Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Biotech and the New Babel

Leon Kass is currently Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics and Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and author of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Dignity: The Challenge of Bioethics. His latest book is The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003). He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Washington in late August, 2003.

NPQ | Looking for wisdom for how to face the new frontiers of science, including genetic engineering, you have turned to the oldest book in the Bible, Genesis. Why?

Leon Kass | Today we find ourselves in urgent need of wisdom coupled with the belief that there is no wisdom to be had. The leading intellectual notion of the present age is, to say the least, skeptical about wisdom. Indeed, science as we know it really came into being by turning its back on what it regarded as a fruitless quest for wisdom. It settled for instrumental knowledge--knowledge of means, not ends--that would be useful for life.

But it turns out that science and its child, technology, give us enormous powers, including the power in the 21st century to transform our very humanity. Yet science itself provides absolutely no standards to guide the use of this power.

Thus the question is where we look to find any kind of guidance for the use of that power to intervene in the human body and mind and potentially to trans-form ourselves.

One of the obvious alternatives, among others, is to look at Biblical religion, one of the pillars of moral thought in the West. The Bible does hold out some kind of teaching about human life, about what it is and what it might become.

I wasn't reared on this book. I had no religious instruction whatsoever in my upbringing. I was a child of the Enlightenment who came late to see the limitations of the promise of Enlightenment but still prefer it to theocracy.

I was surprised to discover in the study and teaching of Genesis over the years not so much an account of historical truth about some time long ago, but a mirror in which to discover certain permanent truths about the human condition, among them the sources of difficulties that result from human artfulness and technological aspiration. Our need for wisdom is urgent today, and the Bible, especially the earlier parts, offers a great deal.

NPQ | Looking at the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis you see a warning for our age. You worry about the hubris of "a revived Babelian vision." What do you mean?

Kass | As the Bible presents it, Babel was a project of humankind united, "of one language and one speech."

What this humanity united after the catastrophic flood chose to do was to build from the ground up a city with a tower that reached into the heavens so that they could make a name for themselves. By building a home of complete human self-sufficiency they were re-making their own humanity.

This really is an expression of human pride and self-reliance: "Don't trust the powers invisible, take matters in your own hands. Maybe if God exists, he will help those who help themselves." This is the humanists' dream of old--to construct a human habitat to protect against nature through human rationality, social cooperation and technology. If there is another flood, they thought, we will see to it that we at least get to high ground.

Also, their desire to make a "name for ourselves" is nothing less than human self-recreation by technology, cooperative speech and rational planning.

In the Biblical account, God sees this project and does not approve it. He puts an end to it, not by knocking down the city, but by confounding language and making such a unified human project impossible. From that came the multiplication of the nations and the multiplication of tongues and therefore the multiplication of beliefs.

With the help of a careful reading of that story, we can discover what is wrong with the project of Babel, not only from God's point of view, but from our own.

The dream, however, wasn't laid permanently to rest. If human beings can again speak one language we can build such a disastrous construction again. What God forgot about, or hadn't prepared for, was the emergence of a new non-natural language, the language of mathematical physics created, essentially, by one man, Descartes, in his Geometry.

The common language which is spoken around the world today is primarily a language of symbolic mathematics, upon which modern science and technology are based. It has given the Babelian vision new life.

It is this new artificial language which permits the objectification of nature in mathematical terms. It enables us to again aspire to nothing short of mastery of nature and human self-recreation, to remake ourselves after our own vision.

NPQ | Perhaps the genome map is our new Tower of Babel. The computer cartography of our makeup--which would be the basis of our self-recreation --reduces the vast diversity of humanity to information bits....

Kass | That is an interesting suggestion. Yes, mathematical language produced the map. But, despite the commonality of the genome, there is still a great heterogeneity there.

Some have suggested that since we now have the knowledge of the genome, the power to alter it easily is in our hands. Frankly, I think the ability to do rational redesign by genetic manipulation of human beings is a big project and a long way off. We are, at this point, much more likely to be able to alter who we are through the findings of psycho-pharmacology and working on the brain than we are to do so by tinkering at the level of the genes. But, yes, it is a Babelian-like dream.

