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Homo Futurus: How Radically Should We Remake Ourselves - Or Our Children?

01/30/2007 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Should parents have the right to choose their baby's gender? How about its sexual preference? Intelligence? Physical appearance? And are these left/right questions?

Futurists see a conflict forming over our dominion over the human body, and over the choices we make about our biological future - and that of our children. Some call it a clash between "bioliberals" and "bioconservatives," and frame it as a debate over individual rights. When it comes to transforming one's own body they may be right, but it gets thornier when children are involved.

Is our only choice between a transhumanist future where children are genetically designed to win on "American Idol," or a world where authoritarians rule our most personal choices? The answer, sadly, may be yes.

Am I a "bioliberal" or "bioconservative"? That's not a question I can answer. The use of politically-based terminology is understandable but, in the end, I find it more misleading than helpful. The left/right construct is not particularly apt in this case.

Transhumanists - those who advocate the use of science to alter the human future - don't often receive a lot of press attention, but they may be playing an instrumental role in reshaping our lives. Some of them have adopted the "bioliberal" label, and other thinkers have used the term "liberal eugenics," but I don't believe the labels are helpful or informative.

Philosopher Jurgen Habermas is clearly progressive in the political sphere, but argues against a number of genetic modifications. Newt Gingrich, who doesn't hesitate to use fundamentalist religion to support his conservative movement, supports leading transhumanist Ray Kurzweil.

Transhumanists argue for that even the most radical physical modifications of the body will become commonplace, and that the body itself may soon be obsolete. Some of them argue that any form of choice is acceptable, including decisions regarding the gender, sexuality, and other traits of their children. That means that some of them are arguing from what appears to be more of a libertarian perspective than a liberal one.

Another term the "bioliberals" use for themselves is "techno-progressive," as explained in this Wikipedia entry (although, without taking sides in the conflict, I would suggest that Wikipedia review this entry for bias).

This piece by Russell Blackford documents the argument made by Elizabeth Fenton against Habermas (the Fenton article is unavailable for direct linking). Fenton restricts her argument to whether Habermas is correct when he asserts there is a naturally-grounded form of human nature, and that it is a violation of human dignity to alter that.

Fenton is eloquent in her defense of humanity's "right to evolve," and I support the transhumanists' rights to alter their own biophysical makeup. But I'd like to see more sophisticated debate about the right of parents to pick their children's physical and behavioral traits.

It's no longer a matter of individual rights when parents are making decisions on behalf of unborn children. Doesn't the state have a legitimate interest in protecting children? Yes, the transhumanists would respond, but only if those particular children would be harmed by the parents' choices. The social impact of the parents' decision (e.g. to select gender or sexual preference) is outside the state's purview. I suspect they're right, and I certainly don't want the state making personal decisions for individuals or families. But I'd like to see more thorough discussion and debate.

Overall, I can't agree with Blackford's characterization of the debate when he says the following:

... liberal eugenics would allow parents considerable scope to select their childrens' genetic potentialities. It stands in contrast to authoritarian eugenics: historical attempts by the state to control the distributions of genetic traits across an entire population.

I think it's more complicated than that. The conflict isn't just between "liberals" and "authoritarians." That "considerable scope" could result in biology that's driven by extremist ideology (no gays please) or fashion movements (every girl a Paris Hilton! Every boy a Jared Leto!)

Yes, the alternative might be a state attempt to control eugenics. But it might also be a state attempt to prevent the control of genetic traits by shallow fashion, demagogic political movements, and the fickle hand of the free market. Here again, I would suggest that "liberal" is not the right term (especially since liberals support state intervention for social good). I'd characterize the Blackford position as libertarian eugenics.

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a organization that addresses these issues from a transhumanist perspective, including Blackford's. It's a discussion that's well worth having. Their last reader poll asked the question "Should doctors be imprisoned for telling women the sex of their fetus?"

In India, it's illegal for a doctor to do exactly that. Is that an unjust law, as the IEET's readers overwhelmingly believe? Before you answer, note that the doctor's answer may well mean that far fewer girl children will be born into Indian families. Imagine a future India, heavily industrialized due to outsourcing, and almost bereft of women and girls.

I would say that, yes, it is an unjust law. But once again, there are no easy answers. There are, however, some very interesting questions.