A clone question, bro

I couldn’t resist: our first new Bioethics case today leads off with the hydra-headed baseball performance-enhancing scandal that won’t go away, and our last sends in the clones… so naturally I free-associated Bryce Harper. (He’s not a drug abuser himself, so far as I know, though he was responding to a question about beer.) It pains me to say so, but Big Papi might be right about the dumbest athletes who play the smartest game. They need enhancement, alright, of the mental (not steroidal) variety.

I really thought I’d put the steroids era in baseball behind me three years ago, at our annual baseball conference down the hall. Guess not.

The rest of today’s lineup features Glenn McGee’s concerns about epigenetics and designer babies. The genes in our cells can be altered by our specific environments. “Not all genetic problems are hereditary,”  and babies of the future will likely inherit specifically-engineered traits. This could be a good thing: “tomorrow’s environmental movement may be  as much about reducing the local consumption of the human body as about preserving the distant rain forest.” We need to think more about the potential social benefits of genetic engineering, as well as possible personal harm.

Once nurture seemed clearly distinct from nature. Now it appears that our diets and lifestyles can change the expression of our genes. How? By influencing a network of chemical switches within our cells collectively known as the epigenome. This new understanding may lead us to potent new medical therapies. Epigenetic cancer therapy, for one, already seems to be yielding promising results. Nova

Our present understanding of those chemical switches, marks, and tags is rudimentary, a recent study indicates:

Researchers know a gene will remain stable, but the chemical tags that turn the genes on and off are not so reliable. Their presence can be affected by the environment or medications or even the activity of other, distant genes. They can be a consequence of a disease or set off a disease.

“That’s the problem,” Harvard’s Bradley Bernstein said, “the arrow of time problem.” What is cause and what is effect?

We really need to figure that out, for “lots of our habits might be be better served by a more resilient heart, lungs, and brain.” Of course.

But “imagine implanting telecommunications, data transfer, and enhanced entertainment directly into your brain.” I’m trying.

I’m trying not to fret too much about information-overload and nature-deficit disorder, when it becomes literally no longer possible to turn off the receiver. You can put on and take off your google glasses at will, Sergei, addiction issues aside; but how easy will it be to shut down the implants?

And yet, how alluring to imagine random internal access to an entire universe of information, culture, and personal memory!

We also have to catch up today on the cases our wonderful Peace Corps class bumped on Monday, and if there’s time I’d love a little coaching from my collaborators for the radio interview I’m supposed to record right after class.

Busy busy busy. My own personal clone assistant would sure make life easier.

Or would it? McGee notes what he calls the pediatric model of human reproduction according to which we bear the “responsibility to care for those created,” by whatever means. But he’s most enthusiastic for the adoption model, which he says

can move the debate about cloning and new reproductive technologies from its present, highly politicized rancor into a more constructive arena in which interdisciplinary and bipartisan consensus may be possible.

With the right model we’ll be less tempted in the future to try and secure “perfect” families, and will acknowledge that

children of new and unusual techniques merit special protection, but such protection ought not to be onerous for parents once the parental relationship is consecrated.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy: every kind of family is imperfect in its own way. Still, McGee suggests, a cloned family might be just too hard to consecrate.

But in the spirit of Darwin Day, and invoking an old Dominican hurler‘s “favorite English word”: youneverknow


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