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What Do Post-Bovines Portend?
Emily Gertz, 25 Aug 04

belgianblue.jpg"Perhaps the most important and complex decision in the history of our species is approaching: in what ways should we improve our genetic endowment?"

Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, has written a thoughtful piece about genetic engineering and science literacy in the U.S.

He spotlights the Belgian Blue, a breed of cow genetically mutated to lack a substance that inhibits muscle growth. "A result is that Belgian Blues are all bulging muscles without a spot of fat, like bovine caricatures of Arnold Schwarzenegger."

And what does this mean for humanity? While acknowledging the creepiness factor, Kristof declines to simply dismiss genetic engineering out of hand (something even we here at WorldChanging have done from time to time).

He notes that while humans are more than likely to use gene therapy in relatively superficial ways--to be better, stronger and faster--there are also vast possibilities for therapies that allieviate chronic diseases and ease aging. The same kind of mutation that produces muscle-bound Belgian Blues could also be an amazing treatment for mucular dystrophy.

Kristof calls for a revitalized, Space Age-style push for scientific literacy in the U.S., especially in the arena of genetics, "to help us figure out if we want our descendants to belong to the same species as we do."

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I don't know. I think Ally #1 nailed this in Tomorrow Now when he asked who wants to have the beta baby for new genetic engineering technologies: who wants to have the beta teenager?

I think the real crazy impacts of medical biotechnology won't be so much the breeding of better humans through gene alteration as the extension of average developed world lifespans well past 100 (we're closing in on that already, technologically), a dramatic rise in health and lifespan in the developing world, the defeat of some nasty heriditary foes like Malaria and TB, and insanely more sophisticated understandings of how to maintain optimal health and wellness.

All of which don't sound as cool of bio-ubermenschen, but might actually have much, much more of an impact on the world than someone running a 7.5 100 meter dash.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Aug 04

Actauly what will happen is people WILL test and prolly already are testing various genetics already and within 20 years proven gene mods will be fairly commonly used amoung the wealthy to semi weathly.

For every thing there is someone willing to test it.

Posted by: wintermane on 26 Aug 04

Emily, I just have to say I adore the "post-bovine" meme.

My take on this is similar (but not identical) to Alex's. I don't worry so much about genetic engineering because I think that we're all learning the lessons of what it means to be in a technology-acceleration cycle: what it cutting edge today is obsolete long before it stops working. Genome-level changes that are irreversible mean that, some short time down the road, when there's a new, more advanced version of that treatment, you're stuck. It's the equivalent to only ever being able to use the first computer you owned. What parent would do that to their kid unless they had to (i.e., unless the treatment was life-saving or disability-averting)?

We're much more likely to see an explosion of physiological alterations when it becomes reversible, or at least upgradable.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 26 Aug 04

Kristof seems to agree that gene therapy is inevitable. He makes the point in the column that we have already seen the Belgian Blue mutation -- blocking myostatin -- in the occasional super-muscular athlete. Blues themselves have been bred since the 19th century; gene tinkering is the icing on their beef cake.

But what kind of people are going to result from genetic therapy, when it's not done to fix a congenital disease? Will we end up with a monoculture, the human equivalent of Red Delicious apples? Shiny, ship well, taste like cardboard.

Of course there are going to be people who find ways to take a technology, or therapy, into illegal arenas, the equivalent of illegal doping. But it is the legal and ethical limits that we impose that are going to define the terms of post-humanity for the vast majority of people.

Kristof worries that the U.S. isn't producing a citizenry sufficietly well-educated in science to undertake the needed debate.

He's keeping an eye on genetics and an open mind, which I find remarkable for a mainstream columnist: searching the NYT online archive for the term 'post-human,' I turned up three out of 15 cites for Kristof columns since 2002.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 26 Aug 04

The thing to remember is even if a better egnetic mod comes out later the simple fact is as long as it does make your baby a bit better aka a bit smarter faster stronger or live longer you won. It doesnt realy matter at that point if they find a better mod.

The most likely first mods are ones based around aging hight genetic diseases and general fitness.

Posted by: wintermane on 28 Aug 04



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