DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been a busy season for AI policy.
The rise of ChatGPT unleashed a frenzy of headlines around the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, and raised concerns about how AI could impact society without more rules in place.
Consequently, government intervention entered a new phase in recent weeks as well. On Oct. 30, the White House issued a sweeping executive order regulating artificial intelligence.
The order aims to establish new standards for AI safety and security, protect privacy and equity, stand up for workers and consumers, and promote innovation and competition. It’s the U.S. government’s strongest move yet to contain the risks of AI while maximizing the benefits.
“It’s a very bold, ambitious executive order,” said Duke executive-in-residence Lee Tiedrich, J.D., who is an expert in AI law and policy.
Tiedrich has been meeting with students to unpack these and other developments.
“The technology has advanced so much faster than the law,” Tiedrich told a packed room in Gross Hall at a Nov. 15 event hosted by Duke Science & Society.
“I don’t think it’s quite caught up, but in the last few weeks we’ve taken some major leaps and bounds forward.”
Countries around the world have been racing to establish their own guidelines, she explained.
The same day as the US-led AI pledge, leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) — which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — announced that they had reached agreement on a set of guiding principles on AI and a voluntary code of conduct for companies.
Both actions came just days before the first ever global summit on the risks associated with AI, held at Bletchley Park in the U.K., during which 28 countries including the U.S. and China pledged to cooperate on AI safety.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that all this happened at the same time,” Tiedrich said. “I’ve been practicing law in this area for over 30 years, and I have never seen things come out so fast and furiously.”
The stakes for people’s lives are high. AI algorithms do more than just determine what ads and movie recommendations we see. They help diagnose cancer, approve home loans, and recommend jail sentences. They filter job candidates and help determine who gets organ transplants.
Which is partly why we’re now seeing a shift in the U.S. from what has been a more hands-off approach to “Big Tech,” Tiedrich said.
In the 1990s when the internet went public, and again when social media started in the early 2000s, “many governments — the U.S. included — took a light touch to regulation,” Tiedrich said.
But this moment is different, she added.
“Now, governments around the world are looking at the potential risks with AI and saying, ‘We don’t want to do that again. We are going to have a seat at the table in developing the standards.’”
Power of the Purse
Biden’s AI executive order differs from laws enacted by Congress, Tiedrich acknowledged in a Nov. 3 meeting with students in Pratt’s Master of Engineering in AI program.
What gives the administration’s executive order more force is that “the government is one of the big purchasers of technology,” Tiedrich said.
“They exercise the power of the purse, because any company that is contracting with the government is going to have to comply with those standards.”
“It will have a trickle-down effect throughout the supply chain,” Tiedrich said.
The other thing to keep in mind is “technology doesn’t stop at borders,” she added.
“Most tech companies aren’t limiting their market to one or two particular jurisdictions.”
“So even if the U.S. were to have a complete change of heart in 2024” and the next administration were to reverse the order, “a lot of this is getting traction internationally,” she said.
“If you’re a U.S. company, but you are providing services to people who live in Europe, you’re still subject to those laws and regulations.”
From Principles to Practice
Tiedrich said a lot of what’s happening today in terms of AI regulation can be traced back to a set of guidelines issued in 2019 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where she serves as an AI expert.
These include commitments to transparency, inclusive growth, fairness, explainability and accountability.
For example, “we don’t want AI discriminating against people,” Tiedrich said. “And if somebody’s dealing with a bot, they ought to know that. Or if AI is involved in making a decision that adversely affects somebody, say if I’m denied a loan, I need to understand why and have an opportunity to appeal.”
“The OECD AI principles really are the North Star for many countries in terms of how they develop law,” Tiedrich said.
“The next step is figuring out how to get from principles to practice.”
“The executive order was a big step forward in terms of U.S. policy,” Tiedrich said. “But it’s really just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The finding of natural quasicrystals is a tale of “crazy stubborn people or stubbornly crazy people,” said physicist and Princeton professor, Paul J. Steinhardt, who spoke at Duke University on October 10 regarding his role in their discovery.
Quasicrystals were once thought to be impossible, as crystals were the only stable form of matter. Crystals allow for periodic patterns of atoms while quasicrystals allow for an ordered, yet non-periodic pattern that results in rotational symmetry. Crystals only allow for two-, three-, four-, and six-fold symmetry and create the geographical shapes of squares/rectangles, triangles, hexagons, and rhombuses (Figure 1). However, quasicrystals allow for ten-fold symmetry with unlimited layers of quasicrystal patterns and various shapes. The penrose tiles (Figure 2) is an example of one-dimensional quasicrystal pattern, while the kitchen tiles of your home is an example of a traditional crystal pattern.
After the discovery of man-made quasicrystals from a fellow scientist, Steinhardt wanted to find quasicrystals in nature as opposed to laboratories. He began this by contacting museums with global mineral samples in case they contained undiscovered quasicrystals. This did not yield any results.
Luca Bindi, who then worked for the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence in Italy, discovered that Steinhardt was searching for natural quasicrystal and wanted to join his endeavors. Bindi found the first interesting sample at the museum he worked in through the rare mineral, khatyrkite, from the Koryak Mountains of Chukotka, Russia. They analyzed the tip of this sample, the width was that of a strand of hair, and discovered the most perfect ten-fold, rotationally symmetric pattern of a quasicrystal from minerals in nature. Even more interesting was that the chemical compound of this quasicrystal, Al63Cu24Fe13, was the exact composition of quasicrystals created in a Japanese laboratory, now found in a rock.
