Biomedical enhancement and the need for more precise conceptions

Much of the discussion about biomedical enhancements is about arguing whether some biomedical enhancement would, or would not be a good, ethical, or efficient means for enhancing a particular human characteristic. In this blog and in other bioethical literature bioethicists discuss the proposed effects that biomedical enhancements would have, for example, to intelligence and other cognitive capacities, empathy, sunny mood, altruism, sense of justice, or to halting climate change. The list is extensive and endless. The discussion on efficacy, ethics, justice, and human nature is an important part of the whole philosophical debate, as is the discussion about the limits of philosophy, reality, and science fiction. However, an important point that might be in need of emphasis would be to take under inspection the very concepts that are the target of enhancement. What do intelligence, sunny mood, altruism, sense of justice, and the-characteristics-that-prevents-us-halting-climate-change really mean?

If the target characteristics are looked at carefully, it seems that much of the discussion can be described as a form of language bewitchment where conceptions of the human language and conceptions of the empirical science of biology are mixed. Just because the human language includes conceptions such as intelligence, altruism, sunny mood, criminal, and sense of justice, it does not mean that there would be any corresponding concrete physical entities to these conceptions.

The studies on behaviour genetics that are related to certain characteristics do not tell about “intelligence genes” or “criminal genes.” They tell how certain SNPs are distributed among a certain population or group of people. The result, then, tells a correlation showing that a certain biomarker might be more prevalent among people whom we have attributed a conception of human language. In other words, it tells about the distribution of a biomarker that we relate to a certain characteristic. It does not tell us, necessarily, anything the characteristic itself. Genetic studies on heritability of complex traits tell us about the variation of a certain trait in a population – not necessarily the reasons why some people have the trait.

For example, a recent study on genetics and violence tells us that certain biomarkers are associated with violent behaviour, not why certain people are violent, or how this violent behaviour could be affected. Similar remarks exist in, for example, intelligence-studies (links collected in my previous blog entry). If these associations are translated into the conceptions of “intelligence” or “criminality” of our language, there is a big jump between the language and physical entities. A part from the fact that genetic association studies do not necessarily tell us about the reasons why a person has a certain characteristic or how it could be manipulated, it is worth to keep in mind that much of the association studies have been irreproducible, and should be read cautiously enough. “Candidate gene”-studies, or at least the conclusions that have been made from them, have faced systematic criticism.

A further example: the term selfish gene (“the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly with each other”) and the term describing human behaviour, selfishness (“being concerned, sometimes excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one’s own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others”), are different conceptions.

To make more sense in the interdisciplinary discussion on human biomedical enhancement, there is a need for better diagnostics to its very conceptions. Referring to certain hormones and neurotransmitters, such a oxytocin or serotonin, hardly do the needed diagnostics.

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