2011 June 22 Wednesday
On Road Speed Signs And Blood Nanosensors

An article in Wired reports about how drivers respond to dynamic speed display signs (with built-in radars by slowing down. FuturePundit wonders whether a cell phone tell that would tell you (unsolicited) when you've exceeded your calorie allotment would have a similar effect.

The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit. Since this experiment, Garden Grove has installed 10 more driver feedback signs. “Frankly, it’s hard to get people to slow down,” says Dan Candelaria, Garden Grove’s traffic engineer. “But these encourage people to do the right thing.”

In the years since the Garden Grove project began, radar technology has dropped steadily in price and Your Speed signs have proliferated on American roadways. Yet despite their ubiquity, the signs haven’t faded into the landscape like so many other motorist warnings. Instead, they’ve proven to be consistently effective at getting drivers to slow down—reducing speeds, on average, by about 10 percent, an effect that lasts for several miles down the road.

The ability to do instant continuous testing of your blood, stomach, and other organs with nanosensors tied to your cell phone would provide you with feedback while you are making decisions about your health and diet. Would you behave differently as a result of that feedback? Imagine your phone buzzed you and you looked at it at as you walked into a restaurant (using geolocation information tied to a search engine) at lunch time and it told you to eat a vegetable and that you are already over your calorie budget for the day. Would you behave differently?

Having a doctor lecture you once every year or two about your diet and blood lipids doesn't do much to many people. Instant test results provided directly to consumers might do far more.

Update: We are headed for the Feedback Society where the number of monitoring and feedback mechanisms we use will soar. Getting enough sleep, enough exercise, the right foods, the right amounts of foods? Dedicating enough time to the study of career-enhancing subjects or to playing with your kids? All this and far more will be monitored for you using sensors in your environment and on and in your body.

Technology Review has a neat on-going series called The Measured Life. It reports on gadgets for measuring how far you walk, your sleep patterns, calories burned, and other aspects of your life.

I am expecting a progression into the social aspects of life. How about voice recognition sensors that record the identity of everyone you interact with and when you interacted with them? All your conversations could be recorded and translated to text. You could search back to find out what you promised and what others promised. Threats, fears, attempts at deception. They will all be recorded and categorized and compared automatically to knowledge coming from search engines and databases.

By Randall Parker    2011 June 22 08:55 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2011 February 10 Thursday
Genetic Testing Of Disabled Can Identify Incest Cases

Genetic testing to diagnose cause of developmental disabilities can turn out cases of previously undiscovered incest.

HOUSTON -- (Feb. 11, 2011) – Researchers using DNA microarrays to diagnose developmental disabilities or congenital anomalies in children may unexpectedly identify that some have been conceived through incest. This raises social and legal issues that institutions and the scientific community must address, said researchers from Baylor College of Medicine (www.bcm.edu) in a report that appears in the current issue of the journal Lancet (http://www.thelancet.com/).

"We have discussed these issues with legal and ethics experts at Baylor and Texas Children's Hospital, and we are considering how best to handle them," said Dr. Arthur Beaudet (www.bcm.edu/genetics/index.cfm?pmid=10579), chair of molecular and human genetics at BCM and a senior author of the report. In most states, clinicians are required to report suspicions of child abuse. If it is suspected that the pregnancy was the result of abuse, then that will need to be reported to child protective services and, potentially, law enforcement. The responsibility of the physician is less clear when the mother is an adult, he said. It may depend on her age and family circumstances when she became pregnant.

These findings have social implications as well. The mother may deny that the incest took place, or she may be fearful for the safety of herself and her child if it comes to light.

DNA testing at birth makes sense for many reasons. Who's the daddy is a big one. Cuckolds should know to file for divorce of course. I knew a guy who got his kids blood tested and discovered they had 3 blood types. Well, at least one of them was not his. The wife refused to submit to a blood test so he could get a better guess if any of them might be his. He is not the only guy I've met who discovered his kids weren't his own. Also, the problem of incest is very real as is the problem of cousin marriage.

Genetic testing cab also turn up genetic diseases of metabolism such as phenylketonuria, homocystinuria, and tyrosinemia. Most of the amino acid metabolism genetic diseases can be diagnosed using blood tests of metabolites. But genetic testing will enable earlier diagnosis of lots of diseases that do not cause clinical symptoms until years later.

Another value of genetic testing at birth: The results can be saved to later identify a baby kidnapped and raised by someone else.

By Randall Parker    2011 February 10 09:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2006 August 27 Sunday
British Footballers Storing Baby Stem Cells For Injuries

You know some technological trend is arriving when popular sports stars and celebrities embrace it. Human umbilical cord stem cell banking is hitting the mainstream. English football (soccer) players are putting the cord blood stem cells of their babies in a cord stem cell bank.

PREMIERSHIP footballers are storing stem cells from their newborn babies as a potential future treatment for their own career-threatening sports injuries.

They are freezing the cells taken from the umbilical cord blood of their babies as a possible future cure for cartilage and ligament problems. Stem cells can be used to regenerate damaged organs and tissue because they are the earliest form of cells.

The article states that some of the footballers are storing their babies cord blood for the benefit of the babies. But I suspect their own high risk of injuries has made them a lot more aware of the idea of using stem cells to do repairs.

Britain, like America, has multiple umbilical cord stem cell banks. My advice if you want to use one: Make sure its financing ensures it will stick around for a decade or longer.

He is one of five professional footballers who have frozen their children’s stem cells with Liverpool-based CryoGenesis International (CGI), one of about seven commercial stem cell “banks” in Britain.

In the past five years more than 11,000 British parents have paid up to £1,500 to store their babies’ stem cells in the banks in order to grow tissue, should their children become ill.

These athletes may never benefit from the cord stem cells. Cord stem cells can be used for some childhood blood diseases and immune diseases. But the cells aren't yet usable in humans for most of the injuries they are likely to suffer.

Be prepared to spend some money. CGI's standard service of £1275 equals about $2,407.70 USD.


Send just £125 now for the collection kit and to cover transportation and administration costs.

The balance of £1150 becomes due after the sample has been processed and stored.

But you can save with option 2 by signing up online.

Umbilical cord stem cells have a number of advantages over adult stem cells.

Umbilical cord blood stem cell transplants are less prone to rejection than either bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells. This is probably because the cells have not yet developed the features that can be recognized and attacked by the recipient's immune system. Also, because umbilical cord blood lacks well-developed immune cells, there is less chance that the transplanted cells will attack the recipient's body, a problem called graft versus host disease.

The umbilical cord stem cells are also younger and probably more vigorous and capable of more rapid and numerous cell division. Plus, the umbilical cord stem cells can probably become more cell types than adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are even more flexible than umbilical cord stem cells.

Human umbilical cord stem cells used in rats after a heart attack reduced the amount of heart damage/

Tampa FL (Jan. 4, 2005) – Stem cells from umbilical cord blood effectively treated heart attacks in an animal study, report cardiologist Robert J. Henning, MD, and colleagues at the University of South Florida and James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital.

When injected into rats' hearts soon after a heart attack, stem cells taken from human umbilical cord blood (HUCB) greatly reduced the size of heart damage and restored pumping function to near normal. This improvement occurred without the need for drugs to prevent the rats' immune system from rejecting the human cells.

Maybe 5 or 10 years from now it'll be routine to inject umbilical cord stem cells into hearts after heart attacks.

Another study from September 2004 found that umbilical cord stem cells reduce the extent of stroke damage in an animal model by delivering neurotrophic factors that helped neurons in the damaged region to survive.

Stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood, then given intravenously along with a drug known to temporarily breach the brain's protective barrier, can dramatically reduce stroke size and damage, Medical College of Georgia and University of South Florida researchers say.

"What we found was interesting, phenomenal really," says Dr. Cesario V. Borlongan, neuroscientist and lead author of the study published in the October issue of the American Heart Association journal, Stroke.

Researchers first gave the drug, mannitol, to provide temporary passage through the blood-brain barrier then transfused human umbilical cord blood cells into a stroke animal model. When used in the first hours and days following a stroke, stroke size decreased by 40 percent and resulting disability was significantly reduced.


The Stroke paper also explored how stem cells provide neuroprotection. The researchers speculated it was by providing the large influx of nourishing neurotrophic factors secreted by the stem cells. To test that theory, they looked at what happened when they used antibodies that negated some of the factors. "When we blocked the neurotrophic factors, it blocked the positive effect," Dr. Borlongan says.

Neurotrophic factors such as Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), nerve growth factor (NGF), and neurotrophin three (NT-3) help neurons stay alive and encourage neural stem cells to divide. Stem cells that deliver these factors could plausibly help prevent neurons from committing suicide when they are damaged from a stroke - or from a trauma experienced on a football field.

Is it worth it to bank your baby's umbilical cord stem cells? Hard to say. Umbilical cord stem cells will become useful for a much larger range of illnesses and disorders in the future. But the same will happen with other kinds of stem cells. Umbilical cord stem cells will get more government research funding than embryonic stem cells. So for that reason they have better prospects. But methods will surely be found to make adult stem cells and adult differentiated stem cells more flexible, youthful, and useful. By the time you need stem cell treatments you might have multiple choices. On the other hand, maybe your baby will need a treatment 15 years from now and umbilical cord stem might be their best choice at that time.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 27 08:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2006 March 23 Thursday
More Single Women Using Sperm Donors

Writing for New York Times Magazine Jennifer Egan covers the increasing use of sperm donors by single women.

Karyn said she hoped to join a population of women that everyone agrees is expanding, although by how much is hard to pin down because single mothers by choice (or choice mothers), as they are sometimes called, aren't separated statistically from, say, babies born to unwed teenagers. Between 1999 and 2003 there was an almost 17 percent jump in the number of babies born to unmarried women between ages 30 and 44 in America, according to the National Center for Human Statistics, while the number born to unmarried women between 15 and 24 actually decreased by nearly 6 percent. Single Mothers by Choice, a 25-year-old support group, took in nearly double the number of new members in 2005 as it did 10 years ago, and its roughly 4,000 current members include women in Israel, Australia and Switzerland. The California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, owed a third of its business to single women in 2005, shipping them 9,600 vials of sperm, each good for one insemination.

As recently as the early 60's, a "respectable" woman needed to be married just to have sex, not to speak of children; a child born out of wedlock was a source of deepest shame. Yet this radical social change feels strangely inevitable; nearly a third of American households are headed by women alone, many of whom not only raise their children on their own but also support them. All that remains is conception, and it is small wonder that women have begun chipping away at needing a man for that - especially after Sylvia Ann Hewlett's controversial 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," sounded alarms about declining fertility rates in women over 35. The Internet is also a factor; as well as holding meetings through local chapters around the country, Single Mothers by Choice hosts 11 Listservs, each addressing a different aspect of single motherhood. Women around the world pore over these lists, exchanging tips and information, selling one another leftover vials of sperm. (Once sperm has shipped, it can't be returned to the bank.) Karyn found both her sperm bank and reproductive endocrinologist on these Listservs. Three-quarters of the members of Single Mothers by Choice choose to conceive with donor sperm, as lesbian couples have been doing for many years - adoption is costly, slow-moving and often biased against single people. Buying sperm over the Internet, on the other hand, is not much different from buying shoes.

Even if these single women had managed to find a suitable man to marry them some women would have ended up as single moms anyway.

Discussion of single motherhood nearly always leads to talk of divorce. More than a third of American marriages end that way; often there are children involved, and often the mothers end up caring for those children mostly on their own, saddled with ex-spouses, custody wrangles and nagging in-laws. Considered this way, single motherhood would seem to have a clean, almost thrilling logic - more than a third of the time, these women will have circumvented a lot of pain and unpleasantness and cut straight to being mothers on their own.

Anyway, who wants all that hard work and compromise involved in being married?

While nearly every woman I spoke with had her own history of romantic near misses and crushing disappointments, most also saw advantages to proceeding on their own. "This baby will be my baby, only my baby," Karyn told me that night at Caliente Cab. "The thing I'm afraid of is that after doing this, I might not want to get married. It seems like a lot of hard work, a lot of compromise. Someone ends up short, and usually it's the mom, because by the time you get to the child and your husband and the dog, there's not much left."

Women want men with higher status. But there's a limited number of chiefs to go around and a lot of men up stuck being indians. Not every man is bright, funny, sexy, and successful. Not all the men who are want all the compromise and hard work involved in being married either.

So what still holds back many single women from having children on their own? The desire for security - financial and otherwise, the desire for a man to help out with all the work of raising children, religious beliefs, and fear of disapproval from friends, family, and co-workers.

The single mother route is a tough road to travel.

The fact that Shelby is in a relationship at all is unusual; the majority of mothers I spoke with - even those with older children - had remained single. Many expressed a willingness to date if the opportunity were to come along, but they work long hours to support their kids, and when they're not working, they want to see them. For all the comparisons between being divorced with children and having them alone, there are critical differences: an ex-husband who spends any time at all with his kids frees up pockets of time when a woman could potentially see someone new. Even minimal child-support payments would reduce the financial burden on her, and substantial ones could allow her to work less. Perhaps most important, a child with only one parent is immensely dependent on that parent, and the mother of such a child tends to feel her responsibility acutely. It can be painful - and expensive - to leave your child with a baby sitter after a whole day away, just to go out on a date.

I see a few ways that advances in biotechnology will lead more single women without good mate prospects to choose donor sperm:

  • Women will be able to reduce the risks of bad pregnancy outcomes by use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) testing and other reproductive biotechnology.
  • Advances in reproductive biotechnology (e.g. cell manipulations to make more youthful eggs from a woman's adult cells) will reduce infertility in women in their 30s and 40s. So more women will have the time to build up careers and wealth that will give them the resources to raise children on their own.
  • Costs of reproductive technologies will fall.
  • The development of much cheaper whole genome DNA testing and DNA sequencing technology will provide women with much greater insight into the relative advantages of different sperm donors. For example, by comparing her own DNA and those of tens or hundreds of thousands of sperm donors a woman will be able to get odds on what range of IQ her kid would have with each sperm donor or the odds for green eyes or excellent motor coordination or low risk of asthma.

I figure if risks of bad outcomes can be lowered, women can have babies later in life after achieving greater financial security, costs drop, and women can make far more informed choices among sperm donors then a single woman in her 30s or 40s or even 50s will be alot more likely to have children on her own.

As I've stated here many times previously: most women will have better DNA choices from donor sperm than from the best man each can manage to find to marry (if they can even find a suitable man to marry - and many can't). Cheap DNA sequencing will highlight what is already the case now and make the differences in quality a lot more transparent. This transparency will increase the number of women who choose donor sperm over mate sperm. The transparency about sperm DNA will also increase the willingness of women who can't find a mate to go it alone.

Also see my previous post "Personal genetic profiles and the mating dance".

Thanks to Rob for the tip.

By Randall Parker    2006 March 23 07:02 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (35)
2004 November 29 Monday
Genetic Testing Will Remove Mystery About Human Potential

On the Gene Expression blog Canton points to an Australian firm, Genetics Technologies, that is offering a genetic test for potential athletic performance.

The test examines a gene known as ACTN3, which produces a structural protein found in fast-twitch muscle fibres. Research involving elite-level athletes from the Australian Institute of Sport has shown that the different forms (“variations”) of the ACTN3 gene may be associated with an improved ability to excel in either sprint/power events, or in endurance events. So whether you’re an athlete, or young athlete-to-be, the ACTN3 Sports Performance Test will help direct you toward achieving your maximum natural potential.

This test does not discriminate good athletes from bad athletes. ACTN3 Sports Performance Testing is designed to assist athletes with identifying the type of events, distances or sports in which success is more likely. The association of different genetic variants with power / sprint versus endurance events appears to apply in a wide range of sports, including track and field, swimming, cycling, rowing, judo, etc. Testing may also assist athletes in tailoring their training for optimal performance within their sport of choice.

The cost for this test is $110 Australian which is about $87 US. This test does not measure all the factors that go into determining potential for all types of athletic performance. Most of the genetic contributors to athletic performance still await discover. Rather, this test measures just one gene that affects the performance of fast-twitch muscle fibers. It will take the identification of probably thousands of more genetic alleles that influence athletic performance before genetic testing will achieve its full potential to predict individual athletic performance limits.

Canton objects to the test for potentially robbing people of the motivation to rise above their genetic limitations.

But what, exactly, are they offering you that can't be determined without this miracle of modern technology? A fundamental part of living life is figuring out your aptitudes. Being guided by statistics towards one sport or another doesn't save you time -- it just robs you of the opportunity to beat the statistics and be a marathon runner who has an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

But step back a bit and look at it from the perspective of those who have the ideal genetic variations for, say, sprinting. As a result of widespread genetic testing someone with less than optimal genetic variations for sprinting is going to have a harder time competing successfully even if that person never gets tested and has no idea what their genetic potential is. Why? Genetic testing is going to make it easier to find more people who have great genetic potential for a sport so that they can be steered toward that sport. As a result genetic testing will make it difficult for those with less than ideal genetic variants for a sport to compete in that sport.

I realize many people love to see someone prevail over daunting obstacles and tough odds. But the identification of all the genetic variations that contribute to athletic performance in combination with mass genetic testing is going to lead the identification and encouragement of large numbers of people who now are never trying seriously to perform in sports. Therefore people best suited for a sport will enter it in far greater numbers and those who now face tough but occasionally surmountable odds will face impossible odds.

What I said doesn't just hold for sports. Surely there are genetic variations that influence ability to excel in opera singing, ballet dancing, musical composition, musical performance, writing, engineering, and a great many other pursuits. It even seems very probable that there are genetic variations for the ideal special forces soldiers not only for athletic performance but also for handling extreme physical and mental stress. The identification of those genetic variations that contribute to many types of human performance will lead to genetic aptitude tests that will be used in combination with biotechnological instruments (e.g. scanning devices such as MRIs and CAT scanners) of how a person physically developed to provide a much more accurate picture of that person's performance potential. These tests will constituent what will be, in effect, biological aptitude tests. in combination with existing conventional aptitude tests these tests will steer people with specific types of greater potential more accurately toward the fields of human endeavour for which they have natural gifts.

Of course the identification of genetic variations that affect athletic performance will provide starting points for the development of drugs, gene therapies, cell therapies, and other treatments that will boost athletic performance and raise the potential for individual humans to achieve in a large range of areas. So just as we become more able to predict our potential we will be able to raise our potential as well. These biotechnogically raised levels of performance will also be to known limits, albeit higher limits. So there will be less mystery about our individual potential regardless of whether we decide to enhance ourselves.

By Randall Parker    2004 November 29 01:18 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2004 July 25 Sunday
Eugenics Debated In Germany

Eugenics is considered in many circles to be morally repugnant. Among Germany's political elites this attitude is especially prevalent as a reaction to Nazi killings and sterilizations which were motivated in part by ridiculous Nazi genetic theories (though a ruthless tribalistic view of the other was a powerful motivation as well). As a reaction to Nazi era practices pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) of defects in babies conceived in test tubes is against the law in Germany even though it is legal in almost all other Western countries. In spite of elite views most Germans favor the practice of PIGD to avoid defects in offspring.

The procedure, called pre-implantation genetic diagnostics (PGD), is forbidden in Germany but has been used in fertility clinics elsewhere since its invention in 1989.

The latest firestorm erupted last month at a Berlin conference on human reproduction, when researchers released a survey indicating that 4 in 5 Germans approve of PGD to prevent genetic diseases.


The findings seem to fly in the face of the consensus among politicians. A parliamentary commission reexamined the legality of PGD in 2002 - and unanimously decided to keep PGD strictly forbidden.

Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnostics (also sometimes abbreviated PIGD) is legal and used in most Western countries. Therefore it can be argued that eugenics is already being widely practiced with little opposition by many people who are using in vitro fertilization to start pregnancies. Also, the genetic testing of couples before conception in order to provide advice about risks of having a baby amounts to eugenics as well. The use of knowledge of genetics of prospective parents or embryos to decide whether to proceed with a pregnancy is eugenics. Eugenics is not defined as something only governments carry out. Whether individuals use genetic technology to alter genetics of offspring or governments mandate the use of technology for eugenic purposes either way the use of genetic knowledge to alter reproductive outcomes is a form of eugenics.

I expect to see the practice of eugenics to become more widespread as the cost of genetic testing drops, as the expanding body of genetic research allows us to derive increasing numbers of useful insights from genetic tests, and as it becomes possible to do gene therapy on eggs, sperm, and embryos. While most eugenic decisions in the West will be left to individuals I also expect to see laws passed to discourage or even to forbid the passing along of certain genetic variations - and not just variations that cause what are widely held to be defects. For instance, when genetic variations that make a person very likely to be highly violent are identified then I expect most people to eventually favor the outlawing of knowingly passing along those genetic variations to future generations.

As eugenics becomes something that larger numbers of individuals can practice for their own benefit the stigma associated with the term eugenics is going to fade. As it becomes possible for individuals and couples to make more decisions about the genetic make-up of their offspring it is going to become necessary to remove the general taboo associated with the term eugenics so that the costs and benefits to society as a whole for particular genetic variations can be debated. Some parents will inevitably select genetic variations that make their children more problematic for the rest of us (for example, by reducing the impulse to carry out altruistic punishment). Since I think it unlikely that most governments will ban eugenics entirely we will need to come up with criteria for which genetic variations are allowable.

By Randall Parker    2004 July 25 10:39 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2003 November 20 Thursday
Donald Kennedy: Brain Scan Privacy Should Be Protected

Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, calls for brain scans to be given privacy protections equal to DNA sequences.

America recently passed legislation preventing businesses from obtaining customers' DNA amid fears they could use it to discriminate against those deemed more risky. In Britain a moratorium is in place to prevent companies from accessing customers' genetic material.

Prof Kennedy told the Guardian: "There's a push to prevent genetic information being used by companies for adverse selection, and at least equal protection should be given to brain scan data."

What makes brain scans seem special is that scanning techniques may eventually provide insights into personality type, behavioral tendencies, and, when conducted in concert with appropriate environmental stimuli, they might even eventually provide insights into beliefs and memories. For instance, brain scans might eventually be usable as part of a better lie detector test. The desire to keep one's own thoughts secret is certainly a reason to place some sort of restrictions on what insurance companies can get access to. But most brain scans are made for more mundane purposes that make them little different than scans done in other parts of the body: to discover tumors, clots, leaks in arteries, and other medical problems. A blanket ban on insurance company access to brain scans is no more or less justifed than a blanket ban on insurance company access to chest scans.

Can all that much about a person's thoughts be divined from a brain scan? Razib of Gene Expression has pointed to a pretty good response to the recent report about being able to detect racism with fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans. In that response Carl Zimmer says that there is a lot of subjective judgement involved in interpreting brain scans and we should take such reports with a grain of salt. In time more rigorous brain scan studies linking scan results to beliefs and feelings will be done with appropriate double blind controls and larger groups of patients even as brain scanning machines become more sensitive, accurate, and cheaper to operate and interpret. The ability to use fMRI brain scans to learn more about a person's thoughts will no doubt improve with time. But is that one single application of brain scan information a reason to single out brain scan results to restrict insurance company access to those results? Couldn't insurance companies just be banned from accessing brain scan tests that are done to study beliefs and feelings?

