The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

August 30, 2007



Synthetic biology—a vision for rebooting creation...


Genetic Engineers Who Don’t Just Tinker

by Nicholas Wade



“Forget genetic engineering. The new idea is synthetic biology, an effort by engineers to rewire the genetic circuitry of living organisms.


“The ambitious undertaking includes genetic engineering, the now routine insertion of one or two genes into a bacterium or crop plant. But synthetic biologists aim to rearrange genes on a much wider scale, that of a genome, or an organism’s entire genetic code. Their plans include microbes modified to generate cheap petroleum out of plant waste, and, further down the line, designing whole organisms from scratch....


“Synthetic biologists, as they survey all the new genes and control elements whose DNA sequences are now accumulating in data bases, seem to feel extraordinary power is almost within their grasp.


“‘Biology will never be the same,’ Thomas F. Knight of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory wrote recently in describing the new engineering discipline he sees as emerging from it....”


The New York Times – July 8, 2007




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A question for Michael Moore:  Why were the Canadian quadruplets born in the U.S.A.?


Calgary’s Quads: Born in the U.S.A.


No beds in Canada forces mom to Montana



“A rare set of identical quadruplets, born this week to a Calgary woman at a Montana hospital, are in good health and two of them were strong enough to be transported back here Thursday.


“The naturally conceived baby girls – Autumn, Brooke, Calissa and Dahlia – were delivered by caesarean section Sunday in Great Falls, their weights ranging between two pounds, six ounces and two pounds, 15 ounces.


“Their mother, Calgarian Karen Jepp, was transferred to Benefis Hospital in Montana last week when she began showing signs of going into labour, and no Canadian hospital had enough neonatal intensive-care beds for all four babies.


“Calgary Health Region doctors said the chances of naturally conceived quadruplets are about one in 13 million, adding the last set of identical quads in Calgary were born in 1982....”


The Calgary Herald – August 17, 2007


The medicalization of everyday life...


Depression Is ‘Over-Diagnosed’


Too many people are being diagnosed with depression when all they are is unhappy, a leading psychiatrist says.




Prof Parker said prescribing medication may be not be effective

“Professor Gordon Parker claims the threshold for clinical depression is too low and risks treating normal emotional states as illness.


“Writing in the British Medical Journal, he calls depression a ‘catch-all’ diagnosis driven by clever marketing....


“He writes in the BMJ that almost everyone had symptoms such as ‘feeling sad, blue or down in the dumps’ at some point in their lives—but this was not the same as clinical depression which required treatment.


“He said prescribing medication may raise false hopes and might not be effective as there was nothing biologically wrong with the patient.


“He said: ‘Over the last 30 years the formal definitions for defining clinical depression have expanded into the territory of normal depression, and the real risk is that the milder, more common experiences risk being pathologised....’”


BBC NEWS – August 17, 2007


“Children absolutely should not be sedated on airplanes for the convenience of other passengers...”


These Drugs Are for Colds, Not Fidgets

by Leslie Berger



“In a society that savors convenience, parents are sometimes tempted (or pressured) to use over-the-counter cold and allergy drugs to get their children to sleep. In a widely reported incident last month, a Georgia woman and her talkative 19-month-old son were removed from a flight to Oklahoma after the toddler kept repeating, ‘Bye-bye, plane!’ during the safety demonstration, the annoyed flight attendant suggested a dose of Benadryl, and the mother took offense.


“Whatever the merits of that confrontation, doctors say there is one lesson to take away: drugs like Benadryl should never be given to sedate a child. For one thing, they can have side effects, including constipation and respiratory problems. And for another, in some children they produce the exact opposite of the desired effect.


“‘Instead of becoming sleepy they can become very animated and less controllable,’ said Dr. Charles J. Coté, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Harvard Medical School....


“Nevertheless, the use of such medicines to make children drowsy is widespread. ‘Inappropriate use clearly is a very common practice,’ said Dr. Philip Walson, a professor of pediatrics and pharmacology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center....”


 The New York Times – August 14, 2007 (free registration required)


Major questions about routine ultrasounds during pregnancy...


Baby Scans: Do We Need Them?


For many women, the scan which shows their unborn squirming, kicking and sucking its thumb is one of the important milestones of pregnancy.



An ultrasound is carried out

So is it just a waste of money?

“For the vast majority it provides reassurance that all is well, and it enables parents to prepare if all is not.


“But an eminent ultrasound specialist is determined to kickstart a debate on the value of the scan within an NHS increasingly strapped for cash.


“In a paper published in Ultrasounds this week, retired Dr Hylton Meire not only argues there is no scientific evidence to prove the 20-week scan is worthwhile, he also casts doubt on the reliability of the principal method of testing for Down’s Syndrome—the nuchal fold measurement....”


BBC News – August 16, 2007


We’ve seen this sort of philosophy before—in ancient the immaterialist ideas of George Berkeley...


Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch

by John Tierney



Viktor Koen

“Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.


“But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.


“This simulation would be similar to the one in ‘The Matrix,’ in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits....”


The New York Times – August 14, 2007 (free registration required)


A self-sufficient generation begins to realize the importance of community...


A Grass-Roots Effort to Grow Old at Home



George and Anne Allen hope to continue living at their Washington home with help from a community group under development.  (Andrew Councill for The New York Times)

“On a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, George and Anne Allen, both 82, struggle to remain in their beloved three-story house and neighborhood, despite the frailty, danger and isolation of old age.


