An interview with Ramez Naam about his book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement
What gave you the idea to write More Than Human?
I've always been both a fascinated observer of science the kind actually practiced in labs around the world, and an avid reader of science fiction. In 1999, a good friend of mine who I'd loaned a science fiction novel to commented that he expected that in 10 years we'd be walking around with electrodes in our heads, fully immersed in a William Gibson-style cyberspace. I scoffed at the idea, knowing that the brain is an incredibly complex organ and doubting that researchers would get us anywhere near the level of understanding of the brain necessary for that sort of thing until 50 or 100 years from now.
Later that year, a team at Duke University published a paper in the journal Science one of the top two scientific journals in the world where they'd wired electrodes into the brain of a living rat and given it control over a robot arm. And in the same year, a researcher in Atlanta implanted electrodes in the brain of a man named Johnny Ray, a patient who'd been paralyzed from the neck down by a stroke, and gave him the power to control a computer just by thinking about it.
Suddenly everywhere I looked in the scientific literature in genetics, in longevity, in the study of memory I saw discoveries and progress that I'd thought were the stuff of science fiction. That's when I decided to write this book to help people see and understand the incredible rate at which science is giving us the ability to alter and maybe improve on our own minds and bodies.
What do you hope to achieve with your book?
There's an aphorism that "we fear what we do not understand". I think that's often quite accurate, especially when it comes to new biological technologies. When Jenner first introduced the small pox vaccine, he was denounced as playing god and as dabbling in things too dangerous for mortal men. I see the same thing happening now with biotechnology. People have a great deal of fear around technologies like cloning or genetic engineering, let alone implanting wires in someone's head.
About two years ago, that fear came to a head with a whole slew of books warning us about the peril's of using biotechnology to alter our minds or bodies. Historian Francis Fukuyama put out Our Postmodern Future, Leon Kass wrote Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Human Dignity, and environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote Enough. All of those books took the stance that we ought to leave well enough alone. That we ought to be happy with our current lifespans, our bodies, our intellects. And that it was dangerous, or maybe downright immoral, to try to change those things too much.
That, to me, is an argument based on fear of technologies that people don't really understand. So my greatest goal with More Than Human is to educate people on how these technologies work and what they can and can't do. I think if people understand that, they'll be a lot more comfortable with, and in some cases eager for what, biotech can do for us.
Are you saying that these fears are misplaced? That there are no dangers of biotechnology?
Oh, there are certainly risks to using biotech to alter men and women. Every profound technology has its share of risks and side effects. Cars are great for getting around but they produce smog and traffic accidents. The internet is a fantastic communication medium but can be used to transmit child pornography. Antibiotics cure disease but also breed antibiotic resistance and contributed quite a bit to the population explosion of the last century.
Biotech enhancement will be no different. It'll bring many goods and some ills. Society will have to wrestle with the problems these technologies cause and find solutions. But the alternative to prohibit these technologies just isn't viable. Just as we saw in Prohibition or in the War on Drugs, if you make something people want illegal, you don't stop them from getting it. You merely drive up costs, decrease safety, and push the activity into the criminal realm. And people do want to be smarter, healthier, longer lived, better looking, and so on.. You can see if in the tens of billions spent on sports supplements, on herbal products, and on plastic surgery. You can see it even more dramatically in how parents invest in their children Montessori schools, music lessons, college tuition people have this innate urge to do the best they can for themselves and their offspring.
One of the central points of More Than Human is that if you let those individuals and families make their own decisions informed decisions then there's good reason to believe it'll improve the lot of society. But if you try to prohibit these technologies, you end up creating more problems than you solve.
You've worked at Microsoft on some widely used pieces of software Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer, MSN Search. How do those relate to your book?
The common thread is this notion of enhancing and empowering people. Computers are tools that we've invented that increase our ability to store information, to learn, to communicate, and so on. In many ways I view the software I've worked on as very similar to the kinds of technologies covered in More Than Human. It's just that my software runs outside of my body for now.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
I love books that synthesize what seem to be very discrete ideas into a single theory or point of view. One of my all time favorite books is Kevin Kelly's Out of Control , where he finds the parallels between weather, flocks of birds, ecologies, and all these other complex network systems. Another favorite is Robert Wright's Non-Zero. There are quite a few other popular science authors I admire Steven Johnson, philosopher Danniel Dennet, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker.
In the science fiction realm I like rich, complex stories with both a grand scope and plausible science. Dan Simmon's Hyperion books are classics to me. I love anything by Greg Egan, Ian Banks, David Brin, or Greg Bear.
Quick Facts from More Than Human
Genetic Enhancements and Reproduction
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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