EACH OF US could, as many do, dismiss the specter of human genetic engineering as overblown -- the subjet du jour of alarmists adrift in dystopian novels or of techno-fabulists afloat in ever-everland. The cultural rage, sure, but ultimately "fringe." After all, in country after country people consider the cloning of humans repugnant, and genetically engineered crops are not bearing up well under public scrutiny, nor is aggressive corporate ownership of over ninety percent of the world's food germ-plasm. So why not believe reproductive cloning will fall off the radar once it's regulated as a "last resort" fertility therapy for a minor fraction of humanity? Or, that cloning and embryonic stem-cell techniques will simply yield pharmaceuticals, tissues, limbs, and organs unavailable or too costly by other means? Why not believe ownership of the human genome will settle into industries, as all new and useful discoveries do, and provide the basis for curing disabilities and disease for each of us and succeeding generations? This too will work itself out, the reasoning goes. The dust will settle.
Already we see it coming: prolonged battles of months, maybe years, but battles with beige and not-too-bloody outcomes after NGO campaigns, corporate PR campaigns, legislative hearings, institutional and professional turf wars, dizzying media, the divvying up of funding, regulation, and enforcement at state and federal levels, lawsuits of antitrust and individual rights, judicial decisions, and a parallel track of presidential pressure for international treaties and trade agreements. So why get riled up, why get interested?
The questions are wrong. The language is inadequate. We need to start over.
It doesn't take too supple a wit to see the gap between any urgent public-health need for human genetic engineering -- infertility, inheritable disease, premature deaths -- and the astounding amounts of money, expertise, and patenting currently being devoted to its discoveries and inventions. Medical need is not the driving question for the new biogenetic engineering industry -- unless we agree to redefine medical need to include any and all consumer options for altering bodies and extending lives beyond the body's natural limits. The industry has hit a gold mine, and knows it. Who wouldn't opt to stave off death? Choosing not to purchase or assert entitlement to new tissues and organs when various body parts become damaged, diseased, and worn out over time is next to impossible to imagine. The chemistry between a potential market of six billion and the greed or altruism (it doesn't matter which) of corporations would, without doubt, change forever what it means to be a human being.
Human genetic engineering isn't going to go away, but few are asking the questions that will bring us closer to the momentous, radical public debates such momentous, radical ideas about human life deserve. This is a tender point, an important point. To address it adequately, we'll have to get beyond issues of engineering defined by the categories of public politics and public journalism -- debates of safety, efficacy, and rights -- and begin to wonder at the ways in which engineering human life forces us to contend with matters of existence. If we want to think intelligently, debate intelligently, we must ask ourselves this: Is there a threshold where intentionally changing the biology of human nature violates life irrevocably?
EXTROPIANS, A LOS ANGELES-BASED group of wealthy transhumanists, invest massive amounts of R & D annually in a future that does not include natural human aging and death. Members refer to those who accept death as essential to life as "deathists." Currently, by purchasing cryogenic services provided at Alcor Life Extension, Extropy Institute members count on the day future biotechnologies will regenerate new bodies from neurals (heads only for $50,000) or full bodies ($150,000), each frozen upon death and stored in liquid nitrogen. Shocking as the idea may be, the possibility of a "post-human" future can no longer be dismissed as the wacko imaginings of priviledged Californians. The New York Times Magazine's cover story, by Stephen Hall, "Racing Towards Immortality" (January 30, 2000), details the history and promise for what Science magazine calls the "breakthrough of the year": embryonic stem-cell technologies.
Enthusiastically dubbed "the mother of all cells," a pluripotent embryonic stem cell has the potential of growing into anything you and I may someday require: new brain, heart, liver, arms, and hands, not to mention retinal, skin, and nerve cells. Grown from our own biopsies, these tissues would also have the inherent advantage of sidestepping "mismatch" and immunological rejection -- stumbling points for transplants thus far. Notably, Geron corporation, upstarted as an "antiaging" company in Menlo Park, California, in 1992 with $7.6 million, has privately funded the university research or acquired it.
