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Our Crackpot Baconian Future

Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock
Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

The commenter Irenist has this to say in response to the Transgender as Meme post from earlier:

Maybe Pope Francis is on to something with his “Lord of the World” shout-outs. Social movements start small, and often have weird, world-historic consequences. The line between the fore-runners of modern science and Renaissance occult crackpots is fuzzy, at best. Sometimes crackpots matter.

The post above is symptomatic of a culture moving more and more into a direction where biology is increasingly instrumentalized to serve felt need and/or even desire. The line from “gender is just a social construct” to the most outre ambitions of brave new world transhumanist types is, I think, pretty direct.

Not in a “slippery slope” way so much as in an ideological consistency way. Perhaps relatedly, the transhumanists in the “Less Wrong” subculture, in part substantially funded on Peter Thiel’s donations, are not only big libertarian gay marriage supporters, but increasingly tout the virtues of polyamory.

Years ago, the transhumanist writer James Hughes predicted that the politics of bioethics (which includes all the “life issues” and the gender issues, inter alia) would be an increasingly important dividing line in the 21st century. He opined that the only really consistent positions were the transhumanist one (that our humanity is mere raw material to be manipulated toward Baconian improvement of human happiness) and the “bioconservative” position he saw epitomized by the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic, I agree with him. I think the world is heading somewhere very weird, very “That Hideous Strength,” very fast. The transhumanists pine for a rapidly approaching computational and biotechnological singularity. I look at their dream becoming increasingly mainstream, and I sympathize with the Pope’s reading habits.

A bunch of trends around sexuality coalesced into something historic in the Sixties. I think we could be in for something like that, but much more radical, sooner than we think.

Adam J. Calhoun, writing about neuroscience and society, in Medium:

If you would like see things straight out of a science fiction movie, you should visit a neuroscience laboratory. Technology and science has advanced so quickly that I am not sure the public understands how advanced we are. Depending on the species, creating new transgenic animals — where you slip new genetic material into an organism — starts at ‘pathetically easy.’ During my PhD, there were days I would create the DNA for five or ten new transgenics in one go; creating the animals themselves was hardly a challenge. Light can be used as a physical force to move things around (“optical tweezers”). Scientists routinely create custom-made viruses to go forth into a chosen animal and label a precise set of neural cells. We can rain light down onto an animal to replay — or delete — memories. The recent creation of the CRISPR system allows genetic engineering to occur at unprecedented levels.

And the technology is advancing — fast. Things that seemed impossible five years ago are being commercialized right now. But for all that the brain is still largely a black box that we can prod and poke without understanding what it is actually doing, or how it got there. It begs us to ask the question: what are the directions neuroscience is heading to make a sense of this neural hydra?

His essay is by no means a scare piece; he only talks about how our scientific information about the brain is outstripping our understanding. But I read that and think: oh hell, here we go.

Casting aside sexual norms in the gay-rights revolution logically brings gender norms into question. It’s all part of a culture that believes it creates its own reality, and that there are no natural limits to the extension of the human will. If we want it, we will have it.

UPDATE: A reader who writes from a med school e-mail account says:

I don’t know if this is worth anything, but I’ll share it here for those who wish. I am currently in medical school and my wife is a school psychologist. We both couldn’t help but notice how our review books have changed over the few short years since graduating college in 2011.

Under previous editions of study books (DSM-IV and older), the following was considered potentially concerning sexual behavior and warranted further discussion (often signs of underlying psychiatric stress or past trauma): fetishes, sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, telephone scatalogia, frotteurism, transvestitism, and transsexualism.

In newer study books (DSM V and newer), they have largely been replaced with the broad diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria, with most of the sexual acts no longer being specifically referred to at all. What we are more or less being taught now is that whatever consenting adults do behind closed doors, as long as it doesn’t hurt someone, is to be considered normal behavior.

For those of you thinking that science is science and there is no way for popular opinion to affect it, think again. “Science” (with massive quotation marks on that word) is constantly twisted to suit people’s pre-conceived theories about the world around them. What was previously considered red flag behavior is now taught as “nothing to see here, move along…”

Absolutely. As I never tire of saying here, one of the best lectures I ever heard was a presentation by Cambridge scholar Gillian Beer on how the Victorians appropriated the authority of Science to put Darwin’s findings to work for their own causes. The abolitionists said that Darwin clearly showed that all men are created equal. The eugenicists said that Darwin clearly showed that the strong deserve to rule the weak. The colonialists said the same thing. Et cetera. Facts are one thing; interpretations of the facts are another. But if you can convince people that your interpretation of the facts are the facts, you can get tremendous power.

UPDATE.2: A reader sends this Atlantic.com dispatch from the Brave New World:

Starting next year, children in the U.K. may be born with the DNA of three different people, after a Parliamentary vote earlier today approved a controversial fertility procedure.

The lower chamber of British Parliament, the House of Commons, voted 382-128 today to pass a bill authorizing an in-vitro fertilization technique that would combine two parents’ genetic material with that of a third female donor. The upper chamber, the House of Lords, is expected to take up the issue next month; if they also vote in favor, three-person IVF could become legal by October, making the U.K. the first country in the world to permit it.

Right now, it’s about preventing the passing-along of incurable genetic diseases. How long do you think it will take for this to go to the designer babies stage? If we can do it, we will do it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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