Posts Tagged ‘transhumanism’


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:


The rule on enhancement

Thursday, 13 May, 2010

Although I’d probably be described as very liberal, I’m not against rules. There are times when some forms of human enhancement would not be ethical. So, where to draw the lines?

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu proposes some rules in a recent blog post titled ‘How to prescribe smart drugs to children ethically‘. Though these rules are for cognitive enhancing drugs, they apply fairly well to any form of enhancement:

1. Safety – the drug should be safe enough and benefits clearly outweigh the harms

2. Harm to others – the drug should not cause the child to harm others, by for example, increasing violent behavior

3. Distributive justice – the delivery of the drug should not use up limited societal resources unfairly, for example, by consuming resources which would do more good if directed towards educational strategies

4. The parent’s choices are based on a plausible conception of well-being and a better life for the child

5. The effects are consistent with development of autonomy in child and a reasonable range of future life plans.

These aren’t bad rules, especially for enhancement of children by their parents, but I think they’re a bit tautological and slightly too strict (see, I’m so liberal, I even find Savulescu oppressive). I think I can simply.

First, rules 1 and 4 seem to be saying the same thing, just in different ways. Is the enhancement actually going to enhance? If it has tiny benefits that don’t outweigh some significant side-effects, it’s hardly an enhancement. Likewise, if you feel the enhancement has been bad for you, it’s not an enhancement. If we’re defining enhancement as something that’s going to make you better in your own opinion, we don’t need rules 1 and 4.

Second, rules 2 and 3 are also saying the same thing – you shouldn’t be enhanced at a cost to somebody else, either during the enhancement, or as a later result of the enhancement. If your enhancement takes resources away from somebody else, or leads to you harming somebody else once you’re enhanced, it’s bad. So, I think we can simplify that to: an enhancement shouldn’t harm anyone else.

And we’re left with rule 5. This is fair enough, an enhancement shouldn’t constrain autonomy, as you must be able to choose whether you’re enhanced or not. If you were born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to remove or modify those enhancements. If you weren’t born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to gain some enhancements. So, in other words, it have to still have a choice (addictive enhancements, where the enhancement influences your choice, are a difficult question and for another post).

Therefore, I think I can distill it all to one simple rule (though, to be honest, this could be said to be two rules in one):

An enhancement must be your choice and must not hurt anyone else.


Make realistic the unrealistic ideal body image

Tuesday, 4 May, 2010

Humans have been enhancing our appearance since we worked out how to use tools. Archeological evidence suggests cosmetics date at least 6000 years and cosmetic surgery over 4000 years. In modern times, cosmetic surgery is one of the most common forms of human enhancement. It is also one of the most accepted, with cosmetic surgery being legal in almost all countries, even when going beyond ‘restoring normalcy’ and into unequivocal enhancement territory.

Enhancement of appearance is not limited to our physical bodies, but also extends into the digital representations of those bodies. Digital manipulations, known as ‘Photoshopping’ after the popular program used to alter photographs, are commonplace for most published images of human beings. But it’s much easier to manipulate a photograph than it is to manipulate a live human being so accordingly photoshopped images are generally much closer to any ideal of beauty (though both cosmetic surgery and photoshopping sometimes result in something that few would call beautiful). Photoshopped images therefore unattainable portrayals of the human body, which unfortunately causes self-esteem and body image issues, even body dismorphic disorders, in too many people.

In my opinion, the oft-toted solutions, such outlawing unrealistic portrayals or legislating that all retouched images carry a warning label, are missing the point. The images are being retouched for a reason: to look better. And though our standards of beauty are by no means unanimous, the vast majority of ideals of body image are mostly innate. We have evolved to look for potential mates by seeking traits like symmetry and signs of healthiness or status (though specific signs vary – a tanned, visibly-muscled man in one culture would imply low class, whereas in another he would personify physical fitness). As these are innate preferences, they can’t be completely changed by altering how bodies are portrayed. This is a problem that can only be solved by changing these innate ideals about body image.

