Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe presents a parade of recent bio-engineering experiments, from glowing monkeys, to genetically boosted salmon, to cyborg insects. He asks: isn’t it time to set some ground rules? Sure. Bring it on Paul!
Now regular readers of this website already know most of the lustrous & monstrous examples, yet throughout the talk you feel a certain suspense: you-are-now-listing-to-a-real-bioethicist-who-any-minute-now-is-going-to-lay-out-some-crystal-clear-ground-rules-for-bio-engineering. Unfortunately Paul constrains himself to a call for rules, but doesn’t deliver them himself. Who will?
Thanks anyway Ewelina Szymanska.
Designer and former fashion model Barbara de Vries was cleaning plastic litter off her favorite beach in the Bahamas, when she noticed the plastic fragments were all uniquely tinted and molded after years tumbling in the ocean. The beauty of the litter inspired her to create a jewelery collection.
Diamonds plastics are forever!
Have you heard of Elephantiasis? It is a disease caused by microscopic parasitic worms that cause a thickening of the skin and underlying tissues. The disease typically occurs in tropical regions, however, as it seems it recently transferred to consumer products.
You have a choice dear reader: spend 4 seconds scanning this blogpost, or spend the full 58:10 minutes (*) watching the retro-futuristic interview with polymath & nextnature thinker avant la lettre Buckminister Fuller.
(*) We are well aware these are times of short-attention span, yet sometimes you have to immerse yourself. We actually recommend watching the video twice to obtain an optimal understanding and appreciation of the material.
More hypernatural designer-fruit. What do you get when you cross a strawberry and a pineapple? A pineberry, of course.
Some seven years ago the pineberry was taken from its native South America and grown commercially in glasshouses by Dutch company VitalBerry BV. Today pineberries are available in supermarkets throughout Europe and, like most designer-fruits, the pineberry is trademarked and has its own wikipedia page.
Certain types of bacteria can navigate using magnetic nanoparticles as tiny compasses. Researchers at the University of Leeds have extracted the protein that controls this process and applied it to computing. Typical hard drives use use “granular computing”, while this new method relies on bit-pattern media, where each miniscule magnetic square on a surface can store one bit.
The team is close to recreating the data density of modern hard drives, and hope eventually to be able to store one terabyte of date per square inch – more advanced than any existing hard drive. According to Sarah Stanilan, who lead the research, “We’re using and abusing nature because it’s had billions of years to do all of its experiments through evolution, so there is almost no point in us starting from scratch.”
The standard story of the cowboy hat goes something like this: In 1865, J.B. Stetson went out west during the California gold rush. He observed that bowlers, raccoon hats, and sombreros weren’t cutting it for men who spent their lives in the harsh conditions of the American West. Stetson went back home and invented “The Boss of the Plains”, a waterproof hat with a high dome, ideal for cowboy life. This story would check out if the original Stetson looked anything like a true cowboy hat. Which, with its flat brim, round top, and bow-tied ribbon, it does not.
Johnnie Hughes, author of On the Origin of Teepees, argues that the Stetson’s modern form was actually an accident of environment and human habit. The characteristic rolled brim and dented crown are the result of thousands of ranch hands picking up, folding, and sleeping on their hats. The wide brim, waterproof materials, and high crown were responses to a climate with blazing summers and frigid, wet winters. Just like the horse hoof, the cowboy hat was the unintentional result of a population of “organisms” adapting to a grasslands habitat.
It can be problematic to equate natural evolution with the development of manmade objects. Whether or not these changes can be compared to Darwinian selection depends on the intentionality of the design. Some, like corporate logos, superficially appear to evolve like living organisms in gradual, logical steps. However, each iteration of the design can usually be linked back to a conscious decision. Others are unintentional but non-adaptive. This Boo Berry cereal box, for instance, is more akin to harmless DNA transcription errors than natural selection. Finally, the Stetson hat is a true example of a manmade object that was shaped by actual, unintentional Darwinian selection to arrive at its “fittest” form. Proof that not all design is intelligent.
There is a domain of creatures that diffusively encircles an entire planet. There are so many of them that they occupy every conceivable ecological niche. Yet, despite their countless numbers they are so in tune with their local ecology that they have become an intrinsic part of it. Those that live in rural locations greatly outnumber those that inhabit strange cites, which are gregarious, smart and even have their own personalities. The cities consider themselves as being independent from their inhabitants, yet share their nutrition with them. They have a diurnal waste cycle that removes debris and also makes room for a new influx of city dwellers. Mature cities can even reproduce to make new ones that are immediately available for the city inhabitants to colonize.
