Bioconservatives vs. Bioprogressives

Opposition to the technologies that make life longer, healthier, and happier creates strange bedfellows.


The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, by Jonathan D. Moreno, Bellevue Literary Press, 224 pages, $18.95

We are now living in the age of biopolitics, claims University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno in his new book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America. "Biopolitics is the nonviolent struggle for control over the actual and imagined achievements of the new biology and the new world it symbolizes," he writes. "The stakes are about as big as they can get." Moreno is right. 

Our biopolitical and bioethical struggles span human concerns from birth to death. Should embryos be tested genetically in vitro, allowing parents to implant only those they choose? What about using embryos to produce stem cells that can be transformed into tissues to repair damaged hearts and brains? Is it OK to create mice endowed with human brain cells? When is it appropriate to halt medical care for people who show no signs of minimal consciousness? 

Moreno, who has served on three presidential advisory committees as well as advising the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an excellent guide to the recent public policy battles over assisted reproduction, embryonic stem cells, cloning, predictive genetics, synthetic biology, and the application of biomedical life support. Contemporary biopolitics, Moreno argues, is disrupting the conventional left/right ideological categories. On one side stands an uneasy "bioconservative" alliance of moralizing neoconservatives and egalitarian left-wingers who fear that the new biotechnologies threaten human dignity and human equality. On the other side are "bioprogressives" who welcome the new advancements for their capacity to confer greater freedom to flourish. 

Noting how favorably the Founders viewed Enlightenment science, Moreno starts by placing our current biopolitical conflicts in historical context. "It is fair to say that no nation has ever been founded by people who were more oriented toward the pursuit and propagation of knowledge than the United States," he writes. For the last two centuries, as the old General Electric slogan puts it, progress has been America's most important product. 

In the new age of biopolitics, however, the conventional American belief that there is no contradiction between technological, material, and moral progress may be breaking down. Aside from being one of America's most prominent bioethicists, Moreno is a self-identified political progressive and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank in Washington, D.C., (which sponsored a 2007 conference organized by Moreno in which I participated). In biopolitical terms, progressives tend to style themselves as the "party of science," whereas conservatives style themselves as "the party of morality." 

In Moreno's telling, the banner of American progress was taken up and carried forward by the Progressive movement beginning in the late 19th century. Progressives were supposedly pragmatists whose policies were guided only by what worked, shaped by experts without preconceived notions. But those experts always seemed to come to the same conclusion: As prominent Progressive Herbert Croly put it in his 1909 tract The Promise of American Life, "national government must step in and discriminate…not on behalf of liberty and the special individual, but on behalf of equality and the common man." Never mind that regimes based on egalitarian ideology are precisely the ones that suppress the free inquiry required for scientific investigation.

Moreno is properly abashed by one particular Progressive "scientific" enthusiasm: eugenics. He cites Washington University in St. Louis historian Garland Allen, who writes: "Eugenics fit perfectly with Progressive ideology. Eugenicists were scientifically trained experts who sought to apply rational principles to solving the problems of antisocial and problematic behavior by seeking out the cause, in this case poor heredity." Adhering strictly to the dictates of the best "science," Progressives pushed for eugenic laws under which tens of thousands of their fellow citizens were forcibly neutered. 

Perhaps looking to spread the blame, Moreno repeats the canard that British philosopher Herbert Spencer, whose classical liberal philosophy stands in opposition to the top-down centralizing ideology propounded by Progressives, was guilty of social Darwinism because he supposedly argued against helping the "unfit" survive. Spencer actually wrote in Social Statics, "Of course, in so far as the severity of this process [natural selection] is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated." Compare that to the Progressive sympathy for the "unfit," which in some cases extended only so far as cutting their balls off—for the good of society, of course. 

To his credit, Moreno draws the right lesson from the sad history of Progressive eugenics, writing, "Biopolitical actors, especially states that possess police power, must avoid identifying with and enforcing a particular biological philosophy that could infringe on the rights of some members of society." Other modern progressives seem not to have learned this lesson. Worried that the rich will gain access to genetic enhancement technologies, they warn, as the journalist Robert Wright did in Time magazine in 1999, that "the only way to avoid Huxley­esque social stratification may be for government to get into the eugenics business." 

Where Moreno's book really shines is his analysis of the intellectual sources of neoconservative opposition to biotechnological progress. He notes that Irving Kristol and the other founders of the ideology that has come to be known as neoconservatism were disillusioned Marxists. "Neoconservative worries that alienation and commodification are caused by technology stem from a worldview that mixes Marxism with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger," Moreno argues. Indeed, neoconservative bioethical musings are filled with despairing references to commodified embryos and wombs yielding children to alienated parents. 

