Terry Grossman: Rethinking the Promise of Genetics

Great article from h+ magazine from about a week ago: “Rethinking the Promise of Genomics”. This is by Terry Grossman, co-author (with Ray Kurzweil) of Fantastic Voyage:

I used to be a big believer in the enormous potential of genomics, and each of my two previous books, Fantastic Voyage and TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, had chapters devoted to this topic. The relevant chapter in the earlier book, Fantastic Voyage, published in 2004, was titled “The Promise of Genomics.” My co-author in these books, Ray Kurzweil, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost inventors and futurists, and he has made predictions for what is likely to occur in the future in the field of genomics . Yet, these days I find that I am feeling far less confident at least for the near term about the near term prospects for this “promise.”

Here’s a key quote by Grossman:

Currently I have moved much closer to the idea of “genetic irrelevance,” the idea that in the overwhelming majority of cases, our genes are of much less importance in determining our fate and that the environment in which we live and the lifestyle choices we make are of far greater importance.

Please note that I said this is true in the “overwhelming majority of cases,” but it is not true all the time. About one in 20 people is born with an abnormal gene that will create a major problem that can affect life and be quite relevant, either from birth or at some point further down the line. Examples include cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that can manifest from birth for which we have been doing routine screening for decades and the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, which dramatically increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life. But for nearly 95 percent of us, we come off of the assembly line of birth virtually perfect.

Illuminating stuff. Go exercise! It’s important that the advocates of science and technology make it clear to the public that we are willing to be pessimistic about a technology’s dividends when it looks rational to do so. Grossman’s article reminds me of an excellent 2001 article by John Smart, “Performance Limitations on Natural and Engineered Biological Systems”:

The more complex any life form becomes, the more it becomes a legacy/path dependent system, with many antagonistic pleiotropies (negative effects in other places and functions in the organism) whenever any further change is contemplated. It seems that evolutionary development, just like differentiation from a zygote or stem cell to a mature tissue, becomes increasingly terminally differentiated the more complex and specialized the organism. One extreme case of this kind of terminal differentiation, at the cellular level, is nerve cells in the human brain, which are so specialized, and the connections they support so complex, that they cannot even replace themselves, in general. Could they eventually learn to do so without disrupting the connectionist complexity that they create in the brain, after their development has stopped? Perhaps not. The more complex the system becomes, the less flexible it is. It gets progressively harder to make small changes in the genes that would improve system, and given how finely tuned so many system elements are, large changes are out of the question.

Because the reasons outlined by Grossman and Smart, I am more in the school that cybernetics (implants, brain-computer interfaces, wearable computing, etc.) will provide the most significant performance upgrades to humans in the nearer term (20-30 years). At first bio-transhumanism will be more of a side phenomenon than the central thrust of the transition. There will be much more effective and reliable means to make humans stronger and faster before we can make ourselves live longer and deeply exploit our own genetics.

Comments

  1. Tyler Chesley

    Agreed.

  2. Arnie

    I thought it was a great article, and something I’ve been considering for a bit myself.

    Although I still don’t discount genetic baselines or having genetic predispositions to certain conditions or diseases, and certainly somebody like Lance Armstrong has some genetic advantages over most of us.

    In the end, though, I’ve seen too many examples of lifestyle choices trumping supposed “genetic death sentences” to believe that everything rides on our base pairs.

  3. MC

    While I agree that biology and genetics will not give us immortality by themselves, I think extending life expectancy by a few decades is quite possible with Aubrey de Grey’s engineering approach (SENS). We could even reach actuarial escape velocity in the 2020s.

    The key to long term life extension is shifting to a digital substrate where you can have backups and fine control. By 2030 we either have uploads, or it will all be moot due to an artificial intelligence singularity.

  4. Jordan

    It’s widely believed that centenarians can credit their long and healthy lives to good genes. Lacking these genes leads to the shortened and less healthy life most of us live.

    The vast majority of people DO have genetic predispositions towards early death. More than 1 in 20. More than 19 in 20.

