Who's Afraid of Human Enhancement?

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


Listen to this debate in MP3 audio here.

On August 25 in Washington, D.C., reason staged a debate about "the promise, perils, and ethics of human biotechnology." Moderated by Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie, the panelists included Ronald Bailey, Reason's science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution; Eric Cohen, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Biotechnology and American Democracy Program and editor of the group's journal, The New Atlantis; and Joel Garreau, a reporter and editor for The Washington Post and author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies, and What It Means To Be Human. What follows is an edited transcript of the event, which was sponsored by the Donald and Paula Smith Family Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Comments can be sent to letters@reason.com.

Nick Gillespie: Our purpose tonight is to hash out questions and issues revolving around human enhancement based on technologies that include cloning; stem-cell research; processes to increase longevity, intelligence, and physical abilities; and many other procedures at various stages of development. What was once the province of science fiction–human beings augmented to such a degree that they become "post-human"–is rapidly becoming fact. Indeed, one of our panelists tonight will even argue that within the next century death itself may become optional. These are the sorts of developments that fill some with hope and others with horror.

Our panelists tonight will not agree on very much, but on this basic point I suspect they're in complete agreement: Forget all the talk about Social Security solvency, income tax rates, blue states, red states, even the war in Iraq. The most fundamental social and political issue facing the world today–and tomorrow–is the question of human enhancement.

Ron Bailey will be kicking off our discussion by giving us a quick overview of his feelings about human enhancement.

Ron Bailey: If I could have given my new book a proper 19th-century descriptive title, it might have been Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, or Why You Should Relax and Enjoy the Brave New World of Immortality, Stem Cells, and Designer Babies.

Of course, I'm not talking about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which portrays a society of regimented clones in a world run by top-down controllers, the motto of which is "community, identity, and stability." In fact, the biotech revolution I anticipate is the exact opposite of Huxley's Brave New World. Let me illustrate by painting you a short vision of what the biotech revolution could bring by the end of this century.

By 2100 the typical American may attend a family reunion in which five generations are playing together. The great-great-great-grandma is 150 years old, and she will be as vital as she was when she was 30 and as vital as her 30-year-old great-great-grandson, with whom she's playing touch football. After the game, she'll enjoy a plate of salad greens filled with not only a full day's worth of nutrients but the medicines she needs to repair the damage to her aging cells. She'll be able to chat about the academic discipline–maybe economics–that she studied in the 1980s with as much acuity and depth of knowledge and memory as her 50-year-old great-granddaughter who is now studying the same thing.

No one in her extended family will have ever caught a cold. They will be immune from birth to the shocks that human flesh has long been heir to: diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Her granddaughter, who recently suffered an unfortunate transport accident, will be sporting new versions of the arm and lung that got damaged in the wreck, and she'll be playing in that game of touch football with the same skill and energy as anyone else in the family. Infectious diseases that terrified us at the beginning of the 21st century, such as HIV-AIDS and the avian flu, will be horrific historical curiosities for the family to chat about over their plates of super-fat farm-raised salmon, which will be as tasty and nutritious as any fish any human has ever eaten: "Grandma, what was it like when people got colds?" Though few of them will actually think much about it, surrounding them will be a world that is greener and cleaner, one more abundant in natural vegetation and with less of an obvious human footprint than the one we live in now.

Not only will this family enjoy all these benefits, but nearly everyone they work with, socialize with, and meet with will enjoy them as well. It will be a remarkably peaceful and pleasant world. Beyond their health and their wealth, they'll be able to control things such as anti-social tendencies and crippling depression. And they'll manage these problems by individual choice, through new biotech pharmaceuticals and personalized genetic treatments.

This idyllic scenario is more than realistic given the reasonably expected breakthroughs and extensions of our knowledge of human, plant, and animal biology and the mastery of the techniques known collectively as biotechnology. We'll be able to manipulate those biologies to meet human needs and desires.

What is astonishing to me is that an extraordinary transideological coalition of left-wing and right-wing bioconservatives has come together to oppose many of the technological advancements that could make that vision real for the whole of humanity. This coalition of biotech opponents consists of some of our leading intellectuals and policy makers. On the left stand bioethicists such as Daniel Callahan, who founded The Hastings Center, arguably the world's first bioethics think tank; George Annas from Boston University; longtime left-wing activists such as Jeremy Rifkin; and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. On the right stand Leon Kass, [formerly] the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and his fellow council members Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, and also people such as William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard.

