Alan Barker is a writer, coach, training consultant and academic proofreader. Find out more about his work here.

Think about human enhancement, and you’ll probably think about futuristic technology. The enhanced human might have intelligent prosthetic limbs, artificial skin, or an implanted insulin pump. Human enhancement technology might enhance abilities that are physical (night vision; exoskeletons), cognitive (stimulants or neurotechnology), or psychological (medication, old or new). According to one definition, whatever enlarges the possibility space of human capabilities constitutes a human enhancement (HE).

HE draws heavily on transhumanism, an intellectual movement popularised by Julian Huxley. Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, had famously defended Darwinian evolution against Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. In 1957, Julian wrote an influential article hailing the prospect of humans superseding evolution:

... we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.

HE has been noticeably gendered. This year’s Huxley Debate, at the British Science Festival – named in honour of T H Huxley – brought depth and breadth to the conversation. Boys with toys this was not. Four women tackled the question: Is human enhancement a human right?

Asked at the outset by science journalist Sarah Watts to define their terms, Sarah Chan of Edinburgh University reminded us that we’ve been enhancing our experience for a long time. Writing enhanced our ability to learn, think and communicate; cooking enhanced our ability to nourish ourselves. We might define enhancements in terms of the human achievements they facilitate. Using a helicopter to plant a person atop Mount Everest undermines the goal of reaching the summit. (Thanks to Andy Miah for that example.)

We need to consider, also, how long the enhancement lasts. Drugs might enhance muscular strength in the short term but cause longer-term damage; embryonic manipulation may enhance our children’s capabilities but commit succeeding generations permanently to a new genetic make-up.

Rebecca Roache of Royal Holloway College, London, sought to distinguish enhancement from therapy. A therapeutic technology restores a person to normality; an enhancement extends the boundaries of normal. A respirator, for example, that helps a sick person to breathe normally can also allow us to work underwater.

But what constitutes normality – and who decides? We might agree, for example, that people have a right of access to technology to repair disfigurement; but do they have a similar right to technology that makes them more attractive – or a different gender? And how would society decide to allocate resources to fulfil those rights?

In truth, the debate didn’t make much headway on the question of rights. If we can’t decide whether a given technology is an enhancement or not, how do we determine an individual’s right to use it? And, how do we  monitor it, legally? Florence Okoye, a user-experience designer and member of Afrofutures UK, pointed out that legal constraints will always come up against existing inequalities in society – of access to technology, of educational opportunity, of treatment by state authorities. She spoke of the need to consider enhancement in the context, not just of technology, but of the power structures that limit people’s possibility space through imposed definitions of the normal.

HE itself shifts that definition. Enhancements are often seen as unnatural until they gain social acceptance. My dad refused to enter an aircraft: “If God had meant us to fly...”, he’d say. But now, as Sarah pointed out, her employers would hardly countenance her travelling from Edinburgh to London by horse and cart. Microdosing with LSD – which is currently illegal – might improve cognition and productivity at work; but, if the practice became acceptable, how would an individual’s enhanced mental ability affect their relationships with their co-workers, or indeed social expectations of work?

What enhances one person’s life might restrict or limit another’s. And so the debate turned and returned to the social implications of HE. We’d surely want to share the goods of enhancement; to do so, we’d need to explore what Florence called the interface of technology and social constructs. We could ask how people can take ownership of the questions that HE is designed to answer. Instead of defining a person’s health in clinical terms, for example, we could ask how they would define their own well-being. Sarah Chan suggested that the social model of disability might offer a useful template for a social model of enhancement, focusing not on what defines a person’s normality but on how that person might want to lead a more fulfilling life.

It’s not only through new technologies that human enhancement is delivered. We need to go beyond gadgetry, said Florence; older, or indigenous, technologies might offer new routes through possibility space. An audience question about Ayahuasca – a medicinal brew originating in South America, which seems to have psychotropic effects – led the conversation into areas, not just of performance enhancement, but of enhanced perception or awareness.

We need, said Rebecca, to ask the old questions. What are we aiming at? What constitutes the good life? We seem to have inherited, as a species, the creative urge to enhance experience. We play; we crave new knowledge; we generate new ideas. We are not only problem solvers but also problem seekers.  Science is one manifestation of that urge, and, in the light of the questions thrown up in this debate, it becomes an ethical project. The audience seemed happy, at the end, with the lack of any definitive conclusions; it was enough to examine the role of science as a tool in the enduring quest for a better society.

And in that respect, the debate exemplified everything that the British Science Association stands for.

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