Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative (Part 1)

Should We Use Science to Make Ourselves More-Than-Human?

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 7, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a question on bioethics answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: I recently read something about a current philosophy called "Transhumanism." Are you familiar with it and can you shed some light on what's problematic about it from the perspective of a Catholic worldview?

E. Christian Brugger replies:

The problem of "Transhumanism" is so critically important to understand, and so poorly understood, that I think the topic deserves more than a single column. I therefore address it here and in my next ZENIT bioethics briefs.

You might have seen the feel-good movie Captain America. It takes place during World War II. A patriotic fine arts student from New York City named Steve Rogers wants to enlist in the army. But the army won't take him because he's too scrawny. The recruiters tell him that they're doing him a favor by rejecting his application. 

One of his interviews is overheard by a brilliant German scientist, now working for the Americans, named Abraham Erskine. Dr. Erskine is impressed by Rogers' tenacity and thinks he might make a good candidate for a secret military project named Operation Rebirth, intended to transform the bodies of U.S. soldiers into super-human fighting machines. 

Rogers eagerly accepts the invitation to become the first U.S. test subject. He's strapped to a gurney and sealed in a pressurized chamber. He's injected with "Super Soldier Serum" and exposed to an almost lethal burst of "Vita-Rays," which activate and stabilize his biochemistry. The once scrawny adolescent emerges from the chamber with a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger, in possession of a lean, muscular, maximally efficient -- indeed, practically perfect -- body. 

Fortunately, Rogers also possesses unusually -- indeed unworldly -- sincerity, self-sacrifice and courage. As "Captain America" -- so dubbed by his superiors -- he goes on to perform deeds of heroism, which will delight all but the most cynical of audiences.

Although we find ourselves firmly on the side of Captain America in the movie, the comic book scenario raises one of the most intense debates facing the future of biotechnology, and indeed, of humanity: should we use science to make ourselves more-than-human, in the words of the president's Council on Bioethics, "better than well"? 

What is Transhumanism?

In October 2004 the bimonthly magazine Foreign Policy published a special report with the title, The World's Most Dangerous Ideas. Eight prominent thinkers were asked to reply to the question: "What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" Francis Fukuyama responded with an essay entitled "Transhumanism." By "transhumanism" he was referring to a current of thought, gaining prominence in the past fifteen years, committed to using science and technology to transcend the limitations of human nature. Scientific research traditionally has striven to overcome the effects of human disease and degenerative illnesses -- purposes broadly therapeutic in nature. Transhumanism aims to move beyond therapy to enhancement. "Its proponents," to quote one advocate, "argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds." The Transhumanist Declaration of 2009, posted by the World Transhumanist Association, says this: "Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth." 

Although we might be tempted to treat the futuristic musings of trendy transhumanists with benign neglect, I would argue that there are good reasons to take their ideology seriously.

The first reason is that although Transhumanism as an organized movement is still on the social margins its "fundamental tenet," Fukuyama notes, "is implicit in much of the research agenda of contemporary biomedicine." In other words, Transhumanism as a motivating idea is already alive and active amongst us. 

For example, we see it in the agenda of reproductive medicine. 'Parents' interested in producing "superior children" are testing the limits of even the secular imagination. "Directed mating," as one might do with livestock, is now advertised at elite universities. For over a decade, ads have been run in the Harvard Crimson, the Daily Princetonian and the Yale Daily News offering up to $35,000 for egg donors with verifiably high SAT scores, with selected physical characteristics, and with notable accomplishments in sports. One ad in the Brown Daily Herald in 1999 offered $50,000 to "an extraordinary egg donor." And the Stanford Daily in 2000 ran an ad entitled: "Give the Gift of Love and Life", "Very Special Egg Donor Needed." It said she must be under 30 and Caucasian, and, it added, "proven college level athletic ability preferred." The compensation? $100,000 and "all expenses…paid." 

