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The most dangerous idea

Sep 04

Feedback Ronald Bailey


What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its September/October issue.


One of the eight savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea? Transhumanism.


In his Foreign Policy article, Fukuyama identifies transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints". Sounds ominous, no? But isn't human history (and prehistory) all about liberating more and more people from their biological constraints? After all, it's not as though most of us still live in our species' natural state as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.


Liberation from our biological constraints began when an ancestor first sharpened a stick and used it to kill an animal for food. Further liberation from biological constraints followed with fire, the wheel, domesticating animals, agriculture, metallurgy, city building, textiles, information storage by means of writing, the internal combustion engine, electric power generation, antibiotics, vaccines, transplants, and contraception. In a sense, the goal toward which humanity has been striving has been to liberate ourselves from more and more of our biological constraints.


What is a human capacity anyway? Biologist Richard Dawkins has propounded the notion of an extended phenotype. Genes not only mould the bodies of organisms but also shape their behaviours. Some of those behaviours result in the creation of objects that help organisms survive and reproduce, such as beaver dams and bird nests.


Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could not hear one another over distance; now we phone. And our Stone Age progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from biological constraints.


But Fukuyama would respond that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers are no different in their innate capacities than people living today. What transhumanists seek is very different. They want to go beyond innate human capacities in order to change human bodies and brains.


Fukuyama has a point. Can one be so transformed by technology as to be no longer human? "Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones," he says. "If we weren't violent and aggressive, we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love." He seems to argue that to be a human being one must possess all of the emotional capacities characteristic of our species. If biotechnological manipulations removed our ability to feel emotions like anger, hate, or violence, we would in some sense not be human beings any more.


Let's say that genetic engineers discover a gene for suicidal depression, and learn how to suppress or adjust it. Would fixing it make subsequent generations non-human beings? After all, most people do not fall into suicidal depressions, and those happy people are no less human than, say, Sylvia Plath.


Depression can already be fixed for many people by means of Prozac or Zoloft. Surely, taking serotonin re-uptake inhibitors does not make people less human. It seems unreasonable to claim that in order to qualify as human beings, we all must have the capacity to succumb to berserker rage or religious ecstasy.


"The first victim of transhumanism might be equality," writes Fukuyama. "If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?" He seems to be entertaining an X-Men-like fantasy in which enhanced posthumans seek to destroy unenhanced naturals. But where Fukuyama is a bit coy, left-leaning bioethicists George Annas, Lori Andrews and Rosario Isasi are brutally blunt.


The new posthuman, they say, will likely view the old "normal" humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter. The normals, on the other hand, may see the posthumans as a threat and, if they can, may engage in a pre-emptive strike by killing the posthumans before they themselves are killed or enslaved by them. It is ultimately this predictable potential for genocide that makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist.


Let's take the scenario down a notch or two. Enhancements that are likely to be available in the relatively near term will be pharmacological pills and shots to build strength, lighten mood and improve memory. Such interventions could be distributed to nearly everybody who wanted them. Later, when safe genetic engineering becomes possible, it will enable parents to give their children genes for improved health and intelligence that other children get naturally. Thus, safe genetic engineering is more likely to ameliorate than to exacerbate human inequality.


Political liberalism is already the answer to Fukuyama's question about human and posthuman rights. In liberal societies the law is meant to apply equally to all, no matter how rich or poor, powerful or powerless, brilliant or stupid, enhanced or unenhanced.


The crowning achievement of the Enlightenment is the principle of tolerance, of putting up with people who look differently, talk differently, worship differently, and live differently than we do. In the future, our descendants may not all be natural homo sapiens, but they will still be moral beings who can be held accountable for their actions. There is no reason to think that the same liberal political and moral principles that apply to diverse human beings today wouldn't apply to relations among future humans and posthumans.


But what if enhanced posthumans took the Nietzschean superman option? What if they really did see unenhanced people "as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter"?


Let's face it, many unenhanced humans have been quite capable of believing that millions of other unenhanced humans were inferiors who needed to be eradicated. But as liberal political institutions have spread and strengthened, they have increasingly restrained technologically superior groups from automatically wiping out less advanced peoples. I suspect that this dynamic will continue in the future as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computational technologies increase people's capabilities and widen their choices.


In his famous book, The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama declared that we are witnessing "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fair enough. But for Fukuyama, the end of history is a "sad time" because "daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation". Also, he claims, "in the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history."


How ironic that Fukuyama now spends his time demonising transhumanism, a nascent philosophical and political movement that epitomises the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.


"The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature," he says. "We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls." I say, bring on those genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls that help people to live healthier, smarter, and happier lives.


