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Month: May 2020

Review of Jamie Metzl’s “Hacking Darwin” by Dan Elton

Review of Jamie Metzl’s “Hacking Darwin” by Dan Elton

 

Dan Elton


Our inaugural  book review of 2020 covers Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl. As a  happy coincidence, David Wood of the London Futurists recently had Metzl speak to his group, and you can watch a recording of the event here.  This book is an exploration of how we might genetically engineer our children, why we might want to do so, and what the consequences might be.

The fact is, some people are already “hacking Darwin”. The first “test-tube baby” was born in 1978. This set the stage for preimplantation genetic testing, which became popular in the 1990s and widely used today. But “hacking Darwin” had already been occurring earlier due to genetic testing. A striking example Metzl discusses is the rapid decrease in Tay-Sachs disease in the  Ashkenazi jewish community.  Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder which has devastating effects on the nervous system. By age 2, children with Tay-Sachs start to experience seizures and decline in mental functioning. Sadly, most die in agonizing pain by the age of five. About one in twenty seven Ashkenazi Jews carry the Tay-Sachs genes. Remarkably though, since the 1980s, the prevalence of the disease among Ashkenazi Jews has been very low, due to extensive genetic testing and family planning. Marriages between people who have tested positive for the disease were discouraged, and when they do occur, the couples tended to adopt rather than risk having a child born with the disease. The result was a great reduction in needless suffering, which is hard to argue against.

One of the major objections to genetic engineering is that it is “unnatural”. Metzl points out that a better term is “unfamiliar”. He points out that many things that seem natural are actually very “unnatural” – for instance, if you went back a few thousand years, you wouldn’t find anything resembling today’s corn or bananas – they are human concoctions from centuries of selective breeding. It seems that the queeziness people feel, which they label as due to “un-naturalness” is actually just due to unfamiliarity, which naturally invokes anxiety. History shows us that any radical technology or new idea naturally experiences widespread pushback. But history also shows that acceptance of a radical new idea or technology can be remarkably fast notwithstanding.

In-vitro fertilization provides an interesting case study of how public opinion can shift. Initially it was demonized, but public acceptance of it rapidly changed over the course of only a few years.

The next technology that will come down the pipeline, according to Metzl, is iterated embryo selection. Embryos are already inspected visually to select the one that is least likely to result in a miscarriage, and as noted in some cases preimplantation genetic testing is performed to check for a few genetic illnesses. This process can be scaled up and improved dramatically. Instead of having 10-15 eggs fertilized, a hundred might be, and instead of just doing visual checks, the genome of each embryo might be sequenced to screen out certain genetic disorders and select for certain traits. The process could also be “iterated”, using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPCs) from the embryos to create new gametes (eggs & sperm) which could be combined to create new embryos.

Fig. 1 – The Cost of Sequencing a Human Genome.

Source: National Human Genome Research Institute

 https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Sequencing-Human-Genome-cost

The benefits of expanding IVF and embryo selection could not only eliminate unnecessary suffering but also result in large financial savings which will allow money to be redistributed elsewhere in our healthcare system. The current cost of taking care of the current number of people born with genetic diseases each year was roughly estimated by Metzl to be $48 billion, spread over 37 years into the future.

The cost of sequencing is dropping dramatically (see Fig. 1). This is allowing for larger genome-wide association studies (GWASs). Using big data, statistical methods, and machine learning, many outcomes can be predicted by analyzing the many genes which can influence most traits. Already, the height a child will grow to can be predicted to within an inch (assuming they get adequate nutrition) by analyzing thousands of genes.

Two major types of enhancements which will benefit our offspring are discussed in length by Metzl – increased intelligence and increased healthspan, and it’s worth discussing some of his main findings here. (Other possible enhancements he notes are increased empathy, supersensory capabilities, increased physical stamina and strength, increased beauty, increased ability to extract nutrition from foods, and better ability to tolerate mircrogravity and  radiation.)

