The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

May 29, 2004



Pay’re leaving your genome all over town....


eBay Axes ‘Schwarzenegger’s DNA’ Listing

A used cough drop was up for sale



“A seller on eBay tried to auction off a cough drop that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allegedly used, then tossed into a trash can – listing the item under the heading ‘Schwarzenegger’s DNA.’


“But the ad posted on the popular web site Friday was quickly yanked after eBay decided it fell into the category of ‘body parts,’ which the Web site will not list for sale.


“The original listing was accompanied by two photos of a half-consumed cough drop and the words, ‘Own a piece of DNA from the man himself.’


“The seller indicated she or he had seen Schwarzenegger discard the lozenge at a recent public event and had retrieved it….” – May 23, 2004:  Click on this link for the rest of the article:


Genetic sleuthing, but will the ends justify the means?


Killer Convicted Thanks to Brother’s DNA



“The first criminal conviction based on a new DNA technique which uses relatives’ DNA to track a suspect was made in the UK on Monday.


“Craig Harman of Frimley, Surrey was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for six years on the basis of ‘familial DNA searching,’ which linked him to the crime scene via his brother’s DNA profile.


“Harman threw a brick from a bridge over a motorway which crashed through the windscreen of Michael Little’s lorry in March 2003. As the brick hit his chest, 53-year-old Little suffered a heart attack, though he still managed to steer his vehicle out of harm’s way before dying.


“Police obtained a DNA profile of the assailant from blood on the brick but could not match it to anything on the UK’s national DNA database because Harman had no criminal convictions. The database holds about 2.5 million profiles of charged criminals and, since 4 April 2004, suspects who are arrested but not charged.


“‘It is another tool for police officers,’ says Jonathan Whitaker, of the UK’s Forensic Science Service (FSS), which developed the technique. ‘It’s really reserved for those cases where you have got a DNA profile and no match on the database. The whole idea is to keep the momentum going and identify the offender before he does anything else. This case illustrates that really, really well.’


“…The FSS and police used familial searching to uncover Harman’s brother, who had a criminal conviction and was on the DNA database. His profile matched the DNA on the brick by 16 out of 20 points. This lead police to Harman, whose DNA gave a perfect match, and he eventually confessed to the drunken act of violence….” – April 20, 2004:  Click on this link for the rest of the article:


A human bar code?  A walking internet cookie?


Clubbers Choose Chip Implants to Jump Queues



“Clubbers in Spain are choosing to receive a microchip implant instead of carrying a membership card. It is the latest and perhaps the most unlikely of uses for implantable radio frequency ID chips.


“The Baja Beach Club in Barcelona offers people signing up for VIP membership a choice between an RFID chip and a normal card. VIP members can jump the entrance queues, reserve a table and use the nightclub’s VIP lounge.


“‘The RFID chip is not compulsory,’ says Conrad Chase, managing director of the club. But he says there are advantages to having it. The obvious one is that you do not have to carry a membership card around with you, but also it means you can leave your wallet at home. This is because the RFID can be used as an in-house debit card, says Chase.


“When drinks are ordered the RFID is scanned with a handheld device and the cost is added to your bill. The chips, called VeriChips, are produced by US company Applied Digital Solutions….” – May 21, 2004:  Click on this link for the rest of the article:


Do we want this kind of “science” in political science?


Using M.R.I.'s to See Politics on the Brain, by John Tierne



“The political consultants discreetly observed from the next room as their subject watched the campaign commercials. But in this political experiment, unlike the usual ones, the subject did not respond by turning a dial or discussing his reactions with a focus group.


“He lay inside an M.R.I. machine, watching commercials playing on the inside of his goggles as neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, measured the blood flow in his brain. Instead of asking the subject, John Graham, a Democratic voter, what he thought of the use of Sept. 11 images in a Bush campaign commercial, the researchers noted which parts of Mr. Graham’s brain were active as he watched. The active parts, they also noted, were different from the parts that had lighted up in earlier tests with Republican brains.


“The researchers do not claim to have figured out either party’s brain yet, since they have not finished this experiment. But they have already noticed intriguing patterns in how Democrats and Republicans look at candidates. They have tested 11 subjects and say they need to test twice that many to confirm the trend.


“‘These new tools could help us someday be less reliant on clichés and unproven adages,’ said Tom Freedman, a strategist in the 1996 Clinton campaign, later a White House aide and now a sponsor of the research. ‘They’ll help put a bit more science in political science.’…”


Originally published in The New York Times – April 20, 2004.


Once again, the same question:  What is a person?


When Alzheimer's Steals the Mind, How Aggressively to Treat the Body?



