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Planet Gattaca

JonKatz posted more than 14 years ago | from the God-Technology:-Building-the-Perfect-Human dept.

Technology 473

It seems the 1997 movie "Gattaca" wasn't science fiction at all, but an early documentary of the 21st Century. Geneticists are hard at work on the Humane Genome Project and want to map the gene pool of Iceland. They also claim they've found the essence of life in Maryland and hope to create a completely new species -- after a full and public debate, of course. If we're creating life, doesn't that raise some loaded questions about history and religion? And where, exactly, is this debate (which Victor Frankenstein's monster started 200 years ago) supposed to occur? Slashdot's Threads? Congress? MSNBC?

No subject sends the techno-ostriches ("we-just-make-this-stuff, we're-not-responsible-for-it") rushing angrily for their holes in the ground faster than any suggestion that genetic research, increasingly computer driven, is proceeding more rapidly than any consideration of the staggeringly complex social, moral and ethical issues it raises.

This is all is too far away to worry about, they squawk. Or it won't really happen. Only scientists, programmers and biologists understand it enough to talk about it, anyhow.

But 1997's eerily prescient movie "Gattaca" proves once more that science fiction does better peering into the future than scientists themselves. In that movie, whose ads included a line that says: "There is no gene for the human spirit," Vincent (Ethan Hawke) a young man of the future, wants to travel in space, but he can't because he has a heart condition. So he can't pass the genetic screening tests that have turned humanity into a two-tiered class, the perfect and the others.

Vincent is one of the last "natural" babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and health are determined instantly at birth. Myopic and slated to die at 30, he has no chance of a prestigious career in a society that no longer discriminates because of race or gender, but because of genes. He assumes the identity of Jerome, healthy at birth but crippled in an accident, who provides Vincent with hair, blood and urine samples to he can get through checkpoints and pass the astronaut's screening tests. Vincent plans to voyage into space in only a few days if he can avoid the gene police, who are trying to track him through an eyelash he left behind on an office floor after a superior who discovered his secret is found dead.

What's so bizarre about "Gattaca" is that it's not really even science fiction, but an early documentary of the 21st Century. Genome research is now going on all over the world, the idea that we can unravel the essence of life enthralling scientists, who believe they may at long last be able to eliminate mental and physical disease, prolong life, and greatly ease human suffering.

In all this enthusiasm, there is less consideration of the nature of a world in which there is no human suffering, or what, precisely, suffering even means. Or in which whole categories of humanity - the mentally and physically impaired, the short, the ugly, the rebellious, the depressed, the addictive - may soon begin vanishing from the earth. There isn't much talk either about the social implications of a reality in which this high-powered genetic screening capabilities are available only to technologically-advanced classes and cultures.

News of Gattaca Nation projects roll in almost daily. There is the Mother Gattaca Project, the Human Genome Project, stumbling but well on its way to cataloguing all the DNA strands of human existence sometime in the 21st century.

Last week, a genetic research company announced it planned to map the genes of the entire Icelandic population and to beginning drawing DNA samples there. The 275,000 mostly homogeneous residents of Iceland are considered ideally suited to genetic study; according to Wired News researchers believe that creating a massive genetic database could lead to the discovery of disease patterns and new drugs.

Last Tuesday, microbiologists at the University of North Carolina said they had examined two of the smallest known bacteria, a kind known as Mycoplasma. Their minimum set of genes -- the ones needed to survive and replicate in a nutrient-rich environment -- from 265 to 350, said the researchers, who told reporters that building a cell from scratch no longer appears impossible.

Elsewhere last week, the BBC reported, scientists working at the Institute for Genome Research in Maryland announced that they believe they have found the essence of life - at least on a genetic level - which comes down to about 300 genes. This is the minimum set of molecular instructions required to build a living organism. "It [the building of such an organism] would clearly be creating a new species of life that does not exist," conceded Dr. Craig Venter, founder of the Institute for Genetic Research (TIGR) and the head of the Celera Genomics Corporation.

Dr. Venter is unequivocal: he now has the ability to build a living organism - a new species. This statement ought to have rocked the world, sending journalists, ethicists, scientists, lawmakers and politicians scurrying to figure out what that means for humanity, good and bad.

But apart from links to a few websites (including this one), it barely made news at all.

The lessons of technology - that it is inherently unpredictable, and even the best intentions often unleash unintended consequence - ought to make us wary of this runaway genetic research. Dr. Venter made a point of telling reporters that there will be no effort made to proceed with this experiment until there has been a "full and public debate."

But it's worth noting that Dr. Venter and his team want to study the ethical issues after, not before, his team in Maryland has already pared down the tiniest-known living organism, a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, to its essential genes. It's dubious this secret will be kept for long, no matter what the result of this "debate." If these findings weren't troubling, even to the scientists uncovering them, why the need for a debate at all?

M. genitalium, says Dr. Venter, lives in the human genital tract and lungs, causes no known disease, but has fewer genes than any other known living thing. Humans have beetween 80,000 and 140,000 genes, say geneticists, but M. genitalium has just 480.

"I think if we could get down to the point of truly understanding and having one of the formulas for life - and you have to understand that there are thousands if not millions of different formulas - it would be a profound breakthrough," Dr. Venter told the BBC.

That's an understatement. Finding the formula for life would dwarf almost any previous scientific achievement that comes to mind, not to mention knocking conventional religion and theology on their antiquated behinds. What is a theologian supposed to tell some kid who can read the recipe for human life? If we can make it, doesn't that raise certain ultimate questions?

Dr. Venter says that "we are not going to carry out this experiment until there has been a broader debate on this issue," a common refrain among biologists and geneticists.

But where is this debate supposed to occur? In Threads on Slashdot? In the United States Congress, whose idea of technological debate is requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools? Or in the American media, still stuck on hacking and cracking, e-commerce, or whether or not Johnny will sneak onto the Playboy website?

Recently a group of bio-ethicists met with a panel drawn from the Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths and concluded: "There is nothing in the research agenda for creating a minimal genome that is automatically prohibited by legitimate religous considerations."

So what? Is that the only major ethical issue? And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history?

Dr. Venter has only to log onto the discussion that will follow this column to get a realistic dose of just how likely it is that a rational, coherent public discussion of "scientists-playing-God" will take place.

"Gattaca" wasn't the first crack that culture took at this issue. Mary Shelley published her brilliant take nearly two hundred years ago in the novel "Frankenstein", which found in the discovery and taming of nature's most powerful secrets a hidden agenda for trouble.

Victor Frankenstein didn't like being questioned about the morality of the things he made and the secrets he unlocked any more than his successors do. When his own monster challenged him, he called him a fiend and a freak and told him to get lost. He paid for it dearly.

H.G. Wells, who helped invent science fiction with publication of his first novel "The Time Machine," foresaw that the future could be a dangerous place, and was one of the first novelists to place his characters in the context of technological and biological evolution.

But despite his own training as a biologist, Wells never imagined the discoveries that would create the new science of molecular biology soon after his death and dominate the landscape of biology into the next millenium.

The issue with these Gattaca projects isn't whether or not they should proceed. Only the most fanatic Luddites could seriously argue that understanding the secrets of human existence and eradicating disease ought to be - or even could be - forbidden? Geneticists believe human cloning is only a few years away, legally authorized or not.

About all we can do is hold Dr. Venter and his colleagues to their word, and hope there is some rational discussion somewhere before the corporate lawsuits and patent issues are resolved, and the first genetic research lab starts peddling perfect, cheerful Icelandic babies around the world.

To stop the research would be to deny one of the noblest traits of the human character - to figure out the world and make it better.

But Victor Frankenstein's problem is our problem. "The world," he declares in the novel, "was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are amongst the earliest sensations I can remember."

Victor would be having the time of his life in the modern world, where his kind of research is no longer even considered controversial, where corporations dominate regulators and lawmakers, and where experiments that play around with human life don't have to be conducted in remote, crumbling Gothic towers, but get the enthusiastic support of venture capitalists and punch-drunk, morally-oblivious technologists.

But the words of Victor's creation are even creepier in l999 than they were when Mary Shelley first wrote them:

"You propose to kill me," thundered the monster when Victor threatened him if he didn't go away. "How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."

The monster's warnings - and Shelley's instincts -- were more than borne out in the horrific bloodbaths and environmental havoc of the two centuries that followed them.

Victor didn't listen then, and nobody's much listening now. But the warning still rings true.

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How does this mock religion? (4)

limpdawg (77844) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468201)

Katz says that the discovery of the minimum number of genes neede to make a life form will mock religion because it is antiquated. However all the scientists are doing is taking pre-existing building blocks, that behave in a pre-existing way in nature and trying to make an organism that uses as few as possible. The likelyhood is that they will fail because the genes are more complex than the scientists really understand. Nature tends to eliminate unneeded genetic parts over time so it is likely that the organism is very close to having as small a genetic code as possible to allow it to survive and reproduce. Removing genetic material may allow it to only exist in special laboratory conditions, and reproduction may be less efficient. The scientists don't really know what is going to happen, which is why they carrry out the experiment, but just removing possibly unneeded genetic material from an organism is no where near creating life.

Please (2)

mochaone (59034) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468202)

It's too early in the morning (EST) for the usual dosage of John Katzian dystopia. Perhaps I'll give it a try after my three martini lunch.

Re:How does this mock religion? (2)

YellowBook (58311) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468203)

Quite so. A ``minimal'' organism could survive only under laboratory conditions, not in the real world, because it would lack adaptations needed to make it in any non-ideal environment.

In fact, this wouldn't be much of a novelty. Most domesticated plants are basically incapbable of life without human intervention. Domestic cereals in general can't outcompete native grasses, and have difficulty reproducing without human intervention. Maize is the extreme example: it's completely incapable of reproducing on its own. The seeds won't come off the cob, and they're trapped inside the husk.

The scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow must cover
Yhtill forever. (R. W. Chambers, the King in Yellow)

This just "Open Sources" life... (2)

shri (17709) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468204)

Some random thoughts just came into my mind. (Blame it on sleep depravation).

By putting the ability to create life in human hands, "God" has in essence open sourced life (oh wait, I can see Bruce Perens jumping on this misuse of the word!).

Bleah.. end of the religious debate folks, lets start forking life forms and putting them in CVS trees.

We taking ourselves a little bit too seriously when we get indignant about artificially created life? Life has been artificially assisted since ages. Heck, asprins might have created life ages ago by preventing the biblical "Honey I have a headache excuse"....

I usually find your articles interesting, but... (3)

DanaL (66515) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468205)

This one is devoid of content, Jon! All you've said is that humans are studying genetics and that this is a bad, dangerous thing. You haven't told us why (except that it will raise some uncomfortable questions for religious people). You may vague references to Gattaca, but never once say *why* genetic engineering may be a problem.

