The Next Great Political Debate of the Future?

February 12 2009 / by juldrich / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Culture   Year: 2009   Rating: 7 Hot

By Jack Uldrich

Cross-posted from www.jumpthecurve.net

In one of those wonderful historical anomalies, February 12, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Lincoln is recognized as one of the greatest American presidents for helping end slavery. Darwin, of course, is the father of evolutionary biology.

534px-Abraham_Lincoln_seated__Feb_9__1864-1.jpg467px-Charles_Darwin_02.jpg

It might appear these two historical giants have little else in common except the same birthday, but Darwin’s theory of evolution will soon call forth a new political debate which could, if not peacefully resolved, rip this country apart as surely as slavery did.

In today’s Wall Street Journal there is an article describing how advances in genetic technology are ushering in a new era of “designer babies” and some parents are pre-selecting embryos based on cosmetic characteristics such as eye and hair color.

As the genomics revolution progresses, though, eager parents may soon be able to select their offspring using even more distinguished genetic characteristics. For example, a combination of genes may soon be found to enhance athletic ability or intelligence. From this perspective, advances in genomics can be seen as co-mingling with and accelerating evolution.

Alas, the race won’t stop with our genes. In today’s New York Times there is an article of a woman controlling a robotic prosthetic arm with the aid of a computer chip in her brain. Soon, it may be possible for otherwise healthy people to augment their intelligence by virtue of brain-neural technology.

Regardless of one’s moral perspective on the wisdom of pursuing these technologies, it is naive to assume either genomics or brain-computer interface technology won’t continue to improve.

And as they do, a huge schism will form between those who believe that humans were meant to evolve in a technological-enhanced fashion and those, who for religious, moral or ethical reasons, view such acts as either an affront to their God or their conception of what it means to be human.

This issue will likely make current political debates over abortion and gay rights seem like child’s play—and as big as those debates 150 years ago over slavery where society was discussing who was human. (Recall, at one time, it was deemed politically acceptable in this country to view a black man as equal to only three-fifths of a white man.)

Only through a long and hard-fought campaign (which, unfortunately, still isn’t over entirely in the minds of some), society has now comes to agree that all races are human.

The issue of genetically-enhanced and machine-merged humans may not, however, be so easily resolved. Why? Because, at its heart, the debate it is not about who is human, but rather what constitutes a human being.

For example, is a child, who was genetically-enhanced for intelligence and augmented with brain-neural prosthetics, really the same as a child who was provided with neither advantage?

This then begs the following questions: Is it fair for one class of society—mostly likely the wealthy—to have access to such enhancements which will likely provide them with an inherent advantage over non-enhanced people? Alternatively, in a free society, does one group have a right to restrict or impose limits on people who wish to exploit such enhancements?

One camp may take a more Darwinian view and embrace genomics and brain-computer interfaces as an inevitable tools—similar to fire or the wheel—which humans are meant to not only use but embrace on our evolutionary path toward a better tomorrow. The other camp may take a more Lincolnian view that all humans are created equal and that a necessary condition of this state is that we must all remain forever equal—even if that requires limiting the actions of some.

I can’t say if one view or the other is correct, but historical fate brought Darwin and Lincoln into this world 200 years ago today and, ironically, the future may see to it that they and the broad philosophies with which they are associated with remain entwined until the next great debate --over what it means to be human—is resolved.

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Comment Thread (8 Responses)

  1. Growing complexity of organisms has been the guiding force for evolution.

    We have already altered ourselves beyond recognition. If we really wanted to keep the “natural order of things” we should have not accepted modern medicine or created any weapons to fend off Sabertooth Tigers (impossible to prevent, by the way).

    Why use antibiotics when mutations would take care of a disease eventually?

    The Singularity (biological transition to non-biological) is just the next phase. Humans don’t consider themselves “animals.” We consider ourselves something else.

    The ones that do not transition will be left behind. In evolution the fittest survive. In this case, those who become enhanced will prosper more than their imperfect biological counterparts.

    We are not biologically equal, however, that doesn’t mean our society has to be cruel or harsh. Everyone should have equal opportunities and with our advanced technology we will be able to do so in current generations of humans and subsequent ones.

