Technology and human rights

Technology and human rights

By Luis E. Sabini Fernández

Genetic engineering seems to summarize a series of recurring dreams of humanity in the sense of achieving, at a minimum, overcoming a series of miseries and vicissitudes to which man has necessarily been linked: to eliminate diabetes, cleft lip, epilepsy, baldness, hemophilia, and so on.

A summary of this text was presented as a presentation at the Public Health and Bioethics Table of the I Interdisciplinary Conference on University and Human Rights sponsored by the AUGM, Buenos Aires, November 17, 2005.

Genetic engineering as humanity's leap out of itself


1. It seems to us undeniable that techno-scientific development is increasingly involved in planetary, civilizational, societal, and human problems.

2. We are the men who carry out the various and inevitable transformations. Because it is precisely our human condition, our way of being in the world. And it is these transformations that we understand have to be increasingly under scrutiny due to their increasingly comprehensive and unavoidable implications that increasingly clearly show that "we are all in the same boat."

3. Genetic engineering constitutes a military event within this changing universe of transformations on which we literally bet life.

Genetic engineering: a fascinating subject… and sacred?

Genetic engineering seems to summarize a series of recurring dreams of humanity in the sense of achieving, at a minimum, overcoming a series of miseries and vicissitudes to which man has necessarily been linked: to eliminate diabetes, cleft lip, epilepsy, baldness, hemophilia, and so on.

Along with the achievement of such achievements there is another movement linked to a presumed improvement or improvement: height increase, change of eye or hair color, sensory or intellectual improvements ...

With this second moment, the one of maximum, we approach a much more medullary aspect than the repair of organs or the overcoming of diseases. To the idea of ​​perfectibility: intersection of health and perfection.

The explosive development of genetic engineering is, together with other areas in parallel expansion such as robotics, nanotechnology, cybernetics, telematics, etc., the clearest expression of contemporary technological development and its cultural implications, of what Andrew Kimbrell [1] called the "technosphere". “Technology has become ubiquitous in our societies, permeating the vast majority of us and our private lives. Our homes, workplaces, means of transport, food, energy, entertainment […]. ”

Kimbrell adds a devastating correlation: that dominance of the technological universe in our lives is not done by overcoming or expanding our natural roots or our sociability, but at their expense, with the deterioration of the natural world and our social world, which have never been so threatened as at present.

David Noble can rightly tell us about the "fascination" that the techno-scientific dimension has on us, the men of modernity. We can speak, worth the apparent oxymoron, of a religion of science and technology. In the sense that technoscientific fascinates us. Jacques Ellul establishes an interesting relationship with what fascinates us: "what desecrated a given reality, in turn becomes the new sacralized reality". [2]

Ellul verifies that Christianity desecrated nature and with it Christianity was constituted as sacred. Christianity was embodied, institutionalized in the Church, and the Reformation desecrated the Church and the Bible became a holy book. Science and rationalism in turn desacralized the Scriptures, that is, they stopped being Sacred and in this movement of investiture and fall, modernity has sanctified the scientific.

Noble goes one step further, showing us how this modern fascination has roots in religion, in an ancient imaginary, much older than modernism would be willing to accept. "Despite his brilliant and overwhelming manifestations of worldly knowledge, his true inspiration lies elsewhere, in an undying mystical quest for transcendence and salvation." [3]

Noam Chomsky has pointed out that the US is the only state among the so-called First World, where religious sentiment has not waned, but on the contrary, it has received new impetus. It is precisely in the US where this connection between the technoscientific and the religious is most clearly seen. Noble clarifies us in this regard: "Most observers tend to ignore [...] that both obsessions are often held by the same people, and that many of them are precisely technologists." Statement that applies particularly to the United States.

Until well into the 20th century, the social imaginary kept the paradigm that confused good and techno-scientific development untouched. As in many other aspects of human affairs, Nazism brutally and ruthlessly challenged these synonyms. Thanks to the pride ingrained in Nazism, we were able to know - well with the pain of far away and the terror of close people - that it was possible to be cultured and deny the life of "others", that a network of high technical efficiency could be erected and administrative to the service of infamies; that the road to hell could also be no longer paved but built with highways and traversed by brand-new engineering devices.

However, still until the sixties or seventies, due to the mental inertia that characterizes us, we could say with Vance Packard that: "the vast majority of scientists believed that their man-changing discoveries automatically benefited humanity". [4] And later […] They have been inclined to believe that their mission is to seek the truth, whatever it may be. And Packard reminds us of an apothegm from the behaviorologist Roger McIntire: "Anytime we develop a new technology, we will inevitably use it."

