As scientific advancements progress, our ability to alter the human condition grows with it. But is this a good thing?
In recent years, a fast-growing cultural movement known as Transhumanism is attempting to use powerful new fields of science and technology to redesign our minds, our memories, our physiology, our offspring, and even perhaps our immortal souls. This so-called “postmodern man” began as a literary reference, but has since evolved into an iconic metaphor representing a collective image of perfected humanity beyond the confines of genetic constraints.
Also known, as the H+ movement, transhumanism started out as a worldview influenced by seminal works of science fiction, and has attracted many supporters and detractors from a wide range of perspectives, including philosophy and religion.
Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for genetic redesign. In leading laboratories, academic and industrial, new creators are amassing their powers and quietly honing their skills, while their (transhumanist) evangelists are zealously prophesying a post-human future.
What started with genetically modified crops then led to transgenic animals. It is now poised for application to humans according to the JASONs (the celebrated scientists on the U.S Pentagon’s most prestigious scientific advisory panel), the Brookings Institution (an influential and widely respected think tank in the world), and dozens of other government and public policy research institutions.
While such claims ring of science fiction, they are in fact grounded in scientific reality. For decades, laboratories have created chimeric combinations of animal, plant, and even human DNA through medical research.
Imagine a day, when true humans may receive transhuman instructions via an implant or injection. A seemingly innocuous vaccine or identification “chip” can initiate intracellular changes, not only in somatic or “body” cells, but also in germ-line cells such as ova and sperm. The former alters the recipient only; the latter alters the recipient’s descendants as well.
Germ-line genetic engineering has the potential to achieve the goals of the early eugenics movement (which sought to create superior humans by improving genetics through selective breeding.)
As a result, germ-line engineering is considered by some conservative bioethicists to be the most dangerous of human enhancement technology, as it has the power to truly reassemble the very nature of humanity into something posthuman, altering an embryo’s cellular makeup, and leading to inheritable modifications .
Debate over germ-line engineering is therefore most critical, because as changes to “downline” genetic offspring are set in motion, the nature and physical makeup of mankind will be altered with no hope of reversal.
DNA has become the darling of researchers who specialise in synthetic constructs. The “sticky-end” design of the DNA double-helix makes it ideal for use in computing. Although an infinite number of polyhedra are possible, the most robust and stable of these “building blocks” is called the double crossover (dx).
An intriguing name, is it not? The double-cross.
Picture an injectable chip comprised of DNA-dx, containing instructions for a super-soldier. Now picture how this DNA framework, if transcribed, might also serve a second, sinister, purpose—not only to instruct DNA, but also to alter DNA.
Mankind has come perilously far in its search for perfection through chemistry. Millennia passed with little progress beyond roots, herbs, and alchemical quests. Yet the twentieth century ushered science into the rosy dawn of breathless discovery. Electricity, air travel, wireless communication, and computing have all transformed the ponderous pace of the scientific method into a light speed race toward self-destruction.
By the mid-1950s, Watson and Crick had solved the structure of the DNA molecule and the double helix became all the rage. Early gene splicing, and thus transgenics, began in 1952 as a crude, cut-and-paste sort of science cooked up in kitchen blenders and Petri dishes— it was as much accident as it was an inspiration.
Vectors provide the means of transport and integration for this brave new science. Think of these vectors as biological trucks that carry genetic building materials and workers into your body’s cells. Such ‘trucks’ could be a microsyringe, a bacterium, or a virion. Any entity that can carry genetic information and then surreptitiously gain entry into the cell is a potential vector.
Viruses, for example, can be stripped of certain innate genes that might harm the cell. Not only does this (supposedly) render the viral delivery truck ‘harmless’, it also clears out space for the cargo.
A resulting hybrid cell is no longer purely human. A hybridised skin cell may now glow, or perhaps form scales rather than hair. Retina cells may encode for receptors that enable the “posthuman being” to perceive infrared or ultraviolet light frequencies.
Germ-line alterations, form a terrifying picture of generational development and may very well already be a reality. Genetic enhancement of sperm-producing cells would change human sperm into tiny infiltrators, and any fertilised ovum into a living chimera.
Science routinely conducts experiments with transgenic mice, rats, chickens, pigs, cows, horses, and many other species. It would be naïve to believe humans have been left out of this transgenic equation.
If so many scientists believe in the “promise” of genetic alteration and transgenic “enhancement,” how then can humanity remain human?
The definitions, scenarios, anticipated societal disruptions, and policy and law issues need to be considered en route to becoming post human.
Ultimately, we will need to rethink the very meaning of “ethics”, given the dawn of enhancement; leading us to the simple question of what it really means to be human, and how can we remain humane in the face of transhumanism.