Engineering the human. How can you engineer yourself into a superhuman? Are there limits to engineering human beings? And what are the ethics and philosophy behind the development of a superhuman species? 5 methods explained with examples, including embryo selection and designer babies. How will these developments influence our future? What kind of impact will they have?
What is the definition of a “superhuman”? The ‘superhuman’ is a human that is not just shaped by biology. The concept holds that through different types of interventions, humans will be able to modify, enhance and improve themselves in the future. In other words: engineering themselves into superhumans.
What kind of modifications would you want to make, if you had the chance? Perhaps you would opt for having a higher level of intelligence. Or for extending your life expectancy [link at the bottom]. Maybe you would want to change your personality, because you wish you weren’t so introverted? In fact, that’s something that I can personally relate to. Or perhaps you would like to enhance your physical and athletic performance.
New technologies, such as gene therapy, adding electronic devices to your body, and medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, open up a whole new range of possibilities.
As part of the Elevate Talks series, at the Photo Festival in Breda (the Netherlands) in October 2018, I gave a keynote on ‘the Superhuman Society’. Check out the video below.
My keynote on the Superhuman Society
At the Biohacker Summit 2018 in Stockholm (Sweden), I also gave a presentation on this topic. You can find the slides later on in this article. Check out the video below.
My presentation about the Superhuman Era
Becoming a Superhuman (5x)
How can you become a Superhuman? The fact that we can even ask ourselves this question in the first place, is thanks to a myriad of scientific and technological developments. It’s also a question that is closely related to schools of thought such as transhumanism and posthumanism [link below]. Essentially, these philosophical movements assert that humans have taken evolution into their own hands, and that we are now able to ‘engineer’ human nature.
Proponents of transhumanism believe in a utopian society, in which everyone has been upgraded. They also believe that we should do everything in our power to enhance and improve humanity – be it through mechanical, medical, genetic or pharmaceutical methods.
So what does that mean?
#1 Mechanical. Essentially: replacing body parts with electronic materials. Think of a digital eye or mechanical legs, for instance, which would enable us to jump higher or run faster. I personally refer to this form of enhancement as ‘Human Augmentation’.
#2 Medical. We are constantly learning more about what causes certain diseases, and how they can be cured. Two important developments in this realm include nanotechnology and artificial intelligence [links below].
#3 Genetic. DNA strands are the building blocks of life. At the moment, we are already capable of using gene therapy to cure deadly diseases caused by a defect in one specific gene. In the future, we might also be able to analyze and edit genes in order to enhance ourselves.
#4 Pharmaceutical. In line with #2 and #3: pharmaceutical companies are gaining more and more insight into the efficacy of various medications and supplements. Apart from moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and moving towards personalized medicine, we’ll also increasingly start using pills in order to boost or upgrade ourselves. Taking health supplements or nootropics – pills that enhance your cognitive skills – is a well-known example of this.
In addition to these 4 methods, there’s another way to engineer humans: engineering them before they are born, through embryo selection or designer babies. More about this method (#5) later on in this article.
In february 2018, I gave a presentation on the Superhuman at the Health Business Week, organized by Erasmus University Rotterdam. You can check out a video of my presentation below.
Limits to engineering the human species
What are the limits to engineering Superhumans? Futurologist Gerd Leonard has proposed some interesting ideas about that, looking at the role of a whole range of new technologies that are currently being developed.
Take ‘brain computer interfacing’ for instance. Serial entrepreneur Peter Diamandis predicts that in 2034, we’ll be able to connect the human brain to the internet.
Another aspect that could play a major role in the formation of an ‘engineerable’ superhuman – in addition to brain-related interventions – is genetic manipulation. On the one hand, gene therapy raises the possibility to cure a number of terrible diseases, such as Huntington’s disease. In fact, by modifying genes at the germ cell level, we could even stop such diseases from being passed on to future generations.
On the other hand, we also need to ask ourselves: how far are we willing to go? Where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide? How do we define health and disease?
It’s clear that this is a very complicated question. That’s why I’ve recently become even more interested in the philosophy of technology and in bioethics [link below].
What if we don’t necessarily want to be superhumans ourselves, but we do want to create them? A term that is often cited by media outlets these days, is ‘designer babies’. This refers to parents selecting the best possible embryo when conceiving a child.
In a way, this is already happening right now, through something called ‘amniocentesis’. Amniocentesis is a prenatal test that assesses whether a baby has chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome. In the United States, this process is already being taken one step further. An American company called Counsyl offers the possibility to do a full prenatal screening, which also detects any mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes [link below]. Mutations of these genes are associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Book: ‘Make way for the Superhumans’ [link below]. This book has really shaped how I feel and what I think about this topic.
