Archive for July, 2008

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Nature News on the near future of reproduction

Monday, 28 July, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Nature News published an article titled ‘Making babies: the next 30 years‘. It interviews a number of specialists in human reproductive technologies and outlines the predictions that they think are likely to arise in the next few decades. I’ve been waiting until I have some spare time to go through it, and now I have. This gives me the opportunity to also comment on other blogs who picked up this story.

The article

First up is Dave Solter, developmental biologist, who predicts that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with be cultured into human gametes (sperm and ova). This would mean that anybody who has skin will be able to be a genetic parent, whether they are just an embryo, a corpse or any stage in between. Given that the harvesting of eggs is a major issue in research and reproductive technology, this would be a major boon to the field. No need for women nor men – just grow the eggs and sperm yourself. It would also mean (Dave doesn’t mention this, but I think it is important) you could test that stability of genetic modifications over many generations in vitro within just a few years by ‘breeding’ human embryos. Dave also mentions that an artificial placenta, allowing for the culture of embryos past the blastocyst stage, may be likely.

Next is Alan Trounson, Australian IVF pioneer and now the director of California Institute for Reproductive Medicine. He seconds Dave Solter’s predictions (adding the possibility using embryonic stem cells derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer instead of iPSCs), but raises some cautionary issues. His other predictions include better gene therapy using genetic cassettes and low-cost IVF for the developing nation. Nothing special here.

Following him is Susannah Baruch, director of reproductive genetics at the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. Her predictions mostly concern preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which she sees as not being a tool to make designer babies but just for gaining full genetic information about a child’s future. She also states that “The old-fashioned way [of reproducing] is cheaper and more fun and that won’t change in 30 years.” I agree, but the end result (the child) will be less reliable.

I’m not going to talk about what Alastair Sutcliffe, a paediatrician, said because it is just about long-term health of children conceived by this technology. Not really any predictions.

Scott Gelfand, director of the Ethics Center at Oklahoma State University, makes the sensible (in my view) prediction that medical technology will allow for the viability of foetuses born even up to 12 weeks of age, or even complete ectogenesis (artificial wombs, no human woman needed). Scott is on the ball, because he sees that this could dramatically affect the abortion debate. A conservative government could require all unwanted pregnancies be transfered into an artificial womb. This would essentially become the dividing line between pro-choice (woman’s control over her body) reasoning and “pro-abortion” (lack of rights for the foetus) reasoning. As I fall into the latter category, I should hope that these artificial wombs are not a tool for outlawing abortion.

Miodrag Stojkovic, stem-cell biologist, predicts that clones will become much easier to make if Dave’s predictions come true. With the requirements for cloning being up to hundreds of eggs, an excess derived from stem cells could allowing reproductive cloning to go ahead. Of course, she points out that reproductive cloning will not be very popular, as (almost) all incentives to clone could be satisfied by artificial gametes. And we won’t make clones for organs either, because we can probably just skip the clone and go straight to the organ (i.e. grow the whole organ from stem cells).

A cure for infertility is the core prediction of Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, who also seconds Dave’s predictions about making sperm and ova. This is good, because it puts choice as the core component of reproduction. No more God or Mother Nature choosing whether some people can have children or not.

Finally, Régine Sitruk-Ware, reproductive endocrinologist, looks at the flip side of the previous prediction – contraceptives. She points out that more reproductive research is on people’s choice to have a child and not people’s choice not to have children. She hopes for more effective contraceptives and non-hormonal versions (such as one that prevents sperm from entering the ovum), allowing yet more choice into the realm of reproduction.

The comments

“If a few power crazy experts decide to monopolize the special skills and determine to create thousands of children on their own terms and conditions, the world could be in trouble. I would not want to imagine the consequences. Would you?” -Tan Boon Tee

Given the cost (in time and money) of this idea, it would be easier for said crazy experts to just recruit young people to do whatever they wanted. Which is already what happens.

