Six Books to Read Before You Play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

By Richard Wordsworth on at

In the 15 years since Deus Ex’s JC Denton clop-clop-clopped his way into the annals of video game history, the real-world debate over human enhancement has firmly rooted its neuro-spikes into the public consciousness.

While Denton had to make the nascent field of human augmentation appealing in video-gamey sort of way - does anyone else remember the magical hoverbot he launched, somehow, out of his head? - there’s since been enough discourse on ‘Humanity 2.0’ that the game’s great grandson, Mankind Divided, can punch up its philosophy. Who should get access to enhancement technologies? What should and shouldn’t we allow people to do to their own bodies? How should society adapt? All these questions and more Mankind Divided will ask players to answer, by careful choice of action and dialogue, and sometimes by throwing a vending machine at someone.

So, because nothing says ‘AAA summer blockbuster’ like homework (and because I have a huge bioethics Master’s loan to fruitlessly chip away at), here’s a checklist of six proper books on human enhancement to prepare you for Mankind Divided’s complex philosophical spider webs. With any or all of these under your coat, you’ll be fully equipped to verbally out-manoeuvre any of Deus Ex’s key players on the finer ethical points of telescoping arm swords and grenade launching shoulder blades. Assuming you haven’t just squashed them with a vending machine.

All those in favour...

Let’s start by hearing what the ‘pro-enhancement’ camp have to say about Jensen-ification of our minds and bodies.

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Enhancing Evolution - John Harris

Who’s he, then?

Professor of Bioethics and Director of Manchester University’s Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation. Former joint editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Maybe most famous for a thought experiment called ‘The Survival Lottery’, which questions whether there is a difference between killing someone and merely allowing them to die, by imagining a system where if you have enough organs to save the lives of two other people, the state can come and scoop them out - whether you survive or not.

What’s in the book?

A solid and passionate advocacy of human enhancements not just as OK, but as a moral duty. Harris covers everything from current day questions like whether or not we should be allowed to choose the sort of children we have through embryo screening and what we think of as disability, right through to ethical questions about immortality and ‘designer babies’.

Why is it good?

It’s thorough and very accessible, and Harris’s arguments are deliberately punchy and provocative. See his expert dismissal of the anti-designer-babies argument that we shouldn’t enhance children because they’d have no say in the decision:

“[This] is simply absurd. If decisions could not be made for children unless and until they could consent to those decisions themselves, they would never grow up not to be children.”

It’s also the most hardline ‘pro’ book on the list. For Harris, enhancements aren’t just things that maybe should be legal if enough people fancy it; humanity is all sorts of messed up at the moment, and if enhancements and augmentations can make it better, then we should all pull our fingers out (and maybe replace them with better, mechanical fingers).


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More than Human - Ramez Naam

Who’s he, then?

A technologist, writer and sci-fi novelist (his Nexus series, all about different countries struggling with human augmentation, is fantastic). He’s also probably the most optimistic advocate for enhancement on this list, with a Deus Ex-y vision of the future in which genetically engineered super-people communicate with each other via tiny networked computers in their brains.

What’s in the book?

Solid discussion of everything from using genetic technologies to extend our lifespans to the weird and wonderful (potential) future of brain-computer interfaces. And it’s not just blue-sky thinking, either: each of the technologies he discusses begins with a real-world example of how far we’ve come (like the early use of electrodes to aid communication in stroke victims, or DARPA’s experiments in controlling Jensen-like robot limbs), and then moves onto where it might plausibly go in the not-so-far future (decoding and beaming higher brain functions like emotion to our loved ones, or giving BCIs to fighter pilots to essentially fuse them with their planes).

Why is it good?

Naam covers a lot of topics that are all familiar to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction, but as a technologist there’s more focus here on the ‘what might happen’ than than on the more philosophical ‘whether we should be doing this’. As a novelist, it’s also an easier read than some of the more academic texts featured here. If you were going to pick a writer on this list to do the next Deus Ex, Naam would be the guy.


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Human Enhancement - Multiple authors, edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom

Who are they, then?

While the book is actually a collection of 18 essays for and against (but mostly for) aspects of human enhancement, it’s Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, as editors, whose names make the cover. Savulescu is director of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, which researches an impossibly cool list of topics from human enhancement to neuroethics to cloning to synthetic biology. Bostrom is director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which (broadly) tries to figure out which technologies in the future might flip the whole world on its head, and is the author of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies, a New York Times bestseller on the possibly-good-possibly-apocalyptic future of artificial intelligence.

What’s in the book?

So much. The eighteen essays are split into two parts, ‘Human Enhancement in General’ (improving human nature, designing our offspring, whether we’re ‘playing god’ and why enhancing our children might be a moral obligation); and ‘Specific Enhancements’ (selecting the ‘best’ children, making better athletes and boosting intelligence).

Why is it good?

