Category Archives: Genetics

How much longer before embryos are no longer allowed to gestate naturally in a mother’s womb? Is it desirable to have complete control over our children’s genetic makeup?

Imminent Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

For as long as humans have wandered the earth, our mortality has been front and center in our long list of woes. In every culture, in every age, many people have attempted to cheat death, one of the most famous examples of which includes Qin Shi Huang, king of the Chinese state of Qin in the third century BCE. Obsessed with living forever, he ordered his alchemists and physicians to concoct an elixir of life. They obliged and presented him with what they believed might grant him eternal life. Unfortunately for Qin Shi Huang, what they gave him was a handful of mercury pills, and he died upon consuming them.

Qin

Maybe they were just tired of looking at his douchey headwear and debilitatingly huge shoes.

We’ve come a long way since Qin’s day, so much so that immortality — or at least unprecedented longevity — appears increasingly plausible sometime this century. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil seems so sure of it that he allegedly takes upwards of 200 dietary supplements a day to forge a “bridge to a bridge” when long life is the norm. The May 2013 issue of National Geographic, in fact, features this very topic.

120

For now, however, they say we die twice: once when we take our last breath, and again when our name is uttered for the last time.

Our greatest literature, both ancient and modern, seems to confirm this attitude. Countless examples suggest that as much as we strive to achieve everlasting life, death is our inescapable fate. To seek a loophole is folly and smacks of the worst kind of hubris. The earliest such tale, over twelve thousand years old, relates the ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh’s quest for everlasting life following the death of his friend Enkidu. Although Gilgamesh ultimately fails in his undertaking, he achieves a sort of immortality in the minds of his people as a result of his heroic exploits. The same arrogance is seen in the character of Greek demigod Achilles, who was said to be impervious to harm in all parts of his body except his ankle, which his mother Thetis failed to immerse in the river Styx. Near the end of the Trojan War, he is slain by the lethal accuracy of Paris’s arrow, but Achilles’s courageous feats guarantee that his name lives on into perpetuity.

He wasn't known for his modesty.

One thing he wasn’t known for was his modesty.

For those of us who lack the godlike strength and derring-do of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Heracles and other ancient and Classical heroes, the only hope we have at gaining immortality is through emerging age-reversing technology and research into the human brain. Our two leading options appear to be an indefinite halt to the aging process or a sort of digital resurrection — uploading our minds into vast computer servers. But are either of these options desirable?

The former option, the perpetuation of our corporal bodies, seems at this point to be more scientifically plausible but far less satisfactory. Many stories warn of the dangers of unnaturally extending the shelf-life of our flesh and bones. The legend of the Wandering Jew, for instance, convinces us that everlasting life is a curse, a waking nightmare that results only in unfathomable despair and desperation. According to the legend, the old man scours the world seeking someone who will exchange his mortality for his cursed immortality. For two centuries now, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus has terrified readers with the personal, societal and religious implications of reanimating dead tissue. Alphaville’s 1980s anthem of youth “Forever Young” rejects the notion of immortality for its own sake:

It’s so hard to get old without a cause
I don’t want to perish like a fading horse
Youth’s like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever

Forever young, I want to be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?

What’s the use of everlasting life, Alphaville argues, if we can’t maintain a youthful spirit? Better to die with a hopeful eye on the future than to trudge meaninglessly though eternity.

Immortality without fabulous hair and colorful jumpsuits? No deal!

Immortality without fabulous hair, eye shadow and colorful jumpsuits? No deal!

Poets routinely insist that the only fulfilling way for us to achieve immortality is through our art and innovations. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” the speaker promises a youth or possible lover that “thy eternal summer shall not fade, / … Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade.” Because he has composed the sonnet in her honor, her memory will last for as long as the poem exists: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Of course, there are just as many counterarguments to the idea that art leads to eternal life. Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” tells of a wanderer who comes across a “lifeless,” eroded statue in the desert, whose pedestal reads:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Despite the once-grandness of the statue, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Even this mysterious king’s exploits and fame – whatever they might have been – couldn’t save his memory from the ravishes of time. Not only has he died the first time but, as evidenced by the wasteland of his forgotten realm, the second time as well. American filmmaker Woody Allen echoes this sentiment: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

But the question remains — is not dying desirable?

