Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, May 24, 2010

Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?

Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?

(Hat tip: NYT slideshow accompanying this article.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

comments broken

Folks, our blogging platform appears to be having a system-wide problem that's preventing us from approving comments. Any comments made before this problem is fixed might or might not end up disappearing permanently. We'll let you know when it's resolved.

UPDATE: Things seem to be up and running again; comment away!

Nick Carr on "addiction" addiction

Nick Carr, talking about our collective move to Internet immersion, makes some excellent points about the way we talk about technological change, the first of them similar to a point I made recently about how the ways we talk about the real and potential social impacts of new technologies allow us to distance ourselves from thinking they apply to us:
The problem with the addiction metaphor [to describe Internet use] ... is that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of "Internet addiction" as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse....

The addiction metaphor also distorts the nature of technological change by suggesting that our use of a technology stems from a purely personal choice — like the choice to smoke or to drink. An inability to control that choice becomes, in this view, simply a personal failing. But while it's true that, in the end, we're all responsible for how we spend our time, it's an oversimplification to argue that we're free "to choose" whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is Transhumanism a Religion?

In late April, blogger Michael Anissimov claimed that we are all transhumanists now, in part because

At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self‑modification.

Just a few days ago, on the other hand, Mr. Anissimov observed that “When theists call the Singularity movement ‘religious,’ they are essentially saying, ‘Oh no, this scientifically‑informed philosophy is intruding on our traditional turf!’”

My point in juxtaposing these two passages is not only to suggest that it is not fully clear just who is intruding on whose turf, but also to suggest that the whole issue seems to be miscast. Back when I was writing about environmentalism I came across those who thought environmentalism was somehow a religion, and for that reason alone deeply problematic. That they would often speak of it as a “secular religion” already struck me as odd, not quite like talking about a “square circle” but close.

In response, I paraphrased a passage from T. S. Eliot (“Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion”) to suggest that if environmentalism is a substitute for religion, it is because our religion is already a substitute for religion. Something of the same idea applies to transhumanism in its various forms. If it looks like a religion, that is probably because so many have a pretty degraded conception of what “religion” — and here I speak of the Biblical religions — is all about. Let me suggest it is not fundamentally angels.

At root, Biblical religion is about there being a God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world. At root, transhumanism is not about any of these things; so far as I can tell for most transhumanists there is no God and we are the only source of expectations about how we should live in the world. It is very hard for me to understand in what sense one of these belief systems can substitute for another. True, both of them can be strongly held, both of them can serve as a guide to life. You can even say both depend on faith, to the extent that a good deal of transhumanism depends on evidence of what is as yet unseen. So I suppose that if you define religion as “a strongly held guide to life that depends on faith” then you can have a secular religion and it could be transhumanism.

But that definition seems to me to miss the point — like saying that Coke can serve as a substitute for red wine because both of them are dark-colored and drinkable liquids. Whatever their similarities, transhumanism and religion simply do not play the same part in the moral economy of human life. They strive for different ends and as a result they admire different qualities. For example, transhumanism is all about pride, while Biblical religions point to humility. Eliot once again seems to have the clearer understanding of what is at stake:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself ... that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name.

Transhumanism has indeed decided that it can do without religious faith and philosophy, hitching its wagon to willful creativity and calling it science. In contrast, binding discipline is at the root of Biblical religion. You do not have to want that discipline or believe in it to see that transhumanism is not just offering us the same kind of thing under a different name.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Transhumanist Inevitability Watch

Transhumanists have a label — “the argument from incredulity” — for one kind of criticism of their visions and predictions: The instinctual but largely un-evidenced assertion that transhumanist claims are simply too fantastical and difficult to fathom and so must be false. While there’s plenty of reason, empirical and otherwise, to doubt transhumanist predictions, they’re certainly right to point out and criticize the prevalence of the argument from incredulity.

But there’s a transhumanist counterpart to the argument from incredulity: the argument from inevitability. This argument is prone to be just as un-evidenced, and at least as morally suspect. So I’d like to begin a new (hopefully regular) series on Futurisms: the Transhumanist Inevitability Watch.

