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13 March 2013

More Human Than Human:

A Case for Transhumanism
- or -
Why You Will Call Me Crazy

Are we ready for the next stage in human evolution? Most of what got Homo sapiens sapiens where it is today is the result of natural selection. It can easily be argued that more recent generations were, at least somewhat, effected by unintended artificial selection. For those who aren't familiar, think of natural selection as "survival of the fittest" and artificial selection as how we get different dog breads - selective breading. That is an oversimplification, but it is the general idea.

By unintentional artificial selection, I mean to say ideas like more nutritious foods that are made by artificial selection and manufacturing (vitamin-fortified foods, etc.) having made us a bit taller and hit puberty earlier and earlier. These are changes that are byproducts of simply trying to be healthier. Perhaps, it is time to start taking more advantage of this ability and make some serious changes, intentionally. I'm not talking about becoming a new species entirely, but possibly creating a new subspecies. Maybe we won't be growing blue fur or born shooting lasers out of our eyes, but H. sapiens superior just may become a legitimate classification.

This is, by far, not the first time this has been proposed. Given the previous examples, we could say it's already happening. To those who take it quite seriously, it is called transumanism, or H+. There is even a magazine called "h+ Magazine", that is completely dedicated to it and its relation to singularity. There is an entire movement, that I myself only recently became truly aware of. What I am talking about may be considered a bit different from the technological singularity - a point in time where machines are responsible for all, or most, innovation - you may have heard of. I am talking about a time where we are those machines.

That's just unrealistic. We'll be solar powered.

We already are machines. Your brain is a powerful computer and your nervous system wires information to nearly every part of you. We already use software in the form of medicine to keep us up-to-date, functionally stable, and virus free. We are already becoming cybernetic organisms. What is the Bluetooth earpiece you're wearing and the smartphone in your pocket, but external hardware that connects you to other devices and supply near-endless information? Products like Google's Glass are already giving us a feel for what this would feel like when installed. The University of Washington is already working on that, and pacemakers are as "installed" as something can get. Let us not forget the bionic hands that connect to the nervous system, or the fact that we are mapping the circuits of the human brain.

Not really as different as you might believe.

There are plenty of people fearful of this future, and I can understand and respect that. People such as activist and journalist, Bill McKibben (whom I have my own reasons to admire) argue that this future will widen the gap between rich and poor, saying that not everybody will be able to afford it. It is true that, in the earlier stages of advancement, only the wealthy will be partaking. This has also been true, however, for vaccines, electricity, vehicles, land line telephones, televisions, radios, computers, cell phones, plumbing, and on and on. There will certainly be those who wish to avoid most or all of this altogether, much in the same way Amish avoid modern technology. They still happily coexist with the rest of us and are, largely, still respected. They are also accepting more technology. Likewise, we can, and do, get used to new technologies, despite initial trepidation.

The Amish Will Laugh at the Luddites.

Technology isn't going to be the only player here. Genetics will have its roll as well. Current gene therapy gives us insight to the near-limitless potential for that. This will eventually work its way into genetics. Scientists are currently studying how the length of DNA strands affects longevity. In the same way humans have been altering animal genomes through artificial selection in plants and animals for thousands of years, we are now able to do the same thing, in heritable ways, much faster in the controlled setting of a laboratory, through genetic engineering such as mutagenesis.

Calm down, Leo - not that kind of mutant.

Transhumanism, or whatever you would like to call it, has great potential to improve our lives. There are certain to be failures, but there will also be successes. I cannot emphasize enough how much this concept is not unlike thousands of other ways we've improved the human condition over many, many, generations. We don't have to imagine a world where we have instant access to almost all knowledge; our phones (and soon, headgear) already do it. We can imagine a world where the ability is always with us, no matter where we are. We can imagine a world without pain, suffering, hunger, or any disability you can imagine. We can imagine everybody being healthy. We can imagine a world in which we live however long we wish to live. Hopefully, we find other places to live and/or convince people to stop breeding so much, to help with overpopulation. You have probably heard phrases like, "I, for one, welcome our machine overlords", usually in jest. I, too, look forward to that day, however, because I know we will be those "machines". We will truly be our own overlords. I can't wait until we...

...(Come on, you know the phrase) ;-)

* All images link to their sources.