May 11, 2003
Leon Kass On Ageless Bodies And Happy Souls

Writing in the brand new and promising magazine The New Atlantis Leon Kass, chairman of George W. Bush's President’s Council on Bioethics, worries about biotech's ability to cause a greater amount of conformity in human societies. (bold emphasis added)

As with cosmetic surgery, Botox, and breast implants, the enhancement technologies of the future will likely be used in slavish adherence to certain socially defined and merely fashionable notions of “excellence” or improvement, very likely shallow, almost certainly conformist.

This special kind of restriction of freedom—let’s call it the problem of conformity or homogenization—is in fact quite serious. We are right to worry that the self-selected non-therapeutic uses of the new powers, especially where they become widespread, will be put in the service of the most common human desires, moving us toward still greater homogenization of human society—perhaps raising the floor but greatly lowering the ceiling of human possibility, and reducing the likelihood of genuine freedom, individuality, and greatness. (This is Tocqueville’s concern about the leveling effects of democracy, now augmented by the technological power to make them ingrained and perhaps irreversible.) Indeed, such homogenization may be the most important society-wide concern, if we consider the aggregated effects of the likely individual choices for biotechnical “self-improvement,” each of which might be defended or at least not objected to on a case-by-case basis.

Note that his fear of conformity is not chiefly of a Brave New World type where everyone is genetically engineered to be the same. He thinks that even in a society with a great deal of personal freedom people will use biotechnology to make themselves more like each other. Imagine every woman getting the same breast job to have identical sized breasts or every person getting a perfect set of teeth that look just like everyone else's perfect set of teeth. Or imagine every guy getting treatments to turn their biceps into exactly the same buff size.

Incompatible Personality Types Are A Greater Threat Than Conformity

The odd thing about Leon Kass's writings on biotechnology and bioethics is that on one hand he has plenty of fears about biotech and yet on the other hand he seems to bring such a classical humanities mindset to his analysis that he does not have a good sense of where the big dangers lie. Conformity as the biggest problem from widespread enhancement of self and offspring? This seems implausible. There will be too many ways to enhance self and offspring, too many differences in tastes, and too much competition to try to make oneself look unique for that to happen. The whole purpose of haute coutere is to allow the cutting edge to look different than the rest of the populace and there is a vigorous competition to stay ahead and to look different. This competition combined with the considerable variation in tastes, values, and interests that exist in human populations could well interact with the capabilities that biotechnology will provide to create a future where the human race will split into different factions and groups that have increasingly less in common.

People will inevitably try to give their children genetic enhancements for specific purposes. Some will attach greater importance to musical ability or language skills or mechanical and mathematical reasoning skills. A competitive person will want to create a child with a very competitive personality. A committed pacifist will want to produce a child who has an aversion to violence and conflict. Sprinter track athletes will, on average, make different choices for their offspring than distance runners. But they both make different choices than tennis players who in turn will make different choices than golfers. One reason has to do with the physical demands of these sports. But they also have very different mental demands. Team sports demand different personality characteristics than solitary sports. Sports that involve facing a competitor in a direct struggle place different demands on a person than sports that require solitary concentration.

Look at professional occupations. Surgeons will make different choices than primary care physicians. For instance, the surgeons may place greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination potential where the primary care physician will see greater value in verbal skills and empathetic personality. A trial attorney will bring different priorities to a judgement about personality characteristics than will an attorney who practices corporate law that requires much time working on documents to create carefully crafted financial contracts. A patent attorney will bring yet another mindset to the same question of what personality characteristics to choose for offspring. A CPA working closely with any of those attorneys will bring yet another set of life experiences, patterns of thinking, and values to the question.

The point here is that people will tend to favor giving their children abilities that match their own strengths, interests, and aspirations. Since different people have different strengths and interests and since there is some trade-off between different kinds of abilities (e.g. clearly the case in muscle fiber types for sprinters and distance runners) the existing differences in occupations and abilities in the human population will tend to cause a divergence in the kinds of genetic endowment choices that people make for their offspring.

