18 December 2007
By Rusty Rockets
Genetic engineering is getting serious. Recently researchers have shown that otherwise "hardwired" or innate responses, such as fear, can be manipulated and even reversed, that extreme muscle growth is possible, and that sexual preference can be changed. Genetic manipulations like these go well beyond the promised cosmetic enhancements - such as changing skin and eye color - and may in fact allow us to become the drivers of our species' evolution. But are we capable of handling our newfound god status? If we could create a fearless, well-fed, disease-free world, would this lead to a golden age of peace, love, and understanding, or will it be business as usual?
In his 1883 book entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche set out his concept of the �bermensch, or superman, and how humanity should rise above its coarse, beastly nature. So far it has been shown that evolution can be sped up through "synthetic evolution" in the lab, as well as accelerating of its own accord due to the increasing size of the human population. These are amazing developments in themselves, but are still far from the challenge that Nietzsche devised of generating a higher transhuman species. But add to these developments the recent experiments in what you could call "directed selection" - the ability to knockout certain genes to produce a change in behavior or physiology - and we're well on the way to becoming masters of our own destinies.
In August of this year, scientists at the John Hopkins Medical Institution improved upon earlier experiments on muscle growth in both mice and men by creating a mouse with four times the muscle mass of normal mice. The researchers found that the muscle-bound mice become buff when there is an absence of a gene that creates the protein myostatin. But they later discovered that the mice become even more pumped when there is also an overproduction of a second protein known as follistatin. "To my surprise and delight, there was an additive effect," explains Se-Jin Lee, a professor of molecular biology and genetics, who added that the beefed-up mice averaged a 117 percent increase in muscle fiber size, and a 73 percent increase in total muscle fibers compared with normal mice. Lee suspects that there may be other proteins that interact with myostatin that will lead to even greater muscle growth.
Lee can see promising clinical applications for muscle enhancement, such as treating diseases or accidents where there is muscle loss, wasting, or "beefing up" livestock. But what about military, sporting, and cosmetic muscle enhancement? Surely they too will be on the cards. Gargantuan battlefield soldiers, Olympians that you've only ever read about in Greek mythology, and streets filled with muscle-rippling men and women who just want to look like a comic book hero.
But becoming superhuman isn't just about looking like a bag of walnuts. To attain true Nietzschean superhuman status we would also have to be able to keep our emotions in check. And as it turns out, scientists are also well on the way to doing just this, as recent experiments on fear suppression have shown.
Most fears expressed by humans and other animals toward natural predators are believed to be instinctive. Our intense fear of sharks is just one example, and the fear that mice harbor toward cats is another. But experiments conducted at the University of Iowa (UI) during August of this year produced a mouse that shows no fear of cats at all. The UI study, headed by assistant professor of psychiatry John Wemmie, showed that a disruption of a protein known as ASIC1a alters innate fears toward external stimuli such as predator odor, open spaces, and loud noises. "Showing that pharmacologically blocking the channel reduces innate fear behavior, in theory, sets the stage for investigating whether therapies that block these ion channels in humans might be effective in anxiety disorders," says Wemmie. "This study raises that possibility that blocking this protein might be useful for depression as well as anxiety."
More recently, University of Tokyo scientists reported that they are also a step closer to understanding fear, after producing a genetically altered mouse that can get up close and personal with a cat. "Mice are naturally terrified of cats, and usually panic or flee at the smell of one. But mice with certain nasal cells removed through genetic engineering didn't display any fear," stated research team leader Ko Kobayakawa. "People have thought mice are fearful of cats because cats prey on them, but that's not the case."
Both groups of scientists believe that this is only the beginning of modifying strong emotional responses, and it seems that there is now the potential to turn off all kinds of brain states that were once thought to be fixed.
But what would a world without depression, anxiety, or fear be like? While it may be perceived as desirable to rid society of the ghastly feelings of dread and hopelessness associated with these conditions, would such a move be a mistake? Are these conditions necessary to a degree?
Experimentation on sexuality is another example of genetic manipulation that may have far-reaching and unknown effects on society. Heated arguments rage over whether homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice" or innate sexual behavior, but now science has shown that there is a genetic homosexuality-switch that can be turned on or off. Neurobiologists from the University of Illinois at Chicago were able to use either genetic manipulation or drugs to turn fruit flies' homosexual behavior on and off within hours. Commenting on experiments that had male flies courting other male flies, lead researcher David Featherstone expressed his surprise at the results. "It was very dramatic," said Featherstone. "The mutant males treated other males exactly the same way normal male flies would treat a female. They even attempted copulation."
It's unlikely that Nietzsche intended his �bermensch to be gay, as he probably thought that this would decrease population levels. Likewise, people who are not gay may view a gay-switch as a "cure" for homosexuality. But what if homosexuality is a necessary trait needed to ensure the survival of the species? Perhaps homosexuality is nature's way of maintaining population levels, by having a percentage of the population attracted to the same sex.
The truth is that we just don't know what effects the genetic manipulations that we put into effect now will unleash on future generations. Only then will we be able to observe the changes to our species, and how successive generations will either benefit or suffer as a result. Philosophers have labored for years over how Nietzsche's prescribed cultivation of cultural and physical traits might transform our values. Who could predict what the consequences of eradicating fear among populations would be? Would such an alteration to the way that we perceive the world bring peace, or would fearless societies lead to greater conflict? Mind you, if we start messing with otherwise innate fears, anxieties, and sexuality, our awareness of such changes may become somewhat muted.
Despite the past horrors of eugenics - which Nietzsche associated with the �bermensch - it's difficult to seriously argue for genetic engineering research to be scrapped altogether, as it's this kind of research that is likely to produce treatments for otherwise untreatable diseases and mental illnesses. But there's undoubtedly a certain amount of risk involved with genetic engineering, either due to unforeseen consequences - such as the contamination of non-GM crops with GM crops - or through deliberate misuse. But the fact remains that if we want to find cures for human ills, extend life, or even change the way that we think, then this will require tampering with fundamental aspects of our genetic composition. Even after animal experiments, nobody can guarantee what the short and long-term fallout from these genetic tinkerings will be among human populations, but do we not proceed because of these unknowns? The risks may be great, but so too are the rewards.