Tag Archives: genetic engineering

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Public Opposition to Biotech Endangers Your Life and Health – Article by Edward Hudgins

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Categories: Culture, Science, Technology, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
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Do you want to be smarter, healthier, and live longer? Remarkably, a new Pew survey found that most Americans answer “No!” if it requires using certain new technologies. This is a wakeup call for scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, transhumanists, and all of us who value our lives: we must fight for our lives on the battlefield of values.

CRISPRWorries about human enhancement

We all understand how information technology has transformed our world with PCs, smartphones, the Internet, and Google. Nanotech, robotics, artificial intelligence, and, especially, genetic engineering are poised to unleash the next wave of wealth creation and improvements of the human condition.

But a new Pew survey entitled U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities found that “Majorities of U.S. adults say they would be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ worried about gene editing (68%), brain chips (69%) and synthetic blood (63%),” technologies that in years to come could make us healthier, smarter, and stronger. While some say they “would be both enthusiastic and worried … overall, concern outpaces excitement.” Further, “More say they would not want enhancements of their brains and their blood (66% and 63%, respectively) than say they would want them (32% and 35%).”

Simply a reflection of individuals making decisions about their own lives, as is their right? Not quite. Their concerns about technology are already causing cultural and political pushback from left and right that could derail the advances sought by those of us who want better lives.

The Pew data reveals two ideological sources of opposition to new technologies.

Religion and meddling with nature

brain.chip_.grids_The survey found that 64% of Americans with a high religious commitment say “gene editing giving babies a much reduced disease risk” is “meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross.” Are you stunned that anyone could prefer to expose their own babies to debilitating or killer diseases when a prevention is possible?

And 65% with such a commitment have a similar opinion of “brain chip implants for much improved cognitive abilities.” Better to remain ignorant when a way to more knowledge is possible?

Obsession with inequality of abilities

When asked if “gene editing giving babies a much reduced disease risk” is an appropriate use of technology, 54% answered “Yes” if it results in people “always equally healthy as the average person.” But only 42% approved if it results in people “far healthier than any human known to date.” Similarly, 47% approved of synthetic blood if it results in physical improvements in individuals “equal to their own peak ability,” while only 28% approved if it results in improvements “far above that of any human known to date.”

Here we see the ugly side of egalitarianism. Better for everyone to be less healthy than for some to be healthier than others.

synthetic_blood-alamy_SmallThis inequality concern is another aspect of warped values we find in economic discussions. What if everyone enjoys rising levels of prosperity in a free-market system, but some individuals—Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg?—become much wealthier than others through their own productive efforts? It’s win-win! But many would punish and demonize such achievers because they are the “top 1 percent,” even if such treatment means that those achievers produce less and, thus, everyone is less prosperous. Better we’re all poorer but more equal.

A disappearing digital divide

We saw this inequality concern in the 1990s when desktop PCs and the Internet were taking off. Some projected a “digital divide.” There would be more intelligent and advantaged individuals because they could access a universe of information through these technologies. And there would be those with little access who would fall further behind. Of course, what fell was the price of those technologies, which even then were accessible for free at most local libraries and now are in laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and affordable to most low-income individuals. The divide disappeared.

 Computers

There were early adopters prosperous enough to try new information technologies. Similarly, there will be early adopters of biomedical tech, which later will become accessible to all—but only if enough people value it rather than fear it and demand that the government stop it.

The fight for values

In a companion piece to the Pew survey, entitled Human Enhancement: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection, Pew senior writer David Masci offers a good overview of serious moral issues raised by biotech and other exponential technologies. And those of us who welcome these technologies must fight for the moral values on which they are based.

We truly value our lives, and the happiness and flourishing that we as individuals can get out of them through our own achievements. We must shake others out of their spiritual lethargy so that they too will not let their precious lives waste away.

We must promote the values of reason and science as the means to better technology and as guides for our individual lives. Misguided dogmas, whether religious or political, lead to social and personal stagnation.

We must develop and implement strategies to promote human achievement, including enhancement of our capacities, as a value in our culture through our institutions—schools, media—and our aesthetics—movies, art, music.

We must offer an exciting and compelling vision of a fantastic, nonfiction future, of a world as it can be and should be, especially to young people who thirst for a future that will be worth living.

The values on which this future is based will not sell themselves. We must not only create the technology that will allow us to live healthier, smarter and stronger. We must also create the culture that will encourage and celebrate the creation and use of such technology.

Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy.

