The Cellular Apocalypse

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

The Cellular Apocalypse

Carl Elliott
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A  few years ago I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers with my son, Crawford. Crawford was only six years old at the time, maybe a little young for a horror 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 into the Wolfman he laughed out loud. I expected him to react the same way to Body Snatchers. But I was wrong. Crawford had nightmares for weeks. He wasn’t afraid of the harrowing car chases or the pods appearing mysteriously in cellars. What terrified him was the creepy, glass-eyed serenity of the people whose bodies had been snatched. They looked like humans, they acted like humans, they even remembered what it was like to be human. Yet they were pod people, and—most terrifying of all—they had no regrets about their transformation. When I asked Crawford what was giving him nightmares, he would do a dead-on imitation of a pod person, eyes empty, a vacuous grin on his face, repeating in a flat monotone, “It’s better this way.”

Many people these days are having the same reaction to the prospect of human genetic enhancement. They fear that even as we attempt to engineer ourselves to be smarter, better-looking, and longer-lived, we will lose something essential to who we are. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, believes that genetic manipulation will rob us of our dignity, and the Council itself is examining the ethics of such technologies. Francis Fukuyama, another Council member and the author of Our Posthuman Future, argues that genetic enhancement will destroy human nature. It is not just social conservatives who are worried. In Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, the environmentalist Bill McKibben argues that genetic enhancement will signal the end of human meaning altogether.

These worries are not hard to understand. Yet many other people don’t share them at all, or even the deeper intuitions about loss and artificiality that motivate them. Many people seem positively thrilled at the prospect of surrendering their human nature to something else—bionic body parts, virtual sex, transformative surgery, extreme body modification, cry­onic immortality, or eternal consciousness on a computer hard drive. Genetic enhancement? Bring it on, say the transhumanists, cyberfeminists, cryonicists, and assorted technophiles, waving their copies of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Donna Haraway’s The Cyborg Manifesto. The techno­philes have found allies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries (who look at genetics and see money), some university scientists (who look at genetics and see a research program), market ideologues, and libertarians (who look at any government regulation of genetics as a threat to individual liberty and free trade). “It’s better this way,” repeat the technophiles (usually by email) and they are no less certain of themselves than the techno-­skeptics. If you don’t feel at least some of the gut-level repugnance shared by writers like Kass and Fukuyama, their appeals to human nature and dignity will probably leave you unmoved.

Debates over the ethics of genetic enhancement are not new, of course. The eugenicists were stirring this particular pot over a century ago, and nobody has forgotten the trouble they cooked up. So when the architects of the Human Genome Project an­nounced in the late eighties that 3 to 5 percent of their multi-billion-dollar budget would fund work on ethical and legal concerns, the philosopher Arthur Caplan called the announcement “the full employment act for bioethicists.” Caplan was right. A decade or so later, the collected writings of bioethicists on genetics would fill a small library. Yet the people waging the current public debate over genetic enhancement are not, in the main, professional bioethicists. Nor are they paying the bio­ethicists much attention. (Full employment is not the same as influence.) Today’s rhetoric tends to be either utopian or apocalyptic, depending on the ideology of the writer, and the stakes at issue are the very core of humanity itself. We are being asked to imagine: What would it mean to become posthuman?


A  few years ago, I organized a small research meeting at University College London. For several years I had been part of a handful of academics working on the ethics of “enhancement technologies,” courtesy of a grant from a Can­adian humanities council, and we had been meeting three times a year in different places, often at McGill University in Montreal, where I used to teach, to talk about medical technologies such as Prozac, Ritalin, sex reassignment surgery, gene therapy, and cosmetic surgery. Usually we would also invite three or four guests, including an expert in one of the technologies we were discussing.

But at this meeting in London, a guest turned up whom no one knew. He seemed pleasant enough, and each of us simply assumed that someone else in the group had invited him. He introduced himself as Nick Bostrom. He told us that he was originally from Sweden, that he was finishing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the London School of Economics, and that he was part of a group who called themselves “transhumanists.” No one else in the room had ever heard of a trans­humanist before.

It turns out that Bostrom is not merely a transhumanist. He is a founder and current president of the World Transhumanist As­sociation, an international organization dedicated to transcending the human condition through technology. Transhumanists em­brace life extension, artificial intelligence, psychopharmacology, ge­netic enhancement, and space colonization. The Transhumanist Declaration, a manifesto for the movement, states: “We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations of human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to planet earth.”

