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‘Human Enhancement’? It’s all About ‘Body Modification’! Why We Should Replace the Term ‘Human Enhancement’ with ‘Body Modification’



The current use of the term ‘Human Enhancement’ (‘HE’) implies that it is a modern, new phenomenon in which, for the first time in history, humans are able to break through their god or nature-given bodily limits thanks to the application of new technologies. The debate about the legitimation of ‘HE’, the selection of methods permitted, and the scope and purpose of these modern enhancement technologies has been dominated by ethical considerations, and has highlighted problems with the definition of the relevant norms. For example, ‘HE’ always presupposes that the current state of the ‘natural human’ or ‘healthy’ body is defined in opposition to an ‘artificial human’ or ‘diseased or disabled’ body, and also desirable technologies and methods are not but should be defined on the basis of objective, universally accepted criteria. All these definitions are, however, linked to socio-cultural norms and ideals, which can vary over time and between cultures. It is therefore impossible to arrive at a universal, durable definition of ‘enhancement’ that can be shared and understood globally, and will remain permanently valid. This discussion note contrasts the terms ‘HE’ and ‘Body Modification’ (‘BM’), and their respective strengths and weaknesses. ‘BM’ is a neutral term that is capable of encompassing every kind of modification, be it cultural, physical, psychological or neurological, is not limited to certain techniques and is not reliant on normative sub-definitions (such as ‘natural’, ‘artificial’, etc.). In the light of this analysis, it is proposed that the term ‘HE’ be replaced with ‘BM’ in order to allow a neutral, unprejudiced discussion to take place.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
‘Human Enhancement’? It’s all about ‘Body Modification’!
Why we should replace the term ‘Human Enhancement’ with ‘Body Modification’
The current use of the term ‘Human Enhancement’ (‘HE’) implies that it is a modern, new
phenomenon in which, for the first time in history, humans are able to break through their god
or nature-given bodily limits thanks to the application of new technologies. The debate about
the legitimation of ‘HE’, the selection of methods permitted, and the scope and purpose of
these modern enhancement technologies has been dominated by ethical considerations, and
has highlighted problems with the definition of the relevant norms.
For example, ‘HE’ always presupposes that the current state of the ‘natural human’ or
‘healthy’ body is defined in opposition to an ‘artificial human’ or ‘diseased or disabled’ body,
and also desirable technologies and methods are not but should be defined on the basis of
objective, universally accepted criteria. All these definitions are, however, linked to socio-
cultural norms and ideals, which can vary over time and between cultures. It is therefore
impossible to arrive at a universal, durable definition of ‘enhancement’ that can be shared and
understood globally, and will remain permanently valid.
This discussion note contrasts the terms ‘HE’ and ‘Body Modification’ (‘BM’), and their
respective strengths and weaknesses.
‘BM’ is a neutral term that is capable of encompassing every kind of modification, be it
cultural, physical, psychological or neurological, is not limited to certain techniques and is not
reliant on normative sub-definitions (such as ‘natural’, ‘artificial’, etc.).
In the light of this analysis, it is proposed that the term ‘HE’ be replaced with ‘BM’ in order
to allow a neutral, unprejudiced discussion to take place.
Body modification, Dualism, Ethics, Human enhancement, Naturalism, Social determinism,
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
The current use of the term ‘Human Enhancement’ (‘HE’) implies that it is a modern, new
phenomenon in which, for the first time in history, humans are able to break through their god
or nature-given bodily limits thanks to the application of new technologies. The possibilities
offered by modern technologies for human bodies and abilities to be ‘enhanced’ have shifted
the question of what should be ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’ to the centre of the debate.
Broad ethical and theological discussions have been conducted about human ‘enhancement’
and its desired or undesired consequences with the aim of defining ethical rules and setting
legal standards for the licensing or restriction of different applications (e.g. medical or
bio/genetic manipulation technologies, implantation practices/doping or other forms of
Petra Gehring (2006: 8) has suggested that the types of question discussed have given ethics a
monopoly position within this discourse that is symptomatic of current power relations.
When it comes to the legitimation of legislation, science is called upon to provide facts and
robust concepts to support political decisions. Certainly, many would be happy to have a clear
definition of what should be allowed or forbidden based on some kind of law of nature. In
this, they are responding to the arguments that feature in the current debate. As a
consequence, a situation has arisen in which the same fundamental concepts of the ‘natural’
or ‘artificial’ human, and the same definitions of ‘health’ and ‘disease’ are used by both sides
– the proponents of ‘HE’ (usually transhumanists) and their critics (usually ethicists).
