The Misanthropes

Review of Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World, by Wesley J. Smith

Consumer’s Guide to a
Brave New World,

by Wesley J. Smith
(Encounter, 219 pp., $25.95)

Leo Strauss found it telling that Machiavelli mentioned only one other figure who served as the teacher of princes, the office that Machiavelli was claiming for himself. And that was Chiron the centaur, who was aptly constituted to be a tutor of princes because he was half man, half beast. It was Machiavelli’s instruction, of course, that the one who would rule men, and learn the artful uses of cruelty, would have to detach himself from the inhibitions that exist in moral beings. Strauss observed that anyone who would seek in this way to transcend or evade nature would have to move either to the subhuman or the superhuman. Machiavelli would not move to the level of the divine; he would move to the animal, and suggest that princes take instruction from the lion and the fox.

That lesson finds an unsettling resonance in Wesley Smith’s new book, in which he gives us an overview of the arguments over cloning and stem-cell research. This research has yielded some dramatic results, nearing the edge of cures and therapies — but it has also brought us to the edge of the human, to an interest in remodeling human nature. No one has been more vigilant than Wesley Smith in charting these trends; and no one has spoken more searing truths about the genteel thuggery that presents itself in some quarters as “bioethics.” The prospect of a radical improvement in the human condition has triggered a passion quite ancient: to transcend the limits of human nature altogether. Serious people, with credentials in science, speak earnestly of a “post-human” or “transhuman” condition. Lee Silver, a professor of biology at Princeton, has waxed lyrical about a new era with beings who can “trace their ancestry back directly to homo sapiens” but who are as “different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms with tiny brains that first crawled along the earth’s surface.” But these fantasies over the new simply bring back ancient fallacies, including “scientism”: the notion that science is a law unto itself, that the search for scientific truth is a good that must not be constrained by anything atavistic and moral.

And so a 2003 editorial in Nature Biotechnology expressed irritation over the prospect of legal restraints on research: “Legislation clarifying the scope of patents on higher forms of life should steer clear of moral and ethical definitions. We need to stick to rational and scientific benchmarks.” In this worldview, morality is assigned to the domain of religion. It is taken for granted that science is the domain of reason, and that reason has nothing to disclose about the grounds of moral judgments. Of course, it escaped the notice of the writer that he was offering reasons to support a moral judgment in behalf of a research unconstrained by moral judgments. But this may be the least of what typically escapes the deep thinkers who have argued for the emancipation of stem-cell research from moral constraints.

The people who can conceive the remaking of human beings imply a vantage point from which they can view human beings with a wholesome detachment. After all, those who would remake human beings inevitably put themselves in the position of the remakers, not the remade. One way or another, with terms novel and subtle, they find another way of talking themselves out of the “proposition” that “all men are created equal.” Nowhere else outside the movements for eugenics and scientific racism are we likely to encounter convictions as emphatic on the disparities in human beings — on the need, not only to remove infirmities or diseases, but to remove people slow of wit, whose incompetence may drain and even threaten the rest of us. The prospect of bringing about a species far more sparkling in native wit merely brings out more sharply the contrast with the dim and the retarded. The prospect of “designer babies” promises to make us even less tolerant of the children who bear those shortcomings we had not foreseen and hadn’t the wit ourselves to correct. As Wesley Smith observes, there is, among these zealots for the human future, a “futuristic misanthropy”: They begin with a dark view of the human condition, and seek a remedy in powers quite out of scale, applied with a ruthlessness that is less than humane.

It’s well known that people afflicted with Down syndrome may exceed others in their devotion, affection, reliability — and that they may show, at times, better moral reflexes than people with advanced degrees. Most ordinary folk, without those degrees, would never think that people with Down syndrome, or people slower of mind, have lives “not worth living” and deserve to die. And yet, that is the kind of maxim that is readily absorbed without flinching, without apology, by some of the partisans for the new project in biology. Their education has apparently not equipped them to notice that they have backed themselves into the most ancient of fallacies: that people who are smarter and stronger deserve to rule people who are weaker and less smart; that the strong prove, by their very dominance, their fitness to rule; and that this power is the source of its own justification. In their passion to transcend the human, the partisans of the new biology have merged the pretensions of the superhuman with the moral outlook of the subhuman. As Churchill remarked on the Bolsheviks, they are crocodiles with master minds.