NPQ | You have written that technology--humankind's effort at self-recreation--is not a problem, "technology is tragedy." What do you mean?

Kass | What I mean is something that has at least as much to do with "technology as a mind-set" as "technology as the accumulative technical resources."

We have increasingly acquired the technical outlook, by which I mean the aspiration to rational mastery of everything that comes before us as if everything that came before us was a problem to be solved, an obstacle to overcome.

But one cannot think of human life itself as a problem to be solved without dehumanizing it--dissolving its richness and its meaning.

If everything is an obstacle to be knocked down it is not clear what we are left with in the end. What could thrive or flourish other than sheer willfulness?

I mean tragedy in the classical sense in which the hero's misery is embedded in his triumph. I'm thinking of Achilles at the moment of his greatest glory when he lets out a cry at the ditch and flames come from his head. The shriek of triumph is also the shriek of grief over the dead body of his friend Patroclus in whose killing he has been complicit.

Our technology tempts tragedy as we long for something deeply that would be splendid, but also leads to our degradation. For example, we really try to defeat death, yet in coming closer to our goal we find all humanity diminished as we lose engagement with higher aspirations or the loves and longings that awareness of mortality produces.

Unless there are countervailing outlooks, a countervailing sense of dignity and countervailing institutions that preserve a non-technological understanding of our humanity, we risk turning ourselves into something little different from a technical instrumentality--things that work to fix other things rather than beings who are here to savor the world, to love and to flourish in non-technical ways.

NPQ | In success, defeat. This is a similar point to that made by Jacques Ellul, the French theologian who wrote The Technological Society in the '60s. He worried that our efficiency would enslave us, that the technological order would forge widgets out of whole beings in the name of improving our material lives.

Kass | Indeed. The citizens of Babel looked up to nothing that was not of their own making. If we come to discover that the thing that we are supposed to look up to is an artifact of our own making, it will be hard to look up to it. It is simply a fabrication.

The residents of Babel had no standards for the uses of their power. There were no notions of justice or decency other than the pure fabrications, or constructions, they came up with. The world they created was arbitrary and willful.

If all truth is thought of to be merely human creation, there really is no engagement with the truth. If there is no truth beyond that which we have put there, then this project which was meant to produce a home for us against the partial inhospitalities of nature finally makes us strangers in the world and fully alienated from it.

We are home only with our own gadgets. That is not what the human soul longs for.

NPQ | T.S. Eliot put it this way:

"Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust."

Kass | Indeed.

NPQ | You have written that "liberal democracy has reached a point, thanks to the arts and sciences to which it is wedded, where it can no longer intellectually defend its founding principles."

The Nobel laureate poet, Czeslaw Milosz, has said something similar:

"The scientific revolution begun in the 19th century has gradually eroded the religious imagination whence we derive the very notion of human dignity," that we were created in God's image, share His being and reflect His countenance. "Without that the bottom falls out of our value system and invites nihilism."

Is that what you mean?

Kass | That is pretty close.

The underlying notions of dignity, conscience and the freedom of the individual that lie beneath the Declaration of Independence and the doctrine of our unalienable rights are not supportable by the scientific view of nature and of man. That rests upon a different foundation.

NPQ | Natural law?

Kass | It is hard to say exactly. According to the Christian interpreters of the American Founding, this is natural law. I am rather doubtful. It is more natural rights in my own understanding.

NPQ | In any case, it is self-evident truths, not self-referential truths.

Kass | Absolutely, and self-evident means a truth which both admits no proof and requires none. When the Declaration says that "We hold these truths to be self-evident" that "all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"--we know what it means. We all understand that a human being is not the sort of creature you put a saddle and bridle on and ride like a horse. It is not the sort of being to whom you deny the right of self-defense, the right to defend his or her rights, to chase and to practice happiness as she or he thinks fit. If you deny that, you have somehow denied the very humanity of such beings.

The extent to which the scientized mindset takes over as the only mode of thinking that confers standing is the extent to which we are incapable of recovering that view of the human which lies at the bottom of democratic traditions. What rights or liberties should a mere collection of molecules have?

The Bible is not the only alternative to the scientized mindset. There are other pre-modern alternatives, pre-scientific alternatives.

