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Transhumanists Declare the “Right” to be Super-Human

Genetic Crossroads
June 29th, 2006

A group that advocates using genetic and other technologies to transform human beings into “posthumans” with new and expanded abilities held a conference May 26-28 titled “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights.” The event was organized by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies at Stanford Law School.

bullet Read a Crossroads exclusive on the transhumanist conference by CGS' Osagie Obasogie: "Slanting the Playing Field," below.

bullet Read Will Saletan’s Slate article on this conference: "Cut-off Genes: Our gentle descent toward eugenics."

Slanting the Playing Field
By CGS Project Director Osagie Obasogie

Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant has said that if you want to predict the next big social issue, look at the sports pages. The scandal surrounding Barry Bonds’ alleged use of steroids has turned baseball fans across the country into a focus group of sorts on the question of whether people should be able to change their bodies with technologies in order to achieve superhuman feats. As Bonds passed Ruth on the all-time home run list, the public passed its judgment: Mounting evidence of his steroid use has led him to be widely judged as a cheat and an embarrassment to baseball.

But just as Bonds’ home run number 715 was sailing into the stands, a conference a few miles down the road at Stanford was celebrating the prospect of using new technologies in ways similar to Bonds. The playing field on which these conference participants want an advantage, however, is not the baseball diamond but society at large. What in sports is called “doping” or “juicing,” this group—known as transhumanists—calls “enhancing:” using genetic, pharmaceutical, and information technologies to create superior human beings who are smarter, stronger, or more attractive than the rest of us.

It’s often difficult to take transhumanists seriously. Genetically engineering people to suit their fantasies seems more suitable for a summer movie blockbuster like X-Men 3 than the esteemed halls of Stanford Law School. But the transhumanists are gathering a disturbing number of adherents who are dismissive of the social consequences of their advocacy. And in many respects, science is converging quickly with science fiction.

Take cloning, for example. July 5 marks the ten-year anniversary of the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Since then, cows, pigs, horses, and other species have been cloned. And for a mere $32,000, Sausalito-based Genetics Savings and Clone is willing to clone your cat. Technically speaking, this may be a few short steps to cloning human beings.

But transhumanists don’t want simply to replicate today’s humans. They want to design tomorrow’s. Among the proposals floated at their conference: selecting babies’ traits from gene catalogues, genetically blueprinting athletes for maximum performance, living to the age of 300 and beyond, producing children with three parents, designing children’s personalities and emotions. 

Transhumanists typically advance two arguments to support their views. First, they say that the enhancements they envision are no different than those we already accept. We design or enhance our children, for example, by choosing mates with certain skin or eye color, by sending our children to certain schools, or by giving them Suzuki violin lessons at age six.  Don’t these technologies simply give us better control over what we’re already doing?

Second, they argue that everyone has a right to do with their bodies as they please, and, more importantly, no one else has a right to deny the use of these enhancements simply because they may be unpopular. This distinction between positive and negative rights is central to their creed; otherwise, this conference would have been held at Stanford’s biology department, not its law school.

A bit of clear thinking is desperately needed. We all want to see new technologies that can treat or cure diseases, and surely we “enhance” ourselves in various ways, from going to the gym to taking golf lessons. But to blindly compare transhumanist-style enhancements—especially those that produce irreversible changes to the human genome that will be passed from generation to generation—to routine activities and medicines is as misguided as saying that steroids are simply a more efficient alternative to weight lifting. And surely we do not want to put the human gene pool at risk from the inconvenient truth that disaster can result when we irresponsibly muck with natural systems, including human biology.
 
There’s also a huge societal risk here: A world in which some people are genetically juiced is all too likely to be a world in which inequality is encoded in our genes. Will those with “enhancements”—either actual or perceived—monopolize positions of power, wealth, and authority, while the “normals” are left further and further behind? The battles for justice of the last half of the twentieth century were fought mainly along the lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Will this century’s battles also need to be fought  around who has which set of enhancements?
             
Transhumanism may very well be “the world’s most dangerous idea,” as Francis Fukuyama has called it, if only because it represents yet another shameful attempt to justify—and to encourage—hierarchies between humans where none need to be.  It’s quite clear how the public feels about using technology to make some individuals superior to others. Just go to any ballpark outside of San Francisco when Barry Bonds is up to bat.


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