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  • Commentary:The Search for the Human
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

With such a rich collection of articles as this issue contains, the only excuse for a response must be the privilege that an overview bestows. Looking at the articles as a group, I am struck by the dynamic that emerges between recuperations into existing perspectives and openings into unexplored territories. If recuperation reassures because it references the security of established values, openings point toward the exhilaration of embracing the new. At stake are issues central to understanding what it means to be human in the twenty-first century, including the relation of humans to nonhuman others, the constitution of national borders and the construction of national identity, and last, but scarcely least, the enactment of narrative form. In shifting through the various arguments, texts, and contexts presented in the preceding pages, I think that a fuller, more accurate, and more humane picture emerges from the operation of the dynamic as a whole than is presented by any one article, excellent as they are as individual pieces.

The recuperative impulse is starkly evident in Niels Werber's comparison of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with Nazi ideology. In Werber's view, the parallels between Nazi propaganda and Tolkien's fictions, in which "purity" of blood is the premier qualification for imperial rule, help to explain Tolkien's wide popularity with German reading audiences. Surely the point is not that Tolkien functions as a proto-Nazi—a view that could scarcely be defended given his commitment to Englishness—but precisely because he is not a Nazi sympathizer, the familiar ring of "blood" consciousness in his fiction can be appreciated without the guilt that would attend it if presented in a Nazi framework. Although Werber's argument is not directly concerned with the new technologies, his article provides a useful context because it demonstrates the complex dynamics by which a repudiated past can be sutured onto an apparently disjunctive future.

A conservative stance toward the new technologies is perhaps most cogently articulated in David A. Kirby and Laura A. Gaither's "Genetic Coming of Age." The compelling issue they raise is the "impact . . . [of] the manipulation of one's genome by other humans . . . on the nature of [End Page 327] self-identity." They instance fictional examples where characters find profoundly disturbing the fact that their genetic makeup has been the result of deliberate design rather than random chance. Underlying Kirby and Gaither's analysis are a number of assumptions, including that identity is largely (although not entirely) the result of genetic encoding, that humans want to believe their identity is not determined by exterior forces, and most basic of all, that humans have a "self-identity" and believe this self-identity to be of inestimable value. The conservative thrust of their essay lies less in the conclusions they reach than in the questions they pose and the ways in which they ask and answer them. That popular fictions are concerned with issues of identity is scarcely news, but neither is it an indication how people in the future, living under significantly different circumstances than those that obtain now, will be likely to consider genetic engineering. Citing Jürgen Habermas and Bill McKibben, Kirby and Gaither seem to agree with these critics that genetic engineering infringes on informed consent and constitutes an unwarranted imposition, as Habermas puts it, of the past on the future.

In considering these questions, it would be helpful to distinguish between the potential of genetically determined traits—a theoretical limit inherent in the genome dictating, for example, the maximum height to which an individual can grow—and the realization of that potential. While the genome determines the limit, the actual genetic outcome is a complex blend of heredity and environmental factors; in the case of height, the height achieved is sensitively dependent on the nutrition available during the growing years. Conscientious parents who possess the resources naturally try to maximize the actualization of such traits as height and intelligence, activities that have most of their effects before the age of informed consent is reached. Parents who lack the resources, by contrast, will perforce be unable to help their...


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pp. 327-333
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