Archive for March, 2008

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Gordon Brown caves to Catholic scaremongering

Sunday, 30 March, 2008

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has yielded to the public pressure (most of it by religious nuts like Cardinal O’Brien) and is now going to let his ministers and MPs vote freely on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Well, at least on three of the controversial clauses:

  • Cybrid embryos – the HF&E Bill would allow for the creation of embryos containing both human and animal DNA, but only for research and they must be destroyed at a certain date
  • Fatherless IVF – under the HF&E Bill, fathers would no longer be required for an IVF pregnancy, allowing single-women and lesbians to have IVF children
  • Saviour siblings – the HF&E Bill would permit the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for ensuring that an embryo is a potential donor for a sick brother or sister

This decreases the chance of the Bill passing, but with any luck it should still be able to get through. I hope.

PS: Sorry for being late on this. I went away for four days, and didn’t have time to blog on anything.

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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

The Words this Wednesday come from Friday’s sermon by Catholic cardinal Keith O’Brien, given at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has given the Government’s support to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which, more comprehensively, attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular Bill.

Really, Keith? It the HF&E Bill worse than the Nuremburg Laws of Nazi Germany? Worse than the Apartheid legislation in South Africa? This legislation could save lives! Surely being forced to stay afflicted with a disease because people feel uneasy about curing you is a far worse afront to human dignity than the death of some embryos or the creation of cybrids.

It scares me that some people do actually think that this legislation is that wrong. After all, Cardinal O’Brien states the estimate that 2.2 million embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon. The Holocaust saw the death of an estimated 3.8 million Jews. If one is irrational enough to believe that embryos have a right to life, it isn’t that hard to believe that this legislation is on par with Nazi policies.

Also, I wish to draw attention to this:

Further, I recently signed a letter with other Church Leaders which concluded: “This Bill goes against what most people, Christian or not, reckon is common sense. The idea of mixing human and animal genes is not just evil. It’s crazy!”.

Denying my freedom, when I am not harming anyone at all, is oppressive tyranny – evil and crazy too. I, for one, would like to have the mouse gene for L-gulonolactone oxidase inserted into my genome. This would make me immune to scurvy, and could possibly allow me to live a longer and healthier life even if I don’t go for a long sea voyage. Denying me that freedom is not only bad in itself, but it also harms my health, so to do so is far more evil than any violation of ‘human dignity’.

The Catholics have a lot of sway in Britain, so I fear that Cardinal O’Brien just killed the HF&E Bill for good. I still hold hope though. That’s all I can do from here down-under.

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Nebraska bans government funding of therapeutic cloning

Wednesday, 26 March, 2008

The bill in Nebraska, the LB606, that prohibits state funding for therapeutic cloning, was passed a few hours ago with a unanimous vote (you may remember that they changed the wording on that bill to make it more agreeable).

Absolutely nobody in the Nebraska Senate must have heard the news that therapeutic cloning can help Parkinson’s, or else they are all crazy and ignoring it for the hope that future treatments won’t be so contrary to their crazy ethical position. I suppose I should be thankful that this bill allows private work on cloned embryos, but I’m not because there isn’t anyone in Nebraska doing that. But I am thankful that embryonic stem cell research wasn’t banned (but it can only be government funded if it works on existing cell lines).

Another state going backwards instead of forwards…

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Therapeutic cloning can also cure!

Monday, 24 March, 2008

Researchers have used therapeutic cloning to cure Parkinson’s disease in mice. This is a landmark study, published in Nature Medicine, because the embryonic stem cells were cloned from the patients that they later cured.

The researchers, led by a team at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, USA, used the classic cloning technique – somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The nuclei from skin cells from the tail of the mice were inserted into anucleated ova, to create the cloned mouse embyros from which the stem cells were derived. The stem cells were differentiated into the dopaminergic neurons of the basal ganglia that are damaged in Parkinson’s.

Test animals were artificially given Parkinson’s disease, whereby the above-mentioned dopaminergic neurons were lesioned by chemicals. The neurons derived above were transplanted into the basal ganglia of the mice. Those mice that were treated with neurons derived from embryos cloned from their own tail recovered well within eleven weeks, but those receiving neurons from other stem cells lines were not significantly better eleven weeks later. This confirmed the advantage that therapeutic cloning has – the stem cells will be genetically matched to the individual, overcoming the problems with immunological compatibility.

But, just to satisfy those opposed to cloning and embryonic stem cell research, the researchers said that they are now going to see if they can use the embryonic-like cells that have been shown to be able to be derived from skin cells.

Links:

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Nick Bostrom writes about human dignity for President’s Council on Bioethics

Thursday, 20 March, 2008

The President’s Council on Bioethics has released their latest volume of reports, titled “Human Dignity and Bioethics“. One notable essay published in this volume is that of Nick Bostrom, the Oxford philosopher who is also the co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and Chair of both the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute.

