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Book Review: Humanity Enhanced - Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies

6 October 2014
Appeared in BioNews 774

Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies

By Russell Blackford

Published by MIT Press

ISBN-10: 0262026619, ISBN-13: 978-0262026611

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Russell Blackford's venture into heated human enhancement rhetoric feels very much like being plunged into the world of Andrew Niccol's 1997 film, Gattaca.

In that film a young man called Vincent Freeman, is conceived naturally in a society where procreation is increasingly governed by eugenics. Gattaca's society terms people like Freeman 'in-valid'; and those created without the use of genetic manipulation enjoy a significantly reduced quality of life compared to the genetically perfect individuals known as 'valids'.

Freeman wants to be astronaut, but his diminished social class forces him and his in-valid comrades into menial jobs. Cleaning the offices at the 'Gattaca Aerospace Corporation' appears to be as close as he will get to realising his dream. He states: 'I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the colour of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science'.

Freeman's assessment of his situation strikes a particular resonance with the anti-enhancement camp who see the possibility of genetic choice as a significant challenge to the values and functioning of our liberal democracy, prompting calls for uncompromising regulatory action to quell this kind of reproductive autonomy before we are all reduced to cleaning the offices at NASA. In this latest volume, Blackford rejects this notion, suggesting instead that the real challenge is that Gattaca-inspired fears regarding reproductive biotechnologies have created an atmosphere that threatens liberal tolerance.

Taking a break from bionic limbs and thermal vision implants, Blackford returns to technologies such as reproductive cloning, PGD and genetic engineering. Following the obligatory reference to Dolly the sheep, Blackford launches into a robust defence of these technologies by questioning what harm there is in pursuing them. One gets the impression early on that the author is particularly keen on gene selection and manipulation. He confidently brushes aside concerns that such practices would permanently change humanity's gene pool by telling us the more this happens, the better off we are.

Perhaps my favourite part of this book is the manner in which Blackford criticises default objections based on ideas of autonomy, human nature, dignity and the inherent value of human beings. The word 'vague' comes to mind. The sooner these arguments are rethought in a way that is relevant to modern humans, the sooner we can stop wheeling them out as a substitute for meaningful criteria on which to base public policy. Having spent the best part of the summer sifting through various definitions of airy concepts like 'human nature', I can confirm that nobody really knows what it is or where it comes from.

Yet on such indeterminate concepts are thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas's arguments based. Habermas comes under particular scrutiny from Blackford for his argument that children have the right to an open future; something which is denied by the use of genetic engineering. This sort of predetermination seems to contravene the autonomy to make one's own life choices.

However, as Blackford queries, what is the relevance of autonomy as a child? The presence of countless environmental factors in shaping the future of our children, not to mention the influence and intentions of their parents, suggests that this 'open future' is mostly determined regardless of human enhancement. Parents often sign their children up for sports teams or music lessons, so what is so different about deliberately engineering them with a gene that makes them a skilled footballer or saxophonist?

Another particularly interesting part of this book was the chapter devoted to the issue of distributive justice. This addresses concerns that if, and when, reproductive enhancement becomes available it will exacerbate the economic gap between the rich and the poor, as only the wealthy will be able to genetically engineer their children. Blackford impressed me here by avoiding the pitfalls commentators such as Nicholas Agar and Ingmar Persson have wilfully leapt into by realising that the problem of perceived inequality here is entirely due to our system of distribution, rather than enhancement itself.

Sadly, he undoes all this by going on to harshly reject the Rawlsian approach that this inequality is OK, so long as there is some benefit to the most disadvantaged members of society. Instead, he favours placing faith in the ability of liberal democracies to check their excess by 'restricting the workings of capitalist competition'. Unlikely.

Nevertheless, this should not take anything away from the book, which, as a whole, submits a perfectly logical and coherent argument for abstaining from the prohibitive regulation of human enhancement technology. Blackford writes incredibly well and deserves credit for managing to engage with the topic without seeing his work blend in with the wealth of commentaries already published in this field.

His view that liberal democracies should demonstrate liberal values by tolerating and accepting emerging biotechnologies and genetic choice is indicative of the emerging transhumanist perspective, which states that people who don't want enhancement for themselves should allow those of us who do to go forward without hindrance.

Buy Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies from Amazon UK.

31 May 2016 - by Kriss Fearon 
'Produce' is an intriguing and believable portrayal of how parents might act when faced with the chance to decide what genes to give to their future child...
28 September 2015 - by Brendan Foht 
Compared to the frenzy over human cloning a decade ago, in recent years the issue has received very little political attention. But as the ongoing fights over CRISPR and mitochondrial replacement show, some of the underlying debates are still with us...
27 April 2015 - by Dr Ross Cloney 
The image of eugenics often portrayed in the media is reminiscent of the horrors of the early to middle 20th century. Legions of identical blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermenschen, backed by an authoritarian state with no room for diversity or difference. In 'From Bench to Bedside, to Track and Field: the context of enhancement and its ethical relevance', Silvia Camporesi demolishes that image...
8 December 2014 - by Professor John Galloway 
Although the word was not actually used (or at least I did not hear it), this was a polemic making the case for 'eugenics'...
11 August 2014 - by James Storm 
Nicholas Agar has endeared himself to the enhancement debate by being a little bit afraid of 'post humans' – the real life supermen who could very well use their powers for evil and enslave the rest of humanity. It may come as no surprise then that Agar's latest venture into the debate continues in much the same vein....
4 November 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
Underlying the genetics of intelligence debate is our strong attachment to the idea of 'potential' and freedom to fulfil it. This blank slate approach to achievement is seductive, but is it based in fact?...
11 March 2013 - by Professor John Galloway 
Perhaps fortuitously, I started to read Maxwell Mehlman's book at the same time as Roy Porter's 'A short history of madness'. It was then difficult not to muse on what Jonathan Swift might have made of 'transhumanising scientists'...
23 January 2012 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
What does it mean to be human in an increasingly technology-driven world? This is the question that Steve Fuller, a philosopher turned sociology professor, discusses in his latest book Humanity 2.0...
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