Many of us have one or two political issues surrounding our bodies that get us fired up. Many of you reading this right now probably have some hot-button issue on your mind. Maybe it’s abortion, or recreational drug usage, or marriage rights, or surrogate pregnancy, or assisted suicide, or sex work, or voluntary amputation, or gender reassignment surgery.
For each of these issues, there are four words that define our belief about our rights, “My body, my choice.” How you react to those words determine which side of any of those debates you are on. That’s just the thing, though – there aren’t a bunch of little debates, there is just one big debate being argued on multiple fronts. All of these issues find their home in my field of philosophy: bioethics. And within the bioethics community, there is a small contingency that supports a person’s right to choose what to do with their body in every single one of those examples. Transhumanists make up part of that contingency.
If you are pro-choice on abortion or think that gender reassignment surgery is an option everyone should have, you agree with transhumanism on at least one issue. Many current political arguments are skirmishes and turf battles in what is a movement toward what one might call somatic rights. In some cases the law is clear, as it is with marriage rights or drug usage, and the arguments are over whether or not to remove, amend, or change the law. Other cases are so ambiguous that the law is struggling to define itself, as with surrogate pregnancy and voluntary amputation. And sooner or later (I’ve given up on guessing time-frames), instead of merely arguing over what we’re allowed to do with the body we’re born with, there will be debates about our rights to choose what kind of body we have. By looking at the futuristic ideas of genetic engineering and robotic prosthetic technology, we can understand how transhumanism maximizes the “my body, my choice” mantra.
We are at a cusp point in medical generations. The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become. If they could start over, the surveys tell us, they wouldn’t choose the profession today. They recall a simpler past without insurance-company hassles, government regulations, malpractice litigation, not to mention nurses and doctors bearing tattoos and talking of wanting “balance” in their lives. These are not the cause of their unease, however. They are symptoms of a deeper condition—which is the reality that medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors.
Gawande has two main arguments. First, that when doctors use checklists they prevent errors and quality of care goes way up. Second, that doctors need to stop acting like autonomous problem solvers and see themselves as a member of a tight-knit team. Gawande is one of the few sane voices in the health care debate. However, later on in his speech, he says that the solution to the health care conundrum is not technology. To a large degree, I agree with him. But not completely. Tech still has a big role to play. If we take a closer look at Dune and Star Trek, we’ll see why Qualcomm and the X-Prize Foundation are ponying up 10 million bucks to fund a piece of medical technology that could help make Gawande’s dream of team-based medicine a bit closer to becoming reality. Read More
If there is anything the internet is good for beyond cat photos (see “le sneak” above), it is for arguing. In the spirit of elevating the discourse, I’m going to try and salvage the aftermath of my designer baby post, which itself was a response to Peter Lawler’s post. In the process, I’ll explain to you exactly how social conservatives view the human enhancement debate.
A quick recap: Peter Lawler wrote a post at Big Think about Designer Babies and how they pose a threat to the middle class. I responded with a brilliant rebuttal that displayed my rapier wit and rhetorical dynamism. Now, the chaps at The New Atlantis‘ Futurisms are unhappy with how I portrayed George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics and Peter Lawler in that magnificent post. Peter Lawler also “responded” to me by block-quoting the arguments of blogger Minerva, who writes her own blog. Minerva made some astute comments about the social ramifications of human enhancement and worried I was not considering them; Lawler took her points and used them as a springboard to describe me as “intolerantly judgmental.” What did I say about religion again? Let’s re-read my artful prose:
I have a very, very hard time disagreeing with Haraway that teaching creationism is a form of abuse. Any religious fundamentalism (funny how Lawler neglects Islam, Judaism, and protestants) is a pestilence. Believe in whatever Supreme Being you so desire, just don’t attempt to derive logic or laws that govern the rest of us from the fictive texts you hold so dear.
Man, that’s great. I claim that fundamentalists teaching their children the Earth is 6000 years old is awful and borderline neglect; Lawler argues that makes me intolerant. He is wrong. Let me be clear. I do not believe those who are religious are stupid, abusive, or bad parents. I believe fundamentalists often are those who teach their children Creationism: that evolution is not real, that the Earth is 6000 years old, or that Noah forgot the dinosaurs. Fundamentalists of all religions also attempt to impose their beliefs by law and that should be opposed at all turns. Finally, I grew up Christian, have studied religion more than is probably healthy and remain far more agnostic than atheist. Let’s drop the “he hates religion” canard and address the actual claims against engineering.
On that note, let me first address Minerva’s concerns about human enhancement, as they are actually cogent and relevant. To begin, Minerva, I agree with you. Enhancement is eugenics. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I support eugenics. Now let me tell you why.
Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).
A few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.
The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.
Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.
Remember in E.T. where the government finds E.T. and decides they should do all sorts of crazy awful experiments on him? Or how about in District 9 where an entire alien race is subjected to squalor, neglect, and vivisection? Or maybe in The Day the Earth Stood Still when Klaatu takes a round in the shoulder from some nervous infantrymen? What all of these movies have in common is that on present-day Earth, aliens have no rights. Despite a demonstration of equal or superior intelligence, a capacity for moral reasoning, complex culture, and peaceful intentions, aliens are regularly mistreated.
“Why should I care?” you might ask, gesturing with your cigarette holder and adjusting your pashmina scarf. You should care because either we are going to find aliens on an earth-like planet, like Gliese 581g, or they’ll find us first—and soon. We’ve got time, but not much, before we’ll be looking at some living something from another world.
Well why should aliens have rights? Because, as I’ve argued before, they have personhood. (Quick refresher: personhood is the idea that rights stem from aspects of an entity’s mind. For example, a sentient creature has the right not to suffer, and a self-aware creature has the right to self-determine. It doesn’t matter if the mind is in a robo-power suit, an ethereal protoplasm, distributed among a living swarm, or at the center of a writhing mass of tentacles. If a sentient, rational, and moral mind is present, it has personhood.)
If an alien can suffer, can reason, and can tell right from wrong, then it has rights and responsibilities. But what are they?
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
I recently joined Meitar “maymay” Moscovitz and Emma Gross of Kink on Tap to discuss sex, cyborgs, and politics. In the podcast episode, entitled “Hymen on a Budget,” we have ourselves quite a little chat. Body modification and plastic surgery, the nature of personhood, sexuality and gender selection, and criminally dangerous sex all get their moments in the sun. And while I may not precisely agree with maymay’s statement “eugenics isn’t sexy,” I can’t thank Emma and him enough for having me on the show. Gender and sexuality studies are where my interest in transhumanism started, so it’s always good to get back to basics.
Just a heads up: The content is explicit, so if frank discussion of sexuality, bodies, and politics is upsetting to you or anyone who may overhear, I’d recommend not listening–or at least wearing headphones.
For those of you comfortable with whatever we may say, you’ll be happy you listened and even happier to discover Kink on Tap.
Image via J (mtonic.com) on Flickr
In many of the sci-fi futures that we know and love, racism, sexism, and homophobia are often scrubbed out of existence. Caprica/BSG, Star Trek, Torchwood, Mass Effect, even less thoughtful fare like Starship Troopers, depict residents of the future who are less interested in the permutations of human identity and more interested in the qualities of a person’s mind and spirit. Even Futurama’s “Proposition Infinity,” concerning the fake-contentious “robosexual marriage” controversy, spoofs this tendency.
Yesterday, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker helped us move the rights needle a little further toward that future. In a heavily disputed decision, Walker overturned the barbarous Proposition 8 on the grounds it was unconstitutional under California law. His ruling was unequivocal and exhaustive: same-sex marriage is and should be equal to opposite-sex marriage. No doubt the case will move to the Supreme Court, where Obama and Congress’ collective feet-dragging on DOMA and DADT will finally be confronted. Until then, same-sex marriage is forbidden in most states in the USA and, regardless of the Supreme Court decision, will remain so in most countries in the world.
What is astounding is that for all the value we place in “human rights,” we are very good at not giving rights to humans. As I mentioned in my “Yes, We Should Clone Neanderthals” post, we regularly restrict human rights in those who are mentally un- or under-developed. Many who argued for the rights of Neanderthals based their arguments on the fact that the Neanderthal is “mostly human” or has very similar DNA and biology to a human being. While I agree the Neanderthal clone should have the same rights as a human being, I agree for a reason entirely other than biology. Rights have nothing to do with being human.
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite
In theory, geoengineering seems like the ideal remedy for our climate ills. Some white reflective roofs here, a little ocean fertilization there, a few simulated volcanic eruptions, and voilà! you have a potential fix for one of the world’s most intractable problems.
But there’s good reason to believe that many of these proposed schemes would prove much costlier to the planet over both the short- and long-term than more mainstream approaches to addressing climate change—and leave a number of critical problems, like ocean acidification, in the lurch.
Take the injection of sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere, which I alluded to earlier. The idea would be to recreate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by blanketing the sky with a thin layer of particles that would reflect a fraction of incoming sunlight back into space. For this method to put a crimp on greenhouse warming, studies estimate that it would have to cut solar radiation by roughly 1.8 percent—not an easy feat by any means, but not entirely out of the question either.