Regarding intelligence, the Minnestota Family Twin study found that 70% of IQ is genetic. More recent works put the number somewhat lower (about 50%), but a surprising amount is hereditary, and the variance due to genetics is significant (about 15 points of IQ in each direction). The rest seems to be largely due to things like childhood nutrition and having a rich environment as a kid. Higher IQ provides many benefits. Among them is a better ability to adapt to change and work in a dynamic environment where you constantly have to learn new skills. Statistically, people with lower IQ tend to work jobs with a regular routine, such as service positions. Currently, those with low IQ can still have a great life (there’s no evidence IQ correlates with happiness), and low-IQ people can learn a trade where there is reliable demand, become very good at it, and be valued by society. With the advent of AI and robotics, this is rapidly changing, and the risk of large-scale technological unemployment is real. Metzl asks, in light of this, is it really fair that we are trusting the economic wellbeing of our children to the genetic lottery of sexual recombination? It’s already not easy to compensate for a bad draw in the genetic lottery. Additionally, if other parents are doing it, why would any parent want to risk their child being far behind their peers? According to Metzl, the choice will be clear for parents in the future.

The second major area where genetic engineering will have an effect is aging. The diseases of aging were not something evolution cared much about, so there are likely genetic hacks that are possible but were just never selected for – it’s an area ripe for optimization.  For a glimpse of what is possible, Metzl has us consider the naked mole rat, a species which is remarkable in many ways (click here for a  full list of ways this species is special). Most notably, naked mole rats don’t exhibit the normal signs of aging, and they don’t get cancer. Thus, as odd as it may seem, the naked mole rat is the subject of intense research, and this humble species even serves as a sort of touchstone increasing the confidence of venture capitalists investing in longevity biotech startups in Silicon Valley. According to Metzl, “Calico, Google’s San Francisco–based life-extension company, maintains one of the world’s largest captive colonies of naked mole rats to see if it can uncover biomarkers of aging and unlock the secrets of naked mole rat longevity.”

It seems that genetic engineering will eventually be accepted as the ethically superior way of creating children – no one will want to leave something as important as the health and economic wellbeing of their children to blind chance. Human beings naturally crave control and certainty where possible — that’s why we give our kids vaccines and parents spend thousands of dollars on prophylactic dental procedures such as orthodontics or the removal of wisdom teeth. Yes, there will always be some hold-outs who will want to stick with “traditional conception”, but after reading Metzl’s book I can’t help but think that eventually the numbers will be quite small. Consider, for instance, that even the Amish use modern medicine.

The scientific and technological path to a much more healthy world, with much less suffering and longer, healthier lives is clear. There are straightforward steps we can take to reduce congenital ailments, for instance. However, there’s a real chance we may delay even this for decades, causing much needless suffering. Part of the reason is that any discussions of the subject immediately bring up a lot of cultural baggage from the horrible legacy of eugenics. The horrors of eugenics form an unfortunate negative emotional halo around any discussion of genetic engineering. While the eugenics movement is largely dead, the subject is so important that Metzl rightly devotes a large part of the book to it. Concerns about a re-emergence of the horrors of eugenics are legitimate, but conflation of what is being proposed with those horrors is not. Eugenicists advocated forced sterilization, whereas nobody is proposing that today. Instead, all that is being proposed is that parents have a choice in how their children are conceived. However, there is a real concern that parents will voluntarily choose children with certain biases, such lighter skin and heterosexuality. There are also concerns that the creation of genetically engineered “super children” would lead to a caste system of some sort, leading to a highly in-equitable society where the non-genetically-engineered are constantly discriminated against and made to feel unworthy. Metzl acknowledges each of these risks as real, but he also points out that none of the scenarios are inevitable and asks the reader to consider the benefits of genetic engineering as well, some of which we previously discussed. He notes that our current world is already very unequal in terms of genetics. Might a bit more genetic inequality be acceptable, Metzl asks, if the children created make enormous contributions to the arts and sciences which benefit all of humanity? Regarding whether a caste system might form, Metzl suggests that we must work to ensure the technology is widely distributed (at one point I recall he suggests insurance companies might have an incentive to provide genetic engineering as it would reduce health costs later on). A bigger horror, Metzl suggests, is not genetic inequality, but perfect genetic equality – the creation of a uniform generation of cookie-cutter children, where misfits and non-neurotypicals (which have historically contributed so much) have been selected out.  Each of these concerns are real, and Metzl doesn’t try to argue otherwise.

While ethical concerns may stifle the development of genetic engineering, a different scenario is a genetic arms race. In other areas such as AI, China is making more aggressive investments in genetic technology – a “$9 billion, fifteen-year investment to improve national leadership in precision medicine”. Metzl points out that the Chinese seem to have far fewer hang-ups around the subject and are blazing full steam ahead.

