Biotechnology and the Reconstruction of Humanity

MICHAEL HENRY is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Queens, where he has taught for more than thirty years.

Consider the following (at present
still hypothetical) scenarios: 1) You
are diagnosed with end-stage heart failure
and told that your only options are to
wait and hope that a sufficiently compatible
donor will be found before you die or
to receive an artificial heart until scientists
produce a new heart from the stem cells in
an embryo that will be your clone; 2) You
and your spouse very much want a child
of your own but because various physical
conditions render both of you incurably
infertile, even by in vitro fertilization, you
must decide between adoption and having
a biologically related child by cloning one
of you; 3) You and your spouse are fertile
and plan to have a child. The only question
is whether you want to have whatever
child you will conceive through sexual
intercourse or whether you want to go to
a clinic where the most advanced technology
will enable you to have much more
control over the child’s genetic identity,
which will include the most sophisticated
genetic enhancements on his (you have
decided to have a son) forty-seventh and
forty-eighth chromosomes.1

These are not simply choices between
two different medical procedures, like
deciding whether or not to have chemotherapy
or radiation after cancer surgery,
but are courses of action that, even before
some of them are technologically feasible,
have already come to be representative
of two profoundly opposed worldviews
with irreconcilable differences in their
assumptions about “what it means to
be human, . . . our vision of the human
future,”2 and about the contribution that
biotechnology can make to the sum of
human happiness. For many bioethicists
the primary consideration is biotechnology’s
enormous power to increase choice
and improve human life, but those more
influenced by the ethical tradition reject as
dehumanizing, not the end of benefiting
humanity, but some of the once unimaginable
means now presented as serious possibilities
and even future inevitabilities.

Reproductive cloning, for example,
although it has had some success with animals,
remains too likely to cause severe
abnormalities to attempt with human
beings, and may indeed never be a relatively
safe way of reproducing. Therapeutic cloning
to develop a blastocyst with embryonic
stem cells, referred to in the first scenario,
is less technologically fraught with risk, but
it is very difficult to “coax” (the usual verb
in this context) the pluripotent stem cells
to differentiate into the desired specialized
cells.3 And, although it is already possible
for parents to exercise some control over
which embryos are implanted (including
sex selection) or what sort of person they
would want as the egg or sperm donor,
“designer children” are not yet a reality.
Nevertheless, all of these are claimed to be
realizable technologies that make ethical
sense, depending on the degree to which
one subscribes to the modern biotechnology
worldview, for what seems abhorrent
in the traditional worldview seems eminently
sensible and desirable in quite a different,
even anti-traditional worldview.
But just as Plato asked what the nature of
reality and the human soul would have to
be for Socrates’ abnormal and seemingly
absurd way of life to make perfect sense,
those who wish to engage the biotechnology
worldview critically must raise the
same sort of metaphysical question about
the claim that it is morally good, or at least
morally permissible, to exploit innocent
human life.

We might begin with one of the most
outspokenly explicit, and notorious, advocates
of killing the innocent, Peter Singer,
whose views are grounded in the assumption
that Darwin completed the necessary
dethronement of man by undermining
“the very foundations of the entire western
way of thinking on the place of our
species in the universe. He taught us that
we too were animals, and had a natural
origin as the other animals did.”4 Singer
claims that modern science’s acceptance of
our animality has freed us from “the constraints
of religious conformity” and has
given us a new, superior—because more
accurate—worldview, “a new vision of
who we are, to whom we are related, the
limited nature of the differences between
us and other species, and the more or less
accidental manner in which the boundary
between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been
formed.”5 He seems unaware that, in its
basic assumptions, this is actually a very
old worldview, dating back at least to
the Atomists and Epicurus in the fifth to
the third centuries B.C. And just as Epicurus
developed his completely materialistic
philosophy to fill the void created
by his elimination of all divine activity
from the universe, so also Singer reports
that the traditional ethic of the sanctity
of life is dead and that we now have an
historic opportunity “to shape something
better, an ethic . . . that is more compassionate
and more responsive to what people
decide for themselves, an ethic that
avoids prolonging life when to do so is
obviously pointless, and an ethic that is
less arbitrary in its inclusions and exclusions
than our traditional one,” in short,
an ethic that abandons “the traditional
doctrine that it is always wrong intentionally
to end the life of an innocent human
being.”6 Supporters of the traditional ethic
would agree that the pointless prolonging
of human life is not a moral obligation but
would disagree, because of the difference
in worldview, that it becomes pointless and
therefore subject to termination through
the absence of consciousness. When Singer
asks why we should “treat the life of an
anencephalic human child as sacrosanct
and feel free to kill healthy baboons in
order to take their organs,”7 he means not
only that it is morally acceptable to allow
such a child to die of natural causes but
that it would be morally permissible to
kill such a child, either to “harvest” the
organs for transplant or simply because no
one sees any good in the child’s continued
existence. In fact, according to his “fresh
and more promising approach,” killing
an anencephalic child is far less morally
problematic than killing an adult animal
of almost any sentient species.