Is there anything about brain scan results that make them in some way more logically equivalent DNA sequence information as far as insurance companies are concerned? Remember that the big problem with DNA tests is that they will eventually provide a great deal of insight about the long term risks that each person has for various diseases. Brain scans may eventually do that if they can, for instance, detect the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease decades before disease symptoms become noticable. But the same may turn out to be true of blood tests that may eventually be able to predict Alzheimer's risks and other neurological disease risks decades in advance.

The early detection of neurological diseases is part of a larger trend that is resulting from the broad advance of medical testing in general. Look at how cholesterol tests have become increasingly more refined as a single number for blood cholesterol has been broken down in the HDL, LDL, and other components and now even subtypes of HDL are being discovered while other potential risk factors such as C Reactive Protein (CRP) are being investigated. Also, scans to detect plaque build-up and artery and heart abnormalities have steadily become more accurate and useful. The sensitivity of a broad range of biological tests is going to continue to advance to make it increasingly easier to detect a large variety of diseases and disease risk factors at progressively earlier stages.

At first glance, what might seem to make DNA tests different than other types of tests - including brain scans - is that DNA tests will be able to provide an assessment of many health risks before any sort of disease process has even begun. For instance, a female baby at birth will be able to be scored for breast cancer risk before the baby has even gone thru puberty to grow breasts that can become cancerous in the first place. But DNA sequence tests are not unique in their ability to detect disease risks decades before diseases develop. For instance, there are events that happen during development that cause variations in outcomes by changing epigenetic programming in various parts of the body. Epigenetic information tests will also eventually become available. One way to respond to this is for genetic testing privacy laws could be extended to encompass epigenetic testing results as well.

But other ways to detect differences in developmental outcomes will also be developed. For instance, advanced imaging techniques may be able to measure the relative sizes and details of the shapes and activity of glands and organs. From those scans it may be possible to calculate risks for glandular disorders and organ disorders. Imaging and other sensing techniques may be able to detect heart problems decades before they become life-threatening. There does not appear to be a clear dividing line between health risks detected well in advance of disease using genetic testing and risks detected in advance using other kinds of tests.

The problem posed by advances in medical testing for insurance is not limited to DNA testing or even DNA testing plus brain scans. Costs of tests will fall, newer and less onerous tests will be introduced, and existing tests will become more sensitive even as more sophisticated and automated methods will be developed to analyse test results and use them to more accurately predict the development of future health problems. People will therefore discover more health risks at much earlier stages of their lives. This will cause those at greater risk of diseases to seek more medical insurance while those at less risk will buy less insurance. Bans on insurance company access to medical test results will not prevent this problem from developing because the high risk buyers of insurance will buy more while low risk buyers buy less. Insurance companies will have fewer healthy customers and more unhealthy customers.

Update: There is an important and beneficial way that early disease risk identification can actually improve the workings of the medical insurance market: If insurance companies are allowed to know as much about the health risks of insurance applicants as insurance applicants know about themselves then insurance companies will eventually offer policies contingent upon the applicants getting certain treatments in advance or continually in order to maintain coverage. Look at elevated cholesterol for example. It would make some sense for an insurance company to require a 50 year old with elevated cholesterol to take Lipitor and/or to go on a cholesterol lowering diet to lower cholesterol below some target point as a condition of coverage. One can even imagine a sliding scale of premiums based on cholesterol test results.

As more health risks become identifiable at early stages and as more treatments are developed to reduce specific risks the incentive for the insurance companies is going to be to require treatments as a condition of coverage. The insurance companies may require that the applicant pay for the risk-reducing treatments. Some treatments, such as cholesterol lowering drugs, may need to be taken continually for years. But in the future real "fix it" treatments will become available. For instance, a more permanent way to fix elevated cholesterol problems will be to do gene therapy to the liver so that it produces different quantities of the precursor lipoproteins that form parts of various types of blood cholesterol molecules. Basically, change the DNA programming of a liver for a high risk person to make it function more like the liver for a very low risk person.

This approach of providing incentives for risk reduction could be expanded in all sorts of ways. For instance, as various forms of medical tests become cheaper and easier to do imagine periodic testing to measure how well each person is nourished and how much stress a person is under. A person pursuing a lifestyle that causes less wear and tear on the body ought to be able to pay lower insurance premiums than a person who chooses a diet and lives under conditions that pose greater health risks.

This approach of pricing more accurately to risks has obvious precedents in other insurance markets where, for instance, insurance companies offer lower rates if fire detection and fire fighting equipment is installed and where structures are inspected and modified to be less likely to catch fire in the first place.

Update: A few recent reports illustrate how medical testing advances will allow progressively earlier identification of diseases and disease risks. First off MRI brain scans can identify those at risk of Alzheimer's Disease several years before clinical symptoms become identifiable.

Using a new technique to measure the volume of the brain, they were able to identify healthy individuals who would later develop memory impairment, a symptom associated with a high risk for future Alzheimer's disease. The study is published in the December issue of the journal Radiology.

In the small study, led by Henry Rusinek, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Radiology at NYU School of Medicine, the researchers used MRI scans and a computational formula to measure a region of the brain called the medial-temporal lobe over a period of two years. This area contains the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, key structures allied with learning and memory. The researchers found that each year, this region of the brain shrank considerably more in people who developed memory problems compared with people who didn't. The medial-temporal lobe holds about 30 cubic centimeters -- the equivalent of one-sixth of a cup -- of brain matter in each hemisphere of the brain.

"With our findings, we now know that the normal healthy brain undergoes a predictable shrinkage that can be used to help recognize Alzheimer's several years before clinical symptoms emerge," says Dr. Rusinek. "We believe this is the first MRI study to report these findings in healthy people, but it is only the first demonstration that extremely early diagnosis is possible, and the technique still requires additional work before it is ready for the clinic," he adds.

The technique was about 90 percent accurate, meaning that it correctly predicted cognitive decline in nine out of 10 people, and it also correctly identified 90 percent of those whose memories would remain normally for their age.

However, the study only involved 45 people; future studies need to ascertain whether the technique would be as accurate in a much larger pool of subjects. In addition, it remains to be shown whether other neurodegenerative diseases that affect the aging brain can also be accurately identified with this technique.

In another study blood pressure and C-reactive protein combine to more accurately predict stroke risk.

When levels of both blood pressure and C-reactive protein (CRP) were elevated, the risk of future heart attack and stroke increased as much as eight times, researchers report in the Nov. 25 issue of Circulation.

"What our study shows is that, at all levels of blood pressure, knowledge of CRP levels greatly improves our ability to predict which patients are at very high risk," said Dr. Paul Ridker, the director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the senior author of the study.

In yet another study Duke University Medical Center researcher Jason Allen has found evidence suggesting that nitric oxide metabolite levels are inversely associated cardiovascular disease risks.

"First, it appears that a nitric oxide metabolite measured in the blood after exercise may discriminate between healthy patients and those with cardiovascular disease and is related with a physiological response of the artery diameter," Allen said. "Also, these biochemical and physiological markers can be positively influenced by exercise in patients who are at risk for cardiovascular disease."

The number of tests for health risks and the accuracy of the predictions made from test results will steadily increase. DNA sequence testing will be just one of many kinds of tests that will be used to more accurately predict health risks.

By Randall Parker    2003 November 20 01:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2003 November 07 Friday
UN Debates Therapeutic, Reproductive Cloning Ban

The UN is worried about cloning.

While there is virtually universal support at the United Nations for a treaty banning human cloning, the international community is deeply divided over therapeutic cloning.

Scientists see it as a promising avenue in the battle against disease while anti-abortion activists and many Catholics see it as the taking of human lives

There is something almost classic about this debate where diplomats and the forces of international law are so assured they are tackling an important emerging issue while they ignore a real problem that has been developing for years. In particular, the UN is unified about the supposed threat of reproductive cloning while ignoring a change in reproduction practices that is a far greater threat to society in large part because it is already happening on a large scale. What change am I referring to? If you guessed sexual selection go to the front of the class. See, for instance: Girl Shortage Causes Wife Buying In India, Genetic Testing Changing South India Mating Practices, and Human Natural Selection In Taiwan to see just how rapidly this practice is spreading. There is an upside in that it will probably select for higher intelligence in offspring. But the downside will be societies with large numbers of sexually frustrated males and that could cause everything from internal unrest to wars. <

Aside: Europe has experienced quite the come down from their certainty that they were not torn by the sorts of divisions over abortion that characterise US politics. But along came more southern European members and suddenly they too face debates about abortion and therapeutic cloning that have people in Brussels unable to find a consensus on issues that provoke strong passions in opposing factions.

But what is even more interesting about all this? At the risk of seeming a bit esoteric: I the definition of "clone" is going to end up being very difficult to pin down in the long run. If cloning is defined by reference to the DNA sequence of a donor and if the prohibition is against a person having an exact duplicate made of himself or herself then what happens when someone decides to have an child who is made from a 2.0 improved version of their DNA sequence? After all, 20 years from now we will all know our personal DNA sequences and I can easily see someone deciding to make someone a whole lot like themself but without, say, the heartbreak of seborrhea, allergies, asthma, or a hairline that starts receding when they reach the age of 17. Many women will go for permanent blondness for their daughters. Just a couple of SNP changes and suddenly no need for peroxide. Allow your kid to look almost like you but be smarter, healthier, and better-looking. Make a child who will grow up to be an idealized image of what you always wanted to be.

You don't suppose those UN folks have considered this possibility do you? My guess is they haven't. Think about it. When it becomes possible to make small alterations in offspring DNA how many SNP alterations (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or single letter DNA changes) should be required to be made in order to make an offspring not be an exact clone of yourself? I figure I needed to satisfy some high SNP difference requirement I'd opt for a whole bunch of silent mutation changes (changes in ways and in places that do not cause any functional changes - and there are just tons of those that can be done btw) that would not appreciably alter the result.

Bottom line: if the UN bans reproductive cloning expect people to carefully read the treaty language and then to "program around it".

Update: One other point about reproductive cloning: If a government or a cult made hundreds or thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of copies of the same person that would be a problem. But would single copy cloning of a person for progeny really create a substantial problem? It'd be like having more twins. But my guess is that by the time reproductive cloning can be done safely and cheaply the technology will have advanced to the point where the "version 2.0" approach of making clones better will be available and most cloners will opt for it. So most clones will not be identical. Expect them to be healthier, smarter, and better looking. Individual level cloning will not cause much of a problem. But cult or government-level cloning could pose problems.

The more substantial conflict is going to come over the question of what future generations should be like. Once all the genetic variations that influence cognitive function are identified battles and perhaps literally wars will be fought over the moral and empathetic characteristics and sensibilities of future generations.

By Randall Parker    2003 November 07 04:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2003 October 21 Tuesday
Genetic Insurance Is Not A Solution To Genetic Testing Problems

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution argues for genetic insurance instead of denying insurance companies the ability to use genetic test results in setting premium levels.

Genetic insurance is a better way of handling the problems brought on by genetic testing. Genetic insurance would pay out depending on the results of a genetic test. If you turn out to have a gene implying a higher risk of heart disease, for example, then the test would pay you enough to cover your now higher health and life insurance premiums and perhaps also something to cover the possibility that you will have a shorter working life.

The basic problem this proposal is trying to solve is that if people have genetic defects that predispose them toward various kinds of diseases and if medical insurance companies are allowed to ask for and know genetic test results then some will find medical insurance too costly or not available at all. The denizens of the US Senate, in their infinite lack of wisdom, want to prevent medical insurance companies from knowing genetic test results. But such an asymmetry of available information would cause high risk people to sign up for more insurance while low risk people decided to sign up for less. Revenues would go down while costs rose for the insurers. That is not a sustainable state of affairs.

Tabarrok's proposed solution will only work for a short period of time at best. The problem is that genetic testing costs are inevitably going to fall so far that everyone will have their DNA entirely sequenced either at birth or while developing as an embryo. There is not going to be a period of universal ignorance about each person's test results during which genetic insurance could be purchased.

A variety of techniques promise to drive down the costs of DNA sequencing by orders of magnitude including microfluidics (see here and here and here) and nanopore technology (see here). Leroy Hood predicts $1000 per person DNA sequencing within 10 years. Whether DNA sequencing becomes cheap enough for the masses in 10 or 20 years that day is coming.

Also, even genetic test insurance invites cheating with secret tests done in advance of official tests. Unscrupulous people (of which the world has no shortage) could get their DNA tested by, say, a lab in another country and get the results back secretly before deciding what genetic insurance to buy in advance. Plus, the size of the pay-out for such a policy would be hard to choose. How big would it need to be to pay higher medical insurance rates for, say, 20 or 30 years? Kinda depends on whether treatments are developed in 10 or 20 or 30 years that can fix the problems that a particular genetic variant causes. Picture a gene therapy, for instance, that programs the liver to lower blood cholesterol or to make blood cholesterol molecules larger. How long will various types of genetic risk factors remain risk factors? Actuaries are not going to be able to make a decent guess.

The very learned and clever LSE graduate Mick Jagger opined 30 years ago in Fingerprint File "These days its all secrecy, no privacy". Mick has definitely been a man ahead of his time. I constantly see signs that privacy is going to be impossible to maintain for everything from personal DNA sequences (see, as a good starting point to my previous posts on the subject: Easy Method To Extract DNA From Fingerprints) to who one is or where one is (see my entire Surveillance Society archive). More information will be available because all kinds of information will become cheaper, faster, and easier to collect, store, and sort through.

Update: Alex has responded to objections I've raised to his argument. He argues that the danger of people getting their DNA tested before they buy genetic insurance is a minor problem easily solved by a contract clause in insurance contracts forbidding previous testing. However, I do not think that in the long run a contract clause will be sufficient to deal with the problem. It will eventually become too easy for a single person to find out their own DNA sequence without anyone knowing that they have done it. Once DNA sequencing devices become operable by an unskilled individual anyone will be able to find out their own DNA sequence. Also, anyone who finds out the genetic sequences of their parents will have useful information about their own risks. If one of their parents is homozygous for some harmful dominant mutation they can be assured that they also have that risk factor. But my bigger objection to the problem remains that future generations will find out our genetic risks at too early of an age for there to be a previous point at which to buy genetic insurance.

There is one other problem with genetic insurance policies as a solution: the need to convince insurance companies to offer them in the first place. Genetic insurance policies could, in theory, be sold now since genetic testing is still fairly rare. But how to write such a policy in advance of various risk factors being identified? One big problem is that we don't know how much of the difference in total disease incidence will turn out to be a function of genetic variations. Keep in mind that some risk factors are of the sort that if you have the risk factor you have X percent increased chance of a disease before age Y. But other risk factors of the sort that you have an X percent of a disease before age Y if you also do A and B and you don't do C. An insurance company writing a policy now would have no way of knowing when factor genetic X will become testable or when the dependence of factor genetic X on behavioral or environmental factors A, B, and C will become known or how difficult it will be for people to avoiding doing A and B or start doing C.

Another problem is that we don't know to what extent people in the future will tend to behave in ways that make their genetic risk factors more or less of a problem. For instance, suppose there are genetic risk factors for type II diabetes (I'd personally be willing to bet serious money that there are several). Well, obesity is a major risk factor for type II diabetes and the incidence of obesity is rising rapidly.

The proportion of Americans with clinically severe obesity increased from 1 in 200 adults in 1986 to 1 in 50 adults in 2000—growing twice as fast as the proportion of Americans who are simply obese, according to a RAND Corporation study published today.

To be classified as severely obese, a person has to have a body mass index (a ratio of weight to height) of 40 or higher—roughly 100 pounds or more overweight for an average adult man. The typical severely obese man weighs 300 pounds at a height of 5 feet 10 inches tall, while the typical severely obese woman weighs 250 pounds at a height of 5 feet 4 inches.

This illustrates an important question: what do you call a genetic risk factor in the first place? If someone has a genetic risk factor for eating too many sweets and that makes them fat and they evenutally get type II diabetes as a result then should the insurance policy pay out? If it does pay out does it pay out when the risk factor for eating sweets is identified? Or when the risk factor for type II diabetes is identified? Or when type II diabetes develops? Or should there be different payouts for different combinations of these events?

One can imagine variations on genetic insurance policies. For instance, one variation could be that you get paid out only if you A) have the risk factor and B) get the disease. There are already disease-specific insurance policies though. So would such a policy add anything of value?

Update II: There is one other bone I want to pick with Alex: how can he claim that most people do not have serious genetic defects?

We should also remember that genetic insurance will be quite cheap because most people do not have serious genetic defects.

To put it another way: what is a defect? Many of the genetic variations that shorten life were selected for and have benefits in spite of their effects upon longevity. Some genetic variations that lengthen life never got selected for strongly enough to become widespread and so not everyone has them. If you lack some life-extending genetic variation does the variation that you have instead constitute a defect? Suppose you lack the genetic variation in Cholestryl Ester Transfer Protein (CETP) that makes cholesterol molecules bigger and extends life as a result. Well, are you defective? Certainly it would make sense for a life insurance company to treat you differently if it knew your CETP alleles. There will probably turn out to be thousands of genetic variations that influence life expectancy and the incidence of disease. Some of those variations will turn out to even improve our chances for some diseases while making our chances worse for getting other diseases. Some of the costs and benefits will be very complex to describe. So how can a policy be written to account for all of this?

Another excellent example is the question of what is a mental defect. Robert Plomin argues that most genetic variations that cause learning disabilities are not abnormal variations but rather just collections of normally occurring variations that were selected for. The people who have learning disabilities are not, in many cases, suffering from a mutation or other developmental defect that occurred in them. They just happened to get a collection of alleles from their parents that cumulatively lowered their intellectual abilities to the point where people today would consider them learning disabled.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 21 05:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2003 October 18 Saturday
Tall People Make More Money But Higher IQs Matter More

It should come as no surprise that people are biased in favor of tall people and that this translates into economic advantages.

Short people may be short-changed when it comes to salary, status and respect, according to a University of Florida study that found tall people earn considerably more money throughout their lives.

"Height matters for career success," said Timothy Judge, a UF management professor whose research is scheduled to be published in the spring issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. "These findings are troubling in that, with a few exceptions such as professional basketball, no one could argue that height is an essential ability required for job performance nor a bona fide occupational qualification."

Judge and Daniel Cable, a business professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, analyzed the results of four large-scale research studies - three in the United States and one in Great Britain - which followed thousands of participants from childhood to adulthood, examining details of their work and personal lives.

Judge's study, which controlled for gender, weight and age, found that mere inches cost thousands of dollars. Each inch in height amounted to about $789 more a year in pay, the study found. So someone who is 7 inches taller - say 6 feet versus 5 feet 5 inches - would be expected to earn $5,525 more annually, he said.

"If you take this over the course of a 30-year career and compound it, we're talking about literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings advantage that a tall person enjoys," Judge said.

The desire to assure that one's offspring will earn a higher income will serve as a powerful incentive for people to do genetic engineering on their eggs, sperm, and fetuses to ensure that their babies have the best possible chances in life. The prospects for boosting future average earnings potential are even greater from IQ boosts than from height boosts. A mere $5,525 annual salary increase is nothing compared to the differences in salary that would come if one could boost one's offspring's intelligence by, say, 20 IQ points.

Note that there is an important productivity difference between height enhancement and IQ enhancement: Height just makes some people more able to get jobs or close sales or otherwise beat other people when competing for the same existing resources but it probably doesn't increase overall productivity. By contrast, higher intelligence boosts one's ability to do mental work. Height differences, by contrast, are probably a net drain on productivitiy because to the extent that people judge each other by height they judge each other less by differences in real performance. The economy is made less efficient by judgements made on any basis other than real workplace productivity differences. By contrast, boosts in cognitive abilities will lead to dramatic increases in workforce productivity.

Will people genetically engineer their children in the future? Any poll taken today that attempts to measure public attitudes toward offspring genetic engineering probably overestimates eventual future general opposition to the practice. Once prospective parents are offered concrete specific options for providing their offspring with advantages in height, looks, or cognitive abilities the issue of genetic engineering will change from an abstract moral or philosophical question to one in which personal interests are considered and personal benefits and costs are weighed. Given the enormous potential benefits from offspring genetic engineering for health, physical abilities, and mental abilities my guess is that the desire to provide those benefits for one's own offspring will shift a lot of people's opinions toward support for genetic engineering of offspring.

Another factor that is going to play a big role in shifting opinion in favor of offspring genetic engineering is national interest and the competition between nations. The United States faces the very real problem that China has over 4 times as many people as the US and is growing rapidly. The Chinese are fairly bright folks on average and, as Intel chairman Andy Grove has recently argued, it is probable that the United States will lose leadership in software and other industries to China and other countries. What can the US do with a smaller population? Make it smarter. Of course, China will be able to do the same and the Chinese will have no moral qualms about doing so. Therefore the case for making the US population smarter will become even more compelling.

Economic globalization is bringing people all over the world into direct competition with each other. Competition is getting more fierce and people will become generally more willing to embrace new innovations in order to get advantages over their competitors. Fear and greed will both work to promote the widespread embrace of offspring brain genetic engineering.

Update: A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper from August 2006 by Anne Case and Christina Paxson find that tall people make more money because increased height is correlated with higher IQ.

It has long been recognized that taller adults hold jobs of higher status and, on average, earn more than other workers. A large number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the association between height and earnings. In developed countries, researchers have emphasized factors such as self esteem, social dominance, and discrimination. In this paper, we offer a simpler explanation: On average, taller people earn more because they are smarter. As early as age 3 — before schooling has had a chance to play a role — and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests. The correlation between height in childhood and adulthood is approximately 0.7 for both men and women, so that tall children are much more likely to become tall adults. As adults, taller individuals are more likely to select into higher paying occupations that require more advanced verbal and numerical skills and greater intelligence, for which they earn handsome returns. Using four data sets from the US and the UK, we find that the height premium in adult earnings can be explained by childhood scores on cognitive tests. Furthermore, we show that taller adults select into occupations that have higher cognitive skill requirements and lower physical skill demands.

Therefore the market is not unfairly rewarding tall people just for being tall. Intelligence differences explain average income differences as a function of height.

Increased height due to better nutrition has probably been accompanied by increased intelligence in the last century in much of the world.

There's a lesson here for those looking for egg donors: If you can not find out the IQ of prospective egg donor women go for the taller ones. That'll give you a better chance for higher IQ babies.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 18 07:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (26)
2003 October 10 Friday
Will Neuroceutical Usage Widen Ability Gaps Within And Across Societies?

Zack Lynch argues that drugs that will boost intelligence will improve the productivity of those who opt to use them.

As different aspects of mental health are better understood, more parts of the innovative process will be impacted such as accelerating learning via cogniceuticals to enhancing interpersonal communication with emoticeuticals. As neuroceutical usage spreads across industries it will create a new economic “playing field” wherein individuals who use neuroceuticals will achieve a higher level of productivity than those who don’t.