The transhumanists have a mixed intellectual lineage. One forebear is the late FM-2030 (formerly F. M. Esfandiary), who began using the term “trans­human” while teaching at the New School for Social Research in the 1960s. Another is Robert Ettinger, whose 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality inspired the cryonics movement in California. (The cryonicists, you may recall, made the national press again last year when plans were revealed to freeze the head of baseball star Ted Williams.) A third is Max More (formerly Max O’Connor), a British libertarian and cryonics advocate who founded the Extropy Institute in California in 1992. The term “transhuman” is shorthand for “transitional human,” a step along the path to becoming “posthuman.” Posthumans are beings whose capacities are so vastly superior to our own that they are best thought of as a different kind of entity. As Bostrom explains, “As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates.”

Why is an organization that sounds so frankly loony worth paying attention to? For one thing, as odd as the transhumanists may sound, they sit just this side of academic respectability. Bos­trom is a research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University, and James Hughes, secretary of the World Transhumanist Association, has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He lectures on public policy at Trinity College in Connecticut. Other transhumanists have similar credentials, and many of their ideas are shared by mainstream bio­ethicists. Genetic enhancement, for example, has been advocated with varying degrees of caution and thoughtfulness by Lee Silver at Princeton, LeRoy Walters at Georgetown, Gregory Stock at UCLA, John Harris at Manchester University and Jonathan Glover at Kings College London. From Chance to Choice, a book authored by a group of senior Ivy League philosophers sometimes referred to as “The Dans” (Dan Brock, Dan Wikler, Norman Daniels, and Allen “Call Me Dan” Buchanan), is widely regarded as the most philosoph­ically sophisticated take on genetic enhancement, and it recommends a policy of cautious permission. In June 2003, the World Transhum­anist Association sponsored an international conference with academic bioethicists at Yale University, titled “The Adaptable Human Body: Transhumanism and Bio­ethics in the 21st Century.”

Yet the most interesting thing about the transhumanists is not who they are but what they stand for. Perhaps they’re loopy, but they have a fascinating way of being loopy. Like most fringe groups, which are never really completely on the fringe, the transhumanists represent an exaggeration of elements that are widely felt in other areas of American life: libertarian politics, utopian idealism, and a quasireligious faith in technology. (In fact, when transhumanists start talking about an apocalyptic end-time called the Singularity—a mysterious convergence of technological developments that will transform the world beyond recognition—they can sound very much like a cult.) When mainstream bioethicists think about genetic enhancement, they usually think about medicine: What are the proper goals of medical practice, how do we distinguish between therapy and enhancement, is it OK for doctors to prescribe medical treatments to reduce shame or stigma? But trans­humanists come at genetic enhancement from a completely different place. For them, genetic enhancement is part of a larger individual quest for superiority and transcendence. Their parallels come from the world of cyborgs, virtual reality, and nano­tech­nology. They don’t seem especially attached to the idea of being human, or to human activities, or to anything rooted in a particular time or place. Maybe they have spent a little too much time playing computer games and reading science-fiction novels, but they are not as far out of the mainstream as they may seem.

That, I suspect, is precisely what worries the conservatives on the President’s Council on Bioethics. Having finished its report on human cloning, the Council has turned its attention to a project with the working title “Beyond Therapy.” That title is intended to suggest a wide range of quasi-medical interventions that go beyond the traditional therapeutic role of medicine and are sometimes known as enhancement tech­nologies—anti-aging therapies, psychoactive drugs, and most significantly, genetic en­hancement. When Council member Fukuyama published Our Posthuman Future last year, he built his arguments around preserving the very thing that the trans­humanists want to leave behind—human nature. For Fukuyama, the alarming thing about genetic enhancement is the threat of altering the very core of what makes us human. Once we take control of our own genetic constitution, replacing Darwin’s natural selection with our own desires, we may replace the natural attributes that connect us to our ancestors and our descendants. In fact, we may lose the very things that make us who we are.

Why does this matter? For Fukuyama, it matters because human nature is the basis for human morality. All humans have a special set of natural attributes that serve as the basis for their moral standing. Fukuyama calls these attributes, somewhat cryptically, Factor X. If a being does not have Factor X, it has no moral status, and humans are free to exploit or manipulate it. Fukuyama writes, “You can cook, eat, torture, enslave, or render the carcass of any creature lacking Factor X, but if you do the same thing to a human being, you are guilty of a ‘crime against humanity.’” Meddle with human nature, and you are meddling with the very things that make human beings worthy of respect.

