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Transhumans and Psychonauts: is humanity approaching a series of singularities?

By Dr Anthony Lewis

Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. As a scientist and a humanist, Anthony is really excited by the prospect of what we will discover as scientific research and medical developments proceed. On balance, he is very much on the side of the transhuman advocates and “psychonauts” as they bravely explore and experiment with the limits to human cognition, our embodied physiology, and our biochemistry.

The oldest human being ever was a French woman called Jeanne Calment (21 February 1875 – 4 August 1997). She reached a verifiable 122 years. Jeanne was an outlier because, unfortunately, there appears to be an upper limit to human longevity of about 110 to 120 years of age. The number of people living beyond 110 has not increased in line with the increase in the average human lifespan over the last century, which now sits in the early eighties in developed countries.

Humans live longer lives than most other land mammals. In the animal world, life span is generally proportional to overall body size and inversely proportional to metabolic rate. For example, whales live for hundreds of years whilst most insects live for just a day or two. In today’s world, most of us will now die of age-related decrepitude rather than, as previously, because of violence, famine, disease or by being eaten by a predator.

Throughout the ages, people have tried to prolong their lives by taking all sorts of lotions, potions and bizarre concoctions on the promises of cheating death made by an array of quacks, doctors, and even scientists. Some examples are included in a new book by the Nobel Prize-winning bioscientist Venki Ramakrishnan Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality which has  just been published but unfortunately too late for detailed consideration in this article. However, the book was reviewed in The Times and discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme on Monday 11th March 2024 hosted by Humanist UK’s current president Andrew Rutherford (links to both are provided below). Ramakrishnan points out that humans have been trying to cheat death since antiquity. The early Chinese emperor Qin Chi Huang is thought to have hastened his early death at the age of just 49 by poisoning himself with noxious potions, clearly demonstrating the danger of falling for the hype of those peddling unproven “elixirs of life”. Similar fads continue today, often loosely linked to ongoing scientific research. For example, the tech-entrepreneur Bryan Johnson has been injecting himself with his son’s blood plasma because of recent evidence showing the potential rejuvenation properties of stem cells. There has been a huge growth worldwide of taking “anti-oxidant and vitamin supplements” based on pseudo-scientific concepts such as “hoovering up damaging free radicals in your body”. Some billionaires are even trying to cheat their death by cryogenically freezing their heads in the hope that a future biotechnology will allow them to be brought back to life. (Maggie has written more extensively about this topic in Humanistically Speaking this month.) Why anyone in the future would want to bring back billionaires from the past is a question that has always puzzled me!

The prize of everlasting life is clearly still an obsession for many, and it is driving an enormous amount of research in both the public and private sectors, often funded and championed by tech entrepreneurs in the USA. These efforts can be grouped into three main areas:

  1. enhancing our underlying biochemistry to defeat current biological limitations;

  2. re-engineering our carbon-based physiology with more durable bioengineered components, as our bodies naturally wear out; and

  3. uploading our consciousness and brains onto computer hardware to “free us” from our bodily limitations.

We'll briefly explore each area.

Biochemical engineering

Ramakrishnan points out that our biology has evolved to enhance our chances of survival so that we can pass our genes on to the next generation. Our biochemically-based physiology is a complex system which is kept in balance by the process of homeostasis which is easily disrupted. (Homeostasis refers to the process by which the human body maintains a stable internal environment despite changes in external conditions.) Ramakrishnan predicts that it is unlikely we will be able to easily change the underlying limitations of our biochemistry in order to live beyond 110 years. For example, calorie restriction has been shown to prolong the life of rats and mice in the sterile conditions of a laboratory, but it has significant side affects such as weakening the immune system and slowing healing processes. Focusing just on longevity, therefore, is likely to upset the balance of homeostasis and, in a world riddled with pathogens where a weakened immune system would be a serious impediment to a longer life, may end up reducing overall life expectancy. He concludes that upsetting the process of homeostasis will likely always present us with trade-offs and other unforeseen and unavoidable negative consequences.

Almost all of us use “nootropics” (based on the Greek word “noos” meaning mind). These are any natural or synthetic substances which may have a positive impact on our brain and our mental skills, such as the caffeine in a cup of coffee. It's likely that ongoing research into brain-related medical conditions linked to cognitive decline as we age, or neurological diseases such as dementia and motor neurone disease, will also lead to the development of more powerful nootropics, enabling us to significantly boost our natural mental and cognitive abilities to counter the effects of ageing. Those experimenting with these emerging psychoactive chemicals very much see themselves as “psychonauts” exploring the limits of our existing cognitive abilities and limitations.

