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The Kirk Effect or why aliens won't be sexy

Hi folks. I'm slowly getting back to blogging here after a break, so I have more substantial posts in the pipeline. But while I'm working on those, I thought I'd point you to an interesting talk given by P.Z. Myers at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this week.

The talk was "A Skeptical Look At Aliens" and takes a look at what scientifically plausible extraterrestrial evolution might look like. He points out that even here on earth we see a number of different body plans that are solutions to evolutionary "problems" like hunting prey in an aquatic environment. And that intelligence is rare and comes in different forms as well.

Myer' sums of what must be considered when thinking about the evolution of aliens as follows:
Evolution doesn't just make finely tuned functional organisms, but is also built on a foundation of chance, so it spawns endless diversity. Every advance carries along the baggage of its ancestry, so we see echoes of our past in every feature. And the more specific and complex a feature is, and intelligence is both of those, the less likely it is to emerge in the same form in different lineages.
If we do find a planet with intelligent life, it is unlikely to be a humanoid or at all shaped like us. And we are unlikely to be able to easily find a way to communicate.

Understanding Science in Science Fictional Times

I just finished reading Rebecca Skloot's excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 30. Cells taken from her tumor were out to be the first human cells that could grow in the laboratory.

Those "immortal" cells - coded named HeLa - would play an a crucial role in testing the first effective polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in the mid-1950s. Since then, HeLa cells have been used in thousands of studies, and added to our understanding of how both normal and cancel cells function.

Skloot goes beyond discussing the science and bioethics surrounding the development of cell culture technology and human experimentation to provide a portrait of Henrietta as a person. And a big part of her story involves Skloot's decade-long interactions with Henrietta's family and friends, and in particular with Henrietta's daughter Deborah Lacks Pullum.

Deborah was a baby when Henrietta died from complications of cervical cancer in 1951. She never knew her mother, but really wanted to learn more. And even though she had little formal schooling, she wanted to know what was happening with her mother's cells. As Sklootdescribed it in an interview:
She had always wanted to know who her mother was but no one ever talked about Henrietta. So when Deborah found out that this part of her mother was still alive she became desperate to understand what that meant: Did it hurt her mother when scientists injected her cells with viruses and toxins? Had scientists cloned her mother? And could those cells help scientists tell her about her mother, like what her favorite color was and if she liked to dance.
Deborah began to teach herself about the basics of how cells work, and read everything she could about HeLa cells. But even when you have a solid background in biology, it can be hard to sort out what's solid science and what's speculation when scientific research is reported by the mainstream media. Even relatively mild headlines like "Cancer cells from long-dead woman invade other cultures" or "Human and plant cells combined" sound pretty sensational.

So it doesn't surprise me that while Deborah was struggling to understand all this unfamiliar information, she latched onto science fiction with related science. That all came bursting out during her first face-to-face meeting with Skloot:
"I saw [Jurassic Park] a bunch of times," she said. "They talking about the genes and taking them from cells to bring that dinosaur back to life and I'm like, Oh Lord, I got a paper on how they were doin that with my mother's cells too!" She held up another videocassette, this one a made-for-TV movie called The Clone. In it, an infertility doctor secretly harvest extra embryos from one of his patients and uses them to create a colony of clones of the woman's son, who died young in an accident.

"That doctor took cells from that woman and made them into little boys look just liker her child," Deborah told me. "That poor woman didn't even know about all the clones until she saw one walk out of a store. I don't know what I'd do if I saw one of my mother's clones walking around somewhere."

The Future of Agriculture

If agriculture is to meet the demands and uncertainties of the future, here are some main areas that will need to be addressed:
  • sustainable agriculture will need to find ways to increase yields comparable to those of scientific farming methods.
  • scientific methods will need to look at ways of improving yields that are not so reliant on the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers.
  • agricultural economists will need to look beyond yields and output, and find policies that insure that any technical advances are not out of reach (for economic or social reasons) of any farmer, regardless of gender, class, or economic level. The people involved in farming (farmers and farm laborers) are not just numbers.
  • geneticists will have to look seriously and thoroughly at the questions of what unplanned effects might result from extensive planting and cultivating of genetically manipulated breeds.
What is needed is a comprehensive view, which keeps in mind technology, environment and ecosystems, social questions, and the difficult task of feeding an ever-increasing population with affordable food, in a way that is fair to all types of farmers and consumers.