Kass has a stronger case for conformity on the question of outward appearances. In terms of appearance parents will tend to opt to choose genetic combinations that produce more pleasing appearances. In some sense that will cause a convergence as fewer children are born with physically less appealing appearances. But even here humans will not converge on a single ideal form. There is no single most preferred ideal appearance. For instance, there is considerable variation in opinions on ideal breast size in women and ideal butt size and shape in both men and women. If women are choosing the genes for their children then different decisions will be made than if men are doing it. If a couple makes the choices thru a process of negotiating a compromise then yet another different average set of choices will be made and the kind of dialog that will happen between a man and a woman to make offspring genetic endowment decision will not simply produce an average outcome that represents combined averages of only men or only women making the decisions. Since all these cases will happen (e.g. men will have a bigger say in Muslim countries while women will have a bigger say in the West) this will be yet another source of variation in the choices that will be made for the genes that future generations of progeny will be given.

Another source of differences in offspring genetic endowment choices will be pop culture fads. Let a woman with a particular appearance be the star of a hit movie or singer of a hit song and then some people will choose to make their offspring patterned after her. This could even go as far as copying her DNA. As I've previously argued, genetic privacy will be impossible to protect. A superstar will be at risk of having a skin or saliva sample stolen from them to be sequenced in cheap compact DNA sequencing machines. But the following year a different fad will take off. Also, the large number of cable and satellite channels and their trends are causing a fracturing of pop culture into more subcultures. Different groups will follow different fads. While one group of women will be trying to have daughters that look like Selena another group will be trying to have daughters that look like Madonna or Pink or Murphy Brown or Jennifer Lopez. Meanwhile the guys will be pushing for Jeri Ryan or Jolene Blalock look-alikes.

A Distinction Between Biotechnology And Medicine?

Kass tries to draw what I see is a false distinction between biotechnology and medicine.

Although this is not the time and place to develop this point further, it is worth noting that attempts to alter our nature through biotechnology are different from both medicine and education or child-rearing. It seems to me that we can more-or-less distinguish the pursuit of bodily and psychic perfection from the regular practice of medicine. To do so, we need to see that it is not true, as some allege, that medicine itself is a form of mastery of nature. When it functions to restore from deviation or deficiency some natural wholeness of the patient, medicine acts as servant and aid to nature’s own powers of self-healing.

What is natural wholeness? Picture a healthy liver. Picture a liver that is diseased. Well, imagine some future drug that binds to every diseased liver cell and causes it to commit cell suicide (apoptosis) so that healthy liver cells can replicate and replace the sick cells. To treat the same disease condition instead imagine a future gene therapy sent in to reprogram the sick liver cells to become healthy again. The same outcome is achieved: all healthy liver cells. Imagine a third case where a new liver is grown and then transplanted into the body to replace the diseased liver. Imagine a fourth case where a hormone is discovered that will encourage adult stem cells in the body to mobilize and move to the liver to replace diseased cells. The "deviation or deficiency" from "some natural wholeness" is restored in all cases. Are any of these approaches not properly called medicine? If so, why?

It is difficult to understand what point Kass is trying to make. Does one step outside of the bounds of nature or of the intended natural order if one manipulates human flesh at too low of a level and with too fine a level of control? Or is the problem that the risk of abuse is too great if our powers to do manipulation become too great?

Choosing The Essential Qualities Of Humanity

Kass is worried that biotechnology will allow the alteration of essential qualities of what it means to be human. We may eventually be able to change ourselves or our offspring to no longer be human.

In short, only if there is a human givenness, or a given humanness, that is also good and worth respecting, either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself, does the “given” serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone. Only if there is something precious in the given—beyond the mere fact of its giftedness—does what is given serve as a source of restraint against efforts that would degrade it.

