Archive for the ‘Human Enhancement Ethics’ Category


First genetically enhanced human babies? Maybe

Tuesday, 27 November, 2018

A researcher in China claims to have used CRISPR to perform gene-editing on human embryos, two of which have been brought to term. If true (a big if), this would likely be the first case of germline genetic engineering (of nuclear DNA at least). But without any peer-reviewed publication, all we have are the unverified claims of a researcher. Even with peer-reviewed publications, this could still be a case of fraud and would require additional verification. So there’s a reason to be very skeptical.

As repercussions for this, the researcher has been suspended from his university, giving a statement that the experiment did not have ethical approval.

So what was the first gene to be edited? Apparently it was a deletion of the C-C motif chemokine receptor 5 (CCR5). This receptor is a protein on the surface of white blood cells, which the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) uses to infect the immune system. A small percentage of people naturally have 32 DNA base pairs deleted from the CCR5 gene (this mutations is called CCR5Δ32), which renders them immune to (most) HIV infections and also some poxviruses (like smallpox). However, this only protects against the the R5 strains of HIV,  whereas the X4 strains can use another pathway (via CXCR4) to get into white blood cells. There have been documented cases of people with the CCRΔ32 mutation being infected with HIV, so it’s not total immunity to HIV.

This modification is not without side-effects either, as it may increase susceptibility to fatal influenza infections. In addition, only one of the two children had both copies of CCR5 (allegedly) deleted, whereas the other only one copy was deleted.

This is a sensible choice for a first genetic engineering target in one sense, in that it’s an easy modification to do (a deletion) and it’s something that already exists naturally so we know what the effects will be. It’s a perfect low-hanging fruit for genetic enhancement in this sense, but it’s still not a particularly beneficial target for genetic engineering because HIV is essentially a completely treatable infection in most developed nations. The reports suggest that at least one of the parents of these children had well-managed HIV, giving a further justification for this particular choice. However, if the father was the one with HIV, there are already ways to avoid transmission though IVF.

Given the risks of a new technology like CRISPR, a target should not only be one that is feasible to do and where potential side-effects are known, but also a target that is not already treatable with other technologies.

In addition, it’s not totally clear that this is a form of gene therapy or genetic enhancement. We traditionally think of vaccines to prevent diseases as a part of therapy (as we do anything that prevents, alleviates or cures a medical condition), and this is essentially a genetic version of a vaccine against HIV so likely isn’t an example of enhancement. But the line is pretty blurry anyway, and it’s possible deletion of CCR5 may improve cognitive function. So it may well be that the first case of germline genetic engineering of nuclear DNA in humans was a case of enhancement.


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.


Is germline genetic enhancement better than somatic genetic enhancement?

Monday, 25 July, 2016


The various types of human genetic modifications can be divided along two lines – the therapy-enhancement divide and the somatic-germline divide. The former refers to whether a modification is therapeutic or enhances and the latter refers to whether a modification is affects children (by affecting reproductive cells or whole embryos) or just affects the body (without affecting reproductive cells).

We are therefore left with four categories (Resnik 2000):

1. Somatic gene therapy (SGT)
2. Germline gene therapy (GLGT)
3. Somatic genetic enhancement (SGE)
4. Germline genetic enhancement (GLGE)

What I want to explore is whether, in a world where adults can opt to be genetically enhanced, there would ever be any benefit to germline genetic enhancement. That is, can we avoid all the ethical issues with germline engineering and genetically enhance only consenting adults?

I think there are three general reasons why it might be beneficial to genetically modify the germline, rather than waiting until people are old enough to consent. (However, note that some of these benefits might be achieved by somatic engineering in infancy, which would essentially create a ‘designer baby’ while leaving the germline untouched. This wouldn’t side-step any ethical issues around consent so I’m ignoring this possibility)

1. GLGE could be in the child’s best interests

The vast majority of enhancements people would seek in adulthood would also be things people would want their children to have as they grow up. It is likely also that children themselves would choose (if they were legally able to consent) to go through school with improved intelligence, to play with better reflexes or to be physically attractive while experiencing the first teenage romance. And that’s not mentioning things like resistance to disease or faster wound healing that exist on the cusp of the therapy-enhancement divide.

