Twelve years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama described transhumanism as “the world’s most dangerous idea”. In 2004, that sounded a bit daft -- almost no one had ever heard of the idea. For many people it still does, but now transhumanism is going mainstream.
Movies are being made about transhumanist themes; newspapers like the Washington Post are running feature articles on it; and a transhumanist is running for US President. It is indeed dangerous. As Fukuyama said:
The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost.
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According to the Oxford experts’ calculations, extinction of the whole human race is reasonably likely. Scientists have suggested that the risk is 0.1% per year, and perhaps as much as 0.2%. While this may not seem worthwhile worrying about, these figures actually imply, says the report, that “an individual would be more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event than a car crash”.
What sort of calamities are we talking about? Collision with an asteroid, the eruption of a super-volcano, extreme climate change, a bio-engineered pandemic, or even a super-intelligent computer declaring war on wetware humanity.
Tiny probabilities add up, so that the chance of extinction in the next century is 9.5% -- which is worth worrying about. And of course, a mere global catastrophe, involving the death of a tenth of the population, is far more likely. That is a very startling statistic.
However, even at Oxford they make mistakes. Within days of issuing the Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report, the experts were eating humble pie. A mathematician reviewed its calculations and concluded that “the Future of Humanity Institute seems very confused re: the future of humanity”. The authors had to give more nuance and context to their most startling statistic. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the ethics of existential risk.
BioEdge was launched in 2001, in the week that President George W. Bush announced his adminstration's policy on human embryonic stem cell research. That fuelled a huge debate about a field of science which very few people had ever heard of, let alone thought deeply about. Ever since we've been chronicling the debates surrounding the ever-expanding empire of bioethics.
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Although it has been called the world’s most dangerous idea, transhumanism probably provokes more ridicule than fear. Uploading one’s brain onto the internet or talk of thousand-year life spans seems to defy common sense.
Nonetheless, my theory is that transhumanism is the logical outcome of a lot of contemporary bioethical theory. So developments in transhumanism are worth paying attention to.
The biggest story at the moment is the quixotic campaign of the head of the Transhumanist Party, Zoltan Istvan, for president of the United States. He is a philosophy and religious studies graduate of Columbia University and has worked as a journalist for the National Geographic Channel.
Mr Istvan has been running a blog on the Huffington Post for a while about his campaign which aims to make the platform of his party more plausible. In the latest post he defines transhumanism as “the radical field of science that aims to turn humans into, for lack of a better word, gods”. So while transhumanism is resolutely atheistic, it has religious aspirations.
And unlike Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists, Istvan argues that our responsibility is to transcend evolution. He writes: “the human body is a mediocre vessel for our actual possibilities in this material universe. Our biology severely limits us. As a species we are far from finished and therefore unacceptable… Biology is for beasts, not future transhumanists.”
It’s a curious development. While many prominent scientific thinkers want to abolish God and treat man as one beast amongst many, transhumanists want to abolish evolution and recreate God (or gods).
Canada is soon to have legislation permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide, as decreed by its Supreme Court. One issue, however, over which some uncertainty hovers is how much wriggle room should be left for doctors who have ethical objections to the new regime.
One of the country’s most influential bioethicists, Udo Schuklenk, who is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics, contends that there is no room for conscientious objection in a modern health care system. Doctors have an ethical and legal obligation to provide legal and social useful services like euthanasia. If they don’t like it, they should get another job, just as other people do when they don’t like the boss’s orders.
Interestingly, the writers cite the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes in support of their attack on the rights of conscience. The subject in Hobbes’s Leviathan has no need of an individual conscience, for “the law is the public conscience by which he hath already undertaken to be guided”.
Since Hobbes laid the foundation for the modern totalitarian state, this allusion seems ominous. Yes, there will be problems in trying to accommodate conscientious objectors. But the abolition of conscience leads to problems as well. Wouldn’t Schuklenk’s ethical framework work just as well in Saudi Arabia? If a doctor there refused to amputate the hand of a thief, would he argue that he should to get another job? If he refused to perform female genital mutilation, should he be fired because he has defied the law?
Former Austraiian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who is now 86, has publicly backed euthanasia, even for teenagers. He says that he fears the indignity of "losing his marbles" -- something he is trying to keep at bay with crosswords and suduko. He told euthanasia activist Andrew Denton that his second wife, Blanche d'Alpuget, will know what to do if he ever reaches that stage.
Acting as a poster boy for euthanasia is a sad end to a distinguished career. But it is, in a way, understandable. Dementia must be terrifying for people without adequate family support because of fractured relationships. And Mr Hawke, sadly, fractured his in a very public way by divorcing his first wife Hazel, who had been his spouse when he was Prime Minister, to marry his biographer, Ms d'Alpuget.
