Engineering Life: Defining "Humanity" In A Postmodern Age


Jim Leffel

"Has existence significance at all? [This is] the question which will require a couple of centuries even to be completely heard in all its profundity" - Fredrich Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom

"The fact that God could create free beings vis-à-vis of Himself is the cross which philosophy could not carry, but remained hanging therefrom" - Soren Kierkegaard, Aphorisms

Signs of the Times

  • An actively heterosexual Russian female athlete is informed that she cannot compete in the Olympic games as a woman, because she is genetically a man.
  • A New Jersey family takes their doctor to court for allowing the "wrongful birth" of their Downs Syndrome child. Over 300 similar suits have reached the courts in recent years. Today, as in an earlier time, we hear of "life unworthy of life."
  • A child is conceived in California for the purpose of serving as a bone marrow donor for an older sibling. The cells are harvested and her sister lives. It is not only possible, but legal to create human life for "spare parts."
  • An embryo conceived in a Louisiana laboratory is protected by state law. But as soon as it is implanted into the mother, it can be aborted by another constitutionally protected right.
  • Researchers at Harvard and Stanford Medical Schools uncover over 200 cases of genetic discrimination. Based on "pre-existing conditions," insurance companies have denied coverage to people who carry genetically transmitted diseases.

Each of these incidents illustrates the complexities genetic technology introduces. The ethical dimension is of obvious concern. How should we treat fellow human beings? Then there are legal questions about what should be prohibited or sanctioned in human genetic research. But a more basic and all too often ignored question must also be explored: What is a human person? Indeed, without an answer to this question, moral and legal reflection is almost pointless. How, for example, can we speak of protecting human rights without identifying the bearer of those rights?

Recognizing human rights has always been an explosive business. In the 19th century, the issue was to whom do the constitutionally protected "inalienable rights of men" apply? This question so divided our republic that it was resolved only by civil war. In recent historic experience, we can turn to the death camps of Auschwitz or one of the thousands of "family planning centers" in America for further evidence of the scale of this question's lethality-- and, tragically, of social ambivalence to it.

Citing a lengthy bibliography of current scholarly works on the meaning of "personhood," psychologist and social critic Kenneth Gergen observes,

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is that it exists at all, for only under particular cultural conditions would the question be considered worthy of such attention.1

What are these "particular cultural conditions" to which Gergen refers? Both in academia and in popular culture, we are experiencing a sweeping ideological shift. It is the decline of Enlightenment assumptions that have guided Western civilization for the past 250 years, and the emergence of a "postmodern" cultural consensus. This shift in thought has been extensively documented in public opinion2 and in more scholarly work.3 However, little critique has been given to the practical implications of postmodernism to the pressing biomedical issues of our day. As postmodern language and concepts become an increasingly significant part of the public discussion in medical ethics, I think it is essential that Christians understand the thinking that lies beneath the rhetoric and formulate compelling responses to it.

This paper is an attempt to turn the discussion in that direction. We consider the meaning of personhood as it is conceived by postmodernists and its implications in an age of genetic technology. We conclude that a biblical view of humanity uniquely provides moral guidance through the turbulent waters of our postmodern era.

From Modern to Postmodern Anthropology

Summary: Comparing Anthropologies

Modernism Postmodernism

  • Autonomous Social
  • Rational Subjective

Let's step back for a minute to define our terms. Outside of academia, "postmodernism" is not in common use, though we all encounter it in its various forms.4 In a word, postmodernism is a rejection to the modern, or Enlightenment thought, that has dominated intellectual life for over two hundred years. To understand what is at stake with current issues surrounding genetics, we need to consider two crucial points of conflict between the modern and postmodern concepts of human personhood.

