Human Exceptionalism

Brave New World Isn’t Inevitable

Slate’s Will Saletan has an essay in today’s New York Times Book Review, and it is of a species that always drives me a little around the corner.  He writes that our organs will soon either be viewed as a commodity or an asset of the commons, depending on whether we go free market or Obamacare.  Women in late middle age will more commonly give birth via IVF. Stem cells will rebuild body parts.  Even our foods may be  bio engineered to become addicting, perhaps requiring a regulatory response.  He concludes his essay with a characteristic Saletan shrug:

[I]f we can’t conquer our urges, perhaps we can render them harmless. That was the insight behind birth control: sex without pregnancy. It’s the idea behind electronic cigarettes: nicotine without smoke. The latest weight-loss method is intestinal surgery, which can reduce absorption as well as appetite. Eat, and the food goes through you. Last year, a drug administered to mice boosted their muscular endurance as though they had exercised. And thanks to regenerative medicine, decayed teeth, scarred livers and clogged blood vessels will be among the first self-replaceable body parts. Bad habits will no longer have permanent consequences.

To the reader of 2009, some of these changes may sound freaky or unsettling. But a century from now, they’ll seem as normal as pacemakers, hip replacements and in vitro fertilization have become today. Our descendants, like us, won’t just be technology’s judges. They’ll be its products, too.

Even assuming much of this is affordable–I mean we can’t even go to the moon again we are so broke, much less start to send men and women to the planets–Salatan’s essay is a mild variation on the transhumanist argument I often hear, that follows the Borg’s mantra in Star Trek: “Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.”

I reject that kind of pessimism.  We are not mere flotsam and jetsam floating on a troubled sea. We are not subject to blind natural selection.  We have the ability to decide on the kind of future we want–both collectively and individually.  I think it is not only worthwhile, but a noble cause to defend against the darker futures of technology in order to uphold and maintain our humanity and our individual equal moral worth.

My point isn’t that we should become Luddites and refuse all progress. I believe in that “great big beautiful tomorrow” that was the theme song of the old, now defunct, technology-boosting, GE sponsored Disneyland propaganda ride.  But we shouldn’t just assume that we are helpless against the admittedly powerful forces of technological change.  Rather than waiting for the future to mindlessly evolve, let’s intelligently design it instead–with human exceptionalism as the lodestar.