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   The Choice is Yours
 The Choice
 is Yours

NBICS, Other Convergences, Ableism
and the Culture of Peace

by Gregor Wolbring

April 15, 2007

The concept of a culture of peace is central to UNESCO and the United Nations -- as shown by a 1998 UN resolution (A/Res/52/13, 15 January 1998, paragraph 2 ), the UNESCO Culture of Peace webpage, the Ten Bases For A Culture of Peace  and UNESCO's Pledge for Peace. In April 2007 the UNESCO executive was given a report titled "A Strategic Framework for the Future of the Sciences in UNESCO” (1) which talks about reorienting UNESCO science programs to contribute more to poverty reduction; peace; better living standards (especially for traditionally excluded segments of the population); empowerment of people; dialogue and integration of mainstream science with traditional, local and indigenous sciences of diverse cultures; diversity; sustainability; and distributive justice.

How will the language in the culture of peace documents and the report be interpreted with the interventions made possible by new and emerging technologies? How will the language be used with respect to:

  • the enhancement of animals (2) (which will redefine the relationship between humans and animals);
  • immortality and longevity research (which could lead to intergenerational strife);
  • molecular manufacturing (which will lead to a total collapse of the trade system as we know it today); and
  • new products that can modify the appearance and functioning of the human body beyond existing norms and species-typical boundaries which will lead  to self-identity and ability security problems (see my column on NBICS and Human Security).

Will the report and language of the culture of peace move people to intervene in the nanoscale science and technology arms and military products race that is already developing? (4) So far, policies around new and emerging technologies have failed to establish a culture of peace, poverty reduction, sustainable development, and dialogue among civilizations. Why is that?

I think ableism is at the root of or at least is a major contributing factor to why we do not make much progress in these domains. Many ‘isms’ converge in the concept of ableism, and one has to deal with ableism if one wants to achieve among other things a culture of peace, poverty reduction, a better situation in low income countries, equity and equality for women and other marginalized groups, sustainable development, and a dialogue among civilizations.

The Convergence Concept of Ableism

Ableism is a set of beliefs, processes and practices that produce -- based on our abilities -- a particular understanding of ourselves, our body, and our relationship with others of our species, other species, and our environment. It includes being judged by others. Ableism exhibits a favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as essential while labelling real or perceived deviations from (or lack of) these ‘essential’ abilities as a diminished state. This leads or contributes to the justification of a variety of other isms (5-7).

Every ism has two components: something we cherish and something we do not. The first, second or both parts may be emphasized.

Ableism reflects the sentiment of certain social groups and social structures to cherish and promote certain abilities such as productivity and competitiveness over others such as empathy, compassion and kindness (favouritism of abilities) (5-7).  Ableism and favouritism of certain abilities is rampant today and throughout history. Ableism shaped and continues to shape areas such as human security (3) and social cohesion (8), social policies, relationships among social groups and between individuals and countries, and relationships between humans and non-humans, and humans and their environment.(6) Ableism is one of the most societally entrenched and accepted isms and one of the biggest enablers for other isms (e.g. nationalism, speciesism, sexism, racism, anti-environmentalism, consumerism, GDPism, superiority-ism….). Ableism related to productivity and economic competitiveness is the basis upon which many societies are judged, and it is often seen as a prerequisite for progress.

The direction and governance of science and technology and different forms of ableism have always been inter-related.

Ableism will become more prevalent and severe with the anticipated ability of new and emerging sciences and technologies:

  • to generate human bodily enhancements in many shapes and forms with an accompanying ability divide and the appearance of the external and internal techno poor disabled; (5)
  • to generate, modify and enhance non-human life forms;
  • to separate cognitive functioning from the human body; and
  • to modify humans to deal with the aftermath of anti-environmentalism.

We can already observe a changing perception of ourselves, our body, and our relationships with others of our species, other species and our environment. New forms of ableism are now appearing which are often presented as a solution to the consequences of other ableism based isms (transhumanization of ableism, for example) (5;6). The cognitive enhancement of animals is now seen by some as a way to eliminate certain forms of speciesism. (2) Transhumanization of the human body may be seen as a solution for coping with the climate change. This could become popular if we reach a point where the severe consequences of climate change can no longer be prevented.

The Choice is Yours

Judgment based on abilities is so ingrained in every culture that its use for exclusionary or otherwise negative purposes is seldom questioned or even recognized. In fact, groups who are marginalized due to some form of ableism often use that very sentiment to demand a change in status (we are as able as you are; we can be as able as you are with accommodations).

