Friday, April 21, 2006

Our Enhanced Future

We live in fascinating times. Recent advances in genetics and genomics open the door not only to new therapies (e.g. gene therapy) but also to the possibility of new radical enhancing technologies. Consider, for example, advances that have been made with genetically enhancing mice. Harvard University has created a genetically modified mouse called the Arnold Schwarzenegger mouse and Princeton University has created the Doggie mouse (a mouse with enhanced memory, named after the child doctor on the show Doggie Howser MD). This is fascinating stuff! What are we to make of the possibility of radical human enhancements? Is this something to be embraced or feared? Like most things in life, the answer is complicated and thus we should be cautious before rushing to judgement.

There are great potentials (e.g. extending the human health span, improving our cognitive capabilities, etc.) but there are also serious concerns (e.g. safety) that must be addressed. Let me briefly address two concerns that people typically raise when one talks about new human enhancements- safety and equality. To help address these two concerns I think it is useful to first consider how we view them when it comes to *existing* enhancing interventions. So consider the following imaginary (though typical) day of your average university student- lets call him Bob.

9:00 am Bob wakes up and the first thing he does is drink a few cups of coffee. Coffee has caffeine, which is a stimulant and is the world's most popular drug. Caffeine offsets the effects of sleep deprivation (Bob likes to party hard!) and aids Bob’s concentration.

10:00am After the jolt from his coffee Bob goes off to university. He reads, goes to lectures, writes papers, etc… By exposing himself to these educative influences alterations occur in his brain- learning makes the nerve cells more efficient and powerful.

6:00 pm. Bob goes to the gym, he lifts weights and goes for a run. These physical activities promote his bone density, boost his immune system, and reduce the chances of depression.

The important question now is: would any of us think we should prohibit Bob from pursuing these enhancing interventions? I think we’d all agree that there is no reason to prohibit Bob from pursuing and enjoying these enhancements. But it is important to realise that we are willing to let Bob pursue these enhancements even though some have RISKS and the provision of some is UNEQUAL.

Drinking lots of coffee can increase our risk of heart attack (though now there is reason to believe this might be genetic). When it comes to caffeine, we all agree that an overtly risk-adverse position to this mood-enhancing intervention is untenable. If the bar is set too high for safety we wouldn’t be able to do anything (especially things we find enjoyable). However, people are often ready to discard these reasonable standards for safety when one raises the question of regulating new human enhancements (like genetic enhancements). The philosopher will point out our need to be consistent in terms of the values we believe should inform human enhancements (both existing and future interventions). Pointing out that there is a *theoretical risk* with radical enhancements, for example, is not a compelling reason to ban them (if it was, then we should ban coffee). There are risks with many existing enhancing interventions: vaccinations (which boost our immune system) have some risk of harm, there are risks of injury with running and exercising, laser eye surgery has risks, etc.

I think two factors are worth mentioning in the context of possible radical human enhancements. Firstly, there is risk of harm in the status quo. Aging increases our risk of disease and, eventually, it kills us. Secondly, the level of acceptable risk should be determined, in part, by the magnitude of the benefits such interventions might confer. If we are willing to tolerate some minimal level of risk for something as trivial as the jolt from caffeine, should we not be willing to tolerate a proportionate level of risk for an intervention that could confer much greater benefits?

So it is important to realise that the choice is not between the status quo- with no risk of harm- and the enhanced future -with risk of harm. The question is really one of responsibly managing the harms (and risks of harm) we currently face and those we might face in the genetically enhanced future.

The second important issue that arises with respect to the prospect of radical human enhancements is equality. We permit Bob to enjoy the enhancing benefits of education even though these benefits are not equally accessible to everyone (in our society or the world). To get into university you have to have high grades and (in most cases) the money to pay for this. Determining what equality requires in the post-genetic revolutionary context is a fascinating question. I won’t try to tackle it here (at least for now). But it is something I am investing a lot of my energies into and have written a few articles on already (see my research page- linked from my home page). I will post some further thoughts on this issue later but for now I think it is worth noting that the current situation is not one of “genetic equality”, it is one of “genetic inequality”. So like the issue of risk, the status quo is not something we should celebrate in terms of the value of equality. The important question, for me, is how would the least advantaged fare in a situation where we permit enhancing technologies (even if they are unequally available) versus other possible scenarios (e.g. prohibition). That’s tough to answer. But rather than subvert scientific research in enhancements I am more in favour of pursuing *socio-economic justice*. So if egalitarians are looking for a fight to wage I believe that is the one we should wage, rather than raising principled objections to enhancing technologies.