Archive for the ‘General Bioethics’ Category


No, gene editing won’t ruin human evolution

Friday, 13 January, 2017

An article published in TIME magazine by Jim Kozubek, titled “How Gene Editing Could Ruin Human Evolution” basically argues that it’s too risky to edit our genes. I’d agree with most of these risks, but none of these risks are insurmountable and none of them are good arguments for preventing gene editing entirely.

Genes are complicated, but not impossibly complicated

It is definitely true that most traits are controlled by many genes, and that many genes control many traits. As Kozubek says:

Biology is robust against breakdown. It straddles risk like a money manager, and that straddling of risk over the entire genome is one reason there are so few single “targets” for many of these psychological and cognitive traits. Indeed, many of these genetic variants may be pleiotropic, meaning they have different, often unrelated effects in different cells or tissues

This does certainly complicate any potential gene editing, as many areas of the genome would need to be edited and these might have unintended consequences. But this added complexity is still solvable. If gene editing technology is good enough, there’s no reason we can’t edit half a dozen areas of the genome instead of just one.

Furthermore, if one gene does have different effects in different tissues, that just increases the complexity of the genetic engineering problem but still doesn’t make it impossible. With somatic genetic engineering, one could target the genetic edit to just one organ (like the brain), without it effecting that gene in the rest of the body. One could also potentially duplicate the gene entirely and edit only one copy, plus adjust the regulatory sequences so that the edited gene is the only one expressed in the tissue of interest and the unedited gene is the one expressed in other tissues.

Gene editing isn’t about what is right, but what is right for each individual

Kozubek seems to to come very close to saying that scientists don’t understand evolution and that genetic diseases don’t exist, when he says:

Second, scientists tend to think of men as machines, genes as their broken parts and variations in life as problems to be solved—aberrations outside the normal curve. This assumes there is a right way for genes to be. In reality, Darwin showed us that evolution does not progress toward an ideal model or a more perfect form, but instead is a work of tinkering toward adaptation in local niches. Nowhere in nature does it say how a gene should function.

Genes have a fitness, which refers to how successfully those genes allow the organism to reproduce in a particular environment. But we, as humans, also can place value judgement on certain phenotypes (traits an organism possess) that may or may not correlate with fitness. For instance, a genetic disease that causes an increased chance of an early death decreases fitness and is something most humans don’t want. But sometimes a gene might increase your fitness, perhaps by making you super fertile, but you as a human still don’t like that trait. And some traits we might want, like to be able to eat as much we want without getting fat, may decrease our fitness in some environments where food is scarce or increase when food is plentiful. Basically, there’s not really a correlation between what evolution is aiming for and what we humans are aiming for.

The argument that scientists are trying to restore genes to their natural, correct or ‘healthy’ state is a fundamental misunderstanding of what most proponents of genetic engineering want. We want to be able to give people the freedom to choose what genes they, or their children, have. Indeed, this is one fundamental issue with the notion that we should only use genetic engineering to make people healthy but not do anything like enhancement: there isn’t universal agreement on what healthy is. What many of us might think as natural or ‘healthy, such as being able to hear, might be considered by some as an unwanted disability.

Diversity does not trump autonomy

Similar to the first argument, Kozubek argues that certain things thought of as diseases or disabilities can offer advantages in fitness in certain contexts.

Furthermore, genetic variants that predispose us to risk or supposed weaknesses are precisely the same ones that turn out to have small fitness advantages (they make us better at numbers, more sensitive, alter concentration…). This is one reason I am a “neurodiversity advocate.” Evolution works at the margins, and it does so through trade-offs: Often, you don’t get an advantage without risking a disadvantage. This is not trivial.

It is undoubtedly true that all advantages come with disadvantages, just as all drugs come with side-effects. As I alluded to above, a gene that increases risk of obesity in modern society might offer a significant advantage in a food-scarce environment. A genetic enhancement that allows humans to see in ultraviolet light might require allowing so much UV light into the eye that it increases the risk of macular degeneration. An enhancement that increases wound healing by preventing scar formation might increase the risk of infection.

One key point to this, however, is that these are all environmentally dependent. Our environment now is very different to what it was when we did most of our evolving, as we now have a lot more food, the ability to produce sunglasses to block UV light and enough antiseptics and antibiotics to prevent infections when they occur. I simply don’t see how somebody could argue that the mutation in the CFTR gene, which causes cystic fibrosis if you have two copies but resistance to tuberculosis if you have one copy, is a worthwhile trade-off in Western nations where tuberculosis is very rare.

The other key point point is that people should be informed of the risks and benefits and allowed to make their own choices for gene editing (within a broad ethical framework, of course), just as we do with pharmaceutical treatments. For example, some might see an increased risk of autism as a fair cost for greater mathematical ability, whereas others may not. Even if having a diverse set of genes in the population benefits the species somehow, I certainly don’t think we can use this to justify forcing people to keep, or pass on to their children, the genes they have. Are you really going to cite the need for genetic diversity in human evolution as a reason to deny a patient a gene therapy they desperately desire? Are you going to make somebody deaf in the hope they become a genius composer like Beethoven?