Basically, the problem isn’t anything to do with how our images are changed for public display. The problem is the very real difference between what we want to look like, and what we actually do look like. This difference could be removed by changing our wants or our bodies, or both. But realistically, being able to competently engineer the human mind is a very formidable task. I predict that, long before any personality enhancements come along, we will be able to effectively and freely alter our appearance.

Therefore, best solution is to allow all humans to attain the ideal body. Or, more precisely, to be able to attain a body they feel is ideal. This isn’t really any different from what we already do. After all, some people already spend a lot of time shaving, working out, applying makeup or undergoing painful surgeries. Except future techniques would be much safer. Instead of burning ourselves with sunlight to cause the protective response to skin damage that we call a suntan, we could genetically alter our base level of melanin expression. Instead of cutting each hair, or pulling them out, or destroying hair cells with electricity or lasers, we could genetically alter the hormone responses of hair cells, so that any given patch of hair doesn’t develop into the thicker and darker terminal hairs in response to hormone levels, but those hairs remain fine, vellus hairs (like the hairs on your forehead or nose). In the extreme, we might even be able to have a completely prosthetic body, that can easily be maintained (or exchanged).

I suppose the question to ask is – is there anything wrong with being our own fairy-godmother and making ourselves beautiful for the ball? It’s not like beauty was ever an achievement anyway, as a majority of features considered beautiful depend on uncontrollable factors of development and age. And even in a society where everyone considers themselves beautiful, others will likely disagree, due to differences in our innate preferences and to the non-innate social influences on our standard of beauty. A girl could consider herself beautiful if she had the enormous limpid eyes and short slim body of an anime-like bishōjo, but others could (and would) disagree.

There cannot be a society where everyone is beautiful, unless everyone changed both their minds and their bodies in unison. But the achievable goal, of a society where everyone sees themselves as beautiful, would in every other way not be too different to today’s society. People would just be happy in their own body, because no ideal body image would be unrealistic.


Perfect humans are not the goal

Wednesday, 20 January, 2010

Just a brief post to clear up a misconception. Proponents of human enhancement sometimes are portrayed as if we want to create a race of perfect human beings, or bring everyone closer to an ideal. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth of it is summed up nicely by Kyle Munterick of IEET (See original article by Kyle Munkittrick, titled ‘No concept of “Perfect” in transhumanism’ ):

“Transhumanists and technoprogressives don’t imagine or want a perfect world, they imagine, want, and work towards a world with fewer problems and more choices.”

Enhancement is very much a personal choice – what one person may see as an enhancement, another person may see as detrimental. Proponents of human enhancement simply seek to let every person decide for themselves what they should be.

Furthermore, as I’ve argued previously,  it’s actually the opponents of human enhancement that seek to ensure a race of perfect humans. They have a certain idea of what constitutes a perfect human (and it usually is very close to what we already are, with the possible exception perhaps of better health), and seek to ensure that even those who don’t agree with them can never access enhancements. They use loaded phrases like ‘humans are meant to have X’ or ‘without Y, we would no longer be human‘ to construct their perfect human. And the fact they support therapies (reducing disabilities), but not enhancements (adding abilities), proves conclusively that they have a concept of a perfect human being.

In their mind, a perfect human has a genome based on the random reassignment of two (no more or no fewer) other genomes. A perfect human is entirely biological, with no bionics or cybernetics of any kind (except if such are needed for ‘therapeutic use’). A perfect human has two arms and two legs but no wings, no tail, no gills and no scales. A perfect human can only be either male or female, and reproduces only with the opposite sex (and doesn’t reproduce too young or too old). A perfect human has to slip into a state of semi-consciousness every day for approximately eight hours (no more, no less). A perfect human takes a long time to learn new things and eventually forgets. With each passing year, a perfect human gets older (not too quickly, not too slowly) and no later than a century after birth (but not too much earlier), a perfect human dies.

Most proponents of human enhancement don’t just replace this pathetic and outdated idea of perfection with another. We do away with the concept entirely. It’s your body, don’t let anyone else tell you what you can’t do to it. Become what you want to become so that you can be what you want to be. That is human enhancement.


