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In the first part of this story, we explored the technological advances and possibilities for humanity. What has been thought of as science fiction (cyborgs, mind-uploading, regenerative limbs, disease-free super-aging) many believe is now becoming a reality—an era of not just new humans, but transhumans, and then post-humans. That thanks to science, we’re on the cusp of becoming a new type of creature, a bevy of beings barely imaginable. But what criteria will we apply to determine what kind of future is desirable, and what developments would undermine our society?

To address those questions, we turn to Dr. William Hurlbut, a professor and scholar in the department of neurobiology at Stanford Medical School. His academic background is unique: besides earning an MD, he completed postdoctoral studies in medical ethics and theology, giving him a broad perspective on foundational questions facing humanity.

Tread carefully

“What are the values, goals and specific strengths that are distinctive to our species that we want to preserve or magnify, that we understand make us human? Since I’m a physician, the first principle of any kind of intervention in human life using tools of medicine or biology is do no harm,” says Hurlbut.

“Interventions in human nature generally don’t do just one thing…For example, in genetics, because genes do many things in the body…If you change a gene, you’re not just changing your desired trait, you’re likely to change quite a few other things as well. That’s why genetic diseases are called syndromes,” says Hurlbut. “One little, tiny base pair missing in a gene in a child and the child might have a large space between their eyes, have short stature, cardiac abnormalities, low intelligence, or internal problems.” 

“Brain-computer interfaces for people who have paralysis or diseases like ALS that affect motor control are still quite crude at this moment,” says Hurlbut. “Nobody would want to put that into their brain unless they had a really serious reason for doing it, except for maybe a few people who have fantasies about becoming better gamers or something like that.”

He doesn’t believe we appreciate yet “the full meaning of our embodiment and the way in which we locate ourselves, develop ourselves, and operate as human beings…

Our bodies are not separable from our minds…Most of our language is metaphorical and our bodies are intricately involved in the very processes of our mental operations,”

says Hurlbut referencing newly published research in Nature that helps explain mind-body interaction. 

“Our motor systems are involved in our memories, in our planning, our execution of who we are and what we aspire toward…We’re not some kind of floating mental apparatus that walks around in a body,” says Hurlbut. “So, anything we do that modifies our bodies is going to affect our sense of self, our interactions with other people, and our large sense of purpose within the world, our effectiveness, our satisfactions, and our aspirations.”

Consider the tradeoffs

“The cost of targeted changes to human beings may be “becoming smarter, but then not having as good social interactions. We may live longer, but we may be susceptible to certain kinds of deficits of sense of spirit or sense of psychological satisfaction. We might gain strength in our muscles and lose fine motor control,” says Hurlbut.

He does see how nanotechnology, very specifically for disease treatments, AI for medical diagnosis and treatment protocols, and other technology can be very useful tools. 

“Our species is named Homo sapiens sapiens. There are two ‘wises’ in that equation,” says Hurlbut who is a project leader on the Stanford project The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, and Machines in the Age of Biotechnology, that shares interdisciplinary, collective experience and wisdom to address these issues.

Whatever future may lie ahead, he says that preserving the environment is crucial to humans. Understanding the dynamics of our individual existence within society’s larger collective whole and

“having a philosophical frame of spirituality to appreciate the larger meaning of our lives will help humans have enough wisdom to handle these newfound powers of our biotechnology.”

“There are a lot of fantasies going on right now about enhancing humans. I’m not sure that they aren’t going to cause deficiencies as much as they would enhance,” says Hurlbut. “Almost every medical intervention comes with byproducts and downsides that are called side effects.” 

When it comes to the future of humanity and tech, “You go to the very bottom and ask, what is human life for, and why are we alive, and what makes our lives meaningful and joyful and worthy in this deepest sense,” says Hurlbut.

 “I think that’s fundamentally a spiritual question. And more deeply, that’s a question that has to do with the sense that the natural order is a created order, that there’s a benevolent deity behind the formation of the world, and that there is purpose even within the struggles and the suffering, the disorders, diseases, and death of our lives. I think no matter what we do with biotechnology, if we don’t take account of those larger questions of human existence, then we’re likely to run into problems either because our technologies don’t work and disrupt our lives, or because they do work, but they knock us off kilter, they take away or drain out some of the significance of our lives.”

Why are we here?

So, what does it mean to be human?

“That’s a very, very complicated question. And it’s one that the popular media has somewhat bypassed. There’s a strange assumption operating in this realm that we can just sort of add on something to enhance humans and human nature – we’ll just change a few genes and we’ll be beautiful, or we’ll live longer, or we’ll be smarter,” says Hurlbut.

“But genes are not Legos. They're not like Mr. Potato Head where you just add on some trait like a nose or ears that you like better...

…And the same goes for our mental operations. They’re all intricately intertwined. The very strength of the species we are is an integrated unity.”

“What is it that makes us what we are? And what are those qualities and what is the substrate of those qualities, biologically, socially, spiritually? When we ask that, we come up with a much more profound vision of what human beings are,” says Hurlbut. “My own sense of this is that human beings are a general-purpose organism that has been optimized for flexibility of response, to adjust to a wide range of circumstances, and therefore we appear to be highly malleable.” 

Research shows that a positive and optimal human experience relates to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization. Research also shows that setting extrinsic goals (such as money, status, and beauty) tend to make you less happy, compared to pursuing intrinsic goals (such as personal growth, intimacy, community, and personal growth). Fully embracing a goal and then pursuing it with consistent action, and consciously aligning your identity with the goal is also associated with well-being. What about emotional strength, love, sex, compassion, values, art – the humanities? 

I argue thee that love is life. And life hath immortality.

Emily Dickinson

“I think the most important thing we need to do is to develop a more reverent, humble, and appreciative approach to our lives,” says Hurlbut. “We need to stop and ponder how we are most fundamentally a truly mysterious and majestic creature that has been brought forth in a kind of generous spirit by the Creator of the universe to share and enjoy the blessings of being alive.” 

Human – for now. Future to be determined. 

Read part one of this story.