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.

Hardback 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …