Genetically Engineering Animals Modifies Nature, But That’s Nothing New

By TJ Kasperbauer

Some people want to use genetic modification to restore the American chestnut tree and the black-footed ferret. Some people couldn’t care less. Still others might think chestnut trees are ugly and ferrets are a nuisance. Choosing between these preferences is difficult. But whichever course of action we take, it won’t help to ask if we are conserving pristine nature. Instead, we must accept that we are merely modifying nature—as we have many times before.

Thinking about conservation as modifying nature conflicts with the dominant paradigm of nature preservation. Nature is to be protected, not redesigned. But this view of nature is misguided. We have always influenced nature, even if unintentionally and haphazardly. Genetic modification is only the most recent step in our long history of altering nature.

Many conservationists already accept this view of nature. For instance, some endangered and highly valued species have been relocated in order to improve their chances of survival. Doing so changes the species as well as the surrounding ecosystem—nature is changed. Captive breeding programs also frequently aim to modify the genetic makeup of the species before release. These practices also operate under the assumption that we are constantly changing nature.

Starting these discussions now helps prepare us for policy decisions we will inevitably face in the future. These decisions will be less and less about conservation and more about what we ultimately value and desire. This is difficult because there is such widespread disagreement, as illustrated by recent proposals to relocate pikas, white bark pine, and many others.

Just last week the International Union for Conservation of Nature proposed a temporary cessation of field trials and research on genetically modifying nonhuman organisms for conservation. Until the consequences have been properly assessed, they reason, such interventions are too dangerous. This conclusion is sensible—we do need more data. But the data will be quickly forthcoming, and the traditional conservation framework will not be very helpful. We must remember the potential upshot of genetic modification: not just to keep what we have, but to build and design what we want.

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Are We Ready for Life at 150?

By Kathryn Ziden

A future in which we live to be 150 years old is no longer far-off or science fiction. Global life expectancy figures doubled within the last century. Advances in healthcare, precision medicine, gene and immunotherapies and genetic engineering will likely lead to increased longevity sooner than current trends predict. But are we prepared for this future?

Are we prepared for this future financially? The current system of Social Security and Medicare is failing, facing “long-term financing shortfalls,” according to the Social Security Administration.

A report out earlier this year from The Brookings Institution adds that the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less-educated workers versus those received by wealthy, well-educated workers is widening. In addition, age discrimination in the workplace may prevent older generations from working the longer careers that will be financially required of them.

Are we prepared for this future socially? What will the concept of marriage be like, especially given the current prevalence of “gray divorce?” An entirely new healthcare system, perhaps based on A.I., will need to be created to deal with the shifting demographics. If careers span 100 years instead of 40, innovation in corporations and universities may stall, hindered by the stagnant ideas of long-standing CEOs and professors.

Are we prepared for this future politically? Increased lifespans coupled with a slowing, but still positive population growth rate will lead to a more crowded Earth. Increased competition for resources will likely result in new domestic and international conflicts. Longer lifetimes will also increase the use of public services, placing additional strains on budgets and increasing deficit spending.

Even without major S&T advances, extended longevity is inevitable; it is time to prepare now. The good news is that all of the problems outlined here are fixable, if we begin the dialogue and planning that will be required now. There are a large number of scientists working in the field of aging, gerontology, longevity, and other biological or medical fields whose work is directly affecting human life expectancy. It is time that there be the same commitment from the policy side.

Reimagining the American Dream

By Charles Mueller

The American Dream is an idea, an idea that has driven this country and inspired the world for almost 300 years.  This dream was rooted in our Declaration of Independence with the words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

As this country has evolved, so to this dream.  This dream is about finding comfort in the idea that we live in a country where there is opportunity for all and regardless of your race, creed, sex, class or the family you were born into, through hard work and determination you can create the life you want.  However, for many, the American Dream is beginning to feel like the American Nightmare, a sick illusion of hope in a world full of fear, hostility and inequality relative to times past.  Just as James Truslow Adams inspired a nation coming out of the Great Depression in his book Epic of America by first coining and describing the American Dream, our nation today, one coming out of its own era of financial despair, needs a reimagining of the American Dream.

The generation that emerged following the first references to the American Dream was the generation that helped save the world from the evil that prompted WWII.  This generations’ ethos was all about hard work, it was about survival, it was about creating a better future for their children, and their attitudes are what came to define the American Dream.  Overtime, this generations children evolved the dream to include a greater emphasis on the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness was not necessarily hard work, it was also about working the jobs you wanted and having time to enjoy the efforts of your labor with the ones you loved most.  As the country continued to mature, this third generation of the post-Great Depression American Dream became the first to truly reap the rewards of the sacrifices of the first generation; the world they lived in was evidence of the success of their grandparents.  This generation of people was promised the American Dream was finally the American Reality.

