Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Social stability, population growth and the experiments of John B. Calhoun

By Steve Rensberry   

As far along as we may be on the pathway to a singularity, it's hard to deny the acceleration that has taken place over the past century in terms of population growth, and the chance that it could leave a vast majority of us shaking our heads in disbelief when it's all said and done.
   Consider the compounding effects, and a total world population that was only around 1 million in 10,000 BCE. By the year 1,000 CE it had multiplied to 300 times that size, to 310 million. We surpassed the 1 billion mark in the early 1800s, then grew to some 1.26 billion in 1850 and to 2.5 billion in 1950.
   Now, just 60 years later, we’re at an incredible 6.8 billion. That's according to estimates put together by the United Nations. That's 4.3 billion more human beings living on this magnificent floating ball of rock in 2010 than there were at the time my parents pledged their lives to one another!  The rate of growth has slowed, fortunately, with speculation that total world population will peak at about 9 billion people sometime between 2040 and 2050.
   Much has been written about the threat to the earth's ecosystem and environment, but the positive and cumulative effects in terms of increasing knowledge, together with the possible, but uncertain ways in which it could affect social and psychological aspects of the human race may be two commonly overlooked dynamics.
   American research psychologist John Calhoun was an exception. Calhoun died in 1995 but was widely known for his studies of population density and its effects on animal behavior, in particular rats. He had worked in the division of neuropsychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before joining the National Institutes of Health in 1954, where he remained for more than 30 years.
   But it was in 1946 and 1947 at Johns Hopkins University that Calhoun began a massive study of a colony of Norway rats, maintained in an outdoor pen that was some 10,000 square feet in size. Despite the ability for the five pregnant females in the group to produce more than 50,000 offspring within the space provided, the total population in the pen never surpassed 200 rats. The rats also broke up into colonies of only about a dozen each instead of spreading themselves throughout the pen, pointing to a maximum size before which the rats succumbed to forces and stresses which would work to their detriment. See: Escaping the Laboratory
   Calhoun continued his behavioral experiments in a Maryland barn in 1954, and again in the 1960s in another elaborate arrangement on property owned by the National Institutes of Mental Health. Here he constructed what was known as his "mouse universe," a 9-foot square, 54-inch tall, meticulously designed and constructed living environment. Space was the only limitation.
   What he found was a total, eventual breakdown in social structure within the colony, leading to extinction. Male rats would withdraw, tending only to themselves, and the females would all but stop reproducing.
  "The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population," the entry on Wikipedia says. See: John Calhoun.
   Human civilization and the cognitive complexity of  humans far exceeds that of rodents, but do we really know what the future holds? Were Calhoun's experiments relevant to our understanding of human culture and population growth? As time marches on, we might do well to keep matters related to adaptability and that tremendously creative, inventive spark that sets us apart from so much of the animal kingdom well in mind.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

------------------------------ Gray --------------------------

Caustic consequences
Sequence initiated.
What! With only a whisper are we lured us into acquiescence.
But surely it is all but a game.
Zero, nine, eight, seven, zero, nine, four.
A roll of the dice.
What really did we humans do –
to force time into retreat?

A sea of darkness
There was no reference point,
as I looked around – nothing to see, to feel, to smell,
nothing but thoughts without matter.
In perpetual motion.
An ocean of silence in a sea of gray.
As a void slices, suddenly, through a crack in the sky.
Split like a seam, in a moment of birth.

Critical juncture
   I am millions of years old and broken beyond measure,
imploding, transmuting, shifting into a state
of non-definition and delirious despair.
Misery fights for control, tearing me in two,
between past and future –
between what I am
and what so many must endure;
such a prolonged, deplorable existence,
forcing their hand with what little there is  –
all at the expense of mere numbers.
Not that anything is easy.
Many of the brightest have thought it through,
and thought they had it figured out,
even without proof
even without correspondence,
with formulas far removed from reality.
Like bees to pollen, the theoretical, the speculative,
the string-laden phenomenon in
league with faith and absolutism
of a thousand transcendent varieties
comes loaded with half-truths
and a bevy of broken neurons,
to give us anything and everything
to avert the pain of uncertainty.
Cause and defect
   – external sensory collection –
– biological-based genetic data –
– hierarchical mechanisms of storage –
– the manifestation of time –
– emotion to mood to attitude –
– intuition and sensing –
– a synthesis of biological and psychological movements –
– urges to desires to a need for structure –
– logic to reason –
– self-awareness to consciousness –
– to universal awareness –
– equilibrium to despair  –
– anger to reconstruction –
– struggle to seclusion –
– meaning to knowledge –
 – acceptance to tranquility –
– growth to transference –