Progress: ideological alibi for ... whatever comes

This scheme of action presupposes the inexistence of any other criterion of validity than the future of scientific knowledge itself. It assumes that the validity of techno-scientific deployments operates and is legitimized from its own sphere of influence. Abandonment of any axiological or ethical evaluation in the field of these human actions. It would mean that in the face of techno-scientific transformations we would have lost the capacity for denial, so basic to inherent in our human condition.

Where does this epistemological arrogance come from? That is verified from right to left of the political-ideological spectrum of our societies.

On the left, because the alibi of historical progress established a legitimizing teleologism of all scientific action or work per se. Suffice it to think of the name with which Karl Marx described his theoretical-political elaborations: scientific socialism.

This passage from a lecture given by Leon Trotsky, already in exile, in Denmark serves as an illustration: “Who dares to affirm that modern man is the last representative, the highest of the homo sapiens species? […] This biological abortion, of sick thinking and that no new organic balance has been created is still far from perfection […] Anthropology, biology, […] psychology have gathered real mountains of materials to erect before the man […] the tasks of his own improvement […]. Wise divers descend to the bottom of the ocean and photograph the mysterious fauna of the waters. For human thought to descend to the bottom of its own psychic ocean […] illuminate the soul's own mysterious forces and subject them to reason and will. When he has finished with the anarchic forces of his own society, man will integrate himself into the mortars, into the retorts of the chemist. For the first time, Humanity will consider itself as a raw material and, in the best of cases, as a physical and psychic semi-fabrication. Socialism will mean a leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom in the sense that today's man, plagued with contradictions and without harmony, will open the way to a new, happier species. " [5] Trotsky appears to us as a bastion of the most radical techno-scientificism. If they were honest and contemporary, current genetic engineering companies would have tried to hire him as a Public Relations agent ...

Trotsky is not remotely alone. Herman J. Müller, in the mid-30s, argued that "no intelligent woman with moral sensitivity would refuse to have a Lenin child" (she was referring to genes, of course, not to bed).

Müller, an American geneticist, was the one who put down the idea, dominant until the 1920s, of genetic immutability. By accident, Vance Packard reminds us, “Müller reported that hereditary patterns had been changed by X-rays and that mutations had appeared in the next generation. This circumstance prompted him to advocate the exploitation of man's apparent malleability, to modify and improve him with genetic manipulations. " [6] In the case of Müller, the motor nerve to undertake a great project of genetic manipulation is a strong pessimism regarding human destiny, which if not redirected, according to Müller, would lead to a “genetic cataclysm”. What is important to highlight here is how an ideological view of the future creates psychic alibis to legitimize, even with urgency, a project of reconfiguration of the human, the construction of new men.

He proposed the creation of a network of sperm banks, carefully registered and always leaving a period of twenty years “to be able to make a weighted judgment on the qualities of the donor. In this way the men who acquired definitive prestige [sic] could be "used many times" and "destined to reappear in successive times" until the population as a whole had reached their level. " [7] Müller is not making a problem with the objectification of manufactured humans, nor is he certainly disgusted by the crudest pragmatism. Nazism will cut projects like Müller's.

So much perfectionism is but the other side of the deep contempt that real and concrete man awakens in this type of thinkers, who are all of us.

And if that was typical of progressive thinkers, radical socialists or Nordic social democrats, [8] what to say for the ideologies of the right, in general much more restrictive, and often fervently racist and exterminating (of "inferior" or "condemned" races? ) For the holders of the power nuclei, the idea of ​​progress was also decisive for that automated legitimation from the aristocratizing liberalism of the dawn of industrialism, when the techno-scientific domain began to be noticed, and it has followed swiftly with American behaviorism, configuring the dominant conceptual schemes of what man is and how to "improve" him.

Another milestone between the North American eugenics of the 19th century and the “new eugenics” increasingly linked to genetic engineering, is the policy of the Third Reich of the 1930s - and in this case we are hardly referring to positive, optimistic eugenics Without the obvious squalor that Nazi-sponsored research has made infamous - conscripts were sent with cradles under their arms to Reich villages to impregnate healthy and plump German peasant women. To gestate "sons of the Reich" on the basis of the same assumptions.

Eugenics is the end, genetic engineering, the means

Eugenics is promoted to achieve "human" perfection, to pour out "the good" on all humanity, to perfect our qualities. Which is but the other side of the deep dislike for some human traits.

