Archive for November, 2008

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Brave new reading material

Saturday, 29 November, 2008

I caved, and bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I figure seeing as so many people think that cloning and inheritable genetic modification will lead to a future as portrayed in that novel, then I should read it so that I can better tell them that it won’t.

And, I might even write up an essay on it, like Russell Blackford did in his 2003 piece titled ‘Who’s Afraid of the Brave New World?‘, so that those poor school-children forced to read the book and write about it will have something to say other than how the terrible dystopia Huxley describes may one day come true thanks to the evils of science and biotechnology.

UPDATE: I’ve finished the book now.

I must say, that I don’t get how people can use this book to argue against technology. None of the problems in the novel appear to me to be caused by technology. In fact, I think they can all be attributed to a single idea, one summarised by World Controller Mustapha Mond in chapter 17:

“It would upset the whole social order if men started doing things on their own.”

This is the problem with the dystopia in Brave New World – that social stability is valued more than freedom. It is for this aim that a class divide is turned into a concrete biological reality. It is for this aim that children are mind-controlled as they sleep. It is for this aim that people are coerced into taking soma to forget about hate or anger. If it was a society were men did want they wanted, rather than being conditioned to want what they have to do, then those same biotechnologies would never be a problem.

Because of this repressive regime, using Brave New World as a basis for arguing against the freedom to alter our children or to not, the freedom to choose whether to live forever or to not, or the freedom to live with or without unhappiness, seems to be me to be far too premature. Nobody in the society of Brave New World has those freedoms, and if anyone tried to exercise such freedoms, they’d be deported to an island, so as to not affect the stability of society, or forcibly re-conditioned to make the choices deemed necessary for stable society.

In addition, Huxley seems to have not thought much through in his society (or, has thought it through well enough to add a vicious circle into it). A solution proposed in the novel – for a society to be comprised solely of the finest people: Double Plus Alphas – is rejected on the basis that the menial labour would not be done by people who aspired so strongly for greatness. And yet, people are conditioned to consume more resources in order to keep the economy going, and it is also mentioned that a myriad of time-saving technology is suppressed to provide some menial labour for the lower castes. Huxley describes a world were slaves are needed to do slave labour, and slave labour is required to give the slaves something to do. A society where technology, such as molecular manufacturing or robots, reduces the required labour to that able to be happily performed by unconditioned and free men would not have a need for the repulsive caste system of Brave New World.

All in all, though the novel is indeed brilliant and thought-provoking, it doesn’t much inform me why people are so afraid of biotechnological interventions into human life. I don’t get it.

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Anti-ageing telomerase with cancer resistance too

Saturday, 15 November, 2008

Telomerase is the enzyme that elongates the ends of chromosomes, and because these telomeres become shorter every time a cell divides, this enzyme is essential to making a cell, and an organism made of cells, become immortal. Despite this, I neglected putting telomerase on my list of eight genetic modifications to live forever, because increased telomerase activity also increases the risk of cancer. For a cancer cell to proliferate into a tumour it will have to divide almost limitlessly, so cancer cells usually mutated to over-express telomerase. But if a cell is already expressing loads of telomerase, that is one less mutation that needs to occur before a cell becomes cancerous.

But, on that list I did include a study that showed mice with extra copies of the tumour supressor genes p53, p16 and Arf (so called Sp53/Sp16/SArf mice, where the S is short for ‘super’) are largely cancer-resistant (Matheu et al, 2007). This occurs because a cell must acquire mutations in all copies of these genes before it can become a tumour, and with extra copies, this requires more specific mutations.

Now, the same lab has reported, in yesterday’s edition of the journal Cell, that if they crossed transgenic mice that expressed telomerase reverse transcriptase gene Tert in many of their epithelial tissues, with those transgenic cancer-resistant mice, they end up with Tert-transgenic mice with cancer resistance (Tomas-Loba et al, 2008). The resulting mice are named Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice. The cancer-resistance should offset the increased risk of cancer due to telomerase, leaving the telomerase to keep the telomeres on the chromosomes from getting too short, preventing at least one of the causes of ageing.

So, while the Sp53/Sp16/SArf mice lived 16% longer than wild-type (i.e. normal) mice, these Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice lived 26% longer again. While they didn’t look at normal mice in this study, they did look at Sp53 mice (which don’t really age too differently to normal mice), and found that the Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice lived 40.2% longer than the Sp53 mice. And, if they looked at mice lucky enough not to get cancers in these two groups (which are presumed to have died from age-related decay along, not cancer), the Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice lived over 50% longer than the Sp53 mice. In addition to this, the older Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice were still able to balance on a tightrope just as well as they were when they were young.