Bostrom’s essay forms chapter 8 of the report, and is titled “Dignity and Enhancement“,  and the opening paragraph concludes with this beautifully well-put sentence:

Like some successful politicians, the idea of dignity has hit upon a winning formula by combining into one package gravitas, a general feel-good quality, and a profound vagueness that enables all constituencies to declare their allegiance without thereby endorsing any particular course of action.

Bostrom goes on to discuss some sensible definitions of human dignity, whether enhancements could possibly increase human dignity under such definitions, and whether the human species or human civilization can have dignity. Have a read.

Also worth a brief look are the essays “Human Dignity and the Future of Man” by Charles Rubin, “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity” by George Lee and “The Irreducibly Religious Character of Human Dignity”  by David Gelernter.

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 19 March, 2008

Today is a sad day, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has just passed away at the unfortunately young age of 90. Therefore, in remembrance for such an influential science fiction author and scientist (published theoretical work on the premise of satellite communication twelve years before the launch of Sputnik 1, and therefore widely credited as the inventor, though it is probable that is was invented independently thereafter) , I have decided to make this week’s quote one of his. Unusually though, I have selected a work of futurism, rather than science fiction, in quoting from Sir Arthur’s Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962 and revised in 1973. I quote a few select sentences from the closing words of Chapter Eighteen (titled ‘The Obsolescence of Man’), which seem much more complete without the truncation I have given them, but in the interests of conciseness, I wish to give a broader picture with fewer words:

“[T]his is, perhaps, the moment to deal with a conception which many people find even more horrifying than the idea that machines will replace or supersede us. It is the idea […] that they may combine with us. ”

“But how long will this partnership last? Can the synthesis of Man and Machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded? If this eventually happens – and I have given good reasons for thinking that it must – we have nothing to regret, and certainly nothing to fear.”

“No individual exists for ever; why should we expect our species to be immortal? Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served.”

In broaching these subjects so early, with works such as Childhood’s End (1953), The City and the Stars (1956), the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and both the preceding work – The Sentinel – and the sequels), plus many others, all dealing with the subject of human enhancement (albeit usually mediated by an alien intelligence rather than our own), it is surely true that Sir Arthur C. Clarke served such a noble purpose. He will be missed.

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Eastern and Western views on Human Enhancement

Tuesday, 18 March, 2008

The spring volume of the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics is now available (you will need a subscription access to read more than the abstract). For the Fourteenth Annual Thomas A. Pitts Lectureship in Medical Ethics, articles by scholars of many different cultures where asked to submit essays regarding the ethical issues of human enhancement. The articles selected for publication are:

If you’ve ever wanted to look at where in the world this sort of technology would be accepted, these articles would be a good read.

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Performance-enhancement in sports with Arthur Caplan

Monday, 17 March, 2008

Following the recent (albeit technically not yet published until the 28th of March) article by Leon Kass and Eric Cohen, Arthur Caplan’s piece on performance enhancements in sport, titled ‘A Shot In the Rear‘ (perhaps because he views it as a pain in that area?), which was published last week at Science Progress. In it, he specifically looks at arguments set out by John Harris – who is pro-enhancement – and Michael Sandel – who is anti-enhancement. Caplan then ends up siding, for the most part, with Sandel.

Here is the crux of Caplan’s argument:

Sport is only sport if it is measuring human abilities, as varied as those may be. Sport also links the results achieved to training, will, and effort. Outcomes don’t define sport—the process leading to outcomes does. That is why short circuiting your way to success by pills or hormones as Jones, Bonds, and Clemens did undercuts their performance since both process and outcome are required in assessing performance. […] The definition of sport is human effort based on talent and training leading to performance.

In a sense, this is very similar to that argument of Leon Kass and Eric Cohen. But it is equally refutable, because all that these three people (four if you count Sandel) are doing is defining sport as something that can’t have enhancements (well, performance enhancements at least. I don’t know how they would view a drug that makes you enjoy training, or makes you strive harder. I’m guessing they would come up with something though). They could equally just say “sport is defined as an enhancement-free activity” and be done with it.

Effort can matter, but it doesn’t define sport. Fun can also matter, but that also doesn’t define sport. Sport is mostly, though probably not entirely, about outcomes. I would have thought that was obvious.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do people make a bigger deal about breaking a world record than breaking a personal best (sometimes, the personal best may actually exceed the record, but was recorded without an official being present to corroborate it)? That’s because it is more of an achievement to be the best in the world than it is to have the most willpower, effort and determination. Effort is secondary to performance.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do athletes retire when their body can’t perform as well anymore, even though their will and determination is still present? Perhaps it is because they know that performance is what the sports fans want to see, not effort.