“Mr. Allen has been hobbled since he fractured his spine in a fall down the stairs, and he expects to lose his driver’s license when it comes up for renewal. Mrs. Allen recently broke four ribs getting out of bed. Neither can climb a ladder to change a light bulb or crouch under the kitchen sink to fix a leak. Stores and public transportation are an uncomfortable hike.


“So the Allens have banded together with their neighbors, who are equally determined to avoid being forced from their homes by dependence. Along with more than 100 communities nationwide—a dozen of them planned here in Washington and its suburbs—their group is part of a movement to make neighborhoods comfortable places to grow old, both for elderly men and women in need of help and for baby boomers anticipating the future.


“‘We are totally dependent on ourselves,’ Mr. Allen said. ‘But I want to live in a mixed community, not just with the elderly. And as long as we can do it here, that’s what we want....’”


The New York Times – August 14, 2007 (free registration required)


Editor’s Note:  The ethical challenges of caregiving in our rapidly aging society, with special attention to the care of people with dementia, were addressed in a special report by The President’s Council on Bioethics in September, 2005.  Taking Care:  Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society is available online.  Instructions for ordering a free hard copy are also provide online.


“The armed forces’ disability policy was flawed by a fundamental misunderstanding about the biology of inherited diseases...”


U.S. Military Practices Genetic Discrimination in Denying Benefits

by Karen Kaplan


Those medically discharged with genetic diseases are left without disability or retirement benefits. Some are fighting back.



“Eric Miller’s career as an Army Ranger wasn’t ended by a battlefield wound, but his DNA.


“Lurking in his genes was a mutation that made him vulnerable to uncontrolled tumor growth. After suffering back pain during a tour in Afghanistan, he underwent three surgeries to remove tumors from his brain and spine that left him with numbness throughout the left side of his body.


“So began his journey into a dreaded scenario of the genetic age.


“Because he was born with the mutation, the Army argued it bore no responsibility for his illness and medically discharged him in 2005 without the disability benefits or health insurance he needed to fight his disease....”


The Los Angeles Times – August 18, 2007 (free registration required)


Another case of genetic discrimination...


Vatican Talks of ‘Eugenics Culture’ after Abortion of Wrong Twin



“Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into a botched selective abortion that the Vatican has described as the result of a ‘culture of perfection’ resembling Nazi eugenics.


“The deeply Catholic country was embroiled in a bitter ethical dispute yesterday after it emerged that a surgeon had accidentally terminated a healthy foetus instead of its twin with Down’s syndrome. The operation – on a 38-year-old woman 18 weeks into her pregnancy – was performed at the San Paolo hospital in Milan in June but has only now come to light. The foetus with Down’s syndrome was also aborted subsequently.


“The revelation has reignited the debate in Italy over abortion, which was legalised only in 1978. The law allows terminations of healthy foetuses up to the 90th day of pregnancy, though abortions can be performed at a later stage if there is a risk to the life of the mother or the foetus is malformed.


“Anna Maria Marconi, the gynaecologist who carried out the Milan abortion, said that the woman – who has not been named – requested the operation after an amniocentesis test....”


The Times – August 29, 2007


Worth considering...


From Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America...

by James Turner



“...Most Americans—probably most Western Europeans—continue to believe in God; for these individuals belief can matter a great deal. But for the common life of our culture, it matters very much less. The option of not believing has eradicated God as a shared basis of thought and experience and retired him to a private or at best subcultural role. The bulk of modern thought has simply dispensed with God....


“...[R]eligion caused unbelief. In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled Him....


“Religious leaders had themselves to blame if some members of their flock inclined to give science a quitclaim to knowledge. The seductiveness of scientific knowledge did not flow inevitably from the rise of modern science. It grew from deep roots in Anglo-American culture. The successes of science—and the territorial imperative of scientists—certainly contributed. But so did men of the church.


“It was, after all, theologians and ministers who had welcomed this secular visitor into the house of God. It was they who had most loudly insisted that knowledge of God’s existence and benevolence could be pinned down as securely as the structure of a frog’s anatomy—and by roughly the same method. It was they who had obscured the difference between natural and supernatural knowledge, between the tangible things of this world and the impalpable things of another. By the mid-nineteenth century they had, really, no effectual model of knowledge except science.... No wonder that science kept chipping away at religious knowledge, at the stories of the Bible or the doctrines of the creeds: belief was supposed, by theologians themselves, to be subject to scientific canons of knowledge, however much some of them protested otherwise. We have grown so accustomed to science as the archetype of knowledge that we regard this attitude as natural; it takes an effort of historical imagination to realize that theology helped to make it natural. Was it such a surprise that when theologians took science as the standard of reality, scientists and others should do the same...?


“...The church played a major role in softening up belief. Theologians had been too unwilling to allow God to be incomprehensible, too insistent on bringing Him within the compass of mundane human knowledge, too anxious to link belief with science, too neglectful of other roads to knowledge, too insensitive to noncognitive ways of apprehending reality—too forgetful, in short, of much of their own traditions as they tried to make God up-to-date. And the leaders of the churches got away with this as long as science depended on God, as long the new conception of knowledge that science exemplified did not reach its ultimate conclusion. But when it did, theology paid the price for ignoring the complexity of the question of God, for suppressing the transcendent mystery that was supposed to exceed human understanding. One might say that most theologians had lost faith long before any Victorian agnostics....”



Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1985. These excerpts are from pages xii, xiii, 192-193, and 202. James Turner teaches American and modern British intellectual history at Notre Dame.




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Copyright © 2007