Human Enhancement. What’s that? What’s wrong with improving yourself, whether with technology or supplements? This is because of the impact that the actions of an individual can have on society. This offers opportunities, but also risks and dangers.
What is human enhancement?
Within my Biohacking Model, human enhancement is one of the three pillars, in addition to self-tracking and human performance improvement. The definition of “human enhancement” is the use of biomedical technologies that have purposes other than the cure or prevention of diseases.
Consider, for example, bionic components such as in the movie Ghost in the Shell (image at the top).
Human enhancement explanation
A 2008 report by Etag, a collaboration of a number of European research institutes, defines human enhancement as follows: “modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body” [link at the bottom].
In the section about the meaning of human enhancement, I formulate a number of definitions to make the distinction with other terms such as biohacking, transhumanism, human augmentation and cybernetic improvement.
Anyway, human enhancement raises all kinds of questions. How perfect can we make ourselves? How perfect do we want to make ourselves? What is the effect on ourselves and on the society around us?
Below is a summary with the most important points.
#1 Human enhancement involves the use of technological means to improve people. Unlike the use of technology in healthcare, these methods are applied to healthy individuals.
#2 Improvement technologies where I currently see the most potential are genetic modification and mechanical adaptations (in the form of bionic limbs). Pharmaceutical enhancers are currently used the most.
#3 Proponents believe that the use of technologies for improvement is something that makes us human. Opponents believe that it damages our autonomy and humanity. Our defects and mistakes make us human.
#4 Human enhancement has an enormous impact on all kinds of domains, including geopolitical relations, warfare, legislation and sport. For that reason it is complex to make independent assessments here as an individual or country.
#5 As far as I am concerned, the discussion about human enhancement remains separate from dogmas, such as “technology is by definition good or bad.” My vision is that we consider whether each technological application is in line with our principles.
In the remainder of this article these points will be discussed, with substantiation and other insights.
This article is structured as follows.
- Part 1 deals with the meaning of the term human enhancement, including the similarities and differences with other terms.
- In part 2 I describe a number of examples, including a few ways to classify these examples.
- In part 3 methods are discussed, including genetic, mechanical, pharmaceutical and medical methods.
- In part 4 I focus on the proponents and opponents of human enhancement, followed by the opinion of Americans and Dutch people.
- Part 5 is about the impact of improvement technologies, for example in the field of geopolitics and sport.
- Part 6 deals with the ethical issues surrounding human improvement.
- In part 7 I focus on the possible long-term consequences.
- In part 8 I discuss what actions we can take to steer the development of human enhancement in the right direction.
- In part 9 I share my conclusion.
After the conclusion, in part 10 I discuss a number of books, series and films on this theme. Finally you will find all links in the reading list at the bottom of the article.
In this part I write about the meaning of human enhancement and the difference with other terms used in this domain.
Human enhancement definition
For clarification, I provide a brief description of other terms that overlap with human enhancement:
- Biohacking is the self-improvement of the human body with (experimental) technology. This includes unconventional methods such as DIY grinders that put electronics into their bodies or bio-hackers who want to genetically modify themselves;
- transhumanism is a philosophical movement that strives to break through biological boundaries, including aging;
- human augmentation is adding or expanding functions to the human body;
I will certainly not deny that other authors and experts interpret the terms differently, but this is the distinction that I use.
I myself notice that the difference between biohacking and human enhancement is the most diffuse. The difference that I understand is that human enhancement can also be offered by a (commercial) organization, such as the brain chips from Neuralink which I describe later. Biohacking has an emphatic experimental context, which can be traced back to the ideas of computer hackers and the open source movement.
The term “human enhancement” is often used in scientific literature on human enhancement, even more so than the term “biohacking”. I discussed this in my interview for the podcast with professor Maartje Schermer from the Erasmus University [link at the bottom].
When I first came into contact with human enhancement, I immediately made the link with the computer game Deus Ex. In it you could buy certain modifications for your body, such as bionic eyes for night vision, an implant for more stability in your hand or mechanical legs to run faster.These examples coincide closely with my definition of both human enhancement and human augmentation.
Cybernetic enhancements translation
A term that is often used in English is “cybernetic enhancements.” Cybernetics stands for science that deals with the control of biological and mechanical systems with the help of feedback.
The term is also used to indicate the physical fusion between man and machine. The human body is enriched or replaced with electronic or mechanical components.
From that description, which is shared by Alex Pearlman, I list cybernetic improvement under human augmentation [link at the bottom].
Vision: NBIC convergence
The book Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society [link at the bottom] was published in 2006 under the editorship of William Sims Bainbridge. As the title suggests, this book introduces the concept of NBIC convergence. By this they mean the coming together of a number of technological developments that mutually reinforce each other.
One of the objectives of NBIC is to maintain and improve human performance. The authors and researchers are thinking, among other things, of improving sensory capacity in aging, the use of implants and brain-computer interfaces.
Their defined objective is essentially human enhancement, which means that I see NBIC as a vision or method to achieve human improvement.
In addition to the definitions of Human Augmentation, cybernetics enhancement and NBIC convergence, there are a number of criteria that I want to test against human enhancement.
I further explain these criteria below.
Cure or improvement
This is the best known distinction within (biomedical) technology. Take the implantation of electronic equipment in the human body. In the case of a pacemaker, a patient is helped. But if you, as an individual, use technology to improve yourself, like if I had a chip put into myself, then it is seen as improvement [link at the bottom].
Individual versus collective
Is it a choice that you make yourself or that is made for you? In the current world view, methods from above are unlikely to be imposed. This was discussed with I, professor Maartje Schermer: “Can you also consider vaccinations to be human enhancement?” After all, you are born without the resistance to certain viruses.
However, I don’t think this is human enhancement. The reason for this is that it is a method that is available to everyone and is generally accepted.
In line with the previous point, our perspective of what is accepted may change over time. Where we now see some interventions as improvement, the new can be normal for future generations. Take coffee, for example. When this was introduced and the first drinkers had experienced the uplifting feeling, coffee was not as matter-of-course as it is now. In the context of that time, coffee would fall under human enhancement.
Temporary or permanent
This is the extent to which an improvement method is temporary or permanent. Take something like vision. Like a smart contact lens, as is currently being developed by Samsung [link at the bottom]. According to a patent application, the manufacturer wants you to take photos with the lens, information is projected onto the screen and connected to your smartphone.
You can argue whether this falls under human enhancement or not. If the technology were still experimental and not yet socially accepted, then according to the previous criteria it would fall under human enhancement. This is in contrast to regular glasses, contact lenses and clothing.
A bionic eye, such as in science-fiction films such as Terminator, can easily be classified as human enhancement in that regard. This is because it involves a permanent improvement with extra capacities such as night vision, zooming in and recording images.
The context determines when something is accepted or not. In this article I come back to top sport quite often. The reason for this is that sport is a fantastic testing ground to think about. For example, Erythropoietin (EPO) promotes the growth of red blood cells from the bone marrow. In a sport such as cycling it is forbidden, while in healthcare it is sometimes used for patients who have difficulty producing red blood cells.
Realistic versus vision
This is the extent to which a technique or method for human improvement is real. Take the bionic eye. As far as I am concerned, it is not yet part of human enhancement, as it is not yet technically possible. There are certainly a number of visions of human improvement within the current movement of transhumanism that are now only fantasy or in a very primitive phase of research. As far as I am concerned, a technology falls under human enhancement if it is available, even if it is for a limited group.
What are examples of human enhancement?
Human Enhancement examples
Human Enhancement is the use of technology to make a healthy person even healthier, a fit person even fitter and a smart person even smarter. This is the definition that Thomas Douglas has given to this in his article from 2008 [link at the bottom].
The use of technology to make sick people better is socially acceptable. That is not a human improvement and is not part of human enhancement.
What benefits can it bring? In my mind map there is a categorization that I briefly describe below:
- Cognition: more intelligence;
- Physical: more strength, speed, agility, etc.
- Emotional: better recognizing and expressing emotions;
- Health: better physical condition, longer life;
- Spiritual: transcendental and spiritual improvement;
- Moral: improving character and acting ethically;
- Sensory: expansion or improvement of senses such as vision, hearing, etc.
- Hive mind: mutual connection in a larger context, such as telepathy;
In my other articles on this theme, such as transhumanism and the future of man, these categories are further elaborated [link at the bottom].
Human enhancement classifications
There are various classifications of methods for human enhancement. In this article I will highlight two:
- 1 Rathenau Instituut
- 2 Makeable Man book
Below I elaborate and explain the classifications.
Classification 1: Rathenau Instituut
The first classification comes from the Rathenau Institute. In 2016 I organized a Meetup where Jelte Timmer, who was working at Rathenau at the time, gave a lecture. For the Meetup I interviewed him for my YouTube channel [link at the bottom].
The distinction that Rathenau makes is from non-invasive (out of body) to invasive (in body).
Out of body + measuring.
Out of body + help.
In or on body + not permanent.
In body + permanent.
#1 Outside body + measuring. This is quantified self [link at the bottom]. Technology measures, monitors and provides feedback on our behavior. Technology works here as an extra sense organ and measuring instrument.
#2 Outside body + help. A form associated with the previous one where technology will also help us. Take Crystal, a service that provides advice on your social relationships and communication on the internet based on your personal data [link at the bottom].
#3 In or on body + not permanent. This is a fairly broad category, so I will give a few examples:
- Biohackers who wanted to develop infrared vision by taking certain supplements [link at the bottom]
- Swallowing supplements or even microdoses of LSD to improve cognition [link at the bottom];
- Placing electrodes on the skull that send a small weak current through your brain for more focus and concentration [link at the bottom];
The first two examples are in the body and the last example is technology on the body.
#4 In body + permanent. This is when you are going to implant electronics into your body. This is a separate subculture from so-called “DIY grinders”. I also did this myself, with the NFC chip in my hand [link at the bottom].
However, the definition of when a certain technology falls under human enhancement is not entirely clear. To illustrate that, I give a few examples that, in my opinion, do not fall under human enhancement:
- In category 1 (outside + measuring): if you write in a paper booklet to keep track of your training sessions;
- In category 2 (outside + helping): if you go to school to increase your knowledge;
- In category 3 (in or on + not permanent): wearing glasses or contact lenses to improve your vision;
- In category 4 (in + permanent): a cochlear implant to hear or a pacemaker to support the heart rhythm.
The characteristic of these cases is that they are widely accepted methods or techniques. This is not the case with human enhancement, in which a technique is not used or accepted by everyone.
