"The question of the need for some kind of informational normative definition of a human being is, arguably, pressing. This project seeks to investigate this question, along with the question of what conceptions of information and the nature of information would be salient to any such definition, and the question of whether such a normative definition is even desirable."
Last years' controversial revelations that a Chinese geneticist had effected a CRISPR based genetic alteration of human twins was met with - prima facie - world wide surprise and alarm from politicians, regulatory bodies, government agencies, and bioethicists and industry figures..
The event saw the Chinese CCP state media apparatus of Xinhunet and the Global Times propagate mixed responses, that included criticism and condemnation of their scientist, Professor He Jiankui. However, from the perspective of bioethics and perceived and actual existential threat, the outcome was arguably inevitable.
Interest in genetic engineering has been burgeoning in China since the CCP's opening up program began in the early to mid 1980s. Indeed, why wouldn't it be? In the runup to the controversy, interest in industrial genetic engineering was intense in both China and the rest of the world:
Scientists edit human embryos for first time in U.S. - Xinhua Chinese scientists perform genetic surgery on brewer's yeast - Xinhua Scientists edit mice gene before birth to prevent congenital diseases - Xinhua Pigs genetically modified to resist swine fever virus - Xinhua Researchers identify new gene linked to arthritis severity - Xinhua Chinese scientists discover gene helping rice adapt to cold climate - Xinhua The notion that the publicised actions of Professor He Jiankui constitute the first event of this kind should be treated with careful dubiety, as should the notion that China is the only nation on earth engaging in such research. I suggest it's probably not the first time such research has happened, and likely only the first time it has been so publicly admitted or exposed in such a manner (He's blase approach suggests this to some extent).
The power of gene editing technology is regarded by international regulatory bodies to be considered on a par, as a threat, with nuclear weapons and their proliferation. It's well understood, not only that that gene-altering is potentially as powerful and dangerous as nuclear weapons, but that the most powerful of first world nations have an interest (on the basis of political economy and economics in general) in controlling the dissemination and ownership of such technologies. Associated ethical questions are therefore pressing.
IIMx' Transhumanism and CRISPR Bioethics Initiative intends to assess the ethical implications of public access to CRISPR technology, and to information about its capabilities. There is an argument that, since, like all technologies that have been developed over long periods (e.g. Gregor Mendel's work in the late 1850s) by hard working scientists supported by civilised societies all over the world, the technology should be widely and publicly accessible. The idea is that this widespread availability would accelerate, by division of labour and increased resources, progress towards the alleviation and prevention of human suffering due to genetic and other disease types. The impression is increased by a recent CRISPR advancement achieved by Andrew Anzalone, which has been touted as a likely cure for 80% of genetic diseases. Such advancements serve to increase the urgency of establishing methodologies and metrics for supporting ethics.
Should the governance and control of technologies that can alleviate the suffering of animals and humans be democratically managed and publicly accessible? While most would certainly agree that public access to nuclear devices is a bad idea, nuclear devices are not able to cure 80% or more of human disease. There would seem to be a strong case for an open source and open document approach in the domain of gene-editing based treatments for genetic pathologies and aggressive biological pathogens. This is especially attractive where human industrial development and commercial food management that greatly profits a few has lead to epidemics of injury-induced pathologies (obesity, diabetes, many cancers, autoimmune diseases, and hepatic and renal diseases.) This view is more in line with a pro-transhuman approach.
The potential of CRISPR for transhuman augmentation also arguably increases the need for some kind of informational normative (or perhaps defeasible) definition of a human being to be used as a benchmark in ethics. For example The question of whether there should be any such normative informational conception is equally important, but such a conception may well help us to provide a way for governments and societies to develop ethical metrics and principles. This project seeks to investigate this question, along with the question of what conceptions of information and the nature of information would be salient to any such definition, and the question of whether such a normative definition is even desirable.
Philosophical Backgrounder: The Ontology of Information in Molecular Bioscience
Molecular bioscience and genetics are scientific fields where both the ontology of natural information (what information in nature actually is) and informational ontology (an approach to reality and nature that regards it as being information based in some way) have been of interest for some time. Certainly since at least the 1971 when work done by Francis Crick and James Watson in discovering the DNA double helix revolutionised human biology and medicine.
Some of the earliest and most important conceptions of both natural and semantic information have been based upon conceptions of genetic information, of information transmission in inheritance, and of information flow and encoding in DNA transcription/translation and protein synthesis. Geneticists and philosophers of biology have long been concerned with the relevance and definition of, information encoding, genetic information, chemical signals, conformational information in molecules, representation of functional information, and transmission of genetic information. Computational biology has added such concepts as genetic data, program length, compression, and processing.
It's not surprising that molecular bioscientists and geneticists have been so preoccupied with the nature of biological information and its properties, and the recent Chinese CRISPR controversy demonstrates why. Mastery of the science, and of the accompanying manipulation of nature, requires mastery of the ontology of information that goes with the requisite theory building and methodology. Much of the work done on the nature of information in the hard sciences has been done in physics and mathematical communications theory. However, it's arguable that, for human beings, the most powerful conceptions of information in nature are those that belong to, or originate with, the molecular biosciences.
Molecular bioscientists have, since at least the 1950s, applied concepts, techniques, and definitions from multiple information theories: classical Shannonian mathematical communication theory, Fisher information, the algorithmic conceptions of information usually ascribed to Soviet Cold War statistician Andre Kolmogorov, computational interpretations originally due to Alan Turing, and combinations of these.
Bartel, Brian. (17). The Bioethics of CRISPR for Students. National Science Teachers Association. Boonin, D., & SpringerLink. (2018). The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Braun, M., Schickl, H., Dabrock, P., & SpringerLink. (2018). Between Moral Hazard and Legal Uncertainty Ethical, Legal and Societal Challenges of Human Genome Editing. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. Brokowski, C., & Adli, M. (2019). CRISPR Ethics: Moral Considerations for Applications of a Powerful Tool. Journal of Molecular Biology, 431(1), 88–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmb.2018.05.044 Callaway, E. (2018). EU law deals blow to CRISPR crops. Nature, 560(7716), 16–16. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05814-6 Campo-Engelstein, L., Burcher, P., & SpringerLink. (2018). Reproductive Ethics II New Ideas and Innovations. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Goodspeed, A., Jean, A., & Costello, J. C. (2019). A Whole-genome CRISPR Screen Identifies a Role of MSH2 in Cisplatin-mediated Cell Death in Muscle-invasive Bladder Cancer.(Report). European Urology, 75(2), 242–250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eururo.2018.10.040 Healey, J., & ProQuest. (2018). Human genetics and ethics. Thirroul, N.S.W: The Spinney Press. Hine, R., & Martin, E. (2016). CRISPR (7th ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198714378.001.0001/acref-9780198714378-e-6581 Landsberger, M., Gandon, S., Meaden, S., Rollie, C., Chevallereau, A., Chabas, H., … van Houte, S. (2018). Anti-CRISPR Phages Cooperate to Overcome CRISPR-Cas Immunity. Cell, 174(4), 908–916.e12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.05.058 Ledford, H. (2016). CRISPR concerns. Nature, 538(7623), 17. Lundgren, M., Charpentier, E., & Fineran, P. C. (2015). CRISPR: Methods and Protocols (Vol. 1311). New York, NY: Springer New York. Mejia, L., Leeper, K., Graveline, A., & Church, G. (2018). Developmental barcoding of whole mouse via homing CRISPR. Science, 361(6405), 893-+. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat9804 Normile, D. (2018). Shock greets claim of CRISPR-edited babies: Apparent germline engineering by Chinese researcher prompts outrage and investigations.(BIOETHICS)(He Jiankui). Science, 362(6418), 978–979. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.362.6418.978 Researchers at University of Oxford Target Bioethics (Science and Bioethics of CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing: An Analysis Towards Separating Facts and Fiction ).(Report). (2018a). Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week, 7990. Researchers at University of Oxford Target Bioethics (Science and Bioethics of CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing: An Analysis Towards Separating Facts and Fiction ).