Of course, this is the kind of argument that only a political scientist could love. For a start, it is simply not the case that we think it is fine to do anything we want to nonhumans. Not only is torturing animals not morally OK; when ten-year-olds do it, they get an appointment with a child psych­iatrist and a file marked “potential psychopath.” Unnecessary cruelty to animals will make almost any sensitive person flinch. Many people don’t eat meat because they don’t think animals should suffer unnecessarily, and in many cultures, certain animals are treated with special respect or even reverence. Being human may be special, it is true—but not as special as Fuku­yama thinks.

The phrase “human nature” usually raises red flags for liberals, partly because of what it has been used to justify in the past. Often human nature turns out not to mean anything much about humans in general, but about a particular way of being human that conservatives want to defend—hetero­sexuality, family values, the women at home with the kids, and so on. More generally, defenders of human nature often fail to recognize the cultural and historical variability of the practices they claim are natural. “Natural” rarely means Navaho berdaches, Balinese trance states, or ritualized fellatio in Papua New Guinea.

Fukuyama understands this, and his take on human nature is rather different. He is worried that biotechnology could be used to make some people biologically superior to others, and that this biological inequality will erode our conviction that all people deserve equal moral and legal treatment. He is certainly right that in the past physical differences between different groups of people have been used to justify different treatment under the law—between men and women, for example, or Europeans and Africans. We have gotten rid of this idea, of course, but we haven’t done it by insisting that there are no biological differences between different groups of people. We have done it by insisting that these differences do not justify different treatment. Democratic society is built around the idea that people deserve a certain amount of moral respect regardless of their physical attributes. People who are disabled because of a genetic flaw may not have their full complement of natural attributes, but they still have their rights. Altering a human being’s genetic constitution may change a lot about that person, but there is no necessary reason it should deprive them of his or her moral standing.

Fukuyama is not alone in thinking that biotechnology will worsen social inequality. But Fukuyama is a conservative, and the worry about inequality has typ­ically come from the left. Leftists argue that if human genetic enhancement becomes possible, it will almost certainly find its way into the market economy, like cosmetic surgery. For anyone with misgivings about the places the market might lead us, this is a deeply disturbing thought. In her novel Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood imagines a world where the elite live in biotech-sponsored compounds, consume genetically engineered products, and get their education at institutions like the Watson-Crick Academy, while the masses live outside the gates in territories known as “the pleeblands.” Bill McKibben argues that genetic enhancements could force prospective parents into a biological arms race similar to the one faced by elite athletes who find they cannot compete against peers who use performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes who do not want to use performance-enhancing drugs can always drop out of the competition, of course. But parents won’t have this option. Genetic enhancement threatens to make a competition out of all human life. What parents will turn down the chance to enhance their child’s intelligence by genetic manipulation, Mc­Kibben wonders, if turning it down means their child will be the dumbest kid on the block?

However, scenarios like this require some fairly implausible leaps from imagination to reality. Both Fukuyama and McKibben credit genetics with a lot more power than it really deserves. It is one thing to have the ability to choose your child’s sex or hair color. It is something else entirely to be able to manipulate his or her skills, dispositions, intelligence, and personality. There is little if any scientific evidence to suggest that this will be possible anytime soon, if ever. Exactly how much influence genetics has on these attributes is a matter of some debate. But even scientists who credit genetics with a tremendous amount of influence are not optimistic about usefully manipulating genes in order to influence behavior. As the MIT neuroscientist Steven Pinker pointed out in a presentation to the President’s Council on Bioethics in March, it is very rare to find a single gene with a consistent beneficial effect on the mind. Instead, tens of thousands of genes work in concert with one another in highly complex ways. The complexity of these interactions makes any kind of simple intervention highly unlikely. Behavioral geneticists have not even been able to find single genes that are correlated to mental illnesses well-known to run in families, such as schizophrenia and bipolar depression (or manic-depressive disorder). It is even less likely that they will find single genes correlated with intelligence or personality.

