Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #152                                                December 9, 2003
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
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Quotes and Provocations
   Flights of Optimism
   In the Service of Science
   From Estrogen to Testosterone
   Biotechnology, Ethics, and the Arc of Life


Announcements and Resources
   Fall Issue of The New Atlantis

About this newsletter


                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Flights of Optimism

Have you heard the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont?  The flamboyant
Brazilian was the only human being ever to own a personal flying machine.
Taking off from the street alongside his apartment and flying low over the
rooftops of Paris on shopping trips, he would throw his red tie down to
the admiring crowds below, then descend grandly in front of a fashionable
shop, handing the "reins" of his compact dirigible to the doorman for
tethering alongside all the horses.

At the time (which happened to be during the first years of the twentieth
century), Dumont may have been the most famous person in the world.  In
the biography, Wings of Madness, Paul Hoffman writes that "There are
corporate moguls who have helicopters who can fly from their backyards to
the roof of their office, but they don't fly to dinner; they can't fly to
Barney's to shop.  Nobody has had a personal flying machine other than

According to Hoffman, whom I recently heard in an NPR "Weekend Edition"
interview, Dumont invented the dirigible by marrying an early automobile
engine to an elongated, hydrogen-filled balloon.  He would wave his hat
over the primitive engine to protect the balloon from the occasional
flurry of sparks (incidentally triggering a Parisian fashion craze for
slightly singed Panama hats).  Attracted to the idea of flight all his
life, he later played a role in the development of fixed-wing flight, and
believed in the almost mystic qualities of the experience of height.  He
held dinner parties where the guests dined ethereally at ten-foot-high

But what intrigued me most about Dumont was his naïve optimism.  As
Hoffman puts it, "He thought flying machines would bring about world
peace.  He thought you could fly and visit people with whom you had
differences and that would help you understand them better".

World War I, with its casualties inflicted from the air, shattered
Dumont's faith, and may have contributed to the shattering of the man
himself.  His last years were unhappy ones.  In 1932, during the Brazilian
civil war, a plane was shot down a few blocks from the hotel where he was
staying.  Upon hearing the news he took one of his red ties and hanged
himself from a bathroom peg.

As readers of NetFuture know, recurrent episodes of technological optimism
and disappointment -- prompted, for example, by the development of
electricity, the telegraph, automobiles, radio, and television -- have
punctuated the last couple of hundred years.  Nor are we exempt from the
syndrome today.  Digital networking technologies aroused a millennial
fervor among the cognoscenti, and this has been followed, in the current,
post-utopian Internet era, by the inevitable downers:  pernicious spam,
spam-rage, virus wars, pop-up commercialism, ubiquitous pornography, and
thriving, hate-based web sites.

I keep looking for some more profound point to make about the long,
eccentric history of technology-based hope and and disillusionment, but I
always come back to the simple, if disastrous, projection of human
qualities upon external devices -- as if our past moral failings resulted,
for example, from inadequate machinery of communication rather than from
the persons doing the communicating.  Certainly it's true, as Dumont
believed, that visiting others can help us understand them better.  But
such free movement can also make it easy, if we are so inclined, to blow
ourselves up in their faces.  The inclination is the decisive issue, not
the technical means for giving it expression.

However, that last statement may encourage too stark a distinction between
means and what we express with them.  After all, every technical device is
not only a means but is itself a human expression -- an expression you can
see reflected, for example, in the gadget hound's gleaming eyes as he
leafs through a Sharper Image catalog.  When looked at in these terms
rather than as a mere object, the device will certainly be found imbued
with qualities, including moral qualities.  This is hardly a secret to the
manufacturers and marketers who go to such lengths to invest their
products with these qualities in the first place.

All human constructions and, in general, all human activities are laden
with meaning -- even when we mean them to express meaninglessness.  The
problem with undue technological optimism (or pessimism) is not that we
view material devices as the bearers of meaning.  Rather, it is that we
forget how all these externalized meanings are, in the end, our meanings.

We can have a hard time recognizing our meanings for what they are
once they have been "frozen" and objectified in metal and plastic.
Extraordinary self-knowledge is required of us at a stage in our history
when we can so skillfully make things en masse, and when we have learned
to think of these things as objects essentially independent of ourselves.
Only through an exceptional sort of awareness can we recognize the hopes,
fears, values, desires, and viewpoints by which we make these objects
what they are.

