The 47th State Panacea or Perversion

By Joe Carvalko | 3 April 2020
Church and State

C.S. Lewis warned about our final mastery over nature, and the inevitable drift into a future world where knowledge about the old world completely vanishes, where what once was, irretrievably transforms into something else:

… We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: The first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety …. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.[1]

I say with confidence that I can’t swim the Pacific, but for a whale, it’s possible. Like whales, to the extent we can exploit the full measure of our form, we may insure the survival of those that follow in our wake.[2] But, what happens when “form” transforms a species, not in response to Darwinian adaptation, but by design? Does it improve its sustainability or work at cross purposes, perhaps creating another species?1 About 32,000 years ago, canines were probably the first animals altered by humans. Bully for us, we tamed the wolf. In some cases hybridization changes the number of chromosomes carried by the crossbreed. The mule for example has 63 versus 64 carried by the dam (female horse parent) and 62 carried by the sire (male donkey parent).2 The different structure and number renders mules superior to horses or donkeys in some respects, but brings with it infertility.

In the 1940s, J. Huxley wrote, “now and again there is a sudden rapid passage to a totally new and more comprehensive type of order or organization, with new emergent properties, and involving new methods of further evolution.”[3] What’s wrong with adding a chromosome here or there to the existing 46 we are born with, especially if it fixes a malfunctioning part, maybe adds a few neurons to help us think great thoughts, rewrite science, author an amazing tale, alter the course of history? More than one commentator has proposed this idea.[4]

Although we casually accept GMO-ing fruits, vegetables and animals, which has produced a cornucopia of new victuals, we need to think through whether it’s wise to add a 47th chromosome to the catalog of human cytology. We might start by ledgering-up what we lose in the gain. Without adding another genome, gene therapy already has demonstrated promise for rectifying birth defects or curing a disease, such as cancer. Increasingly biology will employ CRIPSR, which uses modified viruses to twist DNA into exorcizing an encyclopedia of diseases.3 But viruses are limited to relatively short DNA sequences, and additionally risk off-target complications, causing unintended disabilities or other maladies.[5]

Let’s consider starting from a clean slate. An artificial chromosome stands to reduce, if not entirely eliminate off-target risks, and offers a relatively rich spectrum of a new genetic sequences.[6] We might tally-up how a new chromosome might perchance offer a more direct, facile elimination of virus susceptibility, birth defects, or hundreds of cancers.

Manufactured from synthetic DNA and likely constructed from the rootstock of current nucleotide bases, designing a new chromosome leaves open the possibility to draw from other elements extant in the periodic table.[7] In short, adding designer gene opens up a virtually endless array of diagnostic and therapeutic options, some based on chemistry, and others based on nano-sized computational devices.

Before we go headlong in one or another direction, let’s draw attention to something we know: that our genomic code actualizes in psychological, physical and societal architectures, embodying who we are, our potentialities and limitations.[8] It’s crucial to ponder if the incorporation of an added chromosome, whether to extend life, improve mental and physical powers, or more efficiently integrate, e.g., electronically into the social/commercial world, might produce anomalies of an emergent form, e.g., a novel physical, psychological, and societal construct.[9]

In works about human enhancement the most often discussed topics relate to extending lives and increasing intelligence. Less is written about how enhancement may come at the expense of arguably what makes us who we are—human.[10],[11],[12] There are few answers to “how” enhancement will be accomplished or “what” adding a chromosome might achieve, except in the most general way. Better health, greater intellect, and agelessness almost always appear on the plus side of the ledger. But, let’s dig deeper. Agelessness may be oversold, unless we halt its progression after reaching some preferred age—such as at sixty. To be stuck at 200 for the next millennium would not be a particularly appealing prospect. And, what does “intelligence enhancement” mean exactly? Being more analytical, in other words book smart, or artistic, or simply wiser, or perhaps create an abundance of personalities who would seek an ever increasing desire for recognition? Francis Fukuyama suggested in The End of History and the Last Man, a need for hyper-recognition can lead to domination and oppression of others, and descend into a life of hedonistic, materialistic pleasure and self-obsession. Would all of the above be an option, or something chosen from a futurist’s equivalent of a Sears Catalog?[13]

Consider the myriad ways we invent new fruits and vegetables for shelf-life and taste, or chimeras and animals for increased performance or disease susceptibilities. Utilitarian objectives are top of mind when we create these entities, rationalizing that the virtue of our actions should be judged by its positive outcome for the greatest good. As with changes to the original version of the dog, mule, fruits and vegetables (GMOs generally), the derivative form inevitably changes an essential quality in the original, albeit not taken from the human point of view, but from nature’s.4 Trimming the wings of a canary so it no longer flies serves as one of an uncountable number of examples.