“Macie Mull was 82 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than a decade when she developed pneumonia. Her nursing home rushed her to the hospital where she spent the night, receiving intravenous antibiotics. The next day she was back at the nursing home, more confused than ever.


“Now she was choking on her puréed food; eating was becoming impossible. And so, one Sunday afternoon, the administrators of her nursing home in Hickory, N.C., asked Mrs. Mull’s daughter what to do: Did she want a feeding tube inserted? At that point, Mrs. Mull muttered only a few random words and could no longer recognize her daughter. The feeding tube would almost certainly prolong her life, but was it worth it?


“The question of how aggressive to be in treating late-stage Alzheimer’s patients is one of the most wrenching and contentious issues in medicine. For every patient who, like Mrs. Mull, reaches the final stage of the disease, there typically are about five or six family members faced with decisions about whether to authorize medical treatments for patients whose bodies live on though their minds are gone….”


The New York Times – May 18, 2004.


Healing through electronic implants...a bionic ear for a baby....


Cochlear Implants Best When Started Young



“Cindy Johnston says it was a ‘no-brainer’ getting a cochlear implant for her son when he was just seven months old, thinking that it improved his chances of learning normal spoken language skills.


“New research suggests the Chesterton, Indiana, woman may be right.


“Studies in this month’s Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery found that the earlier deaf children get cochlear implants, the more likely they are to speak and comprehend language normally later. And some doctors say doing the surgery in infancy may produce the best results.


“In one study, children ages 12 months to 3 years showed rapid improvement in understanding speech during the first year after receiving one of the electronic devices, with the best results in the youngest children.


“In another study, 43 percent of children who got implants at age 2 had normal oral language abilities at ages 8 to 9, compared with just 16 percent of youngsters who got implants at age 4, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School researcher Ann Geers found.


“Geers said the longer implant use by the youngest children studied does not explain her results. Instead, she and other researchers say that very early childhood is an especially critical period in the development of language skills, during which children hear and imitate sounds around them….” – May 18, 2004.



A tutorial on the design, operation, and implantation of the cochlear device can be found on the website of the University of Texas at Dallas. This rather technical article originally appeared in the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, pages 101-130, September 1998.


Getting a physical by examining a computer disc.... 


Googling the Genome


The ability to digitally store, and search, personal genetic data raises a series of difficult ethical questions.



“…The internet search engines of Google and its predecessors - Lycos, Infoseek, AltaVista - became our indispensable guides as the world’s memory was converted from traditional analogue forms such as books, newspapers, magazines and microfilms to purely digital web pages. This enabled standard text-search techniques to be scaled up to unprecedented levels - the secret of Google’s success is as much one of quantity as quality.


“That same transition from analogue to digital has occurred in the world of molecular biology. Watson and Crick’s famous double helix not only provided a structure for DNA, but turned the inheritance it mediated from a chemical system into an informational one. The data is stored as a sequence of molecules usually written as A, C, G and T. It turns out that the digital code of life is written not in binary (0 and 1), as with computers, but uses a completely equivalent representation based on four elements….


“If the genome were to refer to just one person, those same bioinformatics tools could be deployed to explore not what we have in common, but what makes each of us unique - the equivalent of typing your own name into Google, rather than carrying out a search for a neutral general term.


“For this to be possible, the cost of sequencing the human genome needs to drop enormously. With a dozen companies racing towards the goal of the sub-$1,000 genome, the day when your DNA is sequenced and burnt on to a CD-Rom for roughly the cost of a conventional health checkup is not far off.


“In fact, the personal genome is a kind of total health checkup - one that includes all possible genetic diseases, known and unknown. The result of every test available - for susceptibilities to various cancers, for example - would be revealed after a little genomic googling on your home computer. As new genetic tests are devised, the results could be read off from your digital code without the need for further medical examinations….”


The Guardian – April 15, 2004:,3858,4901331-110837,00.html.


Thinking about where the new biotechnologies are taking us....


The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics,

by Yuval Levin



“Among the more prominent peculiarities of our politics in recent years is that something called ‘bioethics’ has become a key conservative priority. The bioethics movement has been around in America since at least the late 1960s, when the Hastings Center was created as the first bioethics think tank. Its task was to advance the study of the ethics of biology and medicine, and to examine the moral and social significance of new developments in genetics, psychopharmacology, reproductive medicine, and other new frontiers of biological science. The movement has since grown by leaps and bounds, and bioethics has developed into a profession, if not an industry.


“Some American conservatives have long shared the concerns that animate bioethics. The pro-life movement has always worried deeply about the treatment of the unborn by scientists and doctors, and many conservatives have through the years been interested in various issues surrounding medical ethics, illicit drug-use, assisted suicide, and other social and cultural matters that have much to do with modern science. But it was not until fairly recently that bioethics emerged as a general and prominent category of concern for the American right.


