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.