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British Government Looks to Ban Intelligence…Enhancers July 31, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Transhumanism.
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If I told you that a government was planning on banning performance enhancing drugs because of issues like preventing unfair advantages, you’d probably think I was talking about sports.  You would be wrong.  The British government has recently asked their expert on illegal drugs to look into whether nootropics, intelligence-enhancing drugs, should be banned.  The use of nootropics is becoming a very common phenomena as students and workers search for every possible advantage they can find to get an edge in school or in the workplace.  One study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that in 2002 more than 7 million Americans used intelligence-enhancers, with 1.6 million of those being student age.

So why is the British government spending it’s valuable time talking about banning smart drugs?  It began with a study published by the Academy of Medical Science entitled “Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs.”  The study looked at three types of drugs (recreational drugs, medicine for mental health and cognition enhancers,) assessed the risk of there use and recommended what steps be taken.  I’ll skip the first two parts and go right to cognitive enhancers.  In brief, the study looked at the types of cognitive enhancers that are currently on the market and looked at what effects they have, how they improve cognition and what potential risks come with there use.  The list of drugs was fairly extensive and included some well known ones such as methylphrenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil.)  According to the study most of the substances listed have been shown to improve cognition in one way or another (short term memory, learning, focus) though not all improve all areas of cognition and some may even detract from some areas while improving others.

Where the study became interesting is where they began to discuss the ethical issues involved in intelligence-enhancers and what form of regulation may need to be put in place.  The first paragraph of this section went right to the heart of the matter stating:

“Any potential human enhancement challenges traditional ideas about medicine, i.e. that the role of medicine is to overcome some sort of impediment to normal physical or mental functioning, and thereby restore an individual to ‘normal’ health.”

This is a common belief in most of the medical community and has been used by prominent bioconservatives such as Leon Kass as an argument against human enhancement.  Naturally I disagree with this position and it is interesting do note that the study did not come out unequivocally in support of it and made note of the fact that physical enhancement (i.e. cosmetic surgery) has been gaining widespread acceptance.  Unfortunately, it then made quite possibly the stupidest argument against enhancement I have ever heard:

“Currently, individuals with higher than average cognitive abilities are valued and rewarded, but making such attributes available to all individuals could reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities in the population, and change ideas of what is ‘normal’.” (emphasis mine)

If by reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities they mean reduce the number of stupid people then I agree that is what cognitive enhancement could very well do.   What I have a hard time seeing is how this could be anything but a good thing.  In many cases diversity is very desirable since an abundance of different traits in a population often enhances that species adaptability and thus odds of survival.  However there is no benefit to having a diversity of cognitive abilities, to having a population where some people are less intelligent, less creative and more forgetful.  This is akin to saying that some forms of medicine should be abolished because it is might reduce the diversity of health in a population.  There is no benefit to taking this action, and generally that’s a good enough reason not to do it.

As to the popular argument as to whether use of cognitive enhancers should be banned in certain situations such as athletic or competitive event the study didn’t take one side or another, only stating that more discussion was necessary.  It did trot out the same tired argument we hear every time this discussion comes up, that performance enhancers are an unfair advantage.  This was a stupid argument against enhancement in sports and it’s a stupid argument now.  Genetics and upbringing already give some people an advantage over others and if anything cognitive enhancers could help to level the playing field.  It also didn’t address the largely arbitrary way we decide which drugs should be banned and which are acceptable, such as why a powerful stimulant such as caffine is not being considered in this ban or why dangerous drugs like nicotine or alcohol are legal while drugs like cannabis are not.  Please note that I am not advocating the banning of said drugs, quite the opposite, I merely wish to point out the ban’s arbitrary nature.

The study did contain one thing that advocates of human enhancement can look to approvingly.  In closing the study stated :

“Further debate is needed about whether it is, in fact, desirable for pharmaceutical companies to have explicit programmes for developing
cognitive enhancing drugs to be used by ‘healthy’ individuals in non-medical contexts.  If such programmes are found to be desirable, incentives for their development should also be considered.” (emphasis mine)

Could a top science academy be advocating the potential of human enhancement?  Could we be seeing the beginning of a redefinition of the purpose of medicine?  Time will tell.


Iranian Scientists Clone Goat July 26, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Cloning.
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This story honestly surprised me.  Not because it’s about scientists cloning a large animal, heck that’s positively mundane these days, but because it took place in Iran.  Yes, that’s right Iran.  The country where morality police can arrest you for wearing “inappropriate” clothing is working on cloning and stem cell research.  Needless to say, Iran is one of the last countries on Earth I would have expected to find an advanced stem cell and cloning program but not only is it flourishing it apparently has the financial backing of the government and the blessing of Iran’s religious authority, though human reproductive cloning is still forbidden.  Still, I suppose the potential to become a regional biotech powerhouse trumps any religious hang-ups Iran’s government may have.


A Healthy Lifestyle Reduces Risk Of Heart Disease July 21, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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Shocking.  Absolutely shocking.   According to a study published in JAMA you can actually reduce you risk of heart disease simply by exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a diet high in fruits and whole grains and drinking alcohol in moderation.  This is mind-blowing, the idea that you can increase your health and longevity without resorting to expensive drugs or fancy gimmicks.  Now that we have this information I have no doubt that we will see rates of heart disease plummet once people start taking up this advice.  (To those unable to detect the sarcasm in the previous paragraph, I pity you.)

Okay so maybe that was a little over the top but seriously, how does this qualify as news?  We know that a healthy lifestyle can increase lifespan and decrease risk of heart disease, along with a lot of other stuff.  We’ve known that for quite awhile now.  We’ve been telling people for quite awhile now.  The problem is that while people have certainly been listening it hasn’t changed a damn thing.  As a personal trainer I am amazed at how many times I have been talking to a client about fitness and find that they already know all the information I’m giving them.  They know what they need to do to be healthy and know all of the benefits that it brings yet they still don’t do it.  This conundrum has been frustrating public health officials for decades and to be honest I don’t see it ending soon (though I do see it ending, which I’ll address at the bottom.)

To be blunt, people don’t change their habits because they are short sighted.  Considering that for most of our history as a species individuals died before reaching 30 it’s very hard for us to think 50 years into the future and make plans accordingly.   Most cultures that are healthy like Okinawa or the Basque are not so because they choose to be, they are because of there culture and circumstances.   They eat healthy diets high in vegetables and fruits because that’s what they traditionally eat.  They get more exercise because the design of their cities or the way in which they live favors walking over driving.   Many of these cultures place a large emphasis on strong social and familial bonds, a factor linked to longer longevity.  The point is that they do not choose to healthy, their culture is just more conducive to a healthy lifestyle.  Change their culture and diet to something closer to the standard Western one and you’ll see those longevity number drop (something we are seeing in younger members of traditionally long lived communities.)

There is basically only a few ways to make populations healthy on a large scale (note that I am using the term healthy here to refer to longevity and lack of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc.)  You can change the culture, change humans or make being healthy so easy that it no longer becomes an issue.  The last option is what most people want and seem to be waiting for, the metaphorical silver bullet.  Exercise in a pill.  The good news is that scientists are hard at work developing just that and within most of our lifetimes we should witness it.  This is what I meant when i said I do see it ending.  Technology will make it so easy to be healthy that people will do what they need to without thinking about.  The bad news is that those technologies are still a ways off and unless we start taking care of the bodies we have now, some of us won’t live to see that day.


Fractal Broccoli July 19, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Weird.
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Random, but cool.


What Does It Mean To Be Human July 16, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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What does it mean to be human?  This question has been with us for as long as we as a species can remember.  Entire libraries could be filled with all the opinions, rebuttals, debates and ruminations that have cropped up around it.   Its answer has confounded our greatest philosophers, eluded our best scientists and even after 10,000 years of recorded history we are still no closer to unraveling it.  It is a question I have no intention of trying to answer here.

You’re probably confused now.  You’re probably scratching your head and thinking, “What is this, a bait-and-switch?  Why did you start this with a question you‘re not going to answer?”  The reason I began this essay with it is because it is a question that is at the heart of much of the debate surrounding human enhancement and needs to be addressed, and the reason I do not intended to answer it is because it is a meaningless question.  You read that right.  It is meaningless, pointless, unimportant.

I am aware of how strange this may sound, but bear with me.  Many of the arguments against human enhancement can be boiled down to the idea that there is something special about humanity, something that would be lost should we begin to drastically change ourselves.  So what are these unique qualities, these traits that we stand to lose?  To answer that we must ask, what is a human?  What defines a being as belonging to humanity?  It is not our tools.  Many animals have been shown to use tools.  What about our intelligence?  It is impressive in its scope but it is certainly not unique.  Self consciousness?  Many animals are aware of their own existence.  Our capacity for kindness and altruism?  Anyone who has owned a pet knows we are not alone in that.  Is it simply a combination of all of these, or is that we do all these things better than the rest of the animal kingdom?  Ah, now that requires a slightly longer answer.  Let us say for the sake of argument that one day we take a dolphin and alter it.  Through genetic engineering and biomechanical augmentation we change it so that it’s abilities rival our own.  It can speak, it can manipulate tools, it can think like we do with long term memory, abstract thinking and problem solving, it can do all the things we can do.  Let us say we do all these things and ask yourself: have we made this dolphin into a human?  No.  We have made it a smarter dolphin, a handier dolphin, a more eloquent dolphin, but through all of this it remains a dolphin.  It does not become a human because it is not our language, our tools, our intelligence or any combination of these or other features that make us human.  A human is defined as belonging to the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and the only thing that makes us Homo Sapiens is our DNA, our 36 pairs of chromosomes containing all the genes that when expressed and put together give us a human.   That’s it.

