The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate?

Kass, Leon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: Nov-01-2001


Referring to Francis Bacon's 17th-century definition of modern science as the conquest of nature "for the relief of man's estate," Kass looks with concern at the ironic possibility that future advances in medical science and technology may lead to the significant diminishing of humankind. Thus he asks, what price will we wind up paying for medical progress? Kass is concerned about the disconnect between modern medicine, with its powers to extend our controls over life and death and over many human potentials, and, on the other hand, traditional social and individual values.

He argues particularly for serious consideration of values in three areas: (1) distributive justice (which for Kass is, finally, the question as to who shall do the distributing), (2) the "use and abuse of power" (in which he focuses on the process by which power over nature becomes turned into power of some humans over others), and (3) "voluntary self-degradation and dehumanization" (two major concerns being the concept of the optimum baby and the development of technologies of pleasure).


This broadly philosophical essay provides a thoughtful and provocative introduction to the troubled relations between science, politics, and values. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is Kass's fictional Exhibit number 1, as it were, and his expert witness is C. S. Lewis, whose The Abolition of Man he refers to frequently. Of the manufactured (more-or-less cloned) human members of Huxley's five castes, Lewis says, "They are not human at all."

Kass's approach is cautious, even conservative, akin to traditional religious views like Lewis's that warn against trespassing on divine territory. (Mary Shelley, of course, expressed the same idea in her novel, Frankenstein.) Kass's essay is still interesting the way Huxley's novel is, because in the time since it was written the issues he explores have become more pressing.


Kass holds M.D. and Ph.D. degrees (the latter in biochemistry) and is the Addie Clark Harding Professor of The Committee on Social Thought and the College, at The University of Chicago. He chairs the recently constituted presidential Council on Bioethics to oversee human stem cell research, and is the co-author, with James Q. Wilson, of The Ethics of Human Cloning (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1998).

Primary Source

Science, 174 (19 Nov 1971): 779-788


American Association for the Advancement of Sience

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