“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

A recent piece New York Times article, “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks,” reports on a new survey by the Pew Research Center which show public skepticism about improving the physical and intellectual life of the human species. As reported, “Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.” Of course a visceral sense of disgust—what philosophers sometimes call the “yuch” factor—isn’t a good reason to reject new technologies. Antibiotics, in vitro fertilization, and countless beneficial technologies also elicited negative visceral reactions before their use became widespread. And, in the social realm, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia also emanate from deep inside our ape-like brains.

The survey also “shows a profound distrust of scientists …” a particularly painful finding. The public seems unaware that science is the single best means humans have ever had to uncover the truth about the world, as well as being the primary source of human progress. Without science half the people reading this sentence would have died of childhood diseases, and those surviving would have had a short and painful life without clean water, dentistry, vaccinations, antibiotics, and an adequate food supply for billions. And this is to say nothing of planetary communication, computers, air travel, indoor plumbing, etc.

The survey specifically asked the public about three futuristic technologies: 1)using gene editing to protect babies from disease; 2)implanting chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think; and 3)transfusing synthetic blood that would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance. The finding weren’t surprising, but were nonetheless depressing: “The public was not enthusiastic … even about protecting babies from disease. Most, at least seven out of 10, thought scientists would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” I’m glad such sentiments were less widespread in the early part of the twentieth-century when childhood diseases were virtually eliminated.

The finding that was most interesting to me was that:

Religiosity affected attitudes on these issues. The more religious people said they were, the less likely they were to want genetic alterations of babies or technologies to enhance adults. The differences were especially pronounced between evangelical Protestants and people who said they were atheists or agnostics. For example, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants said gene editing to protect babies from serious diseases was meddling with nature. In contrast, 81 percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said it was not fundamentally different than other ways humans have tried to better themselves.

These results confirm what I have experienced teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades. When students maintain a religious, usually Christian, worldview, they overwhelming oppose scientific and technological progress and innovation; whereas when they don’t hold a religious worldviews, they are generally receptive to scientific and technological advance. The reasons for this are straightforward. If you believe an omnipotent super-being fashioned a good creation then there is little need to significantly modify it. Furthermore, if said super-being governs that creation and demands respect, then we best not meddle with either the creation or the super-being. On the other hand, if students believe that whether such super-beings exist or not it is up to human beings to determine their own fate, then they typically find nothing problematic about appealing ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds.

The public also expressed the typical concerns about how such technologies meddle with nature, a version of the “let nature take its course” argument. Again, not surprisingly, it was religious believers who adopted this viewpoint much more often than non-believers. There is much that refutes this argument, but suffice it to say that almost everything about modern medicine is about meddling with nature; it is about not letting nature takes its course. Letting nature take its course means that when you contract an infection your immune system either destroys it or you often die. In the past simple infections were potentially deadly and amputation was a common medical practice. So do you really believe that we shouldn’t meddle with nature? And does doing so follow from a belief in the gods? Why wouldn’t the gods want us to use our reason to improve the world?

In fact the results of these surveys are amazing if you think about it. The majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! I suppose either they believe we should not try to make things better—a truly astonishing claim—or they believe there is a better way than science to make the world a better place. And what way would that be? Would constant petitionary prayer to the gods eradicate cancer? Would fervent belief in Jesus or Mohammed do the trick? Of course many religious people accept using science to improve the human (and post-human?) condition, but there is something about religious belief that makes scientific and technological progress harder to accept.

But the most important point is this. While there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if one is serious about making things better, they should use scientific knowledge and its application as technology to do so, for those have been the most successful means of improving the human condition in the past.  Science is the primary reason we live longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before.

9 thoughts on ““Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

  1. This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens is simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.

    I can offer a fine point on this subject. Perhaps the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.

    I begin by stepping way back and noting that genetic variation is the system by which species adapt to change. This system is rather slow, requiring something on the order of thousands to tens of thousands of generations to respond to environmental changes.

    Homo Sapiens came up with a brilliant new system for adapting to changing environments: culture. This made it possible to adapt to changing environments much more quickly. Even so, cultural change is not instantaneous; the emotional ties we have to our cultural beliefs ensure that culture change requires a few generations to manifest. This seems odd to a rational person; after all, it is usually obvious when a change is required.

    Yet consider our experiences with racism and sexism. In both cases, it became obvious more than 50 years ago that these components of our culture were holding us back. I was young back then, and believed that, by the 70s, we had dealt with these shortcomings and that all civilized people had eschewed racism and sexism. Boy, was I naive! Racism and sexism are still very much alive and well in our society. Their persistence has nothing to do with rationalism or civilization; it takes several generations to make the transition.

