July 27, 2016

Q&A: Two perspectives on human enhancement technologies and how the public views them

Christian Brugger, Professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
Christian Brugger, professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Pew Research Center’s new survey on human enhancement finds a broad wariness about the prospect of technologies aimed at making people smarter, stronger and healthier. Americans who are highly religious tend to be the most concerned about these possible developments, which include genetic engineering, cognitive augmentation and synthetic blood.

Anders Sandberg, research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University
Anders Sandberg, research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University

Fact Tank sat down with two experts on science and bioethics who have different views on human enhancement – Christian Brugger and Anders Sandberg – to explore what these new findings might mean. Brugger, who is a professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, believes that people are right to be concerned about the social impact of human enhancement. Sandberg, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, thinks that, on balance, human enhancement will improve and enrich our lives.

Our new survey shows that most American adults see the prospect of human enhancement with wariness and worry rather than enthusiasm and hope. Why do you think this might be the case?

Christian Brugger: It’s not because Americans are anti-science or because they suffer from irrational fear of change. They worry because they perceive a future about which they have grave doubts, a future where, by design, humans possess radically different capacities, where biotechnical interventions create a preferential class of enhanced individuals introducing even greater social disparities, and hence conflicts, than we already struggle with. Perhaps, beneath all this, is a future where our natural capacities come to be seen not as the glory of the human person, but obstacles that must be overcome.

Anders Sandberg: People’s attitudes to something in the future tend to be in “far mode” and much more based on abstract principles than when dealing with something in the here and now. In “near mode” we are much more pragmatic. People were rather negative to IVF and heart transplants before they became common. Hence I think current public attitudes are not very good predictors for attitudes in the future.

The new survey also shows that religious people are more likely to have concerns about enhancement than those with lower levels of religious commitment. Many people of faith say that they are concerned with changing God’s plan for humanity. Is this a valid concern?

CB: Is this heightened concern because religious people, especially Christians, are credulous science-fearing dupes? “Neo-Luddites” as some contemporary critics of religion believe? That’s absurd: Bacon, Pascal, Mendel, Newton, Kepler, Lemaître were all devout Christians. Why is it then? Simply said, it’s because they believe in God. And so they believe there are God-given limits, and if the limits are transgressed, people don’t flourish. And one of those limits is respect for our bodily nature, which implies at very least that we shouldn’t metamorphose that nature into some grandiose more-than-human reality. They hear in the transhumanist imperative a whisper of original sin, which is pride: “Do it and you’ll be like God.”

AS: If one accepts a divinely ordained order as a moral order, then it is a valid concern. The problem is that this will be particular to some religious views and not others: It is not a valid ethical argument for all of society. … Hence it does not work for deciding as a society what to prohibit, allow or encourage.

If the three types of enhancements we focus on in the report – gene editing, cognitive enhancement and smart blood – became widely available, which in your view would have the greatest societal impact? 

CB: As reported, definitely gene editing, especially at the germline [i.e., changes made at the embryonic stage], which is passed on to offspring. But if cognitive enhancement is carried out through germline manipulations, it will be the most impactful, because it will perpetuate in the gene pool permanent manipulations of that the most godlike capacity, human intelligence.

AS: Cognitive enhancement has the biggest personal and economic impact, both individually and on a societal level. Gene editing may change us in the long term, but it will take far more time for it to pan out and much else will change during that time.

More than seven-in-ten Americans we polled tell us that some new enhancement technologies will become available before they’re fully tested or understood. Do you share these concerns?

CB: Yes. Enhancement interventions will precipitate the most significant and rapid evolutionary changes that our species has ever known. Capitalizing on these changes will involve big financial interests. And wherever high finance is at stake, boundaries and caution always go the wind. It’s a law of human nature. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in the grips of a Pollyanna fantasy.

AS: It is plausible that some forms of enhancement will become widely used with limited testing or understanding. Much current cognitive enhancement drug use is simply off-label use of pharmaceutical drugs, electrical brain stimulation appears hard to regulate, and software enhancement even more so. This suggests a great need for investigating and informing about the safety of enhancements before we use them.

Majorities of American adults also said enhancements could exacerbate social inequality and cause those who are “enhanced” to feel superior to those who are not. Again, do you think these fears are valid or unfounded?

CB: Yes, this is my principal concern: Who benefits and who loses? When it comes to complex and expensive biotechnology, the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, especially the countless human embryos that will be (and are already being) used to perfect techniques such as gene editing, are sure to lose. We think we see social tensions now? If we don’t proceed with great caution, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

AS: Much depends on the type of enhancement. Pills and gadgets tend to come down in price, while service-heavy enhancements [genetic engineering etc.] may stay expensive. Cellphones and computers have not exacerbated social inequality strongly.

One can feel superior even without valid reason (consider inherited noble titles), and indeed the things people are most smug about tend to be things most intrinsic to them, like character, appearance or a workout body. So if you can easily enhance something, it may actually be harder to feel smug about having the trait.

Topics: Emerging Technology Impacts, Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.