In dialogue with John Harris’ “Enhancing Evolution”

p.8

<<Ch. 1. Has Humankind a Future?
“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga così com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi” – Tomasi da Lampedusa, The Leopard

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we humans could live longer healthier lives with immunity to many of the diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS that currently beset us? Even more wonderful might be the possibility of increased mental powers, powers of memory, reasoning, and concentration, and the possibility of increased physical power, strength, stamina, endurance, speed of reaction, and thel like. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Many people think not. The idea of improving on human nature has been widely rejected. Decisive interventions in the natural lottery of life, to enhance human performance, improve life, and perhaps thereby irrevocably to change our genetic constitution, have met with extreme hostility. This hostility is, as we shall see, misplaced. In this book I hope to convince you that human enhancement is a good thing and that our genetic heritage is much in need of improvement.

Whatever people say, no one, I believe, actually thinks that there is anything in principle wrong with the enhancement of human beings. This seeming contradiction, paradoxical as it may appear, is resolved when we reflect on the familiarity and acceptability of existing enhancement technologies and on their history. Many of us are already enhanced (do you wear galsses, for example?) and all of us without exception have benefited from enhancing technologies. (For example, have you ever been immunized? And even if you haven’t, you will have benefited from the so-called”herd immunity” created by the fact that others have.)>>

End of page 8.

Commentary.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we humans could live longer healthier lives with immunity to many of the diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS that currently beset us?”

“Many of us are already enhanced (do you wear galsses, for example?) and all of us without exception have benefited from enhancing technologies. (For example, have you ever been immunized? And even if you haven’t, you will have benefited from the so-called”herd immunity” created by the fact that others have.)”

What about the examples and rethorical questions purported to convince us that, whether we admit it or not, we already approve of enhancements? Let us consider longer, healthier lives.  Healthier lives are undoubtly good, but it is not clear that valuing “healthier lives with immunity to many of the diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS that currently beset us” implies valuing enhancements. If one accepts the treatment/enhancement distinction, one will not necessarily regard valuing healthier lives as an intuition in favor of enhancements.  As far as the example goes, it is compatible with appreciating treatment – restoring good health – more than enhancement. True, immunity from disease (i.e. genetically engineered immunity) is an enhancement. But this specific enhancement may be considered as a means to the same good treatment is a means to, namely health. The label of treatment is used too narrowly unless it includes disease prevention, a goal that can be achieved by enhancing immunity. For all such intervention (proper medical treatment, prevention, the enhancement of immunity) have in common a function, namely restoring good health. The same applies to vaccination, and even eye glasses (which restore statistical normal functioning, at least with “normal” defined relative to certain ways of dividing age-groups).

But Harris also mentions “authentic” enhancements: “the possibility of increased mental powers, powers of memory, reasoning, and concentration, and the possibility of increased physical power, strength, stamina, endurance, speed of reaction, and the like”.

With respect to authentic enhancements, my intuitions are less clear. While it is difficult to imagine someone who would not be bothered by disease, it is comparably easier to imagine people for whom low physical strength, or speed of reaction, are not particularly valuable – especially if they operate in a low-stress and not competitive context where such handicaps do not make death or illness more probable. Many intellectuals and civil servants need neither physical strenght nor speed of reaction. In average circumstances, memory can be a great advantage but can also be a persecution (imagine remembering more vividly all the times your friends disappointed you, all the times you did or said something inappropriate or embarrassing). It is not even clear that powers of reasoning are good in so far as, for instance, they tend to make people much more critical of others and the institutions they live in, conferring pretensions that are much harder to satisfy. That’s why enhanced memory and intelligence can be a blessing, but also lead to a miserable life.

Finally, are longer healthy lives good, as such? Probably yes: the desire to live longer seems so natural and harmless. I can really see no objection to double the length of our lives. Even longer life-spans, who knows? With a life-span of 500 years, to take an extreme case, most people can be sure to see any of their achievements (the education of one’s children, scientific discoveries, artworks) forgotten, superseded, their meaning thwarted in unimmaginable ways.

(This may not happen if such enhancements do not preserve the individual’s identity – whatever that means. But in that case we should not talk about an enhancement at all, but rather about a novel form of artificial reproduction).

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