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Birth of the biotech religion

"Birth of the biotech religion" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

This book goes beyond Mr. Naam's, though, by packing a political punch. Mr. Hughes says we should drop the idea that humans are special and substitute for it the Peter Singer concept of "personhood" based on thinking ability (the very young and the very old are out, great apes are in).

Here's the core proclamation: "Persons don't have to be human, and not all humans are persons. To create a transhuman democracy we will have to establish a new definition of citizenship, a 'cyborg citizenship,' based on personhood rather than humanness. With cyborg citizenship we can deal with the scary boundary-crossers, the cyborgs, the animal-human hybrids, the genetically engineered kids, the clones and the robots. We can add more chairs at the table."

Mr. Hughes uses and abuses the 14th Amendment's mention of "persons" and then grandly predicts, "We will give non-human animals human-level intelligence. . . . Soon we will have identified the genes that distinguish human intellectual and communication capabilities from those of the great apes. Soon we will be able to genetically enhance primates to have human intellectual capabilities"-and anyone who opposes that will be called a "human racist."

Maybe yes, maybe no, but the prospect of "uplifted chimps" is a wake-up call. Citizen Cyborg takes seriously wild high-tech prophets such as "extropians" who hate their "meat puppet" bodies and want to meld their minds with computers or . . . something else.

Rapture

Brian Alexander, Rapture: A Raucous Tour of Cloning, Transhumanism, and the New Era of Immortality (Basic Books, 2003)

Not everyone takes the prophecies so seriously. Brian Alexander offers an amusing tour (in Michael Lewis style) of the excesses of a fast-growing biotech industry that has its share of either con men or con men who have themselves been conned.

Funny stuff aside, Rapture explains well the basic worldview behind genetic engineering: "If you don't believe in God, and you don't believe in heaven, then what are you supposed to do when you stare into James Frazier's 'darkness of the grave'?" Mr. Alexander quotes Richard Cutler, a National Institute on Aging scientist, as saying, "If you are not religious, then you see biotech as a hope"-because the alternative is to sit in a French café "feeling depressed and drinking absinthe."

The book's title comes from biotech pioneers who prophesy a dramatic world-shaking change-the Singularity, some call it-when computer minds will link up in a new world consciousness. But here's Mr. Alexander's description of the reality: Even if bio-utopians "made all the disease go away and imparted immortality and introduced a full-option LX model human, there would still be no posthuman future. A thousand years from now, people will wish they felt as good at 520 as they did at 350. They'll wish their kids would have listened and not ruined their lives by becoming artists instead of lawyers specializing in interplanetary torts. People will still hate each other."

But will 520 years or 350 or anything much beyond 90 come? Mr. Alexander writes that the biotech rapture will be "much more difficult to call forth" than its prophets contend. We're already seeing backtracking: For example, in all the debate about human embryonic stem-cell research "there was very little evidence that ES cells would provide any of the miraculous advances science had advertised, at least for now . . . developmental biologists began to air their own misgivings, even predicting a backlash when the public realized there had been far too much promise and far too little delivery."

Rapture memorably profiles some of the overpromisers, such as "big, blustering salesman" Wallace Steinberg, a former pharmaceutical company executive, who saw himself becoming "the gene Rockefeller." He wanted literal immortality for himself and at least $1 billion in sales for his companies, but he died in 1995 at age 61, perhaps because "he dozed off and choked to death on his false teeth."

Are We Spiritual Machines?

Ray Kurzweil et al., Are We Spiritual Machines? Ray Kurzweil vs. the Critics of Strong A.I. (Discovery Institute, 2002)

Mr. Kurzweil, an inventor and entrepreneur who wrote a 1999 bestseller, The Age of Spiritual Machines, argues that man can become essentially immortal by downloading consciousness and then having it placed in a new "body" of some kind: "We scan someone's brain and [place] their personal mind file into a suitable computing medium. The newly emergent 'person' will appear to other observers to have much the same personality, history, and memory as the person originally scanned. That is, once the technology has been refined and perfected. Like any new technology, it won't be perfect at first. But ultimately, the scans and recreations will be very accurate and realistic."

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