ASU’s Samuelsons urge restraint, ethics in ‘transhumanist’ plan to perfect people
An Arizona State University faculty couple is solidly involved in an important debate over acceptable means to enhance the human condition and even change the character of human life. Futurists, buoyed by medical and technological breakthroughs, cannot resist the challenge to apply it to the greatest creature of all, humans.Yeah, its be nice if violence, hate, jealousy, greed, rage, sociopathic strains and other nasty traits could be eliminated from people. Or go through the DNA and make bodies disease-resistant. Or do something about tooth decay, weight gain and hair loss. But would the super humans produced be human? With our empty prisons, empty hospitals and drug-free world, would there be other troubles for perfected people in paradise?Norbert Samuelson, professor of religious studies, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of history and a member of the Arizona State University Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, recently summarized their positions on transhumanism in the monthly publication of the John Templeton Foundation, Milestones. ASU itself has been hosting the 2006 Templeton Research Lecture project, led by Hava, with a distinguished interdisciplinary committee of ASU faculty. Williams Grassie of Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science writes about the issues in his piece, What does it mean to be human?Its brave new world stuff. He quotes University of Chicago bioethicist Keon Kass as one voice of warning: Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenics and neophysic enhancement, for wholesale redesign For anyone who cares about preserving our humanity, the time has come to pay attention. Biotechnology may be able to create magic.Grassie quotes Oxford University professor Nick Bostrum who leads the World Transhumanism Association (www.transhumanism.org) and authored its manifesto. Bostrum puts its this way, We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering and our confinement to the planet earth.But Hava Tirosh-Samuelson responds, Many people, especially those committed to a religious outlook, intuitively recoil from the transhuman vision and find within that vision an affront to human dignity. It is precisely the belief that humans are created by God in the image of God that leads many people — including religious scientists to resist the transhuman vision as a new hubris that will destroy humanity by redefining it, and further endanger life on our vulnerable planet.Norbert Samuelson adds to the discussion by wondering aloud what kind of elitists is hellbent on reinventing humans. The transhumanist vision reflects the interests, lifestyle and political preferences of affluent, secular, Caucasian males in Western post-industrial societies. He notes that, in the tradition of Aristotle, the ultimate end of human existence is the attainment of happiness, but happiness for transhumanism consists primarily in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.He further warns that the secular-utilitarian ethics that supports transhumanism emphasize individual autonomy, so that the ultimate guiding principle behind all moral decisions is individual rights.In the end, Norbert Samuelson suggests, the transhumanism model runs counter to the traditional values of western religious faiths. And Grassie says that these new scientists may even conquer mortality. In this generation or the next, death too may fall before our amazing human prowess. He hopes that ethicists, religious voices and his own Templeton researchers have a place alongside scientists in such epic work — that science doesnt leave humanities in the dust in its rush to transform the human race.