- Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to How it Works and How to Transform Your Brain
- Training to Develop Synaesthesia for Improved Memory and Maths Ability (Theoretically)
- How to Train Like Bruce Lee for Insane Power and Speed
- A Complete Guide to Transhumanism
- The Surface Pro 3 – Ideal Productivity for Web Entrepreneurs
- Can You Bench Press a Dinosaur??
- The Neuroscience of Genius And Increasing Intelligence
- How Caffeine Affects Neurotransmitters and Profoundly Changes Your Brain
- A Detailed Guide to Your Brain – So You Can Start Hacking It
- Almost Every Bodyweight Exercise Ever (150+ Moves)
A Complete Guide to Transhumanism
‘Transhumanism’ is an ‘intellectual and cultural movement’ that promotes the use of technology in order to advance the human condition. What this essentially means, is that a transhumanist is someone who believes we should use technology in order to give ourselves enhanced abilities – higher IQs, greater strength, longer lifespans, sharper senses… you name it. Citius, altius, fortius…
Transhuman technology meanwhile, is the technology that one might use in order to accomplish this; including things like gene therapy, bionics and artificial intelligence. And someone who has successfully used transhuman technologies in order to enhance themselves? That would be a posthuman.
What makes all this particularly fascinating though and highly relevant, is the fact that many of the technologies we would need in order to start advancing mankind in this way already exist. Either that, or they are on the verge of being developed to a usable condition. What’s more incredible still, is that many of the technologies will one day be simple and affordable enough that they could be carried out in a home-made lab with only a modest investment.
This is a very real ethical and cultural debate that will be coming to the fore over the next decade and probably in the next few years. The question is, where will you stand on all this? Of course it’s an area that should be of great fascination to anyone interested in self-development, productivity, nootropics, bodybuilding or biohackers…
It wouldn’t be a detailed guide to transhumanism if we didn’t discuss the history at least a little. Going back to the beginning then, the first transhuman proposals were possibly those postulated by the Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, whose essay ‘Science and the Future’ discussed some transhuman concepts very early on. Unfortunately, Haldane was also interested in eugenics which is an association that the transhumanist movement generally tries to avoid.
Haldane’s essay prompted a response from a crystallographer from Cambridge, whose essay ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’ discussed how transhuman technologies could aid in space colonization – an idea that is generally popular among transhumanists.
The first use of the term ‘transhumanism’ is generally credited to Julian Huxley, who some consider the founder of transhumanism. In his article, he put forward an argument for human enhancement very similar to the one used by transhumanists today.
Of course, as technology has developed, so transhumanism has become increasingly a relevant discussion while the web has also aided the proliferation of such ideals. This is also why we’re seeing it referenced with increasing regularity in fiction.
Interestingly, there are now many ‘currents’ within transhumanism as different leading thinkers have different things to say on the subject. These schools of thought incude, but are not limited to:
Abolitionism: The idea that we have an obligation to use technology in order to end suffering for all sentient life.
Democratic transhumanism: A political movement emphasizing the use of transhuman technologies in supporting and promoting democracy
Extropianism: Advocates taking a ‘proactive’ approach to human evolution
Immortalism: The view that we should use technology in order to eliminate ageing and ideally achieve immortality through one means or another
Libertarian transhumanism: The synthesis of libertarianism and transhumanism
Postgenderism: The idea that we should evolve past gender via biotechnology and alternative means of reproduction
Singularitarianism: The belief in and desire for a technological ‘singularity’ – a point in time when technological advancement accelerates so rapidly as to create a kind of utopia
Technogaianism: A movement to use technologies in order to restore the environment – transhuman technology included. For instance, we might be able to make ourselves more ‘energy efficient’ were we to be smaller.
Some transhumanists meanwhile, such as the vocal advocate, designer and author of ‘Primo Posthuman’ Natasha Vita More, often talk about transhumanism as a form of self-expression – as an opportunity to design our own bodies the way we see fit and treat them almost like a canvas.
