Share this page
Follow Salvo online
The Crux Project Archives: Philosophy
The Demolition of Man
The scientific attempt to cheat death in a culture of death
In C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Joseph Pearce devotes eighteen pages to Lewis’ space trilogy, yet nowhere does he mention the lectures, later published as The Abolition of Man, that gave voice to what Lewis elsewhere called “the serious point” behind these books. In Lewis’ own words, in a letter to an Anglican nun, the “serious point” is this: “… that thousands of people in one way or another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human race for the whole meaning of the universe---that a ‘scientific’ hope for defeating death is a real threat to Christianity . . .”
Sixty years later, it is now tens or hundreds of millions who depend on that hope. Some go further, believing, as Jacques Barzun put it, “the fallacy . . . that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue.” Of course, science cannot explain even its own bases: why matter and energy exist and why they are not chaotic. Still, this dependence on science is to be expected, if only because so few are aware of an alternative: George Sayer wrote in Jack, his biography of Lewis, that few members of the audience at the Abolition lectures understood them---and this was at a university in 1943. And in that same letter Lewis noted that of about sixty reviews of the space trilogy’s first novel, “. . . only 2 showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but an invention of my own.
In this far less literate era, even fewer would trouble to pry Lewis’ “serious point” out of a long essay like The Abolition of Man. Still fewer would find it hidden in the fantastic elements of the space trilogy’s entertaining novels, set on, successively, Mars and Venus and in a literally demonic institution in Britain, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E.
This reluctance, or inability, to grapple with “the serious point” is a recipe for disaster. What Lewis feared and foresaw is no longer science fiction: underway are numerous scientific and pseudo-scientific efforts whose goals are to improve the human race and achieve personal immortality.
Unnatural Family Planning
In one of Bob Thaves’ recent “Frank and Ernest” cartoons, the two stand in front of a “Biogenetic Research Lab.” Frank complains to Ernest, “When I ask about cloning all I get is doubletalk.” Of the efforts to remodel mankind, those using some form of genetic manipulation are the best known to us in the comic-strip-reading public, thanks to the controversy over cloning and stem cell research. But our lack of familiarity with these terms and their careless, even deceptive, use are among the reasons large-scale embryonic cloning has come upon us so quickly.
To clarify the doubletalk: the word embryo means, in humans, the first eight weeks after conception. As the National Institutes of Health summarized: stem cells are unspecialized cells, found in both human embryos and adults, that can develop into specialized cells and also reproduce themselves for an extended period. Because of their potential for curing diseases, the Federal government supports research on stem cells from both adults and embryos. Harvard magazine, in its July-August 2004 issue, explained that embryonic stem cells come from “a ball of four to 50 undifferentiated cells that forms in the first few days after a sperm fertilizes an egg.” Writers such as Susan Estrich and Mortimer Zuckerman make much of the claim that fertility clinics in the U.S. have 400,000 frozen embryos that are likely to be “discarded”---that is, killed. (As we shall see, these 400,000 embryos would not begin to fulfill the demand.)
There are two kinds of human cloning---research, or therapeutic, limited to a few cells for use in research or a medical therapy, and reproductive, where cells would be allowed to mature and be born. However, as David A. Prentice, a professor of biology at Indiana State University, told a committee of the Colorado legislature, the methods and the clones produced are precisely the same, differing only in how far the process is allowed to proceed. The intent of the cloning of embryonic stem cells is not to treat the embryo, whose cells are instead used to treat others---after the embryo is killed. In stark contrast, adult stem cells are harmlessly extracted from various parts of the body, such as blood, marrow, and even fat. Research with embryos has gone on around the world, despite 1998 and 2001 Presidential orders that restrict its Federal funding in the U.S.
