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Shall we enhance?

Transhumanism says we're a species in flux

Jessica Berry, Deseret Morning News

Stupidity and sadness, cancer and bad golf scores. In the world according to transhumanism, these and other human frailties will eventually go the way of scurvy. Also on the horizon: immortality.

The possibilities are either tantalizing or terrifying, depending on your point of view. Transhumanists embrace a future in which everyone has the right to live a life beyond current biological limitations. Their detractors argue that all these radical enhancements will make us less human.

That depends on what you mean by "human," say transhumanists, whose very name suggests a species in flux.

As the World Transhumanist Association notes on its Web site, transhumanism is based on the premise that "the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase." Eventually, say transhumanists, we may indeed become "posthuman" — such an amalgamation of nanotechnology and neuropharmaceuticals, so changed by our interface with microchips and nanorobots, so much smarter, happier and healthier, that we hardly would be recognizable to early 21st century eyes.

It's science fiction based on science fact, a trajectory that begins with emerging technologies like cyberkinetic chips and gene therapy, says James Hughes, president of the World Transhumanist Association and author of "Citizen Cyborg." Actually, says Hughes, that trajectory began as soon as our Paleolithic ancestors started taking care of everyone who was toothless, a point at which we first transcended natural selection, he says. We have relied on technologies of one sort or another for millennia — from eye glasses to antibiotics — to continually make ourselves better than we naturally are.

But where do we draw the line? Or should we draw a line at all?

How smart should we be allowed to be? How tall? How happy? If we can make depressed people less depressed, should we make happy people more happy? If we can make our children healthier and smarter, if we can eliminate much of the suffering in the world through technology, do we have a moral responsibility to do so? Or do we have a moral responsibility to speak out against it?

These questions and hundreds of others will face humanity in the decades to come. There will likely come a time in the not-so-distant future when we will look back on simpler issues — steroid use by baseball players, for example — with a certain nostalgia for simpler times.

Jeremy Jones, a University of Utah senior majoring in philosophy, is writing his honors thesis on the fuzzy distinction between treatment and enhancement. A treatment, for example, would be a drug to help Alzheimer's patients improve their failing memories. "Of course we would say 'Let's let Grandpa use it, to bring him back so he can be a functioning part of society,' " Jones says.

But what if the same drug could help a college student, as Jones says, "catch an edge"? At what point is the drug the mental equivalent of muscle-building steroids? "These conditions exist on a continuum," he says. "That's why it's so hard to draw the line."

The same dilemma will exist when we figure out how to give people a genetic tweak so they won't ever get dementia," says "Citizen Cyborg" author Hughes. On the one hand, it's a medical therapy. On the other, it's a way of fiddling with the natural aging process.

"Bio-Luddites" is what Hughes calls people who want to ban the technologies and drugs that would help humans live beyond their current potential. "There are people who are mobilizing to ban these technologies; we would do well not to underestimate them," says Hughes, who also teaches health policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

"Bioconservatives are very attached to four score and six, and the IQ, as definitions of what it means to be human," he says. "But what it means to be human is to push all those boundaries." Just look how far we've come from our agricultural ancestors, who "were flea-bitten and had short lives," he adds.

Critics of pushing boundaries come from both the political right and left, he says, pointing to conservatives such as Francis Fukuyama of the President's Council on Bioethics (which in 2003 published a critical report called "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness") and liberal activists such as Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's R. Albert Mohler Jr. is another vocal opponent of radical enhancements. It's one thing, he says, to try to give a person with bad eyesight 20/20 vision, and it's another to try to create humans whose eyesight is superhuman. The latter, he says, uses science "to redefine the species."

"From a Christian worldview perspective," he says, "there are two problems with this. First, you have the normative definition of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God." To try to exceed normal human capacities, he says, "is to open, quite literally, a Pandora's Box of moral problems."

The second problem, Mohler says, is the transhumanist desire to prolong life beyond normal aging. "The tranhumanists increasingly see death as an oddity that is to be overcome. Christians certainly do not embrace death as a good in itself, but we understand that death is a part of what it means to be human, and that, indeed, the effort to forever forestall death is itself an act of defiance that will be both unworkable and morally suspect."

