The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

March 14, 2008



“We worship at the altar of progress, and to the demigod of choice...”


Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right?

by Benedict Carey



Luci Gutiérrez

“So far no one is demanding that asterisks be attached to Nobels, Pulitzers or Lasker awards. Government agents have not been raiding anthropology departments, riffling book bags, testing professors’ urine. And if there are illicit trainers on campuses, shady tutors with wraparound sunglasses and ties to basement labs in Italy, no one has exposed them.


“Yet an era of doping may be looming in academia, and it has ignited a debate about policy and ethics that in some ways echoes the national controversy over performance enhancement accusations against elite athletes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.


“In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.


“Letters flooded the journal, and an online debate immediately bubbled up. ... The debate has also caught fire on the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, where academics and students are sniping at one another.


“But is prescription tweaking to perform on exams, or prepare presentations and grants, really the same as injecting hormones to chase down a home run record, or win the Tour de France? ...”


The New York Times – March 9, 2008




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“The relationship to the body is changing...we are changing...society is changing...”


Drugs, Body Modifications May Create Second Enlightenment

by Ryan Singel




“Imagine a drug that can reduce your need for sleep, increase your concentration and make you smarter, with minimal side effects.


“Call it Morvigil.


“What would such a drug do to society? Would governments ban it, would it become the drug of the rich or become a virtual prerequisite for your workday?


“The best answers to those questions, writer Quinn Norton told conference-goers at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego Wednesday [March 6], are to be found in the history of another substance: coffee....


“While Norton spoke mostly about this hypothetical drug, the question is larger: What modifications to humans are socially acceptable, moral, fair or simply inhuman?


“‘How do we give ourselves permission to modify?’ Norton asked....”


Wired – March 5, 2008


“A deeper analysis of enhancement should begin not from assessments of the technical means, but from explorations of the desirable ends...”


For the Love of the Game



Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, the Mitchell Report, and the adulteration of American sports.



Ted Williams

Ted Williams

“The Super Bowl is over. March Madness is fast approaching, with NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs close behind. Spring training for the new baseball season has begun. Year after year, season by season, sports fans across the country shift their attentions, polish their loyalties, and renew their hopes: maybe this year, just this once, it won’t again be ‘wait ‘til next year.’


“For many decades, America’s most significant athletic contests have been our most popular civic rituals, temporarily removing us from the normal rhythms of everyday life. Medieval Europeans built cathedrals; our ancestors built civic monuments and memorials; we build sports palaces. There we gather, not only vicariously to taste the sweetness of victory but also to celebrate together all that is perennially great in human sport—excellence, grace, and the intense moments that separate triumph from tragedy. It is easy to dismiss sport as a triviality, and some highbrows will always do so. Yet these games that youngsters play somehow seem to capture both the lowest and the loftiest possibilities of embodied human life, eliciting in participant spectators and spectating participants the full range of human passions, from rapturous joy to paralyzing despair.


“But all is not well in the world of sports. The football season began with a superstar banished for killing dogs and ended with a United States senator charging espionage; former Olympic winners are forced to return their medals; and the baseball season will open under a cloud of steroids and finger-wagging congressional hearings, which put one of baseball’s greatest pitchers in the stocks. More generally, many contemporary fans believe that the golden age of sport has long since passed—that modern athletics has become both corrupt and corrupting. Athletes are mercenaries, goes the lament, driven by the love of money. The pursuit of excellence has been sacrificed to spectacle, shaped more by the demands of television profits than the dignity of the game. Our heroes are often villains, with no regard for the law of the land or the rules of the game. Sport has morphed into entertainment, and sportsmen into unsportsmanlike trash-talking punks. It was not always thus, the old man sighs, longing for the days of Ruth and Gehrig, Williams and DiMaggio....”


The New Republic – March 26, 2008


“The aim [of the new law] is to prevent eugenics, a warped eugenics that deliberately selects deafness.”


Choosing a Deaf Baby Is Criminal

by Daniel Finkelstein


It is amazing how good people can have bad ideas through muddled thinking



“The poet/comedian John Hegley hates people who wear contact lenses. He thinks they are traitors. Glasses, he says, are ‘a symbolic celebration of the wider imperfection that is the human condition’. Contact lenses are ‘a betrayal of humanity’.


“Don’t laugh. There is probably someone out there who takes him seriously and thinks he’s right.


“On Monday morning the Today programme featured a deaf activist by the name of Tomato Lichy. Mr Lichy opposes a new law that will forbid people undergoing IVF from deliberately choosing a deaf child. Why? Because he believes that deafness is not a disability.


