The Incredible Enhancement-Man?

13 Oct

I love costumed characters with super-powers. I also believe in the potential of human enhancement. There’s a link there…

Superman was evidently intended to be a kind of anti-car terrorist when he debuted.

In the West, most children (admittedly generally male, but let’s leave gender politics out of it) grow up knowing about superheroes. It’s probably been this way since comic books came mainstream, in what, the forties? Superman made his first appearance in ’38, so let’s say a couple of years later his popularity and that of imitators had blossomed. Every kid has been exposed to them since Supes turned up, and it’s fair to say that most children lap it up. Not that it’s just children, either- I know plenty of adults who retain their love for superheroes well into their lives. My father, for instance, adores the Silver Age work even now. He gave me a Marvel annual when I was young which contained what remain some of his favourite stories- the origin of the Hulk, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, and I know he still reads it.

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Don’t worry, be happy.

5 Oct

Don't worry, be happy.

Stop worrying, and love the gene…

In Depth: Are we obliged to learn genetic information about ourselves?

4 Oct

A brief note of apology- I simply can’t get the superscript and reference links to appear on-site, even with the correct html. Until we come up with a solution in the Biojammer labs, I’m afraid it’s gotta be the old fashioned way.
 
 

The idea that there is a right to refuse to know relevant genetic information about ourselves is one which appears to be broadly recognised in law. The Council of Europe’s Oviedo Convention states that:

“Everyone is entitled to know any information collected about his or her health. However, the wishes of individuals not to be so informed shall be observed.”1

However, I would question whether this is consistent with the principle of autonomy. Given the growing relevance of the field, let’s focus on the idea of genetic information in predictive medicine.

First off, we’re going to need to explore what the concepts at hand actually mean in context.

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Guest spot- Halfagiraffe

4 Oct
I believe one of the genuine success stories- for all its flaws- of this country to be the NHS. It is something of which we should be justly proud, an institution of a scale and purpose larger and more noble than any other I can think of. Forget all the argument about socialism- this is straight up goodness. The morally relative nature of taxpayer-funded healthcare is something to discuss at a later date,  but we can all agree that the NHS is something without which so many people would be sorely lost. To me, that seems fundamentally ethically sound. Please, support our NHS.
 
With that in mind, I reproduce here a piece I came across a couple of days ago through twitter. The more I read of this blogger, the more impressed I become. I want to share it with you, and hope that you appreciate its passion and purpose. You can read more by Becca at http://www.halfagiraffe.co.uk/ or on @halfabear , and you should also read her correspondence with her local MP on the matter at hand here.
 
 

NHS services being auctioned off on a massive scale.

I’d say I’m angry but anger doesn’t go far enough to describe what I’ve been feeling in recent months. I’m furious. You should be, too.

We love the NHS in Britain. It’s an institution which everyone has come to rely on at some time or another and it’s often hailed as one of our greatest achievements. Everyone has a right to be healthy, or as close to healthy as they can be. Whether rich or poor, you’re entitled to the same standard of care under the same schemes.

Wellcome Trust/ Guardian Science Writing Prize 2012 entry

2 Oct

I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted in the above competition this year, with a day of workshops at the Guardian followed by a champagne and schmoozing shindig at the Wellcome Collection in the evening. What follows is my entry in its original form- I have been sent an edited version for approval which is going to be posted here soon (with links!), along with the other shortlistees and the winner. I’ll link directly to it once it goes up, the edits being mostly issues of style. I was very pleased to be shortlisted- indeed, advice from Rebekah Higget, a blogger for Guardian Science among other things, was what led me to start biojammer.com.

Is it time to secure our future?

I should warn you: I took a cognitive enhancement drug before I began to write this article.

A central nervous system stimulant, to be precise. I took it to increase my capacity to think clearly, and to keep me focussed. It gives me an advantage over the girl at the table next to mine- I’m going to be able to keep working longer and more productively with my enhanced brain than she is. Until she goes and buys a dose too, anyway. It’s perfectly legal- in fact, there aren’t any specific regulations on human enhancement at all.