Making a real-world Pandora

Thursday, 14 January, 2010

While many movie-goers were saddened as they left the world of Pandora and came back to Earth, I was not. Instead, as I left the cinema after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, I was instead happily musing about how the beautiful flora and fauna of Pandora could be created. For real. Here, on Earth.

For me, I was most amazed by the prevalence of bioluminescence among the plants, and even animals, of Pandora. The bioluminescence is especially obvious with the Trees of Souls and Tree of Voices, but nearly all plants and fungi seem to have bioluminescent properties. Bioluminescence is obvious in some Pandoran insects and lizards, and the sentient Na’vi also have lines of blue photophores on their skin.

A tank of firefly squid (Watasenia scintillans) caught off the coast of Namerikawa, Japan.

Fortunately, bioluminescence is not something entirely alien. Many organisms on our own planet are also bioluminescent, though most bioluminescent animals live in the deep ocean (though exceptions, such as glowworms and fireflies, are well-known). Bioluminescence has evolved in insects, molluscs (especially squid), fish, jellyfish, fungi, plankton and bacteria, but to my knowledge no naturally bioluminescent plant species exist on Earth.

I had to say ‘naturally’  in the last sentence of the above paragraph because in recent times, many animals and plants have been genetically engineered to express the firefly (Photinus pyralis) enzyme called luciferase. This enzyme, in the presence of its substrate (luciferin) produces a yellow-green bioluminescence. There are also many other natural and mutated enzymes, allowing for bioluminescence with colours of red , orange, yellow, green, blue and even violet.

Bioluminescence of the bitter oyster fungus (Panellus stipticus) found near Springdale, Wisconsin, USA.

With advances in the knowledge of the chemistry and biology of bioluminescence, genetically-engineered bioluminescent plants and animals may become as commonplace on Earth as on Pandora. As very efficient solar-powered lights (in addition to being very attractive), gardens might be lit by the very plants that inhabit them. We might make animals that can use bioluminescence as a signal, like pets that literally light up when they see their owner. The bioluminescent magic seen in Avatar is entirely feasible!

Na’vi are human-like in appearance, but are much taller (almost 3m tall) and have some alien characteristics – blue striped skin, pointy and mobile pinna (external part of the ear), catlike tails and (with the exception of the avatars) only four digits on their hands and feet. They also have larger (and yellow) eyes compared to human proportions, flatter noses and slimmer physiques. It’s also mentioned in the film that the Na’vi are stronger and have hardier bones. Each of these characteristics is at least biologically plausible, and so it might be possible to turn a human into something resembling very closely a Na’vi.

Some humans have traits that make them more Na’vi-like than others, and with research the genetic reasons for this difference could yield ways to make a human into a Na’vi. Pituitary gigantism (causing greatly increased growth hormone) can produce humans with heights of up to 2.7m, and it’s possible that a similar pathway can be used for genetic enhancement of skeletal height without the associated health issues of gigantism. Enhancement of bone strength might also solve some of these health problems, and I foresee that stronger bones and muscles will be a desirable trait for future human enhancement (and therefore will be well-researched). Finally, the fact that some humans naturally have very slender physiques suggest the trait might be able to be genetically engineered, and narrow waists, though historically achieved through the use of corsets, should also prove amenable to genetic modification.

An okopipi, or blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus), native to Suriname and Brazil (by ucumari on

Inspiration for more alien features of the Na’vi was found in the animals of Earth, and perhaps we might be able to borrow from these animals genomes. As the very distant ancestors of humans had a tail, restoring one should prove relatively simple also. Animals with mobile pointed pinna exist and are well known (such as the common cat), so with some research, humans could be engineered to have similar. Reducing the number of digits might be more difficult, as five digits is the normal for most, but fortunately not all, limbed vertebrates (and, as the avatars still had five digits, reducing digits to four might not be desirable). Blue skin should be possible, though blue pigment molecules are rare, but one could perhaps be engineered and human skin engineered to produce it instead of the red and brown pigment molecules pheomelanin and eumelanin). Similarly for yellow iris pigmentation (either that, or contact lenses).