Classification 2: Makeable Man book
In the book Makeable Man Christoph Lüthy makes another classification:
- #1 improvement of existing functions, such as cosmetics and doping;
- #2 adjustment and selection methods in the reproduction of human individuals;
- #3 replacement or extension of natural by artificial bodily interactions, such as organ replacement or cyborg creation;
- #4 methods to adjust behavior.
Personally, I don’t think the fourth category falls under human enhancement. The reason for this is that these are non-permanent interventions that usually apply to groups. Examples of this are the government that wants to encourage citizens to smoke less with cigarette duty, companies that want to use marketing campaigns to convince consumers to buy their products and parents who want to teach their children to eat healthily.
In this part I write about a number of methods and applications of human enhancement.
Human enhancement methods
In this part I describe a number of methods of improving people. A category that I have left out of this are brain implants. The reason for this is that the application in healthy people (the definition of human enhancement) is even further away in time. You can read more about this in other articles, including neurotechnology, the future of man and transhumanism [links at the bottom].
I describe the following methods and applications in this article:
I elaborate on the methods below.
Method: genetic modification
A method that has been in the media a lot in recent years is genetic modification, also known as genetic manipulation or genetic engineering [link at the bottom]. With CRISPR / cas9 technology you can change the building blocks or operating system of the life of an organism, such as a human, animal, plant, bacteria or virus. Even more far-reaching is that the changes can also be passed on to subsequent generations.
It is therefore possible to replace natural selection with artificial selection. A development that has been going on for some time, but is now becoming more focused and specific. In some cases this is reasonable. For example, there are (hereditary) disorders that are caused by a mutation on one gene, such as Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. The social consensus at the moment is that it is good to use CRISPR / cas9 for this, if safe to do so.
It is different when we decide to start using this technology to remedy conditions that are not life threatening. Think of changing the color of the eyes, improving intelligence or making sure that you are less likely to become bald. It becomes even more exciting when you think of social intervention: switching off the genes that are related to alcoholism or violence.
That is again the difference between healing and improving. Sometimes that is a gray area, take body height. For example, footballer Lionel Messi received injections of human growth hormone from an early age to help his body to grow [link at the bottom]. Is that under healing or improvement?
Professor George Church is a prominent scientist and pioneer in the field of genetics and genetic modification. Halfway through 2019, he published a list of a number of genes that lead to improved human traits in the correct mutation [link at the bottom].
- LRP5: stronger bones;
- MSTN: larger muscles;
- FAAH-OUT: lower sensitivity to pain;
- PCSK9: better resistance to cardiovascular disease;
- GRIN2B: memory improvement;
- BDKRB2: being able to hold the breath for a long time;
Some genes in his list have remarkable qualities, such as ABCC11. A mutation on this gene is linked to the production of less sweat. He also gives examples of adverse effects of some genes. The mutation on PCSK9 with the advantage of better resistance to cardiovascular diseases can also lead to an increased risk of diabetes.
In short, you will have to make trade-offs here.
The Lulu and Nana case
A gene that Church had also included in his overview is CCR5. You may be familiar with this gene. At the end of 2018, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui was in the news [link at the bottom]. He wanted to change this gene in two Chinese babies, Lulu and Nana. The advantage of this mutation is that it makes them resistant to HIV.
Apart from other problems with the procedure by He Jiankui (among other things that the procedure was not permitted by law, there are doubts about whether the permission of the parents was granted and that the genetic cut probably did not go well), Church has included in his overview that the CCR5 mutation also leads to an increased risk of contracting the West Nile virus [link at the bottom].
The example of Lulu and Nana illustrates the rapid pace at which reproductive technology is developing. I spoke about this in a podcast interview with professor Sjoerd Repping of the VU Medical Center in Amsterdam [link below].
For example, there is already talk about making egg cells from skin cells, which makes it possible for two men to also play the role of genetic father and genetic mother [link at the bottom].
Future genetic improvement
A common mechanism within human enhancement is that a method is initially developed in (medical) science to help patients. The next step is that it is used by non-patients to improve themselves.
The question is whether this also plays a role in the editing of genes. Scientific progress continues to help patients (or their future offspring) with a genetic disorder. The gray area is to determine when there is healing and when there is improvement. Take the earlier example of the height of Lionel Messi. Is changing genes so that your child becomes taller a form of healing or improvement?
These questions are difficult to answer unambiguously. As I have argued before, the answers we provide are time-dependent and culturally determined.
Do it yourself
The examples in the previous paragraphs related to the processing of genes in embryos. But is it also possible to adjust your genes if you are already an adult? The answer to this is yes, although little is known about efficacy and effect.
The first (experimental) treatments are already being done with this in medicine. In leukemia patient Emily Whitehead, for example, the immune cells were genetically modified to make them stronger [link at the bottom]. Another example is the treatment of certain eye disorders with gene therapy [link at the bottom].
It becomes more ethically exciting when it comes to healthy people who want to improve themselves genetically. A number of examples that are also covered in other articles on my blog:
- Elizabeth Parrish claims that she has been able to rejuvenate her body with gene therapy. The purpose of the intervention was to extend the length of the telomeres, which are the ends of the chromosomes, [link at the bottom];
- Tristan Roberts has applied experimental gene therapy to himself with the aim that his body would make antibodies against HIV. I interviewed him about this for my YouTube channel [link at the bottom].
- Josiah Zayner says that he has applied CRISPR / cas9 to himself to limit the effect of myostatin in his muscles [link below]. Myostatin is an inhibitory growth factor for muscle development. Zayner’s idea was spectacular muscle growth, something that failed, incidentally.
Certainly in the first case of Elizabeth Parrish and Josiah Zayner you can speak of human enhancement. The case of Tristan Harris falls under biohacking rather than human enhancement. He experiments with biomedical technology with his goal being to become better than others.
A special application of genetics and biotechnology are chimeras. A chimera is a cross between two organisms. This is different than crossing organisms, such as a mule (a baby of a donkey stallion and a horse mare) or a mule (a baby of a horse stallion and a mare). In a cross, all cells contain the same DNA, while a chimera contains the DNA of both one organism and the other.
The chimera also appeared in Greek mythology, although it was written slightly differently (as Chimaera). This was an animal that was put together by humans. The chimera was usually depicted with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake.
Although chimeras with human elements still seem far-fetched, interesting developments are taking place in scientific research. For example, the Japanese government broadened the rules in this regard in 2019 [link at the bottom].
The idea is once again to strictly apply it for medical research. Examples of this are the cultivation of human brain cells in the brain of an animal or the placement of human organs in an animal.
On an even more fundamental level, scientists are curious about molecular biology and the interaction between cells of various organisms on top of each other. For example, it was also announced in 2019 that scientists in China had created an embryo made up of cells from a human and a monkey [link at the bottom].
Under the term xenotransplantation, they investigate whether it is possible to grow a liver, kidney, heart or even lungs in sheep or pigs [link at the bottom]. Pigs are certainly a good candidate for such interventions, since this species is genetically almost identical to humans [link at the bottom].
When the technology is ready, the same moral and social questions play a role here as I have outlined earlier. What if companies can make livers that can break down alcohol even better, lungs with extra capacity and a heart that can effectively spread this extra oxygen to the muscles?
During lectures such as at the Veerevent in Delft, the Netherlands, I ask the audience how far they want to go:
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Method: mechanical and bionic
Hugh Herr is a professor at MIT and an enthusiastic mountaineer. He has two leg prostheses because his two lower legs had to be amputated from the knees from freezing cold. This does not prevent him from continuing to climb, but was also a start for him to delve into biomechanics.
Now he leads the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT [link at the bottom]. This center focuses not only on the mechanics of prostheses (limb replacement) and ortheses (limb support), but also on the neurological management thereof.
The special thing about Hugh Herr is that with his artificial feet, ankles and calves he can do specific climbing routes that climbers with natural limbs are unable to do. The moment that paralympic athletes are better than regular athletes is quickly approaching. Two examples:
South African Oscar Pistorius was the first amputee athlete to participate in the Olympic Games in 2012 in London.
The German long jump Marcus Rehm has both a normal leg and a prosthesis. He won the national championships in 2014 and was nominated for the European championships. The German sports authorities, however, put a stop to this because they felt that there was unfair competition.
According to Samantha Payne of Open Bionics, it won’t take very long before artificial limbs perform better than natural ones.
In addition to examples from sport, the Jason Barnes story also caught my eye. It was always his ambition to become a musician until he lost his hand while cleaning a device during his side job in a restaurant. Although he was no longer able to drum as well as before his accident, he could still study at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media in Georgia, United States.
One of his teachers, Eric Sanders, introduced him to Gil Weinberg of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Sanders research group conceived the plan to make an arm for Jason with which he could play at his old level, or even higher, [link at the bottom].
As you may have been able to deduce from the described methods of genetic modification, mechanical improvement or pharmaceutical interventions, many human enhancement methods come from medicine. I think plastic surgery is the most striking historical example.
Jacques Joseph (1865-1934) was a Jewish orthopedic surgeon from Berlin. He was not interested in conventional orthopedics, according to Theo Mulder’s contribution in the book The Makeable Man [link at the bottom]. Surgeon Joseph was particularly interested in the possibilities of changing the human body through medical means.
When he carried out an operation on a Jewish child with wide ears, which flattened his ears, he was fired. According to his employer, this was not real surgery, but cosmetic surgery.
According to his employer, this was the same as the use of surgical knowledge for empty vanity. Apparently it didn’t matter that the child was constantly being teased because of his ears.
Don’t stand out
Jacques Joseph then started his own clinic and became the founder of modern cosmetic rhinoplasty (nose change). He was so successful that he was called Nasen-Joseph in Berlin. After noses, he also went on to work with ears and other body parts.
The main purpose for his patients was that they could hide unobtrusively into the masses after the operation. After all, that was what they wanted: to no longer stand out as a Jew, but be part of the anonymous, unsupported urban mass. So at the time it was not about the desire of beauty, but about the wish to not stand out, at least not to be a Jew who was refused or abused.
First World War
For a long time, Jacques Joseph’s professional existence took place in the margins of the surgical establishment. This came to an end during the First World War. Then he was able to use his knowledge of cosmetic operations for the thousands of soldiers who came back from the trenches with damaged faces.
