The biggest question facing the 21st century can be stated in a few words: What does it mean to be "human?" The answer to that question will affect our most basic values and moral codes. And it may lead to an intensification of religious and moral conflict across the planet.
By Anne Skare Nielsen
The above was said by the futurist above all futurists - Alvin Toffler - in an interview with USA Today last year. Toffler argued that USA is standing with its feet in the water's edge of an enormous wave of change, which is going to hit at 'hyperspeed' and have global repercussions. Many thousands of years ago, the agricultural revolution led to a slow wave of change. 350 years ago the industrial revolution set a second and faster wave in motion, and at the moment, the third great wave is taking us into the future. A wave that is beginning to rise and which is going to be far more violent and far more rapid than its predecessors.
Super-civilisation, gigadeath wars and bioethical conflicts
The first ripples in the third wave were set in motion in the mid-fifties when the American economy fundamentally changed character from relying on muscle-power to utilising knowledge. This change was a part of a gigantic undertow of technological, social and cultural change, which laid the ground for the knowledge and information society.
Toffler predicts a new global 'super-civilisation' with hitherto unheard of and unexpected consequences. At the moment, we are in the initial phase, the digital revolution with the internet and a networking logic that infiltrates everything and everyone wherever it can. The next phase will be the genetic and biological revolution which really will make it interesting to discuss "what it means to be human". Genetic manipulation, disease prevention, optimised memory, DNA records, higher levels of intelligence, nanotechnology, more technologic life, more life-like robots, and transgenetic organisms will be the common things of the future and the substrate for political, social, cultural, and ethical conflicts.
Try to think of how passionate abortion protesters are today, says Toffler. Some are willing to kill in order to defend their views, so how far will they be willing to go when the question is expanded to not only include the moment of conception, but the entire human nature? How much is it going to provoke people when the boundaries between life and death, human and animal and machine, between species, body and soul, are going to be challenged at an ever-increasing scale? All religions have their own views of humanity, and the question is no doubt going to strengthen the troubles and conflicts that already exist. Wars have been started for stranger reasons.
Prof. Dr. Hugo de Garis from the Belgian Starlab's 'Starbrain department' makes a simple projection and describes the wars of the future as 'Gigadeath Wars'. The question of what it means to be human is even now setting souls afire. It isn't just a question of territories or resources, but about fundamental values of identity where everybody is 100% certain that he is right. Then put 21st Century technologies into their hands and let them mobilise their smartest scientists, their most ambitious politicians, their richest bases of support and their greatest egos, and let them play the world's hitherto most diabolical war game with computer technology that is aided by exponentially growing artificial intelligence. In the past millennium, about 200 million people died from political causes. Extrapolate this number into the future, and the most likely is that billions will die - this is gigadeath wars.
Most scientists and many politicians consider such statements science fiction - serious and frightening, but too fantastical to be dealt with right now. And this is where the problem arises, for biotechnology and IT are for these people something like a wild horse that you just have to keep in tight rein, then it will pull the entire world towards better times. But this focus on the possibilities in the future means that they forget to take care of the people who have fallen off the horse cart or don't care for the ride. We could ask the simple question that if all these new developments really are that good, why then isn't it easier to persuade people that they should just accept them? The answer is simple: most ordinary people can't see what they can use the technologies for, and for this reason, they are in themselves a risk. Arguments that it simply requires more information, then everybody will think the same, don't hold up. The new technologies affect our myths and stories of what it means to be human, and what the natural boundaries are. When these 'irrational' feelings aren't respected, but rejected as misunderstandings, superstition, ignorance, and stupidity, it really isn't very strange that many people feel provoked and reject biotechnology en bloc.
The Economist recently remarked that conflicts over biotechnology are going to be "America's next ethical war". There's no doubt that biotechnology is incredible and would like to save the world, but for the layman, changes in biology, foodstuffs and animals seem very abstract and are hence seen more as assault on and abuse of the splendour of nature, the sanctity, integrity and dignity of life to a greater or lesser degree. USA is groping in the dark on bioethical issues, and as the political system is structured today, USA can't prevent major insoluble and disastrous ethical conflicts. Conflicts that are going to suck attention and resources from other sectors.
