A noted academic bioethicist and British media pundit with a named chair at the University of Manchester, John Harris has recently given birth to an odd literary child. His latest book, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, hails from an esteemed university press, but it is informal and tendentious, often jeering at opponents, both popular and academic. Despite his credentials (an Oxford PhD in philosophy, co-editorship of the British Journal of Medical Ethics, a lengthy curriculum vitae), Harris has created a popular polemic better fitted for the entertaining and energetic repartee of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart than academic discourse.
The book’s style is in some sense unsurprising, as it derives from public lectures by a media-savvy intellectual. Even the distracting preface from the sponsors of the lectures affirms a strongly activist bent, an impression confirmed by Harris’s own introduction. Still, the degree of colloquial informality (frequent repetitions, reuses of identical quotations, simplistic recitals) and polemicization (name-calling and the creation of strawman opponents) is somewhat surprising in a book written by an academic within his discipline. To rebut two of the West’s most prominent political and ethical philosophers, Michael Sandel and Jürgen Habermas, with pungent sarcasm and reductio ad absurdum violates most canons of academic discourse. While Harris is correct that excessive reliance on mere authority may be dangerous and academic distance enfeebling, his snippy, self-assertive argumentation does little to solve either problem.