I have my own nomination for an idea that, "if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity": banning technological progress in the name of "humility".




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Concern over safety testing of medical devices


AM - Monday, 6 September , 2004 08:15:00

Reporter: Norman Swan


TONY EASTLEY: Documents uncovered in a court case have revealed there may be significant gaps in assessing the safety of some medical devices used in Australia.


The Therapeutic Goods Administration is the organisation charged with protecting public safety with medical devices like mechanical heart valves.


But the ABC has learnt that the TGA instructs its officials to believe what manufacturers tell them unless they have good reason not to.


The TGA also relies heavily on makers testing their own devices.


Norman Swan of Radio National's Health Report has the story.


NORMAN SWAN: Karen Carey Hazell is a 42 year-old painter, sculptor and business executive who lives in Perth. She had a diseased heart valve diagnosed in adolescence and it deteriorated to the point eight years ago that it needed to be replaced by a mechanical heart valve. But things didn't go well after the operation.


KAREN CAREY HAZELL: I never got over the severe weakness. I was getting frequent dizziness with the room spinning that then resulted in vomiting. I found it very difficult to do the level of walking and things that you're supposed to do.


NORMAN SWAN: But the story gets worse. Karen had blood clots from the valve which landed in her kidney and spleen causing serious damage and one, probably two strokes.


KAREN CAREY HAZELL: Three months after the first stroke, I was at my children's school and actually had the stroke in the car park. I was collapsed for about 15 minuted before someone found me.


NORMAN SWAN: Karen had to have the mechanical valve removed and a pig-tissue valve put in its place. This is when Karen search for answers began. She assumed that the ex-planted valve had been sent to independent authorities for testing ÃÆâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâ€Â ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚¢ÃƒÆ’ƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã‚¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬Ãƒâ€Â¦ÃƒÆ’‚¡ÃƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…¡Ãƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’â€Â¦ÃƒƒÂ¢Ãƒ¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…âہ“ when it hadn't. It was sent back to the US manufacturer.


She was initially told, wrongly, that by law, she couldn't have it back.


Now this story isn't a shock horror piece about a valve that should be taken off the market. Mechanical heart valves are inherently risky devices which can cause clots in a small percentage of patients every year. It's important though to check each case to see whether it could have been prevented, and this is where the TGA comes in.


Through Freedom of Information and court discovery, what Karen was able to piece together was that the distributor responsible for the valve in Australia, had told the Therapeutic Goods Administration right at the beginning, that the valve had been sent back to the United States ÃÆâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâ€Â ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚¢ÃƒÆ’ƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã‚¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬Ãƒâ€Â¦ÃƒÆ’‚¡ÃƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…¡Ãƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’â€Â¦ÃƒƒÂ¢Ãƒ¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…âہ“ when actually, it was to stay in Australia for quite a few days.


This was the period when the TGA could have asked for independent testing. The company says this was an oversight.


The distributor also told the TGA that they'd been no previous records of such events when the evidence is that they do occur. At no point, as far as we're able to ascertain, did the distributor or the manufacturer, ever inform the TGA of the true nature of Karen Kerry-Hazel' s injuries. That meant the TGA classified it as a relatively minor incident.


The TGA tells its staff to believe what manufactures tell them, unless they have good reason not to, and relies quite heavily on manufacturers for testing. And, despite a request from one of the surgeons for special electron microscopy on the valve, it wasn't done until a few years later, prior to the litigation ÃÆâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâ€Â ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚¢ÃƒÆ’ƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã‚¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬Ãƒâ€Â¦ÃƒÆ’‚¡ÃƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…¡Ãƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’â€Â¦ÃƒƒÂ¢Ãƒ¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…âہ“ when they found a chip, which the company maintains occurred after the valve had been removed.


In addition, the company's patient information booklet at that time, didn't cover the risk of clots and the manual given to doctors at that time, may well have failed to include research papers which might have suggested a higher risk than usually quoted. The TGA knows all this now, thanks to Karen, but has taken no action in relation to the distributor or company.


Rita MacLauchlan heads medical devices at the TGA.


RITA MACLAUCHLAN: For Karen Carey Hazell, this has been a particular tragic case, but from our point of view, the investigation followed the procedures that we had in place, and we closed the actual incident report believing that nothing else could have been done.


TONY EASTLEY: Rita MacLauchlan of the TGA. And you can hear more on an extended Health Report on Radio National this morning at 8.15 or tonight after the 8 o'clock news.



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Research points to heart muscle regrowth


Medical researchers in Brazil say they have found that patients with diseased hearts can apparently regrow heart muscle and arteries after being injected with bone marrow stem cells.


