Johann Hari: What's to fear in a superhuman species?

Medical advances seen at first as sci-fi freakishness quickly become recognised as life-giving
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I have a confession. My uncle is a cyborg, and my aunt is a Frankenstein's monster, patched together from different body parts. You wouldn't know it to look at them – they work in Woolworths and watch Coronation Street – but it's true. Oh, and I, dear reader, am a super-enhanced super-human, immune to diseases that kill millions of you.

No, I have not gone mad. I am simply pointing out how medical advances that are seen as sci-fi freakishness at first quickly become recognised as glorious and life-giving. My uncle has a pacemaker, making him a living mixture of flesh and machine. Stop the machine, and you stop him. My aunt is only here because of a heart transplant. And I have been given immunity against half-a-dozen deadly diseases by vaccination.

Every single one of these life-saving technologies was assaulted by bio-conservatives – with the religious in the lead – when they were first introduced, on the grounds they were "unnatural" and "immoral".

I raise this because last week, a mouse roared – and started a new battle between the defenders of medical progress and their enemies. Scientists in Ohio have created a Mighty Mouse. He runs like an Olympic athlete, lives longer than his siblings, and keeps shagging until he drops. (Rumours that he is dating Jodie Marsh have yet to be confirmed.) They did it by altering a single gene in the mouse's embryo.

In my lifetime, we are likely to confront similar technologies that make it possible to radically improve human life. It is becoming increasingly easy for scientists to change the genes in the very first cell of a human embryo – and therefore in every cell of the child that emerges, and his children, and grandchildren, and so on, forever. New IVF technologies are making it easier to implant them. The slow process of natural selection is about to be supplemented by a swifter process of deliberately chosen selection.

The possibilities are dazzling: to name just one, Professor David Baltimore in California is working on potentially engineering human cells so they are resistant to HIV and cancer. Professor Gregory Stock has written about creating genetic "supplements" to every embryo, making them more intelligent and longer-living.

Yet this debate is being hijacked by the extremes. There is a group of Californian scientists calling themselves "transhumanists", whose goal is to use this technology to create a new super-human species. Max More, one of their leaders, wrote in a letter to Mother Nature: "Truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease. You compel us to age and die – just as we're beginning to attain wisdom. We have decided it is time to amend the human constitution."

Enemies of these technologies have fixated on opposing the transhumanists. The writer Francis Fukuyama – who serves on George Bush's Council for Bioethics – has called for a halt to virtually all this research, demanding to know: "If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim?"

But these streams of hot-and-cold-running hyperbole are not the way to understand this. Instead of getting trapped in an argument about whether we want to create a new species, we need to reframe the debate. Our goal should be to make people healthier, smarter and longer-living, using any and every technology. If the end-result of that is that we advance so far we become post-humans – and look back on our current state as we now look at apes – that's fine, but it shouldn't be our goal.

Once you see it this way, it becomes clear that while the transhumanists are eccentric, their opponents are worse, trying to hold up life-saving treatments because it doesn't fit with their primitive anxieties.

Fukuyama and the bio-conservatives insist it is essential to maintain the human germ-line in its current form, because it reflects our fixed and eternal human essence. Tamper with it and you tamper with the core of what we are. But this crowd needs to put down Plato and pick up Darwin, so they can learn there is no fixed "us". The human germline is always evolving and changing, and it always will. Richard Dawkins has offered a lush image that explains this. Imagine a woman, alive today, holding hands with her daughter on one of the shores of Africa. She in turn holds her mum's hand, and she hold's her mum's hand, and on and on, holding hands back into the distant past. It will only take 300 miles – barely a dent into Africa – before this human chain reaches our ape ancestor. At what point in this chain does this mystical human "essence" suddenly appear?

No doubt each woman in the line could have thought – like Fukuyama – that evolution had gone quite far enough. As Professor John Harris notes: "I personally am pleased that our ape ancestor lacked either the power or the imagination... to preserve herself at our expense."

The human germline will keep on evolving. The only question is: do you want the changes to be haphazard and arbitrary, or directed by us to make us into what we want to be?

The bio-conservatives argue that there is a difference between "treatment", which restores people to the norm, and "enhancement", which makes them "better than well". This is a slightly bogus distinction: when I was just vaccinated against yellow fever, I didn't have the disease. I was being enhanced. But even if you granted this point – so what? If you discovered your parents could have made you much cleverer and longer-living at the click (or squeak) of a mouse, and chose not to, wouldn't you be furious?

However, one of the bio-con concerns is legitimate – even if their solution is bogus. Some of them worry that, like in H.G. Wells' novel The Time Machine, humanity will split into two branches – the enhanced over-class and the "natural" people, left behind as second-class citizens. This is a real danger – but the solution isn't a blanket ban. Today, people in the West have access to protease inhibitors and vaccinations, while millions in Africa don't. We don't respond by banning the treatments here, but by fighting to extend them there.

In the same way, we can't deal with human enhancement through a kind of genetic Stalinism, ensuring equality by government diktat that reduces everybody to the level of the lowest. Support the science – then spread the science.

A century from now, a generation of cleverer, healthier people will look back on the bio-Luddites who wanted to keep them down with the same bemused contempt we bestow on the mobs who smashed Gallileo's telescope. Let Mighty Mouse run – he's scampering into a better world.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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