” It is scary. And i do not want to have a mother who is a hundred years old. Or a father. This is not the earth i want to live in.” – Michael Hoffmann

Get over it. These centenarians only be genetic parents, not gestational or social parents. And if they are healthy enough to be social parents, that will be thanks to life-extension research that will keep these centenarians as healthy as sexagenarians. And already grandparents raise children, but maybe Michael doesn’t like that either.

“I think this has gone too far. We are so keen on improving science investigation that we have lost sense of reality: we can improve nature but not oppose it. Nature is wise and it knows 60-year-old person shouldn’t have baby children, it knows that a mother is important for a baby during pregnacy and it knows is better for evolution genetic variability. I think most of these experiments make people less free because, why do not young partners have children? becase if a woman gets pregnant she’ll probably loose her job. Why do they want to experiment with embrios stem cells? becase they want some profit for all the frozen embrios of IVF. I would recommend to read “Brave New World” from Aldous Huxley so that you would understand my opinion.” – Marina Garci­a

Total bovine excrement here. Nature is not wise (how can it be? it has no brain). Women don’t lose their job for being pregnant (I think that’s illegal). And Brave New World, well that’s a new one? Go read Huxley’s Island – it has reproductive technology done right.

“However there must be some limit for this which I couldn’t found in some of the articles. Who will decide if someone can or can’t be born without mother? Who will claim such wrigth [sic]? Next, think about desingning a persons genome, as Susannah pointed in her article. While pointing there are no data to support the idea, the “genome designer” idea itself is capable to be understood by someone reading the article. Again, this is scary. Some ideas on the articles are beyond the scary, bordering de-humanization. To mention are human clonning and tissue donation. As if the human parts market in some places in this world didn’t required our attentions. Finally, what are we looking for when presenting this idea? Perfection? I can use Susannahs’ comments again: there are no perfection on us. And exactly this is what makes the human existence perfect giving us a path to follow. Why do we not search perfection in eliminating hungher on Earth, or counteracting the global warming?” – Nelson Jacomel Junior

There is nothing scary about designer genomes, and cloning is no more dehumanizing than IVF. The end result will be a human person, no different – no less human (not that this is important) – than any of us. Nelson’s only good point was his first part about whether governments will interfere with reproductive rights by mandating who can be born. They should never be allowed to. Undoubtedly some parent will need to request a child, and that parent could be male or female (we already allow single females to have children by sperm donation in most sensible parts of the world, so why not single males?).

“When we learn to correct and reprogram our DNA then we will have conquered ageing and disease and the problem of infertility would also disappear and all these proposed technologies would become obsolete.” – Richard Dawson

A sensible view, as anti-ageing research may indeed make some reproductive technologies less popular. But in the next few decades, it is still likely that these technologies will be developed and will be utilised.

“While I admit it is in the best interest of the patients involved to have a kid, plainly speaking aren’t we acting against “survival of the fittest”? Further, if nature (mother nature) wanted us to reproduce at the age of 100, it would have made it so. That nature imposed a reproductive age limit of ~45 for women should ring a bell.” – K Sivaraman

Holy FSM, another person who thinks that an inanimate process of evolution is more intelligent than the scientific community. Nature has a poor record of doing good (are there not natural disasters as well as man-made ones?), so I don’t see why we should be respecting what is natural. I think this is just a disguise for fear of change.

The blogosphere

A sensible view given here, at Genetic Future. Here are two key points:

“The point is not that we will never understand the genetic basis of complex traits – we will, at least to a pretty good approximation, given advanced tools and sufficiently large cohorts. The point is that even once we understand the genetics of complex traits perfectly, that won’t be enough to generate a “perfect baby” through embryo screening alone.”

