How to Be Inhuman

What are the limits to biotech modification?


Biotechnology holds the promise of some day allowing people to enhance themselves and their children using pharmaceuticals or genetic interventions. This prospect is welcomed by some, but causes a great deal of anxiety in many people: Are there enhancements whose benefits would come at the price of our humanity?

The President's Council on Bioethics worries that people who choose to use biotech enhancements would somehow lose themselves: The Council's report "Beyond Therapy" warns "we risk 'turning into someone else,' confounding the identity we have acquired through natural gift cultivated by genuinely lived experiences, alone and with others." Liberal bioethicist George Annas from Boston University is pushing for a global treaty that would ban all inheritable modifications to any person's genetic makeup. He favors such a treaty because he believes that "species-altering genetic engineering [is] a potential weapon of mass destruction, and [that] makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist."

These are not objections grounded in concerns about safety or equity, but in the fear that such changes threaten the very humanity of those who choose them. But do they really?

At the annual conference of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences last month, George Washington University philosopher David DeGrazia offered a quite different perspective. DeGrazia, who was participating in panel discussion on "Genetic Engineering and the Concept of Human Nature" asked: Are there core characteristics of being human that are inviolable? He concluded that "traits that are plausibly targeted by enhancement are not problematic."

DeGrazia considered several traits as candidates for inviolability: internal psychological style, personality, general intelligence and memory, sleep, normal aging, gender, and being a member of the species Homo sapiens. He then systematically demolished various concerns that had been raised about each.

Regarding psychological style, there is no ethical reason to require that a particular person remain worried, suspicious, or downbeat if they want to change. As DeGrazia pointed out, psychotherapy already aims at such self-transformation. If a pill will make a person more confident and upbeat, then there is no reason for them not to use it if they wish. Personality is perhaps the external manifestation of one's internal psychological style, and here, too, it's hard to think of any ethical basis for requiring someone to remain cynical or excessively shy.

But what about boosting intelligence and memory? Of course, from childhood on, we are constantly exhorted to improve ourselves by taking more classes, participating in more job training, and reading good books. Opponents of biotech enhancements might counter that all of these methods of improvement manipulate our environments and do not reach to the genetic cores of our beings. DeGrazia points out that that the wiring of our brains is the result of the interaction between our genes and our environment. For example, our intellectual capacities depend on proper nutrition as well as on our genetic endowments. DeGrazia concludes that one's genome is not fundamentally more important than environmental factors. "They are equally important, so we should bear in mind that no one objects to deliberately introducing environmental factors [schools and diet] that promote intelligence," declares DeGrazia. It does not matter ethically whether one's intellectual capacities are boosted by schooling, a pill, or a set of genes.

All vertebrates sleep. Sleep, unlike cynicism, does seem biologically fundamental, but so what? Nature is not really a reliable source for ethical norms. If a person could safely reduce her need for sleep and enjoy more waking life, that wouldn't seem at all ethically problematic. I suspect that our ancestors without artificial light got a lot more sleep than we moderns do, yet history doesn't suggest that they were morally superior to us.

As everyone knows, the only inevitabilities are taxes and death. Death used to come far more frequently at younger ages, but globally average life expectancy has now risen from around 30 years in 1900 to about 66 years today. "Is normal aging an essential part of any recognizable human life?" asks DeGrazia. He falters here, admitting, "Frankly, I do not know how to determine whether aging is an inviolable characteristic." The question, then, is whether someone who does try to "violate" this characteristic by biotechnological means is acting unethically. It is hard to see why the answer would be yes. Such would-be immortals are not forcing other people to live or die, nor are they infringing on the rights and dignities of others. DeGrazia does recognize that biotech methods aimed at slowing or delaying aging significantly are not morally different from technologies that would boost intelligence or reduce the need for sleep. He concludes, "Even if aging is an inviolable core trait of human beings, living no more than a specified number of years is not."

In the age of transgendered people, it seems a bit outmoded to ask if one's biological sex is an inviolable core characteristic. Plenty of people have already eagerly violated it. Yet, the President's Council on Bioethics declared, "Every cell of the body marks us as either male or female, and it is hard to imagine any more fundamental or essential characteristic of a person." Clearly, thousands of people's fundamental sexual identities depend on more than the presence of an X or Y chromosome in their bodies' cells.

Finally, DeGrazia wonders if even being a member of the species Homo sapiens constitutes an inviolable core trait. He specifically thinks of a plausible future in which parents add an extra pair of artificial chromosomes carrying various beneficial genetic modifications to the genomes of the embryos that will become their children. Such people would have 48 chromosomes, which means that they could not reproduce with anyone who carries the normal 46 chromosomes. "It seems to me, however, that these individuals would still be 'human' in any sense that might be normatively important," concludes DeGrazia. I believe that DeGrazia is correct. After all, infertile people today are still fully human. Oddly, DeGrazia thinks that this "risk to reproductive capacities" might warrant restricting the installation of extra chromosomes to consenting adults only. But why should one think that a person with 48 chromosomes who falls in love with a person with only 46 chromosomes can't simply use advanced genetic engineering techniques to overcome that problem?

DeGrazia convincingly argues that whatever it is that makes us fundamentally us is not captured by the set of characteristics he considers. The inviolable core of our identities is the narrative of our lives—the sum of our experiences, enhanced or not. If we lose that core, say through dementia, we truly do lose ourselves. But whoever we are persists and perhaps even flourishes if we choose to use biotech to brighten our moods, improve our personalities, boost our intelligence, sleep less, live longer healthier lives, change our gender, or even join a new species.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.