23 Apr 2009

2 "Human Nature: An Oxymoron?" II: Genetic Control of Human Nature, David Heyd

David Heyd

Human Nature: An Oxymoron?

II. The Genetic Control of Human Nature

Many object to genetic manipulations. They feel it is unnatural. This is for two reasons:
1) it is artificial, and
2) it transgresses human nature.

We might have an open-ended sense of human nature. Nonetheless, we will still see its change involve larger developments and not personal choices.

Genetic technologies pose a threat to our sense of human nature.
Nature is no more what we essentially are but the product of what we want or choose. Nature becomes artifice, the product of human voluntary design. (159d)
We think nature is given. And we can exploit it. Humans are so deeply creative, we may create our own nature. Genetic engineering makes «human nature itself the object of artificial design» (160a)

Soon we will be able to order roses of any color we wish. Does that make these roses more artificial than the few wild ones left or hybridized roses we make? If so, how and why?
A genetically modified rose is not artificial in the same sense as a paper rose (appropriately called ‘‘artificial flower’’). Yet, despite the greater similarity to ‘‘natural’’ flowers than to paper flowers, we feel ill at ease about the genetic modification of roses in a way which we do not with regard to artificial flowers. (160c)
We have changed the rose's nature. This makes it artificial or unnatural.

But we also change the natural flow of rivers. Is it worse to change a rose's color?

And we use medicines. This is an artificial intervention in a natural process. So too is genetic engineering. The reason we object to genetic manipulations is that it takes us out of our «protected zone» of human nature. But really, those who argue against human genetic engineering are not saying that it violates what is natural for us.
Human nature is paradoxically more sacred than flowers and rocks exactly because humans are not merely part of nature! This is exactly the lesson learnt from Kant’s view of reason as constituting the dignity of man, its inner priceless worth. (161bc)
But if this is so, than we should only protect that part of us that is not governed by nature. And genetic engineering will not probably take away someone's rational faculty.
And the same argument applies to any philosophical view which considers essential human nature to lie in non-natural features like the faculty of free choice, the existence of a soul, the capacity for language or the ability to lead a contemplative life. Insofar as genetic engineering does not affect these powers and features, it is immune from the critical argument from human nature. (161-162)
Hence also, changing the rose's genes would be worse than changing the human's. For, our human nature is not susceptible to being changed through genetic manipulation. (162a)

And yet, our reason, freedom, and autonomy are not our full list of essential features. We also have a sense of identity. And radical genetic changes threaten that sense. And furthermore, we feel a responsibility to future generations. We personally might consider certain features essential to our identity. If we considered ourselves an artist, we would object if someone were to try taking that feature away from us. Likewise for society as a whole. We have a sense of who we are as a species, and we may insist on keeping our essential traits. Hence to argue on the basis of identity does not entangle us in debatable metaphysical presuppositions regarding what is natural.

So we might want to be sure that future offspring are handed certain genetic features that are part of our species identity.

Heyd, David. "Human Nature: An Oxymoron?" Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2003 28(2):151-16.

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