Good Friday Morning! I’m sitting here writing this “news”-letter before the latest round of Democratic debates. By the time you read this, the debates will be over, and the hot takes will fly. The only thing I’m entirely sure of heading into the debate is that this is probably Kamala Harris’s last great shot — she’d fading quickly and needs a boost to make it any further. For a person who was the best on paper, she’s among the worst in practice.
The second dynamic to watch is Barack Obama’s legacy. Politico Magazine released a set of interviews this week with former Obama administration officials furious with Warren and her campaign. The piece was titled, “‘Why Are You Pissing In Our Face?’: Inside Warren’s War With the Obama Team.” Barack Obama remains incredibly popular — but almost everyone in the primaries, except Joe Biden, is attacking Obama’s legacy. Warren, in particular, has attacked that legacy, without naming it, at full throttle speed. That’s causing rifts in the primary. Obama has been quiet so far; does he plan on weighing in during the primary? It’s worth watching — his administration team is very thin-skinned when it comes to defending their time in the White House.
One last thing, Sean Trende, one of the best elections analysts out there, warned Democrats heading into the debate they need to start being concerned now that they could be heading for a brokered convention:
Brokered convention: Buy. The modern era of elections, where fundraising is effectively crowdsourced on the Internet and where candidates can reach millions of voters through social media effectively for free, seems to suggest that at some point in the next few cycles we will have a situation where no candidate wins a majority of the delegates. The Democratic Party seems particularly vulnerable to this outcome, since delegates are awarded proportionally (once candidates cross a certain vote threshold). This is unlike the Republican primaries where the final ones are winner-take-all; this is probably the only thing that prevented a brokered convention in 2016 on the Republican side.
This Democratic nightmare scenario doesn’t involve six or seven candidates making it to Super Tuesday – that is unlikely to happen. Instead it involves two or three candidates, and then a factional candidate who continues to draw 15% in the polls in most states and refuses to drop out as two other candidates duke it out. In other words, something like Biden vs. Warren vs. Sanders.
I apologize for the lack of podcast this week. I hit a string of technical difficulties that prevented recording. I’ll be back in the saddle this week as everything seems to have gotten ironed out. Also, you can find me in the Google Play store by searching for the podcast name, “The Beltway Outsiders Podcast with Daniel Vaughan.” To my knowledge, that puts me on at least four services, iTunes, Spotify, Overcast, and Google Play. The only other large-ish network I’m not on is Stitcher — but if anyone requests it, I’ll work on getting on that one too.
This week I’m writing on the edge of biotechnology and taking you to the brink of scientific research and ethics. Some scientists sound the alarm over what they deem as a new “techno-eugenic” movement. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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An inconvenient truth for Democrats: Americans don’t vote on the climate – The Conservative Institute
In the aftermath of the seven-hour CNN climate change townhall — remember, for better or worse, no one votes based on the environment. Not even Democrats.
Dave Chappelle DESTROYS the Jon Stewart comedy model – The Conservative Institute
This column dovetails nicely with my review of the Chappelle stand-up special from last week. Chappelle is saving comedy from itself.
A techno-eugenic future?
The American Herald Tribune ran an interview with Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy. You can read his full bio, which runs in the piece: Dr. Stuart Newman: “It Seems to Me That We Are Headed for A Techno-Eugenic Future.”
In the interview, he talks about new advances in gene-editing, biotechnology, and how all those advances intertwine with ethics and history. It’s one of the more illuminating interviews I’ve read on the topic in a while — and I’ve written countless columns warning of the new dangers of modern eugenics. Newman gives the topic new terminology and describes where scientific research is headed that shines new light on the topic.
