Snap, Crackle, Pop Transhumanism

While we were busy with a few other projects recently, we failed to note that Kyle Munkittrick of the Pop Transhumanism blog had a follow-up post in our exchange about the morality of cloning. It’s a disappointing response. He ignores some of our major arguments, he misrepresents others, and he repeats some of his own points that were so weak that we didn’t bother rebutting them first time he made them.

Although this back-and-forth could go on indefinitely, I suspect that both blogs’ readers would quickly tire of the exchange, so except for the few further comments below, we’ll let the record stand for now.

Dark and Inscrutable Are the Ways

Mr. Munkittrick points out a pair of studies that suggest that twelve-year-old children born via IVF have good relationships with their parents and are emotionally and socially well adjusted. He intends these studies to rebut our point that the lives of children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies can be profoundly shaped by the facts of their conception.

The studies that he points to, though, paint a more complicated picture than he may realize. (I’ll refrain both from my usual kvetching about the shortcomings of this kind of social-scientific research and from pointing out the many oddities of these particular studies.) One of the studies, for example, notes an apparent “difference in attitude toward parenting” between couples who conceive via a sperm donation and couples who conceive naturally: the families that relied on sperm donors apparently had “more positive parent-child relationships” with their twelve-year-olds.

For the purposes of argument, let’s accept this finding. This means that different modes of conception available today can provoke (measurably) different styles of parenting. It would stand to reason, then, that producing a child via cloning might also result in a noticeably different style of parenting. That is surely hinted at in Bryan Caplan’s lament that launched this discussion: he wants to experience a “sublime bond” with a cloned child, a bond shared only by himself and his clone, a bond he apparently does not feel with the children he and his wife already have.

Once we agree that child-rearing would be transformed if a child were produced by cloning, we can speculate as to how it would be transformed. This kind of speculation — grounded in a rich understanding of the meaning of procreation in human life, of child-rearing, and of the relationship between the generations — is necessary for ethical reflection about cloning. The 2002 President’s Council on Bioethics report on cloning is a model of this kind of balanced, informed, and searching speculation. Mr. Munkittrick, by contrast, refuses to concede that cloning might have any effect whatsoever on the cloned child — despite the fact that the language of cloning advocates like Bryan Caplan suggests that a desire to change the meaning of procreation, child-rearing, and the relationship between the generations, is in fact central to their advocacy of cloning. Why is it that defenders of cloning are loath to discuss the subject directly in those terms?

A Handful of Questions

But enough about cloning. What makes Mr. Munkittrick’s response so disappointing is that his Pop Transhumanism blog is so often a pleasure to read. It is spirited and doesn’t creak with the earnestness, self-importance, and obsessive self-referentialism that make certain other transhumanist sites so very tedious. Also, Mr. Munkittrick doesn’t shy away from picking fights with his friends and allies, and he is admirably skeptical about parts of their vision of and for the future.

Speaking of fights that he picks, Mr. Munkittrick did challenge this blog a few weeks ago and we never got around to responding publicly. Since more than a month has gone by, and since most of his challenge was either insubstantial or deeply misguided, I’d like to focus only on one aspect of Mr. Munkittrick’s post — one where he describes his own views, saying that he believes

in natural rights, but that those natural rights are emergent and explain why a single human cell does not have the same rights as a child, and, furthermore, why a child does not have full citizenship but an adult does. Though our legal system doesn’t say it explicitly, this form of rights codification implies that rights stem from a specific level of cognitive aptitude allowing autonomy, sentience, empathy, and reflexivity allowing one to function in a polis…. I was able to incorporate ideas like uplift and non-human rights into my value structure without compromising other beliefs, such as that many animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity.

For Mr. Munkittrick (and any commenters who share these views), some questions:

First, if you understand natural rights to attach to a “specific level of cognitive aptitude,” what is that level, specifically? Which rights are not possessed by human beings whose cognitive aptitude is beneath that level (a category that would presumably include those who formerly functioned at or above that level, such as a permanently comatose person or an elderly person with advanced dementia; those who have yet to reach that level, such as an infant, a fetus, or an embryo; and those who may never reach it, such as the severely developmentally disabled)? Are there any rights that all human beings, regardless of cognitive aptitude, possess?

Second, do you believe that cognitive enhancement will be an important factor in shaping the future of humanity? If so, and if you believe that rights attach to cognitive aptitude, do you believe that the cognitively enhanced will possess new rights? Like what? If you believe that “animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity,” do you believe that in the future unenhanced human beings would be “justly treated with fewer rights” than enhanced posthumans “because of their lower cognitive capacity”?

Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning … advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).

Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research…. If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all….

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference…. [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.

You Don’t Hate Children… Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

The Other Paradox of Choice

Should we regulate?
In a recent post here on Futurisms responding to a CNN interview about the pending “gamepocalypse,” I described some common moves that futurists make, including a kind of predictive overreach. But the CNN interview demonstrates another futurist trope. The basic formula of “this new thing will come, and it’ll change everything” must be followed by “but there will be some inevitable downsides,” which must in turn be followed by … well, in the case of the CNN interview, this exchange follows:
CNN: Should we create regulations to keep [those downsides] from happening?

[Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell:] That’s hard for me to imagine. These things are going to creep up on us one by one, and it’s going to be up to what can people take, and what can people tolerate?
Schell also notes that “We all have choices to make about what aspects of our privacy we want to give away.”
Its use in the context of gaming shows just how inadequate (even silly) is the rights-versus-regulation framework into which so many people want to force many of our most important public ethical discussions. We’re talking about computer games, folks. Blood or money would have to be flowing in the streets before any sensible defenders of liberal democracy would call for governmental regulation (and predictions of such dire consequences are usually bandied about when people do call for regulation). But once the question of regulation has been raised and dismissed, that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. Thereafter, the assumption is libertarian: If government isn’t the way to go, everything else is just a matter of unrestrained personal preference.
The Other Paradox of Choice
What’s missing from this picture is what the next step should really be. Once we’ve all agreed that some particular activity is basically within the realm of individual rights and beyond the realm of governmental regulation, the debate should shift away from the legal and turn to the good and bad of the activity itself. This is a blessing of liberal democracy: we’re free to decide what choices we want to make, and so discussing which ones are good or bad for us becomes our privilege and our responsibility.
And yet the self-avowed defenders of choices, rights, and freedom all too often ignore (or even shout down) any serious discussion about how we should make those choices and exercise those freedoms. They tend to pooh-pooh moral considerations.
There’s a well-known “paradox of choice” in which the more we have to choose from, the harder it is to make a choice or be satisfied with it. But there seems to be another odd paradox of choice: the more vigorously someone preaches about rights and choices, the more tyrannical that person will consider any public conversation about how best to exercise those rights and make those choices.
Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man
Perhaps another example is in order. In a recent post here, Adam Keiper noted the shallowness of some recent discussion about the issue of cloning. In particular, he noted the question posed by libertarian blogger Tyler Cowen to his readers: “If you don’t like [Bryan Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.” As Adam noted, this quantitative distillation is preposterously reductive. But it isn’t just that.
The phrase “preferred degree” here is derogative, even sneering: pity (maybe fear) the fool who thinks his choices are right. Such choices, as mere preferences, come to seem completely arbitrary and weightless. The paradox lies in the libertarian’s simultaneous belief that choice is of utmost importance — even that it is constitutive of our identities as free agents.
Just at the level of attitude, this dismissiveness comes across as a less easygoing version of The Dude. But in the realm of serious discussion, it reveals a tension about the natures of agency, individuality, freedom, and choice that is inherent to libertarianism, and unfortunately present in too many of our public debates about matters of great ethical import.

The Life of the Clone (and the Narcissism of the Cloner)

Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and a contributor to a group blog about economics. He and his co-bloggers are intelligent libertarian economists, and their blog is often clarifying on important questions of policy and economic theory. It is deservedly popular for its erudition and wit.

On moral matters, though, Mr. Caplan sometimes muddles things. Like a few other prominent libertarian econobloggers, Mr. Caplan is interested in futuristic technologies, and he has written several posts about bioethical questions, including a handful in the past few months that misunderstand and misrepresent essays by Leon Kass. (I may revisit those in a future post here.) Mr. Caplan was apparently reading those Kass essays to bone up on arguments about cloning, a subject he addresses in a forthcoming book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Yesterday, Mr. Caplan invited his readers to tell him whether or not he should include the following passage in the book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Before examining Mr. Caplan’s confession directly, let’s look at some of the reactions it provoked. Below his post are some six dozen responses; a few say that the paragraph makes Mr. Caplan sound “crazy,” but several defend and even praise it. (There’s also an amusing comment from Will Wilkinson.) Tyler Cowen, the libertarian über-econoblogger (and another George Mason prof), invited his own readers to comment, and introduced his own spin:

If you don’t like [Mr. Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

In a follow-up today, Cowen chastised his own readers for the content of their comments about Caplan, and Mr. Caplan briefly responded. Meanwhile, Brad DeLong charged Mr. Caplan with misogyny (a frivolous accusation that Mr. DeLong’s own commenters shot down), and Steve Sailer chimed in with some provocative questions in his inimitable way.

Let’s examine what Mr. Caplan wrote. He begins by saying that he takes “anti-cloning arguments personally,” in part because “they insult the identical twin sons I already have.”

