Chinese scientists have put human brain genes in monkeys—and yes, they may be smarter | MIT Technology Review

Human intelligence is one of evolution’s most consequential inventions. It is the result of a sprint that started millions of years ago, leading to ever bigger brains and new abilities. Eventually, humans stood upright, took up the plow, and created civilization, while our primate cousins stayed in the trees.

Now scientists in southern China report that they’ve tried to narrow the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613277/chinese-scientists-have-put-human-brain-genes-in-monkeysand-yes-they-may-be-smarter/

Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will | Science

Philosophers have spent millennia debating whether we have free will, without reaching a conclusive answer. Neuroscientists optimistically entered the field in the 1980s, armed with tools they were confident could reveal the origin of actions in the brain. Three decades later, they have reached the same conclusion as the philosophers: Free will is complicated.

Now, a new research program spanning 17 universities and backed by more than $7 million from two private foundations hopes to break out the impasse by bringing neuroscientists and philosophers together. The collaboration, the researchers say, can help them tackle two important questions: What does it take to have free will? And whatever that is, do we have it?

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/03/philosophers-and-neuroscientists-join-forces-see-whether-science-can-solve-mystery-free

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing | Nature

Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.

We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.

By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.

In Spain, prisoners’ brains are being electrically stimulated in the name of science | Vox

A team of scientists in Spain is getting ready to experiment on prisoners. If the scientists get the necessary approvals, they plan to start a study this month that involves placing electrodes on inmates’ foreheads and sending a current into their brains. The electricity will target the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that plays a role in decision-making and social behavior. The idea is that stimulating more activity in that region may make the prisoners less aggressive.

This technique — transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — is a form of neurointervention, meaning it acts directly on the brain. Using neurointerventions in the criminal justice system is highly controversial. In recent years, scientists and philosophers have been debating under what conditions (if any) it might be ethical.

The Spanish team is the first to use tDCS on prisoners. They’ve already done it in a pilot study, publishing their findings in Neuroscience in January, and they were all set to implement a follow-up study involving at least 12 convicted murderers and other inmates this month. On Wednesday, New Scientist broke news of the upcoming experiment, noting that it had approval from the Spanish government, prison officials, and a university ethics committee. The next day, the Interior Ministry changed course and put the study on hold.

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/3/9/18256821/prisoner-brain-study-spain-aggression-neurointervention-ethics

Is Ethical A.I. Even Possible? | NYT

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — When a news article revealed that Clarifai was working with the Pentagon and some employees questioned the ethics of building artificial intelligence that analyzed video captured by drones, the company said the project would save the lives of civilians and soldiers.

“Clarifai’s mission is to accelerate the progress of humanity with continually improving A.I.,” read a blog post from Matt Zeiler, the company’s founder and chief executive, and a prominent A.I. researcher. Later, in a news media interview, Mr. Zeiler announced a new management position that would ensure all company projects were ethically sound.

As activists, researchers, and journalists voice concerns over the rise of artificial intelligence, warning against biased, deceptive and malicious applications, the companies building this technology are responding. From tech giants like Google and Microsoft to scrappy A.I. start-ups, many are creating corporate principles meant to ensure their systems are designed and deployed in an ethical way. Some set up ethics officers or review boards to oversee these principles.

But tensions continue to rise as some question whether these promises will ultimately be kept. Companies can change course. Idealism can bow to financial pressure. Some activists — and even some companies — are beginning to argue that the only way to ensure ethical practices is through government regulation.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/business/ethics-artificial-intelligence.html

The Free Will Pill | Philosophy Now

If we found out next week that neuroscientists had conclusively demonstrated that free will does not exist and that our so-called ‘choices’ are purely the result of automatic brain functions, I think we would be right to take this news badly. But imagine further that, as we continue to develop new ways to alter human brain chemistry and so on, we found a way to design a ‘free will pill’ – something like Prozac or Adderall – which alters our brains so that we can act freely.

It turns out that some recent work on free will makes this speculation more plausible than you might think. And this brings up all sorts of bizarre questions, such as whether we can freely choose to take a free will drug; whether we should take a free will drug; and what kind of effects such a drug would have on us, individually and socially.

https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/The_Free_Will_Pill

Scientists Successfully Double the DNA Alphabet | Smithsonianmag.com

In 1953, when scientists conclusively identified DNA’s structure, it was a monumental, Nobel-Prize-winning revelation: four nucleotides, each containing a letter-labeled base, were arranged in a double helix structure. These four bases, or “letters,” form pairs: adenine, A, matches with thymine, T, and cytosine, C, bonds with guanine, G. These pairs are essentially the building blocks of life on Earth; the way in which the pairs are arranged creates the genetic instructions for how proteins are made, which in turn aid in pretty much every critical process that keeps us alive.