Bioethicist Leon Kass, the former head of President George W. Bush's controversial Council on Bioethics, also despaired that advances in biomedical technology would enable people to have "ageless bodies" and "happy souls." For Kass and other neoconservative thinkers, death and suffering are critical to the meaning of life. Biotechnological progress undermines the inevitability of mortality, thus risking human dignity. Moreno is right that while neocons "worry about the dangers of technology" they "provide no criteria for distinguishing the destructive technologies from those that do not threaten human dignity." 

In addition to these Marxian/Heideggerian worries about hubristic technology, Moreno notes, neoconservatives fear biotechnology's implications for human equality. In his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, for example, Francis Fukuyama asserted, "The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality." 

This concern about human equality is the basis for a strange-bedfellow alliance with left-wing critics of biotechnological progress such as Marcy Darnovsky, co-founder of the Center for Genetics and Society. "The techno-eugenic vision urges us, in case we still harbor vague dreams of human equality and solidarity, to get over them," wrote Darnovsky and environmental activist Tom Athanasiou in World Watch magazine back in July 2002. The two fear that advances in biotechnology will "allow inequality to be inscribed in the human genome." 

These progressive bioconservatives fear that the rich and powerful will use technology, especially biotech, to outcompete and oppress the poor and weak. In their view, human dignity depends on human equality. It turns out that "the party of science" really is just the old-fashioned "party of equality," science be damned (unless its findings conform to egalitarian ideology). Left-wing biocons seem to believe that protecting human dignity requires the rich and poor to remain equally diseased, disabled, and dead. 

"Equality is a political, not a biological concept," Moreno correctly responds. Fukuyama is wrong when he asserts that equality rests on biological facts. Instead, the ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment's insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his values and beliefs on others. In any case, there is every prospect that biotechnological progress will enhance human dignity by ameliorating rather than exacerbating physical and intellectual inequalities. For example, researchers are currently making headway toward new biopharmaceutical interventions to enhance intelligence, boost physical stamina, and retard aging, tools that can be used by anyone. Later in this century, when safe genetic engineering becomes possible, parents will be able to give their children the beneficial genes for improved health and intelligence that other children receive naturally.

Toward the end of his tour of our biopolitical discontents, Moreno makes the intriguing suggestion that "we might be allowing history to effect a sort of sleight of hand." He argues that our preoccupations with genetics and stem cells may be distracting us from where the real action is: neuroscience. Thanks to the convergence of computational science and nanotechnology, human consciousness may increasingly be embodied in machines. "The motivating idea of biopolitics has been the fear of biology without humanity," muses Moreno. "The converse, humanity without biology, might rather be what we should worry about." I look forward to his next book on neuropolitics. 

Moreno observes that bioconservative fears, both right- and left-wing, can never be wholly resolved. He adds, "But a liberal democratic society has nothing to fear and everything to gain by fostering a scientific attitude." If the idea of progress still means anything—and I think it does—it must mean moving in the direction that enables more and more individuals to flourish. In his highly readable and provocative book, Moreno makes clear that progress, including biotechnological progress, is still America's most important product.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent.

NEXT: Free Speech? Ya right: Mitch McConnell Is a Poopy-head!

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  1. You never see Godzilla poop.

    1. Well yeah, because I go in a stall, with walls to keep you from seeing me poop. And when I’m at home, I close the door to the bathroom. How many people do you really see poop on a daily basis?

      Love the picture Ron, btw. Two thumbs up.

      1. You’re just a hand puppet anyway.

        1. I thought he was a guy in a rubber suit.

          1. I am so turned on right now.

  2. Interesting story related to the bio-battle;…..cle/108641

  3. Bioethicist Leon Kass, the former head of President George W. Bush’s controversial Council on Bioethics, also despaired that advances in biomedical technology would enable people to have “ageless bodies” and “happy souls.” For Kass and other neoconservative thinkers, death and suffering are critical to the meaning of life. Biotechnological progress undermines the inevitability of mortality, thus risking human dignity.

    That bullshit absolutely makes me puke. How is withering away and dying a shriveled husk (be it from old age or disease) “dignified”? These assholes are as bad as the environmentalists in their hatred of humanity.

    1. It would be nice to think that Rand was ridiculously hyperbolic. But there are too many real life examples of her villains around.