2. GLGE may be technically superior to SGE

Some modifications may be technically difficult to achieve in an already developed body consisting of billions of cells, and may prove much easier when only single celled gamete or zygote is modified. It might be difficult to get the DNA to every cell that needs to be modified, and some modifications might, at least initially, only prove possible if the genes are edited before the body’s organs and systems develop.

However, it’s quite possible that an enhancement which was only possible with germline methods would 18 years later could be achieved – or even surpassed – by somatic methods. In this case, if you imagine persons could give consent at age 18 for somatic gene enhancement, then any advantages of GLGE over SGE would only be temporary ones during childhood and at the age of consent everyone would be on an equal playing field again.

A fast pace of biotechnological progress would also mean that inherited germline enhancements might be little benefit to future generations compared to somatic enhancements that exist by that time. If a mobile phone could survive over generations, you’d still not pass it down to your children because it would be hopelessly outdated. So barring major disasters that set humanity back into a dystopia with little technology, passing your enhancements on to your children would only be a benefit if germline enhancements remain far superior to somatic enhancements over that time.

3. GLGE can affect motivations

Though a person choosing a somatic enhancement will choose based on their wants, the effects of a germline enhancement can directly affect what it is that a person will want (once they are old enough to choose). To paraphrase German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Man can choose to do what he wants but he cannot choose what it is that he wills”. I should point out that genes cannot control everything, but they can have some affect on the future choices a person will make.

This means that narrow-focus enhancements which are desired by only a few, or even undesirable to anyone who could choose, may be only be possible by way of modifying the germline (or somatic modifications in children). Portrayals of germline enhancement in science fiction often involve armies of soldiers or slaves engineered from conception or childhood to not only excel at their designated role but also to enjoy being perfectly obedient. These portrayals often involve growth rate enhancements to get around the reality that such such soldiers or slaves would take decades to ‘manufacture’. In practice, anyone with the power, resources and decades worth of time to commission and care for their own soldiers or slaves would either be ethically prepared to use somatic techniques to modify the desires of adults or be otherwise be able to pay/bribe adults to do the same job.

Because people sometimes make choices they regret or that aren’t in their best interests, there may be benefits to altering a person’s motivations. It may be reasonable to desire that your children make ethically good and smart choices once they become adults. So, if any germline enhancements can improve logical reasoning and moral motivations, children gifted with such enhancements will be in a better place to make wise choices, including when selecting which somatic enhancements they pursue as adults.


I think there are some very good practical reasons to pursue genetic enhancement of the germline and of children. There may still be ethical reasons to oppose it, but I think the potential gains are large enough some at least will feel it ethically acceptable (or ethically right) to pursue germline genetic enhancement even in a world where somatic genetic enhancement was possible. If parents are pursuing enhancements out of love, they may be prepared to do ethically questionable things to achieve what they believe is best for their children.


I am not a singularitarian

Thursday, 5 August, 2010

My blog is specifically about human enhancement and the ethical/political debates about it. These two topics are the domain of transhumanism (idealogy supporting improving humans with technology). It has very little to do with singularitarianism (idealogy supporting creating a superintelligence), and I do not describe myself as a singularitarian.

Futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky has defined four properties of a singularitarian:

  1. A Singularitarian believes that the Singularity is possible and desirable.
  2. A Singularitarian actually works to bring about the Singularity.
  3. A Singularitarian views the Singularity as an entirely secular, non-mystical process — not the culmination of any form of religious prophecy or destiny.
  4. A Singularitarian believes the Singularity should benefit the entire world, and should not be a means to benefit any specific individual or group.

I fall short on point 1, because though I think the singularity is technically possible, I don’t think it’s probable or desirable.

The singularity is defined as a point in time where the future is inherently unpredictable because a smarter-than-human intelligence has appeared and we, currently being human, cannot predict anything beyond that. This point might involve exponential changes happening so fast we can’t keep up or might just be a superintelligence doing something so smart we can’t work it out, but the main point is this unpredictability or discontinuity. Hence the name, borrowed from the singularity of a black hole beyond which nothing can be observed.

