Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Almost Human

Recently, I've been fascinated by human evolution, and the different species that were closely related to us.

We humans like to think we're special, so different from all the other species. We tend to see it in black-and-white – either you are a person, or you aren't. But in human evolution, it wasn't black-and-white. There was no one point in time when we became human. Instead, different traits of humanity appeared at different times, and depending on what you think is most crucial, you'd draw the line at different points. Compassion for others and basic tool use were most likely present before our ancestors split off from chimps and bonobos. Upright walking and smaller jaws distinguished Lucy and other australopithecines from the other apes, but their brain was mostly unchanged. Then brain sizes increased, and the first stone tools were found, skillfully crafted by homo habilis. At first, our ancestors only made one kind of tool, but then we had an explosion of tool-making diversity, and we started to make technological advancement, with a steady improvement in tool designs over time. Then, deliberate burials, carved statues and cave paintings began to appear, suggesting the birth of imagination and religion.

There is a lot of disagreement over when certain crucial human behaviours appeared. It used to be thought that homo habilis was the first hominid to make and use tools, until we discovered that many primates make simple tools, such as stripping a stem of leaves to fish for termites. There has been a lot of debate about whether creativity and deliberate burial were unique to homo sapiens or could also be seen in Neanderthals and our common ancestor homo heidelbergensis. (My impression, from the research, is that all three species did this, but homo sapiens did it more extensively.) There have been a lot of debates about language, when and how it first emerged. We used to think Neanderthals didn't talk, but genetic evidence suggests they did (and may have even used a tonal language!). Now, the bigger question is whether homo erectus could talk, and how well.

This debate, for many people, involves an element of looking for the crucial step, the crucial point at which we became 'fully human'. In this way, it mirrors how many people think about severely disabled people – where is the line between a person who struggles with X and Y and someone who is not really a person anymore?

When homo sapiens first appeared, we shared our world with four other hominid species – Neanderthals, Denisovans, homo erectus and homo floresciensis (nicknamed 'hobbits'). We're not sure where Denisovans fit in (one suggestion is that they were a cousin to Neanderthals), but both us and Neanderthals descended from homo heidelbergensis, which descended from homo erectus. Homo floresciensis, who were tiny little guys, were another branch off of homo erectus.

All of these species lived fairly similar lives, making tools, eating a mix of meat and plant products, living in small, tight-knit social groups. Two of these species were actually close enough that we could produce fertile offspring, although probably with difficulty. (DNA research suggests that only daughters with Neanderthal fathers and homo sapiens mothers contributed to the small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in all non-African people. Their brothers were probably infertile, and the reverse crossing may not have been viable or may have only produced sterile offspring.)

I sometimes wonder how we might see ourselves and other species differently, if those other hominids had survived as separate populations. If, as in many fantasy stories, we shared our world with other species who are different and yet so similar, would we see them as people, or as talking animals? Would we even see such a divide? Would we still think of ourselves as so special and unique, if our closest relatives were still around to show us how non-unique we were? Or would we just move the line over a bit?

It used to be that we did not see personhood in such a black-and-white way. In the medieval era, a nobleman was more of a 'person' than his wife, and both of them were more 'people' than their servants were. Their servants, in turn, were more 'people' than a different ethnic group would be. Personhood was a spectrum. Over time, this idea fell out of favour, mainly because it led to some vicious prejudice.

But in some ways, our current black-and-white divide isn't that good a concept to replace it with. I don't think the same ethical standards apply to me as to my cat. If we saw all species as having the same moral rights, then my cat would be no different from Jeffrey Dahmer – both of them killed and ate other living creatures, not because they had to do so to survive, but because they enjoyed it. But I think a cat killing and eating mice for fun is very different from a human killing and eating another human for fun.

But where it gets messy is when the difference is less clear. If we didn't see Neanderthals as people, how would we see their children? How much Neanderthal ancestry would you need, before you weren't considered a person? (Incidentally, I have 3% Neanderthal ancestry, which is the same percentage I'd have if I had one great-great-great grandparent who was a Neanderthal.)

Well, let's say we did see Neanderthals as people. What about homo erectus? They had an average brain size about 2/3rds of our own. There's no evidence that they buried their dead, or showed any sign of imagination. There's a lot of debate about whether they used language or not. If they did use language, they'd have conveyed much simpler ideas, and may have had a simpler language structure. And yet they made tools and may have used fire to cook their food. And they loved their families, cared for the sick, injured or disabled, and worked together to achieve common goals.

It would be so interesting, getting to know a homo erectus. But for many people, it would probably also be quite threatening. They were so similar to us, but at the same time, they were so different. In speciation terms, there is no evidence that we successfully interbred with them – either we couldn't interbreed at all, or all offspring that resulted were sterile. But a homo sapiens and a homo erectus could certainly become friends, if both were open to the possibility. What kind of friendship would that have been?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Look At the Grandroids Demo

Grandroids now has a playable, backers-only demo!

It's been out since April, and I was waiting to see if it would be OK to release this on my blog, but now I believe it is.

I've been making a series of videos showing my tinkering with the game. You can watch them here:

So far, they just have the visual system and the gait control in place, but it's amazing how alive they seem even with only that.

I've been tinkering with their inner working to figure out how they walk. In the later videos, you can see me giving them brain-based limps, leg tics and slow-moving limps. It's a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Euthanasia and the Slippery Slope

Normally, I hate slippery slope arguments. But in this case, I think it's warranted.

I'm OK with euthanasia being an option for terminally ill patients who are suffering a great deal. My problem with euthanasia is that, with our society's attitudes to disability, it will not stop there.

And I have evidence to back this up. Look at pets.

