Monday, April 25, 2011

Continuing Mission: Year Five


Today, as it happens, marks the fourth anniversary of Rocketpunk Manifesto. Unlike the Enterprise of Trek: TOS, this blog is not on a specified five year mission, so it will not end after another year. This mission will continue as long as I feel like posting here. (TOS itself, of course, was canceled after three years.)

The four years of blogging so far have not been all of a piece. I launched Rocketpunk Manifesto with the usual early burst of enthusiasm, which lasted about three months. After that my blogging started to lapse, until I was posting only an item or two per month - a total of 23 posts in 2008, only seven of them from June through year's end.

Around March of 2009 I decided to try bringing the place back to life. I started posting more, and traffic, which had been running about 250 'unique visitors' per month, began to rise - especially after Winch of Atomic Rockets linked some particularly topical posts. Monthly readership grew about tenfold by last spring, and the comment threads started to take on a life of their own - something that has continued rather bumptiously. They have become a very large part of the overall value of this blog, for which I thank the commenters, both regular and occasional.

My posting rate has settled down to about once per week, concentrating on long-form essay blogging. I've sort of drifted away from shorter posts in between, to comment on space news or showcase images from places like Astronomy Picture of the Day. (Would readers like to see more of those posts again? Speak up if you do!)

I have no 'long arc' intentions here, though I will probably (and shamelessly) keep posting additions to the Space Warfare series so long as pandering to the taste for senseless death and destruction IN SPAAACE !!! continues to goose my traffic stats, as it consistently has.

Apart from that, this blog will probably continue to waver, as it long has, between discussions of what might happen in space in the Plausible Midfuture, and what might happen in space in Romance, or at any rate the subgenre of Romance known as SF.

The two, I suspect, will not have all that much in common. Space is filled with wonders, which we will continue to explore. But there is probably no more reason for people to settle there in large numbers than to colonize the slopes of Everest or the depths of the Marianas Trench. Many of you will disagree, often in the comment threads, something that has tended to add spice and vigor to this blog.

But at least on the science fiction side of the balance my perspective leads to a curious paradox. What place do Realistic [TM] spaceships and other trappings have in settings that are fundamentally operatic, settings of Romance? The answer, as I see it, is essentially a matter of aesthetics. If a ship in a fantasy novel is magical anyway, it might as well be built out of bricks. But most of us would find that vaguely unsatisfying.

The Rule of Cool prevails, but one of its subtler tenets is that truly Cool ships, swords, spacecraft, whatever, while they may not be exactly realistic, should at least look like they might be real. At least they should not look embarrassingly fake. The willing suspension of disbelief is supposed to be helped, not gratuitously insulted. D'Artagnan may live in the France of Romance, but his sword is sharp.

So there remains a place for space warcraft (and peaceful trading craft, for that matter) that, however operatic in their implications, nevertheless look like products of a technology that once passed through the Plausible Midfuture, and learned there how to build and operate believable spacecraft.

And I will continue to discuss them here. Along with whatever else I'm interested in and think you my readers might also be interested in.


Yes, you've heard this before, but ... discuss.



The image comes from this website - I have no idea whether it accurately portrays the TOS version of the Enterprise. But I remember wondering about the diverging phaser beams.

198 comments:

Thucydides said...

The plausible midfuture(tm) and the Rocketverse have a chance of converging (assuming we don't run off the economic rails first) if these Space visionaries can pull off their plans. More than any previous attempts, they have the demonstrated capabilities to reach their goals, although in real terms it will be a very long "hail mary" to get there:

http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-04-spacex-aims-mars-years.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8PlzDgFQMM

The other "negative" driver will be the military, especially the United States seeking means to project power across the globe from safe havens that are not subject to foreign political or physical interference (the US, certain overseas dependencies and based on ships or subs at sea). Space based weapons systems or suborbital vehicles like the CAV fit the bill nicely, and the manpower requirements are much lower than Marine MEU's or battalions of light infantry.

Of course, these sorts of plans have been tried before; High Frontier building solar power satellites in space or the SDI program with its huge volumes of hardware boosted to orbit. We will see how this iteration works out.

Jean Remy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Remy said...

Hi Rick!

It has been a long time since my last post (almost a year I believe). Life has thrown a few curve balls my way and my link to the cybersphere is now infrequent. Too infrequent to really follow and get in those long conversations. I however continue to follow, as I can, and use the fruits of your and the commenters' labors in refining my writing. I hope to enjoy this blog for a long time yet to come. Keep up the fantastic work, and thank you for inviting us fans of the science in science fiction into a space where we can, let's be honest, freely geek out.

EDIT: oops, been too long. fixt

Brian said...

I think it is not only plausible, but highly probable, and nearly certain, that we will establish human colonies throughout the solar system and the galaxy. The longer the period of time you consider, the greater the probability that humanity will have settled other worlds.

You don't need a heavy lift rocket to do Mars Direct; you could do "Mars for Less" which is the same plan, except that it uses orbital assembly to accomplish the goal using existing commercial rockets such as EELVs and the Falcon 9.

Mars will eventually be terraformed, and that will make people go there in greater numbers, but even without that, people will go, either for pure adventure or start a new society using the rules they want.

Anyway that's my opinion. :)

--Brian

Tim said...

Rick:
This blog is an invaluable resource for science fiction writers (especially those of us who aren't so strong on the science part). Let's hope the next year will be as good as the last has been.

Like most of us here, I would like to believe there will be a significant human presence in space and other planets at some point in the future. But if this blog and Atomic Rockets have taught me anything, it won't be until a major revolution in physics comes first. As to what that would mean... well, it's anyone's guess at this point.

KraKon said...

I have only been following for the last two years...but what I can say is that recently, this blog has become a nightmare to try an follow. Really...80 blog posts in one night? Nearing 900 total posts for that infamous ground warfare thread (WHICH I HAVEN't GOTTEN AROUND TO REVIVING!)? It takes me more time to just read through all that has been posted that I usually have on a computer, let alone reply and comment.

But..that's a good thing. Nowhere else ont he net is there a website dedicated to hard science fiction as lively as this one. Sfconsim-l has the advantage of you being able to drop any subject you want...but is dead now. Really, compare the mean of 300posts a month to the 1200+ back in 2007!
SDnet has too many trolls, flamers and people who don't know nothing about physics for you to have a reasonable hard sf discussion (its also rather dead). Space Battles is even worse....

*sigh*

Thanks so much Rick!

KraKon said...

And we need cover art!!

Cambias said...

For Romance -- especially Romance -- the reader's suspension of disbelief needs all the help it can get.

Anita said...

For the explorers of space and time, real and imaged -- Live long and prosper.

Congrats Rick on this fifth anniversary.

Bruce Lewis said...

Everest, Antarctica, and the seafloor will be colonized, just as soon as a technology which permits it becomes 1) available, 2) widespread, and 3) cheap enough for groups of middle-class people to afford.

For example: if there existed some kind of affordable, widely-available force field generator that could create an impermeable, transparent bubble around itself, you'd see underwater colonies (and Antarctic/mountaintop habitats) appear immediately.

Another example: If cheap, available antigravity technology existed, the moon would become Nebraska c. 1876, with settlers heading up for the free real estate by the Conestoga-load.

Mankind will move into the universe as soon as he can afford it. The will is there. Only money and means are lacking.

Tony said...

Re: Bruce Lewis

Even if you could manageably live in Antarctica in a technical sense, no one would live there, because there's nothing there worth living for. That's why Tierra del Fuego and the North Slope of Alaska only have resource extraction communities -- nobody wants to live there, even though they could (and do, for the purpose of exploiting mineral wealth).

WRT Everest, it would be a nature and/or cultural preserve, as would most of the Himalayas, even if people could affordably live there.

WRT the ocean bottom, why live there at all? There's just no real purpose or attraction. Even if you just want to colonize the continental shelfs, again, why? Only marginalized communities live in the world's extremes, and you're talking about ordinary middle class people doing it? I don't think so...

WRT the Moon? Why live there, especially with cheap antirgrav technology? Mars is more attractive, maybe even a terraformed Venus. And with cheap, energetic spaceflight, going to other solar systems becomes a possibility. If we're going to go homestead, let's go to the Earth-like worlds around other stars. It's more expensive to get there, but once you're there, all you have to do is be a hardy pioneer, not a combination life support technician and hydroponics genius.

Scott said...

Time to remind people that ocean pressure is 44psi/100 feet.

The continental shelves average 600 feet deep. 300psi, well over any kind of down, work, and up safely depths and pressures. That's saturation diving depths.

People do work down there right now, but nobody wants to live there!

Anonymous said...

Rick, I was just going to congratulate you on hitting the five-year mark...but I gotta say, reading this blog is like when I was a kid; I'd go down into the woods behind my house with an idea of where I was headed, but I almost never wound up there. So much the better! Again, thanks!

Ferrell

Milo said...

Bruce Lewis:

"Everest, Antarctica, and the seafloor will be colonized, just as soon as a technology which permits it becomes 1) available, 2) widespread, and 3) cheap enough for groups of middle-class people to afford."

Personally I would rather not colonize the sea floor (other than with research stations). There's an entire foreign ecosystem down there, and our meddling on a large scale is going to cause a lot of damage to ocean life. Mars doesn't have a preexisting biosphere for us to worry about stepping on.


"For example: if there existed some kind of affordable, widely-available force field generator that could create an impermeable, transparent bubble around itself, you'd see underwater colonies (and Antarctic/mountaintop habitats) appear immediately."

Force fields of a given size and strength (in resisting water pressure) would have to be cheaper than sealed walls made of normal matter, in order for there to be any point to using them.

And they'd have to be really reliable, because you don't want a simple power outage to flood your colony.



Tony:

"If we're going to go homestead, let's go to the Earth-like worlds around other stars."

Not going to exist. I predict that we will never find any world with human-compatible biochemistry that we didn't make ourselves. At best, we might find a world which already has an oxygen atmosphere but where we need to bring in our own flora and fauna - but since oxygen is made by living things (Earth didn't have any until photosynthetic microbes made it), that would mean there's a native ecosystem we're most likely rendering extinct. We could also try to find a world with an atmosphere resembling prebiotic Earth, meaning that we'd need to wait longer for our transplanted pioneer organisms to make oxygen, but at least we'd have nitrogen (which is really hard to come by, in the amounts we need, on most worlds).



Scott:

"300psi, well over any kind of down, work, and up safely depths and pressures."

If anyone is living down there, it'll be in pressurized domes. Duh.

David said...

Rick;

First…Thank you for making this site possible. The fact is that I am a rather frustrated writer, and looking through these posts have inspired me to no end. Each day, I check to see what new information that you and the other posters have presented. Keep on with the good work.
Second…As to the inevitable escape from the cradle, it must happen; if only for the preservation of the species, but also because we desperately need a new frontier. We have lost the desire to look up and wonder any more. Mankind is so bogged down in our own hates and prejudices; we have forgotten the wonder of the stars. I am constantly amazed by how many adults don’t believe in a better future, and to be honest, I too have been indulging in the prevailing cynicism. In the past, when times were tough, we moved with the frontier and found new lands, greener pastures. However, there is nowhere to go today where the corrupt and stupid have not fouled the air with their idiocy. We need new skies, new lands…not to conquer, but to settle. We need a place where a man can raise a family in peace, make a living with honor, and dream big dreams.
Until then, let us at least imagine those places, and the amazing ships that will take us there.

Bruce Lewis said...

@Tony: Thank you for your response. I'll try to address your questions individually.

Even if you could manageably live in Antarctica in a technical sense, no one would live there, because there's nothing there worth living for.

Surely that's a matter of opinion. Many people would say the same thing about North Dakota (population 672,591), Kamchatka (population 456,500) or Baffin Island (population 11,000).

That's why... nobody wants to live [in Tierra del Fuego, the North Slope of Alaska, and the ocean bottom]

I disagree. Given the ability to live in suburban comfort anywhere thanks to magical force field technology (or whatever), I suspect practically any place will become attractive to some group of people. If it were possible to install (at an affordable price) a force-field-protected three-story Queen Anne with hot and cold running water on the North Slope, I have little doubt such homes would exist.

Besides, given a population of seven or eight billion people, chances are good there are several hundred thousand people around who would be eager to live in the Stygian depths of the Marianas Trench or on the seething surface of Mercury. People are weird, and there's just no telling what they will do.

WRT the Moon? Why live there, especially with cheap antirgrav technology?

1. Familiarity.
2. Short commute to friends and family on Earth.
3. Luna's traditionally business-friendly tax laws and its open-minded attitude towards teenage-model sexaroids.

Mars is more attractive, maybe even a terraformed Venus. And with cheap, energetic spaceflight, going to other solar systems becomes a possibility. If we're going to go homestead, let's go to the Earth-like worlds around other stars.

No doubt many people would, especially if All Space Travel Is Interplanetary thanks to wormholes. Otherwise, the travel times (see "short commutes to Earth" above) will keep all but single, two-fisted Heinleinian trailblazers here in the Home System.

It's more expensive to get there, but once you're there, all you have to do is be a hardy pioneer...

Is that all? (-__^)

... not a combination life support technician and hydroponics genius.

Point taken, but since we're assuming antigravity and magical force fields, there won't be any life supporting or hydroponics work involved. You just crank up the spindizzy (à la James Blish) or fire up the planoformer (à la Cordwanier Smith) and take Scranton, Penn. or Mount Vernon, Va. along with you.

Still, good points all. Again, thanks for your thoughtful response.

Rick said...

Thanks (as always) to all the commenters, and a welcome back to Jean Remy. I hope life starts serving you a few slow fat ones over the plate.

I notice a latent consensus sprouting in this thread, namely that most of the Really Cool Stuff awaits magitech - that is to say, another tech revolution of the same general scope as the Industrial Revolution to date. The space tech we have works, which is amazing in its own right, but it works right at the edge of the possible.

The problem with magitech, from purely aesthetic perspective, is that we don't know what its aesthetic will be. As a rough example of what I mean, the earliest rail passenger cars had statecoach bodies, but the whole aesthetic that goes with stagecoaches - the coaches themselves, along with coach-houses and coach-roads, would hardly provide you the means to imagine streamliners.

Thucydides said...

People who live on the margins tend to be the dispossessed as the more attractive properties are taken by the warlords and their bands. Tony is quite right on this point, and I doubt the dispossessed would be able to get their hands on force fields. After all, if they had that sort of technology or resources, they wouldn't be the dispossessed.

I could imagine ramshackle "sea cities" floating around off shore, or road warrior cultures in failed states that no one else wants to colonize if another wave of colonization and displacement were to occur.

I do still believe that one possible motivation to colonize will be people seeking freedom to practice their own religious, social or economic beliefs without interference. This will be led by large, well organized and wealthy groups (just like the Huguenots in the 16th century or the Puritans in the 17th). The moon will probably be settled because it is close and easy to get to, but from a practical point of view NEOs have the resources you really need; perhaps two branches will be present at the beginning of any colonization drive; the "homesteaders" who go to the most easily accessible bodies and the "free rangers" who go out on a long limb looking for resources and (perhaps McGuffinite).

Milo said...

Rick:

"I notice a latent consensus sprouting in this thread, namely that most of the Really Cool Stuff awaits magitech - that is to say, another tech revolution of the same general scope as the Industrial Revolution to date."

I think we can colonize Luna in the near future without magitech, merely an unlikely amount of funding (given the rather flimsy motives for doing so). But the gas giants? No way.


"The problem with magitech, from purely aesthetic perspective, is that we don't know what its aesthetic will be."

Unless the aesthetics are directed by the technology (ships needing to be streamlined, etc.), they will be completely arbitrary. The interiors of starships will look like whatever people feel like making them - the only technological questions are whether you have artificial gravity and how tightly crunched you are masswise.

The problem with magitech is knowing what your characters can and can't do, and how it interacts with other phenomena.

Citizen Joe said...

Re: Diverging phaser beams.

1. That could simply be an optical illusion much like standing on rail road tracks. The actual beams might be parallel but the viewpoint makes them seem to diverge.

2. That may actually be a single 'beam' but what you're seeing is photonic dispersion at the perimeter. Phasers aren't lasers. The simple fact that you can see them travel implies that they are slower than light. I would posit that they are some sort of particle weapon, likely guided by a force field. The optically thin force field appears transparent when seen radially, but tangentially, the particle interaction is sufficient to produce a visual effect. By controlling the force field, the particle beam can be focused into lethal concentrations or expanded into a stun effect that covers a city block.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Not going to exist. I predict that we will never find any world with human-compatible biochemistry that we didn't make ourselves."

I predict that every assertion in violation of the Copernican Principle will be proven invalid in the fullness of time. If our solar system can generate a rocky planet with an oxygen atmosphere and a carbon-based biosphere, so can many others. The only question is their frequency and distribution.

"At best, we might find a world which already has an oxygen atmosphere but where we need to bring in our own flora and fauna - but since oxygen is made by living things (Earth didn't have any until photosynthetic microbes made it), that would mean there's a native ecosystem we're most likely rendering extinct."

I think any extinction will be much more talked about by useless busybodies with too much time on their hands than will actually occur. Alien ecologies might be marginalized, just like Old World wheat marginalized native grasses in many parts of North America after the Columbian exchange.

Milo said...

Tony:

"If our solar system can generate a rocky planet with an oxygen atmosphere and a carbon-based biosphere, so can many others."

"Carbon-based biosphere" is not "human-compatible biochemistry", any more than a Linux machine can run Windows software because they're both running on ones and zeroes. Ask an alien programmer to write an operating system, without consulting Earth standards, and you have a basically 0% chance of getting something compatible with our programs. Let another ecosphere evolve its own form of life, without transplanting from Earth, and you have a basically 0% chance of getting something that humans can eat.

Scott said...

If you don't have 100% reliable force fields, living on the continental shelves requires cruiser armor, and continuous maintenance to prevent fatal mishaps.

If you have 99.9996% reliable force fields, either you have multiples, or you still have cruiser armor over the entire inhabited area.

Also, you will either use saturation diving techniques with a pressurized city and a month decompression time to go anywhere else, or you will still have saturation divers doing your external maintenance, because a human can only survive about 30 seconds at that pressure if they're going back to surface pressure.

The advantage of saturation techniques is that they don't require a cruiser's armor belt. because the inside is at very nearly the same pressure as the outside, you can get away with lighter construction (pressurize the structure on the way down, or build it, seal it, and pump air in on the bottom).

Now, I'd love to see more work done in the oceans, but the only way you could get people to live there is in the super-shallows, 100 feet or less. Any deeper and you might as well be living in a mineshaft.

jollyreaper said...

I appreciate the forum for geeking out with fellow geeks. There's just no way to have these conversations with normal people. :)

jollyreaper said...

I think the North Slope example is worth a more serious examination.

Something I'd wondered about in answer to the Palestinian question is they've been pushed off into the most useless, marginal lands and are living in craptastic shanty cities. Given that the Arab world has ridiculous amounts of money floating around, why if some Saudi prince saw political advantage into one-upping the Jews? What if he decided he was going to help make the Palestinian territory into the envy of the world?

It's pretty much the same requirements of the Apollo Program -- unlimited funds with the express goal of scoring political points.

The only things that territory has in abundance are air, sunlight, and dirt. Agriculture is tough. There's no extractive wealth to be had, drilling or mining. Back to econ 101, it's perfectly possible for New York to grow its oranges in greenhouses on the outskirts of town but they don't because it's ridiculously cheaper to ship 'em in by rail from Florida.

Well, the project leader says screw all that for now -- he's simply wanting to create a self-sufficient community that doesn't have to rely on the outside world for anything. It's going to be a model Arab community, al-Epcot, and phase 1 is just making it work. Phase 2 has the idea of turning it into a university town for a major religious school that will promote a more marketable form of evangelical Islam seeing as the whole sword and fire thing doesn't go over so well.

You're pretty much dealing with all of the classic economic difficulties of space colonies here -- economic, social, political rationales. Will it ever become self-sustaining or will it remain a giant money pit?

Now if the idea is successful, that means there will be all sorts of new ideas and technology for providing a first world standard of living with a minimal ecological footprint. And by first world I mean sized to a reasonable expectation -- plenty of food, excellent health care, social safety net, but not 12 giant cars over the course of one lifetime, ridiculous squandering of oil for senseless commuting, using tons of oil to import products from other continents because government subsidies make such market distortions possible, etc.

