Freeman Dyson (with whom I have many disagreements, so don’t take this as an unqualified endorsement), wrote an interesting article that predicted, in part, a coming new age of biology. I think he’s entirely right in that, and that we can expect amazing information and changes in this next century.
If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.
Apparently, this freaks some people out. The so-called Crunchy Con, a knee-jerk Catholic nicely described as a “weird, humorless, smart, spooky, self-rightous, puritan wingnut”, is one of the people who takes particular exception to this optimistic view of the future. Rod Dreher wrote an egregiously ignorant whine about the possibilities, which I will proceed to puke upon.
Here’s where these techno-utopians lose me, and lose me big time. The myth of Frankenstein is important precisely because it is a warning against the hubris of scientists who wish to extend their formidable powers over the essence of human life, and in so doing eliminate what it means to be human. And here is a prominent physicist waxing dreamily about the way biotech can be used to create works of art out of living creatures, aestheticizing the very basis of life on earth. If that doesn’t cause you to shudder, you aren’t taking it seriously enough. I think of this Jody Bottum essay from 10 years back, which begins thus:
On Thursday, October 5, it was revealed that biotechnology researchers had successfully created a hybrid of a human being and a pig. A man-pig. A pig-man. The reality is so unspeakable, the words themselves don’t want to go together.
Extracting the nuclei of cells from a human fetus and inserting them into a pig’s egg cells, scientists from an Australian company called Stem Cell Sciences and an American company called Biotransplant grew two of the pig-men to 32-cell embryos before destroying them. The embryos would have grown further, the scientists admitted, if they had been implanted in the womb of either a sow or a woman. Either a sow or a woman. A woman or a sow.
There has been some suggestion from the creators that their purpose in designing this human pig is to build a new race of subhuman creatures for scientific and medical use. The only intended use is to make animals, the head of Stem Cell Sciences, Peter Mountford, claimed last week, backpedaling furiously once news of the pig-man leaked out of the European Union’s patent office. Since the creatures are 3 percent pig, laws against the use of people as research would not apply. But since they are 97 percent human, experiments could be profitably undertaken upon them and they could be used as living meat-lockers for transplantable organs and tissue.
But then, too, there has been some suggestion that the creators’ purpose is not so much to corrupt humanity as to elevate it. The creation of the pig-man is proof that we can overcome the genetic barriers that once prevented cross-breeding between humans and other species. At last, then, we may begin to design a new race of beings with perfections that the mere human species lacks: increased strength, enhanced beauty, extended range of life, immunity from disease. “In the extreme theoretical sense,” Mountford admitted, the embryos could have been implanted into a woman to become a new kind of human-though, of course, he reassured the Australian media, something like that would be “ethically immoral, and it’s not something that our company or any respectable scientist would pursue.”
But what difference does it make whether the researchers’ intention is to create subhumans or superhumans? Either they want to make a race of slaves, or they want to make a race of masters. And either way, it means the end of our humanity.
The thing I don’t get about the starry-eyed techno-utopians is that they don’t seem to have taken sufficient notice of World War I, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. That is, they don’t seem to have absorbed the lessons of what the 20th century taught us about human nature, science and technology. Science is a tool that extends human powers over the natural world. It does not change human nature. The two wars and the Holocaust should have once and forever demolished naive optimism about human nature, and what humankind is capable of with its scientific knowledge. Obviously humankind is also capable of putting that knowledge to work to accomplish great good. That is undeniable — but one is not required to deny it to acknowledge the shadow side of the age of wonder.
My brain started to sputter and spark with the very first sentence. I could tell what was coming, I just didn’t expect it to be quite so, excuse me, pig-ignorant. It really annoys me when a wingnut mangles the science so thoroughly in order to justify an anti-science attitude. There is so much wrong here, and when I actually stooped to read that awful Jody Bottum essay, I was about to melt down over the white-hot flaming stupid. That essay, by the way, ends this way:
But our sons and daughters will mate with the pig-men, if the pig-men will have them. And our swine-snouted grandchildren-the fruit not of our loins, but of our arrogance and our bright test tubes-will use the story of our generation to teach a moral to their frightened litters.
Over a failed experiment in interspecies nuclear transfer? Give me a break, cretin.
Anyway, I scribbled down some commentary as I read the whole mess. Here it is, in the disorganized order it came to me.
The research from Stem Cell Sciences was not published. What little information these people have was gleaned from a patent application, filtered through their religion and their piss-poor knowledge of biology, and irresponsibly reformulated as outrageous fact. And they mostly got it wrong.
