Archive for June, 2008

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If you’re going to argue against life extension…

Friday, 27 June, 2008

…don’t forget to take into account other likely biotechnological changes to the human being. By the time these become a problem from life extension technologies, other fields of biotechnology will have advanced enough to provide a solution. Take, as examples, for common arguments, resting on human psychology, against extending the human lifespan:

Overpopulation will result

This argument is based upon the fact that we humans have, like most higher mammals, evolved a desire to reproduce (as opposed to an instinct). Nevertheless, given a state of advanced pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering in the future, it is very likely that we will have a far greater control over both our capacity to reproduce, through allowing females to control their own ovulation and males to control their own spermatogenesis, and our desire to reproduce, through suppressing our desires to become parents (or at least, to become parents of large families). If we can control age, surely we can control reproduction.

Political stagnation will result

This argument rests on the fact that younger minds are more capable of change than the older ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ opinions of the older generations. This is a result of the same process that makes it harder to teach an old dog new tricks – as one ages, neurons form more solid connections and prune off others, making it harder to change the arrangement of the brain. Research is, however, currently looking at ways to reverse such changes, because in those who have experienced spinal cord damage or stroke, it would be a great benefit to be able to rebuild parts of the brain. Therefore, it is possible that some drug or genetic tweak will enable people to either remain, throughout their life, as malleable in their opinions as they were when they were in twenties, or to occasionally revert the brain to a child-like state in terms of opinions, in order to pick up new beliefs and opinions. After all, if we can give people youthful bodies, why can’t we keep them young in mind too?

Love will not last

Love has evolved to facilitate pair-bonding between humans, but despite what Shakespeare may have said, love’s gentle spring doth not always fresh remain. As the decades turn into centuries, It may be increasingly difficult to maintain a romantic relationship with the same person. But, it is also hard to keep the human body going over centuries. It may be that a particular genetic modification, brain implant or drug could keep the feeling of new love going for years, and the feeling of a steady romance for centuries thereafter. After all, if we can keep our bodies safe from the ravages of time, why not that which we call love?

We would become bored or crazy

I think you will be able to see where I’m going with this. Yes, humans have evolved a desire for novelty, and this could be a problem if we had time to do everything (if such a thing is possible). But, some people display more novelty-seeking than others, so it is at least possible that novelty-seeking may be malleable to biotechnological interventions. Alternatively, taking guidance from Nietzsche, if we had control over our memories (a desirable thing for many in favour of life extension), then surely we could choose to forget certain things in order to experience their novelty again. As for turning insane, surely neuropsychiatric care and/or treatments will be advanced enough that we will not go crazy unless we wish to. After all, if we can maintain our bodies indefinitely, why not our sanity?

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Inconsistancy in the “life begins at conception” argument

Wednesday, 25 June, 2008

The view that human life begins at conception is a favoured view of most of the pro-life camp. By it, they do not mean that the sperm and ova were not alive and only became so at conception, but rather that ‘human life’ – in the special sense of a person who deserves protection under the law – begins at conception. Unfortunately for them, this view is logically inconsistent with that pesky thing called reality. There is absolutely no sense in which life, whatever is meant by the term, could be said to commence during the process of conception.

Conception is a process, not a distinct point in time

The process of conception, also known as fertilisation, involves many chemical reactions and processes. It is not an instantaneous occurrence. Look at the diagram I made:

So somewhere along that set of chemical reactions, which finally result in two cells with a unique human genetic combination (the zygote immediately after the fusion of sperm has two pronuclei – one from the sperm and one from the ovum), are we to say that a single human life has started? If so, at what point does that happen?

The fact of the matter is that conception is no less of an arbitrary ‘line in the sand’ than any other point that one picks, such as the development of the brain, birth or development of self-awareness. But there is nothing wrong per se with something being arbitrary (after all, the time when people are old enough to vote is arbitrary), so we should now look at whether there is a good reason for not using conception as the start of a human being’s life.

Twins, chimeras and clones

The idea that a “human life begins at conception” also has problems with the existence of identical twins and tetrazygotic chimeras and the possibility human clones. Again, I have diagrams to explain these.

Consider the case of monozygotic twins, as explained by the above diagram. Here we have one fertilisation event, but two individuals result. Do those twins have to share the ‘human life’ they had from conception? Surely not, for we treat twins as separate persons. So, when did both lives start, if not at conception? During the twinning process? Or sometime after? And if lives start during the process of twinning, perhaps it is morally wrong not to twin an embryo, as it prevents the cells from realising their potential as multiple human beings.

