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Radical Evolution
Posted: 07 June 2005 11:38 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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So after a number of folks have had their thoughts about our future as a species, I heard this show on Diane Rehm this morning. 

WAMU: 6/7/05

11:00 Joel Garreau: "Radical Evolution" (Doubleday)

Guest host: Andrea Seabrook of NPR

A journalist explores the frontiers of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology, asking whether these advances will change our understanding of what it means to be human.
Guests

Joel Garreau, reporter and editor at The Washington Post. He is also author of "Edge City" and "The Nine Nations of North America."

You can get the audio HERE

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Posted: 07 June 2005 04:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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In listening to this fascinating interview, I could not help but be reminded of H.G. Wells and “The Time Machine”.  His Morelocks of the underworld and the upperworld Eloi were the results of an evolution of separate species of mankind.

I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.   
  ‘It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.    ~H.G. Wells

In our own current state of evolution, do you think it possible that we would not also develop into separate species of “enhanced” and “natural”?  Most of these means of enhancement would by necessity only be available to certain people, namely the wealthy and powerful.  I fear humankind is nowhere near developing the wisdom necessary to deal with the current exponential factors of knowledge and technology which seem to be a certainty for our near future.  Are we capable of handling the implications of developing enhanced technology before we have evolved our natural intellectual and social abilities?  What are the implications for a world society of separate human species?  What will it mean to be human, especially if we have many different types of human?   

Could our lack of wisdom be a natural catalyst to slow the exponential development by means of our wars and environmental destruction and depletion of resources?  How much of this ‘enhanced’ science can be realistically available if we are engaging in global conflicts for our very survival as a species?  On the other hand, how many of these developments would be used by powerful people and their governments to gain an upper hand in that war for survival?

As an afterthought, perhaps these developments could cause the demise of fundamental religiosity.  Most of these advances surely contradict basic religious thought, where mankind is not supposed to tamper with god’s creative desires.  Considering the nature of man, how many of us, given the option, would actually decide to remain natural?  And once the popularity and competitiveness of enhancement became the norm, what could survive of religious thought, observance, and obedience?  Or would religion simply change dramatically and re-invent itself to meet the new demands of a changed society?

Just a few random thoughts and many questions, and as Joel Garreau said, now is the time to be having the discussions.  I definitely opt for ‘prevail’, and although I can envision a ‘hell’, I cannot rationally envision a ‘heaven’. 

Maggie

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Posted: 07 June 2005 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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[quote author=“Peregrine”]As an afterthought, perhaps these developments could cause the demise of fundamental religiosity.  Most of these advances surely contradict basic religious thought, where mankind is not supposed to tamper with god’s creative desires. 

Maggie

Can’t remember the guy’s name but he is the chair of the President’s Bioethics council.  He was grilled on Science Friday (NPR) a couple of weeks ago about embryonic stem cell (ESC) research.  After lamely claiming not to have a biased position (and then throughout the interview present his biases!) he introduced as an alternative to ESC the use of somatic cells that have been “reverted” to a pluripotent state by bathing them in the right “juices”.  He didn’t give a reference and claimed it would be published soon, but many of us have been expecting this development for some time so it isn’t surprising. 

But here is the funny part.  Assuming that a somatic cell could be reverted past the pluripotent to the omnipotent - that is complete germ state (including yolk deposition), what is the difference between that cell and an egg that has been somatic-nucleated (cloned in the common sense)?  Such a cell could develop into an embryo and be implanted and develop into a human.  In fact such a clone would be a perfect clone since its mitochondrial DNA and epigenetic imprints would exactly match the donor.

So here is the head of the president’s bioethics council saying that this reverted cell line would be preferred to a cloned cell line when, ironically, the former is more of a clone than the latter.  Go figure.