The language of what Singer presents
as an advance in consciousness of our
nature and identity, beyond the limits of
religious authority into “a better understanding
of the origin and nature of our
species,”8 is the honey on the rim of the
cup, intended to make palatable the bitter
wormwood that we are just another,
although more intelligent, animal species,
that being mortal we should think only of
mortal things, and that we should become
accustomed to the belief that death is of
no consequence to us. But what is the
advantage of a “new and more promising
approach” that so drastically diminishes
our significance? What Epicurus offered
his followers was freedom from fear, particularly
the fear of death, but in Singer we
find the modern psyche that, qua modern,
finds the greatest satisfaction in autonomy,
the maximum power within the ineluctable
limits of our existence, to determine
good and evil for ourselves both in life and
in death. Although we are reduced to animals
with an animal consciousness of living
by pleasures and pains, we also have a
super-animal power of moral autonomy as
the antidote to our groundlessness.

Similarly, James Rachels argues in Created
From Animals: The Moral Implications of
Darwinism that after Darwin “we can no
longer think of ourselves as occupying a
special place in creation—instead, we must
realize that we are merely products of the
same evolutionary forces, working blindly
and without purpose, that shaped the rest
of the animal kingdom.”9 This, of course,
negates the traditional belief in human
dignity, “the moral effluvium of a discredited
metaphysics,” which erroneously
maintains that man is made in the image
of God and is a uniquely rational being
in the world.10 In place of the doctrine of
human dignity Rachels proposes the more
evolutionary notion of moral individualism,
according to which all sentient beings
should be treated according to their own
particular characteristics, not according to
a hierarchy of species membership: “This
means that human life will, in a sense, be
devalued, while the value granted to nonhuman
life will be increased.”11 Since this
undermines any objective grounding for
the greater or intrinsic value of human life,
Rachels empowers the subjective. “A post-
Darwinian theory of the value of human
life . . . might begin by emphasizing that
the value of a life is, first and foremost, the
value that it has for the person who is the subject
of that life. But if our lives are valuable,
not to God or to nature or to the universe,
but to us,”12 and if, unlike animals, we are
drawn to seek the ground of our existence,
then, unlike animals, we must have some
power to provide this ground, a power that
is at least partly manifested in deciding for
ourselves questions of life and death, and
ultimately, what we will become.

As post-Darwinian bioethics has developed
beyond abortion and euthanasia into
deeper and more complex biotechnological
issues such as embryonic stem-cell
research, cloning, genetic engineering,
and germline enhancement, with the
prospect of drastically altering the ways
in which we are born, reproduce, and
die, the claim that scientific knowledge
has the power to improve not only our
environment or health but also our very
nature has come increasingly to the fore.
Although currently the most prominent
political issue is embryonic stem-cell
research, cloning presents us with even
more radical questions. Killing embryos,
already done legally in abortion and IVF,
raises the question if it is ever permissible
to take innocent human life, but cloning
challenges our sense of our origins even
more than IVF because a clone must be
produced asexually in a laboratory and is a
deliberate recreation of an already existing
genetic identity.