Steinhardt then took these findings to Lincoln Hollister, a renowned geologist, for his expert opinion. Hollister proceeded to tell Steinhardt that this discovery is impossible as its chemical composition of metallic aluminum cannot be created in nature. Steinhardt wondered if this sample came from a meteorite, which was an “ignorant, stupid suggestion, but Lincoln didn’t know that,” Steinhardt said. Lincoln refers Steinhardt to Glenn Macpherson, an expert meteorologist, who further elaborated that metallic aluminum from meteorites is, once again, impossible.
Two renowned experts in their fields describing the impossibility of Steinhardt and Bindi’s hypotheses was not enough for them to quit. Their next step was to trace Bindi’s khatyrkite to obtain more samples. Firstly, they attempted to find Nico Koekkoek, a Dutch mineral collector who had sold innumerable mineral samples to various museums. Dead end. Then they wrote to museums globally regarding their khatyrkite samples and discovered four potential samples. All fakes. Yet another dead end. Next was to analyze the legitimate sample in St. Petersburg because any sample of a newly discovered mineral must be given to a museum. The uncooperative discoverer, Leonid Razin, had immigrated to Israel and refused to let anyone touch the sample. They had hit a dead end again.
Bindi relayed this story to his sister and her friend over dinner. The friend’s neighbor shared the same common last name as the Dutch mineral collector, so the friend decided to ask his neighbor if it was an unlikely connection. Miraculously, the neighbor was the widow of the Dutch mineral collector and, after much persuading, handed over her late-husband’s secret diary. The diary reveals a mineral smuggler named Tim from Romania whom he received the khatyrkite. They were unable to locate Tim until Koekkoek’s widow relented yet another secret diary, which revealed that Tim had received these minerals from ‘L. Razin.’ The same Leonid Razin who refused them to view the sample! Eventually, Steinhardt discovered that Leonid Razid had sent a man named Valery Kryachko on an expedition for platinum. While he did not find platinum, he gave his samples to Leonid Razin, which astoundingly contained the natural quasicrystals that Steinhardt had searched for decades. Kryachko was completely unaware of its journey and even provided the remaining sample, which Steinhardt and his team used for testing.
Steinhardt’s original “ignorant, stupid suggestion” proved remarkably accurate, as they discovered that a meteorite hit Chukotka and resulted in natural metallic aluminum.
Steinhardt and his dream team needed more samples of khatyrkite to conduct further research. Therefore, seven Russians, five Americans, one Italian, and a cat named Buck set forth the scientific Mission Impossible for natural quasicrystals. They came back with several million grains and after a few weeks, found a sample of clay layer that had not been touched in 10,000 years. This was the first quasicrystal to be declared a natural mineral. They ultimately discovered a total of nine quasicrystal samples, each from a different part of the meteorite.
Steinhardt and his team’s analysis of quasicrystals is still not over and his book, “The Second Kind of Impossible,” delves further into the outlandish details of the over 30 years of research. This extraordinary journey of passion and ambition allows for the thrilling hope for the future of scientific discovery.
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H., recently visited Duke to talk about Rachel Carson’s environmental legacy and its implications for North Carolina today. Musil is the president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, an environmental organization founded in 1965 by friends and colleagues of Rachel Carson — a twentieth-century marine scientist, conservationist, and writer — after her death.
Musil began his presentation with a stirring quote by Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”
Rachel Carson is famous for writing Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book warning of the dangers of DDT and other pesticides. Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. She died in 1964. In 1972, the United States banned DDT.
More than half a century later, in our world of climate crisis and biodiversity loss, Carson’s devotion to the natural world is still incredibly timely.
Carson, Musil says, “believed that you had to develop real empathy for other creatures, other beings, other people, other nations… that unless you loved it, you would destroy it.” In Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, she takes the perspective of animals like the black skimmer, the mackerel, and the eel. Carson was writing about the perils facing marine ecosystems, but she was doing it “from the point of view of the ‘other,’” as Musil puts it, focusing our attention on creatures other than ourselves.
“With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.”
-A passage from Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson. Rynchops, Carson’s name for the black skimmer, comes from the bird’s genus name.
Musil describes how Carson would lie on the beach and hear crabs scratching the sand and listen to birds and imagine “how this life came to be, how these creatures, incredibly unique, came to this place in evolution.”
Carson was a marine scientist well before she published Silent Spring. She attended graduate school in marine biology with a full fellowship to Johns Hopkins University. At the same time, Musil says, she was working as a research assistant, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, and caring for extended family. Afterward, she worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and eventually became an author. Under the Sea-Wind was her first book; she wrote Silent Spring two decades later.
Carson is credited with spurring the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring and the concerns Carson raised about DDT prompted the President’s Science Advisory Committee, under the orders of John F. Kennedy, to investigate its dangers. Ultimately, DDT was banned in the United States, though Carson didn’t live to see it.
But Musil emphasizes that throughout all Carson’s accomplishments, she did not act alone. He shows an “iconic photo,” as he describes it, of Rachel Carson sitting on Hawk Mountain and looking off into the distance through binoculars. The same photo is on the cover of Musil’s bookRachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment. He looks at the audience and asks a question: “Is Rachel alone on top of the mountain?” In the photo, Carson seems to be alone in a great expanse of wilderness, but the obvious answer to Musil’s question is no. Someone, after all, had to be there to take the picture.
