by Gregory Stock
Mariner Books, 2002
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Oct 28th 2002
It is fitting that
this book should appear in close chronological proximity to Francis Fukuyamas Our Posthuman
Future. Stocks book is in many the mirror image of Fukuyamas. Whereas
Fukuyama believes that biotechnology must be tightly regulated for the sake of
our common humanity, Stock contends that the promise it holds out to us, the
ability to transcend humanity as we have hitherto, is precisely what is most
compelling about it. We should embrace biotechnology, he argues; in any case,
we cannot stop its inevitable march.
Redesigning Humans falls into two
roughly equal halves. The first is concerned with the methods whereby we might
redesign future generations, the second with the social consequences and ethics
of so doing. Stock argues that the current consensus among bioethicists, that
only somatic cell genetic engineering is permissible, not germline engineering,
is destined to quickly evaporate. For one thing, the caution with regard to
germline engineering is mainly due to the fact that such changes will be passed
on to the next generation, but the use of artificial chromosomes could avoid
this. Such chromosomes could be engineered in such a way that they must be
triggered to be expressed, so that the next generation could choose for itself
whether it wanted the change in its genes. More importantly, Stock argues,
germline enhancements will prove much more tractable and powerful. If this is
right, then generic engineering will largely come into play when parents select
the genetic constitution of their children; it will do much less for those
relatively few examples of the kinds of power that, he thinks, genetic
engineering will offer us. The potential he claims it has to halt aging
receives most attention from him. Experiments with genetic alterations in mice
and worms have already shown the technology promising, and he believes that it
will not be long before it is available to parents wishing to choose the
optimal genome for their children. By mid-century, Stock thinks, aging might be
essentially conquered, and with it much of the heart disease and cancer which
Aging is one area
of human life in which it is relatively uncontroversial that genetics makes an
important contribution. The extent to which genetic engineering in general
proves powerful will depend upon how many other characteristics of ours prove
equally tractable. Stock believes that heritability studies show that a great
many of our most important characteristics are importantly genetic in origin.
His discussion of heritability is better than most of those in books aimed at
the general reader. At least he notices that heritability is a measure merely
of the extent to which inheritance is important in a particular environment.
Thus, as he recognizes, a highly heritable trait in one environment might not
be inherited in another. However, he seems to think that this means only that a
good genetic endowment cannot make up for a radically impoverished environment,
and that to the extent that environments meet certain minimum conditions, they
cease to matter. Thus, he suggests, first-world nations are essentially and
increasing meritocracies: everyone has the sufficient opportunities to ensure
that those with the best genetic endowments triumph.
This would be a
very interesting finding, if it were true, but there is no evidence for it whatsoever.
Until we know a lot more than we do now about human traits respond across a
range of environments, we will not be in a position to make any such claims. We
do not even know what environmental variables might be important, or how to go
about studying them. Given that this is the case, enthusiasm about our ability
to manipulate not merely our susceptibilities to disease, but our
personalities, is at best premature.
The second half of
the book is devoted to an examination of the ethics of genetic enhancement.
Stock believes it is inevitable in any case, but holds that we have little to
fear from it, and much to gain. It will prove impossible to ban or even
substantially restrict access to biotechnology, he argues, since banning it in
one country would only cause research to move elsewhere. Too many people are
willing to spend too much money on genetic enhancement for a ban to succeed.
Indeed, a ban will itself bring about precisely the effects that opponents of
biotechnology fear: it will ensure that only the very wealthy, those who can
pay to fly overseas for expensive treatment, will have access to it, and thus
cause the very stratification of humanity which the ban was intended to avoid.
Far better, Stock argues, for the technology to be regulated, so that excessive
risks can be avoided. Moreover, with widespread use and intense competition,
the price of such enhancements would inevitably drop, thus avoiding social
stratification. In time, Stock believes, most genetic enhancements could
actually be provided by the public health system.
It is, however,
absurd to think that social stratification by means of really effective genetic
enhancements could be avoided by market mechanisms, even assisted by a little
government intervention. There is no realistic prospect that the 2.8 billion
people who live on less than $2 a day could have access to this technology at
any price. Stock simply ignores such international problems.
Issues of justice
in distribution aside, ought we to engineer the human genome? Stock suggests
that a consensus upon this question will never be reached. The best compromise
between competing views on this matter, he holds, is to allow those who want
access to the technology to have it, under some regulatory regime, while
allowing those who do not want to partake of it to refrain. But this is not the
neutral option he claims. Just as allowing genetic enhancement in one country
will force it upon others, in order to compete, so allowing some members of
society access to it will require others to use it as well, lest they doom
their children to disadvantage. Ironically, moreover, many of the goods which
are realistically available through genetic enhancement are positional, in the
sense that they bring only relative advantages. It might be good for anyone
individual to be a little taller than average, and therefore to have his or her
genome altered to bring this about. But if this enhancement is sought by
everyone, the result will be a large investment of resources for everyone to
remain in the same relative position.
This is a book for
a mass market, and we cannot expect too much of it for this reason. It succeeds
in conveying something of the excitement and the promise that attract so many
to genetic enhancement technology. Stock is certainly not equipped to really
deal with the ethical issues, but so long as we do not take him to have done so
theres no harm in that.
2002 Neil Levy
Levy is a fellow of the Centre
for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles
Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a
dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and
political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.