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.

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.

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

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

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

  • 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.