TCS Daily

The Red-Green Divide Over Human Enhancement

By James Pethokoukis - March 30, 2004 12:00 AM

"The future," it has been said, "creeps in on small feet. We do not awaken suddenly to a brave new world." In no area of futurology is this more true than in demographics -- as was evidenced last week by a rather unsurprising report from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to population projections based on the 2000 census, the nation's population will grow not only in absolute size -- from around 280 million today to 420 million by 2050 -- but also in diversity. Hispanics will expand from 12.6 percent of the nation's population to 24.4 percent, blacks from 12.7 percent to 14.6 percent, and Asians from 3.8 percent to 8 percent. The non-Hispanic, white population is projected to actually increase from 196 million to 210 million, but decline in percentage terms from 69.4 percent to 50.1 percent.

Now this forecast of a more colorful America is hardly particularly surprising to demographers -- or, perhaps, really anyone not living in Vermont. The trends have been obvious for some time and frequently dissected for their political, cultural and economic impact. Such analysis is probably always quite high on Karl Rove's "to do" list.

But one area of such demographic analysis that has gotten short shrift is the affect of America's changing hue on how we deal with accelerating technological change, particularly in the area of biotechnology. Unlike "dry" tech advances, such as in information technology or communications, advances in "wet tech" strike at some of society's deepest religious and spiritual convictions about what it means to be human. Therapeutic cloning, stem cell treatments, germline engineering and other potential medical advances, assuming that they pan out, will become even more controversial than they are currently if someday employed for reasons "beyond therapy" -- to use the favorite term of the President's Bioethics Council -- such as enhancing our native biological capabilities and dramatically extending the human lifespan.

Having spoken with many enhancement advocates, it seems pretty clear to me that they, for the most part, think the cultural momentum is moving in their direction. Just look, they point out, how we are already enhancing themselves. College students are already using Ritalin to enhance their concentration for exams. Human growth hormone has been approved for healthy short kids. Demand for cosmetic plastic surgery continues to soar. In 2003, more than 6.9 million procedures were done -- 41 percent more than a year earlier, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Interest in plastic surgery has grown so much that it's now the subject of reality shows on ABC and MTV. And as soon as embryonic stem cells are shown to cure some disease or tinkering with the germline is shown to prevent some horrific malady from ever occurring, "the debate over them will be over," as UCLA's Gregory Stock, author of the book Our Inevitable Genetic Future, told me recently.

Except ... that Hispanics and blacks, who by 2050 will compose 39 percent of the population, both display strong culturally conservative values and -- along with evangelical whites -- may form formidable political obstacle to new biotechnologies. Take the issue of abortion, which serves as a handy stand-in for attitudes toward cutting-edge biotech since both touch on the issue of what it means to be human. A 2002 Pew Research survey found that more than 55% of both registered Latino and African-American voters believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases -- ten points higher than whites. When asked whether abortion is "unacceptable, 79 percent Hispanics who identified themselves as Roman Catholic -- about 70 percent of respondents -- agreed that it was vs. 53 percent of white Catholics. (Even 53 percent of self-described "secular" Hispanics found abortion "unacceptable" vs. 22 percent of secular whites.) And a 2001 Survey USA poll of attitudes of New Yorkers towards stem cell research found that only 38 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of blacks thought such research ethical vs. 68 percent of whites.

Religious commitment, of course, plays a big part in that divergence. Another 2002 Pew Research poll of attitudes toward federal funding for stem cell research found that individuals with a high level of religious commitment (based on factors such as how often individuals pray and attend church services) opposed such funding in far greater numbers than low commitment individuals. Roughly 48 percent of black with a high religious commitment, for instance, opposed such stem cell funding vs. 22 percent of those blacks with a low commitment. For Hispanics, it was 44 percent vs. 32 percent.

Now unless we are about to enter a Star Trek world where religion seems to have disappeared, it appears likely that over the coming decades both demographic and technological trends will turn America's current red-blue divide into a red-green divide (like the colors in a traffic light) -- "red" for those religious Hispanic, blacks and evangelical whites who will want to stop human enhancement, and "green" for those more secular Hispanics, blacks and whites who will want to go forward with it. And unlike abortion which is not a deciding political issue with most Hispanics and black votes -- both groups tend to vote heavily for the pro-choice Democratic party -- human enhancement will be an inescapably critical issue since it may well lead to a "post-human" race and the eventual extinction of the evolutionary dead end known as homo sapiens.

And this, my friends, is where the X-Men come in. When talking to enhancement advocates like the so-called "transhumanist" crowd, it is surprising how often talk of the X-Men comes up. In comic books and on film, the X-Men represent the next stage of human evolution. And even though they've saved the earth many times over, these super-heroes are still greatly feared and even persecuted by humans who do not possess the "x-gene." Some enhancement hopefuls fret just such a scenario might come pass in the 21st Century where humans will hunt down scientists and labs performing enhancement research, not to mention the patients. They note, for instance, that the South Korean government raided the labs of the Raelian-backed company Clonaid after the group announced a Korean woman would give birth to a clone -- even though cloning is not illegal there.

Still, I thought such a metaphor was over the top until I attended a transhumanist conference last year at Yale University. In a debate with Stock, bioethicist George Annas, who favors a ban on enhancement technologies like germline engineering, stated that such laws are needed precisely to prevent "a group of super individuals who view us as defective from subjecting us to their genetic genocide." Apparently, both sides are worried about the other imposing their beliefs about technology on them. Could the inevitable political conflict over enhancement actually turn violent? Perhaps -- if you think those "small feet" of history are wearing jackboots.

James Pethokoukis is a writer with U.S. News and World Report. He last wrote for TCS about "Futures Shock."


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