Category: Biology

Is it OK to Adopt Kids and Perform Social Experiments On Them?

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 28, 2011 5:05 pm

Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life.

We erroneously connect the ability to reproduce with the ability to rear in our social norms and in our laws. As adoption, IVF, sperm/egg donation and surrogate mothers along with new family structures challenge the concept that the person who provides the gametes or womb is also the person who will teach the child to ride a bicycle, we need to investigate the impact of perpetuating the idea that there is a link between reproducing and rearing.

I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children. My idea comes from an interview by Charles Q. Choi at Too Hard for Science? with Steven Pinker about just such an experiment:

There is one morally repugnant line of thought Pinker strenuously objects to that could resolve this question. “Basically, every nature-nurture debate could be settled for good if we could raise a group of children in a closed environment of our own design, they way we do with animals,” he says. . .

“The biological basis of sex differences could be tested by dressing babies identically, hiding their sex from the people they interact with, and treating them identically, or better still, dividing them into four groups — boys treated as boys, boys treated as girls, girls treated as girls, girls treated as boys,” he notes. . .

“There’s no end to the ethical horrors that could be raised by this exercise,” Pinker says.

“In the sex-difference experiment, could we emasculate the boys at different ages, including in utero, and do sham operations on the girls as a control?” Pinker asks. “In the language experiment, could we ‘sacrifice’ the children at various ages, to use the common euphemism in animal research, and dissect their brains?”

“This is a line of thought that is morally corrosive even in the contemplation, so your thought experiments can go only so far,” he says.

So let’s test the limits of Pinker’s last line. Ethics is rife with and wrought by horrific thought experiments designed to out our biases and assumptions. And I intend to use a thought experiment to expose our bias that reproductive capacity equals rearing capacity. That is, merely because you can have a kid doesn’t mean you should be allowed to decide how to raise it. Using three scenarios, I’ll prove that a team of scientists adopting a large group of children with the dual intent of raising happy and healthy children while also conducting non-surgical or invasive sociological experiments would be ethically permissible. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Philosophy, Psychology

Form Follows Function: Prosthetics and Artificial Organs that Break the Human Mold

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 16, 2011 9:45 am

Designers of prosthetics and artificial organs have for a long time tried to replicate the human body. From the earliest peg legs to some of the most modern robotic limbs, the prosthetic we make looks like the body part that needs replacing. Lose a hand? Dean Kamen’s DEKA arm, aka the “Luke arm,” is a robotic prosthesis that will let you grasp an egg or open a beer. The Luke arm is a cutting edge piece of technology based on a backward idea – let’s replace the thing that went missing by replicating it with metal and motors. Whether it’s an artificial leg or a glass eye, prostheses often seek to reproduce not only the function of the body part, but the form and feel as well.

There are good reasons to want to reproduce form and feel along with function. The first reason is that our original bits and pieces work quite well. The human body as a whole is a natural marvel, let alone the immense complexity and dexterity of our hands, eyes, hearts, and legs. No need to reinvent the wheel, just replicate the natural model you’ve been given. The second, less obvious reason, is that we as a society have been and remain deeply uncomfortable with amputees and prosthetics. Many people don’t know what to do when faced with an artificial arm or leg. I wish it were different, but it largely isn’t. So prostheses are designed to look like whatever it is they replicate to hide the fact that the arm or leg or eye isn’t biological.

That methodology is being challenged by a few recent innovations: Össur’s now famous Cheetah blades, Kaylene Kau‘s tentacle arm, and the artificial heart with no heartbeat. These new prostheses and artificial organs are a result of approaching the problem by asking “What does this piece allow us to do?” not “How do we build an artificial one?” The implications for how humans will view themselves in the coming decades are monumental. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Cyborgs, Transhumanism

Euthanasia, Immortality, and The Natural Death Paradox

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 7, 2011 9:39 am

Dying is a touchy subject. Euthanasia makes people upset. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you are caught between the hard place of human suffering and the rock of informed autonomous free choice. Euthanasia is really a debate about not dying of natural causes. For so long, we’ve understood death to be only OK if it was natural or demonstrably accidental. Anything else was murder, manslaughter, or war. Not only God, but we humans, have set our canon against self-slaughter. “Voluntary active euthanasia,” as Daniel Brock denotes it, is not natural, nor is it demonstrably accidental. Thus, we instinctively categorize it as morally wrong.

