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Post-Human: Pros And Cons


Dean Dough
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I've been thinking a lot lately about the prospects for the sudden appearance of post-humans and what that would mean for humankind and our view of the world. Let's say somebody figures out how to use our knowledge of the human genome to make significant modifications to human genes and spawn viable individuals bearing the modified genes. Furthermore, the party(ies) involved manage to isolate the individuals resulting from these modifications over several generations or synchronize the modifications among a small community of individuals such that the new community is totally unwilling and/or unable to reproduce with human beings. In short, we have a new species of hominid within the space of a few centuries or possibly a few decades.

 

Do you think such a thing is even possible? Why not? Should such a thing be allowed to happen? If such a thing should be allowed to happen, what limits should be placed on the project in terms of speed of progress, types of aims being pursued, rollback procedures, dealing with unforeseen consequences, etc.? I've purposely limited the questions to biological alterations because I think that is the most likely source of serious "threats" (not trying to pass judgment on the advisability of altering the species here) to the stability of our species in the short term. Someone else is welcome to introduce AI and robotics into the mix if they think that is more likely scenario.

 

If someone needs more specifics, I'd be happy to play out a few more detailed scenarios.

 

I know there has been discussion on these boards about the implications of human evolution for the future of Christianity, but in my brief reading I didn't notice any extended discussion of purposefully creating "post-humans."

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Guest billmc

Those are interesting questions, Dean, which warrant a lot of thought, discussion, and, ultimately, wisdom.

 

I enjoy thought and discussion but my wisdom is questionable. But I think you raise some issues that we (or our children) will have to deal with very soon.

 

These questions, for me, point to an old scifi question that asks: because we can do a thing, should we do a thing? Humanity of the past has often been constrained in its own evolution because of the lack of understanding as to how it works and how technology could affect it. But there is no doubt that we live in a time when we have the technology to drastically alter the course of the human race and of all life here on this planet. And its my opinion that, generally speaking, we are too immature where wisdom and foresight is concerned to know how to use our technology beneficially. For instance, if we applied the same growth of technology that we have seen in the computer world to modern transportation, our cars would be getting 250 miles to the gallon. But other factors (main greed and profitability) are in play here.

 

Some people would say that we shouldn't be messing around with what we don't understanding or "playing God" with the human body. Christians just a few tens of decades ago were against immunizations and germ research because they felt that science was messing around in God's jurisdiction. But today we take our inoculations without batting an eyelid.

 

Others say that we should make full use of whatever scientific knowledge and breakthroughs we make, often espousing the benefits that such knowledge could bring to all. But I'm still concerned about our maturity. I've heard that we produce enough food to feed the world, but the powers and authorities as well as our differences keep us from accomplishing this.

 

But, returning to your subject, this really isn't just about the future. Humanity has always made "progress" to where certain groups of human thought that they were more advanced, more human, than others were. The others, though maybe not stated this way, were the outsiders, the untouchables, the "less than." And groups of humans certainly did refuse to fellowship, mix, or breed with other groups. This, of course, did often lead to war as the dominated grew tired of being subjected to an inferior status and revolted. These kinds of scenarios usually took many generations but, you're right, we now have the capability to make these scenarios happen within a few years time.

 

So what do we do? Should we or how do we stop this technological freight train that seems to be running full steam ahead with no one at the controls?

 

I have some thoughts on this but need to let them distill a little more before I share them.

 

In the meantime, what do you think, Dean? What would you suggest? At what point would you consider someone to be "post-human"?

Edited by billmc
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Bill,

 

You've got my head spinning! We are on the same page regarding humans' lack of wisdom in the use of technology. Sometimes I get so worked up about this that I'm just about ready to drive my family to the nearest Amish community and join up. As a species we are mostly not ready to deal with the knowledge of the natural world we have accumulated over the last few hundred years.

 

For one thing, it's a free-for-all. Somebody makes a discovery or advances a productive theory, and anybody with the money, time, and smarts can attempt to implement whatever possible uses occur to them. The resulting new technology hits the market before anybody understands all the consequences of its use. As long is this situation holds it would be better if we didn't know how to manipulate the human genome.

 

For another, the only way I can imagine us doing any good attempting to produce/spawn "post-humans" is if the following principles were adopted and maintained universally:

 

1. No implementation of any changes to the human genome until all long-term consequences are understood. Right there we step into a minefield. I think that principle would pretty much rule out purposeful manipulation for the foreseeable future.

2. The first goal of any change to the human genome must be to increase the likelihood that the individuals bearing the change will act rationally, deliberately, and only for the collective good of the genus homo. IOW, if we attempt to change the species, we have to start by improving the odds that the improved version will be wise enough to manage evolution of genus homo responsibly. Frankly, I have no idea if it ever will be possible to identify changes to the human genome that would increase the odds of this happening.