Also consider the above diagram of the formation of a tetragametic (four gametes, two sperm + two eggs) chimera. Such an individual results when fraternal twins, derived from separate conceptions, merge very early in development to form a single individual with some cells with one genome and some cells with another (if the two zygotes were different, such as one female and one male or one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, this can be noticeable on the person). So, do chimeric people get twice as much human life, seeing as they resulted from two conceptions? Or was a life destroyed when the two embryos merged, despite not a single cell being destroyed? If the intentional formation of chimera is morally wrong, why isn’t the failure to twin an embryo?

Consider finally the case of a human clone (see diagram above), which hasn’t yet occurred but is surely possible. In this case, there is no conception event to be found (unless you go back to the one that created the somatic cell), but yet an individual results. Do clones not have any human life? Surely not, for they would be persons like you or I. So if life begins at conception, how can there be life without conception? Does life begin at conception OR nuclear transfer?

As can be seen, the idea of human life beginning at conception has some serious issues with the processes that can, and sometimes do, occur in human reproduction.

Potentiality

It is often claimed that conception should be the marker for a human life because it marks the formation of something that can grow into a thinking, feeling, reasoning human being. Apart from the fact that conception is not a distinct point, but a process, this potentiality argument has two key problems.

First, if a zygote should be protected because it can from a human being, why not also protect the sperm and eggs, for they can form a zygote which in turn can form a human being. And seeing as males can form billions of sperm but females only form thousands of ova, it follows that males are a million times more worthy of protection than females. But seeing as this conclusion is ludicrous, there must be something wrong with the potentiality argument.

The second, a major flaw, is that being potentially something isn’t the same as being something already. To see this, consider extrapolating the potential argument in the other direction: all human beings will die. And, seeing as a zygote will form a human being who will later form a corpse, it follows that we should treat both people and zygotes as if they were corpses. If we can give the right to life for an unborn baby, maybe we should give the right to a decent burial for a pre-dead corpse (i.e. a live baby). Not to mention that skin cells can replace sperm in forming a human being (see the cloning diagram above), so it follows that each skin cell destroyed is akin to destroying a human being. Unless, of course, having the potential to do something or be something isn’t equal to actually doing or being it.

Member of the human species

Perhaps it could be argued that an embryo should be protected because it is human. We don’t morally protect our own skin cells, despite the fact they are living human skin cells. So, what does the embryo have that skin cells don’t? If the answer is potential to develop into a human being, then this is just the potentiality argument again (and by cloning, perhaps a skin cell does have the potential to develop into a human being).

However, if the answer is that an embryo is a human being (and we accept that as truth, even though it is arguably false) then we need to then ask whether being a human being is enough to give the moral weight – the intrinsic value – conveyed by the term ‘human life’. Perhaps being a human being is only special because it usually correlates with having some other property, such as consciousness or self-awareness, that is special. In that case, then we should be using that other property to value the embryo instead of whether or not the embryo is a human being.

Consider whether it would be acceptable to kill a member of a non-human species that was capable of thinking human-like thoughts, was conscious and felt their lives were valuable, such as the intelligent aliens (think E.T. or Jar Jar Binks) or robots of science-fiction. If such a species (biological or not) is also worthy of protection, due to the fact they have certain psychological characteristics, then isn’t it safe to say that is those characteristics that are truly being valued here?

In addition, applying rights based on what group you belong to, rather than what you are able to do, seems a lot like bigotry or prejudice. History shows us many applications of rights based on being of a certain economic class, race, gender or religious group. Why should doing the same for being part of a species be any different?

Unique genetic combination

It is often said that because the zygote is a new human being because it has a unique human genome. This is a relatively weak argument, because a unique genome is not required to form a human being (e.g. identical twins, or clones, or human parthenotes) and unique genomes often do not form human beings (e.g. mutated genomes of cancers or the modified genome of induced pluripotent stem cells). Unless we are willing to admit that melanomas are actually human beings because they have a different genome, and that a woman who is pregnant with her clone (or identical twin) is not actually pregnant with a human being, then this argument should be abandoned.

Failure of an embryo to implant

The fact that only a fraction of zygotes go on to form a human being also hits hard the “life begins at conception” dogma. Firstly, the results of most conceptions are not viable embryos, and these abnormal embryos are usually passed out during a menstrual cycle. If such embryos are human beings, should we hold a funeral? Should we feel bad for not even realising they existed in the first place? Also, assisted reproductive technologies are much like natural reproduction in that far more embryos are conceived than result in pregnancy, and therefore shouldn’t IVF and sex be just as much of a problem as abortion? Or is the death of dozens of lives justified if it creates a life in the process (if that is the case, shouldn’t doctors and nurses be making babies instead of saving lives)?

