The Gift of Finitude

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about finitude. About limits. Incompleteness. Even failure.

Like the friend of a friend who is dying and has just been admitted to hospice, whose young teenaged daughter is facing the prospect of a life without her mother.

Like the colleague who is grieving the loss of both a spouse and a parent within a month of each other.

Like my power wheelchair that keeps breaking down, making everyday activities significantly more challenging.

Like the never-ending “to-do” list that seems to be anything but finite, and never quite seems to get any shorter.

Life is, in a word, full of limits. Boundaries. Unavoidable stopping points.

Or is it?

What if we could transcend our limits, as recent developments in genetic and related technologies (e.g., CRISPR) seem to promise? What if, through genetic manipulations of various sorts, we could significantly reduce our limitations—eliminate specific diseases and disabling conditions, improve cognitive function, “select” for desired physical traits, and so on?

If we could do these things, should we do them?

Of course, as anyone who has followed the field of bioethics for even a short period of time knows, these questions are neither new nor hypothetical. In many ways, the “future” is already here: we “enhance” ourselves, “transcend” limits and boundaries, and otherwise seek to “overcome” finitude in a myriad number of ways, on a daily basis. And much of this is salutary.

Still, it’s always worth pausing to consider: supposing finitude could be eliminated entirely from our lives (which seems extraordinarily doubtful), is it the sort of thing we ought to try to eliminate? Put differently: is there anything good about finitude, such that we ought to embrace it (even if in a qualified way)?

Gilbert Meilaender, a bioethicist and Distinguished Fellow of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, suggests that there is something good about finitude. In a reflection on the “created duality” of our human nature—we are simultaneously both “free” and “finite”—Meilaender observes that this “two-sidedness” to our nature both opens up possibilities and imposes certain limits upon us. We are, he observes,

created from dust of the ground—finite beings who are limited by biological necessities and historical location. We are also free spirits, moved by the life-giving Spirit of God, created ultimately for communion with God—and therefore soaring beyond any limited understanding of our person in terms of presently “given” conditions of life…. Made for communion with God, we transcend nature and history—not in order that we may become self-creators, but in order that, acknowledging our Creator, we may recognize the true limit to human freedom. Understanding our nature in this way, we learn something about how we should evaluate medical “progress.” It cannot be acceptable simply to oppose the forward thrust of scientific medicine. That zealous desire to know, to probe the secrets of nature, to combat disease—all that is an expression of our created freedom from the limits of the “given,” the freedom by which we step forth as God’s representatives in the world. But a moral vision shaped by this Christian understanding of the person will also be prepared to say no to some exercises of human freedom. The never-ending project of human self-creation runs up against the limit that is God. It will always be hard to state in advance the precise boundaries that ought to limit our freedom, but we must be prepared to look for them.[1]

I am inclined to agree with Meilaender. Moreover, as I have shared in an autobiographical essay published recently,[2] my own experiences as a person with a physical disability have taught me valuable life lessons that, arguably, might not have been learned otherwise—lessons such as the value of patience and endurance, accepting my limits (an ongoing struggle, I must admit!), and even the importance of having a sense of humor at the (sometimes ridiculous) circumstances in which one finds oneself. Our limits shape our character, our career, and our life choices as much as do our “freedoms”—often in surprising and unexpected ways, and frequently for the better.

None of these reflections, of course, even begin to scratch the surface of the “what?”, “where?”, “when?”, “how?”, or “why?” questions related to the ethical permissibility (or lack thereof) of pursuing various genetic, reproductive, or other technologies. Nor do they, by themselves, tell us whether (and when) we ought or ought not to avail ourselves of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and the like.

They do, however, remind us of one very simple, yet all-too-often overlooked fact: finitude is, in many ways, a gift. Let us not neglect it.

 

[1] Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 3-5.

[2] See “Why am I Disabled? Reflections on Life’s Questions and God’s Answers,” in the Beyond Suffering Bible (Tyndale, 2016), available at beyondsufferingbible.com and http://www.joniandfriends.org/bible/.

Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques – is this Human Enhancement?