I think the most likely path to anything even remotely resembling a singularity is by increasing human intelligence to transhuman intelligence (and eventually to posthuman intelligence). But I think this will be a rather slow change, with diminishing returns (it might at first be easy to upgrade the human brain, but eking more smarts out of it will get harder and harder as we do, thanks to the limits of the biological systems). It isn’t that I don’t think exponential growth can happen, it’s just that it always hit a wall and paradigm shifts rarely occur just in time to keep up the changes, no matter what Raymond Kurzweil might think. So I think intelligence will likely linger at some pseudo-maximum value for a while, just as it’s been lingering at the human IQ for quite some time. So I think there will be slow changes and not a singularity.

I also don’t think this change will have anything to do with artificial intelligence. Not because artificial intelligence is impossible, but because I think by the time significant artificial intelligence can be created, it will be possible to merge human minds with machine minds, thereby blurring any distinction between artificial and human intelligence. I think humans are too greedy to let a machine outsmart them, especially in a way that defies possibility of prediction.

Not only do I think the singularity is probably not going to happen, I also think there’s a good chance it can never happen (and a chance I could be wrong too). After all, it’s possible that a brain can never be smart enough to fully understand itself, and making that brain smarter just makes it more incomprehensible. We don’t really know the limits.

Furthermore, I think it’s undesirable to ever seek a singularity. This is obvious in the very definition of it, which necessitates  an inherently unpredictable leap in intelligence. We shouldn’t do something if we have a good reason to suspect something bad might result, and I think being unable to know anything about the results is a good enough reason to suspect they might be bad. And if it is bad, we won’t even be able to fix it.

So I say, the singularity won’t happen. It’s unlikely to happen anyway, and even if it can, we should stop it. We should move forward carefully and cautiously, and indeed I think this is likely to be how it will happen anyway. We will slowly make ourselves smarter, and with our newly enhanced brains, analyse the future. The horse won’t bolt, because we’ll have our hands firmly on the reins (and besides it’s not a horse, it’s a snail).

(This post was written because I’ve been requested to write up about the Singularity Summit.  The program features some very interesting pieces, most of which fall broadly under the realm of transhumanism rather than the narrow and misguided realm of singularitarianism)


The rule on enhancement

Thursday, 13 May, 2010

Although I’d probably be described as very liberal, I’m not against rules. There are times when some forms of human enhancement would not be ethical. So, where to draw the lines?

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu proposes some rules in a recent blog post titled ‘How to prescribe smart drugs to children ethically‘. Though these rules are for cognitive enhancing drugs, they apply fairly well to any form of enhancement:

1. Safety – the drug should be safe enough and benefits clearly outweigh the harms

2. Harm to others – the drug should not cause the child to harm others, by for example, increasing violent behavior

3. Distributive justice – the delivery of the drug should not use up limited societal resources unfairly, for example, by consuming resources which would do more good if directed towards educational strategies

4. The parent’s choices are based on a plausible conception of well-being and a better life for the child

5. The effects are consistent with development of autonomy in child and a reasonable range of future life plans.

These aren’t bad rules, especially for enhancement of children by their parents, but I think they’re a bit tautological and slightly too strict (see, I’m so liberal, I even find Savulescu oppressive). I think I can simply.

First, rules 1 and 4 seem to be saying the same thing, just in different ways. Is the enhancement actually going to enhance? If it has tiny benefits that don’t outweigh some significant side-effects, it’s hardly an enhancement. Likewise, if you feel the enhancement has been bad for you, it’s not an enhancement. If we’re defining enhancement as something that’s going to make you better in your own opinion, we don’t need rules 1 and 4.

Second, rules 2 and 3 are also saying the same thing – you shouldn’t be enhanced at a cost to somebody else, either during the enhancement, or as a later result of the enhancement. If your enhancement takes resources away from somebody else, or leads to you harming somebody else once you’re enhanced, it’s bad. So, I think we can simplify that to: an enhancement shouldn’t harm anyone else.

