Penn State

Mark D. Shriver - Professor of Anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts

Book Title: Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People

Author: John Harris

Book Description:

What should people be permitted to know about their own genomes and the genomes of their future children? What choices should they be empowered to make based on this knowledge? Sadly, the answer many ethicists and fellow researchers give is “whatever a committee of experts decides.” As a father and as a scientist, I have always believed that we can come up with a better answer.

In 2007, I finally found clues to a better answer when I read the virtually unknown sleeper called Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Author John Harris rejects the prevailing dogma of genetic exceptionalism, standing out among his fellow bioethicists in his consideration of genetic technologies as extensions of other methods for ensuring one’s own health and the health of one’s children. Harris argues that individuals, not panels of academics, should be trusted and empowered to make their own reproductive decisions, using technologies such as gene therapy, IVF, and embryo selection. In an ethics dialogue that has, for decades, been focused on limiting personal autonomy, policing research, prohibiting technological developments, and restricting available interventions, Harris’s call for freedom is unique. But equally important is his call for responsibility. Non-scientists, Harris argues, should support and participate in the very research that continues to improve human life and reduce suffering. If you’re not at the table; don’t be surprised when no one offers you a meal, to coin a phrase.

As future biomedical science emerges from yesterday’s scientific speculations, giving rise to an expansive postgenomic present, my hope is that more scientists and non-scientists will come to the table, as Harris urges. And, once they sit down, I hope that they begin by asking themselves, is “what should people be permitted to do?” even the right question? Do individuals not have ultimate ownership of their own reproductive systems? And must we assume our fellows’ reasons for genetic intervention are, by definition, nefarious? If four billion years of evolution have taught us anything, it is that “making better people” is an instinct that is programmed into all of us, whether we realize it or not. This instinct is not only a relic of our past; it is also the promise of our future.

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