Where do we draw the line between enhancement and hubris? As technologies become more complex, that decision must be made not only individually, but collectively. That’s because the complexity of undertakings like space exploration and stem cell research require tremendous investment. It takes the collective resources of an entire nation to reach another planet, but the collective pursuit of complex technologies means that many individuals in a society end up supporting technologies (through taxes) that they do not individually support. Supporting, through our tax dollars, massive programs we disagree with is surely one of the most frustrating aspects of our current form of government. Most Americans, for instance, oppose the war in Iraq, and yet billions of their tax dollars are being siphoned into that endeavor every week.
Commitments like landing a human on Mars suck billions of dollars from education, environment, and other social concerns (NASA’s 2007 budget is $16.8 billion per year.) Similarly, we can choose individually not to engage in < a xhref= http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stem_cell>stem cell research, but collectively we have crossed the line and accepted the use of early stage human embryos for purely technical purposes, and we pour billions of dollars into this technology every year.
Like space exploration and stem cell research, nanotechnology and biotechnology require huge amounts of capital to deliver successful outcomes. The average biotech product, for example, takes an astounding $1.2 billion to develop. We must decide collectively as a society whether or not to pursue them because only collectively can we muster the resources needed to pursue them. Some technologies, like human cloning, we have said no to, but others move forward regardless of whether or not you or I believe they are the right thing to do.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a good example. It is virtually impossible to avoid their use, regardless of individual preference. The collective decision has been made to use them, and while certified organic foods are required in principle to be GMO-free, GMOs have been found in supposedly GMO-free markets. As with GMOs, the complexity of nanotechnology and biotechnology take many decisions about their use out of the hands of the general public and place them in the hands of scientists and politicians.