Grandiose, glorious, and impossible? Yup. But less impossible than space colonies for now.

Raymond said...

Rick:

I'll join in the chorus of thanks for your efforts here. (With one request: somehow, please, find a less kludgy comment mechanism. Blogger's a nightmare. Even the bare-bones stock version of Wordpress is more forgiving.)

Raymond said...

(Speaking of which, once again I forget to follow by email, since Blogger doesn't bloody well default to it.)

Rick said...

Ask an alien programmer to write an operating system, without consulting Earth standards, and you have a basically 0% chance of getting something compatible with our programs.

You mean we can't use Windoze 3.1 to upload a virus and wipe out the alien invaders' computer systems? Bummer.


Raymond -

I hate commenting on Wordpress blogs because of the lack of a preview!

Thucydides said...

The only things that territory has in abundance are air, sunlight, and dirt. Agriculture is tough. There's no extractive wealth to be had, drilling or mining.

But just on the other side of that wall is another nation with a thriving agricultural sector (I bought oranges from there the other day in my supermarket), high tech manufacturing and IT sectors, even a small space program. No, the problem isn't natural resources or money, but culture.

By culture I mean the way people see themselves, their relationship with others, their institutions and the State. Many nations have been blessed with abundant natural resources and failed, while others with far fewer resources have succeeded. Athens lost her army and fleet in the disastrous attack on Sicily, had no allied and was attacked by the full might of Sparta and her allies backed with Persian money yet was able to continue fighting for almost a decade. Elizabethan England could stand off the far mightier Spanish Empire, Venice held her own against the Ottoman Empire and the "Tiger" economies of today are the equals of far vaster China.

The future of space will depend to a large part on the culture of the people who settle there. People with a can-do and entrepreneurial culture, willing to take risks and put it all on the line will probably be far more successful than anyone else.

Raymond said...

Rick:

Better an edit function than a preview...

jollyreaper said...


But just on the other side of that wall is another nation with a thriving agricultural sector (I bought oranges from there the other day in my supermarket), high tech manufacturing and IT sectors, even a small space program. No, the problem isn't natural resources or money, but culture.


Honestly, I'm not fully conversant with the lay of the land. I know with American history, the natives were pushed off onto land we didn't think was any good. If it later turned out to be worth something, they were pushed off. Where the reservations were finally situated have proved to be the most useless, godforsaken, worthless crap land we could find, otherwise we would have taken it from them and sent them somewhere worse. So my assumption is that the same holds true for the Palestinian land. When a nation's been beaten into submission and has had every hope stripped away, how do you undo the damage? Reservation life sounds like the Indian ghetto, nearly impossible to escape from. How do you fix that?

Now I'll grant you that much of Islamic-influenced culture can be pretty damn backwards with the fatwas and beheadings but it's still possible for nations like Iraq to put together a decent enough society. Saddam kept a lid on the religious craziness but had some of his own crazy to add to it.

Given that the Palestinians are being used as political footballs by the Israelis on one side and fellow Arabs on the other, I don't think we can really lay any blame directly on them. You'd think the sensible solution would be for the Arab League to agree to absorb the entire population amongst their member states.

The island of Hispaniola is another good question mark -- we've got Haiti on one side, the Dominican Republic on the other. You can see from the the air that the DR has it together and Haiti is a deforested hellscape. How much of that can be blamed on the locals not getting their act together and how much can be blamed on foreign meddling? How different were the cultural experiences of the two populations? A lot of the screwed up stuff in Central and South America has been due to foreign meddling. Could things have been worked out if people were left to their own devices?

With the Koreas you pretty much have the same cultural stock split between the north and south, right? So is it a pretty good test case of communism vs. capitalism or are there other factors that make the comparison less apt? Dunno.

The culture question certainly is a good one. But the case generally seems that everything is more complicated than it appears at first glance.

Thucydides said...

Everything is more complicated in a universe with virtually unlimited degrees of freedom.

This blog is a perfect example. I say "x". You say "what about "y". Tony says "but you don't take z into account". Meanwhile Rick is wondering why no one is discussing his front page post about "a".

Looking at North American history, we see the natives were highly skilled at using certain resources but were unaware of others literally at their feet. Cortez was driven from Tenochtitlan, but moved to a nearby volcano, mined sulpher and used other local materials to build up a stock of gunpowder. He also created a fleet of heavy warships from local materials and proceeded to lay siege to Tenochtitlan (another aspect of warfare which the locals were unfamiliar with, seeing war as more of a limited, ceremonial endeavor). All these materials had been around for thousands of years, but the Aztecs were either unaware of them or unable to "see" beyond the bounds of their culture to investigate other uses.

We also have cultural blinders, but will need outside perspective to find out what they are.

Rick said...

Meanwhile Rick is wondering why no one is discussing his front page post about "a".


Indeed! Of course, thread drift is a pretty universal phenomenon, but these threads sometimes 'drift' at impressive velocities.

Anonymous said...

Ok, let's try this again (Blogger freaked out during me trying to post)

Sometimes a thread will attach an outboard motor and take off...

Front page post question about phasers: I believe that they recon'd phasers to be particle beam weapons, but that they use Bose-Einstein Condensations to produce phase-locked streams of atoms (AKA Atom Lasers)[a dumb name, but hey I didn't come up with it]

Ferrell

Citizen Joe said...

Re: Phasers

Indeed, there is an episode in Star Trek (TNG ?) where they are attacked by someone with lasers. And they are all like "Lasers? Really? It doesn't even get through our deflector shielding... Well, technically we should raise the alert..."

So, ya, phasers are not lasers. And since they have plasma conduits all over the place, it is safe to say that Star Trek has a good grasp on implementing plasma and particle science.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: sea colonies
Why is the talk on this thread about bottom of the sea colonies? The floating colonies proposed by Marshall Savage strike me as a lot closer to being plausible. Any activities done on the sea bottom would be by people commuting a few km from the surface.

Re: colonizing already living worlds.
The point about the biochemistries being incompatible is a serious objection. However, if a world is like earth in the late PreCambrian or early Paleozoic with lots of sea life, an oxygenated atmosphere, but no land life, introducing terran land life should work.

Anonymous said...

Jim Baerg said:"Re: colonizing already living worlds.
The point about the biochemistries being incompatible is a serious objection. However, if a world is like earth in the late PreCambrian or early Paleozoic with lots of sea life, an oxygenated atmosphere, but no land life, introducing terran land life should work."

On Earth, life didn't colonize the land until enough oxygen built up in our atmosphere that a layer of ozone could be formed to protect life from UVE. Some thing to think about.

Ferrell

Rick said...

I deleted a comment that looked like spam. (If 'Attorney' was a real person, repost when some hint that you're real!)

I pretty much threw up my hands about the details of Trek tech long ago!

Any planet that already has extensive life, even if not on land, could pose some interesting complications, though my biology pay grade is far too low for profound discussion.

David said...

**Please note that my biology pay grade is two steps below Rick’s. ;-)
Is it possible that given identical (or close enough to identical to be within reasonable statistical variation) conditions, that life on another planet parallels Earth just enough that it might be inhabitable from the “get go” so to speak? It seems that if it happened here, and conditions are similar enough on another planet, could it not happen again. Or with little enough difference that we could still live there without radical terraforming or genetic manipulation?
What if we find planets where there is life there already? Do we move on, do we land and terraform anyway, or do we build domes and treat the outside as a nature preserve?
It might be better to find planets that are habitable, (i.e. rocky surface, water, right gravity, day-night cycle, etc.) but may require enclosed environments, due to non-human rated atmospheres (i.e. too thin, not enough O2, not enough N, etc.) So we have domes, but not huge terraforming projects, because we don’t have a century or more to wait for terraforming to take hold.

What do y'all think?

Anonymous said...

David: I'm pretty sure that some planets will be 'dome-only' habitable, some 'need-to-plant-a-forest' habitable, and 'shirt-sleeve' habital...each will have its own paticulars.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...


David: I'm pretty sure that some planets will be 'dome-only' habitable, some 'need-to-plant-a-forest' habitable, and 'shirt-sleeve' habital...each will have its own paticulars.


I'm no Imperial Planetologist but if my humble opinion were solicited, I'd rank "Earth-like planets are leftovers of alien terraforming, how nice of them to have gone away and left these worlds behind" as more plausible than "What luck! It appears that human-habitable worlds occur quite naturally! We just need to throw down a few seeds and we'll be homesteading in a few years!"

Earth and Venus both occurring in the same system does pose some interesting questions, though. Are rocky planets with roughly 1G gravities common? If so, then the only question is how often amenable oxy-nitro atmospheres come about. Do they occur geologically or only as the result of life? How frequently will life arise given the right conditions? Etc etc.

Milo said...

David:

"What if we find planets where there is life there already? Do we move on, do we land and terraform anyway, or do we build domes and treat the outside as a nature preserve?"

I would build some domes for scientific research outposts but not conduct any large-scale colonization.

The more advanced the native life, the stronger I'd feel about it. It might be chauvinistic, but as a multicellular organism, I find a microbial biosphere less interesting than an alien planet that has passed its equivalent of the Cambrian explosion.

In practice, it's likely to depend on how hard it is to terraform an atmosphere, and how hard it is to find planets amenable to such. If the only planets with a remotely feasible starting point for a human-breathable atmosphere are the ones which already have life, then realistically people are going to end up colonizing those, no matter how much the environmentalists scream and flail. If dead rocks can be economically terraformed, then it'll probably be possible to get a xenoenvironmental protection bill passed.


"(i.e. rocky surface, water, right gravity, day-night cycle, etc.)"

All of those qualities except for the "right gravity" (for sufficiently stringent values of "right" - we currently don't know what human tolerances are) can be found on multiple places in our own solar system (provided you accept the stipulation that the water is frozen and needs to be artificially molten, but that's trivial if you're already talking about dome cities). Therefore it can be reasonably assumed that they will be ubiquitous elsewhere in the galaxy as well. If people are comfortable settling based on only the above criteria, then that means we can plop down pretty much anywhere we want to... which means that where people go will likely depend on which places have economic or scientific value, rather than simply settling whatever planet we can get.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"I'm no Imperial Planetologist but if my humble opinion were solicited, I'd rank "Earth-like planets are leftovers of alien terraforming, how nice of them to have gone away and left these worlds behind" as more plausible than "What luck! It appears that human-habitable worlds occur quite naturally! We just need to throw down a few seeds and we'll be homesteading in a few years!""

We seem to be in agreement on this.


"Are rocky planets with roughly 1G gravities common?"

Probably. Maybe not common in the sense of "every solar system has one", but at least common in the sense that you can find them if you can be bothered to look (and have an interstellar starship, of course).

Earth does seem to be towards the larger end of rocky planet sizes, but, as "super-Earths" show, not nearly at the extreme.


"If so, then the only question is how often amenable oxy-nitro atmospheres come about."

Nitrogen-dominated atmospheres occur in exactly two locations in our solar system (Earth and Titan). That provides a clue to how common we can expect it to be - that it happened twice in one solar system means it can't be too rare, but at the same time it still didn't happen on most worlds (including Venus and Mars). Also note that Titan is also the most Earthlike world in our solar system in other respects, suggesting that it may be "natural" for Earthlike worlds (whatever "Earthlike" may mean) to have nitrogen atmospheres.

Oxygen will presumably never occur naturally (in meaningful quantities for breathing) unless life has made some. After all, Earth didn't have oxygen in the beginning either.

While we're at it, oxygen is significantly more common than nitrogen in rocks, which could be chemically split using the abundant fusion energy that we'd need to be travelling in space to begin with. But creating an entire atmosphere's worth of air that way sounds like a daunting proposition.


"How frequently will life arise given the right conditions?"

Well, I'd say 100%. If life didn't arise, then they weren't the right conditions :)

Seriously, Earth's history appears to go like this:
- Single-celled life is believed to have appeared very shortly after the formation of the planet.
- This single-celled life then stuck around for some four billion years before managing to evolve advanced multicellular life.
- After multicellular life got started circa the Cambrian explosion, it only took about 540 million years before a sentient species showed up.
- Said species then almost instantaneously (in geological terms) built a civilization covering most of the planet, and planted a flag on the moon.

This suggests that the hardest step is going from single-celled life to multi-celled life. So there will probably be many worlds with only single-celled life. Given the huge number of stars in the galaxy, there's also bound to be a fair number with multi-celled life, but we might need several tries to find one.

However by the same token, it seems that once multi-celled life has gotten started, it's only a matter of time before you reach the point where that multi-celled life is sophisticated enough to start debating on message board forums about the probability of life arising on a planet.

Rick said...

Is it possible that given identical (or close enough to identical to be within reasonable statistical variation) conditions, that life on another planet parallels Earth just enough that it might be inhabitable from the “get go” so to speak?

Short answer: I haven't a clue.

Longer answer (but just as indeterminate): We don't know what rules govern the 'pre-evolution' of proto-life. There are zillions of possible large organic molecules that might work as well as terrestrial proteins and such. This would argue that all the life systems in the universe might be mutually incompatible.

OTOH ... there may be factors, not yet sussed out, that constrain the development of life, such that the molecular-level structures of terrestrial life are common or even standard.

BUT ... I think the current best bet would tip the other way, making planets that we can easily homestead seem like special pleading.

Are there readers lurking among the lurkers who have a biology background, and can provide more informed comment?


And speaking of homesteading, I wonder how credible that really is in a spacefaring future? At least on any large scale?

Yes, there are still groups that seek out rural compounds to live 'off the grid.' They tend to be either hippie dippies or creepy gun nuts, and the numbers of either kind are very small.

Even by the late 19th century, immigration to the US, and I'd guess other immigration magnets like Canada or Argentina, started to be driven more by urban job opportunities than cheap land, and that is overwhelmingly the case in modern times.

Assuming we had affordable starships and available shirtsleeves planets (two big ifs!) ... who would actually be colonizing, and why?

Milo said...

If colonization is cheap enough, then someone will do it. It's natural human behavior to expand into available space. The question is how cheap is "enough".

Anonymous said...

Rick said:"Assuming we had affordable starships and available shirtsleeves planets (two big ifs!) ... who would actually be colonizing, and why?"

Same reasons that have always been; getting away from religious or political repression, better economic opportunities, land, being able to put into practice your pet political/economical/social/religous ideology, or even something as simple as being able to speak your own language...

Ferrell

Teleros said...

Rick: "Assuming we had affordable starships and available shirtsleeves planets (two big ifs!) ... who would actually be colonizing, and why?"

Aside from the usual desires to escape in order to gain greater freedom...

1. How profitable would it be to discover & claim a planet (or even the entire star system), then sell / lease it off to others? Enforcement may be an issue, but assuming you can, you'd at the very least get interest from, say, miners, chemists and biologists.

2. Colonisation of distant worlds may be seen by established governments as a means of either securing out-home-system resources, although this depends a lot on the specifics of the setting (travel speed? resources wanted? cost?).

3. It may also be a way to preserve a culture or society in the face of threats at home. The homeland may fall (for now?), but its spirit will live on in orbit around Tau Ceti or wherever your colony is.

Jim Baerg said...

Ferrel said: "On Earth, life didn't colonize the land until enough oxygen built up in our atmosphere that a layer of ozone could be formed to protect life from UVE. Some thing to think about"

My understanding is that enough ozone to block UVB will develop with less O2 than is needed to support multicellular animals. (At least in the absence of ozone destroying chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons.) So that on earth there was an ozone layer well back in the pre-cambrian. Maybe one of us can find a reference with evidence one way or the other.

Milo said:"Nitrogen-dominated atmospheres occur in exactly two locations in our solar system (Earth and Titan). That provides a clue to how common we can expect it to be - that it happened twice in one solar system means it can't be too rare, but at the same time it still didn't happen on most worlds (including Venus and Mars)."

However, I also note that if the CO2 at Venus was removed what remains would be about 3 atmospheres of mostly nitrogen.

Luke said...

David:

There are fairly good arguments that a rocky planet large enough to host tectonic processes and with a solar insolation equivalent to somewhere between that of Earth and out beyond the orbit of Mars will have feedback mechanisms that keep the surface temperature in the range for liquid water, probably with a similar temperature range to Earth. If you go much below Earth-level insolation, however, the level of carbon dioxide in the air becomes toxic for humans (the level of carbon dioxide will be regulated by planetary feedback mechanisms to give enough of a greenhouse effect that liquid water can exist). If you get significantly more than Earth level insolation, water vapor goes high enough into the atmosphere that you can get photodissociation and loss of the hydrogen, starting a process that turns your planet into something like Venus. Without tectonics, you lose many of the feedback mechanisms that regulate the temperature and atmosphere and hydrosphere, and you end up with something like Mars.

That's the theory. As we have discovered, sometimes theories without much in the way of observational support (just three planets, in this case) can sometimes turn out to be wonderfully incomplete. Nevertheless, if these theories hold, we might expect a large number of large rocky planets in other solar systems that have extensive oceans, comfortable temperatures, and atmospheres consisting of nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

To get an atmosphere with enough oxygen to be breathable, you need life (probably - the escape of hydrogen from photodissociated water might give you lost of oxygen without photosynthesis, but the numbers I've seen generally give partial pressures of oxygen so high as to be rapidly lethal when the oxygen is not rapidly removed from the atmosphere by other processes). No one really knows how life got started, so it is difficult to say how common life will be. The emergence of life on Earth as soon as conditions allowed its survival hint that life might be commonplace - but this might also be a result of observational selection (if the emergence of complex life is contingent on a long period of microbial life beforehand, or is a result of a series of unlikely events starting with the development of life, then the fact that we see life on the early Earth may simply be a consequence of the fact that we are here to see it). Nevertheless, there are some tantalizing indications that life might be an inevitable consequence of water and tectonic processes - in particular, deep water "cold" hydrothermal vents where serpentization of olivine by water is occurring. If this is true, then life may be present on each and every one of those large rocky planets with oceans and comfortable temperatures. It will also be life somewhat similar to what we have on Earth - cells composed of an outer shell of a lipid bilayer membrane with a protein-based metabolism, phosphate-based energy storage and construction of metabolic molecules, and genetic information encoded on nucleotides strung together on a backbone of 5-carbon-ring sugars - proton gradient driven metabolisms might also be a natural consequence of life that emerges in cold hydrothermal vents. Many of the details might be different, however - the amino acids that make up the proteins, the sugars that form the backbone for encoding genetic information, the nucleotides used, the particular metabolic pathways, and so on.

continued

Luke said...

Now life does not imply photosynthesis, and photosynthesis does not imply an oxygen atmosphere. There are several photosynthetic pathways known on Earth, and I only know of one that involves the production of oxygen (modern plants and blue-green algae actually use two different photosystems - if I am remembering correctly they have one that cycles electrons around and does not produce oxygen, and one that can replace lost electrons and does produce oxygen). There is no guarantee than alien photosystems will produce oxygen. Even with oxygen producing photosyntheses, there are a number of oxygen sinks that can act to remove oxygen from the atmosphere for billions of years before they are exhausted (for example, the oxidation of soluble ferrous oxide into insoluble ferric oxide (rust)).

Once you get plenty of free oxygen around, complex multicellular life seems to rapidly follow.

So, there may be physical mechanisms that ensure that Earth-like planets with oxygen atmospheres and complex multicellular life are common in the universe. Some fraction of these might not be immediately toxic to humans, although it is likely that the life that is present would not be edible or at least not nutritionally complete (and might be quite poisonous, even if the air does not kill us).

Rick said...

If colonization is cheap enough, then someone will do it. It's natural human behavior to expand into available space. The question is how cheap is "enough".

I believe there has been 'reverse colonization' of the North American high plains - counties in regions of marginal farmland, settled in the 19th century, are losing population because the land is not worth farming and not appealing enough for exurbs.

See also this post from some time back.

Rick said...

On life and human habitability, my impression is that the feedback mechanisms Luke mentions are such that only near the inner edge of a star's habitable zone is the partial pressure of CO2 low enough to be safe for humans.

If so, there may be many planets out there that look wonderfully like Earth, with oxygen rich atmospheres and rich ecosystems of complex life ... but atmospheres we cannot breathe due to too-abundant CO2.

Another rather gloomy implication of this argument is that Earth is, in cosmic terms, near the end of its habitability. As the Sun continues to gradually brighten, the oceans will be lost and then it is all over. I believe I once read that this would happen in a 'mere' 100 million years or thereabouts.

