Science & Technology

Making the Future Safe

Notes from the World Transhumanist Association's annual conference


"The job of bioethics is to be the French letter on the prick of progress." So said University of Queensland bioethicist William Grey, during the June 27-29 World Transhumanist Association (WTA) annual conference at Yale University. Grey's pungent comment came from his presentation on "Design Constraints for the Posthuman Future," during a session dealing with Reproductive Technology and the Rights of Future Generations. More on that another time.

So what is transhumanism? The WTA defines it as "the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities." Such enhancing technologies include: genetic engineering, longevity therapies, integration of human biology with computer technologies, and new psychopharmaceutical treatments to improve cognitive capacities and mood states.

It's fair to say that most of the 130 or so people who gathered under the banner of transhumanism were enthusiastic about scientific and technological advances, and don't think that humanity needs much prophylactic protection from the fecundity of progress. In other words, while insisting on the maintenance of standards for safety and efficacy, in most cases transhumanists are happy to ride the prick of progress pretty much bareback.

The conference was a protean affair, with a wide range of sessions on topics such as "Why Not Re-Invent Humans? Is This the Best We Can Do?," and "Forseeable, Radical Life Extension: The Biology to Inform the Philosophy." So, today's column is just the first in an occasional series that will report and analyze issues discussed at Transvision 2003.

The conference kicked off with a debate called "Should Humans Welcome or Resist Becoming Posthuman?" The debaters were Gregory Stock, director of the University of Calfornia's Program on Medicine, Technology and Society; and bioethicist George Annas, a Boston University professor of health law, bioethics and human rights. Essentially, Stock is against French letters, while Annas strongly favors them.

Stock began by noting that answers to all kinds of questions, including technological ones, generally arise from small populations. If a new technique works and is beneficial, it will multiply and expand to other groups; if not, it fades away. He sees this as a model for how humanity should proceed with new technologies, like genetic engineering and longevity treatments. Global bans on new technologies, therefore, are bad. "The only way that wise policies will emerge is to allow different policies to emerge from around the world," Stock said. This process of trial and error will show us which ones work, and which ones should be discarded.

Why are some people so afraid of the new technologies, Stock asked? "What they fear is that the technologies will work and work gloriously," he declared. "Some will see them as an invasion of the inhuman, and others see them as the greatest expression of humanity; the opportunity to transcend limits that previous generations could only dream of." Stock concluded: "The next frontier is not space, it is us." It's a foregone conclusion that "we're going to go on this adventure," and we should "not just accept, but embrace" the new technologies, "because they're filled with promise and because we can."

Annas started his presentation with the lament, "it's hard to be against the future"; still, he managed to soldier on. For him, being a "cheerleader for the future" is less interesting than concentrating on the "dark side of science." In other words, being a bioethical French letter. Annas believes today's hype over genetic engineering mirrors the gee-whiz enthusiasm for the 1960s Space Age. Man was supposed to go to the moon, Mars, and then the stars, but that turned out to be "bullshit," he said."We were very naïve then, and I suggest that we're just as naïve now."

Then Annas turned his attention to some problematic biotechnologies. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos for genetic diseases, for example, is a "non-issue," he declared. Similarly, reproductive cloning is also a "non-issue." But hold on a minute. Annas has promulgated a model global treaty that would ban all reproductive cloning and germline genetic engineering (that is, inheritable genetic changes). If reproductive cloning is a non-issue, why bother trying to get all 200 or so of the world's nations to ban it? "I thought cloning would provide an opportunity for the world to find something to agree on," he said. A symbolic treaty, in other words. By the way, Stock said that he, too, thinks that reproductive cloning is a non-issue, but for a different reason: "It would have far less impact on us than, say, cell phones," Stock said, because so few people would want to use it.

In any case, Annas wants to apply the Precautionary Principle to technological innovation. One canonical version of the Precautionary Principle reads: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof." Another way of putting this pernicious principle is: "Never do anything for the first time."

The Precautionary Principle is the moral equivalent of taking birth control pills, using an IUD, applying spermicidal jelly, having a vasectomy, and pulling on a French letter, all at the same time. Annas would like to set up a regulatory Precautionary Principle body that would have to be convinced by innovators that any new technology is safe enough to be permitted. He wants to establish this system of pre-clearance because "the technologies we have now aren't only going to become more powerful, they are going to become more dangerous."

Annas is "worried about the future of the species," and therefore wants to shift the burden of proof onto those who propose "species-altering or species-endangering experiments that put the whole of humanity at risk." What can this mean? Clearly, he wants to apply it to the genetic engineering of humans. But can that really be conceived of as species-altering, much less species-endangering?

First, what about reproductive cloning? It is hard to see how cloning technology that nearly everyone agrees will be used only rarely could either alter or endanger the species. After all, a clone bears a human genome which has already come about naturally once before. It's like saying that twins who, after all, share an identical set of genes are a danger to the human race. Looking further down the road, parents and physicians might be able to someday change little Johnny's genome so that he doesn't suffer from diabetes or cystic fibrosis. In fact, little Johnny may someday have his IQ or his immune system boosted via genetic engineering, but is that really species-altering or species-endangering? After all, lots of kids already have such genes, and they are still members of homo sapiens.