Further, the oral contraceptive pill is known to make the uterine environment more hostile to any embryos that would implant there. The hormone progesterone released during breastfeeding acts in the same was as the oral contraceptive pill (in fact, progesterone analogues are the key ingredient of the pill), which is why breast-feeding is a ‘natural contraceptive’. Therefore, shouldn’t both the contraceptive pill and sex while breast-feeding be complained about just as much as abortion and embryonic stem cell research?

Conclusion

It is evident that the idea that life begins at conception is at odds with reality. Many human beings can result from a single conception, many conceptions can result in just one human being and theoretically human beings could develop without any conception event occurring at all. The idea that conception is a key point in the process of development is unfounded, as the potential to develop into a human being is not only possessed by sperm and eggs, but is completely logically fallacious in the first place. In addition, it doesn’t even appear that being a human being qualifies as having the intrinsic value required to convey moral status, as it is possible that non-human beings should have same intrinsic value attributed to ‘human life’. Neither can genetics rescue this argument, for a unique genetic composition is possessed by some non-human beings, and some human beings don’t have a unique genetic composition. Finally, the way most people act normally, and the way nature is, is very wasteful of zygotes, making the conclusions of this argument very difficult in practice.

It is not a scientific fact that human life begins at conception. The truth is that human life, in the sense of a person like you or I, emerges slowly from the genetic information and molecules that made up the sperm and eggs in your parents body, from the processes of controlled growth of the resulting embryo and foetus, using nutrients that nourished you in the womb. Science informs us that it is a continuous process. Those looking for a nice distinct point in time that can be used as the starting point of each person’s existence will be sorely disappointed if they look at the science. Philosophically, I’d argue that no intrinsic value of human beings exists, except for the value applied by a being to itself. Although this may be criticised for being overly restrictive (not attributing any intrinsic value to neonates), this criticism only works if we have a another significant reason to think neonates should have such value – I do not believe such a reason exists (see also the latter part of this post).

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The E Word

Monday, 23 June, 2008

Is it right to call someone a eugenicist, or to say their ideas are just like eugenics (even if they truly are)? In the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Stephen Wilkinson of Keele University (that’s in Staffordshire, which is itself in the UK) contemplates that question in his piece titled “Eugenics talk” and the language of bioethics.

His conclusions are as follows:

[E]ugenics talk per se is not wrong. However, there is something wrong with using its emotive power as a means of circumventing people’s critical–rational faculties: a process that is analogous to the use of gruesome images of fetuses and animals to persuade people to oppose abortion and animal experimentation. Such methods can bypass or distort people’s reasoning processes and, when this happens, there can be a failure fully to respect their autonomy.

In other words, it’s bad to use very emotive language because that sort of argument relies on intuition, which is a bad way of determining morality, and therefore it may be manipulative to do so. If your argument relies heavily on the emotional and is very light on reason, that is a very manipulative way to argue. It’s demagoguery, plain and simple. People have the right to be given the facts with as little emotive baggage as possible, so that they can make up their own minds without being influenced unduly.

To be fair, he does say that the use of such sly methods may be justified if that person would never have used their critical-rational faculties to consider the issue, provided the issue really is important enough for such “shock tactics” to be an acceptable tactic.

But otherwise, stop with the rabble-rousing and leave Mengele out of it.

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I think I want to move to New Zealand

Saturday, 21 June, 2008

Bioethicists must be sensible across the Ditch, because a New Zealand bioethics commission has released a report titled “Who Gets Born?” in which their first and foremost recommendation is:

Decisions about whether to have pre-birth testing, and what to do in light of the results, should be made by the parent(s) within the existing framework of the Code of Rights.

It’s just so sensible! Maybe not sensible enough for my own government (Australia) or the motherland (Great Britain), but sensible enough for the Kiwis (New Zealand) and Yankees (USA).

Also sensible is recommendation 8, which states:

The present distinction between using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to create embryos that are tissue-matched to sick siblings suffering from inherited conditions and using it to help siblings suffering non-inherited conditions should be removed. The only requirement should be that the sick sibling is suffering from a serious condition for which no other treatment is reasonably available.

Although I think that requirement is still too much, that is actually far more sensible than I’m used to hearing.

Finally, just because the public contributors weren’t enough like myself, we have recommendation 10, which reads:

The current provisions allowing the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (without the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology’s oversight) for late-onset or low-penetrance conditions be retained.

As anyone who reads this blog often will know, I am in favour of the use of PGD for any condition, be it gender, intelligence or albinism (with the sole exception of a condition causing so much pain as to make life not worth living, in which such a choice would be cruel).

Despite this last failing, I find myself in the unusual position of actually envying New Zealand.

