Nobel prizes were awarded this past week. I didn’t win one. Again. I attribute that loss largely due to the fact I never got of my ass and decided to do anything that is significantly worthy of any kind of prize. I survived another year of being surrounded by idiots but so did several billion other people. There is no prize for surviving, merely the torment of knowing there is no end to that battle. One cannot take a vacation from surviving.
Do you know who did win a Nobel prize? Dr. Frances Arnold, a professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at CalTech. She’s also one of the most amazing women in science currently living. She is the only woman and one of only eight living people to be elected to the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. She’s also a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the American Society for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Microbiology. Dr. Arnold is the type of role model we all want our daughters to admire and in whose footsteps we hope they follow.
Dr. Arnold shares the Chemistry prize with George Smith of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Gregory Winter at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, U.K. Their work for which they won the award was not directly related with Dr. Arnold’s, as in there was no collaboration was involved, but there is a connection in that they both utilized Darwinian principles in creating new chemicals.
In announcing the prize, Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said, “This year’s prize in chemistry rewards a revolution based on evolution.” That statement, Gustafsson’s choice of words, is significant because it states as accepted fact an area of science that a vast number of Americans still consider bogus. Then, it makes the principals of that theory fundamental to the development of these new chemicals. The chemicals are dependent upon Darwinian theory being true. The advances don’t happen if it’s not.
Now, this isn’t a science blog. I would only get a couple of sentences into explaining the research before I’d be in over my head. I recommend this article by Gretchen Vogel in Science. She explains the research in a way least likely to make one’s head hurt. Go. Read.
What this research, especially Dr. Arnold’s, sparks in my mind is the potential for broader levels of improvement. If the Darwinian theory can be applied to create chemicals that help eradicate disease (which is what the award-winning research by all three does) then perhaps those same concepts can be applied to improving other aspects of humanity. The potential is there to not only extend life but to improve how we live it.
FLAWED HUMANS, FLAWED HUMANITY
I’ve been stepping out of my comfort zone in multiple ways the past few months. I’m getting my driver’s license back. I’m exploring new friendships and new activities. I’ve submitted work to more magazines and am planning for increased submissions to art shows next year. My theory is that by extending my range of involvement I increase the likelihood of finding something pleasurable and self-improving. However, by not applying any scientific principle to my method of selection, I’m randomizing the results in ways that may fail to produce the desired outcome.
For example, one of the things I did earlier this fall, something I’ve not done in over ten years, submitted artwork to a group show. I’m not especially a huge fan of group shows because what they inevitably end up doing, whether intentional or not, is making art competitive and prevent the observer from being able to understand the artist because of the limited exposure and distraction of different styles. Group shows are little more than resume fodder but I’ve not added any fodder to my resume in a while so I figured it was worth a go. If they turned me down, no big deal.
The call for art was vague: “Black and white.” No other reference. Anything black and white would fly. So, I submitted the maximum five images, choosing a range of topics in hopes that at least one might spark the interest of the curator. Interestingly enough, she chose the two that were closest in a topic, variations on the concept of the selfie.
When I dropped off the prints, I noticed that there were no other photographs sitting around at that point. Most were paintings, one was a 3D paper mache triptych of face masks, one was painted on a piece of corrugated tin. Another was on a canvas larger than the vehicle on which it was delivered. The curator had chosen a very diverse collection. That should be good, right?
Then, I sat there the next night, as the collection was opened to the public, and watched as people came, glanced at the very crowded walls, and kept walking. I can’t say they ignored the work on display. Most people at least glanced at it. Some actually stopped for a second or two. But then, they kept walking.
Okay, so the venue is a brewery that’s trying to draw a more art-friendly group of Millennials. This is what we wanted, right? Art everywhere. Art that is accessible to real people in real places. We’ve had art at coffee shops for a long time, and now we’re seeing art even more places, such as breweries and hair salons. Grants for public art puts murals on the side of buildings and the once-blighted underside of overpasses. Utility boxes on street corner are covered in local art. In Indianapolis, even manhole covers are covered in art. This is supposed to be wonderful!
But it’s not. As art becomes more prevalent in the ordinary places of our lives, the less we actually see. Our minds erase all those images on the walls so that we can focus on what we came to do, whether that is drink beer with friends, get our hair cut, drive down the street, or enjoy a cup of coffee. Turns out, our brains are wired to ignore distractions, even if those distractions are some of the most wonderful art on the planet (not saying it is, but it could be).
