[Paleopsych] Technology News: Transforming Humans
checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 29 16:24:51 UTC 2005
By Sonia Arrison
01/28/05 5:00 AM PT
Late last year, South Korean scientists used stems cells to treat a
woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a back
injury. To the amazement of many, she is now able to move about using
a walker. Christopher Reeve would have delighted.
William Safire bid farewell to his column at the New York Times this
week, but not because he's retiring. Instead, this Pulitzer
Prize-winning, former presidential speech writer is moving on to lead
an organization concerned with what some call transhumanism.
Transhumanism is the advocacy of using life-enhancing technology to
improve the human condition. It is a forward-looking philosophy, and
savvy proponents spend a good deal of time thinking about the ethics
involved in areas such as stem-cell research, genetic engineering,
nanotechnology, and neuropharmaceuticals, to name a few.
Fringe Issues No More
The organization Safire will lead is called Dana, after Charles Dana,
a New York State legislator, industrialist and philanthropist. Dana's
core areas seem to be brain studies and immunology, but Safire
recently wrote that he will also tackle such issues as, "Should we
level human height with growth hormones?" and "Is cloning ever morally
These used to be the issues of fringe sci-fi nerds, but things have
changed. Biotechnology and related fields have advanced at an
astounding pace. We now live in a world where what was once thought to
be impossible is becoming reality.
Late last year, for instance, South Korean scientists used stems cells
to treat a woman who had been paralyzed for 20 years as a result of a
back injury. To the amazement of many, she is now able to move about
using a walker. Christopher Reeve would have delighted in such
Other high-profile people are embracing the idea that if we work hard
and smart enough at these impossible-seeming problems, we can find the
solution. Safire is one. Another is Michael Milken. After successfully
fighting a bout of prostrate cancer, Milken applied his efforts to
accelerating scientific discovery.
Speed Up, Slow Down
First, he worked on streamlining grant application processes so that
scientists could focus on science. Paperwork and politics are both big
problems facing researchers, especially if government is involved, so
it was a stroke of genius to suggest that agencies such as the
Prostate Cancer Foundation cut the wait time for grant money and hold
Faster Cures, a think tank Milken started, is literally trying to
speed up the research process by focusing on weaknesses in public
policy and other areas that might be slowing down progress. Its board
includes Nobel laureates Gary Becker (economics) and David Baltimore
(virology). But not everyone is interested in speeding up science.
On both the left and right, there are factions that argue against
scientific breakthroughs, especially if they augment or enhance
humans. For instance, some on the left argue that it wouldn't be
natural to use drugs to enhance someone's intelligence or happiness.
And if it's not natural, it's bad.
Others on the right argue that cloning and technologies that take us
beyond the traditional human composition will compromise the moral
importance of human life. Leon Kass, who was chairman of the
President's Council on Bioethics, is a powerful spokesman for the
conservative point of view.
America, and indeed the world, is entering a new age where significant
advances in bio and nanotechnology might allow humans to live better
and longer lives. But they might also change who humans are. Imagine
if it becomes possible, as in the film Johnny Mnemonic, to integrate
silicon into the brain so that memory is greatly enhanced. The
question of whether that person is still human, and whether that
matters, will be of utmost import from both a legal and cultural point
The time to discuss these questions is now, so it is good to see the
issues moving from fringe to mainstream. As Mr. Safire rightly points
out, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77 over the
last century. Moore's law, that computer power doubles every two
years, can be now combined with biotech. In the near future, we are
all likely to be living much longer lives. [end-enn.gif]
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology
Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.
More information about the paleopsych