Human Beings Machines

gene doping

I am just back from about 10 days traveling in Europe. I always return quite impressed with the public infrastructure I encounter. This trip was primarily aimed at visiting a few old friends, but I did take a few hours to visit a couple of my former colleagues at the Technical University of Delft. I can’t quite explain my feeling that, on the one hand, technology is at least as advanced as it is here in the US, but there is, on the other hand, less obsessive use of it.

My wife and I ate out several times with our friends. I got the sense, as I usually do there, that service means something. And that quality does also. Europe certainly is facing many of the same issues about unsustainability that we do here in the US, but they appear, to me at least, to be much more clear that life matters more than possessions. We may belittle the socialistic flavor of health care, education, transport and so on, but there is little question that concerns for the human being is far more important than here in the States. This observation is born out by reams of data on the human condition.

I read the newspapers today for the first time in a week or so and found much evidence of this comparison. Two quite different articles made the case for me. The first was a report about a controversy over the opening of uranium mines in Virginia.

Bills introduced last week would lift a moratorium on uranium mining at the site here, known as Coles Hill. Political supporters say that the mining would bring economic benefits and that risks from radioactive wastes, or tailings, can be safely managed. Opponents fear the contamination of drinking water in case of an accident, and a stigma from uranium that would deter people and businesses from moving to the area.

A National Academy of Sciences report in 2011 stopped the momentum in last year’s General Assembly for lifting the ban, imposed three decades earlier in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. The report warned of “steep hurdles” to safe mining and “significant human health” dangers if a capped tailings pile leaks because of the state’s “frequent storms.”

The arguments being used here resemble those associated with the 2000 mile-long Keystone XL pipeline proposal to bring tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries in the South. These projects are said reduce our dependence of imported (at least from outside of north America) energy and create jobs. Similar stories follow the exploration for natural gas trapped in shale and its production by “fracking.” Not to worry the proponents tell us. Everything is safe. But as yet unproven in practice. We know this isn’t true, and major accidents have accompanied the application of all the technologies involved. The economics count more than do the people involved.

The second story is very different, but drew my same general response. In an analysis inspired by this week’s revelations by Lance Armstrong, the author argues that our persistent attempts to improve on the human body will continue, perhaps at an accelerated pace.

LANCE ARMSTRONG’S sad saga of doping and lying is over, allowing us to turn our attention to a far more important issue arising from the Armstrong era: what to do about the rise of ever more potent bio-enhancers in sports.

The “arms race” in this new age of augmentation has already begun, said the bioethicist Thomas Murray, former president of the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y. It pits enforcers like the World Anti-Doping Agency, armed with strict bans on certain enhancers, against elite athletes — and their trainers, technicians and financers — who are determined to get away with doping.

In both cases, financial interests are pushing for gains that pose risks to the well-being of human beings. Much more is to come says the article.

Drug companies, meanwhile, are developing a raft of new medications for diseases like muscular dystrophy and anemia that could one day be used as enhancers. Scientists are studying genes associated with physical performance and muscle growth to see if drugs — or, someday, gene-modulating technologies — can be developed to activate the strengthening or other positive effects of those genes.

Beyond chemical fixes, neuroscientists are experimenting with noninvasive technologies that augment brain activity by bathing targeted regions in low levels of electricity (transcranial electrical stimulation) or a magnetic field (transcranial magnetic stimulation). Both appear to enhance cortical excitability and cognitive performance.

Bioengineers are in the early stages of developing artificial limbs and exoskeletons that one day may be better than real limbs. Andy Miah, an ethicist at the University of the West of Scotland, has suggested that scientists in the future might create embedded nano-devices to stimulate muscles to a sustained peak of performance. Hugh Herr, a biomechanical engineer at the M.I.T. Media Lab, recently told the journal Nature that “stepping decades into the future, I think one day the field will produce a bionic limb that’s so sophisticated that it truly emulates biological limb function.” He predicts the emergence of new human-machine sports. These might combine, say, track and field and Nascar.

I have long argued that one of the primary root causes of the present unsustainable state of the world is the lost sense of what it is to be human: a special way of being developed over a very long period of evolution from our forebears to become homo Sapiens. Darwin would argue that our phylogeny, the pathway of our species development, represents successful coping with our environment and culture. That success is measured in tiny increments where the benefits of innovations outweighed any costs (risks). Tool-making gave the species a leg up in combatting the harsh environment.

But we have gone too far. Our values have shifted from a concern over our well-being as a living organism (being) to economic concerns (having). Seeking more energy from risky production means, rather than investing in conservation or less risky sources, masks the reasons that more energy is needed. It is largely because we continue to focus on materialistic measures of “well-being” (quotes used here to indicate that the words have an ironic meaning in everyday usage), rather than a recovery of our basic human values and means of satisfaction.

The pursuit of means to transcend evolution by chemistry or mechanical engineering is rooted, again, in our materialistic and banal culture. Winning pays and pays big as Lance Armstrong has shown us. But what he did seems no different to me than some form of Wall Street insider trading. Winning by breaking the rules. Drivers are purposely sabotaging other drivers in racing. None of this is Darwinian in the sense that is promotes the advancement of the species. Doping, as the article showed, can and has had serious effects on the health (real well-being) of the athletes. In a Darwinian world, such variations would be weeded out.

Aggressive football, for the benefit of blood-thirsty fans, has produced serious brain injury contributing to the suicides and poor health of many players. Stimulating brains is not likely to do anything much for our species, except to make those who chose to compete this way wealthier than most. I, for one, do not have any interest in combining track, field, and Nascar as the article says. We should be spending our research and development money on real human ends, recovering our biological and cultural selves from the hollow creatures that need evermore energy and entertainment.

ps. In another article today, Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that inequality (another sign of the imbalance between economics and human values) is holding back our recovery.

When even the free-market-oriented magazine The Economist argues — as it did in a special feature in October — that the magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America, we should know that something has gone horribly wrong. And yet, after four decades of widening inequality and the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, we haven’t done anything about it.

pps. I watched as much of the inauguration as I could take. We need much more than speeches and toasts. Before we can work together we have to talk together. And to talk together means we must share some common intention for real action. Here we have a classic vicious cycle in which we can only go round and round and never get off. George Will, speaking after the Inaugural luncheon, said division is a good thing, an advantage that the US has over other countries. Yes, maybe, but only if those who are divided can eventually start to talk. I do not believe that will happen out of concern for the whole, a concern almost completely missing today.

The vicious cycle can get broken open when both sides come together to face a common enemy or threat. Ironically there are many of these right now: climate change, terrorism, inequality, globalism and more. The reality that propels action arises in a conversation among the parties, not out of some abstract ideological belief. Only a new acceptance of the reality of the situation can break the viscous cycle and offer the possibility (only a possibility) of (coordinated) action. There was little I saw today to suggest that anything like this is going to happen soon. Another Sandy might so it for climate change, but what a costly way to have to follow.