This was the case with all parties from the battlefront. In 1916, after the Battle of Somme, two thousand horribly mutilated soldiers of the English troops in France were brought into the surgical center for face and jaw surgery, where Varaztad Kazanjian was the dentist. The reputation of Kazanjian, Joseph and their other colleagues rose to a great height, as did their field of cosmetic surgery.
The example of plastic surgery is often cited because it clearly shows the transition from cure to improvement. Of course, plastic surgery is still used to help patients, but much more often it is used as a form of human enhancement.
The most famous contemporary example is South Korea. There, on average, residents spend the most money on plastic surgery per person [link at the bottom]. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that 14% of women have undergone plastic surgery. This percentage is 30% for women around twenty years old. For comparison: in the United States this is 7%.
Remarkably, inconspicuousness, as in the time of Jacques Joseph, is not the primary motive for clients undergoing treatment. Researcher So Yeon Leen indicates that the goal of most patients is progress, combating the signs of aging and “standing above other Koreans.”
How do we view human enhancement now? What is the opinion of proponents and opponents? Which theories can help us think about this?
Human enhancement discussion
In the rest of this part I will discuss a number of proponents and opponents, including their arguments, followed by the opinion of Americans and Dutchmen.
Human enhancement arguments
Let me start with the common denominator of the proponents. The argument that often comes back is that improvement is something that makes us human. As humanity, we have long made the transition from natural selection and random mutations to unnatural selection and involuntary mutations.
A simple example of this phenomenon is healthcare, where I am not even talking about designer babies or embryo selection. Due to the quality of our healthcare, but also the supply of food and infrastructure such as sewerage and water pipes, we are increasingly exercising control over our development as a species. Babies who would not survive in times of hunter-gatherers or even in the Middle Ages, now do so.
This is aptly expressed by New Zealand professor Nicholas Agar: “We are already living in an era of human improvement.” Although he acts against radical improvement in his book, he acknowledges that we are actually already doing it [link at the bottom].
I would not immediately classify Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek as a warm advocate of human enhancement. But I find his theory of technological mediation worthwhile to include in this part.
According to Verbeek, we often experience a tension relationship when it comes to people and technology, because all frameworks (ethical, philosophical, legal, financial, demographic, etc.) are challenged by technological developments.
He argues for thinking beyond the so-called opposition of man versus machine. The boundary between man and machine is becoming thinner. We are putting more and more people into technology. We put more technology in people.
What distinguishes us as humanity from animals is that we supplement ourselves through technology. Technology provides mediation between people and the world, such as clothing (against heat or cold), glasses and contact lenses (to see), a car (to visit places) or the internet (to communicate and look up information). According to him, it is therefore an art to continue to see new relationships between man and machine, as they will emerge even more in the coming years, a form of mediation.
Myths and legends
The pursuit of superhuman capacities is something that has intrigued us as humanity for centuries. In ancient times this was reserved for myths, legends and fantasies. A few examples:
- King Gilgamesh who goes in search of immortality [link at the bottom];
- Achilles: the Greek myth of the invulnerable soldier in the Trojan War;
- Icarus and Daedalus: the myth in which humans want to fly;
- Spiderman: a human with the abilities of a spider.
The difference compared to these examples is that scientific and technological progress has made a number of superhuman abilities increasingly realistic.
Julian Savalescu is affiliated with the University of Oxford [link at the bottom]. He is, together with John Harris, one of the best known and most prominent supporters of human enhancement. Savalescu believes that technology is changing our world to such an extent that old morality no longer has any control over it.
He is on the board of the renowned scientific journal Journal of Medical Ethics [link at the bottom]. He has written several books, collections and essays on human enhancement. At the end of 2019 I held a video interview with him [the video is at the bottom].
I describe a few of his most striking ideas below.
- Moral improvement
- Human prejudice
- Procreative Beneficence
- Benefits for society
- Moral improvement
In the book Unfit for the Future, together with his co-author Ingmar Perrson, he writes about the need for moral improvement [link at the bottom]. Won’t the world be a nicer place if we are all so adjusted that we are a little nicer to each other? A world with fewer wars, fewer psychopaths, more cooperation and more love.
He also marks out our current moral deficit in an interview with Bas Heijne for the series The Perfect Man. In that conversation, Savulescu states that people are limited in different ways. “We are not a perfect species that solves every problem. We must dare to face our physical, cognitive, but also moral limitations if we want to deal with the challenges of technological evolution and globalization. “
Julian Savulescu believes that in debates about bioethics the justification to be restrained is often crooked and normative because of the idea of humanity. “As humans, we are convinced that it has special meaning to be human, at least for ourselves.” He calls this the human prejudice.
In his view, human prejudice is an improper and normative argument. He argues that it obscures the real discussion. Because why is this so-called humanity so important?
Savulescu believes that we should improve our species wherever we can, even when it comes to parents’ choices about their offspring. In an interview with De Volkskrant, he says: “I want my children to be intelligent, kind and compassionate. That they can control their impulses, but also that they are spontaneous, attractive and healthy. Those are all things that make for a better life and we have to look for that. “
The moral choice to choose the child with the greatest chance of a good life is known as the principle of Procreative Beneficence.
Intrinsic benefits for the individual
This is somewhat in line with the ideas of philosopher Nick Bostrom. In a contribution to the Small Philosophy of the Perfect Man, he finds that there are intrinsic benefits to improving one’s cognitive or physical abilities. You can then enjoy a good book, enjoy great music or find solutions to difficult questions. A free translation of both visions: if you can improve yourself or your offspring, why would you fail to do so?
Finally, Julian Savulescu believes that human enhancement can not only have benefits for individuals, but also for society as a whole. He hereby refers to the research by Linda Gottfredson from 2001 [link at the bottom].
If society’s IQ increases by 3 points, it predicts the following effects:
- 25% less poverty;
- 25% fewer prisoners;
- 28% fewer school-leavers;
- 20% fewer children without parents;
Not only socially, but also economically speaking, cognitive improvement has a positive effect. Each point increase in the IQ leads to an increase of between $55 and $65 billion in economic growth.
Julian Savulescu Interview
At the end of 2019, I interviewed Professor Julian Savulescu (University of Oxford) about human enhancement and ethics. He is, certainly in the academic world, one of the foremost thinkers in this field.
Interview with professor Julian Savulescu
Within the field of human enhancement, the Brit John Harris is one of the most outspoken advocates. In 2010 he published the book Enhancing Evolution where he examines the benefits of human improvement [link at the bottom].
The essence of his argument is that human enhancement is good in itself and that we are obliged to improve ourselves for our posterity. He puts forward two arguments for this. The first is that he believes that improving yourself fits the freedom of every individual. His second argument, in my opinion even more far-reaching, is that our job is to improve ourselves and to enable others to do so. It is our moral duty.
In Enhancing Evolution he writes, among other things: ‘Improvements are so obviously good for us (if they are not, they are not improvements) that it is strange that the idea of improvement has evoked so much suspicion, fear and open hostility and still evokes.”
Case Study: Private school
Harris believes that we as human beings are already doing everything we can to improve ourselves, such as reading books, going to the gym or attending education. In the book The Makeable Man, his perspective is formulated as follows: “Rich people today have the opportunity to send their children to private schools; they may soon have the opportunity to increase the capacity of their brain.”
Harris sees no difference in this, but as far as I am concerned, that is too simply argued. In the case of education, you still have to do your best as a student or student. If technology becomes available that makes you immediately (and effortlessly) much smarter, it leads to effects that extend beyond the individual.
For example, when that technology is expensive and initially only purchased by the well-to-do. With their intelligent lead they earn even more money, after which they can buy other types of upgrades. This leads to a growing inequality that is almost impossible to catch up with.
This counter argument comes back more often in the Opponent section.
In my opinion, the strongest argument is from author Juan Enriquez. At the same time, the situation of his argumentation only takes effect over a much longer term. A period that we cannot currently imagine. Together with Steve Gullans, Enriquez wrote the previously cited Evolving Ourselves. In the book and later during a lecture at the TED conference, he talked about the importance of human enhancement [link at the bottom].
His proposition is that the earth will eventually become uninhabitable. Astronomers disagree about this, but a rough estimate is that in 1 billion years the sun will be so hot that oceans will evaporate.
If humanity still exists, then we must have left the earth by that time. In order to subsequently survive in space, it is necessary to adapt the human body. Our current bodies have been evaluated for millions of years of evolution according to the conditions on earth. But the lack of gravity and space radiation breaks up our biological life in the universe in no time.
For that reason there is speculation about genetic adaptations to better cope with radiation, or that biological life is untenable. Mankind then lives on virtually in the form of bits and bytes in computers, robots and interstellar space ships.
Criticism of human enhancement
In the scientific and social debate, more opponents of human enhancement can be heard than proponents. Before I zoom in on a number of leading people in this camp, I first describe the arguments that are often put forward. This concerns the efficacy (1), the emphasis on technology and science (2) and the perspective on people (3).
Regarding efficacy, many promises are made about the effect of new products, but the scientific evidence is thin. Due to commercial interests, the effects are presented as more rosy than they are in reality.
Under the heading “technofix” it is expected that science and technology can solve problems. But usually problems are more complex, interconnected and interrelated in a social and cultural context. This is an important argument by Evgeny Mozorov in his book To save everything click here [link at the bottom].
The basic premise of human enhancement implies indirectly that mankind is self-contained and that it must be improved. Many opponents find that a negative basis for looking at people. After all, it can also mean that you see people as a product that can be improved through purchaseable adjustments and expansions.
I continue this part with a description of a number of outspoken opponents of human enhancement, including their main ideas and arguments.
The philosopher Francis Fukuyama is one of the most outspoken opponents of human enhancement. He considers the proposal to raise humans to a new level using biotechnology to be “the most dangerous idea in the world.” He expresses these concerns in his book The New Man [link at the bottom].
After describing the technological developments in the first part and describing people in part two, such as human rights and human nature, in the third part he explains how both come together. He raises questions such as: Who decides on the application of newly developed technologies? Should agreements be made about this at national or international level? Can it only be used in healthcare or does everyone have access to it?
What is a good life?
An interesting argument for me is that he states that it is not at all clear what a “good” life is and how you can achieve that with human enhancement technology. He states that human traits are often closely related to other traits. You do not know in advance what effects the adjustment of one property will have on other parts of your body that are connected to it.
In short, the tone in the book is that we must handle new technology with care. He points in particular to the social risks of human enhancement, such as a growing inequality between people who can afford the technologies and those who cannot.
