But Is It ‘Natural’?

A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that a substantial majority of the U.S. public is “wary” about enhancing human abilities by biomedical means.

The survey – which used this methodology –  asked people about gene editing in babies to reduce their risk of serious disease, implanting brain chips to improve people’s ability to concentrate and process information, and giving people synthetic blood to improve their physical skills. According to the report, about two-thirds of those surveyed were “very” or “somewhat” worried about these things. About the same percentage said they would not want the brain chips or blood transfusions for themselves, though the respondents were split about 50-50 over gene editing for babies.

As a science fiction reader and writer, I tend to assume technologies like this will be available and widespread in the future. For example, in The Weave I created a culture in which “gene tweaks” were common. That wasn’t the point of the story; it was just part of the worldbuilding.

But two of the criticisms raised by the survey participants struck me as worth paying attention to as both a human being and a science fiction writer. Over 70 percent of those surveyed thought the technologies would be made available before anyone thoroughly understood them, and an equally large percentage thought some of them – particularly the brain chips – would make the divide between the wealthy and the rest of folks much greater.

Those are the kind of concerns I have about many of our scientific advances. And, in fact, the gene tweaking in The Weave world did, in fact, lead to a class divide. Any new processes require looking at the ramifications very thoroughly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward, but it does mean we might want to do better research into the downsides or figure out solutions to any inequality before such technologies become available.

That said, I’d have been in the minority in favor of those technologies if I’d been in that survey. Gene editing to prevent disease would prevent a lot of suffering and heartbreak, though I’m sure there are conditions for which it should not be used. I can see wonderful applications of the brain chip in both people who do difficult, high stress work that must be done carefully – say surgeons or air traffic controllers – not to mention as a way of helping people with brain damage or dementia.

And I don’t have any objections to using synthetic blood to boost physical performance. It could be a real asset to those thousands of people out fighting wildfires in California right now. As long as it’s safe – and that’s an important consideration, because so many of the drugs people take right now to boost athletic performance are dangerous as well as banned by sports councils – it could make it possible for people doing very difficult and dangerous work to survive.

Of course, it’s possible that we’ll develop robots and artificial intelligences of various kinds to do some of those very difficult mental and physical jobs, but I’m not sure that would meet the objections of those in the survey either. I’m in favor of those things, too, once we come up with ways that ensure they can really do the job.

Here’s the concern expressed by many of those surveyed that I don’t share. A lot of folks seemed to consider these enhancements “unnatural.”

We started doing “unnatural” things to ourselves a long time ago. I’m wearing reading glasses right now; if I had to rely on my “natural” vision to read and write, I’d be in trouble. Why would gene editing or brain chips or synthetic blood be any more “unnatural” than pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, or hip implants?

Creating new technologies, including ones that enhance our abilities as well as ones that do tasks for us, is one of the things that people do and will continue to do. To me, that makes those creations as natural as anything we’re born with.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at them carefully before releasing them into the wild. Not every new technology is good, and even the good ones should be handled carefully. They’re not right in every situation.

But they’re going to be wonderful solutions for some of us. I’m still hoping that artificial cartilage for arthritic knees becomes practical in my lifetime. Physical therapy keeps me moving, and good knee replacements will be available if my joints erode too much more, but artificial cartilage holds out the promise of a return to the range of movement I had when I was young.

Let’s look at new inventions and discoveries before we leap, but let’s be careful to avoid letting our fear of change control our decision making. Change, after all, is just about as natural as anything gets.

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But Is It ‘Natural’? — 12 Comments

  1. People forget that the state of nature is nasty, brutish and short. Living hand to mouth, dependent upon whatever game animals can be caught, whatever roots and berries can be foraged. And when they fail, the community starves.

    Ever since our distant ancestors began bending plants and animals to their uses and developed agriculture, we’ve been trying to free ourselves from the roll of the cosmic dice. And there’s been someone afraid that it’s going to offend whoever’s hands or tentacles or whatever are rolling them.

    Part of it seems to be a generational thing. For most people, any technology that was available when they were children is completely unremarkable. A technology that was developed during their teens and twenties is cool and exciting. But a technology that’s developed when they’re in their thirties or beyond is something to be wary of, a possible Menace Contrary to Nature.

  2. One of the problems with new technologies is often the fact that a lot of people get really excited about the benefits and possibilities (say, the invention of the motor car), but only much later do people start to think about safety, ethics, and environmental issues. We’ve improved cars and made them a lot safer and more efficient, but we’re still struggling to deal properly with the environmental issues, and that struggle has much more to do with unwillingness (e.g. from the people selling oil) than with inability.

    And it’s not just that technology can create a gap between rich and poor, it’s also the fact that the companies who make and invent these technologies (pharmaceutical, IT, etc) are only in it for the profit. They’re interested in selling their products in the first place. If we’re lucky, they might have some form of company ethics. If we’re lucky, that is. Looking at companies like Monsanto who are trying to sell their patented GM seed that has to be bought every year by the farmer (instead of using the seeds from part of previous harvests, and so making the world’s food production dependent on the company) and that needs pretty dodgy pesticides that have been linked to cancer, and the fact that Monsanto sues farmers who have fields bordering on GM farmland and happen to have his patented genes in their products because of cross-pollination…. then I’m very wary of trusting these companies with all their expensive, patented technologies. Practices like this aren’t doing anything to relieve hunger in the world, on the contrary. Farmers in Africa suffer because of it.

    I’m no technophobe. I’m a big Star Trek (series) fan, and I wish doctors were able to do what Star Trek doctors do, or that I could transport to my family instead of spending two and a half hours on a plane. But before we embrace these technologies, maybe we should ensure that we are really trying to make the world a better place and not just helping rich people fill their pockets even more while they destroy the world around us. Any technology can be used for good or bad things. History has taught us so much, and looking at the world around me, I don’t think we have learnt anything from history yet.

    • We do seem to be bad at learning from history and at evaluating what we’re doing in advance.

      I read in a science news update this morning that pesticides now banned in Europe but legal in the US cause serious problems in bee sperm, making that one of the reasons for the loss of bees. Development of pesticides is one example of something industry (and farmers, big and small) jumped on, because insect losses caused problems. No one paid any attention to whether it might affect beneficial insects. I’d speculate that not having bees will be infinitely more damaging to agriculture than having damage from other kinds of insects.

  3. I have been gradually losing my eyesight for years. Technology has saved me: eyeglasses, contact lenses, retinal surgery, artificial lenses. I am now anxiously awaiting the cloning of retinal cells — I need me a couple six-packs of them, and I’ll be all set.

  4. When they figure out how to regenerate teeth I will be ecstatic. Currently I just envy the sharks ability to continually grow new ones.

  5. A lot of us grew up with casual experimentation, with our permission or not, and so have extreme misgivings about such things. One of my friends was given a radium necklace as an experimental treatment for tonsillitis . . . and of course died of lymphoma. One of many (on having the throat lump biopsied, the doctor said, “Radium when young? Yep. Thought so.”). Then there were the leftover nervous discussions by the adults about the A-bombs, and the testing still going on. During the fifties, if it was “science” it was “progress” and of course that was 100% good. White men were making decisions about people’s lives and watching the results like Romans at the coliseum.

    Among the scientifically inclined people I grew up with, the more religious had a stronger care to consequences, but otherwise were no less interested in scientific process than non-religious people were.

    • It’s important that we get better at evaluating risk. It’s also important that information about dangers get shared rather than covered up. Research on such things as asbestos, lead, and tobacco were hidden and muddied for decades, allowing many more injuries.

      And not every invention is progress.

  6. “Natural” is, to me, one of those denatured terms. Like “real” (the current advertising trend of touting products for having “real ingredients” makes me want to bite something).

    All sorts of things are natural. Strychnine. Rattlesnake venom. Pennyroyal.* None of which I want in my breakfast cereal. And there are all sorts of thing that, by this token, are un-natural: penicillin. In vitro fertilization. Labradoodles. It isn’t the “natural-ness” of a thing that concerns me, but the research and testing it’s undergone before it reaches market.

    * I had a friend, years ago, who got pregnant after much trying. She made a point of going off coffee and tea, and drinking only herbal tea. She made much of the fact that she blended her own tea out of herbs from the natural foods market; one of her favorites was white mint, also called Pennyroyal. Which is, in not-very-high quantities, an abortifacient. Fortunately this was pointed out to her and she switched to something else. But she harbored a great sense of betrayal that something ‘natural’ was not also healthy for her pregnancy.

    • In truth, natural really has become a meaningless word, but people latch onto it anyway. I suspect most folks use it for anything they are comfortable with and “unnatural” for things that give them pause. Which is not a very precise definition.

      • The many definitions of “natural” during various cultural evolutions is interesting to contemplate–it’s gone from Rousseauian simplicity to easy emotion to mental handicap to “pure” (whatever that means) to straightforward manners . . .

        • I suspect people use it to mean what feels comfortable to them in their time and place. Though Rousseau maybe used it to mean a place that represented his idea of Eden, a place where he would not have really wanted to live, as I recall.