Enhancing the human race

The Boys from Brazil is one of Julian Savulescu’s favourite movies. That would not raise an eyebrow, were it not for the fact that his main interest as Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University is “biological enhancement’’—also known as “the new eugenics’‘.

Savulescu’s views on cloning and the improvement of the body have caused controversy before. So having a soft spot for a film that imagines Josef Mengele cloning an army of Hitlers seems a little risky.

Yes, he says, but the film’s value is that it foregrounds cloning as an all-important issue: “What was science fiction when the film was produced is reality today.’‘

That may be true. But however one renames it, can eugenics ever throw off the legacy of the Third Reich? “It depends what you mean by eugenics,’’ he says. “In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down’s syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities. The reason we don’t define that sort of thing as ‘eugenics’, as the Nazis did, is because it’s based on choice. It is about enhancing people’s freedom rather than reducing it.’‘

“Enhancement’’ comes up time and again with Savulescu. Doesn’t “enhancement’‘, as he applies it, go well beyond screening for Down’s?

“Yes and no,’’ he replies. “Enhancement can be seen as the whole range of things we do nowadays to manipulate, for example, the maternal environment to have a healthier or more intelligent child. Insofar as we can use biological interventions or reproductive interventions, I see them as being no different from providing good schools or more nourishing school meals.’‘

Does he, then, foresee parents using gene therapy to ensure their children get a head start in life? “Yes, in the same way that parents today give their children vitamins to make them brighter. But as for genetic manipulation, I don’t think that it is 10 years away, but, yes, at some point we will be intervening at the genetic level in the way that we intervene in the dietary level now.’‘

One of the hot spots into which Savulescu’s brand of practical ethics has taken him is sport. He has contrarian views on performance-enhancing drugs.

“I positively support certain kinds of performance enhancement. When you look at the objections, one of the principal ones is it is unsafe. I agree that this is a valid objection to some kinds of performance enhancers. But it doesn’t, for example, apply to moderate levels of growth hormones or even moderate levels of anabolic steroids. It all depends on what you class as ‘safe enough’.’‘

Wouldn’t this simply produce competition between chemists rather than athletes? “I don’t believe human races are like horse races or dog races where you just line the contestants up, flog them, and find out who wins,’’ he counters. “We humans have the ability to exercise choice over how we run our race, and also how we train, and we also reserve the right to decide what kind of athlete we are.’‘

According to Savulescu, the permitted and controlled administration of performance-enhancing agents will “make sport fairer and, indeed, in the long term safer by getting rid of backyard illegal enhancements. What you will see instead is the expression of human choice about not just how you are going to run the race, but what sort of competitor you want to be.’‘

Right now, Savulescu believes, the biggest challenge concerning pharmaceuticals is how they and other medical interventions can be employed for non-medical uses. “How, that is, we can use that technology not just to treat or prevent disease but to enhance our lives.’‘

What, precisely, are the life-enhancing drugs he has in mind? Is Viagra, for example, a biological enhancer? “It is, because it’s changing people’s performance—people who are affected by the normal processes of ageing. Drugs that enhance our sexual satisfaction are going to be increasingly important in the future.’’ As, he believes, will be the development of anti-ageing interventions that could biologically enhance us to the extent of doubling life expectancy.

Cloning, too, he sees as a challenge not a threat. When the United Nations, in March this year, issued its denunciation of cloning in all its forms as an insult to human “dignity’‘, Savulescu shot back with a co-authored paper. Drawing a clear line between reproductive cloning (which he agreed should be banned) and therapeutic cloning (essential), Savulescu insisted: “The UN must immediately retract its misguided and immoral Declaration on Human Cloning before it consigns many more future people to early and avoidable suffering and death.’‘

Does the future, then, hold nothing to scare him? “I’m very frightened,’’ he says, “about biological-weapons programmes, about nuclear war, about global terrorism, about nanotechnology: any of which could result in global destruction. I think we face challenges of extinction over the next 100 years.’‘

But is he not frightened by, say, cloning or genetic manipulation? “No, not at all. I see the job of practical ethics to increase the confidence in certain propositions where there is unjustified lack of confidence. The other job of practical ethics is to introduce uncertainty where we have unjustified certainty. And I think we have unjustified certainty that we will continue to exist as a species in the next 100 years. Those threats are not going to come from cloning, or genetic enhancement, or pharmaceuticals. The challenge, for our children’s sake, is to concentrate on the real risks.’’—Â



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