Magic way to true self

May 30, 2003

To glimpse our posthuman future, ditch Habermas and watch The Wizard of Oz, says Carl Elliott.

These are boom times for speculators about our posthuman future. Now that the human genome has been mapped, Dolly cloned and the 50th anniversary of the double helix celebrated, bookshops are overflowing with dire predictions about human genetic enhancement. Bioethicists and science fiction writers are being joined by environmentalists (Bill McKibben), political scientists (Francis Fukuyama), philosophers (Jürgen Habermas) and novelists (Margaret Atwood) eager to speculate about the dark, possibly tyrannical days that lie ahead if we continue to monkey about with the human genome.

While I share many of these writers' worries, I suspect that their visions of our posthuman future are misguided. If we want to understand what lies ahead of us, we should not be reading Atwood and Habermas. We should be watching The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz portrays the desire for enhancement not as competition or tyranny, but as a quest - for brains, for a heart, for courage. Of course, when Dorothy and her friends finally reach the Emerald City, they learn that they already have the very things they have been looking for. The Scarecrow, who wants brains, is already the most intelligent of the lot; the Tin Woodman, who wants a heart, is the most compassionate; and the Cowardly Lion, who wants courage, is the bravest. Their problems lie not in who they are, but in who they think they are.

Like American self-help authors and newspaper advice columnists, The Wizard of Oz teaches that unhappiness comes from self-doubt. Like today's advertisers, it teaches that this can be remedied by what you buy. (In Oz, according to Frank Baum's book, "everyone must pay for what he gets".) Of course, the Wizard is not really selling brains, or heart or courage. He is selling self-esteem.

In fact, this is how most medical enhancements are sold. In the 1930s, surgeons justified cosmetic surgery as a treatment for the "inferiority complex". Today, short boys are given synthetic growth hormones on the grounds that being short is stigmatised. Inattentive schoolchildren get Ritalin because poor performance in school is stigmatised. Introverted people get Seroxat because shyness is stigmatised. If genetic enhancement ever becomes a reality, it will be marketed to parents who are afraid of having stigmatised children.

What else is the Wizard but a brilliant consumer capitalist? When he is exposed as a carnival huckster from Kansas, Dorothy says: "You are a very bad man!" "No, my dear," the Wizard replies, "I'm a good man. I'm just a very bad wizard." In fact, the opposite is true. He may be a bad man, but he is a very good wizard. Which is to say: he is a very good businessman.

The Wizard has power, but it is not the power of the policeman or the general. It is the power of the advertising executive. The Wizard could be designing television spots for GlaxoSmithKline.

As the Wizard knows, the key to selling enhancement technologies is to take advantage of a person's perceived inadequacies. When he pins a medal on the Cowardly Lion for heroism, he is selling the Lion two ideas: first, that despite his doubts and fears, he really is a lion of genuine courage; and, second, that the medal will allow his true, courageous self to emerge. Not only does the Wizard sell the Lion a vision of himself that is at odds with what he fears himself to be, he convinces him that this is the way he really is, deep inside.

As odd as it sounds, this is exactly the way that the people who use enhancement technologies often describe their products. No transformation is so dramatic that it cannot be described as a means to achieve the "true self". Even as we sculpt our personalities with Prozac and Ritalin, rub ourselves with Androgel and Rogaine, even change our identities through sex-reassignment surgery, we speak of these transformations as a means of becoming who we really are.

This is the future of genetic enhancement. When genetic enhancement comes, it will not be accompanied by anarchy or totalitarianism, but by the sunny, soft tyranny of the market. "I feel like myself again," says a cheerful woman in a television ad for antidepressants, and somehow we know exactly what she means.

Carl Elliott is associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota and author of Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, published by Norton (£19.95).

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