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Scientists, Ethicists Gather at AAAS to Weigh the Impact of Human Enhancement
From use of steroids by athletes to devices implanted in the brain for treating depression or Parkinson’s disease to the possible use of hormones or genetic manipulation to prolong life, scientific developments in a variety of fields raise the possibility of widespread “enhancement” of human characteristics beyond the normal range of experience.
Some widely accepted forms of human enhancement already are a fact of life: laser eye surgery; Botox treatments for aging skin; Prozac and other drugs aimed at mental well-being; even the stimulation of caffeine in coffee. But the more urgent concerns involve rapidly evolving technologies that could usher in a new era of enhancement through a better understanding of human development and behavior at the fundamental level of genes, neurons and atoms.
Potential enhancement technologies—and their legal and social implications—were discussed in a 1–2 June meeting at AAAS by an invited group of scientists, ethicists and other stakeholders. The discussion, organized by Mark S. Frankel of AAAS’s Scientific Freedom, Responsibility & Law Program, will result in a written report.
“The scientific community must be prepared to assess the state of the science and communicate new findings to a wide audience in a manner that conveys both the potential and the limits of ongoing research,” Frankel said. “AAAS, with its diverse scientific membership and strong commitment to the responsible conduct of science and its application, is well-positioned to assume a leadership in public consideration of these issues.” The meeting was underwritten by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging & Bioengineering, and Genetech Inc.
Scientists talk about a convergence in nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive science and information science that could produce drugs and devices capable of enhancing memory and learning, reducing anger and anxiety, improving stamina and heightening the senses, and extending a productive life span.
The participants tried to find common ground on some of the big questions: Are human enhancement technologies inevitable? Will they contribute to a widening gulf between the rich, who will be able to afford them, and the poor, who—at least initially—probably will not? Are there techniques that should be outlawed or sharply restricted, such as inducing inheritable genetic changes that will passed on to future generations? Should governments intervene in the free-market push to deploy enhancement technologies? Will enhancement methods begin to change what it means to be human?
Braden Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, said technology already may be changing, in subtle ways, what it means to be human. He noted that MRI scans of youngsters who play video games suggest that aspects of their brain activity are markedly altered from that of their parents.
Allenby asked, “By what right do we impose our idea of current biological and cognitive limits on future generations?”
The allure of human enhancement is clear enough. “People will go to great lengths to make themselves and their children superlative,” said Max Mehlman, director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Society may well decide that certain enhancements are desirable, such as improved eyesight in airline pilots or enhanced strength in members of disaster rescue teams, he said.
There is a wide range of possibilities, from the merely cosmetic to the fundamental tinkering with the gene pool, that will challenge scientists, policy makers and others to make considered choices about the future, meeting participants said. Before engaging society in a more general conversation on enhancement technologies, they said, it is important for scientists to clearly assess the state of the various technologies and their feasibility.
Zack Lynch, managing director of NeuroInsights, which gathers data on neurotechnology developments, said about 450 companies worldwide are developing treatments for the brain, including work on implants, brain-computer interfaces, brain scanners and diagnostic devices, “cogniceuticals” to treat attention disorders and memory problems, and “emoticeuticals” to treat stress and depression.
The technologies are not meant to create super-humans, he said, but to enable individuals to perform at a higher level, in line with the performance of their peers. “Mental health is the ultimate competitive weapon,” Lynch said. Even if just a few people choose to use neuro-enhancements, he said, “their choice will change the basis of business competition for the rest of us.”
James Canton, chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, predicted “fast, radical change” driven by consumer demand, with enhancement giving individuals an improved ability to compete in the marketplace for jobs. “We may not like it,” he said, “but we’re heading toward an enhancement society.”
“I appreciate the vision that these technologies will lift us up,” responded Erik Parens, an associate for philosophical studies at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. “But how do you square that with the current reality?” Parens cited statistics on the lack of health insurance by as many as 1 in 6 Americans and studies suggesting that economic inequality is bad for the health of the poor. If the gap between the haves and have-nots increases, he said, “what will be the impact on the beautiful vision” of human enhancement?
Mehlman argued that society may have little choice but to make many new enhancement techniques as cheap as possible and available to everyone who desires them.
Sports offers a glimpse of the ambivalence likely to surround future advances in human enhancement, according to John Hoberman of the University of Texas, a professor of Germanic studies who has written a book on doping in sports. “We’ve been living this tremendous tension between the use [of performance-enhancing substances] and the culturally inherited ethos of restraint,” Hoberman said.
