Hi all- David here, PhD student and administrator for iSEI. Just a quick post ruminating on an idea I pitched to the IAB this year, which I need to turn into an actual paper- so let’s just label that one as forthcoming! Anyway, hopefully this gets the central idea across- it’s light-hearted, but I think there’s a genuine contradiction at the heart of the bioconservative argument about enhancement which is worth addressing.
In the West, most children (admittedly generally male, but let’s leave gender politics out of it) grow up knowing about superheroes. It’s probably been this way since comic books came mainstream, in what, the forties? Superman made his first appearance in ’38, so let’s say a couple of years later his popularity and that of imitators had blossomed. Every kid has been exposed to them since Supes turned up, and it’s fair to say that most children lap it up. Not that it’s just children, either- I know plenty of adults who retain their love for superheroes well into their lives. My father, for instance, adores the Silver Age work even now. He gave me a Marvel annual when I was young which contained what remain some of his favourite stories- the origin of the Hulk, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, and I know he still reads it.
I’d go so far as to say it’d be difficult to avoid being exposed to superheroes as you grow up, particularly in the last twenty or thirty years. Certainly in the last decade, where the sudden vogue for comic book movies has led to bewildering amounts of Hollywood promotion and licensing. You can’t avoid superheroes… and neither can children.
But why would we want to? Well… We wouldn’t. Would we? There’s no reason to. They’re fun, they’re entertaining. For the most part, they promote good morals. Look at Captain America. He’s the archetype- a spandex clad defender of the weak, a peak of physical prowess, the champion of truth and justice. He’s a paragon- he, and Superman before him, and all the offshoots like Captain Britain are embodiments of what we are told we ought to aspire to (though whether we actually should or not is, perhaps, another matter).
In short, they’re role models. Who didn’t want to be Superman when they were growing up? Or Spider-Man, or maybe the Flash? And, societally, we are encouraged to do just that. Because superheroes are awesome.
Let’s say that is all true, more or less. So what makes a superhero? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s enhancement. As though that wasn’t going to be the focus here.
Lots of characters are supposed to be mutants, endowed with powers by exposure to improbable macguffins, or filled with the power cosmic (which is pretty much just a cool name for a deus ex machina); as opposed to specifically being enhanced humans, but their fictional backstory isn’t really the point. (If I must defend myself to retain my nerd-cred, there was a storyline where it turned out the mutants were created by US government scientists as weapons, so technically they were really just genetically enhanced.)
No, the point is that by whatever fantastical means, they are all enhanced beyond the capacities they would have otherwise. Even the ones who aren’t human, like Superman or Norrin Radd (who has the most awesome name in comics, along with the aforementioned ‘power cosmic’- what a guy). Captain America is maybe the most obvious- he’s directly described as being a super-soldier created by giving a weedy, small guy a ‘serum’ to increase his strength, speed, agility, and intelligence.
In effect, then, we grow up practically worshipping enhanced beings. Maybe you wore Spider-Man pyjamas, or a sheet as a cape. Perhaps you spent hours trying to draw Wolverine. You certainly daydreamed about being them.
And this behaviour is encouraged. As I pointed out, superheroes are held up as role models, even if they are fantastical. I remember all sorts of posters using characters for educational means, and even stickers from the dentist for being brave like Superman.
So why is it acceptable to promote enhanced beings to children, to give them aspirational figures with capacities beyond those of a natural human, and yet to offer those abilities to an adult is seen as a crime against nature?
Admittedly the enhancements which are feasible now or in the near future aren’t exactly eye-beams or flight; but speed, strength, and intelligence are all conceivably possible areas in which improvements to the human norm can be made, and thats just on a basic, macro- level. There are all kinds of smaller, more subtle enhancements on the horizon, and although this isn’t the place to list them, they could range from digestive improvements to a greater moral understanding. In short, we could have superhuman capacities, just like the heroes- only less flashy. But bioconservative commentators such as Francis Fukuyama, George Annas, Leon Kass, and Bill McKibben argue vehemently that such enhancements should never be implemented, due to their fears of the trivialisation of human identity, of contempt for the flesh, of playing God, and the possible creation of a genetic overclass. All of these are positions which deserve discussion- and I have plenty to say about them in future posts (spoiler alert: they’re wrong)- but let’s keep this one light. The point is that such critics- and in no way do I limit this to the men named- decry the idea of an enhanced being as unnatural, dangerous, and in many cases as sinful. By extension, many laypeople will come to the same conclusion when asked, albeit largely from an ‘ick’ factor response that the idea is intrinsically wrong in some way they cannot articulate.
But sure, little Sally and Johnny, go play with your X-men dolls! Watch this movie where super-strong musclemen throw cars at bad guys! And when it’s time for bed, Mommy has bought you a way cool Spider-Man bedspread!
In the one breath, enhanced beings are idolised, and in the next they are condemned. I’m not accusing the above critics of hypocrisy, exactly- for all I know, they hate superheroes. But for this attitude to be widespread doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Perhaps the argument could be made that superheroes are nothing more than fantasy, not something to be actually realised. That might even stand up if it wasn’t for the fact that we treat fictional heroes as real-life role-models, as we’ve already discussed. It is Cap’s strength and preternatural fortitude- stemming from his biochemical enhancements- which render him able to embody the American ideal. Without his skills, he’d not be worth looking up to. And if superheroes weren’t something we are actually supposed to look up to, in reality, then we wouldn’t have preachy comics like the one above, or even this painful example:
To demonise enhancement necessarily demonises superheroes, rendering it wildly inappropriate to hold them up as aspirational figures of right and goodness. I’m not saying that the two are mutually inclusive, exactly- merely using them to make a point.
How can we love these characters, embrace them to our cultural bosom the way we do, and yet reject what makes them who they are? It’s the enhancements that we love about them, make no mistake- everyone has wanted to move things with their mind (or, if you’re megalomaniacal like me, control ferrous metal). If we deem fantasising about enhancements to be appropriate for children, how can they be inappropriate for adults to actually achieve? There isn’t anything much else I can think of which suffers such a dichotomy. Phenomena we frown upon or condemn in society which absolutely do serve to dehumanise or debase the sanctity of the species- say, cannibalism- don’t receive positive portrayals in entertainment media. Where they are the focus, they can hardly be said to be being promoted. Through superheroes and their related merchandising empires, however, human enhancements are.
So, what is it to be? If enhancements are so morally repugnant, surely we should rail against their portrayal as a force for good? Or, should we recognise them for the reality of what they are- tools to help us become better than we are?
Personally, I want to live up to my role models. Enhancements, in some limited way, make that possible.