First, for modernists, man is rational by nature. French philosopher Rene Descartes is often considered the father of modern philosophy. Parting company with medieval thought that sought to root reason in the soil of Christian belief,5 Descartes attempted to develop a method of discovering truth independent of external sources of authority. He began inwardly, with his rationalistic deduction "I think, therefore I am." Descartes' first certainty was that "I exist as a thinking thing." The concept of man as rational by nature became the hallmark of Enlightenment thought. Descartes, and many who followed him, believed that it was possible to discover ultimate truths through the exercise of reason alone, and to develop a comprehensive, rationalistic world view. Reason was thus the guiding light of the Enlightenment.

Second, the subtle assertion underlying Cartesian method is that the self is autonomous. By autonomous, we mean that there exists an individual self (the "I" that "thinks") who transcends, or stands above environment and biology. Descartes based his theory of an autonomous self on mind/body dualism--the idea that an immaterial mind stands over and apart from nature. Later philosophers rejected Cartesian dualism and the theism it presumed, but for more than two hundred years, most maintained the belief in an autonomous self and confidence in the rational objectivity it made possible. The autonomous, rational self became the foundation for Enlightenment humanism and its liberal political theory, free market economics and radical individualism.6

Postmodernism is a direct assault on the entire Enlightenment enterprise. At the heart of it, postmodernists deny the possibility of rational objectivity because they reject the view of the self that modernism presupposes. Rather than seeing humanity as an ocean of autonomous rational selves, as modernists held, postmodernists think of humans as an extension of culture and deny the individual self all together. Kenneth Gergen notes,

With the spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the demise of personal definition, reason, authority. . . All intrinsic properties of the human being, along with moral worth and personal commitment, are lost from view. . .7

The self stands under "erasure" for postmodernists, meaning they deny all transcendent categories, including essential human personhood, reason and human value. There is no Cartesian "I" that thinks any more than there is a computer "self" beneath its programming. Postmodern anthropology is based on the idea that humans are "social constructs," or socially determined beings. We cannot have objective access to reality, because there is no neutral context from which to think. We have no individual personhood, because we are the product of culture.

Despite much of its "politically correct" rhetoric, postmodernism is anti-essentialist and anti-humanist.8 There is no universal human essence, no stable personal identity, and consequently, no inherent human value. Humans derive a sense of individual identity and value as persons from the arbitrary mores of a given culture. So one's identity, value, and civil rights are an accident of cultural origin, not some property intrinsic to human nature.

Postmodern Antihumanism and Genetic Technology

Postmodern antihumanism and the contemporary genetics industry are two powerful currents that form a potentially menacing rip tide against which proponents of human dignity must struggle. We consider key forces directing genetic research and the genetics industry, and how postmodern anthropological assumptions increasingly encroach on bioethics and biopolicy.

Scientists are for the most part extremely antagonistic to postmodernism because of its assault against reason and the postmodernists' accusations that science is a tool of Western cultural imperialism.9 However, naturalistic materialism, the dominant view among secular scientists, shares in postmodernism's antihumanism, creating a dangerous consensus among intellectuals today. Consider the remarks of Robert Haynes, president of the 16th International Congress of Genetics,

For three thousand years at least, a majority of people have considered that human beings were special, were magic. It's the Judeo-Christian view of man. What the ability to manipulate genes should indicate to people is the very deep extent to which we are biological machines. The traditional view is built on the foundation that life is sacred. . . .Well, not anymore. It's no longer possible to live by the idea that there is something special, unique, even sacred about living organisms.10

Whether biological machines or cultural constructs, naturalism and postmodernism strip humanity of all intrinsic value and leave postmodern culture with no meaningful frame of reference to address the pressing bioethical issues of our day.

One assumption driving the frenzy to map the human gnome is that all human behavior is of genetic origin. Things that in previous times were attributed to environment or moral choice are now being attributed to genetics. High profile scientists exploiting front page journalism have claimed to have discovered the genetic basis for a host of controversial behaviors and characteristics, including alcoholism, homosexuality, promiscuity, IQ and violence. Serious scientific doubt about these claims are commonly given little attention, leaving the public with the impression that science is on the verge of solving some of society's greatest problems.

