Our responsibility for future lives

Ian Hunt, Flinders University

Jurgen HabermasThe Future of Human Nature, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003 (136 pp). ISBN 0-74562-987-3 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

Peter Little Genetic Destinies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002 (275 pp). ISBN 0-1985-0454-3 (hard back) RRP $65.95.

Stanley Shostak Becoming Immortal: Combining Cloning and Stem-Cell Therapy, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2002 (309 pp). ISBN 0-7914-5402-9 (paperback) US$24.95.

Manipulating our genetic blueprint seems to promise a new mastery of human fate—a prospect some find intoxicating, but a prospect often coupled with fear of human hubris. In attempting to change human nature itself, are we overreaching the proper ethical bounds of technology? When we imagine future control of our genetic destiny are we overreaching the bounds of possible human capacity? Two scientists and a philosopher address these questions in the books under review.

Scientist Peter Little writes with care and clarity on what we could possibly achieve in the way of determining our own genetic destiny. He begins by contrasting two imaginary and opposing human fates. One is the fate of a future ‘Jeanne Dream’, born according to her parents’ plan, with all the advantages of gene manipulation and therapy to enhance her capacities and counter the setbacks of everyday life. The other is the fate of a future ‘Jean Battler’, born accidentally to a mother who lacked resources to offer her these advantages. Jean Battler is saddled with genetic infirmities that gene technology identifies early in life. Institutions use this knowledge of her genetic infirmity to intensify her disadvantages. Her unfortunate life ends in her early death.

Little thinks that the happy fate will be beyond our control for the foreseeable future (pp. 204–6). We will never isolate single modifications of genes that will significantly enhance our lives. Many genes determine traits like intelligence, which are, in any case, only partially heritable. Modifications of many genes might produce significant enhancements but we do not know how to predict the effects of interaction among genes or between genes and the environment. Even if we did know what to do, we have no safe way of doing it. Genetic modification through cloning is haphazard and could impose intolerable costs (p. 209). Engineering Dolly took more than 270 attempts at pregnancy. Many failures involved miscarriages and the birth of seriously defective offspring—clearly morally unacceptable in the case of human beings. Using vehicles such as a virus to implant changes is unreliable and has undesirable side effects. If we leave aside the possible moral cost of destruction of unwanted embryos, selection of embryos requires too many eggs to accommodate effective selection for multiple desirable traits (p. 199).

As to repair of damage life’s accidents causes, Little argues that this awaits knowledge of cell programming and development processes, which is radically incomplete at present. It seems to me that this knowledge is also the key to effective gene technology. Ways of modifying genes reliably and without side effects must depend on more complete knowledge of cell programming and development. Reprogramming cells in present day cloning is said to be haphazard and unreliable but we cannot conclude from this that cloning will always be so. After all, salamanders reprogram cells to grow new limbs with greater reliability. For all we presently know, our efforts at reprogramming are merely clumsy interventions that succeed only in disrupting cell programming so that genes can be expressed in other ways, with only some attempts leading to the happy result of a viable growing embryo. It seems that any viable genetic modifications with minimal moral cost must await more knowledge of the mechanisms of gene expression, which would enable us to discover, for example, how salamanders reprogram their cells to grow new limbs and how cell development is controlled. The limits of our knowledge also limit our knowledge of what is practically possible, which means that the currently dim prospects of effective gene control are not final. What we can now say is practically possible is relative to our current knowledge, though Little suggests more absolute judgments can be made (pp. 184–5).

Still, even if we obtain more control over genes, this will not have the dramatic impact that many people imagine. As Little beautifully explains in his fifth chapter, genetic individuality and the possibility of varying genetic destinies is a prerequisite of our survival in the arms race with viruses and bacteria. And changed genes will leave open the possibility of differing personal destinies since genes are often not the major determinant of variations in life histories. Little points out that Jean Battler’s nightmare fate is due less to use of gene technology than to the bad luck of having genes strongly implicated in susceptibility to breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, compounded by violations of human rights, including use of genetic information to stereotype and adversely discriminate. As Little says, there ‘is nothing new in poor education’ (p. 241)—it is largely the unwarranted denial of good education and good health care that undermines Jean Battler’s life chances.

Little deflates pseudo-scientific pretensions with a thoroughgoing scepticism.

Little’s book is a model of scientific writing, setting out what can be known with subtlety and precision, and deflating pseudo-scientific pretensions with a thoroughgoing scepticism reminiscent of Stephen Jay Gould. His analyses of the fallacies of racial stereotyping (pp. 90–110) and of the difficulties of scientifically establishing genetic contribution to differences in performance (pp. 170–2) are particularly noteworthy.

By contrast, Shostak’s attempt to establish that we should and will become ‘immortal’ by ‘combining cloning and stem cell therapy’ seems to fall within the realm of science fiction.

Why become ‘immortal’? Shostak speculates that our desire for immortality derives from our feeling that human life is so ‘impressive’ that we regard death as a ‘criminal affront’ (p. 3). However, surely not all of us are given to such vanity: our desire for immortality is more likely an imaginative rejection of the disappointment of life plans that death inevitably entails. Many learn to come to terms with this disappointment. Shostak’s ‘more practical’ and ‘compelling’ reason for wanting immortality is that we need it to escape from earth to avoid extinction of our species. But this is hardly practical or compelling. Ultimate disappointment of reproductive desire is surely also something we can learn to come to terms with at least as easily as with personal death, and Shostak provides no reason to share his preference for making ‘the effort to create immortal beings in time to move a sizable part of humanity to safe ground’ (p. 4).

Shostak proposes immortality via replacement of the gonads with a self-cloned blastocyst that will generate an endless supply of stem cells, which the body will somehow use to regenerate. But would this be ‘immortality’? The desire for immortality is a desire for endless personal life, but the organism Shostak proposes could hardly supply that. Continuity of personal life requires continuity of memory and this can hardly be infinite. Sooner or later the capacity of the human brain—and even the process of its regeneration—would mean that old memories are entirely lost. Why would such infinite life be any better a form of ‘immortality’ than successive cloning? All that later stages of Shostak’s ‘immortal’ organism could share with earlier ones would be a somewhat similar genome. But why would the later stage of this organism regard itself as the same person as earlier life stages, any more than clones could be considered the same person as the people from whom they are cloned? If human beings are determined to escape extinction by travelling to the stars, could they not send people who could clone themselves or even, heaven forbid, simply reproduce themselves through the journey, despite Shostak’s unsubstantiated belief that reproduction would be prohibitively more resource intensive than keeping immortals alive? True, the people who complete the journey will not be the same as those who began it. But then Shostak’s ‘immortals’ might or might not have sufficient continuity with their own pasts to consider that they had personally completed the trip, depending on how long it took, and how rapidly memory overload and regeneration displaced old memories.

The following provides a taste for the vagueness and conceptual confusion that Shostak all too often falls into:

Genes are not individuals … precisely because individuals change, while genes are the same … and even when genes change, or mutate, they continue unchanged … until they mutate again. Immortal human beings could take a lesson from genes. Like immortal replicators, immortal human beings will not change, or, when they do, will remain constant in their new form. But, immortal human beings will be different from each other and must preserve their individual differences for the sake of their humanity (p. 32).

Why not say more clearly and consistently that genes have a tendency to replicate, which is counteracted by a tendency to mutate, so that both heredity and variation generate variations in new generations of a species, upon which natural selection operates to produce change within species, and which over time might lead to a change of species? Why not admit that so-called ‘immortals’ are no more immortal than genes, which merely replicate in an approximately unchanged form for a period?

Shostak's science of making 'immortals' seems highly speculative.

As to the science of making ‘immortals’, it seems to me highly speculative. Shostak (p. 190) is aware of other possibilities: the implanted stem cell generator could grow into a ‘Siamese twin’; it could produce tumours or teratomas rather than replacement tissue for existing organs. However, he provides no clear, scientifically established reasons for supposing that the generator will happily generate stem cells for its host rather than realise these alternatives. Nor does Shostak explain how stem cells will be absorbed and develop into regenerated tissue in all instances, despite evidence that this does not readily happen in the case of humans with brain cells, though it does with bone marrow. Shostak seems only to speculate that if the blastocyst is inserted in place of gonad material it might be suppressed from growing into a person in the same way that some twins are possibly ‘absorbed’ in pregnancy (though this ‘absorption’ has not been confirmed) (p. 190). He speculates again that invasive cells might be modified by genetic manipulation to render them harmless. And invasive development might be suppressed by the function of the ‘zona basilis’ of the immature uterus, where the blastocyst will be implanted in an embryo. Shostak claims that the issue of compatibility between the stem cell generator and host organism is a ‘Pandora’s box yet to be opened fully’ (p. 192), but to this reader, he seems hardly to have opened it at all, let alone dealt with its contents.

Regardless of the practicalities of genetic change, are there moral or ethical hazards inherent in developing and applying a technology of human nature? Jürgen Habermas asks these questions of the future of human nature. He begins by noting that in modern societies, morality, which is concerned with what is required to live with others, is separated from ethics, which is concerned with requirements of living in the right way. Habermas claims that liberal societies must enforce morality, but should allow people a degree of autonomy in determining the good life for themselves. Conditions of shared language essential to community confront us as a ‘transcending power’ (p. 10) that sets limits to what we can think and do within the bounds of our communities. According to Habermas, these presuppositions of our togetherness lack any grounding in the nature of things—they are ultimately a product of our ongoing collective decisions as to our way of life. Martha Nussbaum (2000, chapter 1) argues against this separation of morality from ethics, posing morality and justice as the elements of an ethics that any human community must share in leading a way of life that is good for human beings. Of course, if we could contemplate changes to human nature itself, then this bedrock of shared prerequisites for a good human life would no longer underpin morality in the way that Nussbaum outlines.

As it turns out, Habermas also believes that there are questions of ‘species ethics’ about which philosophy can make recommendations. Habermas himself recommends that we should not step beyond the limits of our ‘species ethics’ (p. 13). By intervening in determining the genome of our offspring we would have a person who is ‘made’ by others in an unacceptable way. Habermas claims that:

as soon as adults treat the desirable genetic traits of their descendants as a product they can shape according to a design of their own liking, they are exercising a kind of control over their genetically manipulated offspring that intervenes in the somatic bases of another person’s spontaneous relation to self and ethical freedom. This kind of intervention should only be exercised over things, not persons (p. 13).

Habermas elaborates on this issue in the main essay of the book, while at the same time striving to accommodate the possibility of some acceptable genetic intervention. ‘Improvement’ of germ line cells unacceptably puts one human being in the position of being the designer of another. But Habermas claims that intervention can be acceptable for therapeutic purposes, which may be addressed to the ‘embryo as the second person he will one day be’ (p. 43), because the intervener can assume that the person to be would retrospectively consent to treatment preventing what, by general consensus, is a harm. However, it is not clear why we cannot assume a consensus except in cases of avoiding ‘unquestionably extreme’ evils, which are ‘likely to be rejected by all’ (p. 43). What seems important for presuming future retrospective consent of the child-to-be is that the act is unquestionably in the best interests of the child. This would seem to be as much the case with extremely favourable change, regardless of whether it reverses a setback to a normal level of human functioning or enhances it.

Habermas claims genetic intervention can be acceptable for therapeutic purposes.

Where this is not the case, we can imagine a child having reasonable grounds to complain that its parents have let it down. Of course, children can now complain that their parents have let them down, but we would not take such complaints seriously. However, if gene technology enabled parents to intervene, we would confront the unedifying prospect that children could reasonably complain both of their intervention and non-intervention, except when no one could reasonably complain of the benefit bestowed. This suggests that what nature has formerly put beyond individual control should still be put beyond parental control by social legislation, so that parents are not entitled to intervene, unless there is an unquestionable benefit.

A democratic eugenics is, then, a possible alternative, not only to the discredited authoritarian eugenics so terribly exemplified in Nazism, but also to the prospect of a liberal version in which people could shop in a genetic supermarket for traits they want for their children. Society could, by consensus, limit permissible changes to those of unquestionable benefit either on the basis of need in the case of extreme set backs to human functioning or, in the case of enhancements, those that can be made available to all if to any. Enhancement, however, remains more troubling, because it raises the prospect of changes to human nature itself. How could we judge whether changes are ethical, if our standards depend, as Nussbaum claims, on what is required for a flourishing human life? Could we say that becoming something, for example, like the utopian beings of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is good, if that were possible? Or are those imaginary mutants still sufficiently human for us to identify with their way of life, and judge it to be good for us?

Little and Habermas raise interesting questions about the practical and ethical bounds of intervention in human nature. These issues should continue to trouble us as it becomes clearer what are the ultimate bounds of our capacity to determine our genetic destiny. Becoming immortal, as Shostak conceives it, is likely to remain beyond those bounds. But, setting such science fiction aside, there remains much to be done in clarifying what kinds of intervention may be acceptable.


Nussbaum, Martha Craven 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ian Hunt is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy at Flinders University.