Building Better Humans
The human body is a remarkable thing with enormous natural capabilities and capacity that we can choose to develop as we wish. We can develop our muscular capacity to lift more than three times our own body weight, we can train our minds to recall thousands of facts or numbers. Record books are full of these amazing feats and achievements. Not only that but when faced with danger to ourselves or others we can reach into our reserves and use as yet untapped resources and skills.
And we can do all this without the assistance of science or medicine. Add into the mix genetic engineering and it’s associated sciences and the potential for human endeavor is extraordinary and controversial.
For centuries we have been performing genetic manipulation; as a species we learned early to identify the healthiest, strongest plants and animals- those with the traits that were most desirable and to use them for producing the next generation: genetic engineering at its most basic.
As humans we may choose our breeding partners for very similar reasons, though perhaps less consciously. Many theories suggest that we seek mates that we perceive as advantageous to us and our offspring. The characteristics we measure (many times unconsciously) are many and varied and are based not only on our personal experiences (nurture) but with the added influences of evolutionary psychology (nature). It may be we want or are attracted to someone with high emotional or logical (or other)intelligence, physical fitness/ability or attractiveness, an artistic flare, the mechanically inclined, the famous, the list goes on. Theories suggest that we presume a natural inheritable (i.e. genetic) foundation upon which better lives for ourselves and our children can be built.
So it is easy to see, at the micro (familial) level the impetus for improving one’s own lot. Current societal structure and its supporting laws and cultural practices encourage the building and preserving of the most significant reinforcing factor of not only keeping up with the Jones, but being better than – wealth: the heretofore ever-present reality of the fight for the distribution/possession of limited resources. He who has the best genes wins, may be how we may subconsciously behave.
A not so insignificant side note, and notably missing from our list of desirable traits above is the obvious “wealth” attribute. An argument could be made that we perceive those with wealth as having superior genetics, and that our subconscious assessment of the possessor’s underlying genetic canvas is that it is fit to benefit future generations. A counter argument could be made that wealth is an isolated and primary factor sought after in a mate in and of itself, in recognition that the possession of wealth is increasingly less dependent on genetic advantage than on the inheritance of wealth- the well documented fact that wealth is becoming more centralized and polarized, based on one’s already having it to begin with (I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage, “the rich get richer”!). The truth lies all along the spectrum between the two extremes, as with all things in life and reality.
But I digress. Although a fascinating subject, I’ll tackle that somewhere else- perhaps in the Political Philosophy section. Currently there really are economic and social advantages to be had for the fastest, smartest, most talented, hardest working (yes, it is quite likely that stamina and perseverance do have genetic components) individuals in society. And as long as that is true there is motivation to continually improve those characteristics that we as individuals target as being the most advantageous to us and ours.
Previous versions of this article posed several potential controversies regarding exactly what human capacities we as a society would select to improve once human genetic engineering is readily available. How do we measure intelligence? IQ tests, for example, only measure a certain kind of intelligence. There are other types of intelligence both highly desirable and beneficial to society overall. Conversely, what about undesirable traits such as criminality?
The truth is, there is little question as to what we will choose to improve (in general). See two paragraphs above. So long as individual mindsets, supported by social acceptance and the resulting laws we allow to exist that favor the accumulation of “stuff” by individuals and families to the detriment of the greater society, we will generally speaking and most likely overall, choose those traits that favor individuals who can better accumulate “stuff”. If ever we evolve socially to a point to where we perceive all of humanity as family we will choose to emphasize and enhance traits that benefit our family. They are not necessarily the same traits as those so significant today.
But we are here, today. Most certainly the time is fast approaching when we will be able to genetically modify, using stem cell engineering, our major organs, heart, lungs, liver etc. At present this research is aimed at organ repair and renewal and at creating ‘designer babies’, embryos that are chosen and/or engineered for specific traits. Potentially these techniques could be used for organ enhancement; a heart that pumped more efficiently would increase an athletes performance. Genetically modified muscle cells, introduced into the person would increase their strength. The list of opportunities for modifying humans for enhanced capacity is enormous and the possible usage limited only by our imagination.
The major organs have relatively simple, specialist functions, ergo; the genetic engineering of these organs is relatively simple. It is when we get to the brain, behavioral proclivities, and intelligence types, that the story gets a little more complex.
Researchers believe they have begun to identify the genes that give us certain types of intelligence, the nature/nurture debate notwithstanding, genetic similarities exist among those gifted with the types of intelligence being studied. Taking that a step further, what if we can identify the ‘genius gene’? It may be possible to far outweigh the influence of our environment. We could use present technologies such as Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) to choose only those embryos that demonstrate the desired gene sequences or we could genetically engineer embryos to include certain chosen traits, say musicality or enhanced language skills. Another avenue might be to use stem cells to implant the required genes into an adult to enhance there mental capacity. Experimentation is quite advanced in the area of treatment for neurological disease and disorder and it is not such a huge leap to foresee the use of this technology for the enhancement of brain functions.
As we look into the future, and as we assume we survive the pummeling of spaceship earth long enough to seek our destiny among the stars, the environments encountered will require a great deal more out of human capacity than presently exists. Sheer physical survival on planets of greater gravity requiring more muscle mass and bone densities, lung and liver capacities to filter out toxins not encountered in the same quantities (or perhaps ever) in our human history on earth may need to be engineered. Skin able to reflect or absorb harmlessly varying levels of radiation. Immune systems rivaling that of the creature(s) in Alien, impervious to every potentially invasive foreign life form may be possible.
Not far out enough? Blowholes or gills for aquatic planets- why not here on earth to alleviate overcrowding on land? Gas planets afford the opportunity for human flight: wings and feathers, hydrogen pouches.
Tentacles for appendages for more effective maneuvering inside weightless spacecraft traveling between the stars. Add to that vacuum and radiation-impervious skin and a large lung capacity and you have the perfect space-faring species able to work inside and outside the craft as easily as waking the dog, immune to the occasional hull breech caused by undetected debris.
I do believe we have officially arrived at FAR OUT, MAN!