THE ENIGMA OF HUMAN ENHANCEMENT. CAN WE MEET SUPERHEROES ON THE STREET?
Imagine being tall, blond, blue-eyed, young, beautiful, always in a good mood, fit, good in science, with strong talent in sports and maybe in music. What if most of the people you knew were just like that, too? Superhuman? Well, probably you had to use some technology to become that perfect (and I do not mean breast augmentation), but obviously not everybody is born flawless.
It is becoming and it may become even more possible to extend human capacities beyond their normal healthy state. A movement called transhumanism grows very popular lately. Its goal is to fundamentally transform humans by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Technologies will include the convergence of nano, bio, information and cognitive technologies.
Here are the top 5 ways we humans may be enhanced into superhumans (or posthumans as transhumanists refer the person after enhancement) in the future. What do you want to enhance about yourself?
Who Wants to Live Forever?
Currently the average person would live to about 80 years if in Europe, or 87 if in Japan. Or 50 in Somalia. Anyhow, it is considerably longer compared to 20-34 as in Stone Age, which may be considered the normal life span of our kind. So, obviously life span has been enhanced in the ages to reach its current expectancy.
To further prolong it, it is necessary to focus on the effects of human aging. Studies show that it is not cancer, heart disease or other specific sicknesses that define our lifespan, but rather the aging itself making us vulnerable to illnesses. If we could eliminate cancer for example, it would only add up to 3 years to human`s life expectancy. Or 7 if no more heart disease existed. But humans would still die at the approximately same age. By slowing the effects of aging, people would not only live longer, but would also live healthier and would be able to do more things that are simply impossible given the limitations of our current life expectancy, e.g. run a marathon in each capital city in the world.
Opponents of life extension however, say that it would deprive life of meaning. Those theories suggest that limitation of lifetime motivates us to do things and finish projects we would otherwise just give up at some point, if life were close to endless. They also say it would worsen the social problem related to human aging. Additionally, longer lifespan would mean more children per family which would become an unbearable burden for the social systems and the capacity of the planet itself.
Proponents of these theories, however, suggest that on the contrary, life won`t become meaningless, but it would rather allow humans to accomplish more things and finish more projects in a lifetime, e.g. write a book in each of the major languages of the world. Just imagine Shakespeare was still with us?
They also claim social problems related to aging would actually diminish because human aging would be reversed or slowed down and old people would be able to contribute financially to the state much more than nowadays. Finally, overpopulation might not happen because due to prolonged life expectancy and health, women would tend to have same number of children, but later in life unpressured by current fertility limitations related to age.
Your Superbody Is Coming
Stamina, agility, flexibility, muscle strength and other body functions are needed for athletic performance. Most of us try to enhance those functions everyday by exercising, eating a balanced diet, getting vaccinations. However further enhancement by taking a body strength enhancing drug for example would pose moral questions, especially in sports.
Currently the use of steroids in sports is not an applaudable activity and reasonably we may not expect legalizing doping in sports soon, as it is considered unsafe for health and unfair to competition. However, according to the physical human enhancement proponents, boosting athletes’ performance would actually create the level playing field that is sought by these measures. Athletes have been taking banned physical enhancing drugs for ages, however some of them are harmful to human body. Thus, allowing doping, they say, may not harm the spirit of sports, but rather help establish equal opportunities.
Still, some athletes are better genetically and biologically and they would still stand out, i.e. if drugs would enhance everyone`s performance by 15%, it would again be the biologically fitter and better prepared ones that would win, yet the overall performance would be higher.
Even if physical enhancing drugs stay banned for athletes, it may be reasonable to allow such substances to other people, such as construction workers for example, who would undoubtedly benefit from enhanced body functions such as stamina, coordination, etc.
Are You Smart Enough?
Intellectual capacity, memory and concentration – we all have them to some extend but, let`s be honest, we`ve all had moments we wished we had a bit more brainpower than we do. And we try a vast variety of intelligence boosters – drinking coffee, learning a foreign language, taking Ginkgo Biloba or just meditating, as most of those cognition aids are considered safe and moral.
Yet, there are already available substances like Ritalin (a drug originally created to help ADHD individuals) that helps healthy individuals with concentration or Modafinil (originally treating narcolepsy), which results in memory enhancement. In the near future it may be genetic interventions that would further enhance cognitive abilities.
Again, we must answer first the related ethical questions.
Wouldn`t it create injustice and unfair completion, same as in sports, when intellectually enhanced individuals compete for a job or take an exam together with unenhanced others? Depends on the way we see education for example. If it is seen as competition about who will perform best on the exam, then yes, it would be unfair. But if we consider education as an opportunity to acquire knowledge and information, increased cognitive functions would be welcome and beneficial for everyone.
