Is the future of humanity transhumanism?

This article first appeared in issue 5 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.

Transhumanism offers humans one of the loftiest goals ever proposed: through science and technology, we possess the power to enhance our senses, eliminate our biological weaknesses, fuse minds with computers, and transform our fleshy bodies to the point of perfecting that we become something that is beyond the human – maybe something almost godlike. Nietzsche would have a great day.

It’s been the stuff of science fiction for decades, but we’re fast approaching a point where many of those futuristic dreams could become a reality: CRISPR has made gene editing easier than ever; the gap between the human brain and computers is closing; Robotics has never been better; our understanding of biological aging continues to grow.

The real question, however, is should we embark on such a daring plan?

Transhumanism represents an optimistic vision of the future in which humans can improve themselves through the radical extension of human lifespan, the eradication of disease, and the elimination of pain.

Do you want to run like Usain Bolt? This is nothing that gene editing and robotics can’t do. Would you like to own one of the greatest minds in history? Perhaps a computer-brain interface would achieve that.

It’s a nebulous term that often leans on the hypothetical, drawing on all sorts of scientific fields from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to biotechnology and space exploration. One discipline that transhumanism touches on frequently—and from which it arguably even arose—is genetics.

The dark beginnings of becoming beyond the human

The term transhumanism (“trans” comes from the Latin word for “across,” “across,” or “beyond”) was first coined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a giant of Victorian science who became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his passionate advocacy of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Julian’s brother and close confidant was Aldous Huxley, author of Beautiful new worlda novel that vividly illustrates a future world where the totems of science, technology, and efficiency have forged a grim dystopia.

Julian first wrote the term in the 1950s, but issues that would today be considered transhumanist had entered his mind well before World War II. He believed that humanity had seemingly unlimited potential, but was held back by intrinsic weaknesses woven into our nature. Like any other animal on this planet, we can grow ignorant, weak, and old.

He believed it was the duty of scientific progress to break free of these chains and attain the “fullest realization of man’s possibilities”. From his point of view, the scientific developments of modernity have made man the “managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution” – and it is an opportunity that harbors enormous possibilities.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of geographically exploring the Earth; we have advanced the scientific study of nature, both inanimate and animate, to a point where its basic features have become clear; but the exploration of human nature and its possibilities has scarcely begun. A vast new world full of unexplored possibilities awaits his Columbus,” he wrote in 1957.

Huxley thought the early stages of this could be achieved through education and social enrichment. However, like many “great minds” of the 19th and 20th centuries, he became increasingly interested in eugenics; the idea that the genetic quality of the human population could be improved by removing unwanted variants from the gene pool.

From 1959 to 1962 he was President of the British Eugenics Society. Comparing how farmers bred their animals to promote certain traits, such as meaty thighs, Huxley would ask why the same cannot be achieved in human animals. Although he was strongly opposed to the eradication of those deemed unfit, he believed that one way to achieve a strong population was to encourage people from the “professional middle class” to have children.

In his opinion, it would be possible to raise the caliber of the human population to a higher level through social engineering. Just as chickens are bred for larger breasts, society could create a tribe of humans until they become superhuman.

Beyond the scientific and medical issues, it opened a Pandora’s box of ethical and moral issues.

Huxley’s imagination was somewhat limited by the scientific understanding of his time. When Huxley wrote about transhumanism in the 1950s, the three-dimensional structure of DNA had only just been identified, and it would be another two decades before scientists seriously toyed with the idea of ​​genetic engineering.

However, with today’s technology, it might be possible to go further down the path started by Huxley.

Is the dream of transhumanism already a reality?

Through human germline engineering, it is possible to alter a people’s DNA in such a way that the alteration is a fundamental part of their genome and is even passed on to their children.

The legality of human germline engineering varies around the world. While it is outright banned in the European Union, it is only banned in the United States with the use of federal funds. This is before you even consider the minefield of ethical and moral dilemmas surrounding this achievement.

Subscribe to our newsletter and get every issue of CURIOUS delivered to your inbox for free each month.

Yet there are claims that this has already become a reality. In November 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui claimed he created the first human-genetically modified babies, Lulu and Nana.

Using CRISPR, he edited the twins’ genomes when they were embryos and provided them with genetic protection against HIV by targeting one gene. CCR5, which encodes a protein that the virus uses to hijack cells. The babies effectively had superhuman protection against a disease that killed tens of millions.

The incident caused outrage and shock around the world. He has been portrayed in the media as a mad, renegade scientist, and countless scientists have claimed this behavior is reckless, deeply unethical, and even criminal.

Even in a world where genetic editing is productive, could it make the world less accepting of people who are different?

Much of this was based on the unanswered scientific questions surrounding the affair. This is new territory, and there’s really no telling how germline engineering of embryos might impact their overall health and well-being, let alone generations later. Beyond the scientific and medical issues, it opened a Pandora’s box of ethical and moral issues.

Beautiful new world

While few would argue that genetic protection against HIV is a bad thing, how do we make these “good” and “bad” distinctions when it comes to using this technology? Which human characteristics are “normal” and which can be considered a handicap or a disorder? Even if the world agrees on these distinctions, what keeps us from meddling in other traits like intelligence, good looks, or athletic ability?

Then there is the question of how this technology will be disseminated. In the short term, at least, only the privileged, the wealthy, and those born in the right spots on earth are likely to enjoy the fruits of this development. Even in a world where genetic editing is productive, could it make the world less accepting of people who are different?

All of these questions are essentially why eugenics is so frowned upon today. In the second half of the 20th century, eugenics was widely considered immoral and unethical, much less scientifically wrong. So much so that anyone flirting with transhumanist ideas would no doubt argue vehemently that the movement is very different from eugenics. After all, transhumanism encompasses not only genetics, but also AI, computer science, robotics, neuroscience, biomedicine and all sorts of future-oriented fields of science.

Going forward, it is certainly possible to use any scientific advance to maximize public health and happiness while minimizing inequality and suffering. If this goes far enough, perhaps at some point we could consider our species distinct from species homo sapiens who created cave paintings and hunted mammoths.

However, these technologies do not exist in a vacuum and, whenever deployed, will remain closely intertwined with the societal norms of the time. If this is a journey we are willing to embark upon, we must tiptoe cautiously.

CURIOUS Magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience with interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts and much more. Issue 8 is out now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *