Brave New Worlds

The report this week that scientists have now cloned embryos from adult monkeys takes us ever closer to the possibility of human cloning. Overcoming this hurdle does make the prospect of human cloning all the more certain. Thus it really is not so much a question of if, but when, this will occur.

But of course the more important question is, should this occur? Indeed, the various types of animal cloning undertaken thus far are in many respects simply the precursor steps to what many in the world of biotechnology are working toward: the cloning of humans.

And with this possibility we again face the key ethical issues of playing God, the commodification of human life, and the depersonalisation of the human person. Is the future something to look forward to, in other words, or are we facing a frightening brave new world in which the horrors of certain sci-fi films become reality?

Science of course is a mixed bag. It has produced tremendous good, but has also occasioned much mischief. Some argue that if science can do something, it should be done. But others are not so cavalier about where this is all heading.

Consider the recent comments of Leon Kass. He is a leading bioethicist and philosopher, who delivered an important lecture last month, dealing with these very issues. His comments are worth repeating in part. He begins with these words:

“Among the contemporary challenges to our humanity, the deepest ones come from a most unlikely quarter: our wonderful and humane biomedical science and technology. The powers they are providing for altering the workings of our bodies and minds are already being used for purposes beyond therapy, and may soon be used to transform human nature itself.”

Consider some of these recent developments: “In our lifetime, the natural relations between sex and procreation, personal identity and embodiment, and human agency and human achievement have all been profoundly altered by new biomedical technologies. The Pill. In vitro fertilization. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic engineering. Organ swapping. Mechanical spare parts. Performance-enhancing drugs. Computer implants into brains. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old, Prozac for everyone. Virtually unnoticed, the train to Huxley’s dehumanized Brave New World has already left the station.”

The real issue is how we think about science and the new technologies. Are they to be allowed free rein, or must strict moral and social constraints be applied? Has science become a new religion? Is it free to do whatever, without the hard questions being applied? Says Kass,

“A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us – let me call it ‘soul-less scientism’ – which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. The threat to our humanity today comes not from the transmigration of souls in the next life, but from the denial of soul in this one, not from turning men into buffaloes, but from denying that there is any real difference between them.”

Kass goes on to differentiate science from scientism, and he applauds the many breakthroughs and advantages of a humane science. But science, untethered from the moorings of ethics and faith, can lead into very dark waters indeed. “In a word, our remarkable science of nature has made enormous progress precisely by its decision to ignore the larger perennial questions about being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things – questions that science happily gave over to philosophy, poetry, and religion.”

This especially comes across in the biosciences. “Among many biologists, these important limitations of science are today largely forgotten, as is the modesty that they should induce. Instead, bioprophets of scientism, exploiting powerful ideas from genetics, developmental biology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, issue bold challenges to traditional understandings of human nature and human dignity. Their faith rests on a new unified approach to biology and human biology, at once evolutionist, materialist, determinist, mechanistic, and objectified.”

Indeed, the attempt to explain all of life from a purely materialist point of view is a frontal assault on the notions of human worth and dignity. “The new scientism not only banishes soul from its account of life. It soullessly neglects the ethical and spiritual aspects of the human animal. For we alone among the animals go in for ethicizing, for concerning ourselves with how to live. We alone among the animals ask not only ‘What can I know?’ but also, ‘What ought I do?’ and ‘What may I hope?’ Science, notwithstanding its great gifts to human life in the form of greater comfort and safety, is utterly unhelpful in satisfying these great longings of the human soul.”

The continued elevation of science and the new technologies to some sort of untouchable status where the important ethical questions do not even get a hearing should be of concern to us all. As Kass remarks,

“Science, by design, is notoriously morally neutral, silent on the distinction between better and worse, right and wrong, the noble and the base. And although scientists hope that the uses that will be made of their findings will be, as Francis Bacon prophesied, governed in charity, science can do nothing to insure that result. It can offer no standards to guide the use of the awesome powers it places in human hands. Though it seeks universal knowledge, it has no answer to moral relativism. It knows not what charity is, what charity requires, or even whether and why it is good. What, then, will remain for us, morally and spiritually, should soul-less scientism succeed in its efforts to overthrow our traditional religions, our inherited views of human life, and the moral teachings that depend on them?”

Indeed, there is an urgency to bring moral philosophy back into the discussion, and even religion as well: “A philosophical critique of scientism may give us back our souls and restore the human difference. But philosophy alone cannot answer the longings of our soul or supply its quest for meaning. For such nourishment, we must turn to other sources, including especially the Bible.”

For example, the opening chapters of the Bible say much about the big, important questions of life: “The first chapter of Genesis – like no work of science, no matter how elegant or profound – invites us to hearken to a transcendent voice. It answers to the human need to know not only how the world works but also what we are to do here. It is the beginning of a Bible-length response to the human longing for meaning and whole-hearted existence. The truths it bespeaks are more than cognitive. They point away from mere truths of belief to the truths of life in action – of song and praise and ritual, of love and procreation and civic life, of responsible deeds in answering the call to righteousness, holiness, and love of neighbor.”

Whether we in fact progress – or regress – to a science-led dystopia on earth remains to be seen. If we can keep the moral, philosophical and spiritual considerations running in tandem with the scientific and technological developments, we have reason for hope. But if we cannot or will not, then the Brave New World scenarios may be upon us a lot sooner than we think.

[1224 words]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *