What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
— Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
I. Angels and Superheroes
In 2008, Samuel O. Poore, a plastic surgeon who teaches at the University of Wisconsin’s medical school, published an article in the Journal of Hand Surgery titled “The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition.” Drawing on evolutionary and anatomical evidence, he laid out a workable method for using the techniques of modern reconstructive surgery, including bone fusing and skin and muscle grafting, to “fabricate human wings from human arms.” Although the wings, in the doctor’s estimation, would not be capable of generating the lift needed to get a person off the ground, they might nonetheless serve “as cosmetic features simulating, for example, the nonfunctional wings of flightless birds.”
We have always envied birds their wings. From angels to superheroes, avian-human hybrids have been fixtures of myth, legend, and art. In the ninth century, the celebrated Andalusian inventor Abbas ibn Firnas fashioned a pair of wings out of wood and silk, attached them to his back, covered the rest of his body in feathers, and jumped from a promontory. He avoided the fate of his forebear Icarus, but “in alighting,” a witness reported, “his back was very much hurt.” Leonardo da Vinci sketched scores of plans for winged, human-powered flying machines called ornithopters. Batman’s pinion-pointed cape looms over popular culture. Birdman won the best picture Oscar in 2015. “Red Bull gives you wings,” promise the energy drink’s ads.
Dr. Poore considered his paper a thought experiment, and he ended it with an admonition: “Humans should remain human, staying on the ground pondering and studying the intricacies of flight while letting birds be birds and angels be angels.” Not everyone shared his caution. Advocates of radical human enhancement, or transhumanism, found inspiration in the article. One of them, writing on a popular transhumanist blog, suggested that it might soon be possible to craft working human wings by combining surgical techniques with synthetic muscles and genetic modifications. “Many humans have wished they could fly,” the blogger wrote. “There’s nothing morally wrong with granting that wish.” The post garnered more than seven hundred comments. “I WANT WINGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” went a typical one. “For as long as i can remember i have been longing to feel the wind in my feathers” went another.
II. Stronger, Smarter, Fitter
When Nora Ephron decided to call her 2006 essay collection I Feel Bad about My Neck, she all but guaranteed herself a bestseller. Prone to wattling and wrinkling, banding and bagging, the neck has long been a focal point of people’s discontent with their bodies. But it’s hardly the only body part that provokes disappointment and frustration. From miserly hair follicles to yellowed toenails, from forgetful brains to balky bowels, the body seems intent on reminding us of its flaws and insufficiencies. One thing that sets us apart from our animal kin is our ability to examine our bodies critically, as if they were things separate from ourselves. We may not think of ourselves as Cartesians anymore, but we remain dualists when it comes to distinguishing the self from its physical apparatus. And it’s this ability to envision our bodies as instruments that allows us to imagine ways we might remodel or retrofit our anatomies to better reflect our desires and ideals. Our minds are always drafting new blueprints for our bodies.
We’re quick to associate body modification with primitive cultures—the stereotypical savage with the bone in his nose—but that’s a self-flattering fancy, a way to feel enlightened and civilized at the expense of others. When it comes to fiddling with the human body, we make even the most brutish of our ancestors look like amateurs. We go under the blade for nose jobs, tummy tucks, breast augmentations, hair transplants, face lifts, butt lifts, liposuctions, and myriad other cosmetic surgeries. We smooth our skin with dermabrasion brushes or chemical peels, conceal wrinkles with injections of botulinum toxin or hyaluronic filler. We brighten our smiles with whiteners and veneers, implants and orthodontia. We tattoo, pierce, and scarify our flesh. We swallow drugs and other potions to fine-tune our moods, sharpen our thinking, bulk up our musculature, control our fertility, and heighten our sexual prowess and pleasure. If to be transhuman is to use technology to change one’s body from its natural state, for ornamental or functional purposes, then we are all already transhuman.
