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Focus on Research: Michael Bess F'08 on Justice and Identity in a Bioengineered Civilization


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Michael Bess, professor of history at Vanderbilt University.

Bess_Michael_lgIf I were laying bets on what the historians of the year 2300 will say about our society, looking back and discussing the primary distinguishing features of our era, I would single out the rise of biotechnology as a leading candidate. Why? Because biotechnology is giving us the capability not just to change our world, but to change ourselves—to manipulate and partially redesign our own bodies and minds.

Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to control our moods, boost our physical and mental performance, and increase our longevity and vitality. Through the application of prostheses, implants, and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed, but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories, and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines. Through genetic interventions, we are not only neutralizing certain diseases long thought incurable, but opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands—redesigning the human “platform” of body and mind in a thoroughgoing way.

The book I am writing on this topic is entitled Icarus 2.0: Justice and Identity in a Bioengineered Civilization. In this study I aim to situate contemporary debates about human biological enhancement within their broader historical context, illuminating their links to the rich traditions of reflection about the interconnection of the human and the technological. It will be the first scholarly work to approach enhancement from such an explicitly historical perspective, grounding contemporary controversies within the longer intellectual and cultural traditions out of which they arose. Such an approach will allow me to identify the principal schools of thought that have emerged, to clarify their respective assumptions about human identity and about the future, and to offer an analytical framework for “mapping” their points of divergence, overlap, and convergence.


How have the debates over human enhancement been shaped by political and social forces? What shifting coalitions of actors have jockeyed for position in defining the issues (and non-issues)? How has the institutional context changed, from the early postwar decades to the turn-of-the-millennium?


The reconfiguration of human biology (assuming we find ways to accomplish it safely) would confront our society with a variety of tough questions.

  • Will the most potent and effective enhancements be prohibitively expensive, and therefore remain accessible only to the privileged few? And if so, would this not result in a radical exacerbation of the division between haves and have-nots, inscribing that division in biology itself?
  • Will these technologies continually raise the bar of “normal” performance, forcing all of us to engage in constant cycles of upgrades and boosts merely to keep up with the ever-rising benchmarks of species-typical capability?
  • What happens to those who refuse such enhancements? Will they become akin to obsolete technologies, hopelessly outclassed by modified humans in health, talent, dexterity, mental acuity, the ability to communicate, the ability to interact with machines? Will such unmodified humans be able to coexist alongside the modified ones?
  • Might the widespread adoption of diverse enhancement packages result in increasingly distinct lineages of modified humans, each lineage defined by its particular profile of chosen traits and capabilities? Could this trend ultimately culminate in the fragmentation of homo sapiens into a series of separate successor species?
  • What would be the practical and psychological consequences of extremely long healthspans in the coming generations? If the peak vitality of individuals could be extended for a much greater period than at present, what impacts would this have on the family? On marriage? On work? On population levels and ecological sustainability?
  • As scientists find increasingly sophisticated ways to intervene directly in the mind-brain process of humans, whether through “neuroceuticals” or bioelectronic means, what impact will this have on individuality? On privacy? On the autonomy of our decision-making?
  • In a culture rife with enhancement packages available for sale on the free market, how will we avoid a gradual, but escalating, commodification of humans—the instrumentalization of human traits, faculties, and mental functions?
  • Will corporations hold patents on the enhancement packages they offer—and will this result in a certain component of my body or mind being partially owned or legally controlled by those corporations?
  • Do our government and citizenry have the ability to steer the development of these technologies over time? Precisely because the advance of enhancement science goes hand-in-hand with the advance of medicine, technological innovation, and basic scientific discovery, what sorts of regulatory policies might be available to a democratic society for (at least partially) controlling the direction these technologies take?

 Two themes have recurred as leitmotivs in my research:

  1. The ongoing process of technopolitics. How have the debates over human enhancement been shaped by political and social forces? What shifting coalitions of actors have jockeyed for position in defining the issues (and non-issues)? How has the institutional context changed, from the early postwar decades to the turn-of-the-millennium? 

  2. Evolving representations of human enhancement in elite and popular culture. In what ways do the media, in attempting to offer an accessible account of new scientific developments, inadvertently distort the science they are seeking to present—and what are the implications of this phenomenon for popular understandings of human enhancement? How significant a role has been played by science fiction literature and movies in shaping public responses (positive or negative) to the technologies of enhancement? How does the perception of enhancement technologies vary among different social or economic categories of the citizenry (and, equally importantly, from one region of the world to another)?

In conducting the research for this project I have used a wide range of sources: scientific, medical, and technological literatures on human enhancement; government reports and legislation; media portrayals of the issues at stake; opinion polls and surveys of the popular reception of these technologies; clinical studies; online databases and other web-based sources; science fiction literature and movies; and philosophical writings on such concepts as personhood and human nature. Funding by the ACLS allowed me to spend my last sabbatical learning about the basic science, medicine, and engineering behind human enhancement, focusing particularly on pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics. It also allowed me to read very broadly in key areas of the humanities and social sciences that I needed to grasp before writing my chapters on the social and moral implications of these technological advances. These areas have ranged from anthropology to moral philosophy, from literary theory to sociology, from evolutionary psychology to political theory. A project of this interdisciplinary breadth and scope would have been impossible to undertake without this kind of sustained support.

Michael Bess F'08 received an ACLS Fellowship for the project "Icarus 2.0: A Historian’s Perspective on Human Biological Enhancement." The complete series is available here.


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