Creating the other animals of Pandora, however, might prove more difficult. The other animals seem to mostly be hexapods; Direhorses, Ikran, Thanator and Titanothere all have six legs. The base body plan for limbed vertebrates on Earth is four limbs, and there are no six-limbed vertebrates from which any inspiration can be drawn. Nonetheless, there is nothing biologically implausible about hexapodal mammals and reptiles, so one day such creatures could be created.

The Ikran (also known as Mountain Banshee) could prove the most problematic to engineer. Earth’s gravity is greater than that of Pandora, and the musculature required for powered flight is therefore much greater (and heavier). Because of this, flying creatures on Earth are seldom very large, with the largest ever to exist (Argentavis) weighing only around 100kg (certainly less than the mass of a Na’vi) and a wingspan of 6-8m (the Ikran wingspan is 14m). Though with great re-engineering of muscle tissue, strong but light muscles could circumvent this issue. But don’t even get me started on a Toruk.

So, finally I want to mention perhaps the most imaginative aspect of Pandoran biology – the entire ecosystem of Pandora is seemingly connected into one super-consciousness, termed Eywa. The roots of plants carry signals from one tree to another, and animals (including the Na’vi) have a ‘queue’ (or many queues) extending from the back of their neck, which they can use to connect to other animals (allowing sensory and motor systems to merge) or to certain plants, like the Tree of Souls and Tree of Voices, allowing memories to be accessed and other functions.

A weeping willow (Salix × sepulcralis) photographed with an infra-red filter in Washington D.C, USA (by zachstern on

An analogy is drawn by Dr Augustine between the network of plants on Pandora and a network of neurons in a brain. While this might be valid in terms of numbers of connections, the electrochemical signals used by neurons only travel at a maximum velocity of 120m/s. If the network of Pandora uses similar mechanisms, it would take many minutes for signals to propagate across even a small section of forest and perhaps hours to reach the entire landmass. This is far too slow to produce any coherent or conscious thought. I’m sure there’s some sort of fantastical explanation, as I’ve heard talk of psionic energy or something similarly unreal, allowing for light-speed communication. That might also explain how the animals of Pandora were connected to this network at all times without being tethered to a tree (but simultaneously makes the queue rather redundant as a form of communication).

Anyway, the biological plausibility of interfacing two animals with a queue together is much higher. The queue seems to extend from the base of the head, near the brainstem, which makes it another extension to the central nervous system, secondary to the spinal cord (it occurs to me that extending the spinal cord into the tail, and using that as a queue, might be easier to engineer). This could feasibly allow any motor signals to be sent via either the spinal cord or the queue depending on what is being controlled (e.g. the Na’vi’s hands or the Ikran’s wings), and for any sensory information to be relayed from the brain to the other organism (e.g. the Ikran’s wings to the Na’vi’s brain). A very strong Tsahaylu (connection) between two Na’vi is said to occur during mating. While I’m sure feeling what your mate does and influencing their actions would, as a reciprocal form of communication, lead to totally awesome lovemaking, I doubt that this would lead to any merging of consciousness, as this distances between the brains would be too great for coherent thoughts. Nonetheless, perhaps sharing of memories and feelings could occur, though perhaps not complete thoughts.

I don’t think it will be possible to recreate every aspect of Pandora in the near future. Floating mountains would likely be a significant geoengineering problem for many years to come. And low gravity

I think the sadness and even weltschmerz experienced by those fans of Avatar is entirely justified, but being dissatisfied with reality is nothing new to transhumanists. But I just want to say this: if you want to live in a world like Pandora, then why not go ahead and make this world (or a small section of it) just like it! If you want to be a Na’vi, then why not engineer yourself to be just like one! Go study biology: plant and animal genetic engineering, bioluminescence, biomechanics, neuroscience and so on. Are you prepared to work toward making a better planet, a better ecosystem, and better people?


