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Regular readers will know that I have an artificial heart valve.  Indeed many people have implanted prosthesis, from metal joints or tooth fillings to heart pacemakers and implanted cochlear hearing aides, or just eye glasses or dentures.   Some are kept alive by drugs.  All of these are ways in which our individual survival has become progressively more dependent on technology.  So that should it fail many would suffer.  Indeed some today feel bereft without their mobile phone that now substitutes for skills, like simple mathematics, that people once had to have themselves.  But while we may be increasingly transformed by tools and implants, the underlying genes, conferred by reproduction, remain human.

The possibility of accelerated genetic evolution through technology was brought nearer last week when, on 28 November 2018, a young scientist, He Jiankui, announced, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had successfully used the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit a gene in several children.

Two girls, twins, have been born and are thriving and another gene-edited baby is on the way.

The reaction was outrage. Dr He has been condemned by most of his peers - and by ethicists in general - for undertaking this ground-breaking work outside of a suitably structured and safe environment and for the ethical and ongoing implications concerning these children and their possible future off-spring, who may also carry and spread this genetic modification throughout the human population. 

The putative justification for the work was to confer HIV (human immune-deficiency virus) immunity on these children who may otherwise have contracted the disease from infected parents. The successful parents were chosen from among seven couples at risk who had volunteered. 

CRISPR was used to modify a number of IVF (in vitro fertilised) human embryos to prevent the expression of a CCR5 protein, that is exploited by HIV. People who, naturally, have a variant of the CCR5 gene that fails to express the protein, that is required by the virus for replication, had been found to be immune to HIV.

But there is at least one additional implication of editing this gene. Experimental mice that were similarly made immune to HIV also demonstrated cognitive improvement.  So the gene may be important in brain development.  As a result these children may exhibit, as yet unknowable cognitive, or other developmental changes that will only be evident as they grow and learn.  This is a matter of serious concern, particularly if the impact is negative in humans.  Among the many criticisms of Dr He is that he may have opened the flood-gates to increasingly dangerous genetic 'improvements' with similar long-term implications.

CRISPR technology can be used to: edit; remove; add; or replace genes and is already used to create 'improved' plants and animals. It's easy to imagine transgenic 'super' sportsmen and women.  Failures would undoubtedly result in Frankenstein-like scenarios. Yet successes might result in people with a range of new, unnatural, abilities or attributes.  Might such more-able people be more desirable partners for their ability to hand on their more desirable genomes?  Might human evolution thus accelerate? 

Upon Dr He's announcement the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that gene-editing may be dangerous, and announced it would establish a panel of experts to set clear guidelines and standards after studying ethical and safety issues.

When considering Dr He's motivation, in the face of possible punishment, he is no doubt aware that the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was similarly the outcome of a rogue experiment, that was similarly announced after she was born in 1978.  At that time moral outrage resulted from 'scientists playing god' and when it was revealed that almost all the fertilised human embryos failed to thrive.  Even today, when the technology is well advanced, over two thirds of the transplanted embryos are unsuccessful and are aborted.

At the time it was a commonly held myth that new life is conferred by a god or gods at the instance of fertilisation.  It followed that these abortions were actual human babies being slaughtered en mass.  As Monty Python told us soon afterwards: 'every sperm is sacred'.  Then in 1996 there was the case of Dolly the sheep - a complex mammal, like us, cloned from a single stem-cell taken from her mother.  This technology too has become commonplace.

The ancient belief that life begins anew at each conception was thus reduced to the point of absurdity. Is God in the lab standing by to create life anew each time a technician brings ova and sperm together on a glass slide or when she multiplies a single living cell to create a new independent animal?   Where is the 'new' life in this when there is no point of conception at all?  Clearly the laboratory process is simply perpetuating the pre-existing life of the cells involved.  As it is in nature, living cells reproduce by division and life is not created anew at each division. Thus all life on Earth today is inherited from our last universal common ancestor (LUCA), around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.  Sooner or later after coming into being - sometimes very quickly - all cells then die.   

Humans are colonies of billions of such continuously dividing and dying cells. At birth we have around 26 billion cells, all originating from that single original cell. By adulthood that number will grow by over a hundredfold of which total some 60 billion cells die and are replaced every day.  See: Are we the same person we once were? 

Thus in nature there is but one life but trillions upon trillions of deaths every day.

In the light of modern technology and knowledge the point at which a cluster of cells can be said to be a new person has become much less obvious than it was just two centuries ago. Many doctors and ethicists now agree it's at the point when he or she is potentially capable of successful independence from their mother.  Yet some Roman Catholics and others persist in the ancient and obviously erroneous idea that a new life (and soul) begins at conception. Thus the debate over abortion and morning-after pills persists.

Despite potential jail time Dr He no doubt takes solace in the history of IVF.  After initial moral outrage in just four decades IVF technology has become very widely used, including by many Roman Catholic parents. 

According to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology by mid 2018 more than 8 million people owed their creation to IVF.  And 68 years after their breakthrough one of the 'rogue' researchers: Robert G. Edwards was finally awarded the Nobel Prize, in Physiology or Medicine, his two controversial IVF co-developers, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy, being dead and thus ineligible, yet for their friends and decedents, posthumously vindicated.

 

 

 


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Travel

Ireland

 

 

 

 

In October 2018 we travelled to Ireland. Later we would go on to England (the south coast and London) before travelling overland (and underwater) by rail to Belgium and then on to Berlin to visit our grandchildren there. 

The island of Ireland is not very big, about a quarter as large again as Tasmania, with a population not much bigger than Sydney (4.75 million in the Republic of Ireland with another 1.85 million in Northern Ireland).  So it's mainly rural and not very densely populated. 

It was unusually warm for October in Europe, including Germany, and Ireland is a very pleasant part of the world, not unlike Tasmania, and in many ways familiar, due to a shared language and culture.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

His life in a can

A Short Story

 

 

"She’s put out a beer for me!   That’s so thoughtful!"  He feels shamed, just when he was thinking she takes him for granted.

He’s been slaving away out here all morning in the sweltering heat, cutting-back this enormous bloody bougainvillea that she keeps nagging him about.  It’s green waste tomorrow and he’s taken the day off, from the monotony of his daily commute to a job that he has long since mastered, to get this done.  

He’s bleeding where the thorns have torn at his shirtless torso.  His sweat makes pink runnels in the grey dust that is thick on his office pale skin.  The scratches sting as the salty rivulets reach them and he’s not sure that he hasn’t had too much sun.  He knows he’ll be sore in the office tomorrow.

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Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency

 

 

 

emergency
/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.

 

 

Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.

 

 

Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'

 

 

My copy of The Limits to Growth
 

 

Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.

 

Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
1)
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 

 

Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.

 

 

The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.

 

 


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