Currently, some philosophers and technicians propose to change the fundamental constitution of Homo sapiens, as by significantly altering the genome, implanting microchips in the brain, and pursuing related techniques. Among these proposals are aspirations to guide humanity’s evolution into new species. Some philosophers have countered that such species alteration is unethical and have proposed international policies to protect species integrity; yet, it remains unclear on what basis such right to species integrity would rest. An answer may come from an unexpected angle of rights issues: Some cultures have indicated that they want no part of our technological culture, preferring to retain their practices. Yet, rights documents do not explicitly establish that any individual has a right to species integrity. Careful interpretation of rights documents nonetheless reveals that such a right to species integrity is implicit. Interpreting these so as to reveal this needed right is also necessary to retain the foundations of rights documents and institutions. Further, acknowledging a right of species integrity could mean, because of practicalities, a limit to the freedom of proponents to implement proposals to manipulate the species.
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The concept of “species” in this context is especially problematic because in the sciences it is defined in biological terms. But if, as some of these technical proposals anticipate, particular persons who are now biologically human are transformed into, say, highly genetically modified organisms or into biological/machine entities, then the applicability of “species” as a biological term begins to suffer. Generally, I use “species” in its biological sense as a set of reproductively isolated organisms, but with the understanding that if the technical proposals were realized, the term itself might need reworking.
Among theories establishing the basis for human rights, Gewirth’s (1982) provides an alternative by which agency itself is the basis of rights, rather than any other particularity of the human species. To be an agent, an agent must have some real conditions in which it can act as an agent; to deny these conditions (or rights) would be self-contradictory (although one still must establish why it is wrong to be self-contradictory). Insofar as humans are agents, they then have rights, yet it is not other aspects of their humanity than their agency that gives them rights. It may seem, then, that on this basis there may be no particular call for a right to species integrity as a human right. I return to this issue later.
Another light by which to consider the difference between the earlier social developments and the proposed biotechnological interventions is the following: Consider a set of Westerners stranded on a desert island who for whatever local resource availability lost the capacity to write, to travel by jet, or have access to computers. We could still safely consider them human beings. By contrast, a set of individuals who had undergone such biotechnological changes in their genomes that their germ cells could not interact with unchanged humans’ germ cells to make viable offspring, or even so isolated from unchanged persons as not to attempt reproduction, could safely be said to no longer be H. sapiens. See Savage (1977) for more on speciation.
As noted above, further proposals for BCIs include those for “mind uploading,” but as these proposals are at the current frontier of speculation and have not even reached the experimental stage, the paper’s discussion is simplified by not considering these further in terms of its human rights analysis.
There being no assumed physical “force” guiding evolution, analogous to basic forces of the universe.
If persons were not equal, then some could pursue their rightful life, liberty, and happiness to the point they did interfere with others; but those others not being equal and thus having less right to their own pursuits would be in no explicit legal position to resist that interference.
Interestingly, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Humans Rights (United Nations 1948), coming long after the highly influential French declaration, does not incorporate such explicitly liberal language so as to ensure that degree of negative freedom. Considering the post-World War II era of its drafting when there was an effort to capture world cooperation by compromising with powerful nonliberal nations such as Stalinist Soviet Union—especially as reflected in Articles 22 – 30—absence of such wording helps to confirm the suggestion that the liberal negative freedom is consistent with free-market ideals and practices.
Even if A were arguably more likely than B or C, there would still not be less reason to seek alternatives for set 2, such as a right to species integrity. Perhaps only in the case in which scenario A were 100 % certain would there be no need for such recourses for set 2. This next section, then, offers reasons why such 100 % certainty is unlikely.
See such ethical conflicts as among Sandel (2007), Buchanan (2011), Juengst (2006), Hanson and Hughes (2007) and the various essays in Savulescu and Bostrom (2008), just to name a fraction of the spectrum of the widely differing views on what ethics must be involved in the pertinent techniques. By all means, this contested area differs little from most all other areas of applied ethics (and for that matter, all philosophy). What is crucial is that if certain techniques are developed, and ethics is “built into” those techniques, and those techniques constitute the next era of human existence, but some people adamantly differ from those built-in ethics, some people would be violated to an unprecedented extent: Their entire being itself will be irrevocably formed by ethical values not their own.
