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Is Human Nature Obsolete?Review - Is Human Nature Obsolete?
Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the Human Condition
by Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey (Editors)
MIT Press, 2004
Review by Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)


Is Human Nature Obsolete? collects papers given in 2001 at a conference at the University of Scranton with an introduction and one paper written specifically for the anthology. Organizers and editors Harold Baillie and Timothy Casey asked the conference participants to address two questions:

(1)   Does the genetic engineering of humans require a new understanding of what it means to be human?

(2)   Does what we know already suggest there should be (and can be) effective limits to what can be done?

Baillie and Casey introduce the collection, summarizing each essay and conveying the tone of engaging and engaged conversation at the aforementioned conference.

As in many discussions of these topics, the focus shifts from genetic engineering in particular to take in germ line modification, cloning, various artificial insemination techniques, and abortion. I shall refer to this collection of topics by the term technological intervention in reproduction. The contributors also discuss the use of genetic and molecular techniques in other areas of medicine, and in agriculture, manufacturing, and body modification. When I refer to both medical and non-medical uses, I shall use the term genetic and molecular technological intervention, or GMTI. This conference included papers on the history and philosophy of technology in addition to papers on ethical issues. Several authors discuss whether technological intervention in reproduction is morally different from intervention by selective breeding and husbandry, which have a long history and whether the combination of technological intervention with corporate dominance of our culture makes for specific moral problems.

Two: Common Concerns

The first question Baillie and Casey ask the contributors to address suggests concerns and themes expressing unease about GMTI. The question assumes the possibility that GMTI could lead to a new understanding of human nature, or alternatively, assumes that some think a new understanding of human nature could result from GMTI. So, one broad concern is whether technological intervention at the genetic level alters human nature. If it does alter human nature, then that alteration would have implications for natural law ethics grounded in a specific philosophical anthropology that is common ground to several philosophers and theologians in this collection. Given natural law ethics' grounding in a philosophical anthropology, the editors' first question leads the contributors to consider what natural law ethics have to say about a technology that threatens to change the nature of that on which the ethics is grounded. Concern with GMTI threatens widely accepted moral norms and threatens traditional conceptions of the human and human nature pervades the essays. Expectably, concern for a threat leads some authors to think that what threatens is already attacking but in all cases these authors focus on what often gets dismissed, ignored, or derided by thinkers one would consider optimists about GMTI. In some contributions the attitude is stronger. Bethke Elshtain denounces technological intervention in reproduction as a "messianic project" and Rabinow expresses support for intense disillusionment with the claim that acquiring scientific knowledge is per se beneficial. I shall comment on three issues that arise from viewing GMTI with unease: (1) a concern to define and defend a concept of human nature not only based in Aristotelian metaphysics but also having wider appeal; (2) exploring the historical, cultural, and literary expressions of unease about GMTI and traditional conceptions of human nature; (3) the contrast between the controlled body and the emerging self. While discussing all three issues, the authors consider ethical evaluation of individual decisions and social institutions pertaining to GMTI.

Three: Defining and Defending a Concept of Human Nature

The essays by Harold W. Baillie, Bernard Rollin, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Thomas Shannon share the concern to define and defend a concept of human nature rooted in the natural law tradition but also having broader appeal. In contrast to the contributors who explore nature and natural law in Aristotle and Duns Scotus, Marc Sagoff explores Mill's disambiguation of the meanings of 'natural,' between that in which 'natural' is opposed to the supernatural and that in which it is opposed to the artifactual. Sagoff then uses Mill's disambiguated meanings of 'natural' to help us recognize suppressed premises in natural law theorists' arguments against artificial insemination and feminist theorists' arguments of the commodification of reproduction. An encouraging sign is the sophistication of the Aristotelian accounts that make it clear that moral objection to technological intervention in reproduction and genetics is not based on obscurantist metaphysics or dogmatic conservatism but on an evolving tradition of thinking about natural law ethics.