“So it’s safe to say that there will be no perfect baby. Instead, the prospective parents will face a tough choice between embryo A, who will likely be tall, slim, smart and cancer-free but have a higher-than-average chance of bipolar, early-onset dementia, and infertility; embryo B, who will be a little shorter, dark-haired, probably fairly gregarious, resistant to coronary artery disease, susceptible to bowel cancer, hypertension and early deafness; embryo C, who will be of average intelligence, unlikely to suffer premature baldness, prone to mild obesity and diabetes, but not at a high risk of any of the other major common diseases; and embryos D-N, who present a similar panel of competing probabilities”

On the other hand, many blogs have perpetrated the distorted view started by the ignoramuses at FOXNews, that this will lead to pregnancy at 100:

Solter, writing in the journal Nature, claims that advancements over the next 30 years should make it possible for women at any age to give birth.”

No he didn’t! He claimed that “newborn children could have children and 100-year olds could have children” but he never said they would become pregnant and give birth. He was obviously implying that they would use a surrogate womb or an artificial womb. Having a child is not the same as bearing and birthing a child, but I guess I expect much for the traditionalist readers of FOXNews to realise that.

Conclusion

I’m a little dismayed that nobody predicted that gene therapy will become advanced and reliable enough to be used on embryos, ushering in the era of the designer baby. That would be my prediction.

Anyway, the issues brought up are good to consider, especially the idea of artificial wombs and artificial gametes. More choice, more reproductive freedom – can’t go wrong.

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Even if an embryo is a full person, can embryo destruction still be ok?

Saturday, 26 July, 2008

The title of this work asks a difficult question for anyone to answer in a way that reflects their full view. It is easy to respond flippantly, saying “No, killing is always wrong, no matter the good that could come of it” or “The ends justify the means”. But from experience, I know these answers do not always reflect the view taken outside of the ‘status of the embryo’ debate. So, if we do accept that an embryo deserves all human rights, does that mean that no treatment or cures to come of it are justifiable? I wish to take you through an embryonic stem cell research scenario, and then a few other scenarios which I will argue are ethically similar to judge responses. Finally, I will look at one scenario – that of normal human procreation – to see if it is similar.

In a future embryonic stem cell therapy, a human embryo – around four or five days after it was just a single cell – is harvested for stem cells. The inner cell mass (also known as an embryoblast) is a group of a few dozen cells that could give rise to any human body cell, except perhaps the placenta. Therefore, these cells could be taken out of the embryo and, instead of growing into a human child, could be multiplied endlessly in the lab, and then eventually turned into many human kidneys, human hearts and even human brain cells. But to get these replacement organs, which could be used to save lives of people who may never otherwise receive an organ, and replacement cells, which could prevent the need for organ replacement altogether by repairing the organ while it remains in the body, a human embryo must be sacrificed. So, that entails destroying a life in order to save many other lives.

Thought experiments A – Transplants and Terrorists

To examine the ethical problems that this may create, let us consider a thought experiment. This is Thomson’s transplant case:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

Now, I’m fairly sure that most people would say it is not acceptable for the doctor to kill the man. And it is because the pro-life camp see each human embryo as a little person, not morally different to the traveler in the above example, that they object to embryo-destructive yet life-saving research.

Let’s look at another, this time real, incident. This one is used by John Harris, in his recent work Enhancing Evolution, in the chapter titled ‘The Irredeemable Paradox of the Embryo’ (p117-8)

On September 11, 2001, passengers on flight “United 93” are reliably believed to have overcome hijackers and forced a hijacked plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania, so forestalling the attempt to target a highly populated and high profile building, but killing everyone on board. Such an act, while defending the victims in the “target of choice” did involve killing the innocent passengers and crew.

Harris then goes on to consider the moral implications of this, and concluded that there is an inconsistency present for those who are pro-life in the embryo debate but also approve of the actions undertaken on United 93. While it is true that the innocent would have died anyway, so too does everyone at one stage; murder is no less wrong because of the inevitability of death. The unwilling transplant donor will also have died anyway, though it may have taken several decades. So why is it that we can’t kill a person in order to save lives, but the actions of a few passengers on United 93 are rewarded for killing to save lives?

Thought experiments B – Trolleys and more Trolleys

I suspect that to find the answer, one must look at a few thought experiments known to ethicists as ‘trolley problems’. The classic trolley problem is the ‘Bystander problem’, which goes like this:

A trolley (i.e. tram/train) is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a side track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single bystander on that side track. Should you flip the switch?

