Sunday, December 13, 2009

Does Enhanced Human = Transhuman?

Over at Michael Annisimov’s Blog, I noticed a recent post about Transhumanist technology being mentioned on CNN. In this post, Michael expresses his concern about the abuse of these technologies. He includes myostatin blockers being used to grow excessive muscle. Why this interests me is that someone on myostatin blockers would still be a Human being in my opinion. The question this raises is what difference, if any, is there between an enhanced Human and a Transhuman? Does simply receiving an enhancement make you no longer Human. The answer is obviously no. Most of us in the developed world have been vaccinate multiple times in our lives, and a vaccine is an enhancement. It makes you immune to (often fatal) diseases, increasing your life expectancy. Are people who have been vaccinated any more or less Human than those that haven’t? Again, the answer is obviously no. Taking a vaccine, drug, gene therapy, implant, nanite injection or anything else to improve your health or performance above average, or even beyond what any other Human is capable of, does not necessarily make you Transhuman.

Above, you’ll note the picture of Ethan Hawke in Gattaca. As I’m sure most of you are aware, Gattaca is a film where the majority of the population has been genetically enhanced, and those who aren’t are second class citizens. However, I would not consider the genetically enhanced people of Gattaca to be Transhuman. The fact that Ethan Hawke’s au natural character is able to pass for genetically enhanced is proof their society puts too much stock in genetic determinism. As one character puts it so pithily, “My son wasn’t everything they promised me he’d be,”. I don’t believe in genetic determinism, so I’m skepitcal about the ability of genetic modification to solve psychological and social problems. People don’t commit crimes or become depressed simply because of a few bad genes. I also believe that genetic engineering will be far more limited than some of the more optimistic futurists have predicted. Most Human traits are polygenic, meaning influenced by many different genes. Individual genes can also regulate multiple functions. The implication is that in most cases you’ll have to alter many different genes to produce a noticeable result, and since those genes affect other functions as well you’ll likely get severe side effects. The Human Body, along with all other living things, is holistic; a combination of interdependent systems. You can’t change one thing without affecting everything else. The more radical genetic alterations are made, the more likely there will be severe side effects. Elective gene therapy, both in embryos and adults, will likely be severely limited in the alterations that can be safely made. I doubt gene therapy could make anyone superhuman.

In my Space Opera, Deity: Cosmic Exile, the Humans are genetically enhanced, but they are not post-human. Their genetic enhancements are explained in my foreword, which was this blog’s inaugural post. Aside from their 240+ year life-expectancy, none of my character’s genetic enhancements exceed Human limitations. Just as modern technology has allowed most people to live longer without changing the maximum lifespan, their genetic modifications have allowed most people to reach the upper limits of Human potential without actually expanding those limitations. But this is not the only reason I don’t consider my characters post-human. To me a post-human being is either no longer biologically Human, meaning they cannot produce a fertile offspring with a Human being, or no longer philosophically Human. What that means, I’m not exactly sure.

In my opinion, gene therapy would only make you post-human if it made you unable to breed with other Humans, and I’m sure that such radical genetic alterations would be fatal. Let’s say that you received gene therapy to block myostatin production, making you like young Liam Hoekstra, who naturally possesses the gene. Well he’s still Human, and you would be too. Muscles don’t make you more or less Human, either genetically or philosophically. No matter what genetic enhancements a person had, so long as they could produce children with a Human being, than they would still be genetically Human. (I don’t want to get into the complex issue of how certain artificial methods of reproduction could create chimeras, so I’m going by the traditional definition of species). Would some one who was just a Human brain in an otherwise wholly cybernetic body still be Human, since they could be cloned from a neuron? Genetically perhaps, but I believe that such a being would no longer be philosophically Human.

Above, next to Ethan Hawke, I’ve put a picture of Doctor Manhattan, who in my opinion is unquestionably post-human. His abilities not only exceed those of ordinary Human beings, but those that could conceivably be offered by genetic or cybernetic enhancements. He’s immortal and indestructible, apparently capable of taking a stroll on the surface of the sun. He can reassemble himself on the atomic level, so even having his atoms wretched apart can’t kill him (In spite of this, I still maintain that Riddick could defeat him). Manhattan can “bend matter to his will”, although apparently he doesn’t have the ability to constructively alter a Human body i.e. cure cancer, which doesn’t really make sense, especially since he later claims that he has the ability to create life. He can teleport himself and others at least as far as Mars, though he does claim that he can travel to other galaxies. He can duplicate himself, then remerge with his doppelgangers (what exactly he’s doing here, I have no idea). He can grow to at least the size of a skyscraper, though we never see him shrink beneath about six foot six. Then again, why would he want too? He apparently doesn’t need to eat or drink or sleep, though in a conversation with Laurie he implies he can eat. Though we’re never told what his senses are like, he does say that he can view matter at the sub-atomic level. However, when he’s chasing Adrien at New Karnac, he says he’ll have to turn the walls to glass in order to see him, so he obviously can’t see through walls. And finally, he’s prescient, which has made him rather fatalistic.

