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Human Enhancement: Could Becoming Better Make Us Worse?

By Christina M.H. Powell

“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field” (Psalm 103:15). The Psalmist describes the fleeting glory of human beings by likening us to blades of grass reaching for the sun before quickly blowing away in the wind.

Throughout the ages humans have endeavored to improve on the human condition, hoping to stand taller and longer in the sun before fading away. In the last century, modern medicine delivered breakthroughs that lengthened the average lifespan in the United States by more than 30 years.1 Since 1900, infant mortality decreased 90 percent and maternal mortality decreased 99 percent.2 Not only do we live longer today than we did a century ago, we also benefit from options to help us live better. Vaccinations enhance our immune system, vitamins optimize our health, and exercise and diet slow our aging process. We can take medicines to lift our moods, boost our performance, and sharpen our concentration.

The 21st century promises to bring advances in biotechnology that can enhance our lives as well as cure our diseases. People will look to their pastor for guidance in discerning how to respond to the cultural trend to embrace human enhancement. What are the spiritual implications of using medication to block painful memories or brighten our mood? Do we honor God when we perfect our athletic prowess through biotechnology instead of simply honing our innate abilities? Certainly Christian leaders should welcome and laud medical achievements that improve our health and productivity. Yet, pastors need to caution their flock to judge each new intervention by weighing the benefits against the costs and risks. We need to consider the possibility that enhancements that promise to make us better could actually make us worse.

Memory and Identity

Our memory serves us well when we are able to remember facts and experiences important to us. Remembering more is not necessarily remembering better. Like a report stuffed with too many unimportant details, a mind that remembers all the mundane events of each day will simply become cluttered. When our memory works well, we encode the appropriate level of emotions along with each memory. If we experience too little emotion when recalling a memory, we will be numb to the joys and sorrows of life. If we experience excess emotion along with a particular memory, we may develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enhancing human memory involves more than just increasing our capacity to recall facts. In fact, one potential enhancement for our memory may be helping us forget. Memory consolidation occurs immediately after we experience an event. During this process our brain encodes some memories more durably than others.

When we experience strong emotions, our body releases certain stress hormones. These stress hormones activate a small almond-shaped area of the brain called the amygdala. Experiments on rats show that epinephrine (a stress hormone also known as adrenaline) strengthens memory of an experience, while beta-blockers that suppress the action of epinephrine weaken memory. These experiments and others like them point to a pharmacological means for taking the emotional sting out of traumatic memories.3

We learn from what we experience. Emotionally charged experiences often teach important lessons, so we have brains that excel at capturing the memories of such experiences. For example, our survival may depend on remembering the lessons we learned in a close brush with danger, but we probably have no need to remember what we ate for lunch last Tuesday. A joyous moment such as the birth of a child has greater value to us than our to-do list from the first Monday in February 3 years ago. Sometimes, however, this link between enhanced memory and emotions creates debilitating pain in the lives of those who witnessed terrifying events. Would it not be right to develop medications to help these people return to mental health?

Part of the problem in using technology to alter memory consolidation is our current inability to differentiate between those who will develop post-traumatic stress disorder and those who will exhibit emotional resilience in the face of tragedy. While one approach to this problem would be to offer medication to all who experience a traumatic event, such an approach provokes ethical concern. Our memories, the negative as well as the positive and neutral, make up our identity. An Alzheimer’s patient suffers from a loss of identity as his memories of loved ones and life experiences fade. When we emotionally numb our remembrance of past events, we risk distorting our identity.

One deterrent to sending troops into war too easily is our collective memory as a society of the horrors of war. We are moved to compassion when we see the effects of natural disasters partly because of the testimony of those who bear witness to the emotional impact of the loss sustained in such tragedies. On a lesser scale, difficult experiences in our own lives make us appreciate our triumphs more while softening our hearts to respond more readily to others in need around us. Processing our painful emotions teaches us how to provide comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Attempting to routinely medicate all painful memories would dehumanize us, making us weaker rather than stronger. Thus, we must employ any use of technology to change how we process our memories with great caution. For some people, freedom from painful memories might allow them to regain their identity. For many others, as well as society as a whole, loss of painful memories might lead to a distorted identity.

Mood and Reality

While drugs to alter our memory are still in the earliest stages of development, drugs to alter our mood have been available for centuries. Historically, people have turned to alcohol and opiates to brighten their mood. In the early 20th century, doctors discovered that lithium could stabilize mood. In recent years, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft have provided safer means to elevate mood. Pharmaceutical companies designed these drugs to treat major depression and mental illnesses. With the increasing availability of these drugs, some doctors prescribe mood-enhancing agents for those with normal neurochemistry but troubling life situations.

Beyond the currently available mood-enhancing drugs, we can imagine the mood-altering drugs of the future. With both current and future drugs in mind, let us consider the ethical implications of enhancing our mood for reasons beyond treating mental illness. Is there a difference between lifting our spirit through prayer, or a long talk with a friend, or a run in the park and brightening our mood by swallowing a pill? Suppose for a moment that the mood-brightening pill produced no adverse side effects. Certainly the pill is convenient. Yet, we must question whether the pill produces happiness different from the happiness created by our actions and relationships with others. Does the medication restore us to reality or create a false reality?

If by enhancing our mood artificially we gain contentment at the price of true fulfillment, we have not become better but worse. A quick happiness not based on measurable achievements, formation of our character, or meaningful connections with others is merely a cheeseburger ruining our appetite for a steak dinner. By altering our mood in the name of enhancement, we change who we are. Suppose a man falls in love with a woman whose sunny disposition is a product of the chemistry laboratory. He may wonder if her love for him would remain true in the absence of the chemical enhancement. Indeed, would his attraction to her continue if her personality became darker and duller in the absence of the mood-brightening drugs?

