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by Gregory Stock
Mariner Books, 2002
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on Oct 28th 2002

Redesigning Humans

It is fitting that this book should appear in close chronological proximity to Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future. Stock’s book is in many the mirror image of Fukuyama’s. 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 already born.

Stock offers 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 it brings.

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 there’s no harm in that.


© 2002 Neil Levy


Dr Neil 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.