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Future man - No future man

01 November 2009
Connecting the technological, cultural and political dots of human enhancement
Robots Trust in science Trust in technology Body tissue
This essay reviews human enhancement from a cultural, political and technological perspective, in order to draw up an initial agenda for research and public debate on human enhancement. 




In the last decades, the development of technologies previously thought to be science fiction has sparked a new idea: humans could take their evolution into their own hands, that is, all kinds of human traits could be aided by technological developments. This enhanced human being, or Homo sapiens 2.0, is seen both as a dream and nightmare in the making. A central theme within the current debate concerns the tricky distinction between treatment and enhancement.

We define human enhancement as “the use of biomedical technology to achieve goals other than the treatment or prevention of disease” (see chapter two). Existing enhancement technologies, like dietary supplements and hearing aids, are relatively uncontroversial. Other examples prompt more public discussion: cosmetic surgery, the use of drugs beyond their original medical settings, narcotics and doping in sports. These technologies in combination with prospected future enhancement technologies spur public debate on human enhancement. Examples are the genetic engineering of the human body, or even the human embryo. In particular, the convergence of nano-, bio-, and information technologies and the cognitive sciences (NBIC) give rise to many bold visions, like the future possibility to upload brains into a computer. 

In chapter three, the human enhancement debate is traced back to the early enlightenment period. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th century, evolutionary theory as developed by Darwin and Mendel led to the idea and practice of eugenics. A so-called authoritarian eugenics developed, in which states took the responsibility to improve the genetic quality of the state. The terrible downside of this form of eugenics was proven by the horrific consequences of nazi-eugenics. 

After the Second World War the rise of modern life sciences really took off. The scientific endeavour more and more focused on mastering human life itself. In the wake of this development, a loose movement of so-called transhumanists developed in the 1970s. Transhumanists advocate the individual right to gain control over your live and improve your mental and physical capacities. The human enhancement debate is not a simple revival of the eugenics debate. Besides genetics, IT, nanotechnology and cognitive sciences play a role. More important, it is fueled by the belief that individual free choice should determine what constitutes human enhancement. Therefore the term liberal bio-politics is used to refer to the liberal political climate in which modern bio-politics is being developed. To illustrate the way how the new liberal bio-politics is developing in various social contexts four cases are described in chapter four: the drug Ritalin, Deep Brain Stimulation, genetherapy and gene doping, and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The cases reveal ample social debate and regulation. However, regulation develops slowly, following the development of the technologies. Regulations, furthermore, focus on protecting the individual from harm and on setting moral boundaries. Several questions deserve a prominent place on the public and research agenda of our society. We recommend the following five broad themes and questions as relevant areas for further research and public debate on human  enhancement:

1. Science, technology and fiction for human enhancement
What visions, fantasies and expectations are expressed by scientists and engineers of human enhancement technologies? How real are the dreams expressed in science fiction and how do they drive actual developments? If the wild fantasies are separated from realistic expectations, then the questions of legitimacy and the ethical aspects of the research become realistic as well and can be addressed. For example, when science for treatment leads to human enhancement technologies, can such research still be legitimized from the perspective of therapy and if not, how to conduct such research in an ethically sound way?

2. Human enhancement practices
How to regulate human enhancement in a variety of social practices by a diverse group of actors? Current enhancement  practices have regulations, but they are constantly challenged and have regulatory wastelands. That is: the technology is also used in ways not covered by the regulation. Such usage might give rise to new emancipatory movements, but also criminal practices. Therefore, it is important to study and discuss the (non-)regulation and usage of human enhancement technologies.

3. The shaping of the self
What is the meaning of enhancement technologies for shaping and perceiving ourselves? Self-fulfilment is a major value in our culture, and human enhancement technologies can be used for this in ways unseen before. But how will this impact,
for example, the way we see ourselves?

4. Images of the future
By which socio-technical scenarios can we picture possible ways in which human enhancement and society develop? Current regulation does not pay enough attention to the long-term impacts of the technological developments. Scenarios are helpful in
assessing the long-term impacts of the technologies and in stimulating future reflection and policymaking.

5. Do the dots of human enhancement connect to a wave?
What is the political dimension of human enhancement? Does the upcoming debate on human enhancement present a new bio-political dimension and does this dimension challenge mankind in ways similar to the ecological crisis?