Copyright The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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Are We Entering The Age of Exponential Growth? – Article by Marian L. Tupy

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Categories: Science, Technology, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatMarian L. Tupy
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In his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, the famed futurist Ray Kurzweil proposed “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” According to Kurzweil’s law, “the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including but not limited to the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially.” I mention Kurzweil’s observation, because it is sure beginning to feel like we are entering an age of colossal and rapid change. Consider the following:

According to The Telegraph, “Genes which make people intelligent have been discovered [by researchers at the Imperial College London] and scientists believe they could be manipulated to boost brain power.” This could usher in an era of super-smart humans and accelerate the already fast process of scientific discovery.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has successfully “blasted off from Cape Canaveral, delivered communications satellites to orbit before its main-stage booster returned to a landing pad.” Put differently, space flight has just become much cheaper since main-stage booster rockets, which were previously non-reusable, are also very expensive.

The CEO of Merck has announced a major breakthrough in the fight against lung cancer. Keytruda “is a new category of drugs that stimulates the body’s immune system.” “Using Keytruda,” Kenneth Frazier said, “will extend [the life of lung cancer sufferers] … by approximately 13 months on average. We know that it will reduce the risk of death by 30-40 percent for people who had failed on standard chemo-therapy.”

Also, there has been massive progress in the development of “edible electronics.” New technology developed by Bristol Robotics Laboratory “will allow the doctor to feel inside your body without making a single incision, effectively taking the tips of the doctor’s fingers and transplant them onto the exterior of the [edible] robotic pill. When the robot presses against the interior of the intestinal tract, the doctor will feel the sensation as if her own fingers were pressing the flesh.”

Marian L. Tupy is the editor of HumanProgress.org and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He specializes in globalization and global wellbeing, and the political economy of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. His articles have been published in the Financial Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The U.K. Spectator, Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, Reason magazine, and various other outlets both in the United States and overseas. Tupy has appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CNN International, BBC World, CNBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and other channels. He has worked on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Commission on Angola, testified before the U.S. Congress on the economic situation in Zimbabwe, and briefed the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department on political developments in Central Europe. Tupy received his B.A. in international relations and classics from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews in Great Britain.

This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Will Banning Genetic Engineering Kill You? – Article by Edward Hudgins

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The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
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One headline reads “British baby given genetically-edited immune cells to beat cancer in world first.” Another headline reads “Top biologists debate ban on gene-editing.” It’s a literal life-and-death debate.

And if you care to live, pay attention to this philosophical clash!

Exponential growth in genetic engineering

Genetic engineering is on an exponential growth path. In 2001 the cost of sequencing a human-sized genome was about $100 million. By 2007 the cost was down to $10 million.

layla-richard-genetic-engineeringNow it’s just over $1,000. Scientists and even do-it-yourself biohackers can now cheaply access DNA information that could allow them to discover cures for diseases and much more.

Recently, for example, baby Layla Richards [at right] was diagnosed with leukemia. But when none of the usual treatments worked, doctors created designer immune cells, injected them into the little girl and the treatment worked. She was cured.

Designer babies?

But there have been concerns about such engineering for decades; indeed, precautionary guidelines were drawn up by a group of biologists at the 1975 Asilomar conference in California. And now, at a joint conference in Washington, D.C. of the National Academies of Medicine and Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, a cutting-edge genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 came under attack because it can be used to edit the genomes of sperm, eggs, and embryos.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins argued that the children that would result from such editing “can’t give consent to having their genomes altered” and that “the individuals whose lives are potentially affected by germline manipulation could extend many generations into the future.” Hille Haker, a Catholic theologian from Loyola University Chicago, agreed and proposed a two year ban on all research into such manipulation of genomes. Others argued that such manipulation could lead to “designer babies,” that is, parents using this technology to improve or enhance the intelligence and strength of their children.

These arguments are bizarre to say the least.

Damning to misery

To begin with, there is virtual universal agreement among religious and secular folk alike that from birth and until a stage of maturity at which they can potentially guide their lives by their own reason, the consent of children is not needed when their parents make many potentially life-altering decisions for them. Why should this reasonable rule be different for decisions made by parents before a child is born?

And consider that the principal decisions with gene-editing technology would be to eliminate the possibility of the child later in life having Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, cancers, and a host of other ailments that plague humanity. Is it even conceivable that any rational individual would not thank their parents for ensuring their health and longevity? Isn’t this what all parents wish for their children? Why would anyone deny parents the tools to ensure healthy children? How much continued misery and death are those who would delay genetic research or ban this new technology inflicting on parents and children alike?

And so what if the “slippery slope” is parents ensuring that their children are more intelligent or stronger? Right now such traits are a matter of a genetic lottery and every parent hopes for the best. What parent wouldn’t jump at the chance to ensure such beneficial capacities for their children?

A privileged biological elite?