Generally, most people say that they would flip the switch – saving the five but killing the bystander (although some would say that this would make you responsible for the bystander’s death, but I say if you ‘d done nothing you would be responsible for five deaths). But a very interesting twist to this problem is the ‘Fat man’ scenario:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

People who say they would flip the switch often say they would not push the man. It appears that there is some sort of distinction between, as Harris puts it, “throwing trolleys at people and throwing people at trolleys”. The distinction lies in the fact that the Bystander is killed because saving five lives results in his death, and the Fat man is killed in order to save five lives. The embryo researchers are seemingly doing the former – destroying a human embryo in order to save lives – whereas the passengers of United 93 did the latter – saving lives but resulting in the death of innocents.

Don’t worry if you have a hard time working out the difference between these two points. I do too, and so does John Harris (Harris J, 2000). It appears we have evolved to think inactions that cause harm are more acceptable than actions that cause an identical harm. That is, killing is impermissible but letting die is not. But it’s just obvious, if we think about the problem with more than our gut, that choosing to do nothing (i.e. let somebody die) is still an action that results in the death of somebody – you have still killed them.

Therefore, unless there really is a significant difference between doing something because it has good consequences and doing something in order to bring about those good consequences, we are left with absolutely no distinction between embryo research and the United 93 passengers – no distinction between the two train scenarios. It is always permissible to act in a way that brings about the best results for everyone – because you are responsible for your actions, regardless of what you do.

Conclusion

Which brings us back to the original thought experiment, Thomson’s transplant. This would seem to be a case where the doctor kills in order to save lives, but as we have seen this is no different to the doctor killing a person because his death would allow many to survive. But this may still seem a bit extreme for other reasons, such as consent, extrinsic value, pain and so on.

But embryo research is very different from Thomson’s Transplant thought experiment. The donor is not unwilling, nor willing, because embryos do not have a will of their own – adult stem cells can’t consent to their use either, but their therapeutic use is accepted by most. The donor’s mother and father have presumably consented to the use of the embryo in research/therapy (as is current protocol for embryonic research). And embryos cannot feel pain, so this is not an issue.

So I am led to the conclusion that even if human embryos are little people, with a life as valuable as everyone else, embryonic stem cell research and therapy are still the right thing to do. The use of embryos in therapy and research is the action that has the most desirable consequences overall. Unless we believe that killing an embryo is far worse than letting dozens of patients die, then the good ends are sufficiently good to justify the means required to bring about those results. Pro-life groups will need to do more than show embryos are ‘one of us’ if they want to stop embryo destructive life-saving actions.

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Carbon-fibre legs not an enhancement

Sunday, 20 July, 2008

Oscar Pistorius, the runner nicknamed the ‘Blade Runner’ for his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, couldn’t run fast enough to beat his anatomically natural competitors and qualify for the Olympics. He only ran 400m in 46.25 seconds, and needed to run it in under 45.55 seconds to qualify.

But that’s of course the only reason they let him compete; it was shown that his legs were not an enhancement*, because he used just as much oxygen (and therefore energy) to run as any other Olympic-level runners. If those prosthetics were good enough to cause him to win, he wouldn’t have been allowed to compete.

Pistorius is now looking forward, aiming to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Even though the prosthetics technology may have gotten better by then, it’s probably unlikely they will let him use the newer models. If he did, he’d be better than the natural sprinters – he’d be enhanced. And we just can’t have that (except for the Australian swimmers, with their special swimsuits).

*’Enhancement’ here is defined in this case as having an advantage over other runners without prosthetics. These legs may be an enhancement under other definitions.

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Why evolution gets it wrong

Saturday, 19 July, 2008

In Richard Dawkins’s book Climbing Mount Improbable, he uses the analogy of climbing a mountain in mountain range for evolution a particular complex organ. At the tops of the peaks are the best solutions to a given problem, and as one goes down the slope there are many less optimal designs until one reaches the flat at the bottom where no solution exists at all. This is the concept of the adaptive landscape.