Just last May, Geron bought Scotland's Roslin Bio Med as a subsidiary in order to own Dolly the sheep's nuclear-transfer technology. Today, Geron owns a stunning corporate portfolio: the patents and licensing on the exact three technologies poised to revolutionize the consequences of accident, disease, and mortality (telemerase enzymes, nuclear-transfer technology, pluripotent stem cells). Posted for the public on its Web site, Geron already envisions stem cell treatment for some of the largest medical markets, "Such cells could be used to treat numerous major chronic degenerative diseases and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, spinal-cord injury, diabetes, osteoarthritis, bone-marrow failure, and burns."
In one swift upping of the human-engineering ante, stem-cell technologies trumped the "specters" of human engineering argued pro and con only months ago. No longer are we merely contending with the obvious morass of human rights, social relations, and fiduciary assumptions for clones as children or as organ factories, or with the morass of inhumane societies rising from new, genetic lines of designer babies (germ-line manipulations). Now, quite literally, we are speculating about a world in which "normal" human beings never grow old and die. You and I and our loved ones would become the living sum of our replacement parts, forever.
IF THE OLD PHILOSOPHICAL conundrum of whether an ax is still the same ax if you've replaced its handle seven times and its head eight times isn't enough to ponder, add to it the conundrum of enhancing our bodies with high-tech, superhuman abilities and ask whether you and I would still be human -- or would become merely human or even "subhuman." In August 1999, Extropians organized Extro 4, "Biotech Futures: Challenges of Life Extension and Genetic Engineering," a conference at Berkeley. Featured speakers included Calvin Harley, chief scientist at Geron corporation, and Judith Campisi, a scientific advisor to Geron. The Extro 4 conference drew other speakers well known in the biotech field such as Gregory Stock (UCLA), Roy Walford (physician at Biosphere 2, named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential Americans) and Cynthia Kenyon (UCSF), all of whom gathered to seriously discuss state-of-the-art technologies, legal problems, and public-relations strategies.
The most telling vision came with Saturday evening's keynote address, "The Ultrahuman Revolution: Amendments to the Human Constitution," by Max More, president of the Extropy Institute. In it, he asked participants to stretch their imaginations beyond biological problems to achieving the ultimate human achievement: the creation of "ultrahumans" with metabrain processors and emotion modulators, supraorganic perceptual abilities, bodies integrated with noncarbon compounds, and immortality guaranteed through genetic, cellular, or synthetic means.
Acknowledging the vast amount of time, energy, and money Americans already spend on looking and feeling younger as they grow older, and reviving energy as they lose it, engineering our bodies to achieve results would only ratchet up spending along the present path. Marketing would have a heyday in goosing up all-American bodies "made-for-success" in the belief that it is good and right for citizens to be freed from bodily, mental, or emotional suffering, and, even more, to become physically, mentally, and emotionally "high and higher functioning. " And, to fight for equal access to bodily "upgrades and endowments," which, just like computers for every school-aged child, are deemed basic by conservatives and liberals alike to living in a world of information, communication, and competition. Without a radical return to questioning the biology of human nature, it's impossible to imagine what lines we would draw against "ultrahumans." After all, America already tacitly blesses the humanist dream getting a quantum, transhumanist boost, with the fortunate among us becoming "persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual, and psychological ability, self-programming and self-defining, potentially immortal, unlimited individuals."
WE ARE INDEED UP TO OUR CHINS in the snarling beauty of the Chinese proverb "May you live in interesting times." Existence, the matter of it -- our bodies, our being, the living world around us -- is on the line as it has never been before, and never will be again. Which is good, not depressing. Our moment in history is, by many accounts, long overdue. Setting aside our startlingly bold and pyrotechnic abilities to fund, research, design, and market creative new ideas for our bodies, and the debate over why we should or shouldn't do so, let's return to our original question. Let's ask, as researchers do in the organismic, somatic, cellular, and cognitive sciences: How does any creature, particularly a human being, live through time and space, and is that process violable?
Any organism is an amalgam of wily, wild, fluidly constituted and evolving moments in which it is primarily making do alongside all other creatures likewise making do with the particular materials, temperatures, fluids, surfaces, and interactions at hand. As cognitive and cellular scientists have found over the last thirty years, the mind and the body cannot be explained either as a construction of one-to-one cause-and-effect correspondences, or as a construction made from a series of sophisticated selective functions. Instead, we see a profound fragility and transience to organismic life, from which we ourselves experience constantly emergent and coherently distinct points of view. Our body "parts" are not so much obtained as exercised.
