viernes, 15 de marzo de 2013

I AM NOT AFRAID OF AN ALIEN INVASION


By: Edwin Francisco Herrera Paz

Space invaders
I have no fear of an invasion of aggressive and technologically advanced aliens, and you should not have it too. You may fear a spider, a venomous snake, an earthquake or even your mother in law, but aliens.... For what do you think would happen if suddenly, either visibly or surreptitiously, a horde of aliens visited us? It is a very good exercise to speculate.

Much has been written about a possible contact with travelers from other worlds and its consequences. It has been said that these pos technological beings, able to transport across millions of light years of space, would possess such a state of advancement that, for them, humans would be simple worms whose extermination would not have major consequences.

Of course, we extrapolate our conduct to beings with thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of progress in relation to us. We ascribe to them the emotions and passions typical to humans who are just beginning to be aware of their own potential; who drag the heavy burden of their genetic background imposed by their evolutionary history. But the fact is that a race with technological advances just a few thousand years beyond would have a very different behavior.
Alien visitor
We humans enjoy the privilege of possessing a consciousness that elevates us above the other animals of our world. However, if we look carefully, our behavior conforms largely to a set of rules dictated by evolution under ever-changing environmental pressures. We have the same basic drives that motivate most living beings: we seek for food, flee from danger or react aggressively to those who attack us; execute intricate rituals in order to reproduce and perpetuate our genes; we share with other living things feelings such as love, jealousy, anger and hate.

Even some behaviors that are considered specific to our species have lost the privilege to correspond exclusively to mankind, zenith of creation. We share much of our social transactions with chimpanzees and bonobos, and it has been shown that more distantly related species, evolutionarily speaking, are capable of incorporating social elements in their groups once considered exclusively humans.1, 2

Porfirio Lobo Sosa
In this regard, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their bestseller “Superfreakonomics” (second part of their seminal, iconoclastic “Freakonomics”) cite experiments in a community of Capuchin monkeys in which the researchers introduced a type of currency as a form of exchange. After a few months of training by conditioning the monkeys learned to properly use the money in order to buy food. Surprisingly, economic transactions identical to humans were seen, including those with a high dose of irrationality. Negative behaviors also emerged, such as vandalism and prostitution, so Levitt and Dubner titled this chapter of their book: "Monkeys are human too" .3

Love, the most sublime of the sentiments, is extremely common all across the animal kingdom. And this is not limited to creatures of the same species. Altruistic and fraternal behaviors across species are common. And that behavior is not unique to mammals. The fact is that altruism with other species has been observed in a wide variety of animals. As an example I will cite the case of a reptile. One day in October 2006 at the zoo in Tokyo, the caregiver introduced into the cage of a rat snake, intended to be a meal, a small hamster. The surprise for the caregivers was that far from eating the rodent, the snake adopted him as his best friend. Since then, both share the same cage.

There are hundreds of examples of altruism among species. Definitely, our links with the animal kingdom are evident. We are tied to bestial behavior, raised from our kinship with other species, and a clear example of this, is that we must kill other living things for food.

Vestiges of Evolution

Snake and hamster
As for the features that make a living thing - structural, functional or behavioral - including ourselves, it can be observed in many instances inaccuracies in design. And this is because evolution, at all levels, uses existing structures to build new ones that suit the requirements of individuals in a population at a certain time in a changing environment. Some of these are "fit" to fulfill new functions, while others that could not find a new "niche", remain part of the body without any function.

There are structures molded by a process of evolution whose function is efficient, but obviously does not correspond to an intelligent design. As an example, let's remember the human eye. In humans and mammals, the eye is a camera with a set of light-sensitive cells. If the eye had been designed by an engineer (assuming that engineer counts on the necessary technological elements) would have never thought of it as it is.

