Second Thoughts About Elders Holland’s “Beggar” Talk

At the 2014 Fall General Conference of the LDS Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a challenging and compelling talk concerning our obligations to the poor.  But I’ve wondered about a couple of things.  But they are very minor.

First, what was the point of the following?

Now, lest I be accused of proposing quixotic global social programs or of endorsing panhandling as a growth industry, I reassure you that my reverence for principles of industry, thrift, self-reliance, and ambition is as strong as that of any man or woman alive.  We are always expected to help ourselves before we seek help from others.

This statement is definitely overly defensive.  Like there is some need to pacify those in the audience who feel that the poor have brought poverty on themselves through their slovenly ways.  While this may be true of a small percentage of those in need, it is certainly not the norm.  And what about the children of the “slovenly.”

By the way, I had to look up the meaning of the word “quixotic.”  It means:  1.  possessing or acting with the desire to do noble and romantic deeds, without thought of realism and practicality; exceedingly idealistic; 2.  impulsive;  and 3.  like Don Quixote, romantic to extravagance, absurdly chivalric, apt to be deluded.  Great word, but I don’t like the application here.  We all have an occasional desire to tilt at windmills, and that is not always a bad thing.

Picasso's Don Quixote Preparing to Tilt at Windmills

Picasso’s Don Quixote Preparing to Tilt at Windmills

Second, I wish Elder Holland would have mentioned the situation in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  The members there must be struggling mightily, not only with poverty but now also with Ebola.

Third, I wish he had made some suggestions about how the LDS Church and its members could do more to get involved in global war on poverty.  The Church does some now, but it could certainly be doing a lot more.

But again, these are only criticism to a wonderful and much appreciated talk.


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Comments About Mormon Missions, Part XIII (Robert Kirby)

By Robert Kirby,

Forty years ago, I dragged a film production around South America while serving an LDS Church mission.  “Man’s Search for Happiness” was originally created for showing in the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, but was subsequently reduced to a film strip for missionary proselytizing purposes.

The film featured the LDS concept of salvation as lived by a “typical” Mormon family.  My senior companions and I probably showed the film strip to 5,000 people.  It was okay at first, but I soon got to the point where it made me uncomfortable.  Eventually I hated it.

“Man’s Search” had a decent enough message–use your time on Earth wisely and you’ll go to heaven and meet your loved ones.  What I found increasingly disturbing wasn’t the message per se, but rather where it was filmed versus where it was shown.  It probably didn’t seem out of place at the New York World’s Fair, but it played a bit differently on a cinder block wall in a South American hovel.

By South American standards, the Mormons portrayed in the film were fabulously wealthy.  It was a little disingenuous to show that film strip in squalid apartments, dirt-floor homes, and places where people weren’t sure they were going to have food next week.  Sometimes we had to show the film strip with a flashlight because they didn’t even have electricity.

One evening, after a showing to a large family living in what would be a storage shed in Utah, the father turned to me and said it all.  “Those people don’t need to worry about going to heaven,” he said.  “They already live there.”

I was made a senior companion a few weeks later.  The day after that, in what would become my first movie review, our film projector fell into the canal.

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Mormon Transhumanists . . . What is Our Responsibility?

In a clarion call, Dr. Miriam Leis calls on transhumanists to get more involved in politics, business management, and perhaps even ecclesiastical hierarchies.  She starts out by describing the “sad” state-of-affairs:

Although many transhumanist ideas may sound disruptive and revolutionary to the average citizen, transhumanists themselves are far less the doers, but rather passive observers and theorists.

And continues:

A considerable majority of transhumanists seem to be “armchair transhumanists,” i.e. observers, theorists, waiting and hoping for the “singularity” to happen.  So where are the transhumanist politicians, multi-billion company executives, high-level consultants and socio-economic elites?

While I think her premise is flawed (there are transhumanists in high-level positions), I think she is missing the point of transhumanism.

She criticizes the movement for being fractured:  “internal differences and quarrels are finally weakening the movement, organization or company.”  And then makes an overly general observation:

If wanting to achieve change and transformation, a focused laser beam with the power to forge a chunk of metal is far more effective than a widely dispersed, incoherent and weak flashlight that only makes somewhat visible the surface of the object being transformed.

