Category Archives: Technology and Society

Bioethics In DC

As I mentioned previously, I attended a debate on bioethics at the Marriott in downtown Washington on Thursday night. The panel consisted of Ron Bailey, Reason science reporter and author of the interesting and recent Liberation Biology, (former?) Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau, who wrote the recent (excellent, in my opinion) book Radical Evolution, Eric Cohen, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of The New Atlantis, and it was moderated by Nick Gillespie, managing editor of Reason. I took no notes–so I hope that those others present will forgive me any lapse of memory, and hopefully correct me in comments.

The focus of the debate was trans- or post-humanism, and whether or not it’s a good thing. It’s not an issue that will be resolved in a single, or many debates, but as was pointed out numerous times, the best resolution will be one that allows individuals free choice, regardless of various individuals’ views of the ethics of various options.

The specific topics discussed were designer children, longevity in good health, enanced human mental and physical performance, and the ethics of using “human” “embryos” (I use quotes because there is a legitimate definitional dispute about both of these words in describing many of the research and therapeutic proposals).

There were no surprise positions from anyone. Bailey was the strongest cheerleader, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s read his book. Garreau (again, as would be expected from his book) was both entertaining and resigned to the future. Cohen came across as the reasonable conservative, standing athwart history and shouting not “STOP!,” but rather “look both ways, and listen, before crossing some of these particular streets.” But it’s clear that, were it up to him, he wishes it would in fact stop, and would prefer that we have not only a permanent red light, but a barricade to keep us from transporting ourselves to the other side. But he is also clearly aware that this won’t be a tenable position to many, and so he reasonably (and I think usefully) couches his debating points more as questions than as answers, in the Socratic hope that many of us will agree with his implicit answers. Gillespie did a good job of moderating, but it was also clear, ultimately, that he was in the Bailey camp (at one point, he jokingly noted that if there was a drug that could get Bailey to meet a deadline, he’d like to put him on a drip of it). So it really was sort of a two on one against Cohen (with Garreau and Gillespie each making up half).

Bailey began by repeating the arguments from his book–that people opposed to these things were, at bottom, opposed to health, to longevity, to improved human performance. He also pointed out the strange bedfellows that these issues have created, though he was mistaken to a certain degree here, I think. While it’s true, as he pointed out, that both many leftists (such as Rifkin and McKibben and the watermelon crowd) and conservatives are opposed to genetic tampering, he missed a key point, mistakenly lumping the conservative position in with the enviro one on the subject of GMO. But I’m not aware of any significant conservative opposition to GMO, at least as far as foods go.

There’s a fundamental distinction between the conservative and leftist bases of objections to genetic modification. Conservatives oppose it because they revere the human, as they define it. Modifying non-human organisms has no intrinsic horrors to them. The Rifkinites, on the other hand, think that all lifeforms have a “right to genetic integrity” (whatever the heck that means). Moreover, they refuse to accept such “speciesist” notions as elevating human DNA above that of any other. This distinction is of more importance than Bailey granted it (none at all, in this particular venue, though that may have been in the interest of time). While the two groups may have a temporary alliance on some of these issues, the coalition will quickly fall apart when it comes to things like golden rice, and this is important to understand for both the potential allies against this technology, and those who want more aggressive progress in opposition to them, if they wish to have effective strategies in the upcoming and ongoing political battles.

Eric Cohen started off (slightly disarmingly, though he had a serious point to make) by complimenting Bailey on the title of his book, but then turned it back on him, comparing it to many of the problematic aspects of the socialistic (even Marxistic) liberation theology of the 70s and 80s. He made the (always useful) distinction between arguing the ethics of means, and the ethics of ends. While he’s clearly disturbed about some of the societal implications and goals of the research, he’s even more so about the use of embryos, which he sees (rightly, in my opinion), as a completely separate issue. His view seems to be that, even if he agreed with the proffered benefits from the research, creating what are to him human beings and then destroying them is a morally unacceptable way to achieve them. This is, of course, an easier position for him to take, because he also objects to many of the ends, but it’s certainly a legitimate one.

There was a brief back and forth between him and Bailey about the number of embryos spontaneously aborted in nature, but I think that Cohen got the better of this exchange. As he pointed out, Bailey’s argument that it’s all right to use frozen embryos for experimentation because they will never become humans anyway, just as many naturally aborted embryos will not, is a form of the naturalistic fallacy. He rightly pointed out other things that nature does, that we (including, presumably, Bailey) wouldn’t consider doing, because we find them morally reprehensible. “Natural” doesn’t equal “good.”

On his objections to ends, he was on much weaker ground, I think. His arguments seemed in fact to be straw men, to me. Specifically, he raised the spectre of “decades of drooling on your shoes” when in fact the research goals are long and vital lives. But the ultimate false argument was what seemed to be his bottom line–that these technological advances “may not” (and he clearly thinks would not) make us happier. But the argument is not that we are developing solutions to the age-old problem of human happiness. The goal, at least in the case of the health research, is more modest–to alleviate misery.

