How to Become the Engineers of Our Own Evolution | Science | Smithsonian
(José Torres)

How to Become the Engineers of Our Own Evolution

The "transhumanist" movement says better technology will enable you to replace more and more body parts—even your brain

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The reports regularly come in from around the world: U.S. engineers unveil a prototype bionic eye, Swedish surgeons replace a man’s cancerous trachea with a body part grown in a lab, and a British woman augments her sense of touch by implanting self-made magnetic sensors in her fingertips.

Adherents of “transhumanism”—a movement that seeks to transform Homo sapiens through tools like gene manipulation, “smart drugs” and nanomedicine—hail such developments as evidence that we are becoming the engineers of our own evolution. Enhanced humans might inject themselves with artificial, oxygen-carrying blood cells, enabling them to sprint for 15 minutes straight. They could live long enough to taste a slice of their own 250th birthday cake. Or they might abandon their bodies entirely, translating the neurons of their brains into a digital consciousness.

Transhumanists say we are morally obligated to help the human race transcend its biological limits; those who disagree are sometimes called Bio-Luddites. “The human quest has always been to ward off death and do everything in our power to keep living,” says Natasha Vita-More, chairwoman of Humanity+, the world’s largest trans­humanist organization, with nearly 6,000 members.

Though the movement is largely secular, pundits observe that its missionary zeal carries religious undertones, including a belief that we are approaching the end times. While some transhumanists believe that technological change will be gradually incorporated into ordinary life, others anticipate the arrival of the “singularity,” the watershed moment in the mid-21st century—otherwise known as the “rapture for geeks”—when exponentially smarter machines transform our world in unknowable ways. Some transhumanists believe that the only humans able to adapt will be those who have become cyborgs and merged their minds with intelligent machines.

For the time being, transhumanists’ options are more limited. Some wear cryonics necklaces, which instruct paramedics to pack their corpse in ice (“especially [the] head”) so it can be deep-frozen and then resuscitated by the super-scientists of the future. They read H+ magazine, Humanity+’s flagship publication. And they network, hosting conferences everywhere from Stanford Law School to Parsons the New School for Design.

Some worry about the implications of transcendent technologies. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History?” and a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, warns that efforts to rid ourselves of negative emotions could have unforeseen side effects, making us less human. “If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “If we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love.”

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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