That someone was Shirley Briggs, a friend of Carson’s and a scientist in her own right. “Rachel Carson,” Musil emphasizes, “was not alone.” Friends, colleagues, and mentors worked alongside her. And many of those people continued her work after she was gone. Before Carson died, Musil says, she asked Shirley Briggs and others to form an organization to carry on her work. The Rachel Carson Council was founded the following year. Nearly six decades later, the Council is still committed to “Carson’s ecological ethic that combines scientific concern for the environment and human health with a sense of wonder and reverence for all forms of life in order to build a more sustainable, just, and peaceful future,” according to a statement on their website.
According to Musil, North Carolina was one of Carson’s favorite places. After she had a breast cancer operation, he says, “she took refuge at Nags Head and walked its beaches.” The Rachel Carson Reserve commemorates Carson and preserves coastal habitats and wildlife. Musil believes that Carson’s legacy has broader environmental implications as well. One pressing issue in North Carolina today is Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where many animals are raised in confinement. North Carolina produces ten billion gallons of hog waste from CAFOs each year—enough to fill 1500 Olympic swimming pools, according to Musil.
This is an ecological and animal welfare issue but also an environmental justice case. CAFOs are more often built near lower income and minority communities, and the waste from CAFOs can negatively affect human health, pollute waterways, and lead to fish kills and other ecological problems. Living near CAFOs is associated with higher rates of asthma and other health conditions, according to Musil. He acknowledged Francesca Cetta in the audience, who along with Lucy Goldman, both Duke Stanback Fellows at the Rachel Carson Council, did the research and writing on the Rachel Carson Council report, Swine and Suffering: An Introduction to the Hidden Harms of Factory Farms.
Environmental justice was not a term Carson used, but she had similar concerns about who was most affected by environmental issues. In Silent Spring, Musil says, Carson wrote about farmers who dealt directly with DDT and how unjust that was. Today, environmental justice is gaining momentum as organizations and governments wrestle with fairness and equality in the environmental sphere.
In spite of ongoing environmental degradation, Musil remains hopeful. “I have incredible hope for the future,” he says, because of his organization and its mentoring of future generations of environmentalists. “It’s not like every single person has to go out and go birdwatching — though I would recommend it,” he says, but he does believe it is important to learn about and appreciate the natural world and to recognize how it intersects with, for instance, capitalism and social justice. “Designing a much more equitable, greener society is critical,” he says, and when it comes to working toward that future, he is “never going to stop.”
He references the photo he showed earlier of Carson on the mountain: “I like to think instead of looking at hawks, she’s looking across those ridges and seeing… ranks and ranks of young people from Duke and across the country carrying on her vision.”
Raise your hand if you learned about Mendel and his peas in high school biology.
It is a common misconception that this model of simple genetic traits applies for all traits. As a result, many students adhere to the idea of genetic essentialism, which concludes that even complex traits like skin color and intelligence are determined solely by someone’s genetics.
This is a notion that has been widely disproven in the scientific community for the past 20 years. However, there is a clear, historical roadblock in the community’s ability to translate this to the public — in a study to be published next month in Science, this group of scientists thinks they found a way.
Brian Donovan is a senior research scientist at BSCS Science Learning, and the principal investigator for a $1.29 million NSF project studying the effects of changing genetics education in American high schools.
On Wednesday evening, he gave a special talk at Duke to a standing-room-only crowd filled with the Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology departments, as well as about 50 assorted undergrads who were scribbling notes like they were going to be tested (myself included).
This talk is especially salient for the crowd in attendance: Duke has one of the most innovative introductory Biology courses in the nation (as anyone who has taken BIO202 with Dr. Willis will tell you), aimed specifically at combatting prejudice from misconceptions in genetic education.
Donovan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who experienced ethnic persecution at its highest, and he was inspired to combat these prejudices. Many people don’t realize that Nazism borrowed many of their tenets from Jim Crow laws, he discussed in the presentation. Not to mention the basic genetic model used in classrooms across the country — the Punnett Square — was developed in accordance with eugenics.
Donovan’s pitch was simple: a vaccine against racism.
According to numbers calculated in the study based on teenagers’ social media use and content, 13% of high school students in the U.S. could be exposed to racist manifestation during their high school career. And 98% of these kids take high school biology. Combatting racism with proper, well-rounded education on common misconceptions about genetics and race could be part of the solution.
But this doesn’t mean we need to nix Mendel altogether, Donovan says — we just need to restructure the narrative.
The new-and-improved curriculum (called “human(e) genetics,” which is very clever, if you ask me) focused on facets of genetics that are commonly considered fact by the scientific community.
0.1% of the human genome is variable between people.
There is statistically more genetic variation within human populations than between them.
Complex traits, like skin color and height, have very weak association with genetics alone.
The relationship between environment and genetics is hard to quantify exactly. Studies in humans would be very unethical.
Height is a complex trait, just like skin color, says Donovan. These traits exist on a continuum. But you don’t make assumptions about people’s background based on their relative heights, yet the continuum of height variety is just as discrete as the continuum of skin color variety.
So, if all of this is such common knowledge, why is it not taught in classrooms already? Take this quote from a 1941 textbook called Biological and Human Affairs:
“There are no studies on how that impacted kids.” Donovan declared. “But I don’t think we need one after reading that. I think we can tell.”
After crunching a lot of numbers, Donovan’s team calculated that, considering the success rate of their humane genetics curriculum in experimental groups (the number of students who changed from agreeing with genetic essentialism to disagreeing with it), 52% of the original 13% exposed to racist ideals online would be protected from following them after this new education model.
These studies have even more relevance today in the age of controversy in history and biology education in Florida and the CRT controversy across the nation. In the question-and-answer session, students critiqued the feasibility of instituting humane genetics education in these states as a result.
