Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 50


I enjoyed reading Ronald Lindsay’s Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas (Prometheus 2008). It was a provocative analysis of several controversial issues dealing with science and society. One of these is the enhancement of skills. We have multiple standards on what is ethical. If the very rich shower their children with private schools, tutors, test-enhancing study programs, trips to exotic museums and places around the world, we do not demand equality for the impoverished who are denied such enhancements and who will rarely score as well on examinations for admissions to prestigious schools. But we do get upset when athletes cheat by using muscle and stamina enhancing hormones or other drugs to boost their performance. Lindsay properly points out that in sports there are always rules and rulebooks. The fun of watching athletes is our premise that natural talents are the only skills that can be exercised and that secretly used artificial agents to give an advantage is a form of cheating. One can resolve this by banning such enhancement drugs (and punishing those who use them) or by making them available to all athletes (although the ethics of delayed health effects from using them might be quite important). But what if genetic enhancement of skills became possible in the decades ahead? Would it be appropriate for parents to enhance their children’s talents and academic skills by such means?

Lindsay argues we have always used enhancements to improve our lives. He is right. Since Prometheus (who gave fire to humans and angered his fellow gods) and Adam and Eve (who chose eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge giving them a sense of good and evil), humans have chosen to enhance their skills. We do this for our senses (telescopes, microscopes, x-rays to see inside our bodies, night vision goggles used in war). We enhance our immune systems by using antibiotics or vaccinations to cheat and kill invading bacteria. All of medicine is an enhancement to cheat nature of its evolutionary toll of our less efficient genotypes. If our biblical allotment of life is threescore years and ten, we would not complain of shifting it to 90 for our children because of the enhancements of modern technology that keep them from that lesser expectation. We may argue that using DNA in some distant future to enhance our personal lives or our children’s lives is unnatural, but we wallow in unnatural technologies to keep us alive or functional, including devices like eyeglasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, insulin for diabetics, and many other chemical and mechanical means. Most of our choices are based on risk-benefit analysis in which we weigh the value of the unnatural (false teeth) against the natural (a mushy diet) and make a choice. This is true for restorative devices (hearing aids) or enhancing devices (telephones, the internet) to communicate with those far away. We enhance our children by straightening their teeth, using cosmetic surgery to reshape a nose, minor surgery to remove warts and serious blemishes. The cosmetic industry is based on the principle of enhancement and few of us can claim a life unadorned by some cosmetic use in our lifetime.

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