The report on the Columbia space shuttle disaster by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board thoroughly overshadowed a significant NASA accomplishment this week. Early in the morning on August 25, NASA launched the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, the last of NASA's series of Great Observatories, with the others being the Hubble Space Telescope (for visible light), Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. The SITF will essentially give astronomers heat-sensing night-vision goggles using the same technology that lets firefighters make their way through dark, smoky rooms. Potential targets of the observatory's infrared sight will be planet-forming disks around stars, brown dwarfs, and distant galaxies billions of light years away. "The Space Infrared Telescope Facility will detect objects that have been too cold, too hidden in dust, or too far away to be seen by other space observatories," says Michael Werner, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The SITF is expected to observe the cosmos for up to five years.
Today marks the final installment in our Next News debate about whether humankind should embark upon a technological journey to become post-human by radically altering ourselves through genetic engineering or nanotechnology or advanced computing. Simon Smith, editor-in-chief of the webzine Betterhumans is all for it, while Eric Cohen, editor and founder of the journal The New Atlantis has grave doubts.
Cohen: Simon, you have brought our debate to a point: Should human beings "destroy" themselves to become something better? Should the "seed" commit suicide to become the "tree"? Your image of the seed is telling on many levels. For one thing, it suggests that our quest to become "something better" will likely have something to do with new ways of making babies, new ways of making our progeny better than we are. Take genetic engineering: To make this workso that we might engineer the genetic traits of our children the way we desirewould require years of experimentation along the way: years of producing failed models and prototypes, producing disfigured and discarded babies, harmed by us in the very act of their creation. In the quest to become something better as a species, we would degrade ourselves as a people, with little regard for the dignity and inviolability of each individual, including and especially the dignity of the most vulnerable among us. What elseor who elsewill we destroy on the way to perfection, on the way to becoming something better? And what will this new, better, post-human society really look like? Will we swim, hike, and take walks? Will we marry, make love, and have children? Will we mourn, console, and try to redeem the past with human memory? Will we risk our lives in noble causes or emergencies to save another? I suspect you agree that we cannot really know what life would be like in a post-human futurejust as the seed cannot fathom life as a tree. But you seem to believestrange, given your views on embryos, which deny the continuity of life from seed to treethat "we" human beings (as individuals) will be around to enjoy this new, better, post-biological world. Or else: You see our suicide as a noble sacrifice in the name of progress; as man's martyrdom for evolution.
In the end, I think you make two errors in two opposite directions: the first is seeing human beings as more powerful, more capable of remaking our own natures, than we really are; the second is disliking human liferesenting its failings, imperfections, and limitationsmore than you should.
And this gets us to the meaning of change: technological change, social change, changes in manners and morals. A wise person does not lament all change, and he is certainly thankful for the technologies that make his life better or possible in so many ways. It would be inhuman not to have such gratitude. But he also does not believe that all change is good, or that the technological benefits we reap do not often come with costs. Many of the best human livesthe most courageous, most knowing, most holywere lived long ago. Much about human life does not change. And I am not so eager to gamble the distinctive love and excellence of human life in the vain hope that post-humanity will be better. You simply have not made a compelling enough case.
Smith: Hello, Eric. I don't see what I'm describing as "committing suicide" any more than a seed "commits suicide." A seed grows into a tree. It becomes a post-seed. It doesn't become a nonseed.
And with humans, this evolution into "something better" need not damage babies. Your assertion that genetic engineering would require "years of experimentation" that would produce "failed models and prototypes" and "disfigured and discarded babies" is scaremongering. First, fully sentient and intelligent people could perform gene therapy on themselves rather than their children, and beneficial changes could get passed to offspring (would you deny gene-altered parents the right to have kids?). Second, we already have precedents for testing medical treatments that prevent the scenario you describe, and we're improving them all the time (replace "genetic engineering" with "pharmaceuticals" and the absurdity of your scenario reveals itself clearly). Third, improved embryo testing would help prevent the development of "disfigured" babies, and since I and many other people don't believe that embryos are people, discarding them is not the same as discarding a baby.
But in explaining your concerns about post-human society, you reveal your true fears: that in creating the future we must destroy the past. This is more scaremongering. The important thing isn't whether I or anyone else believes that post-humans will "swim, hike, and take walks," that they will "marry, make love, and have children" or that they will "try to redeem the past with human memory." The point is that the future is what we make it. There are many valuable things about humans that I and others feel are worth saving and enhancing, and it is only through the transition to a post-human state that we will be able to do so. All the things that you find so valuable won't survive an asteroid impact or a dying sun, nor the many other existential risks that could eliminate humans in their current fragile state.
You think that my errors are twofold, believing too much in human capability and disliking human life. Perhaps I am an optimist, but I am such because despite all our challenges we have done such things as survive a Stone Age existence with relatively weak bodies, expand equality, develop science that overcomes ignorance, and create technologies that ameliorate suffering. I don't dislike human life at all. Rather, I recognize that in order to protect and build upon what's valuable requires taking the next step: moving beyond the current human biological form.
In the end, whether you want to gamble what you like about human life for post-humanity is your choice. But choosing to not take the gamble dooms the human species to stasis and extinction, guaranteeing the elimination of what you hold dear and preventing progress that will lead to more things for us to value. This is a sure bet.