In medicine, the objective is to restore the human body back to normality or ideally to prevent it becoming abnormal in the first place. In many instances, healthcare can do this; in the developed world, with antibiotics and vaccinations, previously debilitating and deadly infections have largely disappeared. There are, however, large swathes of medicine where it falls short of its objective; if one considers spinal cord injury, heart failure, or any number of the conditions which remain stubbornly non-amenable to restorative treatment then one realises how far we have to go.
The drive to realise these cures coupled with the ever accelerating pace of technological change means that what seems far away today may well be just around the corner. However, a question that is rarely asked is what will happen if and when we go beyond cures? Is it not inevitable that we will continue to push beyond our limits?
Apart from the controversial fields of aesthetic plastic surgery and performance enhancing drugs, there are no examples of where medicine can enhance humans above and beyond physiological limits. However, it is not difficult to imagine that the cochlear implants that restore hearing to the deaf now will soon be able to give superior hearing or that the artificial hearts that offer a temporary bridge to transplant will offer permanent and superior replacement. The prosthetic limbs that even now are beginning to be developed with neural input will likely soon be capable of far more than our own natural limbs, the list goes on.
In the areas where we have the greatest drive, surely we will make some of the greatest strides and this will put medical scientists, doctors, and the like at the heart of literally shaping the humans of tomorrow. Being at the heart of this means that the earlier and the more we think of and engage with the issue, the better the job that we shall make of it.
Human enhancement is the attempt to overcome the limitations of the human body and is a debate that bioethicists have in the current age, it even has its own political movement known as trans-humanism. A testament to how near on the horizon this concept is. Proponents of human enhancement of having the relatively easy task of merely asking why not? After all why would one not want to jump higher, think faster, and live longer amongst other abilities?
The opposition to human enhancement, however, is substantive and varied, and comes from across the political spectrum. Social reactionaries, religious followers, and conservatives obviously oppose such a radical departure from the norm, from the fundamental human being, and fear a slippery slope that would send mankind into a future where they become unrecognisable. An attempt to restrict the freedom of the individual to choose if they want to be enhanced is hard to justify but considering the tangible power these individuals would yield in society and the consequences that could cause, might society not be justified in restricting this power?
The progressive left meanwhile argue that human enhancement technology would exacerbate inequality to a level we’ve never known. After all, in a capitalist society one can only expect enhancement technology to be available to the richest in the most developed nations. Capital always begets capital but if the rich can outperform any other human then imagine how much wealth they could accumulate, wealth that would only grant them ever better enhancements. This is not to mention the power that the corporations at the forefront of human enhancement technology would enjoy.
The world would likely experience a new level of inequality, one not just typified by differences in work and lifestyle but one symbolised by the emergence of a new and superior subset of the human species. If the idea of this in-and-of itself doesn’t cause concern then the work of Anthony Atkinson and others like him aptly demonstrates the problems that are generated and exacerbated by inequality. Crime, political instability, loss of social cohesion, and economic downturns are but some of the problems one could expect to worsen. Could we not strike a balance though? Could society not manage this technology in such a way so as to limit the growth in inequality? It certainly doesn’t have a good track record in this regard.
Human enhancement is a development that I think we will have to deal with. Maybe doesn’t come into it. These questions may all seem hypothetical but they will soon be faced by anyone involved in medicine or biomedical research and we must engage with them sooner rather than later.