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Four Legs Good, Eight Legs Better?

May 23, 2009

A few years ago I read this fascinating article originally published in Harper’s about a rather eccentric plastic surgeon and for some reason it has stuck in my mind ever since. Joe Rosen, nicknamed Dr. Daedalus for the article, is a maestro at reconstructive plastic surgery but he has a fascination with the concept of chimeras and he’d like to give you wings, or fins, or a forked tongue, or anything else you might desire. Lauren Slater, the author of the article describes Rosen:

I met him at a medical ethics convention at which he discussed teaching Frankenstein to his residents and elaborated, with a little light in his eye, on the inherent beauty in hybrids and chimeras, if only we could learn to see them that way. “Why do we only value the average?” he’d asked the audience. “Why are plastic surgeons dedicated only to restoring our current notions of the conventional, as opposed to letting people explore, if they want, what the possibilities are?”

~snip~

When Rosen thinks of beauty, he thinks of the human form stretched on the red-hot rack of his imagination, which is mired in medieval texts and books on trumpeter swans. At its outermost limits, beauty becomes fantastical, perhaps absurd. Here is where Rosen rests. He dreams of making wings for human beings. He has shown me blueprints, sketches of the scalpel scissoring into skin, stretching flaps of torso fat to fashion gliders piped with rib bone. When the arm stretches, the gliders unfold, and human floats on currents of air. Is he serious? At least partially. He gives lectures to medical students on the meaning of wings from an engineering perspective, a surgeon’s perspective, and a patient’s perspective. He has also thought of cochlear implants to enhance normal hearing, fins to make us fishlike, and echolocation devices so that we can better navigate the night. He does not understand the limits we place on hands. He once met a Vietnamese man with two thumbs on one hand. This man was a waiter, and his two thumbs made him highly skilled at his job. “Now,” says Rosen, “if that man came to me and said, ‘I want you to take off my extra thumb,’ I’d be allowed, but I wouldn’t be allowed to put an extra thumb on a person, and that’s not fair.”

Slater notes that from an evolutionary standpoint, we already are an amalgamation of the many life forms that came before us:

Later on, in my hotel room, I stand in front of the mirror, naked. My body contains eons. Once, we were single cells, then fish, then birds, then mammals, and the genes for all these forms lie dormant on their cones of chromosomes. We are pastiches at the cellular, genetic level. This may be why I fear open spaces, blank pages, why I often dream my house opens up into endless rooms I never knew were there, and I float through them with a kind of terror. It is so easy to seep, to be boundless; we clutch our cloaks of skin.

To those who claim he would be playing god if he were ever allowed to put his theories into practice, Rosen has this to say:

“So are we supposed to stop advancing? And who says it’s bad to play God? We already alter the course of God’s ‘will’ in hundreds of ways. When we use antibiotics to combat the flu, when we figure out a way to wipe smallpox off the very face of the earth, surely we’re altering the natural course of things. Who says the natural course of things is even right? Maybe God isn’t good.”

Now Rosen is only proposing altering the human form by means of surgical implants and grafts and when the article was written it seemed like such procedures were a long way off. But just in the last couple weeks we have learned of two successful face transplants, the second of which is discussed here. The recipient, James Maki, certainly seems better off because of it. But this surgery still only deals with skin grafts and like Rosen mentioned, it is designed to restore notions of the conventional. But what if rather than just stitching people together with spare parts, we were able to alter people at the genetic level to be whatever they wanted to be? Now that notion may not be as far fetched as it seems either as scientists studying horned beetles have learned that old genes can learn new tricks.

Indiana University Bloomington biologist Armin Moczek and research associate Debra Rose report that two ancient genes were “co-opted” to help build a new trait in beetles — the fancy antlers that give horned beetles their name. The genes, Distal-less and homothorax, touch most aspects of insect larval development, and have therefore been considered off-limits to the evolution of new traits.

In the two horned beetle species Moczek and Rose studied, the genetic sequences of Distal-less and homothorax were hardly different, suggesting the two genes have retained their unique identities because of selective pressures not to change. What changed was not the genes themselves, but when and where they are turned on.

