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Cryonics Taken Apart

Posted by Pete Shanks on March 10th, 2016

Screenshot from promotional video.

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Corey Pein has written another excellent piece in The Baffler, this time focusing mainly on Alcor, the cryonics company he describes as "technophilic necromancers." His starting point is actually a very unfortunate New York Times article.

Pein's "Everybody Freeze" begins:

Narratives are made by the artful omission of facts. Never was this maxim more evident than in a gullible feature story that landed on the front page of the New York Times last fall, about a young woman's last-ditch bid for life extension as she succumbed to the ravages of brain cancer. A sober look at the case would have revealed it to be but the latest botched mortuary procedure conducted by a gang of creepy scam artists. Instead, through the good graces of the Times, this grim tale was spun into an inspirational saga of one person's courageous quest for a second chance at life, aided by medical visionaries on the verge of miraculous technological breakthroughs.

(Incidentally, the Times also gave Alcor publicity back in 2005, though in a less hagiographic article.)

Pein details the gruesome facts of the case, with splendidly straight-faced humor: "a crack team of quacks shaved her head and drilled a number of sizable holes into her skull." He then delves deep into the history of Alcor and indeed the origins of modern transhumanism.

Of particular interest to those of us who have been following transhumanism and the like for a while is that Alcor's head nowadays is Max More, the quondam Max O'Connor, who reinvented himself and devised the Extropy Institute in the late 80s. He also coined the "proactionary principle" and for a while there was quite the philosopher of transhumanism. The Extropy Institute declared victory and shut down in 2006, but More evidently landed on his feet, apparently back where he started: in 1986, he co-founded "Britain's first cryonics organization, now defunct."

The Baffler piece is nearly 7000 words long. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll despair of humanity and then you'll realize that a human made this too. Read the whole thing, and check out this video, which is mentioned but not linked in the article. For extra credit, see Pein's equally astonishing article last year on the Singularity Institute.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via YouTube

My Genes, Myself?

Posted by Jessica Cussins, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on March 8th, 2016

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We have become accustomed to ascribing individualistic agency to our genes. We speak of gene x doing thing y. However, our biology is not a collection of independent actors, but a highly interdependent ecosystem. And every now and then a story comes along that reminds us just how foolish we are to forget that.

In what is being called the first of its kind in the UK, the birth of a pair of genetically identical twins provides a striking case in point. Despite having split from the same embryo, one of the girls has brown eyes and darker skin, while the other girl has blue eyes and fairer skin. Other couples have defied the odds with the birth of two sets of twins with different skin and eye colors, but the notion of identical twins looking markedly different is much more unusual.

Studies have shown that identical twins growing up in the same household with largely the same opportunities and experiences can still develop quite different personalities and skills. This has largely been attributed to the growth of new neurons in the brain. But the rest of our bodies are also far from static.

Massive studies of identical twins have discovered that hundreds of genes can end up contributing to just 1% of the heritability of a disease or trait; moreover, epigenetics – the expression of genes – can profoundly alter phenotypic outcomes. 

Such visual divergence of identical twins is very rare, but even rare findings have important consequences. As I tweeted last week, the finding “sure throws a wrench in that whole genetic determinism thing…!” And as Dorothy Roberts (Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania as well as an Advisory Board member of the Center for Genetics and Society) responded, this case particularly complicates the notion of biological race:

Recognizing the multiplicities of our bodies and identities matters. For one thing, we can refute those who try to justify inequality on the basis of (purported) genetic differences, and make the critical point that, for example: Genes Don't Cause Racial – Health Disparities, Society Does. And that, “There is no inherent reason why children from low-income families cannot succeed as much as those from affluent homes.”

None of this is to deny the role of genetics, which is obviously a necessary and critical component to us all. However, as long as the myths of “individualistic” genes and genetic determinism continue to circulate wildly, it seems worthwhile to take the opportunity to remember that DNA is neither static nor prescriptive. Just as every locust is a genetic grasshopper facing a phase change brought on by hard times, so too are humans radically impacted by their environments. No amount of physical tinkering will ever erase the also necessary and infinitely messier importance of the outside world.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Pixabay

Bridging Borders: Transnational Surrogacy, Queer Kinship & Reproductive Justice

Posted by Elliot Hosman on February 25th, 2016

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On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision, some argued that “family equality” was the next LGBT movement priority, which was described in part as increased access to surrogacy for gay men. Media scrutiny of commercial surrogacy can tend to be myopically focused on the gay couples using it, which is unfair given the high rates of heterosexual couples who also enter into surrogacy agreements both domestically and abroad. Yet the need for a diverse discussion of LGBTQ families and communities’ needs in a post-Marriage moment persists, as does the problem of excluding the voices of women who engage in the physically risky acts of gestational surrogacy and egg donation—particularly when they work for wealthier couples traveling to their country because of decreased costs.

On February 19, a symposium was held at UC Berkeley* entitled “Making Families: Transnational Surrogacy, Queer Kinship & Reproductive Justice”. A key goal of the symposium was linking up these three areas of practice and study to address the social justice implications of the growing, unregulated tool shed of reproductive biomedicine.


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Scientists Make Mice Glum

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 25th, 2016

Lab mice are probably not the happiest of creatures. Food is not much of a problem (unless they are in one of those starvation-diet experiments) but roaming is discouraged, the environment is not that cozy and I imagine they don’t get given the wifi password. Even so, most of them don’t have to put up with researchers deliberately making them depressed.

All in a good cause, naturally, from the human point of view. Researchers, mostly at UCSF, identified a variant form of the PER3 gene in humans, which is involved with the circadian clock. The variant also seems to be linked to a tendency to sleep and wake very early (Familial Advanced Sleep Phase, or FASP) — and also with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a relatively common kind of depression related somehow to changes in the length of the day, especially in the fall.

There is a long, long way to go before anyone can even think about using this linkage in therapeutic approaches, but it could be an important clue as to how sleep and mood disorders may be linked.

Bring on the mice. The scientists made transgenic mice with the human gene variant. And controlled the lighting to match the changing seasons. Bingo:

The model mice slept and behaved normally when their days and nights were of equal length, but developed depression-like symptoms as nights became longer than days.

You can’t do talk therapy with mice, but basically when they are feeling under the weather they don’t wriggle as much and they give up quick when something disturbing happens, like someone with a white coat picking them up.

The variant gene produces a less stable protein, and affects the performance of related circadian-linked genes. The authors note that this provides "a mechanistic explanation for the circadian trait.” This clearly could be a significant finding, eventually, but in the meantime, the poor old mice get bummed out.

They’re not the only ones. The researchers made mutant fruit flies too:

Although we were not able to test mood in fruit flies, we did uncover a sleep trait similar to that seen in humans in flies carrying the human variants.

Fruit flies are, or course, classic research subjects, and this is real science, but the observational work seems ... challenging. Imagine someone trying to test an alleged “criminality gene” in insects? Would they bite harder, perhaps? Or more often? Or both?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via Wikimedia

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