The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference): Session Four

Series: Pardee Center Conference Series
Dates: April 10, 11, and 12, 2003
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA

Session Four

Daniel Kevles

Science and the Deconstruction of Human Nature

The century-long trend to reductionism in the life sciences has increasingly impacted ideas of human nature. Various lines of scientific investigation have revealed that human beings are physico-chemical machines; that their mental processes can be seen in vivid colors on imaging machines; that their physical and behavioral traits can be tied to genes. The trend to reductionism has reached deeply into the medical arena, where the person is often dealt with as a collection of parts to be diagnosed, repaired, or even replaced. The trend has been exacerbated by biotechnology and law, which together have created a market and intellectual property rights in human genetic parts. But these developments need not reduce conceptions of human nature to commercializable entities of physics and chemistry nor void our notions of humanness. We think of ourselves as something more than the operations of genes and firing neurons, and we insist on treatment that respects personhood, autonomy, and dignity. Such considerations have found expression in the imposition of ethical constraints in human subject research, European patent law, and the response to the prospect of human cloning.

I would like to talk about a profound revolution that has recently occurred in our perception of ourselves as human beings, and then discuss this development in some sort of historical perspective. This contemporary revolution, which is about genetics and neuroscience, is really the third in historical memory. The first, of course, involved the removal of the earth from the center of the universe. The second, Darwin's revolution, destroyed our sense of uniqueness in the realm of living beings. Both, however, left us with the sense that as human animals we are uniquely endowed with high intelligence, a basket of emotions and capacities for morality, aesthetics, language, culture, and science—in short with the capacities that lie at the core of what we call human nature. My concern today is not really with the scientific and scholarly aspects of this shift in attitude, but with a change in how people in the larger culture think about human nature.

While it may be true that notions of human nature have been out of fashion in scholarship and philosophy for a century or so, most people until recently would have agreed that there is such a thing as human nature. The current revolution challenges that conception by deconstructing us into constituent body parts. This is not, of course, an entirely new development. For more than a century we have known that we are physical and chemical machines, in terms of our bodily structure and functions, not to mention breakdowns and dysfunction. Still, the deconstruction of our day strikes at the essence and autonomy of being human. Two developments lie at the core of this shift: the rapid advances in human genetics, coupled with the new reproductive technologies; and the stunning advances in the neurosciences. Such progress has both fascinated the public and also caused a degree of worry and anxiety.

Recombinant DNA has emancipated human genetics from a dependence on analyzing family pedigrees by allowing it to isolate individual genes and analyze their function in terms of DNA coding. Now the swift mapping and sequencing of the human genome is steadily revealing the code’s actual contents and thus allowing us to obtain the specific blueprint for any one of us. Drawing a blueprint of what is essential to our human functions, especially emotion and cognition, deflates the sense of wonder we may once have felt about human life. Rapidly expanding neurosciences have been exposing how our senses and cognitive abilities are the products of neurotransmitters, hormone surges, neural networks, and a hundred billion intricately connected nerve cells. Neurobiologists can detect function in particular regions of the brain by keying in on neurotransmitters. Such techniques have been used not only to study disease, but also to analyze certain abnormal, especially socially destructive, behaviors.

Many expect that genetics and the neurosciences will ultimately meld, so that genes will be correlated with what brain scans reveal. The result will be a genetic functional account of our behavior and our human identities. Our materiality and the physiological process that governs it will account for our capacity for being human. According to some biologists, these capacities include art and aesthetics, which are seen as selected products of evolution.

Developments in genetics and neuroscience have led to a remarkable shift in the social uses of human biology. In the previous century, social Darwinism and its ally, eugenics, were often used by conservatives to block the attempt to improve the condition of individuals through ameliorating the social environment. Eugenicists saw the proliferation of suffering or deprived people as a threat to the quality of American society. But biological eugenics was also embraced by progressives, who were attempting to halt trends to degeneration. Using science, even for progressive social and political ends, often resulted in the curtailment or damage to individual liberties.