While the author is sympathetic to genetic engineering, the book presents a balanced treatment and never waxes too polemical. The first part of the book is mostly about the science. The later sections, on the ethical concerns and the genetic arms race scenario, are the most thought-provoking and are parts I may re-listen to at some point. Overall, this book is a very timely and thought-provoking introduction to the subject.

Dan Elton, Ph. D., is Director of Scholarship for the U.S. Transhumanist Party. 

U.S. Transhumanist Party Again Endorses Gennady Stolyarov II for Indian Hills General Improvement District Board of Trustees in 2020

U.S. Transhumanist Party Again Endorses Gennady Stolyarov II for Indian Hills General Improvement District Board of Trustees in 2020

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The U.S. Transhumanist Party has concluded its three-day electronic vote on the question of endorsing Gennady Stolyarov II for the Board of Trustees of the Indian Hills General Improvement District (IHGID) in Nevada in the 2020 election.

Of the 67 members who voted, 65 (97.0%) cast their ballots in favor of endorsing Mr. Stolyarov’s candidacy. One member (1.5%) voted in opposition, and one member (1.5%) abstained.

All of the U.S. Transhumanist Party’s Officers received independent access to the vote results.

Accordingly, the U.S. Transhumanist Party has an endorsed candidate who will be on the ballot in the 2020 mail-in primary election in Douglas County, Nevada, and has an opportunity to advance to the general election if he performs sufficiently well in the primary.

In response to this endorsement, Mr. Stolyarov issued the following statement:

It is once again an immense honor to receive such overwhelming support from the members of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, whose forward-thinking vision remains as steadfast as ever despite these turbulent times. It is clear that, in the wake of a pandemic that is ravaging the world, a different approach to politics is needed – an approach that fundamentally respects people and their liberties, that prioritizes essential infrastructure, that looks for innovative technological and rational common-sense solutions to both everyday issues and the grand challenges with which we must all now contend. While we must be innovative, nimble, and insistent on continual improvement, core principles must remain the foundations upon which progress is built.

My campaign statement therefore remains the same as in 2018: Through reason, technology, and respect for property rights, we can live well and improve. I have, furthermore, reinforced the transhumanist aims of my campaign by promising to donate half of my Trustee salary, $250 per month, to organizations and initiatives that promote longevity and health and advance the kinds of medical technologies that will lengthen our lifespans if sufficiently supported. I firmly hold my campaign principles, as well as the Core Ideals of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, to be capable of improving the lives and satisfying the constructive desires of all, and I hope to have the opportunity to show how these concepts work in practice to the benefit of all of my constituents, no matter their conventional political affiliation.

Questions about Mr. Stolyarov’s candidacy can be directed here.

U.S. Transhumanist Party Vote on the Question of Endorsing Gennady Stolyarov II for the Indian Hills General Improvement District Board of Trustees in 2020

U.S. Transhumanist Party Vote on the Question of Endorsing Gennady Stolyarov II for the Indian Hills General Improvement District Board of Trustees in 2020

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The U.S. Transhumanist Party will hold an electronic vote of the membership for a three-day period ending on 12:01 a.m. U.S. Pacific Time on Monday, May 4, 2020, on the question of whether to endorse Gennady Stolyarov II who is again running and on the ballot in 2020 as a candidate for the Board of Trustees of the Indian Hills General Improvement District (IHGID) in Nevada in the 2020 election.

See Mr. Stolyarov’s campaign page here.

Registered U.S. Transhumanist Party members as of 12:01 a.m. U.S. Pacific Time on Friday, May 1, 2020, would be able to cast their ballots on this question and will be sent their ballots via e-mail.

Because Mr. Stolyarov is the Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, we shall strive to make every effort that the voting proceeds in as transparent and independently verifiable a manner as possible. Members are free to vote for or against the endorsement, or to abstain from voting, without any adverse repercussions for any decision made or in consequence of any outcome resulting from this vote. Every member is encouraged to make an independent, informed decision on this question. Any member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party who wishes to be an independent observer of the vote results may contact Mr. Stolyarov at gennadystolyarovii@gmail.com. All independent observers must promise not to disclose the names of those who voted to the broader public, although the independent observers may be privy to those names for purposes of verification of results only (and not for purposes of using this information to influence the outcome), and with the understanding that such non-disclosure must be adhered to.

