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The future of human evolution

Madeleine Bunting

1st March, 2006

There is no stop button......in the race for human re-engineering. Science will soon give some of us the tools to make ourselves cleverer and stronger. What will it mean for humanity?

My daughter is 10. Fast forward 25 years, and she is having her first child – early by the standards of all her friends, but she’s keen on ‘natural’. Of course, she did pre-implementation genetic diagnosis, and she and her husband (yes, very old fashioned, they married) had some agonising days deciding on whether to modify a genetic predisposition to depression and whether to splice in a gene for enhanced intelligence. In the end, they felt they had no option but to give their baby the best possible start in life.

Five years later, my little granddaughter is starting school. Again her parents have talked over the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. A pharmcogenetic package is now routinely offered on the NHS after the government decided that, given international competition in the global knowledge economy, there was no option but to ensure the nation’s schoolchildren had better powers of memory and concentration. I had my doubts, but I have to admit that my little granddaughter is proving a wonderfully clever creature – a constant source of amazement to me.

My doubts were in part assuaged by the fact that I had already started stronger doses of the same cognitive enhancement drugs. They’ve helped hugely with my forgetfulness (I’m just hitting my 70s). They are part of a cocktail of drugs I’m now taking to postpone many of the effects of ageing. I dithered a bit but in the end there was no option. I’m doing the childcare for all my five grandchildren and I need to be strong and fit for them. My age expectancy is now 110, so the plan is that I can help out a bit with the great grandchildren too.

What we’ve been unhappy about is that my daughter has been very tired trying to hold down her job and be a mum, and she’s come under a lot of pressure from her boss to get help. What they mean is that she should go on to Provigil. They point out that if she was taking it, she could miss several nights’ sleep without any problem. Her colleagues call her a bio-Luddite for refusing. She’s already the only one not to have taken her company’s early diagnosis – she said she didn’t want to know whether she was going to get Alzheimer’s disease in 30 years’ time.

The other thing that concerns us is that many of the children in my grandchild’s school have had much better enhancement programmes. The cleverest went to China for the latest technology. I can see that my grandchild is never going to keep up. At the moment, she doesn’t mind that she’s bottom of her class, but she’ll be lucky to get to a good university. The one hope I’ve got is that they might introduce quotas for ‘naturals’ or ‘nearnaturals’ like her. Anyway, to cheer her up I bought her the equivalent of what we called iPods in the old days – the chip inserted behind her ear gives her 24/7 access to stories and music. She downloaded a book I loved when I was her age, Little House on the Prairie. She thinks it’s magical.

Frightening future?

Sound far-fetched? It’s anything but. This is the most conservative of a range of scenarios about the possibilities of ‘human enhancement’ that have prompted fierce debate in the US and are exercising many a scientist’s mind around the world. The pace of development in four distinct disciplines – neuroscience, and biotechnology such as genetics, computing and nanoscience – is such that many envisage dramatic breakthroughs in how we can modify ourselves, our physical and mental capabilities. We could live much longer and be much stronger and cleverer – even be much happier. A whole new meaning to ‘Be all you can be’.

The Washington Post journalist and author of Radical Evolution, Joel Garreau, argues that we are at a pivotal point in human development. Having directed our technological ingenuity on the world around us, human beings are now turning it on to their own bodies and minds. From here on in, we will have the tools to engineer our own evolution.

To the real enthusiasts – they call themselves transhumanists – humanity is on the point of being liberated from its biology. In their advocacy of our ‘technological rights’, they believe that human beings are on the brink of a huge leap in development, leaving behind the sick, quarrelsome, weak, fallible creatures we have been up to now. We will be, as their slogan goes, ‘better than well’.

This is the prospect that horrifi es the so-called ‘bio-conservatives’ such as Francis Fukuyama, who argues that transhumanism is the most dangerous ideology of our time. There are plenty who share his concerns, pointing out that the implications for human rights, indeed for our understanding of what it is to be human, are huge. What place will equality have in this brave new world? What place will privacy have when brain imaging can read our thoughts and transcranial magnetic stimulation can manipulate our thoughts? What powers over our brains will the state demand in the war against terror?

It’s time we got our heads around this debate on this side of the Atlantic so that we can influence what technologies are developed, rather than leaving it to the scientists and the pharmaceutical and military interests who sponsor their research. There’s a growing sense of urgency to get the public debate up to speed with what’s at stake.

Recently, a remarkable exercise in public consultation in Brussels, Meeting of Minds, drew people from across the EU together to discuss the subject. Last month, the think-tank Demos launched a pamphlet, Better Humans. Oxford University’s Said Business School is hosting a big international conference, Tomorrow’s People, in March – at which Garreau is a keynote speaker.

The point well made by Better Humans is how far advanced public acceptance is of many of the principles that underlie these technologies. So we’re not talking about radical new steps, only an acceleration of existing trends. For example, if you can have Viagra for an enhanced sexual life, why not a Viagra for the mind? Is there a meaningful difference? If we show such enthusiasm for ‘improving’ our noses and breasts with cosmetic surgery, why not also improve our brains? As computers continue to increase in power and shrink in size, why shouldn’t we come to use them as prostheses, a kind of artificial limb for the brain? If we have successfully lengthened life expectancy with good sanitation and diet, why can’t we lengthen it with new drugs? The drug Ritalin is already being traded in classrooms by US students to help improve their concentration.

There’s no stop button available. Much of the research that could ultimately be used for human enhancement is urgently needed to counter such neuro-degenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s. But it’s all too possible to envisage how fast, in a competitive, unequal world, we could hurtle towards some horrible futures. The one I outlined above for my descendants was the most benign I could imagine. There’s no point in sci-fi style panic. The best hope lies in the strength and quality of public debate and democratic institutions to regulate and direct the use of these powerful technologies.

 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2006.

 

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