The second sexual revolution

2052: <Reporting from Paris> Jaques Coulter was born at 2:54 am last night, his birth was unremarkable, and he is a healthy baby, boy. 

In this unprecedented event, in the most ordinary of circumstances, changes the human race forever. Jaques is the first human born ex-utero, outside his mother’s womb, and using artificial egg and sperm modelled on his parents DNA. This beautiful baby boy is the first truly artificially made human.

Strange? Very.

But certainly possible, the idea of artificially gestated life forms is a popular science fiction idea, appearing most recently in “Man of Steel”. The idea of modifying our children in-utero already exists, and has gathered significant attention in the last two decades with ‘designer babies’ becoming a familiar, if not controversial idea.

In 1868 biologist, Ernst Haeckel uses the phrase “Stem Cells” to describe “fertilised egg that becomes an organism”, in humans this is a Zygote. This idea was eventually refined to be a group of undifferentiated cells used to create infinite combinations of new cells. Over the following century, various cells in tumors, bone marrow, embryos, and other systems were discovered that are part of or make up the creation of that cell or system. Sound complicated? It is, very much so. Genetics is one branch of science that does not suffer from our isolation in this world, in a hundred years from now it is possible we could have quadrupled our accumulated knowledge of genetics. In 2009, by executive order, USA President Obama allowed 13 lines of embryonic stem cells to be researched with federal funding. This order was an enormous advancement in science as the US conservative lobby often decries stem cells research based on religious ideology. Stem cells could be used to alter the path of some of the worst deteriorative diseases humans can contract. ALS (MND), Alzheimers, Parkinsons, blood and immune system, and bone or tissue growth diseases. Strokes, injury, arthritis, baldness, deafness, heart disease, diabetes, MS, Cancer. Though such treatments are distant, even the smallest steps in this aspect of human progress have been met with considerable opposition. The first readily obtainable stem cells came from the fertilised eggs of humans. Groups or individuals with strong Christian (in the US) or other religious ideology argued that it was beyond unethical because of the sacrifice of potential life. The same argument used to fight against any form of abortion. The controversy represented a classic moral dilemma to the public, the advancement of science versus the principles of religion. One of the typical watershed moments from the turbulent history of science and religion. A fight that in this instance existed largely outside the science sphere and became political, ideological. The progress of investigation and research into stem cells has become less politicised, perhaps. Science moved incrementally forward into new understanding, and at this point voices in our society raised themselves up and, very loudly, said no.

This is just an example of the technology today.

With an understanding of the founding principles of cell mitosis (Cell division). Knowing what roles each enzyme, chemical, protein, or other might play in the development of that cell. We might find ways to intercede, and change the outcome of that cell. It is not inconceivable that the sentence at the beginning of the post is a reality at some point in the future. But this is the rub.

“Only I can see the universe from my perch, see the world renewed each day in pertinent captivity. Seated quietly here, alone, to the world silent. I find worlds and pain, and loss and laughter shared with none” – unknown.

Stems Cells are the burgeoning of a concept that leads to a second sexual revolution. Why must I be born a certain way? I was born with the eventually inherited need of glasses; that doesn’t need to be the case. I see connections in everything, see the links that bring the world together in infinite complexity but lack the… process to convert it to language. In the end all of us are alone in our body, the variation of emotion, experience, and creativity lost to dust when we die. Save those precious few who can translate that into art.

The origin of our birth defines our limits, at the moment. The way we procreate, raise, and nurture our children defines them forever. One day that might not be the case. One day we may find another way to connect with each other.

The Issue

There are things we do to improve the quality of our lives, running, learning, fixing broken parts of our body, curing disease, improving our cognition. The ethics of this are not under dispute. Human augmentation refers to the biomedical interventions that are used to improve human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to restore or sustain health. That is the crux of the matter.

I have glasses, I have orthotics, I have had braces. These are not interventions to improve, beyond the original capacity of the body, my health, ability or longevity.

My mother passed away from motor neuron disease; it may be hereditary. If I redesign the parts of my genes that transmit that disease am I enhancing myself, or merely saving myself?

The controversy that exists within this field is not a debate on the process; it is a debate between scientists over whether or not the enhancement of a human is an ethic decision. Not how can we, but rather should we, and it is a science controversy because it is scientists arguing a researched process. Not some citizen activist group (though they exist) or political ideology (yep that too). But genuine discourse between colleagues and peers that the deliberate intervention in a human body outside life-saving processes is or is not unethical.

So we can think of the issue in a few terms.

Radical Enhancement/Augmentation: Dramatic and overwhelming changes.
Near Enhancement: Subtle or small changes.
Bioethics: The ethical consideration of biological changes.
Eugenics: The improvement of human genetic traits through reproduction.
Existing Vs Non-Existing Technologies: Does the technology exist to create the change, or will it need to be created first?