Many people have looked for an alternative. Immanuel Kant, for example, recognized the danger that the scientized worldview presented to morality, freedom and dignity. He sought to find a way to find a home for human dignity in critical reason. But that, it seems to me, is a disembodied dignity that dwells purely in the realm of thought. A truer account would also respect the dignity of our embodiment, the dignity of human embrace, of the cradling of a child. We need to go back to the Bible or to Greek tragedy and philosophy to find accounts of embodied dignity.

The Biblical account of man as being in the image of God actually begins to do homage, not just to our rationality and willfulness, but to our embodiment, the incarnation of being.


NPQ | In a consumer democracy dominated by a scientific worldview the health of "a life" reduced to its immune system is the new idol. If there is any standard in consumer society, it is "to improve health" or "to save a life."

As Ivan Illich has pointed out, this reduction of a person as a reflection of Being to an abstract "life" prepares the way for a depersonalized Brave New Biocracy which manages "lives" from sperm to worm, womb to tomb.

As in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the promise of health and immortality offered by the new biotechnology is luring us into some new kind of happy trap.

Kass | You point to a major cultural change over the past few decades that I also observe. We are in quest of personal immortality. The only good that everybody can now agree on is health. Life, health and longevity--those are good things.

We have actually gotten so accustomed to the benefits of modern medicine that we are greedy. We don't live with our improved health grateful for the fact that we no longer die of polio or smallpox. Now we expect that when we need a kidney, one should be found. And we regard anything that gets in the way of our having our organs replaced as, in fact, responsible for our deaths.

Predictably, the satisfaction of desire has only led to the inflation of our desires.

With the decline of the belief in an afterlife and with an increasing belief that this is the only life, the desire to stick around and not check out grows without bounds. We are more afraid of death than ever and more attached to this life than ever. The only thing we can agree is good is better health, longer life and relief of suffering.

Yet, this pursuit of bodily immortality for ourselves is a deformation. It actually gets in the way of our trying to realize as much as we can, in this life, those aspirations for something higher to which I believe our souls naturally point.

The immortality the various religious traditions offer us is not a promise of continuation of more of the same, only indefinitely. It is a promise of fulfillment of deeper longings, whether it is for wisdom or for full unity with a beloved, or whether it is to be in God's presence.

It is not the promise of being able to go shopping at Wal-Mart until the last trump, even with vigor.

It is not an accident that it is this first truly consumer generation that is interested in harvesting stem cells, using the seeds of the next generation to make sure that the present one won't die.

Such an attitude is really hostile to children, which is one reason the birth rate in a place like Italy is 1.2 children per woman per lifetime. We discover now in prosperity why it was that God had to command his human creation to be fruitful and multiply. He doesn't command him to breathe or eat.

The present attitude of consumer society is against the grain of all past human experience, which called for sacrifice in the present for the sake of those who come after you. That has been the way of the world up until this age.

The preoccupation with one's self and with one's own neediness and its immediate satisfaction is encouraged by liberal democracy which is designed, politically speaking, to give free people what they want. In some way, that is at odds with actually getting our lives fulfilled. It is capable of destroying our community and our institutions.

All this, of course, is not simply despicable. Life is good, death is bad, other things being equal. If you don't want to live forever yourself, you hate to see your loved ones die. I am old enough to know that.

This consumer mentality is now fed by a huge industry. Health care now accounts for a third or more of GDP in the United States.

Therefore, even if one were inclined to gain some political control over where technology is taking us, the majoritarian consensus is "if it will cure disease, let's have it. You can't stop progress. Galileo already defeated the Church on this. Don't be a Luddite."

NPQ | Isn't it exactly that majoritarian sentiment of consumer democracy that will bring the Brave New World to us?

Kass | The Brave New World, as Huxley envisioned it, was an attempt to rationalize human nature to the bottom. It begins in the establishment of human hatcheries--where human life comes about not through procreation but is genetically programmed.

But the Brave New World also aspires to some kind of synthetic happiness--happiness understood as the absence of unhappiness aided by virtual amusements and pharmacological substitutions that provide a mood of ecstasy. In the Brave New World they conquer disease and poverty. They prevent war. There is no grief or shame. But what you get in its place are people of human shape but of shrunken humanity--no friendship, no love, no art, no self-governance, no science.