Some might pull out the ugly egalitarian argument that the “rich” could produce biologically elite “superchildren,” leaving the rest of humanity behind: an inferior, impoverished breed to be exploited. But this is the same spurious argument made about every technology that initially allows more prosperous individuals to better themselves ahead of others. We heard two decades ago that only the “rich” would be able to afford computers and the internet, allowing them to be more informed and, thus, enabling them to oppress the downtrodden masses. But exponential changes in technologies ensure that just as computers and the internet have become inexpensive and available to all, so will genetic enhancements become after the techniques are perfected for prosperous beta-testers.

And in any case, just as it is immoral to deprive those who honestly earn their wealth of the fruits of their labor just because others have yet to earn theirs, so it is immoral to deprive them of the opportunity to provide the best biology for their children just because it will take time for the technology to become available to all.

Precautionary principle or proactionary principle?

Many opponents of genetic engineering fall back on the so-called “precautionary principle.” This is the notion that if products or technologies pose any imaginable risks—often highly speculative or vague ones unsupported by any sound science—then such products or technologies should be severely restricted, regulated, or banned. The burden is placed on innovators to prove that no harm to humans will result from their innovations.

But had this standard been applied in the past, we would not have the modern world today. Indeed, by this standard, precaution would dictate that fire was just too dangerous for humans and that cavemen should have been barred from rubbing two sticks together.

Max More, a founder of the transhumanist philosophy, offers instead the “proactionary principle.” He argues that “People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity.” And “Progress should not bow to fear, but should proceed with eyes wide open.” And that we need to “Protect the freedom to innovate and progress while thinking and planning intelligently for collateral effects.”

Freedom to progress

Fortunately, more individuals than More reason this way. At the D.C. conference, University of Manchester Professor John Harris argued “We all have an inescapable moral duty: To continue with scientific investigation to the point at which we can make a rational choice. We are not yet at that point. It seems to me, consideration of a moratorium is the wrong course. Research is necessary.” But the opinion of academics one way or another might not matter. Just as it was do-it-yourselfers and innovators in garages that made the computer and information revolution, genetic innovations might well come from such achievers as well. But they won’t do it if they are not free to do so.

If you value your life and the lives and health of your children, you had better work for this freedom to innovate.

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

Copyright The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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All Food Is Genetically Modified. Now We’re Just Better at It. – Article by Chelsea Follett

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Categories: Science, Technology, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Chelsea Follett
September 11, 2015
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There is huge potential for progress in biotech.

A recent article in Business Insider showing what the ancestors of modern fruits and vegetables looked like painted a bleak picture. A carrot was indistinguishable from any skinny brown root yanked up from the earth at random. Corn looked nearly as thin and insubstantial as a blade of grass. Peaches were once tiny berries with more pit than flesh. Bananas were the least recognizable of all, lacking the best features associated with their modern counterparts: the convenient peel and the seedless interior. How did these barely edible plants transform into the appetizing fruits and vegetables we know today? The answer is human ingenuity and millennia of genetic modification.

Carrot_Comparison(Photo Credit: Genetic Literacy Project and Shutterstock via Business Insider).

Humanity is continuously innovating to produce more food with less land, less water, and fewer emissions. As a result, food is not only more plentiful, but it is also coming down in price.

Tech_Food_Cheaper

The pace of technological advancement can be, if you will pardon the pun, difficult to digest. Lab-grown meat created without the need to kill an animal is already a reality. The first lab-grown burger debuted in 2013, costing over $300,000, but the price of a lab-grown burger patty has since plummeted, and the innovation’s creator “expects to be able to produce the patties on a large enough scale to sell them for under $10 a piece in a matter of five years.”

People who eschew meat are a growing demographic, and lab-grown meat is great news for those who avoid meat solely for ethical reasons. It currently takes more land, energy, and water to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce equivalent calories in the form of chickens, but also grains. So, cultured meat could also lead to huge gains in food production efficiency.

Another beautiful example of human progress in the realm of food is golden rice. The World Health Organization estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, and about half of them die within a year of losing their sight. Golden rice, largely a brainchild of the private Rockefeller Foundation, is genetically engineered to produce beta carotene, which the human body can convert into vitamin A. Golden rice holds the potential to protect hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world from vitamin A deficiency, preserving their sight and, in many cases, saving their lives.

Humans have been modifying food for millennia, and today we’re modifying it in many exciting ways, from cultured meat to golden rice. Sadly, it has become fashionable to fear modern genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), even though scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMOs are safe.

Anti-GMO hysteria motivated the popular restaurant chain Chipotle to proclaim itself “GMO-free” earlier this year (a dubious claim), prompted a political movement calling for the labeling of GM foods (a needless regulation implying to consumers that GMOs are hazardous), and even fueled opposition to golden rice. HumanProgress.org advisory board member Matt Ridley summarized the problem in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

After 20 years and billions of meals, there is still no evidence that [GMOs] harm human health, and ample evidence of their environmental and humanitarian benefits. Vitamin-enhanced GM “golden rice” has been ready to save lives for years, but opposed at every step by Greenpeace. Bangladeshi eggplant growers spray their crops with insecticides up to 140 times in a season, risking their own health, because the insect-resistant GMO version of the plant is fiercely opposed by environmentalists. Opposition to GMOs has certainly cost lives.