Modern biotechnology has recently revealed that humans are immersed in a bacterial world. So much so, that an alien naturalist might consider humans as little more than smart city housing for bacterial colonies. While we think we are at the top of an evolutionary tree, it appears that our evolution is closely linked to, if not entirely dependent on bacteria. They have collectively made it possible for complex life forms to exist as they have produced our breathable atmosphere, our soil and even our rainfall. Although they have not been proven to possess a collective ‘mind’ they do have extremely sophisticated methods of communicating using linguistic qualities . They encircle the planet like a chemical Internet and hold incessant conversations using physics and chemistry.
On the shortlist for the year’s strangest book title, Jonathan Olivares’ A Taxonomy of Office Chairs charts the “evolution” of chairs from the 1840s to the present day. The author explicitly uses the language of biological classification, opening with a quote from Baudrillard that describes consumer objects as reproducing species. Olivares notes that “I find it ironic and unnerving that our society cherishes, studies and documents the natural world, but keeps little track of the products that make up our predominant reality.”
In his analysis, Olivares discovered that the individual components of chairs – bases, backs, and armrests – evolved independently. The gradual changes in the design of a chair don’t mirror, for instance, the logical sequence of horse evolution, but more like something along the lines of bacterial conjugation, when whole genetic sequences can be swapped in and out. It’s arguable whether the conceit is more than a useful metaphor, but it may be that chairs can join razors, phones and corporate logos as objects that appear to evolve like organisms.
Dig the three minute introduction. Script by Claudia Vickers, Animation by Orlando Mee, Produced by Stephan Kern.
Montreal filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ documentary feature, Surviving Progress presents the story of human advancement and reveals the risk of running the 21st century’s software — our know-how — on the ancient hardware of our primate brain which hasn’t been upgraded in 50,000 years. It is up to us to prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end.
Why turn to implants when the female body can do it by itself? Dutch designer Femke Mosch came up with the idea of making edible implants that stimulate breast growth from within.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 
In Western cultures, nature is a cosmological, primal ordering force and a terrestrial condition that exists in the absence of human beings. Both meanings are freely implied in everyday conversation. We distinguish ourselves from the natural world by manipulating our environment through technology. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly proposes that technology behaves as a form of meta-nature, which has greater potential for cultural change than the evolutionary powers of the organic world alone.
With the advent of ‘living technologies’ , which possess some of the properties of living systems but are not ‘truly’ alive, a new understanding of our relationship to the natural and designed world is imminent. This change in perspective is encapsulated in Koert Van Mensvoort’s term ‘next nature’, which implies thinking ‘ecologically’, rather than ‘mechanically’. The implications of next nature are profound, and will shape our appreciation of humanity and influence the world around us.
While most people think biotechnology is complex, expensive and exclusively practiced in fancy lab settings, designer Tuur van Balen argues it is actually quite accessible. He demonstrates his vision on DIY biotechnology by creating an ‘anti-depressant yoghurt’ on stage.
…thus it walks into a lot of dead alleys. Peculiar image of the week.
While evidence indicates that humans domesticated themselves, we’re not the only primates capable of self-domestication. Bonobos and baboons have shown they are just as capable of turning a kinder, gentler, and more cuddly culture into hardwired changes in their genomes.
Bonobos, aka the “sexy ape”, look a lot like chimpanzees and share the same forest habitat. It stands to reason that they should be similar in most other regards, but the two species are wildly different. On a physical level, bonobos have smaller skulls and canine teeth, but their greatest differences lie in the social realm. Bonobos are the laid-back lovers compared to the chimpanzee’s neurotic warmongers.
Bonobos spend more time playing and grooming than chimps. They have sex for just about any reason: so say hello, to solve conflicts, to celebrate finding food. A “bonobo handshake” is not how humans would want to start a business meeting. In the bonobo’s reduced physical stature and playful spirit, researchers have recently recognized the same changes that occurred when wolves became dogs, or when aurochs became cattle. But while dogs needed humans for domestication, bonobos have done it all on their own.