Saturday, April 18, 2015

Germ-Line (inheritable) human “improvement” via genetic engineering? The "Heinlein Solution?"

This fascinating (if long) essay - Engineering the Perfect Baby (from Technology Review) - explores the scientific and moral ramifications of “germ cell genetic engineering” or the changing of genomes in ways that can be inherited and passed-down, parent to naturally conceived child. 

And while we may shrug or even cheer, if we see a mother elephant give birth to a fertile woolly mammoth, some time in the next 20 years, it is both enticing and worrisome to imagine we might rush into “designing” or pre-modifying human babies -- selecting desirable traits and eliminating genes that cause inherited diseases.

Worrisome… but also inevitable.  As with most new era quandaries, the real question is .... “How do you plan to stop it?”  

"Any scientist with molecular biology skills and knowledge of how to work with embryos is going to be able to do this," according to Jennifer Doudna, a biological researcher at UC Berkeley.

== Should We Regulate? ==

The reflex to pass laws and ban something seems nearly universal… and nearly always turns out wrong, since all you’ll do is drive the endeavor underground, into secret dabbling by the uber-castes — the perfect formula for uncriticized plans to go awry and give us Hollywood-Crichtonian dire scenarios. 

Much better is the true science fiction film GATTACA, which portrays a society genuinely concerned over the injustices and grappling with how to solve the problems.

In this case, the dullard tendencies of the punditry-class are especially evident.  It never seems to occur to even smart science reporters - let along dogmatists of right and left - to use a finger and trace the trend lines... realizing that what's impossible today will likely be expensive in ten years… and cheap as dirt a decade after that.

Many countries ban or regulate germ-line engineering, and leading scientists have recently called for a summit to discuss these issues, saying that researchers should accept a self-imposed moratorium on techniques that could lead to genetically altered children.

I do not oppose all such pre-discussions or moratoria!  Indeed, I want one on METI or “Messaging to ET” until we have a chance to talk it over. (See a more extensive writeup here.)  But notice that yet again, my theme is opening up a field to the widest argument and range of ideas.

Bans and prudish renunciation will not solve the problem of human germ cell engineering. 

Nor will the simplistic assumption that all choices have to be black and white, zero sum, either-or.

== A potential positive-sum? ==

Are there conceivable win-win scenarios, in which we might get many of the benefits, while minimizing most downsides? That very question is offensive to the dogmatic purist.  But it is how we got all known benefits of the modern world. Moreover, that fact seems worth raising, from time to time, as simplistic reflexes dominate most of our indignation-soaked politics.

In fact, these issues were explored far earlier than most pundits realize. Aldous Huxley, when writing Brave New World, discussed germ cell engineering with scores of that era’s finest minds, as did science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, when he wrote his classic novel Beyond This Horizon.

(As I say elsewhere, it is the second half of this novel that is “classic” and thought provoking.  The first half is to be endured or skimmed, on your way to the fascinating parts. Not the usual Heinlein pattern, which is more generally the reverse.)

Those discussing germ-line engineering would be startled by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — allowing couples to select which naturally produced sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but forbidding them to actually alter the natural human genome.

Consider the elegance of this proposed compromise. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. 

Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. (No fashionable feathers or lizard tails, just kids who are the healthiest and smartest and strongest that the parents might have had, anyway.) 

It is a notion so insightful that biologists 40 years later have only recently started to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.


Alex Tolley said...

Much of the worry of grtm line engineering is unexpected problems occurring. Initially we will do genetic defect fixes. But shortly computer modelling will test more wholesale engineering in mammals and ghen humans. There have been suggestions at wholesale modification of codons so that we could be disease resitant (at least for a while).

50 years from now gene engineering will have modified some of the human race and we will be looking at enhancements for living in different environments. As always, exponential tech growth will result in overconfidence in short term gains butunderestimates of long term ones.

Doug S. said...

Incidentally, the "Heinlein Solution" is literally the kind of "genetic engineering" that happens in the movie Gattaca - they choose the sperm and ovum that has the combination of chromosomes they want for the child.

David Brin said...

GATTACA is a superb film, but it is very narrowly focused on Ethan's very very narrow and personal dream. Implicit in the background is a society trying to find was to navigate the shoals, but Ethan is not helping that! He is only in it for himself and selfishly risks an entire mission on his gamble.

Ah, but we must still root for him! Partly as a brave and unstoppable underdog... but also because, if the mission IS successful, he will utterly shatter all public perceptions, single handedly yanking society forward.

Alas that level of analysis appears in not a single review.

Tom Crowl said...

Speaking of germ lines.... the same tech allows manipulation of not only the human line... but the lines of bacteria and viruses.

I agree that "bans" will not work... but the quandary of how to deal with an either intentional or accidental genetic manipulation with pathogens must be part of the discussion.

I'm not sure there's a solution here.

While human extinction via such a misadventure may be unlikely... significant population loss due to such an event has to be considered not only possibe... but perhaps inevitable.

As my ex-wife always suggested, I'm a "W.P.S." type (Worst Possible Scenario).

So I assume that after the Singularity, the A.I. in charge will keep a few of us around for entertainment and drudgery... and it'll head for the stars.

And a singular A.I. has no social drives. (Oh, you assume we'll be able to embed them? Maybe...)

And hence they become just the sort of rather dangerous alien intelligence S.E.T.I. skeptics fear. intelligence.

We developed in small groups... which may be a common characteristic for intelligent species developing on earth like planets. They don't learn how to scale... and this ends up killing them. (there are a number of ways I can see this happening and all are tied to the fact that as tech and inter-dependence grow... vulnerability also grows... eventually even faster than the tech)

Perhaps 'socialized intelligence' only lasts long enough to create replacement A.I.

Alfred Differ said...

Sorry. I have a low opinion of the Heinlein solution in general. If a huge percentage of people decide it is the moral thing to do, I'll certainly consider it, but I will grumble about them abusing my freedom as a moral agent. Unless I am known to be harming my children, they have no business interfering. Don't bother trying to convince me they can know in advance just by the fact that I want to play at being a genetic engineer.

On top of that, I'm not sure we are going to beat the auto-immune disorders by picking from naturally available ova and sperm. Our ancestors were living with parasites for astronomically long time periods. Removing the pests within a generation appears to have serious consequences for some of us. It is quite an assumption to believe that naturally available ova are going to have exactly what we need to raise healthy kids in a world with fewer parasites.

The much more interesting fear people will raise next comes from when our knowledge of our epigenetic switches grows enough that we can turn them on and off at will. Such changes would have immediate impacts on free people AND lingering impacts on their natural children. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: (from previous thread)
David's statement that the Enlightenment entitles him to his opinion has a firm philosophical foundation. Dig a bit into the philosophy and you'll find many theists and deists offered supporting arguments that paraphrase roughly as 'Each is sovereign unto themselves with only God above them.' This breaks from the previous social plan with Royalty answerable to God and Common Man answerable to Royalty first so we can be guided properly on Earth. Read some of the founding arguments and you'll find this kind of material.

Atheists like me just shorten the paraphrasing a bit. 'Each is sovereign unto themselves.' With this small surgery, we get to make use of practically the entire philosophical structure even if we do annoy the occasional theist.

As an Enlightenment advocate, David is entitled to his opinion... by definition. 8)

Tim H. said...

I wouldn't be surprised if on close examination we find many genetic errors are kludgy solutions to problems, like sickle cell and malaria. Many interesting things yet to learn.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

I agree that the problem of germ-line genetic engineering is important, but we really need to get on with the non-germ line human genetic engineering right now. Like, this very day.

The death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 in a genetic engineering trial has indirectly led to millions of premature deaths because the medical profession has become excessively fearful of genetic engineering.

The most irrational statement that modern medicine makes to their patients is, "I'm sorry we cannot save your life. The one treatment that would very likely save you is not well proven and might cause you harm."

There are genetic treatments that could help the elderly to retain muscle strength, and others genetic treatment to avoid anemia and the common loss of hemoglobin density with age. We can't use those treatments in humans, though, because those same treatments could be used to enhance athletic performance. We can't allow these treatments to eliminate human suffering because it is considered more important that athletics remain pure.

Duncan Cairncross said...

In this I agree with Alfred - limiting yourself to what is there "naturally" is unessential

Imagine trying to build a boat just using "found" wood without any tools

Possibly this is an area where our host's "Transparency" could come into play

You can modify - but you MUST publish the modifications

If you want privacy you use the Heinlein rule

Alex Tolley said...

It is the new CRISPR technology that will make engineering more precise in gene editing. Prior to this, it was much more hit and miss.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

There already exist a network of biohacker labs across North America where individual biohackers can do their own experiments and also keep an eye on what each other is up to. It is a means of self-enforcing transparency in exchange for access to good equipment and help and collaboration.



Of course, it doesn't enforce transparency everywhere, but it does make things much easier for those who make their work subject to transparency.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex, a month ago I heard a story about geneticists wanting to place a moratorium on CRISPR technology, then a week later there was an article about CRISPR technology being used to remove HIV DNA from human cells.

While we still have a whole lot to do in terms of somatic gene therapies, germ line therapy is going to happen eventually (and it annoys me how few science fiction writers envision how this will impact the future). When I teach genetics to 10th graders, I tell them about some of the creative transgenic uses people have made of Green Fluorescent Protein from jellyfish. Every year someone always asks when they are going to be able to get GFP so they can glow in the dark, too (and given the stares and giggles, I can be pretty sure of what specific anatomical features they want to glow). While these are 15- and 16-year olds, teens grow to become inventors, engineers and scientists who then make their adolescent dreams come true. Then we will have people with glow-in-the-dark basketball team logos on their skin. It's all about merchandizing.

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB. Precision gene efiting and computational modeling will be the key technologies for germ line editing. Efficient vectors will need to be found for somatic cells. For SF we need to be thinking how the vast set if gene sequences from other organisms can be used to enhance human capabilities. Radiation resistance for example. Better immune systems. Extended color vision, including UV and near IR.

Thus was the stuff if SF once, now we are on the brink of real technology.

Alfred Differ said...

I would be willing to make a concession to people who want the Heinlein rule as a way to get a compromise with the people who want to block the research. If I tinker with my child's genetics outside what is naturally available to my wife and myself, I'd publish the code we chose to use AND accept the possibility that others might decide our child is not human. Of course, I'd make it clear that if WE thought the child was human, we'd defend its life with force if needed.

It is a terrible thing to assume a human cannot function as a moral agent before they've demonstrated whether or not they can. Sometimes we have to do it for individuals with known histories of failure, but we become feudalists if we do it for everyone.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: (From previous thread)
You have a built in assumption that productivity SHOULD influence median wage. I challenge you to explain that and consider the possibility that the assumption fails.

Marx was wrong about the time value of labor and patching his argument with productivity still fails. This was figured out in the 20s and 30s, but the knowledge is politically unpalatable. Many of us need to believe someone is to blame when we don't get the price we want for our labor like we once needed to believe in spirits and demi-gods to make things happen around us. What if we are wrong? Isn't labor just another commodity to be sold?

This is no defense of cheaters, but what happens to your chain of reasoning if the stagnation of US median wages was mostly about the awakening of a world market that could compete (imperfectly) for labor in the US? Can this be tested in other nations where the jobs went? Japan used to be a market that produced cheap, low quality products after the war. Not so anymore. China is going the same way right now. Jobs move to low priced labor markets because only a foolish company owner wouldn't move them.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul Shen-Brown: The engineering trick that caught my attention that I thought SHOULD have caused more giggles was the recent way e-coli were adjusted to change the aromatics they produce. The net effect on a human with them in the right place would be farts that smelled like wintergreen mints if I remember right.

I'd go for that. No doubt my wife would appreciate it. 8)

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
Leaving aside Marx and - labor is the basis of all money -
(which I believe has a lot of sense behind it)

We have the inputs
Labor, Capital,
Wages, profit,

If large amounts of capital are added it is appropriate for the "wages" share to go down

But that is not what we are seeing - in most instances the amount of capital has gone down
The amount of "expertise" has gone up
But that has come from the workers

The idea that "Labor is just another commodity"
Does have some merit - but it's only some labor that is "just another commodity"
Doctors, lawyers....
Have regulations that prevent workers from overseas interfering with their monopoly

The we have the major factor - the number of jobs moved overseas while large was not enormous
Most manufacturing from the USA is still in the USA - and then there are all of the construction and infrastructure jobs that really can't be outsourced

But in all of these industries the share of the return that goes to wages has diminished and the share of the return than goes to profits has increased

This is more than the effects of low wages overseas
This was created by a political agenda to diminish the working class

To give an example (that nearly got me the sack)
I got fed up with the Americans complaining about my engine plant being the most expensive
(Darlington Engine Plant)
My guys got about $25/hour (15 pounds)
The US plants were paying McDonalds wages - $10/hour

When I looked closer they had massive staff turnover and their "Before in Service" and "Warranty costs" were much higher
I worked out that we were actually the lowest cost plant!
(talk about letting off a stinkbomb)

The US operation had cost cut itself to higher overall costs!

This is part of the reason that the Germans manage to be very competitive despite their high wages

Another problem I hit was in the costing models that were used
The finance guys split overhead costs in line with manning

So in my plant with $18million dollars worth of engine test systems (with 20 guys)and $2million dollars worth of assembly line (with 180 guys)
They landed 90% of the overhead costing on the assembly operation

Which was a real pain when I wanted to spend $400,000 on improvement

My operation actually cost 90% of the overhead!
I managed to win that fight and spend the money
That was the way they usually worked
It was a total GIVEN that less people = lower costs
Huge numbers of decisions were made on that basis

As I say when people talk about the millions of man hours lost to union activity in the 70's
For every hour lost to union activity we lost 100 hours to management incompetence

Alex Tolley said...

@duncan - interesting analysis.

Daniel Duffy said...

IIRC when the human genome was decoded, researchers were amazed at how few genes human DNA actually has. Human DNA has 22,000 genes. That might seem like a lot, but not when you consider that a poplar tree has 45,000.

