Why Bother Genemodding?

Why Bother Genemodding? September 15, 2011
Flesh to fiber-optic interface from Battlestar Galactica

Alex Knapp likes to kick around transhumanist problems at Forbes, and he’s concluded genetic engineering will almost certainly result in “horrific moral atrocities.” Simply put:

The “failed prototypes” are people. People who have to grow up and live with the consequences of the inevitable mistakes that will be made in the process of experimenting. Assuming, of course, they can physically live with those consequences at all.

And there’s the problem. When you get right down to it, I do not see any way to perform experiments involving signficant genetic enhancements that don’t end in the suffering of a human being. A human being whose DNA was altered without consent, who is participating in a scientific experiment without consent, and is, basically, being born into slavery, with their sole purpose in life being a stepping stone to making other people “better.”

I’m mostly in agreement with Knapp, so let me quickly get to where we diverge. I think he’s selling short the extent to which many fetuses, children, and adults end up in experiments they didn’t consent to that are meant for their own good. No fetus signed a waiver to be in a study of folic acid supplements, but they were hardly ‘born into slavery’ or reduced to a mere means as a result. And after birth, you can end up in a poorly run experiment, with potential for long term harm every time your state overhauls its school curriculum or changes the food safety standards. Let’s not inflate the threat-to-personhood danger just because these environmental changes are more cutting edge.

That being said, I’m in agreement that DNA-tweaking is dead on arrival. Genetic engineering is pretty much guaranteed to wind up in the middle of the abortion debate, since it’s a lot easier to select embryos than alter them. That issue taboos the whole subject for a significant proportion of the population. And pro-choicers like me still have plenty of reasons to be leery of the whole endeavor. As Knapp points out, any pre-birth enhancements tend to run into some serious problems with consent. We make plenty of choices that alter a baby’s biology, but this isn’t exactly folic acid supplements. There’s no strong consensus about what kind of enhancements are desirable or necessary, so there’s no way to argue that the person-to-be tacitly consents. And, historically, this kind of consensus isn’t all too trustworthy, anyway (cf. the practice of neo-natal genital surgery for intersex infants).

Absent a profound shift in expectations for our physical hardware, these objections are enough to kibosh any plan for human genetic engineering. And that’s fine by me, since there’s no reason transhumanists should have picked that as a goal to begin with. Focusing the conversation there is a way to push transhumanist goals into a far-distant future. Definitionally, you’re taking all the pressure off our generation, since, absent some really clever virus engineering, there’s no way we can use this tool to modify ourselves.

But aspiring body hackers do have options right now. The two I’m most interested in assimilating are a constant awareness of compass directions, and, subsequently, better navigational instincts, and the ability to sense electromagnetic fields (though I’d be going the magnets-in-nail-polish route, and steering clear of the surgical implants).

If those aren’t the augmentations you want, then start trying to put together a different mechanical/biological kludge. Just try and do some thinking about what you actually want to be, not what kind of thing is cool at parties. Levitation or flight sound cool, but I’m better served by the exertion of walking on a day-to-day basis, and when I do need to fly, I have this wacky trick called buying plane tickets.

Does that not seem cool and futuristic enough? Tough beans. Transhumanism is more about problem-solving than aesthetics, and plenty of currently existing tech can solve my problems even if it doesn’t meld with my wetware. But most people think that physical tech somehow doesn’t count and gadgets like my iPhone or my laptop (both of which radically change how I access, store, and process information, and then go on to give me totally new kinds of ways to act in the world) have nothing to do with the transhumanist project.

The weird thing is that even when we want to do something as radical as genetic engineering, we still want it to feel natural, smoothly and inextricably bound to us. An inborn sense of direction seems more real than training with the Northstar anklet. Farther along the spectrum, a surgical implant must be more a part of us than a magnet that’s only glued on.

One of my transhumanism hobbyhorses is trying to blur the definition of the body and stop privileging the squishy bits that happen to be attached to us at birth. Another one is making war on any infatuation with the ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ generally. I’ll worry about the aesthetics of an interface after I’ve got something I can use.

Oh, and don’t forget that some of the best bang for your buck transhumanism around is policing cruft and biases in your own reasoning. Cognitive hacking is still hacking, even if it doesn’t get to incorporate any cool-looking LEDs.

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  • Anonymous

    This is a little off topic but as a pro-choicer do you believe a man should have the right to opt out of parental responsibilities? It seems that if a woman has the right to choose wether or not she is to become a parent then a man should have that same right as well. Not trying to be a jerk just wondering if any pro-choicers have thought about this. Why should a man be held responsible for a choice he didn't make?