And we’re left with rule 5. This is fair enough, an enhancement shouldn’t constrain autonomy, as you must be able to choose whether you’re enhanced or not. If you were born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to remove or modify those enhancements. If you weren’t born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to gain some enhancements. So, in other words, it have to still have a choice (addictive enhancements, where the enhancement influences your choice, are a difficult question and for another post).

Therefore, I think I can distill it all to one simple rule (though, to be honest, this could be said to be two rules in one):

An enhancement must be your choice and must not hurt anyone else.


Make realistic the unrealistic ideal body image

Tuesday, 4 May, 2010

Humans have been enhancing our appearance since we worked out how to use tools. Archeological evidence suggests cosmetics date at least 6000 years and cosmetic surgery over 4000 years. In modern times, cosmetic surgery is one of the most common forms of human enhancement. It is also one of the most accepted, with cosmetic surgery being legal in almost all countries, even when going beyond ‘restoring normalcy’ and into unequivocal enhancement territory.

Enhancement of appearance is not limited to our physical bodies, but also extends into the digital representations of those bodies. Digital manipulations, known as ‘Photoshopping’ after the popular program used to alter photographs, are commonplace for most published images of human beings. But it’s much easier to manipulate a photograph than it is to manipulate a live human being so accordingly photoshopped images are generally much closer to any ideal of beauty (though both cosmetic surgery and photoshopping sometimes result in something that few would call beautiful). Photoshopped images therefore unattainable portrayals of the human body, which unfortunately causes self-esteem and body image issues, even body dismorphic disorders, in too many people.

In my opinion, the oft-toted solutions, such outlawing unrealistic portrayals or legislating that all retouched images carry a warning label, are missing the point. The images are being retouched for a reason: to look better. And though our standards of beauty are by no means unanimous, the vast majority of ideals of body image are mostly innate. We have evolved to look for potential mates by seeking traits like symmetry and signs of healthiness or status (though specific signs vary – a tanned, visibly-muscled man in one culture would imply low class, whereas in another he would personify physical fitness). As these are innate preferences, they can’t be completely changed by altering how bodies are portrayed. This is a problem that can only be solved by changing these innate ideals about body image.

Basically, the problem isn’t anything to do with how our images are changed for public display. The problem is the very real difference between what we want to look like, and what we actually do look like. This difference could be removed by changing our wants or our bodies, or both. But realistically, being able to competently engineer the human mind is a very formidable task. I predict that, long before any personality enhancements come along, we will be able to effectively and freely alter our appearance.

Therefore, best solution is to allow all humans to attain the ideal body. Or, more precisely, to be able to attain a body they feel is ideal. This isn’t really any different from what we already do. After all, some people already spend a lot of time shaving, working out, applying makeup or undergoing painful surgeries. Except future techniques would be much safer. Instead of burning ourselves with sunlight to cause the protective response to skin damage that we call a suntan, we could genetically alter our base level of melanin expression. Instead of cutting each hair, or pulling them out, or destroying hair cells with electricity or lasers, we could genetically alter the hormone responses of hair cells, so that any given patch of hair doesn’t develop into the thicker and darker terminal hairs in response to hormone levels, but those hairs remain fine, vellus hairs (like the hairs on your forehead or nose). In the extreme, we might even be able to have a completely prosthetic body, that can easily be maintained (or exchanged).

I suppose the question to ask is – is there anything wrong with being our own fairy-godmother and making ourselves beautiful for the ball? It’s not like beauty was ever an achievement anyway, as a majority of features considered beautiful depend on uncontrollable factors of development and age. And even in a society where everyone considers themselves beautiful, others will likely disagree, due to differences in our innate preferences and to the non-innate social influences on our standard of beauty. A girl could consider herself beautiful if she had the enormous limpid eyes and short slim body of an anime-like bishōjo, but others could (and would) disagree.

There cannot be a society where everyone is beautiful, unless everyone changed both their minds and their bodies in unison. But the achievable goal, of a society where everyone sees themselves as beautiful, would in every other way not be too different to today’s society. People would just be happy in their own body, because no ideal body image would be unrealistic.


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.