      1. That’s exactly what I thought of after writing that. The phrase “death and suffering are critical to the meaning of life” is soul-crushing. Their meaning of life = death worship.

        1. The idea that someone would argue against happiness is disgusting. I hope Kass has a very full “human” life according to his own lights.

        2. But when you die you get to go to Heaven. Doesn’t everyone want to go to Heaven?

        3. Read a post recently, maybe on slashdot, where a guy said he suffers every day, and he’d rather keep on suffering every single day and live than to die.

          His point of view was this is it. When we die we cease to exist. I don’t think we do. But I have to agree, I want to go on living as long as possible. Whatever comes next can wait.

    2. I’ll make a deal with Leon Kass. I won’t do anything to prevent his death or suffering, no matter what else happens.

      1. Oh no, the whole point is to force your beliefs on others.

    3. Senator Byrd spent 57 years in the Senate, right until his death.

      Now imagine that he was deathless…

      Are you sure you want to live in a world where the average age of lawmakers is, say, 453?

      1. I don’t care how old the law maker is as long as there are permanent term limits.

        1. THANK YOU! Very much agreed.

          One should never require capital
          punishment for a problem where
          term limits suffice.

    4. I doubt very much Leon Kass said that, in the context it is written.

      I know neo-cons and I don’t know any who think like that. More ‘progressive’ hyperbole.

    5. Okay, I just skim read the article by Leon Kass wherein he mentions “ageless bodies” and “happy souls”.

      It is here:…..appy-souls

      It is a long complicated article, too much so to sum it up here in a sentence or two, but I can say unequivocally he doesn’t say anything like what was suggested in the the Biocon vs Bioprog article above.

      It is an interesting read, where he suggests no one can object to anyone getting healthier, but there are disquieting aspects of enhancement, notably unexpected consequences, etc.

      In other words, nothing any rational person could seriously object to, even if you don’t accept some of the things he says.

  4. “…the ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment’s insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his values and beliefs on others.” Unfortunately, today’s ‘enlightned’ Progressive/Democrat/Liberal thinkers are entirely certain that their opinions and whims are “absolute truth”. That is the basis of their claim: they are thereby given the authority to implement whatever notion comes to their minds, without regard to others’ rights or desires. That’s why the Presidents – not just this one – have ignored the Constitution when it suits their purposes, just as have judges and legislators. All the way from local governments, through the state governments and up to the federal, all the office-holders and bureaucrats believe that they and they alone possess the absolute truth and the wisdom and knowledge to impose it upon the ignorant mass of us. Well, it was a nice try, but from (relative) freedom to tyranny in 250 years is what we’ve got.

    1. I wish I could remember who said it, but the left can’t handle spontaneous order in economics, and the right can’t deal with it in biology (i.e. evolution).

    2. The real cool part of that little morsel is that Progressive/Democrat/Liberal thinkers see themselves as the heirs of the enlightenment.

    3. The ideal of political equality did not “arise from the Enlightenment’s insistence that no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his values and beliefs on others”. This is an idea from post modernism. The enlightenment never had that idea as its basis.

      Who is this writer? The article completely distorts Leon Kass’s article and tosses out nonsense like this.

  5. Biocons. Nice:) Yeah, the idea that that people are biologically equal in the first place is mind-boggling. I’d have to get a lobotomy to match some people I know. The fact is, that like with all technology, the wealthy would initially get the most benefit from biotech. Prices will drop and more and more of the technology will become available to everyone. I believe that we will continue to slowly move forward. Perhaps too slow for some, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a bad thing to be more deliberate with some of this tech.

    1. Early adopters get hosed. Wait until the problems have been worked out – you’ll get better quality and a better price.

    2. In the name of fairness and equality, your appointment is next Tuesday at 8:15 am.

  6. Our biopolitical and bioethical struggles span human concerns from birth to death. Should embryos be tested genetically in vitro . . . .

    Um, Ron, embryos start earlier than that span.

  7. Pic needs some alt text. Is Godzilla a bio-con or a bio-prog?

    1. He seems pretty pissed off a lot so I’m going to so biocon.

  8. A book I read as a kid, Janet Asimov’s ‘Mind Transfer’, had a suggestively more colorful term for bioconservatives: biofundamentalists, or ‘bioeffers’.

  9. With any luck, in the not too distant future, these bio-technologies will become as cheap and ubiquitous as microprocessors have become. Allowing everyone to take advantage. Alas, these folks will then find something else to wring their hands over.

