China On The Rise

Last night, Harvard Prof. Graham Allison gave a talk, moderated by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, at the Commonwealth Club in SF.  The topic was his new book, Destined for War:  Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?  Five centuries BC, Thucydides noted that the threat from a rising power, Athens, as perceived by Sparta- the ruling power in ancient Greece- led to the Peloponnesian War.  He drew a parallel with US/China relations- acknowledging some of the shortcomings of such a comparison, which have been amply pointed out in various reviews of the book.  China, he said, has caught up with the US in every major parameter, and surpassed it in some.  For example, when Reagan was president, China’s GDP was 10% that of the US, and now it is 110%.  In many aspects of technology, China is taking the lead:  social media, AI, robotics, clean energy, electric vehicles etc.  The US still leads by far in the military arena, but China may not care as much as we suppose (Allison reminded us that, when US and South Korean troops once pushed back a North Korean invasion almost to the Chinese border, China used conventional weapons to fight the sole nuclear power on Earth, all the way down to the 38th parallel).  Economic “warfare” is just as important these days, and as the US withdraws from the world stage (see TPP), you have to wonder:  which country now represents Sparta, and which Athens?  Sharing common interests- such as avoiding nuclear holocaust and preventing global warming- lowers the risk of war, but then having a belligerent and unpredictable president who denigrates NATO and pulls out of the Paris Accord weakens those commonalities.  It seems to me that under our Chaos President, fear of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and climate change may not be enough to prevent war.  Also, the strong chauvinism and national fervor among Chinese- not mentioned in the talk- may tilt the balance towards war when a crisis erupts, for example on the Korean Peninsula or South China Sea.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog (A Day Without Women), the world is a lot more complicated now, but Thucydides may be right after all.

Here’s an excerpt from my sci-fi novel Fourth World, in which Chou Xia-Yu, leader of the world government in 2196, ponders the fate of expatriot anomaly Benn Marr:  will he have to be destroyed?

Chou silently nodded his satisfaction at the inherent justice of it all:  descendants of the American colonists on Mars had paid a steep price to atone for the imperialist policies of their ancestors.  And now, he speculated, this Benn Marr represented another level of reward for years of experimentation.  The ability to read and to project thoughts was similar to what Chinese monks (particularly in the Tibetan District) had been practicing for a thousand years.  The difference was that Eunigen had given Benn his abilities by modifying his genes, so that they could be passed on to future generations in large numbers:  the hypothetical implications for the PWE were staggering!  Unfortunately, Benn Marr, although of Chinese descent, had lost touch with his ethnic roots on Mars, and had no understanding of his rich cultural heritage.  As with all traditional Chinese, Leader Chou harbored the conviction that the Chinese civilization had greater value- it was simply superior- and should be promoted above all others; Benn was unlikely to feel such loyalty.

Looking Good, Mate!

Is it more important to look good, or be good?  Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, in which Benn Marr unravels a knotted debate over the use of recombinant genes purely for cosmetic purposes:

When the crowd noise had settled, Dr. Neelin shook his head and said, “I confess, I would never have thought of applying the principle of Natural Selection.”  He sighed at the sea of vacant faces and added, “For those unfamiliar, it’s the passing down of genes which increase survivability, for the good of the species.  For a thousand years, outward appearance has replaced survivability as the driving criterion in choosing a mate, has it not?  What did you so aptly call it, Benn- “Unnatural De-selection”?  Thanks to cosmetic procedures, Mr. Marr is telling us, genes that weaken the species are just as likely to be passed along as genes that promote survival of the fittest.  It’s hardly better for the human species than, say, choosing mates by the attractiveness of their clothing!”

Richard Prum, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale, argues that female birds choose their mates (a process called sexual selection) based on beauty- not because an attractive appearance reflects underlying health and fitness, but for the sake of beauty itself.  This is a challenge to the mainstream understanding of natural selection.  As proposed by Darwin, good genes encoding beneficial physical traits, such as speed and strength, increase survival and are therefore more likely to be passed on to the next generation.  It seems to me that selecting mates by their beauty, which does not help birds fly faster, hunt more successfully or detect predators better, may actually dilute survival of the fittest.  On the other hand, among humans, an expensive suit and large blond comb-over may attract potential First Ladies, so cosmetic appearance can be a Darwinian advantage!