Even if geneticists do find genes that can be manipulated to good effect, it’s not at all clear that people would actually embrace this kind of manipulation. Odds are that genetic technologies would be expensive and risky. Many writers seem to believe that the market will do for genetic enhancement what it has done for interventions such as Botox, Viagra, and Prozac. But there are good reasons why these interventions have been so successful. For one thing, they involve things that you and your doctor do to yourself, not to your unborn child. For another, they are convenient, inexpensive, and relatively safe. In fact, their safety and convenience are exactly their selling points. Prozac has been much more successful than earlier antidepressants not because it is more effective, but because it is so much less burdensome to take. Genetic technologies are in an entirely different category of invasiveness and safety. As Pinker points out, it’s a pretty dangerous thing to monkey around with the genome. How many people will take even a slight risk of having a defective child just so that they can assure that the child has blue eyes?

But McKibben’s concerns about biotechnology run much deeper than safety and inequality. Like Fukuyama, who made his name with the political right for his ominously titled political tract The End of History, McKibben made a name for himself with the left for his ominously titled environmentalist tract The End of Nature. In that book he argues not merely that nature is being destroyed by human technology, but that technology has altered the world to such an extent that the very concept of nature—defined as something apart from human society—has ceased to exist. In Enough, McKibben argues that genetic enhancement will do something similar to humans. Unlike Fuku­yama, who believes that genetic enhancement will destroy some core quality that all humans share, McKibben argues that genetic enhancement will erode the very qualities that distinguish us from  one another as individuals. If we allow our individuality to be undermined, he argues, we will lose human meaning altogether.

How will this happen? As McKibben recognizes, many of us living in the late modern age do not expect to find the meaning of our lives by looking to God, Truth, or any other external moral framework. Instead, we expect to find meaning by looking inward to the individual self—or else not at all. As McKibben wistfully puts it, “Most of the backdrops have long since been dragged off the stage; and most of the other actors have mostly vanished; each of us is trying to give our existential monologue, trying to make it count for something.” For better or worse, the past three centuries have transformed us into sovereign individuals. We are expected to create our own meaning by virtue of our own individual choices. Yet today, suggests Mc­Kibben, even those shaky structures of meaning are about to vanish. Having struggled for centuries to find meaning in the self, we stand poised to obliterate all that we have created. With the advent of genetic engineering, McKibben believes, “we stand on the edge of disappearing even as individuals.”

Part of what McKibben sees in genetic technology is what many people have long seen in other kinds of technology: the sacrifice of meaning to convenience, the erosion of tradition and ritual, the weird alienation that comes with anonymous suburbs, air-conditioned shopping malls, and 24-hour cable TV. McKibben is defending an aesthetic as much as an ethic: the beauty and richness of an unplanned natural world. When we take the instrumental stance of technology and turn it on ourselves, he argues, we raise the existential stakes even higher. We face the prospect of transforming ourselves from sovereign individuals into devices. Once our genetic identities become the product of choice rather than chance, it will be difficult to avoid thinking of ourselves as objects of human design. Children will become products. Bodies will become tools. Our very identities will become the product of managed control, and despite the best hopes of the technophiles, this will not be our own individual control. McKibben asks, “Whom would you worship as your creator if your genes come from Pfizer?”

McKibben is surely right to underscore the importance of identity to meaning in the late modern age—the ways in which we have invested so much moral significance in the notion of discovering and fulfilling the promise of who we are as individuals. Yet in his eagerness to press the argument, McKibben overstates his case. After all, genetics is not all there is to identity. Genetics has little or nothing to do with religion, social class, professional identity, or the places we were born and raised. Even our identity as members of a family extends well beyond our strictly genetic relationships. The aspects of our identity that really matter to us may be able to survive the sur­render of chance to choice. We may be able to understand our genetic constitution as a part of us that has been chosen and manipulated by our parents, but simply invest little meaning in our genetic constitution and decide that other aspects of our identity are more important. Or more likely, we will simply absorb these recent developments in genetics into our way of seeing the world in the same manner that we absorbed the scientific work of Copernicus and Darwin.

In the same way, McKibben sometimes writes as if genetic manipulation will destroy our free will and turn us into automatons. He argues that if we discover that our love of music, say, or our religious piety were traits chosen for us by our parents, then we will lose faith in our own individual autonomy. Once we give up on the idea that we have not fully created our own preferences and aspirations, they will no longer carry the same importance for us. “We’ll be like obsessive-compulsives,” he writes, “for whom some accident of wiring or chemistry has overridden the ability to choose.”

