TCS Daily

More Than Human?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 6, 2003 12:00 AM

My four-year-old nephew wants to be a superhero. It was Superman for a while, then Spiderman. (A brief interlude of enthusiasm for being The Incredible Hulk didn't survive the lameness of the film, apparently.)


Most of us outgrow those sorts of things, and even he, at four, is on the way to doing so -- he's stopped wearing the cape, and the "webhands" don't get the use they did. But in a way, who wouldn't want to be a superhero of some sort? It's not so much the cape, or the crime-fighting, that lies behind this sort of sentiment. It's the way that superheroes don't have to deal with the limitations that face the rest of us. It's easy to see why kids, whose everyday limitations place them in a position that is obviously inferior to that of adults, would be so excited about super powers. But even adults face limitations we don't like: limitations of speed, strength, wind, and -- especially -- vulnerability. The idea of being able to do better seems pretty attractive sometimes, to most of us, even if we don't fantasize about being members of the Justice League any more.


Will ordinary people have better-than-human powers one day? It's starting to look possible, more or less, and some people are talking about the consequences. This article in the Washington Post makes the superhero angle explicit:


Throughout the cohort of yesterday's superheroes -- Wonder Woman, Spiderman, even The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men -- one sees the outlines of technologies that today either exist, or are now in engineering. The Green Lantern has a ring that can create any physical object out of little but his imagination and an energy source. (He has a nanotech assembler.) Superman has telescopic and X-ray vision. (Current military technology from Predators to cave pingers.) In the 1930s and 1940s, the powers of these superheroes were fantasies. Today, we are entering a world in which such abilities are either yesterday's news or tomorrow's headlines. Nobody even blinks when Olympic committees worry about "gene doping" in the 2008 China games -- a biotechnology that today, in mice, produces creatures that are astonishing to look at. Some genetically engineered mice have had their muscle mass increased by as much as 300 percent. What's more, the ability to create this magic is accelerating.


Yes, it is. The likely consequences are substantial. Running as fast as light, a la The Flash might be out of the question, and webslinging is unlikely to catch on regardless of technology. (The dating potential promised by The Elongated Man's powers, however, may produce enough of a market . . . .) Regardless, transcending human limitations is part of what science and medicine are about. We're already doing that in crude fashion, with steroids, human growth hormone and artificial knees. More sophisticated stuff, like cochlear implants, is already available. And far better is on the way.


Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I'd be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface. (Actually, that's already prefigured a bit in ordinary life, too, as things like Google and wi-fi give us access to a degree of knowledge that would have seemed almost spooky not long ago, but that everyone takes for granted now). And I'd certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging. But these ideas threaten some people, who feel that our physical and intellectual limitations are what make us human.


I don't know whether I believe this. Which limitations, exactly? Would humanity no longer be human if AIDS ceased to exist? What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Was Einstein less human? If not, then why would humanity be less human if everyone were that smart? It may be true, as Dirty Harry said, that "A man's got to know his limitations." But does that mean that a man is his limitations? Some people think so, but I'm not so sure. Others think that overcoming limitations is what's central to being human. I have to say that find that approach more persuasive.


These topics (well, probably not the Irritable Bowel Syndrome) were the subject of a conference at Yale on transhumanism and ethics. The conference was the subject of a  rather good article in The Village Voice, which reports that many in the pro-transhumanist community expect to encounter considerable opposition from Luddites -- and, judging by the works of anti-technologists like Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben, that's probably true.


I suspect, however, that although opposition to human enhancement will produce some cushy foundation grants and book contracts, it's unlikely to carry a lot of weight in the real world. Being human is hard, and people have wanted to be better for, well, as long as there have been people. For millennia, various peddlers of the supernatural offered answers to that longing, from spells and potions in the here-and-now to promises of reward in the next world. Soon they're going to face competition from science -- and though they probably won't give up without a fight, their very success in years past suggests that the demand for human improvement is high enough to overcome any barriers they may try to create.


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