Archives for the month of: December, 2011

There has been much speculation about the future of human procreation in both the literary and scientific world. Science fictions, in print and film, portray a bleak, post-apocalyptic scenario where babies are designed by an institution and “farmed” in large quantities. In contrast, the scientific community is not so far behind, especially with the advent of genetic engineering. As the synthetic biologist and futurist Andrew Hessel claimed at the Techonomy 2011, we will be able to create and edit synthetic genomes for babies in the future, thus essentially engineering our babies. (Christina Agapakis has an awesome piece debating the humane component of such engineering)

Perhaps synthetic genomes are a bit too much of a stretch with the current technology, but this brings up the question of selective breeding. Selective breeding has been employed by farmers and breeders over the ages to gather the best of the gene pool of a particular species and manipulate the genes according to their need, which did not always correspond to environmental adaptive pressure. Essentially, it is this selective breeding that marked the beginnings of genetically modified organisms. While it is true that recombinant DNA technology has become pretty recently available for commercial use, one cannot deny that what the farmers were doing before the discovery of genes and DNA was  genetic modification, albeit a lot slower and clumsier than what current technology allows. The animosity towards GMOs then is somewhat misplaced, especially on the basis of biodiversity and gene flow. The accusations that GMOs are disrupting the natural gene flow then should have probably made centuries ago, but this recent rise in animosity could be a reaction to the increasingly negative impacts humans are making on Nature.

Selective breeding in humans, especially through genetic modifications, can most probably be labeled as blasphemous. But if looked deeper into the matter, one can see that in case of humans, we are actually restricting our gene pools through intraracial marriages. Insitutions such as religion and ethnicity govern much of the gene flow within our populations by dictating our reproductive behavior. One could even argue that we are reducing the adaptibility of the future generations by compartmentalizing the gene flow. Fortunately, there has been a steady increase in interracial marriages over the 20th century which has allowed for abundant gene recombinations resulting in the variety of appearances and mixed ethnicities we see today.

What is interesting is that in both interracial and intraracial marriages, selective breeding is taking place, but in a more sophisticated and complex way. The courtship ritual or the pairing of mates among humans involves more than expression of sexual intent or secretion of pheromones and so, selective breeding is not really apparent. But considering the facts that mating decisions are also largely based on social factors of the mates, it could be said that these social factors are what is driving our selective breeding. With in vitro fertilization coming into the picture, selective breeding has been more exposed, especially when it involves appearance and inheritable diseases. Choosing among thousands of sperm and egg donors does allow a lot more choices available for interested couples, thus essentially humanizing the process of selective breeding. Because of the genetic information available to us, it is relatively easier for us to predict the design of an offspring, which really is not much different from predicting and then creating GMOs. Because our reproductive behavior is intermingled with the social dynamics, it cannot be denied that such selective breeding is also affecting our social evolution.

The rise of the middle class, throughout world economy, can be represented by a stabilizing selection model, which indicates a certain change in the biological interactions humans have. Although it is not apparent, the different economic classes do exist within different biological environments and have different interactions with the environment around them. As for example, a poor individual would be more exposed to harmful chemicals and less access to healthcare, whereas a rich individual will have more access to healthcare and medical technology and less exposed to toxic agents. Thus the changes in the genomes of these two distinct economic classes over time can be attributed to their living environments.

What would Jane Austen say about all this? The author, who portrayed poor governesses pairing up with rich gentlemen, was perhaps indicating to this particular stabilizing selection as shown by the growing middle class. This social evolution, combined with plummeting cost of genome sequencing and rapidly progressing field of genetic engineering, could result in the bleak picture of human reproduction that is still confined within fiction and fantasy. Or is it really confined within just fiction?

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Recently there has been a rise in ecological awareness throughout the globe. The reason being that mankind is essentially destroying Nature with the toxicity of progress. Thus, understandably, it is a positive realization among us that we are in a mutual relationship with the environment and that we should be preserving it as well.