As we evolve in the Information Age, survivability becomes further and further removed from what our genomes dictate.  With the aid of prostheses (eyeglasses are an early example), medical advances, internet avatars of ourselves (no, not just online dating services), and of course robots, survival is now vastly multifactorial.  And we’re just talking about surviving to childbearing age.  Our physical deficiencies have become less crucial to our chances of having offspring, whereas a nearsighted, clubfooted caveman would not have survived long enough to attend the Junior Prom.

In light of this departure from Darwin, perhaps my characters in Fourth World are too humanoid.  In 2196, people may be closer to moles on wheels:  inarticulate, nearly blind, not beautiful in any sense, hybridized with cybernetic parts, texting one another with tiny hands but massively hypertrophied thumbs.  Bizarre, maybe- but still having kids!

 

Does Not Compute

What’s that nagging pain, you ask?  In today’s SF Chronicle, there’s an Open Forum piece on crowdsourcing medical diagnoses, a new and trendy way to find out what’s bothering you.  Patients submit their symptoms to an online forum of diagnostic enthusiasts, some of whom are medical professionals, and they respond with a list of potential diagnoses, the most popular one listed first.  Imagine Wikipediatrics.  Or Family Practice Feud (“our survey said…?”).  Any set of symptoms or data will generate a bell-curve of answers, and the theory is that the peak of the curve is most likely to be correct.

My first reaction on reading this was to choke on my coffee.  As a rheumatologist, I was impressed by how many diseases in my field present with almost exactly the same constellation of symptoms:  for example, fever, joint pain and rash.  Much more testing is usually needed, and even then, the power of every test is limited by its sensitivity and specificity.  For decades, I taught medical students and residents about the importance of subtle variations in the patient’s history and physical exam which could lead to the diagnosis and treatment, even in the face of contradictory and misleading test results.  To steer through a complicated landscape, it helps when the physician is dedicated not just to finding the answer, but to the larger goal of helping the patient.

Dr. Lisa Sanders, who teaches at my old medical school, has a column in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, in which she presents a challenging diagnostic case weekly.  Based on her description of history, physical and preliminary tests, readers suggest possible diagnoses.  And, predictably, the suggestions are all over the map:  remember, many diseases look remarkably similar!  Now this crowdsourcing of diagnoses brings the whole enterprise to a different level- for a fee, of course.

There is an analogy to how the practice of medicine is currently evolving:  diagnosis by computers.  Given a set of symptoms, a diagnostic algorithm can pop up a set of answers, with the most likely one on top.  But the old expression “Garbage in, garbage out” applies when subtle points of the history and physical are passed over, or when irrelevant data are swept into the equation.  Someone still has to decide what data to enter or leave out, and wouldn’t it be better for that person to have expertise, judgment and the goal of not just finding the answer, but the larger goal of helping the patient?  In other words, a good (non-cybernetic) doctor?

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, in which an intern, Kai, presents a puzzling case to his attending, Dr. Hol Chan:

Kai continued, “I have put W.P. through the Probot twice, and both times the results were identical:  signals of tissue injury or regeneration, inflammation, pre-mutagenesis and metabolic derangement are completely absent.  Epigenetic expression, including at the micro-RNA level, is normal.  Risk loci mapping and haplotype structure are unremarkable.  You can see on the next screen that the central and peripheral chi are not in any way obstructed.  I entered the patient’s history, systems review, family history, physical exam and lab data into the analyzer and found no matching diagnosis.  And so, without a suitable coding of his diagnosis, there is no way to initiate the billing process.”

Dr. Chan, studying the wall screen, nodded in agreement.

Kai looked up from his da-disc and shrugged.  “In fact, W.P. is perfectly healthy, even though obviously he is persisting in his illness behavior.”

