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Taking on the big questions, from evolution's endgame to alien abduction.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Man and the Machine

In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, $29.95), Ray Kurzweil projects us to a moment in the not-too-distant future when our bodies merge with our technology, resulting in a world where there is "no distinction . . . between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality."

Kurzweil sets the date for the Singularity -- a moment of profound and disruptive transformation in human capability -- as 2045. "The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today," he writes. By that time, his theory goes, information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the emotional and moral intelligence of the brain itself.

He gets us from here to there via what he calls the law of accelerating returns, as applied to biological and technological evolution. To oversimplify, he's talking about the difference between the length of time it took Homo sapiens to rise from the primordial muck and the time it took the World Wide Web to rise from the invention of the PC. This ever-quickening evolution, he argues, will ultimately enable the machines we create to recreate us.

But a purely theoretical line of argument of this sort is only as persuasive as the reader is receptive. It might be nice to live to see an epoch in which we transcend the limits of "our version 1.0 biological bodies," live as long as we want and practice Harry Potter-style "magic" with the help of nanoscale devices, but the skeptic is left unsatisfied.

Kurzweil compares critics of his vision to those who challenged Galileo's argument that the Earth is not at the center of the universe or Darwin's contention that humans evolved from other primates. Presumptuous as the comparison is, it's a fair point. But when he devotes an entire chapter to addressing objections from critics on grounds ranging from quantum mechanics to theism, he does little more than restate the points that raise the criticism in the first place.

-- Gregory Mott

Extraterrestrial Contacts

Harvard psychiatrist John Mack wagered his professional reputation in 1994 on people who said they had been snatched by aliens. In his book Abduction , he didn't completely buy their stories, but he didn't completely dismiss them either. Mack drew far more ridicule for being fatuous than applause for being open-minded.

Like Mack, Susan A. Clancy finds captivity tales captivating. But she doesn't want to squander her Harvard PhD by arguing that they are true. Indeed, she notes in Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard Univ., $22.95) that "the whole idea . . . is downright silly." Agreed. Now what?

Clancy, a fellow in psychology at Harvard, tries to move beyond the silliness of these claims to a serious exploration of the people who make them. But her effort to reveal why people come to think they were snatched by aliens doesn't add up to much of a book. Part of the problem is her raw material. Clancy interviewed about 50 people who replied to an ad ("Have you been abducted by aliens?") that she posted around Boston. She also spent a weekend with a small group of purported abductees who get together annually. That's about it -- and that's not nearly enough.

Yes, Clancy notes, many believers may be victims of sleep paralysis -- a disorder where one's body feels locked down while one's mind leaps into fearful fantasy to explain this temporary immobility. And, yes, she ably debunks hypnosis, which is often used to dredge up supposedly repressed tales of abduction. She shows that the technique, rather than being a window into hidden trauma, can create "memories" of events that never happened. "Most people," she writes, "don't understand just how fallible memory is."

But Clancy makes the notion of intergalactic invaders trifling and renders the people who believe they've encountered them as dull. Clancy doesn't need a book -- even a brief one like this -- to deliver her basic point: People believe they have had close encounters because this is the best way they've figured out to explain their fears, their fuzzy perceptions, their feelings of being different. She also concludes that, even in the face of evidence that their "memories" mimic TV and movie scripts all too closely, these people are no crazier than the rest of us. That's a truly scary thought.

-- Tom Graham

One Pill Makes You . . .

Warning: Katherine Eban's Dangerous Doses: How Counterfeiters Are Contaminating America's Drug Supply (Harcourt, $25) can give you headaches, raise your blood pressure and provoke anxiety. In extreme cases, it can leave you staring at a bottle of medicine and wondering: What do these pills really contain?

Eban's book opens with the owner of a wholesale drug company who has just lost more than $300,000 worth of medicine in a rapid-fire, tire-squealing heist from his Miami warehouse. Within a couple of days, the crime is compounded: Another Florida merchant -- apparently ignorant of whose drugs they were -- offers to sell the booty back to the theft's victim at a bargain price.

