Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves

Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves

By Allen Buchanan
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011
256 pages (hb)
ISBN 9780199797875

Reviewed by Matt James


Much continues to be written about the ethics and implications of human enhancement.  The ever increasing advances in technology help to point to the fact that this issue is not just another ‘flash in the pan’. Within the context of the military, a familiar setting for many of these technologies and their applications, attempts to make ‘super soldiers’ are seriously underway. Moreover, the use of cognitive enhancing drugs provides a strong example of how the matter of enhancement is moving from the side lines to become part of mainstream discussion.  College students cramming for exams, shift workers and business executives are all now coming face to face with the opportunity to enhance their performance through drugs such as Ritalin. And so the questions begin to flow. How is this different to heading for the coffee machine in order to get a caffeine boost?  Does this give an unfair advantage to one person over another? Is it a right thing to do?

Given the amount of books and papers which are being written on the subject you could be forgiven in wondering whether or not another book discussing the positives and negatives of human enhancement is really necessary.  Is Better than Human simply another book championing the case for enhancement? I don’t believe it is. In actual fact I am very glad Allen Buchanan has taken the time to write Better than Human.

Buchanan’s expertise is in bioethics and political philosophy. Since 2002 he has served as James B. Duke Professor of philosophy at Duke University, North Carolina, USA. He has served on the Advisory Council for the National Human Genome Research Institute and as a consultant to President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

In the preface, Buchanan writes that many of the ideas for this book occurred to him after his much weighty volume Beyond Humanity? was in press.  However do not be mistaken in thinking this is a dumbed down, ‘lite’ version. Beyond Humanity may be the more scholarly focused (and one that I will be reading very shortly) but Better than Human is strong in its own right, laying out and exploring the themes of human enhancement for a wider audience.

Buchanan writes with an easy and controlled style which is lucid and engaging.  He is systematic in his arguments and clear in his definitions. For example, in chapter one he helpfully sets out his understanding of enhancement terminology. Enhancement is an “intervention – a human action of any kind – that improves some capacity (or a characteristic) that normal human beings ordinarily have or, more radically, that produces a new one” (p. 5).  More specifically and a key focus of the book, a biomedical enhancement “uses biotechnology to cause an improvement of an existing capacity by acting directly on the body (including the brain)” (p.5).

Part of OUP’s ‘Philosophy in Action’ series, it is a relatively short book but it certainly packs a punch and does an excellent job in tidying up the discussion, exposing erroneous thinking and spurious ideas. Be prepared to be challenged and provoked to reflect upon other perceptions of human enhancement in a way which you may not have done previously.  To develop the tidying analogy a little further, in the same way as an industrial ‘deep clean’ of a property is different to a quick weekly clean with a household vacuum cleaner, Buchanan performs a ‘deep clean’ of the current debate on human enhancement. He goes to the heart of some of the major themes of human enhancement and does justice to debunking some of the weaker arguments, exposing their flaws in order to then highlight what is trying to be said and exploring their true value.

As the author notes, the style of the book is more conversational and informal than other texts and so the reader has to get used to the author’s style. As I became quickly accustomed to Buchanan’s sense of humour this is not something that distracted me too much from the main premise of the book.  For some this may be an issue but sticking with it you soon realise the book’s merit is found in Buchanan’s desire to straighten out and clarify the lines of argument so future discussion can be profitable, seeking to build on the genuine concerns which are trying to be articulated. He appears to have no axe to grind apart from a genuine and well founded desire to set the record straight on the various strands of debate surrounding human enhancement. In his own words, he wants to meet the “challenge of biomedical enhancements head–on, rather than burying our heads in the sand and acting as if we can just say no” (p.25).

Better than Human represents an excellent introductory text to the subject of biomedical enhancements. Many will benefit from reading this book before proceeding to Buchanan’s other publication Beyond Humanity? which brings greater academic rigour to these questions.  Whilst Better than Human does not offer footnotes, a very good bibliography is given which provides a strong starting point for further study.


