Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity

The new book Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity, just published by Rowman & Littlefield, brings together essays examining the future — particularly scientific and technological visions of the future, and the role that virtue ought to play in that future. Several of the essays appeared in The New Atlantis, including essays about robots and “friendly AI,” and most of them grew out of a conference that New Atlantis contributing editor Peter A. Lawler hosted at Berry College in Georgia back in 2011. (Professor Lawler edited this new book, along with Marc D. Guerra of Assumption College.)

Lawler’s own introductory essay is a real treat, weaving together references to recent movies, philosophers and economists, the goings-on in Silicon Valley, and a Tocquevillian appreciation for the complicated and surprising ways that liberty and religion are intertwined in the United States. No one is better than Lawler at revealing the gap between who we believe ourselves to be and who we really are as a people, and at showing how our longing for liberty is really only sensible in a relational context — in a world of families, communities, institutions, citizenship, and interests.

Charles Rubin’s marvelous essay about robots and the play R.U.R. is joined by the essay that Ari Schulman and I wrote on so-called “friendly” AI. The libertarian journalist Ron Bailey of Reason magazine makes the case for radical human enhancement, arguing, among other things, that enhancement will allow people to become more virtuous. Jim Capretta and William English each contribute essays on demographics and our entitlement system. Dr. Ben Hippen discusses organ donation (and organ selling).

Patrick Deneen, Robert Kraynak, and J. Daryl Charles each offer wide-ranging essays that challenge the foundations of modernity. Deneen discusses some of the assumptions and tendencies in modern science and modern political science that corrode the very institutions, traditions, and beliefs that made them possible. Kraynak shows how thinkers like Richard Rorty and Steven Pinker must scramble to explain the roots of their beliefs about justice. Do their “human values” — mostly just secularized versions of Judeo-Christian morality — make any sense without a belief in God? And J. Daryl Charles looks at the ways that genetics and even evolutionary theory affect our understanding of moral agency, a question with implications for fields such as criminal law.

Each of the editors offers an essay about education: Lawler critiques the libertarian critique of liberal education, and Guerra explores the ways that liberal education fits (sometimes uncomfortably) in the broader setting of higher education.

The collection is rounded out by Ben Storey’s smart essay about Alexis de Tocqueville and technology — focusing not just on Democracy in America but on two of Tocqueville’s lesser known works.

So far, Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity is only available in a hardcover format that is rather costly (more than $80 new). Here’s hoping it comes out in a more affordable format before long. Readers of The New Atlantis and of our Futurisms blog, and indeed anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the meaning of progress, will find much to learn in its pages.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Free to Experiment?

Last month, Vice published a short article by Jason Koebler about how genetic engineering, including the genetic engineering of human beings, is probably protected by the First Amendment. The basic argument behind this seemingly ridiculous notion is that the First Amendment protects not only speech but also “expressive conduct,” which can include offensive performance art, flag burning, and, perhaps, “acts of science.” Such acts of science may be especially worth protecting when they are very controversial, since that might mean they should be treated as political or religious speech. The 2010 hullabaloo over Craig Venter’s “synthetic cell” was trotted out as an example of the deep political and even religious implications of scientific experiments, since the idea of creating synthetic life might, as it did for Venter himself, change our “views of definitions of life and how life works.”

It is worth noting that, notwithstanding breathless headlines and press releases, Craig Venter did not create a “synthetic life form.” What Venter did was synthesize a bacterial genome, though he did not design that genome, but rather used a slightly modified version of the sequence of an existing bacterial species. Venter then put this synthesized genome into cells of a closely related bacterial species whose genome had been removed, and, lo, the cells used their new genomes and eventually came to resemble the (slightly different) species from which the synthetic genome was derived.

Unless Venter once believed that DNA possessed mystical properties that made it impossible to manufacture, or that he had never heard of bacterial transformation experiments by which bacteria can pick up and use foreign pieces of DNA (experiments that predate, and were in fact used to establish, our knowledge that DNA is the molecule of heredity), it is hard to see why he would need to change his “views of definitions of life and how life works” in light of his experiment.

Of course, freedom of speech is not only for the coherent but also the confused arguments made for the deep implications of some controversial forms of research. In a talk given at a recent DARPA conference, bioethicist Alta Charo suggested that controversial experiments like cloning or genetic engineering may be carried out to "challenge" those who think that these experiments are wrong, and that this might mean they should be protected as forms of political expression.

Scientists and academics should be free to challenge deeply held beliefs about human nature and morality. As Robert P. George has argued regarding his pro-infanticide Princeton colleague Peter Singer, “freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are for everyone — not just those whose views others find congenial.” But this academic freedom is premised on doing business “in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments.” Cloned or genetically engineered children are not reasons or arguments, and they are certainly not the currency of academic discourse.

The use of reproductive biotechnologies like cloning or genetic engineering to express a political or religious view would mean that the child that results from these technologies would be treated as a form of political or artistic expression. But as the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science argued in its recent report on human cloning, this kind of perversion of the relationship between parents and children, where children become seen as products to be manufactured in accordance to the parents’ specifications and to serve their interests, is at the heart of what is wrong with technologies like human cloning and genetic engineering. And moreover, as the Council notes, to claim First Amendment protection would require satisfying several legal criteria that cloning almost certainly would not satisfy. That there are respectable bioethicists arguing that the creation of human beings is now seen as a form of artistic or political self-expression is in fact a very good reason for passing laws to ban technologies like cloning for manufacturing human beings.