Since then they have decoded a second level of information that the cells of developing humans use to create a larger set of instructions. Its not the genes that define us but the proteins made by the genes and the secondary and tertiary interactions between these proteins. These few genes can be turned into hundreds of thousands of genetic messages, by rearranging their parts.

So there is no gene for musical talent that can turn your child into a another Mozart, or mathematical ability that will make it another Einstein, or one for physical prowess to create an Olympic athlete - not even a few genes that can directly make blond-haired blue-eyed babies.

Any attempts to do so will result in a daisy chain of side effects from those secondary and tertiary protein interactions mentioned above. Try to directly create a mathematical genius and you could possibly produce another Newton, but one with autism, albinism, and web toe.

Genetically engineered supermen and superwomen from SF? Simply won't work. The tangled web of protein interactions is just too complex to safely unravel.

And why bother? Even if you could produce the next Michael Jordan don't forget that he really sucked at baseball. Newton had horrible social skills and could barely interact with other people.

As a species we are generalists, not specialists. Mediocrity is our greatest strength. To quote Heinlein:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Daniel, you have a very strange definition of mediocrity.

The quote that you give from Heinlein is from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long. (Originally from Heinlein's Time Enough for Love.)

Lazarus Long was a fictional character who lived more than two thousand years because of a human selective breeding program to select for a combination of genes that was deliberately intended to extend the human lifespan.

Your Heinlein quotation is generally given as an example of a Competent Human, not a mediocre human.

It is certainly true that single genes do not generally result in a single trait. That simply means that human genetic engineering is extremely complex, involving introns (non-coding regions within genes) and epigenetics (external molecules that turn genes on and off), as well as other non-coding regions of DNA.

We now have computers for handling and processing extremely complex data. Eventually, we will figure all of this out. Probably, in the not very distant future. Progress is now happening at an incredible rate.

Jumper said...
Solar power in Hawaii

locumranch said...

When (not 'if') genetic engineering becomes a reality, what will we do with last year's model?

Greg Bear (Darwin's Children)imagines a pluralistic society wherein the old & improved coexist in happy harmony, yet this possibility is belied by the less than stellar historical performance of our australopith friends.

So, most likely, the old will be replaced by the new, much in the way that CAFE standards lead to the inevitable demise of the old gas-guzzling automobile.

Everyone is indeed entitled to their own intellectual, biological or genetic opinion, yet opinion neither guarantees success nor reality, even if we assume the most pluralistic of futures imaginable.


Paul Shen-Brown said...

Yesterday I took my car to the mechanic, and while I sat in the lobby someone turned on the TV. I usually ignore the TV as much as possible, but then I heard a familiar voice, looked up to see Dr. Brin talking about longevity. The show was called "Xploration Earth 2050" if anyone wants to see if they can hunt down a clip. Someone is out there reality talking!

Alfred, your wintergreen flatulence comment reminded me of a story I wrote way back in the early Pliocene, in which the wealthy used genetic engineering to make themselves better than the "unwashed masses" as literally as possible. One of their modifications was to engineer away the hydrogen sulfide, so they could say that they smelled better than the hoi polloi and be speaking literal truth. I hadn't thought of wintergreen, though. Designer farts may be in our future if you're rich enough.

That brings me, though, to a minor point of contention with Dr. Brin. In the last thread he suggested that he did not think that loci would enslave our children but saplingstubble would. Now this is not directed at either of them personally, but at the human race generally. I sometimes quote Voltaire who said that anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Back in the 1930s there were surely sweet old grannies who voted in Hitler because they bought into the absurdity of racial superiority. While they, personally, might not hurt a fly, the thugs they voted for were more than willing to commit atrocities in their name. Snark has become today's racial superiority, an absurdity closely related to nepotism in that those who feel they are superior to the masses of sheeple surround themselves with like-minded cronies. If not social darwinist, assuming genetic superiority of their own families, then a memetic version that posits that only those who share their prejudices are worthy of human respect. Anyone who is not firmly committed to the notion that all people are equal at least in terms of the respect with which they are to be treated, until they do something to earn disrespect, is capable of committing any atrocity you care to name. Classifying people under god and bad columns in our minds is a way of dehumanizing others, which is the first step on the road to genocide. Under dire circumstances even the best of us may do desperate, morally reprehensible things. How much less worthy of trust are those who show very little respect for their fellow human beings in relatively prosperous and peaceful times?

Daniel Duffy said...

Jerry - "mediocre" as in not having specialized expertise - like hive insects.

And no we won't ever figure out direct genetic engineering of our species. The multiple protein interactions, junk DNA, epigenetics and environmental factors are complex to the point of evoking chaos theory - which means we can't even in principle unravel the step needed to intentionally modify our species for desire characteristic.

And even if we did so there is no guarantee that a particular outcome will manifest itself.

Suppose we genetically engineer another Newton.

