Friday, April 9, 2010

Enhancement Ethics: Gattaca and the New Kids on the Block

Genetically superior humans constitute a separate class from "natural" people in the movie Gattaca. The two classes are called "Valid" and "In-Valid," and the movie depicts an against-all-odds victory by an In-Valid, illustrating the subtitle: "there is no gene for the human spirit."  Below I make a case advocating an embrace of human enhancement and comparable technologies.

First, I list the technologies/enhancements that I think will be forthcoming.  Remember, if you don't build it, biopunks will.  :)  I call these forthcoming realities "New Kids on the Block:"

Bonobobob (1/2 human, 1/2 bonobo chimp)
Sheepgoats (part sheep part goat)
Transgenic mammals (only plants thus far express genes that are virally inserted, sometimes using genetic material from other kingdoms)
Transgenic rDNA people (e.g. a diabetic that can synthesize his own insulin instead of relying on bacterial cultures to produce it for him)
Eliminating diabetes and and cystic fibrosis ("follow smallpox's lead, oh diseases- we the people disfellowship, banish, and otherwise eradicate you!")
Gay pill (some surgery or intervention you can take to reverse your sexual orientation)
Senescence pill (some surgery or intervention you can take to reverse or slow aging)
Woolly Mammoths in the zoo (their genome has been genotyped; your grandkids will likely experience this under current trends)
Neanderthal bringbacks (also genotyped; cloning technologies + current ability to manufacture DNA from scratch in the lab = only a matter of time)
Further extinct species reinstatement (it's already happened once with the Pyrenean Ibex)
All sorts of transhumans 
- "the contemporary meaning is a product of the 1980s when futurists in the United States began to organize what has since grown into the transhumanist movement. Transhumanist thinkers predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "posthuman".[1]")
- "the "movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity".[5]" 
- one of the deepest fienings of man is encapsulated by the "No Fear" t-shirt motto: "know your limits, then break 'em!" 
- suspended animation
- radical lifespan extension
- space colonization
- boundless energy and ambition
- bionic implants
- artificial intelligence/human combos
- expanded consciousness
- supersoldiers
- reduced or eliminated need for sleep (Brigham Young- "I thirst no more, I want to sleep no more, I hunger no more, I tire no more, I run, I walk, I labor, I go, I come, I do this, I do that, whatever is required of me, nothing like pain or weariness, I am full of life, full of vigor...- see footnote 6 below)
- radically reduced travel time (distance no longer a significant obstacle)

Second, I argue for ethically permitting (at the least) and advocating (at the most) the development of the New Kids on the Block and their neighbors.

Supporting Argument A
We already justify dozens of human enhancements (or human enhancement-like aids- see source 1 and source 2 below for more on the debate about the existence of a distinction between enhancements and non-enhancements).
- educating children, braces, glasses, medical care, reading books, iphones, etc.
- institution-based security, vaccines, democracy, rule of law, food storage

Other enhancements are merely different types or degrees within a bounded region on the same normative spectrum- thus blocking some enhancements but not others merely on a basis of timing of development (i.e. the class of enhancements "not yet developed" v. those that have already been) seems facially indefensible.

Supporting Argument B
Mankind has a destiny, as individuals do, to progress.  However, man comes into the world incredibly stupid, ignorant, and vulnerable to harm and death.  Thus, the best available means to advance humanity is to permit an environment that is likely to continually challenge human limits.

Permitting transhumanist endeavors is an expression of humility.  Natural selection applies, not just to genes, but to culture, law, public health, economics, and government.  250 years ago, compared to today, America was largely racist, subject to tyranny, impoverished, exhibited high infant mortality, etc.  The American Experiment resulted in greater equality and rule of law, lower infant mortality, improved living standards, information technology advancement, widespread enjoyment of constitutional liberties, etc.  Therefore, we must permit experiments as long as projected costs don't clearly outweigh projected benefits.  Uncertainty should result in permitting experiment because we're not smart enough now to know that the status quo is better than what the future will hold.  (Hence, my claim that permitting transhumanist endeavors is an expression of humility).  A 1760 panel arrogating a moratorium on experimenting with public health, engineering, agriculture, government system, and law would have frozen the status quo, thereby precluding the valuable advancements that have occurred since that time.  Is there some reason to conclude that our present day is not as primitive from the perspective of a 2260 historian as 1760 seems to us now?  The year 2260, 250 years from now, is the blink of an eye historically- yet the interim is pregnant with the promise of continuing to exceed historic human limitations.  

