A group that
advocates using genetic and other technologies to transform human
beings into “posthumans” with new and expanded abilities held a
conference May 26-28 titled “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights.” The event was organized by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies at Stanford Law School.
Read a Crossroads exclusive on the transhumanist conference by CGS' Osagie Obasogie: "Slanting the Playing Field," below.
Read Will Saletan’s Slate article on this conference: "Cut-off Genes: Our gentle descent toward eugenics."
Slanting the Playing Field
By CGS Project Director Osagie Obasogie
sociologist Loïc Wacquant has said that if you want to predict the next
big social issue, look at the sports pages. The scandal surrounding
Barry Bonds’ alleged use of steroids has turned baseball fans across
the country into a focus group of sorts on the question of whether
people should be able to change their bodies with technologies in order
to achieve superhuman feats. As Bonds passed Ruth on the all-time home
run list, the public passed its judgment: Mounting evidence of his
steroid use has led him to be widely judged as a cheat and an
embarrassment to baseball.
just as Bonds’ home run number 715 was sailing into the stands, a
conference a few miles down the road at Stanford was celebrating the
prospect of using new technologies in ways similar to Bonds. The
playing field on which these conference participants want an advantage,
however, is not the baseball diamond but society at large. What in
sports is called “doping” or “juicing,” this group—known as
transhumanists—calls “enhancing:” using genetic, pharmaceutical, and
information technologies to create superior human beings who are
smarter, stronger, or more attractive than the rest of us.
often difficult to take transhumanists seriously. Genetically
engineering people to suit their fantasies seems more suitable for a
summer movie blockbuster like X-Men 3 than the esteemed halls of
Stanford Law School. But the transhumanists are gathering a disturbing
number of adherents who are dismissive of the social consequences of
their advocacy. And in many respects, science is converging quickly
with science fiction.
cloning, for example. July 5 marks the ten-year anniversary of the
birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult
cell. Since then, cows, pigs, horses, and other species have been
cloned. And for a mere $32,000, Sausalito-based Genetics Savings and
Clone is willing to clone your cat. Technically speaking, this may be a
few short steps to cloning human beings.
transhumanists don’t want simply to replicate today’s humans. They want
to design tomorrow’s. Among the proposals floated at their conference:
selecting babies’ traits from gene catalogues, genetically blueprinting
athletes for maximum performance, living to the age of 300 and beyond,
producing children with three parents, designing children’s
personalities and emotions.
typically advance two arguments to support their views. First, they say
that the enhancements they envision are no different than those we
already accept. We design or enhance our children, for example, by
choosing mates with certain skin or eye color, by sending our children
to certain schools, or by giving them Suzuki violin lessons at age
six. Don’t these technologies simply give us better control over what
we’re already doing?
they argue that everyone has a right to do with their bodies as they
please, and, more importantly, no one else has a right to deny the use
of these enhancements simply because they may be unpopular. This
distinction between positive and negative rights is central to their
creed; otherwise, this conference would have been held at Stanford’s
biology department, not its law school.
bit of clear thinking is desperately needed. We all want to see new
technologies that can treat or cure diseases, and surely we “enhance”
ourselves in various ways, from going to the gym to taking golf
lessons. But to blindly compare transhumanist-style
enhancements—especially those that produce irreversible changes to the
human genome that will be passed from generation to generation—to
routine activities and medicines is as misguided as saying that
steroids are simply a more efficient alternative to weight lifting. And
surely we do not want to put the human gene pool at risk from the
inconvenient truth that disaster can result when we irresponsibly muck
with natural systems, including human biology.
also a huge societal risk here: A world in which some people are
genetically juiced is all too likely to be a world in which inequality
is encoded in our genes. Will those with “enhancements”—either actual
or perceived—monopolize positions of power, wealth, and authority,
while the “normals” are left further and further behind? The battles
for justice of the last half of the twentieth century were fought
mainly along the lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.
Will this century’s battles also need to be fought around who has
which set of enhancements?
Transhumanism may very well be “the world’s most dangerous idea,” as
Francis Fukuyama has called it, if only because it represents yet
another shameful attempt to justify—and to encourage—hierarchies
between humans where none need to be. It’s quite clear how the public
feels about using technology to make some individuals superior to
others. Just go to any ballpark outside of San Francisco when Barry
Bonds is up to bat.