Besides, what did GMOs replace? Before transgenic crop improvement was invented, the main way to breed new varieties was “mutation breeding”: to scramble a plant’s DNA randomly, using gamma rays or chemical mutagens, in the hope that some of the monsters thus produced would have better yields or novel characteristics. Golden Promise barley, for example, a favorite of organic brewers, was produced this way. This method still faces no special regulation, whereas precise transfer of single well known genes, which could not possibly be less safe, does.

Fortunately, while regulations motivated by anti-GMO sentiment may slow down progress, they probably cannot do so indefinitely. For those who wish to avoid modern GM foods, the market will always provide more traditional alternatives, and for the rest of us, human ingenuity will likely continue to increase agricultural efficiency and improve food in ways we cannot even imagine. Learn more about the progress we have already made by visiting HumanProgress.org and selecting the “Food” category under “Browse Data.”

Chelsea Follett (Chelsea German) works at the Cato Institute as a Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.
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This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Second Interview of Gennady Stolyarov II and Wendy Stolyarov by Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club – November 27, 2014

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The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II and Wendy Stolyarov II
November 27, 2014
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ELFC_DIW_Second_Interview
 

Today Wendy Stolyarov and I had an excellent second interview and conversation with Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club. We discussed our recent activities related to the life-extension movement, the impact of “Death is Wrong”, and many philosophical and practical ideas surrounding the pursuit of indefinite longevity.

Watch the recorded interview here.

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An Analysis of Ethical Issues in the Film “Jurassic Park” (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Fiction, Philosophy, Science, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 26, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2004 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 18,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  ***
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 26, 2014
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The central ethical dilemma of the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, hinges on the question of whether man should employ his knowledge of genetics to revive a species that had become extinct as a result of natural processes. The scenario presented by the film is one of utter pandemonium and devastation after carnivorous dinosaurs, such as velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus rex defy security measures and trample on the human-built infrastructure of Jurassic Park. From this arises a more complex series of questions: to what extent should man manipulate genetic information? Which species can he legitimately revive, and which must he refrain from reanimating? At which point is it proper to state that one has taken sufficient precautions against potential threats and proceed with a given project?
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John Hammond is the founder of Jurassic Park, an entrepreneur who wants to give his visitors an absolutely genuine experience in observing revived dinosaurs and omit no element of the Mesozoic era, even the carnivorous dinosaurs that view humans as prey. Hammond introduces a group of scientists to Jurassic Park and seeks to convince them to give their professional endorsement to the endeavor as a means of mollifying his investors. He repeatedly ignores warnings from Dr. Malcolm and others that the situation is likely to go awry and arranges the tour to take place when there is a high likelihood of a storm occurring. In the meantime, Dennis Nedry, who programs the security systems in Jurassic Park, seeks to steal valuable dinosaur embryos and sell them on the black market. In order to escape and cause havoc in Jurassic Park, he disables the security systems and lets the dinosaurs loose during the storm. By the time the security systems are reestablished, the dinosaurs have already penetrated the main compound.

Dr. Ian Malcolm is a chaos theorist who constantly warns that Hammond’s seeming control over the course Jurassic Park will follow is a mere illusion, that there are numerous factors that cannot be foreseen when two species separated by 65 million years of evolutionary history collide. His prediction is realized, as the all-female contingent of dinosaurs finds a way to reproduce by spontaneously changing sex, as their frog DNA permits. Drs. Grant and Sappler, specialists in the fauna and flora of the Mesozoic, display concern about Hammond’s introduction of certain species into the park which would not be able to adapt to an age in which they do not belong and behave as if they were still in the Mesozoic.

In order to protect visitors from the dinosaurs, Jurassic Park possesses a system of security fences and remote feeding, which allows goats and other medium-sized mammals to be airlifted into the dinosaur cages while keeping humans out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, this does not take into account the fact that carnivorous dinosaurs are instructed by their instincts to hunt their prey, not ingest passive critters that are delivered to them. When Nedry disables the security systems, the dinosaurs have their chance to lunge at the tour vans in search of more active, human prey. They have also begun to feed on one another, the velociraptors consuming small dinosaurs and being in turn hunted by T. rex. The velociraptors are the most agile, coordinated, and intelligent of the dinosaurs, and have even learned to open door handles, surprising even the initial skeptics of the Jurassic Park endeavor. During the course of the dinosaurs’ siege of the Jurassic Park compound, Hammond’s hopes to revive Jurassic Park with enhanced security measures are shattered, and the objective of the humans becomes, as Dr. Sappler suggested, to save the lives of those endangered by the catastrophe. Hammond is not thrilled with the destruction of his most ambitious dream, and regretfully eyes the fossilized mosquito at the tip of his cane, but he must eventually come to terms with the reality of his experiment’s failure.

