Thursday, October 23, 2008

Safety and Genetic Engineering

So, the Brits finally approved the human-animal genetic experiments.

These experiments are very interesting, but not terribly dangerous or crazy. I think the people who don't understand it are having visions of something between Manga-style catgirls and stitched-together "Island of Doctor Moreau" horrors. The truth is, even if you tried to bring these experiments to term, they wouldn't make it: this genetic mixing is too primitive, too damaging. Even if we had the capacity to combine them in a way which could be brought to term, we would focus on basic human improvements first, no animal traits involved.

I think that a lot of people are stuck on this idea of a fifties-style mad scientist in a lab coat, cackling to himself and building monsters. I have a sneaking suspicion these people might even imagine it in black and white.

The truth is that individuals cannot accomplish projects of any reasonable scale, at least not yet. These kinds of projects (new foods, theoretical genetics research, etc) require large teams with hugely expensive equipment. We're not talking about a man with a lab coat, cackling. We're talking about a room full of people with lab coats, cackling. It's time to stop thinking Doctor Moreau and time to start thinking Doctor No: in order to release some new genetic monster on the world, it would require almost unlimited funding and hundreds of scientists, every single one of whom must be willing and able to keep it secret.

IE, living on a volcanic island surrounded by sharks with laser beams on their heads.

The only entities able to fund that kind of development are major corporations, major militaries, and any of the people who founded Microsoft. Of those, major corporations are the only ones that can be reasonably stopped with laws, and I'm not sure it makes sense to make the laws about specific kinds of genetic research. There are always other kinds of research, and corporations have a surprising knack for doing horrible things within the letter of the law. It might be better to focus on laws about corporate BEHAVIOR, not RESEARCH.

The people who are more or less above the law - militaries, who can simply ignore it, and the very rich, who can simply do it in a more permissive nation. In those cases, there is no immediate worry: the potential for giant scorpions or horrible mutant humans is simply not there. Effectively, in order to do that kind of thing, it would require something on par with Los Alamos... and I guarantee you that it could not be kept truly secret. Even Los Alamos wasn't particularly secret among physicists, and in this era, everything's a hundred times better connected.

There is a danger from smaller projects, such as weaponized diseases. These are technically within the scope of today's science. In fact, there are plenty of researchers engaged, right now, in breeding ever nastier tiny biological things. They don't do this to provide us with weapons of mass destruction, they do this to provide us with better protection against the continued march of tiny biological things to get ever-nastier on their own.

See, in this day and age, no government would be willing to release a weaponized biological agent. Although the atom bomb is stuck in our minds as a horror, the truth is that everyone who knows better is far more scared of biological stuff. If you killed 400 Serbians with a customized disease, every first world country in the universe would come down on you as if you had just nuked a middling-sized city.

That leaves only private individuals as significant threats.

Maybe they are, maybe not. Excessively rich people often have strange wishes. But one thing is for sure: prohibiting something will just make them do it quieter, or farther away.

Personally, even if none of this were true, even if there was a impending risk, I would still support extensive genetic experimentation. That's because, out of all the scientific fields there are, out of all the scientific fields there have EVER BEEN, modern genetic research has the greatest potential to improve life.

And science improves life.

Even when it starts off on the wrong foot, going the wrong direction, it doesn't take long to turn around and improve life.

So huzzah for genetic research! And huzzah for any nation that approves it.


Patrick said...

"And science improves life."

A more rational and less dangerous statement would be "science has the greatest capacity to improve life", otherwise you're bordering on faith.

Craig Perko said...


Look at any field of science. ANY field.

Show me one that's made things worse, rather than better. A few got off on a bad foot, but in the long run... better.

This isn't faith, it's history.

Anonymous said...

nuclear technology!!! pal we have alternatives that are in tune with nature and can do the same what science claim achieve.. why do yu have to distrupt the already ailing eco system.. noexplanation is valid when they start designing out babies and shater thelast shreds of normalacy.. The money for ge sud be channeled to better lives in ' BETTER' ways..not science for sake of science...

Craig Perko said...

Okay, in case you bother coming back, I'll give you my targeted-at-fourteen-year-olds Nuclear Power Speech.

First off, nuclear/atomic physics is not simply nuclear power. It also includes radiocarbon dating, advanced materials, and a huge amount of medical technology (such as MRIs, radiation treatments, etc). Aside from those, nuclear research led directly to quantum mechanics, leaps forward in chemistry and genetics, and many other scientific advances.

Nuclear power plants are just one technology in that field of science.

Hhhhhowever, even considered on their own, nuclear power plants are more GOOD than BAD. The alternatives aren't as polite as you think - it takes massive amounts of land for wind power, you create huge amounts of chemical pollutants for solar panels, and you destroy river life for miles with hydroelectric. Nuclear power is extremely safe and produces very little waste.

But even if there are better alternatives, nuclear power still wouldn't be BAD. It would just be LESS GOOD. White bread isn't a bad thing to eat, it's just less good than wheat bread.


As for your comments about shattering normalcy and designing babies, I can only presume you lapsed into ranting about genetics for a moment, there.


