Michael Goldhaber on Sun, 5 Oct 1997 22:12:38 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Re: What Makes Us Human, Anyway?

Mark Stahlman's long response to my comments certainly points up to me the
difficulty of dialogue,in that I feel he misses my point entirely. Mark
defines himself as a "realist." He also tells us in effect that we have one
uniquely big thing to worry about: so-called utopians trying to perfect our
species through genetic engineering and cloning, and in the
process--somewhat peculiarly-- producing "humans" incapable of making moral
judgements. (Interestingly, he argues that Plato is on his side, a realist;
others arguing somewhat similar points have put Plato precisely in the
position of the ultimate, original utopian.)

My point was that we are already "producing" plenty of people incapable of
making moral judgments, in addition perhaps to those whose morals are so
weird that it doesn't seem to help anything that they have any. Were nazis
who were "just following orders" any idffernt in practice from machines?The
conlcusion must be that there is no one big thing we must worryy about, and
no reason to fear that cloning is that thing, any more than much else which
goes on and has gone on.

By "acculturation," by the way, I simply mean the process of raising a
child in some cultural setting--or lack thereof. There is nothing utopian
whatsoever about the word.

What further worries me about Mark's reply is that it seems he has found a
way to villify a great many people as the utopian enemy. For instance,
labelling people who play with virtual reality as necessarily
anti-realistic simply confounds two quite different usages of the term
reality, almost to the point of demagoguery  or McCarthyism (guilt by

Mark seems to believe that all humans, evidently by virtue of their genetic
makeup alone, are capable of moral judgement and moral outrage, though also
of being evil. A genetic engineer who shared that belief might imagine that
somehow moral positions could be perfected through genetic engineering. But
what if, as I think is evident, that belief is unfounded? We have no reason
to think that humans are genetically endowed with some special moral
faculty. It is part of the complex of attributes that make us human that we
are capable of a variety of thoughts and feelings that can be described as
moral, and some of these attributes are also shared by other animals. It is
unrealistic to believe that  the wide range of capabilities for moral
behavior could be either perfected or eliminated without massively altering
the very traits that anyone, even a genetic engineer,might want in a human

Suppose a Hitler decided to clone himself, filling the world with little
Adolphs. Would they all share his attitudes? We know that the children of
the generation that put Hitler in power largely repudiated his positions,
despite coming from a the same broad gene pool as their parents. The little
Adolphs could just as well turn out to be perfectly decent people.

Or suppose someone decides to engineer and then clone  obedient workers?
Given that the supply of cheap labor in the world is virtually unlimited,
why anyone would want to do this I don't know. But suppose someone tried
anyway. Would we be alone in condemning such an experiment? It would
certinaly be a horror, leaving damaged offspring galore,but the chances
that it would be successful in prouducing usefulworkers with the desired
traits seem impossibly small, thousands of times more difficult than, say,
curing cancer. If it were to be undertaken, why would the outcry about
it--and it would have to be a lengthy, hard to conceal  experiment-- not
cut it short at the time?

I don't especially advocate simple cloning, and there are some good
arguments against it, but it is not the unique moral evil or great danger
Stahlman and others take it to be. Nor is even genetic engineering, though
it is by no means something to be freely endorsed.

And what to make of the strange thoughts about the ordinal number,"third":
>Joachim's greatest contribution to the history of millenarianism was
>perhaps his notion that history should be divided into three periods which
>corresponded to the three persons of the Trinity.  Joachim professed that
>the Second Age of the Son was coming to a close and the glorious Third Age
>of the Spirit was about to dawn.  As Voegelin points out, many later
>Utopian movements have adopted this same formulaic attempt to divide
>history into three sweeping periods.  Ivan IV forced Constantinople to
>recognize Moscow as the Third Rome in 1589.  We are all familiar with eidos
>associated with the aptly termed Third Reich and, perhaps, some of us are
>even familiar with the deeply Gnostic religious views of many Nazi leaders.
> And, as Voegelin couldn't have known in 1951 (but should get credit for
>nonetheless), Alvin Toffler was right on track when he declared the dawning
>of the "Third Wave" (otherwise known as the "Information Age" or "The Age
>of Aquarius" or the "New Dark Age" depending who you take tea with) in the
>title of his 1980 bestseller.

Is the above "realistic"?What about the Third World, the third dimension,
the third International and the third strike?Not to mention "The Third Man"
and the third course. All gnostic conspiracies? In truth,  next to "first,"
and "second," "third" is probably the most commonly mentioned ordinal--
because it is third, nothing more.

While it is undoubtedly true that at times utopians get carried away with
"the ends justifiy the means" not everyone who presses for a better world
makes such an error. Even if utopia is unachievable (as I also believe)  we
need some reference to it,often, to avoid sinking into purely realistic
corruption. And not everyone who wants to improve the world in some way
intends by any means  to make humans "perfect." People who are enamored of
the idea of cyborgs may be romantic and silly, but what they seem to want
are more in the way of entertaining gimmicks , such as new sexual pleasures
or the ability to stay alive underwater without breathing. Or just better

Finally, as an aside, though I've forgotten who originally asked this:
> Do the many US families beneath the poverty line suffer from apathy
> caused by mass entertainment, do they even own the TVs?
I am aware of no direct evidence that watching TV causes apathy, but it is
certainly true that just about everyone in the US has them, including the
poor who don't have much of anything else, such as furniture. The figure of
98% of households who have them is now typical for industrialized


Michael H. Goldhaber
Ph/FAX 510 -482-9855

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