Wesley J. Smith excels at making complicated and controversial biotechnologies easier to understand while exposing the tricks and rationalizations that are oftentimes used to advance them. His latest book offers an inventory of the interested parties in these matters, from ethicists to ideologues and cult leaders, to scientists, celebrities, politicians, and businessmen. But the most essential and durable part of Smith's book is the author's uncompromising yet carefully considered arguments, which will hold, while various procedures, and those devoted to them, come and go. Even if his opponents win, if the sort of technologies he opposes became widespread, Smith will be vindicatedalthough perhaps there is not much consolation in being right about the ways in which things can go wrong.
The title of the book is wry but not entirely misleading. The real value of any actual consumer's guide is found not in its positive endorsements but in its warnings to potential buyers regarding products they should avoid. Smith is arguing that certain technologiesthose which imply a rejection of the inherent value of human lifeshould never be allowed to reach the marketplace in the first place. Like a consumer's guide, the book also details technologies which Smith endorses, those he finds promising and consistent with the value of human life. Medicine is a genuine good that is truly beneficial to human life. However, as the ancients knew, knowledge of health can be used either to heal or to poison. The good that medicine accomplishes is no reason to overlook its dangerous misuses, whether willful or misguided.
Smith's opponents might want to caricature him as the product of some unenlightened anti-science extremism, probably based in a religious radicalism that revels in the suffering of others and yearns to reinstitute the dark ages. But Smith shows why an unlimited enthusiasm for biotechnology is merely another substitute for religion, one driven by a disturbing "futuristic misanthropy" that aims to change human nature itself and is therefore incompatible with a politics of freedom and equality. Smith targets technologies that seek to escape the human condition by turning human life into "so much meat" and "manufactured products." He goes after "Personhood Theory," which was contrived specifically for designating some part of humanity as available for use, without reservation. He criticizes transhumanism, a movement based on a discontentment with the human condition so deep that it can only be reckoned in the end as a kind of hatred of humanity. Transhumanists cannot stand the idea that there is something very good about being human. They measure humanity from the perspective of some future condition so superior to mere humanity that even the life of the most fortunate, happy, and healthy human being looks miserable and insignificant. (Personally, I find something comical about the transhumanists' yearning to manufacture intelligences that will so far exceed the capacities of the merely human mind, since in imagining them they indirectly concede that their own thoughts are nothing more than the products of the lowest order of intelligence.)
Smith identifies embryonic stem cell research as "a line of no return" and "the shot of a starter's pistol to begin the race" because it fully objectifies and dehumanizes human life. And he shows why his concern for "slippery slopes" is plausible. Biotech advocates try to obtain funding for and acceptance of each new controversial step in their project while offering assurances that they will not proceed toward more controversial activities. But their sights are always set on their furthermost goals, and every concession they gain from those who would limit their activities only brings them closer to winning the next concession. Each successive step becomes that much easier to justify and harder to resist based on the precedents set and principles already overstepped. Limitations upon scientific activity are only ever accepted "for now." Meanwhile, the public generally gets used to innovations already in practice and even becomes complicit in them and hopes for additional benefits from them.
Human cloning is a watershed technology. Smith is certain that a new eugenics will follow from cloning, genetic engineering, and other technologies. He explains how the manufacture of human or enhanced human or transhuman life cannot be reconciled with equality and freedom, either in principle or in practice. The gradual nature of progress alone guarantees inequality in the project's results. And as the World Controller in Huxley's Brave New World knows, you cannot make everyone an "Alpha-Double-Plus" and then expect "happiness and stability" in society. The egalitarian utopians among the advocates of unlimited advances in biotechnology must either be fooling themselves or trying to fool you. But even a eugenics that follows from ostensibly free individual choices (assuming the state did not take it overalthough it would of course, Smith observes) involves practices which cannot be neatly relegated to the private realm. The direct refashioning of humanity affects the constitution of society.
Smith emphasizes the urgency of taking steps now to prohibit the use of emerging biotechnologies inconsistent with a respect for human life, arguing, "we will have only one chance to get it right." We live in a precarious time when technologies that thoroughly exploit and destroy human life in order to manufacture or reengineer it still have the feel of fantasy fiction to them even though headlines announcing their reality or proximity reach us with increasing frequency. Their proponents like to cultivate a sense that these technologies are not quite immanent but nevertheless inevitable. They raise false hopes which only exacerbate rather than relieve suffering. Some proponents portray these technologies as consistent with liberty understood as individual choice and therefore morally unproblematic, taking advantage of the "'me' mindset"even though choice alone never justifies anything. Others argue that new technologies will promote a diversity somehow in harmony with equality. Still others insist that all scientific developments are required by justice, conjuring up new rights and then seeking judges to uphold them. If their moral arguments undermine themselves and collapse upon inspection, it is of little concern to people for whom moral rectitude is ultimately a low priority. Their rhetoric is meant to sell in the contemporary democratic marketplace.
The greatest strength of this book is Smith's portrayal of these issues as being not merely about metaphysics or religion or morals, but about fundamental political questions. In some ideal sense, science would be apolitical and dispassionate, but throughout the book Smith addresses the myriad ways in which science is always political. Scientists have their own material interests. They are advocates of specific policies. They form factions and engage in internecine quarrels. They wield tremendous powers which may be used for good or evil. They make claims regarding the truth of things. They affect the ways in which people live their lives and the opinions that they hold. But specialists in the natural sciences are rarely experts in the science of politics. They do not know what is best for society. While scientific inquiry should be for the most part free, scientists are not and should not be allowed to become judges in their own casethis is the root of tyranny.
The quarrel between scientists and those who would limit their activities is a contest over who should rule, a dispute regarding the meaning and limits of freedom and over the prioritization of the fundamental goods that a free people must attempt to balance. These technologies bring into question the meaning of equality and the conditions necessary for preserving it. They raise the issue of who has a right to claim membership in a political community and on what terms. These will become constitutional questions. There is good reason to suspect that statutes will not suffice to safeguard the human community against challenges to a conception of the natural order which the founders did not feel a need to define explicitly. But devising an amendment that would protect humanity against all posthuman designs will be quite a task.
While Smith reveals the lure of fame, fortune, and pretensions to godhood, he acknowledges that many researchers remain genuinely moved by beneficence to some degree. Smith is also optimistic that the partisans of liberal democracy will defend both human nature and the regime that best accommodates it if they are made better aware of what is being attempted, and what is at stake.