We become who we are by the world which calls us forward, and by our capacity to respond, each in continual "creation" of the other. In this sense, existence becomes a function of tension between differences in kind -- of interest and assimilation and change over time and in context -- not of more or less omnipotent creators and creations. Andy Clark observes in Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, "If the brain were so simple that a single approach could unlock its secrets, we would be so simple that we couldn't do the job!"
In concrete terms, we know the open power of our hardware -- our eyes and ears, for instance -- is not based solely on its mechanical capacity, but on the will that drives it and the context that calls it forward. An eye that can see, for instance, is not necessarily an eye that looks. An ear that can hear does not necessarily listen. And, it is only in the acts of looking or hearing, that we physically build the neurological couplings that functionally contribute to an ongoing embodiment of actions, skills, and inspired intentions -- none of which could exist alone, in isolation, as "given." This is extremely important. As Francisco Varela writes in Ethical Know-How, "The cognitive self is its own implementation: its history and its action are of a piece."
Likewise, in a recent discussion, Varela scoffed at the idea that we can outfit ourselves with "infrared-seeing" equipment and suddenly see the infrared spectrum. A classic study on perception with kittens, by Held and Hein, demonstrates that the physical rise of perception is always relative to activity. Raised together in the dark with their exposure to light tightly controlled, kittens were separated into two groups -- one in a basket on a carriage being carried, the other harnessed and pulling the carriage. When the kittens were released into light, the passively carried kittens stumbled about as if blind, while the actively pulling kittens walked about normally.
In a second dimension, Varela identifies the environment as essential to evoking perspective -- not so much by providing the field in which we play out our plans, but by supplying the conditions that demand an active, ongoing assemblage of what counts to us. Varela points to moments of "breakdown" as the hinge moments in which our previously constituted microworlds come up against new situations demanding new assembly and new action. It's in these moments that our bodies and minds must find their way, quite literally, by coming forth with appropriate conceptual and behavioral creativity. In those moments, new couplings are made in mind and body, and the concrete is born. For Varela, the environment as essential evocateur to ethical expertise -- knowing how to act -- is crucial. If we lacked -- or if our world failed to call forward -- the ability to "couple activity," the cognitive self could not physically incorporate, and would become, in his words, a "mere solipsistic ghost."
IT IS HERE THAT we return to defining the threshold of life: There is no way that obtaining "wares" for the human body will somehow make us more alive, more us. You live first and last as an organism as a unique point of view that organizes and articulates itself your whole life. In fact, it is who you are, moment to moment, because you cannot be otherwise. You literally learn yourself into being by pulling yourself upright, freeing your hands, and walking around; by hearing, speaking, reading, and writing a language; by playing between imagined and real worlds; by testing your desires driving and being driven, made possible and constrained situation by situation. The more conscious your point of view is at any moment, the more you yearn to live exposed, incorporating yourself authentically (not derivatively), by your own constitution (not by the conventions and ideas of others), learning to avoid the fate of Tolstoy's tragic Ivan Illich who, on his deathbed, suffered the knowledge that he'd lived a meaningless life. When we forget this, we exclude ourselves absolutely from our own distinct incarnation, which, in turn subtracts from our own impact on an equally distinctive world.
Which isn't to say it doesn't come as any surprise that our hearts leap at the promise of avoiding the praxis, or doing, of life, by transcending it. It's easy to wish for mechanical assembly, but it's a seriously misguided wish -- a wish born of seduction not wisdom -- that rises from a tragic confusion between what we can make and what we cannot.
Artifice invariably disappoints us when it substitutes for an organic self or for an evocative, grounding environment. We can define, as Keekok Lee has in The Natural and the Artefactual, a threshold for artifice based on the intent we impose on our creation's being. If we strip any form of life, any creation -- including our own -- of its own self-organizing, self-willing capacity simply to further ideas and ends of our own, that life is no longer wild. No wonder the yield of "breakdowns" prompted by artifice are more ghostly than the corporeal "breakdowns" of real, living things. The ability to recoup will and purpose is nil. Akin to Kafkaesque bureaucracies or human hives, an increasingly constrained artificial and managed world is in itself an exercise in solipsitic, infinite regress. We can sense ourselves becoming smaller, insectlike, reduced to moving in four directions, locked out of recognizable selves and locked out of a world that would call us forward.
There's an immeasurable relief to admitting that life is fearsome, is ecstatic, and is what it is because we live in a time, a place, and are mortal. There are no shortcuts, no received wisdoms worth their promise and price. Ernest Becker said it beautifully in The Denial of Death: "I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without deadening, with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow. . . .Manipulative, utopian science, by deadening human sensitivity, would also deprive (us) of the heroic in (our) urge to victory. And we know that in some very important way this falsifies our struggle by emptying us, by preventing us from incorporating the maximum of experience. It means the end of the distinctively human -- or even, we must say, the distinctively organismic."
Nor does it come as any real surprise that organismic life moves contextually. It couldn't be otherwise for creatures living through space and time in a world that is also living through space and time. No recall, cleanup, or restoration is truly possible, ever, when the living context has already changed. Instantly, the idea of resurrecting ourselves or woolly mammoths from icy tombs generations or centuries later, or of changing the genetic lines for future human beings, ignores something so basic to the way life is -- the way any individual or any whole system actually lives -- that our "victory" over the transiently fragile, evocative milieu of a world living in time and space rings without conviction, as hollowly as an outright denial of a living world itself.
THRESHOLDS OF THE BIOLOGICAL world, ourselves included, are crossed when we willingly create the fall of the wild: a world that fails to call all intelligence forward into a point of view. A world stripped of nuance, its own systemic wildness, would impoverish and diminish our bodies and minds absolutely. Again, it doesn't require too supple a wit to imagine an engineered world whittling us down, out of our human nature, out of meaningful existence. In fact, some research suggests we can see it already.
Recent studies out of Germany -- from Tuebingen University and Gesellschaft fur Rationelle Psychologie in Munich -- show that our contemporary environments have, in fact, already changed our biology. In the last twenty years, from repeated testings of four thousand participants, the senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing have decreased at a rate of nearly one percent per year. "15 years ago, Germans could distinguish 300,000 sounds. Today, on average, they only make it to 180,000. Many children stagnate at 100,000. That is enough for hip hop and rap music, but it is insufficient for the subtleties of a classical symphony." And, GRP studies showed "generation gaps" between brains formed before 1948, brains formed between 1948 and 1968, and brains formed since. The newer the brain, the more "dissonance" it can tolerate. New brains accomodate floods of contradictory information as data without, apparently, fighting the crush of time for synthesis -- a neurological process amounting, in the researchers view, to a loss in what the brain can bring to consciousness. Data shows that the unconscious has risen from eighty-seven percent of total brain processing to ninety-four percent. Dr. Henner Ertel says, "We are seeing the largest and fastest breakthrough since the dawn of consciousness. Our brain is not adapting. It is rebelling against the world and changing it [the world] by changing itself. Red is no longer red. Sweet smells begin to stink. In the next century, different people will be living in a new world."
The debate I'd like to see recognizes that even our best-case scenario of debating technological efficacy, safety, or rights won't work. Even if each new human-engineering technique was guaranteed to do its job precisely and accurately; even if each was deemed safe to all donors, recipients, and succeeding generations; and even if all concerns for democratic process and equal rights were met and approved by an overwhelming and global majority, these standards of proof won't in themselves prevent an American-going-global civilization now being imagined and created by bioengineering technologies. The debate would return us to life as imagined and created organismically, within parameters of what it means to be alive in space and time. The debate would insist on understanding human nature as wild, and it would begin with this premise: We refuse to become engineered ghosts, a species that becomes the walking undead.
Casey Walker is the editor and publisher of WILD DUCK REVIEW, a journal of
"Literature, Necessary Mischief, & News." For sample copy
information: Casey@WildDuckReview.com, or 530.478.0134.
the genetic revolution and FEED's special DNA issue in the Loop.