Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The abolition of man

Via Rand Simberg, an article by Will Saletan on a biotech conference about genetic modification of humans. It is a bit breathtaking to read of the disregard the scientists and engineers have for the doubts and concerns that most of the public have over such work.

From the point of view of the researchers, the basic problem is one of public relations. The poor idiots in the laity are full of prejudices and irrational fears. They have unscientific views about the human life. Millions believe, for example, that we must regard human life as sacred, and thus fundamental issues of human life must be approached with humility and awe. This kind of thing can get in the way of those who want to demystify the processes of life and take charge of them. So the genetic engineers must move carefully. If the millions get the wrong idea, they might use their political power to intervene and regulate, which of course they will do stupidly.

The concerns of the Great Unwashed must therefore be taken into account, not as serious intellectual and moral challenges, but simply as social and political obstacles to be countered by effective marketing.

The researchers are not bad people. They want to make sure that human beings -- the ones that are permitted to exist, anyway -- can lead healthy, happy lives. They really do believe that they are on the side of enlightenment and benevolence. A biologist I know once off-handedly remarked that she favored harvesting stem-cells from human embryos, etc. "I am not afraid," she announced, with a confident smile that let everyone know that she, at least, was not encumbered by medieval prejudice.

And I thought, Why the hell not?

I am no luddite. I am very reluctant to place constraints on the search for knowledge. I think that the alleviation of human suffering is among the noblest possible goals. It is true that I take a more spiritual view of human life than my more naturalistic and materialistic friends. But even if we are robots, shouldn't we have a little more fear and trembling as we grab a screwdriver and begin to pry open the black box on our chests marked "Control Unit"? The fact that we can become used to an idea, so that it no longer disturbs us or worries us, is really no sign that it shouldn't.

Other ... critics may ask, 'Why should you suppose that they will be such bad men?' But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what 'Humanity' shall henceforth mean. (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man)


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