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General Interest

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Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies

Recent advances in disciplines such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and neuropharmacology entail a “dual-use dilemma” because they promise benefits for human health and welfare yet pose the risk of misuse for hostile purposes. The emerging field of synthetic genomics, for example, can produce custom DNA molecules for life-saving drugs but also makes possible the creation of deadly viral agents for biological warfare or terrorism. The challenge for policymakers is to prevent the misuse of these new technologies without forgoing their benefits.

Birdsong may seem to us to be the purest expression of joy, but in fact when a male bird bursts into melodious song, he is warning off other males and advertising his availability to females. He may also engage in spectacular displays of plumage, dance-like movements, or even acrobatics (tree-based or aerial)--all as part of courtship. The female, meanwhile, assesses his vocalization, plumage, and territory before accepting him as a mate.

Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World

An ancient tradition holds that Pythagoras discovered the secrets of harmony within a forge when he came across five men hammering with five hammers, producing a wondrous sound. Four of the five hammers stood in a marvelous set of proportions, harmonizing; but there was also a fifth hammer. Pythagoras saw and heard it, but he could not measure it; nor could he understand its discordant sound. Pythagoras therefore discarded it. What was this hammer, such that Pythagoras chose so decidedly to reject it?

Diseases and Economic Development

In Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress, Robert McGuire and Philip Coelho integrate biological and economic perspectives into an explanation of the historical development of humanity and the economy, paying particular attention to the American experience, its history and development. In their path-breaking examination of the impact of population growth and parasitic diseases, they contend that interpretations of history that minimize or ignore the physical environment are incomplete or wrong.

Implications for Global Health

Disease eradication represents the ultimate in global equity and the definitive outcome of good public health practice. Thirty years ago, the elimination of smallpox defined disease eradication as a monumental global achievement with lasting benefits for society. Today, the global commitment to eradicate polio and guinea worm and heightened interest in the potential eradication of other infectious diseases, including measles/rubella, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and malaria, dominate public health concerns. But what does it take to eradicate a disease?

Recipes for Reality

Standards are the means by which we construct realities. There are established standards for professional accreditation, the environment, consumer products, animal welfare, the acceptable stress for highway bridges, healthcare, education--for almost everything. We are surrounded by a vast array of standards, many of which we take for granted but each of which has been and continues to be the subject of intense negotiation.

Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age
Edited by Sheila Jasanoff

Legal texts have been with us since the dawn of human history. Beginning in 1953, life too became textual. The discovery of the structure of DNA made it possible to represent the basic matter of life with permutations and combinations of four letters of the alphabet, A, T, C, and G. Since then, the biological and legal conceptions of life have been in constant, mutually constitutive interplay--the former focusing on life’s definition, the latter on life’s entitlements.

A Laboratory Study of Multimodal Semiotic Interaction in the Age of Computers

The results of fMRI brain scanning require extensive analysis in the laboratory. In Handling Digital Brains, Morana Alac shows that fMRI researchers do not sit passively staring at computer screens but actively involve their bodies in laboratory practice. Discussing fMRI visuals with colleagues, scientists animate the scans with gestures, and talk as they work with computers. Alač argues that to understand how digital scientific visuals take on meaning we must consider their dynamic coordination with gesture, speech, and working hands.

In this latest version of humanity, we are equipped with a fully re-engineered immune system; the latest set of cultural assumptions about gender, ethnicity, and sexuality; and a suite of customized enhancements, including artificial joints, neurochemical mood modulators, and performance-boosting hormones. In The Techno-Human Condition, Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz explore what it means to be human in an era of incomprehensible technological complexity and change.

Philosophical and Scientific Perspectives

Information shapes biological organization in fundamental ways and at every organizational level. Because organisms use information—including DNA codes, gene expression, and chemical signaling—to construct, maintain, repair, and replicate themselves, it would seem only natural to use information-related ideas in our attempts to understand the general nature of living systems, the causality by which they operate, the difference between living and inanimate matter, and the emergence, in some biological species, of cognition, emotion, and language.

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