Individualist Technology vs. the Hive Mind

In the 1950s and 1960s the
predominant anti-technology argument, aided by dystopian fiction such
as Brave New World, was that technology would allow the state and/or
corporations to expand their control over individuals. In fact the opposite
happened — the advent of the personal computer, changes in communication,
and other technological advances have generally empowered the individual
against centralized power.

So, of course, it shoudl come
as no surprise that the anti-technology argument that now predominates
is that technology is dangerous because it gives individuals too much
control over their lives.

Reporting on the Extended Life/Eternal
Life conferce at the University of Pennsylvania, Ronald Bailey noted that
a couple ethicists slammed the idea of allowing people to extend their
lives. Leon Kass, from the University of Chicago, and Daniel Callahan,
from teh Hastings Center, both spoke out about leaving things like life
span up to individuals.

“The worst possible way to
resolve this issue [of extending human life] is to leave it up to individual
choice,” Callahan said. “There is no known social good coming from the
conquest of death.”

According to Bailey’s report
on the conference, Callahan argued that other technologies such as the
automobile, the telphone, and the personal computer had been “imposed” on scoiety without its permission and that it was important that life
extension technologies not be “imposed” without society’s permission.

Shortly after the end of the
Pennsylvania conference, Sun Microsystems engineer Bill Joy made a very
public splash with a Unabomber-inspired article for Wired laying out the
need to prevent individuals from having access to coming technological
innovations.

Joy’s argument is that in the
past potentially destructive technologies have always been controlled
and restricted by nation states, largely because they were the only ones
who could afford such technologies. The cost of assembling a private nuclear
arsenal, for example, would be prohibitive.

But the next round of technology
that is beginning to emerge — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology
— is both potentially destructive and well within the reach of private
hands within a few decades. Some of it is trivial today. A teenager recently
won a $100,000 Intel science contest by describing a method to encrypt
messages by storing them in DNA sequences and then creating jsut such
an encrypted DNA. If a bright high school student can perform this sort
of experiment, the floodgates are already open.

To Joy, this is an unmitigated horror:

“We are being propelled into this new cnetury with no plan,
no control, no brakes. Have we already gone too far donw the path to alter
course? I don’t believe so, but we aren’t trying yet, and the last chance
to assert control — the fail safe point — is rapidly approaching.”

The solution, of course, is
one the Unabomber also proposed — man was just not meant to know certain
things and should leave well enough alone.

“The only realistic alternative
I see,” Joy wrote in Wired, “is relinquihsment: to limit development of
the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain
kinds of knowledge.”

Ignorance is bliss.

Of course, Joy never considers
that the blocking off of certain types of knoweldge will also cause a
disaster. Genetic engineering has already created treatments for human
diseases and will likely bring medical technologies unimagined. But for
Joy, letting young people die from cystic fibrosis is perhaps a small
price to pay for making sure that the world doesn’t spin out of control.

Nathan Myrhvold, chief technology
officer for Microsoft, summed up the case againt Joy’s apocalytism, Callahan
and other naysayers. In an e-mail interview with the BBC, Myrhvold said,
“People have made apocalyptic predictions about technology for as long
as there has been technology. I think it is because change frightens them.
What is more the most common form these dire predictions take is ‘this
next generation of stuff — wow! That is really different and really scary.”

And thankfully, so far society
has ignored the apocalyptics to all of our benefit.

Animal research spurs advances in hemophilia

The past few weeks have brought very good news for hemophilia
suffers after two major advances in understanding and treating the disease
were announced.

First, in late February researchers at the Salk Institute
announced they had used gene therapy to treat hemophilia and dogs. The
treatment continued to work for 10 months in one animal.

Lili Wang and Inder Verma worked with four dogs who naturally
developed hemophilia B. In both dogs and human beings, hemophilia B is
caused by a genetic defect in a single gene for a blood clotting protein,
Factor IX. Because Factor IX production is controlled by only one gene,
it is a logical starting point for understanding and treating genetic
disease.

Researchers modified two genes, one to turn Factor IX production
on, and another to control the production of Factor IX, and then introduced
the genes through a virus they injected directly into the dogsÂ’ livers.
After the infusion of the virus, all the dogs began expressing Factor
IX, and the dog that received the highest dose produced enough Factor
IX to prevent spontaneous bleeding, the most dangerous part of hemophilia.
In the 10 months since the experiment, that dog still has not experienced
any spontaneous bleeding.

