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Beyond Human? Science and the changing face of humanity

Caroline Berry

John Bryant



This is a book about the possible human future. The question mark in the title shows that it is not a prophecy, but it is certainly a warning from a biologist who can write authoritatively about our genetic history. It points to the potential consequences for us from current biotechnology and developments in computer science.

It is surprisingly difficult to define the starting-point for going 'beyond human'. What exactly is it that makes us human? Bryant uses the first third of the book to review our emergence over 30-40 millennia, describing first how such 'human' activities as representational art and burial rites have been used to claim the border between true humans and their predecessors, but without universal agreement. Uncertainty about the significance of past developments suggests that criteria for what 'beyond human' means are likely to be even less straightforward.

Fast forward to 12,000 years ago when agriculture became widespread, making possible job specialisation and life in cities, and the great Babylonian and Greek civilisations. Jewish monotheism followed by Christianity gave a world view where the limits of being human were well accepted, including a major input into concepts of right and wrong. The expansion of science and the great cultural changes in the 16th and 17th centuries, followed by the age of invention and the industrial revolution, culminated at the end of the 20th century with the scientific approach becoming engulfed by postmodernism and an emphasis on relativity rather than objectivity. Bryant uses all this to argue that understandings of humanness continually change as scientific progress discards one definition after another: the spiritual gives way to the rational and then to the relational, and even this is currently undermined as we learn more about the intellectual capacities of whales, dolphins and other animals. He concludes his backward look by reminding us that the seemingly endless conflicts of the last one hundred years show that human behaviour can range from the angelic to the bestial.

This leads on to discussion of ethics and moral decision making. Here again there has been change over time, even within living memory as Christianity becomes less influential in both public and private life. A growing emphasis on individual autonomy has meant that the deciding factor between right and wrong is increasingly subjective. John Bryant makes plain his own Christian conviction, and the need for wisdom and integrity. He emphasizes the importance of personal character as distinct from duty to rules (deontology) or consequences. He stresses the need for integrity so that the benefits of new developments are realistically assessed and the potential hazards acknowledged honestly.

This provides a framework for assessing new technologies: the ramifications of biomedical developments (focussing chiefly on genetics), the 'smart phone' revolution, computer science, and the use of robots and cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). Bryant starts with a brief history of medical genetics, giving good descriptions of three landmark disorders. Technical advance means that it is now possible for individuals to discover their own genetic code. Whether this is helpful or not, desirable or foolish depends on multiple factors. The author teases these out for various life stages from the fertilised egg through to adult cancers and degenerative diseases. Bryant writes well, but a non-scientist may be confused by the profusion of acronyms. Sadly, old, more evocative gene names such as 'sonic hedgehog' have been abandoned! Some explanation of these terms would have helped here.

Later chapters consider the techniques available for assisted reproduction and the contentious issues of the status of the foetus and early embryo. Bryant sets out the various positions taken in these controversial areas, pointing out that there is no single 'Christian' view.

Treating any disease is clearly desirable but when does normality end and disease begin? This question leads to dilemmas about improving the normal state, so called 'enhancement'. There are numerous genetic scenarios such as 'Should we use gene therapy to improve the oxygen carrying of our blood and become better athletes?' The issues are raised with their various implications so that we may think them through and reach our conclusion, the author gives hints of where his sympathies lie but is never dogmatic.

These conundrums pale into insignificance when compared with developments in robotics. For stroke patients and those with artificial limbs the use of computer technology to enable them to live more normal lives is huge progress. But further developments to enable thought transfer from one individual to another possibly unwitting person raises alarm bells, as do suggestions that such technology could be used to enhance the human race. Then what about cyborgs, the humanoid machines that we meet in science fiction but who are becoming more and more a factor of real life? Beyond human?

In the final pages the author returns us to the real world. He urges us to weigh all these developments in the spirit of virtue ethics and justice. New technologies are expensive, potentially creating a barrier between the haves and the have nots. Half the world goes hungry to bed and even in the UK your postcode currently probably tells more about your health than your genetic code. These more mundane issues need to be considered along side the more 'exciting' novel ones.

So a good read, making the science understandable and highlighting the ethical dilemmas that need to be addressed by this generation. Although not laid out in such a format the book could provide excellent material for discussion groups. The pros and cons of the developments described are well set out and many illustrative stories add a human touch and prevent dry debate. Those who like clear cut answers won't find them here, but for those looking for an update on what is going on in the laboratory world with the ethical complexities highlighted, Beyond Human? should prove stimulating and thought provoking.