Ever since I read John Holmlund’s blog entry (HERE) on mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT) for inherited mitochondrial diseases, I have been thinking a lot about the issue of enhancement. Almost in passing, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) stipulated that MRT would not be a meaningful example of human enhancement because of the relatively limited genetic information in mitochondria.

Recall that mitochondria are the energy power houses of cells. Dysfunctional mitochondria tend to cause significant problems in tissues that require higher energy consumption, such as muscles and nerves. MRT is being proposed to prevent the birth of an individual who could develop mitochondrial myopathy, one example of the family of very debilitating and occasionally fatal mitochondrial diseases. With MRT, we are replacing en bloc defective maternal mitochondrial DNA with presumably extremely healthy mitochondrial DNA from a separate maternal donor. The resulting child is the nuclear genetic combination of her two parents plus a third healthy mitochondrial DNA donor, hence the designation “3 parent baby”.

As to whether or not MRT represents a meaningful example of human enhancement, consider the following thought experiment. Let’s stipulate that in the not-so-distant future, MRT has become routine and safe for preventing the birth of an individual with mitochondrial myopathy. Since the critical criterion for a potential maternal mitochondrial donor is a female with no genetic history of mitochondrial disease, any female meeting this condition and willing to be a donor becomes a donor candidate. Within that group, why not select a woman who also has outstanding muscle function, such as Carmelita Jeter (currently the fastest living female world record holder for the 100 meter dash). While the parental nuclear DNA undoubtedly controls much of the development of their future child’s muscle function, having Carmelita Jeter’s mitochondrial DNA certainly can not be expected to slow the child down (for if it does slow her down, then our stipulation of MRT safety fails). But does it speed her up?

Obviously the answer to the question of whether or not MRT represents an example of enhancement is – we don’t know. The IOM’s solution to determining the answer to this question (and the many other questions related to the ethics and safety of MRT) is effectively to try MRT and see what happens.

My stipulation is that MRT represents the first approved genetic enhancement therapy, despite the relatively small amount of genetic information in mitochondria.

I also think the child speeds up.

Technique and Eugenics: my response to the question Jon Holmlund asks about gene editing

Jon Holmlund has asked in this blog whether germ-line modification for the purpose of eliminating genetic diseases (NOT for enhancement), if it could be done safely and equitably, would be ethically acceptable. I argue no, for at least three reasons: we humans are virtually incapable of limiting our use of technology, the technology of gene editing is inescapably eugenic, and we humans are incorrigibly eugenic. Following is an extremely abbreviated explanation of my argument.

First, there is no chance that this technology could be limited to the narrow usage Jon describes. We like to think that technology is value-neutral, that it’s just tools; so maybe we could just choose to use this tool for a particular good purpose without using it to create a Gattaca or a Brave New World in which we witness the Abolition of Man. But as Jacques Ellul has pointed out, “It is useless to think that a distinction can be made between [a] technique and its use, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of our desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use…” (Fasching, The Thought of Jacues Ellul, 18). Ellul called this characteristic of technique monism: a technique is inevitably applied everywhere it can be applied.

Second, as Neil Postman has written in Technopoly, every new technique carries within itself an idea, an ideology; the idea in the technique of germ-line modification, as in all genetic technologies, is eugenics. In medicine especially, we see again and again that technology is used “as defined by the capabilities of the technology . . . even contrary to the best interests of the sick person.” (Eric Cassell, “The sorcerer’s broom: medicine’s rampant technology.” Hastings Center Report, 1993;23:32-39.). One need not look far in medicine to see examples of technology employed in a manner defined not by patients’ best interests but by the technology itself: robotic surgery, CPR, or all of the permutations of infertility treatment.

Third, we humans seem to be incurably eugenic. From Plato’s Republic to Nazi Germany to today’s prenatal clinics, we pursue eugenics despite all warnings from history about what the inevitable conclusion of such policy is.

To recapitulate: In a technology-worshipping society such as ours, the “choice” to use a technique is virtually automatic. The idea at the heart of gene editing is eugenics. Our species, for whatever reason, possesses strong eugenic tendencies. Thus, since this technology could be used for eugenic purposes to edit genes to create “designer babies,” it will be used for those purposes. Therefore, I do not believe that it is ethical to pursue research in this area for the ostensibly good purposes that Jon postulates.