Knowing next to nothing about Dumont's life, I can only speculate about
the meaning of his airships.  He seems to have been moved by a genuine
idealism.  But a disappointment so excessive that it leads to self-
destruction hints at a correspondingly destructive hope.  It would be
interesting to explore whether, in addition to Dumont's perhaps rather-
too-abstract ideal of peace, a more immediate meaning of his inventions
lay in the self-aggrandizement they afforded, symbolized in his love of
elevation and in the condescending gesture of the dropped tie.  If
something like that were the case, then the transformation of his tie into
the instrument of his final, extinguishing descent might appear almost
tragically natural.  And the development of airborne warships would appear
less a contradiction than an extension of such a motivation.

Whatever the case with Alberto Santos-Dumont -- and I emphasize again that
I do not know the truth of his life (and am quite certain that not even a
small part of his life can be summarized adequately with the simplistic
remarks above!) -- the important point is that there are always many such
stories to tell, for good or ill, about every technical creation we
employ.  The sooner we learn to discern these stories within our own
psyches and bring a ruthless self-criticism to them, the happier our
technological experience will be.

In the Service of Science

If you have a baboon and find yourself needing to induce a brain stroke in
it, the procedure is actually quite straightforward.  First you remove the
left eye.  (Sufficient anesthetic may prove helpful, but you can get by
with much less if you tie the animal down securely.)  Then, after drilling
through the bone at the back of the empty socket, you reach in and clamp
off three arteries supplying blood to the brain.  A stroke should soon
follow.  Unfortunately, the subsequent events are not entirely
predictable.  But the baboon probably won't cause you much trouble --
especially if it is unable to sit up or eat and drink.  And, in any case,
it may die within a few days, relieving you of any need to continue
offering it all this special care.

But why be so hypothetical about it?  I am now reading through the
handwritten laboratory records for a stroke experiment at Columbia
University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Baboon #777 had its left
eye removed and a stroke induced early on the morning of Sep. 19, 2001.
The post-operative care notes for the next two days (Sep. 20 - 21) read as

   [Sep. 20]  A.M. Comments:  Can't sit up, leaning over, can't eat but
   tries, was given Tang, normal urine.  Has slight movement, sutures
   intact, BM [bowel movement].

   P.M. Comments:  Offered food and Tang, can't chew/swollow [sic].
   Awake, slouched over.

   [Sep. 21]  Awake, but no movement, can't eat (chew), vomitted [sic] in
   the A.M.  Can only drink if water (juice) is squeezed into its mouth.
   At 1:30 p.m. the animal died in the cage.

In the columns labeled "Treatments" and "Medications" there are no
painkiller entries for either of those days.

Here are some excerpts from the life adventures of other baboons:

   Baboon #816.  [Day after operation:] cheek pouches look full of saliva.
   Monkey slumped against back wall of retracted cage.  Tried to
   straighten him up and offered tang.  Drinking O.K.  No movement seen in
   right side leg or arm .... [Next day:] Found baboon dead in cage.  [No
   painkilling medications listed for either day.]

   Baboon #754.  [Day after operation:] animal can not move in its cage at
   all .... [Next day:] found dead in its cage.  probably died overnight.
   [No painkilling medications listed.]

   Baboon #819.  [Day after operation:] Ambulatory on left arm + food, but
   motor skill/coordination is poor.  Not able to sit up / will slump down
   on back .... Not able to feed himself.  Will readily take food if food
   is put into mouth.  Not sure if able to swallow .... Offered water, but
   was coming out of side of mouth.  [Next day:] Monkey found dead in cage
   @ 5:00 AM.  Still sitting partially upright.  [No painkilling
   medications listed.]

There is much more, but I will spare you.  The records came into my
hands via PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).  The reason
they had the records is that Dr. Catherine Dell'Orto, a postdoctoral
veterinary fellow at Columbia, couldn't take it any longer and reported
the abuse, first to Columbia University officials, then to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the care and treatment
of experimental animals, and finally to PeTA.

Columbia conducted an internal investigation, concluding that "inadequate
or questionable veterinary care was rendered" to the baboons.  The
Department of Agriculture wrote a letter.  No disciplinary action is known
to have been taken, and the same researchers, led by Dr. E. Sander
Connolly, continue experimenting with animals.  According to PeTA,
"insiders still working [at Columbia] have reported that there is no
improvement in the care or handling of the baboons or any other animals".
I cannot vouch for this personally, but one thing is certain:  people
capable of the original practices are not likely to have changed their own
values a great deal, and there seems to be no external authority watchful
or willful enough to impose standards from the outside.

I spoke with Dr. Nicholas Dodman, formerly Head of Veterinary
Anesthesiology at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and
now a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences.  Having reviewed
the Columbia research group's experimental protocol, he was left with
severe questions about the use of anesthesia during the actual operations.
Why in the world, he asked, would they use such light anesthesia for
this particular experiment, since protecting the animals from the
unpleasantness of the operation would have had no bearing on the data
the researchers were seeking?

Dodman said that the levels of anesthesia specified in the protocol would
have been "borderline acceptable -- perhaps" for a human being.  But
baboons are not humans, and nitrous oxide (one of the analgesics used) is
only one-half as potent for monkeys as for humans.  In his view, it is
very likely that these animals -- who had no way to "unvolunteer" from the
experiment -- suffered needlessly from the operation and were to one
degree or another conscious as their eyes were being removed.

Dodman also confirmed my own suspicion that fast-and-loose playing with
the prevailing guidelines for animal care in experiments is widespread:
"You can take liberties, and you know you're not going to be sued".  Many
of these researchers, he remarked, are operating in an "anthropocentric,
career-centered world", taking a scientific model for which they have very
little understanding and grinding out experimental "data" for no good
purpose other than their own advancement.  The animals and their fate and
even the data are quite incidental.

This is underscored by commentary from Dr. Robert S. Hoffman, a
neurologist who has dealt with stroke patients for sixteen years while
practicing in the San Francisco area.  He points out that various
"neuroprotective" agents of the sort being tested by the Columbia
researchers have been studied for twenty years.  Over thirty of these
agents have shown benefit in animals, but not a single one has ever proven
beneficial to humans.  As Hoffman sees it,

   The fundamental question raised by this situation is:  when should you
   call it quits?  The scientists themselves will never do so.  It is the
   people who fund the research who need to address the issue .... If we
   had unlimited funding for biomedical research, and if this research did
   not use animals, I suppose "never" [quitting] would be an acceptable
   answer.  If researchers are willing to spend their careers on this,
   then why not?  But this is not the case.  Research funding is finite
   and in fact shrinking.  Accordingly, every dollar devoted to this
   research is denied to many other areas which in my opinion are far more
   likely to yield clinically important information.  In addition, from an
   ethical point of view, the use of animals for this research is
   indefensible, since its clinical promise is practically nil.

Hoffman adds that these baboons are kept alive (when possible) in a
condition of profound disability for three to ten days after their
strokes.  One side of their body is totally paralyzed.  This condition can
be full of terror for humans, and there is no reason to think baboons are
immune from all such feeling.  He also notes that the animals do not have
their tubes removed until the day following the operation, "meaning that
they are awake, restrained, and with an endotracheal tube. I have
experienced this myself and can report that it is extremely distressing
and uncomfortable".

Finally, in a letter to the New York Times (not accepted for
publication), NetFuture reader and Columbia University emeritus
professor, Douglas Sloan, cited the baboon studies and then went on:

   In another set of procedures, metal caps are screwed into macaques'
   heads to study the effects of stress on the menstrual cycle, without
   benefit of adequate painkillers.  And in a third set, pregnant rhesus
   monkeys have been held in restrictive jackets for months while special
   devices pumped nicotine into their bodies to prove that it has an
   effect on fetuses.  Such, it seems, is the state of cutting-edge
   medical research.

   The mistreatment of these animals has been exposed by concerned whistle
   blowers at the university.  It remains to be seen, however, what steps,
   if any, Columbia will take to put an end to this probably criminal
   meanness.  On at least one earlier occasion, Columbia was forced to
   shut down animal "experiments" because of similar cruelty and neglect.
   That Columbia has permitted this to happen again suggests that this
   leading teaching institution itself has severe learning difficulties.

