Combatting the Scourge

Malaria has been described as “the perennial scourge of mankind,” with over 200 million cases reported annually resulting in up to 750,000 deaths and incalculable misery. The disease is most common in the tropical and subtropical regions that surround the equator, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but it may be found in any region where climatic conditions favor the growth and spread of the mosquito-borne parasite.

On-going global eradication efforts employing pesticides have been successful in southern Europe and the southern United States, but less so elsewhere. In recent years genomics has taken center stage in malaria research with the sequencing of both the malarial parasite and the human genome. One experimental application of this research is the production of genetically-modified mosquitoes that do not transmit malaria. Another new and promising technique is the gene drive, which combats malaria by introducing disruptive genes into wild populations of mosquitoes that interfere with the development of females.

The use of such radical measures unavoidably prompts serious bioethical concerns, including the possibilities of unforeseen mutations and broader ecological impacts. Ethicists also question whether we have the right to potentially eliminate a species. In her self-described role as a “moral philosopher” Laurie Zoloth (University of Chicago) has written and lectured extensively about these issues, arguing that:

In the 1960s, the world agreed that smallpox was a species worth eliminating. We should feel the same way about A. gambiae. And isn’t deploying a gene drive that specifically targets the mosquito species that carries malaria far better than using chemical sprays, such as pyrethroids, organochlorines and DDT (still used in some countries) that indiscriminately target any insect?

Though malaria and other insect-borne diseases have historically been associated with Third World poverty, Zoloth notes these maladies are no longer the exclusive province of underdeveloped tropical countries. As climate change results in greater and more widespread extremes of temperature, rainfall, and humidity, the range of mosquitoes is likely to increase, and with them the diseases they transmit including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and Zika. While acknowledging the dangers of meddling with the genetic status quo, Zoloth maintains that preoccupation with those risks is a luxury afforded only to those who are not at risk of losing a loved one to wrenching fevers and severe dehydration.

Zoloth concludes that in that light, gene drives and other genomic-based eradication methods represent the most moral and ethical choice available to scientists.

Watch May We Make the World?: Religious and Ethical Questions with Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Burke Lectureship

Tool Use, Technology and the Evolution of the Human Mind

We “behaviorally modern humans” likely emerged more than 100,000 years ago in Africa, spread across that continent and eventually all over the planet, effectively replacing all closely related potentially competitive species. Among many possible explanations, was the co-evolution of the human mind with tool use and technology – ranging all the way from simple stone tools millions of years ago, to computers today.

Speakers in this series addresses this important process at all levels, from molecules to brain imaging, beginning with the potential link between early stone tool use and the parallel expansion of the human brain, to the control of fire and the invention of projectile weapons, all the way through reading and writing to current day technologies such as computers and 3D reality–perhaps with a look to the potential future of the human mind.

Browse more programs in CARTA: Impact of Tool Use and Technology on the Evolution of the Human Mind

Looking Toward 2020 with Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown

Willie Brown has spent his life in public service. He served over 30 years in the California State Assembly – 15 of those years as Speaker – before becoming the first African American mayor of San Francisco. For the past 10 years, he’s been writing a column for the San Francisco Chronicle on politics, movies, art, and anything else on his mind. When he took the podium at the Goldman School of Public Policy recently, he touched on lessons from all those experiences. But, his main focus was the 2018 midterms and the upcoming general election.

Brown began by looking back to 2016, explaining why he predicted Donald Trump would win the presidency. Brown, a lifelong Democrat and friend of Hillary Clinton, says Clinton could have been one of the best presidents in history. But, Brown knew that Trump had the skill and ability to connect with voters in a way Clinton could not. Brown also traces Clinton’s loss across several election cycles, when Democrats lost the House and the Senate during the Obama years.

Trump’s victory however, could be the key to the Democratic Party’s recovery, Brown says. He says Trump has failed to build a coalition beyond his core supporters that voted him into office. That helped Democrats win in states like Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, where Clinton lost in 2016. Brown also credits Nancy Pelosi with organizing the party to help take back the House. But, in order to keep that momentum going and defeat President Trump in 2020, Brown says Democrats have to identify a strong candidate with the same ability to move voters. He says there are three strong options from California, and one in particular he hopes to see on the ballot.

Watch The Honorable Willie Brown on the 2018 Midterms and Strategy for 2020

Your Brain on Advertisements

Advertisers are always looking to better understand consumers’ preferences and decision making. The application of neuroscience knowledge and techniques to answer market and media research questions is not new but in our digital age, the practice raises new questions about privacy, informed consent, and consumer autonomy in decision making. Dr. Carl Marci, Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen explores the ethical concerns that arise and explains some of the tools used by advertisers in this growing field.

Watch My Brain Made Me Buy It: The Neuroethics of Advertising – Exploring Ethics

Informacy is the New Literacy

As anyone who uses a computer, tablet, smart phone, or VR (virtual reality) device knows, we live in an Information Age unprecedented in human history, in which the sum total of mankind’s knowledge is available with a finger’s touch or click of a mouse – or a question posed to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, et al. This has put tremendous power in the hands of the end user, but as noted by philosophers and statesmen, with great power comes great responsibility. While navigating through this vast and ever-growing trove of data we must be (but all too often aren’t) mindful of the pitfalls and obstacles that litter the virtual pathways and take the steps necessary to avoid them.

At a time when you can search billions of texts in milliseconds, scan over trillions of online images, and map virtually the entire planet’s surface, we need to rethink what it means to be literate and to be a learner. As the very definition of “literacy” is evolving thanks to technology, so too is the skillset required by the literate person. Merely knowing how to read is no longer enough; as our methods of teaching and learning increasingly move from traditional linear modes to the non-linear forms enabled by technology, we must learn anew how to frame questions, interpret results, quickly evaluate and organize masses of information, separate the authentic from the fabricated, and above all understand and nurture our “metacognition.”

Dan Russel, Google’s Űber Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google (yes, that’s his official title, but he describes himself as a “cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist”) uses, naturally enough, various Google services and apps as models of tools that may be applied in service of metacognition. Google Search and Google Maps have become ubiquitous, but there are other information weapons in Google’s arsenal. One often overlooked example is the metadata embedded in photographs. Among other parameters metadata can indicate date, time, and location (longitude and latitude) of origin; this data can, in turn, be analyzed to determine the authenticity of a photo, obviously a useful tool at a time when deliberate misinformation constitutes a significant portion of social media posts. Many Google users may also be unaware that Google maintains a Public Data archive, containing a wide array of charts, diagrams, statistics, scientific studies, and other information.

These resources and many (many) others available via Web or app can help the user to develop “informacy,” which Russell considers the updated version of literacy. At its most basic, informacy means a) knowing what the information is, b) knowing where to find it, c) knowing how to verify it, d) knowing how to interact with it, and e) knowing how to apply and/or share it. With expanded and virtual reality technologies developing rapidly, informacy and the skills it requires will become absolutely essential.

Watch Learning in the Age of Google – The Library Channel