Stop progress - we want to get off!
We probably all of us think that progress is rapid, but in the case of biotechnology, we might almost say that progress has come too soon. When Ian Wilmut & Co. In 1997 publicised that they had successfully cloned the sheep Dolly, the scientific journal Nature received a message from the White House in which it was requested that Wilmut's article was retracted until they had had time to reflect on the bioethical aspects. Nature's editors denied this request with the words: "In a time where the scientific environment is full of initiatives of technological foresight, it is disgraceful that the President of the United States and other politicians only now request guidelines for what can be read in Nature today". Very few in the political environment were prepared to tackle the situation. And the future isn't viewed brightly. After Dolly, the Head of the Danish Technology Council was very sceptical regarding peaceful solutions to future conflicts. He didn't think the political system had learned anything from the Dolly affair, or that there was anything to suggest that sensible bills would be introduced, which could stem the tide of protests and unrest in the future.
According to The Economist, USA is predominantly the place where the waves will rise the highest, for several reasons. Firstly, USA has the most advanced biotechnological industry. Secondly, many of the questions place themselves neatly in continuation of the sensitive abortion debate. Thirdly, the Americans have always been susceptible to perfectionist fashion trends like plastic surgery or playing Mozart for unborn babies. Fourthly, the American legal system is very different from the European, which has an easier time dealing with ethical questions, and besides, it looks like the American politicians and lawmakers are completely unprepared to face reality. Very few know what biotechnology really is, many are against it on the surface, but aren't really interested in stepping on the toes of the powerful biotech corporations. And last, but not least, the state is going to have a very hard time regulating what goes on in the liberal and private sphere.
That which up to now has made it possible to tie together the populations of the world in the hope of having something akin to a global community, is a fair consensus that at least all of us are human beings. Are we in the future going to have arguments about whether genetically modified swimmers should be allowed to take part in the Olympics? Whether robots that act like humans should be treated with dignity and perhaps even have human rights? Or whether we can accept private schools for children with optimised abilities of concentration and memory? How are doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, employees, or all sorts of other people going to react if the state, law or employer pushes a technology on them that they are morally opposed to? Take this genetic test if you want to work here! Use this medication containing foetal stem cells on the patient, but inform him first! Teach these kids of whom half can remember more than you've ever learned!
An old acquaintance
Not that the question of "what does it mean to be human" is new. Politicians and philosophers have dealt with it for several thousands of years, but there was a time when it was a great deal easier. Attempts to formulate 'humanity' have generally used the so-called naturalistic fallacy where you conclude from 'is' to 'should be'. Mankind is fundamentally a particular way, hence society should be ordered on the basis of this. Mankind can e.g. be free, sensible, sinful, social, or cloned by aliens, and hence society should be ordered liberally, understandable, with controls, or according to the nature of the aliens. It is also possible to be opportunistic and go the other way: society should be ordered as I want it, and then other people have to adjust to that. Thus the ethical questions about human nature have never been about 'right' or 'wrong', but about finding meaning and a power of explanation, which should make it possible to structure society according to what was thought 'good'. With Christianity and later Kant, the questions were made far more dogmatic and synonymous with shalts and shalt-nots, but in the religious interpretation there's actually nothing that forbids people to change nature or categorise a technology as being wrong. Since God created the world to be well ordered and understandable, it is a human duty to utilise nature and technologies in order to create a better and more dignified life. A part of this is the eradication of pox and leprosy and other degenerative diseases.
The Western liberal view of humanity is primarily built on four columns - a political one that dictates that the good life is found in a community, a Christian one that makes human life sacrosanct and elevated with duties and bans, a social one that desires to maximise welfare and utility for the majority, and a modern, individualistic one that gives the individual rights and leaves the meaning of life and happiness up to the individual. This leads up to a mixed ethic that makes it more than impossible to determine a definition of humanity.
