Perhaps the most anticipated book of this past summer (other than the conclusion of the Harry Potter series) was Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution, which was universally panned by reputable scientists and didn’t seem to make much of a splash at all. I didn’t expect there to be anything especially groundbreaking or novel in Behe’s work, and although I’m sure ID folk will be citing it for some time, it hardly succeeds in it’s task of demoting evolution. It was much to my surprise, then, to find out that there’s another book full of potential woo dressed up as science coming out in a few weeks, John Harris’ Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People.
As much as I would like to withhold judgment until I actually get a chance to read the book, I have to say that the synopsis and early supporting reviews scream “EUGENICS!” at me, even though I’m sure the author and his supporters are careful not to use the “e” word. According to the inside cover, the book is based off of a set of lectures given by Harris (“the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law”) at Oxford last year. Here’s the summary currently available via the amazon.com page;
Decisive biotechnological interventions in the lottery of human life–to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic makeup–have been widely rejected as unethical and undesirable, and have often met with extreme hostility. But in Enhancing Evolution, leading bioethicist John Harris dismantles objections to genetic engineering, stem-cell research, designer babies, and cloning to make a forthright, sweeping, and rigorous ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life.
Human enhancement, Harris argues, is a good thin–good morally, good for individuals, good as social policy, and good for a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement. Enhancing Evolution defends biotechnological interventions that could allow us to live longer, healthier, and even happier lives by, for example, providing us with immunity from cancer and HIV/AIDS. But the book advocates far more than therapies designed to free us from sickness and disability. Harris champions the possibility of influencing the very course of evolution to give us increased mental and physical powers–from reasoning, concentration, and memory to strength, stamina, and reaction speed. Indeed, he supports enhancing ourselves in almost any way we desire. And it’s not only morally defensible to enhance ourselves, Harris says. In some cases, it’s morally obligatory.
Whether one looks upon biotechnology with hope, fear, or a little of both, Enhancing Evolution makes a case for it that no one can ignore.
As Jeff Goldblum (as Ian Malcolm) said in Jurassic Park, “The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh… staggers me.” The phrase “a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement” especially set off warning claxons in my head, and even if Harris himself doesn’t fully commit to eugenics in this area, it seems that the grounds would become ripe for it. Also note how it isn’t stated who, exactly, would be receiving all these beneficial treatments or how such “improvements” would be extended to the majority of the world’s population that cannot even afford simple medicines, much less eugenic treatment regimens.
The idea that we can somehow improve humankind through our understanding of science (“better living through [bio]chemistry,” if you like) is hardly new, and even in such works as G.G. Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution the author hints at a time when we may be able to guide our own evolution, though the means during the time the book was written and revised (early 1950’s) were lacking. Even though we have come a long way since that time, I sometimes have to wonder if we even really understand what we’re messing with when we consider cloning. I don’t know how scientific this new book is going to be, but the synopsis makes it sound like through eugenic breeding or medical innovation we can reach some sort of Platonic ideal where everyone is beautiful, healthy, and intelligent, living a long and happy life. HIV/AIDS and cancer are mentioned as two diseases that we may be able to eliminate, but somehow I doubt that all disease would just disappear because we engineered ourselves a different way, and if there were lots of human clones, lack of genetic diversity could make populations more susceptible to disease.
While Harris may be able to tackle some of the superficial ethical objections in the book, I doubt that he fully considered or deconstructed the more functional objections, mostly being that it seems that trying to improve ourselves would probably make the human species weaker, not stronger, as well as leading to some unsavory (and dangerous) social/political consequences. I probably won’t be able to check this book out immediately when it is released on the 17th, but I’ll be interested to see the reviews of any other science bloggers if they get the chance to read it.