  • I think Knapp has an excellent point about the impossibility of giving consent for pre-birth genetic engineering; I've often thought about that. At the same time, though, I worry that the potential uses of this technology are too huge to expect everyone to abide by that ethical principle. Does that mean that all the advances in genetic modification of humans are going to be made by the least ethical people out there?

  • Patrick

    The "born into slavery" thing is hyperbole to the point of stupidity. If being born in part due to someone's desire to obtain benefits from your existence without your prior consent constitutes being born into slavery, then every kid who grows up on a working farm is living in bondage.In fact, the entire consent issue is a bit of a non starter for me. There's nothing magical about medicine that makes consent for medical procedures more important than consent in other matters. There's a lot more to write than I feel like going into, but in short, we presently permit parents to destroy their children's lives in dozens of horrible ways. If genetic engineering is likely to be helpful, I don't know why we should single it out on a technicality while permitting all manner of other actual abuse.

  • Genetic mods vs. mechanical are an interesting question to me. For a long time (when I was more influenced by my genetics background) I though genetic modification was going to be the wave of the future. I no longer think that. Biology is too complex and SLOW. By the time you grow up you are way out of date. If transhumanism proceeds it will go for the simpler and faster electronic-mechanical solutions to problems. Those fields are advancing much faster anyway. Bio-modification will be restricted to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and more obviously therapeutic medical uses because doing things just for fun is going to remain dangerous for a long time. And by the time the danger has reduced mechanical stuff will be even farther along. What do you think?And making war on any infatuation with the natural and organic? Why? Dislike of the natural is dislike of yourself. Not to mention all of us. Gnostic indeed! 😉 My question to you would be what are you running from and what are you striving for? And why? And lastly is this problematic relationship to the natural a technical or a moral problem? Everyone is gaga over technological solutions, when a change of behavior would often be the better route. This is the problem of whether goodness is only in human minds or is it in nature itself, again. Should we bend nature to ourselves, or bend ourselves to nature?

  • @Anonymous, I'm not going to answer your question in this thread, since I don't want this post to get sidetracked into abortion, so I've pulled it out as a standalone post here.

  • This is the first time I heard of the North Paw (the compass thing for those who don't follow the links). I like the idea so much I have actually ordered myself a kit and will be trying it out. Unlike the magnet gimmick it could actually be useful. I have a spectacularly bad sense of orientation. Even in my hometown I often rely on my phone's navigation program. If an additional data channel improves this, that would be awesome. I wonder, though, if that data gets integrated into the aggregate intuition. When I walk I have a reasonably accurate intuition of how far I walked. If this was disaggregated into intuitions of how far I walked per direction, that would be very helpful. But that would be an intuition based on past compass directions, which, knowing myself, I certainly won't remember at the conscious level. Also, if the cellphone vibrator monitors are audible the whole thing is a non-starter. But I think it certainly is worth a try.That is firmly on the cishumanist side though. To me the point of transhumanism seems to be the denial of an objective human nature. Problem is, if you don't believe in an objective human nature, you can't consistently believe in human exceptionalism. Those who deny an objective human nature typically try to assign moral status based on sentience. Beyond the usual and fatal problems (my sentience ceases every night, some mentally handicapped people are less sentient than some chimpanzees, even after birth kids take a while to become sentient…) this is extra-problematic in a transhumanist context because it is a matter of degree. The cutoff is based on the degree typical of present humans, perhaps minus some safety margin. But without an objective human nature the reference to present humans would completely arbitrary. So the threshold is pretty certain to rise. But then luddites like me might actually loose the moral status we presently enjoy without any change in ourselves. This is clearly not an acceptable feature of any moral system.I'll also note, that Leah relies on an objective human nature in this post, even if she doesn't consciously believe in it. Pre-birth enhancements can only run into consent problems if there is a default option not requiring consent. Otherwise the kid would get a biology they didn't consent to either way. So I'll say real transhumanism is immoral. Then the question is where to draw the line. The abstract answer is as soon as it work directly against human nature rather then just supplementing it. In practice there will be a lot of complicated criteria of when that happens, but one I'm fairly sure about is this: It's not OK to damage an intact part of the body to gain an ability healthy humans don't typically have. So the implanted magnets are out, because implantation requires cutting the skin.I'll close with some practical advice on the not quite transhumanist theme: For those of us who haven't already done so, the most efficient way to improve our technological interface is learning to touch-type. I did so far too late. The time it took me was an excellent investment, and definitely a way better one than the time I wasted reading Less Wrong.