The dangers of editing the human genome
In the middle of the interview, he starts discussing the difficulty of modifying the DNA of a sperm or egg and getting the genetic edits passed down to future generations. He describes this type of advancement as a bad one:
But even if germline transmission could be prevented, the act of customizing a prospective person via embryo modification would be a major civilizational step, one that my co-author Tina Stevens and I, along with some other social thinkers and ethicists, feel strongly should not be undertaken. Prospective people are not any doctor’s patient, nor are they any future parent’s property to be made to order. Human modification would be uncontrolled experimentation in light of the fact that even the most precisely characterized gene sequences behave differently against different “genetic backgrounds” (i.e., all the other genes of the modified person).
It’s not simply (as the writer Walter Isaacson asks in a recent essay) “Should the Rich be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes?” but that the whole idea of perfecting humans based on nebulous genetic theories is misconceived. Sometimes it may work, or appear to work, but other times it will fail, producing people with impairments they would otherwise not have had. Sometimes it won’t even be clear what the effect was. Advocates will say that unmanipulated nature can also produce unsatisfactory outcomes. But introducing irreversible experimental errors in pursuit of human biological improvement would be an entirely novel and troubling development in human history.
I’m going to return to the Walter Isaacson essay he cites later. But the broad idea here is two-fold: 1) if humans are capable of editing the DNA of all humans in one family line, how can we know those changes will be good ones? What will happen over time with those changes? What happens if we mess up? DNA mishaps happen naturally in nature, but those mishaps aren’t the fault of any single human.
What do the researchers believe?
Editing the germline of one family line is humans not just taking on the role of a medical healer — it’s taking on the part of god. We’re looking at the very blueprints of what makes us human and saying, “how can we make this better?” If we’re asking that kind of question, then it matters very much what the beliefs are of the people doing the editing. Newman gets into this a bit:
Another ideology that pervades biological discourse and policy proposals is eugenics, the idea of improving people via their genes. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is famously a eugenicist. Some ways of implementing eugenics are preventing procreation of or eliminating people with supposedly bad genes. Few scientists openly espouse such policies these days but many find little wrong with embryo gene engineering, “techno-eugenics” in the phrase of the social philosopher Richard Hayes, notwithstanding the fallibility of the technology.
Many biologists are funded by government grants, paid from public coffers, but few will question why a market-dominated political system would dispense money that allows them to pursue their pet ideas. While cures may be part of it, the overall commitment of the U.S. government to the national health (as reflected in clean water and environmental policies, for example) is on the wane. The funding rationale, then, is increasingly turning out to be patents and profits, for their institutions by way of venture capitalists or biotech companies. Most grant recipients feel lucky, and affirmed in the value of their ideas and research to society.
The critical funding source he points to as impacting research: Jeffery Epstein, who sent money into places like MIT and other labs to research various eugenic ideas he had. In talks with several scientists, Epstein discussed his plans, which the New York Times reported as “Mr. Epstein’s vision reflected his longstanding fascination with what has become known as transhumanism: the science of improving the human population through technologies like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Critics have likened transhumanism to a modern-day version of eugenics, the discredited field of improving the human race through controlled breeding.”
In other words, the driving ideas behind scientific research aren’t always pure or looking for cures to things. Some of these private funding has nefarious ends, as the Epstein scandal proves. We know Epstein isn’t the only one of his kind in the upper reaches of society.
More than eugenics — it’s going beyond what it means to be human
But it’s not just slight tweaks to the human DNA, or passing down the genes to some rich degenerate, researchers are looking to push the boundaries of what it means to be human. Newman goes on to describe newly opened research into “human chimeras,” that is human DNA combined with some other organism. Chimera is a name from Greek mythology that described a creature that was “a lion, with the head of a goat protruding from its back, and a tail that might end with a snake’s head.”