If most of us one day have the opportunity to extend our lives indefinitely, how will that change the dynamics of society and culture? A typical person living to 80 years of age goes through several dramatic changes in his lifetime: his opinions and attitudes change, his interests, his friends, his career, sometimes even how he remembers the past. Imagine how much change would take place in a thousand years of life! You wouldn’t be a shadow of the person you once were. Some workers put in 30 or 40 years’ worth of service at a single company or organization, or work in a single industry for as many years, but how dull it would be to continue beyond that. We celebrate when couples reach fifty years of marriage, but could any of them reach 100 years? Two hundred? A thousand? A little over half of marriages end in divorce already. Would couples, knowing that they are going to live for hundreds of years, wed with the firm understanding that they will eventually split? How would immortality affect patriotism?

Let’s pretend for a moment that the Wandering Jew really exists. For close to two thousand years, he has shuffled down countless roads, cane in hand, trying to find some fool to take his place. He clearly cannot be the same person now as he was during the time of the Romans. He’s seen far too much and met far too many people to hold on to whatever prejudices he once had. What “science” he might have believed as a young man has since been obliterated. The language he spoke for centuries, Aramaic, will soon die out. His ancient brand of Jewish is no longer. He claims no country as his own. Having lived to be two thousand years old, he has seen the rise and fall of dozens of nations and empires. He has come to realize the arbitrariness and fragility of borders as well as tribal and national pride.

Leaving aside the unpleasantness of experiencing eternity as a decrepit old man and being charged with the impossible task of giving away your decripitude, what is it about immortality that attracts people so? As Caesar declares in Shakespeare’s play:

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Digital Rapture

The second option to immortality involves uploading our minds onto computer servers, a solution advocated by thinkers such as Kurzweil and Dmitry Itskov. Doing so would immediately eliminate many of the problems outlined above. You need not age in a digital landscape, for one thing. And since you’re whole existence amounts to lines of computer code, you could conceivably “program” yourself to avoid feeling depression, sadness, doubt and other negative emotions.

But there are other problems in this scenario.

If we upload our minds onto computers, we can “live” for as long as we wish, or as long as the data remains properly archived and resistant to fragmentation, viruses and hacking. After all, the official Space Jam website hasn’t aged a day since it launched back in 1996. But even if every last facet of our memories, temperament, interests, dislikes and habits carry over into the merry old land of ones and zeros,  are the digital copies really “us” — the essential us — or simply clever simulations? What’s lost, if anything, in the transfer from a carbon-based world to a silicon world? Perhaps the earliest available opportunities to experience immortality will be faulty and disastrous, resulting in regretfully botched versions of our psyches.

Something's not... quite... right.

Something’s not… quite… right.

Let’s say you upload your mind today. Now there are two “yous,” the analog you and the digital you. After your analog self dies, your digital self “lives” on. It will no doubt continue to assert that it is just as “real” as you ever were because it has the same memories, the same personality, the same tics and religious beliefs and tastes in women (or men, or both). Otherwise, how can it claim to be you? One of the problems here, if indeed there is one, is that you — the meat sack version — won’t survive to enjoy the immortality you’ve passed on to this immaterial copy of yourself.

Is “good enough” simply not good enough?

We place such a high premium on authenticity. Even if the digital copy of yourself is identical in every possible way, it’s still not the “you” that emerged from your mother’s womb. The same argument can be made with regard to art forgeries, some of the best of which are sold at auction as the real deal. Shaun Greenhalgh, possibly history’s most successful art forger, was so good, he managed to dupe both casual and expert art enthusiasts for years and make close to a million pounds before being caught. Anyone who has one of his remarkably convincing pieces sitting in their house — one of his Rodin knockoffs, for instance — is reasonably entitled to tell visitors that they do indeed have a Rodin. There’s nothing about the piece that gives away its deception, other than the abstract notion of its inauthentic origin. But for most people, that’s enough. No matter what the piece looks like, either Rodin sculpted it with his own hands or he didn’t. Similarly, no matter how convincingly “real” a digital life might be, there are those who would refuse such a life because it lacks the nebulous idea of authenticity.

