MONOLOGUE WRITTEN BY CLYDE LEWIS
Science and technology today spearhead discussion of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? At a deep level, how we think about human nature itself appears in flux under the lens of “transhumanist” and “posthumanist” thought.
Science fiction illustrates the extremes of transhuman form. Even though the idea of transhumanism extends the promise of neutralized pain and suffering, we must understand that it is pain and suffering that makes the joy of the human experience more meaningful.
We are integrating so quickly into a technological hyper-reality that the simulation is far more real than the mediocrity of the real. Everything is so intensified that our stimulation sensors need upgrades in order to sustain the kind of stimulation we are seeing today. In order to do this, we may have to face voluntary human extinction with the promise that a better life awaits through technological advancement.
However, the baby steps to full conversion to machine or genetic mutation is now focusing on what it means to be human. The argument is not only shaking the scientific paradigm but it also is influencing religion in a ubiquitous fashion.
Without any doubt, a good Christian will open up the Bible and will read in the first chapter that a human being began as a man made in the image and likeness of God.
Genesis also says that during the creation period, God made human beings “male and female” Today, a contemporary school of thought that brings future shock to some is called, “gender theory.”
The general thought of gender theory is that sexual identity is a social construct and a matter of choice.
We have always been used to the notion that gender is decided by what is between the legs. However, now we are evolving into individuals that are realizing that gender is what is between the ears.
It may not be a popular notion amongst conservatives and traditionalists, but it appears that we cannot stop the future, even when it becomes uncomfortable for those who lack the understanding of cultural revolution.
Gradually, we are going to realize soon that human status and personhood have different meanings.
Speaking from the area of biology, the term “human being” refers to an animal that genetically belongs to the species, Homo sapiens.
Religion tells us that what makes us different from the animals is that we have been given by God what is called, “ensoulment.”
This is defined as the instant a human being attains a soul as a characteristic of human status. In general, personhood denotes a set of capacities that imply both the ability to engage in certain sophisticated behaviors and an elevated moral standing deserving of certain legal protections.
Humanism is defined by the secular ethicists is a classification that denotes a being that can think creatively, reason, and engage in self-motivating activities, having the capacity to communicate and having self-awareness.
Human is as human does and humans can be categorized as animals but of course we do have our differences.
The difficulty with both religious and secular definitions of human status or personhood is that we have no established scientific methods to accurately assess these criteria.
Let’s just say we have a bit of cognitive bias as what makes us superior to the animals or average insect.
One of the traits that differentiates us from the animals is our thoughts of exceptionalism and superiority. We also have a tendency to over-complicate things.
There have been many concerns by traditionalist that we are losing our humanity because of things like transgenics, transhumanism, gender theory and there always seems to be a tendency to vilify the notion.
Transhumanism and posthumanism have existed in secular intellectual circles for decades, and they have served as staples of science fiction, but lately they’ve been reaching out to a broader audience.
We have sped up our evolution with the use of drugs, bodily enhancements and technology. The human we will see in the not too distant future, will be an advanced human, maybe even something that has a semblance to humanity without being human.
We are now entering a new phase, of what Stephen Hawking has called “self designed evolution,” in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. At first these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy.
These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, Hawking is sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts like aggression.
Many will say that these are futuristic matters which will not apply to them in their life time. This opinion is premature because these are futuristic matters that the Bible or that conservative Christianity will have to address eventually.
The Catholic Church, in a bold move, has decided to protect human life at every stage of its development. While the church has said that even in the face of mutation and Chimeras used in science they shall hold life sacred.
They warn that there is an inherent danger to enhance human forms through artificial or mechanical means and that it is the moral obligation of scientists to reject any opportunity to use biological material that comes from a procedure considered gravely immoral by the church, even if there is no close connection between the researcher and those doing the illicit procedure.
This includes stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, embryonic freezing and I am sure creating sperm artificially outside the testicles of a human male.
However, the Church also believes that if life is created by these means, then the life should be held sacred and not destroyed.
Britain’s Catholic Bishops stated during the apex of the controversy over clones, chimeras and transgenic experiments that if biological mutants or chimeras are ever created, chimeric embryos should be allowed to live.
Is this the ultimate heresy? The heretical tampering with creation? Where is it that you draw the line?
I don’t think people would have a problem with human hearts being grown inside pigs after all, if it saved the life of a loved one we may put our prejudice aside.