Unenhanced Thoughts about Neural Enhancement

An April 20th post in the Hastings Center’s “Bioethics Forum” brings attention the recent report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (PCSBI) entitled, “Gray Matters: Topics at the Intersection of Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society.

Chapter 2, “Cognitive Enhancement and Beyond” is a useful summary of issues surrounding “cognitive enhancement,” and provides a brief overview of three scientific goals: maintaining or improving neural health and cognitive function, treating disease and other impairments, and expanding or augmenting function above the normal human ranges. The PCSBI uses the term “neural modifiers” to refer to the broad array of agents that act on the brain across this spectrum of interventions.

Ultimately, the PCSBI provides sensible recommendations regarding the study and use of “neural modifiers”. It rightly attends to “societal background conditions” such as diet, sleep, exercise, and an environment unburdened by toxic agents as a top priority. Other recommendations include the need to prioritize treatments, and to “study novel neural modifiers to augment or enhance neural function.” This is not a commitment to the idea that they are a good idea, only that more information is needed to guide their ethical use. While the PCSBI leaves an open door to the possibility that there may be ethical uses for cognitive enhancement and augmentation, it is protective of children, drawing an ethical line: “Clinicians should not prescribe medications that have uncertain or unproven benefits and risks to augment neural function in children and adolescents who do not have neural disorders.”

The PCSBI raises important cautions about long-term effects, over-medicalization, and exploitation by those who would stand to gain the most (in this they cite the pharmaceutical industry, but we would do well to consider that other persons or groups could also find reasons to exploit). The most important contributions of this publication, however, come in the form of questions that the PCSBI does not, and cannot, answer in its brief report. Three such comments stand out:

  • “What might happen, scholars ask, to traditional understandings of free will, moral responsibility, and virtue if science makes significant advances in the ability to technologically control the mind?”
  • “Further, when we consider altering our memories, we trigger concerns at the core of defining one’s self.”
  • “This desire for control might erode our appreciation for natural human powers and achievements.”

The PCSBI urges that more research be performed in order to provide us with more evidence for ethical decision-making, and that “professional organizations and other expert groups…create guidance about the use of neural modifiers.” They do us a service to highlight these concerns. But we must recognize that while the scientific method may produce clinical evidence to facilitate ethical decision-making, the foundational sense of what it means to be human will never come from a randomized controlled trial.

Low T, marketing, youth, and sex

Hormone replacement therapy is back in the news: not estrogen/progesterone for women, but testosterone for men.

There are some similarities between the two therapies. Each was/is heralded by claims for the amazing cures it would/will provide for a multitude of life’s ailments. Estrogen/progesterone was prescribed for legions of women with a lot of assumptions that it would do wonderful things like help dementia and cardiovascular disease, but without good data that it would actually provide much benefit (beyond helping hot flashes); testosterone is being prescribed for increasing numbers of men worldwide with a lot of assumptions that it will help things like low energy and “unwanted body changes,” but without good data that it provides much benefit (outside of specific deficiency states). Estrogen/progesterone was promoted to “treat” something that was traditionally thought of not as a disease, but as a “natural” part of aging (i.e., menopause). Testosterone is increasingly used to “treat” what is a “natural” part of aging (that is, the normal gradual decline in testosterone levels that occurs after about age 40).

Testosterone has been hyped by some as a fountain of youth, although it hasn’t been recommended for general consumption the way estrogen was — yet. However, aggressive marketing suggests that if you have a lack of energy, can’t play sports as well as you used to, or fall asleep after dinner, then testosterone may be the quick fix for these and other “unwanted body changes.” These symptoms cover, well, just about everybody past a certain age.

Testosterone’s rapidly growing popularity is driven by aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing (“Low T is a a pharmaceutical-company-recognised condition affecting millions of men with low testosterone, previously known as getting older” – Stephen Colbert), our culture’s obsession with youth, and our culture’s obsession with sex. In a medical climate that is driven increasingly by consumer demand, this is leading to increasing numbers of prescriptions for questionable indications, with as yet unknown potential harms. Testosterone is a useful medicine for men with specific deficiencies; physicians should resist prescribing it to satisfy the cultural bias that says that old age (or even middle age) is inherently an unhealthy state that needs treatment.