Trust and decay
There should be. There ought to be. 
There must be –
because comprehensive reality includes subtleties,
possibilities, worlds beyond perception –
gradients of matter stealthily occupying
the same earthly space
light years beyond recognition.
Abstraction or substance?
If every effect has a cause,
where's the tie between nothing and something?
Where's the link between body and mind,
between the real and the unreal,
between matter and non-matter?
Do objects ever touch?
Unseen forces have you feeling in the dark –
ripping, tearing, shredding the tiniest
morsel of knowledge –
inverting and flipping and reshaping
the obvious until its true nature is
effectively obscured.
You want to believe.
It feels good to believe.
We will make you believe.
You will believe.
In a world of restriction,
the socially dominant live for supremacy –
fragmenting and reforming themselves
until group control is assured.
The lies are true.
Trust us.
The contradictions are fabricated –
shameful insecurities bred in obscurity.
You have a duty to trash your tired imperatives –
wrapped as they are like wire around your soul.

A universe of gray
Strange it was.
Like the mind.
Bigger on the inside than it was on the outside
We surmised it was related to balance,
perplexed by the infinite nature of it all. 
Our minds it turns out were the strangest things of all. 
Were we making things too complex, or too simple?
 Where was the bedrock?
Why can we not immediately turn that which is
within our minds into material reality?
Imprisoned we are by the forces of the inanimate,
by the unknown and untouchable.
We observe patterns and shapes and centers
and breaks and cycles and borders and arrows
and sheets and spheres
and every possible synthesis in between.
We observe recurrent processes and phenomenon.
A complexity of emotions and drives and disassociation –
from fears to heartaches to love –
coursing through our veins, beyond our conscious awareness
We fasten our beliefs on unsighted faith and presupposition.
We make it so by redefining the nature of evidence.
We call everything matter or everything mind
– complementary but independent.
Do we really know what's real?
Are we not but conglomerates?
Relationships in search of a structure.
Compounds tethered to elementary forces
a thousand times more complex
and profound than we can imagine.
Phenomenally frail creatures
with small minds and big delusions.
We feel the edges. We touch a whisper.
We think we know it all.
Absolutes. Infinity. Morality.
Disingenuous desperation.
Assume – extend – believe – demand – conform
Can no one see – the depth, the ingrained elements,
the core in humanity that changes only by chance?
That idolizes then repeats? Ad infinitum.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Life by (human) design

By Steve Rensberry   

 The recent announcement by Craig Venter and his team of scientists that they had created the first, truly synthetic life form has drawn reactions as predictable as the earth's rotation around the sun. Neither has it been all that surprising that bloggers everywhere were pondering its implications more than any other subject last week, according to a Pew Research Center update of June. 2.
    "Bloggers often seem more interested in scientific discoveries than does the traditional press. And last week, one such scientific achievement led the online conversation despite receiving very little coverage in the mainstream media," the PRC's analysis says.
    I don't feel I need to even tell you how the news has been received, but it appears to me the reactions have been nearly identical to those we've been seeing since first mucking around with even the slightest of DNA structures years ago.
    Certainly many of us have suspected that life could, conceivably be formed at the hands of humans, someday maybe, but in 2010? One site I stumbled upon predicted genetic engineers would design the first artificially-created species oh, in about the year 3,000! Surely, the bacteria dubbed "Synthia" by the J. Venter Institute group has only the ability to survive and reproduce, but it's potentially a mighty big first step. The bacteria's formal name is Mycoplasma mycoides. Interestingly, Venter even embedded his own name into the synthetic bacteria's DNA, along with the name of other team members.
    Pharmaceutical companies like what he's done. Big oil likes it. Others have forthrightly trivialized it, perhaps even with some degree of justification. Athena Andreadis, who is an Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, questions on her blog at, whether the description of what Venter did is even accurate
    "To propagate the synthesized chromosome, the Venter team used a bacterium whose endogenous DNA had been removed but was otherwise intact. This means that they used existing natural components to do the real task of propagation – the entire structure and machinery of the host cell. This makes the endeavor even less groundbreaking than injecting genetic material into a mammalian egg or stem cell (as was done to produce Dolly the sheep with far less advanced technology)," she writes.
    In Andreadis' words, Venter's achievement was "expensive, glitzy – and banal."
    "What Venter really announced was that a team under his direction inserted a chemically synthesized genome into Mycoplasma and succeeded in getting the resulting bacterium to propagate," she says.
    It's going to be interesting, to say the least, to see where Venter's work takes us over the next few months and years.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion