Hunting Cloned Sheep and Other Post-Modern Biotech Absurdities

Biopolitical Times
Dolly the Cloned Sheep

Sheep have been domesticated for roughly 12,000 years. Sheep have also been cloned since 1996; Dolly (pictured) was the first mammal to suffer that indignity. But this news was featured in the March 14 issue of Business Insider:

Montana rancher paid $4,200 to clone a dead sheep and launched a farm of super hybrids worth up to $550,000

Some people — not just Montanans but Texans too and probably others — pay to indulge in “captive hunting,” and large sheep make excellent targets. Neither the cloning nor the sale nor the hunt would be illegal per se, except that the “franken-sheep” as the Daily Mail inevitably dubbed them, are native to Kyrgyzstan and covered by the US Endangered Species Act. (PZ Myers has explained the pseudoscience behind the whole scheme.) The entrepreneur in question, 80-year-old Arthur “Jack” Schubarth, has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in July. He could get ten years but at a guess he probably won’t.

Humans have cross-bred several species — Tigons, Ligers, Zebroids, Beefalo, Geep and more — but the most ambitious such undertaking is pursued by the media-savvy Colossal Biosciences, which is trying to “de-extinct” the dodo and the woolly mammoth. The scientific mastermind behind this controversial effort is Harvard professor George Church, who denies “playing God” but boasts of “playing engineer.” (He did once speculate about re-creating Neanderthals with an “adventurous human female” surrogate but insisted he was certainly not advocating any such thing.) The team has been able to reprogram elephant cells to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. This notable though very problematic achievement is only a small step toward the goal — which itself, as CRISPR expert John van der Oost points out, is questionable:

“I’m against it. It’s basically a designer elephant. If we don’t find it ethically responsible to make designer babies, then I don’t find this a good idea either.”

Meanwhile, some rich people elect to experiment on themselves, pursuing immortality rather than resurrection. Bryan Johnson, a techie entrepreneur who cashed out in his late thirties with an estimated $400 million, is the most active proselytizer. He is now 46 and spends $2 million a year on his own healthcare. Time profiled him at length last September and described his obsession with reducing his “biological age.” His regimen includes “downing 111 pills every day, wearing a baseball cap that shoots red light into his scalp, collecting his own stool samples, and sleeping with a tiny jet pack attached to his penis to monitor his nighttime erections.” He was once married but jokes about the “10 reasons why [women] will literally hate me,” including: eating dinner at 11:30 am, no sunny vacations, bed at 8:30 pm, no small talk, always sleeping alone, and, of course:

“They’re not my number one priority.”

Another techie questing to defeat aging is Ray Kurzweil, an accomplished veteran of the struggle to persuade the world that transhumanism is the way to go. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, he predicted that humans would merge with intelligent machines in 2045, making people functionally immortal. That merger is The Singularity. On YouTube, his 2013 explanation is available:

“We’re going to become increasingly non-biological, to the point where the biological part isn’t that important anymore. Even if the biological part went away, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

Like Johnson, Kurzweil has for years taken enormous numbers of pills every day, to ensure that he, born in 1948, will live to take part in that blessed event. He has revised that estimate several times; a decade ago, he predicted that machines will think for themselves by 2040. Now he believes that AI will achieve human-level intelligence by 2029, and asserts that he said as much in 1999 at a Stanford conference. 

Many experts have never been convinced by Kurzweil’s schtick. Current Affairs, July 2020:

The Singularity’s not coming to save us, but that doesn’t stop the world’s worst people from trying to bring it about. 

Just this month, computer scientist and tech entrepreneur Erik Larson, in a Mind Matters podcast, summed up the whole concept as a fallacy. AI will not bring us utopia, he said. Instead:

Very bad actors are going to use very powerful machines to screw everything up.