Professor Michael Sandel is a clear opponent of human enhancement. He focuses on genetics and genetic modification with CRISPR / cas9 and related technologies. He calls these breakthroughs “promising and perilous.” In the series The Perfect Man of the VPRO, he warns of a world in which only super people are tolerated.
The case against perfection
In 2004 he wrote an influential opinion article in The Atlantic entitled “The case against perfection” [link at the bottom]. In this he argues that the essence of life is that we must recognize that we cannot fully control and direct our talents and powers. Despite the efforts we make to develop them. It is also a lesson in humility: accepting that we cannot achieve everything in our lives.
Parents and children
In the case of children, he cites the work of theologian William May. According to May, parents give their children two types of love: acceptance and transformation. Accepting love confirms the nature of the child as it is. Transforming love is about promoting the well-being of the child.
According to Sandell, if we can create future children to our ideal, we run the risk of shifting away from accepting love. While the core of a good life and good upbringing is a balance between both. Being good as you are and at the same time being stimulated to develop as a person.
Inez de Beaufort
Inez de Beaufort is professor of medical ethics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam [link at the bottom]. She brings forward the theory of social infectivity. What if it becomes the social norm to take supplements to improve your cognition. Do you still have the choice not to do it?
During lectures and presentations I often raise this point with a fictional case. Just like the documentary Take your pills described earlier, individual choices change when everyone around you does or does not do something. People in themselves are social and often also competitive, which makes people more inclined to improve themselves.
Psychologist Marion Donner wrote the Self Destruction Book [link at the bottom]. In an interview with the NRC, she explains what the problem is, the current time, what she calls neoliberalism. “It seems that we constantly have to optimize ourselves, like machines.”
What makes us human is failure. “Ultimately we fail in everything: you die, you are misunderstood and you make mistakes.” The more malleable mankind seems to become with science and technology, the less room there is for that failure. If failure makes us human, it also means that science and technology make us less human.
David Byrne wrote a controversial column in the MIT Technology Review about the rise of technology and the decline of humanity [link at the bottom]. In that document it was mainly about technological progress in the form of digital services, robots in factories and autonomous vehicles. According to him, all these developments limit our human interaction and our human contact.
His proposition is that as homo sapiens we are by definition a social being. We are somewhat unpredictable and benefit from unexpected surprises, happy accidents and unforeseen intuitions.
From that perspective, certain forms of human improvement can lead to less sociality. If the social norm is on the development of rational intelligence (in the form of IQ) then on sociality (in the form of EQ), then this may have an impact on the character of people. As humans, you can become more and more molded, through genetic modification, pharmaceutical interventions or brain implants.
How do people view human enhancement? Debra Witman led a research in 2018 into the opinion of 2,000 Americans on this theme [link at the bottom]. What I found striking was that 76% of the respondents said they had never heard of human enhancement. In addition, less than 10% indicated that they used human enhancement techniques themselves.
I previously wrote about the difference between using technology to help patients and to help people perform better. This is also reflected in the opinion of the respondents in this study:
- 96% is for restoring vision, while 44% is for improving it;
- 95% is for the recovery of physical abilities, while 33% is for improving it;
- 95% is for restoring cognitive abilities with pharmaceuticals, while 35% is for improving them;
- 88% is for restoring cognitive abilities with implants, while 31% is for improving them;
- 83% are for the use of genetic modification to help patients, while 46% are in favor of use for improvement and 31% for determining character traits;
Later in this article I will return to the market opportunities for human enhancement based on Witman’s research. Just like the aforementioned opponents, respondents are most concerned about the social consequences. Around 66% are afraid of this, citing all kinds of potential adverse effects, such as abuse of power, social separation and a decrease in diversity in society.
Progress and fatalism
In a general sense, the respondents experience a mix of optimism about the advances in science and technology, combined with a fatalistic feeling about social change.
Most participants think that it is good to help sick people, but that the use of biomedical technology to improve entails the risk of a “slippery slope”. In other words: where do we, as a society, lay down the boundaries of what we do and do not allow?
The greatest danger lies in the loss of individuality and humanity. One of the participants in the focus groups was afraid “that we would turn into robots.” In the case of the insertion of brain implants in particular, the fear is that we will let go of control over our thinking and leave our emotional state to technology.
What do Dutch people think about improving people? The Rathenau Institute did research into this in 2012. After analyzing a number of focus groups, they came up with 4 types of argumentation:
- individual choice: it is up to each individual to decide on this;
- duty: everyone must use it, which contributes to the common good and happiness;
- hard limits: do not use it, this threatens human dignity;
- equality: prefer not to use it, for example, risk of inequality;
Just as in the study in the United States cited earlier, the Dutch respondents found reducing negative traits less bad than improving a trait that is already good.
Cleft lip case
This now also applies, for example, to plastic surgery: getting rid of a cleft lip is assessed differently than injecting Botox. Although the latter seems to be increasingly accepted. This also shows that acceptance with regard to forms of human improvement can shift over the years.
For example, during a lecture at the Fontys Hogeschool in Eindhoven, I had a discussion about this with professor Munnik (Tilburg University). He did give a fascinating example. In the Middle Ages we had a very different picture of privacy than we have now. Or rather: at that time privacy did not yet exist. This example shows social norms and values shifting over time.
Human enhancement acceptance
The researchers of the Rathenau Institute formulate five criteria in the report that influence the acceptance of a technology for human improvement.
- the extent to which the use has already been established. This is in line with the comparison I made earlier with coffee. It used to be seen as experimental, where it is accepted nowadays.
- how invasive the technology is. For example, respondents are more positive about supplements for improving cognition than a brain implant with the same effect.
- the familiarity with a means of improvement. If they have experience with a substance themselves or in their immediate environment, they are usually more positive about it.
- the information about operations and risks. The safer a substance appears to be, the more positive the respondents are towards their use.
- the social weight of the reason why it is used. An example of this is that respondents judge more positively about a surgeon who can operate more accurately by taking pills than a soldier who can shoot more accurately through the same pills.
It is in our nature to use technology for things that we cannot do ourselves. Yet it is worth a social debate about what we want to use when, why and in what way. Plus: what’s going on and perhaps the problem is not in the human body but outside it?
For example: if it becomes the norm among students to take pills that provide more focus, is the underlying problem not the pressure of performance at colleges and universities?
In the Action section I will zoom in further on the question of how we could shape that social debate
What is the impact of human enhancement, in addition to the previously outlined images by supporters and opponents?
Human enhancement impact
What are the possible consequences of the increasing use of human enhancement technology. I will elaborate this further in this section.
- commercial and market opportunities
- social consequences, including power and morality
- climate crisis
- geopolitics and war
- laws and regulations
- institutions, such as religions
I have elaborated on a number of conceivable effects in these domains below.
When I give lectures on this subject, most participants express their concerns about safety. That is not without reason. Two examples:
- Electronic implants
- Breast implants
First, take electronic implants. In 2017, more than half a million patients in the United States were called on to update their pacemaker due to fear of hackers [link at the bottom]. For that reason, former vice-president Dick Cheney had turned off his pacemaker’s bluetooth connection, because he was afraid that the device would be hacked otherwise.
Secondly, safety can also be about the risks to the body. For example, it appeared in 2019 that certain types of silicone used for breast implants lead to an increased risk of lymph node cancer [link at the bottom].
What are the commercial opportunities of human enhancement? Every year, research agency Gartner publishes a study containing the so-called hype cycle. Whereas “biohacking” first appeared in the list in 2018, in 2019 this applies to “human augmentation.” The definition that Gartner uses is that it concerns technologies that improve physical or cognitive performance [link at the bottom]. This is an explanation that overlaps with my definition of human enhancement.
In the aforementioned research by Witman into the opinion of the American public on human enhancement, she also examines the market potential of these technologies. Around 43% of the respondents were interested in improving their cognition with pharmaceuticals, of which 16% were very interested and 27% reasonably interested. This percentage drops to 34% where an implant is concerned.
Related to the commercial opportunities of human enhancement is the possibility that the human body, or parts, will be exposed to market forces. At least, even more than we know now.
Professor Michael Bess (Vandebilt University) expresses his concerns about this in his book Make Way for the Superhumans [link at the bottom]. He states that human enhancement can ensure that we look at the human body in an instrumental way. This reduces a person to a sum of modified and (not yet) modified properties.
“In this vision, humanity becomes a kind of platform, related to software or an operating system, the performance of which can be improved, expanded and manipulated at will.”
To expand on this:
- Someone’s personality traits become features that you can upgrade;
- Skills and talents become assets, for which you can buy new versions;
- Shortcomings and struggles become disadvantages that can be solved with a quick fix.
In the Western world, the economic and therefore cultural system is based on capitalism. Are we going to treat parts of the human body or humanity in the same way as shoes or telephones?
Case study: Snapchat plastic surgery
The first signals that indicate this are already visible. In this way, appearance is increasingly regarded as something that you need to improve, certainly in the light of your image on social media.
In a 2018 study by the University of Boston (United States), the term “snapchat dysmorphy” is described for the first time. The researchers base themselves on a survey among plastic surgeons. The participants in the questionnaire saw that 55% of the patients indicated that they were undergoing treatment in order to better resemble selfies on Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms.
What are the possible social consequences of human enhancement? A striking statement is from the Belgian psychiatrist and philosopher Damiaan Denys. He is also a professor at the University of Amsterdam [link at the bottom].
In the aforementioned report from the Rathenau Institute, he says: “One could activate the aggression centers of soldiers and inhibit their moral awareness or decorum during battle, one could activate the pleasure center of prostitutes, strengthen the care and dedication of the cleaning lady “One can inhibit the religious beliefs of fundamentalists or foster unbelievers, make air traffic controllers and pilots more resistant to stress, make police and security services more cautious or reckless.”
He makes his statement based on the applications of deep brain stimulation (DBS), but you could also apply it to other forms of improvement technology.
What strikes me about Denys’ statement is the power and control that it implies. The examples are about positive consequences for a group or society. They do not come from an individual who seems to be making a choice independently.
The most extreme example is to promote empathy in society. A team of philosophers and ethicists, namely Matthew Liao, Rebacca Roache and Anders Sandberg, presented this in 2012 [link at the bottom]. According to them, the administration of the hormone oxytocin leads to more empathy. More empathy in society can be useful when we try to solve problems such as the climate crisis.
The aforementioned Julian Savalescu, with whom I recorded an interview, has written a book on moral improvement with Ingmar Persson. In 2014 they released Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement [link at the bottom].