Aside from these more explosive social issues, there are areas of research and technology where individuals may feel a more personal stake. This is where postmodern constructivism is particularly dangerous. For example, as genetic screening becomes more of an option for potential parents, we can expect to see further erosions in the value of human personhood. Dr. Harvy Lodish of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts states,

By using techniques involving in vitro fertilization, it is already possible to remove one cell from the developing embryo and characterize any desired region of DNA. Genetic screening of embryos, before implantation, may soon become routine.11

Beyond "reproductive consumerism," economic and social pressure may well turn the possibility of genetic screening into a social obligation. After all, some will be prepared to argue, "if we can prevent another alcoholic from wasting valuable economic resources, it seems that we ought to."

Important market forces are also at work in the genetics research industry. Billions of dollars can be gained through the commercial marketing of genetic material. And scientists have been quick to seize the opportunities. Since 1971, corporations have put on a no holds barred legal battle to patent human life. In that year, General Electric researcher Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty sought a patent for a microbe synthesized in the lab for the purpose of cleaning large oil spills. After nearly a decade of legal bantering, the United States Supreme Court sided with, Chakrabarty. Life forms could be considered "human inventions," thus patentable by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). This case began a slippery slope toward the inevitable patenting of human life.

In 1987, the PTO widened patent rights to include all life-forms on earth, including animals.12 Human beings were exempt from the ruling, citing the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting slavery. However, the ruling had significant shortcomings. Kimbrell notes, ". . .under the PTO's 1987 ruling, embryos and fetuses, human life-forms not presently covered under Thirteenth Amendment protection, are patentable, as are genetically engineered human tissues, cells, and genes."13 Corporate America won the right to own, use and sell all multicellular creatures, including human.14 While a storm of pro-life protest resulted in the withdrawal of NIH requests for public funding for the use of human embryos in genetic research, it is still legal. Human life has now become a commercial commodity as billions of dollars enter into the global genetics market. The PTO is now flooded with applications for patents on hundreds of human genes and gene lines. Kimbrell warns, "[a]s patenting continues, the legal distinctions between life and machine, between life and commodity, will begin to vanish."15

Human genetic engineering has been suggested for all kinds of medical and social applications. But as practical demand for human tissue increases, the value of human personhood in a postmodern culture experiences a corresponding decrease. As of 1990, there were over three hundred law suits against doctors by parents or children claiming a new species of injustice with strange constructivist language: "wrongful life" and "wrongful birth."16 Translated, these euphemisms mean that life is not protected by an unalienable right, but by arbitrary decisions based upon socially acceptable characteristics. Along these lines, noted ethicist H. Tristram Engelhardt uses the expression, "injury of continued existence,"17 a disturbingly similar notion to the Nazi concept of "life unworthy of life." In today's world of genetic mapping and gene therapy, we hear terms such as the "commodification of life," and "the human body shop industry."18

We are witnessing the depersonalization of human bioscience language:

As body parts and [genetic] materials are sold and patented, manipulated and engineered, we also are seeing an unprecedented change in many of our most basic social and legal definitions. Traditional understandings of life, birth, disease, death, mother, father, and person begin to waver and then fall.19

In depersonalizing language, scientific and legal jargon obscures important moral distinctions. The consequence is that genetic research and technology appear more neutrally scientific than deeply ethical and human. So while questionable research goals and methods and clearly unbiblical anthropological assumptions sometimes drive the genetics industry forward, sociological data shows that most Americans don't really understand what's going on.20 And those who do understand, but oppose public funding for gene research on human embryos, are called "uneducated" and "ignorant" by research professionals.21 But such ad hominem responses will continue to have a hollow ring until scientists and biopolicy makers offer some meaningful distinction between what they can do and what they should do.

