We can, but should we?

Monster >noun 1 a large, ugly, and frightening imaginary creature. 2 an inhumanly cruel or wicked person. 3 [before another noun] informal extraordinarily large.
-ORIGIN Latin monstrum ‘divine portent or warning, monster’, from monere ‘warn’ (from the Oxford Dictionary)

In 1973, there was a television show called “The Six Million Dollar Man” and that was followed by a spin-off “The Bionic Woman” (Lindsay Wagner playing Jaime Sommers”. In 1987, there was “Robocop”. In “The Six Million Dollar Man”, the hero, Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, a test pilot who is severely injured in a horrendous crash of a plane. Some mysterious government agency says “we can rebuild him – we have the technology.” This same agency was responsible for creating Jaime Sommers. In “Robocop”, which is set some time in the future, a cop, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is injured and again he is rebuilt by not a government agency, but a private corporation. What these three, Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers and Alex Murphy, have in common is that they are cyborgs – cybernetic organisms – in other words a hybrid of electronic, mechanical and human parts.

All this is preamble to this piece. I was watching a show called “Man Made Monsters”, which dealt with attempts by various government agencies to develop some form of hybrid creature for espionage or warfare. The early part of the show dealt with attempts to turn animals into spies. One early failed attempt in the 1960’s was with a cat. The programme showed a page from the proposal which contained three words that told me it wasn’t going to work. The three words were “train a cat”. If you’ve ever had a cat as houseguest (cats are never pets – they’re too independent for that) you know the impossibility of training them. The CIA surgically implanted a microphone and transmitter in the cat. The plan was to release it near the Soviet Embassy in Washington to eavesdrop on conversations taking place. That plan fell apart within ten minutes when the cat bolted, ran into traffic and was killed by a car. In the years since the acoustic cat, “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Robocop”, technology has improved to the point where the required components have gotten much, much smaller and it would now be possible to actually create these two cyborgs.

As part of the programme, doctors from many different disciplines were interviewed and they all said words that were a variation on a theme: We can do it, but should we? This is not an easy question to answer for there are ethical, moral and political considerations to be examined. Morally, what gives any person, or agency, or government the right to take a human being and turn them into what is in essence a monster? Who are we to play God by creating these new lifeforms?

Ethically, the same questions arise, especially among the medical community. How can any medical person take part in such a procedure – using electronic and/or mechanical devices to enhance a human body – and still adhere to the promise contained in the Hippocratic Oath “first, do no harm”? I don’t know about you, but I would think implanting such devices in a human body, other than to repair or replace a damaged limb, is harmful.

Politically such procedures would be extremely sensitive. On the international level, presuming any government is able to avoid the ethical and moral questions, doing so would cause another, much more horrifying and monstrous arms race. Using the argument “the other guy is doing it, so we have to” to quash any internal dissent each side would, or could, develop ever more grotesque and frightening entities, each less human than the one that preceded it.

Another school of thought is that we should just because we can. Right. What could possibly go wrong? We can shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, to use a common illustration, but we shouldn’t because the resultant panic would cause injury and possible fatalities. We can drive through a school zone at twice the posted limit, but we shouldn’t because of the possibility of hitting a child. We can drink too much, then get behind the wheel of a car, but we shouldn’t because we’d be a hazard not only to ourselves, but to everybody else on or near the street. We can do these things, after all, what could possibly go wrong, but common sense dictates that we shouldn’t. What makes creating cyborgs any different?

We’ve all seen movies where robots/cyborgs rebel against their human masters and take over the world, but they’re fiction, right? Uh huh, In 1979, “The China Syndrome” was released. You may have seen this movie with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon. A reactor core melts down. The name “China syndrome” comes from the theory that a reactor core that melts down would be so hot it would melt its way through the earth to China. The movie was fiction. But just after it was released, well, perhaps the name Three Mile Island means something to you. A nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania had a meltdown and suddenly what was fiction in a theatre was fact in the headlines of newspapers everywhere. Again I ask, what could possibly go wrong?

“The Six Million Dollar Man”, “The Bionic Woman”, “Robocop” and the Terminator are all fictional characters from television or film. To use the line from “The Six Million Dollar Man”, we can rebuild him, we have the technology.” But, as the scientists have said “yes, we can do it, but should we?”

Gene manipulation is one other area where we need to ask “should we?”. Foods have been genetically modified for various reasons – resistants to pesticides, or to produce more food from a single creature. Opponents of such practices refer to these goods as “frankenfoods”. My question this: what are the long term effects on the human body of ingesting these modified organisms? Does anyone really know? We know what the companies engaging in this research tell us, but they have a vested interest in getting us to accept them. Another area of gene manipulation is referred to as “designer babies”, where you can specify such things as eye and hair colour, body type and even projected IQ? Once again, I ask we can, but should we?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know we should look at all the implications before we do answer it.