by John Harris
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.Read this review from the Times Online, "Enhancing the species." Excerpt:
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.
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.Russell Blackford also chimes in.
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.