With a chilling accuracy, Wesley Smith charts this trajectory of the intellectual classes as they back themselves into a new regime of the rule of the strong. He charts, that is, a corruption of judgment that begins to seep over to affect even their honesty in giving an account of the science to which they would recruit the public. Without being wholly tutored in embryology, most people seem to grasp the point that embryonic stem cells can be extracted only from an embryo. Many have also been dimly taught somewhere that an embryo is already the separate, distinct human being that will become more recognizable later as a “baby.” Hence the aversion of the public to schemes for destroying embryos, or human beings, as a means of rendering services to others.

In order to break down this “prejudice” of the public, advocates find themselves denying, in their public statements, what they know as scholars. And so, in defense of research on embryonic stem cells, the editors of The Lancet, the British medical journal, insisted in 2004 that “no one made an embryo as most people understand the term, derived from the fusion of an oocyte and a sperm.” But that is precisely what takes place in order to reach the blastocyst stage of an embryo, when stem cells can be extracted. And “as most people understand the term”? We find here the strange inclination of scientists to appeal, not to embryology, but to a sense of what most people would recognize as a human being. In that vein, Lee Silver insists that “the embryo does not have any neurological attributes that we ascribe to human life in a special sense.” But it may be years before a human child finds in place all of the neurological attributes of his mature being — and yet his human standing has not been in question. A set of cells does not engage in conversation, but the capacity to engage in that conversation is already contained in that zygotal dot. The embryo is a self-animating being, coordinating all of its cells, and directing its own growth. As Smith puts it, “every one of your body’s cells is a microscopic piece of your body, but each cell is not you. When you were an embryo, however, that embryo was you.”

One of the most striking aspects of the stem-cell controversy is that the public, drawing on a natural moral sense, understands the main lines of the problem in the way that the scientific apologists apparently do not. Given a choice between a therapy that is lethal for human beings and one that is not lethal, the public prefers the therapy that is not lethal. May we carry out experiments that are dangerous to human subjects without seeking their consent? The public recoils from the notion. If Nazi researchers wished to know how long pilots could withstand an immersion in the cold waters of the Atlantic, they could find out directly by dunking the Jewish prisoners who were available to them. As the saying went, those prisoners were “going to die anyway.” When that kind of procedure is rejected, both by the public and by scientists, we quite emphatically affirm — contrary to the editors of Nature Biotechnology — that there are indeed serious moral constraints on the way science is free to seek what science passionately craves to know. The only dangling question is whether those embryos, who will “die anyway,” are real human beings. The textbooks on embryology tell us that they are. Indeed those embryos cannot be anything other than human offspring, from their first moments, and nowhere, in the chain of development, do they undergo a change of species.

We may ask, then, Why the passion for this research on embryos? It cannot be explained by a cold utilitarian reckoning; the prospects are too speculative. In fact, as Smith argues, the massive political campaign in favor of using embryonic stem cells threatens to divert resources that could be devoted here and now, with a vast yield, to the use of adult stem cells. Smith credits the interest in making money; and yet private investment has been reluctant. As Smith explores the range of motives, he is shy to reach for political conclusions. But in that delicacy he seems to steer around the clearest explanation, standing in plain sight. It’s the A-word: abortion. For many people, the right to abortion has taken the place of freedom of speech and religion as the first freedom. The right to abortion, to “choice,” has become the anchor for a personal freedom, or, more precisely, a sexual freedom, that rises above the rest of the Constitution. When the freedom of speech of pro-life demonstrators creates tensions for the women entering abortion clinics, the freedom of speech is trumped by the interest in securing to women a right to abortion, unencumbered by reproaches. The same convictions fuel the passion to strip away any lingering concern for the embryo, as for the unborn child. The argument over stem-cell research offers the opportunity to affirm yet again that the nascent life is not one that commands our respect.

The resistance to research can be laid to the religious, fueled by superstition, rather than reason and science. But to contrive that kind of story, the Left must detach itself from both reason and science. That inversion has now become a political way of life, and Wesley Smith describes with precision this descent of the Left. Moving along this path, telling fables as it goes, the Left is indeed backing itself into that brave new world it is destined to abhor, but cannot find the reasons any longer to resist.

Mr. Arkes is a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Natural Rights & the Right to Choose.