At a time when few people can articulate a meaningful defense of human dignity, we are left open to the increasing influence of postmodern anti-humanists. David Hirsch raises a daunting problem:

Purveyors of postmodern ideologies must consider whether it is possible to diminish human beings in theory, without, at the same time, making individual human lives worthless in the real world.22

There are important indications that Hirsch's fears are now being realized. In recent public opinion surveys, a substantial majority favor genetic screening for a wide range of genetically transmitted disorders.23 Abortion as a therapeutic option is, of course, in view. But it is not merely serious or fatal diseases that are being singled out. For example, in a recent survey taken in New England, eleven percent of couples polled said they would abort a child genetically predisposed to obesity.24 We need to call these sentiments what they are: eugenic.

This popular opinion is also reflected in the medical community. Between 1973 and 1988, the percentage of geneticists who approve of prenatal diagnosis for sex selection rose from 1 percent to 20 percent.25 In a broader study of gender-selected abortion, physicians were asked to respond to the following scenario:

A couple with four healthy daughters desires a son. They request prenatal diagnosis solely to learn the fetus' sex . . . They tell the doctor that if the fetus is female, they will abort it. Further, they say that if the doctor will not grant their request for prenatal diagnosis, they will have an abortion rather than risk having a fifth girl.26

In this case, 62% of American doctors said they would either perform the diagnosis or refer them to a physician who would. Civil rights activists have rightly condemned abortion based on gender around the world and we should be equally outraged by the blatant misogyny this study suggests.

Back to the Future?

Postmodernists themselves recognize the potential cost of their anti-humanistic denial of objective human value. Kenneth Gergen concedes,

Postmodernism has often been viewed as morally bankrupt because it fails to profess any fundamental values or principles. More forcefully put, postmodernism fails to offer arguments against Nazism or any other forms of cultural tyranny.27

Gergen's point is grossly understated. In point of fact, there are dangerous historical and conceptual connections between postmodern antihumanism and fascism.28

Summary: Comparing Worldviews

Fascism Postmodernism

  • Humans as social constructs
  • No objectivity
  • Appeal to the pragmatic

Having illustrated postmodern sentiment and language in current discussions of genetics, we now turn to a brief analysis of the commonality between postmodern anthropology and folkism-the ideological basis for German fascism.

In his sobering and timely essay, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism,"29 George Stein states,

German philosophic romanticism was a xenophobic...reaction against the idea of 'man' as a species. Rather, 'men' participated in life or had their being through a unique natural and cultural identity. Folkism was established as both a philosophical ideology and as a political movement.30

For folkism, human value and human rights were associated with cultural identity just as it is for contemporary postmodernism. There simply are no inalienable rights, because there is no universal human essence. And individualism was also a myth for folkism in much the same way it is for contemporary postmodernists. Again citing Stein,

Man is a social species. Individualism is an illusion. . .each individual is subordinate to the social body of which he is a member.31

Individuals, therefore, possess value as they take their place in culture. This raises two questions. First, what is "culture"; and second, what does it mean to have a place in culture? Early fascists found the question of culture easy enough to define: Aryan folkism. And in the post World War I era, when Germany was searching for some way to regroup, folkism provided the rallying point. As to what it meant to have a place in folkish society, that was another matter. Stein points out,

Without human essentialism, folkish standards came to define normative humanity at the exclusion of other races, and even many within the race. [German social darwinist Ernst] Hackel and others were thus willing to argue that we must assign a totally different value to their lives. 32

Ideology alone could not accomplish the folkish ideal of the German Aryan state. But what if folkish romanticism and Aryan superiority were scientifically true? This was the claim of the German social darwinists and the basis for the Nazi eugenics program. It was a scientific application to what postmodernists today call "social constructivism." Social undesirables--those who did not fit the folkish ideal--were considered genetically inferior. As such they had a responsibility to die. As Haeckel states, "Hundreds of thousands of incurables--lunatics, lepers, people with cancer--are artificially kept alive without the slightest profit to themselves or the general body." 33

