27 April 2011

Wake up, Neo-evolution

What would you change about your own naturally evolved, naturally flawed body? Would you choose genetics to avoid diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer? Would you enhance your brain to increase memory and to boost creativity? Would you choose more fast-twitch muscle fibers to run faster or longer? Would you live longer?

These are the questions that Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, discusses in this new TED talk given in March that was posted only this month. Fineberg says that a new era of neo-evolution -- in which we, as humans, could guide the selection of traits that would define the course of humanity -- is upon us, and he called it "exciting," but "frightening."

I want to answer all of his questions with a "Yes, sign me up!" Who is insane enough to reject a world with an absence of disease, of aging, of dying and death?

Apparently, there are quite a few people. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of history at Arizona State University, is one of them. Earlier this month, at ASU's Origins Project Science and Culture Festival Tirosh-Samuelson was speaking about a completely different topic when she suddenly surprised us with a few critical words of the "so-called trans-humanist movement."

In a nutshell, her argument is that we still haven't a clue of what humanity is to begin with, so reason suggests against trying to define what it should be in the future. Naturally, after her talk, I decided to ask Tirosh-Samuelson a few questions about her views.

In my discussion with her, she conceded that eliminating suffering from disease was a good thing in its own right and also agreed that because of medicine and technology all of us are already trans-humanists in a sense. So, why the hostility toward neo-evolution, trans-humanism, the singularity?

She told me that a trans-humanist future -- in which everyone has enhanced faculties, superior brains, superior fitness, etc. -- has the grand possibility of ending up very boring.

After all, she said, "What defines happiness? We don't know. What defines humanity?"

You can see her essay on the subject here.

While discussing with Tirosh-Samuelson about these questions, I was reminded of several sci-fi movies including Gattaca and The Matrix (I can now think of at least a half dozen others now), where we're presented to two completely different stories of the human condition in a futuristic world governed by technological advances. In each, our hero defies imposed order and seeks to achieve his greatest potential.

Maybe, just maybe, that is what happiness is -- seeking your own greatest potential. Or, maybe, happiness is simply in the journey. Either way, I'm inclined to suggest that we find happiness by heeding to the words of Joseph Campbell: "Follow your bliss."

And as for Fineberg and his neo-evolution and what it will mean to the future of humanity, we can all agree that it's just going to happen anyway -- so why be frightened? why not welcome it? why not just wake up to its possibilities? -- because what is really happening is humanity itself on its never-ending journey seeking survival, enhancement and comfort of itself, and happiness (whatever that is).

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