This article first appeared in Issue 5 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
Transhumanism offers humans one of the loftiest goals ever proposed: through science and technology, we hold the power to turbo-charge our senses, edit out our biological frailties, meld minds with computers, and perfect our fleshy bodies to the point where we become something that is beyond human – perhaps something almost God-like. Nietzsche would have a field day.
In decades gone by it was the stuff of science fiction, but we are fast approaching a point where many of these futurist dreams could become reality: CRISPR has made gene editing easier than ever; the gap between the human brain and computers is closing; robotics has never been better; our understanding of biological aging continues to grow.
The real question, however, is whether we should embark on such a daring plan?
Transhumanism presents an optimistic vision of the future where humans can improve themselves through the radical extension of the human lifespan, the eradication of disease, and the elimination of pain.
Do you want to run like Usain Bolt? That’s nothing gene editing and robotics couldn’t manage. Do you wish to possess one of the greatest minds in history? Perhaps a computer-brain interface would achieve that.
It’s a nebulous term that often relies on the hypothetical, drawing on all kinds of scientific fields, from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to biotechnology and space exploration. However, one discipline that transhumanism frequently touches on – and was even arguably born out of – is genetics.
The murky beginnings of becoming beyond human
The term transhumanism (“trans” stemming from the Latin word for “across”, “over”, or “beyond”) was first coined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a giant of Victorian science who became known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his ardent advocacy of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Julian’s brother and close confidant was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, a novel that vividly illustrates a future world in which the totems of science, technology, and efficiency have forged a bleak dystopia.
Julian first wrote the term in the 1950s, but themes that would now be considered transhumanist had emerged in his thoughts well before World War II. He held the belief that humankind held seemingly unbounded potential, but were thwarted by intrinsic weaknesses that had become interwoven into our nature. Just like any other beast on this planet, we can be ignorant, weak, and get old.
He believed that it was the duty of scientific advancement to break from these chains and gain the “fullest realization of man's possibilities”. In his mind, the scientific developments of modernity had made humans the “managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution” – and it was an opportunity that held vast possibility.
“We have pretty well finished the geographical exploration of the earth; we have pushed the scientific exploration of nature, both lifeless and living, to a point at which its main outlines have become clear; but the exploration of human nature and its possibilities has scarcely begun. A vast New World of uncharted possibilities awaits its Columbus,” he wrote in 1957.
Huxley thought the initial stages of this could be achieved through education and social enrichment. However, like many “great minds” of the 19th and 20th centuries, he became increasingly interested in eugenics; the idea that the genetic quality of the human population could be improved by removing undesirable variants from the gene pool.
From 1959 to 1962, he stood as president of the British Eugenics Society. When comparing how farmers bred their animals to encourage certain characteristics like meaty thighs, Huxley would ask why the same can’t be achieved in human stock. Although he strongly argued against the extermination of those considered unfit, he believed that one way to achieve a strong population was by encouraging people of the “professional middle classes” to have children.
In his mind, it would be possible to raise the caliber of the human population to higher levels through social engineering. Just like breeding chickens for bigger breasts, society could create a stock of people to the point they become beyond human.
Beyond the scientific and medical issues, it opened a Pandora’s box of ethical and moral questions.
Huxley’s imagination was somewhat limited by the scientific understanding of his time. When Huxley was writing about transhumanism in the 1950s, the three-dimensional structure of DNA had only just been identified and it would be two more decades until scientists started seriously toying with the idea of genetic engineering.
With today’s technology, however, it could be possible to go even further down the path Huxley started to carve out.
Is the dream of transhumanism already a reality?
Through human germline engineering, it’s possible to tweak the DNA of a people in such a way that the change is a fundamental part of their genome and even passed onto their children.
The legality of human germline engineering differs around the world. While it’s outright banned in the European Union, it’s only prohibited with the use of federal funding in the United States. This is even before you consider the minefield of ethical and moral dilemmas that surround this feat.
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Nevertheless, there are claims that this has already become a reality. In November 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui claimed that he had created the first human genetically edited babies, Lulu and Nana.
Using CRISPR, he edited the genomes of the twins when they were embryos, endowing them with genetic protection against HIV by targeting a gene, CCR5, which codes for a protein that the virus uses to hijack cells. The babies effectively had superhuman protection against a disease that killed tens of millions of people.
The incident sparked outrage and shock across the world. He was painted as a mad scientist gone rogue in the media and countless streams of scientists claimed this behavior was reckless, deeply unethical, and even criminal.
Even in a world where genetic editing is prolific, could it make the world less accepting of people who are different?
Much of this was founded on the unanswered scientific questions that surrounded the affair. This is unchartered territory and there’s really no telling how the germline engineering of embryos could impact their wider health and well-being, let alone generations down the line. Beyond the scientific and medical issues, it opened a Pandora’s box of ethical and moral questions.
Brave new world
While few would argue genetic protection against HIV is a bad thing, how do we draw up these distinctions been “good” and “bad” when it comes to the uses of this technology? Which human traits are “normal” and which can be considered a disability or disorder? Even if the world does agree on these distinctions, what’s to stop us from meddling with other traits such as intelligence, good looks, or athletic ability?
Then comes the issue of how this technology is distributed. At least in the short run, it’s likely only the privileged, rich, and those born on the right patches of Earth will be able to enjoy the fruits of this development. Even in a world where genetic editing is prolific, could it make the world less accepting of people who are different?
All of these questions are fundamentally why eugenics is so frowned upon today. By the latter half of the 20th century, eugenics became widely regarded as immoral and unethical, let alone scientifically erroneous. So much so, anyone who flirts with transhumanist ideas would no doubt vehemently argue that the movement is wildly different from eugenics. After all, transhumanism doesn’t just involve genetics, but also AI, computer science, robotics, neuroscience, biomedicine, and all kinds of future-pushing scientific fields.
It’s certainly possible for the future to utilize any scientific advancement to maximize public health and happiness while minimizing inequalities and suffering. If this goes far enough, perhaps we could eventually consider our species to be distinct from the Homo sapiens that created cave paintings and hunted mammoths.
However, these technologies don’t exist in a vacuum and, whenever they are used, they will remain closely intertwined with the social norms of the day. If this is a journey we are willing to take, we need to tip-toe carefully.
CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 8 is out now.