Instead of attempting to root out the source of that instinct and investigating whether or not voluntary active euthanasia actually violates morality, many use the blurred line created as reason enough to oppose a chosen death. Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues that Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s efforts to provide assistance to those suffering created a moral slippery slope:

And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?

Note that Douthat doesn’t consider Parkinson’s a medical disease. But more to the point – Douthat’s argument is that we don’t know what degree of suffering makes the choice to die morally palatable. Degree of suffering is the wrong criterion. None but the sufferer can define it and it can never be truly communicated. What is at stake here is not only the free and informed choice of the dying, but our very understanding of what it means to “die of natural causes.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aging (or Not), Biology, Philosophy

A Glimpse of Cybernetic Augmentation for the Masses

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 2, 2011 11:57 am

Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution is a cyberpunk video game coming out later this year. I, for one, am pretty excited. Set in the near future the game is a prequel to the original Deus Ex. For those of you who aren’t video game fanatics, the first Deus Ex is a cyberpunk conspiracy thriller that follows around a transhuman protagonist, JC Denton, as he tries to keep the world from spiraling into Armageddon. Robots, A.I., genetically modified animals, and cyborgs aplenty help and hinder him. Denton himself has several nano-augmentations that give him superhuman abilities (e.g. cloaking, super-strength). Deus Ex 3 explores the rise of general cybernetic augmentation and the corporate espionage that accompanies it. As part of the viral ad campaign you can access the website for Sarif Industries, the leading manufacturer of cybernetic prosthetics. I love the boilerplate:

No one should ever have to give up a normal life because of a random incident, or indeed, lose a dream over a physical limitation. So believes David Sarif, idealist, philanthropist, founder and CEO of Sarif Industries. Pursuing his belief, Mr. Sarif acquired a failing Detroit auto factory in 2007 and repurposed it for the automated manufacture of prosthetics.

The weirdness of the site comes from its nearness to reality. There are links for the stock price and pictures of the interior of the main headquarters. There is even an ethics statement!

A standout piece is the ad for Sarif’s products (cyber hands, eyes, and arms), which seemed like a perfect pastiche of every pharmaceutical ad I’ve seen in the past year: testimonials by attractive people in bright lighting engaging in their favorite cultural or outdoor activities, like rock climbing and football throwing (though mercifully not through a tire wing). Also interesting is the news feed which features headlines I had to research a bit to see they aren’t quite true. The “road to here” also provides a strange alt-history of augmentation and prosthetics that gives you the feeling this all might just be right around the corner. The site’s slickness and dedication to near-reality makes it an eerie predictor of what a future prosthetics company may actually look like.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on facebook and twitter.

Image via Sarif Industries

Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It, Pt. II: The Supremacy of Vision

By Malcolm MacIver | May 23, 2011 12:48 am

Update 8/8/11: The conversation continues in Part III here.

I’m back after a hiatus of a few weeks to catch up on some stuff in the lab and the waning weeks of spring quarter teaching here at Northwestern. In my last post, I put forward an idea about why consciousness– defined in a narrow way as “contemplation of plans” (after Bridgeman)–evolved, and used this idea to suggest some ways we might improve our consciousness in the future through augmentation technology.

Here’s a quick  review: Back in our watery days as fish (roughly, 350 million years ago) we were in an environment that was not friendly to sensing things far away. This is because of a hard fact about light in water, which is that our ability to see things at a far distance is drastically compromised by attenuation and scattering of light in water. A useful figure of merit is “attenuation length,” which in water is tens of meters for light, while in air it is tens of ten thousand meters. This is in perfectly clear water –add a bit of algae or other kinds of microorganisms and it goes down dramatically. Roughly speaking, vision in water is similar to driving a car in a fog. Since you’re not seeing very far out, the idea I’ve proposed goes, there is less of an advantage to planning over the space you can sense. On land, you can see a lot further out. Now, if a chance set of mutations gives you the ability to contemplate more than one possible future path through the space ahead, then that mutation is more likely to be selected for.