Despite the continuation of embryonic research, all the existing medical treatments instead use adult stem cells. There is no reason to presume this will change: in October 2004, fifty-seven biomedical researchers from major laboratories all over the United States wrote a letter (a copy of which was supplied to me indirectly by one of the signers) to then presidential candidate John Kerry. The letter warned that cloned embryonic stem cells are unstable, spontaneously accumulate genetic abnormalities, are prone to uncontrollable growth and tumor formation, as well as “serious and potentially lethal side-effects,” and may be rejected by even the host that produced them. As these researchers were not, so to speak, Heinz 57, their letter received no media attention.
Judy Norigian, the pro-choice author of Our Bodies/Our Selves, opposed research with embryos at www.sfbg.com/38/53/cover_stem_cell.html, citing the health risks for women who provide the eggs to create the embryos. In his “The Science of Human Cloning” (www.stemcellresearch.org/testimony/prentice_03-02-05.pdf), David Prentice spelled it out, estimating that treating just the seventeen million diabetics in the United States would need, at the very least, eighty-five million (not 400,000!) women to provide eggs. (Not that many American women vote.) Providing the eggs, Prentice continued, would carry with it significant health risks for the women and likely lead to their commercial exploitation, both here and abroad.
The only certainty, then, about embryonic cell research is that millions of women must risk their health to donate eggs and a like number of fetuses will be killed. These are among the moral issues to which all thinking Americans should react, openly and loudly.
But “cloning” and “stem cell” research are but two of many biomedical research efforts with moral implications. The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) surveys them at www.genetics-and-society.org/analysis/index.html. Along with the many sites that quote David Prentice, the huge CGS site is invaluable, because despite the Center’s preferences---it favors research cloning of embryonic stem cells---its presentations are thorough, skeptical, and evenhanded. Its analysis begins with this warning: “The motivations and visions driving the development of genetic technologies are varied. Some are quite troubling. Utopian beliefs, economic potentials, and exaggerated medical promise are playing as much of a role as the desire to alleviate human suffering.” To this I add an open and loud Amen.
The Center lists dozens of “troubling” technologies and dystopian urges, such as transhumanism and post-humanism; gender selection; gene transfer experiments; and inheritable genetic modification (IGM). About the last, four American bioethicists asserted that people should not be prohibited from creating genetically enhanced children (with, for example, higher IQs) and went on to argue that since this practice will likely create dramatic inequities, public policies should be adopted that make IGM freely available to all. University of Texas law school professor John Robertson introduced “procreative liberty” as a legal and ethical principle that argues against prohibitions on reproductive cloning and IGM. Princeton biologist Lee Silver champions both and couples these with a libertarian social and political philosophy, arguing that a future in which humanity segregates into genetically engineered sub-species, the “GenRich” and the “Naturals,” is “inevitable . . . whether we like it or not.”
Another technology (and issue) is human reproductive cloning---allowing the clone to mature and be born. The CGS names several groups that support it, such as the Raelian cult, which advertises, none too convincingly, that it has successfully cloned thirteen human babies. But far more oppose reproductive cloning, including the CGS itself and others who strongly support research cloning: Pitt’s Gerald Schatten, who led the team that in December 2004 first cloned (through the blastocyst stage) a non-human primate, told Science News that he and most other researchers are “unhesitatingly” against human reproductive cloning. Schatten and “most other researchers” may believe that a cloned human baby will go from Raelian myth to real monster.
Despite what these trained professionals say, those readers who still wish to try this at home can go to eBay or, say, Stratagene of La Jolla, California (www.stratagene.com). There they will find a helpful instruction manual, “Human Clone Collection,” along with warranty information and instructions on how to order its “Products.” (The word embryo never appears in the manual.) Though the site warns its “Products” are for research only, they are, as Prentice said, precisely the same as clones intended for reproduction. If businesses and the GenRich are to treat children as “Products,” will we then have I.Q. wars as we do automobile horsepower wars? Will Consumer Reports, which recently referred to unborn children as “uterine content,” rate each year’s new models? And what will happen to the inevitable “Product” recalls?