In fact, if you think about it, our current medical advances have already altered our species in numerous ways. It may well be that genes that predispose people to diabetes are now more common because their carriers no longer die in childhood and adolescence, as they did before the discovery of insulin in 1921. Similarly, cures for diseases like tuberculosis have undoubtedly also altered the distribution of genes for resistance to many diseases. Is that species-altering? You bet it is, and it's no big deal.

What about species-endangering? Annas declared: "No human being has the ethical standing to let loose a new virus. Neither does any government or corporation." Assuming he meant disease viruses, he's certainly correct. But what does that have to do with banning, or applying the Precautionary Principle? After all, no person, no corporation, and no government has the ethical standing to release any old-fashioned un-genetically engineered disease such as smallpox or plague, either. However, it is unlikely that a would-be bioterrorist would stand before Annas' Global Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to ask for permission to release his new strain of anthrax.

The better way to counter future bioterrorism is to allow the relatively unfettered development of biotechnology, so that researchers can devise tools for quick diagnosis and defense, now. In other words, there doesn't seem much for Annas' biotech authority to do other than get in the way of the quick development of beneficial technologies.

Annas is also against allowing parents to use genetic engineering to benefit their children, because the kids aren't able to give their consent for the genetic modifications. Of course, no one alive today gave their consent to being born with the randomly acquired set of genes they bear, either. Stock responded that Annas' requirement for consent would mean that children couldn't be treated with drugs, or receive vaccinations. Indeed, just how silly Annas' consent requirement would be is obvious when one considers the case of pediatric surgery and fetal surgery. A fetus can't give permission to have its spina bifida corrected while in the womb, yet it is certainly the moral thing to do. As Stock also pointed out, it is unlikely that parents who treasure their would-be offspring would rush out to use any treatments, much less genetic ones, that they didn't think were fully validated and safe.

Stock argued that proponents of the Precautionary Principle know that it is just a way to "blockade research without admitting that that is what they want to do." Stock also rejected Annas' species-level concerns. "I don't care about the species, I care about individual people," he said.

In his response, Annas left a tiny opening for the future approval of genetic engineering in people. It might be OK with him, he said, after it had proved safe "in 20 generations of primates." Annas then brought up egalitarian objections. Genetic engineering has the potential to create super-wealthy and strong people who might regard us unmodified humans as prime candidates for slavery. He analogized the situation of biotechnologically improved people to the case proposed by Hans Moravec, founder of the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who argues that if we make people or machines (or a combination) too powerful, they will pose a danger to humanity and would have to be outlawed or exiled. Moravec believes that transhumanism must answer the question posed by Harvard law professor, Martha Minow: "How do you create a world where difference is respected and not a grounds for extermination?"

Stock replied that the divisions over the use of enhancing biotechnologies would not break down along lines of wealth, but along lines of philosophy. People in the developing world, eager to catch up with rich countries, would resort to enhancing technologies before the complacent peoples of the already industrialized world. Annas responded that it was ludicrous to think that poor countries would use biotech enhancements first; after all they can't afford medicines to cure malaria or HIV right now. Stock pointed out that there are many rich people in poor countries, and that various polls already found that majorities of people in Thailand and India would be happy to try genetic engineering as a way to improve their children's chances of success in life.

During the question and answer period, Eliezer Yudkowsky asked Annas "What makes you think that government is good enough to not get us all killed?" Annas' nonresponse was that we need a world government (that's really putting all your eggs in one basket!), while admitting "there's certainly no certainty to this." Indeed not.

Stock closed by warning that Annas' "vision of the global good" felt "like those sorts of great goods that were used as justifications for … a lot of the evils in the world." For instance, communism. He argued that "the least likelihood of abusing this technology and protecting ourselves is to allow individual choice." We will learn the wisdom of how to use the new advances properly only through experience. Delaying technologies can kill people. Stock pointed out that if a cure for cancer that would otherwise have been available in 2020 is delayed to 2030 because of the application of the Precautionary Principle, that means tens of millions of people who would otherwise have been alive would be dead. He predicted that future humans will look back at this glorious moment, when all these things to alter humanity were being developed, and marvel. It's an enormous privilege to be alive at this time, he declared.

Annas ended by warning that we are not very good at preventing the harms to the environment, the harms of poverty, and the harms of genocide. Thus he recommended that we use the Precautionary Principle as our guide to preventing future harms, including those posed by biotechnology. Of course, we are even worse at foreseeing the benefits of technological developments. Thus Annas ignores the harms that come from not expeditiously proceeding with the development of new technologies.

So that was the debate whether or not humanity should wear a French letter or go bareback. I say that individual people are wise enough to decide for themselves.