2050 and beyond

July 2, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

The astronomer royal, Martin Rees, has been looking into the future.  He is offering up predictions for 2050. You know I love a good prediction or two, so really interesting to read about what he thinks might be in store for us. Much of what he says, we already know – by 2050, the planet will be staggering under the weight of a global population of 9 billion and the world will be warmer.  Beyond this, Rees suggests:

  • CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050 if we keep with business as usual
  • the entire solar system might have been explored and mapped by tiny robotic craft
  • long range space flights to Mars and beyond
  • altered human beings – through mind-enhancing drugs (didn’t that happen already in the 1960s?!!); genetics; or cyborg techniques
  • the human lifespan could be greatly extended
  • widening gulf between what science enables us to do and what applications it’s prudent or ethical to pursue.

I think that last point is spot on. I’m not sure that ethical issues surrounding genetics or gene therapy are keeping pace with science. The modification of an individual’s genotype has great future prospects. Tinkering around with human genes could mean that a person will not have to suffer cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease for example. A fetus with a genetic defect could be treated and cured before it is born. Hereditary disease might become a thing of the past and lifespans extended. All good.

But then there’s the darker side of genetic engineering. We’ve all read about designer babies, genetically engineered so they are aesthetically pleasing to society as a whole, or we can imagine some psycho cloning a whole lot of athletic, blonde men for a private army. I’m no geneticist, but seems to me that the human body is a complex maze of biological pathways and interconnections. So if you tinker with a gene, what are the side effects or long term ramifications elsewhere within the body?

What makes humanity so splendid is diversity, uniqueness, individuality. Every human is different. There’s a wonderful variety of hair and eye colours, statures, physical appearances. Isn’t it this diversity that makes humanity strong and able to evolve and cope with diseases or other onslaughts? If we are all genetically engineered, then I wonder what vulnerability factor is introduced. If an unknown disease came along, would a genetically engineered population be able to withstand it, since it seems to me that biological diversity provides humanity with the means to battle a variety of diseases.

And then there’s transgenics – where scientists tinker around and develop organisms that have a novel trait not normally found within a species. Golden rice is but one example of a transgenic organism. There are three categories of transgenics: animal-human combination; animal-animal combination; plant-animal-human combination. We’ve all read about pig organs, for example, being explored as an alternative for human organ transplants (known as xenotransplantation). But consider the ethical issues – and these are just some that come immediately to mind:

  • what might be the health risks? Take golden rice – it is engineered to overproduce beta carotene and retinoids derived from beta carotene may be toxic and cause birth defects.
  • would human-animal organisms be viewed as a lower order of being that would not be worthy of full respect or dignified treatment? I can imagine a whole class of “slave chimeras” being created for the purposes of doing low-grade or demeaning work.
  • at what point would organisms, which possess a particularly human phenotype or exhibit certain human behaviours, be considered “human”? Indeed, if we start tinkering around, would the whole notion of what it means “to be human” change or will it need to expanded?
  • if animal genes are inserted into a human embryo, what possible effects might there be on the individual identity of the future person? At the early stage of life, cells are growing and changing – how might the introduction of animal genes significantly alter a human’s make-up and identity? Genetic instructions are contained within an embryo, so if you introduce foreign material from an animal, are you potentially affecting the development of the human?
  • would the animal-human combination need to be given rights and special protections?
  • could new diseases emerge due to the close proximity of animal and human tissue?
  • might unexpected new deformities and disorders be created in animal-human entities?

I read this article recently and in the paper is an interesting argument:

“The animal and plant kingdoms—the kingdom of genes—contain vast amounts of genetic information of potential value to humanity. Humans have many unique and valuable qualities, like the capacity for high-level moral reasoning. But they also have many limitations, which other animals and plants do not. We age faster than some animals,we do not have sonar, acute sight, hearing, smell, or the capacity to photosynthesize or produce our own essential nutrients. And we are susceptible to diseases other animals are not. These limitations are genetic. By understanding how genes contribute to function we could use these genes, or artificial copies of their sequences, to overcome the limitations of being human.”

I get this. It’s a logical argument. And it comes from a position of acknowledging that the human being does not have moral superiority. But are we opening the proverbial Pandora’s box or will we simply be mining the kingdom of genes to produce a more robust, disease free human?

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Entry filed under: Future predictions, Science. Tags: , , .

Environmental stuff The state of the climate

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeremy Lent  |  July 2, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    You might be interested in my novel, Requiem of the Human Soul, which deals directly with the question of whether genetic engineering might change what it means to be human.
    The novel’s set in the late 22nd century when most people are genetically enhanced d-humans; those who remain unenhanced – Primals – are the global underclass.
    In a hearing at the UN, the d-humans are considering whether to make the Primals extinct, given their abominable track record of genocides, climate change, etc.
    You can read more about it at http://www.humansoul.com.
    Let me know if you find it interesting.

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  July 2, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Jeremy, what a fascinating theme for your book. I’ll be reading your novel and encourage my readers to do so as well. I really think there are a lot of concepts we need to think about when we grapple with genetic engineering. Rather than blindly accept it, let’s think it through!

    Reply
  • 3. Jeremy Lent  |  July 3, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    I think you’ll enjoy the novel and (hopefully) find it thought-provoking. Please let me know what you think after you’ve read it.

    Reply
  • 4. Paul Shisoni  |  December 6, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    amazing!

    Reply

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