What we find is that our ability to appreciate art requires that we do more than just view it. We have to purposefully focus on the art, give it study space in our brains, temporarily shove aside that instinct that says, “Hey, there’s cold beer on tap and I’m really thirsty.” If we are unable to do that, the art becomes part of all the other background noise our brains filter out. 15 minutes later, those people who stopped and glanced for a couple of seconds can’t even remember that all the art was black and white, let alone any accurate details of the artwork.
One of the challenges to being human is that we’re encoded with the pretty much the same DNA that was present when our earliest ancestors first left Africa. That means we still carry a lot of the same instinctual characteristics that were necessary for early humans to survive. Our “fight or flight” instincts are a perfect example. When faced with a seemingly dangerous situation, our hypothalamus responds almost identically today as it would have when ancient ancestors were faced with stampeding mastodons. While that adrenaline rush was great back in the day, now it’s more likely to get us into trouble, such as gang wars and barroom brawls.
Similarly, our brains are hardwired to select a mate based upon their ability to provide a higher level of disease immunity to the resulting offspring. Our ancestors relied on how a person smelled when selecting a mate, something that was a result of one’s complex immune system. Today, though, we can manipulate how we smell. Our brains are still attracted to certain fragrances but those fragrances no longer mean one’s potential mate has a strong immune system.
All of these details embedded into our DNA, from a dislike of bitter foods to our ability to anticipate trouble before it happens, have been part of the human code from the very beginning. Unfortunately, not everything that once had a critical purpose still works in our lives the same way today. We have a greater need to control our emotions, focus on multiple things at once, and our very reason for selecting a mate no longer has as much to do with the survival of the species. In short, our DNA desperately needs an upgrade to help us move forward as a species. We need to not only see the art but appreciate it.
This begs the question, is it possible to use research such as Dr. Arnold’s and Dr. Winter’s to essentially hijack the normal, painfully slow process of evolution to create enzymes that counter some of those long-standing but no-longer-necessary instincts and replace them with something more humane and appropriate? I think it is not only possible but doing so would ignite a human revolution, one outside the boundaries of politics and nationalistic fervor so as to change the whole course of humanity going forward. The question is: do we dare?
SORTING THE ETHICS OF REVOLUTION
I’m sitting in a bar one evening casually going through news updates on my phone while nursing an allegedly pumpkin-based beer that doesn’t remotely taste of pumpkin when I overhear another bar patron tell his accompanying partner that he finds it easier to retreat into a book rather than attempt a dialog with anyone regarding the current political situation. His experience is that no one really wants a conversation with any depth. Instead, they prefer to beat each other with their opinions, most of which are unsubstantiated.
I can appreciate his sentiment, but also note that his response is the intellectual’s equivalent of flight in the “fight or flight” response one has to in challenging situations. He’s intelligent enough to understand that his participation is not likely to affect anyone else’s opinion while his own brain is assaulted with less-than-intelligent attempts at backhanded reasoning. There is no “fight” that works in this scenario. Retreat into a book seems, at least on the surface, a more reasonable response.
There is little opportunity for positive change in any political situation, however, when intelligent people do not participate. Yes, staying sequestered safely between the pages of some philosophical tome might generate feelings of safety, but it leaves the world to be run by the ignorant horde whose decision-making abilities are horrifically dangerous. Civilization is furthered when those most intelligent among us do not back down in the face of overwhelming stupidity.
Medicine has long faced some of the same challenges. New diseases run rampant because, increasingly, they attack natural weaknesses in the immune system, hitting hard enough to prevent antibodies from developing on their own. They are, in effect, bullies.
Left to the course of natural evolution, it would take our bodies millennia to respond to these threats. What the Nobel-prize winning work does is demonstrate how to effectively speed up that process by introducing enzymes that push natural evolution forward at a significantly faster pace. In theory, as these modified, healthier enzymes are introduced and spread through the gene pool, the result is a healthier overall population.
If the enzymes of immune-related DNA can be altered to create a higher level of health, then it seems logical that other aspects of our DNA could be adjusted using similar methods. The difference is that with Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter’s research, the purpose is the elimination of destructive enzymes and bacteria in place of constructive pieces. Their target is easily identified because the negative impact is obvious and easily documented.