In many ways, it could be argued that mankind has always had an urge to expand beyond its boundaries and better itself – and that this has always been the aim of technology, ever since we first lit a fire. In that way, transhumanism might be considered simply a natural evolution.
While transhumanism has had an interesting past though, it is about to enter its most critical chapter yet as we are on the verge of realizing the technologies that would make posthumanism possible.
Top Transhuman Technologies
Before we go further, let’s take a look at some of the top transhuman technologies, where we are with them and what their implications are. We’ll break these down into some basic categories…
One of the most interesting technologies for a transhumanist, is genetic engineering. This is the use of various processes aimed at altering the expression of particular genes or even inserting new genetic material into the genome.
As you probably know, our DNA – stored within the nucleus of every cell – is the genetic ‘code’ that tells our body how to build and repair tissue. It contains everything you would need in order to grow a ‘new you’, only it’s a little more complicated than your average flat-pack furniture.
Nevertheless, we have managed now to identify the roles of many genes within the human body which allows us to say with some certainty what inserting new DNA will do, or ‘suppressing’ particular genes. We have learned this in part by using ‘knockout mice’ – mice with particular genes suppressed so that we can observe the outcome.
The tricky part is inserting said genetic material in to the cell in such a way that it will be likely to be accepted into the genome and then replicated as the cell divides. To do this, we must use a ‘vector’ which is a ‘transporter’. Currently the most popular option involves using a virus such as a retrovirus that has been genetically modified itself, and then getting that to infect the cells and multiply itself. The problem is that this isn’t a very accurate method: there is a risk that we could accidentally ‘overwrite’ important lines of genetic code this way which might lead to tumors and other problems. Furthermore, the use of a virus – even a harmless one – can trigger an immune response making it dangerous. We are able to modify retroviruses and make knockout mice because the genes are inserted into the germ cell before birth (the sperm or the egg). This is called ‘germ-line therapy’ as opposed to ‘somatic therapy’. Transhumanists are more interested in somatic gene therapy, as it gives the individual the ability to choose their genetic modifications.
For those who see genetic modification as desirable, there is hope. There are other vector options for instance that show promise, such as the use of injections, gene guns, magnetofection or even nanoparticles. Having your DNA altered by nanorobots… it sure doesn’t get much more science fiction than that. Another option involves treating stem cells from bone marrow and then injecting them back in to the body. This allows for more precision and removes the need for a viral vector. Using different viruses such as lentiviruses also may pose less risk.
It’s also possible to inject new DNA into the surrounding membrane of the cell and not into the nucleus itself. This way, the new DNA will be expressed, but it will not be replicated during cell division. This type of ‘non-insertional’ gene therapy is only temporary, but removes many of the potential risks. Non-insertional gene therapy can also be achieved using adeno-associated viruses. It’s worth noting that some cells – such as immune cells or liver cells – survive for decades.
And despite the current challenges facing genetic modification, the process has been used successfully in a therapeutic capacity in a number of instances.
Possible Transhuman Uses for Genetic Modification
These techniques have been developed primarily in order to treat a number of genetic conditions. Right now they aren’t 100% safe or effective, but in the next few years they may well be and we could use non-insertional gene doping relatively safely right now.
So what are the transhuman applications for this kind of technology?
Myostatin for Super Strength
One example would be to knock out the myostatin gene. This is a gene responsible – as you might have guessed – for producing the protein myostatin. Myostatin’s main role in the body appears to be the suppression of muscles and by removing it, we can see an immediate increase in muscle size and strength.
What’s really interesting though, is that this has already been achieved in mice (1). That’s right, ‘super mice’ with naturally exaggerated strength and muscle mass have been created through germ-line genetic modification. It led to no negative side effects either.
And in case you’re still not convinced this would be a viable treatment, consider that animals and humans have been recorded as having this mutation occur naturally. It can also be achieved through selected breading in certain species of animal. The ‘Belgian Blue Cow’ is a species of cow that all have this mutation. It’s even thought possible that some bodybuilders could have the mutation (or a variant on it). Flex Wheeler is reported to have claimed to have such a mutation.
