The Next Frontier

Genetics, particularly gene therapy is the one area of science that could offer a species altering breakthrough. Flying electric cars would be a great, but they are a long way from reality. In fact, they may never be reality due to issues like battery technology. Most of what science is going to bring mankind over the next couple of generations is better, faster cheaper versions of the stuff we already have now. Think air travel over the last fifty years. The planes are better and faster, but otherwise the same as they were in the 50’s.

That’s not the case with genetic engineering. Here we could very well see some species altering technology. Imagine medicine being able to “fix” certain common genetic defects, thus eliminating the defect from future generations. Imagine the impact of gene therapy that causes the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells. Cancer kills a lot of people long before old age so “curing” cancer would be an enormous change for humanity. There’s also the application in the area of mental health. Imagine curing forms of mental illness like schizophrenia.

Right now, medicine is the most likely to benefit from genetic technology, but that’s not the end of it. Isolating genes for certain traits like height and eye color is well within reach and well within the realm of things that could be altered in embryos. Designer babies sounds horrible, but imagine your doctor telling you that for a reasonable fee, he can make sure your kid is above average in height. It’s not hard to see how people would do it and science would offer it. No one wants their kid to be a stumpy troll, even if the parents are stumpy trolls.

Once you start tinkering or even think about tinkering, the idea of decanting super-human babies joins the conversation. If you can make sure your kid is six foot or taller, why not go for seven or eight feet? That way, junior can look forward to a career as a basketball player. While you’re at it, give him sprinter’s speed and the eyesight of an eagle. The leap from a small change that eradicates a known defect to changes that create super-babies is not a big one, at least from an ethical point of view.

The problem is we quickly run into another barrier and that’s the complexity. Humans are very complicated machines. In fact, we are so complicated that we really don’t know how much of the human body works. Just look at diet and exercise. We sort of think that diet and exercise habits have an impact on overall health and longevity, but we don’t know. That’s why there are a bazillion opinions on the subject. It’s why every study you can find on the topic of diet, for example, has a contradictory study.

This story the other day about the challenges of virtual reality is a great reminder that we know very little about how the human mind works in even the most basic sense. Humans have been screwing around with virtual reality gadgets for a long time, mostly for gaming and simulations. The theory sounds good. Replicate the inputs of reality and the brain gets tricked into thinking it is in the imaginary world. The trouble is, it really does not get tricked. In fact, the better the simulation the worse the results.

The reason is the brain is a wildly complex and supple bit of biology that processes massive amounts of information in more than three dimensions, faster than anything we can create in the lab. The human mind appears to develop or come equipped with a model of the world, right down to little things like how fast an odor should travel from the source to your nose. It’s how those clever optical illusions you see on-line work. They rely on the brain anticipating, based on known patterns. As inputs come in the brain is a click ahead, anticipating what should be coming next. We think.

Then there is the concept of consciousness, which remains a baffling thing for science. Watch a puppy bark at a mirror and you know that self-awareness is a real thing that not all creatures possess equally, but how that works is unknown. Throw in something like self-deception that theoretically should not exist, but clearly does exist, and we are far away from the shore and into uncharted ocean. Tweaking  a gene to make for a taller person could result in madness as the brain is still wired for a short person, thus busting up the person mental model of the world that includes them as a short person.

Even so, CRISPR technology could be the great breakthrough that alters the human species, but it will be a long slog between making better corn and making super babies. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that the complexity barrier between the most rudimentary tinkering and engineered babies is so thick there’s no way for science to breech it. There’s also a cost-benefit component. Selecting for green eyes has a market, but selecting for super-intelligent giants that are prone to madness probably has no market.

All in all, if you are inclined to think about how humanity destroys itself, the place to start is genetics. If you are a wild-eyed futurist anxious to live forever or meld with robots, that’s never going to happen, but you can dream about it within the realm of genetics. More likely, the result is healthier, more robust people in the not so distant future. Imagine old age without debilitating disease and degenerating tissue.  You still age and die, but it is much more pleasant physiologically. That alone would alter how we think of ourselves as a species.

15 thoughts on “The Next Frontier

  1. I remember reading a sci-fi story once about a world with genetically-altered children. It was from the perspective of a “normal” child who had an IQ high enough to go to a special school that catered mainly to “enhanced” children. The crux of the story was that the “enhanced” children all started to develop serious mental/and or physical problems right around the time they hit puberty. (It’s been many years so I don’t remember the exact details.) The huge hormonal changes of teenagers wrecked havoc on their genetically-enhanced minds and bodies.

    • Stumpy trolls want their children to be stumpy trolls, strangely enough. The dwarf community has already spoken on that issue. As have the deaf. They also want to be subsidized of course. Still, Zman is not wrong. The day is coming when everybody is as good looking as I am.

