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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for June, 2011

The Sheep Look Up

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

Woody Guthrie, from Pretty Boy Floyd

I will not go into detail about the situation in Greece. The Guardian’s columnists have been covering it decently, given their distance from the source. Closer up so has The Press Project, whose documentary DebtOcracy puts the entire thing into perspective, showing up the contortions of the European Central Bank and the International Money Fund for what they are: attempts to safeguard large banks and their owners from any risks they incurred in the pursuit of exorbitant profits at the expense of societies and people.

I’m no blind patriot. I know what portion of this has come from bad internal policies and habits. Even so, I’m proud that my people are demonstrating non-stop, saying “Ohi!” (No) to the new occupiers-to-be just as they said it to the Italians and Germans when they demanded unconditional surrender. It is a source of great grief to me that my father, who was part of the resistance to the invaders and then helped rebuild the devastated country bit by hard-won bit as one of its most prominent engineers, will most likely leave life when his nation is at such a state.

I will leave you with a famous Cretan call to rebellion, sung by Nikos Ksilouris: “When will the skies clear, so we see the stars?” The people sang it before the Athens Parliament building.  Because humans need bread and roses — and recognize slavery when they see it, no matter what those in power call it.

Images: Acropolis moonrise (Antónis Ayiomamítis); protests in Syntagma (Constitution) Square in front of the Parliament building, Athens, June 2011 (Oréstis Panayótou).

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Introductory note: Through Paul Graham Raven of Futurismic, I found out that Charles Stross recently expressed doubts about the Singularity, god-like AIs and mind uploading.  Being the incorrigible curious cat (this will kill me yet), I checked out the post.  All seemed more or less copacetic, until I hit this statement: “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

Clearly the time has come for me to reprint my mind uploading article, which first appeared at H+ magazine in October 2009. Consider it a recapitulation of basic facts.

When surveying the goals of transhumanists, I found it striking how heavily they favor conventional engineering. This seems inefficient and inelegant, since such engineering reproduces slowly, clumsily and imperfectly, what biological systems have fine-tuned for eons — from nanobots (enzymes and miRNAs) to virtual reality (lucid dreaming). An exemplar of this mindset was an article about memory chips. In it, the primary researcher made two statements that fall in the “not even wrong” category: “Brain cells are nothing but leaky bags of salt solution,” and “I don’t need a grand theory of the mind to fix what is essentially a signal-processing problem.”

And it came to me in a flash that most transhumanists are uncomfortable with biology and would rather bypass it altogether for two reasons, each exemplified by these sentences. The first is that biological systems are squishy — they exude blood, sweat and tears, which are deemed proper only for women and weaklings. The second is that, unlike silicon systems, biological software is inseparable from hardware. And therein lies the major stumbling block to personal immortality.

The analogy du siècle equates the human brain with a computer — a vast, complex one performing dizzying feats of parallel processing, but still a computer. However, that is incorrect for several crucial reasons, which bear directly upon mind portability. A human is not born as a tabula rasa, but with a brain that’s already wired and functioning as a mind. Furthermore, the brain forms as the embryo develops. It cannot be inserted after the fact, like an engine in a car chassis or software programs in an empty computer box.

Theoretically speaking, how could we manage to live forever while remaining recognizably ourselves to us? One way is to ensure that the brain remains fully functional indefinitely. Another is to move the brain into a new and/or indestructible “container”, whether carbon, silicon, metal or a combination thereof. Not surprisingly, these notions have received extensive play in science fiction, from the messianic angst of The Matrix to Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy.

To give you the punch line up front, the first alternative may eventually become feasible but the second one is intrinsically impossible. Recall that a particular mind is an emergent property (an artifact, if you prefer the term) of its specific brain – nothing more, but also nothing less. Unless the transfer of a mind retains the brain, there will be no continuity of consciousness. Regardless of what the post-transfer identity may think, the original mind with its associated brain and body will still die – and be aware of the death process. Furthermore, the newly minted person/ality will start diverging from the original the moment it gains consciousness. This is an excellent way to leave a clone-like descendant, but not to become immortal.