Evolution will continue

The final point, relating to the  later points, is that genetic engineering will break evolution:

And genetic risk variants remain in the population because they’re advantageous to certain people, given the right genetic background or conditions. Those risk variants are speculating—evolution, always and forever, takes chances.

The problem with this is that it assumes that gene editing will somehow decrease the genetic diversity in the population.  As I briefly mentioned a while back in response to an SMBC comic, there is no reason to think this would be true. Yes, we’re likely to get rid of many of the genetic diseases that we can, because most people see those as bad things. But there are many traits where there is little consensus over which is better, and may companies may have different techniques to produce these traits, so diversity of these genes may increase.

We’re also likely to transfer genes from across the natural world (like fluorescent proteins from jellyfish) or create entirely new genes. This process of adding and editing our genome is vastly faster than waiting for mutations, so there will be ample variation in the population.

Human evolution will definitely be different, but it will still continue. But that’s no different to any other treatment or technological intervention that changes how often we pass on our genes. Whenever humans treat the sick or help our injured, we’re altering the progress of evolution. But this doesn’t make medicine or technology bad. In fact, these things are probably pretty good, even if they change evolution. And so, even if it changes our human evolution, I think gene editing will be pretty good too.


Patent on human cancer gene struck down

Wednesday, 31 March, 2010

At last! Finally somebody has a clue! Maybe this will lead to the invalidation of the patents over the 20-something% of (protein-coding) human genes currently patented.

On Myriad Genetics Inc patent claims on two breast and ovarian cancer genes, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet ruled that they were invalid:

Sweet said he invalidated the patents because DNA’s existence in an isolated form does not alter the fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes.

He rejected arguments that it was acceptable to grant patents on DNA sequences as long as they are claimed in the form of “isolated DNA.”

“Many, however, including scientists in the fields of molecular biology and genomics, have considered this practice a `lawyer’s trick’ that circumvents the prohibitions on the direct patenting of the DNA in our bodies but which, in practice, reaches the same result,” he said.

The judge said his findings were consistent with Supreme Court rulings that have established that purifying a product of nature does not mean it can be patented.

And, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I agree with somebody at the Center for Genetics and Society:

“The evidence has mounted that human gene patents are doing more harm than good,” and resulted more by accident than a well-thought-out policy, said Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center for Genetics and Society. The center is a nonprofit policy research group advocating for oversight and responsible use of biotechnologies.

The Myriad patent “was particularly troublesome” because it was so broadly worded, Reynolds said.

Reading the court ruling, “I saw nothing that limited it to Myriad’s patents,” Reynolds said. It boiled down to this, he said: “Natural things aren’t patentable; inventions are.” [emphasis mine]

Damn straight! If and when you make your own human genes, with enhanced function or resistance to mutation or whatever, then sure, patent away. As the ruling says, you can only patent a gene that has ‘markedly different’ characteristics from a natural gene. A silent or conservative mutation won’t cut it. You’d have to do something like, take a gene from another animal, and put it in humans with the right enhancers, promotor and introns to have it properly expressed in human tissue. Then it has a ‘markedly different characteristic’, namely, specific expression in human tissue rather than in the original animal.

I’ve got no problem with people walking around with patented genes in their body, or even people being born with a genome that is partially owned by somebody. That’s necessary for biotech companies to make money from human gene therapy and human enhancement. I’ve just got a problem with people trying to claim as their own something that evolved naturally before they were even born.

Let’s just hope this holds up in the Supreme Court, where this case will inevitably end up.


Abortion and freedom from nature

Monday, 10 August, 2009

I’ve been skulking around various blogs on bioethical issues recently, and I came across this geme from the Christian blog ‘Of Virtue and Life’:

What I am arguing […] is that pregnancy is natural and by saying abortion helps in the liberation of women, it is essentially saying that abortion helps liberate women from nature – which is completely off the wall.

The bottom line for the entire situation is that abortion really doesn’t help in women’s liberation. Having a child doesn’t lower a woman or make her subservient to a man – it is simply a natural process. How is it liberating to go against what is natural? (emphasis mine)

It is that final question that I italicised that I wish to discuss in this post, as in my opinion it can be very, very liberating to go against what is natural. It is exceedingly liberating to be free from nature, and being free from natural limitations on our body and mind. Humans are more liberated now that death does not come so early in life, and we would be most liberated if in the future death existed only as a choice and was never forced upon us by natural causes. Other examples of natural things from which we may want to be liberated include the natural human tendency to put on weight or the natural human limitations on memory or even the fact that humans are not naturally born with wings. But many other natural aspects of everyday life are not entirely pleasant, such as pregnancy and childbirth.

focus_artificial_wombBut first I wish to reinforce the fact that there is nothing inherently good about what is natural. To think so would be the fallacy of ‘appeal to nature’, which is essentially wishful thinking in reverse (wishful thinking is where you think what should be is what will be, and the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy is where you think what is is also what ought to be). You cannot switch between an is and an ought, as the former is a statement of fact and the latter is a statement of value.