Richard Sherlock takes a different view. Sherlock is a philosophy professor at Utah State University, one of only several Utah members of the World Transhumanist Association — and also a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We ought to be able to look at the future as an opportunity, not a threat," says Sherlock, who is also a board member of the Journal of Evolution and Technology. "I don't think you can say God has said 'this, but no more.' All these technologies are ways in which we become more like our Creator," he adds. In fact, he says, the idea of a continually advancing human "fits better within a Mormon context that sees humanity as a developing structure, aspiring to be more like God."

Not that technology doesn't present potential challenges, he says. But "we can't put our head in the sand and hope they go away. They need careful thought in light of the moral and religious traditions of the West."

"The really important question that transhumanists themselves worry about," he adds, "is how to make the future equitable."

What happens, for example, if the rich have access to nanorobots that can rid the body of cancer cells, but the poor don't? What happens if only developed countries can provide their citizens, or maybe just their wealthiest citizens, the latest in gene therapy? Hughes calls the solution "democratic transhumanism."

"Our agenda is not just 'rahrah technology,' " he says, "but the creation of a society that is egalitarian in the use of those technologies."

But even in that best of all worlds, the potential dilemmas are staggering. Take the case of Parker Jensen — the Utah boy whose parents were charged with kidnapping when they refused to let their son undergo chemotherapy — and think about what happens if a hospital decides that an unborn baby must undergo genetic engineering so he won't ever get cancer in the first place.

What happens when parents decide they want their children to be genetically altered to be tall? Will shortness become a disability when buildings and furniture and cars all are redesigned for the burgeoning population of tall people? Will governments decide that tallness is not in the community's best interest, since tall people take up more room? Will tallness no longer be an asset, anyway, if everyone is the same height?

And these are the easy questions. What about the scenario Hughes presents in "Citizen Cyborg": the fictitious case of a woman named Grace?

The hypothetical Grace has an auto accident that destroys the right half of her brain, at which time her remaining brain is suffused with nanoelectrodes hooked up to a computer that has the same power as the human brain. At the same time, a bath of neural growth factors and cloned neural stem cells stimulate her remaining brain cells to grow new connections to the brain prosthesis. As time goes by, the brain prosthesis assumes an increasing role in Grace's head.

In her 80s, though, Grace is diagnosed with an incurable form of neurological deterioration, which makes her organic brain slowly shut down. No problem, though, since Grace's computer self has kept her mentally sharp, and has preserved her memories, emotions and personality via computer— a process known as uploading. As her organic brain deteriorates, Grace asks to have her computer self removed from her dying body and attached to the World Wide Web, or whatever the Web has morphed into by then. She builds herself a virtual body "with virtual simulations of neurochemistry, hormonal ebbs and flows, and a sense of embodiment," writes Hughes. "She edits her body image back to a vigorous 20-year-old, and jacks up her self-confidence and becomes a successful politician campaigning for cheaper electricity and cyborg rights."

Is Grace still human? "So long as we continue to talk with her and we feel the presence of another mind with which we can empathize, we are compelled to grant her the rights and responsibilities of membership in society regardless of whether she is still 'human,' " says Hughes.

And what about machine minds that aren't uploads of human brains? Do they have rights? And what about creatures that are part animal, part human?

"There is no intrinsic value in being human, just as there is no intrinsic value in being a rock, a frog or a posthuman," say the founding documents of the World Transhumanist Association. "The value resides in who we are as individuals and what we do with our lives."

"Bio-Luddites," Hughes argues, "advocate human-racism." Instead he focuses on what he calls "personhood."

All of which makes U. student Jones understand people who say "Whoa!" to technological progress. But the good news, he says, is that "we're not there yet . . . . We have a little bit of time to figure it out." We shouldn't try to institutionalize restrictions on enhancement technologies yet, he says, "or try to create a society that doesn't stop to think about the ethics. We can't let the capitalist market rule or the conservative drive to restrict everything." The solution, likely, is somewhere in the middle.

"We just don't know now what it is."