Many such drugs are already under development. In the future drugs will be available that raise intelligence and that increase the length of time that intense concentration can be maintained. Permanent memory formation will be enhanced. Short term memory will be enhanced as well. Improving the mental capabilities of workers is certain to boost economic productivity and output. Engineers will be able to hold more aspects of designs in their minds and combine design elements in different ways more rapidly. Writers will be able to remember more facts and ideas and formulate sentences more quickly. Managers will be able to think thru problems more thoroughly and do so for longer periods of time. Okay, great. Can't wait. But there are still major questions about how this will all play out. What follows are speculations on the likely distribution of usage of brain-boosting drugs within populations and whether such drugs will make us more or less alike in our mental abilities.

First of all, we start with the fact that people differ in their intelligence. We are not all equally capable to start with. There is general intelligence and then there also are various components of mental functioning (e.g. spatial perception, short term memory, ability to form long term memories) that tend to vary with general intelligence but not perfectly so. For instance, a person can suffer brain damage that prevents the formation of long term memories and still retain the ability to hold short term memories. But the important point here is that people differ in their innate mental abilities.

Given that people start with different innate abilities what will the effect be of the use of brain-boosting drugs. If everyone used brain-boosting drugs would we become more or less equal in mental abilities? Well, it depends in part on why people differ in ability in the first place and the mechanisms by which the brain-boosters will work. By analogy, suppose two engine were identical except one had cleaner spark plugs than the other and hence ran at higher horsespower. If you added something that cleaned the spark plugs then only the lower horsepower engine would benefit and the effect would be to bring the two engines closer together in measured horsepower. But if you took two engines that were of different size and therefore different horsepower (say 100 and 200 hp) and you gave them better fuel that boosted them both in horsepower, by, say 10% the effect would probably be to widen the gap in absolute horsepower since they'd go to being 110 and 220 horsepower. A 100 hp difference would be replaced with a 110 hp difference. Also, imagine some enhancement to an engine's ignition system or fuel system that could only be added to engines that have camshafts that are strong enough to withstand greater force applied to them. Not all engines have the ability to get boosted in horsepower by use of a better fuel system because some other part would break if that happened. Or it could be that only if one has valves of a certain shape that an improved fuel mix could be properly utilized.

My guess is that different brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that operate in ways analogous to each of the engine scenarios outlined above. Some brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that will basically give less smart brains some improvement that smarter brains already have. So those brain-boosting drugs will narrow the differences in intellectual abilities. But it is also likely that other brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that boost by some percentage across all minds and therefore will have the effect analogous to that of the better fuel that makes the performance gap between engines even wider. Still other brain-boosting drugs may turn out to only benefit the smartest because, for instance, it could be that certain genetic variations that boost intelligence can be enhanced by drugs but you would have to have the intelligence-boosting variation that a drug operates on in order to benefit from the drug.

So will brain-boosting drugs overall narrow or increase the spread of intelligence in human populations? My guess is that they will tend overall to widen the spread. Drugs do not seem like effective agents for improving inefficiencies in enzymes that may lower intelligence. Gene therapies will probably be able to do that eventually. But simple classical chemical compound drugs are probably not going to be able to fix most protein shape variations that cause some to be not as smart. Also, to the extent that intelligence is caused by having a larger number of neurons and a generally larger brain, well, short of making the brain case bigger with surgery it is going to be hard to give a smaller brained person more volume for growing new neurons. Plus, trying to expand a fully differentiated brain is going to be difficult. Though there are much better prospects for feeding drugs to babies to make their brains to grow larger. Still, if we restrict our analysis to fully grown adults my guess is that brain-boosting drugs will tend to widen the range of intelligence in a population if the drugs are used equally by all.

Of course, the "if the drugs are used equally by all" assumption is not likely to hold up in practice. Look at the whole world. Certainly when brain-boosting drugs first become available they will not be used by everyone all at once. The drugs will not be approved in all countries at the same time. Some people will be afraid to try them. Some won't be able to afford them. The most affluent in the most industrialized countries are likely to try them at a faster rate. Also, people who do mentally difficult work already will have the biggest short-term incentive to try brain-boosting drugs. Someone who is just digging ditches, is worried about the risk, doesn't see any immediate economic benefit, and who sees the cost as substantial will probably decide to wait. But someone who is a trader on Wall Street tracking huge numbers of bond contracts and pulling down a few hundred thousand dollars a year is going to jump on a drug that boost intelligence or memory before other traders get a leg up by jumping on it first. People in especially competitive and highly paying occupations will have the biggest incentive and means to be first users.

This all leads me to believe that brain-boosting drugs will tend to widen the distribution of the level of mental functioning in any one society and in the world as a whole. This will provoke a variety of political responses. For instance, expect to see demands from the political Left for government subsidies and price controls on drugs that boost intelligence. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Government subsidies to fund the purchase of brain-boosting drugs will probably turn out to be a net benefit for society as a whole if the drugs help unemployed people to learn skills that turn them into taxpayers.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 10 02:59 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2003 October 03 Friday
Baby Boys Keep Marriages Together Better Than Baby Girls

Steven E. Landsburg reports in Slate on a new study that finds male babies keep marriages together better than female babies.

In the United States, the parents of a girl are nearly 5 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of a boy. The more daughters, the bigger the effect: The parents of three girls are almost 10 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of three boys. In Mexico and Colombia the gap is wider; in Kenya it's wider still. In Vietnam, it's huge: Parents of a girl are 25 percent more likely to divorce than parents of a boy.

The Slate article reports on a paper published by Gordon Dahl of the University of Rochester and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and Enrico Moretti of UCLA and NBER) enitlted The Demand for Sons: Evidence from Divorce, Fertility, and Shotgun Marriage. (PDF format and that is a draft copy of the paper)

Specifically, we show that having girls has significant effects on divorce, marriage, shotgun marriage (i.e., when the sex of the child is known before birth), remarriage, fertility stopping rules, and child support payments.

Using a simple model, we show that, taken individually, each piece of evidence does not necessarily imply the existence of parental gender bias. But taken together, our empirical evidence indicates that US parents strongly favor boys over girls. The bias is quantitatively important, but seems to be slowly decreasing over time. When we compare the US with five developing countries, we find that gender bias in the US is generally smaller, and is only a fraction of the bias in China.

We begin by documenting the effect of offspring gender composition on the probability of divorce. We find that mothers with girls are significantly more likely to be divorced than mothers with boys. The effect is quantitatively substantial, explaining a 4% to 8% rise in divorce rates in the U.S.1 By itself, this effect is not necessarily evidence of parental bias. For example, it is well documented in the child psychology and sociology literature that the presence of the father in the household when kids are growing up is more important for boys than girls.2 It is possible that parents have unbiased gender preferences, but they decide to avoid or delay divorce if they have boys because they realize the harmful effects of raising a son without a father present in the household. We call this the “role model” hypothesis. Alternatively, it is also possible that the monetary, psychological, or time costs of raising girls are different than the costs of raising boys. A higher cost of raising girls could also explain the documented effect of children’s gender on divorce.

We turn to the effect of child gender composition on marriage. We find that, controlling for family size, women with only girls are substantially more likely to have never been married than women with only boys. The chance a women will be married decreases by two to seven percent for an all-girl family relative to an all-boy family, depending on family size. For divorcees, a similar pattern emerges. Not only are divorced mothers with all-girl offspring less likely to remarry, when they do remarry they are more likely to get a second divorce.

Perhaps the most striking evidence comes from the analysis of shotgun marriages using Vital Statistics data. First we show that, at delivery, gender of the first child is not correlated with marital status for first time mothers. This is reassuring, because for most parents in the sample, gender of the first child is unknown until birth. We then test whether gender of the child affects marital status at delivery when gender is known in advance (with high probability) because the mother has taken an ultrasound test during pregnancy. Among women who have had an ultrasound test, we find that mothers who have a girl are less likely to be married at delivery than mothers who have a boy. We interpret this finding as evidence that fathers who find out their child will be a boy are more likely to marry their partner before delivery.3

The first footnote reports that gender mix in offspring also reduces probability of divorce.

1 While not the focus of this paper, we also find that gender mix reduces the probability of divorce. Other researchers have also documented a demand for variety (Ben-Porath and Welch, 1976, 1980; Rosenzweig and Wolpin, 1980). Angrist and Evans use the demand for a mixed sibling-sex composition to study the effect childbearing on female labor supply (1998).

It might be that having a gender mix in offspring provides each spouse with a child they can better identify with and relate to or otherwise to be satisfied with the result that both spouses may feel more satisfied with the marriage:

2 There is much evidence that fathers play a bigger role in the development of their sons than their daughters. Fathers spend more time with their sons (Lamb 1976; Morgan, Lye and Condran, 1988). Longitudinal data on child development show that the absence of a father has more severe and enduring impact on boys than girls. For example, boys are found to suffer more from divorces than girls (Hetereington, Cox and Cox, 1978). In most cases, children are assigned to the mother, irrespective of sex.

Perhaps men subconsciously realize that there is a greater need for them to stick around for their sons than for their daughters? Or perhaps the behavior of being more desirous to stick around for raising sons was evolutionarily selected for because sons need their fathers more than daughters do?

Also, having daughters leads to polygamy:

Our final piece of international evidence utilizes the fact that 12 percent of marriages in Kenya are polygamous. Among all married women, we find that those with girls are more likely to be in a polygamous relationship compared to women with boys. We interpret this as evidence that the desire for boys lead some husbands to marry another woman if his first wife delivers a girl.

All these results suggest that as the technology for controlling offspring sex becomes more widespread the effect will be to increase the ratio of male to female offspring on a worldwide scale. Think about that. Will males become more common than females all over the world in 20 or 30 years? While some radical feminists are arguing that men are obsolete and headed for the dustbin of history people are using technology to have more male than female offspring.

Those who think this will necessarily boost the status of women in a society might be surprised by the effect that the use of amniocentesis and ultrasound to guide sex selective abortions is having in India: Girl Shortage Causes Wife Buying In India. The female shortage in India and China may become a worldwide phenomenon as other methods of baby gender selection such as the service offered by Microsort become more widely available.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 03 03:31 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2003 August 13 Wednesday
Easy Method To Extract DNA From Fingerprints

Ottawa University Heart Institute researcher Maria Viaznikova has developed a fast easy way to extract DNA from fingerprints for sequencing.

Viaznikova said her team's method consistently yields 10 billionths of a gram of DNA, on average, from a single fingerprint. The findings were revealed at the American Society for Microbiology's nanotechnology conference in New York earlier this month. Although 10 "nanograms" might not sound like much, for DNA analysis, even 0.1 nanogram is enough, Viaznikova said. "Scientists try not to use less than 5 to 10 nanograms, so this is fine." She said forensic scientists have known for about five years that fingerprints contain DNA. However, commonly used extraction techniques need several hours or even days of lab work. "We can do it in 15 minutes," she added.

The article quotes experts who want restrictions on when government agencies can sequence a person's DNA with required notifications to tell a person their DNA is being sequenced. But these kinds of demands miss a very important point: once DNA sequencing becomes cheap and easy enough to be done by devices that can be operated by a single individual who has no special skills it will be impossible to discover the bulk of sequencing that will be done.

See my previous posts Will The Death Of Genetic Privacy Hasten The End Of Freedom? and Genetic privacy: can it be protected? for more on the implications of advances of this kind. What already seems naive about my previous posts is that I speculated on how women would try to get saliva samples or other cell samples from close contact with guys in order to get DNA samples. Well, getting a DNA sample will be easier than that. It will be easy to get a DNA sample from any person seen holding a drink in a bar. When they get up to leave someone could walk by and grab one of their drinking glasses to take a quick sample off of it. The person trying to get the sample never even has to meet their quarry. Combine the ease of sample acquisition and cheap DNA sequencing and personal genetic privacy will become impossible to maintain.

This ability to sequence another's DNA is going to have interesting ramifications for paternity suits. A woman will be able to stalk a guy by going to the same bar or restaurant, grab a glass he held, get a sample, and then sequence the guy's DNA. The woman can then judge the suitability of the guy's DNA. If he passes muster in terms of what she wants in a child she will also be able to use the DNA sample to have it be manipulated in a microfluidic device to make a viable set of chromosomes to use in artificial fertilization. Then she'll be able to sue for paternity. Will courts hold men responsible for offspring when the men start claiming they never even met the women who sue them for paternity?

By Randall Parker    2003 August 13 10:43 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2003 July 13 Sunday
Sydney Brenner: Biological Evolution Is An Obsolete Technology

Speaking at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne Australia Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner says biological evolution is obsolete.

Another laureate, Professor Sydney Brenner, who helped crack the DNA code, told the 2750 at the conference that biological evolution was an obsolete technology. "The brain is more powerful than the genome."

By this he means random generation of mutations which then get sorted thru by natural selection and survival of the genes which optimize reproductive fitness. As far as humans are concerned he is not right quite yet. But in another 20 or 30 years he will be. Natural selection is still happening in humans right now. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by analysis of data from the Australian Twin Registry (ATR) published a couple of years ago in Evolution, the genetic variations for higher intelligence and delayed childbearing are being selected against in industrialized societies.

University-educated women have 35% lower fitness than those with less than seven years education, and Roman Catholic women have about 20% higher fitness than those of other religions.

In spite of the fact that the results are consistent with what we see happening around us in our regular lives one of the researchers who co-authored the paper professed to be surprised by the results.

“I was staggered by the results we got,” said Dr Owens. “When we decided to control for these factors, I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of it. I thought, ‘let’s just run with the analysis’. But there was a massive difference in the number of children born to families with a religious affiliation. Many of the Catholic twins we studied had an average family of five children, where other families were having only one or two children.

“We also found that mothers with more education were typically having just one child at an older age. Their reproductive fitness was much lower than their peers who left school as early as possible. Again, and again, our analyses for these two factors came back with the same results.”

The researchers who published the study did not even mention the word "intelligence" but the conclusions are pretty plain to see. I expect higher intelligence to be selected against for the foreseeable future. The first change that might begin to swing the trend back toward selection for higher intelligence may come as a result of cheap DNA sequencing. When the genetic variations for higher intelligence are identified and it becomes cheap to check a prospective mate for genetic potential for producing high intelligence offspring then some people are going to start using the results of such tests as guides when choosing mates. As I've discussed in previous posts, cheap DNA sequencing will also increase the incentive for women to use sperm bank sperm.

The next big change will probably come when it becomes possible to do germ line genetic engineering to give one's progeny genetic variations that enhance intelligence. Then the vast bulk of all genetic changes that get introduced into progeny will be placed there as a result of conscious human intent and not as a result of the occurrence of random mutations. At that point we will be able to say that biological evolution by natural selection on randomly generated mutations will be obsolete.

By Randall Parker    2003 July 13 02:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2003 June 25 Wednesday
UK Government Proposes Genetic Screening Of All Newborns

The British government is considering the possibility of collecting DNA samples from all newborn babies born in Britain.

All babies born in Britain could have their DNA stored in a national databank for their future medical treatment as part of a £50m genetics initiative published yesterday.

At this point the proposal has been made only to refer the matter to a commission to study the idea and make a report in a year and a half.

· Asking the Human Genetics Commission to consider the case for screening babies at birth, and storing their genetic profiles, to provide doctors with the knowledge to individually tailor their healthcare - and to report by the end of 2004.

The British government is obviously thinking in terms of having genetic profiles as standard information that every doctor will have on every patient. It makes perfect sense for doctors to have such detailed information. Early testing will identify genetic metabolic disorders that must be treated from a very early stage. They will also identify risk factors for future diseases and provide guidance for preventive measures for those at special risk. Plus, eventually most drugs will have identified for them specific genetic profiles which contraindicate their use or which indicate specific dosing regimens. From a medical standpoint genetic profiles will become so powerful that to not routinely use them will eventually come to be seen as malpractice.

The British government, as operators of a national health care system, see the collection of genetic data by the government as a logical step. The national health care system will greatly benefit and patients will benefit. From purely a medical effectiveness standpoint the decision seems a no-brainer for them. Plus, the database of genetic profiles, cross-referenced with health and other records would provide a bonanza of information for medical researchers. Absent a large public outcry I expect the British will implement their proposal. If there is too much political opposition to this proposal in the short term that will probably only delay its eventual implementaiton. As more desireable medical uses of genetic profiles are discovered the British public will gradually become more supportive of the idea that all doctors should have genetic informatoin available on every patient.

As part of a set of proposals on genetics-related issues the British government also is proposing the outlawing of secret collection of DNA without consent.

The new law of DNA theft is intended to stop people from secretly collecting genetic material from "dental floss in dustbins" or from hair on a comb. It will protect celebrities and those involved in unwelcome paternity tests.

Alistair Kent, director of the Genetic Interest Group, raises an obvious and reasonable objection to this proposal:

"While this may be necessary to protect celebrities from prying newspapers, criminalising desperate fathers trying to prove their paternity may not be the best approach."

In the long run genetic privacy will be impossible to protect. Once cheap compact DNA sequencing machines built using nanopore technology become widely available (my guess is in 10 to 20 years) it will become too easy for a single person to get a DNA sample and test it without any help.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 25 02:49 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2003 June 11 Wednesday
Identical Twins Live Longer Than Fraternal Twins

Clones, er, I mean identical twins, live longer.

Zaretsky analyzed the responses and found one factor - social communication between twin partners - that was highly correlated with longer life in identical but not fraternal twins. Other types of social interaction, including active membership in church or community groups or close relationships with other relatives or friends, did not preferentially benefit identical or fraternal twins.

"Clearly, identical twins who communicated frequently survived longer than those who did not," he said. "This was not true of fraternal twins, whether they communicated or not."

In line with the Scandinavian studies, he found that the median life span of identical twins is 82 years - that is, half live more and half live less - versus 80.5 years for fraternal twins.

Interestingly, identical twins exhibited healthier behavior, which also contributed to their longevity. More of them exercised and fewer smoked in comparison with fraternal twins.

Zaretsky noted that exercise at all levels above the lowest level of exercise increased longevity.

"This indicates that a moderate amount of exercise is highly beneficial for health, and that highly vigorous exercise is not more beneficial than moderate exercise," he said.

What is going on here? Do they give each other better advice because they understand each other better? Or do they just feel better knowing that someone else so thoroughly understands them and can empathize with them? My guess is that the longer life is due to a reduction in stress caused by knowing someone who more deeply understands and sympathises. This reduces stress and stress reduction would definitely raise average life expectancy.

This result suggests a politically incorrect idea: Once the technology of cloning is perfected clones will live longer than non-clones. You can imagine just how unbearably snobbish that knowledge will make some class conscious clones in the future: "Oh you singletons, without fellow clones to talk to how ever can you bear to live your lonely wretched lives?" This will of course lead to gangs of resentful marginalized singleton youth roaming around looking for clones to beat up on.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 11 02:42 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2003 June 02 Monday
Bill McKibben Thinks Genetically Improved Children Will Be Robots

Bill McKibben, author of the book Enough argues that a genetically engineered children would be more akin to robots than to humans with free will.

But I've tried also to raise a deeper set of issues: the meaning of a human life will disappear if we make these changes. To understand what I mean, imagine yourself an 'improved' child. Is your intelligence your own? Is your mood your own, or the result of some protein pumped out by your cells in response to a particular stretch of commercial DNA added by your parents before your birth? Would your accomplishments, your hopes, your dreams mean anything in the way we reckon it now in such a world? Or would you be more akin to a robot?

Here is my problem with that argument in a nutshell: there are aleady people walking around who have genetic variations that make them far more prone to be happy or sad than the average person. Do these people have free wills? There are also people walking around who have genetic variations that make them brilliant. They can sit down and as easily read and understand a math book on real analysis or complex analysis or topology like most people can read a junk novel. Are these brilliant people lacking in free will?

Most of the genetic variations that parents will first try to give their offspring via fetal gene therapy will be genetic variations that will be identified in the already existing human population. The reason is simple: it will be far easier to figure out what the existing genetic variations do than to design and test new genetic variations. But whether a person inherits a genetic variation from parents or from genetic engineering if it is a naturally occurring genetic variation then will the person be any more or less human? If so, why?

To argue that the introduction of an existing variation into a particular fetus will rob that fetus of free will one would have to be willing to accept the idea that there are existing humans walking around with the same variation who have either only partial conscious control over what they do or no control at all.

I'm personally willing to consider the idea that some people have compulsions and desires that are so strong that they can not control themselves. I'm also willing to consider the idea that there may be genetic variations that effectively prevent a person from developing much of a conscience or empathy toward others. But if such variations already naturally exist in the genetic code of some humans then is this an argument against genetic engineering of children in general? Or is it perhaps an argument against allowing people to have progeny that possess those variations which give them uncontrollable impulses?

If there are genetic variations that, for instance, make people more violent or devoid of any sense of fairness does it matter whether those genetic variations are passed down by sexual reproduction or fetal genetic engineering? If so, why?

McKibben does get one thing right:

A political debate is coming, therefore – a political debate on what it means to be a human being.

But that debate is not just a political debate. It is a debate about the scientific basis for human nature. Scientifiic discoveries will demonstrate a great many ways in which genes influence personality, desires, conscience, compassion, empathy, intelligence, and other mental attributes. Our practical problem will be that there are many naturally occurring combinations of the extent to which people possess each of these human attributes. One person might have a strong conscience, out-going personality and enormous spatial intelligence with less verbal intelligence. Another person might have less of a conscience but more compassion and more verbal reasoning and yet less spatial ability. When all these things become controllable using genetic engineering we will be faced with the question of whether some combinations of attributes will cause us problems if too large a fraction of humanity possesses them.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 02 04:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2003 June 01 Sunday
Steven Pinker Says Human Genetic Engineering Unlikely

Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (see some reviews here), has written an essay arguing that genetic enhancement of humans is too unlikely to worry about.

Why are technological predictions usually wrong? Many futurologists write as if current progress can be extrapolated indefinitely-committing the fallacy of climbing trees to get to the moon. They routinely underestimate how much has to go right for a development to change our lives. It takes more than a single ''eureka!'' It takes a large number of more boring discoveries, together with the psychological and sociological imponderables that make people adopt some invention en masse. Who could have predicted that the videophones of the 1960s would sink like a stone while the text messaging of the 1990s would become a teenage craze?

I find all of his arguments on this subject to be questionable and am surprised to read them coming from such an able mind.

Pinker is right that linear trends can not be extrapolated indefintely. But the problem with his argument is that the rate of biotechnological advance is more likely to accelerate than decelerate. See the FuturePundit Biotech Advance Rates archive for some of the reasons why.

Pinker argues that since many traits such as personality and IQ are due to complex interactions between multiple genes it will be very difficult to puzzle out how changes to genes will affect traits of the mind. Well, there are several billion people in the world and therefore many existing combinations of genetic variations already existing in the human population. Once it becomes cheap and fast to sequence the DNA of each person then it will become possible to sequence the DNA of millions of people and do a massive comparison of mental traits (e.g. IQ, personality tests, and various facts from life histories such as arrest records, mental illnesses, and involvement in various hobbies and forms of recreation) and genetic variations to tease out complex relationships between genetic variations.