And her final recommendation to transhumanists:

If transhumanism is planning to become a force to be reckoned with in–and really as influential as some people are concerned about–it needs people to have the “will to power.”  [quoting Nietzsche]

Okay, I admit that I’m a slacker and have no “will to power,” but I think Dr. Leis misses the point of transhumanism.  So what points is she missing?

  • First, transhumanists are, in large measure, liberitarians, anarchists, individualists, absurdists, existentialists, anti-control freaks, people with a strong belief in leaderless organizations.  They aren’t driven by power hunger.  But that does not mean that they are not doers.  For example, many are active in all levels of society, just not necessarily at the higher rungs.  Just because I personally am anti-structure and a believer in organized chaos (as a management style), does not mean that I’m not engaged.
  • Second, the top-down organizational structure that Dr. Leis seems to be describing in her post is dying out.  (She even quotes Machiavelli.)  Replacing it is a more bottom-up organizational structure.  Change is more and more happening at the lower levels and then filtering up.  With the modern methods of communications, these changes are happening faster than ever.  The top-down organizations that I’m affiliated with are having a difficult time coping with change.  For example, look at the problems the LDS Church leadership is currently having with same-sex marriage, feminism, race, biblical literalism, etc.

While I can understand Dr. Leis frustration with an “incoherent” group like transhumanists, her own organizational model is seriously out of date.  Top-down management is on the way out.  And us peons at the bottom can make a huge difference; transhumanism doesn’t need a focused “laser beam,” it just needs committed individuals . . . which it has.  We transhumanists need to pursue our interests in our own way.  And to hell with Machiavelli.

Posted in @n@rchy, absurdism, existentialism, Internet, Organizational Dynamics, Technology, transhumanism | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on Poverty and Compassion

During the Saturday session of LDS October 2014 General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a very inspirational talk titled “Aren’t We Not All Beggars?”  He starts his talk with a very strong statement:

Down through history, poverty has been one of humankind’s greatest and most widespread challenges.  Its obvious toll is usually physical, but the spiritual and emotional damage it can bring may be even more debilitating.

He goes on to discuss the marvelous work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta.  Elder Holland then exhorts everyone to do as much as we can for the poor:

I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves.  But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment [to help the poor] He has given us again and again.

He goes to point out that all of us may be just a whisper away from poverty:

I have had to worry about finances on occasion, but I have never been poor, nor do I even know how the poor feel.  Furthermore, I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education, and economic opportunities vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that “there but by the grace of God go I.”

For me, the essence of worshiping God is loving and helping your neighbor, particularly those in need.  And I’m pretty sure God has a very broad definition of the word “neighbor.”  His talk was well received on the bloggernacle.

An excellent companion piece to Elder Holland’s talk was written by Tracy M and can be read here.

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The Promise of Biotechnology

Sebastian Pereira in a wonderful post on writes about the horrible impacts of malnutrition.  My father was a biochemist and nutritionist, and this is a subject that was very dear to his heart.  He went on several nutritional surveys for the National Institute of Health to various developing countries including:  Ecuador, Burma, and Thailand.  He wanted malnutrition eradicated.  As does Pereira:

From the moment of conception, the future of the individual hinges on the dietary choices of the mother, then the first five years are also crucial, the amount of micro nutrients provided to the new born determine brain development in the time to come.

Thus, we may conclude that malnutrition at an early age creates permanent disadvantages for the adult; this in turn leads to structural inequality and social tension.

Now malnutrition is a daily fact in most of the world.  Millions live with the bare minimum of calories necessary to maintain their lives, but not much else.

The crucial micro nutrients:  iron, zinc, vitamin A, manganese; to name a few, are not considered in food aid, or the millennial goals of the U.N. resulting in a permanent segment of the population suffering from long-term pathologies.

So what can be done to ameliorate the situation?  Pereira has a suggestion:

Plants can, and should be, modified to incorporate more nutrients for humans.

Red meat is the main source of iron for the human body, because iron found in vegetables is more difficult to absorb, but meat production is costly and difficult to implement in poor regions.

Using biotechnology to replace the iron in plants to a more absorbable type could end anemia; this is just one example of many.  DNA splicing is the key to the next food revolution, by controlling the nutrients each vegetable, grain, seed, fruit, etc. has, and ensuring these are distributed properly, a balanced and sustainable food source could be created for the entire globe.

