Archive for May, 2008

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Hollywood hates the posthumans?

Thursday, 29 May, 2008

Do movies consistently portray the posthumans in a negative light? Do they have a case for defamation? Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com presents the evidence:

Whenever you see someone going beyond standard-issue humanity in movies or TV, it’s portrayed as monstrous and evil. Whether it’s cyborgs, mutants or humans hacking their bodies, Hollywood exercises its anti-posthuman agenda. Meanwhile, novels have been celebrating the customizers and reinventers for years now. What can we do to derail Hollywood’s insidious campaign against our posthuman brothers and sisters? The first step is understanding where it comes from.

Oh, and read the comments too. Contrast the opinions of the sci-fi fans at io9 with that of the public about the HFEA in the UK, it’s an amazing difference.

In related news, James Hughes’ ChangeSurfer Radio this month had an interview with Patricia Manney, the new chair of the World Transhumanist Association, called BioHollywood – with emphasis on the portrayal of monsters and posthumans in cinema.

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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 28 May, 2008

Some classic words this week from Paul Ramsey, who is often quoted in theological bioethics. He famously writes:

“Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they learn to be men they will not play God” — Paul Ramsey, Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control (New Haven: Yale, 1970), p138.

This, of course, requires us to view playing God as wrong. In fact, it also requires us to believe in a God at all. To illustrate this last point, why don’t I quote a fellow atheist on this topic:

“If we don’t play God, who will?” – James Watson

The theological interpretations of “playin’ God” are too numerous to go into here (although I would like to point out that some translations of Ephesians 5:1 command that humans “imitate God”), and it is sufficient to realise that a legal restriction on such technologies for such a theological reason would likely violate the church-state separation which is fortunately present in the constitution of most Western nations.

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Of persons, robots, aliens and humans

Monday, 26 May, 2008

It is common parlance to equate the words ‘person’ with ‘human’. That is perhaps because of all the creatures we know, we humans are those with the most obvious claim to personhood. But, what actually is a ‘person’? We know that a person is a moral entity – someone, rather than something, but that just requires us to define a ‘moral entity’, so begs the question. This is a very vital question these days, as it relates to such issues as human embryo research, euthanasia, human genetic engineering and cloning, among others.

I shall begin my little moral discourse with a key text in modern ethics, the US Deceleration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson writes (however, I should mention that this concept was borrowed from the English philosopher John Locke, who wrote of a similar idea 87 years earlier):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, that text is interpreted slightly differently. First, the notion of rights endowed by a divine being has gone, because although we are free to refer to a magical being in the sky whenever we want moral answers, all but the most theocratic would agree that forcing other people to agree to live according to those answers would be unethical. Secondly, the meaning of ‘men’ in that phrase has changed markedly. While it used to mean something like “white male humans of high social standing”, it now just means “humans”.

But still, there is a fatal flaw in this interpretation: it still is just an arbitrary stipulation that membership of a certain group gets you the inalienable rights of a person. Justice requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally. Furtther, we should only consider relevant properties when assessing how to treat somebody. So, it would be wise to assess a person’s skill at engineering before hiring them as an engineer, but their gender would have no relevance to their performance at such an occupation. So, is being a member of the human species relevant to being treated as a person? It appears that the commonly accepted answer is ‘Yes’.

To examine why this answer fails, I like to consider a thought experiment.

Consider an anthropmorphic alien from a sci-fi series, be it a Twi’lek or Gungan from Star Wars, a Time Lord from Doctor Who or a Vulcan from Star Trek. Now, these are not humans – they are not from our species – but they are aliens. But, in all of those sci-fi universes, they are considered to be persons – and given moral value – by the humans around them. And we, the viewers, probably do not think this is completely immoral and unjustifiable, which seems to me that we do not think that only humans can be persons and all persons must be humans. That is, we certainly do not just give the status of a person only to humans, as we can agree of the possibility of non-human persons. So how can species be relevant to personhood?

If those alien examples don’t work, consider also the monsters of fantasy, such as vampires, centaurs, pixies and Frankenstein’s creation. These are not humans, but are they persons? I’d say they would be, but why? Likewise, consider the robots of science fiction, such as those of Isaac Asimov’s stories. Some appear so close in nature to humans that we would feel uncomfortable not calling them persons too.

So it appears that there is something else, not human-ness, that is responsible for us giving person status to individuals. That is, some ‘feature X’. But before I try to work out what ‘feature X’ is, let me first address the seemingly plausible idea that we should assume that an individual member of a species that usually has ‘feature X’ also has ‘feature X’ itself. This would require us to treat an individual based not on the properties they actually have, but the properties of the group to which they belong. It should be obvious that this is the road to prejudice. As an analogy, it is wrong – ageist – to forbid a ninety-year old woman becoming an astronaut on the basis of her age. It is similarly wrong to give (or not to give) a child the right to marry on the basis of them being human. Both generalisations have some truth to them – some (if not most) nonagenarians do not have the physical fitness required of an astronaut and some (if not most) humans do have the capacity to make decisions about marriage. Nonetheless, it is very important that we do not stick to our prejudicial generalisations in cases where they fail us, such as when we find a fit and healthy nonagenarian or a mentally immature human (i.e. a child).

