Science

Wake Me Up When Men Get Pregnant

Biological transhumanism starts the 21st century on the wrong foot.

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“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”â€"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”â€"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 endâ€"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.

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  1. What these transhumanists share is a confidence that scientific progress will broaden the definition of humanity.

    To include what?

    1. We’ll let you know when you can be included.

  2. So why does the transhumanist movement tend to attract people who don’t express much interest in old-fashioned reproduction?

    Because so many of them look like they couldn’t find a mate without a fistfull of hundreds?

    1. +1. And you could see that coming a mile away.

    2. As a handsome childless-by-choice transhumanist with a really hot girlfriend, I have to say…well, nothing I guess.

      1. Anybody can be hot on the internet. Reality is different.

        Unless you are one of them that doesn’t attend meetings.

  3. Caption Contest!

    “Hey, remember me? I’m a character from one of the most overrated movies evah!”

    1. I’ve actually been in a room with Ridley Scott where he said about his own movie “I don’t know why people love that film so much”. Classic. He was kinda loaded at the time, too.

      1. I’ve heard so many references to it, then when I finally set aside 90 minutes of my precious time, I was like “what the shit is this?”

    2. Screw it, I love that movie. Snark away all you want. I even think it’s better than the book, which I virtually never think.

      In fact, I even like the original version. With the narration! Ha!

      1. I suppose that is another book I need to read and get the director’s cut of Split Second.

    3. What movie is that?

  4. even extending male life spans by removing the gonads

    What would be the point of living, then?

    1. Somehow, I didn’t get the impression that my first wife was trying to extend my life . . . .

      1. Thank you, thank you. Hold your applause. Mr Dean will be here until next Thursday.

      2. I think we had the same one. Perhaps different bodies and names but the same one.

  5. I think the reason that the creation of new human forms is less pursued than immortality is for the simple fact that unless you are immortal, you might be able to see the results of your work to adulthood two or three times, max.

    Capping off my telomeres is more important to me than if some guy can finally create hollow bones and big enough pectoral muscles after successive generations to produce a human that can fly under their own power.

    1. First the immortality, then the mutation!

  6. I like the headline.

    I am ashamed to admit that I had a brief “no shit, this is epic news” moment when I heard the “news” about “the world’s first pregnant man”. Then I realized dude, that’s a woman with a beard. Fuckers.

  7. Wake me up when I can be a consequence-free surrogate father.*

    I don’t understand what the appeal of being a eunuch could be . . . even if your life could be extended exponentially.

    *I’ve posted a link to this guy’s site before, but this post is particularly funny and somewhat content related to this H&R post.

    1. I don’t know if you’re the one that linked to that site before (like week before last), but if you are, thank you. That is one of the funniest sites I’ve seen in a looong time.

      1. Aaaand, now I’ve read your whole comment. Uh, thank you. That is one of the funniest sites I’ve seen in a loooong time.

        1. No problem. Happy to share.

  8. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    Gee Whiz! Have we as humanity not gone down this path before? Remember the “Master Race,” cleansing humanity of the “weak and feeble minded.” Either Cavanaugh needs an extensive history lesson or extensive psychotherapy. A relative of Darwin, Herbert Spencer, brought forth the concept of “Social Darwinism” which led to the idea of “survival of the fittest,” which was in no way equivalent to Charles Darwin’s findings.
    This led to the science of Eugenics and all the progressive intellectuals of the time praised this science as it would enhance the human gene pool and advance the human race through selective breeding. Several states in the US actually aplauded this theory and enacted forced serilization laws with the progressive state of California leading the way.
    This thinking gave allowance if not approval to the Nazis and there idea of cleansing the gene pool and eventualy led to one of the worst crimes ever committed by the human race, The Holocaust.
    Therefore this is a bad, bad, bad, idea. We are not God and we should never even try to play the role of God.
    After all, whom will be the one’s to determine whom are acceptable and whom are not, and what do you do with the unacceptable ones?

    PS You can easily research the concept of Eugenics during the early 20th century and discover these things yourself.