But, what if the motive behind such awareness and actions is not that pure to begin with? Why should we be trying so hard to keep Nature the way it is? Does Nature really need us to nurture it back to its previous state?

This may seem a blasphemous question to ask, but if given more thought, it would show a perverse paternalistic approach to Nature, not that much different from the Catholic Church’s extinct belief of a geocentric universe. In some twisted way, we have convinced ourselves that without our intervention, Nature will not exist the same way and will become extinct. What we forget in our anthropocentric perspective of the salvation of Nature, is that Nature is not centered around us, as Darwin stated (Ref). But time and again, it has been shown that nature flourishes or restores itself (if you prefer) better WITHOUT human intervention. There is no better example than the case of coral reefs, where researchers showed that damaged coral reefs, without human intervention, grew healthier compared to the “reefs with people”.

If looked deeper into this matter, could it be that our fear of change is holding us back? Slavoj Zizek argues that our idea of ecological preservation deriving from the idea that us, humans, have disturbed it, is what is wrong with our understanding of “Nature”. His perspective is an echo of Timothy Morton‘s theory on ecology that this delusion of saving nature is actually driving us away from Nature itself. Perhaps this is a manifestation of our fear of letting go of “Nature”, or as we understand it. Are we really that scared of a future with a hybrid form of nature with organisms with synthetically engineered genomes, in vitro meat, printed out organs and structures held together by complex chemicals that act like biological units?

The restoration of natural flow, if we have disturbed it, can only be fully performed if we come to understand that Nature does not revolve around us, rather we are “embedded” in it. Let us remember the closest approximation to the origin of our existence – self-assembly and evolution.

“ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First, forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.
Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,
The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain,
The Eagle soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare,
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect, who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!”
Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, 1803

Have you ever looked into your reflection in the mirror and felt you are staring at a completely different and separate entity? If so, then an out-of-body experience would probably be the closest explanation of your mental state at that point of time. An out-of-body experience (OBE) is an experience that  that typically involves a sensation of floating outside of one’s body and, in some cases, perceiving one’s physical body from a place outside one’s body, as says Wikipedia.

OBEs are not a new phenomenon, or a rare one. For thousands of years, individuals delving deep into spirituality, such as monks and gurus from the East mainly, have been able to separate themselves from their “ego” as they put it. After years and years of meditation and searching within themselves for the truth to existence, such individuals have arrived at a fatalistic conclusion of the non-existence of the Self in this reality.

A recent study published in Nature shows that it is possible to separate one’s Self from one’s body, thus providing an OBE. The quality of the OBE is prone to fluctuation depending on the expectation of the individual, but the test subjects in this study have consistently shown awe, anxiety and in some cases, fear, even. The researchers, led by Dr. Henrik Ehrsson at Karolinska Institute, Sweden, created these OBEs for the test subjects using nothing more than a video camera, sticks and goggles. The test subjects experienced emotions when they saw their virtual bodies being subject to different treatments. As for example, one test subject exhibited fear when a knife was plunged into his virtual chest.

In a very different study, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues showed that a monkey was able to control a robotic arm and feel virtual objects just using its brain. Besides the clear possibilities in prosthetic development, the study also indicates the question about the ownership of the body. It is an age-old question of Cartesian dualism – are the mind and the body the same entity? Both these studies show that the mind and the body merge to manifest as the brain and are not exclusive of the brain, as Dr. Thomas Metzinger puts it.

What does Gertrude Stein have to do with all of this? Perhaps the book “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” may shed some light on this matter. Although titled as such, the book is not written about Alice B. Toklas, but rather, focuses more on the life of Ms. Stein herself, as “observed” from the perspective of Ms. Toklas. This brings out the question – was Ms. Stein inducing an OBE on herself as she wrote this literary piece?

On that note, it must be said that the book itself is not a narcissistic ego trip, but rather a wonderful description of the artist and literary circles of Paris during the Cubist period. This book also serves as an introduction to Gertrude Stein’s writing style, which definitely would not be tolerated in the modern writing structure bound by the rules of MLA, APA, and what not…