is specific to that object.  Therefore, no objects which are separate and distinct could have anything in common.  If two objects to share the same properties, they must be one and the same.

This is a valid argument, but I reject it because I believe the trope theory is false.  How are the blue in my shirt and the blue in my pants similar?  Is it because they each share the color blue?  In that case, isn’t blue a universal after all?  Either there are universals, or all properties are unanalyzable.  The theory fails Occam’s Razor.

The trope theory seems to be to be a clumsy expression of the principle of imminent universals.  According to this principle, universals do not exist independently.  Rather, they are contingent upon the existence of the objects which carry them.  Each time an object exhibits a universal property, we call it a particular instantiation of that property.  Trope theory also says that properties are imminent and that each instantiation of a property is particular.  It errs because it denies or does not explain that objects can have common properties, after all; the principle of imminent universals addresses this problem.

Leibniz formulated the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles in order to justify his theology.  The PII was a disappointment then, and it continues to be one today.  When PII is true, it is trivial: everyone already knows that two objects cannot occupy the same position or stand the same distance from every other object.  When PII could have interesting implications – what if all objects were required to be physically different from each other in some way? – it is false.  The best thing we can say about it is that it helps us to discard bundle theory, paving the way for the Aristotelian Categories I will describe in my next paper.

Responses to Five Articles about Genetics

April 25, 2006

These are exciting times for the human race.  Our technology is improving at an incredible pace; it’s hard to believe that neither computers nor the Internet were widely used 20 years ago.  Genetics is another field which is experiencing unprecedented growth.  Ten years ago, scientists finished transcribing the human genome; we now have a blueprint for human life.  Each week, we hear more news about DNA and what we can do with it.  Already, DNA evidence has become a key component of criminal cases; what if we could have had it in the thousands of years of jurisprudence before now?  Thanks to transgenic crops, we now eat bigger and better food than any society has before.  Who knows what future boons genetic engineering will bring?

I believe that the press wants to report about this topic accurately, but at the same time, each reporter wants his stories to be the most important and most-read pieces in the world.  Thus, our scribes are given to hyperbole, particularly in their headlines, when they report about controversial issues such as genetics.  For example, one article which I used for this portfolio is called “A (Genetic) History of Violence.”  This is a broad, sweeping title, a clear reference to a dramatic movie which was released this year, but the article’s content is much less ambitious.  It tells us of a certain gene, some of whose alleles are mere risk factors for aggressive behavior.  The article is still useful, but it does not deliver all that it promises.

Biology 48 has given me the facts I need to discuss genetic controversies and to evaluate articles on such subjects.  I can now combat the ignorance that so often masquerades as common knowledge.  I can now read more complex articles about the field and understand them.  Simply put, Biology 48 has given me genetic literacy.

Of the articles I read, “A (Genetic) History of Violence” affected my view of the connection between genotype and brain activities.  I have heard of people having “chemical imbalances” which affected their thoughts and decisions, but I did not understand how these states could have genetic components.  “A Transgenic Threat to Indian Crops” made me seriously consider the consequences of crop contamination.  Without this article, I would not have realized that transgenic crops are such a threat to indigenous food and culture.  “The Sad Lot of Lab Chimps” helped to show me the effect that comparative genomics could have on the use of animals in laboratory research.  “’X’ Factor Boosts Women’s Health, Longevity” supplemented my knowledge about X-linked traits and lead me to wonder about the future of the Y chromosome.  “Anyone for tennis, at age 150?” helped to show me the present and potential future of genetic research.  It also reminded me that some people in the world are putting too much of their hopes in this field as a means for solving humanity’s problems.  Genetic research can change details of our lives, such as our susceptibility to certain diseases, but it cannot change basic facts about humanity.  Humans will always joke, laugh, fight, love, weep, choose their own destinies (often after days or years of soul-searching) and die.  I would like to believe that no amount of genetic engineering can change that.

“The Sad Lot of Lab Chimps” by Jane Goodall and Ray Greek

The Boston Globe, 17 February 2006

Science Terms

Comparative genomics the comparison of the genomes of different species and races.  Through this process, we can patch together the evolutionary connections between different organisms because genetic mutation is such an important part of evolution.

Genome/Genotypethe genetic sequence of an organism.  This provides the blueprint for the organism’s growth.

Phenotype – the physical expression of an organism’s genotype – in other words, the organism itself.

