Australian bioethicist Julian Savelescu wants to improve the human
race.(1) Don’t we all? Two minutes reading the daily newspaper or
one minute watching football fans carousing in a pub on television is
enough to dent one’s faith in intelligent design and tip it towards the
view that homo sapiens is still in an early stage of evolution towards
a higher form of life.
The question Professor Savelescu highlights for us is, why wait? Mother
Nature is, apparently, a blind and slow old lady, and science has got
so far ahead of her meandering gait that the situation is irrational.
Here we are, already in the third millennium, still putting up with
crime, idleness, slow-wittedness, psychosis, depression and many other
human defects when genetic science holds the key to weeding them out.
Surely it is time to seize the initiative from evolution and do its
work more efficiently.
This scheme could, of course, turn out to be pure fantasy, but while it
is being played out it could still have a significant social impact.
For this reason we should consider the objections, which seem to be
basically two. One of them is raised by Robert Sparrow, another
Australian bioethicist, who evokes the spectre of eugenics and in doing
so reminds us that the project of human enhancement has a history, and
a not altogether distinguished one.
The idea of eugenics goes back to Plato, but the term was coined by
Francis Galton in the 1880s. Appalled at the proliferation of the lower
classes in England and enthused by the social implications of
evolutionary theory, Galton launched the movement for controlled
breeding that prepared the way for Nazi racial policies in Germany and
was responsible for programs throughout the Anglo-Saxon world to
sterilize those judged mentally and morally unfit.
Like Savelsecu, Galton thought the very potential of science to
“improve the human stock” created a moral obligation to do so. He spoke
of a “new moral duty… to further evolution” and said eugenics “must be
introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion”. (2)
This religious fervour can be seen today in the movement known as
transhumanism—another name for eugenics or “better people” — which is
led by top-level bioethicists at major universities such as Yale and
Oxford, the latter being Savelescu’s own academic platform right now.
These people believe it is a human right to clone human beings,
engineer genes and even mix species, to do whatever it takes to create
a new type of man.(3)
What follows? We could turn our backs on eugenics altogether, but that
would mean renouncing practically everything that has been done in the
name of birth control and reproductive technology during the past 50
Dr Sparrow does not envisage this radical solution. Rather, he sees the
problem as a particular excess of eugenics, “eugenics by market forces”
— a phrase calculated to set half the political community on red alert.
The release of designer genetics onto the open market would, he says,
create pressures to have children of a particular sort and lead to
social support being withdrawn from people of certain racial groups or
This is happening, to some extent. Through a process known as
pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, IVF doctors can select embryos
which carry desirable genes and discard the others. Some clinics
already allow parents to choose embryos of a certain sex or embryos
which lack genes associated with certain diseases. Enhancing embryos
with designer genes is still in the future as there are a number of
technical problems to be overcome. Many scientists doubt whether it
will ever be possible to make a child more intelligent by modifying his
genes. Most human traits are due to the incredibly complex interaction
of many genes. But the transhumanists are convinced that genetic
modification will become possibe soon.
Sparrow is probably right. After all, the aim of the whole enhancement
business is to produce perfect humans, and the idea that current
imperfections are linked to race has never really disappeared from
Western society. The “oversight by government, doctors or bodies with
some authority to protect children and society” proposed by Savelescu
seems unlikely to protect the values of diversity and tolerance that
Sparrow is concerned about.
But this is precisely where his objection to genetic enhancement runs
out of steam. Diversity and tolerance, though supreme in today’s
politically correct hierarchy of values, do not have the moral muscle,
the human resonance, to withstand biotech absolutists armed with
promises of “a better life” and “greater happiness” for individuals and
society. They don’t even have the power to withstand today’s
politicians promising social improvement from less immigration and
welfare, let alone scientists holding out the possibility of heaven on
It is here, however, that a second objection to the better humans
project comes into play. Like all scientists and ethicists,
transhumanists have a philosophical position. They make assumptions
about human nature based on the scientific hypothesis of evolution.
They assume that man can be reduced to his genes and that command over
these basic elements of humanity means the power to perfect it. In the
ancient nature vs nurture debate, it take the side of genetic
determinism and neglects the importance of learning, teaching and
But what if something else is true? What if human nature is not just
raw material awaiting rearrangement by the superior products of
evolution — 21st century scientists under the guidance of philosophy
professors? What if, behind the chemical reactions and wiring, our
nature has encoded in it a moral meaning that we ignore at the risk of
becoming worse people and unhappier people?
The idea that the body might be source of values — rather than simply
something to express our values through — leads, of course, onto the
path of creation and back to God. And, with God, to beliefs like the
intrinsic dignity of the person no matter what their defects, the
sanctity of human life, the value of suffering and man’s inability to
perfect himself by his own efforts.
All this is anathema to many people today, particularly bioethicists.
But without these robust, essentially religious values we are stuck
with mere tolerance and diversity on the one hand, intolerance and an
increasingly arrogant eugenics on the other. That leaves the real
choice between God and bioethicists. I know which I would choose, and
it would not be bioethicists.
Carolyn Moynihan is the deputy editor of MercatorNet
(1) Janelle Miles, “Gene lottery outmoded says Aussie professor”, New Zealand Herald, June 13, 2005
(2) John Berry, “Abortion and the Triumph of Eugenics”, Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics, 1995
(3) Wesley J Smith, “Will Human Beings Remain Truly Human?”, The
Centre for Bioethics and Culture Network (http://www.thecbc.org) August