Jurassic Park’s failure results in numerous fatalities, including that of the visiting lawyer, the chief programmer, and the man in charge of feeding and containing the dinosaurs. Other lives are placed on the line, including those of Dr. Grant, Dr. Malcolm, and Hammond’s own grandchildren. Even after security is established, no place on the island is safe, as the velociraptors penetrate into the main compound and a helicopter is summoned to evacuate the survivors. Aside from the human toll, the consequences of leaving an unmonitored dinosaur ecosystem in place are problematic, to say the least. The dinosaurs are able to breed and entrench themselves on the island. The films which follow Jurassic Park explore the situation on the island after humans return to it to face a far stronger and more aggressive dinosaur population. Moreover, The Lost World depicts a threat to the mainland human population as a T. rex is illegally imported into the United States. These problems were, obviously, not foreseen by Hammond and other creators of Jurassic Park.

The creation of Jurassic Park was an attempt at beneficence, intended to grant visitors of all economic standings an experience hitherto closed to them, a glimpse at an era 65 million years in the past. Moreover, Hammond sought to exercise his autonomy in employing scientific knowledge of genetics to engineer new species in order to earn profit and personal satisfaction. However, the principle of nonmaleficence was neglected in this process, since, though Hammond did take security precautions intended to avoid harm to visitors, he did not fully consider other potential threats and carried the project forward without analyzing possible implications of blending dinosaur DNA with that of frogs or subjecting the park’s security to the control of the unstable and unreliable Dennis Nedry.

An alternate course of action to the swift establishment of Jurassic Park would have been to proceed at a more cautious pace and be more discriminatory as to the features included in the park. Herbivorous dinosaurs alone would not have posed a dramatic threat to human lives, and would likely have been docile enough to be contained by the security measures that the park possessed. This is supported by the fact that Dr. Grant and Hammond’s grandchildren were able to pet a gigantic herbivore and only received a burst of mucus in the face.

Moreover, a more selective process for employment at Jurassic Park might have been able to weed out individuals like Nedry, who was principally responsible for security failures. Every field of human existence has its blackguards and deceivers. This does not justify curtailing endeavors in those fields, but it does warrant a more stringent approach toward keeping those individuals out of positions of power.

As for employing the DNA of frogs, it might have been possible to locate a species that does not spontaneously change sex and use its genes to fill the “gaps” in dinosaur DNA. Dr. Malcolm’s ideas of a complex interplay of factors determining the outcome of a given event should not deter individuals from undertaking endeavors as novel and ambitious as Jurassic Park, but the complexity, which I think is perfectly within the grasp of human cognition, does need to be taken into account. This would fit the ethics of principlism, as Jurassic Park already fulfills the standards of beneficence and autonomy, and nonmaleficence can be achieved by taking stricter precautions to control the dinosaurs and the security measures of the park. The principle of justice would necessitate that individuals like Hammond have the right, like all others living in a free country, to use their property and create a profit-making venture (this can be termed comparative justice in a paradigm where the right to free enterprise exists in a majority of cases).

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An Analysis of Ethical Issues in the Film “Gattaca” (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

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Categories: Fiction, Justice, Philosophy, Self-Improvement, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 4, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2004 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007. It earned over 40,000 page views since, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time. 
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 4, 2014
***

The central ethical dilemma of the 1997 Andrew Niccol film Gattaca concerns the manner in which an individual ought to be judged. Should it be by the composition of his genome, present at birth, or by the attributes of personality and ambition that are chosen by that individual? In the futuristic society depicted in the film, genetic engineering allows for the elimination of almost all physical defects in newborns, whose bodily characteristics later render them far more favorable candidates for employment than those whose genes had not been enhanced in this manner. Eventually, interviews are conducted not to assess an applicant’s character and determination, but his genetic code. The even more fundamental question that arises from this is, “What determines the essential identity of a human being? Is it his genetic code, or is it something else?”

Vincent is a child born in the obsolete manner, and thus his genome is riddled with “errors,” from which high “probabilities” of him obtaining certain ailments later in life are inferred. Nevertheless, these are probabilities only, and Vincent is healthy, athletic, and yearns to one day explore outer space. Unfortunately, he is denied admission to Gattaca, the facility of the space program, on the basis of his genome alone. Despite his splendid knowledge of astronomy and navigation, the best test scores in the world will not admit him.