There are more terms to understand, but we will tackle those as we reach the relevant discussion.

It is important to note there are arguments within the science about the procedure. Technologies that interface with DNA have rapidly evolved over the last 20 years; one only has to watch Jurassic Park for that… There is a new technology called “Crispr” that makes genetic manipulation quite simple and easily repeatable, but not being a molecular biologist or geneticist, I have no earthly idea how it works :P.

An easily understood example of on the ethical problems of augmenting humans is social inequity. We live in an economic world; chances are if immortality is invented, it would cost a substantial fortune. The wealth of the world would be in the hands of a few undying oligarchs.

Sounds horrible.

Next time we will delve a little deeper and look at genetics, and the controversy surrounding gene manipulation.

Readings
http://www.bioethics.ac.uk/news/humanitys-end-why-we-should-reject-radical-enhancement.php

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enhancement/

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.220.1961

http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/human-enhancement.pdf

Exploration of the universe and the self

On the 21st of July 1969, at 02:56 UTC, humanity left a footprint on another world.

Our species, as one, craned our necks to see better the most impressive feat of exploration of the modern era.

Men had set foot on the moon. Strapped to a bomb, using science bred in war, a vehicle left this world and despite all setbacks the world watched as one as we stood on a place no human had ever been before. What it meant to be human was exalted that day. 600 million people viewed this event. It remains a pinnacle of human achievement.

I was lucky enough to attend an evening event presented by Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson and it was incredible. Not only to hear the passion and verve in the man’s voice, but to recognise it from myself, and my passion for science and the stars. He was asked many questions, but one stuck out to me. He was asked what advancement he would like to see

“I would like to become a part of a higher dimension, to become active in time like we are active in three dimensions. I want to see the span of my life all at once, to be there when I died, when I was born, live the greatest hits all over again.”

The reason I mention Dr. Tyson and the moon landings is what human augmentation is all about.

Exploration

Exploration of the self, of the world, of time and space, of the stars, of the infinite universe, of consciousness (mine and others).

We live alone in our fleshy selves, briefly touching the lives of others with the tiny bubble of our mind that interludes with another’s.

Everyone is unique, we have inspirations, moments of pure beauty and passion, expression and emotions that strike the core of us, but they fade when we die, with no other having experienced it just like us.

We are all afraid, of the dark, of pain, of loss and loneliness. We don’t need to be, now unlike in previous eras we can begin to enhance ourselves from the conditions of our evolution. Become less tribal and more tolerant, less afraid of change, more inclusive of differences. Less prone to hatred and intolerance.

Here we have the desire for enhancement. The response to ongoing evolution, improve it, the fear of death, don’t die.

But there is fear. Many groups, including President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, The American Christian league, and others. Those who don’t understand the technology may become fearful of it, fearful of individuals improved by direct intervention. Though perhaps rightly so, we have little idea of the long-term sociological consequences of improving the human condition. Currently, we lack the technology to leave our home planet, and the population is already problematic, what happens if we start living even longer?

Genetic manipulation of humans is synonymous with enhancement given the available technologies, and horizontal migration of genes could lead to increases in disease and infective vectors. Opponents use imagery of science run amok, genetic monsters made from scientists without ethics.

We will explore some more of the issues next time.

Progress

This semester I have to keep a blog as part of the assessment of my Masters of Science Communication.

The theme will be human progress and scientific controversy.

Why do we hold back? What makes us follow the wrong path? Is there a right path? Why are some people inextricably and permanently attached to ideas that have shown to be invalid? Why do some seek to manipulate and obfuscate in the name of ideology, politics or profits?

There are plenty of controversies in our society about the direction we feel we should take. Climate change, GMO foods, Vaccinations, Stem Cell research, or even scientific research can cause wide and divisive debate. Andrew Wakefield has been disproven time and time again, however, advocates of the anti-vaccination movement are more fervent than ever. Free market economists and conservative ideologues manufacture dissenting opinion and clever slogans to discredit scientists, scientists who are screaming that the world is in peril and that profits are meaningless.

Since the dawn of civilisation, we have sought to change ourselves, to improve on the designs of nature, to evolve. From the 1700’s (possible earlier in China) and the invention of glasses, to the first leg brace and orthopaedic adjustment in the American Civil War, to antibiotics, antidepressants, cancer treatment, in utero DNA analysis. We as a species constantly seek to change ourselves to overcome the challenges of nature and the world.

The topic of this blog for the next little while will be Human Augmentation.

There are numerous issues to discuss, the course of our self-determined destiny is near enough to infinite. However for the purposes of this work I will be specific. This work will focus on biology, rather than technological augmentation, and the near future for the most part. I will describe the ideas in terms of the controversy surrounding them when I can.

We will start next time with a brief history and description then move into the major issues surrounding biological technologies in human augmentation.