Posted on June 19th, 2010 1 comment
Abstract: This is a research based essay which argues the impact of these technologies is not only unavoidable, but also that restrictions placed on their advancement are counterproductive and unhealthy to the species as a whole.
Posthumanism.com defines posthumanism as a view that our society should be compelled to explore technological methods to enable modification of ourselves, in a safe and ethical manner. Supporters of these ideas want to make such technologies available to all individuals. The argument is that exploration of these new possibilities, while inherently dangerous, is essential to our natural growth as a species. The biotechnology revolution being realized by breakthroughs in the modern scientific community, for good or bad, will have profound effects on how we define ourselves and our humanity.
As medical technology improves the average human lifespan increases. Where it was once common to die before age 40, today this is considered to be completely unacceptable. Diseases and injuries, which for previous generations meant certain death, now have practical and effective treatments. We owe a great deal of our health to the advances of previous generations and the effects are cumulative. As advances in medical treatment continue, it seems very likely that the lifespans of future generations may be significantly longer than our own.
Cambridge researcher, Aubrey de Grey, believes that aging can be considered to be nothing more than a curable disease. De Grey comments, “Metabolism, which is defined as basically everything that keeps us alive from one day to the next, has side effects. Those side effects accumulate and eventually cause pathology.” (Grey,2005) Tackling the question of whether we should attempt to subvert aging, De Grey believes that it would be immoral to deprive future generations of technology which could dramatically increase their life expectancy and quality of life.
At the same conference a few years earlier biotech ethicist Gregory Stock spoke out against interest groups who would seek to ban research into controversial biotech projects. “We are biological creatures. What we can do with our biology is going to shape our future and that of our children, whether we gain control over aging, whether we learn to protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.”(Stock, 2003)
At the same time, Stock does not take the effects of such changes lightly. He goes on to say, “We are sort of circumventing evolutionary programs that guide our behavior. It’s going to be very challenging to deal with.” Stock acknowledges, however, that progress that benefits so many, is simply inevitable. “When something is feasible in thousands of laboratories all over the world, when there are large numbers of people who see them as beneficial, and when they are almost impossible to police, it’s not a question of if this is going to happen, it’s when and how is it going to happen.” (Stock, 2003)
Biotech implementation in the food production industry is one of the many changes civilization as a whole must contend with. Food companies face several complexities in gaining acceptance from the public. Genetically enhancing crops involves introducing genes from one plant or bacteria into another in combinations not found in nature, and as such, many believe it can never be proven entirely safe (Weise,2010). Supporters of genetically modified food products claim that to not harness these technologies is simply wasteful.
Making research into important biotech fields illegal, restricts such technologies to the wealthy who are more able to circumvent such laws. This process could serve to divide humanity instead of the more preferable advancement of society as a whole. Society itself defines what is ethical and frequently modifies this definition to suit a changing world to which the society, being comprised of human animals, is obligated to adapt to. If benefits of a technology massively outweigh potential downfalls to society and the individuals within it, to ignore those benefits is purely negligent.
In 2009, Juan Enriquez gave this example:
A woman in Spain who was dying of tuberculosis, received a donor trachea. They took all the cells off the trachea, spraypainted her stem cells on to that cartilage and regrew her own trachea, which was then implanted. She’s now running around with her kids again.(Enriquez, 2009)
Moral Implications of Genetic Engineering
Given the possibilities involved with embracing new technologies, it is easy to understand why people and organizations may be apprehensive about the magnitude of the potential downfalls. It is often speculated that continued pursuit of technological advantages, will somehow spoil humanity and lead to a trivialization of intrinsic moral values. In popular science fiction media, tales abound with fatalistic prophecies of future generations living in bliss, only to discover they have lost some trait along the way that defined their humanity. This tells us a great deal about our concept of the future, our fear that we will be punished for embracing our own innovations and the idea that society does not have the right to intelligently influence its evolution.