DNA Double Helix of Life Source Unsplash+

As we learn more about how human DNA functions, and as more of our genome is analysed, some researchers hope that we may eventually be able to re-engineer our genes to produce genetically-enhanced humans in the future by bio-engineering genes for longevity. However, many scientists are sceptical that this will be possible in the near term, given that altering our physiology in this way without fully understanding the implications of creating “transhumans”, could have catastrophic consequences, presenting us with a range of serious ethical dilemmas. For example, in the nineties, geneticists discovered that the length of telomeres – DNA structures found at the ends of our chromosomes – appeared to be linked to longevity and life span. These telomere “tails” shorten each time a cell divides, limiting the number of times a cell can replicate before it dies. This discovery held the promise of potential treatments to delay this shortening process using enzymes like telomerase that rebuild the damaged telomere chains, thus potentially lengthening our lives. However, further research has revealed that artificially prolonging the life of our chromosomes by counteracting the process of telomere shortening causes older cells to begin dividing uncontrollably leading to cancerous tumours. Thus the process of telomere shortening is a natural process which limits cellular lifespan and our longevity in order to keep cancer growths at bay. It is likely that simply trying to increase lifespan by preventing or slowing telomere damage could therefore upset this delicate balance between cell death and uncontrolled cancerous cellular growth. This demonstrates clearly how developing anti-ageing treatments, based on our current limited understanding of the complexity of our biochemistry, could upset the delicate balance forged by billions of years of evolution leading, if we're not careful, to disastrous unintended consequences.

Despite all these ongoing efforts, and the huge quantity of “anti-ageing” medicines and supplements consumed on a daily basis, there does appear to be at present a natural upper limit of about 120 years for human life which has remained stubbornly static despite the larger numbers of people reaching the landmark 100 years of age. Many still hope for the invention of a “magic pill” but the evidence is already clear that, currently, the best way to prolong your life to as close as possible to this upper limit of 120 years, is to eat a balanced healthy diet, sleep well and exercise regularly.

Biomechanical re-engineering

Another way to prolong our lives is to counteract the physical deterioration of our physiology and biochemistry as we age, and to replace our organs and body parts as they wear out. There are two approaches to this:

  1. the development of inorganic prosthetics and artificial organs; and

  2. regenerative medicine. where new biological body parts are grown in the laboratory.

Advances in prosthetics such as artificial hips, knees and other joints benefit millions of people every year, including myself in 2019. Hip replacement surgery is now considered a “routine” operation and replacement hips can now last for over 20 years, even for the most active of recipients. The achievements of Paralympic athletes attests to both the power of the human spirit and rapid advances in prosthetic technologies. Rapid progress is also being made in the area of nanotechnology, which is proceeding at an accelerated pace with the development of artificial eyes and electronic neurones.

Elon Musk - a Biotech Pioneer

Elon Musk announced early in 2024 that his Neuralink Company had succeeded in implanting the first ever brain-chip neural link into a human patient - Noland Arbaugh, a quadriplegic. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the first-ever human trial of this neurotechnology in September 2023. Musk described in detail the approach in his scientific white paper published in 2019. The interface currently consists of an array of some 96 electrode “threads”, with as many as 3072 electrodes, which are inserted by a neurosurgical robot that can place each thread with micron precision. He emphasised that these new brain-machine technologies “hold the promise of the restoration of sensory and motor function and the treatment of many debilitating neurological disorders”. Arbaugh can already play chess controlling his moves by thought alone. Musk clearly plans to revolutionise yet another emerging global industry, following his transformation of global banking with Paypal, cars with Tesla, rockets with SpaceX, and satellites with Starlink.

Scientists have also been working for decades on the curative power of stem cells, in an attempt to grow new body parts. Stem cells were first cultured in the laboratory in 1998 from human embryos. The infamous “Vacanti earmouse” scandal, when a cow ear cartilage was grown on the back of a lab mouse, raised unrealistic expectations and hysterical fears of a rapidly approaching dystopian future of Frankensteins where we could all soon buy replacement body parts at our local supermarkets. Since these earlier controversies progress has been slow. For example, Dr Paolo De Coppi, a paediatric surgeon at Great Ormond St Hospital for Children, performed the first successful transplantation of a tissue-engineered trachea on a child in 2010. De Coppi is now working with University College London on developing the various technologies needed to grow a new, more complex oesophagus using polymer scaffolds and a patient's own stem cells, but human trials are still some way off. There is an enormous amount of scientific and medical research underway into how to use the different types of stem cells to develop treatments for medical conditions such as macular degeneration, to manufacture blood, and to regrow damaged nerve fibres to treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson's Disease or even paralysis. The potential of regenerative medical science is huge but most scientists in the field predict that any advances will continue to be incremental and take decades to bear fruit. This means, unfortunately, that we are therefore still years away from a “grow your own” body market on Amazon that people feared twenty years ago.