Your journalism is even a little lacking, because you don't even mention any of the possible benefits: cures for cancer, the correction of genetic illnesses, etc. If you want to state a debate, offer points of view from both sides.

We can't debate with you if you haven't provided us any substance!!!


Gattaca? Is this an obscure reference? (1)

AtariDatacenter (31657) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468206)

Have I been underground for too long? I've never heard of Gattaca and have to wonder if it is a reference to an obscure movie. Was this an NBC made-for-TV thing? Something that actually came out in theaters? Something that is out now? ==confused==

The Nerve! (2)

Rabbins (70965) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468208)

And where, exactly, is this debate (which Victor Frankenstein's monster started 200 years ago) supposed to occur? Slashdot's Threads?

Yeah, why the hell have these geneticists not consulted with Slashdot yet!?

What is their deal!? We are obviously the experts...

Yeah right. (5)

Amphigory (2375) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468209)

Finding the formula for life would dwarf almost any previous scientific achievement that comes to mind, not to mention knocking conventional religion and theology on their antiquated behinds. What is a theologian supposed to tell some kid who can read the recipe for human life? If we can make it, doesn't that raise certain ultimate questions?
Normally, I try to respond to Katz's rants with reasoned, considered replies, but I think this one is so obviously silly that I will respond with a joke.

Without further ado, here it is:

One day a group of scientists got together and decided that humans had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell God so.

The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you; We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't You just go on and get lost."

God listened very patiently and kindly to the man.

After the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this? Let's say we have a man-making contest."

To which the scientist replied, "Okay, great!"

"But," God added, "we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God looked at him and said, "No, no, no. You go get your own dirt.".

I think my point is made: science can never explain the primal causes, can never account for the ultimate origin of anything. To try to claim otherwise is the worst kind of hubris. And I do wish that you would try to be at least a little more balanced in your coverage.

Re:Gattaca? Is this an obscure reference? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468210)

It came out in theaters in 1997. It was an entertaining movie, but it bombed quite badly at the box office.

More info here [] .

PS. Jon Katz sucks.

Frahnkenschteen (2)

YellowBook (58311) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468211)

I'm not sure if Katz really gets Frankenstein, or if he's just repeating the pop picture of a man dabbling in ``things man was not meant to know.''

In Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein's sin was to reject his creation when he saw what he had made. He was not wrong to create it in the first place. In a few passages, it seems like Katz is aware of this, but the fact that he has chosen Frankenstein as one of his catchwords for biological research tends to suggest that he isn't.

The scalloped tatters of the King in Yellow must cover
Yhtill forever. (R. W. Chambers, the King in Yellow)

Re:Gattaca? Is this an obscure reference? (1)

shri (17709) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468212)

Oops... The link to Gattaca []

Creating Life != Playing God (Mycoplasma) (2)

kbahey (102895) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468213)

One thing about the public debate on creating a new life form in the lab from the genes of Mycoplasma:

I am all for it, and don't see this as treading into the realm of God.

Science should be free to experiment, explore and discover.

The evil comes when the non-scientists (Government, Politics, Business) take those inventions/discoveries and turn them into the monstrosities that has become Colonialism, A-Bomb, ...etc.

We should not limit science, thougt, ...etc. for the sake of those beings...

Life (1)

BoneFlower (107640) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468214)

Are we meant to create life? I don't think so. That was a rather small slice of religious groups. What about the Covenant of the Goddess? The President and Quorom of Twelve of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? Maybe a random sampling of independent denominations? Polls over the next year in every country on earth where people can say if they want this or not. The ability to create life is an awesome power. Perhaps too powerful. We not only risk a potential Gattaca, or Frankenstein like rebellion, or a Nazi "Master Race", but upsetting the natural balance moreso than we already have.

s/l(\d{3})/1\1/; (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468215)

You still write year numbers with a lowercase "ell" instead of a "one", Jon. I am sure you must be looking forward to Y2K...

No more dangerous then genetic engineering... (1)

retep (108840) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468216)

The creation of a new form of life is no more dangerous then your average run of the mill genetic engineering. The life those scientists want to create is simplified at best. It will be the lowest common denominator. Who honestly thinks something like that could cause any damage? Aside from messing up some clean labware any simplified organizism wouldn't last 5 minutes with the competition you get from other forms of life.

With your average gene splicing and other forms of genetic engineering you're starting off with a viable organism and changing what it does. That could cause some problems without safeguards.

Not definitive (1)

MouseR (3264) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468217)

Weither or not man "created" life is not definitive.

If we're able to assemble genes to create a new speecies, it doesn't necessarely mean we've created life. Theologists would argue that "God" created live, and that Man has onlly assembled life-baring genes that God created.

The religion debate is far from over.

Katz panics again but.... (1)

TuRRIcaNEd (115141) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468218) the same time it's an important thing to bear in mind. Yes, misuse of progress in genetic science would be a tragedy... especially if the corporations get hold of it. Imagine a world where you are genetically predisposed to buy product, and forced to be happy living a 9-to-5 existence to pay for it (eeek!)
Having said that, this new technology and research could be used for better purposes, for example, those who have been rendered infertile by illness could theoretically 'have' children through cloning and splicing their genes with their partner. Evolution isn't a nice beast sometimes, but this could allow us to bend the rules somewhat. Having the power to perform miracles shouldn't be discouraged, but to take responsibility for our actions with the must be considered paramount. I just hope those that would abuse it don't get there first.

Vincent didn't murder the superior (3)

Trencher (71621) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468219)

IIRC, he wandered up at the back of the crowd that had formed after the killing but he was not involved with the actual murder. Of course, after the 'gene police' swept the room for evidence and found the eyelash, they knew they had their man, because after all, what was an 'imperfect' doing there besides committing a crime?

All in all a very poignant movie about an all-too forseeable future.

Life in Maryland? (2)

bsiggers (57684) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468220)

"They also claim they've found the essence of life in Maryland..." They've probably been searching for *that* particular secret for centuries. Probably something to do with cows, I suspect.

Re:Gattaca? Is this an obscure reference? (1)

noghri (26637) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468221)

It was a fairly popular movie when it came out. Not a blockbuster or anything, but it did well nonetheless. I've seen it on HBO a few times in the past few months. I really suggest renting it.

J Craig Venter and TIGR (2)

Graham Clark (11925) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468222)

I'm no great fan of Dr. Venter, but it's not true to say that he wants to do the work first and consider the ethics later. There was originally an announcement in January about this, stating that it was time for the situation be considered fully before any action was taken. The more recent statement - a paper in Science - could be considered a second RFD. They've called for discussion in public forums, which seems to me to be very responsible.

The timescale for the HGP, incidentally, is rather shorter than the article supposes. Both it and the private sector efforts expect to have substantially complete sequence coverage of the human genome during the first half of next year. Things are moving very quickly. The HGP proper is due to have fully finished sequence, accurate to better than 99.99%, by the end of 2003. The events shown in Gattaca - which I would agree is both a good and a perceptive film - will be plausible well within current lifetimes.

Error in the plot retelling? (1)

PD (9577) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468223)

I seem to remember that Vincent didn't actually kill the boss guy. Someone else killed the boss guy.

During the investigation, they vacuumed everything and discovered the eyelash that didn't belong there. Of course, they suspected the owner of the genetically defective eyelash, and tried to figure out how it got there. But that part of the investigation was totally a accidental wild goose chase.

Can't even figure out a dozen genes yet (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468224)

Viruses like AIDs and the common cold have been
sequenced for over a decade. Their 1-2 dozen genes structures are well-known and poorly understood. Its a long way to a 480 gene minimal cell and 100,000 gene human.

Enough already Katz (2)

Hard_Code (49548) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468225)

"If we're creating life, doesn't that raise some loaded questions about history and religion?"

No. YOU raise loaded questions about history and religion and sensationalise something that should instead be approached rationally and cogently. Heated debate, or debate at all, is not what is needed, because there is no answer to the question "should". "Should" we have harnessed electricty? "Should" we practice modern medicine (the Mormans don't think so). "Should" we have invented the internet so we could have stupid heated debates on overinflated issues? - the Java Mozilla []

From bacteria to Frankenstein... (1)

Panamon777 (78286) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468226) quite a leap. The objective of the debate should be whether it is moral to create life of any kind. If no one protests until scientists have the technology to recreate people, then scientists will go right ahead creating people. There was an uproar when Dolly was cloned, but had Dolly been a bacteria, the uproar would have been far less - humans have much more of a connection with woolly, friendly animals than with tiny bacteria. If scientists were discussing whether or not they should create Lassie from a puddle of goo, the debate would be much more intense.

Somewhere in his ravings about punch-drunk venture capitalists, Katz makes a decent point. Creating life - playing God, literally - is something that modern religions don't really discuss. While I assume that most Western religions view it as a bad thing(TM), I am just as interested in seeing what Eastern religions have to say about it. While we may not hear about it until scientists clone Abraham Lincoln, it promises to be interesting.

Computer Scientists and the Physical World (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468227)

Katz's remark about techno-ostriches is ironic, as his post is a prime example how nothing whips computer guys into a frenzy faster than a future-shock statement that they are unequipped to critically assess. The hoopla here reminds me of the sturm-and-drang around the nanotechnology myth. It's all theoretically defensible, but practically so far removed that people who actually practice the art can scarcely contain their laughter. Even Venter would be amused by the interpretation here ... that he has the ability to create new life. I'm quite certain that Katz would take a different view of the proceedings if he spent 6 months trying to _clone a pre-existing_ gene. The physical world is much less forgiving than the theoretical world ... and talking about creating a new life form is unadulterated fantasy - nothing else.

Not just Human manipulation (2)

meckardt (113120) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468228)

Several Science Fiction books besides have looked at the same issues explored in Gattaca. On e in particular that comes to mind is Leo Frankowski's Copernik's Rebellion , which describes what could happen if genetic developers introduce "useful" bio-artifacts into the world.

With the increasing complexity of computers, it is becoming possible to make the complex calculations required to do genetic manipulations such as described. And when a thing can be done, you just know that it will be done, sooner or later.

I am not so much worried about someone accidently creating some sort of all destroying life form. Such things aren't realistic, considering the delecate balance of a life form. But I could imagine someone doing it on purpose (someday).

Ethical questions aside, I don't think creating life in a laboratory is going to be a bad thing. It will certainly be interesting.

