In Depth: Enhanced and you don’t even know it

19 Oct
On Biojammer, I make a lot of mention of human enhancement and related technologies. But it’s kind of a vague term, and it can have a lot of different interpretations. Here’s my take on what’s meant by ‘enhancement’, along with all the academic articles I reference linked for your elucidative pleasure. Or not.

To understand why nobody can agree on what enhancements actually are,  you have to recognise that the term is in itself academically divisive. There is great variability in the literature as to what it may refer, ranging from the relatively narrow scope given by a European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment (EP STOA)-

“a modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by [specifically] science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body… Excluded… are improvements of human performance which are realised by the use of devices which are not implanted or not robustly fixed to the body”

You’d probably know about this, in fairness.

-to the all-encompassing, as employed by Buchanan in his book Better than Human

 “an intervention- a human action of any kind- that improves some capacity (or characteristic) that normal human beings ordinarily have or, more radically, that produces a new one.”

Those seem pretty different!

The fundamental variance between the two quotations above is that while Buchanan is inclusive of  all technological, mechanical, genealogical, and scientific methods of enhancement, along with elements of social anthropology such as education (a construct which has been described as a “psychological intervention… to improve general mental faculties such as concentration, memory, and critical thinking”); the apologia of the EP study expressly excludes anything which is not “technoscientific” (whatever that means in reality) in nature, as well as any non-permanent, non-implanted devices. While it’s true that to exclude certain potential technologies or practices from being classed as enhancements would simplify any subsequent discussion to some extent, as in a sense it would reduce the number of variables which must be addressed, we cannot in good faith do so without sufficient reason. The EP STOA, however, attempts to justify it by classing items such as spectacles, contact lenses, wheelchairs and “removable exoprostheses” (artificial limbs?) as being external assistive devices; which:

“[i]n light of our working definition, one could argue [have] nothing to do with human enhancement at all, but only [amount] to a rather ordinary application of technology. And even in  the case of removable exoprostheses and explantable implants, one could argue that such devices are not part of the biological body of a human being and thereby do no contribute to human enhancement in a strict sense.”

There’s a few problems with this rationale, not least of which is that it is semantically redundant.

It is not generally acceptable in reasoned discourse to support a statement solely by referring to a product of that statement, as is the case here: at no other point does the document give a reason for the exclusion of assistive devices from its interpretation of ‘enhancement’. The reasoning presented is only true if the definition is true- ‘in light of our… definition’- and since the purpose of the reason is to prove the definition to be true, the whole argument is cyclical and therefore fundamentally flawed. Nonetheless, maybe it would be unfair to dismiss the study’s position outright on the basis of such a deficiency, heinous though it is.

Here’s a thing: the assistive devices in question are characterised as ‘ordinary applications of technology’, which could be interpreted as a form of tool use. The dismissal of tool use as a form of human enhancement is supported in a paper by Lin and Allhoff, who claim that

“tools, diet, exercise and so on… [are] what we would intuitively call ‘natural enhancement.’”

While you could describe both food consumption and exercise as functions of nature, a tool is by definition “a device or implement…used to carry out a particular function… a thing used to help perform a job.

That such an artefact is employed deliberately as assistance would tend to imply that the natural capacities of the user are insufficient.


Furthermore, any tool is either deliberately crafted for its purpose, as generations of blacksmiths and craftsmen will testify, or at least is specifically selected for such- for instance, primates have been observed selecting appropriately sized ‘hammer’ and ‘anvil’ stones in order to crack nuts.

As such actions are deliberately instigated as a means of improving one’s capacity to act,  maybe it’s difficult to describe tool use as a function of nature. You would, after all, find it impossible to drive a nail with a bare fist. A bear fist, maybe.

There is, however, some logic to the stance that ‘enhancement’ should only apply to technoscientific interventions, or put more simply, to physical devices, changes, or procedures (including at a molecular level, such as gene therapies). This would exclude, as does the EP STOA’s interpretation, anthropological and cultural factors. It’s surely beyond doubt, for instance, that consuming the correct nutrient balance and undertaking physical exercise will increase muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance; among other benefits regarding blood pressure and general health. Doing so utilises only the body’s natural processes and capacities for growth, without biotechnological intervention; and critics of enhancement such as Ida contend therefore that no alteration has been made- an athlete-in-training is fulfilling latent physical capacities rather than expanding the capacities themselves.