Without having seen the rest of Mr. Caplan’s book, we cannot know just what “anti-cloning arguments” he is referring to. But from context, we can infer that he has in mind an argument that human clones would somehow be lesser beings simply because their genetic duplicates exist. Certainly no one responsible or thoughtful has made so crude an argument. I invite Mr. Caplan to state plainly whose arguments he has in mind — specifically which “anti-cloning arguments” insult his twin sons — but until he does, I suggest he’s invoking a straw man.

Perhaps Mr. Caplan simply misunderstands some of the arguments that opponents of cloning actually make, like this objection that appeared in a thorough and balanced report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics eight years ago:

Of course, our genetic makeup does not by itself determine our identities. But our genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves. It is an emblem of independence and individuality. It endows us with a sense of life as a never-before-enacted possibility. Knowing and feeling that nobody has previously possessed our particular gift of natural characteristics, we go forward as genetically unique individuals into relatively indeterminate futures.

These new and unique genetic identities are rooted in the natural procreative process. A cloned child, by contrast, is at risk of living out a life overshadowed in important ways by the life of the “original” — general appearance being only the most obvious. Indeed, one of the reasons some people are interested in cloning is that the technique promises to produce in each case a particular individual whose traits and characteristics are already known. And however much or little one’s genotype actually shapes one’s natural capacities, it could mean a great deal to an individual’s experience of life and the expectations that those who cloned him or her might have. The cloned child may be constantly compared to “the original,” and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before. If the two individuals turned out to lead similar lives, the cloned person’s achievements may be seen as derivative. If, as is perhaps more likely, the cloned person departed from the life of his or her progenitor, this very fact could be a source of constant scrutiny, especially in circumstances in which parents produced their cloned child to become something in particular. Living up to parental hopes and expectations is frequently a burden for children; it could be a far greater burden for a cloned individual. The shadow of the cloned child’s “original” might be hard for the child to escape, as would parental attitudes that sought in the child’s very existence to replicate, imitate, or replace the “original.”

The Council’s report then specifically addresses the question of twins. The following points are pretty obvious, but Mr. Caplan seems to think that opponents of cloning don’t understand them (while it is not clear that he appreciates them himself):

It may reasonably be argued that genetic individuality is not an indispensable human good, since identical twins share a common genotype and seem not to be harmed by it. But this argument misses the context and environment into which even a single human clone would be born. Identical twins have as progenitors two biological parents and are born together, before either one has developed and shown what his or her potential — natural or otherwise — may be. Each is largely free of the burden of measuring up to or even knowing in advance the genetic traits of the other, because both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world. But a clone is a genetic near-copy of a person who is already living or has already lived. This might constrain the clone’s sense of self in ways that differ in kind from the experience of identical twins. Everything about the predecessor — from physical height and facial appearance, balding patterns and inherited diseases, to temperament and native talents, to shape of life and length of days, and even cause of death — will appear before the expectant eyes of the cloned person, always with at least the nagging concern that there, notwithstanding the grace of God, go I. The crucial matter, again, is not simply the truth regarding the extent to which genetic identity actually shapes us — though it surely does shape us to some extent. What matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the “precedent life” and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.

Those passages also offer a fairly firm reply to Tyler Cowen’s challenge. Mr. Cowen asks why one “degree of genetic similarity” is preferable to another. But that reductive abstraction — thinking about this question in terms of percentages of genes — is downright bizarre. As the Council passages makes clear, the debate over cloning isn’t fundamentally about genes; it is about human beings, about complicated family and generational relationships, about selfhood, identity, and social contexts.

What, in the end, are we to make of Mr. Caplan’s desire? He says that he has two reasons for wishing “to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.” The first is selfish: “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.” His certitude that the bond would be “sublime” is nothing more than an assumption elevated to faith.

His second reason for wanting to clone himself poses as a kind of generosity:

I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sentence is a gem. Its logic is dubious (just because today’s Mr. Caplan says he would wish to have himself as a parent doesn’t mean that a clone born decades later would enjoy the professor’s parenting) and it reveals tremendous self-regard (Mr. Caplan considers his parenting talents so excellent that he knows he would enjoy being on the receiving end of them if it were but possible).

And there you have it. The staunchest public advocates of cloning-to-produce-children have argued that it might someday help infertile couples produce biologically related children. But Mr. Caplan’s example shows us that there are people who desire to clone themselves for the shallowest of reasons — the sheer pleasure of interacting with a duplicate, and the somewhat paradoxical belief that a person could have raised himself better than his parents did. It is hard to know which is more breathtaking: the callous disregard for the independently lived life of the cloned child, or the extreme narcissism so unabashedly on display.