in the Biotech Century
Well before its arrival, the
21st century had been dubbed the “biotech century.” The
oft-quoted statement of Robert F.
Curl, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, seems to have
played a role in this characterization: “[The
twentieth century] was the century of physics and chemistry. But it is
clear that the next century will be the century of biology.” And
Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Biotech
Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, probably
played a significant role in popularizing the idea that the new century
would be shaped in profound ways by the new biotechnologies.
But this sort of
characterization does not require the assessment of the experts. An
attentive and thoughtful observer of Newsweek, CNN, Wired, Business
Week, The New York Times, Scientific American, or the Weekly Standard
could have drawn the same conclusion. This conclusion could have been
reached simply by compiling a short list of the new vocabulary and by
reflecting on the significance of these new concepts: Designer babies.
Genomics. Reprogenetics. Cyborg. Fyborg. Gene chips. Gene surgery.
Cloning. Extropian. Xenotransplantation. Transhuman. Posthuman.
Many of the new
biotechnologies are revolutionary: cloning—the ability (since 1997) to
reproduce higher mammals from only one parent; the brain-computer
interface—the ability to manipulate a computer or robot by merely
thinking; Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD)—combining genetic
diagnostics with the technologies of in vitro fertilization to
permit screening of embryos before implantation in a mother’s womb,
screening both for genetic defects and for selecting the sex of the
child. And the list goes on….
In the past, such
developments were almost exclusively the domain of science fiction
writers and movie producers. But no longer! What was once science
fiction is becoming more science and less fiction.
The promises and the
Without question, many of
the new biotechnologies hold great promise for providing health and
healing. What could be more beneficial than a stroke victim regaining
the ability to communicate through a brain-computer interface? What
could be more promising than the development of drugs that prevent
transplanted organs from being rejected? What could be more helpful
than the treatment, with drugs such as Ritalin, of properly diagnosed
and clear-cut cases of ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder)?
But have we not crossed a
significant barrier if a brain implant is used to improve normal
functions, as has already been proposed for soldiers in combat? Have we
not crossed a major moral barrier when we permit recipients to pay, even
token amounts, to organ donors, as a way to encourage organ donation?
Isn’t the use of Ritlin to improve performance on an exam qualitatively
different from the use of Ritlin to control chronic ADHD?
Both Ritlin and the
brain implant raise ethical and moral questions about the uses of
technology for purposes other than healing. Many, if not most, of the
biotechnologies lend themselves to serving some sort of secondary market
that aims at improving humans and human performance, rather than merely
providing treatment for a disease or injury. It is in this secondary
market, where the goal is enhancement, or making humans “better than
well,” that the first steps have been taken toward altering what it
means to be human—the first steps toward redesigning human nature.
But paying for organ
donation raises yet another type of question, which relates to the
unintended consequences of technology. New drugs that prevent
transplant rejection have contributed to higher transplant success
rates, which has, in turn, increased the demand for organs. The supply
of organs, though, has not kept up with this rising demand. Paying the
families of deceased donors, by assisting with medical or burial
expenses, might increase the supply of organs, but it could also result
in a market for organs, potentially turning the human body into a
commodity. A thriving market for female eggs already exists in the
United States, and a thriving black market for organs exists in some
poorer countries, such as India, where a kidney from a healthy live
donor can be purchased for less that $2,000.
How the new biotechnologies
are used will have a profound affect on how we view our fellow human
beings and ourselves. By changing what can be done to and with the
human body, these technologies are altering the meaning of both medicine
and health. At a more profound level, they are changing what it means
to be a human being, with all of our abilities and limitations.
The new biotechnologies make
possible the “acting out” of a wide range of ideas—some old, some
new—about what it means to be a human being. The performance artist,
Sterlac, believes that the design of the human body is not fixed. He is
having a third ear crafted by cosmetic surgeons and plans to have the
ear grafted onto his arm. He may even have the ear designed to play
music, in contrast to the ear’s natural function of hearing music. For
Sterlac, the mind and the reason are the person. The body is an
accessory that can be redesigned according to one’s individual taste; it
can even serve as a malleable medium for artistic expression.
