Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/31/2006 7:45:24 PM ET 2006-05-31T23:45:24

While America was rushing to see sharp metal blades jut from Wolverine’s fists during the opening of the third "X-Men" movie last weekend, an academic conference was being held at Stanford University to discuss what might happen if people with special powers really existed.

The coincidence was too remarkable to ignore.

In the movie, the plot is driven by the government’s attempt to “cure” the mutants so they’ll be “normal,” the very sort of issue the conference, called “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights,” addressed.

The meeting, sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, was remarkable for several reasons.

First, leaders of the latter two organizations are “transhumanists” who believe better days are ahead if we take advantage of new technologies to magnify normal human abilities with a full menu of add-ons. Transhumanism has a long history, but in modern times, it has been dismissed by most as a fringe element of comic-book-reading, sci-fi aficionados. No more.

Second, the question of enhancement and human rights is surprisingly topical rather than futuristic, and not just because of the "X-Men" movie.

Finally, the conference was surprising for how far some bioethicists, who were once largely silent on the issue, have come towards not only accepting the concept of human alteration, but asserting that it’s a right.

Coming in from the fringe
Transhumanism is being taken seriously by an increasing number of scholars. The fact that Stanford’s respected legal bioethics program hosted the 150 or so attendees from Europe, Asia, New Zealand and North America to discuss issues raised by human enhancement is testimony to how far transhumanism has come in from the fringe.

Even the government has taken a position — against — in the second report out of President Bush’s bioethics council. Titled “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the 2003 report suggested the need for regulations to prevent the use of biotech to give people powers they did not have naturally.

But the fact is, human enhancement has already arrived. The drug modafinal, for example, was approved for the treatment of narcolepsy. But it is often used by people who just want to stay awake and alert without the side effects of amphetamines. The military is already enhancing pilots with it so they can fly long missions.

The response of bioethics to such new technologies is hardly uniform. Some conservative and religiously based bioethicists oppose enhancement, often basing that opposition on appeals to God, Nature or social equity.

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But as San Francisco State University professor of bioethics Anita Silvers pointed out in her presentation, there is a strong case to be made for “enhancement” as a human rights issue. Silvers bases this argument not on the idea of making the healthy stronger and smarter, but from the rights of the disabled.

Consider Oscar Pistorius, a South African who won bronze and gold in the 100 and 200 meter sprints respectively at the Athens Paralympics, and swept the events in last month’s Visa Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, UK. Pistorius, 19, who is missing both legs below the knee, wears carbon fiber prosthetic devices.

Faster than flesh
Those devices can be adjusted to enable a longer stride, an advantage in a running race. What would happen, Silvers asked, if Pistorius qualified for the able-bodied Olympics, a goal he is pursuing and one he might attain given his remarkable times?

“There are those who would deny them what any other runner would earn by running this fast time just because their feet are metal rather than flesh…” Silvers said. “Without the right to opportunity free of penalties for being biologically different, amputees may be denied participation with the old prosthetics for not being competitive enough, and then denied participation with the new prosthetics for being too competitive. This is undemocratic whiplash exclusion.”

Silvers argues that the right not to be normal, is, in fact, the essence of freedom. Human beings, she argues, have always modified themselves, usually because we see the modifications as some kind of advantage. Banning it, as some have argued for, means forcing people to adhere to a government-imposed standard of normal.

The instinct to prevent people from making alterations to themselves worries British philosopher Andy Miah, a lecturer in media, bioethics and cyber culture at the University of Paisley in Scotland. “I explain it as a contempt for ‘Otherness.’ We seek to suppress people whom we feel are abnormal, mutants or monsters. Historically, societies have done this a lot. They continue to do it and I find it embarrassing.”

Silvers argues that fears expressed by many opponents of human enhancement, that modification itself will lead to a standardized human being so we’ll all try to look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, are unfounded. In fact, she takes issue with transhumanists and their use of the word “enhancement,” arguing that an enhancement in one arena may be a handicap in another. Instead, she prefers “biological contingency.”

Eye of the beholder
Biological qualities “are not intrinsic strengths nor weaknesses, nor is any biological property essentially functional nor dysfunctional.” It all depends on context. In other words, Cyclops of the X-Men can shoot energy beams out his eyes, which is great for fighting bad guys, but he can never look in his girlfriend’s face without his visor.

Some people might think that’s a fair trade. Most won’t.

Still, the idea of modifying people does have a great many ethical implications, as keynote speaker Walter Truett Anderson pointed out. Anderson, president of the World Academy of Art and Science, a consultant, and an author of books about the human future, asked his audience to consider the health of the planet when they thought about what rights people should have to change our biology. There is more at stake, he said, than just ourselves. We are part of something bigger.

“We will have to think about it in a global context,” he told me. “A new population problem looms, which has to do, not with birth rates, but death rates and the question of whether we can begin to increase life spans for large numbers of people,” a prospect that could tax global resources.

While the idea of a serious academic conference on these issues might seem to verge on kooky, Anderson thinks the dialogue has to begin now. “There are a lot of issues that are going to begin to surface. People will have to confront them.”

We might not be ready to give people X-Men style options like the wings of Angel, or the fur and agility of Beast, but, he said, it is not too early to begin thinking about what happens when we can.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

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