Verma said that because of the similar way hemophilia affects
humans and dogs, “[this experiment] suggests strongly that this approach
could work in humans afflicted with the disease.”

Meanwhile, in the first week of March news came of a somewhat
inadvertent success of a genetic treatment for hemophilia in human beings.
Doctors working for California-based Avigen conducted a small Phase I
trail to evaluate the toxicity of a hemophilia treatment that uses a virus
much like the experiment with the dogs that the Salk Institute conducted.
But although the test was only intended to test toxicity, the results
of the small three-patient trial suggest the drug may also be highly efficacious.
According to Dr. Mark Kay of the Stanford University School of Medicine,
“One patient had a 50% reduction in the need to administer factor IX and
the other had an 80% reduction.”

Reference:

Gene therapy used to treat hemophilia
I dogs. Reuters, February 24, 2000.

Gene
therapy successful in treating hemophilia B, researchers say
. CNN,
March 1, 2000.

Surprise
gene therapy success
. BBC, March 2, 2000.

Activists in Great Britain 'fabricated cruelty evidence'

Last June the
British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) filed a complaint
with the Home Office complaining that Harlan UK Centre, a medical research
facility, was engaged in cruel mistreatment of animals. The BUAV regularly
files these sorts of complaints against research companies in the UK.

The difference
this time is that a Labour Member of Parliament, Stephen Ladyman, is turning
the tables on BUAV and wondering what the group has to hide. One of the
reasons BUAV is so anxious to file reports against research facilities
is that, under British law, it has requested that the resulting reports,
including any exoneration of the facility, remain confidential, and generally
the government has gone along.

Ladyman and others
requested that the report on Harlan UK Centre be released, and it was,
but only after BUAV asked (and got) large sections of the report blacked
out. What exactly does BUAV have to hide?

A lot according
to Ladyman who said, “The usual pattern of events is that BUAV make allegations,
splash them all over the newspapers but refuse to allow the report to
be published when people are exonerated. I can only assume that they are
prepared to fabricate evidence to win sympathy for their cause.”

The report did
vindicate Harlan, concluding that the claims of animal cruelty and neglect
were unfounded. According to Ladyman, BUAV intentionally manufactured
false claims. BUAV claimed, for example, that Harlan was not feeding animals
adequately, but according to Ladyman it was an undercover BUAV operative
who was responsible for feeding the animals (wow, where have we seen that
scam before?)

BUAV claims the
report is just a government “whitewash,” saying through a spokesman that
“Wherever there is a conflict of evidence between what the BUAV investigator
says and what Harlan staff say, the report choose to believe the latter.”

Which could be
because Harlan isnÂ’t manufacturing evidence, unlike the BUAV investigator,
but regardless if the report is such a shameless whitewash that naively
takes HarlanÂ’s word for it, a reasonable person might conclude that BUAV
would definitely want the full report published in that case to expose
the governmentÂ’s complicity in protecting animal abusers.

Ironically, according
to a report on the controversy from Americans for Medical Progress, BUAV
and other UK antivivisection opponents “have been lobbying for a Freedom
of Information Act that would require full disclosure of pueblo and private
information about research.”

BUAV could set
an example for the researchers and fully disclose the results of the investigation
into Harlan as well as the results of previous investigations which went
unpublished at BUAVÂ’s request.

Sources:

Activists ‘fabricated cruelty evidence’. Jill Sherman, The Times (UK), March
9, 2000.

UK activists accused of fabricating cruelty
charges. Americans for Medical Progress News, March 9, 2000.

Could people be vaccinated against some brain and spinal cord injuries?

    Whether or not
it will work in humans will require further study, but researchers have
managed to develop a vaccine that protects neurons in the brain from a
variety of injuries caused by strokes and epileptic seizures.

    The vaccine works by neutralizing
a protein called the NMDA receptor. The NMDA receptor has been shown to
increase brain damage after a stroke and appears to play a role in epileptic
seizures.

    In a study conducted at Thomas
Jefferson University in Philadelphia, a group of rats were vaccinated
with an anti-NMDA antibody. Both they and a control group of rats were
then exposed tot the neurotoxin, kainate, which causes epileptic-like
seizures. In the control group, 70 percent of the rats experienced seizures,
while in the vaccinated group only 20 percent suffered from any seizures.