In this book they write that the problems that we as humanity now have to deal with cannot be solved by physical or cognitive improvements. They work out the argument that with biomedical technology, such as pharmaceutical products, we must strive for moral improvement. If we are all stimulated to behave more morally through chemical interventions, this will lead to a better and finer world.
The climate crisis is a speculative reason for human enhancement. In 2012, an interview with Matthew Liao, professor at New York University, led to a great deal of fuss [link at the bottom]. The interview followed a publication about the possibilities of human enhancement for solving the climate problem.
In addition to the aforementioned proposal to promote empathy, these were a few of the other striking proposals:
- Use pharmaceuticals to encourage people to dislike eating meat;
- Through IVF, ensure that people become less large;
Despite the philosophical and speculative approach of the interview, it led to much commotion and uproar. Not only are thinkers concerned with adapting people in relation to the climate problem, artists and designers also apply this in their work. For example, I held an interview with the British artist Agi Haines [link at the bottom].
Her best-known work in this area is Transfigurations. For this she made five babies with fictional adjustments, such as extra lobes to give off heat or larger cheeks to store food for longer [link at the bottom].
What is the impact of human enhancement on power relations between countries and the geopolitical balance in the world? Owen Schaefer is a bioethicist at the University of Singapore. In an interview, he stated that most Western countries are wary or averse to human improvement [link at the bottom]. I have written more about this in the Opinion section.
He estimates that the population in Japan is also largely opposed to improvement, but this is different in China and India. According to him, this is partly culturally determined, but it requires more research to be able to measure and explain this difference.
Daryl Macer of the Eubios Ethics Institute expects that Asian countries will play a leading role in the research and application of improvement technology [link at the bottom]. Other arguments that he cites are the democratic system in these countries, the pressure of performance and the urge to manifest on the international geopolitical playing field.
Even in 1983, Lee Kuan Yew, the then president of Singapore, spoke out strongly about this. He believed that human capital, in terms of inheritable factors such as intelligence, is essential for the future of the city state. Critics, such as the scientist Chan, write that such comments can be a first step towards eugenic practices [link at the bottom]. This is where reproduction and the basic condition of its inhabitants are imposed by the state.
Warfare and military force are related to geopolitics, as I will describe in the following paragraph.
What consequences can human enhancement have on warfare? And vice versa: what role does the military apparatus play in research into and application of improvement technology?
I expect the army to be at the forefront of this, along with top-level sport. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, performing their duties requires enormous physical and cognitive pressure. Secondly, the military apparatus, especially in powers such as the United States and China, has an extraordinary amount of financial resources.
Because of the interests in warfare, after all it is about life and death, I believe there is an incentive to go further in testing improvement technology to make the soldiers even better equipped for their work.
Two examples are the use of pharmaceutical agents and the research into genetic modification.
- The US Army uses modafinil to investigate whether it can help soldiers and pilots stay focused for longer missions [link at the bottom].
- DARPA is the research and development component of the US military. Together with the Innovative Genomics Institute, DARPA is investigating the possibilities with genetic modification to make its soldiers more resistant to radioactive radiation [link at the bottom].
Laws and regulations
After he had contributed to the development of the atomic bomb, the scientist Oppenheimer later regularly commented on his regret. This is also called “Oppenheimer’s regret”.
Does that also apply to the current time? Are we starting things in the context of improving people because we allow companies and scientists to take their course, unrestrained by laws and regulations and/or too few safety tests? This is a concern of respondents. In the American study, 70% say they expect technologies to come on the market before they are fully understood or tested.
Making adequate laws and regulations is complex. Making laws and rules in a (bio) technological world requires balancing between the caution and the driving force which a government has both. This is complex, because the purpose of the government is to protect its residents (caution), but also to stimulate innovation (boost).
This balance also makes international cooperation so complex. As I wrote about in the geopolitics section, human enhancement can also be an advantage over other countries. In the book series Nexus, Crux and Apex, author Ramez Naam describes a world in which emerging superpowers such as China and India allow more [link at the bottom]. For example, those in power in those countries want to stimulate the development of a certain neurotechnology to strengthen the intelligence and cooperation capacity of their inhabitants.
Technology versus rules
When it comes to regulation, the government soon falls behind, as the former vice-chairman of the Council of State of the Netherlands Piet Hein Donner said: “Technology is going faster than rules.”
This apparent contradiction regularly appears in sessions for which I am invited. For example, I was a guest at meetings of the Ministry of Security and Justice, the Health Council and the Public Prosecution Service to reflect on this topic.
Another category of laws and regulations are human rights. How do they change as technology increasingly affects our bodies and lives? My opinion, which is colored by the social cultural model in which I grew up and in which I now live, is that as a person you must always have the choice to stay natural. I analyzed this upgraded human rights from the book Technology vs. Humanity by Gerd Leonhard.
He believes, for example, that it should not be mandatory to change yourself biologically or to add electronics to your body. This was also reflected in the American focus groups. A basic principle must be that an upgrade is not mandatory. Not from an employer, but also from an educational institution or government. Another principle that emerged in the research was that the technology does not harm others.
Although both principles (non-compulsory and non-harmful) now seem logical, it remains important to me to stay alert to this as a society.
Technological developments never stand alone. Although I sometimes have that feeling, the development and application of a technology is always influenced by all sorts of other factors. Consider social factors, cultural factors, beliefs, politics and power. By mixing factors that influence each other, it is difficult to predict the final effect of a technology.
A number of historical examples:
- The uprising of textile workers in England against machines in their factories was crushed by the government. The government saw the economic potential of this development. The textile workers were therefore not beaten by technology, but by government interests;
- The introduction of the contraceptive pill led to a disconnection of sex and reproduction. This removed an argument against homosexuality, which led to a strongly growing acceptance of relationships between people of the same sex;
The role of institutions and other factors is beautifully expressed by Professor Majid Tehranian. Tehranian: “Technology is always developed from an institutional need and the impact is always mediated by institutional arrangements and social forces, of which they are part.”
Religions are among the institutions with a major influence on our world. According to author Yuval Noah Harari it depends partly on political and religious leaders how fast technological progress will progress [link at the bottom].
Religion gives meaning to life and formulates answers to essential issues such as the origin and end of life. But what if we can tinker with the origin of life with genetic modification? If we can intervene in our skills and possibilities with human enhancement? Or if we can use technology to postpone the end of our lives?
Technology versus religion
According to author Don LeLillo, technology takes over the role of religion: “In the past, religion was the answer to human inability to accept one’s own mortality. That place is now slowly but surely being taken up by technology. “
Professor Lennox (University of Oxford) makes a similar comparison. He sees the pursuit of super intelligence as the story of the Tower of Babel and the pursuit of immortality as the search for heaven [link at the bottom].
In a podcast interview, I asked television maker, presenter and author Arie Boomsma how he is stands on this [link at the bottom]. He sees no contradiction between technology and beliefs. He believes that technology brings us a lot as humanity, but that there will always be a need for meaning and spiritual deepening in the form of religion.
I myself was not brought up religiously. Yet I don’t think religions will disappear soon. As social forces, religions have previously survived major scientific discoveries and technological changes. Consider the heliocentric theory of Galileo, the theory of evolution, the introduction of printing and the rise of the internet.
In fact, you could argue that religions are adaptive enough to adapt themselves to these disruptions.
During keynotes I often say that top-level sport is an ideal testing ground for thinking about human enhancement. Top-level sport is constantly trying to find the physical limits of the athletes. Think of anabolic steroids in baseball players, blood doping in cyclists or unauthorized use of amphetamine by runners.
A new direction in the constant arms race is so-called gene doping. To what extent can an athlete’s genes be changed, so that the body itself, for example, produces more EPA? Or take muscle growth. The American physiologist used gene therapy to change the DNA of muscle cells in mice. The media then called the mice “Schwarzenegger mice.” Their muscle mass increased by 15 percent and they became 27 percent stronger.
In 2008, scientists at Case Western Reserve University modified the PEPCK-C gene in certain muscles [link at the bottom]. They became hyperactive, much more aggressive and also appeared to enter the menopause much later than the control group without adjustment. At the same time, their athletic ability also increased. They could run 20 times as far as mice in the control group and at a much higher speed.
In the Netherlands, professor Hidde Haisma is conducting research at the University of Groningen into the detection of gene doping [link at the bottom]. Compared to regular forms of doping, gene doping is now even harder to find. According to him, there is still no evidence that genetic doping is being applied, but it certainly has the interest of the sports world.
What are the moral and ethical dilemmas that may occur in the advancement in human enhancement technology?
Human Enhancement ethics
When I give lectures and presentations about human enhancement, I can hardly ignore it. What is ethically and morally responsible when it comes to improving people? Ethics goes beyond laws and regulations. It has more to do with how we behave as citizens, consumers, patients and users (among themselves).
In an opinion piece, Andy Miah of the University of Salford, England, distinguishes three categories:
Individual considerations are about the effectiveness of an improvement technology, the idea of an authentic life, caution, the promotion of an open future and morphological freedom.
Professional considerations relate to ethical codes that apply to medical practice and other professional groups that are or will be involved in human enhancement technologies. This can concern both research into a technology and its application.
Social considerations include questions about fairness, justice and equality. This is further elaborated in a large-scale study by Allhof [link at the bottom]. They explore the consequences of human enhancement for honesty, fairness, social structures, law, politics and policy.
The most important conclusion of Allhof and his colleagues is that the context is essential. “It seems premature to say that all improvements are morally worrying, regardless of context; but it is also premature to declare them all problem-free.”
Case study of bionic hands
For example, a fictional example of how Miah’s ethical framework can help are bionic limbs, such as an artificial hand.
From an individual perspective you would like to have this, because you can play the piano better. At the same time, according to you, that does not affect your identity or authenticity.
The doctor who fits the hand for you looks at your question from her professional role. “Are you actually willing to give up your natural hand? Do you realize what the consequences are?” In addition, she does a number of physiological tests to investigate whether you will not suffer any adverse physical consequences from the operation. If you ask if she can mount a bionic hand with a built-in gun, she will refuse and report this to the police.
For social reasons, the government decided a few years earlier that bionic hands should be available to everyone. A government institute inspects specimens on the basis of a number of criteria, such as patient safety and the patient’s environment. It is also the policy that you can only decide on this after you turn 18 and that residents with little money can make use of a subsidy fund.
