By Jack Uldrich
Cross-posted from www.jumpthecurve.net
In one of those wonderful historical anomalies, February 12, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Lincoln is recognized as one of the greatest American presidents for helping end slavery. Darwin, of course, is the father of evolutionary biology.
It might appear these two historical giants have little else in common except the same birthday, but Darwin’s theory of evolution will soon call forth a new political debate which could, if not peacefully resolved, rip this country apart as surely as slavery did.
In today’s Wall Street Journal there is an article describing how advances in genetic technology are ushering in a new era of “designer babies” and some parents are pre-selecting embryos based on cosmetic characteristics such as eye and hair color.
As the genomics revolution progresses, though, eager parents may soon be able to select their offspring using even more distinguished genetic characteristics. For example, a combination of genes may soon be found to enhance athletic ability or intelligence. From this perspective, advances in genomics can be seen as co-mingling with and accelerating evolution.
Alas, the race won’t stop with our genes. In today’s New York Times there is an article of a woman controlling a robotic prosthetic arm with the aid of a computer chip in her brain. Soon, it may be possible for otherwise healthy people to augment their intelligence by virtue of brain-neural technology.
Regardless of one’s moral perspective on the wisdom of pursuing these technologies, it is naive to assume either genomics or brain-computer interface technology won’t continue to improve.
And as they do, a huge schism will form between those who believe that humans were meant to evolve in a technological-enhanced fashion and those, who for religious, moral or ethical reasons, view such acts as either an affront to their God or their conception of what it means to be human.
This issue will likely make current political debates over abortion and gay rights seem like child’s play—and as big as those debates 150 years ago over slavery where society was discussing who was human. (Recall, at one time, it was deemed politically acceptable in this country to view a black man as equal to only three-fifths of a white man.)
Only through a long and hard-fought campaign (which, unfortunately, still isn’t over entirely in the minds of some), society has now comes to agree that all races are human.
The issue of genetically-enhanced and machine-merged humans may not, however, be so easily resolved. Why? Because, at its heart, the debate it is not about who is human, but rather what constitutes a human being.
For example, is a child, who was genetically-enhanced for intelligence and augmented with brain-neural prosthetics, really the same as a child who was provided with neither advantage?
This then begs the following questions: Is it fair for one class of society—mostly likely the wealthy—to have access to such enhancements which will likely provide them with an inherent advantage over non-enhanced people? Alternatively, in a free society, does one group have a right to restrict or impose limits on people who wish to exploit such enhancements?
One camp may take a more Darwinian view and embrace genomics and brain-computer interfaces as an inevitable tools—similar to fire or the wheel—which humans are meant to not only use but embrace on our evolutionary path toward a better tomorrow. The other camp may take a more Lincolnian view that all humans are created equal and that a necessary condition of this state is that we must all remain forever equal—even if that requires limiting the actions of some.
I can’t say if one view or the other is correct, but historical fate brought Darwin and Lincoln into this world 200 years ago today and, ironically, the future may see to it that they and the broad philosophies with which they are associated with remain entwined until the next great debate --over what it means to be human—is resolved.