Why we all need to shut up about Biotechnology

Transhumanism isn’t as rad as it sounds.

seriykotik1970 flickr

Biotechnology. Are you paying attention? Probably. Biotechnology is one of the hottest debate subjects of our time, just ask Elon Musk’s 33.2Million Twitter subscribers.

Everyday there are new advances in biotechnology or, as philosopher and friend of Elon Musk Nick Bostrom calls it, “Human enhancement technology. I’m talking about technology that changes human nature. Everything from modified embryos to uploading your consciousness in to a computer — or whatever the last Grimes song was about.

Ones opinion on biotech typically falls on a spectrum between “Transhumanist” and “Bioconservative.” The Transhumanist wants to improve the quality of human life by making biotech widely available. The Bioconservative is fine where we are.

The Transhumanist wants to cure blindness, prevent aids, and give people the ability to design their babies. The bioconservative is uncomfortable with all that.

The Transhumanist wants an exciting life where people can have jetpack spines and supersonic hearing. The bioconservative has no comment.

Basically, the Transhumanist is in a more radical and progressive position, and the Bioconservative is, well, a conservative standing in the way.

But is that really the case?

The great irony of the biotech debate is that Bioconservatives may actually be more politically radical when it comes to significant socio-economic change. Because Bioconservatives leave open the opportunity for those changes. This is because transhumanists like Bostrom and Musk completely ignore socially constructed inequalities. Inequalities that could remain or be enhanced by biotechnology.

If we make biotechnology widely available now in our current social, political and economic climate, we could end up stuck in it.

Unless everyone -and I mean everyone- shuts up about biotech for a while.

When it comes to biotech there are hundreds of questions that need to be answered, and quickly. Who will have access? How will it be safely regulated? And how can we avoid physically manifesting socially constructed inequalities, giving more ammunition to oppressive power structures?

Consider the debate surrounding embryo modification. You know, CRISPR, designer babies. Freaky stuff. Think about what kind of standards would be encouraged in a designer baby filled world.

For example, parents could choose traits for their children based on constructed gender biases. Meaning parents choosing to have a male child could choose traits associated with masculinity like athleticism and strength. While parents choosing to have female children may choose traits in line with western beauty standards.

Over generations of this, we could end up with a very non-diverse looking world, with increased instances of gender dysphoria, and a whole host of other consequences I won’t name. This would be harmful for breaking free of socially constructed assumptions about gender: because they would begin to actualize biologically.

What about class? “You’ve got plumber blood, she’s got orthodontist blood,” could be a very real conversation. Parents who want their child to take up a family practice could select genes that are associated with an aptitude for that practice. Significantly limiting both the liberty and class mobility of that kid.

Now, I’m not conceding that genes can determine traits associated with different jobs. But in a world of designer babies, this could be a very common misconception.

Philosopher Jürgan Habermas talks about this in his book “On the Future of Human Nature.” Habermas wants us to know that choosing genes for your child with specific outcomes in mind will also embed that child with an expectation that they fulfill those outcomes. Basically, even if CRISPR couldn’t make pianist genes, the idea that it tried to could be enough to limit the dignity and freedom of the child designed to be a pianist — especially when she says she wants banjo lessons.

In Nick Bostrom’s essay “In defense of Posthuman dignity” he argues that biotech would not cause great inequalities in democracies, because we are all equal under a constitution.

So if my parents bought me a jetpack spine, it’s no one’s fault that I beat you in high jump, we’re all still equal.

The truth is even in a liberal democracy, we know we have a lot of work to do in terms of equality, even just on a social level. When it comes to the debate about biotechnology I posit this: we have better shit to do.

Let’s work on fixing our planet, reducing class inequality, eliminating poverty and homelessness, and getting over our current biases about gender, race, and class.

Then maybe we can talk about that jetpack spine.

Journalism student at the University of King's College, Halifax N.S Canada. Writer, music enthusiast, and cautious defender of the Oxford comma.

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