Mr. Stolyarov is officially running as a nonpartisan candidate for this nonpartisan office, and accordingly his name on the ballot cannot be accompanied by a political party designation. There are currently five candidates, including Mr. Stolyarov, running for two open positions.

Accordingly, the significance of any endorsement by the U.S. Transhumanist Party would be symbolic in nature and would serve to bring greater attention to transhumanist ideas and how they could be instantiated in everyday, nonpartisan governance and an approach that can also appeal to the broader public, as Mr. Stolyarov attempts to do in his campaign. Furthermore, the U.S. Transhumanist Party would be aided by having an endorsed candidate in the 2020 election, especially a candidate with a realistic possibility of winning the office for which he is running.

Highlights from Mr. Stolyarov’s campaign website include the following:

  • Donation of Half of Trustee Salary to Longevity Research: As an additional way to encourage the improvement of lives and living standards for all, if elected, I promise to donate half of my salary as a Trustee, $250 per month, to research initiatives and charities which work to enhance human health and longevity and develop medical technologies that, in the coming years and decades, will enable everyone to lead lives of greater length and quality.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and Platform:  The United States Transhumanist Party supports concerted research in effort to eradicate disease and illness that wreak havoc upon and cause death of sapient beings. We strongly advocate the increase and redirection of research funds to conduct research and experiments and to explore life, science, technology, medicine, and extraterrestrial realms to improve all sentient entities. [Article VI, Section V]
  • Transcending political divisions: The IHGID Board of Trustees is nonpartisan, and I am running as a nonpartisan for this office. This means that I hope to represent everyone in this District, no matter what their political views or how they might differ from mine. Although we live in a politically divisive era, when it comes to a high quality of life in a neighborhood, we all have shared values that enable common ground to be found. We may not always agree on particular issues, or always reach an outcome that satisfies everyone, but I will strive to engage sincerely and transparently with each interested resident, and find creative solutions that meet as many goals of as many residents as possible.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and Platform: Tolerance and inclusivity of all individuals of all races, genders, classes, religions, creeds, national origins, and other characteristics. [Article VI, Section II]
  • Putting facts first: Many of the decisions of the IHGID Board of Trustees are focused on specific knowledge about the water, sewer, and road systems within the District. I consider it crucial to gather as much factual information as possible about the workings of the affected systems, the available options, and the benefits and costs involved with each option, before making a decision. Every decision is a learning opportunity, and I promise to be open to the facts and to the input of those with knowledge and experience in the areas that the decisions affect.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and PlatformSupport of all values and efforts toward cultivation of science, technology, reason. [Article VI, Section VII]
  • Ensuring that key infrastructure operates smoothly: We all want clean and safe water, well-maintained roads, and an effective sewer system. Additionally, the IHGID maintains parks that many residents enjoy and hosts events that improve quality of life for members of this community. These core functions are important and need to be performed well. Many people only notice them if there is a shortcoming, but the IHGID conducts valuable work in the background to prevent such shortcomings from arising. I will be attentive to this work, in large part so that residents can go about their daily lives smoothly. In my experience, there has been significant improvement in these areas during my time as a resident in the District, and I hope to encourage and work toward further improvement wherever possible.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and PlatformSupport for a smart infrastructure. [Article VI, Section X]
  • Respecting homeowners’ property rights: I espouse the view that one’s home is one’s inviolable personal domain. This means that choices about esthetics – such as home décor, color, texture, landscaping, outdoor furniture, statuary, and other purely visual elements – should be entirely within the discretion of a home’s owner. I oppose any plan to establish a homeowners association within the IHGID, and I support keeping the IHGID’s roles as currently defined. The only justifiable restrictions on a homeowner’s prerogatives should be considerations of the health and safety of others, as well as the ability of others to make rightful use of the common elements of the neighborhood. I support and encourage compliance with all IHGID policies and applicable provisions of law, including Douglas County Ordinances, and I also support being a good neighbor – which includes maintaining clean and visually appealing properties. However, much that is good about the appearance of our neighborhood can be and has been achieved informally and voluntarily – by people respecting others and arranging improvements amongst themselves. Not everything that is good should be mandatory.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and Platform: Individual privacy and liberty over how to apply technology to one’s personal life [Article VI, Section I]; morphological freedom [Article VI, Section VI]. Note: The freedom to use technology extends to basic and long-established technologies, such as those involved in home decoration, functional features, and furnishings. If one’s home is viewed as an extension of one’s self-expression, then the freedom to make esthetic choices for one’s home is a key component of morphological freedom.