Now, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has expanded the genetic alphabet by creating synthetic DNA that uses eight letters rather than four, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The new manufactured structure is called "hachimoji DNA," from the Japanese words for "eight" and letter." Creating hachimoji DNA was, as Carl Zimmer writes in The New York Times, “a chemical tour-de-force” for the group led by Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. The advance offers new possibilities in many fields, including medical research and data storage.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-just-doubled-number-letters-dna-alphabet-180971552/

China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced | MIT Technology Review

The brains of two genetically edited girls born in China last year may have been changed in ways that enhance cognition and memory, scientists say.

The twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth by a Chinese scientific team using the new editing tool CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Now, new research shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of a gene called CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school.

“The answer is likely yes, it did affect their brains,” says Alcino J. Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose lab uncovered a major new role for the CCR5 gene in memory and the brain’s ability to form new connections. 

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” says Silva. He says the exact effect on the girls’ cognition is impossible to predict, and “that is why it should not be done.” 

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612997/the-crispr-twins-had-their-brains-altered/


Scientists Release Controversial Genetically Modified Mosquitoes In High-Security Lab | NPR

Scientists have launched a major new phase in the testing of a controversial genetically modified organism: a mosquito designed to quickly spread a genetic mutation lethal to its own species, NPR has learned.

For the first time, researchers have begun large-scale releases of the engineered insects, into a high-security laboratory in Terni, Italy.

"This will really be a breakthrough experiment," says Ruth Mueller, an entomologist who runs the lab. "It's a historic moment."

The goal is to see if the mosquitoes could eventually provide a powerful new weapon to help eradicate malaria in Africa, where most cases occur.

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/02/20/693735499/scientists-release-controversial-genetically-modified-mosquitoes-in-high-securit

Ketamine Could Be the Key to Reversing America’s Rising Suicide Rate | Bloomberg Businessweek

[…] Wright decided to try again in 2016, this time using a cocktail of drugs he’d ground into a powder. As he tells the story now, he was preparing to mix the powder into water and drink it when his dog jumped onto his lap. Suddenly he had a moment of clarity that shocked him into action. He started doing research and came upon a Columbia University study of a pharmaceutical treatment for severe depression and suicidality. It involved an infusion of ketamine, a decades-old anesthetic that’s also an infamous party drug. He immediately volunteered.

His first—and only—ketamine infusion made him feel dreamlike, goofy, and euphoric. He almost immediately started feeling more hopeful about life. He was more receptive to therapy. Less than a year later, he married. Today he says his dark moods are remote and manageable. Suicidal thoughts are largely gone. “If they had told me how much it would affect me, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Wright says. “It is unconscionable that it is not already approved for suicidal patients.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-02-05/ketamine-could-soon-be-used-to-treat-suicidal-ideation

Wanting to die at 'five to midnight' - before dementia takes over | Andrew Bomford

It's not unusual for Dutch patients with dementia to request euthanasia, but in the later stages of the disease they may be incapable of reconfirming their consent - one doctor is currently facing prosecution in such a case. But fear of being refused is pushing some to ask to die earlier than they would have liked.

Annie Zwijnenberg was never in any doubt.

"The neurologist said: 'I'm sorry, but there's no way we can mistake this - its Alzheimer's," says Anneke Soute-Zwijnenberg, describing the moment her mother was first diagnosed.

"And she said: 'OK, then I know what I want.'"

Anneke's brother Frank chips in: "Maybe she hesitated for five seconds, and said: 'Now I know what to do.'"

They both knew she was referring to euthanasia.

You could say Annie's story is a textbook case of how euthanasia is supposed to happen in the Netherlands - with very consistent and clear consent. But there are other cases where the patient's consent is less consistent, and at the final moment, less clear.

https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47047579

The Lure of Luxury | Paul Bloom

Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a Prada handbag, an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch? If you really need to know the time, buy a cheap Timex or just look at your phone and send the money you have saved to Oxfam. Certain consumer behaviors seem irrational, wasteful, even evil. What drives people to possess so much more than they need?

Maybe they have good taste. In her wonderful 2003 book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that our reaction to many consumer items is “immediate, perceptual, and emotional.” We want these things because of the pleasure we get from looking at and interacting with high-quality products—and there is nothing wrong with this. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life,” she writes. “They are part of it.”