So what if we, as humans, would go one step further? Imagine if we wouldn’t just use these developments to eliminate certain diseases, but to specifically select desirable genetic characteristics and traits in our offspring. For instance, selecting our children’s biological sex, their physical traits – such as length and disposition to obesity – or cognitive skills such as intelligence and memory.
That could lead to a scenario like the one in the science fiction movie Gattaca. In this movie, the ‘valids’ are people who are born with enhanced and superior genes; they hold the best jobs in society and have the highest quality of life. There is a big disparity with the ‘invalids’, those who are conceived naturally and without any genetic enhancements – they are doomed to a life of inferiority and poverty.
In today’s society, we are already facing huge challenges with regards to social and economic inequality. What if only the rich will be able to carry out embryo selection or genetic modification? That would only amplify the inequality gap.
Ethics and philosophy
According to futurologist Gerd Leonard, we’re reaching an era where ethics and philosophy are becoming increasingly important. If technology opens up the possibility to engineer ourselves, does that automatically mean that we should?
I personally really enjoyed a Dutch documentary series called “the Perfect Human” (De Volmaakte Mens). One episode featured political philosopher Michael Sandel, who was interviewed by Dutch journalist Bas Heijne. Sandel called the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering “promising and incredibly dangerous”. In his opinion, we need to be very cautious, as we could end up living in a world that only caters to the superhumans.
Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Or are these technological breakthroughs inevitable anyway, and would we be selling ourselves short if we didn’t benefit from all the options out there? After all, wanting to enhance, augment and develop ourselves, is inherent to being human.
It’s also important to realize that technological developments and innovation aren’t always driven by ‘objective’ incentives. In ‘Sapiens’, author Yuval Noah Harari explains that science always develops in relation to power dynamics, as well as economic, cultural and religious dynamics. In light of this observation, the current obsession with military technology – such as DARPA in the United States – is somewhat worrying [link below].
When it comes to the desire to upgrade ourselves, it’s very important to know why we want to do so and what kind of consequences this might have. Right now, we actually know very little about either of those aspects. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari writes: ‘Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’
In a popular science magazine called ‘Skepter’, emeritus professor Piet Borst explained why he isn’t sold on the idea of a ‘Superhuman’: “The concept of an ‘engineerable’ Superhuman isn’t just nonsense from a biological point of view, but it’s also counterproductive on a political level – policy makers are so focused on creating equal opportunities for everyone, that they fail to take into account the huge differences in starting capital.”
Concerning ‘starting capital’, Borst is referring to the genes that we inherit from our parents and the environment that we grow up in. If we were to create a superhuman society, we would face the risk that these opportunities would be even more unfair and asymmetrical – enhancement opportunities might only be accessible to those who can afford them. So if you already have ‘good’ genes and a ‘good’ environment at your disposal, you’ll essentially be able to give yourself an extra, additional upgrade.
How do we define which upgrades we consider ‘normal’ and which ones we perceive as ‘excessive’? In a Dutch documentary series, biohacker Josiah Zayner shared his thoughts on that [link below]. Josiah is the founder and owner of a biohacking startup called ‘The Odin’. He was featured in an episode that focused on genetic modification and CRISPR/Cas9. “This technology should be accessible to everyone, not just to scientists or the health sector. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to decide how I want to modify myself, like we do with piercings or tattoos? Why should anyone want to stop me from growing wings? Or a tail?’
I also gave a presentation on this topic at the Biohacker Summit 2018 in Stockholm. You can find a link to the slides at the bottom of this page.
Whose responsibility is it, ultimately, to determine whether a technology should or shouldn’t be used? Should such decisions be made by a person, a government, a doctor or someone else? Marli Huijer is a doctor and a philosopher. In an interview with ‘De Volkskrant’, she expressed her concerns. “Governments don’t have a say in this anymore. […] Corporations will always promote new technologies, because that’s how they can make a lot of money.”
According to her, we can already see this when it comes to individuals who use apps and gadgets to track and monitor their health or lifestyle. “At the end of the day, money is the main motivation. It’s economic forces that determine which apps and gadgets are on the market. There aren’t enough social and political counterforces to balance that out.”
I do understand her point, but I personally have a more optimistic perspective on this. That’s because we’ve experienced unexpected, rapid technological progress before. Plus, we actually have commercial enterprises to thank for a lot of those innovative technological developments. The way Tesla disrupted the car industry is just one example.
