Some synthetic biologists and digital techies are taking steps that could lead eventually to remaking or replacing our single, carbon-based human race.
Chinese biologists, for example, have begun “gene editing,” of non-viable human embryos, using a mnemonically convenient technique known as “CRISPR”[i]. The technique could be a precursor to “editing” inheritable human characteristics. “Human-directed evolution” is now on humanity’s agenda. This is occurring before most of humanity understands how evolution based on differential survival of random variations has brought life on this planet to its current state.
Other biologists and humanists, meanwhile, are wisely proposing a moratorium on producing inheritable changes in human genetic material. The moratorium might allow time for scientific and public discussion before taking existentially risky steps toward a different kind (or kinds) of humanity than we have known before.[ii] The scientific discussion might begin with an international conference like the one that took place in 1975 near Asilomar, California, to consider the potential risks of recombinant DNA and the genetic modification of non-human organisms.
On the techie side, some in Silicon Valley are at work on replacing or supplementing living tissues with mechanical – perhaps silicon-based — devices. Google guru Ray Kurzweil, for one, envisions a “singularity” in the 2020’s, in which merged – and vastly improved – human/machine entities will begin to enjoy far more intelligent and longer life than we have ever known. In this technological perspective, consciousness (formerly known as “soul” or “spirit”), is simply a function of organized complexity, in no way limited to the biological, carbon-based entities we have, up to this point, known as “life”.
The number of offspring in this imagined future would presumably be radically reduced. And the random evolutionary improvements generated by the four billion year – old system of life/death/renewed-and-better-adapted life would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
If the choice were only between competitive carbon-based genetic engineering and commercial silicon chip upgrades, it’s not clear that most of us would have a dog – or a vote — in that fight. Most of us, to be sure, welcome the continuing advance of human knowledge, and the conscious pursuit of a technically better life for humanity and all this Earth’s creatures. As with nuclear power in earlier decades, however, we cannot afford to leave development of a radically different future path for humanity – and all life on Earth — only to a small number of scientists, tech wizards and profit-seekers.
We must all seek, through our educational, political and other broad-based systems, to apply suitable ethical and democratic political norms to the dramatically new reality we are entering.
As one guide through the moral thicket, participants in a possible new Asilomar gathering for science professionals – and all of us as we become more informed — might consider concerns raised a decade ago by Tibetan Buddhist leader Tensin Gyatso, among others. The “Dalai Lama” has committed much of his time to building friendships between scientific and spiritual thinkers, and complementarities between eastern and western paths to knowledge. Herewith some passages from Gyatso’s “The Universe in a Single Atom”[iii]:
# (how will) “the development of new technological options (be) combined with the financial calculations of business and the political and economic calculations of governments?”
# “Given that genetic technology is bound to remain costly, at least for the foreseeable future, once it is allowed, for a long period it will be available only to a small segment of human society, namely the rich…. (Will it) breed a ruling elite?”
# “…decisions about the course of research..cannot be left [only] in the hands of scientists, business interests, or government officials…. We need a much higher level of public involvement.”
# “..we need…a holistic and integrated outlook at the level of human society that recognizes the fundamentally interconnected nature of all living beings and their environment.”
# “A necessary principle is a spirit of oneness of the entire human species.”
# “All human beings have an equal value and an equal potential for goodness. ”
# We must all…keep in mind the primary goal of the well-being of humanity as a whole and the planet we inhabit… If we do not look after this home, what else are we charged to do on this earth?
[i] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-embryo-editing-sparks-epic-ethical-debate/ citing article by David Cyranoski, Sara Reardon in Nature magazine, April 29, 2015
[iii] Tenzyn Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality,” Harmony Books, New York, 2005. As the Dalai Lama wrote this work, the Silicon Valley vision of a mixed biological / technological future for life was not yet on the public agenda.