More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
by technologist and science fiction writer Ramez Naam, is a non-fiction book that explores some of the most amazing advancements in biotechnology and the potential impact they could have on human life. The focus of the book is on medical advancements, such as brain implants to help the blind and treatments for Alzheimer’s, which when applied to healthy bodies may allow humans to communicate with their minds, or reverse the process of aging. As someone who admires technology and the opportunities it offers, Naam is particularly interested in discussing the benefits of these advancements, while exploring common fears and ethical questions that will determine how and when these technologies are used.
Though Naam gives a nod to the movie Blade Runner
with his title, his outlook on biological enhancements is not in the least dystopian. Naam covers a broad range of subjects, including notations referring back to case studies and peer-reviewed research as well as human stories that give readers an idea of the real-life impact many of these advancements have on those in need. Some of his subjects include gene therapy, stem cell research, brain-computer interfaces, performance-enhancing drugs, cloning, and the broad and mostly untraveled territory of genetic engineering. Each chapter is dedicated, for the most part, to a particular biological enhancement.
In his chapter on human-machine integration, Naam talks about many opportunities for what are essentially brain implants that allow people to interface with computers and other technology simply by thinking. He gives an example of this technology at work with a story about a patient named Johnny Ray. Ray suffered a massive stroke at fifty-three years old, leaving him without any motor functions from the neck down. He was unable to communicate. His doctor, Phil Kennedy, was approved by the FDA in 1998 to begin a human trial on a brain implant system that would allow Ray to move a cursor on a computer screen using his mind. Ray had a wireless implant installed in his brain, and after recovery and many months of training, Ray was finally able to communicate simply by guiding a cursor around a computer screen using his brain.
Studies have shown similarly life-altering results in Alzheimer’s patients. Doctors are at work testing the ability to use gene therapy and genetic engineering to boost human intelligence and negate the effect of Alzheimer’s on the brain. Unlike brain implants, however, this work raises ethical questions about things such as safety, equality, and legality of treatment. On the subject of age-reversal studies, for instance, in which scientists have been able to slow the aging process in lab rats using genetic engineering, Naam argues that these technologies should be adopted as soon as possible and universally, as long as they are proven safe. However, many critics wonder about the systems in place that determine the safety and efficacy of these treatments, particularly in an era of opioid epidemics and drug recalls.
Essentially, Naam provides an optimist’s point of view on the subject of biological enhancement. He is interested in the potential these treatments could have on human life span and quality of life, arguing that it is only natural that our species progress along these lines. However, some people argue that the ethical, social, and legal questions that come with this territory are a lot muddier than Naam would like to admit. Naam offers up a number of reasons not to fear the changes headed our way – they are, he argues, inevitable, and fearing them won't help us come any closer to deciding how to incorporate them equitably into our society. Ultimately, Naam encourages readers to consider these questions without fear, and to imagine a world in which these technologies could be used ethically, and for the good of all humankind.
Egyptian-American Ramez Naam is a professional technologist and a science fiction author. Best known for his Nexus
trilogy, he has also written a number of other books, including More Than Human
and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet
. Naam, a professor at Singularity University in the Silicon Valley, has won a number of awards, including an H.G. Wells Award in 2005, a Prometheus Award in 2014, a Phillip K. Dick Award in 2015, and a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.