Discovering The New Atlantis
Reading the new bioconservative journal
virtual cover to virtual cover can cause a sinking feeling
Monday, June 09, 2003, 6:59:57 AM CT
As if the GOP right needed it, it looks as if
there's a journal to back up what impartial, disinterested and
objective people such as me have defined as the brain dead and
backwards science policies of the Bush administration.
The New Atlantis.
As you might imagine, a policy magazine that
attempts to defend this current corrupt administration isn't exactly
taking in all the data. It's full of contradictions, if not outright
misrepresentations and possibly even lies.
Inside the enemy's mind
The journal launched this spring, and has
since received much attention from bioliberals, especially
transhumanists, who point to it as a
peak inside the enemy's mind.
Its stated goals are to help "clarify the
nation's moral and political understanding of all areas of
technology -- from stem cells to hydrogen cells to weapons of mass
destruction," and to address questions surrounding technology and
"human nature" (whatever that means) and how government should
The name comes from
a 1627 parable by Francis Bacon, the founder of modern science.
While editors of The New Atlantis claim that Bacon's tale
"hints at some of the dilemmas that arise with the ability to remake
and reconfigure the natural world," critics of the journal's name
point out that Bacon was actually an advocate of scientific and
technological progress, and that his story New Atlantis is a
tale of a utopian society in which human life is radically improved
through the application of science.
But that's just the beginning of the
Placating Emperor Bush
Why, just scan the shorter bits in The New
Atlantis for evidence of this. How can anyone
write about the
Microsoft case without talking about how
Microsoft essentially bribed the Republicans? Is that the
mediocre role of the
boorish pro-Republican intelligentsia? To ignore the obvious?
Or how do you quote
President Bush talking about the last shuttle tragedy without
mentioning that he's done nothing for the space program, other than
militarizing it and
threatening Europe and Russia if they dare to exploit the stars
in their own interests? Are those small factors? That Bush speech,
unedited, amounts to little more than a prayer, not policy analysis.
Don't get me wrong, there are some moments of
Scott Gottlieb's piece on the future of biotech actually yielded
an interesting speculation or two, for example, and
Christine Rosen's piece on genetic profiling is pretty much on
the mark, and doesn't feel at all feel like propaganda or an
argument for a conclusion that you already know.
Also, the level of writing is very high.
The New Atlantis's editors are clearly going for an academic
tone, as opposed to the breezy pop journalism that Betterhumans or
its diabolical evil twin
Tech Central Station might be accused of.
From the desk of Leon Kass
At its worst, however, The New Atlantis
is what we should fear, a kind of ideological underpinning for its
first issue's lead speaker, Leon Kass, a man justifiably loathed by
bioliberals. (By the way, if I didn't know better I'd say he's
reading Betterhumans. "And may our children and grandchildren
continue to reap their ever tastier fruit -- but without succumbing
to their seductive promises of a perfect, better-than-human future,
in which we shall be as gods, ageless and blissful," is how he
starts off his speech. How flattering.)
Charles Rubin's piece, the worst of the lot, features attacks
Ray Kurzweil and
Hans Moravec that are wrongheaded and
condescending, and don't seem to have anything to do with science,
other than the fact that Rubin doesn't like their conclusions.
He also mischaracterizes their perspectives.
Hans Moravec is horrified by what Rubin refers to as "extinctualism."
Moravec talks about the
technological singularity with all
the joy that a patient feels when he's told he has terminal cancer.
He doesn't predict it with a breathless
Wired-style glee, he simply thinks that's how it will end,
artificial intelligences triumphant.
Likewise, Kurzweil isn't some shrill cheerleader. His position, as I
understand it, is that we should evolve and merge with our machines.
Or as I once put it, "We become Data and Data becomes us, or else."
You, Mr. Rubin, may find this all distasteful
and bad. It should be your choice to become obsolete and die in what
you define as a timely fashion, no doubt fully embracing Leon's
"finitude." But please allow grownups to make their own choices.
Contradictions and hypocrisies
But that's not the biggest problem I see in
creating a science policy magazine that advances the Bush
administration. For me, it has to do with the administration's
hypocrisy, as it has no problem supporting controversial
applications of technology that support its interests.
Why haven't Kass and the Bush administration
come out against genetically modified foods, for example, instead of
suing the EU over them and blackmailing African countries to take
Take Jeremy Rifkin, for example (please).
He's often used by the right anti-tech side during their jihads
against stem cell research. But at least Rifkin is consistent,
opposes GM foods and doesn't take lots of bribe money from Big
I'm probably the only Betterhumans columnist
who sympathizes with the EU on the GM issue. I look at this issue
not so much as a matter of science, but
a matter of choice. As I understand it, the EU isn't looking at
a ban, but simply wants labeling so citizens can choose. It seems as
if the crux of our argument is choice. But that also means
respecting the choices of those who don't make the same choice.
There may be people who don't want the ebony rhino horn grown upon
their foreheads. I think those hornless people have bad taste, but
they should always have that choice to go without.
What I don't get is the Bush administration's
choice. Here it is at the forefront of the stop-embryonic-stem-cell
research debate, and yet that's a science whose implications have
yet to be felt. Meanwhile, we're already eating GM foods and quite
we're the experiments. My every reading of Kass -- the
sentiment, the self-righteousness, this longing to maintain
courtship and this romantic notion of the past -- says that he
should be against GM foods for the very same reasons that he's
against stem cell research. I suppose I could coyly hint at the
answer but let me state bluntly that it has to do with the
perverse influence of Big Money on the Republican Party and the
whorish enthusiasm to serve its well-funded donors.
Irrelevant and preachy
On the whole, I find the enterprise to be
somewhat irrelevant and preachy, which is probably what I should
expect from the journal's editor, Eric Cohen, a
Weekly Standard alumnus. Here is a man who has been quoted
as saying that he wants "a
role for religion in public life."
I'm sure that's what science needs, just a
touch of Wiccan lore added to that proteomic mix, or quantum
computing spells conjured up by the dead Warlock Aleister Crowley
(death shouldn't stop him), or Hare Krishna chants thrown in with
your GPS tracking or imaginary beings in the sky who watch over your
particle acceleration runs and yet have time to talk to Jerry
Falwell and Pat Robertson about their money problems. Thanks for
To illustrate just how absurd this kind of
thinking is, imagine if it were applied to computer technology. So
and so, from the far right conservative position, thinks that
peer-to-peer and the backspace key should be banned because, to
quote Leon, almost at random, "To the extent that we come to regard
our transformed nature as normal, we shall have forgotten what we
Or another conservative "thinker" believes
that this monstrosity called the graphic user interface must end
for, quoting Leon again, "I have tried to make a case for finitude
and even graceful decline of bodily powers." And this has what to do
And later, we learn that The New Atlantis
board doesn't like the Transmeta chip or the open source philosophy
because they find such notions to be "troubling" or "disturbing" and
against the "natural order."
You might find it funny and oddly
self-righteous, until Leon whispers his "truths" into President
Bush's ear and you find out that you're typing in commands line by
line on a black screen, and you're paying Microsoft a grand for XP
part two and your backspace key has disappeared, much like the US
lead in genomic research may have vanished.
I guess we'll have to fight for a future in
which we can choose antiaging therapies with the same nonchalance
that we choose browsers or Macs instead of PCs. There's no "wrong"
choice in biology or computers, just the choice that best fits you,
rhino horn and all.
That last sentence is my nomination for the
only content that should be in the next issue of The New
Atlantis, but I don't think its board could comprehend it.