Biotech Debate Notes — Since

Biotech Debate Notes — Since Julian posted his, here are some of my notes for Wednesday AFF biotech debate. You’ll get the the thrust of some of what I said, although there was much more, and there’s no guarantee that I actually said any of the following. More on the debate later….



This forum is advertised as concerning “issues that divide the right.” Now, I doubt there’s much sense in the left/right distinction, but it’s certainly true that libertarians and conservatives share a number of important principles. To a certain extent, American libertarians and conservatives are both offspring of the Enlightenment classical liberal tradition, devoted to individual rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited government.

Now, libertarians and conservatives generally part ways when conservatives attempt to use the heavy coercive hand of the state to impose on all of us a narrow set of moral dictates. I was delighted to see that both Ramesh and Justin in their writings try to avoid giving the impression that they’re up to this sort of conservative moral imposition. Instead, they acknowledge the moral authority of the libertarian philosophy by attempting to squeeze their convictions about cloning and genetic engineering into a compelling framework.

Ramesh argues that therapeutic cloning is homicide, because embryos are destroyed in the process, and embryos are beings with full moral standing. Justin argues that genetic enhancement deprives children of their freedom by subjecting their nature to their parent’s will. Now, if it’s true that destroying an embryos is tantamount to homicide, and that choosing the color of your child’s eyes enslaves them, then the stance of a defender of liberty would certainly be one of opposition.

While it’s nice that Justin & Ramesh acknowledge the appeal and power of libertarianism, their attempt to extend that appeal and power to their anti-cloning, anti-genetic manipulation preferences fails. Embryos are not persons, and destroying them is not homicide. Choosing improve your child’s genome is not a form of enslavement. If Justin and Ramesh are to wear the libertarian mantle, rather than simply advocate the state imposition of their moral preferences, they must show these claims to be true. But this they cannot do, because their claims are false.

If they want to be taken seriously, they need to provide us with argument rather than assertion.

In a National Review piece, Ramesh writes:

“This being [the embryo] is valuable simply because it is a human being and not because of any traits — sentience, hair, the ability to protect itself — that it happens to possess.”

It’s all right to say this, but we need some reason to believe it. A newly minted human embryo is a cluster of cells almost indiscernible from a newly minted dog embryo. Ramesh says it is valuable, that it is a person, has full moral standing “from the first moment” simply because it’s a human embryo. Now what makes the human embryo a human embryo, and hence valuable, while the almost identical dog embryo is just a dog embryo and not valuable. Well, the answer has to be that the one has human DNA, while the other doesn’t. But DNA is just a sequence of recipes for building proteins. So, Ramesh’s position comes down to the claim that some some sets of protein recipes confer intrinsic value, personhood, and full moral standing, while some don’t. This is mystifying. What’s the theory that explains how personhood emerges from certain sequences of molecules, but not from others, just in virtue of the pattern of the molecules. If Ramesh isn’t depending on any tendentious theological assumptions, he needs to give us this theory if we are to treat his claim as anything more than aspirational bluster.

In his Doublethink piece, concerning genetic enhancement, Justin writes,

“Parents who choose their child’s IQ, eye color, or athletic abilities, or tweak its genes to produce a musical virtuoso or math prodigy, are abrogating to themselves a frightening power over another human being. To the extent that biology determines our natures–which is to say, to quite an extent, though not in every way–there is no freedom if other people are manipulating the parts without our consent.”

Freedom is the absence of coercion or constraint. Justin needs to explain to us how tweaking genes to amp a kid’s IQ coerces them or constrains their choices in any way. Directly intervening to ensure blue eyes is no more coercive than a blue eyed gal choosing a mate with blue eyes. And tweaking the genes for vertical leap seems no more constraining than sending the kid to basketball camp. I can’t see the argument here. In the absence of an argument, we can’t accept that genetic manipulation is coercive, and thus that the state ought to disallow it.

Genetic science promises to be a huge boon for humanity. Embryonic stem cell research may open up therapies and cures for cancer patients, for Alzheimer’s (which is why Nancy Reagan is now a champion), for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries. All of today’s discussants are winners in the genetic lottery. The pursuit of happiness is surely enhanced by triumph over disease.

Reproductive cloning provides new hope for couples who want to have genetically related children, but now can’t. Cheap and simple enhancements, rather than fostering inequality, may in fact level the playing field, in addition to curing childhood disease. Conservatives have been powerful and effective advocates for the idea that parents, not the state, are best at making decisions about the welfare of their own children. I hope they don’t stop fighting for this idea.

Progress can be unsettling. The advent of vaccines was met with religiously inspired outrage. Fortunately, the forces of science and freedom prevailed, to which millions of us owe our very lives. I personally remember the debate about in vitro fertilization. It was said that we should not meddle with nature, or play god. Now, however, we’ve gotten used to it, no one much cares, human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us.

If we ban these technologies real people, with real hopes, dreams, aspiration, friends, and loved ones, will suffer and die. If you have a theory that says we have to let these people face agony and death, then it better be a damn good theory. But so far, opponents of biotechnology have shown us next to no theory at all.

[Later on, when the issue of human nature came up, I had the occasion to say something like this….]

In some sense the dispute over bio-engineering is probably not the deep issue here. The deep issue is about what it means to be human.

From a purely secular perspective, and that’s my perspective, human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection. To be human is to be a kind of animal with a certain set of genes. The thing that makes us special is that we have very unusual, complex and specialized brains that give us a spectacularly rich inner life, the possibility to relate to others on levels unknown to the rest of the animal kingdom, the ability to cooperate in complex ways for mutual advantage, and to articulate and reflect on all of this with an amazing degree of precision and discernment.

But we didn’t have to turn out this way. Evolution is a chancy process. Accordingly, human nature is not something that is not written into the deep structure of reality. What it is to be a human is a contingent historical fact that reflects countless improbable turns through the space of evolutionary possibility. Moreover, what we are is in no deep sense fixed. We have never stopped evolving. Human nature is changing, bit by bit, as we speak. We just happened to turn out this way. We might never have existed at all. Some other species very much like us, but different in important ways, might have existed instead. It follows that moral principles based in human nature are similarly contingent. If we had turned out differently, then the principles that ought to govern our behavior might have been different. Again, they aren’t deeply inscribed in the necessary structure of reality. This may be unsettling to some of us, but it’s TRUE. So you can either reconcile yourself to it, or retreat to the consolations of mystification and tradition. But it really is our reason that makes us special, and applying those powers to their utmost is precisely what leads us to the truth about our nature.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center