More Than Human is about our growing power to alter our minds, bodies, and lifespans through technology – the power to redefine our species – a power we can choose to fear, or to embrace.
In 1990, a professor at the University of Colorado discovered that changing a single gene doubles the lifespan of tiny nematode worms.
In 1999, researchers searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease genetically engineered a strain of mice that can learn things five times as quickly as their normal kin – super-intelligent mice.
In 2002, scientists looking for ways to help paralyzed patients implanted electrodes into the brain of an owl monkey and trained it to move a robot arm 600 miles awayjust by thinking about it.
Over the last decade researchers looking for ways to help the sick and injured have stumbled onto techniques that enhance healthy animals, making them stronger, faster, smarter, longer-lived, even connecting their minds to robots and computers. Now science is on the verge of applying this knowledge to healthy men and women. The same research that could cure Alzheimer’s is leading to drugs and genetic techniques that could boost human intelligence. The techniques being developed to stave off heart disease and cancer have the potential to halt or even reverse human aging.
More Than Human takes the reader into the labs where this is happening to understand the science of human enhancement. It also steps back to look at the big picture. How will these technologies affect society? What will they do to the economy, to politics, and to human identity? What social policies should we enact to regulate, restrict, or encourage the use of these technologies?
Ultimately More Than Human concludes that we should embrace, rather than fear, the power to alter ourselves – that in the hands of millions of individuals and families, it stands to benefit society more than to harm it.
Praise for More Than Human
“More Than Human” is a terrific survey of current work and future possibilities in gene therapy, neurotechnology and other fields.
Los Angeles Times
“The Editors Recommend”
In an excellent and comprehensive survey, Naam investigates a wide swath of cutting-edge techniques that in a few years may be as common as plastic surgery.
An intriguing presentation by an unabashed advocate of the technological tricking and co-opting of mother nature.
“Ramez Naam provides a reliable and informed cook’s tour of the world we might choose if we decide that we should fast-forward evolution. I disagree with virtually all his enthusiasms, but I think he has made his case cogently and well.”
Bill McKibben, author Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age
“More Than Human is excellent – passionate yet balanced, clearly written and rich with fascinating details. A wonderful overview of a topic that will dominate the twenty-first century.”
Greg Bear, author of Dead Lines and Darwin’s Children
“Sixty years ago, human beings gave digital computers the ability to modify their own coded instructions, sparking a revolution that has now given us the ability to modify our own coded instructions, promising revolutions even more extreme. Whether for, against, or undecided about genetic modification of human beings, you should read this book – a bold, compelling look at what lies ahead.”
George Dyson, author of Darwin Among the Machines
“More Than Human is one of those rare books that is both a delightful read and an important statement. You’ll relish the fascinating stories of physical and mental enhancement that Naam has assembled here, but you’ll also come away with a new sense of wonder at the human drive for pushing at the boundaries of what it means to be human. No one interested in the future intersections of science, technology, and medicine can afford to miss this book.”
Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
“Ramez Naam’s look at the coming of human enhancement is a major contribution; he shows convincingly that the conceptual wall between therapy and enhancement is fast crumbling.”
Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans
Publisher’s Weekly says:
Imagine a person severely disabled by a stroke who, with electrodes implanted in his brain, can type on a computer just by thinking about the letters. Or a man, blind for 20 years, driving a car around a parking lot via a camera hard-wired into his brain. Plots for science fiction? No, it’s already happened, according to future technologies expert Naam.
In an excellent and comprehensive survey, Naam investigates a wide swath of cutting-edge techniques that in a few years may be as common as plastic surgery. Genetic therapy for weight control isn’t that far off–it’s already being done with animals. Countless people who are blind, deaf or paralyzed will acquire the abilities that most people take for granted through advances in computer technology and understanding how the nervous system functions. Naam says the armed services are already investing millions of dollars in this research; they envision super-pilots and super-soldiers who will be able to control their planes and tanks more quickly via thought.
Some of the author’s prognostications, with their Nietzschean overtones of people being “more than human” may frighten readers, but Naam is persuasive that many of these advances are going to happen no matter what, and that despite the potential for abuses, they offer hope for our well-being and the survival of the species.
Kirkus Reviews says:
Wired minds, designer bodies, doubled life spans, a child for every happy couple: an optimistic portrayal of the brave new future of scientifically improved life. The subtitle is apt, as Naam (a computer engineer at Microsoft) makes no attempt to mask his enthusiasm for the drugs, therapies, products, and procedures of cutting-edge biotech. This is not a sage analysis of the immediate feasibility or likelihood of specific changes. Nor does the author claim experience in a biological field or medical training. His book, instead, is a logical and structured explanation of bioengineering projects underway: gene therapy to cure disease, enhance athletic performance, and lengthen life span; brain implants to allow the paralyzed to move, the mute to speak, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear; brain-computer interfaces to mimic telepathy (“Just as we can e-mail our words . . . we’ll be able to broadcast the inner states of our minds”). There’s little chance that all of these will ever become mainstream, but some certainly will, and that fact alone is both exciting and frightening.
