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
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,
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.
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
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
Quick Facts from More Than Human
Genetic Enhancements and Reproduction
- Researchers have used genetic engineering techniques to create mice that
are super strong, super smart, and live nearly twice as long as normal mice.
- All of the genes changed in these mice are carried by humans, too
suggesting that the same techniques could enhance human abilities.
- Almost 10,000 human adults have already had their genes altered through
gene therapy techniques used to treat genetic diseases.
- A Johns Hopkins poll in 2002 found that 20% of Americans approved of the
use of genetic techniques to create desirable traits in children up from
only 10% in 1994.
- Over 2 million babies have been born after being conceived in a test tube
through in-vitro fertilization.
- In the US, 1 in every 100 babies born is conceived through this method.
- Parents have already used pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to have
babies less likely to have cancer or Alzheimer's disease, or more likely to
provide a genetic match for a sibling needing an organ transplant.
Brain and Computers
- 70,000 deaf people have had their hearing restored through electrodes
implanted in their auditory nerves.
- Another 40,000 people have had electrodes implanted in their brains to
control Parkinson's disease.
- A handful of paralyzed men and women have electrodes in their brains which
allow them to control computers or robot arms just by thinking about it.
- Over a dozen research groups are testing electronic implants that can
restore sight to the blind, by sending visual signals into the optic nerve or
the visual cortex.
- The US military is spending millions of dollars researching techniques
that could allow pilots to control their planes by thinking about it, or allow
soldiers to communicate directly to each other through thought.