    To be human is to transcend limitations – that includes darwinism. We are not bound by our biological shortcomings. We can make “what it means to be human” even better than all the generations that have come before us.

    In Lincoln’s time, they didn’t have nanotechnology, genome sequencing, a global brain (internet) and supercomputers.

    Posted by: Covus   February 14, 2009
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  2. @Covus: I agree, but I suspect that (at the current time at least) a sizeable majority disagrees with this line of thinking. My fear is that the “non-enhanced” camp will vigorously oppose efforts by the “enhanced” camp to, well, enhance themselves.

    Do you think the issue can be peacefully resolved?

    Posted by: juldrich   February 15, 2009
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  3. @juldrich – Hmm, that is a tough question to answer. Right now, we are in wars with hard-liners (Al-Qeada) who do not like modern society one bit. The Vatican is now concerned about ‘enhancement’ and things of that nature too.

    I think it’s best to look as history as a guide – It’s not going to be peaceful, in the sense that the world has never transitioned peacefully into any era – look at the industrial age. We already have had 2 world wars because of this new ‘prosperity.’ Ironically, the Singularity might introduce so much instability we might annihilate ourselves.

    However, I think democracy and freedom will overcome. With an open dialogue and an open mind we will be able to talk about these technologies and how to guide their direction carefully and responsibly.

    Posted by: Covus   February 16, 2009
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  4. @Covus: I like your perspective and your optimism (at least in the long-term). My personal opinion is that society will agree to some sort of “New Amish” arrangement whereby those who are opposed to enhancement are free to form communities with like-minded individuals.

    Posted by: juldrich   February 16, 2009
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  5. @juldrich – Thanks. Yeah, that is one direction we could take. As long as there is choice in the process – I don’t think there will be that many major obstacles. Allowing people to choose what they want to do will be the key to this transition – if it unfolds in a neat and timely manner.

    It will take another 40+ years for all this to occur. We have a lot of time to debate. One thing we don’t want is to be mindless automatons. I think everyone can agree about that one.

    Posted by: Covus   February 16, 2009
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  6. what about another essay about the evolution of politics? when trans-humanists crew got into the politic field, what then? I think that informational-technology resources could be driven to govern societies with a much less noise-to-signal ratio. Without human-in-the-middle governing societies we could reach better and ideally equality amongst ourselves, putting the human kind in the right direction about our own future. Without self-interests from corporations or individuals.

    Posted by: mitsuto   February 16, 2009
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  7. @mitsuto: I’ll give the topic some thought. I know Alvis Brigis has also given this topic some thought.

    Posted by: juldrich   February 17, 2009
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  8. “Regardless of one’s moral perspective on the wisdom of pursuing these technologies, it is naive to assume either genomics or brain-computer interface technology won’t continue to improve.”

    To me, this comment is key for pinning down real perspective, allowing for impartial analytical attempts to accurately view relevant plausibilities. That is to say, taking a stand AGAINST this soon-to-become-an-issue doesn’t change the fact that the technology will improve and be implemented more and more. Taking a stand FOR such progress is equally irrelevant, but at least you’d be on the winning side of the picket line (or not marching in it anyway).

    As to whether violence will accompany the developments, I don’t see it becoming comparable to the Civil War. Outside of sporadic terrorist attacks, large scale mobilization is increasingly and more effectively quelled by the state, and confederacies of states.

    Speaking of the Confederacy, it would take a pretty backward and bullheaded majority to have the power to measurably restrict the science at hand, especially given the momentum that will have probably accumulated from the current US president’s liberal new policies. And as the third world makes the transition into the first, purists will lose their numbers one by one to the lure of better living. It would take some sort of freakish accident to convince people on a mass scale that transhumanist science is bad mojo, like the way the Challenger disaster set back space exploration so many years. So, hooray!

    Also, fundamentalist movements aside, life is being augmented gradually for everyone worldwide (though relatively more rapidly for some than others, what have you), so the disparity between one person and another gets jumbled with exceptional details, and so a worldview unencumbered by religious fanaticism ought to take on the aforementioned observational quality. Look at the Internet, for instance. People would be silly to take a political stand on it (other than filtering porn and violence), but, instead, we just sort of watch with interest as it evolves and grows, wondering what it can do for each of us today.

    Posted by: Adam Cutsinger   March 27, 2009
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