Friday, March 31, 2006

The end of livestock

The science of tissue engineering and the development of in vitro meat may one day, hopefully, result in the end of livestock.

And with it, the end of unnecessary cruelty to non-human animals, a decrease in the frequency of animal-to-human borne diseases (which is like, all of them), the alleviation of environmental degradation caused by animal farming, and an end to unhealthy, unclean, hormone-ridden and antibiotic laden meat.

Humans eat 240 billion kilograms of meat every year. Imagine how many animals that represents. Now imagine each of those lifetimes as they are individually experienced: caged, crammed, frightened, diseased, poked, prodded, neurotic, psychotic, and all followed by slaughter. Don’t think so? Read this, this, this, this, and this. And then watch this.

Then there’s all the cropland, water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy required to produce animals for the killing floor. And what about the millions of tonnes of manure and other waste produced every year in North America?

As Jared Diamond noted in Guns, Germs, and Steel, humans have been consistently traumatized by the continual spread of diseases, which in virtually every case has been spawned by human-to-animal contact (predominantly the result of maintaining livestock). Current health and pandemic risks such as mad cow and avian flu are all heightened as a consequence of animal farming.

Moreover, with the introduction of in vitro foods, in vitro meat products would be far healthier than the real thing. Cultivated meats would be engineered to be healthier and cleaner.

In vitro meat is still meat in every sense of the term. According to Wikipedia, the process is as follows:
Meat essentially consists of animal muscle. There are loosely two approaches for production of in vitro meat; loose muscle cells and structured muscle, the latter one being vastly more challenging than the former. Muscles consist of muscle fibers, long cells with multiple nuclei. They don't proliferate by themselves, but arise when precursor cells fuse. Precursor cells can be embryonic stem cells or satellite cells, specialized stem cells in muscle tissue. Theoretically, they can relatively simple be cultured in a bioreactor and then later made to fuse. For the growth of real muscle however, the cells should grow "on the spot", which requires a perfusion system akin to a blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen close to the growing cells, as well as remove the waste products. In addition other cell types need to be grown like adipocytes, and chemical messengers should provide clues to the growing tissue about the structure. Lastly, muscle tissue needs to be trained to properly develop.
In vitro meat, referred to by some as laboratory-grown meat, is animal flesh that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

According to a recent Globe and Mail article, scientists can grow frog and mouse meat in the lab, and are now working on pork, beef and chicken. Their goal is to develop an industrial version of the process in five years. It will be at that point that we can say a viable threat exists to the ongoing presence of animal farming. And at the very least it will certainly make the presence of livestock that much less justifiable.

That being said, it will be a struggle to convince people to eat synthetic meat over the real thing. Most people who have ethical issues with eating meat are already vegetarians--so devout meat eaters aren’t really listening. And it’s doubtful that die-hards will give up their tried-and-true meat over an artificial and likely inferior-tasting product.

Perhaps it’ll take the death of millions and millions of people from avian flu for people to start questioning meat eating culture.

One last thought: if there are any arguments from anybody that in vitro meat is still somehow unethical or demeaning to an animal, they seriously need to rethink things. A chunk of tissue grown in a petri dish is as far removed from an existential, emotional, and conscious creature as is a rock.

That being said, I can already hear the howls of outrage...

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Some scientists say SENS not up to snuff

The BBC is reporting on how twenty-eight scientists working in gerontology have submitted a rebuttal to a paper published by Dr Aubrey de Grey in the journal EMBO Reports last year.

The rebuttal is not so much a technical account of the apparent failings of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) as it is a blanket discrediting of Aubrey de Grey and his methodology. Essentially, the 28 scientists are refusing to acknowledge de Grey's work on account of the supposed far flung and futuristic nature of the requisite technologies and medical interventions called for in de Grey's strategy.

An excerpt from the scientists' statement reads, "Each one of the specific proposals that comprises the SENS agenda is, at our present state of ignorance, extremely optimistic...A research programme based around the SENS agenda... is so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all from within the scientific community."

Dr Richard Miller in particular has some harsh things to say about de Grey's research. "I was amazed that we found no-one who refused on the grounds that they agreed with Aubrey; a couple of people said they didn't want to sign anything about his work because they didn't want to draw attention to it," he says, "We got 28 people who astonishingly were willing to say in public that they had evaluated the science and had found it to be worthless." Miller is the associate director of the Geriatric Centre at the University of Michigan.

Interestingly, Miller and others have refrained from entering a submission to Technology Review's SENS Challenge for fear that it would only be "feeding the fire." Needless to say, de Grey is frustrated that opposition exists to SENS, but few, if any, are willing to explain exactly why they object to his theories. In regards to the SENS Challenge, de Grey recently noted, "I essentially felt that it was critical for me to smoke out the opposition...I had to move things along to an on-the-record opposition so that people would be forced not simply to say what they thought of these ideas, but why."

The SENS challenge offers an award of US$20,000 to anyone who can demonstrate that SENS is wrong and unworthy of learned debate. To date, no one has claimed the award.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

The EU's ENHANCE Project

ENHANCE is a specific targeted research project put together by the EU that examines the ethics of human enhancement within cognitive enhancement, life extension, mood enhancement, and physical performance. The goal of the project is to reach a deeper understanding of the ethical and philosophical issues of the use of these technologies beyond the purpose of therapy.

Transhumanist philosopher and neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is participating in the cognitive enhancement project. And Nick Bostrom's Future of Humanity Institute has the 'ethics in cognitive enhancement' special assignment.

This project is being funded by the European commission's Sixth Framework programme, "Deepening Understanding in Ethical Issues." The study is in anticipation of biotechnologies that will have the potential of being applied to "make people think better, feel happier or even to improve their physical skills in sports or to extend the life-span." From the website:
The ENHANCE project investigates the latest development within research on biology, biogerontology and neuroscience in order to reach a deeper understanding of the ethical and philosophical consequences when moving from ‘therapy’ perspective towards the one of ‘enhancement’.
The main objectives are to document current and imminent scientific advances that may enhance human capacities in cognition, mood, physical performance (in sport) and aging, to evaluate these advances from a philosophical, ethical and social perspective, to facilitate policy-making to the emerging dual-use technologies, and to promote public understanding of dual-use technologies and the ethical debate.

I'm amazed that the EU is this far ahead in the discussion. Europeans have shown considerable distaste up to this point in time with anything having to do with human genetics and issues of enhancement. Here in North America, the only governmental group I see this in tune with humanity's future is the National Science Foundation. Specifically, I'm thinking about their NBIC report from a few years back, the effects of which are still being felt. As for Canada, these issues aren't even close to the policy issues map.

Best of luck to Anders, Nick, and all those involved in the ENHANCE project.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

"Racism erodes our very humanity. No one can be truly liberated while living under the weight of oppression, argues Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary in her new book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.

Leary, who teaches social work at Portland State University, traces the way that both overt and subtle forms of racism have damaged the collective African-American psyche -- harm manifested through poor mental and physical health, family and relationship dysfunction, and self-destructive impulses.

Leary adapts our understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to propose that African Americans today suffer from a particular kind of intergenerational trauma: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). The systematic dehumanization of African slaves was the initial trauma, explains Leary, and generations of their descendents have borne the scars. Since that time, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have been inculcated and immersed in a fabricated (but effective) system of race "hierarchy," where light-skin privilege still dramatically affects the likelihood of succeeding in American society.

Leary suggests that African Americans (and other people of color) can ill afford to wait for the dominant culture to realize the qualitative benefits of undoing racism. The real recovery from the ongoing trauma of slavery and racism has to start from within, she says, beginning with a true acknowledgment of the resilience of African-American culture.

"The nature of this work," Leary writes in her prologue, "is such that each group first must see to their own healing, because no group can do another's work.""

Read more on the AlterNet.

The Untied States of America

In his new book, "The Untied States of America", American businessman, bestselling author and former Harvard academic Juan Enriquez warns of the coming disintegration of the United States and explores how that will affect the nation's status as the unparalleled superpower.

From AlterNet: "This is a challenging, controversial subject at a time in history when American power around the world appears supreme. The Soviet Union no longer stands as a military, political or economic rival now that capitalism has triumphed over communism. While America is increasingly affected by the fast economic rise of China, this challenge doesn't appear to threaten America's leadership in global politics. Americans dominate the world community today in the same way as the British did a century ago. But that comparison also contains a warning.

In the beginning of his book, Enriquez presents readers with an experiment. Imagine you're a member of the British cabinet in 1905. A world map hangs on the wall of the elegant conference room in Number 10 Downing Street delineating the greatest empire that has ever existed: an area encompassing nearly 30 million square kilometres (11.5 million square miles), 20 percent of the world's land and nearly one-quarter of the total human population. The question is: How will the world look in 50 years -- in 1955?

What would you have thought? Would Britain's territory expand? Stay the same size? Would there have been someone who could have conceived that the British Empire would completely fall apart between 1905 and 1955? That British territory would only comprise some 250,000 square kilometres (97,000 square miles) in 1955?

Imagine asking George W. Bush the same question now, in 2006. How will the United States look in 50 years? How many stars will the American flag have? Still 50? The chances of finding a prominent politician in Washington today who could imagine the disintegration of the United States seem miniscule. But readers of Enriquez's book realize it is in fact quite probable that America in 2056 will not be the same powerful country it is today. Based on a great deal of historical, financial, political and cultural data, Enriquez convincingly demonstrates that the future does not augur well for the unity of the United States."