Now, what of human cells? A lot of people think that a single human cell can be a person (e.g. a fertilised egg), and a similar number of people disagree. In my opinion, the view that a human embryo is a person is fraught with logical and consequential inconsistencies (discussed at length here). Human embryos are not, in their embryonic state, very different from a fish or lizard in a similar state – except for being human. Their only hope to be given personhood is to claim they are members of a species (the human species) that are normally persons. But this is just prejudice – making generalisations about an individual based upon what group they belong to. And as I said above, we should abandon such prejudices when they don’t work. When we need to consider a human with properties similar (or equal) to obvious non-persons like fish embryos, we would be wise to look carefully at such prejudices.

Let me now return to the question of this ‘feature X’. With humanoid aliens/monsters/robots, we would likely give them the status of persons – despite them not being human – because they have ‘feature X’. With human embryos, they are not legally considered persons – despite them being human – because they lack ‘feature X’. Therefore, the concept of a person is quite probably species-neutral, unless there is a pressing need for the species to be considered a morally relevant entity.

So, what exactly is ‘feature X’? It is what separates you and I (and Jar-Jar Binks and Spock) from cats, canaries and carrots, but what is that? Some suggest sentience (the ability to feel) or even painience (the ability to feel pain), but these do not rule out cats and may rule out robots that do not feel pain, so should not be an acceptable feature. I think the most influential answer was given by the afore-mentioned philosopher John Locke, in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689). He wrote:

“We must consider what person stands for; which I think is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking and seems to me essential to it; it being impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

This is the concept of the ‘Lockean person’, but I think it is fairly sufficient an answer (despite the fact that it is possible for an organism to perceive without perceiving that they perceive – i.e. to be sentient but not self-aware). The Lockean person is grounded in features – consciousness and awareness of oneself over time – possessed by an individual, which (I think rightly) makes membership of whatever group irrelevant to a being awarded personhood. We award the right to life to a person, because only a person can value their own life. We award the right to liberty to a person, because only a person can truly value their own freedom. We award the right to happiness to a person, because only a person is able to value their happy mental state. I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t deprive another of something they value (unless we are actually protecting something they value even more, such as destroying a person’s car to save their life) – so this may be a good ‘self-evident’ foundation for this viewpoint; it is finally a self-evident truth that we can use.

So ‘feature X’ is self-awareness, or more specifically the ability to value ones own life. This provides a satisfactory answer to why we feel certain aliens or advanced artificial intelligences should be considered persons despite not being human. This provides a reason for why human embryos and foetuses, or plausibly even human infants, are not considered persons by some.

It also provides a reason for our common equivocation between humans and persons: humans are usually self-aware creatures that value their own life. We can mostly be safe in assuming that a human will also have the ability to consider him or herself, so will be a person. This is not a moral requirement, that all humans must be treated as persons, but rather an assumption that we can use to avoid wronging a person. By assuming that a human is very likely to be self-conscious, and very likely to value their own life, we can say that a human is also very likely to be a person, and so should be protected. It is not an abhorrent conclusion to say that a particular human is not a person when we have some other reason (and the supporting evidence) to suggest that they are not aware of themselves, because the idea that human = person is only a useful rule of thumb, and must be discarded in certain cases. It is speciesism to do otherwise.

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UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill withstands all challenges

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008

Good news from the motherland – the British House of Commons has rejected all amendments to the bill, including:

  • reducing the abortion limit to 22 (rejected 304-233) or 20 weeks (rejected 322-190) from the current 24 week limit
  • removing the permission to create human-animal hybrid embryos (rejected 336-176)
  • changing the language to affirm a child’s “need for a father” (rejected 292-217) or “need for a male role model” (rejected 290-222) instead of the current “need for supportive parenting”
  • prohibition on the creation of ‘saviour siblings’, which would be children selected as embryos for tissue that matches an existing child with a severe illness (rejected 342-163) or only for life-threatening illnesses (rejected 318-149)

So, no changes. The only change that was approved occurred a few months ago, when deafness was removed from the list of serious illnesses, which would have required parents to choose an embryo free of deafness (and some deaf parents didn’t like that).

So far, so good. Brilliant in fact. I would have liked to see those numbers a little less tight, and a little more in favour of science, but I guess an inch is as good as a mile when you win.

Now, all that remains is for the whole bill to be passed. And from the looks of it, it will be. Hurrah!

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008

Today’s words are chosen only because they are recent, and make perfect sense. I’m quite sure that such ideas have been expressed before, but nonetheless I am quoting these (mostly because I can’t be bothered looking for others):

“Athletes are already posthuman cyborgs and we celebrate this. It is likely that greater use of this technology will seep into other aspects of culture, as we begin to embrace more and more enhancements. Sports might soon become peculiar for resisting such developments and, in the meantime, will be placing athletes at greater risk by forcing them to enhance behind closed doors.” – Andy Miah, “Engineering Athletes, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA), 18 May 2008

Makes perfect sense to me. Although, I am concerned that an enhancement ban in sports, which would naturally be followed by a strong anti-enhancement campaign to discourage illicit use of such technologies, would result in an anti-enhancement attitude in the general public. Such an attitude is already prevalent concerning steroids, where parents are wary their children being prescribed corticosteroids because of warnings about anabolic steroid usage (despite the fact they are different steroids). And there would be no ‘legitimate medical use’ claim to fall back on (except perhaps if gene-doping campaigns were affecting gene-therapy acceptance).