“He said he felt sorry for hearing people. In a deaf club ‘you would be the one with the disability’, he told John Humphrys, ‘because you can’t use sign language’. He said that he and his deaf wife actively hoped that their child would be deaf and were pleased when it turned out she was.


“And listening to him I thought—this man is immensely articulate, immensely courageous and immensely, terribly, wrong....”


The Times – March 12, 2008


When human brains are used as sensors for computers...


Darpa Pursues Neuroscience To Enhance Analyst, Soldier Performance

by David Hughes



“Under a $4-million, multiphase contract, [Honeywell] has been developing what it calls the Honeywell Image Triage System (HITS) for Darpa. Bob Smith, vice president for advanced technology at Honeywell Aerospace, explains that HITS takes a satellite image and breaks it up into smaller image ‘chips’ that can be shown to an intelligence analyst like flash cards at a rate of 5-20 images per second.


“The analyst’s brain is treated as a sensor: Electrical activity it produces is recorded from electrodes placed on the scalp, the same way electroencephalography (EEG) is used in hospitals to monitor brain activity. Then, when the analyst looks at one of the images flashing by, a scalp plot shows when there is increased brain activity.


“As images flash by, the analyst is asked to look for a target such as an airplane. After viewing about 50 of the smaller images (chips), he is asked if he saw an airplane—and he may answer ‘no.’ But digital signal processing of the brain wave activity reveals that, in fact, he did see an airplane on slide 32.


“‘This process allows us to do triage on large amounts of visual information we get from different sources and improve an analyst’s ability to go through a large amount of imagery,’ says Smith. In fact, the analyst can do the job 5-7 times faster using the triage system than unaided. This is because the triage system picks up brain waves showing recognition of a target even before the human analyst is cognizant he has spotted it.


“Smith says it is the equivalent of a person seeing something ‘out of the corner of his eye....’”


Aviation Week and Space Technology – January 28, 2008


A patent challenge that will go on for years and years...


Patent Office Upholds Key WARF Stem Cell Patent; Appeal Is Likely

by Joe Vanden Plas



“In the first of several decisions expected in a patent dispute involving human embryonic stem cells, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation said today it has been notified that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has upheld the claims of one of the foundation’s key stem cell patents.


“The patent challengers, however, said they will continue their challenge of what they termed ‘three overreaching patents on human stem cells.’


“According to WARF, the licensing arm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the decision pertains to the patent for primate and human embryonic stem cells known as ‘913.’


“Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF, called the decision of patent examiner Gary Kunz an affirmation. ‘We’re extremely pleased with this decision,’ he said in a statement released by WARF....


“The two consumer organizations, which can appeal the decision to the Patent and Trademark Office’s Board of Patent Appeals once it is deemed final, have argued that the patents are overly broad and should never have been granted. They also contend that the patents have served to limit stem cell research in the United States....”


Wisconsin Technology Network – February 29, 2008


“All organ transplantation ... invites us to think of ourselves and others in ways that risk the loss of the full meaning of our embodied humanity.”


The Giving and Taking of Organs

by Gilbert Meilaender



“In The Patient as Person, published almost forty years ago, when transplantation technology was still in its early stages, Paul Ramsey considered different ways of procuring organs for transplant. One might invite people to ‘opt in,’ to donate organs to be used after their death (or, in the case of a paired organ such as the kidney, even before death). One might require people to ‘opt out’ if they did not wish to have their organs taken after death for transplant, presuming consent unless they (while living) or their next of kin (after their death) specifically declined to consent. Or one might establish some kind of system whereby organs needed for transplant could be bought and sold (though he was thinking only of cadaver organs).


“The third of these possibilities should, Ramsey believed, be rejected altogether. But his verdict with respect to the first two was more nuanced, a comparison of their relative merits and demerits. ‘If giving is better than routinely taking organs to prolong the lives of patients needing transplants, then it must also be said that routinely taking them in hospital practice would be better than for us to make medical progress and extend treatment to patients by means of buying and selling cadaver organs. That society is a better and more civilized one, I have said, in which men join together in a consensual community to effect these purposes, than a society in which lives are saved routinely, without the positive consent and will of all concerned to do so. It must also be said, however, that a society would be better and more civilized in which men are joined together routinely in making cadaver organs available to prolong the lives of others than one in which this is done ostensibly by consent to the “gift” but actually for the monetary gain of the “donor.”’...”


Gilbert Meilaender holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.


First Things – March 2008 (Subscription is required to view articles from the two most recent issues.)


