Who's Afraid of Human Enhancement?

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

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Eric Cohen: Right. And let me end with the quintessential aspiration: Everybody wants to be happy. On this much, at least, the ancients and the moderns sort of agreed, although they had different notions of happiness. Will the various interventions in our minds and bodies make us happier? I'm no expert on the future, so we'll have to wait and see, but I think there are real reasons to doubt this. There are reasons to doubt whether our new powers will really make us happy in a genuine human sense. If there were really a pill that simulated love or simulated success or simulated the feeling of playing a great symphony or hitting a great home run, is that really what we aspire to? Simply the simulation? And is there a danger that all these drugs that are supposed to make us happy might just make us more anxious because we're on all these drugs? Everybody's on Prozac, everybody puts a little bit in their coffee, but in fact life still has its hardships and people are still genuinely frustrated and trying to muddle through like most of us do. I wonder whether we'll really be genuinely happy when all the biotech companies promise us happiness in a pill.

These are hard questions. The future's unpredictable, but I think there are at least serious reasons to wonder whether we'll genuinely make ourselves better in all the ways that we hope to by turning to biotech.

Nick Gillespie: Thank you, Eric. I can testify from personal experience, I've already had pills that have made me think I'm as talented as Mozart, but they were not from established pharmaceutical outlets, or FDA-regulated, and I miss them. Joel?

Joel Garreau: Thanks. Eric's journal has made a great impact on me. I'm a paid subscriber to The New Atlantis, that's how much I admire his journal. And I've been so dazzled by Ron's work that I've stolen it every chance I've had.

Having been a child of the 1960s, I never anticipated that the most interesting drugs available today [would be] legal and available through prescription. That's the part that really blows my mind. The argument that I make in Radical Evolution is that we are at a turning point in history, and there's nothing [that is going to hold that back]. For hundreds of thousands of years, our technologies have been aimed outward at modifying our environment in the fashion of fire, clothes, cities, agriculture, space travel. But now, they are increasingly turned inward at modifying our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities, our progeny, and possibly our souls. It's not just biotech. It's what I call the GRIN technologies--genetics, robotics, information, and nanotechnology. They are all following a curve of exponential change that is known in the computer industry as Moore's Law. You get regular doublings in capacity every few months.

A doubling is an amazing thing. It means that every few months, every new step is as tall as all of the previous steps combined. The 30 doublings we've had in computer technology since 1959 is an increase of over 400,000 times. We're seeing similar curves in these other technologies, and the significance of this is that it's not going away and it's not science fiction and it's not 100 years from now. It's on our watch, and we have to decide what we're going to do about it in terms of the future of human nature.

This conversation usually gets held in the hall of the technological elite, and the reason I've been typing as fast as I can is that it's time for the conversation to break out into the mainstream. Only in some kind of a bottom-up way are we going to address these issues. I'm not a big fan of top-down hierarchies, just as a practical matter. And the stuff coming online is going to blow our minds.

For example, I spent the better part of a year at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the stuff that's in their labs is quite remarkable. Up in Boston, there's a human, Matthew Nagel, who was the first to send an e-mail with his thoughts last summer. He can control a robotic arm with his thoughts. Within three years, these memory drugs that are meant to banish the boomers' "senior moments" are going to be coming on market.

The question that the Educational Testing Service is asking is, what happens if in the very near future you can buy your kids an extra couple of hundred points on their SATs? Think of what parents do now to get their kids into college. Then think of what's happening as these possibilities come online. We're talking about thousands of incremental advances. It's not like we're going to wake up some day and face some big decision. It's one step at a time. How do we handle these advances? And as Ron said, this is really scrambling our politics. Think of how many people love the idea of stem cells who are equally opposed to genetically modified organisms. The distinctions we have now between the left and the right were an Industrial Age reality that is increasingly not part of our future.

It's between the heaven and the hell scenarios that you see the big differences, the optimists vs. the pessimists. On the optimist side, you have the market libertarians and the military right next to some environmentalists and disabled people and even feminists who relish the thought of procreating without men. Then there are the people who fear this: the President's Council on Bioethics hard up against Greenpeace and people who are against the World Bank and Christians who don't believe in Darwin and the Boston Women's Health Collective (which published the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves). And Prince Charles. Those are pretty damned strange bedfellows.

The thing about the heaven and the hell scenarios is they basically agree. The heaven scenario says all of these changes are increasing exponentially, and we're going to conquer all the evils of mankind, and it goes straight up and that's terrific. The people who look at the hell scenario also buy this curve of exponential change. But they ask, what happens if this gets into the hands of bumblers or madmen? Their optimistic version of the hell scenario is that we extinguish only the human species in 25 years; the pessimistic version is that we lose all the life on earth. The heaven and hell scenarios are both technodeterminist futures that say technology is moving forward and there's not much we can do about it. Hang on tight. The end. Great summer blockbuster movie, dynamite special effects, not a lot of plot.

The third scenario that I sketch out in Radical Evolution is the "prevail" scenario. That's entirely different territory. Prevail [scenarists] don't believe that human history is likely to follow any smooth curves. It's more likely to have hiccups and loops and reverses and belches, as history has in the past. In the prevail scenario, the measure of progress is not how many transistors you can get to talk to each other but how many unpredictable and imaginative humans you can get to talk to each other. The measure of success in prevail is co-evolution. It's child's play to note that if our challenges go up in a curve and if our responses stay flat, we're toast. Stick a fork in us right now. We're done.

But if you get a situation where you can have our responses accelerating as fast as our challenges by bringing humans together in an imaginative way, then you might have a shot. Think of the problems that were facing humanity during the Dark Ages--endless difficulties. Then comes the printing press. All of a sudden you can start collecting and transferring and sharing ideas in a way that had never been possible before. The range of solutions that occurred was beyond the imagination of any one human being or any one country. Global trade, the Enlightenment, the rise of democracy, the rise of science itself.

I'm guardedly hopeful that maybe we're in a period of co-evolution like that now, [where all sorts of new ways of thinking and dealing with things are possible]. Think of 9/11. The fourth airplane never made it to its target. Why? Because the Air Force was quick on the trigger? Uh, no. Because the White House was so smart? Uh, no. What happened was that a bunch of ordinary people like us, empowered by mobile phone technology, figured out, diagnosed, and cured their society's ills in under an hour--and at incredible expense to themselves. That's, I think, an example of co-evolution, and it's a reason why I'm guardedly optimistic about the future.

Nick Gillespie: I'll ask each panelist a question before throwing things open to the audience. Ron, tell me one biotechnological development that you actually fear or find troubling.

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