“Polarizing” is a dirty word, so atheists should surrender

At last, I get it. I understand what “framing” is. It’s pandering to the status quo, the petty conventions, and the bigotry of the majority. It means don’t rock the boat, don’t be different, don’t stand up for your beliefs. It means CONFORM. You will get other people to support you if you just abandon your principles and adopt theirs. That’s the clear message I get from Matt Nisbet now.

Forget it. If this is “framing,” it’s useless—it’s a tool for opposing change.

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Wonderfully ‘radical’ editorial in Nature

Albert Mohler might be freaking out at some of the new biotechnologies, but he missed a big one, one that might give him nightmares: synthetic biology. This week’s Nature has a very fine editorial on a subject that’s probably going to be more troubling to the religious than evolution, in a few years. We’re on the verge of being able to create life in the laboratory.*

Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.
Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology. Only a deity predisposed to cut-and-paste would suffer any serious challenge from genetic engineering as it has been practised in the past. But the efforts to design living organisms from scratch —; either with a wholly artificial genome made by DNA synthesis technology or, more ambitiously, by using non-natural, bespoke molecular machinery —; really might seem to justify the suggestion, made recently by the ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Ottawa, Canada, that “for the first time, God has competition”.

That accusation was levelled at scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, based on the suspicion that they had synthesized an organism with an artificial genome in the laboratory. The suspicion was unfounded, but this feat will surely be achieved in the next few years, judging from the advances reported earlier this month at the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, on the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and the progress towards artificial cells.

What’s particularly refreshing about the article is that it downplays the creation of life in the lab—it’s going to be an impressive technical achievement, but it will not be a “momentous step.” There is no wide chasm between chemistry and life, and crossing that threshold shouldn’t (and won’t, I expect, unless the politicking is particularly effective) be a Nobel-winning accomplishment, nor is it going to surprise anyone. In the next generation, it’s going to be taken for granted as just part of biochemistry, just like no organic chemists are shaken up by the routine synthesis of urea anymore.

It ought to shake up the social consciousness, though: another bastion of vitalism will have fallen. It ought to shift a few attitudes about some common issues, too.

Synthetic biology’s view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a ‘divine spark’ abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg —; recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious —; then the role of the term ‘life’ in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.

Biology is just going to get more and more fun.

*First person to recite that pathetic “get your own dirt” joke is going to be rewarded with disemvowelment.

Tell me this is a joke

I’m speechless. I thought most case-modders were interested in cooling their machines, but here’s the PC EZ-Bake Oven.

Now the computer savvy among us can relive the fun of having your very own personal mini-oven with the PC Ez-Bake oven! It fits in a 5 1/4″ drive bay and plugs right into your power supply with the included Molex connector. Also included is “PC Ez-Cook”, the open-source oven controller software with hundreds of easy and creative recipes for your PC Ez-Bake oven, and even a fuzzy-logic cooking control system to precisely measure the doneness of your cake, cookie, or cheese souffle. The PC Ez-Bake oven can even be used to cook your Pop Tarts, Bagel Bites, or any tiny or flat food. YUM!

If they have Linux drivers, I could so see Greg getting into this, using it to bake fillets at the lake cabin.

(via Tikistitch)

Mrs Tilton is back…forever!

She’s fired up the The Sixth International again, and she threatens promises to be at it for a long, long, long time—she bears a longevity mutation, a single nucleotide substitution in the mitochondrial genome associated with some long-lived people. And some people claim there is no such thing as a beneficial mutation…

Anyway, it’s personally interesting that it’s mitochondrial—that means it is passed down through the maternal line. Since my father’s side of the family is grievously short-lived, but my mother’s side keeps going for nearly forever, that’s good news, if the maternal secret is particularly robust mitochondria. Since this particular allele appears in various lines all around the world, there’s a slim chance.

Otherwise, I’m afraid my only mutant power seems to be the ability to dissolve chewing gum. I was ripped off.

Nah, not really worth it

Sorry, Rev. BigDumbChimp: you asked if Faith Converter 1.1 for Mac was any good. It’s a gimmick program that will take a chunk of text or a web page and supposedly convert it to be compatible with a specific religion. It’s a nice use of the Mac Webkit and so forth, but otherwise, it’s just a program to do an automated global search and replace of certain terms. It’s marginally amusing, not something I’ll every use again, and you can get the full joke just from the promotional web page.

Lucky Houston gets Lucy

The state department has approved a visit from an eminent foreigner: a certain 3.2 million year old australopithicene is going to be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from 31 August 2007 through 20 April 2008…and then she’s going on tour. Future locations haven’t been determined yet, but Minneapolis is nice. Chicago would be OK. I hope I get a chance to pay court on her.

Just a thought, but the creationists have got it all wrong. They think we worship Charles Darwin, but actually, if there are any objects of reverence among evolutionary biologists, it would be the evidence — the bones of Lucy, of Archaeopteryx, of Tiktaalik, the little trilobite in shale that I keep by my hand at my office desk.