Genetics and Evolution

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Enhancing EvolutionReview - Enhancing Evolution
The Ethical Case for Making Better People
by John Harris
Princeton University Press, 2007
Review by Constance K. Perry, Ph.D.
Mar 25th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 13)

Enhancing Evolution will appeal to readers from the general, as well as professional, audiences, with Harris's easy to follow tongue-in-cheek style.  His text serves both as a response to critics of enhancement technologies and a positive argument in favor of the development and use of such technologies.  The book is well organized and a fairly quick read.  Each chapter is devoted to a specific argument or topic.  The arguments are well laid out, and Harris has considerable skill in analytical reasoning.  Still there are a few areas where his arguments were weak or could use improvement. 

This is the best text I have seen on the enhancement debate, because of its readability and comprehensiveness.  The text begins with three chapters which lay out Harris' main arguments in favor of enhancement.  They are as follows.  There is no moral distinction between the treatment of disease and enhancement.  People should be free to choose those things that they feel are best for themselves and their children, as long as it does not cause undue harm to others.  It is unreasonable for technology to wait for development until everyone can have it.  Discrimination against or in favor of the enhanced is still discrimination, and not a problem particular to enhancement, per se.

As he goes on in the text, he discusses specific types of enhancement issues.  These include life prolongation, assisted reproductive technology, cloning, genetic engineering, stem cell technology, disability and superability, the duty to participate in research, and the moral status of the human embryo and fetus.  He does a tremendous job on this last topic presenting highly technical scientific information so that the lay reader can understand it and follow its relevance to the issues for moral status. 

The reader's attention is kept by following Harris' mental gymnastics.  This occasionally produces a surprise; just when he seems about to commit an error, he finds a novel way out of a problem.  Of course, there are some odd statements.  For example, in chapter four on immortality, he makes the odd argument that society should not worry about the impact of immortality on population numbers because there will still be ways for immortals to die.  If the argument is that they will continue to die at the same rate, they the technology is useless.  If the argument is that they will die, but at a much slower rate, then the concern still stands.  But, for the most part, Harris seemed to anticipate my counterarguments.

Harris' text is clearly an exposition of his views.  But it is well researched using material from sources with which he agrees and disagrees.  He mentions and quotes in fair detail the views of those with whom he disagrees.  However, he sometimes takes these views out of context.  For example, in chapter 3, he criticizes Norman Daniels for using an artificial standard of normality as a basis for his distinction between justifiable treatment and enhancement.  While the normality standard may be artificial, Daniels is following John Rawls' social justice theory.  In the original article Daniels was worried about how to distribute limited resources.  This requires that some standard for limits be set.  Daniels was also concerned about protecting potential research subjects from harm, defined as a negative change from their normal function.  When applied to the individual, the standard of normality is anything but artificial.   

The strengths of the book outweigh its weaknesses.  The greatest weakness of the argument is in the area of justice.  But Harris adds a caveat that active work to try to limit injustices produced by enhancement must be part of the work of enhancement.  As he points out, education was once in the hands of a privileged few (and that is a great enhancement project).  The strongest contribution here is in how he presents a philosophical foundation for looking at particular issues.   It makes the more technical issues easier to understand.

Harris' knowledge of the writings in the field is prodigious.  His ability to present these highly technical issues in simple language that is both engaging and enlightening is remarkable.  I highly recommend Enhancing Evolution.  It just might make you want to be a better person.

 © 2008 Constance K. Perry

Constance K. Perry, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Programs in Humanities and Sciences, College of Nursing and Health Professions, Drexel University

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