“Gene therapy has had a tough decade, because of poor safety outcomes,” says Ramez Naam, a nanotechnology researcher, winner of the H.G. Wells Award for Contributions to Transhumanism, and author of the 2005 book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. Naam is referring to the case of Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old suffering from an inherited liver disorder who died in 1999 when an experimental genetic treatment by University of Pennsylvania researchers caused a traumatic immune reaction. But he could just as well be describing the entire field of organic human enhancement.
These days transhumanists talk a lot about subcutaneous data ports, permanent immersion in virtual reality, even extending male life spans by removing the gonads. But they spend noticeably little time considering enhancement through inheritable, rather than mechanical, means. “I don’t know why biological stuff is off the plate,” says Greg Fahy, chief scientific officer at Twenty-First Century Medicine Inc. “It’s just not the flavor of the day.”
Human enhancement enthusiasts sing of a future, or a present, in which human beings have escaped all manner of physical limitation. They engage in deep conversations about the real-world ethics of creating superbeings, about ending suffering by “redesigning the hedonic treadmill.” Some used to wear Borg headgear, but cameras and other wearable devices have gotten small enough to be unnoticeable. Transhumanists subdivide into categories whose distinctions are not clear to the nonenhanced eye: extropians (who believe self-directed people can reverse the tendency of systems toward disorder), abolitionists (who say human suffering can be radically reduced if not eliminated), cryonicists (who want to have their bodies frozen for future resurrection), immortalists (self- explanatory), and many others.
What these transhumanists share is a confidence that scientific progress will broaden the definition of humanity. We’ll live well beyond the biblical average of threescore and ten. We’ll do something more interesting with our long lives than the Sphinx’s description of walking on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at dusk. I would say the transhumanists envision dandling great-great-great-great-grandchildren on their still-supple knees, but the movement tends to draw people who don’t express much interest in old-fashioned reproduction.
That’s where I part ways with the transhumanists. I’ve always been less excited about what human enhancement can do for me than about what it can do for the future: manipulation of human genetic material to produce lasting, reproducible new breeds of people.
This idea has the added benefit of being plausible: Unlike airy notions of frozen brains or cyborg implants, biological enhancement has thousands of years of history behind it, in the form of agricultural hybridization and animal husbandry. As Charles Darwin noted in On the Origin of Species: “The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to have made for himself useful breeds.”
"Gene splicing”—a phrase that was popular back when I was in school and Blade Runner replicant Rutger Hauer was informing skeptics, “We’re not computers; we’re physical”—would seem to have sweetened Darwin’s deal. But it hasn’t. In the last decade we’ve seen ever-higher orders of cloned animals. We’ve seen puppies and marmosets that glow thanks to implanted and inherited jellyfish DNA. Yet nobody is excited about the idea of humans with wings or extra fingers. Mainstream media outlets report constantly about “building designer babies,” but when you read the actual articles they’re just talking about improvements in surrogacy.
Genetic enhancement has never gotten much love in popular culture. Visions cluster around the premise (typified by the 1997 movie Gattaca) that mastering genes will lead to conformity rather than variety. This is an absurd notion. Darwin again: “As variations manifestly useful or pleasing to man appear only occasionally, the chance of their appearance will be much increased by a large number of individuals being kept.”
Anyway, transhumanists are largely impervious to scare tactics. So why isn’t there more energy around biological enhancement? “There is a rift, which may be growing, between those who favor the gray path [nanotechnology and mechanical enhancement] and those who favor the red or green path [biological],” says James Hughes, a Trinity College bioethicist and author of the 2004 book Citizen Cyborg. “There is a faction that says biology is a dumb way to do these things, that we need nanotechnology and A.I. to figure it out for us. The future is a lot more chaotic than when I became a transhumanist.”
Is chaos necessarily bad? I regret that I won’t get the chance to enhance my own inheritable code, and I still entertain visions of my kids as the Three Chinese Sisters, with more useful traits: a superstrong one, a superintelligent one, and one who can fly. But even this fond fantasy rests on the idea of letting new types exist and seeing what happens, not on guaranteeing outcomes through artificial intelligence or, worse, the kind of national conversations you see in presidential bioethics panels.
There is grandeur in the view that genetic enhancement will produce outcomes that can’t be modeled by Bayesian optimization. Better machines and longevity treatments have the attention of the human enhancement community now, but the real fun, and the real mystery, will be found in creating varieties of people, who in turn will have concerns and beliefs and bodies that differ radically from our own. Will all those differences be attractive or adaptive? The beauty of evolution is that we can’t know the end—but we can get more skillful in crafting our part of the beginning. “Biology is now an information mode,” says Naam. “So in the next 10 or 20 years you could start to see something like Moore’s law in genetics. Our most important tool is the computer.”
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (simpleton.com) is a writer in Los Angeles.