As Solomon observed, “There is time for everything, … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). Grief, although unpleasant, is a season that grows a bountiful harvest of wisdom. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). The sadness that comes with the grieving process is a celebration of the connection we shared with our departed loved one. In facing our loss, we learn more about what is valuable in life, potentially realigning our priorities to live more meaningful lives. While mood enhancers certainly have their place in treating those whose grieving process has become unproductive and prolonged, we should not rush to medicate all unpleasant human emotions.

Finally, in emotionally and mentally healthy individuals, feelings serve as an important radar system, warning us that some aspect of our life needs greater attention. For some people, a feeling of discontent may lead to reflection on their spiritual needs, drawing them closer to God. For others, melancholy feelings of dissatisfaction may become an impetus to change that ultimately leads to better health and better life choices. People should embrace some negative feelings and then examine them for the message they bring, rather than sweep them away through pharmacological means. Healthy individuals may find their lives better enhanced by facing reality rather than obscuring it.

Performance and Effort

Another area open to improvement through biotechnology is human performance. Our quest for excellence and our competitive nature drives human beings to want to perform better on the athletic field, in the classroom, and in the marketplace. The ability of a given athlete, student, or entrepreneur to outperform his competitors depends on a mixture of genetic endowment and human effort. Yet, people look for an easy way to obtain a competitive advantage. Athletics turn to steroids and erythropoietin to enhance their performance. Students resort to off-label use of Ritalin to enhance their concentration when studying for exams. Entrepreneurs working long hours enhance their alertness with caffeine and combat jet lag with modafinil. We can expect this trend to continue as biotechnology brings us safer and more effective drugs.

Beyond drugs, gene therapy may provide future means of enhancing athletic performance by boosting red blood cell production, increasing muscle mass, or altering fat metabolism. Traditional blood or urine tests would not detect these genetic changes. Of course, the safety of using gene therapy for performance enhancement is a major concern. Genetic manipulations often lead to unknown and unwanted alterations in genes other than the target gene, typically resulting in cancer. Even if such enhancements were safe, ethical problems would remain.

Participating in sports embraces certain ideals that go beyond simply winning or losing. These ideals include fairness, teamwork, and dedication. Athletic accomplishment means taking your natural talent and working hard to perfect it. When an athlete keeps a disciplined diet and trains for long hours to succeed, the athlete’s superior performance is a product of his personal effort. When drugs or genetic manipulations enhance an athlete’s performance, the athletic achievements are no longer solely the result of the athlete’s efforts. His victory results from what has been done to him as well as what he has done.

Weakening the link between performance and effort cheapens the value of performance. The enhanced athlete may perform better, but he becomes a worse athlete in the process.

What is true for athletics is also true for academics. Students who short circuit the learning process by using drugs to improve their concentration or alertness miss out on important life lessons such as time-management skills and achieving the proper balance between work, play, and rest. While drugs may enhance performance in the short term, long-term achievement suffers. Both the athlete and the student develop character by applying their best effort to develop their innate abilities. Sometimes a person’s best efforts may be insufficient to win a race or obtain the highest grade in the class. However, the experience of trying one’s best even in the face of limitations may prove to be a better prize than the achievement originally sought.

From a spiritual point of view, we look on genetic abilities, usually called talent, as a gift from God. We have a responsibility to develop the talents God has given us (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27). God has not given everyone the same talents or the same extent of talent. Yet, we please the One who made us when we work diligently with what He has given us.

Conclusion

Seeking ways to improve human life is not wrong. We need not fear technological progress. Medical advances in combating infectious diseases in the last century have greatly helped humanity. Medical missionaries seek to spread the blessings of such knowledge to developing countries as a means of showing compassion while sharing the gospel. When we live longer, healthier lives, we become more effective in doing the work God has given us. Extending the average human lifespan in the current century will require that medicine solve the problems of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Surely, the challenge is formidable.

Not every enhancement medical science discovers, however, will necessarily bring improvement. People need their pastor to help them distinguish between helpful and harmful interventions. In addition, pastors minister to the human needs that drive the quest for human enhancement. Certainly, people struggling with painful memories have deep spiritual and emotional needs. They need to hear the biblical message of forgiveness, redemption, and renewal. While people with severe depression will need medical intervention, a multitude of people have normal neurochemistry but troubling life situations. Compassionate pastoral care can provide the boost these men and women need to overcome their difficulties and move forward in their spiritual and emotional growth.

Our search for ways to improve our performance reveals our desire for significance, purpose, and recognition. Pastors can help people find fulfillment for these desires by helping them discover God’s purpose for their lives and their role within the church and wider community.

In the Gospels, we find freedom from the pressure to perform, finding that God’s grace is sufficient for our human weaknesses. Our earthly lives may be as fleeting as the grass in the field, but the Bible teaches that the Lord cares enough about each human being to number the hairs on his head (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7). His love for us enhances our human lives in ways biotechnology never will.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

Notes

1. E. Arias, “United States Life Tables, 2004,” National Vital Statistics Reports, 2007, 56(9): Table 11. Http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr56/nvsr56_09.pdf. Accessed 18 March, 2010.

2. “Ten Great Public Health Achievements — United States, 1900-1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 1999, 48(12):241-243. Http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00056796.htm. Accessed 18 March, 2010.

3. J.L. McGaugh, “Memory Consolidation and the Amygdala: A Systems Perspective,” Trends in Neurosciences, 2002, 25(9): 456–461.

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