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Exploring the edge.
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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    The evolutionary prospect of an ethical criterion

    Evolution is blind. No scientific theory was objected, rejected, and criticized so fervently and vehemently more than this theory, no matter how large is the amounting body of evidence. The very idea that all life and in particular mankind is shaped by arbitrary blind forces is a devastating blow to the belief that we humans are the crown of creation, the chosen ones, those for whom everything else was put into existence. It is a devastating blow to man’s uniqueness and superiority in creation.

    Mankind, like all life forms has emerged, it seems, out of more primitive life forms. There is no intelligent design, and no preordained destiny of greatness (or fall), and perhaps more devastating of all is the realization that the seat of the designer is vacant and we can take it, that is if we chose to take it, or dare to take it, perhaps we must take it. Maturity bites…

    The forces of evolution are blind yet they finally can be harnessed and directed. There seems to be no preordained destiny yet destiny can be created, or so it seems. Can we overlook such an opportunity? It is my belief that doing so is equivalent to betraying the core of human essence. We are far from understanding what consciousness is but it becomes apparent that the more man becomes conscious to the universe and himself in the universe, the more choices are opened, and proportionally less a priori givens are there for us as we establish our ethical values. Consciousness is the key to the emerging pattern of choices we confront, and in conscious reflection we must seek ethical criteria. Simultaneously, it is our ethical values that carve the space in which our collective consciousness further evolves. Our ethics is the vehicle by which we project ourselves into what we wish ourselves to be in our own eyes.

    This is why the very specific area of bioethics is so critical to the future of mankind. No matter what technology might or might not allow us, bioethics can be perceived as a transition point from blind evolution, to the conscious evolution of mankind, and eventually of life at large. Bioethics is not about legally regulating our methods of procreation, or the distribution and manipulation of our gene pool. It reaches much further than that; it touches the very essence of what we believe that makes us what we are. In freedom starts responsibility and human kind must brace itself to cope with an ever growing freedom. Natural selection has brought us to this point; conscious selection embodied in ethical criteria will set the path from now on.

    A sort of an epilogue

    As a concluding note, I have tried to outline here an approach to the ethics of human augmentation. It seems that augmenting the human biologically or otherwise is still an easier challenge than augmenting the human ethical outlook. Though the latter demands thinking capabilities and creative imagination we already have today in abundance. To augment our ethical outlook, means no less than augmenting our very nature and identity. This is a far reaching vision. I was hoping to stir some discussion in the collective mind space on this highly critical subject. The future is open :-)

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    Biology and social order

    Social organization is considered to be the platform of culture. It is widely accepted that humanity is shaped mainly by two systems of influence. The first is genetic, the second is cultural. These two systems of influence are vastly different yet not independent from each other; in fact they are tightly coupled since many aspects of social organization depend on genetic factors and genetically derived relations.

    In socio-historical perspective, the genetically derived organization is considered more ancient and of higher authority. Many aspects of culture exist for the sole purpose of preserving this asymmetry of influences and by that to establish order and stability. One reason for this state of affairs is perhaps the fact that genetic influence was and still is an outcome of forces beyond human control, and as such they represent higher authority be it mother nature’s authority, god’s or else. Cultural influence, on the other hand, is shaped by man’s will and man’s deliberation and is largely believed to be secondary and the least stable (reliable?). It is worth noting that this preference of relying on so called supra mundane authority over responsible choice is threaded through most of humanity’s ethical attitudes. This preference is nothing short of admitting a profound incompetence in defining and upholding the human status in the universe and its entailed ethical principles.

    Just to have a grasp of how deep genetically determined factors are involved in the foundations of social order, let us note the following points:

    • Most legally accepted means of identification are genetically determined, beginning with facial recognition, finger prints, voice signature and lately DNA samples.

    • Blood connection is considered the strongest and most reliable contact between humans. Many fundamental aspects of social order and moral codes such as mutual responsibility, material possessions, inheritance, and many more are based on blood connection and blood relations which are genetically derived relations. The family cell is considered the atomic unit of social order. The family (and male female connection at its basis) is considered sacred by most religions and social organizations. Commitment to family values is one of the most widely accepted virtues and a sign of a healthy society. A parent is considered the highest benefactor of a child even in the face of heavy evidence to the contrary. Blood connection is believed to be an automatic proof and a motive to love, responsibility and mutual commitment.

