MORE THAN HUMAN
Embracing the Promise
of Biological Enhancement
By Ramez Naam
Broadway -- 276pp -- $24.95
The Good A fascinating tour of how biotech could alter life for the healthiest people
The Bad Naam offers little on the physical dangers or social perils of these treatments.
The Bottom Line A provocative and edifying look at the future of medicine.
Imagine what your life would be like if a surgeon planted a computer chip in your brain that instantly made you smarter, more productive, and more sexually dynamic. And if you popped a pill every day that slowed the deterioration of your body's cells, all but assuring that you would live to be 160. Want to get tan without having to bask in cancer-causing sun rays? No problem: A simple injection would alter your genes, giving you the L.A. look you always wanted.
This is the world brought vividly to life in More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam. The first-time author takes readers on a fascinating tour of biotech experiments that could someday bring benefits we would barely recognize as medical. Naam describes how healthy people might use these same biotech drugs and devices to help them live longer, happier, richer lives. He boldly argues that lawmakers should not try to block this trend on ethical or religious grounds but rather embrace it as a boon to the economy.
Naam, a computer scientist for Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and a regular on the biotech lecture circuit, offers little discussion of the physical dangers or social perils of biotech enhancement. Still, this well-researched treatise provides a compelling glimpse of what life could be like if biotech treatments become as common as vitamins.
The most interesting characters in More Than Human are the lab creatures scientists are using to try to figure out how to extend human life. At the University of Connecticut, researchers accidentally discovered that a variant of a gene doubles fruit flies' life span. Such flies process the food they eat inefficiently, putting them in a natural state of "caloric restriction" that, scientists believe, may slow cell damage and extend life. Several companies are working on drugs that would mimic this effect in humans without the need for semi-starvation. Naam's beguiling -- if wide-eyed -- conclusion is that someday a drug will "cure" old age.
Life-extension pills won't hit the market anytime soon, but some of the other possibilities Naam describes seem more plausible. He predicts, for instance, that gene therapy could replace such biotech drugs as erythropoietin (EPO), a molecule that increases the production of red blood cells to treat anemia. Some elite athletes currently use EPO to boost stamina, though that treatment requires frequent injections. If current work in gene therapy were to pan out, ordinary people -- even weekend warriors who just want to improve their tennis games -- might be able to get a single gene-altering injection that would cause their bodies to make more red blood cells naturally for the rest of their lives.
This scenario terrifies lawmakers who are trying to get EPO, steroids, and other illicit drugs out of sports. Because gene therapy would mimic the body's natural processes, no existing drug test would nab athletes who cheat. Naam argues that the solution to the debate over drugs in sports is to stop treating biological enhancement as a crime. Instead, he says, everyone should be given tools such as gene therapy to make themselves stronger and faster.
Naam glosses over a few considerations, especially safety. The author does remind readers that at least one patient receiving experimental gene therapy has died. But he dashes over such examples so quickly that readers may come away believing these treatments are ready for prime time. In fact, it could be decades before they can be made safe and effective.
Naam's economic arguments seem more solid. He believes that smarter, healthier people are more productive, and, as he points out, every 1% increase in productivity adds $1 billion to the U.S. economy. One flaw in this scenario is that not everyone would be able to afford biological enhancement. The cost of such treatments could result in a dangerously stratified world, with those able to shell out big bucks to build muscles or boost their intelligence getting an unfair shot at the best things in life.
Naam counters that the prices of all new products eventually fall. He believes, for example, that some of today's priciest biotech drugs are poised to go generic, since their patents are about to expire. But in fact, manufacturing and regulatory obstacles could delay generic biotech drugs indefinitely. Meanwhile, a great many people are already struggling with health-care costs: Recent studies say medical debts are the cause of at least half of U.S. bankruptcies. So radical biotech enhancements will likely remain out of reach for healthy, low-income people.
As experimental treatments come closer to reality, debate over the science, ethics, and economics of biotech-enhanced bodies will grow ever more heated. Whether for good or for ill, at least some of the interventions Naam describes are inevitable. That makes the trip through his biologically enriched world all the more provocative -- and edifying.
By Arlene Weintraub