The givenness of human nature

In his article in the Fall 2013 issue of Ethics and Medicine, Dennis Hollinger writes about how a Christian understanding of human nature impacts how we understand the limits that biotechnology needs to stay within to avoid changing things about humanity that should not be changed and how we understand what are the essential features of humans that ought to be preserved. He suggests that a Christian anthropology says that we should preserve the integrity and uniqueness of the human species, accept and not try to escape our finitude, maintain the unity of material and non-material dimensions of human beings as embodied souls, and respect the dual creation of human beings as male and female. All of these aspects of humanity are presented as “features of human nature that are divine givens that ought to be acknowledged and guarded.”

Hollinger is asserting that there is a givenness of human nature that we can understand theologically. It is essential in understanding what the limits of biotechnology ought to be. However, the idea of givenness is the key in this. One definition of the word givenness is the quality of being granted as a supposition or acknowledged. But the idea that there is a givenness of human nature is not a given in contemporary thought. Many who advocate relatively unlimited use of biotechnology and desire the transformation of human beings into a post human or transhuman state start with a position of philosophic naturalism and see human nature as the malleable result of unguided evolution. As Hollinger states, if one believes that there is no human nature that is normative or given then there is no need to be concerned about what should be preserved and not altered.

We need to recognize that a robust understanding of who we are as human beings is essential to bioethics and requires a solid foundation in the understanding that we are indeed created and have a nature given to us by our creator. Without that foundation all ethics is adrift. While we ought to be able to understand that we are created by looking at creation and can build some foundation from what God has generally revealed to all humanity in what he has made, it is through his written revelation that we can best understand who we are and what the nature of human beings is that we should shudder to alter.

My thanks to Dr. Hollinger for so effectively expressing an understanding of what those divine givens of human nature are that we need to preserve.

Report from the ASBH Conference: Julian Savulescu’s Moral Bioenhancement Project

I am in Atlanta for the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Last night’s (Thursday’s) first plenary address was given by Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, entitled “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Bioenhancement.” He argued that “The greatest problems of the 21st century—climate change, environmental degradation, terrorism, poverty, global inequality, mass migration, depletion of resources, infectious diseases, abuse and neglect of children—are predominantly the result of human choice and behavior rather than the result of external threats. They are caused by human moral limitations.”

He detailed some of the contributors to our problems. The first was technological advances, which have led us to do things like develop weapons of mass destruction. He went on to assert that evolution had shaped human moral psychology such that it is “characterized by aggression, restricted altruism, partiality to kin and in-group members, hostility toward and disregard of out-group members, bias toward the near future, and limited cooperation.” These characteristics were (supposedly) evolutionarily adaptive when we were out living in small groups on the African plains. Because we are no longer in that situation, our morals don’t work anymore. Science has shown us that biological factors affect our moral reasoning; therefore, since evolution hasn’t caught up with present realities, we should “look at altering the biological dispositions that contribute to these [moral] limitations, and make research into human moral bioenhancement an urgent priority.”

Savulescu got part of it right. He denied moral relativism. (!) He acknowledged that human depravity is the reason for our problems. Many circumstances, physical and otherwise, affect our moral reasoning: upbringing, social background, whether or not we have a stomach ache, whether we slept well last night. Our inability to deal wisely with or even control our technology is a huge problem.

Therefore, it seems at least a little naive to assume that a new technology, designed and implemented by these same depraved humans whose moral reasoning may be adversely affected by various conditions, will magically solve the problems that technology has posed for us.

As Neil Postman pointed out in Technopoly, every technology carries embedded within itself an idea, a set of assumptions of which we are barely conscious, but which nonetheless directs our thinking and affects how we view the world. Also, while we are quick to consider what we gain from a new technology, we rarely reflect on what we lose. The ideology embedded in Savulescu’s technological project seems to be a materialistic, deterministic, biology-based understanding for human moral behavior. What is lost is a full, complex view of human responsibility, behavior, and motivation, the understanding that although we are fashioned from dust, we are also infused with the breath of life from God.

