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WEIRD SCIENCE

Want to know more about insect courtship and reproduction? What about Quantum mechanics? Or maybe the theory of multiple universes? Learn about these and more at this year’s World Science Festival. Presented by the nonprofit organization the Science Festival Foundation, the annual festival is a five-day-long celebration of the field of science, featuring more than 130 speakers and 50 programs. Highlights include an outdoor science street fair, The Moth’s special science-themed evening, and a lecture by this year’s honoree, James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame). Events will take place between today and Sunday at various locations throughout the city, including Washington Square Park, the Met, and the New York Botanical Garden. Many events sell out quickly, so head to the festival’s website to snag tickets for the programs that interest you the most.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: May 29. Continues through June 2, 2013

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Supertots And Frankenkids

The complete accounting of the human genome, a de facto guide for building a person, met with predictable fanfare last week. Its celebration marked 50 years since Francis Crick and James Watson published their Nobel Prize-winning description of that iconic spiral staircase, the double helix of DNA.

“After three billion years of evolution, we have before us the instruction set that carries each of us from the one-cell egg through adulthood to the grave,” Dr. Robert Waterston, of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, told a crowd at the National Institutes of Health.

With this new knowledge comes new power, the ability to shape our fundamental form—and, one day, to better it. Within our lifetime, scientists say, we will see the advent of genetically enhanced human beings, babies who might look like all the others in the nursery but will grow up to jump higher, learn faster, live longer. Powerful and privileged, they could also become a vulnerable minority, as much subject to prejudice as primed for success.

On January 3, during the final, furious effort to sequence those 3.1 billion units of DNA, a federal court in Lower Manhattan handed down a ruling that by some bizarre twist could serve as precedent for a third-millennium Dred Scott decision. Judge Judith Barzilay of the U.S. Court of International Trade decreed that intelligent characters with “extraordinary and unnatural powers,” beings with “tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs,” “highly exaggerated muscle tone,” or “exaggerated troll-like features,” are “nonhuman creatures.” Really.

That ruling, regarding a tax on comic-book toys, revealed a mindset that doesn’t bode well for the souped-up variants of human who could be living shoulder-to-shoulder with your grandkids, or could be your grandkids. They could very well be augmented with better genes and robotic prosthetics or implanted chips, by choice or necessity. Will they face an angry mob of normals when they start filling the roster at Harvard? When they go to vote, will they be recognized as citizens? The law has gone a lot further in banning their birth than in protecting their rights.

Months before that court decision, Olympic officials and scientists meeting in New York City resolved to bar genetically engineered athletes from future competitions. And preferring phrasing that sounds protective, the Council of Europe stated as far back as 1982 that “Human Rights imply the right to inherit a genetic pattern which has not been artificially changed.”

Watson, founding director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, isn’t part of that consensus. “It’s strange to say we’ve come to a point where we don’t want to improve things,” he told the Voice. “It’s against the main thrust of civilization’s work.”

Before we swallow an overweening sense of preciousness about the human being, we should be mindful that our Constitution never defined what one was. Rather than narrowing our sense of perfection to Leonardo da Vinci’s precisely proportioned Vitruvian Man, we might define ourselves, for ourselves, according to values and qualities like intelligence, empathy, compassion—regardless of outward form or inner tinkering.

The grand-père terrible of genetic research, Watson argues that “nature knows best” is a delusional quagmire. Evolution, after all, is a messy set of continual compromises designed to make do for the moment. There’s the wondrous human hand and the horrible human knee. In his new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, Watson advocates genetic modification not just to protect us from disease, but to make us smarter, too.

Other scientists foresee new, superior offshoots of our species spawned by genetic blending with various flora and fauna. Leading lights in these fields gathered at Boston University this month to sort it all out in a symposium called simply “The Future of Human Nature.”

“Enough,” says environmentalist author Bill McKibben in his new book of that name, a jeremiad against such supposed technological sins. But should fine-tuned babies and transgenic beings pop up among us anyway, he says, “I am certain the better angels of our nature will prevail and we will treat them as we would anybody else.”