    Additional toxicology studies
will have to be done on the anti-NMDA antibody used to better understand
any possible side effects before any human testing of the technique could
begin.

Reference:

Researchers
find promising brain injury vaccine in rat study
. The Associated Press,
February 24, 2000.

Why all the furor over "Got…Beer?!"

    People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals suffered one of its worst public relations disasters after
running up against another popular non-profit – Mothers Against Drunk
Driving. PETA decided to run ads aimed at college students claiming that
beer is healthier than milk. A press release announcing the campaign even
noted “PETA is giving away bottle openers that say, “Drinking Responsibly
Means Not Drinking Milk – Save a Cow’s Life.”

    This quickly brought the wrath
of MADD and other anti-drunk driving activists. According to MADD, the
advertisements would likely encourage underage drinking. “We’re very concerned
and appalled with it for the simple fact that underage drinking is the
number one drug problem among American youths,” said Teresa Hardt, spokeswoman
for MADD. Bruce Friederich and others tried to do some damage control.
“College students are savvy,” Friederich said. “Nobody’s going to put
beer on their Cheerios or get drunk and drive as a result of our campaign.”

    For once I found myself on
Friedierich’s side of the aisle, but it was hard to find too much sympathy
for his position. After all, MADD was successful by turning PETA’s brand
of sanctimonious rhetoric back on that group. Were PETA’s ads really likely
to increase drinking by college students? That is such a nonsensical claim
I can’t believe MADD actually made it with a straight face (is MADD going
to rewrite history and ignore the fact that the precursor to beer first
came into widespread use precisely as an efficient store of calories?)
But MADD’s anti-alcohol hysteria is no more bizarre than Friedrich trying
to convince us that Jesus was a vegetarian or Ingrid Newkirk likening
the killing of chickens for food to the Holocaust.

    Moreover there is a more serious
problem – why beer? The upshot of this controversy seems to be that serious
media attention and moral sanction from other public groups will occur
only when PETA makes the mistake of crossing some oddly placed line and
comes into conflict with another politically correct cause. Say beer is
better than milk and Newkirk and Friedrich incur the wrath of numerous
newspapers and television shows. Say that researchers sent razor blades
and death threats get what they deserve, and the silence is deafening.

    The fact that PETA was handing
out beer bottle-shaped bottle openers that said “Drink responsibly. Don’t
drink milk.” was featured in a story on the controversy placed prominently
in my local paper. The March 13 torching of Kickapoo Fur Foods in Wisconsin
(just across the lake from here) by the Animal Liberation Front didn’t
rate even a single sentence.

References:

Appeals court upholds Oprah Winfrey's victory over cattlemen

    The 5th U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals recently turned down an appeal by a Texas cattleman of Oprah
Winfrey’s victory in the so-called “veggie libel” trial a couples years
ago.

    In that trial, the cattlemen
sued Winfrey over her April 16, 1996 show which featured animal rights
activist Howard Lyman discussing Mad Cow disease. Lyman went on with his
usual histrionics about Mad Cow disease, with flourishes claiming that
Mad Cow could possibly kill millions of people in the United States, prompting
Winfrey to say she’d never eat another hamburger again.

    Beef sales, and prices, dropped
dramatically in the wake of the show (it is frightening to think that
so many Americans get dietary advice from a day-time talk show) , and
the cattlemen sued in Texas under a law that makes disparaging a food
product a tort. Unfortunately for the cattlemen, the trial judge ruled
that the law did not apply to meat (it had originally been written to
cover fruits and vegetables specifically) and the cattlemen had to sue
Winfrey under the much stricter libel laws.

    The appeal, initiated by Paul
Engler who has vowed to appeal the Winfrey verdict as far as possible,
argued that the trial judge erred in not allowing the suit to continue
under the veggie libel provision.

    Hopefully this will spell the
end of this ridiculous chapter-the lawsuit’s main affect was to make the
cattlemen look like a bunch of whiners. As the Appeals Court put it,

Stripped to its essentials, the cattlemen’s complaint is that
the ‘Dangerous Food’ show did not present the mad cow issue in the light
most favorable to United States beef. This argument cannot stand.

    Lyman might be a nut and Winfrey
a fool, but even nuts and fools are protected by the First Amendment (and
thankfully so — all Engler’s vindictive legal tactics have done is further
legitimize Lyman’s bizarre views).

Reference:

Oprah’s
win over cattlemen upheld
. Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press, February
9, 2000.