“In that instant the bottom dropped out of my world. I remember looking over at my brother, Charles, and thinking: ‘You’re not my brother any more.’”


I Was the Daughter of A Sperm Donor – Shame No-one Told Me

by Alison Smith-Squire



stella kenrick

Painful truth: The man Stella thought was her father was not biologically related to her

“The champagne and laughter in the crowded marquee was flowing.


“For Stella Kenrick the family party wasn’t only a wonderful celebration of her beloved Aunt Peggy’s 90th birthday, it was also a chance to catch up with friends and her many extended relatives.


“But as Stella, a mother of two grown-up children, mingled with the guests, she could never have imagined that for her the day would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.


“For, a chance conversation with her elderly aunt was to reveal a bombshell that would ensure Stella’s life was never the same again....”


Daily Mail – January 30, 2008


A prominent bioethics journal makes a case for infanticide...


Ending the Life of a Newborn: The Groningen Protocol

By Hilde Lindemann and Marian Verkerk



“Since its publication in 2005, the Groningen Protocol has been under fire both in the Netherlands and outside it. The purpose of the protocol is to set a standard of practice for doctors to responsibly end the lives of severely impaired newborns, but it also lays out procedures for reporting doctors' decisions to authorities. Doctors who end the life of a baby must report the death to the local medical examiner, who in turn reports it to both the district attorney and to a recently created review committee. (The procedure differs in this respect from the black-letter law governing voluntary euthanasia. There, the medical examiner sends the report only to the regional review committee, which alerts the district attorney only if it judges that the physician acted improperly.) The protocol was created by a committee of physicians and others at the University Medical Center Groningen in consultation with the Groningen district attorney and has been ratified by the National Association of Pediatricians, but it does not give physicians unassailable legal protection. Case law has so far protected physicians from prosecution as long as they act in accordance with the protocol, but no black-letter law exists in this area.


“The protocol stands accused of various crimes: (1) it is aimed primarily at babies with spina bifida, many of whom could lead satisfactory lives; (2) it fails to distinguish with clinical precision between babies whose prognosis of death is certain and those who could continue to live; (3) it allows parents to commit infanticide as a means of escaping an unwanted burden of care; (4) it lets doctors decide what is an acceptable quality of life; (5) it lets doctors determine the morality of their own actions; (6) it provides a purely procedural response to the problem of measuring subjective suffering; (7) it condones infanticide rather than preventing spina bifida or promoting its early detection via fetal ultrasound, followed by abortion; and (8) it offers an incoherent criterion for deciding whether to end an infant's life—it requires that the infant experience ‘hopeless and unbearable suffering,’ but neonates cannot suffer because they lack the ability to realize intentions, desires, and hopes for the future....”


Medscape – Posted 02/01/2008 (Hastings Center Report: 2008, Volume 38, Number 1, pp. 42-51)


Worth considering...


From Bioethics and the Question of Human Dignity

by Adam Schulman



“Our ever-increasing facility at altering human nature itself poses an acute challenge to any easygoing agnosticism on the question of the ground and content of human dignity. As we become more and more adept at modifying human nature at will, it may well prove impossible to avoid a direct confrontation with the question posed by the Psalmist, ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ That is, among all the features of human nature susceptible to biotechnological enhancement, modification, or elimination, which ones are so essential to our humanity that they are rightly considered inviolable? For example, if gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs should become feasible, would it not be a severe distortion of our humanity and an affront to our dignity to develop assembly lines for the mass production of cloned human beings without mothers or fathers? Would it not be degrading to our humanity and an affront to human dignity to produce animal-human chimeras with some human features and some features of lower animals? Would it not be a corruption of our humanity and an affront to human dignity to modify the brain so as to make a person incapable of love, or of sympathy, or of curiosity, or even of selfishness?


“In short, the march of scientific progress that now promises to give us manipulative power over human nature itself—a coercive power mostly exercised, as C. S. Lewis presciently noted, by some men over other men, and especially by one generation over future generations—will eventually compel us to take a stand on the meaning of human dignity, understood as the essential and inviolable core of our humanity. If the necessity of taking that stand is today not yet widely appreciated, there will come a time when it surely will be. With luck, it will not be too late.”


Adam Schulman is Tutor at St. John's College, Annapolis, and Senior Research Consultant at the President's Council on Bioethics.  “Bioethics and the Question of Human Dignity” is chapter 1 in the new report, Human Dignity and Bioethics:  Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics, just released by the President’s Council.  A free copy of the report is available online, in PDF and hard copy.




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