Savulescu reminded me of the Conditioners in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Despite Savulescu’s stated denial of moral relativism, he has chosen particular moral values that he regards as important, and dismissed the rest as evolutionary blind alleys. He embraces a view of humanity and human moral behavior that go well outside what Lewis calls the Tao, the realm of objective value that forms the basis for traditional morality. As Lewis wrote,

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted . . . But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered—like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. (The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3, para. 7-8)

 

During the question-and-answer session after Savulescu’s talk, audience members were quite confrontational, asking appropriate questions such as, who determines who gets morally bioenhanced, and on what basis? Is this to be done in a coercive manner? Savulescu’s simplistic explanations for the causes of moral behavior were also vigorously challenged. Savulescu seemed to backpedal a bit under the attack.

The second plenary session, which immediately followed, was a deeply meaningful, moving, at one point tearful, tribute to Edmund Pellegrino. It is difficult to state how great was the contrast between the two sessions.

Human nature, health, and human flourishing

The past few days, I have been attending the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity’s 20th annual conference, entitled “Health and Human Flourishing,” and the following ramblings are a result of some good speakers and good conversations with fellow attendees.

Two essential truths: First, there is a “given” or normative human nature, and Jesus Christ is the normative human; second, he is the paradigm for human flourishing. By following him (including into suffering), becoming like him, and taking on the fruits of the Spirit, we become more truly human and discover true satisfaction and human flourishing.

Denying these two essential truths leads directly away from human flourishing. The first truth is that Jesus provides the norm for human nature. But the human enhancement project does not acknowledge a normative human nature, instead seeing it as malleable, thus open to tinkering in attempts to improve it (“take control of our evolution”). This naturally leads to dissatisfaction with our current state because we seek endlessly for the next better thing — a dissatisfaction that is the opposite of flourishing.

The second truth is that Jesus is the paradigm for human flourishing. But in a culture with a materialist world view (i.e., matter is all that is and all that matters), it is natural that “human flourishing” will be identified with “physical health.” Add to this the WHO definition of health as “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” and the inevitable result of the pursuit of happiness and human flourishing will be the increasing medicalization of all spheres of life. But while health is an important contributor to human flourishing, it is not the same thing as human flourishing, and flourishing can even exist in its absence. In our culture’s rush to turn every event in life into a medical incident we keep pressing the health button in the hope that human flourishing will come out; but the only thing that comes out is more illness, more technology, more dissatisfaction — and less flourishing.

 

On (Being) Better than Human, Part 3A

As I noted in Part 1 of this series (see my 03/25/13 post), in Better than Human Allen Buchanan considers four major lines of objection to the “enhancement enterprise.” As Buchanan summarizes them, each of these objections claims that biomedical enhancement is “different” in morally significant ways from other kinds of (nonbiomedical) enhancement. Specifically, these objections assert that:

(1) biomedical enhancements are different because they change our biology; (2) biomedical enhancements are different because (some of them) change the human gene pool; (3) biomedical enhancements are different because they could change or destroy human nature; [and] (4) biomedical enhancements are different because they amount to playing God (p. 12).

In Chapter 2, Buchanan takes on the second and third of these objections—that is, the “changing the human gene pool” and “changing human nature” objections, respectively.

The heart of Buchanan’s discussion in this chapter is a consideration of two competing analogies in terms of which one might understand evolutionary biology—or, alternatively, “nature” (p. 29)—and its processes: the “master engineer” and the “grim tinkerer” analogies, respectively. On the former analogy, “organisms are like engineering masterpieces: beautifully designed, harmonious, finished products that are stable and durable (if we leave them alone)” (p. 29). On the latter, evolution is “morally blind,” “fickle,” and “tightly shackled” (p. 49)—it produces “cobbled-together, unstable works in progress, and then discards them” (p. 28).

