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The Cellular Apocalypse. the Believer

The Cellular Apocalypse. the Believer

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Published by Carl Elliott
The downside of our transhuman biotech future.
The downside of our transhuman biotech future.

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Published by: Carl Elliott on Nov 24, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/13/2013

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A
few years ago Iwatched
Invasionof the Body Snatchers
with myson,Crawford.Craw-ford was only six yearsold at the time,maybe a little young for ahorror movie,but he is not an easily frightened kid.He hardly blinked at the velociraptors in
 Jurassic Park,
and when we watched Lon Chaney Jr.transform intothe Wolfman he laughed out loud.I expected him toreact the same way to
Body Snatchers
.But I was wrong.Crawford had nightmares for weeks.He wasn’t afraidof the harrowing car chases or the pods appearingmysteriously in cellars.What terrified him was thecreepy,glass-eyed serenity of the people whose bodieshad been snatched.They looked likehumans,they acted like humans,they evenremembered what it was like to be human. Yet they were pod people,and—most ter-rifying of all—they had no regrets abouttheir transformation.When I asked Craw-ford what was giving him nightmares,he would do adead-on imitation of a pod person,eyes empty,a vac-uous grin on his face,repeating in a flat monotone,“It’s
better 
this way.”Many people these days are having the same reactionto the prospect of human genetic enhancement.Theyfear that even as we attempt to engineer ourselves to besmarter,better-looking,and longer-lived,we will losesomething essential to who we are.Leon Kass,chairman
65
CARL ELLIOTT
THE CELLULAR APOCALYPSE
OUR BIOTECH FUTURE MIGHT BE A TRANSHUMAN PARADISEOF ENDLESS PLASTICITY AND FULFILLMENT.BUT THE FLIPSIDEOF UNCONSTRAINED GENETIC MANIPULATION MIGHT BETHE PROLIFERATION OF MEANINGLESSNESS.
D
ISCUSSED
:Velociraptors,Extropy,American Quasireligions,The Singularity,Meaning and Identity,Fried Okra,Parents as Engineers,Margaret Atwood,Cannibal-Animals,Ritualized Fellatio,Voluntary Limb Amputation,Cro-Magnon Ideologues,Hooray for Bestiality,Michael Sandel,Dolly,Jürgen Habermas,The Grown and The Made,Pod People,Instruments and Ends
Illustration by Tony Millionaire 
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of the President’s Council onBioethics,believes that geneticmanipulation will rob us of our dig-nity,and the Council itself is exam-ining the ethics of such technolo-gies.Francis Fukuyama,anotheCouncil member and the author of 
Our Posthuman Future 
,argues thatgenetic enhancement will destroyhuman nature.It is not just socialconservatives who are worried.In
Enough:Staying Human in an Engi-neered Age 
,the environmentalist BillMcKibben argues that geneticenhancement will signal the end of human meaning altogether.These worries are not hard tounderstand.Yet many other peopledon’t share them at all,or even thedeeper intuitions about loss andartificiality that motivate them.Many people seem positivelythrilled at the prospect of surren-dering their human nature tosomething else—bionic bodyparts,virtual sex,transformativesurgery,extreme body modifica-tion,cryonic immortality,or eter-nal consciousness on a computer hard drive.Genetic enhancement?Bring it on,say the transhuman-ists,cyberfeminists,cryonicists,andassorted technophiles,wavingtheir copies of William Gibson’s
Neuromancer 
and Donna Haraway’s
The Cyborg Manifesto
.The techno-philes have found allies in thepharmaceutical and biotechnologyindustries (who look at geneticsand see money),some universityscientists (who look at geneticsand see a research program),mar-ket ideologues,and libertarians(who look at any government reg-ulation of genetics as a threat toindividual liberty and free trade).“It’s better this way,repeat thetechnophiles (usually by email)and they are no less certain of themselves than the techno-skeptics.If you don’t feel at leastsome of the gut-level repugnanceshared by writers like Kass andFukuyama,their appeals to humannature and dignity will probablyleave you unmoved.Debates over the ethics of genetic enhancement are not new,of course.The eugenicists were stir-ring this particular pot over a cen-tury ago,and nobody has forgottenthe trouble they cooked up.Sowhen the architects of the HumanGenome Project announced in thelate eighties that 3 to 5 percent of their multi-billion-dollar budgetwould fund work on ethical andlegal concerns,the philosopheArthur Caplan called theannouncement “the full employ-ment act for bioethicists.Caplanwas right.A decade or so later,thecollected writings of bioethicistson genetics would fill a smalllibrary.Yet the people waging thecurrent public debate over geneticenhancement are not,in the main,professional bioethicists.Nor arethey paying the bioethicists muchattention.(Full employment is notthe same as influence.) Today’srhetoric tends to be either utopianor apocalyptic,depending on theideology of the writer,and thestakes at issue are the very core of humanity itself.We are being askedto imagine:What would it mean tobecome posthuman?
A
