When you look through a super-telescope, you can still see the planet Earth. Once called the blue planet, she now looks red and parched. We had no choice but to abandon her. On a certain day, in thousands or millions of years, we will have to leave. At a guess, we have about a billion years before the sun gets hot enough to vaporize the oceans. Long before this, before the ocean water evaporates from the heat of the sun, the Earth will likely be uninhabitable for us.
If humanity still exists millions of years in the future, by that time we must have left the Earth behind. To survive in space, permanently or on the journey to other inhabitable planets, the human body will have to be modified. It happens that our current bodies have evolved over millions of years in response to the conditions on Earth. But a lack of gravity and intense exposure to space radiation can tear apart our biological existence in moments.
One option is to live on virtually in the form of bits and bytes in computers, robots, and interstellar space vessels. Techniques like mind uploading ensure that subsequent generations of humanity will no longer need their fragile physical bodies to travel lightyears. The vulnerability of our bodies can be seen in astronauts returning to Earth. They often come back with lower bone density, less muscle power, and worse vision—and the heart seems to adjust only with difficulty to a lack of gravity.
Lisa Nip’s mission is to solve this problem. She’s one of the scientists researching whether we can better configure the current human body for space travel. Her doctoral research is carried out at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lisa is looking into the possible applications of synthetic biology for long-distance space travel.
Lisa, a young and enthusiastic scientist, realizes that her project evokes all kinds of emotions. But the prospect of a new type of human specially adapted for space is not so strange. English astronomer Lord Martin Rees considers it unlikely that legislation and regulation on Earth will become open enough to permit advanced methods of human enhancement. He foresees a scenario in which a group of people leave the Earth for good to settle aboard space vessels or on Mars. There, regulation is far less stringent or even nonexistent. Besides unsatisfactory laws, there are two other reasons why those space people desire their seemingly radical enhancements. The first is necessity. As Lisa Nip also attests, humans adapted to Earth are not well suited to life in space. If humanity wants to survive out there, it will have to adapt to new circumstances. Think of genetic modification to combat radiation, bionic eyes, or cryogenic suspension allowing thousands of years of travel across the universe.
The second reason is speculative, but no less interesting. The first space travelers are likely pioneers: rational, highly intelligent, prepared to experiment and take risks. In such a culture, extensively changing yourself—genetically, electronically, or by other means—is not such a big step as in a more risk-averse society. This scenario won’t play out in the coming years, but possibly over a number of decades or centuries. In the process, a branching of the human species may well occur; besides Homo sapiens, perhaps Homo universum.
Shrinking the human footprint
The question is whether humanity will ever arrive at this divergence into an Earth species and a space species. It’s possible we will long since have ceased to exist by then. The end of humankind is a favorite theme of science fiction. It arrives in the form of extraterrestrial beings (War of the Worlds), vicious beasts (Godzilla), asteroids (Armageddon), or runaway artificial intelligence (as in Terminator). Right now, films like Mad Max are much more realistic. In those scenarios, it’s through our own behavior and the resulting climate crisis that we have doomed the world, and thus ourselves.
Personally, I’ve never seen the relation between the climate crisis and the superhuman in a positive light. In fact, if we start to live longer it seems we will use up Earth’s available resources even faster. A group of creative ethicists and philosophers have devised imaginary solutions to the climate crisis humanity is facing. They imagine for example pharmaceutical pills containing the hormone oxytocin, to boost empathy. That’s an idea they share with Professor Julian Savulescu, who philosophizes about improving the morality of people across the world. The inventive ethicists go a step further. They speculate about stimulating the immune system so that you no longer desire meat, or using genetic selection and in vitro fertilization (IVF) to ensure that people become shorter in height.
While the inventive ethicists consider solutions to reduce humanity’s emissions, there are also artists looking to better equip humanity for difficult times. In 2018, I spoke at a conference with designer Agi Haines. She is an enthusiastic woman with blonde hair, big black glasses, and a pronounced English accent. She thinks that science fiction, whether in the form of books, films, or art, is an important way of researching the future of humanity.
