Bioscience and medical technology are propelling us beyond the old human limits. Are Extremes and The Posthuman good guides to this frontier?
(Image: Finn OHara)
HOW would you like to be a posthuman? You know, a person who has gone beyond the maximum attainable capacities by any current human being without recourse to new technological means, as philosopher Nick Bostrum of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford so carefully described it in a recent paper.
In other words, a superbeing by todays standards. If this sounds like hyperbole, bear with me. Behind the jargon lies a fascinating, troubling idea. Were not just talking about someone like Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, who is augmented with technology to compensate for his disabilities and thus can outrun many able-bodied Olympians.
No, we mean people who, through genetic manipulation, the use of stem cells, or other biointervention, have had their ability to remain healthy and active extended beyond what we would consider normal. Their cognitive powers (memory, deductive thought and other intellectual capabilities, as well as their artistic and creative powers) would far outstrip our own.
Is it possible to imagine such humans without recourse to science fiction clichs? And if we can, how would they affect how we see ourselves and each other? Would they change how we treat each other? Or create a society you would actually want to live in?
If this seems a stretch, consider this: preimplantation genetic diagnosis already lets us screen out some genetic abnormalities in our IVF offspring. And as evidence mounts for genetic components to the physical and cognitive traits we consider desirable, designer babies are surely plausible.
Then again, imagine if you were alive 150 years ago, and someone described life as it is today. Life expectancy then was a mere 40 years on average, with a few lucky individuals making it to 75 or more, though they would likely have succumbed to the first harsh illness they faced. Today, average life expectancy in rich countries hovers around 80; death and disease have all but disappeared from view, mostly into hospitals and hospices.
Our expectations of our bodies, their functional capacity and their term of service, are profoundly different from those of people living in the mid-19th century and, in the great scheme of things, that is a mere blink of an eye.
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