Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

16Aug/08Off

Building a Better Human

Transhumanism, to quote Wikipedia is

“a term often used as a synonym for "human enhancement", is an international, intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and overcome what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death.”

I often think about the eugenic possibilities of applied science (technology) that may arise in the coming years, decades, and longer. I have long considered myself a transhumanist. That is, I see no general philosophical or moral issues with human enhancement or even directed human evolution, in theory.In practice, however, I think there are several issues that may well prevent our race from ever even attempting such a project. (Don't even think about mentioning the Nazis to me. Though using a warped eugenics, they were NOT transhumanistic.)

Let me first state that I think that external technological enhancement is already in early bloom and will continue to be used to ever increasing degrees. By “external” I mean the use of robotics, artificial limbs and organs, cognitive enhancement, or extension of the senses. However, there is a fundamental difference between this type of enhancement verses the actual altering of the human genetic code and inherent function of human biology.This article will focus almost exclusively on biological modifications.

it's NOT all in the genes

The moral, social, cultural, and philosophical implications of biological transhumanism have been discussed ad nauseum by many thinkers much greater than I. Books have been written (e.g. Brave New World). Movies have been made (e.g. GATTACA). However, it is only now that we are truly entering an era in which it can be discussed and contemplated from a practical standpoint, and in which we may even begin to realize the transhumanist goals. Not only have we now sequenced the entire human genome, but we are developing tools for altering the genetic code in living human beings. (see question 10 from my previous post: 23 Things Science Can Tell Us about Life, the Universe, and Everything)

However, one thing that I find sorely lacking in most discussions of how we might enhance the human condition is a discussion of Developmental Biology. Before we tackle the main question at hand, I feel I must first take a short diversion into describing development.

Most of the public have heard our genomes described as “the DNA blueprint” of humankind. As any developmental biologist will tell you, DNA is not a blueprint for anything – this is a horrible metaphor for DNA’s true function. The closest metaphor we have for the relationship between DNA and a thinking, breathing human is the relationship between a recipe and a cake. DNA does not describe anything about what a human looks like or how it works. There is not a gene that contains the information on how to make an eye, for example, or what the eye looks like or works. All it tells you is which protein to make at which time and in which cell.

As the field of development now knows, the genes encode for RNAs that encode for proteins (vast oversimplification, but lets keep it manageable). In a single fertilized egg, there are an unknown hundreds or thousands of genes and proteins “turned on” and interacting with each other and with the cell, and even with the mother (in the case of humans).

As the cell divides, new genes are turned on, others are turned off, and a new level of complexity is added. The cells now exist in a growing, changing, dynamic network. This network includes genes, RNAs, proteins, different cells talking to each other, groups of these molecules forming modular, yet interdependent pathways, and all of these interactions are now occurring in discrete areas of space and time.

Yet at the reductionist level, all of these things work by more-or-less simple rules about their own behavior. For example, gene A is only turned on when protein B is present. Protein B is only present in cell type C. So in cell type C, gene A is turned on, to make Protein D. Based on its particular shape, Protein D can only interact with Proteins E and F…etc.

This is another vast oversimplification, and one can imagine this network growing to nearly unimaginable complexity, with some proteins turning genes on, others making stuff like muscle, others making neurotransmitters, and a million other effects ensuing. To go back to our eye example, all of these interactions result in subsets of cells growing and shaping themselves into the structure of the eye at specific times and places. The environment around the eye tells the cells where to go and what to become. Some cells produce tons of beta-crystallin and make the lens. Others grow long axons and connect to the brain, while also producing molecules that react to light. We currently know of about 200 distinct cell types that arise from these interactions of genes, proteins, and cells in space and time.

So, given all this amazing complexity, will we ever reach a point at which we can enhance or evolve ourselves? My own answer is: theoretically, yes – practically, no. (again - see Question 10 of 23 Things Science Can Tell Us about Life, the Universe, and Everything).

There is no doubt that we will eventually have all the pieces of the puzzle of our own development (assuming we last long enough). But there is one key element glossed over in discussions of how we apply our scientific knowledge to human enhancement: experimentation and research on developing embryos. I think that regardless of how much data and understanding we obtain from animal studies and studies of human disease and genetics, we will never be able to apply any directed changes without experimentation on humans. This is a simple fact.