In the future this technology has the potential to end structural inequality caused by malnutrition, and prevent many diseases caused by a weakened immunological system.

Another example of a possible improvement through genetic engineering is Golden Rice.  According to a recent article in National Geographic (Oct 2014, p. 44):

Only a few of the rice varieties at the International Rice Research Institute are genetically modified [GM] crops, in the sense that they contain a gene transferred from a different species, and none of those are publicly available yet.  One is Golden Rice, which contains genes from corn that allow it to produce beta-carotene; its purpose is to combat the global scourge of vitamin A deficiency.  Last summer an IRRI test plot was trampled by anti-GM activists.  IRRI creates GM varieties only as a last resort, says director Robert Zeigler, when it can’t find the desired trait in rice itself.

If the world’s population is going to feed itself, GM crop research needs to proceed apace.


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Promoting Science and Technology in the Navajo Nation

Michael Flynn, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Moffett Field CA, was recently in Utah to discuss an ongoing research project with the Bureau of Reclamation’s staff.  While here, he took the opportunity to discuss water conservation and other “green” technologies with Navajo school children in the southeastern portion of the state.

In presentations to 4 different Navajo schools in Montezuma Creek and Navajo Mountain, Flynn–who works on deep-space recycling systems for NASA–discussed the importance of water recycling and “green” technologies in America’s space program.  He also highlighted some of the possible applications for such technologies here on Earth.

NASA Scientist Making Presentation at Navajo Mountain

NASA Scientist Making Presentation at Navajo Mountain

When he mentioned that astronauts were required to drink their own treated urine and other recycled liquids, his comment evoked groans from the young crowd.  In all, Flynn made presentations to over 200 young people, encouraging them all to stay study math and science.  He also mentioned NASA’s internship program which is actively seeking participation from Native Americans.  Accompanying us was Kris Martin, a Navajo college student from Crown Point NM.  Martin has been on three internships with NASA and is an excellent role model for younger Navajo students.

While Flynn and Martin made presentations to both high schoolers and 5th and 6th graders, the younger children seemed the most enthusiastic.  After his presentations, the latter group always had a wider range of questions.  Flynn noted that NASA studies indicate that the best time to influence the future of children is during their 5th grade year.

Michael Flynn Counseling a Fifth Grader at Montezuma Creek High School

Michael Flynn Counseling a Fifth Grader at Montezuma Creek High School

The principal of the Montezuma Creek grade school gave us a tour of several of his classrooms and they are very impressive.  The school has bright, enthusiastic teachers and a lot of technology.  In the 6th-grade class, all the students had tablet computers.  And every classroom is equipped with a smart board.  The science lab was well outfitted and the teacher was interacting extremely well with the students.

There is a great deal of hope for the future.

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Genetically Modified Crops: The Next Green Revolution?

In 2010, my brother Ted–a PhD biologist–and I had the opportunity to talk briefly to Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute.  The IRRI had just been given an award by the Spanish-based BBVA Foundation for their work in improving the world’s food supply.  Zeigler was in Madrid to accept the award.

We were at a post-award cocktail party, and having trouble getting to Zeigler.  But his wife was nice enough to help elbow us in and introduce us.  Zeigler is white-bearded, avuncular, a self-described old lefty, and fierce advocate for biotechnology.

Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute

Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute

The conversation was friendly and Zeigler was very forthcoming with his opinions.  He feels very strongly that if the world is to feed itself, genetically modified crops are definitely necessary.  They are not the only solution, but an important part of the ultimate answer.

I talked a little about my experiences in Africa.  Zeigler mentioned that he decided on his career after a stint as a science teacher in the Peace Corps in 1972.

When I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I saw a cassava [major crop in sub-Saharan Africa] famine.  That’s what made me become a plant biologist.

The gist of our conversation was nicely captured in a recent article in National Geographic (Oct 2014):

When I [Zeigler] was starting out in the ’60s, a lot of us got into genetic engineering because we thought we could do a lot of good for the world.  We thought these tools were fantastic!

We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that.  If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation–it’s really important.  But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops.  They’re both important but let’s not confound them.

In the second paragraph, Zeigler is alluding to current discussions surrounding companies like Monsanto and what role economic markets should have in the development and use of genetically modified crops.

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