“That concern has been particularly influenced by worries about what has been dubbed the ‘Brave New World.’ This allusion to Aldous Huxley’s famous book hints at a vision of a world reshaped by biotechnology: procreation replaced by manufacture, the pursuit of happiness replaced by drugs, and human nature remade into something lower and shallower, more easily satisfied but less capable of greatness and awe. This general vision has expressed itself in specific disquiet about reproductive technologies like cloning and genetic engineering; about the transformation of human embryos into research tools and raw materials; about psychoactive drugs and assorted enhancement technologies; and about a wide array of other attempts to fundamentally reshape human life through biology and medicine. American conservatives have begun to think hard about ‘where biotechnology may be taking us,’ as Leon Kass puts it, and what we might do about it….”


The New Atlantis:  A Journal of Technology and Society, Number 1 – Spring 2003:


Editor’s Note:  While visiting The New Atlantis website to read the remainder of Yuval Levin’s essay, click on “Home” and take a few moments to look around—your efforts will be amply rewarded.  The mission of The New Atlantis is described as “an effort to clarify the nation’s moral and political understanding of all areas of technology.”  Appropriately, a significant number of their articles deal with biotechnology and bioethics, and some members of the editorial staff have worked with the President’s Council on Bioethics.  The New Atlantis is an initiative of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a subscription is only $24.00 per year.


Having a baby you don’t intend to love....


Love for Pregnancy Makes Jill Hawkins a Baby Factory!



“In spite of being single, Jill Hawkins loves to get pregnant and this has turned her into a baby-producing factory!


“The 39-year-old, legal secretary closely followed her ambition to become a surrogate mom after Britain’s first surrogate mother Kim Cotton hit the headlines.


“It was not easy for Jill to acquire the membership of COTS or Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy, an agency set up by Cotton as they took only those women with their own babies.


“‘They couldn’t understand why a single, childless woman would want to be a surrogate. They could see all kinds of problems, the main one being that I’d never be able to hand over any baby when the time came. They refused to believe that keeping a baby was the very last thing on my mind,’ Jill was quoted, by The Sun, as saying….


“‘Finally, she understood that I was serious and recommended that I be put on their list. I was over the moon. At last I was going to get the chance to get pregnant and fulfil my desire,’ Jill adds.


“Jill, who has already given birth to five babies over the past 13 years and is now expecting her sixth, admits that getting pregnant gives her a high and makes her really happy.


“‘Even though carrying the baby and feeling it kick was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced, the baby never felt like mine. I didn’t speak to it, or give it a name and I felt no love for it,’ Jill says of her pregnancy experiences….”


Yahoo News/India – May 18, 2004:


Rethinking the living will....


Value of Living Wills Under Fire

Bucking conventional wisdom, studies suggest they just don't work.



“They’ve been embraced by the American public, the medical and legal establishment, and federal and state law. But emerging evidence suggests ‘living wills’ may not be living up to their promise as useful guides for families faced with tough decisions about end-of-life care.


“‘There have been many versions of the living will, and all versions have failed in doing what we wanted them to do,’ said Angela Fagerlin, a medical research scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


“Writing in the March-April issue of the bioethics journal The Hastings Center Report, Fagerlin and co-author Carl Schneider, a University of Michigan law professor, reviewed the results of hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of living wills. Their conclusion: ‘The living will has failed, and it is time to say so.’…” – May 18, 2004:  Click on this link to read the entire article:


Worth considering....


From the essay It Killed the Cat:  The Vice of Curiosity



“To be curious is not simply to hanker after useless knowledge, but it is true that curiosity may often lead us into explorations and investigations which appear unlikely to benefit anyone in particular.  Nothing I have … [said] suggests that such curiosity is always vice.  It becomes vice only when we set no limits to our curiosity, when we can never find reasons why we ought not gratify our desire to see and know, when we regard no secrets as closed to our inquiring minds, when curiosity is bounded neither by respect for others nor reverence for God.


“…To be curious about the creation is to desire knowledge about a world which comes from One whose being and will limit us.  An appetite for knowledge which lacks that vision of the world as creation is in peril of becoming the vice of curiosity….


“To remember that curiosity killed the cat is to remember that the appetite for knowledge is not virtue but the raw material out of which we make either virtue or vice—and that vice is always destructive.  If nothing else, it leads to that blindness which is self-inflicted; for if we do not see the world as the creation given to us, we do not, finally, see…. The end must be that having eyes, we do not see.”


The Theory and Practice of Virtue, by Gilbert C. Meilaender (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 150-151.




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