In the organ of vision, the photosensitive layer (which detects light) is behind the nerve cells leading visual sensations to the brain. In a camera, that would be the equivalent of cables and circuits placed in front of the photosensitive surface, interrupting arrival of light. This is because the eye had to transform, from a simple photosensitive layer placed in front of the nerve fibers in simple animals, to the one observed in higher organisms that consists of a wide, transparent chamber. In the evolutionary process, the photosensitive layer didn`t change its position.4

Surgery apendicitis
Let’s take a look at other example. The so called "vestigial organs" have no function, but were useful in some moment of the evolutionary history of a species. We humans have the vermiform appendix, a small addition of the colon or large bowel, whose role is limited to helping surgeons in paying the mortgages of their houses (when one gets appendicitis). But in our arboreal herbivorous ancestors it may well have been part of a longer large intestine, necessary for a diet rich in fiber, or alternatively, it may have been an important part of the immune system.5

Similarly, humans exhibit some behaviors remnants of our ancestors that have adapted to different needs over the millennia, and also others that are no longer as useful, and maybe even unwanted. Thus, as pointed above, many of our social and micro transactions, in addition to the basic impulses like love and aggression, are share with our arboreal cousins.

Vestigial Eugenics and Aggressive Behavior

Aggression, like his twin brother fear, is the product of complex reactions in the brain structures of an animal (or a human) that lead to the secretion of substances, especially adrenaline, which prepare for fight or flight. Aggressive behavior has been historically favorable for humans in certain situations - and still is to a certain extent - as it prepares our bodies for hunting or for coping with rival tribes.6 However, in a more civilized world, well regulated by laws, aggressive behavior will become increasingly unnecessary and even counterproductive. We could say that, in this sense, vestigial.

Aggresive man.
The term eugenics was coined in 1865 for the first time by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and founder of the Biometric School. In short, eugenics became a social philosophy intended to improve the human species by selection, genetic manipulation or any other form of intervención.7 Initially popular among the scientific guild, was soon adopted by many countries as a policy of state, but its reputation began to decline when it was taken to the extreme by German Nazi party.8 Today, the term is a sad reminder of how terribly disastrous a technology or idea could be when applied incorrectly by politicians.

Various cultures have practiced the removal of defective genetic variants through eugenics. In Ancient Sparta, children with malformations or defects (and therefore with little potential for war) were left to their own to be devoured by wild animals. The Nazis committed massive genocide of Jews, as well as disabled people, and the United States conducted contraception campaigns in nulliparous, young indigenous women in many parts of the Americas. However, despite its current negative connotation, in certain well-defined conditions genome alteration through genetic engineering methods would be benign, because unlike previous approaches, it would respect human life, and the abomination that the elimination of defective offspring represents would no longer take place.  The repairing of adverse genetic variants will be possible. For many futurists, this fact will give us humans the ability to guide our own evolution towards transhumanism.9

Humanity is currently in a cyclical phase of existence as a species. The genomic analysis technologies, systems biology and DNA sequence editing will soon allow correction of defective or undesirable physical or psychological traits. Excessive aggressive behavior could, in extreme cases, be controlled by these technologies.

But of course, every technology has its dark side. The altered DNA sequences via genetic or genomic therapies could be applied by governments to people in order to regulate conduct that would be disruptive or inconvenient for those governments. The potential threat of turning citizens into sheep, followers of the will of those in power is always a danger. However, I must insist, eugenics itself could have a practical application in the treatment of individuals with a markedly aggressive behavior.
Eugenics
We need eugenics

Take the case of a convict charged with any offense arising directly from his aggressive behavior, which also is found that his aggressiveness is mainly due to genetic factors. It would be desirable for the inmate to remove the excessive aggressive genetic variants, both within himself and from his offspring. Then, these variants could be removed off his brain cells and his sperm by a DNA editing process, facilitating the reintegration into society and improving his future generations.

This procedure would eliminate from the human genetic pool, in each generation, a small proportion of the genetic variants that contribute to extreme aggressive behavior until, a number of generations into the future, aggressive variants were observed in a small proportion. Thus, alleles of aggression would be phased, almost imperceptibly. In addition and in parallel, the progressive development of society could lead to social stability where aggression had no place. And with the reduction of aggressive behavior, post-technological society would empty its prisons, but also acquire a greater appreciation for life in all its forms.

Environmental and genetic interactions

Someone scolded me one day that not only genes have an influence in aggressive behavior, but also the rearing environment, education and culture. Moreover, genetic manipulation poses a major ethical dilemma.

I must say that I am aware of the implied ethical issues. However, proper regulation of the practices (what is allowed and what is not) through legislation would obviate these difficulties. I personally think that DNA sequence editing technologies will increasingly find niches in biomedical branches, a trend that will be unstoppable. So instead of talking prematurely about prohibitions, we must focus on the correct regulation.