As I will demonstrate later in the present discussion note, this intractable situation is closely
associated with the term ‘HE’ and the difficulties thrown up by the definition of
What blurs the current discussion is the fact that the practice of ‘BM’ reaches far back in the
history of mankind, and many methods that are no longer regarded as ‘enhancement’
technologies were used in the past. Nevertheless, these ancient ‘BM’ practices can be
regarded as forms of ‘enhancement’, and human individuals and societies have needed to deal
with and conceptualise them ever since ancient times.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
My intention in this discussion note is to show that a neutral, unprejudiced discussion of
‘enhancement’ technologies will not be possible if we continue to talk about ‘HE’, since the
word ‘enhancement’ itself implies normative values.
I will therefore explore one example of ‘BM’ that has been well documented for a long period
of time. This will demonstrate how the understanding of ‘enhancement’ and the context of its
definition depend on the socio-cultural environments in which these practices occur, socio-
cultural environments that have been subject to enduring change throughout history.
Informed by these historical ‘BMs’, I want to show that what we nowadays define as ‘HE’
can be regarded as a collection of (modern) ‘BM’ practices. What is different now is the
application of ‘advanced’ technologies in line with the current technological state of the art
and the latest know-how, a development that merely reflects the progress that has been
achieved over time. What is common to all these methods is that, from the point of view of
the people alive at a certain time, any action taken to improve any aspect of the human (to
comply with an ideal of beauty, perform social functions, or boost someone’s physical or
psychological strength, etc.) can be regarded as a modification.
In pursuing this argument, I will discuss the following topics:
- ‘Human Enhancement’ is actually a subfield of ‘Body Modification’
- every ‘Body Modification’ can be seen as ‘enhancement’
- in contrast to ‘Human Enhancement’, ‘Body Modification’ is not a normatively charged
term, and allows such modifications and technologies to be judged without prejudice.
I will start with an overview of what is currently defined as ‘Human Enhancement’ and ‘Body
Modification’, and compare and contrast the terms with each other. This will lead to a
discussion of the normative foundations of ‘Human Enhancement’, rooted as they are in
oppositions such as ‘natural’ vs. ‘artificial’ and ‘health’ vs. ‘disease or disability’. I will use
the example of tattooing to illustrate why ‘BM’ practices can generally be seen as forms of
Finally, I will summarise the findings that have been reached and end with my conclusions.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
‘Human Enhancement’ vs. ‘Body Modification’
The!modern!technologies applied in ‘Human Enhancement’, such as genetic manipulation,
neuro-chips, biotechnical interventions and medical treatments, are often discussed in the
literature not only in the context of health care but also as methods of ‘enhancement’ (e.g.
doping in sport, body shaping, cosmetic surgery, etc.). !
According to a study conducted by a joint working group of the Swiss Academy of Medical
Sciences (SAMS) and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAHS)
(Nikola Biller-Andorno et al. 2013: 169-171), there is still no standard definition of Human
Enhancement’. Problems are thrown up by the distinctions between several terms, such as
‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ or ‘health’ and ‘disease or disability’. Such demarcations have a
bearing on the question of what should be allowed or forbidden.
Eric Juengst (2009) defines ‘HE’ as interventions in the human shape and human capabilities
that exceed the restoration or conservation of the state of health. The SAMS/SAHS authors
suggest that ‘HE’ be defined as medical and biotechnological interventions with the intent to
modify human capabilities or the human shape in ways that are perceived as ‘enhancement’
within a certain socio-cultural environment. What is interesting to us at this point is their
emphasis on the importance of the socio-cultural environment.
Furthermore, they recognise there is no universal definition of ‘enhancement’ because it
always depends on specific norms that define – on the one hand – what corresponds to social
expectations and opinions and – on the other hand – what constitutes a transgression of these
socially shared and accepted boundaries.
In consequence, what is perceived as ‘enhancement’ depends on the particular socio-cultural
environment. Even within a given society, however, these norms and ideas can vary. The
authors conclude that we always have to assume social heterogeneity and therefore suggest
the use of a plural form: ‘socio-cultural environmentS’.
This implies that it is impossible to define ‘enhancement’ – and, moreover, what is
‘necessary’ or ‘pertinent’ – universally without referring to the respective socio-cultural
environment and its norms.
The authors go on to explain that ‘enhancement’ is not a new phenomenon made possible by
modern technologies, such as e.g. biotechnology. Rather, humans have always striven to
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
improve their bodies and capabilities. In this case ‘enhancement’ does not represent
something historically unique. Moreover, it is the expression of what a specific society
regards as desirable and important attributes for an individual person if they are to achieve a
competitive advantage.
What is looked on as an ‘enhancement’ in our Western culture now may be perceived as a
deterioration in 50 or 100 years time. For example, the manipulation of our DNA may sound
like a great way of improving our bodies and capabilities today, but could prove to have been
a damaging development within a few decades.
However, despite all these weaknesses of the term ‘HE’ and the problems that surround its
interpretation, the SAMS/SAHS authors do not pursue their argument to its logical conclusion
and suggest a different term that does not refer back to so many normatively charged sub-
Bearing this in mind, we will now look at the definition of ‘Body Modification’.
Kai Bammann (2008) describes ‘BM’ as a generic term that includes all interventions
executed directly on the human body to bring about a change of appearance or physical
integrity. These modifications can be either temporary or permanent and may also lead to
massive changes in (human) appearance or physical integrity (Bammann 2008: 259).
Following this definition, Erich Kasten (2008: 32-186) provides a long list of modern and
historical practices that can be subsumed under the term ‘BM’. They include, for example,
daily practices such as hairstyling, make up and bodybuilding, but also more invasive
practices such as tattooing, piercing, scarification, tooth modification, etc. Such practices can
also take place within a medical setting: for example, cosmetic surgery, circumcision, the
fitting of prostheses and implants, and even amputation. Only a few of these practices –
mostly medical ones – are currently associated with ‘HE’.
However, a huge range of ‘BM’ methods have been practised all over the globe across
different cultures and times, and there have always been numerous different motivations and
purposes for their application:
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
They have been used to mark inclusion or exclusion (from a group or society), celebrate rites
of passage, express spiritual meanings, display symbols of status or courage, record memories
or stigmas, bolster physical, psychological or spiritual strength and increase attractiveness,
etc. (for details, see Kasten 2008: 187-192, 228-278; Bammann 2008: 257-262).
From a sociological perspective, the human body can be both an instrument and product of
social actions, an agent and an exponent of social order, a medium of self-positioning and
social assignment, and also a criterion for social inclusion or exclusion (Gabriele Klein 2010:
In its widest sense, ‘BM’ denotes any modification of the human body, be it temporary or
permanent. The technologies and methods applied cannot be reduced to a precisely defined
set because they always depend on the specific knowledge of a certain society at a certain
time. Throughout history, technologies and methods have emerged and been developed in a
permanently ongoing process to achieve individual purposes and meet the needs of numerous
different societies.
Since ancient times, people have modified their appearance for many different reasons: we all
cut our fingernails and our hair, and some people dye their hair as well. Women often have
pierced earlobes, which we find perfectly normal – and there are many more ways of
modifying our bodies that we do not even recognise as such because they seem completely
normal to us. By the same token, it might one day become common for us to manipulate our
DNA or to have multiple devices implanted in our bodies.
Almost everyone in our current Western culture tries to optimise his or her body in one way
or another (Kasten 2008: 11; Bammann 2008: 258). And the same is true for cultures all over
the world.
How and why the body is treated and modified also depend on the body-concepts and ‘body-
techniques’ specific to a particular society. In this regard, Marcel Mauss (1989 [1950]) and
Maurice Leenhardt (1985 [1947]) provide some interesting insights from an ethnological
perspective. Beyond the scope of this discussion note (which concentrates on the arguments
for the replacement of the term ‘enhancement’ with the ‘modification’ of human bodies),
body-conceptual aspects are a matter of secondary importance as long as the term ‘BM’
covers all types of body-related modifications in their widest sense. Until we arrive at agreed
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
concepts of the ‘human’, the ‘body’ and the ‘non-body’, the existing, neutral term ‘body
modification’ should be preferred to ‘human enhancement’.
As a global historical and cultural phenomenon, ‘BM’ is well documented in the fields of
ethnology and anthropology:
The indigenous population of Australia were painting their bodies in 60,000 BC. The oldest
tattoo currently known was found on the mummy of ‘Ötzi’ (Kasten 2008: 17; Bammann
2008: 257). The studies that have been conducted indicate that these tattoos were made for
medical purposes because their positions on the body correspond to treatment areas that are
also familiar from Chinese acupuncture (Lobstädt 2011: 99).
There is evidence that the people of ancient Egypt and Greece had tattoos on their bodies
(Kasten 2008: 17; Bammann 2008: 257) similar to those found in ancient cultures on all
continents (see Museum der Kulturen 2013). There are ancient myths in which it is possible to
detect the belief that symbols on the body will protect people from evil forces. In Hindu
legend, for example, Vishnu tattooed the hands of his wife Lakshmi to protect her from evil
(Kasten 2008: 25).