  • On closer thought the practical criteria need to be more casuist than I said in my last comment. A transhumanist enhancement is, as I said, immoral if it works directly against human nature. But I'll retract the practical criterion I was "fairly sure" about, viz that "It's not OK to damage an intact part of the body to gain an ability healthy humans don't typically have." That's because I meanwhile thought of a counterexample: Earlobe piercings (slightly) damage the earlobe and create an ability healthy humans don't typically have in their natural state, namely suspending rings from the ear. But they are not immoral. The real casuistry probably needs to be backtracked from the differences between clear cases. I'll say earlobe piercing is clearly ok, while replacing one's healthy eyes with nerve-interfaced cameras clearly isn't. Permanent destruction of functional units is also not the rule, for on some ears a piercing could easily destroy a hair follicle and that would be irrelevant while even a temporary immunosuppression for a non-reparative implant would be clearly beyond the line. Tentatively, I think the difference lies simply in the intensity of damage. Taking some damage, I think, is just part of the body's natural function and thus not subversive of it. On implanting a magnet in the fingertip I would still lean to the "not OK" side. Part of a fingertips central function is being a designated touch-sensitive area. Therefore both cutting it and implanting anything in it seems a lot more invasive than piercing the earlobe. But for the moment I can't tell if it would be acceptable to implant a magnet in a toe-tip.Anyway, the main point stands: Supporting human nature is ok, subverting it isn't and what that means in practice needs to be worked out with some casuistry. If anyone noticed being unjustly condemned by my harsher stance of two days ago, I'm sorry for that.

  • OT question: How do people delete their comments? I can't find any interface for that. Not that I actually want to delete any of mine, I'm just curious.

  • @GilbertIt may depend on how you’re posting (I’m using a goggle account) but there was a little trashcan next to the time stamp.I made a reply to your post but noticed afterwards that at least one of my points was very weak and near illegible compared to what I wanted to convey so I deleted it until I could revise it. But in the mean time you said that at least tentatively the difference lies in the intensity of damage. There wasn't a mention of any lose of touch resulting from the magnet finger implants in the article so would that change the issue for you?Second what would be your opinion be on varies forms of Body modifications that don‘t add function but still change, remove and/or damage otherwise healthy body parts for non-medical reasons, anything from tattoos to plastic surgery to Branding/Scarification etc.

  • @adam OK, I'm blind, I have a trashcan too. Now I must resist nuking some old comment just to try it out…One cautionary note before I get to your questions: There are degrees of immorality and everyone does slightly immoral things from time to time. So when I say "X is immoral" I'm not saying "People who do X are evil." There are likely readers who have done things I'll call wrong and I just want to go on the record noting I've done worse things.Concerning the magnets I don't see how a solid object embedded in a fingertip could fail to impact that fingertips sense of touch even if it was not magnetic. Anyway on googleing it, these things are worse than I thought. The fingertip can take months to heal and sometimes gets infected. Plus sometimes the magnet cracks or the silicone layer dissolves, both of which must be dangerous because the actual magnet's material is quite poisonous. If there was a way to avoid all these problems it might be OK, but then if cats were horses we could ride up the trees. Anyway the damage rule is just one consequence of the not working against human nature rule. So if you're thinking of a future direct nerve interface that might have fewer side effects but is right out because it would be a redesign of the human form.On body modification:It depends, again, on how it relates to human nature. I think the direct damage of tattoos is morally acceptable. On the other hand there are extreme cases where the goal basically is no longer to look like a human and that is an immoral rejection of ones own humanity. A tattoo could also be immoral because of its content or because it has an unacceptable meaning in some cultures (Japan, for example).I'm a bit ambivalent about cosmetic surgery, mostly because there are relevant psychological aspects and I as a man am not directly afflicted by them. So I don't really know the line between fixing and enhancing. Anyway it's clearly immoral to make a woman feel like she needs it. I can think of one fairly clear case though: Cosmetic botox injections are clearly out. That's because paralyzing a healthy muscle is the direct goal rather than an unfortunate side effect of the procedure. Branding/Scarification: I'm not sure, but I tend to the no side. The goal seems to be permanent skin damage and that is problematic. On the other hand there is an argument to be made that scarring is a natural skin function sometimes not in conflict with other skin functions. It might also depend on the extent of the damage. So I'm not sure on that one.But the main point is not in the examples. What I'm saying is, we know how humans are supposed to work. And the moral question to ask is are we working with that scheme or against it.

