Buchanan on Human Enhancement

In coming years, government and religion will have to come to terms with new biomedical technologies that greatly enhance human capacity. The state will need to address the potential for vastly increased life spans – a nice problem, but an issue for entitlements, if nothing else — as well as possible distributive inequalities. Religions will face questions about traditional ethics, particularly in respect of human reproduction, and may even face deeper doubts about theologies that teach the need for transcending the human condition. Why would we need divine grace if we could correct our flaws ourselves?

I’m skeptical that we are on the brink of a “post-humanity,” myself, or that religion is about to become obsolete. Utopians always promise that we are only a breakthrough or two away from a Bright Tomorrow in which we will control our own destiny, and the “Singularity” sounds like another futurist fantasy to me. Still, it’s worth thinking about technologies that do seem likely. Allen Buchanan (Duke) has written a new book, Better Than Human (Oxford), that addresses the subject. The publisher’s description follows.

Is it right to use biomedical technologies to make us better than well or even perhaps better than human? Should we view our biology as fixed or should we try to improve on it? College students are already taking cognitive enhancement drugs. The U.S. army is already working to develop drugs and technologies to produce “super soldiers.” Scientists already know how to use genetic engineering techniques to enhance the strength and memories of mice and the application of such technologies to humans is on the horizon.

In Better Than Human, philosopher-bioethicist Allen Buchanan grapples with the ethical dilemmas of the biomedical enhancement revolution. Biomedical enhancements can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger, quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, avoid the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives. In spite of the benefits that biomedical enhancements may bring, many people instinctively reject them. Some worry that we will lose something important-our appreciation for what we have or what makes human beings distinctively valuable. Others assume that biomedical enhancements will only be available to the rich, with the result that social inequalities will worsen.

Buchanan shows that the debate over enhancement has been distorted by false assumptions and misleading rhetoric. To think clearly about enhancement, we have to acknowledge that human nature is a mixed bag and that our species has many “design flaws.” We should be open be open to the possibility of becoming better than human, while never underestimating the risks that our attempts to improve may back-fire.

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