The real Newton spent most of his adult life decoding biblical prophecy and the book of revelations - NOT doing math and science.

Genetic engineering is magical science, like travelling faster than light. So there will never be a Khan Noonian Singe - or a Capt. Kirk shouting "Khaaaaaaaaaan!"

Jumper said...

"Never" is a long time. There will be supercomputers capable of protein cascade effects, organism interaction with other species (e.g., gut biome), epigenetics. It's a long way from here to there, though.
Same as FTL, which seems to be identical with time travel, much as we would prefer them separate. Long way to go.

Alex Tolley said...

@daniel - I think you are mixing up genetic determinism with potential. We will certainly be able to model potential, but obviously not outcomes except for simple organisms. But great strides are being made already for simller organisms and i have no doubt we will successfully and safely modify higher mammals.

Joe D said...

What drove me crazy about Gattaca was that Ethan's whole plan could have been spoiled by an ignorant janitor who incorrectly assumes that since he, as a right-hander, holds with his right hand when urinating, a left-hander must hold with his left hand.

As a left-hander, I can tell you that both trouser and underwear flies are constructed to allow comfortable access only via the right hand.

Not only that, but most "left-handers" are significantly closer to ambidextrous (if for no other reason than to survive in a right-handed world).

I've never seen anything saying that the screenplay author knew that all Ethan's work could have been spoiled by ignorance.

David Brin said...

What is it, sunspots? You guys are being especially cogent in this thread. Duncan’s missive on quality in manufacturing. Paul’s call for a fundamental focus on “respect.” Jumper and Daniel arguing with great wisdom. Alfred too. Oh… and locum? Yipe. Who ARE you, and what did you do with “locumranch?”

Best and one of the oldest communities on the Web. Doctorow can HAVE his one thousand yammerers.

Tony Fisk said...

While David considers Hawke's character to be a self-centered villain of the piece, I consider the MO to be, at the very least, complicit. He had Hawke pegged from the beginning but did nothing, presumably content to let the selection process winnow him out. Which it didn't.

That, together with the reasons the MO gave for his decisions, underlines David's point about society grappling with the problem.

re: farts. I suggest you begin re-engineering the household pet. When the dog leaves the room...!

David Brin said...

Tony I never used "villain!" Hawke's character is a hero! He is applying fantastic courage and determination as an underdog against a vast moral lapse in society. But OTOH... like other heroes (e.g. Assange) he is also an egotistical, self-centered SOB. The main good he will to for the world will happen if his plan succeeds all the way, absolutely 100%. Anything less and all he is is an SOB.

The MO is angry... hiding it well.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Daniel, you are criticizing things (like engineering an Isaac Newton) that nobody that I've heard of is actually trying to do. You are also saying that things are impossibly complex that amateurs have been doing for years, even with human genomes.

I am an electronics engineer, and a rank amateur when in comes to genomics. Yet I found a life-threatening problem in a non-coding region of my own DNA, and figured out a work-around, more than 6 years ago.

You criticize the one-gene/one-trait hypothesis that is something that most people now working in genomics had never even heard about until after the idea was discarded. So you are criticizing something that most people alive today have NEVER believed.

The SNPedia online genomic encyclopedia and the five-dollar Promethease software both address both coding and non-coding regions of DNA. They also address multiple gene interactions. We don't quite know enough about epigenetics for the Promethease software to go there, but SNPedia is just beginning to address epigenetic issues.

Both the professionals and the amateurs working in genomics are working toward improving the health of the people alive today, and hopefully their offspring. They would also like to obtain a few extra years of longevity.

Real-world present-day genomics could use additional intelligent critics; but it does little good to criticize ideas of the distant past.

Tony Fisk said...

I probably picked up 'villain' from your analysis of ET (Key Man and the Ship Captain), and then applied it as a general role. Anyway, mea culpa.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: I don't doubt you regarding your corporate experiences. What you are pointing out, though, is incompetence in corporate governance and management. That makes for very useful fodder when arguing against people other theories regarding governance and management. At that level, I'm inclined to agree with you.

The problem I'm pointing at is at a higher level, though. I think a lot of people make the mistake as do many economists. Your willingness to brush aside the mistake Marx made shows you probably have the same erroneous meme in your head too. Labor can't be the basis for money. It doesn't work. We've known this for many decades now. It feels like it should work because it connects our concepts of 'merit' and 'value', but to get there we have to assume market transactions are made by complete moral agents. They aren't.

If I buy a burger at a fast food restaurant, I don't really care about the motivations of the person taking my money or their employer until they do something egregious. The point of a market is so we don't HAVE to care. We compress the information available to traders to a set of numbers called prices much like layers of a neural net compress incoming sensory data to a mere dribble before any of it arrives at the brain. We could not function if we did not do both.