This provision gives many of its pioneers a demiurgic aura from which, with a certain ignorance of Greek mythology, some technologists project the construction of "chimeras" ... Because doctrinal eugenicism has found in genetic engineering also called, for cosmetic reasons , modern biotechnology, [9] your best ally.

Let us listen to a renowned American molecular biologist, pioneer of a “new eugenics”, who picks up the legacy before Nazism, which had to wait decades to reappear publicly without itching. At the end of the sixties, when genetic engineering was in its infancy, Robert Sinsheimer tells us: “Throughout history some individuals have sought to live in contact with the eternal [… before] they tried through religion [… Today] that contact is pursued through science, through the search for understanding the laws and structures of the universe […] Perhaps this need is […] a denial of human mortality […] The lives of the most people are full of unimportant elements […] yet there are a fortunate few among us who have the privilege of living with the eternal and exploring it. " [10] Sinsheimer has clarified the panorama for us: his is a priestly and not lesser function, of high priest.

In Engineering & Science, the same author wrote: "The new eugenics would in principle allow the conversion of everything unacceptable to the highest genetic level […]." [eleven]

Sinsheimer reveals a deep dislike for man as he is, and power projects: “With Homo Sapiens […] something new appeared on this little globe. It is up to us to take the next step in evolution. We must project a new emergence of a more beautiful species, on this sweet planet. " [12]

Let's take an example from another order, not referring to genetic engineering itself, but to one of the forgers of the path that has led to it.

Francis Crick, English Nobel laureate, who together with James Watson succeeded in deciphering the DNA double helix in 1953, in 1947 had proposed to the UK government a massive sterilization plan for the country's population, through the supply of running water. In such a way that practically no one could escape from being the object of said sterilization. Designed to improve the species, of course. In a second moment, Crick proposed to lift or not, on a case-by-case basis, the state of mass sterilization by giving substances that inhibited the initial supply. [13] His proposal six years before his fame reveals the nature of his drives.

New Man: dream or nightmare?

The "new man" project presupposes the infinite malleability of the human. But as Noam Chomsky has well observed, suppressing the idea of ​​human nature unleashes limitless manipulation. It is the supposedly ontological foundation of a radical totalitarianism. Which, we have already seen, has ranged to the left and right of the political spectrum. It is worth noting that the aforementioned concept of "new man" has been traveled by Nazis, national socialists, but also by internationalist socialists of the most diverse kind: Guevarists, Castroites, Maists, Stalinists and even some constructivist anarchists, communitarians. And it is the order of the day, as we are seeing, from madeinUSA behaviorism.

Pitfalls to technological optimism

However, the paradigm of unquestioned and unquestionable progressivism has been denting, with so many unthinkable sequels originating from multiple developments initially considered excellent (Minimata bay, PVC monomers, asbestos, thalidomide, enterovioform, CFCs, DDT, PCBs, Phthalates) It is beginning to upset the common place among practically all scientists that their work contributed unfailingly to the good of humanity. This postulate was the one that allowed to permanently legitimize his findings by the fact of having found them. Which is a begging the question not only from an ethical point of view but also logically. Little by little it has begun to be understood that the techno-scientific rationality in which we are immersed is not as rational as it was intended. That there has been a dose of irrationality that has gone unnoticed, which gives the dimension of planetary abuse, for example.

Role reversal? Science at the service of technology

The pace of techno-scientific developments has been increasingly regulated from the technical, from the operational, from the concrete developments, in such a way that the relationship between science and technique has been inverted. Science has been progressively subservient to technological development itself. But talking about technological development means talking about their headlines: about the large techno-scientific conglomerates, public corporations, such as the Pentagon, or private corporations, such as large laboratories, which set the pace and have the funds for the flourishing of certain branches of science, and not of others ... even within areas originally as little business as the one we understand today, the university.

The tree of science ceases to have a “natural” growth, self-regulating, and tends more and more to an induced growth, with pruning on the one hand and fertilizations on the other ...

The functional role of an institutional bioethics

Jacques Testart, a veterinarian turned epistemologist, examining "biology, medicine and bioethics under the liberal splint", [14] warns that the erasure "of boundaries between discovery and invention is something new in science. Can you imagine [...] Marie Curie making uranium patent? ”. Faced with this privatizing wave and with the sacralization of science, bioethics runs the risk of performing a painful functionality. He understands that: "the presence of experts on ethics committees [contributes] to the illusion of an ethics of experts as if it were enough to found an ethics of science to forge a science of ethics." Testart reminds us that “most of the members of the CCNE [National Ethics Advisory Committee, of France] are researchers or doctors […] is it possible to maintain an equitable position when one is both judge and party [?]. [ fifteen]

That the role of bioethics and bioethics is far from what the name and its endowments claim is sometimes revealed by the positions of the bioethicists themselves. Paul Ramsey, bioethicist and reverend, American, in The Manufactured Man [16] begins a subchapter with the title “The ethics that science presupposes”, where it is clear who has the leading role.