Scientists are gaining the ability with computers to collect and analyse absolutely massive amounts of data. The ability of scientists to study interactions in complex systems will only become greater with time. The complexity of human biology will not prevent scientists from figuring it out in enormous detail.

Then Pinker comes to the fact that while identical twins are a lot more like each other mentally than they are like fraternal twins they can still differ in significant ways. Environment still matters. To Pinker's way of thinking this is somehow supposed to be a disincentive to human genetic engineering. But think about it from a prospective parent's position. Given two sets of genetic combinations if one set dramatically increases the odds of getting a child with a certain personality type as compared to the other combination even if the outcome is not guaranteed parents may elect to go with the combination that tilts the odds. Right now some people are choosing to try the Microsort service for sex selection of offspring even though the outcome is less than 100% guaranteed to be successful. Also, by opting for a route that includes the use of IVF they may be increasing the risk of birth defects in their children. Yet they are doing so along with many others who are using IVF to start pregnancies.

Pinker tries to argue that most people will be turned off by the idea of reproducing via unnatural means. This is a curious argument to make in an age when some women schedule the date to hormonally induce labor or to have a Caesarean section because a chosen date is more convenient than waiting for natural processes to bring the pregnancy to an end. Pinker points to in vitro fertilization as a procedure that people resort to only when they are unable to reproduce in the more conventional way. But there are already couples using it in order to have babies to use as donors of tissue to treat another child for a genetic disorder. The utilitarian attitude that couples bring to such a decision ought to give pause to anyone who thinks the wider public will not embrace biotechnological manipulations of early stage fetuses.

Also, and more importantly, there are already a growing number of people reproducing using artificial means in place of sexual relations because they want to select the sex of their offspring (again, see the Microsort service for details). They are using artificial means to control If it becomes possible to control more characteristics besides sex is there any reason to suppose that no portion of the populace will be attracted to "unnatural" interventions when it becomes possible to have them? For instance, many genetic variations that contribute to intelligence will be found and most will be found to not have severe side effects. Why won't many prospective parents be attracted to the idea of providing those genetic variations for their offspring?

We live in an era when millions of women terminate pregnancies every year using the rather unnatural procedure of abortion. We live in an era when millions of people undergo an increasing assortment of plastic surgery procedures, take recreational drugs, use drugs to alter their moods to treat mental illness, and give drugs to their kids to make them concentrate better in school. Where is the popular fear of the biologically unnatural? For cosmetic purposes Isolagen now offers (at least in assorted Western countries where it has approval - it is current seeking FDA approval) a service to take a person's cells, grow them outside of their body, and then to inject those cells back into locations under facial skin in order to provide a more enduring facial enhancement than is provided by collagen shots. An affluent public does not shrink from the latest appearance-enhancing biotechnology. Why will they shrink from biotechnology used on humans for other purposes?

Pinker also argues that since people are repulsed by genetically engineered soybeans they will not opt to have genetically engineered children. Well, 74% of the US soybean crop is genetically engineered to be resistant to the Roundup pesticide. If revulsion was such a big problem how could all this soybean be getting sold and consumed? Again, where is the big revulsion to biotechnology that provides the basis for his expectation that people will not opt to genetically enhance their offspring?

It is my estimation we are within at the very most 20 years of the time when a large assortment of gene therapies will be available to genetically enhance fetuses. Once it becomes possible there will be a stampede for genetic enhancement. Gene therapy will have a very positive image with the public when a large assortment of gene therapies to cure illnesses and to enhance performance of adults become available. The public, accustomed to having gene therapy done on themselves for benefical purposes as adults, will not shrink from considering gene therapy options when planning to have children.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 01 09:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2003 May 13 Tuesday
Personality Changes With Age And So Do Crime Rates

Personality changes as people age.

WASHINGTON — Do peoples’ personalities change after 30? They can, according to researchers who examined 132,515 adults age 21-60 on the personality traits known as the “Big Five”: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion. These findings are reported in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

From this large sample of volunteers recruited and examined over the Internet, lead researchers Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., and Oliver P. John, Ph.D., working at the University of California at Berkeley, found that certain changes do occur in middle adulthood. Conscientiousness increased throughout the age range studied, with the biggest increases in a person’s 20s; this trait is defined as being organized, planful, and disciplined, and past research has linked it to work performance and work commitments. Agreeableness increased the most during a person’s 30s; this trait is defined as being warm, generous, and helpful, and has been linked to relationships and to prosocial behavior. Neuroticism declined with age for women but did not decline for men; this trait is defined in people who worry and are emotionally unstable. It has been linked to depression and other mental health problems. Openness showed small declines with age for both men and women. Finally, extraversion declined for women but did not show changes in men.

Both neuroticism and extraversion scores were higher for younger women than for younger men. But for both of these traits – and most strikingly for neuroticism – the apparent sex differences diminished with age.

Of the 132,515 participants, 54 percent were female, all lived in the U.S. or Canada, 86% were White and 14% were Asian, Black, Latino or Middle Eastern. A subset of the sample – 42,578 – were asked about their socioeconomic status. Of these participants, 405 (1%) said they were poor, 7,614 (18%) said they were working class, 23,024 (54%) said they were middle class and 10,718 (25%) said they were upper-middle class.

This study contradicts an often cited view that personality traits are genetically programmed to stop changing by early adulthood. There is considerable evidence against it, say the authors. In the study, “average levels of personality traits changed gradually but systematically throughout the lifespan, sometimes even more after age 30 than before. Increasing conscientiousness and agreeableness and decreasing neuroticism in adulthood may indicate increasing maturity – people becoming on the average better adapted as they get older, well into middle age.”

The full paper is available online in PDF format (i.e. you will need Acrobat Reader or an equivalent PDF viewer to read it). Page 7 of the PDF has a nice set of graphs that plot the measured personality characteristics as a function of age.

The really interesting question that this paper does not answer is what causes the personality changes as people age? Does experience with life cause most of the changes? That sounds plausible. But it also seems plausible that physical aging processes cause some parts of the mind to slow down or change in function in ways that change personality.

It is important to discover the causes of personality changes with age because eventually it will become possible to reverse the aging process. Will doing so make people less agreeable? Will it make them more prone to commit violent crimes? Will the reversal of the declining levels of hormones that happens with age make some people more inclined to start fights and do physical damage to others? That sounds only too plausible.

One problem with this study is that it was not longitudinal. The paper provides good arguments for why the researchers believe that there was not sampling bias of types of internet users as a function of age. They probably are reporting a real phenomenon.

What is needed are studies that try to get at the question of how much physical aging processes cause personality changes and which specific physical age-related changes cause which specific changes in personality and behavior.

There are ways this question can be approached. First off, people do not all age at the same rate. Physical measures of aging could be done along with personality measures for people of the same age. Personality changes might be found to happen more rapidly in people whose aging biomarkers are more advanced than those same biomarkers are for others of the same age who have personalities which are more like younger personalities. Blood hormone levels, insulin resistance, different cognitive abilities (since they do not all decline at the same rate), oxidative stress indicators, bone density, and many other biomarkers could be used. But unfortunately such a study would be orders of magnitude more expensive than an internet personality test study.

When it becomes possible to reverse the aging process then people will feel more energetic and will experience higher levels of hormones and more active minds. Their sexual drives will increase and their physical strength will increase. It seems likely that some of these changes will cause an increase in the rate at which people commit crimes. Murder, rape, and other violent crimes will likely rise and it seems likely that even non-violent white collar crime rates will rise as well.

To get a sense of just how much higher crime rates are for youths and early adults see this excerpt from the US FBI 1995 Uniform Crime Report.

Offenses involving only offenders under 18 years of age accounted for 22 percent of the overall Crime Index clearances, 14 percent of the violent crime clearances, and 25 percent of the property crime clearances.

Keep in mind that while that represents a fairly large age bracket the pre-teens are committing very few of those crimes. To get a sense of just how important age is as a factor in violent crime check out this chart of age-specific murder arrest rates. After peaking around the age of 19 murder arrests per 100,000 population drop by more than an order of magnitude by the late 40s and continue to drop by another factor of 3 by the early 60s.

We face a basic question about when it becomes possible to reverse the aging process: how much will the rates of various types of crime rise?

I won't go into it here but the story about crime and age is considerably more complicated for other types of crime. Some criminologists think that criminal personalities just shift their criminal activities toward less physically strenuous activities as they get older. Also, they learn skills that let them carry out other forms of criminal activity.

Still, an aged person made youthful by future biotechnology will have a greater general level of energy, greater strength, greater sexual drive, and stronger desires and appetites. The stronger drives and desires will be more likely to overpower inhibitions. The inability to resist impulses is a quality which many theorists think characterize the criminal mind. Well, a person who experiences an increase in the frequency and size of the impulses and of the ability to act upon them will act on them more often.

By Randall Parker    2003 May 13 09:29 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2003 May 11 Sunday
Leon Kass On Ageless Bodies And Happy Souls

Writing in the brand new and promising magazine The New Atlantis Leon Kass, chairman of George W. Bush's President’s Council on Bioethics, worries about biotech's ability to cause a greater amount of conformity in human societies. (bold emphasis added)

As with cosmetic surgery, Botox, and breast implants, the enhancement technologies of the future will likely be used in slavish adherence to certain socially defined and merely fashionable notions of “excellence” or improvement, very likely shallow, almost certainly conformist.

This special kind of restriction of freedom—let’s call it the problem of conformity or homogenization—is in fact quite serious. We are right to worry that the self-selected non-therapeutic uses of the new powers, especially where they become widespread, will be put in the service of the most common human desires, moving us toward still greater homogenization of human society—perhaps raising the floor but greatly lowering the ceiling of human possibility, and reducing the likelihood of genuine freedom, individuality, and greatness. (This is Tocqueville’s concern about the leveling effects of democracy, now augmented by the technological power to make them ingrained and perhaps irreversible.) Indeed, such homogenization may be the most important society-wide concern, if we consider the aggregated effects of the likely individual choices for biotechnical “self-improvement,” each of which might be defended or at least not objected to on a case-by-case basis.

Note that his fear of conformity is not chiefly of a Brave New World type where everyone is genetically engineered to be the same. He thinks that even in a society with a great deal of personal freedom people will use biotechnology to make themselves more like each other. Imagine every woman getting the same breast job to have identical sized breasts or every person getting a perfect set of teeth that look just like everyone else's perfect set of teeth. Or imagine every guy getting treatments to turn their biceps into exactly the same buff size.

Incompatible Personality Types Are A Greater Threat Than Conformity

The odd thing about Leon Kass's writings on biotechnology and bioethics is that on one hand he has plenty of fears about biotech and yet on the other hand he seems to bring such a classical humanities mindset to his analysis that he does not have a good sense of where the big dangers lie. Conformity as the biggest problem from widespread enhancement of self and offspring? This seems implausible. There will be too many ways to enhance self and offspring, too many differences in tastes, and too much competition to try to make oneself look unique for that to happen. The whole purpose of haute coutere is to allow the cutting edge to look different than the rest of the populace and there is a vigorous competition to stay ahead and to look different. This competition combined with the considerable variation in tastes, values, and interests that exist in human populations could well interact with the capabilities that biotechnology will provide to create a future where the human race will split into different factions and groups that have increasingly less in common.

People will inevitably try to give their children genetic enhancements for specific purposes. Some will attach greater importance to musical ability or language skills or mechanical and mathematical reasoning skills. A competitive person will want to create a child with a very competitive personality. A committed pacifist will want to produce a child who has an aversion to violence and conflict. Sprinter track athletes will, on average, make different choices for their offspring than distance runners. But they both make different choices than tennis players who in turn will make different choices than golfers. One reason has to do with the physical demands of these sports. But they also have very different mental demands. Team sports demand different personality characteristics than solitary sports. Sports that involve facing a competitor in a direct struggle place different demands on a person than sports that require solitary concentration.

Look at professional occupations. Surgeons will make different choices than primary care physicians. For instance, the surgeons may place greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination potential where the primary care physician will see greater value in verbal skills and empathetic personality. A trial attorney will bring different priorities to a judgement about personality characteristics than will an attorney who practices corporate law that requires much time working on documents to create carefully crafted financial contracts. A patent attorney will bring yet another mindset to the same question of what personality characteristics to choose for offspring. A CPA working closely with any of those attorneys will bring yet another set of life experiences, patterns of thinking, and values to the question.

The point here is that people will tend to favor giving their children abilities that match their own strengths, interests, and aspirations. Since different people have different strengths and interests and since there is some trade-off between different kinds of abilities (e.g. clearly the case in muscle fiber types for sprinters and distance runners) the existing differences in occupations and abilities in the human population will tend to cause a divergence in the kinds of genetic endowment choices that people make for their offspring.

Kass has a stronger case for conformity on the question of outward appearances. In terms of appearance parents will tend to opt to choose genetic combinations that produce more pleasing appearances. In some sense that will cause a convergence as fewer children are born with physically less appealing appearances. But even here humans will not converge on a single ideal form. There is no single most preferred ideal appearance. For instance, there is considerable variation in opinions on ideal breast size in women and ideal butt size and shape in both men and women. If women are choosing the genes for their children then different decisions will be made than if men are doing it. If a couple makes the choices thru a process of negotiating a compromise then yet another different average set of choices will be made and the kind of dialog that will happen between a man and a woman to make offspring genetic endowment decision will not simply produce an average outcome that represents combined averages of only men or only women making the decisions. Since all these cases will happen (e.g. men will have a bigger say in Muslim countries while women will have a bigger say in the West) this will be yet another source of variation in the choices that will be made for the genes that future generations of progeny will be given.

Another source of differences in offspring genetic endowment choices will be pop culture fads. Let a woman with a particular appearance be the star of a hit movie or singer of a hit song and then some people will choose to make their offspring patterned after her. This could even go as far as copying her DNA. As I've previously argued, genetic privacy will be impossible to protect. A superstar will be at risk of having a skin or saliva sample stolen from them to be sequenced in cheap compact DNA sequencing machines. But the following year a different fad will take off. Also, the large number of cable and satellite channels and their trends are causing a fracturing of pop culture into more subcultures. Different groups will follow different fads. While one group of women will be trying to have daughters that look like Selena another group will be trying to have daughters that look like Madonna or Pink or Murphy Brown or Jennifer Lopez. Meanwhile the guys will be pushing for Jeri Ryan or Jolene Blalock look-alikes.

A Distinction Between Biotechnology And Medicine?

Kass tries to draw what I see is a false distinction between biotechnology and medicine.

Although this is not the time and place to develop this point further, it is worth noting that attempts to alter our nature through biotechnology are different from both medicine and education or child-rearing. It seems to me that we can more-or-less distinguish the pursuit of bodily and psychic perfection from the regular practice of medicine. To do so, we need to see that it is not true, as some allege, that medicine itself is a form of mastery of nature. When it functions to restore from deviation or deficiency some natural wholeness of the patient, medicine acts as servant and aid to nature’s own powers of self-healing.

What is natural wholeness? Picture a healthy liver. Picture a liver that is diseased. Well, imagine some future drug that binds to every diseased liver cell and causes it to commit cell suicide (apoptosis) so that healthy liver cells can replicate and replace the sick cells. To treat the same disease condition instead imagine a future gene therapy sent in to reprogram the sick liver cells to become healthy again. The same outcome is achieved: all healthy liver cells. Imagine a third case where a new liver is grown and then transplanted into the body to replace the diseased liver. Imagine a fourth case where a hormone is discovered that will encourage adult stem cells in the body to mobilize and move to the liver to replace diseased cells. The "deviation or deficiency" from "some natural wholeness" is restored in all cases. Are any of these approaches not properly called medicine? If so, why?

It is difficult to understand what point Kass is trying to make. Does one step outside of the bounds of nature or of the intended natural order if one manipulates human flesh at too low of a level and with too fine a level of control? Or is the problem that the risk of abuse is too great if our powers to do manipulation become too great?

Choosing The Essential Qualities Of Humanity

Kass is worried that biotechnology will allow the alteration of essential qualities of what it means to be human. We may eventually be able to change ourselves or our offspring to no longer be human.

In short, only if there is a human givenness, or a given humanness, that is also good and worth respecting, either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself, does the “given” serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone. Only if there is something precious in the given—beyond the mere fact of its giftedness—does what is given serve as a source of restraint against efforts that would degrade it.

Before medicine advanced far enough to make abortion a fairly low risk procedure we did not have to worry much about where human life began. Before life support equipment become so sophisticated that it could keep alive brain dead people we similarly did not have to worry much about where human life ended. But advances in technology require that we define human life more carefully. One can react to these advances in a few ways:

  • Outlaw the use of technologies and procedures that can create situations where the humanness of a life form is hard to discern.
  • Take a laissez faire attitude and simply do not worry about it.
  • Try to break down what it means to be a human in far greater detail and justify the value of various qualities of some humans and identify and defend which qualities must be included or excluded in future offspring

People who are properly fearful of the dangers of biotechnology who do not want to face hard questions of what it means to be a human tend to opt for the first choice. Don't want to decide whether the human brain grafted onto a lion's body should be accorded full human rights? Ban it. Don't want to decide whether various genetic enginering modifications of offspring change a human into something else and, importantly, something that threatens humanity then just ban it. But recognize this reaction for what it is: it represents a desire to avoid a reductionist approach to breaking down humanity into its component parts to define it unsentimentally and without religious awe. Basically, the discoveries of biological science and their exploitation by biotechnology (which makes human nature infinitely mutable) force us to give up a certain form of religious belief about human nature as an indivisible whole.

The most radical libertarians tend toward the second view. Individual humans, endowed with basic unalienable rights, will, as free agents, make the best decisions and use biotechnology to engineer better future generations. There is an element of technological utopianism to this view where humans really are perfectible if only the unfettered market is allowed to work with infinite wisdom.

The third view is in some ways harder to hold because it requires one to feel the least amount of sentimentality or religious awe about human nature. It is not inherently optimistic. We are what we are and until we figure out all the myriad consequences of what we are and what biotechnology and other technology will enable us to become we can not predict with any assurance whether we will create a utopia, a dystopia, a splintering of the human race, or extinction of our species. It requires a very reductionist approach to trying to understand human nature as a product of evolution and with considerable variation in personality types and intellectual abilities across the human population as a result of different selective pressures and mutational events in various locales down thru history.

One of the biggest problems with the third view is that biological science is inevitably going to discover a variety of genotypic variations which produce personality and behavior phenotypes which cause varying degrees of problems for the rest of us. Some genotypes will be discovered that dramatically increase the odds that someone will commit violent crimes such as murder and rape and armed robbery. In other cases the genotypes will be discovered to code for more narcissistic and less fair and less considerate personailties.

The Components Of Human Nature Must Be Defined Scientifically

The ability to do personality engineering poses a basic challenge to certain religious views of human nature by making it seem to be less a manifestation of a supernatural spirit or soul. This might explain why a lot of religious conservatives who are opposed to germ line genetic engineering have not been able to articulate a better argument against it. The greatest danger that we face in maintaining human society is that individual people and governments could choose to place genes into offspring that make them incompatible with a free and open society. The possibilities range far beyond the ability to make people happy and resistant to depression and anxiety. It will become possible to genetically engineer extremely dangerous predatory psychopaths, cunningly manipulative narcissists devoid of consciences, or extreme compliant workers of a totalitarian state. Personality genetic engineering could be enormously beneficial and yet at the same time it has the potential to destroy the human race. But to appreciate the full potential of personality genetic engineering we must approach human nature as made up of a number of separately manipulable components.

While the debate about bioethics and biotechnology is far more vigorous on the political Right than on the political Left (leaving aside the European fears about biotech in agriculture - fears which are not based on scientific understandings for the most part) the Right's debate has not been terribly productive so far. The reason for this is simple: to have a productive debate about the effects of biotechnology on human nature and human society requires that we adopt a far more scientific view of human nature. To the extent that participants in the debate on the political Right are unwilling to do that they run the risk of making themselves irrelevant to efforts to address the real problems posed by advances in biotechnology.

By Randall Parker    2003 May 11 05:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2003 May 08 Thursday
Use Of Plastic Surgery Will Become The Norm In Future

The weight of societal norms about the alteration of physical appearance will shift in the direction where most people will have looks which have been medically altered in some way.

"By the year 2020, no one will ask you whether you've had aesthetic surgery, they will ask you why you didn't have aesthetic surgery," predicts Sander Gilman, a University of Chicago professor who has studied the history of plastic surgery.

Today, he says, it's acceptable to live in a world where you can change your looks but choose not to. But in 20 years or so, he says, "in certain societies - Brazil, Argentina, more and more the UK, South Korea, Japan - the [question will be], 'Why didn't you take advantage? Why are you walking around bald?' " he says.

As a precedent the article cites the example of the increasingly widespread use of orthodontics work to improve the appear of teeth.

It seems reasonable to expect advances in biotechnology to lower the cost, pain, and inconvenience associated with plastic surgery and other medical alterations in appearance. To take just one example, currently the only way to replace hair lost by hair pattern baldness with real hair is to have plugs of hair moved to the front surgically. But eventually it seems reasonable to expect gene therapies to be developed which can be injected or delivered via a surface cream or paste.

Also, collagen injections will eventually be replaced by gene therapy injections that instruct cells in an area to make more collagen. A procedure that has to be repeated periodically will be replaced by a procedure that has to be done only once.

The biggest area of cost lowering innovation will be in the development of techniques to use gene therapies to mold a face or other surface feature without performing surgery. Once such therapies become available the pain, risk, time, and cost of appearance modification will all drop so far that appearance modification will become very commonplace.

As for what everyone will look like: the big mystery is whether all people will converge on some universal look. My guess is that there will not be a single ideal appearance but rather several of them since there is some variation in personal ideals for the appearance of others. Think of it as analogous to different tastes in cars, music, and clothes.

By Randall Parker    2003 May 08 10:41 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2003 April 22 Tuesday
White House Pushes For Wider DNA Collection From Criminal Suspects

The Bush Administration is pushing to change federal law to allow permanent retention of DNA samples from those arrested but not necessarily convicted of crimes.

Adding profiles from thousands of adult arrestees and juvenile offenders would greatly expand the DNA system's worth by increasing the number of potential matches, administration officials say. Justice Department officials have discussed potential changes in federal DNA law with key members of Congress and are pushing for legislation this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is objecting to this proposal. The arguments here are interesting because this is not just an issue of being able to match a person's DNA with DNA that is found to be in some way connected with the commission of a crime. Another issue is that eventually many characteristics of a person will be discovered from analysis of a DNA sample. If genetic variations that cause particular personality types are discovered then a person's DNA could be analysed to see if it has genetic variations that are linked to particular personality and behavioral characteristics.