Currently, two of the strongest advocates
of therapeutic and reproductive cloning
are Gregory Pence and Lee Silver.
Although many bioethicists favor therapeutic
cloning but reject cloning for reproduction
precisely because of the risks of harm
to the clone, Pence sees it as an essentially
unproblematic and desirable but expensive
technology that will expand reproductive
choice for the probably small number of
wealthy people who have no, or few, other
options for producing a biologically related
child. Although he does not advocate
human reproductive cloning until it can
be done without risk of serious physical
harm to the clone, his description of the
sort of research that must be done to avoid
genetic errors involves gestating human
clones in chimpanzees, artificial wombs,
or human volunteers, aborting and examining
them for any abnormalities, and then
“experimenting to see how to create only
normally developing embryo-fetuses,”13 a
highly technologized process that would
certainly require the large-scale creation
and destruction of human life, particularly
if, as seems likely, mastering the technique
of reproductive cloning proves difficult.14
Questions about psychological harm to the
clone, one of the major objections to such
a form of producing children, he brushes
aside as “wildly speculative,” as something
that

seems more a projection than a fact.
. . . The entire argument about future
psychological harm to cloned children
reeks of perverting prejudice
into ethical justification: because
most people fear or loathe something,
such fear and loathing is cited as why
we shouldn’t do it . . . so we should
reject gay and lesbian lifestyles,
interracial marriages, vegetarianism,
religious freedom for atheists, and
many necessary procedures in medicine
that strike first-time patients as
repulsive. All this is a little nuts.15

A logician Pence is not, for his argument
mixes weak analogies and irrelevant conclusions
with ad hominem attacks, implying
that a skeptical attitude toward cloning
is just another example of an unreasonable
and ignorant prejudice against something
that society eventually comes to consider
quite acceptable and entirely neglecting to
consider the reasons for what Leon Kass has
more accurately called “repugnance.” The
dehumanizing implication of cloning is
that the mysterious process of reproduction
can be replaced by production. For Pence
this is all part of the scientific mastery and
possession of nature and a strong confirmation
of the belief that there is nothing special
in human nature or human procreation.
Consequently, not only is sexual reproduction
not morally superior to asexual reproduction,
it is, compared to cutting-edge
biotechnology, “the most primitive way”
of having children because there is virtually
no control over or means of improving
the outcome. The expected technological
capability of mechanically creating billions
of eggs and embryos in the lab provides yet
more proof that human personhood has no
special status.

The combination of these ideas that
sexual reproduction is “primitive” and
that human personhood is devoid of dignity
reveals the bifurcation in this worldview.
We are animals with a technology
that gives us a super-animal ability to
control and surpass what nature has given
us. Because our existence has no intrinsic
value, it can take on whatever value that
we autarkically choose to give it. Against
the traditional understanding of human
dignity as inherent worth, Pence argues
that “human dignity is a way that beings
treat one another—dignified, undignified,
or neutral. If dignity were an inherent
human property, an individual could not
lose it, even if she behaved in undignified
ways all the time and other humans treated
her as if she did.”16 This view that human
dignity is decided by human choices has
the advantage that, if we autonomously
choose not to treat embryos with dignity,
then they simply have none and can be
used in any way we wish.

It is, then, scarcely surprising that Pence
regards cloning as evidence for both our
lowly animal status and our much more
exalted capability of mastering nature
through scientific knowledge and choice.
In contrast to the Christian tradition’s
emphasis on the spirituality that humanizes
sexual union, in Pence’s worldview
the effect of the technological power over
nature is to downgrade sexual reproduction
through coitus to a “nonunique and
less special” way of producing human
embryos. “When such cloning is safe,
creation of children will be not a mystery
but a choice, not only if and when
but what kind.”17 The better way of creating
embryos is the way that maximizes
our power. In short, “demystify[ing] the
process of making children, taking the religious
mumbo jumbo out of creation”18
makes it clear that human reproduction
should not really be any different from
animal breeding (or any other kind of
making), for in making children we, or
at least scientists, are in the position of
power. Indeed, “making children” will
not even necessarily be separate from animal
breeding: “When we consider cow
eggs serving as hosts for growing human
embryos, or hybrids with small amounts
of nonhuman DNA inserted into resulting
children, or mixed-breed hybrids that
cross species altogether, the whole animal
world becomes more fluid. . . . Gone is the
sense that God or evolution once and for
all created rigid boundaries between kinds
of beings that can never interact.”19 In the
post-Darwinian world of biotechnology
there are no limits. There is no longer any
reason why human beings cannot reproductively
interact with other animal species,
not through sexual activity but by
clinically transferring genes from animal
species into humans, and vice versa. We
are entirely part of nature and yet we are
far above it, for we can not only understand
the world but change it according to
our preferences.

