Berkeley MVZ

Photo caption: Evolutionary Genetics Lab of MVZ at Berkeley. Photo credit: Unattributed/University of California, Berkeley.


Above: L'Oreal Skin Biology Laboratory, Paris. Credit: Unattributed/L'Oreal.

Washington University

Above: Genomics Laboratory, Washington University, School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Credit: Unattributed/Washington University in St. Louis.

Tokyo lab

Above: Researchers sequencing DNA at University of Tokyo's Institute of Medical Science ("Mycode" initiative). Credit: Kazuaki Nagata.


Above: IRD, Sri Lanka. Credit: IRD.

Genome Editing

It is a fact that via such biotechnologies as the CRISPR-Cas9 system the prospect of genetically modified humans is upon us--and this is a very worrying and unwelcome situation, "the industries of life now offer the possibility of a genetically modified human race, calling into question human born of blood [or egg] and sperm, and therefore the wild, the natural part of humanity." For Virilio, gene-editing technology must be recognized for what it is: the newest chapter in the history of Eugenics (CD: 103-6). Eugenics as set out by Francis Galton in 1883 was a campaign for and effort towards the genetic improvement of humans; the breeding of a best-possible race with compulsory sterilization for those with undesirable genetic traits, etc. Galton's ideas were later taken up and endorsed by the Nazi dictatorship of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Eugenics has long ago been discredited--and is generally reviled--so for Virilio it is puzzling and amazing really that these horrifying ideas are re-emerging rebranded as high-tech medicine. For Virilio the basic position is clear enough: "there is nothing beyond humanity. In this respect humanity is terminal ... humanity cannot be improved. There is no eugenics of the human race (VW: 88)."

In considering the possible emegence of a class of genetically-modified improved-and-enhanced humans, Virilio hightlights the probability of a developing enmity between natural humans and lab-created humans in which "the naturals would become the new savages, with augmented people leading a 'new humanity' shaped less by political totalitarianism than bioengineering ... the mutation of the human species by genetic engineering ... the new humanity desired by the totalitarians has become a techno-scientific reality in its own right! (ADF: 61-62)"

There are plans for a super-race of humans but equally worrying is the potential for the emergence of a sub-class of lesser-humans. The emphasis (of the Eugenicists) was on the creation of a "master race" but the emphasis in our present era will likely be the opposite: the deliberate development of a sub-race of almost-humans produced in labs--with limited brain function and few rights. In other words the creation of a slave class of human-like creatures (CD: 106).

For Virilio, the most shocking and troubling aspect of this topic is the astonishing lack of debate in the face of the very real possibility of the above actually happening. And in this regard genetic scientists are culpable. They are becoming intoxicated by their own discoveries--the rate of experimentation is too hasty and has become hazardous for this reason. There is an urgent requirement to pause-and-reflect for "we have entered the [era of the] accident of knowledge ... science is on the verge of a systemic crash, a philosophical coma (ADF: 76-77)." Above all other factors, there is one stark and obvious public debate that is being avoided in the field of genetic science: what are the limits on being human? At what point does a new category of creature arise? Virilio's point is that surely it is rational and valuable for such debates to take place in advance.

Scientific research was once most definitely involved with a search for truth, in the present era however, scientific research seems to be attached only to a notion of effectiveness. Whether an innovation or procedure will work is the final and sole criteria for conducting experimentation it seems--if it can be done then it will be done (IB: 02). The scene of scientific research was once fueled and propelled forward by rigorous intellectual adventure whereas now today it is fuelled by adventurism that is, a willingness to take potentially hazardous and in fact reckless risks. Like the participant in an extreme sport the research scientist has become addicted to adrenaline--the thrill is in the danger of the activity and nothing but that. In fact, scientific research has become literally a sport--every risk (to the human self; human integrity) is worth taking in pursuit of a personal-best performance. In the era of the popularity of extreme sports, "extreme science" also emerges--the "white-coated adventurer (IB: 2)." Research science has become consumed by excessiveness. The scientific research team is likened to a corrupted Olympic team that is so consumed by the urge for success that the participants will resort to any advantage (such as performance-enhancing drugs, etc.) and so recklessly destroy the integrity of their entire sport (IB: 2). Such researchers are risking a catastrophic collapse of public confidence in all research activities. Research science today is consumed by the dizzying effect--media effect--of the announcement of a new breakthrough, innovation, or discovery. It is this thrill of the announcement which is motivating research scientists and really nothing else (IB: 4). On this topic Virilio frequently recalls a quote attributed to the fifteenth century French thinker Francois Rabelais, "Science without conscience is the death of the soul (IB: 3)."