And to top it off, even the young Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice had better glucose tolerance and gastro-intestinal tract barrier function, which suggests that telomerase can even improve regenerative capacity in young tissues. Yet these additional regulatory genes seem to slow down stem cell proliferation, but it is suggested that this may be beneficial in ensuring stem cells are still around later in life. So each stem cell is dividing less quickly, but there are more of them, even at young ages.

It is worth noting that these mice only expressed more telomerase in their epithelial cells, not their entire body. Although the telomerase seemed to have some effects on the entire body, the researchers hint strongly at their next step:

It will be of great interest to study the impact of ubiquitous TgTert expression on mouse fitness and longevity.

Given that the researchers also note that the increased lifespan of their Sp53/Sp16/SArf/TgTert mice is of similar magnitude to mice with a calorie-restricted (CR) diet, and that it may well be through a different anti-ageing pathway, these two may be combinable. If you want to win the Methuselah Mouse Prize, I suggest genetically modifying some mice with Sp53/Sp16/SArf genes as well as TgTert, and either switch them to a CR diet (or with engineered genes that mimic such a diet). And if you want to live forever, I suggest you get what these mice are having.

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Cyborgs vs fyborgs, modifications vs medications

Wednesday, 12 November, 2008

Throughout the twenty-first century, we fyborgs will find ourselves deeply integrated into systems of machines, but we will remain biological. And as long as this is true, the primary changes to our own form and character will arise not from implants but from direct manipulation of our genetics, our metabolism, and our biochemistry.

The above paragraph comes from Gregory Stock’s 2003 book Redesigning Humans, in the chapter (chapter 2) entitled ‘Our commitment to our flesh’, and argues that enhancement of our bodies will occur by biological means like genetic modification, because any cybernetic technology will be abandoned in favour of the fyborg alternative.

Coined by the late transhumanist Alexander Chislenko, the term “fyborg” is a portmanteau of ‘functional’ and ‘cyborg’. It refers to the utilisation of technological tools external to the body, which is supposedly a more popular notion than having surgery to implant the technology. So, while a cyborg would use a mathematical processing chip implanted into his brain, a fyborg would use a calculator or notebook computer to perform any difficult calculations. A cyborg may have an artificial eye overlaying an interface onto the world, but a fyborg may achieve the same thing by wearing high-tech glasses.

Gregory Stock would do well to realise that a similar divide as exists between cyborgs and fyborgs can be seen in the field of genetic technology, with the competition between modifications and medications. Currently, a lot of biotechnological interventions are reduced to a form where they can be taken as a regular injection or an oral pill, supposedly because people don’t want to mess around with permanent changes to their body or genome. So, while one could get genetically modified to have super-fast reflexes, another may take a drug with similar effects. A lot of the same benefits of fyborgisation, and the disadvantages of surgery, will be likely present in biological interventions as well.

Gregory Stock outlines a perceived problem with cyborg technology quite well in the following excerpt:

Enticing as a direct brain linkage sounds in the abstract, virtually every scheme for one has this flaw. Healthy individuals are not going to allow some cyber-surgeon to hack into their brains to bring them enrichments that are largely obtainable in other ways.

This first appeals to a visceral reaction to surgery, which compares quite unfavourably to simply buying a high-tech gadget. Yet I could see the same reaction occurring when a parent is presented the choice between allowing his healthy young daughter to have her chromosomes hacked by some genetic engineer just to bring a benefit that could be given by a pill every morning and night. All the same, this distinction is not purely based on emotions, for there are good sound reasons underlying this gut reaction.

sildenafil-citrate-50mgOne of the strongest real benefits of fyborg technology over cyborg technology is that it is non-invasive, which primarily makes it far less risky than the alternative. Stock writes, rightly, that we “are not cavalier even about proven technologies”, and therefore a drastic procedure like surgery will risk too many problems. The same could be said, however, of genetic technologies in comparison to pharmacological enhancements. That a drug has only brief effects has the benefit of making any side-effects similarly short-lived. Therefore, by Stock’s own logic, the genetic interventions will be cast aside in favour of pharmacological equivalents.

Stock also explains that a fyborg device can be more easily repaired and updated than the cyborg alternative, allowing for the enhancements to keep up with the changing pace of technology. Yet this too applies to biological interventions, because it is indeed far easier to switch to the newer and more advanced medication than it is to have one’s genes edited to a more effective or safer version. And likewise for any regrets one has about an enhancement, which would be far easier to rectify if such enhancement were non-invasive fyborg ones or temporary pharmacological ones.

Is that to say that in the future we will just carry around move advanced gizmos and consume better versions of coffee and Viagra? Not at all, and Stock does explain perhaps the main reason why anyone would choose a permanent body modification – when it either is the best way to produce that enhancement (or the only way).