The chief characteristic of saints is that they make a heaven out of whatever circumstance they're in- be it making the desert blossom as a rose or hell itself:  "I see no faults in the Church, and therefore let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it." - Joseph Smith.  Plus, the LDS faith buys into theosis pretty heavily.   

Another religious iteration of this argument/principle was elucidated in a story shared during General Conference in April of '10.  Brigham Young was about to administer to the sick, but asked if the person had administered any remedies yet.  Brigham taught that we should apply remedies where available first, and that God will make up for the lack of the technology if that's your circumstance.  One could argue that resurrection and immortality are no longer as far from our grasp as they have been in the past.  We still rely on God for forgiveness and can't save ourselves spiritually, but resurrection/restoring the dead to life and creating perpetual bodies (immortality) are now cognizable.  Plus, our eventual destiny anyway is to become post-human, i.e. like God, who has a vastly superior body (invulnerable to violence, incredibly smart, strong, capable, beautiful, immortal, etc.).  Certainly God can do some of the heavy lifting for us- but more often He encourages and helps us develop self-reliance where feasible.  Transhumanist endeavors might prove to be appropriate self-reliance efforts.

Supporting Argument C
Many knee-jerk counterarguments are based on "I take umbrage merely because it's new or different," a playing God, or a wrong because-unnatural fallacy, none of which advance the counter's side (which is that it's ethically impermissible to pursue these enhancements and technologies).  See my post for why these counterarguments don't advance the ball for the opposition.

Supporting Argument D
A lot of these enhancements' panache captures the imagination.  They're just cool!

Counterargument E
Further development of the genetic and enhancement technologies listed above may lead to a technocracy, which like most discriminating systems, has many negative consequences, some of which may prove egregiously right-infringing.  Omnis innovatio plus novitate perturbat quam utilitate prodeat - "every innovation disturbs more by its novelty than it benefits by its utility."  There are tons of risks inherent in pursuing transhumanist objectives, e.g.

Adding all of these arguments together, I conclude that the development of the New Kids on the Block and their neighbors is at least ethically permissible. 

For more:

1.  Source 1- Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement, Nick Bostrom & Rebecca Roache (2007)
[Forthcoming in New Waves in Applied Ethics, ed. Jesper Ryberg (Palgrave Macmillan)]

2.  Source 2- Untangling the Debate: The Ethics of Human Enhancement, Patrick Lin & Fritz Allhoff [Nanoethics (2008) 2:251–264]

3.  More on the ethics of human genetic engineering: Simmons, D. (2008) Genetic inequality: Human genetic engineering. Nature Education

4.  Interesting predictions of an author in 1923: "geneticist J.B.S. Haldane's 1923 essay Daedalus: Science and the Future, which predicted that great benefits would come from applications of advanced sciences to human biology—and that every such advance would first appear to someone as blasphemy or perversion, "indecent and unnatural"."

5.  Listen to "New Way to be Human" - a song by switchfoot
Everday it's the same thing
Another trend has begun
Hey kids, this might be the one

It's a race to be noticed
And it's leaving us numb
Hey kids, we can't be the ones

With all of our fashion
We're still incomplete
The God of redemption
Could break our routine

There's a new way to be human
It's nothing we've ever been
There's a new way to be human
New way to be human

And where is our inspiration?
When all the heroes are are gone
Hey kids, could we be the ones?

'Cause nobody's famous
And nobody's fine
We all need forgiveness
We're longing inside

There's a new way to be human
It's nothing we've ever been
There's a new way to be human
It's spreading under my skin
There's a new way to be human
Where divinity blends
With a new way to be human
New way to be human

You're throwing your love across
my impossible space
You've created me
Take me out of me into...