Harold Baillie explores an Aristotelian-inspired hylomorphic psychology as an alternative to what he calls the "fallacy" of GMTI, which I prefer to call a mistaken assumption about GMTI; the mistaken assumption being that altering the body is the same as altering the self. The genetic code that determines the form of the body cannot replace the self or soul. He argues persuasively that what makes us selves is what we do, our choices of action, and our self-representation in action that is not reducible to the material that constitutes the body. A self is not merely a body but is the entelechy of the body -- so this implies that becoming a self implies openness to the self I shall become by my actions. When another limits my range of actions based on their intentions for me or for the sake of some larger social design, then my selfhood is diminished. What is morally objectionable about technological intervention in reproduction is that it masks our nature from ourselves: we are not made as artifacts are made, but living things, who discover our ends and our selves by choosing our actions. Baillie provides a position from which to think about limits on technological intervention in reproduction that neither appeals to autonomy and self-ownership nor to controversial intuitions about what is morally permissible.

Bernard E. Rollin's argument in "Telos, Value, and Genetic Engineering" is similarly sophisticated in reformulating Aristotelian insights in terms that take account of evolutionary and molecular biology. He reformulates the concept of telos from a metaphysical essence to the concept of a genetically based, environmentally expressed nature. He argues that the moral injunction to respect the telos of a thing does not itself prohibit genetic modification of plants and animals. The injunction to respect the telos should be considered in conjunction with the moral injunction to conserve well-being. When human activity changes plants' and animals' environments, Rollin judges it morally permissible to genetically modify plants and animals in ways that alter their nature or telos so long as that alteration of telos conserves their well-being in the altered environment. This argument would justify genetically modifying animals raised in confined environments, such as chicken farms, so that confinement longer causes them misery, and thus reduces their well-being.

Rollin's argument does not transfer directly to moral claims about genetic modification of human nature. He distinguishes in humans an admittedly controversial and fuzzy distinction between an 'is-telos' and an 'ought-telos,' the first mainly the domain of modern biology, the second mainly the domain of our self-concept and our conceptions of what our ideal selves would be like. The 'ought-telos' includes the ability to exercise freedom and reason, so that while it could be morally permissible to genetically modify chickens or pigs so they do not experience misery in confinement the 'ought-telos' gives strong reasons why it is morally permissible to do the same to humans. He asserts it would be morally wrong to modify some humans so they could have a 1,000 year lifespan because it would alienate them from love and friendship with other humans; more generally, it would be morally wrong to engineer traits in humans that would radically separate them from human companionship.

I lack the space to discuss the essays by Shannon and Sowle Cahill in similar detail but they also reformulate Aristotelian and Scotian insights for application to problems of technological intervention in reproduction.

Four: Historical, Cultural, and Literary Expression of Unease

Some of the historical essays engage in "grand sweep" history, tracing trends, changes, and formulations of ideas over some fairly long expanse of history. The essays by Casey, Rabinow, and Langdon Winner are in this group. Of these, I found especially interesting Rabinow's reflections on the well-known phenomenon of wounded pride among humans as we have been displaced from the center, topmost point in our mythic cosmos, a process begun by Copernicus, Freud, and Darwin, and continuing in the discovery of genetic similarities between ourselves and the rest of nature. Sagoff also discusses wounded pride in his essay.

Diane B. Paul, Marc Sagoff, Robert Proctor, and LeRoy Walters find insights in less grandly sweeping history. Each of the four focuses on issues that arise at the intersection of policy, science, and morality. Sagoff analyzes changed attitudes in medical ethicists' discussions of genetic intervention in reproduction between the 1970's, which were notably marked by prediction and fear of epochal changes, and early 2000's, which have a matter of fact tone. He points out that in intervening years scientists have been persuaded that genes effects are partial, indirect, and subject to moderating effects of other biological and environmental factors and that the "genetic exceptionalism" that spurred early fears has proven false. Walters analyzes three stages in the history of public oversight of gene transfer experimentation by the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

Robert Proctor studies a half-century of changes in the most accepted theories in anthropology's sub-disciplines that study human origins and the role of the UNESCO statement on race in response to Nazi policies of genocide. The essay covers much ground, including anthropological theory of what makes a species human, the highly difficult process of inferring from ancient stone "axes" to their makers, uses, and the character of the culture(s) that produced them. His study concludes that conventional liberal attitudes that "race as usually conceived does not exist" and differences between peoples are due to nurture rather than nature enunciated in successive UNESCO statements on race is an example of moral and political good will stifling science.