It is extremely doubtful that the cells used were from a human fetus. That would be pointless and needlessly difficult and expensive; this was apparently a test of a procedure that has been used on animals in the past, and fetal cells would be overkill. A more practical approach for a patent application would have been a test with a human stem cell line, or if they wanted a really flashy result, a human somatic cell. The company itself has said that a laboratory cell line of human origin was used, and further, that it was aneuploid. Development beyond a few cell divisions was unlikely to impossible. Development of a viable human baby — wildly, crazily, absurdly impossible.
What was actually being tested, to all appearances from the limited information available, would actually be a good idea, and something that would be very useful. Right now, we can do some fairly elaborate work to circumvent some problems in human fertility, specifically mitochondrial disorders. Take a healthy unfertilized human oocyte, and remove its nucleus. It’s going to be the host, and provide no genetic information (except for its mitochondria) to the offspring. Then take the nucleus from a fertilized egg cell and insert it into the empty host oocyte. It’s been done, in a procedure called a “three parent pregnancy”, since two women and a man contributed to the child, but is but better referred to as egg cell nuclear transfer.
The catch here is that it’s difficult and invasive to obtain egg cells from women, and it sure would be handy to have a non-human source for oocytes, especially if you’re just going to throw away the oocyte donor’s DNA anyway. Thus, the trial with pig oocytes and human nuclei.
The utility of this approach in animals is already known. Cow and rabbit oocytes are relatively cheap and abundant; horse, elephant, or rare species eggs, not quite so easy. So if you want to do experiments in cloning, it would be cheaper and more efficient to use rabbit or cow oocytes, divested of their nuclei, and stick somatic cell nuclei from your rarer species in there. This is a procedure called interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer (iSCNT). Note that this is different from what was described in #3, which would be interspecies egg cell nuclear transfer (iECNT). The iSCNT procedure would be a step in cloning, and has all the other technical hurdles of coaxing a somatic cell to be reprogrammed into a totipotent state. The iECNT procedure is not a step in cloning, and would actually be easier.
iECNT has one catch: the mitochondria come from a different species, in this case, a pig. We wouldn’t know for sure if there are any incompatibilities between human nuclear DNA and pig mitochondrial DNA. I’d be surprised if there were, but the experiment ought to be done to see. You know, like the Stem Cell Science experiment.
The product of a fully human nuclear genome carried to term via an oocyte with pig mitochondria would be fully human. Some of the enzymes that person’s cells use to carry out mitochondrial functions — the production of energy in the form of ATP — would be pig proteins. We do not classify people as human or subhuman on the basis of the precise sequence of amino acids in a subset of their proteins. If we did, since we’re all mutants to some degree, none of us would be human. Since we’re actually carrying around a lot of DNA plotzed into our genome by viruses, everyone would have to be called human-virus hybrids.
If the possibility that you might regard a person with the pig cytochrome C oxidase as subhuman bothers you (which is about as ridiculous as the idea that you’d regard a person with a transplanted pig heart valve as subhuman), then I have a solution for you. Do the experiment in reverse. Put pig nuclei into enucleate human oocytes, and raise a line of pigs (these would be pigs, not pig-men) with human mitochondria, to be a domesticated animal source for oocytes for fertility treatments. Then you’d harvest their egg cells, remove the nuclei containing pig DNA, and have useful oocyte hosts with nothing but human derived mitochondrial DNA inside them.
Cue ignorant squawks from luddites about farm stock with human mitochondrial DNA in them now…
These hybrid cells, if they contained viable human nuclei from egg cells instead of aneuploid nuclei from a lab cell line, could conceivably be implanted into the uteruses of either pigs or humans, but it would probably be best to implant them in a host mother of the same species as the nuclear DNA. I can think of two good reasons off the top of my head. One is that the embryo/fetus of a human nucleus/pig oocyte will be producing fully human proteins, and although the embryo does have a privileged status to insulate it to some degree from the maternal immune system, it’s probably a good idea not to push it with trans-species antigens. The Stem Cell Sciences embryos would have (again, if viable nuclei had been used at all) would have been best transplanted into a human maternal host for immunological reasons.
The other reason is more esthetic. A pig oocyte with human nuclear DNA would produce a fully human baby. People might get a bit squicked out at the idea of a sow down on the pharm farm giving birth to Ann Smith and Albert Jones, human children. They shouldn’t, though. Again, fully human. I should think some women would find it very liberating to be able to farm out the pregnancy/childbirth business to a domesticated animal specially bred for the purpose.
(OK, cue animal rights protesters now…)
Oh, and the converse experiment, pig nuclear DNA in an enucleated human host oocyte with human mitochondria … definitely implant that one in a pig womb. No human woman is going to want to go through a pregnancy with elevated risk of an immunological reaction to deliver a litter of fully porcine piglets.
