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More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

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More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

What gave you the idea to write More Than Human?

I’ve always been both a fascinated observer of science — the kind actually practiced in labs around the world, and an avid reader of science fiction. In 1999, a good friend of mine who I’d loaned a science fiction novel to commented that he expected that in 10 years we’d be walking around with electrodes in our heads, fully immersed a William Gibson-style cyberspace. I scoffed at the idea, knowing that the brain is an incredibly complex organ and doubting that researchers would get us anywhere near the level of understanding of the brain necessary for that sort of thing until 50 or 100 years from now.

Later that year, a team at Duke University published a paper in the journal Science — one of the top two scientific journals in the world — where they’d wired electrodes into the brain of a living rat and given it control over a robot arm. And in the same year, a researcher in Atlanta implanted electrodes in the brain of a man named Johnny Ray, a patient who’d been paralyzed from the neck down by a stroke, and gave him the power to control a computer just by thinking about it.

Suddenly everywhere I looked in the scientific literature — in genetics, in longevity, in the study of memory — I saw discoveries and progress that I’d thought were the stuff of science fiction. That’s when I decided to write this book — to help people see and understand the incredible rate at which science is giving us the ability to alter — and maybe improve on — our own minds and bodies.

What do you hope to achieve with your book?

There’s an aphorism that “we fear what we do not understand”. I think that’s often quite accurate, especially when it comes to new biological technologies. When Jenner first introduced the small pox vaccine, he was denounced as playing god and as dabbling in things too dangerous for mortal men. I see the same thing happening now with biotechnology. People have a great deal of fear around technologies like cloning or genetic engineering, let alone implanting wires in someone’s head.

About two years ago, that fear came to a head with a whole slew of books warning us about the peril’s of using biotechnology to alter our minds or bodies. Historian Francis Fukuyama put out Our Postmodern Future, Leon Kass wrote Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Human Dignity, and environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote Enough. All of those books took the stance that we ought to leave well enough alone. That we ought to be happy with our current lifespans, our bodies, our intellects. And that it was dangerous, or maybe downright immoral, to try to change those things too much.

That, to me, is an argument based on fear of technologies that people don’t really understand. So my greatest goal with More Than Human is to educate people on how these technologies work and what they can and can’t do. I think if people understand that, they’ll be a lot more comfortable, and in some cases eager for, what biotech can do for us.

Are you saying that these fears are misplaced? That there are no dangers of biotechnology?

Oh, there are certainly risks to using biotech to alter men and women. Every profound technology has its share of risks and side effects. Cars are great for getting around but they produce smog and traffic accidents. The internet is a fantastic communication medium but can be used to transmit child pornography. Antibiotics cure disease but also breed antibiotic resistance and contributed quite a bit to the population explosion of the last century.

Biotech enhancement will be no different. It’ll bring many goods and some ills. Society will have to wrestle with the problems these technologies cause and find solutions. But the alternative — to prohibit these technologies — just isn’t viable. Just as we saw in Prohibition or in the War on Drugs, if you make something people want illegal, you don’t stop them from getting it. You merely drive up costs, decrease safety, and push the activity into the criminal realm. And people do want to be smarter, healthier, longer lived, better looking, and so on.. You can see if in the tens of billions spent on sports supplements, on herbal products, and on plastic surgery. You can see it even more dramatically in how parents invest in their children — Montessori schools, music lessons, college tuition — people have this innate urge to do the best they can for themselves and their offspring.

One of the central points of More Than Human is that if you let those individuals and families make their own decisions — informed decisions — then there’s good reason to believe it’ll improve the lot of society. But if you try to prohibit these technologies, you end up creating more problems than you solve.

You’ve worked at Microsoft on some widely used pieces of software — Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer, MSN Search. How do those relate to your book?

The common thread is this notion of enhancing and empowering people. Computers are tools that we’ve invented that increase our ability to store information, to learn, to communicate, and so on. In many ways I view the software I’ve worked on as very similar to the kinds of technologies covered in More Than Human. It’s just that my software runs outside of my body — for now.

Who are your favorite authors and why?

I love books that synthesize what seem to be very discrete ideas into a single theory or point of view. One of my all time favorite books is Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control , where he finds the parallels between weather, flocks of birds, ecologies, and all these other complex network systems. Another favorite is Robert Wright’s Non-Zero. There are quite a few other popular science authors I admire — Steven Johnson, philosopher Danniel Dennet, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker.

In the science fiction realm I like rich, complex stories with both a grand scope and plausible science. Dan Simmon’s Hyperion books are classics to me. I love anything by Greg Egan, Ian Banks, David Brin, or Greg Bear.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780767918435
Subtitle:
Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
Author:
Naam, Ramez
Publisher:
Broadway Books
Subject:
General
Subject:
Diseases - General
Subject:
Philosophy & Social Aspects
Subject:
Diseases
Subject:
Biotechnology
Subject:
Medical genetics
Subject:
Human reproductive technology
Subject:
General science
Copyright:
Publication Date:
20050308
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
15 LINE DRAWINGS
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 in 1.15 lb

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Related Subjects

Science and Mathematics » Biology » General
Science and Mathematics » Biology » Genetics

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$14.95 In Stock
Product details 288 pages Broadway Books - English 9780767918435 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Imagine a person severely disabled by a stroke who, with electrodes implanted in his brain, can type on a computer just by thinking of 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." Agent, Ted Weinstein, Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "An intriguing presentation by an unabashed advocate of the technological tricking and co-opting of mother nature."
"Review" by , "[R]eaders more interested in what's happening now in the biotechnology industry will get more from this work than those concerned with the bioethical implications for human identity."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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.'
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "More Than Human is a terrific survey....Naam doesn't shy away from technical detail, but his enthusiasm keeps the science from becoming intimidating."
"Synopsis" by , Distilling the most radical accomplishments being made in labs worldwide, including gene therapy, genetic engineering, stem cell research, life extension, brain-computer interfaces, and cloning, More Than Human offers an exciting tour of the impact biotechnology can have on humankind.
"Synopsis" by ,
  • A man, blind for twenty years, can see when he puts on a pair of glasses connected to electrodes in his brain.
  • Gene therapy allows a young woman born with "bubble boy" disease to live normally among her peers.
  • Life-extension techniques promise to increase human life span by forty years or more.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but these are true phenomena that have recently become hot topics in mainstream media. But while technology is enhancing the lives of many, it has also created a host of controversial capabilities, ranging from cloning to genetic engineering.

Distilling the most cutting-edge achievements being made in labs around the world, More Than Human offers an exciting tour of the way technology is impacting our lives. Throughout this remarkable trip, Ramez Naam shares an impassioned vision for the future, with revealing insight into the ethical dilemmas posed by twenty-first-century science. Encouraging us to celebrate rather than fear these innovations, his powerful book separates fact from myth with elegant lucidity, arguing that these controversial technologies have the power to transform the human race for the better.

More Than Human offers much-needed wisdom in the raging debates between technophobes and technophiles, and everyone else seeking to understand the marvelous possibilities that arise when mind meets machine.

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