Nick Bostrom, of Oxford University, says that this is merely speculation and that speculation is important for risk management. “We will then begin to evaluate our offspring according to standards of quality control, and this will undermine the ethical ideal of unconditional acceptance of children, no matter what their abilities and traits. Is the quest for perfection worth this cultural and moral cost? A trans-humanist should not dismiss such concerns as irrelevant. We do not want parents to love and respect their children less “(Bostrom, 2003). Bostrom goes on to show the other side of the issue by considering the possibilities in a more optimistic light.
We might speculate, instead, that enhancements will lead to more love and parental dedication. Some parents might find it easier to love a child who, thanks to enhancements, is bright, beautiful, healthy, and happy. The practice of germ-line enhancement might lead to better treatment of people with disabilities, because a decreased incidence of some disabilities could lead to more assistance being available for the remaining affected people to enable them to live full, unrestricted lives through various technological and social supports.(Bostrom, 2003)
When there are so many obvious benefits, tainted only by minuscule possibilities of avoidable and manageable downfalls, the intent and morality of fostering drastic lifestyle improvements for an entire species seems much less sinister. The fact that we are capable of foreseeing these complex issues and are aware of the potential for negative impact strengthens the argument that society is prepared to take proactive control over its genetics. Advocates for post-humanity do not suggest a leap headlong into dangerous technologies, but rather a conscience and thoughtful approach to embracing self improvements through non traditional means.
According to Sky Marsen, a lifelong human, the reason why we should be inclined to improve ourselves via biotechnology is a fairly obvious and simple one. “We could say that one reason that humans search for perfection, and for what the spiritually inclined would call transcendence, is because they are not only aware of suffering (arguably most animals are), but also, and more importantly, because they critically reflect on their suffering, and can recognize and reflect on the suffering of others. Deliberately changing what we are means, in many ways, letting go of what makes us suffer. “(Marsen, 2008)
So how do we decide what is morally acceptable to research and who should be in charge of such decisions? Governments already regulate such things, but society should be wary of allowing big brother to make these decisions for them.
One thing that can be said for adopting a libertarian stance in regard to human reproduction is the sorry track record of socially planned attempts to improve the human gene pool. The list of historical examples of state intervention in this domain ranges from the genocidal horrors of the Nazi regime, to the incomparably milder but still disgraceful semi-coercive sterilization programs of mentally impaired individuals favored by many well-meaning socialists in the past century, to the controversial but perhaps understandable program of the current Chinese government to limit population growth. In each case, state policies interfered with the reproductive choices of individuals. If parents had been left to make the choices for themselves, the worst transgressions of the eugenics movement would not have occurred (Marsen, 2008).
The only morally dangerous ground faced here, is the potential for the commoner to lose authority over their bodies in the name of social regulation. Using legislation to prohibit technology which could improve human life does not protect society from anything, it merely assures that society will be restricted in its progress.
Benefits of Change
Genetic engineering is already being used today. Micro-organisms are modified to create pharmaceuticals which would not exist otherwise. Waste and pollution can be cleaned by a process called remediation which uses living organisms engineered to consume the waste. It is also being used to treat genetic disorders and cancer. Agriculture is also benefiting from decreased need for pesticides and more resilient crop breeds.(Shandilya) Most notably, however, is the potential to use gene therapy to treat or prevent diseases.
In humans, the most promising benefit of genetic engineering is gene therapy which is the medical treatment of a disease wherein the defective genes are repaired and replaced or therapeutic genes are introduced to fight the disease. Over the past decade, many autoimmune and heart diseases have been treated using gene therapy. Certain diseases like the Huntington’s disease, ALS and cystic fibrosis is caused by defective genes. There is hope that a cure for such diseases can be found by either inserting the corrected gene or modifying the defective gene. Eventually, the hope is to completely eliminate genetic diseases and also treat non-genetic diseases with appropriate gene therapy.(Shandilya)
The list of genetic diseases which affect humans is numerous. Cystic fibrosis disables the afflicted and leads to a gradual death. Down syndrome affects the cognitive abilities and facial traits. Canavan disease damages the nerve cells of the brain. Neurofibromatosis causes tumors to develop throughout the tissue of the body(Pakhare). If we could potentially develop treatment for those with genetic disorders, their quality of life would be considerably improved.