Unfortunately, the combination of the devastating effects of 9/11 on the American psyche and the Financial Crisis of 2008 on the American wallet has challenged the ethos of our time and exposed parts of the American Dream, which have turned out to be false.  The wealth gap in this country continues to grow, hateful speech is becoming more of the norm, and graduated students are entering the job market with university degrees only to find a genuine lack of opportunity compounded with a mountain of student debt.  Hard work no longer seems to be paying off.  While this reality is still greater than many other parts of the world, it represents at minimum the flattening of the trend President Franklin Roosevelt always said should be upwards in his last Inaugural Address in 1945:

“Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights — then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”

It is time we reimagine the American Dream.  It is time we generate a new idea, a new hope, a new vision for the future that will inspire this nation once again and give new meaning to our purpose.  In a world dominated by the advancements of science & technology (S&T) the definition of hard work looks much different from the days it was synonymous with long hours on the farm or at the factory.  This new American Dream should anticipate the future that will be arriving, one where we can communicate with our thoughts, have robots do our chores and free ourselves from the limits of our genes.

This new American Dream should be about making the pursuit of happiness easier.  This is a dream where people don’t have to work harder to move up, they have to work smarter, they have to work more creatively, they have to take advantage of the world that has been gifted to them and imagine it to the future.  This American Dream should be about providing everyone with the ability to do this, giving everyone access to things like the Internet and creating new jobs that seek out the human imagination.  It should be about developing a society where we reward our creativity and ability to dream up the futures no one else can envision.

The future of the American Dream should be that no matter who you are, you live in a place where your imagination can come true, where opportunity exists to let your bold ideas grow into things that will change the world.  This is a world where opportunity still knocks even if you fail.  It is a world about the future and it will take all of us to make sure this new American Dream becomes reality.

Future By Design

By Charles Mueller

The future of humanity is by design.   There is no use debating this or wasting our breath figuring out if doing such a thing is moral or ethical.  The basic facts are that tools like CRISPR have given us the ability to manipulate our genome in ways only limited by our imagination and people all over the world have already begun to tinker with life’s forbidden fruit.  We are probably less than a year away from some do-it-yourself biologist engineering a breakthrough in their garage similar to how “drop-outs” like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak helped engineer the impossible under the radar.  Hopefully this will be a great surprise, like Microsoft and Apple were, and not a terrible mistake that sends us down a path where we do everything we can to prevent such manipulation of the DNA of life.

There are two realities of human existence.  The first is that if humanity hopes to survive they will have to eventually get off this planet before the Sun eats Earth or some other existential threat destroys it.  The second is that humanity will eventually have to evolve beyond its fragile biology.  Regardless if we choose to suppress this reality today, eventually we will have to take a more active role in how our biology is put together if we truly want to survive.  The earlier we start obtaining the experiences, the knowledge and the tools to do this, the sooner we will have assurance that humanity will live on.

The future of humanity is by design and I can think of no better time to start that journey than now.

Humans in 2020

By Charles Mueller

What will humans be in 2020?

If you had asked me that question in 2000, I would have been 16 years old and told you that humans would still be human, but they would have really cool technology (think Jetson’s).  Maybe we would be smarter, but that would have been due to the fact we had experienced more and learned more.  We wouldn’t be better because we would have learned how to change the essence of our humanity, our DNA.   I would never have thought that one day we could design ourselves like we design cars, computers and our art.

Many of our leaders in the S&T world who are following the advancements in genetic engineering technologies are convinced a world where we can design ourselves to love like a dog, to see like an eagle, or to have the memory of a Clark Nutcracker bird (Google it), are still many years away.  The same kinds of thing were said in the computer industry before people like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak decided to do what the experts said was decades away in their own garage.  The world of garage S&T (genetic engineering) is finally possible and do-it-yourself biology is going to start to make what was evolutionary impossible, possible.  It is going to help create the breakthroughs that drive this revolution.

After spending the last decade studying everything I could get my hands on about how life functions and evolves, as well as following the development of tools that allow us to manipulate it at the atomic scale, I honestly think humans in 2020 will be on a trajectory different than the humans of today.  Humans of 2020 will be the first down a path to be whatever the humans of 2020 want to be. Their children will be optimized and their own genomes modified in an attempt to make their existence better. They will be the first humans by design, not evolution.