What I just mentioned essentially takes care of all versions of mind uploading, if by uploading we mean recreation of an individual brain by physical transfer rather than a simulation that passes Searle’s Chinese room test. However, even if we ever attain the infinite technical and financial resources required to scan a brain/mind 1) non-destructively and 2) at a resolution that will indeed recreate the original, additional obstacles still loom.

To place a brain into another biological body, à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, could arise as the endpoint extension of appropriating blood, sperm, ova, wombs or other organs in a heavily stratified society. Besides being de facto murder of the original occupant, it would also require that the incoming brain be completely intact, as well as able to rewire for all physical and mental functions. After electrochemical activity ceases in the brain, neuronal integrity deteriorates in a matter of seconds. The slightest delay in preserving the tissue seriously skews in vitro research results, which tells you how well this method would work in maintaining details of the original’s personality.

To recreate a brain/mind in silico, whether a cyborg body or a computer frame, is equally problematic. Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain, well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia.

Additionally, without context we may lose the ability for empathy, as is shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers. Of course, someone can argue that the entire universe can be recreated in VR. At that point, we’re in god territory … except that even if some of us manage to live the perfect Second Life, there’s still the danger of someone unplugging the computer or deleting the noomorphs. So there go the Star Trek transporters, there go the Battlestar Galactica Cylon resurrection tanks.

Let’s now discuss the possible: in situ replacement. Many people argue that replacing brain cells is not a threat to identity because we change cells rapidly and routinely during our lives — and that in fact this is imperative if we’re to remain capable of learning throughout our lifespan.

It’s true that our somatic cells recycle, each type on a slightly different timetable, but there are two prominent exceptions. The germ cells are one, which is why both genders – not just women – are progressively likelier to have children with congenital problems as they age. Our neurons are another. We’re born with as many of these as we’re ever going to have and we lose them steadily during our life. There is a tiny bit of novel neurogenesis in the olfactory system and possibly in the hippocampus, but the rest of our 100 billion microprocessors neither multiply nor divide. What changes are the neuronal processes (axons and dendrites) and their contacts with each other and with other cells (synapses).

These tiny processes make and unmake us as individuals. We are capable of learning as long as we live, though with decreasing ease and speed, because our axons and synapses are plastic as long as the neurons that generate them last. But although many functions of the brain are diffuse, they are organized in localized clusters (which can differ from person to person, sometimes radically). Removal of a large portion of a brain structure results in irreversible deficits unless it happens in very early infancy. We know this from watching people go through transient or permanent personality and ability changes after head trauma, stroke, extensive brain surgery or during the agonizing process of various neurodegenerative diseases, dementia in particular.

However, intrepid immortaleers need not give up. There’s real hope in the horizon for renewing a brain and other body parts: embryonic stem cells (ESCs, which I discussed recently). Depending on the stage of isolation, ESCs are truly totipotent – something, incidentally, not true of adult stem cells that can only differentiate into a small set of related cell types. If neuronal precursors can be introduced to the right spot and coaxed to survive, differentiate and form synapses, we will gain the ability to extend the lifespan of a brain and its mind.

It will take an enormous amount of fine-tuning to induce ESCs to do the right thing. Each step that I casually listed in the previous sentence (localized introduction, persistence, differentiation, synaptogenesis) is still barely achievable in the lab with isolated cell cultures, let alone the brain of a living human. Primary neurons live about three weeks in the dish, even though they are fed better than most children in developing countries – and if cultured as precursors, they never attain full differentiation. The ordeals of Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking illustrate how hard it is to solve even “simple” problems of either grey or white brain matter.

The technical hurdles will eventually be solved. A larger obstacle is that each round of ESC replacement will have to be very slow and small-scale, to fulfill the requirement of continuous consciousness and guarantee the recreation of pre-existing neuronal and synaptic networks. As a result, renewal of large brain swaths will require such a lengthy lifespan that the replacements may never catch up. Not surprisingly, the efforts in this direction have begun with such neurodegenerative diseases as Parkinson’s, whose causes are not only well defined but also highly localized: the dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra.

Renewing the hippocampus or cortex of a Alzheimer’s sufferer is several orders of magnitude more complicated – and in stark contrast to the “black box” assumption of the memory chip researcher, we will need to know exactly what and where to repair. To go through the literally mind-altering feats shown in Whedon’s Dollhouse would be the brain equivalent of insect metamorphosis: it would take a very long time – and the person undergoing the procedure would resemble Terry Schiavo at best, if not the interior of a pupating larva.