Now I’m going to adopt Will McCarthy’s explanation of what Doctor Manhattan is, which is a bubble in the Zero Point Field with John Osterman’s atomic pattern imprinted on it, although obviously his physique has been “enhanced”. This ZPF bubble draws ambient particles to itself and assembles them into a corporeal form based on Osterman’s template. His blue glow is possibly caused by his body leaking electrons. Manhattan’s body is hairless, except for his eyebrows, and I have no idea how to explain that. Doctor Manhattan’s origins remind me of Wowbanger the Infinitely Prolonged from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Life, The Universe and Everything. Like Manhattan, Wowbanger was made immortal in a fluke accident, which involved a liquid lunch, an irrational particle accelerator, and a pair of rubber bands. In both cases, no one’s ever been able to replicate the exact conditions of the accident or the results, and many have died trying. Life, The Universe and Everything predates the Watchmen comics by two or three years, so Douglas Adams did it first.

His extraordinary powers aside, does Doctor Manhattan meet my criteria for being post-human, either genetically or philosophically? Based on my assumption on what Doctor Manhattan is, his genetics are irrelevant. His blue-prints are encoded not on DNA, but on a bubble in the Zero Point Field. His body arranges himself according to that template, and his genes are merely vestigial like most of his Human anatomy. I don’t know if Manhattan is genetically identical to Osterman, but I will assume that he is, and their physical differences (muscles, height, hair, and presumably penis size) are due to other factors. It’s not mentioned if Manhattan ever had any children, and since that would be fairly significant I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t. When the attempt to create other Manhattans with the Intrinsic Field Generator failed, surely someone must have tried to talk Manhattan into attempting to have a child. Since Manhattan did everything else the government told him, I see no reason why he wouldn’t go along with this. Also, since he knew the attempt would fail, he surely could have talked either Jamie Slater or Laurie Jupiter into going off whatever contraception they were using and trying, whether they wanted kids or not. The question here is why did it fail? Since I presume Manhattan is still genetically John Osterman, the cause must be non-genetic. Most likely, the electrons shooting off from Manhattan glowing blue sperm somehow disrupted either the conception or the early development of the zygote. This is a bit of a stretch, since we know John’s radiation is not actually harmful to adult Humans, but maybe it’s strong enough to kill a zygote. Whatever the problem was, if it could somehow be overcome, I predict that the child would be John Osterman’s offspring and not Manhattan’s. It would be completely Human and inherit none of Manhattan’s powers, since those are not genetic. So even though John Osterman can still breed with Humans, Doctor Manhattan can’t. He’s not just genetically different from us, he has completely transcended genetics. Therefore, he is genetically a post-human being.

As for the issue of whether on not he is philosophically Human, the answer to that is made clear in both the comics and the film adaptation. In both incarnations, Manhattan’s powers are depicted as isolating him from Humanity. These powers affect his thoughts and behaviours. He can no longer relate with Humans, or understand them. His nudity is suppose to be symbolic of this (in the comics his penis was a lot less enviable, but whatever). His withdrawal from Humanity is most poignantly expressed when he states that there is no relevant difference between a live Human body and a dead one. He sometimes confuses the future and the present, such as when he told Laurie to say hi to Dan from him, forgetting that Laurie hadn’t actually asked him out to dinner yet. He can also forget fairly simple things about Human beings, such as our need for oxygen. I interpret his sometimes cryptic speech as his attempt at articulating thoughts which are beyond that of a Human into Human language. In a philosophical sense, I define post-human powers not merely as exceeding Human abilities, but as inevitably changing the thoughts and behaviours of their recipients to the point that they no longer think or act like a Human, and find that they can longer relate to Human beings. I don’t think I can define exactly what it means to be Human in a philosophical sense, so I’m not exactly sure what these powers would be.

In conclusion, a person who receives an enhancement that does not a) alter their genome to the point that they can no longer breed with Humans, and/or b) eventually change their thoughts and behaviour to the point that they no longer thought or acted like a Human, although admittedly, I’m not exactly sure what this would mean. So if you fuck like a Human, think like a Human, act like a Human, and quack like a Human, but just do it better than most Humans, than you are merely an enhanced Human, not a post-human. But for anyone who wishes to be more than an enhanced Human and become a Transhuman, I think Doctor Manhattan sets a fine cautionary example. In spite of his god-like powers, he’s sad. Since he no longer thinks like a Human, he can’t relate to anyone anymore. He’s lonely. Remember that a post-human may be hard pressed to find a companion who can understand them.

1 comment:

  1. Good article! Consider this: your consciousness is a feedback. "Loneliness" is an inseparable part of every human being. Even if you had someone in your life, you'd most probably be still lonely (at least in your mind). Life is a very personal experience, therefore transhuman people will still relate to each-other in some way. Even if that means they have to be void of emotions.