Sunday, July 30, 2006

The "Natural" versus "Enhancement"

There's an old debate in futurist communities about what our bodies will look like in the future. Will we have free license to alter them at will? Are there going to be people with tails, people with scales, people with metal appendages walking around the streets in the future?

Certain bioconservatives have claimed that "Regarding the use of performance-enhancing techniques, especially in competitive activities, concerns can be raised about unfair advantage and inauthentic performance." In fact, there was an entire report of the US President's Council on Bioethics called Beyond Therapy:Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, from which this quote is taken.

The President's Council goes on:

Superior performance is pursued in a myriad of human activities. The athlete strives to run faster, the student to know more, the soldier to shoot more accurately, the vocalist to sing more musically, the chess-player to play with greater mastery. Our motives for seeking superior performance are varied and complex, as human desire and human aspiration always are. We seek to win in competition, to advance in rank and status, to increase our earnings, to please others and ourselves, to gain honor and fame, or simply to flourish and fulfill ourselves by being excellent in doing what we love. In pursuing superior performance, human beings have long sought advantages obtainable from better tools and equipment, better training and practice, and better nutrition and exercise. Today, and increasingly tomorrow, we may also find help in new technological capacities for directly improving our bodies and minds—both their native powers and their activities—capacities provided by drugs, genetic modifications, and surgical procedures (including the implantation of mechanical devices). What should we think about obtaining superior performance through the use of such biotechnologies?

Given their conservative bent, you can likely guess their answer. The report continues:

And, attending to the special issues raised by the use of bio-engineered enhancements, we would need to address these central questions: As we discover new and better ways to “improve” our given bodies, minds, and performance, are we changing or compromising the dignity of human activity? Are we becoming too reliant on “expert chemists” for our achievements? Do such potential enhancements alter the identity of the doer? Whose performance is it, and is it really better? Is the enhanced person still fully me, and are my achievements still fully mine? Have I been enhanced in ways that are in fact genuinely better and humanly better? And, beyond these questions regarding individuals, we would need to consider the implications for society should such uses of biotechnology become widespread—in school, at work, or in athletics, warfare, or other competitive activities.

First, note the use of the word "given" in relation to bodies. To have our bodies be "given" requires a giver, making our bodies a "gift" (wording used repeatedly throughout this report). There is, clearly, a religious understanding of givenness here, though implicit, that cannot be denied. The implication is that we are what God has made us, and to attempt to alter that is to somehow "compromise the dignity of human activity". While the President's Council seems to know what this dignity of human activity is (presumably something both natural and related to our own human nature) I certainly do not.

The Council goes on:

In athletics, as in so many other areas of human life, practice and training are the most important means for improving performance, and superior performance is most generally attained through better training: the direct improvement of the specific powers and abilities of the human agent at-work-in-the-world, by means of his self-conscious or self-directed effort, exercise, and activity. To train is to be at work: striving, seeking, pushing, laboring, and developing. It requires self-knowledge or external guidance about the ends worth seeking, and it requires the desire and discipline to pursue those ends through one’s own effort. And, most importantly for our purposes, training means acquiring by practice and effort improvements in the very powers and abilities that training uses. One gets to run faster by running; one builds up endurance by enduring; one increases one’s strength by using it on ever-increasing burdens. The capacity to be improved is improved by using it; the deed to be perfected is perfected by doing it.

This insight has some important implications. First, it calls our attention to the very real differences in our natural endowments. If improving through training proceeds as described, certain native abilities are often a prerequisite. In many cases, no amount of training can overcome the unchangeable shortcomings of natural gifts. Second, and more important for present purposes, the source of our different endowments may be mysterious, but our active cultivation of those endowments, whether great or small, is intelligible: we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result.

This leads to an important difference between improvements made through training and improvements gained through bioengineering. When and if we use our mastery of biology and biotechnology to alter our native endowments—whether to make the best even better or the below- average more equal—we paradoxically make improvements to our performance less intelligible, in the sense of being less connected to our own self-conscious activity and exertion. The improvements we might once have made through training alone, we now make only with the assistance of artfully inserted IGF-1 genes or anabolic steroids. Though we might be using rational and scientific means to remedy the mysterious inequality or unchosen limits of our native gifts, we would in fact make the individual’s agency less humanly or experientially intelligible to himself.