His assessment, that we can hate the sin but love the product of it, seems glib given our planet’s track record of prejudice. Even children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women, so-called Amerasians, faced severe discrimination in the land of their birth because the circumstances of their conception carried a stigma of colonialism. And the organic farming movement has denounced genetically modified “Frankenfoods.” How much of a stretch is it to imagine that metaphor coming full circle, demonizing people enhanced by those same technologies?


The transgenic revolution is already here—fish genes have been spliced into tomatoes to make them frost resistant, and jellyfish genes have been used to make a fluorescent rabbit. Now imagine if the problem of world hunger were eased by creating an even hybrid of human and plant, people who could feed off sunshine. We’d all benefit from the reduced demand for food, but “would those individuals be protected by the Constitution?” asks Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and author of Future Perfect: Confronting Decisions About Genetics.

“These issues are already on the table. We’re going to have to expand the definition of man,” she says. The pithiest conclusion to the dilemma she cites came from an exchange between her students: “If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes like a man, then it’s a man.”

It may sound like science fiction, but biotech’s progress continues to defy prediction. The HIV genome took years to sequence; SARS was done in weeks. Human genetic enhancement is drawing closer—we’ve already identified more than a thousand genetic markers for outcomes like Down’s syndrome.

The day is approaching when wealthy parents can pay to have markers tweaked or added to bolster qualities like intelligence and athleticism. But the rights of such unusual progeny are being curtailed before the people even exist. The situation is one the X-Men, conceived as a comic-book response to the civil rights movement in 1963 and returning to movie theaters on May 2 with a plot centered on a repressive Mutant Registration Act, could easily appreciate. “Born with strange powers, the mutants known as the X-Men use their awesome abilities to protect a world that hates and fears them!” reads their Marvel Comics tagline. In the end, the X-Men were sold out by that very company. It was Marvel subsidiary Toy Biz that persuaded Judge Barzilay of the heroes’ “other than human” status so it could reap reimbursements on taxes paid to import action figures from China—the levy was higher on dolls, which depict humans, than on other toys.

That might seem a trivial and unlikely basis for the question of what makes us human, but as Andrews notes, “Science looks forward, law looks backward. Computer cases rest on what happened with books, and space shuttle cases will look back to what was decided for horses and buggies.”


The personal decisions that would accompany genetic enhancement are frightening. How would you feel about your first child when the second one comes bundled with upgrades? Could the younger sibling ever enjoy a sense of real achievement, or would the kid forever wonder if that three-minute mile had been written in before birth? “I suppose if I were the only one enhanced, I’d feel a bit of a cheat,” Watson admits. Where do you draw the line between risks and rewards? Changing the germ line—those genes that will be passed onto future generations—must be done ahead of the fetus’s development, and so carries tremendous potential for cascades of disaster. Somatic therapies—delivering genes to a living person—have loosed cancers in test subjects.

Even in best-case scenarios, the questions are endless. Will genetically enhanced people be held back by society, just as gifted students are now woefully underserved? Should you have to pay insurance premiums inflated by others whose parents lacked the foresight to eliminate disease genes? How much privacy protection should such people have? Pity the presidential candidate who must reveal that she’s been enhanced by a lab instead of a blue-blood pedigree.

Why should the DNA-boosted have to follow our usual strictures at all? “The minimum time you must invest to do a Ph.D. these days is something like three years,” says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. “But why force someone to do it in three years when it can be done in three months?” Need a person with faster reaction times be stuck driving 55 miles per hour?

Social pressure may end up curbing wild-eyed genetic hubris, says Princeton molecular biology professor Lee Silver. “Parents want kids like themselves, except maybe a little smarter,” he says. “Not beyond the curve, but on the leading edge of the curve. I think this is all going to happen very slowly, step by step. That’s much more insidious, of course.”

The means to achieve GM babies are spreading, and if the practice ever catches on, it’ll be because parents are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Douglas Osheroff, a Nobelist for physics, opposes genetic enhancement on principle. Instead of molecular manipulation, he favors providing a stimulating environment, which as a Stanford professor, he could provide in spades. But even he concedes, “If it appeared that [my children] would not be competitive unless they were engineered, I suppose I would seriously consider this process.”

