Ive always thought theres an easy way to sidetrack the redefining of human nature by biotechnology. All we have to do is revive the space program and promote the colonization of space. All we have to do, in other words, is offer a different temporal purpose and a more exciting goal.
An interesting argument could be made that the success of the United States Apollo flights created the biotech revolution. Not only did the space program give a general boost to all the technological sciences, but after we landed on the moon, what goal was left? The subsequent shuttles and space stations were minor things, in terms of the human imagination, and the hunger for technological advance had to find other outlets¯which, in the event, proved to be the creation of personal computers and the golden age of biology through which we are currently living.
No one will find this argument fully persuasive, mainly because its not. But the history of science fiction suggests that maybe the argument isnt entirely fantasy. Go back to the old works¯from the 1930s through the 1970s¯and look at how rarely biological transformation plays a role. Theres some, of course, beginning with the Morlocks and Eloi in H.G. Wells The Time Machine , and the Alphas and Betas from Aldous Huxleys Brave New World .
But space flight and robotics are what more typically captured the imagination of science-fiction writers. Even their dystopias¯and somebody needs to write the definitive account of how often science fiction manifested a deep mistrust of science¯were much more often about the changes wrought by computers than the dangers of biotechnology. The futuristic visions of the science-fiction writers (the dreams our stuff is made of, in Tom Dischs nice phrase) looked outward to the universe rather than inward to the human body.
This line of analysis gains some additional force from the recognition of how idealized and eschatological the hype about biotechnology is. The Lame Shall Walk! The Blind Shall See! All Will Be Healthy! All Will Be Wise! We make a mistake, I think, when we call the worst claims of modern biotechnology a revivified form of the old eugenics. Read the glowing stock prospectuses of the biotech companies, or the cheery eschatology of groups like the Raelians, or the high moral dudgeon of the press releases issued by medical-advocacy groups. This isnt the language of hard-edged eugenics. This is a return of good, old-fashioned romanticism.
There may be tendrils, deep in the roots, that join eugenics to romanticism. The Nazis, for instance, clearly believed in eugenics, and it was fairly typical for early commentators to mutter darkly about the romantic origins of Nazism. But ever since the 1960s, that negative use of the word romantic seems to have decayed. Even more to the point, most of the actual supporters of eugenics in the twentieth century thought of themselves as realists¯as the great opponents of romanticisms dreamy unworldliness. Three generations of imbeciles are enough, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in Buck v. Bell , the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing involuntary sterilization of the mentally unfit. That isnt the kind of thing youd hear from Wordsworth, though you might find it in H.G. Wells.
The modern promoters of biotechnology are romantic visionaries, instead. Theyre not selling anything resembling a viable technology; the endless failures and scams of the biotech revolution prove that beyond a doubt. No, what theyre selling are the dreams, from which they hope eventually the stuff will come: If enough of us buy the vision, well pitch in and make it real. Theyre selling a horizon and a goal¯a purpose for human history.
As well they ought. The problem isnt that goals are bad, but that this particular one is a bad goal. Weve had awful experiences in modern times with the immanent eschatologies of the people who wanted either to build heaven on earth or to reestablish Eden¯with Marxists and all the rest, who wanted, in one way or another, to achieve in this world the ultimate purposes of humankind. Mass murder seems to be the regular result of the political attempt to reach a cosmic horizon. But thats not, in itself, an argument against all local horizons¯against every strong cultural goal.
In fact, the distinction seems simple enough: Vibrant cultures want something; exhausted cultures dont. And what do we actually want, today? For a thought experiment, imagine hearing this on tomorrow evenings new shows:
The Vatican announced today that it will soon begin colonizing the planet Mars. Many parts of the mission remain unclear, but the plans to launch the first rocket from a pad on the island of Malta appear definite, with a tentative launch date in July 2010. The goal will be to establish a colony capable of sustaining itself within 20 years, with the long-range aim of completing the terraforming of Mars within 100 years. Accompanying the initial group of 142 Catholic settlers on the 297-day flight will be a priest and an auxiliary bishop from the diocese of Rio de Janeiro.
The geopolitical ramifications would be fascinating and perhaps even dangerous. How would a wealthy Islamic country such as Saudi Arabia react? Or the European Union, so desperate to deny its Catholic past?
But geopolitics are always fascinating and more than a little dangerous. The greater impact would be on the human imagination. We seem to aim at so little today, to have such small interests in mind. No wonder the biotech visionaries have gained a hearing: They claim to be going somewhere. Where they want to go is the destruction of human nature, but at least they are calling us to something beyond ourselves.
To be a religious believer is to know that the hungers of the human heart will not find fulfillment without God, but even religious believers benefit from goals short of the ecstatic vision of the divine. A people without any temporal horizons¯without any historical purpose or vision of the future¯grow enervated and decadent, and they begin to follow strange gods, who promise them meaning.
The science-fiction writers had it better: Space is the obvious next horizon for human beings. Want to diminish the biotech revolution to its proper role as a curer of disease? Offer a more exciting goal. Build a rocket ship, and fly it to Mars.