An Age of New Botany

In Week 5, we read “A Tale of Two Botanies” by Amory B. Lovins  (physicist and MacArthur Fellow) and L. Hunter Lovins (lawyer and social scientist). This article was originally published in Wired Magazine in spring of 2000 – but the arguments presented about GMO foods are nearly identical to those in the ongoing debate about their safety today. Reflecting back on this course, I think that this is one of the most interesting and relevant readings.

As hinted by the title, the premise of this article is to compare two different botanies: the old and the new. According to the authors, the agronomy of the ‘old botany’ only transferred genes between plants who could naturally interbreed. By contrast, under the practices of the ‘new botany,’ genes are “mechanically transfer[red]” between plants that would be unable to breed in nature. The new botany is, according to the authors, dangerous. In this post, I would like to examine the authors’ arguments, and then show how the article outlines the Basic Problem as applied to modern agriculture.

The first reason that new botanical practices of today’s agronomy are dangerous is that the resulting organisms are barely tested. It must be acknowledged that this was the case in the ‘old botany,’ also. Under those practices, however, the transfer of genes between breed-able plants did not deviate significantly from nature. By comparison, the practices of the new botany are doing what in nature would be impossible – the transfer of genes between completely unrelated and incompatible organisms.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason today’s botanical practices are dangerous is that once they are implemented, they can easily spread throughout entire ecosystems. Pollen from a field of genetically modified plants can easily spread to neighboring fields with traditional crops or to wild plant life.

The problems identified by Lovins and Lovins are directly applicable to this course, in that the dangers of the new botany perfectly fit out class’s description of the Basic Problem. Genetic modification technologies are advancing faster than society’s concern with them.

But the role of the ‘new botany’ as an example of the Basic Problem is, I would like to argue, unique in that it shows how the Basic Problem can occur on giant scale. From a single lab, seed, and field, the new botany’s dangers can spread to entire ecosystems and even the world. It is in this unique ability to demonstrate the possible scale of the Basic Problem – coupled with the continued relevance of the issue of GMO agriculture – that makes this article particularly strong.


Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress

Having been introduced in Weeks 1 & 2 of the course, the Basic Problem of scientific progress and its ironic propensity to increase risks while at the same time healing societal problems, is the focus of this post. To reiterate for readers, the Basic Problem as defined by Prof. Chaloupka both in class and in transcripts of speeches given in Bristol and Vienna is as follows:

“In our understanding of nature (science), and in the application of that understanding (technology), we are acquiring powers that will soon become truly god-like…. However, our ability to use this power wisely has not increased correspondingly. For the first time in human history, the capability of causing extreme harm is, or will soon be, in the hands of individuals or small groups. This is the ‘Basic Problem’.”[i]

As a class, we have seen how Richard Feynman dealt with the dilemma of the Basic Problem himself. A participant in the Manhattan project, [ii]he found himself asking the same questions that we, as a class, continue to examine today.

This leads me to the topic of this post: the relation between innovation and progress in science and the resulting inherent increase in risk to humanity. Specifically, I would like to consider selected readings from Weeks 3&4 on the Ukraine Crisis’ possible impact on nuclear non-proliferation and on Global Warming’s role today. I began thinking about the relation between the two during Week 3’s quiz section, to which both physics and social science students contributed.

The Ukraine Crisis

Current events in what has become known as the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ have been dominating headlines for almost a full month. They remind the world of a time when Russia and the West were on less than stellar terms – a time of fear, especially for western countries bordering the Iron Curtain. The Ukraine Crisis does not, however, lead immediately to consideration of its effects on global nuclear non-proliferation (or, at least this is the case for myself).  Finding the link between the two was set as a challenge by Prof. Chaloupka – and led to the learning of some very interesting learning.

