A manifesto for playing god with human evolution
by Carl Elliott
Fancy living forever, or uploading your mind to the net? The Proactionary Imperative embraces transhumanist dreams, but reminds why we need medical ethics
IN THE early 1960s prank comedy duo James Coyle and Mal Sharpe wandered the streets of San Francisco with a tape recorder making outrageous proposals to strangers. They had a special fondness for bizarre medical experiments. "Doctors have discovered that human beings, like birds, have the capacity to grow feathers," they would say. "Would you be willing to exchange your clothing for plumage like a pheasant?" Or, "Would you be opposed to the idea of having a portion of your head surgically modified and used as a storage place for sugar?"
There is more than a little of Coyle and Sharpe in the contemporary movement known as transhumanism, which advocates a radical research agenda to transform the human condition. If you've ever fantasised about uploading your mind to the internet, or gestating your genetically modified children in an artificial womb, or living forever in a community of immortal, hyper-orgasmic superbeings, you'll find friends among the members of Humanity+ and other such transhumanist organisations.
In The Proactionary Imperative, sociologists Steve Fuller and Veronika Lipinska aim to "provide a comprehensive intellectual justification for the emerging progressive movement of transhumanism" a cultural and philosophical movement with its own journal, and even, for a time, its own parliamentary representative, in Italy. Specifically, the authors are interested in what they call the "indefinite promotion" of "our seemingly endless capacity for self-transcendence, our 'god-like character', if you will".
The cumbersome title of their book apparently comes from a 2004 declaration drafted by transhumanist philosopher and cryonics executive Max More. The "proactionary imperative" was developed as a foil to the better-known "precautionary principle", which advises a cautious approach to research as a way of minimising risk. By contrast, the proactionary imperative is about "embracing risk as constitutive of what it means to be human".
Proactionaries argue that, at the very least, willing volunteers should be allowed to participate in cutting-edge scientific research. And, say Fuller and Lipinska, "proactionaries might well seek long-term benefits for survivors of a revolutionary regime that would permit many harms along the way". The programme will require "mass surveillance and experimentation", not to mention the understanding that many people "may turn out to have been used or sacrificed for science". Nonetheless, they write, "we must have the courage to adopt the role of Natural Selector".
The most novel idea proposed by Fuller and Lipinska is a conceptual hybrid of genetics and hedge-fund management they call "hedgenetics". With this, families could invest in genes much as they might in a hedge fund, funnelling their money to research of their choice. In such a society, the authors say, we would all have a responsibility to manage our genetic constitution wisely and avoid becoming "a burden to the genetic commons of the planet".
If the authors are aware how their plans might sound to vulnerable populations, to disabled people or ethnic minorities, they don't give much evidence of it. Yet it was in response to abuses of these populations that we developed the current research regulation.
For example, the Nuremberg Code, an early set of research ethics principles, was adopted in response to medical experiments on Jews and other prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
And some years on, in 1974, came the National Research Act, which led to federal guidelines governing medical research in the US. This act was a response to outrages including the Tuskegee syphilis study of impoverished African-American men, and the Willowbrook hepatitis study, which was conducted on institutionalised disabled children.
It is not that The Proactionary Imperative is unconvincing on its own terms; the problem is the terms themselves. Of course there are intellectual and theological currents that would buttress the transhumanist agenda, just as there are currents that run in the opposite direction. But for a potential subject deciding whether to take part in transhumanist research, there are more pressing questions. What exactly are you proposing? How risky is it? How will you prevent abuses? Is there any scientific evidence for the proposal, or is it pure quackery? [[Might add: WHY are you ultimately doing this? -- DNI]]
This book is a call to embrace the risks of medical research. But the real issue is who exactly is expected to take those risks, and under what circumstances.
It is precisely because the powerless and disadvantaged have always made such tempting research subjects that strict controls on medical research are essential.
Note: Definitions, definitions, definitions. Although the caution prescribed against the use of human volunteers in transhumanist research medical trials in the New Scientist article below is enthusiastically welcome, a caution and clarification is also in store for the article's own appeal to medical ethics -- and particularly to the 1974 National Research Act. Interesting that he doesn't mention the Declaration of Helsinki. Traditional medical ethics (used for centuries until lately by physicians) and traditional international 'medical research ethics (where the health and safety of the research participant comes first and may never be compromised for 'the greater good') is acceptable (although it still has flaws). Bioethics is not. There is a huge difference between the use of medical research ethics (based internationally on decades of secular precautions to safeguard the use of human subjects in medical research), and bioethics (created out of thin air by the 1978 Belmont Report, on Congressional mandate of the 1974 National Research Act). [See, e.g., Irving, -- Need to know: Nuremberg Code, Declaration of Helsinki, Belmont Report, OHRP (June 27, 2013), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_214needtoknow.html]); The article first appeared here. - DNI]