My review of Ramez Naam's book More Than Human is up on the LA Times Web site. I don't think registration is required. I hate to admit it, but I completely missed its publication. I only found out because Naam e-mailed me about it-- and took my criticisms of the book in stride, it sounds like. (Though when you've been a project manager at Microsoft and reported to Bill Gates, you've probably survived far worse than anything that a book critic can dish out.) Which is good: while I had some quibbles with the book-- techno-libertarians will find it a great read, but someone who's opposed to the kinds of technological modifications of bodies that Naam talks about won't come away thinking that their position is wrong-- I did enjoy it. The one thing I regret is a line that violates an informal rule I've tried to follow when reviewing books. The essence of the review boils down to these lines:
More Than Human is a terrific survey of current work and future possibilities in gene therapy, neurotechnology and other fields. Naam doesn't shy away from technical detail, but his enthusiasm keeps the science from becoming intimidating. But he's less successful in making the case for "embracing the promise of biological enhancement." Yes, people are greedy, regulations are often ineffective and the war on drugs has not gone well. But none of these facts is likely to change the minds of people who oppose gene therapy on moral or theological grounds.
The problem comes in the third sentence. My informal rule is that you should praise the author, but criticize the book: it gives you some critical (as it were) distance separating the author and the book, and keeps an author from taking criticism too personally. Unfortunately, I slipped in the middle of the paragraph. Or maybe the editor changed it, in which case I'll have track him down and beat him up. Just kidding, Nick! Seriously, you're the best.
Here's the whole review:
Era of souped-up humans is coming
Scientific and medical advances in the last 150 years have doubled average life spans in advanced countries; made historical curiosities of fearsome epidemic diseases; eliminated childhood scourges; turned fatal adult diseases into chronic illnesses to be "managed"; and changed the way we think about aging. But if you think these changes have pushed at our sense of what it means to be human, just wait for what will happen in the next 20 years.
Gene therapy could eliminate genetically based diseases; designer drugs could combat neurological or brain disease, improve intelligence or sculpt personality. A variety of therapies could affect life at its beginning and end, allowing parents to modify the genes that shape an unborn child's mind and physique, or elders to dramatically slow the aging process. Brain implants already let us use thought to control prostheses and robotic devices. In a few years, they could evolve into machine-mediated brain-to-brain connection — Internet-enabled telepathy and mind reading.
Authors as different as Bill McKibben in "Enough" and Francis Fukuyama in "Our Posthuman Future" argue that technologies could so dramatically alter our bodies, or challenge our capacity for self-determination and free will, that we should be wise enough to refuse — even ban — them.
Stop worrying, Ramez Naam says in "More Than Human." He argues that efforts to ban such enhancements are either folly or futile for several reasons. Prohibition wouldn't destroy the markets for life-extending therapies or genetic redesign of human embryos, he says; it would just drive them abroad or underground. Banning technologies and therapies also constrains the freedoms of individuals and markets. The Declaration of Independence declared that "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are inalienable rights: Denying someone access to cortical implants hits the trifecta.
Further, Naam argues, "scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing." Banning the latter would inevitably cripple the former. Finally and most provocatively, "far from being unnatural, the drive to alter and improve on ourselves is a fundamental part of who we humans are." This turns the argument of bioethicists like Leon Kass (head of the President's Council on Bioethics, which has been famously conservative in its recommendations) upside down. Our limits don't define us, Naam says; our desire to overcome them does.
"More Than Human" is a terrific survey of current work and future possibilities in gene therapy, neurotechnology and other fields. Naam doesn't shy away from technical detail, but his enthusiasm keeps the science from becoming intimidating. But he's less successful in making the case for "embracing the promise of biological enhancement."
Yes, people are greedy, regulations are often ineffective and the war on drugs has not gone well. But none of these facts is likely to change the minds of people who oppose gene therapy on moral or theological grounds. Many religions see the body as a prison, not a temple, and illness and death as part of life's natural course. Indeed, the Pontifical Academy of Life recently decried the Western world's "health-fiend madness," arguing that it takes money away from simpler but more potent public health measures — and denies us the hard-won wisdom that suffering can bring.
But in today's borderless high-tech world, if gene therapies and neural implants are banned in the U.S., they'll probably be available somewhere else. Medical tourism is already a growth industry in parts of Latin America and Asia that have low labor costs, attractive locations and good facilities. One can only imagine the money a small tropical nation could make restoring youth to the elderly. Rather than focus on banning them, we'd be better off making sure these therapies are not available only to the super-rich and figuring out how their availability could affect the future.
Those efforts might be helped by realizing that "More Than Human" describes two different technologies. Life-extending therapies, despite their likely popularity, probably wouldn't dramatically change our sense of what it means to be human. In contrast, neurotechnologies that allow a prosthetic device to feel like a part of our bodies, or let us directly share thoughts and senses with others, would scramble our basic notions of body and mind, self and other, individual and community.
I tend to agree with Naam that the desire to prolong life, acquire new physical powers and extend the mind does not risk making us less human. There's more to life than trying to recapture lost youth, but no one who defends the humanity of the weak, the disabled and the very old should deny the humanity of those who seek to re-engineer their bodies or minds. "More Than Human" maps some of this future, but it probably won't help you decide whether you want to really go there.