austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Then your ears grew an inch

[ I'm sorry to be late; I was picking up bunny_hugger from the airport for a visit. And I have heard the news about argon_centaur, but am trying to get further information before writing thoughts at length. ]

There was one panel in the early afternoon that we wanted to see, on Furry Genetics, which seems like a topic that ought to be interesting, although I think the panel as a whole slightly misfired. Actually, it came across as the sort of lunging argument that occasionally inflames a Usenet group or a message board. Part of it came from the panelists taking a uniformly and harshly negative line on what amounts to the question, ``wouldn't it be fun to have animal traits mixed into human bodies?''

Some of their objections are, at least on the face of it, reasonable: prominently, genetics a really tricky subject with an ability to throw up surprising non-obvious consequences which makes the 20th century's pastime of dumping massive quantities of barely understood chemicals into the environment look rational and well-considered. You'd need to be a lunatic to want to risk the health of a person, or worse that person and all his or her descendants, for something trivial like super-eyesight (and you could buy a good pair of binoculars for a lot less money and get the benefits this afternoon anyway) or blue feathers in place of hair (see above, but buy a wig instead). True enough. But assuming the challenge of how do you create a particular effect gets solved --- and there isn't a problem if nobody knows how you'd do it --- then the core question becomes how do you ethically test such a modification of human bodies, given the considerable risk that the penalty of being wrong is agonizing disability or death. (Case in point: naturally green hair is unknown in humans --- not just rare, but unknown. This suggests either it takes a lot of extra mutations to put in that shade, or the combination of genes that would make that shade also bring about a rapid catastrophic death to the one who has it. Why should that be? Who can even start guessing, and who'd dare to guess wrong?)

However, the problem of how to responsibly test genetic modifications is one that has to be solved anyway, and for problems that nobody would consider trivial. For example, it would be fantastic if one were able to induce a body to regrow a severed hand, or to grow one where a developmental disorder had kept one from forming in the first place. The techniques to trick a body into doing that would have to be tested, and would have to be shown that they aren't inflicting worse or subtler damage along the way. And there's the thing: once you've got a technique that lets a body grow a replacement hand, is it that different to growing a replacement ear? Maybe an ear of a different shape? Or to growing a tail when there was never one before? Perhaps it is and the ideas are irreducibly different, but we never got around to the question.

(I admit I could have asked at the time, rather than bring it up a month later in a place the panelists will, most likely, never see. I tend to be slow in articulating just what I want my argument to be, though, and I'm usually fine letting the other person have the last word, even if as in this case they're having the first as well.)

Another pair of arguments which feel to me tired amounted to the Humans Are Racist Scum thesis: the normal run of humans --- who will enormously outnumber any of the furry kind --- will inevitably be abusive racist bastards abusing whoever's foolish enough to grow their own fur coats. Perhaps that's so, particularly if it's possible for the non-wealthy and non-privileged to get a taste of it. (If, for example, the furry-genetic parts of it breed true and the Family Fortune that lets the first in the line do something silly with the money gets washed away.) But it'll also be worse than what mixed-race children have since, for example, a half-white, half-black kid can blend in to white or to black subcultures (depending among other things on how the kid looks), while the half-wolf kid hasn't got any choice but to associate with the humans who'll resent him.

It's rarely a safe bet to argue that humans won't be petty or show hatred over any cause. But it's also not quite consistent to say that racism is both an unchanging and unstoppably vast force and also that it's different for mixed-race humans since they can just fit in. Circumstances are going to vary, and probably more than we can imagine. The treatment which seems most likely to me is that it'd be something akin to Jim Young's novel Armed Memory, where genetic tweaking serves, for some, the role of fashion statement; for some, a show of prosperity; for some, attempts at personal art; for some, even, gang membership or community identification. It's not a wholly appealing vision of the world, but it's one that feels at least as livable and pleasant as the current one is.

Putting aside my quibbles with the panelists, the other problem was the audience. The con's necessarily a non-technical crowd, so there was a rather broad diversity in what people knew about, ranging from ``I know someone I think had DNA'' through to ``I have gotten into a fistfight with Bryan Sykes''. So a conversational thread could get started but then thrown off by questions knocking the background material level way up or down the chain. There's probably no way to hold a discussion of this type with an audience this heterogenous without such knocking about, but it's what gave me the feeling of a Usenet thread spinning its way out across the discussion hour.

And, yeah, nanotechnology put in an appearance. I think it was three sentences from the first mention of how, you know, it'd be awesome if you had these nanite clouds that would just fix your body up to order and the first mention of the grey goo that would transform everything into nothing. As far as I know there wasn't a specific nanotechnology panel, which is probably fine, as it would likely have taken the same course. I can't say that I felt smarter for going to the panel, and I'm sorry for that. On the other hand, I don't feel dumber for it, so it was better than the Online Arguments I was comparing it to.

Trivia: Five rocket flights in 1958 launched dogs. Source: Animals In Space: From Research Rockets To The Space Shuttle, Colin Burgess, Chris Dubbs.

Currently Reading: In The Heart Of The Sea: The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick.

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