  5. If we look at our own species, which is about 99.9% genetically identical throughout, it’s hardly surprising that genes play a relatively small role. But if we look at all living things, it’s evident that almost all of what makes us smarter and longer-lived than other animals is genetic. I see no reason why this evolution cannot continue, and I suspect it will be possible long before any brain-computer interface can provide any significant enhancement.

  6. Jonatas Müller

    Indeed in the long-term we should expect to skip the DNA architecture altogether and become cyborgs, but until that time comes I think that there is still plenty of possible enhancements to make based just on the current human diversity.

    The problems mentioned with genetics are more like technical than theoretical problems, though nonetheless they still allow for alterations which shouldn’t be so difficult, such as increasing people’s intelligence to Einstein’s level or even above (by combining other genes of intelligence in addition to Einstein’s), people’s poetry capacity to Shakespeare’s, correcting many genetic errors and predispositions for diseases, etc.

    After this has been accomplished, it will be hard to put constraints into the further steps this next generation will be able to make.

  7. Dr Johnty

    I have no doubt that within 50 years (maybe considerably less) that machines will become conscious due to a massive expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) what we must keep in mind that even if this fails to happen and it takes 100 years to reach the stage where machines become aware the introduction of non biological intelligence into ourselves within the next couple of decades is pretty much inevitable, initially because of our limited technological capability this would most likely be achieve through simple neuro implants and later through a mix of gene manipulation and the use of artificial systems such as nanotechnology. Regardless it is clear we will transcend the limitations of our biology as well as achieving a rate of progress which is incomparable to anything so far achieved. In my opinion merging of human and machine intelligence is an inevitability because you only need to look at how attached we are to our iPhones and Blackberry’s to realise that we will ultimately be unable to resist moving increased processing capability directly inside the body.

    As raised in this posting it goes without saying that an essential prerequisite to rapid progress is radical life extension. Crucial technologies to achieve this goal are Biotechnology and Nanotechnology and both are progressing very quickly with Biotec is ahead of Nanotec by around 10 to 15 years although the gap seems to be closing in the last 18 months. To grasp the potential for radial life extension we need to consider that as Terry Grossman, Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey and everyone else who studies the statistics accepts we are already adding two months each year (5 hours per day) to our life expectancy and this has been consistent for the last thirty years or so. If you then consider that some experts see a better than 50% chance of controlling aging within 30 years the whole issue starts to become very interesting. For years people spoke of a cure but I believe that is at least 100 years away. There is however a shortcut which has been set out by Dr Aubrey de Grey which aims to render aging a treatable condition albeit a chronic one, this is quite possibly within striking distance. This is because we know the 7 types of damage which arise due to aging and they are as follows (1) cell loss, (2) death resistant cells, (3) nuclear DNA mutations, (4) mitochondrial DNA mutations, (5) intracellular junk, (6) extracellular junk, and (7) extracellular crosslinks. This might sound rather daunting but the key is that we don’t need to stop the damage actually arising we just need to control it and repair some of it. This gives us a shortcut to radical life extension. Ray Kurzweil explains it as three bridges. Bridge one is based on today’s (limited) knowledge of how to slow the aging process through keeping fit, appropriate supplementation and eating the right food in order that we are fit enough to reach Bridge two which is the Biotec revolution, biotechnology covers treatments which could retard the aging process or in some way intervene in a way that potentially extends either lifespan or healthspan we then have the rapid advances in stem cell treatments, gene therapy and other breakthrough’s, these innovations should buy us 20 to 30 years of extra life within the next 25 years. We are already in the Biotechnology revolution now and several recent breakthrough’s confirm that we are on target as outlined below. These are notes from my own files but there are many more.

    Stem Cell Progress Regarding Joints http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnCnq6UHzIM&feature=player_embedded

    Age Reveral Confirmed in Stem Cells http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/04/biotime-reverses-aging-of-human-cells.html

    Promising Potential Breakthrough regarding muscle loss (main cause of falls etc in the elderly) http://www.physorg.com/news193913231.html

    Progress in Gene Therapy to target cancer http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2010/04/an-impressive-demonstration-of-targeted-cancer-destruction.php

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