This is pretty unlikely. Even if we set aside the considerable limitations of behavioral genetics, a genetic predisposition to behave in a certain way doesn’t eliminate the possibility of free choice. If I come from a family known rightly for its wicked temper or bad judgment, nobody exonerates me when I punch out the hapless guy sitting next to me in the bar. It’s hard to see that things would be any dif­ferent if my hot temper were engineered by choice rather than inherited by chance. Even if we were to achieve extraordinary genetic control over our children—a control that will certainly remain impossible—this doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on free will, because a person’s genetic constitution is never really that tyrannical anyway.

Yet McKibben is right to point out that there is something weird about trying to engineer the tastes and preferences of our children. Defenders of genetic enhancement often argue that parents have always been engaged in this kind of engineering project, and that it is called “child-rearing.” I was raised in the South, for example, and the main reason I have a taste for fried okra, country ham, grits, and red-eye gravy is because my parents fed me these things when I was little. Adults who grew up outside the South don’t much seem to like them. Nobody loses any sleep over the fact that my tastes were “engineered” by my Southern parents. Yet as McKibben understands, there is a difference between raising children to have certain tastes, dispositions, and values, and manipulating their genetic material. At the very least, the two actions involve very different attitudes toward what is being manipulated. And it is in the subtleties of that difference that the real ethical problems with genetic manipulation lie.


Perhaps the most disturbing inhabitants of the genetic dystopia imagined by Atwood in Oryx and Crake are the animals. “Animals” may be a slightly misleading way of describing them, though. Atwood writes about genetic hybrids such as “rakunks,” a cross-species mix of raccoon and skunk, and an even creepier transgenic creature called a “pigoon,” a large and aggressive breed of pig that has been given human genes so that it will produce organs suitable for human transplantation. What do we make of creatures that are partly grown and partly made, part pig and part human? In the bleak world of Oryx and Crake, where crops have failed and most domestic animals have been annihilated by plague, the characters make nervous jokes about being served pigoon meat in the institute cafeteria. (Would eating a pig with human kidneys count as cannibalism?) Atwood’s most alarming creation is a so-called “Neo-Agricultural” called the ChickieNob. ChickieNobs are chickens that have been genetically engineered to grow to maturation without a higher nervous system. The fast-food industry mass-­produces ChickieNobs in factories, where they are tube-fed and cultivated like plants. Because a brainless chicken is unable to feel pain or discomfort, animal rights activists have no reason to object.

What, if anything, is wrong with these genetic creations? Hard-nosed analytic philosophers of a certain ideological stripe are inclined to say: nothing at all. Nobody is being harmed. The animals (if you can call them that) are happy enough. There is nothing unfair about the system that has created them. If we cannot articulate a rationally defensible reason to avoid a practice, then our hesitation to engage in it is squeamishness, or perhaps in some cases, an unreflective obedience to tradition. Religious skeptics and technophiles are likely to call such practices taboo, suggesting that they are an indefensible relic of a spiritual or social order that no longer exists. It was not so long ago that many people were revolted by the idea of interracial marriage, for example, or homosexuality. But we have gotten over that now, and with the exception of a handful of white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, and talk-radio knuckle-­draggers, most of us think society is the better for it. The same may be true of eating pigs with human kidneys or brainless chickens. If we have any lingering twinges of conscience about breaking the taboo, well, that’s just something we need to get over. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer caused a stir a few years ago by suggesting in Nerve that there was nothing wrong with having sex with animals, as long as neither sexual partner was harmed.

This hard-nosed analytic approach is not shared by Leon Kass. When Kass was appointed chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, American bio­ethicists let out a collective groan. This was not simply because they feared that Kass was too much of a pal to Republicans. It was also because Kass is not terribly well disposed toward professional bioethicists, especially the analytic philosophers who wield such influence in the field. Kass’s latest book of essays, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, includes a few well-aimed shots at bioethicists, especially those who have decided there is nothing wrong with taking consulting fees from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. But Kass is more deeply worried by the ideological views shared by many bioethicists—views that constitute a secular, even technocratic ideology that values tradition rather less than technological progress, is being shaped by the medical schools and teaching hospitals in which bioethicists are housed, and is inclined to see ethical problems largely as matters of safety, justice, and the informed consent of the parties involved.