About the qualms of people like Schatten, David L. Bump wrote in Science News that “The researchers charging into this field think that we should pass laws to keep others from abusing their research. Ha! Do they really think they can keep this genie in a bottle?” A genie can grant favors; a better metaphor is that of Pandora’s box. For this reason, the attempt by Stanford’s William Hurlbut, as reported by Culture and Cosmos, to devise a morally acceptable substitute for cloning will not stop others from doing it. Nor will the UN’s recent resolution against human cloning, another hollow gesture not binding on even the nations that voted for it.
It is not that what can be done will be done. It is that anything funded will be attempted by, at least, any one of what University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Glenn McGee said were “a pretty good-sized group of not-so-credible scientists trying to make Mini-Me.” Money for those dozens or hundreds of attempts to clone a human to a live birth will materialize from somewhere, probably somewhere tax-supported or, like the Raelians, tax-exempt.
Let us pause for a moment to consider this: according to Schatten, most of the researchers who are willing to kill an embryo for the medical treatment of others are “unhesitatingly” against letting its clone develop into a living child. I oppose both, but the latter certainly seems the lesser of two evils---not that we should have to choose either. For a generation, many have cloaked opposition to abortion under the generic “pro-life,” so much so that this “seamless garment” now has no hems either, stretched out of shape as it is to cover things such as racism. How open and loud, then, are we ready to be when---not if---an advocate of human reproductive cloning asks, “How can you call yourself pro-life yet oppose creating life, just because we did it without fornication?”
Furthermore, I doubt that the Center for Genetics and Society, the UN, and researchers like Schatten believe, given enough time, eggs, embryos, and money, that cloning could never produce a healthy child. Instead, perhaps they fear, as I do, what might follow---a return of eugenics.
The second approach to improving the species is eugenics, the control over who gets to mate with whom and how many children, if any, they may have---as in another Bob Thaves cartoon when a lab technician tells the hapless Ernest, “Sorry. We’ve examined your DNA and it’s labeled ‘Do not refill.’” A pro-eugenics group, Future Generations (www.eugenics.net), noted that Theognis of Megara wrote a poem in praise of eugenics about 520 B.C., and the concept of inherited nobility has always relied on the approach’s supposed effectiveness. Eugenics was popular and respectable from the mid-1800’s through the 1930’s, thanks to people themselves as respectable as Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, later knighted for his studies.
Most might believe eugenics died in the bunker with Hitler, but it did not. In 2004 Rolf Winau, a professor at a medical school in Berlin, wanted his colleagues to “exorcize their demons” about eugenics. Winau then let his own demons out for some exercise, as he urged researchers to overcome their moral revulsion against eugenics (http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2004/jun/04062806.html). But Germany has some of the strongest laws against eugenics and genetic manipulation, far stronger than the U.S. The Center for Genetics and Society listed (as a cautionary) the many organizations and academics supporting eugenics in one form or another; most are here, in Britain especially, or in Europe. Some of its proponents, such as psychologist Richard Lynn, focus on the desire of parents to have children who are intelligent and free of genetic disease. Another quoted, with seeming approval, a 1939 reference to some unspecified humans as “noxious animals” (this from Harvard professor E.A. Hooten, by the way, not Hitler). Other sources the Center surveyed seem at least tinged with racism and anti-Semitism, and all display a dull arrogance.
It is the disabled, the canaries in any eugenics coal mine, who most fear its current resurgence. At http://www.h-net.org/~disabil/, a posting noted that, for example, Britain’s People Against Eugenics, or PAE, fear that cloning or other genetic manipulation will lead to Nazi-like eugenics and the abortion of disabled children. For good reason: in the fall of 2004, the Royal Society, no less, sponsored a conference whose topics included “Why we are morally obliged to genetically enhance our children,” “Gay science: choosing our children's sexual orientation,” and “Preventing the existence of people with disabilities.”