In my view, ethics is about not causing pain and suffering to sentient beings.  As soon as these religious “ethecists” start trying to figure things out, they just muddy things up badly.  An ethical argument for not doing reproductive cloning is that we don’t really have any idea what the long-term consequences for the adult might be.  There are some indications that in vitro fertilization (test tube babies) may not be entirely without later-life consequences that could prove painful or cause suffering.  The ethical position should be move slowly, make sure you know the consequences, do the animal model studies, etc.  But, if, in the end you discover that the benefits outweigh the problems then make informed choices.

Now when does the soul enter the embryo?

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Posted: 07 June 2005 09:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Maggie:

The concept of human divergence is fascinating, but I have often found myself thinking that the most radical alterations will, at least initially, be of the poor, and not of the wealthy.

Presumably, the human “enhancement” business will follow a similar path to that of nearly all human endeavors, specifically that it will start out crudely (indeed it is arguable that this has already begun) and will become more sophisticated in time.  The sorts of useful genetic and cybernetic modifications that are likely to be possible in the near to moderate term are, in my opinion, likely to be of more benefit to blue collar workers than to white collar workers.

Imagine gene therapies to increase someone’s resistance to certain toxins, or increase someone’s hardiness in a general way.  These sorts of modifications would be very useful to people in labor, but only of marginal utility to someone who is born wealthy, and even that marginal utility would quickly vanish if there were negative side effects or social stigma associated with any visible signs of such modification.

Furthermore, the cost of such modifications will, I would suppose, be used as a tool of further economic enslavement.  There will be all sorts of programs to provide financial aid to unskilled workers to get “enhanced”.  When people are no longer merely financially locked into a place in society, but also genetically altered to fit in, the chances of “moving up” would decrease.

That said, I think that genetic alteration of human beings also holds great potential for good.  I consider it to be highly likely that our thinking is prejudicial because of our genetics, and we often don’t even realize it.  So, in much the same way that different cultures benefit when they come into contact, I suspect that, ultimately, there will be a benefit when intelligences that are produced by substantially different genetics interact.

-Matt

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Posted: 08 June 2005 05:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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[quote author=“Guest #2”]The ethical position should be move slowly, make sure you know the consequences, do the animal model studies, etc.  But, if, in the end you discover that the benefits outweigh the problems then make informed choices.

G2, this is precisely one of the points I wish to make.  Garreau, in his interview, spoke specifically of the research funded by DARPA.  Although DARPA has an impressive history in developmental research, it is indeed radical evolution.  And it is the Defense Dept., whose goals are always ultimately military endeavors.  In the words of Joel Garreau:

The significance of DARPA trying to improve human beings, however,
is that few if any institutions in the world are so intentionally devoted
to high-risk, high-return, explicitly world-changing research. The
cast at DARPA does not have kind words for incremental research.
DARPA’s “only charter is radical innovation,” its strategic plan says. The
swagger at DARPA is that of players who always go for the long ball,
even at the risk of frequently striking out. Its program managers actively
seek out problems they call “DARPA-esque” or “DARPA-hard.” These
are challenges verging on the impossible. “We try not to violate any of
the laws of physics,” says DSO’s deputy director, Steve Wax. “Or at least
not knowingly,” adds Goldblatt. “Or at least not more than one per
program.”

DARPA is not in the business of moving slowly or being concerned with informed choices.  By their own description, what they intend to create is “Soldiers having no physical, physiological, or cognitive limitations will be key to survival and operational dominance in the future.”

Of course these human ‘enhanced improvements’ will mean fantastic advances in the areas of biology and health for everyone, but in their rush to create a super warrior, are they considering the consequences enough, or even much at all?  Does having a bioethecist on staff qualify as ‘weighing the benefits and consequences’?  As long as a war machine drives our scientific advances, where does wisdom fit into the picture?  Garreau is asking a very valid question of promise and peril… “Do we have the wisdom to manage a change in what it means to be human?”

And I would add… on what scale and at what speed?

You also asked:

Now when does the soul enter the embryo?

