IEET > J. Hughes
Human Enhancement on the Agenda
J. Hughes   Oct 31, 2004   BetterHumans  

From bioethicists to nanotech geeks, the enhancement debate is stirring the pot

By James Hughes

President Clinton appointed the second presidential-level bioethics commission, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC),in 1995 to advise on the permissibility of human cloning. It was the only one appointed since President Carter’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Not because Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. didn’t want to establish bioethics commissions, but because the Christian Right insisted that any such commissions be stacked with antiabortion thinkers, while the majority of bioethicists were pro-choice. This led to a stalemate until Clinton, free from pro-life obligations, appointed a commission that, as did Carter’s, represented bioethicists.

The NBAC recommended no restrictions on the cloning of embryos for stem cell research and therapy, and a five year moratorium on human reproductive cloning. This infuriated the Christian Right, and when George W. Bush was appointed president by the US Supreme Court, religious conservatives had an opening for payback in the form of conservative thinker Leon Kass and the President's Council on Bioethics (PCB) that he chaired.

Stacked with conservative intellectuals, and even replacing two of the few liberals with conservatives in 2003, the PCB recommended a moratorium on embryonic stem cell research and a permanent ban on human reproductive cloning. Then Kass led the PCB in consideration of the dangers of human enhancement medicine, leading to the bioconservative tome Beyond Therapy. This year they are deliberating "neuroethics" and cognitive enhancement.

American bioethicists were not amused by Kass's appointment, the PCB's partisanship or its preoccupations, and they have grown increasingly angry about the exclusion of the bioethics community from the PCB's deliberations. But Kass is the Bioethics Czar, and Beyond Therapy the major bioethics document of the last year. So Kass and his neoconservative aide de camp on the PCB, Francis Fukuyama, were invited to give the keynote address at this year's meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) in Philadelphia.

The resulting Kass panel brouhaha had the assembled abuzz for the rest of the weekend. Talking to the bioethicists in Philadelphia in its wake, after having spent the previous weekend with angry, divided nanotechnologists in Washington, I had a growing realization that both communities are being forced to choose sides in the increasing biopolitical polarization between transhumanists and bioconservatives.

Bioethics brouhaha

At the ASBH, Kass vigorously defended the PCB and insisted that precisely because he had stacked the PCB with conservative intellectuals it was the most balanced presidential bioethics advisory committee ever. His defense of his ethical concerns were, as usual, the iron fist of bio-Luddite bans veiled behind a thick velvet fog of "important questions" and hand-wringing about "human dignity." Delivered by any other bioethics leader at any other time, the audience would have politely applauded. But Kass is not your typical bioethicist, and five days before this apocalyptic election in the US, tensions were high.

The invitation to Kass had roiled the bioethics community since it was announced. Leading the charge was Rosamond Rhodes, a bioethicist from that veteran breeding ground of radicals, the City University of New York City. Just elected to the ASBH's executive, Rhodes insisted that Kass's partisan approach to his job and his campaigning against embryonic stem cell research made him an inappropriate keynoter. After the ASBH board refused to rescind the invitation, Rhodes and allies held up protest signs at the event.

Although most of the audience was too cautious to join Rhodes' protest, they gave a rousing response to Laurie Zoloth, who followed Kass. Zoloth said the PCB's work was flawed because it mourned a lost, romanticized and fictional "nature," and yearned for a sentimental past. Gruesomely, noted Zoloth, Beyond Therapy argues that death defines us. But since we've already eaten the forbidden apple, we can't go back to the garden of pastoral simplicity. Instead of debating the evils of immortality the bioethics commission should have confronted the crushing needs for health care of the sick, aging and poor. The poor, she thundered, were the ones truly "beyond therapy." The crowd gave her a standing ovation. (The next day when Kass spoke at the Christian Right "Technosapiens" confab in Washington, DC he was reportedly still shaken by the encounter.)

Eric Juengst then pointed out two key problems with Kassism: The illusory boundary that Kass, Fukuyama and their PCB tried to draw between therapy and enhancement and their attempt to quash the use of technology that might facilitate human variety. We need to allow different human ideals to flourish and encourage people to respect difference and equality across them. Technology isn't the problem, said Juengst, but human desires and intolerance.

A return to brandy and cigars

The rancor of the Kass appearance was addressed again when Tom Beauchamp and James Childress received a joint lifetime achievement award for their work in having founded the dominant "principleist" approach to bioethics. Principleism, or the "Georgetown mantra," tries to analyze dilemmas in terms of the three or four principles of autonomy, justice and beneficence/nonmalfeasance. It's ironic that bioethicists ever thought they were above politics when these core principles were simply a translation of the French revolutionary slogans of libert�, egalit�, fraternit�. But Beauchamp nostalgically called for a return to friendly debates over brandy and cigars, and decried the new liberal-conservative factionalism among bioethicists.