What if they were to find a way to cure Alzheimer’s disease by taking neurons and placing them into the brains of mice or monkeys?
Are those firing neurons really the human soul? This is where we must stop time for a moment and ask ourselves, where are we now? Who are we really?
Were we created at random? Are we quantum echoes that somehow exist like ghosts on a magnetic matrix? Are we some miraculous creation of god or are we a creation that has been forgotten by a god that didn’t have the decency to tell us his name or even give us direction?
Is the consciousness or soul that we all claim to possess just the illusory byproduct of synaptic activity in our brain?
A conference summary says the working assumption of transhumanist thought is that genetic manipulation, medicine or education may eventually be able to transform human beings into “something stronger and better” — indeed, “altogether different,” according to the posthumanists.
Around the same time, the Pontifical Council for Culture devoted its plenary assembly to these matters. Theologians and ethicists joined geneticists, neuroscientists and experts on artificial intelligence in a discussion under the heading “The Future of Humanity.
A “presentation of the themes” released along with the program gives a sometimes startling picture of what was discussed. Describing the present as “a period of profound social and cultural change,” the document says the “deepest transformation” now underway concerns “what it means to be human.” In preaching the Gospel, it adds, “the Church must present its ideas in ways that are culturally accessible and credible.”
There are several emerging biotechnologies that raise ethical questions regarding the definition of personhood. One of these innovations is xenotransplantation, which uses gene editing (CRISPR-Cas9) and stem cell technologies to create human-pig or human-sheep chimeras that can grow human organs for transplantation.
While most people understand that pigs growing human livers and kidneys could save lives, there is an ethical fear that these technologies may generate animals that incorporate human cells into their brains or sex organs — situations that require broader discussions regarding the question whether such organisms attain the status of personhood.
For example, is there a percent composition of human neurons incorporated into an animal’s brain that renders such a chimera human? Similarly, other stem cell technologies exist to create mice that produce human sperm or eggs. If human gametes from these mice are used to generate a healthy baby, would that baby be considered human?
Technically, it is not a conventional human — but it is a human.
I know this may sound like more heresy but any living organism that has human status also attains personhood status. But conferring personhood does not necessarily confer human status. Second, human status is given to any individual born from a human being and/or derived from human gametes regardless of its capacity-based functions or cognitive capabilities.
The extension of these criteria would be that a child born from human gametes regardless of the source of these human cells would also be regarded as human.
Therefore, it can be stated that an embryo produced using gamete-like cells obtained from human blood or human sperm or eggs produced from a genetically altered mouse would still attain both human and personhood status.
Furthermore, a human embryo created in vitro from human gametes and transplanted into an artificial placenta or genetically altered animal that contains a human uterus, would still have human status.
Anyone who would set out to destroy these human embryos are actually destroying and killing human beings regardless of how they are brought into this world. Anyone set out to kill any human born in this way would be committing an act of murder.
Life finds a way, even if it is unconventional and if a person believes in a right to life they must also support the life of humans derived in unconventional technological methods.
These technologies are not hypothetical — ectogenesis, or development outside the natural womb, has already been shown to preserve premature lambs, and xenotransplantation biotechnologies used to produce human-pig chimeras could be applied to other animals to generate, say, a cow with a human uterus.
Now, going back to the Bible and the creation of the human we read about Adam and his creation on the 6th day. Adam, having been created by God, was not born from a human being nor created from human sperm or eggs. He was created outside of a human womb and was called a human being with a soul.
Adam was the first man who was technically a product of ectogenesis. Jesus was not conceived naturally either. How does one explain virgin birth? Or the fact that Jesus was in fact a hybrid chimera of God and man.
It sounds like science fiction heresy, but technically it is the uncomfortable truth.
Biotechnologies can elicit complex ethical challenges that need to be discussed and addressed. An animal that has been engineered with human brain cells or human neural organs does not necessarily attain a human state.
Being human requires the creation of an embryo from human gametes or being born from a human. However, a human-animal chimera that expresses basic human-based cognitive capacities or human-like behaviors can be granted personhood status reflected in legal or moral rights not normally given to animals.
No reasonable person doubts that the Church should be informed on this new thinking. But along with informing itself, the Church has something to add from its own long tradition and for the Church, the Vatican document says, the challenge is to find a way of expressing that tradition that speaks to people today.
Like it or not, we will all be dragged kicking and screaming into the transhumanist genomic future and it will most certainly make us question what it means to be human.