Dealing with ableism is essential if we want to diminish, reverse, or prevent the conflict that may result from the disruptive potential of many nanoscale science and technology products. Without dealing with the tenets of ableism one can not achieve poverty reduction; peace; better living standards (especially for traditionally excluded segments of the population); empowerment of people; dialogue among civilizations; dialogue and integration of mainstream science with traditional, local and indigenous sciences of diverse cultures; diversity; sustainability; and distributive justice. Without tackling ableism, no real and durable sustainable equity and equality for any country, group, or individual will be achieved.

I propose the new field of Ability Studies (6;7;9-10) under which a variety of issues and groups could converge -- a discipline where the preceding challenges could be studied.

Ability Studies investigates: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which leads to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms; (d) the impact of new and emerging technologies on ableism and consequent favouritism towards certain abilities and rejection of others; and (e) identification of the abilities that would lead to the most beneficial scenario for the maximum number of people in the world.

Ability Studies includes among others:

  • the traditional disabled
  • the techno poor disabled (5;11)
  • people who gain enhancements (9)
  • other non human targets for ability modifications
  • new life forms (12)

and looks at areas such as:

  • ableism supported prejudices
  • ableism differences between cultures
  • ableism-driven judgement of countries
  • ableism and development
  • influence of ableism on numerous concepts such as  biological diversity, cultural diversity, the culture of peace, and interpretation of documents treaties, and laws.

Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology governance researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Disability, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.

Ableism against traditional disabled people

This form of ableism reflects the obsession with Homo sapiens-typical normative body structure and functioning, leading to discrimination against disabled people perceived as impaired or less able.

This type of ableism is supported by the medical, deficiency, impairment categorization of  disabled people (medical model) (6;9;11) and rejects the ‘variation of being’ biodiversity notion/categorization of disabled people (social model). This leads to a focus of ‘fixing’ the person (medical model/medical determinant) or preventing more of such people (medical model/social determinants) and ignores the acceptance and accommodation of such people in their variation of being (social model/social determinant) (6;9).

Ableism against traditional non-disabled people

Ableism has also long been used to justify hierarchies of rights and discrimination between social groups, and the exclusion of people who are not classified as ‘disabled persons’. To give just a few examples…

Sexism has two components. One cherishes a certain sex (usually male) and discriminates against another (usually female). At the end of the 19th Century, women were viewed as biologically fragile and emotional, and thus incapable of bearing the responsibility of voting, owning property, and retaining custody of their own children (14;15). Ableism and favouritism towards certain abilities was and still is used to justify sexism in general and the dominance of males over females in particular.

Racism/Ethnicism has two components. One cherishes, favours one race or ethnic group, and discriminates against another. The Bell Curve (16) used the societal inclination of many to judge human beings based on their ‘cognitive abilities’ (their IQ), promoting racism by claiming that  certain ethnic groups are less cognitively able than others. Without the ableist judgement related to cognitive abilities, the authors would have received no coverage. If they had written about ethnic differences in hair color, or differences in average height, their position would have had much less impact.  Society does not judge people nowadays based on their hair color and average height, therefore differences in hair color or average height can’t be used today for racist arguments.  People are judged based on differences in cognitive abilities, however, making this a useful target for justifying racist arguments.

Caste-ism has two components namely favouritism towards one caste and discrimination against another. In an opinion piece, “The U.N., Racism and Caste – II Opinion: The Hindu, 10 April 2001,” by Gail Omvedt, one reads: “Neither caste as a social system nor ‘racism’ are based on actual biological differences among human beings. Both, though, are systems of discrimination that attribute ‘natural’ or essential qualities to people born in specific social groups. In other words, while caste has nothing to do with ‘race’, the justifications of caste discrimination have a lot to do with the social phenomenon of ‘racism'…For caste, like race, is based on the notion that socially defined groups of people have inherent, natural qualities or ‘essences’ that assign them to social positions, make them fit for specific duties and occupations." The natural inherent qualities are ‘abilities’ which make them fit for specific duties and occupations.

Age-ism reflects the negative labelling and treatment of the elderly. This treatment is the consequence of ‘young-ism’ -- which is favouritism towards the abilities of the young (athleticism vs. wisdom for example).

Other forms of ableism

Transhumanism of ableism (generic form) (6)
The transhumanized form of ableism is a set of beliefs, processes and practices that perceive biological structures as limited, defective and in need of constant improvement, and the improvement of functioning of these biological structures beyond typical boundaries as essential. It favors abilities that transcend the constraints of biological structure.

