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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Back ... for the moment

Well, here I am - safely back from Newcastle - but I'll be driving to Canberra in a couple of days.

I'll post a few photos from the Newcastle trip when I get a chance. Some of them look pretty good.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Running round the countryside

I spent a few days in Canberra for Conflux, and now I'm driving up to Newcastle with Jenny in a two days' time. I seem to have a rare free week, which means I must make use of it to catch up with my folks, whom I haven't seen for months (and Jenny is in pretty much the same boat).

After that, I get back on 30 June, but need to turn around pretty quickly and zoom straight back up to Canberra on 2 July for another week (for various reasons I do want to touch base at home ... inefficient as all this seems). I'll be attending the AAP conference, where I'll be delivering a version of my "sinning against nature" paper. I'm tempted to fly for some of this, but I don't mind driving these relatively short distances, and I find it's so much handier to have my own car at the other end, crammed with all the odds and ends that I like to take with me.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

So many books, so little time

I'm reading about four books at once, right now. "About" four because I'm more than halfway through Simon Young's Designer Evolution and Stephen Wilkinson's Bodies for Sale, and a bit bogged down in Jeff McMahan's The Ethics of Killing. I'm just about to start Bruce Sterling's new collection, Visionary in Residence, which I've been asked to review. I'll need to concentrate on it before I can finish the others. There are actually some others that I need to get back to, but I'll probably have to start from the beginning.

The books by Wilkinson and McMahan are treasure troves, but they demand slow, thoughtful reading and copious note taking.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Walters and Palmer on genetic enhancement

LeRoy Walters and Julie Gage Palmer's The Ethics of Human Gene Therapy (1997) includes one of the best discussions of the prospect of genetic enhancement that I've encountered to date. I've been rereading this over the past few days, and found this passage which really says it all, and highlights the difference between people who broadly favour changing human nature, and human capacities, and those who "don't get it". Here is what they say (it deserves quoting at some length):

"... a particular perspective on human nature clearly underlies our moral judgments about genetic enhancement. We are dissatisfied with and critical of certain aspects of the human condition as we see it reflected in the world around us and as we experience it. In the physical sphere, we regard disease and disability as evils that should be overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the intellectual and moral sphere we have also identified serious problems that should be addressed in multiple ways, one of which is the judicious use of genetic technologies. We think that a certain dissatisfaction with human nature as it has developed and as we have inherited it is a prerequisite for intervention to improve human nature. Also implicit in the notion of genetic enhancement is a dynamic rather than a static view of human nature. While there are historical and evolutionary reasons for human nature's being as it is, we do not view the human race as being fated to accept the current state of affairs. Rather, we accept the possibility of change in human nature and have tried to argue for the ethical acceptability of certain kinds of planned changes in the characteristics of future human beings. In our view, such genetic enhancements are an important part of the overall task of attempting to provide a better life and a better world to our descendants." (page 133)

Unusually for me, I find I totally agree with this passage. Note that nothing here denies that we might, in practice, need to be very cautious about attempting genetic enhancement, or that there might be practical and ethical problems that are crucial barriers to particular experiments. The focus of the passage is on the big picture: that we do not have to take human nature as we find it.

I often make the point that we can never entirely step out of our own nature. This applies at both the individual level and the species level. If, for example, I am dissatisfied with some aspect of my own personality, and find it a barrier to achieving my goals, that is because it conflicts with desires that are themselves a product of my personality. As it happens, I am rather shy in social situations, a trait which I find annoying and frustrating - other aspects of my personality would better suited if I were less self-conscious and wary of others, a bit more extroverted, more relaxed about how others see me, and even able to be a bit more "pushy", etc., without embarrassment and the awkwardness that can go with it. However, all this is a problem only because it conflicts with the desires I actually have (although I find it difficult, I actually want to be gregarious and find social occasions energising, rather than emotionally draining, and to have the advantages of finding it easy to "network", and so on). I don't wish to jettison my entire personality and start again, just tweak aspects that don't fit well with my conscious desires - desires to be a certain way and to do, and enjoy, certain things.