Mike Eckardt []

big deal (2)

monstar (62285) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468229)

every time something happens in the world of science, i am *SICK* of people who can only understand (or feel they can only describe it to others) it in the simple terms of some hollywood claptrap thats designed to bring out the strongest emotions about the subject.

all I can say is..... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468230)

FUCK! What the fuck are you doing Katz, I'm surprised you even use computers you fucking amish twat! WTF is this, you SOB, technology rules, everyone who says stuff shouldn't happen should be shot. Im religious.... but I hate organized religion becuase they fight everything, and so do you so I hate you. On the subject of organized religion: it doesnt make sense, you have these people who beleive in god and know that god knows all thats going to happen, but then when a scientists finds something they get all pissed and say "its not part of gods plan!" well if god knows all........ fuck it IS! you dumbasses, if you beleive a scientists can change the world and god didnt plan it, then you should go to hell cause god knows all so therefore he knew this would happen.... back on gene crap, katz you bastard...... i doubt people will want to raise perfect children, and all that. Now is being judged by your genetics that bad? I mean they say you have a heart condition so you can't go into space..... when technology is that good anyway cant they just inject you with like InstaHeart(TM) and like the second your heart fails, grow a new one,....or just inject you with something to fix the condition in the first place.... what you are saying is stupid..... technology rules, it will happen, it wont be bad, let it happen, and stop trying to scare the idiots who dont yet realize this!

(posted A/C.... you think id be stupid enough to post as my real name and get all the - karma? :)

More luddite Genome Project bashing (3)

marnerd (3934) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468231)

I guess Katz had an axe to grind with the Human Genome project. This is his second rant in which he bashes a project that has the stated goal of decoding the Human Genome and essentially Open Sourcing it.

He is glossing over an important fact: The human genome will be decoded. The question is whether it will be open and available to all, or be the patented intellectual property of a few.

At least he did a little research; last time he posted on this topic he seemed unaware of Gattaca's existence.

I normally don't engage in Katz-swatting, but the Genome Project needs our support. We, the Open Source community are some of the best equipped to understand the importance of what may be the most important Open Content project to date.

Reality Tunnels (2)

adimarco (30853) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468232)

While I can understand the reluctance to embrace technologies such as genetic engineering and research based purely on the possible consequences (gattaca, uncontrollable genetically engineered disease, etc.), I find this incessant whining about the "moral" implications increasingly annoying. The *real* implications are frightening enough that we don't need to involve millenia-old superstition into it. They only contribute to paranoia, confusion, and slow the adoption of the *good* that can be harnessed from the technology.

Technology has advanced to the point (or more specifically, is now advancing at a such a rate) that we've lost "control" of it. It now moves out of pace (much faster than) the remainder of our social mindset, which includes our "moral" aspects. What this means is that these ideas are (and will continue to be) increasingly out of touch with technological advancement, and will only grow less relevant with time.

Human beings traditionally have an extremely hard time dropping old or ingrained ideas and adopting new models, even if the new model is more accurate or convenient. This makes perfect sense, neural networks tend to settle into local minima, if it's worked before we're conditioned to think it will work again, why change? The concepts of "space" and "time" still used in the mind of your average joe-blow were abandoned by physicists nearly a century ago, and we still haven't caught up.

My point is, we need to stop this incessant babble about ideas no longer relevant to the matter at hand. Let's stop wondering what some omnipotent invisible gaseous vertebrate in the sky will think of what we do, and discuss the real matters at hand: what good can we get out of it, and what are the real dangers involved? We're not going to *stop* it, and we're foolish to think something like words printed on paper (i think they call this "legislation") will. So, shall we scare ourselves with the boogie man or deal with it rationally?

Unfortunately I think the former...


Re:Gattaca? Is this an obscure reference? (2)

coreman (8656) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468233)

I think it made the theaters for a week or so. Most recently its been out on HBO. Due to having Uma Thurman and the release of The Avengers, it got a passing notice in that timeframe. It's either mind candy, or a view into future methods of descrimination, your choice.

From a personal point of view, I'm pleased with the advances made in the Genome project BUT, I'm not sure I agree with the application of the information. While I'm definately "pro-choice", I don't think prenatal testing should be used for the search of the "perfect" offspring. Do we really want to abort a child due to a heart disease gene that will go active in their 40s? What is the reason for disease research if we can just as easily remove it from the gene pool by judicious abortion? I don't think the religious issues are going to be any worse than the plain old moral ones of choices for who remains in the womb to term. We're already seeing this with various tests done, where does the line get drawn with the new tests? Aborted due to brown eyes?

Why religion? (1)

Phizzy (56929) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468234)

I guess Katz rented Gattica and read Frankenstein a couple of nights ago and decided to find something he could use them to ramble about.. hmm.. let's see.. the Human Genome Project.. yeah.

The thing I don't understand about this article is why had the scientific community decided to take ORGANIZED RELIGION's opinions into concern with respect to the genome project. We are simply exploring the body, no more, no less. We havent found the basis of life, and _I_ at least dont beleive that the basis of life can be found by science. If the religious leaders truely beleive in their own religions, I dont think they would be too concerned with scientists stepping on their robe-clad toes by mapping out proteins. This research is a tool, it is a guide book, it could lead us to great things. So why are we involving the same people who have banned evolution in Kansas? The Human Genom Project is research. It is not some doom-bringing pandora's box as katz would like to hype us into beleiving.


Decent scifi movie (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468235)

About an genetically engineered astronaut class
and a guy who sneaks into it with
Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law.
The title is neoglism from the four chemicals of DNA.
More thoughtful and better than your average F/X space opera.

Is this a bad thing? (1)

Roast Beef (2298) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468236)

First off, I'd like to say that I don't think there's any way to stop research into these areas. Humans are curious, and we're not going to stop just because people tell us to.

Jon seems to have the assumption that discriminating based on genetics is bad. Is it, though? I agree that discrimination based on color, beliefs, or nationality is bad, but that's because none of those issues determine a person's worth intellectually or physically. When we're talking about sending people on space missions, though, it's important to pick someone who is not flawed physically. There's no reason why the character in Gattacca shouldn't have had a desk job at some random company, but weaseling his way into space flight just hurt society.

Discrimination is not all bad; we need to be careful about the basis of our discrimination and whether it is consistent with what we need. If we're picking someone to be a taxi driver, we don't need someone with an exceptional intelligence (not to knock taxi drivers), but when hiring a college professor, it's a definite asset.. We discriminate when we hire people for jobs now, and genetics just gives us more information. That information can be used when we need to pick a good Shuttle astronaut, and it can be safely ignored when we're hiring a new janitor. People with heart conditions should be discriminated against for jobs in which their heart condition can cause harm but not for jobs in which it's irrelevant.

The creation aws wrong (2)

Rabbins (70965) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468237)

He was not wrong to create it in the first place.

You are missing it as well. The point is that science is not ready to handle it's creations. Dr. Frankenstein reacted as anyone might when their experiments go not as planned. He should not have been messing around with life in the first place... because when he did ultimately reject his creation, the repurcusions were more than he ever imagined. Katz uses an appropriate (if not easy) analogy here.

These scientists are not creating an existing life form, they would be creating an entirely new form of life. New being the key word here! Just think of a couple worst case scenarios please. Does Steven King's The Stand mean anything to anyone?

This is pretty scary stuff. Bacteria has not always had the best relationship with mankind.

Your spoiler mistold it. (1)

porttikivi (93246) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468238)

Vincent killed nobody.

Sure we can create life: I created JonKatz. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468239)

And now I've got to live with the consequences.

In other words, science has a brutal downside when you abuse it :)

A good argument for moderating articles, this is (3)

KTrainor (34264) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468240)

Katz shows his complete inability to think clearly or even do basic research when he 1)bemoans the lack of ethical restrictions on the tinkering with genetics and 2)slams organized religion as being responsible for more bloodshed and genocide than any other force in history. (Like, Communism was a bad dream or something?) Hello? Am I the only one who sees the cognitive dissonance here? For all that Katz derides Christianity and Judaism, the fact remains that at least the religious leaders have done *some* thinking about this subject and its implications, thinking that has a lot more depth and seriousness than Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells could ever hope to attain.

We're talking about two millenia worth of thought and reflection on life and morality here, Jon, not some Johnny-come-lately spawn of the so-called Enlightenment.

Katz and other intellectuals love to bash on Fundamentalists and Catholics as if they were all educationally stunted retards, which is a symptom of their own inability to deal with the arguments resented by those people. (It's called an "ad hominem" attack.) The fact of the matter is that Catholicism, Judaism and other monotheistic religions include large numbers of people whose brainpower makes Katz look like the tenth-rate scribbler he is. Fifty years from now, does anyone seriously think that Katz will be thought of as being in the same league as William F. Buckley, to name but one well-known Catholic intellectual?

In any case, this is just typical whining by somebody who doesn't like the answers he's getting from organized religion and therefore assumes that there are no good answers. Can we just have another link to next time? At least that was amusing.

Getting the story right is more interesting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468241)

Vincent plans to voyage into space in only a few days if he can avoid the gene police, who are trying to track him through an eyelash he left behind on an office floor after killing a superior who discovered his secret.

No, the story was that Vincent did not kill anyone. It's worse than that. Someone else (who later confessed) killed the supervisor, but because the investigators found a stray eyelash from Vincent, they decided that Vincent - hiding behind a DNA disguise - was the prime suspect.

Thus the point goes even beyond Katz's comments. Just because your DNA appears in the wrong place may lead to you having to prove your innocence, a difficult and sometimes horribly awkward situation.

Gattaca Plot Summary (1)

Eukaryote (93920) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468242)

In the article you stated that Vincent killed a superior that had learned his secret. This was not true, however. Vincent did not kill anyone, it just so happened that his eyelash fell off in the company and they found it, so the gene police assumed he had done it... It was actually Vincent's boss, who wanted to see the flight take place, and the man killed had wanted to postpone the flight. Eukaryote

Ok, let me try this one... (2)

G_Love (35556) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468243)

While Jon's articles have been the inspiration for much debate amongst my friends and myself, this article was a trifle obvious and overstated. Yes, the possibility of being able to analyze a person's genome and tell them X amount of things about their life could lead to abuse, and yes, we now think we know how to create life, or at least where to start. This does not mean the world will end.

To be quite honest, I don't think a "Gattaca" style future can ever be implemented, for two reasons: there are too many powerful people who would not be included in the "elite", and number two, we already have a discriminatory scale in place, that of money.

The rich and elite already have a power lock (this includes corporations). Even if this were to happen (and not all the rich people in the world are beautiful, perfect genetic specimens. For references, see Gates, Bill and Forbes, Steve), how would anything change? The rich could afford this, while the poor and middle-class would hope and strive and struggle and still not crack into this world where how pure your genetic makeup is has an effect on your outcome in life. This technology will not be cheap enough to truly cause the devastating impact you speak of for many years (say, 20-40 years at present...don't forget, the HGP uses massive computer power to brute-force this stuff right now).

