Thursday, January 3, 2008

Top Ten Science Breakthroughs

Wired lists the top ten scientific advances of 2007. Number one, of course, was the development of stem cells from skin cells, but number two was an observation of chimps making spears to hunt small animals. This was deemed more important, oddly enough, than the discovery of a technique that can turn any blood type to type O - a technique which has enormous implications for medicine - a potential cure for Rhett's syndrome which afflicts one female in every 10,000, the discovery of a new lightweight composite of incredible strength, and a breakthrough that will enable Intel to make microprocessors about a third smaller than they are currently made. All of these have enormous implications for human health and quality of life.

So why are the chimpanzee spear-makers deemed so important? Just guessing, but I suspect it's because some people at Wired, as elsewhere, are desperate to show that humans and chimps are closely related so that the unwashed won't get any notions about the uniqueness of human beings. The more similar we are to the simians the less likely we are to be in any way "special" and the easier it is to accept other aspects of the Darwinian hocus-pocus.

Maybe not, but I fail to see any other explanation for why spear-making among chimps would be ranked higher in importance than breakthroughs that actually have implications for human well-being.


Socrates and Fred!

As we enter the first primary of the season, today's Iowa caucuses, I thought it appropriate to comment on a frequently heard criticism of one of the GOP candidates, Fred Thompson. The complaint is that Thompson doesn't seem to really want to be president badly enough, he doesn't have the fire in his belly, he's not willing to get out and pretend like he genuinely cares about the opinions of the old guy in the diner or the twelve year old at the school-yard rally. Actually this vice, Thompson's alleged indifference to his success as a candidate, should be regarded by the American public as a virtue, especially since it seems like most of the other candidates want too much to be president and are too willing to debase themselves in order to acquire the power and fame the office affords.

Plato, in his great work of political philosophy titled Republic puts these words into the mouth of Socrates:

"[M]oney and honour [i.e. public praise] have no attraction for them; good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing and so to get the name of hirelings, nor by secretly helping themselves out of the public revenues to get the name of thieves. And not being ambitious they do not care about honour. Wherefore necessity must be laid upon them, and they must be induced to serve from the fear of punishment. And this, as I imagine, is the reason why the forwardness to take office, instead of waiting to be compelled, has been deemed dishonourable. Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself. And the fear of this, as I conceive, induces the good to take office, not because they would, but because they cannot help--not under the idea that they are going to have any benefit or enjoyment themselves, but as a necessity, and because they are not able to commit the task of ruling to any one who is better than themselves, or indeed as good. For there is reason to think that if a city were composed entirely of good men, then to avoid office would be as much an object of contention as to obtain office is at present .... the State in which rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are the most eager, the worst."

There is indeed something unseemly about lusting for the power to govern others. A candidate who yearns to be president gives us good prima facie reason to withhold our vote from him or her. A qualified, conscientious candidate who could otherwise either take the job or leave it, I think, has exactly the kind of attitude toward governance that we should admire in our politicians.