Making Us Better

Tom Easton

Not long after the first baby steps toward genetic engineering were taken in the early 1970s, critics such as Andrew Kimbrell tried to jump down the field’s throat. In his book, The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), he said the development of genetic engineering was so marked by scandal, ambition, and moral blindness that society should be deeply suspicious of its purported benefits.

Of course, that did not stop progress.  Almost instantly, the gengineers were making bacteria and yeast produce drugs such as insulin and growth hormone with zero risk of contamination by prions such as those that cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob and Mad Cow disease. Then came gengineered crops with added bacterial or other genes to make them toxic to insects (but not to us) or resistant to herbicides and various diseases.[1] Most recently, a Chinese researcher has stirred controversy by engineering two babies to lack a gene that helps the AIDS virus (HIV) infect cells; the modification may also have made the babes smarter.[2]

Now we’re getting into Body Shop territory. If you could gengineer for smarts, how many parents would sign up? What else would they sign up for? Lack of cancer susceptibility genes such as BRCA?[3] Lack of other disease susceptibility genes (heart, autism,…)? Stronger immune system? Immunity to tuberculosis or flu? Physical attractiveness? Height? Strength? Better vision or hearing? Creativity or talent in some area? All the above? The list is long, though we have no clue as to the genes we might engineer for some traits, even when we know that, for instance, a talent for pastry making or singing or acting might run in the family.

How about redesigning the body? A prehensile tail might be handy for holding car keys while trying to open a door. It would also let one get up to monkey business under the table. The ability to regrow lost body parts would be a boon to a soldier or a motorcyclist. Photosynthetic skin would save money on lunch breaks.  Many folks would love spinal disks that don’t rupture, joints that last longer, or even just the ability to burn more calories faster.[4]

And it’s not just genes. Researchers are already testing brain implants to restore the ability to move to quadriplegics[5] and even to turn brain waves into speech.[6] On the input side, one implant under development promises to help the blind see.[7] There are also auditory brainstem implants.[8] Add memory boosters,[9] and you’re awfully close to being able to construct a whole internal PC.  And then there are even implantable chips to help restore brain functions lost to concussions or Alzheimer’s Disease.[10]

The very idea of changing the human body, whether with gengineering or with brain implants, horrifies many people. They fear that such changes will make us no longer human. Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard humanities professor, argues that our biological flaws are an essential part of what makes us human.[11] He says, “there is a huge gap between, say, repairing spinal cord injuries by implanting electrodes in the brain and implanting an intelligence-enhancing AI chip… The one restores an injured human to full mobility; the other alters the very nature of the human, at least as it has been conceived for millennia across a substantial part of the globe.”

Is “the way it was” somehow holy? Greenblatt seems to think so, but others have a very different attitude. There is in fact a movement known as transhumanism that “promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology” (see the Humanity+ site at  The tools are gengineering and computer implants, and the goal is to eliminate aging, disease, and suffering.  The transhumanist vision extends to “post-humanism,” when what human beings become will make present-day humans look like chimpanzees by comparison.[12] 

Transhumanists scare the socks off the traditionalists. Francis Fukuyama,[13]  has called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea.” He has a point, for if the various improvements are available only to the rich, there is a likelihood of creating a new upper class, a la GATTACA. For this reason, Maxwell J. Mehlman[14] has argued that the day of routine enhancements is coming and there is no real hope of banning the technology. Therefore, it must be regulated and even subsidized to ensure that it does not create an unfair society.

Whether we ensure that everyone has access to this technology or not, there will be a need to learn how to live with it. Prehensile tails, for instance, will require a whole new chapter in etiquette books.[15] A brain chip with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth opens up a whole new category of privacy concerns: If a chip can translate brain waves to speech or text, a hacker from the CIA, NSA, FBI, local law enforcement, a foreign intelligence agency, or a merchant could listen to your thoughts.[16] If it can go the other way—and it will have to, since one-way Wi-Fi isn’t much use–they may be able to control—or at least influence—your thoughts. You can bet that high-security jobs will ban these chips. Politicians won’t want them either, since the news media would love nothing better than access to a President’s very thoughts. It would be even better than his tweets!

A Wi-Fi-connected computer in your skull would change other things as well. School exams would no longer be able to test memory (Google is a wonderful extra memory bank, and you can look up everything ahead of time in case the teacher blocks your Wi-Fi—see next paragraph). Reading could become a lost art as books are copied directly to your memory. Mobile phones and tablets would go the way of the buggywhip. And more.

If the chip is inside your head, you may not be able to turn it off. But electromagnetic waves (radio, or Wi-Fi) can be blocked by Faraday cages, and one UK bar owner built one to keep customers from using their cell phones.[17] Tinfoil hats (get yours here![18]) may become obligatory fashion accessories instead of the favorite method for crackpots to keep aliens out of their heads. Perhaps unfortunately, if politicians wore this sort of haberdashery, that would only confirm the condition of their crockery.

Gengineering and implants are only the beginning. Transhumanists tend to look forward to the day when computers have enough memory to hold a human mind, and of course to the ability to copy a mind into the computer. Ray Kurzweil[19] and other futurists have been predicting we will be able to do this by around mid-century, but it may take longer, although there is already a startup.[20] If this happens, there is virtually no limit to what your body could look like. If you’re in the computer, you can be installed in a robot, a truck, a cruise liner, a spaceship… Why use an Artificial Intelligence when you can have a Real Intelligence?

Oh… Wait… One of my earlier essays said we might actually be Artificial Intelligences. If that’s so, it should make uploading minds a lot easier to achieve.

The transhumanist future sounds rather exciting, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t? Sorry. As Mehlman says, it looks inevitable. If you don’t embrace it, your kids will, just as you have embraced massive changes since your parents’ and grandparents’ time.[21]












[12] Not that there’s anything wrong with being a chimp. Just ask one.

[13] “Transhumanism,” Foreign Policy (September/October 2004).

[14] “Biomedical Enhancements: Entering a New Era,” Issues in Science and Technology (Spring 2009).  See also Mehlman’s book, Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).


[16] FaceBook has made us used to that already.





[21] I still have trouble with streaming. You are not supposed to be able to pause a live TV show!

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