Journal of Evolution and Technology has some reading material

Tuesday, 26 May, 2009

I know I’m not posting as frequently as I could be, but the Journal of Evolution and Technology has two special issues that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

  • Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights (HETHR) Special Issue

-vi:  James Hughes:  “Introduction”

1-9:  Patrick Hopkins:  “Is Enhancement Worthy of Being a Right?”

10-26: Fritz Allhoff:  “Germ Line Genetic-Enhancement and Rawlsian Primary Goods”:

27-34: Martin Gunderson:  “Enhancing Human Rights: How the Use of Human Rights Treaties to Prohibit Genetic Engineering Weakens Human Rights”

35-41: Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff:  “Against Unrestricted Human Enhancement”

42-49: Fred Gifford:  “Ethical Issues in Enhancement Research”

50-55: Aubrey de Grey:  “Our Right to Life”

56-69: Gregory Fowler and Kirk Allison:  “Technology and Citizenry: A Model for Public Consultation in Science Policy Formation”

70-78: Laura Colleton:  “The Elusive Line Between Enhancement and Therapy and Its Effects on Health Care in the U.S.”

79-85: Anita Silvers:  “The right not to be normal as the essence of freedom”

86-93: Martin Gunderson:  “Genetic Engineering and the Consent of Future Persons”

94-107: Martine Rothblatt:  “Are We Transbemans Yet?”

108-115: Mark Walker:  “Cognitive Enhancement and the Identity Objection”

116-123: Eva Caldera:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Theories of Justice: Contemplating the Malleability of Nature and Self”

124-128:  Dawn Jakubowski:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Liberatory Possibilities of Antidepressant Therapy”

129-142: George Dvorsky:  “All Together Now: Considerations for biologically uplifting non-human animals”

As you can see, both issues have articles that cover interesting topics and the articles are all worth a read. Check out the contents of these issues, and read them for free.

I don’t think any of those articles, nor their authors, express arguments that are perfectly identical to mine (in other words, I have a bone to pick with most of their articles). But don’t worry, I’ll soon be blogging more frequently again, or at least I hope to.


Boosting brainpower

Thursday, 14 May, 2009

The practical and ethical issues with intelligence enhancement are receiving more attention, with a recent article in New Scientist titled “Will designer brains divide humanity“.

For the most part, the article is quite basic, but I have an issue with one part in particular:

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested.

This is none other than cybernetic favoritism! I mean sure, genes effecting intelligence aren’t obvious, but it’s also not obvious how and where to interface a brain chip to increase intelligence. And though neural prostheses are being tested, no neural prosthesis has increased any aspect of intelligence in any brain, whereas there have been 33 genetic alterations that increase the learning and memory of mice (not to mention that all the differences in intelligence between animals are genetic in origin). Considering the annoyance of having surgery for neural implants compared to the ease of a simple injection for genetic modification, I would personally put my money on the genetic enhancement of intelligence. Nonetheless, both avenues should be pursued, and might eventually complement one another.

Onto the ethical issues discussed in the article, most are fairly basic. Starting with human dignity, referring to comments made by Dietrich Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany:

One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says.

These concerns are all quite valid, but aren’t necessarily impossible barriers. If enhancement technology was supported by the government, then no people wanting such technology would be left without it. And the discrimination I will deal with in a minute, after looking at the next section:

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

I do actually worry about enhancement being socially divisive, but I am not sure this would occur only by discrimination of the enhanced towards the un-enhanced. As I have argued previously, it’s entirely possible that the enhanced will be viewed as unnatural disgraces to humanity, and the pure, natural humans would discriminate against them because of it.

The rest of the article deals with issues such as brain plasticity, evolution and epigenetics. These are not particularly relevant to any ethical concerns and neither will they significantly enhance the intelligence of the average reader of this blog, so I’m not going to address them here.


Miah on enhancement

Friday, 1 May, 2009

Andy Miah has an article on enhancement in The Guardian.

It’s short, but I agree with many of the conclusions. And apparently the European Parliament will be looking at the issue of enhancement soon, so I’ll be blogging on that as soon as more news comes to hand.