August 4, 2005

PUSHBACK: A few years ago we saw a raft of anti-technology stuff — Bill Joy’s article in Wired, Frank Fukuyama’s anti-posthumanist screed, various pronouncements by Jeremy Rifkin, Leon Kass and Daniel Callahan, etc.

I notice now that we’re seeing more from the other side. You’ve got Ramez Naam’s More Than Human : Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Ron Bailey’s Liberation Biology, Gregory Stock’s Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution : The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human,and, of course, Ray Kurzweil’s forthcoming book, perhaps the most ambitious of the lot.

This confluence — together with poll data and other recent indicators — suggests to me that Joan Vennochi is giving the Democrats good advice on stem cells:

Democrats should also do with stem cell research what Republicans did with gay marriage: present the issue for a vote on every possible state ballot. Republican Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader from Tennessee, just demonstrated the power of the issue. Frist’s surprise endorsement of a bill that would approve federal funds for new lines of stem cells enraged the right. But Frist knows the political center supports it, and the political center is where a presidential contender wants to be. In stem cell research, Democrats, for once, have an issue that fires up their base and cuts to the center, across diverse demographic groups.

I think that’s right. This is an issue where the GOP is tied to its base, and where swing voters go the other way. Interestingly, there’s plenty of opportunity for the GOP to weaken this assault by supporting other kinds of life-extending and life-improving research — into aging, for example — to blunt efforts to tar it as the party of Luddites and fundamentalists. Will they be smart enough to do that?

UPDATE: Reader Randolph Resor emails regarding Liberation Biology:

I’ll probably end up reading the book, but I wanted to mention a PBS special of a few months ago called “Harvest of Fear”. It dealt with genetically modified plants, and considering the ominous-sounding music, appeared to be an attempt to raise questions about GMOs. However, the pro-GMO folks came off as intelligent, literate, and genuinely interested in helping people, while the opponents looked like a bunch of crazies.

Most impressive was a black South African botanist, a woman, discussing genetically modified sweet potatoes. When asked about opposition to GMOs, she said, “These people have never been hungry in their lives. Who do they think they are, telling me I can’t help my people feed themselves?”

Indeed. The opponents of scientific progress on both the left and the right seek to clothe themselves in moral superiority, but it’s pretty much a sham.

ANOTHER UPDATE: In response to a couple of reader emails, I should note that the “opponents of scientific progress” that I’m referring to are the Kass/Fukuyama/Rifkin sort mentioned at the top — not necessarily opponents of embryonic stem cell research, whom I regard as wrong, but not necessarily Luddite or immoral.

Meanwhile Phil Bowermaster has some further thoughts on pushback:

One could make the case that this is cyclical — that there’s a Kurzweil for every Fukuyama, but that there will be a Leon Kass for every Kurzweil and then a Ron Bailey for every Leon Kass and on and on it goes. But I doubt it. I think something else may be at work here.

Maybe in spite of all the hype and scare stories and just plain bad information, the idea is getting through that we really can expect technology, in the coming years, to make unprecedented changes in what human life is and can be. . . .

So why the switch from Fukayama to Kurzweil? Well, as Stephen points out, some of these major, world-shattering changes promise to show up right on schedule. We may look for direction from someone like Joel Garreau, who can discuss both the pros and cons of inevitable change. But a Kass or a Fukayama…arguing against change istelf?

Sorry, we just don’t have time for that any more.

Read the whole thing.

MORE: Brendan Nyhan thinks that state initiatives are a bad idea on policy grounds, regardless of their political uses.

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