    • Reproduction is considered to be one of the most fundamental rights of a human. Moreover in the opportunity to reproduce, it is believed that all humans are equal, since the (so called natural or godly) forces influencing the offspring’s genetic makeup do not discriminate, since they are beyond the control of human deliberation. It follows that in reproduction humanity finds a secure basis for equality of opportunities in life and equality of rights. Poor or rich, wise or dumb, beautiful or ugly, sick or healthy all stand equal in front of the roulette of procreation, all holding the same key of upturning destinies through continuation.

    • Many of the taboos observed by societies across cultural borders are of sexual nature and subsequently involve genetic determinants of social order. (see for example the taboo on incest that would apparently confuse the distinction and hierarchy of family relations)

    Observing these indications as to the criticality of genetically determined factors to social order, it becomes quite clear that biotechnology must be perceived by many as a profound threat to social order as we know it, thus a threat to the very foundations of culture. From another perspective however biotechnology marks a shift of a long-standing balance between two systems of influence by which the individual human is shaped. Whilst along history genetic influence prevailed over cultural influence in being the basis of social order, biotechnology may become an instrument of culture to take precedence by culturally directed redesign of the genetic makeup of individuals and eventually of whole populations.

    Understanding this point is critical to bioethics. The sense of impending instability invoked by our growing capacity to intervene in genetic processes is unavoidable and is the main source of bias in dealing with bioethical issues. Even the relatively simple case of reproductive cloning already creates problems of distinction; if I clone myself, what is my relation to this clone? Would it be as a parent to his child? Or perhaps as siblings? Is my wife’s clone my daughter or sister in law? How should inheritance of property laws apply? Such questions are nothing but an attempt to map a novel state of affairs into an inadequate genetically determined social order. As such, this attempt is bound to fail.

    Biotechnology marks a point where the core processes of biological life have become the subject of man’s conscious aware observations, much as the Copernican revolution marked a point where the motions of the planets have become the subject of man’s conscious aware observations. At such points, it is unavoidable that human’s perspective of the universe, of herself, and of the relation between her and the universe, will undergo transformation, and a new kind of maturity must arise as result. Indeed such transformation is a shock to the existing world view and its entailed social order. This kind of transformation cannot be stopped. It cannot be stopped not because technological progress cannot be stopped. It cannot be stopped because, to my belief, it is an essential aspect of the dynamics of the human phenomenon as an open ended intelligent phenomenon.

    In the light of this, the foundations of social order will need revision and adaptation. The vast transformative pressures exerted on the current foundations should not be met by fortifying the current images and value systems, nor by a reflexive counter attack on what seems to be the source of the pressure i.e. biotechnology. The real source of pressure is human nature and human consciousness. This can only be met by flexibility and a deeper insight into what we are.

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    Redefining human identity

    …. By August 3rd 2092, John B. Derrick will be 25 years old. He is just starting his fifth postdoctoral program in bioengineering (after acquiring PhDs in nanotechnology, philosophy, performing arts and archeology). John is also a super athlete gaining thus far 16 gold medals in 3 Olympiads he participated in. He is also a world champion in chess, and an admirable singer. Though being so successful and rich (forgot to tell he is also a very capable and intuitive business man) he always has time to spend with his many friends who describe him as an attractive and charming person full of humor warmth and sympathy.

    John happens to be one of the first humans benefiting from the genetic revolution of the 21st century. His genetic makeup is one of the first that were fully designed from scratch. John was conceived and born from an artificial womb that was already a proved technology in the late forties. His basic genetic blueprint is a combination taken from 9 other people 5 males and 4 females all anonymous. John has no biological parents or family in the sense we understand them today. He was raised by Dr. Edgar Brown, his designer, who took custody on him as a single parent family. John’s physical, cognitive and mental abilities are astounding by any standard we may recognize. The combined germ lines invested in him have created a unique combination to which anything other than superhuman would be an understating description.

