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Update: Science writing prize entry, version 2!

12 Nov

Here’s the edited piece I wrote for the 2012 Wellcome Trust/ Guardian Science Writing Competition. I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted, and I thank the Wellcome Blog for posting this edited version of the piece (which I have posted previously in unedited form) on their site- albeit along with the least flattering photograph I think I’ve ever had. I intend to do more writing of this type in the near future, so watch this space!

Wellcome Trust Blog

We’re publishing the shortlisted entries to the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. Today, David Lawrence on the common forms of human enhancement.

I should warn you: I took a cognitive enhancement drug before I began to write this. A central nervous system stimulant, to be precise. I took it to increase my capacity to think clearly, and to keep me focused. It gives me an advantage over the girl at the table next to mine – I’m going to be able to keep working longer and more productively with my enhanced brain than she is. Until she buys a dose too, anyway. It’s perfectly legal – in fact, there aren’t any specific regulations on it at all.

Okay, so I had a coffee. You probably had one too this morning, without considering that you were, in fact, enhancing yourself. Caffeine crosses your blood-brain barrier and inhibits your adenosine…

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Does dignity matter in biotech?

25 Oct
In discussing emerging biotechnologies, the term ‘dignity’ is often thrown out as a blanket defence of bioconservatism. Proponents of technologies are questioning whether this is really relevant. But what IS dignity, and does it even matter?

The idea that human dignity is an empty concept is not a new one. It has been suggested in academic works throughout the best part of the last two centuries that the use of the term is often nothing more than what Marx termed a “refuge (from history) in morality”. In 1837, Schopenhauer set precedent for this attitude in his analysis of Kant’s ‘Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals’, wherein he described human dignity as the

Almost as widespread as his rad hair.

” …shibboleth of all perplexed and empty-headed moralists. For behind that imposing formula they concealed their lack, not to say, of a real ethical basis, but of any basis at all which was possessed of an intelligible meaning…”

-from the tone of which we can perhaps infer that Schopenhauer, at least, saw how widespread and wide-ranging the term had become even then.

This is not to say, however, that merely because a view has been held by our intellectual forebears it must be so. I would argue that there are other moral concepts which we respect despite their being used conflicting rhetoric, ‘freedom’ being the most obvious, if slightly trite, example. Consider that while it would be generally agreed upon (in the West) to support the principle of freedom in terms of political agency, this freedom can be interpreted differently- for example, positive versus negative liberty. Regardless of your interpretation, having respect for this freedom is regarded as a solid, defined concept and a key feature in democracy.

The concept of respect for human dignity is different, and this is best illustrated by Schopenhauer’s assertion that the subject ‘…lack[s]… intelligible meaning…”.

So can we really respect a concept without a universally agreed definition? Academics of far greater provenance than I have attempted to work out of what might constitute human dignity, and many thousands of pages have been published in argument. That this debate continues is indicative of the scale of the difficulty that exists in validating the term, and it is worthy of note that possibly the most important- in that it was designed to guide future U.S. policy– review of the term, by the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2008, concluded that “…there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term human dignity.” I’m not, therefore, going to try and give a definition myself; but it is of value to note that this meaning has gone from something defined and rather narrow in scope to Marx’s all encompassing moral shield, and to an undefined phrase at the core of various legislative documents today. Continue reading

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!

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The Incredible Enhancement-Man?

13 Oct

I love costumed characters with super-powers. I also believe in the potential of human enhancement. There’s a link there…

Superman was evidently intended to be a kind of anti-car terrorist when he debuted.

In the West, most children (admittedly generally male, but let’s leave gender politics out of it) grow up knowing about superheroes. It’s probably been this way since comic books came mainstream, in what, the forties? Superman made his first appearance in ’38, so let’s say a couple of years later his popularity and that of imitators had blossomed. Every kid has been exposed to them since Supes turned up, and it’s fair to say that most children lap it up. Not that it’s just children, either- I know plenty of adults who retain their love for superheroes well into their lives. My father, for instance, adores the Silver Age work even now. He gave me a Marvel annual when I was young which contained what remain some of his favourite stories- the origin of the Hulk, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, and I know he still reads it.