The best way to educate adults, Donovan answered, is to educate the masses. “I have to ask you all,” he gestured to the room, “to publish. We need to publish papers that confirm we have a scientific consensus.”
There are many ways to think of North Carolina. It was the 12th U.S. state to enter the Union. It is bordered by Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. North Carolina’s capital city is Raleigh, and it has an estimated population of 10,698,973. These are all facts, but they tell only part of the story: the human side of it.
Naturalist Tom Earnhardt offers other ways to view North Carolina: the state contains the oldest forest in the eastern United States, with trees up to 2,700 years old. It has 17 river basins, and some of its rivers show evidence of fishing weirs used by indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago. And from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Appalachian mountains in the west, North Carolina is home to thousands of native plants, animals, and fungi. There are 3,000 species of moths alone in North Carolina, and “Every one is essential; not one is optional.”
“North Carolina,” Earnhardt says, “is still one of the most biodiverse and extraordinary places on the planet.”
Earnhardt is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and attorney. He wrote and produced the show “Exploring North Carolina,” a series of dozens of episodes about North Carolina’s biodiversity, geography, and history. Earnhardt recently visited Duke to speak at the Nasher Museum of Art.
One inspiration for his talk was the ongoing Nasher exhibit “Spirit in the Land,” an exploration of ecology, culture, and connection to the natural world. “Art in its many forms,” Earnhardt says, “tells a story of love, loss, and renewal.”
Earnhardt has spent much of his career balancing caution and hope. We are facing environmental crises, including climate change and biodiversity loss. Earnhardt believes it’s important for people to know that, but he has put a lot of thought into how to get that message across. Earnhardt has learned that it can help to “tell it as though it was your best friend or brother who needed to hear an important story.” Science alone isn’t always enough. “To hear bad news of any kind is not easy,” Earnhardt says, “and people want to hear it from people they know, people they trust or can relate to.”
The stories he tells aren’t always easy to hear, but they are important. We need to know — whether on a local, state, national, or international scale — what exactly we stand to lose if we continue on a path of environmental destruction. Many species are becoming more scarce, Earnhardt says, “but we still have them.” They can’t be protected once they’re gone, but many of them are still here and can still be preserved. The goal for all of us should be to keep it that way.
North Carolina, Earnhardt says, is at “the epicenter of the temperate world.” The state has a range of climates and habitats. It marks the northernmost native range of the American alligator, while coniferous forests in the North Carolina mountains resemble boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada. North Carolina, according to Earnhardt, contains “whole ecosystems that other states only dream about.”
Eastern North Carolina is characterized by beaches, salt marshes, and other coastal ecosystems. Here you can find “wildflowers that grow in salty sand” and painted buntings, multicolored songbirds unlike any other in North America. On four occasions, he’s even seen manatees in North Carolina.
“Travelers from around the world vacation here and raise their families in the summer,” Earnhardt says—and he’s not talking about humans. Many shorebirds and sea turtles lay their eggs on North Carolina’s beaches. Human disturbance, including artificial lighting and crowded beaches, can put their babies in danger. Minimizing light pollution near beaches, especially during turtle nesting season, and staying away from nesting shorebirds can help.
Moving farther west, we can find savannas of grasses and pine trees. “You drive past this, and people go, ‘ho hum, a pine barren.’” To that Earnhardt says, “Look a little closer.”
These pine barrens are home to some of North Carolina’s 80 species of orchid, like the white-fringed and yellow-fringed orchids. “Look at them from all angles,” Earnhardt urges, “because from up above it becomes a sunburst… for those who watch.”
Be one of those who watches.
North Carolina rivers, forests, and swamps are also home to many wildlife species. Forests around Black River contain “huge buttresses of tupelo that hold the world together” and bald cypresses that have been alive for 2,700 years. The early years of these now-ancient cypress trees coincided with the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the establishment of the first emperor of Japan. Many centuries later, they are the oldest trees in eastern North America.
They are also in danger. “If seas rise three feet,” Earnhardt says, “there will be enough pressure to flood these [trees]…. We could lose them.” But “they are worth saving.”
Still farther west are the Appalachian mountains, another biodiversity hotspot. North Carolina is home to 60 species of salamanders, many of which live in the mountains. The southern Appalachians and western North Carolina contain more salamander diversity than anywhere else on the planet. One species that lives here is the American hellbender, a two-foot-long denizen of mountainous streams.
Despite increasing human development, North Carolina is still rich in flora and fauna. “We have wild places,” Earnhardt says. North Carolina has more than 450 bird species, over 30 native pitcher plants, 20 freshwater turtles, and 38 snakes—“and they’re all good neighbors,” Earnhardt adds.
North Carolina has pink and yellow lady slippers and ten-foot-tall Turk’s Cap lilies; crayfish and thousands of mushrooms; native azaleas and insects that depend on them. It has Earnhardt’s “new favorite bird,” the swallow-tailed kite, and vultures, “the clean-up crew: not optional.” That’s a refrain throughout Earnhardt’s talk. “Nothing I’ve shown you tonight is optional,” he says.
“Both in banking and nature,” Earnhardt says, “when we make too many withdrawals and not enough deposits… there’s a deficit.” There are too many creatures we have already lost. The eastern cougar. The Carolina parakeet. The passenger pigeon. Too many more. There are still others that are threatened or endangered but not yet gone. “We humans tend to forget the failures and close calls,” Earnhardt says. While talking about biodiversity loss, he references a quote by biologist E.O. Wilson: “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
So what can be done? To preserve biodiversity, we have to consider entire ecosystems, not just one endangered animal at a time. “We are part of the natural world, part of links and chains and pyramids,” Earnhardt says, and humans too often forget that. Everything is connected.
