The Magazine

Practice Makes Perfect

At what cost to humanity?

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Babies by Design

The Ethics of Genetic Choice

by Ronald M. Green

Yale, 288 pp., $26

Enhancing Evolution

The Ethical Case for

Making Better People

by John Harris

Princeton, 260 pp., $27.95

Stem Cell Century

Law and Policy

for a Breakthrough Technology

by Russell Korobkin and Stephen R. Munzer

Yale, 336 pp., $29.95

Imagine it's 1900, and you're a bioethicist. Of course, "bioethics" didn't exist back in 1900--we had real academic disciplines in those days--but play along: You're sitting on a presidential bioethics commission, and scientists show up to testify that a new thing called vaccination could increase life spans by 30 years. Would you judge vaccination unethical? Would you worry about "potentially devastating impacts on the economy, family, and generational relationships"?

If you wouldn't have objected back in 1900, then you can't object in 2008 to the changes being offered by biotechnology. Or so claims Ronald Green in Babies by Design. According to Green, those who object to some of today's biotechnological innovations are engaged in "status-quo bias rather than reasoned reflection." Reasoned reflection, according to Green, tells us to make "deliberate interventions in our own and our children's genetic markup--to both prevent disease and enhance human life."

Consider another thought experiment. What would have happened had our ape ancestors, millennia ago, decided that their genome was best and did what they could to preserve it, preventing further enhancement? If we don't think the ape genome was best, why should we think our current genome is best?

This just-suppose device appears in John Harris's Enhancing Evolution, another new volume which insists that concerns about the possibly dehumanizing effects of some biotechnologies are unwarranted. Harris asks, why wait for Mother Nature to improve us? Why not improve ourselves? Indeed, he argues, "there is a positive moral duty to enhance." He longs for the day when we replace "natural selection with deliberate selection, Darwinian evolution with 'enhancement evolution'" and anyone who thinks otherwise is "like our imagined ape ancestor who ... thought evolution had gone far enough."

Yet another new book, Russell Korobkin's Stem Cell Century, uses the same device. In it, the dean of the Harvard Medical School tells Korobkin that stem cell therapies "have the potential to do for chronic diseases what antibiotics did for infectious diseases." If you don't object to penicillin, then you can't object to the coming "penicillin for Parkinson's." Phrased like that, who could object?

There's something revealing in these new books. They all argue that we have a moral imperative to enhance ourselves, and none of them seriously confronts the concerns that many thoughtful people have about the moral hazards of trying to design a more perfect human. They want to keep the technologies safe and their applications just, to be sure; but they consider these challenges to be easily surmountable. It's as if we've discovered unqualified human goods. Or as Harris puts it, "enhancements are so obviously good for us that it is odd that the idea of enhancement has caused, and still occasions, so much suspicion, fear, and outright hostility."

John Harris is no fringe figure. He's professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester and editor in chief of the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics. Green, too, belongs to the mainstream. He is a Dartmouth ethics professor and the founding director of the NIH's Office of Genome Ethics. Korobkin has fewer obvious credentials--admitting on his website that he's been researching stem cells only "for the last two years"--but he is a respectable professor at the respected UCLA School of Law.

The surprisingly unsurprising similarity among these authors is that they consistently present inaccurate, strawman versions of opposing arguments. Green, for example, dismisses most opposition out of hand--since, after all, "research has repeatedly shown that human beings resist change, even when there is no good reason to do so." Perhaps Green's whatever-we-decide liberalism, like Harris's libertarian utilitarianism, is simply too shallow to produce penetrating arguments or insights.