W.P. stared fixedly downward at his legs, now pale and mottled in the cold room.  Unsure what “illness behavior” implied, at least he knew that his pain was very real.  It was excruciating, every minute of every day; the sleepless hours of each night passed exquisitely slowly…  His wife finally shattered the silence:  “Healthy? Perfectly healthy?  What are you talking about?  Can’t you see he’s in pain?  What’s perfectly healthy about that?  Can’t you just rearrange his genes and end this once and for all, instead of giving him all those… those therapeptides to control pain but only make him more lethargic than he already is?  You doctors and your damned machines:  scanning and probing here and there, coming up with nothing.  Epigenetic expression is normal.  Oh, so everything’s just fine then, is it?  Well it’s not, and I am at the end of the line, people!   I can’t stand it anymore- you find the problem, and you find the solution…you find it.”  She suddenly began to sob, her shoulders shaking, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

Kai had panic scrawled on his face.  “But the Probot is accurate within ten-to-the-minus-seven-percent!  As I said, there’s nothing wrong with your…”  Dr. Chan cut in abruptly:  “Kai.  Excuse me.”  Then, addressing everyone in the room, she said in her most calming voice, “I think we’d better break here, and collect our thoughts.  Why don’t we go to the conference room and review our findings?

“If you don’t mind,” she said to the patient’s wife, who had just as suddenly stopped her crying but shook her head slowly back and forth, unwilling to accept that she and her husband were going through this yet again.

March for Science II

It was fun– and I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.  For me, the March for Science rally in San Francisco yesterday had the right mix of whimsy and angst, of hilarious satire and hard facts.  There were the white lab coats.  The DNA models.  The signs saying, “Remember polio?  I don’t,” “Science Not Silence,” and “If you think science is expensive, try guesswork!”  Although the march was supposedly non-partisan (one sign said, “Science is not Democrat or Republican” and another “Science is not an ideology”), it was hard to skirt the fact that our Chaos President’s administration has been Ground Zero for the unleashing of virulent attacks against scientific principles and evidence-based policies.  In the Trump White House, GOP partisanship and corporate financial interests are favored over data and facts, even if the consequences might threaten the world.  I saw a decidedly partisan sign with just ten characters:  OMG/GOP/WTF?

The speakers ranged from the humorous-but-pointed to the earnest and personal.  Gauging the applause level was my “eardrum approach” to surveying audience sympathies.  When it came to climate change and the denial thereof, the reaction was the most prolonged, almost angry in its intensity.  Then quoting Niels Bohr, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize for describing the atomic structure and later contributed to quantum theory (“Science is the gradual elimination of prejudice”) drew loud approval.  Other topics: support for NASA; the Clean Water Act on the chopping block; fear of a post-truth world in which evidence doesn’t matter; teachers of science and math as the first line of defense- all of these received wholehearted applause.  With the debunking of vaccine-induced autism, there was a slight but perceptible drop in volume.  How about genetically engineering crops to feed the world?  There was definitely a moment of uncertainty when folks had to decide how they felt about GMOs, and whether to clap at all.  Just as the Women’s March in January demonstrated divisions between those supporting women’s rights, the March for Science showed that belief in science does not translate in a homogeneous way to setting policy.

Maybe there should be a March for Science Fiction.  Poets and writers of fiction often set a stage for the interplay of multiple points of view.  This hypothetical staging leads to a grand conclusion, but also allows layering of multiple take-home messages, as I’ve tried to do in my novel Fourth World.  Even in science, there are shades of gray, when you take into consideration ethics, inclusivity and social justice, geopolitics and so on, and sometimes it takes imagination to untangle these factors.  “Science is Hope,” I read on a placard.  Science fiction, which projects current science onto a hypothetical stage by the power of imagination, is also hope.

March for Science

I don’t have any scientific data on this, but it seems to me that there has been a sharp rise in marches and other public demonstrations since the election of our Chaos President.  So many widely-accepted ideas and established programs/policies have come under fire from the Administration that an increasing number of alarmed citizens have felt the need to rise up in protest.

Now there’s a March for Science scheduled for Earth Day, Saturday, April 22nd at the Mall in Washington, D.C. and many other sites around the world (locally at Justin Herman Plaza, SF, 11 AM).  As a physician, I grew up steeped in biology, chemistry, physics, physiology and other scientific disciplines; relied on well-designed clinical trials in order to practice evidence-based medicine; applied the fruits of medical research and technological advances to improve or save lives; and feared the encroachment of financial interests which overshadow doing what’s best for patients.  I have simply taken for granted that the scientific method is essential, that data and evidence are critical, and (mistakenly) that everybody knows these things.  So it came as a shock that Science needs a march!  No-one would claim that all scientific studies are accurate and free of corrupt influence, but even the satirical movie Animal House allows (as a university motto) that Knowledge Is Good.

