> Columns > Boston
Globe > When humans transcend biology
When humans transcend biology
By Cathy Young | July 10, 2006
WITH EVERYTHING else that's happening in the world today, debates
about whether humanity should embrace as yet nonexistent technologies
that could enhance our physical and intellectual abilities and someday
make us ``more than human" may seem frivolous. Nonetheless, a debate
on ``transhumanism" has been going on for the past few years, with
naysayers and doomsayers on one side, optimistic futurists on the
other, and too little in between.
Writing in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith,
a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (a conservative think
tank best known for championing the cause of ``intelligent design"),
falls squarely on the naysayers' side. Smith discusses a symposium,
``Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights," held at Stanford
Law School in May, and does not like what he sees. Some speakers
are obsessed with achieving immortality, and others with uplifting
animals to a human level of intelligence. Some talk about changing
human biology so that women could have babies without any male input
and men could become biological mothers by gestating fetuses inside
their bodies. Still others speak with praise of a transhumanist pioneer
known as ``the Catman," who has undergone cosmetic surgeries to make
himself look like a cat.
A lot of this sounds utopian or downright wacky, but there are plenty
of people who take transhumanism seriously. There are several recent
books exploring the topic, including ``The Singularity Is Near: When
Humans Transcend Biology" by inventor Ray Kurzweil and ``Liberation
Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution" by
science journalist (and my Reason magazine colleague) Ron Bailey.
In popular culture, the desire to transcend biology -- whether through
genetic engineering or artificial cyber-intelligence -- is almost
invariably treated as a dangerous, Frankenstein-like pursuit driven
by human arrogance and recklessness, and likely to have disastrous
consequences. Proponents of enhancement argue that this is nothing
more than a knee-jerk fear of the unknown. Bailey points out that
people have been using technology to enhance their lives and their
abilities from time immemorial, and there is nothing radically new
about altering our bodies or our brains for that purpose. That's
true, of course, but there is a big difference between wearing glasses
and, say, redesigning humans to give them an extra eye in the back
of the head.
Some opposition to biotechnology is indeed rooted in knee-jerk fear
of change. Smith, for instance, sees something sinister about the
proposal to reduce menstruation in fertile women to four times a
year and about the desire to eliminate the physical effects of aging.
But the optimists ignore some disturbing implications of enhancement.
One need not be a radical egalitarian to be troubled by the prospect
of a society in which the affluent can add genetic enhancement to
their children's advantages while the have-nots fall further behind.
The libertarian argument for genetic enhancement is that parents
should be free to choose what's best for the children. Rarely considered
is the possibility that some might define ``best" in ways that are
not only peculiar but harmful. Even leaving aside oddballs who may
want their child to be a cat person, what if some people decided
to breed submissive females -- or boys genetically purged of competitiveness,
aggressiveness, and other macho traits?
What's more, the choices may not be entirely free. Aldous Huxley's
``Brave New World," in which the state determines each child's genetic
programming, is an unlikely future. But what about more subtle coercion?
Suppose we get to the point where genetic intervention, or chemical
brain modification for those already born, can reduce the risk of
criminal behavior. Could parents be charged with negligence if they
reject such procedures and their child commits a crime? Could a teenager
with antisocial tendencies be forced to undergo the treatment? What
about the scenario depicted in the film ``Gattaca," in which the
unenhanced become an underclass, and prospective parents face tremendous
social pressure to genetically engineer their children?
None of this is to call for a ban on genetic engineering research.
For one thing, gene therapy targeting various diseases could alleviate
much human suffering, and even improvements in the baseline -- such
as slowing down the aging process -- could be highly beneficial.
But enhancement enthusiasts tend to forget that even beneficial changes
can have a downside and that life can confront us with tragic paradox.
Moreover, opposition to government bans on morally problematic uses
of biotechnology should not foreclose a debate about moral issues
-- or a voluntary decision by scientists not to go down certain paths.
The abdication of moral judgment could invite intrusive laws.