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Book Review: Enhancing Evolution - The Ethical Case for Making Better People

12 January 2010
By Dr Iain Brassington
Lecturer in Bioethics, CSEP/ iSEI, School of Law, University of Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 541

Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People

By Professor John Harris

Published by Princeton University Press

ISBN-10: 0691128448, ISBN-13: 978-0691128443

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People' by Professor John Harris

Quite understandably, eugenics got a bad name during the 20th century; and, in many people's minds, it is still associated with programmes of mass forced sterilisation and industrial killing. On the other hand, the project of 'improving' humanity - which is what eugenics is really about - doesn't have to demand these measures; it is quite possible to embrace the idea that we can or should work to eliminate undesirable characteristics from the gene pool, and maybe introduce desirable ones, without having at the same time having to embrace the excesses of some eugenicists. Moreover, the progress that has been made in genetic science in the past few years has meant that the prospect of genetically engineering our children is not so far-fetched as all that. It is possible that the era of what Nicholas Agar has called 'liberal eugenics' is dawning.

John Harris, along with Agar and Julian Savulescu, is one of the highest-profile proponents of this new eugenic movement. In Enhancing Evolution, a brisk and highly readable volume that draws both on the science and on 30 years of his own thought, he takes on the task of showing that such interventions are good and right. We ought, he says, to be looking at ways to enhance our children, be that by getting rid of genes for genetic illness, by engineering resistance to non-genetic illness or age - he's all in favour of immortality - or by engineering higher intelligence or athletic ability: 'improving life, health, life-expectancy and so on is […] a mandatory dimension of any moral programme' (1).

I think that Harris is right to claim that the goodness of enhancements is barely worth arguing because it seems to be necessarily and trivially true; he understands an enhancement to be 'anything that makes a change, a difference for the better' (2) and, so if some intervention wasn't good, it wouldn't be an enhancement. And while what is good for one person may not be good for the community as a whole, this doesn't tell us that the enhancement is no such thing after all; it is up to us to come up with ways to accommodate it. For example, immunity to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) might remove a hurdle to population growth, and high populations may give us problems; but this does not mean that we ought to leave people vulnerable to HIV - working for clean energy and higher crop yields would solve the population problem.

But this is not to say that the arguments for enhancement are watertight. They aren't, and just because something is good, it doesn't follow that it's right. One big problem that Harris faces is that his claim that enhancement is a moral duty - as the title of chapter 2 tells us it is - looks to be in danger of collapsing into absurdity. For there is any number of things that might alter a person's life for the better. Being more intelligent or healthier is certainly one of these things. But a person's life would also be improved, howsoever marginally, by the ability to echolocate; hence, by Harris' reasoning, that must count as an enhancement. So far, so good; but if enhancement is mandatory, it would seem to follow that we are morally required to engineer echolocating children. At the same time, we would be morally required to engineer them in any number of other ways. The problem here is that, since the number of potential enhancements is indefinite if not infinite, it seems to be the case that, no matter how many enhancements we provide, we would be no closer to discharging our duty to enhance. And to the extent that not to discharge a duty is to leave oneself open to justifiable blame, it would seem to follow that we could not escape justifiable blame. This, though, is crazy; therefore enhancement simpliciter does not seem to be all that much of a duty after all.

Perhaps Harris means that there are certain enhancements that are mandatory, and others that are merely good or useful. This would certainly save him from absurdity - but we would then be left wanting to know which enhancements are the more important ones. Is echolocation one of the obligatory enhancements? What about resistance to irritable bowel syndrome? We may have our intuitions about which enhancements are wholly optional, of course, but when we're talking about duty, we need more than an intuition: we need to be able to say that this or that really is obligatory and to provide compelling reasons for thinking in that manner. Harris does not obviously provide any such rubric for deciding which are the most important enhancements; hence he risks either demanding too much, or saying too little.

We might also question whether Harris is correct to call enhancement a duty in any guise. Again, if something is a duty, we might reasonably expect that it would be wrong for us not to do it. But suppose I decide not to enhance my children; is this necessarily wrong on my part? It is not clear that it is, or why. A powerful reason for this has been articulated by Becki Bennett; whatever its genetic quirks, she points out, this is the only chance it ever had to come to existence. Suppose you decide to have a genetically-engineered child; this would almost certainly have to be done by manipulating one or both of the gametes that will produce it, or manipulating the undifferentiated cells in a very early embryo. But if you alter the genes at this stage, you don't thereby improve your child's lot; you simply ensure that one possible future child never comes to exist, and another exists in its place. So you don't wrong a child by not enhancing it, unless you think that you can wrong it by giving it its only shot at a life of any sort. The question then is this: can you actually wrong a child by allowing it, rather than one substantially like it, to come to birth? Bennett's answer is that this is unlikely: even the most severely disabled are likely to have a life worth living, and so are better off existing than not (3). And if Bennett is right, Harris' claim about enhancements' being obligatory seems to fail.

Enhancing Evolution is a stimulating piece of work; even those who disagree will find that there is plenty there to provoke thought. For this reason alone, it is recommended. Its problem is that Harris goes too far; in saying that enhancement is not only permissible and admirable, but right and obligatory, he has overplayed a hand that was plentifully strong.

Buy Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People from Amazon UK.

1) Harris, J, Enhancing Evolution, p.39; emphasis mine
|  21 May 2022
2) Ibid., p.36
|  21 May 2022
3) Bennett, R, 'The Fallacy of the Principle of Procreative Beneficence', Bioethics, vol. 23, # 5, pp. 265-273
|  21 May 2022
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