In my lecture for KNVI Noord, the social consequences and ethical issues were also discussed:
Komende dinsdag spreek ik op de Rijks ICT Noord Tech Meetup over de rol van de overheid rondom biotechnologie, biohacking en mensverbetering! 🚀
Check het programma hier:https://t.co/YhzrzrdYbi
📸 bij lezing voor @KNVI_NL Noord in @DOTgroningen door @jarne pic.twitter.com/rEErg5dHXY — Peter Joosten MSc. (@wpjoosten) 29 november 2019
Sandel: nature’s moral status
In the part about Opponents I wrote about the work of Michael Sandel. In addition to his arguments that I described in that section, he has a few other interesting ideas about the ethics of human improvement.
For example, in a contribution in the book A Small Philosophy of the Perfect Man, he states that “such issues are about the moral status of nature and the correct attitude of man to the given world.” These questions to theology, which he says “contemporary philosophers and political scientists have a tendency to shrink from.”
Talent and humility
This issue, our attitude of man to nature, also touches on another intriguing comment from him. He calls this our concept of giftedness and humility. Giftedness means that our talents and abilities are not entirely our own merit, no matter how much effort we have made to develop and practice them.
This also affects the relationship between self-effort and artificial improvement. From my own life, running is an example. Apart from rowing at a national level for a year, I would hardly call myself an athlete. Nowadays I train 2 or 3 times a week and I regularly participate in running competitions.
My personal record on the 10 kilometers is 43 minutes and 30 seconds. But if I can walk that distance in 15 minutes with a combination of synthetic blood, bionic legs and genetic doping. Without effort. That probably gives me less satisfaction than if I trained hard for it and had to push myself to the limit during the competition.
Sandel’s arguments about talent, humility and effort are also reflected in the aforementioned research with focus groups from the Rathenau Institute. There, “the corruption of meaningful elements in someone’s life” was brought up as a concern. The participants in the study indicate that the effort it takes to deliver a performance also ensures satisfaction and appreciation.
The participants indicate that passing an exam with help feels like cheating. Or that a feeling of happiness caused by technology is not really felt. This also means that for the appreciation of happiness you also need experience with bad times.
Less appreciation argument
Scientist Filippo Santoni of TU Delft calls this the “less appreciation” argument [link at the bottom]. According to him, that is not entirely justified, certainly with regard to current improvement technologies. You can take a pill for better concentration, but you still have to study. You can take doping for more red blood cells, but you still have to climb a mountain on your racing bike.
Ultimately it is all about the approach of the activity. Santoni distinguishes two types: goal and process orientation. If the goal is to climb a mountain as quickly as possible, then it is better to ride a motorcycle than go on a bike. But for many activities, such as sports or studying, the activity itself is central.
Again, I return to a number of previous comments: the context is essential. From the context we can only look closely at ethics. Is it good to use a certain technology? When and when not?
Regardless of philosophical and political views, it is difficult to reach an agreement as to how far we want to go as humans, both nationally and internationally. Even more difficult is that not everyone can participate in this conversation. This argument is put forward by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in his book The Future of Human Nature [link at the bottom].
He is a fierce opponent of interventions in human nature, because we would make decisions about future people without them being able to talk about it.
On the other hand, I can argue against this argument that we have always done so as human beings. Previous generations have made choices that we now benefit and suffer from. Consider the installation of sewers and an effect such as the climate crisis.
I also explained the choice for future generations during a lecture that I was allowed to give at the Annual Health Law Congress organized by Kerkebosch. Imagine that your parents can not only know the DNA of your future child, but can also intervene. Would you do that? When it comes to a certain disorder, but also when it concerns matters such as height or intelligence?
Or take this fictional case: if your parents have optimized your genome through musicality. As a child, do you still have autonomy and an open future if you are not interested in playing a musical instrument? How does this technology change the dynamics in families and society?
Role of designers
An essential point that I want to mention in this section on ethics is the morality of technology. In 1995 philosopher Hans Achterhuis introduced this concept [link at the bottom]. The essence is that we as human beings are inclined to outsource moral choices to technology. If we agree that we can take a shorter shower, why don’t we delegate our responsibility to a water-saving shower head?
The same applies to ultrasound in an unborn child. Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek told in the podcast series Bionic Man from BNR and the Financial Times, in which I was a guest with him
The technique of ultrasound scans translates an unborn child into a potential patient, congenital diseases into forms of suffering (which can be prevented), our parents into decision makers about the child’s life.
Technology is never neutral
For that reason, technology is never neutral, although it often seems that way. Techies, scientists, subjects and manufacturers make explicit and implicit choices for us. Take an extreme example: inserting a brain implant to improve your mood. There are a number of moral questions in the design of the implant:
- Can others see that you have turned on the device?
- How much freedom do you have to control?
- Can you always switch on the device fully?
- Can someone else operate the device?
For that reason, I think that ethical and philosophical questions about human enhancement are becoming increasingly important. How do we want to connect ourselves with technology as a human being? What is the extent to which we want to become dependent on technology? To what extent do we want to merge with technology?
Yet it does not take away, as Bert-Jan Koops writes in The Makeable Man that “the dividing line between beautiful and ordinary, between illness and personal trait, between healing and improvement is paper thin and changeable.”
That the boundaries change over time and cultural, social and institutional factors also ensures that the ethics of human enhancement remain variable. This is the case every time ethicists, but also we as individuals and as society, think about allowing new applications in the field of human enhancement.
Marli Huijer, a professor of public philosophy, has expressed this nicely in an essay in Trouw [link at the bottom]: “People and technology are constantly changing each other, they are looking together for what is a good or pleasant life, making use of moral, political and social notions that are present in the culture.”
Ethics is never finished.
What are visions of human enhancement that are a little further in time? In this I describe a number of ideas about the distant future of humans.
What is the future of human enhancement? As you could already read in the introduction, I explore the distant future of human enhancement in this section. These are visions that may seem like science fiction, or at least fictional, but that is also the reason that they stayed with me after I came into contact with it.
The visions are:
- destruction before growth
- super organism
- space travel
I elaborate on the visions below.
How far can we go? Or rather: how far do we let it get? In his book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari outlines two scenarios: techno-humanism and dataism
The purpose of techno-humanism is to expand the capabilities of humans with technology. We become cyborgs and connect ourselves to computers, where human interests and desires are still the most important. This is somewhat similar to the idea of transhumanism [link at the bottom].
The second scenario is dataism. This is still based on the idea that we are special and important as humans. Only until recently we were the best system for processing data, but that is no longer the case.
Algorithms understand our feelings, emotions, choices and desires better than you do it yourself. The consequence of this is that we become irrelevant as human beings. Our only goal is to serve artificial intelligence [link at the bottom about scenarios around this so-called super intelligence].
No more people
The first scenario of techno-humanism is in line with what you have been able to read about the possibilities within human enhancement. The second scenario is the most dramatic for us humans. In a certain sense you can no longer speak of human enhancement here, since the human factor has disappeared or is nil.
In my articles about transhumanism and artificial intelligence you can read more about the formation of super intelligence and the possible superfluity of the human race [link at the bottom].
First destruction, later growth
Naval Ravikant is one of the most fascinating entrepreneurs and thinkers about our technological future. In an interview with Rob Reid in the podcast After On, he shared a historical analogy that stuck with me [link at the bottom].
He argues that we as humanity are bad at using new technology wisely and responsibly. “It is in our nature to first use technology for bad causes. Only later do we learn that we can also use the technology in a positive way. “
A few examples he cites:
- Gunpowder. First for cannons and guns, only then for steam engines;
- Atomic fission. First for the atomic bomb, only then for nuclear energy;
- Social media. Dependency and addiction first, later hopefully more connection.
I realize that his argument is not completely watertight. Let alone that those developments have occurred so successively. But somewhere I do remember that we, as mostly because of financial interests and power, do not always use technology for the collective good from the start. Another reason is that we first want to be sure that it is safe enough and that we have included it in legislation and regulations.
To continue that conclusion, does the same apply to human enhancement technology? Perhaps it is first deployed by the army, criminals and terrorists, causing more harm to society and the world than it does good. Only then, as humanity, have we learned from it, do we make new legislation to prevent excesses. Is that the moment that we all become stronger, smarter and more social on average, plus that we live longer?
In the book Next Nature, philosopher Koert van Mensvoort introduced me to the concept of super organism [link at the bottom]. In my blog article about transhumanism I also wrote about this before [link at the bottom].
Part of his idea is in keeping with Yuval Noah Harari’s dataism. We as homo sapiens are not the end of evolution. To put this in perspective, I start with the big bang. About 13.5 billion years ago, elementary particles first appeared after the big bang. With increasing complexity, they first formed in hadrons, then atoms, molecules, cells, complex cells and finally in multicellular organisms.
Evolution does not stop
Multicellular organisms originated around 2.5 billion years ago. About 300,000 years ago we, the homo sapiens, were born. But that did not stop evolution. From the historical evolutionary steps it is to be expected that the next life form will develop again to the next level of complexity.
Researchers Smith and Szathmáry, for example, concluded that really big evolutionary transitions take place as soon as existing organisms start to work together or encapsulate each other within a larger whole.
Memes as the next step
The question then is: what does this next level look like? The level after us, as a multicellular organism? In his book, Koert van Mensvoort does a shot for the book. He writes: “Probably the next step of the evolutionary ladder is memetic.”
A meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in the book The Selfish Gene [link at the bottom]. Memes are not just images on the internet that are widely shared and quickly spread. Memetics, according to Dawkins, are cultural phenomena that, like genes, spread through variation, mutation, competition and inheritance through the behavior they cause in their host.
Countries and companies
What are current examples of memetic organisms? Koert van Mensvoort makes a number of suggestions, such as countries or companies. You can regard these entities as organisms with their own metabolism and strategy for survival, of which we as human beings are part.
Another suggestion is technology. Certainly if we consider Smith and Szathmáry’s remark. Thanks to technology such as the internet, we work together more easily as people. In fact, we can’t live without it, at least if I speak for myself.
Are we, as humanity, gradually encapsulated by technology such as the internet and the smartphone? Is that computer and information technology the next step in evolution? Or is that super intelligence, in line with Harari’s dataism?
Human enhancement role
Perhaps this goes together with human enhancement. Because to operate as people within the super-organism of technology, we must have improved ourselves. To continue this speculative line: what if we can telepathically communicate with each other via brain chips? Then we are literally encapsulated by technology. Or perhaps crux: dependent, dominated and subject to technology.
