Thursday, January 24, 2013


After reviewing my last post, I felt that some additional clarification was needed beyond some appending (which I have already done).  Adding it to the last blog would only make it unreadable.
First and foremost, I must clarify that I am not condemning Dr. Church, his theories, or his work.  I tried (unsuccessfully in the first draft) to state that Dr. Church had been misquoted, and that he had attempted to correct the problem by denying the accusation that he was attempting an ethically questionable procedure.  I also was not implying that he was a reflection of the fictional John Hammond from “Jurassic Park”.
The hypothetical scenario postulated by Dr. Church in Der Spiegel and the fictional story by Michael Crichton bring up the same ethical questions, and are easily compared by anyone who has read the book, or seen the movie.  Dr. Church has simply become the focal point of the Internet’s knee jerk reaction.  The ethical conversation is constantly happening in academic circles, and has been going on for years.
The interesting thing I noticed (after my own knee was done jerking) was that the Internet seemed to react in an amazing way.  Reporters, bloggers, and laypeople tended to react as if this technology was readily available, and ready for implementation.  Dr. Church, correctly, pointed out the current theories and techniques required to accomplish the cloning processes are evolving quickly, and that it will be possible to manipulate DNA to benefit society.  He also noted that this isn’t possible right now.
Cloning a complex organism like a human is extremely difficult, and fraught with problems.  Even mammals that we can clone are very expensive and usually reserved for research purposes only.  The high rate of failure and multiple problems with live births makes cloning impractical for anything else.  The idea that this technology is currently perfected and practically viable shows just how our society has difficulty discerning fact from fantasy.
The problem comes from the ethics and morality of manipulating the genetic structure to such an advanced degree.  There are shades of grey, and certainly slippery slopes that have to be negotiated.  Frankly, Dr. Church came off as arrogant, and dismissive of the morality involved in such endeavors.  This isn’t surprising as it’s his passion and life’s work to investigate all the possibilities available, and to increase our understanding of our own genetic code.  Being able to understand the potential and truth about our universe is essential for any good scientist.
The main issue he brings up is that the ethics and morality used to determine what is right and wrong largely depends on what any society is willing to accept.  There are parts of the world where genetic manipulation, of any kind, is unacceptable, and illegal, but others where they are more tolerant. 
Where this becomes troubling is where the unintended consequences of such actions become a hazard that can spin beyond our control.  A current controversy is applicable.
A researcher, studying how to weaponize a strain of the influenza virus, wants to publish his research in a publicly available peer reviewed journal.  This person is doing what scientists are supposed to do research, review, and repeat.  Research is only good if it is reproducible by one’s peers.  If you want a case study of what happens when they circumvent this process, Google Pons and Fleischmann.  The issue isn’t that he shouldn’t be doing this research in the first place, but what will happen if someone capable or repeating his research uses it as an actual weapon. 
This is when the variation in morals and ethics become unacceptable.  A terrorist or rogue state might have no problem justifying the use of a weapon that can’t possibly be controlled, but the government that funded the research would never dream of using it. 
This is the double-edged sword of science.  Oppenheimer regretted the use of the atomic bomb as a weapon.  He wasn’t a bad scientist, or person.  He was doing the research he felt was right, but was disenfranchised by those who used his research as a weapon to take the lives of thousands of Japanese civilians. 
The subjective nature of ethics and morality make the issue of genetic research a perilous venture.  The unintended consequences must be weighed against the benefits of any genetic manipulative technology.  What can easily be used to extend life and cure disease, can easily be turned to destructive ends.  What Dr. Church advocates is open discussion of these topics.  The free exchange of ideas is laudable, and clear definitions about what is, and isn’t, acceptable need to be established.  The difficulty with this discussion lies with the subjective nature of these ethics.
What Dr. Church understands, but appears to dismiss, is that people are uncomfortable with the idea of creating a sentient life form, so closely related to humans, in a lab.  The idea that humans would assume control over our own evolutionary process appears to be inevitable to Dr. Church, but that doesn’t sit well with most people.  The religious implications of supplanting God aside, the idea is arrogant and elitist.  Who determines the direction of human evolution, and who evolves and who doesn’t?  Does this degrade into an X-men, Gattica, Hunger Games, or Dune Sci-fi morality tale? 
Science fiction writers have posed these questions since H.G. Wells.  In many ways, fiction allows us to explore these ideas, and have these hypothetical discussions before they occur.  The problems really start when the actual discussions begin over science fact.  Most people have a difficult time separating the facts from fiction, and it is interesting to watch the ignorance square off with the arrogance online. 
The unfortunate reality is that scientists seem to dismiss the concerns and ideas of the countless works of fiction because they are just that...fiction.  That is what frightens the public the most, and why we have celebrities touting wild discredited “scientific” theories about the causes of autism in children.  That is why there is such a firestorm over the very idea that Dr. Church postulated the cloning of a 30,000-year-old extinct hominid species.  The idea that science would be too arrogant to understand the full consequences of their actions is a common theme in science fiction, and is only reinforced when scientists don’t choose their words carefully.  I guess writers, like me, won’t run out of material anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I have read a rather interesting article involving the work of Professor George Church, of Harvard University, and I was rather intrigued.  He suggested to the German magazine Der Spiegel that it would be possible to clone a Neanderthal, and use a surrogate modern human to bring back the long extinct species.  The press immediately cherry picked the interview and came to the immediate conclusion that Professor Church was seeking “an adventurous volunteer” to play surrogate, an assertion that Dr. Church was quick to deny.   I should point out that most of the "news" coverage took Dr. Church's comments completely out of context, and did not represent his actual work, or words.  It's sloppy "yellow journalism", but it's a subject for a different day, and probably a different blog.  This particular situation immediately reminded me (and many others) of Michael Crichton’s book (and popular Spielberg movie) “Jurassic Park”, and more importantly, the moral and ethical questions involved.
First, let’s start with the obvious.  Human cloning is highly controversial, and extraordinarily difficult.  Cloning isn’t terribly difficult.  We’ve been doing it for years.  Have you ever eaten a Haas avocado? or perhaps a product with corn in it?  Many vegetable crops are genetically engineered cloned crops.  That may sound scary, but most of the techniques are rudimentary, and use processes that have been around for thousands of years.  Corn is a genetically engineered crop that has evolved to the point where we can control its susceptibility to pests, fertilizers, and herbicides.  Animals are another story.
Even though we’ve been able to make exact clones of mammals for decades, the human genome has proved to be problematic.  Even with our advances in genetic engineering, creating exact duplicates of humans have been unsuccessful.  It isn’t that we can’t clone tissues for therapeutic purposes, like skin grafts for burn patients, we can, but an entire  Add DNA from a species that went extinct more than 30,000 years ago, and it’s nearly impossible.  There is a reason why we don’t have a Tyrannosaur terrorizing San Diego.  Complex organisms are incredibly difficult to recreate using existing techniques, but Dr. Church's comments led some to believe the technology is closer to reality than currently possible.
The larger issue is the moral and ethical implications of bringing a species back from extinction after many eons.  What is the purpose of resurrecting the extinct Neanderthal?  Dr. Church states that it would be for genetic diversity, and scientific study.   That it is possible for modern humans to suffer from becoming too homogenous and doom itself to extinction without an infusion of new DNA (I realize the irony of using the term “new” to describe DNA from a species that went extinct over 30,000 years ago).  These arguments don't seem to hold up to scrutiny. 
The argument for genetic diversity assumes that our civilization will continue down a path that will lead to genetic stagnation.  I wonder if that is even possible.  With the vast population that seems to be exploding beyond our capacity to sustain, is it possible to continue at that rate?  Simple math says that it isn’t.  Plagues, famine, wars, disasters, and economic and political factors are forces that are impossible to predict, yet inevitably limit our ability to over-run the earth.  We are far more likely to be annihilated in global thermonuclear war, massive meteor impact, super volcanic eruption, or irreparable climate change than we are genetic stagnation.
So what other reasons could there be to clone Neanderthal man?  You could study what a living Neanderthal man would be like.  That would be very helpful for the anthropologists who study early hominids, but any data would be fundamentally flawed.  Much of what we are, as humans, depends largely on our environment.  I speak English because I was raised in America, by an English speaking family.  I also speak (poorly) several other languages because I was raised in a family that speaks other languages.  Any Neanderthal clone would enter this world as an infant, and have to be raised by humans.  Since we don’t fully understand the capabilities of the Neanderthal brain we don’t know how smart the clone would be, but he/she would certainly be intelligent enough to adapt to his/her environment and settings.  We couldn’t learn much about Neanderthal culture or behaviors.  They would mirror our own.
Even if we removed all external stimuli and raised the child without interaction, we would taint the results.  Without a mature adult, we would simply have a feral child, and that raises ethical questions.  Since this isn’t technically a modern human, and therefore another species, would we treat the child as an animal, or a human?  We obtained 1-4% of the modern human genome from Neanderthal.  The child would look more human than other primates do, so our natural tendency would be to treat it like a human.  That would raise legal issues governing everything from education to welfare.  Any child would be the subject of legal battles, special laws, and the inevitable media spotlight.  How can any scientist justify bringing an intelligent sentient life into this world where they will be feared, hated, scorned, ridiculed, mocked, and thought of as a curiosity? 
To paraphrase the quote from “Jurassic Park”: “Neanderthals had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.”  Bringing them back serves no other purpose than to satisfy the scientific ego of geneticists who are more concerned with the fact that they can clone a complex life-form, rather than if they should.  You can’t gain useful insight into Neanderthal society, culture, or behavior from a clone.  Dr. Church’s assertion that it will salvage the human genome from genetic monoculture, and introduce genetic diversity is a shallow argument.  Bringing extinct species back is laudable, but there comes a point where it crosses the boundary between meritorious effort, and scientific arrogance.  Resurrecting Neanderthal to “rescue” the human genome from the natural process of evolution ignores the very process that eliminated that species to begin with.