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Monday, January 21, 2013

Futurologists Welcome Our New Neanderthal Neighbors

Yes, George Church thinks we'll be able to clone a Neanderthal any moment now, and he thinks we should do so, because it would be so useful to observe them. As for me, I tend to agree instead with Alex Knapp's contrarian view:
Setting aside the ethical issues behind creating the lone survivor of an extinct human species, doomed to be a freak under the microscope of celebrity his or her entire life, I have to question Dr. Church’s contention that it would really be that easy to clone a Neanderthal. There are a host of unanswered questions and many as yet undiscovered technologies that would need to be developed before this could be approached as a serious issue.
I have to say that Church is terribly unconvincing in his anticipations of or responses to both of these forceful objections. To the objection that this outcome actually requires specific kinds of answers to as yet unanswered questions and specific developments of as yet non-existing technical capacities, Church resorts, I'm sorry to say, to the usual futurological handwaving through which such actually-existing barriers are now typically dismissed, with accelerationalizations: "The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before."

Let us dispense yet again with such futurological accelerationalization. It actually matters that the acceleration of certain research programs and developmental pathways does not imply comparable discovery and development in every area of research and development. It actually matters that research that is going well one day can be stymied the next, that discovery often raises as many questions as it answers. It actually matters that technodevelopmental acceleration is at best a perspectival effect, not all researchers in all labs feel that their work is accelerating, and for many stakeholders to technoscientific change what looks like acceleration to some may look instead like disruption, provocation, questioning to others. It matters that talking about the complexities of technoscientific change in terms of "acceleration" is a metaphor, and just because acceleration and momentum can create what seems a kind of irresistible force in the commonplace domains of experience from which the metaphor is drawn does not actually give anybody good reason to believe that technology so conceived also has a momentum or destiny that will inevitably solve every problem, overcome every barrier, enable every desire.

Earlier today even PZ Myers seems less skeptical and critical than he can usually be trusted to be about the technical feasibility of Neanderthal cloning because he, too, has bought into that old time futurological religion, or at any rate its go-to accelerationalizations. On the "question of technical feasibility," writes Myers,
Church thinks it’s going to be entirely possible in the near future… I agree entirely: no problem. [!] It would be very hard and expensive to do right now, but not impossible. [I am pretty sure that this is straightforwardly incorrect. --d] Biotechnology is advancing at such a rapid rate, though, that in 5 years it will be difficult but within the range of what a few well-funded labs could do, in ten years it will look like a straightforward, simple exercise, and in 20 years high school kids will be doing it in their garage.
Even the inevitable "in twenty years" claim appears here! You know, AI is always twenty years away. The singularity, too. Nanotech genies-in-a-bottle (or desktop pseudo-replicators at any rate), twenty years, natch. Same, sexy sexbots, virtual heavens, Mars bases, orbital hotels, genetic fountains of youth. Always safely, untestably, enticingly, twenty years away. Quite apart from the pretense that all the presently unanswered technical questions will be answered in twenty years and answered always only in ways that enable Neanderthal cloning, what serious person really believes that social, cultural, political, legal, regulatory, funding dynamics would likewise enable so utterly sweepingly transformative an outcome so very soon? Twenty years is a distance in time from now which would take us in the other direction to the year 1993. Think of the world in 1993 and the world in 2013, and then do please get serious and set aside the flabbergasting nonsense of futurological utterances to the effect that after the passage of the same time frame high school kids might be cloning Neanderthals in the garage.

Even granting hyperbole and humor and so on, it actually matters that public discourse is suffused with this sort of faith-based futurological foolishness and with serious consequences, too: Look how futurological bullshit about longevity medicine facilitates politicians who want to delay the retirement age of working class citizens whose life expectancies at retirement are scarcely greater than they were when the Social Security program was created. Look how futurological bullshit about "geo-engineering" lets Exxon-Mobil's CEO shift from profitable climate-change denialism to equally profitable technofix complacency.

Myers is a bit more nuanced in pondering ethical implications, but I must say I despair a bit at the way indulgence in neoliberal bioethical jawboning over various techno-transcendentalizing articles of faith always conduces inappropriately to the benefit of futurological plausibility even when there are no technical justifications for any such concessions of this plausibility, simply because these debates on the moral dimensions of these imaginary outcomes assume their material terms. Nothing pleases techno-immortalists more than discussions about whether or not immortality would still be enjoyable, worthwhile, meaningful, human, or what have you because even when an interlocutor disagrees with the techno-immortalists about the desirability of their various pop-tech wish-fulfillment fantasies, the fact remains that so long as serious people are taking techno-immortalism seriously at all they are granting it a substance that the science certainly never does or usually could.

I mentioned that Church himself conspicuously fails to answer either of Knapp's key objections. To Knapp's objection that we actually cannot yet clone a Neanderthal and hence one should qualify triumphalist claims predicting we certainly will and soon, Church offers up not scientific but the metaphorical support of accelerationalist rhetoric. As for Knapp's objection that it seems unethical on its face to bring into existence a unique experiential experimental person destined for utter alienation and isolation -- and, even worse, in the expectation that this being would come to exist not as an end in herself but as a means to human ends of discovery or utility -- what Church actually proposes is that we not only clone a Neanderthal but clone so many that they can form "a cohort," assert an "identity," make a go at having a "culture" of their own. One has to question just how much serious thought Church can have given to this proposal (or whether anybody should). Strictly speaking, this glib aspiration to create an autonomous community of cloned Neanderthals is hard to square with Church's own stated motivation to clone Neanderthals so that we can observe them for our own purposes, without a thought to the unknowable purposes they might propose to our attention. Also, given the sentient personhood of millions of apes and cetaceans who already share the world with us and yet are hunted, hounded, slaughtered, penned as spectacles, experimented on for human cures and cosmetics (not to mention the human mistreatment and instrumentalization of so many different humans!), one wonders just how many Neanderthals would need to be cloned to give them a real chance to organize on their own behalf politically. I think there are good reasons -- indeed pretty decisive ones, among them a lack of relevant knowledge, political will, moral justification, or reliable funding -- to think we will not be able to clone any Neanderthals any time soon, but, I mean, thousands? millions? Seriously? As usual, the indulgence in futurology provides us with a lot of loose talk that doesn't qualify as real science, serious policy, substantial thinking, or even good science fiction.

Sure, dumb Dvorsky is predictably enthused at the prospect of corralling women into accepting their proper role as incubators for his cloned Neanderthal neighbors of the near future as he continues to stink up the place at io9 with his usual futurological flim-flammery more generally, but I must say I really would appreciate it if actually technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally concerned progressive folks wouldn't fall for this stuff so very eagerly.

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