Carl Zimmer

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Working to radically extend life is, in the big picture, a righteous thing to do, but some in the Immortality Industrial Complex have a tendency to overpromise. Some Transhumanists think healthy people will opt to have their hearts replaced by superior robotic ones inside a decade. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey announced in 2004 that “the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.” Ray Kurzweil takes handfuls of supplements each day because he believes we’re on the cusp of forever.

My friends, they are going to die as are the rest of us. It’s not that I believe none of their work can eventually aid healthier, longer lives, but there is no defensible reason to unduly excite hopes. It’s cruel, really.

A blow against those who hope for flash-and-blood immortality is “Evidence for a Limit to Human Lifespan,” a Nature article by Xiao Dong, Brandon Milholland and Jan Vijg, who crunched data for more than a century and noticed the length of the life at the upper edges had flatlined. Vijg, geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, vows that “humans will never get older than 115.” A remark like that seems nearly as overconfident as de Grey’s, since none of us can imagine what will be possible one thousand, ten thousand, or one-hundred thousand years into the future if we’re not extincted by our own foolishness or bad luck.

From Carl Zimmer of the New York Times:

On Aug. 4, 1997, Jeanne Calment passed away in a nursing home in France. The Reaper comes for us all, of course, but he was in no hurry for Mrs. Calment. She died at age 122, setting a record for human longevity.

Jan Vijg doubts we will see the likes of her again. True, people have been living to greater ages over the past few decades. But now, he says, we have reached the upper limit of human longevity.

“It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling,” said Dr. Vijg, an expert on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115.”

Dr. Vijg and his graduate students Xiao Dong and Brandon Milholland published the evidence for this pessimistic prediction on Wednesday in the journal Nature. It’s the latest volley in a long-running debate among scientists about whether there’s a natural barrier to the human life span.•

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Writer Carl Zimmer did a predictably smart Ask Me Anything at Reddit, fielding all manner of queries on his forte, science. One exchange is about ancient humans, who were a decidedly more heterogeneous mix than we are, something that could again be true of our species in the future. An excerpt:


What ancient human fact do you find to be the most fascinating?

Carl Zimmer:

Can I give two answers? A tie?

First off, all the species of ancient humans! One scientist I interviewed recently said he likes to say that the Middle Pleistocene was like Middle Earth, with orc and elves and such. I guess that might be a bit strained if you consider that the different hominin species probably couldn’t talk to each other. (Imagine the Lord of the Rings movies with no dialogue…) Still, tiny Homo floresiensis, Denisovans and Neanderthals having sex (and babies too) with modern humans, plus Homo erectus and probably a bunch of other species/lineages we have yet to find. Our current loneliness is a fluke of human evolution.

The other fact is that in one respect Darwin got human evolution very wrong. He saw bipedalism and human behavior as intimately tied together. But the earliest hominins, 6-7 million years ago, were fairly upright (even if they could scale trees to get away from the occasional leopard). Despite being upright, their brains were puny till less than 2 million years ago. So for most of hominin evolution, they were essentially bipedal apes, rather than what we’d call human. Which, of course, leaves us with the question of why human brains got big so fast when smaller ones did just fine, thank you very much.•


The opening of “From Cooling System to Thinking Machine,” Carl Zimmer’s excellent Being Human essay about historical attempts to understand brain function, from anatomical experiments to thought experiments:

Hilary Putnam is not a household name. The Harvard philosopher’s work on the nature of reality, meaning, and language may be required reading in graduate school, but Putnam’s fame hasn’t extended far beyond the academy. But one of Putnam’s thought experiments is familiar to millions of people: what it would be like to be a brain in a vat?

Here’s how Putnam presented the idea in his 1981 book, Reason, Truth, and History:

Imagine that a human being…has been subjected to an operation by an evil scientist. The person’s brain…has been removed from the body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps the brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super-scientific computer which causes the person whose brain it is to have the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. There seem to be people, objects, the sky, etc.; but really, all the person…is experiencing is the result of electronic impulses travelling from the computer to the nerve endings.

Philosophers have wondered for thousands of years how we can be sure whether what we’re experiencing is reality or some shadowy deception. Plato imagined people looking at shadows cast by a fire in a cave. Descartes imagined a satanic genius. Starting in the 1960s, philosophers began to muse about what it would be like to be a brain in a vat, with reality supplied by a computer. The story circulated in obscure philosophy journals for over a decade before Putnam laid it out in his book.” (Thanks Browser.)

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The opening of “Look Deep Into the Mind’s Eye,” Carl Zimmer’s 2010 Discover article about a building surveyor’s sudden inability to visualize things:

“One day in 2005, a retired building surveyor in Edinburgh visited his doctor with a strange complaint: His mind’s eye had suddenly gone blind.