Anabolic steroids are banned in baseball and other sports, he said, and athletes who use them are considered cheaters. Still, society wants heroes, Hoberman said, and there is little evidence that doping scandals will disappear. “Lots of steroids have been consumed by elite athletes over the last 40 years and I can’t think of one who has spent a day in jail,” Hoberman said. At the same time, he noted, prescribed medical use of anabolic steroids in anti-aging clinics is culturally accepted and perfectly legal.
The baby boomers’ fascination with longevity is understandable. The human lifespan has doubled over the last 150 years, experts say, thanks to improved sanitation and hygiene, better medical care, life-saving drugs and vaccines. Scientists are studying whether there are physiological “switches” that influence how quickly we age and whether they can be biologically adjusted.
Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center and a professor of geriatrics and adult development at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said it is wrong to consider aging as an immutable process that is programmed by evolution. In a recently published paper in The Scientist, Butler and his co-authors argue that slowing the aging process by seven years is technically feasible and, if accomplished, would cut the age-specific risk of death, frailty and disability by about half at every age. People who reach the age of 50 in the future would have the health profile and disease risk of today’s 43-year-old, they write.
If longevity enhancement were to become widely available, Butler said, it would raise a host of questions. Would a gerontocracy emerge? Would there be intergenerational conflicts as the old continue to hold positions of power and influence in society? Would creativity languish? Butler said he has seen no evidence that such disruptions will result, given the experience so far in societies where life spans already have been increasing.
Despite promising results on the genetic and hormonal control of aging in laboratory animals—including extension of disease-free life spans in mice and rats by 40%—one specialist said there is unlikely to be a “magic bullet” to significantly extend human longevity.
Michael Rose, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, noted that there are perhaps 500 biochemical pathways that control aging in humans. “There will be no age-curing potion,” Rose said. “This will not happen.” Instead, he said, there may continue to be gradual improvements in longevity as dozens of pharmaceutical and biochemical treatments are developed, each addressing an aspect of the aging process.
Eric Cohen, director of the program on Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, warned that efforts to extend and enhance life inevitably will involve techniques such as embryo research that many deem morally wrong. “We shouldn’t be sanguine about the darker aspects of extending life span,” Cohen told the meeting.
In a recent essay The New Atlantis, Cohen wrote there is a danger “that in the desire to extend life we will become callous towards life, using the weakest among us as tools to keep us strong. This is the moral challenge of embryo research. The second danger is that in the desire to be happy or at least untroubled, we will seek a merely cosmetic consciousness, chemically divorced from the ups and downs of real life. This is the moral challenge of psychopharmacology.”
Another danger, Cohen says, is that in efforts to help couples or individuals have children of their own, “we will develop techniques that confound the very nature of biological origins, or that make normal sexual procreation a second-rate option” to cloning, genetic screening of embryos prior to implantation in the womb and other reproductive interventions.
There have been gene therapy efforts, largely disappointing so far, to modify genes in somatic, or body cells, for the treatment of disease. Scientists and ethicists have had a substantial and ongoing conversation about the possibility that it may some day be possible also to make genetic changes in the germ cells—sperm and ova—so that heritable modifications will be passed on to offspring. Scientists and ethicists have called for clear guidelines and widespread public consultation on risks and benefits before researchers attempt to carry out such engineering of heritable genetic modifications.
For his part, Cohen is doubtful there will be any successful efforts to design babies from scratch. “I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. Even if such genetic engineering were feasible, he said, it is unlikely to produce the sort of super-being some enthusiasts might imagine. “We’ll never make a better musician than Mozart or a better playwright than Shakespeare,” Cohen said.
Michael Rose questioned the practicality of genetic engineering, even if it were feasible. “I think it’s dumb,” he said. It makes more sense, Rose said, to exploit new research findings that would allow a fine-tuning of human physiology through somatic interventions, such as drugs or vaccines, rather than trying to engineer questionable long-term changes in the gene pool.
Cohen also raised questions about pursuing some mind-altering interventions. Researchers might have compassionate motives in seeking drugs to numb horrible memories, whether in soldiers who have seen combat or survivors of concentration camps, he said, but society might suffer from the loss of such memories and the witness they bear for future generations.
The meeting participants generally agreed on the need for additional workshops on enhancement technologies and urged AAAS to play a role in eventually seeking a broader public engagement on the topic. “I think we are here for a reason,” said Ronald M. Green, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College. “Enhancement is in the air.” As technologies converge, he said, there “are a lot of common concerns…We need a kind of ongoing wisdom about these issues.”
9 June 2006