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Human enhancement: does nature know best? (ieet.org)
31 points by jonbaer 1400 days ago | hide | past | web | 30 comments | favorite



I'm convinced nothing can stop genetic engineering in humans in the long run. The question is what goal the genetic engineering will have, what ideal will take the place of natural selection? This article suggests we will engineer away negative, selfish and competitive traits, but my guess is it will go the opposite direction. There will be an arms race where people improve themselves and their children to learn faster, excel in school and at work, be competitive and selfish. Parents already do whatever they can to give their kids a competitive advantage, pay tens of thousands of dollars for private school (even kindergarten), pay for expensive tutors so they excel at all the standardized tests etc. Globalization has created an environment where winner takes all, so few parents with a choice would deny their kids the advantages that some of their peers get.

Unless we're all in on it, we can't engineer towards happiness because there will always be some group of people that will take advantage of the situation.


> I'm convinced nothing can stop genetic engineering in humans in the long run.

Note: the article talked about human enhancement in general, and mentioned cyborg-esque options like titanium bones. It didn't mentioned the most radical option of all, mind uploading, but I guess that was to avoid scaring readers away. (Mind uploading also have this minor "will it be really me?" problem.)

> This article suggests we will engineer away negative, selfish and competitive traits

(Emphasis mine.)

Err, I didn't read that. From what I read, the article said that we probably should engineer away such traits. And again, if a parent can enhance her child's school results by buying her the best arithmetic implant from Texas Neuro-Instruments, she will not limit herself to mere DNA modifications. Many of us already wear glasses, for instance.

I do agree with your main point though: technology-aided evolution will probably take a sharp and nasty turn, if ran unchecked.


Nasty turn how? It's only a problem when combined with allowing other, existent problems to go unchecked - i.e. the stratification of wealth.

Presuming the problem is that it's being done at all is fundamentally asking the wrong questions, not to mention strays far into violating rights like habeas corpus which creates a much bigger problem.


Technology can create new problems by itself. The most obvious ones are Risks of Blowing Ourselves Up (or existential risks). Drexlerian Nanotechnology? Gray goo accident. Strong AI? Skynet, only it'll kill us all before we even realise it. Biological research? Pandemic disease from the lab. And of course the more mundane World War III and environmental collapse, from which it is unclear our civilization can ever recover. The difference with the last two is that it can run on current technology.

We could also create a universe that we wouldn't like at all, like Robin Hanson's vision of the future after mind uploading.

We could also modify ourselves for the sake of competitivity alone, or pleasure alone, or anything that doesn't encompass all that we want to do and be.

Sure, technology is only a catalyst. But it's one hell of a catalyst. Aim a knife in the wrong direction, and you might hurt someone. Aim a nuclear warhead in the wrong direction, and you might obliterate a whole city. In both cases, the root of the problem is that you aimed in the wrong direction. But technology makes quite a difference in terms of consequences. By the way, we're already aware of that to some extent: nuclear warheads tend to have more security around them than knives.


Catalyst yes, but there's degrees of problems. Within this scope, the question is "should people be allowed to improve themselves" - denying that because it would exacerbate an underlying social problem still exacerbates that problem.


> if a parent can enhance her child's school results by buying her the best arithmetic implant from Texas Neuro-Instruments,

Judging by the prices of graphing calculators, an implant like that would only be affordable by millionaires :)


Not in 4 decades from now, depending on how much progress we do on the relevant fields (such as neuroscience).


Is such an outcome so terrible? Yes, it will be unfair if some humans are smarter, stronger, and healthier than they otherwise would be. But these people will be a massive benefit to the rest of humanity.[1] We'll end up with smarter doctors, lawyers, scientists, and (gasp) politicians. If you think at the margins (would it be better if people were smarter or dumber, on average), the answer is clear: Human enhancement is almost certainly a good thing. Anyone who says otherwise is in the same boat as those who worried about the implications of vaccination, antibiotics, and stem-cell therapy. These technologies do have downsides, but the benefits are so much greater that we're all glad they were invented.

Personally, I'd rather live in a world where more people were smarter than me. While it would diminish my own status, humanity would be able to solve more of its problems.

Finally, you assume that enhancement technology will remain expensive indefinitely. Historically, new technologies have gotten cheaper over time. While not everyone will be able to afford enhancement at first, it seems likely that it will follow the same trend as Internet access, smartphones, gene sequencing, and countless other technologies once reserved for elites.

1. See http://www.iratde.org/issues/1-2009/tde_issue_1-2009_03_rind... for a study of the effect of high IQs on economies.


