What Is “Human”?

“We are no longer living in a time when we can say we either want to enhance or we don’t. We are already living in an age of enhancement.”
Nicholas Agar, Victoria University (6)

We’re entering a massive gray area in ethics — the engineering of human capabilities to improve performance. People advocating human enhancement even have a name — trans-humanists.

Image result for engineering human functions

Thus far, medical engineering has focused on restoring function to those with critical injuries or illness — enabling the lame to walk or restoring functioning to those with combat injuries. There’s general agreement that those are positive steps.

However, the technology isn’t limited to remedial care. And if you think about it, that’s a boundary we crossed a long time ago.

Think of cosmetic surgery. World War I produced massive numbers of people with disfigured bodies caused by shrapnel, burns and chemical weapons. The first modern rhinoplasty was performed in 1923. While the roots of cosmetic surgery go back to the Ancient Greeks, the procedures required learning about bacteria and hygiene and surgical procedures created in war before it could really take off.

Arguably, cosmetic surgery began as the correction of natural defects as well as the results of war and industrial accidents. It moved from their to vanity — trying to make a beautiful person more beautiful.

That’s where we are now with modern medical technology. As demonstrated, we can manipulate genes in fetuses to make babies healthier. But we can also improve eyesight and make people stronger or faster through medical engineering. We’ve condemned steroids as a way to do that, due to their health effects. But if there are ways to achieve the same results without the side effects, would we condemn those as well? What does it mean to be an athlete when you have enhanced capabilities through medical engineering? (The idea of restrictor plates for athletes is amusing but could be real in the future. In case you don’t know, the plates are used in NASCAR to keep cars from speeding too fast on certain tracks.)

Can we affect brain function through engineering? Good question. We know people are trying to impact the choices that we make that the preferences we have through neuro-marketing. Can an effort to manipulate how the brain works be far behind?

And is that a good thing? Instead of the clear separation of human and AI, is there a potential for a hybrid that combines elements of both? Clearly science fiction writers have seen the possibility. There seems to be a uncanny resemblance between what the science fiction community can envision and what engineering and invention actually produces.

Is that the path to the fountain of youth and truly eternal life?


  1. Université de Genève. “Human enhancement: Is it good for society?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 February 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190211114300.htm>.
  2. https://www.cosmeticsurgery.org/page/history
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/the-ugly-history-of-cosmetic-surgery-a7072216.html
  4. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/542448_2
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1749866/
  6. http://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/07/26/human-enhancement-the-scientific-and-ethical-dimensions-of-striving-for-perfection/

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