David said...

Luke:
SO what you are saying is that given certain conditions, it might be within a reasonable expectation to have a few Earthlike worlds out there. We may also have the expectation of finding near earth like worlds, where the conditions are close enough that we can set up domed cities, but otherwise expect gravity to be Earth normal. I guess my hypothesis is that if it happened here, and we are not a unique condition, then we might encounter a Earth twin in a similar system around a Sol-typical star, maybe not with the frequency of TOS’s and TNG’s planet of the week, but often enough that we can have worlds to settle.

Anonymous said...

Jim Baerg: as far as I can tell from various sources, online and off, ozone first appeared in Earth's atmosphere about 600 million years ago. I think that that's about 4 billion years after life arose on Earth; that would seem to mean that ozone formed after photosynthisis...

Ferrell

Milo said...

Luke:

"partial pressures of oxygen so high as to be rapidly lethal"

Wait, how does that work? I thought they once tried using 100% oxygen environments for life support, and the reason they stopped is because of the fire hazard, not because people couldn't breathe it.

Granted, as the Apollo 1 crew found out, the fire hazard is rapidly lethal.


"The emergence of life on Earth as soon as conditions allowed its survival hint that life might be commonplace - but this might also be a result of observational selection (if the emergence of complex life is contingent on a long period of microbial life beforehand, or is a result of a series of unlikely events starting with the development of life, then the fact that we see life on the early Earth may simply be a consequence of the fact that we are here to see it)."

If the emergence of life is difficult, then I would expect it to have occured (on average) about halfway through the eligible timespan that would still give it enough time to produce sentient life afterwards - which should be a fair leeway, as we appear to have billions of years to spare. Not nearly immediately after the planet formed.

Now, if we're wrong about life appearing shortly after formation, and in fact it only started shortly before the oxygen catastrophe, which in fact was several billion years after the planet formed...


"Now life does not imply photosynthesis,"

No, but the energy for life has to come from somewhere. While there are other hypothetical energy sources (like chemical energy, as used in hydrothermal vents on Earth), I expect that the most widely successful biospheres will all be based on photosynthesis. Non-photosynthesizing ecosystems will be marginal curiosities.


"and photosynthesis does not imply an oxygen atmosphere."

Right. Although if you know what other chemical reactions could take the role, I'm interested.


"Once you get plenty of free oxygen around, complex multicellular life seems to rapidly follow."

Rapidly?

The oxygen catastrophe happened some 2.4 billion years ago, which is still 1860 million years before the Cambrian explosion. A little lower than my previous 4000 million years number on how long complex life took to evolve, but still several times the 540 million years that it took to go from Cambrian animals to Homo sapiens.

Milo said...

Rick:

"If so, there may be many planets out there that look wonderfully like Earth, with oxygen rich atmospheres and rich ecosystems of complex life ... but atmospheres we cannot breathe due to too-abundant CO2."

Which I see as a feature, not a bug!

Exotic ecosystem equals exciting!


"As the Sun continues to gradually brighten, the oceans will be lost and then it is all over. I believe I once read that this would happen in a 'mere' 100 million years or thereabouts."

I seriously doubt that. 100 million years is very little time in geologic/evolutionary terms. The dinosaurs alone existed longer than that. And on the granularity scale we're talking about here (thriving ecosphere -> oceans evaporate, extinction of all life), our planet's climate has been essentially unchanged since, oh, the end of Snowball Earth 635 million years ago.



David:

"I guess my hypothesis is that if it happened here, and we are not a unique condition, then we might encounter a Earth twin in a similar system around a Sol-typical star,"

That depends on what you consider a twin. What are the chances that, when touring [insert country that you think is remote and backwards here], you will encounter another person that has the same name, age, personality, and education as you, and remembers multiple life-changing events that are very similar to yours and all happened on the same day?


"maybe not with the frequency of TOS’s and TNG’s planet of the week,"

Star Trek's frequency of finding habitable planets is completely believable. Why? Because they're a survey ship! They're actively out looking for habitable planets! If they ever do visit star systems populated only by dead balls of rock, if only to confirm that they really are dead balls of rock, then this isn't worth showing onscreen. They'll just take a quick scan and then move on.

What isn't believable is the proportion of those planets that is inhabited by aliens similar enough to humans to be able to interbreed with us. Or even the proportion of planets inhabited by native life forms that the humans can eat after they inevitably make an emergency landing there. (Okay, I don't know how often that happens in Star Trek. I was thinking of space opera in general. For that matter, the frequency with which Star Trek characters need to make emergency landings is also somewhat suspect.)



Ferrell:

"as far as I can tell from various sources, online and off, ozone first appeared in Earth's atmosphere about 600 million years ago."

I doubt that number. 600 million years would be only shortly before the Cambrian explosion - and well after the first multicellular animals appeared in the Ediacaran. It would also be significantly later than the formation of the oxygen atmosphere, 2400 million years ago.

Thucydides said...

Terraforming is most likely to be a process that will take thousands of years. Humans have been at it for 5000 years, and we are still tweaking this planet.

In the third millennium, addition or subtraction of volatile elements, adjusting platoons of solettas to manage the energy budget, coordinating staged evolution of organisms to develop the biome(s) will be a full time job, and with so many degrees of freedom that AI expert systems capable of managing these systems will be, in fact, gods. (notice the small "g").
payment might take the form of travelogues and raw information; transporting bulk physical objects is in the realm magitech.


Homesteading might be a two way process; people who choose to go and people who are being sent. The ones who choose to go will be very small in numbers bu have the motivation and technology to establish beachheads on suitable bodies, malcontents, political exiles or people being ethnically cleansed will have numbers but not much more.

As a BTW, Canada's government specifically sought out farmers and provided land grants in the 1800's to early 1900's as part of the settlement program, to block American expansion into the Prairies, feed the urban masses and provide a captive market for Canadian firms located in Ontario and Quebec.

Luke said...

David:

SO what you are saying is that given certain conditions, it might be within a reasonable expectation to have a few Earthlike worlds out there.

Pretty much. In fact, you might find a lot of Earth-like worlds out there. Given the numbers of stars we are finding that have planets, and the numbers of stars in our galaxy, even if only 1 in 1000 stars has a tectonically active world in the range of insolation that gives a water world without too much carbon dioxide in the air, and if only 1 in 100 of those has developed an oxygen atmosphere, you would then have on the order of a million shirt-sleeve habitable worlds in our galaxy.

I'll also add a note about terraforming. Tectonically active worlds with oceans but no oxygen yet in the atmosphere are likely to take a long time to get oxygen in the atmosphere. With the full power of oxygen-producing blue-green algae spread across the globe, it took more than a billion years for Earth to get significant quantities of oxygen in the air. During this transitional period, the oxygen was being gobbled up by the ferrous oxide dissolved in the oceans, turning it into ferric oxide and creating the banded iron formations that are the source of today's richest iron ores. Just adding plants and waiting a few tens of thousands of years will not be enough.

Milo said...

Thucydides:

"coordinating staged evolution of organisms to develop the biome(s)"

You mean "domesticating organisms through selective breeding", right?

Because that's a rather longwinded way of saying something that humans have already been doing for thousands of years.



Luke:

"Just adding plants and waiting a few tens of thousands of years will not be enough."

Normal plants won't cut it? Maybe we should get started on those fusion-powered trees...

Tim said...

I'm going to wager that it will be a VERY long time before a human sets foot on another world with breathable air. It's much more likely that we will alter ourselves into a much different form (or forms) long before we travel to another star system. By the time we get there, our definition of "habitable" may have broadened substantially.

Thucydides said...

Milo

I am thinking of a concept I call "staged evolution". Essentially the terraformers will force the next stage of evolution by introducing organisms as soon as the conditions become ripe.

Lets say you or your AI godlings introduce blue-green algae into the new planet. IF you are willing to wait, they will oxygenate the atmosphere and then stay fat and happy for the next four billion years. Your job would be to introduce enough blue green algae to fill the world, and adjust the energy budget so they can thrive. Once an ozone layer is present, start filling the ecological niches with more advanced plants and animals (worms, bacteria, lichen etc.) right away. Once they start to create conditions for more advanced organisms to thrive and laid down enough biomass to support more advance ecologies, send in the next wave (ferns, insects, etc.). Rinse and repeat for the next thousand years or so.

Tony said...

Tim:

"I'm going to wager that it will be a VERY long time before a human sets foot on another world with breathable air. It's much more likely that we will alter ourselves into a much different form (or forms) long before we travel to another star system. By the time we get there, our definition of 'habitable' may have broadened substantially."

I've commented on this before, but I guess it's time to bring it back up. Humans, above a certain level of technological sophistication, don't adapt to their environments, they adapt the environment to themselves. We make clothes that aid our metabolic functions, terrace, irrigate, dyke, dam, aqueduct, canal -- funny how much environmental adaptation relies on hydraulic engineering -- build roads, tunnels, and bridges, and do a host of other things to make places more livable, according to our own comfort levels. There's no reason to think this will be any different in the future. Terraforming would be much more consistent with human practice and ideals than adapting humans to the environment.

Also, if it's possible at all, I think humans will figure it out sooner rather than later. If we can travel between the stars, it will be done in the next several hundred to several thousand years. That may be a "VERY" long time in relation to a single human life, or even the life of a distinct human civilization. But it's probably not so long in relation to the history of the whole human race, if we have an interstellar future.

Tim said...

Tony: "There's no reason to think this will be any different in the future."

Really? I thought the whole point of SF was to imagine how things (and people) could be different. And I'm not talking about Darwinian evolution, I'm suggesting purposeful genetic engineering and/or cybernetic enhancement, two advances we're likely to see become commonplace in our lifetimes. A permanent colony on the moon or Mars? Maybe, maybe not.

Tony said...

Tim:

"Really? I thought the whole point of SF was to imagine how things (and people) could be different. And I'm not talking about Darwinian evolution, I'm suggesting purposeful genetic engineering and/or cybernetic enhancement, two advances we're likely to see become commonplace in our lifetimes. A permanent colony on the moon or Mars? Maybe, maybe not."

Many things could be different in the future. Many things won't be. One thing I do hope is different is that people will realize what a mistake it is to try to change Man. We just got through a century where civilization turned to barbarism in the name of improving civilization through the improvement of Man. Genetic engineering beyond medical therapy, and any form of cyborging will just lead to more missery, for much the same reason that communism and racial superiority theories did.

Milo said...

Tony:

"Humans, above a certain level of technological sophistication, don't adapt to their environments, they adapt the environment to themselves."

That's because we haven't had the ability to adapt ourselves before. Normally that takes evolutionary timescales, which is time we don't have. But if we develop working genetic engineering, then that goes out the window.

While people haven't genetically engineered themselves before, many definitely do train their bodies to improve them.

People, given the opportunity, will adapt anything they can to make their lives easier. Which can be a problem, if they happen to be "adapting" other people into not being in the way, but that is in no way what we're talking about here.

The main problem with genetic engineering is that is probably only works on test tube babies, not on preexisting individuals. I can see that causing social problems, particularly if you've already engineered in human immortality so all the older lacking-all-the-newer-features individuals stick around for a long time and get grumpy about being left out.

Tim said...

Human nature won't change, but the outward forms may be altered beyond our recognition, particularly for those that need to adapt to radically different environments.

As far as writing fiction goes, altered humans are quite a bit more relatable than automated probes. But in reality, I tend to agree with you: messing with our genetic code/implanting machines in people is not a good idea.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean people won't try it anyway. Even if it is detrimental in the long run, plenty of folks will be motivated by a short term benefit. That would be the unchanging human nature part of the equation.

Tony said...

Tim:

"Human nature won't change, but the outward forms may be altered beyond our recognition, particularly for those that need to adapt to radically different environments.

As far as writing fiction goes, altered humans are quite a bit more relatable than automated probes. But in reality, I tend to agree with you: messing with our genetic code/implanting machines in people is not a good idea.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean people won't try it anyway. Even if it is detrimental in the long run, plenty of folks will be motivated by a short term benefit. That would be the unchanging human nature part of the equation."


You can one or the other, but not both:

1. A future in which human alteration is limited, used medically to bring sick or disabled humans back to the human norm, and relatively benign, or

2. A future in which human alteration is radical, dangerous, devisive, and ultimately relegated to the non-ethical and criminal.

Option 1 is used in SF as a background, sometimes to provide verisimilitude (see, this is the future, because we all know things will be better in the future), or as simple author fiat (because the author likes the idea of a healthier, happier world, and wants to say that technology will make it so). Option 2 has been written about at length already, because it's an SF natural, and because SF authors love both cautionary tales and backgrounds from history (see, eugenics is still eugenics, whether it is practived with forced sterilizations and breeding books or genetic engineering).

In any case, those that want to remake man may succeed for a while, but they'll be history's monsters in the end.

jollyreaper said...


I've commented on this before, but I guess it's time to bring it back up. Humans, above a certain level of technological sophistication, don't adapt to their environments, they adapt the environment to themselves. We make clothes that aid our metabolic functions, terrace, irrigate, dyke, dam, aqueduct, canal -- funny how much environmental adaptation relies on hydraulic engineering -- build roads, tunnels, and bridges, and do a host of other things to make places more livable, according to our own comfort levels. There's no reason to think this will be any different in the future. Terraforming would be much more consistent with human practice and ideals than adapting humans to the environment.


For the hardest SF prognostication I can imagine, I think that we will be beyond human imagination before we get to another planet around another star.

jollyreaper said...

You introduce someone from the middle ages to the modern world and he'll be a bit put out, then finally put things together. Sitting in an office working on a computer all day might not seem comprehensible until he relates it to monks sitting in the scriptoriums copying manuscripts all day. Aha! There's still a need to eat, crap, grow the food, move products around. The world may be loud and confusing by his standards but he'll be able to see that he's not dealing with gods, just strange people from a strange land.

By contrast, the cargo cult islanders seemed to have a really hard time comprehending western culture. It was beyond their experience and they had a lot of trouble making the mental leap.

Was agricultural civilization as much a brainbuster for the hunter-gatherers coming in from the hinterlands to see the city?

jollyreaper said...

Of course, most of us modern humans fall short in trying to conceptualize a future human civilization that would leave us 21st century folk with even greater future shock than the cargo cultists. Some of the best ones I've seen have involved the fundamental change in what it means to be human -- the idea of biological immortality, mind uploads, extensive use of reality simulations and virchspace.

Running with that assumption, the least likely reason for going to another earth-like planet would be for homesteading. There's more than enough marginal space on Earth (Gobi desert example), there's plenty of material already floating in the solar system if we set our hearts on space habs, and terraforming would be a ridiculously complicated project.

jollyreaper said...

Based on all of those assumptions, I think the people going to earth-like planets in our plausible future would be going as scientists and explorers and so it would make sense to adopt a body suitable for the environment. More likely if we run with the assumptions of what progress a thousand years of medical engineering could give us.

The least likely future I could imagine is going to these worlds for resource extraction or farming or living space. That fits in with the "new worlds are the New World" trope.

*sorry for breaking the post up so bad -- was getting header errors when posting*

jollyreaper said...

1. A future in which human alteration is limited, used medically to bring sick or disabled humans back to the human norm, and relatively benign, or

2. A future in which human alteration is radical, dangerous, devisive, and ultimately relegated to the non-ethical and criminal.


3. A future where human culture schisms on this issue. Peter F. Hamilton did this with the Night's Dawn trilogy. Adamists reject genetic engineering and stick with the old religions of Earth. Edenists embrace bitek (radically advanced biotechnology) and it becomes as much a part of their technology as well as their society and life philosophy.

While there is friction between Adamnist and Edenist, it's not on the level of warring nations or warring religions.

I find it extremely plausible that we will see factions form along these lines. And freedom of expression could well be the political driver needed for space colonization. If we get the old standby of heavy infrastructure in space to support HE3 mining on the moon, then the additional cost of setting up a colony away from Earth should be remotely plausible.

The least likely version of this scenario is a social movement or cult inventing the space hardware and going out there without any of the initial skullwork done by government or the aerospace industry. It'd be like the Pilgrims inventing sailing ships and navigation before they could leave for their new colony.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Was agricultural civilization as much a brainbuster for the hunter-gatherers coming in from the hinterlands to see the city?"

As the agricultural civilizations evloved, the remnant hunter-gatherers also evolved into pastoralists. And both co-evolved in a somewhat symbiotic relationship. When the pastoralists weren't preying on the crop growers, they were at least trading with them.

"Of course, most of us modern humans fall short in trying to conceptualize a future human civilization that would leave us 21st century folk with even greater future shock than the cargo cultists. Some of the best ones I've seen have involved the fundamental change in what it means to be human -- the idea of biological immortality, mind uploads, extensive use of reality simulations and virchspace."

The older I get, the more convinced I become that those SF tropes are the result of a wild imagination but little cultural understanding. People who want to be literally plugged in are simply not normal and aren't likely to become normal. No matter how powerful our communications peripherals become, most people still want there to be a clear line between themselves and their technology.

"Running with that assumption, the least likely reason for going to another earth-like planet would be for homesteading. There's more than enough marginal space on Earth (Gobi desert example), there's plenty of material already floating in the solar system if we set our hearts on space habs, and terraforming would be a ridiculously complicated project."

Well, there's little doubt that the homesteading and freedom-seeking tropes are inventions of American mythology. For most Europeans, the New World (and Asia in the Old World) was all about amking money, both personally and corporately. So homesteading is certainly out as a primary rationale. Having said that, if there's money to be made in interstellar commerce -- IOW, if interstellar transportation ever gets that cheap -- then there will be people who go along to provide services to whatever exploitation operations arrise, and eventually people will go out to provide services to the service providers, and at some point after that there will be homesteading as an ancillary activity, just like there always has been.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"3. A future where human culture schisms on this issue. Peter F. Hamilton did this with the Night's Dawn trilogy. Adamists reject genetic engineering and stick with the old religions of Earth. Edenists embrace bitek (radically advanced biotechnology) and it becomes as much a part of their technology as well as their society and life philosophy.

While there is friction between Adamnist and Edenist, it's not on the level of warring nations or warring religions."


And I found it wholly unconvincing. The Edenists came across to me as a misanthropic author filibuster. His characterization of rejectionists as "Serpents" is pretty transparent in that regard.

jollyreaper said...


Really? I thought the whole point of SF was to imagine how things (and people) could be different. And I'm not talking about Darwinian evolution, I'm suggesting purposeful genetic engineering and/or cybernetic enhancement, two advances we're likely to see become commonplace in our lifetimes. A permanent colony on the moon or Mars? Maybe, maybe not.


I think that squarely falls under the time and tech scale you're imagining.

20 years in the future, human nature remains the same.

100 year in the future, ditto. Better tech but still baseline homo sapiens sapiens (the species so nice we named it twice), still the same.

1000 years in the future with mind uploads, so long as we're trying to remain faithful to the original neural architecture, the same.

I think that human nature only plausibly begins to change once the neural hardware is modified. Isolate a population of breeding humans for tens of thousands of generations, it might happen naturally. Or if we start tinkering ourselves, it could happen.

Without tinkering, I don't really think you could explain radical changes in human nature. Star Trek, for example, had a Federation filled with baseline humans with fancy gadgets. Changes in society are highly plausible but changes in human nature are not absent the introduction of deliberate modification.

Here's some food for thought (and I don't think I've brought it up here) -- there's talk of a god center to the brain, the origin of all mystic experiences. Nonbelievers will speculate that this is the origin of the god delusion. (Believers hiss and make religious signs at the person saying this.) Could it be possible to excise this center of the brain without harming the rest of the individual?

We have precedent for this sort of thing with genital mutilation of children. In the West, circumcision was thought to reduce masturbation urges in males.

So imagine the consequences of parents doing this sort of thing with their children. This is a real change of human nature case that scifi is meant to explore.

On a related note, there was a fun short story featuring a Sober, Serious 50's Scientist who decided he was going to make the world safe for men. He thought men were dangerously henpecked with controlling wives and their wily lure of sex. He decided that he was going to make it so that men could have sex on their own terms. He'd already given his wife the treatment serum and her sex drive was neutered. She goes into this with a sense of Stepford Wives horror. The other wives are being given the same treatment. The ironic twist of unintended consequences comes from the husbands not realizing sex is now on her terms, not theirs, and the husbands now have to beg and plead. (Given the chauvinistic society presented, I don't see how this would be a problem; they'd probably also believe it is legally impossible for a husband to rape his wife.)

