The Embryo: Modernity’s Standing Reserve

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By Maureen Shumay,  University of Dallas

Technology is everywhere. In today’s world it is practically unavoidable. For something that plays such a large role in our modern life, it’s a wonder we don’t more frequently question how it shapes us. More specifically, why aren’t we asking how technology, specifically our modern use of it, has shaped our view of the world, of nature and other people? Martin Heidegger devotes a large part of his work The Question Concerning Technology exploring this question and gives significant insight into how our use and understanding of modern technology has cultivated in us a certain view of and relationship with nature that is different from that of ancient times. His view is easily exemplified by the modern-day food industry; where once someone spent hours squeezing a barrel of oranges for a pitcher of juice, we now take a short drive to purchase a box of juice, the contents of which we really cannot even be sure of. It seems with the rise of modern technology and efficiency, we have not only grown increasingly unfamiliar with the natural sources of things, but we have also grown increasingly demanding of those resources. Heidegger claims that modern technology cultivates this exploitative view and manner towards nature, a view which, if unchecked, could inevitably lead to a similar, and more dangerous, mechanistic and disassociated view towards our fellow humans. Within the past two decades, there has been a rise in the use of embryonic stem cells for research and experimentation, all in the name of progress and the hopeful alleviation of suffering. Unlike some other types of cell experimentation, these tests are run on living human embryos, using and destroying it as if it were any other cell.  This is a modern-day example of exactly what Heidegger feared; just as we have seen nature being increasingly exploited and disregarded, now we see that humans, too, are being looked at as a standing resource, ready to be used and manipulated according to however it benefits us.

Before we delve into looking specifically at modern technology, we must first understand Heidegger’s thinking surrounding the ‘essence of technology’. When Heidegger talks of the ‘essence of technology’, he does not mean looking at specific examples of technology, but rather, he’s searching for “what the thing is”[1]. Now, it is commonly understood that ‘technology’ is typically said to be things which are used as a means to an end, such as an instrument specifically constructed to perform a certain task. Similarly common is the view of technology as an exclusively human activity. Heidegger calls these ‘instrumental’ and ‘anthropological’ definitions of technology[2].

While Heidegger sees how both of these definitions pertain to technology, he does not believe that defining it solely as a means and as a human activity shows us the essence of technology. Instead, he turns to language to discern the historical meanings of words we use pertaining to technology. First, as Heidegger looks at the common ‘instrumental’ definition, he admits that “instrumentality is considered to be the fundamental characteristic of technology”[3]. He recognizes that in the instrumental sense, technology is conveyed as a form of causality as a means for a certain end. Further, as Heidegger delves into the etymological background of the word ‘cause’, he notes how it seems to convey a ‘bringing forth’ or allowing for something to appear, a ‘poēsis’- a revealing. This type of revealing is not only seen in the understanding of technology or artistic skill, but in nature itself. ‘Physis’ (the Greek word for nature), also participates in a ‘bringing forth’ by its own power, ‘bursting forth’ of its own accord.

When it comes to the ‘bringing forth’ of technology, we may come to a better understanding of this by looking to how technology was used by the ancients. If we consider an ancient farmer plowing his field, it would seem that in his cultivation of the land he is working with the already active principle of nature to reveal what it has to offer by its own bringing forth. When the farmer plows, he learns more about the properties of nature. In this sense, it seems that technology is working with nature in this revealing, and in the process, nature is revealed to us as a separate thing which ‘unconceals’ on its own accord and is respected.          

It would seem, however, that not all ‘revealing’ of technology has this same mode of ‘bringing forth’. Modern technology too, reveals the natural world to us in some way, just as ancient technology did. Yet this revealing is not a bringing forth in the same way, but a ‘challenging’[4]. This ‘challenging’ reveals nature in a whole new way, as it is no longer considered a thing which has its own internal drive and power of bringing forth, but rather is seen as a resource which we can use for our benefit. An easy example is the use of genetic engineering to produce larger, bigger, better growing fruit trees; here we manipulate the natural occurring processes of a plant to meet a demand with the lowest possible cost. We see this ‘standing resource’ mentality in how we refer to things in nature as well; a plot of land containing coal and ore is now referred to as a ‘coal mining district’ and its soil as ‘mineral deposit’[5]. In other words, as put by Jesse Bailey in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, “We become blinded to the nature of the world around us. Beings only come into the light, into the clearing, insofar as they answer to our perceived ‘needs.’ Everything is expected to answer, in its very being, to our desires.”[6]What nature looks like in the eyes of man has taken a whole new color, and this new view seems to allow for large amounts of exploitation and manipulation of nature, instead of respecting its dignity; if nature is only a resource waiting to be used, why not manipulate and use it until it has run out?

This idea of manipulating and exploiting nature has its own unethical factors, but this mentality becomes particularly dangerous when we consider what can happen when our ‘standing resources’ starts to include mankind. Although we can point to several modern-day criminal exploitations of persons, such as sex trafficking, we can never forget that not even two centuries ago slavery, another extreme example of human exploitation, was not only prevalent in certain parts of our country, but legal and defended by many on the basis of economic benefit. 