Summary

Jane Goodall and Ray Greek wrote this editorial to protest the use of chimpanzees for medical research, particularly in painful processes such as “infections with human pathogens, vital-organ biopsies, repeated inoculations for vaccine testing, and transfection for virus production.”  Goodall and Greek argue that recent advances in comparative genomics, particularly the completion of the rhesus macaque and chimpanzee genome projects, have proven that such procedures are useless and unnecessary because primates and humans have too many biological differences.  At least 5% of their genotypes are different, and their phenotypes are even more different.  Because the phenotypes of identical twins can diverge so much, the phenotypes of two separate species which grow up in totally different environments would be even more different!

The authors note that primate experiments with HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C have added little to our body of knowledge.  Primate research helped lead to the hepatitis B vaccine, but the use of primates for this purpose is now obsolete.  Goodall and Greek say these projects are not just ineffective; they are also unethical because primates are sentient beings.  The authors make many efforts to anthropomorphize these beasts, including describing their behavior, their mental prowess, etc.  Surely, they say, scientists should find a better means of learning about humans than doing research on chimpanzees.  “If we look into the eyes of one of these [caged] chimpanzees, shall we not feel deep shame?”

Response

As a Christian, I believe that humans and primates are fundamentally different entities; the former has an immortal soul, while the latter does not.  Therefore, I am not concerned about killing animals in order to save humans.  Since we are also stewards of the Earth, however, we should be careful not to capture, infect, and kill animals without good scientific reason to do so.  Thus, I am sympathetic to Goodall’s and Greek’s argument that the ends of this primate research do not justify the means.  However, genomics is such a new field, about which we know so little, that I seriously doubt we have conclusive evidence that primate research will not benefit humans.  Remember, it was research on mice that lead to the discovery of DNA.

“A Transgenic Threat to Indian Crops”

Sindhu Manjesh, CNN-IBN, 27 March 2006

Genetics Terms

Restriction enzymes – An enzyme is a complex protein which catalyzes a physical reaction.  Restriction enzymes cut DNA which include certain specific sequences.

Transgenic crops – These are crops whose genes have been modified with recombinant DNA.  Scientists use genetic markers to find the part of a plant cell’s genome which they want to modify.  They cut the desired DNA strand with restriction enzymes, introduce foreign DNA fragments with favorable qualities, and then mix the DNA with enzymes to seal the pieces back together.  The cell then divides into several cells, which eventually form embryos and then whole genetically modified plants.

Genetic contamination – The pollen of transgenic crops, like the pollen of other crops, can travel for several miles in any direction.  If it falls on a field of indigenous crops, it will cross-pollinate with them; since it is genetically enhanced, it is more likely to survive and thrive than the pure offspring of indigenous plants.  Thus, over several generations, genetically modified plants can destroy several indigenous varieties; this is “genetic contamination.”

Summary

Indian Prime Minister Manhoman Singh wants to revitalize Indian agriculture by expanding the use of genetically modified crops in India.  More than 40 varieties of transgenic crops are waiting for approval from the government.  However, CNN-IBN has uncovered problems with the government’s review process: (1) it is dependent on the research of the very companies who are peddling the seeds and does not even know where the tests are taking place; (2) many of the farmers who are undertaking these trials are violating several trial guidelines; (3) farmers are not properly protecting transgenic crops from cross-pollination with indigenous crops.

Response

I am not concerned that transgenic crops carry health risks because I don’t see a compelling scientific reason why they would.  Modifying a crop’s genes seems to be just like cross-breeding species to accentuate certain traits.  However, I am concerned about genetic contamination.  First of all, if one farmer’s transgenic crops decimate another farmer’s indigenous crops, it is a case of property damage and merits fiscal restitution.  Second, the less agricultural variety we have, the more vulnerable we are to famine: a pest or pathogen which is especially potent against a certain variety of plant could wipe out an entire crop.  Third, a decrease in food variety diminishes the richness of a culture.  Also, the Indian government’s abject failure to regulate transgenic crops or to even keep tabs on the trial process is troubling.  A government which cannot enforce its laws may as well not pass them.

“Anyone for tennis, at age 150?”

Ronald Bailey, Times Online (UK), 8 April 2006

Genetics Terms

Embryonic stem cells – Stem cells are cells are pluripotential; in other words, they could change into any of several different types of cells.  Embryonic stem cells are the cells that make up a blastocyst (human at about 8 days’ development).  They have nearly limitless potential for change, so many scientists are trying to determine how to shape these cells to their wills.

Genetic marker – a DNA sequence with a known location and function.