Anonymous said...

A reason for settling on distant worlds occures to me: small, radical groups would find very difficult-to-get-to worlds attractive, for that very reason. They would spend years, decades, or even generations building up the funds and resources needed to mount a colonization effort. And remember, planets are big places; they could locate their colony half-a-world away from the main colony and not have to worry about outsiders interacting with them for generations. The galaxy could be filled with tiny enclaves of fanatic populations come the next millinium.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...


The older I get, the more convinced I become that those SF tropes are the result of a wild imagination but little cultural understanding. People who want to be literally plugged in are simply not normal and aren't likely to become normal. No matter how powerful our communications peripherals become, most people still want there to be a clear line between themselves and their technology.


I tend to draw a line for scifi speculation along these lines in terms of plausibility:
1) People might go either way
2) Hardly anyone will want to do it but there's one in every crowd
3) WTF? Nobody is ever, ever, ever going to go along with that

An example of the first would be the experimental sexuality stuff scifi likes to go into like casual bisexuality, polyamory, open marriages, etc. Projection of 70's social trends out to the near future. Saying everyone in 50 years will be openly bisexual is silly -- saying that the definition of marriage stretches and it's not just one man and one woman but people can live traditionally if they want seems fair.

An example of the second type would be the cyborg stuff seen in typical scifi. As a kid it sounds awesome -- replace your limbs like the Bionic Man! You feel exactly the same as your normal self but can become superhuman with a sproing sound! In practice, there would always be differences and even if an amputee 100 years from now has it better than any time in human history, only a small minority of techno-freaks would really want to become voluntary cyborgs. A tech cult supporting that sort of thing, certainly. But you're not going to see the anchor on the evening news looking like a Borg fetishist.

Then there's the no effin' way! thing would be like saying an entire society goes along with the sort of ideas that would give crazy cultists pause. Like declaring the sex drive to be bestial and moving all procreation to artificial wombs, reproductive pairings all handled by impartial computer selection, gender nullification including the surgical removal of external genitalia to symbolize a rejection of the animal, the complete eradication of religion, etc etc.

You see some crazy stuff like this pop up in fringe cults and even the nuttiest cult leaders will find some followers but it's harder to imagine getting millions of people to go along with it.

Now there's a certain amount of tolerance of strange, dissonant beliefs a culture will tolerate within sub-cultures. Go too far off the reservation and you will be destroyed. And historically, there's only so far you can flee on a single planet. But given the ability to put distance between you and your potential oppressors, just how far off the reservation can your little cult go then?

jollyreaper said...


And I found it wholly unconvincing. The Edenists came across to me as a misanthropic author filibuster. His characterization of rejectionists as "Serpents" is pretty transparent in that regard.


Somehow I figured you'd hate it. lol But just because you don't like his execution of the concept, that doesn't mean the general idea in general is not plausible -- and by general idea I mean a pretty significant ideological split between humans who are for something radical like serious bio-engineering and those who are totally against it. And the Edenist technology makes a pretty explicit statement about belief in the afterlife of the old religions, rejecting them utterly.

What I liked is that this wasn't used as the pretext for a major war, just that you have these two wildly divergent cultures existing within the same political sphere.

I could totally see a large number of people having your general reaction to genetic tinkering and I could also see a large number of people going along with it anyway.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Here's some food for thought (and I don't think I've brought it up here) -- there's talk of a god center to the brain, the origin of all mystic experiences. Nonbelievers will speculate that this is the origin of the god delusion. (Believers hiss and make religious signs at the person saying this.) Could it be possible to excise this center of the brain without harming the rest of the individual?"

Actually, what most believers will tell you is that the god center wouldn't exist if there wasn't a need for it. They simply interpret it as an effect, rather than a cause.

As to what excising the god center might do to an individual? Who knows? But it's likely that excising it would significantly change a person's personality. What most people don't get is that the god center isn't just excited by meditation or epileptic siezure. It also participates in other brain activities, just in a different way.

"This is a real change of human nature case that scifi is meant to explore."

Science fiction was originally just sotries about people with advanced technology. It was never meant to explore anything. When you start out with a changed human nature, in whatever form you imagine it, you no longe have science fiction, you have anything from farce to horror. (Nota bene: many of the monsters of gothic horror are expressions of some facet of human nature gratuitously exagerated -- usually sexual or violent impulses.)

"The ironic twist of unintended consequences comes from the husbands not realizing sex is now on her terms, not theirs, and the husbands now have to beg and plead."

So, what's new? They've always have control over when we have sex with them, we never have.

jollyreaper said...


A reason for settling on distant worlds occures to me: small, radical groups would find very difficult-to-get-to worlds attractive, for that very reason. They would spend years, decades, or even generations building up the funds and resources needed to mount a colonization effort. And remember, planets are big places; they could locate their colony half-a-world away from the main colony and not have to worry about outsiders interacting with them for generations. The galaxy could be filled with tiny enclaves of fanatic populations come the next millinium.


I would tend to think that planets would remain closer to the human social norms, analogous to nation-states on Earth, and your Salt Lake Cities and Jonestowns would be orbitals. My thinking is that planets would be rare and valuable and you're not going to see a whole planet just sitting there with a single colony on it.

To draw a comparison to Dune, Ix dealt with immoral high technology and the Bene Thileaxu specialized in immoral genetic engineering. Both of those groups represented the sort of prejudices leveled against Jews and Gypsies into something more concrete. Ix really was toying with thinking machines in violation of the religious prescripts an the Thileaxu were politically ambitious and without scruples, potentially far more dangerous than the Harkonnen.

It's interesting to think of what it would take to make a group so reviled in a sophisticated, star-faring society but also so reviled. I keep coming back to the idea of body-horror with the practitioners pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human. That might also make them expert doctors and so consulted for their medical expertise in extreme cases.

Body-horror is a bit obvious and I'm trying to imagine something that would be more subtle but also bringing forth instinctual rejection and revulsion. I'm coming up short.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I could totally see a large number of people having your general reaction to genetic tinkering and I could also see a large number of people going along with it anyway."

Not as large as you think. There's a reason the story of Frankenstein's monster resonates so well.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"To draw a comparison to Dune, Ix dealt with immoral high technology and the Bene Thileaxu specialized in immoral genetic engineering. Both of those groups represented the sort of prejudices leveled against Jews and Gypsies into something more concrete."

Huh? The post-Butlerian Jihad proscriptions against thinking machines had everything to do with real problems they caused, not just cultural prejudice. Though Herbert wasn't as clear about it, one can assume that the Tleilaxu genetic technologies were proscribed for similar reasons.

"It's interesting to think of what it would take to make a group so reviled in a sophisticated, star-faring society but also so reviled. I keep coming back to the idea of body-horror with the practitioners pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human. That might also make them expert doctors and so consulted for their medical expertise in extreme cases.

Body-horror is a bit obvious and I'm trying to imagine something that would be more subtle but also bringing forth instinctual rejection and revulsion. I'm coming up short."


Body horror is a simplistic, sensationalist motivation. A lot of people just wouldn't want to live in a world where they have to compete with bona fide supermen.

jollyreaper said...


"I could totally see a large number of people having your general reaction to genetic tinkering and I could also see a large number of people going along with it anyway."

Not as large as you think. There's a reason the story of Frankenstein's monster resonates so well.


There's weird crap that doesn't stick and weird crap that does. The communist attempts at changing human society didn't seem to stick. However, we also have ideas that seem equally hostile to human life as honor killings and repressed sexuality and these are embraced by enough of society that they aren't going away. It's strange to see which ideas get picked up and which do not. Maybe Mao would have had better luck as a religious leader rather than a political one.

As for the god center, of course the religious will say its there for a reason. As for an excision, that's just some loose language to describe the idea. Maybe call it a neutering, to prevent the mystic experience but leave other functions intact? I'm sure there would be unintended consequences but the primary consequence I'm thinking of is violent rejection by the religious and by violent I mean blood in the streets. It would seem like the coming of the Antichrist to the Christians. Not sure how Muslims and Buddhists and Hindu would see it but I'm sure it wouldn't be taken lightly.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"There's weird crap that doesn't stick and weird crap that does. The communist attempts at changing human society didn't seem to stick. However, we also have ideas that seem equally hostile to human life as honor killings and repressed sexuality and these are embraced by enough of society that they aren't going away. It's strange to see which ideas get picked up and which do not. Maybe Mao would have had better luck as a religious leader rather than a political one."

Honor killings, as repulsive as they may be to Westeners, arise directly out of natural human reactions, within the context of the societies that sanction them.
Repressed sexuality is widespread throughout all human civilizations, including our own North American one. The mechanisms are a little different in the developed world, but the practice is still there. Communism was simply counter to human nature.

"As for the god center, of course the religious will say its there for a reason. As for an excision, that's just some loose language to describe the idea. Maybe call it a neutering, to prevent the mystic experience but leave other functions intact? I'm sure there would be unintended consequences but the primary consequence I'm thinking of is violent rejection by the religious and by violent I mean blood in the streets. It would seem like the coming of the Antichrist to the Christians. Not sure how Muslims and Buddhists and Hindu would see it but I'm sure it wouldn't be taken lightly."

If such a repression was attempted involuntarily, the outcome would be violent, to say the least. Even if done voluntarily, the people who did it would probably be viewed by the vast majority as abusing their children. That would probably not turn out so well for them either.

jollyreaper said...


"To draw a comparison to Dune, Ix dealt with immoral high technology and the Bene Thileaxu specialized in immoral genetic engineering. Both of those groups represented the sort of prejudices leveled against Jews and Gypsies into something more concrete."

Huh? The post-Butlerian Jihad proscriptions against thinking machines had everything to do with real problems they caused, not just cultural prejudice. Though Herbert wasn't as clear about it, one can assume that the Tleilaxu genetic technologies were proscribed for similar reasons.


"Both of those groups represented the sort of prejudices leveled against Jews and Gypsies into something more concrete." What if Jews really were in league with the Devil, children of Satan, well-poisoners, baby-killers, etc, etc, but they were the only ones you could go to for black magic services? That's what I mean by making prejudices more concrete -- it's not an irrational prejudice but a pragmatic, practical fear. Rulers would speak against them in public but make use of their services in secret.

So yeah, you go into the story seeing the religious fear directed at Ix and the Tleilaxu and think it's just nuttery but then you find out that there's actually some very good, solid reasons for this fear.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

""Both of those groups represented the sort of prejudices leveled against Jews and Gypsies into something more concrete." What if Jews really were in league with the Devil, children of Satan, well-poisoners, baby-killers, etc, etc, but they were the only ones you could go to for black magic services? That's what I mean by making prejudices more concrete -- it's not an irrational prejudice but a pragmatic, practical fear. Rulers would speak against them in public but make use of their services in secret.

So yeah, you go into the story seeing the religious fear directed at Ix and the Tleilaxu and think it's just nuttery but then you find out that there's actually some very good, solid reasons for this fear."


I think I would have used Faust's bargain as an example, rather than tread on Godwin's toes.

jollyreaper said...


If such a repression was attempted involuntarily, the outcome would be violent, to say the least. Even if done voluntarily, the people who did it would probably be viewed by the vast majority as abusing their children. That would probably not turn out so well for them either.


If I were putting it in a story, it would be something done by the parents to the children. And yes, I would consider it abuse, personally, but proponents would argue it's no different from religious circumcision and religious instruction. They're my kids until they're 18, how dare you tell me how to raise them?

Something like this would be one of those "won't end well" situations you don't want to live through but make for interesting stories.

jollyreaper said...


I think I would have used Faust's bargain as an example, rather than tread on Godwin's toes.


Jew-hating far predates Hitler and Faust's is the sin of one man. The whole idea of shunning an entire people based off of a superstitious idea that they're tainted or evil is also pretty old and we in the west are most familiar with the way Jews and Gypsies are treated.

I suppose you could also try referencing the Salem women but they were never a separate culture.

It wouldn't do much good to reference Insmouth since the locals really didn't trade much with the outside world.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Something like this would be one of those "won't end well" situations you don't want to live through but make for interesting stories."

But it strays rather far from where we started, which is peaceful coexistence of two totally different types (in reality, not just perception) of humanity.

"Jew-hating far predates Hitler and Faust's is the sin of one man. The whole idea of shunning an entire people based off of a superstitious idea that they're tainted or evil is also pretty old and we in the west are most familiar with the way Jews and Gypsies are treated."

And the Devil isn't a hated and feared entity? Also, the point you seem to be trying to make has everything to do with individuals making bargains with the Devil. (The fact that the Devil in this case is real is beside the point; the principle remains the same.)

It just seems to me that bringing up the Jews and Gypsies was gratuitous, under the circumstances.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"By contrast, the cargo cult islanders seemed to have a really hard time comprehending western culture. It was beyond their experience and they had a lot of trouble making the mental leap."

I suspect the problem was having gotten only a small glimpse. They were then left to resolve the details behind their blurry image with their own imaginations.


"Was agricultural civilization as much a brainbuster for the hunter-gatherers coming in from the hinterlands to see the city?"

"Crops? It's exactly like gathering, only instead of going out to look for plants, you put them there in advance yourself."

I'd say the idea is actually very simple compared to the amount of influence it ended up having on our culture. The farmers are trivial to understand compared to the large, complicated economies of people not directly producing their own food.


"Here's some food for thought (and I don't think I've brought it up here) -- there's talk of a god center to the brain, the origin of all mystic experiences. [...] Could it be possible to excise this center of the brain without harming the rest of the individual?"

Unlikely. It is seriously implausible that we evolved a special component for the specific purpose of being predisposed to believe something which is wrong. It is far more likely that religion is an incidental corollary of other, more useful features - such as our desire to understand the world.

Superstition has been observed in behavior experiments on pigeons. It is an unavoidable consequence of trying to find patterns behind things.

So no. You could not guarantee a child's nonreligiousness without damaging his ability to function as a sentient being.

And yes, this means that I expect all alien species we encounter will also have religion. Of course, point me at a counterexample and I'll gladly admit I'm wrong :D



Tony:

"Actually, what most believers will tell you is that the god center wouldn't exist if there wasn't a need for it."

If our creator deliberately predisposed us to believe in a deity, then he's horribly incompetent for neglecting to hardcode which deity we believe in.

Although I've seen some religious people claim that all humans are in fact predisposed for believing in their religion, and all the ones who don't just had their natural tendencies suppressed by their culture. Yeah, right...


"A lot of people just wouldn't want to live in a world where they have to compete with bona fide supermen."

A lot of people also don't want to live in a world where they have to compete with the super-rich. But when you try to make humans more "equal" by keeping everyone weak, you get communism.



Jollyreaper:

"And yes, I would consider it abuse, personally, but proponents would argue it's no different from religious circumcision and religious instruction."

Cutting off a small bit of flesh that does nothing is in no way analogous to a lobotomy.

You know, if you engineered people to simply never grow a foreskin in the first place, would that render the commandment of circumcision impossible to fulfill, or would it obviate the need for it?


"The whole idea of shunning an entire people based off of a superstitious idea that they're tainted or evil is also pretty old and we in the west are most familiar with the way Jews and Gypsies are treated."

You know, I know they were in medieval times, but are Jews or Gypsies actually treated that poorly these days? Especially since 9/11, it seems to be the Muslims that get shunned the most in the West.

jollyreaper said...


So no. You could not guarantee a child's nonreligiousness without damaging his ability to function as a sentient being.

And yes, this means that I expect all alien species we encounter will also have religion. Of course, point me at a counterexample and I'll gladly admit I'm wrong :D


Well, even if it doesn't actually work, so long as the religious types think it does -- what if Dawkins supporters as a joke said that they were taking anti-religious wafers with their morning tea that would help stamp out religious impulse? Feeding it to their kids, it'll get into the water supply... Doesn't matter if it's just a joke if religious types take it seriously. We've seen all the headache fluoride in the water has caused.

I think the very thought that scientists could try and physically eradicate religion from the human mind would cause a crapstorm. And it wouldn't even matter whether or not it was scientifically possible.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

Now we've gone past the consequences of genetic engineering, and are instead talking about the consequences of people making a big deal out of baseless and irrational beliefs, which is... nothing new.

Thucydides said...

Oddly, a lot of secular beliefs like environmental alarmism have similar loos and feels to established religion, including core beliefs that are not to be challenged; challengers can be poscribed or even threatened with punishment or death (yes, some environmental extremists have openly mused that a human "cull" would be good for the environment).

I don't think this is so much about "religion" per se; but rather a certain way of organizing the word that may be inherent to the human mind.

Rick said...

We humans have been blessed with good imaginations, and therefore cursed with the ability to convince ourselves into crackpot ideas. The second quarter of the last century demonstrated, with particular force, just how horrific some of those crackpot notions can be.

Having said that, I suspect we will find that using gene modding technology to produce superman and/or monsters will turn out to be in the same class of ideas as weather control in 50s vintage SF, where they could schedule rain for Wednesday night.

Human genetics, I suspect, is a huge tangle of interconnections. Tweak for super muscles and an IQ of 200 and you might end up with super warriors who have absolutely no interest in anything but growing flowers.

Oh, and I agree with Tony in being perplexed by an SF story about a world where women are in charge of who gets to hop in the sack with whom.

This blog has a depressingly male dominated readership (or at least commentariat), but cluephone, guys - there's a reason why far more women than men found something interesting about the royal wedding.

Luke said...

Milo,

I must keep this brief, due to a poor typing interface (iPad).

Partial pressures of O2 up to an atmosphere are not dangerous. Partial pressures of several atmospheres are dangerous.

If intelligent life is the result of multiple rare events, starting with the emergence of life (also rare) then you statistically also expect the first rare event to happen early on.

Re: other chemical reactions for photosynthesis - one could imagine life that uses the photosystem used by earth life that cycles electrons around while using mineral donor/acceptors to replenish lost electron.

The research I have seen was that eukaryotic life emerged during the formation of banded iron deposits, when oxygen first became available in low concentration. The Cambrian explosion started at a time of increase in oxygen to if I recall correctly 5%. Advanced multicellular life followed another increase in oxygen levels.

Jim Baerg said...

Tony said: "You can one or the other, but not both:

1. A future in which human alteration is limited, used medically to bring sick or disabled humans back to the human norm, and relatively benign, or

2. A future in which human alteration is radical, dangerous, devisive, and ultimately relegated to the non-ethical and criminal."

See several of the Vorkosigan stories of L.M. Bujold for 1 2 & interestingly in between uses of human alteration.

One in between alteration that would be valuable for space settlement is making humans able to live indefinitely in low gravity (eg: lunar) & then move to higher gravity (eg: Mars or Earth) with no problems.

Milo said...

Rick:

"Tweak for super muscles and an IQ of 200 and you might end up with super warriors who have absolutely no interest in anything but growing flowers."

...You say that like it's a bad thing?


"This blog has a depressingly male dominated readership (or at least commentariat), but cluephone, guys - there's a reason why far more women than men found something interesting about the royal wedding."

Sure. Guys don't see why you should wait to get married before having sex!

*ducks and runs*



Luke:

"If intelligent life is the result of multiple rare events, starting with the emergence of life (also rare) then you statistically also expect the first rare event to happen early on."

If all steps are rare, including the initial step of creating a (not-yet-living) planet that's suitable for later harboring life, then it makes no sense for the transition from step 1 (creation of the planet) to step 2 (abiogenesis of monocellular life) to take so much shorter than the transition from step 2 (abiogenesis of monocellular life) to step 3 (appearance of an oxygen atmosphere) or step 4 (evolution of animal life).

Tim said...

Rick: You bring up a good point, that the predominant image we have of genetic engineering is that of a mad scientist creating "monsters" in his secret lab and unleashing them on the world.

Much more likely, genetic modification will begin very slowly, with the sole intent of eradicating genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome. There surely won't be much of a public opposition to this. Later, prospective parents will not only be able to prevent genetic disorders, but also to enhance certain desirable (but distinctly human) traits such as high IQ, athletic ability, etc. Some might say this is unfair, but it's not likely to cause a public uproar. And what parent with the means wouldn't want to give his or her child every advantage possible?

Now fast forward to the first permanent colony on the moon, Mars or an orbital station. Isn't it likely that children born and raised in these environments will be subtly tweaked to be better adapted to these environments? Might it even be argued that it is cruel or irresponsible NOT to give children these advantages? Wouldn't a genetic purist in fact be condemning his or her child to a life of painful, degenerative disease?