To counter the objection that because
cloned children will be products designed
to meet specifications they will therefore
be wanted but not really loved for themselves,
Pence claims that cloned children
will be loved more than children begotten
by normal sexual reproduction, precisely
because they will be “consciously
wanted, planned, and deliriously sought
after,”20 rather than being “just accidents,”
unplanned results of what Joseph Fletcher
called “reproductive roulette.” Because they
will know that they were definitely and specifically wanted, not just as a generic child
but as the specific child that each one is,
Pence says that cloned children will not be
plagued with any uncertainty about being
wanted, unlike the children of “unprotected
sex, when contraception and abortion
were illegal”21 and human beings
were relatively powerless in reproductive
matters. His assumption is that parental
love varies directly with the degree to
which parents have desired and planned
their children, but this raises the specter
of human groundlessness in a universe
devoid of purpose and meaning. What else
can one make of his dubious claims that
of persons conceived by IVF “many know
they are among the most loved children in
human history” and that “safe cloning will
be intrinsically good for children in giving
them a deep, rich sense that their parents
sincerely wanted them, not only as their
firstborn child but also as their firstborn
child with musical talent?”22 However,
his example of the imaginary cloned child
Faith who thinks of how much Mom and
Dad love her because they wanted a child
like her, with a genetic predisposition to
strong religious belief, is unintentionally
ironic, because what Pence is describing is
conditional, egocentric love. What if Faith
loses her faith, or the child wanted for her
musical talent decides to be a plumber?
Would her parents still love her just as
much, or would they begin to think of
their once perhaps deliriously sought-after
child as a defective product that does not
satisfy their own preferences? What Pence
is really saying is that the feeling that our
origin was nothing more than an accident
that occurred when people intent on their
own pleasures neglected to protect themselves
against the biological consequences
of their actions leaves us with profoundly
disturbing feelings of anxiety and meaninglessness
that can be assuaged only if we
can be assured that our existence gratifies
someone else’s wishes. Within a worldview
dominated by the chance events of
evolution, Pence’s claim that we are much
happier if we have the assurance that our
existence was chosen rather than random
seems more deeply ironic.

At least Pence is well aware that he is
waging a war of worldviews: the religious,
or specifically Christian, worldview that
believes human beings are made in God’s
image and “thus tells Christians ‘who
they are,’ ” versus the secular, materialist,
scientific worldview that rejects the existence
of a God who sets limits “in favor
of the idea that humans determine their
own destiny.”23 Either there is a God or we
are gods, but if we are gods, then we are
“divine animals,” because if we are entirely
free to set our own limits and decide for
ourselves who we are, then there is no
transcendence beyond the world to raise us
above the animal level.

Lee Silver’s speculations on humanity
evolving into divinity also begin with the
assumption that there is nothing special in
being human, and “the 3.5 billion-yearlong
pathway of evolution to humankind
can be explained by Darwinian principles
of natural selection and nothing else.”24
Evolutionary biology provides us with an
existence whose meaninglessness is reinforced
by such potential technologies as
maturing immature spermatogonial cells
from aborted male fetuses in the testes of
animals, a process that could, theoretically,
continue production of the same man’s
sperm for thousands of years. Quoting
bioethicist Arthur Caplan’s comment that
“something is challenging the specialness
of humanity if you originate human
beings in some animal’s reproductive
tract,” Silver agrees, saying that “the ‘specialness
of humanity’ has been challenged
and it’s been found wanting. What this
new technique, and so many others like it,
tells us is that there is nothing special about
human reproduction, nor any other aspect
of human biology, save one. The specialness
of humanity is found only between
our ears.”25 Only human beings are scientists,
after all.