The contemporary biologization of behavior, however, is not yet being used as a warrant for social engineering. In fact, the trend now is to use it to emancipate people from moral responsibility. If it’s in your nature to misbehave, then it’s not your fault. One response to a no-fault biology, of course, would be to modify the environment as a compensation for defects in biology. The most recent trends, however, seem not to be addressed to changing the environment, but to resorting to pharmaceuticals to change the individual. Similarly, although gene therapies are used to protect against disease, they may also be used to enhance characteristics that society deems valuable, such as intelligence, athletic ability, and beauty. One sign of the recent decomposition of human nature is the widespread belief that you can change it.

One remarkable feature of recent trends in biologization is that it is occurring in an intensely commercial, free-market environment. There are many alarming consequences of this combination. The acquisition of genetic information can be used to deny insurance or employment. The incentives for traffic in human body parts, including those in which our essence is thought to be concentrated, are powerful. In this legally sanctioned realm of commodification, patent protection has been extended to genetically engineered plants, animals, and human genes, and could conceivably extend to genetically engineered human body parts or even human beings themselves.

Many people are concerned about the potential impact of biotechnology on ineffable human qualities such as individuality, ambition, or genius. The use of psychopharmacology is similarly alarming in the way it makes deviant or inconvenient behavior into a pathology that merits chemical restoration to a conformist norm. Francis Fukuyama, in particular, worries that basic notions of justice, morality, or human rights are being undermined by biotechnological developments. He fears that the enterprise is too driven by commerce and ambition to exercise self-restraint, and he calls for the laying down of a political marker at an early point in development to demonstrate that the development of these technologies is not inevitably beyond control.

Such alarms may be a kind of overreaction. The trend to biologization has been pervaded by considerable scientific extravagance. No one knows much about how genes actually control behavior, how neural networks make for perception and knowledge, or how the complex system of the brain works to create consciousness. It is not likely that under the United States Constitution anyone will be able to hold property rights in another human being. Still, we need ethics in this realm. If ethics is relegated to peripheral and obsolete questions, while industry deconstructs, redesigns, and manufactures human components like any other commodity, laws that exempt these components from patenting, licensing, and other property rights will lose their moral basis. The United States has taken the lead in the recent biologization and commercialization of the components of human nature, and it is the Old World that has insisted on the introduction of ethics in this area. It may be that with the globalization of the high-tech economy, a similar impact will be felt in the way we treat the deconstruction of human nature.

We managed to absorb the conceptual consequences of our Copernican dethronement from the center of the universe, and people who accept the Darwinian theory of evolution do not nowadays resort to a primitive nihilism. Most Americans are appalled by the excesses of previous movements in eugenics and sterilization, even if they do not understand the shoddiness of the science that underlay them. Surely we can live with the knowledge that we are creatures of parts—of genes, neurons, and so forth. We can still think of ourselves as something more than the operations of genes and the firing of neurons. Whatever we do, we can and should insist on treatment of people that respects personhood, autonomy, and dignity, even if we know that we are all only the construction of various parts.

George Annas

Genism, Racism, and the Prospect of Genetic Genocide

One great promise of genomics is that it will demonstrate that all humans are essentially the same and help eliminate racism by destroying its pseudoscientific rationale. But a reductionistic genetics could simply replace racism with genism, and fuel a new eugenics project—to construct “better humans” through genetic engineering. It has been suggested that this will be all to the good for humanity, even that it is wrong to think of genetically modified humans as post-humans. But that view is ahistorical. If genetic engineering produces a different type of human, the relationship between these new humans and “standard” humans is potentially, even likely, lethal. Human history suggests differences will be socially magnified and that the two now different types of humans could consider each other as legitimate targets for preemptive extermination.

It is this prospect for what I have termed “genetic genocide” that leads me to conclude that we should apply the precautionary principle to human genetic engineering and prohibit it by treaty. Substantive and procedural conditions for creating and lifting a global prohibition on human inheritable genetic alterations will be suggested.

My talk is going to follow on some of Professor Kevles’s ideas quite well. He brought us up to where we are now, and I’m going to try to look at the future. Prediction is always difficult. The question I’d like you to ask yourselves is whether it is possible to stop nanotechnology or germ-line engineering from creating a new, different kind of human being, if not a different species altogether. However you answer that question, there is still another. Is there a mechanism we can develop to direct the use of that technology and protect ourselves from annihilation, extinction, and exploitation by a new, powerful subspecies or species?

