Biotechnology and the Destiny of Man
We live in an age in which it has become possible to speculate on the type of beings we would like to become. Advances in genetic engineering and bio-technology are gradually enabling us to “improve” on human nature, which gives rise to the question of whether we should or should not do so. This is not always an easy question to answer.
I am reminded of the old joke about the feminist mom who sat down with her five-year-old daughter and said, “Now, Jennie, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. You can be a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut. What do you want to be?”
“Mommy,” the little girl replied, “I think I’d like to be a horse.”
Most of us, of course, have been a particular part of a horse at one time or another, but that’s not the point of the joke. The point is that there are possibilities which, for all our liberation, we haven’t yet explored. But these possibilities are on the horizon now.
The question of whether to pursue them, or which possibilities to pursue, is not easy to answer even for deeply committed Christians. There are many pathological problems which, according to traditional morality, may rightly be solved or corrected, but the definition of pathology may at times be excessively blurred. And certainly there are aspects of human performance which it is perfectly moral to improve, yet here again particular methodologies and goals may be questionable.
If these issues can be difficult for Christians, who have a very particular and highly-developed understanding of what it means to be human, then they are far more difficult for those with no such frame of reference. But as the proper framework is essential to the successful resolution of all of these issues, the most important first step is to make the framework as clear as possible. Therefore, rather than looking at specific cases, I want here simply to clarify that framework by suggesting a basic answer to this question: What does it mean to be human?
Two important parts of what it means to be human are accessible through natural reason, even without benefit of Revelation. The first is the unique and precious character we all have as persons; the second is the importance of mortality in defining that character.
Human persons have always recognized that they are profoundly different from the rest of the natural order. It takes a highly academic personality (blinded by the smoke produced when mental equipment exceeds its rated load) to obscure this recognition. Humanity alone exhibits evidence of intellect and will, and so humanity alone is capable of acting in accordance with freely-chosen goals. This places man immediately in a moral context. Those who wish to propose fantastic counter-arguments need only reflect on how deep-seated is every person’s tendency to blame himself and others for nearly everything, while never holding animals or plants as personally guilty of anything at all. If we don’t act to snuff out this knowledge, we all understand intuitively that, in the natural order, the human person alone is a moral agent.
This understanding has two immediate implications for human behavior. The first is the implication that it is essential for human persons to carefully consider which choices are consonant with the perfection of their nature. This leads us toward ends that are good. The second is the related implication that all persons possess the same unique and startling preciousness that I wonder at in myself, and so whatever reverence and care are due to myself are also justly claimed by everyone else. This furthers our understanding of the good and also leads us to use legitimate means. All of this results in the practical formulation of a sort of basic natural law, further accessible through deep reflection, though not without difficulty.
Mortality is a second foundational point of what it means to be human, and mortality also has at least two significant implications. First, all human persons reflect on the seeming contradiction between their yearnings and their limitations, and in particular between what they perceive to be an immortal spark within and the certainty of their eventual death. Even at the natural level, these reflections always give rise, one way or another, to the God question, and to whether man has a destiny beyond this natural life. Nobody supposes that animals reflect on such things, but we humans do: a religious impulse is built into our very nature, and with it the search for answers that lie beyond the natural world. This religious impulse also leads man to dimly suspect that his choices have cosmic significance.
Second, while we naturally wish to be immortal, we also have an instinctive understanding that our very nobility consists partly in our mortality. In literature and art of every kind, as well as in everyday life, the human person’s glory is to live well despite his limitations, and also to die well. The whole story of self-denial, sacrifice, generosity and achievement which so dramatically enriches our lives is set against this background of mortality. If there were nothing ultimately to lose—if there were no finitude to human existence—then many of our virtues and vices would look quite different. Our sense of comedy, tragedy, nobility, defeat, triumph and even simple self-giving would be fundamentally altered. In fact, these would all be altered in ways that are no longer distinctively human.
It is these natural perceptions of what it means to be human that God shapes into a more definitive understanding through Christian Revelation. Indeed, it is to our limitations and our mortality that Christ speaks. He confirms the need to choose rightly and to honor others—including all our complex reasoning about natural law—with His own set of commandments and counsels. He confirms our need to triumph through limitation by His own death and Resurrection. He confirms our inchoate sense of the life to come through His own Transfiguration and His teachings about our eternal destiny with the Father.
In all of these ways, Revelation confirms and strengthens our natural understanding of what it means to be human, and therefore of what might be good or bad in tampering with our humanness. For if we naturally tend to be wary of tampering which would make us other than what (and who) we are, this wariness is reinforced by both Christ’s Incarnation and his moral teachings. By His Incarnation, we learn that our humanity is not something to be escaped; to the contrary it is to be embraced. And by his teachings and example we learn to love others as we love ourselves. Thus is a great and salutary damper placed on our mistaken desires to be other than we are, and on the mistaken methods by which we abuse others in order to achieve these desires.
Moreover, in its teachings about our eternal destiny, Christianity makes an even more decisive contribution to this question of whether we ought to alter who and what we are in a material sense. By the light of Christ we see how shallow are our dreams to be richer, more beautiful or more powerful, or even to maintain this natural life indefinitely, as if our goal is the perfection of bodily life in this world. We see instead that we are destined for a life that is incomparably richer, grander, more sublime and more fulfilling than what we now possess. And we see too that it is precisely the acceptance of our limitations—even a certain joy in our own mortality—which provides the key to this new life.
Our Own Best Interests
These combined natural and supernatural insights provide an essential framework for the evaluation of modern questions about genetic engineering and bio-technology. If we recognize what it means to be human, and that this limited natural life is not our ultimate destiny, then our thinking about both our goals and the means appropriate to achieve them must shift dramatically. This will not make every decision easy, but it will at least make right decisions possible. For right decisions begin with the firm conviction that it is a wondrous and mysterious blessing to be human, a blessing we must neither disdain nor reject, a blessing it profits us nothing to lose even if we gain the whole world.
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