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Cover of Better Than Human

Title: Better Than Human
Author: Allen Buchanan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: 2011
ISBN13: 978-0-199-79787-5
Pages: 208
Price: $21.95
Rating: 90%

 

According to Allen Buchanan, the author of Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves, human evolution is "nasty, brutish, and long." Random genetic mutations occur in the population and, over long periods of time, those characteristics that contribute to reproductive fitness tend to take hold. Some harmful or limiting mutations, such as the human inability to produce our own Vitamin C, seem to have no beneficial trade-off yet remain as part of our biology. With evolution, you take the bad with the good .

But what if we could stack the deck in our favor? What are the ethics of moving from Unintentional Genetic Mutation (i.e., evolution and environmental effects) to Intentional Genetic Mutation of humans? The author certainly has the background to address the issue credibly. Buchanan, the James B. Duke Professor at Duke University, served on two presidential commissions tasked with examining bioethics and was also a member of the Advisory Council for the National Human Genome Research Institute. His experiences on the panel created during the term of President George W. Bush figure prominently in the book.

Evaluating Human Bioengineering

Buchanan starts by attacking the arguments that would prohibit any intentional bioengineering of humans: we shouldn't change our biology, we shouldn't change the human gene pool, we shouldn't risk changing human nature, and that bioengineering is tantamount to playing God. He agrees that we shouldn't rush into bioengineering of humans without addressing these concerns, but notes that the dictum against playing God "doesn't enable us to draw a bright line between biomedical enhancements and other technologies." Buchanan gives the example of a child with a cleft palette, which can usually be corrected through surgery. This manual intervention contravenes what God (or genetics, or both) hath wrought, yet only an exceedingly small minority of Americans would refuse to allow a surgeon to correct such a defect in their child.

Given the author's aggressive rhetoric in his refutation of the arguments against bioengineering of any kind, I expected him to argue in favor of moving ahead with limited human bioengineering in the near term. In fact, his position seems quite cautious and moderate by comparison.

Before laying out his approach, Buchanan criticizes the Precautionary Principle, which is often cited by opponents of genetic engineering of any kind, but especially against genetically modified organisms in agriculture. There is no single Precautionary Principle, which makes it a moving target, but Buchanan characterizes it as prohibiting the adoption of any new technology without clear evidence that doing so will bring no significant harm. This formulation is exceedingly restrictive, especially because it ignores potential benefits, and will no doubt be characterized as a straw man by critics. That said, it's hard to see how one could set a threshold for proof given the uncertainty of future effects.

That said, human bioenhancement strikes home in a way that modifying corn doesn't. At least in the early days of the technology, intentionally altering an embryo's genetic makeup in vitro could give the child advantages or disadvantages available only to parents with the luck to have been born in a technologically advanced society and with the means to pay for the procedure. Buchanan argues against the notion that human bioenhancement must necessarily be expensive or that these techniques will be available only in first world countries, but given the uneven global availability of food, it's highly likely that such will be the case.

Rather than relying on a single principle, the author offers a set of seven principles by which bioengineering could be evaluated. The principles are counting principles, in the sense that the better one can meet the conditions of each principle, the more one should be in favor of bioengineering. Buchanan concludes that contemporary science is incapable of providing the information required to address his principles. He does point out that science is advancing rapidly, but one significant objection to immediate human bioengineering is that we are not aware of how making a change will cascade throughout the recipient's genome.

Conclusions

Overall, I found Buchanan's writing to be clear and persuasive. He has obviously debated these issues numerous times and appeared to adopt a rhetorical strategy designed to make his conclusions seem eminently reasonable. Better Than Human is a condensed version of another more academic work, Beyond Humanity?, which the author also wrote for Oxford University Press. Better Than Human contains no footnotes but does have a substantial bibliography and, as the author points out, academics and serious bioethicists should read Beyond Humanity?.

As a general reader, I believe Better Than Human is a valuable introduction to the field of bioethics in the context of human bioengineering. The book isn't a survey of the bioethics literature -- the author does have a point to prove and an axe to grind vis-a-vis a rival from his presidential advisory days -- but he addresses significant arguments against his position and offers a reasonable approach. What's more, his principles and method of applying them are specific enough to foster useful debate. That last point alone makes Buchanan's work worthy of praise.

Curtis Frye  

Curtis Frye (cfrye@techsoc.com) is a freelance writer and corporate entertainer who lives in Portland, Oregon. He has written more than 20 books and recorded over a dozen training courses on Microsoft Excel -- you can find his free online resources for Excel users at www.thatexcelguy.com. In addition, Curt is a popular speaker and corporate entertainer. For more information about his performance and speaking work, visit www.curtisfrye.com.