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Razib’s been kind enough to let me guest blog here at GNXP, so I thought I’d comment on his post on Headless Humans

But first, let me get the blatant self promotion out of the way! I’m the author of a new book titled More Than Human which I’ve also recently been blogging about. The book’s about using biotech for human enhancement – gene therapy, genetic engineering, smart drugs, brain computer interfaces, that kind of thing. It also looks at the ethics and social consequences. You can buy a copy at Amazon.

What does this have to with headless humans? Razib rightly calls out that there’s no more logical reason to object to brainless bodies grown as organ farms than there is to object to individual organs grown on lab scaffoldings.

I agree. The “Yuck!” reaction towards headless humans is instinctive, not logical. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

My personal suspicion is that the Yuck! factor is the single most powerful force that holds back adoption of new biotech advances – far larger than the moral or theological arguments of Leon Kass and other bioluddites.

History, I think, bears this out. A huge number of new biomedical techniques have been initially regarded as disgusting, immoral, or otherwise yucky. For instance, when Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine, his critics seized on the fact that it had been cultivated from cowpox, and editorial cartoons appeared showing cow / human hybrids. The Catholic Church denounced the vaccine as a dangerous heresy – man messing with powers he did not understand. Malthus, a contemporary of Jenner, voiced that if the vaccine did work it would lead to uncontrollable population growth that would strip the world of all of its resources.

Yet less than two years later, Jenner was a hero. The vaccine worked, and that simple fact won the day. The moral arguments of the Church and social projections of Malthus hadn’t really mattered at all. What had held people back was just the yuckiness of being injected with pus from a sick cow’s sores. But people get over things that are yucky in time, and the best neutralizers of Yuck! are familiarity and any concrete benefits that derive from the product being offered.

Another example I posted about yesterday is in-vitro fertilization. When IVF was first introduced, there was a huge public outcry and people found the idea of “test tube babies” just a little repugnant. It was probably quite fortunate that Louise Joy Brown, the first IVF child, was a cute little blonde girl who grew up with no problems. That, plus the fact that the technique obviously did help infertile couples have children, quickly dispelled the Yuck! factor. It hasn’t dispelled the qualms of critics like Leon Kass, who disliked IVF then on moral grounds and still dislikes it. But with the public acclimated to it, his moral objections no longer hold much weight.

The lessons here, I think, are

1) Even if two things are perfectly logically equivalent from an ethical viewpoint, the less yucky one is going to find easier adoption.

2) The best way to dispel yuck is to deliver value. Once people start having their lives saved by organ transplants from cloned organ banks, cloning is going to look a lot more prosaic, and will start to be thought of like vaccinations, blood transfusions, IVF, and all those other once repugnant technologies.

Addendum from Razib: I haven’t finished Ramez’s book yet-so that’s why no comment from me, but, it’s very informative and entertaining so far. I will point readers to GNXP regular NuSapiens weblog, where he has both a review and interview with Ramez.

Posted by ramez at 02:57 PM

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