Do taboos guide our future? Do we inevitably move from looking backward to accommodating ourselves to the uncomfortable to accepting the forbidden?
A recent article in the New York Times discussed reviving extinct species, including the wooly mammoth, the Tasmanian tiger, and the passenger pigeon. Lots of provocative issues were introduced, but this one struck me as especially worth considering:
Synthetic biology offers far more sophisticated tools. The creation of novel organisms, like new animals, plants and bacteria, will transform human medicine, agriculture, energy production and much else. De-extinction “is the most conservative, earliest application of this technology,” says Danny Hillis.
Resurrection of extinct animals is, according to the article, a way to gain acceptance for new biology.
Is de-extinction, a way to back into using new tools to restore what was (with some uneasiness) a way to prepare us for what’s coming? Are we inevitably headed from our world to Jurassic Park to the Island of Dr. Moreau?
I’m old enough to remember how the first heart transplants were both exciting and disorienting. For many people, the heart was still the seat of emotion. Many commentators wondered if the person would still be him or herself, and, when a white woman’s heart was transplanted into a black man (in apartheid South Africa and at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many U.S. states), many people were deeply disturbed.
Now transplants, per se, are not controversial. Though the line against selling kidneys has been removed in Iran, reinstated in India and the Philippines, blurred where illegal (“supporting” donors, use of prisoners), and recommended for elimination.
Work is underway to increase translation into humans from animals. And, straddling new biology and the transplant world, research is in progress to grow human organs in animals with the aim of later transplantation. What would H.G. Welles think about our creating such chimera?
Breaking another barrier, draft rules for creating three-parent babies are now in circulation in Great Britain (with speculation that a birth could occur as soon as 2015) and under three-parent regulation is under consideration in the U.S. Some people have concerns that this is the first, uncomfortable but not shocking, step toward designer babies and using a form of genetic therapy that will persist through generations .
Tracing public discussion of new capabilities in familiar arenas, at the edges, and beyond may be a useful way to anticipate the future. One interesting domain, with lots of discussion, is modification for sports performance. Tommy John surgery (approved), which moves a new tendon into a baseball pitcher’s arm, has lengthened careers, and often made athletes more successful. Using growth hormone and steroids (forbidden) has helped players to bulk up and be more powerful. Oscar Pistorius famously was forbidden, and then allowed, to use his specially built prosthetics to compete against able-bodied runners. Testosterone replacement therapy is also in a grey area.
The possibilities for enhancing performance in sports change often, and views keep shifting. But performance enhancement is a much larger issue, one that will affect all of us as drugs, especially those that can increase attention, and perhaps creativity and analytical skills, become safer and more targeted. The basis for regulation and social acceptance of workplace performance drugs, implants, prosthetics, and transplants may be worked out first in professional athletics.