Man as His Own Maker

By David Heyd

By allowing humanity to fashion itself, technology expresses what is truly unique about our species.

The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature.
—Giovanni Pico della Mirandola1
Both common sense and philosophical metaphysics distinguish between entities associated with “natural kinds” and entities that are artificially categorized. This categorization of natural entities is not a product of the mind or of man’s interests, but is rather rooted in the structure of reality itself. In contrast, the categorization of non-natural entities is a matter of convention and functionality, which is dictated by tradition, self-interest, effective communication, etc. As a result, elements in chemistry such as gold, or species in biology such as “cat,” are considered natural kinds; whereas tables, countries, or theories are not. Aristotle believed that biological species are not only natural, but also eternal, i.e., cypress trees were always cypress trees and will forever remain so. Or, in regard to mankind, “man breeds man.” In other words, the humanity of man is an essential part of his nature and the reason it cannot change. Although Aristotle’s considerations were metaphysical and scientific, the perception of particular species as eternal is customary in theology as well. The division of flora and fauna into species was performed at the very moment of their creation by God, who determined the overall structure and order of reality. Furthermore, the creation of man in the image of God determines his eternal and unchanging nature. Unlike other biological species, man as “lord of creation” was endowed with a soul as well as a spiritual or mental essence, as Aristotle also maintained, and this essence constitutes the source of humanity’s eternal and immutable nature.
This traditional view of the world, and especially of man’s status within it, was cast into doubt during the modern era as a result of at least two scientific revolutions: the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, and the emergence of biotechnology in the twentieth. The evolutionary approach challenged the notion that species are eternal by reasoning that all biological species—including man—evolve and change their forms over time. In fact, when one looks at the progression of the human species over millions of years, it becomes starkly apparent that man does not breed man. The more recent innovations in genetic science and its accompanying technologies have far more challenging implications: that humans do not change so much as they modify themselves, controlling evolution itself and doing so in a very short period, perhaps even from one generation to the next. For example, on May 19 of this year, the English parliament voted down two attempts to ban the creation of hybrid embryos, which combine genetic material from human and non-human organisms. Although it is still illegal to transplant such embryos into the womb of a human or animal female, many believe the vote undermined both the metaphysical concept and the normative principle according to which “man breeds man.”2
As the above quotation by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola demonstrates, however, the modern crisis of the Aristotelian and biblical worldviews occurred long before the appearance of biotechnology and the theory of evolution; the crisis is, in fact, connected to an acute, even subversive revision that took place in the tradition of religious thought. Today we refer to this dramatic shift—which occurred as early as the fifteenth century—as “humanism,” of which Pico is considered a founder. In a deeper sense, the transformation in man’s view of himself—so dreaded and opposed by Prof. Leon Kass—is far from a late-twentieth-century development. It is, in fact, ironic that although this conceptual transformation is the root of the late-modern perspective that Prof. Kass sees as a threat to the foundations of humanity, it is customary to think of it as the essence of humanism. The detachment of man from a natural, eternal, and constant essence is manifest in Pico’s choice of wording, and although the content may seem shocking in light of the hubris that it contains, it is nonetheless presented as if it were the words of God himself: “We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.”3
There is, of course, no telling what Pico would have made of cloning or genetic-engineering practices. They are undoubtedly ethically problematic and require careful and levelheaded consideration. Yet Pico clearly voices a change in man’s metaphysical perspective on himself and his place in the world, while emphasizing the radical freedom that is an essential part of man’s self-fashioning. As a result of this change, all that remains of man’s essential nature is his ability to fashion his own form. Because of this, the nature of man ceases to be a constant and eternal truth and becomes fluid. The freedom given to man does not manifest itself in a need to fulfill a certain role in the world, as is required of other creatures, but rather in the ability to construct himself according to his own choices. To use Prof. Kass’s image, man can choose to be himself or to live as a buffalo. This is a radical understanding of humanism and anthropocentrism. Man is not the lord of creation in the sense that he occupies the highest position among the other creatures. Man, who is not tied down to an essential nature or a specified role in the cosmic alignment, is in a league of his own as he takes responsibility for his own destiny. Instead of the Aristotelian aspiration to realize his already existent nature, the modern man must instead define its characterizing features. Thus, to use Prof. Kass’s imagery, man designs not only the engine of the train, but also the engineer, and he knows not where he is headed, at least in the sense that he indeed has no predetermined destination or destiny.
There is no doubt that the humanistic revolution, Pico being only one of its exponents, left a metaphysical and ethical gap in its wake. Science—or scientism, to be precise—has attempted to fill this gap. Prof. Kass’s essay is essentially a frontal assault on this same “soulless scientism” which threatens to sterilize humanity and “eliminate all mystery” from our lives. The scathing pretentiousness of science undermines man’s dignity and destabilizes the foundations of his freedom. It erodes man’s understanding of himself as a noble and valued being and, even worse, nurtures the view of man as “raw material for manipulation and homogenization.” Prof. Kass presents us with a nightmare scenario in which the proliferation of the scientific approach leads to the “creation of a post-human society,” dehumanization, and moral bankruptcy. Against this threat, he employs a “human defense of the human,” which is on the one hand philosophical and on the other hand religious.