For the longest time, researchers wouldn’t touch the concept of human chimeras, but those doubts have lifted in recent years:
Twenty-two years later, some scientists have apparently overcome the qualms (and even the outrage, revulsion, and denial that responsible investigators would ever undertake generation of such chimeras) expressed at the time by the PTO as well as prominent scientists and other commentators. Working transnationally, investigators based in the U.S. but with affiliations and collaborations in Japan and China have managed to negotiate the ambiguous legalities of the technology to produce human-monkey and human-pig chimeras. So far, they have just been permitted to develop to embryonic or perhaps fetal stages, but the scientists have clearly stated their intentions to ultimately produce full-term, independently living chimeras.
As noted above, these part-human chimeric animals would be highly useful for scientific research and medical therapies. Since they are intended to be produced for instrumental purposes, and not as members of the human community, they do not raise the same kinds of ethical issues as the experimental genetic engineering of prospective children. Paradoxically, however, while the usefulness of this technology is only deliverable insofar as the chimeras can be treated as subhuman or less than human, its scientific and medical value increases in proportion to the degree that their biology approaches that of humans.
At what point have you so thoroughly changed human DNA that the creature you’re dealing with is no longer human? Netflix had a film released in the last year called, “The Titan,” starring Sam Worthington. At the center of the film was a military program that sought to change the DNA of test subjects with the DNA of other animals to survive on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan.
Surviving on Titan requires a vastly different set of natural abilities, and so, relying on earth creatures for inspiration, the bioengineers in the film sought to make a new person capable of surviving on Titan. In the process, they so thoroughly changed the test subjects that they were no longer human; they were practically aliens.
Another example of a chimera would be the unique dinosaurs created in Jurassic Park, the hybrids that combine various dinosaur DNA to create super-dinosaurs.
All of these examples are the same thing: chimeras — multiple organisms in one. And we’re left with the question of: are these new organisms still human? Do “they” or “it” get legal rights? Where is the line?
Ethicists sounded the alarm recently when they created primitive human brain models that started exhibiting similar neural pathways to real human brains. That raised the question, were researchers creating human minds in the process?
The immorality of all this…
We’re on the bleeding edge of biotechnology, and we don’t have a clue what makes something life or human in this area. That’s dangerous for the human rights of regular humans as well. As a pro-life person, there are profound moral implications in all these questions. Newman, though no pro-life advocate, agreed that morality was in play:
Morality usually pertains to behaviors between and among existing individuals. But many people recognize that endowing people of the future, whom we will never know, with an environmentally wrecked planet, is profoundly immoral. In the cases we are discussing, we are dealing with experimental production of prospective persons, or organisms whose human personhood might be partial or ambiguous, and it seems to me that narrowly conceived, practically or commercially motivated decisions to take these irreversible civilizational steps are similarly immoral. With almost no deliberations other than on how efficiently these procedures can be performed, our generation will be bringing human procreation into the realm of industrial-like optimization through experimental gene manipulation of prospective persons. It will also be blurring the boundary between humans and nonhumans while coming as close to the human as socially acceptable (an inevitably sliding standard), by producing chimeras.
And when asked about the future of this movement, Newman held a bleak view:
I wish I could find some countervailing impulse, but it seems to me that we are headed for a techno-eugenic future. Human-animal chimeras are already being produced; calibrating their acceptable degree of humanity will just be a matter of social mores. Right now, pigs with human brains are considered a step too far, and the supervising scientists promised to destroy any mixed-species animals that display evidence of human consciousness. However, when business models emerge involving, for example, post-surgical reconstruction, or cognitive enhancement, using tissues from such animals, this will almost certainly change.
Any bulwarks that exist against immoral science get quickly overrun if the profit incentivization changes. If the wealthy begin wanting these types of things, they’ll pay for it, however corrupt it is — all in the name of giving their kids the best chance. We’ve seen this in the college admission scandal — if these parents are willing to bribe admission officers, what’s to stop them from looking at the best way to advantage their children through genetic manipulation?
Will the rich push to create a new caste system?
That brings us back to the Walter Isaacson article mentioned earlier: “Should the Rich Be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes?”
