Saturday, July 23, 2005

BOOKS: The Meaning of Humanness

“[S]cientists…have enlarged the realm of human affairs to the point of extinguishing the time-honored protective dividing line between nature and the human world. In view of such achievements, performed for centuries in the unseen quiet of laboratories, it seems only proper that their deeds should eventually have turned out to have greater news value, to be of greater political significance, than the administrative and diplomatic doings of most so-called statesmen.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)

“Enough” is an apt title. Enough is what we don’t know about genetic engineering. That in a 1993 March of Dimes poll 43 percent of Americans would engage in genetic engineering simply to enhance their children’s looks or intelligence, indicates for Bill McKibben’s project that a majority of Americans aren’t as informed as they should be about the consequences of such procedures. For there is some evidence which indicates that the more people know about genetic engineering, the less they like it. Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003) is McKibben’s attempt to educate us about genetic engineering so that we may avoid the way to hell.

Genetic engineering of children, or “germline engineering,” represents for most people a frightening future, and understandably so. And not just for those people who don’t want evolution taught in schools, but for liberals and conservatives alike (but for different reasons). “I think genetically engineering our children will be the worst choice human beings ever make,” argues McKibben. The question is, is it possible to choose not to make this choice?

Unlike the development of advanced robots (e.g. AI) and nanotechnology, both of which McKibben also covers but which are at least 10-15 years from blooming, germline engineering is an imminent possibility. In this light, the best feature of McKibben’s book is the way he foresees and describes the parade of horrors, the slippery slope over which mankind looms and down which we are helpless to stop sliding without a decidedly political choice to step back from the precipice of post-humanity. Or rather, as he says, “This is no slippery slope—this is the Khumbu Icefall, the Olympic bobsled track, the double black diamond run from the top of the highest chairlift.”

Now, as was science fiction only a few decades ago, we are capable of taking human evolution into our own hands and, consequently, may affect the entire potential of future generations for better or for much worse. For McKibben this is a matter of threshold. We are at what he calls “the enough line.” Beyond this line is not just more, but something completely different. Beyond this line McKibben conjures up the specter of a world where old-fashioned sex is useless for purposes of procreation, where neither mothers nor fathers are needed, where a child could have 46 fathers and no mother, where humans may live for two- or three-hundred years if not forever, where sub-human humanoids may not be covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and so on. These visions of the future should prompt us, McKibben hopes, to argue passionately about limiting the use of science and technology for the fuller realization of our own value goals, especially what we owe to children—not just to your own children but to children in general—and to the future.

McKibben wants to make one thing clear: “My point is merely that our bodies, or more precisely the bodies of our children, which have always seemed to us more or less a given, are on the verge of becoming true clay.” What hitherto has made us human—viz., our immortality, fear of death, fragility, and our givenness, being the product of a combination of heredity, environment and chance—could sooner or later change. We could all too easily become more humanoid than human, the designed product of our parent’s choice, in a word, a new species of human. Nothing less than the relationships with ourselves is at stake, and the implications for our future will largely depend on whether or not we can control our genetic ingenuity. If we fail to regulate species-changing technologies, we will be entering a world that no longer makes sense to us, a world that is meaningless because we will be cut off from all that bears real meaning. The joy of life, says McKibben, “will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon.” Umberto Eco sounds the same warning in his The Island of the Day Before: “The joy of life is born from feeling, whether it be joy or grief, always of short duration, and woe to those who know they will enjoy eternal bliss.”


McKibben is right to worry about staying human because it is becoming increasingly more difficult to raise doubts against species-changing technology because the more we have accepted the practice and commercialization of genetically modified plants and animals, the more genetic modification of humans beyond strictly medical “cures” (and we have reason to doubt that there is such a thing) appears unstoppable. The fact that genetic engineering is risky is no longer an obstacle to its expansion, if it ever was. Not only will the technology become safer and more reliable as it develops, but its risks will always seem attractive in the light of the risks, say, of giving birth in the human way. Without recourse to such technology, who knows what “defects” your baby might have to bear? He or she (you don’t know, you can’t choose) might turn out to be short, stupid, fat, slow, and ugly. Why not alter the fetus’s genetic makeup from the start? Add points to its IQ. Choose its sex, height, looks and personality. The potential gains of the latter “option” can’t help seem safer than leaving things up to the whim of nature. And that’s the problem. McKibben finds the seductive and simple logic of Lester Thurow’s words important enough to quote twice: “Suppose parents could add 30 points to their child’s IQ. Wouldn’t you want to do it? And if you don’t, your child will be the stupidest in the neighborhood.” By framing the issue as one about parental love for a child’s well-being, there seems to be no basis from which we can “reject positive genetic influences on a person’s essence when we accept the rights of parents to benefit their children in every other way.”