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll wrote a great summary of my post. Between my original post and his, many insightful questions and problems were raised by thoughtful readers.

In the interest of both responding to your comments and encouraging more insightful feedback, I’ll have a couple of further posts on this idea that will explore some of the recurring themes that have cropped up in the comments.

Today, since many commenters raised doubts about my claim that vision on land was key – raising the long distance sensory capabilities of our sense of smell, and hearing, among other points – I thought I’d start with a review of why, among biological senses, only vision (and, to a more limited degree echolocation) is capable of giving access to the detail that could be necessary to having multiple future paths to plan over. Are the other types of sensing that you’ve raised as important as sight?

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Mind & Brain, Neuroscience

Know and Remember Everything, Always and Instantly

By Kyle Munkittrick | May 5, 2011 8:38 am

Imagine you know everything on Wikipedia, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contents of every book in digital form. When someone asks you what you did twenty years ago, on demand you recall with perfect accuracy every sensation and thought from that moment. Sifting and parsing all of this information is effortless and unconscious. Any fact, instant of time, skill, technique, or data point that you’ve experienced or can access on the internet is in your mind.

Cybernetic brains might make that possible. As computing power and storage continue to plod along their 18-month doubling cycle, there is no reason to believe we won’t at least have cybernetic sub-brains within the coming century. We already offload a tremendous amount of information and communication to our computers and smartphones. Why not make the process more integrated? Of course, what I’m engaging in right now is rampant speculation. But a neuro-computer interface is a possibility. More than that: cyber-brains may be necessary. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Cyber-brain, memory

Is Being "Too Short" a Disability?

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 22, 2011 8:44 am

Human growth hormone (HGH) is one among the many hormones your body naturally produces. HGH influences growth in that it helps encourage cell reproduction and regeneration. Athletes really like to pretend that HGH makes them more powerful. It might, but it probably doesn’t. Whether it works or not, athletes should be allowed to utilize it. But banning performance enhancers is a topic already covered, so let’s look at something more interesting.

As part of a thread called “The Bias Against Short Men,” Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish published an email by a reader struggling with a difficult question:

The doctor noticed that my son was comfortably sitting at the bottom of the growth chart and that he would most likely end up a measly 5’5” (a little more than my wife and myself). He went on to say that this could qualify as “idiopathic short stature syndrom.” And that we could potentially get our son on HGH (actually, it’s called rGH I think – see here) if we felt that his projected short height could affect his self-confidence and ultimately, his mental health.

Unlike HGH in athletes, HGH used to treat medical conditions has clinically observable benefits. A child given HGH treatments will have an appreciable difference in height as an adult. The reader feels inclined to give his son the treatments, while the reader’s wife is appalled at the idea. When is it alright to use HGH to help your kid grow to a “normal” height? If you do “treat” a child’s shortness, does that mean it’s a disease? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Medicine, Philosophy

Hanna: A Transhuman Tragedy of Nature vs Nurture

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 14, 2011 8:30 am

Heads up, this article has *spoilers* about the movie Hanna.

Joe Wright’s new film, Hanna, staring Saoirse Ronan is being hailed as the anti-Sucker Punch for its portrayal of a rich, rounded, and compelling female lead. Hanna is a young woman in her late teens (her age is indeterminate) who can beat you up, break your neck, and shoot you down six ways from Sunday. Why is she able to do that? Well, that right there is an interesting question. You see, Hanna was genetically engineered to have “high intelligence, muscle mass, and no pity.” But here’s the rub: she was also raised to be a trained assassin.

So who is to credit (or perhaps, to blame) for Hanna’s ability to crush faces with naught but her hands and an emotionless grimace? Is it her genes or her training?