His argument stands on a little firmer ground when it comes to the issues of designer children and human enhancement, but here, again, it’s not so much happiness that’s being sought per se, so much as material benefit and pleasure. Admittedly, many shallowly associate these with happiness, but realists familiar with history and human nature know that people will continue to pursue these things whether they make them happy or not. So Cohen’s position is really just a new form of puritanism, and while it sounds laudable and idealistic (“this is not the road to happiness, people”), it’s destined to be as losing a battle as all previous attempts at that project.

Garreau is less worried about the loss of humanity that seems to concern Cohen and his cohorts. He proposed an interesting idea (which I infer, rightly or wrongly, based on a subsequent discussion with him, was partially influenced by Pinker’s The Blank Slate, in which he describes the essentiallness of human nature to understanding the power of our art and literature). He postulated what he called the “Shakespeare test” to determine whether or not someone (or something) was human. Would the Bard recognize it as such? Quote from memory: Put him on the bridge of the Enterprise. I think he’d see everyone as human, though he might have a little problem with that guy called “Data.” The folks with the crabs on their foreheads? Human for sure.

On the subject of athletics, Cohen was fond of calling juiced athletes “breeding animals,” implying that there was nothing noble or romantic about the notion of someone running faster because they took a pill, or diddled with their genes. He thought that this would take away from the public interest in athletics, from which ensued a discussion about what it was that people enjoyed about such events. Cohen was rightly labeled (and he proudly accepted it) a “romantic.”

A good argument against this notion, that I pointed out to Bailey afterwards, is that we’ve had technologically enhanced humans racing for years, and the more technological enhancement, apparently the more popular the sport. I’m referring, of course, to auto (and other vehicle) racing. How many more people turn out to see thousand-horsepower engines driven by humans (such as NASCAR) than to watch a one-human-power human run around a track shank’s mare? In these new track events, as is the case with auto and yacht and (starting next year in New Mexico) rocket racing, it’s a race not just of human ability, but one between engineers as well. Danica Patrick wouldn’t be able to go a single round with any professional male (or probably even female) boxer, but put her in a cockpit in a high-powered machine, and the combination of the two is extremely competitive. This is the future of sports.

Overall, it was a fascinating discussion, with equally interesting after-panel talk (during which I met Mike Godwin for the first time, and talked more to Garreau). These aren’t issues that will be easily resolved, but these kinds of discussions are necessary and valuable as we continue to (inevitably–sorry, Eric Cohen) feel our way into the future, step by step, and I congratulate the sponsors for putting it on.

Clone Wars

One of the perks of being in DC (besides avoiding hurricanes) is that I can attend events like this one. I think I will. Maybe a report on it tomorrow, if I get time.

I probably won’t live blog it, because I don’t know if they’ll have wireless, and even if they do, I don’t have a working battery for my laptop, so it requires a power outlet as well. The latter is a problem that I hope to solve shortly, either with a new battery, or (more likely) a new laptop, since this one is a dinosaur from the last millenium (though just barely–it’s five years old this month).

Spear Phishing

Here’s an interesting new phishing scam:

Rather than posing as a bank or other online business, spear phishers send e-mails to employees at a company or government agency that appear to come from a powerful person within the organization, several security experts said…

…Unlike basic phishing attacks, which are sent out indiscriminately, spear phishers target only one organization at a time. Once they trick employees into giving up passwords, they can install Trojan horse programs or other malicious software to ferret out corporate or government secrets.

And this was interesting as well, which raises the issue of what constitutes an order from a commanding officer:

At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., several internal tests found that cadets were all too willing to give sensitive information to an attacker posing as a high-ranking officer, said Aaron Ferguson, a visiting faculty member there.

“It’s the ‘colonel effect.’ Anyone with the rank of colonel or higher, you execute the order first and ask questions later,” he said.

But if on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, how can you tell that someone is a colonel, let alone your colonel? There’s a long tradition of written orders having to be obeyed, but have emails acquired that attribute by default? If so, it may need to be rethought, given the nature of the technology.

Two Cults In One

Speaking of Thomas James, he has an amusing tale from the Mars Society Conference.

[Update a few minutes later]

I was about to do a radio interview with a German radio station about evolution and intelligent design when I posted this, so I didn’t get a chance to finish the thought with a similar supporting anecdote of my own.

I have a dear old friend (who will remain nameless) who is also a victim of the Mac cult. He swears by his Mac, and professes hatred of PCs and a mystification about why anyone would buy them when they could have a Mac. But when he shows me things on it, there are invariably problems with it that, if it were my machine, would cause me to toss it into the sea in frustration. Yet he seems almost blind to it, even as he asks for help in doing things that it won’t let him do.