James Childress, who had served on Clinton's NBAC, also addressed the breakdown of parlor-room civility in bioethics, but singled out the effort to force religious rationales back into debates as one of the causes. He noted that the NBAC had gathered religious perspectives as part of its deliberations, but that policy advice in a liberal democratic, religiously pluralistic society has to be grounded in secular democratic principles, not "my God don't like it."

Of fetuses and fish, brains and the future

One ASBH workshop in the crosshairs of these issues addressed the moral status of the embryo. Philosopher Jeff McMahon reviewed the personhood-ensoulment-yuck-factor debate that is also central to the debate about posthuman possibilities. McMahon set aside arguments for the ensoulment of embryos, pointing out in passing the enormous ontological problems the idea has, such as what to do with conjoined twins with two heads on one body? What is important in life, he argued, is our conscious experience. We are embodied minds, not bodies that happen to have minds. As a consequence, fetuses develop moral status at some point in the fifth month of gestation when they grow enough neurons to have conscious experience.

The problem here is Peter Singer's nonanthropocentric challenge: Why does a human fetus get more moral status for having a flicker of consciousness than a dog who understands a vocabulary of a hundred commands? Maggie Little, a bioethicist at Georgetown, rejoindered that we should value the fetus not because it is a rights-bearer in its own right, but because people have warm and fuzzy feelings for them, a version of the yuck factor approach. This is also part of the commonsense argument for why humans are morally different from apesbecause we feel like it. Which is just as philosophically meaningful as the old emotive rationales for racism. If enough people feel warm and fuzzy about their teddy bears do we call them "human beings" too?

But the really special thing about this year's ASBH was the visibility of the new field of "neuroethics." There were panels on lie detection, the ethics of brain imaging, changes in identity in dementia, and one on the future of neuroethics. Martha Farah and Geoffrey Aguirre, from the new neuroethics project at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed the various brain imaging techniques and their myriad imaging problems. As usual, as people in the midst of their field, they were pessimistic about the possibility that we would ever reach the more "science fictional" possibilities of complete mental state mapping. Aguirre suggested it would take 900 gigabytes data storage a second to record every state of every neuron in a brain. Combined with the difficulties of achieving neuron-state resolution, they were even pessimistic about contemporaneous research on brain fingerprinting.

Zack Lynch, the rising star in neuro-consulting, predicted a "neurosociety," fueled by emoticeuticals and cogniceuticals, driving economic and political change. Lynch argued that neurotechnologies will have a more immediate effect on society than gene therapy and will face less resistance as a pathway of radical human enhancement. He also argued that the concept of "neuro-enablement" needed to be added to the debate over "therapy" versus "enhancement."

George Khushf, director of the University of South Carolina's bioethics program, and a rising star in the field of nanotechnology ethics, argued that bioethicists have made themselves boring and irrelevant by trying to find the middle ground in the debate between bioconservatives and transhumanists. By excluding these voices from the bioethical debate they have excluded the big questions about values and the future of humanity.

Millennial nanopolicy

Those big questions had not been excluded, however, in Washington, DC the previous weekend at the Foresight Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology. The Foresight Institute, founded and directed by nano-visionary Eric Drexler, has been laboring in the wilderness for a long time trying to create a buzz about molecular manufacturing and nanorobotics. Now Foresighters are pretty frustrated that the buzz is finally here, but the nanomaterials people have run off with all the money from the National Nanotechnology Initiative, locking out any research into Foresight's vision of molecular manufacturing. So they decided to bring the gospel to the Beltway, to a Marriott one subway stop beyond the Pentagon.

Despite their setbacks, Washington still appeared quite anxious to listen. More than 360 people showed up when Foresight had expected only 200.

The first day of the Foresight meeting was devoted to progress on the technical steps toward molecular manufacturing, the second day to applications, and the third day to politics and policy. Woven throughout, however, was an attempt to show that nano-innovation, and eventual molecular manufacturing, would help with sustainable development problems in the developing world.

For instance, Gayle Pergamit, working on developing and marketing a nanotech-based artificial kidney, pointed out how the nanomaterial research for biofilters will also be applicable to water filtration and desalination. Bryan Bruns, a development sociologist who has championed the open sourcing of nanotechnology, argued that nanotechnology would provide improved and cheaper water purification, solar energy production, communication and medicine.