When we move out of the realm of eradicating disease, the DNA conversation becomes much more cloudy. Strictly relatively speaking, addressing disease is the easy part of bioengineering because the “bad guys” are easier to identify and eradicate. When we move into other areas of DNA research, though, the “targets” are not so easily or distinctly defined.
Studying genetics and behavior is controversial right out of the starting block because of some horrible experiments in the past, starting with a horrible thing called eugenics. Eugenics concerns itself, at large, with how selective breeding might bring about a stronger, better, healthier human. If that sounds unsettlingly familiar, it might be because eugenics was/is the concept behind the Nazi push for a “master race.” We know how that disaster ended.
When one purports to modify the genetic structure in a way to modify what has the appearance of “selective” behavior, or “free will” in the not-quite-accurate vernacular, or any genetic characteristic that might exist because of one’s racial or cultural background, then one is essentially claiming that choice or characteristic is wrong, undesirable, or possibly even criminal. Since genetics are not something one chooses (yet), to assign a morality to those things we do not control is ethically wrong.
Where the argument gets most sticky is in the extent to which hardcoded DNA influences choices we make. “Fight or flight,” is an easy example. When faced with what we perceive as a dangerous situation, it seems we have a choice to make: fight or leave. However, this is evidence to hint at the possibility that what we think is a choice is actually no choice at all. Benjamin Libet’s research in the 1980s showed that chemical changes in our brain make decisions for us before we are consciously aware that a decision needs to be made. What appears to be free will may actually be nothing more than following orders our brain gives us.
Since there is a tight link between one’s DNA structure and brain chemical structure, we already know that changes to one can influence changes to the other. Stress, for example, produces a protein that changes our DNA ever so slightly. That would appear to indicate that by utilizing Dr. Arnold’s work specifically one might be able to create a drug that would reject that protein and eliminate the negative effect of the stress (noting that it would not eliminate the cause of the stress). We already adjust brain chemistry to address matters such as depression and anxiety. Would it be that much more difficult to also address character flaws such as misogyny, bigotry, jealousy, and hate?
As idyllic as it might sound to simply decode all the negative behaviors out of the human genome, humans are to complex to ever assume that z-y=x. When we change one aspect of the genome, we create a ripple effect through the entire structure, a ripple that can turn into a tsunami of negative response without any warning.
LIVING LIFE WITH WARNING LABELS
A question posted to Reddit some five years ago asked an interesting question: If we were all forced to wear a warning label, what would yours say? The answers have been both enlightening and humorous. Here are a few samples:
“Warning: Not for children 6 and under”
“Poor Impulse Control”
“Women exposed to this product for long periods of time may begin to be attracted to other women.”
“Contents under pressure. Do not shake.”
“Caution: Profusely sweats under most circumstances.”
“Not a dick, just awkward.”
“Caution: Dangerously Cheesy.”
“Warning: Severe allergies to peanuts, nuts, and shrimp. Epi-pen in backpack. Use when necessary (or for sadistic fun, your choice).”
“If malfunctioning, insert pizza into mouth.”
“May spontaneously get drunk and nude.”
As entertaining as those responses are, risk aversion is a serious matter for some. In fact, for that entire generation we refer to as Millennials, currently, ages 25-35, all those x-sport and adventure-filled vacations belie the fact that, financially, they are currently the most risk-averse generation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. An analysis shows that they are, as a group, cash hoarders reluctant to invest their savings, a matter that could seriously impact global economics down the road. They generally rely heavily on their parents, living at home longer than any previous generation of the modern age. They put off getting married, starting families, buying homes and cars, and are more likely to still live in the same city ten years after graduating high school.
Why? Because life is scary. Stability is difficult to find and there are numerous reasons that situation persists, from global politics to global warming to the rapid pace of technological change. For those who try to pay attention to what’s going on around them, not only is there the matter of not knowing what we don’t know, we must also face the possibility that what we thought we knew is no longer valid. The rate of new research turning conventional wisdom on its head is astounding and while we can sometimes find those new discoveries exciting, at the same time they erode our sense of certainty in what is real.
French fashion house Courregés is using the phrase, “The Future Is Behind You” in touting its new spring/summer collection for 2019. The concept of going forward by looking back is not a new one, but we’re seeing a stronger glance to our history as we search for that stability not found in the present.
