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Book Review: Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares

11 March 2013
Appeared in BioNews 696

Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering

By Professor Maxwell Mehlman

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

ISBN-10: 1421406691, ISBN-13: 978-1421406695

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering' by Professor Maxwell Mehlman

Perhaps fortuitously, I started to read Maxwell Mehlman's book at the same time as Roy Porter's 'A Short History of Madness'. It was then difficult not to muse on what Jonathan Swift might have made of 'transhumanising scientists'. His satirising of scientists 'infected with lunacy' in the eighteenth century provides a hard to avoid parallel with Mehlman's very much not satirical account of biologists of the twentieth century.

Every school child now knows that molecular genetics is set to transform the world as we know it. Although exactly who 'we' are, is not specified; nor are we always told whether the transformation will be for good or ill. We can be reasonably certain though that most of the world's existing population will be dead before genetics' claims for medicine have any effect on them.

What Mehlman has picked up on is science's self-regarding notion that its purpose is to perfect the 'human race'. In other words, that it exists to correct the historical, including evolutionary, mistakes of the past. This is something nineteenth and early twentieth century scientists were hot on. They were keen to show that society's ills, criminality, moral decrepitude, weak mindedness, and above all, poverty, were biological in origin. If bad traits could be removed, all would be well. The technological fixes were 'obvious': forced sterilisation, incarceration and sexual segregation and, if all else failed, euthanasia and mass murder.

These measures are of course now widely frowned upon, although the notion of removing bad traits is still with us, and further extended with thoughts of enhancing the good traits. People might be made more intelligent, better looking, increasingly creative and so on. The genetics, argued to be able to remove diseases, might equally be deployed in the service of this even greater good.

Genetics offers the possibility, say scientists, not simply of ameliorating the human predicament but of transcending it. The term, 'transhumanisation' has been coined - directing evolution by genetic manipulation to produce the best possible human cultivars (or even a new species).

Of course this raises the issue of what 'best' means and, in any event, who decides. Exactly the problem Darwin himself faced, which was solved by Wallace and Herbert Spencer - namely reproductive success. But once 'best' has to be decided by people, 'bests' will proliferate. Look no further than horse or pigeon breeding. That brings us to Mehlman's book which, as the title suggests, is an account of some of the speculation on where genetic modification may lead.

'Evolutionary engineering could open us up to pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human has yet experienced', Mehlman cites of one scientist, and of another, 'The Holy Grail of enhancement is immortality'. Novelists, no doubt for good marketing reasons, tend to favour a nightmare dystopian scenario created by scientific hubris. They can be accused of exaggeration and unwarranted extrapolation. But as Mehlman comprehensively demonstrates, so can scientists, who are just as anxious to market their contribution to understanding in pursuit of fame and fortune.

Reading Mehlman, yet again I am struck by how little science seems to know of the human world; of its history (including science's own) and of the human predicament. How parochial a sovereign state science can be. As Mehlman points out scientists are not that strong on social policy, to put it mildly.

If the world does not face up to its problems and soon, evolution in the Darwinian sense, will solve them for us. So why not leave the last word to Darwin. 'If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin'. Get real, science.

Buy Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering from Amazon UK.

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