[Paleopsych] ST News: The biological path to freedom

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The biological path to freedom
[Anees is one of the few Muslim transhumanists]

Ronald Bailey's Liberation Biology shows the biological path to freedom,
says Munawar A. Anees.

By Munawar A. Anees

(July 15, 2005)

Why is biotechnology in the eye of the public storm? One reason lies in
its very nature: it empowers us to tinker with the building blocks of
life. Its potentially irreversible effect on the human genome makes us
pause to reflect.

In Liberation Biology, Ronald Bailey, a science writer for Reason
magazine, questions assumptions and conclusions made by biotechnology
detractors, or bioconservatives. He argues that bioconservative
criticisms of the biotech revolution are more political gimmick than
scholarly endeavor.

Conservative biotech

Bailey addresses major issues in biotechnology: longevity, disease
control, stem cell research, cloning, designer babies, agricultural
biotechnology and mind improvement drugs.

Bailey openly dismisses bioconservative arguments, saying their "fears
are vastly exaggerated; their ethical objections to biotechnological
progress are largely misconceived; and the biotech revolution rather
than diminishing human dignity and liberty will instead enhance and
enlarge them." He takes leading bioconservatives to task, writing that
the "future toward which the biotech revolution is taking humanity is in
fact almost the exact opposite of the Brave New World."

Bailey's book covers vast factual ground, with pointed criticism
directed at Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics;
Boston bioethicist George Annas, whose idea of "species consciousness"
is meant to be a bulwark against Huxley's Brave New World; and Francis
Fukuyama, professor at Johns Hopkins University, who fears that
modifications to human nature by biotechnology will usher us into the
posthuman or transhuman phase of our existence.

Countering Fukuyama's somber statement that life extension could exert
negative influence upon society, Bailey argues, after Thomas Hobbes'
Leviathan, that society exists for the sake of the individual and not
vice versa.

Religion and biotherapy

Bailey shows that prominent Jewish and Christian theologians are in
favor of age-retardation technology. After all, Methuselah, one of the
patriarchs in Genesis lived 969 years, and in Judaic teachings one of
the metaphors for God is life. Thus, writes Bailey, "the highest
expression of human dignity and human nature is to try to overcome the
limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our

The teachings of Islam also support age-retardation technology and
similar interventions to improve quality of life. The Quran says, "And
He has made subservient to you, [as a gift] from Himself, all that is in
the heavens and on earth: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for
people who think."

Now, however, the use of embryonic stem cells is clouding the ethical
picture. Bioconservatives consider human embryonic stem cell research
immoral. Many Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants hold the view
that personhood is endowed at the moment of conception, so a fertilized
ovum has inviolable rights.

Other religious traditions offer different treatments of the moral
status of embryos. In the Talmud, during the first 40 days of gestation
the embryo is simply thought of as water. Similarly, the general Islamic
consensus on personhood is that it occurs after the completion of three
phases of 40 days each. In other words, the end of the first four months
in pregnancy marks the beginning of personhood.

The moral positions held by the three monotheistic traditions compel us
to a solemn discourse on pivotal questions such as the beginning of
life, acquisition of personhood and the mystery of self-consciousness.
Bailey argues that "since we do define 'person' as the sort of entities
that do have brains capable of sustaining a mind, embryos clearly don't

The specter of human cloning

Recalling that many of the same people who oppose therapeutic cloning
also opposed in vitro fertilization, Bailey concludes that the
opposition to stem cell research can be reduced to fear of the unknown.

This fear seems to have been exaggerated by sensational media reports on
the clandestine cloning of human embryos, such as the alleged cloning
carried out by the Raelians. Because of the excitement that accompanies
any manipulation of human materials, these hoaxes tend to damage genuine
scientific creativity.

These deceptive reports have also kept people in the dark about the
actual nature of cloning. For instance, there is a widespread
misconception that cloning is a means to revive the dead. Bailey
predicts that people will slowly accept cloning as a means to overcome
infertility and not as a substitute for traditional human reproduction.

Even a cursory look at the evolution of the technique over the last five
decades should convince us that much of the criticism against biotech
fails in the face of contingency of technology. Some are afraid that
biotech is assuming the role of a moral arbitrator and should be
shelved. But a faith in creative potential and freedom to actualize it
would turn biotech into a truly revolutionary instrument of human
evolution. Just like the transition from Gutenberg to Web publishing,
biotech is causing a fundamental shift in human cognition.

Biology and freedom

Liberation Biology is a highly invigorating work that succeeds in
restoring faith in biotechnology. As a talented science writer, Bailey
offers a publication awash with references to dependable scientific
research but still accessible to lay readers.

Liberation Biology is rightfully about the biological path to freedom.
It gives a resounding rebuttal to biological determinism by arguing a
case for biology as a technique and not tyranny. Bailey's daring work
that inspires readers to take a critical look at our religious and
cultural beliefs while they undergo inevitable transformation as
biological beings.

Munawar A. Anees holds a Ph.D. in biology from Indiana University. He is
an advisory editor of the Journal Of Islamic Science And Islamic Studies
and author of Islam and Biological Futures: Ethics, Gender, and
Technology, a seminal work in Muslim bioethics. Anees is an elected
member of the Royal Academy for Islamic Civilization Research, Jordan,
and a founding member of the International Society for Science and
Religion, Cambridge, England. In February 2002, he was nominated for the
Nobel Peace Prize.

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