Uploading your mind

Saturday, 8 August, 2009

Mind uploading is a radical form of human enhancement, whereby the human mind is transferred from the vulnerable organic medium of the brain to a computer system of some kind. With such an upload comes the benefit of being able to use your consciousness at electronic speeds (allowing for hours of thought processes to take place in mere seconds), and essentially be in multiple locations at the same time. In addition, the human brain vulnerable to many of the frailties of the human body whereas a computer system does not suffer from age or strigent bodily requirements for blood and nutrients (though computers do get viruses, and they do require electricity and ventilation). Finally, a computerised version of the brain is theoretically much easier to enhance or alter than the biological version.

Firstly, there is the continuity problem, which is by far the most difficult to solve because it is largely philosophical rather than practical. This problem is based on the fact that the process of ‘uploading’ does not actually move a files, but rather involves making a copy of the file on the server (and deleting the old files). Therefore if I upload my mind, I may not have transferred my mind to the computer but instead merely made another copy of my mind on the computer. And the last thing you want is to have two copies of the same mind, because it will be impossible to tell the copies apart as both will literally feel as if they are the original (hence why I said two copies, and not the original and the copy). And in fact, a computerised copy of your mind would be far easier to copy than the organic version, and therefore somebody could split (or be split) into several indistinguishable copies of themself.

The proposed solution to avoid copying a mind is to keep information flowing between the organic and inorganic portions of the mind. Because the mind could be viewed as a process rather than an entity, it would therefore be necessary to keep the process continuous between the biological mind and the computerised mind during the process of uploading. As soon as the copies can no longer transfer information between each other, they will diverge into seperate entities (another interesting topic is whether minds can be merged by allowing full information transfer, such that two people could become one in a much more real way than any human relationship in the past).

So any practical solution must not only feature the ability to read information from the brain, but also to send information from the computerised mind back into the uncopied portions of the mind to maintain continuity.

There are just so many philosophical issues here, but fortunately we have a lot of time to ponder them as there are a great deal of technical problems with mind uploading.

As the mind is (essentially) produced by the brain, mind uploading requires the ability to emulate the entire brain. This is not an easy task, as the human brain contains a hundred billion neurons with trillions of connections between them. And even an individual neuron is such a very complex cell that it cannot be emulated fully. Further, neurons are not the only cells in the brain that matter – glial cells, which are just as numerous as neurons, also have a very important functional role. It’s not theoretically impossible, but any emulation will be a poor one indeed until vast advances in both neuroscience and computer power are made.

Importantly, to create a viable approach to mind uploading (as opposed to ‘merely’ an artificial intelligence) it is not enough to merely be able to emulate a human brain, but it is essential to emulate a particular human brain. If I want to upload my brain, the resulting simulation has to be my brain and not just any human-like brain. This would require a very high resolution and instantaneous snapshot of my brain. Analagously, this is like capturing an image of a metropolis like New York down to the level of millimetres, capturing both the position and the velocity of every vehicle, person and object. While we may have high resolution photography that can capture one person or object to the required resolution, doing the entire city at the same instant is exponentially harder. And likewise even if we can scan a brain to a very high resolution if we focus on just one small slice of a brain region, but to do the entirety of the brain at one instant would be a far greater task. And we have to capture not just the structure of each cell but also the current state of that cell and the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding each cell. It’s a mammoth task indeed, and one that may not be completed until far after a passable emulation of a human brain is accomplished.

And finally we don’t only have to be able to read the brain in sufficient detail, we also need to manipulate it in similar fidelity to maintain continuity. Information in the brain is stored in neuronal architecture, cellular structure and activity and concentrations of molecules in and around neurons. So if we have a portion of the brain simulated on a computer, and if a simulated neuron tries to send a signal to an organic neuron, that organic neuron would have to be stimulated at the appropriate time. Or if a simulated hormone is drifting toward a portion of the brain not uploaded yet, then a hormone would have to be released into the corresponding organic portion of the brain. This would require a completely perfect brain-computer interface, perhaps an even greater technical feat than a brain emulation.

I think I have listed enough technical problems for now, some of which may prove, with increasing knowledge of the brain, to be less (or more) of a problem than I’ve made out. Regardless, mind uploading seems like a very very distant technology to me, and therefore I would rather focus on achieving the goals of longer-lived bodies and enhanced minds using genetic enhancements and primitive brain-computer interfaces, and focus on the political, ethical and philosophical dilemmas that arise from more near-term issues in human enhancement.


