Thursday, August 02, 2007

Improving on Humanity

The September issue of the MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION includes a story about a near future in which most forms of genetic manipulation are legal; the only major crime in that category is cloning someone without the subject's consent. There's an epidemic of public hysteria about the stealing of people's DNA to create cloned children for vile purposes such as sex slavery. The theft usually occurs (or so it's assumed) by the concealment of abrasive objects in places where unwitting victims will be wounded by them. Despite the rarity of this crime (at most five confirmed cases per year), people see evidence of it everywhere, and law enforcement agencies obsess over it. (Sound familiar?) In the story we see this hysteria in action, with the accompanying suspicious, repressive behavior by those in authority.

This tale highlights the way the general public views anything related to cloning with suspicion and fear, even though we've been cloning plants for thousands of years. ("Clone" comes from the Latin for "twig.") The horror of any technology that might subvert the essence of human nature, of course, goes all the way back to what's arguably the first science fiction novel, FRANKENSTEIN. People who are neither scientists nor SF readers tend to think of clones as not-quite-human abominations, forgetting that identical twins are naturally formed clones of each other. Robert Heinlein's novel FRIDAY stars a protagonist who was created in a lab rather than conceived by man and woman and therefore thinks of herself as not-human, even though every bit of her DNA is of human origin. A similar quandary about the definition of humanity surrounds cyborgs, human-machine hybrids. How much of one's body has to be artificial before one crosses the line into nonhumanity? Consider the brain ships of Anne McCaffrey's series, piloted by human beings permanently sealed in metal shells in early childhood, all their sensory input coming through the ship's equipment. Less drastically, how about a "bionic" person, like the Bionic Woman who's going to be the star of a new TV series this fall?

The April/May SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND had an article about brain prostheses, implanted devices that will be able to restore sensory perception for patients such as the blind and deaf. Already “brain-computer interfaces" are being developed that allow paralyzed patients to operate artificial limbs and even computer cursors by thought alone. The latter sounds almost like telepathy! The next step is to create implants within the brain that will transfer information from the outside world into the subject's neurons.

On the biological side of human "improvements," I came across an article that states, "Scientists have succeeded in reprogramming ordinary cells from the tips of mouse tails and rewinding their developmental clocks so they are virtually indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells" (in the Baltimore SUN a few weeks ago). The researchers actually managed to grow new mice from these cells. If this technique could be perfected for human beings, each patient could have his or her own replacement organs grown with no need to create and destroy a cloned embryo. Beyond curing such disorders as Parkinson's disease, might this technique eventually enable the rejuvenation of human beings to the point of making near-immortality possible, as many SF authors have speculated (including Heinlein in his Howard Families novels)? Would everyone want corporeal immortality? (I don't think I would.) A more critical question, would all who want this "boon" have access to it, or would it -- more likely -- be restricted to the wealthy? We can easily imagine (again, many SF writers have done so) a society sharply divided between the privileged who take full advantage of genetic manipulation or artificial aids such as brain-computer interfaces, and the massive underclass who suffer disease and disability followed by death from old age as people have done from the beginning of our species.

Heinlein's I WILL FEAR NO EVIL quotes a court case that decreed “identity resides in the brain.” So no matter how drastically modified one's body might become, as long as a person retains a human mind, he or she is human. As an extension of that principle, if computers ever become sentient, a self-conscious computer should have legal status as “human.” (And a sentient computer could fall in love with a human being, as in Heinlein's TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE and Susan Kearney's THE DARE.) Our society already wrestles with ethical and political problems revolving around questions such as the dividing line between “alive” and “dead” and when a human zygote becomes a distinct individual with legal rights. Philosophers of science and bioethics should grapple with these other questions of the definition of “human” before technology becomes advanced enough to make them practical problems.

1 comment:

  1. Margaret,

    Thank you for another excellent, thought-provoking post, also for drawing attention to some fine publications.