  • Patrick

    "If there was a way to avoid all these problems it might be OK, but then if cats were horses we could ride up the trees. Anyway the damage rule is just one consequence of the not working against human nature rule."Gilbert- the above quotation should, upon reflection, show how confused your system of moral inquiry has become. You're trying to derive an objective, unchanging moral rule about human nature, but then you're letting it be modified by a subjective, changing moral rule about physical damage.For example, once upon a time piercings were highly prone to infection. Now they're really not. Someone at that time period might, using your system, derive from the damage rate the conclusion that piercings are against human nature. And then two hundred years later when piercings are much, much safer than riding a car on a daily basis, that person's intellectual descendents would still be arguing that piercings are morally wrong because of the human nature concern, even though the evaluation that led to that conclusion was historically contingent and would no longer come out the same if done today…. which is a good parable for religious ethics as a whole, I suppose. People in a particular time and cultural and technological context work out what feels intuitionally right and wrong to them, and then assign those feelings the weight of Absolute Eternal Moral Truth, subjecting generations upon generations of future humanity to a system of ethics that's wretched and horrible in the cultural context in which they live.

  • @PatrickI probably should have had a paragraph brake between the two sentences you quoted. The second sentence is not a retraction of the first one but an introduction to the (unquoted) next sentence following.I don't think I'm deriving an objective unchanging rule about human nature from a subjective changing rule. Rather I am trying to apply an objective unchanging rule about human nature to changing situations thereby letting some subjectivity sneak in. But that is really something you have to do with all moral law. Examples:As an objective unchanging rule murder is worse then theft. But taking your water will count as murder in the desert and as theft in the city. As an objective an unchanging rule nobody gets to have sex without the partners consent but how exactly the consent needs to be expressed will vary by culture and couple.As an objective and unchanging rule the state should not employ penalties beyond those necessary to enforce the law. But in industrialized nations at peace that rules out the death penalty while in the third world, in the 18th century, and in (some) times of war it doesn't.As an objective and unchanging rule you don't get to recklessly endanger people, but in modern day America that means you only get to drive on the right side of the road, in Britain it means you only get to drive on the left side of the road and in the middle ages it had absolutely no consequences for what side of the road your carriage could drive on.Same here: I already know the objective and unchanging rule: You can supplement the natural function of the human body but not subvert it. Now I'm trying to work out the consequences this has for actions until recently rare or impossible. That is messy, but not an argument against the abstract rule.As to your piercing example, and assuming it was as dangerous as you say, the people two hundred years ago would have rightly condemned it, because piercing under that conditions does violate human nature. You say even with changed circumstances religious people would still be stuck in that conclusion today. I think that is a cashed thought relating to reasoning out moral law from special relevation. It could have relevance in some other context. But notice I didn't refer to any sacred text here.So to turn your allegation around, that's the problem with internet atheist's argumentation. At some time they thought out a response to some evangelical fundie. And now they reiterate it wherever someone religious talks about a vaguely similar topic, subjecting anyone seriously talking about that kind of thing to the wretched and horrible smell of decaying red herrings.

  • Patrick, just to follow up on Gilbert by giving some theory behind it, the Catholic natural law tradition (I assume that is what you are drawing on here Gilbert? I might be wrong) teaches that the first principles of natural law are unchanging, while the secondary principles – those which address specifications of the general first principles – will have exceptions and change between contexts. Gilbert's stealing water example illustrates this well; moral gravity varies with context. As does his driving on the road example. The rule begins as arbitrary, but once it is made it attains a moral quality because violating it endangers people. The specification is changeable, the general principle is not.Sorry to butt in. Now carry on. 🙂

  • Yes Brian, that's what I'm working from. I avoided the name though, because as soon as the words "Catholic" and "natural law" are mentioned in the same sentence there's a large chance of it all devolving into yet another discussion of sex. I think it is useful to discuss it in a less familiar context like this one. Also, in theory people could hold this moral philosophy without being Catholic or even Christian, even if that is sociologically very unlikely today. So I'm also avoiding the word "Catholic" to avoid the tired "imposing your religion" counter. So yes Brian, that is where I'm coming from, but please everyone else, address the argument not my religion.

  • Do'h! Sorry Gilbert. 🙂 In my guileless helpfulness I have potentially detracted from your discussion. I apologize. I'm just too much of a teacher, thinking everyone wants to know the next layer of reasoning.Now how come I don't have a trash can next to MY comment? hmmm…

  • No sweat, Brian! Everyone's busy with the abortion question, so it doesn't look like this discussion will get off the ground anyway. Plus the Catholic connection is fairly obvious, so if there had been a discussion someone else would have been guaranteed to pronounce on it.