few years ago,I organ-ized a small researchmeeting at UniversityCollege London.For several years Ihad been part of a handful of aca-demics working on the ethics of “enhancement technologies,”courtesy of a grant from a Can-adian humanities council,and wehad been meeting three times a year in different places,often atMcGill University in Montreal,where I used to teach,to talk aboutmedical technologies such asProzac,Ritalin,sex reassignmentsurgery,gene therapy,and cosmeticsurgery.Usually we would alsoinvite three or four guests,includ-ing an expert in one of the tech-nologies we were discussing.But at this meeting in London,a guest turned up whom no oneknew.He seemed pleasant enough,and each of us simply assumed thatsomeone else in the group hadinvited him.He introduced himself as Nick Bostrom.He told us thathe was originally from Sweden,that he was finishing a Ph.D.inphilosophy at the London Schoolof Economics,and that he was partof a group who called themselves“transhumanists.No one else inthe room had ever heard of a trans-humanist before.It turns out that Bostrom is notmerely a transhumanist.He is afounder and current president of the World Transhumanist As-sociation,an international organi-zation dedicated to transcendingthe human condition throughtechnology.Transhumanists em-brace life extension,artificial intel-
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ligence,psychopharmacology,ge-netic enhancement,and space col-onization.The Transhumanist Dec-laration,a manifesto for the move-ment,states:“We foresee the feasi-bility of redesigning the humancondition,including such parame-ters as the inevitability of aging,limitations of human and artificialintellects,unchosen psychology,suffering,and our confinement toplanet earth.”The transhumanists have amixed intellectual lineage.Oneforebear is the late FM-2030 (for-merly F.M.Esfandiary),whobegan using the term “trans-human”while teaching at theNew School for Social Researchin the 1960s.Another is RobertEttinger,whose 1964 book
The Prospect of Immortality
inspired thecryonics movement in California.(The cryonicists,you may recall,made the national press again last year when plans were revealed tofreeze the head of baseball star TedWilliams.) A third is Max More(formerly Max O’Connor),aBritish libertarian and cryonicsadvocate who founded theExtropy Institute in California in1992.The term “transhuman”isshorthand for “transitionalhuman,a step along the path tobecoming “posthuman.Posthu-mans are beings whose capacitiesare so vastly superior to our ownthat they are best thought of as adifferent kind of entity.As Bostromexplains,“As a posthuman youwould be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as weare to other primates.”Why is an organization thatsounds so frankly loony worthpaying attention to? For onething,as odd as the transhumanistsmay sound,they sit just this sideof academic respectability.Bos-trom is a research fellow in phi-losophy at Oxford University,and James Hughes,secretary of theWorld Transhumanist Association,has a Ph.D.in sociology from theUniversity of Chicago.He lec-tures on public policy at TrinityCollege in Connecticut.Othetranshumanists have similar cre-dentials,and many of their ideasare shared by mainstream bio-ethicists.Genetic enhancement,for example,has been advocatedwith varying degrees of cautionand thoughtfulness by Lee Silver at Princeton,LeRoy Walters atGeorgetown,Gregory Stock atUCLA,John Harris at Manches-ter University and JonathanGlover at Kings College London.
From Chance to Choice 
,a bookauthored by a group of senior IvyLeague philosophers sometimesreferred to as “The Dans”(DanBrock,Dan Wikler,NormanDaniels,and Allen “Call Me Dan”Buchanan),is widely regarded asthe most philosophically sophisti-cated take on genetic enhance-ment,and it recommends a policyof cautious permission.In June2003,the World TranshumanistAssociation sponsored an interna-tional conference with academicbioethicists at Yale University,titled “The Adaptable HumanBody:Transhumanism and Bio-ethics in the 21st Century.” Yet the most interesting thingabout the transhumanists is notwho they are but what they standfor.Perhaps they’re loopy,but theyhave a fascinating way of beingloopy.Like most fringe groups,which are never really completelyon the fringe,the transhumanistsrepresent an exaggeration of ele-ments that are widely felt in other areas of American life:libertarianpolitics,utopian idealism,and aquasireligious faith in technology.(In fact,when transhumanists starttalking about an apocalypticend-time called the Singularity—amysterious convergence of tech-nological developments that willtransform the world beyondrecognition—they can sound verymuch like a cult.) When main-stream bioethicists think aboutgenetic enhancement,they usuallythink about medicine:What arethe proper goals of medical prac-tice,how do we distinguishbetween therapy and enhance-ment,is it OK for doctors to pre-scribe medical treatments toreduce shame or stigma? Buttranshumanists come at geneticenhancement from a completelydifferent place.For them,geneticenhancement is part of a larger individual quest for superiorityand transcendence.Their parallelscome from the world of cyborgs,virtual reality,and nanotech-nology.They don’t seem especiallyattached to the idea of beinghuman,or to human activities,or to anything rooted in a particular time or place.Maybe they havespent a little too much time play-
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