Wouldn`t cognitive enhancement tools be available only to a fortunate few, who would then become too advanced compared to the unenhanced ones, who would then be seen almost as disabled? If we go even further, wouldn`t the enhanced form groups and societies that would gain control over the others, creating severe social inequality?
Who knows, but society has never been equal anyway, as there are always people who are either healthy or sick, tall or short, young or old. Proponents claim there would be so many aspects of enhancement, so different people would resort to enhancing different features, all of this on top of currently existing diversity, that it would not change spread of inequity.
In addition, studies show that it is far easier to accelerate the abilities of individuals with fairly impaired intelligence allowing them to manage their affairs better, therefore even filling in inequality gaps.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Scientists say that our feeling of happiness seem to be less affected by important life events, and much more defined by our genes. People with predisposition to see life darker and harder, would tend to feel this way soon after they win the lottery. Extremely shy people may find obstacles finding a good job, while very aggressive individuals would struggle with many social situations. Some can easily keep a diet and lose weight, while others lack the self-control needed to do that.
Mood and personality enhancing drugs and interventions seem to be in everyone`s advantage. Some medicines such as Prozac have had mood and personality enhancement effects. Further genetic engineering, may be able to “fix” our personalities even more.
However, we risk lacking a correct and unbiased description about the standard good in mood and personality. After all, who defines it? Being shyer can be good for me if I were a poet, while some level of aggression may be beneficial in professional sports.
Another risk of such enhancement is losing the self. If I “correct” my emotions to the level I stop having some of them, would it be right to assume I am still the same person?
The Perfect Baby
Sometimes we do not have the best of luck in baby lottery – some children are born with a disability, others won`t be as tall as desired by the parents, or won`t be just as good in math or literature as mommy may have wished they were. Or maybe a family with four girls wishes to have a boy, but again – it`s a girl.
To avoid most of the above, you can just hook up with a tall, healthy, handsome Nobel prize winner or Ivy League student, but in case you don`t have one of them available, science and assisted reproduction techniques may help.
Embryo selection in IVF procedures is not a science fiction nowadays. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows embryos that do not carry genetic disorders or chromosome abnormalities to be screened, selected and implanted. It is also used for gender selection, e.g. in India it is often applied to select boys, although banned by the law for non-medical reasons. As it usually discriminates girls, it is believed to bring a risk of overpopulation with boys and a society composed mostly of men, is considered to be less stable and more aggressive.
Further use of PGD may apply to the selection of the child with certain hair or eye color, optimal health, talent in music or athletic features, or the so called “designer babies”. A true Gattaca scenario that sounds both hopeful and disturbing.
Even more futuristic method to design your perfect baby is genetic engineering to create desired traits of a child, such as high intelligence. It is assumed however, that gene therapy, and even PGD, carry risks for harming the embryo, even long-term ones, such as weight gain in adulthood, Alzheimer, etc.
One of the main arguments against PGD and embryo selection is that many believe that life starts at conception and since this procedure involves discarding some of the embryos, it may be equal to destructing human beings (same as abortion).
It is also discussed that selecting the future traits of a child deprives them of the opportunity to select their own self and reality. I may desire a child-prodigy in music, but what if my child wanted to be an athlete? It is also true however, that even without genetic engineering, children are everyday guided by parents to develop certain qualities and select specific career paths by language, sport and music education, by being read specific books – activities that are considered perfectly moral and even seen as good parenting.
However, proponents believe that a child enhanced with strong intelligence, good health and other abilities will be free to choose their own life, as those traits are instrumental for happy life and wider choice of lifestyles and careers.
It is further considered by some that parents are morally obliged to select the best possible baby with least defects and most qualities, as this specific person due to its enhancements, would be enabled to carry happier life.
Many human enhancements are possible today and many more are envisaged in the future. Before they become a mass reality, we must answer ethical questions such as what we praise more – unmodified human potential or extraordinary achievements accomplished with the help of certain drugs or genetic interventions. Or how dangerous could it become to have enhanced superiors and unenhanced inferiors? One thing is for certain – our understanding of human potential and possibilities is going to change and only time will show if it is for good or bad.
What side are you going to take – being a human or being a part of X-Men team?
- Nick Bostrom, Rebecca Roache, 2007, Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement, available at: www.nickbostrom.com
- Nick Bostrom, Transhumanist Values, available at: www.nickbostrom.com
- Michael J. Sandel, The Case Against Perfection, Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.