If sport wasn’t about outcomes, why do sporting authorities accept (even in a limited manner) enhancements in equipment such as lighter bicycles, lycra bodysuit/bodyskin costumes or faster performance engines in cars, rather than force athletes to use the same outdated equipment? Perhaps it is because if the average Joe on the street can drive/ride/swim faster than the people at competing at an international level, then there is little desire to even watch the sport (unless perhaps a family member was competing or similar). And so it will also be when the typical citizen has bionic limbs that allow him to run faster than any pro sprinter and lift more than any pro-weightlifter, or when the typical citizen has genetically-enhanced reflexes allowing her to view a fencing or judo competition as if it were slow-motion dancing.

These bioethicists need to face the facts. Sport is mostly about performance, and in that view the individual athlete will become less important. I predict that the most popular sports of the future will become more like motor racing – the final achievement will be a result of the athlete’s ability to ‘drive’ his or her genetically-enhanced cyborg body to victory, in addition to the geneticists, pharmacologists and cyberneticians in the support team.

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Performance-enhancement in sports with Leon Kass and Eric Cohen

Friday, 14 March, 2008

Leon Kass and Eric Cohen, both former members (former head, in the case of Kass) of the President’s Council on Bioethics, have a piece in The New Republic, somehow from two weeks in the future (28 March), titled “For the Love of the Game“. Have a read, but be warned that it is a prime example of “Kassian sophistry” (although some of it sounds like Michael Sandel, another former member of the President’s Council). Perhaps starting on page 6 may be easier on the brain, and that’s where the good stuff starts anyway. Like this:

In athletics, as in other human activities, excellence has until now been achievable only by disciplined effort.

This is an odd statement to make. It’s pretty obvious that excellence can also be a product of good equipment, good nutrition and, in a major way, natural talent. I know the authors also know this, because they go on to say:

In many cases, of course, no amount of practice can overcome one’s limited natural endowments: nature dispenses her unequal gifts with little regard for any abstract principle of “fairness.” Yet however mysterious the source and the distribution of each person’s natural potential, the individual’s cultivation of his natural endowments is intelligible.

Unfortunately, the authors fail to recognise the problems this fact raises for the rest of their essay. Athletics, like the rest of life, is not fair. In the words of Julian Savalescu:

“sport discriminates against the genetically unfit. Sport is the province of the genetic elite (or freak).” I completely agree with Savelescu, that sport is really just a “very expensive horse race”.

Now, basically the argument of Kass and Cohen boils down to the fact that our enjoyment of sport supposedly comes from being able to put effort into sport and achieve something as a result. In this respect I do agree, and this does separate human sports from animal sports like horse racing. Humans are able to comprehend what they are trying to achieve, and strive to do it. It is precisely this drive that makes many want performance enhancement.

This is why I do not agree that the athlete who opts for enhancement is “cheating himself”. Rather, it is precisely the spirit of sport, and indeed many human endeavours, to want to achieve things through any means necessary. This is why athletes train, this is why they buy top-of-the-line equipment, and why they hire knowledgeable coaches. They have chosen a goal, and want to see that goal realised. Why should we only allow people to compete in a marathon if they were born with qualities of an endurance-runner and trained them to full potential, if we can see that goal realised for any person with the aid of performance enhancement?

Cohen and Kass go on to say:

Precisely because he has chosen to be chemically made into a better athlete, his resulting superior performances are not great athletic achievements. A patient to his druggist, less doer and more done-to, he is dependent on outside agents for “his” performance. His doings become, in a crucial sense, less “his own.”

The first response to this, of course, is to remind ourselves that superior performances are usually not purely athletic achievements. We are all “patients to [our] druggist” in the sense that we are all genetically made into a certain type of athlete by nature. We are already very dependant on outside agents, namely the genetic constitution of our parents, for “our” performances. Not to mention that top athletes were usually trained from an early age, before they could truly consent to it. Another example of external agents contributing to achievements.

Secondly, if we choose to take an enhancement pill, opt to be genetically modified or have a bionic limb, how does that make it less our own achievements. Should we say that drag racers cannot take credit for the speed of their car, or that golf players cannot take credit for their choice of clubs? No, the choice made by the athlete over which enhancement technology to use is no less his own than a choice of what diet to maintain, what training to do or what equipment to use. In fact, as enhancement increases, the influence of natural genetic gifts decreases, arguably levelling the playing field for outcomes to be affected primarily by “our own doings”.

Lastly, I can think of a perfect compromise for those who seek to make sport primarily about effort. If biological enhancements should only be allowed if they represent one’s own performance rather than that of others, then we simply need to get pharmacologists and geneticists into sport. After all, if they make their own enhancement technology, then the fact that they are running the 100m dash in 8 seconds is entirely a result of their own work. Scientist olympics – that would be a great idea.

