Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Synthetic Biology Debate

If you're in the San Francisco area you might want to check out this upcoming Synthetic Biology debate with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas. It takes place Monday November 17th and is sponsored by the Long Now foundation. Here is their description:

Bioengineer Drew Endy is the leading enabler of open-source
biotechnology. Technology activist Jim Thomas is the leading critic of
biotech, based with ETC Group in Ottawa.

"Synthetic
Biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology,
with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered
biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals,
fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and
maintain and enhance human health and our environment." — Wikipedia.

Synthetic
biology is swarming ahead all over the world, at a self-accelerating
pace far greater than Moore's Law, with a range of impacts far greater
than genetically engineered food crops. Jim Thomas raises the question:
"Is Synthetic Biology reckless or wise from the perspective of 'the
long now?'. I feel the synthetic biology community is driven by
immensely short term assumptions and motivations, and as a result the
medium term prospect for this platform holds both predictable problems
and nasty surprises."

Drew Endy says: "Jim and I have somehow managed to establish a
productive working relationship, and feel that there is now a
once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the cultural foundations
needed to support long term and constructive discussions of the issues
existing and emerging with biotechnology—safety, equity, security,
community, and so on."

The point of Long Now debates is not win-lose. The point is public
clarity and deep understanding, leading to action graced with nuance
and built-in adaptivity, with long-term responsibility in mind.

Link: Synthetic Biology Debate (Long Now Seminars About Long-Term Thinking)

Audio and video of the talk will be available at the Long Now site after the event.

The ETC Group has a lot of good material about the issue on their site: ETC Group – Synthetic Biology.

Convergence 08


I just learned about Convergence 08, a two-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA featuring a bunch of futurists and other thinkers on technology. From their buzzword-heavy blurb:

On November 15-16, 2008, the world's most dangerous ideas will collide in Mountain View, California. Convergence08 examines the world-changing possibilities of Nanotech and the life-changing promises of Biotech. It is the premier forum for debate and exploration of Cogtech ethics, and ground zero of the past and future Infotech revolution. Convergence08 is an innovative, lively unconference, the first and only forum dedicated to NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) technologies.

Link: Convergence08.org.

The speaker list includes some heavyweight futurists/technologists like Paul Saffo, Aubrey de Grey and Peter Norvig, and at least one critic, Denise Caruso.

I'm not sure I get the idea of an "unconference" as the main event, though. I thought those were typically free, alternative forums that took place outside big conferences.

Aging with Aubrey de Grey Event

Aubrey de Grey's Methuselah foundation is having an event in LA later this month called Aging 2008.  From the description:

Applying the new technologies of regenerative and genetic medicine, the engineering approach to aging promises to dramatically extend healthy human life within the next few decades.

How do you and your loved ones stand to benefit from the coming biomedical revolution? Are you prepared? Is society prepared?

At Aging 2008 you will engage with top scientists and advocates as they present their findings and advice, and learn what you can do to help accelerate progress towards a cure for the disease and suffering of aging.

It looks to be a fairly one-sided affair, with no ethicists or skeptics on the program, but nonetheless it's free and might be interesting if you want to hear more about what these people are up to.

You can win "VIP" entry to the event and free admission to a dinner with Aubrey et al. by going to a contest page and describing what you'd do if you lived to 150.

The Need for a Treaty to Control Human Genetic Engineering

Jamie Metzl has an article in the current issue of Democracy magazine calling for a global treaty, modeled after the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to manage the risks of human genetic engineering.  Some excerpts:

What would a Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty
(GHST), based on the NPT model, look like? Above all, it would require
states possessing greater knowledge in the field to share basic-science
capabilities with others, in exchange for all members agreeing to
common protocols and appropriate regulations (requiring, for example,
the non-inheritability of germline genetic manipulations and the
banning of human reproductive cloning). […]

Although the prospect of human genetic modification
is terrifying to many, it is an emergent reality that holds both
tremendous promise and unimaginable danger for the world community. As
difficult as it will be to establish an international framework for
maximizing the benefits and minimizing the dangers of this
revolutionary advance, the alternative–allowing these capabilities to
emerge unregulated and unchecked–will prove nationally and
internationally destabilizing and dangerous to the future of our
species. This may sound like science fiction, but it is fast on its way
to becoming our reality. America and the world must do far more to
prepare. A Genetic Heritage Safeguard Treaty, modeled after the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, can be one important step in the right
direction.

Link: Brave New World War (free registration required).

The article was also reprinted by the Center for Genetics and Society (no registration required): Brave New World War.