    1. And you-know-who was a vegetarian.

      Guess we should ban vegetarianism, too.

    2. Oh for fuck’s sake, this argument is such a tired, thinly-veiled “God made us this way, we shouldn’t change” religious argument. Go pray to your spirit in the sky and leave us to our mutation.

      1. Agreed. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Eugenics

    3. But we are getting closer to our own god-hood. Then, once we reach it, if “God” has anything to say, that cocksucker will have to register to vote, just like everyone else.

  9. I think the reason that the creation of new human forms is less pursued than immortality is for the simple fact that unless you are immortal, you might be able to see the results of your work to adulthood two or three times, max.

    Exactly. Once you’re immortal, you’ve got until the heat death of the universe to create bird-people or whatever else.

    1. I guess this is where I go a different way. It’s the same way I’m not for either side in the luddite-dynamist battles over whether gadgets are making the world better or worse.

      We need to accept the idea that the future will be wonderful and better in countless ways for the people living then but would almost certainly be distasteful for us were we around to see it. If you took a fully grown adult from 1710 and moved him to 2010, I suspect he would be very impressed with all the advances in human life, and also desperate to go home. And probably unmoved at the prospect of experiencing the post-industrial world until the age of 80 instead of 65.

      People change, and new people come along who are different from the old ones. That makes life wonderful.

      1. If you took a fully grown adult from 1710 and moved him to 2010, I suspect he would be very impressed with all the advances in human life, and also desperate to go home.

        I seriously doubt the latter, Tim. I don’t think very many people would give up such basics as regular meals and central heating, even if they didn’t think all of our luxuries were worth trading for whatever they are pining for from the “nasty, brutish, and short” days.

        1. Don’t forget indoor plumping ? and Reason Online – once our time traveller catches a glimpse of this site, they would definitely want to stick around

      2. What is is with you kids these days Tim and your static outlook on life?

        As soon as he OR she experienced air conditioning, regular hot baths and porn in July there would be no going back.

        Plus, a nice, cold, iced Coca-Cola? No way they are going back.

      3. “People change, and new people come along who are different from the old ones. That makes life wonderful.”

        Wow, you’re a fag.

  10. I think trans humanists are very naive. They rightly see the value in the freedom for people to be able to create and re-create themselves in new forms. What they fail to see or appreciate, is the flip side of that, which is people using the new technologies as an excuse to eliminate anyone who doesn’t meet up to standard.

    1. Properly motivated, I could kill you with a plastic spoon. That’s no reason to outlaw plastic spoons.

      They are overly optimistic, but I don’t think it’s in the manner you suggest. I think their naivete is thinking that the writhing mass of people will actually allow them to change themselves or their offspring.

      Eliminate a few diseases, fine. Create bird-people or 8 foot tall kids and the traditionalists will shit themselves. Conformity is a powerful impulse.

      1. I think they are wildly optimistic. We are programed to die. I am not buying that we can just make ourselves immortal in a few years. Maybe, but I doubt it. But we can damn sure use trying as an excuse to start offing people. Offing each other is pretty much what humans do.

        1. a few years, no. But it the big picture, if we manage to get practical physical immortality in the next 200 years, to me, that is pretty quickly.

    2. Yes, we’re seeing a revival of eugenic ideas. It probably won’t end well, not with all the bad philosophies out there.

    3. the flip side would be like the Twilight Zone episode The Number 12 Looks Like You.

  11. It probably won’t end well, not with all the bad philosophies out there.

    Obviously, the government needs to ban philosophies. You know, for The Children.

    1. I presume you regard socialism as a bad philosophy, yet you don’t want to ‘ban’ it, do you?

    2. I think a manadtory 7-day waiting period before establishing a new philosophy is sufficent.

      A philosophy will be defined as anything warranting one of those “…And Philosophy” books. Transformers. Twilight. Sopranos. Anything like that.

  12. ‘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]. 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.’

    I can only imagine how this ‘faction’ emerged.

    [Scene: A cafeteria next to a research laboratory. Some transhumanists are talking over lunch.]

