Taking Stock

Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans, on the benefits of biotechnology and why we should trust parents.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

Gregory Stock has just completed a roadshow of public meetings and media performances across the UK and the USA, to promote his new book Redesigning Humans.

Stock is director of the Programme on Medicine, Technology and Society at UCLA’s School of Medicine, and was a former biotechnology adviser to Bill Clinton. His latest book was published at the same time as Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future – meaning that he often finds himself pitted against the ‘biotechnology sceptic’ Fukuyama.

Both Stock and Fukuyama believe we stand at the threshold of a scientific revolution that will fundamentally alter our lives. But where Fukuyama warns against the dangers of biotechnology, Stock is more optimistic about the positive benefits of gene therapy and genetic enhancement.

So are advances in biotechnology likely to give rise to a race of ‘superhumans’? No, says Stock. ‘There is a real misconception about the likely use of these technologies. How would we even start to create a superhuman? Let’s say we were to attempt to create a super-Mozart. How would we do it? It is so uncertain what makes a musical genius, never mind any other kind of genius. Pushing beyond the boundaries of what it means to be human would be very hard’

‘Do you think that is what my book argues?’ he asks. No, I admit – but I point out that his publisher’s press release claims that ‘[Stock] takes the biotechnology bit in his teeth and runs with it, conjuring a race of superhumans with 150-year lifespans, divested of disease-susceptibility genes and equipped with modules conferring intelligence, physical aptitude and aesthetic talents’.

‘Oh’, he responds, looking surprised. ‘I haven’t seen that publicity material.’

Publishers’ press releases rarely adequately reflect the nuances of their authors’ arguments. In Stock’s case, the publishers’ press release overstates the claims made in his book, arguing that ‘Stock lays out a future in which humankind is enhanced beyond our wildest dreams’. Redesigning Humans is sometimes speculative, but it is a far more balanced exposition of future developments in the sphere of genetics than a lot of the publicity material gives it credit for.

Stock, however, plays a part in exaggerating the potential benefits of biotechnology. Many of his claims – including those for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) soon allowing parents to select for characteristics such as personality and temperament – are rather far-fetched.

But it is refreshing to discuss the possibilities of science with someone who is not defensive about the potentially damaging impact of biotechnology. Stock believes we should be worrying less about the risks of biotechnology, and concentrating instead on the benefits. He emphasises that, far from creating the posthuman future that Fukuyama warns against, the most immediate effect of developments in biotechnology ‘will be to elevate those who are disadvantaged’.

Researchers recently discovered the one-in-10billion genetic mutation that causes malignant melanoma – the skin cancer that kills hundreds every year in the UK. Work has begun on a drug to halt the effects of the mutation. The possible benefit of this research is clear, and Stock rightly warns against the danger of squandering such potential. His concern is ‘not that we will go too quickly – but that we will go too slowly’.

Stock is also concerned about people demanding regulation on the basis of ‘what if?’ scenarios – where legislation is called for to protect us from possible, unintended or hypothetical risks of biotechnology. ‘We will end up with powerful regulating bodies – with the most nebulous powers’, Stock warns. ‘Rather than being based on abstract problems, regulation should be based on concrete ones.’

One of Stock’s most heartening arguments is his defence of parental autonomy. Whether we are talking about human cloning, germline manipulation (where changes would be transmitted to second or later generations) or gene therapy, he argues that ‘it won’t be used until it is safe and reliable and worth doing. Parents are good at watching out for the interests of their children’. We cannot regulate on the basis of believing that parents will make the wrong choices, says Stock: ‘Instead you have to trust people and deal with problems when they happen.’

Stock has a refreshing attitude to change. ‘We might find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to live in a very different world – and I can see a future I would be uncomfortable with. But that is not an argument against change.

‘Imagine asking someone in the early 1900s: “what if people lived more than twice as long?”, “what if we had birth control?”. They would not be comfortable with those changes. But society has developed and adapted. Surely we don’t want to turn back the clock?’

Read on:

‘I have not jumped off the modernity boat’, an interview with Francis Fukuyama by Helene Guldberg

Body politics, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Redesigning Humans was published by Profile Books in May 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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