Monday, September 21, 2015

Being Human Means Overcoming Nature’s Limitations

Scott Gerard Prinster, in his Fall 2015 UU World article “Better Than Human,” discusses the ancient Greek Icarus myth, which asserts that humans deserve punishment for trying to become like gods by overcoming nature’s limitations.  To me, the Icarus myth is just that, a myth, and not one to live by.
In the case of eugenics, the officials who ran the sterilization programs believed they could eliminate hereditary lack of fitness in people to preserve the race.  Since “shiftlessness” was believed to be hereditary, the eugenicists disproportionally targeted the poor and minorities.  Sadly, contemporary Unitarians bought into eugenics with a vengeance. (The UU principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person wasn’t adopted until many years later.)  Unitarian Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr approved the state sterilization programs in Buck v Bell, saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”   Once the Nazis appropriated eugenics and implemented the Holocaust, eugenics “science” got a bad name.
Of course eugenics wasn’t really science because it would have taken several hundred years into the future to gather enough data to test the hypothesis. However, there was a real life experiment happening at the time.  Australia had been settled by convicts and prostitutes, prime material for eugenic sterilization.  By 1900, this riffraff had formed a parliamentary democracy, the Commonwealth of Australia, still thriving.
By the way, a better example than eugenics of earlier lack of scientific ethics is the Tuskegee experiment (1932-72) in which scientists watched the untreated progression of syphilis in African-American men.  
Kalle Lasn, who believes we have too much stuff, says technical developments serve only the interests of corporations and the article says medical advances benefit only the rich.  Both are correct at the time the advances first come out.  For instance, when Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals in the late 18th century, contemporary slaves and servants could not have afforded them.  But as Robert Bryce points out in Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper, everything gets smaller, faster, better, and cheaper, for instance televisions, calculators, and computers.  Eventually, nearly everyone has access.  In 2015, reading glasses can be purchased for a few minutes work at minimum wage.
  Although I agree that it takes too long for technological advances to trickle down to the masses. collective technological progress is what separates humans from other species.  We transform nature for our common good.
The article quotes Bill McKibben who says, “Down the path of [technological progress] lies the death of . . . human meaning.” Would McKibben want to keep developmental disabilities like Down syndrome from being prevented or cured in order that the affected families might live more meaningful human lives?  McKibben may be an environmental activist, but I don’t think he is any more of an ethicist than the Rev Thomas Malthus who, in order to prevent overpopulation, denounced “specific remedies for ravaging diseases.”