On the other hand, it has been argued that education, another anthropological aspect of social and cultural development, is a direct form of cognitive enhancement.

“…functional neuroimaging data indicate[s] that certain aspects of phonological processing may not be acquired spontaneously, but are modulated by learning an alphabetic written language, that is, learning to read and write… [which alters] the interaction between Broca’s area and the inferior parietal cortex as well as the posterior-midinsula bridge between Wernicke’s and Broca’s area.”


Obvious, really.

In other words, in becoming literate the individual has undergone physiological changes in the brain, affecting the route and method by which language is processed. Think about the stipulation made by the EP STOA- that an enhancement must be “a modification aimed at improving individual human performance…”- it seems like the above effect of education fulfils it, ipso facto weakening the basis of the stance for exclusivity.

This is particularly true if you notice that the EP STOA also says “conventional [anthropological] interventions often produce more permanent neurological changes than do drugs.” These principles can also be applied to the aforementioned diet and exercise- the latter having been described as “a health-related resilience enhancer”.

The  potential distinction between overtly biotechnological and non-technoscientific interventions hasn’t really received a degree of academic discussion commensurate with its counterpart, the idea of a distinction between therapies and enhancements, which I will address in a future post. Furthermore, it’s difficult to ascertain a cogent rationale behind a stance claiming that there even is one: the EP STOA fails to present a reason for taking it beyond describing such ideas as

“expanded anthropological notions [which] even further obfuscate [the subject]…a rhetorical strategy which serves, in certain tactical situations, to distract critics or sceptics from the radical character of some emerging technologies…”.

Come on. This is just sneeringly dismissive of pro-enhancement arguments to include social and cultural conventions. It implies that the case for doing so is without substance or value, and is invoked only to make things more difficult and confusing for bioconservative commentators.

What a shame.


This scathing attitude is not supported by evidence, nor is it given further reference in the document; and I might venture that so flippant a condemnation isn’t really appropriate in character for such an august institution as the European Parliament. It also seems a bit paranoid to suggest that a viewpoint only exists to cause problems for the opposition.

Combined with the lack of explanation, this brings the credibility of the EP STOA’s wider stance into question.

Other proponents of the division also fail to offer a sufficiently reasoned argument- Lin and Allhoff claim that “we understand that steroid use by baseball players is a case of human enhancement; we also understand that using a rock to crack open a clam is not”, terming this an “intuitive distinction” but failing to explain why this is so. We can’t presume to understand the personal thoughts of authors- and indeed, they don’t seem sure of their own opinions, as you can see in a later paper wherein they admit that

“the natural-versus-artificial distinction… may prove most difficult to defend given the vagueness of the term ‘natural.’”.

In contrast to the unconvincing arguments against inclusivity, a variety of academics have provided both discourse and data in support of Buchanan’s position, above and beyond those I’ve already mentioned. I’m not going to go into a deep analysis of all those here since I’ve rattled on long enough for one post, but it is worthwhile recognising a common statement which is made in many if not all of them, and indeed is recognised by the EP STOA: the notion that human enhancement technologies (both ‘natural’ and artificial) are already in widespread use, particularly among first-world populations. Think about the ‘functional food and beverage’ industry, perhaps best recognised

Not pictured: wings.

in such popular products as Red Bull™ and Yakult™, which has been estimated to have a 2013 global market worth of 176.7 billion dollars; or herbal products such as Ginko biloba which is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

It’s massive business, and they’re selling you enhancements.

I’ll close by mentioning the common cup of coffee, possessed of the same enhancing attributes as the aforementioned soft drink and which has long been a cultural feature of many countries. If we deny that anthropological practices and culturally-embedded phenomena can constitute enhancements, we are denying the inclusion of acts perpetrated by billions daily- and it is difficult to defend a suggestion that caffeine, for example, does not enhance your cognitive capacity and alertness.

We’re all enhanced, be it by our education, the keyboard I’m using, or by what’s in my mug. The sooner everyone recognises this, the sooner we can put this debate to bed and get towards some progress.


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