Ramsey defines the beginning of the human individual's existence as "a tiny informational particle." Already in the 70s Packard has shown the vigor of this machinic dream of assimilating man to a computer, brain functioning seen as a cybernetic model and how the brain has increasingly begun to be studied as an organization or computational network. As if we were binary or as if a computer could have occurrences, associative sparks or dreams ...

Ramsey finishes off his ideological vision of the human being with a radical genetic determinism that would delight all racism: “[The] prenatal and postnatal development in which what he already is from the moment he was engendered takes place.” [17 ] The environment has been uprooted for the sake of genetic fatalism or absolutism.

We can begin to understand the harshness of Testart's judgments. Referring to the new experimentations with ovules, wombs, clones and the sense that temporary moratoriums and authorizations have in such areas, he tells us: “Ways to accustom people, through the wear of words and ideas until they stop feeling offended by what could be done […] The ethics committee, [then] as a benevolence committee for techno-scientific development. " [18]

“It is necessary to do everything that is possible to do, all the experiences, all the manipulations; the dangerous and the absurd will be eliminated by themselves. [… That] beautiful optimism of automatic utility, so characteristic of contemporary liberalism ", as Godin aptly describes it, [19] who concludes:" Let it go, let it pass, the market god will recognize his own. "

This laissez-faire that exempts us from all epistemological reflection, makes us see, contrary sensu, the political dimension of the question. That is, technoscientific development also constitutes a territory where man must define himself, decide. Make politics. To choose.

Not before but now?

Why do even the most fanatical of aspiring human beings recognize that if the eugenicists, the geneticists, the successive Frankenstein doctors in the past had achieved their goal, the results would have been devastating, appalling? Because they perceive mistakes, ignorance and even the horrors that would have been committed then.

Only a foolish thing that ignores that same past intends to repeat the dream, now - they maintain - with sufficient precision and certainties ... although it has been just two or three years since genetic determinism has collapsed due to its epistemological inconsistency, evidenced by the mapping of the Human Genome .[twenty]

We are making progress?

The current state of techno-scientific developments is much closer to a description made long ago by Leon Kass, a biochemist turned bioethicist. The situation of contemporary biology has put scientists in a situation similar to that of the story of the plane, in which the pilot calmly informs his passengers: “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen: your pilot is speaking to you. We are flying at an altitude of 10,500 meters at a speed of 1,120 km per hour. I have two pieces of news for you, one good and one bad. The bad news is that we have lost our way. The good news is that we are achieving excellent performance in our flight. " [twenty-one]

The pilot, obviously, highlights the provision, the performance, as it is now said in basic neo-Castilian television.

But Kass tells us something more seriously: "the frequency with which the new technologies of the Biological Revolution are introduced" without any kind of decision being taken about it "" [22] Something that we in Argentina, during the nineties, we experimented in the field of genetic engineering applied to agriculture, and even earlier, applied to medicine (the scandal with the cows in Blue).

Which has led, even tough scientists, to observations that deviate from all techno-scientific optimism. James Watson, who, along with the aforementioned Francis Crick, laid the foundations for the double helix structure of DNA, tells us: “[Cloning] is too important a matter to be left exclusively in the hands of scientists and doctors. The belief that surrogate mothers and clone babies are inevitable because science is always advancing (…) represents an absurd form of laissez-faire that reminds us, grimly, of the assumption that American companies will solve everyone's problems if they are let you act as you please. " [23] Watson gives us a double warning: an accurate critique of liberalism as an epistemology and, incidentally, business liberalism as a policy.

Genetic engineering: future and irreversibility of its "achievements"

Another aspect must be highlighted, perhaps more crucial, if possible, than the political dimension so often hidden from techno-scientific events. The advent of genetically modified humans would introduce a radical cut in humanity: between beings born with their own genetic endowment, the same as always, and those born programmed. This cut between two types of gestations creates an ontic cut within the human species with a psychic, political, immeasurable cost and with an aggravating factor: its irreversibility. That ontic cut establishes, generically speaking, modifiers and modified, modifying parents and technologists and babies who will be modified adults. An insurmountable existential chasm would be created between humans. It is not by chance that one of the books that discusses the implications of genetic engineering is entitled: To play God.