    At this point I’ll present a personal example. I was brought up in the 1950s in Houston, Texas. My grandparents, whom we visited often, had a black housekeeper-cook. Everybody liked Mamie, but, even at my young age, I sensed that she was a different kind of person, somehow inferior to the white family. There was no overt racism, but the way she subordinated herself to my grandparents, and their casual way of ordering her around or chastising her mistakes sent a message that bored deeply into my mind. And even today, 60 years later, I still have a sense of alien-ness about black people. I have long since buried it under layers of gentlemanliness, but I cannot banish that feeling from my mind. It’s rather like the phenomenon of staring at a buxom woman’s bosom: I know it’s wrong, I work very hard to squash that behavior, but it’s still deep inside my mind.

    Culture cannot turn on a dime; it takes a few generations for Homo Sapiens to revise cultural components in response to environmental changes. Here we come to the rub: technological change is accelerating, which is changing our environment at an ever-faster rate. This in turn requires accelerating cultural change — which the species is incapable of. The upper limit on cultural change imposed by human psychology has now fallen below the rate of change required by our environment.

    And we all know what happens to a species that fails to adapt to its environment.

  2. Re-reading this, I just realized that I am simply rehashing the same arguments I posted in an earlier comment. I started off my comment attempting to address the resistance to science, and somehow drifted back into old territory. Sheesh; I’m like a politician answering a question by falling back on memorized responses.

  3. no worries, and your comments are too thoughtful to be confused with most (especially Republican) politicians.

  4. I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris. My depression is due to me being one of the 7 in 10 individuals who think that corporations “would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them”. Notice that I prefaced that quote with “corporations” rather than “scientists”. My inclusion in the group of 7 is not for any religious reasons.

    In our economy, there are almost no new products of any kind that are developed for altruistic reasons, i.e. without a profit motive. The drive for profits and to enhance shareholder value can cause bad science to happen, bad products to be rushed out the door or bad therapies in medicine to be applied. To be sure, there are many marvelous examples of new technologies that have proven beneficial, as you pointed out in your commentary. And many “bad” products have little consequence to the public other than that they wasted their money. But there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public (tobacco, thalidomide, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful – not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.

    Aside from that somewhat depressing observation, I’m generally in agreement with your thoughts. I also agree that Chris’s comments were very thoughtful and interesting.

  5. @chris there is hope. yes, i agree with you – racism and sexism and every other kind of ism are certainly still ‘alive and well’ in our society.
    but i see real progress. gay rights, for example. the military was the first normative group to integrate the ‘races’, the ‘genders’, and now the ‘gender identities’
    i served under the ‘dont ask, dont tell’ policy, which got rid of the question ‘are you a homosexual’ on the entrance questionnaire, but still got you kicked out if you told your boss you were gay, or they found out.
    president obama got rid of that policy. there is now an openly gay member of the joint cheifs of staff.
    i believe by the measure of human rights at least, our society is making progress.

  6. We are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives. Values that stand unsteady next to our ancestors living in the same locations for 10,000 years. Also very unlike last years video from Larwence Rifkin M.D (“Evolution Will Change How You See The World.”).

    Granted we have made giant strides, but also giant mistakes, and their consequences continue to unfold. That we continue to concrete over arable land in the face of population growth is perhaps the most telling folly. Our existence is owed to a 100% efficient, 100% organic, learning, adaptive, recycling ecosystem 6.5billion years in the making, and still evolving. Our audacity is to think we can improve on nature, when we have not mastered it. Our only strategy in a hurricane is to evacuate – run away. We may still have the chance to remove PCB’s and other endocrine disruptors from our ecosystem. We are smart and we are learning much as we go, but should we fail to take heed of the debris we are accumulating our personal future and that of our species and planet are far from assured.
    Capitalism offers enhancements to those who can afford it, and for a generation or two some may benefit in lifespan, intellect and qualitative values. Yet such a single focus on the self and each “self’s” personal satisfaction (or that of the Nation State that each self subscribes to?) does not lift a finger to remedy Fukishima Pacific radiation, ocean acidification or non stop assault on biodiversity – the collective ecosystem that supports us all and all life on Earth – we may dismiss this and consider such things unrelated to the post. Yet fast forward a generation or two and the h+ enhanced human may live to see the repercussions of our ignorance. If our ambition is exploration of our limits, and to conquer the stars, then we should begin by cleaning house, for when we travel to new worlds we take our values and diseases with us.

    For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them. Then we move beyond our tin can culture of inside and outside being separate.

  7. Dave you are correct that there is a lot of evidence that we are living in the best possible time in history—fewer people killed in war, decrease in global hunger, technological advancement, and more. Good to remember that when confronted with so many ills.

  8. I agree with you Jim about the corporate angle and the profit motive. That is a good counter to my optimism about future technologies. Thanks for the comments.

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