Who's Afraid of Human Enhancement?

A Reason debate on the promise, perils, and ethics of human biotechnology.

Listen to this debate in MP3 audio here.

On August 25 in Washington, D.C., reason staged a debate about "the promise, perils, and ethics of human biotechnology." Moderated by Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie, the panelists included Ronald Bailey, Reason's science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution; Eric Cohen, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Biotechnology and American Democracy Program and editor of the group's journal, The New Atlantis; and Joel Garreau, a reporter and editor for The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies, and What It Means To Be Human. What follows is an edited transcript of the event, which was sponsored by the Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Comments can be sent to letters@reason.com.

Nick Gillespie: Our purpose tonight is to hash out questions and issues revolving around human enhancement based on technologies that include cloning; stem-cell research; processes to increase longevity, intelligence, and physical abilities; and many other procedures at various stages of development. What was once the province of science fiction--human beings augmented to such a degree that they become "post-human"--is rapidly becoming fact. Indeed, one of our panelists tonight will even argue that within the next century death itself may become optional. These are the sorts of developments that fill some with hope and others with horror.

Our panelists tonight will not agree on very much, but on this basic point I suspect they're in complete agreement: Forget all the talk about Social Security solvency, income tax rates, blue states, red states, even the war in Iraq. The most fundamental social and political issue facing the world today--and tomorrow--is the question of human enhancement.

Ron Bailey will be kicking off our discussion by giving us a quick overview of his feelings about human enhancement.

Ron Bailey: If I could have given my new book a proper 19th-century descriptive title, it might have been Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, or Why You Should Relax and Enjoy the Brave New World of Immortality, Stem Cells, and Designer Babies.

Of course, I'm not talking about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which portrays a society of regimented clones in a world run by top-down controllers, the motto of which is "community, identity, and stability." In fact, the biotech revolution I anticipate is the exact opposite of Huxley's Brave New World. Let me illustrate by painting you a short vision of what the biotech revolution could bring by the end of this century.

By 2100 the typical American may attend a family reunion in which five generations are playing together. The great-great-great-grandma is 150 years old, and she will be as vital as she was when she was 30 and as vital as her 30-year-old great-great-grandson, with whom she's playing touch football. After the game, she'll enjoy a plate of salad greens filled with not only a full day's worth of nutrients but the medicines she needs to repair the damage to her aging cells. She'll be able to chat about the academic discipline--maybe economics--that she studied in the 1980s with as much acuity and depth of knowledge and memory as her 50-year-old great-granddaughter who is now studying the same thing.

No one in her extended family will have ever caught a cold. They will be immune from birth to the shocks that human flesh has long been heir to: diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Her granddaughter, who recently suffered an unfortunate transport accident, will be sporting new versions of the arm and lung that got damaged in the wreck, and she'll be playing in that game of touch football with the same skill and energy as anyone else in the family. Infectious diseases that terrified us at the beginning of the 21st century, such as HIV-AIDS and the avian flu, will be horrific historical curiosities for the family to chat about over their plates of super-fat farm-raised salmon, which will be as tasty and nutritious as any fish any human has ever eaten: "Grandma, what was it like when people got colds?" Though few of them will actually think much about it, surrounding them will be a world that is greener and cleaner, one more abundant in natural vegetation and with less of an obvious human footprint than the one we live in now.

Not only will this family enjoy all these benefits, but nearly everyone they work with, socialize with, and meet with will enjoy them as well. It will be a remarkably peaceful and pleasant world. Beyond their health and their wealth, they'll be able to control things such as anti-social tendencies and crippling depression. And they'll manage these problems by individual choice, through new biotech pharmaceuticals and personalized genetic treatments.

This idyllic scenario is more than realistic given the reasonably expected breakthroughs and extensions of our knowledge of human, plant, and animal biology and the mastery of the techniques known collectively as biotechnology. We'll be able to manipulate those biologies to meet human needs and desires.

What is astonishing to me is that an extraordinary transideological coalition of left-wing and right-wing bioconservatives has come together to oppose many of the technological advancements that could make that vision real for the whole of humanity. This coalition of biotech opponents consists of some of our leading intellectuals and policy makers. On the left stand bioethicists such as Daniel Callahan, who founded The Hastings Center, arguably the world's first bioethics think tank; George Annas from Boston University; longtime left-wing activists such as Jeremy Rifkin; and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. On the right stand Leon Kass, [formerly] the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and his fellow council members Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, and also people such as William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard.

Both sides of this coalition abhor efforts to dramatically extend healthy human life spans by decades and even centuries. Both sides oppose creating stem cells derived from cloned embryos that would serve as perfect transplants to replace damaged, diseased, or worn-out body parts, livers, and nerves. Both sides want to outlaw the efforts of parents to use genetic testing and in vitro fertilization [IVF] and new pharmaceuticals to enhance their children's immune systems, athletic abilities, and intellectual capacities. Both sides of this bioconservative coalition would ban the use of genetically enhanced crops and animals to produce more abundant and more nutritious foods. Astonishingly, they are against heaven. Why? Because they wrongly fear that biotech progress will lead to hell.

In Liberation Biology, I thoroughly examine the whole range of bioconservative objections to the biotech revolution. I look forward to addressing them in more detail in the question-and-answer period, but let me note here that the benefits of biotechnology are well-known. The cure of diseases and disabilities for millions of sufferers, the production of more nutritious food with less damage to the natural environment, the enhancement of human physical and intellectual capacities, the retarding of the onset of the ravages of old age--all of these can be easily foreseen.

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