A Historian’s Take on the Future – And It’s Scary!

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Michael Bess is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He has received major fellowships from the J. S. Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Fulbright program. His previous books include Choices Under Fire and The Light-Green Society. This article is adapted from his new book, Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (Beacon Press, 2016).


Over the coming decades – probably a lot sooner than most people realize –the next great wave of technological change will wash over our lives. Its impact will be similar in sweep and rapidity to the advent of computers, cell phones, and the web; but this time around, it is not our gadgets that will be transformed – it is we ourselves, our bodies, our minds. This will be a shift that cuts even more deeply than the great industrial revolutions of the past. It will not only alter how we make a living, communicate, and interact with each other, but will offer direct and precise control over our own physical and mental states.

Through the use of pharmaceuticals, we are learning how to modulate our moods, boost our physical and mental performance, increase our longevity and vitality. Through the application of prostheses, implants, and other bioelectronic devices, we are not only healing the blind and the paralyzed, but beginning to reconfigure our bodies, enhance our memories, and generate entirely new ways of interacting with machines. Through genetic interventions, we are not only neutralizing certain diseases long thought incurable, but opening up the very real possibility of taking evolution into our own hands – redesigning the human “platform” of body and mind in a thoroughgoing way.

If you talk to the authors of this revolution – the scientists, doctors, and engineers who labor tirelessly at the vanguard of biotechnology – most of them will deny that this is what they have in mind. They are not seeking to bring about the transmogrification of the human species, they insist: they are simply doing their best to heal the sick, to repair the injured. But once you stand back and look at the big picture, sizing up the cumulative impact of all their brilliant efforts, a different conclusion emerges. Whether they intend it or not, they are giving our species the instruments with which to radically redesign itself. Those instruments are already becoming available in crude form today, and they will fully come into their own over the next few decades. By the time our grandchildren have grown to adulthood, this wave of change will have passed through our civilization.

The results will be mixed. Some of the new bioenhanced capabilities will be splendid to behold (and to experience). People will live longer, healthier, more productive lives; they will connect with each other in seamless webs of direct interactivity; they will be able to fine-tune their own moods and thought-processes; they will interact with machines in entirely new ways; their augmented minds will generate staggeringly complex and subtle forms of knowledge and insight.

At the same time, the advent of these new technologies will confront our society with formidable questions and challenges.

● Will the most potent and effective enhancements be prohibitively expensive, and therefore remain accessible only to the privileged few? And if so, would this not result in a radical exacerbation of the division between haves and have-nots, inscribing that division in biology itself?

● Will these technologies continually raise the bar of “normal” performance? Will they force all of us to engage in constant cycles of upgrades and boosts merely to keep up with the ever-rising levels of capability among the people around us? Humans 95, Humans XP, Humans 7, Humans 10?

● What happens to those who refuse such enhancements? Will they become akin to obsolete technologies, hopelessly outclassed by modified humans in health, talent, dexterity, mental acuity, the ability to communicate, the ability to interact with machines? Will such unmodified humans be able to coexist alongside the modified ones?

● Might the widespread adoption of diverse enhancement packages result in increasingly distinct lineages of modified humans? Could this trend ultimately culminate in the fragmentation of homo sapiens into a series of separate successor species?

● If I can sculpt my moods at will, simply by choosing from a wide array of sophisticated pills, or by using a skull cap to manipulate my brain, which emotional state will constitute an “authentic” me?

● Will there be genetic fads – the “musical Seventies,” the “blond Nineties”?

● Will corporations hold patents on the enhancement packages they offer – and will this result in a certain component of my body or mind being partially owned or legally controlled by those corporations?

● What new forms of violence might we expect, in a world of physically and mentally enhanced soldiers (and of similarly enhanced criminals and terrorists)?

● If people live healthy and mentally vigorous lives that span 130 or 160 years (and perhaps longer), what impact will this have on marriage and the family? On population levels and ecological pressures? On work and intergenerational relations? On the stages of life and our sense of our lifespan’s meaning and purpose?

● How will parents cope with the momentous decisions and trade-offs involved in partially designing their offspring’s traits? What about if the two spouses cannot agree?

● What would it be like, conversely, to know that your parents had sat down for that little “design session” in the months before you were conceived? Would you wonder, over time, if your achievements really belonged to you, or were merely products of the engineering carried out on you by someone else before you were born? For example, if you were very good at the piano, you might end up asking yourself: is this really my own achievement, or is it merely because I was designed to develop into precisely the kind of person who loves playing the piano?

Until recently in human history, the major technological watersheds all came about incrementally, spread out over centuries or longer. Think for example of the shift from stone to metal tools, the transition from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled agriculture, or the substitution of mechanical power for human and animal sources of energy. In all these cases, people and social systems had time to adapt: they gradually developed new values, new norms and habits, to accommodate the transformed material conditions. But this is not the case with the current epochal shift. This time around, the radical innovations are coming upon us with relative suddenness – in a time frame that encompasses four or five decades, a century at most. A central argument of my book is that contemporary society is dangerously unprepared for the dramatic changes it is about to experience, down this road on which it is already advancing at an accelerating pace.



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