Yet Vincent is not content with the position of janitor, and “borrows” the identity of Jerome Morrow, a paralyzed individual with a superb genome. A series of complex procedures is designed to allow Vincent to pass all the substance tests and gain admission to Gattaca under the name of Jerome Morrow. Jerome may have the genetic endowment to enter Gattaca, but he lacks the will, and thus harbors no objection to Vincent taking his place. Another employee at Gattaca, Irene, had also been born in the obsolete manner, but her genome is adequate enough for her to be permitted to work on minor tasks. She suspects that Vincent may be connected with the recent murder of the mission director, who was about to uncover Vincent’s actual identity. In the process, however, she enters a relationship with Vincent, and faces the dilemma of whether or not to disclose his identity to the police.

Vincent’s brother, Anton, is the inspector heading the murder investigation. Throughout his childhood, he sought to demonstrate his superiority to Vincent by virtue of his enhanced genetic endowment. Nevertheless, Vincent had once saved Anton’s life in a game of “chicken,” where Anton’s body had failed him, while Vincent’s was able to endure. Anton wishes to maintain the image of his superiority and is immensely jealous of Vincent’s successful aspiring to the heights of outer space.

Vincent attempts to deceive the security systems at Gattaca by pretending to be Jerome Morrow and presenting samples of bodily substances prepared by Jerome for various examinations. In the meantime, he studies and works diligently, and his level of performance at Gattaca is precisely what is anticipated of a man with a privileged genetic endowment. Thus, only a few people ever come to suspect that Vincent is a “borrowed ladder,” a fabricator of his genetic identity. Vincent is set to depart on a mission into space, after which his individual merits will overrule his genome conclusively, and he will no longer be subject to genetic security tests. However, the murder of the mission director subjects Gattaca to a series of extremely intrusive investigations by police that threaten to uncover Vincent’s true identity and even arrest him for murder, even though Vincent is innocent of the crime.

Vincent’s tenacity and resolve to enter space ultimately allow him to successfully endure turbulent times. Despite a multitude of close calls, he is saved from universal detection, though he is recognized by Irene, whose personal admiration for Vincent overrides the fact that Vincent had broken the law. Anton also recognizes his brother and threatens to arrest him, still acting on his childhood jealousy. However, a final game of “chicken,” in which Vincent saves Anton once again, proves that Vincent’s defiance of the inferior expectations imposed upon him by his society has enabled him to exceed in his abilities individuals like Anton, whom societal expectations had favored. The doctor at Gattaca recognized Vincent’s individual merits and decided to fabricate a “valid” test for him on the day of the launch. To people like the doctor, Vincent has proved his worth and his genetic composition has become irrelevant.

Vincent’s course of action, though in violation of the law, was not in violation of moral principles. Vincent had harmed no one by his attempt to pursue his ambitions at Gattaca and in outer space; thus, his action exhibited the principle of nonmaleficence. His exploratory endeavors are of immense benefit to both himself and the level of knowledge available to the general society; thus, his action fulfills the principle of beneficence. His action was an exercise of his individual autonomy and right to self-determination in the face of a hierarchical culture that repressed these rights. Finally, his action attempted to allow Vincent to experience the just treatment that he deserved on the basis of his merits, and which, absent the action, would have been denied to him on the basis of his genome. Thus, the action fulfills the principle of justice.

A rational society would have resolved the ethical dilemma of the proper criterion of judging an individual by eschewing determinism altogether. Vincent should not have initially been seen solely as the product of his genes, for a man is born tabula rasa where the mind is concerned. The human genome determines only the structural mechanisms that exist in the individual organism. How the individual employs those mechanisms is a matter of pure willpower and determination. Few genes can conclusively determine an individual’s fate; a high probability of heart disease can be reduced by strenuous exercise, of the sort Vincent engaged in. A low “intelligence quotient” is no obstacle to an individual reading, comprehending, and applying immense volumes of material, so long as the interest to do so is clearly seen.

Vincent should have been admitted to Gattaca on the basis of a one-on-one interview process that tested his knowledge, physical skill, and enthusiasm for space exploration, for, without these, the finest genetic endowment can still produce a Jerome Morrow, a man who is paralyzed not only in body (by an accident) but in mind (by lack of ambition). The theory that fits this solution is principlism. Vincent is not harming anyone by pursuing his own favorite field of exploration; thus, the action is nonmaleficent. He is amply benefiting himself and others through his skilled endeavors in the realm of space exploration; thus, the action is beneficent. He is allowed to exercise his individual autonomy and pursue his goals, regardless of societal prejudices. And, finally, he is entitled to the same freedom of action and opportunity that other members of his society (the genetically engineered individuals) possess, which passes the test for comparative justice.