Governments have many conceivable uses of information about genetically determined characteristics. For instance, if there are genetic variations linked to how well someone can perform as a particular type of soldier then the military might want to look at the DNA profiles of all juvenile offenders (whether they were arrested for drunk driving or assault or just running away from home) to identify promising recruits for special forces. Also, if there are genetic variations that are more or less associated with loyalty and betrayal then intelligence agencies might want to look for recruits who are least likely to betray their country.

Some youthful offenders never commit another crime and some future career criminals are first caught committing a crime that is not particularly serious. Yet if there are genetic variations that make a person more prone to commit crime then someone identified from a first arrest (even if the charges are dropped) as having a DNA profile that matches a career criminal could then be pegged for future surveillance. Prosecutors could conceivably even push for long prison terms for first offenders if their DNA profile matches that of repeat offenders.

Widespread collection of DNA samples can potentially speed the rate of advance of understanding of the human genome. If it becomes legal to do so then as the cost of DNA sequencing falls the DNA samples collected from criminal suspects could be compared on a massive scale in order to discover which genetic variations correlate with which types of behavior. This would greatly help in the identification of genetic variations that contribute to intelligence, personality, and other human characteristics. If basic biometric data is collected (height, eye and hair color, weight, and assorted other measurable characteristics) then additional links between genetics and phenotypic characteristics could be discovered more easily.

The battle over DNA sample collection is just the first round. There will be many more rounds of political battle over what analyses should be allowed to be done to DNA samples in government hands. But the biggest question of all will be over what will be the allowable governmental uses for each DNA analysis.

Governments will not be the only users of DNA analysis results. Insurance companies and other businesses of course could find many applications for such data. However, personal uses of DNA analyses promise to be interesting as well and probably unstoppable.

Update: The British government has also just proposed legislation to greatly increase the collection of DNA samples of people not convicted of crimes.

Police will get powers to obtain and retain the fingerprints and DNA profiles of innocent individuals under proposed laws announced yesterday. A privacy expert with law firm Masons says this means that DNA profiles from nearly half the male population will eventually be contained in the police DNA database – and unless a pending House of Lords decision overrules lower courts, this practice will not breach human rights legislation.

The article on the British proposal brings up an interesting issue: criminals could get DNA samples from innocent people and then deposit such samples at the scenes of crime. This will become easier to do with time as equipment for growing human cells in culture becomes more widely available, cheaper, and easier to operate.

By Randall Parker    2003 April 22 11:09 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2003 April 11 Friday
European Parliament Votes Human Stem Cell Research Ban

The British government's explicit legalization of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has led American scientists to move to Britain to do hESC research. However, Britain's membership in the European Union may now cause a cessation of all human embryonic stem cell research in Britain as the EU Parliament has voted tough restrictions on the use of stem cells taken from human embryos including a ban on all cloning for reproductive or therapeutic purposes.

Ignoring pleas from EU scientists who argue that the research may produce cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes, MEPs voted to halt the creation and use of human embryos for stem cell research in all circumstances.

Curiously, in a Europe which is widely portrayed as secular and post-religious the MEPs (Members of European Parliament) from the southern Catholic states voted heavily for a large set of amendments that restrict stem cell research.

I do not profess to fully understand how decision-making power is distributed between the European Commission, European Parliament, and member states. The European Parliament is (at least according to accounts that I've read) only supposed to take up issues which the European Commission has assigned to it (the EU, it must be remembered, is not very democratic by American standards). Therefore, at least in theory, the European Commission could argue that the amendments added to this regulatory bill go beyond the assigned subject of safety and get into ethical issues which the European Parliament is not supposed to address. The European Commission is already hinting that the European Parliament has gone too far.

A spokesperson for the Commission said that while the Commission is not taking a position regarding the Parliament vote, it is clear that the ethical dimension which the MEPs have added is not the original angle of the directive. 'This [directive] has nothing to do with stems cells [...] the whole issue has been hijacked [but] this decision is not final.'

Also, it sounds like the EU requires a complete consensus of the member states in order for this bill to pass into law.

The decision by the European Union's assembly still requires approval from each of the 15 EU member states to become law.

In the short term it seems likely that this bill will be blocked from becoming law by either the Euopean Commission or by a few of the northern European states. Therefore the status quo for stem cell research regulation in the various EU states will continue.

In Germany, for example, the extraction of stem cells from an embryo is illegal, although it is legal to import stem cells from abroad. In Britain, stem cell research is subject to a licensing procedure. But some European countries have no regulations at all, while in others, there is a complete ban.

In the longer term proposals to modify current EU decision-making mechanisms to allow more decisions to be made by majority vote may well lead to the banning of human embryonic stem cell research in the EU. Also, the expansion of the EU eastward will change the balance of belief on ethical issues related to biotechnology. Though it is hard to say how the Eastern European nations will come down on this issue on balance. Plus, there is the possible further expansion to include the very large population of Turkey which again may change the balance of opinion in Europe on bioethics questions.

Regardless of what finally makes it into law as a result of the current deliberations just the threat of such legislation will have a chilling effect on biotech company funding of human embryonic stem cell work in Europe.

"The increasingly skeptical climate is scaring European biotech companies and research centers away," EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin warned last month.

Australian biotech companies working with human embryonic stem cells might end up being the biggest beneficiaries over the uncertainty of the future of human embryonic stem cell work in Europe.

By Randall Parker    2003 April 11 12:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2003 March 12 Wednesday
On Parenthood and Genetic Engineering

Stanley Kurtz reports on a lesbian couple who want to have more than two people declared parents of a child.

A lesbian couple from London, Ontario has asked a Canadian court to simultaneously recognize the two of them (the biological mother and her partner), as well as the biological father, as legal parents of a young boy. Rather than turn to an anonymous sperm donor, the women in question asked a friend to father their child. The father does not live with the couple and child, but is nonetheless treated as a member of the household.

Group Marriage Would Be Problematic

Kurtz sees this development as a threat to the existing institution of marriage and to the two parent family. As he sees it, gay marriage will find its justification in homosexual partners sharing legal parent status of the same child. If more than two adults can be legal parents of a child then that will be used to justify group marriages.

Group marriages would be hopelessly unwieldy. More than two people could disagree with each other. One person could decide to divorce all the other marriage members. Or one person might try to force another person out of the marriage while other members either oppose the move or are ambivalent. Or two groups within the marriage could split off and divorce the members of the other group. There could even be legal fights over who ends up in the two new subgroups with some person unwilling to choose one subgroup or the other.

Is it fair to the public at large to inflict group marriage and all its problems on society? Companies could easily face lawsuits because they do not extend spousal benefits to more than one spouse. The legal costs of divorce court and of police calls for domestic dispute situations would be much higher.

Two Competing Legal Claims On A Children Are Bad Enough

Then there are the children. There are alot of already occurring situations involving biological and non-biological parents. In the case of the lesbian couple and the biological father there are only 2 biological parents involved but three people all willing to share custody. In adoption cases where a couple adopts a child there is no biological parent involved. In cases where one biological parent marries a person unrelated to their child the person who is not related may opt to formally adopt the child so that both marriage partners are legal parents to the child. Though in such a case the other biological parent could assert rights and therefore the adoption by the non-biological partner could be challenged.

Already children shuffle back and forth to live parts of their time with two different parents. It would seem cruel to make a child move around to five or six different residences after the break-up of a group marriage.

What If The Child Doesn't Have Exactly Two Biological Parents?

In all of those cases there are still exactly 2 biological parents. This will not always be the case. Human cloning will some day be perfected. This will allow for there to be just one biological parent. Parenthetically there will be just two grandparents and they will have the same genetic relationship to the clone as they have to their child who is the parent of the clone. This could conceivably lead to legal battles in some cases where the grandparents seek to gain legal recognition of their status as parents.

Cloning throws up a fairly simple case of untraditional genetic parenthood relationships. But that is not the only case that will happen. Advances in biotechnology promise to make the genetic (and hence legal) parenthood issue a much more complicated question. Eventually it will be possible to use chromosomes from more than two people in order to put together the chromosome complement for a new human. Each person has 23 pairs of chromosomes for 46 chromosomes total. It will one day be possible to construct an embryo that contains chromosomes donated by 46 different people. Well, who should be eligible for status as custodial parent in such a case? In this hypothetical case each chromosome donor will be able to claim to have donated approximately 2% of the genetic complement of a child. Since some chromosomes are bigger and some smaller its not even the case that all 46 parents will have made an equal contribution.

Stolen Chromosomes And Offspring

It gets weirder. Some day an embryo may be constructed by secretly taking DNA samples from people without their knowledge. Imagine a groupie of rock stars or movie stars who saves sperm samples from one night stands and by doing so builds up a large collection of chromosomes from which to select to construct an embryo's genetic complement. A child born from such deception would not even be able to find out who any of their biological parents (if chromosome donors can properly be called biological parents) were.

Biological parenthood would become fairly meaningless if a baby was born with chromosomes taken from dozens of people. Even if a single chromosome's sequence could be matched with a particular adult that does not mean that adult was the source of the chromosome. A chromosome with very nearly identical sequence which was functionally equivalent could have come from that person's parents, siblings, or others more distantly related.

Sperm Banks Allow One Biological Parent To Have No Obligations

Keep in mind that its already pretty weird. When sperm bank donor sperm are used essentially the source of the paternal DNA is free of obligation to the resulting offspring. Also, the offspring frequently can't find out who the father was.

There is also de facto parental escape from responsibility for offspring via giving babies up to the state for placement in foster homes with the rest of the populace picking up the expense. There is also widespread abandonment of parental responsibility by fathers as well as situations where the mother can't figure out who the father might have been (e.g. mom never saw the guy after the one night stand and doesn't know where he lives or his last name). There is also adoption where again the biological parents escape responsibility but at least the state doesn't have to pick up the tab.

She Did Gene Therapy So Its Not My Kid

It gets weirder still. Gene therapy on embyros will allow introduction of sequence variations and even genes that do not occur in either of two biological parents. Imagine a situation where a woman and man have a one-night stand, she gets pregnant, doesn't tell him, and she goes off and has genetic engineering done on the embryo. She might conceivably sue the biological father for child support. But he might argue that since she tweaks many genes that she got from him that he should not be forced to have legal obligations toward the kid.

The argument that gene therapy makes a kid not one's own is not unreasonable. The mother might choose to introduce characteristics that make the child's personality and appearance totally unlike the man whose sperm started the pregnancy (I hesitate to call him the biological father). The man may feel that the child is not really his if he can't honestly say that the kid is "a chip off the old block".

Children Shouldn't Be Victimized By Lifestyles Of Crazy Adults

In deciding what is reasonable to allow in marriage the emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of children should weigh most heavily. Too many arguments about alternative forms of marriage are framed in terms of the rights and needs of adults. Well, adults can take care of themselves. Its children who are most vulnerable and it is children who are the biggest justification for society's support for the institution of marriage in the first place. Society's paramount interest in marriage is to see that children are properly cared for. Demands for support of new forms of marriage should be balanced against the interests society has in having workable forms of marriage for seeing to the care of offspring.

By Randall Parker    2003 March 12 06:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2003 March 03 Monday
Virginia Collects DNA Samples From All Felons

Starting on January 1, 2003 Virginia became the first US state to collect DNA samples from all convicted felons.

Beginning Jan. 1, the state expanded its sampling to include anyone arrested for a violent felony. The DNA database, which already contains roughly 200,000 biological profiles, is expected to grow by a third.

Britain already requires DNA samples to be taken of all people who are arrested. Since not all those arrested are convicted that is an even broader approach

Expect to see some countries adopt a policy to taking DNA samples from all babies at birth and from all the adult population. Already many US states require a thumbprint to be taken as part of the drivers license application process. DNA sampling is just another way to uniquely identify a person. So the thumbprint requirement is a precedent for sampling of DNA for the general public.

By Randall Parker    2003 March 03 01:47 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2003 February 05 Wednesday
Girl Shortage Causes Wife Buying In India

The use of amniocentesis and ultrasound to guide sex selective abortions is leading to a shortage of females in India.

The villages are full of frustrated bachelors. In Haryana, a quarter of the female population has simply disappeared.

Many now see buying wives from outside as their only option.

A study of sex ratio trends in India from 1981 to 1991 predicted the sale of women.

The adverse sex ratio has not increase the value of women by decreasing the supply. India’s population sex ratio worsened from 972 females per 1000 males in 1901 to 929 per 1000 in 1991. At the same time, women's status steadily eroded despite gains in some sectors by some groups. A ‘shortage’ of women does not lead to their increased value, but to greater restrictions and control placed over them. In China, practices such as kidnapping and sale of women, organized import of wives from other countries, etc., have been noted as a result of the shortage of women there. The same might be predicted for India.

Still, one reason many families abort the females is to avoid expensive dowries.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of public support in India from pro-sex selective abortion advocates who feel that these tools are helping families to cope with intransigent problems, especially dowry. Health clinics, buoyed by record profits, are aggressively selling their wares. One clever economic pitch blares from tens of thousands of billboards through the country--"Pay five hundred rupees [US$14.00] now rather than five lakhs [Rs500,000 or $14,000] later." Poor families, fearing expensive dowries that can cripple a family, willing undergo the tests.

Shouldn't the female shortage cause an end to the dowry practice or shift it in the opposite direction? Will the market apply corrective forces? Laws against sex selection are not working.

In the midst of such strong public support of these tests, criminalization has not noticeably reduced their use. Even with the passage of the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act of 1988 in Maharastra, and similar acts in Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat, sex determination practices could not be stemmed.

This article makes a claim that is a surprise to me: dowry only dates back to the 19th century.

However, in approximately the 19th century, the loving practice of stri dana was joined by the very much different concept of dowry. Dowry became first an expected, then a demanded, offering given by the bride's family to the groom's family at the time of marriage.

Dowry is far from the only factor leading to sex selection in favor of males. The high rate of sex selection in China demonstrates that sex selection happens in societies which do not have the dowry custom.

"The male sex preference in China is clearly established with 118 or 119 male birth for 100 female births," said Caroline Hoy, a demographer from Dundee University. She said a survey of migrant workers carried out in Beijing in 1994 put the skew higher, at an average 139 male births for 100 female births.

In rural areas of China the status of women is so low that their existence is under-reported. But the ratio of males to females is still very high.

However population statistics show that the sex ratio in China is unique among all the large countries of the world. Artificial sex selection is the cause of this. In recent years, the use of ultrasound equipment, the traditional Chinese method of feeling pulse, folk remedies, and the crippling of girl babies occur frequently in some areas. These practices have aggravated the imbalance in the Chinese sex ratio. In some areas the male : female sex ratio has reached 130:100.

An in-depth study in a small area confirmed the widespread use of prenatal sex selection and abortion.

Chu designed a questionnaire to assess the prevalence of prenatal sex selection and abortion. The survey started in one village and spread to over 100 villages in five townships of the county. In-depth interviews took place in six villages in three townships of the county.

The 820 women surveyed reported 301 induced abortions. Of these, 36 percent (109) were acknowledged to be female sex-selective abortions. The sex ratio of births reported by the women in the survey was much higher than the biological norm of about 105-107 males per 100 females. The sex ratio of children ever born was 125.9 and of living children it was 126.1. "Prenatal sex selection was probably the primary cause, if not the sole cause, for the continuous rise of the sex ratio at birth in the study area in the past decade," Chu maintains.

According to Chu, female infant abandonment or infanticide is extremely rare in the county she studied. "Rural families believe in fate: if they do something horrible, they will be punished by unseen forces. Besides, it is easy to arrange for the adoption of unwanted girls," she says.

Think about the implications of these reports. Tens or hundreds of millions of people are willing to abort fetuses in order to choose a characteristic in their offspring. Is there any doubt that once genetic engineering of embryos becomes possible that it will pass into widespread use?

Francis Fukuyama claims the government of South Korea successfully stopped the practice of sex selection.

Governments can intervene successfully to correct individual choices like these. The severe sex ratio imbalance in Korea that emerged in the early 1990s was noticed, and the government took measures to enforce existing laws against sex selection so that today the ratio is much closer to 50-50. If the government of a young democracy like Korea can do this, I don't see why we can't.

This report from 1999 throws doubt on Fukuyama's claim.

Hunger for girl tots is anomalous on the Asian continent, where abortions of XX-chromosome fetuses are widespread. Significant gender imbalance has resulted in many nations: China has 118 boys per 100 girls under age 5, Korea has 117 to 100, and Taiwan is 110 to 100.

How is sex selection done in South Korea in spite of its illegality? Its pretty simple. For any country that allows abortion if ultrasound is available for legal purposes then there is an easy and unprovable way to do sex selection.

It is a possibility that a particular sex will be preferred and for this reason sex selection could result. An example of this is currently being seen in Korea. Korea currently predicts a 10% increase in the male to female ratio within the next 30 years. Sex selection is not legal in Korea, but doctors give unspoken results through the amount of enthusiasm they show the mothers. If the doctor lacks enthusiasm upon the test results, the mother often calls for an abortion, knowing that the fetus is female (Wolf, 1996).

It is currently legal to use sex selection techniques in the United States though the practice hasn't yet become widespread. The MicroSort technique of pre-fertilization sex selection removes the need for abortion but costs a few thousand dollars and while it pushes the odds heavily toward one sex or the other its success rate is less than perfect.

Here's how Fortune magazine recently summed up at least the potential market for MicroSort alone: "Each year, some 3.9 million babies are born in the U.S. In surveys, a consistent 25 percent to 35 percent of parents and prospective parents say they would use sex selection if it were available. If just two percent of the 25 percent were to use MicroSort, that's 20,000 customers . . . [and] a $200-million-a-year business in the U.S. alone."

Curiously, there have been historical circumstances in which females have had survival advantages.

Eckart Voland of Göttingen University has studied church records of births, deaths and marriages from Ostfriesland, along the northern coastal region of Germany, as these records also show interesting sex differences in survival. The analysis of records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries turned up a couple of hundred cases where one spouse died, leaving a number of living children. In this monogamous, Christian, agricultural society, if a young wife lost her husband she almost invariably became very poor. Any sons that she had were unlikely to compete adequately with boys from richer families, but her daughters, like the daughters of low ranking hinds in Clutton-Brock's studies, always had some chance of marrying up the social ladder. An investment in daughters in this particular social situation had an adaptive biological significance and, as evolutionary biology would predict, the sons of widows were 36 per cent more likely to die in infancy and childhood than the daughters. When men lost their wives, however, their economic status did not change and they often had the opportunity to remarry; the sons of widowers were no more likely to die young than their daughters.

There is one modern society where female children are preferred: Japan.

ISEHARA, Japan - In a surprising repudiation of the traditional Asian values that for centuries have put a premium on producing male heirs, surveys show that up to 75 percent of young Japanese parents now prefer baby girls. Daughters are seen as cuter, easier to handle, more emotionally accessible and, ever more important in this fast-aging society, more likely to look after their elderly parents.

By Randall Parker    2003 February 05 11:31 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2003 January 27 Monday
Bioethics and the Inevitability of Biotechnical Advances

The Winter 2003 issue of The Public Interest has some essays in response to the US President’s Council on Bioethics report entitled Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. The head of the commission, Leon Kass, provides comments along with Diana Schaub, William A. Galston, and J. Bottum. The most interesting essay of the lot is written by Charles Murray and is entitled An opportunity lost.

If in 1939, when we already had the physics for the atom bomb, we didn’t yet have a Hitler, it is quite possible that many physicists would have said, “Take this cup from our lips. We don’t want to spend the next five years building an atom bomb.” Yet biotechnology is different. The scientists in the field do not see themselves as engaged in the work of the devil; they see themselves as bringing incalculable benefits to mankind. They do not see Leon Kass and other members of the President’s Council as people who are trying to hold back and ponder at greater lengths extremely difficult moral questions. They see them as troglodytes.

Furthermore, hundreds of billions of dollars are to be made in biotechnology. If you take a group of scientists who think they are doing the Lord’s work (even if most of them are not religious) and if there are hundreds of billions of dollars to be made, I promise you, it will happen. It may not happen in the United States if we pass certain laws, but it will happen.

In this respect, there are a variety of ways in which the council’s report, much as I admire its tone and spirit, represents a missed opportunity. For once we realize that the development of this technology is inevitable, then our approach becomes quite different from the council’s. Most importantly, we would take steps to make sure that the United States remains the center of this research, that the top scientists in the world are socialized here, and that the best graduate students come here to learn how to do it. At least then the science would develop within an ethos of moral responsibility. Such will not happen if the center of research is in China, or if it is done under cover in Barbados.

I agree with Murray that the biotech advances to perfect human reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning will happen somewhere. These technologies will then become available in many countries regardless of what biotechnologies the United States government decides to prohibit within US borders.

What are needed are more practical arguments about likely effects of the use of various coming biotechnologies. For instance, reproductive cloning that produces many identical copies could make conventional police work much harder to do. Also, cloning that produces many identical copies could result in clones that feel like they share much in common distinct from the larger society. This could have effects similar to what is seen in societies where the widespread practice of cousin marriage creates family bonds that reduce loyalty toward the larger society in ways that make good government impossible to achieve.

Some who are opposed to therapeutic cloning take that position because they view that an embryo as a human life that it is entitled to all the legal protections granted to fully formed human. They haven't yet succeeded in winning that argument on the abortion issue. Now advances in biotechnology have made status of early stage embryos relevant to the development of new therapeutic treatments as well. That debate has such emotive force that its acting rather like a black hole in the realm of bioethical debate. There are a lot of other relevant observations, such as Charles Murray's argument about the inevitability of the biotechnical advances that will make treatments based on therapeutic cloning a reality, that are not getting the hearing they deserve.

Banning all kinds of human cloning will not eliminate the greatest dangers that likely biotechnological advances will pose to humanity. The cloning issue is simply not the most important bioethics issue if we look at it from the standpoint of threat to society and threat to the existence of the human race. We should be more concerned about sexual selection technologies creating imbalances between the sexes (the use of ultrasound for selective abortion is already having dramatic effect in sex ratios in China and India), the use of personality engineering to create everything from psychopaths to obedient drones, and the potential for genetically engineered bioweapons to kill or harm large portions of the human population.

Legal approaches are not even the most productive avenue of pursuit to reduce the incidence of therapeutic cloning. The opponents of therapeutic cloning ought to admit to themselves that it is going to happen no matter what law they manage to get the US Congress to pass. If they care strongly about minimizing the use of therapeutic cloning then the wisest course of action would be to lobby for increased funding to accelerate the development of alternative technological approaches.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 27 03:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2003 January 26 Sunday
Cloning, Biotech, and the Future of the Family

Stanley Kurtz argues reproductive cloning will undermine the two parent family.

Of course, a single women can have a child now, but not without facing some human complications. A woman can go to a sperm bank, but that means discomfort over the father's anonymity. More often, a Murphy Brown will have her child by a man she knows. She will get pregnant by him secretly, or on condition that he will decline to press his rights as a father. But cloning will liberate human vanity to allow at least some among us to produce a child wholly in their own image, and thus free of any legal or emotional complications related to the existence of a second parent.

