Man pictured from the back, sitting on a roof, looking at a full moon.

Towards Human Bioprogress

Bioethical debates are often something of a dialogue of the deaf. A fundamental reason for this is that so much of bioethical theorizing is just rationalizing intuitions. But part of this problem is that we’re talking about different things. For a long time, bioconservatives have laid claim to a deeper understanding of what life is really about. These new technologies might look exciting to you, they say, but if we adopted them, we would lose the things about our lives that make them valuable, that make them human. Bioprogressives basically ignore these claims. They respond with statistics about how helpful technology X will be. They assume without explaining that life is about something else.

The bioconservatives are right that these questions matter, and it has been a mistake for bioprogressives to neglect them. It’s a mistake because if the bioconservatives are right about the meaning of life then they are right about the policy issues. Engaging on this question at least takes their argument seriously. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a mistake because the bioconservative theory of the meaning of human life is so obviously wrong.

For Michael Sandel, genetic enhancement is wrong because it manifests a hubristic desire to “rail against the given,” to create “arena[s] of choice” in “domain[s] once governed by fate.” Rather, a properly lived human life is “open[] to the unbidden,” and appreciates “life as a gift.”

Bush’s Council on Bioethics, similarly, told us that achievements made possible by biological intervention rather than hard work are somehow less than human. Francis Fukuyama worries about disrupting the “unity” of our evolved natures: all we can say with confidence is we are valuable the way we are, with all the vulnerabilities of our ancestors.

And this view about human life dominates the bioethics-inspired popular media. It’s what Ishiguro means when he sees a “new world coming rapidly…[A] harsh, cruel world.” The nuances of these different theories notwithstanding, the core idea is simple: the value of human life has something to do with randomness, with a lack of control, with human frailty. To be human, we’re told, is to be weak.

This is nonsense.

To rail against the given is the proudest legacy of our species. That impulse, the one that drove us to build fires because we were cold, cities because we were lonely and governments because we were scared, that compelled us to invent medicine so that we might not fade so soon into oblivion and writing and art so that our souls, for lack of a better word, might last forever, that alone sets us apart from everything else in the universe and alone can form the basis of our singular value.

Everything in creation, save us, from molecules to mice, is open to the unbidden by force of physics. We have the capacity to create for ourselves meaning and purpose, to build a universe that provides those things for us, to define for ourselves the parameters of our existence. And the history of doing that is the triumphant history of civilization. This, not humbly embracing the randomness of dying of smallpox, is beautiful.

At the risk of over-speculating, I think bioconservatives’ confusion on this point is at least partly linguistic. The word human, as we all know, comes from the Latin homo. But homo didn’t just mean human, it connoted human as opposed to the divine. Indeed, the Proto-Indo-European word from which it is derived explicitly meant earthly beings as opposed to gods. In Latin a novus homo was a parvenu, a term of contempt, while vir referred to a man in his dignity (from which we get virtue and virility. I’d point out that the Romans were sexist but so are we; “Man” surely connotes more dignity than “humanity.”)

And while the contemptuous connotation of homo made sense in a world that took for granted the res divinae in caelo, I suspect it’s lingered in the word “human” in our relatively brief disbelief. We certainly all know Pope’s maxim: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” As oft-quoted as (particularly the first half) of this dichotomy is, it only makes sense when we believed in the existence of its second half. Compared to gods, sure, human weaknesses are a defining feature. Compared to, say, rocks, they’re bizarre things to hone in on.

We need a clear theory of what makes human life valuable so that as new technologies come up we know what to do with them. No one would argue that every new technology furthers the deep meaning of human life simply because it’s knew. There are, of course, handguns. Unlimited memory modification strikes me as a possible biological technology that might (but might not) threaten those valuable things. The narrative mode of consciousness is as good a candidate as any for an indispensable substrate of meaning-making. My personal preference for rooting human meaning in civilization requires we not eliminate the social impulse. This is why what I’m talking about is not necessarily transhumanism. It isn’t about surpassing humanity for its own sake.

The narrow hedonistic utilitarianism that has dominated bioprogressivism until now just doesn’t cut it. People don’t buy it. Bioprogressives will always be on the defensive so long as the choices are a richer future or the beautiful things of life. I’m proposing we shoot for both.

We are more than the worst instincts and weaknesses of our nature. If we could weaken or get rid of them—our tragic aging, the weaknesses and biases of our intellect, our vulnerability to diseases of the body and mind, our laziness, our greed, our seemingly bottomless capacity for hatred—that would be a good thing. It would be deeply human thing. That’s the task, then. We need a human bioprogressivism, where the word human refers not to our weakness but to our uniqueness.

It’s not that Neil Armstrong flubbed the line; it’s that he was on the goddamned moon.


James Toomey is a 2018-2019 Student Fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center.

James Toomey

James Toomey

James Toomey is a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His research focuses on bioethics, health law, and elder law. His scholarship has been published or is forthcoming in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the Elder Law Journal, and AJOB Empirical Bioethics.

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