Dollhouse got one fact right: if such rewiring is too extensive or too fast, the person will have no memory of their prior life, desirable or otherwise. But as is typical in Hollywood science (an oxymoron, but we’ll let it stand), it got a more crucial fact wrong: such a person is unlikely to function like a fully aware human or even a physically well-coordinated one for a significant length of time – because her brain pathways will need to be validated by physical and mental feedback before they stabilize. Many people never recover full physical or mental capacity after prolonged periods of anesthesia. Having brain replacement would rank way higher in the trauma scale.

The most common ecological, social and ethical argument against individual quasi-eternal life is that the resulting overcrowding will mean certain and unpleasant death by other means unless we are able to access extra-terrestrial resources. Also, those who visualize infinite lifespan invariably think of it in connection with themselves and those whom they like – choosing to ignore that others will also be around forever, from genocidal maniacs to cult followers, to say nothing of annoying in-laws or predatory bosses. At the same time, long lifespan will almost certainly be a requirement for long-term crewed space expeditions, although such longevity will have to be augmented by sophisticated molecular repair of somatic and germ mutations caused by cosmic radiation. So if we want eternal life, we had better first have the Elysian fields and chariots of the gods that go with it.

Images: Echo (Eliza Dushku) gets a new personality inserted in Dollhouse; any port in a storm — Spock (Leonard Nimoy) transfers his essential self to McCoy (DeForest Kelley) for safekeeping in The Wrath of Khan; the resurrected Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani) gets an instant memory upgrade in Caprica; Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) checks out his conveniently empty Na’vi receptacle in Avatar.

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

A Geology Lesson

Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.
The trees bend themselves all one way
and volcanoes explode often.
Why is this? Many years back
a woman of strong purpose
passed through this section
and everything else tried to follow.

– Judy Grahn, from She Who

Between the physical death of Joanna Russ and the latest endless lists and discussions about women’s visibility and recognition in SF/F, well-meaning people have come up with the Russ Pledge. Namely, a pledge to acknowledge and promote women’s work.

As recent history has shown, Twitter notices don’t start revolutions, let alone sustain them. Even if they did, I won’t be taking the Russ pledge for the simplest of reasons. I have been implementing it for the last forty-plus years. It’s not a cute button on my lapel. It’s not a talking point in my public persona. I cannot take it off when I take off my clothes. It’s not an option. It’s an integral component of my bone marrow that has shaped my personal and professional life.

Long before her death, Russ had been marginalized for being too prickly, a prominent target of the “tone” argument. Even many women found her uncomfortable — she might annoy the Powers that Be and compromise paltry gains. As if good behavior brought acceptance to boys’ treehouses. As if she didn’t threaten the status quo by her mere existence, let alone her uncompromising stories, essays and reviews. Most people know of The Female Man and How to Suppress Women’s Writing, if only by rumor, but the rest of her opus is just as radical. If you want to have your preconceptions soothed by feel-good feminism, Russ is not your woman.

It’s not surprising that eventually she burned out (“chronic fatigue syndrome”), like most people in equivalent circumstances. She kept showcasing true aliens — women as autonomous beings with agency! — and asking questions outside the box. She kept pointing out that even if you have been “promoted” from field hand to house servant you can still be sold down the river. An uncomfortable reminder for those who keep clinging to the hope of “change from within”, the illusion that being abjectly nice to the ensconced gatekeepers and kicking the more disenfranchised below will ensure decent treatment, or even survival.

Joanna Russ paved the way for all who walk the path of real change not merely with words, but with her body. Like the women in folk ballads who got buried alive so that bridges would stand, she deserves more than pious twitterings now that she’s safely dead. I recognize the good intentions of those who promote this pledge in her name. But enough already with “mistress lists” and their ilk. If people want to really do something, I suggest (and mind you, this is a suggestion, not the forcible penectomy some obviously consider it to be) that they read women’s books. Publish them for real money, as in pro-rate presses – pathetic as pro rates are, these days. Review them in major outlets. Nominate them for prestigious awards. Hire them as editors, columnists and reviewers (not slush readers or gofers) in major venues, in more than token numbers.  Teach them in courses.

