Q: I recently read something about a current philosophy called “Transhumanism.” Are you familiar with it and can you shed some light on what’s problematic about it from the perspective of a Catholic worldview?
E. Christian Brugger replies:
I said in my first column on Transhumanism that there were several good reasons to sit up and take note of the current of thought. The second reason is that biomedical science is moving very rapidly and enhancement possibilities are multiplying at a startlingly swift pace. Ethics must keep pace with science. The question of whether our community sanctions this or that technique, or the enhancement agenda at all, cannot rest merely on whether things are technically possible.
A few examples of what’s coming might be instructive. Research is presently underway into the prospect of the genetic enhancement of physical strength (we’ve already mentioned muscle enhancement through the use of drugs). Science has identified the genes that regulate the proteins that mediate muscle growth. If we insert these genes, synthetically produced, directly into muscles we could stimulate the production of these muscle growth proteins. Or, we could introduce the genes directly into human embryos, created in the lab, with the hope that they (the genes) would be incorporated into the functional genome of the growing person. Both types of insertion experiments have proved successful in studies with rats: muscle growth was increased in healthy adult rats and muscle decline was deferred in rats of advanced age.
Since we already treat elderly patients with drugs for increasing muscle mass and strength (a seemly legitimate therapeutic practice), why not enhance muscle strength through genetic engineering? Why not open these treatments to younger persons before they grow old in order to prevent or defer the effects of aging, called in the literature “age retardation”?
This raises the question of the morality of life extension research? Is trying to extend the human life-span intrinsically problematic? Certainly not. In 1900 the average life-expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 48 years. In 1999 it had increased dramatically to 78. Most of that increase was due to the decline in infant and child mortality during the first half of the 20th century; it was also due to the rise of effective transplant medicine at the other end of life.
But more radical proponents of Transhumanism are committed to overcoming the effects of aging altogether by conquering death. They hold that our acceptance of death is based upon the increasingly discredited assumption that there is nothing we can do about it. The well-known scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil argues that we could be living in the first age of immortals. Nature’s clock is set for death; cells are genetically preprogrammed to disintegrate. Without scientific intervention, mortality is unavoidable. But degeneration with age (called senescence) is essentially a genetic process. When we become capable of isolating the genes and proteins responsible for aging and death, all we need to do is reprogram them. Kurzweil believes this will be possible within the next generation. Michael West, former CEO of the huge biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology, argues for something similar: “love and compassion for our fellow human being will ultimately lead us to the conclusion that we have to do everything we can to eliminate aging and death.”
Not all advocates are so extreme. But the question of where the stopping point should be with certain technologies is critical to think about.
Let me be very clear. The use of advanced technology to augment the powers of the disabled—its “therapeutic use”—should not be identified simplistically with ethically suspect enhancement research. And such technology is growing increasingly sophisticated. Devices such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI) to assist quadriplegics in operating computers are already in clinical trials. Embedded micromechanical devices to deliver drugs and gene therapies have been used for a decade. Rapidly expanding nanotechnologies for treating disorders of the heart, brain, nervous system and musculoskeletal system are generating tremendous clinical and commercial interest. (Nanotechnology deals with tiny technological systems measured at the molecular scale in nanometers: a nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) Whole journals are already dedicated to the subject of nanotechnology.
Moreover, you have heard of prosthetic limbs to assist amputees. What about brain prostheses to replace damaged brain function for victims of stoke or brain trauma, or patients with dementia, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease? Last June the New York Times reported on a breakthrough in animal studies by researchers at Wake Forrest University, who developed a brain implant that helped to restore lost memory in laboratory rats. They believe the technology will be instrumental in the development of “so-called neuro-prosthetic devices” to repair memory dysfunction.
Clinical studies are also underway with neuro-muscular implants to assist the physically disabled. The School of Medicine at University of Southern California has already developed a neuromuscular prosthetic system that apparently can “reanimate paralyzed limbs.”
These forms of research are well funded by private and public sources. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, are presently funding the development of tiny neural prostheses in the areas of “hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech and language.” Scientists are committed to making these hopeful technologies widely available in the next generation.
But having them at hand for therapy will raise (is raising) the question of non-therapeutic uses. Should we use biomedical implants to assist the cognitive functioning of those who are not disabled? Military fighter pilots, for example, or combat soldiers (such as Captain America), or neurosurgeons? What about those who are simply dissatisfied with their memories, or their inability to concentrate, or, for that matter, their lack of math reasoning skills? The advance of science is unlikely to slow. Should the state intervene and legislate against certain uses for these technologies? Where do we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate uses?
I mentioned above brain-computer interfaces. The UK’s Daily Mail reported in 2009 that research was underway into micro-sensors that would sit on the surface of the brain and read the tiny electrical activity of brain cells, then wirelessly transmit the signal to a receiver on the skull. Disabled persons could use these “telepathy chips” to control a cursor on a computer screen, or operate electrical devices, or steer an electric wheelchair—all by the power of thought. These aren’t science fiction. They’re already being used in clinical trials. Triumphs for the disabled, to be sure. But we don’t have to let our imaginations run far to wonder what darker purposes these technologies could be put to.
Memory alteration is also a hot area of biotechnical research, not aimed at restoring or improving it, but blunting and erasing its effects. Scientists are better understanding the way memories are stored (“encoded”) in the brain and the mechanisms by which memory and emotions interact. The brain structure known as the amygdala, an almond shaped structure deep within the temporal lobe of the brain, seems to be involved in the encoding of what is called “emotional memory.” Our brains remember not only images and facts from past experiences, but also emotions associated with these experiences. Those who suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of very painful experiences (e.g., serious abuse or bloody military combat) can find the memories of those experiences crippling.
Research has found that people who suffer damage to the amygdala can still remember past events, but don’t exhibit the enhanced memory ordinarily associated with emotionally stirring experiences. Consequently, clinical studies over the last decade have aimed at suppressing the activation of the amygdala using drugs called beta-blockers.
Who could object to using certain drugs, presuming they are approved for safety, to aid soldiers suffering from shell shock (the older name for PTSD), or to blunt the memory of Rwandan survivors of genocide?
But more powerful drugs are sure to follow, which promise to separate with increasing effectivity the “experience of memory from the truth of the experience that is remembered.” These drugs will be wanted for use in non-clinical settings. The President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 suggested a few troubling possibilities: e.g., “to prepare a soldier to kill (or kill again) on the battlefield; to dull the sting of one’s own shameful acts; to allow a criminal to numb the memory of his or her victims.” An article in the Village Voice a few years ago entitled Guilt-Free Soldiers raised a similar concern: are we “medicating away” our consciences? Leon Kass calls such techniques “the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt.” A leader of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Barry Romo, was even more blunt: “That’s the devil pill,” he says, “the monster pill, the anti-morality pill. That’s the pill that can make men and women do anything and think they can get away with it. Even if it doesn’t work, what’s scary is that a young soldier could believe it will.”
Speaking of “morality pills,” Princeton bioethicist, Peter Singer, speculates that we will soon be able to give violent criminals implants to change their brain chemistry and make them “less likely to harm others.” Julian Savulescu loves the idea: “there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.”
So the second reason to concern ourselves with Transhumanism is that the prospects for perfection that science will present us in the next few decades are speeding our way.