So then bodybuilders, in the near future you could get a 30% boost in muscle mass – possibly even permanently – from a single injection.
Erythropoietin is a hormone responsible for the production of red blood cells. EPO can be used already as a performance enhancer, but using gene therapy it might be possible to provide this extra EPO production endogenously (2). In fact, this one is quite far along as the therapy has already been trademarked by Oxford Biomedica as ‘Repoxygen’ – intended to treat anemia (yeah right). It has also been proven in mice, but has yet to be extensively tested on human subjects.
Using these two methods of ‘gene doping’ (the term used when gene therapy is used for performance enhancement), it would already be possible to have someone who could lift much heavier items and run for sustained periods. I personally, would be most interested in a therapy to increase the ratio/activation of fast and super-fast muscle fiber – which is also very much on the cards.
Telomerase Gene Therapy
Not interested in becoming a super soldier? Then how about just living much longer?
By increasing the production of telomerase through gene therapy, researchers have managed to slow down ageing by 24% for mice – from a single treatment (3). Telomerase is an enzyme that is normally only active before birth in most cells and that works by ‘adding’ to the end of DNA sequences. In effect this means it repairs the ‘telomeres’, which are the non-essential ends of DNA. This is important, because a little DNA is lost during mitosis every time a cell splits. For a while, telomeres provide a ‘buffer’ ensuring no vital data is corrupted, but once the telomeres run out, information starts getting lost and we begin to age.
By increasing telomerase then, we can rebuild the telomeres and thus increase the number of divisions our DNA can go through before getting ground down. In the study, it was found that the treatment was more effective the earlier it was administered. In an earlier 2007 study, it was found that using the same process in germ-line gene therapy could extend the lifespan up to 40%.
This is only one process by which ageing may occur. Our cells are also bombarded constantly throughout our lives by ‘free radicals’ which can gradually cause them to deteriorate and even damage our DNA. Gene therapy may also be able to defend against this process however, by thickening the cell membranes. This would also make us less susceptible to radiation and even heat!
These are three big possible transhuman applications for gene doping, but there are many other potential uses. For instance, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to imagine inserting a gene to increase the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain (which could be done with non-insertional therapy). Endogenous modafinil anyone?
Bionics, in the transhuman sense, is the use of robotics in order to enhance the human condition. This might mean for instance, swapping out your arm for a robotic arm that can punch through walls ‘Deus Ex Human Revolution’ style. Already, some bionic limbs are demonstrably superior from the originals in some ways. The blades worn by amputee runners for instance, are in some cases more energy efficient than running on ‘normal legs’. Of course they’re inferior in many other ways, but it’s certainly possible to imagine how this might not be the case in future.
Replacing limbs is only one possible transhuman application of bionics however. At the same time, we might imagine one day being able to upgrade or augment our eyesight. ‘Bionic eyes’ already exist which (4) work by stimulating the optic nerve in order to create a low resolution representation of the outside world. One day this same technology could actually increase our resolution, allow us to see a greater range of wavelengths, or to experience augmented reality.
Brain chips have already been used in order to stimulate neurons for other aims too. A couple of patients for instance have already received ‘brain chips’ designed to stimulate the brain in such a way as to combat depression (full store here). We know that suppressing the areas of the brain relating to language can increase maths ability, while stimulating the memory centers can uncover lost memories – so imagine what could potentially come from stimulating the brain this way. This wouldn’t necessarily need an implant thanks to the possibility of ‘Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation’ that can work through the scalp.
Direct brain-computer interfaces are also an area of interest for transhumanists. Already there have been cases of paralyzed patients using brain implants in order to interface with machines and even surf the web, while some companies are already developing crude external ‘brain controllers’ for computer games and other applications. More life-changing though, might be the ability to implant a ‘harddrive’ into your brain to gain photographic memory, or even to increase your cognitive skills with some sort of built-in calculator…
Gene doping and bionics are only two examples of transhuman technologies that are in development/already available. Some of these are relatively mundane, while others are insanely ambitious.