    1. Never gonna happen. The only reason that electronics escaped was because politicians were too divorced from futurist speculation, and now it empower itself. They’re right on top of the Genetic Revolution and I bet you anything they’ll find a way to retard it.

      1. Might be hard to retard. Thankfully, the Koreans really don’t give a shit about our “moral”’ll be interesting to see how Western governments will try to curb their progress

  10. Damnable Climatards.…

    1. Um, did I SF that?…..zgbpOMfBc/

  11. “death and suffering are critical to the meaning of life”

    Horseshit. Death and suffering are critical to the people who rely on it for their livelihood, just as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson rely on perceived racism for their livelihood. Given a magic wand that would eliminate racism forever, Jackson and Sharpton would either destroy or hide the thing and do everything in their power to keep anyone from ever knowing of it’s existence, just as Kass and Fukuyama are trying to foil this ‘magic wand’.

    These are people who exploit human weakness for their living. Parasites.

  12. It also occurs to me that if Kass and co. were given access to technologies that would enhance their health and longevity, they would no more turn away from it than our friend WI is going to run off to gambol over forest and plain.
    I am betting money on it.

  13. Death is an enemy to be fought. However, he was right for the wrong reasons- it’s not that immortality would deprive us of meaning in our lives, but rather the means used to seek it is what would destroy what it means to be human.

    How so? Because the focus is on the purely physical. In vitro fertilization itself robs people of their human dignity by treating them like factory goods to be manufactured and customized at will. Happiness is good, but not if it occurs because the person’s brain chemistry has been altered to make it impossible to feel sadness or sympathy. Neither is it desirable to create a perpetual childhood by providing everyone with all their needs and easy pleasure. Another idea I have heard is for people to upload their brains into computers, but this treats the human body as something to be discarded- rather than averting death this idea welcomes it. After all, what is death but the separation of the soul from the body?

    Furthermore, scientists should refrain from attempting to make people immoral and perpetually happy because it is blasphemous folly. What they propose is impossible, and it will instead rob people of their humanity. The world is a valley of tears, and while science can mitigate human suffering, abolishing suffering is an impossible task. Physician, heal thyself! We welcome a world without suffering and sadness, injustice and death, but that is not what your plans would deliver. You may indeed be able to double the human life span, but technology does not grant eternal salvation. Heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry and clothe the naked, relieve the many sufferings of your fellow humans, and may a man who lives but 100 years be thought do have died young, but do not imagine that you can by technology make this mortal race immortal and impassible, for those who fail to heed that warning will destroy themselves trying to follow that path.

  14. NAZI Schmucks.

    Who gets to be part of the new master race? You? Me? Think again.

  15. How is life produced in a lab protected from being made a commodity if the only life made in a lab is by law a commodity?

    In any case, if disease or pain or old age steals our dignity, how does eliminating those things through pre-emptive death restore dignity? We can kill the imperfect fetus and determine who else is beyond dignity and not have those unlovely and inconvenient people around us, but nothing has been solved. It’s not wrong to explain that death and suffering are an important part of being human and should be valued. We live in a culture that applies “life not worth living” to so many.

    But I think that those who tend social-con are wrong in thinking that the solution is to try to hold back the tide instead of affirming the humanity and *desirability* of what are now legally laboratory materials.

    And the macabre specter of a person expecting a cure for his or her mortality gotten by creating life in a lab for the purpose of killing it is simply gross. It’s the evil witch in a fairy tale that captures little girls and murders them so she can stay eternally young. Nothing wrong with wanting to stay young. Nothing wrong with wanting a cure. But human is human, alive is alive, and making new life in order to make a sacrifice for old life goes no where good.

    If nothing else, in practical terms, it requires that we maintain that our lab materials are merely commodities. And that keeps us from cloning or experimenting on people *as* people because it’s set the baseline of commodification. Instead of finding out how to defeat aging, we’ll be stuck on anti-wrinkle cream made from ground up proto-humans.

  16. From the article: “Instead, the ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment’s insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his values and beliefs on others.”

    Why does *everyone* get this wrong. We don’t recognize each other’s rights because they are equal down to the last personality quirk. We don’t recognize each other’s rights because we’re *ignorant* (my God, is that a no-win battle, or what?) We don’t (or, at least, *shouldn’t*) recognize each other’s rights because of weakness and interdependence in our position.

