May 4, 2008

The Future of Human Nature

Bodies stuffed with prosthesis to boost performance, the intelligence of angels available on hard drives, these are fantastical images. There is a fusion, between the organically grown and technologically made on the one hand, and the separation of the human mind from live subjectivity on the other.

Whether these speculations are the product of a feverish imagination or serious predictions, I refer to them only as examples of an instrumentalization of human nature initiating a change in our self-understanding as a species.

The manipulation of the human genome, which is being aggressively decoded, and the hope entertained by certain scientists of soon being able to take evolution into their own hands, after all, uproot the distinction between the subjective and the objective, the naturally grown and technologically made, man and machine. What is at stake is the future of the human species as we know it, and our ability to conceive of ourselves as the authors of our own life stories.

The ruthless intrusion into the makeup of the human genome of the embryo will blur the intuitive distinction between the grown and the made, ones “self” and the engineers “program”—with repercussions reaching as far as the self-reference of the person to his or her own bodily existence. The vanishing point of self-hood lies somewhere in the extent to which an adolescent’s body, for example, is revealed to him as eugenically manipulated, as something which is also “made.” Here the first-person perspective of “being-oneself” collides with the third-person external perspective of “being-an-observer-to-one’s-own-life.”

“Did I do that?” the adolescent asks himself, “or was that the hand of my genetic engineer, reaching through my genome, who really chose to do that for me?”

Genetically fixed demands are irreversible and cannot be responded to. Will the adolescent ever feel like the undivided author of his own life story again, or but a co-author, or worse, less? And who will be held responsible for his actions? The programming intentions of parents or of the state might have existential consequences for the pre-programmed adolescent. The change would take place in the mind.

This does not seem like an enhancement to me, but rather the exercise of power of those living today over those coming after. The other side of genetic power today, is the future bondage of the living dead. How might this new and a-symmetrical power of the past over the future be shattered?