Silver advocates not only cloning but
every imaginable, and some unimaginable,
forms of reproduction in his oftenquoted
book Remaking Eden: Cloning
and Beyond in a Brave New World. Silver
believes that modern science has steadily
shrunk God’s domain to “nothingness,”
and with God eliminated, scientists now
have the power to take control of human
reproduction for the improvement of
mankind. Although humanity is the product
of evolution’s struggle for survival,
human beings are no longer, like other
forms of life, the slaves of selfish gene
masters but are beginning to acquire the
power to determine human nature and
destiny:

Master and slave have switched positions
in human beings, who now have
the power not only to control but
to create new genes for themselves.
Why not seize this power? Why not
control what has been left to chance
in the past? . . . On what basis can
we reject positive genetic influences
on a person’s essence when we accept
the rights of parents to benefit their
children in every other way?26

A science that can influence or determine a
person’s essence is a science that has acquired
superhuman power.

Silver’s imaginary future of technologically
expanded parental rights is one
in which control over reproduction makes
almost anything possible, including a single
woman parthenogenetically giving birth
to her clone, two lesbians or homosexuals
having a child biologically related to
both of them, or children being produced
from the eggs and spermatogonia of aborted
fetuses. His point is not just that there will
be more possible ways of producing children,
or that such things will become the
norm, or that wealthier members of future
generations will be increasingly genetically
enhanced, but that man, or more precisely,
reprogeneticists, will achieve almost complete
control over human existence and
reproduction. His speculations lead him to
the conclusion that eventually the genetically
enhanced individuals (the “Gen-
Rich”) will diverge as a species from the
unenhanced (the merely “Naturals”), who
will be relegated to the menial jobs in society.
In the remote future there will probably
evolve many different human species,
even “a special group of mental beings, as
different from us as humans are from the
primitive worms with tiny brains that first
crawled along the earth’s surface”;27 that is,
we are like primitive animals that will yet
begin to design and generate our godlike
descendants. Silver resorts to an almost
apophatic terminology to describe these
superhuman beings:

“Intelligence” does not do justice to
their cognitive abilities. ” Knowledge”
does not explain the depth of their
understanding of both the universe
and their own consciousness. “Power”
is not strong enough to describe the
control they have over technologies
that can be used to shape the universe
in which they live.28

They will, he imagines, dedicate their
long lives to finding the answers to three
perennial philosophical questions of where
the universe came from, why there is
something rather than nothing, and the
meaning of conscious existence. In short,
they will be seeking the ground of human
existence. And Silver anticipates that they
will find it. “Now, as the answers are
upon them, they find themselves coming
face to face with their creator. What do
they see? Is it something that twentiethcentury
humans can’t possibly fathom in
their wildest imaginations? Or is it simply
their own image in the mirror, as they
reflect themselves back to the beginning
of time?”29 Mankind is self-creator, the
master and possessor and ground of his
own existence, his own god. The beatific
vision does not transcend human nature.
It is human nature. As Gregory Stock put
it, “The arrival of safe, reliable germline
technology will signal the beginning of
human self-design,” because we are at the
beginning of a new stage of evolution, “on
the cusp of profound biological change,
poised to transcend our current form and
character on a journey to destinations of
new imagination,” of becoming more
than “human.”30 Or, in Joseph Fletcher’s
simpler formulation, the thrust of the biological
revolution “is not toward man’s
ideology or his world but to reconstruct
man himself.”31