Both sides of this coalition abhor efforts to dramatically extend healthy human life spans by decades and even centuries. Both sides oppose creating stem cells derived from cloned embryos that would serve as perfect transplants to replace damaged, diseased, or worn-out body parts, livers, and nerves. Both sides want to outlaw the efforts of parents to use genetic testing and in vitro fertilization [IVF] and new pharmaceuticals to enhance their children's immune systems, athletic abilities, and intellectual capacities. Both sides of this bioconservative coalition would ban the use of genetically enhanced crops and animals to produce more abundant and more nutritious foods. Astonishingly, they are against heaven. Why? Because they wrongly fear that biotech progress will lead to hell.

In Liberation Biology, I thoroughly examine the whole range of bioconservative objections to the biotech revolution. I look forward to addressing them in more detail in the question-and-answer period, but let me note here that the benefits of biotechnology are well-known. The cure of diseases and disabilities for millions of sufferers, the production of more nutritious food with less damage to the natural environment, the enhancement of human physical and intellectual capacities, the retarding of the onset of the ravages of old age–all of these can be easily foreseen.

It is the alleged dangers of biotechnology that are vague, ill-defined, and wholly speculative. While Joel Garreau wonderfully chronicles some of the far-out visions of technological transcendence in Radical Evolution, my desires are more modest. All I want to do is dramatically boost people's physical and intellectual capacities, restore the natural environment, and make death optional.

Nick Gillespie: Thank you, Ron. Although I've got to say you've given the opposite side a powerful argument with your vision of a family picnic, especially if you've ever met my cousins. Next up is Eric Cohen.

Eric Cohen: Thanks very much. As a magazine editor, I want to start by simply complimenting Ron's title. I spend a lot of time trying to think of clever titles, which sometimes are the only things people remember about the nice article you publish, and Liberation Biology is a very smart title. It's a play, if I understand it correctly, on liberation theology, which is a whole collection of interesting, silly, weird ideas having to do generally with heaven and hell. Ron's title is clever on a couple of levels.

One, it signals that he's breaking from [the concept of heaven and hell]. He's breaking from this whole [religious] mythology, which I suspect in his mind hasn't delivered very much. He's leading us toward the age of flag football with your grandmother and farm-fresh salmon, but he's also signaling that he wants to try to answer some of the same human longings that theology or religion has long answered. So it's an interesting title on that level. I think it's also interesting in [raising the question of] what is it the liberty to do? What is the liberation he's talking about?

It's liberation from all kinds of horrible things in human life–sudden illness, dying children, people who have more ambition than talent, people who have more ideas than time, people who simply don't want to die and want to be a lot more like gods than most human beings are. It's also liberty to do various things, and this brings us to the subject of tonight's panel, which is the question of enhancement.

It seems to me that if you take the word enhancement at face value, there simply can't be anything wrong with it, right? Enhancement means to make things better, so then [all the things Ron talks about are] great. But the question is whether the things that seem like enhancements really are enhancements. The disquiet that some people have with the biotech revolution is [due to our] worry that in trying to make life better in ways we recognize, we're going to make it worse in ways we can't even imagine. That's the set of problems we face.

I should say most biotech is great. I hope the stocks go up. I hope they cure various diseases or at least develop better treatments for them, but some of the more ambitious and more interesting areas of biotechnology give some of us disquiet.

There are two sides to the disquiet. One has to do with the means that we're going to use to supposedly enhance ourselves and the other has to do with the ends. The conventional worry about enhancement has to do with the quality [of improvements] that the rich are going [to be able to afford]. The wealthy are going to become gene rich and the poor are going to become gene poor, and this is going to worsen the inequalities of life. I'm enough of a free market person to believe that if something works in wealthy societies, eventually most people are going to be able to afford it.

The worries about means are a little different though. Here the stem cell debate is paradigmatic. Everybody wants to cure these horrible diseases. It's an end that all sides of the stem cell debate share.

The issue is, should we be destroying human embryos to do it? I think you can make a pretty rigorous, rational, and scientific case that embryos are early human lives and that to use them as mere things would make us a lesser society. The worry here is not about the end we're pursuing but about the means that are used to pursue it.

And let me spend some time asking about those ends. What is it that we're trying to enhance? What are the goals here? I think you can break down four different ways of trying to enhance ourselves–and here I follow the definitive discussion in a report by the President's Council on Bioethics called Beyond Therapy. The four ways are superior performance in the various activities of life, better children, long lives or even ageless lives, and happiness. Those are four basic aspirations that are not new, though biotechnology might give us some new ways to pursue them.