When I refer to form, I mean features independent from cultural considerations, e.g., the genetic code has little to do with how we might characterize it. Subjectively we organize it into a biological ontology of “living things.” However, despite our inclination to define and categorize the arrangement of DNA molecules, it remains observer independent, intrinsic to nature, not dependent on sentience or social realities of any sort. What is dependent on sentience are the things we invent. In the truest sense they represent social constructs. If we were to add a chromosome, human ontology changes from objective to subjective, for by any measure the new human construct becomes a social construct, one which is referred to as invention.

I remain who I am throughout my life, regardless of my age or appearance.5 Those who know me see me in some invariant way.6 Physically features slowly change, but personality and temperament change even more slowly, and beneath this some tic, or manner of frowning or smiling combines to disclose my individuality. Yet, my identity forms but a part of my essence, the extrinsic or external part. There exists an internal part, which remains intrinsic to my being. Intrinsic essence equates to life’s emotion, rationality, ego, desire, ambition, action and potential, all by-products of our nature, a continuum of evolution, where the present moment marks an end-point. Our psychological dimensions exhibit themselves as an expansible outer exterior, through which we see beauty, know love, feel empathy and the wonder of our power to think imaginatively.[14]

We have come to accept that we survive by having parts replaced by metabolic processes, organ transplantation, and replacement, or as a pacemaker might supply an electrical signal to a faulty heart. None of this kind of technology changes us. That said, imagine adding a 47th chromosome, one that changes human potential or modes of perception—makes us smarter, move faster, or live extraordinarily longer lives. Do we jump an evolutionary gap and assume not only a new physiological construction, but a transformed phenomenological paradigm, perhaps where we adopt altered states of consciousness, engage in brain-to-brain communication and mind-access to something akin to virtual reality?

Our DNA exists not as something apart from that which we are; it is that which we are. By analogy, water does not contain hydrogen and oxygen—it is hydrogen and oxygen. By adding an additional element, say carbon, we change what was once water to formaldehyde. Given the prospect of an added chromosome, we can only estimate its promise or perversion according to current traditions.

Adding a 47th chromosome deals with structure and process that can’t be reversed.[15] C.S. Lewis warned us that: “[I]n reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power….”[16]

If and when we ascend to the next biological level, we will see the former civilization, that is our present one, in academic terms. Historical accounts limit a full appreciation of an earlier moment in time, especially internalizing the lived experiences of joy, ambitions, anguish, and wonderment. Any comparison between our present condition and the past, our perspective is laden by cultural biases and prejudices, where we imagine that our ancestors lived less full lives, or endured unimaginable suffering measured against standards of modern medicine, or were less educated than a world flush in computers, electronic media and human communication. A truer account should of course discount modern life’s degraded self-sufficiency, loss of privacy, or that we dangerously flirt with mass devastation or worse, extinction, caused by the obliteration of the planet’s ecology, a run-a-way population explosion, the potential ravages from pandemics caused viruses, both natural and synthetic, and the ever-present perils posed by nuclear arsenals.

Going forward, life in a hyper-technologically driven society will function within a set of its own constraints, largely bio-cybernetic, where the human living form will adopt features via the fusion of synthetic biology and computation. And perhaps sadly, spawn a new race where accident will be removed from evolution, where we erase nature’s randomness, the part of life that adds to life’s wonder, its challenges, the wellspring of ancient aesthetics, discovery and innovation.

Democritus, the 5th Century Greek Philosopher wrote, “While atoms are eternal, the objects compounded out of them are not.” The analogy holds for the genetic code. We have the technology to potentially add a 47th chromosome, to compound as it were, a new human entity. The implications are enormously consequential. Without knowing more about who we are, it is unwise to move into genetic configurations that might be in hindsight, regrettable.[17]

Footnotes

1 The dog (Canis lupus familiaris) and the wolf (Canis lupus lupus) according to some scientists are taxonomically sub-species of Canis lupus. Dogs and wolves may interbreed, but the subject of speciation, where interbreeding is no longer possible is fraught with philosophical and scientific considerations.

