(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 4, 2016.)
“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 ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds much less problematic.
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 most likely 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.