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Pulse
19 September 2022

One of the most pressing issues that confronts theologians and ethicists today is how the technology that we now possess, and that is developing at such an incredible pace, should be used for the common good.

In 2007, the British Medical Association on cognitive enhancement published an interesting report entitled, Boosting Your Brainpower: Ethical Aspects of Cognitive Enhancements which made reference to ‘Philosophers [who] speculate about the possibility and the implications of people becoming “post-human” or “trans-human” and our development into a new species that has “super-human” powers.’

The report was undoubtedly alluding to a motley crew of philosophers, academics, futurists and entrepreneurs who have styled themselves as transhumanists, and who believe that our present and future technological prowess should not only be used to treat diseases but also to enhance the human condition.

Several definitions of enhancement and what it actually entails have been offered. For example, in his engaging book The Price of Perfection: Individualism and Society in the End of Biomedical Enhancement (2009), Maxwell J. Mehlman explains that ‘… a biomedical enhancement … raises a person up by improving performance, appearance, or capacity.’

In his essay published in a volume commissioned by the US President Council on Bioethics in 2008, Nick Bostrom defines enhancement as that which ‘improves the functioning of some subsystem of an organism beyond its reference state’ or ‘creates an entirely new functioning or subsystem that the organism previously lacked.’ By ‘reference state’, Bostrom, who is arguably transhumanism’s most articulate spokesman, is referring to the ‘normal and healthy’ state of the subsystem or organism.

This article discusses some of the ways in which scientists are approaching human enhancement and the technologies – both present and future – that might enable them to achieve their goals.

I confine my survey to cognitive enhancements and genetic engineering and modifications.

COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENTS

The quest to enhance human cognitive function is not new. Methods to improve study skills and innovative pedagogical strategies aimed at improving cognitive performance and learning have been around for decades. Mental and psychological training such as guided imagery, mindfulness exercises, and a slew of memory techniques have also been used to improve our brain power.

Drugs such as methylphenidates, which are used to restore balance to the neurotransmitters of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have been used to enhance the cognitive abilities of healthy people. These ‘study drugs’ (or ‘smart drugs’), as they have come to be called, are also used to treat people with low self-esteem and other mental health issues such as psychosis.

Similarly, drugs such as modafinil that are used to treat people with sleep disorders such as narcolepsy are also used to enable healthy individuals to achieve greater mental clarity and to think faster. Healthy people have also used antidementia drugs such as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and memantine to improve their cognitive functions despite the risks and the fact that there is no scientific evidence of their efficacy.

In 1972, the Romanian scholar Cornelius E. Giurgea coined the term nootropics (Greek nous, ‘mind’ and trepein, ‘bend’) to describe the drugs that are used to strengthen cognitive skills, improve concentration and memory, and stave off mental fatigue. These drugs do not only enhance cognitive functions. They also augment bodies and, in some cases, even modify moral behaviour.

Drugs are not only used to make us smarter. Antidepressants such as Prozac are also used to make us happier and more confident. In his informative book Listening to Prozac: A Psychiatrist Explores Antidepressant Drugs and the Remaking of the Self (1993), Peter Kramer coined the term ‘cosmetic psychopharmacology’ to describe these ‘potentiating’ drugs that are used to change mood and personality.

In addition, scientists are currently studying drugs that have the potential to erase memory, especially unpleasant ones such as that of an assault or rape. For example, the drug U0126 has successfully erased selective memories of rats in initial experiments, although further research is needed to conclusively ascertain its effectiveness.

Cognitive enhancements are not limited to only the use of nootropics. Great strides are being made in the exciting field of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which – for example – could allow amputees to control robotic limbs. BCI can also help patients with lock-in-syndrome to communicate through a computer system by using their thoughts to control the software.

Studies are also underway to explore how implants in the brain that deliver continuous electrical stimulation to patients suffering from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases can significantly reduce symptoms and improve memory and cognition. And in the field of neuroprosthetics, researchers are attempting to develop visual prosthetics that will help patients with vision loss.

