Can technology make us more or less human?

A new publication explores the hopes and fears for smart pills, life extension and cosmetic surgery.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

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Will enhancement technologies damage our sense of our humanity; or will they make us better humans, even creating a new breed of super- or post-humans? That was the question asked in a new Demos pamphlet, ‘Better Humans?’, launched at the Wellcome Trust in London last night.

On one side stood those with heady hopes for the possibilities of enhancement technologies. Cambridge geneticist Dr Aubrey de Grey anticipated a massive extension of the human lifespan, achieved by offsetting the processes of ageing. Futurist Nick Bostrom argues that until now humanity has focused on cultural development – now is time for dramatic changes in the way in which we ‘eat, sleep, defecate, fornicate, see, hear, feel, think and age’. Some even predicted that technologies could allow mind reading between individuals, reducing misunderstandings and perhaps social conflict.

On the other side stood those worried that enhancement technology poses a threat to our humanity. The social theorist Jürgen Habermas is concerned that ‘biotechnology will cause us in some ways to lose our humanity – that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going’. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting wonders whether her granddaughter will be pressured to take cognitive enhancement drugs to keep up with her classmates at school: ‘in a competitive, unequal world, we could hurtle towards some horrible futures.’ (1) Neuroscientist Steven Rose worries about brain implants and the authorities using technology to read our minds, and asks what this would do to ‘our self-conception as humans with agency, with the freedom to shape our own lives’.

This debate has a runaway, fantasy quality. It seems that all our hopes and fears for humanity are being projected on to these enhancement technologies; technology is often attributed with an autonomous power to decide our fate. ‘We must be prepared for the changes when they happen’, said one member of the audience last night, as if technological development occurs of its own accord. ‘There is no stop button available’, writes Madeleine Bunting. Both sides forget, it seems, that it is we who invent and control technology.

Panellists Daniel Glaser and Sarah Franklin (a neuroscientist and associate director of BIOS at the London School of Economics, respectively) helped to bring the discussion down to earth. Speculation is running way ahead of the science, said Glaser: ‘We don’t even know properly how our brains work.’ Franklin reflected on her work with users of pre-implantation genetics, and said that most people just wanted to use these technologies to have healthy, ordinary children, rather than to produce sci-fi ‘designer babies’. When we are talking about real science and real people, much of the speculation seems overexcited.

Of course biological technology – like all other technology – will change our view of ourselves. But as US bioethicist Arthur Caplan points out in the Demos pamphlet, it is in our nature to constantly be changing ourselves. ‘We are a creature or species….in a state of flux’, he writes: there is nothing wrong with trying to be ‘stronger, faster or smarter…. That’s what agriculture is. That’s what plumbing is. That’s what clothes are’. Today, some seem to equate being human with being natural, when in actual fact the exact opposite is the case.

Add to this the fact that our physical bodies aren’t as important to us as to animals. If you removed a lion’s claws, it wouldn’t be a lion anymore. Yet even if a human being is completely paralysed, he or she maintains their humanity. Stephen Hawking looks like a shrunken pile of bones, yet in his scientific investigations he is probing the secrets of the origin of the universe. If we remain human when we are paralysed, there is no reason why we would cease to be if we took memory-enhancing drugs or improved our eyesight.

Perhaps the truth is that enhancement technologies can extend us and make us more human, or they can make us feel less human. This depends, not on the technologies themselves, but on us.

If we are enthusiastic about life, and sure of our ends and goals, enhancement technologies will enhance us. Life extension offers tantalising possibilities: after all, as de Grey points out, ‘ageing not only kills you, but kills you very horribly’. Just imagine if we had 200 years to play with; the possibility for accumulated experience and achievement would be immense. Think of all those past geniuses who were cut off in their prime, and what might have been possible had they lived a few decades more. What exactly is so marvellously human about dying early, or forgetting things, or not being able to see properly?

But on the other hand, if we are down about life, and unsure of our ends and goals, enhancement technologies won’t help us. As one of the contributors asked, ‘if a life limited to 100 years is devoid of meaning, why would living to 200, or even 2000, improve matters?’. In this situation, longevity would be more of a burden than a blessing. This is where all the examples of cosmetic surgery and pills come in. A contribution by journalist Decca Aitkenhead detailed the grotesque spectacles of cosmetic makeover shows, where participants surrender their bodies for redesign under the surgeon’s knife. Steven Rose notes how drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin are being used to try to ameliorate the everyday stresses and difficulties of life.

In these cases, people are looking to technologies as avoidance strategies, hoping that a new pair of breasts or a boost in Serotonin will inject meaning into their lives. This doesn’t happen, of course – indeed, they just become less able to face up to their problems, and less happy as a result.

In all these questions, it’s human values that are the key – not the particular technology being used, or even the provenance of the body part. It is possible to make a foreign organ into part of yourself – as seen in organ transplants, prosthetic limbs, or the recent face transplant of a French woman. Equally, it is possible to feel that your own body parts don’t really belong to you – as seen in cases of sex-change operations, or voluntary amputation. The question hangs on whether we are self-possessed or alienated from ourselves.

It’s because this area is really a debate about values that it is interesting. Do we want to live longer – if not, why not? How do we use technologies to extend ourselves rather than avoid ourselves? It is also why it should be a matter for public discussion, rather than just the concern of scientists and futurists.

See Better Humans on the Demos website.

(1) There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering, Guardian, 30 January 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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