If you think it through, there are reasons to at least wonder whether the biotechnologies we're talking about are really going to answer these human longings in any serious way. Obviously everybody's all worked up these days about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and as Joel tells me, the existing drugs are child's play compared to what's coming. But we have to ask ourselves, is the athlete on steroids a better athlete, a better human athlete? Or has he become more an animal bred for the race? And we might create all kinds of drugs that boost the capacity to, say, remember SAT words. But is that really going to make people smarter, or is it going to narrow their minds in a certain way and make them less able to make the kinds of connections that are essential to real human intelligence and real human wisdom?

The same with the desire for better children. I question whether we would ever be able to design a better child. Can we really make a better musician than Mozart or make a better playwright than Shakespeare? We may be able to make everybody in our wildest dreams as talented as those people, though I doubt it. But there's a deeper issue, which has to do with the nature of the family. It seems to me that parenthood is about not only? trying to make your children better but having a welcoming and embracing attitude toward the child that's given to you to raise and given to you to love. I wonder whether embracing full force a kind of designer attitude is really going to make us better parents and better families.

The same with the desire for longevity. There's the worry that we may simply extend debility. It may be that we're going to simply have Alzheimer's disease for 35 years instead of for 10 in the future. I'm not sure that's necessarily progress. In a deeper sense, if we really believed or lived as if we were going to live forever, would we really have the urgency and the aspiration and the ambition to do the things that we do in life? Most of the portraits of immortality that we've seen, or at least many of them, present a less appealing picture than grandma playing flag football. I'm not sure how appealing that is either.

Nick Gillespie: Especially if you're not a Kennedy, right?

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.

Ronald Bailey: The possibility of evil people using or creating terrible pathogens and bioterrorism. I'm not at all sure that the current responses that we are trying to develop are going to be successful. The response of our government in developing its new biosecurity system seems geared to shutting down our public knowledge of things, to increasing secrecy. The best way to protect ourselves is to massively support security technologies and hope that they develop so that the defenses that work are widely understood.

Nick Gillespie: Make everything public on some level?

Ronald Bailey: Yes, basically.

Nick Gillespie: Eric, you talk a lot about how "we" have to make decisions about things. That raises what's called the Tonto question: Caught in an ambush, the Lone Ranger turns to his sidekick and says, "Looks like we're surrounded by Indians." And Tonto replies, "Who's we, kemo sabe?" At what level should these decisions be made? I agree these decisions should not be left to "the scientists," but what about the individual's right to choose?

Eric Cohen: A lot of these questions are moral questions and public questions and democratic questions. They're about the kind of society we're going to live in. I think the moral questions presented by the means are easier to deal with in a democratic way. We can have a debate about whether you should kill embryos in order to do research, and we can have an argument about whether we should set limits. I think that's a perfectly legitimate public thing to do. Right now, there are no limits on embryo research. There's not unlimited funding for it, but there are no limits on it at all. Any research scientist in the country can do it.

When you get to the issue of ends, it's a lot more complicated, precisely because these technologies are mixed up with some very desirable things. But in many cases, the means of using them are problematic. There's nothing wrong with developing a pill that you can take to supposedly improve your memory. The question is whether that's actually a good human thing to do. Various people are trying to think about whether you could build a regulatory agency, a kind of hyped-up FDA that dealt with more than just safety issues and dealt with some of the broader issues.

I'm skeptical of the regulatory agency approach. But when it comes to blunt means questions–Should we be engineering children by weeding out the unfit? Should we be using embryos in research?–I think those are questions where there should be a "we." As a society, we should make some collective judgments about the kind of people we want to be.

When you get to some of the more subtle uses of biotech, especially in the enhancement area, then you have smaller levels of "we." Sports teams or leagues are going to set rules about what kinds of drugs are going to be legal in the future. I think these are cultural questions and individual questions. I'm not looking to ban these various drugs. I'm just questioning the wisdom of using many of them and whether they'll actually deliver us the goods we think they will.

Nick Gillespie: Joel, the subtitle of your book mentions "human nature." What is it, and how do we know we're changing it?