Journal of Evolution and Technology has some reading material

Tuesday, 26 May, 2009

I know I’m not posting as frequently as I could be, but the Journal of Evolution and Technology has two special issues that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

  • Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights (HETHR) Special Issue

-vi:  James Hughes:  “Introduction”

1-9:  Patrick Hopkins:  “Is Enhancement Worthy of Being a Right?”

10-26: Fritz Allhoff:  “Germ Line Genetic-Enhancement and Rawlsian Primary Goods”:

27-34: Martin Gunderson:  “Enhancing Human Rights: How the Use of Human Rights Treaties to Prohibit Genetic Engineering Weakens Human Rights”

35-41: Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff:  “Against Unrestricted Human Enhancement”

42-49: Fred Gifford:  “Ethical Issues in Enhancement Research”

50-55: Aubrey de Grey:  “Our Right to Life”

56-69: Gregory Fowler and Kirk Allison:  “Technology and Citizenry: A Model for Public Consultation in Science Policy Formation”

70-78: Laura Colleton:  “The Elusive Line Between Enhancement and Therapy and Its Effects on Health Care in the U.S.”

79-85: Anita Silvers:  “The right not to be normal as the essence of freedom”

86-93: Martin Gunderson:  “Genetic Engineering and the Consent of Future Persons”

94-107: Martine Rothblatt:  “Are We Transbemans Yet?”

108-115: Mark Walker:  “Cognitive Enhancement and the Identity Objection”

116-123: Eva Caldera:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Theories of Justice: Contemplating the Malleability of Nature and Self”

124-128:  Dawn Jakubowski:  “Cognitive Enhancement and Liberatory Possibilities of Antidepressant Therapy”

129-142: George Dvorsky:  “All Together Now: Considerations for biologically uplifting non-human animals”

As you can see, both issues have articles that cover interesting topics and the articles are all worth a read. Check out the contents of these issues, and read them for free.

I don’t think any of those articles, nor their authors, express arguments that are perfectly identical to mine (in other words, I have a bone to pick with most of their articles). But don’t worry, I’ll soon be blogging more frequently again, or at least I hope to.


Boosting brainpower

Thursday, 14 May, 2009

The practical and ethical issues with intelligence enhancement are receiving more attention, with a recent article in New Scientist titled “Will designer brains divide humanity“.

For the most part, the article is quite basic, but I have an issue with one part in particular:

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested.

This is none other than cybernetic favoritism! I mean sure, genes effecting intelligence aren’t obvious, but it’s also not obvious how and where to interface a brain chip to increase intelligence. And though neural prostheses are being tested, no neural prosthesis has increased any aspect of intelligence in any brain, whereas there have been 33 genetic alterations that increase the learning and memory of mice (not to mention that all the differences in intelligence between animals are genetic in origin). Considering the annoyance of having surgery for neural implants compared to the ease of a simple injection for genetic modification, I would personally put my money on the genetic enhancement of intelligence. Nonetheless, both avenues should be pursued, and might eventually complement one another.

Onto the ethical issues discussed in the article, most are fairly basic. Starting with human dignity, referring to comments made by Dietrich Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany:

One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says.

These concerns are all quite valid, but aren’t necessarily impossible barriers. If enhancement technology was supported by the government, then no people wanting such technology would be left without it. And the discrimination I will deal with in a minute, after looking at the next section:

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

I do actually worry about enhancement being socially divisive, but I am not sure this would occur only by discrimination of the enhanced towards the un-enhanced. As I have argued previously, it’s entirely possible that the enhanced will be viewed as unnatural disgraces to humanity, and the pure, natural humans would discriminate against them because of it.

The rest of the article deals with issues such as brain plasticity, evolution and epigenetics. These are not particularly relevant to any ethical concerns and neither will they significantly enhance the intelligence of the average reader of this blog, so I’m not going to address them here.


Enhancing memory and learning in mice

Monday, 23 March, 2009

Recently, a review article by Yong‑Seok Lee and Alcino J. Silva was published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, with the title ‘The molecular and cellular biology of enhanced cognition‘. If you are lucky enough to have a subscription, or know a library that can get this journal article for you, do.