The unique individual in conflict with the natural order of things
Today, we think of man as individualistic, as a unit, a whole, a being with an identity. A human being is something simply by being human. A human being is dignified. A human being is free. A human being has a moral status. A human being is sensible and rational. A human being has demands and rights. It is in itself marvellous to consider what a revolution it has been to lift the individual out of the broad masses and give it a value of its own.
But it is probably also here that the problems in relation to the new technologies arise. If a human being basically is 'something' that can't be determined precisely, then every new challenge that encroaches on this something can be perceived as a threat. Something that's 'your own' you probably want to keep - even when you're not really clear on what it is or what it can be used for. If a human being thinks of itself as a fixed, given, unchangeable quantity, then changes - especially of humanity - is something unnatural and dangerous. The breaking down of boundaries between animals, plants and human beings rocks the foundations of society, and manipulation violates our autonomy and dignity.
If we in the future are going to expect ethical struggles in defining what it means to be human, it is primarily going to be because of such identity conflicts. Individualisation tells us that we must have an identity with values and opinions that we can vouch for, explain and defend. Hence we must also expect that conflicts regarding values and opinions will be regarded as threats against identity. For instance, a clone is a threat against the people who think that only God can create a soul with a live that is sacrosanct and irreplaceable. Genetic engineering is a threat against a belief in the perfectionism and immutability of nature, since it crosses a boundary and changes the shape of something that used to be understandable. All forms of manipulation, modification and change are on this basis risky, unsafe and not just dangerous - they are also wrong, and therefore unethical.
If the discussion of humanity, bioethics and biotechnology is made a question of either/or, true/false, it may not be so strange that people vehemently disagree.
New technologies and Dream Society
That progress is going to heck and the future is running wild is an old story. Horror stories about abuse of new technologies, sins against nature, and slippery slopes are a dime a dozen. We are all familiar with Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, people with no brains or who are half flies or are possessed by evil spirits or aliens. They have haunted our minds since the dawn of time and have made teenagers move closer together around the campfires of all times.
Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D. and leader of the Center of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania thinks that people rather like the biotechnological issues, partly because they can cook up some good horror stories, and partly because they bring the great questions of life back on the agenda. Suddenly, we can once again sit at the dinner table and talk about ethics and values and the meaning of life and death. What do you think of Dr. Kevorkian? Who is going to own our genes? Shouldn't we dig Abraham Lincoln up and check if he suffered from a strange disease? Have you heard that it took 277 tries to clone Dolly? And (ooh) the 276 were either stillborn or severely deformed? (The last part is an urban myth).
Scary stories as those mentioned above about ethical conflicts and gigadeath wars also belong, but they are the most negative expressions where a static view of human nature is projected onto a changeable future. A future that may well be far more open, free of boundaries, fluid and amorphous and thus purely practically is going to demand that we change our views of humanity and nature. If we look a few centuries back in time, many of the people of the past would probably consider our world abominable - almost no-one lives by the word of the Lord, everyone thinks of himself, we pollute and drop nuclear bombs on each other's heads and have weapons that can kill people over immense distances. But at the same time, it is also a world of great freedom, fine literature, and well-being for many, though not all.
The natural order of things in a new interpretation
So maybe we should hold our horses. The future is always going to be extreme and absurd in the long term, but the majority of people on this earth still live from day to day, and the greatest changes take place incrementally as a sequence of minor decisions. A great number of things point toward that it is our views of humanity and nature that are changing because they are based on false premises. The common view of humanity in the Western world is based on mankind being free and unique, and on species being static quantities that only slowly change. This collides with the scientific facts that tells us that many of our traits are genetically determined and constantly changing, and that there's no such thing as species boundaries. There's simply no biological evidence to support the claim that mankind is unique, sacrosanct or dignified and in possession of an integrity that protects us from anything. And if we talk about natural and unnatural, it is mankind that is the most unnatural in all the world. Compared with the majority of living organisms, everything from our sexual habits to our work to our ways of solving conflicts really is quite odd.