If I had written the book, I would have asked readers to imagine a group of climbers, who are blindfolded so they can only take random steps. The climbers wisely only take slight steps, because a big step would very likely take the climber off the mountain, but this also makes even small cliffs very hard to scale. Climbers would be rewarded for taking a step up the slope, but punished for stepping down the slope.

In evolutionary terms, mutations cause each individual to differ randomly from its parents. Mutations usually are very slight, because large mutations are usually very bad. But this means that it is almost impossible to evolve some feature, like an eye, with just a small number of large mutations. And if the mutation was beneficial then by natural selection it will be preserved (the organism will be more successful), and if the mutation was detrimental it will be selected against.

Returning to the analogy of the mountain again, it is clear descending the mountain is actually very unlikely. Dawkins says this:

[T]here can be no going downhill – species can’t get worse as a prelude to getting better.

Strictly speaking they can get worse, but they will be under a selective pressure to not do so, and therefore going downhill will not last for long. It would be as if for every step downhill a stone was added to the climber’s pack (with heavier stones added for large drops, and light stones for very slight descents). They may be able to step down a few times, but with each step they would be slowed down until they had to stop and start heading back up the slope. In evolutionary terms, organisms may be slightly worse than their peers for a generation or two, provided they can still survive and reproduce long enough for another mutation to put their offspring at an advantage.

Anyway, what this means is that organisms can get stuck at a lesser peak. Look at this image of the Himalayas:

With climbers moving randomly and (almost) exclusively uphill, mostly taking small steps, how likely is it that these climbers will reach the summit of Mt. Everest? Answer: Not likely at all. They will reach a peak of some other hill, but not the greatest peak.

As Richard Dawkins says of eye evolution:

A case could be made that, absolutely all other things being equal, it might have been better if our retinas were the right way around. it is perhaps a good example of the fact that Mount Improbable has more than one peak, with deep valleys in between. Once a good eye has started to evolve with its retina back-to-front, the only way to ascend is to improve the present design of eye. Changing to a radically different design involves going downhill, not just a little way but down a deep chasm, and that is not allowed by natural selection.

Therefore, if one finds oneself at the top of a lesser peak, all one can do is wait for one of those rare big random leaps to take you to a higher point (it is this period of waiting, followed by a sudden leap, that is called ‘punctuated equilibrium’ – a distorted version of which was the premise for the fictional X-Men characters).

We humans are smart enough to be able to reflect on the evolved designs of our bodies and compare them to that of other organisms. It is as if the climbers finally have the blindfolds removed, and can now see where the other climbers are and roughly where the other peaks are on the mountain. And in many cases we see that we, and many other climbers, ended up at a sub-optimal peak. We may not know the exact altitudes of each peak (i.e. we don’t know for sure how much seeing in ultraviolet or having gills will be advantageous), but we can still investigate these other peaks. And we should. We are smarter than evolution; evolution (call it nature, Mother Nature or whatever) does not know best.

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Men are NOT going to go extinct

Tuesday, 15 July, 2008

Men are soon going to be useless, so there will be no more men. At least, that is the view of Dr Robert Sparrow. I’m sure he is just being tongue-in-cheek, because men are not going to go extinct. Well, not before women anyway.

Dr Sparrow, lecturer in bioethics at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), argues that females have a more ‘open future’ than men. The open future argument is a fairly common one in bioethics since Joel Feinberg first argued that we should place as few limitations on the possible options available to our children (in the context of whether Amish families should be able to withdraw their children from schooling). Dr Sparrow explains that:

I do think that when philosophers start talking about using medical technology to achieve things that aren’t about health, so increasing people’s IQ or life expectancy for example, you have to ask why we shouldn’t all be girls.

Since an all-female world could reproduce using either frozen sperm, human sperm grown in mice, or even cloning, if the goal is long-lived, smart kids, then females are the way to go. But there are two main problems with this argument.