   The suffering of animals in "scientific" research (along with
   "scientific" farming) is today on a scale and intensity unprecedented
   in human history.  Our willful unconsciousness of what is happening to
   the animals constitutes one of the main moral disasters of our time --
   which, given everything else, is saying a lot.

You may have noted above that baboon #777 was sacrificed on the altar of
science just about a week after the collapse of the World Trade Center
towers.  Dust and smoke were still wreathing Manhattan, where the Columbia
campus is located.  The city was in a fearful and barricaded state.  But
you have to hand it to those researchers:  they were nothing if not brave
and dedicated to the high calling of their profession.

(You'll find more information at

From Estrogen to Testosterone

You have probably heard, over the past year or so, about the progressive
collapse of the medical establishment's long-standing and confident case
for hormone replacement therapy -- the use of estrogen and other hormones
in older women to ease the symptoms of menopause and postpone the signs of
aging.  Not only are there previously unforeseen risks associated with
this widely employed therapy, but the "obvious" benefits have been
evaporating upon closer inspection.

Since neither this nor any other misjudgment ever leads the mainstream
media to question scientific authority, I would like to mention in passing
two closely related lessons of the hormone replacement debacle.

In the first place, the episode underscores how far we still are from
anything like the holism to which so many pay lip service.  You cannot
help being amazed when you consider the ready willingness of almost the
entire medical community to fiddle so casually with the fundamental
developmental processes of the human being.  If it were really understood
-- and how could this be missed? -- that these processes are organically
related to just about everything that goes on in the human being, then
neither researchers nor physicians could have been satisfied with the
inherently limited studies focused on the presence or absence of this or
that particular side-effect.  There would have been an extremely powerful
presumption -- scarcely altered by mountains of the usual sorts of
"evidence" -- that such therapy must bend the organism out of shape in one
way or another.  I am certain that, with the recent studies, we have
scarcely begun to understand the full and subtle implications of hormone

The reasons for this may become clearer when you consider how the body
tries to adapt to a stimulus -- even to an extreme stimulus -- in an
organic and harmonious way.  Anyone who has studied human physiology knows
that any significant event -- say, an injury to one part of the body --
leads to a cascade of adjustments in blood functioning, respiration,
muscle tension, psychological state, and so on without limit.  The
organism re-shapes itself around the disruptive occurrence.  And this
global, organic re-shaping means that you have no set of well-defined and
restricted places to look for unwelcome changes.  They can show up as a
contributing factor to almost anything else that happens.  The same holds
true for arbitrary chemical stimuli.  The statement, "We tested drug X for
this and that, and we found no ill side-effects" is always inadequate.

This, then, is the second lesson:  conventional research methods -- the
methods that for so long confirmed to physicians the advisability of
hormone replacement -- are by themselves unequal to the task we have
assigned them.  It may not be immediately obvious what is missing, but I
will in the future be suggesting that our scientific investigations
require a greatly strengthened qualitative element if they are to reveal
very much about the altered shape of an organism as a whole.  This is
because the only language and the only truth that can speak through any
whole, characterizing it as a whole, are a qualitative language and a
qualitative truth.

Not that we should expect such lessons to penetrate science or society
very quickly.  There is now a rapidly growing employment of testosterone
therapy among men, with doctors prescribing it for uses far beyond the
federally approved ones involving severe testosterone deficiency.  Last
year more than 800,000 men were given this therapy.  What we're looking at
is the early stage of yet another "fountain of youth" syndrome, and the
medical establishment seems no less driven to craziness by the strange
hallucinations of this syndrome than is the general public.

Biotechnology, Ethics, and the Arc of Life

You could  wish that every government-funded study were written in the
lucid, informative style of the latest report from the President's Council
on Bioethics.  Neither bureaucratic nor academic in tone, the report (in
its own words) "aspires to thoughtful reflection" with the goal of
stimulating broad public discussion.  I can hardly imagine any document
that would fulfill these aims more worthily than the one at hand.

