Into a brave new world
By Steven Martinovich
We stand at the threshold of a new age where humanity will literally be able to manipulate the building blocks of life to extend lifetimes, live healthier lives and change who we are. The only animal on Earth able to significantly change their environment, humanity will literally be the master of its world. The industrial and information revolutions, by comparison, will pale in comparison to the biotech revolution.
Threatening that future, writes Ronald Bailey, are bioconservatives. A loose coalition of both the political left and right, they seek to halt the creation of this new world fearing a change in what it means to be human. Biotechnology is a revolt against the laws of nature and they argue is dangerous to our very future survival as a species. Praying on our fears they have in many cases managed to win the short-term battles over these new technologies.
In an attempt to combat the growing influence of these bioconservatives, Reason science reporter Bailey has penned Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution. Written from the libertarian perspective, Bailey's effort seeks to challenge the arguments of bioconservatives on a wide range of issues that include genetically modified food, cloning, genetic engineering and aging.
Those opposed to the biotech revolution, names which include Leon Kass, Bill McKibben, Francis Fukuyama and Jeremy Rifkin, have employed a powerful weapon in their attacks: morality. Not surprisingly, Bailey answers in kind. This technology is ultimately, he argues time and time again, a question of life and death. Is it moral to deny humanity the technology to increase life spans, cure disease, enhance our offspring and improve our food simply because genetic manipulation is the process instead of evolution and old-fashioned breeding?
Bioconservatives say yes, that the technology itself immoral. It's greatest danger, they argue, is that it could allow us to modify ourselves in ways that would create a new species of humans, a homo superus, a move whose implications could lead to the destruction of society as we know it. Bailey responds that it is not, that biotechnology is the latest in a string of technologies -- starting from fire -- that humanity has used to change its biology. Genetic technology merely allows us to do so more quickly and ways we can't even begin to dream of.
One of those paths is the quest to lengthen human longevity. Critics argue that it is immoral to radically increase life spans and that society's institutions aren't equipped to deal with 200 year old citizens. Bailey wonders why bioconservatives -- or "promortalists" as he refers to them as -- see a nobility in death. "The highest expression of humanity dignity and human nature is to try and overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment," he writes. Future generations, he predicts, will look at us in askance at attempts to halt research into this area.
From there Bailey surveys the science behind disease fighting via gene therapy, something that many bioconservatives also find objectionable because its possible dual use purposes in enhancing native abilities -- before moving into far more controversial areas which include stem cell research, designer babies and human cloning. Arguing that no technology is inherently immoral, Bailey eviscerates many of the moral objections that bioconservatives bring up. Enforcing a "precautionary principle" on biotechnology because of their ethical qualms is denying humanity potent new tools which could improve people's lives, he argues.
"Ultimately, biotechnology is no different from any other technology -- humans must be allowed to experiment with it in order to find its best uses and, yes, to make and learn from mistakes in using it. Trying to decide in advance how a technology should be used is futile. The smartest commission ever assembled simply doesn't have the creativity of millions of human beings trying to live the best lives that that they can by trying out and developing new technologies.
Although it is biotechnology that Bailey and his opponents are debating, ultimately Liberation Biology is about defining morality. Bioconservatives -- both conservative and liberal -- demand that government be in charge of deciding what technologies are appropriate to pursue and which should be banned. Bailey counters that it is the individual that should empowered with that choice. Yes, there are some paths that should be avoided -- such as the creation of parahumans to serve as child-like slaves -- but most of the promise of biotechnology is the improvement of the human condition. From the food we eat to the minds and bodies we inhabit, biotechnology promises a new era in human history.
Will biotechnology, as Fukuyama argued in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, endanger liberal democracy? He believes potential advances in biotechnology promise to change human nature. Our political systems, therefore, will have to adapt to a new humanity. Instead of our benign society, he argues, we will leap into an uncertain future filled with genetic class warfare and the end of our brand of humanity. It's an argument that conveniently ignores that fact that man has been changing his nature -- for the better -- since time immemorial. Is a faster, stronger and more intelligent human being really a danger to society?
Ultimately what is so attractive about Bailey's arguments is that they allow us to imagine a positive future with biotech, not the standard doom and gloom that his critics predict. Given the polarized nature of the debate, however, Liberation Biology will probably end up preaching to the choir. That would be unfortunate because what Bailey has done is persuasively answer biotech's critics. He has met them on their ground and in most cases come away with the victory. Liberation Biology shouldn't merely be noted as yet another entry into the debate, but rather a challenge to biotech's opponents to build a stronger case if they wish to ultimately prevail.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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