The article OBuilding a Better HumanO in USA TodayOs June 1990 issue discusses the trend in medicine towards mechanical implants. This is only one of the many ways in which humans have used culture to overcome biological insufficiencies. The
article is very brief and superficial; it raises many questions and offers few answers. Two phrases used in the article that are of particular interest are Ocreate a…new speciesO and Ogo beyond our inherited biologyO. Both of these statements contain elements of truth and misinformation.
To say that computerized or mechanized devices used extra- or endosomatically would create a new species is, biologically specking, ludicrous. A human being will still have 23 pairs of chromosomes containing the genetic code for a bipedal primate with a highly advanced central nervous system regardless of any replacement or augmentation of his or her organs. It is not likely that this what the author intended. His misuse of the word OspeciesO, however, alludes to an interesting possibility.
Tool use has been a factor in human evolution since H.habilis and quite likely much longer. The ability to create, use, and innovate tools is a trait that has been selected for in hominid populations. The gradual increase in hominid cranial capacity and specialized hand structure are examples of morphological changes partly due to this fact. It could be said then that new species (ie. H. Erectus, H. Sapiens) were OcreatedO in part by the use of tools.
With the advent of controlled fire use and stone tools to break down tough foods, the large teeth of H.habilis and H.erectus were no longer selected for. An example of the biological trend of Oif you donOt use it, you lose itO or more aptly Oif it is not selected for, you can reproduced without itO. If mechanical or transplanted organs were used to extend OunfitO humansO life-spans through reproductive age, consistently and for an extremely long period of time (thousands of years at least), it is conceivable that the replaced or augmented organs would decrease in size and/or efficiency. These significant changes in the human gene pool could possibly result in a different species from modern H.sapiens. It should be noted that in the time required for this to occur a significant change in the human genome could arise through countless other factors.
The statement that mechanized implants will allow humans to Ogo beyond our inherited biologyO is true only in that all cultural innovations allow us to do so. The split antler Osun glassesO of the Inuit, Victorian ear horns, Ocontact lenses with zoom vision, miniature shotgun hearing aidsO, and orbiting telescopes all allow us to perceive the world more clearly than with our eyes and ears alone. It could also be argued that none of those are beyond our biology because it is the human central nervous system that allows for all of our culture and technology.
The article seems to have a very naive optimism about this trend. This is not atypical; people usually prefer short term solutions to problems and technology is almost always seen as the best way to solve human problems. There are, however, inherent problems in this or any attempt to OimproveO humanity.
Possibly the greatest problem involved is the rather narrow and fickle view that people have of what constitutes human improvement. The ideal human in the American mind of 1994 would likely be physically fit (ie. 4-8% body fat), slightly above average in intelligence, and independent but capable of forming strong emotional bonds with every living thing on earth. Compare this with the rotund intellectual OubermenschO of 19th century Europe or the totally passive OsageO of Chinese Taoist thought. Most cultures would have a great discrepancy between the ideal man and ideal woman. One could imagine a modern researcher searching for a computerized implant or genetic engineering technique that produces OsensitivityO for men and another that produces OindependenceO for women. Our attitudes and perceptions are too influenced by our cultural values to be of much use in such an endeavour.
Historically, attempts to improve humanity have ranged from the comical to the tragic. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century is a good example. Charles Davenport, a prominent American eugenicist OprovedO that the characteristics of pauperism, criminality, and the ability to be a naval officer are all inherited traits (Hogan p.130). Eugenicists successfully lobbied 20 states to authorize sterilization of people in prisons and mental hospitals (Ibid.). The height of the movement for Ogood birthO in Nazi Germany was the Ogood deathsO in the concentration camps. The basic flaw in most eugenic measures is that they attempt to decrease the variability of the human genome. It is that variability that best insures the survival of any species.
A point could be made additionally that any cultural device which enables the survival of people through reproductive age who otherwise would be selected against will lessen the viability of the human genome. Taken to the extreme, this view would imply that basic stone tools and possibly language are undermining human kindOs fitness; they allow for the survival of those who could not survive without them. Culture has been tied to human evolution for millions of years and is clearly an important factor in human- kindOs success. This does not, however, dismiss the possibility that we are undermining our biological viability through our cultural innovations. It is interesting that by this criteria caucasians would be OinferiorO as they have had better medicine for a longer time than most of the rest of the world.
Medawar (p.108) states that this view Oseems to contemplate the predicament of modern man in primitive surroundings without (modern medicine and technology); but it is not clear why such an exercise should be supposed to be informative.O This is a valid point but it would be extremely naive to assume that the level of technology in our society can not decrease. Modern human society is becoming increasingly more complex and interdependent on a global scale. It is relying on diminishing fossil and nuclear fuels, quickly becoming over-populated, and facing a variety of other social and environmental problems.
It is not alarmist or even a great mental leap to assume that there is a significant chance of a social breakdown or collapse within the next century; perhaps widespread enough to severely limit the use of technology. In such a circumstance those people who were relying on implants or similar technology would die possibly by the millions. To this Medawar would likely answer that in that case, the gene pool would straighten itself out at that time, and he would probably be right. Dobzhanksky summed the problem up well when he stated OIf we enable the weak and the deformed to live and propagate their kind, we face the prospect of a genetic twilight. But if we let them die or suffer when we can save or help them we face the certainty of a moral twilight.O
Finally, the issue should be addressed as to who will control these implants. Invariably, as with much of human resources, the answer is private industry. Large corporations rarely have the interests of humanity as their chief motivation. For example, the widely used wheat and corn strains devised by private industry can not grow without petroleum based fertilzer and can not viably reproduce for more than three generations. Quite likely anyone with a mechanical implant would be wholly dependent on private specialists for maintenance or repairs, possibly for his or her very life.
Given the long term disadvantages and short term advantages of mechanized implants, I believe that their use would be contraindicated for the human species. This is not to say that they should be outlawed or any such radical measures as one must trust that the majority of humanity would consider them as desirable as the author seems to.
Curtis, Richard K.
Pergamon Press Inc. Elmsford, NY
Leakey, Richard E.
1959 The Future of Man Shenval Press, London
Richardson, W. Norman and Thomas H. Stubbs
1976 Evolution, Human Ecology, and Society
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York
GeneticsO Time April 19, 1971
OEugenics RevisitedO Scientific American June, 1993