Are You a Bioconservative, a Bioprogressive, or a Transhumanist?

Stories from New Scientist.
Sept. 2 2012 6:06 AM

New Biology Unites Strange Political Bedfellows

Are three-parent embryos a conservative or liberal issue?

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What is more, familiar ideological labels are poor predictors of policy positions. U.S. anti-genetic-engineering activist Jeremy Rifkin was perhaps the first to notice that anxieties about biology cut across the political spectrum. He noted more than a decade ago in an article for U.K. newspaper the Guardian: "The current debate over ... biotech issues, is beginning to reshape the whole political landscape in ways no one could have imagined just a few years ago."

Rifkin was right: Biopolitical issues increasingly make for strange political bedfellows and alliances of convenience as people with differing sympathies make common cause.

In one camp are bioprogressives, who are supportive of the new biology from opposite sides of the traditional political divide. Those on the left emphasize regulation, equality, and the common good, while those on the right emphasize free enterprise as the most reliable source of innovation.

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There are also several flavors of bioconservative. Some are religious traditionalists; others are secular neoconservatives who regard science as a threat to human dignity, moral equality, and human nature itself. Bioconservatives are increasingly joined by "green" progressives who harbor deep doubts about the implications of science for social justice.

The bête noire of all types of bioconservatives is the small but growing movement called transhumanism, which enthusiastically embraces technological change. Transhumanists see the prospects for drastic enhancements in what bioconservatives regard as an essential human nature that is too precious and fragile to withstand manipulation.

In a foretaste of the strange, new biopolitical alliances to come, consider the shortage of organs for transplant. The established view among liberals and conservatives is that virtually any incentive for donation is morally unacceptable. But some libertarians and some on the left decry the loss of thousands of lives each year while suitable organs, especially kidneys, are not made available. Although they are poles apart on most issues, they agree that policy options for incentives should be explored.

It's hard to say how great the scale of political changes wrought by the new biology will be, but there can be little doubt that we are heading into uncharted territory. We might hold out hope that all sides can be convinced that science, within carefully negotiated limits, can enhance and enrich our quality of life. But what counts as enhancement and enrichment will be a matter of negotiation. That is the subject matter of the new biopolitics.

If politics is, as I believe it is, the only alternative to violence, these matters are worthy of the best politics we can muster.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

Jonathan D. Moreno is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His latest book is The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (Bellevue Literary Press).