Or are we?
Our first entry comes from transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov:
It’s 2010, and transhumanism has already won. Billions of people around the world would love to upgrade their bodies, extend their youth, and amplify their powers of perception, thought, and action with the assistance of safe and tested technologies. The urge to be something more, to go beyond, is the norm rather than the exception.... Mainstream culture around the world has already embraced transhumanism and transhumanist ideals.
Well, then! Empirical evidence, maybe?
All we have to do is survive our embryonic stage, stay in control of our own destiny, and expand outwards in every direction at the speed of light. Ray Kurzweil makes this point in The Singularity is Near, a book that was #1 in the Science & Technology section on Amazon and [also appeared] on the NYT bestsellers list for a reason.
Ah. Well, if we’re going to use the bestseller lists as tea leaves, right now Sean Hannity’s Conservative Victory is on the top of the Times list, and Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea is #2. Does this mean conservatism and alcoholism have also already won?

Similarly, his other major piece of evidence is that it would be “hard for the world to give transhumanism a firmer endorsement” than making Avatar, a “movie about using a brain-computer interface to become what is essentially a transhuman being,” the highest-grossing film of all time. Okay, then surely the fact that the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter movies occupy five of the other top 10 spots means even firmer endorsements of pirates and wizards, no? And actually, Avatar only ranks 14th in inflation-adjusted dollars in the U.S. market, far behind the highest-grossing film, which, of course, is Gone with the Wind — unassailable evidence that sexy blue aliens aren’t nearly as “in” as corsets and the Confederacy, right?

Mr. Anissimov’s post at least contains his usual sobriety and caution about the potentially disastrous effects of transhumanism on safety and security. But he and other transhumanists would do well to heed the words of artificial intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum in his 1976 Computer Power and Human Reason:
The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it.
Keep Weizenbaum’s words in mind as we continue the Inevitability Watch. Humanity’s future is always a matter of human choice and responsibility.

UPDATE: Here’s another good example from Anissimov:
Transhumanist issues are obscenely mainstream nowadays, who even cares. We’re not even edgy anymore. The excitement is over. It’s time to start racing towards a safe intelligence explosion so we can end the Human-only Era once and for all. Let’s just get it over with.

Snap, Crackle, Pop Transhumanism

While we were busy with a few other projects recently, we failed to note that Kyle Munkittrick of the Pop Transhumanism blog had a follow-up post in our exchange about the morality of cloning. It’s a disappointing response. He ignores some of our major arguments, he misrepresents others, and he repeats some of his own points that were so weak that we didn’t bother rebutting them first time he made them.

Although this back-and-forth could go on indefinitely, I suspect that both blogs’ readers would quickly tire of the exchange, so except for the few further comments below, we’ll let the record stand for now.
Dark and Inscrutable Are the Ways

Mr. Munkittrick points out a pair of studies that suggest that twelve-year-old children born via IVF have good relationships with their parents and are emotionally and socially well adjusted. He intends these studies to rebut our point that the lives of children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies can be profoundly shaped by the facts of their conception.

The studies that he points to, though, paint a more complicated picture than he may realize. (I’ll refrain both from my usual kvetching about the shortcomings of this kind of social-scientific research and from pointing out the many oddities of these particular studies.) One of the studies, for example, notes an apparent “difference in attitude toward parenting” between couples who conceive via a sperm donation and couples who conceive naturally: the families that relied on sperm donors apparently had “more positive parent-child relationships” with their twelve-year-olds.

For the purposes of argument, let’s accept this finding. This means that different modes of conception available today can provoke (measurably) different styles of parenting. It would stand to reason, then, that producing a child via cloning might also result in a noticeably different style of parenting. That is surely hinted at in Bryan Caplan’s lament that launched this discussion: he wants to experience a “sublime bond” with a cloned child, a bond shared only by himself and his clone, a bond he apparently does not feel with the children he and his wife already have.

Once we agree that child-rearing would be transformed if a child were produced by cloning, we can speculate as to how it would be transformed. This kind of speculation — grounded in a rich understanding of the meaning of procreation in human life, of child-rearing, and of the relationship between the generations — is necessary for ethical reflection about cloning. The 2002 President’s Council on Bioethics report on cloning is a model of this kind of balanced, informed, and searching speculation. Mr. Munkittrick, by contrast, refuses to concede that cloning might have any effect whatsoever on the cloned child — despite the fact that the language of cloning advocates like Bryan Caplan suggests that a desire to change the meaning of procreation, child-rearing, and the relationship between the generations, is in fact central to their advocacy of cloning. Why is it that defenders of cloning are loath to discuss the subject directly in those terms?
A Handful of Questions

But enough about cloning. What makes Mr. Munkittrick’s response so disappointing is that his Pop Transhumanism blog is so often a pleasure to read. It is spirited and doesn’t creak with the earnestness, self-importance, and obsessive self-referentialism that make certain other transhumanist sites so very tedious. Also, Mr. Munkittrick doesn’t shy away from picking fights with his friends and allies, and he is admirably skeptical about parts of their vision of and for the future.

Speaking of fights that he picks, Mr. Munkittrick did challenge this blog a few weeks ago and we never got around to responding publicly. Since more than a month has gone by, and since most of his challenge was either insubstantial or deeply misguided, I’d like to focus only on one aspect of Mr. Munkittrick’s post — one where he describes his own views, saying that he believes

in natural rights, but that those natural rights are emergent and explain why a single human cell does not have the same rights as a child, and, furthermore, why a child does not have full citizenship but an adult does. Though our legal system doesn’t say it explicitly, this form of rights codification implies that rights stem from a specific level of cognitive aptitude allowing autonomy, sentience, empathy, and reflexivity allowing one to function in a polis.... I was able to incorporate ideas like uplift and non-human rights into my value structure without compromising other beliefs, such as that many animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity.

For Mr. Munkittrick (and any commenters who share these views), some questions:

First, if you understand natural rights to attach to a “specific level of cognitive aptitude,” what is that level, specifically? Which rights are not possessed by human beings whose cognitive aptitude is beneath that level (a category that would presumably include those who formerly functioned at or above that level, such as a permanently comatose person or an elderly person with advanced dementia; those who have yet to reach that level, such as an infant, a fetus, or an embryo; and those who may never reach it, such as the severely developmentally disabled)? Are there any rights that all human beings, regardless of cognitive aptitude, possess?

Second, do you believe that cognitive enhancement will be an important factor in shaping the future of humanity? If so, and if you believe that rights attach to cognitive aptitude, do you believe that the cognitively enhanced will possess new rights? Like what? If you believe that “animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity,” do you believe that in the future unenhanced human beings would be “justly treated with fewer rights” than enhanced posthumans “because of their lower cognitive capacity”?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Walker Percy, science, and the everyday

Micah Mattix noted last week at First Things the twentieth anniversary of the death of Walker Percy. Percy sought to answer that pressing question of modern life: “How, indeed, is one to live in this peculiar time and history and on ordinary Wednesday afternoons?” It is a question left glaringly unanswered by science, and near-unanswerable by the reign of scientism; a void which transhumanism seems to answer by simply unmooring from the everyday and the weight of the question, embracing instead some (quite extra-scientific) combination of fantasy and the will to power.

Mattix’s deft and insightful post compares the legacies of Percy and his contemporary Flannery O’Connor, and I think is quite right in its analysis that interest in O’Connor now outpaces interest in Percy because she was the markedly better fiction writer. (Our New Atlantis colleague Caitrin Nicol penned a graceful essay on O’Connor’s fiction last year.)
One of Percy’s central preoccupations was with the dissolution of the self under its own image — the way the individual, whether it be a singular fish, poem, place, or person, is lost behind its own symbols and expectations:
First Bird Watcher: What is that?
Second Bird Watcher: That is only a sparrow.
A devaluation has occurred. The bird itself has disappeared into the sarcophagus of its sign. The unique living creature is assigned to its class of signs, a second-class mummy in the basement collection of mummy cases. But a recovery is possible. The signified can be recovered from the ossified signifier, sparrow from sparrow.... The German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front could see an ordinary butterfly as a creature of immense beauty and value in the trenches of the Somme.
But this very ossification is also the root problem with Percy’s fiction: he too seldom manages to recover his characters as unique individuals from the types they are meant to represent. One wishes that more of them would leap out of the pages with the same baffling realism of O’Connor’s best characters, as breathing and vital beyond our immediate comprehension; as characters who seem like real people suffering the sorts of despair Percy portrays. Percy’s depiction of The Moviegoer’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, is brilliant — but Binx’s ironic malaise, like the earnest malaise of Camus’s Mersault, is too pure. Binx is the ideal realization of a very real mode of being, but he could never exist as a real person.