First, while men do have a lower life expectancy than girls, they are not significantly less intelligent. In fact, as the variation in intelligence is greater in males, most genius embryos will be males. In addition, the male brain excels at certain types of intellectual tasks, such as mathematics and spatial logic. It is not entirely due to sexism that most engineers, physicists and mathematicians are men.

Second, intelligence is not the only characteristic to be considered in the ‘open future’ argument. Men have greater lung capacity, more red blood cells, increased muscle growth and are better at detecting movement in their visual field. Therefore choosing to have a female child could limit the child’s future in the military, law enforcement, manual labour or other physical tasks; by choosing a male child, you could open up the possibility to run the 100m sprint in less than ten seconds. So really it depends what sort of futures you want to open and what ones you want to limit, rather than just trying to measure limitations numerically.

These are major problems with the “right to an open future” argument. Often opening up one part of a child’s future involves closing another. For example, giving a child tennis lessons in her youth uses up time that could be spent learning equestrian sports or reading novels. Creating the ‘best possible child’ may be a worthy goal, but the definition is hardly clear. For some, a little boy would be better than a little girl, and for others a little girl would be better than a little boy. As long as those differences in opinion exist, even with full control over reproduction there will still be both men and women, both boys and girls.

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Bible verses on human enhancement

Sunday, 13 July, 2008

This is a list of all the bible verses that I’ve seen used, or thought could be used, against transhumanism. They are sorted in by book, chapter and verse. The quoted text is from the King James Version (KJV), but the link for each verse goes to the New Living Translation (NLT), so if you don’t understand the Biblical English of the KJV, try the more modern translation given under the link.

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

If humans are the creation of God, then one could argue that to start changing that creation is trespassing on divine territory. Likewise, if man is made in God’s image, then to change man is to go away from the image in which God made us, or perhaps even blasphemous. But this line of reasoning assumes that those parts which may be enhanced are in the image of God. Is our intelligence resemblant of God’s intellect? Are our muscles made to be similar to God’s? If not, then how can changing them be wrong? Nonetheless, the concept of imago Dei is a central one in Christian bioethics.

Genesis 1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

In a similar vein to the above argument, one could argue that because the creation of God is very good, then changing it can only make things worse. On closer inspection, clearly this does not follow from the above verse. There is little evidence to assume that humans would be changing a part of nature that was considered ‘very good’ (since the Fall of Man, not everything is considered ‘very good’ by God), nor that changing it would necessarily spoil its goodness (would not an ‘enhancement’ possibly make it better).

Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

This verse (and the New Testament repetitions of it) is loved by many religious groups against cloning (and even IVF, depending on the interpretation), because it is a Biblical ordainment that reproduction should occur between a woman and a man, when they become one flesh. Of course, this depends entirely on the interpretation. 1 Corinthians 6:16 uses ‘one flesh’ to simply mean having sex. So, at best I can see a moral prescription for having sex with one’s wife, but I don’t see anything there about reproduction having to occur at the same time. ‘Test-tube’ babies, designer babies and even clones would still have a mother and a father (in the case of the clones, the genetic mother and father, strictly speaking, will be the parents of the person who was cloned. But genetic parenthood is not important – social parenthood, the caring and loving of the child, is).

Genesis 9:6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Here the rationale for capital punishment is that murder is destroying that which God created in his own image, so perhaps one could apply that logic to human enhancement which opts to replace parts of God’s image in humans. Taken to an extreme, this could lead to capital punishment for those changing their genomes or replacing parts of their bodies – not good news for patients of gene therapy or recipients of prosthetic limbs. Also, while it is clear that destroying an entire human being would destroy that which was created in God’s image, it is not clear whether changing just a few parts of human body or nature would also be changing that which was created in God’s image.

Psalm 139:13-16 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

This psalm offers a double-whammy against human enhancement. First, it says that we are wonderfully made, which casts doubt over our ability to do better (however, it doesn’t say we shouldn’t try). Second, the mention of development inside the womb (apparently the human uterus is the lowest part of the earth) is one that pro-lifers may use to argue against the many embryo-destructive experiments that would be required to develop biotechnological human enhancement.

