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Heavenly bodies

Gareth Jones

GARETH JONES on the growing trend of human enhancement

Fbio.jpgThe idea of a short-sighted person choosing to have laser eye surgery to regain 20/20 vision is widely accepted nowadays. But what if a top golfer announced he was paying to get his eyesight surgically corrected beyond 20/20 to 20/15? Still sitting comfortably? Now picture a world in which brain implants or new pills could improve human memory, alertness and cognitive performance, enabling us to run faster and live longer, even wipe out memories of traumatic events.

Such utopian visions have, until recently, been the province of visionaries, unencumbered by the need to change the lives of real people. But the distinction between routine therapy and human enhancement is breaking down. Sophisticated biomedical technology means that our expectations are shifting all the time. For example the survival rates of babies born before 28 weeks gestation has risen from 20 to 80 percent in the UK since the 1970s. What was once unusual has become normal. The goal of radical enhancement - or transhumanism - is ultimately to cure death, bring about physical immortality and so transform human nature. What should be our Christian response to such aspirations?

On one level, why not make people 'better than well' by transforming a shy person into a vivacious one, a risk-averse person into a risk-taker, an irresponsible individual into a deeply religious one, all by the application of increasingly sophisticated pharmaceutical agents or via brain implants? Perhaps we have a moral obligation to exploit these, as long as the people concerned are not harmed. Or are we tampering with the essence of what it means to be human?

At what point does the acceptable become dubious, the beneficial become harmful? Is it when we move from the social and moral to the biological as in drugs that modify brain function or in brain implants that change a person's moral responses? While it is easy to designate this as a battle between rampant secularism and theological orthodoxy, the dimensions of the debate are more subtle.

Underlying the possibilities opened up is a forbidding array of emerging technologies: neuroimplants for enabling the blind to see and the deaf to hear, and for controlling  depression and aggression, brain-computer  interfaces to control prostheses, drugs to control behaviour, blood and gene doping plus various forms of surgery to improve sporting performance, and man-machine interfaces.  Even if all these are classed as human enhancements, there is no reason to think they are all unacceptable nor that every use of them is to be opposed.

It is a great pity that the irresponsible visionary agendas have muddied   ......the waters of the enhancement debate. It is no wonder that Christian commentators object when told that all suffering will be eliminated. Enhancement in this guise is deeply misleading as it takes on religious overtones based on the assumption that scientific endeavours alone can be equated with, and will indubitably result in, human wellbeing. This is an illusion. The underlying thrust must always be  that the benefits will outweigh the harms, individually and communally.

And yet we ourselves are enhanced compared with what we would have been like had we lived in Europe a century ago. Public health measures and vaccination have transformed our aspirations and expectations, together with good nutrition, antibiotics and the control of preventable diseases. We are different people who view life in a different way; the theological repercussions of this are enormous. The balance between our control our bodies and the extent to which we depend upon God's upholding of us brings us face-to-face with the grounds of our hope.

So while the prospect of living for 500 years with no major illness or dementia - and the ongoing ability to play tennis - may seem an attractive one, it is not one we should unthinkingly embrace (quite apart from its viability). Its self-centredness is its downfall. The mind boggles at the thought of seven billion people living to these ages, with around 400,000 babies born every day. Of course, we know this will not happen since at present the world's poor struggle to live into their 40s and 50s, with thousands of children dying every day from preventable diseases. In the West should ensure that, as far as possible, the enhancements in health and living conditions that we currently enjoy are shared with the deprived.

The transhumanists' vision of a vastly extended life for the rich few should be put to one side in order to provide others with a life of opportunity far above the breadline. It's time we sorted out our priorities and used technology wisely to benefit as many as possible.