Sunday, January 24, 2010

Biomedically Enhancing Humanity

Human enhancement has many forms: medication, caffeine, braces, contact lenses, steroids... but also education and science -- a collective intellectual enhancement. According to philosophy and public policy professor Allen Buchanan, “human beings have been enhancing themselves as long as they have been humans.”

Buchanan kicked off the 2010 A. B. Duke lecture series last week with his thoughts about the ethics of biomedical enhancement. Biomedical enhancements (BEs) are interventions that act directly on the body, improving some particular capacity. But “getting an enhancement doesn’t necessarily make you better off,” Buchanan noted. For instance, a person might wish to enhance their hearing, but enhancing it too much might make life unpleasant.

BEs can be cognitive or affective (improving mood or moral sentiments), can increase one’s resistance to disease or increase life span and quality of life. Different modes of BE include drugs, tissue/organ replacements, computerized neural implants and germline genetic interventions (genetically engineered embryos or sperm).

According to Buchanan, it’s not true that biomedical enhancements differ from traditional enhancements. For instance, if a person is highly reliant on their computer, then how different would it be to make that computer accessible via their mind?

BE certainly raises some interesting ethical questions, and has some incredible applications. One example is the ability to spread adaptive genes laterally, from person to person rather than from parent to offspring. This could have been helpful when infectious diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague wreacked havoc on human populations. Genetic resistance to a disease was uncommon before an outbreak, but quite prevalent afterwards, as only disease-resistant individuals survived to bear children. These deadly diseases produced rapid genetic change across whole populations, but millions died in the process. Alternatively, intentional genetic modification (IGM) “could spread desirable mutations more quickly and without the human cost,” according to Buchanan.

Opponents are concerned that BE could destroy human nature, have unintended bad consequences and/or provide an unfair advantage if only made available to some. Furthermore, there is the possibility for malicious dual use (repressive social control à la Brave New World).

But according to Buchanan, “It’s not a matter of being for or against it... because it’s going to happen. It’s already here.” Biomedical research frequently produces discoveries relevant to human enhancement. The only way to stop this would be to cease all biomedical research... and that’s just not going to happen.

One common argument against BE is that it interferes with nature. But Buchanan thinks we're giving nature, and evolution, too much credit.

“Don’t think of evolution as a master engineer ... Suboptimal design is a pervasive and necessary feature in evolution.” Buchanan went on to list several less-than-intelligent attributes:
  • The dual function of the human pharynx (breathing and swallowing); resultant choking
  • Humans’ inability to biosynthesize Vitamin C (We have the genetic pieces for it to be possible, but one part is missing, probably due to a mutation long ago)
  • The male urinary tract goes through the prostate, instead of around it, making it prone to infection. The primate sinus is also prone to infection.
  • The human birth canal runs through the female pelvis. As humans evolved to walk on two feet, and as human cranium size increased, giving birth became increasingly risky for both mother and child.

“How reliable is evolution as a means for improving human life -- or even for sustaining it?” Buchanan said. “Evolution doesn’t care what happens to you after you reproduce.” This might explain the preponderance of later-life problems, such as cardiovascular degeneration and accumulated mutations that lead to cancer. “There’s no reason to believe that evolution will correct [these problems],” Buchanan said. “In fact, there’s every reason to believe it won’t.”

Buchanan emphasized that humans must look beyond evolution’s haphazard progression. “[Evolutionary success] depends on a fitness between the organism and the environment, and the environment is constantly changing.” Furthermore, “current organisms are not the apex of evolution,” Buchanan said. “We are not completed works. It’s not the end!”

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