Anyone who has ever watched The Amazing Spider-Man might remember Dr. Curt Connors at Oscorp, a scientist studying limb regeneration. With the help of Peter Parker, he finally succeeds in creating a serum of lizard DNA to regenerate the limb of a laboratory mouse and even his own arm (Granted, the formula has some unfortunate side-effects that drive most of the film’s plot). This theme of dystopian bioengineering and genetic modification shows up often in popular culture today, in movies from Elysium to Gattaca to Prometheus, astounding — and often scaring — us with the unfathomable boundaries of science and technology. We leave the movie theaters and shut the covers of our sci-fi books with a breath of relief to return to reality, entertained by the notions of bioengineering but comforted in knowing we don’t and never will have to deal with its problematic after-effects.
The problem is, a lot of innovations that once seemed fantastical and speculative are becoming more and more possible in reality. The field of tissue engineering is rapidly advancing in the discovery of methods to create artificially grown organs for patients who need organ transplants. More and more people with disabilities are using prostheses such as artificial limbs, pacemakers, and retinal implants. In neuroprosthetics, scientists have developed prostheses to improve the neural function of a damaged nervous system. Sometimes, it seems as though scientists and engineers are advancing biotechnology as quickly as they can come up with these incredible ideas.
At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with these technologies – after all, they’re aiding people who are sick or disabled, and they’re tested extensively before use (To minimize the risk of people mutating into lizards). Here, though, the issue isn’t so much technical as it is ethical. Is human enhancement ethical, upholding our moral values of right and wrong? What seems like a simple question actually forces us to ask a lot of tough questions about what makes us human. Enhancement is usually defined by distinguishing it from treatment or therapy: treatment or therapy involves helping a patient return to a normal state when something has gone wrong, while enhancement goes beyond the normal healthy state of a human being. To understand where the line is drawn, though, what constitutes a “normal” human, both physically and mentally? What (if anything) makes some humans “better” than others. Is becoming a “better” human is really necessary to live a fulfilling and happy life?
Take retinal implants, for example. They’re designed to treat age-related degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration by replacing the function of damaged light-sensing photoreceptor cells in the retina. For example, the Alpha IMS designed by Germany’s Retina Implant AG uses electrical signals to stimulate neural cells transmitted to the brain. Amazingly, the implants might have the power in the future to stop blindness. What could be wrong with restoring people’s vision, arguably one of our most important sensory functions?
For one, it becomes ethically questionable once these technologies are used no longer for pure treatment and instead for enhancement. From a military standpoint, for example, all humans have inherent weaknesses – we’re susceptible to hunger, fatigue, unpredictable emotions, and fluctuating morale. Rigorous military training is most certainly one way to try to strengthen individuals in an army, yet no amount of training makes perfect human beings. Technology might be able to compensate and help – for example, exoskeletons that give their wearers super-strength or suits that let you climb walls like a lizard. But how do human enhancements challenge international military and humanitarian laws? Furthermore, when it comes to drugs and biomedical enhancements, is it ethical to require troops to take supplements that may pose dangers to people who consume them? For example, the military has experimented with using modafinil to keep soldiers awake, focused, and mentally alert. Used over long periods of time, however, it could negatively impact sleep patterns or cause drowsiness or nausea, along with a long list of other potential side effects.
On a more fundamental level, the use of prostheses and implants challenges our identity as human beings. Are we still completely human when parts of our bodies are composed of artificial tissues and organs? To add on top of that, where is the line drawn in terms of when it is appropriate to use these implants? Let’s say we define “normal vision” on a bell curve, and someone falls just below the median. Does that person deserve implants if it will improve their vision far beyond the median, giving them bionic vision? Or does this procedure go beyond the realm of “treatment” and into the ethically complicated world of “enhancement?”
It may seem as though reflection on human enhancement in bioengineering is merely a long slew of questions without any answers. The truth is, though, no one really has any concrete answers out there right now, and that can feel weird and unsettling. After all, we expect engineering and applied sciences to be precise –we identify a problem, set specific parameters, draw diagrams and make models, make detailed calculations, build a solution, then test the solution over and over again to make sure it’s safe. It’s a realm of certainty and concrete problem-solving, safety and reassurance in the numbers and facts.
When we work with buildings and power plants, this system functions wonderfully. When it comes to biological engineering, though, especially when we manipulate the physicality and minds of human beings themselves, very little is certain. Humans aren’t standardized – we come in a huge spectrum of shapes and sizes. Our personalities are different and unpredictable. For centuries, we’ve asked what it means to be human, what it means to be normal, and what makes for a meaningful and happy life – without any definite answers. It’s unlikely that even the advent of new technology will change that status quo any time soon.
Perhaps the true value of these new innovations and the controversies surrounding them doesn’t lie in a concrete answer or solution but instead in an unparalleled opportunity to discuss complicated philosophical questions outside the usual realm of engineering. Biological engineering reveals the side of science and engineering that isn’t precisely defined, that falls outside the boundaries of absolute laws and truths.
(Featured Image From Popular Mechanics, “The Problem with Modern-Day, High-Tech Prosthetics.”)
Evaline Xie is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bostrom, Nick, and Rebecca Roache. “Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement.” New Waves in Applied Ethics, ed. Jesper Ryberg. 2007.
Brey, P. (2009). “Biomedical Engineering Ethics.” Eds. Berg-Olsen, J., Pedersen, S., Hendricks, (eds.), A Companion to Philosophy of Technology. Blackwell.
Lin, Patrick. “More Than Human? The Ethics of Biologically Enhancing Soldiers.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
“Modafinil: MedlinePlus Drug Information.” Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.