Diane Paul's essay on "Genetic Engineering and Eugenics: The Uses of History" takes up a mistaken inference in some arguments that use the history of eugenics movement to conclude that no state legal regulation of reproduction is morally permissible. The argument she has in mind argues from the claim that state-sponsored coercive eugenics is morally wrong to the claim that state interference with individual reproductive choice is wrong, to the conclusion that any state interference with individual reproductive choices is morally impermissible. She correctly points out that the argument commits a fallacy of hasty generalization, moving from the wrongness of state-sponsored coercive eugenics to the wrongness of any interference in reproductive choice. The history of state-sponsored coercive eugenics does not provide us with examples, facts, and patterns that can inform our judgments about contemporary consumerist, market-driven eugenics. She concludes that laissez faire policies regarding reproduction are not ipso facto harmless. Her essay is a valuable caution against inapt generalization of conclusions from one historical era to another.

Jean Bethke Elshtain and Lisa Sowle Cahill take up questions that GMTI raise for Christian social ethics, often phrasing those questions in terms of dominant institutions of our culture. Bethke Elshtain asserts that preparations and attempts to map the human genome, intervene in disease at the germ line level, and clone human beings express an attitude of pervasive dissatisfaction with our embodied nature, and that same dissatisfaction results in the expectation that parents "rid themselves" of wrongful life in order to avoid wrongful birth by aborting fetuses who show signs of being disabled. She diagnoses this same dissatisfaction in trends toward decreased care for all children and the view that families with disabled children impose special burden on social institutions rather than have special needs for support of social institutions. I am not in a position to evaluate her claims that a "narcissistic fantasy of radical sameness" motivates thoughts about human cloning and that rationalist elites sneeringly dismiss the worries of Christian ethicists. I do know that her worry about the capacity of a rational morality to do justice to the claims of people with physical and cognitive disabilities is shared by David Gauthier, who is as devoted to rationality in morality as Bethke Elshtain is to denunciation (See Morals By Agreement [New York: Oxford University Press], p. 18). My guess is that the rationalist elites have more concerns with her than she credits them with having.

Lisa Sowle Cahill forgoes denunciation for wary dialogue. It seems Sowle Cahill has absorbed the historical lessons advanced by Sagoff, Walters, and Proctor, so that her criticisms are more focused than Bethke Elshtain's. Sowle Cahill thinks that many pressing issues raised by GMTI can be addressed by adapting commonsense moral norms also found in traditional natural law ethics. She, like Baillie and Rollin, thinks the natural law conception of human nature as inherently social is an important premise from which to consider arguments about GMTI. As an expert in social ethics, her special contribution is the identification of moral problems in the unequal distribution to the benefits of GMTI. She argues that unequal distribution is exacerbated by the combination of technological expertise and unregulated commercialization of products developed by the GMTI research complex of for-profit companies, university research labs, and sophisticated marketing firms. Sowle Cahill also demonstrates there is a danger that sophisticated commercial marketing of products and methods for technological intervention in reproduction will transform family relations from a basis in love and affection to a commodity that is exploitable for profit and expendable when it does not profit.

