Human enhancement is at least as old as human civilization. People have been trying to enhance their physical and mental capabilities for thousands of years, sometimes successfully – and sometimes with inconclusive, comic and even tragic results.
Up to this point in history, however, most biomedical interventions, whether successful or not, have attempted to restore something perceived to be deficient, such as vision, hearing or mobility. Even when these interventions have tried to improve on nature – say with anabolic steroids to stimulate muscle growth or drugs such as Ritalin to sharpen focus – the results have tended to be relatively modest and incremental.
But thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology, humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution. In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, up to now, have existed largely in the minds of science fiction writers and creators of comic book superheroes.
Both advocates for and opponents of human enhancement spin a number of possible scenarios. Some talk about what might be called “humanity plus” – people who are still recognizably human, but much smarter, stronger and healthier. Others speak of “post-humanity,” and predict that dramatic advances in genetic engineering and machine technology may ultimately allow people to become conscious machines – not recognizably human, at least on the outside.
This enhancement revolution, if and when it comes, may well be prompted by ongoing efforts to aid people with disabilities and heal the sick. Indeed, science is already making rapid progress in new restorative and therapeutic technologies that could, in theory, have implications for human enhancement.
It seems that each week or so, the headlines herald a new medical or scientific breakthrough. In the last few years, for instance, researchers have implanted artificial retinas to give blind patients partial sight. Other scientists successfully linked a paralyzed man’s brain to a computer chip, which helped restore partial movement of previously non-responsive limbs. Still others have created synthetic blood substitutes, which could soon be used in human patients.
One of the most important developments in recent years involves a new gene-splicing technique called “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Known by its acronym, CRISPR, this new method greatly improves scientists’ ability to accurately and efficiently “edit” the human genome, in both embryos and adults.
To those who support human enhancement, many of whom call themselves transhumanists, technological breakthroughs like these are springboards not only to healing people but to changing and improving humanity. Up to this point, they say, humans have largely worked to control and shape their exterior environments because they were powerless to do more. But transhumanists predict that a convergence of new technologies will soon allow people to control and fundamentally change their bodies and minds. Instead of leaving a person’s physical well-being to the vagaries of nature, supporters of these technologies contend, science will allow us to take control of our species’ development, making ourselves and future generations stronger, smarter, healthier and happier.
The science that underpins transhumanist hopes is impressive, but there is no guarantee that researchers will create the means to make super-smart or super-strong people. Questions remain about the feasibility of radically changing human physiology, in part because scientists do not yet completely understand our bodies and minds. For instance, researchers still do not fully comprehend how people age or fully understand the source of human consciousness.
There also is significant philosophical, ethical and religious opposition to transhumanism. Many thinkers from different disciplines and faith traditions worry that radical changes will lead to people who are no longer either physically or psychologically human.
We are no longer living in a time when we can say we either want to enhance or we don’t. We are already living in an age of enhancement.
— NICHOLAS AGAR, VICTORIA UNIVERSITY
Even minor enhancements, critics say, may end up doing more harm than good. For instance, they contend, those with enhancements may lack empathy and compassion for those who have not chosen or cannot afford these new technologies. Indeed, they say, transhumanism could very well create an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots and lead to new kinds of exploitation or even slavery.
Given that the science is still at a somewhat early stage, there has been little public discussion about the possible impacts of human enhancement on a practical level. But a new survey by Pew Research Center suggests wariness in the U.S. public about these emerging technologies. For example, 68% of Americans say they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about using gene editing on healthy babies to reduce the infants’ risk of serious diseases or medical conditions. And a majority of U.S. adults (66%) say they would “definitely” or “probably” not want to get a brain chip implant to improve their ability to process information.
And yet, perhaps ironically, enhancement continues to captivate the popular imagination. Many of the top-grossing films in recent years in the United States and around the world have centered on superheroes with extraordinary abilities, such as the X-Men, Captain America, Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Such films explore the promise and pitfalls of exceeding natural human limits.
HUMAN ENHANCEMENT IN POPULAR CULTURE
Not only is enhancement unquestionably part of today’s cultural zeitgeist, questions about humanity’s quest to move beyond natural limits go back to our earliest myths and stories. The ancient Greeks told of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, and Daedalus, the skilled craftsman, who made wings for himself and his son, Icarus. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the Hebrew Bible depicts a successful incident of human enhancement, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because the Serpent told them it would make them “like God.”
Of course, while Adam and Eve gained a new awareness and self-understanding, their actions also led to their expulsion from paradise and entry into a much harder world full of pain, shame and toil. This theme – that hidden dangers may lurk in something ostensibly good – runs through many literary accounts of enhancement. In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818), for instance, a scientist creates a new man, only to eventually die while trying to destroy his creation.
Whether these fears surrounding human enhancement are real or unfounded is a question already being debated by ethicists, scientists, theologians and others. This report looks at that debate, particularly in light of the diverse religious traditions represented in the United States. First, though, the report explains some of the scientific developments that might form the basis of an enhancement revolution.
Where does the science stand?