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Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 4: Lessons for the future, from the past

Thursday, 13 March, 2008

Eugenics is, in my opinion at least, highly unlikely to return in the same manner as it did in the 20th century. The historical precedents that were required for it to develop are now no longer present, as society is now seeking equality for all. The pseudo-scientific basis on which much of eugenics rested has now been replaced by sensible scientific knowledge, with luck free of cultural bias. We are also now well aware of the horrors that eugenics can cause, and can hopefully use that to learn from the past in order to see it never happen again.

On the other hand, in trying to prevent the horrors that accompanied previous implantations of eugenics, we must actually be careful to not fall into the same wrongs that of which the historical eugenicists were guilty. UNESCO’s ‘The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights‘ from 1997, which includes guidelines that prohibit cloning and suggests germline engineering may also need to be prohibited, declares in the very first article:

The human genome underlies the fundamental unity of all members of the human family, as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity. In a symbolic sense, it is the heritage of humanity.

Compare this document to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which segregated non-Germans and Germans within the Reich. One such set of laws, titled “Gesetz zum Schutze des deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre” , which translates to the “Law to Protect German Blood and German Honour“, were introduced with the sentence:

“Durchdrungen von der Erkenntnis, daß die Reinheit des deutschen Blutes die Voraussetzung für den Fortbestand des Deutschen Volkes ist”
Translation: “Moved by the understanding that purity of the German Blood is the essential condition for the continued existence of the German people”

Perhaps it is just an illusion, but I noticed that both of these documents prohibit certain freedoms in order to maintain an allegedly-important property like ‘German blood’ or the human genome, which are seen respectively to be key to ‘German honour’ and ‘human dignity’. In that sense, it seems to be that both are eugenic policies.

I do not think the comparison is without merit. Current legislators obviously view the current human being (in all its natural varieties) as ideal, just as the Nazi eugenicists viewed the Nordic people as ideals. The modern form of Homo sapiens has become the modern Wunschbild. Just as the Nazis removed freedoms in order to prevent the introduction of ‘Jewish blood’ into the German people, so too do the modern legislators seek the prevention insertion of transgenic DNA into the germline. I believe, and I hope I am not being overly optimistic, that they will stop short of genocide or imprisonment for those partaking in such biotechnological procedures, but nonetheless the current legislation appears to be a throwback to 20th century eugenic policy.

It could be claimed that modern human enhancement is similar in another key respect – in addition to enhancing the human species – in that it could very well see the creation of a But, as far as I know, no proponent of human enhancement is seeking to create a new ‘master race’ of humans. Lee M. Silver, in his book Remaking Eden, when imagining a future with a race of ‘Gen-Rich’ ruling over the planet, did not see that as a goal in the way that the Nazis sought to create a master Aryan race. Rather, he considered it as a possible unfortunate outcome of allowing human freedom, and thus radically divergent opinions, to reign over the human genome. Therefore, as I agree with Silver, I do not even see the similarity is particularly strong in this respect.

The above is perhaps difficult to comprehend, so I have endeavoured to make it easier through the assistance of this summary table:

Results that may be morally wrong

20th century eugenics

‘Liberal eugenics’

Current bans on ‘eugenics’

Enhancement of humanity

Primary goal

Likely outcome, through individual enhancement

Explicitly forbidden

State-determined ‘ideal human’

Yes. Attributes varied in different countries

No, though a consensus ideal may result via free-market

Yes, current human considered ideal

Restrictions on reproductive freedom

Yes, to create ‘ideal human’

No, except for unusually cruel choices

Yes, to preserve ‘ideal human’

Possibility of human speciation

Possible

Possible

Quite unlikely

There is a simple conclusion that anyone must draw in order to justify choosing a ban on genetic enhancement of humans: eugenicists of the past must have been more wrong for trying to enhance the human condition than they were when interfering with reproductive liberty. Believing that the primary wrong of eugenics was the desire to improve humanity, and not genocide, discrimination or racism, is the only way in which it can be permissible for the state to dictate what sort of people there should be.

We should be able to learn from the eugenics of the past. To many, it seemed quite repugnant for men and women of different races to be marrying and having children. They feared that foreign blood would upset the ‘status quo’ of their ‘national honor’ and ‘racial purity’. Today, many consider it repugnant for DNA from an animal to be inserted into a human or for a human to be cloned. May these people also be guilty of ‘status quo’ bias , fearing what this will do to ‘human dignity’ and ‘genetic integrity’? I believe that if anything is to be learned from the past of eugenics, it should be that freedom is precious and should not be taken away based on irrational, emotional preference towards any particular people.

Part of a Four Part Blog Series: