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Post No.: 0601genome


Fluffystealthkitten says:


Any technology that can be utilised for admirable objectives can probably be utilised for nefarious objectives too. And the more potentially powerful the benefits then the even more potentially powerful the harms that can be generated. This is because the destruction of order is easier and faster to accomplish than the creation of order. Entropy can locally decrease in an open system – hence how there’s life on Earth at the moment – but it’s always more prone to increase, and the universe as a whole is heading towards a state of maximum entropy.


Perhaps we shouldn’t blame a technology but its users? It’s normally the combination of technology and user. But then when looking at the human species – with its record of slavery, wars, environmental disrespect and so forth – maybe this species shouldn’t have access to certain technologies at all?! People can comment that ‘we’ve not destroyed ourselves as a species yet’ to point out the past human successes and averted crises so far – but of course dead people or extinct species logically cannot forward comments to point out their past failures and ‘if onlys’. In other words, we’re always alive and kicking… until the first time we die(!) (That’s one proposed hypothesis why we cannot find another intelligent species extraterrestrially – they may have existed at one time but then extirpated themselves via their own creations before getting far in interstellar terms?)


So shall scientists play (or attempt to be) god, such as by tinkering with the human genome?


Well the human genome constantly naturally changes, potentially with every death and new mutation – but what’s the difference between natural or accidental changes and artificial or intentional changes to the human genome? Bioconservatives and transhumanists differ in their views regarding whether the intentional genetic modification of the human genome is wrong or right respectively.


Is genetic engineering or other forms of artificial human enhancement playing with fire for the unforeseeable consequences, or is there even an obligation for people to improve themselves since no one’s perfect? Would it be immoral not to give people drugs that made them behave more morally if such drugs existed, for instance?! Sometimes, providing people factual information and education about something isn’t sufficient alone to make them do the right thing (as evident for a minority of people during the coronavirus pandemic – and the rub with things like infectious diseases is that one person can spread a problem onto so many others i.e. we don’t always just hurt ourselves with our own deliberate choices).


The technology for modifying the DNA or genomes of living organisms has become quite potent. The CRISPR gene editing technique is like using a word processor to edit genes. It is powerful hence both exciting and scary. Most people agree that the technique can be used for noble objectives by eradicating diseases – but where do we draw the line as to what’s acceptable for editing? Even the germline can be modified with it, which means that any changes will be heritable. ‘Genetic extinction technologies’ have therefore been considered, where gene drives can be utilised to make a targeted species eventually go extinct. The regulatory framework for genome editing must therefore be extensively considered and elaborated, to regulate the areas we want covered without stifling the research we want to see.


But who or what decides what’s ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ to be modified? If the free market decides then we can see that the free market can favour superficial traits over deeper traits (just like, according to the free market, social media channels based on subjects like vanity tend to be more successful than channels centring on education, and deception can spread faster than truths too). Such technology will also inevitably be used for military purposes (under the guise of maintaining ‘peace and security’ like any other military tech!) and will be just another facet of an escalating arms race. Military personnel are routinely experimented on. Genome editing – and pharmacology, nanotechnology and biotechnology in general – would, at a minimum, be subject to international human rights laws, but are genetically modified ‘super soldiers’ justified tools and methods of war under international humanitarian law?


Some may contend that humans already breed organisms as animal farmers and crop growers, and deliberately select which mates to bear offspring with – so why is this level of intentional selection so different? Perhaps people will look back and consider that it was barbaric why folks didn’t modify their children-to-be to give them better prospects when they could?


Yet if we decide for a child what we assume they’ll want then such decisions will be forced upon that child rather than are a free choice of that child. Moreover, nothing comes for free – for instance, carrying the gene for sickle-cell disease can provide protection from malaria, hence it’s hard to be absolute about which genes are beneficial and which are detrimental. Many genes affect multiple, seemingly unrelated, traits (pleiotropy). Genes for an increased risk of obesity, fair or dark skin, being tall or short, etc. have advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment, the interactions with the environment, and the interactions with other genes. We don’t understand these complex relationships well enough yet. Species co-evolve with each other in ecosystems, thus an ecosystem in harmony doesn’t just depend on our own genes but the genes of our microbiomes and the rest of the wider flora, fauna and fungi kingdom too. Meow.


