I hope every single one of you realizes that "the perfect human" is a phrase completely devoid of meaning in a constantly changing world and universe.
I read an article yesterday in TIME magazine that made some good points about genetic engineering, and as I often do, I started thinking about this subject: scientists genetically engineering humans to make them supremely intelligent, strong, agile, wicked, purple, hermaphroditic, or a combination of the above. The article was called "Why Pro-lifers are missing the point" and its main argument was that the moral question of stem cell research should not be where the tissue is coming from (dead fetuses vs. embryos for in vitro fertilization), the question should be where it is going?
I think this is a very valid concern and it ought to give us pause to consider the implications of genetic engineering research. However, I’d like to tell you some of the things mentioned in the article that I believe are full of the proverbial “it”.
"In 1998, Massachusetts scientists injected a human nucleus into a cow egg. The resulting embryo, destroyed early, appeared to be producing human protein, but we have no idea what kind of grotesque hybrid entity would come out of such marriage."
What!!?? No "grotesque hybrid" could possibly come from this. Why? Because THERE IS NO COW DNA IN THE EGG, except for some maternal mitochondrial DNA. It was an enucleated egg, replaced with a human nucleus. The only thing that would happen is the embryo would die because there would not be the correct maternal mRNA for proper development. Besides where would the fetus gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?! (Thank you Monty Python) I seriously doubt that you could just stick it in a cow. First, the embryo would not be able to implant into the cow’s uterus. If it miraculously could, the cow's body would more than likely detect a "problem" with the embryo and would reabsorb it or flush it.
"Last October, the first primate containing genes from another species - a monkey with a jellyfish gene - was born. Monkeys today. Tomorrow humans."
This is true. I've seen pictures of the little rhesus monkey, and damn was he cute. I should note that although his chromosomes contained the green fluorescence protein gene, the gene was not expressed (meaning no protein was made and the gene was essentially just sitting there doing nothing). Yes humans are next. Big deal. Some of our genes were imported from other species into our own genome by retroviruses! What is better, random insertion of a random gene with an astronomically small chance of it helping an organism, or carefully planned and controlled introduction of a gene for a specific beneficial purpose with a much higher chance of success? You make the call.
Finally, the article says,
"but just around the corner lies the logical by-product of such research: the hybrid human-animal species, the partly developed human bodies for use as parts, and other grotesqueries as yet unimagined."
As for the human-animal hybrids, in the not-too-distant-future this may become possible. However there would be very little incentive for this other than the "look what I can do" factor. What is so inherently "grotesque" about a species of organism that has some human and some animal aspects? Any hybrid we created wouldn't be human. Humans are animals, therefore the new hybrid would simply be another species on this planet. God knows we've killed enough off already. I personally think it would be pretty amazing to have another intelligent species on this planet. Besides if people create animals with human intellect, it isn't going to be for food or slavery. It almost seems preposterous to imagine, but I think it will not be so in a few generations.
It is very possible in the future that if animals continue to be exploited by humans for food, the animals will likely by made dumber and stripped of pain perception, which will make slaughter a little more like cutting down a tree.
Some of this technology may even allow us to replace some of the species we’ve already killed off.
Human bodies grown for body parts are not a "by-product" of this research. They are one of the ULTIMATE GOALS of this research. Do you realize how many people die every day because they can't find a heart, lung, liver, or kidney donor? Now imagine if we could grow human bodies with no conscious, self-awareness, feelings, or even the brain structures to allow these things. It wouldn't be a deformed grotesque human, it would be a TISSUE CULTURE for saving lives. This would be revolutionary. Tell me you won't appreciate this in twenty years when your liver is an alcohol-ridden degraded soggy mass full of holes.
People think we're trying to play God and that we are trying to do in a short time what it took nature billions of years to do. But nature is not an entity that sat here and thought "I wonder what would happen if I stuck feathers on that little lizard’s arms?" It took millions of failed mutations that led to grotesque deformities and sudden deaths for every single gene that benefits an organism. If you were to watch evolution through a time-lapse, it would not be a pretty sight (actually I think it would be fascinating and beautiful, but that's just me) compared to what "grotesqueries" we might create.