I was a little surprised at your terminology.  That a soul would enter the body sounds like a religious concept.  I would expect a scientist to have used terms like develop or evolve in the embryo.  I believe soul is yet another word which has many meanings to different people.  It can be anything from an entity to a expression of mind.  I think before anyone could attempt to answer such a question, you should be a bit more explicit.  Please define your concept of soul.

Maggie

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Posted: 08 June 2005 05:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Found this thread of interest (I was even mentioned in it :D , but then so was Conservative Athiest :(  who was, it seems up to his regular tricks).  Apparently this theme has come up before and also, there looks to have been some thought given to a specific form of “radical evolution”, namely the enhancement of wisdom!  Now that sounds like a good idea.

Where will evolution take humanity?

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Posted: 08 June 2005 06:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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[quote author=“psiconoclast”]
That said, I think that genetic alteration of human beings also holds great potential for good.  I consider it to be highly likely that our thinking is prejudicial because of our genetics, and we often don’t even realize it.  So, in much the same way that different cultures benefit when they come into contact, I suspect that, ultimately, there will be a benefit when intelligences that are produced by substantially different genetics interact.-Matt

Matt, I basically agree with the things you are saying.  Of course, there is a fantastic amount of potential for good.  I’m wondering what you’re considering in the intelligences of substantially different genetics.  There is a great difference in somewhat parallel levels of different intelligence and the potential for radically changed intelligence levels.  If we have students who can score 200 points higher on SAT exams and have enormously enhanced memories, what is the gap that develops between them and the natural students?  Would that not require totally different educational opportunities, resulting in two separate cultures?  Would there be much interaction at all?  If so, of what nature? 

In the wonderful success of telekinetic monkeys, we have opened the first doors of using our minds to control our environment.  That’s wonderful news for quadraplegic people, but what are the implications that follow?  A close parallel would apparently be telepathic communication.  Do you think the human species is anywhere near ready to have our thoughts available for scrutiny?  We could forget about social/world diplomacy, couldn’t we? 

I think the bottom line has to remain the question of wisdom.  If most scientific advances are ultimately used for military purposes, how do we discern the fantastic advances for humankind versus the destructive capabilities of a warring species? 

I suppose my primary apprehension concerns the incredible exponential speed of developing radical evolution.  As long as this speed surpasses our development of wisdom to control the consequences, can we both survive and remain human?  Or as some might argue, do we even need to maintain our current understanding of what is human? 

Maggie

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Posted: 08 June 2005 08:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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[quote author=“Peregrine”]Matt, I basically agree with the things you are saying.  Of course, there is a fantastic amount of potential for good.  I’m wondering what you’re considering in the intelligences of substantially different genetics.  There is a great difference in somewhat parallel levels of different intelligence and the potential for radically changed intelligence levels.  If we have students who can score 200 points higher on SAT exams and have enormously enhanced memories, what is the gap that develops between them and the natural students?  Would that not require totally different educational opportunities, resulting in two separate cultures?  Would there be much interaction at all?  If so, of what nature?

Good question.

I suspect that before much actual useful work is done on enhancing human intelligence via genetic manipulation, there will be animal trial runs.  I often wonder what sort of insights a dolphin might have.  Even if we were able to alter a dophin’s brain so that it could think more like we do, and communicate with us, I suspect that a lot of “dophinesque” influences would remain.

Beyond the realm of simply altering the DNA of creatures that are (or might be) intelligent, there is also the realm of digital/biological hybrids.  Already, researchers have used neurons (rat I believe) to control a flight simulator.  In the future, it is not unreasonable to imagine a sort of hybrid “artilect” which combines traditional computer AI and actual brain matter to create something altogether new.  It may sound a bit gross, but such minds would doubtless have very different perspectives than do we.

And that is really the point.  The human cerebral cortex is an amazingly cool thing, but it is wrapped in what amounts to a fairly old simian brain.  An awful lot of people’s daily activities are driven by essentially simian impulses (aka monkey politics).  I think that it would be very interesting to interact with an intelligence which carries different baggage.  Furthermore, I believe that such an intelligence might be able to offer novel solutions to some problems which, because of our simian bias, we have difficulties coming up with.