Mitochrondria – the organelles in the cell membrane which produce energy.  Scientists think that aging occurs when they are damaged.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis – In this process, several embryos are produced and screened for genetic diseases.  The embryo which is healthiest and carries the least genetic risks is then implanted into the mother for birth.

RNA interference – dsRNA, a mixture of sense and antisense (scrambles RNA) DNA, is injected into a cell.  Because the RNA is scrambled, the cell cannot express these genes.

Sirtuins – compounds which delay aging in simple organisms.

Summary

Ronald Bailey argues that within 100 years, people will live in a world in which people can live 200 years (perhaps forever); eat food which contains all nutrients and which prevents aging; have immunity to most diseases; re-grow their limbs and vital organs; take genetic treatments for mental diseases, and enjoy a cleaner environment due to advances in genetic engineering.  Bailey then runs through the current research projects of several biotech companies.  Among the things these researchers wish to do: (1) successfully use sirtuins in complex organisms and how to improve mitochondria; (2) repair and replace organs using stem cells; (3) use RNA interference to turn off genes which damage us.  They also are trying to find genetic markers for various traits in plants and animals.  Once they are found, we can genetically enhance traits such as resistance to diseases, strength, intelligence, and so forth.

Unfortunately, left-wing and right-wing “bioconservatives” are trying to prevent this perfect world from coming to be because they have moral reservations about certain bioengineering procedures.

Response

This piece was a good primer for the advances in biotechnology over the past few years.  Its tone greatly worried me, however.  It would be acceptable if Bailey had merely argued that genetic engineering could improve our lives, but he seems to sincerely believe this technology will create a perfect world here on Earth, and I strongly disagree with this point.  First of all, his article says nothing of natural disasters, cancer, automobile accidents, and other causes of death which we have been powerless to stop so far.  Second, no matter how much control we take over nature, even if we can treat mental illnesses with genetic remedies, we cannot wipe out the evil which resides in the hearts of men.  According to the US Department of Justice, only 16% of American criminals have mental illnesses.  “Normal” people get into fights and hurt each other’s feelings every single day.  Genetics are not the cause or solution to all social problems.

Finally, I can’t help thinking about old 1970’s and 1980’s articles I have read which intimated that computers would eventually eliminate the need for human beings to work so we could spend all our time on leisure.  The year is 2006, and computers have certainly changed the world, but it seems to me like most people, even children, are working harder and longer than they ever did before.  As Robert Burns said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I find it ironic that Bailey calls the party which favors any and all genetic research the “party of life” since some of its opponents call themselves “pro-life.”  The objection with which I sympathize the most is the argument that embryos are human lives.  If this is true, then producing and destroying them for science or for any other purpose is a grave violation of human rights.  The ends would not justify the means.  Rather than directly confronting this argument, Bailey counts on the majority of his peers to discount it as backwards.  This is probably for the best because the “Is it a human or isn’t it” debate almost always ends in an impasse.  Time will tell whether the Bailey’s “party of life” or the “pro-life party” wins the battle over government policy.

“’X’ Factor Boosts Women’s Health, Longevity”

Dr. Barbara R. Migeon, Kansas City InfoZine, 22 March 2006

Genetics Terms

X chromosome inactivation – Cells typically express genetic information from only one X chromosome.  Since women have two X’s, the cell “inactivates” one of them so it can express the other.  Cells seem to decide randomly which X to use.

X-linked genes – genes which are only found on the X chromosome.

Mosaicism – Because cells decide randomly which X chromosome to activate, a woman’s body is a roughly even mixture between cells which express her father’s genes and cells which express her mother’s genes.  Thus, she is a “mosaic,” and this phenomenon is “mosaicism.”

Summary

This article details the current scientific opinion about the relationship between X and Y chromosomes.  A woman has two X chromosomes, so if one of her X-linked traits contains a negative mutation, the matching allele on her other chromosome can diminish or suppress it.  If she passes the mutated X chromosome to her son, though, he cannot protect himself against it because he has only one X chromosome.  This is why males are much more likely than females to inherit debilitating X-linked conditions like Duchenne muscular dystrophy and hemophilia.  Other diseases, like incontinentia pigmenti, kill men almost immediately but merely cause deformities in women.

Scientists are also investigating the effect of sex-linked chromosomes on personality.  Men and women have documented differences in their senses of humor, so geneticists wish to find the genetic markers for this trait.