Unconscious bias is a well-documented phenomenon and is alive and thriving even (especially) in self-labeled “progressive” communities. Women have shown up the arguments for intrinsic inferiority by winning open chairs in orchestras when performing behind curtains and winning major literary awards when hiding behind pseudonyms. But this does not change the dominant culture. And it does not make up for the oceans of creative talent that got lost — suppressed or squandered in anger or hopelessness.

I will let Russ herself have the last word. It’s striking how ageless she remains:

“Leaning her silly, beautiful, drunken head on my shoulder, she said, “Oh, Esther, I don’t want to be a feminist. I don’t enjoy it. It’s no fun.”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.” People think you decide to be a “radical,” for God’s sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship’s chandler. You “make up your mind,” you “commit yourself” (sounds like a mental hospital, doesn’t it?).

I said Don’t worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:

WE WUZ PUSHED.”

from On Strike Against God

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Sue Lange’s collection Uncategorized (Book View Café, 2009, $1.99 digital edition) contains fifteen stories published in various venues (among them Apex, Astounding Tales, Sentinel, Mbrane and Aoife’s Kiss). If I wanted to categorize them, I’d call them quasi-mundane near-future SF – but some of the unifying threads that run through them are unusual.

One is Lange’s love and professional knowledge of music, which pops up in unexpected spots in the stories and is the focus of one of them (“The Failure”).  Another is the matter-of-fact attitude toward technology: the people and societies in Uncategorized have come to terms with genetic engineering and its cousins, although they are aware of their problems.  Finally, the points of view are resolutely working class (many springing directly from Lange’s varied work experience). This doesn’t merely mean that the protagonists/narrators are blue collar. Instead, almost all the stories in Uncategorized center around work issues for people whose jobs are not a way of “expressing themselves” but a way to keep food on the table. These are people who cannot afford ennui or angst, who must punch time cards and undergo intrusive HR evaluations.

There’s an additional feature that makes Lange’s blue-collar protagonists stand out: most are women who do “traditionally masculine” work: meat plant workers, plumbers, soldiers, radiation cleanup crews. Furthermore, these women focus on their jobs and many of their co-workers and friends are women as well. In other words, Lange’s stories handily pass the Bechdel test without falling even remotely into the arbitrarily devalued subgenre of chicklit. If you took Rosie the Riveter and transposed her to a near-future alternate US (minus such outworn cyberpunk accessories as pneumatic-boob avatars and Matrix-style gyrations), you’d have the setting for most of the stories in Uncategorized.

Contributing to this gestalt are Lange’s deadpan humor and rapid-fire dialogue, which require some acclimatization but can become as catchy as strong beats and riffs. Her language is unvarnished Bauhaus – there’s scarcely a descriptive adjective or adverb to be found. Ditto for the settings, which are urban grit to the max even in the stories set off-Earth. One recurrent weakness is hurried endings, often accompanied by twists that were predictable (to me at least). Almost all the stories in Uncategorized would have increased their impact if they were longer and/or less sparse, because they grapple with important issues in original ways without fanfare.

Although Uncategorized hews to the premise of its title, some of its stories are thematically paired – one version comic, the other tragic. “The Club” / “How to Dispose of Sneakers” deal with the intractable problem of humanity’s ecological footprint; “BehaviorNorm” / “Buyer’s Club” tackle another intractable problem, the callousness of administrative management (think Dilbert with a touch of Big Brother transhumanism). For me, the standouts in the collection were: “Peroxide Head”, a poignant vignette on what balancing issues might really be like for a liaison to “Others” in Banks’ Culture universe; “The Meateaters”, a no-holds-barred Outland retelling of Eurypides’ Bacchae; “Buyer’s Club”; “Pictures”, a valentine to second chances; and “Zara Gets Laid”, in which sexual intercourse boosts the immunity of bio-augmented radiation cleanup workers (based on solid extrapolation, no less!).

Despite its deceptively plain trappings, Uncategorized subtends a wide arc and is textbook-classic SF: its stories follow “what if” questions to their logical conclusions, pulling no punches. It’s a prickly, bracing read that walks a fine line between bleakness and pragmatism, and it deserves the wider readership it might well have got if its author had been of the other gender.

Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Introductory note: My micro-bio in several venues reads “Scientist by day, writer by night.” It occurred to me that for lo these many years I have discussed science, scientific thinking and process, space exploration, social issues, history and culture, books, films and games… but I have never told my readers exactly what I do during the day.

What I do during the day (and a good part of the night) is investigate a process called alternative splicing and its repercussions on brain function. I will unpack this in future posts (interspersed among the usual musings on other topics), and I hope that this excursion may give a glimpse of how complex biology is across scales.

To start us off, I reprint an article commissioned by R. U. Sirius that first appeared in H+ Magazine in April 2010. An academic variant of this article appeared in Politics and the Life Sciences in response to Mark Walker’s “Genetic Virtue” proposal.

“We meant it for the best.” – Dr. Caron speaking of the Miranda settlers, in Whedon’s Serenity

When the sequence of the human genome was declared essentially complete in 2003, all biologists (except perhaps Craig Venter) heaved a sigh of gladness that the data were all on one website, publicly available, well-annotated and carefully cross-linked. Some may have hoisted a glass of champagne. Then they went back to their benches. They knew, if nobody else did, that the work was just beginning. Having the sequence was the equivalent of sounding out the text of an alphabet whose meaning was still undeciphered. For the linguistically inclined, think of Etruscan.

The media, with a few laudable exceptions, touted this as “we now know how genes work” and many science fiction authors duly incorporated it into their opuses. So did people with plans for improving humanity. Namely, there are initiatives that seriously propose that such attributes as virtue, intelligence, specific physical and mental abilities or, for that matter, a “happy personality” can (and should) be tweaked by selection in utero or engineering of the genes that determine these traits. The usual parties put forth the predictable pro and con arguments, and many articles get published in journals, magazines and blogs.

This is excellent for the career prospects and bank accounts of philosophers, political scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, politicians and would-be prophets. However, biologists know that all this is a parlor game equivalent to determining the number of angels dancing on the top of a pin. The reason for this is simple: there are no genes for virtue, intelligence, happiness or any complex behavioral trait. This becomes obvious by the number of human genes: the final count hovers around 20-25,000, less than twice as many as the number in worms and flies. It’s also obvious by the fact that cloned animals don’t look and act like their prototypes, Cc being the most famous example.

Genes encode catalytic, structural and regulatory proteins and RNAs. They do not encode the nervous system; even less do they encode complex behavior. At the level of the organism, they code for susceptibilities and tendencies — that is, with a few important exceptions, they are probabilistic rather than deterministic. And although many diseases develop from malfunctions of single genes, this does not indicate that single genes are responsible for any complex attribute. Instead they’re the equivalent of screws or belts, whose loss can stop a car but does not make it run.

No reputable biologist suggests that genes are not decisively involved in outcomes. But the constant harping on trait heritability “in spite of environment” is a straw man. Its main prop, the twin studies, is far less robust than commonly presented — especially when we take into account that identical twins often know each other before separation and, even when adopted, are likely to grow up in very similar environments (to say nothing of the data cherry-picking for publication). The nature/nurture debate has been largely resolved by the gene/environment (GxE) interplay model, a non-reductive approximation closer to reality. Genes never work in isolation but as complex, intricately regulated cooperative networks and they are in constant, dynamic dialogue with the environment — from diet to natal language. That is why second-generation immigrants invariably display the body morphology and disease susceptibilities of their adopted culture, although they have inherited the genes of their natal one.

Furthermore, there’s significant redundancy in the genome. Knockouts of even important single genes in model organisms often have practically no phenotype (or a very subtle one) because related genes take up the slack. The “selfish gene” concept as presented by reductionists of all stripes is arrant nonsense. To stay with the car analogy, it’s the equivalent of a single screw rotating in vacuum by itself. It doth not even a cart make, let alone the universe-spanning starship that is our brain/mind.

About half of our genes contribute directly to brain function; the rest do so indirectly, since brain function depends crucially on signal processing and body feedback. This makes the brain/mind a bona fide complex (though knowable) system. This attribute underlines the intrinsic infeasibility of instilling virtue, intelligence or good taste in clothes by changing single genes. If genetic programs were as fixed, simple and one-to-one mapped as reductionists would like, we would have answered most questions about brain function within months after reading the human genome. As a pertinent example, studies indicates that the six extended genomic regions that were defined by SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) analysis to contribute the most to IQ — itself a population-sorting tool rather than a real indicator of intelligence — influence IQ by a paltry 1%.