By comparison:
In Europe, ‘BMs’ (especially tattoos) had negative connotations for a long time on account of
the channels through which they were disseminated: Tattooing had been imported to Europe
by sailors, who were known for their dissolute lifestyle. This might also explain why many
people who came into conflict with the law were tattooed during this period. Even at the end
of the 20th century, people with tattoos still had the disreputable aura of prisoners (brand
marks, Kasten 2008: 20-21). This again demonstrates that the same practice can signify an
‘improvement’ or something desirable in a certain culture at a certain time, yet can be
despised in another culture at another time. What is desirable and brings about an
improvement (or ‘enhancement’) is intimately entwined with the judgement of a specific
society at a specific moment in history.
A ‘BM’ always marks an affiliation (with a group of people who share the same normative
background that the ‘BM’ represents) and, simultaneously, a demarcation (from all others
with different normative backgrounds).
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
However, ‘BM’ does not automatically stand for the fusion of an individual with a certain
group: it can also be a way of expressing individuality.
Practices within ‘BM’ are characterised by the use of certain technologies and methods
available at a particular time within a certain culture to meet its specific needs and the
motivations and purposes associated with them. In this sense, a highly subjective beauty
improvement such as tattooing or scarification (which may conflict with our current general
norm of beauty) has to be seen as ‘enhancement’ because it may represent a desirable beauty
ideal for a certain individual or group.
Every modification can also deliver an ‘enhancement’, depending on the needs of the
individual or group. This underlines something that has already been touched on above: what
is perceived as ‘enhancement’ always depends on the socio-cultural (and historical)
environment, and can also vary within a certain group or society (!heterogeneity).
The key point is that every modification constitutes an improvement at a certain time for a
certain culture with particular norms and ideals. It is not possible for the term ‘enhancement’
to do justice to the fact that the same practice can be an improvement in a specific culture at a
specific time, while it is considered to be completely undesirable or even a deterioration in
another culture at another time. ‘Enhancement’ does not provide us with a universal term with
which to talk about these matters, a term that could be shared and understood throughout all
cultures and all times.
What is also easily neglected and should be mentioned additionally in the discussion of ‘HE’
is the fact that some ‘BM’ methods are recognised modern ‘enhancement’ technologies that
are already applied in the ‘BM’ scene (e.g. in tattoo and piercing shops or ‘BM’ shops)
without the involvement of professional medical or therapeutic practitioners. This applies in
particular to chip implants and magnetic implants, in the context of a ‘cyborg subculture’ for
It is therefore evident from the examples that have been given, as well as our comparison of
the terms ‘HE’ and ‘BM’ that:
The practices we define as ‘HE’ could be signified more accurately by the term ‘BM’.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
Unlike ‘HE’, ‘BM’ is a neutral term that is not reliant for its own definition on secondary
definitions or subjective interpretations tied to a specific culture and time. These sub-
definitions will be discussed in the following section.
The ‘natural human’ and the normative basis of ‘Human Enhancement’
The ‘natural’ human body or its ‘naturally’ endowed abilities are often cited as reference
points on both sides of the argument about ‘HE’ and what should be allowed or forbidden.
The intention is to establish a durable concept with universal validity that functions like a law
of nature.
Jean-Pierre Béland et al. (2011) describe three fundamental assumptions about the meaning of
the ‘natural’. From a religious point of view, the ‘natural’ human body is the god-given one.
In this case, any manipulation of it would be tantamount to ‘playing god’. Another
interpretation understands ‘natural’ as the state of a ‘nature-given’ body with a certain variety
of visual characteristics and capabilities. It would be an ‘artificial’ extension of the human’s
boundaries to go beyond these characteristics and capabilities. The third point of view is that
‘nature’ gives us the ability to reach beyond the limitations with which we were born. In this
view, modifying the human body is an expression of human ‘nature’ (Béland et al. 2011:
297). These assumptions provide the foundations for the three main lines of argument in this
Béland et al. point out that the term ‘natural’ can be instrumentalised by both sides – by both
the supporters and the opponents of ‘HE’ – but the fundamental differences between their
conceptions of the ‘natural’ mean it is impossible to put forward arguments based on grounds
“that will enable others to deem them acceptable” (Béland et al. 2011: 296)
This is a consequence of the fact that the term ‘natural’ cannot be defined universally.
It too depends on a separation of the ‘natural’ from the ‘artificial’.
Christopher H. Lüthy (2013: 14) concludes at the end of his historical survey of ‘natural,
enhanced and artificial men and women’ that there is currently no exact definition of what an
‘artificial’ human is. He looks at several examples to illustrate how, over the centuries, people
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
accepted without any hesitation that human beings had been shaped, conditioned and
improved through natural selection, education and indoctrination. In Lüthy’s opinion, any
evolutionary selection too represents a kind of ‘enhancement’ process, according to Darwin.
