Scientific advancements help humanity extend its reach as far as it can

Recent events inspired me to write about a few things that have been on my mind lately. They?re aspects of something Bill O?Reilly calls the ?culture war.? See, I?m one of those people O?Reilly would call a ?secular progressive.?

To begin, let?s consider that phrase for a moment. The first word is secular. Merriam-Webster?s online dictionary lists one of the definitions as ?not overtly or specifically religious.? That certainly fits me.

The second word is progressive. As opposed to what, Bill? Regressive? Should we regress socially to the days of slavery or to feudalism or all the way back to tribalism? Should we regress back to stone-age technologically? Of course not.

In fact, I believe it should be humanity?s goal to extend our reach as far as we can. The mythical tower of Babel is real, though only in a metaphorical sense.

The material of this tower is knowledge. The first ?brick? was laid the moment the first tool was formed by our ancestors. If completed, sometime in the far distant future, it would take us from where we are now to as far as the physical properties of the universe allow us to go.

Many fear such a tower. They decry humanity reaching so high because their faith tells them this is a form of rebellion against God. They tell us we should not be messing with IVF or potentially useful things such as chimaeras, embryonic stem cells, cloning and others that could benefit millions of their fellow human beings.

Fortunately for those who stand to benefit from such technologies, a large number of those doing real science are not hindered by such a belief. Our growing knowledge of genetics and evolution?despite an alarming majority of Americans doubting or expressly rejecting the latter?are only two of the important bodies of knowledge that have contributed to people living increasingly longer lives on average.

The world is frustratingly filled with superstition and pseudoscience. Recently, the hosts of a podcast called ?The Skeptics Guide to the Universe? discussed how people in Ethiopia are being doused with holy water and told they?re cured of HIV/AIDS.

HIV is a retrovirus, so named because its genetic code is formed of RNA instead of DNA. Since its discovery, scientists have learned a great deal about the nature of this fatal disease but still not enough.

Combinations of several drugs can inhibit various stages of the virus?s ability to replicate in the body. However, no way yet exists to completely remove it from the body.

First, once confirmed, such a finding would be worldwide news so we would all know about it.

Second, I suspect, such a cure would be immediately attacked by those who currently oppose the HPV vaccine, because it would remove yet another negative consequence of sexual activity.

In another part of Africa, a teenager has been telling people they will see the Virgin Mary if they stare at the sun long enough. This is extraordinarily dangerous and stupid. Anyone listening to this advice will soon not be able to see the Virgin even if she were standing directly in front of them, because they will be blind.

On a brighter note, a cool bit of news from the biotech front is that some progress has been made in understanding how stem cells differentiate to become specific kinds of cells and, more importantly, how to reverse this process.

Scientists have small parts of what they need to know to turn a skin cell, for example, into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. It will be a while before they can do this with human cells, but once successful it might help alleviate the ethical dilemma for some people.

However, some extremists will still not be satisfied.

Despite what has probably seemed like a rather negative rant, I am hopeful for humanity. A lot of people are working hard to make the world a better place for us?despite the doomsayers who claim the world will soon end??because they don?t want what we have built over tens of thousands of years to go away.


Kevin Hower, a Marion resident, works in production, technology and distribution at the Free Press. In his spare time, he creates digital art on his computer.

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