Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves – Book Review


Are we on the verge of a new class war with a bio-engineered elite? Will governments be instituting new genetic engineering programs to enhance or “protect” their people? Will man play God?

How about a conversation about biomedical technologies that isn’t so sensationalized? That’s the much-welcomed approach author-philosopher Allen Buchanan takes in his book “Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves.” Writing for the general reader, Buchanan confronts the major opposition facing biomedical enhancement, such as the risk of creating a super elite dominated by the rich, moral issues about ‘playing God’, and the risks of tampering with our own genetics. He does so in a calm, collected, and reasonable manner, keeping in check the sensational appeal of such a controversial topic.

Better Than Human realistically points out that it is too late to reject biomedical enhancements; they’re already here, and the science and movement behind them is only going to grow. Also, although biomedical enhancement is a more recent phenomenon, the idea of human enhancement itself is not. Literacy, computers, cell phones, a cup of coffee, university and other educational institutions, Buchanan explains, are all forms of enhancement and examples of ways people have found for improving themselves. Biomedical enhancement is only the latest way of doing something which we always have been doing.

Buchanan carefully addresses the reasons behind our often knee-jerk reactions against the idea of altering our genes, exposing both their faults as well as the ways in which they represent legitimate concerns and risks. As importantly, he also addresses the thinking behind those who accept biomedical enhancements, how it affects them, and why they are okay with it. Jack might accuse Jane of “cheating” when she takes Ritalin for cognitive enhancement. Jane might counter that it helps her think better and if that’s cheating, then that makes drinking coffee cheating too.

Better Than Human pulls what is for many an alien and fearsome concept out of the world of science fiction and speculation, presenting it in real world terms and practical scenarios. This book is highly recommended for anyone seeking to know the real implications of biomedical enhancements and genetic engineering without the sensationalism. It is a welcome offering from an extremely qualified expert (he is, among other things, a consultant to President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues) on an issue much in need of a dose of reality. As Buchanan explains, again, biomedical enhancement is already here and it is too late to stop it even if we wanted to. Best, then, to engage responsibly with clear analysis and a public conversation–to inform ourselves before we enhance ourselves.