What this comes down to is a simple matter of economics. Is it in anyone's best economic interest to do this at present? No! Within the next 10 years? Only if major breakthroughs are made, and analyzing your genome doesn't continue to take days/weeks/months. Perhaps my children will have to deal with this, but I also hope that by then, this debate will have taken place, and cooler, more moderate heads prevail.

Finally, Jon, while I appreciate these articles, please give them substance. Otherwise, what could be a powerful tool to convince people of the necessity of this debate turns into an almost evening-news quality scare report.

Are Scientists Responsible? (1)

ussphoenix (76179) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468244)

Many people claim that knowledge is neutral and its in the application that's good or bad.

But should scientists, those who are responsible for uncovering knowledge be aware of the possible good/bad applications of the fruits of their work? There has already been many benefits when its come to the work done in genetics.

But creating life is a big step. Scientists may be ready it. My question is: Are the people ready for it? Are people ready for the possibility to know life and how to create it, to use the knowledge responsibly?

IMHO, scientists have to bear some responsiblity. (s)he may be ready to learn, to know the wonders of the human genome but (s)he should be aware of how their knowledge might be abused, might negatively impact society's moral and ethical health. (s)he should take steps to prevent such abuse before proceeding with their experiements.

Just my thoughts


Re:Vincent didn't murder the superior (1)

Tim C (15259) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468245)

Not only an "imperfect", but a non-employee who had no business being there. Also, someone that the company would have had no record of being present - therefore, they must have slipped in past security somehow; obviously only someone up to no good would do that...

But no, he didn't do it :o)


Can't stop advancement but must make them FREE (1)

seyed (33396) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468246)

It appears to me that the current advances in Genetic research are no different to any other technological advances made in history: the automobile, computer, nuclear weapons etc.

The most basic intellectual needs of humanity mean that we strive to seek knowledge. However, knowledge once found cannot be bottled and if useful will be used regardless of any current philosophical, moral or other beliefs. Morality will adjust accordingly.

Today, we have a problem with human cloning or genetic enhancement just like our forefathers will probably have looked with disdain at the number of overweight young men sitting at their computer terminals instead of going outside or fighting. But society adapts and in the future our descdendents will look back at their non-genetically grandparents and say,"How did they live in a world without genetic enhancements?"

The sad thing is that whilst the curiosity of the Western world is fulfilled and the fruits of technology are making Americans (and Western Europeans to a lesser degree) fatter, richer and more confortable, the rest of the world is still suffering under the raw natural forces and man-made terrors, usually developed by the West.

One day, the technological have-nots be they poor urban youth or starving African babies will cry out and say, "Why have you forsaken us?" And us in the West will face a dilema as to whether we help them or allow them to die.

That my friends will be the one and only debate we truly will have have a say in. I think most of those in the Linux community have already taken a stand on the issue. I hope the rest of our society does so also.

Genetic Engineering (2)

jd (1658) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468247)

Ok, I'll give some reasons why Genetic Engineering is, IMHO, supicious, in a way that is rather shorter and more believable than Jon Katz' latest scrawl.

  1. Genetically-engineered caterpillars have been released in Essex, England. These caterpillars produce scorpion venom. The idea is to see if they can scare off predators. There is no data as to whether they are safe for anyone else. They are kept in the enclosure, with wire fences and "keep out" notices. The caterpillars have not been GE'd to read.
  2. A GE experiment in Australia went disasterously wrong, when a whole load of plague-carrying rabbits escaped to the mainland, from the place they were kept. Aside from utterly wiping out the rabbit population in the area, Australia was very lucky and no other casualties occured.
  3. The genes have not yet been completely mapped in anything other than VERY primitive organisms, and even there, as much as 1/3 are not understood and an unknown amount is "junk" (read: they don't even know if they don't understand it). Ever tried editing an unknown program, in a little-understood language, whilst blindfold?

IMHO, genetics and microbiology are barely understood enough to be able to understand the more primitive mechanisms. DNA was discovered in the 1950's, but it wasn't until the late 1970's when the unwinding problem was solved, and DNA was shown to have "handed-ness". There is as much, since then, that has come to light that is simply a complete mystery.

CJD and BSE are classic examples of what isn't understood. The popular theory is that they are caused by prions, but this does not explain how the agent can remain active after proteins would be denatured. Nor is the mechanism understood by which a prion, when ingested, could actually -get- to the brain. The stomach lining stops large molecules, very effectively.

In short, biology and microbiology are nowhere near as well understood as proponents of Genetic Engineering claim. There are too many unknowns, and too few knowns.

I'm not saying GE is dangerous. I =AM= saying that I don't believe we know enough to even know if it's dangerous! And that's far too little knowledge for my comfort.

Re:I usually find your articles interesting, but.. (1)

Dilbert_ (17488) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468248)

I must agree here : the whole article was nothing but a series of grim predictions about the horrors and abominations gene technology would lead us to. You make it sound as if only mad scientist types would do that kind of research, without any consideration for any consequences. I think most genetic research is done for good causes, like curing cancer, or finding ways to treat disease.
Maybe you should invent a new pledge, modelled on your Y2K pledge : The genetics-pledge. Repeat afer me : I will not spread fear and panic...

Didn't Galileo Mock Religon? (1)

JohnL (7512) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468249)

Well? Hasn't every scientific discoery that goes against the established religion's dogmas been branded as "heresy" and "unnatural"? Going even further, doesn't one religion mock another? At the risk of starting a flamewar, can we leave religion out of science?


Knee-jerk luddism (2)

rde (17364) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468250)

Okay, perhaps 'luddism' isn't quite the correct word, but what I'm seeing here is a lot of generalisations that -- as others have noted -- doesn't actually say anything.

What's so bizarre about "Gattaca" is that it's not really even science fiction, but an early documentary of the 21st Century
Bullshit. Sorry Jon, but you've no more of an idea than the rest of us as to how the next century will turn out. Certainly a few of the nasty things in Gattaca will make an appearance, but equally there'll be good things we can't forsee as well as bad things we can't.

his statement ought to have rocked the world, sending journalists, ethicists, scientists, lawmakers and politicians scurrying to figure out what that means for humanity, good and bad.
I saw the reports on the BBC, and I noticed that they couldn't actually find anyone to give a reason why this was a Bad Thing. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realised that I couldn't find anything bad about it either.
Consider: we're talking about stringing together a few hundred genes and hoping they replicate. Maybe they will; if they do it will be a tremendous breakthrough, but as far as everyday life is concerned, it (in and of itself) won't have any impact. Venter's call for debate is timely inasmuch as we'll be able to consider now what will happen in the decades to come, but I don't think it was necessary to hold up the research.

So what? Is that the only major ethical issue?
Well, I don't know, Jon; what do you think? This piece seems to be like everything else I've read or seen on the subject; 'this is wrong; but I can't put my finger on why'.

And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion
This bit's going to sound like religion bashing; it isn't intended as such.
Religions are conservative by nature, and are very reluctant to endorse any new technology that diminishes the suzerainty of god. But 'gene splicign is bad... mmmmkay?' isn't a good argument, so religion has to come up with a solid reason to justify its stance. And it's very good at doing this. I say bring on the religious philosophers; they'll point out the problems with the ideas.

To sum up, then: new stuff is coming along. We don't know how it'll affect us, but we assume some bad stuff will be involved. Let's talk vaguely until something else comes along that we can dither about.

Genetic analysis in two seconds? (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468251)

Much of the plot dynamics relies on being able to
distingush bad genotypes in a couple of seconds from dandruff or finger pricks.
I thought this was merely a plot device until
hearing about companies like Assymetrix that put
tens of thousands custom gene analyzers on a chip using the same techniques and micro-electronics.
One such device is in testing to directly detect
cancer cells by DNA rather than by appearance.
More accurate. Must be fast.

life's beginning is confused with human life's (3)

jake_the_blue_spruce (64738) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468252)

People tend to get bent out of shape not because this proposes to synthesize bacterial life, but because they fear that this will eventually lead to being able to synthesize human life from raw chemicals. People further vaguely worry that synthesizing human life would remove the distinction between animal and human, life and non-life, and rationalize all sorts of non-ethical things. However, they're wrong, and organized religion already has agreed with me. First, the worry, then the reassurance.

The uninformed worry goes something like this: if you believe there is no clear demarcation between an adult and an infant, infant and a fetus, a fetus and an embryo, embryo and a zygote, and scientists are able to synthesize a zygote from pure chemicals, it's only a few more assumptions to get to the conclusion that humans are just complex probablistic automata, not worthy of special value or consideration above insects.

However, the problem with this unfocused anxiety which Katz shows signs of, but fails to properly examine, is that it makes fundamental assumptions which are not proven, or even likely. The flaw is that if the components of life are deterministically constructed, it is still possible to believe in a human soul, in a self with free will, and all the special value and ethical considerations that human life is due. All you have to do is read GEB (Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid) by Douglas R Hofstadter.

Religion long ago agreed with the GEB premise (or a parallel one) when it accepted evolution (even guided by God, which also doesn't imply a lack of free will). Evolution is exactly the same type of (probablistic) process that chemically constructing a human is, so it doesn't follow that synthetic people don't have souls in just the same way that evolution does not imply that all humans are mere selfless animals. The religious advisors know that, but the common lay people like Katz never got wise to the deeper meaning of the earlier debate on evolution.

Crucify Him! (1)

BrotherPope (8102) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468253)

I'm still trying to understand what compels many of you to read Katz's articles and promptly reply with what amounts to nothing more than 'Katz sucks!'. Though they are well written, that doesn't truly improve the content of our discussion, as I don't find 'I rather dislike Katz and believe he's being sensationalist in this article' to be much better. Let's face facts, kids. You have the power to block him out of you dislike him. You further have the power to avoid commenting if you have nothing original to say. I, however, don't have the option of filtering out 'Katz sucks' replies that manage to make their way up to 5 without any real compelling content. Can we please try to raise the bar on the quality of discourse around here, or is that asking too much?

Yes, many people think he's sensationalist, wrong, bigoted, irresponsible, etc. etc. etc. In the absence of a Frequently Posted Comments List we'll have to rely on commentators and moderators to think, if only for a moment, about how to improve the quality of discourse on Slashdot, so we aren't wading through small variations on the standard replies everytime.

This has been a public cry of annoyance with a command Slashdot malady, also known as FPC #27.

Where to begin? (3)

BranMan (29917) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468254)

Wow, Katz certainly tugs the chains of FUD like the best of them - quoting Shelly like a madman.

