[NOTE: Today we welcome a new contributing writer to Evolution News & Views, Heather Zeiger. Ms. Zeiger graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Dallas with a B.S. in chemistry and a minor in government and politics. She received her M.S. in chemistry, also from UTD; her research was in organic synthesis and materials.]
The most general definition of bioethics is the relationship between man and technology. This relationship takes on many forms, some in the context of fear, as exemplified by Bill Joy’s now well-known Wired article, “The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Others are in the context of hope or even a type of salvation, as exemplified in Ray Kurtzweil’s work, including The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Although they are seemingly disparate positions, both are based on evolutionary premises. The hope is that humans will take control of their evolutionary advancement through technology. The fear is that survival of the fittest means that the machines will become more “fit” than us, thereby displacing us. Both views believe a new species will arise. The difference is that one assumes it is a better human, while the other assumes that it is a sentient machine that is better than human.
When most people approach technology, they fall under the “hope” scenario to some degree or another. Technology has, after all, given us cures to many diseases and has allowed us to travel farther and faster than ever before. This is why, with every new technology (penicillin, recombinant DNA, nanotechnology, stem cells), there is a media firestorm lauding hope and cures that reach far beyond what any of these technologies could ever really do.
So why do we rejoice at new technologies? I find the language of the transhumanist camp (the most “hopeful” of technology’s salvific promise) interesting because they speak in terms of transcending to the next stage in our evolution. And while they never seem to say anything negative about evolutionary theory itself, they speak as if evolution and Nature, are forces to be overcome if we are to survive. Implied in evolutionary theory is the idea that once you are no longer fit, you will be selected against. So while the biologists are discussing how natural selection acting on random mutations will produce new species and evolution is good because it produces more fit species, the geneticists and the engineers are looking for ways to overpower Nature and take the reins of our own evolutionary advancement.
Take a look at a newspaper and you will likely find a story about the latest in neuroimaging (like this piece in the Washington Post) or nanotechnology (Nature recently had a nanotech feature), and stem cell research has been an on-again off-again affair with the media. So which is it? Do we love technology and want to conquer natural selection, or should we be thankful for natural selection and how humans are a product of this driving force? If we take human nature seriously, it seems that, given the option and the power, we would rather overthrow our blind creator than acquiesce to its ability to select what species are most suited for this particular environment.