January 31, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

The Debate Continues

One of my favorite quotations comes from Raymond Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines. His 1999 futurist study places the idea of human at the forefront of technological development in the 21st century. In his introduction, he looks forward to the 21st century’s technological growth and opines:

His book attempts to answer this question by predicting technological advancements as he sees them from his historical position — a logical position, but one that suggests we can predict the ways that technology will develop, without considering breakthroughs that our current technology cannot predict. Currently, we are still stuck in the same arguments about the sacredness of human life. Indeed, the debate has entered the 21st century.

The Washington Post today reports that the debate about human cloning has re-entered the political arena, perhaps prompted by W’s speech Tuesday evening. The contention centers around the definition of “human,” like much of last century’s abortion debates. More than the question of reproductive versus therapeutic cloning, lawmakers “will have to decide whether a 5-day-old human embryo consisting of about 200 cells is an early human being, worthy of legal protections, or a ball of cultured cells that, like other human cells, can be used for experiments in the search for cures.”

Now that medical science has penetrated the human body with its technology, the debate has entered the realm of the microscopic. This issue centers around not a fully formed and functional human machine capable of an autonomous existence, but a group of cells only measurable or observable through a technological lens. Here, we are measuring possible potential. This group of cells is only important when we can look at it; i.e., it only becomes important through technology. If this same group of cells was washed away through a “natural” menstrual cycle, we would think nothing of it — certainly we would not consider the menstruating woman a baby killer. Technology, as Kurzweil suggests, precipitates a revaluation of the scope of humanity.

We can debate this as much as we want, but this research will continue, if not by us, then by “rogue scientists” in nations that have a different view about the human. Do we let old-fashioned notions of identity scare us away from potential biological and medical advancement, or is there something to the human argument? I would like to see research continue, but I also agree that the notion of human has become so ossified that it cannot easily be changed to include many philosophical or technological alternatives. Perhaps this is a question of need versus want?

If a human being had congenital heart defects and needed a new, ersatz heart, would we consider her any less human for electing to receive plastic and titanium heart that has a lifespan of 500 years? However, if there is nothing wrong with my heart — the one evolution grew for me to last a good 80 years — but I decide that I want to upgrade to a user-configurable heart that will not only last longer, but increase my circulation to make me stronger and sharper, or decrease my circulation to allow me to relax and meditate. I choose to get rid of the flesh heart for an upgrade: am I less-human? Maybe not because you cannot see my heart upgrade.

What if we repeat the same scenario with something like eyes, or hands, or legs. What about then? Yeah, we would not consider someone who lost his legs in an accident any less-human for wearing prosthetic legs (well, not any more), but what about if I elected to upgrade my flesh-and-bones for computer chips and aluminum? Perhaps a bit harder to decide. There’s something distasteful about chopping off perfectly good legs to replace them with something fake and unnatural. Well, the human, then, seems to lie not in appearance, but in the narrative of appearance.

Human is a mythological narrative — a story of beliefs and values that have a history in a body evolved to live in the tribe, under the blue skies and verdant forests of mother earth. Yet, our equally mythological quest to "sail beyond the sunset" has altered our environment with prodigal wastes of resources by our SUV’s, power plant toxic wastes, and concrete and iron community centers that require the destruction of our evolutionary gardens. With the change in the environment that produced the “human” to begin with, perhaps the human must be one of those causalities of progress. The human might be a part of our past, but it might be a concept that has less meaning for our grandchildren.

It seems to me that research into our bodies must continue if we want to escape our own poisoning of the environment. We have made this research inevitable; there is no going back. No relying on the gods of the past; no more hiding behind the rhetoric of a history we no longer inhabit. Yes, it will remain part of us, but like Ovid illustrated in his greatest work, we are bound for metamorphoses. We can resist, but at this point it seems like destiny.