Of course, like Greenhalgh’s Rodin piece, and as we’ve already discussed, there’s no certifiable way to disprove that what you think is reality is actually a fraud. How do you know you’re not already living in a sophisticated computer simulation right now?

Gilgamesh and Qin Shi Huang’s quest for everlasting life might come to a close sometime this century. Before that happens, however, we must discuss the implications and consequences of a world in which death is no longer certain. Emily Dickinson, abandoning the desire to live forever, muses: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Since immortality will surely become a reality, we must reassess the sweetness in life.

Obama Wants Your Brain: Reverse-Engineering the Human Mind

We know why rain falls from the sky and how distant stars are born. We know the exact height of our planet’s tallest peak and the depth of its deepest ocean. We know that all the world’s landmasses split asunder eons ago from one super-continent and that human beings share a common ancestor with apes. We know why whooping cranes migrate, why salmon swim upstream, and why bats hang upside down. We know that the planet Mercury’s core accounts for about 42 percent of its volume and that the surface temperature of Neptune’s moon Triton plunges to as low as -234 degrees Celsius. We know how to split the atom and unleash unimaginable carnage.

Taking into account all the discoveries we’ve made over the past 2,000 years, it’s amazing that what we know least about is, well, us — specifically, the human brain or, as President Barack Obama describes it, the “three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”

But that will soon change. (And by “soon,” we mean sometime within the next decade.) The president recently unveiled details of an ambitious new plan to map the human brain. According to the White House’s website, this $100 million undertaking might lead to much-needed benefits such as better treatments or even cures for neurological and emotional disorders, including Parkinson’s, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and bipolar disorder. Although much further in the future, the research might also lead to some sort of advanced human-computer language interface.

The official title for the project is — take a deep breath — the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Its ultimate goal is to “produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space.” Furthermore, it aims to determine how exactly “the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”

This is exciting news indeed, as the NIH Brain Initiative could very well end up being Obama’s Apollo 11 moon landing or Human Genome Project — to name only two similarly bold, landmark scientific and exploratory projects pushed by Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. Basically what we’re talking about here is reverse-engineering the human brain. By devising a map that explains how the 100 billion neurons in our brains connect, behave and operate, we’ll finally begin to approach an understanding of us that rivals the extent of what we know about the carbon cycle, the mating habits of the great white shark and the composition of Martian soil.

Neural Connections In the Human Brain

Neural connections in the human brain.

Besides practical applications, the NIH Brain Initiative will hopefully give us answers to questions, both profound and trivial, that have stumped even the greatest minds. For instance:

Why do we blush when we feel embarrassed or ashamed? What’s the evolutionary purpose of laughing and expressing humor? Why are yawns contagious? Why do we dream, and why are they sometimes so vivid and lucid as to seem as real as “reality”? Why did every primitive culture develop the idea of divine beings, and why do so many millions of people continue to subscribe to the cults built around them? What is consciousness exactly, and why must it be tied to one single person at all times? How can our brains be so goddamn complex — the best of which are able to devise new poetic forms and musical genres, theorize the existence of dark matter and sketch an accurately-detailed mural of the New York City skyline from memory — yet they are so clunky and inefficient that we often have difficulty recalling where we left our car keys or what we just read?

BABY READING

Practical results of this years-long study will not come overnight. Hopefully the BRAIN Initiative’s efforts will lead to new treatments and cures of neurological and neurodegenerative disorders and help us become happier, healthier beings. Besides that, who knows what else we might find buried deep in the coffers of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears? Just as the Human Genome Project has led to advancements in molecular medicine, DNA forensics and bioarchaeology, the NIH’s research will likely have major neurological and societal implications that will change the face of humanity forever.