Nevertheless, the PAE hastened to add that it “… supports women's right to choose abortion . . .” In effect, therefore, PAE supports the abortion of only healthy babies. So we have been practicing eugenics on a large scale for decades: abortion is a kind of post-coital eugenics. In his Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger, David M. Kennedy quotes Sanger as saying, “Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out of the unfit, or preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”
Necessarily, eugenicists will label some genetic traits as defects, others as benefits, and what was once the one may become the other. Just a few years ago, some behavior was to be excused because there supposedly was a “fat” gene or a “gay” gene. Will these be subject to manipulation? Deletion? Enhancement? These judgments about “defectives” are not just scientific or political; they will, or at least should, begin as moral questions about which we should be open and loud.
Yet another question science cannot answer is why humans are conscious of self and surroundings; that is, what is the evolutionary benefit of mind---of consciousness? (Science alone cannot even prove to me that anyone else possesses consciousness. And how do you know that I do?) Without consciousness, free will has no meaning---indeed, many scientists insist consciousness is a meaningless illusion. As Nobel Prize winner David Hubel put it, “The word Mind is obsolete . . . like the word sky for astronomers.” A Frank and Ernest cartoon put it better: “I respond to external stimuli, therefore I am.” (I cite cartoons to stress that the practical and moral aspects of these efforts to make us over are not rocket, or any other kind of, science.)
Here the Greek letter ipsilon---also the ancient Y-shaped Christian symbol for free will---will represent the third and last approach to the reshaping of us and of human society. Call it will power or, paradoxically, its evil twin, conditioning. Now that brainwashing is no longer the buzzword it was in the 1950s, this approach is obscure even, thankfully, to those who might wish to misuse it. But brainwashing is more than just the plot device in The Manchurian Candidate.
A fine source of information is The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and science writer Sharon Begley. In it Schwartz, a neuropsychiatrist, relates his far-ranging search for an effective therapy for his patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. He reviews the various theories of dualism, materialism, and determinism and shows that those laymen---and scientists like Hubel---who profess to hold to them are seventy years or more behind in the pertinent science. Schwartz and Begley cites numerous peer-reviewed studies by Michael Merzenich and Edward Taub, among many others, that show a person can, within limits, rewire his brain, alter both its physical form and functions---and therefore his outward behavior---by an effort of conscious will. The limits of change are broad: the authors said what happens is a “wholesale remapping of neural real estate.” Therefore, the crude diagrams that supposedly show which part of which side of the human brain does what are naïve and quite misleading. Instead, the brain’s map varies from one person to the next---and for the same person, from one moment to the next.
This ability to “will” changes does not end in childhood and continues through old age. Examples: a Japanese learning English must first rewire his brain so as to hear the L sound before he can learn to say it, and Schwartz learned that his “ . . . OCD patients can, by changing the way they think about their thoughts, also change their brain.” That is, they can willfully reduce their repetitive behaviors. He mentioned similar therapies that had helped patients suffering from Tourette’s, depression, stroke, and dyslexia.
The brain adapts to outside influences; it also adapts to the mind’s thoughts. Here are two of the experiments that dramatically illustrated this. In the late 1980’s, Greg Recanzone and William Jenkins learned that if their lab “ . . . monkeys’ attention was focused elsewhere while they received the same tactile stimulation that had otherwise produced massive cortical remapping, no such reorganization occurred [emphasis added].” In 1995, Alvaro Pascual-Leone had one group of human volunteers practice a five-finger piano exercise, while a control group merely thought about it. As expected, the physical exercise caused changes in the motor cortex of each member of the first group; but the same changes in the brains showed up, and to the same degree, in the control group that merely imagined they were practicing.
Both these experiments showed that the mind’s attentiveness is both necessary and sufficient to bring about a physical change in the brain. Schwartz and Begley rely on quantum theory to show how our mind causes the brain to carry out the mind’s will, to produce this rewiring, but the reader interested in their shade-tree quantum mechanics must read their book. Suffice for now to say that they begin their discussion by quoting the great physicist, Niels Bohr: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”
No matter: how we exercise free will is far less important than that we do. Schwartz, who seems to lean spiritually toward Buddhism, believes strongly in free will and, indeed, blames “the cultural morass of the late twentieth century” on the philosophy of materialism. Most Christians, too, will readily affirm a belief in a conscious free will and may be impatient with, say, the deterministic defenses of attorneys whose clients are, in the lyrics from West Side Story, depraved on account of being deprived. Oddly, such pop materialism is never used to explain away good or beneficial behavior, such as Hubel’s research that earned him the Nobel Prize. And since Hubel believes he has no Mind that guided his research, did he refuse his Nobel? (Answer: No.) Like anyone else, materialists and other determinists do not just sit around waiting for their molecules to motivate them. They reserve their notions of inevitability, of helplessness, for other people.