(Report). (2018b). Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week, 7990. Rubin, A. J., Parker, K. R., Satpathy, A. T., Qi, Y., Wu, B., Ong, A. J., … Khavari, P. A. (2019). Coupled Single-Cell CRISPR Screening and Epigenomic Profiling Reveals Causal Gene Regulatory Networks. Cell, 176(1–2), 361–376.e17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2018.11.022 Schroeder, D., Cook, J., Hirsch, F., Fenet, S., Muthuswamy, V., & SpringerLink. (2018). Ethics Dumping Case Studies from North-South Research Collaborations. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Stower, H. (2018). CRISPR-based diagnostics. Nature Medicine, 24(6), 702–702. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-018-0073-z BIOLOGICAL INFORMATION Griffiths, P. E. (2016). Proximate and Ultimate Information in Biology. In The Philosophy of Philip Kitcher. New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199381357.003.0004
IIMx Advisory Council Member: Sukhoverkhov, A. (2012). Natural Signs and the Origin of Language. Biosemiotics, 5(2), 153–159. Other: Barbieri, M. (2009). Three Types of Semiosis. Biosemiotics, 2(1), 19–30. Bergstrom, C. T., & Rosvall, M. (2011). The transmission sense of information. Biology & Philosophy, 26(2), 159–176. Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch, C., Tononi, G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10), e1002236. English, S., Pen, I., Shea, N., & Uller, T. (2015). The Information Value of Non-Genetic Inheritance in Plants and Animals. PLOS ONE, 10(1), e0116996. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2001). The role of information and replication in selection processes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(3), 538–538. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2007). Information in Biology (pp. 103–119). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2011). Senders, receivers, and genetic information: comments on Bergstrom and Rosvall. Biology & Philosophy, 26(2), 177–181. Godfrey-Smith, P. (2014). Sender-Receiver Systems within and between Organisms. Philosophy of Science, 81(5), 866–878. Griffiths, P. E. (2001). Genetic Information: A Metaphor in Search of a Theory. Philosophy of Science, 68(3), 394–412. Griffiths, P., & Stotz, K. (2013). Genetics and philosophy: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jablonka, E. (2002). Information: Its Interpretation, Its Inheritance, and Its Sharing. Philosophy of Science, 69(4), 578–605. Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2007). The expanded evolutionary synthesis–a response to Godfrey-Smith, Haig, and West-Eberhard. Biology & Philosophy, 22(3), 453. Liu, T., Zheng, X., & Wang, J. (2010). Prediction of protein structural class using a complexity-based distance measure. Amino Acids, 38(3), 721–728. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-009-0276-1 Mitrokhin, Y. (2014). Two faces of entropy and information in biological systems. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 359, 192–198. Rackovsky, S., & Scheraga, H. A. (2011). On the information content of protein sequences. Journal of Biomolecular Structure & Dynamics, 28(4), 593–594. Sarkar, S. (1998). Genetics and reductionism. New York; Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press. Sarkar, S. (2000). Information in Genetics and Developmental Biology: Comments on Maynard Smith. Philosophy of Science, 67(2), 208–213. Sella, G., & Ardell, D. H. (2006). The Coevolution of Genes and Genetic Codes: Crick’s Frozen Accident Revisited. Journal of Molecular Evolution, 63(3), 297–313. Shea, N. (2007). Representation in the genome and in other inheritance systems. Biology & Philosophy, 22(3), 313. Shea, N. (2011). What’s transmitted? Inherited information. Biology and Philosophy, 26(2), 183–189. Shea, N. (2013). Inherited representations are read in development. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 64(1), 1–31. Smith, J. M. (1999). The Idea of Information in Biology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(4), 395–400. Sober, E. (1999). Reply to Godfrey-Smith. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 95(1/2), 183–186. Stegmann, U. E. (2005). Genetic Information as Instructional Content. Philosophy of Science, 72(3), 425–443. Sterner, B. (2014). The Practical Value of Biological Information for Research. Philosophy of Science, 81(2), 175–194