On Animal Genomics

[People Are Animals, My Friend]
Biopolitical Times
A woolly mammoth

Animals are … not exactly people in the sense that corporations are (as Senator Romney has explained) but related species, some of them close cousins. Evidence for such similarity, especially behavioral but also genetic, is piling up very quickly, and being reported as if that were a big surprise, even in reputable newspapers and magazines (1, 2, 3, 4, all in August 2021). Scientists, not being stupid, have taken to presenting their perfectly good data with the just-like-us spin that gets good press.

Advances in genomics are behind the recent spate of stories. Their prehistory can be traced back to the Human Genome Project, which got underway in 1990. That was just the beginning, of course. A next key step was launched officially on November 1, 2018: The Earth BioGenome Project. This “moonshot for biology” aims to “sequence the genomes of all known species, and to use genomics to help discover the remaining 80 to 90 percent of species that are currently hidden from science.”

It was budgeted at about the same dollar amount as the human version. Costs per species have of course declined very considerably, but $4.7 billion isn’t chump change. As of 2018, when fewer than 3,500 (2%) of all known eukaryotic species had had their genome sequenced (fewer than 100 of them at reference quality), the total volume of biological data to be gathered was expected to be on the “exascale” (10ˆ18; a billion billion) — “more data than that accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or the whole of astronomy.”

The justification for this expenditure of cash, and more importantly this focus of scientific talent, is presented on the Earth BioGenome website as practical, not just a matter of curiosity. The aim is not only to understand ecosystems (Goal #3) and protect biodiversity (Goal #2) but to benefit human welfare (Goal #1), in five ways. Two of those are related to process (new biological synthetic tools and new bio materials) and three to more specific benefits:

  • Develop new treatments for infectious diseases
  • Identify drugs to slow or reverse aging
  • Generate new approaches to feeding the world

This expanded effort appears to be bearing fruit, so to speak, and presumably explains the remarkable number of recent scientific discoveries that animals are to some extent behaviorally and genetically similar to people: bats, cockatoos, cuttlefish (twice), dogs, elephants, giraffes, mice, monkeys, and opossums, for a start. It is by no means clear that these efforts will in practice lead to alleviating human disease, aging or hunger; that would anyway be a misguided constraint on basic science. But there are quite direct proposed connections between animal genetic modification and humans:

By creating mouse eggs entirely from scratch, researchers raise the prospect of a futuristic fertility treatment (STAT, July 15)

Living Pharmacies Could Remedy Disrupted Sleep (Neo.Life, July 1)

Some of the connections seem to be running in the opposite direction, with people being the experimental subjects for animals:

[A]pplications from human health — in precision nutrition and personalized medications, monitoring of disease, and therapeutic treatments (epidrugs) — will almost certainly be modeled for other plant and animal species. (Forbes, Aug 2)

And of course there is the apparently perpetual allure of “de-extinction”:

Firm raises $15m to bring back woolly mammoth from extinction (Guardian, Sept 13; New York Times, Sept 13)

To the surprise of no one who has been following these efforts for a while, the intellectual driving force behind this is the adventurous George Church, whose goal here is “to make a cold-resistant elephant” that would “do all the things that elephants and mammoths do, in particular knocking down trees,” in service of combating global warming. Critics point out that this would require “hundreds of thousands of mammoths which each take 22 months to gestate and 30 years to grow to maturity.” Moreover, if the objective is to maintain the permafrost, “removing the trees and trampling the moss would be the last thing you’d want to do.”

But apparently there are those who think that fake mammoths would be so cool.

This crystallizes the problematic nature of many discussions about this kind of research: In practice, they become about the promotion of genetic engineering either directly of humans or of the environment around humans. This is ethically questionable for a variety of reasons: not just short- and long-term risk but because this approach promotes a deep, and in this context, deeply ironic disconnection between humans and the rest of the natural world. “We are as Gods,” Stewart Brand has been saying for over fifty years (and now there is a movie). If we buy into theological metaphors, it might be more accurate to suggest that we are becoming as Devils. Both, of course, would be unscientific.