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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, May 19, 2016

They Will Keep Secret the Human Monsters They Will Create

Genetic engineering was in the news this week. One news item was a National Academy of Sciences study claiming that GMO's (genetically modified food products) are safe. Given how financially entangled scientists are with GMO's, a study written by a committee of scientists may not mean very much. The 2015 scientific paper here is entitled "No Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety." I may note that declaring GMO's are safe (based on past results) may be like declaring that walking through a landmine field is safe, when you are halfway through the landmine field, on the basis that you haven't been blown up yet. Since GMO's are a continuous stream of new products, we can never be sure when the next gene-gamble product may blow up in our faces with devastating results.

Also in the news this week was a secret meeting recently of 150 scientists and entrepreneurs recently at Harvard Medical School. The meeting was to discuss the outrageous idea of making an artificial human genome. This is something exponentially more risky than just creating genetically modified foods. I guess the secrecy of the meeting is a clue as to how things will work in the future, in regard to human genetic engineering. It will probably be very secretive type of work.

It's not hard to figure out why scientists would want to be secretive when engaging in human genetic engineering. The reason is there's a very large chance that attempts at playing God with the human genome will result in hideous failures. Such failures may be given some euphemistic name such as “suboptimal engineering results,” but since the results may be grotesquely deformed humans, a simpler description will simply be “monsters.”

Such failures are almost guaranteed because of all the uncertainties. Contrary to the impression you may have been given, the human genome is not some clearly intelligible blueprint for a human body. The human genome is a collection of chemicals and on/off switches. How these chemicals and on/off switches add up to a human body plan is anything but clear. In fact, there are quite a few reasons for believing that the human genome does not even store the body plan of humans (as discussed here). Even if the genome does store the human body, then that body plan is stored in an exceptionally obscure, roundabout, recondite way. The human genome is like some tower-sized tangled ball of wire, harder to unravel then 50 million lines of what programmers call “spaghetti code.”

The human genome has been compared to machine language, the series of 0's and 1's that are read directly by a computer, but are all-but-unintelligible to humans. In trying to change the human genome, our genetic engineers are like hackers trying to modify a billion bytes of machine language, a body of code which is almost entirely unintelligible. So it is inevitable that many mistakes will be made in the first attempts at human genetic engineering.

We can imagine all kinds of shocking results: humans with a single eye above their noses, humans with mouths that are always wide open, humans with fin-like hands, humans with legs fused together, humans with heads that always droop down, humans without skin, humans with skin that sags down 4 inches, or humans with eyes that can only be opened with the fingers.

We can imagine how damaging it would be to a human genetic engineering effort if a single photo were to be released of a monstrous human body that was the result of faulty genetic engineering. So I imagine that those engaging in genetic engineering of humans will want to keep things secret. A single memorable photo can have a huge effect on public opinion, as was shown by that photo during the Vietnam War of the crying girl fleeing a napalm attack.

But how will the human genetic engineers enforce secrecy? They might do that by making use of the national security apparatus which enforces such draconian penalties for revealing state secrets. It might work like this: the human genetic engineers will appeal to the US government, asking that their efforts be declared a state secret, a secret important to US national security. You can imagine all kind of rationales that might be used. They might claim that the ultimate goal of genetically engineering humans was to create better soldiers, and that therefore genetic engineering of humans should be as secret as developing new types of fighter-jets or tanks.

Once their efforts were classified, the human genetic engineers would have a way to cover up the unfortunate accidents that would be not-uncommon products of their efforts. Perhaps ugly mutants resulting from genetic engineering will be killed off to get rid of evidence of their existence. Or perhaps they will be confined to special confinement cells, hidden from public view. Anyone who photographed such monsters might receive a 20-year prison sentence, on the grounds that he had released classified government information that must be kept secret on national security grounds.

Does it sound too far-fetched to imagine a future government throwing someone in jail for a long time merely for revealing ugly government secrets? I don't think this is too hard to believe, given that Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) is now serving a long prison sentence, mainly for releasing to WikiLeaks an embarrassing video showing a US army helicopter carelessly gunning down civilians.

The hideous truth of genetic engineering failures will be hidden from the public. In the future the public will see pleasant advertisements like the one below, which advertise cases of successful genetic engineering. 

But the public will never learn about the places where the hideous failures of genetic engineering will be kept – places like that shown below:

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