The Abolition of Man?

Tell 'em that it's human nature.


Delve into literary or film studies, and you'll run into something called genre criticism. Inoffensive in theory, this approach often devolves into a way to complain that artists are not conforming to the critic's pet definitions.

Consider "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," Robert Warshow's famous essay on the Hollywood western. After laying out an ideal form that westerns supposedly follow, Warshow criticizes several famous films for deviating from his theory. High Noon, though "well handled," is faulted because "social drama" has no place in the genre. My Darling Clementine, though "beautiful," is "so loving in execution as to destroy the outlines of the Western legend." The idea that one might enjoy a film precisely because it does not conform to a preset formula has no place in this approach to criticism.

So it is when conservatives invoke "human nature." Want to enhance your unborn child's genes? Watch out, warns George Will: You just might "put us on a slippery slope to the abolition of humanity." What's at stake, Dinesh D'Souza adds in The Virtue of Prosperity, is "the viability of the human race." Will and D'Souza didn't arrive at the same stance by accident. Both are recycling the ideas of philosopher Leon Kass, who frets also over efforts to extend the human lifespan. "Is not the limit on our time the ground of our taking life seriously and living it passionately?" Kass once wrote. "To number our days is the condition for making them count, to treasure and appreciate all that life brings."

Just as the filmgoer reading Warshow inevitably starts to suspect that the western might be more elastic than the critic will admit, the reader who trudges through Kass must eventually wonder whether the ethicist is confusing the map with the territory. Conservatives have long been known, in William F. Buckley's famous phrase, for standing athwart history yelling "Stop!" But when did they start insisting that history which does not go their way isn't actually history at all?

On closer examination, what worries these writers isn't that human nature might change in the future. It's that human nature might not be what they think it is right now. Will is scared that children will be transformed "from an unscripted surprise into someone's artifice or project," reducing the child to "an extension of a person's will." But this objection only makes sense if you can manufacture completely planned prefab people. Scientifically speaking, that isn't just dubious; it flies in the face of what the new genetic discoveries are telling us. You might not guess it from the potted popularizations in the press, but a man is more than the sum of his genes, just as the decor of a house is more than a surveyor's map of the land it sits on.

But pretend, for a moment, that this view of human beings is accurate—that we can be reduced to genetic inputs and programmed for life. In that case, genetic selection would not violate human nature; it would merely demonstrate that the traditional conservative view of human nature isn't accurate. Will's objection thus amounts to little more than philosophical insecurity.

OK, so say we drop the pretentious talk about the abolition of man. Cloning, genetic selection, and the like still pose some serious moral questions—right?

Of course they do. But those questions aren't really new, and they don't involve issues as abstract as "human nature." Reproduction has always involved questions about parents' obligations toward, and power over, their offspring. The form that reproduction takes is almost beside the point.

D'Souza, incidentally, says parents shouldn't be allowed to alter their children's genetic endowment because this would subvert the child's "self-determination." Ignore the implicit assumption that the fetus would otherwise select its own genetic makeup, and reflect instead on the fact that a prominent conservative writer is objecting, in essence, to parental authority. With Tories like these, who needs anarchists?

Maybe it's a mistake to peer too closely at these arguments. The real fear at work may have less to do with what biotech might do to humanity than with what human beings might do with biotech, particularly those human beings who don't take their cultural cues from The New Criterion.

Imagine what will happen when the Goths and gangstas get their hands on biotechnology. The world will be awash in designer tumors and transparent skin, and the next George Will will throw up his Day-Glo pseudopods, search for a suitably portentous way to express his anxieties, and declare that human nature is under fire—again.