He recalls visiting entomologist Bill Reynolds’s lab and noticing crickets hopping across the floor. “Don’t step on the transmission fluid!” Reynolds warned. He was referring to the crickets and to insects more broadly. Like transmission fluid in cars, insects are essential to making sure the systems they are part of run smoothly. Insects serve crucial roles in food webs, pollination, and decomposition. Studies show that they are declining at alarming rates.
“We are at a crossroads,” Earnhardt says. “Our transmission fluid is low, and we have made too many withdrawals from the bank of biodiversity.” Still, he emphasizes the importance of not giving up on wildlife conservation. Given a chance, nature can and will regenerate.
Despite all our past and current failures, conservation also has remarkable success stories. The brown pelican is one North Carolina resident that almost went extinct but has since “come back in incredible numbers.” The bald eagle is another. Its population plummeted in the 20th century, largely due to the insecticide DDT as well as habitat loss and hunting. By 2007, though, after intensive conservation efforts, it had rebounded enough to be removed from the endangered species list. Until about 1980, Earnhardt had never seen a bald eagle in North Carolina. Today, Earnhardt says, “I see them in every county.”
“Everyone’s going to have to fly in the same direction,” to preserve North Carolina — not to mention the rest of the world — at its best and wildest, Earnhardt says. But individual actions can make a difference. He suggests planting native flowers like milkweed and coneflower, both of which are good food sources for pollinators. And if you choose to plant ornamentals like crepe myrtle, “Treat that as a piece of art in the yard and then plant the rest as native.”
Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady and conservation advocate, once said that “Texas should look like Texas, and Mississippi like Mississippi.” Choosing native plants can be a powerful way to help native wildlife in your own yard. “If you plant it,” Earnhardt says, “they will come.”
One audience member asks, “How do you recommend that we recruit non-believers?” It’s a conundrum that Earnhardt has put a lot of thought into. “It takes time, and it takes patience,” he says. “Some of my best friends are not full believers, but I work on them every day.”
Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.
On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.
I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).
For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”
“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”
After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.
During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?
The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”
Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.
Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.
I recently had the pleasure of attending Professor Janet Malek’s lecture: Only Mostly Dead? The Evolving Ethical Evaluation of Death by Neurologic Criteria, a lecture sponsored by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine.
Dr. Malek is an associate professor in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and at the Baylor College of Medicine Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy.
We don’t often talk about death. On the surface, it seems like it would be a straight-forward concept. You’re either dead, or you’re not dead. Right? It turns out that clinically defining death is not so simple.
Popular media has some grasp on the ambiguity of the definition of death. Remember this scene from the popular movie, The Princess Bride? Suspecting that the protagonist is dead, his friends bring him to a miracle-worker and have the following conversation.
Miracle Max: “Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya: What’s that?
Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
In real life, death used to be determined by cardiopulmonary criteria – when the heart and lungs stop working. In recent decades the idea that death can be determined using neurologic criteria – when the brain stops working – has gained acceptance. As neuroscience and technology has evolved, so too have our definitions. Now that we know more about how the brain works, we know that there may be some brain activity even after a person has met the criteria for death by neurologic criteria (DNC). This leads to philosophically rich and practically relevant questions of ethics – for example, when do we stop providing life-sustaining care? In the field of bioethics and beyond, there is high demand for discussion on this topic.
There has been controversy over defining death since the 1650’s — when a woman named Anne Greene woke up after being hanged. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that a consensus definition of death was first identified. Here is a brief history:
Widespread availability of ventilators led to the identification of a state described as death of the neurological system.
Advances in organ transplantation foster discussion on the ethics of defining death.
A committee at Harvard Medical School examined the definition of Brain Death. They created a definition of “Irreversible Coma,” which focused on loss of neurological function.
The 1980 Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) provided a legal basis for clinically determining death as: an individual who has sustained either 1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions OR 2) irreversible cessation of functions of the entire brain.
1981: President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research report. Findings are centered on questions of functioning of the organism as a whole and the brain’s role in coordinating it.
Clinicians arrive at general agreement that a patient in a state of coma or unresponsiveness, without brainstem reflexes and who fails an apnea test is dead by neurologic criteria. Largely it is accepted that “brain death is death” but there is not complete consensus.
2013: Case of Jahi McMath. A 13-year old girl was declared “brain dead” in California, and a death certificate was issued. However, the family fought to have her maintained on life support. They moved to New Jersey, the only state which recognized objections to brain death, and the “brain dead” declaration was reversed. Jahi lived there for 4 years before passing away. This famous case caused people to reconsider the concept of brain death.
Recent innovations in heart transplantation technology will likely challenge the acceptance of the Dead Donor Rule (DDR) which requires that an individual is clinically declared dead before vital organs are removed for transplantation.
2021: Assembly of the Determination of Death Committee, tasked with updating the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). Duke faculty (and founding director of Science & Society) Nita Farahany, is involved with this process.
What ethical issues and practical questions challenging Death by Neurologic Criteria (DNC) today? Dr. Malek shared the following case.
Following a tragic car accident, Ms. Jones, a 20-year-old college student, was brought to the hospital, having suffered significant anoxic brain injury. The medical team determined that she met criteria for DNC. However, her family refused to allow for further testing. Several days passed. Ms. Jones was maintained on life support, during which she did not show signs of improvement. After several difficult conversations, the family consented for assessment and Ms. Jones was declared dead — using the criteria associated with DNC.
