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Ex Machina: Of Screens and People

Posted by George Estreich, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on August 3rd, 2015

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[This essay has many spoilers.]

Ex Machina, the new film directed by Alex Garland, begins with a young coder in front of a screen (Caleb Smith, played by Domnhall Gleeson). He receives an email: he's won a corporate lottery. He texts a friend: I won. Instant congratulations follow, online and in the casual, open-floor plan office, where co-workers applaud. He looks happy and dazed. In short order, he's being chauffeured by helicopter over the National Park-sized estate of the corporation’s founder, whom Caleb will get to meet, in a week-long, coder’s dream vacation.

The office scene is as loaded as it is brief. In it, we see Caleb as if from a webcam. Colored light flickers at the edges of his face and in his eyes; a grid appears against his face’s contours. The camera’s perspective suggests that he’s being surveilled--as it turns out, he is—but also, more disturbingly, that he is himself synthetic, that coder and hardware share more than proximity. He almost flickers from within. The same effect recurs later in the movie, when Caleb—thoroughly disoriented by the events soon to come—slices his arm open to see if he is human, smears blood on a bathroom mirror, then punches the mirror with his fist. It’s a seconds-long drama of identity, embodiment, and surveillance, and just as in the opening scene, we see him as if through the mirror, which conceals a camera.

In both scenes, the camera angle implicates the audience. Seeing Caleb voyeuristically, on a screen, we assume the point of view of an unseen watcher. The movie is a black mirror, a screen and a window at once, showing us our world as it shows us ourselves. It’s set in the present, not the future; and its true subject, despite its dazzling special effects, is less the technology to come than the technology around us now.


The Facts Behind #CRISPRfacts and the Hype Behind CRISPR

Posted by Jonathan Chernoguz on July 28th, 2015

On July 21, WIRED magazine released its August issue with a cover story on the controversial new gene-editing technique CRISPR. Under the headline “The Genesis Engine,” the cover shows magenta mountains and bright pink trees, and welcome readers to “the post-natural world.” The story portrays CRISPR as a literal cure-all, though one that might come with a bit of risk:

"We now have the power to quickly and easily alter DNA. It could eliminate disease. It could solve world hunger. It could provide unlimited clean energy. It could really get out of hand."

The online version of the article begins: “Easy DNA editing will remake the world. Buckle up.” 

Even with today’s sensationalist scientific journalism, this level of hyperbole was a bit much, and the satirical Twitter hashtag #CRISPRfacts quickly began to trend.

Daniel Macarthur, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute, was the first to suggest that WIRED’s CRISPR article may have gone too far with the tweet:

Chris Dwan, also from the Broad Institute, replied with a joke using the hashtag #CRISPRfacts.

Others picked it up, igniting a slew of facetious tweets parodying WIRED’s claims, including You can stop earth-killing asteroids with CRISPR and CRISPR is actually Luke’s father.  One claimed CRISPR as the secret to Donald Trump’s hair.

Other tweets included graphics which poked fun at CRISPR content:

For those of us with deep social and political concerns about CRISPR – especially about proposals to use it to create genetically modified human beings, which the WIRED article discusses – the Twitter wave was double-edged. It was great to see the hype bubble pierced, but a little worrisome that few of the tweets acknowledged any problem with CRISPR beyond the hype. Here are some of our efforts in that direction from our twitter, @C_G_S:

The fun finally petered out a couple days later, after more than 1,500 tweets and memes. However, the challenges posed by germline gene editing, of course, remain.

Notwithstanding its overwrought headline and cover, the WIRED article provides a decent overview of the CRISPR controversy. Sure, it fails to mention some key policy aspects of the situation, like the widespread international agreement that editing the human germline should be legally off-limits – and already is in more than 40 nations.