Agi: “Of course I’m not objective! But for example, the scientists I work with often reference sci-fi films. That’s a big help, because then I often have an immediate idea what they mean. And vice versa too.” Agi’s best-known work is Transfigurations. For this project, she created five lifelike baby dolls with fictitious modifications, such as extra jowls to give off heat, bigger cheeks to store food, an aerodynamic nose, or an opening behind the ear for a drip. However bizarre this sounds, it’s precisely the task of designers like Agi Haines to surprise us and make us think about how the future of humanity might look—far beyond our current image of the human.
Whether it’s to adapt ourselves to space travel, limit our impact on the planet, or become more resistant to conditions on an inhospitable world, humanity’s desire to adapt is inevitable. One of the greatest thinkers of our time, the late Stephen Hawking, wrote that “we are now entering a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA.”
In the first place, we will do this to remedy genetic disorders. But he foresees that, despite regulation, there will be people who want to use this technique to enhance themselves physically and cognitively. These biohackers, human test subjects, or pioneers of the superhuman won’t be able to resist the temptation to try to enhance themselves, upgrading for example their memory, immune system, and lifespan.
Hawking expects that the rise of the superhumans will be accompanied by political problems with unenhanced people, who will be unable to compete with the newcomers. The unenhanced people will die out or lose their importance. “Instead, a self-designed race of people is emerging that will improve themselves with ever-increasing speed.”
The same scenario is sketched by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus. As the title implies, Harari expects humankind to upgrade itself to the status of a God. His theory is that humanity, once we overcome our greatest problems—starvation, sickness, war—will want nothing less. The focus of scientific research, government policy, and investment will then turn to the quest for happiness and the attainment of immortality.
Beyond the human
The enhanced immortals foreseen by Hawking and Harari are the ideal of transhumanism. The range of thought, just like for example Christian belief, is not clearly defined. Transhumanism is divided into various camps on the basis of belief, politics, or ideology. So we find adherents of Singularitarianism (aspiring to superintelligence), the hedonistic imperative (abolishing pain on Earth), libertarian transhumanism (focusing on the individual and removing government interference), and Christian transhumanism (transhumanism in line with Christian values).
It’s difficult, then, to speak of “transhumanism” as a whole, though all these tendencies have a number of things in common. Humanism stands for the quest for human dignity. Trans-, also meaning “beyond” or “to the other side,” stands for the recognition and anticipation of radical technological developments. With these developments we can enhance ourselves immensely. More than human. Beyond the human.
It’s highly unlikely we as Homo sapiens are the end point of evolution. To put this into perspective: Some 13.5 billion years ago, after the big bang, there came into existence elementary particles. In a process of increasing complexity, they first formed hadrons, then atoms, molecules, cells, complex cells, and finally multicellular organisms. Multicellular organisms came into existence about 2.5 million years ago. It was only some 300,000 years ago that we, Homo sapiens, appeared. From those historical evolutionary steps, it’s to be expected that a subsequent lifeform will develop, attaining a new level of complexity. Researchers Smith and Szathmáry conclude that major evolutionary transitions take place as soon as existing organisms begin to cooperate or become encased in a greater whole.
The next step after multicellular organisms is a higher level in which we cooperate or become encased in a greater whole. It’s possible we’re already well on the way to this next step on the evolutionary ladder. Through computer and Internet technology, we cooperate much more easily and become increasingly interconnected. With smartphones, wearables, and gadgets, you could say that we’re being gradually encased in a technological whole.
Professor Jos de Mul of Erasmus University Rotterdam makes a great comparison with the body. He sees the Internet as the first primitive form of a global consciousness: “Not for nothing is the Internet called the nervous system of the information society.” Artist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort calls this next evolutionary form the superorganism. As people, we are part of this organism, but we can no longer control or oversee it. It has its own will. Just like a flock of birds, controlled not by individual birds but given collective direction by the group.