Joel Garreau: One of the definitions of human nature that I like the best is that a human is the creature that steals fire from the gods every chance he gets. Or she gets. That's one of the reasons why I don't think these changes are going to go away no matter what country tries to impose some kind of regulatory scheme. This is not just a U.S. question. The superpowers in this regard include India, China, South Korea, and Japan, places that have entirely different ethical and moral takes on what it means to be human than the Judeo-Christian and Western traditions do.

In terms of knowing whether we have transcended human nature, I propose the Shakespeare test. Shakespeare knew quite a bit about human nature and he wrote elegantly about it. If you have found somebody who has become so enhanced as to make you wonder whether she's still human, I propose the mental experiment of popping her into your hypothetical time machine and dialing her back to 1605. Present her to Shakespeare and ask him, "What do you think? Is she one of yours? Do you recognize her as human?" I think it would be interesting, for example, if you showed Shakespeare the movie Apollo 13. Once he got past the fact that this was nonfiction and these guys were headed to the moon, he wouldn't have any problem with these guys at all. They're just adventurers who are trying to make it home, like the Greeks of 3,000 years ago.

If you show him the people of the various Star Trek series, I don't think he'd have much trouble identifying all of those people as human, although he might stop and scratch his head a little bit about Lt. Comdr. Data [an android]. The guys with the crabs on their foreheads I don't think he'd have any trouble with, but Data, I'd really like to know what kind of take Shakespeare would have on him.

Nick Gillespie: Let's open it up to the audience.

Questioner 1: This is a question for Eric. I agree that we can't know all the effects and impacts of complex changes of the sorts that we're contemplating here. Neither can Ron. The only test we can use to figure out which of you is right has to be the empirical test. Have something of a free market. Probably some people are going to die at 75 or 80. Some people are going to choose to live to be 150 or 200, and then they're going to look back and say, "Gosh, I wish I'd died at 75." Eric wins.

But if you raise the fear of the future being unpredictable but you don't have any kind of empirical testing of it, you can really stop all progress. You can make that argument against progress in any field that we've ever had progress in, whether it's the use of fossil fuels or computing technology or antibiotics.

Eric Cohen: I think there are some basic principles that allow us to be a decent society. Equality is one. We don't treat other people, even weak, disabled, and vulnerable people, as means to our ends. I think that's a better way to live. If you think that principle through, you can set certain kinds of limits on certain technologies. It may be that if we destroyed as many embryos as we wanted to that we would cure 10 diseases. But I think we can come together and say we wouldn't be a better civilization or society if we did that. It's perfectly legitimate to argue for limits on that sort of thing.

We can say the same about some other technologies, especially those dealing with the beginning of life. Think of pre-implantation genetic screening, where you produce 10 embryos, subject them to all kinds of genetic tests, choose the ones that you think are healthy and promising, and discard the ones that aren't. I think we can set limits on those kinds of things.

I'm not sure that's the right way to govern some of the more subtle self-enhancement technologies. If Ron Bailey, in the privacy of his own home, wants to experiment with memory-enhancing drugs, all the power to him. Maybe he'll write 30 books, and they'll all be great, but I'm frankly very skeptical. I think it's a very superficial and simplistic understanding of human excellence and human intelligence that clings or looks longingly at some of these drugs and believes that they're going to make us smarter and better.

At the end of the day the ways that matter most in being good have to do with character anyway. That's an old-fashioned thing, but I think the people that we most admire are generally people not only of ability but people of character. There's no pill that's going to make us better in that way.

Nick Gillespie: Eric, you raise the question of equality and the ways technology might undercut that. During the past 500 years or so, comprising what's considered the modern era, it seems clear that we've increased human enhancement technologies and the treatment of people as equals. More people have political rights than in the past. There's a greater distribution of goods and opportunities across global society now compared to 50, let alone 500, years ago. If we look at the historical record, it's fair to conclude that technology has not only allowed humans to enhance and augment themselves but has also helped them become more equal.

Eric Cohen: In many ways, technology and progress have served the end of equality. I'm in a kind of weird position, right? I'm arguing both for equality and for excellence in a certain sense. On the one hand, I'm worried that these drugs, to put it bluntly, are going to make us sort of pathetic. I mean, yes, we might hit 900 home runs a season, but frankly some of these athletes are sort of pathetic. They're kind of dependent on their drugs, and they all deny it. [Baltimore Orioles slugger] Rafael Palmeiro wouldn't want to be seen shooting his steroids up in the batter's box because he knows that people would think he's less of an athlete. He's less excellent. He's more like the horses we breed.