Postrel is pushing back against a more cynical theory held by many sociologists, economists, and evolutionary theorists. Building from the insights of Thorstein Veblen, they argue that we buy such things as status symbols. Though we are often unaware of it and might angrily deny it, we are driven to accumulate ostentatious goods to impress others. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives this theory an adaptationist twist, arguing that the hunger for these luxury goods is a modern expression of the evolved desire to signal attractive traits—such as intelligence, ambition, and power—to entice mates: Charles Darwin’s sexual selection meets Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.

http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-lure-luxury

Our Language Affects What We See | Scientific American

Does the language you speak influence how you think? This is the question behind the famous linguistic relativity hypothesis, that the grammar or vocabulary of a language imposes on its speakers a particular way of thinking about the world. 

The strongest form of the hypothesis is that language determines thought. This version has been rejected by most scholars. A weak form is now thought to be obviously true, which is that if one language has a specific vocabulary item for a concept but another language does not, then speaking about the concept may happen more frequently or more easily. For example, if someone explained to you, an English speaker, the meaning for the German term Schadenfreude, you could recognize the concept, but you may not have used the concept as regularly as a comparable German speaker.   

Scholars are now interested in whether having a vocabulary item for a concept influences thought in domains far from language, such as visual perception. Consider the case of the "Russian blues." While English has a single word for blue, Russian has two words, goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blue. These are considered "basic level" terms, like green and purple, since no adjective is needed to distinguish them. Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues displayed two shades of blue on a computer screen and asked Russian speakers to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the two blue colors were different from each other or the same as each other. The fastest discriminations were when the displayed colors were goluboy and siniy, rather than two shades of goluboy or two shades of siniy. The reaction time advantage for lexically distinct blue colors was strongest when the blue hues were perceptually similar.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/our-language-affects-what-we-see/

Certainty is not a defensible standard for policy making in the context of assisted dying | Udo Schuklenk

[…] The chairperson of the group drafting the report on mental illness and assisted dying, Kwame McKenzie, made a statement to Canadian news media in support of current government policy that excludes competent people who suffer from refractory mental illness from access to assisted dying. He reportedly cautioned that ‘no one can be completely certain that a mentally ill patient is never going to get better’.[3] Which takes me to the actual topic of this blogpost: certainty as a standard for health policy making. Complete certainty, if that were ever possible in the context of health and disease, where most decision making is based on probability as opposed to certainty, might be a defensible threshold if nobody were harmed by the implementation of such a high standard. If the setting of a high standard were cost neutral, there would be no good reason not to have such a standard.

https://ethxblog.blogspot.com/2019/01/certainty-is-not-defensible-standard.html

Europe's top rights court to hear Belgian euthanasia case | AP

LONDON (AP) — Europe’s top human rights court has agreed to hear a case being brought against Belgium by a man whose mother was euthanized in 2012 for depression, the second case that implicates one of Belgium’s leading euthanasia doctors.

In a statement Tuesday, lawyers for Tom Mortier said they brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after Belgian authorities declined to pursue it.

Robert Clarke, one of Mortier’s lawyers, said there were some “deeply worrying” details about the case.

“This was a woman who was under the care of a psychiatrist and according to medical definition was a vulnerable person,” Clarke said. “The state had a duty of care to protect her and it failed.

https://apnews.com/8217108af4f841b3a2d551ca73eecb9c

An Elephant’s Personhood on Trial | The Atlantic

Forty-seven years ago, the Asian elephant now known as Happy was one of seven calves captured—probably in Thailand, but details are hazy—and sent to the United States. She spent five years at a safari park in Florida, time that in the wild would have been spent by her mother’s side. Then she was moved to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. There Happy remains today, and since the death of an elephant companion in 2006, she has lived alone, her days alternating between a 1.15-acre yard and an indoor stall.

For a member of a species renowned for both intelligence and sociality, the setting is far from natural. In the wild, Happy would share a many-square-mile home range with a lifelong extended family, their bonds so close-knit that witnessing death produces symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans. It would seem that Happy, despite the devotions of the people who care for her, is not living her best life.

In considering Happy’s circumstances and what might be done to improve them, should something more than animal-welfare laws and zoo regulations—which the Bronx Zoo has not violated, but arguably are inadequate—be invoked? Should Happy be considered, in legal terms, a person? Which is to say, an entity capable of possessing at least some rights historically reserved for humans alone—beginning with a right to be free?

