Enhancing Evolution

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John Harris, Princeton University Press, £16.95

Developed from a series of public lectures on bioethics, Enhancing Evolution sketches out the "moral obligations" we have "to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic make-up". The subject matter, genetic engineering, stem cell research, designer babies and cloning, is certainly contentious stuff.

Harris hopes to take us from what he calls "the yuck factor", the "bioconservative" emotional response he feels is triggered from most of us in response to new biotechnologies, and into "the reasons and arguments" that underlie that reaction, persuading us that sometimes it can be "rational to move from 'Yuck!' to 'Wow!'".

Covering ethical issues related to immortality, disability and "super-ability", health and disease, Harris explores the philosophical angles raised.

Suggesting that "some serious commentators believe the first 1,000 year old person is already alive", he asks, "What will happen to our sense of personal identity if we live forever? What issues does biotechnological enhancement raise for our understanding of what it is to be human? Should we attempt to prevent disability? Where is the line between treatment of disease and enhancing our capabilities... Why do we view vaccinations, 'mechanical enhancements' like spectacles, and 'chemical enhancement' of our alertness differently to 'genetic enhancements'?"

Although Harris engages with questions about how access to new biotechnologies might deepen social inequalities, he reads as someone who is impatient with the realities such technologies might present in our class society.

Despite quoting Marx's famous passage, Enhancing Evolution remains quite abstract, a self-confessed "book of arguments", and very much in the realm of being a philosophical interpretation of the world and away from "the point... is to change it". At no stage does Harris get to grips with the moral and social issues arising from who controls the production and distribution of the biotechnologies he describes, or deal with the limits of the often reductionist science involved.

Attempts to rationally address the moral and philosophical issues raised by developing biotechnologies, without recourse to religion, and to scrutinise "the yuck factor" are surely to be welcomed by socialists. Better treated as a series of separate essays, and perhaps owing some of its repetitiveness to its adaptation from lectures, Enhancing Evolution makes provocative reading.

Ultimately, however, Harris seems to want to preserve his initial proposition, the "moral duty" to support human enhancement at all costs. At times this made the twists and turns of his overall argument, even in its own terms, unconvincing. Despite this, they are probably arguments with which we should all become familiar - bearing in mind that sometimes it can also be rational to move from "Wow!" to "Yuck!".