But its bottom-line message about CRISPR and the human germline seems appropriate both in fact and in tone – and it’s nothing to joke about:

"Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Stars, Bars, and Embryos

Posted by Emma Maniere on July 28th, 2015

Confederate flag

At first glance, the embryo-screening technique known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the confederate flag seem to have little in common. But as a twelve-year old article by bioethicist and disability studies pioneer Adrienne Asch reminded me, both carry symbolic power as indicators of societal hierarchies and perceived human value.   

PGD is used with in vitro fertilization to test eight-cell embryos for “serious” diseases like cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, and Tay-Sachs disease before transferring them into a patient’s uterus. It’s also used to create “savior siblings” and to produce children of the sex that parents prefer. And one fertility clinic briefly offered it to control for cosmetic traits like skin complexion, hair color, and eye color.

The confederate flag – a lightning rod of debate following a Supreme Court ruling and the Charleston massacre  – is viewed by some as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage and by others (a view with which I agree) as a symbol of a racist oppression, a relic that demonstrates that a cruel and painful history is alive and well.  

The ongoing debate about both PGD and the confederate flag often positions intent as the sole arbiter of meaning. In other words, if I raise the confederate flag because I strongly believe in states’ rights, does the flag still serve as a symbol of racism? (This argument of course ignores the fact that the history of states’ rights is so deeply marred by racism that the two cannot be disentangled.) Or, if I opt not to implant an embryo because PGD reveals a high likelihood that the fetus would develop Down syndrome, can I simultaneously claim to believe that people with disabilities are entitled to lives as full and equal members of society? Do egalitarian beliefs about race or (dis)ability mitigate the flag or testing’s symbolic power?

But these questions, which frame the controversy as one about individual choice and intent, miss the mark. People and their decisions do not exist in a vacuum.  The “Stars and Bars” cannot be removed from its history as the emblem for a region that fought to uphold a slave society, and which was later resurrected to signal opposition to civil rights. Similarly, prenatal testing in its various forms is a technology that identifies disability and disease – with an inherently blurred line between them – so that a pregnancy can be terminated.

Intent and expectations are thus embroiled in a racist and ableist context. In Asch’s words:

The flying Confederate flag tells people historically victimized by racist discrimination that racism and the history of racism is and was acceptable; enumerating a set of testable genetic diseases tells people who currently have those conditions that it would be better if prospective parents went to considerable lengths to prevent the births of children with those conditions.
In other words, the complex, symbolic, historically-constructed meanings of the confederate flag and prenatal testing cannot be removed from the practice.

First-person accounts from Panama Jackson, a Black writer who has lived in Alabama and Georgia, and Marsha Saxton, a disability studies scholar, are telling.  Jackson recalls that his high school friends would wear t-shirts emblazoned with the flag without meaning to offend him; they would politely carry on small talk and yet the flag:
Was there as a constant reminder that you’ve come only so far … there’s no way to get around that its use has now and will always be tied to white supremacists insistence on reminding Black folks to stay in line.

Jackson elaborated that the flag serves as a reminder that “progress comes with stipulations,” and that it displays – in t-shirt, bumper sticker, or belt buckle form – how much progress remains to be achieved. 

In a similar way, the rights of people with disabilities have no doubt expanded since the start of the disabilities rights movement, but there’s a long way to go. Saxton notes that genetic testing reinforces the medical model of disability, which unequivocally views disabilities as conditions to be avoided at all costs. Saxton and other disability rights advocates point out, however, that the impairments the medical model finds strictly in biology are at least in part products of a society that stigmatizes physical differences and often resists accommodating them. 

Prenatal and pre-implantation testing has become more and more routinized, and increasingly framed as the responsible and logical choice for parents wishing to give their future child(ren) the best possible chances in life. Saxton explains that “these technologies make us [people with disabilities] feel devalued as human beings.” What is more, genetic testing relays the message that “it is better not to exist than to have a disability … your family and the world would be better off without you alive.” With that being said, while abortion ought to be an individual decision that remains protected, it is impossible to separate that decision from a larger social context in which, as Saxton contends, people with disabilities are devalued.

