Mice with brains and unicorns for Christmas

From a semi-recent posting on Very Important Stuff, I see that a Republican strategist, Christine O’Donnell, made a claim on The O’Reilly Factor that scientists were “cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”.

The scary part isn’t that some random talking head on a political show misunderstands current scientific research (especially that particular political show), although it should be noted that Christine is a product of the same educational system as millions of the people who heard her speak. A system that quite obviously doesn’t instill any level of critical thought to be applied to things you hear. One doesn’t have to be the sharpest tack in the box to realize that even if one could put human brains in animals, there’s a little space issue going on with the human→mouse thing. But this isn’t a rant about education in the USA.

The scary part isn’t that someone involved in career politics is this clueless about science, although there’s plenty there to be afraid of. The sins against science under this administration are Legion, and we absolutely cannot stand for this demon to continue to possess our government. But this isn’t a rant about politicians’ ignorance of science.

The scary—and exciting—thing is that given time, this isn’t as laughable as it sounds, and humanity as a whole is preparing for a long period of moral issues that makes things like the death penalty and abortion seem quaint.

I have full confidence that someday, science will well and truly master the programming language of all biological life, aka DNA. We will be able to build pretty much anything we can dream with the freedom of a painter facing a blank canvas. You want a mouse with a fully-functioning human brain? Fine, although you’ll likely have to accept that the resultant mouse will be substantially larger than typically seen. Note well I said someday rather than tomorrow; this is a prophecy that will incrementally occur over the next thousand years or so.

The time it takes for us to attain that capability will be more dependent upon the laws we put in place to restrict it and the available research funding than it will be the rate at which the science itself can proceed. We think embryonic stem cell research presents a difficult question, yet whether we like it or not, we will soon be faced with a nearly infinite number of the same type of questions. Questions which can’t be answered by looking at facts alone—the decision will rest solely upon a person’s (or, rather, a nation’s) concept of morality.

There will be spectacular successes along the way; an obvious one is that genetically-caused or transmitted diseases will quickly become a non-issue. There will be spectacular failures along the way as well. Both will be wielded in the morality wars that will soon face this planet, and let us hope or pray that reflection on the successes and the failures are the only weapons wielded and that the word war is a simple metaphor. But I have my doubts. People might not take too kindly to intelligence-enhanced monkeys taking all the menial labor jobs, or the idea that we might create something that will knock us off the top of the food chain. Many theists will perceive these things as an affront to God, and the prevalence of that perception will be in direct proportion to the militant fundamentalism (for lack of a better word) of the believers.

Of course, the intrepid observers will note the things that science will be wholly unable to do and realize that we’re not truly “playing God”. The actual creation of life is something I project will never be achieved; we will be forever limited to modifying something that is already alive rather than creating life from a collection of the appropriate chemicals. That’s just a hunch, however, and it really doesn’t change much if I’m wrong. Probably more interesting, however, is that I suspect that when we get to the point where we can specify the physical features of our children even to the point of giving them 12 fingers, an opposable big toe, and eyes in the back of their heads, we’ll still be unable to specify their favorite color or whether they wind up believing in God. A dad might be able to buy his daughter a real unicorn for Christmas, but no genetic modification will ever cause her to long for one.

I just hope that the so-called afterlife has the equivalent of reality TV, so I can watch the emotional rollercoaster of passion and drama unfold as the participants place inordinate levels of importance upon the weekly challenges and “winning” the game.

6 Responses to “Mice with brains and unicorns for Christmas”

  1. Damian Peterson Says:

    …we’ll still be unable to specify their favorite color or whether they wind up believing in God.

    You’re right of course if we constrain ourselves to genetic manipulation only but what we believe and think is in the domain of memetic manipulation and we’re already adept dabblers in this field. The concept of freedom of speech is an attempt to limit this form of memetic manipulation but there’s no guarantee the future holds hope for the freedom for memes to survive entirely on their merits.

    I suspect we’re going to need an encompassing Theory of Morality pretty soon because the current basis of “live and let live” doesn’t cover all the upcoming issues that scientific discovery will uncover.

    Great topic by the way and very well presented!