The surveyor, referred to as MX by his doctors, was 65 at the time. He had always felt that he possessed an exceptional talent for picturing things in his mind. The skill had come in handy in his job, allowing MX to recall the fine details of the buildings he surveyed. Just before drifting off to sleep, he enjoyed running through recent events as if he were watching a movie. He could picture his family, his friends, and even characters in the books he read.

Then these images all vanished. The change happened shortly after MX went to a hospital to have his blocked coronary arteries treated. As a cardiologist snaked a tube into the arteries and cleared out the obstructions, MX felt a ‘reverberation’ in his head and a tingling in his left arm. He didn’t think to mention it to his doctors at the time. But four days later he realized that when he closed his eyes, all was darkness.”


A portrait of the scientist as a young child, from Carl Zimmer’s new profile of star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in Playboy:

“Tyson first saw the Milky Way when he was nine, projected across the ceiling of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He thought it was a hoax. From the roof of the Skyview Apartments in the Bronx, where he grew up, he could only see a few bright stars. When Tyson turned eleven, a friend loaned him a pair of 7×35 binoculars. They weren’t powerful enough to reveal the Milky Way in the Bronx sky. But they did let him make out the craters on the moon. That was enough to convince him that the sky was worth looking at. 

He began to work his way up through a series of telescopes. For his twelfth birthday, he got a 2.4-inch refractor with three eyepieces and a solar projection screen. Dog walking earned him a five-foot-long Newtonian with an electric clock for tracking stars. Tyson would run an extension cord across the Skyview’s two-acre roof into a friend’s apartment window. Fairly often, someone would call the police. He charmed the cops with the rings of Saturn.

Tyson took classes at the Hayden Planetarium and then began to travel to darker places to look more closely at the heavens. In 1973, at age fourteen, he went to the Mojave Desert for an astronomy summer camp. Comet Kahoutek had appeared earlier in the year, and Tyson spent much of his time in the Mojave taking pictures of its long-tailed entry into the solar system. After a month he emerged from the desert, an astronomer to the bone.” (Thanks Longform.)


“Comet Kahoutek is on its way” (at 6:30):

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Carl Zimmer has a really good New York Times profile of pugnacious evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who believes that the world has gotten markedly less violent. An excerpt:

“Dr. Pinker finds an explanation for the overall decline of violence in the interplay of history with our evolved minds. Our ancestors had a capacity for violence, but this was just one capacity among many. ‘Human nature is complex,’ he said. ‘Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.’

Which inclinations come to the fore depends on our social surroundings. In early society, the lack of a state spurred violence. A thirst for justice could be satisfied only with revenge. Psychological studies show that people overestimate their own grievances and underestimate those of others; this cognitive quirk fueled spiraling cycles of bloodshed.

But as the rise of civilization gradually changed the ground rules of society, violence began to ebb. The earliest states were brutal and despotic, but they did manage to take away opportunities for runaway vendettas.

More recently, the invention of movable type radically changed our social environment. When people used their powers of language to generate new ideas, those ideas could spread. ‘If you give people literacy, bad ideas can be attacked and experiments tried, and lessons will accumulate,’ Dr. Pinker said. ‘That pulls you away from what human nature would consign you on its own.'”


Pinker in discussion with Bill Faux’Reilly:

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Carl Zimmer writes in the New York Times of scientists using the city as laboratory, examing the evolutionary changes wrought by the necessities of urban life. An excerpt:

“To study evolution, Jason Munshi-South has tracked elephants in central Africa and proboscis monkeys in the wilds of Borneo. But for his most recent expedition, he took the A train.

Dr. Munshi-South and two graduate students, Paolo Cocco and Stephen Harris, climbed out of the 168th Street station lugging backpacks and a plastic crate full of scales, Ziploc bags, clipboards, rulers and tarps. They walked east to the entrance of Highbridge Park, where they met Ellen Pehek, a senior ecologist in the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. The four researchers entered the park, made their way past a basketball game and turned off the paved path into a ravine.

They worked their way down the steep slope, past schist boulders, bent pieces of rebar, oaks and maples, hunks of concrete and freakish poison ivy plants with leaves the size of a man’s hands. The ravine flattened out at the edge of Harlem River Drive. The scientists walked north along a guardrail contorted by years of car crashes before plunging back into the forest to reach their field site.

‘We get police called on us a lot,’ said Dr. Munshi-South, an assistant professor at Baruch College. ‘Sometimes with guns drawn.’

Dr. Munshi-South has joined the ranks of a small but growing number of field biologists who study urban evolution — not the rise and fall of skyscrapers and neighborhoods, but the biological changes that cities bring to the wildlife that inhabits them. For these scientists, the New York metropolitan region is one great laboratory.”

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