But our tinkering, however impressive, is only a prelude. The ability of human beings to alter and augment themselves is set to expand enormously in the decades ahead, thanks to a convergence of scientific and technical advances in such areas as robotics, bioelectronics, genetic engineering, and pharmacology. Up to now, body modifications have tended to be decorative or therapeutic. They’ve been used to improve or otherwise change people’s looks or to repair damage from illnesses or wounds. Rarely have they offered people ways to transcend the body’s natural limits. The future will be different. Progress in the field broadly known as biotechnology promises to make us stronger, smarter, and fitter, with sharper senses and more capable minds and bodies. Transhumanists have good reason to be excited. By the end of the twenty-first century what it means to be human is likely to be very different from what it means today.
Our minds are always drafting new blueprints
for our bodies.
War and medicine are the crucibles of human enhancement. They’re where the need is pressing, the money plentiful. Military researchers, building on recent refinements in prosthetic arms and legs, are testing so-called Iron Man suits—artificial exoskeletons worn inside uniforms—that give soldiers greater strength, agility, and endurance. Wearing one current version, a G.I. can run a four-minute mile while carrying a full load of gear. Prototypes of more sophisticated bionic armor, which can sharpen vision, enhance situational awareness, and regulate body temperature along with boosting mobility and muscle, are in testing by the U.S. Special Operations Command. The merging of man and machine is well under way.
That goes for the gray matter, too. In 2014, DARPA, the military’s R&D arm, established a well-financed Biological Technologies Office to work on the frontiers of human enhancement. The new division’s broad portfolio includes a raft of ambitious neuroengineering projects aimed at bolstering mental skill and accomplishment on and off the battlefield. In the works are brain implants that, in the agency’s words, “facilitate the formation of new memories and retrieval of existing ones,” neural interfaces that “reliably extract information from the nervous system . . . at a scale and rate necessary to control complex machines,” and centimeter-sized neural “modems” that allow high-speed, standardized data transmissions between brains and computers.
While neuroscientists are still a long way from understanding consciousness and thought, they are, as the DARPA projects suggest, having success in reverse engineering many cognitive and sensory functions. Whenever knowledge of the brain expands, so too do the possibilities for designing tools to manipulate and augment mental processes. Cochlear implants, which translate sound waves into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain’s auditory nerve, have already given tens of thousands of deaf people the ability to hear. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first retinal implant. It gives sight to the blind by wiring a digital camera to the optic nerve. Scientists at Case Western Reserve University are developing a brain chip that monitors and adjusts levels of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that regulate brain functions. The researchers say the chip, which has been successfully tested in mice, works like a “home thermostat” for mental states.
Many such neural devices are in the early stages of development, and most are designed to aid the sick or disabled. But neuroengineering is progressing swiftly, and there’s every reason to believe that implants and interfaces will come to be used by healthy people to gain new and exotic talents. “Advances in molecular biology, neuroscience and material science are almost certainly going to lead, in time, to implants that are smaller, smarter, more stable and more energy-efficient,” brain scientists Gary Marcus and Christof Koch explained in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article. “When the technology has advanced enough, implants will graduate from being strictly repair-oriented to enhancing the performance of healthy or ‘normal’ people.” We’ll be able to use them to improve memory, focus, perception, and temperament, the scientists wrote, and, eventually, to speed the development of manual and mental skills by automating the assembly of neural circuitry.
These examples all point to a larger truth, one that lies at the heart of the transhumanist project. The human species is, in form and function, subject to biological constraints. It changes at the glacial pace of evolution. As soon as we augment the body with machinery and electronics, we accelerate the speed at which it can change. We shift the time scale of physiological adaptation from the natural, measured in millennia, to the technological, which plays out over decades, years, or mere months. Biology, when seen from a human perspective, is more about stasis than change. But when it comes to technology, nothing stands still. What’s rudimentary today can be revolutionary tomorrow.
