Book Summaries History

Chapter 20: The End of Homo-sapiens (Sapiens)

One of the lessons from the book so far is that humans have been unable to break free from their biological chains. No matter what lands they have conquered, and intellectual feats they have achieved, no man has been able to transcend their own biology – until now.

For the first time in history, we have started to manipulate our own biology.

The biologists were right about the past, there was no intelligent design, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future. There are three ways that natural selection could be replaced: biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of inorganic life.

Scientists have figured out how to create glow-in-the-dark rabbits and grow cartilage cells on the back of mice. They have experimented with genetically engineered cows that produce a knd of milk that kills a disease that cows are susceptible to. They are experimenting with ways to convert the unhealthy omega 6 fats found in bacon to healthy omega 3 fats. They have even claimed to identify the gene responsible for monogamy in voles.

It isn’t just existing life that scientists are experimenting with, but even species that are now extinct. There are plans to restore mammoths, and to even bring back Neanderthals. But why stop there? Why not recreate sapiens? Our genetic code is not much more complex than that of mice.

The mouse genome contains about 2.5 billion nucleobases, the Sapiens genome about 2.9 billion bases – meaning the latter is only 14 per cent larger.

 Another new technology is cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings with organic and inorganic parts. These days, nearly all of us are cyborgs. Devices like eyeglasses, pacemakers, orthotics, computers, and smartphones have allowed us to outsource many functions to inorganic material.

DARPA (The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) is creating insect cyborgs that could potentially spy on people. Imagine a fly on a wall that is listening in to what the enemy’s leadership is saying behind closed doors.

Humans are also being turned into cyborgs, we are now developing bionic ears and retina implants that may allow blind people to gain partial vision. The most revolutionary project aims to devise a two-way brain-computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of the brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn. These interfaces may directly link the brain to the internet, thus redefining human consciousness, memory, and identity.

What happens to concepts such as the self and gender identity when minds become collective? How could you know thyself or follow your dream if the dream is not in your mind but in some collective reservoir of aspirations?

The third way to change the laws of life would be to create inorganic beings. Computer viruses are a good example of inorganic matter that replicates itself without our intervention. The Human Brain Project, that has received $1 billion in funding from the EU, aims to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer.

Mapping the first human genome took 15 years and $3 billion. Today, you can do it in a few weeks and for a few hundred dollars.

The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn’t worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 per cent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us.

All of these technologies will continue to be funded, because they, like the Gilgamesh project, have the good of humankind in mind. So the real question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘What do we want to become?’ but ‘What to we want to want?’

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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