Before medicine advanced far enough to make abortion a fairly low risk procedure we did not have to worry much about where human life began. Before life support equipment become so sophisticated that it could keep alive brain dead people we similarly did not have to worry much about where human life ended. But advances in technology require that we define human life more carefully. One can react to these advances in a few ways:

  • Outlaw the use of technologies and procedures that can create situations where the humanness of a life form is hard to discern.
  • Take a laissez faire attitude and simply do not worry about it.
  • Try to break down what it means to be a human in far greater detail and justify the value of various qualities of some humans and identify and defend which qualities must be included or excluded in future offspring

People who are properly fearful of the dangers of biotechnology who do not want to face hard questions of what it means to be a human tend to opt for the first choice. Don't want to decide whether the human brain grafted onto a lion's body should be accorded full human rights? Ban it. Don't want to decide whether various genetic enginering modifications of offspring change a human into something else and, importantly, something that threatens humanity then just ban it. But recognize this reaction for what it is: it represents a desire to avoid a reductionist approach to breaking down humanity into its component parts to define it unsentimentally and without religious awe. Basically, the discoveries of biological science and their exploitation by biotechnology (which makes human nature infinitely mutable) force us to give up a certain form of religious belief about human nature as an indivisible whole.

The most radical libertarians tend toward the second view. Individual humans, endowed with basic unalienable rights, will, as free agents, make the best decisions and use biotechnology to engineer better future generations. There is an element of technological utopianism to this view where humans really are perfectible if only the unfettered market is allowed to work with infinite wisdom.

The third view is in some ways harder to hold because it requires one to feel the least amount of sentimentality or religious awe about human nature. It is not inherently optimistic. We are what we are and until we figure out all the myriad consequences of what we are and what biotechnology and other technology will enable us to become we can not predict with any assurance whether we will create a utopia, a dystopia, a splintering of the human race, or extinction of our species. It requires a very reductionist approach to trying to understand human nature as a product of evolution and with considerable variation in personality types and intellectual abilities across the human population as a result of different selective pressures and mutational events in various locales down thru history.

One of the biggest problems with the third view is that biological science is inevitably going to discover a variety of genotypic variations which produce personality and behavior phenotypes which cause varying degrees of problems for the rest of us. Some genotypes will be discovered that dramatically increase the odds that someone will commit violent crimes such as murder and rape and armed robbery. In other cases the genotypes will be discovered to code for more narcissistic and less fair and less considerate personailties.

The Components Of Human Nature Must Be Defined Scientifically

The ability to do personality engineering poses a basic challenge to certain religious views of human nature by making it seem to be less a manifestation of a supernatural spirit or soul. This might explain why a lot of religious conservatives who are opposed to germ line genetic engineering have not been able to articulate a better argument against it. The greatest danger that we face in maintaining human society is that individual people and governments could choose to place genes into offspring that make them incompatible with a free and open society. The possibilities range far beyond the ability to make people happy and resistant to depression and anxiety. It will become possible to genetically engineer extremely dangerous predatory psychopaths, cunningly manipulative narcissists devoid of consciences, or extreme compliant workers of a totalitarian state. Personality genetic engineering could be enormously beneficial and yet at the same time it has the potential to destroy the human race. But to appreciate the full potential of personality genetic engineering we must approach human nature as made up of a number of separately manipulable components.

While the debate about bioethics and biotechnology is far more vigorous on the political Right than on the political Left (leaving aside the European fears about biotech in agriculture - fears which are not based on scientific understandings for the most part) the Right's debate has not been terribly productive so far. The reason for this is simple: to have a productive debate about the effects of biotechnology on human nature and human society requires that we adopt a far more scientific view of human nature. To the extent that participants in the debate on the political Right are unwilling to do that they run the risk of making themselves irrelevant to efforts to address the real problems posed by advances in biotechnology.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 May 11 05:34 PM  Biotech Society


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