CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Perils of Perfection

Apr 13, 2006

Often the most dangerous scenarios come packaged in the most attractive of wrappings. Various promises of heaven on earth are an example. Consider the case of one science writer who promises us the world (or at least immortality) and seems blissfully unaware of any possible risks along the way.

I refer to Ronald Bailey, a science correspondent for Reason magazine, and the author of the newly published Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books, 2005). An article-length excerpt of his book was first printed in the London Times, then reprinted in the Australian (10 April, 2006).

It is to this version as found in the Australian that I respond. The title alerts us to where he is coming from: “Rage against the forces that deny us a future idyll.” And there are other quick clues as to what his angle is. Reason of course is a libertarian journal of opinion, and Prometheus books is primarily an atheistic/humanistic publishing house. Thus we can easily see what his worldview is all about.

He begins his article with some quite grandiose and mind-boggling predictions: “By the end of this century, the typical European may attend a family reunion in which five generations are playing together. Great-great-great grandma, at 150 years old, will be as vital, with muscle tone as firm and skin as elastic, as her 30-year-old great-great-granddaughter with whom she’s playing tennis.”

And that is just for starters. He goes on to speak of people never having a cold, of a world that is greener and cleaner, and of HIV/AIDS as a mere tragic memory. And he is not just engaging in wishful thinking here. He claims that “this idyll is more than realistic, given reasonably expected breakthroughs and extensions of our knowledge of human, plant and animal biology, as well as mastery of the manipulation of these biologies to meet our needs and desires.”

Bailey is certainly upbeat about where the new biotech is taking us. Others however are more reserved, especially with the benefit of hindsight. History has warned us of other progress junkies who in the name of a future utopia have instead unleashed untold misery. How many visionaries have promised us a new world order only to unleash an old world horror?

And given that Big Biotech can be just as nefarious as Big Oil or Big Tobacco, there is real need for a sober – and moral – assessment of where this is all heading. Scientists and those in the biotech industry are hardly immune from seeking to advance the wrong causes for the wrong reasons. The desire for fame and fortune can skew the best of intentions. Wearing a white lab coat does not make one immune from such temptations. Many thinkers have noted such dangers.

Indeed, some of those concerned about where things are headed are mentioned by Bailey. He notes those on the Left, like Daniel Callahan (one can also mention David Suzuki, Bill McKibben and Jeremy Rifkin), and those on the Right, like Leon Kass (think also of Francis Fukuyama, eg.). He says both sides are wrongly opposing the many benefits that can come from the biotech revolution.

These “bioconservatives”, as he calls them, are preventing us from reaching a literal heaven on earth. He continues to peddle the benefits of this full-steam-ahead approach: “By the middle of this century humanity may see 20 to 40-year leaps in average life spans, human bodies and minds enhanced by advanced drugs and other biotherapies, the conquest of most infectious and degenerative diseases, and genetic science that allows parents to ensure their children have stronger immune systems, more athletic bodies and cleverer brains. Even the possibility of human immortality beckons.”

Ah, the quest for immortality. Where have we heard this before? For the religious-minded, two early episodes in the book of Genesis will immediately spring to mind. And for the secularists amongst us, talk of a thousand-year Third Reich can also be recalled.

Bailey is right when he makes this assertion: “Forget Osama bin Laden and the so-called clash of civilisations. The defining political conflict of the 21st century will literally be the battle over life and death.” Quite so. This certainly will be the next major battlefield, and real casualties will be involved in the struggle. But many of us see the dangers coming, not from impeding science, but from allowing it to ride roughshod over any social and ethical concerns.

And are those of us who are concerned about the biotech tsunami simply Luddites and anti-progress moralizers? Bailey certainly seems to think so. He characterizes those who are cautious about our head-long rush into the new bio-technologies as being partisans of mortality, as if we relish death and misery, and oppose any and all medical breakthroughs.

And he euphemistically refers to his own side as “the party of life”. There you have it. Unbridled science and technology is all about life, wholeness and wellbeing, while those showing concern about the biotech revolution are fixated on death, despair and suffering.

However, as we should well know, social engineering is often preceded by verbal engineering. Those who are more cautious than Bailey simply are aware that there are restrictions in life – put there, perhaps, for our own good – and the Enlightenment quest to scale all mountains and transcend all limits is fraught with danger. How much of humanity has already been sacrificed in the name of some utopian quest for perfection?

Jewish philosopher and bio-ethicist Leon Kass, who Bailey dislikes, has written extensively on this issue. His more important works include Toward a More Natural Science (1985) and Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity (2002).

He eloquently argues that the pressure of science and Big Biotech to simply do whatever can be done, without asking whether it should be done, will only continue to get worse, unless we apply some brakes. This is especially so when the steady march forward is sold in the guise of relieving suffering, or offering more lifestyle choices. We have, as Kass says, the “biomedical equivalent of a spiraling arms race” where research and technology seem to know no limits. The consequences are frightening:

“Homogenization, mediocrity, pacification, drug-induced contentedness, debasement of taste, souls without loves and longings – these are the inevitable results of making the essence of human nature the last project for technical mastery.”

And Kass reminds us that since the time of the Enlightenment, an overly rationalist and utopian dream of the perfectibility of man has been pursued, often with disastrous consequences. Only by continually affirming the mystery and sacredness of life, and the dignity and wonder of man, can we prevent such coercive utopianism.

However, he argues, the real threat is not coercive utopianism, but well-intentioned utopianism. That is, the real dangers come from those who speak of compassion, the relief of suffering and the battle for immortality. Says Kass, “the benevolent uses of humanitarian technologies often have serious unintended and undesired consequences.” The promises of the relief of all suffering and the extension of life may sound pleasing to the ears, but can in fact bring bitterness to the soul.

This of course stands in stark contrast to Bailey’s position, especially his remark: “The highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution and our environment.” Many would instead argue that the highest good of man is not just to prolong his life, but to make his existing life more humane, more noble, more virtuous and more civil.

Mere extension of life is no panacea. To have a 200-year-old Hitler or Stalin is not really a mark of progress. Making man better – morally, as a person – is surely more important than simply making man immortal. As Kass reminds us, care of the soul is more important than mere extension of life.

Such concerns as raised by bioethicists like Kass are prudent and wise, as well as much-needed. They serve as an important corrective to the overly utopian and optimistic visions of Bailey, et. al.

Of course none of this is to suggest that there has not been some unhelpful Ludditism, and that there have been those who are unnecessarily anti-progress and anti-technology. And much of that comes from the Left, where anti-capitalism and anti-big-business sentiment often translate into an anti-technology stance.

And yes, some of the religious right have been unnecessarily anti-science, often seeing science as inimical to faith. But having said this, it remains the case that if there are those who – for whatever reason – may be impeding science and progress, there are also those who seem to think that there should be no leash whatsoever, at least no moral leash, and that science should simply run its course, no questions asked. But it seems the latter is more of a dangerous trend than the former.

And plenty of prophets have warned us along the way, including Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Too much evil has been unleashed in the name of progress to not demand a slowing down, until at least social and moral concerns are fully brought to bear on where the new technologies are taking us. Otherwise we do risk falling prey to earlier warnings about creating a brave new world and playing God.

Indeed, one might argue that there is nothing wrong with playing God as long as one is God. But for us mere mortals to assume that there are no boundaries and no limits is both a mark of unbridled hubris and an indication that we have not yet learned the lessons of history.

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