The nature of understanding is such that, once someone has figured something out, lots of other people can realize the truth, but that initial discovery is difficult.  Having brains with different biases offering insights might be a good way of advancing the frontiers of knowledge at a greater rate, and in different directions.

-Matt

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Posted: 09 June 2005 04:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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smile Interesting discussion!

I make the assumption that if something (scientific, in this case) can be done it will be done regardless of any public prohibitions.

When I fanaticize about the next big leap in human evolution I always drift to the idea that, whether by ‘natural’ or ‘enhanced’ means, the key to our survival and our growth lies not in strictly individualistic advances but in empathic or connective cognitive skills.  Just as our technology, or if you like, our collective knowledge, has grown as isolation disappears, with the introduction of the printing press and the internet, so might our minds leap forward as our individual psycho-physiological barriers fall away.

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The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisedom
-William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

Life, what is it but a dream?
- Lewis Carroll, “A boat Beneath a Sunny Sky

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Posted: 09 June 2005 04:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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It will be the wealthy that will first be able to afford designer children.

It could very well be that our wisdom will stop us at a certain point from going too far.

While I can see Matt’s point about genetically engineered workers and soldiers, I think the first radical case for major changes will be because of space exploration and possibly colonization.

Things like size reduction, metabolism reduction, enhanced life span, oxygen use….and other things I can’t think of you would need but that we would probably do.

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Posted: 09 June 2005 01:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I know we’re begining to think radical evolution here, but I would like to interject a little reality check with respect to genetic engineering. I’ve just finished the book “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo” by Sean Carroll (evo for evolution, devo for development).  Carroll does a great job of reviewing the current state of knowledge about the way gene networks, especially the promotor/inhibitor sections work to control gene on/off switching during development. The complexities are unimaginable. But the bottom line is that evolution works mostly by small modifications in contol sequences rather than the protein coding sections of genes.  This explains why the human genome can only have 30,000 genes, 99.9% of which we share with chimpanzies, and still achieve significant phenotypic form differences (including our larger brains).  This comes about because the impact on developing embryos is the result of switching the same genes on or off at different times and in different regions of body.

My take on all of this is that the kinds of designer children that some have been speculating on here are going to be problematic if at all possible - at least in the near future.  Just having a gene for, say, longevity is not necessarily going to ensure long life unless you can also control the several hundred other genes that interact with it at various stages of development and growth.  As with all aspects of biology, nothing is quite as simple as we might wish it to be.

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Posted: 09 June 2005 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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[quote author=“Peregrine”]
You also asked:

Now when does the soul enter the embryo?

I was a little surprised at your terminology.  That a soul would enter the body sounds like a religious concept.  I would expect a scientist to have used terms like develop or evolve in the embryo.  I believe soul is yet another word which has many meanings to different people.  It can be anything from an entity to a expression of mind.  I think before anyone could attempt to answer such a question, you should be a bit more explicit.  Please define your concept of soul.

Maggie

Sorry.  Cynicism doesn’t port well in these posts.  I was trying to mock the religious beliefs that try to put a magic moment on when an embryo becomes human in their views.  I don’t attempt to define a soul because that is a useless construct.  Humans are forever becoming (more reactive, more intelligent, more knowledgeable, etc.) throughout development and life.  Well, at least I’d like to believe most humans do.  We seem to have a few representatives of the kind that display arrested development at some point in their lives.  Unfortunately for us that comes after they have the rudiments of language and know how to type on a computer keyboard! smile

I had the privilage of meeting and talking with Buckminster Fuller when he was 80+ years old.  The man was still keenly interested in learning more and working to become smarter and more caring for his fellow humans.  It was hard to imagine how anybody could be more so in these traits than he was already, but he wanted to keep growing as long as he breathed.  And he did.

