Provocation for a series of Undergraduate Research-based Courses

Advances in biology and chemistry now permit us to redefine our understanding of the human form. Soon, individuals will be able to construct, alter, and augment their bodies/minds in ways previously unimagined.

Like many technological developments of the last century, products and procedures that are initially seen as optional quickly become compulsory. Consider a mother-to-be eschewing an ultrasound. Imagine an education where you opt of email, online learning platforms like Canvas, or even, gasp, internet access. Technologies that initially aim to make our lives easier, more efficient, and safer often completely remake our lives; we must adapt to them.

Now, as lines between therapy and augmentation blur—look no further than CRISPR gene editing, or cognitive enhancement drugs (Ritalin for the non-ADHD)—we have the opportunity to turn bodies and minds into canvases on which to tinker. The ‘human as social construct’ paradigm will replace the outmoded notion of the ‘human as an expression of biological imperatives.’ We will fit ourselves with bioengineered parts that enable us to express personal preferences and whims. We will ingest targeted drug delivery systems that perform upkeep on our insides. Each incremental jump in neuroscience enables an opportunity to manipulate our brains, even our emotions, in barely imaginable ways. Terms like cyborg will lose significance: we will call ourselves human though humans from the last century might not recognize us as such.

In the coming decades, the glacial pace of evolutionary change will tire us to the point that we dare to remake our environment—the organic and inorganic materials all around us—as thoroughly as we will transform ourselves. Rather than change our energy consumption habits, for instance, we will simply exploit our environment in ways that match our caprices: we will warm global temperatures until we must bootstrap a solution to change it—or us. Technology producers do not teach us to be critical and reflective; they teach us to express our wants in ever-easier, one-way communication, like petulant whelps starved of attention.

To deliver on promises of personalized medicine, we will adopt materialist perspectives that, pace Renee Descartes’s dualism, dissolve the mind-body divide. We will conceive of the mind as mere physical ‘stuff’ that awaits manipulation like playdough in plastic cups: we are creators; we are divine builders. Embracing diversity will manifest in meddling with our physical forms and cognitive abilities. Scientific investigations and engineering projects demonstrate that, from quarks to quasars, human imagination leads to creation and exploration.

You might consider the above a dystopian fantasy. Or, you might find promise in a world that offers more malleability than the current iteration. No matter your position, you will find an outlet in this course. You will explore the philosophical (ontological, epistemological, and moral) implications of developing technologies. Historically-minded students will have the opportunity to parse the ideas, practices, people, and institutions that have permitted us to view nature so cavalierly. The social and political ramifications of emerging technologies demand scrutiny; you will learn to offer such analyses. As health science practitioners, you will modify biological and artificial systems. In this class, you will learn how and why we have arrived at a time that allows you to do so.

As bioethicist Allan Buchanan (2011) notes, “Biomedical science is producing new knowledge at an astounding rate—knowledge that will enable us, if we choose, to transform ourselves. Biomedical enhancements can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger and quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, be more resistant to disease and to the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives” (p. 4). The questions, then, involve what we will do with ourselves, as well as how we will live, work, and play, once some of us undergo such transformations.

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