Some have already decided to try for immortality and for transhumanity, including the dozen or so chrononauts now lying frozen in their voyage through time. But to most onlookers their motives remain somewhat obscure and their vision unclear. What do they love in life, that they cling to it so tenaciously? What marvelous future do they foresee that they are determined to experience it? In that far season, what strange flowerings do they imagine, that they tug so insistently at Heinlein's "door into summer"? And to what mighty works, what soaring projects, do they imagine they can contribute?
Only a few of the answers are quick and easy. For those who can enjoy leisure in traditional lazy and frivolous ways, a world of delight opens wide: an open-ended future may mean a month wandering the Canadian wilderness, a winter basking on Pacific beaches, a year listening to Bach and Mozart, or Simon and Garfunkel. La dolce vita can become cloying or even disgusting, but some things are likely to wear well: soft grass, a fresh breeze, fleecy skies, a cool
drink, crisp snow, a warm hand, a familiar voicecan a thousand years of these be too much?
Other likely rewards are just as tangible. Doubtless the day will come when every citizen will receive a basic income of $10,000,000 or more a year just for breathing, and millions more for such onerous tasks as jury duty. As Benjamin Franklin said, "There is no substitute for luxury," and we can look forward with unabashed eagerness to an era when luxury will be taken for granted as the natural perquisite of every superman who wants it.
Unhappily, grateful and graceful acceptance of better things is not commonplace in the present age of confusion and warped personalities. Eleanor Roosevelt was reportedly baffled by the sweepers of India, who worked bent over all day with short-handled brooms, and could not be persuaded to save their backs by putting longer handles on the brooms. Today there are vast segments of the world population that will not concede it is better to be rich than poor, better to be bright than dull, better to be strong than weak, better to he free than regimented, or even that it is better to live than to die.
As for the possibility and necessity of redesigning ourselves and outgrowing our humanity, which ought to be nearly self-evident, one finds on every side the most solemn and long-winded arguments to the contrary. Hence, perhaps we had best begin with some brief reminders that it is indeed possible for people to design better people.
The Possibility of Human Design
On a rudimentary level, the engineering of humanity is as old as humanity. Every time one of our ancestors swallowed a medicinal herb, he was trying to improve the "natural"
functioning of his body, attempting in his small and vaguely defined way to "denature" himself and produce something a little more than human. When he deliberately selected a strong and clever woman for his mate, he may have been trying, through primitive eugenics, for more and better children. Not only the wish to create supermen, but even the actual effort, has always been there, regardless of disclaimers, and regardless of its minimal effect so far.
On the level of repair work and prostheses there has indeed been notable success, mostly in recent times. With our eyeglasses, gold inlays and birth control pills we are substantially superhuman; we have transcended the apparent limitations of our design, without even taking into account our vehicles and other machinery. But the basic design has not been noticeably improved.
In biological terms, scholars believe we are scarcely different from our ancestors 50,000 years removed. Humanity has not evolved apparently, and is not evolving. In addition, natural evolution at perceptible rates is believed to require isolation of new strains or genetic segregation which does not occur in the modern world; hence some scientists think men will remain merely men indefinitely.
Or so it appeared before the recent convulsive changes in biology and electronics, including the announcement in June of 1970 that Dr. H. Gobind Khorana had succeeded in synthesizing a gene at the University of Wisconsin. Already a Nobel prize winner, Dr. Khorana was the first to create from scratch a unit of heredity, in this case one related to the metabolism of yeast cells. (92) But for many years previously scientists had been unraveling the genetic code and tinkering with the DNA molecules that carry it, and talk of "genetic engineering" had been commonplace. Today, few biologists seem to doubt that we will learn--eventually--how to modify human reproductive cells, or
even manufacture them, so as to produce children with exactly the desired traitsnot only gender to order, and skin color and hair texture and body size and facial features, not only healthier and stronger people, but truly significant improvements in intellect and personality, and if need be, a completely different animal.
The bolder and more perceptive biologists, of course, have long seen the handwriting on the wall. Decades ago, Alexis Carrel wrote, "For the first time since the beginning of its history, humanity has become master of its destiny . . . In order to grow fresh, it is forced to make itself anew. And it cannot make itself anew without pain, for it is both the marble and the sculptor. Out of its own substance it must send the splinters flying with great hammer-strokes, in order to recover its true face." (22)
This kind of talk makes us hopeful, but also a little uneasy. Carrel mentioned "pain." Do we really want to hammer ourselves?
The Necessity of Human Design
Professor Joshua Lederberg, Stanford's Nobel laureate biologist, has given us a refreshingly different definition of disease: it is "any deficit relative to a desired norm."Delightful! Not only is pneumonia a disease, but also our susceptibility to it; not only is schizophrenia a disease, but also stupidity. In fact, every undesired trait represents disease. Thusalthough Professor Lederberg does not seem to have drawn the obvious conclusionhumanity itself is a disease, of which we must now proceed to cure ourselves.
There are still numerous naysayers, who assert that it is wrong to "play God." Since this objection is seriously proposed by apparently intelligent people, it requires the for-
mality of an explicit answer. At first, let us think primarily of improvement of future generations, although not excluding the question of remodeling living adults
The first and most obvious comment is that a hands-off policy does not avoid responsibility. Passivity is just one alternative among many, and it also has its consequences. To choose to do nothing is still a choice, with its advantages, disadvantages and probable sequelae. Unless these have actually been weighed, estimated, and compared with alternatives, those who choose not to "play God" are choosing instead, to play ostrich.
Another preliminary remark concerns the curious tacit assumption that human intervention would be "disruptive," that it might wreck the "normal" and "orderly" processes of "nature". Actually, it is hard to imagine that human engineers could be any clumsier or messier than that old slattern Dame Nature. The ''normal'' processes of evolution are wasteful and cruel in stupefying degree. Dame Nature considers every species and every individual expendable, and has indeed expended them in horrifying numbers. Even an occasional calamitous error in planned development could scarcely match the slaughter, millennium in and millennium out, of fumble-fingered Nature.
This brings us to the third general comment: it would be absurdinsaneto "trust to nature," because nature's criteria are not the same as ours. In fact, nature recognizes only two criteria of biological successsurvival and proliferation. By these disgusting standards, a fungus might ultimately prove superior to man. In the name of humanity and decorum, should we allow superfungus to develop before superman?
But the clearest understanding of the inanity of the don't-play-God notion emerges when we try to envision its detailed application. Exactly what do the stand-patters
propose we prohibit? Shall we proscribe, say any "artificial" improvement in human resistance to disease? If genetic correction can eliminate susceptibility to all forms of cancer, for example, shall we withhold the correction and foredoom millions to early, painful deaths? Or suppose drug therapy becomes capable of increasing the intelligence of the average living individual; then stupidity will be the result not of chance, but choice. What would impel you to choose relative stupidity for yourself, or prevent others from being relieved of it?
Clearly, each separate choice must be weighed on its own merits. Hasty acceptance of an apparent blessing can indeed be costly, as witness, for example, the thalidomide error, and on a larger scale the air and water pollution of careless industrialization. Agencies analogous to the Food & Drug Administration will doubtless have their place. But the penalties of inaction may also be severe; millions of lives were lost because of the fourteen year delay in the use of penicillin. And even those who like the status quo must recognize the possibility of a sudden change in environment, for which it is well to preparesuch as a new disease, or a general war, or a new tyrant, or a shift in climate, or a naturally mutated strain of men, or intelligent machines. In fact, a rapid change in environment is certain, since it is happening now; our culture is changing so fast that in order to cope with it, men must soon change also. To go forward is to risk disaster, but to stand still is to ensure it.
The only real alternative to the kind of progress we envision is reactiona drawing back and pulling in, a closing of the eyes and mind, a regime of ossification and repression, where curiosity is a crime and honesty a sin. This would surely be pathological"unnatural" in the proper sense.
So far, the goal of superhumanity for ourselvesfor living
individuals of our generationseems to be shared by scarcely anyone outside of the cryonics societies, by not a single philosopher, scientist, or writer of acknowledged status and immediate influence. For most of the touted "thinkers," even superhumanity for our descendants is viewed ambivalently and erratically. The eminent philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example, voiced a gloomy and pessimistic view: "It may well be that in its individual capacities and penetrations our brain has reached its organic limits." And, "After the long series of transformations leading to man, has the world stopped? Or if we are still moving, is it not merely in a circle?" He thought future progress might be mainly collective and spiritual. (168) But he also had a higher, if wavering, vision:
With our knowledge of hormones we appear to he on the eve of having
a hand in the development of our bodies and even of our brains. With
the discovery of genes we shall soon be able to control the mechanism of
organic heredity....The dream which human research obscurely fosters
is . . . by grasping the very mainspring of evolution, seizing the tiller
of the world.... I salute those who have the courage to admit that their
hopes extend that far; they are at the pinnacle of mankind.... (168)
Albert Rosenfeld, the eminent science writer, has a wry metaphor for the risks we face in manipulating the world and ourselves:
. . . in dealing with so many of the potent new tools and techniques, man
is very much in the position of those Japanese gastronomes who are addicted
to the fugu fish. The fugu secretes a deadly poison to which there is no
known antidote. Yet its flesh is considered so delectable that Japanese
aficionados are willing to pay high prices
for it and risk the dangers.
The risk is somewhat mitigated by the fact that in Japan only licensed
chefs specially trained to know the poisonous parts from the nonpoisonous
and to prepare it nontoxically, are permitted to serve it up. No system
is foolproof of course. Despite all precautions, a couple of hundred
Japanese die every year of fugu poisoning.
Perhaps we should all take a lesson from the fugu fanciers. To enjoy the
pleasures, we must take the risks. But let us by all means see to it that the
chefs know what they are doing. (145)
To be born human is an affliction. It shouldn't happen to a dog. Yet the disease is definitely enjoyable, and we must take care that our "cures" really represent improvement. To what extent, and in what way, should man design superman?
To See Beyond the Horizon
Is it possible to see farther than one can seefor example beyond the horizon? Certainlyour newer radars can do it. Is it possible to remember more than the brain can retain? Of courseour libraries do it. It is impossible by definition to see through an "opaque" object, and yet the x-ray business is booming. And so on: we can often do indirectly, and by stages, what at first seems quite beyond our scope, and this includes a human study of the superhuman.
Certainly one cannot visualize a unique superman, even in faintest outline. In the third place, some of the most important elements of the future will be revealed as complete surprises, and thus cannot be taken into account. In the second place, there will be tendencies to diversity and pluralism. And in the first place, one can foresee no completion to the self-directed evolution of the superman; it
must he thought of in terms of open-ended development. The present task is only to outline some of the earlier options of supermen, with special attention to those heretofore ignored or underemphasized.
To do this, it must first he shown that homo sapiens is only a botched beginning; when he clearly sees himself as an error, he may not only be motivated to sculpt himself, but to make at least a few swift and confident strokes.
We must also review the supermen of literature, scant and flimsy as these are, to consider whether they contribute interesting possibilities.
The bulk of this book will comprise an investigation of superhuman potential, modes of life and thought. Some of it will be mainly for amusement. Some will be exceedingly practical in a direct and obvious way. And some, necessarily if presumptuously, will touch on certain old and profound problems of philosophy, and will finally force us to consider superman in the first and second person.
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