3. Any implementation of changes to the human genome must maintain the unity of the human race. If a decision is made to alter the genome so radically that the resulting individuals are completely unwilling/unable to mate with unmodified humans (that's my idea of a new species), then the alterations must be spread throughout the population. IOW, if we agree to breed "post-humans" we simultaneously agree to the extinction of homo sapiens within a generation or two. This is a fundamental human rights issue. If we are not all in this together, evil is bound to come of it. This is also such a charged issue that we dare not go anywhere near it unless we have already demonstrated that we are successful at #2. Otherwise, "improved" human beings may already be motivated to either eliminate or preserve unmodified homo sapiens for less noble reasons.

 

How would we get universal agreement on these or any other principles? How would we enforce them? I can imagine someone arguing that agreement on or enforcement of any such principles is impossible given our current society, even given our current makeup as a species. Therefore, somebody needs to step out and begin the process of purposely generating "post-humans" capable of responsibly managing their own evolutionary development -- a classic bootstrapping problem. Who on earth would we trust to carry out such a project? Other alternatives? Can the human species organize itself sufficiently to obtain consensus on these matters and act wisely without someone modifying the human genome first? How? And do we have time to pull it off before someone makes the attempt to bootstrap?

 

My head hurts! And I haven't even touched on the more immediate issues of gene therapy, "designer babies," genetic discrimination and privacy.

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Guest billmc

Dean, yes, this makes my head hurt also. Mainly because I don't think most of us are aware of or understanding the impending problem, let alone the answers to it. But it also makes my heart hurt because if we care anything about our children, their children, and our world, we need to at least get this issue on the table of social and humanist conversations.

 

I'm no geneticist. I don't understand the human genome or how DNA does what it does. Admittedly, the technology is over my head. So I can't offer any discrete advice as to how to handle specific issues or how to control specific technologies. But I am a huge fan of science fiction and good sci fi, from Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' to 'Gattica' deals with how current technology can influence the future, for better or worse, with long term effects that we simply cannot forecast either way.

 

A few of my thoughts based upon your input:

 

As a species we are mostly not ready to deal with the knowledge of the natural world we have accumulated over the last few hundred years. For one thing, it's a free-for-all. Somebody makes a discovery or advances a productive theory, and anybody with the money, time, and smarts can attempt to implement whatever possible uses occur to them. The resulting new technology hits the market before anybody understands all the consequences of its use. As long is this situation holds it would be better if we didn't know how to manipulate the human genome.

 

I couldn't agree more. Noone trusts the FDA anymore because we know that it has become about money, not human safety. New drugs are rushed to market based upon a few limited short studies with no understanding of long-term effects. How many commercials or recalls do we see that say, "Did your doctor prescribe Harmferall? If so, call this number as you may qualify for a damage settlement." The medical community that knows that the general public wants to solve all its ills through pills won't hestitate to use that public as its test subjects, guinea pigs to increase immediate "return on investment."

 

1. No implementation of any changes to the human genome until all long-term consequences are understood. Right there we step into a minefield. I think that principle would pretty much rule out purposeful manipulation for the foreseeable future.

 

Good recommendation. But, as you say, how can we predict long-term consequences, especially when the technology is ultimately driven by immediate profitability?

 

2. The first goal of any change to the human genome must be to increase the likelihood that the individuals bearing the change will act rationally, deliberately, and only for the collective good of the genus homo. IOW, if we attempt to change the species, we have to start by improving the odds that the improved version will be wise enough to manage evolution of genus homo responsibly. Frankly, I have no idea if it ever will be possible to identify changes to the human genome that would increase the odds of this happening.

 

Another good recommendation. Like you, I am skeptical of how we can do this because, all in all, I don't think humans are all that rational and work for the collective good of all. We tend to work for personal survival and power. And that often translates into war and/or riches. I don't think that we are collectively at the point where we would make "better humans" for all. It would, IMO, be private funding of private endeavors to develop genetically superior (whatever that means) humans who could survive whatever we think threatens our race now. But our immaturity as a species often means that we think that in order for us to survive, others must die - Darwinism misinterpreted and run amok.

 

3. Any implementation of changes to the human genome must maintain the unity of the human race. If a decision is made to alter the genome so radically that the resulting individuals are completely unwilling/unable to mate with unmodified humans (that's my idea of a new species), then the alterations must be spread throughout the population. IOW, if we agree to breed "post-humans" we simultaneously agree to the extinction of homo sapiens within a generation or two. This is a fundamental human rights issue. If we are not all in this together, evil is bound to come of it. This is also such a charged issue that we dare not go anywhere near it unless we have already demonstrated that we are successful at #2. Otherwise, "improved" human beings may already be motivated to either eliminate or preserve unmodified homo sapiens for less noble reasons.

 

Whew! This is loaded! Personally, I would not be in favor of agreeing to the extinction of current homo sapiens within a generation or two. There is too much at stake. How could we forecast the long-term viability or "goodness" of the new "post-humans"? The question is important and even raises the issue that we would be judging "post-human" goodness and viable according to "current-human" standards.

