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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 Nobel Laureates Plus editor Nathan Gardels in Washington.

QUESTION: 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 transform 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.

Q: 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-re-creation 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-re-creation, to remake ourselves after our own vision.

Q: Perhaps the genome map is our new Tower of Babel. The computer cartography of our makeup -- which would be the basis of our self-re-creation -- 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.

Q: You have written that technology -- humankind's effort at self-re-creation --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 lead 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.

Q: 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.

Q: In a consumer democracy dominated by a scientific world view 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."

Q: 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.

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.

Q: 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 United States.

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.

(c) 2003, Nobel Laureates Plus. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 12/9/03)