So once created, what kind of reception would those kids get? Most visions of genetic engineering—Gattaca, Brave New World—focus on the danger of having a genetic über-class. These dystopian renderings overlook one crucial fact: Time and again, mob rule has eliminated elites, real or perceived. “This could be another way privilege is concentrated and the underclass will be angry,” Watson says. “The underclass has always been angry, sometimes with good reason.”

The raw meritocracy of the Olympics will segregate against GM humans, even an athlete with a single GM grandparent, according to World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound. “They can go and compete with people who’ve had genetic enhancements,” he says. But the Olympics have always been a proving ground for genetics. Jesse Owens demolished Nazi claims of a superior race in the Berlin games of 1936. And as Silver notes, bicyclist Lance Armstrong has a heart 33 percent larger than average. “That’s not just training,” the biologist says. “That’s genetics.”

Pound freely acknowledges that these people didn’t earn their genes any more than would a person whose parents had them tweaked in a lab. “No matter what you do with a five-one Indonesian or Malaysian, you’re never going to make him a star NBA player. You’re also not going to turn a seven-two basketball player into a great badminton player,” he says. “Just like athletes from developing nations with poor nutrition, those were the cards they were dealt by chance. I don’t look to sport to resolve all of the inequities of the world.”

Those sitting at the highest echelons of intellectual life say they’ll be more welcoming. Osheroff judged the most recent round of what’s widely regarded as the junior Nobels, the Intel Science Talent Search. “I believe that mental power is far more important than athletic talent to humanity, and don’t think that we would be likely to exclude genetically engineered humans from such competitions as the STS,” he says, adding that he’d put his money where his mouth is. “As far as my not getting a Nobel Prize because an engineered human won one, I think the issue is who has done work which is more deserving. The prizes should be considered as drawing attention to major advances in science, not something that confers instant genius on the recipients.”

But in the shorthand of our culture, getting into Harvard does. “There’s no dearth of quality, of brain power. Kids with 1600 SATs are a dime a dozen now, thanks to prolonged coaching since eighth grade or seventh grade,” says Dwight Miller, senior admissions officer at the university. The school looks for other intangibles to round out its classes, a practice that could thwart a genetic pecking order. “There are plenty of arrogant people here already. We don’t try to compound it. All of this is diametrically opposed to genetic engineering.”

Yet Harvard wouldn’t limit the number of GM students it accepted. “I don’t think it’s written into the Constitution that one is guaranteed the right to attend the college of one’s choice. The last thing you’re ever going to hear Harvard say is there are quotas,” Miller says.


The trade-offs and ethical conundrums are enough to tie an anti-quota Republican parent like Steve Sanford in knots. He’s a successful commercial artist and credits genetics for much of his ability, tracing his lineage through talented artists and draftsmen directly back to George Washington’s portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale. His daughter, Emily, recently won admission to two prestigious New York City institutions, Stuyvesant High School and the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. But what if she couldn’t get into Harvard because its ranks were filling with the offspring of parents who could afford million-dollar enhancements?

“I’d say that’s definitely not fair—it’s like being able to buy your way out of conscription in the Civil War,” her father says. “There could be riots, I think. Things could get out of control.”

Then again, if he were having a new child in an era when designer babies were common, he’d opt for enhancement if he knew it was safe and a competitive necessity. But for the same reasons he wouldn’t want her to have bat wings genetically grafted on, he wouldn’t want her to be so intelligent as to be “a freak, someone who can’t socially relate to other people. Being smart has its own rewards, but if you go too far the kid will probably be lonely and maybe ostracized.”

Sanford intuitively locks onto Lee Silver’s powerful brake—that need to connect.

Society has always been cruel to the unusually gifted. “We know our members tend to be more introverted than the general public,” says Jean Becker, president of the American chapter of the genius society Mensa. “They’ve had unpleasant experiences as children, when they were made fun of because they liked to read or were intellectual. They learned to hide who they were, and a lot of our members still hide their intelligence in daily life. Some are even secretive about their membership.”
When asked what enhancement she’d give a child, her answer isn’t immunity to AIDS or cancer. It isn’t intelligence. “Sure, I’d want my child to have at least an average IQ, but if I had the opportunity to pick one thing to enhance for a child I would probably pick physical attractiveness,” Becker says. “It opens doors to you. People like physically attractive people. It’s one thing that has been linked to higher wages and an easier emotional life, and I don’t know of any research like that in terms of intelligence. I’m sorry to say that and ashamed that in our culture it’s true.”