Nick Gillespie: Would his wife be upset to learn that he's taking Viagra?

Eric Cohen: I don't know. I'll leave that to them.

Nick Gillespie: Palmeiro is a paid spokesman for Viagra, and he's married. That's why I mentioned it. Does taking Viagra–an enhancement drug–make his marital bed less real, less meaningful?

Eric Cohen: Let me bracket the Viagra question for a minute. There's a worry about these enhancements actually undermining the very excellence that they claim to serve. At the same time, I think there are genuine issues with equality. Yes, equality is much better. From the standpoint of equality, it's a heck of a lot better to live today than it was to live 300 years ago in British society. We are more equal, for the most part, but we also treat people in radically unequal ways, both at the beginning of life and at the end of life. And that's another kind of equality that I think has been compromised. If you take that principle seriously and if you take basic biology seriously, then embryos are embryonic human lives, and we're now talking about using them in research. We already abort children with Down syndrome. Those are ways we're saying these people are not good enough. We're not going to welcome them in our society. We're going to eliminate them, and so from that perspective equality has been hurt. Technology has created a mind-set that has made us more inegalitarian even as it's served the cause of equality. I think both things are happening at once.

Questioner 2: I've got two questions, one for Joel and one for Eric. Joel, you've noted that Asian people have an entirely different way of looking at what it is to be a human being than people in the West do. Can you elaborate on that? Eric, isn't it OK if we just sort of relax and let people live a little longer and make some mistakes?

Joel Garreau: I'm not an expert on Hindu philosophy or Confucianism, but I am interested in the facts on the ground in a lot of these cultures. The Chinese have made no secret of the fact that they want to be dominant in the 2008 Olympics. At the University of Pennsylvania Lee Sweeney has been creating genetically altered Schwarzenegger mice. You ought to see his mice. They've got haunches like steers, and their necks are bigger than their heads, and there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't get a call from an athlete or a coach who is begging him to use them as a human equivalent of this. Lee thinks that the 2004 Olympics were the last ones without genetically engineered humans.

An awful lot of the scientists in India have applauded the restrictions on stem cells in this country because they see our [relatively restrictive government policies] as an opportunity to make the great leap forward past the West in these technologies.

This is not some science fiction future. These are decisions that are happening now. That's why I'm so glad that Eric [and others] are asking the questions they are, because they're really good questions. I'm not crazy about some of the answers, but I'm glad they're asking the questions. I'm also glad that the Europeans are trying this business of using governments to control genetically modified organisms. I doubt that it's going to work on a basic practical level, but I like to see humans taking different approaches [to biotechnology] because we've got a long way to go and a short time to get there.

Eric Cohen: If we all relax, we'd have no panel discussions and get all worked up, and then what would we do in Washington? I'm not sure I have an objection to the pursuit of longevity taken in itself. I'm not sure I'm convinced that it's a great idea either, but I think there we'll just have to kind of wait and see. I would just note anecdotally that a lot of the people I know who are obsessed with longevity are also people who don't have children. One way of thinking about the future is to obsessively try to live longer and think about how we can [improve] the world that we want to inhabit. The other way to think about the future is to think about the world we're going to pass down to those who follow us. I wonder who the real futurists are–the Catholics who have 10 kids and oppose embryo research, or the libertarians who have no kids and live to 110 and then get hit by a car?

And there are ethical questions involved here that mean we can't simply relax. Should we be using nascent human life as a tool to develop therapies [that will let us live longer]?

Ronald Bailey: I've suggested to my wife that we'll have children when we're younger. In any case, with regard to treasuring every embryo, nature certainly doesn't do that; 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos, as far as we know, are not implanted and never become people or babies or anything else. In fact, the results of IVF are better than those of nature.

Questioner 3: In terms of consenting to genetic treatments, do embryos–or children, for that matter–have the ability to give their consent?

Ronald Bailey: I want to remind everybody in the audience that you did not give consent to be born. In fact, you did not give consent to be born with any of the genes that you have. So any embryos that parents decide to modify stand in exactly the same relation that all previous embryos have stood in.

If you think about what people are apt to do, this isn't really an issue. Would you want the person-to-be to be smarter? Well, yeah, that'd be good. Forty IQ points would be good too. Would they like to have a good immune system? Yeah, they'd like that. What about athletic ability? Yeah, OK. I think you can presume consent for most of the things that parents are going to do for their children because they're not going to try to make them worse. They're going to try to make them better.?