Asleep At The Wheel

By Charles Mueller

We are blindly directing the evolution of this planet. Last week I came across an article discussing the discovery of a new bacterium that digests PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics. The authors of the article discovered the microbes by examining the trash we are continually filling up the world with. These microbes evolved on their own to digest plastic because we created an environment where the only thing they had to eat was PET plastic.

This is blindly directing evolution. We are responsible for this, yet at no point in time was this ever our intent. It is just a side effect of the choices we’ve blindly made as we continue to take more and more control over how the world evolves. At least with things like GMOs we are consciously making these choices on how certain organisms “evolve”. While in many ways this was a really cool discovery that could help us deal with things like trash pollution, it just makes me wonder what other kinds of ways life on this planet are evolving due to our visionless choices. It is likely that for every cool accident we create like this there is an equally bad one right around the corner.

There is a more intelligent way to do this that can help us create the good and prevent the bad. Technologies like CRISPR are enabling a future where we can open our eyes and begin to put more thought into how our choices will go on to impact the evolution of life on this planet. The discovery of this new bacterium reminds us that we are driving the car of evolution blindfolded with no steering wheel or brakes. While we debate whether or not we should use technologies like CRISPR to engineer ourselves for fear we might direct our evolution in damaging way, let’s remember we are already doing this with little to no control or knowledge of how it is currently playing out.

I get that directing evolution with intent sounds crazy, but the reality is it is crazier to do it blindly. The future of humanity, of life, is a future of design. Let’s make sure we acknowledge this and do our best to ensure that intelligent rather than blind choices are directing the future of evolution.

If I can talk to you, you deserve rights too.

by Rebecca McCauley Rench

The ability to communicate between two life forms is a defining characteristic in whether those beings deserve rights, and we should re-examine our current stance on non-human rights. Human civilization has been struggling with how we define the rights of individuals in our societies for millennia. We can see the evolution of civil rights from a time when rights were decided by your gender, your land ownership, your age, and the color of your skin. In fact, to think that these are not still deciding factors in the way someone is treated in the eyes of the law suggests a limited exposure to the variety of societies in the world. In the United States, we believe that fundamental civil rights are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. We are still not perfect, but we are continually improving our system and finding ways to be inclusive in those we grant rights.

However, how will we define a person as we begin to push the boundaries of integrating technology into our physiology and control over our genetics? How will we adapt those rights for life forms that do not fit into our current picture of a human yet are sentient beings? What does it mean to be a sentient life form and are there current beings on our planet that deserve more rights than we currently grant?

It is impossible to define a sentient being on their genetics as there is no one gene that makes one sentient nor is it necessary to have a genome to be a sentient being. As we begin to manipulate our own genome, integrate non-biological components into our physiology, and explore the Universe, defining a person by genomic similarity to a baseline is unlikely to hold up despite being very quantitative. The human race is full of genetic diversity and is not the same species it was 40,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors showed up today, would they have the same rights as all other humans on Earth or would we treat them differently in the eyes of the law? I do not think we would want to treat them differently if we uphold the values that urge us to grant rights to individuals. We do not interact with someone based off their genomic similarity to ourselves and this would completely negate the possibility of providing rights to alien life forms, silicon-based intelligence, and the emergence of new intelligent species on our own planet. The fundamental reasons we grant rights to all persons in society apply to these non-humans as well.

Perhaps the more important defining characteristic of being a sentient being deserving of rights is the ability to communicate with other sentient beings in society. For humanity, this has changed through time as we have moved from communication by verbal language, to written words, and now a plethora of media options. Soon we might even be able to communicate our thoughts directly with neural implants allowing us to have an even greater understanding to the ideas being shared. We would not deny a person of their rights in a court of law because we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We would spend time acquiring an interpreter to ensure that they could understand us as well as we understand them. We will face similar issues when communicating with other sentient non-humans and we should hold ourselves to the same standards of communication in those situations. This will become easier as we develop technologies that allow us to communicate directly with other species on our planet, such as neural implants that allow you to carry on a boring conversation with your house cat. Currently, we find ourselves capable of communicating with other primates through sign language and yet we do not provide them with the same rights as humans. Is this due to our inability to think outside the box on who deserves rights or rooted in our group definition of what it means to be a person? If we want to embrace a society where rights are granted to all sentient beings, we should re-examine the interactions we have with other life forms sharing our planet today. This would allow us to set standards and gradations in rights that can be easily adapted for the not too distant future. We already have gradations in rights that we give our children until they reach the age of majority, and these same guidelines can be used in determining the level of rights granted to varying levels of intelligence. This is a question we will have to tackle in the not too distant future as we continue to evolve and adapt humanity to a rapidly changing technological environment.