I had just finished reading a good book, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond To The Redesigned Human Of The Future, when I met friends for a late dinner in an upscale Georgetown bistro. As a measure of the power of medical ethicist James Hughes’s book, our dinner conversation revolved around the potential of babies free of genetic defects, the elimination of most of the diseases that now decimates our population, the potential of creating non-human sentient beings that might well have legal rights, and the possibility of near immortality. The domination of these issues among such an eclectic group of young Washingtonians is a measure of the book’s saliency in the first part of the twenty-first century.
Part history, but especially an ethical perspective on the future, Hughes describes the efforts of those who seek to bring a future to humanity that offers the elimination of most diseases and enhances life through the use of drugs, careful eugenics, technological enhancement, and biotech innovations. The mapping of the human genome, according to Hughes, is just the beginning of a future in which human life might be radically improved. These possibilities also harbor questions and fears, as anything new and different has always done. Dubbing them “bioLuddites,” Hughes suggests that those opposing these possibilities are organizing to ensure that the United States does not participate in the next fundamental transformation in human history. The biotech revolution has the potential, he believes, to be more significant than the Industrial Revolution that the United States embraced.
The battle lines in this debate are already being drawn, and skirmishes over stem cell research, pharmaceuticals, cloning, and related innovations are already underway. These are nothing compared to future controversies, according to Hughes. What do we do once we are presented with cloned human beings? Are those individuals citizens of the United States? What rights do they have? What will prospective parents do once they have the capability through mastery of the human genome to ensure that birth defects are eliminated in their fetuses? What if they had the capability to select genes for greater intelligence for their fetuses? Would they do so? Should they be allowed to do so? These are only some of the coming challenges.
The bioLuddites use arguments ranging from religion to Nazi eugenics to oppose any human intervention into these processes. Hughes takes a different approach. He argues that it is impossible to turn back these innovations and rather than trying we should seek to regulate and control them. He contends that the manner in which American society decides these challenges will chart the course for the future. He suggests that a faith in our democratic institutions is necessary here, and that through them we might reach decisions that will preserve human freedom and make possible a hopeful future. Through this process we might reach decisions on which of these potentials should be mandatory for all Americans, which should be forbidden, and which might be voluntary but carefully regulated.
To return to my Georgetown dinner conversation, there was no consensus among those at the table on these questions. Some embraced the potential changes and looked forward to having these new choices. Others were opposed, suggesting that it was “not nice to mess with Mother Nature.” Some thought it was “playing god” and therefore inappropriate for humans. The diversity of responses at dinner mirrored the divisions in larger society, and if the forcefulness of beliefs expressed at the table is any guide, the debates in society will be difficult and trying.
It certainly seems that James Hughes is onto something important. Citizen Cyborg is an important exploration of what may well be one of the most critical issues of the twenty-first century.