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Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares

The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering

Maxwell J. Mehlman

Publication Year: 2012

Transhumanists advocate for the development and distribution of technologies that will enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities, even eliminate aging. What if the dystopian futures and transhumanist utopias found in the pages of science journals, Margaret Atwood novels, films like Gattaca, and television shows like Dark Angel are realized? What kind of world would humans have created? Maxwell J. Mehlman considers the promises and perils of using genetic engineering in an effort to direct the future course of human evolution. He addresses scientific and ethical issues without choosing sides in the dispute between transhumanists and their challengers. However, Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares reveals that radical forms of genetic engineering could become a reality much sooner than many people think, and that we need to encourage risk management efforts. Whether scientists are dubious or optimistic about the prospects for directed evolution, they tend to agree on two things. First, however long it takes to perfect the necessary technology, it is inevitable that humans will attempt to control their evolutionary future, and second, in the process of learning how to direct evolution, we are bound to make mistakes. Our responsibility is to learn how to balance innovation with caution.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

Support for the research on this book was provided by the Metanexus and Templeton Foundations under a grant from the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Arizona State University; by a grant to the center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law, Case Western Reserve University, by the Ethical, Legal, and...

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pp. 1-8

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Americans reject the theory of natural evolution. Some of them take a more literal view of the Bible and believe that God made humans pretty much in their present form within the past 10,000 years, while others are willing to accept scientific evidence of evolution but think that God...

PART ONE: What Is to Come?

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1 Visions of Heaven and Hell

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pp. 11-33

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to envisioning a future in which evolutionary engineering is commonplace; it is portrayed as either loathsome or sublime. The transhumanists are the cheerleaders, and some of them get downright giddy when they gaze into their crystal balls. Among the most hyperbolic is Simon Young, who started out as a piano player and composer...

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2 Thinking about the Unthinkable

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pp. 34-50

Worrying about threats to the future of humanity has become something of a cottage industry among academics. Cass Sunstein, Harvard law professor and director of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under the Obama administration, has written two books on the subject: Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle in 2004,1 and Worst-Case Scenarios...

PART TWO: The Hazards of Evolutionary Engineering

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3. Physical Harm to Children

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pp. 53-70

How dangerous would it be to try to manipulate the genes of children directly in an effort to control human evolution? We can get some idea of the risks involved by looking at what transpired when we altered the genes of plants and other animals. Many of these efforts have been highly successful, producing better crops and more nutritious food. But there have been enough....

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4. Psychosocial Harm to Children

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pp. 71-90

There is always the chance that faulty genetic engineering could inflict physical injuries on children. But even if the engineering worked, the desired modifications were successfully installed, and there was no immediate or obvious physical harm to the child, the child still might be worse off than if he or she had not been intentionally redesigned. In fact, some opponents of evolutionary...

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5. Broader Consequences for Society

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pp. 91-111

Engineered children could suffer considerably if regarded as freaks by those who were not engineered. But there is another factor that would significantly affect how engineered persons were viewed by others: genetic engineering is likely to be unaffordable for large segments of society. As discussed earlier, IVF, which would be a necessary first step in genetically modifying an embryo, costs about $50,000 for each live birth. Since this is the median household...

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6. The End of the Human Lineage

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pp. 112-131

Should society be reduced to a division between genetic haves and have-nots, the human species, along with other life on the planet, could be completely eliminated. Not all of the reasons that a lineage can fail are potential effects of evolutionary engineering. Lineages, like species, can die out because they lose their habitat.1 If the places where humans can live became uninhabitable...

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7. Evolution by Nature or by Human Design?

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pp. 132-153

Leon Kass, an outspoken opponent of genetic engineering, once summed up his aversion to evolutionary engineering with the following observation: “Though well-equipped, we know not who we are or where we are going.”1 Kass’s aphorisms often sacrifice clarity for grandiloquence, but it is usually worth the effort to figure out what he is getting at. What are we ignorant of? Well, for...

PART THREE: Managing Risk in Evolutionary Engineering

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8. Protecting the Children

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pp. 155-191

There are a number of ways in which evolutionary engineering could seriously harm those most immediately at risk, the children who were genetically modified. Children might be physically damaged by manipulations that went awry, a significant possibility given the complexities of human biology. Parents might make poor choices about how to modify their children that ended up compromising...

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9. Preserving Societal Cohesion

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pp. 192-200

It is possible that access to advantageous evolutionary engineering only by those who already enjoyed wealth and social privilege could fracture society into warring classes and provoke a rebellion by the unengineered who felt that they no longer had an equal opportunity to obtain social rewards. As Sharon Beder writes...

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10. Providing for Our Descendents

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pp. 201-207

Protecting future generations from evolutionary harm not only is a challenge distinct from protecting the children who are directly engineered or the institutions of civil society but is complicated by the difficulty of predicting downstream genetic harm. The outcomes of a number of genetic experiments can look good at first but result in injury to subsequent generations. Recall that...

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11. Safeguarding the Human Species

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pp. 208-228

In addition to protecting specific future persons from harm caused by the genetic modification of their forbearers, it is obviously also imperative to avoid imperiling the human lineage and its cumulative genetic inheritance. The protections against harming children will considerably reduce the risk of this happening by helping to prevent parents’ use of evolutionary engineering techniques...

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pp. 229-230

Jews from Eastern Europe have difficulty tracing their families back very far. Unlike Gentiles, we have no family bibles in which to engrave the names of our forbearers, and whatever records the synagogues kept were burned by the Nazis. I spent part of my childhood summers at my grandmother’s on my mother’s side, but my father’s parents died when I was a baby, and I never learned...


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pp. 231-266


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pp. 267-274

E-ISBN-13: 9781421407272
E-ISBN-10: 1421407272
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421406695
Print-ISBN-10: 1421406691

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012