3D render. Cloning humanoid figures

The Transhumanists

Published in National Review

In recent years, scientists have mixed the DNA of a jellyfish with that of a monkey, creating a “transgenic” animal that glows in the dark. (“Transgenic” means possessing the genes of more than one type of organism.) Scientists have also inserted spider DNA into the genes of goats, creating ewes that produce milk containing spider-web silk. The goal of the project is to extract sufficient web silk — one of the strongest and lightest substances known — to create an industry in spider-silk products.

Other researchers are creating transgenic animals that contain minute quantities of human DNA. For example, the team that stunned the world with Dolly the cloned sheep, hope to genetically engineer cloned animals that produce human enzymes and proteins in their blood or milk, and then extract these substances — a process known as “pharming” — for use in the manufacture of human medicines.

But what about human transgenic research? Are any biotech companies or researchers putting animal DNA into human embryos? Nobody knows. But, unbelievable as it may sound, some bioethicists and philosophers explicitly endorse engineering animal DNA into human embryos as one method of producing the “post-human” race.

Welcome to the surreal world of “transhumanism,” a nascent and explicitly eugenic philosophy that advocates taking control of human evolution through gene modification. Transhumanism may seem like something posted on the web by a guy who wears a crystal pyramid on his head to keep the CIA from intercepting his thoughts. To the contrary. Transhumanists come from the highest levels of academe. The founder of the movement, Nick Bostrom, is a professor of philosophy at Yale University who recently received a three-year fellowship at Oxford. Other pioneer transhumanists include Professor James Hughes of Trinity College, Hartford, and Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of Medicine, UCLA, and author of the recent book Redesigning Humans.

Transhumanists are breaking the intellectual ground they hope will eventually lead to public acceptance of genetic manipulation — not just to improve health, but to change our very natures. Indeed, Stock expects that within several generations, post-humans will be so diverse they will require artificial help to procreate because their heterodox genetic makeup will be incompatible with natural reproduction.

Transhumanists are biotech absolutists. They claim humans should not merely be allowed to metamorphose themselves through surgery, cybertechnology, and the like, but should have the right to control the destiny of their genes by means of progeny design and fabrication. This could include replacing natural chromosomes with artificial chromosomes, increasing or decreasing the number of chromosomes in offspring or clones, and even — in Hughes’s words — “mixing species boundaries through transgenic technologies.”

Animal Rights and the Brave New World

Transhumanist theory has arisen in the context of a strengthening nexus between the views already popular in bioethics and animal-rights advocacy. This intellectual intertwining is most evident in “personhood theory” — according to which rights come not from simply being human but rather from possessing relevant cognitive capacities. The relativist approach of bioethics, ironically, dovetails nicely with the absolutist view of animal-rights ideology that accepts no moral distinction between humans and “nonhuman animals.” Moreover, both ideologies advance the march toward Brave New World. After all, if the human race is merely another animal herd, then why not eugenically “improve” it through the new technologies of genetic husbandry — as we are beginning to do with pigs and cows?

This is certainly the approach of University of Alabama bioethicist Gregory E. Pence, an enthusiastic proponent of reproductive cloning. In his book Who’s Afraid of Human Cloning? Pence writes, “In some ultimate sense, humans are both nothing more, and as wonderful as, compassionate monkeys.” By “weakening the ethical boundary between non-human and human animals,” he asserts that it will be easier to “do to humans some of the things we think quite sane to do to animals,” beginning with cloning and moving from there to genetic modification.

After that, for transhumanists, would come the long march to post-humanity. And here, too, animal-rights ideology comes into play. James Hughes sees animal-rights activists and transhumanists as natural allies since both are “opposed to [human] anthropocentrism.” Hughes’s point is this: Once we’ve been knocked off our pedestal of moral superiority, society will accept measuring a biological “platform’s” (human, post-human, animal, etc.) moral worth by determining its level of consciousness. Thus, post-humans, humans, animals genetically engineered for intelligence, natural fauna, and even machines, would all be measured by the same standards.

All three misanthropic ideologies — animal rights, “personhood” bioethics, and transhumanism — threaten universal human equality. Unfortunately, they have also arrived at a moment when traditional cultural norms concerning the sanctity of human life have been significantly undermined. And the future won’t wait for us to regain our moral equilibrium. Genetic science is advancing at mach-speed.

In recent years we have tried to take control, but our record is not good. Yes, President Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But the attempts to outlaw human cloning have generally foundered. Despite polls showing that most Americans want to ban all human cloning, apart from a few legislators in a handful of states, our government leaders are at an impasse. The House passed a total ban on human cloning, but the Senate has been unable to pass even a moratorium. And while it is clear that a law outlawing cloning-to-produce-children (CPC) could pass easily, such a ban would be worse than no law at all, since it would be linked to an explicit license to engage in cloning-for-biomedical-research (CBR). Such a law would ultimately result not only in clone children but in an opening of the floodgates of venture capital to Brave New World entrepreneurs.

Even without a massive infusion of investment money, cloning research has advanced to the point that companies are seeking patents on human life — the ultimate act of dehumanization. Yet when Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) introduced legislation to prohibit human life from being a proper subject of patent, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) took to the Senate floor and yelled a speech stating his unequivocal opposition.

This stalemate will require greater levels of imagination and creativity from opponents of the post-human future. We also need to learn from experience. The human cloning/patent controversies teach us that if we wait until the science is already “here” before attempting to corral it, we may already be too late. Thus, we should strive to think ahead, anticipate events — and act, rather than react.

A Modest Suggestion

So what to do pending a breaking of the cloning impasse? Allow me to suggest a new tack that should not generate major opposition except from ideologues with a science uber alles mentality: I propose that the United States outlaw the genetic manipulation of human embryos with non-human DNA.

Banning transgenic research on human life would have several benefits. First, we would show that we have some capacity to draw proper ethical parameters beyond which biotechnological researchers may not stray. That would be a badly needed win in this season of political frustration. Second, such a law would be a small victory in the coming struggle with transhumanism. Most importantly, by prohibiting researchers from manipulating nascent human life, we would send a clarion message that we are not just another animal in the forest. We cannot be manipulated like so many transgenic sheep. Human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.