There is no standard entirely external to us by which we are compelled to make changes to ourselves, but nor have our natures (as individuals or as a species) been designed for perfect harmony. At the individual level, we are the products of the genetic lottery and more-or-less chance occurrences in the process of socialisation as we've individually encountered it. There is no reason why our abilities and personalities should be expected to line up neatly with our desires or purposes. At the level of the species, we are a product of biological evolution that had no conscious goal. We have simply inherited genes that happened to confer more reproductive fitness than did their rivals in the environment of human evolutionary adaptedness. There is no reason to believe that they were the best genes for our ancestors' conscious happiness, let alone that they are best for our conscious pursuit of happiness, or whatever other conscious desires we have, in modern environments.

What we must concede is that it will be difficult to improve on what evolution has given us - not because we are perfectly designed by its processes but because we still have so much to learn about ourselves. For example, the underlying biological bases of our social nature need to be understood in much more depth before we take action that might hinder their operation. Accordingly, I am all for proceeding with caution and accepting that we may not see much change to human nature in our own lifetimes.

That acknowledged, it remains to be emphasised that we are conscious beings whose desires, purposes, and values go far beyond, and may even conflict with, reproductive fitness and with some aspects of our natures that once served it. If there is a genuine choice between maintaining our evolved physical and psychological nature as it is and tweaking it to something more conducive to getting what we consciously want for ourselves, then I'm all for doing the tweaking. On that point of principle, I am in good company with Walters and Palmer.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Back from Conflux

Last night, I returned to Melbourne from the Canberra science fiction convention, Conflux. I've been gradually getting better over the last few days, despite the temptation to dance and party in the evenings. I even had some good vibes and energy for the disco on the last night - at which Sean Williams did the DJ thing with his usual enthusiasm.

It was great to catch up with lots of people from the sf/fantasy part of my world, especially Ellen Datlow, whom I hadn't seen since 2003 (though there are never enough chances to talk at these things, at least not unless you're better than a relatively shy and non-pushy person like me at grabbing people and making time).

The reading on Saturday night was a highlight. Ahem, shameless self-congratulation follows. I sometimes forget that my own fiction, which I tend to be modest about, does have its strengths. The textures, images, and rhythms come out strongly - at least for me - when I read it aloud. I wonder how many of my readers ever actually notice how much trouble I go to in that sense. I may draft and redraft a paragraph literally dozens of times to (try to) achieve the effect I want. Jack Dann is about the only person who has commented on the rhythms, though Simon Brown has been very kind about my attempts to make characters pop out of the page. That's what you want as a writer - to use language to make character, and the viewpoint characters' streams of inner experience, vividly present to your audience. Make it real, and make 'em care.

But perhaps it's not such a good thing if readers are too consciously aware of the linguistic construction by which it's achieved - as long as the poetry of the language is working for them at some level.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Tough week here

I've been sick as a dog all week - a savage attack of the bacterial chest infection that has hit me on and off since 1989, when a whole bunch of us first came down with the same thing at a convention in Perth. I've spent most of my time in bed, coughing up seemingly unlimited quantities of Exorcist-style green slime, and generally feeling sorry for myself. It's even triggered off some Grover's Disease - a nasty skin rash that I used to get but haven't suffered for two or three years. Damn it!

Thankfully, a lot of rest and antibiotics have got me in reasonable shape to drive to Canberra today for the sf convention Conflux, for which I am fairly heavily programmed. There's no way I could have done that a couple of days ago.

I did manage to drag myself out of bed at 3.30 a.m. this morning (bear in mind that I live a lifestyle that normally allows me to indulge the "I am not a morning person" take on life to the hilt). This was to attend the virtual-reality Uvvy Island launching. Unfortunately, I wasn't up to staying for long, and we were still having some technical problems with the sound when I left. I guess I'll hear how it all ended up. I did take a couple of pics, which I just published in a separate blog entry.

Okay - now to brace myself for the seven-or-eight-hour drive (and Jenny will share the driving, so it won't be that bad really). I do feel a lot better now, after going back to bed and getting a few more hours of sleep, and a helluva lot better than just a couple of days ago. Thank the gods for modern medicine.

Uvvy Island launching- a couple of pics


Friday, June 02, 2006

Transhumanism featured at Wikipedia


The article on transhumanism, which I worked on heavily as one of the three main contributors in recent months, is today's featured article on the main page of the English language version of Wikipedia. It's nice to see the article finally making it there.

I wonder how many people actually look at the day's featured article each day. A lot of people might read about transhumanism for the first time as a result of this, though they may also have very varied reactions to what they read.