Now, just look over our lives today and you see we are on the way to such a world. This is the result of taking the humanitarian project to its logical conclusion--to conquer nature for the relief of the human condition. There is nothing countervailing that quest.

In short, the logic for a Brave New World is in place. Whether we go there practically, I don't know. There is a straw to grasp in the ocean. The new sense of fragility after 9/11, the surge of civic-mindedness, the revaluation of the importance of family ties and a growing return to religion indicate there are germs of a new moral seriousness around. It is not all about happiness no matter how you get it.


NPQ | The advent of cloning and genetic engineering has reopened all the great questions about the origins and destiny of humanity to which religion responds. Perhaps the great paradox is that the sacred will be called back into the secular experiment and resurrect the religious imagination with a new reverence for being, even a kind of piety. Do you see stirrings of that?

Kass | I really do see stirrings of it--though not the return of some kind of theocracy as in Iran which, of course, I wouldn't want. I remain a friend of liberal democracy. When I hear anybody bash it, I defend it. When I hear people say the teachings of scientists answer the deepest longings of the human soul, I tell them they are mistaken.

In teaching at the University of Chicago for most of the last 25 years, what has been very striking is the return of the genuine interest in religious questions on the part of the young.

They have spiritual longings that they've discovered can't be satisfied by the technocratic thinking that only promises more and more material goods. Many of them are children of skeptics whose own parents might once have been believers but who wandered off the reservation and embraced positivism or a kind of enlightened utopian vision.

These students have the sense that the dominant trends in our secular culture don't offer the depth or moral seriousness they are looking for.

As you suggest, the coming of the biotechnical revolution compels certain questions: What does it mean to be a human being now? What is it that we would like to preserve about what we have been? What is it that we are willing to moderate and at what cost?

As long as science was just fiddling around with external nature, it was possible to lose our natural piety and awe--though I do think the rise of the environmental movement has, in part, been an attempt to recover that primordial sense of restraint and awe before the mysteries of nature. Curiously, the environmentalists seem to have awe for everything in nature but human nature. They regard us as the menace.

Awe is a fitting response to nature's power and beauty. Never mind the human embryo. To see the embryo of a sea urchin divide under a microscope is to feel that you are in the presence of a great power not of our own making. You can't look upon it as machinery.

NPQ | Milosz, the Nobel poet, has made a similar point, calling for a "recovery of reverence," of "piety" and "mindfulness" as the response to the nihilism of science-driven secular culture.

Yet, that is a bit vague. How do we draw standards of behavior from it as we face these new questions? If, as was recently reported, Chinese scientists have made a hybrid creature by mixing rabbit and human DNA, how can one say that is a good or a bad thing?

Kass | It is a hard question. I have been accused of being an irrationalist and a mystic for looking to the "wisdom of repugnance" for answers, as if the repugnance by itself would tell you what to do. Repugnance is at best a warning that you might be in the presence of an action that violates a boundary you transgress at your peril.

In an age when repugnancies were sound, you didn't need philosophers to come to their rescue. Some repugnancies, it is true, were merely prejudice and ugliness, for example regarding miscegenation--a repugnance we are happily rid of.

No, I don't think you go immediately from the sense that something here is being traduced to figure out both why and what. But, for example, if you care about the dignity of human procreation, you care about keeping a clear line between what is human and animal and not blurring that line.

If you care about the dignity of a woman's body, you don't treat her womb as an incubator into which you could put fetuses for a short time for the sake of research or spare body parts. If you think about the dignity of a human child coming into the world, you don't undermine that child's right to have two biological parents rather than to be the clone of one. If you care even about the dignity of basic human life, you don't put human embryo cells in an animal uterus and pull it out later to see what you can make of it. You don't mix rabbits and humans.

Having said that, there is still a continuum. Is it wrong if you put into human DNA one rabbit gene that might confer immunity to some human disease? We put viruses into our bodies and immunize ourselves with foreign DNA, yet we don't somehow regard that as traducing our humanity.