One way that search is evident is in the rise of personal DNA mapping. Websites such as ancestrydna.com offer to help one “find your origins” as we search for more than what our parents and grandparents have taught us. We have a desire to know why we have freckles, or how we got the only red hair in the family, or what strength enabled our ancestors to survive. For only $99, Ancestry DNA compares your DNA with a global database covering some 350 regions of the world, determines what influences are present, and in some cases, even offers one the opportunity to connect with people who are likely long-lost relatives. The possibilities have been intriguing enough for some 10 million people to give it a try.
The problem is that such online tests are not exactly accurate. How does one know? Easy: test siblings. As long as everyone has the same two parents, the ancestral aspects of their DNA should be identical, correct? Not hardly.
While there have been scientific studies showing the online tests are inaccurate, perhaps the point is driven home a bit more severely with an investigative piece by the television show, “Inside Edition.” I know, that’s not exactly where one goes for accurate reporting of details. In this case, though, their work puts a vernacular face on scientific findings. They took three sets of identical triplets, whose DNA should be a near-exact match, and had them try popular online DNA tests. This should be a no-brainer. Each person should get back exactly the same results. They didn’t. For two sets of triplets, the results were confusing as they showed differing percentages of heritage from various European countries. Only one set of triplets, the ones using the Ancestry DNA kit, had their results come back matching. DNA studies of any kind are challenging.
While the technology has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, there are still numerous factors that can change test results and even more factors that can change how DNA responds to various factors such as the addition or subtraction of enzymes and proteins. Some of the most recent studies show that moving DNA to a different part of the nucleus changes how it reacts. There are myriad options, considerations, and variations in DNA that have the ability to dramatically alter the results of any research. This is why any work at the genetic level has to come with caveats as to the conditions in which a study was performed. When researchers are able to achieve certain advances within the confines of a lab, they are able to limit anomalies that might distort the results.
When one begins looking for ways to apply that research to real-world scenarios, however, one has to be aware that results differ to varying degrees with every individual treated. Hence, all the warning labels. For all the promise of Nobel-prize-winning research, there’s no likelihood of it helping more than a fraction of the population. Yes, it holds the ability to address how doctors treat cancer and heart disease, but neither this research nor any other holds a magic “silver bullet” that is going to completely eradicate either problem from the face of the earth. At least, probably not within my lifetime.
When we take a look at the warning labels on drugs, we get a glimpse at just some of the side effects that were encountered during testing. The number of potential side effects reflects the severity of the challenges scientists faced in bringing a drug to market. Scientists also have to look for possible contradictions with other medicines a patient is likely to be taking. For example, anyone who is Type II diabetic, like me, is almost certainly taking Metformin. Therefore, if one wants to create a new drug that can more effectively address the disease, it needs to not conflict with Metformin. In order to be approved for public use, drug makers have to demonstrate that the benefits of the drug outweigh the side effects, but in many cases, one has to wonder exactly which is worse.
For example, Lexapro, which is commonly prescribed for depression, often causes hallucinations. Some of those hallucinations are severe, completely altering one’s sense of reality. Which is worse, the disease or the side effect? The antidepressant Elavil? Turns urine blue. Okay, that’s not a life altering consequence but it is a bit weird. Paxil, another antidepressant, causes patients to gain anywhere from 20-40 pounds of weight that never comes off even after one stops using the drug. The severe weight gain often contributes to greater depression.
These are all things encountered from simply playing with brain chemistry, however. When one starts actually modifying DNA, the opportunities for even more severe consequences are dramatic and, to some significant degree, unpredictable. The only way to be completely certain that a DNA-altering drug is going to be effective in the way one desires is to tailor it specifically for each individual, a concept immediately limited by both scope and cost. As promising as DNA research is, and as important as the Nobel-prize-winning discoveries are, we cannot expect these new concepts to dramatically change human evolution without some bumps and bruises along the way
The Revolution Comes With Warning Labels
Eventually, someday in the future, we will almost certainly see DNA research develop to the point we can remove negative characteristics, such as anger issues, depression, anxiety, and propensity for murder. There is also the distinct possibility that the ability to add desired traits, such as art appreciation, tolerance, patience, and empathy could be encoded into the human norm.
