Friday, October 8, 2010

Genetically Engineered High School Diplomas

This afternoon I spent my lunch break taking a short walk, just to take in the fall weather. I happened past a sycamore tree, which was already losing its leaves. I saw amongst the branches a small, abandoned bird nest. My inner monologue asked itself the age old question: "how do birds know how to build nests?" The most obvious answer is that they are "born knowing" how. But that begs a deeper thought: "how do you 'know' something?"
The answer is that you know something because your brains has developed strong pathways between neurons when you first learned that information and then later when you want to recall it you basically reactivate that neuronal channel. So was the baby bird born with those neuronal channels already in place? Or did it somehow intuit the nest building process while it was a chick, and then took that knowledge with it when it left the nest? Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, pre-birth knowledge is widespread, and suggests that the baby birds are born 'knowing' how to build a nest. For example, a wasp species native to my area seems to find great pleasure in building pipe-organ shaped tubes out of mud in my garage and then filling the tubes with zombie spiders that are food for the larvae. How the wasp obtained this somewhat elaborate method of child-rearing seems almost certainly genetically pre-ordained; the larval wasps never meet their parents, and never witness the collection of mud, the careful weaving of it into the tubes, nor the method of incapacitating and storing small spiders for food.

So if you can have wasp genes that actually cause neuronal pathways to form in a larval wasp, such that the neuronal pathways cause the wasp to 'know' how to build future nests and stock it with food...could you do the same to humans?

Imagine, 100 years from now, we have unlocked the secrets of genetically engineering babies to not have diseases or to be a little taller or have a higher IQ. Why not insert genes that cause neuronal pathways to form that are the pathways for calculus, algebra, writing, reading, biology, or any othe relevant subject? That is, if genes exist that can teach various species of animals to do complicated, specific, and widely varied tasks, is it so hard to believe that such could not be inserted into humans?
What I am suggesting is no simple feat; one would need to know first exactly what a "math neuronal pathway" looks like, then backwards engineer the mechanisms to produce that pathway, then backwards engineer the genes to produce those protein mechanisms. But let's assume for the sake of argument that it is possible.

The easiest way to determine the feasibility of this would be to start knocking out genes in the Mud Dauber wasp. Just sequentially knock out genes, until you knock out a gene and that wasp builds mud tube nests...but doesn't fill it with spiders. Or knock out genes until you get a wasp that collects little mud balls...and then can't figure out what to do with them. And so on and so forth until you find all the genes responsible for mud-tube building and spider collecting. Then, insert these genes into some other species of wasp's larva...and see if that larva builds mud tubes.

Certainly, I sound like a mad scientist to suggest these things. But I caution you, we already have glowing green pigs, we already have mice with human tumors growing in them. Genetic engineering of this type is actually pretty commonplace.
Of course, 100 years ago we didn't have integrated circuits. We didn't even really know what DNA was. So, given another 100 years, its pretty safe to assume that genetic modification of organisms (including humans) would be a commonplace, even economical, option for researchers. And let's assume that we also figure out how folding of proteins affects their function, so designing RNA for a specific purpose is also realistic. I really don't think it would be impossible to develop gene sequences for knowledge. And we basically already have the techniques to implant those genes into an embryo.

Honestly, if you could have a kid born with the knowledge equivalent of a high school education...or not...would you resist? You'd basically be giving your child an 18 year head start on life.
And why stop with education equivalent of high school? Why not genetically engineer all the knowledge of humanity into embryoes, and produce baby geniuses who are born knowing...literally...everything?


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