Thursday, February 27, 2014

Genetic Engineering Today: How Far Should We Go?

Aldous Huxley anticipated these questions way back in 1930 and he explored them masterfully in his ever-relevant novel Brave New World.

Let me begin by confessing that the image I have chosen as a heading to my brief discussion is a bit "over the top" but I hope its sensational nature might get us to pause for further consideration. Chipmunks used to be cute right? Imagine this little monster scurrying across your backyard. That settles it. 

But then the image is biased negatively, isn't it?

New developments in genetic engineering recently discussed in the news are generating necessary, useful public debate. As a general practice, it's probably best to enter the discussion without a fixed position either way. A February 19th story on NPR "Should We Prohibit Genetically Engineered Babies?" features an Oxford style debate on this question. 

The NPR piece begins with two potently emotional questions: "What if, before your children were born, you could make sure they had the genes to be taller or smarter? Would that tempt you, or would you find it unnerving? What if that genetic engineering would save a child from a rare disease?" 

Few of us with children would quickly answer no. But I wonder, do we attribute too much certainty to positive predictions of outcome as if a human being is a just predictable mechanical process? But if we would support the prohibition of genetic engineering then we might be attributing too much certainty to negative outcome, fearing extra fingers, a third nostril or an ear on the forehead and such.

An interesting feature of this debate is that, of the four experts only one, Robert Winston of Imperial College London, has actually practiced genetic engineering, specifically "preimplantation genetic diagnosis" that helped families with a history of genetic defects to have children without them. 

I won't review each expert's stand on the motion, but the moderator begins the discussion by calling on Sheldon Krimsky to articulate his support of prohibiting genetic engineering, and he makes an important point that applies to many scientific and social discussions. Krimksy observes that a human being is more than a "Lego set" predictably assembled but more like "an ecosystem where all the parts interrelate and are in mutual balance." Who we become is made over time through the intertwined influences of genetics, nutrition, environment, social practices etc. Changing a gene is not the only factor involved when attempting a desired result. 

Nita Farahany who opposes the prohibition of genetic engineering in favor of the "middle ground" of public debate. She makes her case partly by relating the emotional story of a mother who passed on her genetic defect to all six of her children, five of whom died. Her disease is known as Leigh's Syndrome and it could have been prevented through an egg-engineering approach called "DNA transfer" which is questioned by some scientists and being debated by the FDA now. 

The good news is that all four participants, two in favor and two against prohibiting genetic engineering, are active in public discussion of the ethical and social implications of scientific discoveries. This is far different from the scientific situation in Brave New World where the primary role of science is to promote stability. 

In chapter 16, World Controller Mustapha Mond discusses science with John Savage: "Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don't want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That's another reason we are so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Seeds of Brave New World?

In Alix Spiegel's July 16, 2012 NPR article "Can Science Plant Brain Seeds That Make You Vote?" we have a hint at the psychological conditioning that Huxley foresees as one of several methods of control used by the World Controllers in his novel Brave New World. Ironically however, active participation in the democratic process is precisely the kind of behavior that can help prevent the kind of subtle technologized control that makes the Brave New World possible - unless, of course, those 'seeds' also guide or override our natural choice of candidate.

In the novel it is the ever-present hypnopedia that continually plants slogan seeds that help keep the populace docile and obedient, and even those who know about the conditioning and/or have helped design the hypnopedic seeds are subject to their influence. As Bernard Marx reflects in chapter 3: "Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth" a fact that Joesph Goebbels recognized which is in full operation today - especially in politics.

But, as Spiegel notes, the successful sprouting of the brain seed is at least partly due to the visualization of a future action or response. This seems to be part of the World State's program for de-sensitizing children to death in chapter 11. While voting is a desirable and necessary part of a healthy democracy, we might wonder about the "brain seeds" planted in us by corporate propagandists as suggested by MIT Cognitive Scientist & Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky  in his 1998 recording Propaganda and Control of the Public Mind.