Tim said...

As for cybernetic alterations, they aren't on the horizon, they're just around the corner. Can you even walk down the street without seeing someone with a bluetooth in one ear, talking away, completely oblivious to their surroundings? Is there some sacrosanct barrier to the flesh that prevents people from going a step further? Based on the commonality of body piercings and tattoos among young people, I'd say not. Currently, body modification (or art, as you prefer) is strictly a cultural phenomenon, and confers no economic advantage (it may in fact render one exempt from certain high-paying professions). Now imagine that implanted devices (like a cell phone in the ear lobe or something modest like that) were able to grant one a measurable economic or social advantage. Wouldn't it suddenly become quite fashionable to have such a procedure? In time, wouldn't it become as "obligatory" as carrying a cell phone currently is? Once that line is crossed, (and it almost certainly will be) where exactly is the limit to be drawn? And who's going to oppose this all other than a bunch of "Luddites" and "religious fanatics?"

I'm not saying I'm in favor of any of the above, but I don't see any way it's NOT going to happen, barring the total fall of modern civilization, or possibly a fundamentalist dystopia. The one thing I am in favor of, manned exploration of the solar system and beyond, seems to be a long way off, and not to become commonplace until after both genetic and cybernetic alterations have been around for a while...

Thucydides said...

One other possible avenue of genetic engineering of humans might be a push to make humans more "efficient"; engineering metabolic pathways to process food and water so the modified human requires less input. Follow on effects would include reducing the need for large energy inputs to keep the modified human warm in winter or cool in summer (being able to use energy more efficiently should also make themoregulation that much better as well). This does not mean you can run naked through the snow, but will be comfortable within a much wider band of temperature ranges.

Like everything else, this needs to be approached with extreme caution, and not only for the reasons posted upthread. The Ashkenazi Jewish population has a statistically measurable increase in IQ over other groups, but this is linked with a much higher occurrence of various genetic diseases as well. Modification efforts will certainly have to be alert for negative linkages.

ElAntonius said...

A bit off topic, but this XKCD comic is incredibly poignant to this blog.

The alt text hits me in a big way:
"The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision."

Milo said...

Tim:

"As for cybernetic alterations, they aren't on the horizon, they're just around the corner. Can you even walk down the street without seeing someone with a bluetooth in one ear, talking away, completely oblivious to their surroundings? Is there some sacrosanct barrier to the flesh that prevents people from going a step further?"

Umm... yes. If two machines, one inside the flesh and one outside, can both do the same thing, many people will actively prefer the outside one simply because it's more comfortable. While there will be people who undergo cyborgization for the sake of some feature which cannot work with just an external tool (for example... medical prosthetics for amputated limbs, which we already have), few people are going to want to implant a cell phone in their ear when the exact same device could very easily be carried externally, which would in fact make it easier to use, and easier to put away or replace.



ElAntonius (quoting XKCD):

"The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision."

Unfortunately, simply putting people on Mars would put us approximately 0% of the way to reaching planets around other stars. Therefore, there is little point to going into space until we have an FTL drive or a theoretical basis for an FTL drive that can only be tested in outer space conditions.

Until we have FTL, Titan is the next most interesting place for xenobiologists, but we aren't even sure if there is any life there, and we definitely aren't going to find ruins of civilization.

Tony said...

Milo:

"If our creator deliberately predisposed us to believe in a deity, then he's horribly incompetent for neglecting to hardcode which deity we believe in."

He also gave us free agency, because otherwise there would be no reason for us to live out our lives on Earth, trying to earn salvation. Maybe the built-in ability to believe in Him was as far as he could cheat in our favor.

"A lot of people also don't want to live in a world where they have to compete with the super-rich. But when you try to make humans more "equal" by keeping everyone weak, you get communism."

If the super-rich were proven to be genetically gifted, how do you think that would play out? Actually, we know how it would play out, because the super-rich used to believe that they were superior beings -- society would be laid out along Social Darwinist lines. Well, it would be for as long as humand bread indiscriminately. As soon as people figured out how to choose the best mate to breed "up" or at least maintain their talents through the succeeding generations, a rigid caste system based on genetic strength would be instituted.

And that's why people don't want to live in the same world with real supermen. There's no percentage in it, unless you happen to be a superman yourself.

Re: Tim

See above. Whether it comes along accidentally and organically, or whether it's planned for, genetic "improvement" of the race will undermine everything conception of justice and equality man has ever held. I'm a pretty peaceful guy, all things considered, but I would preach bloody jihad against that.

jollyreaper said...


Umm... yes. If two machines, one inside the flesh and one outside, can both do the same thing, many people will actively prefer the outside one simply because it's more comfortable. While there will be people who undergo cyborgization for the sake of some feature which cannot work with just an external tool (for example...
medical prosthetics for amputated limbs, which we already have), few people are going to want to implant a cell phone in their ear when the exact same device could very easily be carried externally, which would in fact make it easier to use, and easier to put away or replace.


That would depend on the obsolescence curve, how invasive the implantation is, and whether one is truly preferential to the other. As a modern world example, I wear glasses. We have LASIK surgery that should cure all my ills. There's no way in hell I'm getting that done. I don't even like getting glaucoma eye puffer tests. There's no way I'm letting anyone near my eyeballs with a goddamn laser!

jollyreaper said...

But if not for that fear and the legitimate questions about the long-term effects of LASIK surgery, it's such a better solution to glasses or contacts. Glasses get all kinds of filthy, are awful in dirty environments, get liquids all over them making seeing difficult.

In cyberpunk settings where people are getting wetware add-ons, I have to wonder at what the upgrade cycle would be. Great, you have superlungs that are 75% better than the real thing. How long's the recovery time from that surgery? Oh, you have ocular trackers for your guns? How long until they're cheap crap compared to the new toy on the market?

What I think would be likely is that the amount of borging people would be comfortable with would be entirely elated to how human they can feel after. A common idea is an upgraded nervous system to allow for superhuman reflexes. When not in combat, the subject would feel perfectly human. A bionic claw arm would not feel very human at all.

One idea I'd had for a scifi setting was the idea of temporary prosthetics versus real replacements. Your arm gets blown off and you're lightyears from home, you get an inorganic limb fitted. It's off the shelf, comes in different sizes for different people. You're mission-functional until you get home and can go into proper convalescent care where they grow you a new limb to order and surgically attach it to your stump.

I think there will be an incredible bias for keeping factory standard equipment on the ol' body or at least making sure the substitutes can perfectly pass for it -- a bionic limb should weigh as much as the original would, move like it, draw power from the blood so charging isn't required, etc. Someone shaking hands wouldn't even be able to tell. Otherwise the victim will never really feel like a whole person, he'll feel like an amputee.

Now we can divide the implants into two broad categories, things that relate to the functioning of the human body and things that relate to the mind. So super-lungs, limb replacements, second hearts, special sheer-strengthening skin, etc. The mind stuff would be your auxilary brain, persistent link to the network, etc.

If that stuff is changing all the time, maybe you'll have a standard interface it plugs into that goes directly to your nervous system. Wire that in once and it's good for forty years while you are constantly changing the hardware that plugs into it. And that's assuming there even needs to be a direct interface, that you can't just strap on a headband and have everything happen through that.

Now the example you gave of the cell phone in the ear, it's going to be a question of how obtrusive such technology is. If we compare it to wearable computers, the early models had the poor victims loaded down like cross-country hikers. The iphone represents far more power and far more capability in something that fits into a pocket, no "wearing" required. It took a long time to get to this point and I think it would take a very long time until implant tech got good enough that people would seriously consider it. And I'm sure there will be people who never would -- 200 years from now there will be people like me still suspicious of LASIK and they'll be carrying around their old-fashioned physical iphone 300's in their old-fashioned pockets.

Tim said...

Tony: Yes, of course if Biomech, Inc. announced today they were creating a race of genetic supermen to act as our future overlords, you and me and most of us would be up in arms. But if they announced that they've cured, say, sickle cell anemia at the genetic level and any concerned prospective parents can have their DNA screened on a purely voluntary basis, are you really going to call for a bloody jihad? By the time the "supermen" start appearing, we'll be collecting social security and the younger generations won't think anything of it. It will probably bother them about as much as rich kids with trust funds bother us now. Sure, it's not fair, but we're not going to do anything drastic about it.

Tim said...

Jollyreaper: We don't usually think of pacemakers, breast implants and lasik surgery as "cybernetic upgrades" but that's exactly what they are. What we think of as cyborgs (people with robot arms and legs) are the least likely cybernetic upgrade anyone would want. It's going to be long time (if ever)before a mechanical arm can even match the functions of an organic one. I'm guessing by that time we can regrow a severed arm organically by some means.

The kind of cybernetic upgrades people will want are things that makes their lives/jobs easier or more pleasant: instant internet access, total memory recall, language translators, etc. It won't seem very "cyberpunk" when businessmen are getting them installed.

Tony said...

Tim:

"Yes, of course if Biomech, Inc. announced today they were creating a race of genetic supermen to act as our future overlords, you and me and most of us would be up in arms. But if they announced that they've cured, say, sickle cell anemia at the genetic level and any concerned prospective parents can have their DNA screened on a purely voluntary basis, are you really going to call for a bloody jihad? By the time the "supermen" start appearing, we'll be collecting social security and the younger generations won't think anything of it. It will probably bother them about as much as rich kids with trust funds bother us now. Sure, it's not fair, but we're not going to do anything drastic about it."

You're missing the fundamental difference: Rich kids may have more resources, but nobody thinks they're inherently smarter, stronger, more attractive, longer, lived, etc. If a class of people actually becomes all of those things, they threaten everybody else with permanent second-class status, forever.

Sure, you say, but money can buy all of those enhancements for me or at least my children. How are you going to get that money, when economic access is controlled by people with real advantages in getting and keeping it? Our whole society is based on the idea that everyone should have equal opportunity, and when they don't it's only because artificail barriers have been erected. What happens when those barriers are real, made out of all the differences that eugenics based on genetic science can create?

Tim said...

Tony: "Our whole society is based on the idea that everyone should have equal opportunity, and when they don't it's only because artificail barriers have been erected."

Yes, but most societies throughout human histories have NOT been structured that way. And our (North American) society only works like that in theory. The reality is that some individuals are treated as semi-divine, while others are treated as if they were disposable. That's the unchanging human nature we keep bringing up. The changing part is whether such "divinity" is conferred by bloodline, talent, money, or cyber- and/or genetic enhancement.

Do I like it? No. Will I be the only one? No. Is there anything we can do about it? Hmmmm....

Tony said...

Tim:

"Yes, but most societies throughout human histories have NOT been structured that way. And our (North American) society only works like that in theory. The reality is that some individuals are treated as semi-divine, while others are treated as if they were disposable. That's the unchanging human nature we keep bringing up. The changing part is whether such "divinity" is conferred by bloodline, talent, money, or cyber- and/or genetic enhancement.

Do I like it? No. Will I be the only one? No. Is there anything we can do about it? Hmmmm...."


Once again, you're missing the fundamental difference. Bloodline and money are exactly what I mean by artificial barriers. Talent can be visited on anybody. There's nothing objectively special, or objectively class-specific about any of those things. When you start having a class of people who are objectively advantaged, that's a whole different ballgame.

Milo said...

Tim:

"The kind of cybernetic upgrades people will want are things that makes their lives/jobs easier or more pleasant: instant internet access"

We already have that. Except minus the cybernetics.

When trying to look for some information on the internet, I spend more time yelling at Google for not finding what I want, than I do typing stuff. Being able to access the internet with my mind rather than a keyboard and monitor would in no way speed me up.


"total memory recall"

We already have that. Well, kinda. We call them "notebooks". Not that I ever remember to use them...

Also, is it just me or is the thought of some gadget messing around with my memory really creepy?


"language translators"

We already have that. It's called BabelFish. Of course, it doesn't actually work very well. That has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it isn't plugged into our brain, though. If you could design one that actually worked, just market it as a headset.


"It won't seem very "cyberpunk" when businessmen are getting them installed."

Cyborgs who aren't tough-as-nails super-assassins? Say it ain't so!



Tony:

"Sure, you say, but money can buy all of those enhancements for me or at least my children. How are you going to get that money, when economic access is controlled by people with real advantages in getting and keeping it?"

The same can be said for access to education in our society. And even an intelligent and educated person can do far more if he has a good sum of money to invest.

Tony said...

Milo:

"The same can be said for access to education in our society. And even an intelligent and educated person can do far more if he has a good sum of money to invest."

That's a difference in quantity of resources, not quality. Even with a lot of money and a good education, a rich man's son can become a ne'er do well. Genetically altering people to be stronger, smarter, faster, more aggressive, more charsimatic, etc. leads to a fundamental difference in the quality of those people's resources. When you're built to be a Type A go-getter, and have all of the personal talents you need to be successful built in as well, there's very little chance you won't be.

Tim said...

Tony: Yes, it will be a whole different ball game. That doesn't mean people won't play it. Likely our options will be to play to the best of our abilities or sit on the sidelines. Will some players use performance-enhancing techniques regardless of whether they're sanctioned or not? You better believe it.

Tony said...

Tim:

"Yes, it will be a whole different ball game. That doesn't mean people won't play it. Likely our options will be to play to the best of our abilities or sit on the sidelines. Will some players use performance-enhancing techniques regardless of whether they're sanctioned or not? You better believe it."

And I still think you're missing the sociological implication of the difference. I don't think people will sit still for other people having what the majority can't have, even in theory. We're not talking about obvious monsters here, we're talking about A class of Khan Noonien Singhs. I think the creators of Star Trek were very perceptive when they suggested that that kind of thing would lead to war between the supermen and everybody else.

Tim said...

Oh, yes, I remember the Eugenics Wars, back in the 1990's. Good times.

But seriously, I don't picture an obvious divide between "us" and "them." There will likely be laws preventing discrimination against both the genetic haves and the have-nots. And it's not like you can tell by looking whether a person is the recipient of "good breeding," "the genetic lottery" or in vitro manipulations.

Milo said...

Tony:

"That's a difference in quantity of resources, not quality. Even with a lot of money and a good education, a rich man's son can become a ne'er do well. Genetically altering people to be stronger, smarter, faster, more aggressive, more charismatic, etc. leads to a fundamental difference in the quality of those people's resources."

Even someone altered to be stronger, smarter, etc. can still become a ne'er do well.

Even identical twins still develop differences, so genotype isn't a surefire way of guaranteeing how someone will turn out. And early genetic engineering will not have the accuracy to fine-tune people to within anywhere near the theoretical maximum, either.

Anyway, while an etc. etc. can of course become a ne'er do well, that doesn't mean he will. The fact is that some people are already born with genes that are superior for given tasks, even though we currently don't have the technology to decide or even identify who got the best genes. Is some people being born inherently better than others somehow more "fair" because you're willfully blind to who? Sorry, but ignoring injustice doesn't make it go away.



Tim:

"There will likely be laws preventing discrimination against both the genetic haves and the have-nots."

...Wait, wait. Laws? You seriously think that simply outlawing discrimination will make it so?

Tony said...

Tim:

"But seriously, I don't picture an obvious divide between 'us' and 'them.' There will likely be laws preventing discrimination against both the genetic haves and the have-nots. And it's not like you can tell by looking whether a person is the recipient of 'good breeding,' 'the genetic lottery' or in vitro manipulations."

I am being serious. And it's not a matter of obvious differences. I've already said that. But it is a matter of real differences.

Also, why this great faith in the law? Would the law of the normals stop superiors from doing what he wanted? It never has in the past -- except this time it wouldn't be a megalomaniac fantasy, it would be real, objective superiority in the persons in question.

And why is somebody who is really superior respect the laws of his inferiors? Because it's how good boys and girls behave? Give me a break.

Anonymous said...

Genitic manipulation, including enhancemnts, will have people divided into three camps; love it, hate it, and who cares...what the ratios of these camps to each other are, will determine whether these genetic enhancements are tolirated with some grumbling, mostly ignored as an occasional aburition, or actively oppossed (violantly, most likely).

Ferrell

Milo said...

Violent opposition will only happen on a large scale if public opinion is favorable to genetic engineering. If most people oppose it, then it'll be outlawed - and while police raids on black market genetic engineering labs may occasionally turn violent, they'll be downright civilized compared to the terrorism that a vocal minority of people who oppose genetic engineering might recourse to if they feel legal channels are shut off to them.

Tim said...

Tony: The laws I'm suggesting would be mostly to protect the "superiors" from descrimination from us normals. In other words, you can't ask a job applicant if he's the result of genetic improvements or not. You have to hire or not based on aptitude. The "superiors" will know who they are, but we will never be certain.

Mostly, though, as the generations pass, it will be seen as less and less of a big deal, like so many other "outrageous" and "unnatural" social developments of the past and present.

Unless of course we have some massive and unified backlash, in which everyone has their DNA screened and the "superiors" are rounded up and put on box cars, like in "Slan." But I can't say I'm in favor of such a solution.

Milo said...

Tim:

"In other words, you can't ask a job applicant if he's the result of genetic improvements or not. You have to hire or not based on aptitude."

While I can certainly see some employers discriminating against engineered humans (whether it's legal or not), what about the opposite? Employers insisting on only hiring people who are willing and able to produce their genetic engineering pedigree documents? The employer doesn't even have to believe that only genetically engineered humans are capable of properly doing the task - it's enough if he just thinks that checking someone's pedigree is faster and easier than bothering to run comprehensive aptitude tests. Same as discriminating in favor of males for jobs that require strength, really. (You know, it occurs to me that gender dimorphism is one of the things that some people might try to get rid of if they had access to genetic engineering. Oh sure, we'll keep the boobs, but I imagine a lot of people wanting give their daughter a little extra size.)


"The "superiors" will know who they are, but we will never be certain."

Unless they decide to tell you. I can see some "superiors" preferring to keep it under wraps - either to avoid persecution, or because they think it's impolite to brag constantly about it - but the discrimination won't last forever, and some people just like to brag. Even if they don't go on and on about it in public, they'll probably tell their close friends, and so I can see it occasionally leaking out to the tabloids.


"everyone has their DNA screened"

Which raises the question of: can you even tell for sure with DNA screening?

If all we're doing with genetic engineering is guaranteeing children born at the top tier of existing human capability, rather than making them outright better than baseline humans in some way, then they might not even be genetically distinguishable from a normal human. The only way to prove them the products of genetic engineering would be to obtain papers from the lab that made them.

Maybe there would be ways to tell, though. Humans aren't so good at being completely random, so their work often stands out from natural data, even when they try to cover their tracks. And certain genetic engineers might have tendencies to use certain gene codes which you might be able to identify. Sort of like the code pattern analysis methods that people use to determine whether one software company has plagiarized from another.

But now I'm imagining a witch-hunt where some perfectly-natural humans who just happened to be very successful get rounded up into concentration camps because people think anyone doing that well must be genetically engineered...

Milo said...

One clue for genetic engineering would be if a set of siblings show a suspicious amount of shared traits, beyond what family relationship can normally explain. It would suggest that their parents value that trait and actively selected for it.

Thucydides said...

Genetic engineering of humans seems almost inevitable given the clear and implied incentives to do so.

Superior health, the ability to perform at the highest levels of human achievement, enhanced beauty will all have great payoffs to the people holding these virtues (just like today), especially during the early phase of genetic engineering, when the numbers of "superior" people are still small relative to the general population.

There will be opposition, perhaps violent opposition, from people who do not have access to these techniques (either for themselves or their children), since they will be at a distinct disadvantage in almost every aspect of life. They will pay more for insurance and health care, be shut out of high paying professions and won't have the opportunity to "marry up" either. In essence, the bell curve will have shifted to the right, but "normal" people will be on the left of the curve...

The second danger is these modifications will almost certainly affect other aspects of these people's lives, thought process and emotions. We can understand events from ancient Sumerian texts or the Dutch "Tulip Mania" because people have not changed in thousands or tens of thousands of years. Modified thought process and emotional response will make these people inhuman, not alb eto comprehend us in important ways (nor we, them). This is similar to the argument that AIs will be indifferent to humans and carry out their plans with little or no reference to us.

Tony said...

I find it interesting that the default position for some people is that a class of genetically engineered superior people (for whatever value of "superior" the engineers are interested in) would somehow be the target of negative discrimination. The whole point of engineering people would be to equip them to receive positive discrimination -- in employment, mating, politics, etc. The people that would need to be protected would be those that through merely natural gifts couldn't compete.

I also find it curious that some would think that violent resistance would only come from a minority. If say 5-10% of the population was guaranteed social and economic advantages simply by being born, I think the rest might have a problem with that, especially if those advantages are significant and formally recognized. (Which they would have to be, given that those advantages would be scientifically demonstrable.)

Jim Baerg said...

How many here have read _Beyond This Horizon_ by Heinlein?

The setup there is that genetic engineering techniques have been available for generations & the societies that remain after the 'eugenics wars' (not a term used in the book) only allow parents to pick which of their alleles get into their children. Other techniques are forbidden, at least on humans.

There are some other restrictions to avoid mistakes. Eg: while obvious defects like cystic fibrosis are selected against, variations like hair color are left to chance to avoid producing a monoculture & inadvertently eliminating something subtly useful.

An important factor is that the gene selecting service is freely available to all, like health care is now in most advanced countries, which would tend to reduce the genetic aristocracy problem.

Tim said...

It seems like we have an image of "genetic engineering" taken from science fiction rather than fact. (And, yes, I know this is an SF blog). The point I keep trying to make is that there won't be a clear division between "us" and "them." We're not going to wake up tomorrow to find a race of super-men trying to take over. Any introduction of genetic engineering to humans will be very gradual and completely justifiable. In other words, it will be in the name of curing disease (physical or mental) not creating super-soldiers that can bench press Buicks and calculate equations like computers.

How will anyone know (or care) if the person sitting next to them was genetically modified to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease? Maybe he or she also got a boost to IQ, but is this any less fair than rich parents sending their children to the best schools? In fact, are you really going to argue against a new generation with higher IQ's, less cases of mental illness, and less need for long term medical care? Unintended side-effects aside, wouldn't this be making the world a better place for everyone, not just the "superiors?"

By the time we start to see noticeable alterations to human DNA (yes, I agree, playing with fire, bad idea) it will be after a generation or two of people receiving nothing but benefits from these kinds of treatments. Will these radical alterations (superhuman intelligence, strength, speed, whatever) be "crossing the line?" Or will it just be a natural progression of a commonly accepted medical procedure? I mean, it would be NICE if you could give your kid a 200+ IQ, but since you can't afford to send him to Harvard anyway, you're just happy to know he won't have any preventable diseases or disorders, right?

Tony said...

Tim:

"It seems like we have an image of "genetic engineering" taken from science fiction rather than fact. (And, yes, I know this is an SF blog). The point I keep trying to make is that there won't be a clear division between "us" and "them."...

...

By the time we start to see noticeable alterations to human DNA (yes, I agree, playing with fire, bad idea) it will be after a generation or two of people receiving nothing but benefits from these kinds of treatments. Will these radical alterations (superhuman intelligence, strength, speed, whatever) be "crossing the line?" Or will it just be a natural progression of a commonly accepted medical procedure? I mean, it would be NICE if you could give your kid a 200+ IQ, but since you can't afford to send him to Harvard anyway, you're just happy to know he won't have any preventable diseases or disorders, right?"


Nothing is ever so benign that it can't be abused. And the more effective some technology is, the more it will be abused. Yes, the development of the superior class will be gradual, but that doesn't mean it won't lead to stark contrasts. And any attempts to force the pace of development (and they will be made) would only serve to highlight the contrast.

I find it particularly curious that you find intelligence useless without education. To certain degree, you have a point. But given a guranteed intelligence, why would a person not be given an education? And considering how that intelligence would be arrived at, why would there be no resources for a good education? And what does education mean with people bred to be polymathematical geniuses? Teach them to read and sit them down in front of an internet terminal with acces to all the world's libraries. "School" for such people might be nothing more than a weekly supervision and counselling meeting with a professor.

Tim said...

Tony: I'm not saying such technology doesn't have the potential for abuse--it most certainly does. And when did I say intelligence was "useless" without education? I'm saying that those without the financial means of giving their children a genetic boost to IQ are going to be the same parents without the financial means of providing Ivy League educations.

But I like your idea of self-educating geniuses. Such individuals exist already, and I could see how some might want to replicate such traits on a larger scale.

Again, I know where you're coming from in warning about the potential dangers of unchecked genetic experimentation, but it's really difficult to argue against the benefits of the thin edge of the wedge in this case. "Cystic fibrosis is part of our natural genetic heritage, and I'm going to fight tooth and nail to preserve it!" is not an argument that anyone is going to take seriously.

Tony said...

Tim:

"Again, I know where you're coming from in warning about the potential dangers of unchecked genetic experimentation, but it's really difficult to argue against the benefits of the thin edge of the wedge in this case. "Cystic fibrosis is part of our natural genetic heritage, and I'm going to fight tooth and nail to preserve it!" is not an argument that anyone is going to take seriously."

And it's not an argument I'm making. I'm saying that such technologies have the potential for distilling every master race fantasy and ideology into reality, if even slightly consciously managed to do so. Remember what I said near the beginning -- the two possible futures of genetic engineering are medical therapy or eugenic shenanigans.

Raymond said...

A few things, generally:

- I think people are underestimating what can be done with retrovirals. We're currently doing more genetic modification to already-developed humans than is even on the near horizon for in-vitro work. Ultimately, that means we should be talking as much about retrofitting genetically-enhanced people as breeding them.

- This whole discussion began concerning human modification for living in space. There's a fundamentally different social dynamic in place if modifications are virtually universal amongst a given population. (And here I include cybernetic augmentation as well as genetic.)

- There would be advantages to some cybernetics in off-planet populations. Anything which substantially reduces life-support requirements, expands tolerable environmental ranges, increases survivability of environmental hazards, and/or increases general durability will be considered.

- We already have a growing segment of cognitively distinct humans: autistics. There is a significant portion of the autism-spectrum community (especially the high-functioning members, such as those with Asperger's) which regard themselves as an emergent cognitive subspecies. Their neurological processes are demonstrably different than baseline. Nobody's quite sure if the upswing in autism diagnoses are due to better testing or greater incidence (or both), but at the moment it seems pretty safe to say that trend will continue for some time. And certain common traits amongst high-functioning autistics are well-suited to certain tasks in the information age, which suggests a measure of competitive advantage.

Jim:

I haven't read Beyond the Horizon. Have you read Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner?

Tony:

You're fully rejecting a third option: human modifications are commonplace or near-universal. Much of the social resistance you suggest is inevitable is predicated on modifications being scarce, expensive, and only applicable to new children. None of those are sure things. You also assume that only a tiny minority would be interested in any substantive modification of themselves - given how common many types of cosmetic surgery have become, I think that's a flawed supposition.'

Thucydides:

"Modified thought process and emotional response will make these people inhuman, not alb eto comprehend us in important ways (nor we, them)."

The autistics I know well would be horribly offended at that statement.

Tim:

I'm not fond of the idea that we should refrain from making ourselves better. A certain degree of caution is warranted, just like any other technology we haven't yet refined or standardized, but I'm counted among those who don't see anything particularly sacred about our current form.

Milo said...

Thucydides:

"Modified thought process and emotional response will make these people inhuman,"

How strongly modified are we talking about here? You can tune up or down certain emotions and instincts without producing anything that is fundamentally outside human behavior range. (Which is pretty wide already.)

You possibly could design people with totally inhuman thought processes, but why would you want to? That just sounds like asking for trouble.

And any human-derived creation would have the advantage that, no matter how big the change, we still share certain core brain functions. We can even understand our pets (and vice versa) to a limited degree, and sentient transhumans would be much closer to us in thought processes than them. (Unless we deliberately made them otherwise, which, again, sounds like a bad idea.)

Also, present-day humans do often have trouble understanding each other. Look at the arguments people get into over politics and religion, with each side thinking his viewpoint is obvious and how could the other guy be so stupid as to not get it?



Tony:

"I find it interesting that the default position for some people is that a class of genetically engineered superior people (for whatever value of "superior" the engineers are interested in) would somehow be the target of negative discrimination."

Jealousy is a form of negative discrimination. When said jealousy can be rationalized with rhetoric ("They didn't earn their position fairly!" "They're abominations of nature!")...


"If say 5-10% of the population was guaranteed social and economic advantages simply by being born, I think the rest might have a problem with that, especially if those advantages are significant and formally recognized. (Which they would have to be, given that those advantages would be scientifically demonstrable.)"

The way militaries and police forces typically have different minimum height requirements for males and females, sports competitions are segregated by gender (and sometimes go to lengths to confirm that a supposed female athlete isn't secretly male and therefore has an unfair advantage), etc.?

Actually, I don't really approve of that kind of thing (so no, it wouldn't "have to be" that way), but people do already do it. This is nothing new. And it has not destroyed society.

Milo said...

Jim Baerg:

"_Beyond This Horizon_ by Heinlein [...] only allow parents to pick which of their alleles get into their children. Other techniques are forbidden, at least on humans."

What about sperm/egg donors? We already have those today, although the objective is normally to bypass infertility or to allow people without an eligible partner (single parents, homosexuals) to have children, not to get the genes of a particularly awesome individual.

Once you have genetic donors plus "allele picking", it would become very easy (if it's legal) to mix genes from three or more people at once.


"variations like hair color are left to chance"

Hmm, well, yeah. I think that any notion of one hair color being prettiest is misguided - they all have their attractions. In fact, a large part of beauty comes from "exoticness" - if any one hair color became too dominant, people would probably start seeing that one as boring and others as sexy.



Tim:

"I mean, it would be NICE if you could give your kid a 200+ IQ, but since you can't afford to send him to Harvard anyway, you're just happy to know he won't have any preventable diseases or disorders, right?"

If you had IQ 200, you could probably get a scholarship. Unless the school is already filled to the brim with IQ 201 students, of course.

Anyway, superior intelligence can be useful even in rural areas (wasn't there a story a while back about a poor farmboy in Africa or something who cobbled up a windmill from available materials to make the farmwork easier?), except for the risk of the boy getting restless from mental understimulation.

Tim said...

Tony said: "Remember what I said near the beginning -- the two possible futures of genetic engineering are medical therapy or eugenic shenanigans."

And I'm not disagreeing with you. But where and how is a line going to be drawn between the two? I'm suggesting such "eugenic shenanigans" will be so gradual in their introduction as to be largely unnoticed. You suggest there will be some sort of violent uprising, which based on human history is certainly feasible, but is not necessarily the logical (or desirable) outcome.

Tony said...

Tim:

"And I'm not disagreeing with you. But where and how is a line going to be drawn between the two? I'm suggesting such "eugenic shenanigans" will be so gradual in their introduction as to be largely unnoticed. You suggest there will be some sort of violent uprising, which based on human history is certainly feasible, but is not necessarily the logical (or desirable) outcome."

Turn up the heat gradually or all at one, I'll still jump out of the pot when it gets too hot. And I find violent resistance to stratification of the human race (or the possible creation of a totally new human race) to be not only a choice, but a duty.

David said...

Gents;
It seems to me that while we are talking about genetic modifications, we usually look at those “mods”, which tend to make use superhuman. Stronger, faster, smarter, and better looking is all great, but how about doing away with those issues that plague us. Consider that 1 in almost 100 children in the US are on the autism spectrum, which is a population of approximately 3 million individuals. As a parent of an autistic child, whom I love dearly, do you not think that if I was presented with a cure, that I would not jump on that like a bum on a biscuit. Hells yes I would, and you would too.
What we really need to look at is not changing humans into supermen, but improving overall quality of life. Super strength, intellect, etc. is not really the goal of what I think genetic engineering is all about. We want to keep us human, but make us better. Not Aryan supermen better, but make us the best people we can be. My son is a beautiful, wonderful child; warm, loving and compassionate. He is bright, clever and given some the extremes that I have seen, leaps and bounds ahead of many other ASD children. But wouldn’t it be better to not have autism, or Tay-Sachs, or Down’s, or Sickle cell. Wouldn’t a humanity that doesn’t have to worry about diabetes nor cancer be that much better?
I am hopeful that we learn how to build better humans; the operative word here is better. People who have had the frailties of mind and body eliminated, who are free from the ravages of disease, would still be human. They would die, they would be good and bad, moral and immoral, but they would not be autistic, they would not be Down’s, they would not suffer the outrages that we see the “special needs” community having to deal with. That’s what I want from genetic engineering.

Tony said...

Re: David

Having a GF with twin highly impaired autistic boys, I can appreciate the depth of your feeling. But you're not talking about better humans. You're talking about kewing the distribution to the right, as much as possible. The problem is, the same technology that can eliminate bad stuff should in principle be able to significantly enhance the rest as well. And there liwes the problem -- not in skewing the distribution of talents favorably, but in creating a seconf hump in the distribution, some arbitrary but significant distance out to the right, totally unrelated to the primary distribution.

Raymond said...

David:

"As a parent of an autistic child, whom I love dearly, do you not think that if I was presented with a cure, that I would not jump on that like a bum on a biscuit. Hells yes I would, and you would too."

Bear with me for a moment, and believe me when I say I'm not trying to belittle or marginalize your experience in any way, but I'm not sure autism is something to be "cured".

My best friend of almost a decade is high-functioning autism-spectrum (Asperger's, specifically), and he's learned to be proud of his autism. He's adapted, learned to explain himself and his different neurology to baselines, learned to use the cognitive advantages he has in some areas, learned to minimize the disadvantages. He and another of our friends (also autistic, different sub-type) work with schools in and around the city, explaining to children (and teachers, for that matter) how to deal with autistic kids on their own terms, from their own perspective. Both friends are adamant about not wanting to be "cured" - they consider their cognition to be different but equal, to be something to embrace.

Milo said...

The autism spectrum, particularly Asperger's syndrome, is often linked with increased intelligence (the stereotypical "socially inept nerd"). Is it really a good idea to get rid of all nerds? PS. Before answer, remember the site we're discussing this on.

Yes, sufficiently socially inept ones might find it causes them serious trouble. But then again, isn't that other people's fault for judging on charisma and conformity rather than intelligence?

I don't approve of trying to wipe out a group of people simply because you're having trouble talking to them.

...But, at the same, I do think it would be a good idea to let parents have more of a say in what children they want to raise. But when some parents inevitably decide to actively select FOR Asperger's syndrome, please don't rail on them for child abuse.

David said...

Tony;
Maybe what you described is not such a bad thing. I am not looking to create super humans, but to distribute the least amount of negatives across the largest possible group. Or effectively reduce negatives to as near zero possibility as statistically possible. That seems to me to be the goal to shoot for, if we are going to have genetic engineering.

Raymond;
I do not negate your friend’s experiences, and I commend him on his activities. I hope that he can get out in the world and make his way, and just by setting the example that he does, he makes the road my son has to follow that much easier. But my real world experience has shown people to be largely intolerant of ASD children, especially those with loud self stimulating behaviors, and other cognitive impairment issues. A parent was even beaten by a fellow restaurant patron, because his child “wouldn’t shut up.” Many a fellow parent has confided a wish not only for acceptance of their children, but just a day where they could be typical. So while “cure” may not be the right term, it isn’t the wrong one either. A world where autism is an obsolete term in a dusty medical book would be a better one.

jollyreaper said...

comment: Both friends are adamant about not wanting to be "cured" - they consider their cognition to be different but equal, to be something to embrace.

response: Here's a sticky area -- pretty much everyone would agree deaf people are disabled but the deaf community can be militant about saying "nuh-uh!" And there were cases of deaf parents trying to have deaf babies -- not adopting an abandoned deaf baby but bringing a new, deaf person into the world.

There's room for very huge arguments here. My gut reaction is that deafness is a disability. It's something to be cured. I don't feel that's hasty or prejudiced.

By someone else might feel as adamantly about ginger hair and say no child should be forced to grow up that way; gingers and ginger aficionados would understandably be miffed at that.

jollyreaper said...

More specifically, there's the two sides to the gay cause argument -- some people feel it's a genetic screwup and disability while others believe it to be a naturally-evolved and necessary component of human behaviorism. I have no opinion on that and it would not affect my views on gay rights regardless of which explanation proved correct.

HOWEVER there are certainly parents who would view gay as being defective whether or not it's a genuine defect or unnatural and would demand their children be screened for it, arguing that it's no different from gender-assigning children with sexually ambiguous genitalia.

There's no simple answers here, just a knotty, complex, horrible can of worms.

Aesthetically speaking, if I'm world-building, I'd want to give some drawbacks to the genetic wonder kids so that everything's not all peaches and cream for them. Super brains come with mental disorders and insanity, super physical abilities causes premature death, etc.

There should be some advantages of being baseline, otherwise why would anyone want to leave their kids mundane? And it's harder for us baselines to identify in a story where everyone is superman and friends.

Note that my aesthetic opinion doesn't express how I think things will really turn out with genetic engineering, just how I would prefer the world-building to go in fiction.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"By someone else might feel as adamantly about ginger hair and say no child should be forced to grow up that way; gingers and ginger aficionados would understandably be miffed at that."

This actually illustrates a big problem with classifying what is "good" and "bad" about genetic engineering. "Ginger", for example, is not an epithet in the US, and even isn't used in reference to red hair that I can think of. When somebody on the intertubes once referred to me as "ginger haired" I just didn't get that he was being insulting. So what we consider in need of modification is going to have a lot to do with our personal prejudices. The overall effect of modification effeorts by individual families might not be much.

Having said that, India is providing an interesting object lesson in what kind of mischief people can get up to if enough of them think the same way. It turns out that there are about 925 girls per every 1000 boys in the under 6 age cohort in the Subcontinent. And that is because people are (even though it is illegal) using abortion, informed by sonograms, to select for males. This is the simple stock breeding technique of culling, carried to a logical extreme with the aid of modern technology. Imagine what kind of demographic and cultural messes people could cause with even more powerfull and selective tools.

But the real problem isn't selection for traits or even selection against genetic disorders. The real problem is building the better human, as a class. Harder to do, both technically and legally, but it probably will be something that will be tried. Heck, it's already been tried, as we have the word "eugenics" ready made, complete with a ell-understood meaning, to use in this conversation. When superman is real, but most people aren't and can't be superman, that's when the real trouble starts.

Milo said...

David:

"But my real world experience has shown people to be largely intolerant of ASD children,"

So... umm, like I said. Who is the problem here?

Why not alter everyone else to be more tolerant, instead?



Jollyreaper:

"My gut reaction is that deafness is a disability. It's something to be cured. I don't feel that's hasty or prejudiced."

I would have to agree on this one. Not being deaf would in no way prevent you from still learning sign language if you had a motive to. Hearing is extremely useful, while the disadvantages (inability to tune out distracting or grating sounds) don't come up all that much.

One thing of note is that I consider a person's identity to be defined by personality. Thus, non-mental conditions as deafness are something that I would perceive as "external" to someone's sense of self, and that can be fixed without altering who that person is - I would see little difference between fixing someone's ear biologically, and implementing a hearing aid. But once you're starting to mess with people's personalities, you're changing their identity in a very real way. Is that a good idea? Maybe, if you're getting rid of obviously disadvantageous or crime-inducing mentalities, but it's risky territory. In any case, it seems to me like a mental monoculture would be a bad idea.


"More specifically, there's the two sides to the gay cause argument -- some people feel it's a genetic screwup and disability while others believe it to be a naturally-evolved and necessary component of human behaviorism."

I hold that the distinction represents a misunderstanding of how evolution works. Getting random mutations ("genetic screwups") is part of evolution.

Sporadic homosexuality could provide a fitness advantage, or it could have provided a fitness advantage in some ancestor of humanity which has since stopped mattering but left vestigial traces, or it could provide a very slight fitness advantage, or it could provide no fitness advantage but also not provide a large enough disadvantage for natural selection to have cared to get rid of it. But it doesn't matter.

The one way in which homosexuality could be said to be objectively disadvantageous - socially speaking, not evolutionarily, since people rarely leave their reproduction entirely to nature these days - is that homosexuals have less available mates. Since the majority of people are straight, that means that other heterosexual people can count on a sizable part of the population being potentially interested in them. Homosexuals have their pool of mates automatically restricted to only a minority of the population, even before the need for matching personalities is factored in. But if you followed this to its logical conclusion, you could argue (as some science fiction authors actually have...) that if you want the best for your child, it's ideal to make him/her bisexual, which allows you full access to the normal pool of appropiately-gendered heterosexuals (in fact, they'll think this makes you even sexier) and more besides.