In the part about Proponents I have already shared the opinion of Juan Enriquez. In short: humanity must have left the earth between now and 1 billion years in the future. Our current human body is then unsuitable for survival in space. That is why human enhancement, if there are still people, is inevitable in the long term.
This may still sound like science fiction. Jamie Metzl emphasizes in his book Hacking Darwin that it points to scientific progress in computer technology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetics somewhere else. The combination and mutual reinforcement of these technologies “converge into a mega-trend, a big wave that engulfs our understanding of people and completely overthrows them”.
To come back to our life in space. Metzl cites in his book Christopher Mason from the Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, United States). Mason is already working on a project with NASA. The goal is the survival of humanity both on Earth, in space and on other planets. To this end, scientists are currently working on the molecular analysis of the genome, epigenome, transcriptome and metagenome of astronauts to protect them against the effects of long space flights.
Splitting of homo sapiens
Some time earlier I came across a similar statement by the British astronomer Martin Rees. He already emphasized that it is likely that a part of homo sapiens will split off as a species, precisely that part of humanity that enters space to leave the earth.
That is in line with the evolutionary path, as you could read about the super organism in the previous paragraphs. Evolution is all about the best adaptation to the environment. From an evolutionary point of view our current body is not suitable for life in the universe.
Although this seems like a bizarre vista, Christopher Mason and his colleagues are already working on this with NASA. In such cases I often think of a favorite quote from me. The statement is from science fiction author William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it is unevenly distributed.”
What can we do now when it comes to human enhancement? How can we make wise choices that help ourselves and future generations?
As with other problems, such as the climate crisis or the development of artificial intelligence, it is good to keep an eye on events and context. For this you can of course follow the scientific literature in the field of human enhancement or blogs like this.
As an interested layman, I would recommend some of the popular science books that you have read in this article. Such as Homo Deus, The Makeable Man or my own book Biohacking [link at the bottom].
In addition to reading blogs and books, there are other media that you can keep up with in this domain, such as documentaries and podcasts. In the next part I will discuss fiction about this theme, such as series, books and films.
Human enhancement documentaries
These are documentaries that I recommend [bottom left]:
- Supersapiens (online). Documentary with Richard Dawkins, Nick Bostrom and Sam Harris, among others, about artificial intelligence;
- Unnatural Selection (Netflix). Four-part series on the implications of gene therapy and CRISPR / cas9 on health care, nature and human improvement;
- Darknet (Netflix) A documentary series about the dark side of the internet. Episode 2 of season 1 is specifically about human enhancement;
Human enhancement podcasts
These are my favorite podcasts about this theme [links at the bottom]:
- After On. The American author Rob Reid makes a podcast about the themes in his book, such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and regularly touches on human enhancement;
- Nerdland. Monthly Flemish podcast led by Lieven Scheire with changing guests. Fine combination of content, varied topics and humor;
- Singularity FM. Show that touches more on transhumanism, such as super intelligence and blockchain. Themes are often about the distant future of humanity.
In addition to these podcasts, I also have a podcast, namely Biohacking Impact [link at the bottom]. In this interview I interview national and international experts on biohacking, human enhancement or related scientific domains.
Although I am fascinated by the possibilities of human enhancement, it does not mean that I think we should allow all those improvement techniques without any restrictions. As I have written in previous related pieces, it seems to me the most ideal to compare new applications against principles and values that we consider important.
Below is a proposal of a number of principles. This list is loosely inspired by the ideas of Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans, Yuval Noah Harari and other books that I have read on this subject [link at the bottom].
- Responsibility. With the possibilities we have, we also realize as a society that we are liable for the consequences (on ourselves, others and the planet);
- Diversity. If there is a difference between the improved and the natural or the mutually improved, it is important to respect this diversity. From an evolutionary perspective, diversity also makes us as humanity resilient and resilient.
- Freedom of choice. In line with the previous point: everyone is free to choose whether they want to improve themselves and the way in which.
- Evolution. Part of the world, for example 25%, continues to develop according to the evolution of Darwin with natural selection and random mutation. In this way we preserve the natural course and possibly serve as a back-up if we ruin human evolution.
- Education. In line with the beginning of this part, it is important to educate ourselves and future generations and to train them with the possibilities, advantages and disadvantages of human enhancement.
- Optimism. It is good that you sometimes felt anxious when reading this article, I have that too. Yet I am optimistic, especially if we are patient, creative, vigilant and tolerant as humanity.
The application and elaboration of these principles does not really have much to do with science and technology, but more with values, distribution issues and the choices of individuals and society. This is then reflected in policies, laws and regulations and in the behavior of citizens and companies.
The challenge for us as a society and the government is to develop a policy based on the right values and not to fall into dogmas such as “natural is good” and “human intervention is bad.”
What are the values? A number are obvious. For example, we should not improve or adjust people so that they harm others more. Or people change, increasing social problems and inequality.
However, these kind of doom scenarios usually appear quickly when it comes to human enhancement, such as the best viewed science fiction films. Nevertheless, I think, just like Raya Bidshari in her opinion article, that human enhancement can also ensure that we as a society make progress together.
I may be an optimistic modernist, but on the net scientific progress has helped us as a humanity. As Hans Rosling has written in his book Factfullness, in recent decades humanity has made a huge amount of progress on all kinds of indicators [link at the bottom]. Consider the decrease in child mortality, the increase in access to sewers, clean drinking water and education.
That is why I am optimistic. Scientific insights and insights, particularly in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, big data and solar energy, can make the planet a better net place for humans.
Then we can live longer, eradicate hunger, help the climate, improve prosperity on a global level and achieve other goals, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [link at the bottom].
The outcome does not depend so much on technology, but rather on political and social distribution issues. How are we going to distribute and distribute those technologies? This is a question that always plays a role in technological progress. In the case of human enhancement, it is even more exciting because these techniques directly affect us as humans.
Because human enhancement directly affects people, it seems to me that human well-being is the most important criterion for assessing new technologies.
In a publication, researchers at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) have explored the question of whether human enhancement leads to better people and better humanity [link at the bottom]. They state that both objectives are often under tension.
For example: you take doping to run faster in a race. Then you as an individual will benefit. For the collective it is a disadvantage, not everyone has access to it and also puts pressure on the autonomy of the other athletes. Next time they will probably decide faster to do doping.
Autonomy, together with competences and connectedness, are the three basic needs of self-determination theory. The core of this theory is that the satisfaction of the three basic needs leads to optimal functioning, well-being and growth of a person.
Case of nootropics
The researchers propose that governments test new improvement technologies against self-determination theory. Take the use of pharmaceuticals for better concentration and more focus, so-called nootropics.
If that is imposed by an employer, it will affect your autonomy. On the other hand, it can help you in your competencies. But if a side effect is that you shut yourself off emotionally from others, then the use of the nootropic limits your connectedness.
This short case shows that there is no ideal outcome. Or as Professor Annelien Bredenoord told me in a podcast interview: “Ethical dilemmas always leave a tragic edge” [link at the bottom].
The researchers from the University of Geneva already mentioned the role of the government when it comes to testing and allowing human enhancement applications.
A complicating factor for governments is the so-called “displacement of politics”. In the book The Makeable Man, the authors describe that ‘society in general and the development of science and technology in particular are increasingly shaped outside the political arena, for example in scientific research laboratories, in the free market of consumerism and in the activities of non-governmental organizations’.
The tricky part, at least for governments, is that technological development can therefore increasingly be steered or coordinated from one central location.
In addition to the shifting of politics, another impeding factor is geopolitics, about which I have already written in the Impact section. Because what if the Netherlands or the European Union prohibits a certain improvement technology, is it allowed in another country?
The books Nexus, Crux and Apex by Ramez Naam further elaborate on this. In the trilogy it concerns a combination of neuro and nanotechnology. Despite a worldwide agreement (Copenhagen 2039), emerging superpowers China and India see it as a method to gain economic and military benefits, with all the consequences that that entails.
The non-fiction book Moneyland also does not promise much good [link at the bottom]. The book describes how countries respond to the global demand for channeling away, hiding and spending money without paying (a lot of) tax for it. Although it is a completely different theme, I still had the feeling that we as humans (and as nation states) want to cheat if we take advantage of it ourselves.
Regardless of the complications, the role of the government is and remains essential with their legislation, enforcement and other policy measures. In their report Good, better, the Rathenau Instituut makes a number of recommendations to the Dutch government about their policy on human enhancement [link at the bottom].
The most interesting recommendation is that the government “seriously examines the social consequences of individual use and examines whether they can curb or counteract this with regulations”. The reason that I find this recommendation the most interesting is because it is extremely difficult to estimate social consequences.
In my article on technology ethics I give a number of examples of this [link at the bottom]. The introduction of the contraceptive pill, for example, led to an immense growth in the acceptance of homosexuality. The unforeseen effect was that reproduction became independent of sexuality, whereby opponents of homosexuality lost an important argument.
I therefore think the best way is to educate technology. This is what Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek writes in his book The Border of Man: “Instead of opposing technology, ethics should guide technological developments. Critical, but closely linked” [link at the bottom].
In the last part of this article I mention a number of fiction books, series and films about human enhancement. Of course, the book Frankenstein cannot be missing in this. Peter-Paul Verbeek sees an important lesson in an interview with de Volkskrant.
“I think it is symbolic that the monster mainly craves for freedom and equality, while his maker runs away for fear of him and takes no responsibility for his creation.” In other words, a creator cannot let go of his creation or walk away from it with impunity.
Just like with children or with human enhancement technologies: we as humans are responsible for what we make, how we behave accordingly, how we shape it and how it shapes us.
Innovators and experiments
In 2016 I organized a Biohacking Meetup on the theme of human enhancement [link at the bottom]. After a lecture by myself, Jelte Timmer spoke. Jelte was then still working at the Rathenau Institute.
Beforehand we talked about the chip in my hand that I had implanted in my hand [link at the bottom]. The reason I put this in place is that I think that by really trying and messing around, I know better what this technology means.
Fortunately Jelte agreed with me. He saw a greater role for people who try, invent, experiment and share things with themselves. Jelte: “This provides practical cases, which can lead to a debate in society and in politics.”
This ultimately leads to discussions about human enhancement not only being limited to academic circles, but also becoming a discussion in which everyone can participate.
Because as the name human enhancement implies: it affects us as a person and that affects everyone.
What is my (provisional) conclusion?
I think that using technology makes us human. Without scientific and technological progress, we as a species have come so far through our ability to work together in changing compositions and through our ingenuity to experiment, discover and make.