In the industrial age, machines that could do physical work were a 'natural' threat against many. Mankind was suddenly made obsolete. In the knowledge and information society, machines that can think, process information and act in human ways are a 'natural' threat and a challenge for our identities and ways of life. Artificial intelligence, clones and cyborgs turn against mankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Terminator. Once upon a time we discarded a pre-Darwinist, religious based view of humanity because we found that it was based on non-natural presumptions. Should we not expect that we are going to form a new view of humanity once genetic engineering and manipulation, cloning and other forms of technology will be used for useful purposes?
Kirsten Brandt, director of research at the Danish Institute for Agricultural Sciences, says that our conceptions of us meddling with God's creation or pushing nature out of balance are built on a vastly overrated idea of what scientists can do. Genetic engineering takes place in nature all the time, and it happens far more randomly than we generally imagine. For instance, all plants contain a gene that has been transmitted from an earthworm. Why has this gene ended there? Because the plant accidentally needed it at the time? When we get a cold or are inoculated, we are genetically modified, and the mitochondria in our cells, without which we couldn't live, are primordial bacteria with which we live in symbiosis. If we count human cells in the body versus bacteria, the last is in majority, but it is we who are in command, like a sort of biological enlightened despotism. Gross and provocative? Perhaps, but nonetheless true.
Our perception of what is natural or unnatural is opportune and shifts with time. It may well be that we don't want to hear about it, but boundaries, the unchangeable, the natural, and the static don't exist in nature. To forbid biological manipulation is the same sort of irrational reaction that a despotic ruler shows when he orders the execution of a bearer of bad news. We think of biotechnology as bad because we think it goes against 'the natural order of things', but it is actually the other way around. It is our perception of what 'the natural order' is that is challenged. And because our society is built on this, the identity of the society is in crisis.
It is still a matter of Darwinism, but in a more correct interpretation. Darwin never said that the strongest survive - only the best adapted, and that is also what it is about in the future.
That it isn't inconsequential that you construct your view of nature from should be and not is, the citizens of the Soviet Union had to admit in the middle of the last century. The Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko thought that it was possible to direct the evolution of organisms by forcing them to live in the desired fashion or location. The adaptations would be passed down to later generations, and animals and plants would act for the common good. And the plants and animals would of course be true socialists, not decadent Darwinists like in the West. Lysenko achieved the highest positions with full backing from the dictator Joseph Stalin, who even helped him with some scientific papers. It was e.g. possible to read that birches that grew at high altitudes in the mountains, close to the timberline, eventually would become pines that were better suited for the climate. Lysenko forced the cultivation of heat-loving wheat in cold climates as well as sowing at the wrong time, for the wheat had to bend to Lysenko's will. Trees were planted much too close in the firm belief that some would sacrifice themselves for the common good. The result was predictable: the crops failed, and the hard-pressed Soviet people starved. An unknown number, possibly millions, died.
Our old view of the natural order of things is a dream that makes sense. At some point we will wake up and perhaps create a new dream for us, with new stories about a different world where the changeable, the fluid and the transient is the natural, and the static, common man will be the past.
Many things suggest that this development is already here:
Borders are crossed and dissolved:
The static and the sacrosanct crumbles:
Networking cultures crop up:
Life becomes technological and technologies come alive:
Commercialisation and the good stories:
All these phenomena could just a few years ago be viewed as unnatural, odd and dangerous, as something that perhaps even should be forbidden. If you at the present time still are against these developments, you must have the feeling of standing with your finger in an enormous dyke. What strategy do you form when the dyke collapses?
The Life Science Revolution
The first wave was the agricultural revolution, the second was the industrial revolution, and the third was digitalisation, which blends into the biotechnological revolution - or the Life Science Revolution. According to a group of researchers at Harvard University, the new technologies are going to change everything! In comparison, the internet was a ripple in a bucket of water. The Life Science Revolution is going to transform life in general and hence also business as usual in a fundamental way. In order to survive in the new economy, many companies must change their views of strategy, marketing, competition, and co-operation in a far more 'natural' and 'sustainable' direction. Inspiration for making better networks and ideas for promoting information flows may come from studying ants, the individual actions of which are rather primitive, but when added, present efficient solutions to complex problems. Researchers create 'Artificial Ants' as small pieces of software that travel around the system, place artificial pheromones and find the optimal routes. Small, newly started companies can function as 'helpers by the nest', and if they drown in marketing, they can try the 'bird of paradise'.
According to Alvin Toffler, design and product development are also going to change dramatically in the years to come. According to the Harvard report, it is impossible to get a comprehensible view of the effects of budding and branching.
Another analysis from Harvard concludes that the biotechnical workplace, where you actually live with a more 'updated view of nature', is a good hint of what the workplace of the future is going to look like. The challenges that biotechnicians handle today will be the same that workers of the future have to be able to handle in the new millennium. The modern biotechnicians have reinvented their 'safety net'. They don't focus on secure frameworks, fixed relationships and guaranteed employment until old age, but rather on network contacts, the exchange of ideas and experiences, and they accept all new initiatives as a necessary part of their work. They stay until the task is done and then move on to a new - "carrying their skills like turtles on their backs."
Change and flux have become the natural competitive parameters.
The Life Science report from Harvard points to the enormous opportunities that are at stake, and if the business world isn't already revising future strategies, it is high time if the potential should be realised. Harvard point towards four major challenges:
Heroes and villains
An obvious conclusion is that the biotech industry should form strong ties, especially regarding marketing. If a story in the media is based on a crisis within genetic technology, it doesn't matter whether the story comes from Africa, Asia, Europe or downtown New York, or if the blame belongs to the scientist, the authorities or the company. For the layman, this is irrelevant. Biotechnology makes money by manipulating life, hence it is the 'villain' from the outset, while grassroots and green idealists easily can make themselves 'heroes'. The entire scientific community must hence be able to react quickly, succinctly and purposefully in order to handle and dedramatise the crisis.
The unwillingness, nervousness and fear of the consumer thus still form the bottleneck. They can't be ignored, and they must not be kept under lids. Our present day is characterised by a high pace of change. We all live in a complex reality with future shock knocking on the door, and for some, this is in the process of becoming quite natural. For others, it is dangerous, and for this reason, it isn't about being right, for the discussion isn't (only) about facts, information and objectiveness. It's about being credible.
But the natural scientists and the rest of the society aren't on speaking terms. The fault rests very much with the scientists themselves, says the philosopher Peter Sandøe from Cebra, which does cross-disciplinary research on bioethics. In a new study, Cebra shows that scientists don't think that it is possible to discuss scientific uncertainties with the public. Ordinary people must be treated a bit like small children, which means that the messages they get must be simple and clear.
On the other hand, ordinary people say they don't trust scientists because the scientists don't give an account of the uncertainties connected to their messages. Among the public, the attitude is: "We don't trust the experts because they speak to us as if we were little children!"
The Life Society model, the 'situal', and Deep Life values
On the contrary, success depends on taking individualisation seriously. The common denominator in all discussions is the phenomenon of life, and the conflicts arise from the different perceptions of what life is and what status life has.
In biotechnology, living organisms function as necessary resources, and in bioethics we attempt to understand the significance of life-related phenomena. Life is a part of the vision of 'the good life', of the discussion of quality of life, and it is institutionalised in national and international laws as being dignified but fragile, and hence having an integrity and vulnerability that the state must set boundaries for interference with. The key of the matter thus seems to be Life itself, our relation to it as well as whether, or on what premises, we can accept interference with, or reduction of, the living. Life has become a key issue, on the one hand a resource, and on the other an irreplaceable and sacrosanct quantity that must be protected from assault and manipulation. Conflicts and fundamental disagreements are often based on different attitudes to life - is it something that God has created, or is it a purely pragmatic concern? Can you patent life, or is life owned by mankind as a whole? Is it a means or an end? Do we speak of biological life, natural life, life in an abstract sense as in 'the vision of the good life' for all mankind, or in a practical sense as welfare and quality of life for the individual?