Continue reading

Wellcome Trust/ Guardian Science Writing Prize 2012 entry

2 Oct

I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted in the above competition this year, with a day of workshops at the Guardian followed by a champagne and schmoozing shindig at the Wellcome Collection in the evening. What follows is my entry in its original form- I have been sent an edited version for approval which is going to be posted here soon (with links!), along with the other shortlistees and the winner. I’ll link directly to it once it goes up, the edits being mostly issues of style. I was very pleased to be shortlisted- indeed, advice from Rebekah Higget, a blogger for Guardian Science among other things, was what led me to start

Is it time to secure our future?

I should warn you: I took a cognitive enhancement drug before I began to write this article.

A central nervous system stimulant, to be precise. I took it to increase my capacity to think clearly, and to keep me focussed. It gives me an advantage over the girl at the table next to mine- I’m going to be able to keep working longer and more productively with my enhanced brain than she is. Until she goes and buys a dose too, anyway. It’s perfectly legal- in fact, there aren’t any specific regulations on human enhancement at all.

Okay, so I only had a coffee. Well, that’s fine, right? You probably had one too this morning, without considering that you were enhancing yourself. Caffeine crosses your blood-brain barrier and inhibits your adenosine receptors from reducing your synaptic activity- so that morning brew has artificially altered your brain chemistry to your advantage. Until those molecules are rendered pharmacologically inactive, you’re something more than a normal human. Right now, I’m Superman, though I might avoid the tights.

Admittedly, there’s a world of difference between my mildly increased alertness and such potential as exists in the field of biomedical enhancement. Leaving the hyperbole behind, biotechnologies are promising us abilities beyond those of mortal man. Prosthetics, developing at a rapid rate to serve the needs of military amputees, can in some cases now be grafted directly to a patient’s own nerves. Maybe not today, but in time it will be perfectly feasible technically to endow one of these robotic limbs with a strength beyond that of flesh and blood. Nootropic drugs- cognitive enhancers, akin to that coursing through my nervous system- offer improved memory, increased metabolism, augmented thought processing, and potentially an extended lifespan. More controversially, perhaps, there are the genetic manipulation techniques which could render us immune to diseases, specify our attributes, or even grant us those we could never have inherited from our parents.

These are much more than just theories. For instance, Melissa officinalis, the herb ‘lemon balm’, has produced a “significant increase in the speed of mathematical processing, with no reduction in accuracy” in human tests performed by the University of Northumbria. We hear stories, too, of star athletes banned from competition for ‘doping’. Unsporting, yes- but ultimately another form of human enhancement. On the same theme, take Oscar Pistorius, the famed ‘blade runner’ whose transtibial prostheses have generated controversy over his perceived advantage as a sprinter.

In academia, there has been arcane discussion for decades over the ethics of using such technologies. Scientists and philosophers on both sides of the issue have sparred without resolution in the pages of journals, both praising the prospective benefits and admonishing us against the theorised risks to our health and humanity. If I alter my natural state, am I playing God, or subverting nature? In my effort to break the limits of humanity, might I lose my inherent dignity? And how could I possibly predict any side effects, in years ahead?

They’re valid questions, and debate could rage unabated for years to come. Some of them might never be answered, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Look at embryonic stem cells- a field of research with wonderful therapeutic possibilities, but fraught with argument over morality, the right to life and what constitutes a human. Cloning, too, is a hotbed of contention, as are developments in the creation of synthetic life. All these biotechnologies offer us much, but has their maturation stalled to some degree by the questions that are rightly asked.

There is one important difference which sets human enhancements apart: it is not that these questions and fears are not warranted, but that we can address them in advance. Prior to the resounding success of Dolly, cloning was largely science fiction in the public consciousness. Before the birth of Louise Brown, IVF treatment simply wasn’t something the general population had sufficient awareness of in order to enter reasoned debate. Discussion and dispute came after the fact, along with reactive legislation like the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which instituted regulations on in vitro work long after the practice had become widespread. Now, though, we’re in a different position.

Technologies and pharmaceuticals which augment our capabilities are already here, and we use them every day. Their burgeoning development into the ‘pill to make you perfect’ isn’t coming as any surprise, if you consider the wealth of advancements announced in the media every day. So really, we’re in the perfect position to make our decisions and conceive our laws ahead of time, instead of playing catch-up with science. Given the potential touted by enhancement techniques, can we afford to allow progress to run aground?

To decide my position, though, I might need to enhance my cognition. This time with foam, and sprinkles.