Enhancement as a Way of Life
When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they begin to depend on authority. —Lao Tzu
Researchers are investigating fetal brains as well as cell structures of the elderly to see how certain human traits or propensities can be extended or diminished. Is this a good idea?
Sports and performance enhancing drugs have formed an enduring yet predictable public drama. The latest episodes in cycling and baseball are sparked by the familiar plot of the fallen hero. This focus overlooks a more significant story—human enhancement is becoming a way of life.
Many students and writers acknowledge taking Adderall (an ADD prescription drug) to intensify their intellectual focus. Variants of Viagra and Botox are major advertisers for audiences hoping their bodies stay forever young. Researchers are currently investigating fetal brains as well as cell structures of the elderly to see how certain human traits or propensities can be extended or diminished. Worried about your child’s chances for shyness, baldness, aggressiveness, insufficient compassion? An enhancement therapy awaits you.
To raise the “playing God” or “human dignity” card is here inadequate. The case for human enhancement has widespread support.
First, there is tradition and conventional practice. Glasses sharpen the vision that dulls with age. Vaccinations have assured children a life without polio. Indeed, archaeological studies show that humans have always reworked nature’s gifts. The popularity of tattoos and piercings among today’s youth invoke the scarifications, circumcisions, body paints and brandings of ancestors from many cultures.
Second, regarding fetal intervention, there is precedent. The sources of diseases such as Hodgkins or diabetes have been found in a fetus’s genetic defects or mutations. No major challenge has deterred efforts to help those susceptible to these and other debilitating diseases. In light of such success, advocates of enhancement simply wish to extend numerous medical advances to the field of human behavior.
Third, bio-medical or neurological intervention in our genes or brains might enliven many human desires or needs. Any of us could be a potential customer for personal enhancement. This is more than an individual desire. The continued development of enhancing techniques will also ensure the sustained strength of the human species. Given such promises, why worry?
Several cautions deserve attention. First, from the perspective of other animals inhabiting this planet, further expansion of the human species must seem repugnant. The human appetite is insatiable. It kills rhinos for their horns’ alleged magical powers; it destroys nests whose components flavor exotic soups; and for their own optic pleasures humans build cages to harness the nomadic ways of birds and wild animals. A recent report in Scientific American describes how large mammals such as elephants are shrinking in numbers and in size. This is attributed to dwindling food supplies and warmer climates in light of incessant human growth. By contrast, human mammal frets about its obesity epidemic.
A second problem: What does enhancement really involve? Advocates often talk about biological or neurological enhancement. They avoid “eugenics,” given its unsavory past. By proposing a kinder and snappier term, all of us become enhancers. Thus tattoo artists are not much different from neuroscientists. This linguistic legerdemain helps distract us from viewing, say, the legal or moral implications of treating a neonate’s brain for an abnormal imbalance between the size of its amygdala (source for emotional expression) and prefrontal cortex (rational decision).
A third concern involves being duped. Advocates of human bioengineering generally eschew any distinct or meaningful attributes about freedom and true self—useful illusions at best. (This attitude echoes the sociological account of religious beliefs as a functional force to help us adapt to rules and social order.) For these illusions to work, of course, we cannot be told that free will and true self are illusions. Only the experts can harbor this little secret.
Obviously none of us can control the 10 trillion synapses and 86 billion neurons that comprise the millions of calculations our brains make each minute. At some point we have to trust ourselves. The latest advances in genetics and neurology devalue this trust. One renowned neuroscientist claims that prospective parents who refuse medical analysis of their fetus risk “having blood on their hands in the future” should their bundle of joy wind up being the next perpetrator of a Columbine or Sandy Hook massacre.
Lao-Tzu’s quip about trust is not an anti-science rant. On the contrary, learning is always a worthy endeavor. But beware of depending on any authority who promises to improve humans at the expense of undermining their own sense of freedom.
Alexander E. Hooke, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Stevenson University.
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This story was published on March 13, 2013.
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