Even from a Christian perspective, I cannot see how one could assume what is natural is also what is good. While it is the Christian belief that the nature of reality was created by a benevolent God, apparently the free will of a couple of humans brought sin which corrupted the world, and therefore not everything we see in nature can be assumed to be good (though God clearly let sin corrupt the world and therefore such corruption was obliviously not against the will of a benevolent God, which brings too many theodical issues for this post).

But getting back to the topic, this means we cannot assume that pregnancy and childbirth are good simply because they are natural.

Furthermore, I think there is good arguments to suggest that many, albeit natural, aspects of pregnancy and childbirth are very bad. Very few women choose a natural childbirth because the options of drug-assistance or surgical deliveries provide much more appealing unnatural childbirths. Many women dislike the effects pregnancy has on their body, both during pregnancy and after childbirth, and are eager to return to their pre-pregnancy figures. And even after childbirth, many things about children are not particularly desirable, such as incessant crying and the cost of raising them. While a strong maternal desire and love of children drives many women to endure these distasteful aspects of pregnancy, I think it stands to reason that the process could be much improved by liberating women from the natural downsides to having children.

In addition to the above-mentioned natural but undesirable aspects of pregnancy,  the most important natural aspect from which we try to liberate ourselves is the choice to go through the whole pregnancy process at all. It’s natural that heterosexual sex between fertile humans can result in pregnancy, but the vast majority of humans (in the first world, at least) take measures to avoid this natural consequence of sex, though most contraceptives are not foolproof. Because of this (and because of the unfortunate – and likely natural – occurrence of rape) pregnancy is not always consensual, a woman can only have complete control over whether she goes through pregnancy and childbirth if she can opt out of the process at any time. So the most liberating scenario for a woman is total and unrestricted access to abortion regardless of her stage of pregnancy.

So I think we can conclude that women are indeed liberated by having the option to abort. And men too can be liberated by abortion, as couples who do not wish to have children are therefore able to ensure they remain childless. That pregnancy and childbirth are natural does nothing to change this, as the freedom to liberate ourselves from nature is freedom nonetheless. Nobody is truly free if they are a slave to nature.


New Zealand not so good anymore

Monday, 23 March, 2009

It’s a shame too. The Bioethics Council of New Zealand (aka ‘Toi te Taiao’), the same council that last year published such sensible opinions on parents genetically selecting their children,  has apparently been disestablished. A press release states:

It is with regret that Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council announces it has been disestablished by the Government.

Such a stupid thing to happen to such a clearly wise group of people. I hope New Zealanders make a big fuss about this.


Fertility clinic backs down from allowing cosmetic ‘design’ of babies

Saturday, 7 March, 2009

The Fertility Institutes LA, an American IVF clinic that recently announced that it would be offering parents the opportunity to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select hair and eye pigmentation, has decided not to go ahead with this (excepting for selecting against albinism). The reason? Public opinion, of course.

[W]e […] feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved.

A total shame, to let the public pressure decide what sort of children people can or can’t have. With all the cries that selecting one’s babies will lead to a situation like that portrayed in Gattaca, nobody seems to realise that the situation portrayed in that movie — public coercion to have a particular sort of baby — is already happening. The only difference is the ‘sort’ of baby that parents are being pushed, by social pressures, to have.


Baby born with less chance of getting cancer, and people are upset

Saturday, 10 January, 2009

In the United Kingdom, a child has been born without a mutated allele of the BRCA1 gene, a gene known to create a risk for breast and ovarian cancer if it is mutated. Yet, because this baby was chosen as an embryo on the basis that it did not have this mutation (and other embryos, with the mutation, were not implanted), people are throwing the E-word left and right. Well, mostly just known bio-conservative Josephine Quintivalle:

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “This is nothing personal towards the girl, but I think we have gone too far. […] Underlying all this is eugenics.”

Whether PGD and selective implantation is eugenics depends on what is meant by this very loose term. If eugenics is to mean killing people because they are ‘unfit’ or controlling people’s reproductive lives, then this is surely not eugenics, as embryos are not yet people and this procedure was consented to by the parents. But, if eugenics is to mean attempting to improve on humans, then perhaps this is eugenics. The issue is, the E-word carries many implications of the former attrocities, and so I feel it is too misleading to be used here.

Mrs Quintavalle was then reported as saying the message was that

“you are better off dead, than being born with this gene”.

Of course, Mrs Quintivalle can now join other bio-conservatives, and Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, as a member of the group of people who don’t realise that there is a difference between not existing and being dead. Although to be fair, these people do see the destruction of embryos as killing of people, so if they were right (but they are not) they might have a point. Although, such a point would best be expressed as ‘you are better off not being born at all, than being born with this gene’. But as embryos are not people, and can’t be called ‘you’ nor empathised with, there is no point.

This birth is a key one, as it represents the first use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to prevent the mere risk of a disease, rather than the certainty. This is seen as being on the road to designer babies, but fortunately when it comes to using biotechnology to prevent or cure disease, many people are accepting of the idea. Let’s just hope they remain accepting of enhancing the speed and reflexes of a child, such as to reduce their risk of being in a car accident or being hit by a bus.


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.