Nietzschean Endgame

Self-enhancement and "immense wars of the spirit."


I think that one of the great virtues of Greg Stock's book is that he is willing to take some risks in predicting what kinds of changes might be in store in the long-run future in terms of enhancement technology. Most people in the scientific community are not willing to speculate out beyond the next five to 10 years. I urge people to read the last chapter of Redesigning Humans if you want to understand why I'm worried about biotechnology.

In that chapter, Stock suggests a number of things that might happen in a future world in which various forms of enhancement become safe, effective, and inexpensive. Among other things, he suggests that reproduction via sex may disappear altogether as a result of the difficulties of handling artificial chromosomes in vivo. Reproduction could not happen outside a lab. We could freely alter our personalities and moods through a combination of drugs and genetics.

But most importantly, the human race disappears. He suggests that there will be differentiation within our species, and, in effect, new speciation. Some groups of people may decide to enhance their children for musical ability, some for athletic prowess, others for math or literary ability. There will be a basic social divide between the enhanced and the unenhanced, and in the competitive situation that will emerge, it will be difficult for people not to join into this genetic arms race. Moreover, genetic differentiation will become a cornerstone of international politics. If we and the Germans decide not to take part, the Chinese will charge ahead with self-enhancement, and then we as a nation will be challenged to follow suit.

What I don't understand is why anyone thinks that in this kind of world—one in which the existing genetic homogeneity of the human race is being undermined—we will be able to continue to live within the nice, liberal democratic framework that we currently enjoy. Stock argues as if we can presume the continuity of that political world, and that the biggest arguments we will have will concern whether we have a little more regulation and less progress, or the reverse, and get to fully enjoy the technological paradise opening before us.

But as I noted earlier, in this kind of world Nietzsche is the best guide to what politics will be like. What is going to happen to equality of opportunity when a non-musically enhanced child aspires to be a musician, which has become not just the territory of a guild of musicians, but of a subspecies of musicians whose total genetic identity is tied up in that form of life? Why shouldn't the enhanced start demanding superior political rights for themselves, and seek to dominate the unenhanced, since they will in fact be superior not just as a result of acquired social status and education, but of genetic enhancements as well? What is going to happen to international conflict, when other, hostile societies are not just culturally different, but not fully human, either?

The fact is that there will be no theoretical or practical reason at that point not to abandon the principle of universal human equality (i.e., the one enshrined in the Declaration of Independence). It is strongly believed in today in part as a matter of faith, but also in part because it is empirically supported. When the principle was enunciated in 1776, blacks and women were not granted political rights in North America because it was believed that they were too stupid, or too emotional, or otherwise lacking in some essential human characteristic to be granted equal rights. This view resurfaced as scientific racism in the early 20th century, and one of the great achievements of our time is that both the empirical doctrine and the politics built on it have been discredited.

So if we are going to embrace this technology and the prospect of human self-enhancement, we ought to do it with our eyes open. We should say, with Nietzsche, that this is a wonderful opportunity because we can finally transcend liberal democracy, and reestablish the possibility of natural aristocracy, of social hierarchy, of the pathos of distance (i.e., the inability to empathize with the suffering of others), and otherwise usher in an era of "immense wars of the spirit."

As I said, I'm grateful that Greg Stock has clarified all of these issues for us.