Both the confederate flag and genetic testing, implicitly (or arguably not-so-implicitly) devalue the existence of certain populations who by no coincidence have experienced vast historical marginalization. That is, these are problems about systems of oppression. The #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us that “black lives exist in at state of precariousness.” Racism, and anti-Black racism in particular, is not sewn only into a flag but into our culture, laws, history, geography, language, and criminal justice system.

Likewise, society’s devaluation of people with disabilities can be located in all of those same places, which might well be thought of as repositories for social norms and expectations. Again, this demonstrates why straightforward concepts like “choice” and “intent” are insufficient to capture the full extent of what is at stake in these debates.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Slipping Into Eugenics? Nathaniel Comfort on the History Behind CRISPR

Posted by Elliot Hosman on July 23rd, 2015

Nathaniel Comfort pictured

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It’s great to see The Nation – a venerable journal of progressive opinion and analysis – expanding its coverage of human biotechnologies. In the past few years, Patricia J. Williams’ regular column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” has taken on topics including precision medicine, “genetic race,” and surrogacy. Now, historian Nathaniel Comfort’s epic article, “Can We Cure Genetic Diseases Without Slipping Into Eugenics?,” looks at the new DNA editing tool CRISPR in the context of the United States’ eugenics movement.

Nathaniel Comfort – author of The Science of Human Perfection and recent guest on Talking Biopolitics with fellow eugenics historian Alexandra Minna Stern – writes about enthusiasts who advocate using new genetic engineering techniques to attempt to alter the traits passed on to future generations, a practice called human germline modification. Some public personae embrace the term “liberal eugenics” and argue that  a “free-market environment with real individual choice” is the best way to protect us from repeating past eugenic abuses. But, as Comfort warns, “liberal eugenics is really neoliberal eugenics.” And the invisible hand of the market isn’t pulling back on the reins of technological progress anytime soon.

In countries outside the U.S. with a more honest memory of state-controlled human betterment projects, there is no beating around the bush of what’s at stake. In addition to the history of public outcry that Comfort recounts, there has been an international consensus for decades that engineering the human germline is off-limits. More than 40 nations have passed legislation to ban it outright—including nearly all nations with developed biotech sectors except for the United States. The United Nations has declared the human genome the “heritage of humanity” which ought to be protected and transmitted to future generations—without markups and edits. And UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee has stated that justice demands we do not interfere with the biology of future humans based on the “particular conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human traits” of our time.

The debate about CRISPR gene editing is currently dominated by discussion of whether it would be “safe” to edit human embryos, a fixation that serves to downplay the historical, social, and political contexts that Comfort so richly describes.  While CRISPR and related techniques can also be used as “gene therapy” to help people who are sick, the argument that gene-editing human embryos is a necessary medical treatment is tenuous: Couples concerned about passing on serious genetic diseases can use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to screen embryos—and although this technology also raises eugenic concerns, it does not pose the same biological and societal threats as does the genetic manipulation of the human germline.

When he moves from history to current politics, Comfort explores the ways in which the issue of human germline gene editing can scramble political allegiances, precisely because of the larger motivators—private interests and social inequality—that a system wed to neoliberal individualism is failing to address. In an age where personal choice can easily obscure the impact of our self-interested decisions on others, developments in human biotechnology present many ways to stumble. Comfort concludes:

In short, neoliberal eugenics is the same old eugenics we’ve always known. When it comes to controlling our evolution, individualism and choice point toward the same outcomes as authoritarian collectivism: a genetically stratified society resistant to social change—one that places the blame for society’s ills on individuals rather than corporations or the government.

I’ll be excited to watch the workaday applications of techniques like CRISPR unfold, in medicine and, especially, basic science. But sexy debates over whether reproductive biotechnology will permit us to control our genetic evolution merely divert us from the cultural evolution that we must undertake in order to see meaningful improvement in human lives.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:



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