Making Franken Sense

Franken Century 3

by Guest Blogger,

Dr. Tyler Kokjohn

Rapidly advancing capabilities of biotechnology promise to give humankind almost unimaginable powers to manipulate living organisms. Perhaps even death itself will soon lose some dominion over us. While these new abilities will be awesome they also carry great risk. Not recognizing that even the respected scientific authorities intimately involved in developing these new technologies have reservations over how to proceed is a BAD IDEA.

Dr. George Church suggested recently that biotechnological advances may make it possible to bring a Neanderthal back from extinction (1, 2). Extrapolating the achievements of swiftly developing technology, he offered the informed opinion that an ‘adventurous female human’ might act as surrogate mother for the first Neanderthal baby produced in many thousands of years. His provocative statements drew quite a bit of attention from a shocked public (3).A_Galvanised_Corpse

Dr. Church is a leading genetic researcher with a long list of exceptional accomplishments. Consequently, his musings regarding the future capabilities and directions of biotechnology carry immense weight. The successful cloning of animals such as Dolly the sheep and a kitten known as CC (for carbon copy or copy cat) confirm he was not being completely outrageous. But the procedures are challenging, the risks unacceptably great and human reproductive cloning is banned at present so Dr. Church was not seeking volunteers, he was speculating about the future.

Dr. Church clearly possesses a commanding insight regarding the biotechnology developments to come. Casually discussing prospects for Neanderthal cloning, he revealed that conceptually he is far beyond the average person on such matters. We may be shocked at the idea of resurrecting an artificial Neanderthal replica, but he already has a rough outline of the molecular methods to create the essential genetic blueprint and strategies to make it a physical reality. Provided anticipated new technologies prove effective there is good reason to believe that humankind will soon possess the ability to resurrect an artificial Neanderthal from the death of extinction. Should that be done? More interested in establishing technological feasibility than preoccupied with worries over ethical questions, Dr. Church suggests he will simply follow the societal consensus on such matters (2). Once again, he may be ahead of us.

Regenesis (1), written collaboratively by Dr. George Church and Ed Regis, is the manifesto for the coming transformation. Noting on page 243 that the safest way to make a bet about a future event is to heavily influence it, this book seems intended to get us up to speed as to what synthetic biology might yield. Strangely appropriate for a book about the unsettled and alien future, Regenesis is an idiosyncratic, rather disorganized and frustratingly unfocused account of the entire history of life and how scientists might rewrite it crammed into around 250 pages. Neither fish nor fowl, it is a first person essay with two authors. Perhaps that is a clever literary device deliberately symbolic of humankind’s new capacity to create and combine novel artificial biologic structures. And maybe it was just an unintended consequence of two guys deciding to collaborate. And that might be symbolic, too.

So are we on the verge of human cloning? A ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has been lifted. But President Barack Obama noted that the work now financially supported by US taxpayers is most definitely not reproductive cloning. He went on to state that the process of cloning for human reproduction is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society. It would seem society has already rendered a clear verdict on this question.

But would re-creating a Neanderthal be reproductive cloning or pure science? Would the result be a person or a product? Maybe this work should be classified as resurrection cloning to avoid ethical concerns. Citing the situation with in vitro fertilization (IVF) methods, Church and Regis contend that increasing technological competence may lead to societal acceptance of techniques initially viewed as morally unacceptable (Regenesis, page 85). Once IVF technology became successful and enabled persons to produce children they could never have conceived naturally, according to Church and Regis, objections diminished. As new medical procedures are developed and infiltrate into our lives, they anticipate that presently strict prohibitions against procedures such as modifying the human genome will likely ease. As they put it, ‘the moral high ground can invert’ (Regenesis, p. 85).

Scientists may not necessarily have a comprehensive and accurate grasp of public attitudes. Go back to the contention that IVF technology development serves as a model for how public attitudes toward new biotechnologies evolve. Perfecting and subsequently reducing IVF techniques to effective and safe practice may have minimized some concerns and led to loosened regulations, but it has definitely not eliminated all ethical or moral objections regarding its use. It may come as a shock to Church and Regis that a large portion of humanity still does not approve of IVF because it conflicts directly with certain religious moral doctrine. Discord surrounding a range of issues involving the use and disposition of human embryos still exists and has been politicized. Does technological feasibility equate to what is permissible? Not to everyone, Doctor.

One place where even the most accomplished and boundary challenging scientists like Dr. Church must be cautious is the realm of public opinion. An angry public backlash could have dire consequences for grant funds coming from taxpayer supported sources if enough offended voters contact their Congressional representatives. As Dr. Church noted, ‘laws can change’(2). So can funding priorities. For evidence of his concern note how fast he moved to curtail the decidedly critical media reaction following a Der Spiegel interview with him which explored future Neanderthal resurrection prospects. Notwithstanding his explanation, Der Spiegel did not mistranslate him (3). Maybe the writers of derivative stories based on that interview recognized the juicy stuff when they saw it and pounced. They might also have simply read his musings thoroughly. Both the interview transcript (2) as well as his book (page 11), include the use of the term ‘surrogate’ which turned out to be so suggestive and problematic for Dr. Church.