If we except that our genes are all that make us who we are then I put the question to you: what is so special about being human?   Nothing, there is nothing special about being human and therefore there is no special meaning of being human.  If being human is not important, then one of the major arguments against transhumanism and human enhancement falls flat on it‘s face.  Then we are left with a different question; if being human is not important, than what is.  The purpose of this article is not to answer this question but since different people will have different opinions I’ll offer my own here.  What is important is not being human but being a person, where a person is defined as a being capable of self-awareness.

Still, there are those who will never except this more humble position for humanity.  For many of us our whole view of the world is based around the idea that we are at the center of it, an idea that has survived since ancient times.  It used to be that we were at the center of the very universe, put there by the hand of God himself.  When that idea fell by the wayside our position changed slightly.  If we are not the center of the universe we said at least we are the only possible intelligent life in that universe, living on our unique little life bearing planet.  That view was defeated when we saw the sheer size of the universe and found our first extra solar planet.  How, in the face of so many worlds around so many stars in so many galaxies, could we possibly believe that we are the only ones.   If not that, then at least we are the masters of our own planet we said, the top predator on earth, and for 10,000 years we have been.  But that time is coming to an end.

We are approaching a time in the history of our species when the ability to alter ourselves will be in our grasp.  In the coming decades we will gain the ability to change our bodies, our minds, our very DNA.  We can, if we choose, become something other than human.  What will it mean to be post-human.  No more than what it means to be human.

Lose Weight by Exhaling Fat July 8, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Genetics.
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No this is not a joke.  A study published in Cell Metabolism shows that genetic alterations in mice allowed them to convert fat into carbon dioxide.   Let me say that again.  Convert fat into carbon dioxide.

When I first read that my jaw dropped and I shouted “what the fuck” probably louder than I should have.  Even to a science nut like me who thinks that proper application of technology is the answer to most of the worlds problems and that the singularity is only decades away, this sounds crazy.   But on further reading and retrospection it’s actually not too far fetched.

According to the article the researchers injected DNA from bacteria into cultured human cells.  In bacteria the DNA coded for enzymes that converted fat into sugar but in the human cells they found the enzymes converted fat into carbon dioxide.  They then injected the genes into the livers of lab mice and found the same effect.  Fat was converted not into sugar but into CO2, and the mice who had the new genes stayed thin and athletic despite being on a high fat, high calorie diet.  Many more tests need to be run to determine if there are any side effects but at first glance it seems safe.

Now I realize this sounds pretty far fetched, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Fat is made up of essentialy just three molecules: hydrogen, carbon and oxygen.   As a matter of fact, most food is made up of those three molecules plus nitrogen.  If two substances are made out of the same stuff, all you really need to do to change one into the other is rearrange the structure of the molecules (think coal and diamonds.)  Since the raw material are already in place, the right enzyme could certainly manage to do the trick.  Perhaps someday all you’ll need to do to lose weight is take a deep breath.


Easter Island Compound Shows Anti-aging Properties July 8, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity.
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When I first read this I thought it must either be a joke or some new age mumbo-jumbo, but this seems to be for real.  Scientists have found that a compound called rapamycin, first found on Easter Island, may have longevity enhancing capabilites.  What is more interesting is that it seems to have this effect regardless of what age it is administered.  This could be a big step forward because caloric restriction, the only way outside of gene therapy to increase lifespan, doesn’t seem to be effective when implemented in elderly animals.  Rapamycin, which is also used in stents and transplant operations, seems to affect the same metabolic pathways as caloric restriction but may be a more effective treament because of this.   Another way it may be better than caloric restiriction is that people may actually use it.  Anyone can tell you that asking people to cut down their calories for the rest of their lives is a strategy doomed to fail, but asking people to sprinkle a drug on their food for the same effect is a different story.


Americans Still Getting Fatter July 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness.
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This is bad news.   Obesity rates went up in 23 states last year.  Many of those are baby boomers that are starting to hit retirement age.   That health care overhaul better come fast.