Biotechnologies & Human Nature

A review of Biotechnologies and Human Nature: Ethical and Political Challenges, by Nicolae Morar.

Since humans began to think philosophically about the world and their position in it, they have been curious to know about their nature. Traditionally, humans have believed that they are special in certain ways, the possessors of capacities unparalleled elsewhere in nature or, if they are present in other entities, to less developed, morally insignificant degrees. Rationality and the capacity for language, for example, seem to set humans apart from other (known) entities, and this belief in the uniqueness of humans shapes our conception of the moral community and what entities are included therein.

In Biotechnologies and Human Nature, Nicolae Morar examines the history of philosophical thought on human nature, describes certain challenges to the belief in a distinctly human nature that emerge through the development of biotechnology, and makes a suggestion for the future of thought about human nature, one based on current research in biology. The dissertation is divided into three chapters (in addition to a preface and conclusion). These chapters could stand on their own, and each offers an in depth discussion and analysis of important philosophical and bioethical issues. The theme that ties them together is their focus on issues related to human nature.

In Chapter 1, Morar offers a brief history of philosophical thought on human nature, focusing on the views of Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and Hobbes. Despite certain dissimilarities between these views — and recognizing that there are different ways to track the path of the history of philosophy on this issue — certain important themes emerge here, notably the belief that humans are distinct from all other entities, which is to say, there is something that it is like to be human, a capacity or set of capacities that any and all (and only) humans possess. Thus, for these thinkers (and many others) it makes sense to suggest that there is such a thing as fixed, distinct human nature; disagreement coming only afterwards, with respect to the details of what that nature consists of.

Morar argues that the creation of certain types of nonhuman-to-human chimeras threatens to destroy once and for all this idea of a distinctly human nature; nonhuman animals may come to possess the capacities that were once thought to make humans human, setting them apart and securing their paramount position in nature and the moral realm. Those that are uncomfortable with this prospect could attempt to refine their conceptions of personhood or human dignity (etc.), but, according to Morar, to no avail.

All of this sets the stage for a view that grounds the locus of moral agency on sentience, rather than (e.g.) rationality or the capacity for language. If we want to include all humans in the moral community, then our criteria need to be less stringent than previously believed. From the other direction as well, certain nonhuman animals could come to possess the capacities traditionally believed to be the source of (human) moral agency, and thus our conception of the moral community, and who and what belongs in it, needs to expand. One implication of Morar’s argument in Chapter 1 is that we have less justification (if any) in excluding nonhuman animals from the moral community, reinforcing the arguments of thinkers such as Peter Singer before him.

In Chapter 2, Morar contributes to the debate surrounding the ethics of human enhancement. One aspect of that (complicated) debate has to do with the potential capacity of certain biotechnologies to be used for the purpose of altering human nature, as traditionally conceived. After examining some of the ways in which humans may be radically enhanced, Morar then focuses primarily on the views of Jürgen Habermas and George Annas, both of whom argue against the moral permissibility of human enhancement since it threatens to alter human nature in morally unacceptable ways — especially when used for non-medically-oriented purposes. These views assume a version of genetic essentialism and determinism at their core, resting on the idea that certain human qualities are necessary for moral agency (e.g. autonomy and equality), which are somehow undermined by being (radically) genetically altered. Morar offers a detailed exposition and critique of these “bioconservative” views, ultimately concluding that such accounts of the ethics of genetic enhancement rely on “murky rhetoric,” unsupported empirical claims, and ignorance of biology and evolutionary theory at their foundation. Indeed, later on in the dissertation Morar concludes that, although we may be able to alter “human nature,” the extent to which we could do so is limited, and it is a difficult feat at that (p. 138). In light of this, Morar argues that the debate on the ethics of genetic enhancement does well to focus its attention elsewhere, away from concerns about the preservation of human nature.

In Chapter 3, Morar generates a positive account of human nature. He shifts to a perspective on human nature that is grounded in biology, one which he believes overcomes the problems outlined in the previous chapters. Sympathetic to the view of David Hull, and following his lead in arguing that any attempt to find (genetically) essential similarities among human beings is bound for failure, Morar argues that our conception of human nature is best understood as dynamic rather than fixed, and is a tridimensional concept: It is a “dispositional, selective population concept” (p. 137). Humans are disposed to exhibit certain kinds of characteristics, but this is heavily influenced not only by their genes, but by the (changing) environment as well. Taking Darwinian evolutionary theory seriously, which involves variability and the random mutation of genes, means acknowledging that these dispositions can and do change over time.

Human nature, then, is an aggregate of the “norms of reaction” (i.e. “the manners of correspondence between phenotype and genotype-environment combinations” (p. 121), rather than anything stagnant or essential to Homo sapiens). According to Morar, the norms of reaction of a genotype is the set of these nature/nurture relations, which track how we can expect certain phenotypic variations in an organism as a result of the development of that organism’s genotype in a specific environment. Instead of looking for what (genetic) commonalities all and only humans have, Morar argues that it is more appropriate to conceive of human nature as something variable rather than fixed, and that the best way to account for this variability (across individuals, in different environments) at the theoretical level is by recognizing the norms of reaction that are at play. As far as this reviewer can tell, this approach to conceptualizing human nature is novel, and deserves to be taken seriously.

On the whole, this dissertation is interesting and engaging, and contains well developed and clear arguments. The dissertation’s main conclusions are provocative and even controversial, and its immediate value rests in urging readers to think about fundamental issues such as the nature of human nature, the potential perils of the continued development of certain types of biotechnology, and the expanding scope of the moral community and the justification (or lack thereof) for treating nonhuman animals (and perhaps “transhumans” as well) the way that we do, given our human-centered conception of morality. Undoubtedly, this dissertation will be of interest to anyone thinking seriously about human nature and the impacts of biotechnology on human (and nonhuman) existence.

Ryan Tonkens
Novel Tech Ethics
Faculty of Medicine
Dalhousie University

Primary Sources

Academic books and journal articles (philosophy, biology, evolutionary theory, genetics)

Dissertation Information

Purdue University. 2011. 177 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Bernstein.


Image: “Cell culture in a tiny petri dish”, photograph by kaibara87. Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment

Leave Comment
  1. Pingback: January 2013 Posts | Dissertation Reviews

Leave a Reply