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Birth of the biotech religion

"Birth of the biotech religion" Continued...

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

They would still be recreations, not the real thing-and that's where Mr. Kurzweil's critics smack him around. University of California professor John Searle notes that the software-based human will not be alive: "Actual human brains cause consciousness by a series of specific neurobiological processes in the brain. What the computer does is a simulation of these processes, a symbolic model of the processes. But the computer simulation of brain processes that produce consciousness stands to real consciousness as the computer simulation of the stomach processes that produce digestion stands to real digestion."

University of Oklahoma zoology professor Thomas Ray is skeptical of claims that computers will be able to replicate themselves and change their form and structure: "The exponential increase of computing power is driven by higher densities and greater number of components on chips, not by exponentially more complex chip designs. The most complex of artifacts designed and built by humans are much less complex than living organisms. Yet the most complex of our creations are showing alarming failure rates. Orbiting satellites and telescopes, space shuttles, interplanetary probes, the Pentium chip, computer operating systems, all seem to be pushing the limits of what we can effectively design."

Consumer's Guide to A Brave New World

Wesley J. Smith, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World (Encounter Books, 2004)

Here's a basic introduction to both the scientific and philosophical debates involving stem-cell research, personhood theory, and other hot topics. Mr. Smith advocates pushing forward with adult stem-cell research and notes an imaginative proposal by Stanford professor William Hurlbut, a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics: Scientists could genetically engineer a human egg so that it could create embryonic stem cells without ever becoming an embryo. Pro-life leaders such as Princeton professor Robert George find that approach acceptable.

Mr. Smith also lists and explains what he and many others find unacceptable: human cloning; genetic alteration of human sperm, eggs, or embryos by inserting into them chromosomes from animal, artificial, or other human genes; and the fabrication of chimeras, those part-human, part-animal creatures of mythology and fantasy. He points out the importance of not allowing companies or universities to patent bioengineered human genomes and related products and techniques: "No scientist, university, or corporation should be able to own any human life. Period."

Human Dignity in the Biotech Century

Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, eds., Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy (InterVarsity, 2004)

The authors here go deeper into the theological and ethical questions. For example, Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes that "if we permit germline [sperm and egg] experimentation in humans, we could cause great harm not only to one individual, but also to all the children and the children's children. The only way to control a failure in germline engineering would be to sterilize those whose reproductive cells had been altered. Mandatory sterilization of competent adults is not itself morally defensible."

But the issues go even deeper, as Christopher Hook of the Mayo Clinic points out: "The greatest flaw of any utopian dream of human perfection is the failure to understand, or even recognize, the darkness of the unredeemed human heart." After all the revolutionary failures of the 20th century, Dr. Hook writes, man again "seems ready to plunge headlong into another human, or demonic, contrivance promising salvation and eternal happiness for all."

The contrast between salvation by biotech and salvation by Christ is clear: In Christianity, "the two greatest commandments given to us are to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. . . . Do we need to remodel our bodies and brains into some trans- or posthuman form to fulfill these commands?" We don't, Dr. Hook says, and concludes with a telling question: "Why did Jesus not make the apostles the most amazing of men, with towering intellect and bodies impervious to pain, illness and death?"

His answer: "He did not do so because they didn't need to be altered that way to accomplish their mission. And I believe Jesus also recognized that if they were so altered, they would probably soon strike out using their own power and opinions, refusing to be dependent on the Holy Spirit and on God's provision and guidance."

Conclusion

Where are we? Money fuels biotech exploration, and some money will be spent on pets: As the periodical Nature Biotechnology harrumphed about "Cc," the first cat clone, "Cc was not created to advance medical knowledge or provide fundamental biological insights. She was created because there is a market among certain rich cat owners for resurrected animal companions." Such money could be better spent, but idiosyncratic expenditures of that sort do not threaten mankind.

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