Now I am not saying we should just start engineering things and cramming different genes in different organisms to see what we can sculpt. Life is not a toy and there are many, many, MANY obstacles to be overcome. We still don't have a single descent way of introducing a gene into a human chromosome in a controlled way as to prevent the disruption of other genes or cause a myriad other problems. All our current techniques involve "shotgun techniques" shooting DNA into a nucleus, hoping the gene gets stuck in a good place on a random chromosome. Most of them involve using viral capsules (basically just containers with no viral DNA) to get the DNA into the cell, which is so far turning out to be very inefficient and unpredictable. This is not how human genetic engineering should be done. But as long as we (which includes everyone in the public) proceed which extreme caution, skepticism of all data and discoveries, and keep an OPEN MIND, then I will remain optimistic of the benefits that genetic engineering and stem cell research can do for our race.
At least the ones that can afford it.
Update: 8/2/2008 - I wrote this stuff many years ago - please note, that modern quantum machanics seems to support the idea that true randomness does in fact exist, which renders all possibility of a deterministic Universe impossible. I am still not so certain that I believe that deterministic laws do not underlie the apparent randomness in quantum physics, but I am no physicist. All of the following rests on the assumption that even at the quantum level, nature is ruled by static laws.
What is determinism, cosmically speaking? Do we even care? Determinism is embodied by a famous quotation which is often referred to as "LaPlace's Demon:"
"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."
-Marquis Pierre Simon de LaPlace
Assuming that all reality is determined by non-random natural laws (which I admit is a very unsolid assumption but for this argument I'm using it), regardless of whether we as beings know or understand the laws, then that means every action and reaction of every particle in the universe must happen in a predetermined fashion. These actions are determined by the initial conditions laid out by whatever created the matter. If particle X is heading at A velocity in B direction, it must collide with particle Y and bounce in BLAH direction, etc. All these near infinite interactions add up to create the illusion of choice, when in fact, the actions of every single particle and subatomic particle involved in that last thought of yours about my sanity were predetermined by the actions immediately before them, which were themselves determined by the previous actions....etc....to creation or infinity.
Now a weird question arises: did I choose to write this line? It sure feels like it to me. I can remember actually thinking "hey, this sentence doesn't strike me as entirely uninteresting." In fact I must argue for free will's sake that I indeed did choose to
write it. However, with the above argument's assumptions of reality, I must also argue that I was predetermined by the laws of physics to think "I should write this".
Now we must ask: is there really a difference between us making a choice based on free will and the laws of physics pre-determining a set of thoughts and reasoning that leads to a choice. And the answer is no (at least from our perspective). Because in both instances, that choice and the thoughts that caused it are the same and our perception of the event remains the same.
Therefore, if the universe is predetermined, it doesn't really matter. As far as we are concerned we have choices. I can decide to eat peanut butter and jelly or kalamari for lunch. It just so happens that the thoughts that lead to each choice were predetermined by the previous events, which were determined by the initial conditions of creation (unless time is infinite, in which case there are no initial conditions and the philosophy falls into a soggy heap wrapped around a lemon).
Note: this letter was written to me in response to the article above
Dear Mr. Brown,
This letter is in reference to your article on determinism. As a mathematician working in chaos theory, I feel the idea of a completely deterministic world without any random variables is very unbecoming of someone pretending to be a scientist, not to mention that determinism doesn't sit well with my particular ideological paradigm of reality. Haven't you ever heard of the butterfly effect (a butterfly flapping in Brazil affects the weather in New York)? There are literally trillions of tiny random fluctuations of the variables affecting weather, and the particular outcome of the weather is completely unpredictable because of these factors. If you place a drop of water at the top of your wrist 100 times in a row, it will travel a slightly different path each time. That is chaos theory. You are not at all a smart person, and I refuse to believe that I am pre-determined to refuse to believe that I am pre-determined to refuse to believe.....
I hate you.
Brigadier Gen. Arthur C. Puty (Mrs.)
Dear Mr. Puty (Mrs.),
Each one of those "random" variables affecting the weather interact in very defined ways. From the perspective of an outside observer the weather may seem random, but from the perspective of each particle involved every action and reaction is caused by a specific set of previous conditions, and is thus not at all random from that perspective. If we knew every single factor involved in this planets meteorological system, we would, in fact, be able to predict the weather. Of course there are way more factors involved than we will ever have the computing power to calculate. And as for your drop of water example, each time you drop a drop of water, the tiny variables affecting the water's path changes. The tiny hairs are moved and the angle of the hand is changed ever so slightly. But, again everything that occurs with each drop, occurs because of the precise conditions of the environment beforehand. Thus chaos theory sucks and is simply an attempt to place "randomness" on events that have way too many interacting factors for your feeble little mathematical mind to calculate.