Genetic advances are already being used to ensure future healthy generations. Expecting mothers have their developing fetuses screened for common genetic disorders. “These screenings can help the parents and doctors prepare for the arrival of the child who may have special needs during or after the delivery. A possible future benefit of genetic engineering which is very eagerly awaited is that a fetus with a genetic defect could be treated with genetic therapy even before it is born.”(Shandilya)
Studies also exist which suggest some mental illnesses and personality traits to be hereditary, from the subtle behaviors of twins, to complex mental conditions like schizophrenia.(Vaknin)
When we are born, we are not much more than the sum of our genes and their manifestations. Our brain – a physical object – is the residence of mental health and its disorders. Mental illness cannot be explained without resorting to the body and, especially, to the brain. And our brain cannot be contemplated without considering our genes. Thus, any explanation of our mental life that leaves out our hereditary makeup and our neurophysiology is lacking. Such lacking theories are nothing but literary narratives. Psychoanalysis, for instance, is often accused of being divorced from corporeal reality. (Vaknin)
It seems there is virtually no end to the benefits offered by genetic engineering. People often ask, if you could change one thing about yourself, what would you change? Perhaps future, less inhibited, generations will ask instead, if you could change everything about yourself, why wouldn’t you?
Healing the seriously ill and curing the blind are generally regarded as miraculous or impossible acts. Technology, however, has a keen way of turning old magic into new reality.
Scientists have made great strides in certain areas of experimental testing, the most recent involving Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a rare type of blindness that affects approximately 2,000 Americans. Currently, there is no known treatment for the disease which occurs in infancy and can cause severe loss of vision, particularly at night. (Mortimer)
Armed with gene therapy and the ability to engineer function specific organisms, society has reached a point where it is actually empowered to decide which maladies to eliminate.
The value of the human experience is directly proportional to our ability to understand ourselves. While new knowledge consistently presents a multitude of new obstacles, those obstacles are miniscule in comparison to the benefits we gain from learning more about our potential. Many technologically minded people find it easy to agree that humans are irrevocably drawn into a much closer relationship with their tools as those tools become more useful. It would be logical to conclude that as their usefulness continues to grow, their influence on our lives becomes exponentially greater. By the same logic, the line between ourselves and our technology would become increasingly difficult to recognize and would eventually fade away forever. It is my contention, that this is the natural evolution of our kind and is perfectly normal.
Bostrom, N. (2003). Human genetic enhancements: a trans-humanist perspective.
Journal of Value Inquiry, 37(4), Retrieved from http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/genetic.html
de Grey, A. (2005). Aubrey de Grey says we can avoid aging.
Proceedings of the T.E.D. Global 2005, Retrieved May 27, 2010, from
Enriquez, J. (2009). Juan Enriquez shares mindboggling science.
Proceedings of the T.E.D. 2009, Retrieved May 27, 2010, from
Marsen, S. (2008). Becoming more than human: technology and the post-human condition.
Journal of Evolution and Technology, 19(1), Retrieved from http://jetpress.org/v19/marsen.htm
Mortimer, P. (n.d.). Gene therapy may reverse blindness. Retrieved from
Pakhare, J. (n.d.). Genetic diseases: list of genetic disorders. Retrieved from
Shandilya, A. (n.d.). Benefits of genetic engineering.
Stock, G. (2003). To upgrade is human. Proceedings of the T.E.D. 2003,
Retrieved May 27, 2010, from http://www.ted.com/talks/gregory_stock_to_upgrade_is_human.html
Vaknin, S. (n.d.). Genetics and personality disorders.
Weise, E. (2010, March 17). Technology creates a standoff on farms.
USA Today, 7347456, 1d.
Posted on October 26th, 2009 No comments
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