"You're starting to look like your mother"

Let’s look at one example: animal cloning. Animal cloning involves the relatively simple activities of inserting a nucleus from one animal cell into the cell of another, and coercing that cell to become an animal. We now do this all the time. Heard about Booger the cloned puppies from Korea yet? But there is one problem – in order for us to get to this advanced (and retardedly stupid) point of being able to clone a long lost and beloved dog, we had to go through the production of thousands of utterly deformed animals of many different species (remember the breast-gland derived sheep, Dolly?). I once went to a great seminar by Dr. Ian Wilmut (the Scottish scientist who cloned Dolly). He showed us some data from some mouse or other rodent cloning he was doing – I don’t remember the specifics. But I do remember that out of something like 500 animals produces, only a fraction were viable.

So I ask, does anyone really think that we can alter human development without going through similar experimental growing pains? How many seriously deformed or deficient human embryos will need to be produced before we get it right? No matter what kind of fundamental change one wishes to accomplish in an adult human body, that change will have to occur at the developmental level, altering specific developmental pathways in specific cells. No matter how big the "cloud" of data, or how vast our computing power, we will always have to test any technique to make sure it works (despite the fact that some actually think that astronomical amounts of data make science unnecessary).

My guess is that such evolutionary enhancements would cause be far too many deformed babies for any even half-moral or ethical people to allow. There are people right now attempting to clone humans, and even this is morally reprehensible. Why? Despite the fact that I have no God, no absolute or cosmologically meaningful morals, I still have an in built belief that conscious-human destruction or harm is wrong. It is hardwired in humanity to place value on human life (with some exceptions and gray areas). Furthermore, there are no positive benefits of human cloning for reproduction, other than scientific knowledge itself, and it will unarguably cause deleterious effects on an unknown fraction of embryos, leading to suffering. And it will most certainly NOT bring loved ones back, though apparently there are thousands of gullible pet-owners who believe otherwise. But I digress. Granted, we may come very very - tantalizingly - close to achieving directed enhancement through work in animals, in human cell culture and tissue culture, but this will not quite be enough.

In essence, I think it is near impossible that we will be able to progress to a point where we can actual tinker with our own genomes (at least during or before developmental stages), due solely to cultural/ethical issues, though it will be technically possible. We will definitely attempt to change adult cells (e.g. gene therapy to give certain cells the ability to produce insulin, which is already underway), but this is a far cry from the types of changes to consciously evolve our form and function – a far cry from adding, subtracting, or changing pieces within the insanely complex developmental pathways that lead to our construction.

Despite my pessimism, there is one possible work around that I can foresee. It will take at least one mad scientist working in conditions that would never be considered ethical today, but it is at least conceivable. Imagine the creation of a human being without a brain – without a consciousness. This is, in fact, one goal of Regenerative Medicine today, though not explicitly stated. We will eventually at least be able to produce organs outside of the body – to grow them in a dish. Now if we had an entire human body devoid of a brain, one could easily see us performing experiments on such a life form without worrying about pain and suffering. (Note: I am ignoring moral qualms from anyone who believes in a soul, or believes that we are “as we were meant to be,” or anyone who thinks that the word “natural” actually means something). But for us to create such an entity, this will likely involve ethically questionable research on humans as well, and it may not even be possible to develop a human without a brain while maintaining the integrity of all other organs. Nonetheless, such a creature could at least give us a “model organism” on which to test our various enhancement techniques. Of course, none of these enhancements would involve cognitive function enhancement, for obvious reasons.

All of this type of research, should it ever occur in any form, will require a progressive revolution in the populace at large. We will have to overcome our archaic “playing God” ideas – (honestly, in what ways have we NOT been trying to play God since the discovery of fire, and the domestification of plants and animals). We will have to get over this idea that somehow “natural” things are bette
r than “unnatural” - the words have no meaning in reality. Accepting genetically-modified foods - a potential savior to world poverty, though it is admittedly rife with its own inherent issues that WILL be addressed - will be a necessary first step. It will also require computing power many magnitudes greater than what we have now, but I think this will inevitably come.

In summary, I have very little faith that our society and culture will allow such enhancements, despite the fact that this is the only way we will evolve, barring major cataclysm. I also think side-effects such as the class divisions between altered people seen in GATTACA, might prove to be too big of an issue. I’m not sure human nature will ever progress beyond dividing itself on whatever divisions are possible. Perhaps if we changed our brains…ahh Catch-22.

Then again, I am but a product of today. Who knows what cultural and societal changes may come? Perhaps our children, or great, great…grandchildren will embrace transhumanism.

I doubt it. As I’ve said before, multiple times, humans are no longer evolving at a macro scale, regardless of what cultural norms envelop us. I think that our animal natures will always grow to repress any escape we might attempt from them.

I hope not.

I really want my baby to have gills.