Transhumanism of ableism related to humans (5-7;11;17)
Until now a non-impaired person has been seen as someone whose body functioning performs within Homo sapiens-typical parameters. This is changing, however. The ability of new science and technology to modify the appearance and functioning of the human body beyond existing normative species-typical boundaries allows for a redefinition of what it means to be non-impaired (9).

One transhumanized form of ableism is the set of beliefs, processes and practices that see the enhancement of human body abilities beyond typical Homo sapiens boundaries as essential. It sees all human bodies as limited, defective and in need of constant improvement. It favors abilities that transcend typical human functioning  and perceives humans as deficient if they are not enhanced.(6) There are three kinds of transhumanization through body ability enhancements:  (a) external -- by shaping the environment (transhumanized social determinants); (b) internal reversal -- by modifying bodily structures in a reversible fashion (transhumanized medical determinant); and (c) internal non-reversal -- by modifying bodily structures in a non-reversible fashion (transhumanized medical determinant). All of these interventions are viewed as therapeutic (transhumanization of medicalization) (9).

Humans have modified their environment for a long time, in order to gain abilities that are not inherent in their body. This ‘ability’ to change the environment (transhuman social determinants) is viewed as the basis for the success of -- and essential for -- the Homo sapiens species (transhumanization of ableism).

However this is no longer seen as sufficient. In tune with the belief that the human body is deficient (transhuman medical model) -- which previously led to the design of external tools to extend the abilities of Homo sapiens (transhuman social determinants) -- we are moving increasingly towards changing the body itself to expand its abilities beyond those that are typical for Homo sapiens (transhuman medical determinant).

Internal transhuman interventions are consistent with the trend towards  medicalization of the human body -- where variations in its structure and functioning are now more often labelled as deviations and diseases -- with the result that ‘healthy’ people feel ‘unhealthy,’ and bad about their bodily structure and functioning’ (2). The transhumanized version of ableism elevates this medicalization dynamic to its ultimate endpoint; namely, to see enhancement beyond species-typical body structures and functioning as a therapeutic intervention (transhumanization of medicalization) (9).

Enhancement medicine is a new field that provides remedy and maintenance through surgery, pharmaceuticals, implants and other bodily interventions. Science and technology is seen as having the potential to free everyone from the "confinement of their genes" (genomic freedom) and the "confinement of their biological bodies" (morphological freedom) through interventions that change bodily structures. External interventions that shape the environment are no longer seen as sufficient (6;9).

Ableism-driven speciesism (6)
Speciesism assigns different values and rights to beings on the basis of their species. Humans are seen as superior to other species due to their exhibition of ‘superior cognitive abilities.' This has led to behaviours where humans deal with other species based on the premise “we can do it, so we do it”.

Transhumanized version of ableism related to non-human species (6)
Another transhumanized version of ableism is the set of beliefs, processes and practices which champions the cognitive enhancement of animal species beyond species typical boundaries, leading to cognitively or otherwise ‘enabled species.’ This is seen as a way to alter the relationship between humans and other species, and to change how non-human species are judged and treated.

This is all to often the approach. Instead of questioning the tenets of ableism, one tries to find ways for a disadvantaged group to become as able. “I can be as able as you are, I am as able as you are” can be heard quite often, and is used here as a solution for the maltreatment of some animals.

This version of ableism favors cognitive abilities. There are other examples.

Besides racism and speciesism, favouritism towards cognitive abilities plays out in the developmental stages of humans whereby humans prior to birth and for a certain period afterwards are seen as not having full human rights due to their lack of certain abilities. Lack of certain cognitive abilities is also used as an argument to deny some rights to ‘cognitively impaired humans.’

This same logic is also evident with respect to artificial intelligence, which may ultimately gain equal status to humans when it is seen as cognitively able. Human rights might then become an obsolete concept, once rights are based not on the fact of being human but on something having a certain level of cognitive abilities (sentient rights). If it is eventually possible to separate cognitive abilities and consciousness from the human biological body, the resulting entity would gain rights by itself -- independent of the body.

Ableism-driven anti-environmentalism (6)
The disregard for nature that most humans show now might reflect another form of ableism: humans are here to use nature as we see fit, as we are superior to nature due to our abilities. We might treat nature better when we can’t treat it badly anymore, due to the ensuing negative consequences for humans. The second report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released on April 6 predicts the ‘highway to extinction’. A third report outlining potential solutions will be released on May 4.

We might see the appearance of a climate change-driven appeal for a transhumanized version of ableism, where transhumanization of humans is seen as a solution for coping with climate change. This could become especially popular if we reach a so-called ‘point of no return,’ where severe climate change consequences can no longer be prevented.

