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Dangers of biotechnology?

Via A&L daily, I found this great review by Jonathan Rauch of the report put out by the President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Happiness.

Rauch makes an intriguing argument: even if biotechnology eventually allows us to "enhance" ourselves in a way that severs our connection with what it means to be human, the results might not be as bad as we might think. Use of these technologies might not spiral out of control as some pessimists fear, but instead might be self-limited:

At its core, the council’s fear is that biotech is a slippery slope with no bottom. Yet there are already all kinds of enhancement tools that most people forgo. Cosmetic surgery is readily available and fairly inexpensive. But it remains very much a minority taste, showing no sign of becoming the norm. For that matter, Americans could live longer, look better and even feel happier by exercising vigorously for a few hours a week. Most don’t. What is surprising is not how much people will do to make themselves “better than normal,” but how little.

. . .Instead of running out of control, biotechnology may be subject to a natural restraining principle, a natural equilibrium. That possible equilibrium is what we call “wellness.”

Rauch describes wellness as the condition of not having to think about your health at all. You're neither sick and obsessed with regaining your health, nor are you like a bodybuilder on anabolic steroids who's obsessed with maintaining his "enhanced" condition. Wellness is an equilibrium point that attracts those who lie on either side of it.

If it is true that most humans naturally seek wellness rather than perfection and know wellness when they’ve got it, then we have much less to worry about than Beyond Therapy fears. Some people, like Michael Jackson, might stop at nothing to “improve” themselves; but those people would remain a minority, more pitied than envied, cautionary lessons rather than exemplars. The distinction between therapy and enhancement would hold for most people, most of the time. In fact, the weird effects of future biotechnological enhancements—which could make Michael Jackson look normal in comparison—might make wellness more appealing than ever. The idea of being better than normal may prove a bigger flop than the Edsel.

Rauch's argument is appealing-- his point about people's unwillingness to excercise is particularly on-target. He may well be correct that even if biotechnology is able to offer us enhancements that alter our understanding of what it means to be a human being, we human beings won't accept the offer.

Before we allow Rauch's insights to make us sanguine about the dangers of biotech, though, we ought to consider the following:

  • Biotech enhancements might not always be simply offered to us in the way that Rauch describes. Germline engineering, for example, might allow parents to make enhancement decisions for their children. These kids might never know what it was like to experience ordinary "wellness," since some significant part of who they are will have been "enhanced" from birth. These enhanced people won't have chosen their enhancements for themselves. Moreover, these germline genetic enhancements wouldn't imply any need to be "obsessed" over one's health in the way that Rauch's bodybuilder is obsessed. The wellness equilibrium might still apply to the child whose genes have been enhanced, but because the enhancements have been made before birth, it won't serve as a brake on the technology in the way Rauch describes.

  • There are other ways that biotech enhancements might be imposed upon us. The government might try to develop human/animal chimeras that might be useful as soldiers (bye bye Draft, hello Army of the Gorilla Men). What might begin as an optional means of implanting medical records under the skin might be developed into a permanently-implanted identity card (no need to show ID at the airport ticket counters). The great "efficiencies" that these technologies provide ought to make us skeptical that these uses will be easily abandoned.

  • Apart from the unwilling imposition of biotech enhancements that negate the "natural equilibrium" of "wellness," we might consider the possibility that competitive pressures might unduly influence our choices about biotechnology. While it's true that too few people reap the benefits of exercise, the societal obsession with thinness induces millions of people to spend outrageous sums on diet books, magazines, and pills. If exercise was as easy as buying a weight-loss pill, many more people might pursue "enhancement" beyond the state of wellness, because of the perceived social requirement to be thin at all costs. This pressure to become thin would only increase as it became easier to do so, and fewer and fewer people were left that did not meet the society's definition of "thin." This competitive pressure might also induce people to enhance their IQs beyond the state of "wellness." After the technology became available, employers might seek to hire only those people that had chosen the enhancement. Universities seeking to admit the "smartest" people might end up admitting only those who had chosen to "enhance" themselves, and thus the pressure to choose the enhancement might become irresistible as "falling behind" became the only alternative.

    The point of all this may be only that if you're inclined to worry about the dangers of biotechnology, it's not hard to do. I agree with Rauch that we ought to count our blessings for the Council's worrying, since someone, somewhere, ought to be doing it.

    Perhaps the only thing that George W. Bush has done right since taking office is to appoint Leon Kass to chair the Concil on Bioethics.

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