Or the California sperm bank in operation for nearly 20 years, the Repository for Germinal Choice, that originally accepted donations only from Nobel Prize laureates; later it broadened its donor base to included non-Nobelists with very significant accomplishments. Apparently the company went belly-up around the year 2000.

These examples might sound fantastic. But the more commonplace practice of prenatal screening has been with us for decades. Amniocentesis (inserting a needle into the uterus and doing genetic tests on the amniotic fluid) and chorionic villus sampling (testing placental tissue) both aim to discover fetal defects usually with the intent of aborting the fetus if a defect is found: weeding out the weak and selecting the strong.

A form of embryo screening known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis(PGD) is increasingly becoming routine for IVF users. Human embryos are created in the lab and grown to approximately the eight-cell stage of development. A technician inserts a tiny needle into the body of the embryo and removes one or two of his or her cells, called blastomeres. The cells, containing the embryo's DNA, are tested and information is secured, for example, the embryo's sex. A woman can then choose whether to have transferred into her uterus the embryo with the desired sex. Those with the wrong gender are discarded or frozen in liquid nitrogen.

PGD is also used to test for genetic diseases and defects such as Down's Syndrome, Cystic fibrosis and cleft palate. Embryos that test positive for any of dozens of disorders are selected out and discarded. As the sophistication of genetic tests steadily increases, an increasing number of embryos with disabilities will be screened out and destroyed.

Oxford bioethicist, Julian Savulescu, argues that generators of IVF embryos have an obligation to use information derived from genetic screening to select the child whom they believe is likely to have the best life. He thinks that if sperm and eggs could be produced artificially, and "scientists could scan a far larger number of embryos … this would allow couples to choose their 'perfect child.'" The consequent destruction of imperfect embryos is unfortunate, but, he argues, not unethical: "since the arguments … are so weak I see no reason to stop [destructive research]."

PGD can also be used to test for positive traits, screening for "desirable genes." Presently this is rather rare and imprecise. But before many years the commodity will be common place. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that a limited number of fertility clinics in the U.S. are beginning to offer to clients the option of selecting the physical traits of their children (so-called "designer children"). Though some IVF specialists are averse to using PGD in this way, others see no problems with the technique: "This is cosmetic medicine," said the director of one prominent fertility clinic in California, "we have no problems with it." As requests for specific traits become more detailed, more embryos will test negative, and hence will be discarded. 

When combined with a test called tissue typing, PGD can also be used to select embryos that register a perfect tissue match with a sibling suffering from an existing disease. The so-called "savior sibling" is implanted at the embryonic stage of development and gestated till birth. His or her umbilical cord blood, chocked full of stem cells, is then harvested and transplanted into the suffering sibling. If that therapy doesn't work, the possibility exists down the road for other types of transplants from the savior sibling (e.g., bone marrow or non-vital organs).

Selective reproduction is not the only way the transhumanist agenda is alive amongst us. We are all familiar with the problem of professional athletes using anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass or using other drugs (e.g., erythropoietin) to stimulate the overproduction of red blood cells to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood (called "blood doping"). Another example is the problem of healthy high school and college students taking prescription stimulant drugs (such as Ritalin and Adderall, ordinarily prescribed for problems such as ADHD) to improve their mental performance on exams. A 2009 national survey found that college students aged 18 to 22 are twice as likely as non college students to use Adderall nonmedically. The survey found that about 1 in 15 U.S. college students use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. The number is still relatively low. But it is likely to increase. In the decade between 1990 and 2000 the annual production of methylphenidate (Ritalin) increased 730% and the production of amphetamine (Adderall) by an astounding 2,500%. 

These all are more controversial uses of enhancement medicine. More mundane techniques such as Botox for ordinary aging, and tummy tucks (abdominoplasty), breast implants, lip enhancements, and buttock augmentations are treated as more commonplace.

We can see that the camel's nose is already clearly in the tent. In my next column I will address the camel's body that threatens our living quarters in the next couple decades.

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to bioethics@zenit.org. The text should include your initials, your city and state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]