Embrace the path to perfection

Enhancing Evolution

October 19, 2007

Mary Warnock is charmed by an enthusiast for improving humanity. Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People By John Harris

In 2005, Oxford University received a large benefaction from the James Martin Trust, with which it set up the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation. The institute is devoted to considering the effects of new science and technology on the future. One of its areas of concern is "investigating the implications of radical changes in health technology and the potential for radical life extension and human capacity enhancement". John Harris was invited to give a series of lectures on this topic in 2006 at the first James Martin Institute World Forum on Science and Civilisation, and it is these lectures that form the core of his new book.

Harris, as one has come to expect, is warmly enthusiastic about the possibilities; moreover he is unshakably convinced that all human beings, given that they are capable of moral sense, have a duty not only to make things better for people, but to make people better as well. This is what he means by "enhancement". But of course, as he is well aware, "making better people" is a highly equivocal expression. He deliberately uses it to cover "therapy"; that is, curing their ills, "increasing their abilities" and, finally, "increasing their life expectancy". He argues that whatever is possible should, as a matter of moral obligation, be carried out. Although some of the techniques to which he refers are not yet possible, he powerfully argues in his final chapter that there is an obligation, here and now, to participate in and support research.

I agree in general terms. But Harris's argument that there is no distinction to be drawn between therapeutic and enhancing interventions is not wholly persuasive. He is right to point out that wearing glasses is, for the short-sighted, both therapeutic and enhancing, in that the patient is given a new capability. The point, however, is that the patient lacked that capability before - his sight being, by normal standards, defective. The idea of malfunction or disease is a necessary component of the idea of remedy or cure. Enhancement, in any intelligible use, has no such backdrop. To show that there is no distinction between the two concepts, it is not enough to point to examples where there may be overlap or where the line is hard to draw.

Most people hope that one day, after a great deal more research into the production of specific types of cells, it may be possible to renew cells that have degenerated through illness or been damaged by accident. This, it is hoped, may produce cures for such diseases as Parkinson's, remedies for deep and extensive burns or profound spinal-cord injuries. In principle, it would be possible to renew every cell in the body as it wore out, thus rendering people immortal. Harris embraces this idea with characteristic delight. The fact that such treatment would be intrusive and vastly expensive, limited therefore to a few people, does not worry him. That a good thing cannot be shared equally by everyone is no argument, he says, for letting no one have it. We mortals of modest means will just have to get used to living alongside a few immortals. The Greeks, after all, thought nothing of having the gods popping in and out of their lives.

But is immortality a good thing? Harris claims to want it for himself; he even argues that it could be cost-effective; and he points out, comfortingly, that even the immortals could still die in accidents, by murder or suicide. It may be that we could so evolve that we could live free from the shadow of death. I do not even wish to imagine it.

Harris is much less fanciful when he discusses eliminating severe disabilities by gene therapy through pre-implantation embryo selection or abortion after screening for disabilities in the foetus. He makes a brave attempt to demolish the argument put forward by disability groups that such procedures amount to discrimination against the existing disabled. Sadly, he will not succeed in persuading them. He starts from a concept of "disability" that they could never accept, namely that to allow someone to be disabled when one could have prevented it is a form of harm, and that it is preferable not to be disabled than to be disabled - which is not to say, as he points out, that one prefers non-disabled people to disabled people.

The disabled lobby, on the other hand, regard disability as a social myth. In reality, they argue, there is no such thing; it is the institutions of society that have made the distinction and that perpetuate it. To say that it would be better if disability did not exist is tantamount to saying disabled people should be eliminated.

I find this a peculiarly irritating argument, as Harris plainly does. One has only to grow old to recognise that disability is real, and that it were better that it did not exist. It is not society that has made it painful to weed my garden or walk down steep slopes.

One way and another, it is a pleasure to read a book that is so jolly about the future of mankind. Perhaps because it is based on lectures, there are rather too many arguments referred to but not pursued in detail (mostly contained in previous books by Harris). But as lectures, they must have succeeded brilliantly and provoked, as they were intended to, fierce and enjoyable debate.

- Mary Warnock is a moral philosopher and a crossbencher in the House of Lords. She has, with Elizabeth McDonald, written Easeful Death: A Case for Assisted Suicide , to be published by Oxford University Press in the spring.

Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People

Author - John Harris
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 260
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 9780691128443

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