Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Biotechnologies and Human Nature: What We Should Not Change in Who We Are

Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

Biotechnologies and Human Nature: What We Should Not Change in Who We Are

Article excerpt


The advance in recent biotechnologies holds much promise for healing and therapy. At the same time it raises profound ethical, philosophical and theological issues. One of the major issues is the possibility of transforming human nature into something other than what we have always understood as key elements of our humanness. This article sets out four dimensions of human nature that, on theological grounds, ought to be preserved in the midst of the many potential transformations through the biotech revolution.


For the first time in human history the clear distinctions between the natural world and artificial world are being blurred. Throughout most of history the natural world was the given world, evident in humans, animals, and plant life.1 It was the way things are. The artificial world was the humanly created world, the world of artifacts and technology. While humans invented and controlled this artificial world, humans as a species remained ontologically distinct from it. Enter the world of biotechnology and the traditional distinctions become quite muddled.

By "biotechnologies" we mean "a set of technologies aimed at manipulating living o things, including human beings themselves, arguably for the common good." Or, as the former President's Council on Bioethics put it, "Biotechnology is bigger than its processes and products; it is a form of human empowerment. By means of its techniques (for example, recombining genes), instruments (for example, DNA sequencers), and products (for example, new drugs or vaccines), biotechnology empowers us human beings to assume greater control over our lives, diminishing our subjection to disease and misfortune, chance and necessity."3 Thus, biotechnologies include a broad array of mechanisms for human usage including drugs, gene therapy and manipulation, psychopharmaceuticals, hormones, organ transplants, new forms of orthopedic appliances, and neural implants.

We, of course, recognize the great therapeutic good that can come from biotechnologies. However, with the good come pressing philosophical, theological, and ethical questions of immense significance. The biotechnologies themselves may be deemed morally neutral, with the ethical judgment focused on their usage. Nevertheless, we should note that even the very employment of certain technologies often carries a trajectory with moral concerns. That is, the technologies have a way of controlling us, even as we control them.4 As Ronald Cole-Turner notes, "The aim of the technologies of human enhancement is not to change the world but to change ourselves to fit better, to compete better, or to live better in the world as it is. And along the way, these technologies change the way we see ourselves, turning our bodies and brains into something to be changed at will."5

It is clear that biotechnologies have the potential to move us not just beyond therapy, but beyond the realm of current human nature into what some have called a posthuman situation or a transhuman context. This means that human beings as we now know them could be radically altered or even cease to be. Short of such cataclysmic modification, the biotechnologies can have an immense impact upon various human endeavors and patterns that are common to human life now.

As we look at these potential changes through biotechnology we must ask what essential ethical criteria exist for judging these new technologies. Of course, it will not do to simply give a Luddite response and reject the technologies out of hand. We need more careful criteria to discern what can be accepted and what should be ethically called into question.

Ethical Criteria for Biotechnologies

Several different criteria for judging biotechnologies have been suggested. Such criteria are not mutually exclusive and can be of help in ethical assessment. In the end, though, I will suggest another paradigm for us to consider beyond the following criteria, namely the criteria derived from givens in human nature. …

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