Mon, Feb 06, 2006 - Page 9 News List

There is no stop button in human re-engineering

By Madeleine Bunting  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

My daughter is 10. Fast forward 25 years, and she is having her first child -- early by the standards of all her friends, but she's keen on "natural." Of course, she did pre-implementation genetic diagnosis, and she and her husband (yes, very old fashioned, they married) had some agonizing days deciding on whether to modify a genetic predisposition to depression and whether to splice in a gene for enhanced intelligence. In the end, they felt they had no option but to give their baby the best possible start in life.

Five years later, my little granddaughter is starting school. Again her parents have talked over the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. A pharmcogenetic package is now routinely offered on the state medical system after the government decided that, given international competition in the global knowledge economy, there was no option but to ensure the nation's schoolchildren had better powers of memory and concentration. I had my doubts, but I have to admit that my little granddaughter is proving a wonderfully clever creature -- a constant source of amazement to me.

My doubts were in part assuaged by the fact that I had already started stronger doses of the same cognitive enhancement drugs.

They've helped hugely with my forgetfulness (I'm just hitting my 70s). They are part of a cocktail of drugs I'm now taking to postpone many of the effects of ageing. I dithered a bit but in the end there was no option. I'm doing the childcare for all my five grandchildren and I need to be strong and fit for them. My age expectancy is now 110, so the plan is that I can help out a bit with the great grandchildren too.

What we've been unhappy about is that my daughter has been very tired trying to hold down her job and be a mom, and she's come under a lot of pressure from her boss to get help. What they mean is that she should go on to Provigil. They point out that if she was taking it, she could miss several nights of sleep without any problem. Her colleagues call her a bio-Luddite for refusing. She's already the only one not to have taken her company's early diagnosis -- she said she didn't want to know whether she was going to get Alzheimer's disease in 30 years' time.

The other thing that concerns us is that many of the children in my grandchild's school have had much better enhancement programs.

The cleverest went to China for the latest technology. I can see that my grandchild is never going to keep up. At the moment, she doesn't mind that she's bottom of her class, but she'll be lucky to get to a good university. The one hope I've got is that they might introduce quotas for "naturals" or "near-naturals" like her.

Anyway, to cheer her up I bought her the equivalent of what we called iPods in the old days -- the chip inserted behind her ear gives her 24/7 access to stories and music. She downloaded a book I loved when I was her age, Little House on the Prairie. She thinks it's magical.

Sound far-fetched? It's anything but. This is the most conservative of a range of scenarios about the possibilities of "human enhancement" that have prompted fierce debate in the US and are exercising many a scientist's mind around the world.

The pace of development in four distinct disciplines -- neuroscience, biotechnology such as genetics, computing and nanoscience -- is such that many envisage dramatic breakthroughs in how we can modify ourselves, our physical and mental capabilities. We could live much longer and be much stronger and cleverer -- even be much happier. A whole new meaning to "Be all you can be."

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