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The policy world is, to say the least, focused intently and contentiously on the disruptive effects climate change will have on humans and the biosphere. And rightly so—it’s not looking good. Aggressive public laws and policies must be put in place now, and private behavior must turn towards a much lower carbon future, if we are to effectively mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.
As I discussed several weeks ago, however, my friend and colleague Michael Bess has recently published a book, Our Grandchildre Redesigned, examining an unstoppable trend that could be disruptive on the same scale as climate change—the convergence of pharmaceutical, technological, and genetic advances aimed at substantially redesigning humans. This is not science fiction—it is already happening and is picking up. It is not implausible to believe that by mid-century we will have the capacity to manipulate our bodies and minds to be healthier, stronger, smarter, better, and to live longer. By the close of this century it may be possible to routinely produce what we today would think of as a superhuman.
Yet the policy world is virtually silent when it comes to the prospect of a society of redesigned humans notwithstanding (as outlined in my post and of course in the book) that the trajectory towards that state will disrupt society as we know it and pose new and more extreme pressures on the biosphere (think humans, lots more of them, living to 150). Why is that?
One explanation may be that the public and policy-makers simply don’t appreciate how transformative the human redesign will be. They may see it as just about more incremental improvements on medicine and technology. But climate change is also perceived by many as incremental—very incremental—with all the doom and gloom not really felt until decades from now. Climate change policy shapers, however, have stressed the ideas of tipping points, irreversibility, and nonlinear change to get across the point that action must be taken during this “incremental” phase. Yet, again, the same could be said of the human redesign trend—there will be nonlinear advances and a point of no return.
Another possible explanation is that people and policy-makers can’t see any bad coming from the human redesign trend, whereas climate change has very clear downsides for many parts of the world (albeit some upsides for other areas, at least for a while, such as longer growing seasons). By contrast, what’s bad about humans getting faster, stronger, smarter, better, and living longer? Well, read Bess’s book! Sure, a lot of good will come out of it, but so could a lot of bad if we don’t manage it well.
Lastly, one difference between climate change and the human redesign trend is that climate change discourse is brimming with climate models that show, with a a good degree of credibility, what the trends and end points look like generally. It’s easy to construct a map showing what happens to a shoreline if sea level rises five feet, or to depict new temperature regimes on a map, or to estimate economic impacts of more floods. To be sure, climate change models are still very rough, but they are being produced and improved daily. By contrast, it is much harder to capture the disruptive impacts of the human redesign trend on a map or to envision and quantify the economic impacts.
Some combination of these differences between climate change and the human redesign trend likely accounts for their starkly different treatment in current policy discourse notwithstanding their starkly similar scales of disruption. But I am starting to get worried that neglecting to confront the human redesign trend–to start thinking now about policy responses and initiatives–may mean that progress made on climate change could be undermined in large part by the effects of transforming to a society of superhumans. I plan to devote some of my attention int he next couple of years to correcting that potentially grave oversight.
As you may have noticed (or if not, now you know), I haven’t posted anything on the site for a while. I have all the typical excuses: busy at work, family stuff, the holidays, etc. But truth be told, not much grabbed me. That changed when I read Our Grandchildren Redesigned, the latest by my Vanderbilt colleague and friend, historian Michael Bess. As a dabbler in legal futurism, Bess’s book is a treasure chest to me. The subtitle says it all: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future.
In Redesigned, Bess pulls off what others have tried but failed to deliver. Using what is known today about the past, present, and trajectory of pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics and epigenetics (plus nanotechnology, AI, robotics, and synthetic biology), Bess constructs plausible scenarios of how humans will use these technologies to “improve” on our biology and how society will respond. There is no science fiction in the book, no extreme claims, no utopian or dystopian indulgence. Bess the careful, acclaimed historian has turned his sights on the bioengineered future with the same measured, thoughtful, methodical attention to detail and cogency. And one could spin an endless stream of questions about the law’s future from his scenarios, many of which Bess signals or even digs into.
Bess opens the book (and its ongoing website) with three premises. First, “It’s almost certainly going to happen.” By “it” he means the convergence of the technologies towards the capacity for human physical and mental engineering through drugs, biotech devices, and epigenetic manipulations. Lest there be any doubts, chapters two through five put them to rest. Second, “It will bring both opportunity and peril.” Sure, you might say, so have smartphones. So what? But third, “Its impact will be radical.” Of course, it’s this third of his premises that might attract the charge that it’s Bess who is being radical, but by the end of the book my only concern was that he didn’t play the scenario out as fully crazy as it could get!
I’m not going to review Bess’s account of the technologies or even the scenarios he builds in any detail. Read the book! Rather, what makes the book of such tremendous potential impact and of value to legal futurists is Bess’s engagement of the social and ethical choices that will have to be made as redesigning becomes possible, then practical, then popular, and eventually part of all our (grandchildren’s) lives. There are three big themes Bess develops in this regard.
First, this will not happen overnight. Many of the legal issues one can envision will flow from the transitional nature of the uploading of redesign technology into society. New technologies will at first be expensive, thus furthering already pervasive wealth disparities. Some technologies will need to begin at young ages to be effective, creating inter-generational disparities. Of course, responding to social disparity is nothing new to the law, but we are not talking about who can afford smartphones, we are talking about who gets the smart pills, the fully-functional artificial eye, the tweaked gene expression for holding off cancer, and so on. Bess’s concern is on target—the redesign disparity could begin to rip apart society as it comes online. How will law respond?
Second, Bess explores issues that will be inherent in the new normal in which a substantial level of redesign is eventually available to the masses. If the average age moves to 150, it takes little imagination to play out what that could mean for employment, marriage, welfare, the environment, prisons, you name it? And if people can be better at anything, with potentially vast improvement on the horizon, what does that mean for sports, warfare, science, the arts, you name it? Plus, in all likelihood we can’t become the bast at everything, so, much as children do today, we will likely see specializations that produce even more extreme differences between groups than are possible today. Will the best tennis players have anything in common with the best flutists? And what about people who, for moral or religious reasons, choose not to participate? What will we do with them? Lots of law change in store!
Third, Bess asks what we should do now to shape the new normal, if we can. Bess believes, and I agree, that getting control of the direction and intensity of redesign will be hard, but necessary. If the U.S. backs off on moral grounds (e.g., as with stem cell research), what’s to stop North Korea? And if we set international limits, domestic controls on private experimentation will need to be rigorous. And what would the limits look like? Bess suggests seven key challenges, including controlling radical inequality, defending mental privacy, and avoiding commodification of the human being. Again, law will have to be engaged.
I should emphasize that there is far more to Bess’s work than I have let on in this law-focused account. There is a profoundly philosophical dimension, as Bess asks early in the book whether we should redesign and then develops a set of human flourishing factors that he believes should guide our way. Bess animates his descriptive scenarios with short fictional vignettes of life and lives, and even some laws, in the redesign future. By no means corny or out of place, these allow the reader to personalize the impacts of a redesign future. In my case, I found myself drifting into thought about the legal future as well. In short, all I have hoped to do here is scratch the surface of Bess’s brilliant work to whet your Law 2050 appetites.
Bottom line, if you want to get a picture of how being a human will take a sharp turn by around 2050, Our Grandchildren Redesigned is your starting point.