There are gray areas. Yet, the existence of dawn doesn't mean that day and night aren't finally two different things. We have to struggle to find those boundaries. But we won't struggle until we are somehow alerted by our repugnance on the one hand, and our awe on the other, that we are at a new frontier.

Clearly, over the past 20 years the suspicion has arisen that we might be about to violate something deeply dear without even knowing it.

We have thus begun the effort to get some control over biotechnology. Whether we succeed or not is still an open question. I am very disappointed that we have not yet succeeded in banning human cloning in the US.

Beyond that, it is not right to simply place bans or prohibitions on everything.

There needs to be regulation, and in some cases perhaps self-imposed boundaries are enough. These things need to be worked out among scientists, those with religious sensibilities and the public at large. It is a political task.

NPQ | Facing this challenge to what it means to be human, some, like Ivan Illich, have taken on the Brave New Biocracy more radically.

Illich called for "renunciation" of the technological order that reduced the person to a managed immune system. He called for the practice of "askesis," like St. Antony in the desert resisting corruption of his soul. Illich wrote a manifesto calling for "hygienic autonomy" and the right "to die without diagnosis." Instead of hospitalization he called for a new "art of suffering" just as there must be an art of living.

Like a futuristic refusenik, Illich practiced what he preached. When he died in 2003 surrounded by friends, he had lived for the past 20 years without ever treating a prominent tumor on the side of his head.

Is that kind of heroic act philosophically justified, in your view?

Kass | It is radical, and true to Illich's way. He wrote not so much to influence people as to bear witness. That is a very useful thing.

I have more than a little sympathy for this. I have spent a fair amount of my time musing about what sorts of challenges in my future I am going to keep out of medical clutches. If, for example, I contract some kind of virulent cancer, I'm not going to be treated. It is important that, when crunch time comes, we are prepared to die well.

I also think, as Illich and others have suggested, that it is very important not to try to simply be an artful maker of your life, as if you are the author of your own drama, but to roll with the punches and take what life has to offer without losing your dignity, without losing your humanity, without cursing the world.

To say that we have to develop an "art of suffering and dying" is, I'm afraid, a bit anti-American. On the other hand, it is certainly part of the Christian teaching. There are things worse than suffering and dying, such as despair, self-hatred or losing connections with the people who matter to you.

Renunciation, as Illich calls for, is a bit strong, but when it is possible, lots of people are actually doing it partly with the help of hospices, a measure of distance from the medical management. And there are people who refuse to go to a hospital and make sure they die at home in the company of their family and friends. I have seen it in my own family. My mother-in-law arranged exactly that. Her death was a blessing to us in the way she died. It was her last gift to all of us.

In any case, Illich's basic intuition seems to be correct. It is going to be very interesting to see how the baby-boomer generation comes to terms with their mortality when it begins to hit because their lives taught them little about how to enter agony, about how to die.


NPQ | Teilhard de Chardin thought that technology would prepare the next step forward for humanity by making it "into a single body" and thought that we ought to commit to our mutation.

In our age of information and biotechnology, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues similarly that humanity is poised in front of a mutation to an altogether new creature: anthropo-technology, in which man is bound into one operative system with his technology through shared information. In such a system, the old philosophical divides between master and slave or culture and nature are erased.

The alternative to resistance or renunciation is to commit to our mutation. Why not?

Kass | No friend of humanity would cheer for our own extinction for the sake of some biomechanical promise, the goodness of which we have no way of knowing. That is just foolishness.

Maybe you could say that the dinosaur should have cheered for the coming of the human. But if there is something wrong with the human that requires our replacement, we'll be damned to place our hopes in any replacement that these same defective humans are concocting. If we are so flawed, how can we expect that, on the basis of our limited imagination and high hopes, that some kind of biorobot is going to be an improvement?

There is a kind of naive faith that change means progress. But not all change is for the better. Unless you can show me reason to believe what is coming into being is likely to be better, or that the invisible hand of progress is governed by a providence in which the technologists themselves don't believe, but which has somehow preordained this future, I will go to the barricades to defend the human as I know him or her.

That human is glorious. We should always act in such a way to make certain there will always be a human future.