Is bioengineering killing God?

Is bioengineering killing God?

There is a famous philosophical experiment that goes like this: you take two identical cars. Then you swap one part of each car with the identical one from the other. You keep swapping, piece by piece, until no part has been untouched. At what point has one car become the other?

Like most philosophical questions, it is annoyingly difficult to answer at first glance. Then you realise something – the very concept of a car is just that – an idea that we humans have developed as a convenient whole “thing” – one that in technical terms doesn’t actually exist independent of its parts.  The same goes for countries, banks and the stock exchange.  These are all just convenient concepts we use (then forget we created) to refer to complex systems with lots of parts.

Now, if you take your grandma and you give her a hip replacement, does she suddenly stop being your grandma? What if, after that she needs a heart bypass to deal with her blocked artery? Then she has a degenerative eye disease and you learn that – amazingly – she can actually have new ones grown from her own cells and implanted – good as new! Over time, your Grandma has more and more operations to keep her going. At what point is your Grandma no more?

For eons, we also used to think of humans as a single indivisible thing – an in-dividual (something that can’t be broken into pieces). This was natural, since breaking people into pieces – even replacing faulty bits – does indeed harm them without the tools of modern medicine! It was in this historical context that we came up with the notion that humans had a ‘soul’. But bio-engineering is giving us the ability to cut and replace more and more part of humans, while other scientific discoveries about the human brain are challenging the notion that human personalities are a single thing at all.

Bioengineering is a field where engineering principles are applied to the fields of biology and healthcare. It used to be a pretty limited area – mainly because most of the materials we had available to put into humans didn’t interact that well with the body. Not surprisingly, the very immune system designed to protect us from bad bugs also tended to make our bodies reject various implants, recognising them (rightly) as foreign but (wrongly) as hostile… 

All that changed when we started learning how to build parts of humans out of our own cells. In November 2018, Tel Aviv University announced that it had created the first fully personalised tissue implant, engineered from a biopsy of a patient’s own cells. Other scientists are working on ways to make cartilage from a patient’s own cells – something that would be a huge step forward for reducing arthritis.

In both of the ground-breaking discoveries above, scientists effectively enabled a single person to be alive in two places at once (the living, breathing person and the cells harvested from them and turned into an implant).

This is huge both for the field of bio-engineering and for all living things. In particular, it means that one day we should be able to replace any living part of an animal’s body with an bio-engineered one. It also means that, for the first time, we don’t have to wait for evolution to improve our bodies – we can do it ourselves. 

Our ability to re-engineer ourselves will likely turn humans (slowly) into Gods; probably more the powerful, immortal, flawed ones like the Greek and Roman ones than the all knowing and always good variety. If it sound implausible that we’ll be able to this, consider that things like having heart surgery or hip replacements seemed ridiculous in the not to distance past, yet are commonplace and even relatively low-risk procedures today.

The amount of suffering we will help avoid with this new technology is so vast that it is almost unfathomable. If you have an ageing relative or one with a currently incurable disease or condition, you’ll know just how terrible it is to have to sit back and watch their ability to function in life gradually erode. We now have a way forward to stop this.

What are the eggs we’re cracking to make this life-giving omelette?

It turns out that we’re cracking one of the most holy eggs of almost all religions – the very concept of a human soul. The idea behind a soul was that there was something unique about each human that would endure even after death. Most religions haven’t been very sure about whether other animals had souls – but we sure hoped not because that would be mighty inconvenient for our plans to farm, kill and eat them!

So, we gave ourselves the benefit of the doubt and said only humans have this soul thing and we take it with us to heaven when we pop our clogs. Few people thought to ask whether, when we get a plastic hip implant, whether the old hip – which gets incinerated before we die – goes up to heaven and waits for us to arrive. Awkward if we end up being particularly bad after our hip operation and find our hip in heaven and the rest of us in hell!

You can see where I’m going with this. The very concept of a human soul was a shorthand we originally used to talk about the ‘essence’ or ‘whole’ of all those parts that make us human. But what if, actually, there is no real ‘whole’ human or human soul – only the illusion that our conscious brain creates for us because it is convenient to think of us as a whole rather than lots of parts?  There is even evidence now that our personalities are nothing more than a set of individual and socialised tendencies to act in certain ways – so you won’t find a soul driving that either. 

If there is no soul, then a core reason we have for all religions disappears. There is no soul for God to judge one way or another – just lots of bits of us to replace when they get old, or when we want to function better for a certain environment. This kind of puts God out of a job, even if you do decide to ignore available evidence and believe s/he created the universe.

This all sounds very philosophical, but there are some important practical implications. First, no need to worry about going to hell…yay! Or heaven…boo! So, we need to agree ways of agreeing what behaviour we consider to be acceptable based on common agreement, rather than by believing in a deity that tells us via an ancient text. That’s not actually so hard – it’s actually what our laws do already.