Researchers at the Pro-Cardiac Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, working with the Texas Heart Institute in the United States, treated 14 patients with bone marrow cells between December 2001 and late last year.


The doctors say four patients who needed transplants now no longer require them, and when one patient died after 11 months of treatment, the autopsy showed tiny new arteries in the heart and also what looked like new muscle tissue.


Until now, it has been thought that heart tissue could not regenerate.


The Brazilian research is to be submitted to the medical journal Circulation.



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Scientists Find Nanowires Capable Of Detecting Individual Viruses


Date: 2004-09-24


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Sept. 22, 2004 -ÃÆâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâ€Â ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚¢ÃƒÆ’ƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã‚¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬Ãƒâ€Â¦ÃƒÆ’‚¡ÃƒÆ’â€Å¡Ãƒƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’Æâ€â„¢ÃƒÆ’ƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¢ÃƒÆ’¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…¡Ãƒâہ¡ÃƒÆ’‚¬ÃƒÆ’â€Â¦ÃƒƒÂ¢Ãƒ¢Ã¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚¬ÃƒÆ’…âہ“ Harvard University scientists have found that ultra-thin silicon wires can be used to electrically detect the presence of single viruses, in real time, with near-perfect selectivity. These nanowire detectors can also differentiate among viruses with great precision, suggesting that the technique could be scaled up to create miniature arrays easily capable of sensing thousands of different viruses.


The work was reported in the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


"Viruses are among the most important causes of human disease and are of increasing concern as possible agents of biowarfare and bioterrorism," says author Charles M. Lieber, Mark Hyman Jr. Professor of Chemistry in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "Our work shows that nanoscale silicon wires can be configured as ultra-sensitive detectors that turn on or off in the presence of a single virus. The capabilities of nanowire detectors, which could be fashioned into arrays capable of detecting literally thousands of different viruses, could usher in a new era for diagnostics, biosafety, and response to viral outbreaks."







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Urine test may detect breast cancer


US scientists have identified a telltale enzyme that seems to detect breast cancer early and track tumour's growth


BOSTON - Researchers in the United States have developed a simple urine test that appears to detect breast cancer early and accurately track tumour growth.


The findings are still preliminary, but if further research supports them, the test could be a major advance in the effort to catch breast cancer before it turns deadly.


The scientists, who work for Harvard University at Children's Hospital Boston, are searching for similar markers in urine for other cancers.


Earlier this year, a team at the National Cancer Institute reported that other tumours, including prostate cancer, may also be detectable with urine tests.


That would be more convenient and less expensive than the scans, blood tests and biopsies commonly used to screen for and diagnose cancers.






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Study shows dogs can detect cancer

Emma Ross, Associated Press

September 24, 2004


LONDON -- It has long been suspected that man's best friend has a special ability to sense when something is wrong with us. Now the first experiment to verify that scientifically has demonstrated that dogs are able to smell cancer.


The study results, outlined this week in the British Medical Journal, showed that when urine from bladder cancer patients was set out among samples from healthy people or those with other diseases, the dogs -- all pets -- identified the cancer patients' urine almost three times more often than would be expected by chance alone.


David Neal, a bladder and prostate cancer surgeon at Cambridge University in England, said it's plausible dogs could smell cancer because people with the disease shed abnormal proteins in their urine.




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Monday, September 20, 2004 . Posted: 00:00:00 (AEDT)


New hope for cancer vaccine

Australian scientists have developed a vaccine which may be able to prevent some cancers from reoccuring.


In the trials so far, the new technique has proven successful in stopping cancer in animals and now doctors are hoping to test it on patients.


Scientists at Canberra's Australian National University have been working on a vaccine which can switch on the body's defences against cancer.


While the idea of a vaccine is not new, researchers discovered a new way to directly target cancer killing cells.


Head of the School of Biochemistry at Australian National University Professor Kiaran Kirk said,


"This has really simplified the approach quite dramatically and the potential is quite substantial."


The idea is that it would turn on the immune system to mop up any cancer cells left behind.


"We are very excited because we have used this method in mice and animals and we have found it is very effective at preventing the growth of the cancer of melanoma," Dr Joseph Altin, chief researcher said.


In a small trial, mice injected with the compound had advanced cancer eradicated from their bodies and it did not come back.


The vaccine would be given to patients after surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.


"Once the bulk of the tumour has been removed the approach would be to give the patient immunotherapy and this would eliminate the remaining cancer cells in the body," Dr Altin said.


Doctors hope to trial the vaccine on 20 patients with melanomas early next year.






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