You don’t have to tell me that no pig will want to demean itself by giving birth to hairless apes, either. We’re just the boss of them, so we get to push the pigs around. Besides, it beats becoming bacon.
I think all of the above would be really, really cool.
The idea that human individuals with pig mitochondria would not have the full rights of other human beings, and would be used as experimental animals or “living meat-lockers” is ludicrous. They would have human parents. They would look entirely human — no, they wouldn’t have little piggy-snouts or tusks or the ability to sniff out truffles. They would not be able to cross-breed with pigs. They would be able to have children with other human beings. None of the biologists involved in this kind of work would have any doubts at all — these would be human children who had benefited from a medical procedure using animal tissue. The only people who could possibly question their humanity are scientific illiterates and religious nitwits and stupid people who judge others by a superstitious association.
Using science to tinker with the possible imperfections of our progeny is nothing new, except perhaps in the precision, the expense, and the increased range of possibilities. People fuss over genetics all the time: who hasn’t wondered at some point in a courtship what the children of a union with a potential partner would look like? Who hasn’t judged potential mates on their heritable attributes? We all play with genes to some degree when we have children; we are all designing a new race with every child we bring into the world. Not one of us, though, looks at a potential partner and thinks, “Hmm…he (or she) has just the right characteristics for generating my stock for a race of slaves!” Nor have our governments intentionally herded together masses of slow, strong, stupid, subservient people and urged them to get to work making baby slaves. Those are possibilities all well within our capabilities now, without technology. Why imagine that having slower, more expensive, more difficult techniques now will suddenly leap over the social, ethical, and legal barriers that we have in place?
Anyone who thinks tinkering with the sequence of a few genes “eliminate[s] what it means to be human” has no place talking about what it means to be human at all. It’s always the people who know the least about biology who make these naive and sweeping claims that humanity is defined by the arrangement of our chromosomes or the order of our nucleotides, failing to appreciate the variations in those attributes already present in our population — variations that do not diminish our humanity in the slightest. Dreher invokes the specter of the Holocaust to argue that we’re on the slippery slope to dehumanization, but I’d argue the reverse: that nightmares like the Holocaust arise when people fail to see that the nature that deserves respect and protection is in our minds, our culture, our interactions, not in our lineage or our genes.
There will be a New Age of Wonder brought in by a coming century of biology, but it won’t be because it changes a few physical properties of our bodies. It will be because, if it lives up to its potential, it will liberate us to some degree from the tyranny of our native biology. It does not make me a better person that I’ve probably inherited my father’s propensity for heart disease; it does not make a woman stronger to carry a familial pattern of breast cancer; no child is enlightened because they are born with a birth defect. We’ll have an Age of Wonder if we can get beyond Dreher’s way of thinking that our body is ourselves, to a better way of thinking of the body as a vehicle for our minds, and that that vehicle can be improved without making us subhuman.
Please do consider that there will always be pitfalls and unexpected consequences of new ideas and technologies. Just do it from a position of informed awareness, rather than ignorant abhorrence of change.
But wait! There’s a bit more. Here’s how Dreher ends his piece…with a predictable demand that religion is important.
This, in the end, is why science and religion have to engage each other seriously. Without each other, both live in darkness, and the destruction each is capable of is terrifying to contemplate — although I daresay you will not find a monk or a rabbi prescribing altering the genetic code of living organisms for the sake of mankind’s artistic amusement. What troubles me, and troubles me greatly, about the techno-utopians who hail a New Age of Wonder is their optimism uncut by any sense of reality, which is to say, of human history. In the end, what you think of the idea of a New Age of Wonder depends on what you think of human nature. I give better than even odds that this era of biology and computers identified by Dyson and celebrated by the Edge folks will in the end turn out to have been at least as much a Dark Age as an era of Enlightenment. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I will be wrong.
Excuse me, but after writing a long piece in which he wallows in his religiously-motivated darkness, in which he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the biology he is decrying, I don’t think he gets to accuse these “techno-utopians” of lacking “any sense of reality”. Religion is the darkness, and knowledge is the light — it’s no accident that the era when religion ruled Europe without question is called the Dark Ages, and that period when a new and secular way of looking at the world began to glimmer is called the Enlightenment. So no thank you, please crawl back into your dim cathedral of the superstitious spirit, and don’t even try to pontificate on the consequences of knowledge. You never had any, so your advice on the matter is about as relevant and informed as a celibate making recommendations about my love life.
Oh, wait…you’ve got that covered, too. I see — it’s a tradition.
One last fact that nobody reading this will find surprising. That arrogant ignoramus Dreher is employed as the director of publications for the Templeton Foundation. They really do aspire to quality at that institution, don’t they?