Vulgarity and Tastelessness


"I'm afraid that scientists are going to put these technologies into the hands of people whose values are very different from my own and are deplorable," grumped philosopher Eleonore Stump. She was shocked by the proposal of Chicago artist Eduard Kac to insert a jellyfish gene in a dog embryo for the purpose of creating a dog that would glow fluorescent green. "The vulgarity and tastelessness," she despaired during the question and answer period after the morning panel on the biotechnological perspective on extended life. (Poor Dr. Stump. She apparently fears that the world might be filled with the moral equivalent of genetic "trailer trash." Where is your egalitarianism when you really need it, Eleonore?)

The Extended Life/Eternal Life conference started well in its second day despite the fact that the two CEOs, Thomas Okarma of Geron and Michael West of Advanced Cell Technology failed to show up. Apparently, business was heating up at Geron and West was assuring his immortality the old-fashioned way, by attending to his wife who gave birth to a daughter the night before. So instead, U Penn science historian Mark Adams talked about how the influence of the "Darwinian Dilemma" shaped intellectual discourse at the beginning of the 20th century. The dilemma rested on the notion that natural selection leads to the improvement of a species, but by creating civilization, humanity was no longer subject to natural selection, therefore we as a species were doomed to degenerate. This vision underpinned H.G. Wells' Time Machine. The eugenics movement, the idea of that humanity should take control of its own biological destiny, was seen as a way to avoid the dilemma. Adams explained how the Darwinian dilemma motivated prominent biologists of the era, including Julian Huxley, H.J. Muller, and J.B.S. Haldane. Practicing "visionary biology" these biologists speculated about a future humanity that would speciate and move out from earth. These speculations of an improved and genetically enhanced humanity aroused fierce opposition from figures like Bertrand Russell and C.S. Lewis.

As the afternoon session of theologians and philosophers amply demonstrated, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Adams believes that the war between science and religion is far from over, it is just in a "Cold War phase" for now.

Adams was followed by Mark Westhusin, the biologist from Texas A&M who is heading up the $2.3 million Missyplicity Project, the effort to clone a particular mutt named Missy much loved by her multimillionaire companion person. Westhusin cited many benefits of animal cloning, including replication of elite animals and the production of transgenic animals. One genetically engineered cow could produce in her milk all of the bloodclotting Factor IX that the U.S needs; two cows could make all of the Protein C patients need. Westhusin was upbeat on the prospects of using cloning to preserve endangered species. He showed slides of several rare animals produced by interspecies embryo transfers–a baby ibex born from a goat surrogate mother, and an Armenian sheep born from a domestic sheep. If normal embryos will come to term in other species, he sees no reason why cloned embryos wouldn't. He himself would like to work on restoring desert Bighorn sheep to West Texas.

"It would be hypocritical to claim that the things I'm learning couldn't be used to clone humans reproductively," said Westhusin. "I've not met a human I thought was worth cloning, yet. Lot's of cows though." It was Westhusin who had mentioned the artist's suggestion for creating a green dog which provoked Dr. Stump's snooty outburst.

Next up was Gregory Stock, the director of UCLA's Program on Medicine, Technology, & Society. Stock is clearly in the tradition of "visionary biology." You could see a lot of the timid theos and philosophes cringe when Stock flatly said, "Look genetic enhancements is really what large number of people want–longevity, more efficient physiologies, and greater intelligence." And he could see no reason technologically or ethically why in the future humanity wouldn't have them. "The idea of extending lifespan is the least of your worries," Stock told the audience. He sketched a future in which human beings would incorporate all kinds of biological and electronic gizmos causing the breakdown of the line between biology and nonbiology. Even the very shape of human beings would change. And instead of ruing the day, we should be celebrating our good fortune to be alive at this exciting moment in history. "We are not moving toward a cataclysmic reckoning," suggested Stock. "Instead I offer you the image of birth. Like birth this period is messy, bloody, and traumatic, but it the beginning of a new era. Future humans will look back on this period as the time when the very bases of their lives were laid down and thank us."

But all good things must come to an end and so the afternoon panel assembled under the gaze of the same 3200 year old sphinx where all of the previous meetings had been held. One empirical finding of note was mentioned during the session. The good news reported by Stephen Post, a bioethicist from Case Western Reserve University, is in a study of the effects of vitamin E on Alzheimer's patients, that they lived six months longer. The bad news is that there was no improvement in their cognitive function and that they lived six months longer.

The panel was devoted to considering whether biotechnology should be used to extend life. Sadly, the panel indulged itself in bashing the alleged greed and materialism of capitalism. The usual tired litany was recited. Individual choice is not really choice because of the coercive effects of the market like having to have a job and the power of misleading advertising to create desires for things we don't really need. We haven't met the needs of all the poor yet, so how can we be thinking of using these expensive technologies for the benefit of the already well off? Market eugenics based on individual choice is not much different in effect than eugenics practiced by governments.

Apparently, this stuff passes for sophisticated ethical reasoning. It never occurs to the would-be ethicists to wonder why the phrase "rich socialist society" is an oxymoron and that the same greedy capitalism they so disdain is the only known way of vastly improving the lives of tens of millions of their fellow human beings.

Audrey Chapman who heads the science and religion program at the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, is a near perfect example of how shallow this kind of reasoning is. "One feature of a globalized society is accelerating inequalities," intoned Chapman. She claimed that since resources are concentrated in just 22 countries we have marginalized the rest of the world and she asked are we also going to marginalize the rest of the world biologically in terms of life expectancy? Genetic enhancement is hubris and we may create monsters, according to Chapman. When all else fails, she reaches for the perfect safety of the "precautionary principle" as a way to halt biotech progress. Unless researchers can prove that no innovation will ever cause harm then it should never be allowed. (The proper rejoinder to the precautionary principle, was given earlier by Penn bioethicist Arthur Caplan: "Waiting until something is completely safe never happens. Waiting until it is less risky, now that happens. Tom Starzl (the famous transplant surgeon) killed 100 people trying liver transplants before one worked.")

The one bright exception to the dreary intellectual conformity of the panel was Charles Harper, the director of the Templeton Foundation. "Stasis is not an option," said Harper. "The world is fundamentally out of control and there is a free competition of visions in the context of constant change." He urged the religious community to stop nostalgically hoping for stasis and instead to bend to the task of building strong visions of the good and the virtuous that can compete and inspire human creativity and the will to resist evil. "I favor radical life extension," said Harper. "So I say hooray for life and hooray for more of it." Amen.