The report is entitled "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of
Happiness".  Calling this "arguably the most neglected topic in public
bioethics", the Council goes on to remark that "compared with more
immediate topics in bioethics, the questions raised by efforts to 'improve
on human nature' seem abstract, remote, and overly philosophical, unfit
for public policy; indeed, many bioethicists and intellectuals believe
either that there is no such thing as 'human nature' or that altering it
is not ethically problematic".  But, in any case, there is no doubting the
seriousness of the decisions being forced upon us:

   What's at issue is not the crude old power to kill the creature made in
   God's image but the attractive, science-based power to remake ourselves
   after images of our own devising.  As a result it gives unexpected
   practical urgency to ancient philosophical questions:  What is a good
   life?  What is a good community?

The Council, very wisely, chose to approach bioethics first of all through
this consideration of human ends, rather than by trying to fix categorical
labels to particular technologies.  I say "wisely" because ultimately our
bioethical choices must rest upon two foundations:  first, a knowledge of
our own character and potentials as human beings; and second, a knowledge
of the implications of each technology for the whole person, the whole
community, the whole biosphere.

If there is one thing I would like to have seen emphasized more in the
report, it is the degree to which our own understanding of the various
biotechnologies falls short of this second requirement.  If we really knew
the full import of, say, a genetic alteration for the entire organism it
was applied to, the ethical questions would in many cases almost answer
themselves.  But not only do we lack this understanding (and lack it even
for some current treatments the Council seems to find unproblematic); we
have largely denied ourselves the very prerequisites for any holistic
grasp of effects upon organisms.  This grasp would have to be qualitative,
since only qualities can suffuse and characterize a whole.  But our
science has been less interested in understanding the qualities of things
than in ignoring them.

On the other front, the Council's report is unsurpassed in its effort to
clarify human ends and desires.  For example, if there is one thing nearly
every biotech enthusiast seems to agree on, it is that pushing back the
threshold of death would be a good thing, properly desired by all sane
persons.  But, the report notes, this is not at all so obvious when you
begin to think about it.  Here an extended quotation seems justified:

   What if everybody lived life to the hilt, even as they approached an
   ever-receding age of death in a body that looked and functioned --
   let's not be too greedy -- like that of a thirty-year-old?  Would it be
   good if each and all of us lived like light bulbs, burning as brightly
   from beginning to end, then popping off without warning, leaving those
   around us suddenly in the dark?  Or is it perhaps better that there be
   a shape to life, everything in its due season, the same also written,
   as it were, into the wrinkles of our bodies that live it -- provided,
   of course, that we do not suffer years of painful or degraded old age
   and that we do not lose our wits?  What would the relations between the
   generations be like if there never came a point at which a son
   surpassed his father in strength or vigor?  What incentive would there
   be for the old to make way for the young, if the old slowed down little
   and had no reason to think of retiring -- if Michael could play
   basketball until he were not forty but eighty?  Might not even a
   moderate prolongation of lifespan with vigor lead to a prolongation in
   the young of functional immaturity -- of the the sort that has arguably
   already accompanied the great increases in average life expectancy
   experienced in the past century?

   Going against both common intuition and native human desire, some
   commentators have argued that living with full awareness and acceptance
   of our finitude may be the condition of many of the best things in
   human life: engagement, seriousness, a taste for beauty, the
   possibility of virtue, the ties born of procreation, the quest for
   meaning .... The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life-extension
   might deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our
   lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying
   alive.  A concern with one's own improving agelessness might finally be
   incompatible with accepting the need for procreation and human renewal.

Personally, I find the hope for some kind of earthly immortality or
radically extended life almost incomprehensible.  I must have at least as
many fears of death and illness as the next person, but those fears seem,
at some profound place beneath their terror, to be my friends -- my guides
in moving toward a healthier self and a healthier future.

Carl Jung describes the trajectory of the individual human life as a
broad, sun-like arc.  During the first half we are on the ascendant,
surveying an ever-widening field of action, coming into the full strength
of our powers, and finally reaching a peak of our life energies.  But at
the noon zenith we begin a long descent in which many of our values and
interests go through a kind of reversal -- need to do so -- in order to
reckon with the decline in our physical vigor.  So, the two oppositely
directed halves of a human life take on profoundly differing qualities.

But in one sense the descent applies only to our "external", biological
life.  As our bodies begin to slow down and show their frailty, our inner
resourcefulness, our wisdom, our capacity for selflessness may continue
along a rising trajectory -- may, in fact, be encouraged in this ascent
precisely because of our failing outer capacities.

The nineteenth-century novelist, George MacDonald, said of flowers that
they must die so that we may learn to love their beauty rather than gather
and horde their bodies.  A similar turning toward the inner and essential
is necessary in relation to our own physical capacities.  They are never
merely physical, but always are expressing something inward, and that
something is our life.  To become obsessed during the second half of life
with the physical powers as such rather than the life behind them is to
turn away from ourselves.

Bernard Lievegoed, a student of organizational development and individual
psychology, offered a perspective on the broad course of human life that
has been central to my own self-understanding, and I would like to sketch
and excerpt it briefly for NetFuture readers.  The point in relation to
the foregoing is that it is meaningless to talk about biotechnology and
ethics except in the context of some such view of our lives.  In many
discussions of biotechnology, the view being advanced remains unspoken and
implicit -- understandably so, since it would appear unbearably crass if
it were brought out into the open.

In The Developing Organization, Lievegoed reminds us that the small
child's inner life is heavily dependent on biology, so that, for example,
the beginning of an illness shows up in behavior and mood.  But as the
child grows older, its individuality progressively asserts itself, shaping
the psyche more and more independently of the body.

Lievegoed describes the central periods on either side of the biological
zenith as follows.  (He was writing in 1969 and from the standpoint of
European organizational management.  His age markers, described in terms
of male employees, should be taken as a rough schema, not some sort of
fixed law.)

   Around the thirtieth year, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, a change
   takes place in a person's inner constellation.  Many experience this as
   a definite farewell to youth.  Emotional instability decreases.  One is
   no longer totally immersed in one's situation but can stand back and
   observe things objectively.  The rational element gains the upper hand.
   One has some life-experience to look back on and some things in the
   future seem more concrete....

   The period of the thirties is a time of consolidation, in which one's
   own career is made visible, matter-of-fact judgments are formed, and
   actions are carried out in a considered way .... One feels at home in
   the logical organization of scientific management, but not in the
   static tasks it demands....

   At thirty-five a man has reached the middle of his life.  His vital
   forces still support him, his mind is fully developed, and his will is
   directed towards activities with concrete content.  Problems at the
   social level are solved in a rational and organizational way.  Talking
   to workers and also middle-management people of this age, one notices
   that they feel they have got life "nicely sorted out".  They know what
   they can get out of it, and also approximately their own level within
   the hierarchy of the organization.  It is interesting that this does
   not give rise to any problems.

   Not until the following years do they encounter, at first incidentally
   and then more often, a crisis of values.  "I have achieved what I have
   been seeking for years.  What now?  Another twenty-five years in this
   town, with this firm, till I retire?"  A feeling of uncertainty arises
   which did not exist a few years earlier.  What once seemed of value is
   now no longer attractive.  "There must be something more!"

   Many seek it in external change -- of house, work, or marriage; in the
   old days people used to emigrate, to make a new beginning far away, to
   be twenty once again, to go through the expansive period once again,
   but this time in a different and better way.

   The crisis at the beginning of the forties, drastic for some, creeping
   for others, is a crisis into which man is thrust so that he can once
   more take stock of his values.  His "objective drives" have brought him
   to a certain point, but now they are suddenly found to be empty and no
   longer give real satisfaction.  Where does one go from here?  Where can
   one find new values and new aims?

   For the whole of the phase of expansion (from the age of twenty to
   the age of forty) man is carried by experiencing his vital forces
   and placing himself at the center of his environment.  This does not
   mean that he is unsocial, but the emphasis is on the self:  "I am
   successful", I am managing the department very well", I made a
   success of that transaction".

   The crisis now leads from I to we, from subjective ego-centeredness to
   objective social awareness.  At thirty-five a man will ask in a certain
   situation:  "How can I solve this problem?"  A man of fifty-five, if
   he has weathered the crisis in the right way, will ask in the same
   situation, "Who is the most suitable person to solve this problem?" or
   even "How can I delegate this task so that the person concerned can
   learn something from solving it?"