At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine had the 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Much of the USSR’s nuclear weaponry had some element of production in the Ukraine. This information was most definitely new to me. I knew, of course, of the famed Chernobyl disaster. My parents themselves have stories of Chernobyl, and how it was covered by Bulgarian media at the time. My aunt visited Ukraine on a business trip not far from Chernobyl just one week after the accident. She recalls a group tour of a zoo, where many of the animals appeared weak and sick – the tour guides did not, of course, talk about Chernobyl. Less than a year later, she had a benign tumor removed from her thyroid. Yet Chernobyl was just one of many nuclear projects in Ukraine.

On December 5, 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assistance. This agreement, which was also signed by the US and UK, stipulated security assurances against threats to territorial integrity or force against Ukraine. The Memorandum was spurred by Ukraine’s joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As a condition of the Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal to Russia. The nuclear weapons it had stockpiled were sent to Russia by 1996, and Ukraine was declared nuke-free.

How does this relate to the Basic Problem? It is a direct example of how “our ability to use [great] power wisely has not increased corresponding” to scientific advancements. The Ukraine Crisis, in particular, brings with it the spectre of MAD. If large, powerful nations such as Russia do not hold to their assurances on nuclear power and agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum lose validity, then what alternatives are available as preventative measures to nuclear war and devastation?

The most obvious answer to come to mind is the reinstallation of Cold War era MAD policies. If other countries considering signing the Treaty on Non-Proliferation believe that doing so will risk their territorial integrities, then they will be far less willing to join. If agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum are disregarded by larger countries, they are no longer of any political value. In such a scenario, it seems logical that small countries will not only refuse to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation, believing that the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation may discourage large powers from breaching their sovereignty. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are particularly likely to use the Ukraine Crisis as justification for intensifying their nuclear programs.

On MAD & Global Warming

MAD policies are, by definition, based on fear tactics. As long as all actors in MAD are equally deterred by the possibility of nuclear retaliation to their actions, then nobody should step out of line.

It is interesting, then, to compare the fear tactics of MAD and the Global Warming movement.

As documented in the NY Times article “Global Warming Scare Tactics” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, fear-based tactics have been used in attempts to raise public concern about climate change. Such tactics include linking the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters to human-caused climate change. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, also used this method. Strangely, however, the number of Americans believing that global warming has been exaggerated the media has increased since 2006 – from 34% to 42%.

Why should fear tactics work in MAD then, if they are falling short for climate change? The answer lies in the immediacy perceived about each.

MAD is a construct left over from the Cold War. In the USA, the adults of today remember being instructed to “duck and cover” in response to the flash of nuclear detonations. Photos and accounts of the human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki create immediate emotional responses. The public can, therefore, clearly visualize the potential risks of nuclear disaster and how they would affect everyday life. As a result, the public perceives the risks of MAD as realistic and possible.

By contrast, the effects of global warming are easy to envision for future generations, but much more difficult to envision within our own lifetimes. Despite being accelerated by human pollution, climate change is nevertheless an extremely slow process. The harmful consequences of our actions today will not come to be for generations. It is not our current society that will have to deal with the result of rising seas, intense storms, and changes in regional climates. It will be our grand- and great-grand children who will suffer the consequences of inaction today. There are no disastrous events concretely linked to climate change, so the public cannot visualize the consequences of global warming as it can for MAD. The result is that the public’s incentive for responding to fear-based global warming tactics is greatly reduced.


MAD and the global warming movement both use fear-based tactics in attempting to prevent nuclear warfare and further environmental destruction, respectively. The successes of MAD and the shortcomings of global warming each hold implications for the other.

MAD is in part useful because of the immediacy of the negative consequences if it fails to prevent nuclear warfare. It is maybe possible, then, for the global warming movement to increase its effectiveness in changing people’s behavior by finding new, more immediate ways to portray the consequences of climate change. Crucial to this will be clearly and definitively linking natural disasters and similar events to global warming. If the increasing frequency of extreme storms (ie. Hurricane Katrina) or rising water levels in Venice can be linked to climate change by basic science, skepticism about the problem should decrease.

Similarly, global warming’s failure to use fear-tactics for motivating change holds an important lesson for MAD supporters. Using catastrophic rhetoric may cause skepticism about the risks of nuclear conflict. If this happens, MAD loses much of its effectiveness as a preventative deterrent. It may be in society’s best interests to make a ‘back-up plan’ should MAD fail.

