We are getting closer to manufacturing humans industrially. And that changes everything

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In the midst of the raging debates about crash and overpopulation in the 1980s, the economist Julian Simon became famous for the idea that the last resort was neither oil, nor uranium, nor water: the last resource of humanity was the imagination. For the North American thinker, each person born was more than a mouth to feed, it was above all a mind with which to generate ideas and solve problems.

Now that more and more experts are convinced that world population growth is about to sink, the idea that we need more human beings becomes more relevant than ever. Above all, because the possibility of conceiving humans on an industrial scale is closer than ever.

From the human-making machine…

It will be a century since JBS Haldane, one of the most important English geneticists in history, coined the term ‘ectogenesis’ to refer to the pregnancies that would take place in these artificial wombs. It was just then that Haldane predicted that, by 2074, less than 30% of pregnancies would be ‘natural’. We are far, yes; but every day closer (and there are still 50 years to go).

Currently, the viability line of human fetuses is around the 22nd and 23rd week of pregnancy. That is the time when the lungs develop and, even today, it remains a critical point. The figures speak for themselves: while only 20% of those born at 23 weeks survive, that figure goes up to 80% when we talk about born in week 25.

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It is a critical point, among many other things, because of the inherent technical complications: as explained Matt Kent things as basic as pumping blood to very immature fetuses are a first level technological problem, a pressure is needed that the tissues cannot withstand well. Advance our ability to decrease deaths (and sequelae) from preterm birth (one in ten pregnancies in the US today) is necessary, but also very difficult.

On the other side of the process (from the zygote to the fetus) there are also difficulties, but we are making progress little by little. There are examples for all tastes. Just to review some recent ones: the professor Yoshinori Kuwabara and his team from Juntendo University in Japan were able to gestate embryos goat in a machine with tanks filled with amniotic fluid; Hi teacher Helen Hung-Ching Liuof Cornell University Center for Reproductive Medicinealso managed to bring the development of a mouse embryo to near term thanks to a bioengineered endometrium.

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The medical benefits are clear: This technology could help couples struggling to have children or help premature babies survive. Pregnancy and childbirth are extremely hard processes and many theorists already speak of the end of natural pregnancy as the ‘last great liberation of humanity’. But above all, it could represent one of the greatest social, educational and health advances in decades.

‘Ectogenesis’ can provide safe and healthy gestational environments away from pollutants, drugs and alcohol. Martha J Farah, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent many years studying the relationships between brain development and socioeconomic status. The generalization of ectogenesis could eliminate one of the biggest sources of inequality that exist: the conditions of pregnancy.

…to the factory of making humans

Pikiwiki Israel 2035 Kibbutz Gan Shmuel Sk3 331 1935 40

Kibbutz Gan Shmuel Children’s House (1935-40)

Paradoxically, this is all the easy part of “making humans”. What Scott Alexander said years ago, for a huge number of contemporary problems, “society is fixed, biology mutable”. Or, bringing it to the topic of the article, let’s imagine that we eventually perfected these technologies and developed the ability to industrially manufacture humans as a way to reverse current demographic trends or populate interplanetary colonies. What do we do with hundreds, thousands or millions of babies? How do we educate them, how do we raise them, how do we turn them into functional beings?

Here, honestly, the unknowns are much bigger. And not because there are no modern precedents, but because those precedents failed. I think of the famous “children’s houses” of the Israeli kibbutzim. Until the 1980s, the educational method that prevailed in the collective Zionist communities involved leaving children in community centers from the moment of birth. There, in those ‘children’s houses’, it was about implementing the basic “principle of equality” in the functioning of the kibbutz.

In this sense, “the educational authority of the kibbutz was responsible for the upbringing and welfare of all children born in it, taking care of their food, clothing and medical treatment”. Children might spend two or three hours a day in their parents’ homes, but most of their lives were spent in the Children’s House and the common areas of the kibbutz. While this system was ubiquitous until the 1980s, “family-friendly” trends eventually consigned it to the bin of history, and today it’s just an old memory. Moreover, many people consider it even repulsive.

Are we prepared for the resurgence of the great nineteenth-century orphanages? Will we have the capacity to educate and give opportunities to the millions of human beings that these theoretical factories could put on the streets? The question is relevant because it is not even clear that the arrival of this type of technology will have a significant impact on current demographic trends.

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What demographer Lyman Stone pointed out“the transition to lower fertility rates could have happened in 1500 or 1300 or 900 or 500 BC; in fact, it probably happened in those periods in various places, but because it did not happen at the same time as the massive economic growth for improving living standards, improving child survival, and compensating for population losses from falling fertility, was never sustained.”

That is, it is about a much deeper problem (and it is rooted in culture, productivity and social relationships) for such a technological solution to turn them around. At least by herself. But if Julian Simon was right, and the best way to build a better future for ourselves (on Earth or off) is to be more minds thinking together, we need to start thinking about it. The demographic winter may be near, but to win the game we will have to change many of the things that constitute what we now call civilization.

In the midst of the raging debates about crash and overpopulation in the 1980s, the economist Julian Simon became famous…

In the midst of the raging debates about crash and overpopulation in the 1980s, the economist Julian Simon became famous…

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