October 10, 2007

John Harris: Enhancing Evolution

Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People
by John Harris

Book Description:
Decisive biotechnological interventions in the lottery of human life--to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic makeup--have been widely rejected as unethical and undesirable, and have often met with extreme hostility. But in Enhancing Evolution, leading bioethicist John Harris dismantles objections to genetic engineering, stem-cell research, designer babies, and cloning to make a forthright, sweeping, and rigorous ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life.

Human enhancement, Harris argues, is a good thing--good morally, good for individuals, good as social policy, and good for a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement. Enhancing Evolution defends biotechnological interventions that could allow us to live longer, healthier, and even happier lives by, for example, providing us with immunity from cancer and HIV/AIDS. But the book advocates far more than therapies designed to free us from sickness and disability. Harris champions the possibility of influencing the very course of evolution to give us increased mental and physical powers--from reasoning, concentration, and memory to strength, stamina, and reaction speed. Indeed, he supports enhancing ourselves in almost any way we desire. And it's not only morally defensible to enhance ourselves, Harris says. In some cases, it's morally obligatory.

Whether one looks upon biotechnology with hope, fear, or a little of both, Enhancing Evolution makes a case for it that no one can ignore.

John Harris is the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law, joint editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, and a member of Britain's Human Genetics Commission. His many books include On Cloning and A Companion to Genethics. Enhancing Evolution is based on keynote lectures Harris delivered at the James Martin Institute at the University of Oxford in 2006.
Read this review from the Times Online, "Enhancing the species." Excerpt:
Likewise, if pills could make children smarter in a safe way, he thinks we would be dumb not to use them. He says: “You have good moral reasons to advantage your children if you can, and good moral reasons to avoid failing to do so. I see enhancing a child as on a continuum with, say, taking folic acid and avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. These are things that decent, sensible parents do to protect their children.” He points out that we are already enhanced humans – by such advances as vaccination, which prevents us from succumbing to diseases that decimated our forebears. This is now lumped under the label of “medicine”; ditto for Ritalin, which modifies behaviour, and modafinil, a drug used to help people to stay awake. Even opera glasses are an enhancement, helping us to see farther than we can naturally. Genetic-based enhancements are simply another stop on the road to improving the lot of humankind.

Of course, the consequence of banishing the diseases of old age is a dramatic extension of lifespan. So be it, Harris says: “To quote a friend, I’d willingly sample a few million years and see how it goes.”

The idea, he believes, is not that enhancements – such as gene therapy to remove the threat of cancer, or so-called “smart pills” – give some a competitive advantage over others. The technologies should be available to all and should raise the baseline of human welfare just as compulsory schooling and public health policy aim to do.

“Certainly, sometimes we want competitive advantage – but for the enhancements I talk about the competitive advantage is not the prime motive. I didn’t give my son (he has a grown-up son, Jacob, to whom the book is dedicated) a good diet in the hope that others eat a bad diet and die prematurely. I’m happy if everyone has a good diet. The moral imperative should be that enhancements are generally available because they are good for everyone.” The only other route to equality, he says, is to level down so that everyone is as uneducated, unhealthy and unenhanced as the lowest in society – which is unethical. Even though we can’t offer a liver transplant to all who need them, he says, we still carry them out for the lucky few. Much better to try to raise the baseline, even if some are left behind.
Russell Blackford also chimes in.


Emily Veinglory said...

Does the book address that way intended enhancements almost always upset the equilibrium of the overall genotype and so decrease overall welfare? One only need to look at pedigree animals to see that we are not good at judging what is truly an enhancement, holistically speaking.

Roko said...

"intended enhancements almost always upset the equilibrium of the overall genotype"

spoken like a true geneticist. They should give you a Nobel prize for that.

I feel that human meddling always upsets the equilibrium of the mother earth's aura field, so I think that all humans should sit on their hands all day doing nothing.

Emily Veinglory said...

Hii roko, I'm actually a psychologist and so find the assumptions and emotion response you exhibit rather interesting.

Roko said...

So would you care to define, in scientific terms, what the "equilibruim of an overall genotype" is?

The point I am trying to make is that you are taking an emotional prejudice that you have about the nature of goodness and then trying to dress it up in pseudoscientific language to make it sound authoritative. Quite frankly I find that disgusting.

If you want to say "I think that humans should not meddle with the status quo", then just come out and say it. I would be happy to agree to disagree with you. (Although it does make me wonder what you're doing reading a Transhumanist blog).

Bruce Ledewitz said...

This book is really perfect. I had thought that only in science fiction would people want to experiment to improve the race. It is satisfying to see life imitate art. But never in science fiction does such hubris work out well.