Productivity and wage are connected only if you force too much information into the neural net that is our markets. Avoid that mistake and its possible they will appear connected at times and not at other times. Wage is just another price in the larger set. Demand the price you want, of course, but few beyond the person with whom you trade will care. They shouldn't care... because it would be awful nosy of them to know enough TO care.

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: I say this with honest respect, but what you are describing is merely a 'large, difficult problem.'

When I was young, I was taught there were many such things that were simply too big ever to be solved. War, Famine, Disease, Death. Most of the examples I was taught could be thought of as supporting troops for the Four Horsemen. That's what I was taught and that's mostly what I believed. They also taught me a rather glaring bit of cognitive dissonance. I was seven when the astronauts set foot on the Moon. The look of awe, pride, and hope on the faces of adults around me permanently shaped my little mind.

My dissonance broke when the Berlin wall fell, but it wasn't because I understood what I was seeing on the TV. It was what my professor did that clinched it. He was in tears watching it and whispered that he hadn't thought he would live long enough to see it. I could hear in his voice that he had lost hope that it would at all, but more importantly, I heard a hope that we might get out of this piece of our history alive. He was saying that War itself had suffered a defeat in the field.

It took a few more years for the 'problems too big' meme in my head to weaken, but once it did I could finally see that Disease and Famine has also suffered defeats on the field. The dire predictions of world famine with the 'population bomb' failed with the Green Revolution. Small Pox had been exterminated from the face of the Earth. Death itself was falling back under our ferocious onslaught.

You think useful genetic engineering is beyond us? Hah!

Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: You won't mind too much if we keep HIV around awhile in the lab will you? How can the obsolete stay that way if there is a way to perform patching and upgrades?

The software engineer in me expects security bulletins to be published on a regular basis as we learn our genetic and epigentic vulnerabilities and the exploits already deployed against us. 8)

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

There are two different things here
Why shouldn't wages keep up with productivity?
That is at least as useful a question as "why should"

To you point about markets
Markets work when;
Parties have equal power
Parties have equal information

Break either of those two and markets don't work

Your hamburger would cost less if you offered $1 and not to shoot the vendor

That breakdown is what has happened to the "Market for Labor"

A union enables the workers to say
"Pay this much or the job stops"
Which means that you get somewhere near the value of the job to the employer

On the one side is your starving family
On the other is a bankrupt employer

Without the union you are saying
"pay me this much or get somebody else to do the job"
Now you get the value (cost) of getting somebody else in to do the job

On the one side is your starving family
On the other is an employer having to recruit a new worker

Distorting the market by reducing the power of your employees is the direct equivalent of threatening the burger man with your gun to get a cheap burger

Now those are "moral" and "market" objections

A worse one is simple, like the problem with thrift in a recession
The effect of individual employers driving wages down in order to increase their profits is to reduce the total size of the economy - thereby reducing the profits earned by the individual employer

Henry Ford understood that

Duncan Cairncross said...

I'm going to make a further point about market forces and pricing.

If you want a heart operation here in NZ that would be $40,000 (in a private hospital)

The same operation in the USA would be $400,000

Massive price difference!

But you are buying a different product
Here you are "buying" a shorter waiting period - you could wait two months and have it done for free

In the USA you are buying life

Explains some of the price difference

As an employee you are buying your whole financial life (OK not so much the starving family these days)

As an employer you are buying a small increment of the labor required for your business
And like the NZ heart patient you can always just "get somebody else"

Daniel Duffy said...

Alfred, the only reason the Berlin Wall fell peacefully is that two Soviet officers (one during the Cuban missile crisis and another during operation Abel Archer) personally intervened to prevent the launch of Soviet nukes.

The peaceful end of the Cold War does not prove that our species has improved or that we are getting better at solving intractable problems, it means we are just stupidly lucky.

And while we are on the subject of improving the human race, wouldn't we get more bang for the buck by improving environmental factors instead of tinkering with our genes - creating how many monsters and deformities of innocent humans before we get the technique right?

It's not well known but lead paint is actually very sweet. Little kids used to love the taste of lead paint chips they picked off a windowsill or wall. So how many Newtons and Einsteins had their brains stunted by lead poisoning over the years before lead paint was banned?

How many criminals were created by lead exhaust from smog in our large cities before lead additives in fuel were banned?

How many potential Mozarts and Picassos never made it to advanced education because they were too hungry to study in grade school?

Genetic engineering isn't just a fantasy its a misdirection of resources that could be spent on improving society's environmental factors.

Daniel Duffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Duffy said...

General question to all those in favor of developing genetic engineering: how many monsters and deformities of what would have been innocent - if only average - children are acceptable in the pursuit of getting the technique correct?

What do you say to the failures that inevitably occur in any R&D project? What do you say to the deformed little boy who has to spend his entire life hooked to a machine that you were only trying to create another Mozart?

raito said...