Another example of futuristic utopian
speculation of human self-transcendence
and the creation of heaven on earth is
found on the Hedonistic Imperative website,
which greets visitors with the sweeping
declaration that “genetic engineering
and nanotechnology will abolish suffering
in all sentient life,” so that “the world’s
last unpleasant experience will be a precisely
dateable event,”32 after which human
beings will live in a state of perpetual bliss.
The Hedonist Imperative imagines that
“paradise engineering” will, by genetically
designing the human brain and nervous
system to alter the ways in which we experience
the world, produce “post-Darwinian
life,” that is, life in which the struggle for
existence has been transcended by bioengineering.
In this future paradise nature
lovers will contemplate “with awe-struck
reverence scenes of overpowering sublimity
eclipsing the superficial prettiness on
offer before”; a musician will play music
“more exhilarating and numinously beautiful
than his or her ancestors ever dreamed
of ” and far more beautiful than the “celestial
music of the spheres heard by privileged
medieval mystics”; contemplators of works
of visual art will “behold the secular equivalent
of the beatific vision in a million different
guises, each of indescribable glory”;
and, in general, the “ravishing splendor” of
“states of divine happiness [will be] orders
of magnitude more beautiful than anything
the contemporary mind can access.”
The transcendence of the human finite
condition is attainable through a technology
that can transform human beings from
merely animals engaged in the Darwinian
struggle for survival into higher, perpetually
blissful beings.33

In a similar vein, the Transhumanist Declaration
of the World Transhumanist Association
(WTA) opens with the prediction
that “humanity will be radically changed
by technology in the future. We foresee
the feasibility of redesigning the human
condition, including such parameters as
the inevitability of aging, limitations on
human and artificial intellects, unchosen
psychology, suffering, and our confinement
to the planet earth.”34 Transhumanists
imagine a “posthuman” future
in which “possible future beings” would
have basic capacities that would “so radically
exceed those of present humans as
to be no longer unambiguously human by
our current standards.” Indeed, the WTA’s
description of what transhumanists long
for sounds very much like the traditional
beliefs about the post-resurrection body:

They yearn to reach intellectual
heights as far above any current
human genius as humans are above
other primates; to be resistant to disease
and impervious to aging; to have
unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise
control over their own desires, moods,
and mental states; to be able to avoid
feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about
petty things; to have an increased
capacity for pleasure, love, artistic
appreciation, and serenity; to experience
novel states of consciousness that
current human brains cannot access.

Although we cannot fully imagine
what a transformed existence would be
like because posthumans might be able to
shape themselves and their environment in
many new and profound ways, the WTA
suggests that “some posthumans might
find it advantageous to jettison their bodies
altogether and live as information patterns
on vast super-fast computer networks,”
thus achieving a kind of self-sufficient
immortality in cyberspace.

The gist of such futuristic utopian speculation
is that humanity will evolve into
new gods by technological self-transformation,
transcending the hopelessly primitive
human beings who have existed so far. It
is by no means coincidental that the scientific, materialist diminishing of human
existence to the animal has been accompanied
by the elevation of the human to
the godlike, for this is the inevitable result
of the dissolution of the human psyche
with its natural tension in-between the
animal and the divine. The classical defi-
nition of man as the rational animal does
not mean that we are godlike animals,
but that we are pulled in both directions,
toward animal appetites and toward divine
rationality that, far more than the ability
to calculate pleasures and pains, is the
faculty that enables us to see the divine
Good. To be human is to have rationalized
appetites, appetites that should be
sublimated into and subordinated to the
highest Good. As a (very) rough analogy,
salt is sodium chloride, but it is not sodium
and chlorine; that is, it does not possess the
properties of sodium added to the properties
of chlorine, because it has a nature that
cannot be reduced to either component, or
to the sum of both. Human nature shares
in the divine through rationality and also
shares in the animal through the appetites
of biological life. To put it another way,
human nature is both biological and spiritual,
but not in the “ghost in the machine”
sense. In human nature the biological is
sublimated to the spiritual and the spiritual
is incarnated in the biological. The
attempt to collapse human nature into the
animal and biological is roughly akin to
maintaining that salt is nothing more than
a type of chlorine.

