I find the optimism of the transhumanists oddly bracing. It’s true: I tend to be cynical about the future of humanity. Some of the traits that once allowed us to survive – even thrive – now work against us, and I believe that we’re running out of time. I have a friend who thinks that our unprecedented access to information will allow us to stem the blood-dimmed tide, but I see humanity’s struggle for survival as one whose success or failure will be based less on how much we learn or how fast we learn it, and more on who we are. In theory, we might sidestep our fate by changing what it means to be human, which is partly behind my interest in transhumanism (as well as the fact that cool technology is, well, cool). I’m still not holding my breath, but it’s that perspective that I bring to the first chapter of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam,
Naam sees changing our bodies as both good and inevitable, to the extent that sometimes it seems as if he’s more likely to favor anecdotes and appeals to emotion rather than take on more complex criticism; sometimes More Than Human seems to be written primarily for believers. That said, the science is stunning: insert some DNA into a host cell, return it to the body so it can replicate and… you’re different. The idea that you can prevent things like anemia with genetic modification instead of expensive drugs and frequent treatments is very cool. Genetic modification as a medical treatment is less expensive, and there’s reason to hope that it will continue to proliferate.
From curing medical problems, Naam moves on to changing the body in other ways. Who isn’t tickled at the possibility of gaining muscle without having to exercise? I read that and think “I’ll never have to run on the treadmill again!” On the other hand, despite the fact that I never get anywhere, I sort of like running on the treadmill. That’s how I watch episodes of Breaking Bad and Daredevil. There’s something gained through putting out the effort, isn’t there, above and beyond the endorphin high? Isn’t there value in self-denial, as well – controlling what you eat, rather than taking a pill that prevents you from getting fat? Or am I just making excuses for the world I live in, to make its trials more palatable? If we enhance away our need to take care of ourselves, what are we giving up? If we no longer need to maintain our bodies, will how we feel about them change? In what ways?
“The ultimate limit,” Naam says, “on what people will do with gene therapy may not be science or technology, but simply human desire and imagination.” Would you like to have green hair? How about green, glowing hair? Silver skin? Horns? I agree with Naam that the “it’s unnatural” argument doesn’t hold water. What is “unnatural,” anyhow? He admits to risks (i.e. the occasional, horrible death during early development), but believes that they will be abrogated through quality control and the market: people will only buy green, glowing hair if they’re fairly sure it won’t strangle them during the night. I’m less sure that a world in which body enhancements are made illegal will be one rife with black markets, as Naam speculates. His comparison of limiting body enhancement with prohibition seems simplistic: prohibition involved the banning of an established, readily available product that people had already embraced, where body enhancement at the genetic level is a new field that many people are nervous about. His comparison of preventing body enhancements to banning abortion – that the result would be, in essence, back-alley body enhancements, is flawed because the factors that might cause a woman to abort a fetus are very different – literally and ethically – than those that might make someone change the color of their eyes or enlarge their biceps. His point that freely available enhancements will result in higher quality through regulation has merit, but he fails to address the fact that making body enhancements legal and letting them spread would come with its own, unforeseen challenges. He didn’t really have to convince me, though: I believe that gene therapy and body modification – for both medical and cosmetic reasons – should be available. The gray area for me is less about necessity or safety, and more about the specifics of how it might be controlled, possible unintended consequences, and the idea that we should think carefully before we chip away at what it means to be human.
Transformation is scary, but to what degree is it inevitable, and what forms might it take? If Naam’s impulse is to say “yes,” mine is to say “yes, but…” We are entering uncharted waters, I think, where what it means to be a human being will be tested, but who will determine how those tests proceed? Who gets to decide how humanity transforms, or if it will? The idea that that those choices should be made by individuals sounds liberating, but in practice, where does that sort of uncontrolled burn lead? Wouldn’t it be better to make conscious decisions as a society, rather than drift with the currents to wherever they might lead us? And if individuals are buying, who is selling? Are we to trust the transformation of our bodies to the market? To corporations? Are we willing to accept the idea of a division between rich and poor that exists on the genetic level? If not, do we let such decisions be made by broken governments, driven by conflicting ideologies and religious zealotry as much as they are by ethics, philosophy, or vision? Is there a compromise between those options, in the face of the inevitable march of progress?
I don’t have the answers, I only believe that there are more questions at play than Naam, at least so far, has touched on. What about you? Would you change yourself? In what ways? What concerns would you have, before doing it – for yourself, and for humanity as a whole?
ETA if anyone has a recommendation for a book/articles on the ethical and philosophical discussions surrounding this issue, please let me know in the comments section!