Uhh, this is Earth, and we are all organisms competing for resources.

You can't legislate or contract away nature, once you zoom out to the scale of "species" or "planet".


Uhh, this is Earth, and we are all organisms competing for resources.

This is Earth indeed. Some dimly lit gravity well at the edge of our smallish galaxy, with no reasonable plan as of yet to get away. But hey, let's just burn everything on being better than the next guy, because just being happy for someone else, much less supporting them, isn't even an option.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_mentality


> But hey, let's just burn everything on being better than the next guy, because just being happy for someone else, much less supporting them, isn't even an option.

I think that's a good way to live, as an individual.

I don't think there is any way to ensure that all of (or even a majority of) the species does that, no.


There is no way to ensure anything, ever. But there are directions to work in.


It would definitely be the latter. Once upon a time the context for evolution was nature- surviving when nature was trying to kill you. We no longer struggle much to survive, so now it is about compete- against eachother, naturally.


When having these discussions (and the inevitable anthropomorphisms of nature and evolution), it's important to view Past Evolution and Present Evolution as distinct.

Past Evolution is a billion-year-old algorithm from which emerged deep and subtle intelligence through trillions of trillions of iterations of trial and error. Though far from perfect, its legacy is the Terran Ecosystem, aka Mother Nature + Humans, a force to be reckoned with.

Present Evolution, however, is lazy, cruel and sloppy. On the scale of mere decades, it does effectively nothing to advance the interests of human life.

(Future Evolution is of course significant, though not on a timescale relevant to our lifetimes, at least if we're referring to the "untampered" variety.)

I view genetic augmentation as inevitable, leading to an accelerated evolutionary process; however, I can see valid cases for either throwing on the brakes and going as slowly as possible, or putting on the gas to maximize progress, with all its benefits and costs.


what do you mean by present evolution?


For any small window of time evolution is the hum-drum existence of daily live - being born, being eaten, etc. Only over significant periods are the patterns of change discernable. There are good examples of evolution at work over periods that humans can easily understand, bacterial resistance or peppered moths, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution, for example. But these are not nearly numerous enough for widespread understanding of the process. On a side note: hence the reason why Creationism is not extinct.


It's also important to remember evolution is not a process of general improvement, it's a process of adaptation for survival.

There is absolutely no reason for natural evolution to select for being smarter or stronger if it's not a good survival tactic - i.e. if it doesn't select for traits which allow proficient reproduction.

On a large scale "more evolved" is a meaningless term.


I would assume he's referring to the fact that evolution works by allowing the weak to die, or at the least not reproduce and without those mechanisms evolution is a different beast.


I don't think he was making a statement about society. Rather pointing out that when we think of the benefits of evolution, we tend to think of the combined effect over billions of years. But holding a microscope to it on scales like that of human history reveals a cumbersome and nearly imperceptible process. As it is, it offers nothing on any timescale that is meaningful to us.


I tend to agree. But a point about timescales: While it offers little on timescales that is directly relevant to our individual lives today - we're not going to see the generation of our children grow to turn out to include super human mutants like in X-Men -, it does offer something on timescales most of us can reasonably comprehend.

E.g. I believe HIV resistance is higher amongst people that have a certain gene that appears to have spread to something like 10% of people in Northern Europe after the black plague, for example. And blond hair in Northern Europe spread out of the Baltics from as recently as the 1700's, and went from nothing to 90%+ of the population in some areas.


Short-Term and Long-Term probably would have made more sense than Present and Past.


I can't think of a single secular concern regarding human enhancement that isn't prudential at best.


Here's one: the large number of unwilling human test subjects we will need in order to really tell exactly what genes need to be changed, and why. (Modifying the genes of someone with a simple mutation like downs syndrome is a lot simpler, though.)


You're right regarding the correction of monogenic diseases, but you chose your example poorly.

Down's syndrome is the result of having an extra chromosome, which induces the overexpression of genes, some of which are related to embryogenesis and development.


Where did "unwilling human test subjects" come into play?


Humans are a force of nature themselves.


Genetic manipulation and other enhancements should be accepted as at least a by-product of evolution. After all, it was evolution that gave us the brains capable of it.


The appendix is actually not evolutionarily useless; it apparently helps to foster beneficial bacteria within the intestines. Which, although I tend to agree with the author, is definitely not a point in his argument's favor.


Are we going to pick random genes and insert them? I'd like the chimp form of myosin, please. I'd love to be that strong. (I hope it has no negative consequences.)


Comes with the 1.5" penis.




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