If we can genetically modify cognitive traits then we don’t even understand intelligence enough yet. An act of ‘intelligence’ can be interpreted as ‘devious’, ‘sly’ or ‘manipulative’ depending on the person and context. A ‘goofy’ thing can lead to a serendipitous discovery. A ‘cunning’ thing can lead to a greedy and selfish domination of power by a few. Not that a lack of intelligence is therefore better – ignorance or stupidity is also dangerous – but the point is that intelligence may not always be desirable, such as the intelligence to create ever more threatening and destructive weapons or surreptitious ways to subvert populations (hence the cliché that supervillians always have big brains). An act that’s intelligent in one context may not be intelligent in another, or the intelligence to serve oneself may not be the intelligence to serve the collective species or biodiversity overall. And it’s not like the children of Nobel Prize winners consistently win Nobel Prizes themselves. The link between genes, intelligence and such outcomes isn’t that simple because there’s far more to it, such as opportunity. Yet why not increase the odds of success even if we cannot guarantee it?


Eradicating pain sounds fantastic, but wouldn’t a world without pain and suffering be boring even if such a utopia was possible? Wouldn’t we miss so much that is a part of a rich life and miss many formative experiences if we don’t experience the occasional hardship because we can modify our own physiologies on-the-fly to solve related problems that cause us suffering? What do we learn if our mistakes can be reversed – for instance, bringing a human-caused extinct species back to life, or even a specific person back to life, at least as a clone?


If you want to check out some more medical quandaries then Post No.: 0498 presented a few to think about.


Genome editing might increase diversity in the same way that allowing character customisation in video games leads to a wide variety of individual designs. But when messing around with people’s own actual bodies in real life, personal genome editing might decrease diversity because people will be largely chasing the same narrower set of culturally desirable traits (in the same way that all Love Island contestants look about the same)? And as a result, will it lower empathy for those who look different because being able to edit one’s genome will suggest that everything is considered a personal choice?


Or will only the rich be able to afford such genetic editing – or at least the very latest and advanced or safest genetic modifications – just like any other technology?


‘Biohacking’ in order to try to extend one’s longevity via gene therapies (modifying genes), surgery, drugs or pharmacogenomics (relating to precision and personalised medicines) is controversial. Well slowing down one’s decline isn’t considered controversial but should we be trying to stop or reverse (rejuvenation) the ageing process even if we could? We already worry about the size of the global human population. It may also extend the number of years people live in retirement, which would exacerbate a generational imbalance and related economic headaches, such as pensions crises. Shouldn’t having children be how people live on in a genetic sense? And shouldn’t keeping memories be how people live on in a spiritual sense?


If life expectancies and the elderly population continue to rise then technology, including robots, can improve the independence of the elderly. But will this mean people will feel less guilty when not socially visiting or tending to the elderly anymore? Behaving less socially can be a consequence of concentrating on our own independence and each other’s expected independence.


If something hasn’t been proven yet in its harms, such as the potential harms of a new genetically modified organism (GM or GMO) cattle feed, then should we initially adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ and keep it banned until sufficient tests have been done to prove that it’s safe? Or should we adopt a laissez-faire stance and allow it to be used unless it proves to be dangerous?


I personally think that we have to learn from the lasting harms that DDT and CFCs, for example, have caused as synthetic chemicals or products. ‘Innocent unless proven guilty’ isn’t quite appropriate for technologies as opposed to people. Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) plastic is a persistent organic pollutant, so despite having been banned decades ago, it still continues to harm marine life like porpoises today. If only it was banned from the very start. But if something has been extensively and adequately tested then we shouldn’t fear them anymore; although everything should be kept under constant review.


You can share what you think about genome editing, or genetic engineering in general, by using the Twitter comment button below. New medical technologies have led to new types of vaccines, and COVID-19 has accelerated this development. There are now at least whole virus, protein subunit, nucleic acid, and viral vector, types of vaccines – so we shouldn’t be Luddites to progress. Yet we must tread ever more carefully too. Some technologies can unleash havoc, or the ominous threat of devastation, that cannot be easily contained or reversed thereafter…




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