Living 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.  Bioinformatics.  Techno-sapien. 



The technologies…


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 perils…


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 ideas…


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.



The challenge…


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.



Paying attention…


“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.”  Humanitas, 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.


Thank you,





Michael Poore

Executive Director

The Humanitas Project:

    A Center for Bioethics Education

P.O. Box 2282

Cookeville, Tennessee 38502