Re: Genome issues

From: Joseph Sterlynne (
Date: Tue Jun 27 2000 - 09:38:35 MDT

> Hal Finney

  LA Times op-ed piece by Craig Venter and Daniel Cohen:

> Putting wings on a man is a rather curious image to raise. Apparently
> the authors intend it to represent a risk of biotech, and in the context
> I believe they mean it to be a horrifying example of abuse.

It is a flamboyant image though it is presented relatively quietly. One
gets the impression that they are not trying to be---as some are in their
media profferings---overly provocative.

> If adults could modify some of their cells to sprout wings as a form of
> art or attire, it's hard to see why anyone other than die-hard
> conservatives would object strongly. It's different only in degree from
> tattoos, piercings, and other body modifications which have been
> practiced by human cultures.

I'd disagree with regard to potential objections. There are already
thousands of people ripping genetically-modified crops into pieces, furious
that scientists have done some tinkering. Some of the objections pertain
to the overall safety of the resulting organisms, a quite reasonable
concern. But---whether or not it is always stated explicitly by such
activists---for many, I think, a major objection is the mere fact that we
have decided to do this at all, to, in their wearisome phrase, [play God].
Opponents usually can't even see the differences in the organism and may
rely more on political evidence than scientific. Superficially genetic
modification is different only in degree; but it will most likely not be
received in the same way as putting some ink in your skin.

> Science fiction readers are accustomed to depictions of healthy societies
> with far more drastic variations.

Well, most people haven't read any science fiction. And it _is_ fiction,
with no guarantee in the actual viability of the author's worldbuilding.

The most interesting thing is that they conclude with a proposal:

    There is no universal system of ethical criteria that says, "This is
    good. This is possible, but it is bad, so don't do it." Now that we are
    at the threshold of the most fundamental knowledge man can attain of
    his own being, such a universal system is imperative.

There is further [fundamental knowledge], like the structure of the human
mind and minds in general. Directly and precisely modifying that like
software will truly be revolutionary.

    What we propose is the establishment of a kind of worldwide "upper
    chamber of parliament" for this purpose.

This sounds like a strange term with which to pitch the idea. Why do I
suspect that the first images many people (or at least Americans) will get
are of stuffy, peruked men arguing behind large closed doors?

    We mean a parliament in the sense of a deliberative body of experienced
    scientists and philosophers, let us say of 60 or so members, rotating
    in two-year terms to advise decision-makers in business and politics
    with the weight of their collective authority. This body, perhaps under
    United Nations auspices, would inform the public of what is at stake in
    a given scientific advance and propose solutions.

What do you think about this? The rotation/term limits should encourage
flexibility but the obvious concern, aside from the general one of
nonminimal intervention, is that such a body, while potentially able to
fight certain real abuses, will prove conservative. If the sign over the
door says [Ye Olde House of Relinquishment] we're in trouble.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:14:38 MDT