2 Homer noted the arrival of Mules in Asia Minor in the Iliad in 800 BCE.

3 Clustered Regularly InterSpaced Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR/Cas9) is a breakthrough technology enabling the correction of errors in the genome. With CRISPR, scientists can turn on or off genes in cells and organisms quickly, cheaply and with relative ease to fix diseases such as HIV, cancer, and other genetically based diseases. (See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4975809).

4 The ways in which form changes essence are too numerous to list, but consider this: Granny Smith or a Golden Delicious version, have been modified to remove the enzyme that turns an apple brown after it’s been exposed to oxygen in the air. Fédération Cynologique Internationale, the largest registry of internationally accepted dog breeds, recognizes 339 types based on purpose, function, appearance and size.

5 The ship of Theseus is a thought experiment that raises the question whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object, the likes of which were discussed as early as Heraclitus and Plato by ca. 500-400 BC.

6 Mereological essentialism is the thesis that objects have parts necessarily. Thus an object X composed of parts a, b, c and d ceases to exist if it loses part d and likewise ceases to exist if it gains a new part e.

References

[1] Ibid 16.

[2] The body’s structures and function serves to assure the survival of the organism. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/teleonomy (Last visited 10/30/2012).

[3] Corning elaborates on what Huxley meant by emergent in the context of complexity; see, Corning, P., The Re-Emergence of ‘Emergence’: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory,” Complexity 7 (6): 18–30, (2002), http://www.complexsystems.org/publications/pdf/emergence3.pdf (Last visited, 9/25/2012).

[4] Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, (Houghton Mifflin 2002), suggests this startling possibility.

[5] Lessard S., et al; Human genetic variation alters CRISPR-Cas9 on- and off-targeting specificity at therapeutically implicated loci, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2017, 114 (52) E11257-E11266; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1714640114.

[6] Kouprina N, et al., ( 2013). “A new generation of human artificial chromosomes for functional genomics and gene therapy”. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. 70 (7): 1135–48. doi:10.1007/s00018-012-1113-3. PMC 3522797. PMID 22907415.

[7] Artificial chromosomes that will add genes in excess of a species normal complement will someday be “programmed” to express themselves dependent on one or another stimulus, See, Gregory Stock and John Campbell, eds., Engineering the Human Germline: An Exploration of the Science and Ethics of Altering the Genes We pass to Our Children (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[8] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book, I. the inner form, essence or meaning.

[9] W. Ross Ashby describes the concept of “emergence” through the following examples:

“Ammonia is a gas, and so is hydrogen chloride. When the two gases are mixed, result is a solid-a property not possessed by either reactant … The twenty (or so) amino-acids in a bacterium have none of them, the property of being ‘self-reproducing,’ yet the whole, with some other substances, has this property.” See, W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics, (University paperbacks, 1956). p. 110.

[10] Carvalko, J., (2020) Conserving Humanity at the Dawn of Posthuman Technology, (Palgrave Macmillan) and Carvalko, J. (2012), The Techno-Human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap (Sunbury Press).

[11] James Ogilvy, “Human Enhancement and the Computational Metaphor,” Journal of Evolution and Technology – Vol. 22 Issue 1 (December 2011).

[12] Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002). p.152.

[13] “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” The President’s Council on Bioethics, Chapter Four, Washington, D.C. (October 2003).

[14] Carvalko, J., (2020) Conserving Humanity at the Dawn of Posthuman Technology, (Palgrave Macmillan), p. 238

[15] Performing chromosomal modifications having permanent biological consequences may violate widely observed principles governing research on human subjects (see the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, as amended). However, germline modifications at the preembryo stage may fall outside proscriptions against genetic manipulation of humans. See, Stuart A. Newman, “Averting the clone age: prospects and perils of human developmental manipulation,” J. Contemp. Health Law & Policy 19: 431 (2003).

[16] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3, (1943).

[17] See, George L. Annas et al., “Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations,” 28 AM. J. LAW MED. 145, 151 (2002).

Joseph Carvalko is an American technologist, academic, patent lawyer, and writer. As an inventor and engineer, he has been awarded sixteen U.S. patents in various fields. He has authored academic books, articles, and fiction throughout his career. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Quinnipiac University, School of Law, teaching Law, Science and Technology; Chairman, Technology and Ethics Working Research Group, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University; member, IEEE, Society on Social Implications of Technology; summer faculty member, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University.

Joe Carvalko on the Intersection of Law, Science, and Technology

Severing of the Species: Implications of Genetic Editing and AI on the Human Substrate

Joseph Carvalko on the Techno-Human Shell: Have Confidence To Reach Beyond!

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here