  2. Byron Says:

    Again, a wonderful presentation, Lon. As an avid sci-fi fan, I’ve always pondered the issue of technological singularity in the course of human technological evolution. The futurist-physicist Michio Kaku predicts the occurance of singularity between 2005 and 2030. It’s entirely plausible, in the course of research in the field of artificial intelligence, we will develop the first seed AI which, by nature, would be able to improve upon itself and exceed the processing capability of the human brain. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume this denotes life; obviously not so, in the biological sense. However, in the natural course of things, the eventuality is such: A machine will be created which can and will mimic the whole of human behavior. A simple Turing test will no longer be able to distinguish between man and machine.

  3. Lon Says:

    Thank y’all for the compliments. Now my head’s all nice and swollen. :) And Damian, I’m honored that this post was able to serve as a touchstone for a post on your blog. Although, given that you’re using WP, I’m not sure why I didn’t get a trackback ping. Anyway, for those interested, Damian went on to write about a Theory of Morality.

    As for memes, which to me is simply a name for mental constructs, thoughts, or a set of thoughts with a related theme, I see the comparison of them to a physical organism and likewise susceptible to evolution as quite apt. While most use the concept of a virus, I think it’s a bit deeper and more complex than that. Using the term virus is of great use when engaging in polemics, as it is a powerful bit of loaded language when one is arguing against a given meme. When comparing memes to physical lifeforms, however, I expect you’ll see an equal variety presented, some of which could be pictured as corresponding to advanced, complex lifeforms like dogs, chimps, and maybe even humans. Some memes may be compared to viruses, some may compared to Gentoo penguins.

    However, I don’t agree that the presence of a meme forces anyone to adopt said meme. A child may be indoctrinated with the various memes presented by his parents, but in the end they decide which to adopt themselves and which to abandon. The recent sharp rise of “new atheism” is a direct result of people abandoning fundamentalist Christianity, as is the rise in people investigating progressive Christianity, Bahá’i, and Gnosticism. It also seems that many in progressive Christianity are likewise people who were from atheistic backgrounds. There is currently a common meme that little girls like pink and enjoy playing with dolls. Many do. But no amount of “memetic manipulation” as ever truly deterred the classic “tomboy”….despite the fact that under evolutionary terms, the survival/reproductive value of being an intelligent, assertive female is relatively recent.

    Am going to have to put off a discussion of morality, that’ll need a separate post. But I do agree that we need to begin pondering a theory of morality, including the definition of same. The situation as it stands is untenable. Secular laws depend on materialistic facts, but from a purely materialistic perspective, morality as such has no basis whatsoever. From a theistic perspective, morality is theoretically based in relevations from God/dess(es). While there is at least a basis, it is objectively a flimsy one, and from an atheistic perspective, it’s nonexistent as well.

    As for Byron’s presentation of our construction of a highly advanced AI, I find that I’d extend the deadline of Kaku’s prediction. Otherwise, I see that too as being inevitable. And like the attainment of our ability to design improvements to existing biological lifeforms and designing new ones, it will arrive with a host of moral issues and problems that will take centuries for us to work out. And let’s hope it all turns out better than it did in The Matrix

  4. And Slaters Go Plop Says:

    A Theory of Morality…

    A recent post on another blog raised a topic that I’ve been mulling on for quite some time now. The way we currently ‘do’ morals is to try to find what we all agree to be common goals and try to protect them. It’s nicely summed …

  5. Lon Says:

    Relatedly, I’ve noted a recent post over on Losing My Religion titled The Call to Amorality (Ethics).

  6. Damian Peterson Says:

    Ahhhh, there we go. I had left off the /trackback/ on the end of the URL. My mistake.

    Yes, I agree about avoiding the comparison to a virus when talking about memes. Memes are more often of benefit (or at least neutral) in my opinion.

    I don’t see the comparison between memes and lifeforms as working very well though. Memes are more like individual genes within a lifeform. They might influence a small aspect of a person’s behaviour and they coexist alongside many other memes. The distinction is quite important, I think.

    There are aspects of our behaviour that are controlled by genes - perhaps your tomboy example fits here - but I’d have to contend that most (all?) of what we believe is influenced by memes.

    You raise an interesting point about morality not being compatible with a materialistic-only view. I realise you don’t want to get into morality in this post but, when you do get around to addressing it, I’d be interested to hear why this is impossible.

    Great brain-fodder this topic! Cheers.