Monday, April 21, 2008

Human Biological Enhancement and the Ethics of Personhood

Some philosophers of the mind like to try a little thought experiment on their students. It goes something like this. Suppose some years from now, a person—an ordinary human being—gets some dreaded brain disease that gradually destroys his gray matter. But also suppose that medical technology has advanced to the point that as the brain's biological tissue dies, it can be replaced by silicon (or some equivalent futuristic material) that is functionally equivalent to the dying brain part. And so as time goes on, Mr. Brain Patient has more and more of his brain replaced by the future's equivalent of computer chips. At what point, the philosopher asks, does the patient cease to be a human and begin to be a computer?

At one time, you could laugh off the whole thing by saying nobody has ever done such a thing and it's unlikely that they ever will. But no longer. Writing in Technology and Culture, historian Michael D. Bess points out that numerous blind and otherwise disabled people have received brain implants that allow them to see or communicate in ways that are utterly impossible for the rest of us mortals. Having a bunch of wires attached to your brain is not the same thing as replacing your cerebellum with a mainframe, but the border has been crossed. What happens from now on is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Bess foresees not just advances in brain science, but in genetic engineering and pharmacology as well, all leading to what he calls "human biological enhancement." Currently, the goal of most such projects is to use technology to restore the abilities of disabled people to something close to normal: curing genetic diseases, allowing the blind to see, allowing people with strokes or myasthenia gravis who end up "locked in" (unable to move or talk) to communicate via brain waves, and so on. But what is to prevent a person who sees through a computer from attaching an infrared camera to their input so they can see in the dark? Or what if we find a drug that restores Alzheimer's patients to normal brain function, and also gives normal people an IQ of 200? What is to keep us from taking human nature as merely raw material, a rough design to be improved on with increasingly advanced engineering? And what do we call these improved beings? People? Cyborgs? Or something in between?

Bess, for his part, sees no practical way to avoid these changes. The science will keep progressing, and as the natural desire on the part of people to take advantage of enhancements pulls the technology into the marketplace, we will face the issue of how to treat folks who have version numbers after their names (Bess titled his essay "Icarus 2.0"). He imagines that the only way to stop or regulate human biological enhancement would be to pass a worldwide set of laws together with a huge enforcement mechanism to chase down any miscreants trying to do enhancments under the table, so to speak. He sees the very public failure of the attempt to regulate performance-enhancing drugs in sports as a sign that this road is doomed to futility.

What we ought to do instead, he says, is get used to it. Start now to develop an "ethics of personhood" that in his words constitutes "an expanded conception of human dignity, a more generous understanding of the word 'us'." If one day you go to your job and find that the new hire you have to work with moves on wheels, sees through cameras, and accesses the Internet just by thinking, Bess is concerned that somehow you will be tempted to view that being as something other than human. We need to start now to work on that problem so that it doesn't lead to disastrous social consequences.

Well, I'm doing my little bit by drawing your attention to this matter. I'm already working with a colleague who gets around on wheels—he has osteomyelitis and spends most of his day in an electric wheelchair. Perhaps if these changes come along slowly enough, we can get used to them.

But for some reason, in searching history for an encounter between two very different orders of being who both happened to be human, the story of the early Spanish explorations of the New World comes to mind. With their armor, ships, and guns, the Spaniards must have looked to the native Americans like R2D2 looks to us. And sure enough, a whole lot of social disruption and suffering came about as a result of that encounter. But most of the misery and suffering was experienced by the native Americans, not the "enhanced" Spaniards.

Bess seems to be worried that un-enhanced humans will discriminate against the enhanced types, because they'll look odd or peculiar. But the case of Spanish exploitation of the New World suggests that the problems will mostly be experienced by those who, for whatever reason, don't benefit from technologically enhanced abilities. Especially if enhancement is expensive (it will always be at first), you could easily end up with an elite class of enhanced humans who would regard political and social power as their right.

Aldous Huxley's 1932 dystopia Brave New World divided the genetically engineered population of the future into alphas, betas, and gammas, as I recall. The alphas were the natural-born leaders with enhanced intelligence, and the gammas were bred (or manufactured, really) for menial jobs such as elevator operators (Huxley's crystal ball didn't include much in the way of automation). Huxley avoided the problem of having the gammas rise up in revolt when he made their genetic makeup include a natural-born enjoyment of menial tasks.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to live in such a world. Bess is to be congratulated for raising a concern that we ought to start thinking about now. But I believe he's looking in the wrong places for problems. The enhanced types will do just fine—the people we need to start thinking about defending are the poor, the discriminated against, and the unborn, now and perhaps even more in the future.

Sources: Bess's essay "Icarus 2.0: A Historian's Perspective on Human Biological Enhancement" appears in the January 2008 issue of Technology and Culture (vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 114-126).


  1. I do get the feeling that moving away from mechanical to bio mrchanical could be the way forward - In respect to lack of fossil resources - steve -

  2. The unmoved mover,- fate, big bang or God- is about to open before us the unique opportunity to deliberately create our own and the world’s future with artificial evolution. The character of our species gives us our go-go enthusiasm to make some of us immortal, smarter, bigger, faster, stronger and more able to do great new things like move to another planet or become unsurpassable competitors.

    What we need to do is make our future selves nicer, kinder, less combative, cruel and more generous. We don’t need biologically enhanced performance to get ahead a step so we can start the next step. It’s not making us happy. What we need is moral enhancement that lets us stop continually warring with each other and ignoring massive suffering in the world.

    Two events of singular importance are impending. Individually, either would be historically incomparable. Taken together they far exceed words to describe it. One will be engineering modification of people (EMP). The other will allow some of us to conceive the power and scope of EMP.

    We innately believe that we autonomously decide the succession of behaviors that compose our lives. Evolution has built our sociality around this belief. It makes us attach personal responsibility for our own acts and the acts of others when they’re not compelled by accidental factors like slipping on ice or falling from a tree. This belief is wrong like some others such as our belief that space and time are independent.

    For decades, biology has been telling us that we are machines without ever saying so. Research in human biology demands acceptance that we are the continuum of interaction of our gene-informed body and our environment (IBEU). Of course this can’t be a widely accepted without destroying our sociality and our selves.

    But some experts like Steven Pinker are declaring for determinism. How they will render expert opinion in the courtroom when the defendant says, “Your honor my genes and enviornment made me do it” will be interesting. But experts like Pinker will be able to perceive the vast potential that lies in EMP.

    The cause of what goes on in the IBEU is the big bang and subsequent cosmic mechanics that gave us the earth and life. The IBEU is bundle of reality made up of processes compliant with the laws of physics. It produces our actions and the awareness of our lives. There’s no reason to think this package of physical stuff, the IBEU, won’t become subject to engineering modification of both body and environment in the future.

    Whatever human nature is, its right here in this package. Evolution has given us to know right conduct-and it’s the golden rule. But is hasn’t given us the ability to consistently conduct ourselves in the service of that principle. We evolved to get some our genes into the next generation but, when there’s conflict between that and the rule, we fall short. We’ve been constructed to love and care for our own kids more than we love other people’s kids. That precious love is the deep root of greed and competition that gets too hot and extremely dangerous to our welfare.

    We need a new science of “environmentics”. And we need to flip the switch in our heads so we can care for all kids enough to keep us from violence and depriving other people of equal opportunity. Imagine the viral vector that infects everyone and switches our love machinery to redirect it to everybody’s kids. Sounds crazy right? But it or something like it is conceivable.