"Our medicine moves through a gray market of middlemen who trade the drugs as they would any other commodity," writes Eban, an investigative reporter based in New York. "These sales can obscure the medicine's origin and make its purity impossible to guarantee." Because at least a few of these middlemen -- licensed ever so loosely by the states -- are former narcotics traffickers and similar lowlifes, bad things sometimes happen to people filling prescriptions. Unaware -- as are their pharmacists -- that the medicine has been mishandled, watered down or "labeled up" to promise far more potency than it actually delivers, these victims take their drugs, and they don't get better. Or they get a whole lot worse. Or they die. In her vibrant tale, Eban introduces us to these people and makes the message clear: It shouldn't happen to anyone, and it could happen to you.

How much of this occurs? Certainly not much, since the major wholesalers -- the firms that supply most pharmacies -- get almost all their drugs directly from the manufacturers. But the majors sometimes buy from the middlemen; such a transaction led to the recall in 2003 of 18 million tablets of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, Eban points out.

-- Tom Graham

Marketing and Merchandising

It's surely a coincidence that Selling Sickness (Nation, $25) was published at about the same time that the actress Cheryl Ladd began appearing in a public-education campaign sponsored by the drug giant Wyeth. You may think it's good that, according to Wyeth, 30 percent fewer women have been seeing their doctors for reasons related to menopause in the past three years. Wyeth thinks otherwise and hopes, according to a July statement, that Ladd's lovely face and warm delivery will remind women "that menopause may be a good time to talk to their health care professionals about health issues." And if those talks produce a few million more prescriptions for Wyeth's hormone drugs? Maybe that's a coincidence, but it sure would be good for business. Authors Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels cite such celebrity shilling to show, as the subtitle of their book puts it, "How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All into Patients."

"One of the key ways of making healthy people believe they are sick," they write, "is direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs and diseases -- and there is now more than $3 billion worth of it every year in the U.S. alone; more or less $10 million a day." The major drug companies recently promised to restrain their sales pitches by the end of the year; aside from more tasteful placement of ads about erectile dysfunction, it remains to be seen how much difference this will make. Inherently self-serving, ad campaigns make easy targets. But they nonetheless merit scrutiny: Deciding that you need a drug for such fuzzy ailments as premenstrual dysphoric disorder or social anxiety disorder is, as the authors contend, different from deciding you need an upgraded iPod. One is just a consumer item, while the other is a substance with powerful and often unpredictable impacts.

If drug companies won't tell you the whole truth about their wares, who will? Not most journalists, say the authors, because they're prone to focus on the benefits of new products without fully explaining their negative or unknown dimensions. Not doctors: They're "under the influence," thanks to the small and large favors that many receive from drug companies, starting in medical school. And not the government, whose watchdogs are too often tame and timid.

The authors don't work hard to present a balanced view, and only a dunce would consider this book conclusive evidence of the drug industry's avarice and immorality. Still, reading its chapters on the industry's efforts to define -- and then redefine more broadly -- depression, irritable bowel syndrome and osteoporosis amply supports the thesis that drug companies don't want to sell only to the sick.

-- Tom Graham

Mysteries of the Cosmos

Rene Descartes, the great 17th-century philosopher and mathematician, is probably best known for saying Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"). What he thought and who he was provide the grist for Amir D. Aczel's Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe (Broadway, $24.95). The book's prologue opens not with such familiar triumphs as the Cartesian coordinate system but with Aczel's mysterious quest for writings that Descartes concealed, never intending to publish.

To understand the roots of such secrecy, Aczel, the author of Fermat's Last Theorem , traces Descartes's Catholic upbringing among Protestants during an era when scores of adherents to both denominations lost their lives over how they worshiped God. The budding genius took time to interpret his own dreams, and he began to develop friendships with mathematicians whose beliefs extended into the occult and astrology.

Descartes's emerging philosophy of rationalism -- based on the idea that knowledge comes from the intellect, not the senses -- was at odds with the Catholic Church's adherence to the hierarchical philosophy of Aristotle, which was based on observation. Because the Church often tried to suppress new ideas by labeling them heresy and then persecuting their followers, Descartes and his friends were at risk.

They protected themselves with hidden writings, pseudonyms and coded language. But suspicions arose that Descartes belonged to the secret Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, a group of scientists and thinkers who advocated reform of the Church, another heretical idea. Aczel catapults the reader into a world where burgeoning intellect was cloaked in intrigue. And in the last chapter, he lays bare Descartes's secret notebook in a quietly satisfying denouement.

-- Susan P. Williams

The reviewers are editors at The Washington Post who cover science, health and national news.

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