Thursday, April 29, 2021

Secret Science Club Zoom Conversation: The Next 500 Years of Humanity

Last night's Secret Science Club Zoom program took the form of a dialogue between geneticist and computational biologist Dr Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine, who delivered two Secret Science Club lectures, one on a biodiversity study of the NYC subway system, and the other a study of the effects of space travel on the human body, and bioethicist/philosopher Matthew Liao, director of NYU's Center for Bioethics and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. The dialogue revolved around Dr Mason's new book The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds.

Dr Mason began his lecture by discussing the concept of planetary liberty, right now, our movements are limited to Earth and its near orbit.  He discussed the transition of Mars missions to sending transient crews to creating self-sufficient communities on the planet.  Around the time the human genome was being mapped, astronomers were discovering numerous exoplanets.

Dr Mason coined a term called the ESI: Earth Similarity Index- how close are a planet's conditions to terrestrial conditions?  How survivable would exoplanets be?  He then went over a timeline of bioengineering techniques in sequence (he discussed the concept of Cellular Liberty).  Genes can be reactivated, three parent embryos can be created.  He mapped these achievements along with astro-engineer progress.  In the face of a sixth mass extinction event, occurring rapidly, it makes sense to escape from Earth's nice, but temporary, environmental conditions (we are in a temperature 'canyon', between freezing and boiling).  We are the only animals that are 'extinction aware', and we could play the role of guardians.  We have a duty to all life: past, present, and future.

Dr Liao began his lecture with a discussion about the ethics of bioengineering humans to deal with climate change.  Millions could suffer from famine and flood as a result of climate change.  Geoengineering, the large-scale alteration of the Earth's systems, is very dangerous.  Human engineering, involving medical modifications of humans (voluntary, he is absolutely against coercion), could be a good substitute.  Perhaps engineering an aversion to meat (like the effects of the Lone Star tick's bite) could be useful.  Our ecological footprint is dependent on our size- could engineering smaller humans help reduce carbon emissions?  Lower birth rates, often associated with better education for women, also would help.  Many environmental problems are cooperative problems- oxytocin helps foster bonding and cooperation- could it be used to foster group-wide solutions?  As a more science-fictional solution, perhaps engineering tapetum lucidum to improve night vision would allow lower energy use in our cities.  He also suggested a system in which families could choose to have one large child, or two or three small children as a global warming hedge.

We should take human engineering more seriously than geoengineering, which could negatively affect the entire planet- the solutions aren't so drastic, and individual choices can come into play.  Win-win solutions are the solutions to be sought- look for these solutions, which are easier to sell. 

After the initial speeches, Dr Liao and Dr Mason began a lively dialogue.  Riffing off of Dr Mason's call for guardianship, Dr Liao asked Dr Mason if we had a duty to protect the coronavirus, then brought up the subject of reviving extinct species.  Dr Mason noted that we have a duty as self-aware genetic entities not only to protect ourselves, but to protect the genomes of other organisms.  He is pro-cognition, but matter agnostic regarding cognition, so he hoped that any Artificial Intelligences would see a duty to protect cognition.  He brought up the prospect of sending organisms with the potential for sentience, such as apes, dolphins, or octopuses, to planets with conditions conducive to their becoming guardian species, aware of their genetic duty.  Regarding coronvirus, Dr Mason noted that smallpox has been preserved in labs, and while unethical to allow it to escape, preserving the information in the DNA is useful if it doesn't pose a threat.

Dr Liao brought up the subject of cellular liberty, with regards to creating new species- could we engineer species which could supplant existing species?  If we engineer a new sort of human, how do we preserve old humanity?  Dr Mason noted that cellular liberty would mean that you shouldn't be beholden to the shuffled genetic deck you were dealt at birth,  Would it be ethical for deaf parents to ensure that their child be deaf in order to preserve the culture?  Could something be toggled on and off, giving temporary night vision if it is feasible and safe?  The science exists, but would 'full plasticity' be ethical?  Dr Mason noted that humans evolving on different planets could speciate, being incompatible from a reproductive standpoint, but quipped, "I hope they stay nice."

Dr Liao brought up a hypothetical situation in which a person could choose to be a temporary psychopath- Dr Mason noted that the genetic underpinnings of mental states aren't well known enough.

Dr Liao brought up the topic of exowombs, which Dr Mason proposed for nurturing embryos on a hypothetical generation starship.  Riffing off his own book, The Right to be Loved, he asked how would these children, gestating outside of a human uterus, be nurtured?  The development, touching and other human contact, would have to come later- but could be supplement with hormones.  Could snuggling with a newborn baby be replicated artificially?

Dr Mason noted that some individuals, true misanthropes, ask if humans should even be preserved.  He categorically rejected such a notion.  Humans have to improve the job that they are doing to preserve other life forms.

This lively discussion was followed with a Q&A session.  The first question involved digitizing human consciousness and transporting the information.  Dr Liao asked, who survives?  Can our identity survive in a digital form?  If the brain is digitized, but the body is not destroyed, which personality is genuine?  Which one is you?  If a brain is copied a hundred times, which one is you?  Dr Mason asked, "If half of your brain is replaced with part of another brain, are you still you?"

Another questioner asked about life on other planets- humans would have to set up microenvironments, akin to greenhouses.  If we find life on other planets, it might have a completely different biochemistry, such as different nucleotides.

Dr Mason noted that Earth is the best home we will know for a long time, but that it shouldn't be our only home.

Should we be concerned about combining capitalism and germ line editing?  Dr Mason noted that outcomes are not evenly distributed in a capitalist system, and genetic engineering would only increase those disparities- imagine wealthy persons living hundreds of years longer than common people.

Regarding genetic diversity, we've always been beholden to accidental genetic diversity, but is all genetic diversity good?  Is the gene for Tay-Sachs disease important to maintain diversity?

Some Bastard in the audience asked about the spaceflight risks which could be mitigated with human engineering.  The big risk is background radiation, but astronauts are hardy folk. Microgravity's effects can be mitigated with exercise.  He also asked the good Doctors about the Science Fiction reading lists they had, having heard plot points from books by Brian Aldis, David Brin, and Gene Wolfe. While both are fans of various science-fiction authors, they both read more non-fiction

Another question regarded the potential weaponization of genome editing. Dr Mason noted that most technologies are a double-edged sword, whether physics or biology. Dr Mason noted that every bioengineered protein would have to be scrutinized to see if it resembles a virus. Regarding generation starships, Dr Mason noted that we already live on a generation spaceship. Hopefully, the inhabitants of a generation spaceship could reach a nearby star within twenty generations. The discussion ended with a call from Dr Liao to always keep human rights in mind when it comes to the issues of human engineering and equity in access to the benefits of bioengineering. This was a lively, fun conversation, a neat dialogue between two geniuses from different disciplines, talking about a subject which is quite romantic. Kudos to Doctors Liao and Mason, and Margaret and Dorian. For a taste of this topic, here is Dr Mason talking about preparing humans for an interplanetary future: Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

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