New Book: Enhancing Me – The hope and the hype of human enhancement

EnhancingMe
I just picked up a copy of Enhancing Me: The Hope and the Hype of Human Enhancement
by Pete Moore.  From the book description:

In Enhancing Me, Pete Moore examines the ways in which technology
can change our bodies, our brains, our emotions, and how long we live.
He talks to people who have actually been 'enhanced' to find out what
it's like and how beneficial it is; and to the experts to find out what
the future holds – including a look at some of the more controversial,
headline-grabbing claims.  He also looks at what drives us to want to
be 'superhuman', and the consequences for the individual and society
alike:I

  • If you could live forever, would you want to?
  • If you could download your mind onto a computer, would you still be you?
  • Should we insert chips into our children, so we can track where they are?
  • Should we force violent criminals to have mood-controlling brain implants?
  • Would you want technology to improve your memory… or help you forget?

I've only read a couple of chapters, but it seems quite good.  It's written for a popular audience but is not too terribly dumbed down.  The glossy full-color presentation makes it look a bit like a museum guide (which it sort of is — see below) or a Rough Guide.  That also makes it a bit pricey at $20 in the US.  My only other quibble is that it's missing a bibliography or further reading guide (though Pete Moore does have suggestions on his own website).

Enhancing Me is part of a book series called TechKnow, produced by the Dana Centre, which is affiliated with the London science museum. The Dana Centre is "a stylish, purpose-built venue in London (UK). It is a place for
adults to take part in exciting, informative and innovative debates
about contemporary science, technology and culture." They host multiple events every week on science and technology issues. It sounds like a fantastic project — I wish they had something like that here.

So far there are four other books planned for the series, covering computer games, human enhancement in sports, living online, and the consumer electronics industry.  The site has previews, blogs, and videos for each.

Genetic Dystopia Movie News

Gattaca
A new movie version of Brave New World is planned, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring and Ridley Scott directing: Times (London), LA Times.

Last week Gattaca was rereleased as a special edition DVD.  Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society writes about it at Alternet:

But what about the real-life prospects of the horrors portrayed in Gattaca?
In 1997, fertility clinics weren’t advertising delivery of a boy or a
girl — you choose — using the embryo screening technique portrayed in
the film. The world didn’t yet know about Dolly the cloned sheep. Far
fewer genes had been mapped to far fewer traits. Genetic scientists
hadn’t yet created the monkey or the bunny engineered with a jellyfish
gene to glow in the dark, or the goats and sheep that lactate spider
silk, or the mice that run mazes faster than their nonengineered
counterparts yet also display increased sensitivity to pain.

These
technical feats are not the only portents of a future in which genetic
engineers take it upon themselves to create designer babies and
"enhanced" humans. Perhaps even more troubling is the small but
disturbing number of prognosticators who predict this future with
eagerness rather than caution; they just can’t wait for Gattaca and Brave New World to transcend fiction and become real life.

Who
are these promoters of human redesign? A few are researchers for whom
the "sweetness" of the science eclipses its social consequences. A few
more — most notably Princeton’s former mouse biologist, Lee Silver —
have shifted their careers from the lab to the talk show in order to
push scenarios of a "GenRich" ruling class and a hoi polloi composed of
"Naturals."

Then there’s the coterie of bioethicists who can’t
say no to anything that any scientist dreams up, and another crew of
libertarians who can’t say no to anything that the market might wish to
offer. And there’s the whacky band of futurists who call themselves
"transhumanists" and natter about "homo perfectus" and the
"Singularity" — the messianic moment when human technology will
suddenly cause superhuman, superintelligent "entities" to appear among
us.

Nearly all these crystal-ball gazers acknowledge that Gattaca-like
inequalities would be part of their longed-for picture. But this does
not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. From their perspective, it seems,
self-evident truths about human equality are way outdated, and dreams
of social justice and the common good are so 20th century.

Link: Are we headed for a sci-fi dystopia?

Liveblogging Your Vasectomy

On a related note… Medical science blogger "Abel Pharmboy" liveblogged his vasectomy last week.  You can relive the adventure here if you have the stomach: Liveblogging the Vasectomy Chronicles.  It’s yet another proud milestone for the web.  I don’t know who is creepier — the blogger who did this or the readers who tuned in live.

(Via io9.)

Podcast: Brave New Family

The CBC Radio show Ideas posts some of its shows as (limited-time) free podcasts.  I’ve been listening to a new two-part series called Brave New Family that’s an excellent exploration of the consequences of sperm donation.  The summary:

Sperm donation has proven to be a Pandora’s Box. The vast majority of
donor dads do not want to be found. In rare cases some children are
seeking and finding dad and half-siblings in the process. Science
journalist Alison Motluk explores the complex portrait of the brave new family.

Links: Brave New Family (a short article and list of references), Podcasts.

Note that these podcasts are only available for a few weeks.

Ideas is the show that broadcasts the Massey Lectures.  I just noticed they’ve got a new series called How to Think About Science that looks very interesting too.