Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sex is for fun ... and a lab will be for reproduction?

My  comment at this post was tongue-in-cheek about sex being a cornerstone of most, if not all, religious beliefs.  Science and technology have continually pushed our understanding of sex and reproduction.  From preventing reproduction--thereby, rendering sex recreational--to various fertility enhancement technologies as well; the pill and the condom, on one side, and test-tube baby and womb-to-rent on the other side, have generated quite some headaches for the believers and their leaders.

As much as I have fun at the expense of believers in all these issues, I certainly empathize with their fundamental problem--the scientific and technological advancements challenge an understanding of what it means to be human.  If life--a baby--can be created in a petri-dish, then what does it mean to be human?  If materials from three "donor" parents can be assembled in a lab, and then that compound begins to grow in a womb as a baby, what does it mean to be human?  This atheist and many sincere believers struggle with that question of what it means to be human, while the vast majority--who are believers--seem to go about as if such technologies do not change a damn thing.

Everybody ought to think about that though.  Such thinking should not be outsourced to experts or--worse--to half-baked people like me.  But, most don't seem to be bothered--after all, there are a gazillion television channels to watch on top of those internet videos of cats playing piano!  While people are in a stupor with mind-dulling entertainment, there are more creepy things happening in the world of science.  Like this headline from the New York Times
Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome
It should have made people sit up and worry.  But, of course, this may not have even blipped through all those ballgames and viral videos!

What was that meeting about anyway?
Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.
While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Routine news.  Yawn!  Bring on that video of a cat playing soccer!

Of course, we are a long way from creating humans in labs from chemical molecules without involving biological parents.  But, it is the trend line that should alert us.  Trends like this:
Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. Existing techniques can reliably make strands that are only about 200 base pairs long, with the base pairs being the chemical units in DNA. A single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of those, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together.
But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.
So, it is not that unimaginable that a breakthrough in the future would mean creating a fetus without bothering about an egg and a sperm.  A chemical kit that will be assembled.  Sex, for those humans who want it, will be recreational.  The end of sex as we know it:
The End of Sex is eye-opening about the prospects created by biomedical technology. Regardless of how we end up applying it, biotech has already transformed our view of what it means to be(come) human. ...
Yet the important question that Greely’s book raises is not so much whether his vision of near-universal “sex-free conception” will come to pass, but how we will cope with what current biological technologies make (literally) conceivable. On two occasions he confesses that, despite having studied this field for many years, he was caught unawares by suggestions of how the technologies might be used. One is “uniparenting”, whereby a person (either male or female) has both eggs and sperm made from their somatic cells and used to create a child – who would, because of the recombination of chromosomes during conception, not then be a clone in the strict sense. “The other is “multiplex parenting”, in which two people make an embryo which then in effect conceives a child through IVF with another embryo, by mixing their gametes. It would, says Greely, allow a couple to have their “child” mate with someone else without even first being born, let alone reaching puberty.” Such ideas, he concludes, are “evidence of just how wide-ranging and non-intuitive the implications of new biological technologies may be for human reproduction”. Even the experts concede that their imagination is boggled by the possibilities.
Imagine theologians trying to explain god's take on "multiplex parenting"!  


Mike Hoth said...

This theologian would explain it as yet another reason God is going to scrap this world and all the foolish people who would place knowledge first, profits second and common sense in a distant third. If he doesn't do it, we aren't too far off wiping our own slate clean by turning humans into nothing more than an amalgamation of particles.

I suspect that if humanity starts building their own humans in 20 years, you'll flaunt to me that you're nearing 75 years of age and your planned escape from this madness?

Sriram Khé said...

I find myself to be quite a contradiction (aren't we all!) I am convinced that there is nothing about me after my death, which is the result of the physics of aging--I cannot escape entropy. Yet, despite this material interpretation of my own existence, I am deeply concerned about the lab production of life ... I suppose this madness over the contradiction is a sure way to speed up the 75-year plan ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Leaving ethics aside for a moment, haven't people always wondered about things? Haven't people behind closed doors at Harvard or even at the kitchen table wondered about previously unimaginable technologies? DaVinci wondered about flight. I am sure many people thought he was dangerous and radical, especially when he tried it. Someone somewhere is always thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if . . ."

What was once unimaginable is now commonplace. 100 years, very few could imagine IVF or fertility drugs. We need to determine if our unimaginables should become commonplace.

Sriram Khé said...

"Leaving ethics aside for a moment" is like "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ..."
It is not the impressive science and un-imagined technologies that I am concerned about. It is the understanding of what it means to be human that always, always, concerns me. Flying is nowhere comparable to creating human life by assembling molecules ...

Ramesh said...

All right, I shall not outsource such thinking to half baked people like you :)

Disagree about flying being fundamentally different from creating artificial humans. Flying has fundamentally changed what we are as humans. I would have been a completely different person but for flying.

But I know what you mean. Flying is not troubling. Creating artificial humans is. But its going to happen. At some stage of evolution we may become more mechanical rather than biological. We may become eternal. Science fiction has explored all these themes and the ethical, moral issues behind them.

May you live till 100 my friend. 75 is too young :)

Sriram Khé said...

What wrong did I do to you, for you to curse me with "May you live till 100"??? ;)

Yes, the really, really good science fiction--as opposed to movies that deal merely with a whole lot of kaboom-fight-scenes--force the readers/viewers to think about what the scientific advancements mean about "human." Unfortunately, most people avoid that kind of approach too :(

Sriram Khé said...

And ... just in time ...
A bunch of experts engaging in discussions on this question: Will technology allow us to transcend the human condition?
Cue the Twilight Zone theme ;)

Sriram Khé said...

And then I read this in the FT: a review of a book titled "The 100-year life" ...
It is not about how to live until 100, but what happens with the continuous increase in life expectancy ... "a baby born in the west today will more likely than not live to be 105"

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