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Extending Life in Mice With Artificially Shortened Life Spans is Rarely Directly Relevant or Useful – Article by Reason

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Categories: Science, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Reason
May 4, 2014
Recommend this page.
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There are numerous examples of studies that use mice genetically engineered to suffer forms of shortened life span with the appearance of accelerated aging. One has to be very cautious in reading anything into this sort of work, however: it is rarely of any great relevance to normal aging, as it creates and then attempts to ameliorate an entirely artificial situation. The appearance of accelerated aging is not in fact accelerated aging, but is rather often caused by mechanisms that are of little importance in normal aging. Even when the mechanisms are relevant, the overall metabolic circumstances can render it impossible to determine whether or not a partial treatment will be of any use in normal aging. The gold standard for relevance when evaluating new methods is the extension of life in unmodified mice, but unfortunately this is expensive and slow.

The publicity materials quoted below are a good example of research in animals exhibiting shortened life spans. Here scientists are investigating a protein involved in the induction of cellular senescence. As is often the case, however, from the structure of the work it is impossible to tell whether or not their drug candidate will be of any use as a treatment to lower levels of cellular senescence in normal aging and thus produce benefits such as extended health and life span. Those tests will still have occur:

Quote:

When cells or tissue age – called senescence – they lose the ability to regenerate and secrete certain proteins, like a distinctive fingerprint. One of those proteins, PAI-1 (plasminogen activator inhibitor) has been [a focus of] research, originally as it relates to cardiovascular disease. “We made the intellectual leap between a marker of senescence and physiological aging. We asked is this marker for cell aging one of the drivers or mechanisms of rapid physiological aging?”

For the study, [researchers] used mice bred to be deficient in a gene (Klotho) that suppresses aging. These mice exhibit accelerated aging in the form of arteriosclerosis, neurodegeneration, osteoporosis and emphysema and have much shorter life spans than regular mice. [These] rapidly aging mice produce increased levels of PAI-1 in their blood and tissue.

Then scientists fed the rapidly aging mice TM5441 – the experimental drug – in their food every day. The result was a decrease in PAI-1 activity, which quadrupled the mice’s life span and kept their organs healthy and functioning. “This is a completely different target and different drug than anything else being investigated for potential effects in prolonging life. It makes sense that this might be one component of a cocktail of drugs or supplements that a person might take in the future to extend their healthy life.”

Link: http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2014/04/experimental-drug-prolongs-life

Reason is the founder of The Longevity Meme (now Fight Aging!). He saw the need for The Longevity Meme in late 2000, after spending a number of years searching for the most useful contribution he could make to the future of healthy life extension. When not advancing the Longevity Meme or Fight Aging!, Reason works as a technologist in a variety of industries. 
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This work is reproduced here in accord with a Creative Commons Attribution license. It was originally published on FightAging.org.

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Fear of “Agent Orange” Crops – Article by Bradley Doucet

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Categories: Science, Tags: , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
January 13, 2014
Recommend this page.
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Crops_1

Another online petition, another misleading fear campaign. The latest to catch my eye is one from causes.com opposed to “the approval of Dow’s genetically engineered (GE) ‘Agent Orange’ corn and soybeans designed to survive repeated spraying of the toxic herbicide 2,4-D, half of the highly toxic chemical mixture Agent Orange.” Sounds scary, but a sober second look at this petition’s emotional language and sins of omission tells a different story.
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First of all, good luck using a non-toxic herbicide to control weeds. The whole point of herbicides is that they’re toxic, but selectively so. They kill undesirable plants in order to help crops grow. Now, the petition makes it sound as if 2,4-D is toxic to humans, saying it “has been linked” to cancer and other health problems. This seems bad, but how conclusive is the evidence? Causes.com doesn’t specify, which is suspicious, and indeed, a quick glance at Wikipedia suggests “conflicting results.”
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As for Agent Orange, just in case some people are unaware of its wicked pedigree, the petition helpfully explains that it “was the chemical defoliant used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and it caused lasting environmental damage as well as many serious medical conditions in both American veterans and the Vietnamese.” No indication, though, of the fact that those medical conditions have been attributed to the other half of Agent Orange (the 2,4,5-T component) and its contaminant, dioxin.

The petition does say that “industry tests also show that 2,4-D is contaminated with dioxins,” which is cause for concern, but again, there’s no indication of how prevalent this contamination might be. To the extent that it is a concern, though, it’s not specific to these GE crops. Why? Because 2,4-D is the world’s most widely used herbicide—something the petition also neglects to mention.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.