    BOB: So, anyway, I went up to this chick at a bar and explained to her about the red and green paths, you know, the biological paths to transhumanism.

    CHUCK: Did you show her our diagrams?

    BOB: Yeah, and I wanted to show her the spreadsheet, too.

    DOUG: Did you get to the part about selective breeding between the most brilliant men and the hottest women in order to improve the species?

    BOB: I almost got to that part, but she got up and left.

    CHUCK: It’s settled, then: Biology is obviously a stupid way to do transhumanism, and we need to focus more on nanotechnology and A.I.

    DOUG: I agree, a much more promising path.

  13. 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.

    I get your point. OTOH I rather appreciate people who are willing to do something to themselves, as opposed to doing it to generations yet unborn.

  14. Sounds as if the author doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

    1. If I ever cancel my sub there’s a strong chance that “shitty quality of trolls” is what will be written on the request.

  15. I presume you regard socialism as a bad philosophy, yet you don’t want to ‘ban’ it, do you?

    Wait. I’m not sure how many layers of sarcasm we’ve got going on here, but it’s pretty deep.

    1. I wasn’t being sarcastic. If I was being sarcastic, I’d say, ‘gosh, you’ve summarized my views so accurately by saying I want to ban ideas! ?’

  16. I just want to know when I get my army of glow in the dark slave people.

  17. Just wait until these transhumanists get a face full of my doomsday machine (c.2020). They’re gonna feel like idiots for wasting their time.

    1. And from now on, I want you to call me Loretta.

  18. If I was being sarcastic, I’d say, ‘gosh, you’ve summarized my views so accurately by saying I want to ban ideas!

    Ah. See, i was playing a For The Children off of your comment about bad philosophies, which i assumed you meant lightly. I was not accusing you of being the modern-day Inquisition or anything.

    1. My bad – I didn’t get *your* sarcasm.

      Using a sarcasm symbol would help matters – and that’s *not* sarcastic. At first, I used the symbol as kind of a gag, but now I’ve realized that it helps the reader.

  19. In fact, not only do I believe bad philosophies exist and do harm, there’s probably at least some overlap between the philosophies I deem bad and those you deem bad. But I don’t want to exaggerate our agreement.

  20. So why does the transhumanist movement tend to attract people who don’t express much interest in old-fashioned reproduction?

    Oh, it attracts people who are interested in reproduction — but then they fail to interest anyone in joining them in that endeavor.

    1. ‘So why does the transhumanist movement tend to attract people who don’t express much interest in old-fashioned reproduction?’
      Why does the conservative, laissez faire economics movement attract so many white guys who don’t express much interest in old fashioned reproduction, ie: sex with women?

  21. 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.

    I don’t know whether Tim is trying to say that the world of Gattaca displays conformity or whether he is suggesting that conformity is the theme of the movie. If he is saying the latter, I have to disagree with him. Gattaca was about human will triumphing in a society in which people are strictly, if not formally, classified based solely on their genetic potential.

    One of the best movies ever made about a near future of genetic engineering, by-the-way.

  22. I think transhumanism would be more desirable if we had more freedom. living to be 1,000 years old in a libertarian society may be desirable, while living in a socialist society may not be worth extending life for.

    1. Please baby, make us both immortal so we can spend eternity together.

  23. Here is a relevant article posted by Tyler Cowen:

    Scrapheap Transhumanism
    http://hplusmagazine.com/artic…..nshumanism

  24. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. However, for a excellent sci-fi book that argues your point, folks should check out James Blish’s “The Seedling Stars”. The book is a collection of short stories published in the early 50’s, published together in 1957 (when we first really got our brains around the concept DNA). The book argues that we will not colonize other worlds by modifying them, but by modifying ourselves to adapt to their enviroment.

    “The Seedling Stars”, James Blish, 1957, published by Signet Book in arrangement with Gnome Press, First Printing 1959.

  25. I’m shocked that neither Tim nor the commenters have mentioned Bruce Sterling’s Mech/Shaper wars stories, later compiled in Schismatrix. It’s exactly about the two paths to enhancement and how they conflict and later synthesize.

