William Safire bid farewell to his column at the New York Times this week, but not because he’s retiring. Instead, this Pulitzer Prize-winning, former presidential speech writer is moving on to lead an organization concerned with what some call transhumanism.
Transhumanism is the advocacy of using life-enhancing technology to improve the human condition. It is a forward-looking philosophy, and savvy proponents spend a good deal of time thinking about the ethics involved in areas such as stem-cell research, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neuropharmaceuticals, to name a few.
Fringe Issues No More
The organization Safire will lead is called Dana, after Charles Dana, a New York State legislator, industrialist and philanthropist. Dana’s core areas seem to be brain studies and immunology, but Safire recently wrote that he will also tackle such issues as, “Should we level human height with growth hormones?” and “Is cloning ever morally sound?”
These used to be the issues of fringe sci-fi nerds, but things have changed. Biotechnology and related fields have advanced at an astounding pace. We now live in a world where what was once thought to be impossible is becoming reality.
Late last year, for instance, South Korean scientists used stems cells to treat a woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a back injury. To the amazement of many, she is now able to move about using a walker. Christopher Reeve would have delighted in such progress.
Other high-profile people are embracing the idea that if we work hard and smart enough at these impossible-seeming problems, we can find the solution. Safire is one. Another is Michael Milken. After successfully fighting a bout of prostrate cancer, Milken applied his efforts to accelerating scientific discovery.
Speed Up, Slow Down
First, he worked on streamlining grant application processes so that scientists could focus on science. Paperwork and politics are both big problems facing researchers, especially if government is involved, so it was a stroke of genius to suggest that agencies such as the Prostate Cancer Foundation cut the wait time for grant money and hold researchers accountable.
Faster Cures, a think tank Milken started, is literally trying to speed up the research process by focusing on weaknesses in public policy and other areas that might be slowing down progress. Its board includes Nobel laureates Gary Becker (economics) and David Baltimore (virology). But not everyone is interested in speeding up science.
On both the left and right, there are factions that argue against scientific breakthroughs, especially if they augment or enhance humans. For instance, some on the left argue that it wouldn’t be natural to use drugs to enhance someone’s intelligence or happiness. And if it’s not natural, it’s bad.
Others on the right argue that cloning and technologies that take us beyond the traditional human composition will compromise the moral importance of human life. Leon Kass, who was chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is a powerful spokesman for the conservative point of view.
America, and indeed the world, is entering a new age where significant advances in bio and nanotechnology might allow humans to live better and longer lives. But they might also change who humans are. Imagine if it becomes possible, as in the film Johnny Mnemonic, to integrate silicon into the brain so that memory is greatly enhanced. The question of whether that person is still human, and whether that matters, will be of utmost import from both a legal and cultural point of view.
The time to discuss these questions is now, so it is good to see the issues moving from fringe to mainstream. As Mr. Safire rightly points out, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77 over the last century. Moore’s law, that computer power doubles every two years, can be now combined with biotech. In the near future, we are all likely to be living much longer lives.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.