Moreover, I have to accept that different aspects of human behavior are multifactorial, i.e. in its various manifestations come into play a number of socio-cultural, educational, environmental, and genetic factors. I don’t mean to minimize the impact of education and family environment in the genesis of aggression in an individual, but genetic influences might be an important part of the behavior. Many behavioral (and even physical) traits must have coevolved together with the sociocultural environment.10,11 Genetic variants evolve, in some cases, to suit the sociocultural background, or is the latter that is molded by the influence of genetic variants present in a population, in a rather complex interaction.

Black white men
For example, it has been proved that many physical characteristics in humans appeared in the past 10,000 years in response to environmental changes.12 Clear examples are simplification of the teeth by the introduction of cooking in the diet, and genetic differences between populations in the number of copies of the amylase gene. For the latter - an enzyme found in saliva, useful in the digestion of carbohydrates –an increased activity due to an increased number of copies of the gene in people with a traditional starch rich diet has been demonstrated.13 Another notable example is the pigmentation of the skin that is a function of latitude of residence: people who live at high latitudes, where UVB ultraviolet rays necessary for the synthesis of dihydroxycholecalciferol (vitamin D) are scarce, have developed a clear pigmentation, while in latitudes close to the equator, dark pigmentation of the skin protects from cellular damage produced by UVA radiation, which causes the destruction of folic acid.14

Although aggression is influenced by an interaction between social, psychological development and the genetic background, we cannot ignore the influence of genetic factors favored by evolution. To date, studies have shown genetic influence on aggressive behavior. For instance, in 2010 Dr. David Goldman and colleagues found, in Finnish men convicted of crimes related to aggressiveness, a genetic variant in a brain receptor called HTR2B.15 Surprisingly, the variant was not found in other populations, and it apparently also predisposes to alcoholism, drug addiction and suicidal behavior.

This research confirms that a factor to consider in the study of aggressive behavior is sex. Male sex hormones (testosterone and dihydrotestosterone), and the female (estrogen and progesterone), bind to receptor molecules into target cells causing the on and off of a variety of genes that cause changes leading to sexual differentiation in the embryo. But not less important are its effects on the brain.

angry aggresive
Sex hormones produced in the brain trigger a gene cascade leading to the activation of specific neural networks. The result is reflected in the behavioral characteristics of each sex, as part of so-called sexual dimorphism. Some of these genes are involved in territorial aggressiveness typical of male behavior, which has been tested in animal models.16

Belligerent behavior, driven by genetic variants such as these could have evolved in our recent past. Formerly (and even now), aggressive tribes used to attack other villages, eliminated or enslaved men, and abducted women, giving them a greater opportunity to convey and disperse their belligerence genes.17 However, in the future, eliminating aggressive genetic variants will not only be desirable but absolutely necessary for the survival of the human race in the long run, because I put in doubt that a civilization with the technological capacity of self-annihilation can survive, even for a few centuries, with the high levels of aggressiveness we observe in modern humans.

Every day we see how we continue to drag on the genetic variants of aggressiveness as they are the byproduct of our struggle to survive. They are part of our biological nature. If a mosquito bites us, we instinctively crush it without mercy in a sudden attack of aggression influenced by our genes, since its sting of death makes us susceptible of being victims of a potentially mortal disease. We do not stop to think that the mosquito is a sophisticated biological machine shaped by millions of years. Our unconscious assumes automatically that the bug lacks any degree of consciousness and love to life, and hence, it does not deserve of our forgiveness. In an automated movement we convert the mosquito into an insect soufflé. And our total ignorance of the pain inflicted on a living organism, with a complete lack of empathy, is not limited to mosquitoes. It also applies for cockroaches, flies, mice and other living organisms.