  26. “We need to accept the idea that the future will be wonderful and better in countless ways for the people living then but would almost certainly be distasteful for us were we around to see it. If you took a fully grown adult from 1710 and moved him to 2010, I suspect he would be very impressed with all the advances in human life, and also desperate to go home.”

    Only a moron would want to go back home in time if immortality was available in the now. If someone transported me to 2100, I’d be happy. Yes, the world would be different, but I would do my best to adapt.

    “People change, and new people come along who are different from the old ones. That makes life wonderful.”

    People can change without dying, and new people can come along even if our bodies are immortal. Dying is not what makes life wonderful, Tim.

  27. We can achieve immortality right now. Just rescind the rule against perpetuities. Property rights are far more important than living extra years.

  28. Does this mean my blowup girl friend will finally be able to talk?

  29. nah, they like cybernetics and ai because it’s so much more egalatarian. “we have a chip that can make ANYONE glow in the dark” The old fshioned selective breeding thing only works if you have really good genes… kind of like Bergeron in reverse. Dunno that it’s a good or bad thing, although all of this stuff tends to end poorly when thinking with logic about how human beings would use it. You have to assume that potential downsides will always exist, no? And that they would be catostrophic in nature…

    as for the ones that have an aversion to natural reproduction…

    so we’re saying that getting some of these people some sack time will solve the whole dilema? That’s gotta be cheaper than AI implants. At least until the part where you have to interact mentally with the other person, right?

  30. I agree with much of what Cavanaugh says here. However, I disagree with his notion that cryonics and curing aging is a part of tranhumanism. Cryonics is an experimental medical technology, nothing less and nothing more. More specifically, cryonics is “medical time travel”, a means to get a patient to a future time such that a medical condition that is incurable at the current time may be curable at some point in the future.

    Same with what some call “radical” life extension. Aging is a disease, plain and simple. Curing aging is no more a part of transhumanism than, say, curing cancer or diabetes. For every self-described transhumanist, there are probably a hundred of us who are interested in and seek a cure for aging.

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  33. Good article.
    For inheritable useful traits, read Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” and other works concerning the Howard Families and Lazarus Long.

  34. Biological transhumanism. what the hell is going on guys. This is really strange blog.

  35. I don’t believe this is healthy practice.If this happened it would not bring any good sense in human era.

  36. I mean, er, awesome thoughts, Liz – I need some time to think about this!

  37. Intelligence agents arrested the president of Venezuela’s only remaining independent television station on Thursday, leading to concerns that freedom of speech …

  38. Intelligence agents arrested the president of Venezuela’s only remaining independent television station on Thursday, leading to concerns that freedom of speech …

  39. This article is old, but I find it hilarious that the Google Ad showing up on this article at the moment is a body make-up that specifically mentions covering up tattoos as part of its purpose. It also mentions stretch marks and varicose veins, but the picture shown is of someone covering up an arm tattoo with make-up.

  40. As a man, I am really glad I don’t have to experience the 9 months of pregnancy that women go through. Wake me up from my nightmare if that ever happens, lol.

  41. I think that my husband should feel what pregnancy feels like, then maybe he would appreciate the complaints I make.

  42. Maybe if men could really get pregnant,they would think know why we women have so many headaches.

  43. When my wife first fell pregnant we decided to get online and try to research as much as possible so we knew what was going to happen. There were plenty of decent sources of information, however if you are in australia we don’t think anything can compete with bubhub for the sheer amount of information all in one place.

  44. Out all the crazy / great stuff nanotechnology can achieve in the future, having men pregnant somehow does not seem like the most urgent need.

  45. Out of great things nanotechnology could do in the future, having the men pregnant somehow does not seem like the most urgent need.

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  51. Not so sure Moore’s law in genetics is something that would stop develoments. Nanobots would be able to repair or build the code in less than 20 – 30 years is MHO.

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  53. You may have not intended to do so, but I think you have managed to express the state of mind that a lot of people are in. The sense of wanting to help, but not knowing how or where, is something a lot of us are going through.

  54. 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.

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