Today’s generation is far more self-absorbed than even our parent’s generation was. We want more and we want it now. So it seems strange to have a conversation about how the things we are doing and studying and experimenting with now are going to have not just global impacts, but universal impacts.
Juan Enriquez is a scientist who studies what life looks like in the future. The most important question that society needs to ask itself right now is “is it ethical to alter the human body to further our species”?
If you have one of those self-absorbed perspectives, you might not think twice about saying, “yes! Change it all so humanity can survive!” But Enriquez pushes the question further and asks if that is really what needs to happen.
You can watch Juan Enriquez’ TED fascinating TED talk here:
If you can’t watch the video right now, here’s a summary in text:
As he recounts a lifetime of experiments involving human evolution, natural and forced, he continues to push the question of whether or not this is the right thing to do. Pacemakers extend lives, new hips help people walk, but where does it stop?
Well, it turns out that it isn’t stopping anytime soon.
As more and more scientists take on keeping the human race alive as long as possible, new and interesting (any maybe questionable) experiments are being conducted to find out what it looks like to transplant prosthetic kidneys, lungs, entire bones, skin, and brains.
“And four of the smartest people that I’ve ever met — Ed Boyden, Hugh Herr, Joe Jacobson, Bob Lander — are working on a Center for Extreme Bionics. And the interesting thing of what you’re seeing here is these prosthetics now get integrated into the bone. They get integrated into the skin. They get integrated into the muscle. And one of the other sides of Ed is he’s been thinking about how to connect the brain using light or other mechanisms directly to things like these prosthetics. And if you can do that, then you can begin changing fundamental aspects of humanity. So how quickly you react to something depends on the diameter of a nerve. And of course, if you have nerves that are external or prosthetic, say with light or liquid metal, then you can increase that diameter and you could even increase it theoretically to the point where, as long as you could see the muzzle flash, you could step out of the way of a bullet. Those are the order of magnitude of changes you’re talking about.”
A Chinese scientist is conducting hundreds of surgeries to find out if a mouse head can be transplanted to see if the brain lives and if it retains anything.
And we all know that human experimentation starts with the mice.
“The second experiment to think about is a really weird experiment that’s been taking place in China. So this guy has been transplanting hundreds of mouse heads. Right? And why is that an interesting experiment? Well, think of the first heart transplants. One of the things they used to do is they used to bring in the wife or the daughter of the donor so the donee could tell the doctors, “Do you recognize this person? Do you love this person? Do you feel anything for this person?” We laugh about that today. We laugh because we know the heart is a muscle, but for hundreds of thousands of years, or tens of thousands of years, “I gave her my heart. She took my heart. She broke my heart.” We thought this was emotion and we thought maybe emotions were transplanted with the heart. Nope.”
The point of all this heavy conversation is to determine if we need to prepare to vacate earth and how the human body will be able to adapt if life needs to continue to exist somewhere else.
Enriquez depicts interesting imagines of how the human body has already adapted and evolved to what we know today, but that our next generations might need adaptive help through genome evolution, biological prosthetics and even change the entire body itself to be something more conducive to living on Mars or on a moon far off in space.
Enriquez reminds us that there have been five extinction level events in the history of the planet and if we are smart we’d be preparing for the next one to ensure that the human race continues beyond the events of the future. And to that end, he turns the question of ethical behavior on its head and argues that knowing the extinction level event is coming, it would be unethical not to continue to find a way to save the human race.
“This is taken from six billion miles away, and that’s Earth. And that’s all of us. And if that little thing goes, all of humanity goes. And the reason you want to alter the human body is because you eventually want a picture that says, that’s us, and that’s us, and that’s us, because that’s the way humanity survives long-term extinction. And that’s the reason why it turns out it’s actually unethical not to evolve the human body even though it can be scary, even though it can be challenging, but it’s what’s going to allow us to explore, live and get to places we can’t even dream of today, but which our great-great-great-great- grandchildren might someday.”