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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

When Your Worst Critic Becomes Your Best Friend

Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has expressed concern over NIH funding for the development of ethical guidelines for human genetic enhancement.

A new age of tax-funded eugenics has just officially begun. On April 29 Medical News Today announced that Case Law School in Cleveland was receiving $773,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the use of human subjects in what could be the next frontier in medical technology -- genetic enhancement."

Professor of law and bioethics Max Mehlman will lead a team of law professors, physicians, and bioethicists in a two-year project aimed at exploring guidelines for altering the human species through genetic enhancement. This development signals a gargantuan shift in tax-funded genetic science.

Though I eschew the political aspects of these debates, I do feel that a wider, better informed discussion of emerging and already existing human enhancement methods is a very good idea. Though much of Mitchell's article simply laid down a hard line against the augmentation of human biology, he did eventually explain some of the reasoning behind his strongly held opinions.
Have we learned none of the lessons of the older eugenic age? Since those less-than-halcyon days we have been spending huge amounts of legal and social capital trying to convince American culture that all human beings have equal rights and ought to be valued as much as another, regardless of their ethnicity, abilities, disabilities, gender or age. We have been teaching our children that, regardless of genetic traits, we are to respect one another, bear one another’s burdens, and celebrate our inherited differences.

Now we seem to be standing on the precipice prepared to throw all of those hard-earned lessons into the abyss of a technocratic utopianism that is ready to create new inequalities.

How many will have to die in human re-design experiments to show us this is a really bad idea? Moreover, through genetic enhancement we will inevitably create at least two genetic classes of people: the gene-enhanced and the rest of us. We have not even figured out how to solve access to healthcare for therapeutic and preventive goals. How do we hope even to begin a discussion about equal access to genetic modification for enhancement purposes?

Here’s how the strategy will work: Mehlman and colleagues will begin a search for the most emotionally compelling marginal cases to show that a fine line between therapy and enhancement cannot be maintained. They will argue that in “rare” cases, re-engineering can be justified in a liberal society that respects “freedom” and “autonomy.” And one day we will all wake up in the movie "Gattaca." Worse, future generations will inherit the whirlwind we created.
Again, while I eschew the political debates on these issues, I do embrace the social and economic questions, since that is an area -- at least at the local level -- where I can influence just how these resources are assessed and possibly used.

Mitchell's politically oriented criticisms are actually quite useful for assessing your own plans and any local augmentation projects you may have or be developing. Why? Because however accurate or unfair you may feel his analysis of human augmentation as a whole may be, they are a worthwhile cautionary perspective -- a lens through which you can view your own work.

Are you dismissive of human equality? Will your plans encourage dramatic inequalities and perhaps the emergence of an unchallengable elite? Do you have adequate safety protocols for any biotech or cybertech projects under your supervision or established by your funding? Do you have any plans for equal access to your enhancement procedures, once safety and effectiveness have been determined?

Are you simply looking to find some kind of a crack in regulatory barriers to usher in a future no one else in your society would wish for, on the assumption that you know best?

All questions, to be blunt, that any project leader or founder should consider carefully, even if their field, as a whole, is utterly innocent of such intentions. Or completely driven by them.

Bio, Soc
Future Imperative


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