"I have no opinion on that and it would not affect my views on gay rights regardless of which explanation proved correct."

Agreed. People are who they are, regardless of how they got to be that way.

However, if a large number of people prefer to engineer their children to guarantee they'll be straight (or bi), then homosexuality may fade out over a few generations, without any living homosexuals actually being attacked. Would you oppose that on the grounds that mixed sexualities is an important part of our cultural heritage?

Milo said...

"Aesthetically speaking, if I'm world-building, I'd want to give some drawbacks to the genetic wonder kids so that everything's not all peaches and cream for them."

Perhaps the fact they're artificially designed gives them some of the drawbacks of a monoculture. Also, genes that were calculated rather than organically grown and stress-tested might be less "robust" in some manner.

And of course, even if genetic wonder kids are objectively better than baseline humans in every way, then they're still humans. Ultimately they're still going to suffer from human problems.


"Super brains come with mental disorders and insanity,"

...Like the autism spectrum? ;)


"super physical abilities causes premature death"

I wouldn't go that far, except maybe for early experimental designs. However, examples in nature suggest that you have to pay the cost... the bigger you are and the more you use your muscles, the more food you need to power it all. Hence why small animals still exist even though being bigger helps you win fights.

With genetic engineering, we may be able to make more efficient metabolic systems that need less food (although that might lead to problems of its own, and it would probably be safer and easier to just use that genetic engineering tech to make some wonder-crop so we have more food), but there will still be a limit on how efficient you can be, and so stronger bodies will still need to eat more.


"There should be some advantages of being baseline, otherwise why would anyone want to leave their kids mundane?"

...Religious conviction?

Other than that, there really isn't much. Even if you don't like the idea of applying really major changes to your kids, you would still appreciate genetic screening for diseases, selecting which of the genes the parents already have will go to the children (this wouldn't cause as many side effects since you're not trying to write new genes from scratch), perhaps deciding what gender your child will be (which is actually a special case of the last item... and I'll note gender screening needn't be done only by parents with a sexist prefence for one gender, for example some people might want to ensure an even mix rather than leaving it to chance).

There's also the problem that genetic engineering would require the embryo to be artificially formed in a lab and implanted, rather than being conceived the "normal" way. This is considerably less fun.



Tony:

"When superman is real, but most people aren't and can't be superman, that's when the real trouble starts."

What if genetic engineering turns out to be like software? Designing a new patch is difficult, but once it exists, copying it to a large number of people is relatively cheap?

In that case, supermen aren't going to be that rare, not after a few generations.

Tim said...

Tony: "And I find violent resistance to stratification of the human race (or the possible creation of a totally new human race) to be not only a choice, but a duty."

Ohhhh Kay... let's assume (for a moment) I and a large amount of others agree with that statement. You still haven't answered my question of where and how you draw the line. Who are we going to euthanize and how are we going to detect them? Do we gas all the children that were saved from sickle cell anemia by their concerned parents? Or just the ones with disturbingly high IQ's? Or is that not what you meant (I hope) by "violent resistance?" If not, what exactly do you have in mind when you use that phrase?

Rick said...

This is a fun discussion, and great for SF purposes, but:

Oh, yes, I remember the Eugenics Wars, back in the 1990's. Good times.

Which should be a reminder that none of this is new. Eugenics was all the craze a century ago, and led to some extraordinary creepy horrors, but no human enhancements.

Genomics technology is new, but not so new that reality is not already hitting big pharma in the face - it is turning out much harder to come up with the next generation of highly profitable pills than they thought it would be.

I strongly suspect that human enhancement will go the way of scheduled weather, and will sound extremely zeerust in a few decades.

David said...

Rick;
I think geneomics will mostly likely go the way of zeerust, but it will be because it will be done for the same reason we do things like genetic screening and sonograms, as part of appropriate prenatal care. We just will giggle about all the dark “Boys from Brazil”, Evil Aryan supermen nonsense. People would not even think about going to full term these days without screening and a sonogram.

Rick said...

but it will be because it will be done for the same reason we do things like genetic screening and sonograms, as part of appropriate prenatal care.

That would not particularly surprise me.

And on a generally related note, inspired by recent events, old fashioned recruitment and training, applied to Mark I Mod 0 humans, seems able to produce some pretty badass superwarriors.

Citizen Joe said...

See the movie Soldier with Kurt Russel for applied genetic vs. training story.

jollyreaper said...


This actually illustrates a big problem with classifying what is "good" and "bad" about genetic engineering. "Ginger", for example, is not an epithet in the US, and even isn't used in reference to red hair that I can think of. When somebody on the intertubes once referred to me as "ginger haired" I just didn't get that he was being insulting. So what we consider in need of modification is going to have a lot to do with our personal prejudices. The overall effect of modification effeorts by individual families might not be much.


When talking about future speculation, you can talk about things that people shouldn't do but you also have to consider that people will probably do it anyway. Your arguments tend to come from the position of whether or not something would be advisable, not whether or not it's likely people would do it anyway. There's nothing advisable about taking crystal meth but people still use it.

Your demographic bomb example with India and China is a good point. Economists probably have a fancy name for it but it seems like the boom and bust cycle. A male child is great so it would be even better if everyone has male children! Except oh wait, boys can't breed with boys, at least not if you want to have babies. Someone's got to take the risk of having girls but girls are a drain so someone has to take the hit.

The only thing I could think of would be for the government itself to subsidize girls. The understanding is everybody pitches in to make sure there are enough girls and the government is making up the economic shortfall that a girl represents to the family. But that may fail as badly as all of their other intervention attempts.

The fear I see for genetic tinkering is less from the eugenics wars POV but more from the curse of unintended consequences. GM crops are proving to be major headaches. Just imagine what we could screw up in humans with our ignorance. The advantage of selective breeding is you aren't bypassing natural genetic checks and balances. Lots of bad matches get flushed with natural abortions or later with stillbirths.

In order to do this tinkering right, we need the computer horsepower to fully and accurately simulate the entire lifecycle of the organism in question. How many thousand times more powerful would computers have to be for that? Assuming we even build accurate models in the first place? Yikes. Many, many, many years off I would think.

jollyreaper said...


But once you're starting to mess with people's personalities, you're changing their identity in a very real way. Is that a good idea?


That's the thing with the deaf pride people -- their disability is their identity and they'd smack you for calling it that in the first place.

Black people in Africa don't have a black experience in their society -- they are the society! Only black people who are minorities in a larger culture talk about a black experience because it's different from the dominant culture. Richard Pryor was blown away on his first trip to Africa because he went to some relatively successful nations and was like "Holy crap, black ain't separate. There's doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, janitors, laborers, businessmen, rich and poor, and they're all black. There's no us and them, it's just us."

Some people really get wadded up on the labels. It's like a persecution complex. I knew a woman in college who was very confrontational about who she was. "I'm gender-queer!" How does that work? She self-identified with male traits and enjoyed having sex with women. Oh, so you're lesbian and butch. And given your confrontational attitude, you probably say butch dyke with a glare. "No. Gender-queer and quit labeling me!" But isn't that a label? And what about those two guys you had sex with? "They're gay. I only have sex with boys if they're gay." Er, that sounds a little more bisexual to me. "Don't label me!"

As a straight white male, I'm part of the dominant culture and so really don't feel much threat to my sexual identity, the Bravo Network not withstanding. In a different culture where my sex, race, and or gender were threatened, my whole cultural identity would be soooo different.


I hold that the distinction represents a misunderstanding of how evolution works. Getting random mutations ("genetic screwups") is part of evolution.


Since when has "Hold on, I think you misunderstand the science" ever settled anything in a culture wars debate? :)


However, if a large number of people prefer to engineer their children to guarantee they'll be straight (or bi), then homosexuality may fade out over a few generations, without any living homosexuals actually being attacked. Would you oppose that on the grounds that mixed sexualities is an important part of our cultural heritage?


That's one hell of a question and worthy of some scifi exploration. Gut reaction is that we'd be sliding towards monoculture with that. I don't know the genetics but I would tend to suspect that homosexuality is something that would keep showing up each generation and so without continued tinkering it would reemerge. But the view from the gay community would understandably see this as a kind of... crap, they'd have to invent a whole new somethingcide word for it. Orientationcide? I'm sure the slag term would be homocide.

If I were plotting out the story, it would probably have to drop in and out over 50 years. The technique is perfected, huge cultural debate over it, Supreme Court decides it's the right of the parents and gays can't force parents to have gay kids. Assuming that gays don't get civil rights, they can't adopt and kids from heterosexual relationships default to the straight parent. (Maybe set this not in the US but a more straightforward theocracy where there's a huge social pressure not to have gay kids, more universal than in the States.) Watch as the gay subculture dwindles as members age and die off. Then the "oh crap" hits as unintended consequences sprout up in all the young'uns. Maybe it's by the time they're in their 40's or something, horrid degenerative diseases. Net result, majority of genetically engineered people are dying young. Engineering abandoned en-mass and thus returns the possibility of gay babies being born.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"In order to do this tinkering right, we need the computer horsepower to fully and accurately simulate the entire lifecycle of the organism in question."

You aren't suggesting simulating a fully functional human, are you? Because that raises far more issues than just where you're getting the processor cycles.


"Assuming that gays don't get civil rights"

Hmm? Why are we assuming that?

Though, if straight parents prefer to select in favor of straight children, and gay parents prefer to select in favor of gay children (using artificial fertilization, of course), then their relative populations would stay stable, but they'd grow into increasingly separate subcommunities.


"Maybe set this not in the US but a more straightforward theocracy"

A theocracy that's okay with genetic engineering?


"Maybe it's by the time they're in their 40's or something, horrid degenerative diseases. Net result, majority of genetically engineered people are dying young."

From having their sexual orientation allele flipped? How?

Many of them might not even have had their genetic code altered at all. If scientists test an embryo and confirm that it's naturally heterosexual (which the majority will be), then they might not even bother to tinker with anything.

Well, it's possible that the same people who are inclined to orientation screening are also more predisposed to play with other changes.

jollyreaper said...

"In order to do this tinkering right, we need the computer horsepower to fully and accurately simulate the entire lifecycle of the organism in question."

You aren't suggesting simulating a fully functional human, are you? Because that raises far more issues than just where you're getting the processor cycles.


Simulating accurately enough to catch screwups introduced by tinkering. There's a reason why geneticists use fruit flies when trying this stuff out in the real world, humans (aside from the moral and ethical issues) take too long! And you wouldn't want to find out you made a mistake after you've got a nice, pretty, viable human child looking at you. "Yeah, sorry kid. Your brain's going to explode when you're 12. We'll try harder next time."


"Assuming that gays don't get civil rights"

Hmm? Why are we assuming that?


For "gay" to be wiped out, you'd need pretty much every heterosexual couple opting for the cure and no chance of gay couples raising unmodified children of their own. And that seems unlikely in the US so I'm thinking a more radical society would be required, assuming we're talking about "breeding out the gay." But maybe you could set it in the US and make it regional, the sub-culture dying out in conservative areas. If you have gay southerners growing up, you'll have gay southern culture. If they're all engineered away, then nobody from the north is going to move down there and try to live openly, too hostile.

Though, if straight parents prefer to select in favor of straight children, and gay parents prefer to select in favor of gay children (using artificial fertilization, of course), then their relative populations would stay stable, but they'd grow into increasingly separate subcommunities.


Right, makes sense. Which is why I was thinking you'd need the theocracy and conservative culture to explain widespread use of the gay cure without gays using the same technique to ensure gay children.


"Maybe set this not in the US but a more straightforward theocracy"

A theocracy that's okay with genetic engineering?


It's not like hypocrisy is a new concept in religion. ;) If televangelists can use satellite TV to preach an anti-tech and anti-science message, I can fathom religious fundamentalists embracing genetic engineering to remove the gay while also refusing blood transfusions. *ironic lol*


"Maybe it's by the time they're in their 40's or something, horrid degenerative diseases. Net result, majority of genetically engineered people are dying young."

From having their sexual orientation allele flipped? How?


That wouldn't be the only thing changed. Unintended consequences. If it's a trashy bit of irony, then it shouldn't be done. If it makes for good irony, all it needs is a plausible mechanism for the problem.

Many of them might not even have had their genetic code altered at all. If scientists test an embryo and confirm that it's naturally heterosexual (which the majority will be), then they might not even bother to tinker with anything.

Sure, that's the only thing that was authorized in the theocracy but the father slipped the doctor some dosh to make sure the kid had straight teeth and then there was another one who wanted to make sure his boy would be tall and another who etc etc etc.

Well, it's possible that the same people who are inclined to orientation screening are also more predisposed to play with other changes.

Right. Unauthorized changes that violate the letter and spirit of the law. That's the kind of human error I can totally believe.

Thucydides said...

Given the amazing complexity of the human organism, it seems fairly logical that tinkering with an attribute such as intelligence will create a cascade of secondary and tertiary changes to related things like emotional responses and so on. Other potential downsides could be an increased chance of inheriting a debilitating disease.

We can guess that autism may be a natural result of minor (natural) changes to the brain, and we know for certain that case two is real in one population (Ashkenazi Jews).

Modifications might not have to be very extensive to have these sorts of cascade effects given the high degrees of interconnectedness and multiple degrees of freedom for each change and follow on change.

Still, the incentives are potentially so high that I think we will go down this route one way or another, either through benign motives (curing disease) or seeking some sort of competitive advantage. As the bell curve shifts to the right, people who find themselves farther to the left will become put out and will take out their resentments in one fashion or another.

jollyreaper said...


Which should be a reminder that none of this is new. Eugenics was all the craze a century ago, and led to some extraordinary creepy horrors, but no human enhancements.


Or, to be a contrarian, we all knew we'd have robot armies by the 1990's and so talk of robot soldiers seems all zeerust but now we're in the 21st century and the CIA is flying robot assassin drones.... See XKCD comic where Kyle Reese finds Sarah Connor. "Sarah! Come with me if you want to live! A robot assassin has been sent to kill you! I'm here to save you. I may not be as strong or as fast as a machine, but I'll fight to keep you--" BOOM!!! They're dead and a Predator drone flies away. Supersonic killer robots in the sky! (ok, wait, jumping the gun. Predators are subsonic. The supersonic UCAV's are a few more years out.)

It might be that the first pass at eugenics was premature, before genetic engineering, when it was just straightforward breeding.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"Or, to be a contrarian, we all knew we'd have robot armies by the 1990's and so talk of robot soldiers seems all zeerust but now we're in the 21st century and the CIA is flying robot assassin drones...."

Which, of course, look nothing like the traditional depiction of a humanoid robot whirring about. Hence the zeerust.

It's likely that in the future, our discussions on genetic engineering will look similarly zeerusty for the same reasons - not because genetic engineering won't be possible, but because the genetic engineering they have access to and take for granted is so sophisticated, that the ideas we perceive as "advanced" just appear amusingly quaint. Like seeing someone navigate a rocketship with a sliderule.


"It might be that the first pass at eugenics was premature, before genetic engineering, when it was just straightforward breeding."

Well, the most obvious fault with eugenics as previously practiced is that they tried to force it on people who didn't want to participate. There's a huge difference between voluntary genetic compatibility counseling, and rounding people into concentration camps. But this goes back to the uneasy issue of those deaf people - if deaf parents choose not to participe in the deafness-eradicating initiative, do we have any right to overrule them? Where do we draw the line between real handicaps that no child should be forced to have, and voluntary traits that parents should be able to choose to include or omit freely? As we're seeing here, the subject of mental "illness" is controversial.

The next most obvious fault is that those people just had horrible judgement on what traits to select for/against. Most "social darwinists" have absolutely no clue what traits make someone fit to survive in human society. The Nazis might as well have chosen which groups of people to oppress using a dartboard, for all the difference it would make. ...But then I get the uneasy feeling that even with voluntary genetic engineering, a lot of people are still going to have rather absurd ideas on what they want to make...

Roscoe said...

The word you're looking for is 'versimilitude.' Not necessarily realistic, but seeming to be real.

Roscoe said...

'Imagine what kind of demographic and cultural messes people could cause with even more powerfull and selective tools.'

It's called 'China,' actually, as the sex ratio here is 135m:100f. And rising. While the population is greying due to the same factor that caused the gender disparity in the first place (the One Child Policy). I've gotten a lot of mileage, story-wise, out of the day when the young men in the eastern seaboard realize there are no wives to be had.

jollyreaper said...


The next most obvious fault is that those people just had horrible judgement on what traits to select for/against. Most "social darwinists" have absolutely no clue what traits make someone fit to survive in human society. The Nazis might as well have chosen which groups of people to oppress using a dartboard, for all the difference it would make. ...But then I get the uneasy feeling that even with voluntary genetic engineering, a lot of people are still going to have rather absurd ideas on what they want to make...


I think that heavily genetic manipulation at some point in the future remains very plausible. I won't say inevitable, just plausible. And yes, I think it'll work like has been talked about upthread -- starts with the best of intentions, then suffers from horrible unintended consequences. And this gets back to a truism that is probably canonized as someone's special rule somewhere: It doesn't matter whether or not it's true or whether you believe it; the question is whether they believe it and will act upon it. That's the difference between someone making a plausible mistake and character derailment.

jollyreaper said...


It's called 'China,' actually, as the sex ratio here is 135m:100f. And rising. While the population is greying due to the same factor that caused the gender disparity in the first place (the One Child Policy). I've gotten a lot of mileage, story-wise, out of the day when the young men in the eastern seaboard realize there are no wives to be had.


Which way do you see it breaking? In small populations like with Mormon polygamists, they just kick the boys out of the families. China can't exactly do that. Starting an unnecessary war seems a little too obvious and impractical. Which way are you taking it?

Milo said...

One obvious result is that people are likely to start respecting females more, and more parents will choose to have girls. (Even if society remains heavily patriarchal, then girls will become worth a lot of money on a dry market.)

In the more immediate sense, before you can wait for the population levels to even out over several generations, you might see social acceptance of polyandry to resolve the lack of females. And prostitution, of course. You will also see people travelling abroad to nations which weren't stupid enough to skew their gender ratio so heavily.

Castration of excess males is probably not a good way to address the problem, even if you ignore the moral concerns. The reason families prefer male children is because they're seen as more fit for continuing the family legacy. You can't do that if you don't reproduce.


Personally, as a boy, I would much rather have a world where females outnumber males than where males outnumber females. But I suspect females in the audience would beg to differ...

Jim Baerg said...

I wonder if any society could have enough sense to pick polyandry as the response to having many more males than females. Most males would regard that as very much 2nd best. Also an actually sensible society wouldn't get the skewed sex ratio in the first place.

jollyreaper said...


I wonder if any society could have enough sense to pick polyandry as the response to having many more males than females. Most males would regard that as very much 2nd best. Also an actually sensible society wouldn't get the skewed sex ratio in the first place.


And there's two ways to view that kind of thing.

A) Women are rare, therefore they now have negotiating power! Yay, women! Women's empowerment trope.

or

B) Women are rare, so they will be treated like prize chattel, turned into broodmares to pump out more humans in a dying society. Hello, Republic of Gilead!

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"A) Women are rare, therefore they now have negotiating power! Yay, women! Women's empowerment trope."

Cultural tropes that devalue and demonize women are simply artificial barriers set up around the sexual negotiating power women have always had. Strangely enough -- or perhaps not strangely at all -- cultural tropes that set women on a pedestal (I'm looking at you, Victorian Age) are likewise designed to neutralize that negotiating power, at least for some classes of women. The only difference is the relative harshness of the enforcement mechanisms.

In any case, women always have the power to negotiate. Cultural treatment of women does not give them that power. It just sets the level at which that power is negated, usually out of male fears of what that power can lead to. Yes, even in the West that's true, though it is usually not as directly addressed.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!


However, if a large number of people prefer to engineer their children to guarantee they'll be straight (or bi), then homosexuality may fade out over a few generations, without any living homosexuals actually being attacked. Would you oppose that on the grounds that mixed sexualities is an important part of our cultural heritage?

My first, tacky-stereotyping thought (shame on me!) was that the culture's standards of interior design will go to hell in a handbasket.

But in fact there's a common perception that a number of creative professions are gay-friendly. This may or may not actually be true, and if it is true I've no clue why, but a society that genetically engineered gayness away might find that it had seriously impaired its creativity.

