Bettering Humans

March 2019 Pulse

Since the mid-nineties, doctors in America have been prescribing human growth hormones to healthy children whose projected adult height is in the bottom first percentile – five feet three inches for boys and four feet, eleven inches for girls – in order to make them taller.

For many years, a biotech company based in New Jersey called Memory Pharmaceuticals has been developing memory enhancing drugs or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (sometimes dubbed the ‘Viagra of the brain’) and targeting the 76 million baby-boomers in America who are experiencing age-related memory loss.

These examples are just the tip of a large iceberg of what some philosophers and ethicists have been calling enhancement technologies, arguably the fastest growing and one of the most troubling developments in our biotech age. ‘Enhancement technologies’ is the hypernym that refers to the use of genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnologies, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, etc., for human enhancement.

Enhancement technologies therefore refer to the use of technology to increase certain physiological or mental attributes that could not be achieved naturally. Height increase and memory enhancement are examples of the goals to which such technologies are directed.

The myriad of ethical and social issues raised by the use of biotechnology for enhancing human capabilities have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning literature of the subject. Many worry that enhancement technologies will exacerbate the injustices that already obtain in current biotechnologies and their applications.

For example, they may worsen social inequality because only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the benefits of these cutting-edge technologies. This could further result in the creation of two classes of humans – the enhanced and the unenhanced – thus further stratifying a society already polarised by racial and economic divides.

One could easily add to the list of social woes that the use of such technologies could bring about – rabid social discriminations, and even eugenics.

Despite these concerns, some advocates and visionaries of human enhancement are not satisfied with merely augmenting and strengthening existing capabilities. Their aim is to use these new technologies to create, where possible, novel human capabilities such as infrared vision.

The vision of these prophets is therefore to so radically transform the human being so as to transcend human nature itself. This, of course, raises profound theological and philosophical questions not only about human nature, but also if there is indeed such a thing as human nature to begin with.

To be sure, many transhumanists do believe in some broad and general sense that the concept of human nature has some utility because it enables us to distinguish the human from an animal or machine. In fact, the very term ‘transhumanism’ suggests that there is a ‘human nature’ that science and technology must now seek to transcend.

However, with the advancement of genetic science and cybernetics what constitutes ‘human nature’ has become so fluid that it defies any dogmatic description.

For example, in editing the genetic material of the germline certain transhuman traits may be introduced and irreversibly transmitted to future generations. For better or for worse, that trait now becomes part of human nature, although there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. And in advanced cybernetics, the answer to the question where do the machine end and the human being begin might no longer be as straightforward as when computers and machines were external to the human body.

Enhancement technologies also raise the difficult issue of the extent to which we should allow human creativity – our scientific knowledge and technological prowess – to remake what we are. Put differently, they raise the important and pressing question about whether moral limits should be imposed on science and technology, and how such limits should be determined in the first place.

In its paper on human enhancement, the Conference of European Churches states that while human creativity must surely be encouraged, ‘there are eventually limits’. And it is in recognising these limits that we achieve greater sobriety about our scientific and technological endeavours.

The first step in recognising these limits is to acknowledge our own finitude as creatures. ‘The notion of humans as the image of God’, states the Conference, ‘embodies a fundamental distinction. God is eternal and unlimited, but humans are created and finite’.

In addition, we must also acknowledge the limits of our science and what it can or cannot achieve achieve. ‘Not everything is possible for science to solve, human ingenuity to engineer, or medicine to cure’, states the Conference baldly. To recognise these limits is to jettison that triumphalistic view of science called scientism.

The second step is to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures. ‘Our Christian heritage teaches us to be sceptical of romantic notions of unrestrained human improvement and scientific progress, not only because of finitude but also our moral failings … The borderlines between good and evil can be crossed all too easily’.

The quest for human enhancement reveals something profoundly disturbing about the human condition. It points to an innate sense of unease with our own humanness and creatureliness, or, as Helmut Thielicke puts it, our sinful protest against finitude. In seeking to remake ourselves, to defy the finitude in which we are confined, we reveal the depth of our rebellion against the one made us the kind of creatures we are, who sets the limits – our Creator.

Here is where the scientific community can benefit from the wisdom that can be found in the religious traditions, especially Christianity. It helps us to evaluate the human and cultural enterprise of science and technology and those who shape and apply them.

While the technological imperative urges the scientific community to pursue everything that science has made possible, the Christian tradition raises difficult and inconvenient questions.

In doing so, it emphasises the point that if the scientific enterprise is to be conducted profitably, that is, for human flourishing in the most holistic sense, if science is to achieve its proper goals, these questions are unavoidable.

The technological imperative is fixated with the question of what our science and technology are capable of, what they can do. The questions raised by the Christian faith have to do with whether there are immoral and illicit ways to use the powers that our science and technology have placed in our hands.

Christian faith teaches us that morality not only concerns the things that we must do but also the things that we must refuse to do.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.