Because it covers so much ground. Almost every essay in the book is like a key to a whole other area of the human enhancement debate, and some (like John Harris’s ‘Enhancements are a Moral Obligation’ and Sandel’s ‘The Case Against Perfection’ summary) are seminal readings. As a collection of academic papers, not every one is necessarily aimed at a non-academic audience, but as a primer on human enhancement with more than one point of view, it’s comprehensive stuff.

Is that the same John Harris who wrote ‘Enhancing Evolution’?

Yep. And Sandel’s book is coming up in the next section, too.


All those against...

But enough boundless optimism. Let’s look at the what the opponents of enhancements think about bolting things on to your torso, or genes, or children.


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Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age - Bill McKibben

Who’s he, then?

An environmentalist first and foremost, McKibben is the author of three New York Times bestsellers on how we’re screwing up the planet (and potentially how to stop): The End of Nature, Oil and Honey, and Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet. Enough is a departure from the theme, in which he turns his ‘for-god’s-sake-stop’ line of arguing on what (he views as) the dehumanising prospect of human enhancement.

What’s in the book?

An impassioned attack on the most controversial areas of the human enhancement debate. Central to McKibben’s thesis is the idea that being truly human – with all the perceived shortcomings that entails – is too centrally important to who we are for us to be tampering with. What is the point of sporting competition if all the athletes are products of genetic tinkering? What does it mean for our children’s humanity if some future therapy spares them the pain of their formative years by making them insufferably happy all the time? What will be the point of working to better ourselves if self-improvement can be bought in a pill, or some other form of ‘upgrade’?

Why is it good?

McKibben pulls precisely zero punches in his battering of the transhumanist promise. To quote him directly on why we should be so opposed of enhancement technologies:

“Now - and, finally, here’s the heart of the argument - we stand on the very edge of disappearing even as individuals. Most of the backdrops have long since been dragged off the stage, and most of the other actors have vanished; each of us is giving our existential monologue, trying to make it count for something. But in the wings, the genetic engineers stand poised to slip us off the stage as well, and in doing so to ring down the curtain on the entire show.”

Cripes.

If you found yourself at all sympathetic with Human Revolution’s antagonist, Hugh Darrow, and his plan to reverse humanity’s slide into a whirring mess of gears and flesh, McKibben is definitely the guy to read.


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The Case Against Perfection - Michael Sandel

Who’s he, then?

Political philosophy professor at Harvard University and author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. His course, ‘Justice’, a primer on political philosophy, can be streamed for free from Harvard’s website. He also served on George Bush Jr.’s President’s Council on Bioethics (which we’re coming to a bit later).

What’s in the book?

At 128 A5 pages, The Case Against Perfection is a short read (and you can read a further truncated version here), but is basically a vehicle for one key idea: that genetically engineering people (specifically children, grown like the Deus Ex Denton clan) is wrong because it treats people like products, rather than, well, people. Like McKibben’s argument, there’s a kind of intangible ‘human-ness’ that we destroy when we start picking and choosing components for our offspring like we’re building some kind of fleshy, burbling laptop.

Why is it good?

Because although Sandel is ultimately against human enhancement, a hefty chunk of this decidedly un-hefty book deals in a surprisingly balanced way with a lot of the concerns about augmenting ourselves. Sure, it’s unfair if five athletes who’ve trained their whole lives lose in the Olympics to someone who’s just been sat eating crisps and gene therapies for two years – but since when has sport been genetically fair? If enhancements split society into haves and have-nots, as with Deus Ex, is that a failing of the enhancements themselves, or of governments not providing fair and equal access?

But it’s the ‘giftedness argument’ that matters most here, and is one of the most oft-cited arguments in the enhancement debate. As Sandel sums it up:

“To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition… We choose our friends and spouses at least partly on the basis of qualities we find attractive. But we do not choose our children.”


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Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness - Kass et al.

Who are they, then?

They’re the former President’s Council on Bioethics (under Bush), whose job it was to advise the President on controversial biotechnologies with a view to creating policy. Sandel we’ve already discussed (above), so let’s talk about the Council chairman, Leon Kass.

Kass is a prolific conservative writer and hardline opponent of human genetic engineering – particularly cloning – and author of The Ethics of Human Cloning and Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. He famously summed up his viewpoint in a paper called ‘The Wisdom of Repugnance’, in which he claims that we have become “enchanted and enslaved by the glamour of technology” and “have lost our awe and wonder before the deep mysteries of nature and of life”. Jensen would probably fight him sometime in the second act.

What’s in the book?

Thought it’s a government report, Kass’s flamboyance stops it getting dry, and what you get is a highly political discussion of social segregation, creating superhuman people, boosting memory and why no one should aspire to live forever. What you also get, in more detail than in any of the other books, is some in-depth science on how these enhancements might work and – because it’s a conservative report – all the ways they might kill you, scar your children and destroy society. Which given the Council’s view on life-extension technologies (don’t do it: you’ll trap everyone in lives of endless toil and people will stop having babies) may be no bad thing.

Why is it good?
Because it’s not just philosophising or future-gazing - this book was actually written to shape a US President’s policy on human enhancement. Whatever the failings of the Bush presidency, at least there wasn’t a Mechanical Apartheid…