While all these technologies are developed to help patients with serious debilitating conditions and disabilities, it is not difficult to imagine how they can also be used to enhance the capabilities of a healthy person – thus further blurring the already contested distinction between therapy and enhancement. As Fazale Rana puts it:

It is easy to envision how BCI neuroprosthetic technologies could be used for human enhancements. Robotic limbs that give amputees a fresh start on life could be used to give healthy people super-human strength. In this scenario, a perfectly healthy person asks for his or her limbs to be amputated so that he or she could be equipped with stronger, more durable limbs. It is also easy to conceive how modified cochlear implants or visual neuroprosthetics could be modified to extend a healthy person’s hearing and vision beyond the normal frequency. And, of course, if electrical stimulation to the brain can improve memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients, what could it do for a healthy person?

GENETIC ENGINEERING

Another area that has generated much excitement and hope is genetic engineering, especially with the advent of cheaper and more efficient gene editing technologies such as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR associated protein 9 (CRISPR-Cas 9). This gene editing method has pushed the transhumanist agenda and its vision of the human future through genetic modifications from the fringes to the mainstream.

In his book Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplex, Peter Mahon makes this prediction:

CRISPR thus seems to be taking humanity into the new, uncharted and unsettling territory of genetic posthumanism, whether we like it or not. And once we begin editing, deleting and reverting parts of ourselves as a species, we will no longer simply be ‘human’ any more … We will be genetically engineered posthumans and those alterations will be transmissible to our offspring and their offspring.

Mahon points to the inevitability of using cutting-edge technologies such as CRISPR to enhance the human condition. This is due to what some ethicists have described as the ‘technological imperative’, a powerful if amorphous cultural sensibility which dictates that once we have acquired a certain technology, it is imperative that we use it.

CRISPR is a dual-use technology because it can be used to correct genetic disorders and also to create ‘designer babies.’ Thus, the very presence of this technology contributes to the blurring of the distinction between therapy and enhancement.

CRISPR is already used in a number of studies on genetic enhancement.

One example is the studies to identify (and edit) the genes that dictate human height. In 2014, a massive, large-scale, genome-wide association study involving 300 institutions and over 250,00 subjects, was carried out by the International Genetic Investigation of ANthropometric Traits (GIANT).

The study was unable to identify one specific gene that was responsible for determining height. Instead, it concluded that human height is influenced by about 700 genes located in 400 regions of the human genome together with environmental and other factors (such as nutrition) – underscoring yet again the all-important distinction between the genotype and the phenotype.

However, in 2017, geneticists at Harvard University discovered that although hundreds of genes may influence height, altering the regions near a particular gene (GDF5) can lead to significant height differences in humans. Tests on mice using the CRISPR methods have yielded promising results.

Also in 2017, the Argentinian biotech company called Kheiron Biotech announced that they will be using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing techniques to create the ‘super’ horse. By ‘switching off’ the myostatin gene in horse embryos, scientists at this biotech company believe that they can create a horse with enhanced strength, speed and stamina.

An article published on 13 July 2021 on Gulf Today describes the work of Kheiron Biotech as a ‘game changer’ in horse breeding:

In what could be termed as a game changer, scientists at Kheiron Biotech situated in Argentina are making use of a strong DNA editing mechanism called CRISPR to rewire the genomes of the cloned horses which enables them to jump better and faster.

The quest to use genetic engineering to enhance human abilities has given rise to the worry about ‘genetic doping’, especially among athletes. Although there is no evidence that this has already taken place, Ted Friedman, the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency genetics panel, is surely right when he said that the technology already at hand ‘is mature for abuse.’

Some commentators, however, suspect that gene therapy has already been used to produce ‘Franken-athletes’, as the controversial case in 2012 of the two-time Olympic gold-medallist from China, Ye Shiwen, suggests.

Part of the problem is that ‘gene doping’ is very difficult to detect. As Anna Bautina, a researcher at the National Measurement Institute in Sydney, has pointed out, compared to chemical doping, genetic doping is very difficult to identify because the doped gene appears very similar to natural genes.

ETHICAL ISSUES

Technological and genetic enhancement raise a number of complex issues on which theologians and ethicists have not reached a consensus. Questions such as the relationship between therapy and enhancement, what is ‘normal’ and who gets to define it, the role of science and technology in society, and the meaning of human dignity allow for no easy answers.

In addition, the debate is often framed in a simplistic ‘either / or’ fashion. As Karen Lebacqz puts it: ‘either enhancement threatens something about our human dignity because it defies the limits intrinsic to human beings and hence to human dignity, or enhancement may contribute to human dignity.’ In reality, however, the considerations are somewhat more complex.

These – and many other issues – on human enhancement, especially in relation to the transhumanist agenda will be taken up in future articles.


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