Those worries are echoed throughout the journal The New Atlantis, whose inaugural issue contains essays by a number of writers associated with the President’s Council on Bioethics, including one by Kass himself on enhancement technologies. The New Atlantis is edited by Eric Cohen, a staffer for the Council, and is published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The fact that the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a right-leaning think tank, was until recently headed by Elliot Abrams—making it perhaps the first ethics center in the world to be directed by a convicted felon—will probably be enough to confirm the most paranoid left-wing fantasies about the Council’s ideological leanings. (Abrams, the State Department official most directly responsible for  President Reagan’s Central American policies, was convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-­Contra hearings. He was pardoned by Bush I, and then appointed to a new government position in 2001 by Bush II.) It may also assure a readership limited to staff members of conservative Washington think tanks, which is unfortunate, since its inaugural issue contains some first-rate work. Yet The New Atlantis makes no bones about its mission as a conservative alternative to mainstream bioethics.

Kass was especially alarmed when, in the wake of Dolly, American bioethicists did not rise up as one to condemn human cloning. Kass set out his own case against cloning in a now-famous article in The New Republic called “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” There he argued that we need to pay attention to our initial feelings of revulsion against practices such as cannibalism, incest, bestiality, and (he argued) human cloning. The same might be said of genetically manipulating our children or growing brainless chickens. Such revulsion is not mere fear of novelty, Kass argued, nor is it a rationally indefensible holdover from an earlier age. It is an emotional clue to a deeper wisdom. If we lose the ability to sense such clues, we are diminished. As Kass wrote in his essay for The New Atlantis, “To the extent that we come to regard our transformed nature as normal, we shall have forgotten what we have lost.”

Kass’s article earned him the admiration of conservatives and the scorn of liberals and progressives, many of whom portrayed him as a reactionary unwilling to engage in rational debate. That portrayal was unfair. After all, Kass did outline at some length the substance of his objections to human reproductive cloning—namely, the instrumental approach to having children that it might engender, and the bizarre ways that cloning would recon­figure families and kinship. (For instance, a female clone would be the twin sister of her birth mother; a gen­etic daughter to that woman’s father; the younger sister-in-law to that woman’s husband, and so on.) It would be a mistake to see Kass as an enemy of secular philo­sophy. A careful philosophical reader of Kass’s work might see parallels in Aristotle, Hume, Moore, Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein—even (to the horror of some of his conservative admirers) Karl Marx. A better way to understand Kass is to remember that his original training was in medicine. His approach to enhancement technologies is that of a diagnostician. If we recoil at the thought of genetically enhanced children, human clones, or having deep-fried Chickie­Nobs for lunch, the first question to ask is not, “Is our reaction rationally defensible?” but rather, “What is our reaction telling us?” Could it be a diagnostic clue to something worth attending to?

I took a similar approach in my recent book, Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream. What struck me most about the explosion of new enhancement technologies—from Prozac, Ritalin, and Botox to more exotic interventions such as surgery to prevent blushing, healthy limb amputations, and voice-feminization procedures for transsexuals—was the way people often described them using the language of identity and self-fulfillment. “I didn’t feel like myself until I began taking Prozac,” people would say. “I became who I really was inside when I got sex-reassignment surgery.” This kind of language, I came to believe, was a diagnostic marker of the deeper philosophical currents motivating the use of some (though not all) enhancement technologies. It is one thing to use a medical techno­logy to get an advantage over your competition at work or school, or to have better sex, or to make yourself look young and beautiful. It is something else to use it to become the person you think you really are. If people are willing to take powerful psychoactive drugs, inject themselves with anabolic steroids, even cut off their limbs or their genitalia for the sake of realizing their “true selves,” then the “true self” must be a very powerful moral idea indeed.

But I deliberately left out genetic enhancement—partly be­cause it was already being discussed by the teams of bioethicists set to work by the Human Genome Project, and partly because it did not quite fit alongside the other enhancement technologies in the book. The phrase “enhancement technologies” en­compasses many different kinds of interventions, and the fact that they have been given a common name shouldn’t mislead us into concluding that they are all alike. Genetic enhancement seemed quite different from these other technologies, particularly in its ethical implications. (“Everything is what it is,” Bishop Butler once said, “and not another thing.” This remark should be posted on the office wall of all moral philosophers.) What seemed different about genetic enhancement is the foundational nature of the intervention. To alter our genetic constitution is potentially to alter some of the biological foundations of our social existence. By foundations I don’t quite have in mind the unitary “human nature” which Fuku­yama worries about, which is not nearly as unitary or stable as he makes it out to be, but rather the natural givens from which our social concepts get their ordinary meanings—the nature of birth, sex, kinship, family, the relationships between the generations, the shape and length of our lives. If our social concepts—indeed, our forms of life—rest upon certain facts of nature, then by altering those facts of nature we may disrupt the way we live, in ways that we cannot immediately see. The challenge is to foresee those disruptions and decide whether we want to embrace them or avoid them.

