Transhuman or non-human?

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Just what do you think you're doing? That maternal admonition might well be addressed by Mother Nature to the geneticists and biochemists whose research promises not just “to add a trait here or to subtract a defect here, but to alter radically our very being.” Lacking supernatural intervention, the sounding of the alarm has been left to the editors and authors of Is Human Nature Obsolete

Questions of medical ethics are usually reserved for specific scientific achievements but rarely raised about ongoing research. Thus the long-term implications of pharmacogenic and transgenic research that could result in transforming humans “from organic to mechanical beings,” and could fundamentally change the very concept of  “what it means to be human” have largely gone unexamined. Gregory Stock, a biophysicist, is looking forward to the day when “humans will be composite beings: part biological, part mechanical, part electronic,” so that “Metaman will take control of human evolution.” Moral deliberations and public policy interventions, Stock proclaims, are irrelevant.

This book's editors, Harold Baillie and Timothy Casey, professors of philosophy, disagree. That's why they recruited 11 additional contributors from a wide range of disciplines. It's impossible to do justice to all their views, but here are tidbits to suggest their impact.

Believing that technology is a neutral tool that is immune from the judgment of ethicists and philosophers, we have already accepted such procedures as genetic screening and prenatal diagnosing of embryos. After all, who can quarrel with parents who don't want to bring a child with Down syndrome into this world. But when deaf parents opt for deaf children, will society tolerate their refusal to strive for physical perfection?

By raising such unanswerable questions, this book leads to one obvious conclusion: When you can no longer tell whether we're doing harm or doing good, the old touchstone of medicine—first do no harm—no longer suffices. Even if we decided to control the drive to create Metaman, we wouldn't know how. One chapter describes the attempt by NIH in 1983 to control gene transfer research by setting up the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. But just a few years later, a Congress bent on deregulation and responding to complaints from industry pulled the committee's teeth and it stopped meeting—until a patient in a clinical study died.

One author who served on the committee remains optimistic that government regulation can adequately identify limits for genetic research. Yet he believes science should be able to pursue its own research agenda. That's the dilemma in a nutshell: Should we do everything we're capable of doing? For instance, we could engineer a blind and lifeless chicken, adapted for life in a cage, but should we make analogous fundamental changes in the telos [ultimate purpose] of human beings, such as the ability to live underwater? This sort of conundrum leads one contributor to call on medical researchers and those who apply (or market?) their discoveries to “transform the definition of medical wisdom into one of judicious restraint.”

Step one might well be to pay attention to this book.

Warren Ross is MM&M's editor at large

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