New Book Examines the Flawed Human Body

From the Genetic Archaeology blog:

Humanity’s physical design flaws have long been apparent – we have a blind spot in our vision, for instance, and insufficient room for wisdom teeth – but do the imperfections extend to the genetic level?

In his new book, Inside the Human Genome, John Avise examines why – from the perspectives of biochemistry and molecular genetics – flaws exist in the biological world. He explores the many deficiencies of human DNA while recapping recent findings about the human genome.

Distinguished Professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at UC Irvine, Avise also makes the case that overwhelming scientific evidence of genomic defects provides a compelling counterargument to intelligent design.

Here, Avise discusses human imperfection, the importance of understanding our flaws, and why he believes theologians should embrace evolutionary science.

Our brains and bodies are both full of flaws. According to the pre-transhumanist worldview, the plan is just to sit around for the rest of eternity with these flaws, even as we colonize the Galaxy. According to the transhumanist worldview, the plan is to analyze these flaws, debate whether they are flaws or not, and consider fixing them if it seems practical and desirable. The latter makes sense, the former doesn’t.

The New Scientist CultureLab blog has more info on the book.


  1. Sulfur

    “(…)and why he believes theologians should embrace evolutionary science.”

    Well, theologians already do embrace and appreciate it.
    Now, _pastors_ and many of _priests_ do not embrace it-that’s different.

    “The latter makes sense, the former doesn’t. ”
    The fundamental problem with that sentence is that transhumanists see human body as a problem to solve and they are quick to judge what is needed and what is not. If that would be for them to decide, we already would have done terrible mistakes in augumenting our bodies (“Hell, we don’t need so many genes! let’s get rid of them!” hype-like atittude). Transhumanism uses imperfect tools to perfect human. That can easily lead to disaster. Besides, the most important issue is not weather small changes correcting some flaws are desirable, needed or wanted, but rather to what extend we can change human and not to commit suicide in ambitius yet funny way thanks to augumentation which would radically change our minds, creating new quality. Anyway it’s quite theoretical debate really, since we are still on the beginning of the way to understanding evolution of our bodies.

  2. I don’t think that’s such a brilliant argument against intelligent design. The religiously minded could easily counter with claims that the sky patriarch made us flawed to teach humility or questions about the definition of perfection and imperfection.

    With regards to Sulfur’s comment, the fact that attempts at self-improvement can backfire doesn’t invalidate the entire endeavor. It’s important for us to recognize the danger and uncertainty in our quest. Philosophically, we need to acknowledge there’s no objective basis for designating anything as a flaw in the first. With all that said, let the enhancements come post-haste.

  3. Sulfur

    Summerspeaker, my point wasn’t dangers connected to process of (supposed) flaws elemination, but rather transhumanist mindset which says that upward change is a dogma. Therefore at some point we face danger of eliminating human as a being, becuase he will become something so different and separate that it would have to be considered a new quality.
    And about argument against intelligent design-I cannot fathom why it is such a relevant issue to anyone. There is nothing to quarrel about. Science describes how something happened. Religion answers why something happened. Those two questions do not contradict each other with their answers, they are different sides of one coin. Every time when I hear pro or contra for evolution or intelligent design I answer, that evolution is the most intelligent design ever. If someone is a beliver then he cannot question God wisdom and say “naaah, hemust have done it MY way”. The point of flaws is not to teach us anything, but to give us freedom, which in christianity is mostly associated with free will. That’s why world functions by itself and can be described without need of overbeing. If the world would be perfect and we were perfect it would be a complete tyranny, in which everything is predestined and given with no room for change, invention, imagination. That’s why for most of the time I don’t agree with transhumanists. They commit the same mistake as Christians do with their concept of haven, which in reality is a hell of totall, mindless bliss. The same hell is on horizon when we speak abut transhumanistic approach towards futurism.

  4. Khannea Suntzu

    Sulfur, the ‘idea’ of modifying genes, is an irrational taboo topic.

    Lets explain what that means in practice – if I were to say ‘our lighting tools are flawed’ or I’d say ‘people own dangerous nylon based flammable clothes’ nobody would shriek in terror assuming some kind of odd conspiracy would seek to enter your homes and forcibly took your lamps or jackets – or declare some kind of edict. In fact if we do we do so after long societal deliberation – as we did with safety standards (flammable materials) and energy standards (light bulbs).

    Somehow when someone asks the completely valid question – do humans in general have genes that are flawed, counterproductive or inadequate ?, I tend to see at least several paranoid, fearful or downright incorrect assumptions.

    No transhumanists wants to come around and force anyone to change their (or their offspring’s) genes. But equally as someone cannot come around and instruct you this way so you cannot *disallow* anyone to modify their own genes. Maybe we might have a transparant societal discussion whether or not having babies with severe birth or genetic defects is a smart or moral thing to consider.