A growing number are expressing concern that the same ruthless pragmatism can easily be cultivated in today's multi billion dollar genetics revolution. Arbitrarily assigning value to human life and scientific justification for social engineering is not merely a folkish matter. As we have seen, Americans today have indicated some of the same tendencies. And as economic and social pressures merge with various prejudices, postmodern constructivism provides a compelling basis for weeding out or altering so called "undesirable traits" of the gene pool. Some have considered proposals to treat medically, people who carry the alleged "violence gene,"34 since reform is considered unlikely. The Bell Curve, written by two widely respected scientists (one a Harvard researcher), argues for a social policy that curbs efforts to educate many poor people based on their presumed limited genetic potential.35 In a disturbing and woefully underreported trend, corporations are showing an increased willingness to do genetic screening on their employees to identify factors that might make them less productive or expensive to insure.36

We are entering into a new age in the struggle for human rights. The secular world view, rooted in naturalism and postmodern constructivism have little room for the inherent dignity of man. It is a culture without anchor, adrift in what Gergen has called "the tyrannies of rhetoric."37 Apart from the image of God in all people, there is little reason to resist the current momentum toward social engineering. Christians must take a stand as we did with abolition and child labor, and as many continue to do against abortion, as humanists in the rich, biblical sense of the term.


1. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 272.

2. George Barna, The Barna Report: What Americans Believe (Ventura: Regal Books, 1991), 112.

3. See Lynne Cheney's report to congress as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1992.

4. For an introduction to postmodern thought and its affects on a wide spectrum of contemporary society, see Dennis McCallum, Ed., The Death of Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996).

5. Medieval epistemology can be summarized in Anselm's dictum, "I believe so that I may understand."

6. For an excellent discussion of American individualism, see Robert Bellah, et. Al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

7. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 228, 229.

8. See David Michael Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (New York: Routledge, 1988), 405-08.

9. See Jim Leffel, "Postmodernism and the Myth of Progress," in Dennis McCallum ed, The Death of Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), 45-57.

10. Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993) 233,4.

11. Harvey Lodish, "Viewpoint: The Future" in Science, 267:1609.

12. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Animals-Patentability (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademrak Office, April 7, 1987), cited in Kimbrell, 199.

13. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 199.

14. Kimbrell states, "It is important ot note that, as described in the last two chapters, current U.S. patent law makes patenting human embryos perfectly legal." The Human Body Shop, 223.

15. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 212.

16. Cited in Andrew Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 127.

17. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr, in Marvin Kohl, ed., Beneficient Euthanasia (Promethius Books, 1975).

18. Kimbrell uses these terms to describe both the rhetoric and the emerging biopolicy surrounding genetic research and technology.

19. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 228.

20. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 290.

21. William Ryan, "Poll Shows Strong Opposition to Embryo Research Funding," United States Catholic Conference News, July 25, 1995.

22. David Hirsch, The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz (Hanover: Brown University Press, 1991), 165.

23. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 290.

24. Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 124.

25. Gina Kolata, "Fetal Sex Test Used as Step to Abortion," New York Times (December 25, 1988), A1.

26. Cited in Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 123.

27. Gergen, The Saturated Self, 231.

28. See Gene Edward Veith, Today's Fascism (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1993).

29. George Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism," American Scientist, 76:50-58.

30. Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism," 53.

31. Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism," 56.

32. Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazism," 55.

33. Cited in Stein, "Biological Science and the Roots of Nazis," 54.

34. The brochure for a conference dealing with violence, sponsored in part by the NIH, but cancelled after substantial protest, states: "Researchers have already begun to study the genetic regulation of violent and impulsive behavior and to search for genetic marekers associated with criminal conduct. Their work is motivated in part by the early success. . . on the genetics of behavioral and psychiatric conditions like alcoholism and schizophrenia. But genetic research also gains impetus from the apparent failure of environmental approaches to crime--deterrence, diversion and rehabilitation--to affect the dramatic increases in crime, especially violent crime that this country has experienced over the last 30 years. Genetic research holds out the prospect of identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct. . .and of treating some predisposition's with drugs and unintrusive therapies." (Italics added). Cited in Kimbrell, The Human Body Shop, 258.

35. See Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: The Reshaping of American Life by Differences in Intelligence (New York: Free Press, 1994).

37. Gergen, The Saturated Self, 229.