I do agree with Marli that it’s important to have some social counterforces in place to preserve the balance. After all, it isn’t always clear yet what kind of impact a technology might have. No one can predict the consequences or implications of new technologies – I previously elaborated on this in an article about technology ethics as well [link at the bottom].
In the beginning of Michael Bess’ book ‘Make way for the superhumans’, Bess mentions something called the ‘Jetson fallacy’. This refers to an American cartoon show called ‘The Jetsons’, which was created in 1967. In the Jetsons’ world, which is set in 2067, everything has changed: there are flying cars, printers that can print our food, and there are robots everywhere.
The only thing that hasn’t changed, are humans themselves. Essentially, the fictional characters living in 2067 are completely similar to how people lived in 1967. Not just physically, but also in terms of cognitive, emotional and cultural traits.The father of the family is clumsy and awkward at dealing with his family, and the mother is still the one who does the housekeeping.
In a way, it makes sense. We tend to expect that we humans won’t really change all that much in the future. But in fact, the technological developments that I wrote about at the beginning of this article, are going to have a gigantic impact on our human traits as well. Technology is going to change our understanding of what it means to be human.
Yuval Noah Harari wrote about this notion extensively in his book ‘Homo Deus’ [link below]. In the future, there will be a contrast between the ‘natural‘ humans and the ‘superhumans’. This will lead to social and political tensions. What if you don’t have the financial means to upgrade yourself? Or what if you simply don’t want to?
If you choose not to use a smartphone in today’s society, you’ll have a relative disadvantage compared to the rest of society (who are using one). But this is just a small discrepancy compared to the inequalities that could be generated by the technological upgrades of the future: what if you could suddenly become much smarter, stronger and healthier?
The biggest mistake we could make, is to think that the inevitable technological developments that are taking place regarding the medical sector, electronic devices, genetics and the pharmaceutical sector, will not change us as humans. Because all of those developments will change us one way or the other: be it in a physical, cognitive, emotional or social capacity.
Even if we won’t live to experience these changes ourselves, they will definitely play a role in the lives of the next generations to come. I personally have no idea how those changes and developments will play out. Will our children (generally speaking – I personally don’t have any kids yet) and grandchildren live in a world like in ‘Brave New World’? In this book, all humans are genetically and pharmaceutically customized to such an extent, that they live in a fully controllable and containable environment.
Would that make our lives as human beings boring? Or would it be the other way around: can the existence of superhumans make our lives more exciting? Because they can use their infinite cognitive capabilities, physical strength and perfect health to the fullest?
Which option would you prefer? And do we actually still have a choice?
In 2019 I interviewed professor Michael Bess (Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennesee in the United States). Check out the interview below.
Interview with professor Michael Bess
In 2018, Hannes Sjoblad and I gave a presentation at Epicenter, an innovation house in Amsterdam. I also interviewed Hannes – check out the video below.
Interview with Hannes Sjoblad
I also gave a presentation about this topic at the Biohacker Summit 2018 in Stockholm. Finnish entrepreneur and nutrition expert Jaakko Halmetoja gave a presentation where he shared a similar perspective, so I interviewed him to find out more. Check out the interview below.
Interview with Jaakko Halmetoja
Keynote speaker Superhumans
I gave a presentation on this topic at the University of Hasselt in April 2019.
Check out the slides below.
Presentation ‘The Superhuman Society’, which I gave at the University of Hasselt in Belgium.
I also spoke about this topic at a conference in Tilburg (the Netherlands) in February 2018. Afterwards, I received a testimonial by the organizers of the ‘Supermensch, the makeable evolution’ conference at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg.
“Peter was one of the speakers at our conference: “Supermensch, the makeable evolution”. As 3rd year students of Art, Communication and Design at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, we joined forces and organized a conference about gene-editing.
Peter presented and explained the subject from various points of view. It was an extremely interesting and enjoyable presentation, which was also reflected in the feedback given by the audience. We look forward to hearing more from Peter in the future!”
Lonneke Frenken, co-organizer ‘Supermensch, the Makeable Evolution’ conference (Tilburg)
Would you like to find out more about this topic? Feel free to contact me if you have any questions! Please reach out if you would like to invite me to give a talk or presentation for a corporate event, conference or symposium.
Take a look at my keynote page for an overview of previous keynotes and presentations I’ve given in the past.
I’ve previously written the following articles related to this topic:
- What is the definition of the superhuman?
- What is transhumanism?
- What is human enhancement?
- What is biohacking?
These are the external links that I’ve used:
How do you feel about the concept of ‘engineerable’ humans? Leave a comment!