This underlines the arbitrariness of the term ‘natural’, as well as Lüthy’s arguments that
humans cannot be seen in isolation from their socio-cultural environment. There is therefore
no ‘natural’ human outside society. “It must be obvious that we humans have never been
entirely ‘untreated’ and ‘organic’. We are, perforce, socialized creatures who are raised in a
cultured, and therefore unnatural, environment” (Lüthy 2013: 13).
At this point, we will recognise not only the importance of the socio-cultural context, and
therefore the historical context as well, for any discourse about the ‘natural’, but also the
intrinsic dependence of its definition and interpretation on these very contexts.
There is no ‘true’ body, and that means there is also no ‘natural’ behaviour. Our perception
and treatment of our bodies are always expressions of socio-historical processes. In
consequence, modern cults of the body cannot be understood without historical reflection
(Weber 2012: 10).
Beyond the importance of socio-cultural influences, these ideas are linked to discussions
about dualism in general. Due to its normative charge, ‘enhancement’ always leads back to
the definitional problem raised by ‘natural’ vs. ‘unnatural’ or ‘artificial’. Bruno Latour
(1999), for example, argues for this dualist perspective to be superseded by an understanding
of everything as ‘negotiation’ or socio-technical ‘collective’. Drawing on his Actor-Network
Theory (ANT) approach, he states that it is impossible to declare something/someone to be
completely ‘natural’ or completely ‘technological’.
From this point of view, the term ‘modification’ could also include socio-technical processes
or modifications, whereas ‘enhancement’ always has to define a ‘natural’ state in opposition
to a technological manipulation.
It is not necessary to specify whether ‘modification’ is an ‘artificial’, ‘technological’, ‘natural’
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
or, as Latour would put it, ‘socio-technical’ process. The term ‘modification’ functions
without the application of such categories, whereas ‘enhancement’ does not.
However, we have to go further in order to complete the picture. In her discussion of the
classification of ‘HE’ technologies, Iris Ritzmann (2013) points out that a line is often drawn
between ‘healthiness’ and ‘disease or disability’ (see above). This too is intimately entwined
with our understanding of what constitutes a ‘natural’ body and the question of whether a
particular therapy would be regarded as ‘artificial’ if the recipient were suffering from
‘disease or disability’.
As Ritzmann says, some kind of norm must always be established before these states are
defined. Such norms themselves are affected by social norms, such as the social norm that a
healthy person has to look young and fit, with a flat stomach, a straight nose, etc. Other norms
are derived in different ways from measurable parameters defined by medical technologies or
standards such as temperature, blood pressure, cholesterol level, body mass index, etc.
Her conclusion is that what we perceive as being dangerous to our health depends on socially
defined and idealised norms, and their historical evolution.
In this context, mention should also be made of the ‘three levels of application of emerging
technologies in neuroscience’ discussed by Fabrice Jotterand (2008: 15), because they draw
together the problems raised both by the definition of the ‘natural’, and by the differentiation
between ‘healthiness’ and ‘disease or disability’:
Level 1: Therapy, which means the restoration of damaged functions.
Level 2: Enhancement with the focus on the transcending of normal capacities.
Level 3: Alteration, where the goal is to transcend biological boundaries and to alter human
capacities (species-typical), which means adding new features to the human body
and its abilities.
The separation of these three ‘levels’ underlines the differentiation between normative
opposites. At Level 1, we find the distinction between ‘health’ and ‘disease or disability’.
Level 2 relies on a defined (e.g. ‘natural’) standard opposed to ‘enhancement’, which still
exploits previously existing human abilities and features, but makes them ‘better’.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
At Level 3 (as at Level 2), we find a defined standard that can also serve as the definition of a
‘natural human’, on the one hand, and the transgression, which now means the complete
elimination of standardised or ‘natural’ boundaries by means of modification, on the other.
If we were to dispense with these distinctions and instead use a single term – the neutral
‘Body Modification’ –, we would be able to see how arbitrary the dividing lines between
these three levels of application are: in general, as has already been mentioned and will be
demonstrated in the next section of this discussion note, every ‘BM’ will constitute an
‘enhancement’ for someone in some context.
As with ‘enhancement’, the definition of what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’, what goes beyond and
what remains within these boundaries, can vary – even within a single population, this
definition will not be homogeneous. ‘Body Modification’ could therefore be used to unite all
these shades of meaning, and establish a neutral term that is not reliant on normative
definitions and multiple normative sub-definitions of terms such as ‘enhancement’, ‘natural’,
‘artificial’, etc.
How to see ‘Body Modification’ generally as ‘Enhancement’
Returning to the example of tattoos, I wish to illustrate how tattooing has been understood as
‘enhancement’ throughout the ages and cultures. As discussed above, tattoos and other ‘BMs’
were also used for medical purposes (see ‘Ötzi’, Bammann 2008: 257). Beyond this medical
or therapeutic function, tattoos have also played a significant role as a medium for
communication and thus been an influential factor in social life.