Evolution is disanalogous to a master engineer, Buchanan says, in two key respects. First, “natural selection never gets the job done” (p. 28). Environments are constantly changing, and organisms are constantly adapting both to their environments and to each other, in “a ceaseless round of adaptation and counteradaptation” (p. 28)—resulting in further changes both to organisms and their environment, in a process that never arrives at a terminus. So rather than being “the end points of a process whereby they climb a ladder to perfect adaptation to their environment,” organisms instead exist in a state of perpetual instability, one that belies the “finely balanced” nature implied by the master engineer analogy (pp. 28-29). Second,

unlike a master engineer, evolution doesn’t design what it produces according to a plan that it draws up in advance. Instead, it modifies organisms in response to short-term problems, with no thought of long-term effects. Evolution has no overall game plan for any species, and the results show it. What’s useful for solving today’s problems can cause new problems—and even extinction—down the line (p. 29).

In the final analysis, Buchanan contends, “evolution is more like a morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer” than a master engineer. The burden of the rest of the chapter is to provide reasons why (on Buchanan’s view) we ought to accept this analogy over against the master engineer analogy.

In order to adjudicate between these two analogies, Buchanan says, we need to grasp certain key aspects of the mechanisms of evolution (p. 29). The first thing to notice in this regard is that nature is replete with instances of “suboptimal design” (pp. 30-31), which Buchanan takes to be prima facie evidence that the master engineer analogy is problematic at best. Examples of such “design flaws” include, inter alia, the fact that in male mammals the urinary tract “passes through (rather than being routed around) the prostate gland, which can swell and block urinary function,” and the “hasty shift from quadruped to biped, which resulted in back and knee problems and a birth canal that passes through the pelvis, resulting in greatly increased risks to both mother and child in the birthing process” (p. 30). Numerous additional examples could be cited (and Buchanan cites several other illustrative examples here).[1] “Design flaws” such as these led Darwin to develop his theory of natural selection, with which, Buchanan informs us, “Darwin debunked the argument from intelligent design, one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, by cataloguing the ‘clumsy, blundering, wasteful’ works of nature” (p. 30).

To show more clearly why nature is not best thought of as a “master engineer,” Buchanan introduces at this point a distinction between what he terms “Unintentional Genetic Modification” (UGM) and “Intentional Genetic Modification” (IGM). UGM is “evolution as usual, what Darwin called ‘descent with modification,’ where a driving force of the modification is natural selection”—in other words, “evolution without intentional modification of human genes by human beings” (p. 31). IGM, then, in the context relevant to our discussion, is intentional modification of human genes by human beings.

Buchanan’s aim here is actually two-fold: first, he wants to provide reasons why we ought to reject the “master engineer” analogy in favor of the “grim tinkerer” analogy, and second, he wants to give us reasons for considering the possibility that it may be preferable, in at least some circumstances, to actively pursue IGM rather than simply leaving the development of the human species entirely to UGM. His subsequent discussion in the remainder of this chapter is designed to accomplish both of these aims simultaneously. To that end, he begins by enumerating some of the built-in limitations of UGM, and then goes on to describe some ways in which IGM might be employed to overcome those limitations.

In the next post in this series, we’ll finish up our explication of Buchanan’s argument, and then develop some critical observations regarding that argument. By way of preview, three major limitations of UGM to which Buchanan draws our attention are the facts that (1) UGM is “insensitive” to post-reproductive quality of life (pp. 32-37); (2) in UGM, beneficial mutations spread only by way of a “nasty, brutish, and long” process (37-45); and (3) UGM selects only for “reproductive fitness, not human good” (pp. 45-48). Critical remarks will focus, in turn, on several epistemological, ontological, and moral issues raised by the way Buchanan frames and develops his argument in this chapter.

 


[1] A bonus for the philosophy buffs out there: In the context of this discussion of “design flaws,” Buchanan offers an arresting image in answer to Nagel’s famous query regarding what it’s like to be a bat. As Buchanan explains, “bats spend a good deal of their time hanging upside down, closely packed together, with their feces pouring down over their bodies to their heads. (Imagine yourself holding a toothpaste tube upright and squeezing it until the contents cover your hands. That’s what it’s like to be a bat.)” (p. 31).