Similarly, some ethicists (Savelescu and Kahane 2007) have argued that it would be unethical for parents not to implement non-therapeutic gene-altering techniques that would allegedly boost cognitive capacities.
It may seem to some observers that set 2 could be allowed a “natural reserve” in which to continue their H. sapiens existence while the rest of the (formerly unitary) species speciates. This hopeful “natural reserve” scenario depends upon solving two problems that, as I have pointed out, are severe: (1) that of coming to consensus on what ethics is to be built-in into the techniques from the start, a dim prospect; and (2) that of projecting and circumventing environmental ripple effects of the technology, especially BCI with supercomputers, which projection and circumvention would require a supercomputer more powerful than the one whose projected and ideally circumvented ripple effects are being investigated. This paradox precludes proper and sufficient projection of the technique’s environmental effects.
Hayden (2010), building up Arendt, provides a cogent moral warning about moving forward too hastily with development projects that proceed despite proper recognition of peoples who are effectively rightless, among whom self-delimited indigenous peoples’ are poignant. The pertinence of this moral warning to the rights problems presented within this paper merit detailed examination.
A later stipulation of the Vienna Declaration specifies protections against certain types of technological encroachment: “The World Council on Human Rights notes that certain advances, notably in the biomedical field and life sciences as well as in information technology, may have potentially adverse consequences for the integrity, dignity and human rights of the individual, and calls for international cooperation to ensure that humans rights and dignity are fully respected…”
Not to deny that debilitated humans, perhaps those who are not bipedal or upright, deserve rights.
That is, nothing in the extreme position bars this move except for a by-fiat stipulation that no one can thus nudge the species even if it thence becomes another species still deserving all the same rights.
This neuron-replacement thought-experiment problematically assumes that replacing each carbon-based neuron with a silicon-based will retain all the same functions and thus, en masse, the whole brain would as well, when that point is what the thought experiment must prove.
A metaphysical question seems to loom here. Granting our current understanding of chemistry due credibility, an entity composed of different kinds of elements would have different kinds of needs. If the entity were wholly uploaded on a computer, it may have cravings for chocolate éclairs, but if it assimilated an actual chocolate éclair into its virtual existence, that virtual digestive tract, even if it could somehow generate real acids to break down that éclair, would lack the immediate connection whereby to place the broken-down éclair molecules into the virtual body. The complicated sets of devices interacting between the virtual entity and the real food-item and its breakdown products would already make such a different kind of entity from the original carbon-based set-2 people’s member as to render implausible the contention that this entity is sufficiently similar to the original as to replicate the original’s needs identically so that the identical original cultural practices are applicable and kept intact. Similarly if the replicate is silicon based, as silicon would lead to quite different energy needs and practices of the silicon entity compared to the carbon based.
It may be further objected that instead of restricting set 1’s rights to implement their techniques on themselves and their customers merely in order to protect set 2’s rights, one may set up policies to control the extent the set 1’s activities so that they do not impinge upon set 2 but not prohibit them. In response, I note that such policies, to fit scenarios B or C, must still be so strong as still to impinge upon set 1’s purported individual rights to develop and market their techniques: As the point of this discussion has been set, these techniques so developed would have the potential to create agents of such power as to be beyond the control of regulation, as the Singularist scenario portrays. That is, the assumption of this paper has been set 1’s liberal individual rights would be so unregulated as to lead to a scenario B or C and that scenario A would be unlikely. Indeed, if these techniques in question are so restrained and tamed that set 1 could not produce powerful new species, then set 2 may not be threatened. However, the urgent issue still remains that many set 1 proponents would find their rights violated by such regulations, and the paper’s point remains.
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Miller, L.F. Is Species Integrity a Human Right? A Rights Issue Emerging from Individual Liberties with New Technologies. Hum Rights Rev 15, 177–199 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12142-013-0287-x
- Collective rights
- Indigenous peoples’ rights
- Individual rights
- Species integrity
- Species transformation
- Technological intervention