I, however, see wonderful applications of this knowlege - first create the simplest organism that can live. Then start adding to it - add the genes for producing Insulin. Grow the microbes in huge vats - poof! Insulin by the gallon, for pennies per gallon.

How about figuring out a carbon sequencing gene set? The "programming" of it would be maybe the greatest intellectual challenge we've had recently, but in the end - poof! microbes that can produce petroleum products. Where we need them. No more supertankers, no more oil wells, no more pipelines. Make it where it's used. (Of course that will cripple the economies of dozens of countries around the world... side effects are unavoidable. On the good side, it will probably take years, so there will be plenty of warning for those smart enough to take the hint)

Or how about a microbe that binds carbon out of the atmosphere? Convert CO2 to O2 with super efficient microbes - poof! space travel just got a whole lot easier. The greenhouse effect could be reversed. No wait - better than reversed - regulatable. No more Ice Ages while we're around.

And the downside? People will try to kill off diseases, resist pests, etc. The problems we have now with breeding resistant bugs and germs will only accelerate. It's been a brush war so far - soon we'll be bringing in the heavy artillery. We're pretty tough - I think we'll win in the end. But there will be quite a bit of "colateral damage" to the environment.

How about AIDS? Maybe the solution isn't killing the disease, maybe the best solution is to alter our genes - raise a new generation that AIDS can't affect at all.

In all this though we'll do it because we can - there will always be a soft spot to open the door to this research ("But we can use it to cure Muscular Distrophy! Surely you can't be against THAT?"). And it will happen - moral discussions are irrelevant. Whatever is "decided" the research will go on. Pandoras box cannot be closed again.

We just have to make the best of it.

the really interesting stuff is yet to come.. (1)

BigPink (16156) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468255)

Right now, all geneticists can do is cut and paste existing genes, not design new ones. What will really be interesting is the possibility of making entirely new genes. This will require simulations of protein folding, as well as other biological processes. IBM's Blue Gene will be a start, but it will take a machine many orders of magnitude faster to make this a practical possibility (maybe 10-20 years later).

Re:Yeah right. (2)

Otto (17870) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468256)

I think my point is made: science can never explain the primal causes, can never account for the ultimate origin of anything. To try to claim otherwise is the worst kind of hubris.

Of course, neither can religion. Religion can never explain the primal causes, can never account for the ultimate origin of anything. To try to claim otherwise is the worst kind of hubris. Religion can not even say where god came from, so why believe in it at all? It's obviously wrong. :-)

Of course, that's a joke, but the point is made. Nothing can explain everything, short of everything itself. That last sentence can even be proven, I'll leave it to you to figure out how. :-)


What does religion have to do with it? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468257)

Implicit in the notion of consulting religious leaders is the notion that there is some shared spiritual belief that should guide our reasoning.

This assumption is false. What Christian and Jewish leaders think of genetic engineering is as meaningful to me as what the Spice Girls think about it.

These people don't have any particular insight to lend to the debate - if their basic message is that its "against 'God'", then that isn't a message at all. It has no implicit or explicit meaning.

Re:This just "Open Sources" life... (1)

Kinthelt (96845) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468258)

artificially created life

Religion has always been irked by this. In the beginning, it was called sex. And organized religions put restrictions on it. Now it's called genetic manipulation and still organized religions are putting restrictions on it.

I can't see how 2000+ year old ideas can apply to 50- year old ideas. The world we are living in has changed a lot since the fall of the Roman Empire. Society has changed, morals have changed, even the species has changed!

I'm not going out to say that we should scrap all the teaching of religion, but that we should modify them to fit our modern world. They should be interpreted rather than taken literally.

blah blah blah...more FUD from JonKatz (2)

swordgeek (112599) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468259)

"The future is a scary place! The world is on the cusp of something terrible!"

Guess what? The world has always been on the cusp of something great and terrible. Especially in the 20th century, there has been something at almost every moment that, given a few years, has the potential to change human (i.e. modern and industrialised) society drastically. Some of them happened. Some of them were passe' by the time they arrived.
The debate over bioethics has been going on for decades, in the industry and in the halls of governments around the world. The fact that it's only now making the news is pretty much irrelevant to how much (or to be fair, arguably how little) thought and discussion has already gone into it.

Or, more to the point, JonKatz is half a day late to the docks again, and trying to make up for it by throwing around vague, emotionally charged fluff. Again.

Totally off topic now, I followed a link from the suckdot parody of slashdot, and discovered that JonKatz is a professional (meaning "he gets paid") journalist. All I can say is scary.

A Christian's perspective (2)

anomaly (15035) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468260)

I'm not sure how all of the ethical issues play out on this one, but in general, Christians have no need to fear technology.

We've been attacked as being closed-minded, and unwilling to let science to it's job - that of exploring knowledge.

It's not rational to object to technology simply because it brings us to the unknown, or because it challenges long-held beliefs. God gives us the capabilty to gather knowledge about the universe in which we live, and that's a GoodThing TM.

There are areas of genetic reseach that are rationally opposed. For example, fetal tissue research that gets it's raw material through unconscionable activites like partial birth abortion. The only way to get to the start of that sort of research involves killing babies. That's a Bad ThingTM.

Let's no longer be associated with those who would suppress Copernicus. Let's look to gather knowledge about the universe in which we live!

BTW - I'm a "fundamentalist" in that I believe in the fundamental truths of Christianity. I belive that evolution as origin of species is irrational, and as much a religion as Christianity. I also believe that the earth was created in seven days by an all powerful Creator.

Merry Christ mas
Jesus is the Reason for this Season!

Where you can get the source now... (2)

apsmith (17989) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468261)

Project Gutenberg [] just published Chromosome 22 in ASCII, and they have all 24 (23 + Y)) planned to be published by June 2000. Of course these are available in probably more useful form from the Genome Database [] . But hey, the source code is out there - the hacking can start!

I think it's a good idea to a point (1)

Dysan2k (126022) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468262)

I believe that following this line should be continued. For one, they may be able to decode the RNA strands that make up various Virii that cause everything from the simple cold, to HIV. To use the human genome to help mankind fight disease is an excellent thing, and I fully support it. Being able to create organs from a persons genetic code would be terrific, and there are so many other things that could benefit humanity including curing some birth defects before the child is born.

I say go for it. I believe at some point people will probably start cloning themselves, but the better something is, the fact that someone will twist it around for 'evil' (so to speak) is inevitable. We, as a society, should simply try to keep a hold on such things.

As for religious implications, I've studied Christian theology, and I find nothing about this a problem in a religious sense.

I think Jon may have rambled a bit here and skewed from his original point, but it definatly gives us something to think about. Good one Jon.

unclear on the concept (1)

wli (11430) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468263)

I don't mean to be unreasonably critical, as some others apparently are, but it seems unclear to me how this gibes with the overall theme of the site. While I am versed in computing and perhaps some mathematics, ethics and genetics are outside the province of my specialties as well as my interests, and probably those of the general readership here as well. I don't mean to be narrow-minded, and I do have interests outside of computing, yet ethics and genetics are not among them.
Of course, this site is not targeted toward me specifically, but there seems to be a general outcry against the atopical articles. As I understood it this site was primarily about computing. Broadening its scope to every technology under the sun is probably spreading itself thin, as well as diluting the core content directed toward the common interests of the readership.
While I can't unequivocally recommend a better course of action, I can say I'm not particularly happy with this turn of events.


So what do you suggest, Jon? (1)

Grab (126025) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468264)

Great rant, but light on solutions. So you don't like genetics? What's your solution for curing all the various genetic disorders then? Is it ethical to say, "Well, give it another couple of years research and our scientists could cure cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease and spina bifida. But we don't think it's right to let them do the research, so we're going to let you die, and instead we'll spend the money on financing heart transplants for obese smokers who've got themselves into their situation." ???

I find it quite funny that on SlashDot you find a comprehensive flame of the Y2K disaster movie extensively, but articles _for_ the genetic "Frankenstein" hysteria! I think it just goes to show, ppl are only scared of things they don't know anything about or can't understand, and that software folk are as prone to irrational paranoia as anyone else. And that well-known ppl are just as prone to the hysteria as us mere mortals...

You're both wrong... (2)

A Big Gnu Thrush (12795) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468265)

If the "point" of Frankenstein could be packaged in a nice, neat, little /. post, then Mary Shelly wouldn't have had to write it.

The novel is a novel because it needed to be. She couldn't have told the story, or made the "point" as well with less words, or in a lesser art form.

And since you asked, The Stand means nothing to me.

Straight Facts.... (1)

Tepar (87925) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468266)

It really bugs me when people take this particular pot-shot at religion: And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history? Please, get your facts straight. The 20th Century atrocities of Hitler, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, et. al., far, far surpass anything, including the Inquisition, that religion has ever done throughout history. And most Christians would tell you that things like the Inquisition and the Crusades were not representative of Christianity at-large, but rather isolated incidents done by a few who perhaps didn't think things through very clearly. Religious people are also human beings. That means they'll not always act according to their belief system, though that's what they strive for.

Did you read the article at all? (1)

Yogurtu (11354) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468267)

Please read it. You are allowed to bash anybody, but please don't waste everybody's time for that:
Jon is contributing to the discussion and you're not.

pandora's box (1)

john_gault (115165) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468268)

Running around squalking and flailing your arms over your head are not going to do much. In my mind, that places you right next to all the "newsie" TV shows that annoy me beyond tolerance. Figure out a way to respond to this other than slamming your fist into the panic button, please.

That said, I agree that we (as a society) need to do some serious soul searching with regards to this particular direction that technology has taken. Unfortunately, I don't think that is going to happen. A quick glance at U.S. history will show that we are perfectly capable of using technology before we understand it's implications and consequences... Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a human race, we managed to survive that one. I might be being far too optimistic, but I like to think that a few folks managed to learn a lesson then. I do not think we shall be so fortunate with the issue of creating life. This one will catch us before we get the chance to learn the lesson.

We shall be our own undoing.

Katz the Reactionary? (1)

Peter La Casse (3992) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468269)

My goodness, where to start?

Genetic research (or, indeed, any research) does not automatically produce oppression. Science produces technology which is then able to be used for good or for ill. To imply that we should arrest or repress scientific inquiry because the fruits of that inquiry might someday be used for wrong is not the sort of thing that I would expect to hear from Jon Katz, it's the sort of thing I would expect to hear from somebody like Pat Buchanan or the Taliban.

Recently a group of bio-ethicists met with a panel drawn from the Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths and concluded: "There is nothing in the research agenda for creating a minimal genome that is automatically prohibited by legitimate religous considerations." So what? Is that the only major ethical issue?