The review lists 33 genetic modifications that lead to some level of enhanced memory and learning in mice. It also discuses the general methods by which these modifications work, focussing on enhancement of a form of neuronal plasticity known as long-term potentiation. NMDA receptors, the role of calcium as a messenger and the various enzymes and transcription factors that are recruited to create the cellular basis of a memory. The review also discusses other mechanisms, like epigenetics, growth factors, the involvement of glia, and also presynaptic signalling. Finally, the review looks at caveats in the current research in cognitive enhancement.

The authors also make a nod in the direction of bioethics, saying:

[I]t is also important to stress that memory enhancing manipulations raise a number of ethical issues that are outside of the scope of this Review, but that merit careful consideration and discussion170,171.

For interests sake, references 170 and 171 are:

170: Rose, S. P. ‘Smart drugs’: do they work? Are they ethical? Will they be legal? Nature Rev. Neurosci. 3, 975–979 (2002).
171. Farah, M. J. et al. Neurocognitive enhancement: what can we do and what should we do? Nature Rev. Neurosci. 5, 421–425 (2004).


Homo evolutis – the backlash

Monday, 9 February, 2009

The old speciation argument has raised its head again, with Juan Enriquez (Chairman and CEO of a company called Biotechonomy), giving a talk at TED (Technology Engineering Design) this year. He argued that

humanity is on the verge of becoming a new and utterly unique species, which he dubs Homo Evolutis.

Now, I’ve no issue with him stating speciation may occur, because it might. What I feel is wrong, and what also rubbed a lot of other people the wrong way, is his reasoning for why. He was portrayed as saying:

What makes this species so unique is that it “takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of the species.”

This sort of talk made George Dvorsky, a fellow futurist, quite uncomfortable. And it made biologist P.Z. Myers quite cranky at futurists.

The point is, Enriquez appears to not quite know what the usual definition of a biological species actually is. In strict biological terms, a species is defined as a “group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which is reproductively isolated from other such groups”. Having brain-interfaced cybernetic wings or genetic enhancements to your somatic cells won’t make you a new species any more than having a wooden peg leg and drinking rum make you a new species of human (Homo pirata?). To become a new species, you must be able to reproduce with some others, but not with natural humans. This specific desire to control evolution directly, as Juan is said to have discussed, would not do this. At most, it could reprsent some sort of difference in opinion within our one species – between humans who were for enhancement technology, and those who were against. It would be hard enough to even say this represents a new subspecies or even race of humans.

In Enriquez’s defense, after some degree of ‘taking deliberate control over evolution’, it is possible that this could lead to speciation. It could be as simple as restricting breeding through totalitarian reproductive regulations, as in the eugenics of the past, isolating a number of humans from one another until speciation occurred. Alternatively, genetic modifications to the germline could introduce a genetic incompatibility between engineered humans and normal humans (the most obvious example being the addition of an extra chromosome). It’s even possible for some form of simple modification to a structure involved in reproduction (i.e. genitalia) to introduce a physical incompatibility prohibiting easy mating. But merely taking such control over evolution doesn’t imply you actually guide evolution to the degree that speciation occurs.

All that said, I do feel it is difficult for the species concept to be applied rigidly to technologically-assisted reproduction. The definition of species specifies the population must be a natural population, so as to exclude inter-species matings caused by human intervention. But can human intervention be excluded from the definition of a human species? Is it natural for humans to technologically-assist in their own reproduction? These are important questions, because one must consider the advances in genetic technology which come to mind in this sort of dicussion; it is difficult to imagine how any human could not be able to potentially reproduce with any other human given access to sufficient technology. Yet by the same token, such technology may allow Homo sapiens to potentially interbreed with chimpanzees or gorillas (or even farther afield genetically!), so should we extend our species then? How much technological assistance do we allow into our definition of interbreeding?

These same sort of questions come up every time somebody dreams up a new idea for what humans will become, be it Homo superior, Homo artificialis, Homo novus or Homo evolutis.