The Coming Genetic Editing Age of Humans Won’t Be Easy to Stomach
In the transhumanist age, the human being should be looked at more like a machine—something that comes out a particular way, but then can be heavily modified.
Photo: Mike Steele/Flickr
Some futurists believe humans will eventually become all ones and zeroes, a result of a total merger with machines and the microprocessor, before this century is out.
Standing in the way of this are older religious humans who overwhelming control governments and legal policy around the world, and they will insist we remain biological mammalian entities for as long as possible.
One could argue, however, that the coming Star Wars-like age of speciation—as widely seen in a rough bar on planet Tatooine—will challenge our mental outlook on the human form far more than machines.
Right now, the body transformations humans undergo seems harmless to most people. Even conservatives shrug at typical modifications: pierced noses, magnets in finger tips, and implants in our forehead to make it appear like some humans have devil-like horns.
In fact, a mostly accepting culture of synthetic parts and body modifications has already partially been built into modern medicine. Dentures don't scare us. Getting artificial hips when needed are a no-brainer. And even small implants in our hands don't worry us too much (I have one).
But these are nothing compared to what biohackers want to do in the near future. Some want to grow a third eye on the back of their head—a feat which isn't as complicated as it sounds and could happen in as little as five to 10 years. Some of this tech is already here. New gene editing technology, such as CRISPR techniques—where scientists cut and edit human DNA to affect human biology—has already produced dogs with larger muscles. Another CRISPR-like technology called TALEN has been used to eliminate cancer from a child.
I've even heard male biohackers talk about trying to grow a second penis right above their primary one
In the future, probably not too many people will mind genetic editing that makes us taller, or changes the color of eyes. And even fewer people will disagree with using this type of science to eliminate hereditary disease, such as Alzheimer's or Diabetes. But what about growing an extra set of blue colored arms like the Hindu lord Krishna? Or what about growing a horse's lower body so humans can become centaurs? I've even heard male biohackers talk about trying to grow a second penis right above their primary one.
Immediately, these ideas make many people cringe. I call this unease speciation syndrome, where witnessing significant physical genetic transformation of human beings causes revulsion and shock. It can also happen to those who undergo the transformation themselves.
Despite initial unease to major bodily modification, I like the idea of having an extra eye on the back of my head—or another set of limbs. Or even a pair of wings. Some of it can be quite functional. However, even an extra eye on the back of one's head is likely to be shocking and possibly terrifying for most people. Can you imagine the first person that gets one? He or she is likely to become known as the weirdest person in the world.
But what exactly is it that freaks us out? Why is it an issue to have our physicality dramatically altered? To answer that question, let's first look at speciation syndrome's cousin concept. In technology circles, it's known as the Uncanny Valley, where a robot that becomes too humanlike makes us feel unease or even revulsion. In fact, the more humanlike the machine becomes, the worse we generally feel.
The Uncanny Valley concept gives us some insight into the complexities of the human mind and its resistance to change. I surmise with speciation syndrome humanity will also discover its sense of limits to what genetic editing means for future human form—and this discovery will probably ultimately cause revulsion at first. After all, some people have a visceral reaction to unusual appearing humans, something I've witnessed firsthand in Cambodia's Killing Fields, where physically deformed people and limbless war victims openly feature their physical differences in order to make more money begging from tourists.
Transhumanism tech like CRISPR, 3D printing, and coming biological regeneration of limbs will not only change lives for those that have deformities, but it will change how we look at things like a person with a three-foot tail and maybe even a second head.
At the core of all this is the ingrained belief that the human being is pre-formed organism, complete with one head, four limbs, and other standard anatomical parts. But in the transhumanist age, the human being should be looked at more like a machine—like a car, if you will: something that comes out a particular way with certain attributes, but then can be heavily modified. In fact, it can be rebuilt from scratch.
In the future, there may even be walk-in clinics where people can go to have various gene treatments done to affect their bodies. Already, we have IVF centers where people can use radical tech to privately get pregnant—and also control and monitor various stages of a child's birth. Eventually, if government allows it, gene editing centers will also offer a multitude of designer baby traits, some which also would come via CRISPR. We might even eventually use artificial wombs for the whole process.
Economically, a trillion dollar industry could be created by the burgeoning genetic editing industry—one that greatly benefits human health and science innovation. But of course, first we must get over our fears of modifying the human body and the effects of speciation syndrome.
The best way to get society over that original hump is to focus on and praise CRISPR's ability to wipe out disease. We might even eventually be able to eliminate aging via coming genetic treatments. However, before we start adding arms and extra eyes to our bodies—something I support and look forward to doing myself someday—I hope scientists will bring about socially acceptable ways to live longer and stop disease with these amazing new techniques. That way speciation syndrome may not be so uncanny afterall.Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and presidentialcandidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.