What we have to anticipate, though, is that there are going to be consequences to any alteration we make. Yes, the results might bring about a revolution that completely reforms governments and justice systems, making them equitable for all. As we do so, however, we are likely to encounter side effects that we didn’t expect. In fact, for DNA modification to truly have a chance of changing the evolution of the human species, such a large percentage of the population is going to need gene-modifying medication that we may all have to start wearing badges that contain our personalized list of potential side effects. If there is ultimately a revolution, it may come from pairing up people with similar side effects, or complimenting side effects, so as to mitigate perceived weakness.
As I’m attending an event largely populated by people I don’t know who
A second glance around the room reveals people grouped largely according to race. This is a fairly liberal-leaning crowd so no one is objecting to anyone else’s presence, but that long-standing inclination to group ourselves by skin color is still present and I wonder if it is possible to just nudge our evolutionary tendencies a bit so that we don’t carry that trait forward another generation.
What might the tradeoffs be for that kind of genetic tampering, though? Might we have to exchange our tolerance for alcohol for the complete removal of bigotry from our genetic essence? Is it possible that in becoming more generous we also have to put up with more frequent and fragrant bowel movements? Could persistent oily skin, and the pimples that come with it, be an acceptable side effect for eliminating our tendency toward violence?
Those all seem like reasonable inconveniences that could be acceptable if we’re making significant improvements into the overall DNA pool. However, what if the side effects are more severe? Where do we draw that line that says, cross this and we’re not playing anymore? What if accelerating music ability significantly increased the likelihood of a child being born without a limb? Are we okay with that, even temporarily? Are we willing to exchange a loss of depression and/or anxiety for severely limited muscle movement or the loss of some motor skills? Could we tolerate persistent asthma if it meant eliminating hate?
I’m playing it easy on the side effects. We cannot know what level of horror might accidentally be unleashed when we start trying to change some of the fundamental characteristics of being human. While we would like to think that we could keep everything manageable, anything is possible until we prove that it’s not. We do have a general safety valve in the fact that DNA modification is tightly controlled enough that it’s not likely for some “mutant” gene to be released on an unsuspecting public. It’s also extremely unlikely that any of this research results in us all being turned into Marvel comic book characters. Sorry, I know that crushes dreams for some.
Public access to any drug or treatment that fundamentally changes DNA is going to remain under severe scrutiny. One also has to consider that no matter how helpful genetic research is and how dramatically it might improve our existence, there are always those who will not participate. This raises the possibility that there could become two different species of humanoids. We’ve seen something similar to this in the development of Neanderthals and early humans. Where the humans continued to adapt and evolve, the Neanderthals didn’t and eventually died out, despite the cross-breeding with humans. Dramatically altering human DNA on a selective or elective basis could have similar results.
There are philosophical and medical and mental minefields scattered all over this topic and once one breaches the playing field all the hazards are in play. At the moment, I’m not aware of any active DNA research that goes beyond eliminating
Still, the fact that we are at a point in bioengineering where such a dream is possible, no matter how remote or currently impractical that possibility might be, is, for me, a reason for hope. None of the negative characteristics common to the human condition are new. Philosophers and religious zealots alike have all warned of their dangers as long as we’ve been able to communicate and we’re still here arguing over who has a right to live where, or has a right to live at all. Appealing to one’s conscience isn’t working. We’re not progressing sufficiently on our own at a rate that holds any hope of avoiding our ultimate self-destruction. If we are to survive ourselves we must find a way to fix ourselves and that means taking on some considerable risks.
I like the concept of a genetic revolution, of a giant leap in humanity that sees a destruction of diseases so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can live better lives. No, I don’t envision a sort of X-Men versus humans scenario, but there are risks to any revolution and many of those can’t be known until we’re waist-deep into the effort. We’ve not even touched on the mortality issue and how that lowering the death rate could make the planet uninhabitable. The number of variables is so large as to make my brain hurt.
Throughout this article, I’ve used imagery that might serve as a metaphor for genetic modification. Every little change made is an extra crumb, a tiny, perhaps splintered portion of the whole, replacing one element with another, altering the whole genetic terrain. While we can try to wash away the challenges to humanity, such as disease and negative character traits, underneath we still evolve as humans.
We have to support the move forward, though. First, we conquer cancer, heart disease, and immunity issues. Then, there are birth defects and diseases that appear to be related to lifestyle choices but may have a deeper genetic base. We crawl, then walk, and somewhere down the line perhaps we’ll fly. The ability to improve upon the human condition is tremendous. And each major step we take is its own revolution.