    I don’t understand why almost no one, liberal, conservative, whatever, seems to arrive at a conclusion that seems one of the few sane ones to me:
    That we recognize each other’s rights because we all have motives of our *own*, and for civilization to exist without us being at war with each other, de-facto or de-jure, we need to respect each other’s rights to pursue those goals, as long as they don’t violate the rights of others.

    That’s also why Eugenics was evil ? not because it wouldn’t work, but because it treated the lives of people’s children as means to someone else’s end.

    Well, qualification on that last point:
    Not that it wouldn’t work if it truly was administered by disinterested technocrats ? we do, after all, understand the principles of selective breeding by now. But then, when you’ve set up a war over whose children get to survive, you can’t find too many disinterested monsters to run your programs, and are left with very interested and politically skewed criteria.

    If barely anyone can understand this, then the country *won’t* navigate these moral issues well at all. Nazis to one side, Neo-clericists to the other.

  17. “Equality is a political, not a biological concept,” Moreno correctly responds. Fukuyama is wrong when he asserts that equality rests on biological facts.”
    Then “In any case, there is every prospect that biotechnological progress will enhance human dignity by ameliorating rather than exacerbating physical and intellectual inequalities. For example, researchers are currently making headway toward ….”

    So, it is biology afterall.

    As homosexual behavior is an evolutionary dead end non diversifying activity there may be a way to mitigate this activity as the scientific basis for it found out.

    Also, to a reasonable degree, rights are recognized and accepted (we can say it is from the divine creator or gov’t creator as the left would like it to be) as society recognize it as a right based on self interest as one comment pointed out already.

  18. Nothing wrong with political equality – no one “knows” the entire truth and only the truth. The rest of the egalitarian movement is just a wedge to introduce tyranny of the few in any of its innumerable disguises.

    I suppose biotech like new things in general will tend to enhance the lives and also the power of those already well off and powerful first ? what else would one expect than that the rich and powerful would have at least better access to anything desirable than the average person? As long as government refuses to be used to grant them a MONOPOLY on it based on force, market forces and human desires will combine to spread it around.

    I remember the first real computer I got to play with?it cost over a billion dollars and that was FORTY FIVE YEARS AGO when a billion was “real” money, kind of like 20 billion today. Pretty much the same, or even greater, ability now is found in an iPod. I rest my case.

  19. Just to be clear…everyone here does realize this is all science fiction? Right?

    We can’t cure the common cold. There have been very few real medical breakthroughs ever. Penicillin, insulin, some great surgery techniques….not much else. Most diseases that were around when I was a kid are still there. If you get MS, and you have a certain type, you end up not walking. Not much change there. Not much change in Parkinson’s. And, so on. A tremendous amount of hype, and very little substance.

    Ever read the real numbers on Statins? Not too impressive. Ever met anyone who was depressed who became undepressed after years of SSRIs? I haven’t either.

    We’re not even remotely close to understanding some of the most simple things about our bodies. All this bioprog vs biocon stuff is people arguing about angels on the heads of pins, but the modern version.

  20. From centuries White skinned European Christians `s psyche based on fear so Eugenics movement in roots of western culture has long and unsavory history with deep roots in their culture came forward time to time.I think ghost of Hitler till lingering in mind of white race

  21. The fear of biotechnology engendering inequality is not supported by the history of recent technology. Not long ago, you had to be rich to own a cell-phone. And now? And who is connected to the Internet? Biological enhancement already exists – it’s called plastic surgery. Is breast-enhancement a luxury “enjoyed” only by societal elites?

  22. To very slightly paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the worst fear of classical man was an inglorious death. The worst fear of medieval man was an unshriven death. The worst fear of modern man is just death.

  23. There is nothing new under the sun. I am sure that when a monkey A used a twig to pull some termits out of the ground, monkeys B, C and D started complaining about mortal danger to monkey dignity and such.

  24. Kass argues for moral restraint, not government restraint. Libertarians who don’t see the difference end up siding with big-government leftists. Reason magazine and Moreno — strange bedfellows indeed!

  25. So what exactly is wrong with eugenics such that it is dismissed so off-handedly? As with any form of regulation, abuses are possible, but to deny the legitimacy of eugenics altogether requires more argument than provided.

    To the point: Why is a license required to drive, but no qualification at all is involved for the right to add one’s spawn to the world? Surely the latter right is generally of far greater effect and consequence.

  26. The term “neoconservative” is used several times in the article. I’m familiar with the meaning of this term in the context of foreign policy. What does it mean in the context of bioethics? “Neo” in what way – are these repentant Transhumanism advocates?

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