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Posted: 09 June 2005 03:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Thanks, G2, for the clarification.  I’m sure I would have realized the cynicism had the hour not been so late.  I was quite puzzled, and that should have clued me in.

My mind is still playing with the ideas of radical evolution, probably because Garreau was such a dramatic story-teller and spoke in very simple layman’s terms.  I feel those on this forum who did not listen to the interview probably don’t have a true sense of just how radical many of the GRIN technologies are (that is, genetic, robotic, information, and nano).  Genetic engineering seemed to garner the least attention in his reporting of these tech advancements.

Matt, you said:

I think that it would be very interesting to interact with an intelligence which carries different baggage.

I agree!  Your observations are fascinating and knowledgable, as ususal.  ‘Tis a pity I likely won’t have an opportunity to enjoy these adventures.

I’m going to be away for a few weeks, so I’ll probably be unable to continue on this thread.  I would encourage anyone interested to visit Garreau’s website.  Text of his book is available online, as well as from booksellers.  I have only had the time to scan a few sections, but it is really interesting reading.  I recall him stating his purpose in writing this book: “It is a book about what our world is becoming today, not fifty years out,” and the fact that everyone needs to be aware of the developing implications before, and not after the die is cast.
http://www.garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=2.

Maggie

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Posted: 11 June 2005 03:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“Peregrine”]Thanks, G2, for the clarification.  I’m sure I would have realized the cynicism had the hour not been so late.  I was quite puzzled, and that should have clued me in.
<snipped>

‘Tis a pity I likely won’t have an opportunity to enjoy these adventures.

I’m going to be away for a few weeks, so I’ll probably be unable to continue on this thread. 
<snipped>

Maggie

Your presence will be missed.  Hope to see you back in a couple of weeks.

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Posted: 12 July 2005 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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I have to say I find all the talk about the future of human evolution overwrought and, in many cases, underinformed.  Evolution requires a few things to occur - variation and selection.  As a species, we’ve got variation in spades.  But selection has been reduced to near nil.  Furthermore, “fitness” and what little selection does occur are rarely related anymore.  People w/ previously lethal mutations live to reproduce.  People w/ previously no ability to reproduce now have the opportunity.  The gene pool has grown wider and wider, but no partitioning is occuring, and therefore the center of the pool is going to be moving anywhere, at the least not anytime soon.

I also think that while genetic engineering is the most focused sense can be done or at least attempted now (i.e. repairing the single gene mutations that cause sickle cell, cystic fibrosis, or some forms of MD), the ability of mankind to manipulate the genome and enhance or delete personality traits is centuries away.  We barely know the genes/ proteins invovled in things like “intelligence” or “wisdom”.  Even if we could, with any certainty, find all of them, the interactions of the multitude of allelles at the various sites would make the task of directed design well nigh impossible.  Finally, even if such a trick were accomplished in a single individual, that person would either need to be isolated with other such individuals and/or cloned, otherwise the engineered traits would simply slip back into the gene pool, and diffuse out over the subsequent generations.

This does not even address the problem pointed out by a number of people, that agreeing on what is “smart” or “wise” is not trivial.  We can’t even get people to agree that evolution happens, much less get them to agree on what intelligence is!  Ironically, the lack of selection that has stalled our evolution as a species also has stalled our communal scientific progress - the Luddites who would re-try the Scopes monkey trial have plenty of breeding opportunities, and whatever genes are present (or missing) in them will be around for awhile.

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Posted: 19 July 2005 09:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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Bumper sticker:

The gene pool could use some chlorine!

  LOL

mhatter13, you may be right about the apparent lull in selection, but I think you over-estimate the strength of that variable.  If population growth continues and age demographics continue to skew, for example the aging of populations in the northern hemisphere and the decimation of mature adults due to rampant AIDS in Africa, global social instability will increase along with the likelihood of wars, including nuclear wars, and environmental disasters.  I think the chances of population isolation will increase.

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The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisedom
-William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

Life, what is it but a dream?
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