The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

April 24, 2004

Are we already becoming posthuman?

ESSAY (New York Times)

The Altered Human Is Already Here, by James Gorman



“In the popular imagination, the technologically altered human being is a cross between RoboCop and the Borg.


“The hardware that would make such a mating of humans, silicon chips and assorted weaponry a reality is, unfortunately, still on back order.


“Many people, however, have already made a different kind of leap into the posthuman future.


“Their jump is biochemical, mediated by proton-pump inhibitors, serotonin boosters and other drugs that have become permanent additives to many human bloodstreams.


“Over the past half century, health-conscious, well-insured, educated people in the United States and in other wealthy countries have come to take being medicated for granted.


“More people shift to the pill-taking life every year, to the delight of pharmaceutical manufacturers. Indeed, drug sales suggest how willing people are to pursue better living through chemistry….


“…while the Six Million Dollar Man is still a fantasy, Pharmaceutical Man is already here, and largely unnoticed. Swallowing a pill at a business lunch is likely to elicit little curiosity.


“A highpowered executive who did not have blood pressure or cholesterol problems might be suspect. There are concerns about the widespread use of antidepressants, but they do not seem to have affected sales.


“In fact, the group of antidepressants that includes Zoloft is the third biggest class of pharmaceuticals by sales in the United States, totaling $11 billion in 2003….”


New York Times – April 6, 2004:  For the complete article, please click on this link: .


Is the mind just what the brain does?


After the Double Helix:  Unraveling the Mysteries of the State of Being, by Margaret Wertheim


“In the fullness of time, educated people will believe there is no soul independent of the body, and hence no life after death.” – Francis Crick



"Sitting at lunch on the patio of his home here one muggy day last June, Francis Crick was expounding on the mind-body problem and the thorny subject of the human 'self.'


"'Where is the line between mind and matter?' he asked. Aside from the neurons in our brains, the human body contains tens of millions of neurons in the enteric nervous system, which extends into the stomach and intestines. 'When you digest your lunch is that you?' Dr. Crick asked.


"Body and mind are the twin problems around which Dr. Crick's life has spiraled, much like the double helix structure of DNA that he and Dr. James D. Watson are famous for discovering half a century ago. Though his research on 'the molecule of life' is what he is best known for, in his 28 years at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, his work has focused on the mind, and in particular the question of consciousness.


"Until recently, that subject was viewed with deep suspicion in scientific circles, but Dr. Crick has led a campaign to make it acceptable. These days it is even fashionable. While some philosophers claim that consciousness is a phenomenon outside the purview of material science, Dr. Crick dismisses such arguments with the imperious confidence that is part of his legend. 'The mechanism is the important part; the rest is just playing with words,' he said in a recent interview…."


The New York Times – April 13, 2004:  For the rest of the article, click on this link: .


What do we know about the people who perform abortions?


The Nightmares of Choice


The Psychological Effects of Performing Abortions, by Rachel M. MacNair



"'I have fetus dreams, we all do here: dreams of abortions one after the other; of buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses,' reported Sallie Tisdale of her time as a nurse in an abortion facility. Writing in Harper’s magazine, she told of dreaming that two men grabbed her and dragged her away.


'Let’s do an abortion,' they said with a sickening leer, and I began to scream, plunged into a vision of sucking, scraping pain, of being spread and torn by impartial instruments that do only what they are bidden. I woke from this dream barely able to breathe and thought of kitchen tables and coat hangers, knitting needles striped with blood, and women all alone clutching a pillow in their teeth to keep the screams from piercing the apartment-house walls.


"It is not joyful or easy work. 'There are weary, grim moments when I think I cannot bear another basin of bloody remains, utter another kind phrase of reassurance,' she wrote. '. . . I prepare myself for another basin, another brief and chafing loss. “How can you stand it?” [e]ven the clients ask. . . . I watch a woman’s swollen abdomen sink to softness in a few stuttering moments and my own belly flip-flops with sorrow.'


"What is the emotional impact of doing abortions on the people who do them? Those who do them have written and said enough to show that it is no ordinary medical procedure. Some, like Tisdale, suffer nightmares. Others suffer many of the other symptoms associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), once called 'shell shock' and 'battle fatigue.' The practice of medicine, of healing, should not give you nightmares, should not leave you shell-shocked…."


Touchstone:  A Journal of Mere Christianity (September, 2001): .


Can the government keep up with the biotech revolution?


Biotech Regulation Falls Short, Report Says


Pew Study Calls for Better Oversight



“Federal regulation of the increasingly exotic products of the biotechnology industry may soon be inadequate to assure the public the products are safe, according to a new report.


“Opinion in Washington is sharply divided on whether the 18-year-old biotech regulatory system can be fixed with administrative tweaking or whether Congress needs to pass new laws, said the report by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think tank. But either way, the report cites numerous examples to make the case that action by the federal government is needed to ensure credible oversight of an industry that is tinkering with the very foundations of life.


“‘The regulatory system isn't broken, but it is showing signs of wear and tear,’ said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative, which has taken a centrist position in weighing the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology.


“The need for fixes is likely to grow pressing as the industry develops gene-altered fish and insects, farm animals that produce human drugs in their milk, and plants that make drugs or industrial compounds in their leaves and seeds, he added. A handful of these products are already in the late stages of development, but for many of them, federal agencies have produced no final guidance on how -- or even whether -- they will be regulated….”