In "Visions and Revisions: Life and the Accident of Birth" Richard Zaner combines a phenomenological interpretation of Simon Mawer's novel Mendel's Dwarf with concerns for the future of what have been common human experiences of birth and nurture if technological intervention in reproduction develops in the direction of making birth more technological and less 'natural.' Zaner uses his meditation on the novel to consider issues raised by the difference between the limited powers of restorative medicine in the past and expanded powers of molecular medicine in the future. In the past, those whom restorative medicine has been unable to help were often considered freakish, alien, and disgraceful. At the same time, the element of chance involved in birth provided background conditions so that some features of one's self and traits were to be accepted rather than protested. The change to molecular medicine brings with it the power to do something about what was previously beyond our power to do something about. Zaner considers this change unparalleled and "appalling" because it threatens to erase the distinction between nature and culture.

Zaner's applies his phenomenological method to the problem of technological conception and birth. He argues first that as long as we are born of a woman we have a pre-reflective awareness of intersubjectivity and that our primary way of relating to the world is through others. Second, birth by non-technological processes implies something unchosen about one's genetic makeup. Birth by completely technological means, as in imagined futures of test tubes and artificial wombs, would first eliminate or severely disrupt our pre-reflective awareness of intersubjectivity and second, introduce the fact that my genetic makeup is chosen for me. The first alters our phenomenal sense of self. The second is grounds for altering our belief that the conditions of our birth are conditions for which protest and claims to redress are not justified, since the genes of one's birth have not been an entitlement for our history. He proceeds to conclude that fetal development is human development and that birth from a uterine environment is a necessary condition for human life. One need not agree with his conclusion to appreciate that his discussion identifies a potential loss about which we should be uneasy.

Five: The Controlled Body and the Emerging Person: Manipulation, Freedom, and Regulation

The essays in this volume address different concepts of control and freedom. The most basic pairing of these concepts is the insistence by many authors that the promise of GMTI to give us control of human bodies does not give us control of persons. When contributors like Shannon, Sowle Cahill, Baillie, Zaner, and Rollin address the metaphysics of personhood in natural law ethics, phenomenology, and biology, they are responding to the first question posed by the conference organizers. A second pairing of these concepts comes in the cultural critique of efforts to control the body as a means to freely manipulate the body and the thought that controlling the body in order to manipulate it is a worthwhile goal of human life. This leads to the second question Baillie and Casey posed to the contributors. When contributors like Bethke Elshtain, Casey, Winner, and Rabinow criticize this goal and suggest alternative goals from our culture's history, they are responding to the second question as well as providing an alternative to the myopia of the present that Bertrand Russell called "parochialism in time."

A third pairing of these concepts comes in the concern for individual choice. Sowle Cahill, Paul, and Winner argue that the desire for children, family life, and patrimony are manipulated by commercial forces into projects of controlling the bodies of their children by the false claim that control of the body results in control of the person associated with that body. This manipulative project of marketing the products of technological intervention in reproduction is harder to detect when controlling the body is lauded as a cultural ideal. Here, the worry is that the combined power of the cultural ideal of control and constant presentation of images of happiness by means of control might skew individual's choices. The concern for individual choice is also a matter for explicit moral reflection in the essays by Baillie, Rollin, and Shannon.

Six: Who Might Benefit from Reading this Book

I found this book full of insights, challenges, and careful demonstration that natural law ethics is relevant to a very recent problem. In addition, the authors discuss issues of concern in philosophy of science, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of technology, and cultural criticism. The wide range of the book is also its limitation. If you are looking for a wide-ranging assessment of human enhancement technologies that is critical, historical, and encompasses policy, history, and ethics, this is a good book for you. If you are a teacher seeking an introduction to the issues of human enhancement, this book is too advanced for an introductory class. For classroom use, this book would be valuable in an upper level course on the ethics of human enhancement, the application of natural law ethics to contemporary topics, or as a secondary text in a philosophy of technology class.


2006 Robert L. Muhlnickel


Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW, has been a clinician and teacher in the University of Rcohester Department of Psychiatry and is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy at the University of Rochester. He also works on a grant training clinicians in evidence-based family practices forpeople with serious and persistent mental illness, co-sponsoredby the NYS Office of Mental Health and University of Rochester Medical Center.


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