What is the proper amount of time to continue life-sustaining treatment if a physician suspects the patient will never recover?
Although this may sound like an uncommon occurrence, nearly half of neurologists have been asked to continue neurologic support for patients that may meet criteria for DNC.
Obligating life support for patients suspected of meeting DNC, either through the family’s refusal for testing or by direct request, would likely result in ethical harms such as violation of the dignity of decedent, unjustly using scarce resources, or causing moral distress in caregivers.
However, it may be permissible to maintain life support in these situations. Dr. Malek says that we do not yet have a good ethical framework for this. Reasonable accommodations that are in line with professional guidelines probably have minimal impact, and might provide some psychosocial benefits to families.
Is consent required to test for DNC? Should it be?
These are extremely difficult questions, and there is continuing controversy over what the correct answers should be. Dr. Malek advises medical experts to work with healthcare administrators to develop clear institutional policies.
Post by Victoria Wilson, 2023 MA student in Bioethics & Science Policy
Black-capped chickadees have an incredible ability to remember where they’ve cached food in their environments. They are also small, fast, and able to fly.
So how exactly can a neuroscientist interested in their memories conduct studies on their brains? Dmitriy Aronov, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, visited Duke recently to talk about chickadee memory and the practicalities of studying wild birds in a lab.
Black-capped chickadees, like many other bird species, often store food in hiding places like tree crevices. This behavior is called caching, and the ability to hide food in dozens of places and then relocate it later represents an impressive feat of memory. “The bird doesn’t get to experience this event happening over and over again,” Aronov says. It must instantly form a memory while caching the food, a process that relies on episodic memory. Episodic memory involves recalling specific experiences from the past, and black-capped chickadees are “champions of episodic memory.”
They have to remember not just the location of cached food but also other features of each hiding place, and they often have only moments to memorize all that information before moving on. According to Aronov, individual birds are known to cache up to 5,000 food items per day! But how do they do it?
Chickadees, like humans, rely on the brain’s hippocampus to form episodic memories, and the hippocampus is considerably bigger in food-caching birds than in birds of similar size that aren’t known to cache food. Aronov and his team wanted to investigate how neural activity represents the formation and retrieval of episodic memories in black-capped chickadees.
Step one: find a creative way to study food-caching in a laboratory setting. Marissa Applegate, a graduate student in Aronov’s lab, helped design a caching arena “optimized for chickadee ergonomics,” Aronov says. The arenas included crevices covered by opaque flaps that the chickadees could open with their toes or beaks and cache food in. The chickadees didn’t need any special training to cache food in the arena, Aronov says. They naturally explore crevices and cache surplus food inside.
Once a flap closed over a piece of cached food (sunflower seeds), the bird could no longer see inside—but the floor of each crevice was transparent, and a camera aimed at the arena from below allowed scientists to see exactly where birds were caching seeds. Meanwhile, a microdrive attached to the birds’ tiny heads and connected to a cable enabled live monitoring of their brain activity, down to the scale of individual neurons.
Through a series of experiments, Aronov and his team discovered that “the act of caching has a profound effect on hippocampal activity,” with some neurons becoming more active during caching and others being suppressed. About 35% percent of neurons that are active during caching are consistently either enhanced or suppressed during caching—regardless of which site a bird is visiting. But the remaining 65% of variance is site-specific: “every cache is represented by a unique pattern of this excess activity in the hippocampus,” a pattern that holds true even when two sites are just five centimeters apart—close enough for a bird to reach from one to another.
Chickadees could hide food in any of the sites for retrieval at a future time. The delay period between the caching phase (when chickadees could store surplus food in the cache sites) and the retrieval phase (when chickadees were placed back in the arena and allowed to retrieve food they had cached earlier) ranged from a few minutes to an hour. When a bird returned to a cache to retrieve food, the same barcode-like pattern of neural activity reappeared in its brain. That pattern “represents a particular experience in a bird’s life” that is then “reactivated” at a later time.
Aronov said that in addition to caching and retrieving food, birds often “check” caching sites, both before and after storing food in them. Of course, as soon as a bird opens one of the flaps, it can see whether or not there’s food inside. Therefore, measuring a bird’s brain activity after it has lifted a flap makes it impossible to tell whether any changes in brain activity when it checks a site are due to memory or just vision. So the researchers looked specifically at neural activity when the bird first touched a flap—before it had time to open it and see what was inside. That brain activity, as it turns out, starts changing hundreds of milliseconds before the bird can actually see the food, a finding that provides strong evidence for memory.
What about when the chickadees checked empty caches? Were they making a memory error, or were they intentionally checking an empty site—even knowing it was empty—for their own mysterious reasons? On a trial-by-trial basis, it’s impossible to know, but “statistically, we have to invoke memory in order to explain their behavior,” he said.
A single moment of caching, Aronov says, is enough to create a new, lasting, and site-specific pattern. The implications of that are amazing. Chickadees can store thousands of moments across thousands of locations and then retrieve those memories at will whenever they need extra food.
It’s still unclear how the retrieval process works. From Aronov’s study, we know that chickadees can reactivate site-specific brain activity patterns when they see one of their caches (even when they haven’t yet seen what’s inside). But let’s say a chickadee has stored a seed in the bark of a particular tree. Does it need to see that tree in order to remember its cache site there? Or can it be going about its business on the other side of the forest, suddenly decide that it’s hungry for a seed, and then visualize the location of its nearest cache without actually being there? Scientists aren’t sure.