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/happy-elephant-personhood/578818/

Bioethicists under threat | Developing World Bioethics

The title of this editorial is not exaggerated: I am a developing world bioethicist and most of my work has been focused on reproductive rights. To be clear, most of my theoretical writings and empirical research are about abortion. Abortion is a crime in several developing countries, and, globally, the Latin American and Caribbean region has the most repressive laws against abortion, along with high rates of clandestine abortion. Women can go to the jail for having a miscarriage when they are not being properly protected against criminal prosecutions, as has happened in El Salvador. In my case, being an academic who is engaged in women's reproductive rights has led me to an unprecedented situation as an academic in Brazil: I have received threats against my life and can no longer go back to my university to teach, to meet students, or to participate in academic celebrations such as commencement, where I was the main speaker this year.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dewb.12212


Ethics in genetic counselling | Journal of Community Genetics

Difficult ethical issues arise for patients and professionals in medical genetics, and often relate to the patient’s family or their social context. Tackling these issues requires sensitivity to nuances of communication and a commitment to clarity and consistency. It also benefits from an awareness of different approaches to ethical theory. Many of the ethical problems encountered in genetics relate to tensions between the wishes or interests of different people, sometimes even people who do not (yet) exist or exist as embryos, either in an established pregnancy or in vitro. Concern for the long-term welfare of a child or young person, or possible future children, or for other members of the family, may lead to tensions felt by the patient (client) in genetic counselling. Differences in perspective may also arise between the patient and professional when the latter recommends disclosure of information to relatives and the patient finds that too difficult, or when the professional considers the genetic testing of a child, sought by parents, to be inappropriate. The expectations of a patient’s community may also lead to the differences in perspective between patient and counsellor. Recent developments of genetic technology permit genome-wide investigations. These have generated additional and more complex data that amplify and exacerbate some pre-existing ethical problems, including those presented by incidental (additional sought and secondary) findings and the recognition of variants currently of uncertain significance, so that reports of genomic investigations may often be provisional rather than definitive. Experience is being gained with these problems but substantial challenges are likely to persist in the long term.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12687-018-0371-7


Medical Assistance in Dying | The Expert Panel on Medical Assistance in Dying

In December 2016, the CCA was asked by then Minister of Health Jane Philpott and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould to undertake independent reviews related to medical assistance in dying (MAID). Specifically, the CCA was tasked with examining three particularly complex types of requests for MAID that were identified for further review and study in the legislation passed by Parliament in 2016: requests by mature minors, advance requests, and requests where a mental disorder is the sole underlying medical condition.

On December 12, 2018 the CCA released the three final reports of the Expert Panel, one on each type of request: The State of Knowledge on Medical Assistance in Dying for Mature MinorsThe State of Knowledge on Advance Requests for Medical Assistance in Dying; and The State of Knowledge on Medical Assistance in Dying Where a Mental Disorder is the Sole Underlying Medical Condition.

https://www.scienceadvice.ca/reports/medical-assistance-in-dying/

When Nonviolence Isn't Enough | Reason.com

Interesting read by Jason Brennan.

In August 2017, Richard Hubbard III stopped at a red light in Euclid, Ohio, but his front bumper went a few feet past the white line. The cops pulled him over. That's no surprise: Police in Euclid, Cleveland Heights, and the surrounding cash-strapped towns strictly enforce traffic rules. But officers didn't just give the driver a ticket.

The police demanded Hubbard—a black man—step out of his vehicle. Dashcam footage shows that he calmly complied. Yet one officer immediately spun Hubbard around, bent his arm, and slammed him against his Hyundai. He flipped Hubbard again, punched him in the face, and kicked his groin. Hubbard screamed and put his arms up to protect himself. The other officer joined in.

They threw Hubbard to the ground but continued to punch, hammer, and kick him. When he tried to protect his face, they chanted the informal motto of American police, "Stop resisting!" Even when Hubbard was subdued, prostrate with his hands behind his back and two large officers pinning him down, one officer continued to pummel his skull.

Imagine you witness the whole thing. A thought occurs to you: You're armed. You could shoot the officers, perhaps saving Hubbard's life or preventing him from being maimed and disabled. May you do so?

Below, I defend a controversial answer: Yes, you may. Shooting the cops in this case is dangerous—they may send a SWAT team to kill you—and in many places it's illegal. But it is nevertheless morally permissible, indeed heroic and admirable. You have the right to defend yourself and others from state injustice, even when government agents act ex officio and follow the law.

https://reason.com/archives/2018/12/07/when-nonviolence-isnt-enough

Another by Brennan on this topic: When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

https://aeon.co/ideas/when-the-state-is-unjust-citizens-may-use-justifiable-violence