Remarks by Stuart Newman

Remarks by Stuart Newman
Society and Politics

The New Business of Genetic Determinism

The recent request by the University of California, Berkeley, for DNA samples from the members of its incoming class for genetic testing would not be so ominous if there were not a legion of biologists, psychologists, social scientists, educators and corporate figures who continue to maintain, against all evidence, that genes are the most important determinants of biological characters and of the key differences between individuals. The popular commercial genetic testing service, 23andMe, has a close family connection to a Google founder, Sergey Brin, whose own company is the most successful retailer of unwittingly provided private information that has ever existed. Google has also put sizable resources into Singularity University, an institution devoted to the gospel of technological refashioning of the human body and mind. If technology can produce superior humans, as Singulatarians and their allies, the "transhumanists," claim, then (insofar as such opinion-makers grow in influence), the value of unenhanced humans will be downgraded and their futures will be sold short.

At the same time, although patents on genes themselves were put on hold early in 2010 by a U.S. federal district court decision, genetically modified organisms are still considered inventions under U.S. law. In a recent corporate-sponsored study, bacterial genomic DNA was synthesized chemically and shown to function in a bacterial cell. Although the DNA sequence was copied from the natural one and not designed de novo, this experiment was described in the popular press as "creating life." And while the project director and company founder, Craig Venter, disavowed the literal sense of this description, his fabrication is a patentable invention, as would be a humanoid organism constructed from synthesized human DNA placed in a human egg. In this sense, the transhumanist and the commercial bioengineer are on a convergent course.

This brief talk will discuss the challenge to human identity and the blurring of the distinction of organism and artifact arising from the intersection of technology and the corporate culture.