The attempts to map complex behaviors for the convenience and justification of social policies began as soon as societies stratified. To list a few recent examples, in the last decades we’ve had the false XYY “aggression” connection, the issue of gay men’s hypothalamus size, and the sloppy and dangerous (but incredibly lucrative) generalizations about brain serotonin and “nurturing” genes. Traditional breeding experiments (cattle, horses, cats, dogs, royal families) have an in-built functional test: the progeny selected in this fashion must be robust enough to be born, survive and reproduce. In the cases where these criteria were flouted, we got such results as vision and hearing impairments (Persian and Siamese cats), mental instability (several dog breeds), physical fragility and Alexei Romanov.

I will leave aside the enormous and still largely unmet technical challenge of such implementation, which is light years distant from casual notes that airily prescribe “just add tetracycline to the inducible vector that carries your gene” or “inject artificial chromosomes or siRNAs.” I play with all these beasties in the lab, and can barely get them to behave in homogeneous cell lines. Because most cognitive problems arise not from huge genomic errors but from small shifts in ratios of “wild-type” (non-mutated) proteins which affect brain architecture before or after birth, approximate engineering solutions will be death sentences. Moreover, the proposals usually advocate that such changes be done in somatic cells, not the germline (which would make them permanent). This means intervention during fetal development or even later — a far more difficult undertaking than germline alteration. The individual fine-tuning required for this in turn brings up differential resource access (and no, I don’t believe that nanotech will give us unlimited resources).

Let’s now discuss the improvement touted in “enhancement” of any complex trait. All organisms are jury-rigged across scales: that is, the decisive criterion for an adaptive change (from a hemoglobin variant to a hip-bone angle) is function, rather than elegance. Many details are accidental outcomes of an initial chance configuration — the literally inverted organization of the vertebrate eye is a prime example. Optimality is entirely context-dependent. If an organism or function is perfected for one set of circumstances, it immediately becomes suboptimal for all others. That is the reason why gene alleles for cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia persisted: they conferred heterozygotic resistance to cholera and malaria, respectively. Even if it were possible to instill virtue or musicality (or even the inclination for them), fixing them would decrease individual and collective fitness. Furthermore, the desired state for all complex behaviors is fluid and relative.

The concept that pressing the button of a single gene can change any complex behavior is entirely unsupported by biological evidence at any scale: molecular, cellular, organismic. Because interactions between gene products are complex, dynamic and give rise to pleiotropic effects, such intervention can cause significant harm even if implemented with full knowledge of genomic interactions (which at this point is no even partially available). It is far more feasible to correct an error than to “enhance” an already functioning brain. Furthermore, unlike a car or a computer, brain hardware and software are inextricably intertwined and cannot be decoupled or deactivated during modification.

If such a scenario is optional, it will introduce extreme de facto or de jure inequalities. If it is mandatory, beyond the obvious fact that it will require massive coercion, it will also result in the equivalent of monocultures, which is the surest way to extinction regardless of how resourceful or dominant a species is. And no matter how benevolent the motives of the proponents of such schemes are, all utopian implementations, without exception, degenerate into slaughterhouses and concentration camps.

The proposals to augment “virtue” or “intelligence” fall solidly into the linear progress model advanced by monotheistic religions, which takes for granted that humans are in a fallen state and need to achieve an idealized perfection. For the religiously orthodox, this exemplar is a god; for the transhumanists, it’s often a post-singularity AI. In reality, humans are a work in continuous evolution both biologically and culturally and will almost certainly become extinct if they enter any type of stasis, no matter how “perfect.”

But higher level arguments aside, the foundation stone of all such discussions remains unaltered and unalterable: any proposal to modulate complex traits by changing single genes is like preparing a Mars expedition based on the Ptolemaic view of the universe.

Images: The “in-valid” (non-enhanced) protagonist of GATTACA; M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands; Musical Genes cartoon by Polyp; Rainbow nuzzles her clone Cc (“carbon copy”) at Texas A&M University.