Response

I have heard much about the diminished state of the Y chromosome, but if it actually carries less than 100 genes, they must be very important genes because men seem to inherit many traits, most obviously large portions of their physical appearance talents, and personality, from their fathers.  Otherwise, I have no qualms with this research.  This sort of research does not embarrass me.  It means that the men who did survive are the strong ones.  I am only worried that the Y chromosome will deteriorate so much that men will become impossible.  Could evolution really lead our species to total destruction?

“A (Genetic) History of Violence”

Michael Balter, ScienceNOW Daily News, 20 March 2006

Genetics Terms

Allele – a possible variation of a gene.  Different alleles lead to different phenotypes.

Genetic marker – a DNA sequence with a known location and function.

Genome/Genotypethe genetic sequence of an organism.  This provides the blueprint for the organism’s growth.

Phenotype – the physical expression of an organism’s genotype – in other words, the organism itself.

Risk factor – an allele which makes a person more susceptible to a certain condition but which does not ensure that he will suffer from it.

How do genes produce enzymes?

Transcription­ – The DNA double helix opens so RNA polymerase can enter and bind to the DNA at a “promoter region.”  The DNA unwinds, copying itself to the new “messenger RNA” (mRNA).  When the sequence terminates, the mRNA eliminates unnecessary sequences (exons, whereas introns are necessary) and leaves.  The double helix returns to its normal state.

Translation – mRNA enters the cytoplasm.  There, the anticodons on tRNAs recognize sequences (or codons) within the mRNA and attach to them.  The tRNA produces proteins/enzymes according to these given instructions.

Summary

A recent study from the National Institute of Health at Bethesda, MD has linked violent behavior to the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A).  During stressful times, the brain produces much serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, neurotransmitters which trigger emotions.  MAO-A breaks down these substances so that the brain can return to its normal state.  Different alleles of this gene produce different levels of this enzyme.  A previous study linked low MAO-A levels to men with traumatic childhoods who express antisocial behavior.  This one sought to broaden the known link.

The Bethesda team studied the brains of 142 subjects, screened for mental health as a control against other genetic and social factors which could negatively affect phenotype.  They found that subjects with low MAO-A levels had much more active amygdalas, and the segments of their brains which control emotions were on average 8% smaller than the rest.

Other scientists lauded the researchers’ work.  They also suggested studies on mentally ill subjects to show a connection between low MAO-A and actual aggression.  The Bethesda team was quick to note that MAO-A is but one of many risk factors for aggression and that individual choice is still the most important factor.

Response

I think this is an intriguing study.  Its premises and conclusion seem entirely plausible to me.  I am also pleased that Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and Klaus Peter-Lesch, two neuroscientists interviewed for the study, contended that “Genes are not destiny.”  This dovetails with my opinion that free will is the leading factor in any person’s decision.  Our genes set our internal environment, but we can still choose what to do about them.

Eutanasia o el derecho a morir

April 17, 2006

Uno de los temas contemporáneos que es muy controversial es la eutanasia.  Llevar a cabo la eutanasia es terminar el tratamiento médico de una persona o matarla porque su vida es demasiada dolorosa.  Actualmente los Países Bajos, Bélgica, y Francia son los únicos países que permite la eutanasia, pero muchas personas en otros países están luchando para “el derecho a morir.”  En este ensayo, definiré la eutanasia con más precisión.  En segundo lugar, explicaré los argumentos para la eutanasia, y finalmente describiré los argumentos en contra de la eutanasia.

Hay diferentes tipos de eutanasia.  Por ejemplo, en muchas situaciones violentas, como la guerra, unas personas matan a otras, incluido sus amigos, porque las otras han sufrido heridas horribles y morirían después de muchas horas de dolor sin la terminación misericordiosa de su vida.  Ninguno ejército permite estas acciones, pero esta prohibición es una ley inejecutable porque es imposible determinar quién mató a quién en un campo de batalla.  Hay demasiada confusión y demasiados cadáveres.  Rogelio Maynulet, un soldado estadounidense que mató a un iraquí para “terminar su sufrimiento,” ahora está encarcelado (“U.S. soldier faces charges”).

En otros casos, los ancianos practican la eutanasia para ayudar a su familia por la final vez.  El profesor James Westendorf dice que en unas sociedades esquimales, los ancianos salen de la sociedad cuando eran “demasiados viejos” porque no quieren ser un cargo a sus familias.  63 por ciento de los suicidios en Oregon en el año 2000 lo hizo para la misma razón.