Inevitable? The urgency with which McKibben wraps his warnings is warranted by the fact that once this particular genie is out of the bottle, it’s too late. Once some parents start to “improve” their offspring, other parents will be compelled, out of “love” for their children, to not only do the same, but to make their children even better. It becomes a game, an unwinnable arms race, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ DNA. In this game, deciding to enhance your child is not a moral decision; it’s a strategic move. Given our deeply consumeristic culture, genetically improved babies may expand as fast and become as mandatory as cell phones.

If this sounds alarmist, you are right to be skeptical. Indeed, McKibben is prone to gross exaggerations, particularly when he moves beyond pointing out the limits of and reasons for engaging in genetic engineering. For instance, his picture of how engineered humans will function is surely flawed. That parents will have the ability to program their child does not mean that the child will be, “for all intents and purposes, a robot,” or “an automaton of one degree or another.” The child will still be a human, just an “enhanced” one. Though the child may be programmed to be, say, as optimistic as his father, genes only predispose a person to act in certain ways. Genes matter a lot, as McKibben notes, but however modified, they don’t function in mechanistic ways. As Gary Marcus has pointed out, genes should be understood as a source of options, as a set of IFs and not MUSTs. Programmed genes do not make us robots. Just as now I don’t think, “Is it really me doing the thinking and writing? Or is it my programming?” so too if I were to find out that I was programmed I can’t imagine thinking such thoughts. They just wouldn’t arise. Even if I could see my “design specs,” I don’t think I would experience myself as divided, torn between my wishes and my protein’s wishes. After all, don’t we already get some idea of our design specs by looking at our parents? And don’t we catch ourselves acting like them? We are already forced to recognize that our parents in part define who we are. And yet, as McKibben notes, we all mature by rebelling against our parents. Won’t, then, this remain true for a genetically modified person, with the added incentive to rebel against that person whom your parents tried to make out of you by nature (engineering) and by nurture (influence)?

We have reason to be hopeful that a post-human dystopia won’t come to pass because “the technologies don’t yet exist.” Though we tend to think of progress as an inexorable force outside human control, it isn’t. Nothing that depends on human thought and action is inevitable. “It is something we can guide and direct and even stop.” However, although germline engineering is not inevitable, it is likely on some scale or another, and thus we nonetheless have to make preparations for it. McKibben realizes late in the book that the metaphor he has been using throughout, of the genie in the lamp, is misleading. The genie is for all intents and purposes already out of the lamp. Achieving a permanent victory over these technologies is absolutely impossible. Straining the genie metaphor, he thinks we can “sometimes build a pretty tight cage around genie and bottle both.” And if we can do that, if we can guide, direct and even ban germline genetic engineering through some sort of regulatory regime, that’ll be enough.

But can we do enough? How can we be sure that enough is enough? “If we adopt appropriate safeguards,” we can ward off germline manipulation altogether, or at least distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses. The trouble seems to lie not in determining appropriate safeguards but in enforcing them with sufficient political will. On the one side, techno-enthusiasts and the ideology of ceaseless technological advance, many scientists (who constitute potent power-generating groups), would-be genetic engineers (who are extremely smart), and the global marketplace, are all arrayed behind the forces of “progress.” Against these forces, politicians don’t have an inspiring track record of blocking developments in science and technology. About the only cause for hope is the control governments have been able to assert over nuclear use and proliferation. But cloning and other species-changing technology is easier for groups to master than building a nuclear bomb. Indeed, the only hope for avoiding a post-human future seems to be our doubts about genetic manipulation, and the only effective force in support of these doubts is education.

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