Gross domestic product (GDP)-ism (6)
There are different ways to measure the growth of a society.  For the longest time, growth in GDP has been favoured, while people-based growth, people-centered and sustainable development, social well-being, and quality of life are still neglected. The NSF DoC NBIC report goal of human performance enhancement is linked to increased productivity and GDP-ism.

GDP is used by economists to judge the ‘positive’ advances of an economy but it can’t be used to judge living standards, social development, social well-being and the level of satisfaction of people in a society have with their lives. It does not show the gaps between haves and have-nots.

The inclination towards a GDP-based measure is slowly changing. While we still measure the success of countries based on yearly GDP, we are also seeing greater use of social indicators to measure the social well-being of citizens. A recent (September 2006) Deutsche Bank research paper highlights nicely why  measuring GDP is not enough, and identifies measures that can be used to characterize well-being.

The dimensions of well-being include income, education, health, the role of women, environment, social peace, diversity and welfare. The Deutsche Bank research paper refers to the United Nations’ annual Human Development Index (HDI), the Weighted Index of Social Progress (WISP), the Happy Planet Index (HPI), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), the Economic Living Standard Index (ELSI), and the National Wellbeing Index which is published by a variety of countries.  Korea publishes a comprehensive statistical yearbook which includes 492 social indicators in 13 areas.

According to the research paper, the above measures still do not show how happy people are or how satisfied they are with their lives. It is not surprising that economists predisposed to measuring GDP have different priorities and views of what is needed than people who are focused on social well-being and life satisfaction.

Consumerism is based on the desire to have the ability to consume. This is often linked in North America to the right to choose, and legally it is linked to a negative rights framework (simply put, you should not stop me in my action, but you have no obligation to help me). This form of ableism has an influence on many other isms. It also changes our perception of needs – the notion of human wellbeing and fulfilment of potential is replaced by the right to experience instant gratification.

Superiority-ism -- the obsession with being better than others, with outdoing others, and often with controlling others -- is an entrenched ism within the social framework of how humans treat other humans, other species, and (one could say) even the environment. Superiority-ism uses ableism to justify its claim (I am more able than…therefore…) . The desire to be superior to others often drives ableism.


  1. UNESCO. Report by the Director-General on the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Expert Team on the Overall Review of Major Programmes II AND III. 2007.
  2. Wolbring, G. "Enhancement of Animals." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2007.
  3. Wolbring, G. "Human Security and NBICS." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2006.
  4. Wolbring, G. "NBICS and Military Products." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2007.
  5. Wolbring, G. "Ableism and NBICS." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2006.
  6. Wolbring, G. "What Convergence is in the Cards for Future Scientists?" Conference presentation. Vienna, May 2007.
  7. Wolbring, G. "Ability Studies: The Politics of Ableism." Development 50, 4. 2007.
  8. Wolbring, G, "NBICS and Social Cohesion." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2007.
  9. Wolbring, G. "The Triangle of Enhancement Medicine, Disabled People, and the Concept of Health: A New Challenge for HTA, Health Research, and Health Policy." HTA Initiative #23. ISBN 1-894927-36-2 (Print); ISBN 1-894927-37-0 (On-Line); ISSN: 1706-7855. 2005.
  10. Wolbring, G. "Scoping paper on Nanotechnology and Disabled People." Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University. 2006.
  11. Wolbring, G. "Emerging technologies (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) and the Changing Concepts of Health and Disability/Impairment: A New Challenge for Health Policy, Research and Care Journal of Health and Development (India) 2, 1&2 19-3713. 2006.
  12. Wolbring, G. "Synthetic Biology 2.0." innovationwatch-archive.com. 2006.
  13. Wolbring, G. "Solutions follow perceptions: NBIC and the concept of health, medicine, disability and disease."Health Law Rev 12, 3 41-46. PM:15706707. (2004)
  14. Wolbring, G. in Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. (Mihail C.Roco National, W. S. B., ed.). pp 232-243, Kluwer Academic. Dordrecht. 2003.
  15. Silvers, A. W. D. a. M. M. B. Disability, Difference, Discrimination: Perspective on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy (Point/Counterpoint: Philosophers Debate Contemporary Issues) Rowman & Littlefield. Landham, Bolder, New York, Oxford. 1998.
  16. Herrnstein, R. M. C. Bell Curve. Free Press. 1994.
  17. Wolbring, G. "Key Terminologies in the Field of Disability: Change Through NBICS." Talk on July 27, 2006 at a World Health Organisation meeting. 2006.
Please contact the author for information on these references
or for additional future references at gwolbrin@ucalgary.ca

© Gregor Wolbring, All Rights Reserved, 2007. Please contact the author for permission to reprint.


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