Exploring The Human-Ape Paradox

CARTA’s Fall 2020 symposium, Comparative Anthropogeny: Exploring the Human Ape-Paradox, examines humans as a uniquely evolved, “biologically enculturated,” species as juxtaposed with our closest living relatives, the “great apes” (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans). By definition, each species is unique as it represents the outcome of independent evolution. Yet, humans appear to be a remarkable outlier as we have numerous characteristics so far un-described in any other primate. Why should this be? Unlike other species, the evident animal nature of humans is interwoven with a distinctly human cultural fabric, forming the paradox of “biological enculturation”: a species that is both “biologically cultural” and “culturally biological.” In humans, “biological enculturation” is so pervasive that disentangling the cultural and biological components is impossible.

This symposium brings together experts in various disciplines from around the globe to address several important distinctly human “biologically enculturated” characteristics, both in relation to each other and in contrast to our evolutionary cousins. They explore transdisciplinary interactions and generate new, potentially unexplored, insights into uniquely-human specializations.

Given the interest in understanding our evolution, this symposium also helps organize how and in what sequence distinctly human physical, mental, social, and cultural features evolved. Such understanding may help explain the origin of our species and how it came to now directly shape the planet, giving rise to the Anthropocene, the epoch of human influence on climate and the environment.

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Scientific and Social Activism

Please join us for an intimate discussion with eminent microbiologist and geneticist Jon Beckwith of Harvard Medical School. Beckwith is the author of Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science. He discusses the history of scientific and social activism and the teaching of social issues in biology.

Along with having a successful scientific career, Jon Beckwith has been one of the scientific community’s most influential champions of social justice and civil liberties. He has openly supported the Black Panther Movement and was among the first in his field to warn the world about the danger of genetic engineering. He has over 50 publications dealing with issues such as discrimination and misuse of behavior genetics. He was a member of the Working Group on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications committee of the Human Genome Project and was an important organizer of the international organization, Science for the People. Since 1983, he has taught a course on Social Issues in Biology at Harvard University, one of the first courses of its kind.

Watch A Deep Conversation with Jon Beckwith: A History of Scientific and Social Activism and the Teaching of Social Issues in Biology.

Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions

Climate change is an urgent problem that affects everything from human health and food security to immigration patterns and water resources.

With unchecked emissions of climate pollutants, there is a 50% probability for the planetary warming to cross the so-called dangerous threshold of 20C by 2050; and there is at least a 5% probability the warming can exceed a catastrophic 60C in about 80+ years.

Climate scientists study more than Earth’s changing climate. They are an integral part of coming up with solutions for both mitigating and adapting to these human-caused changes. Join world renowned scientist Ram Ramanathan for insight into a multifaceted education program, Bending the Curve, which inspires action on climate solutions. The groundbreaking program is offered at all University of California campuses and internationally. Learn how he and colleagues around the world are educating students at every level to become climate warriors.

Watch Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions.

The Erosion of Democratic Values and Practice

Many observers believe we need to grapple with challenges arising from the many well-established laws, regulations and policies which have been ignored or violated over the past four years.

Janet Napolitano, UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy faculty member and former UC President and former Secretary for Homeland Security, is in conversation with Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense, former Director of the CIA, former White House Chief of Staff, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and former U.S. Representative from California; L. Song Richardson, Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law; and Eric Swalwell, U.S. Representative for California’s 15th congressional district.

These experts tackle the impact on American society and democracy and voice concerns that the nation may have to grapple with a challenging period before it can begin to implement reforms to strengthen the system.

They explore the possibility of a transfer of power and the need to shore up democratic institutions to make our democracy stronger and better.

They each have ideas on a practical, yet ambitious, roadmap for reform focused on combatting the erosion of democratic values and practices in Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and law enforcement.

Watch American Democracy: Needed Reforms.

It’s All About the Patients

Whenever you are designing something new you always have to keep in mind who the end user is. You can make something that works perfectly fine for you, but if it doesn’t work for the people who are going to work with it day in and day out, you have been wasting your time. And their time too.

At California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), our end users are the patients. Everything we do is about them. Starting with our mission statement: to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. Everything we do, every decision we make, has to keep the needs of the patient in mind.

So, when we were planning our recent 2020 Grantee Meeting (with our great friends and co-hosts UC Irvine and UC San Diego) one of the things we wanted to make sure didn’t get lost in the mix was the face and the voice of the patients. Often big conferences like this are heavy on science with presentations from some of the leading researchers in the field. And we obviously wanted to make sure we had that element at the Grantee meeting. But we also wanted to make sure that the patient experience was front and center.

And we did just that. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about why the voice of the patient is important.

Some years ago, Dr. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and patient advocate for Parkinson’s Disease (PD), said that when researchers are talking about finding treatments for PD they often focus on the dyskinesia, the trembling and shaking and muscle problems. However, he said if you actually asked people with PD you’d find they were more concerned with other aspects of the disease, the insomnia, anxiety and depression among other things. The key is you have to ask.

So, we asked some of our patient advocates if they would be willing to be part of the Grantee Meeting. All of them, without hesitation, said yes. They included Frances Saldana, a mother who lost three of her children to Huntington’s disease; Kristin MacDonald, who lost her sight to a rare disorder but regained some vision thanks to a stem cell therapy and is hoping the same therapy will help restore some more; Pawash Priyank, whose son Ronnie was born with a fatal immune disorder but who, thanks to a stem cell/gene therapy treatment, is now healthy and leading a normal life.

Because of the pandemic everything was virtual, but it was no less compelling for that. We interviewed each of the patients or patient advocates beforehand and those videos kicked off each session. Hearing, and seeing, the patients and patient advocates tell their stories set the scene for what followed. It meant that the research the scientists talked about took on added significance. We now had faces and names to highlight the importance of the work the scientists were doing. We had human stories. And that gave a sense of urgency to the work the researchers were doing.

But that wasn’t all. After all the video presentations each session ended with a “live” panel discussion. And again, the patients and patient advocates were a key part of that. Because when scientists talk about taking their work into a clinical trial they need to know if the way they are setting up the trial is going to work for the patients they’re hoping to recruit. You can have the best scientists, the most promising therapy, but if you don’t design a clinical trial in a way that makes it easy for patients to be part of you won’t be able to recruit or retain the people you need to test the therapy.

Patient voices count. Patient stories count.

But more than anything, hearing and seeing the people we are trying to help reminds us why we do this work. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day business of our jobs, struggling to get an experiment to work, racing to get a grant application in before the deadline. Sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of work we lose sight of why we are doing it. Or who we are doing it for.

At CIRM we have a saying; come to work every day as if lives depend on you, because lives depend on you. Listening to the voices of patients, seeing their faces, hearing their stories, reminds us not to waste a moment. Because lives depend on all of us.

Kevin McCormack,
Senior Director Public Communications & Patient Advocate Outreach, CIRM

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