The film ostensibly portrays Hanna as a naive heroine striving against her draconian and demonic “mother” figure, Marissa Wiegler, with the help of her noble father, Erik Heller. But I submit that is not the case: I believe the “teaching” and “nurture” Heller gives to Hanna makes him as much a monster as Wiegler. Hanna’s battle is to be a good human being against a perfect storm of nature and nurture designed to make her a heartless killer. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Genetics, Movies, Transhumanism

Live More, Sleep Less

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 5, 2011 10:16 am

You will spend a third of  your life asleep. If you don’t, your waking hours will be of reduced quality and productivity. For 99% of us, seven hours a night is biological necessity. For a select 1%, what Melinda Beck at the Wall Street Journal dubs the “Sleepless Elite,” less sleep equals more life. So-called short sleepers operate with a kind of low-intensity mania which allows them to go to bed late and wake up early without needing a gallon of coffee to get through the day. And, as it turns out, the ability might be genetic.

“My long-term goal is to someday learn enough so we can manipulate the sleep pathways without damaging our health,” says human geneticist Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California-San Francisco. “Everybody can use more waking hours, even if you just watch movies.”

Dr. Fu was part of a research team that discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a pair of short sleepers in 2009. They were studying extreme early birds when they when they noticed that two of their subjects, a mother and daughter, got up naturally about 4 a.m. but also went to bed past midnight.

Genetic analyses spotted one gene variation common to them both. The scientists were able to replicate the gene variation in a strain of mice and found that the mice needed less sleep than usual, too.

Dr. Fu’s research is a reason for excitement because the goal is not just to locate the gene, but to find a way to manipulate sleep pathways safely. For those of us already alive, that means there might be better, safer, more effective stimulants in the future. For those not yet born, genetic engineering may enable future generations to spend less time sawing logs and more time enjoying life. More life! Less sleep! It’s like a longevity enhancement that does nothing to extend your time alive, but instead maximizes your use of that time. But how do short sleepers use their time? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Neuroscience
MORE ABOUT: Short Sleepers, sleep

The Unnatural History of Making People

By Kyle Munkittrick | March 29, 2011 5:36 pm

Philip Ball’s new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People gets into the mythological underpinnings of our concerns about making people. Nature‘s Chris Mason reviews [gated] Unnatural and makes a striking observation:

Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the ‘unnatural’. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.

Let’s unpack that little nugget, because it contains two very important points.

The first point is that many of our fears about advancing science and biotechnology related to the body trigger fundamental, core cultural fears. Leon Kass calls this the “Yuck” reaction, or, more eloquently, “Wisdom from Repugnance.” Kass’ argument is that we are naturally repelled by abhorrent ideas, like torturing babies and eating people. As regular readers of Science Not Fiction know, eating people isn’t always bad.

Well, as it turns out, Leon Kass’ argument that we should trust our gut when it says, “yuck!” is a pretty terrible way to do ethics. Why? Because what is “yuck” to me might be “yum” to you. And we’re back to not knowing if doing something ethically questionable, like cloning people, is morally permissible. Unnatural at least explains why so many people say “yuck” to modifying humans; it is a lesson we’ve been told over and over for millennia in myths and religion.

The second point is that we should be discussing these ideas like rational adults. Biotechnology is progressing at a rate and in ways that are so rapid as to be unpredictable. I make lots of educated guesses and suppositions, but none of what I write here is a prediction or a guarantee. My interest is in figuring out whether or not something like cloning is ethically permissible if we’re ever able to do it. As Ball notes, there is no current global ban on cloning. There is, as it stands, no global ban on most of the transhumanist issues, from eugenics to cognitive enhancers to A.I. to nano-implants. These possible technologies strain the very foundations of many of our philosophies and cultural institutions. If the lack of a global ban means the technology is likely inevitable, we better figure out how to go about things correctly.

Debate and discussion are essential to making good decisions. Recognizing our old, deep seated prejudices and biases, such as those against technology and making people, is equally essential. Simply because something is unnatural does not mean it is immoral. But that’s where the discussion starts, not where it ends ends.

Image of Book Cover via Bodley Head

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Books, Genetics, Transhumanism
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