This is not limited to scientific discoveries and inventions outside our body. Earlier in this article I made it clear that many improvement technologies overflow from healthcare to human enhancement. It is precisely in the field of medical science and biomedical technology that developments are going extremely fast. For that reason, it is useless to close our eyes to this. If we get better, let’s use that improvement technology.
Of course, as a society, we can decide to use those technologies only in healthcare with the aim of making sick people better. However, I do not expect this to happen soon.
Both internationally and nationally, there is increasing pressure on performance, manufacturability and success. I suspect that this trend is leading to more and more people wanting to use technologies to improve themselves or their children.
Although I personally have some difficulty with this, it entails all kinds of ethical dilemmas. Take the geopolitical interest, for example. Should another country decide to improve their inhabitants, then political and economic pressure in Europe will also increase to allow it here.
Nevertheless, I believe that the geopolitical component does not mean that you must blindly follow others as an individual, as a group or as a country. No, as far as I am concerned, the considerations are of an individual, group
I think that human issues are becoming more important along with the emergence of improvement technologies. This then concerns themes such as:
- Assessing the effects of a technology, both for yourself and others;
- Identifying and weighing possible consequences;
- Consider what the important things in life are;
There are no easy, unambiguous and/or technological solutions for these types of themes. This is more about elusive concepts that require self-insight, reflection, experience, emotional balance and time to think.
But still: answers to these questions lead to a better understanding of what human well-being means to you. After this you could decide whether an improvement technology fits your life.
The line I sketch above is my ideal. That you decide on the basis of your own objectives and motives about whether you want to improve yourself as a person. In that case, human enhancement technologies serve human well-being.
I also realize that these are difficult questions. Your answers will change over time and as a person you also have shortcomings and blind spots. In addition, you do not make these types of choices as an individual. You live in a world with cultural developments, economic pressure and interpersonal relationships, in which choices may already be made for you.
Nevertheless, I hope that as a society we work as hard on these personal, political and ethical issues as we do on scientific and technological progress.
Only then can you really speak of human enhancement. Both on an individual level as well as an improvement of humanity and the planet.
In the earlier parts I have occasionally referred to fictional books, series or films. Below I will separately share a number of series, films and books that deal with human enhancement. Note: occasionally I share spoilers.
Films & series
At the top of the article you have already watched my Scifi Vision video about it, below is an explanation. For me, the most striking examples are where people literally merge with machines.
This aspect can be found in Ghost in the Shell (from 2017). The most interesting thing about the film is the question of who owns a body full of mechanical and electronic components. What does that mean for your autonomy, independence and identity?
Six Million Dollar Man
More than 40 years earlier, the series Six Million Dollar Man (1974) was released. In that series, a crashed fighter jet pilot is equipped with implants and bionic components. After this he works as a secret agent and has unlikely physical capacities, such as speed, strength and endurance.
A film that explores the consequences of moral and emotional interventions is Equals from 2015. That film with Kirsten Stewart, among others, is about a society that is extremely rational. Citizens who feel or exhibit emotions such as anger, love or fear are treated with compulsory therapy.
The founder of the genre is of course Mary Shelly when she wrote her book Frankenstein. Countless films have been made about Frankenstein, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994 with Robert de Niro.
A more recent film is Mary Shelley (2017). This film is about the then nineteen-year-old author of the book. What led her to write the Frankenstein story? What or who inspired her to do this?
Following the last tip in the paragraphs about film and series tips, I cannot help but mention the book Frankenstein from 1818 [link at the bottom]. The book is considered to be one of the first books in the horror genre and the title of the book often makes it to the media.
A nice observation is from author Annegreet van Bergen. In an interview in the Volkskrant, she points to the influence of the technology that emerged at the time: “Around the time Mary Shelley wrote the book, scholars had just started holding demonstrations with electric machines.”
Apparently, the crackling power surge inspired Mary Shelley to incorporate this into her novel. Because the essence of the story is that the Viennese doctor in training Victor Frankenstein sews a being from body parts of corpses and brings it to life with lightning.
The book Frankissstein is a contemporary successor to the original. In this novel by Jeanette Winterson, two story lines are intertwined, namely about gender fluidity and artificial intelligence [link at the bottom]. Funnily enough, the story starts in 1816 on Lake Geneva with what, according to tradition, was the inspiration for Mary Shelley to write her novel.
Dog human combination
A special novel is Hondehart by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov from 1925. It is a story that is sometimes called pretty Frankenstein. It is about a professor who operates on a street dog, Sjarik. The professor gives the dog the testicles and pituitary gland of a criminal who died just before. The purpose of this experiment was to see if it leads to a rejuvenation of the animal.
However, this does not happen. The dog changes over time into a kind of person, but with the characteristics and traits of the previous owner.
I received this book as a gift from the organization of Talkshow De Idee, where I gave a lecture about human enhancement. It was a really good gift, because the book falls within the theme and because I would not buy it myself so quickly. I hadn’t read any Russian novels before this novel. I usually read some more recent science fiction books.
The gift was therefore a pleasant surprise. Although it is a small novel, it contains many layers. What does it mean to be human? Or animal? What happens if power falls into the wrong hands? In what kind of system are these kinds of experiments possible?
The last comment relates to the time in which the book was written. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the tsar was deposed and eventually replaced by a communist regime. In the book, Bulgakov subtly criticizes the political situation in his country at the time.
In addition to films, series and books, art is a method for thinking about the impact and effects of human enhancement. I myself have come to appreciate the role of artists and speculative designers in recent years.
A few examples are:
- The English designer Agi Haines I mentioned earlier in this piece. She made a number of works with babies who are adapted to warmer temperatures on earth or who have an opening in their skull to connect a cable to the brain.
- The French artist Orlan has been working since 1990 on the transformation of herself [link at the bottom]. In a series of operations, a plastic surgeon slowly changes her face. She does this on the basis of five mythical female characters from art history: Mona Lisa, Diana, Psyche, Europe and Venus.
- The artists of Cirque du Soleil explore the possibilities of human enhancement to use in their shows [link at the bottom]. For example, one of the designers talks about “adding a mechanical tail to change the center of gravity.”
In short, the possibilities of human enhancement are used or explored in all kinds of cultural and artistic expressions. As I wrote in the section about Proponents, the pursuit of human improvement is something that has fascinated us as humanity for centuries.
Since the start of our existence as Homo Sapiens, they have been stories, myths and legends about people with Divine or superhuman capacities. We have never lost that pursuit of improvement, only the form in which we now tell is different. Now we use computer games such as Deus Ex, books such as Frankenstein and science fiction films such as Ghost in the Shell.
Want to know more?
Do you want to know more about this subject? Please contact me if you have any questions! Even if you want to invite me to give a lecture or presentation at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.
I then discuss this development from the broader context of biohacking:
I previously wrote these related articles:
- What is the future of humans? (most recent article)
- What is transhumanism? (recent update: August 2019)
- What is biohacking?
- What is a superhumen?
- How can we engineer humans?
These articles deal with the impact and ethical aspects:
I made these videos on this subject:
I used these non-fiction books for this article:
- Book Biohacking (my own book…) (NL)
- Book Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations
- Book De Maakbare Mens (NL)
- Book Unfit for the Future
- Book Enhancing Evolution
- Book To save everything click here
- Book De Nieuwe Mens (NL)
- Book Zelfverwoestingsboek (NL)
- Book Technology versus Humanity
- Book Homo Deus
- Book Small philosophy of the perfect man (NL)
- Book The Future of Human Nature
- Book Hacking Darwin
- Book Next Nature
- Book The Selfish Gene
- Book The Limit of Man
- Book Factfullness
- Book Moneyland
These are fiction books about human enhancement:
- Book Nexus
- Book Frankenstein
- Book Frankissstein
- Book Hondehart
These are external links that I used, subdivided by theme. The Dutch articles have NL behind the link.
Definition and meaning section:
- Software Crystal
- Article infrared vision
- Research supplementation and violence
- Research TDCS
- Paper Alex Pearlman
Section: genetic modification
- List by George Church
- Article about He (NL)
- Article about reproduction technology (NL)
- Article about Emily Whitehead
- Research about retinagene therapy
- Article about Elizabeth Parrish
- Article about Josiah Zayner
- Article about chimera rules
- Article about human-monkey chimera
- Article about xenotransplantation (NL)
- Article about human and pig DNA
Section: bionic and mechanical
- Website Agar
- Article about Gilgamesh
- Website Julian Savulescu
- Website Journal of Medical Ethics
- Interview Julian Savulescu with Volkskrant
- Research Gottfredson
- Reading Juan Enriquez
- Website Inez de Beaufort (NL)
- Interview Marion Donner (NL)
- Opinion article David Byrne
- Opinion article Michael Sandel
Section – opinion Americans and Dutch
Section – impact
- Article about hacking pacemakers (NL)
- Article about breast implants (NL)
- Research Gartner on human augmentation
- Opinion article Michael Bess
- Research about Snapchat and plastic surgery
- Article about modafinil testing by the US military
- Article about CRISPR / cas9 by the army
- Website Damiaan Denys (NL)
- Article about encouraging empathy
- Article about human enhancement and climate crisis
- Website Agi Haines
- Article about genetic modification in China
- Research on human enhancement in Asia
- Article about Singapore ideas
- Article about religions and immortality
- Research on Swarzenegger mice
- Research on PEPCK-C mice
- Interview Hidde Haisma about gene doping (NL)
- Research from Miah
- Research from Allhof and others
- Website Santoni
- Article about the Secret Annex
- Opinion article Huijer (NL)
- Podcast Biohacking Impact (my own)
- Podcast After On
- Podcast Nerdland (NL)
- Podcast Singularity FM
- Opinion article on Singularity Hub
- Website with sustainable development objectives
- Research University of Geneva
- Report Rathenau Instituut (NL)
- Interview with Peter-Paul Verbeek (NL)
- Website Biohacking Meetup Nederland
These documentaries are about human enhancement
- Documentary De Volmaakte Mens (NL)
- Documentary Take Your Pills
- Documentary Supersapiens
- Documentary Unnatural Selection
- Documentaary Darknet
Films, series, books and art section
- Film Ghost in the Shell
- Series The 6 Million Dollar Man
- Film Equals
- Film Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein
- Film Mary Shelly
- Article Volkskrant about Frankenstein (NL)
- Website artist Orlan
- Article about the Cirque du Soleil innovation lab
How do you view the change and improvement of us as humans? Leave a comment!