Well, John Kenneth Muir's review of Gattaca skirts the edges of showing that Ethan's success moving things forward, but doesn't quite say it our loud.

It reminds me a bit of a couple of older sci-fi stories in which someone from the underclass outwits those above. But in those stories, usually the outwitting was the price of admission to the ruling class, rather than changing society as a whole.

And on an older topic, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law, who did a stint with the Peace Corps in Niger. It was interesting on a couple points. If you really want to see what happens when there's no education or economy, those places exist. And let's let the anti-vaccine people vacation in places where there's people wearing castoff flip-flops on their hands dragging their polio-atrophied legs behind them. Oh wait, some of them travel here... Yeah, it's from an older thread, but still...

sociotard said...

What do you say to the deformed little boy who has to spend his entire life hooked to a machine that you were only trying to create another Mozart?

Reminds me of the villain in Kiln People.

What happens to the vibrant deaf community, their whole culture, when we eliminate deafness?

What happens to mathematics when we take away the genes for schizophrenia? What happens to art when we take away Manic depressive?

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Daniel asked - General question to all those in favor of developing genetic engineering: how many monsters and deformities of what would have been innocent - if only average - children are acceptable in the pursuit of getting the technique correct?

This one is easy. Just as in other forms of medicine, you spend a very long time correcting known errors in individual's genomes that are causing illness before you try any sort of enhancement.

We know the exact cause of a great many kinds of genetic errors that cause very serious illness and great human suffering. We are zeroing in on many more. Eliminating human suffering by fixing the known mistakes is the only thing that should be done for the next decade or more.

There will be mistakes in making human genetic repairs, like there is in any form of medicine. We have already had people die, as in the Jesse Gelsinger case, but a much larger amount of suffering will be eliminated along the way.

The only forms of "enhancement" that I am in favor of (for the near future) are things like extending the telomere length in adults on chromosome 17 only. That would seem to be very likely to greatly reduce the increasing rate of cancer with increased age since many natural DNA repair genes are on chromosome 17 (such as the gene for tumor suppressor protein 53).

Human chromosome 17 also tends to have the shortest telomeres, which could be considered as a defect that most of us have. Extending the length of the protective telomeres on chromosome 17 would appear very likely to eliminate a lot of human suffering (with little chance of adverse effects).

Telomeres are just TTAGGG repeat sequences at the end of chromosomes that protect them from damage. They don't code for any proteins.

After eliminating existing diseases, eliminating diseases that have yet to begin showing symptoms would be the next step. For example, if a woman is considering having her breasts or ovaries removed because of BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 errors, it would be much better to simply fix the genetic defects rather than expose her to surgery.

ElitistB said...

@Daniel Duffy

"What do you say to the deformed little boy who has to spend his entire life hooked to a machine that you were only trying to create another Mozart?"

What do you say to the deformed little child who already has to spend their entire life hooked to a machine because you didn't try because of the potential consequences?

I would say that the possibility of the former means you better try your hardest to minimize such outcomes, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

I think I understand your position, though, it is a definitely a difficult question. Especially with genetics the true risks might not be borne by you, but by another. Suffering caused as a consequence of intention is always more heavily weighed than suffering caused by circumstance.

Alfred Differ said...

@Daniel: You are trying to convince me that two men raised in a totalitarian regime to do as they are told saved the entire world single handedly? First of all, I’ll say thank you for helping me name some of the troops who fought War. Second, I’ll point out that you are too focused on romantic style heroes. They didn’t do it single handedly. Huge social institutions also participated. Those two were educated by whom? Raised by whom? On the western side of the border, who set up the scenarios that made it possible for them to act as sane individuals? Sorry. I applaud both for being sane enough to avoid killing the world, but I also applaud the members of our civilization who helped. Third, I doubt either man had much to do with exterminating Small Pox or creating the Green Revolution.

Yes… it was a close shave. I remember. My professor lost hope for a very long time and only found it again about a year before he died. Many of us tried not to think too much about it. Was luck involved? No doubt. We made some of that luck, though, and we did a lot better job of it than a previous generation before WWI. War suffered a defeat in the field and now we know one of his weaknesses.

I actually DID know lead paint was sweet. I’m old enough. David can tell you a story of why so few do anymore. You can also watch one of the episodes in the recent version of Cosmos to hear it. The story has a good ending if you think such things have endings.

Regarding environmental factors, I’d say let’s do that too. It’s not like there aren’t millions of smart, curious, motivated people to help.

Regarding monsters and deformities, take a peek at birth statistics. They happen anyway. How many of them should we suffer to avoid risking making others? How many parents must face despair? This isn’t an idle question for me. I’ve faced it and wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: I have an explanatory narrative that works for me that describes why productivity and wage should not be connected. It has to do with the completeness of the moral agent engaged in a transaction. Forcing a linkage between the two forces a change to the way we transact in open markets and history shows we are generally unwilling to do this.

