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So the first book we’re reading for my seminar on bioethics is BIOTECHNOLOGY: OUR FUTURE AS HUMAN BEINGS AND CITIZENS, edited by Sean D. Sutton. This is undoubtedly the most balanced collection of essays by the leading public intellectuals in our debate over the implications of the coming biotechnological age. I hope to get around to talking about each of these instructive and genuinely pithy contributions here. But let me begin with some general observations about the case for welcoming biotechnological change—change we can and, in fact, already do believe in.

The first thing anyone would notice about this conflict is that it can’t be captured by the Founders (=Locke=good) vs. Progressives (=Hegel/History=bad) dichotomy. Those least fearful and most welcoming of biotechnological progress present themselves as consistent Lockeans or libertarians. And those who oppose at least some features of that progress are defending, in one way or another, a non-Lockean view of nature. The latter remind us of the Progressives insofar as they favor more government regulation. Insofar as the Progressives were Darwinians, we see another similarity: Darwinian conservative Larry Arnhart is one of the defenders of the goodness of our social natures in service to the species against this self-obsessed liberationism.

Now some of the opponents to the unlimited progress of biotechnology do worry that changing human nature will ruin our “natural rights republic.” Beings with certain natural characteristics have rights, and right now we can say all human beings are alike enough to equally have rights. All that could change, and the result would be tyranny of the sort you see, for example, in The Brave New World. We could engineer natural masters and natural slaves into existence, and Confederate Alexander Stephens’ notorious CORNER STONE speech would suddenly be right. In a way he wouldn’t have expected, the progress of science, as Stephens claimed, is on his and not our Framers’ side. His assertion that slavery is just by nature would have become true. The blacks enslaved by the South weren’t actually natural slaves, and they weren’t actually happy to be deprived of their freedom. But why couldn’t we consciously create natural slaves who are content to be who they are—as most of the people are in the Brave New World (and the book by that name doesn’t even draw upon what might well be possible through genetic engineering)? All men are created equal doesn’t necessarily apply to men we make ourselves. We could engineer a reconciliation of the greatness made possible by aristocratic leisure and genuine justice—or according each man the dignity of who he is in the eyes of his Creator—that Alexis de Tocqueville thought impossible.

But today’s libertarians respond that biotechnology is not so much about changing nature as increasing free beings’ control over it. Locke himself was all about, in the words of Ronald Bailey, not “submitting to the tyranny of Nature’s lottery—which cruelly deals out futures blighted with ill health, stunted mental abilities, and early death.” Nature is no respecter of persons, and that’s why Locke encouraged us to change the almost worthless stuff we’ve been given by nature to make it infinitely more supportive of the life, liberty, and happiness or at least comfort of each of us.
“The intrinsic value of human life,” Bailey goes on, “is a given for all sides in this debate.” Bailey is especially certain about the value of his own life, and he’s especially anxious that our scientists do everything possible to keep Bailey from dying or ceasing to be as a person or individual. And he’s all for the rest of us staying around so long as we don’t get in his way. So, for Bailey “The battle is really between those who want to use the gifts of human reason and human compassion to ameliorate illness and death and those . . . who counsel fatalistic acceptance of the manifold cruelties randomly meted out by nature.” He surely thinks of himself as the new Jefferson defending “the light of [Lockean, modern] science” against “monkish ignorance and superstition.”

So the quacks who used to identify science with History—the Progressives, Marxists, and so forth—were all too ready to kill the persons around today in the name of the coming of a perfected man at some indefinite point in the future. The new libertarians are way too self-obsessed to commit that error. Their devotion to the individual and to the Lockean principle of consent is undeniable. They really believe that hardly anyone would choose to die if he or she could get out of it. [They’re all for those suckers who think life is meaningless etc. choosing death if they want.] They refuse to be history fodder, of course. But they also refuse to be nature fodder, and they believe that the Creator made us free to make the latter great refusal as effective as possible. Locke’s past-tense God, remember, seems to have given us freedom and nothing else to secure our personal beings, and so he left us alone to do what we can to “play god” in a hostile environment.

Bailey even says that his hyper-Lockean position is the genuinely ecological one: “Why do we want to stay married to Nature anyway? She certainly has been an inconstant wife, literally afflicting us with many surprises like birth defects, diseases, earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, and so forth. Actually an amiable separation might be good for Nature and humanity. The less we depend on Nature for our subsistence, the less harm we do to her.”

It goes without saying I don’t agree with that (although it’s certainly true that many ecological problems do turn out to have technological solutions). But I can’t help but admire one version of thinking through a fundamental American principle and one piece of evidence that it’s tough to keep Locke in the Locke box.

I also admire, in a way, Bailey’s resolution not to get way existential in view of the contingent and momentary presence of Bailey in the world (or anywhere else). Like a good American, when presented with a problem, he’s determined to find a solution. Bailey’s not going anywhere if he can help it. And who am I to deny him the hope in freedom that he can?

The genuinely outstanding popularizing scientist Lee Silver adds to the Lockean case for optimism concerning unfettered biotechnological development by reminding of us a time not so long ago: Then “the entire biosphere was pushed beyond its human-carrying capacity.” And we can just imagine what Dr. Pat Deneen and other Front Hutters of the time were predicting about impending collapse as just punishment for our unnatural acquisitiveness and greed. The truth is, as Silver says, that “Any other species would have collapsed under the weight of its own voracious appetites.” But not us!

Thanks to evolutionary nature, “human genes had endowed human beings with the capacity to initiate a revolutionary lifestyle change that blew apart the traditional equation of adaption and survival.” That is, we might say (even if Sliver doesn’t quite), the theory of evolution as described by Darwin was no longer true for them [us]. “Instead of fitting into a natural world as best they could—like every creature before—the human species consciously took control away from Mother Nature and into its own hands through a process we now refer to as the Agricultural revolution.” Conscious, volitional, and unnatural evolution began not with biotechnology but with agriculture (as Locke himself explains). But Locke might make more sense than Silver in suggesting that no impersonal theory of evolution can really explain why one species alone turned on nature and has increasingly brought the planet under its conscious and personal control.

We discovered the truth about genes, and so we developed the ability “to create novel organisms expressing domesticated characteristics built to satisfy human needs and the newly emerging desires.” We changed what nature gave us to meet the needs of free beings with bodies, and both biological nature and our desires change over time. In changing nature, we changed ourselves in an increasingly free or unnatural direction. We invented out of wild and inhospitable natural material, among other things, corn, the cow, the pig, the chicken, the sheep, and the dog. In the animals we domesticated through genetic transformation, “Wild, human-threatening, and human-fearfulness instincts are eliminated and replaced by tameness, an acceptance or desire to be near humans, and often, other specific human-serving personalities.”

We did violence to nature by turning selected wild and free animals into our slaves, into beings willing to be led to the slaughter for our benefit. In the case of dogs, we also created craven suck ups bred to alleviate our loneliness and bolster our self-esteem. (The cat, to his or her natural credit, continues to put up some admirable resistance.)

We agrarian, southern Porchers can’t imagine life without cows, pigs, corn, chicken, sheep, and dogs. But life with them is hardly life according to nature. It’s life in an environment we used our knowledge and freedom to domesticate—or make less alien or unfriendly—with each of our lives, liberty, and even happiness in mind.
From this view, biotechnology is nothing more or less as a more conscious, effective, and quick way of continuing the revolution we’ve conducting on our behalf against nature. It’s not that biotechnology doesn’t need to be managed without our true needs and desires in mind, but it’s far from an alien force out to extinguish who we are. It is, instead, a revelation of who we are as free persons.

More to come . . . Stay tuned! . . .

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