Chris Phoenix, director of research for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, talked about how the planet could easily sustain 100 billion people once molecular manufacturing is applied to sustainable development. Unfortunately, he noted, there would be some concentration of wealth, the economy may collapse, and the owners of the patents on the nanofactories will become increasingly powerful. (Libertarian economist David Freidman begged to differ in his presentationthe market would provide new jobs.)

The effect of nano on international economic and military competition, and the consequent need for transnational regulation, was addressed by a number of speakers. Robert Haak reviewed the enormous Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese government nanotechnology initiatives. Gary Marchant discussed the difficulties we have faced trying to regulate nuclear and biological weapons, which have no dual civilian use. Regulating molecular manufacturing, when the same device that makes your soy burger can make a bioweapon, will be 10 times harder.

Can't keep transhumanism down

So like the bioethicists, the nanotechnologists were grappling with the needs of the world's poor. But they were likewise divided by the politics of human enhancement.

Many panelists enthusiastically noted the ways that nanorobotics will make possible radical body modification. For instance Robert Freitas, author of Nanomedicine, talked about his proposals for respirocytes, nanorobot red blood cells, which he thinks will be feasible within 20 years. Respirocytes would be a thousand times more efficient at providing oxygen than organic red blood cells. Similarly, artificial platelets or "clottocytes" could provide immediate clotting at the site of wounds at 10,000 times the efficiency of natural platelets. Microbiovores, or robot killer cells, would supplement the immune system and be programmed to kill novel pathogens and cancers. Molecular assembly even offers the manufacture of chromosomes to order that could then be used in gene therapy. Phoenix noted that these kinds of nano-enhancements will speed up clinical trials and medical innovation by making it possible to reverse the harmful effects of experimental drugs and technologies.

But the bioconservatives were well-represented by Adam Keiper, managing editor of the journal The New Atlantis, the unofficial journal of Kass's bioethics commission, published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Keiper arranged for the EPPC and The New Atlantis to endorse the conference, and he blogged every talk and posted video clips of speakers. Why did a biocon get so excited about a gathering of transhumanist-inclined nano-geeks?

In the summer of 2003 Keiper published his essay "The Nanotechnology Revolution" in The New Atlantis, in which he noted that the only opposition to nanotechnology at that time was from nutty leftists and environmentalists (although the Christian Right joined the fray shortly after that). Dismissing concerns about safety, equity and unemployment (the market would provide) he outlined what he thought the real debate over nano should be: the "extinctionist challenge" of transhumanism, deciding how much "we tinker with and revise our bodies," and whether we "choose a future as men or machines." According to Keiper:

The era of nanotechnology may be one of hubris and overreach, where we use our godlike powers to make the world anew....Those who care about the deeper questionsabout what nanotechnology means for human naturemust also master the details, both political and scientific. And they must offer not only lamentations for the disruptions and dehumanization that nanotechnology might cause, but a sensible vision of how nanotechnology might do some practical good...


In other words, bioconservatives need to join the nanotech movement, champion everything short of radical changes in the human body, and militate against transhumanists.

When Keiper spoke, he smirked that the molecular manufacturing faction was "getting its ass whipped" politically, and then tempted the crowd with the possibility of future federal largesse. There were only a couple things the Foresighters had to do to clean up their act and start winning the big bucks. One was to examine the disproportionate number of political extremists in their ranks, mentioning "anarcho-capitalists" and "neo-Marxists" in particular. They weren't going to get anywhere politically unless they joined the political power structure as it is, such as, for instance, the GOP. They also needed to stop tipping their hat to the UN, which he noted was despised in Washington (at least by his friends).

The final conclusion he offered the audience: shun transhumanists. The "great political realignment" that is emerging, he argued, is between transhumanists of right and left, and those on the right and left who fear the "dangers of human hubris." If the nano-enthusiasts want to get their horse ridden they need to ensure their prospects don't rise or fall along with those of transhumanism.

So call me a Pollyanna, but this made me smile. A flack from the party that controls all three branches of government, who sits in an office in a multimillion dollar complex on Capitol Hill serving as an adjunct to Kass's cleansing of American bioethics of post-Reformation ideas, funded by the bottomless coffers of the conservatives churches, foundations and corporations, this young policy warrior thinks the most important political intervention he can make is to get nanotechers to cut loose transhumanists?

Keiper is certainly right that a battle royale between bioconservatives and transhumanists is brewing in US politics. From ground-zero communities such as bioethicists and nanotechnologists, the struggle for our right to use technology to control our own bodies and minds is spreading. But before people are tempted to follow Keiper's advice and sign up with the biocons, they might want to ask Kass whether he thinks he's winning or losing.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

COMMENTS No comments

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: To the core of porcine matter: Evaluating arguments against producing transgenic pigs

Previous entry: Transhumanism at the Crossroads