    If there are ‘unanticipated side effects’ that’s the choice of these people. There were unintended side effects of buying a hummer too, ‘caveat emptor’, right? It this whole idea bothers you at a fundamental level, we’re eager to enter into the societal discourse – if you think genetic modification is somehow cheating – by all means lets open up the dialogue what else might be cheating in the current socio-economic climate

    … and by all means let’s argue what qualities we should regard as ‘an unfair advantage’. Maybe we should tax people with an unambiguous genetic headstart? A ‘progress tax’ ? … and return this tax to the ‘genetically baseline’ as some kind of financial compensation ?

  5. Sulfur

    Khannea, you cannot compare flammable materials to modifications in genom. What we are facing here is unprecedented. Depending to what extent those modifications would be possible and if they were hereditary the discussion would vary. I see nothing wrong in mild modifications, curing diseases and so on. But I would consider it slightly wrong to change genetic makeup permanently, even if some parts of genom are unnecessary.

    What truly bothers me is willingness to modify humans in more radical way. In order not to help them, but to make them “better”. Augumenting babies seems to me a quite selfish approach, whereas children are becoming products, differential of parents choices – not their own. You cannot compare it to education and agents of socialization, because genes are given and they determine much of our behaviour and capabilities. Therefore such theoretical augumentation would not lead to increase in people ability for choice, but to decrease.

    Already it is rare that people are liberating themselves from given mindsets, cultural conditions etc. and choose their own path of intelectual/spiritual/whatever development. Today mindset is shaped by culture and society. In radical transhumanist view-also by genes and software/hardware upgreades. All given by others before somebody is born. Somebody is deciding what is best for others, shaping as he wishes. It’s progressive enslavement-far worse than current condition.

    Nobody is forcing anyone? How naive. Once modifcations will be easily available it will be quesiton of time before market forces and behavioral “band-wagoning” effect will do the rest.

    Nobody can disallow modifications? Maybe here lays problem; in approach towards modernity. It seems that since enlightement idea of human being in centre of interest have become increasingly distorted. Today “human dignity” is definied as everything that is “me”. “Myself” is point of reference, and it cannot be criticized or quesitoned (hence word “tollernace” changed its meaning radically). Evertyhing is therefore conncetrating on selfish interests of individuals. Gene modfications as free choice would not eleminate this problem, but would increase it. Those individuals would not only impact themselves but society around them too. That is why you cannot leave that to them.

    As for ideas of balancing society where gene modifications are available-well imposing taxes won’t solve anything at all, moreover it will create new problems and regions of conflict and instability.

    Anyway, as I said before, everything depends on what we will be able to do and to what extend. Only then discussion has sense. Otherwise we are swimming in void of pure speculation.

    Unfortunately bioethics doesn’t seem to be elevated topic in transhumanist discussions-also on this site. It’s symptomatic that it has just one entry more than religion (8 in comparison to 7). Disturbing.
    No one truly asks if changes are desirable, wanted, ethical, moral etc. but rather “how” and “when” also “how awesome they will be”. But I don’t see awesomness. What I see is next pseudo-progressive movement of counter-cultural heritage, which will try – as many before – social engineering. Shaping views didn’t worked out, so its turn for bodies now.

  6. What’s the difference between helping someone and making them better, Sulfur? How do you define and articulate that distinction? I say it’s a fuzzy line. Many see the anti-aging movement as inexcusable hubris while to me it’s a simple matter of trying to prevent something horrible. Such programs to solve problems do appeal to me more than comparatively frivolous pursuits like personal flight and superhuman strength, but I hold no objections to latter.

    I see no basis for your claim that genetic modification of children would be any worse than what we currently subject them to. Now, you’re right to raise reproduction as moral issue – this is an area AI researchers in particular should consider carefully. The created being never has any input on its creation. No one asked me if I wanted to come into this world. This lack of consent makes producing intelligent life a dubious business. However, I would argue the transhumanist program significantly reduces the immorality. I’d feel far more comfortable bringing someone onto a planet with functional rejuvenation therapy than onto one without it.

  7. Peter B.

    Sulfur opines:
    > „Therefore such theoretical augumentation would not lead to increase in people ability for choice, but to decrease.”

    So a child born with heritable engineered cancer immunity would be leading a life more dependent and constrained than those lying helplessly in their hospital beds and suffering a slow, painful death from tumor growth? No, it wouldn’t. This is just absurd.

    Further, letting blind chance and thoughtless mechanism reign supreme is a choice, too. If all parental germline choices limit their kids’ life opportunities as a matter of principle then so does the natural genetic lottery. Attacking the former while ignoring the latter smacks of bad philosophy, smuggling in a dubious unspoken premise. Not sure what assumption it is, but “natural=good” comes to mind, first.

  8. I got a lot of information from this post.keep sharing such informative posts. Thanks

Leave a Comment

Awesome! You've decided to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>