Isaiah 45:9-12 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?

Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me. I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.

Here is yet another argument against changing what God has created. These verses indicates that we shouldn’t second-guess God, because he made the earth and the heavens, so must be competent in making humans. But when a human is born with a genetic abnormality, we do everything we can to cure it.  This argument seems to go too far, stating we should have a ‘hands-off’ approach to our bodies and let God do it all, which is more than we usually will do.

Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee.

This is not so much against human enhancement per se, but is often used to illustrate the wrongness of research on human embryos. This verse speaks of how God knew us before we were even born, or even conceived. This would suggest that someone begins (in God’s eyes) before conception, which could lead to the argument that abstaining from sex is killing a person. But seeing as that wouldn’t lead to a person (a ‘thee’ for God to talk to), this verse does nothing to indicate that the embryo is when “human life” begins. So therefore doesn’t prove that embryo-destructive means to enhancement are wrong.

Ecclesiastes 7:13 Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?

One could argue that this verse indicates we should not be tampering with what God ‘hath made crooked’. However, it appears to me to be arguing that we cannot, not that we should not, change what God has done. Also, this verse appears to claim medicine is impossible or sacrilegious, unless of course one believes that God did not make diseases (and that they were things we ‘hath made crooked’). This verse also makes the title sequence of Gattaca.

Mark 10:9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

In much the same way as the above verse from Ecclesiastes, this verse argues that man has no place messing with what God has done. However, this could easily be claimed to be out of context, because when Jesus says the above verse, he does so about divorce, not any part of the human body, or else it would make all surgical incisions akin to immoral acts.

Luke 5:31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.

This verse appears to argue for a therapy-enhancement distinction. However, again this may be out of context, as Jesus says the above as an analogy for his behaviour around sinners, not as a recommendation or teaching.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

This suggests that any defilement of the body will result in God destroying that person, which may seem like bad news for human enhancement, but note that the precise defilements are not listed here.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

This verse, like the one before it, appears to kill any argument for bodily autonomy. Although, given that Christians often shave, cut their hair and otherwise control their own body, it is hard to say that exactly what God’s role is in making decisions about what our body can be used for. The context of this verse is talking about fornication, so it might be out of context in a bioethics debate.

I Corinthians 15:39 All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.

Another verse on the mixing of animals and humans. This verse needs to be paired with another verse, such as Genesis 1:31 or Mark 10:9, in order to argue that what God has created is good and that we should leave it that way. The differences between man and the animals are not an argument against transgenic humans, but this requires evidence that these differences are sacred.

II Corinthians 12:9-10 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

The apostle Paul seems here to be suggesting not only that enhancement is bad, but so is anything that takes away illness and weakness. This is so far removed from how most Christians act that it is hardly worth a response. This argument will fall just like that which argued the pain of childbirth was good and not to be attenuated with anaesthesia.

Ephesians 5:29-30 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church. For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.

Paul gives the impression that nobody hates his own flesh, even though he writes of the ‘vile body’ to the Phillipians (see below). Nonetheless, this could be an argument against thinking that the current human state is not the optimum. However, I think that the most nourishing and cherishing thing we could do the our bodies is to enhance them so they don’t get sick or injured ever, and live for as long as possible. Also, this is actually an analogy for loving other people, so the ‘out of context’ retort could be given again for this.

Phillipians 3:20-21 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

If Jesus is going to enhance us, perhaps we are ‘playing God’ (or ‘playing Jesus’) by enhancing it ourselves. Then again, if Jesus is perfect, then no matter what we do there will still be something left for Jesus to enhance in us.

Philippians 4:11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.

This could be an argument against somatic enhancement, as it argues that we should be content to be who we are. Yet, it seems this may also apply to those born with disabilities, and given that we attempt to heal such people, it seems too over-reaching with such an interpretation.