Clearly, many people want to embrace them. (“With all four arms,” as James Hughes put it in a recent article.) Maybe the most striking thing about the push for genetic enhancement is that it has garnered such intellectual support in the absence of any evidence that we need it. In fact, its proponents seem to see its appeal as self-­evident, and their arguments are largely defensive. (“Why should the state have right to ban it?”) Conventional enhancement technologies have typically gotten their moral force, and their initial foothold in the market, as therapies for medical problems—Prozac for clinical depression, plastic surgery to correct disfigurement, Viagra for impotence. But this is not the case with genetic enhancement. (Gene therapy is another matter, but it has not lived up to its initial promise. In fact, it has been newsworthy mainly for its failures—notably, the death of eighteen-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a corporate-backed clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania.) It is hard to think of a pressing social need for genetic enhancement, particularly in a country that stands alone in the developed world in refusing to provide basic health care for all of its citizens, yet genetic enhancement is often treated as the inevitable result of our long, steady march toward scientific progress and market growth.

How could genetic enhancement disrupt the way we live? Perhaps the most immediate way is related to the matter of control. Genetic manipulation will give us voluntary control over aspects of our children’s identities that are currently left to chance. For many people, including bioethicists, it seems deeply irrational to leave such things to chance, even things like the sex of our unborn children. In his book Cloning, Genes, and Immortality, for example, the philosopher John Harris writes that, despite his best efforts, he is unable to see why the issue of genetically enhancing one’s children should be problematic. “Either such traits as hair colour, eye colour, gender and the like are important or they are not. If they are not important why not let people choose? And if they are important, can it be right to leave such important matters to chance?”

But it’s not that simple. To say that something is important doesn’t mean that it is too important to be left to chance. Some things, such as coin tosses, are important precisely because they are left to chance. What Harris fails to acknowledge is the importance of chance itself to some human institutions and activities. Some activities (hot-air ballooning, casino gambling, putting messages in bottles) would lose their appeal, and perhaps even their point, if the element of chance were elim­inated. Chance also accounts for a certain kind of beauty—the beauty of the wilderness rather than the garden. Deep human bonds have been formed out of chance. As Benedict Anderson points out in his book on nationhood, Imagined Communities, what is most remarkable about the wars of the twen­tieth century is that so many people were persuaded to die for the sake of other people—their country­men—to whom they were not connected by choice. Voluntary organizations rarely command the same loyalty. (Nobody ever died defending the American Medical Association.) Embracing chance over control may require a sensibility more familiar to creative artists than to analytic philosophers, but I doubt we have lost it completely. Just spend a few hours in a management training seminar or a week of planned activity on a cruise ship, and you may well find yourself longing for little randomness and chaos.

In his recent book, The Future of Human Nature, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas wonders whether the element of control inherent in genetic engineering will obliterate the conceptual line between “the grown” and “the made”—between that which is the product of nature and that which has been manufactured. The grown and the made ordinarily require different human attitudes. We make shoes, spark plugs, even art, but we do not make nature. Either we cultivate it, like a garden, or we take clinical care of it, like a patient. The very phrase “human nature” depends on such a distinction. Human nature brought under human control is, by definition, no longer natural. It is something that has been created by other human beings, and for which those human beings can be called to account. Control implies responsibility, including blame. What would it mean for us to see aspects of our identities as the product of someone else’s intentions? What would it mean to be held accountable for the identities of our children?

Nature can also command respect. Part of what motivates the genetic skeptics seems to be the idea that we ought to approach the results of natural selection with humility. The wisdom of nature deserves our deference, or even reverence: often, it seems as if the skeptics are struggling to translate into secular language the notion that humans are made in God’s image. These writers trust the judgment of human beings less than they trust nature itself. There is a reason for the way we have come to be the way we are, and it can be found in our evolutionary history.

This does not deny the appeal of taking control of nature, of course. The hard part is stepping back and seeing what, if anything, that control is costing us. In a recent paper for the President’s Council, Council member and Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel suggests that one subtle cost may be an appreciation for the “giftedness” of life—the extent to which our powers and skills are not entirely our own doing. As he points out, many critics of genetic enhancement write as if parents who choose the genetic characteristics of their children are somehow undermining the autonomy and independence of their children. But this can’t be right. After all, children don’t choose their genetic characteristics for themselves. The real moral problem lies in the attitude toward childbearing and rearing that it represents, and in particular, an absence of the proper humility. Sandel calls this attitude “the drive to mastery”—the notion that the world is our dominion, and that even our children exist for us to use and shape for our own ends. Of course, it is true that we already try to shape and transform our children into the kinds of people we value and love. But that kind of shaping exists alongside an acceptance that comes with knowing that our children are not infinitely malleable. It is a morally essential part of being a parent to love and accept our children for who they are, not for what we wish them to be.

What Sandel has put his finger on, I believe, is a deep concern about instrumental reason. Once we give up on the idea that aspects of the world are fixed and untouchable, we begin to see them as instruments for our own projects. No longer constrained by the idea that the world exists as it does because it is part of a sacred order, we are freed up to use it as an instrument for human happiness. Few people would deny that this way of seeing the world has achieved many human goods, but it would take a particular kind of ideological blindness not to see that it has also had some serious costs. Instrumental reason, for example, is what allows us to see patients as mere objects for medical experimentation, or old-growth forests as future parking lots. A more subtle spiritual cost of instrumental reason is what Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world.” The disenchanted world has value only insofar as it satisfies human desires. Once we begin to see the world as raw material for our own projects, it becomes narrowed and flattened. Sometimes it becomes nearly invisible.

I recently sat in on a seminar for students of veterinary medicine where an agitated student des­cribed a film the class had recently seen about chicken factories. She was upset about a scene in which an assembly-line inspector was examining newly hatched chicks for defects, casually tossing the defective chicks into a discard bin. What disturbed her was not the suffering that this practice caused, but the treatment of the chicks as products, like plastic forks or cups. Some people would see her concern as misplaced. If she is concerned about factory farms, shouldn’t she worry instead about the suffering these factories cause to animals? Yet I think I can understand what worried her. She was uneasy with an instrumental view of the world, with seeing the chicks merely as something to be used or discarded. Her uneasiness is similar to that which many of us feel in our gut at the thought of the ChickieNobs in Oryx and Crake. It is true that a brainless chicken can’t suffer. But then, it’s not really a chicken. It has been transformed into an object for human consumption.

And we have been transformed into consumers. Part of this unease with an instrumental view of the world is a worry about our own sensibilities. It is a worry about what it means for the way we live to see everything as an object of consumption—an object of entertainment, something to eat, a commodity to be bought or sold. You don’t have to be a romantic about the natural world to find this kind of sensibility disturbing. What exactly will we lose if we start seeing ourselves and our children instrumentally, like the inspector examining assembly line chicks? Perhaps we will say, “It’s better this way” and believe it. Yet we may lose something important and never even realize it. Our own sensibilities may become as thin and impoverished as those of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

As different as they are from one another in most ways, both the technophiles and the techno-­skeptics share a vague dissatisfaction with the way we live now, a sense that we have somehow taken a wrong turn and gotten lost. Where they differ, often radically, is in their choice of the road back. The technophiles want solutions that are technical and individual. Just as people who are bothered by telemarketers should get caller ID, people who don’t like their bodies should get them fixed. For every problem there is a technical solution. The techno-skeptics are more likely to feel that we are all in this together. Our problems are not merely individual, nor are they technical. They are a consequence of the society we have created for ourselves, and the sort of people that society is producing. If the technophiles are romantic about the future, the techno-skeptics are romantic about the past. Things are looking bad, they think. The best we can do is to assure they don’t get worse.

Who will prove correct about genetic technology is anyone’s guess. I suspect the future of gen­etic technology will prove neither as apocalyptic as the skeptics suggest nor as utopian as the technophiles hope. But if the past is any guide, we will push ahead with it anyway. The danger, writes McKibben, is that we will be left vulnerable to meaninglessness, “to a world where consumption is all that happens, because there’s nothing else left that means anything.” This is a problem that biotechnology will be unable to fix, no matter how far it takes us. Technology has an unnerving tendency to dispense with the practices and sensibilities that give life its deeper significance, while leaving nothing in their place.

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