Skip to main content

Better than Human – Allen Buchanan ***

This pocket-sized book has a fair amount of content thanks to an unusually small font size – and the subject is one that is quite topical when this review was written given the furore over the cyclist Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs. Allen Buchanan takes on the whole subject of human beings enhancing ourselves.
It’s an interesting book that makes quite strong arguments that augmentation, both through use of drugs and genetic modification, is going to happen whether we like it or not, and shows how many of the arguments against such an approach are based on poor reasoning. Buchanan recognizes the issues and the ways this will cause problems, but equally dismisses many of the arguments against doing so. He also points out that the use of drugs in sport is actually a bad example (sorry), as in most circumstances we aren’t playing games and we aren’t in a zero sum competition. If one person is enhanced it has the potential to benefit the rest of us, rather than being a threat.
There are some quite serious issues. Early on, Buchanan rather condescendingly points out that this is the simplified version and he has a serious book on the topic for academics. That puts us in our place. But more to the point, I am not sure he has managed to leave behind his academic approach, making the book a little stilted sometimes and too focused on shooting down various academic arguments.
I was also quite disappointed that unlike my own Upgrade Me, he makes no mention of anything other than biological enhancements, where many of the most important ones are non-biological. Take two simple ones. If I hit someone with a stone in my fist, I enhance my ability to hurt them beyond human. If I use a water bottle when crossing a desert I am enhanced in my ability to survive. It is very arbitrary to limit yourself to drug and genetic modification.
In some ways, then, a frustrating book – but nonetheless a very useful guide to the arguments for anyone worried about anything from drugs in sport to those who want to enhance their intellectual ability.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…