An ipsilon has two branches, as a sword has two edges: if one is empowered by his own will, so are the wills of others. An outside will can bend one’s own will to bring about major, long-lasting changes in the brain’s wiring and, hence, in behavior. This happens, of course, to all of us, every day---it is how a child learns language and the violin and why “practice makes perfect.” But if one’s will power can effect these changes so haphazardly, it can also happen, indirectly, as a result of someone else’s will. The process can be as innocent and beneficial as a tennis coach’s helping with your forehand---or as insidious as advertising or as sinister as brainwashing. Schwartz and Begley put it this way: “… several hundred ‘trials’ consisting of hearing spoken language spoken imperfectly… [might] result in a new brain---and possibly a new impairment---in people. The brain changes causing these impairments could become so severe that Merzenich coined a term to capture their magnitude: learning-based representational catastrophe.”
Because it has three arms, the ipsilon has also been used as a symbol of the Trinity. But its three arms can also represent three kinds of behavior---moral; immoral; and conditioned, which is to say, amoral: a representational catastrophe. We must choose among them while we still can. As the prison chaplain put it in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”The Camel’s Opposite End
Archimedes is supposed to have said about the lever, “Give me a firm spot to stand, and I will move the Earth.” The Center for Genetics and Society disapproves of many of the technologies its website discusses, such as inheritable genetic modification and reproductive cloning. But it gives no ultimate, bedrock reason why it does and presumably relies on some flavor of ethics, bio- or otherwise. Professional ethics are no substitute for morals, so in this respect, the CGS is like Archimedes, without a firm spot on which to stand. It hopes to be a Pandora who can selectively swat down the evils she has released, while allowing others to fly away.
Furthermore, the CGS disagrees that these technological changes are inevitable, “whether we like it or not,” arguing that “In a democratic society, people have the power to agree on the rules under which they wish to live.” Ironically, this naïve statement remains on the CGS website even after the 2004 election, when the voters in California chose overwhelmingly to amend its constitution to establish and extravagantly fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM. Its purpose is to promote and perform research cloning of human embryos---though as coy as Stratagene’s cloning manual, CIRM’s official statement of over ten thousand words includes no form of the term embryo and substitutes pluripotent or, like Stratagene, products.
The Center strongly opposed the CIRM, as did pro-life churches and some pro-abortion groups. (California’s Council of Churches, representing 1.5 million Protestants and Orthodox, supported it, however.) Yet CIRM became law, thanks to its misleading official statement and mostly to a campaign led and financed by people, biotech companies, and universities that stand to directly benefit from the $3 billion it will hand out. (Crime may not pay, but CIRM does.) Its opponents warned of not only the evils of embryonic stem cell research but also of the waste, cronyism, and corruption built into CIRM.
The demonic N.I.C.E. of Lewis’ space trilogy want, as Pearce puts it, to implement “all the ‘progressive’ wonders of the eugenically correct state.” So, while demons are neither necessary nor sufficient for evil, it would be, well, nice if N.I.C.E. could be seen as an ancestor of CIRM. But so far CIRM has not shown any sign of intelligent control, demonic or otherwise. It is not the camel’s nose inside the tent flap; it is behaving more like the camel’s opposite end. In the few months since the election, CIRM has managed to confirm the warnings of its detractors and to disappoint its supporters, some of whom now seek, too late, ways to rein it in---even while praising it with faint damnation. CIRM is not N.I.C.E.; it is a slippery slope into a money pit, or worse, and will become just another strand in the web of amoral and incompetent organizations that enmesh us.
