There are so many TED talks that inspire and amaze me, I forget that the “T” stands for “technology.” I am no luddite, but this conversation has me spooked. Martine Rothblatt founded Sirius XM and generally has a Midas touch with business. As the highest paid CEO in the country, s/he’s also an articulate spokesperson for gender fluidity, having embraced her female identity at age 40 while remaining married to her soulmate for over 30 years. Her story includes a heartstrings-tugging foray into the pharmaceutical industry. Determined to help their daughter survive a fatal diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension, Rothblatt bought a drug patent from Glaxo and set up manufacture herself.
One thing led to another and now s/he and her wife are working with genetic scientists to alter the DNA of pigs, so they can “grow” human lungs for transplant. This is straight out of Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam Trilogy, except Atwood’s animals were “pigoons,” crosses of pigs with baboons. It’s so similar, I do wonder who got the idea from whom. Rothblatt also has a foundation that researches the uploading of human consciousness into computers, and implanting the data into robots that can “learn.” S/he and her wife plan to be cryogenically frozen together. S/he calls herself a “transhumanist.” In the vein of Ray Kurzweil and Singularity, these people are after nothing short of human immortality through technology.
The hubris is astounding. First is the assumption that humans deserve to be immortal. Followed by the conclusion that it’s fine to alter DNA of other animals to suit our purposes. On Rothblatt’s Wikipedia page, it says s/he actually got a PhD in bioethics in 2001 from a London university. Rothblatt’s thesis, “defended before England’s leading bioethicist John Harris, was later published by Ashgate House under the title Your Life or Mine.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t find it terribly ethical to grow humans organs in pigs.
The fluidity of gender begs the question: what does it mean to “be female?” I’ve written before about the need to integrate male and female energies, psychologically. That’s not the same as becoming transgendered, I realize. Rothblatt herself says this is far from being about physical features. It’s about what’s inside. And about identity.
I tend to see feminine energy as embracing feeling, emotion and intuition, not as mere attributes, but as ways of knowing. I’m certain that Rothblatt is intuitive. You don’t reach that level of success in business without having an active imagination and asking “what if?” a lot. So where does the permission to tamper with life’s sacred codes come in?
Her story is nothing if not appealing. A full house cheers and stands and applauds her in the TED talk. This genetic engineering of pigs to grow human lungs for transplant sounds terrific to parents and spouses, people who love other people. Her story makes it sound inevitable and right. Her daughter’s life is threatened, so she takes steps to save her. And she does save her, as well as thousands of other victims of so-called “orphan” diseases that the drug companies won’t touch. What parent would be willing to sacrifice their child’s life for an abstract concept like “the sanctity of all Life?” Oh, and by the way, that drug makes an annual profit of over $1 billion. Not bad for a day’s work.
This is Greek, this is Shakespearean, story material. Life and death, parents and children. Humans triumphing over an evil disease. Over Nature herself. (Take that, Nature!) We eat this up. It’s the guiding narrative of our time. Who am I to suggest it needs to change? I am whispering into a gale.
And yet. This technology-can-save-us ideology is one of the original, and most appealing, arguments that I learned for green building back in the 1990s when it was entering a more mainstream phase. The pitch goes like this: humans are too smart and too clever to keep building the energy-wasting crap we’ve been doing for the last 50-odd years. We know how to build with far less impact. “We have the technology.” It’s even a nice echo with the opening sequence of the 1970s TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I’m dating myself here, but I still have it memorized: “We can make him better than he was. Better. Stronger. Faster.”
We’ve been on this track ever since. Rothblatt and her ventures are a measure of how profoundly disconnected we are from the natural order of this planet. An order that, by the way, includes the cycle of life and death. Maybe it’s no surprise that Rothblatt is the founder of satellite media companies. Both TV and radio are excellent means of tuning out the wider community of life in favor of steeping solely in, and being surrounded by, all things human-centric and human-made. In this echo chamber, we can make everything over in our image. Including using other species as farmer’s fields to grow human organs.
Rothblatt kept saying, this is about love. And that s/he and her wife are so in love, such soulmates, that they want to be together not only in this life but in the future. After uploading their consciousness into a computer and being frozen. This is mythic stuff. A Cyber Adam and Eve. The First Couple of Singularity. Interestingly, Ray Kurzweil is also after immortality, so he can bring his father back from the dead. Seems like a lot more trouble than a few years with a good therapist.
And yet. I have to wonder, who is this “us” that technology is going save? Is it every mother/father’s child? Or just those who have the money to afford it? In Atwood’s dystopian future, there was a clear division between the haves and the have-nots. The haves lived in walled, guarded compounds with their net-zero-energy houses, solar panels, and genetic engineering—all the latest technologies to prolong life and to live well, whatever that means. The have-notes were relegated to squalid cities, roving gangs, and a greasy fast food chain that serves burgers made from ground-up whatever, including human flesh.
It’s all about love, Martine Rothblatt and the transhumanists say. Love of humans, to the exclusion of all other life. And love of certain humans, to the exclusion of the ones without money. When we hear the word, “love,” we perk up, our eyes mist over. Of course! Who can disagree with that? And yet.