The Sound of Silence

The week we have just begun has found me processing several things, juxtaposed into a whole.

The first of these was learning of the death of Dallas Willard, longtime USC professor and author of intellectually-provocative evangelical works like “The Divine Conspiracy” and “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” He influenced me in my spiritual youth–and into my current spiritual adolescence– with a simple but profound message that Jesus was the smartest man who ever walked the Earth, he lived and taught a perfect example of what the most satisfying life on that Earth would encompass, and living and acting like Jesus did wasn’t just for 12th Century mystics or the world’s spiritual giants, but for all of us. He was an epistemologist that made the argument over decades in the “belly of the beast” at USC and UCLA and elsewhere that spiritual knowledge was REAL knowledge, and ought to have value awarded its substance. The last words of Willard were said to be “thank you.” I would hope to end my own sojourn on Earth with such a thought. Out of gratitude arises worship, and I am grateful that God has sent such magnificent authors and thinkers to help me grope my way through faith. May he enjoy the full realization of the Kingdom of God for which he was so desirous in this earthly life, even as he now sees his master and teacher face to face.

My wife and I have also been part of a “spiritual formation” class at church that looks at the classical disciplines as described by Willard and others throughout the ages. Yesterday’s subject dealt with silence and solitude. Willard himself describes the “primacy and priority among the disciplines” of solitude. “The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”

After reflecting on this we of course raced out of church to get my son to his travel baseball game, a time-gorging exercise in applied exhaustion that we have chosen as a way to enhance his skills and take him to the “next level.” Yes, we are now those parents. There is little time for silence and solitude in the world of travel baseball.

With two ten-year olds and a nine-year old, we already hear the murmurs of parents over future scholarship opportunities for their children, for diving and triathlons and gymnastics and music, as justification for the 16 to 18 hours per week of aggressive training that must begin NOW. I can honestly say that we have no real delusions that our children will get athletic scholarships—that’s not our goal. We also don’t lose the irony that the efforts to garner an elusive scholarship may require $7,000 a year spent over a decade of travel and competitive sports and camps to get to the upper echelon. Much money must be invested in this effort—and could end up for naught—if a scholarship is the ultimate prize.

But that really is not the ultimate prize. A scholarship is a rationale; we actually want our children to be a more perfect us. We enhance our selves—much time, effort and money will go into making us look younger and stronger. As we age, our tendencies toward workaholism grow while we try to prove that we never NEED to rest, that we have the stamina and productivity of someone twenty years our junior. Our enhancements, and those enhancements that gain creeping acceptance that we can rationalize for our children, reflect a terror of silence and solitude. Willard again: “But silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.” We may declare that we have our best “quiet time” in solitude with God when we are on a twenty mile run, but we sure post the record time on our “Runkeeper” notation with social media as we do it. There must be some noise to accompany our silence. A pre-teen who declares that he spent three hours meditating on God’s goodness in creation when alone in the woods would face a work-up for anti-social behavior and placement on a “school shooter” terror watch list in our society. Silence and solitude are other-worldly and odd; we make ourselves better with mental and biological enhancements to avoid such awkwardness.

Enhancements, which will be the greatest bioethical challenges that face us and our descendants in the decades to come, seem by definition to increase the noise and chatter in our lives. And, in a vicious cycle, the increased noise will make us less likely to sort out whether what we choose is a good thing. Of course we will unwittingly seek the best opportunities for our children to constantly occupy themselves and to be the best, because an unreflective, clattering mind is far more likely to follow the pack of successful people than take the lonely road less travelled. Spiritual formation classes will be left to lament the passing of silence and solitude as quaint anachronisms. And we will fail to appreciate that Jesus, upon whom we base the Christian notion of the “good life,” would never have been able to face the exhausting work of teaching and healing without taking joy in that very “lonely” discipline. As I race to the next event in the enhancement of my children’s future success, may I find that the thing that could enhance their lives the most would be a departure from the noise of triumph and public recognition in the temporal things of this life and a chance to sit in silent contemplation of what will offer genuine life. How difficult and painful, and wonderful, for them if I do.