    In addition to the 46 chromosomes that were combined as mentioned above, John possesses a 47th synthetic chromosome, loaded with 23 bacterial genes, 5 genes taken from mice, another 10 taken from various primates, 14 taken from various plants, and 29 more from various marine life forms. All these genes carefully combined can be separately switched “on” or “off” by administrating dedicated chemical keys taken as a simple pill. Turning these gene groups on may allow John to survive, if necessary, in extremely hostile conditions including prolonged lack of oxygen, food and water, in the presence of extremely polluted atmosphere, extreme temperatures and more. In addition, his sight hearing olfactory and tactile senses as well as most of his metabolic functions demonstrate swift adaptations to new environments considered well beyond the range of what is safe for a normal human being or any other mammal. Such adaptations carry only minor negative side effects, all are reversible within a few days to a week as soon as the said genes are switched off again.

    Dr. Brown, who is one of the prominent pioneers of the genetic revolution, speaks of his beloved adopted son as “a miracle pronouncing the infinite capability of the human race to evolve”. He also relates to himself as the “first genetic artist”, and to John as “My single most important artistic creation, the epitome of my life” he claims that life and human life in particular to be the primal stuff of beauty and art, through which the ultimate aesthetic expression is due to come forth. In response to these statements John added that he considers himself “a child of humanity”, he believes that in fact all humans whether designed or not are children of humanity. Even at the end of the 21st century Dr. Brown is a controversial figure though besides his undeniable scientific achievements stands a long list of extremely influential works on bioethics and the future of the genetic revolution….

    This excerpt from a science fiction story that was never written, or a piece of history yet to be written comes to make a point and ask a question; Is John a human? Is he a monster, a freak? Or perhaps a piece of art? All of the above? Or none of the above? These are far from easy questions to answer from the stand point of humanity today, but surely they are coming our way sooner or later, perhaps different in form and fashion but with the same underlying essential meaning: the foundations of human identity and its heavy reliance on genetically determined factors. In the above excerpt, it is emphasized that John’s phenotypic appearance and behavior still do not deviate too far from what we still consider today as a normative human form and behavior. However it would take little imagination to take the example of John just a bit further beyond the normative criteria.

    Human form, human capabilities and many human behavioral traits, are all to a smaller or larger extent genetically determined. These are also foundational patterns of human identity by which we recognize our own humanity. Biotechnology leads us along a path where these biological foundations of human identity will in a matter of a couple of decades, become subject to profound manipulation, and design. The most critical problems in bioethics are rooted in the effort to protect human identity as we know it.

    Protecting the biological foundations of human identity is a conceptual mistake. The shift in status of these biological foundations from given facts to designer factors is imminent. Human identity becoming the subject of conscious selection is perhaps the greatest opportunity and ultimate challenge of humanity as sapient species. I believe that such conscious evolution of identity is an essential stage in the maturity of the human species. A new approach to bioethics should strive to develop the conceptual tools by which we can continuously redefine human identity in harmony with the technological means that are becoming available to us. A consciously chosen criteria is to become the backbone of such process of continuous transformation. Such criteria must be flexible enough to include the diverse phenomena that can arise within the horizons of our understanding and capacity to accommodate change. It should also be compatible and integrated with our conception of identity as reflected by our current images, metaphors and values.

    This outlines a borderline to become a first principle in the process of redefining human identity.
    Human identity will become a dynamic concept within a dynamic system of tensions where freedom and diversity of expression are countered by the need for continuity coherency and cohesion. Though being very general it can readily shed more light on an issue such as reproductive cloning. We should first identify if and how reproductive cloning is in conflict with our current understanding of what a human is. Then we can figure if and how we augment our concept of what a human is in harmony with the possibility of reproductive cloning. Conceptual augmentation must become inseparable from technological augmentation. Taking into account conceptual augmentation might need time for adjustment, education and addressing the more profound riddle of our integrity as a species. This will be partly addressed in the following part.

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    The choice of responsibility

    “Natural selection won’t matter soon, not anywhere near as much as conscious selection. We will civilize and alter ourselves to suit our ideas of what we can be. Within one more human lifespan, we will have changed ourselves unrecognizably”

    In these words, Greg Bear, a known science fiction writer, describes best the unprecedented and profound shift in status mankind is going through at the dawn of 21st century. Though this shift has marked our civilization over thousands of years, the technological revolution of the 20th century has accelerated this shift in exponential rate.

