Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


Quandary column

Acting Absolutely Beastly

By Michael Cook

Charles Foster has tried to reconnect with the animal world by living as a badger, a fox, a swift, a deer and an otter.

In its most expansive mode, bioethics deals with the biosphere and our responsibility for all living things. But it is a bold thinker who dares to tackle this, which helps to explain why the purview of most bioethicists is just Homo sapiens. Animals get short shrift. Somewhere I recall a photo of animal rights theoretician Peter Singer with a very large pig, both smiling broadly, but most of the time the setting for bioethical selfies is conferences surrounded by bottles of spring water.

Masters or Slaves of AI?

By Michael Cook

If neural lacing enables our brains to be networked, we could easily be hacked or become the tools of Google or government.

In the 19th century and for a good part of the 20th century, many people feared that humanity was destined to become lapdogs of bloated industrialists. The world would be divided between the haves and the have-nots, the capitalists and the proletariat.

The fear persists, but nowadays capitalists like Mark Zuckerberg wear hoodies and tennis shoes like the rest of us. Apart from North Korea, there is universal agreement that “to get rich is glorious”.

Global Catastrophic Risk

By Michael Cook

A report calculates that we’re more likely to die in an extinction event than in a car crash.

I have not been blessed with a refined taste in cinema, with my favourite movie franchise being the Terminator series, especially the second and third in which Arnie is in peak form. Alas, there’s not enough space here to reminisce, so let’s confine ourselves to the premise.

Adventures on the Dark Side

By Michael Cook

Cases of sexual attraction are bound to grow as “genetic orphans” seek out their missing parents.

The British press is a fathomless mine of lurid but thought-provoking explorations of the dark side of the human condition. Recently it featured a passionate romance between a 51-year-old British woman and her 32-year-old American son.

Kim West was studying in California when she had a child out of wedlock. She gave him up for adoption and returned to England. Nearly 30 years later they were reunited and immediately felt an overwhelming sexual attraction. Ben ended up abandoning his missus and moving in with his mum. They are considering having children.

A Bizarre Dilemma from Sweden

By Michael Cook

“Resignation syndrome” in refugee children and adolescents in Sweden is one of the most bizarre medical stories of the past decade.

The political and policing problems of allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan to plod into Western Europe tend to overshadow the difficulties of settling them into a new and alien society.

On the medical front, countries in Western Europe are well prepared to cope with the massive influx, according to the World Health Organization. But inevitably there are exotic health issues. Female genital mutilation is one that has made headlines. One that hasn’t is “resignation syndrome” in refugee children and adolescents in Sweden.

Royal Paternity Tested in the Modern Age

A royal paternity test in Belgium has far-reaching implications for fertility clinics.

Even when they are centuries old, royal paternity disputes are fascinating. DNA studies of the recently discovered bones of Richard III suggest that the entire Plantagenet dynasty may have been illegitimate.

During the 19th century hundreds of imposters claimed to be the Dauphin of France, the son of Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette who had allegedly escaped from his Republican captors. A DNA test in 2000 proved that this was false: he had died in captivity as a child.

Will IVF Keep Us Young?

By Michael Cook

Talk of IVF as a solution for declining birth rates is a sign that governments are clutching at straws.

With nations around the world failing to reproduce themselves, policy wonks now realise that too few children could be worse than too many. Without children, populations age rapidly; there are too few workers paying taxes to support the disabled and the elderly; an economic and social crisis looms.

A stable population requires a birth rate of 2.1. Many countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America have sunk far below this.

This Little Piggy Went to Market

By Michael Cook

Gene editing promises to enable the safe use of pig organs to transplant into humans. Who could object to that?

The invention of the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR is a game-changer for genetic engineering, making the removal or insertion of DNA sequences relatively easy and inexpensive. The key paper outlining how it works was published in 2012, but already scientists are eagerly exploiting its therapeutic and commercial potential, from modifying yeast cells to human embryos.

Life in the Fridge

By Michael Cook

Cryonics technologies have captured the imagination of some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley, but what about the rest of us?

What would the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal think of cryonics — the business of freezing people until scientists can revive them? Given his scepticism and his religious fervour, not much. However, a few years ago Scottish bioethicist David Shaw thawed out Pascal’s famous wager to defend it.

Pinker Takes on Bioethics

By Michael Cook

Steven Pinker has attacked bioethics as “moralistic grandstanding” that restricts research. Is he right?

Every once in a while a column about bioethical quandaries ought to dust off the handbook of first principles. Why do we need bioethics anyway? No bioethics, no quandaries. Not just dusted off, but done and dusted. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? It would certainly make my job easier.