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Mitotic cell growth is not organismal cloning

Friday, 20 June, 2008

Well, very technically I guess it is, but it’s very misleading in common parlance. Somebody should tell the BBC, who on Wednesday this week published a story about how cloning has ‘cured’ cancer, with the quotes around cure (despite the fact the patient was cured) but not around cloning (despite the fact that cloning is misleading). The story begins with this statement:

Scientists claim they have cured advanced skin cancer for the first time using the patient’s own cells cloned outside the body.

Well, I don’t know about you but I looked through the story and I couldn’t find any reference to what I was looking for: therapeutic cloning. The closest, which is nowhere near, was this part:

From a sample of the man’s white blood cells, they were able to select CD4+ T cells which had been specifically primed to attack a chemical found on the surface of melanoma cells. These were then multiplied in the laboratory, and put back in their billions to see if they could mount an effective attack on the tumours.

It’s just cells grown by boring old mitosis. Technically, this is cloning because it is producing a set of progeny cells genetically identical to the original cell – i.e. cellular cloning. But when most people think of cloning, they think of organismal cloning: the creating of other animals with the same DNA (and those who don’t know much about biotech will think this is like creating a person who is completely identical, not just genetically identical).

Therapeutic cloning refers to creating an identical organism, an embryo, and harvesting cells from that embryo for therapeutic use.

So, I think it’s somewhat misleading to say a “cloning cure” without qualifying it, especially when we are awaiting the time when humans will be cured from therapeutic cloning (or at least, waiting for this news to be released). At least The Telegraph wasn’t guilty.

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AI is NOT part of transhumanism…

Friday, 13 June, 2008

..well, at least not proper transhumanism as alluded to by Huxley and refined thereafter (AI may be transhumanistic under that perverted transhumanism espoused by Max More).

Transhumanism is about extending human capacities. However, artificial intelligence research is about making beings with capacities approaching, and eventually surpassing, what we know consider human capacities. They are parallel routes to superintelligences and even to a technological singularity, but they are not the same thing. How can AI be ‘more than human’ if it is something different entirely? Is an apple ‘more than an orange’? One may taste better, and one may be juicer, but an apple is not an ‘enhanced orange’ nor is an orange an ‘trans-apple’.

An AI with human-like capacities would not be human, because it is not an organism with the designation Homo sapiens (it may, however, qualify as a person worthy of the same rights we give to adult humans). A robot with some capacities greater than those possessed by humans would not be a transhuman, because it never was human nor descended from humans, so is not an extension of anything human (except in the abstract sense, under which my scientific calculator is an extension of myself). An upload of a human mind would be transhuman (as would a human using a brain-computer interface), however, because he or she would still have been a human, but extended into an artificial substrate.

The same thing goes for posthumanism. A posthuman is a human extended to such a degree, with so many capacities vastly beyond human limits, that the ‘human’ designation isn’t doing it justice. And an AI superintelligence would not be a posthuman, because it would not be a radical extension of humanity (at best it is a post-computer, because it is such a radical extension of my desktop PC).

To be fair, the same arguments that are used for transhumanism also make good ones for extending the capacities of any other sentient being, whether they are humanoid robots or non-human animals like dolphins and whales. But that wouldn’t be transhumanism, it would be ‘transandroidism’ or ‘transcetaceanism’. Or perhaps more generally ‘transsentience’ or something.

Julian Huxley, when he first used the term, described transhumanism as “man remaining man, but trans­cending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” Transhumanism is exclusively about making better humans. Unless humans can merge with computers, artificial intelligence don’t enter into it.

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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 11 June, 2008

Today’s Words are from none other than the Catholic Church. Well, written by some members of the International Theological Commission and approved for publication by Cardinal Ratzinger (who is now Pope Benedict XVI).

“Enhancement genetic engineering aims at improving certain specific characteristics. The idea of man as “co-creator” with God could be used to try to justify the management of human evolution by means of such genetic engineering. But this would imply that man has full right of disposal over his own biological nature. Changing the genetic identity of man as a human person through the production of an infrahuman being is radically immoral. The use of genetic modification to yield a superhuman or being with essentially new spiritual faculties is unthinkable, given that the spiritual life principle of man – forming the matter into the body of the human person – is not a product of human hands and is not subject to genetic engineering. The uniqueness of each human person, in part constituted by his biogenetic characteristics and developed through nurture and growth, belongs intrinsically to him and cannot be instrumentalized in order to improve some of these characteristics. A man can only truly improve by realizing more fully the image of God in him by uniting himself to Christ and in imitation of him. Such modifications would in any case violate the freedom of future persons who had no part in decisions that determine his bodily structure and characteristics in a significant and possibly irreversible way.” – International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God (2004), paragraph 91

ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………

Oh, must have fallen asleep. I’m now so tired I can’t even be bothered responding to that mumbo-jumbo.