Concluding Thoughts

The readings, lectures, and discussions of Week 3&4 have made me think in more depth than ever before how science can both create problems of and solutions to Human Security issues. Scientific advancement is a double-edged sword. It is somewhat alarming that prior to this course in my 4th year of university I have not been exposed to these issues in my courses. The material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.




[i] Vladimir Chaloupka, “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security: or What is To Be Done?” (2008).

[ii] Vladimir Chaloupka, Common Book 2011: UW and Meaning of It All Study and Teaching Guide,” (2011).

Science & the General Public

As the first two weeks of class have gotten me thinking about the role of science in society, I have begun paying significantly more attention to the reactions of my peers to science-related news and articles. Although my observations are limited in sample size and lack controls, as any respectable scientist would be quick to point out, I believe they still illustrate several of the phenomena we have discussed in class.

Amongst my peers, there seem to be three groups of  attitudes towards issues of science:

  1. Accepting, analytical, logical – this group consists mostly of fellow science majors (biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc).
  2. Interested, but apprehensive – this group consists mostly of social science majors who are intrigued by the workings of science and its implications for civilization, but who are often apprehensive of studying these issues due dislike of mathematics or memorization.
  3. Uninterested – this group shows little interest in science-related news articles, or shared knowledge from science major peers.

Within Group 1, there is also division according to the disciplines these students are most interested in. Biologists, for example, view the role of osmotic and partial pressure gradients across a cell membrane from a different perspective than physicists or chemists. While the biologist might focus on the dynamic equilibrium of ions and water resulting from such gradients, the physicist might examine the energy across the membrane and the chemist might examine in great detail the phospholipids and membrane proteins involved in ion transfer.

This is precisely the reductionist nature of science which Kaku examines in “Visions.” 20th century science, Kaku argues, was characterized by separating the disciplines and allowing scientists to specialize within them. One benefit of reductionism was, of course, the success in establishing the “foundation[s] of modern physics, chemistry, and biology.” Yet Kaku predicts that the time of reductionism is coming to an end: the obstacles facing scientists today can not be solved by such a segmented approach. As reductionism comes to an end, a new dynamic relationship between the scientific disciplines should emerge, leading to the acceleration of scientific discovery.

This prediction seems to be reflected in Group 1. These peers of mine are often split in their approaches to problems, according to their subject of focus. Yet, university coursework is increasingly emphasizing the interconnectedness between the disciplines. And often biology students will go to a physics major friend for help with a homework assignment. It seems that Kaku may have been accurate in his prediction – and that we are currently witnessing the transition between scientific reductionism and synergy.

Group 2 is also quite interesting to examine. My peers in this group, some of whom are enrolled in JSIS 216 with me, are interested in improving the human condition. They are, therefore, often interested in how scientific advancements can be applied to real world problems and express interest in understanding the nuances of science in more detail. Discomfort with mathematics and memorization often prevents these students from venturing into the hard sciences.

Prof. Chaloupka presents a potential solution to this problem, in his talk on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security.” The first solution he offers to the Basic Problem – that for the first time in history, the capability of causing extreme harm is in the hands of individuals or small groups – is education. Importantly, Chaloupka recognizes that this is not a case of educating just the general public about science. Education must go in both directions – scientists must also be taught about the need for social responsibility and foresight.

Group 3 in particular has much to gain from education about science. This does not mean that members of the general public who are genuinely disinterested in issues of science and human security are to be forced to endure lectures on calculus and biochemistry. Rather, education for this group should probably focus on explaining the potential impact scientific discoveries have on society – and the inherent risks for the future.

It seems to me to be logical, therefore, that just as Kaku’s prediction of synergy between scientific disciplines comes to fruition, society in general must go through a similar metamorphosis. In the same way biologists, physicists, and chemists will work together, the general public should work with the scientific community to regulate discoveries, prevent their misuse, and promote their use for improving the human condition.