It is a desire for many transhumanists for instance to actually upload themselves to the internet by encoding their consciousness. Others would like to have their brains removed and kept alive artificially – such that they would be able to control a robotic body. This might sound completely like science fiction, but terrifyingly monkey brains have already been kept alive outside of the body and still shown activity. This is what’s known as an ‘isolated brain’. One researcher has even managed the successful head transplant of a monkey (though the monkey died after seven days when the body rejected the new tissue). Here‘s the Wikipedia page of the late neurosurgeon who accomplished this disturbing feat, for your further, morbid reading.
Back to the less disturbing meanwhile, some people consider Iron Man-like endoskeletons (battle armour!) to be examples of transhumanism, while nanotechnology holds many potentials. Virtual reality could be considered almost transhuman and could certainly be used for transhuman applications (Lawnmower Man style!).
AI is also often discussed alongside other topics (read this on the Game of Life, it’s only loosely related but I think it holds the key to unlocking artificial intelligence). AI is the ‘posthuman’ that was never human to begin with. It’s also AI that might someday lead to the singularity – the point where technology begins to accelerate so quickly that the world becomes unrecognizable in no time at all. When you consider the technological advancements that a super-advanced AI would make possible, you can understand how this might happen.
Examples of ‘Posthumans’ Already Among Us
If you consider anyone who has used a transhuman technology in order to enhance themselves a posthuman (normally we reserve the term for those who have changed a significant amount, but go with it), then there are already transhumans living among us.
One great example is the legendary Kevin Warwick. Warwick is a researcher and figurehead for transhumanism who has used himself as a human guinea pig – going as far as to implant a microelectrode array into his own nervous system – allowing him to remotely control a robotic arm by moving his own arm and even to achieve a crude form of ‘telepathic’ communication with his wife who also received implants (5). It’s worth noting that the implant was eventually extracted due to mechanical failure – nevertheless it was a success in the meantime and a relatively non-invasive procedure.
Meanwhile, there also exists an entire underground movement of ‘grinders’ who are interested in using available technology to push the limits of the human body using themselves as human laboratories. As they put it on biohack.me they ‘hack [their] bodies with artifacts from the future-present’.
That’s right, this is going on right now. While there are some ambitious goals being thrown around on the forums, the most common biohack to be performed effectively is the neodymium magnet implant. Here a magnet is implanted in the nerve-dense tip of one finger and via a small surgical procedure. Because neodymium is such a strong magnet, it will actually vibrate slightly when in an electromagnetic field. This essentially gives the user a ‘sixth sense’ as they are able to detect the presence of fields which would otherwise be undetectable without external hardware.
In many ways though, you could consider transhuman technology to already be commonplace – it all depends on your definition of the word. If you consider transhuman technology to be anything that allows us to subjectively ‘improve’ the human condition, then really many things we use today could be considered examples.
An obvious candidate would be something like plastic surgery or even tattoos and piercings. If we consider that the people making these changes believe they are improving themselves through technology, then in a way that is transhuman.
Of course we normally reserve the term for less cosmetic changes and more significant alterations to the human ‘skill set’. In that case though, we might consider current performance enhancing techniques to be transhuman in a way. What about steroids or even caffeine for instance? Sure, neither of these are permanent, but then neither is non-insertional gene doping which we do generally consider transhuman. And yes, anabolic steroids have side effects that could be considered almost sub-human, but really any improvement is subjective and almost bound to come at some cost. Just try increasing your brain’s ability to focus for instance, without it also negatively affecting your creativity. Likewise, an increase in fast twitch muscle fibre could theoretically decrease slow-twitch fibre (proportionally at least) thus negatively impacting on endurance. Does that make it not transhumanism?
