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The first transhumans will be gene-modded

Tuesday, 15 June, 2010

Biotechnological interventions are, in the short term, the most likely method to obvious human enhancement.

I’ve said it, and that’s also the conclusion of Kyle Munkittrick’s post “From Gears to Genes: A Sea Change in Transhumanism“:

Transhumanism is the idea of guiding and improving human evolution with intention through the use of technologies and culture. If those technologies are not robotic and cybernetic but, instead, genetic and organic, then so be it. And that seems to be the way things are going.

I totally agree. But for different reasons.

Yes, it’s totally true that genetics is advancing faster than cybernetics, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence. Unlike Kyle, I wouldn’t say those fields are without progress, but they are moving more slowly and, to top that off, are farther away from being able to produce an enhancement.

On the other hand, mice have already had their memories, strength, endurance and lifespan enhanced by genetic or pharmaceutical means. In fact, so have humans  – by evolution. The reason humans are smarter and longer lived in comparison to mice (and in comparison to the common ancestor between humans and mice) is entirely genetic. It seems stupid to come up with a different paradigm when you already have a proven technique for enhancing intelligence and lifespan.

I’ll concede that biology has its limitations (No gene can make you bulletproof), and for the fancy enhancements of posthuman sci-fi biotechnology won’t be enough. And this is probably why some let their fantasies cloud their judgment and continue to believe they will be able to upload themselves into a virtual reality powered by cold-fusion powered quantum computers implanted in their brain within a decade or two.

I can say with confidence that the first clearly enhanced humans, with really obvious improvements in intelligence/lifespan/athleticism will be a product of genetic enhancement alone.

Hattip to IEET: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/munkittrick20100611/

3 comments

  1. Have you read John Smart’s antithetical thesis? Smart contends that the difficulty of enhancement increases dramatically with complexity, so that effects in humans will be far less than with fruit flies or mice. He predicts that such human improvement would require socially unacceptable levels of potentially harmful experimentation.

    I tend to be optimistic about all technologies in question, but infotech has a proven track record of transformation and advance. Biotech has nothing comparable. On what basis do you and Munkittrick ascribe superior advancement to genetics? In the last decade we’ve seen computer-brain interfaces, various robots, and powered exoskeletons become commercially available. The classic elements of mechanical augmentation are close to reality. In the lab you find impressive innovations such as robots with lifelike movement and self-driving vehicles.

    Nanotech is a bit more complicated because of its connection to biotech and genetics. These fields all go together and really cannot be separated. Researchers recently built an assembly line using DNA, which stands as stepping stone to creating a nanofactory.


    • the difficulty of enhancement increases dramatically with complexity

      There’s a point there, but we’re not dramatically more complex than a mouse or a fruit fly. I think significant enhancement is still possible.

      He predicts that such human improvement would require socially unacceptable levels of potentially harmful experimentation.

      Well that depends what’s socially acceptable.

      On what basis do you and Munkittrick ascribe superior advancement to genetics?

      I mentioned them in my post. In the last decade we’ve seen animal models living 50% longer, mice and rats with improved memories, mice with increased endurance or faster rates of muscle growth.

      It technically possible to create a designer baby with these properties this year. And all we need is a non-mutagenic vector and we can do the same to existing people.

      Nanotech is a bit more complicated because of its connection to biotech and genetics. These fields all go together and really cannot be separated. Researchers recently built an assembly line using DNA, which stands as stepping stone to creating a nanofactory.

      An assembly line using DNA is miles away from any useful nanomachine.

      I’m skeptical of any machines built out of DNA/proteins, because I doubt they’d be able to be much smaller than bacteria. I’d like to be proven wrong though.


  2. There are only two things I’d like to say.

    The novel “Feed” goes hand in hand with what is said above, though mostly it deals with the effects and pitfalls of such technology.

    Also, the novel “Ender” describes much of the same. But there is also a warning (discussed briefly in the novel, and also by the first commentator) concerning the unseen effects of genetic modulation. When we mess with nature, it retaliates in ways we can’t forsee. Genetics is the same. We neutralize one thing, and set off another. With Alzheimer’s deases, ACh-producing neurons deterioate. Acetylcholine (ACh) enables muscle action, learning, and memory. Say we find a gene that causes the creation of said neurotransmitter–and we figure out how to activate it. What happens if, like when a black widow bites, it floods the system with ACh? It could, like the venom of this notorious arachnid, cause violent muscle contractions, convulsions, and possible death.

    Now, of course, (and here I’ll quote my Psychology book) “it is a happy fact of nature that the information systems of humans and other animals operate similarly-so similarly, in fact, that you could not distinguish between small samples of brain tissue from a human and a monkey. This similarity allows researchers to study relatively simple animals, such as squids and sea slugs, to discover how our neural systems operate. It allows them to study other mammals’ brains to understand the organization of our own. Cars differ, but all have engines, accelerators, steering wheels, and brakes. A Martian could study any one of them and grasp the operating principles”
    –Psychology, eighth edition, by David G. Myers

    Basically, genes work the same way.
    However, the first commentator made the same point I’m going to highlight right now: we are more complex than the creatures tested, and therefore unforeseen side effects, terrible, possibly debilitating, side effects are an entirely real possibility. Can we take the risk, that leap of faith, and ruin some kid’s life? Or, what happens when the government gets a hold of this power? Are we all going to be, as Huxley describes in his “Brave New World” bottled babies? So that our strength, intelligence, tendencies, etc. are all preditermined?

    This biology stuff is great, but only in the realm of diseases. When it comes to enhancement in other forms, I think the pitfalls become too great and too numerous. Its more like selling humanity than human made products. Slavery more than Salvation.

    Of course, I know the aim of this article wasn’t to start a debate. I just wanted to put that out there.



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