Transhumanist Salvation



The stories of Man versus Machine are probably as old as machines themselves, and the persistence of such stories into modern times (think The Matrix) are a clear indication that, while the machine continues to quietly populate among us, we keep a suspicious and watchful eye on them. We are still anticipating the day they step out of line and rebel against us for years of servitude. Of course, when they do get out of line, we also anticipate our triumphant victory over them. One of the oldest of such legends (1870ish), told as both song and story, is that of John Henry. This strong man from Missouri out-hammered a steam hammer and proved (at least for that era) that man could still be more productive than machine. Well, almost. John Henry collapsed and died immediately after his victory. The machine, being inanimate, kept on ticking. It lost the battle, but won the war: it could continue hammering long after the death of any man that bested it.

Today the machine has won the battle and the war. It has won a championship game of chess against man. It has calculated pi to billions of digits. It has done everything... except save man from himself.

In the end John Henry was just another reminder that we humans are hopelessly fragile and stubbornly mortal. We are built to survive, but not exactly built to last. Tamper with us just a little and we break.

Sometimes permanently.

This glitch becomes more glaring as man's machines continue to threaten our existence. No, not an uprising of sentient machines that can out-slug or out-shoot us. More like the machines that are in front of you right now. The machines whose output is warming up the planet, drying up some rivers and polluting others. The machines that automate how food is processed - to the detriment of food. The machines that lay buried under the earth's membrane, left behind from war but still waiting to blow off the limb of man or child. The machines of mass destruction, be they sudden and nuclear; or steady and cancerous.

One of the best examples of how our fragile bodies are not optimized for our own innovations is cleft-lip - a facial deformity where the upper lip is unformed and appears to be "sucked" inside the nostrils. This genetic defect occurs during fetal development and is often linked to an array of environmental factors, including exposure to genotoxic pesticides like DDT. Actually, DDT has been linked to other birth defects, including urogenital defects such as missing testicles. While a staggering number of such incidents are to be found in rural areas, they still fuel modern society's suspicions of the contrivances of man. The usage of DDT was eventually banned in the United States.

Victories such as the stoppage of DDT has fueled many environmental movements to call for the ban or discontinuance of other offending products. This, in turn, fuels conservative criticism that sustainable development is just "environmental speak" for No Development. It is probably true that a great many people feel that the only real solution to saving the planet - and our asses - is a grinding halt on the upward growth and outward expansion of technology. It is probably safe to say that even more of us suspect that this is an unrealistic expectation. Our insatiable appetite for profit is too strong.

It matters not whether we are luddites who curse technology and globalization, or if we are techno-progressives who push for its acceleration; what matters is the reasonable doubt of whether or not the fragile human body can truly survive, not nature, but civilization.

It was this doubt and these questions that made me reconsider my opinions about Transhumanism. To be clear, I am a skeptic. I am as skeptical of the intent of those who crawl stubbornly towards the future as I am of those who run blindly towards it. In my view, both should know better. There's enough history behind us to show that resistance is futile and insistence is naive. However, present day conditions have me favoring the runners over the walkers. Most of the "solutions" to our environmental problems are really just damage control - "lessening our foot print" on mother nature, which is just a euphemism for saying "we are postponing the inevitable." Suddenly I find myself wondering if such vulgarities as feral spiders can be leveraged into engineering a new species of wild-life that is resistant to our "footprints." For instance - and forgive my far reaching imagination - might we cross-engineer Chakrabarty's "oil-eating" bacterium with sea life affected by oil-spills?

If that proposition sounds crazy you should read some of the stuff put forward by the Transhumanist movement. To call their aspirations lofty can be an understatement. However, their garden of Eden grows form plausible acorns. Their hope for life extension or even immortality is based on the possibility of lengthening the telomeres of cells which seem to be connected to the aging process. The ideas of Transhumanism seem to be part science and part alchemy, but they could be on to something. That something might be the key to our survival in this man-made mess of ours.

If I said that becoming cyborgs might be our best survival strategy, you'd probably roll your eyes and hit the back button. So maybe I'll just use the term Artificial. Not Artificial as in Artificial Intelligence, but more like Artificial Leg or even Artificial Heart. Please don't roll your eyes now because Artificial Hearts are already FDA approved and in good use. Back when the Tin Man could have used one of these, this was the stuff of skepticism. The first version, which appeared in the 1950s was only temporary and used during surgery. Today, they are permanently implanted in nearly 1,000 people. Early artificial hearts were attached to machinery outside the body. Later hearts became stand-alone implants running entirely on battery power. The heart doesn't even have to beat in order for the recipient to remain alive, it simply has to keep the blood circulating. The longest surviving patient with an artificial heart died from multiple organ failure - his heart battery had to be turned off before physicians could declare him as dead.

This is not to trivialize artificial heart recipients with the moniker of "transhuman" but to give these types of life-saving body modification a fair distinction from those modifications that seem to be superfluous fashion. I am thinking of transhumanism, not for anthro-superiority, but rather anthro-survival.

According to MIT's "Technology Review" the forecasts on the effects of Global Warming were way too conservative. We may be on a 25 year clock before the weather really starts to look nasty. The current solutions for halting the earth's warming are all desperate ones and could turn out to be just as damaging as doing nothing. The best solutions will take way too long to work. Maybe the immediate solution is to modify, not the earth, but ourselves.

If there's an organism out there that does well in extreme temperatures than it might be time to consider borrowing some of its genes for our children. I nominate the noble Camel. I'm only half-kidding when I give these three reasons for my nomination:

1) They are physiologically engineered to go without water for long periods. It has something to do with the oval shape of their red blood cells, but that's all I have for you. Since this feature has nothing to do with their iconic humps we do not have to worry about inheriting their unfashionable mini-mountains when we rob them of their genes.

2) The Camels ability to conserve water is closely linked to their ability to efficiently manage fluctuating body temperatures. We perspiring humans are less efficient. When we overheat, our respiratory rate goes up. We breathe hard. We die. Camel genes should help us get around that. We may have to go back to having fur though.

3) Lastly, It will be a much deserved Karmic payback for every racist camel jockey insult ever directed at Arabs.
You know who you are...

Discovery Channel watchers who are perched on the edge of their seats ready to pounce on my crazy camel cross-breeding idea can remain seated. I said I was half kidding. The half that is serious is realizing that as far-fetched as Transhumanism can often sound, they might be more practical than we give them credit for. The only way around the mess that we've made for ourselves is to go directly through it. Man has plastered nature with his machines, putting our organic existence at risk. We have to either modify our organics or become machines ourselves.

Mind you, I don't say that with the enthusiasm of Transhumanism. While they seek to declare victory over the cruelty of stochastic evolution, I contend that our real struggle is against Intelligent Design - our intelligence and our designs. We're simply too damn smart for our own good.