Science & Technology

A Guide for the Modern Prometheus

Is there a right way to transcend biology?


With everything else that's happening in the world today, debates about whether humanity should embrace as yet nonexistent technologies that could enhance our physical and intellectual abilities and someday make us "more than human" may seem frivolous. Nonetheless, a debate on "transhumanism" has been going on for the past few years, with naysayers and doomsayers on one side, optimistic futurists on the other, and too little in between.

Writing in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (a conservative think tank best known for championing the cause of "intelligent design"), falls squarely on the naysayers' side. Smith discusses a symposium, "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights," held at Stanford Law School in May, and does not like what he sees. Some speakers are obsessed with achieving immortality, and others with uplifting animals to a human level of intelligence. Some talk about changing human biology so that women could have babies without any male input and men could become biological mothers by gestating fetuses inside their bodies. Still others speak with praise of a transhumanist pioneer known as The Catman, who has undergone cosmetic surgeries to make himself look like a cat.

A lot of this sounds utopian or downright wacky, but there are plenty of people who take transhumanism seriously. There are several recent books exploring the topic, including The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by inventor Ray Kurzweil and Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution by Reason science writer Ron Bailey.

In popular culture, the desire to transcend biology—whether through genetic engineering or artificial cyber-intelligence—is almost invariably treated as a dangerous, Frankenstein-like pursuit, driven by human arrogance and recklessness and likely to have disastrous consequences. Proponents of enhancement argue that this is nothing more than a knee-jerk fear of the unknown. Bailey points out that people have been using technology to enhance their lives and their abilities from time immemorial, and there is nothing radically new about altering our bodies or our brains for that purpose. That's true, of course, but there is a big difference between wearing glasses and redesigning humans to give them an extra eye in the back of the head.

Some opposition to biotechnology is indeed rooted in knee-jerk fear of change. Smith, for instance, sees something sinister about the proposal to reduce menstruation in fertile women to four times a year and about the desire to eliminate the physical effects of aging. But the optimists ignore some disturbing implications of enhancement. One need not be a radical egalitarian to be troubled by the prospect of a society in which the affluent can add genetic enhancement to their children's advantages while the have-nots fall further behind.

The libertarian argument for genetic enhancement is that parents should be free to choose what's best for the children. Rarely considered is the possibility that some might define "best" in ways that are not only peculiar but harmful. Even leaving aside oddballs who may want their child to be a cat person, what if some people decided to breed submissive females—or boys genetically purged of competitiveness, aggressiveness, and other macho traits?

What's more, the choices may not be entirely free. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the state determines each child's genetic programming, is an unlikely future. But what about more subtle coercion? Suppose we get to the point where genetic intervention, or chemical brain modification for those already born, can reduce the risk of criminal behavior. Could parents be charged with negligence if they reject such procedures and their child commits a crime? Could a teenager with antisocial tendencies be forced to undergo the treatment? What about the scenario depicted in the film Gattaca, in which the unenhanced become an underclass, and prospective parents face tremendous social pressure to genetically engineer their children?

None of this is to call for a ban on genetic engineering research. For one thing, gene therapy targeting various diseases could alleviate much human suffering, and even improvements in the baseline—such as slowing down the aging process—could be highly beneficial. But enhancement enthusiasts tend to forget that even beneficial changes can have a downside and that life can confront us with tragic paradox. Moreover, opposition to government bans on morally problematic uses of biotechnology should not foreclose a debate about moral issues—or a voluntary decision by scientists not to go down certain paths. The abdication of moral judgment could invite intrusive laws.