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:: Thursday, May 01, 2003 ::

Are You Human Enough?

There is a new book out by Bill McKibben entitled, *Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age*, (New York: Henry Holt, 2003) which I thummbed through recently. McKibben describes some of the philosophical and practical problems with the coming movement of parents who will be able to genetically "tinker" with their own children's DNA. "Designer babies" as they are called in the media. McKibben takes a more pessimistic view of the enterprise and one hopes his voice will be heard.

A short review can be found on page 68 in the May 2003 issue of Wired magazine. The book is also reviewed in depth in the latest issue of NetFuture. Here is what Steve Talbot writes:

"What will you have done to your newborn", Bill McKibben asks, "when you have installed into the nucleus of every one of her billions of cells a purchased code that will pump out proteins designed to change her?" His answer is stark -- and, I believe, misdirected:

'You will have robbed her of the last possible chance of understanding her life. Say she finds herself, at the age of sixteen, unaccountably happy. Is it her being happy -- finding, perhaps, the boy she will first love -- or is it the corporate product inserted within her when she was a small nest of cells, an artificial chromosome now causing her body to produce more serotonin? Don't think she won't wonder: at sixteen a sensitive soul questions everything. But perhaps you've "increased her intelligence" -- and perhaps that's why she is questioning so hard. She won't even be sure whether the questions are hers. (p. 47)

McKibben repeatedly comes back to this point. A lover of running, he says that "if my parents had somehow altered my body so that I could run more quickly, that fact would have robbed running of precisely the meaning I draw from it" -- the meaning that comes from exertions and achievements he could call his own (p. 48). "If you've been designed and programmed to run, what meaning can running hold?" (p. 55)

Likewise, noting that scientists "have pinpointed the regions of the parietal lobe that quiet down when Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks pray", he surmises that genetic engineers will before long be able to amplify the reaction.

'As a result, the minister's son may be even more pious than he is, but if he has any brain left to himself he will question that piety at the deepest level, wonder constantly whether it means anything or if it's so much brainwashing. And if he doesn't question it, if the gene transplant takes so deeply that he turns into an anchorite monk living deep in the desert, then his faith is utterly meaningless, far more meaningless than the one his medieval ancestors inherited by birthright. It would be a faith literally beyond questioning and hence no faith at all. He would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot.' (p. 48)"

I was sorry I didn't get more time with Fr. John Schroedel when he was here this past week for Holy Week because I would be willing to bet that this topic fascinates us both. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Ethics Program at the University of Chicago and is working on fleshing out a synthesis between "theological anthropology and bioethics." I wonder what he would have to say about all of this. There are so many issues of free will, faith, the nature of the human person....

One thing Mr. Talbot notes in his review is that McKibben's main argument throughout the book is self-defeating, for it uses the same materialist assumptions that he finds so distasteful. Talbot continues: "If you genetically alter your child and the programming works", McKibben tells us, "then you will have turned your child into an automaton to one degree or another". As we heard above, the monk with genetically reinforced piety "would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot".

But if this is true -- if we are, in this mechanistic sense, creatures of our DNA -- then we are robots in any case. An entity that can be
programmed is already an automaton. That's what it *means* to be an automaton. What difference does it make whether "chance events" programmed us, or someone in a lab coat? If, as McKibben insistently repeats, a twiddled bit of DNA substitutes for my meaningful self, then so, too, does an untwiddled bit of DNA.

A deeply patristic theological anthropology is the answer here I think!...But I don't think I have the qualifications to do it. I *greatly* look forward to Fr. John's thesis work on this and other topics within the world of bio-ethics.

:: Karl :: 2:16:00 PM [Link] ::

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