Since higher education is usually the path to scientific knowledge and expertise, it’s hard to avoid the false equivalence of science and elitism, in the minds of many.  And the way to counter such elitism (vigorously aided by the above-mentioned financial interests) is to deny the importance of science, or even set up the idea of fake science as a straw man.  Deny the conclusions of climatologists, and dismantle agreements to fight climate change on a global scale.  Deny that CO2 is a cause of global warming, and put the chief denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (see my earlier post, So Who Asked You?).  Cling to the false belief- many times disproven- that vaccines cause autism, and appoint the chief clinger to oversee vaccine safety.  Propose a budget that cuts funding for cancer, immunologic, genetic and other vital research at the National Institutes of Health.  Allow the use of pesticides that have been shown to harm children.  Deny the benefits of forensic science programs that increase accuracy in enforcing the law.  Apparently you can simply choose your beliefs without evidence, as they did in the Dark Ages.

So Science does need a march.  But it won’t end there, as a symbolic gesture; the march will shift public discourse, inspire blog postings like this, prompt letters and calls to Congress, and, more locally, it will bring a wide variety of influential people together in the progressive/technological/academically-heavy Bay Area.  Is the march elitist?  I doubt anyone will care.  See you on the 22nd!

The Latest On Fourth World

My science fiction novel Fourth World came out 6-7 months ago as an e-book, but now is available in paperback, on Amazon:  there is a link to the Amazon site on this blog.  Hope you enjoy it!  I want to thank readers of this blog, and of Fourth World, for all your interest and support.  Who knew there would be so many aficionados of medicine, genetics, geopolitics and Mars in the year 2196?

An update on the sequel, Fourth World Nation:  I know a sizable number of readers are anxiously wondering (and have given me grief over) what happens to Benn and Lora.  Well, the wait is almost over- I am nearly finished with the first writing of the sequel, and re-writing will take a couple of months.  Then it’s onward to the dramatic conclusion to the trilogy!

We Live in a Sci-fi World II

Stem cells are all the rage.  And why not?  There is the potential to generate tissues of all kinds (kidney, brain, eyes etc.) from these undifferentiated cells, and to transplant those tissues into humans in order to treat disease.  During national elections, the analogy would be to turn uncommitted voters into Democrats or Republicans and then to move them into districts where they’re needed to boost the Electoral College count.  Stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can grow up to be anything you choose by design.  An uninformed, unenlightened, unfeeling cell can one day become President of the United States- oops, I mean a kidney!

But their promise comes with great risk (see POTUS, above).  As a sad example, three very unfortunate women with partial loss of vision due to macular degeneration recently went to a Florida clinic where stem cells were injected into their eyes in an unproven treatment, and that resulted in their total blindness!  The use of experimental treatments without adequate studies will only increase, now that stem-cell clinics are popping up like spring flowers, and funding for the National Institutes of Health falling like autumn leaves.  In the current climate (pun intended) of denying scientific data, turning to “alternate facts,” and stigmatizing knowledge and expertise as elitist, careful assessment of the risks and benefits will diminish, while opportunistic stem-cell providers, like those in Florida, will thrive.

In my novel Fourth World, I’ve tried to keep a balanced view of stem-cell technology and genetic engineering, acknowledging both the gains and the pitfalls.  Dr. Neelin, Professor of Recombinant Anatomy, has made a cause of pursuing what he calls quacks and quasi-sequencers.  This is from a cadaver demonstration that Benn Marr attends:

Neelin held his right hand up.  “I have one more example of quackery to show you.  Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud.  Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia.  He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone.  They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.”  Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines.  He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis.  Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their datadiscs, again without success.

“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here.  These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful- very useful indeed- had he… been… born… a…”  Neelin paused expectantly.

“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.

Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn.  “A kangaroo or any marsupial- excellent!  Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones:  their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch.  Excellent!”