by Mary Harrington
Thursday, 22
September 2022
Spotted
07:30

US commits $2bn to ‘high risk, high reward’ biotech projects

Fresh funding will be provided to gene editing and mRNA technology
by Mary Harrington
Do you trust this man? Credit: Getty

Biotech is entering a new era, with massive US government support: last week the US Government signed an executive order that assigned $2 billion in government funding for ‘high risk, high reward’ biotech projects such as CRISPR gene editing, artificial meat and further development of the mRNA technology behind the Covid vaccine.

With this shift, as I noted last week, a new paradigm of “health” is emerging, not as a default state where doctors are on hand to help get us back to normal when something goes wrong. In the new, transhumanist vision, humans are a kind of meaty machine whose basic functioning can be engineered toward a vision of “health” that’s something more than the default, via biomedical interventions. And doctors are engineers we depend on in perpetuity to keep supplying new and better upgrades.

Last week’s executive order gave another signal that this dream of engineers with limitless power to upgrade nature is increasingly dominant within the world’s only superpower:

We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale-up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.
- U.S. Government

In the paragraphs that follow there’s plenty of throat-clearing about protecting against “accidental or deliberate harm”, and safeguarding “United States principles and values and international best practices”. But anyone who feels reassured as a result should glance again at the third sentence in the passage I’ve quoted, which makes it clear that this path of limitless upgrades will be open from the word go to commercial exploitation.

For we already have a well-worked example of how easily “harm” can be redefined, as “values” come under pressure from commercial imperatives: child gender transition. Consider, for example, the different perverse incentives in publicly and privately-funded healthcare systems where this protocol is concerned. In recent years, European nations with publicly funded healthcare systems have rowed back on paediatric gender medicine, for example citing severe side effects and lack of evidence. America, though, has an insurance-based healthcare system, where the incentive is for more and more advanced and expensive interventions — and here, perhaps coincidentally, senior public medical officials call the protocol “essential”, “life-saving” and “evidence-based”.

And while the NHS is closing its only child gender clinic, calling it ‘inadequate’, in the US “gender care” for children is an explosive growth area. The first such US clinic opened in 2007, and there are now (according to the HRC) 50 such institutions, though the real number is probably as high as 300 clinics providing biomedical upgrade services to children.

Of course it’s not just about following the money; it’s also about “values”. America has long valorised those who overcome odds or disregard limits to realise a seemingly impossible dream. So when new technologies promise to overcome our physiological limits, extending that American Dream to human nature itself, no wonder many are enthused. And from this perspective, the “harm” and violation of “values” consists in submitting to unchosen biophysical norms. Here, radical interventions are defended as a means of protecting children from the “trauma” of undergoing “the wrong puberty”.

We are plunging blindly into the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, guided by an ascendant paradigm that views “harm” as a refusal to intervene in what’s normal and “health” as structurally reliant on ongoing biomedical intervention. The reality, though, often falls short of this hubristic dream. There’s already no shortage of testimony from children who regret having interrupted their normal maturation and irreversibly surgically re-sculpted their bodies in accordance with the transhumanist paradigm of freedom-through-upgrades.

And when we extrapolate the now US Government-backed drive to accelerate biotech innovation, we can reasonably expect these children to be merely the first bow-wave of living collateral damage. If we continue on this path without any framework for defending our normal human organisms as right in themselves, without “upgrades”, there will be plenty more.

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Jim R
Jim R
11 days ago

You might think that even the possibility that COVID 19 was created in a lab and leaked out would cause the human race to take a big pause and think hard about the risk. But with the power to shape the narratives, we counter that risk with the power to simply deny any harms that might be caused, no matter how catastrophic. I often think of the Kurt Vonnegut novels i read when i was younger – some hyper intelligent but morally clueless scientist in a lab finds a way to turn water into a solid at room temperature. But it creates an unstoppable chain reaction – leaks out of the lab – and next thing you know all the worlds lakes and oceans have turned solid, along with every life form composed of water. Vonnegut’s expectation was that scientific hubris would eventually destroy us all – whether it was a nuclear war or some new laboratory discovery. It’s really only a question of when, not if.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago
Reply to  Jim R

Ok then, give up your dishwasher, your central heating system and your car then – they are all technology after all, and, literally, in no way different to nuclear power or gene-splicing. Because no one who started using technology knew the long term effects, ever. It is known for example, that the first uses of human technology (spears for example) caused the first species extinctions (Mammoths for example).

In truth, I see no real distinction between supposedly simple and complex technologies; for example I bet you don’t *really* understand how a dishwasher works or what cancer radiation therapy does. The vast bulk of humanity does not understand the technologies it uses and never has done. You really are not in a position to judge the danger levels of particular technologies – you don’t have the expertise and neither do I.

Are you sure you want to eschew technologies?

Jim R
Jim R
11 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Maybe some nuanced thinking is required. Something a bit more sophisticated than “Technology good, nothing to worry about” vs. “Technology bad, say goodbye to your dishwasher”.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago
Reply to  Jim R

I don’t think ‘technology good’ at all – and what comes next with automation driven job loss (~2025 and onwards), which has been a long term bee in my bonnet, is going to be disastrous for huge tranches of humanity, because most people cannot adapt quickly enough by moving upstream fast enough to avoid getting hurt. I also don’t think the option exists to roll backwards from technologies that are dangerous – I think technological advances just need to be managed the best we can.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim R

Amen to that.

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
11 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

My dishwasher is ‘literally, in no way different to nuclear power or gene-splicing’?

Are you serious?

The vast bulk of humanity does not understand the technologies it uses and never has done. You really are not in a position to judge the danger levels of particular technologies – you don’t have the expertise and neither do I.

Again, are you serious suggesting, as I understand your argument, that our new priesthood in their white coats have the faintest idea about the implications and consequences of the technologies they’re rushing to market?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 days ago
Reply to  Hendrik Mentz

I am more skeptical of the ‘white coat’ priesthood than most people. I am skeptical of *all* priesthoods – and my main weapon is taking the mick, Giles Fraser would attest.

But a question to illustrate my point: did you not put your life in the hands of, and take on trust, the ‘white coat’ brigade, when you last took a plane for your holidays? Or are you going to claim your are an aeronautical engineer and can verify what the technologies do?

Hendrik Mentz
Hendrik Mentz
10 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Haha! Now I understand. We’re all taking the piss. (Or are you??)
Must say, it’s one thing playing devil’s advocate on the ground; it’s another flying in your aeroplane – vide the following YouTube video reporting on concerned Nasso and Bana villages in Burkina Faso who ‘agreed’ to be part of a malaria eradication CRISPR gene drive experiment >> ‘A Question of Consent: Exterminator Mosquitoes in Burkina Faso’.
Reference: Communications Officer for the Etc Group (2019). A Question of Consent: Exterminator Mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. Available at YouTube (Accessed: 23 September 2022).

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
11 days ago
Reply to  Jim R

Agreed, Vonnegut is great at following irrationality to its ultimate conclusion (as we’re the authors of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). I think that Mary is partly channeling James Poulos of the Claremont Institute: trans-humanism is different from “human” humanism.

We all applaud artificial limbs for those who have lost them, hearing aids, the cure for Polio (which is making a comeback) etc. (an even dishwashers- as one misguided commenter would have it) all of which permit humans to flourish as human beings with a human nature.

But without knowing what the Telos is, and how certain will be unexpected consequences that may distort or disrupt human in a very unnatural way, we are asking for it.

Remember, in the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller had serious (mathematical) concerns that the A-Bomb might have ignited the whole atmosphere (not to mention that Klaus Fuchs who brought the findings tongue Soviet’s, including those relating to the later hydrogen bomb which gave us the Cold War and now Putin’s threats).

And we all remember where paying Chinese scientists to modify Bat viruses to make humans infinitely receptive to them, got us. Even worse is envisioning (as Mary shrewdly highlights) Humans (who have a human nature whether we like it or not) as experimental meat puppets in need of “upgrades.”

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
10 days ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

Quite so. I think the twin problems are human fallibility and human ignorance of said fallibility.

I’m reminded of François Jacob’s comment that the fundamental structure of the human brain (an archicortex under the control of a partially dominant neocortex) resembled the strapping of a rocket engine to an ox cart. “No wonder accidents happen”, Jacob mused.

It’s not a reason to stop exploring and inventing of course – I think it’s more that when you ebulliently announce “now here’s a really exciting possibility”, that it’s time to put on the brakes and have a nice cup of tea before doing anything rash. Silly old Luddite me…

king david
king david
11 days ago

Truth is our bodies are perfect. But manufactured food is poison, pharmaceuticals are repurposed industrial waste and unnecessary surgeries print money for doctors, hospitals and insurers. Truth is humanity is on the wrong road.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago
Reply to  king david

Agreed, it was a big mistake to leave them stoneage caves wasn’t it? But in fact going into the caves was wrong in the first place. All the way back to the primordial swamp I say, and no more problems with anything complicated, like algorithms or gene-splicing, because all we will all be then required to say is, ‘glug’!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ha! Great response.
In effect, there’s no such thing as being on the “wrong road”; there’s simply a requirement to be aware of what the road consists of and how best to travel it.
Would the “glug” response in the primordial swamp be the first example of a four-letter word? I’d really hope so!

Persephone
Persephone
10 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You speak with sarcasm, but actually, I and a lot of other people think that humanity made a huge mistake in abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for farming. We’ve been living a lifestyle increasingly divorced from what evolution designed us for, and at the cost of our health, fulfilment and wellbeing ever since.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
10 days ago
Reply to  Persephone

Where exactly, is the health, fulfilment and wellbeing, in an average lifespan of under 30, (and projecting you were male) your partner(s) whom you acquired by killing your neighbours and kidnapping (kid being the operative word) and gang-raping his brood, dying in childbirth, and your children dying shortly after because the rains didn’t come so your meat sources moved away? Or would you prefer to buy into a Disney version of a non-existent hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

On the plus side, I’m sure, that mastodon meat, barbequed on an open fire, sprinkled with a few ‘erbs from that wild flower glade, would have tasted magnificent. Or even just actually tasted.

