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Transhumanists as Nihilists

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 16th, 2008

Yesterday, the World Transhumanist Association released its third survey [PDF] of its members. Some of the results are predictable: The respondents were 90% male, for example. (Fortunately, no questions were asked about Star Trek.) But the results of two questions surprised me with what amounts to, at the very least, an acknowledgment of the limitations of the organization's philosophy. Almost a third of the respondents predict "that emerging technologies will cause an abrupt, cataclysmic, worldwide social change by 2040" (emphasis mine). Thus a large minority seems  to be happy to promote technologies and policies that they think will lead to dramatic, widespread, and negative results.

Similarly, only 46% agree that "believe humans and posthumans will be able to coexist in one society and polity," implying that a majority foresee that the path they advocate will lead to significant social conflict among the enhanced and "naturals." Sounds like the prediction by George Annas at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. Annas asserted that such strife would lead to "genetic genocide":
This is because, given the history of humankind, it is extremely unlikely that we [the "naturals"] will see the posthumans as equal in rights and dignity to us, or that they will see us as equals. Instead, it is most likely either that we will see them as a threat to us, and thus seek to imprison or simply kill them before they kill us. Alternatively, the posthuman will come to see us (the garden variety human) as an inferior subspecies without human rights to be enslaved or slaughtered preemptively.

It is unclear to what extent the transhumanist survey respondents fully thought through the implications of the answer to their question. Yet one need not be radically dystopian to see that once one segment of society believes it is biologically superior to the rest, then trouble if not violence is a likely consequence.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Update: Mooney on the Office of Technology Assessment

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 14th, 2008

A couple months ago, I wrote about presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton and her reference to reviving the Office of Technology Assessment. Chris Mooney provides an update for the Center for American Progress, and his outlook is not optimistic.

Previously on Biopolitical Times

A Double Standard for Stem Cells and PGD

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 11th, 2008

ACT's Michael Lanza

This week, Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company with a reputation for exaggeration, announced improvements in their technique for isolating stem cell lines from embryos in a nondestructive manner. Setting aside the reliability of their claims, the logic behind the rejection by the National Institutes of Health for the funding of ACT's method is both revealing and perplexing.

ACT's technique, first announced in August 2006, involves removing a single cell from an embryo at a very early stage. A stem cell line can be derived from the cell, and the embryo appears to remain viable, much like preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The NIH, though, is not convinced that the embryo is not harmed, which is the standard to receive federal funding. And the only way to find out would be to implant these embryos, which according to the head of the NIH's task force, would be unethical.

But the implantation of embryos which have had a single cell removed for genetic testing is a not uncommon technique, in PGD. The statements by the NIH's Story Landis imply that PGD itself is unethical due to its uncertain health effects. If implantation of an embryo that has undergone single-cell biopsy is unethical, why has is been occurring for almost eighteen years?

Update: Brandon Keim at the Wired Science blog spoke with Landis, and provides some clarification.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The More Things Change...

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 10th, 2008

The leading annual public opinion survey concerning biotechnology was recently released [PDF]. I anticipated the latest Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey more than usual this year, as it was the first (and so far, only) poll conducted after the announcement that researchers had made skin cells act like embryonic stem cells. But the deeper I dug into the data, the less relevance I found. For the most part, the results are very similar to last year's. One of the few news reports on the poll was forced to grasp at straws, claiming that while overall support for embryonic stem cell research remains steady, strong support is declining. Although I agree that embryonic stem cell research is waning as a political issue, even this relatively minor change was mostly evident in last year's results.

Yet this doesn't mean that the isolation of fully potent stem cells using neither embryos nor cloning will not affect public opinion. I concur with VCU's Thomas Huff, who believes that it will take some time before the public internalizes the new possibilities: "It's still a little early to get a full impact of how the public is understanding it and how they're reacting to it."

What's more, these results concern a political issue during a presidential (and congressional) election year, and public opinion and political rhetoric operate by different mechanisms. While the former has apparently changed little so far, the landscape of the latter has significantly shifted. A vocal proponent of embryonic stem cell research, for example, would be quickly disarmed by an opponent, who would assert that embryos are no longer needed. Regardless of the scientific truth behind such a rebuttal (and we at the Center believe that embryonic stem cell research should continue and Bush's restrictions should be lifted), it's not surprising that the only presidential candidates to mention stem cells in the six weeks since the announcement of the new stem cell method are those that oppose embryonic stem cell research. There's no reason to think this dynamic will change soon.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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