 

Have you read Richard Mattheson's 'Legend'? The movie was stupid, but the book is interesting and makes you think. It is the story of "one man against the world" where the central character has to fight off a world filled with zombie-like vampires who continually invite him to become part of them. To do so means, of course, letting them infect him and turn him into one of the blood-sucking undead. He staves them off through the whole book in an effort to retain at least one "human" left in the world. But in the end, he actually gives up and goes into the fray, finally realizing that what he has been fighting against is the "new humanity". The implications of this are scarey. I don't think Mattheson is saying that our future consists of vampires and zombies. But using these "types" points to people who live off of the lives of others and who have lost the ability to feel or think.

 

IMO, society progresses when the water rises for everyone, making us all more compassionate and more connected with each other. If any technology serves to make us less compassionate and less connected, I would be against it.

 

How would we get universal agreement on these or any other principles? How would we enforce them? I can imagine someone arguing that agreement on or enforcement of any such principles is impossible given our current society, even given our current makeup as a species. Therefore, somebody needs to step out and begin the process of purposely generating "post-humans" capable of responsibly managing their own evolutionary development -- a classic bootstrapping problem.

 

Exactly.

 

Who on earth would we trust to carry out such a project? Other alternatives? Can the human species organize itself sufficiently to obtain consensus on these matters and act wisely without someone modifying the human genome first? How? And do we have time to pull it off before someone makes the attempt to bootstrap?

 

Good questions. My initial response (not an answer) is that we ensure "baby steps". We are at the very beginning of self-consciousness. We are not even out of the crib yet. Almost all of our thoughts and actions are bent towards our own personal survival. We see these reflected in our religions and politics. Despite this, I have not given up on the human. I don't think the answer we need is "post-human" but "more human" or, IOW, "more humane." There is, IMO, too much at risk to try to develop "post-humans". But how do we stop or curtail it? A few years ago, only the military had an "internet". Now we all have it. Only manufacturers could create CDs or DVDs. Now we can all do it. We are not very good at controlling ourselves, let alone our technology. But we are all we've got. I don't expect God to stop us or save us from destroying ourselves, whether quickly or gradually. So we had better be careful and not only get our best minds (of which I am not one) and our best "hearts" talking on this subject and what we could or should do about it.

 

Enjoying the conservation, but, yes, it makes my head spin. :)

Edited by billmc
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Guest billmc

My head hurts! And I haven't even touched on the more immediate issues of gene therapy, "designer babies," genetic discrimination and privacy.

 

Hey, Dean, I'm reading an interesting book right now and it has a chapter on eschatology that addresses, in a roundabout way, what we are chatting about here. The author says that genetic approaches to humanity need a great deal of consideration because of how the soul and the body are interconnected.

 

In times and ages past, many people held to a dualistic, Platonic notion that a human was a soul resident within a body and, essentially, never the twain shall meet. This rather gnostic notion is that the soul occupies the body much like a driver occupies a car and guides it. But if the car gets in an accident, it is most likely the driver that is to blame for some mistake he/she made.

 

But modern science has demonstrated to us that our souls are much more connected to our bodies than we ever thought before and that chemical imbalances or genetic problems or physical deformities greatly influence what we call the soul. So the author says that because we now know that body and soul cannot be separated and treated separately, we have to be careful how we change or manipulate the body, knowing that medicine is a holistic approach even if we don't call it that.

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Bill,

 

Appreciate the range of your thinking here! I understand completely your second-thoughts about purposely letting homo sapiens go extinct. The ONLY reason I advocate that kind of step under any circumstances is to prevent slavery. If humankind is divided into two or more species, how likely is it that the species will be "separate but equal?" It doesn't matter one bit to me whether homo sapiens purposely designs one or more inferior species of homo to enslave or one or more "post-human" species figure out how to manipulate/intimidate homo sapiens into slavery.

 

I think slavery is a likely eventual outcome of genetic engineering of the human genome. I think the motivations programmed into us by our genes drive us in precisely this direction. It is possible to consciously act against these primary motivations; I think that's what a lot of NT language about the Spirit, sanctification, and love is about. I like what you say about becoming more humane. To me that implies gaining a understanding of what purposes the drives/motivations inspired by our genetic heritage serve, weighing the long-term consequences of the actions these drives/motives customarily inspire against the ethical standards humans hold in common -- in many cases we will conclude the actions are despicable and evil -- and seeking whatever help we can find to build into our hearts and societies a shared commitment to humane action, even if doing so leads to personal frustration and sorrow. I agree about going slow, very slow, in any project to modify the human genome. In fact, any safe solution to the bootstrapping problem I mentioned before will likely be non-genetic. If humans are to do good with manipulating our own genes, we will probably need to learn how to aim for the right target without genetically modifying ourselves in order to figure it out.

 

What baby steps would you be willing to take? Genetic therapies for otherwise incurable diseases? That book on eschatology sounds interesting. What about genetic modifications that would reduce the incidence of criminal violence? Make people less inclined to hate one another? Reduce sex drive? Increase cooperation or altruism?

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