Godwin vs Mad Scientists

Posted: January 27, 2010 in Science
Tags: , , , ,

As many of you know, I’m a scientist. Specifically, these days I’m a many-body quantum chemist. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t keep up with interesting developments in other fields of science. As many of you also know, I’m a reasonably staunch liberal. I enjoy arguing with conservative wackos. I enjoy arguing with rational conservatives too, but the wackos are really much more fun. This week, while doing my duty, I was called (for the first time in a long time) a “Mad Scientist.” Also, I won the argument, as the first response to my post allowed me to invoke Godwin’s Law #FTW.

The argument that ensued, inspired this post. You might ask, “Why did the argument go any further? Didn’t you invoke Godwin for the win?” Well, you’re right. But one thing I have never considered fair is invoking Godwin when arguing with self-hating, right-wing, reactionary, corporate fascists who don’t even understand the political spectrum. These are the people who think that Obama is Hitler after all. Check out that page. Seriously. Apparently God’s language is American. There’s just so much wrong with these people, it’s amazing.

I wasn’t arguing with those particular wackos. I was arguing with some different wackos, and I began innocently enough, by noting a few interesting facts, among them the rapid advancement in genetic engineering which is allowing us to design interesting new species. I pointed out that it’s really cool living in the future, and that there are a lot of other really neat things which scientists are working to perfect.

Like the fact that these days we have pluripotent stem cells which can be induced from normal cells. Also, that we’ve cloned sheep and scientists are working on using similar technology to attempt to bring extinct species like Pyrenean ibex back to life. I can’t wait until they bring us sabre-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths. We’re genuinely on the brink of Jurassic Park. I also noted that there has been a great deal of work designing genomes from scratch. Now this work has been limited to bacteria at this point, but this is the technology for creating new species from scratch, base-pair by base-pair.

So at this point, I wondered what the future of the future might look like. I asked, what comes after humans? We now have the seeds of the technology to direct the evolution of the human race. Let’s think 50-100 years into the future. How can we design the children of the future? Do you want a kid with brown eyes? What about wings? How about gills? It might be nice to live in the oceans. Can we engineer variants of humans which are better suited for surviving in space? What about living on other planets? Wouldn’t it be nice to design your own children?

It was at this point that I was screamed at and called a “Mad Scientist” and likened to Josef Mengele because I had the audacity to consider “designer babies.” My response, of course, was to simply point out that they’re already here. Genetic Testing can already determine whether or not an embryo has a variety of genetic disorders before being implanted using IVF. It can also determine the sex, and a few other characteristics as well. Genetic Testing is currently being used for non-medical sex selection, which sounds like “designer babies” to me. Once the technology improves, what’s to prevent selection for eye color or height? What happens when the technology for altering specific genes before implantation (a.k.a. correcting genetic “defects”) is perfected? What are the limitations for the species that can be designed when we can start from scratch and build their genomes base pair by base pair? This technology isn’t here yet, that’s for certain. But it’s coming. Look at what we can do now:

The techniques used to identify criminals using DNA were first reported in 1985. It took a while to implement them, but now, smart criminals know that DNA will probably nail them if they get caught. When I was in high school, sequencing the entire human genome seemed a lifetime away. In February of last year it cost $5000. What’s going to happen when we can sequence a human genome for less than the cost of a cup of coffee? With a device that you can hold in the palm of your hand? Smart people think that these things will both happen in the next decade or two. Are you ready for that? Is society?

Based on some discussions I’ve had recently, certain conservative reactionary elements of society are FAR from ready for this technology. They’re reacting to it with fear, distrust, and outright luddite inspired hatred. And there are plenty of liberals who are upset as well. Protests against GMOs are becoming quite commonplace on the left as well. I find it interesting that the people who protest genetic modification of crop plants to improve harvest yields are the same ones demanding increased research to treat genetic diseases. It’s basically the same technology.

That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate ethical concerns. But most people who are having the discussion are mistaking ethics for morality. What do I mean? Let me explain. It’s becoming more and more clear that humans aren’t the only people on this planet. Also, every day brings an increasing probability of finding life as we discover more and more extrasolar planets. How will we ethically deal with the life that we find out there? How will we ethically deal with the life we’ve already found here?

Life on this planet is cyclical. Everything on the planet eats something else, except for the photosynthetic plants, which make their energy from sunlight. Are plants the only moral creatures on the planet? They’ve certainly evolved to a point where they don’t need to consume other organisms to sustain themselves.

Most everyone who knows me, knows I’m a card carrying carnivore. I likes me some meat. (Lamb. Tender, succulent, lamb. #nomnomnom) But even I understand that the little sheep have feelings. I also understand that there’s this thing called a food chain, and that there is nothing morally wrong with being an omnivore. A bear has no moral problem eating the salmon. There are, however, plenty of ethical problems with eating meat that has been factory farmed.

These are moral and/or ethical issues with which we as a species need to come to grips. So, let’s go a little further down the rabbit hole:

What would happen if we could engineer humans that could photosynthesize? That would eliminate the need to consume other species. We could lounge in the sun and nap all day and then party all night. The only drawback I can see would be that we would be green. Is that such a big price to pay to solve a whole lot of ethical issues? On the plus side: no more factory farms. On the minus side: no more bacon. I don’t know, but I do know that at the end of the day, it’s not just dolphins that have feelings.

I guess I’ll leave you with more questions than answers. That’s one of the things scientists like to do; it just makes the world more interesting. Feel free to answer any of them in the comments.

  1. Ellie says:

    We’ve talked about this a little bit before, but one of the things I’m worried about where the future is going is a splitting of superhuman / human that is most likely going to be divided along economic lines and thus leaving the most vulnerable in our society behind (as has happened since the beginning of time). Kindof like a closer version of the future described in H.G. Well’s Time Machine.

    Discussions of ethics must include the levels of privilege that put certain groups of people above others especially when we beginning talking about transhumanism.

    • Jason Ellis says:

      I guess one of the things I want to start discussing is redefining the concept of ‘personhood.’ Right now, the predominant worldview is that humans have a ‘special place’ above all other species. I think that this needs to go away before we can really have a reasoned discussion about ethical behavior with regard to the human/transhuman debate.

      There are a lot of people who make a lot of money off the suffering and exploitation of other species. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money off of exploiting humans, too. We haven’t gotten rid of that unethical behavior in our species (and just about all humans (with the exceptions of psycho- and sociopathic individuals) agree that exploiting people is a bad thing (TM)). We need to get rid of unethical behavior toward ALL species. The only difference between cows and people (biologically) is a few base pairs. Yet we exploit and eat cows, and that’s not considered unethical? Why is that?

      One of the things I was trying to point out is that there is nothing MORALLY wrong with eating cows, but there is something ethically wrong with factory farming them, and not respecting their lives. How do we restore that ethical balance? I don’t know.

      (full disclosure, I like to eat cow. I just try not to eat the factory farmed ones.)

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