A tattoo can represent both demarcation and affiliation at the same time (Bammann 2008,
Lobstädt 2011, E.G. Jung 2007):
In ‘primitive’ cultures, a tattoo communicates the individual wearers’ status within the clan,
their gender, special feats or successes and personal events in their life (Kasten 2008: 25-31).
In ancient Polynesia, girls were tattooed when they reached puberty (Kasten 2008: 18). An
untattooed girl was taboo for men.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
For the Maori, the number and complexity of a person’s tattoos were crucial. The more
tattoos someone had, the higher his / her position within the clan (Bamman 2008: 261). A
tattoo connected her/him to the clan, but also marked his / her separation from other clans. At
the same time, tattooing made it possible to signal to enemies that they were facing a
successful and dangerous warrior. In this case, the tattoo had a deterrent effect.
Shared tattoo symbols within a clan were useful in its members’ everyday dealings with one
another, since they communicated the behaviour to be expected of a certain type of person
within the norms of the group to which they belonged.
In these cases, the ‘enhancement’ factor of a tattoo consisted in the improvement of
deterrence against enemies, the overt communication of group-relevant information such as
status, gender, eligibility for marriage, etc. and, in consequence, the reinforcement of the
group’s unity. The permanent marking of a group member strengthened their affiliation to the
collective, while emphasising their individuality. Thus, tattoos represented an individual’s
status and events in his / her life but, in addition to this, could contribute to an individual or
shared beauty ideal.
One further example is found among the Mentawai of Indonesia, for whom the tattooing of a
body makes it a beautiful home for the soul because the soul would not stay in an ugly home,
and the body would fall sick if were to leave (Museum der Kulturen 2013). In this instance,
we find an understanding of healthiness coupled with aesthetic norms. The tattoo not only has
the potential to heal, but also performs a ‘preventive’ function in improving the wearer’s
beauty. In this context, it becomes easy to transgress the boundaries between ‘prevention’ and
‘enhancement’ because it is never possible to know when the body is beautiful enough, and it
cannot do any harm to add a little more beauty.
But people do not always wear tattoos of their own ‘free will’. Tattoos were worn by slaves
and criminals in ancient Greece and Rome, although this could be seen as providing benefits
as well, not for the criminals and slaves themselves, but for society and their owners. Tattooed
criminals were always recognisable to the rest of the population, something that was often
important for other people, employers for example. Similarly, slaves were permanently
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
marked as the property of their masters, which minimised confusions over their identity, as
well as improving the chances of catching runaways and identifying their owners.
Who modifies whose body and with what intention always reflects current constellations of
power. Here again, the ‘body-concepts’ or ‘body-techniques’ of the society in question are
relevant. Feminist literature contains many statements about the role of the body as a
representation, production, reproduction and preservation of power constellations (see, for
example, Haraway 1985).
As discussed above, tattoos still have negative connotations in Europe on account of the
channels through which the practice was disseminated. This illustrates how the purpose and
understanding of tattoos’ function have always varied throughout history and in different
societies. As Kasten (2008: 11-16) mentions, there is no universal explanation as to why
people get tattooed or apply other body modification techniques. It always depends on the
specific socio-cultural and historical context, and the individual effect the tattooing is
intended to achieve. The example of tattooing illustrates particularly well how a modification
can be regarded as an improvement in one culture and time, and a disadvantage or
disfigurement in another culture and time. Whereas tattoos are highly respected in certain
cultures, they are associated with a disreputable lifestyle in others. Whether a modification
constitutes an improvement or not depends on the understanding that prevails in the particular
culture at a particular moment in history.
Summary and Conclusions
There are many different reasons both for submitting to such ‘BM’ procedures and for
rejecting them, as will be apparent from the definition of ‘BM’, and the underlying practices
and motivations illustrated in the examples. All these considerations depend on the specific
socio-cultural environment at a certain time, as does the definition of what is meant and
encompassed by ‘enhancement’ and, moreover, every single norm – from the ‘natural
human’, to ‘beauty’, the ‘body’ and the ‘spiritual’.
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
As has been demonstrated, every ‘HE’ method can be viewed as ‘BM’, while every ‘BM’
application can also represent a specific ‘enhancement’ in someone’s eyes.
Our historical survey suggests it is necessary to question whether it is only modern
technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc. that have facilitated the
‘enhancement’ of the human body. Rather, it should be acknowledged that every culture uses,
and has used, the technologies available to it through time.
The neutral term ‘BM’ could be used to talk about modifications for all types of purposes.