You imply that there are other major ethical issues. I'd be interested in hearing of any "major ethical issues" not addressed or at least recognized by any of the major world religions.

And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history?

Actually, I think that human beings are responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history. But that's beside the point - are you actually advocating preventing somebody from discussing the ethics of something because of the actions of their ancestors? I thought the point was to not discriminate unfairly?

Apparently you believe that society's ethical decisions should be made only by people who are part of disorganized religions? "The world would be a much better place if my minority were in charge." Right.

In any case, it is the organized religions who spend most of their time thinking about ethics. Who better to provide a baseline (from which we may vary our own opinions) for judging whether a new thing is ethical?

To stop the research would be to deny one of the noblest traits of the human character - to figure out the world and make it better.

At least you haven't completely lost your mind.

Einstein (1)

DustStorm (112660) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468270)

I think that this is an amazing revolution in that feild and this research should continue, but we have to thing about the ethics. I can just hear the team now...

"Please let us do this. LET ME PLAY GOD!!!!... I mean, please?"

I think that Einstein was onto something here.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity."

Think of the benifits... think of the wepons that could be made. Does one outweigh the other? This is the true question.

Re:I usually find your articles interesting, but.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468271)

If there was a cure for all illness through Gnetic engineering there would be a slight problem; Less people would die when they should therefore we might have a slight problem with the world population and all be eating "soilent green"

Re:How does this mock religion? (2)

Vesperi (10991) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468272)

The likelyhood is that they will fail because the genes are more complex than the scientists really understand. Nature tends to eliminate unneeded genetic parts over time so it is likely that the organism is very close to having as small a genetic code as possible to allow it to survive and reproduce

Bunk, even a casual review of gentic research will show that all species genome's contain vast sequences of "noise" of permeniatly turned off segments of DNA. Nature is a pack rat of code - it's more bloated then the latest from Readmond.

What these researchers want to do is place a synthisised DNA strand in a phospholipid sphere. All species cell's have to have the same basic tools to make protines, recive nutrients, and expell waste. This is the part of the genome that's identical in each one.

All this DNA building is basicaly humans using a HEX editor to muck around with the machine code for life - DNA. A simple phosolipid shell in a nutrient providing environment is the computer device it runs on.

The trick down the road is going to not be this primitive tinkering, akin to putting your name in the credits of a game by editing the text strings held in the executible; but the development of an abstracted language to "program" life. Want a radiation waste eating roach that can clean up reactors? Just use the latest object oriented visial LIFE ( Living Individual Functional Engineering ) compiler and link the pre-coded objects together to get one. Compile and debug your new bug!
James Michael Keller

Religion is the cause of bloodshed and cruelty? (2)

Gerv (15179) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468273)

And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history?

It's interesting that JK is keen to lay the blame for the deaths of many people killed in the name of religion at its door, yet (as implied by his comment above) he is unwilling to lay at the door of atheism the far greater number of deaths for which it is responsible.

How is atheism responsible for deaths? If you do not accept God, you can make no claim that one moral framework is any better than another. Therefore,you are perfectly within your rights to develop philosophies such as those of Stalin, Mao and Hitler, because any moral philosophy is as good as anyother. Their killing was a natural progression from their Godlessness - a far stronger link than that between Christianity and those who distort its message to one of murder.

So let's have no more of this "religion is responsible for more bloodshed and cruelty..." nonsense, please.


Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (1)

Janthkin (32289) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468274)

Prick us, do we not bleed?

Why is it that whenever we look to the future, we see only the horrors brought about by societal manipulation gone wrong? Sure, Gattica was frightening in its way. Sure, Brave New World didn't leave much hope for the masses. But why MUST the future be that way?

Why do we never see the brighter future offered us by a full understanding of life? Robert Heinlein wrote thousands upon thousands of words, even more than Jon Katz, about the future. The difference is, quite simply, that he LIKED our prospects. Sure, there will be troubled times. But then, when haven't there been? Does Katz suggest that the prospects of a disease-free, longer-living humankind are so bleak? From a purely cynical view, think how much money would be saved on health care! On Medicare! Billions of dollars annually, all of which could be turned to, say, interstellar exploration, to get our newly-bolstered race off this rock, and onto ones a few lightyears next door. Takes 200 years to get there? No problem for a race with a 500 year lifespan!

Stop the rhetoric. Put an end to the ungrounded fear. Nietzsche condemns those who use the past as an excuse to avoid the future as noxious weeds. I say they are balls and chains, holding man back from a better tomorrow.

Re:Where you can get the source now... (1)

nhowie (38409) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468275)

Man, DNA's a bit too low level for most hackers, I'm waiting for the C compiler for DNA to come out, then I'm gonna compile the Linux kernel on it and see how much like a penguin it really is...

Nit-picking by numbers ... (2)

charlie (1328) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468276)

Caterpilars ... pass. I live in the UK but I haven't heard about this particular experiment. Cites, please?

A GE experiment in Australia went disasterously wrong, when a whole load of plague-carrying rabbits escaped to the mainland, from the place they were kept. Aside from utterly wiping out the rabbit population in the area, Australia was very lucky and no other casualties occured.

Not true. The rabbit incident was simply a repeat of the use of myxamatosis (in the 1950's) to control Australia's rabbit epidemic, using a different but entirely natural disease organism. The rabbits "got loose" mostly because farmers suffering from an extreme rabbit infestation took matters into their own hands and removed some infected cadavers from the island where the bug was being tested.

The genes have not yet been completely mapped in anything other than VERY primitive organisms, and even there, as much as 1/3 are not understood and an unknown amount is "junk" (read: they don't even know if they don't understand it).

The first human chromosome to be completely mapped was announced a week or two ago; the rest are partially mapped, and should be nailed down within five years. Several single-celled organisms have been mapped, too, and there's also the Canine Genome Project in progress -- expect GP's for all major domesticated (and experimental) animals within the next year or two.

As for junk DNA, why does this surprise you? Genetic algorithms produce messy code. If some junk sequence doesn't actively impair the reproductive fitness of the organism the genome expresses, there is no selection pressure to remove it from the genome. What's interesting isn't how much of the genome is junk, but how well-understood bits of it are already.

And the real Hard Question in biochemistry, the tertiary/quarternary protein conformation question, is due to come under attack for real in another few years when IBM's Blue Gene comes on line. (Now there is a topic for Katz to rant about!)

Jon Katz, Luddite Leader? (1)

Noryungi (70322) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468277)

A few points, if I may.

  • This has been pointed out before, Jon, but "Gattaca" is a movie. Please do not base your vision of the future on movies only. This does not really allow for a balanced and informed view of the future.
  • Religion may have been responsible for a lot of bloodshed and suffering, that we agree on, but the three worst butchers of the Twentieth Century are Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot (not necessarily in that order). Two out of these three were Communists, who did not believe in God ("Religion is the opium of the people...", yadda yadda yadda). The third one (Hitler) was either an atheist or a pagan (your pick). Let's face it: most monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism, etc...) are the source for ethical conduct and values... The same ethical conduct and values that you are using to criticize genetic manipulation. That just does not cut it. You can't criticize religions in their entirety and refuse to acknowledge the ethical and intellectual framework they give mankind to deal with questions such as this one.
  • "Human Cloning" may be a few years away, but, as far as I can remember, there are significant issues about premature aging and cell death. Don't forget, as well, that a human brain is significantly more advanced than a sheep's brain. Cell degeneration may produce some very nasty side effects in the "results" of human cloning.
  • Sampling the gene pool of Iceland requires (a) the approval of the population there, which may not be forthcoming, since most of these guys should be pretty well informed by now and (b)
  • Let's face it: as disgusting as it may seem, "eugenics" (the "improvement" of the human race through selective breeding and abortion) exists even today: in some parts of China, killing female fetuses is a common practice and has become a serious problem, raising the ratio of males to females to 130 on 100. Ancient cultures used to throw away unwanted or deformed babies. Etc... etc... Learn a little bit of history and try to open your eyes to the world around you, will you Jon, before jumping up and down on your little soapbox.

Overall, you have some valid questions. Questions that should be discussed and approched very seriously. I just feel you should take the time to write something serious instead of this fluff.

My most serious concern, as of now, is that corporations will take over the Genetic Code of humanity. The moral, economical and intellectual implications are simply staggering. Read "intellectual property, gene patent and corporate destruction of democracy" there and you have it in a nutshell.

That's all for now. This opinion is worth exactly what you paid for it... =)

The prime cause (1)

Nicolas MONNET (4727) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468278)

science can never explain the primal causes

And neither does religion. If you have such a problem with the universe existing by itself without a supreme will (AKA 'God') creating it, then, personally, I have a probleme with a supreme will existing by itself, therefore it has to have been created by something else, probably a metagod, which would need in turn a metametagod etc ...

This is one of the main fallacy of religion: the need for a first cause.

Re:How does this mock religion? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468279)

I think limpdawg is right to call into question Katz' cliche that somehow genetic research and manipulation mocks religion. This cliche is hardly unique to Katz though as there has been a long trend in the dumbing down of American journalists (at least Katz still demonstrates the ability to parse English grammar-- increasingly rare amongst those who ply his craft.) The idea that this research mocks religion or somehow calls into question theology is the work of people who do not understand science or do not understand religion or understand neither. This notion serves as nothing more than a means to reenforce antireligious views of some and arouse fears and insecurities amongst religious people without educating either party about the other. Again, Katz is not unique here, and is merely following the lead of his coleagues. limpdawg is correct: the scientists are only manipulating already existant genes; even the "antiquated" systems of medieval theologians like Averhoes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas can be used to understand the metaphysical implications of the latest discoveries in genetics. The issue is not that of God, or creation versus evolution; the issue is ethics. Katz is best at bringing up the ethical questions. Will we create a genetic caste system within our own species? Will we create a genetic caste system throughout the entire biosphere? Few are going to finance hacking together of a new species for fun-- there must be a payoff-- what are the implications of creating new species for profit?

Religion and Technology (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468280)

Excuse me, but it strikes me that a good chunk of the /. readers are just as bigoted and intolerant of religion and religious people as they claim religion is. I myself am a practicing Catholic, and the only thing I find really disturbing about this post is the usual Katz drivel:
misinterpetations, blind prejudice, stupid assumptions, etc.
Religious people != Luddites. Why did this news not cause much of a ripple? How is it inherently different from any other genetic manipulation? We've been doing that for millenia. This is just a new twist.
Mike Latiolais (too lazy to log in)

What do you mean "No debate needed"? (2)

nlvp (115149) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468281)

Heated debate, or debate at all, is not what is needed...

Eh? What are you on about? Setting the actual subject matter aside for a moment and looking at any scientific advance we have made in the past, or are making at the moment, public debate among groups such as /. is exactly what is needed.