Some could even look at the web or smartphones as a type of transhumanism. We use them every day almost as an extension of ourselves and in that way a smartphone is almost an ‘exo-cortex’. A smartwatch or Google Glass only takes this further. And if an Iron Man suit is transhuman technology, why not shoes that give you extra jumping height?
In general, the weak definition of transhuman technology is likely to cause many debates moving forward and be a limiting factor. This is especially true when you consider the vast differences between proposed transhuman technologies. If you embrace transhumanism does that mean you embrace all of it? Can’t you be a fan of gene therapy while not supporting life extension… or vice versa? If we tar every technology with the same brush, it may well prevent safer and more viable technologies from becoming available.
With transhuman technologies, ideologies and objectives so varied and disparate, it’s no wonder that there are so many ‘currents’ within the larger movement.
The Ethical Debate
This brings us nicely to the small matter of ethics. Transhumanism has always been a divisive subject, owing to the massive implications it has for our entire way of life and the fact that it will impact on nearly every aspect of human existence.
I actually did my dissertation on the ‘Public Perception of the Ethics of Transhumanism’ which includes transcripts of focus group discussions. So if you’d like to see what an in-depth debate on the subject looks like, you can download that here.
As briefly mentioned, a concern for life extension would be the inflation for the population. Where would everyone go? And would we have enough supplies if we all lived 30% longer? One possible answer is space colonization, but we are currently much closer to extending the human lifespan than we are to being able to populate other planets.
Then there is the possibility of a worsening class divide. Imagine if only wealthy people could afford to become immune to disease, to increase the lifespan of their children in-utero, or to enhance their IQ. In such a scenario, you would create a genuine ‘second class citizen’.
You also need to think about where these technologies would likely find use first and foremost: the answer being sporting competitions and the military. What are the ethics behind a supersoldier? Perhaps one made not to feel pain? And how will sports cope with gene doping that is almost impossible to detect? Bodybuilders: how would you feel if the general population were suddenly able to get as strong as you with no need to do any actual training? You’d then possibly feel pressured into doing the same just in order to keep up (though this is already a bit of an issue in bodybuilding thanks to anabolic steroids). Again, this isn’t science fiction – these are questions we’ll be forced to answer in the next few years. Some experts even expected to see gene doping as early as the 2012 Olympics. We’ve missed that deadline, but it’s only a matter of time…
Perhaps my biggest complaint with some of the transhuman community is their disinterest in improving themselves through training. I can’t understand why someone would express an interest in a myostatin injection, and yet not already be working out. When that’s the case, you can’t help but wonder if people are looking for an ‘easy solution’. And wouldn’t that cheapen the journey somewhat? Shouldn’t strength be earned? (I’ll weigh in with my detailed views on the ethics of transhumanism in a future post).
Then there are questions regarding what it might do to our identity as ‘humans’ and the religious aspect. What could happen to us were we to start playing God and leave behind our humanity? And while it might sound like the stuff of comic books… what if it got into the hands of the wrong people? We could have genuine ‘supervillains’.
On the other hand, a transhumanist might argue that it should be our human right to express and change ourselves in any way we desire. That we could use transhuman technologies to end suffering, lead to greater advancements in other areas, expand into the stars and cure the planet. Some people are concerned that transhumanism would lead to us all looking the same as ‘perfect’ Ken and Barbie dolls, but transhumanists themselves say the opposite would be true – that we’d finally be able to change our bodies to demonstrate our personalities and to serve our interests and hobbies. Transhumanism could open us up to whole new experiences and it could actually help us to remove inequality by giving us all the means to be the best versions of ourselves – the way we interpret that.
We have always had an urge to expand ourselves and to test our limits and many of the breakthroughs we enjoy today were the result of taking risks. Show a car to someone from the 17th Century and they would probably tell you it was unethical and unsafe. They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong either, but does that mean we should have never invented the automobile?
Truth is, I don’t know the answer, but if we never try… then we’ll never know.