As long as human nature is understood
as biology infused with spirit, it is beyond
human control. We cannot become the
masters and possessors of a nature that
transcends the material and exists in tension
toward a divine reality. However,
modernity has been characterized by the
effort to master and possess ourselves, to
conquer the physical world as a way of
defining who and what we are, and to be
autonomous in the sense of being able to
make choices by which we control our
own existence. If reality is entirely material
then we endure a groundlessness that
intensifies an already existing existential
anxiety. Because we know that we are not
the source of our own existence, our natural
inclination to escape the anxiety finds
only two ways: one is by submission to a
higher reality and the other is by attempting
to master the lower reality. The first is
the way of faith and uncertainty, but the
second seems to hold out the promise of
security and certainty in the exercise of
our own powers and egos. However, the
structural tensions of the soul dictate that
when the spirit-biology polarity is dissolved,
the more we emphasize our animal
nature, the greater is the vacuum of
authority in the soul which will be filled
by a despotic “reason” that seeks mastery
of the animal, and the more we emphasize
our power over nature, including ourselves,
the more our humanity is reduced
to the animal.

There is nothing new in the attempt to
master human existence to protect ourselves
from existential anxiety. The libido dominandi
over human nature and existence
has a long history, of which contemporary
biotechnology and bioethics constitute but
one recent example. In speculative constructions
of a greatly improved human
future the tension toward transcendence
is collapsed into the tension toward the
future to effect a partial or complete
“immanentization of the eschaton,” the
imaginary realization of the pleroma of
existence not beyond time but within
time, a temporality in which a future over
which we can to some significant degree
exercise mastery becomes the surrogate
for transcendence. We can, for example,
imagine descendants who will be born
into a technological world that gives them
all the pleasures of heaven, to the extent
to which we can reduce them to earthly
terms, without having to die.

All save one, that is. The yearning of
the soul for transcendence is neither fully
understood nor fulfilled if it is reduced
to a desire for more intense experience,
longer and more vigorous life, or some
sort of ultimate power over nature. The
deepest, ineradicable longing of the soul,
indeed, the very ground of the soul, the
attraction toward a transcendent Good, is
found only in transmogrified form in
the speculations of futurists. The Hedonist
Imperative’s anticipation of a life of
constant bliss reminds us of the “lifetime
burning in every moment,” in which
T. S. Eliot pointed to the intersection of
the timeless with time. It also reminds us of
Socrates’ attempts in the Phaedo to convey
to his far less spiritually mature friends the
reality of heaven by reducing it to a material
world imagined as greatly enhanced.

More than five hundred years ago the
Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola
formulated his vision of human nature
in a speech in which God tells Adam,
before the Fall, that He has not given man
a nature properly his own, that would set
him apart from other creatures, but has
left it up to man to finish his own creation.

The nature of all other creatures is
defined and restricted within laws
which We have laid down; you, by
contrast, impeded by no such restrictions,
may, by your own free will,
to whose custody We have assigned
you, trace for yourself the lineaments
of your own nature. . . . We
have made you a creature neither of
heaven nor of earth, neither mortal
nor immortal, in order that you
may, as the free and proud shaper
of your own being, fashion yourself
in the form you may prefer. It will
be in your power to descend to the
lower, brutish forms of life; you will
be able, through your own decision,
to rise again to the superior orders
whose life is divine.35

For Pico this has meaning only within a
context of human striving to ascend to
union with God, but in the intervening
centuries God has been eclipsed, if not
abolished, in the modern psyche; and the
result is that the distinction between the
lower and the higher has also been abolished,
so that becoming more like brutes
almost inevitably leads many to believe
that we can reconstruct ourselves and
become more like gods through mastery
of nature’s reproductive forces.

As Camus said of modern political ideologies,
“Man is the only creature who
refuses to be what he is.”36 The question
we must ponder is to what extent this statement
also applies to the reconstruction of
man in the biological revolution.

NOTES

  1. Adding chromosomes to the normal complement
    of forty-six, for the sake of creating more
    possibilities for genetic manipulation, has been
    suggested by Gregory Stock, who comments,
    “Not only could geneticists add much larger
    amounts of genetic material, which would mean
    far better gene regulation, they could more easily
    test to ensure that the genes were placed properly
    and functioning correctly,” Gregory Stock,
    Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future
    (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002),
    66.