  2. Well, we already know where “genetic engineering” will lead us, because we practice it every day in the form of dog breeding. Watch any “Dogs 101” episode on Animal Planet, and you’ll get a good idea of where this is all likely to head. Why do we have so many different kinds of dogs? Because we screw around with their genetic milkshakes in an attempt to produce breeds with characteristics which serve our needs. Dachshunds were bread to crawl down inside varmint holes, for example, hence their tube-like stature. But, if you watch Dogs 101 with a discerning eye, you’ll also notice that this breeding creates all kinds of other problems. Some dogs are prone to very short lifespans, for example, and this is generally tied to the size of the animal.

    Do you want an 8-foot tall offspring in exchange for him dying at 35 of old age?

    Life has trade-offs like that. We see it in medicine too. My old migraine medicine (one of the first true ones on the market) was like a miracle drug. In many ways, I got my life back. BUT, the side effects were pretty bad (dizziness, neck pain, nausea, etc.). The newer medicines don’t have this, but there are always some trade-offs. We’re not even completely sure how different medicines interact with each other. Genetic engineering might show some promise, particularly with things like cancer treatments, where the target is focused. But breeding of humans to produce certain traits and qualities?

    Well, I’ve got some bad news for you because that’s one milkshake that ain’t easy to make.

    More likely what we’ll see is the prevalence of genetic disorders decreasing. That’s one of the main reasons the government is so fond of abortion. Down Syndrome children are expensive and a drain on society from Nancy Pelosi’s perspective. She even gave an interview about it, and why “family planning” is so important for the government to invest in. My wife is a pediatrician, and the older docs (those near retirement) often talk about how little medicine they actually have to practice today. Between vaccinations and preventative care, outside of the occasional train wreck case, they’re mainly doing sports physicals and treating seasonal flu/RSV. Science is converging towards a steady state where illness is actually unusual.

    Because of this, we’re going to see a population die-off within the next 100 years. We’re already seeing it in places like Russia and Japan, the latter of which is rapidly turning into a Long Term Care Facility. As the human race sort of tops out around 7-8B residents, and everyone gets more wealthy, we’ll see technology shift towards extending human life (which in turn will reduce the reproductive impulse), and comfort/leisure technology. We’re not going to have to muck around with genetically modified babies too much because, well, most people won’t feel the need to produce them.

    • One of the things I find frustrating with many of the people into HBD is their reductionism. Yes, simplifying the world into easily understood components is what science does, but it is a tool, not an end. The universe remains maddeningly complex even when we are able to model many parts of it. Complexity has a quality of its own. Anyone who has worked with large complex systems like software knows this.

    • If we keep feeding Africa, they’re going to keep having babies. That’s how hunter-gatherers behave—population increase right up to the max carrying capacity, and then warfare between tribes to kill off some males and create some cushion.

      Which would be fine, except we are continually increasing the carrying capacity.

      Africans number 1 billion now, and unless something is done (cough cough) they will quadruple before the close of this century.

  3. The movie Gattica (from 1995, I think) explores designer children and the way society might be modeled around that.
    Much of the distant-future tech in that movie is happening now.
    So is the increase in facism.

    • There are a few ways to look at genetic engineering. One is to figure out how to improve existing traits. This is unlikely to happen any time soon simply because of the complexity. Right now, we don’t know what we don’t know so it is entirely possible the tools being developed today will be entirely self-defeating in this area.

      Defect fixing has the highest probability of success. There are a number of maladies that have known genetic causes that can be addressed with the emerging technology. You don’t end up with super-babies, but you eliminate certain defects. This can also be used for fighting cancer, dementia and aging.

      Then you have screening. Here’s where things can get interesting. What if a simply mouth swab can determine your probability of getting cancer? Ho long before the insurance company demands mouth swabs? How about crime? Imagine if a simple genetic test could tell a couple if their child is more or less likely to be an addict? Or a criminal?

      • Scientist in dark labs will find a way to screw this up beyond recognition. Like you said, we don’t even know what we don’t know. Like Icharus (did I spell that right?) flying to close to the sun. Observable reality tells me that you can’t alter one thing without changing another. GMO’s are a prime example. Idk if you ever had any of the drinking water in big Ag states, but the run off from farms makes it so water treatment plants have to treat the water more often than normal. So because these seeds are resistant to pesticides, they encourage even more spraying. That spraying directly affects the drinking water which we need more than anything else (basically tastes like a big gulp of public pool water). all because farmers don’t want to pick weeds. Maybe we should just make do with what God gave us, but of course that makes me a hippy.

        • That’s funny, I was just thinking about that book the other day. I don’t remember what triggered it, but I remembered the part of BTH where people duel with guns in restaurants, and if you don’t want to duel you wear bright clothes which means you’re inferior.

  4. I’m more interested in gut bacteria. The development of antibiotics eradicates some diseases, but kills off beneficial gut bacteria. That creates a compromised immune system which is susceptible to new diseases. And also probably fuels the obesity problem. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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