  • Pursuing technological solutions: I am a strong advocate of emerging technologies in a wide variety of realms. I will think carefully and thoroughly about which new advances can enable the IHGID to fulfill its purposes in a more effective and cost-effective manner, while only improving quality of service.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and PlatformSupport of all emerging technologies that improve the human condition. [Article VI, Section IX]
  • Enabling resident initiatives: If you have an idea for an effort that will improve life in this neighborhood, and you are willing to implement it through your own hard work and that of people who agree with you, please feel free to reach out to me, and I will explore how this idea relates to the IHGID and how to enable your idea to be realized within the framework of the IHGID’s mission and goals.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and Platform“The United States Transhumanist Party supports the involvement of intelligent laypersons in the political process to counteract and neutralize the influence of politically connected special interests and their paid representatives. The United States Transhumanist Party supports all electronic and other technologies that can inform and empower intelligent laypersons to monitor and contribute to political discussions and decisions.” [Article VI, Section XIII]
  • Supporting development that helps everyone and preserving valuable amenities: I believe that it is possible to have more of everything that everyone considers good. Life is not a zero-sum game; it can be positive-sum with the appropriate focus on win-win solutions and sincere consideration of how to improve from everyone’s perspective. I am a runner and hiker, so I enjoy open space and an abundance of trails nearby. I also consider additional residential development in the vicinity to be beneficial, provided that it is supported by adequate infrastructure – such as well-maintained roads, multiple outlets, and water and wastewater systems that amply provide for all residents’ needs. The real-world approach to particular situations involving preservation and development is often highly situationally specific, and could, in certain circumstances, be outside the scope of the IHGID’s boundaries and mission altogether. However, I promise to thoughtfully consider how our neighborhood and the surrounding areas are changing and to reach informed opinions regarding how any problems could be viably addressed. Through science, technology, rational thinking, and the consequent progress of our civilization, we are all tremendously better off than our ancestors were generations ago. We can continue the improvement on every scale, from local to global.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Values and Platform: Support of all values and efforts toward cultivation of science, technology, reason. [Article VI, Section VII]
    • Core Ideal 2: The Transhumanist Party supports a cultural, societal, and political atmosphere informed and animated by reason, science, and secular values.
  • Commitment to fair campaign practices: I have signed the Nevada Code of Fair Campaign Practices and will abide by it. There will be three vacancies for the IHGID Board of Trustees on January 1, 2019. If more than three candidates run, and there is a possibility that some candidates might not be elected, I promise that I will treat every candidate with civility and respect.  I reject negative campaigning and all personal attacks.
    • Parallel in U.S. Transhumanist Party Constitution, Article I, Section III, Operating Principle 4: “The Transhumanist Party commits to always pursuing its goals in a civil, law-abiding manner, respecting the legitimate rights of all persons.”
    • Parallel in the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, Version 2.0, Article XXIV: “Transhumanists stand opposed to the post-truth culture of deception. All governments should be required to make decisions and communicate information rationally and in accordance with facts. Lying for political gain or intentionally fomenting irrational fears among the general public should entail heavy political penalties for the officials who engage in such behaviors.”

Read Mr. Stolyarov’s reflections regarding his 2018 campaign for the IHGID Board of Trustees here.

Excerpt:

My own campaign for the Board of Trustees of the Indian Hills General Improvement District (IHGID) in Nevada was able to proceed to the general-election stage, since ballot access was available without the need to submit petitions. I ultimately obtained 520 votes out of 2,024 residents who cast their ballots. While I did not win a seat on the Board, 25.7% – more than a quarter – of the voters cast affirmative ballots in my favor.

While I would have preferred to win, this outcome still shows that my campaign – on which I spent no money but rather utilized social media, in-person appearances in public places, videos, and word of mouth – enabled me to reach more than a quarter of the residents after beginning with essentially zero name recognition in the area. Transhumanism, when articulated in a mainstream-friendly manner, can elicit support from people across the political spectrum and in all walks of life. We just need to continue to spread our message with determination and deliberate regarding ways of reaching constituencies who might not have become aware of transhumanism yet – perhaps because our methods of communication have not yet overlapped with their preferred media and social circles.