Fear Is the Answer: Desperately Seeking the Conservative Gene

Novelist H.P. Lovecraft once said that the oldest and strongest human emotion is fear. Which seems pretty accurate. Try to imagine the first generation of Homo sapiens to have developed what we would now recognize as advanced human-level sentience, introspection and awareness of one’s own mortality. With dangerous predators lurking around every corner, the risk of sickness and starvation constantly weighing heavy on one’s mind and absolutely no answers to the simplest of questions, it’s easy to see how the lonely wilderness of the prehistoric world would be an even more terrifying place than we could possibly fathom.

Just as fear once consumed the lives of our cave-dwelling forefathers, fear, it turns out, might someday be the key ingredient if one were interested in genetically engineering the perfect conservative.

According to two independent studies, recently published in The American Journal of Political Science and PLOS ONE, our political leanings have less to do with how we were raised and more to do with how fearful we are. Specifically, people with a wary, watchful disposition tend to be more conservative. During one of the studies, subjects were hooked up to brain scans and asked to participate in high-stakes gambling. The part of the brain that lit up in conservatives’ craniums was the right amygdala, which governs a person’s threat response system. By contrast, liberals more often than not used the insula, which is responsible in part for monitoring social emotions.

But the most stunning part of the study? By merely observing subjects’ brain activity, researchers were able to accurately predict their political preference 82.9% of the time.

Score one for the nature side in the perennial nature vs. nurture debate.

Now it makes sense why Rush always sounds like a cornered pitbull.

“I fear that the results of these ‘studies’ are merely the work of pseudo-intellectual leftist conspirators!”

Strictly as a thought experiment, let’s test the accuracy of these studies. What are conservatives afraid of exactly? It’s probably safe to say that, compared to liberals, they tend to be more leery of: immigrants, gays, government takeovers, marijuana, the theory of evolution, women, black people, taxes, Islam, God, no God, socialism, communism, terrorism, science, the liberal arts, the “elite,” the media, subtitles, condoms, university professors, sodomy and ethnic food.

Liberals, on the other hand, are basically fearful of only firearms and climate change. And not getting front-row seats to see Streisand.

But seriously.

In response to these studies and others like it, a conservative might point out — rightfully so — that a strong sense of fear is integral to our survival. The fearful caveman, always on edge, always armed with a sharpened spear or heavy blunt object, no doubt lasted a lot longer in a hostile environment than the less fearful caveman who preferred to practice diplomacy and find common ground with the saber-toothed tiger.

So back to genetic engineering. Already the Chinese are analyzing gene samples obtained from more than 2,200 geniuses who have an IQ over 160, with the understood goal of finding the so-called intelligence gene. If they can single that out, they can determine what makes some people smarter than others and, eventually, replicate such high-functioning intelligence in their nation’s offspring. And once that happens, of course, we might as well rename the Earth China.

Come to think of it, the Future Culturalist refuses to say what the planet’s called in 2099.

In any case, it’s not too far-fetched to predict that the US will eventually single out the fear gene to market to parents who wish to give birth to a conservative son or daughter. (Because, you know, heaven forbid that your children should be allowed to make their own decisions.) Let’s assume for the moment that Republicanism can survive to see the day when fertility clinics start offering genetic engineering services. Modifiable characteristics will likely include hair color, skin pigmentation, height, athleticism and the like. But if clinics were also able to promise parents-to-be a suped-up amygdala and fearful disposition, political affiliation — conservatism, anyway — just might be another customizable attribute.

And forget about any legal or ethical implications of allowing parents to make such important decisions on behalf of their unborn children. If we let deaf parents purposely choose to give birth to a deaf child, surely we’ll let Republicans beget Republicans.

During a press conference held on his Texas ranch, Gund announces his GOP bid for the presidency.

After announcing his bid for the GOP nom during a press conference held on his Texas ranch, Gund panicked and clubbed reporters to death with a deer’s hindquarters.

It looks inevitable, then, that once the fear gene hits the fertility market, the US will be overrun by an unstoppable legion of little Limbaughs, Trumps, Coulters and Nugents.

Let’s just hope that Yoda’s wrong about the relationship between fear and the dark side of the Force. Otherwise, we’ll have a much larger problem on our hands than we bargained for.

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