Washington Post – April 1, 2004:  For the complete story, click on this link: .


Developing the brain-computer interface....


With Tiny Brain Implants, Just Thinking May Make It So



“Can a machine read a person's mind? A medical device company is about to find out.


“The company, Cyberkinetics Inc., plans to implant a tiny Chip in the brains of five paralyzed people in an effort to enable them to operate a computer by thought alone.


“The Food and Drug Administration has given approval for a clinical trial of the implants, according to the company.


“The implants, part of what Cyberkinetics calls its BrainGate system, could eventually help people with spinal cord injuries, strokes, Lou Gehrig's disease or other ailments to communicate better or even to operate lights and other devices through a kind of neural remote control.


“‘You can substitute brain control for hand control, basically,’ said Dr. John P. Donoghue, chairman of the neuroscience department at Brown University and a founder of Cyberkinetics, which hopes to begin the trial as early as next month.


“‘The melding of man and machine has long been a staple of science fiction. Indeed, the participants in Cyberkinetics's clinical trial, who have not yet been chosen, will have a cable sticking out of their heads to connect them to computers, making them look something like characters in ‘The Matrix’.…” – April 13, 2004: .


The science and the politics of in vitro fertilization....


Study: Test-Tube Multiple Births Declining



"A worrisome national surge in multiple births linked to test-tube technology is easing, largely because doctors are implanting fewer embryos during each attempt to make a woman pregnant, a study suggests.


"Doctors routinely place several embryos in the womb at once to improve the odds of producing a baby — a technique that sometimes works all too well and leads to twins, triplets or other multiple births.


"But technical advances and the advent of professional guidelines appear to have led to more sparing use of embryos, the study's researchers reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.


"The findings are likely to stoke the debate over whether the government should put a cap on the number of embryos that can be used for each attempt.


"'It's so rapidly evolving that, to put it in the hands of legislation, is clearly to temper and limit progress,' said Dr. Robert Rebar, director of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. 'The guidelines are working.'...


"The Boston researchers attributed the change to the trend toward the implantation of fewer in-vitro embryos, since test-tube techniques account for about 40 percent of all triplets and higher multiples.


"The researchers acknowledged they cannot rule out other factors, though.


"The drop in high multiple births could also stem from the widening practice of aborting some fetuses to help the others thrive. The widespread use of fertility drugs without in-vitro fertilization is also driving up the rate of multiple births." – April 14, 2004:  For the remainder of the article, click on this link:,2933,117117,00.html .


Consensus, but deep differences remain within the council....


Bioethics Council Reaches Consensus on Assisted Reproduction


The panel's report calls for a ban on cloning babies but would not outlaw human embryonic stem cell research altogether.



“The President's Council on Bioethics has released a consensus report on reproductive technology that calls for federally funded research, more self-regulation and a ban on ‘outlying experimental practices.’


“‘Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies’ is the council's fifth report. Council member William Hurlbut, MD, said it was intended to serve as the foundation for future legislation. ‘We were trying to make a document that had some forward progress,’ said Dr. Hurlbut, a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University.


“Dr. Hurlbut said controversy in the early days of assisted reproduction led to an environment with little oversight and follow-up research, and now the field's ‘self-evident and compelling uniqueness’ requires that these deficiencies be corrected.


“‘Clearly, if medicine should be careful anywhere, it should be careful when it is engaging in a voluntary intervention at the very origins of life,’ he said. ‘Here the therapy is more than the treatment of an individual disorder. The medical interest is, by intention, the creation of a new life.’…”


American Medical News – April 19, 2004:  For the complete article, click on this link: .


For comments on Reproduction and Responsibility by the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, please click on this link:, .


To download or read the complete report online, please follow this link: .


Understanding the promises and perils of antidepressants....


Study Advises Against Drugs for Children in Depression



“Pediatricians and family physicians should not prescribe antidepressants for depressed children and adolescents because the drugs barely work and their side effects are often significant, Australian researchers have concluded.


“The researchers analyzed data from five published trials of three antidepressants, in depressed patients under age 18. They found that the drugs offered only a ‘very modest’ benefit over placebos.


“At the same time, the drugs carry significant risks, the researchers said in their report, published in today's issue of the British medical journal BMJ.


“‘If the drugs were highly advantageous over placebo, then you'd live with the risks,’ Jon Jureidini, a child psychiatrist in Adelaide and the study's lead author, said in an interview. ‘If the drugs were completely safe, then you might argue that there's nothing wrong with giving something that's only slightly better than a placebo.’


“However, Dr. Jureidini said, neither is true, so antidepressants should not be prescribed for children and adolescents except in extreme circumstances.


“‘We strongly want to say that non-child-psychiatrists should not be initiating the prescribing of the antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or S.S.R.I.'s,’ a class that includes Eli Lilly's Prozac, Pfizer's Zoloft, and GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil, Dr. Jureidini said….”


Times-News Online – April 9, 2004:  The complete article can be found at this link: .


Worth considering....


Choruses from “The Rock,” by T. S. Eliot


But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before:  though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.

Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god;  and this has never happened before

That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,

And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.

The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?


The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, by T. S. Eliot (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1952).  Excerpt is from Section VII of the poem, p. 108.




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