[Paleopsych] Voice Literary Supplement: We Can Build You

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We Can Build You: A field guide to genetic engineering and bodily enhancement
by Jenny Davidson

Call it pollution, call it enhancement, but genetic engineering is here to 
stay. Nobody stays neutral: Ramez Naam loves it, Pete Shanks hates it, and 
their books provide comically extreme elaborations of their respective 
positions. Don't be misled by the subtitle of Human Genetic Engineering: A 
Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed. The only activists and 
skeptics Shanks cares for are the ones who want to stop genetic engineering 
right now, and he writes in a mode of monitory condemnation that makes even the 
notoriously puritanical Times health writer Jane Brody sound wildly permissive. 
Shanks provides a well-informed account of current biotechnology, including 
useful bibliographies of print and online resources, but his bossy certainty 
damages the book. Of course, he's often right: Given the already unequal 
distribution of health care dollars, it's not hard to accept that human GE is 
"potentially a driver of inequality"; we risk endorsing discrimination in 
parents' quest for the "genetically perfect" baby (and in reality, no such 
thing exists). But Shanks may alienate readers with his dogmatism. "Calling 
twins 'natural clones' or clones 'delayed twins' is either simplistic or 
propaganda designed to make the process seem familiar and thus acceptable," he 
opines. This and other similar statements ("The mindset that considers cloning 
appropriate is precisely the mindset that embraces the idea of human GE," he 
says dismissively) feel like intellectual bullying, and his boldface type and 
bullet-point lists reveal a desire to indoctrinate rather than to persuade.

Shanks accepts without question the conservative bioethicist Leon Kass's 
"wisdom of repugnance," which makes the gut feelings of ordinary people a 
better basis for judgment than the knowledge of scientists and ethicists. "We 
have a common genetic heritage," Shanks states, "our gene pool is a genetic 
commons, and no individual has the right to pollute it." But many Americans 
used to reject interracial marriage on similar grounds, and there are good 
reasons not to rely on repugnance.

Less precise in its science, goofier yet far more likable than Human Genetic 
Engineering, Naam's More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological 
Enhancement celebrates biotechnology with evangelical fervor, arguing that 
"rather than prohibiting the exploration of new technologies, society ought to 
focus on spreading the power to alter our own minds and bodies to as many 
people as possible." Naam likes science fiction even more than science fact. 
Will identifying each gene their unborn child carries really "give parents an 
idea of a prospective child's appearance, intelligence and personality"? Even 
assuming that neural prosthetics will shortly allow us to pipe information 
directly from the emotional centers of our loved ones' brains straight to our 
own "empathy centers," are we likely to want to know all the thoughts and 
feelings of the people around us? (Naam's portrait of marital sex enhanced by 
neural implants devolves into soft-focus porn, but surely not all sexual 
couplings would benefit from mind reading.) And whether or not the human life 
span can be doubled, it seems singularly unlikely that life extension will 
cause people to "reach states of mental and emotional capacity for growth that 
simply can't be satisfied in one human lifetime." But this cheerful gullibility 
makes Naam's book an enjoyable and stimulating read.

What others merely imagine, the Australian performance artist known as Stelarc 
makes flesh. Suspended from cables running through the hooks that pierce his 
skin, a naked Stelarc hangs poised as if in flight over East 11th Street: It's 
Superman! The photographs in Stelarc: The Monograph (out this fall from MIT) 
document his use of robotics, surgery, biotechnology, prosthetics, and computer 
software to reconfigure his own body as a cyborg. Stelarc believes the human 
body's on its way to obsolescence, but not all this volume's contributors agree 
with him. A demonstration of his prosthetic Extended Arm brings tears to one 
essayist's eyes, reminding her of the persistence and pathos of bodily 
attachments. Whether it's pierced and suspended from cables, scaffolded in 
metal prostheses, or penetrated by a miniature camera that broadcasts from 
inside his intestinal tract, Stelarc's body remains "wet, unpredictable, 
emotively disorderly, itself a technological marvel."

A real marvel is Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer 
Made Me More Human. Born hard of hearing after his mother contracted rubella 
during pregnancy, Chorost lost the rest of his hearing one random terrifying 
day in adulthood. Rebuilt tells the story of his choice to undergo surgery for 
a cochlear implant, a complex apparatus of chips and electrodes and processors 
that triggers the auditory nerves in a pattern the brain learns to interpret as 
sound. With a background in computer programming and literary study, Chorost is 
better suited than Stelarc to explore what it means to become a kind of cyborg, 
and he brings to his fascinating subject great intellectual clarity, the habit 
of self-examination, and a willingness to expose himself.

It turns out that surgery is just the beginning, and Chorost calls for a more 
systematic training program for patients struggling to integrate technology 
into their bodies in order to become "more human." He is particularly 
compelling on the inner workings of the code that sorts out sounds into 
different frequencies and the disorienting effects of the two different 
software programs that control the implant's electrode array: "One new version 
of the world would be unsettling enough," says Chorost, who in the aftermath of 
the surgery felt less like a hearing person than "the receptor of a flood of 
data, which I was constantly stitching into meaningful language a half-second 
or so after I actually heard it." Stranger and more unsettling than Stelarc's 
body art, Chorost's celebration of the technology that allowed him to hear 
again shows the futility of drawing a line between man and machine.

Jenny Davidson teaches 18th-century British literature at Columbia. She is the 
author of two books: a novel, Heredity; and a monograph, Hypocrisy and the 
Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge). 
She blogs at Light Reading.

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