The development of a superorganism needn’t preclude the possibility of the individual superhuman. Our own body benefits from quick signals and the exchange of hormones and neurotransmitters. To extend the analogy: a superorganism will also profit by quicker internal communication among its parts. From that perspective, brain implants seem ideal, binding us together with super-fast telepathic abilities so that we’re literally encased in technology. Or, crudely formulated: we will indeed be superhumans, but simultaneously dependent on and subject to the superorganism.
In one corner stand Lisa Nip and her colleagues, who think with infectious enthusiasm about the modification of humans to allow them to survive in space. In the other corner, concerns about the possibility of superhumans using their powers to eradicate the unenhanced.
Then there are also the outsiders: ethicists and artists who speculate about human enhancement as a solution to (or means of preparing for) the climate crisis. Other thinkers find discussions of human enhancement irrelevant. They philosophize about the new evolutionary step that will make us all part of a greater whole. As a species, our challenge is to handle all these uncertainties. We know that the future offers great opportunities—paired with enormous risks. My own vision has changed in recent years. Following my encounter with biohacking and the possibilities of biotechnology around 2015, I had a liberal, perhaps even anarchistic, ideal. I considered it wrong to limit innovation. Surely if businesses develop enhancement technologies, people can figure out for themselves whether they want to use them?
Now I take a more nuanced view. Maybe I’m getting older. Perhaps it’s the problems we face already from tech companies, such as privacy scandals and fake news. It might be that I better understand what’s at stake now: technology can help us make enormous progress, but it can also have devastating effects. Take this thought experiment: what if Hitler had lived today, with the opportunities presented by surveillance capitalism, genetics, and biotechnology?
Therefore my opinion has changed. I don’t think superhuman technologies should be permitted without restrictions. Ideally, new technologies should be measured against principles and values we consider important. Then we could determine if, when, where, and how those technologies could be used. In other words, how does the technology concerned challenge our values, and how do we respond? To reach a species-wide consensus on such matters is difficult, but as far as I’m concerned, doing nothing is not an option. The following list proposes a few principles that can function as guidelines for individuals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and politicians to prepare for the superhuman:
It is important to educate and train future generations and ourselves about the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of human enhancement. Awareness is the first step to better handling of these developments. That’s something that’s already being built up with regard to the use of cellphones and media literacy concerning the Internet and (fake) news. We will also have to keep up with new developments, such as genetic modification, the increasing use of personal data, and pharmaceutical products. Staying abreast of scientific and technological progress is especially important for public servants, administrators, and politicians. After all, they’re responsible for policy choices and laws that influence society, and us as citizens, to a great extent.
With the opportunities open to us, we realize that we are responsible as a society for their consequences (for ourselves, others, and the planet). We have to take that immense responsibility seriously and give it the highest priority.
We decide what is important in our lives, independently of technology. On this basis we make choices that influence our lives every day, for example in terms of safety, freedom, dignity, communication, fulfillment, equality, and fairness. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good set of guidelines to elaborate upon.
If a difference arises between the “enhanced” and the “naturals,” then it is important we handle this diversity with respect. This is important precisely because of our instinct to stick up for our own group before others. We will have to realize that, from an evolutionary perspective, diversity is what makes humanity capable and resilient. Nature teaches us that too much uniformity makes us vulnerable. Imagine for instance that we came to resemble each other more and more closely on a genetic level. If a virus then arose that was fatal to people with those dominant genes, it would be a disaster for humanity.
Freedom of choice
In line with the previous point: everyone has the freedom to choose whether they want to enhance themselves, and how. Doing so should never be mandated by the government, nor by employers or insurance companies.
This list is far from complete, but it gives you an idea of the sort of things we have to consider. Moreover, the operation of these principles really has little to do with specific scientific and technological developments. Primarily, they concern norms, values, logistical issues, and the choices of individuals, businesses, and governments. Superhuman technologies will affect us all, whatever form they take.
This essay is a pre-publication of ‘Superhuman’ (2020) by Peter Joosten. The text is edited for online publication.