  2. Ibid., 155.
  3. Pluripotent cells are those than
    can develop into any cell type in the body, but
    they cannot produce a placenta or umbilical cord.

  4. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse
    of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s
    Press, 1994), 171. Similarly, Gregory Stock says
    that “the Darwinian revolution finished the job
    [of wrenching humanity from its exalted station],
    leaving us fashioned not by divine consciousness
    but by random natural forces,” Stock, 175.

  5. Singer,
    182–83.

  6. Ibid., 3.
  7. Ibid., 183
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. James
    Rachels, Created From Animals: The Moral Implications
    of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University
    Press, 1990), 1.

  10. Ibid., 5.
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Ibid., 198.
    Emphasis in the original.

  13. Gregory Pence, Cloning
    After Dolly: Who’s Still Afraid? (Lanham: Rowman
    & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004), 72.

  14. /strong>
    Since cloning involves pulling the nucleus from a
    somatic cell and inserting it into an egg from which
    the nucleus has been removed, it is extremely difficult to avoid critical damage to the transferred
    nucleus and/or the cytoplasm of the egg.

  15. Ibid.,
    51.

  16. Ibid., 61. Emphasis in the original.
  17. Ibid.,
    67.

  18. Ibid., 111. Emphasis added.
  19. Ibid., 68.
  20. Ibid., 102.

  21. Ibid., 102. Gregory Stock makes the
    same point, “Perhaps future ‘designer children’ will
    feel like winners from birth, because they will not
    have that suspicion that might lurk at the back of
    our minds when we think of germinal choice. Each
    of us knows that had embryo screening been in use
    at the time of our conception, our parents might
    have chosen another, ‘better’ embryo in our place,”
    Stock, 148.

  22. Ibid., 103.
  23. Ibid., 180.
  24. Lee M.
    Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning Children and Beyond
    in a Brave New World (New York: Avon Books, 1997),
    31.

  25. Ibid., 174.
  26. Ibid., 236.
  27. Ibid., 249.
  28. Ibid., 250.

  29. Ibid., 249–50. Emphasis and ellipsis in
    the original.

  30. Stock, 1, 3.
  31. Joseph Fletcher, The
    Ethics of Genetic Control: Ending Reproductive Roulette
    (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 22.

  32. For
    this and other quotes from the Hedonist Imperative,
    see www.hedweb.com.

  33. Another version
    of this is the quest for a higher humanity through
    bioengineering and other technologies that can
    abolish death, either for some people or for all.
    For example, at the end of his detailed scientific
    analysis of how it might be possible to engineer
    “immortals” who will be eleven-year-olds, living
    among mortals, and indefinitely maintained at that
    level of prepubescent physical immaturity by stem
    cells that will constantly regenerate senescent tissue,
    Stanley Shostak speculates that “[c]hances are,
    the immortals’ problems will not be that different
    from ours. For example, pressure on traditional
    families and kinship structures will certainly continue
    following immortalization.” Nevertheless, he
    admits that it is impossible for mortals to foresee
    what life would be like for immortals, although, not
    surprisingly, he does believe that the experience of
    time would be radically different: “an infinity of
    time will affect everything about perception and
    the experience of life.” What Shostak seems not to
    have considered is that such an endless life would
    be experienced as meaningless because it is nothing
    more than a mortal life stretched out to infinity.
    Immortality has generally had a double meaning
    in Western thought as both unending existence
    and an existence elevated to the level of the divine,
    the “immortals.” All that Shostak offers is endless
    time. Stanley Shostak, Becoming Immortal: Combining
    Cloning and Stem-Cell Therapy (Albany, NY: State
    University of New York Press, 2002), 203, 205.

  34. This and the following quotes are taken from the
    World Transhumanist Association website, www.
    transhumanism.org.

  35. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,
    Oration on the Dignity of Man, tr. A. Robert
    Caponigri (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
    Gateway Edition, 1956), 7–8.

  36. Albert Camus,
    The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (New York:
    Vintage Books, 1956), 11.

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like