Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Still worth reading the NY Times

Two articles today that grabbed me by the eyeball. (You may get a pop-up ad but I don't begrudge them an income.) The first you have no doubt heard about elsewhere, some geniuses (by dint of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration) have largely sequenced the genome of a woolly mammoth, and the kicker is, they believe that with a modest investment - equal, say, to occupying Iraq for an afternoon - they could actually create a woolly mammoth embryo, implant it in a mama elephant, et voila.

This sounds like fun and they could definitely recoup their investment with ticket sales to Ice Age Park. However, Nicholas Wade, probably wisely, buries the lede: it is possible to do the same thing with neanderthals. He acknowledges there might be a wee bit of ethical reservation about the required procedure: modifying the genes of a Homo sapiens, creating an embryo by replacing the nucleus of a Homo sapiens ovum, and implanting said embryo in a Homo sapiens female for gestation. It's not exactly human cloning but it's sorta kinda like it.

Fortunately, there is an alternative which some of Wade's informants find less troubling: start with chimpanzee DNA, modify it to make your neanderthal, and have a chimp mother do the gestating.

Time out!

Ethically, I don't give a FFOARD about either process, what I care about is the result, an issue which nobody in this discussion appears even to contemplate. You will have brought into the world a being very similar to us, presumably with a consciousness and self-concept which is similar in many ways, but which, as far as we know, would have very limited capacity for Homo sapiens style language and no ability to survive in our world as anything but a freakish curiosity. I suppose we could make two or more so they would not be utterly alone but I mean, come on now.

I'm not really worried about it, I'm sure it will never happen -- or am I?

The other news is the death of Jay Katz, which for some reason they covered as a local, rather than national story. Dr. Katz was indeed an important national, in fact an important international figure. He is best known as a fierce advocate of the ethical conduct of research on human subjects, whose legacy includes those incredibly annoying, nit-picking, bureaucratically obtuse and dull-wittedly stubborn entities called Institutional Review Boards. Even though they drive us nuts, may they forever keep on doing it. It's the job of the IRB to be a maddening pain in the ass, and to always err on the side of too much protection and too much paperwork generating precaution. If they don't, somebody is once again going to feed radioactive cornflakes to kids with cognitive disabilities, or let poor black men die slowly and horribly just so they can watch, both of which actually, truly happened before Dr. Katz and his colleagues came along to put a stop to it.

But to me, he's even better remembered for his book, The Silent World of Doctors and Patients. Getting them to talk to each other -- as partners, not adversaries or daddy and child or prisoners tapping on the pipes in separate cells -- is what I'm all about, since I have to concentrate on something. Thanks to Dr. Katz for noticing the problem.

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