Transhumanism is an emerging
philosophy with gnostic ideas very much like those of Sterlac. The
Transhumanists advocate moving beyond the idea that “the
human species is…confined to what biological evolution has thus far
produced.” They argue that, since we have the ability through the new
biotechnologies to seize control of the evolutionary process, we should
now begin to direct our own evolution. The Transhumanists, who reject
the idea of the supernatural, would use reason, science, and technology
to redesign humans into beings that would not be recognizably
human—beings they would call “posthuman.”
Few medical scientists and
bioethicists are attracted to the more radical agenda of Transhumanism.
For example, very few of them would agree that it is, or will be,
possible, or even desirable, to “upload” human consciousness to a
computer designed to duplicate the function of the human brain. But,
both medical science and bioethics are predominately secular fields that
have much in common with the humanism of Transhumanism. Both, for the
most part, reject the supernatural and hold that solutions to the
world’s problems must, therefore, come solely from human intelligence
and human ingenuity. Consequently, a common vision is emerging between
some prominent scientists and bioethicist and the Transhumanists, a
vision that includes redesigning—modifying and “improving”—humans by
genetic, mechanical, and other means.
The dominant ethical system
in the medical sciences and in bioethics, as well as among the
Transhumanists, is utilitarianism, which, in simple terms, aims for
“the greatest good for the greatest
number.” In this equation, individuals lose significance because their
value and dignity are determined in relation to the good of others.
Value and dignity are not intrinsic; rather, they are external and
conferred, based on considerations of some greater good.
Living in the biotech
century presents a significant challenge for those of us who believe
that all human life must be treated with dignity because it is created
by God and in his image. As indicated above, the new biotechnologies
are changing the meaning of both medicine and health, and, at a more
profound level, they are changing what it means to be human.
But this assessment may
be, in some ways, too simple. Perhaps these biotechnologies also
reflect changes in the meaning of “human being” that have already
occurred. Historically, the goal of medicine has been to provide
healing and restore health. However, in the last three decades the
historic “do no harm” ethic of the Hippocratic tradition has been
undermined by a radical emphasis on individual autonomy. Physician
assisted suicide is the most obvious example of individual rights
outweighing all other considerations. Patients have the right to
physician assistance, it is argued, even in taking their own lives.
Another innovation is illustrated by the increasing use of medicine for
“enhancement,” a role that one observer has described as making patients
“better than well.” The goal of enhancement is not healing but rather
the improvement of function beyond what is natural. Thus, medical
enhancement and physician assisted suicide illustrate how individual
autonomy has come to redefine “human being” in terms of individual
choices and preferences, replacing the more objective, traditional roles
of medicine and health.
“Human nature itself lies on
the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic
‘enhancement,’ for wholesale redesign,” writes Leon Kass, University of
Chicago professor and chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
His challenge: “[F]or anyone who cares about preserving our humanity,
the time has come for paying attention.”
It is the purpose of The
Humanitas Project to take up this challenge to “pay attention.”
the Latin word from which we get the English word “humanity,” was
suggested for our name by the quote from Dr. Kass, since he raises the
central issue of debate in the biotech century: “What does it mean to
be a human being?”
The Humanitas Project,
a nonprofit organization, is committed to providing educational
resources that aid in understanding the new biotechnologies and the
impact they are having in contemporary culture. We also hope that these
resources contribute to a better understanding of the culture that
encourages these technologies to develop and flourish. To this end, we
have begun a variety of educational initiatives, focusing primarily on
the church but including secular audiences as well: speaking, writing,
an e-mail newsletter, a newspaper column, seminars and conferences, and
this website. Please contact us if you would like additional
information about any of these.
The Humanitas Project:
for Bioethics Education
P.O. Box 2282
Cookeville, Tennessee 38502