Several years ago, Francis Fukuyama was asked “What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” He identified transhumanism, “a strange liberation movement” that wants “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints” as a serious menace.
Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, is a sharp and sometimes eloquent advocate of this radical vision for humanity. He argues sweepingly that “there are no ethical reasons for forbidding people in the future to use safe biotech enhancements to alter their personalities, abolish sleep, increase their physical strength, boost their intelligence and memories, change their sex, live much longer healthier lives, and even change the number of their chromosomes.”
Bailey argues that it would also generally be “ethical for parents to use safe biotech to enhance their children in these ways as well.” He believes “[t]ranshumanism epitomizes our most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations,” and it would be a shame for Jr. to miss out on that.
Naturally, such a vision leads Bailey to be critical of “bioconservatives” such as Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and, most recently, the Catholic Church. In his article “Is Suppressing Scientific Research Sinful?” Bailey writes that “the Vatican” has denounced “experiments [and] genetic manipulation” as “violations of certain fundamental rights of human nature” and wonders “what kinds of genetic manipulation might earn researchers consignment to the flames of Hell should they die unshriven?”
You don’t have to be a transhumanist to recognize this is a fair question, even if Bailey’s claims of the Vatican “speaking” are overblown. (The quotes were from a mid-ranking curial official.) Because “genetic manipulation” is a broad term that encompasses a broad range of engineering processes, the Vatican should clearly outline what it believes is acceptable before condemning anything.
There is a reason that the Vatican has been slow to pronounce authoritatively here. It would be irresponsible to issue a blanket condemnation on a technology that has been used in a number of beneficial ways. Genetic engineering has been used in the creation of insulin and the splicing of genetic material from childhood vaccines into plant genomes to provide a form of affordable, robust, and edible immunization.
Some agreement with Christian bioconservatives should be possible, even while they and Bailey would part company in their overall outlook on humanity and the role of technology. Christians bioethicists have spoken out mostly in favor of prudent stewardship of God’s creation, including the responsible use of biotechnology to alleviate human suffering. On that important point, Bailey and the Church are actually likely to be in agreement.
BUT BAILEY ATTEMPTS to portray Catholics as bio-Luddites. He even creates a theologically thin strawman by implying that “some religious leaders might be all right with God for us to modify plants, but not animals.” This characterization overlooks the fact that animal modification goes all the way back to Jacob’s experiments in Genesis.
Bioconservative reservations are not with the crude “modification” that occurs through animal husbandry but rather with the potential for harm and threat to a species’ dignity that can occur from transgenic manipulations. Even so, many Christian ethicists do not consider trangenics — the creation of new organisms that occurs from adding genetic material from one species to the genome of another species — to be inherently unethical, even when human genes are involved.
To wit, human DNA is inserted into the genome of pigs to create Factor VIII, a human protein used in treating hemophilia. This is an application of biotechnology that vanishingly few Christians have found objectionable.
A gene is, after all, simply a single string of DNA, a molecule that carries specific information. A number of Christian bioethicists have previously noted that that the imago dei — the image and likeness of God that we are said to have been created in — is not “contained within our DNA, as DNA is just a molecule.” That means it’s OK to insert a gene into a harmless virus or bacteria for the creation of a therapeutic substance such as human insulin or growth hormone.
Serious ethical quandaries arise, however, when such legitimate boundaries are breached. Prior to this millennium, most transgenic animals were created by inserting just one or two genes from one species into an animal of another species. But as bioethicists Nancy Jones and Linda Bevington noted in 2000, “the current trend is to insert more and more human DNA into an animal of another species.”
The border of acceptable limits has subsequently stretched to the point where scientists have begun inserting human genes into the eggs of other animal species.
CHINESE RESEARCHERS BEGAN in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. Two years later scientists at Stanford University planned an experiment to create mice with human brains.
At the time David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, said that the ethical concern was not with the procedure itself but whether or not chimeras would be put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous.
An experiment that would raise concerns, he noted, is “genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.”
Magnus added, “Most people would find that problematic…but those uses are bizarre and not, to the best of my knowledge, anything that anybody is remotely contemplating. Most uses of chimeras are actually much more relevant to practical concerns.”
The ethical assumption underlying this attitude is that since humans at the embryonic stage of development are nothing more than genetic material anyway, scientists should not be hindered in their research unless they propose uses that are “bizarre.” Apparently, the killing of an embryo is not strange enough to warrant moral concern.
Bailey makes a similar sneaky acknowledgement using carefully selected language. “It is true that the proposed human animal cybrids would contain mostly human genes, but researchers have no intention of creating cow/human or rabbit/human babies,” he writes.
By combining the obscure technical term “cybrid” (an egg cell from an animal that contains the nucleus from a human cell) with the common, emotionally charged term “baby,” Bailey deftly obfuscates what is occurring. While the researchers are not creating cow/human babies (beings that have reached the infancy stage of development) they are creating cow/human embryos (beings that have reached the embryonic stage of development).
Denying the humanity of embryos is nothing new, of course, but the broad-based acceptance of certain biotechnologies has made such semantic evasion tactics essential.
FOR YEARS THE biomedical community oversold the therapeutic promises of embryonic stem cell research. On the periphery of the debate they acknowledged that producing individualized treatments for diseases such as diabetes requires obtaining stem cells from embryos created by somatic cell nuclear transfer, or “therapeutic cloning.”
What they failed to mention is that to obtain the human ova (eggs) needed to create the embryos, every woman of reproductive age in America would need to undergo an uncomfortable, painful, and potentially dangerous procedure in order to harvest her eggs. Recognizing that this is not within the realm of possibility, they’ve turned to the creation of hybrids, cybrids, and other chimeras in order to meet the demand for spare embryos that such research and speculative treatment requires.
Bailey observes that “many contemporary thinkers and leaders in the Roman Catholic Church appear to be haunted by the fear that scientific research will transgress God’s will.” A fair, informed observer might find that such fear is not unreasonable when that “scientific research” entails the creation, killing, and parts-harvesting of human-animal beings on a fairly massive scale.
But for transhumanists like Bailey, the real issue is that the priests and bishops have committed the unpardonable sin of refusing to bow before the bloody god of Technological Progress.
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