Jan 23, 2015

Creating Superwoman (and man): Who will benefit from coming age of human enhancement?

Improve a mechanical device and you may double productivity, but improve man and you gain a thousand fold.

That’s what the character Khan Noonien Singh remarked on the original Star Trek episode Space Seed. Portrayed brilliantly by the late Ricardo Montalbán, Khan was the leader of a group of enhanced humans created through eugenics. From the demigods of Greek mythology to the superheroes of 20th century comic books, we’ve been intrigued by the idea of human enhancement for quite a while, but we’ve also worried about negative consequences. Both in the Greek myths and modern comics and television, each enhanced human has been flawed in some way–except for Wonder Woman. In the area of lifespan enhancement, for instance, Tithonus, though granted eternal life, shrunk and shriveled into a grasshopper, because his immortal girlfriend Eos, forgot to ask Zeus to give him eternal youth. Achilles, while super strong and agile, had a weak spot at the back of his heal, and Superman would lose his power if exposed to “kryptonite”. As for Khan’s people, their physical superiority, both physical and mental, made them overly ambitious, causing a third world war that nearly destroyed humanity in the Star Trek backstory.

Using genetic modification, nanotechnology, bionics, reconstructive surgery, hormones, drugs or any combination of these approaches, real-life human enhancement is looking ever more achievable. As with the fictional examples, the idea of enhancement being a double-edged sword will surely remain part of the discussion. At the same time, though, because enhancement means mastering and manipulating human physiology and the basis of consciousness and self-awareness, the road to enhancement will be paved with advances beneficial to the sick and the disabled. This point must be at center stage when we weigh the pluses and minuses in various enhancement categories, especially physical capability, mental function, and lifespan.

Steroids and drugs

In a real sense, physical enhancement is not a science fiction milestone that we’re on the verge of achieving, but a spectrum along which we’ve been moving in increments for some time. For years, anabolic steroids have been banned in competitive sports and athletes caught using them have been shamed, as it’s widely understood that these agents boost physical performance. Similarly, using amphetamines, such as Adderall, which is prescribed for hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, gets professional athletes into trouble.

However, attitudes shift when we move from sports to academic settings. Survey studies on the campuses of highly colleges and universities in multiple countries suggest that large numbers of students either take, or are open to the idea of taking, Adderall and similar drugs to enhance cognitive function. Because a student who does not have ADHD acquires “super-sharp attention and concentration,” one psychologist writer says, “It’s no different than an athlete who’s pumped up on steroids.”

But among the highest achieving college students–in other words future leaders in our society– the trend is to view enhancement differently from enhancement in settings of competitive sports. 33 percent of students at an Ivy League college believe that using ADHD drugs as study aids, or to gain advantage over other students, is not a form of cheating. Another 25 percent are unsure and only 41 percent are sure that the practice amounts to cheating.