Encryption and those technologies that allow eavesdropping raise major issues in the field of privacy, and I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of a debate in which I benefit from the input of many who know so much more about it than I do. Even from my technically less competent standpoint, I have ethical and social input into the conversation. Privacy is just one example.

Coming back now to the matter in hand, we've got in the first few minutes of this article's existence, a bunch of statements that provoke thought, a couple of scare stories and a bunch of neanderthals posting "first-post" and flamebait nonsense.

This article is heavily biased towards the "it's such a terrible idea" side of the argument that it doesn't really provide a solid base for the discussion and it's provoked a bunch of criticisms of Jon Katz, this is not really a good thing, because it distracts from the debate.

What is clear is that whilst it is very unlikely that comparisons such as "Gattaca" are spot-on, they serve to illustrate the kind of fears that some individuals may have.

Personally, I don't think we're doing ourselves any favours by using Frankenstein's Monster and Gattaca as references in this discussion, because they shape the way we think, and we end up debating how close or far from reality they might be, what a logical extension of the storylines might lead to, and how terrible that really is. Much more interesting would be a less hysterical discussion of the pros, cons, benefits and costs of the use of such technology, steering clear where possible (at least at first) of comparisons with deities from various religions and panic attacks regarding races of clones genetically engineered to buy from Microsoft etc. I'd have hoped that a site whose tagline is "News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters" would be capable of

1. Seeing with excitement the possibilities of such technology.
2. Coherently arguing the case for and against without resorting to religion.
3. Not leaping to the worst possible conclusion every time.
4. Providing clear informed discussion on the real, tangible and likely risks.

Sorry if that sounds combative, it isn't meant to be, but most of the articles I initially read either criticised the original author, or leaped so far to one side or the other of the argument as to add very little other than a little more panic to the debate. Apologies to the two or three very notable exceptions.

You can't prevent the future (1)

elgardo (117823) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468282)

...but trying to see what technology will bring might be useful in order to make sure that the technology is not abused. An example of technology going way too fast for society can be seen with the atom bomb. But even though the atom bomb is something that can be easily abused, you do not see much atom bomb terrorism these days. I would think that genetics will go the same way.

One thing to remember with cloning and the creation of life, is that while it is easy to assume that this might turn humans into "expendable life forms", none of this technology can replicate the things that formed the PERSON inside. All the influences of growing up. Even if you could genetically engineer someone who was really intelligent, there is no guarantee that they will actually use that intelligence. Less anything that they specifically want the person to use his/her brains for.

Would there be a two-tiered class system of "valids" and "invalids" as in Gattaca? Not very likely, because if there is ONE thing that science has proven, it is that what is first considered a bad thing is turned around five months later and considered a very necessary thing and therefore a good thing.

Perhaps the engineering of a human might actually prove once and for all that it doesn't matter how "perfect" the species is in the eyes of that specific scientist, there will never be a perfect human, and it will never turn out exactly the way you wanted it, because biology is only one tiny blipp of what makes a human.

Re:Didn't Galileo Mock Religon? (1)

echo (735) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468283)

There are those in "organized religion", and even many normal "religious" people, who believe that science and religion are opposed to one another.

However, to think such a thing is ridiculous. To me at least, it's blatently obvious that they are not opposed to one another... In fact, I've seen some recent scientific discoveries and theories that to me, PROVE the existence of God.

Antiquated? (1)

borzwazie (101172) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468284)

*************************** I accidently posted this under AC status, my mistake. I want JonKatz to know who I am. ***************************

Listen up JK: Normally I don't comment on these articles that you write, since some are good, some are not, and the hot-grits people usually have all the criticism you need.

"Knocking the religious on their antiquated behinds?"

Do you mean to say that ALL RELIGIOUS PEOPLE are living in the past? Could you have possibly offended more people? You have simultaneously offended all of the major religions at once, JK. Way to go. That's it, drag the fucking ratings in for Andover, and make that IPO paycheck gleam. You have just invalidated any respect I might have had for your journalistic prowess.

Hemos, CmdrTaco, we had a debate about AC's yesterday, and how to decide whether or not to let them participate. Can we have a poll put up to decide whether or not to let JK participate?

Ok dig this dirt (1)

Johan Veenstra (61679) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468285)

Good joke,

and it really has a lot of truth to it, you have to create life from your own dirt, to really call it your own.

This made me think about how we can go about and create life from cratch. We would have to create our own matter and own physics before we can do anything.

Then I asked myself, haven't we done this already? Haven't we created our own physics? Haven't we used our own physics to create life already?

I think we did. We have created our own mathematical laws, and used those laws to create our own mathematical life. From a very small set of values (0, 1) and rules (AND, OR), we created dynamically interacting entities (programs), that sometimes even recreate themselves (virusses).

So all you programmers out there, keep on creating those programming perls.


The Evil == Religion (1)

Nicolas MONNET (4727) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468286)

Science should be free

The evil comes when religious types want to interfere with freedom of speech and knowledge. RELIGIONS DON'T HAVE A GOOD ENOUGH TRACK RECORD IN THIS RESPECT. For as long as we know, religion has been the main source and/or accomplices for commiting the worst crimes.

That's still true now, take the assaults on abortion doctors.

Re:How does this mock religion? (1)

paRcat (50146) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468287)

This is actually a good step in proving religous beliefs. And before you moderate this down...

The fact that it's taken this long for humans to get to the point of identifying the building blocks of life is one thing. Add to that the fact that these are the building blocks for one of the simplest living things that exists.

If this is the case, and it is, then how likely is it that all of the life that is on the earth came about from an accident?

If humans eventually manage to create life from scratch, they are only proving that their previous assumptions about life's beginnings are false. Their arguments are based on an event that is so improbable nothing else with these odds would be given consideration. Yet they believe it because they don't want to think their lives are dependent on a God. But if they *do* create life, they are simply proving that life comes about when there is a creator, and not by accident.

The essence of life in Maryland (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468288)

They also claim they've found the essence of life in Maryland and hope to create a completely new species
At long last, scientists have discovered how to enjoy yourself in maryland? I can't wait to see a new species of happy Marylandians, living it up. I've got to get my hands on this study!

Oh, shut up (1)

whuppy (33165) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468289)

This is such nonsense, I can't even dignify it with a response. (Hey Jon, did you run around after seeing Jurassic Park yelling "dinosaurs are real! and chaos theory makes 'em dangerous!"?)
A question for Rob: How bad does Jon's writing have to get before you actually reject an article?

Run for the hills, Ma Barker! (1)

Rick Razzano (76194) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468290)

Another Jon Katz article you might have missed:

Up to now, the fact that the world has not been connected by a vast electronic network had made it possible to keep large numbers of people in the world, myself included, from realizing one of the biggest secrets in human history: that we as humans have, and always have had, the ability to create other humans. If this sounds like something out of "Three Men and a Baby", I assure you that it is real and true.

And it seems that reproduction of human species forms is somehow linked with sexual attraction. This is a truly insidious development. In the not-too-distant future, it may be common that people actually produce another human being unintentionally, just because of this powerful and not-well-understood sexual phenomenon. What is society to do with accidental offspring production? Should there be legislation to curb this sex thing before it gets out of hand? I uncovered evidence at a local all-night book selling establishment that if people had sex as much as they wanted, they would produce enough other humans to cover the entire planet. I'm talking billions of people, not just millions.

The implications of this are much more dangerous than we imagine. We have no way of knowing who might be using this strange power to reproduce. What if someone wanted to take over the world? They could have children, and those children could have children, and so on. Do the math! We go to bed every night thinking the world is safe, but elsewhere, in beds just like the ones you and I are sleeping in, people are engaging in sexual acts which seem innocent enough, but are really causing more humans to be produced in an explosive, uncontrolled fashion.

The really scary part is that our government doesn't seem to even be that interested in regulating these practices. When I contacted government officials about what controls exist regarding human reproduction, he said that the only real rule was that men weren't allowed to give birth. In fact, my extensive research at Blockbusters video found no examples of men giving birth. Very strange indeed.

Pure hysteria (1)

gcoates (31407) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468291)

How can we pretend to have an informed debate when the standard of knowledge is so poor? Katz asks why there has been little debate over Venter's discovery of a minimal genome. Probably because there isn't really anything to debate. What is so special about creating life? As far as I remember, the debate over 'vitalism' (that living matter is somehow different to the inanimate suff) was sorted out a little over 100 years ago. Katz might want to update his ideas a little bit. The ability to create a novel organism doesn't grant anyone any mystical status other than to get their name on a few scientific papers.

Furthermore, plant and animal breeders have been creating "new species" in a rather more piece-meal and haphazard fashion for the past few thousand years. Oh, and clones (aka idential twins, and at a pinch, any creature which happens to reproduce asexually) are all around us. Does this spell doom and destruction for all of us?

All that hysteria does is prevent rational discourse about the important issues. There are privicy issues that are going to arise about the use of genetic details obtained about individuals. However, many countries (esp in the EU) already have a legal framework in place to deal with the disemination of personal data collected by companies to third parties.

The completion of the human genome project is not going to spell the end of civilsation as we know it. Firstly, a genetic sequence is just that, a string of letters. Actually finding out what a gene does, let alone working out how to modulate it function is not a trivial task.

Another question you might like to ask yourself is why is genetic manipulation seen as an automatically bad thing? Is having gene therapy to control chronic obesity worse than getting liposuction? Or altering the genes that control nose shape worse than having a good, old-fashioned nose-job?

What is needed is a lot more thought when someone mentions genetic-engineering, and a lot less hand-wringing.

Not so much Frankenstien as Rappaccini (1)

Marcio Silva (97075) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468292)

I think that a better literary characterization of Dr. Venter would be Rappaccini from Hawthorne's Rappaccinni's Daughter [] I think it's a much better treatise on their danger of "a blind" quest of science than Frankenstien, and it's more applicable to the moral issues raised by the current story.

Professor Rappacinni examines and manipulates plants for his studies of poison's and thier use in medicines. He is immersed in his study and is blinded to the moral ramifications of his creations. He creates a garden, filled with genetically altered plants that while beautiful are filled with the deadliest poison. He raises his beautiful daughter, Beatrice, in the garden and as a result poison flows throughout her whole being. Rappacinni planned this result because he wanted to give his daugther a weapon with which to better fight the dangers of the world. One day she meets a young man, Giovanni, and they fall in love. But he is tormented by the fact that all she touches dies. A rival professor, Bagglioni, convinces the young man to give her an antidote to her poison so that they might live happily in the outside world. This professor knows that the antidote could work, or might kill her, but he provides it nonetheless out of a quest for political power and partly out of a maliciousness. When she drinks the antidote she is killed.