So, after the crisis and reversal of direction at the zenith, we may rise
to new levels of creativity based on our experience and deepening insight.
"A person like this, at the height of his individual capacity, is able to
conceptualize, to guide policy, and .... to mature to real thoughtfulness
and wisdom.  This level of creativity can last for a long time before it
finally succumbs to the onslaught of old age or actual physical

Of course, things may not turn out this way.  It may happen that one is
unable to weather the crisis in the right way.  If, at mid-life, "he
continues to drift with the stream of vitality which has carried him so
far, if he bases his self-esteem on physical achievement or on his work
routine", then his inner life will follow the same descending curve as his
body.  "He will have to apply more and more effort just to remain at a
constant level; he will find it more and more difficult to take in new
things, for as biological rigidity increases he will also become
psychologically more and more set in his ways".

This is why the way we manage employees is so crucial.  "The surest way of
having difficulties with men after they are forty is to give them work
when they are young which hardly takes any time to do, and to let them
carry out this work year after year".  Eventually such a person becomes an
obstinate dead weight in the organization, unable to adapt to change:

   Management faced with a problem of this kind must in the first place
   ask itself:  What mistakes have we made so that he has become like
   this?  When he was between forty and fifty did we not profit from the
   fact that his department ran on oiled wheels?  Did we leave him there
   because we could not be bothered to make a change?  Did we overlook the
   symptom that no promising young men emerged from his department ready
   to move on to higher levels?

   Many people, particularly those who are very active and full of
   vitality, are in danger of taking this path, and yet they could be
   released from this kind of cramp with the help of a deep-reaching
   conversation, a transfer, or a special assignment.

Of course, many have written similarly of basic life cycles in more recent
decades.  My reason for going into all this here is not to quibble over
the detailed accuracy of Lievegoed's picture, but merely to point out how
vacuous so much discussion of a re-engineered humanity begins to appear as
soon as you really look at the human being.  The discussion typically
proceeds without first calling up any meaningful image of the person the
engineers are determined to re-make.  The conversation takes place in a
near-vacuum, with the central place occupied by the technology rather than
the person being subjected to it.  Particular technological tricks are
automatically translated as human "improvements" -- without any basis
having been given for distinguishing between improvement and degradation.

It hardly needs adding that if a decisive turn in human development occurs
at mid-life, with the body beginning its descent and the psyche (at least
potentially) growing toward wisdom and selflessness as the essential
fulfillment of life's meaning -- and if, given the psychosomatic unity of
the human being, these complementary movements are inseparable -- then a
preoccupation with the prolongation of our physical powers could prove to
be just about the most destructive thing imaginable.

But where, within the biotechnology industry and the journalistic media
are the relevant questions even being asked?  We can be thankful that the
President's Council on Bioethics has stepped into this void.  It is not a
good sign, however, that they had difficulty finding a publisher for this
report, which, being subtle and full of profound insight, was deemed to
have little sales potential.


The Council's report, Beyond Therapy, considers four broad domains
in which biotechnological applications are currently employed or
envisioned:  the "improvement" of children, the pursuit of superior
performance (especially in athletics), the engineering of ageless bodies,
and the pursuit of "happy souls".  In each of these cases the report
discusses the current state of the technology, the scientific background,
and the ethical issues.  You will find the report (which, I understand,
will be published in book form) at


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                       ANNOUNCEMENTS AND RESOURCES

Fall Issue of The New Atlantis

In NF #150 I mentioned The New Atlantis, "a journal of technology
and society" that began publication last spring.  The Fall, 2003 issue is
now available, and well worth checking out.  Here are the main contents:

** "A New Vision for NASA", defending our moral obligation to go to space
   and suggesting a new course for America's space program.

** "Bioethics in Wartime", exploring why bioethics matters in a time of

** "From Biology to Biography", on the relation between evolution and
   human meaning.

** and also "Does Digital Politics Still Matter?", "Why Not Artificial
   Wombs?" and "The Politics of the World Health Organization", along with
   various short pieces.

It happens that there is also an article of my own in this issue.  It's
called "A Conversation with Nature" and is based on an earlier piece
published in NF #127:  "Ecological Conversation".

You'll find the full text of articles, along with subscription
information, at

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                          ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

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Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #152 :: December 9, 2003

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