And maybe that’ll be the end to which the free market drives biotech: the quest for classic beauty under a microscope instead of a knife. Hey, at least it would spare a few slots at Harvard.

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Serious as Cancer

The New York Times‘s May 3 front-page story on a potentially imminent cure for cancer has given the paper its worst publicity blitz since 1991, when the Times printed the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape.

Gina Kolata’s article on the research of Dr. Judah Folkman raised eyebrows–and then, almost immediately, serious questions about Kolata’s reporting and motives. Here is a summary of seven stormy days in May:

The morning after the story’s publication, Kolata’s literary agent had a book proposal on editors’ desks at major publishing houses, which incorporated the “news” that had just been published. The following day, after questions surfaced concerning the article and Kolata discussed the potential book project with her Times editors, the proposal was withdrawn.

Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson wrote a letter to the Times, declaring that he had been substantially misquoted over something said casually at a dinner party six weeks before. Watson’s office told the Voice that he was never informed he was speaking for publication, and that no one from the Times called him prior to the article’s publication to verify any aspect of what he’d said.

Kolata and the Times insist that the quote is “accurate.” Thus, the Times is contradicting the public account that one of the world’s most respected scientists has given of his own words, even while admitting that Kolata did not takes notes while Watson was speaking and never checked the quote’s veracity with him. Kolata’s Times story even got Watson’s title wrong, as a Friday correction noted.

Richard Klausner, head of the National Cancer Institute, also had his words botched in the Times, prompting a correction about “an imprecise paraphrase.”

On Friday, following two days of critical coverage in the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, the Times was forced to publish an exceptionally rare article about the conflict-of-interest accusations being leveled at its own reporter. On the same day, the Boston Globe published a front-page article saying the Timesstory’s unbridled optimism on the sober topic of cancer “suggests the need for media moderation on the medical front.” This marks the first time since the Times bought the Globe in 1993 that a page-one Globe story has directly tweaked the judgment of its corporate parent.

As this week began, a Newsweek cover article declared that the “Times story, whose front-page placement belied the fact that it contained little that had not been reported already, itself became the story.” TheNew Yorker‘s May 18 Comment column noted that the fundamental facts of Kolata’s story had already been reported in the Times last November on page A28. TheNew Yorker headline summed it up: “Forget cancer. Is there a cure for hype?”

Of all the charges leveled at the Times and Kolata, the notion that she hyped the cancer-cure story for a book advance is probably the most serious. In the middle of the week, Random House promised $1 million to Newsday reporter Robert Cooke for a book on the same topic, and Kolata’s agent reportedly said he could get her $2 million for a two-page e-mail proposal, so the stakes are extremely high.

If Kolata’s account is true, her agent acted largely on his own after the story was published. Since she and her editors concluded that a new book project–she is already under a separate contract–would interfere with her ability to report this story, it doesn’t seem that Kolata bent any ethics rules for her own book purposes.

It’s harder, though, to acquit Kolata on the charge that she misquoted Dr. Watson, one of the scientists credited with discovering the structure of DNA. In his letter to the Times, Watson said that “at a dinner party six weeks ago” he said to Kolata that the two drugs would be in clinical trials in a year, and that after another year, the scientific community would know whether or not they were effective. That’s a far cry from saying “Judah is going to cure cancer in two years,” which is how Kolata rendered his remark.

The Times is obviously concerned about implying–if not out-and-out saying–that this Nobel laureate is fibbing. “We don’t wish to be in a position of quarrelling with him,” Times publicist Nancy Nielsen said.But there’s no middle ground–either Watson or Kolata is wrong.

Some at the Times and elsewhere have argued that Watson has his own interest in backpedaling, since a provocative comment might well earn him scorn from colleagues. As a general policy, the Times, like many other papers,says it’s concerned that “when sources are confronted with their words, they often try to backtrack.”

And Watson has in the past distanced himself from remarks in the papers. As the Long Island Voice noted last year, Watson wrote a similar letter disputing a British Daily Telegraph report attributing to him the view that women should be allowed to abort fetuses determined to be homosexual (assuming such screening was possible).

