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Fred Ketchu, University of Chicago, Anthropology

Re-designing Human Nature: An Anthropology of Enhancement Drugs in Germany

In the past few decades new drugs have become available that can treat disease and improve the function of healthy individuals, termed "enhancements." A prominent example is Ritalin, which supposedly sharpens concentration to boost cognitive performance. Enhancements give individuals the potential to improve their capacities, raising important ethical questions about whether using enhancements is unnatural, if this use threatens individuals’ “authenticity”, whether their use is fair, who should pay, and what the consequences for broader society are. Bioethicists, philosophers, physicians, politicians, and many others have written about the possible implications of enhancements. This has sparked a broad public debate, which mirrors both uncertainty about these ethical issues as well as excitement about the promises of human enhancement. In light of the rapid pace of medical research and developments in medical therapy, these questions are often seen as pressing given the likelihood that new enhancements will increasingly become available. My research examines practices and discourses about enhancements in Germany, to understand the cultural meanings that explain collective fears around enhancements, as well as the motivations for taking them. The research will ethnographically examine how and why these drugs are being used. Research methods will consist of participant-observations, interviews, and archival research. This ethnographic data will be placed in the larger context of the public discourse, considering what the ethical and moral issues are, how Germany’s historical context informs this debate, and how enhancements relate to medical therapy.