Which is one big reason I get a 'this won't end well' feeling - not necessarily in spectacular ways, perhaps quite pedestrian ones.

As another example, haven't cloned sheep, etc., turned out to have generally poor health?

Tim said...

Rick: "Which is one big reason I get a 'this won't end well' feeling - not necessarily in spectacular ways, perhaps quite pedestrian ones."

I tend to agree. Once we've "perfected" this technology and a large number of adult humans are the benficiaries of these techniques, we're not going to be dealing with a new race of supermen, but a bunch of very bright, well behaved and very boring people that are absolute geniuses at one particular skill set and average or below on most others. Are they going to get hired for corporate office work preferentially? Probably. Are they going to wipe out the inferiors at the first opportunity? Probably not. Will they have unforseen physiological and psychological problems? Pretty likely. But then again, we've all got problems, don't we?

Anonymous said...

Genetic engineering, at this point, seems like trying to redesign a grandfather clock while it is still running. This is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, because the last thing that humans will give up is the capacity to override their common sense...

Ferrell

Milo said...

Tony:

"In any case, women always have the power to negotiate."

Duh. They're still people. But how often have they had more negotiating power than men?



Jim Baerg:

"I wonder if any society could have enough sense to pick polyandry as the response to having many more males than females. Most males would regard that as very much 2nd best."

Well, yes, we'd rather have a woman all to ourselves if we could. (We'd even more prefer having several women all to ourselves, but these days we don't normally admit that in polite company.) But think about it this way. Imagine your favorite celebrity crush, someone so awesome that there's practically no chance of her ever showing any interest in you. (If you don't have a celebrity crush, then pretend you do. Substitute an imaginary girlfriend if you absolutely must.) Now imagine that she walked up to you and offered to marry you under the condition that you're willing to share the marriage with several other guys. Would you agree?

Now, of course, most women won't actually be that awesome, but still, the basic idea holds: treat her as a person rather than a fashion accessory, as someone who's cool in her own right and who you feel priviledged to know, and polyandry starts making more sense. Not because you like it, but because you're willing to put up with it.


"Also an actually sensible society wouldn't get the skewed sex ratio in the first place."

Oh, absolutely.

I mean, you'd think that after the first few years of skewed births, people would notice and start deliberately picking the underrepresented gender (doesn't everybody want to be special?). A few years is close enough in time to even out available couplings, given that age differences of several years between spouses are not unusual.



Ferrell:

"Genetic engineering, at this point, seems like trying to redesign a grandfather clock while it is still running."

That's genetic engineering on living people. I don't think the analogy extends to genetic engineering on embryos.


"the last thing that humans will give up is the capacity to override their common sense..."

So true.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Duh. They're still people. But how often have they had more negotiating power than men?"

Always. That's why men have to physically dominate them, and why cultures the world over have taboos about women using their natural powers to dominate men sexually.

Milo said...

Negotiating power isn't negotiating power unless you can also negotiate for "please don't physically dominate me".

David said...

Gentlemen;

It seems to me that all of this talk about genetic engineering gives us a world much like “GATTACA”. Looking back at that movie, I definitely see a society that while beautiful and sparkly, lacks the vibrant chaos we have grown accustomed to in our every day. I personally think that the whole purpose of genetic engineering is to function like another level of immunization. If we can reduce the potential for such diseases as cancer and diabetes, not to mention Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis, just by genetically screening prior to conception, the overall improvement to the quality of life for many would be enormous.
If we find that by reducing the potential for disease, also leads to a domestication of humans, making us polite and boring, and causing us to lose our aggressive predatory nature, we may find it only being used for dramatic cases. The important take away from all of this is that if we have the technology and we use the technology to heal the sick, and prevent disease that is all well and good. If we use it to make us really good looking, and simultaneously stunted creatively, then doom on us.
Which leads me to another question: What if the magic hurdle that wipes out extra-terrestrial civilizations is not atomic power, but genetic power? What if you screw with your baseline genome so much you wind up with a civilization of mules? Unable to breed, you die out with a bunch of really hot looking, geniuses, but no ability to continue your species.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Negotiating power isn't negotiating power unless you can also negotiate for "please don't physically dominate me"."

The battle of the sexes has been, is, and always will be asymmetric. A power doesn't cease being a power just because the adversary has found an effective counter in one arena. It's reported that Osama bin Ladin, when seaking out his youngest wife, required that his agent choose a girl who was "calm" and "quiet". Maybe you've never been married, but to a man that has been, that speaks volumes about who was running that household.

Milo said...

David:

"Looking back at that movie, I definitely see a society that while beautiful and sparkly, lacks the vibrant chaos we have grown accustomed to in our every day."

The vibrant chaos comes from all the crazy and nonsensical ideas that people have on what sort of traits they want their children to have.

Although I have to notice that your description sounds suspiciously like some fantasy elves...


"What if the magic hurdle that wipes out extra-terrestrial civilizations is not atomic power, but genetic power?"

I expect that in the first few decades of genetic engineering, a lot of people will suggest this idea and pat themselves on the back for having "solved" the Fermi paradox. Then people will gradually realize it's not such a big deal and get over it.

You know, exactly the same thing that happened with all the people who argued that it's the inevitable fate of sentient species to wipe themselves out in nuclear war.

In fact, I'm even going to link TVTropes here.


"What if you screw with your baseline genome so much you wind up with a civilization of mules?"

...Cloning.

To be fair, currently real cloning still requires a natural womb to gestate in, so if we run out of working wombs then we're in trouble. But I really doubt things will get that bad before we find a solution.

Thucydides said...

Individuals and families choose what they see as best for themselves, not society.

In cultures like China and India, having a boy is seen as a positive, while a girl is seen as more of a burden on the family (arranging a dowry, for example). So each family is choosing to have a male child for perfectly logical reasons in that cultural environment, with little of no thought that in 18 years young Chen or Raj is going to find it a bit hard to get a date...

Many other issues in society are usually the unintended consequences of short term thinking or seeking individual advantage. The "Tragedy of the Commons" is one example of how this can lead to disaster. OTOH, having some outside agency choosing for "the good of society" begs the question of just how do they know, and how do we know they are not just skewing things to their advantage? Ancient Greeks used juries drawn by random lot, a Boule (executive committee) where a person could only serve one term during his life and strict term limits on other offices in an attempt to prevent oligarchy or nepotism from gaining roots (but were unable to prevent demagogues from swaying the assembly into voting for short term advantage or to pad someone else's pockets...)

Genetic engineering is going to be a similar problem. Everyone will be looking for some sort of advantage either for themselves or their families, so any sort of societal "damage" (don't forget there will be people who will see the results as a good thing), will creep up on everyone and then we scramble to find the next quick fix...

Jim Baerg said...

Milo said: "You know, it occurs to me that gender dimorphism is one of the things that some people might try to get rid of if they had access to genetic engineering. Oh sure, we'll keep the boobs, but I imagine a lot of people wanting give their daughter a little extra size.)"

However, there seems to be some evidence that shorter people live longer. Maybe we would want to make the sons smaller. Though given the social advantages of greater height, that would be a hard sell.

Re: skewed sex ratios. Have any of the countries where this is becoming a problem started a propaganda campaign on the theme of "If you want grandchildren in a few decades, have a daughter now."?

Rick said...

Tony -

It's reported that Osama bin Ladin, when seaking out his youngest wife, required that his agent choose a girl who was "calm" and "quiet". Maybe you've never been married, but to a man that has been, that speaks volumes about who was running that household.

Wow, Osama as henpecked husband working out his frustrations. Sort of puts Walter Mitty in a whole new perspective.


Thucydides -

with little of no thought that in 18 years young Chen or Raj is going to find it a bit hard to get a date...

Not to mention that these cultures have a tradition of arranged marriages. So parents are not 'culturally coded' to think about their kids' future dating prospects.

Milo said...

Rick:

"Not to mention that these cultures have a tradition of arranged marriages."

Wouldn't that make it worse?

If they have arranged marriages, then finding a spouse for your child isn't his problem, it's your problem.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides:"with little of no thought that in 18 years young Chen or Raj is going to find it a bit hard to get a date..."

Unless it is a sinester plot by shadowy conspirators to bring down the population to managable levels...;0

Ferrell

Rick said...

If they have arranged marriages, then finding a spouse for your child isn't his problem, it's your problem.

True! But these transactions are uncommon enough in any given family that people probably aren't too sensitive to market signals, and take for granted that having a son in the market will always be the advantage 'the way it has always been.'

Tony said...

Milo:

"Wouldn't that make it worse?

If they have arranged marriages, then finding a spouse for your child isn't his problem, it's your problem."


One has to remember that the motivation to abort girls in India is that they cost the parents to get them married off. Dowry for even one girl can wipe out an entire family's savings. Sons, on the other hand, bring in dowry and have strong backs to keep the parents fed when they get old. Dowry isn't so much an issue in China, but strong sons are the only social security most Chinese families have.

Scott said...

Consider this quote: "People think that our body has limitation, however just imagine if we have organs that doesn’t exist, moreover we can control that new body?"

Science fiction ranter? Genetic upgrade enthusiast? Nope, I found that on a commercial website.

Only it's a company making fashion accessories that read your mind, which should be SFnal enough for anyone without getting random transhumanist proposals into the mix. The company, Neurowear, has robotic cat ears that are supposed to monitor the brainwaves of the wearer and move up or down to send social signals - to people who'd rather deal with cats, perhaps.

A review on technabob seemed more perplexed than offended, much like my response; this suggests that outre' genetic upgrades will meet confusion and skepticism rather than lynch mobs.

Thucydides said...

While there may be a niche market for genetically engineered cat ears, I would think that the biggest portion of the market would be for things that would be recognized as "upgrades".

Greater intelligence.
Better health, either resistance to disease or the ability to avoid degenerative diseases.
Beauty (either general like symmetry of as defined by whatever group you belong to).
Faster reflexes or enhanced athletic ability.

People will be willing to pay a lot to get these attributes or get them for their children; people who are unable to get them will find the bell curve moving to the right and leaving them behind, and unenhanced children will find they are living in an increasingly difficult world where they have fewer opportunities or the ability to get ahead.

So people may be confused or amused at some aspects of genetic engineering, but when it impacts their own interests they won't be amused at all.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"While there may be a niche market for genetically engineered cat ears..."

Furry fantasies, elevated to reality -- the horror, the horror...

Milo said...

Thucydides:

"Beauty (either general like symmetry of as defined by whatever group you belong to)."

Probably the best route here is preservation of youthful appearance into old age - preservation of skin against wrinkles, no baldness, etc. Conveniently, this would probably go hand-in-hand with improved health and possible even immortality, since you're staying in your prime of life.

Less universal ideas would be getting rid of hair in undesirable places. Opinions on beards vary - in some cultures people go to great lengths to get rid of them, but in other cultures they're seen as a sign of manliness. Leg hair, body hair, armpit hair, etc. are more widely reviled, though you'll surely find exceptions.

Some people will probably try to genetically code for slim bodies, but that's not such a good idea to me - even aside from Western standards of beauty not being universal and many people thinking fat people can be attractive, sabotaging the digestive system's ability to keep fat reserves could lead to health detriments.

Finally you have "niche" beauty traits like the aforementioned cat ears, which appeal to a certain segment of the populace while looking weird to others. Your possession of these being at the whims of your parents rather than yourself could turn ugly quickly (pun intended).

Anonymous said...

So, in the future we will have atomic rocket ships manned by cat girls and dog boys? Or will "real" humans be leaving Earth to live somewhere where there aren't any...

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"So, in the future we will have atomic rocket ships manned by cat girls and dog boys? Or will "real" humans be leaving Earth to live somewhere where there aren't any..."

Now that's sexist. Why not cat boys and dog girls?

Milo said...

I prefer cats for both genders. Other people are bound to like dogs more.

I'm sure that if genetic engineering becomes widespread, you're going to see a lot of conflicting ideas and heated arguments about what a "proper" catgirl should look like. (Fur? No fur? Ears on top or on the side? How about paws?)

Anonymous said...

Ok...if you want to be P.C. about it...Cat People and Dog People. Flying around in atomic rockets...

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

The market for catgirls and boys may be overshadowed by the market for Elves or Hobbits. I would imagine Arwen Eveningstar is idolized by at least as many people as catgirls are...

Like other markets there will be multiple and overlapping niches to be filled. The base market will be for general improvements, while higher margins will be found in detailed or intricate changes and cosmetics.

One complicating factor will be if the changes can be passed on through the generations, or how the various mods would interact. Would cat like vision need two parents with cat eyes? What about one parent with cat like agility and another with super strength?

Milo said...

Thucydides:

"The market for catgirls and boys may be overshadowed by the market for Elves or Hobbits."

Elves means two things. First it means immortality/eternal youth, which presumably everyone will want if it's possible at all. Secondly it means pointy ears, which I can see some people wanting, whether because they want to be elves, or vulcans, or whatever. Pointy ears are very common in fiction. But they seem like a pretty minor tweak - at a distance or if covered by hair you might not even be able to tell if a person has the pointy ears gene. Oh wait, and elves also have the "little body hair" thing, but that too falls under the generic beauty package I outlined above. I expect you will see far more round-eared "elves", while only the die-hard fans include the pointy ears mutation.

Now hobbits are a more complicated matter. Such a huge size reduction is going to have consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. It might have some good consequences, like needing less food and making better use of the space in a cheap apartment, but it will definitely have quite a few bad ones, if only due to the cultural environment - it'll be hard to use equipment sized for normal humans, reach high shelves (or even normal tables), etc. And there's a question of just how far the human body can be scaled down without health problems. Tolkinian hobbits are supposed to average 3'6". This is remarkably close to Homo floresiensis, but is quite low for any member of Homo sapiens, where even pygmy populations can be expected to average something more like 4'6". Dating prospects are also going to be tricky when you can't see face-to-face with most of the populace.


"The base market will be for general improvements, while higher margins will be found in detailed or intricate changes and cosmetics."

Not necessarily. Coding for pointy ears is probably easier than coding for immortality. Purely aesthetic changes may well become the genetic engineer's equivalent of parlor tricks, something relatively easy that you do to show off and attract customers for your more expensive products. A genetic engineer might dedicate his life's work to researching major changes out of an interest in advancing science and improving the human condition, while meanwhile selling cosmetic changes in order to pay the bills.


"One complicating factor will be if the changes can be passed on through the generations, or how the various mods would interact. Would cat like vision need two parents with cat eyes? What about one parent with cat like agility and another with super strength?"

That depends on how the genes are programmed. It is quite possible that if we have the ability to code for things like cat vision at all, then we will also be able to fine-tune how the genes work reproductively (decide whether they're dominant or recessive, place them into a convenient spot relative to the baseline human genome where they won't disrupt anything, etc.)

However I can also see some transhumans being so heavily engineered that they are no longer genetically compatible with normal humans, and need artificial genetic engineering aid to reproduce (which, however, by that time will be readily available). They might even be completely sterile without artificially engineering their babies, but that would suggest shoddy programming on the part of who designed their genes.

I can also see genes from different companies not playing nice with each other, and ISO scrambling to develop some sort of universal compatibility standards...

Anonymous said...

CNN 2075 news story "Today, both the Health Department and SEC announced that they are investigating Cat mods by FurfurU Corp. for violations the Universal Industrial Genetics Compatibility and Safty Code (UIGCSC). Violations include nondisclosure of enheiratability of engineered genetic traits and increased susptability of Gonzo's Syndrome, a personality disorder. FurfurU officials declined to respond to our inquries for comment."

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

You do have to wonder what will become the marker of exclusivity once everyone is one of the beautiful people. Used to be that being pale was a sign of attractiveness because most people lived outdoors. Now it's being tan because only the idle rich can afford to play outside in the sun. Being fat used to be a sign of wealth; not it means you're poor and can't afford decent food and time for exercise. If everyone looks perfect, what sort of scarcity will we fall back on? Personality? I'm assuming intelligence can be gengineered as well so really, what sort of artificial barrier can be invented so that only the rich people have it? I'm guessing it'll be something that's just plain snobbery. A group of people get together and put up a velvet rope. We're the only ones allowed on this side. If you try really hard we might invite one or two of you. Now we just have to hope everyone else gets intrigued with how it's like on the other side.

It's interesting to see how the social cliques work when wealth is no longer the major status determinant.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

I'm pretty sure that genetic engineering alone is not going to create a post-scarcity society. Some people are still going to have more money than others.

If advanced genetic treatments are very expensive, then possessing the most expensive genes could be a mark of status. But like I said, I think that cosmetic changes will be cheaper than not-outwardly-visible stuff like immortality. And the cost of genetic engineering will go down as it becomes better understood - again, much like with programming, I expect that developing a new gene will be far more costly than installing an existing design into an embryo.

If cosmetic genetic engineering is cheap enough that middle-class people can afford whatever they want, then appearance will not be linked to wealth, so there is going to be a major question of personal taste.

Also remember that some elements of beauty are directly linked to health. Which means that, technically, they're more than cosmetic. Perhaps a discount elf ear mod works fine as long as you're gentle with them, but scar easily, while the deluxe mod can regenerate them perfectly even if you cut them off. Being in a visible state of excellent health would imply you probably have high-grade genes.


"If everyone looks perfect, what sort of scarcity will we fall back on? Personality?"

Which raises the question of: if you could pick the personalities of your kids (at least in the broad strokes), what would you pick? Is it wise to meddle in this at all rather than letting personalities develop organically?

I think there is no one personality of which you could say that the human species would be better off if we were all that way.

Thucydides said...

I would imagine that the marker for exclusivity would be what mods are chosen. Think back to your misspent youth, when people were converging in cliques based on musical choice. There were Punks, Goths, New Romantics, Shoegazers, EMOs; followers of Grunge, Speed Metal, Thrash and ever more obscure sub cults (anyone remember "Straight Edge"?).

Now you would have Elves, Cat people, Greek Heros, Aquamen and women, Giants, Superbrights...It would make high school seem like the model of peace, love and understanding.

Since most mods would be part of a package, you could potentially score on a percentage basis (Greek Demi-god with 25% Giant and 10% Superbright? You've got to be kidding us, freak! Only 50% or more Giant genes wanted here!).

We discussed other markers for exclusivity and wealth in post scarcity economies and societies, time, attention and bandwidth seemed to be the limiting factors (i.e. a really rich of famous person would never be able to answer all the emails sent to them), which might suggest that Superbrights who could process large quantities of information faster would have a large advantage in that sort of society

Anonymous said...

Speaking of genetic mods...has anyone here read Dr. Seuss' story about those birds, some of whom have stars on their bellies and some who did not? I can't remember the name of the story, but it fits right in with this topic...

Ferrell

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"Speaking of genetic mods...has anyone here read Dr. Seuss' story about those birds, some of whom have stars on their bellies and some who did not? I can't remember the name of the story, but it fits right in with this topic..."

"The Sneetches"

Anonymous said...

Tony: thanks!

Ferrell

Jim2B said...

Are there readers lurking among the lurkers who have a biology background, and can provide more informed comment?

I don't have credentials in biology but I have followed some of the debate on this topic in scientific circles.

Both amino acids (the building blocks for proteins) and sugars (the building blocks for energy storage) have chiralty (sp?) - meaning handedness. On the surface it looks like even if a planet evolved to use identical chemicals as the Earth, there would still only be a 50/50 chance of our biology being compatible!

However, recent astronomical evidence indicates the handedness that we see on Earth may be a result of photochemical processes during planet formation. Meaning other life bearing planets would likely have the same handedness as that found on Earth ... interesting.

Also I read recently that of the 50 or so amino acids most commonly found in comet nuclei, life on Earth uses 47 (or 48). I'm not sure on the numbers but is something like this ratio.

Meaning life on another planet is also very likely to use almost all of the same amino acids as terrestrial life.

However, what are the chances that it would use the same sugars as us for energy storage? What are the chances that this life would use those same 47 building blocks to build the same proteins? What are the chances that life on another planet would use DNA to transmit genetic information? What are the chances that alien animal life would use the same fat molecules as us for longer-term storage of energy?

I don't know. I assume that the best we could hope for is that we could get some nutrients from life on another world but that at a minimum we would need both artificial enzymes to aid in digestion AND supplements to fill the necessary but missing compounds we need.

This might even be a neat niche to explore in story form (crash survivors trying to make due on food collected from an alien biosphere).