The book is formed of seven chapters which move smoothly along a trajectory of addressing and critiquing the main objections to biomedical enhancements. In chapter 1 he addresses some of the key public perceptions or misconceptions surrounding this topic before turning to address the ethics of biomedical enhancement if evolution is taken seriously. The issue of human nature and its influence on ethical considerations is the focus on chapter three. Chapter four tackles the issue of bad consequences should biomedical enhancements be embraced, whilst distributive justice is the theme taken up in chapter 5. That biomedical enhancement will tend to contribute to vice as opposed to virtue is the central theme of chapter 6, mainly taking to task the work of Harvard professor, Michael Sandel.  Finally, in chapter 7 Buchanan briefly outlines his approach for future discussion and debate in this whole arena.

In the opening chapters Buchanan starts by critiquing the main arguments which are normally proposed as the case against human enhancement; namely that we should not be making significant changes to our biology, the human gene pool and human nature. These kinds of change are equivalent to playing God. Those who hold to these positions may well not like the treatment that Buchanan ‘performs’ on their position, criticising what he perceives to be their weaknesses. Nevertheless, what he does with great skill and utility is address what can be taken from these arguments as a way of furthering the discussion. For example, he agrees that the bioengineering of humans should not be simply embraced wholeheartedly without any thought given to the long term consequences or even without considering what they might mean to human nature. Yet falling into the trap of simply saying we cannot play God “doesn’t enable us to draw a bright line between biomedical enhancements and other technologies.”

In the earlier stages of the book, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is building up to a very positive and pro–human enhancement argument, one which almost embraces a transhumanist style manifesto for the future. However, this would be a wrong assumption to make about both the author and the book, making future ongoing debate all the more poorer for not taking the book’s ideas and perspectives onboard. Buchanan appears to be quite cautious and moderate in his approach to biomedical enhancements. He openly admits that he is not trying to make a case for enhancement (which I would agree, he is not). However, what he is keen to kick into the long grass is the notion that it is all evil and if we ignore such enhancements, they will go away. This is not just unacceptable but ill thought through; biomedical enhancements are coming and we will see their application but the crucial issue for debate is in what ways and to what extent will we see their realisation. “We have to resist the urge for sweeping generalisation, for the false comfort of blanket endorsement or rejection” (p.178).

Having discussed and critiqued the Precautionary Principle – a somewhat difficult task as there is no single Precautionary Principle to build a case on – which he seeks to characterise as prohibiting the adoption of any new technology without clear evidence that doing so will bring no significant harm, Buchanan proposes a set of seven principles which he believes could be adopted in order to help the evaluation and embracing of biomedical enhancement. The stronger the case can be made for each point, the stronger the overall response in favour of biomedical enhancement should be, according to Buchanan.  Interestingly, rather than just leave it at that, Buchanan proceeds to note that he believes contemporary science to be unable to provide the sufficient information and data to his principles despite the speed at which advances are being made.  For him, the fact that we cannot be certain as to the long term consequences of making changes that impact upon the recipient’s genome and subsequent generations forms the basis of a key objection to the immediate embracing of the enhancement bioengineering could afford us.


In Better than Human, Buchanan’s has given us a strong introductory text to the issue of biomedical enhancements, helping to tidy up lines of argument and thinking on this issue. If you are looking for a strong bioethics focused text on the subject I suspect Buchanan’s other text Beyond Humanity is probably the better option. However in terms of engaging a wider audience on this issue and giving them a starting place to establish their thinking, Better than Human is a good place to start. The author is clearly not making the case for enhancement and does not even suggest that biomedical enhancement will be the magic solution for all of life’s problems. However, the scope to increase capacity to seek a better life, or bring ‘healing’ to a particular area of the body’s functioning is possible. Thus, it is the extent to which we embrace these technologies that Buchanan contends must be debated.

Buchanan’s ‘deep clean’ of the enhancement debate, helps to bring clarity to what is often a difficult and contentious conversation to engage with, not least due to sincere but ill thought through ideas and perspectives. Buchanan’s skill is found in championing the cause of developing strong definitions and reasoning through engagement with these issues, not simply deciding to either embrace or reject them as a way of resolving them.




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