So while they do, in fact, note that there are "very real differences in our natural endowments," their argument against enhancement (a word I'm loathe to use, but will do so for the sake of coherence with their own wording) is that it makes the "individual's agency less humanly... intelligible to himself." Again, I have no idea what it means for my agency to be intelligible to myself, or how biotechnological enhancement somehow compromises this more than training or natural luck would.

I bring this up first because I was subjected to hours upon hours of watching this year's Tour de France (I can respect that my friends cycle, but I cannot understand why anyone would actually watch cycling!) As many of you may already know, this year's winner has been accused of using performance enhancers. (And please excuse me if the link changes at some point - CNN has a nasty habit of inserting completely new stories into previous URLs). Although it's too early to say whether this is just another case of people refusing to accept an American winning the Tour (Lance Armstrong was accused of doping by the same lab that has reported a positive test for this year's winner, Floyd Landis, and eventually cleared of all charges), what interests me about this entire thing is Landis' defense. The positive test showed high levels of testosterone in Landis' blood, and Landis insists that it is a natural occurence - his body simply produces more testosterone than other people. He claims:

This is not a doping case, but a natural occurrence," the 30-year-old American cyclist told reporters at the news conference. "I declare convincingly and categorically that my winning the Tour de France has been exclusively due to many years of training and my complete devotion to cycling."

I'm beyond intrigued here. So he has amazingly high levels of testosterone naturally in his blood (testosterone which allegedly aids in speedy muscle recovery, making his impossible comeback in stage 17 and his ability to ride at all the next day possible). Yet, in spite of this "natural endowment," he attributes his win to training and the love of the sport, not the fact that other people lack his amazing recovery ability.

This became even more questionable when it was reported that an Olympic medal-winning runner also tested positive for high levels of testosterone recently. I'm much less familiar with this case, but I actually watched Floyd Landis make a miracle comeback in the Tour and joked at the time that "he must've gone home and doped after he dropped back so far in the race," a claim I could make jokingly and without guilt after so many racers were thrown out just days before the start of the race for doping.

So what does it mean for the debate on biotechnological enhancement if, as these men claim, they have naturally high levels of testosterone and have not cheated at all? I can certainly believe it - but it should bring into sharp highlight the fact that all this talk of natural human dignity and hard work is not necessarily the relevant factor in what builds a champion. We like to tell an inspiring story about our lives, and especially in America we hold athletes up as the protagonists of these stories. Yet all the narrative eloquence in the world cannot rewrite the fact that these individuals are quite possibly born with an advantage that can only be rivaled by biotechnological means in other individuals.

The question that is always asked is then, how can we reward them for their accomplishments if all we've done is given them EPO or pumped them full of steroids? But my question is, and always has been, how can we reward any athlete that happens to be born with all of the advantages for athleticism? All the hard work in the world is not going to win me the Tour de France, ever (not that women can even compete...) So, is the question of reward even relevant in the debate about human enhancement? As the President's Council put it, "concerns can be raised about unfair advantage and inauthentic performance" - but I would say these concerns are raised before biotechnology ever enters into the picture.

Cross-posted to Hyper-textual Ontology


n8o said...

"Though we might be using rational and scientific means to remedy the mysterious inequality or unchosen limits of our native gifts, we would in fact make the individual’s agency less humanly or experientially intelligible to himself."

I don't see the divide here between "rational and scientific" versus "humanly or experientially intelligible". Is it just a matter of the complexity of the mechanisms involved between, say, running to improve running ability versus doping to improve running ability? Sure, it takes a lot more study to understand the biochemistry involved in how injections or popping pills (or however it works) can increase muscle strengh or stamina; but then, there's as much biochemistry in "performance enhancement" that can be lost on the un-doped runner in training as on the runner who dopes.

So, what's the difference?

Tom FitzGerald said...

Echoing n8o's comment, I wonder if it would be more self-intelligible (or whatever) if the athlete doping was a chemist who had invented his or her own dope?

Conversely, I wonder if the writing of a great work of literature would be a less humanly intelligible accomplishment if these biocons discovered that the author had been chemically enhanced with complicated compounds like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine during the writing?

Robin Zebrowski said...

Tom - good point! Especially since we know most of the greatest literature was, in fact, written under some influence or other! (I remember being obsessed with Sherlock Holmes stories as a very young child and having to ask my mother "What's cocaine?")