The stylistic flaws of Percy’s fiction, however, are actually integral to its philosophical strengths, for central to his work is a notion that the modern individual really is at great risk of vanishing into constructed types. (This notion is played to great comic effect in the stilted affectation of characters like Walter Wade, with his “damn good bunch of guys” and “ace gents.”) And if Percy’s characters’ lives seem fragmented, and his plots sometimes lacking in narrative coherence, it is in no small part because his work seems to depict modern life as susceptible to such fragmentation and incoherence. Still, the flashes of profound insight into the human condition that make up Percy’s work might in some cases have been more effectively rendered in short stories.

Part of the reason Percy’s prominence seems to have plateaued may be that he occupied a vital but nebulous region between fiction and philosophy, and between academic and popular writing. His nonfiction work is rather too informal and literary to fit into most of today’s philosophy curricula, and too formal (or formal in the wrong ways) for many English curricula, so the contexts in which it seems appropriate to read and discuss him are relatively few. But though his muddling of forms may not have helped his legacy, it actually made his ideas all the more effective — and it would be a mistake to pin him as in essence either just a fiction or a nonfiction writer, or to argue that he used one medium to advance arguments best suited for the other. The philosophical points Percy wanted to make could not find their full weight except when we could see the slices of life from which they were drawn, but could not find their full articulation except when he could grapple with them directly in essays; the two forms in which he wrote required each other. This is the main reason why Lost in the Cosmos, the book in which he combined fiction and nonfiction, was his best (and why, along with the conceit of it being “the last self-help book,” it was his funniest).

And though Micah Mattix is correct that Percy believes “that we do not know who we are because we have rejected our sole point of reference: God,” we should be cautious of thinking this is the only or ultimate question at stake in Percy’s work, which, as Mattix hinted, is another part of the reason it has often been underrated. In fact, some of Percy’s most ardent followers have been nonbelievers, and not for lack of understanding his work: for Percy — a Catholic convert, but one whose writing suggested an agnosticism that he would have preferred to call “searching” — the source of the malaise and the possibility of a recovery from it both arise first out of the everyday, which ultimately raises but does not rest on the question of belief.

It is a shame that Percy’s prominence has apparently peaked, for his work stands today as (to my knowledge) far and away the best depiction of the existential havoc wrought by scientism run amok — a hint of which can be found in this striking passage from The Moviegoer, with which I will close:
Until recently, I read only “fundamental” books, that is, key books on key subjects, such as War and Peace, the novel of novels; A Study of History, the solution to the problem of time; Schroedinger’s What is Life?, Einstein’s The Universe as I See It, and such. During those years I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only as a diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie. Certainly it did not matter to me where I was when I read such a book as The Expanding Universe. The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable.... The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Neuro Lit Crit"

A recent article and subsequent Room For Debate piece in the New York Times look at the growing incorporation of cognitive and evolutionary psychology research into the work of English departments, and asks, “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?” Answer: no.

The crisis of the humanities implicit in the title of the Times piece arises from a sort of malaise of academic purposelessness, which is in turn related to a larger societal phenomenon wherein we increasingly believe that science is the only solid rock we have to stand on for understanding the world and how we should function in it. (See our recent New Atlantis symposium for more on this.)

Humanities professors have become accustomed to being asked what their disciplines are useful for — hence the efforts by some professors to make their disciplines mirror the language and methods of always-useful science. But by the time the humanities are working to justify themselves in scientific terms, they are already conceding defeat by showing that even their preservers and practitioners no longer recognize their distinctive value.

In the Times debate, Emory English professor William M. Chace puts it eloquently:
Let’s hope that the relationship with brain research will prove a productive meeting of equals, between scholars uniquely qualified to interpret the meanings, in their subtlety, of literary texts and scientists now proceeding upon a terrain that is still largely unmapped....

Those scientists hardly claim to have the answers; theirs is a pioneering spirit tempered by modesty about what they really know. Rather than naively assuming they have met their betters, English professors might help those scientists by luring them on into the truly complex networks of mind and imagination that words alone, words in all their intricacy, can generate.
[UPDATE: A related follow-up post over on Alan Jacobs's Text Patterns blog.]

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning ... advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).
Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research.... If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all....

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference.... [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.
You Don’t Hate Children... Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.

There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.

Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:
Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method.... IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.
He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:
I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!... Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?
Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:
Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.
That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.

A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.

Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:
To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)
The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.

If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?

The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?