III. The Daedalus Mission
The changes wrought by prosthetics, implants, and other hardware will play out in plain view. Blurring the line between tools and their users, they will turn people into what science fiction writers like to call cyborgs. More profound may be the microscopic changes accomplished by manipulating chemical reactions within and between cells. Advances in neurobiology have made possible a new generation of psychoactive drugs that will give individuals greater control over how their minds work. Exploiting the recent discovery that memories are malleable—they seem to change each time they’re recalled—researchers are testing drugs that can, by blocking chemicals involved in memory formation, delete or rewrite troubling memories as they’re being retrieved by the mind. A study by two Dutch psychologists, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2015, shows that similar “amnesic” medications may be able to erase deep-seated phobias, such as a fear of spiders or strangers, by scrubbing certain memories of their emotional connotations. Such pharmaceutical tools point to a future in which we will be able to revise our sense of the past and, since what we remember is what we are, shape the self.
Also coming out of pharmaceutical labs are drugs that accelerate learning and heighten intelligence by speeding up neuronal activity, tamping down extraneous brain signals, and stimulating new connections among nerve cells. As with brain implants, these so-called smart drugs, or neuroenhancers, are intended to be used medicinally—to help children with Down syndrome do better at school or to combat mental decay in the elderly—but they also hold promise for making able-minded people cleverer. For years now, drugs designed to treat attention and sleep disorders, like Adderall and Provigil, have been used by students and professionals to sharpen their mental focus and increase their productivity. As new drugs for cognitive enhancement become available, they too will see widespread “off-label” use. Eventually, well-vetted neuroenhancers that don’t produce severe side effects will be cleared for general use. The economic and social advantages of enhanced intelligence, however narrowly defined, will override medical and moral qualms. Cosmetic neurology will join cosmetic surgery as a consumer choice.
Then there’s genetic engineering. The much discussed gene-editing tool Crispr, derived from bacterial immune systems, has in just the last three years transformed genomic research. Scientists can rewrite genetic code with far greater speed and precision, and at far lower cost, than was possible before. In simple terms, Crispr pinpoints a target sequence of DNA on a gene, uses a bacterial enzyme to snip the sequence out, and then splices a new sequence in its place. The inserted genetic material doesn’t have to come from the same species. Scientists can mix and match bits of DNA from different species, creating real-life chimeras.
With thousands of academic and corporate researchers, not to mention scores of amateur biohackers, experimenting with Crispr, progress in genome editing has reached a “breakneck pace,” according to Jennifer Doudna, a University of California biochemist who helped develop the tool. Combined with ever more comprehensive genomic maps, Crispr promises to expand the bounds of gene therapy, giving doctors new ways to repair disease-causing mutations and anomalies in DNA, and may allow transplantable human organs to be grown in pigs and other animals. Crispr also brings us a step closer to a time when genetic engineering will be practicable for a variety of human enhancements, at both the individual and the species level. Wings are not out of the question.
Transhumanists are technology enthusiasts, and technology enthusiasts are not the most trustworthy guides to the future. Their speculations tend to spiral into sci-fi fantasies. Some of the most hyped biotechnologies will fail to materialize or will fall short of expectations. Others will take longer to pan out than projections suggest. As innovation researchers Paul Nightingale and Paul Martin point out in an article in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, the translation of scientific breakthroughs into practical technologies remains “more difficult, costly and time-consuming” than is often supposed. That’s particularly true of medical procedures and pharmaceutical compounds, which often require years of testing and tweaking before they’re ready for the market. Although Crispr is already being used to reengineer goats, monkeys, and other mammals—Chinese researchers have created beagles with twice the normal muscle mass—scientists believe that, barring rogue experiments, clinical testing on people remains years away.
What was seen as a perversion comes to be viewed
as a remedy or a refinement, decent and even natural.
But even taking a skeptical view of biotechnology, discounting wishful forecasts of immortality, designer babies, and computer-generated superintelligence, it’s clear that we humans are in for big changes. The best evidence is historical rather than hypothetical. In just the past decade, many areas of biotechnology, particularly those related to genomics and computing, have seen extraordinary gains. The advances aren’t going to stop, and experience suggests they’re more likely to accelerate than to slow. Whether techniques of radical human enhancement arrive in twenty years or fifty, they will arrive, and in their wake will come newer ones that we have yet to imagine.
In 1923, the English biologist J. B. S. Haldane gave a lecture before the Heretics Society in Cambridge on how science would shape humanity in the future. His view was optimistic, if warily so. He surveyed advances in physics that were likely “to render life more and more complex, artificial, and rich in possibilities.” He suggested that chemists would soon discover psychoactive compounds that would “add to the amenity of life and promote the expression of man’s higher faculties.” But it was the biological sciences, he predicted, that would bring the greatest changes. Progress in understanding the functioning of the body, the working of the brain, and the mechanics of heredity was setting the stage for “man’s gradual conquest” of his own physical and mental being. “We can already alter animal species to an enormous extent,” he observed, “and it seems only a question of time before we shall be able to apply the same principles to our own.”
Society would, Haldane felt sure, defer to the scientist and the technologist in defining the boundaries of the human species. “The scientific worker of the future,” he concluded, “will more and more resemble the lonely figure of Daedalus as he becomes conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it.”
IV. A Truer You
LeBron James is an illustrated man. The NBA star has covered his body with some forty tattoos, each selected to symbolize an aspect of his life or beliefs. The phrase “CHOSEN 1” is inscribed in a heavy gothic script across his upper back. On his chest, spanning his pectorals, is an image of a manticore, the legendary winged lion with the face of a man. Across his biceps runs the motto “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” words spoken by Maximus, the Russell Crowe character, in the movie Gladiator. It wasn’t long ago that tattoos were considered distasteful or even grotesque, the marks of drunken sailors, carnival geeks, and convicts. Now they’re everywhere. Americans spend well over a billion dollars a year at tattoo parlors, more than a third of young adults sport at least one tattoo, and celebrities like James take pride in branding themselves with elaborate and evocative ink. The taboo has gone mainstream.
That’s the usual trajectory for body modifications. First we recoil from them, then we get used to them, then we embrace them. In his talk, Haldane acknowledged that society will initially resist any new attempt to refashion human beings:
There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.
In time, attitudes change. Custom cures queasiness. What was seen as a perversion comes to be viewed as a remedy or a refinement, decent and even natural. The shapeshifter, once a pariah, becomes a pioneer, a hero.
Society’s changing feelings toward tattoos is a fairly trivial example of such cultural adaptation. More telling is the way views of sex-reassignment procedures, the most drastic of commonly performed body modifications, have evolved. Voluntary sex-change operations date back at least to the ancient world, when they amounted to little more than clumsy castrations, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that advances in surgical techniques and hormone therapies made sex reassignment technologically viable. Through the middle years of the twentieth century, when sex-change procedures remained rare, medically controversial, and fraught with legal obstacles, Americans tended to view transsexuals as at best freaks and at worst criminals. But the stigma dissipated through the latter years of the century, as sex-reassignment therapies became more sophisticated and routine and societal perceptions and norms changed. Today, although transsexuals still face prejudice, the public is coming to view sex-change procedures, whether surgical or chemical, not as treatments for unfortunate medical disorders but as ways to bring one’s body into alignment with one’s true identity. When Olympian Bruce Jenner came out as Caitlyn Jenner in the spring of 2015, she was feted by the media and praised by the president.
The history of transsexuality, writes Yale historian Joanne Meyerowitz in How Sex Changed, illuminates our times. Not only does it demonstrate “the growing authority of science and medicine,” but it also “illustrates the rise of a new concept of the modern self that placed a heightened value on self-expression, self-improvement, and self-transformation.” The perception of gender as a matter of inclination rather than biology, as a spectrum of possibilities rather than an innate binary divide, remains culturally and scientifically contentious. But its growing acceptance, particularly among the young, reveals how eager we are, whenever science grants us new powers over our bodies’ appearance and workings, to redefine human nature as malleable, as a socially and personally defined construct rather than an expression of biological imperatives. Advances in biotechnology may be unsettling, but in the end we welcome them because they give us greater autonomy in remaking ourselves into what we think we should be.