Implantable technology would benefit strongly from the close interaction with the body. As Stock points out, you can’t have a wearable pacemaker, because it needs to be implanted. Likewise, an interface directly with the brain or body would be far faster and more effective. A calculator takes time to use, but if the brain could instantly connect with a mathematical processor, this would be far faster. To put on an exoskeleton to lift a heavy object takes time, but super-strong prosthetic limbs would always be on call as part of your body. Not surprisingly, this applies to genetic modification as well. Not all biological modifications are amenable to being taken in a pill or potion, due to the need for the contents of a pill to avoid being broken down by the digestive tract and travel through the stomach wall to the correct site in the body without being diluted too much. Further, though most temporary modifications would be injectable, so too would a well-made permanent gene mod (and a once-off injection is better than regular injections, I’d say).

In addition, the fact that fyborgs and pharmaceuticals are not permanent additions to your body is not only its greatest benefit, but also a source of great weakness: any non-implanted technology can be more easily lost or fall into the wrong hands. In a world where enhancements may be expensive, highly-coveted and possibly illegal (or abhorred by some), this is not a trivial issue. Surely many would sleep more soundly knowing their enhancements are hidden inside their body, not lying around to be stolen by thieves or confiscated by police. The same could be said of a bottle of pills, which share these same problems and in addition have only limited uses. (Although, the theft of something from inside another’s body, or the forced removal of genetic modifications, may be far more dangerous and gruesome).

That said, I do agree somewhat with Stock’s conclusion that genetic enhancement will be more influential than cybernetic technologies, in that I think it will upon us far sooner and, in the near future, be more effective. And, to my surprise, Stock nails the reason quite well too:

Our flesh is a dense three-dimensional matrix of biological cells, ill-suited for a permanent, working union with broad arrays of sensitive electronic probes.

The problem of interfacing with the moving target that is the self-organising network of neurons we call the brain is a mammoth one, and the simple brain-computer interfaces that exist suffer from incalculable technological and methodological barriers before they will reach the level of our brain, let alone supersede it. Genetic interventions, on the other hand, really have only a single large hurdle – targeting of genetic elements to the correct location on the genome (to avoid cancer-causing mutations).

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Why we should resurrect Neanderthals

Monday, 10 November, 2008

The recent announcement that scientists had cloned a mouse that had been dead and frozen for 16 years has been raised hope that extinct species may be cloned and brought back to life ála Jurassic Park. The first species on the agenda is currently the woolly mammoth, but being that I love ethically troubling science, I say the first species we should be aiming to bring back are our long-lost brothers and sisters, the Neanderthals. While these may not be found frozen any time soon, enough DNA is considered to be potentially available that the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in partnership with 454 Life Sciences, has been working on sequencing the full genome for Neanderthals. Once complete, it would clearly be possible (though maybe not technically feasible as yet) to construct a physical Neanderthal nucleus, and from that produce a living Neanderthal (who would need to grow up from baby to adult, of course).

Neanderthals are an extinct species of hominin, which were driven to extinction some time around 20-25,000 years ago. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, are generally accepted to be sister species, evolving from a speciation (splitting of one species into two) of the our common ancestor between 150,000-350,000 years ago. The speciation event can’t be pinned to any specific year, as interbreeding between the two species may have occurred for many millenia, and may have always been possible.

Neanderthals, also physically distinct enough to be classed as a separate species, would still very similar to modern humans. Francisco Ayala and Camilo Cela-Conde write of the difference between Neanderthals and humans:

“If we leave behind last century’s romantic view of Neanderthals as brutes, clumsy and deformed, and instead we dressed them up in any of our neighbor’s clothes, would we pick a Neanderthal out among a group of human beings? Maybe not. But would that make him one of us?” Ayala and Cela-Conde (2007), Human Evolution, Oxford University Press, p 314

Such ‘romantic’ view of another species are hardly surprising, given the common caricature of even other races within our species as brutish simpletons. While racism may be on its death bed, and we would think it horrid to insult somebody by calling them a ‘Nigger’, speciesism is still as rife as ever, and we would hardly think it especially offensive to denigrate another with the label ‘Neanderthal’.

And this is the reason why I think Neanderthals should be brought back. Currently, we have expanded the circle of protection from ourselves to others of our group and then to strangers outside our group (other races, other religions), and will continue to expand it (as Peter Singer, borrowing from W.H. Lecky, has argued). But I don’t think we will ever see unanimous equality between species until we actually can see another species similar enough to humans for this species barrier of ethics to be broken down.

It is a well known effect that discrimination decreases as diversity increases, but currently we have no diversity among our genus. We modern humans are the only species in our genus, so it is then hardly surprising that many humans are extremely intolerant and bigoted towards other species. What would their reaction be, then, when confronted with a young Neanderthal child? Will they consider the child to be less than human for not belonging to the superior species, just as a girl child was in the past considered a lesser human for belonging to the superior gender? Or will they realise that their species is not superior, and that other species are their moral equals.

