Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Man and Supermouse

More speculations by Yuval Noah Harari. He thinks H. sapiens has only a few decades left.

Flowers for Algernon, written by Daniel Keyes in 1958, was one of the most successful Science Fiction short stories (later, a novel, play and film) of all time. It starts with the title mouse getting a dramatic IQ upgrade. Fifty-five years down the pike, it seems that science has caught up with the fiction. The genius mouse has been engineered.

One might think that Harari's judgement on our limited future means he is a technological pessimist. This is hardly the case. He doesn't think we are likely to annihilate ourselves. Instead, he thinks it is likely that we will transform ourselves. The genomes of fish and potatoes are being merged to create frost resistant potatoes. Potential artificial organs for humans are being grafted onto mice.

One of the most prescient science fiction writers of my childhood was Arthur C. Clark, who in addition to envisioning communications satellites and smart phones, wrote Childhood's End, an SF novel on the theme of mankind transformed.

Bioengineering is not a new wrench in the human toolbox. Thousands of years ago we were castrating bulls to make more docile oxen, and men to make eunuchs. Grafting a fruiting branch onto a hardier root stock is of similar antiquity. What is new is the power of genetic engineering. The same tools which created the modern day Algernon are being developed at extraordinary speed. The principal obstacles to human application, says Harari, are mainly ethical and legal. It seems likely that at some point crucial breakthroughs will bring benefits too large to be resisted - perhaps some transplants that will defeat Alzheimer's - and I think such experiments are already underway. Would, or should, parents resist genetic modifications to make their children smarter, prettier, happier, or more disease resistant?

Thirty thousand years ago one of our possible ancestors made an ivory figurine of a man with a lion's head. The sorts of things they imagined, and much better and stranger things, are increasingly within our potential grasp. Would it be a bad thing if our descendants were not just randomly assorted genetic copies of ourselves but smarter, healthier, less violence prone, and longer lived - a veritable new species?