In the article, Isaacson attends a conference on gene-editing with all the big names in the science community in attendance. While talking to various attendees, the topic of inequality comes up:
There is general agreement among the scientists at dinner that, when it’s safe and practical, heritable edits ought to be used to fix bad single-gene mutations, such as Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia. But they recoil at the idea of using gene editing for human enhancements, such as trying to give our kids more muscle mass, or height, or perhaps someday higher I.Q.’s and cognitive skills. The problem is that the distinction is difficult to define—is preventing obesity a cure or enhancement?—and even more difficult to enforce. “Look at what parents are willing to do to get kids in college,” Feng Zhang says. “Some people will surely pay for genetic enhancement.”
“A big problem with enhancement is equal access,” Sontheimer adds. “Should rich people be allowed to buy the best genes they can afford?” That could lead to the dystopia described in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, in which the modification of embryos produces a caste system ranging from intelligence-enhanced leaders to stunted menial laborers. Our world is already suffering from widening gaps in wealth and opportunity, and a free market for genetic enhancements could produce a quantum leap in these inequalities and also, literally, encode them permanently. “In a world in which there are people who don’t get access to eyeglasses,” Feng Zhang says, “it’s hard to imagine how we will find a way to have equal access to gene enhancements. Think of what that will do to our species.”
What makes all of this decision making even harder, while scientists in the West in places like the US, Canada, the UK, and others recoil at using the technology in this manner, scientists in repressive countries like China and Russia are more than happy to perform this research. If genetic enhancements get banned in the US — the rich could travel abroad and still achieve the same outcomes for their children.
I’ve gone longer than usual on this topic, because it’s a peek into what the elites of our culture think and that’s important. But the takeaway I want to underscore here as I’m wrapping up is this: eugenics is alive and well, techno-eugenic ideas are even more active in the minds of scientists. They may claim they’ll push against the abhorrent impulses of our path, but there’s little evidence they’ve done anything of the sort. We’re entering a dangerous era where your very worth may get dictated by your genes — and that’s not an era safe for minority groups or individuals rights, history has proven that over and over again.
Links of the week
‘We’re the Only Plane in the Sky’: Where was the president in the eight hours after the Sept. 11 attacks? The strange, harrowing journey of Air Force One, as told by the people who were on board. – Garrett M. Graff, Politico Magazine (2016)
On Shaun King – DeRay Mckesson, Medium
Before Elizabeth Warren Took on Defense Contractors, She Cozied Up to Some of the Biggest Ones: The Massachusetts Democrat’s image as an anti-corporate crusader was often at odds with her relationship with the defense contractors based in her state. She’s changing that. – Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast
Polls Show Gun Control Support Trending Down: Recent media coverage, mass shootings don’t appear to drive up support for gun control – Stephen Gutowski, The Washington Free Beacon
How to Lose the Revolution: Democrats are well-positioned to win back power in 2020 and enact liberal change—unless the progressive revolutionaries running for president sabotage it. – Josh Kraushaar, National Journal
‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence: More than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world. – Brandon Ambrosino, Politico Magazine
Malcolm Gladwell Reaches His Tipping Point: After 20 years, has the author’s formula at last been exhausted? – Andrew Ferguson, The Atlantic
Monica Lewinsky gets the last laugh – Brooke A. Rogers, The Washington Examiner
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
John Bolton Waves Goodbye, Returns To Sea To Be Walrus Again – The Babylon Bee
PACIFIC OCEAN — With his position as National Security Advisor of the United States having come to an end, John Robert Bolton has decided it is time to return to being one of the walruses who inhabit the arctic and sub-arctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere.
“While I enjoyed my time as an attorney, political commentator, Republican consultant, former diplomat, and the 27th National Security Advisor of the United States, I feel the time has come to go back to my roots. I’ve lost too much weight and I haven’t had a nice, freshly cracked mollusk in a long time. I’m tired. I’ve served my country. Honestly, I just miss my walrus family.”
Thanks for reading!