V. The Transhuman Condition
Transhumanism is “an extension of humanism,” argues Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosophy professor who has been one of the foremost proponents of radical human enhancement. “Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism.” Human nature in its current state, he says, is just the “half-baked beginning” of a “work-in-progress,” which we can now begin to “remold in desirable ways.” In pursuing this project, “we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as ‘human.’” The ultimate benefit of transhumanism, in Bostrom’s view, is that it expands “human potential,” giving individuals greater freedom “to shape themselves and their lives according to their informed wishes.” Transhumanism unchains us from our nature.
Other transhumanists take a subtly different tack in portraying their beliefs as part of the humanistic tradition. They suggest that the greatest benefit of radical enhancement is not that it allows us to transcend our deepest nature but rather to fulfill it. “Self-reconstruction” is “a distinctively human activity, something that helps define us,” writes Duke University bioethicist Allen Buchanan in his book Better Than Human. “We repeatedly alter our environment to suit our needs and preferences. In doing this we inevitably alter ourselves as well. The new environments we create alter our social practices, our cultures, our biology, and even our identity.” The only difference now, he says, “is that for the first time we can deliberately, and in a scientifically informed way, change our selves.” We can extend the Enlightenment into our cells.
Critics of radical human enhancement, often referred to as bioconservatives, take the opposite view, arguing that transhumanism is antithetical to humanism. Altering human nature in a fundamental way, they contend, is more likely to demean or even destroy the human race than elevate it. Some of their counterarguments are pragmatic. By tinkering with life, they warn, researchers risk opening a Pandora’s box, inadvertently unleashing a biological or environmental catastrophe. They also caution that access to expensive enhancement procedures and technologies is likely to be restricted to economic or political elites. Society may end up riven into two classes, with the merely normal masses under the bionic thumbs of an oligarchy of supermen. They worry, too, that as people gain prodigious intellectual and physical abilities, they’ll lose interest in the very activities that bring pleasure and satisfaction to their lives. They’ll suffer “self-alienation,” as New Zealand philosopher Nicholas Agar puts it.
But at the heart of the case against transhumanism lies a romantic belief in the dignity of life as it has been given to us. There is an essence to humankind, bioconservatives believe, from which springs both our strengths and our defects. Whether bestowed by divine design or evolutionary drift, the human essence should be cherished and protected as a singular gift, they argue. “There is something appealing, even intoxicating, about a vision of human freedom unfettered by the given,” writes Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel in The Case against Perfection. “But that vision of freedom is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.” As a counter to what they see as misguided utilitarian utopianism, bioconservatives counsel humility.
Wherever they may lead us, our attempts to change human nature
will be governed by human nature.
The transhumanists and the bioconservatives are wrestling with the largest of questions: Who are we? What is our destiny? But their debate is a sideshow. Intellectual wrangling over the meaning of humanism and the fate of humanity is not going to have much influence over how people respond when offered new opportunities for self-expression, self-improvement, and self-transformation. The public is not going to approach transhumanism as a grand moral or political movement, a turning point in the history of the species, but rather as a set of distinct products and services, each offering its own possibilities. Whatever people sense is missing in themselves or their lives they will seek to acquire with whatever means available. And as standards of beauty, intelligence, talent, and status change, even those wary of human enhancement will find it hard to resist the general trend. Wherever they may lead us, our attempts to change human nature will be governed by human nature.
We are myth makers as well as tool makers. Biotechnology allows us to merge these two instincts, giving us the power to refashion the bodies we have and the lives we lead to more closely match those we imagine for ourselves. Transhumanism ends in a paradox. The rigorously logical work that scientists, doctors, engineers, and programmers are doing to enhance and extend our bodies and minds is unlikely to raise us onto a more rational plane. It promises, instead, to return us to a more mythical existence, as we deploy our new tools in an effort to bring our dream selves more fully into the world. LeBron James’s body art, with its richly idiosyncratic melding of Christian and pagan iconography, all filtered through a pop-culture sensibility, feels like an augury.
