â€œMillions long for immortality who donâ€™t know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon,â€ wrote the novelist Susan Ertz. But bioethics professor John Harris has no worries about filling his weekend tea times: â€œOnly the terminally boring are in danger of being terminally bored,â€ he insists.
Harris is â€œsomeone who wants to live forever and happens to live in Central Manchester.â€ And his concern is that the people of Englandâ€™s industrial northwest tend to meet their maker rather early: on average when 10 years earlier than the blessed folk of Chelsea. But he expects that to change. Harris believes that biotechnology â€“ in particular the use of stem-cell research and genetic engineering â€“ will soon be able to deliver us from death and disease.
In Enhancing Evolution, Harris claims that harnessing technology to make ourselves and our children fitter, stronger and cleverer should not only be allowed, but is in fact a moral duty. He stresses that we cannot meaningfully separate medical treatment from enhancement â€“ into which category would vaccinations fall? Or glasses? We should do whatever brings clear benefits. So if we think our babies would benefit from immunity to cancer or improved powers of concentration, we should design them accordingly.
Harris is aware such moves may eventually make us something other than human. â€œSo what?â€ he responds. Imagine if our ape ancestors had been satisfied with their lot and attempted to freeze the genome as it was 100,000 years ago. We should not, he maintains, â€œmake a fetish of a particular evolutionary phaseâ€.
A member of the UKâ€™s Human Genetics Commission, Harris is most controversial when discussing the â€œirredeemably ambiguousâ€ status of the embryo. Three out of four embryos do not come to term, he says: if we were really worried about embryos dying we would stop having sex. Answering the charge that to genetically engineer is to â€œplay Godâ€, Harris argues that â€œif it were wrong to interfere with nature we could not, among many other things, practice medicine.â€
Though he often has reason on his side, Harris cannot resist polemic. As a reader, I felt as if I was entering a heated argument halfway through. So whereas little of Enhancing Evolution will be new to those that follow these debates, nor will it serve as a coherent introduction to the beginner. Still, although we are not yet confronted with many of the dilemmas to which Harris provides answers, he is right to say they are imminent. And we will make better policy in response if we debate them now.
This provocative book is a valuable retort to those who would summon the ghost of Frankensteinâ€™s monster at the first sight of a test tube.
The Financial Times Limited 2007 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c142d322-ad11-11dc-b51b-0000779fd2ac.html