Some predict that humanity is potentially reaching a series of ‘singularities’... to escape our biochemical limitations...

Disembodied singularities

Ray Kurzweil, Head of Google Technologies and the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel have both suggested that humanity may be approaching a series of “singularities”. These pivotal moments could lead us to a future where death is conquered through bio-engineering techniques described above, or where it becomes possible to escape our embodied limitations either by downloading our minds into a computer, or by recreating our minds using Artificial Intelligence (AI) hardware. Mark O'Connell’s book To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017) is an entertaining exploration of the whole area of transhumanism. Advocates are seeking to use technology and biochemical advances to fundamentally change the human condition through the transformation of our “wetware” (brains) and our “meat” (bodies) to create “super humans”.

No one knows if our consciousness can survive becoming disembodied. In fact, the nature of consciousness and the nature of intelligence are often controversially referred to as the “hard problems of science”, as neither has been clearly defined. The neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry Giulio Tononi in his book Phi: a Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (2012) has developed an “integrated information theory of consciousness” based on his work with patients with degenerative mental conditions. He argues that human consciousness is an emergent property of our brains, which consist of over 85 billion neurons, with over 100 trillion synapses, which are connected to our bodies into a complex hierarchy of information in a “highly structured, differentiated and integrated” manner. He is sceptical that artificial brains or virtual consciousnesses will be possible, given the very different and less integrated internal architecture of microchip technology.

If artificial consciousnesses do emerge... or if we can download our minds into a virtual world... the effect on those who still cling to the ‘exceptionalism’ of humans will be enormous.

One fear is that the first person that uploads their consciousness into a computer, divorced from bodily sensations, could end up experiencing a living hell from which there would be no escape. We just do not know enough at all about how our consciousness operates and how important our embodiment is to our conscious awareness and our experience of reality. What is evident is that we are at the dawn of an exciting era of exploration into the nature of consciousness. What are its limits? How does it emerge? Are there different types of consciousness? If so, what are they and what controls the variations? Is Tononi right that our consciousness will not be easily recreated or downloaded onto microchips because our brains are the result of billions of years of embodied evolution? If we are able to create either artificial consciousnesses or to successfully download ourselves into the virtual realm, the effect on those who still cling to the “exceptionalism” of humans will be enormous. Such a development would indeed represent a huge singularity for humankind and have a profound impact on our understanding of the nature of reality and our place in the universe.

A Possible Non Organic Future Transhuman - Source Shuttertstock under licence

Final words

People have pursued immortality since antiquity, from poisonous ancient remedies to today's cutting-edge biotechnologies, in an attempt to overcome our embodied limitations to prolong our lives beyond the current upper limit of 120 years and avoid an “early” death. As we improve our understanding of the complexities of our biochemistry and of the nature of consciousness, both of which have been forged by billions of years of evolution, we are finding out that things are much more complicated than we ever realised. It is no surprise then that eternal life remains as elusive as ever, despite the extravagant claims of some tech billionaires. The ongoing advances being made across all fronts are likely to remain incremental and based on painstaking trial and error. This should give us the time needed to take into account the obvious dangers and ethical considerations and to design appropriate safeguards and emergency “abort” capabilities, as a fundamental part of all the ongoing research.

As a scientist and a humanist, I am really excited by the prospect of what we will discover as the current scientific research and medical developments proceed. On balance, I am very much on the side of the transhuman advocates and “psychonauts” as they bravely explore and experiment with the limits to human cognition, our embodied physiology and our biochemistry, even though sometimes they do sound a bit like “psychonuts”.

Links to some sources

Oldest human being verified at 122 Jeanne Calment in France

Venki Ramakrishnan Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality, March 2024 - Times Review and discussed by Andrew Rutherford on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week episode

Homeostasis definition in Britannica Online

The Psychonauts’ World of Cognitive Enhancers Napoletano et al (2020)

Elon Musk's Neuralink - , Elon Musk Scientific paper 2019 and in 2024 report on recent success of implantation in The Guardian

Regenerative Medicine Guardian Article 2017 'Grow your own: the race to create body parts in the lab' by Hannah Devlin -

The 'Earmouse' Controversy -

Mark O’Connell To Be a Machine - Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017) reviewed in The Guardian by Paul Laity

Giulio Tononi PHI - A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (2012) – also reviewed in a BBC Future article by David Robson in 2019

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