Although, in our country, we may have realized our fault in defending human exploitation in the form of slavery, the dawn of embryonic stem cell research has brought to light a new, less recognized, and highly dangerous threat of human exploitation. The primary defense for research is that the manipulation and extraction of an isolated human embryonic stem cell (HESC) within a week-old embryo, could potentially prove to be the solution for countless chronic and degenerative diseases. This is because, in the words of Andrew Siegel, “HESCs are characterized by their capacity for self-renewal and their ability to differentiate into all types of cells of the body.”[7] This unique ability of the stem cell to form into almost any other cell of the body, is something which researchers hope to harness and to aid in curing certain ailments. In an article from the Journal of Medical Ethics, the author brings to mind a concrete example of when interest in embryonic stem cell research seemed to rise, in hopes for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s: 

“When the former president Ronald Reagan died from Alzheimer disease, it provided an unusual opportunity for continuing the debate about embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. Proponents of such research argued that it should be aggressively funded by the federal government, since it might lead to the discover of cure for diseases like Alzheimer.”[8]

In such an extreme case, it is reasonable that one would support a seemingly harmless mode of research in hopes of finding a cure. Yet, it is this mindset which exactly display’s Heidegger’s fear of men seeing nature and now other men as ‘standing reserves’. Just as we saw in our other examples of modern technology use, some power within nature was harnessed and used for our benefit, without respecting the dignity of the pre-existing thing. This time however, it is not just a healthy fruit tree which we are manipulating.

While the health and well-being of mankind is a legitimate end towards which to work, no end, no matter how legitimate, justifies a means such as the manipulation and exploitation of a human embryo, a human at his or her earliest stage. In doing so, we are treating the human person and his or her body as mere means, and not as an end in and of itself. In this case, because we are relatively detached from the research done in laboratories and have difficulty recognizing the human resemblance of a picture of an HESC, it is easy to pass off such research as relatively harmless. Yet, one can’t deny, as Phillip Nickel remarks, “you and I, along with everybody else we know, developed out of clumps of primordial cells, which happen to be the very same clumps that serve as the source for human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory.”[9] If it is understood then, that the embryo is a human person, we must admit that experiments on life of these embryos is nothing less than experimenting on and risking the life of a fellow human being for the sake of another’s benefit. 

How did we arrive at a point in history when fatal experimentation on humans in the embryonic stage is allowed and argued for by so many? If we revisit and understand Heidegger’s perception of modern technology, we can see that this mentality is a direct result of how we consider technology today. This is not to say that all use of modern technology is bad and ought to be condemned, nor is it to say that this harmful mentality we’ve fallen into can’t ever be reversed. Rather, while we may appreciate and be grateful for the advances of modern technology, we must be cautious of how we approach technology. Only when we recognize this detached and mechanistic modern technological approach towards nature can we step back and revisit nature. We must approach nature not as a reserve for our exploitation, but rather with a ‘poetic’ mentality which works with nature, allowing it to reveal itself to us so we may benefit from what it reveals. Then, too, may we turn away from perceiving other humans and their bodies as ‘standing reserves’ and recognize the individual dignity and potential of every human person, allowing each to reveal their humanity and value to us. 


Bailey, Jesse I. “Enframing the Flesh: Heidegger, Transhumanism, and the Body as ‘Standing

Reserve’.” Journal of Evolution and Technology. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies: Vol. 24 Issue 2,July 2014: 44-62


DiSilvestro, R. “A Qualified Endorsement of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Based on Two 

Widely Shared Beliefs about the Brain-Diseased Patients Such Research Might Benefit.” Journal of Medical Ethics 34, no. 7 (2008): 563-67. 


Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The

Task of Thinking (1964). Compiled by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Nickel, Philip J. “Ethical Issues in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” In Fundamentals of

the Stem Cell Debate: The Scientific, Religious, Ethical, and Political Issues, edited by Monroe Kristen Renwick, Miller Ronald B., and Tobis Jerome S., 62-78. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2008. 


Siegel, Andrew. “Ethics of Stem Cell Research”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of 

Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 

URL = <>.

[1] Martin Heidegger. Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The

Task of Thinking (1964). Compiled by David Farrell Krell. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.) pg.312

[2] Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. pg. 312

[3] Martin Heidegger. Basic Writings. pg. 318

[4] Martin Heidegger. Basic Writings. pg. 312

[5] Example used in class lecture

[6]Jesse I Bailey “Enframing the Flesh: Heidegger, Transhumanism, and the Body as ‘Standing

Reserve’.” Journal of Evolution and Technology. (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies 2014)

[7] Andrew Siegel. “Ethics of Stem Cell Research”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition)

[8] R. DiSilvestro. “A Qualified Endorsement of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Based on Two Widely Shared Beliefs about the Brain-Diseased Patients Such Research Might Benefit.” Journal of Medical Ethics 34, no. 7 (2008) pg.563

[9] Nickel, Philip J. “Ethical Issues in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” In Fundamentals of the Stem Cell Debate: The Scientific, Religious, Ethical, and Political Issues, (University of California Press, 2008.)

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