The study’s title: “Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines.”
“Once seemingly buoyed by their central role in addressing the coronavirus outbreak,” Pew Center researchers write, the public’s trust in scientists and health professionals has sunk. This phenomenon is not confined to remote corners of Twitter or the turbulent backwaters of a few Facebook community chats. No, it’s palpable in the media, in conversation, in our collective consciousness. Why is this? And why now?
Last month, The Duke Global Health Institute hosted a few health experts to answer these questions in the “Building Trust in Public Health: A Post-COVID Roadmap” panel. Jack Leslie, a visiting fellow at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, contextualized declines in public trust, citing increased populism and anti-elitism. It’s not difficult to chart the evolution of this zeitgeist. In the past three decades alone, Americans have become completely cocooned in media.
CNN’s Ted Turner (i.e. the ‘Mouth of the South’) is accredited with the genesis of the 24 hour news cycle. He notably “didn’t bargain for… [the] insomniacs,” writes journalist Lisa Napoli, nor did he bargain for its longevity, or our inability to escape it. From coverage of the Iraq War to the OJ Simpson investigation to political partisanship in Washington, and of course, to COVID-19.
The erosion of institutional faith is not unique to the government but, like an acid rain, weathers indiscriminately. It eats away at trust in churches, corporations, media institutes, universities, K-12 schools, etc. In fact last semester, I attended another Duke panel entitled “Policing the Pages,” in which increased polarization across the US contributed to concerted efforts to bar certain books (often those with LGBT and minority characters) from elementary school libraries and syllabi. A kind of censorship akin to dress codes and mandatory veggies in bagged lunches.
This sentiment, unlike COVID-19, is not novel. Leslie described a “trifecta” of events, slowly chipping away at public trust: 1) the great recession of ‘08, 2) waves of immigration in the United States and Europe, and finally, 3) the pandemic.
For decades, and with little exception, science was lauded as infallible, an authority, bridging turbulent seas of dis- and mis-information. It was well-mannered, professorial, clad in wire-rimmed glasses and bowtie. “We had pretty high trust in scientists and public health institutions prior to the pandemic… relative to other institutions which have taken a hit over the past twenty years,” Leslie acknowledged.
Of course, this no longer is the case.
Dr. Heidi Larson collected this pathos in anecdotes for the Global Listening Project, an oral history of personal pandemic experiences. Many described “…a feeling of disconnect with the government. [They] would give us these directives, but people felt they had no connection with their reality, their situation.” Larson, for example, recognized patterns of isolation in schools. There was a pervasive sense that neither legislator nor scientist had stepped foot into these schools before creating policies. Bureaucratic deflection so to speak.
This begs the question, howcan we rebuild trust in public health?
Dr. Rispah Walumbe, a global health policy and advocacy specialist, described the “orchestration” of multisectoral partnerships during the pandemic (in Africa, specifically) that combined “state and non-state actors with public and private sector actors and, of course, those on the social, economic, and political sides.”
She found that, at the start of the pandemic, trust was enhanced. The virus was identified as a “key problem” and was, to some degree, universally threatening. A conduit of centralized communication followed. As the pandemic elongated, the discrepancy between the populations disproportionately burdened by COVID (poor and minority communities) and those not so much grew wider. Communication became less effective. Still, Walumbe advocated for the continuity of engagement between health institutions and the public in the aftermath of the pandemic. Peel back the Oz-like bureaucratic curtains and increase transparency.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, agreed. In recent studies, she explained, NC ranked 2nd among the states for its general safety during the pandemic, which she attributed to the state’s prioritization of public trust. “Before we even had our first case, we were talking about how our crisis response was going to hinge on whether we could build and maintain trust with the public… we tried to be really tactical about trust, which can feel ephemeral and fleeting… and really broke it down into three buckets. The first was transparency, the second was competency, and the third was relationships.”
Rebuilding trust in public health, thus, seems less a roadmap and more a spigot. Institutions must continue to fill the buckets Cohen described.
As the pandemic ebbs, however, the ubiquity of isolation, anxiety, and turmoil cannot be understated. A recent WHO article characterized this pervasive fear as “contagious,” pathologic, a kind of virus itself.
In an age of mass misinformation, public health officials, doctors, and scientists now stand with the Sisyphean task of restoring public trust. And the panelists concurred: it is fragile. Volatile even.
Yet, as illustrated in this article, it is not elusive. Prioritize communication. Prioritize transparency. Prioritize competency, relationships, and community engagement.
I will defer to Walumbe who put it best during the conversation: “These institutions do not operate in a vacuum. Community is pivotal in thinking through trust, it’s how we’re organized across the world… that’s something that is critical in how we approached COVID-19 challenges…” and, presumably, in how we should continue.
Thank you to the panelists, moderator Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, and Dr. Mark McClellan, Director and Robert J. Margolis, M.D., Professor of Business, Medicine and Policy at the Margolis Center for Health Policy.
When it comes to balancing the needs of humans and the needs of nature, “Historically it was ‘develop or conserve’ or ‘develop or restore,’” says Carter Smith, Ph.D., a Lecturing Fellow in the Division of Marine Science & Conservation who researches coastal restoration.
However, according to Brian Silliman, Ph.D., Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, “We are having a new paradigm shift where it’s not just… ‘nature over here’ and ‘humans over here.’”
Instead, conservation initiatives are increasingly focusing on coexistence with nature and ecological resilience, according to this panel discussion of marine science experts during Duke Research and Innovation Week 2023.
