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Reproductive technologies

A Posthuman Future? from the end of history to the end of human nature?
By Munira Mirzae
June 01, 2002

The vista of possibilities opened up by recent genetic technological advances has broadly provoked two responses in the scientific community: caution and optimism. Whilst many regard the new potential to modify human physiology as a slippery slope to 'designer babies', others have embraced the medical possibilities of this new technology and defended scientists' rights to research this terrain.

Currently expressing both sides of the debate in the public domain, are Francis Fukuyama, author of the recently published Our Posthuman Future, and Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans. The views of both US based authors have been gained prominence in the UK media lately, and at an event organized by the Institute of Ideas, they debated their views in the packed auditorium of 1000 people at the Institute of Education, an indication of the high level of public interest in this topic.

Fukuyama began by outlining the frightening possibilities of new genetic advances, asserting that the capability to 'improve' physical and mental capacities in humans could create a 'superhuman' race. Such changes, he asserted, would challenge our existing conception of what it means to be human and cast uncertainty over cherished principles such as human equality and rights. In order to avoid such difficult questions and protect us, he argued, 'the answer's pretty simple, you just regulate it'.

Stock, on the other hand, enthused about the positive contribution that genetic testing and cloning could bring to the fight against diseases such as Alzheimer's or even the capacity to prolong life. For him, current regulation of research is sufficient and to increase it would be to jeopardize progress in this area. He does not believe it is justifiable to regulate science in abstract, only to cope with the real problems as and when they might arise.

Stock's optimism about genetic technology reveals a key difference between him and Fukuyama. As he admitted, 'Fukuyama and I have very different visions of the future.' Whilst Stock regards the uncertainty and unpredictable fruits of science as exciting and something for human beings to respond to with confidence, Fukuyama prefers to limit change because he fears society and our political institutions will not be able to cope with the uncertainty. Whilst Fukuyama presents himself as a moderate and pro-science, Stock pointed out how the logical conclusions of Fukuyama's views led him to recently sign a petition to ban the use of nuclear transfer technology, a technique that can potentially aid stem cell research into serious diseases.

One respondent to the two main speakers, scientist Robin Lovell-Badge, pointed out that scientific advances in this area were still limited and that techniques such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis remained crude in their ability to fight disease or create 'improvements' in human beings. However Stock pointed out that such possibilities may arise and that the questions they will inevitably raise need to be discussed now. Another respondent, Raanan Gillon, Emeritus professor of Medical Ethics at Imperial College London, argued that the cry for greater regulation in this field reflects an increasing risk-aversion in society. The tendency to view genetic science with alarm prevents us from seeing real creative possibilities. Furthermore, he argued, individuals should be accorded greater trust to make the right decision for themselves, rather than seek regulatory authority from governments.

Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times columnist, author of Brave New World: Genetics and the Human Experience and the third respondent in the debate, presented the most openly cautious view on the platform. He regretted that despite the fact that human beings had only just 'escaped' the twentieth century, by attempting to change history through different ideologies, we were still unafraid to change ourselves. He argued that he is unconcerned about diseases such as cancer because 'we've all got to die of something' and that living longer is not necessarily a positive aspiration. When asked by a member of the audience if he felt there was value to human suffering, he responded that there was, however, he was unwilling to explain why. Such mysteries, it seems should not be divulged to us.

What this debate brought out clearly was that those calling for greater scientific caution in the name of freedom and morality are least willing to trust individuals or our political institutions with the big decisions about our future. The danger in this debate is not that we ask the wrong kinds of questions but that we are afraid to let ourselves answer them.

A Posthuman Future - from the end of history to the end of human nature? was a debate organized by the Institute of Ideas, held on 30 May 2002.

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