I first met Jamila when she and her associate Alia reached out to us after we posted a video on Civil Disobedience inspired by and citing Gene Sharp. Jamila is the executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution that Gene Sharp founded to focus on understanding and spreading his methods for non-violent action. We had a conversation about this with Tenzin Priyadarshi - the video is here (Sorry about the poor audio quality).
After talking to Jamila some more, it was clear that she inspired many of us and we could learn a lot from her. In addition, it seemed that many of our technologies could be useful for her in her works so I invited her to join the Lab initially as a research affiliate.
I recently invited Steven Johnson, author if Emergence and Tom Malone, the Director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence to join a conversation about Emergence over Authority, one of the principles in our new book Whiplash. This was part of a series of experiments that we are conducting in the Facebook group for the book. We used a software system call Soapbox.tv to stream the video to Facebook Live.
Karole describes herself as a former "punk ballerina" and through dance and movement is able to connect so many interesting ideas and worlds. She's already started to actively collaborate with a number of people at the Lab. In this conversation we discuss some of those collaborations as well as some new ideas.
John Brockman's EDGE asks a tough question every year. For 2017 the question was "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know?" My answer was:
Humans have diversity in neurological conditions. While some, such as autism are considered disabilities, many argue that they are the result of normal variations in the human genome. The neurodiversity movement is an international civil rights movement that argues that autism shouldn't be "cured" and that it is an authentic form of human diversity that should be protected.
In the early 1900s eugenics and the sterilization of people considered genetically inferior were scientifically sanctioned ideas, with outspoken advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill and US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. The horror of the Holocaust, inspired by the eugenics movement, demonstrated the danger and devastation these programs can exact when put into practice.
Temple Grandin, an outspoken spokesperson for autism and neurodiversity argues that Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the "autistic spectrum" if they had been alive today. She also believes that autism has long contributed to human development and that "without autism traits we might still be living in caves." Today, non-neurotypical children often suffer through a remedial programs in the traditional educational system only to be discovered to be geniuses later. Many of these kids end up at MIT and other research institutes.
With the discovery of CRISPR the possibility of editing the human genome at scale has suddenly become feasible. The initial applications that are being developed involve the "fixing" of genetic mutations that cause debilitating diseases, but they are also taking us down a path with the potential to eliminate not only autism but much of the diversity that makes human society flourish. Our understanding of the human genome is rudimentary enough that it will be some time before we are able to enact complex changes that involve things like intelligence or personality, but it's a slippery slope. I saw a business plan a few years ago that argued that autism was just "errors" in the genome that could be identified and "corrected" in the manner of "de-noising" a grainy photograph or audio recording.
Clearly some children born with autism are in states that require intervention and have debilitating issues. However, our attempts to "cure" autism, either through remediation or eventually through genetic engineering, could result in the eradication of a neurological diversity that drives scholarship, innovation, arts and many of the essential elements of a healthy society.
We know that diversity is essential for healthy ecosystems. We see how agricultural monocultures have created fragile and unsustainable systems.
My concern is that even if we figure out and understand that neurological diversity is essential for our society, I worry that we will develop the tools for designing away any risky traits that deviate from the norm, and that given a choice, people will tend to opt for a neuro-typical child.
As we march down the path of genetic engineering to eliminate disabilities and disease, it's important to be aware that this path, while more scientifically sophisticated, has been followed before with unintended and possibly irreversible consequences and side-effects.