Naam doesn’t shy away from trumpeting controversial propositions such as human cloning or genetic selection of embryos, and he audaciously sets out game plan and shining new playing field, though he still does address some of the bumps in any road that will lead to universal acceptance.
He shows a knack for plain and clear explanations of highly complex and technical concepts without condescension or pedantry. He goes beyond the simple gee whiz and even takes time to address the economics of research (development is expensive, implementation thereafter often cheap). Along the way, he refers to political trends that suggest eventual acceptance of initially controversial practices and ideas, and he investigates large-scale implications of many of the biotechnologies, as, for example, the impact upon world population of life extension techniques. An intriguing presentation by an unabashed advocate of the technological tricking and co-opting of mother nature.
LA Times writes:
Scientific and medical advances in the last 150 years have doubled average life spans in advanced countries; made historical curiosities of fearsome epidemic diseases; eliminated childhood scourges; turned fatal adult diseases into chronic illnesses to be “managed”; and changed the way we think about aging. But if you think these changes have pushed at our sense of what it means to be human, just wait for what will happen in the next 20 years.
Gene therapy could eliminate genetically based diseases; designer drugs could combat neurological or brain disease, improve intelligence or sculpt personality. A variety of therapies could affect life at its beginning and end, allowing parents to modify the genes that shape an unborn child’s mind and physique, or elders to dramatically slow the aging process. Brain implants already let us use thought to control prostheses and robotic devices. In a few years, they could evolve into machine-mediated brain-to-brain connection — Internet-enabled telepathy and mind reading.
Authors as different as Bill McKibben in “Enough” and Francis Fukuyama in “Our Posthuman Future” argue that technologies could so dramatically alter our bodies, or challenge our capacity for self-determination and free will, that we should be wise enough to refuse — even ban — them.
Stop worrying, Ramez Naam says in “More Than Human.” He argues that efforts to ban such enhancements are either folly or futile for several reasons. Prohibition wouldn’t destroy the markets for life-extending therapies or genetic redesign of human embryos, he says; it would just drive them abroad or underground. Banning technologies and therapies also constrains the freedoms of individuals and markets. The Declaration of Independence declared that “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable rights: Denying someone access to cortical implants hits the trifecta.
Further, Naam argues, “scientists cannot draw a clear line between healing and enhancing.” Banning the latter would inevitably cripple the former. Finally and most provocatively, “far from being unnatural, the drive to alter and improve on ourselves is a fundamental part of who we humans are.” This turns the argument of bioethicists like Leon Kass (head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, which has been famously conservative in its recommendations) upside down. Our limits don’t define us, Naam says; our desire to overcome them does.
“More Than Human” is a terrific survey of current work and future possibilities in gene therapy, neurotechnology and other fields. Naam doesn’t shy away from technical detail, but his enthusiasm keeps the science from becoming intimidating. But he’s less successful in making the case for “embracing the promise of biological enhancement.” Yes, people are greedy, regulations are often ineffective and the war on drugs has not gone well. But none of these facts is likely to change the minds of people who oppose gene therapy on moral or theological grounds. Many religions see the body as a prison, not a temple, and illness and death as part of life’s natural course. Indeed, the Pontifical Academy of Life recently decried the Western world’s “health-fiend madness,” arguing that it takes money away from simpler but more potent public health measures — and denies us the hard-won wisdom that suffering can bring.
But in today’s borderless high-tech world, if gene therapies and neural implants are banned in the U.S., they’ll probably be available somewhere else. Medical tourism is already a growth industry in parts of Latin America and Asia that have low labor costs, attractive locations and good facilities. One can only imagine the money a small tropical nation could make restoring youth to the elderly. Rather than focus on banning them, we’d be better off making sure these therapies are not available only to the super-rich and figuring out how their availability could affect the future.
Those efforts might be helped by realizing that “More Than Human” describes two different technologies. Life-extending therapies, despite their likely popularity, probably wouldn’t dramatically change our sense of what it means to be human. In contrast, neurotechnologies that allow a prosthetic device to feel like a part of our bodies, or let us directly share thoughts and senses with others, would scramble our basic notions of body and mind, self and other, individual and community.
I tend to agree with Naam that the desire to prolong life, acquire new physical powers and extend the mind does not risk making us less human. There’s more to life than trying to recapture lost youth, but no one who defends the humanity of the weak, the disabled and the very old should deny the humanity of those who seek to re-engineer their bodies or minds. “More Than Human” maps some of this future, but it probably won’t help you decide whether you want to really go there.