What does this have to do with Katz's article on Planet Gattaca?

Rappacinni's not the vilain in the story, and his creations aren't evil. He gives Beatrice her poison nature out of good intentions, he wants to protect her. Had she stayed in the garden, she would never had died. We are led not to blame Rappacinni for creating her the way he did. The individuals responsible for her death were Baglioni and Giovanni. They knew the rammifications of their actions and proceeded regardless out of their own selfish reasons.

Currently most genetecists are working on trying to understand the building blocks of life to make our lives better. They aren't the ones who will be making the decisions to use/missuse their discoveries. We need to be more concerned with those that will try to use their discoveries for socio-political gain, namely governments and corporations. If we try to apply moral control at the scientific level, we will just cease to hear about such discoveries. I'd rather that they do the research first and then ask about it than make the decision to proceed, or not, privately.

Offtopic (2)

adimarco (30853) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468293)

These are the kinds of things that make me wonder if Slashdot's moderation actually works. There's several comments much lower in the thread that actually provide information, or rational analysis of the situation, and this shit (if you'll pardon my language) gets marked "insightful." ??


Re:Didn't Galileo Mock Religon? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 14 years ago | (#1468294)

No, they prove the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn. And she does not like being compared to the lesser one, god.

Re:How does this mock religion? (2)

evilpenguin (18720) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468295)

This is a total misunderstanding of gene expression in living organisms. Nature generally does NOT eliminate unneeded genes. Most of your genes go unused and unexpressed. You have genetic structures in your DNA that are identical to those found in primitive bacteria. Nature does not "edit," it just keeps accumulating stuff. Deletion occurs only through extinction, so there is a lot of old stuff in our genes.

As for the "it's not creating life because it is just using what is already there" argument, well that can be extended back to the universe itself. By you standard the only way to create life would be to create the universe. That's a perfectly valid semantic view, but not ethically very useful.

Re:The prime cause (2)

Amphigory (2375) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468296)

Ahh... But any world view needs a first cause. And in the case of religion, the first cause can be of infinite simplicity.

I believe that God is of a single principle, unified in will and purpose. That he has no consituent parts. Further, I believe that he exists independent of time.

This is not an easy concept, and I can't really explain it in the same way that I understand it. Basically, I believe that God is so simple and so unified of principle that, for anything to exist, God must exist to create it. Who can create time but a being that exists outside it?

I realize that this is not a scientific explanation: but then again, it's not intended to be.

Mapping the gene pool in iceland. (1)

FPhlyer (14433) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468297)

The most interesting part of this article was the mention of the Human Genome Project wanting to map the gene pool in Iceland. I lived in that country for a year and a half during my eight years in the Navy. Iceland would make an excellent choice for such a project due to it's "stagnant" gene pool. Just about everyone in that country can trace their common ancestry to everyone else. The Icelandic government is so worried about their gene pool that they are encouraging families to adopt children from foreign countries (a lot of them from asia.)

Hopefully the Genome project can help Iceland to get a grip on their gene pool problem before some really serious health issues come up.

Now if someone could just take care of thier Thoroblot problem (yearly festival where they serve such wonderful cusine as fermented shark, blood pudding and goats heads, among other delicious foods.)

On men and Mycoplasma (5)

jw3 (99683) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468298)

Hello, I'm January and I work on Mycoplasma pneumoniae [] genomics and transcriptomics. I want to add a few words on C.J. Venters revelations.

Mycoplasma genitalium, sequenced by Fraser and Venter, is in principle a deletion mutant of Mycoplasma pneumoniae, sequenced by people from the group I'm in. That means, it lacks a few genes M. pneumoniae still considers interesting for general survival, but all in all those two species are highly similar, with the same genetic apparatus etc.

Both species can be subjected to random transposon mutagenesis - you shot at the genome with a tiny little thingie called "transposone", which randomly destroyes some gene. If the gene destroyed is important, such a cell will not grow and reproduce. Therefore in the mix you have only mycoplasmas, whos important genes are preserved, will grow. You can then use the Polymerase Chain Reaction to amplify and examine what genes specifically got destroyed - that means, which genes are not necessary to grow ...under laboratory conditions, of course. And ceteris paribus, that means - all other conditions being equall. Especially, other genes being intact.

Venter tries to a) make the impression that he did the work b) he's got a strain with xxx genes "switched off", which is not true. We only know that all of this 150+ genes are not needed for mycoplasmas to grow if other genes are intact. The way to constructing the "minimal cell" is long, if you want, I can get into details.

By the way, this information has three to four years, and Venter started talking about his "custom-made" M. genitalium about two years ago.

The whole project will make huge publicity and a very little contribution to science. First, "essence of life", my foot. A piece of RNA with a couple of molecules surrounding it is perfectly capable of proliferating, evolving and making you deathly sick, providing it finds enough cells to proliferate within. Intact mycoplasmas need a lot of organic substances in their growth medium - you have to add bovine serum. Essentially, the border between something quite inanimated like virus and a living cell is smooth. Next, this "crucial genes" will be different for different systems and assemblies. Finally, you have assembly this living cell out of "living" molecules - it needs polymerases, ATP, lipids, synthetised DNAs and RNAs and so on just to start living. Ian Wilmut put dead DNA into a "dead" (unable to proliferate, without genetic material) cell, so did he created new, artificial life? Bulls..cience. Artificial life will be when you start with natural, inorganic and simple molecules. Assembling existing parts has not much in common of finding an existing formula of life, especially because it will not help you understand how those parts work! And this is a different research (proteomics/transcriptomics) and it is really a way to go before there will be an appriopriate article on /.. By the way, /. publishes lately a lot of cheap sensations. Sorry to say it.



(from the JanKatz-Falls-For-Every-Commercial-Trick-Dpt.)

Can we have a discussion, in spite of Katz? (1)

grindig (41270) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468299)

That's an understatement. Finding the formula for life would dwarf almost any previous scientific achievement that comes to mind, not to mention knocking conventional religion and theology on their antiquated behinds. What is a theologian supposed to tell some kid who can read the recipe for human life? If we can make it, doesn't that raise certain ultimate questions?

Could someone explain to me how this knocks anyone on their antiquated behinds? I guess it provides another smidgen of evidence for evolution...I hardly think that's necessary at this point (and I don't think anyone here wants to debate it). But does Katz mean to say that by mapping the human genome we disprove the existence of the human soul? I sincerely hope he's refering to something more logical than that. I'm simply at a loss for words trying to understand what on earth he is refering to. What ultimate question is he referring to?

But where is this debate supposed to occur? In Threads on Slashdot? In the United States Congress, whose idea of technological debate is requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools? Or in the American media, still stuck on hacking and cracking, e-commerce, or whether or not Johnny will sneak onto the Playboy website?

I really don't think the proposals regarding the Ten Commandments were intended to have anything to do with technological debate.

Why do you call for a public debate and discussion on a technological issue(that seems to be the only positive statement regarding the issue in this whole essay), then procede to mock such discussion when it occurs?

And why put this discussion in the hands of scientists and members of organized religion -- the latter probably responsible for more hatred, bloodshed and cruelty than any other single force in human history?

I suspect you've confused religion with socialism, given the tens(hundreds?) of millions slaughtered by Stalin and Mao alone.

Dr. Venter has only to log onto the discussion that will follow this column to get a realistic dose of just how likely it is that a rational, coherent public discussion of "scientists-playing-God" will take place.

Or he could just read your article, and see why such discussion never takes place here. I actually agree with most of what you wrote here, but the way you keep taking all these random off-topic snipes at religion and democracy really destroys your credibility.

My views on the subject? Well, I agree that it's inevitable (or I'm willing to assume that for discussion). I have to say, cloning doesn't really frighten me all that much. Parents will have more control over the genotype of the childrent they have. I don't really think this will result in more uniformity in the children we see--who wants to have children that look just like everyone else's children? I certainly don't. Do you? And I don't think everyone will want to have shallow, obedient children either--if there were any danger of parents thinking ahead to the inconvenience that children present, I imagine there wouldn't be too many children born at all!

The prospects of some central authority having complete control over the genotype of the entire country kind of scares me, for obvious reasons, but I think as long as control of the genes of offspring is placed in as many hands as possible, diversity, for all social purposes, will be assured.

Genetic testing (like Gattaca) worries me a bit more, I suppose, but I've babbled enough for one post.

Science Fiction as Predictive Tool (1)

Eric Berg (35044) | more than 14 years ago | (#1468300)

It is pretty funny to read anyone claim the outstanding power of science fiction to accurately predict the moral and social issues around technology. It makes me think of the depiction of science and technology on Star Trek, where much of what is shown is hopelessly outdated a decade later. Or all of the alarmist stories and movies that have come out with each no technological breakthrough in the last hundred and fifty years that have failed to live up to their doomsday cries.

Also, I am insulted by the insinuation in this, and all similar alarmist propaganda, that and sort of progress should be feared as heralding great evil. Katz doesn't show any specific example of misuse, he just cries wolf about things that might happen, or applications which could exist, citing ridiculously alarmist movies as his only proof of danger.

Gattaca, just like the previous slew of alarmist pictures in the 'cyberpunk' vein, evidence a lack of any sort of thorough thought on the topic being criticized, as well as a real lack of understanding of the technology. As I pointed out in my response to his previous article in this thread, there are very few universally desireable traits and most of them have to do with health. Given this, it is fairly ludicrous to imagine that improving health is going to result in discrimination against the sick. If our society was predisposed to oppressing people with illnesses or disabilities, why doesn't it do so now, on an institutional level? Katz seems to suggest that the development of genetic research is somehow going to rob us of our moral sensibilities, causing us to lose all progress we've made towards protecting individual rights.

This is precisely why this is alarmist, because of its narrow vision and skillful exaggeration. Katz ignores the social truths of our society while stressing extreme possibilities based on pure speculation. This is the same sort of doomsaying which ruined the nuclear power industry in this country and which currently advises our national policy on medicine, condemning thousands of people each year to death for lack of treatments not yet approved by massively inefficient government agencies.

And since Katz also raises the spectre of Victor Frankenstein, let us not remember the lesson of that story. It was not that science is evil, that technology is destined to get out of control or that progress is an affront to God and should be squelched. No, it was a story about individual responsibility. There was nothing evil about his creation. In fact, in many ways it was far superior to God's creation. However, it was his lack of responsibility for it that drove it to do evil things.

And, just to be obnoxious, since the religious angle gets brought up, too, it should be noted that Frankenstein wasn't an indictment of science, it was an allegory for man's alienation from his own God, who seemed to have abandoned his own creation.

Eric Berg
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