Today, I completed the first Short Response Paper of the term. While this is mandatory of everyone in the class, and therefore doesn’t count towards this Ad-Hoc Honors project, I’m uploading it because I believe that it will be helpful to my readers as they read my first in-depth.

So, without further ado, here it is!

Two of the assigned readings this week were Prof. Michio Kaku’s “Visions: How science will revolutionize the 21st century” and the transcript Prof. Chaloupka’s speech on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security: or What is To Be Done?” Both authors present their interpretations on the consequences science will have on the future of humanity, yet they have fundamental – and thus importantly – distinctions. I would like to examine these distinctions, as they are significant to our understanding of how science impacts progress and the field of Human Security. In addition, I will highlight certain contentions in both Kaku’s and Chaloupka’s articles that I disagree with. In all cases, my disagreement stems from my exposure to differing views in other courses. I will attempt to explain why I find these views more probable than those of Kaku and Chaloupka, using my academic and personal background as a framework.

In “Visions,” Kaku advances the thesis that the era of scientific discovery is ending, as advances in technology allow us to mature from passive observers unravelling the secrets of Nature to masters of Nature. Kaku begins by examining the three scientific revolutions of the 20th century: the quantum, computer, and DNA revolutions. The discoveries and knowledge gained from each of these, Kaku argues, is central to our debut into the “Age of Mastery.” The computer revolution gives us the skills to create artificial intelligence. The DNA revolution will give us “nearly god-like ability[ies] to manipulate life almost at will.” The quantum revolution has and continues to contribute to advancement in the other two revolutions, in addition to providing us with deeper insight into the physics of the universe.

Kaku’s predictions are intriguing. I find his predictions of artificial intelligence or a shift from wealth from natural resources to wealth from knowledge and skill entirely possible and believable. I do, however, believe that Kaku takes his predictions too far in some cases For example, he states by 2020 cheap microprocessors will allow us to place intelligent systems everywhere. This is all well and good – but he fails to acknowledge that this depends on the percentage of people having access to the technology, their education about its use and consequences, and the cultural acceptance of intelligent systems everywhere in life. Education and cultural acceptance require time, and they are important for the adoption of any new technology. Another premature prediction of Kaku’s is that “many genetic diseases will be eliminated by injecting people’s cells with the correct gene.” As a biology major, I am admittedly quick to disagree with this statement. I think, however, that even a non-biology major would understand that Kaku’s prediction is only feasible if the injection of genes is done early in the development and differentiation of an embryo. In adults, gene therapy would need to reach all target cells. This is a huge obstacle – injecting a correct gene into every single target cell is a strategic nightmare, and one that is the focus of much current research.

Prof. Chaloupka’s speech on “Science, the Basic Problem, and Human Security” is similar to Kaku’s chapter, in that it looks to the future impacts of science on society. It has, however, a crucial distinction. While Chaloupka agrees with Kaku that we are acquiring god-like powers, he goes further to recognize the possible negative outcomes of scientific progress. Where Kaku is singularly optimistic, Chaloupka also examines the costs of science. This is, in my opinion, very important. If we are blindly optimistic, we risk being caught unprepared if the relationship between science and society does go wrong. This is the Basic Problem of foresight that Chaloupka outlines. While Kaku sees increasing access to scientific discoveries as leading to the dissemination of intelligent systems around the world, Chaloupka is correct in pointing out how such access can lead to individuals or small groups being capable of causing serious harm. His reasoning that reactions to catastrophes will probably not be rational also seems reasonable – in fact, it is all the more believable for Chaloupka’s use of past examples like the public response to 9/11.

By taking the leap and acknowledging the potential downsides of scientific advancement, Prof. Chaloupka ultimately does something very important that Kaku does not: making possible the consideration of defensive, preventative, and reactionary measures to minimize the risks of science as much as possible. It is counter-intuitive and, in my opinion, somewhat ironic that only by acknowledging the potential risks and detriments of scientific advancement can we hope to prevent and mitigate them. And the difference between Chaloupka’s and Kaku’s conclusions is itself reminiscent of a scientific discovery for the good.