More Than Human: The Promise of Biological Enhancement

April 5, 2005

MORE THAN HUMAN:Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

The Bright Side of Biotechnology

The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible. 
— Arthur C. Clarke

Ridley Scott’s excellent and influential 1982 film Blade Runner — based on a Philip K. Dick novel — introduces us to the Tyrel Corporation, a kind of bioengineering firm writ insanely large. Tyrel manufactures robot animals as well as humanoid Replicants, androids that equal or exceed human capabilities and are used for “off-world labor.” Slaves, in other words. The film depicts one of cinema’s great futuristic dystopias, in which out-of-control technology has stripped Earth of virtually all life forms and replaced them with ersatz machines. Tyrel’s Replicant motto: “More Human Than Human.”

Author Ramez Naam gives a nod to Blade Runner with the title of his book, but his outlook on the future of biotechnology is much sunnier. Naam suggests that the intersection of machine and man is an inevitable and indeed natural process in the evolution of our species. His book explores the many scientific, social and ethical issues surrounding what can be broadly termed as “biological enhancement.” This includes genetic engineering, stem-cell research, cloning, performance-enhancing drugs and human-machine integration.

For the reader appreciative of cogently investigated pop science, this is fascinating stuff. As a scholarly statement, More Than Human is sufficiently meaty — Naam provides thorough annotations and footnotes as he guides us through various case studies. The writing style is friendly and clear, and he populates the book with stories of real people — the scientists, doctors, researchers and patients at the event horizon of biological enhancement technologies.

Take, for example, the case of Johnny Ray, a 53-year-old patient who became paralyzed from the neck down following a massive stroke, leaving him essentially unable to communicate. One of Ray’s doctors, neurologist Phil Kennedy, won US Food and Drug Administration approval in 1998 to conduct a human trial procedure in which wireless electrodes were attached directly to the brain. After a period of recovery and training, Ray was able to move the cursor on a computer monitor simply by thinking about it, thereby enabling him to communicate. Similar cases followed, and this nascent field of biotechnology is flourishing today. Of the Johnny Ray case, Naam writes:

Under Kennedy’s guidance, Ray would think about moving his left hand: up if he wanted the cursor to move up, down if he wanted the cursor to move down, and so on. As he imagined moving his hand, the electrode in his brain picked up the signals of the few neurons near it and broadcast those to a nearby computer. The computer in turn moved the cursor. Something amazing was happening. A human was just thinking about something and a computer was responding. It was the stuff of science fiction.

This is typical of Naam’s approach, passionate and rather wide-eyed. Naam points out that there are a quarter million paraplegics in the U.S. alone, and it’s easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm when a human-machine interface provides such fantastic and unmitigated benefit.

The book is less convincing when it covers more complex scenarios, such as the wide-open area of genetic engineering. This is a particularly controversial topic these days, and with good reason. Science and technology do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of the fabric of our civilization and intricately linked with social, legal, ethical and economic concerns. Naam addresses this reality, but often frames his arguments in terms that many will find far too optimistic. Take for instance certain “gene therapy” treatments that have been proven to extend the life span of laboratory mice (more accurately put, these treatments slow the aging process.) Naam suggests that these genetic experiments not only could be applied to humans, but should be applied as soon as they are proven safe and reliable.

Perhaps they should. But who, exactly, will determine when such enhancements are indeed safe and reliable? You may have noticed a few headlines of late concerning drugs being pulled off the market. Many now openly question the efficacy of the FDA — or any government regulatory agency — at curbing the capitalist inclinations of the pharmaceutical industry. If there’s a huge demand for arthritis pain medications, imagine the market for a pill that adds 30 years to your life. History (and common sense) suggests such a medicine will have a market — regulated or not. Legal or not. Safe or not.

It’s to Naam’s credit that he raises these issues — the trouble is that he does not resolve them convincingly. There are other examples throughout in the book of this basic problem. Naam details instances of potentially awesome biological enhancement, then runs them through a battery of best-case scenarios in which corporations behave ethically, governments serve efficiently, and society as a whole functions with humane, progressive, enlightened self-interest.

Would that it were so. For readers who see specters of the Tyrel corporation in headlines every day, Naam’s relentlessly optimistic take on the future of biotechnology is a tough pill to swallow. That said, the book’s final chapter, titled “Life Without Limits,” is compelling. Here Naam passionately and intelligently argues his case in toto, and his vision is so articulate, so attractive, that you may find yourself persuaded. Technological progress is inevitable, and the sci-fi scenarios put forth in the book are not that far off. We will be dealing with these issues in our lifetime, and Naam provides a fascinating — and hopeful — point of view. Someone has to look on the bright side of things — let’s hope Naam’s vision is prophetic. Can’t hurt.

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