Bioethicist William Hurlbut on the dangers of radical lifespan extension
James Pethokoukis, May 28, 04
All this week at Next News, I've been writing and chatting about the topic of human enhancement, also the subject of an article in this week's issue of the magazine. Today, a few thoughts on extending the human life span and genetic engineering from William Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and a consulting professor in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University.
Next News: So what's wrong with doubling–or more–the human life span?
Hurlbut: It's like stretching out a symphony, playing it at half speed so it goes on longer–it wouldn't have the same beauty or meaning. We get a taste of each relational category–being a child, a parent, and a grandparent. And our direct family lineage is connected by both genetics and personal experience, not so attenuated by time that relatives feel unrelated. If people lived to be 140, as some scientists suggest we will through technological intervention, a child could have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents whose names he or she could never remember. In our natural lifespan, there is a harmony of proportion between the cycles of birth, ascendancy, and decline–phases of generation, nurture, and dependency that give a sense of meaningful connection within the journey of our lives.
Next News: And what about tinkering with the human genome to create a "posthuman" species with specifically engineered brains and bodies?
Hurlbut: Genes are not Legos; you can't just plug them in and get a better baby. Genetics is very complicated; most genes affect many traits and most traits are affected by many genes. It's not like Mr. Potato Head–you can't just stick on new ears or a better nose or a bigger brain. These schemes amount to a massive human experiment, an imposition of our imagination and ideology onto the next generation–without consulting them and without a deeply considered appreciation for the fragile balance of our natural being–or our natural body. We are the product of nearly 4 billion years of evolutionary refinement. Our minds and the sense of meaning in our lives are wrapped into our very embodied form–our natural body is the fragile frame of our freedom and comprehending consciousness. If we're not careful, we could write ourselves right out of our own story.
Next News: So playing with your kid's genes to better her chances at become an Olympic-caliber figure skater would be a bad idea, assuming it became possible to do so?
Hurlbut: The idea of designing people for specific aptitudes or superior performance capacities goes against the very strength of our species. We are a "general purpose organism"; we have adapted for adaptability, not for a narrow specialization. Our very strength is in creative flexibility, freedom, and open indeterminacy. These are what give us our extraordinary capabilities, our comprehending consciousness, and controlling powers. Our species may already be the optimal design for fullest overall functioning and flourishing of life. Indeed, it is our very strength that is now threatening us. Liberated from the immediacies of mere survival, we are open to imagination, to the ambition of technological self-transformation that could shatter the fragile balance of our physical and psychological functioning.