Humans have passed their expiry date
Presently, only a tiny fraction of these new opportunities have been realized. Yet the world of 2013 is already a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology. Our ability to engineer not merely the world around us, but above all the world inside our bodies and minds, is developing at breakneck speed. More and more spheres of activity are being shaken out of their complacent ways. Lawyers need to rethink issues of privacy and identity; governments are faced with rethinking matters of healthcare and equality; sports associations and educational institutions need to redefine fair play and achievement; pension funds and labor markets should readjust to a world in which 60 might be the new 30. They must all deal with the conundrums of bio-engineering, cyborgs, and inorganic life.
Mapping the first human genome required 15 years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars. The era of personalized medicine —medicine that matches treatment to DNA – has begun. The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn’t worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 percent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us.
However, with improvements in medical knowledge will come new ethical conundrums. Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA. Would insurance companies be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover a genetic tendency to reckless behavior? Would we be required to fax our DNA, rather than our CV, to potential employers? Could an employer favor a candidate because his DNA looks better? Or could we sue in such cases for “genetic discrimination?” Could a company that develops a new creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences? It is obvious that one can own a particular chicken, but can one own an entire species?
Such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, social, and political implications of the Gilgamesh Project and of our potential new abilities to create superhumans. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, government medical programs throughout the world, national health insurance programs, and national constitutions worldwide recognize that a humane society ought to give all its members fair medical treatment and keep them in relatively good health. That was all well and good as long as medicine was chiefly concerned with preventing illness and healing the sick. What might happen once medicine becomes preoccupied with enhancing human abilities? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities, or would there be a new superhuman elite?
Our late modern world prides itself on recognizing, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies. Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger, and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves. A baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince. With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality.
This is not science fiction. Most science fiction plots describe a world in which Sapiens-identical to us-enjoy superior technology such as light-speed spaceships and laser guns. The ethical and political dilemmas central to these plots are taken from our own world, and they merely recreate our emotional and social tensions against a futuristic backdrop. Yet the real potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our emotions and desires, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. What is a spaceship compared to an eternally-young cyborg who does not breed and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine?
Science fiction rarely describes such a future, because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible. Producing a film about the life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of Neanderthals. Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us, than we are from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike.
Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed “before” the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world— me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us.
The Frankenstein Prophecy
In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who creates an artificial being that goes out of control and wreaks havoc. In the last two centuries, the same story has been told over and over again in countless versions. It has become a central pillar of our new scientific mythology. At first sight, the Frankenstein story appears to warn us that if we try to play God and engineer life we will be punished severely. Yet the story has a deeper meaning.
The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds. This is something most Sapiens find extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own.
We somehow find comfort in the idea that Dr. Frankenstein created a terrible monster, whom we had to destroy in order to save ourselves. We like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all beings, that there never was and never will be something better than us. Any attempt to improve us will inevitably fail, because even if our bodies might be improved, you cannot touch the human spirit.
We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr. Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals.
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We cannot be certain whether today’s Frankensteins will indeed fulfill this prophecy. The future is unknown, and it would be surprising if the forecasts of the last few pages were realized in full. History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialize due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940s, many forecasts were made about the future nuclear world of the year 2000. When sputnik and Apollo 11 fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet.
So don’t go out just yet to buy liability insurance to indemnify you against lawsuits filed by digital beings. The above fantasies—or nightmares—are just stimulants for your imagination. What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term “human” into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. As already mentioned, some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia?
If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: What do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars, and ordinary people. After all, today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations, and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens. If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organization could be communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.
And yet the great debates of history are important because at least the first generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their human designers. Would they be created in the image of capitalism, of Islam, or of feminism? The answer to this question might send them careening in entirely different directions.
Most people prefer not to think about it. Even the field of bioethics prefers to address another question, “What is it forbidden to do?” Is it acceptable to make genetic experiments on living human beings? On aborted fetuses? On stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep? And chimpanzees? And what about humans? All of these are important questions, but it is naïve to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes and stop the scientific projects that are upgrading Homo sapiens into a different kind of being. For these projects are inextricably meshed together with the quest for immortality—the Gilgamesh Project. Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr. Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr. Frankenstein.
The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction they are taking. Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become’, but “What do we want to want?” Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.