A new way to be human
To a new way to be human

You're a new way to be human
Where my humanity bends
To a new way to be human
Redemption begins

You're a new way to be human
You're the only way to be human

-“All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. What is the object of our coming into existence, then dying and falling away, to be here no more? It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:50).
-“We shall turn round and look upon [the valley of death] and think, when we have crossed it, why this is the greatest advantage of my whole existence, for I have passed from a state of sorrow, grief, mourning, woe, misery, pain, anguish and disappointment into a state of existence, where I can enjoy life to the fullest extent as far as that can be done without a body. My spirit is set free, I thirst no more, I want to sleep no more, I hunger no more, I tire no more, I run, I walk, I labor, I go, I come, I do this, I do that, whatever is required of me, nothing like pain or weariness, I am full of life, full of vigor, and I enjoy the presence of my heavenly Father” (Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 17:142).

7.  There's a well-developed mormon transhumanist association out there, complete with a Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation (also here).  Some cool vids are available too (check 'em out, they're cool!).

8. Reaching by Carolyn Arends
'Cause the more we learn the more we know

We don't know anything

But still it seems a tragic fate
Living with this quiet ache
The constant strain for what remains
Just out of reach

We are reaching for the future
We are reaching for the past
And no matter what we have we reach for more
We are desperate to discover
What is just beyond our grasp
But maybe that's what Heaven is for

There are times I can't forget
Dressed up in my Sunday best
Trying not to squirm and to maybe learn
A bit of what the preacher preached

And later lying in the dark
I felt a stirring in my heart
And though I longed to see what could not be seen
I still believed

I guess, I shouldn't think it odd
Until we see the face of God
The yearning deep within us tells us
There's more to come

So when we taste of the divine
It leaves us hungry every time
For one more taste of what awaits
When Heaven's Gates are reached

We are reaching for the future
We are reaching for the past
And no matter what we have, we reach for more
We are desperate to discover
What is just beyond our grasp
But maybe that's what Heaven is for
I believe that's what Heaven is for

There's a time I can recall
Four years old and three feet tall
Trying to touch the stars and the cookie jar
And both were out of reach
9.  I don't know where else on my blog to put these two somewhat related questions:

- If the prophecy of the last days paints a picture of increasing wickedness, moral degradation, and political erosion, doesn't it become somewhat heretical to seek significant and sustainable political, environmental, and social improvements, as their accomplishment would necessarily negate the fulfillment of the prophecy?

- How much of the variability in personality is heritable?  Out of the remaining percentage attributable to environment, how much of the variability is attributable to epigenetic (intraorganismal environment), psychological, and environmental/nurturing factors?  I would imagine the remaining variability would be attributable to our spirit identities.  I wonder how much impact my ancient, pre-mortal-existing spirit has on my consciousness and personality (as compared to my biological identity).

Other cool blogs by Mormon 20-something's:
Connor's Conundrums about politics, religion, philosophy, etc. - contrasting philosophy with revealed truth, by Jeff Thayne and Nathan Richardson
and a 30-something's: Lincoln Cannon: syncretizing religion, science, spirituality and technology


  1. Read "Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood.

    It'll change your mind on genetic modifications.

  2. Hi Brad. I wrote a response to the first of your questions in #7. Here's a link:

  3. Hi Brad, do you know Fred Larsen (Doug & Julie's son). I'll bet he'd have some very interesting thoughts on this. He is a doctor who has been researching this stuff.

    BTW, if you get bionic implants, or if you modify your DNA post-birth, and if resurrection and immortality are spiritually (faith)-generated rather than technologically, would you be resurrected with your 'enhancements'?

  4. I don't know Fred. What's his contact info? I'd like to talk with him. Would you please email it to me? And who are you, Kaia?

    As to bionic implants and the etiology of resurrection/immortality: resurrection seems to be a priesthood ordinance much like baptism or sacrament, and likely has both spiritual and temporal material causes. As to whether one would be resurrected with the enhancements, to the extent the enhancements brought one closer to his/her "perfect frame" or "perfect form," (Alma 11) absolutely. There is also some suggestion that we'll be resurrected to the way we are now, which could indicate a return to whatever body we have at death, or perhaps adulthood. The immutability of that resurrected body is not clear, but at least that body will be no longer corruptible and subject to death, which are clear differences from the present. It seems the resurrected state depends upon some independent "perfect frame" template, and it is difficult to discern the impact on that template of bionic implants and DNA.


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