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?

esearcher works with embryonic stem cells
A researcher at France's CNRS works with embryonic stem cells.

Photo by Anne-Christine Pouloulat/AFP/Getty Images.

Nobody is immune from the feeling that change is accelerating with each passing year. This sense of "future shock" is perhaps most closely associated with information technology. We've all experienced the anxiety, frustration, and resentment that accompany the introduction of a new version of software on which we depend, or the realization that people younger than ourselves have adopted a new technology that makes their lifestyle seem very different from our own.

Worries about rapid change also bubble up in response to scientific progress, especially when it raises moral questions. We've seen this time and again with controversies over evolution, reproductive rights, the origin of the universe, and nearly all issues in science that relate to human values.

Biology is an especially volatile source of sensitivities. The old biology was mainly observational, but the new biology, or biotechnology—including stem cells, embryo research, synthetic biology, and reproductive technology—has unprecedented power to change basic life processes.

Such sensitivities are understandable. People rightly feel that high stakes are involved when science challenges our customary and largely workable moral framework.

And there is, of course, hyperbole associated with biotech. But even if only some of the predictions bear fruit, the new biology will challenge everything in its path, including our understanding of ourselves, our relationship with the world, our social arrangements and values, and our political systems. The new biology is thus becoming part of political life. Candidates for national political office need to have staked out positions on these issues.

Biology and politics already intersect, of course. A good example is the abortion controversy, a recurrent theme in the United States since the 1970s, with both sides trying to influence the decision over whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

But this issue is relatively uncomplicated compared with what is to come. The straightforwardness of the available positions (anti-abortion or pro-choice) is vastly outstripped by the scenarios that will be forced on us by the new biology.

One recent example is the controversy over the "three-parent embryo." This is a technology for avoiding mitochondrial disease whereby nuclear DNA from an egg with defective mitochondria is injected into an egg from another woman with healthy mitochondria, and the resulting egg can then be fertilized. To some this is perfectly acceptable. To others it smacks of eugenics. This is just one example of how, in the early 21st century, we are crossing the threshold to a new biopolitical world.

Already there are more protagonists than in the past. Science, the state, industry, and religious organizations are just some of the parties vying for control.

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.

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. He is the author of Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century.