Some day the technologies involved in doing reproductive cloning will mature to the point where it is no more risky than conventional reproduction in terms of rate of undesireable complications in offspring. At that point health concerns about offspring will not be reason enough to ban reproductive cloning. Kurtz is arguing that many women will opt to clone themselves rather than find someone to marry to have children with. Of course some women today can't even find a suitable mate and so their only choices are reproduction outside marriage or no reproduction at all. Kurtz further argues that since cloning makes it easier to forgo marriage it should be banned as a threat to a vital institution. I think this is an argument that deserves to be taken seriously.

I'd like to place that argument in a larger context of other technologies existing and forthcoming which will affect the attractiveness of marriage and conventional sex as a way to conceive offspring. Biotechnological advances will make it possible to use a large array of different reproductive choices which are not possible today and these technologies will bring with them many advantages for prospective parents. Also, some existing choices will become more desireable when biotech allows one to have greater knowledge of and control of their outcomes.

Certainly there are downsides to using a sperm bank. Kurtz doesn't address those downsides with sufficient detail. Why would a woman prefer (as some are doing today) to, say, pick up a guy in a bar for a one night stand as a way to conceive a child? After all, the father in that case is going to be no more involved in the upbringing of the child than is the case with sperm bank sperm. The most notable advantage of the bar pick-up over the sperm bank donor is that a woman can evaluate the physical appearance, personality, intelligence, and status of the guy in the bar. Women can form an intuitive judgement of men they meet in person. Still, there is a limit to how much one can learn from fast casual social interactions. To have even greater knowledge of potential mates some women think back on all the men they've known in their past and seek out one with desireable qualities for a brief affair for the purpose of getting pregnant. Others who want to conceive a child try to bed a celebrity who has desired qualities. Again, the advantage over a sperm bank is the ability to evaluate the man directly in greater detail.

Some sperm banks provide biographical info about donors including academic achievements, occupation, and other indicators of status, intellect and personality. Plus, they provide general descriptions of physical appearance. Still, there are many qualities of a person that are not captured by the measures that even the most sophisticated sperm banks currently provide.

The big advantage shared in common by the bar pick-ups, brief affairs, celebrity one night stands, and sperm bank sperm is that they all allow a woman to choose a reproductive mate who they wouldn't be able to get into a long-term child-raising commitment. Basically, any one woman's choice of marriage mates is much smaller than her choice of reproductive mates.

Advances in biotechnology will provide more new reproductive options aside from reproductive cloning. Many of those will allow women better choices in terms of DNA quality than they will be able to get thru marriage. If Kurtz wants to extend his argument into an opposition to all biotechnological advances that decrease the attractiveness of reproduction within marriage then he's going to have a long list of biotech advances to fight against. One big advance will be the ability to know in much greater detail what is contained in the DNA of potential mates. Sperm banks will be able to provide detailed lists of genetically determined and influenced qualities in each of their donors. This will make sperm bank donors a more attractive option to many women. The degree of uncertainty about donors will be greatly reduced. In the process some donors will be found to have many qualities that women want.

The attractiveness of men that women can not get married to but with whom they can have brief relationships with will similarly be increased. When the cost of DNA sequencing drops far enough and DNA sequencing technology becomes available to the masses then women will be able to surreptitiously check the DNA sequences of boyfriends and even of one night stands. Imagine a woman having sex with a man in a one night stand. When DNA sequencing devices become cheap enough and fast enough she could leave immediately after sex, get a sperm sample from within herself (after all, this is done in rape cases) and then do a quick test on the genes that the guy has. If she likes what she sees she can let herself get pregnant either immediately or later with some sperm she saved.

Conventional sexual reproduction suffers from one big drawback: one can't control which half of one's genes and which half of one's partner's genes (or one's sperm donor's genes) one will pass along to offspring. With cloning one knows with far greater precision what one is passing along because one is passing along the almost exact replica (not exact because some mutations might have occurred in the cell that is cloned) of one's own genes. Howver, advances in biotech will eventually allow control over which of each pair of chromosomes one uses in making one's progeny. So at some point in the future it will be possible for a woman to choose a sperm donor and then to even choose which chromosome of each pair to use from that sperm donor. This will be further extended to allow chromosomes to be chosen from more than one donor. If one donor meets a woman's ideal for most chromosomes and another donor meets the woman's ideal for the rest of the chromosomes then different subsets will be able to be extracted from two different males to make the ideal donor sperm. This ability to decrease the uncertainty associated with reproduction will make reproduction more attractive to the risk averse. Given a stronger chance of a desireable outcome more will choose to reproduce.

Cloning will also eventually be just a starting point for genetic engineering. Suppose one decides to clone oneself. Well, do you have any biological qualities that you wish were different? For instance, suppose you have allergies or asthma. Wouldn't it be nice to edit your DNA to make your clone not be prone to developing those conditions? If you don't feel a need to have an exact clone (which most people wouldn't since they are already satisfied with donating only half their DNA to their offspring) then all sorts of improvements become possible. Want your offspring to avoid the need for braces that you had to wear for a few years? Edit the part of your genes that controls teeth development. Also, there are people walking around who appear to be immune to cavities and there is probably some discoverable genetic reason for that. So why not introduce genetic variations that increase the resistance to dental caries? Also, how many males will want their offspring to suffer male pattern baldness? There will be an incredibly large number of ways to improve on one's genetic endowment. Many cloners will be tempted by the sort of Cloning Plus option to improve on their own design.

The ability to genetically enhance one's clone will be a greater incentive to choose cloning. For instance, women who have a genetic predisposition to depression or anxiety and who suffer terribly from it might be reluctant to have an exact clone of themselves because they wouldn't want to have offspring who will suffer similarly. However, if offered the ability to create someone almost identical to themselves but who would be free from depression and anxiety some will find that an attractive idea.

So far most of the debate has been about women who decide to have children without a father actively involved in the process of raising the children. This is in part because only women have wombs and in part because women on average like having children more than men do. While its hard to say whether people will eventually genetically engineer their male offspring to have a greater desire for babies it seems more likely that advances in biotech will eventually lead to the creation of artificial wombs. For wealthy men who are so inclined this will eliminate their reliance on women for reproduction.

All of the technological advances discussed here will provide incentives for having children outside the institution of marriage. While some people would choose to have children within marriage even while using these technologies any of the choices that would leave one member of a couple contributing nothing to the genetic endowment of progeny will in most cases cause that person to see little reason to involve themselves in the raising of such a child. Also, some women who can't find a suitable marriage mate who currently are electing not to have offspring at all will find single parenthood much more attractive if they can be guaranteed to have a child that will have all the qualities that they highly desire.

The net effect of all of these reproductive technologies appears to be to increase the incentives for single parenthood. Granted that the social science literature shows single parenthood is correlated with a large array of social pathologies such as higher crimie rate of the children, less educational attainment, etc. (a separate debate is the question of how much of that is the result of single parenthood and how much is caused by the same factor(s) - genetic or environmental - that cause single parenthood?). Will reproductive biotech's encouragement of single motherhood then result in greater social pathology? Not necessarily. The reason for this is that the kinds of children being born will be different on average in intelligence and personality than children being born today. What these offspring will be like will depend largely on the choices that the mothers make. If women choose genetic variations that increase intelligence while also choosing personality characteristics that tend to make one more studious, law-abiding and hard-working then the result may well be a far more civilized society. The actual result depends greatly on which mental characteristics women choose for their offspring.

We should probably be more worried about the results of the use of reproductive technologies in male-dominated societies. In male-dominated societies the choices made for offspring mental characteristics will tend to be quite different than those made in societies that grant women greater power. My guess is that males will favor aggressiveness in offspring more than females will. (though I could be wrong about that) The great unknown in all of this discussion is just what sorts of mental characteristics will people in different societies choose once they have the ability to control offspring mental characteristics. Personality genetic engineering is the area of human genetic engineering that we should be most concerned about.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 26 12:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2003 January 05 Sunday
Cloning a Threat to Criminal Investigations

One argument against cloning is that it makes personal identification much more difficult. Picture a future in which cloning is used by cults who, say, want to enjoy the company of as many copies of the perfect maximal leader as is possible. Suppose someone committed a murder and multiple witnesses saw him do it. Well, suppose the description of the murderer matches that of the dozens of clones of the leader of the local commune of a religious clone cult of Chaelians which is led by living god Chael. How can the particular clone be identified if they all look the same and all deny committing the murder or knowing who did it?

Worse yet, suppose the Chaelian cult has enemies in another cloning cult led by rival human god Shael. Shael (who has been kind enough to incarnate here on Earth so that humanity can be saved by his infinite wisdom), managed to get a bit of tissue from Chael 20 yearrs ago before Shael and Chael split over an argument involving preferential access to love slaves. Well, Shael (being, after all, a million year old soul who takes a long term view of things) could have arranged to clone Chael and to bring up his secret clone Achael to hate his genetic clone father (perhaps a bit of genetic engineering of neural stem cells to tweak Achael's personality helped with the indoctrination into Shaelianism while allowing Achael to show up on normal genetic tests as pure Chaelian). Achael might have been the person who was seen murdering the victim. The murder victim, btw, was the investment advisor that did work for the Chael commune. This muddies the waters quite well. Either the investment advisor was killed by the Chaelians to cover up rumoured large scale tax fraud or he was killed by the Shaelians to discredit the Chaelians and to bring attention to the questionable financial transactions of the perfidious Chaelians.

There is a fairly consistent rate internationally for the birth of monozygotic (ie identical) twins of about 4 monozygotic twins per 1000 births. The use of reproductive biotechnology increases the rate of twin births but not of identical twin births. Also, aging increases only the rate of non-identical twin births. Cloning is the first technology to come down the pike that has prospects of increasing the birth rate of genetically identical humans.

The correct identification of suspected criminals is already highly problematic. DNA testing of suspects and of convicted criminals has set many free in the face of eyewitness accounts that fingered them as the culprits. This and the evidence of cognitive science research demonstrates that human memory is very faulty and highly suggestible. The need to accurately determine identity has been sharpened by the growing problem of identity theft. The need to quickly and accurately identify people has led to proposals to develop biometric identity databases. Biometric databases are variously derided as threats to liberty or hailed as vital tools to protect liberty.

But an official of the American Civil Liberties Union, while declining to comment on any particular biometric system, said "it's a fact of life" that data bases and "privacy-invading technology" inevitably are used for new purposes and inevitably are abused.

Networks that ID individuals by fingerprint, the iris of the eye, facial features, or voice "enable the ethical user to assert his identity in multiple applications and protect privacy at the same time," Oliver Tattan told United Press International in a phone interview from Dublin. "Voice is the least accurate so far," he said. "Iris is quite good, but there aren't as many vendors and not as much experience with it. Finger is the most mature technology. "

Fortunately, some types of biometric data differ between genetically identical twins. For example, fingerprints are different in identical twins and presumably will be in clones as well (though one can imagine some biotech development that could produce identical fingerprints in clones). However, visual identification or tissue samples for DNA will be the only available information in many criminal cases. Therefore, from a law enforcement standpoint cloning is highly problematic.

Twins already pose the same set of problems that clones would pose in terms of risk of misidentification or inability to identify who did something. Clones that are born decades apart will be less of a problem for visual identification given that they will look to be very different physical ages. However, in the case where only DNA evidence is available multiple living clones are going to be a problem just as much as twins are. Though if one clone was really old or young one may be able to rule out a clone based on physical inability to commit a crime.

Single clones of already dead people will not pose an identification problem except in the most extreme and unlikely case where some biometric database doesn't delete or mark an entry for a deceased person and then their clone eventually allows a sample to be taken for a DNA test to, say, gain access to a bank lockbox that contains precious jewels or other valuables. However, if the death of a person could be kept secret a clone could be grown and used without the biometric data for the original being erased. Still, it seems unlikely that such subterfuge could be maintained for a long enough time to make it worthwhile. Plus, cloning is not useful for creating matches for all types of biometric data. A really secure facility is going to use multiple types of biometric data and some of those types will not be the same for clones.

One way to try to reduce the complications introduced by having so many genetically identical people walking around would be to require cloners to use gene therapy to introduce a unique genetic signature into each clone. The genetic signature would serve as something analogous to a serial number so that all clones would be genetically unique. The DNA sequence that would contain the signature could be placed in a part of the geneome that is not used for any purpose. However, that would not solve the visual identification problem that the Chaelian-Shaelian murder scenario illustrates above.

The ability to easily identify each person uniquely in a large number of settings is an essential element in efforts to maintain law and order in any human society. One problem posed by cloning is that it can make that task much harder to perform and to reduce the frequency with which it can be done correctly. This will inevitably provide incentive for abuse by those with nefarious intentions.

For an unserious look at the Raelian cloning controversy see my StoryPundit post on Raelian cloning, the Ferengi, and the purpose of Star Trek.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 05 04:37 PM   Entry Permalink
2003 January 03 Friday
The Coming Demystification Of Embryonic Stem Cells

Another piece of the puzzle of what defines embryonic stem cells falls into place.

Scientists have identified a gene that is required during early mammalian embryogenesis to maintain cellular pluripotency – the ability of an embryonic cell to develop into virtually any cell type of the adult animal. This discovery by Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge and colleagues at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (London, UK) that the Sox2 gene is necessary to sustain the developmental plasticity of embryonic cells sheds new light on the molecular cues that direct early embryogenesis, as well as the genetic requirements for embryonic stem cell maintenance. The report is published in the January 1 issue of Genes & Development.

"Stem cells must have specific genes that give them their characteristic properties. Our work describes one such gene, Sox2, that appears essential for multipotent stem cell types in the early embryo," explains Dr. Lovell-Badge.

Early in mammalian development, a pre-implantation stage embryo called a blastocyst forms. The cells of the blastocyst are at a developmental fork in the road: The cells on the surface of the blastocyst become trophoblast cells, while the cells on the inside of the blastocyst become the inner cell mass (ICM). The ICM is further specified into epiblast and hypoblast cells, which, together with trophoblast cells, give rise to the entire embryo and its associated tissues: epiblast cells differentiate into all the cell types of the embryo, hypoblast cells differentiate into the yolk sac, and trophoblast cells differentiate into the chorion and much of the placenta, including a range of specialized cell types.

Dr. Lovell-Badge and colleagues have identified Sox2 as one of the only two known transcription factors (master gene regulators) to be involved in the specification of these three embryonic cell lineages.

I'm reporting this because it is an example that illustrates the on-going demystification of embryonic stem cells (ESCs hereafter) and cell differentiation (differentiation is the process by which cells change to become cells dedicated to specific end purposes such as organ cells). There are many more pieces of the puzzle yet to come. Most of what makes ESCs have their unique quality of pluripotency (the ability to become any other cell type) is still unknown. These unknowns help fuel the ethics debate about ESC use. The debate over the use of embryonic stem cells is, for the most part, a debate about whether there is something ethically unique about embryonic stem cells.

As science progresses a large number of advances such as the one excerpted above will show at a molecular level what exactly makes embryonic stem cells different from other cell types including other stem cell types. All or almost all of the differences will turn out to be different regulatory states for genes (slightly complicated by the fact that some of the regulatory states will be caused by concentrations of some regulatory molecules floating around). There will be a unique combination (or a unique set of combinations) of genes that must be activated and inactivated to make an embryonic stem cell.

When all those details of genetic regulation of stem cell state get worked out and published in scientific journals the effect this will have on some (though not all) observers will be to rob embryonic stem cells of a spiritual dimension. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) will be defined by a list of genes that are on or off. The genes will have obscure names such as Sox2 and perhaps FoxM1B. It will become possible to send chemicals or perhaps gene therapy plasmids into a differentiated cell and order it to become an ESC. Therefore it will no longer be necessary to use fertilization or cloning to create an ESC. Note that this ability to instruct any cell type to become any other cell type will effectively make other cell types pluripotent (albeit with the requirement of advanced biotech tools to manage the transition into other cell types). At the same time, it will become possible to directly and quickly turn an ESC into any other cell type.

Even as ESCs become demystified the necessity of their use will decline as well. The genetic regulatory state that uniquely defines each and every cell type will become known. With that knowledge and with knowledge about how cells change genetic regulatory states will come knowledge of how to manipulate the regulatory mechanisms of the genome to instruct a cell to change its cell type. Techniques for turning any cell type into any other cell type will become available. Therefore there will be far less need for ESCs as a starting point for the creation of cell therapies and replacement organs.

When it becomes possible to use non-ESC cells to accomplish anything that can be done with ESCs many conservative commentators may breathe a sigh of relief and argue that the medical use of ESC can now be banned without any harm. They will think that there will be no need to challenge conception as the starting point of a rights-possessing legally protected being. However, this sort of view misses the real ethical challenge that biotechnology poses for humanity: a bright line definition of human life as starting at the moment of conception using traditional mating to combine sperm and egg is not a defensible position from which to define a human life. One can't simply ban any technology that makes that bright line inadequate. Such technologies are, by their very possibility, an intellectual challenge to traditional definitions of humanity. But their ethical challenge is not just an abstract one. Technologies will be used even if their use is criminalized (as is demonstrated by the massive illegal industries that run illegal factories for making illicit narcotics).

If some human teenagers step forward 25 years from now out of a secret cult in the Amazon and claim their bodies were grown separately from their head using specially engineered cells that never were embryonic stem cells and which were never even cloned using an egg we are still going to be faced with the question of whether to treat those people as fully human and accorded of all the rights of a human. It is inevitable that when faced with these beings we will resort to asking questions about what they are like as fully developed beings regardless of how they came to be created.

As biotechnology advances many new methods for creating humans will be developed that are different than the ways new humans have been made naturally. Using these technologies it will become possible to create humans who feel and think in ways that are well within the range of how existing humans think now. These technologies will make it possible to create humans that will not be able to be visibly distinguished from humans made from normal sexual reproduction. But it will also become possible to create sentient beings that differ from humans in an assortment of ways with such things as chimeric bodies, enhancements of muscles, coordination, eyesight, and other abilities and even to create disembodied fully sentient minds that live in a vat. Even if the creation of such beings are outlawed by every nation on the planet (which I think unlikely) and even if the people who do such things are caught and punished after they have created such beings we will still have to judge whether the sentient beings that they create have rights as humans.

The practical and ethical challenge that biotechnology poses is the question of what are the attributes of a rights-possessing being. Sexual reproduction between the egg and sperm of two existing humans is an inadequate definition of how a rights-possessing human being comes into existence. So many kinds of sentient beings will be able to be created via other pathways that we will need to come up with workable practical criteria for what sorts of beings will be allowed to live, which of those will be allowed to roam free in our societies, which will be allowed to enter into contracts, and which will be accorded full rights as members of a society. It is quite possible that there will come to be creatures that are sentient yet bioengineered to be such a threat to society that they will be shot on sight. At the same time it may become possible to create sentient beings that, while not dangerous, may be missing some essential quality that make them able to, say, serve on a jury or to fulfill some other obligation of society. Therefore there may be categories of beings whose rights will be restricted in a variety of ways. Even if one holds that such beings are an abomination whose creation should be outlawed we will still need to decide what should be done about them should a group or individual manage to create them.

Pandora's Box is opening. There is no appeal to supernatural authority or to tradition that will let us close it back up again. We can not deal with the ethical challenges that biotechnology poses simply by outlawing any manipulation of cells that challenges long-standing definitions of humanity that are based on how reproduction happens naturally. We have to face the question of what are the essential qualities of a rights possessing being and even whether there are types of beings that possess lesser sets of rights.

By Randall Parker    2003 January 03 12:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2002 December 12 Thursday
The Economist Surveys Biotech in China

China has banned reproductive cloning but allows therapeutic cloning. Fear of European opposition to the purchase of foods made from genetically modified crops has caused the government to slow the introduction of genetically modified crops even as it continues to fund the development of many new genetically modified crops.

Bt cotton is one of four crops—along with late-ripening tomatoes, virus-resistant sweet peppers and colour-altered petunias—to have been approved for commercial cultivation in China. There are various GM animals and another 60 GM plants at various stages of development, including virus-resistant wheat, moth-resistant poplars and high-tech tomatoes producing hepatitis-B vaccine.

While the figure for the next 5 or 6 years (hard to tell if they mean 2000 thru 2005 inclusiveworks out to around $100 per years is not much by US standards keep in mind that the salaries of scientists in China are a small fraction of what they are in the USA. So that money could go much further if its doled out wisely. But that brings up another question: how are research grants awarded in China? The article doesn't say and I haven't seen it discussed anywhere.

So, between 1996 and 2000, the central government invested over 1.5 billion yuan ($180m) in biotechnology, as part of its main programme to kickstart the sector. Between 2000 and 2005, it plans to invest another 5 billion yuan. As a result, reckons the Boston Consulting Group, biotechnology is flowering in 300 publicly funded laboratories and around 50 start-up companies, mainly in and around Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

China's significant and growing efforts in biotech are going to add to the general rate of advance of biotech in the world as a whole.

By Randall Parker    2002 December 12 01:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 December 10 Tuesday
Human-Mouse Hybrid Creation Debated

Human neural stem cells have already been injected into mice.

Working in collaboration with StemCells founders Drs. Fred Gage (The Salk Institute) and Irving Weissman (Stanford Medical Center), the team at StemCells, Inc. led by Dr. Nobuko Uchida, has succeeded for the first time in finding markers for human brain stem cells. Using these markers and state of the art cell sorting, we have been able to purify stem cells away from the other cells in the brain tissue. The purified stem cells have been expanded using proprietary cell culture systems and transplanted back into host mouse brains.

The transplanted stem cells engrafted and differentiated into human neurons and glia that intermingled with host brain counterparts. Remarkably, after seven months, the transplanted human cells survived and migrated to specific functional domains of the host brain, with no sign of tumor formation or adverse effects on the recipients.

The injected human neural stem cells survived and there was no apparent deleterious effect.

In the experiments, started about 1 1/2 years ago by Weissman, Fred Gage of the Salk Institute of La Jolla and colleagues at Palo Alto-based StemCells, neural stem cells from 10-week-old human fetuses survived when injected into a mouse brain. Stem cells are the cells from which all others evolve.

Many of the cells continue to thrive in the brain, 14 months later.

Even more remarkably, the stem cells traveled to various regions of the mouse brain, made themselves at home there and then matured into the type of adult human cell characteristic of that region of the brain. This suggests that they respond to chemical signals in the mouse brain, instructing them how to grow up.

``Every part of the brain was populated with human cells,'' Weissman said.

It is possible to inject stem cells at a much earlier stage of development and that will result in a much wider spread of the stem cells. Recently Dr. Ali H. Brivanlou of Rockefeller University organized a meeting of a small group of American and Canadian biologists co-sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University to debate whether to do an experiment that would create a mouse-human hybrid.

In one test that they discussed, human embryonic stem cells would be injected into an early mouse embryo when it was still a small ball of cells called the blastocyst. Scientists would then see whether the human stem cells showed up in all the mouse's tissues. That ability, known as pluripotentiality, is the hallmark of a true embryonic stem cell.