Referring to a particular case of genetic engineering, the cloning technique –which from the point of view of gestation takes us back to the universe of asexual beings, such as amoebas–, Jacques Testart makes some interesting terminological clarifications: in Latin languages ​​we use the term "reproduction" to refer to the procreation of humans, for example. The Arabic language has a word, injab, for this activity and another, naskh, to refer, for example, to photocopies or the growth of plants through segments, for reproduction. When Dolly was cloned, she was logically described in Arabic as naskh. Testart says that French - the same thing happens to us in Spanish - does not help us to think about that reality: a man and a woman uniting sexually do not reproduce anything. In any case, they create a being that will randomly have traits of both. There is no proper reproduction. Cloning doctors and researchers thus have a semantic alliance to introduce something qualitatively different, unprecedented, as more-of-the-same.

The aforementioned Godin reminds us that Hans Jonas refers to procreation as a responsibility “to“ preserve [life] and pass it on to new generations ”. And he clarifies: "Our great responsibility is not to keep a deposit intact or even to improve it - something that would be compatible with a transgenic or clonal production - but to ensure that an indeterminate world is transmitted." [24]

And that Daniel Sibony, psychoanalyst, asks himself and asks us: “Isn't cloning the logical outcome of narcissism, which is the expression […] of contemporary individualism […]? [25] I would dare to add to the features narcissistic of the cultural or technocultural plot in which we are immersed, that will to "play at being god" that characterizes certain holders of certain knowledge and, above all, powers.

Bioethics cannot be substantive biology and adjective ethics

Why should bioethics not play a subaltern role with respect to techno-scientific activity? Testart clarifies: "For biology, there is no difference in nature between an amoeba and a human embryo." But “all ethics is founded on a value that biology absolutely ignores: respect for the human person. [26]

If the Faustian, so typical of romanticism, positivism, industrialism, Marxism, has become demiurgic and in that movement we are destroying our own foundations, overcoming or violating all limits, the time seems to have come for us to overcome the paradigm of technological optimism through a consciousness more in line with the individual, local, planetary and cosmic dimension that we can increasingly perceive.

* Luis E. Sabini Fernández
Buenos Aires, November 2005
Professor of Ecology and Human Rights of the Free Human Rights Chair of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires.
Editor of Futuros magazine (on paper and online)


[1] American intellectual, founder of an international center for the evaluation of technology (INAC), of which here we gloss Technotopia. The Dark Side of Technology. [2] Cit. p. Darrell Fasching,
[3] David Noble, The religion of technology, Barcelona, ​​Paidós, 1999, p. fifteen.
[4] The shapers of men, Buenos Aires, Huemul-Crea, 1977, p. 319.
[5] "What was the Russian Revolution", Copenhagen, 1931.
[6] V. Packard, ob. cit., p. 225.
[7] Guidance, cit. Paul Ramsey, The manufactured man, Madrid, Guadarrama, 1973, p. 59.
[8] That they will continue their eugenic policy in Sweden, for example, until the 1960s.
[9] There are millenary biotechnological processes developed by man, for example in food processing; breads, cheeses, wines ...
[10] The Strands of Life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994. Cit. D. Noble, ob. 230.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Cit. Vance Packard, The shapers of men, Buenos Aires, CREA, 1977, p.224.
[13] It is good to observe that the method proposed by Crick is the one that the great genetic engineering laboratories, which are promoting a devastating transformation of rural life, have found to increase the most abject dependency of the peasants. With the so-called “genetic use restriction technologies” (GURT), all plantations will depend on chemical “triggers” or suspensors in the hands of the “owners” of said device. Thus, if a farmer plants GURT seeds and, for example, does not pay what is required, the laboratory will assume the right to suspend the growth of the plantation.
[14] The racism of the gene, co-authored with Christian Godin, Buenos Aires, FCE, 2001. The quoted passage, on p. 36.
[15] Ob. 94.
[16] Ob. 23 et passim.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ob. 104.
[19] Ob. 88.
[20] V. Luis Sabini Fernández: "DNA: reality or genetic myth?", Montevideo, Relations, July 2004.
[21] Cit. V. 320.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Testart and Godin, ob. cit. 72.
[25] Ob. cit., pp. 82 and 83.
[26] Ob. 90.

Video: Deepest Mandelbrot Set Zoom Animation ever - a New Record! 10275 or 2915 (May 2021).