So, we have to wonder, has hypnopedia been here all along? The kind of critical thinking that Huxley indirectly encourages in Brave New World should move us all to ask: what ideas or attitudes are sprouting in my brain and who planted the seeds?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Daphnia, Genetics & Adaptation

A recent NPR story "Tiny Water-Flea Clocks In Record Number Of Genes" started me thinking about adaptation and the contrast between this flea whose genes empower it to create what it needs according to its context, such as growing "its own spear and helmet" when under threat. Researchers at The Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics studying the Daphnia have sequenced the 200 million letters of Daphnia's 31,000 genes. Having 8,000 more genes than humans, scientists are exploring what these extra genes do. Though properly categorized as a crustacea, the Daphnia were originally mistaken for fleas because of their red color, but unlike the flea, the blood in the Daphnia is self-generated in response to environmental stress.

Unlike the World State produced people of Huxley's novel, one of these rice-grain sized fleas is genetically programmed to be "flexible in response to its environment" as opposed to being genetically engineered for a narrowly defined existence.

Lenina's growing anxiety about going to the Savage Reservation with Bernard might not suggest insufficient genetics, but she exemplifies the inflexible lack of adaptability that is increasingly the hallmark of heavily technologized human beings. As she contemplates the Reservation from the hyper-comfort of a World State hotel, Lenina reveals her anxiety about the trip by reviewing the luxuries available at the hotel and repeating the conditioned slogan "

progress is lovely, isn't it?" To which

Bernard glumly responds by muttering the hypnopedic formula that imprinted her brain with the phrase.

"Liquid air, television, vibro-vacuum massage, radio, boiling caffeine solution, hot contraceptives, and eight different kinds of scent were laid on in every bedroom. The synthetic music plant was working as they entered the hall and left nothing to be desired. A notice in the lift announced that there were sixty Escalator-Squash-Racket Courts in the hotel, and that Obstacle and Electro-magnetic Golf could both be played in the park."

"But it sounds simply too lovely," cried Lenina. "I almost wish we could stay here. Sixty Escalator-Squash Courts . . ."

"There won't be any in the Reservation," Bernard warned her. "And no scent, no television, no hot water even. If you feel you can't stand it, stay here till I come back."

Lenina was quite offended. "Of course I can stand it. I only said it was lovely here because . . . well, because progress is lovely, isn't it?"

"Five hundred repetitions once a week from thirteen to seventeen," said Bernard wearily, as though to himself."

The characters in Brave New World are the ultimate professionals. They are the products of precise planning and the latest technology, beings born of Taylorism and the assembly line. Their personalities, aptitudes and desires are all predestined and their lives are predictable. Like all World State residents, they are conditioned to repeat hypnopedic phrases about being happy but put one of them in an unfamiliar, unexpected, or unplanned situation and their precision design breaks down. Unlike our - they are completely unable to adapt.

Unlike the Daphnia, contemporary human "adaptations" are the excretions and extrusions of technology, not our own biology. While our technologies do help us to encounter various environments successfully, most often they keep us from having to adapt and since they are not a part of our bodies they can be lost or taken away. If we genetically generated our own tools from our own bodies or if we could re-grow an organ or a limb, we might be closer to a durable adaptation, but what genetic engineering would it take to get us there?

Friday, January 7, 2011

upcoming adaptation?

Though Brave New World has been around for over 70 years there has never been a successful full-length feature film of the novel. Though he has not been especially forthcoming about the film, Ridley Scott is set to direct a film adaptation, possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this year according to the Sci Fi movie page

The most recent (only?) adaptations previous to this project are two TV versions, one in 1980 directed by Burt Brinckerhoff and the other in 1998 directed by Leslie Libman that stars Leonard Nimoy as Mustapha Mond.
Nimoy makes an ideal World Controller, but the Libman version ends with typical Hollywood schmaltz showing Bernard and Lenina with an infant in exile. Brinckerhoff's version seems a bit cheezy by today's standards and it certainly takes a few liberties by developing parts of the narrative but it ends as the novel ends with John's feet swinging back and forth.

It would make an interesting exercise to read the novel, listen to part 1 and part 2 of the 1956 CBS radio broadcast (Huxley narrates!) and watch the two TV versions above followed by a discussion of the various choices made in each adaptation and how they affect our understanding of the narrative.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just because we can?

Ah, the ever-relevant Huxley...

A few lines of dialog at the end of chapter 3 in Huxley's Brave New World outline the development of soma, the drug for every occasion, to evade every unpleasant mood:

"Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized in A.F. 178.

"He does look glum," said the Assistant Predestinator, pointing at Bernard Marx.

"Six years later it was being produced commercially.
The perfect drug."

"Let's bait him."

"Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant."

"Glum, Marx, glum."

The clap on the shoulder made him start, look up. It was that brute Henry Foster.
"What you need is a gramme of soma. All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol;
none of their defects."(53-54)

In a recent NPR story Is Emotional Pain Necessary?" Alix Spiegel explores our ability to chemically avoid difficult and unpleasant experiences like grief. Huxley's fictional soma is not mentioned but our growing pharmacopeia is increasingly blooming with mood altering drugs and Big Pharma is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Clearly, some of these pharmaceuticals are helpful and bring much needed relief to many people, but it may be time to reconsider whether some of the emotions or experiences we try to avoid might actually be important, if painful, to encounter directly.

For example, no matter who you are it is certain that you will experience grief at some point in your life - unless you're a sociopath.
Spiegel's story reveals that in the most recent draft of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the book used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness, a debate is roiling about whether grief should be considered a treatable mental illness if it lasts longer than two weeks.

The natural grief we experience at the death of a loved one includes loss of appetite, loss of sleep, lack of concentration but "in the new manual, if symptoms like these persist for more than two weeks, the bereaved person will be considered to have a mental disorder: major depression. And treatment, either therapy or medication, is recommended."

So that's it: you get a 2-week limit for grief and then it's back to work. Longer than that and you're considered sick and in need of treatment.
This is one of the reasons that soma is so useful in Huxley's fictional World State - it keeps the wheels of production spinning. No pesky human emotions to slow things down or cause disturbance.

In the last three chapters of Brave New World, John Savage challenges Mustapha Mond to justify the ways of the World State. In the process of their conversation, John argues for facing rather than avoiding difficulties, challenges and pain. These unpleasant experiences strengthen our will, make us more self-aware, and remind us of our ability to survive.

"The Savage nodded, frowning. "You got rid of them. Yes, that's just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether 'tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them . . . But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. "It's too easy.""

It was the easy life of the Eloi in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine that left them physically and intellectually weak:
"What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Not Bokanovsky's Process, but....


Recently NPR News featured a story that demonstrates the continuing relevance of Huxley's insights in his novel Brave New World: "Scientists Reach Milestone On Way To Artificial Life". When Craig Venter says that "we could create new species to do what we want them to do, not what they evolved to do" his hybrid entity of synthesized DNA and biological cell suggests a step towards Huxley's fictional world of manufactured commoditized human beings:
"...a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress."


And perhaps Venter's invention will prove to be progress, to move us forward in solving some of the grave threats to our species, but creating a corporation to manufacture artificial servants for-profit may not be the most promising first step.

Is this how we define progress?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Designing Miranda

In approaching the redesign of Miranda, I decided to stick with the approximate original color scheme.  The site as a whole is rather somber and dark in order to reflect the sense of dystopia that emanates from the text itself.  Such is part of the appeal of having a hypertext such as this.  In a book, the only option is black text on a white page, and even the font cannot really be changed much.  Online, however, the design of the site can be just as important as the links that supplement the text.  The design helps to embed the reader in the world of the novel.

In addition to the color scheme, we chose two separate fonts to use on the site, one serif, and one sans-serif.  Since studies have shown that sans-serif fonts are far easier to read on a screen, we chose that for the text of the novel to assist readers.  However, the particular font we chose is Helvetica, as it is one of the most widely used fonts in the world, enhancing the sense of a unified world envisioned in Brave New World.  The serif font we chose for the menu and banner is Courier New, designed to resemble the output of a typewriter.  As such, it also encourages a sense of uniformity, as well as ideas of mechanical control. 

What do you think of the design?