Evidence suggests that Neanderthals had culture, religion, art and, vitally, language. A key factor in removing any bigotry is for the group being discriminated against to be able to speak out against such behaviour (noting that the ability to speak vocally is not required, as deaf and dumb humans would no doubt have me emphasize). Therefore, it seems likely that Neanderthals will be in the best position to argue against speciesism, being a member of another species.

There are three common argument for humans to have rights. First is that human are unique, exceptional among other life forms, and (sometimes) the sacred creation of a divine being. And, this argument goes, any human being is therefore deserving of rights just for being human. As I’ve argued previously, this argument is blatant bigotry, and therefore combating this viewpoint is one important reason for bringing Neanderthals back*.

Second, a being is said to deserve rights if it can understand the concept of responsibility. Of course, this doesn’t let humans infants have any rights, so these people usually just fall back on the above mentioned view, and say that it is enough to be a member of a species with the concept of responsibility (why species? why not genus, or family?). Anyway, it appears that this will be a moot point, as it would be likely that Neanderthals would have had some concept of moral responsibility if they had language and formed groups with religions and cultural traditions.

adult_male_neanderthalLastly, and the view I favour, is that rights are political representations of our responsibility towards other autonomous sentient beings. If a being is capable of valuing its life, it can then consent to life or death, and therefore only with this consent can its life be permanently and irreversibly ended. From this, therefore, I conclude that this being has a right to life. Likewise if a being is capable of valuing being free of pain, we give a right to not be tortured or suffer unnecessarily. Under this viewpoint, not only would Neanderthals have almost all the rights of humans, but many of these rights could also be extended to other animals, especially the great apes.

It may be, then, that speciesism will always remain, or at least until we can develop human-level artificial intelligence or encounter human-level alien life. But even without this moral imperative seeming likely to be successful, the field of evolutionary anthropology would be accelerated tremendously by examining the difference between Neanderthals and humans.

By the way, for a fictional account of this, I have been made aware that a series of novels by Jasper Fforde has mention of bringing Neanderthals back via science, and the subsequent Neanderthal rights movement.

*A minor group of scientists is of the opinion that Neanderthals are merely a sub-species of humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (with us being in the sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens). With a living Neanderthal to examine, their viewpoint might be pushed – for emotional reasons – into popular acceptance, or even be found to be true. This would undermine any efforts to combat speciesism, as it would merely pull Neanderthals into the circle of our species rather than move the circle out to take in another species. To count this, I’d suggest cloning other species of genus Homo, such as our direct ancestors H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis, but the relatively recent demise of the Neanderthals makes gathering the requisite DNA much more feasible, and the similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans are enough to make it more likely that we would end up accepting Neanderthals as persons, if not as fellow human beings.

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America stands still

Thursday, 6 November, 2008

From the very recent election, it is clear that Americans have voted in favour of more autonomy. In addition to more liberal Obama winning the presidency:

  • Intiative 1000 in Washington passed (59% to 41%), allowing physician assisted suicide for terminally ill (<6 months to live) patients
  • Proposal 1 in Michigan appears to have passed (63% to 37%, at this stage), allowing possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical use
  • Proposal 2 in Michigan appears to have passed (52% to 48%, at this stage), allowing all federally permitted embryonic stem cell lines to be used
  • Initiated Measure 11 in South Dakota was rejected (55.21% to 44.70%), which if passed would have criminalised abortion except for cases of rape, incest or pregnancies risking the life of the mother
  • Amendment 48 in Colorado was rejected , which sought to define human life to begin at conception (which doesn’t make sense)
  • Proposition 4 in California failed (52% to 48%), which would have required doctors to notify parents of teenagers that their child had requested an abortion (then wait 48 hours before going ahead with the procedure).

On the other hand, bigotry is still around, with gays losing most of the rights that other people have:

  • Proposition 8 won in California (with 52% of the vote) and therefore annulling gay marriages that occurred since the Supreme Court ruled a gay marriage ban unconstitutional earlier this year (it appears, as usual, the the constitution means whatever the people say it means).
  • Proposition 102 in Arizona passed (56% to 44%), amending the constitution to define marriage as “a union between one man and one woman”
  • Amendment 2 passed in Florida (with a 62% majority), setting the legal definition of marriage as “one man and one woman as husband and wife”
  • Measure 1 in Arkansas won (57% to 43%), prohibiting unmarried couples from adoption (and seeing as gay marriages are not recognised there, gay couples can’t adopt)

I’m not impressed. I’m glad Barack Obama won (although I would preferred somebody like Ralph Nader, Brian Moore or Cynthia McKinney), but I don’t feel America has actually changed at all.

As evidence, compare the following:

2008 Electoral College Map

(results of 2008 Presidential Elections)

1865 Secession Map

(affiliations of states during the American Civil War)

And I don’t buy the idea that racism is behind the correlation of these two either. I reckon it all boils down to America not changing very much at all in the last 143 years.