Last edited 10 days ago by Prashant Kotak
Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
11 days ago

Those who believe one can engineer people to health need to go back to reading fantasy fiction. Yes you can fiddle with people’s symptoms but creating health is something completely different. Best to read Iain McGilchrist’s The matter with things and then think again and realise that biotech tends to overlook/ignore much of the knowledge and insight into reality accumulated in the last 100 years

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
11 days ago

Why not start with Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde? (Or books about nuclear fission/fusion). Sometimes just better to wait for nature to tell us what is “Good” v. what is possible.

Michael Gillette
Michael Gillette
11 days ago

Government funding and regulating these industries is a massive and treacherous conflict of interests in which choice dies first.

Last edited 9 days ago by Michael Gillette
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
11 days ago

“toward a vision of “health” that’s something more than the default”

Isn’t the default that apart from going wrong, our bodies also wear out? Yet we’ve accepted artifical joints, pacemakers, cochlear implants, replacement lenses in our eyes and the rest. Money spent on medical research (a bit like money that was spent on the space program) will discover all kinds of unanticipated useful things – perhaps a way of treating Alzheimer’s or Type 1 diabetes.

“America, though, has an insurance-based healthcare system, where the incentive is for more and more advanced and expensive interventions”

Can an American tell us how that works? In Australia, the private insurance funds are rather keen on reducing what they have to pay out: to get as many people as possible paying in, while limiting how much they have to pay out. Paying out for more ‘expensive interventions’ drives up premiums and would reduce the number of subscribers.

Last edited 11 days ago by Russell Hamilton
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 days ago

Mary has touched upon one of those topics where the Left/Right divide that so overwhelms us, just doesn’t apply. That leaves many people without a handle to grab while thinking about the future implications.
Some of us still live our lives in an old fashioned manner; largely out of doors. At home the windows tend to be open, at least a bit. The AC is to be avoided as much as possible. The screeching of summer insects and the cacaphony of birds are not something to “like” or not. There’s no sense in “giving it a thumbs down” because it doesn’t care. The weather and the tides do as they please; getting wet is a part of life. Contact with the world around me is the joy of life.
Other people, I know many of them, live their lives as if their comfort and convenience are the most important thing. The house is kept at 80F in the winter and 68F in the summer. Please don’t open the windows. Tech interventions are always “good”. More and more people I see have earbuds, listening to music or to their friends complaining about things or…Really, they’re avoiding contact with their neighbors, and the world around them.
This second group will win. The question is “will there be any room left for the rest of us?”

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
9 days ago

This second group will win” – likely not. That isolation is possible only via considerable energy use which needs to decline for the future. We will adapt and evolve. Whether these new government biotech programs assist or destroy remains to be seen.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago

I appreciate the author is likely alarmed, and not a little dismayed. But anyone who knows the ins and outs of this space will realise, the changes coming are not really fightable. But what you can fight for, ongoing, is to push for the framework and legislation around the disruption (which will last decades) to hurt as few people as possible, and give options to as many as possible – easier said than done I appreciate because of the nature of the technologies. What I mean by that, is I think the real danger lies with politicians or governments who might offer a seeming retreat to a past that cannot be recaptured, but would be a guise for an elite land grab where the main benefits and options are excluded from all but a few at the top in the first instance.

There is a second, more stark reason to embrace biotech advances. Biotech is advancing in tandem will AI research. The very real possibility exists that wilfully eschewing biotech advances simply because true change frightens people, instead of incorporating change within our being, will mean being bypassed by our own machine intelligence creations, in short order.

Last edited 11 days ago by Prashant Kotak
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

No doubt what you say is true. As we saw with the COVID-vaccines there was a vast swathe of the population willing to inject anything into their bodies because ‘the science’ told them to, and then there were those who wanted to wait and see. No doubt biomedical luddites will be labelled ‘anti-science’ or even ‘dangerous fools’ as their reluctance to obey top-down medical directives is painted as a dire threat to others.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
11 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I don’t want to label anyone who doesn’t want to use specific technologies or even technology in general as anything – people*should* be free to make choices for themselves as they see fit. Having said that I should be free to make arguments and pick holes in responses as I see fit too. Me agreeing or not with their views or vice versa is moot.

And for myself I have always believed the decisions at the boundaries which affect others – turn off that life support, or terminate that foetus, is the choice of the people who have the responsibility. We are individually responsible for the choices we make for good or bad or right or wrong in those situations.

Barakuda Barakuda
Barakuda Barakuda
9 days ago

US Administration is headquarters for “Nazi death cult” of bioweapons war criminals. Degenerate U.S. President Joe Biden as an “American Nero,” He merely posture and sometimes put pen to paper on the few contrived Davos NWO puppet masters’ plans deemed suitable for public consumption. That is entirely unacceptable in a free society under our Constitutional Republic.