Podcast Response: Genetic Engineer for Sleeping Less

Original Podcast: NPR Hidden Brain – Eyes Wide Open: Part 1

Sleep is a huge topic these days.

In fact, it’s been a point of discussion for long time now.

I recently listened to NPR’s series on sleep titled “Eyes Wide Open” which discussed the various viewpoints on sleep over the past 30 years. Ranging from something that humanity thought was “pointless” and could be eliminated in the 80s, to most scientists agreeing that it is fundamental to our existence today.

A key point that stuck out to me was “if sleep is useless, evolution would have not made it so that we spend 8 hours of everyday sleeping.” Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, millions in mammalian biology would have gotten rid of sleep if it wasn’t necessary. But it didn’t, which means some part of the sleep process is very important for our biology.

Interestingly, one of the stories told during the podcast recalled a man who broke the world record for going without sleep. 11 days. And after the ordeal, he slept 14 hours and 30 minutes, and then was largely fine for the following days. He was able to function normally. Of course, during those 11 days, after the first 48 hours, he was dysfunctional in mental tasks, although was completely capable in physical tasks.

Sleep is very interesting. Personally, I still tend to look at sleep as an non-active activity. Something that could be “cured”, something that my life could optimize around. I tend to get somewhere around 6-6.5 hours of sleep a day, and I’m not sure if I want to increase that.

Having said that, I wonder about the implications of genetic engineering and what capitalism will demand sleep becomes. Since it is a purely biological process, in theory with advancing biotech we may be able to engineer humans who need less sleep. Will that be good? Is that beneficial for society? What are the implications during the early stages of this type of treatment when only certain members of society have this “productivity advantage?”

I think it’s inevitable. Humans will engineer ourselves around sleep. But there may also be unforeseen consequences. If the natural lifespan is about 100 years, is that 66 waking years with 33 sleeping years? If so does eliminating or reducing the need to sleep change the lifespan to something smaller than 100 or would humans be able to keep those 100 years? Does it matter if it means one could be awake more during their youth and most vibrant times? What does it mean to be young? Perhaps that’s a question to follow in the next blog post.

Last Names and the Mitochondrial DNA

In most societies today, last names are passed down from generation to generation paternally. It is generally the father’s name, and thus lineage, that gets recognized across generations and that keep family history.

I’d like to make the argument that society should transition towards the latin model where both the mother’s and father’s name are kept, and then work towards generally preserving identity through the mother’s lineage than fathers.

For one, most children can be easily matched with their mother on birth. It is much more difficult for a newborn to not be matched with their mothers than with their father. In most instances, the child that comes out of the womb has been carried by their biological mother for around 9 months from an egg that is from the mother. Short of rare in vitro cases and shady caesarean section procedures, the mother and child could be matched at birth in a medical facility.

The same cannot be said of fathers. Given a woman’s sexual activities, a huge number of males could be the potential father of a child. Of course DNA matching procedures could be done to identify the father, but such procedures are only useful if the potential father is ever identified.

Secondly, as mentioned in the title, the mitrochondrial DNA provides a biological reasoning to trace family history through the mother. We can identify a Mitochondrial Eve much deeper into human history (estimates vary from 99 thousand years ago to 148 thousand years ago) versus the Y-chromosomal Adam which range from 200 ~300 thousands years. The argument for the Mitochondrial Eve stems from the fact that the mitochondria that all human cells derive energy from is untampered with largely as it stays within the egg of the female gamete, while the Y-chromosome is only transfered from father to mother via the Y-chrome in the sperm cell.

Of course, given western and eastern society’s deep roots in patriarchy and last names being a rather arbitrary thing in the context of human existence, I don’t think governments will step up and mandate these changes any time soon. I do not think even ardent feminists will make last name lineage their agenda ahead of others.

However, perhaps last names could be a great way to solidify the mother’s role in our lives and make a societal contract for more female recognition.