Sport is a necessary area for performance-enhancements to be developed, tested and accepted.

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To be cloned without consent

Monday, 19 May, 2008

You may notice that on my “About the Author” page, I have said that I approve of “the use of reproductive cloning, even without the consent of the person being cloned”. I think that stance may need some clarification. After all, isn’t your genome your property? Actually, I don’t think it is.

You only own the current representation of your genome – your body. Your body is yours, and you should be able to control it in any way you want (meaning, you should be able to prevent people from taking genetic samples from your body). That is akin to owning a particular book, or DVD. But you don’t actually own the rights to that book or DVD – buying a copy of the textbook Gray’s Anatomy or the DVD boxset for Grey’s Anatomy only gives you control over that copy, but the rights to make additional copies is not yours.

Now, understandably we humans do have the right to make additional copies of our genes without having to pay royalties (nonetheless, over a fifth of the human genome is patented in the US, but these patents are not recognised internationally). After all, it is a fundamental human right that we can choose to reproduce – to have children – and that involves making a copy of some of our genes and some of our partner’s genes. Technically, a child is an unauthorised copy of patented material, so could theoretically be an infringement. However, it is widely considered unfair for some human genes to be owned by a private company. I agree – the human genome should not belong to anyone. It should be available to all. Thus, the comparison between a genome and a book works best when considering public domain books, such as the King James Bible, which are not owned by anyone.

Most would accept the idea that the human genome – the consensus sequence of our species – should not belong to any one person. But, what of my genome in particular – surely that can be argued to be mine under an extension of my body? I don’t think so.

Consider the case of identical twins. This is a special case of two bodies, but a single genetic constitution. It is already accepted that one twin can reproduce – copy some of their genes – without the consent of the other twin. Genetically, however, the twin would not be the uncle or aunt of the child, but also their genetic parent. But we do not scream about this act violating a person’s control over their own reproduction.

Of course, this only makes sense; all of our genes, unique mutations aside, come from our parents, and we do not morally require their consent to copy their genes. So, if one twin wanted to clone themselves – copy all of their genes instead of just some – would there be any grounds for complaint by the other twin (general qualms about cloning aside)? I’d say not, because there can’t be any significant distinction between passing on some genetic material to a child and passing on all (or almost all) genetic material to a child. Therefore, it could hardly be said that the right to one’s own body extends to the right over one’s genetic makeup, as such an interpretation would run contrary to how we treat natural reproduction, especially with regards to identical twins.

To summarise:

  • An individual does not own their genetic code – if they did, identical twins would have to share their control over their reproduction (and they do not, under our current legal system)
  • An individual’s genetic code is not owned by anyone else – if they did, that individual would not have reproductive freedom (and they do have this freedom, under our current legal system)
  • Nobody owns the genetic code of anyone – therefore cloning does not require anyone’s consent (though I admit it would be kind to ask first)

The fact of the matter is that you have control over yourself and your identity, but not your genetic code. The human genome is a commons for all humanity, and each and every version of it belongs to nobody. The clone of you would not be you, nor is cloning doing anything to you or your rights, and so I see no grounds for complaint if you were to be cloned without your consent (or if your cloned cloned themselves again without asking you, which amounts to the same thing anyway).

However, this does depend how your genetic material was obtained. An agreement will likely exist ensuring that your genetic data cannot be redistributed without your permission. However, this will not apply to to genetic material left in the environment. After all, we do not need a person’s consent to clean up their hair or skin left around the house or at work. It wouldn’t enforceable even if we did. So there is the real potential for somebody to obtain your genetic material and reproduce it.

But don’t worry – there isn’t much point to surreptitious cloning, because I’m sure that those who can afford cloning, but are to unkind to ask, will not want a copy of your genome seeing as they could likely afford something better.

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John Harris in The Times on H+

Sunday, 18 May, 2008

One of my favourite bioethicists, John Harris, has a piece titled “Who’s afraid of a synthetic human?” in The Times. Unfortunately, Harris just states his opinion, and provides little of the great reasons for it that he does in his books Clones, Genes and Immortality(1998) and Enhancing Evolution (2007).

However, I especially like this bit:

In the future there will be no more human beings. This is not something we should worry about.

On the face of it, it seems a bit silly, but if you think about that is true. Provided all humans voluntarily went extinct, what problem would there be with the loss of the human species? If death is only a problem when you don’t want to die, then extinction is only a problem when you don’t want to go extinct.

Of course, if you’re not a libertarian, if you hate utilitarian ethics, and you despise the notion of autonomy or personhood in valuing life, then you will, like Wesley J. Smith, think Harris is crazy.