Hazel went on to be one of the most respected and best-loved women in public life in Australia. People praised her honesty and courage when she admitted that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She even published a book about it. Eventually she had to enter a nursing home where she lived for four years before her death. Mr Hawke was not there to help her.
For all of his intelligence and charm, Bob Hawke is wrong about euthanasia. Dementia is a disability and a civilised society does not solve the problem of disability by killing the disabled. The real indignity comes when the "abled" neglect their responsibility to care for the weak and vulnerable.
Justin Welby and biological father Anthony Montague Browne
In events which seem copied from the script of a B-grade potboiler, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has, at the age of 60, just discovered that he is not who he thought he was. After taking a DNA test to disprove rumours that he was not his father's son, he learned that the rumours were true. His real father was the last private secretary of Wnston Churchill, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.
Despite his deep religious faith, the Archbishop seems quite shaken by the news. He surmounted a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents to become a successful oil executive and then an Anglican priest. He had no idea that the ne'er-do-well whom he regarded as his estranged father was not. In an interview with The Telegraph [London] he said:
“My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is fairly frequent. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.
“Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives ... I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
Although this is just an anecdote, it confirms what I've always regarded as one of the most important principles in contemporary bioethics: that every child deserves to know his or her biological parents. Archbishop Welby is better prepared than most to survive a personal earthquake like this, but it is an earthquake. To know who we are, to have a secure personal identity, is an important dimension of our autonomy.
There’s probably no other country in which bioethics plays a greater role in politics than in the United States. Or at least one bioethical issue – abortion. The impending election is looking increasingly like a contest between fiercely pro-abortion Hillary Clinton and muddled anti-abortion Donald Trump.
This week Trump “misspoke” for the umpteenth time, but this time the topic was abortion. At first he declared that a woman who had one should be punished, a position which he changed within the day. Now he says that the doctor should be punished.
The ensuing storm in the media meant that Trump has become the only candidate to unite pro-abortion campaigners and pro-life campaigners. Both are angry: the former because women’s reproductive rights are threatened; the latter because it distorts their message.
Trump has acknowledged that he is a “convert” to the pro-life camp, but as a spokeswoman for the Susan B Anthony List, a pro-life lobby group, said, “The most obvious thing about his comments yesterday is that he has not thought about these issues deeply.”
Better said: abortion is one of the many issues about which Trump has not thought deeply. Unfortunately, my hunch is that this controversy, like past controversies, will do him no harm at all in his race for the nomination. But November may be a different story.
Next week the staff of BioEdge will be celebrating Easter, so there will be no newsletter. We shall resume early in April.
This week's issue contains a familiar but still sobering story about experiments by Nazi doctors during World War II, this time with an Australian twist. In dusty archives historians have uncovered the experiences of five Australian POWs captured in May 1941 in Crete. They were infected with hepatitis by an SS physician, Dr Friedrich Meythaler, to see how the disease was transmitted. Luckily none died of the disease.
This is just a single thread in the tapestry of World War II horrors, although of special interest to Australians. What interested me was a coda by the German historian who is writing up the story, Konrad Kwiet, of the Sydney Jewish Museum. His mother and sister were both doctors and they actually were friendly with Dr Meythaler, who eventually became an eminence in German medicine in the post-War years. His sister was utterly astonished when he told her a few months ago about Meythaler's dark past.
There is a well-worn moral to this anecdote, but one which cannot be repeated too often. Doctors need to be firmly and unconditionally commited to the dignity of all human beings. Otherwise they can easily succumb to the temptation to exploit vulnerable men and women in the course of following orders, or even more disgracefully, to advance their careers.
I must confess that one of the most difficult things about editing BioEdge is that it is difficult to compose punny headlines. Any editor worth his salt wants to sprinkle a publications with puns. The Economist’s sub-editors are masters of the inobtrusive pun. I recall fondly a story about hallucinogenic mushrooms which was headed “Fungi to be with”.
However, there is such a thing as taste – and ethics -- and puns over most of our stories would be either morbid or ribald. That’s one reason why I am looking forward to more developments with CRISPR. Some day I’ll be able to use “Ethics on gene editing CRISPR but no clearer” or “CRISPR holds promise of abundant fruit”. Sooner or later “Belgian govt’s waffle on euthanasia slated by ethicist” will come true. Or “Cloned baby to be named John-John.” Or “Euthanasia law comes into effect today” – but you need to be Australian to appreciate that one.
This is the kind of thing I think about a lot. So I was dismayed to read that bad puns may be a sign of a degenerative brain disorder. A new paper in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences describes two patients afflicted by “intractable joking.” One was dragged along to the doctor by his wife because he kept waking her in the middle of the night to regale her with new puns he had just composed. The other lost his job after asking “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” Scans showed that both had experienced damage to the right hemisphere of the brain.
I suppose their experience can be summed up in the old joke: “They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.” Any ideas from readers about puns for bioethicists?