It seems the bicentennial anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley is destined to coincide with an important moment in scientific history. Extrapolating from the ferment surrounding then new discoveries such as electricity, Shelley’s story explored the tragic outcome when a scientist claimed extraordinary new powers over Nature, life and death itself. Two centuries later it is astonishing how much of that fictional tale, right down to a reference to the Neanderthal ‘creature’ in Regenesis (page 11), still seems relevant and perhaps prophetic.

Should it ever be constructed, like Frankenstein’s creation this synthetic entity would be something utterly matchless. Genetically modeled on Neanderthals, but possibly sporting modern human mitochondria and the unknown consequences of gestation in a surrogate mother, it won’t be precisely authentic. If strictures on human cloning are relaxed and all goes as planned, the creators will have their answer; yes, it can be done. But after the birthing and photo ops, would they really want anything to do with their creation? Who would be responsible for seeing to its welfare and education? And just how would someone do that? What would follow would be an entire raft of complications and additional, awkward questions. Put in the simplest possible terms, how would you like to be that little guy? It would truly be alone, one of a kind. Will there be pressure to create a mate or reconstitute the entire race? If we do opt for racial resurrection, would the new Neanderthals get jobs or would we just put them out in some open land and allow them to fend for themselves? Perhaps the cloners of the future will see fit to restore a Neanderthal Adam and Eve. If they do, I suggest they name them Frank and Jeanie.

Unfortunately, furor over Neanderthal cloning has eclipsed the larger message of Regenesis regarding synthetic biology and its vast potential to modify organisms other than humans and larger animals. This area is also developing rapidly and will force society to weigh a variety of trade-offs when full scale implementation begins. But you will find the authors offer something here that is far more amazing than all the science and speculation in this book; a frank admission that this facet of synthetic biology is ‘potentially more dangerous than chemical or nuclear weaponry’ (page 231). Along with this acknowledgement of deep concern comes something far more noteworthy; an explicit call to control access to new gene synthesis technology. This from the same guys who repeatedly point out (in the same book no less) how controls to suppress technology adoption and dissemination never work. Where in hell ARE we going if the technologically savvy power users urging us forward are nervous or maybe even a bit afraid about the whole situation?

Perhaps it is time we all think this one through just a little further. Although we can perceive neither benefits nor perils with total clarity at this moment, we know that both undoubtedly must lie ahead. While there may be no prospect of stopping the development of synthetic biology the experts tell us that simply conceding defeat and allowing a technological free-for-all is unwise. Heading into uncharted territory it is prudent to seek broad based input and a diversity of opinion regarding potential management strategies. As Dr. Church and/or Ed Regis note (Regenesis, p. 243), the safest way to make a bet about a future event is to heavily influence it.

This is where you come in. Read Regenesis and decide whether you are comfortable with all the possibilities, some of them or none at all. Remember that there are no set lines here and you are free to find you might welcome things like cheap biofuels while discovering the thought of altering human genetic material is repulsive. Do the same thing Dr. Church and Ed Regis did for Neanderthal cloning and for other aspects of this book to varying degrees; project what it would take to turn pie-in-the-sky glorious possibilities into realities. Fuel from microbes? Sure, but keep in mind the shallow ponds needed to produce enough biomass would in aggregate cover millions of acres of land and demand billions of gallons of water (Regenesis, pages 106-7). Think that would have any ecological impacts? Would big oil companies ultimately control this technology? Then is a projected $50 per barrel cost going to have any relation to what you will pay at the pump where prices reflect what are euphemistically referred to as free market forces? Post your thoughts in a review or comments on Amazon. Add your comments to blogs and other sites publishing news of synthetic biology. And express your conclusions and opinions to your elected representatives.

Is humanity poised to transcend evolution or deliberately engineer its own demise? Failing to recognize that arguably some of the most committed and expert proponents of the new synthetic biology have strong apprehensions over how to control it is a BAD IDEA. Allowing the future to be dictated literally on an ad hoc basis by a tiny group of narrowly focused technophiles is an even WORSE IDEA.

(1) George Church and Ed Regis. 2012. Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Basic Books (New York).

(2) Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle. Spiegel Online, January 18, 2013. Interview with George Church. Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead? http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/george-church-explains-how-dna-will-be-construction-material-of-the-future-a-877634.html

(3)Spiegel Online, January 23, 2013.  Spiegel Blog.  Surrogate Mother (not yet) Sought for Neanderthal.  http://www.spiegel.de/international/speigel-responds-to-brouhaha-over-neanderthal-clone-interview-a-879311.html

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