Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)

Maxwell J. Mehlman ’70

By Caitlin Baggott ’99

In 1987, my best friend curled up on the girls’ bathroom tiles with a wrenching pain in her gut and a raging fever. Her back-to-the-land parents refused medicine that might weaken the species. No eyeglasses, vaccines, or Tylenol. But that afternoon, her father drove her to the hospital for a lifesaving appendectomy. It ended her parents’ marriage.

Transhumanist Dreams

Similar cases have reached courts all over the country in the last few years. Is there a difference between idealistic hippies who resist medical intervention and religious fundamentalists who believe medicine defies the doctrine of their church? What about parents who seek new medical advantages for their children, but in doing so risk their child’s life?

This is the world of inquiry and case law from which Max Mehlman, professor of law and biomedical ethics and codirector of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University, conducts his exploration of how our current legal and ethical structures prepare us (or, perhaps more accurately, don’t prepare us) for genetic engineering in humans.

Transhumanist Dreams explores the promise and the perils of genetic engineering. Mehlman draws on the manifestos of idealistic transhumanists, who believe we can enhance human intelligence, eliminate pain and aging, and reduce our environmental impact. He also plumbs the depths of horrific social inequality, unintended medical consequences, and corporate incentives to control human evolution portrayed in science fiction.

Mehlman’s treatment of the topic is even-handed, provocative, and highly readable. He makes the case that human genetic engineering is inevitable, as are the mistakes that might imperil one child or the entire species. Are we prepared for these mistakes? Mehlman sets the table for lawmakers and thought leaders to look squarely at the risks we face, and to begin addressing the many questions he asks.