This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
The point of the Dana Centre is to explore science and society and to get across aspects of science through the human side of the subject, and that certainly is the case here. Pete Moore, always a thoughtful science writer, ponders the nature of human enhancement, and whether we have really achieved it. This book is interesting to set alongside his previous title Being Me, a scientific exploration of what it means to be human.
The book mostly works round a relatively small series of interviews with those who have had medical treatment that could be regarded as enhancement, from an artificial heart mechanism to cochlear implants, and with scientists who feel that enhancement is possible. Along the way we come across concepts like improving the brain and the memory (oddly, one of Moore’s more hopeful possibilities is techniques to help people forget things, rather than remember them), and the use of drugs whether it’s to keep us more alert, or to enhance sports performance.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the book is that it’s a bit depressing. There seems to be a lot more hype than hope. Although a couple of the scientists Moore talks to do have genuine hopes of positive enhancement, whether it’s life extension, cybernetic connection or the highly unlikely concept of uploading a human being to an electronic environment, the feeling is that most of the areas Moore looks at involve restoring some degree of existing ability, not making a genuine enhancement to the human condition.
In part, this negative outcome is due to Moore’s very tight definition of enhancement. Having thoughtfully discussed the options, he homes in on something that has to be internalized, made a real physical part of the human. I feel this is too tight. For me, enhancement can be quite simple. Any way we use technology to do something it would take another animal millions of years of evolution to achieve (carrying a water bottle, for instance) seems a genuine enhancement, and something that should be celebrated. Moore argues ‘To throw the net so wide… makes the term virtually meaningless. It becomes just an adjective to describe the human condition.’ I would take away that ‘just’ – yes, it’s what being human is about. Being human involves enhancing yourself. But is that really a negative?
Realistically, though, by keeping his definition of enhancement tight, Moore can explore some of the more interesting aspects of enhancement in depth, pondering, for instance, the difficult issue of what is and isn’t acceptable as an enhancement in sport. A thoughtful and thought provoking book.
Review by Brian Clegg