SOC/BIO: Reason Magazine article on "Petri Dish Politics"
Tue, 23 Nov 1999 17:51:17 EST

I cannot recommend strongly enough the article you'll find at:

Although written by someone with very extropian values in a magazine that also has a very extropian editorial policy, the article portrays the significant and GROWING opposition on both the "left" and the "right" to almost all forms of advanced biotech in the U.S. That opposition is already well-rooted in Europe. If the biotech companies don't get up off their asses and start fighting back in the media BIG TIME, we're going to have real trouble.

Here are some selections from the article:

REASON * December 1999

Petri Dish Politics
Biotechnology will make it possible for us to live longer and better. So why are some people dead set against it?

By Ronald Bailey

"Death to death," declares Gregory Stock, director of UCLA's Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society, at a conference on life extension. "Aging itself can be considered to be a disease," says Cynthia Kenyon, the biochemist who last year discovered genes that quadrupled the life of the nematode C. elegans.

. . . .

Repairing broken bodies, extending life, and improving individuals' capabilities may sound like good things. But the promises of biomedicine increasingly attract opposition. A chorus of influential conservative intellectuals is demanding that the new technologies be crushed immediately, and many in Congress are listening. These "luddicons," as one observer has dubbed them, see in biomedicine the latest incarnation of human evil. "In the 20th century, we failed to stifle at birth the totalitarian concepts which created Nazism and Communism though we knew all along that both were morally evil--because decent men and women did not speak out in time," writes the British historian Paul Johnson in an article in the March 6, 1999, issue of The Spectator. "Are we going to make the same mistake with this new infant monster [biotechnology] in our midst, still puny as yet but liable, all too soon, to grow gigantic and overwhelm us?"

The most influential conservative bioethicist, Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and the American Enterprise Institute, worries both that our quest for ever-better mental and physical states is too open-ended and, contradictorily, that it is utopian. "`Enhancement' is, of course, a soft euphemism for improvement," he says, "and the idea of improvement necessarily implies a good, a better, and perhaps even best. But if previously unalterable human nature no longer can function as a standard or norm for what is regarded as good or better, how will anyone truly know what constitutes an improvement?"

Kass argues that even "modest enhancers" who say that they "merely want to improve our capacity to resist and prevent diseases, diminish our propensities for pain and suffering, decrease the likelihood of death" are deceiving themselves and us. Behind these modest goals, he says, actually lies a utopian project to achieve "nothing less than a painless, suffering-free, and, finally, immortal existence."

What particularly disturbs these conservatives is biomedicine's potential to overthrow their notion of human nature--a nature defined by suffering and death. "Contra naturam, the defiance of nature, used to be a sufficient argument for those who were not persuaded by contra deum, provoking the wrath of God," writes historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Wall Street Journal. "But what does it mean today, when we have defied, even violated, nature in so many ways, for good as well as bad?" She goes on to suggest that cloning, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and even the pill might be "against nature." Himmelfarb continues, "But the ultimate question is how far we may go in defying nature without undermining our humanity....What does it mean for human beings, who are defined by their mortality, to entertain, even fleetingly, even as a remote possibility, the idea of immortality?"