as lifestyle choice
if perfection of the human body could become just one lifestyle choice
among others?. In September 2001,
Professor Stephen Harrap and his team from the University of
Melbourne announced the discovery of two genes vital in determining
the height of men. Men with both genes were up to 4.2 cms taller than
would otherwise be the case[i].
discovery gives rise to two possible outcomes. First is the use of
gene therapy to treat people with disease. Harrap says a link may be
established between the two genes and osteoporosis in men.
second possible outcome is the use of the new gene technologies for
human enhancement. Healthy
people may choose to become tall as a lifestyle choice.
use of gene therapy for people with serious genetic conditions is no
longer controversial. Research using stem cells is proceeding, though
under some restrictions. Gene therapy offers hope to people with
otherwise untreatable disease.
though, of the use of genetic technologies for the enhancement of
otherwise healthy people? Human
enhancement is already big business, with cosmetic surgery, anabolic
steroids, and the recreational use of drugs. These projects are highly
controversial. Enhancement through recreational drugs is mostly
illegal. The use of anabolic steroids in sport may give temporary
enhancement, to be followed
by years of physical decline.
technologies will add new dimensions to human enhancement.
is with the subject of human enhancement in mind that I read the
article by Graham Molitor, ‘Genetic engineering and life sciences:
controlling evolution’. Molitor
writes with a commendable biological optimism that I wish I
could share. But I cannot.
like to sketch three possible scenarios.
a country that I shall call country A.
It is ruled by a caste of feudal warlords who have their own
idea of human enhancement. They know women are useless for fighting,
for God forbids women to use Kalashnikovs. The men of country A have
eliminated the XX chromosome pair from their populations. No women are
born anymore. The population is all male.
techniques of cloning and male pregnancy, women were not needed.
When pregnancy proved
too unpleasant an experience even for a hardened warlord,
came the creation
of the artificial womb and the baby boy in the vat.
a deeply god-fearing people, they enhance the gene for God, so that
the baby boys are born with a great sense of awe and wonder at the
mysteries of the world.
warlords of Country A enhance the gene for God, because they believe
there is but one god, but they get themselves into a lot of trouble
gene for God , enhanced , gave people a sense of a heightened
spirituality. God, however, manifests himself in many ways. The
men of country A began to find a multitude of paths to God, and
that was something that can not be controlled with guns. Country A
became, for a while, the land of a million martyrs, until
people got sick of the killing, as eventually they must. Some of their
men were in the business of creating the babies, and babies must be
nurtured somehow, otherwise they languish and die from despair.
Country A changed, though it took them too long to discover
that their version of human enhancement was more of a path to human
B also engaged in full-scale human enhancement programs. Country B is
the dominant world power, its currency the most sought after. Its
economy is powered by biotechnology industries, and biochip brain
enhancers. But there is
one big problem that stands in the way of their human enhancement
program. Country A women refuse to have anything to do with Country A
men. The women say all the men do is work, drink, and make money. When
they come home, all they want is a spotless house and a docile wife,
as in the times of old.
men of country A decided to breed the docile wife, but it took longer
than they thought, and the results were unexpected. They found
themselves with the worst of both worlds. The Country A man became
docile in business deals and
aggressive in the kitchen.
scenario might interpret the term “human-enhancement” in quite
another way, as in the human-enhancement, through industrial processes
and deforestation, of the greenhouse effect. Molitor’s forecasts
read as if they will take place in a world rather like the United
States of America in the year 2001, before the destruction of the two
world trade towers. What if, though, the climate changes
significantly? Might we then be choosing to enhance quite different
features of our future selves, for example, selection for small,
light-weight people who will be able to live more simply in the
flood-plains of future urban swamps? Like it
or not the human enhancement technologies are coming, and some of will
turn out to be worthwhile, and others will be big mistakes.
idea of perfection as a lifestyle choice makes it seem as if the
individual acts alone in making decisions about what size body to be
wearing this year. Yet there is more to it than this. In the future
parents may be making genetic decisions for their future child for
enhancement purposes, in addition to the present use of genetic
counselling for parents who carry seriously defective genes. Problems
lie in the framing of the human enhancement as the individual’s
right to choose. For
people in rich nations, it can mean more cosmetic surgery, more
recreational drugs, short men becoming taller, and other outcomes of
the links between big business and medicine. There is money in selling
people what they want, and persuading us we want the perfect body is
big enough business already.
enhancement may mean more than this. For developing nations, it may
mean economic self-reliance, food security, economic sustainability,
basic but effective healthcare, and the preservation of
biodiversity and other natural resources.
human enhancement debate is just beginning.
I think, assumes that illness is something we can recognise, and will
be able to fix; that beauty is something we will recognise, and be
able to enhance; and the
same goes for personality.
Carl Elliott disagrees. In his essay, ‘What’s wrong with
enhancement technologies?’ Elliott writes that our understandings of
illness and personality and beauty are culturally located in
Our present understandings will not be our future understandings. They
won’t look the same to someone from another culture, nor will they
look the same to us in fifty years time.
the development of human
enhancement technologies will proceed
differently in different countries. Some of those uses we are not
going to like, or admire.One
suggested use of the discovery of the two genes for tallness in men
may be to help aspiring
basketballers become taller. But in fifty, or two hundred years, time,
basketball may no longer be a dominant world sport. Men may seek to
suppress rather than enhance their genes for tallness, for reasons we
can’t even begin to understand.
published in Journal of Futures Studies, 6, February 2002, pp
Ellis, Justine A., Stebbing, Margaret,
P. 2001. “Significant population variation in adult male height
associated with the Y chromosome and the aromatase gene.” Journal
of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 86 (9) 4147-4150
2. Carl Elliott,
‘What’s wrong with enhancement technologies?’ CHIPS Public
Lecture, University of Minnesota, 1998, at the Enhancement
Technologies Group website at