Hebrews 9:27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment

This is primarily against radical life extension, but possibly with support from Genesis 6:3, this could be used against any form of life extension that pushes the lifespan above 120 years. However, a few people already live over 120 years and we don’t kill them, so perhaps this is an unlikely interpretation. Further, provided we are alive the possibility of death exists, and so if God wants people to die, he should have no problem arranging it.

James 3:9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

This is a New Testament verse re-affirming the argument made in Genesis 1, that men are made in the likeness of God. This means that even after the Fall of Man, we humans are still possessing the imago Dei. This fact does not, however, mean that any enhancement we have would remove this.

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This page is meant as a reference. Any other verses, or new takes on scripture already mentioned, will be added to this post. Feel free to comment if you have seen another piece of scripture used against human enhancement. I will make another list sometime of verses supportive of human enhancement technologies.

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We can’t rebuild him. We don’t have the technology.

Monday, 7 July, 2008

Actually, we have some technology, but it’s not very good at the moment. That is the conclusion of a recent technology review in New Scientist, which asks the important question: Do we have the technology to build a bionic human?

First on the list, replacing bones with metal alloys. Duncan Graham-Rowe, the author of this New Scientist tech review, hits upon a very important point:

But artificial bones are not perfect. One idea that may see them match natural bone’s strength and lightness is to build implants by zapping titanium powder with a laser. That can makes pores of different sizes in different areas of the finished product, controlling strength and stiffness in the same way as real bone

The part in bold is important, because an artificial bone has to be much the same as the original, despite fictional cyborgs usually getting some enhanced strength or resilience from their metallic skeleton. This is because a strong metal (titanium alloys have a yield strength of about 800MPa) in contact with weaker bone (cortical bone has a yield strength of around 100-200MPa) can cause a lot of stress on the bone at the contact point, causing wearing and severe pain. Only by replacing the entire skeleton could a strong alloy be used in a cyborg.

The review then moves onto tissue engineering – rebuilding humans with the same materials they were made with in the first place: flesh and blood. That is a promising and fast growing field, because it prevents a lot of foreign body immune reactions, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the bionic human question (pun not intended).

This is quickly remedied as the discussion turns to neural interfaces, specifically cochlear and retinal implants, as well as the a hippocampal prosthesis. All of which suffer from the same problems. First, they require a lot of understanding about how the neural circuitry works. Second, fine stimulations require very small electrodes, and interference starts to become an issue at those scales. After all, most neurons are only a dozen microns across. (but highly variable, like any biological tissue).

Artificial limbs are up next, which involve all of the above issues, as they must not only join to the skeleton to transmit their load effectively to the body, but also be controlled by the nervous system. Needless to say, while solutions look promising, there is still a long way to go, for much the same reasons as mentioned above. Advanced arm bionics usually are controlled by the nerves from the missing limb, albeit rerouted to control chest muscles which in turn activate movement sensors which drive the limb. And they usually require a shoulder strap to transfer their load onto the body, though in the near future they will likely be connected directly to bone. But hey, we can’t regrow limbs (yet), so this is a good stop-gap solution.

Finally, the review ends with a discussion of power requirements. Powering the prosthetic from the body is good in theory, but biological systems are far, far less power hungry than artificial systems (the human brain uses 20-25W of power, while a Playstation 3 or high-powered PC can use up to 200W, and IBM’s Roadrunner supercomputer that recently set a processing record trying to simulate the mammalian visual cortex uses over 2,000,000W). So it is likely that trying to run any advanced neural interface or bionic limb will use up far more than the human body could generate, and even small systems could drain the area around the implant of all available energy. It will be batteries or fuel cells for a while yet.

Actually, the review ends by talking about how bionic systems could be vulnerable to electrical interference, but the human body isn’t exactly invulnerable, so I don’t think this a fair comparison. It is merely trading one weakness for another – a problem for those with pacemakers, who end up with the weaknesses of both worlds – but not for somebody who was shot in their bionic leg and doesn’t bleed to death from the femoral artery.