Worrying New Signs of Interest in Re-engineering Humans

Posted by Pete Shanks February 23, 2012
Biopolitical Times

There may be a nascent resurgence of interest in the idea of engineering people. Outside of the limited circle of self-identified transhumanists, the complexities of the genome and the setbacks suffered by gene therapy seemed to dampen enthusiasm for germline "enhancement" in the first decade of this century. But a few recent signals suggest that this may be changing:

  • The Atlantic just published, on February 16th, an earnest article titled "More Than Human? The Ethics of Biologically Enhancing Soldiers." Author Patrick Lin, a professor of philosophy at Cal Poly who consults with the U.S. intelligence community, "In the next generation," Lin predicts, "our warfighters may be able to eat grass, communicate telepathically, resist stress, climb walls like a lizard, and much more."

  • Paul Root Wolpe, senior bioethicist at NASA, has posted a "Big Think" video, uploaded February 18th, about the routine enhancement of our children (perhaps grandchildren, perhaps sooner). He's not worried about that, he embraces it as inevitable, but expresses a vague concern about how different societies might choose different directions to take this. Americans, he suggests, might choose competitiveness and productivity; Europeans might choose to improve social life.

  • In a forthcoming article in Ethics, Policy & Environment, S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Ruache argue that "human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering" and that "it could help behavioural and market solutions succeed in mitigating climate change." We could, they suggest for example, be engineered to be smaller, averse to meat, and more altruistic.

How realistic are these prognostications? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), one of the agencies with which Lin has consulted, is already involved in enhancement research, from psycho-pharmaceuticals to "Z-Man" spider-inspired climbing aids. Consumer demand, which Wolpe sees as driving the enhancement of children, could perhaps be stoked to an almost equally strong force (though the product liability lawsuits could be onerous). And the imminent prospect of disruptive global climate change seems to be pushing some to consider absurdly far-fetched schemes.

Confronting these schemes, dreams, nightmares and fantasies is at the heart of what CGS has always tried to do. We need to encourage technologies that are useful, and offer realistic and compelling assessments of those that could potentially do harm. Those of us who fear the loss of what makes us most deeply human have a lot of work to do.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: