Biotechnology: Reshaping Humanity into Artificial Production

Recent decades have witnessed great achievements in biotechnology, such as cloning technology, test-tube babies and in vitro fertilization. Each of these milestones has continually strengthen people’s confidence in controlling our own genes. Based on such highly-advanced biotechnology, scientists cannot help wondering whether they can turn science fictions into realities of the future: applying biotechnology to produce human-engineered flesh-and-blood androids. Instead of being made by machine, artificial production in the modern era is often bio-made. As such, biotechnology requires greater restrictions to prevent it becoming a threat to our traditional ethics and values by continuously reshaping our natural humanity.

Although biotechnology provides us with accessible methods to better ourselves and benefit our lives, the difference between human and machine is diminishing. In Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, flesh and blood human-engineered androids are produced to serve their human masters. The only difference between androids and humans is empathy. However, as Dick shows in the novel, wealth and intelligence divide human society into different classes: upper classes that are immigrant to a new world (e.g., Mars), and lower classes that stay on the radioactive earth. Humans depend on machines to control their emotions and lose their natural capability to feel happy, angry, disappointed and sad. On the contrary, androids learn to have empathy for each other, make their own decisions and take responsibilities for themselves. We humans invent and produce all kinds of machines to make our life more convenient and to improve our work efficiency, while performing scientific research to explore the mysteries of life and the Universe. However, the result of human’s desire for a perfect life is that humans are becoming increasingly machine-like, while those artificial intelligence products are becoming increasingly human-like. In this context, what makes humans think androids lack souls and emotions is much more important than whether they have souls and emotions. In the end, we will likely discover that what determines our thoughts about the border between humans and androids also determines our view on the world, and of ourselves.

Biotechnology also threatens our traditional ethics and values in all aspects of our common life. As the American writer David Shenk questioned in his 1997 essay entitled “Biocapitalism: What price the Genetic Revolution?”, “should prospective parents who want a child be allowed to refuse a particular type of child?”(p.39). Such circumstances are bound to result in ethical problems according to Shenk. Genetic testing on ordinary people may also lead to increasing class divisions and social discrimination. “If left up to the marketplace, designer genes could even allow the wealthy to pass on not only vast fortunes but also superior bioengineered lineages, thereby exacerbating class divisions”(p.45) . For people with genetic defects, discrimination will also come from all sides, which conflicts with human ethics and values. Under all circumstances, human beings have an obligation to stick to their ethics. As the result of evolution, our existence is gifted by nature. Human beings are supposed to better themselves naturally to show respect to nature and to life, instead of being arbitrarily reformed on the inside and reshaped into non-natural artificial products. As C.S. Lewis warned in an essay written in 1944, “such absolute biotechnological power is corruptive, that it robs humanity of its instinctive duty to posterity” (qtd. Shenk p.38).

Biotechnology, as a two-sided blade, brings about controversies and discussions among scientists, politicians, economists and the public, which will last well into the future, and it is not yet known when such debates are likely to end. We humans are so close to biotechnology that we cannot totally understand what it means to us, i.e., whether it’s an opportunity or a threat. Maybe Dick is right. In his novel, people get drunk with their achievements in biotechnology and meanwhile, androids have a much clearer view of biotechnology and the religious fraud called ‘Mercerism’. Certainly, human beings are not completely rational and it is difficult for us to have a safe perspective that encompasses everything. As a result, we will make mistakes, even though we know how absurd our choice is. The real difference between humans and other AI products is, however, the awareness of their mistakes and the capability to correct them. That is what our natural humanity brings us and we should cherish it.

Forget advanced technology for a moment and take a look back on the whole of human history. From the process of evolution from apes to humans, to the process of constructing splendid cultures and civilizations, our ancestors faced many crossroads and made many decisions. Each decision, each step, was to better ourselves and to pursue a higher life status. Now we are standing at the crossroads in the 21th century, facing the balance of advanced biotechnology and our humanity, and considering the future of human; important decisions shall be made. By avoiding being reshaped into artificial production, we will find how precious our humanity is. Nothing deprives it from us, forever.


Originally published at shenzhefan.wordpress.com on September 5, 2015.