Nature-based solutions — protecting and restoring natural shoreline habitats — have a proven role in protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Nature-based solutions… address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.”
According to Smith, nature-based solutions can “leverage nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people” while also preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. She spoke about living shorelines as an effective and ecologically responsible way to protect coastal ecosystems.
“The traditional paradigm in coastal protection is that you build some kind of hard, fixed structure” like a seawall, Smith said, but conventional seawalls can have negative effects on biodiversity, habitats, nutrient cycling, and the environment at large. “In this case, coastal protection and biodiversity really are at odds.”
After multiple hurricanes, living shorelines had significantly less visible damage or erosion than sites with conventional hardscape protection, like seawalls.
Nicholas Lecturing Fellow Carter Smith
That’s where living shorelines come in. Living shorelines incorporate plants and natural materials like sand and rock to stabilize coastal areas and protect them from storms while also creating more natural habitats and minimizing environmental destruction. But “if these structures are actually going to replace conventional infrastructure,” Smith says, it’s important to show that they’re effective.
Smith and colleagues have studied how living shorelines fared during multiple hurricanes and have found that living shorelines had significantly less “visible damage or erosion” compared to sites with conventional storm protection infrastructure.
After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for instance, both natural marshes and conventional infrastructure (like seawalls) lost elevation due to the storm. Living shorelines, on the other hand, experienced almost no change in elevation.
Smith is also investigating how living shorelines may support “community and psychosocial resilience” along with their benefits to biodiversity and climate. She envisions future community fishing days or birdwatching trips to bring people together, encourage environmental education, and foster a sense of place.
PhD student Stephanie Valdez then spoke about the importance of coastal ecosystems.
“Blue carbon ecosystems,” which include sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves, provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon, she said. These ecosystems can bury carbon much faster than terrestrial ecosystems, which has important implications when it comes to climate change.
In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming, but plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air during photosynthesis and convert it to carbohydrates, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Therefore, ecosystems rich in fast-growing plants can serve as carbon sinks, reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon, Valdez explained.
Unfortunately, blue carbon ecosystems have suffered significant loss from human activities and development. We’ve replaced these wild areas with farms and buildings, polluted them with toxins and waste, and decimated habitats that so many other creatures rely on. But given the chance, these places can sometimes grow back. Valdez discussed a 2013 study which found that seagrass restoration led to a significantly higher carbon burial rate within just a few years.
Sea grasses, marshes, and mangroves provide services like stabilizing sediments, reducing the destructive force of powerful waves, and storing carbon.
PhD Student Stephanie Valde
Valdez also talked about the importance of recognizing and encouraging natural ecological partnerships within and between species. Humans have taken advantage of such partnerships before, she says. Consider the “Three Sisters:” beans, corn, and squash, which Native Americans planted close proximity so the three crops would benefit each other. Large squash leaves could provide shade to young seedlings, beans added nitrogen to the soil, and cornstalks served as a natural beanpole.
Recognizing that mutualistic relationships exist in natural ecosystems can help us preserve habitats like salt marshes. Valdez points to studies showing that the presence of oysters and clams can positively impact seagrasses and marshes. In restoration, it’s important “that we’re not focusing on one species alone but looking at the ecosystem as a whole”—from top predators to “foundation species.”
“There is hope for successful restoration of these vital ecosystems and their potential to aid in climate change mitigation,” Valdez said.
Finally, Prof. Brian Silliman discussed the role of predators in wider ecosystem restoration projects. Prioritizing the protection, restoration, and sometimes reintroduction of top predators isn’t always popular, but Silliman says predators play important roles in ecosystems around the world.
“One of the best examples we have of top predators facilitating ecosystems and climate change mitigation are tiger sharks in Australia,” he says. When the sharks are around, sea turtles eat fewer aquatic plants. “Not because [the sharks] eat a lot of sea turtles but because they scare them toward the shoreline,” reducing herbivory.
However, Silliman said it’s unclear sometimes whether the existence of a predator is actually responsible for a given benefit. Other times, though, experiments provide evidence that predators really are making a difference. Silliman referenced a study showing that sea otters can help protect plants, like seagrasses, in their habitats.
Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.
And crucially, “Predators increase stress resistance.” When physical stressors reach a certain point in a given ecosystem, wildlife can rapidly decline. But wildlife that’s used to coexisting with a top predator may have a higher stress threshold. In our ever-changing world, the ability to adapt is as important as ever.
“I think there is great optimism and opportunity here,” Silliman says. The other speakers agree. “Right now,” Valdez says, “as far as restoration and protection goes, we are at the very beginnings. We’re just at the forefront of figuring out how to restore feasibly and at a level of success that makes it worth our time.”
Restoring or reintroducing top predators in their natural habitats can help stabilize ecosystems impacted by climate change and other stressors.
Smith emphasized the important role that nature-based solutions can play. Even in areas where we aren’t achieving the “full benefit of conserving or restoring a habitat,” we can still get “some benefit in areas where if we don’t use nature-based solutions,” conservation and restoration might not take place at all.
According to Valdez, “Previously we would see restoration or… conservation really at odds with academia itself as well as the community as a whole.” But we’re reaching a point where “People know what restoration is. People know what these habitats are. And I feel like twenty or thirty years ago that was not the case.” She sees “a lot of hope in what we are doing, a lot of hope in what is coming.”
“There’s so much that we can learn from nature… and these processes and functions that have evolved over millions and millions of years,” Smith adds. “The more we can learn to coexist and to integrate our society with thriving ecosystems, the better it will be for everyone.”