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  • The Ridicule of Time: Science Fiction, Bioethics, and the Posthuman
  • Jay Clayton (bio)

Suppose you were a science fiction fan, a Trekkie, and a transhumanist; you once paid to attend a seminar with Raël, knew all about Extropy back in the day, and subscribed to Longevity Meme Newsletter; you have read articles about an “immortality gene” and were thrilled to see Science publish a genome-wide association study in 2010 identifying 150 genes that might improve your chances of living to 100; and you practice extreme caloric restriction while spending a fortune on dietary supplements. Over the years, you have zealously collected the following quotes but have forgotten the sources. Which of them do you think came from classic 1950s works of science fiction and which from publications by distinguished scientists, doctors, philosophers, and law professors?

  1. 1. We, or our descendents, will cease to be human in the sense in which we now understand that idea. (3)

  2. 2. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic—instantaneous. It has already begun. (181)

  3. 3. The new immortals, in the decisive sense, would not be like us at all. (265)

  4. 4. Man will go into history along with the Java ape man, the Neanderthal beast man, and the Cro-Magnon Primitive. (187) [End Page 317]

  5. 5. Unlike the saber-toothed tiger . . . Homo sapiens would spawn its own successors by fast-forwarding evolution. (17)

  6. 6. With the great lizards, with the sabertooth tiger, and the bison, [humanity’s] day is done.1 (43)

  7. 7. We will see them as a threat to us, and thus seek to imprison or simply kill them before they kill us. (286)

  8. 8. We evolved. We’re the next step up. (170)

The odd-numbered quotations are by prominent academics: (1) John Harris, Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester’s law school; (3) Leon R. Kass, Harding Professor of Social Thought at the University of Chicago; (5) Gregory Stock, former director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at UCLA’s medical school; and (7) George Annas, Warren Distinguished Professor at Boston University. The even-numbered quotations are by some of the most revered figures in SF: (2) Arthur C. Clarke, (4) Robert A. Heinlein, (6) A. E. van Vogt, and (8) Theodore Sturgeon.

The boundary between science fiction and fact is often at issue in contemporary debates over the posthuman. Genetic enhancement and longevity research provoke fervent debate between those who favor such research and others who think it is wrong to tamper with fundamental aspects of the human. Each side thinks that distinguishing realistic possibilities from wild speculations is a priority. Comically, though, each side uses the epithet “science fiction” as a way of trivializing the positions of the other, while proclaiming that the research they cite is on the verge of transforming human nature and that the future scenarios they describe are plausible and impending. This article brings the bio-ethical debate about posthumanism into contact with a massive, culturally significant body of writing on the topic, popular science fiction from the midtwentieth through the twenty-first centuries. The nightmares of science fiction haunt the bioethical imagination, exerting a pervasive but unexamined influence on its analyses. But the failure of bioethicists to examine the images, metaphors, and storylines of the science fiction that they so frequently invoke distorts their findings and recommendations.

As is perhaps unsurprising, almost none of the people who employ SF as an epithet have the foggiest idea of what they are talking about. Most give no sign of ever having read any science fiction, unless you count Brave New World (1932), which everyone invokes without fail. In addition to Aldous Huxley’s dystopia, they may have read well-publicized mainstream dystopias by established literary figures, such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005); most have [End Page 318] seen a few dystopian movies (Gattaca [1997] is the most frequently mentioned). But there is little evidence that they have delved into the SF genre that they scorn. Hence you see over and over again the mistaken notion that SF warns against the consequences of biotechnology. Dystopia...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 317-340
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-09
Open Access
No
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