Injection into another mouse's blastocyst is the standard test for mouse embryonic stem cells. Those cells, like human embryonic stem cells, come from a small pool of all-purpose cells a few days after the fertilized egg has started to divide.

Note that this proposed experiment will elicit greater opposition because it is proposed that embryonic stem cells be used and at that the stem cells be introduced at a much earlier stage where the cells would be able to become a much larger portion of the resulting organism.

The science is advancing to the point that the ethical debates are ceasing to be just theoretical. Researchers want to do experiments that would build their confidence that various cell types derived from embryonic stem cells will be viable as therapeutic agents. Stem cells are so flexible that they can even live in other species. This also increases the chance that organs can be grown in one species using stem cells from another species in order to then be able to do xenotransplantation back to the species from which the stem cells were taken.

Jeremy Rifkin, President of The Foundation on Economic Trends, is hoping to prevent the creation of hybrid animals that contain human cells by getting a patent on the idea.

But the Foundation filed a patent application for a "human-non-human hybrid" in 1997. According to Rifkin, its aim was to draw attention to the negative potential for just such inter-species hybrids inherent in the biotech race to cure human diseases. The patent application was filed jointly with Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, and remains under review at the US Patent Office, Rifkin told The Scientist.

But it sounds like Rifkin originally filed this patent in order to challenge the idea of patenting living materials.

The "Humouse" Human/Animal Chimera Patent challenge was filed with the U.S.Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) on December 18, 1997. The patent application is designed to challenge the current PTO policy of conferring patents on living materials, including genes, cells and tissue. On August 16, 2000, the PTO issued its third response to our application and in a stunning reversal, acknowledged, for the first time, that neither the government nor the courts have addressed the question of whether patents can be extended to human beings. The PTO previously had argued, in its review responses to our application, that both the courts and Congress intended to exclude human beings, including human embryonic cells, from patents.

Rifkin's gambit probably won't do anything to block the creation of human-animal hybrids. Whether it will cause any changes in US PTO policy remains to be seen.

By Randall Parker    2002 December 10 05:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
DNA Is Widely Collected For Felons

There is a proposal in Missouri to extend its DNA sample storage for felons from violent offenders to all offenders. It sounds like the biggest source of reluctance is monetary. Therefore this DNA will be available to test for genes that predispose for criminal behavior.

Like every state in the nation, Missouri currently keeps genetic records for violent offenders.

“Many states are expanding this policy to collect DNA evidence from all convicted felons and I believe it is time for Missouri to take the lead in this and also expand our policy to include all convicted felons,” said District 45 Rep. Cathy Jolly.

First of all, when SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism single DNA letter variations) testing becomes cheap these sample collections will become valued for use in trying to run down the genetic factors that predispose for criminal behavior. Scientists will want access to these stores of DNA samples to look for genetic variations that influence behavior.

Then when more genetic variations which are linked to criminality become identified the US states will have another reason to use these stores of DNA samples: for each convict to get a better idea of just how strong of a tendency there is for further criminal behavior. Expect to see some states move to analyse the genes of felons in order to use the results in parole hearings and even in sentencing hearings.

By Randall Parker    2002 December 10 03:55 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 December 09 Monday
Johns Hopkins Genetics Public Policy Survey Released

Johns Hopkins has released a survey on public attitudes toward cloning, genetic engineering of offspring, and other uses of biotechnology related to reproduction.

Washington, DC, December 9, 2002 -- Americans are both hopeful and fearful about the rapidly advancing power of scientists to manipulate human reproduction, according to a new survey released today by the Genetics and Public Policy Center, a Johns Hopkins effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The survey explored the knowledge and attitudes of 1,211 respondents about reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and genetic modification and preferences about government regulation. "These technologies give us the power to manipulate the most personal and profound of human activities --beginning a new human life," said Kathy Hudson, director of the Center.

Highlights of the survey:

  • Most Americans oppose (76 percent) scientists working on ways to clone humans. Of those who support human cloning research, men outnumber women by more than two to one (26 percent; 11 percent).
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents believe a human has already been cloned, with young men most likely to believe it (31 percent).
  • The public draws clear distinctions between health and non-health related applications of these technologies. Two thirds of respondents approve of using reproductive genetic testing to help parents have a baby free of a serious genetic disease. An even larger number, over 70 percent, disapprove of trying to use these technologies to identify or select traits such as strength or intelligence.
  • Overall, men were twice as likely as women to be highly supportive of reproductive genetic technologies (25 percent; 12 percent).
  • Most respondents think the government should regulate the quality and safety of reproductive genetic technologies and limit human reproductive cloning. Notably, the majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents support government regulation of these technologies.
  • Fifty-four percent think about these technologies primarily in terms of health and safety while 33 percent view them in religious or moral terms. Of the variables explored in the survey, this viewpoint is most strongly correlated with approval or disapproval of reproductive genetic technologies. Those who view these technologies in terms of religion and morality are more likely to disapprove of reproductive genetic technologies
  • The biggest fears are that using these technologies is too much like "playing God," (34 percent) or that they can be easily used for the wrong purposes (35 percent). The greatest benefits are being able "to wipe out certain genetic diseases forever" (41 percent) and improving parent's chances their baby will be healthy (27 percent).
  • The public's knowledge about these technologies is not keeping pace with the steep growth in genetic science. Only 18 percent of respondents were able to correctly answer 6 or more of the 8 knowledge questions.

Most people answering this survey disapproved of the use of genetic techniques to select for higher IQ in offspring. But it seems unlikely that once it becomes possible to influence progeny IQ that the level of resistance will remain as high. A lot of technologies are easy to oppose when their use is still hypothetical. But imagine what happens once selection of offspring traits becomes possible. When a pair of prospective parents can be handed a report of their DNA sequences that shows them all the possible combinations of their DNA can create a viable child and when the IQ and personality types of each possible combination can be spelled out in advance there is going to be a strong desire on the part of many people in that position to choose the combinations that will result in offspring characteristics that they feel are most appealing.

Note that it will be possible to boost offspring intelligence without introducing genetic combinations that neither parent possesses. Each person has two copies of every chromosome. In many cases one chromosome will have better genetic variations for intelligence than the other chromosome. By controlling which of each pair of chromosomes one passes along to one's offspring many (probably most) people will be able to have smarter children. A step beyond that will be the ability to take a genetic variant from one of a pair of chromosomes and put it on the other member of the pair. Again, this still restricts the choices to those genetic variations that each person has but it allows the creation of combinations of genetic characteristics in offspring that would be unlikely to happen in practice. Essentially, genetic technology will allow people to load the dice and produce offspring that have the best combinations of characteristics of their parents but the parents will be much more satisfied with the results.

I believe that the ability to produce better outcomes using just the DNA sequences of a couple will go a long way toward reducing popular opposition to genetic engineering of offspring. The other factor that will reduce public opposition will be the identification of large numbers of harmful mutations. Given the option of not passing along harmful mutations most will opt to edit out those mutations from the DNA that they pass alog to their children. This ability to make smaller steps to control offspring genetic endowment will seem less unnatural to most people and the benefits will seem great enough to overcome their fears. Therefore in spite of these latest results I still expect offspring genetic engineering to become commonplace once it becomes possible.

By Randall Parker    2002 December 09 02:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2002 December 06 Friday
Embryonic Stem Cell Legislation In Australia, US States

The passage by the Australian Senate makes the final approval of a law defining Australian law regarding embryonic stem cell research (ESC) a certainty. The Australian House Of Representatives has to agree to the minor changes that the Senate made to the version of the bill that the Australian House already passed (and by a very wide 3-to-1 margin). While the Australian law is not as lax as that in the UK the researchers and investors in Australian will be able to work on embryonic stem cells with far less legal doubt and uncertainty than equivalent researchers face in the US.

After months of delay and often bitter public debate, Australia's Senate yesterday (December 5) passed legislation regulating embryonic stem (ES) cell research 45 votes to 26, along with a separate bill to ban human cloning. The legislation allows scientists to work with existing ES cell lines and to create new lines from surplus in vitro fertilization embryos created before April 5, 2002. It also signals an end to a patchwork of state and territory rules.

The bill must yet gain final sign-off from the House of Representatives on 13 amendments passed by the Senate. Prime Minister John Howard said he expected them to pass when the bill returns to the house next week.

The amendments include more parliamentary scrutiny of research licences and a review of whether a national stemcell bank is required to keep stemcell lines in public hands.

In the US there is enough doubt about the continued legality of even privately funded embryonic stem cell research that it discourages private investment in ESC work.

A debate over the issue went nowhere in the U.S. Senate earlier this year. President George W. Bush and some members of Congress want to ban the research, while others, including some anti-abortion conservatives such as Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, would like to see it continue while banning the use of the technique to create a cloned human baby.

"It's been tied inappropriately to abortion politics, and as long as it remains tied to that issue, the hopes are dismal," Haseltine said.

Current U.S. policy strictly limits the amount of publicly funded research that can be done on embryonic stem cells. Private companies can do as they please but legislation being pushed by Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback and others would put an end to that, too.

In the US much of the legal action has shifted to the state level. While many states have been enacting laws that make cloning and ESC work illegal there is now a contra-trend in other states to explicitly allow ESC work.

Following California's lead, lawmakers in at least three other states will take up proposals next year to encourage research on stem cells taken from human embryos. The measures also would permit scientists to use cloning to produce human embryos for stem cell experiments.

More on the move of the fight to the state level.

Similar motives prompted California lawmakers to pass a measure this year supporting embryonic stem cell research, and Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill in September. The Biotechnology Industry Association, a trade group, sent the California law to its affiliates in 35 states and suggested they try to pass similar measures.

Stem cell researcher Dr. Evan Snyder has left Harvard for the Burnham Institute in La Jolla and one of the reasons he cited for the move is the California state law that supports ESC research.

California Gov. Gray Davis, meanwhile, signed a new law Sept. 22 that affirms the state's support of embryonic stem-cell research. That is another reason Snyder was encouraged to move to San Diego.

"I think the new law may go a long way toward making California a place that almost becomes a magnet for stem-cell biologists," he said.

Larry Goldstein, a professor of pharmacology at the University of California San Diego Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine who lobbied for the state law, said the welcoming political climate could also bring research funding.

"If you're trying to attract private investment, it's more likely to come to a state where (stem-cell research) is legal than in a state where there's uncertainty," Goldstein said.

Christopher Reeve has been lobbying the New Jersey state legislature to pass a bill that authorizes embyronic stem cell research. The bill has made it out of a Senate committee and will now be considered by the full New Jersey Senate.

Although the bill does not provide for government funding, Reeve said it does give key assurances to pharmaceutical companies that might foot the bill.

"Pharmaceutical companies are not interested in going out on a limb with research money if they are afraid the work will be banned," Reeve said.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved the bill Monday. It now heads to the full Senate.

A bill has been introduced into the Massachusetts legislature to explicitly legalize ESC research in Massachusetts.

If enacted, the bill would explicitly authorize the controversial research and allow the donation of embryos from fertility treatments for stem cell research.

The bill would also set up a government-administered fund to support stem cell research, to be headed by the state commissioner of public health.

If Congress moves to outlaw ESC work and cloning work then the battleground could move to the courts as it becomes a constitutional question of whether the federal law can trump state laws. It would be interesting to know what legal bloggers such as Eugene Volokh and Glenn Reynolds think would happen in the courts. Even if the states eventually won that battle while the battle was going on US industry would shy away from investing in ESC research. Though adult stem cell research would still proceed and ESC research in other species will also still get done.

By Randall Parker    2002 December 06 02:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2002 November 18 Monday
US Scientists Moving To UK To Do Stem Cell Research

After 30 years working as a researcher at UC San Francisco, American born Roger Pedersen moved to the UK to do embryonic stem cell research:

So Pedersen called his British colleague back, said yes to the job offer, and took 30 years of knowledge and a still-burning desire to heal across the Atlantic Ocean. He assumed a powerful perch in the Renaissance-towered University of Cambridge's surgery department, from which he now guides an all-out national push, tinged with Union Jack patriotism, to bring stem cell medicine to England first.

This demonstrates why therapies using embryonic stem cells will be developed regardless of what any particular national government decides. A huge unexpected change in attitudes in Britain wouldn't affect the ultimate outcome. If the Brits weren't working solve the problems of turning embryonic stem cells into useful therapies then the Chinese or Japanese would anyway.

By Randall Parker    2002 November 18 06:56 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2002 November 12 Tuesday
Genetic Testing Changing South India Mating Practices

Consanguineous mating is even more widely practiced in Arab countries. Genetic testing will change the mating practices in many socities.

"In south India many people marry their relatives," Dr Sridevi Hegde said, clinical geneticist at Bangalore's Manipal Hospital.

"It is the elders who decide and mostly women get married to their uncles.

"When this happens, most of them are at risk of bearing an abnormal child," Dr Sridevi said.

"I see an increasing trend in the number of people approaching us to check their family tree and find faulty genes."

Two years ago about 100 couples used to walk into the two genetic departments of hospitals based in Bangalore.

Now the figure is about 1,500 every year.

As the genetic tests become cheaper and more detailed expect to see millions of people per year testing themselves and seeking counseling for mate choice.

By Randall Parker    2002 November 12 10:28 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2002 October 29 Tuesday
US Department of Genetic Identification

Annalee Newitz attended a guest lecture that Craig Venter presented to an biology class at Woods Hole's Marine Biological Laboratory. She managed to get in some questions to Venter about his new venture to do DNA sequencing for anyone with enough money to pay for it. His answers raise some troubling issues.

"What if you sequence my genome and find out that I have some genes with interesting and unique properties?" I asked. "Who will own that data?" Looking at the floor with a half-smile, Venter evasively replied, "Well, you'd get a copy of the data." Did he mean I'd be licensing the data from him, the way I license Windows XP? I asked for clarification. Finally, after much hedging, Venter explained that the genomic data he gathered would be in a public database but that "probably it will belong to the nonprofit organization." So I'd be paying him to sequence my genome, but I wouldn't own the data.

At the end of his lecture Venter unveiled one of the real goals of his new work. We stared at a PowerPoint slide that displayed the image of a card that looked a lot like a driver's license. Only it was issued by the "US Department of Genetic Identification," an imaginary government agency that Venter predicted would exist in the future. This agency would use the biotech Venter's lab is developing to sequence your genome on the cheap and associate its unique code with an ID card the moment you were born. In the future, not only Venter but also the government will have a chance to own your genomic data. As an aside, Venter noted that policy makers ought to create genetic antidiscrimination laws to go along with genetic identity tracking.

Once there are multiple companies offering DNA sequencing services it seems inevitable that some will offer the option of their destroying their copy of your DNA sequence once they have finished sequencing it. In the long run personal DNA sequencing machines will provide a way to avoid allowing a company to know your DNA sequence in the first place. But at the same time those future portable cheap DNA sequencing machines will open up the possibility of someone grabbing some dandruff flakes or saliva drippings from another person and then sequencing that other person's DNA.

Then there is this possibility of governments wanting to take a DNA "fingerprint" of all people. It seems inevitable that some governments will implement such a scheme as described above. Is this a bad thing? Most identity faking is done for malicious and criminal reasons after all. Will the result be a more or less free society?

By Randall Parker    2002 October 29 11:54 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 October 12 Saturday
More on Regime Stability, IQ, Personality

Razib at Gene Expression has responded to me here about my post on whether progeny genetic engineering for intelligence and personality will happen more rapidly in the US or China.

I'd like to clarify a few points. First of all, I do not see cloning as an essential technology for IQ enhancement and certainly not for personality change. Granted, one could take someone who has a very high IQ and a preferred personality type and clone that person and make many people with similar IQ and personality. The big advantage of cloning is that one doesn't have to identify the particular genetic variations that contribute to making a particular IQ level or personality type. Just find someone with the desired characteristics and clone him (or her).

However, there are many disadvantages to cloning (leaving aside the fact that we do not yet know how to do human cloning). The first is that identical clones are no improvement over whoever it is that is being cloned. Granted, one can choose people to clone who have highly desired qualities (looks, athletic skills, intelligence, personality, disease resistance, etc) and therefore those clones can have more of those desired qualities than the population at large. Still, each of us are all walking around with many harmful mutations and there is no single ideal person to clone. Another really big disadvantage with cloning is that whether in China, America, or elsewhere, the vast majority of parents really do want to have kids that have mostly the parents' DNA. If you can tell people that they can have kids that are built mostly from their own DNA but with, say, some DNA changes for health reasons and also their choice of changes for brain characteristics then that will have a lot more appeal than offering them cell to implant in the woman's uterus that has the qualities of some person that is not closely related to them. Children still need to be raised and it is unlikely that the Chinese government will start running large scale cloned baby group homes to raise cloned babies. It seems more reasonable to expect that even 20 or 30 years from now the vast bulk of children will be born to the women who will then proceed to raise them and that the bulk of those children will have more genetically in common with their mothers than with the population at large. Therefore, it seems to me that the way forward will be by tinkering with parental DNA to make small numbers of changes that the parents decide they definitely want their children to have.

Now we come to the question of non-democratic regime stability in a genetically engineered future. For the purpose of argument let us accept the Lynn & Vanhanen figures for average IQ per nation. I'm no expert in psychometrics to even be able to judge the quality of the data upon which their estimates are based. But for the moment assume the figures are fairly accurate. Well, is the average IQ difference between China and America large enough to really make a difference in regime control? I think a 7 or 9 point IQ difference is not as big as what will happen the future if one country rapidly embraces genetic engineering for IQ enhancement while another country lags in adopting it. Suppose genetic engineering becomes widespread and China's average IQ goes up by 30 points. It's not like the IQ scale is linear in its effects. Higher IQ causes qualitative differences in how people think. People with higher intelligence can think with concepts that are quite beyond the reach of lesser minds.

But genetic engineering of the mind will not be done only for intelligence. It will be done for personality too. It seems very likely that there are personality types that are harder or easier to rule by a repressive regime. There may also be intelligence characteristics (e.g. inquisitiveness) that make one have a greater independence of mind, a lesser willingness to accept orders, a greater desire to feel unconstrained, and a lesser desire to bow to peer pressure. The really huge wildcard for the future is that we do not know what personality characteristics people will choose once they can choose personality characteristics. As I've stated previously, the biggest danger from human genetic engineered may come from the ability to do personality type selection.

Personality engineering is the really a triple edged sword here. It will become possible to genetically engineer truly psychopathic personalities that will feel no loyalty to either free societies or to autocratic regimes. It will also be possible to genetically engineer personalities that are very obedient and easy to rule undemocratically. Imagine incredibly altruistic and, at the same time, easily intimidated personality types. But it will also become possible to genetically engineer very independent personalities that have strong consciences that are constructed to make them easily trainable to be strongly resistant to tyranny and supportive of freedom for all.

By Randall Parker    2002 October 12 11:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
Will The Chinese Genetically Enhance More Quickly?

Razib from Gene Expression has brought up a topic that I've occasionally wondered about: whether the Chinese will advance more rapidly thru genetic engineering due having less philosophical or ethical opposition to the idea:

My opinion is that because the Han people tend not to be encumbered by the same ethical limitations due to individual rights they will make great advances in human genetic engineering. I even think they'll tailor soldiers-and create something of an army of clones [1].

Ethical considerations aside, there are reason to expect progeny genetic engineering will be widely used in the USA before the same happens in China. We have to consider the economic environment, the regulatory environment, and the motives and knowledge of the prospective parents.

The first economic consideration is the higher living standards in America. Initial technologies for genetically enhancing progeny will be very expensive. There are more people in the US who will be able to afford them than in China. Also, since there is a lot more money available for research and for venture capital start-ups in America most of the work currently being done to develop faster, cheaper DNA sequencing machines, gene therapy, and other relevant technologies is happening in the USA. So the first businesses that start up to offer progeny genetic engineering services will probably be started in the USA. Of course higher US regulatory barriers could easily cancel out that advantage.

At first glance the regulatory advantage appears to be in China's court. The Chinese government probably will not stand in the way of initial attempts to provide genetic enhancements to create higher IQ children. But there is one reason why this may not turn out to be the case: High IQ people are harder to politically control. Also, if Chinese parents decide they want to have children with more aggressive personalities the mainland Chinese regime may see these personality types as an additional threat to autocratic regime stability. By contrast, higher IQs and more assertive personalities pose less of a threat to the US political system (anyone want to speculate about what the US political system would be like with higher IQ and more assertive people?). So will the Chinese leaders choose regime stability over competitive edge? It is possible.

Then we come to the prospective parents. Currently the US has an advantage in the amount of knowledge available to its citizens. That advantage is shrinking as more mainland Chinese gain access to the internet. If only a quarter of Chinese parents get access to the same amount of knowledge as Americans have access to then they will have roughly the same total number of people who can make informed choices. The other issue here is incentives facing the parents. Will American or Chinese parents feel more incentive to have brighter kids? On one hand the ethical issues (of a neo-Luddite sort that I think ridiculous - but they exist in the minds of many) will weigh more heavily in the minds of American parents. At the same time, the practice of competing with others is more deeply rooted in American culture. SUV driving Yuppies will be faced with the prospect that their kids won't be able to get into the same quality colleges as they attended because the Joneses and Smiths down the road are genetically engineering their kids (via trips to other countries with more lax regulatory regimes). At that point the attitudes of the Suburban moms toward genetically engineering their own kids may shift in favor of being able to use this new kind of advantage because this advantage will be seen as having far greater value than foreign language immersion with the au pairs, Suzuki piano lessons, or getting the kids into the top local expensive private schools (which will be raising their standards anyhow when brighter genetically engineered kids start applying.

The competitive forces in the US favor the choice to genetically engineer at the personal level. Once the competitive urges of suburbanites come to the fore it will take only one overwhelming Congressional vote to dissolve the regulatory obstacles. You can bet that the US national security establishment will line up with the ambitious suburbanites to support greater freedom of progeny genetic engineering. Then the American per capita GDP advantage will do the rest.

Okay Razib, what do you think of this argument?

By Randall Parker    2002 October 12 03:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2002 October 07 Monday
Genetic testing leads to insurance denial

This is on the cusp of becoming a very big political issue:

Early this year, a healthy 28-year-old Livonia, Mich., mother became what is believed to be one of the first people in the country to be denied life insurance because of her genes. An underwriter refused to issue her a policy in part because she has a gene indicating a good chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer. The woman fears further discrimination and does not want her name in the newspaper.

By Randall Parker    2002 October 07 10:10 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 October 02 Wednesday
Nuffield: Use Genetic Info In Criminal Sentencing

There is another big issue that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics tackles in their latest report: The use of genetic information about convicted offenders in court sentencing decisions. Here from the PDF report summary is the relevant excerpt:

We conclude that, with regard to the sentencing of convicted offenders, the criminal law should be receptive to whatever valid psychiatric and behavioural evidence is available. The taking into account of genetic factors would depend on the degree to which such evidence is convincing and relevant. Credible evidence of influence and a robust test for the genetic factor in question would be essential: the weight to be accorded to such information would be determined by the judge (paragraph 14.32). Currently, environmental, social and psychiatric assessments may be taken into account by judges in determining appropriate sentences. These must also be supported by valid, accurate and reliable evidence. It would be unwise to assume that genetics will not be able to assist in determining degrees of blame, even if the ‘all-or-nothing’ question of responsibility is not affected by genetic factors themselves. Such a role would not compromise basic assumptions as to responsibility.