But even if Watson’s letter to the Times was backpedaling–and it’s very much in dispute–Kolata’s reporting was astonishingly lax. Watson’s office told the Voice that he was not informed at the dinner party he would be quoted in the Times, and there was no attempt to follow up the conversation.

Few newspapers have fact-checkers, and clearly daily reporters rarely have the luxury of double-checking their notes or memories with the sources they’re quoting. But as a Sunday page-one feature, Kolata’s story took days–if not weeks–to prepare. Under those circumstances, Times reporters often call back sources to make sure they’ve got it right, though the paper says such calls are “a matter of each reporter’s discretion, case by case.”

A Voice call to Kolata seeking comment was returned by Times publicist Nielsen. “We’re confident in the accuracy of the story,” she said, including the “accuracy of [Watson’s] quote.” What about Watson’s assertion that he did not know he was speaking for attribution? “He knew who he was talking to,” Nielsen said.

What’s distressing is that this is not the first time Kolata’s been accused of misquotation. Jonathan Kwitny’s 1992 book Acceptable Risks–which recounts the controversial efforts of two activists to administer unapproved drug treatments to people with AIDS–cites several people who said Kolata misquoted them in Times coverage of the same topic.

Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, found Kolata’s stories “certainly not typical of The New York Times‘s methods,” and wrote: “It is a painful portrait of my profession, journalism, and should be seen by the reader not as what the profession usually does, but as what it is sometimes capable of and must guard against.”

Those words sound uncomfortably similar to the assessment made last week of Kolata’s current work.

Smacklash

60 Minutes got a little mud on its stopwatch face last week, when the British daily Guardian published an enormous exposé about a documentary called The Connection. The Connection was shown on Cinemax last June (here renamed The Drug Run), and previewed exclusively on 60 Minutes in a segment called “The Mule,” which was approved by the show’s executive producer Don Hewitt.

The Guardian story claims that nearly every aspect of the film–which purported to show associates of the Cali cartel using a new heroin smuggling route from Colombia to Britain–was faked. The bags of “heroin” the drug “mule” swallowed for the camera were, according to a Guardian interview with the mule himself, filled with Certs candies (Marc De Beaufort, the producer, has acknowledged that he didn’t verify that the powder was actually heroin). The men captured on film did not fly, as the film claimed, from Colombia to London in a single trip; in fact, they didn’t go to London until six months after the initial scenes were shot.

How did 60 Minutes deal with the suggestion it was duped? The show ran this tiny “update” on Sunday: “This week the British newspaper The Guardian charged that the highly acclaimed documentary was a fraud. The program’s producer denies the allegation, and Carlton TV, which distributed the film worldwide, says it is investigating. We’ll keep you posted.”

Granted, if 60 Minutes was hoodwinked, it was not alone, and its on-air snippet is more than HBO-Cinemax has done to date. But viewers were given absolutely no sense of the details of the Guardian series. Nor were they told that producer De Beaufort, while defending himself, admits the segments of the film 60 Minutes used were not what they claimed to be.

60 Minutes spokesperson Kevin Tedesco described the situation as a “he said, she said” dilemma that can be resolved only when “senior producers” from 60 Minutes conduct their own investigation. He said that neither correspondent Steve Kroft nor producer John Hamlin–who cut the Cinemax film into the 60 Minutes segment–would be available to discuss how this alleged charade got on the air. That, alas, is exactly the kind of stonewalling one expects 60 Minutes to knock down. Make up your own mind: read the entire Guardian series at www.guardian.co.uk.

Broken Glass

Why should anyone believe what they read in The New Republic? Monday’s Washington Post carried an extremely embarrassing story noting that TNR editor Charles Lane had to fire 25-year-old associate editor Stephen Glass “for fabricating characters and situations” in at least five TNR stories. The mag claims to have fact-checkers, but Glass evidently fooled them. A Forbes Web sitestory said that Glass and his brother “concocted a fake corporate site . . . on America Online, in addition to phony voice and E-mail accounts for all his sources.” This, of course, comes on top of the many instances of plagiarism charged to TNR associate editor Ruth Shalit. Why not just change the “associate editor” title to “associate liar”?

Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie