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The next 500 years: can we re-engineer human beings?

By Tom White

Tom is a member of the Humanist Network Ireland Steering Group and Secretary of Westport Humanists in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. In this article, he writes about our 'brutish caveman instincts' and the hope of transhumanists that we may be able to improve human nature and adaptability in the future.

Survival clocks

One of the problems of existence in our era is that we have become blasé about survival clocks. Survival clocks started off warning us about nuclear Armageddon, and for several decades they pointed to a few minutes to that particular midnight. Subsequently, Mark II clocks have warned us about global warming and climate change. And all this was before the Covid pandemic.

Fundamentally, we have two theories to explain how we have survived as a species: either we’re very lucky or the statisticians who provided the times on those survival clocks were totally incompetent. I think we’ve been very lucky. Feel free to disagree if you wish – that’s your prerogative as a freethinker. But I think we can all agree that it would not be sensible to rely indefinitely on our luck in defying statistical modelling in matters as important as the survival of life on Earth. As my father used to say: 'You can play with the bear till he bites.'

'We are trapped like space monkeys watching the countdown to our own, seemingly inevitable, annihilation.'

Our species has been marvellously successful. Our brains and ingenuity have built palaces and laboratories; we have greedily gobbled up the resources of planet Earth, and exerted our power to enslave other species and others of our own species. Our problem is that, within the last century, those very instincts of cunning, greed and aggression which have brought our species to world dominance have become threats to our own survival. Logically, we know the truth of this. A majority of our politicians acknowledge we must change. But emotionally, we seem powerless. We are trapped like space monkeys watching the countdown to our own, seemingly inevitable, annihilation.

One 'big idea' which is developing in the face of these global emergencies is 'transhumanism'. This is the idea that humans should modify their physical and mental attributes to better adapt to the challenges which we face. One scientist, the geneticist Chris Mason, has developed a 500-year plan to tweak human DNA to allow us to adapt to life on other planets, permitting our transhuman descendants to, for example, withstand levels of radiation which would be lethal for us today. Religions will argue that humanity is God’s creation and therefore human DNA is sacrosanct and should not be tinkered with. Humanists and freethinkers will agree that 'every sperm is not holy.'

I’m glad that science is, once again, providing a vision of a future which we so badly need. But I think we need to go even further. I would like to see Chris Mason and his co-workers expand their plans to allow our species to adapt to life on Earth as well as the stars. Can we tweak our brutish caveman instincts to become kinder and more caring? We can no longer continue to exploit the resources of our planet in the way we have done. We must show kindness to other species and to suffering members of our own species. We can no longer afford to be swayed by tribal instincts to dominate our neighbours. We are all human, friends and enemies alike. We must act urgently for the welfare of all life on our planet. We must prove that we can deserve to live in peace and cooperation here on Earth before we colonize the solar system and beyond, otherwise we will simply be exporting the problems that we currently face. We have only just begun to envisage the means of our own survival. Will our human future be awesome complexity or a burnt-out graveyard? The choice is stark, and one we must make.

Further reading

  • The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds (2022) by Christopher E. Mason

  • Engineering humanity for life after Earth - a review of The Next 500 Years New Scientist

  • Transhumanism: meanings, morals, hazards and alternatives by Dr Alan Tuffrey in this edition of Humanistically Speaking.

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