Geneticists, and scientists in general, tend to be optimistic about their field and often assume that all is going to work out well in the end. They frequently argue that many of the dangers that alarm people—like genetically modified foods or the possibilities of genetic genocide—are based on misunderstandings of scientific facts. Steven Pinker urges us to base our bioethics policy on facts, not fantasy. But I do not understand why ethics should be based only on facts, while science can be based on speculation as well. I think both of us can fantasize about good and bad scenarios in the future.

When the Human Genome Project was first announced, many scientists claimed that one of its benefits would be to discredit the concept of racism for all time. It was going to prove that we are all fundamentally the same. It was going to abolish racism and all the differences among human beings. That would have been nice. But we are already seeing a counterattack on this benign view. It is now claimed that since drugs act differently on blacks and whites, it really is not true that there are not some fundamental biological difference among the races. The point is not who is right, but that the promise that the Human Genome Project was going to end racism was hype that is not going to be fulfilled. And there are other forms of hype. One of them is that all we have to worry about is protecting the subjects of human genetic experiments who will be injured by them. What I want to talk about is the species-wide dangers and implications of such technological developments.

It is important that we consider this point of view. Vaclav Havel argued that only by developing a species consciousness can we hope to avoid totalitarian dictatorships and the use of weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, Francis Fukuyama derives the very notion of human rights from a previous conception of human nature. After World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established, first, that there was such a thing as human rights and, second, that they were universal. From this was also derived the idea that there were specific crimes against humanity.

The usual crimes against humanity include things like murder, genocide, slavery, torture, arbitrary detention, disappearance, and things of that nature. But I want to argue that there is another kind of crime against humanity which does not involve these types of destruction loosed against people with the permission of the state. It involves a direct attack on the human species itself in an effort to change the nature of what it means to be human, and to engage in species-altering activities. It includes making germ-line genetic changes in an individual that may make him so different from other members of his species that he might be considered not as a member of the species or as belonging to a different species entirely. Human cloning provides the perfect opportunity for the world community to ban a technology that has worldwide, species-altering implications. Germ-line engineering is another example of technological interventions that threaten to change the nature of what it means to be human. When you change that, you undermine and take away the basis for human rights.

A fundamental human right is the freedom from having your body invaded or forced against your will. This may involve a question of sterilization or adding an implant to your brain that will improve you. That right is fundamental to autonomy and personhood. I do not know how you could justify such a right in a creature that is fundamentally different from you. Many scientists argue for establishing such a right. They think it is a form of hubris to think we know how to change a 3.5 billion-year-old DNA sequence to make better children.

Establishing this right would be only the beginning. We would also have to set up an enforcement mechanism, something like the international criminal court. We would also need an international treaty, with all nations involved. Last of all, we would need a forum, some kind of international bioethics human rights council democratically elected and representative of the entire species. Its job would be to debate issues like cloning, germ-line genetics, nanotechnology, xenografts, and any other type of procedure that was species-altering or that put the human species at risk of extinction.

Such procedures would be outlawed by the treaty. To change it and permit a new technology, you would have to show that its benefits to humanity outweigh its risks. And if there is some fundamental principle involved that we do not want to violate, then a risk-benefit analysis would not be sufficient. Rulings of the council would not necessarily be permanent, but there would be a precautionary principle applied to species-altering procedures. The burden of proof would lie on scientists, proponents of technology, and corporations to demonstrate that a new development is a good thing.

These measures are justified because once you change the nature of human beings, there is the potential for genocide. Science fiction writers have been thinking and writing about this for a long time. Once different creatures are perceived as nonhuman, then a genocidal impulse develops. People who think a lot about nanotechnology and robotics have come to similar conclusions.

The hardest problem would be getting such a treaty passed. International organizations presently face enormous procedural difficulties. Nevertheless, we should outlaw reproductive cloning and germ-line engineering. But it is not at all clear how such adjudications should be made. A cost-benefit analysis is not adequate. What would the rules of decision be? When would the planet be safe for new species? Maybe the species would have to wait for 100 years without a genocide occurring before it is thought safe to introduce another species. Some will say we could never get through 100 years without a genocide. But if we cannot go 100 years without killing ourselves, maybe we should not be trusted to create new humans.

This is a chapter from The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference).
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Longer-Range, F. (2008). The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference): Session Four. Retrieved from


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