Before examining the nature and validity of Prof. Kass’s defense of our human image, we must determine whether the threat does indeed exist. It is difficult to ignore the science-fictional nature of a large part of his description of our scientific culture. Apocalyptic visions reminiscent of Aldous Huxley, mentioned by Prof. Kass, have great literary power and constitute an important intellectual exercise, but they are far from being an argument against science. Then again, Prof. Kass presents modern-day science in a biased and misguided manner. He sets up a straw man that is effortlessly knocked down. In fact, none of the biomedical technologies he cites are conceptually able to lead, whether intentionally or in their predicted outcomes, to Huxley’s dystopian world. Birth control pills assist couples in preventing unwanted pregnancies; in-vitro fertilization enables couples who suffer from infertility to become parents. The same goes for surrogacy, for although it complicates the traditional concept of family, and it is vital to avoid the exploitation of surrogate mothers, it would be quite odd to claim that such a practice poses a threat to “human nature.” Similarly, while a debate is currently raging over whether and how Ritalin should be prescribed to children, it is hard to see how this medication will produce any type of “brave new world.” Furthermore, Viagra and Prozac have profoundly changed people’s ability to cope with sexual dysfunction and depression, respectively, and while such changes, from a normative perspective, may seem unwelcome to some—though it remains unclear why this should be so—one surely cannot claim that they are dehumanizing. To be sure, cloning and genetic engineering are the most challenging cases Prof. Kass presents us with, and their development and implementation undoubtedly require caution and severe restrictions. But even if they eventually allow us to tailor some of our children’s characteristics (instead of leaving them up to genetic good fortune), it remains unclear whether anything will be detracted from our humanity. On the contrary, humans will simply extend their ability to control nature—one of humanity’s defining characteristics.4
The scientism that Prof. Kass so harshly condemns is in many ways a caricature of science. He himself states that science is morally neutral in and of itself and that investigating the purpose of man, the validity of his principles, and the meaning of life are not within his purview. And as he admits, the theory of evolution does not in any way question ethical perceptions of what is good or just—a claim most scientists would unanimously support. Even ambitious genetics experts who are uninhibited in their research would refrain from stating that a gene exists for free will or self-awareness. It would, of course, be absurd for them to claim that their ability to distinguish between true and false—for instance, in their scientific research—is a purely “genetic” matter. In other words, Prof. Kass is bursting through an already open door with his criticism of materialistic reductionism. As he himself claims, the existence of a mental world does not necessarily assume the existence of a “soul” in the sense of a separate entity that was granted to us by God. Today, every student of philosophy knows that the mental world can be explained as supervening the physical world—that is, not as separate or independent from the material, but also not as something we can simply reduce to the physical body. As a result, all respectable scientists agree that while an MRI test—widely examined by researchers of cognitive psychology and moral behavior—does indeed, and intriguingly so, chart the relevant areas in the brain that are associated with mental activity, the displayed image does not in any way describe the experience of feeling revenge or love, and it most certainly cannot determine whether these experiences are justified or authentic. The debate regarding determinism is exclusively a philosophical one. Science contributes nothing to either side of the argument. Even prior to the appearance of contemporary biological science, there were thinkers who believed in metaphysical determinism, while today there are philosophers who reject it, even after becoming acquainted with current scientific theories. And it is safe to say that those who believe in a deterministic viewpoint are in no way less humane or humanistic than their peers.
The picture Prof. Kass paints of modern-day scientific culture thus suffers from severe over-dramatization. It often seems that the purpose of his writing is to frighten his readers, recruit them to a counterattack, and help them come to their senses regarding not only a specific philosophical or religious stand, but one that also relates to human identity and, as he puts it, “the moral and spiritual health of our nation.” He is referring to the United States, but this could apply to all Western countries. The apocalyptic tone of Prof. Kass’s prophecy is no more rooted in reality than his estimation of our culture’s grandiose faith in scientism. Both are exaggerated. The fear that science will “eliminate all mystery” from our lives is unfounded. Not only is science incapable of doing so, but a substantial part of scientists’ determination to study the world stems precisely from this sense of mystery.5
The attempt to explain—scientifically or otherwise—human phenomena such as love, creativity, faith in God, and moral judgment is not new, as one might think from Prof. Kass’s essay. It has also never been perceived as a threat to the significance or importance of these phenomena to our lives. While there are “aggressive” scientists who ask, in the name of scientific development, to remove certain moral restrictions that hinder their research, I have yet to meet a scientist who supports the elimination of all moral restrictions due to the fact that they are merely neuro-physiological processes.

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