Long, long before we humans can "design babies", we'll have developed cures for cancer, for baldness, for obesity, and most importantly, for rampant stupidity. These will not be modifications to babies. They will be modifications to US. Chemicals, custom bacteria, and so forth that doesn't exactly cause a genetic change to us, but instead does what we need it do because of it's own genetics.

For example, there's a kind of bacteria in the works that produces insulin. An injection of those bacteria can effectively cure diabetes.

OH NOES THE EBIL SCITISTS ARE MUTATING BABBBIESS!@!!!11... no, wait, they're fucking curing diabetes. My bad.

Craig Perko said...

If they had READ the essay, they would have already known all that.

isaac said...

And honestly, when we do get to a point of being able to guarantee that a baby has no genetic defects and is more resistant to nasty diseases, I don't see how people can resist something so objectively good.

And if they're complaining about the expense of basic research, preventative medicine is almost always cheaper and more effective. Not to mention all the other things that will come out of genetic science.

Craig Perko said...

To be honest, I think a lot of people can easily resist something so objectively good. People tend to be stuck in their own little worlds, as our anonymous 14-year-old was kind enough to show us.

I think there will be a lot of religions bucking even more strongly against medical technology. But they can't help but lose power over time, simply because everyone who's not part of one of those restrictive religions will be having a much better life.

Chill said...

Well, any thing science comes up with that makes things worse gets called pseudoscience or some other thing once people know better. I'd pick out the whole Social Darwinism thing: eugenics, phrenology, and the like, as an good example of science gone wrong.

Not that I hate science or anything. I just don't think it's the sole source of human advancement, and its can be abused just like anything else.

Craig Perko said...

Man, Chill, today you're pushing all my buttons.

Your examples of "science gone too far" are really silly. In cases where people like to blame science, they are blaming something that looks vaguely like science if you squint and overdose on propaganda.

Social Darwinism isn't science, it's a ridiculous attempt to stretch a BIOLOGICAL theory to a fit a CULTURAL setting. While it's interesting (and often entertaining) to talk about, it ISN'T SCIENCE because it's not testable, falsifiable, or even useful.

Eugenics is almost the same thing, the idea that you can control/direct a BIOLOGICAL theory with a CULTURAL set of rules. Evolution is a science, but the idea that we can and should control our own evolution using specific means isn't. It's not testable, falsifiable, or useful. In the very long run, it might be, but by then we'll all be energy beings living in deep space, so what's the point?

Phrenology was a scientific theory that was simply disproved. However, again, the application of phrenology to try to justify racism was the attempt to stretch a biological theory (a wrong one) to fit a cultural setting. NOT SCIENCE, even before phrenology was disproved.

Science can be abused. However, in the end, I can find no other force on the planet (or off it) that has such a net positive result. Everyone living in America is living due to science.

As I said before: name one branch of science that has done more harm than good.

Chill said...

Conceded: Social Darwinism et al are not science. Though I'd argue that their lack of falsifiability or usefulness was realized later, I think that's besides the point. NOT SCIENCE.

However they are part of the effect science has had on society. Whether or not they should be considered science, science has been used to justify them, and their proponents acted with and through scientific institutions. I wouldn't be so quick to allow science to disown some of its own effects just because they aren't science per se.

I'm not saying that science doesn't pass a CBA test or anything like that. I'm just saying science is not necessarily a good thing.

I don't mean to push any buttons, I'm just feeling cynical today...

Craig Perko said...

That's true to an extent, but I would argue that it's the effect society has on itself. That it's using science is pretty much meaningless: humankind is just as eager to abuse religion, nationalism, culture, history, and a million other things in the exact same way to the exact same ends.

Obviously we should take care to prevent science's abuse, but that doesn't mean that we should take care to prevent science. We don't say that culture should be prevented because some idiots use it to explain their brutality!

Chill said...

closer to my thoughts really, is that science is like any human endeavor; business, religion, politics, media, arts, etc. It isn't inherently good or bad. But like any tool, it's all in how its used.

Granted, it's the most awesome we have so far (it brought us space AND dinosaurs!), but I just feel that a more nuanced view of science and its effects is probably more helpful.

Craig Perko said...

Well, my only problem with statements like that is that in order to have a nuanced view, you need to be really well studied. So, normally, when someone talks about having a nuanced or moderate view, what they mean is "I don't know anything, so I'll let my imagination (or luddite sensibilities) get away from me!"

I'm all for having a nuanced view, but only from people who actually understand the nuances. I'm not in favor of J Random Politician or Anon the Fourteen-Year-Old talking about "the dangers of science". From their simplistic perspective, there aren't any: viewed at range, science has done so much good that the bad is visible only because of its stark contrast.

Only when you get close can you see the preventative measures most scientists and R&D departments take to keep science "good". I'm all for those measures... but, again, not from people who don't understand the details. Too many people have "opinions" that are based on fearmongering, long-obsolete theories, and twisted by personal philosophic beliefs.

Chill said...

I'll agree with all that.

J Random Politician and Anon the Jackass is probably not as big a problem for science as John D CEO, but that's the story of these times i guess.