“It’s a personal debate that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human,” Dr. Patrick Lin said in the middle of his presentation last night. The controversy is around emerging technologies “pushing us beyond nature’s limits — turning science fiction into reality.”
Lin, a philosophy professor at Cal Poly, presented on “Accelerating Evolution: The Ethics of Human Enhancement” at Kennedy Library from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Brought to the second floor by the Science Cafe, Lin spoke to a packed cafe with an audience of 135 individuals. He is part of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly, a non-partisan group that Lin said “lays out a debate to move it forward,” not taking a side.
“This is the single most important debate this century in science and technology,” Lin said to start off the evening.
He began with relevant and tangible topics which spur much of the controversy in this area, such as pharmaceuticals like steroids in sports. He strayed from more out-there concepts such as the creation of a space elevator.
One of the first examples he brought up was the use of Ritalin by students. He questioned whether this obvious advantage for a student’s ability to focus is necessarily wrong.
“It’s basically like taking a large shot of caffeine,” Lin said.
He also talked about a study done in Florida where the senior citizen community saw a spike in STDs, due in part to Viagra and in part to being a part of a generation not as well educated in safe sex practices.
Lin then went on to discuss what human enhancement really is. He explained that in the broad sense, it’s anything that improves our lives from physical to cognitive performance.
In this sense “this chair is human enhancement … Those cookies in the back could be considered a form of human enhancement,” Lin said.
He explains the distinction made between “therapy” and “human enhancement” for the sake of the debate. “Therapy” is about treatments that keep one’s level of functioning at a species-typical or “normal” level whereas “human enhancement” is a change in the structure and function of the body.
“Some people argue there’s no distinction between enhancement and therapy,” Lin said.
The main reason for this, he said, was a lack of an arbitrary line. A vaccine might be an enhancement for the immune system, but the environment in which it’s given could make it considered a therapy.
Lin tied this concept to enhancement versus tool. A laptop could be considered a tool, but if shrunk down into a chip embedded in the head or clothing via nanoelectronics, it could be considered an enhancement.
“One is outside the body and the other is in,” Lin said.
The point he was trying to make is not to abandon the enhancement-therapy distinction, even though there may not necessarily be a specific line between the two.
The same idea goes for alcohol, he said. It’s a mood enhancer and relaxer, but the next day could mean a horrible hang-over.
“Is it enhancement or poison?” he asked.
Lin then went over possible scenarios in mental performance, physical performance and other unusual nonhuman enhancements. Mental improvements included things such as happiness from Prozac and information processing from Ritalin. Physical improvements included enhancements such as attractiveness through cosmetic surgery and soldier survivability, creating soldiers who don’t need sleep. The latter, Lin explained, is revolved around studies on whales and dolphins, two species that never fully sleep.
“They would drown if they did,” Lin said.
The idea would be to find this biological mechanism in humans and turn it on. An example Lin gave for unusual nonhuman enhancements was a deaf couple who wanted to use In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) to select a deaf embryo.
Lin said it’s these scenarios that end up being issues and moral questions that range from freedom and autonomy to human dignity and social disruption.
“It’s your body; why shouldn’t it be up to you?” Lin said. “It’s easy to hold up a torch of liberty, but we’re surrounded by laws.”
Lin went into more detail, discussing liberty and responsibility going hand in hand, the possibility of setting a bad example for children and the proposal that we are “playing God.”
“Doctors are saving lives everyday … Are they playing God?” Lin asked. “Is that bad?”
Lin concluded the presentation with the question, “Why worry?” He listed many of the ways we over-hype technology: robot maids, flying cards, meat-in-a-pill, but proposed the idea that backlash is a possibility like that toward genetically-engineered foods.
“Let’s at least proactively address and anticipate some of these issues,” Lin said.
Lin was swarmed with questions after the presentation on topics such as counteracting natural selection and the definition of normality.
He answered a question about evolution and the suggestion that these enhancements are all part of that process.
“Two hundred years ago, the life expectancy was 40 or 50,” Lin said. “We would be super-humans compared to them … What’s normal? It depends on where you find yourself in time.”
Thomas Dvornik, computer science graduate student, came to Lin’s presentation as part of his ethics and software class. He said the most interesting part was hearing about the difference between therapy and enhancement. Even with the moral questions proposed, Dvornik said he’s still a big proponent of future advancements in technology.
“I’m all for technology … I don’t really see the difference,” Dvornik said. “If we are going to utilize technology, we might as well utilize it all we can.”
An anonymous retired 76-year-old woman and San Luis Obispo local attended and said she was old-school, and not a proponent of these emerging technologies.
“How far can we go against nature?” she asked.
She said she does her own research in holistic medicine and health, and after teaching English as a second language in foreign countries she finds solace in the holistic approach.
“I call pharmaceutical ‘harmeceutical,'” she said. “We think of where we are, not mother nature and the earth as whole.”
Gregoire Robida, architecture senior and one-year exchange student from France, attended out of interest and said he was impressed with how well explained and organized the information was.
“We should carefully look at everything we do,” Robida said afterward.