The three distinct levels of ‘therapy’, ‘enhancement’ and ‘alteration’ proposed by Jotterand
(2008) cannot be distinguished with any precision and often tend to overlap. These categories
are not only based on highly subjective, non-universal assumptions, but also refer to sub-
definitions such as our understanding of ‘health’, ‘disease or disability’, ‘artificial’ and
‘natural’. As has been demonstrated, the meanings of these terms also depend to a great extent
on the particular socio-cultural environment in which they are used at a certain time, and
therefore cannot be defined universally. In other words, the term ‘enhancement’ evokes a
whole chain of non-universal, normative assumptions.
As far as the scale of ‘alterations’ is concerned, the ‘lizardman’ and ‘tiger man’ provide
examples of the massive ‘alteration’ of the ‘natural human’ – if there is any such a thing as
the ‘natural human’ –, changes that were accomplished using technologies not traditionally
associated with ‘HE’. Both modified their bodies in extreme ways, one to look like a lizard,
the other to look like a tiger (Kasten 2008: 340).
‘BM’ is a neutral term that does not imply normative judgements and consistently denotes the
total spectrum of modifications for all purposes throughout history. The replacement of the
normatively charged term ‘HE’ with ‘BM’ would overcome the difficulties inherent in
normatively charged definitions and sub-definitions in the current and future (biopolitical)
debates about new ‘BM’ technologies.
Hence the argument I have put forward for ‘Human Enhancement’ to be replaced with the
neutral term ‘Body Modification’, which may allow the discussion about ‘Body Modification’
(no longer ‘HE’) to transcend the prejudices and constructed norms that are presented as
universal or ‘nature-given’. By contrast, attempts to conduct a neutral, objective debate will
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
always fail as long as ‘Human Enhancement’ remains the dominant paradigm because
‘enhancement’ does not provide a neutral basis for discussion. It is inherently charged with
assumptions, motivations, norms, etc. and is predicated on further, controversial sub-
As a consequence, those who contribute to this debate have to resist the desire to posit an
essentialist concept with universal validity that resembles a law of nature and would supply
the scientific legitimation for political decisions. Such an essentialist concept would
inevitably have to be described as what it is: arbitrary. There will never be a god or nature-
given law that permits just one correct way of acting and defining what should be allowed or
not. Moreover, such decisions should be part of an ongoing, evolving process that takes
account of normative and cultural changes. Decisions of this kind are always the products of
the enduring evolution of culture through time.
This discussion note seeks to introduce some new concepts and ideas into the discourse about
‘HE’, and stimulate discussions on topics outside its own scope.
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Schweizerische Ärztezeitung (2013) 94: 5, 169-172
Stefanie Rembold
Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
Gehring, P. (2006): Was ist Biomacht? Vom zweifelhaften Mehrwert des Lebens, Campus
Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2006
Haraway, D. (1985): ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism
in the 1980s’, Socialist Review (1985) 80: 65-108
Jotterand, F. (2008): ‘Beyond Therapy and Enhancement: The Alteration of Human Nature’,
NanoEthics (2008) 2: 15-23, Springer Science + Business Media BV, 2008, DOI:
Juengst, E. T. (2009): ‘Was bedeutet Enhancement’, in: Schöne-Seifert, B. & Talbot, D.
(eds.): Enhancement – die ethische Debatte, Mentis, Paderborn, 2009, 25-45
Jung, E. G. (2007), ‘Tätowieren und Tattoo’, in: Jung, E. G. (ed.): Kleine Kulturgeschichte
der Haut, Steinkopff Verlag, Darmstadt, 2007, 171-176
Kasten, E. (2008): Body Modification: Psychologische und medizinische Aspekte von
Piercing, Tattoo, Selbstverletzung und anderen Körperveränderungen, Ernst Reinhardt
Verlag, Munich, 2006
Klein, G. (2010): ‘Soziologie des Körpers’, in: Kneer, G. & Schroer, M. (eds.): Handbuch
Spezielle Soziologien, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften/GWV Fachverlage GmbH,
Wiesbaden, 2010, 457-473, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-531-92027-6_26
Latour, B. (1999): Pandora’s Hope: An Essay on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard
University Press, 1999
Leenhardt, M. (1985[1947]): Do Kamo: La personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien,
Gallimard, 1947, 1971, 1985
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Nanoethics DOI 10.1007/s11569-014-0205-y
The final publication is available at
Lobstädt, T. (2011): Tätowierung, Narzissmus und Theatralität, VS Verlag für
Sozialwissenschaften/Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH 2011, ch. 4, ‘Die
Zeichentheorie der Tätowierung’, 97-142, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-531-93365-8_4
Lüthy, C.H. (2013): ‘Historical and Philosophical Reflections on Natural, Enhanced and
Artificial Men and Women’, in: Koops, B.-J. et al. (eds.): Engineering the Human, Springer
Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2013, ch. 2, 11-28. DOI: 10.007/978-3-642-35096-2_2
Museum der Kulturen, Basel (2013): Make up – Shaped for Life? Exhibition-Paper, published
to accompany the Make up – Shaped for Life exhibition, September 2013-July 2014
Mauss, M. (1989 [1950]): ‘Sociologie et Anthropologie’, in: Balandier, G. (ed.): Sociologie
d’aujourd’hui, Presses Universitaires de France, 1950; German Translation: Moldenhauer, E.