If something as blatant and clumsy as CIRM elbowed its way into California’s constitution, then the Center for Genetics and Society (and we) would be unrealistic to believe that mere rhetoric can derail other such efforts that will themselves, in the long run, grossly warp the electoral process. In the short run, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York already seek to follow California into embryonic research; their announcements indicate they regard it as just good business, a way of keeping up with the Gomezes. And where groups like the Raelians may be crackpots, these people are crackpots with money and influence.
And lawyers: nowadays, a “right” claimed is very nearly a right earned. The Raelians shrewdly sponsor a website, www.HumanCloneRights.org, to promote what its name suggests, and attorney Mark Eibert (http://reason.com/opeds/eibert.shtml) said in 2001 he was preparing court challenges to establish human reproductive cloning as a legal right. Once established legally and politically as a “right,” cloning, for example, will become a moot issue, a mere matter of personal preference---like abortion and same-sex marriage. Too, the financial interests naturally attracted to such an activity will make it difficult to reverse politically. Again, abortion, because of the income it generates for many of its proponents, is an excellent parallel.
This process is hardly new: Pearce considers that Lewis was, sixty years ago, representative of those who opposed “a drab egalitarian culture run by bureaucrats in which the sense of duty and responsibility would have no place amid the selfish demands for ‘rights.’”
It may seem like comparing apples to clockwork oranges, but these three efforts to nudge evolution along and defeat death share three characteristics: they complement, not compete with, each other and, while they claim to have only the best intentions, are threats to any form of free society.
Lewis realized that the “culture run by bureaucrats” might not be egalitarian, only drab; he put these words into the mouth of one of the leaders of N.I.C.E: “Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest.” And in The Abolition of Man he had already linked this taking charge directly with science: “. . . what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
There need be no grand conspiracy to dumb us down and take over our lives. Our Abolition, or Demolition, may just be our path of least resistance. After all, we have dreamed these dreams before---Hitler Youth and the Lebensborn, the New Soviet Man (who turned out to be an old Georgian thug), Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the good doctors Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Mengele. Unlike Dr. Jekyll, who drank his own concoction, the controllers, the conditioners, the manipulators will try to exclude themselves from their own techniques, to be unmoved movers.
It is possible that all these efforts will messily fail; the greater danger is that they will gloriously succeed. And the would-be unmoved movers likely will be caught up in their own systems, leaving no one free: all of us, the movers and the moved, are already bombarded with external stimuli of all kinds, every day. You reading this may not be at risk, but our children, and certainly their children, will be. It is already too late to stop at least some of these procedures from being attempted. For example, a culture that supports partial-birth abortion will do as it pleases with a clump of embryonic cells smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
Armed with the latest genetic and neuropsychiatric research, better techniques and chemicals, and decades of experience, successive generations of manipulators will grow more effective. Next time around, Raymond Shaw, the sniper in Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, will carry out his mission, and the Ludovico conditioning technique Burgess invented for A Clockwork Orange will not need to be reversed so as to “cure” Alex, its protagonist, of his passivity. The time after that, Raymond and Alex may each be designed for his role from the moment of conception in some Petri dish. Of course, just so many ducks in someone else’s row, novelists in this bleak future will never think to write of such matters, and you would never read this essay because I would never think to write it.
Nor will these efforts be the last. For example, surgical and chemical interventions to control behavior are outside the scope of this essay because their use is limited to criminals and the mentally ill. For now. All depends on definition: for example, Freud was not the last to consider religion a form of mental illness, and the Soviet Union will not be the last to act on Freud’s belief.
Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell.” In the centuries since we have gone from striving for Heaven to striving for Heaven on Earth. Now, to the extent we remain inward and quiet, we are ready to settle for a drab culture run by bureaucrats, an Earth on Earth, so long as it promises to be eternal. Instead, once we cannot choose, we shall remove man and woman, as well as God, from the equation, and our minds will make a Hell on Earth. •
© 2014 Salvo magazine. Published by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.