Photo by Jesse Orrico
We humans are awfully curious creatures. We are constantly wanting to know more, push boundaries and explore the unknown. As a result, we have hurtled through the last few years due to a cool little partnership between ‘science’ and ‘technology’. These guys have been working pretty damn hard to bring you the latest and whizziest gadgets and theories and everything in between.
But have we become too greedy for knowledge and power that we are disrupting the natural discourse of human evolution? To be honest, Liz and I spent our high school science days inappropriately placing pH strips in our mouth and writing songs instead of actually going to class, but as it turns out, I’ve missed that little bit of biology-lovin every now and again so I’ve explored this topic in my latest piece at my sweet little internship. Happy reading!
Resistance is futile. The biohackers are here!
If history has taught us anything, it is that humans are relentlessly curious. This curiosity has propelled us to forever push the boundaries of science and to discover more about the world. From time to time we have even tamed some aspects of the world, and in the process have built bigger, better, and more sophisticated civilisations.
Yet now, for the first time in our history, science has advanced to the point where we can use it to alter our very selves. That same curiosity which has served us so well till now is being turned inwards to tame and enhance our own bodies and minds. Where will this lead us?
Biohacking is also known as DIY (or “do-it-yourself”) biology. It is a movement that aims to promote widespread access to biotechnology tools and techniques. These tools and techniques, which have previously only been available to the top scientists in high-tech laboratories, are increasingly becoming available to the public in low-cost “community laboratories”. And with this availability, members of the public have begun experimenting with their DNA and attempting to turn their scientific dreams into realities.
If this sounds crazy or dangerous, it probably should. Among the most widely reported biohacking experiments is one called transcranial direct-current stimulation. It is certainly alarming that what started as a 19th century cure for ‘melancholia’ (i.e., the application of an electric current to the brain through electrodes attached to the scalp) is now being practiced at home by individuals in pursuit of increased cognitive ability, attention span, and memory. As for the results, the data is inconclusive, but there is some evidence to suggest that TDCS may in fact make a person dumber rather than smarter. Still, Ellen Jorgensen (one of the leaders in the space) contends that DIY biology is great because it opens up life sciences to the public in completely new ways and therefore invites more diverse minds into the field. Indeed, there HAVE been some startling results from these experiments, including glow in the dark plants, microchips implanted into fingers to make them act like keys, and even vegan cow cheese.
But wacky inventions aside, biohacking also has the potential to vastly improve individuals’ abilities. Nikolas Badminton, for instance, has a microchip implanted in his hand which can make him a ‘superhuman’. The chip provides a shortcut for increasing muscle mass and brain capacity. Another Californian man used biohacking to temporarily give himself night vision.
Biohacking could even help improve quality-of-life for the disabled. James Young lost an arm and a leg in 2012. In 2016 he was offered a £60,000 carbon-fibre prosthetic arm. The arm is equipped with a torch, a laser, LED lights that can be synced with his heartbeat, a USB port, a drone and a miniature screen that can display his emails. Young’s arm, which was inspired by the hugely popular video game, Metal Gear Solid, brings what was previously only a fantasy, to life.
There has been no shortage of people who use science to augment the physical capacity of the human body. History indicates that if people are given the opportunity to modify and change themselves they will. In 2014, there were more than 15 million cosmetic procedures performed in the United States. Similarly, one in five students have been shown to use ‘study drugs’ such as Ritalin or Modafinil to help them prepare for exams. Natural intelligence, appearance and ability are increasingly inadequate for success in our hyper-competitive society.
We have the technology and the will to hack our bodies and minds, but in doing so are we ‘cheating’ evolution? Darwin’s theory posits that those who are better adapted to the environment are more likely to survive. In the past this has been a natural process with minimal human intervention. However, with bio science flourishing, humans are now able to exert a degree of control over evolution.
So along with the benefits of biohacking come some ethical quandaries. As people with means modify themselves and acquire traits that they do not naturally possess, will we see a growing separation between the rich and the poor? Thus far in human history the playing field has remained largely level. Of course, there have always been exceptions – some of us are taller, or stronger, or more attractive, or able to run, jump or kick better than others. But the levels of deviation in our abilities have largely been constrained. Now, for the first time, we could see that deviation growing between those who have the means to augment themselves, andthose who don’t. How should we confront this growing impact of wealth disparity?
Regardless of whether you like it or not, the one thing history has shown us is you can’t put the genie back in the box. CRISPR, for example, is a technology that can be used to target, cut and replace gene sequences with extreme precision. It replaced what was largely a process of trial-and-error. As a result scientists now believe they have better prospects of finding a cure for cancer, and for developing personalised medicine. It is highly unlikely that we as a society would step away from progress like this. But this same technology could also be used to modify human embryos. And while it may be universally acceptable to use CRISPR to eliminate genetic diseases such as Down syndrome and haemophilia, what about its use to make our babies taller, or stronger, or smarter? Species variation promotes evolution and the survival of the fittest. If we use science to create the ‘perfect’ embryo, that could have significant long-term implications for our ability to keep evolving.
One thing is clear. We can, and therefore we will, alter our species. Over time biohacking will become more commonplace, and perhaps even inevitable. People will always dream and develop new ideas, and for the most part, this will advance society for the better. But updated legislation and a better understanding of these advances is needed sooner rather than later, so that we don’t destroy ourselves in the quest for omnipotence.
Moya is a freelance journalist and intern at Inkl.