Let me offer an example from my wife’s crafting work. She makes small, crocheted toys that sell well with family members who have a sister or daughter who is expecting a baby. With small variations, they also sell well around Halloween to similar customers for different reasons. If you calculate the price she should set on them according to a reasonable hourly wage she might demand from an employer, she doesn’t even come close it. If she prices them that high, they are considered art pieces on price alone and her customer base melts away. If she prices them according to the market, they sell often enough that she has learned tricks to improve her productivity. She’s even learned a few tricks to increase their price and still sell them, but these lessons have nothing to do with the first set of lessons. As someone who is self-employed, there is NO connection between her income ‘expectation’ and her productivity even though there is a connection between her income and productivity.

I pointed out once (or twice or many times) that she could employee others to increase her through-put. She did the numbers and declined to do so. HOW she did the numbers, though, is very telling. She used reasonable wage expectations for what she should pay her employees and realized she couldn’t sell the end product at a profit. She did NOT treat the hypothetical employees as people who would sell their time in exchange for money. She treated them as if they were part of her family. She declined because there is no way she would treat family the way she was treating herself. I stopped trying to convince her once I understood this. What I was proposing to her was something she considered to be immoral.

Is it though? Is it immoral to trade with someone for a widget at a price both can accept? She was spending her own time doing exactly that with her toys and there are many happy mothers and children as a result. She used different rules for herself than she would use for others and from my perspective, deprived her potential employees from participating in the market the way she was. The fact that she never had employees means her act couldn’t be immoral, but if someone tried to enforce that kind of decision making process on someone who DID have employees, I’d have to admit that I’d view that pressure as immoral.

Wage expectations and productivity are linked if you make the mistake of thinking of market participants as parts of your family. Avoid that mistake, though, and it’s not clear to me that there should be any connection at all. It’s comparing apples to oranges. The person on the other side of the counter at the burger stand isn’t part of my family. They are part of my community and that’s not the same.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: Okay. Now I’ll address your union perspective. This is a little more direct. Please don’t take it personal.

Markets can work when the parties involved are not equals, but there is a higher risk of what many of us would consider in hind sight to be cheating. Adam Smith covered this well enough in TMS when he described how we figure out whether a good thing was done when person A does something for person B. It is tricky, but it CAN work. I refuse to take any action that would artificially equalize power levels as a result. If a particular transaction type is considered to be cheating (body organ sales, water sales to dying people in a desert, etc), I’m willing to consider market rules forbidding the transactions, but not ones that equalize things.

Offering less than $1 and not to shoot the hamburger vendor is an obvious cheat, is it not? We even have a name for it. We have names for a great many cheats. What a lovely hamburger stand! It would be such a shame if something happened to it! How much did you say the burger costs? We also have names for the cheats Unions enforce. ‘Pay this much or the job stops’ is a form of extortion. Very immoral… unless a contract exists between the company and the union in advance. How many companies enter into such a contract without some other form of extortion, though? Don’t bother reciting history showing how companies did the same to their labor. I know and agree. That doesn’t mean we aren’t dealing with one form of cheating using other. Threatening the burger guy is extortion. Threatening labor is extortion. Threatening management is extortion. Establishing a contract between management and union is a truce in a long conflict involving bad behavior. It might end the behavior for a time, but it fails (miserably!) at Adam Smith’s test for whether good has been done.

I’m not opposed to labor organizing and bargaining collectively with management. I AM opposed to labor and management agreeing to terms that harm others, though. Negative externalities are created by closed shop contracts. More of them are created by picket lines no one dares cross. Very immoral.

As an employee you are buying your whole financial life (OK not so much the starving family these days)

This reveals your confusion. I’ve been employed by many companies. I have not buying my whole financial life. I can just go get another. Only when I can’t do that am I at a disadvantage with respect to my potential or current employer.

Steve O said...

@ Duncan and all,

This is a topic I know whereof I speak...

One of the things I teach/consult is in understanding true costs. A simple example is in my book "Business Performance Excellence" page 91. This speaks directly to your example but simplifies some of the assumptions.

But one very interesting aspect of this that apparently each generation must learn is the concept of the Taguchi Loss Function. It boils down to this: variation of any important characteristic results in real money lost, even if the variation is within a specification or tolerance. Some of my clients are still able to compete while employing labor in the US because while a plant in China might make a gazillion, say, hand tools, they have to throw away half a gazillion, but miss due to human inspectors a quarter of a gazillion that are going to break but make it to market. In the US, they can sell almost all of what they make and they stay sold. Further, as Deming told us, the cost of poor quality (==variation) is unknown and unknowable. You prevent problems you never even knew about by having a controlled process.

David Brin said...