Pictures/088.jpg The science of genetics has made astonishing progress in the last half of the 20th century. Geneticists have made remarkable gains in deciphering the genetic code that gives each species its particular traits. They have discovered methods of transplanting genetic material from one species to another, and have been able to transfer such genetic traits as disease resistance, time to maturity, or the yield that a plant produces.
Unlike hybrids, genetically manipulated (GM) plants are not sterile, but some agribusiness firms have produced so-called "terminator" genes, which prevent a GM plant from germinating and reproducing. Another development is a plant that is resistant to a particular variety of herbicide. Both of these developments have been very controversial, provoking charges that they have been developed, not with the best interests of farmers in mind, but with the goal of selling more seeds and herbicides.
Pictures/477.jpg While early success has been considerable, there is widespread concern that we just don't know enough about the long-term consequences of genetic manipulation of crops and animals. For example, if the terminator genes from a GM wheat species were somehow to cross-pollinate with any number of wild plants around them, it could well mean the end of those wild varieties. Likewise, if the herbicide-resistance gene were to pollinate with a species of weed, the result might be to create a species of nearly indestructible superweed.

Government Policies

Pictures/339.jpg It is in the best interests of all governments to formulate policies that are beneficial to farmers. A stable, reasonably-priced food supply and productive, well-paid farmers are two very important components of a stable society. However, the combination of cheap food for consumers and high market prices for farmers is very difficult to achieve. Some common policy tools include:
  • subsidies: a subsidy is money a government pays to farmers to guaranty that they receive a certain price for their crops.
  • production limits: some governments pay farmers NOT to grow certain crops, or even to leave some land unused (fallow). The goal of this policy is to reduce supply and keep prices relatively high.
  • tariffs on competing foreign crops: government often impose tariffs, or taxes, on imported crops, which makes the cost of imports much higher to the consumer.
  • agricultural research: governments often finance agricultural research to investigate promoting better-yielding crop varieties, eliminate diseases, fight pests, improve processing methods, etc.

The Decline of the Family Farm

Pictures/121.jpg Accompanying the rise of scientific farming and the widespread increase of yields of many crops and animals, prices for agricultural goods have remained fairly flat from the 1970's well into the 1990's. This has been a positive development for consumers, but the effect on farmers, especially small farmers, has been disastrous.
This is one of the many economic uncertainties of farming as a business. There is a fine balancing act with prices, demand, and production, and world and local economic conditions. Increased production means increased supply and low prices for the farmer, while decreased production means higher prices for both farmer and consumer. Here are some common scenarios:
  • A drought would mean lower production, higher prices, and potential diasaster for a farmer; crops might sell for higher prices, but demand might be significantly less than if the price were lower.
  • An economic crisis in the US or Europe would mean that an Asian rice farmer might not be able to sell his or her harvest in those markets.
  • A weakening yen would mean a higher price in Japan for imported for US apples, and Japanese consumers would stick to their cheaper, and more familiar domestic apples.


Pictures/220.jpg Throughout history, farming has been a family enterprise, with most farmers taking care of their own needs, and maybe producing a little extra to sell or trade. In the latter half of the 20th century, the trend in the more developed nations (and increasingly in the less-developed nations) is toward corporate farms. The Green Revolution made impressive gains in crop yields, but the new methods and technologies often bypassed smaller farmers, who did not have the resources to acquire the costly inputs needed to grow Green Revolution hybrids.
Vertical integration: We have seen that agriculture has several phases to a growing and consuming cycle: planting, cultivating, harvesting, storage, transport, processing, and marketing. Traditional farming practices have emphasized the farmer's participation in the phases actually connected with the growing and harvesting of crops. Often, local specialists would be involved in other phases, such as transport or marketing.
A modern trend, however, has been toward vertical integration: one company being responsible for all, or most, phases in the cycle. Large agribusiness companies are manufacturing inputs (such as seed, fertilizer, and pesticides); acquiring farms; managing the transport, processing, and marketing of their products; and researching new ways to improve their products through processes such as genetic engineering.