La eutanasia que ocurre en los hospitales es lo más común y lo más controversial.  Los países que permite la eutanasia mandan la participación de un medico el permiso del paciente en el proceso.  En otros países, como 49 de los 50 estados de los Estados Unidos (Oregon es la excepción), la participación de un médico en la eutanasia está considerada un delito grave: suicidio con ayuda.  El médico más famoso por este crimen es Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  Ayudó a docenas de estadounidenses cometer suicidio antes de que estuviera encarcelado por la muerte de Thomas Youk (“Jack Kevorkian”).

Los partidarios de la eutanasia dicen que es un acto de misericordia y una decisión personal.  Si una persona no quiere vivir su vida con dolor constante, la sociedad no tiene el derecho a impedir su “muerte con dignidad.”  Michael Schiavo de Florida aplicó esta lógica al tratamiento medical de su esposa, Terri.  Ella sufrió un accidente horrible que hizo daño a su cerebro.  Después vivía en una cama con la función mental de un bebé hasta que Michael retiraba su tubo para comida.  Él dijo que su esposa no era una persona porque no tenía las funciones mentales de una persona normal, y su tratamiento hubiera costado demasiado dinero.  Terri murió después de unas semanas, y los juzgados de los Estados Unidos decidieron que la acción del esposo era legal porque él tenía el derecho a determinar el tratamiento de su esposa (“Terri Schiavo” es la fuente para todo de este párrafo).

Obviamente, hay muchas personas que están en contra de la eutanasia porque es ilegal.  Unos médicos no la apoyan porque es una violación del Juramento Hipocrático (Juramento).  Cada médico presta este juramento antes de graduarse de la escuela de medicina.  Dice que “A nadie daré una droga mortal aún cuando me sea solicitada, ni daré consejo con este fin.”  La eutanasia es una violación de este juramento.  Médicos que están opuestos a la eutanasia creen que el trabajo de un médico es cuidar a sus pacientes, no es matarlos.

La controversia con respecto a la eutanasia es similar a la controversia sobre el aborto.  Es una cuestión de vida y el derecho de personas decidir quién debe vivir y quién debe morir.  Generalmente, las mismas personas están en contra de las dos prácticas, y los cristianos son los adversarios más ruidosos porque sus morales son la fuente de sus propuestas.

Los cristianos dicen que la eutanasia es un delito grave porque la vida es un regalo del Dios, y solamente Dios tiene el derecho a terminar la vida.  En su encíclica “Evangelium Vitae,” o “El Evangelio de Vida,” el difunto papa Juan Pablo II reiteró que la eutanasia es un crimen grave, “una distorsión de misericordia” (Kauffmann).  Escribió que una sociedad que termina las vidas de personas que no quieren vivir es una sociedad que tiene la capacidad a terminar bebés con deformaciones y todos los ancianos.  Dijo también que una vida de dolor es una oportunidad para el aumento de la vida espiritual y la purificación del alma.  Por último, los cristianos creen que la eutanasia, o “el derecho a morir con dignidad,” es una violación de la dignidad de humanos.

En resumen, el debate sobre la eutanasia no ha terminado.  Creo que continuaré por muchos años.  Cada grupo tiene argumentos populares y los defensores de la eutanasia están movilizados a cambiar la ley.  Creen que personas tienen elecciones sobre muchos casos, y deben tener la elección sobre la longitud de su vida.  Los médicos y los cristianos tienen convicciones fuertes, también.  Espero muchos argumentos en el futuro.

La Bibliografía

“El Juramento Hipocrático.”  Ética Médica. <http://www.gerenciasalud.com/art25.htm&gt;.

Kauffmann, Bruce G.  “Culture of death threatens mankind.”  Canton Repository.  20 mar. 2006.  <http://www.cantonrep.com/index.php?ID=275735&gt;

Langlois, Ed.  “Most Year-2000 Suicide Victims Feared Becoming Burden to Family, Friends.”  Euthanasia.Com.  < http://www.euthanasia.com/burden.html&gt;.

Mitsui, Mina.  “Euthanasia in West strictly controlled.”  Yomiuri Shinbun.  27 mar. 2006.  <http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/20060327TDY03003.htm&gt;.

“U.S. soldier faces charges of killing Iraqi militant.”  USA Today.  17 abr. 2006.  <http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2004-12-17-soldier-charges_x.htm&gt;

Westerndorf, James.  “Historical Look at Eutanasia.”  Christian Life Resources.  17 abr. 2006. <http://www.christianliferesources.com/?library/view.php&articleid=280&gt;