Second, we should worry about how quickly we can upgrade our various parts. Why? Because the longer we take, the more people suffer with the crappy older model of a body. As part of this, we should be spending time studying how bodies work and how to improve them, rather than praying to an unresponsive God to save a soul that mounting evidence suggest simply doesn’t exist.

Do you agree with my conclusion that there is no such thing as a soul?  Do you agree that this means humans should be spending less time in a church and more in the lab, finding new ways to improve the human condition and that of other animals?  If you find this topic interesting and want to know more, go along to 15minutefutures.org and check out Episode 3 on bio-engineering 🙂

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Would you eat artificial meat?

What’s the challenge?

We are expecting more than 2.4 billion extra people on the planet by the year 2050. With huge growth in the middle classes globally, demand for meat is also estimated to double by 2050. Food production will have to increase by between 70 and 100 percent.

How on earth will we meet this new demand for food from hungry mouths, without continuing to use water and land unsustainably? In particular, cows take a lot of land, feed and water to grow. They are also big producers of greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide which are much worse for climate change than carbon dioxide.

In New Zealand alone, collectively dairy, beef and sheep generate more than 97 per cent of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand and almost half of the total green-house emissions for the country.

Will eating bugs help save our planet?

The answer to the question is: doing so already is! Around 2 billion people eat bugs around the world – that’s a lot of bugs being chowed down! And it’s much more environmentally friendly – taking only 1.5L of water to produce a kilo of cricket protein versus the 20L for beef.
Many bugs have more protein than beef and lamb and use a fraction of the water to produce.

So why aren’t we eating more of them?

For those of us living in the so-called ‘West’, it’s primarily a question of cultural traditions and taste preferences. But given how much of our food is pre-packaged, might we be missing a trick here? I mean, we don’t actually see the eggs and flour that go into a pre-made lasagne and, bugs are no less healthy for us!
If so, it seems we’ll need a lot more marketing – maybe along the same lines as the recent plastic bag campaign, to change attitudes and get us to be a bit more open about ways we get our protein.

What other solutions might there be?

Ok, I get it. Bugs are a bit icky and nothing I say is going to convince you that munching on crickets is a good idea any time soon. So what other solutions are there?
Perhaps technology will help us here. It seems there’s a bit of a revolution afoot in how we produce and preserve food.

There are also some really cool initiatives underway to reduce waste. For example the Kakadu plum (a native fruit of Australia), packed with anti-microbials, can double shelf life of frozen lasagne from 6 months to 18 months. This could transform the food business!

Then there’s so-called cellular agriculture (e.g. artificial meat and milk). Why is this new approach to creating food so amazing? Here are some of the killer stats according to Oxford University research:
o Uses up to to 45% less energy;
o 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions; and
o 96% less water.

And there seems to be a sudden surge of interest in this new tech coming out of places like Silicon Valley.  Cellular agriculture includes things like manufacturing milk and meat using plants and cells from animals (rather than actually killing animals).

Isn’t all this ‘artificial meat’ stuff a pipe dream?

The good news is that the price of cellular agriculture seems to be coming down exponentially. The first artificial meat burger by pioneer of cellular agriculture is Dutch scientist Mark Post: $325,000 USD per burger patty back in 2013. Just 4 years later it was $11.60 USD. That’s a 30,000 reduction in 4 years!

So no, this isn’t a pipe dream – the primary barrier is peoples’ taste and sense of fear about something new. We also need to ensure that manufacturers of these new products are transparent to avoid massive public backlashes like we had with genetically modified food.

The economics of this and the environmental benefits are all aligned. The only real things holding us back are vested interests and public understanding of what’s possible.

For example, we’ve already seen the Deputy Prime Minister in NZ publicly chastise Air New Zealand for serving up artificial meat burgers to its customers, saying they should stick to traditionally grown meat and lamb.

Given the terrible toll those things have taken on our environment and the fact that people across the world will soon be producing meat and milk for a fraction of the price, is this really the advice we should be taking?

What can you do?

If you want to make a difference and improve our environmental sustainability, I reckon there are a couple of things you can do personally. Firstly, publicly support the idea of moving away from traditional agricultural models. You can do that by sharing this post with your friends and family.

Secondly, even if (like me) becoming a vegetarian is a bit of a stretch, become a flexitarian in the meantime. I get it – you don’t want to be a party pooper at your next BBQ, so don’t feel you have to make a big deal about it. Just stop buying red meat at the supermarket yourself.

What has surprise me in becoming a flexitarian is that my tastes gradually changed. I no longer crave red meat. I still eat chicken occasionally and, if I’m out or at a friend’s place and there’s not much choice, I still eat red meat. But my wife and I no longer buy and eat it ourselves.

With these simple changes, not only will you be helping the planet, but you’ll be reducing your own risks of colon cancer and whole lot of other diseases associated with eating lots of red meat. In NZ and Australia, our rates of these diseases are world leading (not the kind of world-leading we want)

What do you think?

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