“Evolutionary biologists have a good idea of what it takes to change the shape of a wing, the length of a leg, or the anatomy of an eye,” Moczek said. “What we have struggled with, though, is how these traits originate in the first place. How do you evolve that first wing, limb or photoreceptor from a flightless, limbless and blind ancestor?”

~snip~

To understand the effects of the three genes on horned beetle development, Moczek and Rose employed a new and promising technique, RNA interference, which disables the action of specific genes without compromising other genetic processes. Humans are only mimicking nature here; RNA interference is also a natural method of gene regulation in eukaryotes.

Moczek and Rose divided beetle larvae of both species into three treatment groups: no injection, buffer injection with nonsense RNA and buffer injection with RNA interference transcripts designed to disrupt one of three crucial developmental genes.

Moczek and Rose learned that two of the three genes, Distal-less and homothorax, are used by both O. taurus and O. binodis in the development of beetle horns. While Distal-less was found to affect both the development of thorax horns (which form just behind the head) and head horns, homothorax was only found to influence thorax horn development. The gene dachshund appears to have no effect whatsoever on horn development in either species.

The evolution of novel features does not require the evolution of novel genes,” Moczek said. “A lot of innovation can grow from within the organism’s genetic toolbox.”

More importantly, Moczek and Rose learned all developmental genes are candidates for such recruitment, not just the genes whose development functions are considered non-essential or limited in their effects.

So if the genes responsible for the development of legs in insects can be tweaked through natural processes to form horns instead, how long will it be before the genes that produce arms and hands in humans can be tweaked to produce bat wings or flippers? It looks like science is catching up to the science fictions writers once again who have long posited chimeras of their own. Fantastical concepts like Dan Simmons’ transhuman Ousters or Alastair Reynolds bio-engineered hybrids or Greg Bear’s genetically engineered Hexamon start to become not just possible but probable.

Despite the objections of probably the majority of people alive today, one day medical science will begin to alter human beings at a genetic level. Because somewhere out there are people who want to fly with the eagles not with a glider but with their own wings or swim with the dolphins not on a skim board but with their own flippers. Or maybe it will be something more mundane like a few tentacles to make multitasking a little easier. At least one of these people is going to have the connections and the money to make it happen. It is no longer a question of if, but when, and in the next several decades our notions of god and what it means to be truly human will be altered as much as human beings themselves.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. cometman permalink*
    May 23, 2009 9:37 am

    For now I’m pretty satisfied with the conventional allotment of appendages but I’m sure there will be people who would opt for flippers or wings or tentacles if they could get them. However I do know that if anyone decides they want a tail, they are still going straight to H E Double Hockey Sticks.

    • Stemella permalink*
      May 23, 2009 9:53 am

      I think I may have seen some of those altered individuals in the airport! Holy shit, the things people already do to themselves with plastic fantastic surgery is mind boggling.

      People already surgically change their ears to look vulcan and elfish (Geithner was naturally gifted as such). I figure it is only a matter of time too before we see the kinds of alterations you discuss above, but knowing humans it won’t be so much by choice as by authoritarian requirement. Brave new world, the Isld of Dr. Moreau and Coma come to mind where science and medicine avoid ethics and go very wrong. I can imagine fantastic possibilities of having fins to swim like a dolphin of course, a childhood dream, but guess instead that the dark side of humanity will prevail.

      No, c-man, you are not allowed to have tentacles. Nyet. I know you want them! haha

      Also, thanks for keeping the lights on while I was away.

      • cometman permalink*
        May 23, 2009 10:10 am

        Nah, I don’t need tentacles, just the neural shunt to give me a little more RAM or ROM or whatever. I’m more of a cyborg type than a chimera type :)

        Slater mentions in the Harper’s article that already we have people like Michael Jackson and some other woman who has altered herself to look like a cat, so it isn’t as if radical alterations are without precedent. But Dr. Daedalus also mentions that his ideas have military potential and like you said drastic alterations will probably be used by authoritarians unfortunately. But you me and Dr. Rosen will most likely be long gone before it happens. And even Rosen, despite wanting to change our concepts of beauty and help humanity, sounds pretty cynical when it gets right down to it:

        “Does it ever make you sad?” I say. “Does it ever just plain and simple make you scared?”

        Rosen and I look at each other for a long time. He does seem sad. I recall him telling me once that when he envisions the future fifty years out, he hopes he is gone, because, he said, “While I like it here, I don’t like it that much.” I have the sense, now, that he struggles with things he won’t tell me. His eyes appear tired, his face drained. I wonder if he wakes in the middle of the night, frightened by his own perceptions. Strange or not, there is something constant in Rosen, and that’s his intelligence, his uncanny ability to defend seemingly untenable positions with power and occasional grace. In just three weeks he will travel to a remote part of Asia to participate in a group called Interplast, made up of doctors and nurses who donate their time to help children with cleft lips and palates. I think it’s important to mention this — not only Bin Laden, bandwidth, anthrax, and wings but his competing desire to minister. The way, at the dinner table, he tousles his children’s hair. His avid dislike of George W. Bush. His love of plants and greenery. Call him multifaceted or simply slippery, I don’t know. All I do know is that right now, when I look at his face, I think I can see the boy he once was, the Seventh Fleet ship, the wonder, all that wonder.

  2. cometman permalink*
    May 24, 2009 8:50 am

    Great post from Sibel Edmonds discussing Obama’s continuation of many of the worst of Bush’s policies. She discusses the use of the state secrets defense, illegal wiretapping, torture, military commissions, and the ongoing illegal occupations. Most of what she has to say is well known at this point but I did particularly like the beginning and end of her piece, both directly squarely at those who continue to defend Obama even as he acts like Bush:

    During the campaign, amid their state of elation, many disregarded Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama’s past record and took any criticism of these past actions as partisan attacks deserving equally partisan counterattacks. Some continued their reluctant support after candidate Obama became grand finalist and prayed for the best. And a few still continue their rationalizing and defense, with illogical excuses such as ‘He’s been in office for only 20 days, give the man a break!’ and ‘He’s had only 50 days in office, give him a chance!’ and currently, ‘be reasonable – how much can a man do in 120 days?!’ I am going to give this logic, or lack of, a slight spicing of reason, then, turn it around, and present it as: If ‘the man’ can do this much astounding damage, whether to our civil liberties, or to our notion of democracy, or to government integrity, in ‘only’ 120 days, may God help us with the next [(4 X 365) – 120] days.

    ~snip~

    What I want the readers to do is to read the extremely important cases above, step back in time to those un-ending campaign trail days, and answer the following questions:

    How would Senator McCain have acted on these same issues if he had been elected? How would Senator Hilary Clinton? Do you believe there would have been any major differences? Weren’t their records almost identical to Senator Obama’s on these issues? If you are like me, and answer ‘same,’ ‘same,’ ‘no,’ and ‘yes,’ then, why do you think we ended up with these exact same candidates, those deemed ‘viable’ and sold to us as such?

    With too much at stake, too many unfinished agendas for the course of our nation, and too many skeletons in the closet in need of hiding for self-preservation, the ‘permanent establishment’ made certain that they took no risk by giving the public, via their MSM tentacles, a coin that no matter how many times flipped would come up the same – Heads, Heads.

    • Stemella permalink*
      May 24, 2009 11:30 am

      Thanks for that. I hadn’t read Sibel’s blog before, just about her on klub kumquat. She seems to feel the same way we do, as do many of her commenters, that the hopey changey is not exactly evident. Obama is indeed the establishment candidate, now President, and is continuing the policies taking us in exactly the wrong direction. His Administration operates on the same kind of cronyism as Bush’s did, with perhaps less twang and more panache, but the end results won’t be all that different. The ruling class will remain fully in charge and entrenched. The rest of us are expendable.

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