Exchanges between genetics and the criminal law are at present not very productive given the uncertain nature of the evidence. This is likely to change. We recommend that the criminal justice system should be open to new insights from disciplines that it has not necessarily considered in the past. The regular exchange of ideas in this area between researchers in behavioural genetics, criminologists and lawyers could be an effective means of ensuring that legal concepts of responsibility are assessed against current evidence from the behavioural and medical sciences (paragraph 14.33).

I find their position on this issue surprising in light of their opposition to the use of genetic technology to boost the IQ of offspring. Some day the genetic factors that play a role in mental development will be understood. On one hand they argue that we aren't supposed to try to make any changes in our offspring. On the other hand we are supposed to treat criminals differently depending on which genes they have. I find this inconsistent.

Lets consider some reasons for and against the use of genetic information in criminal sentencing. First of all, genetic factors will be useful in predicting the odds of recidivism. Will a given convict violate the law again? It may never be possible to predict with absolute accuracy for every single convict whether the convict will continue with criminal behavior. But decisions are made all the time based on probabilities and most people find this to be a reasonable thing to do. Judges routinely give longer sentences to criminals who are expected to pose greater threats in the future. It has long been standard to use knowledge of motives and circumstances to try to guess who has committed an act they are unlikely to repeat (eg the murder of a lover found unexpectedly with a spouse or the accidental killing of someone in a fight where the other fighter falls into an object that kills them) and who has committed an act that demonstrates a tendency toward a repeated pattern of behavior (eg a mugger who kills in order to make it easier to get stolen goods or in order to prevent his victims from reporting him). Genetic information will just increase the accuracy of the probabilities used. But there are arguments that can be made for and against the use of this information and those arguments include:

  • Science can better predict who will be a recidivist. Longer jail terms for those with criminal genetic tendenices and shorter sentences for those without such tendencies may lower the crime rate without increasing the total prison population.
  • Sentencing someone to longer sentences have genetic tendencies toward violence means effectively condemning someone for crimes they haven't even committed yet.
  • If someone knows they don't have genetic variations that mark them as crime-prone then they may use this knowledge in their calculations of whether to commit a crime. They may be more likely to commit a crime because they know that if caught and convicted they will face a lighter sentence. Of course, this population group is more easily deterred in the first place. So the danger here might not be that great.
  • The more decisions are made based on guesses about recidivism the less the decisions will be based on punishment. The public at large believes criminals should be punished. If some people are let off lightly because they don't have criminal tendencies in their genes the public may see this as unfair.
By Randall Parker    2002 October 02 02:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 October 01 Tuesday
UK Group Opposes Selecting For High IQ Genes

A British think tank has come out in opposition to selection higher IQ children:

The selection of babies with genes linked to high IQ should be banned, along with the abortion of embryos predicted to have below average intelligence, according to a report published today.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent think tank, makes the call in its study, Genetics and human behaviour. This weighs up ethical, legal and social issues raised by the search for genes that influence intelligence, violence, personality traits and sexual orientation.

Note that this group is not arguing against abortion in general. They are also not arguing against artificial insemination. They are arguing against using techniques to select for mental characteristics that are genetically determined when this is done to boost abilities.

The behavioural genetics part of the Nuffield Bioethics website is here

Here is the report Summary And Recommendations as a 115.4 Kb PDF.

Here is the Full Report as a 2.5 MB PDF.

These people do raise some valid concerns. For instance, I fully share this concern from page 9 of the summary:

Medicalisation is an issue that affects many areas of life, not just behavioural genetics. In the case of behavioural traits, since research into genetic influences is at an early stage, it is not possible to say whether medicalisation will be likely, or whether it will have, on balance, positive or negative implications. However, examples of the deleterious effects of medicalisation in other areas suggest the need for awareness of potential problems. We conclude that research in behavioural genetics has the potential to contribute to the existing phenomenon of medicalisation. Deleterious effects that should be borne in mind include shifting the boundary between normal variation and disorder further away from the extremes of variation; reducing social tolerance of previously ‘normal’ behavioural traits; and the routine selection of genetic or medical interventions without adequate consideration being given to environmental interventions and other options (paragraph 13.23).

Medicalisation has led to Ritalin Nation - at least here in America. I suspect too many people are being treated as suffering from mental conditions.

However, the idea that we should not change genes that are within the "normal" range of variations is highly problematic. What if it turns out that a large fraction of the population carries genetic variations that predispose them to depression? Do we tell them, sorry, you have to pass these genes along to your children? Just what counts as a therapy versus an enhancement is in the eyes of the beholder to a very large extent. This is especially the case with behaviour and personality characteristics. Here is a relevant excerpt from summary pages 10-11:

The way to distinguish between those interventions which count as ‘therapies’ and those which count as ‘enhancements’ is by reference to the condition that is to be altered: therapies aim to treat, cure or prevent diseases and to alleviate pathological conditions which place someone outside the normal range, whereas enhancements aim to improve already healthy systems and to advance capacities which already fall within the normal range. This distinction is often used to justify a distinction between interventions which merit public support and those which do not. The suggestion is that there is a duty to ensure that our fellow citizens receive therapies, but no duty to ensure that they receive enhancements. The distinction between therapy and enhancement is not straightforward and requires qualification, but the principle which associates it with that between public and private provision is a useful starting-point in this area.

The term "behavioural" misses the extent to which mental life is to a large extent internal. Yes, mental life does affect behaviour. But there are lots of people living lives of inner torment while putting on a different face with those they come into contact.

On page 11 of the summary one begins to see what values are driving their position on this issue:

It is difficult to adjudicate in the abstract between these egalitarian and libertarian positions. It is only once some effective intervention is under consideration that the costs and benefits of full public availability versus limited private availability for a privileged few can be assessed seriously. We believe that equality of opportunity is a fundamental social value which is especially damaged where a society is divided into groups that are likely to perpetuate inequalities across generations. We recommend, therefore, that any genetic interventions to enhance traits in the normal range should be evaluated with this consideration in mind (paragraph 13.48).

What do they mean by equality of opportunity in this context? When they talk about inequalities across generations it is clear they are referring to equality of outcomes. Their position appears to be a back door acknowledgment that people differ in innate abilities and that those differences lead to differences in outcomes. I think they are really arguing that people should not be allowed to make their children more intellectually able than other children because to do so would allow those smarter children to be more successful. The absolute level of success will be greater for these genetically selected children (which seems good to me) but that means greater success relative to others (which is bad in the eyes of socialists everywhere). So equality of opportunity is really a polite way of saying equality of ability for the purpose of equality of outcomes.

But if they really advocate equality of opportunity and are concerned that genetic selection for higher intelligence will give some people greater ability to achieve more favorable outcomes for themselves they ought to stop and notice that this is already the case. Suppose prospective parents can test several fertilized embryos and choose the one that will result in higher intelligence for their kid where otherwise the odds would be quite high that they'd have a below average kid. In that case aren't the parents choosing to produce a child whose earnings and achievement potential will not be so far below the best and the brightest?

The curious thing about this is that if the less bright people choose to use biotech to boost the intelligence of their children then they reduce the economic inequality of the next generation. But if more bright parents do the same then they will increase the economic inequality in the next generation.

If the writers of this report want a narrower range of economic outcomes in future generations then they really could advocate the use of genetic engineering techniques to do this. Simply require all parents to have children of equal intelligence. No, I am not advocating that. But it would certainly result in greater equality of opportunity and outcomes.

What we see here in this report is the working out from a fundamentally Leftist position on ethics and economics an assertion about what should or should not be allowed to be done with genetic engineering. However, they try very hard to cloak this position inside of the rhetoric of unconditional agape love (pages 14 to 15 in the summary):

At present, parents accept their children as they find them in an attitude of ‘natural humility’ to the unchosen results of procreation. This attitude is an important feature of parental love, the love that parents owe to their children as individuals in their own right; for this is a love that does not have to be earned and is not dependent on a child having characteristics that the parents hoped for. Parental love which includes this element of natural humility is, therefore, incompatible with the will to control. It is not compatible with attempts to interfere in the life of a child except where the interference is in the child’s own interest. Equally, it is not compatible with the practice of prenatal selection which seeks to identify, as a basis for choice, genetic predispositions for enhanced abilities or special character traits. For this is an attempt to determine the kind of child one will have – which is precisely not the unconditional, loving acceptance of whatever child one turns out to have.

Oh come on already. To be consistent an argument for natural humility toward the results of procreation would be an argument against any attempts to intervene for any reason before birth. Of course they are not arguing that. They only invoke this argument for characteristics of the brain. At the same time they bring up the child's best interests. How is it not in the child's best interests to be smarter? Can they argue that parents will love smarter children less? Why? The key argument in their summary report is where they talk about different forms of equality. The rest of it is window dressing.

By Randall Parker    2002 October 01 11:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
Disappearing blondes story was a hoax

So where did the story originate?

Reports to that effect had appeared in recent days on CNN and ABC News and in the London Daily Mail, among others. But WHO said it has never conducted research on the topic.

WHO "has no knowledge of how these news reports originated but would like to stress that we have no opinion on the future existence of blonds," it said in a statement released at United Nations headquarters in New York.

To reiterate what I said previously: When genetic engineering makes it possible to choose progeny hair color the world is going to have many more blondes than it does now. At the same time people will become taller, better looking, with straighter whiter teeth, more perfect looking skin, and any other features that are widely desired. The average girl next door will look as good as the sexiest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue women.

By Randall Parker    2002 October 01 04:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2002 September 28 Saturday
No, blondes will not die out in 2 centuries

Many popular articles about future evolutionary trends of the human race are as naive as science fiction show that portray humans in future centuries not much changed from what they like now. A recent example of this is a new study that claims blondes will disappear within 2 centuries:

A study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair are an endangered species and will become extinct by 2202.

Researchers predict the last truly natural blonde will be born in Finland - the country with the highest proportion of blondes.

The argument is that since blondeness is a recessive gene and fairly rare in the total human population as more people breed with people from other parts of the world the odds of two people giving their offspring blonde genes will go down. Plus, there is an added argument that real blondes are not breeding as rapidly as the rest of the human populace.

The problem with any such argument is that it ignores the coming ability of people to control what genes they give their offspring. Once genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible the number of blondes will increase for the simple reason that many women who now dye their hair blonde will want their daughters to have the benefit of genetically based blondeness. So I expect the number of blondes to start dramatically increasing within 30 years.

When regular sex becomes used only for recreation and offspring are genetically engineered each new generation of the human race will look like what the previous generation held as ideal. Since blondeness is extremely popular expect future generations become more blonde than ever.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 28 11:06 PM   Entry Permalink
2002 September 26 Thursday
Non-addictive feel good drugs to replace cocaine?

Just as there are drugs that lift people out of depression there may some day be drugs that make a person feel even better than cocaine does but without addiction:

NeuroSearch AS of Denmark is developing an anticocaine and antialcohol drug that raises the body's normal level of three chemicals -- dopamine, serotonin and noadrenalin -- and thereby boosts the pleasure a person feels. "It fools the brain into thinking that the person has taken alcohol or cocaine," says Ole Graff, medical director for NeuroSearch. Unlike cocaine, though, NeuroSearch's drug enhances the user's mood in a gentle and gradual way. Animal tests suggest the company's drug isn't addictive.

The article above also discusses anti-addiction vaccines.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 26 03:56 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
A future without drug addiction?

Tens of millions in the US and other countries try mind altering drugs for fun or escape. The biggest problem with this experimentation is that some percentage of the experimenters will move on to addiction:

If a person tries a drug once, what is the likelihood that he will become dependent on it? "Surprisingly high," said Kleber, who has studied the syndrome. In the case of nicotine, 32 percent of those who smoke will get hooked, according to a federal study. For heroin, the study shows, it's 23 percent; for cocaine, between 17 and 23 percent; for alcohol, 15 percent; and for marijuana, 9 percent.

Widespread affluence provides the money needed to fuel a black market that is at best difficult to control. The costs of drug abuse include physical damage that the drugs cause, an enormous cost in the criminal justice system to catch, try and incarcerate the sellers and users, the increased likelihood of the commission of other crimes by drug users, and the harm done to families, and ruined careers. Neither more strenuous enforcement or legalization promise to cause a substantial net decrease in those costs (all law-and-order and libertarian protestations to the contrary).

In light of the above is there any scientific and technological solution to the problem of human cravings for mind altering drugs? Well, yes, vaccines hold out the promise of treating existing addiction and even of preventing addiction from happening in the first place:

According to Dr. Frank Vocci, director of NIDA's Treatment Research and Development division, the antidrug vaccines can provide a powerful weapon against substance addiction, especially when combined with therapy and psychiatric medicine. And vaccines, which unleash an onslaught of drug-busting antibodies, can do what traditional treatment can't. "If a patient is in an emergency room with high methamphetamine levels and experiencing a cardiovascular crisis," says Vocci, "antibodies would bind the drug up and cause the individual to excrete it." In other words, an injection of antibodies could reduce the specter of death by overdose to a bad '70s flashback.

Though scientists have long used vaccines to trick the immune system into thwarting lethal diseases, the antidrug vaccines are a new breed, designed to attack pleasure-inducing chemicals that the brain craves. Some of these new vaccines use antibodies that bind to the illegal drug, render it inactive, and then leave the bloodstream.

If a vaccine has persistent effects that last for years should parents be allowed to force their children to be vaccinated? Should a government be allowed to force an entire population to be vaccinated? Or should a mandatory vaccination be a condition for a drug abusing criminal who seeks parole or probation? Some day these questions will cease to be hypothetical.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 26 03:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2002 September 24 Tuesday
Mythical Creatures Will Live Some Day?

A commentator in Papau New Guinea points out it will some day be possible to bring ancient mythical creatures to life using genetic engineering:

Today, scientists are pushing back the borders of the impossible to make it scientifically possible to conceive or create creatures of such exotic mix by biologically engineering, limps, trunk or organs of other creatures.

It would not be too far fetched an idea to venture that the other mythical creatures such as the sphinx, the phoenix, the centaur, and hydra, which all had heads of humans and bodies of some other animal, are today plausible. The bio-technology is here, only mankind's values, ethics, morals and responsibilities will dictate whether or not such feats are undertaken.

When this becomes possible to do some people will agree to have this done to them as a way to make money. They'll be able to turn themselves into highly paid tourist attractions. After all, it would be reversible. Think about how this would work: Do genetic engineering to design a body that is based on a description of a centaur, grow the centaur body, do the surgery to attach it, work for several years as a centaur. Once the bank account is full have another human body grown for yourself (which would be younger and even improved) and then have your head reattached.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 24 01:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2002 September 06 Friday
Personal genetic profiles and the mating dance

As I've discussed in other posts, the costs of DNA sequencing and assaying are going to fall by orders of magnitude. It is still not clear when prices will drop far enough to make complete personal genetic assays commonplace. Promising technologies are under very active development in many labs. So my best guess is that mass market affordable detailed DNA analysis instruments will be available and widely used within 10 years.

How is the resulting information going to be used? Obviously medical and social science researchers will use it to discover the impact of each genetic variation on health-related questions, longevity, and physical and mental qualities and abilities. Therapies will be customized to individual genetic profiles and medical decisions will be informed by the specifics of how each drug or treatment will be metabolized by each individual patient. Also, detailed knowledge of individual risks to various diseases will allow each person to make far better decisions about diet and early detection testing for each potential illness. It is clear that the value for health and medicine will be enormous.

Genetic Profiles and Mate Choice

But leaving aside personal health and medical matters how else will this information be used by individuals in their everyday lives? There is one big use that stands out: Mate Choice.

Much of the guessing about whether any particular two people will have healthy children and what the children will be like will be replaced with much more accurate scientific predictions. Since each person can contribute various subsets of their genes the predictions will have to be stated as probabilities. Plus. there are lots of factors governing growth of a fetus and baby that are not entirely under the control of genes (eg fetal infection or maternal exposure to toxins). But genetic profiles of prospective mates will still be incredibly useful.

Genetic profiles therefore will have a profound impact upon the mating dance. Obviously, for a woman who doesn't want to have kids her choice of lover or husband needn't be influenced by whether he carries a hereditary predisposition to allergy, a lethal mutation, or a mutation that increases the likelihood of some terrible birth defect. But for women who aspire to motherhood the availability of low cost genetic profiles and information on how to interpret profiles will provide information that many women will decide to use.

Genetic Profiles and Dating Services

Personal genetic profiles will increase the value of computerized dating services. The use of large databases of genetic profiles will make it much quicker and easier to find more advantages and disadvantages of each potential mate. Many people will find that the ability to gain this knowledge will be so appealing that they will rush to sign up with computerised dating services that can match people by genetic profile.

Personal genetic profiles will bring a whole new dimension to the mating dance. People who are looking for a mate for the purpose of reproduction will want to find potential mates that most closely match their ideal genetic profile for the kinds of qualities they want to have in their offspring. Well, in this era of computers and internet search engines what better way to do this than with an on-line dating service that matches up people by genetic profile?

While this may sound cold and heartless its really just a very advanced extension of dating service techniques already in use. Many existing dating services require their customers to fill out detailed personal information. Some require pictures while others even require a video to allow prospectives to closely check out each other without having to meet face-to-face. Genetic profiles will become just another part of the application.

So how will the matching be done? Each person will have to supply their own genetic profile to the dating service. Since the dating service won't be able to trust people to supply an accurate profile its likely that either the dating service will have to take a tissue sample or it will rely on a trusted third party lab that can vouch for the identity of the person and supply the genetic profile.

Genetic Profile Preferences

There will be another half of the dating service sign-up process: Filling in a profile of what you are looking for genetically in your ideal mate. Everyone has different ideals and different ways of prioritizing even among the genetic features they want. So not every male will want the exact same ideal female and vice versa. Some people will find this the most difficult part of the process. Tough choices will be faced. How do personality characteristics compare in importance to athletic skills, susceptibility to various diseases, hair color, height, build, and countless other differences large and small?

There will be genetic features that are must-haves, must-not-haves, and various levels of preferences for everything in between. For most people the odds of finding one's genetic ideal will be very low. The odds will be made even worse because lots of people who have single copies of lethal or very harmful recessive genes and will want to avoid people who have the same kinds of recessives.

Filling out one's preferences will require a lot of thought and some really serious examination of one's values. Preferences will not be just a simple ranking of features one wants in order of preference. There may be features that you think are equally valuable and you would be happy to find a mate with one or another. There might be cases where you think "I'll take someone with A, B, and C or someone with D and E".

Genetic Profiles and Sperm Banks

Women who want anonymous (or not so anonymous) sperm donations and who are not demanding a romantic or financial commitment from the donor stand to benefit much more from genetic profiling information than women who are looking for a romantic relationship and child-raising commitment. The reason is pretty simple: a man with a highly popular genetic profile who is willing to marry and raise children is going to have more female suitors than a man with a less ideal genetic profile. Most women won't be able to get their ideal man just as most men won't be able to get their ideal woman.

Finding an ideal sperm donor is much easier. The most desired men can marry only one woman at a time (at least in Western countries). But there is no limit (unless legislation is passed to prohibit this) on how many children a man can father. The only real limit is the number of women who want to have the same man as the sperm donor father.

If sperm banks are allowed to operate as regular businesses it is likely the sperm banks will respond to the availability of genetic profiles by offering a genetic profile preference matching service very similar to what the dating services will offer. Sperm banks will require genetic profiles from all sperm bank donors. Then women will be able to fill out their preferences for a donor genetic profile and the sperm bank will try to match the profile up against its donor genetic profiles.

Sperm Banks and the Market For Popular Genetic Profiles

In a marketplace sperm banks will have an incentive to try to recruit sperm donors whose genetic profiles match the kinds of profiles that the women customers request most often. One can imagine sperm banks offering signing bonuses to men who have popular combinations of genetic features. One can also imagine the sperm banks charging more to women who want to use sperm that fit the most popular profiles.

So will the sperm banks be able to find and recruit the men who have the most popular genetic profiles? The prospects seem favorable. The sperm banks won't have to pay to test each donor to find out if the donor matches a profile they are looking for. The banks can just publish the profiles they are looking for and include prices they will pay for each profile. Since most men will know their own genetic profile some will decide to shop around on the net to see if their profile can earn them some money for selling a donation to a sperm bank. Imagine a poor college student who want to make some extra money deciding to surf the net to compare his genetic profile to the offering prices of various sperm banks. Other men will want to make a sperm donation for free just to be able to pass their genes along.

The Woman's Dilemma: Sperm Bank or Husband?

Left to operate as a market then the sperm banks will likely be very successful at finding sperm donors whose profiles more closely match the ideals of the female sperm bank customers than what those same women will be able to find thru dating services. Most women who elect to impregnate themselves using a sperm bank will get children genetically more to their liking than if they elected to go the traditional route of getting married and having kids with a husband as genetic donor.

Once this fact sinks in the consequences will be profound. Most women will be faced with a conflict between competing desires. On one hand they will want a romantic and sexual partner and husband who will be willing to serve as father of their children and who will provide emotional support, financial support, help in child-raising, and in other ways. On the other hand women will have their desire to have the best children possible (best according to the values of each individual woman).

The Widening Gap between Husband Genetic Quality and Sperm Bank Genetic Quality

As sperm banks sign up more female customers (who of course will fill out their preferences for male genetic profiles) they will get a better measure of what profiles women most desire. The sperm banks will respond by advertising for men who can serve as sources for the most popular genetic profiles. In the sperm bank market men are able to donate sperm to more than one woman and so when one woman wins by finding an ideal donor other women don't lose. Therefore as sperm banks sign up larger numbers of men with popular genetic profiles women increasingly will be offered choices for donors who basically can give them nearly every single genetic feature that they desire.

The marketplace for women looking for potential husbands will not improve nearly as much. Genetic profiling will allow women to find men with desireable profiles who may be languishing in remote locations or in settings where they rarely meet eligible women. Therefore the dating services will provide women with some improved abilities to find better husbands. But women will still have to compete with other women to find these men. Genetic profiling does not increase the size of the total pool of men and it doesn't get the men better educations or jobs.

The Woman's Choice

The information provided by genetic profiles will more clearly highlight the consequences of competing reproductive choices than has ever been possible before. Women will be able to know with much greater certainty what their children will be like if they have children with a particular man. At the same time, new reproductive choices with very different outcomes will become available to many women.

It is inevitable that this new information and these new choices will change how women make reproductive decisions. We can not yet know what exact form those changes will take or when the changes will begin to occur. We do not yet even know all the features of humans that vary due to genetic variations. Therefore we do not even know what all will be in a genetic preference profile let alone how most women will weigh the costs and benefits of the assorted genetic variations. But we can be sure that the mating dance is heading for profound changes.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 06 04:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (141)
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