“I want to fly!” cries Icarus in the labyrinth. “And so you shall,” says Daedalus, his father, the inventor. It’s an old story, but we’re still in it, playing our parts.
VI. Another Tangent
Just before twilight on a Saturday evening in the spring of 2015, the storied rock climber Dean Potter walked with his girlfriend, Jen Rapp, and his buddy, Graham Hunt, from a parking area along Glacier Point Road to the edge of Taft Point, some three thousand feet above the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Potter and Hunt were planning a BASE jump. They would leap from a ledge near the point and glide in their wingsuits for a quarter mile over the valley before passing through a notch in a ridgeline near a rock outcropping called Lost Brother. They would then unfurl their parachutes and come in for a landing in a clearing on the valley floor. Rapp would serve as spotter and photographer.
BASE jumping, one of the more extreme of extreme sports, is banned in national parks. But Hunt and Potter were dedicated daredevils who didn’t put much stock in rules. They had been jumping for years from cliffs and peaks throughout Yosemite, including the iconic Half Dome, and they had wingsuited from Taft Point several times, together and separately. The course they set for themselves that evening was dangerous—the notch was narrow, the winds contrary—but they were confident in their skills and their equipment. Potter held the mark for the longest wingsuit flight on record, having covered nearly five miles in a 2011 jump from the Eiger in Switzerland, and he had been featured in a National Geographic documentary called The Man Who Can Fly. Hunt, too, was considered one of the world’s top jumpers.
We are myth makers as well as tool makers.
The first wingsuiter, if you don’t count Abbas ibn Firnas, was Franz Reichelt. A Vienna-born tailor who ran a dressmaking shop in Paris, he designed and stitched his own “parachute suit,” as he called the winged garment. He tested it by jumping off the Eiffel Tower on February 4, 1912. The suit failed, and the fall killed him. More than eighty years passed before a Finnish company called BirdMan International began manufacturing reliable wingsuits and selling them to skydivers and BASE jumpers. Constructed of lightweight, densely woven nylon, modern wingsuits sheath the jumper’s entire body, forming two wings between the arms and torso and another between the legs. By greatly expanding the surface area of the human frame, the suits create enough lift to allow a person to glide downward for several minutes while controlling trajectory through slight movements of the shoulders, hips, and knees. Wingsuiters frequently reach speeds of a hundred miles an hour or more, giving them an exhilarating sense that they’re actually flying.
Potter and Hunt reached the launching spot near Taft Point around seven o’clock and zipped themselves into their wingsuits. Potter jumped first, followed quickly by Hunt, while Rapp shot pictures from a few yards away. The two jumpers dropped like stones for a couple of seconds before their suits filled with air. Then, their bodies buoyant, they soared across the mountain sky with wings outstretched, like a pair of giant, brightly colored birds. “Part of me says it’s kind of crazy to think you can fly your human body,” Potter had told a New York Times reporter a few years earlier. “Another part of me thinks all of us have had the dream that we can fly. Why not chase after it? Maybe it brings you to some other tangent.”
Jen Rapp kept taking photographs until Potter and Hunt passed through the notch and out of sight. She thought she heard something, a couple of thumps, but she told herself it was probably just the chutes opening. She waited for the text message that would let her know the pair had landed safely. Nothing came. Her phone was silent. Park rangers recovered the bodies the next morning.
This essay is excerpted from my latest book, Utopia Is Creepy.
Images (from top): “The Flight of Icarus” by Jacob Peter Gowy (after a sketch by Rubens); still from the movie Birdman; photograph “Paris: Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile – La Marseillaise” by Wally Gobetz; Assyrian relief of human-headed winged bull, from the Louvre; Hawkgirl (DC Comics); still from the movie Brewster McCloud.