    The most basic aspects of human existence are shifting from being “givens”, outcomes of arbitrary influences neither understood nor accessible for manipulation, to “items of choice”. By the power of scientific insight we are able to gain increasing control over these influences of nature and harness them to our interests and agendas. Agendas that are derived from the very ideas of what and how we imagine ourselves to be. We humans, given this availability, are the ones to choose what we are going to become. Only that, as we sometimes painfully realize, the availability of choice does not automatically entail the capability to choose.

    Most apparent perhaps is this shift in the fields of medicine and molecular biology. Curing disease, radical prolonging of life span, accessing the mechanism of reproduction, and soon enough intervening with the genetic blueprints standing at the basis of our biological identity, are shifting many “givens” of our existence to a new status. These “givens” are not given anymore; they rapidly become subject to intentional manipulation and design according to our perceptions of what is appropriate and good.

    In fact such interventions in our biological makeup are as old as the days of antiquity; already the Spartans of ancient Greece were selecting only the strongest babies to live, thus preferring conscious selection over natural one. The Aztecs performed plastic surgery to reshape their skulls. In China, reshaping the ladies' feet according to some aesthetic criterion was a common practice. Medicine along the ages has extended the lives of the sick and debilitated allowing them to have progeny against the forces of the so called natural selection. In a sense, nothing is essentially new. What is definitely new is the extent of modern interventions, and their profound impact.

    It is becoming quite clear that technological advancement pushes mankind into an ever-increasing availability of choice. In the past, living at the mercy of the arbitrary conditions of nature, we were often inflicted with meaningless suffering. Yet, the scope of responsibility that comes with controlling the forces of nature, was not ours. With the choice availed to us by technology, the span of exercising our intentionality is profoundly extended, and with it many questions arise regarding the meaning of our deliberate actions, and of course the motives behind them. Our actions are no longer mere responses to arbitrary natural or godly "givens", they are becoming outcomes of conscious selection, and such conscious selection defines not only who we are but also what we are.

    The recognition of the exponentially increasing relevancy of conscious selection must begin in the choice of responsibility; a profound recognition and acceptance of the state of affairs of the human as a being who must make choices, responsible choices, as an inseparable and irreducible part of what he is both individually and as a species.

    In some not very far future, we will be able to redesign our whole germ line to the extent that perhaps even the human form as we know it today will significantly change or become vastly diversified. How are we going to approach such an opportunity to consciously select what we are? It all starts in the act of recognizing our freedom to choose and its entailed responsibility, as an essential part of what we are.

    While historically the conditions of our existence were dictated by the world we are born into, the appropriate existential question was indeed what a human being is and what befits a human existence. We must now rephrase this very question into something else: What do we choose the human to be? This seemingly small shift in perspective will yield vast consequences on the way we think about ethics and ethical questions. Bioethics in this sense seems to be a critical junction since it has to do with our bodies and the essential aspects of our identity that are determined by our bodies (one example is gender). It is only a question of time till we will be able to effectively apply our choices to our genetic makeup and to most of the physical, cognitive and psychological aspects of our lives that are determined by it. How are we going to make these choices? What are the relevant meanings and values that are to stand at the basis of such choices? These meanings and values are no longer arbitrary conditions or derivatives of arbitrary conditions, they are going to become products of conscious selection, the responsible actuation of the freedom availed to us by technological progress.

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    The following article is long and quite condensed; I have therefore divided it into five posts I will publish in the coming days. This is the first part. Enjoy:-)


    ON APRIL FOOLS' DAY 1998, within hours of reading U.S. patent application No. 08/993,564, the Honorable Bruce Lehman did something no other commissioner of patents had done in the 200-year history of America's oldest government agency. He stepped before a cluster of microphones and announced that the patent would never be approved. No half-human "monsters" would be patented, Lehman declared angrily, or any other "immoral inventions."

    Legal scholars — accustomed to an office bound by statute to remain silent until patents are approved or rejected — were shocked. Forgoing the traditional 18-month review period, Lehman had issued a marching order to his staff to reject a patent application they had barely read, rather as if a judge had instructed a jury that the defendant was guilty before the trial began. Furthermore, to support his decision, Lehman cited an 1817 court ruling that excluded inventions "injurious to the well-being, good policy, or good morals of society." But patent law had long since been amended to say that if an applicant could claim constructive use for a patent, he or she could not be denied simply because there might be dangerous or unethical uses of the invention.

    "Even attorneys who worshiped the system were horrified," recalls former patent examiner Peter di Mauro, who has since left the agency. Research biologists and biotech executives also felt blind-sided, hearing in Commissioner Lehman's outburst a threat to the hard-earned clearance they had won from the Supreme Court 18 years earlier to patent "anything under the sun made by man" — even living organisms.

    Strange as it may seem, the inventor, Dr. Stuart Newman, a soft-spoken developmental biologist and professor at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, completely agreed with Lehman that his invention defied the boundaries of human morality. It's why he filed for the patent. And it's why, six years later, as the biomedical community holds its breath, he and the Patent Office remain locked in a legal battle that may redefine what we mean by "human."

    (Qouted from "Gods and Monsters" by Mark Dowie, Mother Jones Magazine Jan 2004)

    Technology is a manifest of human nature

    Advancements in biotechnology are bringing a great and profound change to our doorstep. The technological miracles we can already glimpse today are but the tip of an iceberg of what will become available in the not so far future. From designing new synthetic life forms that will become the foundation of a new industry unimaginable in its potential, to full scale genetic engineering of enhanced humans (what one SF writer dubbed geneering). The impact of biotechnology on the future, and the ethical aspects involved, are already the subject of numerous heated debates that gain more and more public attention.

    A question frequently arising in the ethical debate around genetic manipulation is whether or not genetic manipulations are “normal” or “natural”. Religious thinkers often bring up their side on the issue in the form of a theological argument that dealing with the so called ‘code of life’ and manipulating it diverts from the “Godly plan” thus should be abandoned or at least tightly restricted. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are those who claim that scientific progress is inevitable thus there is no real question about it being natural or not, godly planned or not. This is a kind of “technological fatalism” which avoids the ethical issue altogether.

    A more balanced approach I would like to outline here is humanistic in the sense that it addresses the issue from the perspective of human nature. What I mean here is seeing the state of affairs of humanity as a system of tensions between an actual condition and an idealized image. This system of tensions is a huge driving force, driving individuals as well as whole civilizations to expand, to cover gaps. The gaps between what we actually see when we look in the mirror and what we desire to see there. As such, this drive is a reflective drive, it arises from consciousness, and essentially it drives the expansion of consciousness. Expansion is a human trait, and it influences all spheres of human activity. Science and technology are simply particular yet powerful manifests of this trait.

    By no means am I coming to assert that these particular manifests are the most important marks of being human, neither are they acknowledged as the only path possible for the future of humanity. Nevertheless, at this stage of human existence we cannot but recognize science and technology as profound aspects of human civilization and an organic part in the praxis of human existence. As such biotechnology is not different from agriculture, transportation, or urbanization. All these and many more are expressions of the human endeavor to become more than himself, and if human nature is thus recognized, the impacts of technology are to be accepted as natural in the context of human existence.

    Critical to my approach is the (optimistic) belief that at any stage in the evolution of mankind it is within the capability of the human, at least in potential, to resolve the ethical conundrums emerging from his motion of expansion. Moreover, these emerging conundrums are points of reflective friction through which the human dynamically redefines the shape of his own identity and the meaning of her existence. I would further say that not only biotechnology is an organic aspect of what a human being is at this point in the story of mankind, but also that the ethical questions emerging in conjunction to biotechnology are critical factors in the evolution of humanity.

    I will remark however, that my belief in the capability of the human as asserted here does not necessarily imply a successful culmination. It is very difficult to predict now whether humanity is on the verge of a breakthrough or an evolutionary dead end. Yet, it clearly seems that biotechnology and the ethical issues it raises, is on the critical path of humanity's future evolution.

    Identifying the ethical issues

    It is not my purpose to address specific ad hoc ethical issues, but rather to describe a vista of the more general riddles we are about to tackle in our biotechnological future. Here I will focus on four core issues:

    A. The choice of responsibility.
    B. Redefining human identity.
    C. Biology and social order.
    D. The evolutionary prospect of an ethical criterion.

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