If life is an individual concern, we must work to reach a consensus. But when no one really knows or can say what life is, how are we ever going to reach an agreement?
The greatest question that we face in the 20th century is:
"What does it mean to be human?"
It may be better to ask the more humble question: are we ready answer this question? If the world of the future is characterised by everything being in a state of flow and change, old authorities falling and new ones rising, where nothing is naturally durable and unchangeable, is it then at all possible to formulate a lasting idea of what it means to be human? And not least - how and by whom should the concept of humanity be formulated?
It isn't strange that especially the biotech industry and the medical profession are very interested in reaching a definition so they won't risk stepping on anybody's toes. Yet it is characteristic that all recent attempts to express an objectively founded definition have failed. Man is a biological creature with two arms and two legs (includes gorillas and excludes paraplegics), a rational being (excludes the demented and possibly includes dolphins), a sentient being capable of imagining its own future (excludes the comatose and possibly includes squirrels), etc.
Perhaps we should ask if it isn't the wrong question to ask. Mankind really isn't anything static. A human being becomes something and evolves and attributes different meanings to different things throughout life. A human being has feelings and dreams and likes to communicate through metaphors and dreams. A human being is relational, and apart from the basic needs, it wants to keep its dignity, which is to say, the idea that we mean something special to someone else, and that others reciprocate when you treat them nicely.
The human being of the future is the situal - a situation-dependent quantity that creates its own meaning from existence. The situal is placed in the middle of the 'Life Society' model, between information, risks and dreams, which are interpreted differently based on personal role, status, function, affiliation, involvement, authority, responsibility, values, behaviour, and attitude. The situal doesn't wish to understand itself as an isolated individual who lives a limited life with the frustration of the question "what am I?" The inner and the outer blends, and the boundary between the public and the private becomes diffuse. The situal is looking for meaning and power of explanation and thinks in connections, relations and contexts. It is a coherentism that is based on a background theory of the world, ethical principles and well-considered moral institutions.
The situal is not amorphous and shapeless with opinions that blow in the wind. The situal is just like you and me. We move through life, grow with challenges, are challenged by the unusual and incorporate deeper values into our personalities. Fundamental changes (e.g. sickness, deaths or terrorist attacks) shake our view of the world, moral institutions (e.g. aversion to homosexuality or foreigners) can be changed over time, and ethical principles can be revised if we suddenly are confronted with a difficult choice. But still, we remain the same persons.
This core is what we call Deep Life, because it represents deep personal values. The situal who lives with change is going to have a different need for keeping a dynamic inner equilibrium. The situal is going to prioritise family, close interpersonal ties, a critical flexibility, certain choices, and is going to have a tendency towards not caring about maintaining a boundary between the inner and the outer, between the public and the private. All that doesn't mean anything is screened out, and only the messages that have relevance or energy seeps through.
Combine the two aspects and place them in the middle of the model, then you will have a true human being - a human being that fits in the changeable society of the future.
3. "America's next ethical war" in The Economist, 010501. 4. "Hvornår vil vi være i stand til at reagere på et tidligt varsel?" af dr. Darren Shickle, Public Health Medicine, University of Sheffield, UK, Etisk Råd 2000.
5. "The public debate on cloning: international experiences", Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 990919, Conference report by Rinie van Est and Gert van Dijk, Rathenau Institute
6. "Philosophy Confronts Issues Raised by Technology, Genetics Not Just for Theorists Anymore, Courses Now Contemplate Real-Life Issues Raised by Technology and Genetics" by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, 001031,
10. Læs mere om "Swarm Intelligence" i "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software" by Steven Johnson or "Better Networks: Look to Nature" by Katie Hafner The New York Times, 010913.
11. "Transforming Life, Transforming Business: The Life Science Revolution", by Juan Enriquez og Ray A Goldberg, Harvard Business Review, Marts-april 2000. 12. "Biotech Workers "Thrive" On Instability", Harvard Gazette, 011216