Homini Homo Lupus

Adolf HitlerThe human being is a body of contrasts. We are extraordinarily altruistic in some circumstances, but in others, extremely destructive. Our component of intrinsic disdain for life of other beings is not limited to other species. It was not until recently that Western societies decided, with fanfare, to proclaim the equality of all men (and women, of course) before the law. Yet we see how historically, xenophobia and belligerent behavior have led to aggression, domination and enslavement of groups of peoples over others. I will mention some outstanding cases. The North American Indians were hunted to virtual extermination; Latin America's indigenous population was depleted; the black Africans were exported as slaves in a profitable industry, conducted by what was the first transnational corporation in the Americas: the Atlantic Slave Trade; the Nazis built their extermination camps to kill Jews, and the Jews in turn, have used the sacred texts of the Torah to justify the subjugation of the Palestinians; Christians of the Middle Ages, used Scripture to launch their crusades against Islamic world; in turn, Islamists now use their sacred texts (Koran) to execute Christians accusing them of apostasy and to proclaim their "holy war" or jihad; some states in the U.S., consider immigration a crime, if the immigrant is a poor person from an undeveloped country; and ethnic confrontations often reach the category of genocide in various parts of Africa.

We see the domain of man by man everywhere, or as it was rightly stated by Titus Plautus Macio, popularized by Thomas Hobbes, homini homo lupus, i.e., man is wolf to man. All these examples show that the equality of men is just an expression, a rhetoric ideal put on a lifeless piece of paper. But although the domain of man by man undoubtedly has deep cultural nuances, genes largely dictate surreptitiously much of the local and global patterns of human aggressive behavior.

What about the aliens?

Man evolutive stages
And this is precisely the main reason why we believe that aliens would have no mercy on us! We think that given their high level of technology, we would likely be mosquitoes that they can destroy without further scruples and no remorse. However for a post-technological society capable of traveling to distant places, the danger of self-annihilation would have passed long time ago. Irrational aggressiveness would have been left behind. The high social order would make unnecessary the use of violence arising from the emotions, and they would have known how to control their own genetic programming long, long time ago.

An advanced race that visited us would have learned to appreciate the true sense of the complexity of life, and far from exterminating us, might help us in the process of evolution. Their high advanced technology would allow them to observe us from a distance.

So, occasionally, I am afraid of the bad decisions made by the president of my country; afraid to walk the streets of my city, one of the most dangerous in the world; afraid of falling off the bed at night, during sleep; afraid of an Islamic terrorist with a cargo of explosives attached to his waist; or afraid of my sisters in law when they get angry. But aliens? Naaaaa! No sir. I do not fear aliens; not at all.

Arab John Bin Laden
Literature cited

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2. Lakshminaryanan V, Keith Chen MK, Santos LR. Endowment effect in capuchin monkeys. PhilosTrans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008, 363(1511): 3837–3844.

3. Levitt S y Dubner S. Superfreakonomics. William Morrow, 2009.

4. Lamb TD. Evolution of the Eye. Scientific American. Julio 1, 2011.

5. Randal Bollinger R, Barbas AS, Bush EL, Lin SS, Parker W. Biofilms in the large bowel suggest an apparent function of the human vermiform appendix. J Theor Biol. 2007, 249(4): 826-31.

6. Parker GA. Assessment strategy and the evolution of fighting behaviour. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 1974, 47(1): 223-243.

7. Larson EJ. Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995.

8. Kühl S. The Nazi connection: eugenics, American racism, and German national socialism. Oxford University Press, Nueva York, 1994.

9. Huxley J. Transhumanism. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 1968, 8(1): 73-76.

10. Rushton JP, Littlefield CH, Lumnsden CJ. Gene-culture coevolution of complex social behavior: Human altruism and mate choice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 1986, 83: 7340-7343.

11. Samuel Bowles S, Choic JK, Hopfensitz A. The co-evolution of individual behaviors and social institutions. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 2003, 223: 135–147.

12. Cochran G, Harpending H. The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Perseus Book Group. 2009.

13. Perry GH, Dominy NJ, Claw KG y Col. Diet and the evolution of human amylase gene copy number variation. Nat Genet. 2007, 39(10): 1256–1260.

14. Jablonski NG, Chaplin G. Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010, 107(Supplement_2): 8962–8968.

15. Bevilacqua L, Doly S, Kaprio J, y Col. A population-specific HTR2B stop codon predisposes to severe impulsivity. Nature. 2010, 468(7327): 1061.

16. Xu X, Coats JK, Yang CF, y Col. Modular Genetic Control of Sexually Dimorphic Behaviors. Cell. 2012, 148(3): 596-607.

17. Lehmann L, Feldman MW. War and the evolution of belligerence and bravery. Proc. R. Soc. B. 2008, 275(1653): 2877-2885.

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