(This is a reaction to Gregory Stock’s lecture, “To Upgrade is Human” on TED Talks)
Gregory Stock expressed his convictions, rather matter-of-factly, about a future where humanity embraces, enjoys, and takes advantage of the fruits of biotechnology, a future where our evolution is in our hands. The philosophy is simple: to upgrade is human. The ethical and moral conflicts along the way are not much of a hurdle. He says, “We shouldn’t kid ourselves and think that we’re going to reach a consensus about these things.” We will go down that path, as a matter of course.
Stock’s clear vision of the emerging technologies in biotechnology is one resulting from an honest view of what strikes a chord in our hearts. It is honest practicality. When we have the tools, see the benefits, and have little or no one to hold us back, why not? That’s simply how we are going to come to terms with this power.
The utility will be discreet at first, but it will gradually develop into full-blown gratification of our wants. Presently it’s the righteous efforts to get rid of genetic diseases. Then when we know enough, it will advance to not just diseases but to lesser conditions that may have genetic roots. Then we’ll choose personalities and traits. We will stop or reverse aging, make our emotions better, and dictate what our children will be like. To see these benefits does not require leaps of imagination. The only ones holding us back are the technology, its accessibility, and the public’s and authorities’ approval. Approval will not be hard to come by because “it is easy to become seduced by what technology can offer.” Execution will be easy because the research is well-funded. The motivation is there because “it is just in our nature to use our technology to improve our lives”, Stock says.
But what else is in our nature? Using tools is not what makes us special in the animal kingdom; more importantly it is that we are able to see the future of our actions. Cause and consequence, control versus freedom, benefits versus harm, these opposing concepts exist because of our capacity to see what lies ahead based on what we see or do now.
What Stock said will come true, but only if we share the same attitude as his. It all comes down to attitude. If we are honest about our wants, it will be a disservice to ourselves not to use the technology that is there, ripe for the picking. Eden’s forbidden fruit, mythology’s Pandora’s box – it’s the same recurring theme throughout human history because indeed it is in our nature.
The more I think about it, the more I succumb to it. All one needs to see is how everything around us has been transformed to our desires. Humanity has always cheated nature from the discovery of fire and the wheel up to the present’s use of marvellous machinery. The ultimate cheat that caps them all is DNA technology, because through it, we will be changing ourselves and everything around us from the inside-out, which is undoubtedly more powerful than manipulating things from the outside or their surface. It cheats nature to its core because living things are forced to evolve to our liking, not to what nature intends.
What else is in our nature? To find short-term solutions, to make everything work for our own motives and to be biased to this end in each of our undertakings, the objective world of science included. Wisdom is one of our weakest features, because we just cannot and will not see the complete picture. So errors are bound to happen intended and inadvertent alike. The success of the human species is more at risk as our technology gets more and more powerful, and as our wisdom and morals fail to keep up with it.
Stock quoted Thucidites that the bravest are those who meet what lies before them, both glory and danger alike. But we do not really need bravery to face glory; we need it more to face the danger ahead.