et al.: Die Techniken des Körpers: Soziologie und Anthropologie 2, Fischer Taschenbuch
Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 1989
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Enhancement als historischer Prozess’, Schweizerische Ärztezeitung (2013) 94: 11, 417-422
Weber, K. (2012): Körperkult und -inszenierung – Entwicklung, Trends, Motive,
AV Akademikerverlag GmbH & Co. KG, Saarbrücken, 2012
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This paper provides a discussion of aspects of the transhumanist movement and their intellectual and bioethical implications from an Islamic perspective. After an introduction to transhumanism and some of its variations, it discusses the underlying suppositions of transhumanist thought: The supposed absence of the body-mind-soul complex and the idea of volitional evolution of humankind. It then goes on to discuss the notion of enhancement and body modification, on a technological, pharmacological and genetic level from an Islamic point of view. In conclusion, the paper discusses the idea of "the good life". The paper concludes that, although transhumanism is not a new idea, but rather a conglomerate of old ideas in technologically backed dystopian garb, and although there are obvious disparages between tenets of transhumanism and Islam at a very basic level, Muslims ought to be aware of its trajectory, as influences and repercussions will be felt globally.
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Für eine Tätowierung benötigt man nicht mehr als eine Hautverletzung und den Ruß einer Feuerstelle. So ist es auch nicht verwunderlich, dass sie in so vielen Kulturen eine Verbreitung gefunden und ebenso wie die Körperbemalung die Kreativität des Menschen herausgefordert hat.
This paper was first published in Socialist Review, no. 80, 1985. The essay originated as a response to a call for political thinking about the 1980s from socialist-feminist points of view, in hopes of deepening our political and cultural debates in order to renew commitments to fundamental social change in the face of the Reagan years. The "Cyborg Manifesto" tried to find a feminist place for connected thinking and acting in profoundly contradictory worlds. Since its publication, this bit of cyborgian writing has had a surprising half-1ife. It has proved impossible to rewrite the cyborg. Cyborg's daughter will have to find its own matrix in another essay, starting from the proposition that the immune system is the bio-technical body's chief system of differences in late capitalism, where feminists might find provocative extra-terrestrial maps of the networks of embodied power marked by race, sex, and class. The essay below is substantially the same as the 1985 version, with minor revisions and correction of notes.
Tätowierungen sind Farbeinsprengungen in die Haut, wobei solche in die Epidermis und Einfärbungen der Hornschicht mit dem epidermalen Umsatz (turnover) in Tagen bis Wochen auswachsen, und als vorübergehende Tätowierungen neuerdings als eine Form des „body painting“ verstanden werden. Werden unlösliche Farbpartikel in die Dermis (Corium) eingeritzt oder gestochen, so bleiben diese im Corium liegen und die Tätowierung ist permanent, sie bleibt lebenslang bestehen und sichtbar. Eine Entfernung ist meist wesentlich aufwändiger und kostspieliger als das Anbringen von Tätowierungen. Oft ist eine solche weder vollständig noch narbenfrei zu erreichen, auch wenn die moderne und differenzierte Lasertechnik erfreulicherweise gewaltige Fortschritte gemacht hat.
Zeichen auf dem Körper — sie haben eine lange Tradition und sind, soweit sich dies feststellen lässt, auf allen Kontinenten, in fast allen menschlichen Gesellschaften verbreitet (vgl. Gröning 1997). Zwar unterscheidet sich die Art, mit welchen Mitteln der Körper gezeichnet und verändert wird, jedoch scheint es ein menschliches Bedürfnis zu sein, den bloßen Körper zu modifizieren. Der Mensch, der sich kleidet, Schmuck trägt und seinen Körper bemalt, grenzt sich hierdurch nicht zufällig vom Tier ab, das solche Entscheidungen nicht treffen kann. Insofern ist die Veränderung des Körpers, permanent oder nicht, ein wichtiges Element der kulturellen Evolution des Menschseins und Ausdruck des menschlichen (Sich-selbst-)Bewusstseins.