Okay, so I only had a coffee. Well, that’s fine, right? You probably had one too this morning, without considering that you were enhancing yourself. Caffeine crosses your blood-brain barrier and inhibits your adenosine receptors from reducing your synaptic activity- so that morning brew has artificially altered your brain chemistry to your advantage. Until those molecules are rendered pharmacologically inactive, you’re something more than a normal human. Right now, I’m Superman, though I might avoid the tights.

Admittedly, there’s a world of difference between my mildly increased alertness and such potential as exists in the field of biomedical enhancement. Leaving the hyperbole behind, biotechnologies are promising us abilities beyond those of mortal man. Prosthetics, developing at a rapid rate to serve the needs of military amputees, can in some cases now be grafted directly to a patient’s own nerves. Maybe not today, but in time it will be perfectly feasible technically to endow one of these robotic limbs with a strength beyond that of flesh and blood. Nootropic drugs- cognitive enhancers, akin to that coursing through my nervous system- offer improved memory, increased metabolism, augmented thought processing, and potentially an extended lifespan. More controversially, perhaps, there are the genetic manipulation techniques which could render us immune to diseases, specify our attributes, or even grant us those we could never have inherited from our parents.

These are much more than just theories. For instance, Melissa officinalis, the herb ‘lemon balm’, has produced a “significant increase in the speed of mathematical processing, with no reduction in accuracy” in human tests performed by the University of Northumbria. We hear stories, too, of star athletes banned from competition for ‘doping’. Unsporting, yes- but ultimately another form of human enhancement. On the same theme, take Oscar Pistorius, the famed ‘blade runner’ whose transtibial prostheses have generated controversy over his perceived advantage as a sprinter.

In academia, there has been arcane discussion for decades over the ethics of using such technologies. Scientists and philosophers on both sides of the issue have sparred without resolution in the pages of journals, both praising the prospective benefits and admonishing us against the theorised risks to our health and humanity. If I alter my natural state, am I playing God, or subverting nature? In my effort to break the limits of humanity, might I lose my inherent dignity? And how could I possibly predict any side effects, in years ahead?

They’re valid questions, and debate could rage unabated for years to come. Some of them might never be answered, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Look at embryonic stem cells- a field of research with wonderful therapeutic possibilities, but fraught with argument over morality, the right to life and what constitutes a human. Cloning, too, is a hotbed of contention, as are developments in the creation of synthetic life. All these biotechnologies offer us much, but has their maturation stalled to some degree by the questions that are rightly asked.

There is one important difference which sets human enhancements apart: it is not that these questions and fears are not warranted, but that we can address them in advance. Prior to the resounding success of Dolly, cloning was largely science fiction in the public consciousness. Before the birth of Louise Brown, IVF treatment simply wasn’t something the general population had sufficient awareness of in order to enter reasoned debate. Discussion and dispute came after the fact, along with reactive legislation like the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which instituted regulations on in vitro work long after the practice had become widespread. Now, though, we’re in a different position.

Technologies and pharmaceuticals which augment our capabilities are already here, and we use them every day. Their burgeoning development into the ‘pill to make you perfect’ isn’t coming as any surprise, if you consider the wealth of advancements announced in the media every day. So really, we’re in the perfect position to make our decisions and conceive our laws ahead of time, instead of playing catch-up with science. Given the potential touted by enhancement techniques, can we afford to allow progress to run aground?

To decide my position, though, I might need to enhance my cognition. This time with foam, and sprinkles.

Stop… biojam!

28 Sep

Welcome to biojammer.com, a blog about bioethics and the future, along with pop culture and vague philosophy. Take a look at the about and author pages to learn more, and follow me on twitter for constant updates about anything that takes my fancy in the world of biotech! I will be posting here as often as I can, and I hope it becomes a firm bookmark in your daily reads!