For pets, euthanasia is an accepted option - no controversy about whether or not it should be allowed. My own parents have euthanized several of our pets, when they were terminally ill and in a lot of pain.

For example, my dog Sasha, at age 12, was found to have breast cancer that had travelled all along her stomach and partly down one leg. Doctors told us there was little they could do, her condition was pretty much certain to kill her even if we tried aggressive treatment. They were willing to surgically remove some of the tumors, but if they removed them all, they'd cause such extensive damage that she'd probably die simply from shock. We chose to euthanize her.

Another pet we euthanized was my 20 year old cat Timmy. He'd been bleeding from the mouth and meowing while trying to eat, and it turned out half of his jaw was one big tumor. Doctors told us that in other cases, when they'd removed a tumor like this, the cats had refused to eat and starved themselves to death. If they didn't remove it, it would keep growing and causing more and more pain until Timmy no longer could eat. We chose to euthanize him.

These are both cases where, if they'd been humans with the same issues, I would be in favour of allowing them the option of euthanasia. (Timmy's issues are unlikely to occur in any human, because part of his problem was a quirk of cat behavior that isn't present in humans, but Sasha's illness occurs in humans and, if not caught early enough, can cause the serious problems she had.) Unlike animals, most humans can tell us whether they want to fight the illness or not, and the decision should be up to the patient. But I don't have a problem with a woman with very advanced metastatic cancer choosing to die a bit earlier in a more comfortable way, when her death is pretty much guaranteed either way.

But we've also had some animals that vets counselled euthanasia for, that we refused to euthanize. Most people, in our position, would have euthanized these pets, and missed out on the happy years they had left.

Charlie was a 15 year old cat with diabetes. She'd been getting skinnier and skinnier, and then she got frostbite on her ear when it shouldn't have been cold enough for frostbite, so we took her in. We were expecting either 'she's fine, nothing to worry about' or 'there's nothing we can do, she's terminally ill'. Instead, we got a diagnosis of diabetes - a condition we knew full well was manageable with medication. The doctors taught us how to give her injections. At first, Charlie hated them, but over time we got better at giving them and she realized they made her feel better, so she tolerated them. And we had two more years of cuddling and purring and bumping against my Dad's recorder as he played. Her diabetes had no impact on her quality of life. At least, not until it killed her kidneys, and she died on the way to the vet.

Anja was a rat, about a year old. (Rats live around 2-3 years.) We're not sure exactly what happened, but our best guess is that one of the toys in her cage fell on her and broke her back. In any case, her hindquarters were paralyzed, and vets recommended we put her down. We refused, and they gave us advice on how to care for her. They told me to keep her isolated in a restricted area for awhile so she could heal, and gave me advice on softer bedding that wouldn't hurt her as she dragged herself along it. But over a couple weeks, her mobility improved dramatically, until her only impairment was an inability to jump or climb. We didn't bother changing to softer bedding, just put her back in her cage with her friend (rats are social, and get depressed if kept alone too long). She went on to live a happy life, filled with treats, teeth grinding and cuddles, until she died suddenly, most likely from old age.

Charlie and Anja had lives that were worth living, just as humans with diabetes or spinal cord injuries do. Even if Anja's recovery hadn't been so dramatic, we could've given her a good life. Rat advice websites state that some male rats develop progressive hindquarter paralysis in later life, and these rats still live a good life when their back legs can't move at all.

But I'm pretty certain that many people, if they'd had Charlie or Anja, would have put them down. Similarly, people often put down cats with cerebellar hypoplasia, but Youtube abounds with videos of happy CH kitties wobbling around. (Buddy, for example.) Our society has the attitude that disability, any disability, is a horrible fate. And if euthanasia was available, many people would approve of it even for minor conditions. Worse yet, many newly-disabled people, without giving themselves time to see if they can adapt and live well, would jump to the conclusion that their good life is over and seek euthanasia.

Another example of how many people will choose death over disability, even for very minor conditions, can be seen in abortion rates for prenatally diagnosed conditions. Most babies prenatally diagnosed with a disability, any disability, are aborted. In one study, out of 40 prenatally-detected cases of sex chromosome aneuploidy, 25 (63%) were aborted. To give some background, there are four types of common sex chromosome aneuploidies - XXX, XYY, XXY and monosomy X.

XXX and XXY are very mild, causing a slight drop in IQ (around 5-10 points) and a higher risk of learning disabilities and ADHD, as well as making kids a bit taller than expected. Many people with these two conditions are never diagnosed, because they have few or no symptoms and no one thinks to test their chromosomes.

XXY, also known as Klinefelter's Syndrome, is a bit more significant. In addition to the same traits seen in XXX and XYY, Klinefelter boys sometimes experience feminine body changes at puberty (breast growth, getting curves). These changes can be readily prevented by testosterone treatment. In addition, Klinefelter Syndrome usually causes infertility, which can't be prevented. Even so, many men are never diagnosed, or are only diagnosed in adulthood due to infertility.

Monosomy X, also called Turner Syndrome, is the only sex chromosome aneuploidy often detected at birth. It causes a distinctive set of minor physical changes, such as extra skin around the neck, which have no significant impact but allow doctors to spot the condition. In addition, Turner girls are infertile, shorter than expected, often don't go through puberty unless given estrogen treatments, and have an increased risk of congenital heart defects. Turner Syndrome also causes nonverbal learning disability and difficulty reading nonverbal cues.

Even the most severe of these conditions is easily managed, and poses no real impediment to a full and happy life. And two of these conditions are barely detectable at all. Yet when parents are given the option to abort, two-thirds of these kids will be aborted. Even a condition as mild as Turner Syndrome is seen as a serious enough problem to make not living at all preferable in their eyes.

And until this changes, I don't want yet another way for disability prejudice to kill us off.