Is medicine only about healing and restoration? Or is it also about restructuring human nature so that it is capable of doing far more than it could left to itself?
This debate about the relationship between therapy and enhancement is going to become more and more important. “Transhumanism” is the label given to the work of clinicians and bioethicists who believe that science should be used to transform the human condition and not just to heal it. Remember Lee Majors and the Six Million Dollar Man?
The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration states:
Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
This is from an article by E. Christian Brugger:
Transhumanism is really a set of ideas that has developed in response to the rapid advance of biotechnology in the past 20 years (that is, technology capable of and aimed at manipulating the physical, mental and emotional condition of human beings). Conventional medicine has traditionally aimed at overcoming disorders that afflict the human condition; it has prescribed leeching, cauterizing, amputating, medicating, operating and relocating to dryer climates, all in order to facilitate health and militate against disease and degeneration; in other words, the purpose has been to heal (i.e., has been broadly therapeutic).
Technology is now making possible interventions that in addition to a therapeutic aim are intended to augment healthy human capacities. There is a gradual but steady enlargement taking place in medical ideals from simply healing to healing and enhancement. We are all too familiar with “performance enhancing drugs” in professional sports. But biotechnology promises to make possible forms of enhancement that go far beyond muscle augmentation.
Germ-line gene therapy, for example, still in its infancy, aims to genetically modify human “germ cells” (i.e., sperm and eggs) in order to introduce desirable intellectual, physical and emotional characteristics and exclude undesirable ones. Since the modifications are made to cells in the “germ line,” the traits would be heritable and passed on to subsequent generations. Drugs to improve mental function such as Ritalin and Adderall are increasingly being used by the healthy in order to enhance cognitive abilities. One study has shown that close to 7% of students at U.S. universities have used prescription stimulants for enhancement purposes. That number appears only to be increasing.
Research is rapidly progressing on advanced technologies such as direct brain-computer interfacing (BCI), micromechanical implants, nanotechnologies, retinal, neuromuscular and cortical prostheses, and so-called “telepathy chips.” While it is true that each of these technologies may play a role in transforming the lives of disabled patients to enable them better to communicate, manipulate computers, see, walk, move their limbs and recover from degenerative diseases; transhumanism sees them as potential instruments for transforming human nature.
Their most radical proposal is to overcome death. Although the aim sounds fanciful, there are influential scientists and philosophers committed to it. The prominent transhumanist scientist and inventor, Dr. Ray Kurzweil, argues that for most of human history death was tolerated because there was nothing we could do about it. But a time is rapidly approaching where we will be able to isolate the genes and proteins that cause our cells to degenerate and reprogram them. The assumption of death’s inevitability is no longer credible and ought to be retired.
Brugger is uneasy about these developments:
I fear that the only thing presently preventing wide-scale affirmation of the transhumanist imperative is an emotional “yuck” factor, which we can be sure will gradually subside under the gentle and inexorable prodding of secular opinion. When it does, our rationality insulated by this extreme notion of autonomy will find itself helpless against the technological imperative which says: if we can design our perfect child, if we can be smarter, stronger, and more beautiful, if we can extend human life indefinitely, then we should do it. If embryos are sacrificed through the experimental process required to perfect this technology, or if inequalities are introduced to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others; these are the costs of progress!
I’m certainly against the exploitation of human embryos in any form, and the creation of designed children. But I’m not convinced that you can argue against transhumanism by referring to the inequalities it will create, as these already arise through ordinary medicine. Is it wrong to improve the physical and mental functioning of someone who already exists through medical interventions? In itself, I don’t think so. But there are deeper issues floating around, and I don’t think I’ve puzzled out what they are yet.