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What Does Greenpeace Have Against Golden Rice? – Article by Bradley Doucet

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Categories: Politics, Science, Technology, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
November 17, 2013
Recommend this page.
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Imagine if you stumbled across a naturally-occurring variety of rice that was rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A found in carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. A lack of vitamin A in the body leads to an increased risk of blindness and increased susceptibility to disease, which can in turn lead to premature death in small children. If you could get people in poor rice-based societies to substitute this newfound variety of rice for the kind of rice they normally eat, then you could help them dramatically improve their health.Well, no such naturally-occurring variety of rice exists on Earth. Fortunately, though, some very intelligent human beings have created such a variety through genetic modification or genetic engineering (GE). It is called “Golden Rice” because of its golden colour. But far from celebrating this life-saving invention, groups like Greenpeace are fighting to stop it from being accepted and implemented. My first reaction to this was that the good people at Greenpeace and similar groups are out of their gourds. But skeptical though I was, I wanted to give them a chance to change my mind, to prove me wrong. What I found was not very impressive. Here are some of the reasons the organization gives [1] for claiming that “Golden Rice is environmentally irresponsible, poses risks to human health, and could compromise food, nutrition and financial security.” 1) “The tens of millions of dollars invested in Golden Rice would have been better spent on VAD [vitamin A deficiency] solutions that are already available and working, such as food supplements, food fortification and home gardening.” Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But who is to decide where money is better spent? I personally would rather have lots of people trying lots of different things. The best solutions will win out in the marketplace if people are free to choose. Oh, and Golden Rice is a form of food fortification. It just takes place at the genetic level.

2) “If cross-pollination or seed mix-up causes Golden Rice contamination, it could prove difficult, if not impossible to eradicate.” The use of words like ‘contamination’ and ‘eradicate’ are clearly meant to poison the debate, to get people to equate Golden Rice with dangerous diseases and harmful radiation. Rhetoric aside, is there any reason to expect more cross-pollination or seed mix-ups with Golden Rice than with other varieties? Are we afraid that basmati might cross-pollinate jasmine rice?

3) “If any hazardous, unexpected effects would develop from Golden Rice, the GE contamination would affect countries where rice is an essential staple and put people and food security at risk.” The reason they have to imagine hypothetical hazardous effects is that as far as anyone can tell, Golden Rice has no actual hazardous effects. It’s safe. It’s been tested. In the absence of any indication that it is harmful, we should go ahead and consume it. Or at least let other people consume it if we ourselves are filled with irrational fear.

4) “It is irresponsible to impose Golden Rice on people if it goes against their religious beliefs, cultural heritage and sense of identity, or simply because they do not want it.” Uh, no argument here. It’s not just irresponsible, it’s completely immoral. But who, exactly, is talking about imposing anything on anyone? Groups like Greenpeace are the ones that want to prevent people from being able to choose Golden Rice. I’m unaware of anyone who wants to force people to eat it, or farmers to grow it.

5) “Golden Rice does not address the underlying causes of VAD, which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a healthy and varied diet.” So what? An artificial knee doesn’t address the underlying causes of bone density loss, but it sure makes life better for people whose natural knees are worn out. Getting at underlying causes is great, and I am certainly all for the economic freedom that will help the poor escape poverty. But in the meantime, treating some of the more dire symptoms of poverty also seems like a good idea.

6) “[T]he single-crop approach of Golden Rice could make malnutrition worse because it encourages a diet based solely on rice, rather than increasing access to a diverse diet of fruits and vegetables, considered crucial to combatting VAD and other nutrient deficiencies.” Golden Rice is a food, not an approach. The sooner the people in poor rice-based societies can get access to a diverse diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, the better, but again, in the meantime, Golden Rice can help. To forbid this option while holding out for a better one is perverse.

7) “Despite all the hype surrounding Golden Rice, it still remains unproven whether daily consumption of Golden Rice would actually improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient.” This is patently false. Scientific studies have shown that the beta-carotene contained in Golden Rice is “highly available and easily taken up into the bloodstream by the human digestive system.” There is no reason to believe that Golden Rice would not improve the vitamin A status of people who are deficient, and every reason to believe that it would.

Since the reasons Greenpeace gives for opposing Golden Rice are so transparently inadequate, I have to wonder what the real, unstated reasons are. I can’t help but think that the people in charge of this campaign are unscientifically opposed to the transformative technology of genetic engineering itself, despite all of its potential to improve human lives. It really seems to me that they are motivated by an ecological religion whose goal is not to make human life better, but to preserve the non-human natural world for its own sake, and to stop us from altering it in any way unless it is to return it to a previous state before humans started altering it, which was somehow a better state despite being less suited to human survival and flourishing.

I’m all for reducing pollution and dealing with other environmental problems to the extent that doing so actually improves the human condition. Prioritizing the environment to the detriment of human well-being, though, I can’t get behind. And preventing the deployment of beneficial technologies that we have no reason to think would have any harmful effects on people or the environment? That is simply indefensible. Greenpeace should cease its harmful campaign against Golden Rice and get behind this life-saving technology.

1. Greenpeace refers to Golden Rice as “GE ‘Golden’ rice,” which I find clunky. For the sake of readability, I have replaced every instance of “GE ‘Golden’ rice” with “Golden Rice” in quotations from the Greenpeace website.

Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.
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